/ Language: English / Genre:sf_heroic, sf_fantasy / Series: Wheel of Time

Wheel of Time • 06 • Lord of Chaos

Robert Jordan

Book Six

by Robert Jordan

For Betsy

ePub: https://is.gd/WfMrFG

The lions sing and the hills take flight.
The moon by day, and the sun by night.
Blind woman, deaf man, jackdaw fool.
Let the Lord of Chaos rule.

—chant from a children’s game
heard in Great Arvalon,
the Fourth Age

The First Message

Demandred stepped out onto the black slopes of Shayol Ghul, and the gateway, a hole in reality’s fabric, winked out of existence. Above, roiling gray clouds hid the sky, an inverted sea of sluggish ashen waves crashing around the mountain’s hidden peak. Below, odd lights flashed across the barren valley, washed-out blues and reds, failing to dispel the dusky murk that shrouded their source. Lightning streaked up at the clouds, and slow thunder rolled. Across the slope steam and smoke rose from scattered vents, some holes as small as a man’s hand and some large enough to swallow ten men.

He released the One Power immediately, and with the vanished sweetness went the heightened senses that made everything sharper, clearer. The absence of saidin left him hollow, yet here only a fool would even appear ready to channel. Besides, here only a fool would want to see or smell or feel too clearly.

In what was now called the Age of Legends, this had been an idyllic island in a cool sea, a favorite of those who enjoyed the rustic. Despite the steam it was bitter cold, now; he did not allow himself to feel it, but instinct made him pull his fur-lined velvet cloak closer. Feathery mist marked his breath, barely visible before the air drank it. A few hundred leagues north the world was pure ice, but Thakan’dar was always dry as any desert, though always wrapped in winter.

There was water, of a sort, an inky rivulet oozing down the rocky slope beside a gray-roofed forge. Hammers rang inside, and with every ring, white light flared in the cramped windows. A ragged woman crouched in a hopeless heap against the forge’s rough stone wall, clutching a babe in her arms, and a spindly girl buried her face in the woman’s skirts. Prisoners from a raid down into the Borderlands, no doubt. But so few; the Myrddraal must be gnashing their teeth. Their blades failed after a time and had to be replaced, no matter that raids into the Borderlands had been curtailed.

One of the forgers emerged, a thick slow-moving man shape that seemed hacked out of the mountain. The forgers were not truly alive; carried any distance from Shayol Ghul, they turned to stone, or dust. Nor were they smiths as such; they made nothing but the swords. This one’s two hands held a sword blade in long tongs, a blade already quenched, pale like moonlit snow. Alive or not, the forger took care as it dipped the gleaming metal into the dark stream. Whatever semblance of life it had could be ended by the touch of that water. When the metal came out again, it was dead black. But the making was not done yet. The forger shuffled back inside, and suddenly a man’s voice raised a desperate shout.

“No? No! NO!” He shrieked then, the sound dwindling away without losing intensity, as though the screamer had been yanked into unimaginably far distance. Now the blade was done.

Once more a forger appeared—perhaps the same, perhaps another—and hauled the woman to her feet. Woman, babe and child began to wail, but the infant was pulled away and shoved into the girl’s arms. At last the woman found a scrap of resistance. Weeping, she kicked wildly, clawed at the forger. It paid no more mind than stone would have. The woman’s cries vanished as soon as she was inside. The hammers began ringing again, drowning the sobs of the children.

One blade made, one making, and two to come. Demandred had never before seen fewer than fifty prisoners waiting to give their mite to the Great Lord of the Dark. The Myrddraal must be gnashing their teeth, indeed.

“Do you loiter when you have been summoned by the Great Lord?” The voice sounded like rotted leather crumbling.

Demandred turned slowly—how dare a Halfman address him in that tone—but the quelling words died in his mouth. It was not the eyeless stare of its pasty-pale face; a Myrddraal’s gaze struck fear in any man, but he had rooted fear out of himself long ago. Rather, it was the black-clad creature itself. Every Myrddraal was the height of a tall man, a sinuous imitation of a man, as alike as though cast in one mold. This one stood head and shoulders taller.

“I will take you to the Great Lord,” the Myrddraal said. “I am Shaidar Haran.” It turned away and began climbing the mountain, like a serpent in its fluid motion. Its inky cloak hung unnaturally still, without even a ripple.

Demandred hesitated before following. Halfmen’s names were always in the Trollocs’ tongue-wrenching language. “Shaidar Haran” came from what people now named the Old Tongue. It meant “Hand of the Dark.” Another surprise, and Demandred did not like surprises, especially not at Shayol Ghul.

The entry into the mountain could have been one of the scattered vents, except that it emitted no smoke or steam. It gaped enough for two men abreast, but the Myrddraal kept the lead. The way slanted down almost immediately, the tunnel floor worn smooth as polished tiles. The cold faded as Demandred followed Shaidar Haran’s broad back down and down, slowly replaced by increasing heat. Demandred was aware of it, but did not let it touch him. A pale light rose from the stone, filling the tunnel, brighter than the eternal twilight outside. Jagged spikes jutted from the ceiling, stony teeth ready to snap shut, the Great Lord’s teeth to rend the unfaithful or the traitor. Not natural, of course, but effective.

Abruptly, he noticed something. Every time he had made this journey, those spikes had all but brushed the top of his head. Now they cleared the Myrddraal’s by two hands or more. That surprised him. Not that the height of the tunnel changed—the strange was ordinary here—but the extra space the Halfman was given. The Great Lord gave his reminders to Myrddraal as well as men. That extra space was a fact to be remembered.

The tunnel opened out suddenly onto a wide ledge overlooking a lake of molten stone, red mottled with black, where man-high flames danced, died and rose again. There was no roof, only a great hole rising through the mountain to a sky that was not the sky of Thakan’dar. It made that of Thakan’dar look normal, with its wildly striated clouds streaking by as though driven by the greatest winds the world had ever seen. This, men called the Pit of Doom, and few knew how well they had named it.

Even after all his visits—and the first lay well over three thousand years in the past—Demandred felt awe. Here he could sense the Bore, the hole drilled through so long ago to where the Great Lord had lain imprisoned since the moment of Creation. Here the Great Lord’s presence washed over him. Physically, this place was no closer to the Bore than any other in the world, but here there was a thinness in the Pattern that allowed it to be sensed.

Demandred came as close to smiling as he ever did. What fools they were who opposed the Great Lord. Oh, the Bore was still blocked, though more tenuously than when he had wakened from his long sleep and broken free of his own prison in it. Blocked, but larger than when he woke. Still not so large as when he had been cast into it with his fellows at the end of the War of Power, but at each visit since waking, a little wider. Soon the blockage would be gone, and the Great Lord would reach out across the earth again. Soon would come the Day of Return. And he would rule the world for all time. Under the Great Lord, of course. And with those of the other Chosen who survived, also of course.

“You may leave now, Halfman.” He did not want the thing here to see the ecstasy overcome him. The ecstasy, and the pain.

Shaidar Haran did not move.

Demandred opened his mouth—and a voice exploded in his head.


To call it a voice was to call a mountain a pebble. It nearly crushed him against the inside of his own skull; it filled him with rapture. He sank to his knees. The Myrddraal stood watching impassively, but only a small part of him could even notice the thing with that voice filling his brain.


He was never sure how much the Great Lord knew of the world. He had been as startled by ignorance as by knowledge. But he had no doubt what the Great Lord wanted to hear.

“Rahvin is dead, Great Lord. Yesterday.” There was pain. Euphoria too strong became pain quickly. His arms and legs twitched. He was sweating, now. “Lanfear has vanished without a trace, just as Asmodean did. And Graendal says Moghedien failed to meet her as they had agreed. Also yesterday, Great Lord. I do not believe in coincidence.”


Demandred hesitated. A bead of sweat slid half an inch on his cheek; it seemed to take an hour. For a year during the War of Power, both sides had used balefire. Until they learned the consequences. Without agreement, or truce—there had never been a truce any more than there had been quarter—each side simply stopped. Entire cities died in balefire that year, hundreds of thousands of threads burned from the Pattern; reality itself almost unraveled, world and universe evaporating like mist. If balefire was unleashed once more, there might be no world to rule.

Another point pricked him. The Great Lord already knew how Rahvin had died. And seemed to know more of Asmodean than he. “As you command, Great Lord, so shall I obey.” His muscles might be jerking, but his voice was rock steady. His knees began to blister from the hot stone, yet the flesh might as well have been someone else’s.


“Great Lord, the Dragon can be destroyed.” A dead man could not wield balefire again, and perhaps then the Great Lord would see no need for it. “He is ignorant and weak, scattering his attentions in a dozen directions. Rahvin was a vain fool. I—”


Demandred’s tongue froze. Nae’blis. The one who would stand only a step below the Great Lord, commanding all others. “I wish only to serve you, Great Lord, however I may.” Nae’blis.


Demandred screamed as the voice crashed home. Tears of joy rolled down his face.

Unmoving, the Myrddraal watched him.

“Stop fidgeting.” Nynaeve testily flipped her long braid over her shoulder. “This won’t work if you twitch around like children with an itch.”

Neither of the women across the rickety table appeared any older than she, though they were by twenty years or more, and neither was really fidgeting, but the heat had Nynaeve on edge. The small windowless room seemed airless. She dripped sweat; they appeared cool and dry. Leane, in a Domani dress of too-thin blue silk, merely shrugged; the tall coppery-skinned woman possessed an apparently infinite store of patience. Usually. Siuan, fair and sturdy, seldom had any.

Now Siuan grunted and resettled her skirts irritably; she used to wear fairly plain clothes, but this morning she was in fine yellow linen embroidered with a Tairen maze around a neckline that barely missed being too low. Her blue eyes were cold as deep well water. As cold as deep well water would have been if the weather had not gone mad. Her dresses might have changed, but not her eyes. “It won’t work in any case,” she snapped. Her manner of speaking was the same, too. “You can’t patch a hull when the whole boat’s burned. Well, it’s a waste of time, but I promised, so get on with it. Leane and I have work to do.” The pair of them ran the networks of eyes-and-ears for the Aes Sedai here in Salidar, the agents who sent in reports and rumors of what was going on in the world.

Nynaeve smoothed her own skirts to soothe herself. Her dress was plain white wool, with seven bands of color at the hem, one for each Ajah. An Accepted’s dress. It annoyed her more than she could ever have imagined. She would much rather have been in the green silk she had packed away. She was willing to admit her acquired taste for fine clothes, privately at least, but her choice of that particular dress was only for comfort—it was thin, light—not because green seemed one of Lan’s favorite colors. Not at all. Idle dreaming of the worst sort. An Accepted who put on anything except the banded white would soon learn she was a long step below Aes Sedai. Firmly she put all that out of her head. She was not here to fret over fripperies. He liked blue, too. No!

Delicately she probed with the One Power, first at Siuan, then Leane. In a manner of speaking, she was not channeling at all. She could not channel a scrap unless angry, could not even sense the True Source. Yet it came to the same thing. Fine filaments of saidar, the female half of the True Source, sifted through the two women at her weaving. They just did not originate with her.

On her left wrist Nynaeve wore a slender bracelet, a simple segmented silver band. Mainly silver, anyway, and from a special source, though that made no difference. It was the only piece of jewelry she wore aside from the Great Serpent ring; Accepted were firmly discouraged from wearing much jewelry. A matching necklace snugged around the neck of the fourth woman, on a stool against the rough-plastered wall with her hands folded in her lap. Clad in a farmer’s rough brown wool, with a farmer’s worn sturdy face, she did not sweat a drop. She did not move a muscle either, but her dark eyes watched everything. To Nynaeve, the radiance of saidar surrounded her, but it was Nynaeve who directed the channeling. Bracelet and necklace created a link between them, much in the way Aes Sedai could link to combine their power. Something about “absolutely identical matrices” was involved, according to Elayne, after which the explanation truly became incomprehensible. In truth, Nynaeve did not think Elayne understood half as much as she pretended. For herself, Nynaeve did not understand at all, except that she could feel the other woman’s every emotion, feel the woman herself, but tucked away in a corner of her head, and that all the other woman’s grasp of saidar was in her control. Sometimes she thought it would have been better if the woman on the stool were dead. Simpler, certainly. Cleaner.

“There’s something torn, or cut,” Nynaeve muttered, wiping absently at the sweat on her face. It was just a vague impression, barely there at all, but it was also the first time she had sensed more than emptiness. It could be imagination, and the desperate wanting to find something, anything.

“Severing,” the woman on the stool said. “That was what it was called, what you name stilling for women and gentling for men.”

Three heads swiveled toward her; three sets of eyes glared with fury. Siuan and Leane had been Aes Sedai until they were stilled during the coup in the White Tower that put Elaida on the Amyrlin Seat. Stilled. A word to cause shudders. Never to channel again. But always to remember, and know the loss. Always to sense the True Source and know you could never touch it again. Stilling could not be Healed any more than death.

That was what everyone believed, anyway, but in Nynaeve’s opinion the One Power should be able to Heal anything short of death. “If you have something useful to add, Marigan,” she said sharply, “then say it. If not, keep quiet.”

Marigan shrank back against the wall, eyes glittering and fixed on Nynaeve. Fear and hate rolled through the bracelet, but they always did to one degree or another. Captives seldom loved their captors, even—perhaps especially—when they knew they deserved captivity and worse. The problem was that Marigan also said severing—stilling—could not be Healed. Oh, she was full of claims that anything else except death could be Healed in the Age of Legends, that what the Yellow Ajah called Healing now was only the crudest hasty battlefield work. But try to pin her down on specifics, on even a hint of how, and you found nothing there. Marigan knew as much about Healing as Nynaeve did about blacksmithing, which was that you stuck metal in hot coals and hit it with a hammer. Certainly not enough to make a horseshoe. Or Heal much beyond a bruise.

Twisting around in her chair, Nynaeve studied Siuan and Leane. Days of this, whenever she could pry them away from their other work, and so far she had learned nothing. Suddenly she realized she was turning the bracelet on her wrist. Whatever there the gain, she hated being linked to the woman. The intimacy made her skin crawl. At least I might learn something, she thought. And it couldn’t fail any worse than everything else has.

Carefully she undid the bracelet—the clasp was impossible to find unless you knew how—and handed it to Siuan. “Put this on.” Losing the Power was bitter, but this had to be done. And losing the waves of emotion was like taking a bath. Marigan’s eyes followed the narrow length of silver as if hypnotized.

“Why?” Siuan demanded. “You tell me this thing only works—”

“Just put it on, Siuan.”

Siuan eyed her stubbornly for a moment—Light, but the woman could be obstinate!—before closing the bracelet around her wrist. A look of wonder came onto her face immediately, then her eyes narrowed at Marigan. “She hates us, but I knew that. And there’s fear, and ... Shock. Not a glimmer on her face, but she’s shocked to her toes. I don’t think she believed I could use this thing, either.”

Marigan shifted uneasily. So far only two who knew about her could use the bracelet. Four would give more chances for questions. On the surface she seemed to be cooperating fully, but how much was she hiding? As much as she could, Nynaeve was sure.

With a sigh, Siuan shook her head. “And I cannot. I should be able to touch the Source through her, isn’t that right? Well, I can’t. A grunter could climb trees first. I’ve been stilled, and that is that. How do you get this thing off?” She fumbled at the bracelet. “How do you bloody get it off?”

Gently Nynaeve laid a hand over Siuan’s on the bracelet. “Don’t you see? The bracelet won’t work for a woman who can’t channel any more than the necklace would work on her. If I put either on one of the cooks, it would be no more than a pretty piece for her.”

“Cooks or no cooks,” Siuan said flatly, “I cannot channel. I have been stilled.”

“But there is something there to be Healed,” Nynaeve insisted, “or you’d feel nothing through the bracelet.”

Siuan jerked her arm free and stuck her wrist out. “Take it off.”

Shaking her head, Nynaeve complied. Sometimes Siuan could be as bullheaded as any man!

When she held the bracelet toward Leane, the Domani woman lifted her wrist eagerly. Leane pretended to be as sanguine over having been stilled as Siuan was—as Siuan pretended to be—but she did not always succeed. Supposedly, the only way to survive stilling for long was to find something else to fill your life, to fill the hole left by the One Power. For Siuan and Leane that something was running their networks of agents, and more importantly, trying to convince the Aes Sedai here in Salidar to support Rand al’Thor as the Dragon Reborn without letting any of the Aes Sedai know what they were doing. The question was whether that was enough. The bitterness on Siuan’s face, and the delight on Leane’s as the bracelet snapped shut, said that maybe nothing could ever be.

“Oh, yes.” Leane had a brisk, clipped way of speaking. Except when talking to men, anyway; she was Domani, after all, and of late making up for time lost in the Tower. “Yes, she really is stunned, isn’t she? Beginning to control it now, though.” For a few moments she sat silently, considering the woman on the stool. Marigan stared back warily. At last, Leane shrugged. “I cannot touch the Source, either. And I tried to make her feel a fleabite on her ankle. If it had worked, she would have had to show something.” That was the other trick of the bracelet; you could make the woman wearing the necklace feel physical sensations. Only the sensations—there was no mark whatever you did, no real damage—but the feel of a sound switching or two had sufficed to convince Marigan that cooperation was her best choice. That and the alternative, a quick trial followed by execution.

Despite her failure, Leane watched closely as Nynaeve undid the bracelet and refastened it on her own wrist. It seemed that she, at least, had not given up completely on channeling again one day.

Regaining the Power was wonderful. Not as wonderful as drawing saidar herself, being filled with it, but even touching the Source through the other woman was like redoubling the life in her veins. To hold saidar inside was to want to laugh and dance with pure joy. She supposed that one day she would become used to it; full Aes Sedai must. Balanced against that, linking with Marigan was a small price. “Now that we know there’s a chance,” she said, “I think—”

The door banged open, and Nynaeve was on her feet before she knew it. She never thought of using the Power; she would have screamed if her throat had not closed tight. She was not the only one, but she hardly noticed Siuan and Leane leaping up. The fear cascading through the bracelet seemed an echo of her own.

The young woman who shut the splintery wooden door behind her took no notice of the commotion she had caused. Tall and straight in an Accepted’s banded white dress, with sun-gold curls nestled on her shoulders, she looked spitting mad. Even with her face tight with anger and dripping sweat she somehow managed to look beautiful, though; it was a knack Elayne had. “Do you know what they’re doing? They are sending an embassy to ... to Caemlyn! And they refuse to let me go! Sheriam forbade me to mention it again. Forbade me even to speak of it!”

“Did you never learn to knock, Elayne?” Straightening her chair, Nynaeve sat down again. Fell, really; relief weakened her knees. “I thought you were Sheriam.” Just the thought of discovery cored out her middle.

To her credit, Elayne blushed and apologized immediately. Then spoiled it by adding, “But I don’t see why you were so goosey. Birgitte is still outside, and you know she would warn you if anyone else came close. Nynaeve, they must let me go.”

“They must do nothing of the kind,” Siuan said gruffly. She and Leane were seated again, too. Siuan sat up straight, as always, but Leane sagged back, as flimsy as Nynaeve’s knees. Marigan was leaning against the wall, breathing hard, eyes closed and hands pressed hard against the plaster. Relief and stark terror surged through the bracelet in alternating jolts.


Siuan did not allow Elayne another word. “Do you think Sheriam, or any of the others, will let the Daughter-Heir of Andor fall into the hands of the Dragon Reborn? With your mother dead—”

“I don’t believe that!” Elayne snapped.

“You don’t believe Rand killed her,” Siuan went on relentlessly, “and that’s a different thing. I don’t, either. But if Morgase were alive, she would come forward and acknowledge him the Dragon Reborn. Or, if she believed him a false Dragon in spite of the proof, she’d be organizing resistance. None of my eyes-and-ears have heard a whisper of either. Not just in Andor, but not here in Altara and not in Murandy.”

“They have,” Elayne forced in. “There’s rebellion in the west.”

“Against Morgase. Against. If it’s not a rumor, too.” Siuan’s voice was flat as a planed board. “Your mother is dead, girl. Best to admit as much and get your weeping done.”

Elayne’s chin rose, a very annoying habit she had; she was the picture of icy arrogance, though most men seemed to find it attractive for some reason. “You complain continually over how long it is taking to get in touch with all of your agents,” she said coolly, “but I will set aside whether you can have heard all there is to hear. Whether my mother is alive or not, my place is in Caemlyn, now. I am Daughter-Heir.”

Siuan’s loud snort made Nynaeve jump. “You’ve been Accepted long enough to know better.” Elayne had as much potential as had been seen in a thousand years. Not as much as Nynaeve, if she ever learned to channel at will, but still enough to make any Aes Sedai’s eyes light up. Elayne’s nose wrinkled—she knew very well that if she had already been on the Lion Throne, the Aes Sedai still would have gotten her away for training, by asking if possible, by stuffing her into a barrel if necessary—and she opened her mouth, but Siuan did not even slow down. “True, they’d not mind you taking the throne sooner than later; there hasn’t been a Queen who was openly Aes Sedai in far too long. But they won’t let you go until you’re a full sister, and even then, because you are Daughter-Heir and will be Queen soon, they won’t let you near the Dragon bloody Reborn until they know how far they can trust him. Especially since this ... amnesty of his.” Her mouth twisted sourly around the word, and Leane grimaced.

Nynaeve’s tongue curdled, too. She had been brought up to fear any man who could channel, fated to go mad and, before the Shadow-tainted male half of the Source killed him horribly, bring terror to everyone around him. But Rand, whom she had watched grow up, was the Dragon Reborn, born both as a sign that the Last Battle was coming and to fight the Dark One in that battle. The Dragon Reborn; humanity’s only hope—and a man who could channel. Worse, reports were that he was trying to gather others like him. Of course, there could not be many. Any Aes Sedai would hunt down one of those—the Red Ajah did little else—but they found few, far fewer than once, according to the records.

Elayne was not about to give up, though. That was one admirable thing about her; she would not give up if her head were on the block and the axe descending. She stood there with her chin up, facing Siuan’s stare, which Nynaeve often found hard to do. “There are two clear reasons why I should go. First, whatever has happened to my mother, she is missing, and as Daughter-Heir, I can calm the people and assure them the succession is intact. Second, I can approach Rand. He trusts me. I would be far better than anyone the Hall chooses.”

The Aes Sedai here in Salidar had chosen their own Hall of the Tower, a Hall-in-exile, as it were. They were supposed to be mulling over the choice of a new Amyrlin Seat, a rightful Amyrlin to challenge Elaida’s claim to the title and the Tower, but Nynaeve had not seen much sign of it.

“So kind of you to sacrifice yourself, child,” Leane said dryly. Elayne’s expression did not change, yet she colored furiously; few outside this room knew, and no Aes Sedai, but Nynaeve had no doubt that Elayne’s first act in Caemlyn would be to get Rand alone and kiss him within an inch of his life. “With your mother ... missing ... if Rand al’Thor has you, and Caemlyn, he has Andor, and the Hall won’t let him have any more of Andor than they have to, or anywhere else if they can help it. He carries Tear and Cairhien in his pocket, and the Aiel as well, it seems. Add Andor, and Murandy and Altara—with us in it—fall if he sneezes. He is growing too powerful, too fast. He might decide he doesn’t need us. With Moiraine dead, there’s no one near him we can trust.”

That made Nynaeve wince. Moiraine was the Aes Sedai who had brought her and Rand out of the Two Rivers and changed their lives. Her and Rand and Egwene and Mat and Perrin. She had wanted for so long to make Moiraine pay for what she had done to them that losing her was like losing a piece of herself. But Moiraine was dead in Cairhien, taking Lanfear with her; she was fast becoming a legend among the Aes Sedai here, the only Aes Sedai to have killed one of the Forsaken, much less two. The only good thing Nynaeve could find in it, much as it shamed to find any good, was that now Lan was freed from being Moiraine’s Warder. If she could ever find him.

Siuan took up immediately where Leane left off. “We can’t afford to let the boy go sailing off with no guidance at all. Who knows what he might do? Yes, yes, I know you’re ready to argue for him, but I don’t care to hear it. I’m trying to balance a live silverpike on my nose, girl. We can’t let him grow too strong before he accepts us, and yet we don’t dare hold him back too much. And I’m trying to keep Sheriam and the others convinced they should support him when half the Hall secretly don’t want anything to do with him, and the other half think in their heart of hearts that he should be gentled, Dragon Reborn or not. In any case, whatever your arguments, I suggest you heed Sheriam. You won’t change any minds, and Tiana doesn’t have enough novices here to keep her busy.”

Elayne’s face tightened angrily. Tiana Noselle, a Gray sister, was Mistress of Novices here in Salidar. An Accepted had to step considerably further out of line to be sent to Tiana than did a novice, but by the same token, the visit was always that much more shaming and painful. Tiana might show a little kindness to a novice, if only a little; she felt Accepted should know better, and made sure they felt the same long before they left her small cubbyhole of a study.

Nynaeve had been studying Siuan, and now something popped into her head. “You knew all about this ... embassy, or whatever it is ... didn’t you? You two always have your heads together with Sheriam and her little circle.” The Hall might have all the supposed authority until they chose an Amyrlin, but Sheriam and the handful of other Aes Sedai who had first organized the arrivals in Salidar still kept the real control of things. “How many are they sending, Siuan?” Elayne gasped; plainly she had not thought of this. That showed how upset she was. Usually she caught nuances Nynaeve missed.

Siuan denied nothing. Since being stilled she could lie like a wool merchant, but when she decided to be open, she was as open as a slap in the face. “Nine. ‘Enough to do honor to the Dragon Reborn’—fish guts! an embassy to a king is seldom more than three!—‘but not enough to frighten him.’ If he’s learned enough to be frightened.”

“You had better hope he has,” Elayne said coldly. “If he hasn’t, then nine may be eight too many.”

Thirteen was the dangerous number. Rand was strong, perhaps as strong as any man since the Breaking, but thirteen Aes Sedai linked could overwhelm him, shield him from saidin, and take him prisoner. Thirteen was the number assigned when a man was gentled, though Nynaeve had begun to think the assignment more custom than requirement. Aes Sedai did a good many things because they always had.

Siuan’s smile was far from pleasant. “I wonder why no one else thought of that? Think, girl! Sheriam does, and so does the Hall. Only one will go near him at first, and no more after that than he’s comfortable with. But he’ll know nine came, and somebody will certainly tell him what an honor that is.”

“I see,” Elayne said in a small voice. “I should have known one of you would think of it. I’m sorry.” That was another good thing about her. She could be stubborn as a cross-eyed mule, but when she decided she was wrong, she admitted it as nicely as any village woman. Most unusual for a noble.

“Min will be going too,” Leane said. “Her ... talents may be useful to Rand. The sisters won’t know that part, of course. She can keep her secrets.” As if that were the important thing.

“I see,” Elayne said again, flatly this time. She made an effort to brighten her tone, a miserable failure. “Well, I see you’re busy with ... with Marigan. I did not mean to disturb you. Please, don’t let me interrupt.” She was gone before Nynaeve could open her mouth, the door banging shut behind her.

Angrily, Nynaeve rounded on Leane. “I thought Siuan was the mean one of you, but that was vicious!”

It was Siuan who answered. “When two women love the same man, it means trouble, and when the man is Rand al’Thor... The Light knows how sane he still is, or what course they might send him off on. If there’s any hair-pulling and clawing to be done, let them do it now, here.”

Without thought, Nynaeve’s hand found her braid and jerked it back over her shoulder. “I ought to...” Trouble was, there was little she could do, and nothing to make any difference. “We’ll go on from where we left off when Elayne came in. But, Siuan... If you ever do something like that to her again,” or to me, she thought, “I’ll make you sorry you—Where do you think you’re going?” Siuan had scraped back her chair and risen, and after a glance, Leane did the same.

“We have work,” Siuan said curtly, already heading for the door.

“You promised to make yourself available, Siuan. Sheriam told you to.” Not that Sheriam thought it any less a waste of time than Siuan, but Nynaeve and Elayne had earned rewards, and a certain amount of indulgence. Like Marigan to be their maid, to give them more time for Accepted’s studies.

Siuan gave her an amused look from the door. “Maybe you’ll complain to her? And explain how you do your research? I want time with Marigan this evening; I have some more questions.”

As Siuan left, Leane said sadly, “It would be nice, Nynaeve, but we have to do what we can do. You could try Logain.” Then she was gone, too.

Nynaeve scowled. Studying Logain had taught her even less than studying the two women. She was no longer certain she could learn anything from him at all. Anyway, the last thing she wanted was to Heal a gentled man. He made her nervous in any case.

“You bite at one another like rats in a sealed box,” Marigan said. “On the evidence, your chances are not very good. Perhaps you should consider ... other options.”

“Hold your filthy tongue!” Nynaeve glared at her. “Hold it, the Light burn you!” Fear still oozed through the bracelet, but something else as well, something almost too feeble to exist. A faint spark of hope, perhaps. “The Light burn you,” she muttered.

The woman’s real name was not Marigan, but Moghedien. One of the Forsaken, trapped with her own overweening pride and held prisoner in the midst of Aes Sedai. Only five women in the world knew, none Aes Sedai, but keeping Moghedien secret was purest necessity. The Forsaken’s crimes made her execution as sure as the sun rising. Siuan agreed; for every Aes Sedai who counseled waiting, if any did, ten would demand immediate justice. Into an unmarked grave with her would go all her knowledge from the Age of Legends, when things undreamed of today were done with the Power. Nynaeve was not sure she believed half of what the woman told her of that Age. She certainly understood less than half.

Digging information out of Moghedien was not easy. Sometimes it was like Healing; Moghedien had never been interested in much that could not advance her, preferably by shortcuts. The woman was hardly likely to reveal the truth, but Nynaeve suspected she had been some sort of swindler or the like before swearing her soul over to the Dark One. Sometimes she and Elayne just did not know the questions to ask. Moghedien seldom volunteered anything, that was certain. Even so, they had learned a great deal, and passed most on to the Aes Sedai. As results of their researches and studies as Accepted, of course. They had gained a lot of credit.

She and Elayne would have kept knowledge of her to themselves if they could, but Birgitte had known from the start, and Siuan and Leane had to be told. Siuan had known enough of the circumstances that led to Moghedien’s capture to demand a full explanation, and had the leverage to obtain one. Nynaeve and Elayne knew some of Siuan and Leane’s secrets; they seemed to know all of her and Elayne’s except the truth about Birgitte. It made for a precarious balance, with the advantage to Siuan and Leane. Besides, bits of Moghedien’s revelations concerned supposed Darkfriend plots and hints of what the other Forsaken might be up to. The only way to pass those on was to make them seem to have come from Siuan and Leane’s agents. Nothing about the Black Ajah—hidden deep and long denied—though that interested Siuan most. Darkfriends disgusted her, but the very idea of Aes Sedai swearing themselves to the Dark One was enough to screw Siuan’s anger to an icy rage. Moghedien claimed to have been afraid to go near any Aes Sedai, and that was believable enough. Fear was a permanent part of the woman. No wonder she had hidden in the shadows enough to be called the Spider. All in all, she was a treasure trove too valuable to give to the headsman, yet most Aes Sedai would not see it so. Most Aes Sedai might refuse to touch or trust anything learned from her.

Guilt and revulsion stabbed Nynaeve, not for the first time. Could any amount of knowledge justify keeping one of the Forsaken from justice? Turning her in meant punishment, probably dreadful, for everyone involved, not just herself, but Elayne and Siuan and Leane. Turning her in meant Birgitte’s secret would come out. And all that knowledge lost. Moghedien might know nothing of Healing, but she had given Nynaeve a dozen hints of what was possible, and there had to be more in her head. With those to guide her, what might she discover eventually?

Nynaeve wanted a bath, and it had nothing to do with the heat. “We will talk about the weather,” she said bitterly.

“You know more about controlling weather than I do.” Moghedien sounded weary, and an echo slid through the bracelet. There had been enough questions on the subject. “All I know is that what is happening is the Great—the Dark One’s work.” She had the nerve to smile ingratiatingly at the slip. “No mere human is strong enough to change that.”

It took effort for Nynaeve not to grind her teeth. Elayne knew more about working weather than anyone else in Salidar, and she said the same. Including the Dark One part, though any but a fool would know that, with the heat so strong when it should be coming on for snow, with no rain and the streams drying. “Then we’ll talk about using different weaves to Heal different illnesses.” The woman said that took more time than what was done now, but all the strength for it came from the Power, not from the patient and the woman channeling. Of course, she said men had actually been better at some kinds of Healing, and Nynaeve was not about to believe that. “You must have seen it done at least once.”

She settled down to bore away for nuggets in the dross. Some knowledge was worth a great deal. She just wished she did not feel that she was digging through slime.

Elayne did not hesitate once she was outside, only waved to Birgitte and went on. Birgitte, her golden hair in an intricate waist-long braid, was playing with two small boys while she kept watch in the narrow alley, her bow propped against a leaning fence beside her. Or trying to play with them. Jaril and Seve stared at the woman in her odd wide yellow trousers and short dark coat, but they showed no more reaction than that. They never did, and they never spoke. They were supposed to be “Marigan’s” children. Birgitte was happy playing with them, and a touch sad; she always liked playing with children, especially little boys, and she always felt that way when she did. Elayne knew it as well as she knew her own feelings.

If she had thought Moghedien had anything to do with their condition... But the woman claimed they were as they had been when she picked them up for her disguise in Ghealdan, orphans in the street, and some of the Yellow sisters said they had simply seen too much in the riots in Samara. Elayne could believe it from what she herself had encountered there. The Yellow sisters said time and care would help them; Elayne hoped it was so. She hoped she was not allowing the one responsible to escape justice.

She did not want to think about Moghedien now. Her mother. No, she definitely did not want to think about her. Min. And Rand. There had to be some way to handle this. Barely seeing Birgitte’s return nod, she hurried up the alley and out onto the main street of Salidar beneath a cloudless, broiling midday sky.

For years Salidar had stood abandoned, before Aes Sedai fleeing Elaida’s coup began to gather there, but now fresh thatch topped the houses, most of which showed considerable new repairs and patches, and the three large stone buildings that had been inns. One, the largest, was called the Little Tower by some; that was where the Hall met. Only what was necessary had been done, of course; cracked glass filled many windows, or none. More important matters were afoot than repointing stonework or painting. The dirt streets were filled to bursting. Not just with Aes Sedai, of course, but Accepted in banded dresses and scurrying novices in pure white, Warders moving with the deadly grace of leopards whether lean or bulky, servants who had followed Aes Sedai from the Tower, even a few children. And soldiers.

The Hall here was preparing to enforce its claims against Elaida by arms if necessary, just as soon as they chose a true Amyrlin Seat. The distant clang of hammers, cutting through the crowds’ murmur from forges outside the village, spoke of horses being shod, armor being mended. A square-faced man, his dark hair heavy with gray, went riding slowly down the street in a buff-colored coat and battered breastplate. Picking his way through the crowd, he eyed marching clusters of men with long pikes on their shoulders, or bows. Gareth Bryne had agreed to recruit and lead the Salidar Hall’s army, though Elayne wished she knew the full how and why. Something to do with Siuan and Leane, though what, she could not imagine, since he ran both women ragged, especially Siuan, fulfilling some oath Elayne did not have the straight of either. Just that Siuan complained bitterly about having to keep his room and his clothes clean on top of her other duties. She complained, but she did it; it must have been a strong oath.

Bryne’s eyes passed across Elayne with barely a hesitation. He had been coolly polite and distant since she arrived in Salidar, though she had known him since her cradle. Until less than a year ago he had been Captain-General of the Queen’s Guards, in Andor. Once, Elayne had thought he and her mother would marry. No, she was not going to think of her mother! Min. She had to find Min and talk.

No sooner had she begun to weave through the crowded dusty street, though, than two Aes Sedai found her. There was no choice but to stop and curtsy, while the throng streamed around them. Both women beamed. Neither sweated a drop. Pulling a handkerchief from her sleeve to dab at her face, Elayne wished she had already been taught that particular bit of Aes Sedai lore. “Good day, Anaiya Sedai, Janya Sedai.”

“Good day, child. Do you have any more discoveries for us today?” As usual, Janya Frende spoke as though there was no time to get the words out. “Such remarkable strides you’ve made, you and Nynaeve, especially for Accepted. I still don’t see how Nynaeve does it, when she has so many difficulties with the Power, but I must say I’m delighted.” Unlike most Brown sisters, often absentminded beyond their books and studies, Janya Sedai was quite neat, every short dark hair tidy around the ageless face that marked Aes Sedai who had worked long with the Power. But the slender woman’s appearance did hint at her Ajah. Her dress was plain gray, and stout wool—Browns seldom thought of clothes as more than decent covering—and even when she was talking to you, she wore a little frown, as though squinting in thought about something else entirely. She would have been pretty without that frown. “That way of wrapping yourself in light to become invisible. Remarkable. I’m sure someone will find how to stop the ripples, so you can move about with it. And Carenna is quite excited over that little eavesdropping trick of Nynaeve’s. Naughty of her, to think of that, but useful. Carenna thinks she sees how to adapt it to talk to someone at a distance. Think of it. To talk with someone a mile away! Or two, or even—” Anaiya touched her arm, and she cut off, blinking at the other Aes Sedai.

“You are making great strides, Elayne,” Anaiya said calmly. The bluff-faced woman was always calm. “Motherly” was the word to describe her, and comforting usually, though Aes Sedai features made putting an age to her impossible. She was also one of the small circle around Sheriam who held the real power in Salidar. “Greater than any of us expected, truly, and we expected much. The first to make a ter’angreal since the Breaking. That is remarkable, child, and I want you to know that. You should be very proud.”

Elayne stared at the ground in front of her toes. Two waist-high boys went dodging by through the crowd, laughing. She wished no one were close enough to hear this. Not that any of the passersby gave them a second glance. With so many Aes Sedai in the village, not even novices curtsied unless an Aes Sedai addressed them, and everyone had errands that needed to be done yesterday.

She did not feel proud at all. Not with all of their “discoveries” coming from Moghedien. There had been a good many, beginning with “inverting,” so a weave could not be seen by any but the woman who had woven it, yet they had not passed everything on. How to hide your ability to channel, for one. Without that, Moghedien would have been unmasked in hours—any Aes Sedai within two or three paces of a woman could sense whether she could channel—and if they learned how to do that, they might learn how to penetrate it. And how to disguise yourself; inverted weaves made “Marigan” look nothing at all like Moghedien.

Some of what the woman knew was just too repulsive. Compulsion, for instance, bending people’s will, and a way to implant instructions so the recipient would not even remember the orders when he carried them out. Worse things. Too repulsive, and maybe too dangerous to trust anyone with. Nynaeve said they had to learn them in order to learn how to counter them, but Elayne did not want to. They were keeping so many secrets, telling so many lies to friends and people on their side, that she almost wished she could take the Three Oaths on the Oath Rod without waiting to be raised Aes Sedai. One of those bound you to speak no word that was not true, bound you as though a part of your flesh.

“I haven’t done as well as I might with the ter’angreal, Anaiya Sedai.” That, at least, was hers and hers alone. The first had been the bracelet and necklace—a fact kept well hidden, needless to say—but they were an altered copy of a nasty invention, the a’dam, that the Seanchan left behind when their invasion was driven into the sea at Falme. The plain green disc that allowed someone not strong enough to work the invisibility trick—not many were—had been her idea from the first. She had no angreal or sa’angreal to study, so they had been impossible to make so far, and even after her ease in copying the Seanchan device, ter’angreal had not proven as easy as she had thought. They used the One Power instead of magnifying it, used it for one specific purpose, to do one thing. Some could even be used by people who could not channel, even men. They should have been simpler. Maybe they were, in function, but not simple to make.

Her modest statement unleashed a torrent from Janya. “Nonsense, child. Absolute nonsense. Why, I’ve no doubt that as soon as we are back in the Tower and can test you properly and put the Oath Rod in your hand, you’ll be raised to the shawl as well as the ring. No doubt. You really are fulfilling all the promise that was seen in you. And more. No one could have expected—” Anaiya touched her arm again; it seemed a set signal, because once more Janya stopped and blinked.

“No need to swell the child’s head too far,” Anaiya said. “Elayne, I’ll have no sulking out of you. You should have outgrown that long since.” The mother could be firm as well as kindly. “I won’t have you pouting over a few failures, not when your success was so wonderful.” Elayne had made five tries at the stone disc. Two did nothing, and two made you appear blurry, as well as sick to your stomach. The one that worked had been the third attempt. More than a few failures in Elayne’s book. “Everything you’ve done is wonderful. You, and Nynaeve, too.”

“Thank you,” Elayne said. “Thank you both. I’ll try not to be sulky.” When an Aes Sedai said you were sulky, the one thing you did not do was tell her you were not. “Will you excuse me, please? I understand the embassy to Caemlyn is leaving today, and I want to say goodbye to Min.”

They let her go, of course, though Janya might have taken half an hour to do so without Anaiya there. Anaiya eyed Elayne sharply—she surely knew all about the words with Sheriam—but said nothing. Sometimes an Aes Sedai’s silences were as loud as words.

Thumbing the ring on the third finger of her left hand, Elayne darted on at a near trot, eyes focused far enough ahead that she could claim not to have seen anyone else who tried to stop her for congratulations. It might work, and it might mean a visit to Tiana; indulgences for good work only went so far. Right that moment, she would much prefer Tiana to praise she did not deserve.

The gold ring was a serpent biting its own tail, the Great Serpent, a symbol of Aes Sedai, but worn by Accepted too. When she donned the shawl, fringed in the color of the Ajah she selected, she would wear it on the finger she chose. It would be the Green Ajah for her, of necessity; only Green sisters had more than one Warder, and she wanted to have Rand. Or as much of him as she could, at least. The difficulty was that she had already bonded Birgitte, the first woman ever to become a Warder. That was why she could sense Birgitte’s feelings, how she knew Birgitte had gotten a splinter in her hand that morning. Only Nynaeve knew about the bond. Warders were for full Aes Sedai; for an Accepted who overstepped that bound, no indulgences in the world would save her hide. For them it had been necessity, not whim—Birgitte would have died, else—but Elayne did not think that would make any difference. Breaking a rule with the Power could be fatal for yourself and others; to set that firmly in your mind, Aes Sedai seldom let anyone get away with breaking any rule for any reason.

There was so much subterfuge here in Salidar. Not just Birgitte, and Moghedien. One of the Oaths kept an Aes Sedai from lying, but what was not spoken of did not have to be lied over. Moiraine had known how to weave a cloak of invisibility, maybe the same one they learned from Moghedien; Nynaeve had seen Moiraine do it once, before Nynaeve knew anything of the Power. No one else in Salidar had known, though. Or admitted to it, anyway. Birgitte had confirmed what Elayne had begun to suspect. Most Aes Sedai, maybe all, kept back at least part of what they learned; most had their own secret tricks. Those might become common knowledge taught to novices or Accepted, if enough Aes Sedai learned them—or they might die with the Aes Sedai. Two or three times she thought she had seen a glimmer in someone’s eyes when she demonstrated something. Carenna had leaped onto the eavesdropping trick with suspicious quickness. But it was hardly the sort of accusation an Accepted could make against Aes Sedai.

Knowing did not make her own deceptions more palatable, but maybe it helped a little. That and remembering necessity. If only they would stop praising her for what she had not done.

She was sure she knew where to find Min. The River Eldar lay not three miles west of Salidar, and a tiny stream ran through the edge of the village on its way through the forest to the river. Most of the trees that had grown up in the town had been cut down after Aes Sedai began arriving, but a small patch on the stream’s bank remained behind some houses, on a scrap of land too narrow to be useful. Min claimed to like cities best, yet she often went to sit among those trees. It was a way to escape the company of Aes Sedai and Warders awhile, and for Min that was almost essential.

Sure enough, when Elayne edged her way around the corner of a stone house onto the slender strip, along a runnel of water no wider, Min was sitting there with her back against a tree, watching the little brook burble over rocks. As much as was left of it; the stream trickled down a bed of dried mud twice as wide as it was. The trees held a few leaves here, though most of the surrounding forest was beginning to go bare. Even the oaks.

A dried branch cracked under Elayne’s slipper, and Min jumped to her feet. As usual she wore a boy’s gray coat and breeches, but she had had small blue flowers embroidered on the lapels and up the sides of the snug legs. Oddly, since she said the three aunts who raised her had been seamstresses, Min seemed not to know one end of a needle from the other. She stared at Elayne, then grimaced and ran her fingers through dark shoulder-length hair. “You know” was all she said.

“I thought we should talk.”

Min scrubbed her hands through her hair again. “Siuan didn’t tell me until this morning. I’ve been trying to work up courage to tell you ever since. She wants me to spy on him, Elayne. For the embassy, and she gave me names in Caemlyn, people who can send messages back to her.”

“You won’t do it, of course,” Elayne said, without a hint of question, and Min gave her a grateful look. “Why were you afraid to come to me? We are friends, Min. And we promised each other not to let a man come between us. Even if we do both love him.”

Min’s laugh had a huskiness to it; Elayne supposed many men would find that attractive. And she was pretty, in a mischievous sort of way. And a few years older; was that in her favor, or against? “Oh, Elayne, we said that when he was safely away from both of us. Losing you would be like losing a sister, but what if one of us changes her mind?”

Best not to ask which of them that was supposed to be. Elayne tried not to think of the fact that if she bound and gagged Min with the Power and inverted the weave, she might be able to hide the woman in a basement until the embassy was long gone. “We won’t,” she said simply. No, she could not do that to Min. She wanted Rand all to herself, but she could not hurt Min. Maybe she could just ask the other woman not to go until they both could. Instead, she said, “Is Gareth releasing you from your oath?”

This time Min’s laugh was a bark. “Hardly. He says he’ll make me work it off sooner or later. Siuan’s the one he really wants to hold on to, the Light knows why.” A slight tensing of her face made Elayne think there was a viewing involved in it, but she did not ask. Min never talked about those unless they concerned you.

She had an ability known to few in Salidar. Elayne and Nynaeve, Siuan and Leane; that was all. Birgitte did not know, but then Min did not know about Birgitte. Or Moghedien. So many secrets. But Min’s was her own. Sometimes she saw images or auras around people, and sometimes she knew what they meant. When she knew, she was always right; for instance, if she said a man and woman would marry, then sooner or later they married, even if they plainly hated one another now. Leane called it “reading the Pattern,” but it had nothing to do with the Power. Most people carried the images only occasionally, but Aes Sedai and Warders always. Min’s retreats here were to escape that deluge.

“Will you carry a letter to Rand for me?”

“Of course.” The other woman’s assent was so quick, her face so open, that Elayne blushed and went on hurriedly. She was not sure she would have agreed had the circumstances been reversed. “You mustn’t let him know about your viewings, Min. Concerning us, I mean.” One thing Min had viewed about Rand was that three women would fall hopelessly in love with him, be tied to him forever, and that one of them would be herself. The second had turned out to be Elayne. “If he learns about the viewing, he might decide it isn’t what we want, only the Pattern, or his being ta’veren. He could decide to be noble and save us by not letting either of us near him.”

“Maybe,” Min said doubtfully. “Men are strange. More likely, if he realizes we’ll both come running when he crooks a finger, he’ll crook it. He won’t be able to help himself. I’ve seen them do it. I think it has something to do with the hair on their chins.” She had such a wondering look that Elayne was not sure whether or not that was a joke. Min seemed to know a lot about men; she had worked mainly in stables—she liked horses—but once she had mentioned serving table in a tavern. “Either way, I won’t tell. You and I will divide him up like a pie. Maybe we’ll let the third have a bit of crust when she shows up.”

“What are we going to do, Min?” Elayne had not meant to say that, certainly not in a near wail. Part of her wanted to say unequivocally that she would never come for a crooked finger; part wanted him to crook it. Part of her wanted to say she would not share Rand, not in any way, not with anyone, even a friend, and Min’s viewings could go to the Pit of Doom; part wanted to box Rand’s ears for doing this to her and Min. It was all so childish she felt like hiding her head, but she could not untangle the snarl in her feelings. Leveling her voice, she answered her own question before Min could. “What we’re going to do is sit here awhile and talk.” She suited the words, choosing a spot where the dead leaves were particularly thick. A tree made a fine backrest. “Only not about Rand. I am going to miss you, Min. It’s so good to have a friend I can trust.”

Min sat cross-legged beside her and idly began digging up pebbles and tossing them into the stream. “Nynaeve is your friend. You trust her. And Birgitte certainly seems to be one; you spend more time with her than you do with Nynaeve, even.” A slight frown creased her forehead. “Does she really believe she’s Birgitte out of the legends? I mean, the bow and the braid—every tale mentions those, even if her bow isn’t silver—and I can’t think she was born with the name.”

“She was born with it,” Elayne said carefully. It was true, in a way. Best to steer the talk another way. “Nynaeve still can’t decide whether I’m a friend or somebody she has to browbeat into doing what she think’s right. And she spends more time remembering I’m her Queen’s daughter than I do. I think she holds it against me sometimes. You never do that.”

“Maybe I’m not so impressed.” Min wore a grin, but on the other she sounded serious. “I was born in the Mountains of Mist, Elayne, at the mines. Your mother’s writ runs pretty thin that far west.” The smile vanished from her face. “I’m sorry, Elayne.”

Stifling a flash of indignation—Min was every bit as much a subject of the Lion Throne as Nynaeve!—Elayne let her head fall back against the tree. “Let’s talk of something happy.” The sun sat molten overhead through the branches; the sky was a clear sheet of blue, unmarked by even one cloud to the horizon. On impulse, she opened herself to saidar and let it fill her, as though all the joy of life in the world had been distilled and every drop in her veins replaced with the essence. If she could make just one cloud form, it would be a sign that everything would come out all right. Her mother would be alive. Rand would love her. And Moghedien ... would be dealt with. Somehow. She wove a tenuous web through the sky as far as she could see, using Air and Water, searching for the moisture for a cloud. If she only strained hard enough... The sweetness quickly built close to pain, the danger sign; draw much more of the Power, and she could still herself. Just one little cloud.

“Happy?” Min said. “Well, I know you don’t want to talk about Rand, but aside from you and me, he’s still the most important thing in the world right now. And the happiest. Forsaken fall dead when he appears, and nations line up to bow. The Aes Sedai here are ready to support him. I know they are, Elayne; they have to. Why, next Elaida will hand the Tower over to him. The Last Battle will be a walk for him. He’s winning, Elayne. We’re winning.”

Releasing the Source, Elayne sagged back, staring at a sky as empty as her mood had become. You did not need to be able to channel to see the Dark One’s hand at work, and if he could touch the world this much, if he could touch it at all... “Are we?” she said, but too softly for Min to hear.

The manor house was unfinished yet, the greatroom’s tall wooden panels pale and unstained, but Faile ni Bashere t’Aybara held court every afternoon, as proper for the lord’s wife, in a massive high-backed chair carved with falcons, just in front of a bare stone fireplace that mirrored another at the end of the room. The empty chair by her side, carved with wolves, and a large wolf’s head at its peak, should have been occupied by her husband, Perrin t’Bashere Aybara, Perrin Goldeneyes, Lord of the Two Rivers.

Of course, the manor was only an overgrown farmhouse, the greatroom stretched fewer than fifteen paces—how Perrin had stared when she insisted on it being that big; he was still used to thinking of himself as a blacksmith, or even a blacksmith’s apprentice—and the name given her at birth had been Zarine, not Faile. These things did not matter. Zarine was a name for a languorous woman who sighed tremulously over poems composed to her smiles. Faile, the name she had chosen as a sworn Hunter for the Horn of Valere, meant falcon in the Old Tongue. No one who got a good look at her face, with its bold nose and high cheekbones and dark tilted eyes that flashed when she was angry, could doubt which suited her best. For the rest, intentions counted a great deal. So did what was right and proper.

Her eyes were flashing at the moment. It had nothing to do with Perrin’s stubbornness, and little with the unseasonable heat. Though in truth, futilely working a pheasant feather fan for a breeze against the sweat sliding down her cheeks did not help her temper at all.

This late in the afternoon few remained of the crowd who had come to have her judge their disputes. Actually, they came for Perrin to hear them, but the idea of passing judgment on people he had grown up among horrified him. Unless she managed to corner the man, he vanished like a wolf in fog when it came time for the daily audience. Luckily, the people did not mind it when Lady Faile heard them instead of Lord Perrin. Or few did, anyway, and those wise enough to hide the fact.

“You brought this to me,” she said in a flat voice. The two women perspiring before her chair shuffled their feet uneasily and studied the polished floorboards.

Coppery-skinned Sharmad Zeffar’s plump curves were covered, if far from obscured, by a high-necked but barely opaque Domani dress, the pale golden silk worn at hem and cuffs, still with a sprinkling of small travel-stains beyond cleaning; silk was silk, after all, and seldom to be had here. Patrols into the Mountains of Mist searching for remnants of the past summer’s Trolloc invasion found few of the bestial Trollocs—and no Myrddraal, thank the Light—but they did find refugees nearly every day, ten here, twenty there, five somewhere else. Most came out of Almoth Plain, but a good many from Tarabon and, like Sharmad, from Arad Doman, all fleeing lands ruined by anarchy on top of civil war. Faile did not want to think of how many died in the mountains. Lacking roads or even paths, the mountains were no easy journey in the best of times, and these were far from the best.

Rhea Avin was no refugee, for all she wore a copy of a Taraboner dress in fine-woven wool, soft gray folds that molded and emphasized almost as much as Sharmad’s thinner garb. Those who survived the long trek over the mountains brought more than troubling rumors, skills previously unseen in the Two Rivers, and hands to work farms depopulated by the Trollocs. Rhea was a pretty, round-faced woman born not two miles from where the manor now stood, her dark hair in a wrist-thick braid to her waist. In the Two Rivers, girls did not braid their hair until the Women’s Circle said they were old enough to marry, whether that was fifteen or thirty, though few went beyond twenty. In fact, Rhea was a good five years older than Faile, her hair four years braided, but at the moment she looked as if she still wore it loose on her shoulders and had just realized that what had seemed a wonderful idea at the time was really the stupidest thing she could have done. For that matter, Sharmad seemed even more abashed, for all she had a year or two on Rhea; for a Domani to find herself in this situation must be humiliating. Faile wanted to slap the pair of them cross-eyed—except that a lady could not do that.

“A man,” she said as levelly as she could manage, “is not a horse or a field. Neither of you can own him, and to ask me to say which has the right to him...” She drew a slow breath. “If I thought Wil al’Seen had been leading you both on, I might have something to say on the matter.” Wil had an eye for the women, and they for him—he had very well-turned calves—but he never made promises. Sharmad looked ready to sink into the floor; Domani women had a reputation for twining men around their fingers, after all, not the other way around. “As it is, this is my judgment. You will both go to the Wisdom and explain matters to her, leaving nothing out. She will handle this. I expect to hear that she’s seen you before nightfall.”

The pair flinched. Daise Congar, the Wisdom here in Emond’s Field, would not tolerate this sort of nonsense. In fact, she would go well beyond not tolerating it. But they curtsied, muttering “Yes, my Lady” in forlorn unison. If not already, they soon would sorely regret wasting Daise’s time.

And mine, Faile thought firmly. Everyone knew Perrin rarely sat in audience, or they would never have brought their fool “problem.” Had he been here where he belonged, they would have slipped away rather than air it in front of him. Faile hoped the heat had Daise in a prickle. Too bad there was no way to get Daise to take Perrin in hand.

Cenn Buie replaced the women almost before they could get out of the way on dragging feet. Despite leaning heavily on a walking staff nearly as gnarled as himself, he managed a florid bow, then spoiled it by raking bony fingers through lank thinning hair. As usual, his rough brown coat looked slept in. “The Light shine on you, my Lady Faile, and on your honored husband, the Lord Perrin.” The grand words sounded odd in his scratchy voice. “Let me add my wishes for your continued happiness to those of the Council. Your intelligence and beauty make our lives brighter, as does the justice of your pronouncements.”

Faile drummed her fingers on the arm of her chair before she could stop herself. Flowery praises instead of the normal sour grumbling. Reminding her that he sat on the Emond’s Field Village Council and so was a man of influence, due respect. And playing for sympathy with that staff; the thatcher was as spry as anyone half his age. He wanted something. “What do you bring me today, Master Buie?”

Cenn straightened, forgetting to prop himself up with his stick. And forgetting to keep the acrid note out of his voice. “It’s all these outlanders flooding in, bringing all sorts of things we don’t want here.” He seemed to have forgotten she was an outlander, too; most Two Rivers folks had. “Strange ways, my Lady. Indecent clothes. You’ll be hearing from the women about the way those Domani hussies dress, if you haven’t already.” She had, as it happened, from some of them, though a momentary gleam in Cenn’s eye said he would regret it if she gave in to their demands. “Strangers stealing the food from our mouths, taking away our trade. That Taraboner fellow and his fool tile-making, for example. Taking up hands that could be put to useful work. He doesn’t care about good Two Rivers people. Why, he...”

Fanning herself, she stopped listening while giving every appearance of paying close attention; it was a skill her father had taught her, necessary at times like this. Of course. Master Hornval’s roof tiles would compete with Cenn’s thatchwork.

Not everyone felt as Cenn did about the newcomers. Haral Luhhan, the Emond’s Field blacksmith, had gone into partnership with a Domani cutler and a whitesmith from Almoth Plain, and Master Aydaer had hired three men and two women who knew furniture making and carving, and gilding as well, though there certainly was no gold lying about for that. Her chair and Perrin’s were their work, and as fine as she had seen anywhere. For that matter, Cenn himself had taken on half a dozen helpers, and not all Two Rivers folk; a good many roofs had burned when the Trollocs came, and new houses were going up everywhere. Perrin had no right to make her listen to this nonsense alone.

The people of the Two Rivers might have proclaimed him their lord—as well they might after he led them to victory over the Trollocs—and he might be beginning to realize he could not change that—as he certainly should, when they bowed and called him Lord Perrin to his face right after he told them not to—yet he dug in his heels at the trappings that went with being a lord, all the things that people expected from their lords and ladies. Worse, he balked at the duties of a lord. Faile knew those things exactly, as the eldest surviving child of Davram t’Ghaline Bashere, Lord of Bashere, Tyr and Sidona, Guardian of the Blightborder, Defender of the Heartland, Marshal-General to Queen Tenobia of Saldaea. True, she had run away to become a Hunter for the Horn—and then given that up for a husband, which sometimes still stunned her—but she remembered. Perrin listened when she explained, and even nodded his head in the proper places, but trying to make him actually do any of it was like trying to make a horse dance the sa’sara.

Cenn finally ran down in splutters, only just remembering to swallow the invective that bubbled behind his teeth.

“Perrin and I chose to use thatch,” Faile said calmly. While Cenn was still nodding in self-satisfaction, she added, “You haven’t finished it, yet.” He gave a start. “You seem to have taken on more roofs than you can handle, Master Buie. If ours isn’t done soon, I fear we will have to ask Master Hornval about his tiles.” Cenn’s mouth worked in vigorous silence; if she put a tile roof on the manor, others would follow. “I have enjoyed your discourse, but I am sure you would rather finish my roof than waste time in idle conversation, however pleasant.”

Lips thinning, Cenn glowered for a moment, then made a sketchy bow. Muttering something unintelligible except for a strangled “my Lady” at the end, he stalked out thumping the bare floor with his stick. The things people found to waste her time. Perrin was going to do his share of this if she had to tie him hand and foot.

The rest were not so provoking. A once-stout woman, her patched flower-embroidered dress hanging on her like a sack, who had come all the way from Toman Head, beyond Almoth Plain, wanted to deal in herbs and cures. Hulking Jon Ayellin rubbing his bald head and skinny Thad Torfinn twisting the lapels of his coat, disputing the boundaries of their fields. Two dark Domani men in long leather vests, with close-trimmed beards, miners who thought they had seen signs of gold and silver nearby on their way through the mountains. And iron, though they were less interested in that. And finally, a wiry Taraboner, a transparent veil across her narrow face and her pale hair in a multitude of thin braids, who claimed to have been a master carpetweaver and to know the making of rug looms.

The woman with an interest in herbs Faile directed to the local Women’s Circle; if Espara Soman knew what she was about, they would find her a place under one of the village Wisdoms. With all the new people coming in, many in a bad way from the journey, not a Wisdom in the Two Rivers but had an apprentice or two, and all were on the lookout for more. Maybe not exactly what Espara wanted, but where she would have to start. A few questions made it plain that neither Thad nor Jon really remembered where the boundary lay—apparently they had been arguing it since before she was born—so she directed them to split the difference. Which seemed to be what each had thought the Village Council would decide, the reason for keeping the argument between themselves so long.

The others she granted the permission they sought. They did not really need permission, but it was best to let them know where authority lay from the start. In return for her consent and enough silver to buy supplies, Faile made the two Domani agree to give Perrin a tenth part of what they found, as well as to locate the iron mentioned in passing. Perrin would not like it, but the Two Rivers had nothing like taxes, and a lord was expected to do things and provide things that required money. And the iron would be as useful as the gold. As for Liale Mosrara, if the Taraboner claimed more skill than she had, her enterprise would not last long, but if she did... Three clothweavers already ensured that the merchants would find more than raw wool when they came down from Baerlon next year, and decent carpets would be another trade item to bring in more coin. Liale promised the first and finest from her looms to the manor, and Faile nodded a gracious acceptance of the gift; she could give more if and when the carpets appeared. The floors did need covering. All in all, everyone seemed reasonably satisfied. Even Jon and Thad.

As the Taraboner woman backed away curtsying, Faile stood, glad to be done, then stopped when four women entered through one of the doorways that flanked the far fireplace, all sweating in dark stout Two Rivers woolens. Daise Congar, as tall as most men and wider, overtopped the other Wisdoms and thrust herself forward to take the lead here on the outskirts of her own village. Edelle Gaelin, from Watch Hill, gray-braided and slender, made it plain with her straight back and stiff face that she thought she should have Daise’s place, by virtue of age and her long time in office if no other reason. Elwinn Taron, the Wisdom of Deven Ride, was the shortest, a round woman with a pleasant motherly smile that she wore even when she was making people do what they did not want to. The last, Milla al’Azar, from Taren Ferry, trailed behind; the youngest, almost young enough to be Edelle’s daughter, she always appeared uncertain around the others.

Faile remained standing, fanning herself slowly. She truly wished Perrin there, now. Very much. These women had as much authority in their villages as the mayor—sometimes, in some ways, more—and they had to be handled carefully, with due dignity and respect. That made matters difficult. They turned into simpering girls around Perrin, eager to please, but with her... The Two Rivers had had no nobles in centuries; they had not seen so much as a representative of the Queen in Caemlyn for seven generations. Everyone was still working out how to behave toward a lord and a lady, including these four. Sometimes they forgot she was the Lady Faile and saw only a young woman whose marriage Daise had presided over just a few months ago. They could be all curtsies and “yes, of course, my Lady,” and right in the middle of it tell her exactly what to do about something without seeing anything at all incongruous. You are not going to leave this to me anymore, Perrin.

They curtsied now, with varying degrees of skill, and said, “The Light shine on you, my Lady,” on top of one another.

Amenities out of the way, Daise started in before she was completely upright again. “Three more boys have run off, my Lady.” Her tone fell halfway between the respect of the words and the now-you-listen-to-me-young-woman she sometimes used. “Dav Ayellin, Ewin Finngar, and Elam Dowtry. Run off to see the world because of Lord Perrin’s stories about what’s out there.”

Faile blinked in surprise. Those three were hardly boys. Dav and Elam were as old as Perrin, and Ewin not really that much younger than she herself. And Perrin’s stories, which he told seldom and reluctantly, were hardly the only way Two Rivers youths learned about the outside world now. “I could ask Perrin to speak to you, if you wish.”

They stirred, Daise looking for him expectantly, Edelle and Milla automatically smoothing their skirts, Elwinn just as unconsciously drawing her braid over her shoulder and arranging it carefully. Abruptly they realized what they were doing and froze, not looking at one another. Or at her. The one advantage Faile had with them was that they knew the effect her husband had on them. So many times she had seen one or another firm herself up after meeting with Perrin, plainly vowing not to let it happen again; so many times she had seen resolution fly out the window at a sight of him. None was really sure whether she preferred to deal with him or with her.

“That will not be necessary,” Edelle said after a moment. “Boys running off are a bother, but only a bother.” Her tone had slid a little further from “my Lady” than Daise’s, and plump Elwinn added a smile suitable for mother to young daughter.

“As long as we’re here, my dear, we really might as well mention something else. Water. You see, some of the people are worried.”

“It hasn’t rained in months,” Edelle added, and Daise nodded.

This time Faile did blink. They were too intelligent to think Perrin could do anything about that. “The springs are all still flowing, and Perrin has ordered more wells dug.” Actually he had only suggested it, but it had come to the same thing, fortunately. “And long before planting time, the irrigation canals from the Waterwood will be done.” That was her doing; half the fields in Saldaea were irrigated, but no one here had ever heard of the practice. “Anyway, the rains have to come sooner or later. The canals are only in case.” Daise nodded again, slowly, and Elwinn and Edelle. But they knew all this as well as she.

“It isn’t the rain,” Milla muttered. “Not exactly, anyway. It isn’t natural. You see, none of us can Listen to the Wind.” She hunched her shoulders under the others’ sudden frowns. Plainly she was saying too much, and giving away secrets besides. Supposedly all the Wisdoms could predict the weather by Listening to the Wind; at least, they said that they all could. But even so Milla plowed on doggedly. “Well, we can’t! We look at clouds instead, and how the birds behave, and the ants and caterpillars and...” Drawing a deep breath, she straightened, but still avoided the other Wisdoms’ eyes. Faile wondered how she managed to deal with the Women’s Circle in Taren Ferry, much less the Village Council. Of course, they were as new at it as Milla; that village had lost its whole population when the Trollocs came, and everyone there now was new. “It isn’t natural, my Lady. The first snows should have been here weeks ago, but it might as well be the middle of summer. We’re not worried, my Lady, we’re frightened! If nobody else will admit it, I will. I lie awake most nights. I haven’t slept properly in a month, and...” She trailed off, color blooming in her face as she realized she might have gone too far. A Wisdom was supposed to be in control in all times; she did not run around saying she was frightened.

The others shifted their gazes from Milla to Faile. They said nothing, faces expressionless enough for Aes Sedai.

Faile understood, now. Milla had spoken simple truth. The weather was not natural; it was most unnatural. Faile often lay awake herself, praying for rain, or better still snow, trying not to think of what lurked behind the heat and drought. Yet a Wisdom was supposed to reassure others. Who could she go to when she needed reassurance herself?

These women might not have known what they were doing, but they had come to the right place. Part of the compact between noble and commoner, ingrained in Faile from her birth, was that nobles provided safety and security. And a part of giving security was to remind people that evil times were not forever. If today was bad, then tomorrow would be better, and if not tomorrow, then the day after. She wished she could be certain of that herself, but she had been taught to give those under her strength even when she had none herself, to soothe their fears, not infect them with her own.

“Perrin told me about his people before I ever came here,” she said. He was not a man to brag, but things had a way of coming out. “When hail flattens your crops, when the winter kills half your sheep, you buckle down and keep going. When Trollocs devastated the Two Rivers, you fought back, and when you were done with them, you set about rebuilding without missing a step.” She would not have believed that without seeing for herself, not of southerners. These people would have done very well in Saldaea, where Trolloc raids were a matter of course, in the northern parts at least. “I cannot tell you the weather will be what it should tomorrow. I can tell you that Perrin and I will do what needs to be done, whatever can be done. And I don’t need to tell you that you will take what each day brings, whatever it is, and be ready to face the next. That is the kind of people the Two Rivers breeds. That is who you are.”

They truly were intelligent. If they had not admitted to themselves why they had come, they had to now. Had they been less intelligent, they might have taken umbrage. But even words they had said themselves before had the desired effect coming from someone else. Of course, that carried its own embarrassment. It was a proper muddle, and they were a study in crimson cheeks and unspoken wishes to be somewhere else.

“Well, of course,” Daise said. Planting stout fists on ample hips, she stared at the other Wisdoms, daring them to gainsay her. “I’ve said as much, haven’t I? The girl talks sense. I said as much when she first came here. That girl has a head on her, I said.”

Edelle sniffed. “Did anyone say she didn’t, Daise? I didn’t hear it. She does very well.” To Faile she added, “You do very well, indeed.”

Milla bobbed a curtsy. “Thank you, Lady Faile. I know I’ve said the same to fifty people, but coming from you, somehow it—” A loud harrumph from Daise cut her short; that was going too far. Milla grew redder in the face.

“This is very nice work, my Lady.” Elwinn leaned forward to finger the narrow, divided riding skirt that Faile favored. “There’s a Taraboner seamstress down in Deven Ride who could do even better for you, though. If you don’t mind my saying. I had a word with her, and she only makes decent dresses now, except for married women.” That motherly smile came onto her face again, indulgent and iron at the same time. “Or if they’re courting. Beautiful things, she makes. Why, she’d count it a pleasure to work with your coloring and figure.”

Daise began smiling complacently before the other woman was done. “Therille Marza, right here in Emond’s Field, is already making Lady Faile half a dozen dresses. And the most beautiful gown.” Elwinn drew herself up, and Edelle pursed her lips, and even Milla looked thoughtful.

As far as Faile was concerned, the audience was over. The Domani seamstress required a firm hand and constant vigilance to keep her from dressing Faile for the court in Bandar Eban. The gown had been Daise’s idea, sprung as a surprise, and even if it was in the Saldaean style rather than Domani, Faile did not know where she was to wear it. It would be a long time before the Two Rivers ran to balls or promenades. Left to themselves, the Wisdoms would soon be competing to see which village would dress her.

She offered them tea, with a casual comment that they could discuss how to hearten the people about the weather. That hit too close to home after the last few minutes, and they nearly tripped over themselves regretting duties that would not allow them to stay.

Thoughtfully, she watched them go, Milla drawing up the rear as usual, a child tagging after older sisters. It might be possible to have a few quiet words with some of the Women’s Circle in Taren Ferry. Each village needed a strong mayor and a strong Wisdom to stand up for their interests. Quiet, careful words. When Perrin had discovered she had been talking to the men in Taren Ferry before the election for mayor—if a man had good wits and was strong for her and Perrin, why should the men who were going to vote not know that she and Perrin returned that support?—when he found out... He was a gentle man, slow to anger, but just to be safe she had barricaded herself in their bedroom until he cooled down. Which had not happened until she promised not to “interfere” again in any mayoral election, in the open or behind his back. That last had been most unfair of him. It was most inconvenient, too. But it had not occurred to him to mention Women’s Circle voting. Well, what he did not know would do him a great deal of good. And Taren Ferry, too.

Thinking of him made her remember her promise to herself. The feathered fan picked up speed. Today had not been the worst for nonsense, and not even the worst with the Wisdoms—there had been no questions about when Lord Perrin could expect an heir, the Light be blessed!—but maybe the unrelenting heat had finally screwed her irritation to the sticking place. Perrin would do his duty, or...

Thunder rolled over the manor, and lightning lit the windows. Hope swelled inside her. If rain had come...

She ran silently on slippered feet, searching out Perrin. She wanted to share the rain with him. And she still intended a few firm words. More than a few, if necessary.

Perrin was where she expected, all the way up on the third floor, on the roofed porch at the front, a curly-haired man in a plain brown coat, with heavy shoulders and arms. Broad back to her, he was leaning against one of the porch columns. Staring down at the ground to one side of the manor, not up at the sky. Faile stopped in the doorway.

Thunder boomed again, and lightning sheeted blue across the sky. Heat lightning, in a cloudless sky. Not a herald of rain. No rain to break heat. No snow to follow. Sweat beaded on her face, but she shivered.

“The audience is over?” Perrin said, and she jumped. He had not raised his head. It was difficult sometimes to remember how sensitive his hearing was. Or he could have smelled her; she hoped it was the perfume, not the sweat.

“I half thought I’d find you with Gwil or Hal.” That was one of his worst faults; she tried to train servants, and to him they were men to laugh with and have a mug of ale. At least he did not have a roving eye, as so many men did. He never realized Calle Coplin had taken service in the manor because she hoped to do more for Lord Perrin than make his bed. He had not even noticed when Faile chased Calle out with a stick of kindling.

Moving up beside him, she saw what he was watching. Two men, stripped to the waist, working with wooden practice swords below. Tam al’Thor was a solid, graying man, Aram slender and young. Aram was learning fast. Very fast. Tam had been a soldier, and a blademaster, but Aram was pressing him hard.

Automatically her eyes went to the tents clustered in a stone-fenced field half a mile toward the Westwood. The rest of the Tinkers were camped amid half-finished wagons like small houses on wheels. Of course, they no longer acknowledged Aram as one of them, not since he had picked up that sword. The Tuatha’an never did violence, not for any reason. She wondered whether they would go as they planned, when the wagons the Trollocs had burned were replaced. After gathering in all those who had hidden in the thickets, they yet numbered little more than a hundred. Probably they would, leaving Aram behind of his own choice. No Tuatha’an had ever settled in one place that she had ever heard.

But then, people in the Two Rivers used to say nothing there ever changed, yet a great deal had since the Trollocs. Emond’s Field, just a hundred paces south of the manor, was larger than she had first seen, all the burned houses rebuilt and new going up. Some in brick, another new thing. And some with tile roofs. At the rate new dwellings were being erected, the manor would be in the village soon. There was talk of a wall, in case the Trollocs returned. Change. A handful of children were following Loial’s great height along one of the village streets. Only a few months since the sight of the Ogier, with his tufted ears and broad nose almost as wide as his face, half again as tall as a man, had drawn every child in the village in gaping wonder, and their mothers in a terror to protect them. Now mothers sent their children for Loial to read to them. The outlanders in their strangely cut coats and dresses, dotted among Emond’s Fielders, stood out almost as much as Loial, but no one looked at them twice, or at the village’s three Aiel, strange, tall folk in browns and grays. Until a few weeks ago there had been two Aes Sedai here, as well, and even they had gotten no more than respectful bows and curtsies. Change. The two flagpoles not far from the Winespring, on the Green, were visible over the rooftops, one bearing the red-bordered red wolf’s head that had become Perrin’s sigil, the other the crimson eagle in flight that marked Manetheren. Manetheren had vanished in the Trolloc Wars, some two thousand years ago, but this land had been part of it, and the Two Rivers flew that flag almost by acclamation. Change, and they had no notion how large it was, how inexorable it was. But Perrin would see them through it to whatever came beyond. With her help, he would.

“I used to hunt rabbits with Gwil,” Perrin said. “He’s only a few years older than me, and he used to take me hunting sometimes.”

It took her a moment to remember what he was talking about. “Gwil is trying to learn how to be a footman. You don’t help him when you invite him to go smoke his pipe with you in the stables and talk horses.” She took a deep slow breath. This would not be easy. “You have a duty to these people, Perrin. However hard it is, however much you want not to, you have to do your duty.”

“I know,” he said softly. “I can feel him tugging at me.”

His voice was so strange that she reached up to grip his short beard and make him look down at her. His golden eyes, still as strange and mysterious to her as ever, looked sad. “What do you mean? You might think fondly of Gwil, but he—”

“It’s Rand, Faile. He needs me.”

The knot inside her that she had been trying to deny clenched even tighter. She had convinced herself this danger had gone with the Aes Sedai. Foolish, that. She was married ta a ta’veren, a man fated to bend lives around him into the shape the Pattern required, and he had grown up with two more ta’veren, one the Dragon Reborn himself. It was a part of him she had to share. She did not like sharing even a hair, but there it was. “What are you going to do?”

“Go to him.” His gaze shifted for a moment, and her eyes followed. Against the wall leaned a blacksmith’s heavy hammer and an axe with a wicked halfmoon blade and a haft a pace long. “I couldn’t...” His voice was almost a whisper. “I couldn’t find how to tell you. I’ll go tonight, when everyone’s asleep. I don’t think there’s much time, and it could be a long way. Master al’Thor and Master Cauthon will help you with the mayors, if you need it. I spoke to them.” He tried to make his voice lighter, a pitiful effort. “You shouldn’t have any trouble with the Wisdoms anyway. Funny; when I was a boy the Wisdoms always seemed so fearsome, but they’re really easy as long as you’re firm.”

Faile compressed her lips. So he had spoken to Tam al’Thor and Abell Cauthon, had he, but not to her? And the Wisdoms! She would like to make him wear her skin for a day and see how easy the Wisdoms were. “We can’t leave as quickly as that. It will take time to organize a proper entourage.”

Perrin’s eyes narrowed. “We? You’re not going! It will be—!” He coughed, went on in a milder tone. “It will be best if one of us stays here. If the lord goes off, the lady should remain to take care of things. That makes sense. More refugees every day. All those disputes to be settled. If you go, too, it’ll be worse than the Trollocs around here.”

How could he think she would not notice such a clumsy recovery? He had been going to say it would be dangerous. How could his wanting to keep her out of danger always make her feel so warm inside at the same time it made her so angry? “We will do what you think best,” she said mildly, and he blinked suspiciously, scratched his beard, then nodded.

Now it was only necessary to make him see what really was best. At least he had not said right out she could not go. Once he dug in his heels, she could as easily shift a grain barn with her hands as shift him, but with care it could be avoided. Usually.

Abruptly she threw her arms around him and buried her face against his broad chest. His strong hands smoothed her hair softly; he probably thought she was worried about him leaving. Well, she was, in a way. Just not about him leaving without her; he had not yet learned what it meant to have a Saldaean wife. They had been getting on so well away from Rand al’Thor. Why did the Dragon Reborn need Perrin now, so strongly that Perrin could feel it across however many hundred leagues lay between them? Why was time so short? Why? Perrin’s shirt clung to his sweaty chest, and the unnatural heat sent more sliding down her face, but Faile shivered.

One hand on his sword hilt, Gawyn Trakand bounced a small rock on his palm as he made another circuit of his men, checking their positions around the tree-topped hill. A dry hot wind carrying dust across the rolling brown grasslands fluttered the plain green cloak hanging down his back. Nothing to be seen but dead grass, scattered thickets and a dotting of mostly withered bushes. There was too much front to cover with the men he had if it came to a fight here. He had grouped them in clusters of five swordsmen afoot, with bowmen fifty paces back up the hill. Fifty more waited with lance and horse near the camp on the crest, to be committed where necessary. He hoped it would not be necessary today.

There had been fewer Younglings in the beginning, but their reputation brought recruits. The added numbers would be helpful; no recruit was allowed out of Tar Valon until he was up to standard. It was not that he expected fighting this day more than any other, but he had learned it came most often when unexpected. Only Aes Sedai would wait until the last minute to tell a man about a thing like what was to happen today.

“Is everything well?” he said, stopping beside a group of swordsmen. In spite of the heat, some wore their green cloaks so that Gawyn’s white charging boar showed, embroidered on the breast.

Jisao Hamora was the youngest, still with a boy’s grin, but he was also the only one of the five with the small silver tower on his collar, marking him a veteran of the fighting in the White Tower. He answered. “All is well, my Lord.”

The Younglings deserved their name. Gawyn himself, a few years past twenty, was among the oldest. It was a rule that they accepted none who had served in any army, or borne arms for any lord or lady, or even worked as a merchant’s guard. The first Younglings had gone to the Tower as boys and young men to be trained by the Warders, the finest swordsmen, the finest fighters, in the world, and they continued part of that tradition, at least, though Warders no longer trained them. Youth was no detriment. They had held a small ceremony only a week past for the first whiskers Benji Dalfor had ever shaved that were not fuzz, and he bore a scar across his cheek from the Tower fighting. The Aes Sedai had been too busy for Healing in the days right after Siuan Sanche was deposed as Amyrlin. She might still be Amyrlin if the Younglings had not faced many of their former teachers and bested them in the halls of the Tower.

“Is there any point to this, my Lord?” Hal Moir asked. He was two years older than Jisao, and like many who did not wear the silver tower, he regretted not having been there. He would learn. “There isn’t a glimmer of Aielmen.”

“You think not?” Without any hefting to give warning, Gawyn hurled the rock as hard as he could at the only bush close enough to hit, a scraggly thing. The rustle of dead leaves was the only sound, but the bush shook just a bit more than it should have, as though a man somehow hidden behind it had been struck in a tender place. Exclamations rose from the newer men; Jisao only eased his sword. “An Aiel, Hal, can hide in a fold in the ground you wouldn’t even stumble over.” Not that Gawyn knew any more of Aiel than he read in books, but he had read every book he could find in the White Tower’s library by any man who had actually fought them, every book by any soldier who seemed to know what he was talking about. A man had to ready himself for the future, and it seemed the world’s future was war. “But if the Light pleases, there won’t be any fighting today.”

“My Lord!” came a hail from up the hill as the lookout spotted what he just had: three women emerging from a small thicket a few hundred paces west, coming toward the hill. West; a surprise. But Aiel always liked surprise.

He had read about Aielwomen fighting alongside the men, but these women could never fight in those dark bulky skirts and white blouses. They carried shawls looped over their arms despite the heat. On the other hand, how had they reached that thicket unseen? “Keep your eyes open, and not on them,” he said, and then disobeyed himself by watching the three Wise Ones, the emissaries from the Shaido Aiel, with interest. They could be no other, out here.

They came on at a stately pace, not at all as if approaching a large party of armed men. Their hair was long, to the waist—he had read that Aiel kept it cut short—and held back by folded kerchiefs. They wore so many bracelets and long necklaces of gold and silver and ivory that the glitter should have given them away at a mile.

Straight-backed and proud-faced, the three women strode past the swordsmen with hardly a glance and started up the hill. Their leader was a golden-haired woman, her loose blouse unlaced to show considerable tanned cleavage. The other two were gray, with leathery faces; she had to be less than half their age.

“I wouldn’t mind asking that one to dance,” one of the Younglings said admiringly when the women had gone past. He was a good ten years younger than the golden-haired woman.

“I wouldn’t if I were you, Arwin,” Gawyn said dryly. “It might be misunderstood.” He had read that Aiel called battle “the dance.” “Besides, she’d have your liver for dinner.” He had caught a glimpse of her pale green eyes, and he had never seen harder.

He watched the Wise Ones until they had climbed the hill to where half a dozen Aes Sedai waited with their Warders. Those who had Warders; two were Red Ajah, and Reds did not. When the women disappeared into one of the tall white tents, and the five Warders had taken up guard around it, he went on with his circuit of the hill.

The Younglings were alert since word of the Aiel’s arrival had spread, which did not please him. They should have been this alert before. Even most who did not wear the silver tower had seen fighting around Tar Valon. Eamon Valda, the Whitecloak Lord Captain in command, had pulled nearly all his men out to the west more than a month ago, but the handful he left behind tried to keep together the brigands and bullyboys Valda had gathered. The Younglings had dispersed those, at least. Gawyn wished he could think they had driven Valda off, too—the Tower had certainly kept its own soldiers far from the skirmishing, for all that the Whitecloaks’ only reason for being there had been to see what harm they could do the Tower—but he suspected that Valda had his own reasons. Likely orders from Pedron Niall, and Gawyn would have given much to know what they were. Light, but he hated not knowing. It was like fumbling your way in the dark.

The truth was, he admitted, that he was irritated. Not only about the Aiel, about not being told of this meeting until this morning. He had not been told where they were going, either, until he was taken aside by Coiren Sedai, the Gray sister who led the Aes Sedai. Elaida had been closemouthed and imperious when she was his mother’s advisor in Caemlyn; since being raised to the Amyrlin Seat she made the old Elaida seem open and warm. No doubt she had pressured him to form this escort as much to get him away from Tar Valon as for any other reason.

The Younglings had sided with her in the fighting—the old Amyrlin was stripped of Staff and Stole by the Hall, the attempt to free her rebellion against the law, clear and simple—but Gawyn had had his doubts about all Aes Sedai long before he heard the charges against Siuan Sanche read. That they pulled strings and made thrones dance was a thing said so often that he had hardly paid it any mind, but then he saw the strings being pulled. The effects at least, and his sister Elayne was the one who danced, danced right out of his sight, out of existence for all he knew. Her, and another. He had fought to keep Siuan imprisoned, then turned around and let her escape. If Elaida ever discovered that, his mother’s crown would not keep him alive.

Even with that, Gawyn had chosen to stay, because his mother had always supported the Tower, because his sister wanted to be Aes Sedai. And because another woman wanted to. Egwene al’Vere. He had no right to even think of her, but abandoning the Tower would be abandoning her. For such flimsy reasons did a man choose his fate. Knowing they were flimsy did not change them, though.

He glared at the sere, windswept grasslands as he strode from one position to the next. So here he was, hoping the Aiel did not decide to attack despite—or because of—whatever it was the Shaido Wise Ones were talking over with Coiren and the others. He suspected there might be enough out there to overrun him even with Aes Sedai help. He was on his way to Cairhien, and he did not know how he felt about that. Coiren had made him swear to hold his mission secret, and even then seemed afraid of what she was saying. Well she might be. It was always best to examine carefully what an Aes Sedai said—they could not lie, but they could spin truth like a top—yet even so, he found no hidden meanings. The six Aes Sedai were going to ask the Dragon Reborn to accompany them to the Tower, with the Younglings, commanded by the son of the Queen of Andor, for an escort of honor. There could be only one reason, one that plainly shocked Coiren enough that she only hinted at it. It shocked Gawyn. Elaida intended to announce to the world that the White Tower supported the Dragon Reborn.

It was almost unbelievable. Elaida had been a Red before she became Amyrlin. Reds hated the very idea of men channeling; they did not think much of men in general, for that matter. Yet the fall of the once-invincible Stone of Tear, fulfilling prophecy, said Rand al’Thor was the Dragon Reborn, and even Elaida said the Last Battle was coming. Gawyn could hardly reconcile the frightened farmboy who had literally fallen into the Royal Palace in Caemlyn with the man in the rumors that drifted up the River Erinin to Tar Valon. It was said he had hanged Tairen High Lords and let Aiel loot the Stone. He had certainly brought the Aiel across the Spine of the World, for only the second time since the Breaking, to ravage Cairhien. Perhaps it was the madness. Gawyn had rather liked Rand al’Thor; he regretted that the man had turned out to be what he was.

By the time he came back to Jisao’s group, someone else was in sight coming from the west, a peddler in a floppy hat, leading a slab-sided pack mule. Straight toward the hill; he had seen them.

Jisao shifted, then went still again when Gawyn touched his arm. Gawyn knew what the younger man was thinking, but if the Aiel decided to kill this fellow, there was nothing they could do. Coiren would be less than pleased if he started a battle with the people she was talking to.

The peddler shambled along unconcernedly, right by the bush Gawyn had disturbed with his rock. The mule started cropping desultorily at the brown grass as the man pulled off his hat, sketched a bow that took them all in and began mopping his grizzled face with a grimy neckerchief. “The Light shine on you, my Lords. You’re well set up for traveling in these parlous times, as any man can see, but if there’s any small thing you need, like as not old Mil Tesen’s got it in his packs. Ain’t no better prices in ten miles, my Lords.”

Gawyn doubted there was as much as a farm within ten miles. “Parlous times indeed, Master Tesen. Aren’t you afraid of Aiel?”

“Aiel, my Lord? They’s all down to Cairhien. Old Mil can smell Aiel, he can. Truth, he wishes there was some here. Fine trading with Aiel. They got lots of gold. From Cairhien. And they don’t bother peddlers. Everybody knows that.”

Gawyn forbore asking why, if the Aiel in Cairhien made such good trading, the man was not heading south. “What news of the world, Master Tesen? We’re from the north, and you may know what hasn’t caught up to us yet from the south.”

“Oh, big doings southward, my Lord. You’ll have heard of Cairhien? Him that calls himself Dragon and all?” Gawyn nodded, and he went on. “Well, now he’s taken Andor. Most of it, anyway. Their queen’s dead. Some say he’ll take the whole world before—” The man cut off with a strangled yelp before Gawyn realized he had seized the fellow’s lapels.

“Queen Morgase is dead? Speak, man! Quickly!”

Tesen rolled his eyes looking for help, but he spoke, and quickly. “That’s what they say, my Lord. Old Mil don’t know, but he thinks it so. Everybody says it, my Lord. Everybody says this Dragon did it. My Lord? Old Mil’s neck, my Lord! My Lord!”

Gawyn jerked his hands away as though burned. He felt on fire inside. It had been another neck he wanted in his hands. “The Daughter-Heir.” His voice sounded far off. “Is there any word of the Daughter-Heir, Elayne?”

Tesen backed away a long pace as soon as he was free. “Not as old Mil knows, my Lord. Some says she’s dead, too. Some says he killed her, but old Mil don’t know for sure.”

Gawyn nodded slowly. Thought seemed to be drifting up from the bottom of a well. My blood shed before hers; my life given before hers. “Thank you, Master Tesen. I...” My blood shed before hers ... That was the oath he had taken when barely tall enough to peer into Elayne’s cradle. “You may trade with... Some of my men may need ...” Gareth Bryne had had to explain to him what it meant, but even then he had known he had to keep that oath if he failed at everything else in his life. Jisao and the others were looking at him worriedly. “Take care of the peddler,” he told Jisao roughly, and turned away.

His mother dead, and Elayne. Only a rumor, but rumors on everyone’s lips sometimes had a way of turning out true. He climbed half a dozen paces toward the Aes Sedai camp before he knew it. His hands hurt. He had to look to realize they were cramping from the grip he had on his sword hilt, and he had to force them to let go. Coiren and the others meant to take Rand al’Thor to Tar Valon, but if his mother was dead... Elayne. If they were dead, he would see whether the Dragon Reborn could live with a sword through his heart!

Adjusting her red-fringed shawl, Katerine Alruddin rose from the cushions with the other women in the tent. She almost sniffed when Coiren, plump and pompous, intoned, “As it has been agreed, so shall it be.” This was a meeting with savages, not the conclusion of a treaty between the Tower and a ruler.

The Aielwomen showed no more reaction, no more expression, than when they first arrived. That was something of a surprise; kings and queens betrayed their innermost feelings when faced by two or three Aes Sedai, much less half a dozen; brutish savages surely should be trembling visibly by now. Perhaps that should have been almost no reaction. Their leader—her name was Sevanna, followed by some nonsense about “septs” and “Shaido Aiel” and “wise”—said, “It is agreed so long as I get to see his face.” She had a sulky mouth, and wore her blouse unlaced to attract men’s eyes; that the Aiel chose one like her to lead showed how crude they were. “I want to see him, and have him see me, when he is defeated. Only with that will your Tower be allied to the Shaido.”

The hint of eagerness in her voice made Katerine suppress a smile. Wise? This Sevanna truly was a fool. The White Tower did not have allies; there were those who served its ends willingly and those who served unwillingly, no others.

A slight thinning at the corners of Coiren’s mouth betrayed her irritation. The Gray was a good negotiator, but she did like to have things done just so, every foot placed exactly where it had been planned to go. “Without doubt, your service deserves what you ask.”

One of the gray-haired Aiel—Tarva, or some such—narrowed her eyes, but Sevanna nodded, hearing what Coiren had wanted her to hear.

Coiren set out to escort the Aielwomen as far as the foot of the hill, along with Erian, a Green, and Nesune, a Brown, and the five Warders they had between them. Katerine went as far as the edge of the trees to watch. On arrival the Aiel had been allowed to come up alone, like the supplicants they were, but now they were given all honor to make them believe they truly were friends and allies. Katerine wondered whether they were civilized enough to recognize the subtleties.

Gawyn was down there, sitting on a rock, staring off across the grasslands. What would that young man think if he learned he and his children were only here to get them away from Tar Valon? Neither Elaida nor the Hall liked having a pack of young wolves about who refused to accept the leash. Perhaps the Shaido could be prevailed upon to eliminate the problem. Elaida had intimated as much. That way his death would not rebound against the Tower with his mother.

“If you stare so at the young man much longer, Katerine, I will begin to think you should be a Green.”

Katerine stamped out a quick spark of anger and inclined her head respectfully. “I was only speculating on his thoughts, Galina Sedai.”

That was as much respect as was proper in so public a place, and perhaps even a touch more. Galina Casban looked forty at most but was at least twice Katerine’s true age, and for eighteen years the round-faced woman had been the head of the Red Ajah. A fact not known outside the Ajah, of course; such things were for the Ajah alone. She was not even one of the Sitters for the Red in the Hall of the Tower; Katerine suspected that the heads of most other Ajahs were. Elaida would have named her leader of this expedition instead of that self-important Coiren, except that Galina herself had pointed out that a Red might make Rand al’Thor suspicious. The Amyrlin Seat was supposed to be of all Ajahs and none, renouncing her old loyalty, but if Elaida deferred to anyone—which was debatable, true—she deferred to Galina.

“Will he come willingly, as Coiren thinks?” Katerine asked.

“Perhaps,” Galina said dryly. “The honor this delegation does him should be enough to make a king carry his throne to Tar Valon on his back.”

Katerine did not bother to nod. “The woman Sevanna will kill him, given a chance.”

“Then she must not be given a chance.” Galina’s voice was cold, her plump mouth tight. “The Amyrlin Seat will not be pleased to have her plans disrupted. And you and I will have days to scream in the dark before we die.”

Drawing her shawl up over her shoulders reflexively, Katerine shuddered. There was dust in the air; she would get out her light cloak. It would not be Elaida’s rage that killed them, though her fury could be terrible. For seventeen years Katerine had been Aes Sedai, but not until the morning before they departed Tar Valon had she learned that she shared more than the Red Ajah with Galina. Twelve years she had been a member of the Black Ajah, never knowing that Galina had too, for far longer. Of necessity Black sisters kept themselves hidden, even from each other. Their rare gatherings were held with faces covered and voices disguised. Before Galina, Katerine had known only three to recognize. Orders were left on her pillow, or in a pocket of her cloak, the ink ready to vanish if any hand but hers touched the paper. She had a secret place to leave messages, and dire orders not to try to see who came to take them. She had never disobeyed. There might be Black sisters among those following a day behind, but she had no way of knowing.

“Why?” she asked. Orders to preserve the Dragon Reborn made no sense, even if they delivered him into Elaida’s hands.

“Questions are dangerous for one sworn to obey without.”

Katerine shuddered again, and barely stopped herself from curtsying. “Yes, Galina Sedai.” But she could not help wondering. Why?

“They show neither respect nor honor,” Therava growled. “They allow us to enter their camp as though we were toothless dogs, then take us out under guard like suspected thieves.”

Sevanna did not look around. She would not until safely back among the trees. The Aes Sedai would be watching for signs of nervousness. “They agreed, Therava,” she said. “That is enough for now.” For now. One day, these lands would be the Shaido’s for the looting. Including the White Tower.

“This is all badly thought out,” the third woman said in a tight voice. “Wise Ones avoid Aes Sedai; it has always been so. Perhaps it was well enough for you, Sevanna—as Couladin’s widow, and Suladric’s, you speak as clan chief until we send another man to Rhuidean—but the rest of us should be no part of it.”

Sevanna barely forced herself to keep walking. Desaine had spoken against her being chosen as a Wise One, speaking loudly about her having served no apprenticeship and paid no visit to Rhuidean, claiming that her place standing for the clan chief disqualified her. Besides, as the widow of not just one, but two dead chiefs, perhaps she carried bad luck. Fortunately, enough of the Shaido Wise Ones had listened to Sevanna, not Desaine. It was unfortunate that Desaine had too many listeners to be safely done away with. Wise Ones were supposed to be inviolate—they even came and went freely among the Shaido from those betrayers and fools down in Cairhien—but Sevanna meant to find a way.

As though Desaine’s doubts had infected Therava, she began muttering, only half to herself. “What is ill done is going against Aes Sedai. We served them before the Breaking, and failed them: that is why we were sent to the Three-fold Land. If we fail them again, we will be destroyed.”

That was what everyone believed; it was part of the old tales, almost part of custom. Sevanna was not so sure. These Aes Sedai looked weak and foolish to her, traveling with a few hundred men for escort through lands where the true Aiel, the Shaido, could smother them with thousands. “A new day has come,” she said sharply, repeating part of one of her speeches to the Wise Ones. “We are no longer bound to the Three-fold Land. Any eye can see that what was, has changed. We must change, or be ended as if we never were.” She had never told them how much change she intended, of course. The Shaido Wise Ones would never send a man to Rhuidean, if she had her way.

“New day or old day,” Desaine grumbled, “what are we to do with Rand al’Thor if we do manage to take him from the Aes Sedai? Better, and easier, to slip a knife between his ribs while they are escorting him north.”

Sevanna did not answer. She did not know what to answer. Not yet. All she knew was that once she had the so-called Car’a’carn, the chief of chiefs of all the Aiel, chained before her tent like a vicious dog, then this land would truly belong to the Shaido. And to her. She had known that even before the strange wetlander man somehow found her in the mountains these people called Kinslayer’s Dagger. He had given her a small cube of some hard stone, intricately carved in strange patterns, and told her what to do with it, with the aid of a Wise One who could channel, once al’Thor was in her hands. She carried it in her belt pouch at all times; she had not decided what to do about it, but so far she had told no one about man or cube. Head high, she walked on beneath that blistering sun in an autumn sky.

The palace garden might have had a semblance of coolness had there been any trees, but the tallest things were fanciful topiary, tortured into the shapes of running horses or bears performing tumblers’ tricks or the like. Shirtsleeved gardeners scurried about with buckets of water beneath the scalding afternoon sun, trying to save their creations. They had given up on the flowers, clearing all the patterned beds and laying them with sod that was dying too.

“A pity the heat is so bad,” Ailron said. Sweeping a lace handkerchief from the lace-fringed sleeve of his yellow silk coat, he dabbed delicately at his face, then tossed it aside. A servant in gold-and-red livery quickly snatched it from the graveled walk and faded into the background again: another liveried man laid a fresh replacement in the King’s hand to be tucked up his sleeve. Ailron did not acknowledge it, of course, or even appear to notice. “These fellows usually manage to keep everything alive till spring, but I may lose a few this winter. Since it doesn’t seem as if we’ll have any winter. They take cold better than drought. Don’t you think they’re very fine, my dear?”

Ailron, Anointed by the Light, King and Defender of Amadicia, Guardian of the Southern Gate, was not as handsome as rumor made him, but then, Morgase had suspected when she first met him, years ago, that he might be the source of those rumors himself. His dark hair was full and wavy—and quite definitely receding in front. His nose was a bit too long, his ears a touch too big. His whole face vaguely suggested softness. One day she would have to ask. The Southern Gate to what?

Working her carved ivory fan, she eyed one of the gardeners’ ... constructs. It seemed to be three huge nude women wrestling desperately with gigantic serpents. “They are quite remarkable,” she said. One said what one must when coming as a beggar.

“Yes. Yes, aren’t they? Ah, it looks as if affairs of state call me. Pressing matters, I fear.” A dozen men, coated as colorfully as the flowers that were no longer there, had appeared on the short marble stair at the far end of the walk and were waiting in front of a dozen fluted columns that supported nothing. “Until this evening, my dear. We will speak further of your dreadful problems, and what I can do.”

He bowed over her hand, stopping just short of kissing it, and she curtsied slightly, murmuring appropriate inanities, and then he swept away, followed by all but one of the coterie of servants that had been trailing them everywhere.

With him gone, Morgase worked the fan harder than she could in his presence—the man pretended the heat barely touched him, with sweat streaming down his face—and turned back toward her apartments. Hers by sufferance, just as the pale blue gown she wore was a gift. She had insisted on the high neck despite the weather; she had definite ideas about low necklines.

The lone serving man followed behind her, at a short distance. And Tallanvor, of course, on her heels and still insisting on wearing the rough green coat he had traveled here in, sword on his hip as though he expected an attack in the Seranda Palace, not two miles from Amador. She tried to ignore the tall young man, but as usual, he would not be ignored.

“We should have gone to Ghealdan, Morgase. To Jehannah.”

She had let some things go on far too long. Her skirts swished as she whirled to confront him, and her eyes blazed. “On our journey, certain discretions were necessary, but those around us now know who I am. You will remember that too, and show proper respect for your Queen. On your knees!”

To her shock, he did not move. “Are you my Queen, Morgase?” At least he lowered his voice so the servant could not overhear and spread it about, but his eyes... She very nearly backed away from the stark desire there. And the anger. “I will not abandon you this side of death, Morgase, but you abandoned much when you abandoned Andor to Gaebril. When you find it again, I will kneel at your feet, and you can strike off my head if you choose, but until then... We should have gone to Ghealdan.”

The young fool would have been willing to die fighting the usurper even after she discovered that no House in Andor would support her, and day by day, week by week since she had decided her only choice was to seek foreign aid, he had grown more insolent and insubordinate. She could ask Ailron for Tallanvor’s head, and receive it with no questions asked. But just because they were unasked did not mean they would be unthought. She truly was a beggar here, and could not afford to ask one favor more than absolutely necessary. Besides, without Tallanvor, she would not be here. She would be a prisoner—worse than a prisoner—to Lord Gaebril. Those were the only reasons Tallanvor would keep his head.

Her army guarded the ornately carved doors to her apartments. Basel Gill was a pink-cheeked man with graying hair combed vainly back over a bald spot. His leather jerkin, sewn with steel discs, strained around his girth, and he wore a sword he had not touched in twenty years before belting it on to follow her. Lamgwin was bulky and hard, though heavy-lidded eyes made him look half-asleep. He wore a sword too, but the scars on his face and a nose broken more than once made it plain he was used to employing fists, or a cudgel. An innkeeper and a street tough; aside from Tallanvor, that was the army she had so far to take back Andor and her throne from Gaebril.

The pair were all awkward bows, but she glided past and slammed the door in Tallanvor’s face. “The world,” she announced in a growl, “would be a far better place without men.”

“An emptier place, certainly,” Morgase’s old nurse said from her chair beside a velvet-draped anteroom window. With her head bent over her embroidery hoop, Lini’s gray bun waggled in the air. A reed-thin woman, she was not nearly so frail as she looked. “I assume Ailron was no more forthcoming today? Or is it Tallanvor, child? You must learn not to let men put you in a fret. Fretting makes your face blotchy.” Lini still would not admit that she was out of the nursery, despite having been nurse to Morgase’s daughter in turn.

“Ailron was charming,” Morgase said carefully. The third woman in the room, on her knees taking folded bedsheets from a chest, sniffed loudly, and Morgase avoided glaring at her with an effort. Breane was Lamgwin’s ... companion. The short suntanned woman followed where he went, but she was Cairhienin, and Morgase was no queen of hers, as she made clear. “Another day or two,” Morgase continued, “and I think I will get a pledge from him. Today, he finally agreed I need soldiers from outside to retake Caemlyn. Once Gaebril is driven from Caemlyn, the nobles will flock to me once more.” She hoped they would; she was in Amadicia because she had let Gaebril blind her, had mistreated even her oldest friends among the Houses at his behest.

“ ‘A slow horse does not always reach the end of the journey,’ ” Lini quoted, still intent on her embroidery. She was very fond of old sayings, some of which Morgase suspected her of making up on the spot.

“This one will,” Morgase insisted. Tallanvor was wrong about Ghealdan; according to Ailron, that country was in near anarchy because of this Prophet all the servants whispered about, the fellow preaching the Rebirth of the Dragon. “I would like some punch, Breane.” The woman only looked at her until she added, “If you please.” Even then she set about the pouring with a wooden sulkiness.

The mixture of wine and fruit juices was iced, and refreshing in the heat; the silver goblet felt good against Morgase’s forehead. Ailron had snow and ice brought down from the Mountains of Mist, though it took nearly a steady stream of wagons to provide enough for the palace.

Lini took a goblet, too. “Concerning Tallanvor,” she began after a sip.

“Leave over, Lini!” Morgase snapped.

“So he is younger than you,” Breane said. She had poured for herself, as well. The effrontery of the woman! She was supposed to be a servant, whatever she had been in Cairhien. “If you want him, take him. Lamgwin says he is sworn to you, and I have seen him look at you.” She laughed huskily. “He will not refuse.” Cairhienin were disgusting, but at least most of them kept their dissolute ways decently hidden.

Morgase was about to order her from the room when a knock came at the door. Without waiting permission, a white-haired man who looked all sinew and bone entered. His snowy cloak was emblazoned with a flaring golden sun on the breast. She had hoped to avoid Whitecloaks until she had Ailron’s seal on a firm agreement. The chill of the wine abruptly passed straight into her bones. Where were Tallanvor and the others, that he had walked right in?

Dark eyes going straight to her, he made the most minimal of bows. His face was aged, the skin drawn tight, but this man was as feeble as a hammer. “Morgase of Andor?” he said in a firm deep voice. “I am Pedron Niall.” Not just any Whitecloak; the Lord Captain Commander of the Children of the Light himself. “Do not fear. I have not come to arrest you.”

Morgase held herself straight. “Arrest me? On what charge? I cannot channel.” No sooner were the words out of her mouth than she nearly clicked her tongue in exasperation. She should not have mentioned channeling; that she had put herself on the defensive was an indication of how flustered she was. It was true, what she had said, so far as it went. Fifty times trying to sense the True Source to find it once, and when found, twenty times attempting to open herself to saidar in order to catch a dribble once. A Brown sister named Verin had told her that there was hardly any need for the Tower to hold her until she learned to handle her tiny ability safely. The Tower did anyway, of course. Still, even that much ability to channel was outlawed in Amadicia, the penalty death. The Great Serpent ring on her hand that so fascinated Ailron now seemed hot enough to glow.

“Tower trained,” Niall murmured. “That is forbidden, as well. But as I said, I come not to arrest, but to help. Send your women away, and we will talk.” He made himself at home, taking a tall padded armchair and flipping his cloak over the back. “I will have some of that punch before they go.” To Morgase’s displeasure, Breane brought him a goblet immediately, eyes down and face as expressionless as a board.

Morgase made an effort to take back control. “They stay, Master Niall.” She would not give this man the satisfaction of a title. The lack did not appear to faze him. “What has happened to my men outside? I will hold it against you if they’ve been harmed. And why do you think I need your help?”

“Your men are uninjured,” he said dismissively over his punch. “Do you think Ailron will give you what you need? You are a beautiful woman, Morgase, and Ailron prizes women with sun-gold hair. He will come a little closer each day to the agreement you seek, never quite reaching it, until you decide that perhaps, with ... a certain sacrifice, he will yield also. But he will come no nearer what you want, whatever you give. This so-called Prophet’s mobs ravage the north of Amadicia. To the west lies Tarabon, with a ten-sided civil war, brigands sworn to the so-called Dragon Reborn, and rumors of Aes Sedai and the false Dragon himself to frighten Ailron. Give you soldiers? Could he find ten men for every one he has under arms now, or even two, he would mortgage his soul. But I can send five thousand Children of the Light riding to Caemlyn with you at their head if you but ask.”

To say she was stunned would have been to minimize Morgase’s feeling. She made her way to a chair across from him with a proper stateliness, and sat down before her legs gave way. “Why would you want to help me oust Gaebril?” she demanded. Obviously he knew everything; no doubt he had spies among Ailron’s servants. “I’ve never given the Whitecloaks the free rein they want in Andor.”

This time he grimaced. Whitecloaks did not like that name. “Gaebril? Your lover is dead, Morgase. The false Dragon Rand al’Thor has added Caemlyn to his conquests.” Lini made a faint noise as if she had pricked herself, but he kept his eyes on Morgase.

For herself, Morgase had to grip the arm of her chair to keep from pressing a hand against her stomach. If her other hand had not been resting the goblet on the other chair arm, she would have slopped punch onto the carpet. Gaebril dead? He had gulled her, turned her into his doxy, usurped her authority, oppressed the land in her name, and finally named himself King of Andor, which had never had a king. How, after all that, could there possibly be this faint regret that she would never feel his hands again? It was madness; if she had not known it was impossible, she would have believed he had used the One Power on her in some way.

But al’Thor had Caemlyn now? That might change everything. She had met him once, a frightened country youth from the west trying his best to show proper respect for his queen. But a youth carrying the heron-mark sword of a blademaster. And Elaida had been wary of him. “Why do you call him a false Dragon, Niall?” If he intended to call her by name, he could do without even a commoner’s “master.” “The Stone of Tear has fallen, as the Prophecies of the Dragon said. The High Lords of Tear themselves have acclaimed him the Dragon Reborn.”

Niall’s smile was mocking. “Everywhere he has appeared, there have been Aes Sedai. They do his channeling for him, mark me. He is no more than a puppet of the Tower. I have friends in many places”—he meant spies—“and they tell me there’s evidence the Tower set up Logain, the last false Dragon, too. Perhaps he got above himself, so they had to finish him.”

“There is no proof of that.” She was pleased that her voice was steady. She had heard the rumors about Logain on the way to Amador. But they were only rumors.

The man shrugged. “Believe as you will, but I prefer truth to foolish fancies. Would the true Dragon Reborn do as he has done? The High Lords acclaimed him, you say? How many did he hang before the rest bowed down? He let Aiel loot the Stone, and all of Cairhien. He says Cairhien shall have a new ruler—one he will name—but the only real power in Cairhien is himself. He says there will be a new ruler in Caemlyn, too. You are dead; did you know that? There is mention of the Lady Dyelin, I believe. He has sat on the Lion Throne, used it for audiences, but I suppose it was too small, being made for women. He has put it up as a trophy of his conquest and replaced it with his own throne, in the Grand Hall of your Royal Palace. Of course, all has not gone well for him. Some Andoran Houses think he killed you; there’s sympathy for you, now you’re dead. He holds what he holds of Andor in an iron fist, though, with a horde of Aiel and an army of Borderland ruffians the Tower recruited for him. But if you think he will welcome you back to Caemlyn and give you back your throne...”

He let the words trail off, but the torrent had hit Morgase like hailstones. Dyelin was next in line for the throne only if Elayne died without issue. Oh, Light, Elayne! Was she still safe in the Tower? Strange to think she had such an antipathy for Aes Sedai, largely because they had lost Elayne for a time, that she had demanded Elayne’s return when no one demanded anything from the Tower, yet now she hoped they held her daughter tightly. She remembered one letter from Elayne, after she returned to Tar Valon. Had there been others? So much of what had happened while Gaebril held her in thrall was vague. Surely Elayne must be safe. She should be worried about Gawyn too, and Galad—the Light knew where they were—but Elayne was her heir. Peace in Andor depended on a smooth succession.

She had to think carefully. It all hung together, yet well-crafted lies did, and this man would be a master at that craft. She needed facts. That Andor believed her dead was no surprise; she had had to sneak from her own realm to avoid Gaebril and those who might turn her over to him or else avenge Gaebril’s wrongs on her. If sympathy came from it, she could make use of it when she rose from the dead. Facts. “I will need time to think,” she told him.

“Of course.” Niall rose smoothly; she would have risen too, so he did not tower over her, but she was not sure her legs would support her. “I will return in a day or two. In the meantime, I wish to be sure of your safety. Ailron is so wrapped in his own concerns, there is no telling who might slip in, perhaps intent on harm. I have taken the liberty of posting a few of the Children here. With Ailron’s consent.”

Morgase had always heard that the Whitecloaks were the true power in Amadicia, and she was certain she had just heard proof.

Niall was slightly more formal in his leaving than in coming, making a bow that might have done for an equal. One way and another, he was letting her know that she had no choice.

No sooner had he gone than Morgase pushed to her feet, but Breane was still quicker in darting for the doors. Even so, before either woman had gone three steps, one of them banged open, Tallanvor and the other two men spilling into the room.

“Morgase,” Tallanvor breathed, trying to absorb her with his eyes. “I was afraid—”

“Afraid?” she said contemptuously. It was too much; he would not learn. “Is this how you protect me? A boy could have done as much! But then, a boy did.”

That smoldering gaze remained on her a moment longer; then he turned and pushed his way past Basel and Lamgwin.

The innkeeper stood wringing his hands. “They were at least thirty, my Queen. Tallanvor would have fought; he tried to cry out, to warn you, but they clubbed him with a hilt. The old one said they didn’t mean to hurt you, but they didn’t need any but you, and if they had to kill us...” His eyes went to Lini and Breane, who was staring Lamgwin up and down to make sure he had taken no injury. The man appeared as concerned for her. “My Queen, if I’d thought we could do any good... I’m sorry. I failed you.”

“ ‘The right medicine always tastes bitter,’ ” Lini murmured softly. “Most of all for a child who throws a sulky tantrum.” At least for once she did not say it for the whole room to hear.

She was right. Morgase knew that. Except about the tantrum, of course. Basel looked miserable enough to welcome beheading. “You did not fail me, Master Gill. I may ask you to die for me one day, but only when there’s greater good to come of it. Niall only wanted to talk.” Basel perked up right away, but Morgase could feel Lini’s eyes on her. Very bitter. “Will you ask Tallanvor to come to me. I—I wish to apologize to him for my hasty words.”

“The best way to apologize to a man,” Breane said, “is to trip him in a secluded part of the garden.”

Something snapped in Morgase. Before she knew it she had hurled her goblet at the woman, spraying punch across the carpet. “Get out!” she shrieked. “All of you, get out! You can deliver my apologies to Tallanvor, Master Gill.”

Breane calmly brushed punch from her dress, then took her time walking to Lamgwin and linking her arm through his. Basel was all but bouncing on his toes trying to herd them out.

To Morgase’s surprise, Lini went, too. That was not Lini’s way; she was much more likely to remain and lecture her old charge as if she were still ten. Morgase did not know why she put up with it. Still, she almost told Lini to stay. But then they were all gone, the door was shut—and she had more important matters to worry about than whether Lini’s feelings were bruised.

Pacing across the carpet, she tried to think. Ailron would demand trade concessions—and maybe Niall’s “sacrifice”—for help. She was willing to give him the trade concessions, but she feared Niall might be right about how many soldiers Ailron would spare her. Niall’s demands would be easier to grant, in a way. Probably free access to Andor for as many Whitecloaks as he chose. And freedom for them to root out the Darkfriends they found in every attic, to rouse mobs against friendless women they accused of being Aes Sedai, to kill real Aes Sedai. Niall might even demand a law against channeling, against women going to the White Tower.

It would be possible—but difficult, and bloody—to oust the Whitecloaks once they entrenched themselves, but was it necessary to let them in at all? Rand al’Thor was the Dragon Reborn—she was certain of that no matter what Niall said; she was almost certain—yet ruling nations was no part of the Prophecies of the Dragon that she knew. Dragon Reborn or false Dragon, he could not have Andor. Yet how was she to know?

A timid scratch at the door brought her around. “Come,” she said sharply.

The door opened slowly to admit a grinning young man in gold-and-red livery, a tray in his hands bearing a fresh pitcher of iced punch, the silver already beading with cold. She had half-expected Tallanvor. Lamgwin stood guard alone in the corridor, as far as she could see. Or rather lounged against a wall like a tavern bouncer. She waved the young man to put his tray down.

Angrily—Tallanvor should have come; he should have come!—she resumed her pacing. Basel and Lamgwin might hear rumors in the nearest village, but they would be rumors, and maybe planted by Niall. The same held true for the palace servants.

“My Queen. May I speak, my Queen?”

Morgase turned in amazement. Those were the accents of Andor. The young man was on his knees, grin flashing from uncertain to cocky and back. He might have been good-looking except that his nose had been broken and not properly tended. On Lamgwin it looked rugged, if low; this lad looked as if he had tripped and fallen on his face.

“Who are you?” she demanded. “How did you come here?”

“I’m Paitr Conel, my Queen. From Market Sheran. In Andor?” he added, as if she might not realize that. Impatiently she motioned him to go on. “I came to Amador with my uncle Jen. He’s a merchant from Four Kings, and he thought he might find some Taraboner dyes. They’re dear, with all the troubles in Tarabon, but he thought they might be cheaper—” Her mouth tightened, and he went on in a rush. “We heard about you, my Queen, that you were here in the palace, and given the law in Amadicia, and you being trained in the White Tower and all, we thought we could help you...” He swallowed hard, and finished in a small voice. “Help you escape.”

“And are you prepared to help me ... escape?” Not the best plan, but she could always ride north to Ghealdan. How Tallanvor would gloat. No, he would not, and that would be worse.

But Paitr shook his head wretchedly. “Uncle Jen had a plan, but now there’s Whitecloaks all over the palace. I didn’t know what else to do but come on to you, the way he told me. He’ll think of something, my Queen. He’s smart.”

“I’m sure he is,” she murmured. So Ghealdan went glimmering again. “How long are you gone from Andor? A month? Two?” He nodded. “Then you don’t know what is happening in Caemlyn,” she sighed.

The young man licked his lips. “I... We’re staying with a man in Amador who has pigeons. A merchant. He gets messages from everywhere. Caemlyn, too. But it’s all bad news that I hear, my Queen. It may take a day or two, but my uncle will figure out another way. I just wanted to let you know help was nearby.”

Well, that was as might be. A race between Pedron Niall and this Paitr’s uncle Jen. She wished she were not so sure how to bet. “In the meantime, you can tell me just how bad matters are in Caemlyn.”

“My Queen, I was just supposed to let you know about the help. My uncle will be angry if I stay—”

“I am your Queen, Paitr,” Morgase said firmly, “and your uncle Jen’s, too. He will not mind if you answer my questions.” Paitr looked as though he might bolt, but she settled herself in a chair and began digging for the truth.

Pedron Niall was feeling quite good as he dismounted in the main courtyard of the Fortress of the Light and tossed his reins to a stableman. Morgase was well in hand, and he had not had to lie once. He did not like lying. It had all been his own interpretation of events, but he was sure of it. Rand al’Thor was a false Dragon and a tool of the Tower. The world was full of fools who could not think. The Last Battle would not be some titanic struggle between the Dark One and a Dragon Reborn, a mere man. The Creator had abandoned mankind to its own devices long ago. No, when Tarmon Gai’don came, it would be as in the Trolloc Wars two thousand years ago and more, when hordes of Trollocs and other Shadowspawn poured out of the Great Blight, tore through the Borderlands and nearly drowned humanity in a sea of blood. He did not mean to let mankind face that divided and unprepared.

A ripple of bows from white-cloaked Children followed him through the stone-walled corridors of the Fortress, all the way to his private audience chamber. In the anteroom, his pinch-faced secretary, Balwer, leaped to his feet with a fussy recitation of papers awaiting the Lord Captain’s signature, but Niall’s attention was on the tall man who rose easily from one of the chairs against the wall, a crimson shepherd’s crook behind the golden sun on his cloak and three golden knots of rank below.

Jaichim Carridin, Inquisitor of the Hand of the Light, looked as hard as he was, but with more gray at his temples than the last time Niall had seen him. His dark, deep-set eyes held a tinge of worry, and it was no wonder. The last two missions he had been given ended in disaster; not auspicious for a man who aspired to be High Inquisitor one day, and perhaps even Lord Captain Commander.

Tossing his cloak to Balwer, Niall motioned Carridin to follow into the audience chamber proper, where captured battle flags and the banners of old enemies made trophies on the dark paneled walls and a huge sunburst set into the floor held enough gold to make most men stare. Aside from that, it was a plain, soldier’s room, a reflection of Niall himself. Niall seated himself in a high-backed chair, well made but undecorated. The long twin hearths at either end of the room stood cold and swept at a time of year when they should have held roaring fires. Proof enough that the Last Battle was near. Carridin bowed deeply and knelt on the sunburst, worn smooth by centuries of feet and knees.

“Have you speculated on why I sent for you, Carridin?” After Almoth Plain and Falme, after Tanchico, the man could not be blamed if he believed he was to be arrested. But if he suspected such a possibility, nothing showed in his voice. As usual, he could not help showing that he knew more than anyone else. Definitely more than he was supposed to.

“The Aes Sedai in Altara, my Lord Captain Commander. A chance to wipe out half the Tar Valon witches, right on our doorstep.” An exaggeration; a third were in Salidar, perhaps, but no more.

“And have you speculated aloud, among your friends?” Niall doubted that Carridin had any, but there were those he drank with. Of late, got drunk with. The man had certain skills, though; useful skills.

“No, my Lord Captain Commander. I know better than that.”

“Good,” Niall said. “Because you are not going anywhere near this Salidar, and neither is any other of the Children.” He could not be sure whether it was relief that flashed across Carridin’s face. If so, it was out of character; the man had never shown any lack of courage. And relief certainly did not suit his reply.

“But they are waiting to be snapped up. This is proof the rumors are true, the Tower is divided. We can destroy this lot without the others raising a hand. The Tower could be weakened enough to fall.”

“Think you so?” Niall said dryly. He laced his fingers across his middle and kept his voice mild. Questioners—the Hand despised that name, but even he used it—Questioners never saw anything not shoved under their noses. “Even the Tower can hardly come out openly for this false Dragon al’Thor. What if he turns, as Logain did? But a rebel group? They could support him, and the White Tower’s skirts are clean whatever happens.” He was sure that was the way of it. If not, there would be ways to use any real split to further weaken the Tower, but he believed he was right. “In any case, what the world sees, matters. I will not let them see merely a struggle between the Children and the Tower.” Not until the world saw the Tower for what it was, a sink of Darkfriends meddling with forces mankind was not meant to touch, the force that had caused the Breaking of the World. “This struggle is the world against the false Dragon al’Thor.”

“Then if I am not going to Altara, my Lord Captain Commander, what are my orders?”

Niall let his head fall back with a sigh. He felt tired suddenly. He felt all of his years and more. “Oh, you will be going to Altara, Carridin.”

Rand al’Thor’s name and face had been known to him since shortly after the supposed invasion from across the sea at Falme, an Aes Sedai plot that had cost the Children a thousand men and begun the spread of the Dragonsworn and chaos across Tarabon and Arad Doman. He had known what al’Thor was and believed he could use him as a goad to force the nations to unite. Once bound together, behind his leadership, they could have disposed of al’Thor and been ready for the Trolloc hordes. He had sent emissaries to every ruler of every land to point out the danger. But al’Thor moved faster than he could believe even now. He had meant to let a rabid lion roam the streets long enough to frighten everyone, but the lion had become a giant that moved like lightning.

Yet all was not lost; he had to keep reminding himself. More than a thousand years ago, Guaire Amalasan had named himself the Dragon Reborn, a false Dragon who could channel. Amalasan had conquered more land than al’Thor now held, before a young king named Artur Paendrag Tanreall took the field against him and began his own climb to empire. Niall did not consider himself another Artur Hawkwing, but he was what the world had. He would not give up while he lived.

Already he had begun to counter al’Thor’s growing strength. Besides emissaries to rulers, he had sent men to Tarabon and Arad Doman. A few men to find the right ears, to whisper that all their troubles could be laid at the feet of the Dragonsworn, those fools and Darkfriends who had declared for al’Thor. And at the feet of the White Tower. Plenty of rumors already came out of Tarabon of Aes Sedai involved in the fighting, rumors to ready men’s ears to hear the truth. Now was time to launch the next part of his new plan, to show the fence-sitters which side to choose. Time. He had so little time. Yet he could not help smiling. There were those, now dead, who had once said, “When Niall smiles, he is going for the throat.”

“Altara and Murandy,” he told Carridin, “are about to be tormented by a plague of Dragonsworn.”

The chamber had the appearance of a palace sitting room—vaulted ceiling of worked plaster, finely woven carpets on the white-tiled floor, elaborately carved paneling for the walls—though it was far from any palace. Indeed, it was far from anywhere, in any way that most humans would understand. Mesaana’s russet silk dress rustled as she moved around a lapis-inlaid table, amusing herself with the placement of ivory dominoes in a complex tower, each level larger than the one below. She prided herself on doing this purely with a knowledge of stresses and leverage, not a thread of the Power. She had the tower to nine levels.

In truth, more than amusing herself, she was avoiding conversation with her companion. Semirhage sat doing needlework in a high-backed chair covered in red tapestry, long slender fingers deftly making minuscule stitches to form a labyrinthine pattern of tiny flowers. It was always a surprise that the woman liked an activity so ... ordinary. Her black dress was a sharp contrast against the chair. Not even Demandred dared suggest to Semirhage’s face that she wore black so often because Lanfear wore white.

For the thousandth time Mesaana tried to analyze why she felt uncomfortable around the other woman. Mesaana knew her own strengths and weaknesses, with the One Power and elsewhere. She matched well with Semirhage on most points, and where she did not, she had other strengths to lay against weaknesses in Semirhage. It was not that. Semirhage took delight in cruelty, a pure pleasure in giving anguish, but that surely was not the problem. Mesaana could be cruel where necessary, and she did not care what Semirhage did to others. There had to be a reason, but she could not find it.

Irritably she placed another domino, and the tower collapsed with a clatter, spilling ivory tiles onto the floor. With a click of her tongue, she turned from the table, folding her arms beneath her breasts. “Where is Demandred? Seventeen days since he went to Shayol Ghul, but he waits until now to inform us of a message, then does not appear.” She had been to the Pit of Doom twice in that time herself, made that nerve-racking walk with the stone fangs brushing her hair. To find nothing except a strange too-tall Myrddraal that would not speak. The Bore had been there, certainly, but the Great Lord had not answered. She did not remain long either time. She had thought herself beyond fear, at least the sort a Halfman’s gaze brought, but twice the Myrddraal’s silent eyeless stare had sent her away with quickening steps that only tight self-control kept from becoming a run. Had channeling there not been a sure way to die, she would have destroyed the Halfman, or Traveled from the Pit itself. “Where is he?”

Semirhage raised her eyes from her stitchery, unblinking dark eyes in a smooth dark face, then put aside the needlework and stood gracefully. “He will come when he comes,” she said calmly. She was always calm, just as she was always graceful. “If you do not want to wait, then go.”

Unconsciously Mesaana raised herself a little on her toes, but she still had to look up. Semirhage stood taller than most men, though so perfectly proportioned that you did not realize it until she stood over you, looking down. “Go? I will go. And he can—”

There was no warning, of course. There never was, when a man channeled. A bright vertical line appeared in the air, then widened as the gateway turned sideways to open long enough for Demandred to step through, giving them each a small bow. He was all in dark gray today, with a little pale lace at his neck. He adapted easily to the fashions and fabrics of this Age.

His hawk-nosed profile was handsome enough, though not quite the sort to make every woman’s heart beat faster. In a way, “almost” and “not quite” had been the story of Demandred’s life. He had had the misfortune to be born one day after Lews Therin Telamon, who would become the Dragon, while Barid Bel Medar, as he was then, spent years almost matching Lews Therin’s accomplishments, not quite matching Lews Therin’s fame. Without Lews Therin, he would have been the most acclaimed man of the Age. Had he been appointed to lead instead of the man he considered his intellectual inferior, an overcautious fool who too often managed to scrape up luck, would he stand here today? Now, that was idle speculation, though she had made it before. No, the important point was that Demandred despised the Dragon, and now that the Dragon had been Reborn, he had transferred that contempt whole.


Demandred raised a hand. “Let us wait until we are all here, Mesaana, and I will not have to repeat myself.”

She felt the first spinning of saidar a moment before the glowing line appeared and became a gateway. Graendal stepped out, for once unaccompanied by half-clad servants, and let the opening vanish as quickly as Demandred had. She was a fleshy woman with elaborately curled red-gold hair. Somewhere she had actually managed to find streith for her high-necked gown. High-necked, but mirroring her mood—the fabric was transparent mist. At times Mesaana wondered whether Graendal really took note of anything beyond her sensual pleasures.

“I wondered whether you would be here,” the new arrival said lightly. “You three have been so secretive.” She gave a gay, slightly foolish laugh. No, it would be a dire mistake to take Graendal at surface value. Most who had taken her for a fool were long since dead, victims of the woman they disregarded.

“Is Sammael coming?” he asked.

Graendal waved a beringed hand dismissively. “Oh, he doesn’t trust you. I don’t think the man trusts himself anymore.” The streith darkened; a concealing fog. “He’s marshaling his armies in Illian, moaning over not having shocklances to arm them. When he isn’t doing that, he’s searching for a usable angreal or sa’angreal. Something of decent strength, of course.”

Their eyes all went to Mesaana, and she drew a deep breath. Any of them would have given—well, almost anything, for a suitable angreal or sa’angreal. Each was stronger than any of these half-trained children who called themselves Aes Sedai today, but enough half-trained children linked together could crush them all. Except, of course, that they no longer knew how, and no longer had the means in any case. Men were needed to take a link beyond thirteen, more than one to go beyond twenty-seven. In truth, those girls—the oldest seemed girls to her; she had lived over three hundred years, quite aside from her time sealed in the Bore, and had only been considered just into her middle years—those girls were no real danger, but that did not lessen the desire of anyone here for angreal, or better yet the more powerful sa’angreal. With those remnants from their own time, they could channel amounts of the Power that would have burned them to ash without. Any of them would risk much for one of those prizes. But not everything. Not with no real need. That lack did not still the desire, though.

Automatically Mesaana dropped into a lecturing tone. “The White Tower now has guards and wards on their strongrooms, inside and out, plus they count everything four times each day. The Great Hold in the Stone of Tear is also warded, with a nasty thing that would have held me fast had I tried to pass through or untie it. I don’t think it can be untied except by whoever wove it, and until then it is a trap for any other woman who can channel.”

“A dusty jumble of useless rubbish, so I’ve heard,” Demandred said in dismissal. “The Tairens gathered anything with even a rumored connection to the Power.”

Mesaana suspected he had more than hearsay to go on. She also suspected there was a trap for men woven around the Great Hold, too, or Demandred would have had his sa’angreal and launched himself at Rand al’Thor long since. “No doubt there are some in Cairhien and Rhuidean, but even if you do not walk right into al’Thor, both are full of women who can channel.”

“Ignorant girls.” Graendal sniffed.

“If a kitchen girl puts a knife in your back,” Semirhage said coolly, “are you less dead than if you fall in a sha’je duel at Qal?”

Mesaana nodded. “That leaves whatever might he buried in ancient ruins or forgotten in an attic. If you want to count on finding something by chance, do so. I will not. Unless someone knows the location of a stasis box?” There was a certain dryness to that last. The stasis boxes should have survived the Breaking of the World, but that upheaval had likely as not left them on the bottom of an ocean or buried beneath mountains. Little remained of the world they had known beyond a few names and legends.

Graendal’s smile was all sweetness. “I always thought you should be a teacher. Oh. I am sorry. I forgot.”

Mesaana’s face darkened. Her road to the Great Lord began when she was denied a place in the Collam Daan all those years ago. Unsuited for research, they had told her, but she could still teach. Well, she had taught, until she found how to teach them all!

“I am still waiting to hear what the Great Lord said,” Semirhage murmured.

“Yes. Are we to kill al’Thor?” Mesaana realized she was gripping her skirt with both hands and let go. Strange. She never let anyone get under her skin. “If all goes well, in two months, three at most, he will be where I can safely reach him, and helpless.”

“Where you can safely reach him?” Graendal arched an eyebrow quizzically. “Where have you made your lair? No matter. Bare as it is, it’s as good a plan as I’ve heard lately.”

Still Demandred kept silent, stood there studying them. No, not Graendal. Semirhage and her. And when he did speak, half to himself, it was to they two. “When I think where you two have placed yourselves, I wonder. How much has the Great Lord known, for how long? How much of what has happened has been at his design all along?” There was no answer to that. Finally, he said, “You want to know what the Great Lord told me? Very well. But it stays here, held close. Since Sammael chose to stay away, he learns nothing. Nor do the others, whether alive or dead. The first part of the Great Lord’s message was simple. ‘Let the Lord of Chaos rule.’ His words, exact.” The corners of his mouth twitched, as close to a smile as Mesaana had ever seen from him. Then he told them the rest.

Mesaana found herself shivering and did not know whether she did so from excitement or fear. It could work; it could hand them everything. But it required luck, and gambling made her uncomfortable. Demandred was the gambler. He was right about one thing; Lews Therin had made his own luck as a mint made coin. In her opinion it seemed that so far Rand al’Thor did the same.

Unless... Unless the Great Lord had a plan beyond the one he had revealed. And that frightened her more than any other possibility.

The gilt-framed mirror reflected the room, the disturbingly patterned mosaics on the walls, the gilded furnishings and fine carpets, the other mirrors and the tapestries. A palace room without a window—or a door. The mirror reflected a woman striding up and down in a dark blood-red gown, her beautiful face a combination of rage and disbelief. Still, disbelief. It reflected his own face, too, and that interested him far more than the woman. He could not resist touching his nose and mouth and cheeks for the hundredth time to make sure they were real. Not young, but younger than the face he had worn on first waking from the long sleep, with all its endless nightmares. An ordinary face, and he had always hated being ordinary. He recognized the sound in his throat as a budding laugh, a giggle, and stifled it. He was not mad. Despite everything, he was not that.

A name had been given to him during this second, far more horrific sleep, before he woke to this face and body. Osan’gar. A name given by a voice he knew and dared not disobey. His old name, given in scorn and adopted in pride, was gone forever. The voice of his master had spoken and made it so. The woman was Aran’gar; who she had been, was no more.

Interesting choices, those names. Osan’gar and aran’gar were the left-and right-hand daggers in a form of dueling briefly popular early in that long building from the day the Bore had been made to the actual beginning of the War of Power. His memories were spotty—too much had been lost in the long sleep, and the short—but he remembered that. The popularity had been brief because almost inevitably both duelists died. The daggers’ blades were coated with slow poison.

Something blurred in the mirror, and he turned, not too quickly. He had to remember who he was, and make sure others remembered. There still was no door, but a Myrddraal shared the room with them. Neither thing was strange in this place, but the Myrddraal stood taller than any Osan’gar had seen before.

He took his time, letting the Halfman wait to be acknowledged, and before he could open his mouth, Aran’gar spat, “Why has this been done to me? Why have I been put into this body? Why?” The last was almost a shriek.

Osan’gar would have thought the Myrddraal’s bloodless lips twitched in a smile, except that was impossible, here or anywhere. Even Trollocs had a sense of humor, if a vile and violent one, but not Myrddraal. “You were both given the best that could be taken in the Borderlands.” Its voice was a viper rustling in dry grass. “It is a fine body, strong and healthy. And better than the alternative.”

Both things were true. It was a fine body, suitable for a daien dancer in the old days, sleekly lush, with a green-eyed ivory oval of a face to match, framed by glossy black hair. And anything bettered the alternative.

Perhaps Aran’gar did not see it that way. Rage mottled that beautiful face. She was going to do something reckless. Osan’gar knew it; there had always been a problem in that regard. Lanfear seemed cautious by contrast. He reached for saidin. Channeling here could be dangerous, but less than allowing her to do something truly stupid. He reached for saidin—and found nothing. He had not been shielded; he would have felt it, and known how to work around or break it, given time, if it was not too strong. This was as if he had been severed. Shock petrified him where he stood.

Not so for Aran’gar. Perhaps she had made the same discovery, but it affected her differently. With a screech like a cat she launched herself at the Myrddraal, fingernails clawed.

A futile attack, of course. The Myrddraal did not even shift its stance. Casually it caught her by the throat, raised her straight-armed till her feet left the floor. The screech became a gurgle, and she grabbed the Halfman’s wrist with both hands. With her dangling in its grasp, it turned that eyeless stare to Osan’gar. “You have not been severed, but you will not channel until you are told you may. And you will never strike at me. I am Shaidar Haran.”

Osan’gar tried to swallow, but his mouth was dust. Surely the creature had nothing to do with whatever had been done to him. Myrddraal had powers of a sort, but not that. Yet it knew. He had never liked Halfmen. He had helped make the Trollocs, blending human and animal stock—he was proud of that, of the skill involved, the difficulty—but these occasional throwback offspring made him uneasy at the best of times.

Shaidar Haran turned its attention back to the woman twitching in its fist. Her face was beginning to go purple, and her feet kicked feebly. “You will adapt. The body bends to the soul, but the mind bends to the body. You are adapting already. Soon it will be as if you had never had any other. Or you may refuse. Then another will take your place, and you will be given to ... my brothers, blocked as you are.” Those thin lips twitched again. “They miss their sport in the Borderlands.”

“She cannot speak,” Osan’gar said. “You’re killing her! Don’t you know who we are? Put her down, Halfman! Obey me!” The thing had to obey one of the Chosen.

But the Myrddraal impassively studied Aran’gar’s darkening face for a long moment more before letting her feet touch the carpet and loosening its grip. “I obey the Great Lord. No other.” She hung on, wavering, coughing and gulping air. Had it taken its hand away, she would have fallen. “Will you submit to the will of the Great Lord?” Not a demand, just a perfunctory question in that rasping voice.

“I—I will,” she managed hoarsely, and Shaidar Haran let her go.

She swayed, massaging her throat, and Osan’gar moved to help her, but she threatened him with a glare and a fist before he touched her. He backed away with raised hands. That was one enmity he did not need. But it was a fine body, and a fine joke. He had always prided himself on his sense of humor, but this was rich.

“Do you not feel gratitude?” the Myrddraal said. “You were dead, and are alive. Think of Rahvin, whose soul is beyond saving, beyond time. You have a chance to serve the Great Lord again, and absolve yourselves of your errors.”

Osan’gar hastened to assure it that he was grateful, that he wanted nothing more than to serve and gain absolution. Rahvin dead? What had happened? No matter; one fewer of the Chosen meant one more chance for true power when the Great Lord was free. It abraded, humbling himself before something that could be said to be as much his creation as the Trollocs, but he remembered death too clearly. He would grovel before a worm to avoid that again. Aran’gar was no less quick, he noted, for all the anger in her eyes. Clearly, she remembered too.

“Then it is time for you to go into the world once more in the service of the Great Lord,” Shaidar Haran said. “None but I and the Great Lord know you live. If you succeed, you will live forever and be raised above all others. If you fail... But you will not fail, will you?” The Halfman did smile then. It was like seeing death smile.

Lion on the Hill

The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose among brown-thicketed hills in Cairhien. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.

Westward the wind blew over abandoned villages and farms, many only jumbles of charred timber. War had racked Cairhien, war and civil war, invasion and chaos, and even now that it was done, insofar as it was done, only a handful began to trickle back to their homes. The wind held no moisture, and the sun tried to sear away what little remained in the land. Where the small town of Maerone faced larger Aringill across the River Erinin, the wind crossed into Andor. Both towns baked, and if more prayers for rain rose in Aringill, where refugees from Cairhien jammed inside the walls like fish in a cask, even the soldiers packed around Maerone offered up words to the Creator, sometimes drunkenly, sometimes fervently. Winter should have been beginning to send out tendrils, the first snows long past, and those who sweated feared the reason it was not so, though few dared voice those fears.

Westward the wind blew, stirring drought-shriveled leaves on the trees, riffling the surface of shrinking streams bordered in hard-baked mud. There were no burned-out ruins in Andor, but villagers eyed the swollen sun nervously and farmers tried not to look at fields that had produced no fall crops. Westward, until the wind passed across Caemlyn, lifting two banners above the Royal Palace, in the heart of the Ogier-built Inner City. One banner floated red as blood, upon it a disc divided by a sinuous line, half white, half black as deep as the white was brilliant. The other banner slashed snow white across the sky. The figure on it, like some strange golden-maned, four-legged serpent, sun-eyed and scaled scarlet and gold, seemed to ride on the wind. It was a close question which of the two caused more fear. Sometimes, the same breast that held fear, held hope. Hope of salvation and fear of destruction, from the same source.

Many said Caemlyn was the second most beautiful city in the world, and not only Andorans, who often named it first, over ranking Tar Valon itself. Tall round towers marched along the great outer wall of gray stone streaked silver and white, and within rose even taller towers, and domes of white and gold gleaming in the pitiless sun. The city climbed over hills to its center, the ancient Inner City, encircled by its own shining white wall, containing its own towers and domes, purple and white and gold and glittering tile mosaics, that looked down on the New City, well under two thousand years old.

As the Inner City was the heart of Caemlyn, and more than merely by being its center, the Royal Palace was the heart of the Inner City, a gleeman’s tale of snowy spires and golden domes and stonework like lace. A heart that beat in the shadow of those two banners.

Stripped to the waist and balanced easily on the balls of his feet, at the moment Rand was no more aware that he was in a white-tiled courtyard of the Palace than he was of the onlookers among the surrounding colonnades. Sweat slicked his hair to his skull, rolled down his chest. The half-healed round scar on his side ached fiercely, but he refused to acknowledge it. Figures like that on the white banner overhead twined around his forearms, glittering metallically red-and-gold. Dragons, the Aiel called them, and others were taking up the name. He was dimly aware of the heron branded neatly into each of his palms, but only because he could feel them against the long hilt of his wooden practice sword.

He was one with the sword, flowing from stance to stance without thought, boots scraping softly on the pale tiles. Lion on the Hill became Arc of the Moon became Tower of Morning. Without thought. Five sweating, bare-chested men circled him, sidestepping warily from stance to stance, practice swords shifting. They were all he was really aware of. Hard-faced and confident, they were the best he had found so far. The best since Lan went. Without thought, as Lan had taught him. He was one with the sword, one with the five men.

Abruptly he ran forward, the encircling men moving rapidly to keep him centered. Just at the moment when that balance teetered on breaking, when at least two of the five had begun to shift toward breaking it, he suddenly turned in midstep and was running the other way. They tried to react, but it was too late. With a loud clack he caught the downstroke of a practice sword on his own blade of bundled lathes; simultaneously his right foot took the grizzled-haired man next over in the belly. Grunting, the man bent double. Locked blade to blade, Rand forced his broken-nosed opponent to turn, kicking the doubled-over man again as they went around. Grizzle-hair went down gasping for air. Rand’s opponent tried to back away to use his blade, but that freed Rand’s blade to spiral around his—The Grapevine Twines—and thrust hard against his chest, hard enough to knock him off his feet.

Only heartbeats had passed, few enough that just now were the other three closing in. The first, a quick squat little man, belied his stature by leaping over broken-nose with a yell as broken-nose toppled. Rand’s practice blade took him across the shins, half upending him, then again across the back, driving him down to the paving stones.

That left only two, but they were the two best, a limber pole of a man whose sword moved like a serpent’s tongue, and a heavy shaven-headed fellow who never made a mistake. They separated immediately, to come at Rand from two sides, but he did not wait. Quickly he closed with the skinny man; he had only moments before the other rounded the fallen.

The skinny man was good as well as fast; Rand offered gold for the best, and they came. He was tall for an Andoran, though Rand overtopped him by a hand, yet height had little bearing with the sword. Sometimes strength did. Rand went at him in all-out attack; the man’s long face tightened as he gave ground. The Boar Rushes Down the Mountain crashed through Parting the Silk, broke Lightning of Three Prongs, and the bundled lathes slashed hard against the side of the man’s neck. He fell with a strangled grunt.

Immediately Rand threw himself down and to the right, rolling up to his knees on the paving stones, blade streaking into The River Undercuts the Bank. The shaven-headed man was not fast, but somehow he had anticipated. Even as Rand’s lathe blade swept across the fellow’s wide middle, the man’s own blade cracked down on Rand’s head.

For a moment Rand wavered, his vision a blur of black flecks. Shaking his head in an effort to clear his eyes, he used the practice sword to push himself to his feet. Panting hard, the shaven-headed man watched him cautiously.

“Pay him,” Rand said, and wariness left the shaven-headed man’s face. Needless wariness. As if Rand had not promised an extra day’s coin to any man who managed to strike him. Triple to any who defeated him one-to-one. It was a way to make sure nobody held back to flatter the Dragon Reborn. He never asked their names, and if they took the omission amiss, so much the better if it made them try harder. He wanted opponents to test him, not become friends. The friends he did have would curse the hour they met him one day, if they did not already. The others were stirring, too; a man “killed” was to stay where he lay until it was all done, an obstruction as a real corpse would be, but the squat man was having to help grizzle-hair up, and having trouble standing unaided himself. The limber fellow worked his head around, wincing. There would be no more practice today. “Pay them all.”

A ripple of clapping and praise ran through the watchers among the narrow fluted columns, lords and ladies in colorful silks heavy with elaborate embroidery and braid. Rand grimaced and tossed his sword aside. That lot had all been toadeaters to Lord Gaebril when Queen Morgase—their queen—was little more than a prisoner in this palace. Her palace. But Rand needed them. For the moment. Clutch the bramble, and you will be pricked, he thought. At least, he hoped it was his thought.

Sulin, the wiry white-haired leader of Rand’s escort of Aiel Maidens of the Spear, leader of the Maidens this side of the Spine of the World, pulled a gold Tar Valon mark from her belt pouch, tossed it with a grimace that drew at the nasty scar on the side of her face. The Maidens did not like Rand handling a sword, even a practice blade. They did not approve of any sword. No Aiel did.

The shaven-headed man caught the coin, and answered Sulin’s blue-eyed stare with a careful bow. Everyone was careful around the Maidens, in their coats and breeches and soft, laced boots of browns and grays made to fade into the bleak landscape of the Waste. Some had begun adding shades of green, to suit what they called the wetlands despite the drought. Compared to the Aiel Waste, it was still wet; few Aiel had seen water they could not step across before leaving the Waste, and bitter feuds had been fought over pools two or three paces wide.

Like any Aiel warrior, like the twenty other light-eyed Maidens around the courtyard, Sulin kept her hair cut short except for a tail on the nape of her neck. She carried three short spears and a round bull-hide buckler in her left hand, and a pointed heavy-bladed knife at her belt. Like any Aiel warrior, down to those the age of Jalani, all of sixteen and with traces of baby fat still on her cheeks, Sulin knew how to use those weapons well, and would on slight provocation, at least as folk this side of the Dragonwall saw it. Except for her, the Maidens watched everyone, every piercework screened window and pale stone balcony, every shadow. Some had short curved bows of horn with arrows nocked, and more shafts ready in bristling quivers worn at the waist. Far Dareis Mai, the Maidens of the Spear, carried the honor of their prophesied Car’a’carn, if sometimes in their own peculiar way, and not a one of them but would die to keep Rand alive. The thought made his stomach boil in its own acid.

Sulin continued tossing the gold with a sneer—it pleased Rand to use Tar Valon coins for this debt—another for shaven-head, one for each of the others. Aiel approved of most wetlanders little more than of swords, and that took in anyone not born and bred Aiel. For most Aiel, that would have included Rand despite his Aiel blood, but there were the Dragons on his arms. One marked a clan chief, earned by risking life on strength of will; two marked the Car’a’carn, the chief of chiefs, He Who Comes With the Dawn. And the Maidens had other reasons for approval.

Gathering up practice swords, shirts and coats, the men bowed their way from his presence. “Tomorrow,” Rand called after them. “Early.” Deeper bows acknowledged the order.

Before the bare-chested men were gone from the courtyard, the Andoran nobles swept out of the colonnades, a rainbow of silks crowding around Rand, dabbing at sweaty faces with lace-trimmed handkerchiefs. They made Rand’s bile rise. Use what you must use, or let the Shadow cover the land. Moiraine had told him that. He almost preferred the honest opposition of the Cairhienin and Tairens to this lot. That nearly made him laugh, calling what those did honest.

“You were wonderful,” Arymilla breathed, lightly laying a hand on his arm. “So quick, so strong.” Her big brown eyes seemed even more melting than usual. She was apparently fool enough to think him susceptible: her green gown, covered with vines in silver, was cut low by Andoran standards, which meant it showed a hint of cleavage. She was pretty, but easily old enough to be his mother. None of them was any younger, and some older, but all competed at licking Rand’s boots.

“That was magnificent, my Lord Dragon.” Elenia nearly elbowed Arymilla aside. That smile looked odd on the honey-haired woman’s vulpine face; she had the reputation of a termagant. Not around Rand, of course. “There has never been a swordsman like you in the history of Andor. Even Souran Maravaile, who was Artur Hawkwing’s greatest general and husband to Ishara, first to sit on the Lion Throne—even he died when confronted by only four swordsmen. Assassins, in the twenty-third year of the War of the Hundred Years. Though he did kill all four.” Elenia seldom missed a chance to point out her knowledge of Andor’s history, especially in areas where not much was known, like the war that had broken Hawkwing’s empire apart after his death. At least today she did not add justifications of her claims to the Lion Throne.

“Just a bit of bad luck at the end,” Elenia’s husband, Jarid, put in jovially. He was a square man, dark for an Andoran. Embroidered scrollwork and golden boars, the sign of House Sarand, covered the cuffs and long collars of his red coat, and the White Lions of Andor the long sleeves and high neck of Elenia’s matching red gown. Rand wondered whether she thought he would not recognize the lions for what they were. Jarid was High Seat of his House, but all the drive and ambition came from her.

“Marvelously well done, my Lord Dragon,” Karind said bluntly. Her shimmery gray dress, cut as severely as her face but heavy with silver braid on sleeves and hem, almost matched the streaks through her dark hair. “You surely must be the finest swordsman in the world.” Despite her words, the blocky woman’s flat-eyed look was like a hammer. Had she had brains to match her toughness, she would have been dangerous.

Naean was a slim, palely beautiful woman, with big blue eyes and waves of gleaming black hair, but the sneer she directed at the five departing men was a fixture. “I suspect they planned it out beforehand so one would manage to strike you. They will divide the extra coin among them.” Unlike Elenia, the blue-clad woman with the silver Triple Keys of House Arawn climbing her long sleeves never mentioned her own claims to the throne, not where Rand could hear. She pretended to be content as High Seat of an ancient House, a lioness pretending to be content as a housecat.

“Can I always count on my enemies not to work together?” he asked quietly. Naean’s mouth worked in surprise; she was hardly stupid, yet seemed to think those who opposed her should roll onto their backs as soon as she confronted them, and seemed to take it as a personal affront when they did not.

One of the Maidens, Enaila, ignored the nobles to hand Rand a thick length of white toweling to wipe his sweat away. A fiery redhead, she was short for an Aiel, and it grated at her that some of these wetlander women were taller than she. The majority of the Maidens could stare most of the men in the room straight in the eyes. The Andorans did their best to ignore her too, but their pointed looks elsewhere made the attempts glaring failures. Enaila walked away as if they were invisible.

The silence lasted just moments. “My Lord Dragon is wise,” Lord Lir said with a small bow and a slight frown. The High Seat of House Baryn was blade-slender and blade-strong in a yellow coat adorned with gold braid, but too smoothly unctuous, too smooth altogether. Nothing but those occasional frowns ever sullied that surface, as if he was unaware of them, yet he was hardly the only one to give Rand strange looks. They all looked at the Dragon Reborn in their midst with wondering disbelief sometimes. “One’s enemies usually do work together sooner or later. One must identify them before they have the chance to.”

More praise for Rand’s wisdom flowed from Lord Henren, blocky, bald and hard-eyed, and from gray-curled Lady Carlys, with her open face and devious mind, from plump giggly Daerilla, and thin-lipped nervous Elegar, and nearly a dozen others who had held their tongues while those more powerful spoke.

The lesser lords and ladies fell silent as soon as Elenia opened her mouth once more. “There is always the difficulty of knowing your enemies before they make themselves known. It is often too late, then.” Her husband nodded sagely.

“I always say,” Naean announced, “that who does not support me, opposes me. I’ve found it a good rule. Those who hang back may be waiting until your back is turned to plant a dagger.”

This was hardly the first time they had tried to secure their own places by casting suspicion on any lord or lady not standing with them, but Rand wished he could stop them short of telling them to stop. Their attempts to play the Game of Houses were feeble compared to the sly maneuverings of Cairhienin, or even Tairens, and they were irritating besides, but there were thoughts he did not want them to have yet. Surprisingly, aid came from white-haired Lord Nasin, the High Seat of House Caeren.

“Another Jearom,” the man said, an obsequious smile awkward on his gaunt, narrow face. He drew exasperated looks, even from some of the minor nobles before they caught themselves. Nasin had been a little addled since the events surrounding Rand’s coming to Caemlyn. Instead of the Star and Sword of his House, Nasin’s pale blue lapels were incongruously worked with flowers, moondrops and loversknots, and he sometimes wore a flower in his thinning hair like a country youth going courting. House Caeren was too powerful for even Jarid or Naean to push him aside, though. Nasin’s head bobbed on a scrawny neck. “Your bladework is spectacular, my Lord Dragon. You are another Jearom.”

“Why?” The word cut across the courtyard, souring the Andorans’ faces.

Davram Bashere was certainly no Andoran, with his tilted, almost black eyes, a hooked beak of a nose, and thick gray-streaked mustaches curving down like horns around his wide mouth. He was slender, little taller than Enaila, in a short gray coat embroidered with silver on cuffs and lapels, and baggy trousers tucked into boots turned down at the knee. Where the Andorans had stood to watch, the Marshal-General of Saldaea had had a gilded chair dragged to the courtyard, and sprawled in it with a leg over one of its arms, ring-quilloned sword twisted so the hilt sat in easy reach. Sweat glistened on his dark face, but he paid it as little mind as he did the Andorans.

“What do you mean?” Rand demanded.

“All this sword practice,” Bashere said easily. “And with five men? No one exercises against five. It’s foolish. Sooner or later your brains will be spilled on the ground in a melee like that, even with practice swords, and to no purpose.”

Rand’s jaw tightened. “Jearom once defeated ten.”

Shifting in his chair, Bashere laughed. “Do you think you’ll live long enough to equal the greatest swordsman in history?” An angry mutter came from the Andorans—feigned anger, Rand was sure—but Bashere ignored it. “You are who you are, after all.” Suddenly he moved like an uncoiling spring; the dagger drawn while shifting flashed toward Rand’s heart.

Rand did not move a muscle. Instead he seized saidin, the male half of the True Source; it took no more thought than breathing. Saidin flooded into him, carrying the Dark One’s taint, an avalanche of foul ice, a torrent of reeking molten metal. It tried to crush him, to scour him away, and he rode it like a man balancing atop a collapsing mountain. He channeled, a simple weave of Air that wrapped up the dagger and stopped it an arm’s length from his chest. Emptiness surrounded him; he floated in the middle of it, in the Void, thought and emotion distant.

“Die!” Jarid shouted, drawing his sword as he ran toward Bashere. Lir and Henren and Elegar and every Andoran lord had his sword out, even Nasin, though he looked about to drop his. The Maidens had wrapped their shoufa around their heads, black veils coming up to cover their faces to blue or green eyes as they raised long-pointed spears; Aiel always veiled before killing.

“Stop!” Rand barked, and everyone froze in their tracks, the Andorans blinking in confusion, the Maidens simply poised on their toes. Bashere had not moved again beyond settling back into the chair, his leg still hooked over the arm.

Plucking the horn-hilted dagger from the air with one hand, Rand let go of the Source. Even with the taint twisting his belly, the taint that eventually destroyed men who channeled, letting go was difficult. With saidin in him, he saw more clearly, heard more sharply. It was a paradox he did not understand, but when he was floating in that seemingly endless Void, somehow buffered against bodily feeling and emotions, every sense was magnified; without it he felt only half-alive. And some of the taint seemed to remain behind, but not the mitigating glory of saidin. The deadly glory that would kill him if he wavered an inch in the struggle with it.

Turning the dagger in his hands, he walked slowly to Bashere. “Had I been an eyeblink slower,” he said softly, “I’d be dead. I could kill you where you sit and no law in Andor or anywhere else would say me wrong.” He was ready to do it, he realized. Cold rage had replaced saidin. A few weeks’ acquaintance did not cover this.

The Saldaean’s tilted eyes were as calm as if he lolled in his own home. “My wife would not like that. Nor you, for that matter. Deira would probably take command and set out hunting Taim again. She doesn’t approve of my agreement to follow you.”

Rand shook his head slightly, the edge of his anger dulled a little by the man’s composure. And his words. It had been a surprise to learn that among Bashere’s nine thousand Saldaean horse all of the nobles had brought their wives, and most of the other officers as well. Rand did not understand how a man could take his wife into danger, but it was traditional in Saldaea, except when campaigning into the Blight.

He avoided looking at the Maidens. They were warriors to their toenails, but women, too. And he had promised not to keep them from danger, even death. He had made no promise not to flinch at it, though, and it ripped at him inside when he had to, but he kept his promises. He did what he had to do even when he hated himself for it.

With a sigh he tossed the dagger aside. “Your question,” he said politely. “Why?”

“Because you are who you are,” Bashere said plainly. “Because you—and those men you’re gathering, I suppose—are what you are.” Rand heard feet shuffling behind him; for all they tried to, the Andorans could never hide their horror at his amnesty. “You can do what you did with the dagger every time,” Bashere went on, putting his raised boot down and leaning forward, “but for any assassin to reach you, he has to get past your Aiel. And my horsemen, for that matter. Bah! If anything gets close to you, it won’t be human.” Throwing his hands wide, he settled back again. “Well, if you want to practice the sword, do it. A man needs exercise, and relaxation. But don’t get your skull split open. Too much depends on you, and I don’t see any Aes Sedai around to Heal you.” His mustache almost hid his sudden grin. “Besides, if you die, I don’t think our Andoran friends will maintain their warm welcome for me and my men.”

The Andorans had put up their swords, but their eyes remained on Bashere malevolently. Nothing to do with how close he had come to killing Rand. Usually they kept their faces smooth around Bashere, for all he was a foreign general with a foreign army on Andoran soil. The Dragon Reborn wanted Bashere there, and this lot would have smiled at a Myrddraal if the Dragon Reborn wanted it. But if Rand might turn on him... No need to hide anything then. They were vultures who had been ready to feed on Morgase before she died, and they would feed on Bashere given half a chance. And on Rand. He could hardly wait to be rid of them.

The only way to live is to die. The thought came into his head suddenly. He had been told that once, in such a way he had to believe it, but the thought was not his. I must die. I deserve only death. He turned away from Bashere clutching at his head.

Bashere was out of his chair in an instant, clutching Rand’s shoulder though it was head high to him. “What is the matter? Did that blow really crack your head?”

“I am fine.” Rand pulled his hands down; there was never any pain in this, only the shock of having another man’s thoughts in his head. Bashere was not the only one watching. Most of the Maidens were eyeing him as closely as they did the courtyard, especially Enaila and yellow-haired Somara, the tallest of them. Those two would probably bring him some sort of herb tea as soon as their duties were done, and stand over him till he drank it. Elenia and Naean and the rest of the Andorans were breathing hard, clutching at coats and skirts, studying Rand with the wide-eyed fear of people afraid they might be seeing the first signs of madness. “I am fine,” he told the courtyard. Only the Maidens relaxed, and Enaila and Somara not very far.

Aiel did not care about “the Dragon Reborn”; to them Rand was the Car’a’carn, prophesied to unite them, and to break them. They took it in stride, though they worried about it too, and they seemed to take his channeling in stride as well, and everything that might go with it. The others—The wetlanders, he thought dryly—called him the Dragon Reborn, and never speculated on what that meant. They believed he was the rebirth of Lews Therin Telamon, the Dragon, the man who had sealed the hole into the Dark One’s prison and ended the War of the Shadow three thousand years ago and more. Ended the Age of Legends as well, when the Dark One’s last counterstroke tainted saidin, and every man who could channel began to go insane, starting with Lews Therin himself and his Hundred Companions. They called Rand the Dragon Reborn, and never suspected that some part of Lews Therin Telamon might be inside his head, as mad as the day he had begun the Time of Madness and the Breaking of the World, as mad as any of those male Aes Sedai who had changed the face of the world beyond recognition. It had come on him slowly, but the more Rand learned of the One Power, the stronger he became with saidin, the stronger Lews Therin’s voice became, and the harder Rand had to fight to keep a dead man’s thoughts from taking him over. That was one reason why he liked sword practice; the absence of thought was a barrier to keep him himself.

“We need to find an Aes Sedai,” Bashere muttered. “If those rumors are true... The Light burn my eyes, I wish we had never let that one leave.”

A good many people had fled Caemlyn in the days after Rand and the Aiel seized the city; the Palace itself nearly emptied overnight. There were people Rand would liked to have found, people who had helped him, but they had all vanished. Some still slipped away. One fleeing in those first days had been a young Aes Sedai, young enough that her face still lacked the distinctive agelessness. Bashere’s men sent word when they found her at an inn, but when she found out who Rand was, she ran screaming. Literally screaming. He never even learned her name or Ajah. Rumor said another was somewhere in the city, but a hundred rumors were loose in Caemlyn now, a thousand, each less likely than the next. Definitely unlikely any would lead to an Aes Sedai. Aiel patrols had spotted several passing Caemlyn by, each plainly going somewhere in a hurry and none with any intention of entering a city occupied by the Dragon Reborn.

“Could I trust any Aes Sedai?” Rand asked. “It was just a headache. My head isn’t hard enough not to ache a little when it’s hit.”

Bashere snorted hard enough to stir his thick mustaches. “However hard your head is, sooner or later you’ll have to trust Aes Sedai. Without them, you’ll never bring all the nations behind you short of conquest. People look for such things. However many of the Prophecies they hear you’ve fulfilled, many will wait for the Aes Sedai to put their stamp on you.”

“I won’t avoid fighting anyway, and you know it,” Rand said. “The Whitecloaks aren’t likely to welcome me into Amadicia even if Ailron agrees, and Sammael certainly won’t give up Illian without a fight.” Sammael and Rahvin and Moghedien and... Harshly he forced the thought from his consciousness. It was not easy. They came without warning, and it was never easy.

A thump made him look over his shoulder. Arymilla lay in a heap on the paving stones. Karind was kneeling to pull her skirts down over her ankles and chafe her wrists. Elegar swayed as though he might join Arymilla in a moment, and neither Nasin nor Elenia appeared in much better state. Most of the rest looked ready to sick up. Mention of the Forsaken could do that, especially since Rand had told them that Lord Gaebril really had been Rahvin. He was not sure how much they believed, but just considering the possibility was enough to unhinge the knees of most. Their shock was why they were still alive. Had he believed they had served knowingly... No, he thought. If they’d known, if they were all Darkfriends, you’d still use them. Sometimes he was so sick of himself that he really was ready to die.

At least he was telling the truth. The Aes Sedai were all dying to keep it secret, the Forsaken being free; they feared that knowing would just bring more chaos and panic. Rand was trying to spread the truth. People might panic, but they would have time to recover. The Aes Sedai way, knowledge and panic might come too late for recovery. Besides, people had a right to know what they faced.

“Illian won’t hold out long,” Bashere said. Rand’s head whipped back around, but Bashere was too old a campaigner to speak of what he should not where others could hear. He was just taking the talk away from the Forsaken. Though if the Forsaken, or anything else, made Davram Bashere nervous, Rand had not seen it yet. “Illian will crack like a nut hit by a hammer.”

“You and Mat worked out a good plan.” The basic idea had been Rand’s, but Mat and Bashere had provided the thousand details that would make it work. Mat more than Bashere.

“An interesting young fellow, Mat Cauthon,” Bashere mused. “I look forward to speaking with him again. He never would say who he studied under. Agelmar Jagad? I hear you’ve both been to Shienar.” Rand said nothing. Mat’s secrets were his own; Rand was not really sure what they were himself. Bashere tilted his head, scratched at a mustache with one finger. “He’s young to have studied under anyone. No older than you. Did he find a library somewhere? I would like to see the books he’s read.”

“You’ll have to ask him,” Rand said. “I don’t know.” He supposed Mat had to have read a book sometime, somewhere, but Mat did not have much interest in books.

Bashere only nodded. When Rand did not want to talk about something, Bashere usually let it alone. Usually. “The next time you jaunt off to Cairhien, why don’t you bring back the Green sister who’s there? Egwene Sedai? I’ve heard the Aiel speak of her; they say she’s from your home village, too. You could trust her, couldn’t you?”

“Egwene has other duties,” Rand laughed. A Green sister. If Bashere only knew.

Somara appeared at Rand’s side with his linen shirt and his coat, a fine red wool cut in the Andoran style, with dragons on the long collar and laurel leaves thick on the lapels and climbing the sleeves. She was tall even for an Aiel woman, maybe not quite a hand shorter than he. Like the other Maidens, she had lowered her veil, but the gray-brown shoufa still hid all but her face. “The Car’a’carn will catch a chill,” she murmured.

He doubted it. The Aiel might find this heat nothing out of the ordinary, but already sweat streamed down him nearly as hard as while working the sword. Still, he pulled the shirt over his head and tucked it in, though leaving the laces undone, then shrugged into the coat. He did not think Somara would actually try to put the clothes on him, not in front of others, but this way he would avoid lectures from her and Enaila, and very likely some of the others, along with the herb tea.

To most Aiel he was the Car’a’carn, and so it was with the Maidens. In public. Alone with these women who had chosen to reject marriage and the hearth in favor of the spear, matters became more complicated. He supposed he could stop it—maybe—but he owed it to them not to. Some had already died for him, and more would—he had promised, the Light burn him for it!—and if he could let them do that, he could let them do the rest. Sweat soaked through the shirt immediately and began making dark patches on the coat.

“You need the Aes Sedai, al’Thor.” Rand hoped Bashere was half this dogged when it came to fighting; that was the man’s reputation, but he had only reputation and a few weeks to go by. “You can’t afford to have them against you, and if they don’t at least think they have a few strings tied to you, they might go that way. Aes Sedai are tricksome; no man can know what they’ll do or why.”

“What if I tell you there are hundreds of Aes Sedai ready to support me?” Rand was aware of the Andorans listening; he had to be careful not to say too much. Not that he knew much. What he did know was probably exaggeration and hope. He certainly doubted the “hundreds,” whatever Egwene hinted.

Bashere’s eyes narrowed. “If there’s been an embassy from the Tower, I would know, so...” His voice dropped to a near whisper. “The split? The Tower has really split?” He sounded as if he could not believe the words coming out of his own mouth. Everyone knew Siuan Sanche had been deposed from the Amyrlin Seat and stilled—and executed, so rumor ran—yet to most people a division in the Tower was only conjecture, and few truly believed. The White Tower had remained whole, a monolith towering over thrones, for three thousand years. But the Saldaean was a man who considered all possibilities. He went on in a true whisper, stepping close so the Andorans could not overhear. “It must be the rebels ready to support you. You could strike a better deal with them—they’ll need you as much as you need them, maybe more—but rebels, even Aes Sedai rebels, won’t carry nearly the weight of the White Tower, certainly not with any crown. Commoners might not know the difference, but kings and queens will.”

“They’re still Aes Sedai,” Rand said just as quietly, “whoever they are.” And wherever they are, he thought dryly. Aes Sedai ... Servants of All ... the Hall of the Servants is broken ... broken forever ... broken ... Ilyena, my love... Ruthlessly he quashed Lews Therin’s thoughts. Sometimes they had actually been a help, giving him information he needed, but they were growing too strong. If he did have an Aes Sedai there—a Yellow; they knew the most of Healing—perhaps she... There had been one Aes Sedai he trusted, though not until shortly before her death, and Moiraine had left him a piece of advice about Aes Sedai, about every other woman who wore the shawl and the ring. “I’ll never trust any Aes Sedai,” he rasped softly. “I will use them, because I do need them, but Tower or rebel, I know they’ll try to use me, because that is what Aes Sedai do. I’ll never trust them, Bashere.”

The Saldaean nodded slowly. “Then use them, if you can. But remember this. No one resists for long going the way the Aes Sedai want.” Abruptly he barked a short laugh. “Artur Hawkwing was the last, so far as I know. The Light burn my eyes, maybe you’ll be the second.”

The scrape of boots announced an arrival in the courtyard, one of Bashere’s men, a heavy-shouldered, hatchet-nosed young fellow a head taller than his general, with a luxuriant black beard as well as thick mustaches. He walked like a man more used to a saddle under him than his own feet, but he handled the sword at his hip smoothly as he bowed. To Bashere, more than to Rand. Bashere might follow the Dragon Reborn, but Tumad—Rand thought that was his name; Tumad Ahzkan—followed Bashere. Enaila and three other Maidens fastened their eyes on the new Saldaean; they did not really trust any wetlander around the Car’a’carn.

“There is a man has presented himself at the gates,” Tumad said uneasily. “He says... It is Mazrim Taim, my Lord Bashere.”

A New Arrival

Mazrim Taim. Before Rand, other men through the centuries had claimed to be the Dragon Reborn. The last few years before Rand had seen a plague of false Dragons, some of whom could actually channel. Mazrim Taim was one of those, raising an army and ravaging Saldaea before he was taken. Bashere’s face did not change, but he gripped his sword hilt white-knuckle hard, and Tumad was looking at him for orders. Taim’s escape, on the way to Tar Valon to be gentled, was the reason Bashere had come to Andor in the first place. That was how much Saldaea feared and hated Mazrim Taim; Queen Tenobia had sent Bashere with an army to pursue the man wherever he went, however long it took, to make sure Taim never troubled Saldaea again.

The Maidens merely stood calmly, but that name burst among the Andorans like a torch tossed in dry grass. Arymilla was just being helped to her feet, yet her eyes rolled up in her head again; she would have gone down in a heap once more if Karind had not eased her to the paving stones. Elegar staggered back among the columns and bent over, retching loudly. The rest were all gasps and panic, pressing handkerchiefs to mouths and clutching at sword hilts. Even stolid Karind licked her lips nervously.

Rand took his hand away from his coat pocket. “The amnesty,” he said, and both Saldaeans gave him a long flat look.

“What if he has not come for your amnesty?” Bashere said after a moment. “What if he still claims to be the Dragon Reborn?” Feet shuffled among the Andorans; no one wanted to be within miles of where the One Power might be used in a duel.

“If he thinks that,” Rand said firmly, “I will disabuse him.” He had the rarest sort of angreal in his pocket, one made for men, a carving of a fat little man with a sword. However strong Taim might be, he could not stand up to that. “But if he has come for the amnesty, it is his, the same as any other.” Whatever Taim had done in Saldaea, he could not afford to turn away a man who could channel, a man who would not have to be taught from the first steps. He needed such a man. He would turn away no one except one of the Forsaken, not unless he was forced to. Demandred and Sammael, Semirhage and Mesaana, Asmodean and... Rand forced Lews Therin down; he could not afford distractions now.

Again Bashere paused before speaking, but finally he nodded and let go of his sword. “Your amnesty holds, of course. But mark me, al’Thor. If Taim ever sets foot in Saldaea again, he will not live to leave. There are too many memories. No command I give—nor Tenobia herself—will stop it.”

“I will keep him out of Saldaea.” Either Taim had come here to submit to him, or else it was going to be necessary to kill him. Unconsciously Rand touched his pocket, pressing the fat little man through the wool. “Let’s have him in here.”

Tumad eyed Bashere, but Bashere’s short nod came so quickly that it seemed Tumad bowed in response to the spoken command. Irritation flashed in Rand, but he said nothing, and Tumad hurried away in that slightly rolling walk. Bashere folded his arms across his chest and stood with one knee bent, a portrait of a man at his ease. Those dark tilted eyes, fixed on the way Tumad had gone, made it a portrait of a man waiting to kill something.

The scuffling of feet started again among the Andorans, hesitant half-steps away then pulling back. Their breathing sounded as though they had run miles.

“You may leave,” Rand told them.

“I for one will stand at your shoulder,” Lir began just as Naean said sharply, “I will not run before—”

Rand cut them both off. “Go!”

They wanted to show him they were unafraid, even if they were ready to soil themselves; they wanted to run, abandoning what dignity they had not already tossed at his feet. It was a simple choice. He was the Dragon Reborn, and currying favor meant obedience, and obedience in this case meant doing what they truly wanted. A flurry of extravagant bows and deep skirt-spreading curtsies, hurried murmurs of “By your leave, my Lord Dragon” and “As you command, my Lord Dragon,” and they were ... not exactly scurrying out, but walking as quickly as they could manage without appearing to scurry. In the opposite direction from that in which Tumad had gone; no doubt they did not want to risk a chance encounter with Mazrim Taim on his way in.

The waiting stretched out in the heat—it took time to bring a man through the sprawling corridors from the Palace gates—but once the Andorans were gone no one moved. Bashere kept his gaze steady on the place Taim would appear. The Maidens watched everywhere, but they always did, and if they looked ready to veil themselves again in an instant, they always did that too. Except for their eyes, they could have been statues.

Finally the sound of boots echoed into the courtyard. Rand almost reached out for saidin, then held back. The man would be able to tell he held the Power as soon as he entered the court; Rand could not afford to appear afraid of him.

Tumad emerged into the sunlight first, then a black-haired man of well above average height whose dark face and tilted eyes, hooked nose and high cheekbones, marked him another Saldaean, though he was clean-shaven and garbed like a once prosperous Andoran merchant lately fallen on hard times. His dark blue coat had been of fine wool trimmed in darker velvet, but wear had made the cuffs ragged, his breeches bagged at the knee, and dust coated his cracked boots. Still, he walked proudly, no mean feat with four more of Bashere’s men behind him, those almost straight, slightly serpentine blades bare and the points inches from his ribs. The heat hardly seemed to touch him. The Maidens’ eyes followed his progress.

Rand studied Taim as the man and his escort crossed the courtyard. At least fifteen years older than himself; thirty-five, then, or a few years more at most. Little was known and less written of men who could channel—it was a subject most decent people avoided—but Rand had learned what he could. Relatively few men actually sought it out; that was one of Rand’s problems. Since the Breaking, most men who channeled had the ability born in them, ready to spring out as they grew into manhood. Some managed to keep madness at bay for years before Aes Sedai found and gentled them; others were already hopelessly mad when found, at times less than a year after first touching saidin. Rand had clung to sanity for close to two years, so far. Yet in front of him he had a man who must have managed it for ten or fifteen. That alone was worth something.

They halted a few paces before him at a gesture from Tumad. Rand opened his mouth, but before he could speak, Lews Therin rose up in a frenzy in his head. Sammael and Demandred hated me, whatever honors I gave them. The more honors, the worse the hate, until they sold their souls and went over. Demandred especially. I should have killed him! I should have killed them all! Scorched the earth to kill them all! Scorch the earth!

Face frozen, Rand fought for his own mind. I am Rand al’Thor. Rand al’Thor! I never knew Sammael or Demandred or any of them! The Light burn me, I am Rand al’Thor! Like a faint echo, one more thought came from elsewhere. The Light burn me. It sounded like a plea. Then Lews Therin was gone, driven back into whatever shadows he lived in.

Bashere took advantage of the silence. “You say you’re Mazrim Taim?” He sounded doubtful, and Rand looked at him in confusion. Was this Taim or not? Only a madman would claim that name if it was not his.

The prisoner’s mouth quirked in what might have been the beginning of a smile, and he rubbed his chin. “I shaved, Bashere.” His voice held more than a hint of mockery. “It is hot this far south, or had you not noticed? Hotter than it should be, even here. Do you want proof of me? Shall I channel for you?” His dark eyes flickered to Rand, then back to Bashere, whose face was growing darker by the minute. “Perhaps not that, not now. I remember you. I had you beat at Irinjavar, until those visions appeared in the sky. But everyone knows that. What does everyone not know, that you and Mazrim Taim will?” Focused on Bashere, he seemed unaware of his guards, or their swords still hovering near his ribs. “I hear you hid what happened to Musar and Hachari and their wives.” The mockery was gone; he was just relating what had happened, now. “They shouldn’t have tried to kill me under a parley flag. I trust you found them good places as servants? All they’ll really want to do now is serve and obey; they won’t be happy otherwise. I could have killed them. They all four drew daggers.”

“Taim,” Bashere growled, hand darting for his hilt, “you ... !”

Rand stepped in front of him, seizing his wrist with the blade half-drawn. The guards’ blades, Tumad’s as well, were touching Taim now, very likely touching flesh the way they were shoved against his coat, but he did not flinch. “Did you come to see me,” Rand demanded, “or to taunt Lord Bashere? If you do it again, I’ll let him kill you. My amnesty pardons what you’ve done, but it doesn’t let you flaunt your crimes.”

Taim studied Rand a moment before speaking. Despite the heat, the fellow barely sweated. “To see you. You were the one in the vision in the sky. They say it was the Dark One himself you fought.”

“Not the Dark One,” Rand said. Bashere was not fighting him exactly, but he could feel the tension in the man’s arm. If he let go, that blade would be out and through Taim in a heartbeat. Unless he used the Power. Or Taim did. That had to be avoided, if it could be. He kept his grip on Bashere’s wrist. “He called himself Ba’alzamon, but I think he was Ishamael. I killed him later, in the Stone of Tear.”

“I hear you’ve killed a number of the Forsaken. Should I call you my Lord Dragon? I have heard this lot use the title. Do you mean to kill all the Forsaken?”

“Do you know any other way to deal with them?” Rand asked. “They die, or the world does. Unless you think they can be talked into abandoning the Shadow the way they abandoned the Light.” This was becoming ridiculous. Here he was, carrying on a conversation with a man who certainly had five sword points drawing blood beneath his coat while he himself held on to another man who wanted to add a sixth and draw more than a trickle. At least Bashere’s men were too disciplined to do more without their general’s word. At least Bashere was keeping his mouth shut. Admiring Taim’s coolness, Rand went on as quickly as he could without seeming to be hurried.

“Whatever your crimes are, Taim, they pale beside the Forsaken’s. Have you ever tortured an entire city, made thousands of people assist in breaking each other slowly, in breaking their own loved ones? Semirhage did that, for no more reason than that she could, to prove she could, for the pleasure of it. Have you murdered children? Graendal did. She called it kindness, so they would not suffer after she enslaved their parents and carried them away.” He just hoped the other Saldaeans were listening half as closely as Taim; the man had actually leaned forward slightly in interest. He hoped they did not ask too many questions about where all this came from. “Have you given people to Trollocs to eat? All the Forsaken did—prisoners who would not turn always went to the Trollocs, if they weren’t murdered out of hand—but Demandred captured two cities just because he thought the people there had slighted him before he went over to the Shadow, and every man, woman and child went into Trolloc bellies. Mesaana set up schools in the territory she controlled, schools where children and young people were taught the glories of the Dark One, taught to kill their friends who didn’t learn well enough or fast enough. I could go on. I could start from the beginning of the list and go through all thirteen names, adding a hundred crimes as bad to every name. Whatever you’ve done, it doesn’t rank with that. And now you’ve come to accept my pardon, to walk in the Light and submit to me, to battle the Dark One as hard as you ever battled anyone. The Forsaken are reeling; I mean to hunt them all down, eradicate them. And you will help me. For that, you’ve earned your pardon. I tell you true, you’ll probably earn it a hundred times over again before the Last Battle is done.”

At last he felt Bashere’s arm relax, felt the man’s sword sliding back into its scabbard. Rand barely stopped himself from exhaling in relief. “I don’t see any reason to guard him so closely now. Put up your swords.”

Slowly, Tumad and the others began sheathing their blades. Slowly, but they were doing it. Then Taim spoke.

“Submit? I had thought more of a compact between us.” The other Saldaeans tensed; Bashere was still behind Rand, but Rand could feel him stiffening. The Maidens did not move a muscle, except that Jalani’s hand twitched toward her veil. Taim tilted his head, unaware. “I would be the lesser partner, of course, yet I have had years more than you to study the Power. There is much I could teach you.”

Rage rose up in Rand till his vision filmed red. He had spoken of things he should have no knowledge of, had probably birthed a dozen rumors about himself and the Forsaken, all to make this fellow’s deeds seem less dark, and the man had the audacity to speak of compacts? Lews Therin raved in his head. Kill him! Kill him now! Kill him! For once Rand did not bother to quell the voice. “No compact!” he growled. “No partners! I am the Dragon Reborn, Taim! Me! If you have knowledge I can make use of, I will, but you will go where I say, do as I say, when I say.”

Without a pause Taim slipped to one knee. “I submit to the Dragon Reborn. I will serve and obey.” The corners of his mouth quivered again in that almost smile as he rose. Tumad gaped at him.

“That fast?” Rand said softly. The rage was not gone; it was white hot. If he gave way, he was not sure what he would do. Lews Therin still babbled in the shadows of his head. Kill him! Must kill him! Rand pushed Lews Therin away, to a barely audible murmur. Perhaps he should not be surprised at this; strange things happened around ta’veren, especially one as strong as himself. That a man might change his mind in a moment, even if his course had been carved in stone, should be no great surprise. But the anger had him, and a strong streak of suspicion. “You named yourself the Dragon Reborn, fought battles all over Saldaea, were only captured because you were knocked unconscious, and you give up this quickly? Why?”

Taim shrugged. “What are my choices? To wander the world alone, friendless, hunted, while you rise to glory? That’s supposing Bashere doesn’t manage to kill me before I can leave the city, or your Aielwomen don’t. Even if they don’t, the Aes Sedai will corner me sooner or later; I doubt the Tower means to forget Mazrim Taim. Or I can follow you, and part of that glory will be mine.” For the first time he looked around, at his guards, at the Maidens, and shook his head as if he could not believe it. “I might have been the one. How could I be sure otherwise? I can channel; I’m strong. What said I was not the Dragon Reborn? All I had to do was fulfill just one of the Prophecies.”

“Like managing to be born on the slopes of Dragonmount?” Rand said coldly. “That was the first Prophecy to be met.”

Taim’s mouth quirked again. It really was not a smile; it never touched his eyes. “Victors write history. Had I taken the Stone of Tear, history would have shown I was born on Dragonmount, of a woman never touched by a man, and the heavens opened up in radiance to herald my coming. The sort of thing they say about you, now. But you took the Stone with your Aiel, and the world hails you as the Dragon Reborn. I know better than to stand against that; you are the one. Well, since the whole loaf won’t be mine, I will settle for whatever slices fall my way.”

“You may find honors, Taim, and you may not. If you begin to fret over them, think what happened to the others who’ve done what you did. Logain, captured and gentled; rumor says he died in the Tower. A nameless fellow beheaded in Haddon Mirk by the Tairens. Another burned by the Murandians. Burned alive, Taim! That’s what the Illianers did to Gorin Rogad four years ago, as well.”

“Not a fate I would embrace,” Taim said levelly.

“Then forget honors and remember the Last Battle. Everything I do is aimed at Tarmon Gai’don. Everything I tell you to do will be aimed at it. You will aim at it!”

“Of course.” Taim spread his hands. “You are the Dragon Reborn. I don’t doubt that; I acknowledge it publicly. We march toward Tarmon Gai’don. Which the Prophecies say you will win. And the histories will say that Mazrim Taim stood at your right hand.”

“Perhaps,” Rand told him curtly. He had lived too many prophecies to believe any of them meant exactly what they said. Or even that they ensured anything. In his opinion, prophecy set the conditions that had to be met for a thing to happen; only, meeting them did not mean the thing would happen, just that it could. Some of the conditions set in the Prophecies of the Dragon more than implied that he had to die for any chance at victory. Thinking of that did nothing for his temper. “The Light send your chance doesn’t come too soon. Now. What knowledge do you have that I need? Can you teach men to channel? Can you test a man to know whether he can be taught?” Unlike women, one man who could channel could not simply sense the ability in another. There was as much different between men and women with the One Power as there was between men and women; sometimes it was a matter of hair-fine degree, sometimes stone versus silk.

“Your amnesty? Some fools have actually shown up to learn how to be like you and me?”

Bashere only stared at Taim contemptuously, arms folded and boots spread apart, but Tumad and the guards shifted uneasily. The Maidens did not. Rand had no idea how the Maidens felt about the score of men who had answered his call; they never gave any sign. With the memory of Taim as a false Dragon strong in their heads, few of the Saldaeans could hide their ill ease.

“Just answer me, Taim. If you can do what I want, say so. If not...”That was the anger talking. He could not send the man away, not if every day was a struggle with him. Taim seemed to think he would, though.

“I can do both,” he said quickly. “I have found five over the years—not that I was really looking—but only one had the courage to go beyond the testing.” He hesitated, then added, “He went mad after two years. I had to kill him before he killed me.”

Two years. “You’ve held it off a deal longer than that. How?”

“Worried?” Taim asked softly, then shrugged. “I can’t help you. I don’t know how; I just did. I’m sane as ...” His eyes flickered toward Bashere, ignoring the other man’s flat stare. “... as Lord Bashere.”

But Rand wondered, suddenly. Half the Maidens had returned to watching the rest of the courtyard; they were not likely to focus so deeply on one possible threat that they ignored others. The possible threat was Taim, and the second half of the Maidens still had their eyes fixed on him and Rand for any sign the threat was real. Any man would have to be aware of them, sudden death in their eyes, their hands. Rand was, and they wanted to protect him. And Tumad and the other guards still gripped their sword hilts, ready to draw again. If Bashere’s men and the Aiel decided to kill Taim, the man would have a hard time escaping that courtyard however he channeled, unless Rand helped him. Yet Taim paid the soldiers and the Maidens no more outward attention than he did the colonnades’ columns or the paving stones beneath his boots. Bravery, real or feigned, or something else? A kind of madness?

After a moment of silence, Taim spoke again. “You don’t trust me yet. No reason you should. Yet. In time you will. In token of that future trust, I brought you a present.” From under his worn coat he pulled a rag-wrapped bundle a little larger than a man’s two fists together.

Frowning, Rand took it, and his breath caught when he felt the hard shape inside. Hastily he pulled away multicolored rags, revealing a disc the size of his palm, a disc like that on the scarlet banner above the palace, half white and half black, the ancient symbol of Aes Sedai, before the Breaking of the World. He ran his fingers across the mated teardrops.

Only seven like this had been made, of cuendillar. Seals on the Dark One’s prison, seals that held the Dark One away from the world. He had two more, hidden away very carefully. Protected very carefully. Nothing could break cuendillar, not even the One Power—the lip of a delicate cup made of heartstone could scratch steel, or diamond—but three of the seven had been broken. He had seen them, shattered. And he had watched Moiraine carve a thin sliver from the edge of one. The seals were weakening, the Light alone knew why or how. The disc in his hands had the hard slickness of cuendillar, like a blend of the finest porcelain and polished steel—but he was sure it would break if he let it fall to the stones under his feet.

Three broken. Three in his possession. Where was the seventh? Only four seals stood between humankind and the Dark One. Four, if the last was still whole. Only four, standing between humankind and the Last Battle. How well did they still hold, weakened as they were?

Lews Therin’s voice came up like thunder. Break it break them all must break them must must must break them all break them and strike must strike quickly must strike now break it break it break it...

Rand shook with the effort of fighting that voice down, forcing away a mist that clung like spiderwebs. His muscles ached as if he wrestled with a man of flesh, a giant. Handful by handful he stuffed the fog that was Lews Therin into the deepest crannies, the deepest shadows, he could find in his mind.

Abruptly he heard the words he was muttering hoarsely. “Must break it now break them all break it break it break it.” Abruptly he realized he had his hands over his head, holding the seal, ready to smash it to the white pavement. The only thing stopping him was Bashere, up on his toes, hands raised to grip Rand’s arms.

“I don’t know what that is,” Bashere said quietly, “but I think maybe you should wait before deciding to break it. Eh?” Tumad and the others were no longer watching Taim; they gaped wide-eyed at Rand. Even the Maidens had shifted their eyes to him, eyes full of concern. Sulin took a half step toward the men, and Jalani’s hand was outstretched toward Rand as if she did not realize it.

“No.” Rand swallowed; his throat hurt. “I don’t think I should.” Bashere stepped back slowly, and Rand brought the seal down just as slowly. If Rand had thought Taim unflappable, he had proof to the contrary now. Shock painted the man’s face. “Do you know what this is, Taim?” Rand demanded. “You must, or you wouldn’t have brought it to me. Where did you find it? Do you have another? Do you know where another is?”

“No,” Taim said, voice unsteady. Not with fear, precisely; more like a man who had felt a cliff unexpectedly crumbling under him and had somehow found himself back on solid ground. “That is the only one I... I’ve heard all sorts of rumors since I escaped the Aes Sedai. Monsters leaping out of thin air. Strange beasts. Men talking to animals, and the animals talking back. Aes Sedai going mad like we’re supposed to. Whole villages going mad, killing each other. Some could be true. Half what I know to be true is no less insane. I heard some of the seals have been broken. A hammer could break that one.”

Bashere frowned, stared at the seal in Rand’s hands, then gasped. He understood.

“Where did you find it?” Rand repeated. If he could find the last... Then what? Lews Therin stirred, but he refused to listen.

“In the last place you would expect,” Taim replied, “which I suppose is the first place to look for the others. A decaying little farm in Saldaea. I stopped for water, and the farmer gave it to me. He was old, with no children or grandchildren to pass it on to, and he thought I was the Dragon Reborn. He claimed his family had guarded it more than two thousand years. Claimed they were kings and queens during the Trolloc Wars, and nobles under Artur Hawkwing. His tale could have been true. No more unlikely than finding that in a hut only a few days ride from the Blightborder.”

Rand nodded, then stooped to gather up the rags. He was used to the unlikely happening around him; it had to happen elsewhere, sometimes. Hurriedly rewrapping the seal, he handed it to Bashere. “Guard this carefully.” Break it! He squashed the voice hard. “Nothing must happen to it.”

Bashere took the bundle reverently in both hands. Rand was unsure whether the man’s bow was for him or the seal. “For ten hours or ten years, it will be safe until you require it.”

For a moment Rand studied him. “Everybody’s waiting for me to go mad, afraid of it, but not you. You must have thought I finally was, just now, but you weren’t afraid of me even then.”

Bashere shrugged, grinning behind his gray-streaked mustaches. “When I first slept in a saddle, Muad Cheade was Marshal-General. The man was as mad as a hare in spring thaw. Twice every day he searched his bodyservant for poison, and he drank nothing but vinegar and water, which he claimed was sovereign against the poison the fellow fed him, but he ate everything the man prepared for as long as I knew him. Once he had a grove of oaks chopped down because they were looking at him. And then insisted they be given decent funerals; he gave the oration. Do you have any idea how long it takes to dig graves for twenty-three oak trees?”

“Why didn’t somebody do something? His family?”

“Those not mad as he was, or madder, were afraid to look at him sideways. Tenobia’s father wouldn’t have let anyone touch Cheade anyway. He might have been insane, but he could outgeneral anyone I ever saw. He never lost a battle. He never even came close to losing.”

Rand laughed. “So you follow me because you think I can out-general the Dark One?”

“I follow you because you are who you are,” Bashere said quietly. “The world must follow you, or those who survive will wish themselves dead.”

Slowly Rand nodded. The Prophecies said he would break nations and bind them together. Not that he wanted to, but the Prophecies were his only guide to how to fight the Last Battle, how to win it. Even without them, he thought the binding together was necessary. The Last Battle would not be just him against the Dark One. He could not believe that; if he was going mad, he was not yet mad enough to believe he was more than a man. It would be mankind against Trollocs and Myrddraal, too, and every sort of Shadowspawn the Blight could vomit out, and Darkfriends rising out of their hiding places. There would be other dangers on that road to Tarmon Gai’don, and if the world was not united... You do what must be done. He was not sure whether that was himself or Lews Therin, but it was the truth, as far as he could see.

Walking quickly to the nearest colonnade, he spoke over his shoulder to Bashere. “I am taking Taim to the farm. Do you want to come along?”

“The farm?” Taim said.

Bashere shook his head. “Thank you, no,” he said dryly. He might not allow any nerves to show, but Rand and Taim together were probably as much as he could take; he certainly avoided the farm. “My men are growing soft policing the streets for you. I mean to put some of them back into their saddles properly for a few hours. You were going to inspect them this afternoon. Has that changed?”

“What farm?” Taim said.

Rand sighed, suddenly weary. “No, that hasn’t changed. I will be there if I can.” It was too important to change, though none but Bashere and Mat knew; he could not let anyone else think it more than a casual matter, a useless ceremony for a man growing taken with the pomp of his position, the Dragon Reborn going out to be cheered by his soldiers. He had another visit to make today, too, one that everyone would think he was trying to keep secret. It might even stay secret, from most, but he had no doubt that those he wanted to learn of it, would.

Taking up his sword from where it stood against one of the narrow columns, he buckled it on over his undone coat. The belt was unadorned dark boarhide, just like the scabbard and the long hilt; the buckle was ornate, a finely worked dragon of etched steel inlaid with gold. He should get rid of that buckle, find something plain. He could not bring himself to do it, though. It had been a gift from Aviendha. Which was the reason he should rid himself of it. He could never think his way out of that circle.

Something else waited there for him, too, a two-foot length of spear with a green-and-white tassel below the sharp head. He hefted it as he turned back to the courtyard. One of the Maidens had carved the short shaft with Dragons. Some people were already calling it the Dragon Scepter, especially Elenia and that lot. Rand kept the thing close to remind himself that he might have more enemies than those he could see.

“What farm are you talking about?” Taim’s voice grew harder. “Where is it you mean to take me?”

For a long moment Rand studied the man. He did not like Taim. Something in the fellow’s manner would not allow it. Or maybe something in himself. For so long he had been the only man who could even think of channeling without looking over his shoulder in a sweat for Aes Sedai. Well, it seemed a long time, and at least the Aes Sedai would not try to gentle him, not now that they knew who he was. Could it be as simple as that? Jealousy that he was no longer unique? He did not think so. Apart from everything else, he would welcome more men who could channel walking the earth unmolested. Finally he would stop being a freak. No, it would not go that far, not this side of Tarmon Gai’don. He was unique; he was the Dragon Reborn. Whatever his reasons, he just did not like the man.

Kill him! Lews Therin shrieked. Kill them all! Rand pushed the voice back down. He did not have to like Taim, only to use him. And trust him. That was the hard part.

“I’m taking you where you can serve me,” he said coldly. Taim did not flinch or frown; he merely watched and waited, the corners of his mouth twitching for one moment in that almost smile.

A Woman’s Eyes

Stilling his irritation—and Lews Therin’s mutters—Rand reached out for saidin, launched himself into the now familiar battle for control and survival in the midst of emptiness. The taint oozed through him as he channeled; even within the void he could feel it seeming to filter into his bones, perhaps into his soul. He had no way to describe what he did except as making a fold in the Pattern, a hole through it. This he had learned on his own, and his teacher had not been very good at explaining even what lay behind the things he taught. A bright vertical line appeared in the air, widening quickly into an opening the size of a large doorway. In truth, it seemed to turn, the view through it, a sunlit clearing among drought-draggled trees, rotating to a halt.

Enaila and two more Maidens lifted their veils and leaped through almost before it settled; half a dozen others followed, some with horn bows ready. Rand did not expect there to be anything for them to guard against. He had put the other end—if there was another end; he did not understand, but it seemed to him there was only one—in the clearing because a gateway opening up could be dangerous around people, but telling the Maidens, or any Aiel, that there was no need to be on guard was like telling a fish there was no need to swim.

“This is a gateway,” he told Taim. “I’ll show you how to make one if you didn’t catch it.” The man was staring at him. If he had been watching carefully, he should have seen Rand’s weaving of saidin; any man able to channel could do that.

Taim joined him as he stepped through into the clearing, Sulin and the rest of the Maidens following. Some gave the sword at Rand’s hip a disdainful glance as they streamed past him, and Maiden handtalk flashed silently among them. Disgustedly, no doubt. Enaila and the foreguard had already spread out warily among the bedraggled trees; their coats and breeches, the cadin’sor, made them seem part of the shadows whether or not they had added green to the gray and brown. With the Power in him, Rand could see each dead needle distinctly on each of the pines; more were dead than were alive. He could smell the sour sap of the leatherleafs. The air itself smelted hot, dry and dusty. There was no danger for him here.

“Wait, Rand al’Thor,” came a woman’s urgent voice from the other side of the gateway. Aviendha’s voice.

Rand let go of the weave and saidin immediately, and the gateway winked out just as it had come. There were dangers and dangers. Taim looked at him curiously. Some of the Maidens, veiled and unveiled, spared him a moment for looks of their own. Disapproving ones. Fingers flashed in Maiden handtalk. They had the sense to keep their tongues still, though; he had made himself clear on that.

Ignoring curiosity and disapproval alike, Rand started off through the trees with Taim at his side, dead leaves and twigs crackling as they went. The Maidens, in a wide circle around them, made no sound in their soft boots, laced to the knee. Vigilance buried their moment of rebuke. Some had made this journey with Rand before, always without incident, but nothing would ever convince them these woods were not a good site for an ambush. Before Rand, life in the Waste had been nearly three thousand years of raids, skirmishes, feuds and wars, unbroken for any length of time.

There were surely things he could learn from Taim—if not nearly so much as Taim thought—but the teaching would go both ways, and it was time for him to start educating the older man. “Sooner or later you will come up against the Forsaken, following me. Maybe before the Last Battle. Probably before. You don’t seem surprised.”

“I have heard rumors. They had to break free eventually.”

So the word was spreading. Rand grinned in spite of himself. The Aes Sedai would not be pleased. Aside from anything else, there was a certain pleasure in tweaking their noses. “You can expect anything at any time. Trollocs, Myrddraal, Draghkar, Gray Men, gholam...

He hesitated, heron-branded palm stroking his long sword hilt. He had no idea what a gholam was. Lews Therin had not stirred, but he knew that was the source of the name. Bits and pieces sometimes drifted across whatever thin barrier lay between him and that voice, and became part of Rand’s memories, usually without anything to explain them. It happened more often, lately. The fragments were not something he could fight, like the voice. The hesitation lasted only a moment.

“Not just in the north, near the Blight. Here, or anywhere. They are using the Ways.” That was something else he had to deal with. But how? First made with saidin, the Ways were dark now, as tainted as saidin. The Shadowspawn could not avoid all of the dangers in the Ways that killed men or worse, yet they still managed to use them, and if the Ways were not as quick as gateways and Traveling, or even Skimming, they still allowed hundreds of miles to be covered in a day. A problem for later. He had too many problems for later. He had too many problems for now. Irritably, he slashed at leatherleaf with the Dragon Scepter; pieces of wide, tough leaves fell, most brown. “If you’ve ever heard a legend about it, expect it. Even Darkhounds, though if they’re really the Wild Hunt, at least the Dark One isn’t free to ride behind them. They’re bad enough anyway. Some you can kill, the way the legends say, but some won’t die for anything short of balefire, that I’m sure of. Do you know balefire? If you don’t, that is one thing I’ll not teach you. If you do, don’t use it on anything but Shadowspawn. And do not teach it to anyone.

“The source of some of those rumors you heard might be ... I don’t know what to call them except ‘bubbles of evil.’ Think of them like the bubbles that sometimes rise up in a bog, only these are rising from the Dark One as the seals weaken, and instead of rotten smells, they are full of ... well, evil. They drift along the Pattern until they burst, and when they do, anything can happen. Anything. Your own reflection can leap out of the mirror and try to kill you. Believe me.”

If the litany dismayed Taim, he did not show it. All he said was “I have been in the Blight; I’ve killed Trollocs before, and Myrddraal.” He pushed a low branch out of the way and held it for Rand. “I have never heard of this balefire, but if a Darkhound comes after me, I will find some way to kill it.”

“Good.” That was for Taim’s ignorance as much as his confidence. Balefire was one bit of knowledge Rand would not mind seeing vanish from the world completely. “With luck you won’t find anything like that out here, but you can never be sure.”

The woods gave way abruptly to a farmyard, with a sprawling thatch-roofed house of two weathered stories, smoke rising from one of its chimneys, and a large barn that had a distinct lean. The day was no cooler here than in the city a few miles away, the sun no less blistering. Chickens scratched the dust, two dun cows chewed their cud in a rail-fenced enclosure, a flock of tethered black goats busily stripped leaves from bushes within their reach, and a high-wheeled cart stood in the barn’s shadow, but the place did not look like a farm. There were no fields in sight; forest stretched all around the yard, broken only by the dirt track meandering northward, used for rare excursions to the city. And there were too many people.

Four women, all but one in her middle years, were hanging wash on a pair of lines, and nearly a dozen children, none older than nine or ten, played among the chickens. There were men about, too, most doing chores. Twenty-seven of them, though in some cases it was a stretch to call them men. Eben Hopwil, the skinny fellow pulling up a bucket of water from the well, claimed to be twenty and was certainly four or five years younger. His nose and ears seemed the biggest parts of him. Fedwin Morr, one of three men sweating on the roof replacing old thatch, was a good deal huskier, with a good deal fewer blotches, but certainly no older. More than half of the men had only three or four years on those two. Rand had almost sent some of them home, Eben and Fedwin at least, save that the White Tower took novices as young and sometimes younger. Gray showed among darker hair on a few heads, and crease-faced Damer Flinn, in front of the barn using peeled branches to show two of the younger men how to handle a sword, had a limp and retained only a thin fringe of white hair. Damer had been in the Queen’s Guards until he took a Murandian lance in his thigh. He was no swordsman, but he seemed competent to show the others how not to stab themselves in the foot. Most of the men were Andoran, a few Cairhienin. None had come from Tear yet, though the amnesty had been proclaimed there, too; it would take time for men to come that far.

Damer was the first to notice the Maidens, tossing down his branch and directing his pupils’ attention toward Rand. Then Eben dropped his bucket with a yell, splashing water all over himself, and everyone was scrambling, shouting at the house, to cluster anxiously behind Damer. Two more women appeared from inside, aproned and red-faced from cookfires, and helped the others gather the children behind the men.

“There they are,” Rand told Taim. “You have nearly half a day left. How many can you test? I want to know who can be taught as soon as possible.”

“This lot was dredged from the bottom of ...” Taim began contemptuously, then stopped in the middle of the farmyard, staring at Rand. Chickens scratched in the dust around his feet. “You haven’t tested any of them? Why, in the name of ... ? You cannot, can you? You can Travel, but you do not know how to test for the talent.”

“Some don’t really want to channel.” Rand eased his grip on his sword hilt. He disliked admitting gaps in his knowledge to this man. “Some haven’t thought beyond a chance at glory or wealth or power. But I want to keep any man who can learn, whatever his reasons.”

The students—the men who would be students—were watching him and Taim from in front of the barn with a fair approximation of calm. They had all come to Caemlyn hoping to learn from the Dragon Reborn, after all, or thinking they did. It was the Maidens, making a ring about the farmyard and prowling into the house and barn, that caught their eyes with a wary fascination, even apprehension. The women clutched the children to their skirts, gazes fixed on Rand and Taim, expressions ranging from flat-eyed stares to anxious lip-chewing.

“Come on,” Rand said. “It’s time to meet your students.”

Taim hung back. “Is this truly all you want me for? To try to teach these pathetic dregs? If any of them can be taught. How many do you really think to find in a handful that just straggled to you?”

“This is important, Taim; I’d do it myself, if I could, if I had time.” Time was always key, always lacking. And he had made the admission, as much as it curdled his tongue. He realized he did not much like Taim, but he did not have to like him. Rand did not wait, and after a moment the other man caught up with long strides. “You mentioned trust. I’m trusting you with this.” Don’t trust! Lews Therin panted in the dim recesses. Never trust! Trust is death! “Test them and start teaching as soon you know who can learn.”

“As the Lord Dragon wishes,” Taim murmured wryly as they reached the waiting group. Bows and curtsies, none very polished, greeted them.

“This is Mazrim Taim,” Rand announced. Jaws dropped and eyes widened, of course. Some of the younger men stared as though they thought he and Taim had come there to fight; a few seemed to be looking forward to watching. “Introduce yourselves to him. From today, he will be teaching you.” Taim gave Rand a tight-mouthed look as the students slowly gathered before him and began giving their names.

In truth, the men’s reactions varied. Fedwin pushed eagerly to the front, right alongside Damer, while Eben hung to the rear, face white. The others were somewhere in between, hesitant, uncertain, but speaking up finally. Rand’s declaration meant an end to weeks of waiting for some of them, to years of dreaming, perhaps. Reality began today, and reality might mean channeling, with all that entailed for a man.

A stocky dark-eyed man, six or seven years older than Rand, ignored Taim and slipped away from the others. In a farmer’s rough coat, Jur Grady shifted from foot to foot in front of Rand and twisted a cloth cap in blunt hands. He peered at the cap or the ground under his worn boots, only occasionally glancing up at Rand. “Uh ... my Lord Dragon, I’ve been thinking ... uh ... my pa is looking after my croft, a good piece of land if the stream don’t dry up there might be a crop yet, if it rains, and ... and...” He crushed the cap, then straightened it again carefully. “I’ve been thinking about going home.”

The women were not gathering around Taim. In a silent line of worried eyes, they held hard to the children and watched. The youngest, a plump pale-haired woman, a boy of four playing with her fingers, was Sora Grady. Those women had followed their husbands here, but Rand suspected that half the talk between husband and wife eventually turned to leaving. Five men had left already, and if none gave marriage as a reason, all had been married. What woman could be comfortable watching her husband wait to learn to channel? It must be like watching him wait to commit suicide.

Some would say this was no place for families, yet most likely those same people would also say the men should not be here, either. In Rand’s opinion, the Aes Sedai had made a mistake sealing themselves off from the world. Few entered the White Tower beyond Aes Sedai, women who wanted to be Aes Sedai, and those who served them; only a relative handful seeking help, and then under what they saw as great pressure. When Aes Sedai left the Tower, most held themselves aloof, and some never did leave. To Aes Sedai, people were pieces in a game and the world was the board, not a place to live in. To them, only the White Tower was real. No man could forget the world and ordinary people when he had his family in front of him.

This only had to last until Tarmon Gai’don—how long? A year? Two?—but the question was whether it could even do that. Somehow, it would. He would make it last. Families reminded men what they were going to fight for.

Sora’s eyes were fastened on Rand.

“Go, if you want to,” he told Jur. “You can leave any time before you actually start learning to channel. Once you take that step, you’re the same as a soldier. You know we’ll need every soldier we can find before the Last Battle, Jur. The Shadow will have new Dreadlords ready to channel; you can count on it. But it’s your choice. Maybe you’ll be able to sit it out on your farm. There must be a few places in the world that will escape what’s coming. I hope so. Anyway, the rest of us will do our best to make sure as much escapes as possible. At least you can give your name to Taim, though. It would be a shame to leave before you even know whether you could learn.” Turning away from Jur’s confused face, Rand avoided Sora’s eyes. And you condemn Aes Sedai for manipulating people, he thought bitterly. He did what he had to do.

Taim was still collecting names out of the shifting pack, and still tossing barely subdued glares at Rand. Abruptly Taim’s patience seemed to give out. “Enough of this; names can come later, for those of you who will still be here tomorrow. Who is the first to be tested?” Just that quickly their tongues froze. Some did not even blink as they stared at him. Taim pointed a finger at Damer. “I might as well get you out of the way. Come here.” Damer did not move until Taim grabbed his arm and hauled him a few paces apart from the rest.

Watching, Rand moved nearer, too.

“The more Power that’s used,” Taim told Damer, “the easier it is to detect the resonance. On the other hand, too big a resonance could do unpleasant things to your mind, maybe kill you, so I’ll start small.” Damer blinked; plainly he barely understood a word, except maybe the part about unpleasant things and dying. Rand knew the explanation was meant for him, though; Taim was covering his ignorance.

Abruptly a tiny flame appeared, an inch tall, dancing in midair equidistant between the three men. Rand could feel the Power in Taim, though only a small amount, and see the thin flow of Fire the man wove. The flame brought a startling relief to Rand, startling because it was proof Taim really could channel. Bashere’s first doubts must have stuck in the back of his mind.

“Concentrate on the flame,” Taim said. “You are the flame; the world is the flame; there is nothing but the flame.”

“Don’t feel nothing but an ache starting in my eyes,” Damer muttered, wiping sweat from his forehead with the back of a rough, callused hand.

“Concentrate!” Taim snapped. “Do not talk, do not think, do not move. Concentrate.” Damer nodded, then blinked at Taim’s frown and froze, staring silently at the small flame.

Taim seemed intent, but on what Rand was not sure; he seemed to be listening. A resonance, he had said. Rand focused, listening, feeling for—something.

Minutes stretched out with none of them moving a muscle. Five, six, seven slow minutes, with Damer hardly even blinking. The old man breathed hard, and he sweated so much he looked as though someone had upended a bucket over his head. Ten minutes.

Suddenly Rand felt it. The resonance. A small thing, a tiny echo of the minuscule flow of Power pulsing in Taim, but this seemed to come from Damer. It had to be what Taim meant, but Taim did not move. Perhaps there was more, or maybe this was not what Rand thought.

Another minute or two went by, and finally Taim nodded and let the flame and saidin go. “You can learn ... Damer, was it?” He seemed surprised; no doubt he had not believed the very first man tested would pass, and a nearly bald old man at that. Damer grinned weakly; he looked like he might vomit. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised if every one of these simpletons passes,” the hawk-nosed man muttered with a glance at Rand. “You seem to have luck enough for ten men.”

Boots shuffled uneasily among the rest of the “simpletons.” Undoubtedly some were already hoping they would fail. They could not back out now, but if they failed, they could go home knowing they had tried without having to face what came with passing.

Rand felt a little surprise himself. There had not been anything more than that echo after all, and he had felt it before Taim, the man who knew what he was looking for.

“In time we’ll find out how strong you can be,” Taim said as Damer slipped back among the others. They opened a little distance around him and did not meet his eyes. “Perhaps you will turn out strong enough to match me, or even the Lord Dragon here.” The space around Damer widened a fraction. “Only time will tell. Pay attention while I test the others. If you are sharp, you should catch on to it by the time I find four or five more.” A quick look at Rand said that was meant for him. “Now, who tests next?” No one moved. The Saldaean stroked his chin. “You.” He pointed to a lumpy fellow somewhere well beyond thirty, a dark-haired weaver named Kely Huldin. In the line of women, Kely’s wife moaned.

Twenty-six more tests were going to take the rest of the daylight, maybe more. Heat or no heat, the days still grew shorter as if winter really was coming on, and a failed test would take a few minutes longer than one passed, just to make certain. Bashere was waiting, and there was Weiramon to visit yet, and ...

“Carry on with this,” Rand told Taim. “I will come back tomorrow to see how you’ve done. Remember the trust I’m putting in you.” Don’t trust him, Lews Therin groaned. The voice seemed to come from some capering figure in the shadows of Rand’s head. Don’t trust. Trust is death. Kill him. Kill them all. Oh, to die and be done, done with it all, sleep without dreams, dreams of Ilyena, forgive me, Ilyena, no forgiveness, only death, deserve to die... Rand turned away before the struggle inside could show on his face. “Tomorrow. If I can.”

Taim caught up to him before he and the Maidens were halfway back to the trees. “If you stay a little longer, you can learn the test.” Exasperation touched his voice. “If I really do find four or five more, anyway, which truly won’t surprise me. You do seem to have the Dark One’s own luck. I assume you want to learn. Unless you mean to dump it all on my shoulders. I warn you, it will be slow. However hard I press, this Damer has days yet, weeks, before he can even sense saidin, much less seize it. Just seize it, not channel even a spark.”

“I already picked up the test,” Rand replied. “It wasn’t difficult. And I do mean to put it all on your shoulders, until you can find more and teach them enough so they can help you look. Remember what I said, Taim. Teach them fast.” There were dangers in that. Learning to channel the female half of the True Source was learning an embrace, so Rand had been told, learning to submit to something that would obey once you surrendered to it. It was guiding a huge force that would not harm you unless you misused it. Elayne and Egwene thought that natural; to Rand it was almost beyond belief. Channeling the male half was a constant war for control and survival. Leap into it too far, too fast, and you were a boy tossed naked into a pitched battle against armored foes. Even once you learned, saidin could destroy you, kill you or obliterate your mind, if it did not simply burn the ability to channel from you. The same price that Aes Sedai exacted from the men they caught who could channel, you could exact from yourself in one careless moment, one instant of letting your guard down. Not that some of the men in front of the barn would not be willing to pay that price right that minute. Kely Huldin’s round-faced wife had him by the front of his shirt, talking urgently. Kely was swinging his head uncertainly, and the other married men were looking uneasily toward their wives. But this was a war, and wars had casualties, even among married men. Light, but he was growing calloused enough to sicken a goat. He turned a little, so he did not have to see Sora Grady’s eyes. “Walk the edge with them,” he told Taim. “Teach them as much as they can learn as fast as they can learn it.”

Taim’s mouth tightened slightly at Rand’s first words. “As much as they can learn,” he said flatly. “But what? Things that can be used as weapons, I suppose.”

“Weapons,” Rand agreed. They had to be weapons, all of them, himself included. Could weapons allow themselves families? Could a weapon allow itself to love? Now, where had that come from? “Anything they can learn, but that most of all.” They were so few. Twenty-seven, and if there was even one more than Damer who could learn, Rand would thank his being ta’veren for drawing the man to him. Aes Sedai only caught and gentled men who actually channeled, but they had become very good at it over the last three thousand years. Some Aes Sedai apparently believed they were succeeding in something they had never intended, culling the ability to channel out of humanity. The White Tower had been built to house three thousand Aes Sedai all the time, and far more if all their numbers had to be called in, with rooms for hundreds of girls in training, but before the split there had only been forty or so novices in the Tower and fewer than fifty Accepted. “I need more numbers, Taim. One way or another, find more. Teach them the test before anything else.”

“You mean to try matching the Aes Sedai, then?” Taim seemed unperturbed even if that was Rand’s plan. His dark tilted eyes were steady.

“How many Aes Sedai are there altogether? A thousand?”

“Not so many, I think,” Taim said cautiously.

Culling the human race. Burn them for it, even if they had cause. “Well, there will be enemies enough anyway.” One thing he did not lack was enemies. The Dark One and the Forsaken, Shadowspawn and Darkfriends. The Whitecloaks certainly and very likely Aes Sedai, or some of them, those who were Black Ajah and those who wanted to control him. Those last he counted enemies even if they did not think themselves so. There surely would be Dreadlords, just as he had said. And more beyond that. Enemies enough to crush all his plans, crush everything. His grip tightened on the carved haft of the Dragon Scepter. Time was the greatest enemy of all, the one he had the least chance of defeating. “I am going to defeat them, Taim. All of them. They think they can tear everything down. It’s always tearing down, never building up! I’m going to build something, leave something behind. Whatever happens, I will do that! I’ll defeat the Dark One. And cleanse saidin, so men don’t have to fear going mad, and the world doesn’t have to fear men channeling. I’ll ...”

The green-and-white tassel swung as he angrily jerked the length of spear. It was impossible. The heat and dust mocked him. Some of it had to be done, but it was all impossible. The best any of them could hope for was to win and die before they went mad, and he did not see how to manage even that much. All he could do was keep trying. There should be a way, though. If there was such a thing as justice, there should be a way.

“Cleanse saidin,” Taim said softly. “I think that would take more power than you can imagine.” His eyes lidded thoughtfully. “I have heard of things called sa’angreal. Do you have one you think could actually—”

“Never mind what I have or don’t have,” Rand snapped. “You teach whoever can learn, Taim. Then find more and teach them. The Dark One won’t wait on us. Light! We don’t have enough time, Taim, but we have to make do. We have to!”

“I will do what I can. Just do not expect Damer to topple a city’s walls tomorrow.”

Rand hesitated. “Taim? Keep a watch out for any student who learns too fast. Let me know immediately. One of the Forsaken might try to slip in among the students.”

“One of the Forsaken!” It was almost a whisper. For the second time, Taim looked shaken, this time well and truly taken aback. “Why would—?”

“How strong are you?” Rand broke in. “Seize saidin. Do it. As much as you can hold.”

For a moment Taim only looked at him, expressionless; then the Power flooded into him. There was no glow such as women could see around one another, only a sense of force and menace, but Rand could feel it clearly, and judge it. Taim held enough of saidin to devastate the farm and everyone there in seconds, enough to lay waste as far as he could see. It was not much short of what Rand himself could manage, unaided. But then, the man could be holding back. There was no sense of strain and he might not want to show his full strength to Rand; how could he know how Rand might react?

Saidin, the sense of it, faded from Taim, and for the first time Rand realized that he himself was filled with the male half of the Source, a raging flood, every thread he could pull through the angreal in his pocket. Kill him, Lews Therin muttered. Kill him now! For a moment shock gripped Rand; the emptiness surrounding him wavered, saidin raged and swelled, and he barely released the Power before it could crush the Void and him both. Had he seized the Source or had Lews Therin? Kill him! Kill him!

In a fury, Rand screamed inside his head, Shut up! To his surprise, the other voice vanished.

Sweat rolled down his face, and he wiped it away with a hand that wanted to shake. He had grasped the Source himself; it had to have been so. A dead man’s voice could not have done it. Unconsciously, he had not been willing to trust Taim holding so much of saidin while he stood helpless. That was it.

“Just you keep an eye out for anyone who learns too fast,” he muttered. Maybe he was telling Taim too much, but people had a right to know what they might face. As much as they needed to know. He dared not allow Taim or anyone else to find out where he had learned much of what he knew. If they discovered that he had held one of the Forsaken prisoner and allowed him to escape... Rumor would strip away mention of prisoners if that leaked out. The Whitecloaks claimed he was a false Dragon, and very likely a Darkfriend besides; they said as much of anyone who touched the One Power. If the world learned about Asmodean, many more might believe. Never mind that Rand had needed a man to teach him of saidin. No woman could have, any more than they could see his weavings, or he theirs. Men believe the worst easily, and women believe it hides something still darker; that was an old Two Rivers saying. He would deal with Asmodean himself if the man ever turned up again. “Just you keep an eye out. Quietly.”

“As my Lord Dragon commands.” The man actually bowed slightly before starting back across the farmyard.

Rand realized the Maidens were looking at him. Enaila and Somara, Sulin and Jalani and all the rest, concern filling their eyes. They accepted almost everything he did, all the things that made him flinch when he did them, all the things everyone but the Aiel flinched at; what put their hackles up were usually matters he did not understand at all. They accepted, and worried about him.

“You must not tire yourself,” Somara said quietly. Rand looked at her, and the flaxen-haired woman’s cheeks reddened. This might not count as a public place—Taim was already too distant to overhear—but the remark was still going too far.

Enaila, though, pulled a spare shoufa from her belt and handed it to him. “Too much sun is not good for you,” she murmured.

One of the others muttered, “He needs a wife to look after him.” He could not tell which; even Somara and Enaila confined that sort of talk behind his back. He knew who was meant, though. Aviendha. Who better to marry the son of a Maiden than a Maiden who had given up the spear to become a Wise One?

Suppressing a flash of anger, he wound the shoufa around his head, and was grateful for it. The sun truly was hot, and the gray-brown cloth deflected a surprising amount of the heat. His sweat dampened it immediately. Did Taim know something like the Aes Sedai trick of not letting heat or cold touch them? Saldaea was in the far north, yet the man hardly seemed to perspire as much as the Aiel. Despite his gratitude, what Rand said was “What I must not do is stand around here wasting time.”

“Wasting time?” young Jalani said in a too innocent voice, rewinding her shoufa and momentarily exposing short hair nearly as red as Enaila’s. “How can the Car’a’carn be wasting time? The last time I sweated as much as he is, I had run from sunup to sundown.”

Grins and outright laughter spread through the other Maidens, red-haired Maira, at least ten years older than Rand, slapping her thigh, golden-haired Desora hiding her smiles behind a hand as she always did. Scar-faced Liah bounced up and down on her toes, while Sulin almost doubled over. Aiel humor was strange at best. Heroes in stories never had jokes made at their expense, not even odd ones, and he doubted kings did either. Part of the problem was that an Aiel chief, even the Car’a’carn, was not a king; he might have the authority of one in many ways, but any Aiel could and would walk up to a chief and say exactly what he thought. The bigger part, however, was something else.

Despite his having been raised in the Two Rivers by Tam al’Thor and, until her death when he was five, Tam’s wife, Kari, Rand’s true mother had been a Maiden of Spear who died giving birth to him on the slopes of Dragonmount. Not an Aiel, though his father had been, but still a Maiden. Now Aiel customs stronger than law had touched him. No, not touched; enveloped. No Maiden could marry and still carry the spear, and unless she gave up the spear any child she bore was given to another woman by the Wise Ones, in such a way that the Maiden never knew who that woman was. Any child born of a Maiden was believed to be lucky, both in itself and to raise, though none but the woman who raised the child and her husband ever knew it was not her own. Yet beyond that, the Aiel Prophecy of Rhuidean said that the Car’a’earn would be such a one, raised by wetlanders. To the Maidens, Rand was all those children come back, the first child of a Maiden ever to be known to everyone.

Most, whether older than Sulin or as young as Jalani, welcomed him like a long-lost brother. In public they gave him as much respect as they did any chief, marginal as that might be sometimes, but alone with them he might as well have been that brother, though whether he was a younger brother or an older did not seem to have anything to do with the woman’s own age. He was just glad that only a handful took Enaila and Somara’s path; alone or not, it was plain irritating to have a woman no older than himself behaving as though he were her son.

“Then we ought to go somewhere I won’t sweat,” he said, managing a grin. He owed it to them. Some had already died for him, and more would before it was done. The Maidens quickly subdued their mirth, ready to go where the Car’a’carn said, ready to defend him.

The question was, where to go? Bashere was waiting for his carefully casual visit, but if Aviendha had heard about that, she might well be with Bashere. Rand had been avoiding her as much as possible, especially being alone with her. Because he wanted to be alone with her. He had managed to keep that from the Maidens so far, if they ever so much as suspected, they would make his life miserable. The fact was, he had to stay away from her. He carried death with him like a contagious disease; he was a target, and people died near him. He had to harden his heart and let Maidens die—the Light burn him forever for that promise!—but Aviendha had given up the spear to study with the Wise Ones. He was not sure what he felt for her, only that if she died because of him, something in him would die, too. It was lucky that she had no emotional tangles where he was concerned. She tried to stay close to him only because the Wise Ones wanted her to watch him for them, and because she wanted to watch him for Elayne. Neither reason made the situation any easier for Rand; exactly the opposite.

The decision was easy, really. Bashere would have to wait, so he could avoid Aviendha; and the visit to Weiramon, intended to begin in the Palace with attempts at stealth meant to be pierced, would come now. A foolish reason to make a decision, but what was a man to do when a woman refused to see sense? It might work out for the best this way. Those who were supposed to learn of that visit still would, and perhaps believe what they were supposed to all the more because it was made in true concealment. Perhaps the call on Bashere and the Saldaeans would even seem more casual because he left it until late in the day. Yes. Twists within twists worthy of a Cairhienin playing the Game of Houses.

Seizing saidin, he opened a gateway, the slash of light widening to show the interior of a large green-striped tent, empty save for a carpeting of colorful rugs woven in Tairen maze patterns. There was no chance of an ambush in that tent, less even than around the farm, but Enaila and Maira and others still veiled themselves and darted through. Rand paused to look back.

Kely Huldin was making his way toward the farmhouse, head down and his wife herding their two children at his side. She kept reaching over to pat him consolingly, but even across the farmyard Rand could make out her beaming face. Plainly Kely had failed. Taim was facing Jur Grady, both staring at a tiny flame wavering between them. Sora Grady, her son clasped to her breast, was not watching her husband. Her eyes were still locked on Rand. A woman’s eyes cut deeper than a knife; another Two Rivers saying.

Stepping through the gateway, he waited for the rest of the Maidens to follow, then released the Source. He did what he had to do.

A Sense of Humor

The tent’s dim interior was hot enough to make Caemlyn, some eight hundred miles or so north, seem pleasantly cool, and when Rand pushed the flap open, he blinked. The sun was a hammer that made him glad of the shoufa.

A copy of the Dragon banner hung above the green-striped tent, alongside one of the crimson banners bearing the ancient Aes Sedai symbol. More tents stretched across a rolling plain where all but a few tufts of tough grass had long since been beaten to dust by hooves and boots—peak-roofed tents and flat, most white by far if often dirty white, but many in colors or stripes, tents and the colorful banners of lords. An army had gathered here on the border of Tear, on the edge of the Plains of Maredo, thousands upon thousands of soldiers from Tear and Cairhien. The Aiel had made their own camps well away from the wetlanders, five Aiel for every Tairen and Cairhienin and more arriving by the day. It was an army to make Illian shake in its boots, a host already mighty enough to smash anything in its path.

Enaila and the rest of the foreguard were already outside, veils down, with a dozen or so Aielmen. The Aiel kept a constant guard on this tent. Clothed and armed like the Maidens, they were as tall as Rand or taller, lions to the Maidens’ leopards, hard-faced sun-dark men with cold eyes of blue or green or gray. Today they were Sha’mad Conde, Thunder Walkers, led by Roidan himself, who headed the society this side of the Dragonwall. The Maidens carried the honor of the Car’a’carn, but every warrior society demanded some share of the guard duty.

One thing about some of the men’s garb differed from the Maidens’. Half wore a crimson cloth knotted around their temples, with the ancient Aes Sedai symbol a black-and-white disc above their brows. It was a new thing, first seen only a few months earlier. Wearers of the headband considered themselves siswai’aman; in the Old Tongue, the Spears of the Dragon. The Spears Owned by the Dragon might be closer. The headbands, and their meaning, made Rand uncomfortable, but there was little he could do when the men refused even to admit they were wearing them. Why no Maidens had donned the things—none he had seen at least—he had no idea. They were almost as reluctant to talk about it as the men.

“I see you, Rand al’Thor,” Roidan said gravely. There was considerably more gray than yellow in Roidan’s hair, but a blacksmith could have used the heavy-shouldered man’s face for hammer or anvil, and by the scars across his cheeks and nose it seemed possible that more than one had. Icy blue eyes made his face soft by comparison. He avoided looking at Rand’s sword. “May you find shade this day.” That had nothing to do with the molten sun or the cloudless sky—Roidan did not seem to sweat at all—it was simply a greeting among people from a land where the sun was always baking hot and a tree rare.

Equally formal, Rand replied, “I see you, Roidan. May you find shade this day. Is the High Lord Weiramon about?”

Roidan nodded toward a large pavilion with red-striped sides and a crimson roof, ringed by men with tall spears slanted precisely, shoulder-to-shoulder in the burnished breastplates and gold-and-black coats of Tairen Defenders of the Stone. Above it, the Three Crescents of Tear, white on red and gold, and the many-rayed Rising Sun of Cairhien, gold on blue, flanked Rand’s own scarlet flag, all three twitching in a breeze that might have come from an oven.

“The wetlanders are all there.” Looking Rand straight in the eyes, Roidan added, “Bruan has not been asked to that tent in three days, Rand al’Thor.” Bruan was clan chief of the Nakai Aiel, Roidan’s clan; they were both Salt Flat sept. “Nor has Han of the Tomanelle, or Dhearic of the Reyn, or any clan chief.”

“I will speak with them,” Rand said. “Will you tell Bruan and the others I am here?” Roidan nodded gravely.

Eyeing the men sideways, Enaila leaned close to Jalani, then spoke in a whisper that could have been heard clearly at ten paces. “Do you know why they are called Thunder Walkers? Because even when they are standing still, you keep looking to the sky expecting to see lightning.” The Maidens hooted with laughter.

A young Thunder Walker leaped in the air, kicking a soft knee-high boot higher than Rand’s head. He was handsome except for the puckered white scar that ran up under the strip of black cloth covering a missing eye. He wore the headband, too. “Do you know why Maidens use handtalk?” he shouted at the top of his leap, and, landing, he put on a befuddled grimace. Not directed at the Maidens, though; he spoke to his companions, ignoring the women. “Because even when they are not talking, they cannot stop talking.” The Sha’mad Conde laughed as hard as the Maidens had.

“Only Thunder Walkers would see honor in guarding an empty tent,” Enaila told Jalani sadly, shaking her head. “The next time they call for wine, if the gai’shain bring them empty cups, they will no doubt get drunker than we can on oosquai.”

Apparently the Thunder Walkers thought Enaila had gained the best of the exchange. The one-eyed man and several others raised their bull-hide bucklers toward her and rattled spears against them. For her part, she simply listened a moment, then nodded to herself and fell in with the others as they followed Rand.

Musing to himself about Aiel humor, Rand studied the sprawling camp. The aromas of food drifted from hundreds of scattered cookfires, bread baking in coals, meat roasting on spits, soup bubbling in kettles hung on tripods. Soldiers always ate well and often when they could; campaigning usually brought scant meals. The fires added their own sweetish smells; there was more dried ox dung to burn on the Plains of Maredo than wood.

Here and there archers or crossbowmen or pikemen moved about in leather jerkins sewn with steel discs or simply padded coats, but Tairen and Cairhienin nobles alike despised foot and lauded horse, so mounted men were most in evidence. Tairens in helmets rimmed and ridged, and breast plates over fat-sleeved coats striped in the colors of their various lords. Cairhienin in dark coats and battered breastplates and helmets like bells cut away to expose their faces. Small banners called con, on short staffs fastened to some men’s backs, marked minor Cairhienin nobility and younger sons, and sometimes merely officers, though few Cairhienin commoners rose to rank. Or Tairen, for that matter. The two nationalities did not mingle, and while the Tairens often slouched in their saddles and always directed a sneer at any Cairhienin who came near, the shorter Cairhien sat their horses stiffly, as though straining for the last inch of height, and ignored the Tairens completely. They had fought more than one war against each other before Rand made them ride together.

Roughly dressed, grizzled old men and some little more than boys went poking around the tents with stout sticks, one or another now and again scaring up a rat that he chased down and clubbed before adding it to the others dangling from his belt. A big-nosed fellow in a stained leather vest and no shirt, bow in hand and quiver at his waist, laid a long string of crows and ravens tied together by the feet on a table in front of one tent and received a purse in exchange from the bored-looking helmetless Tairen behind it. Few this far south really believed Myrddraal used rats and ravens and such for spies—Light, except for those who had actually seen them, almost no one this far south truly believed in Myrddraal, or Trollocs!—but if the Lord Dragon wanted the camp kept clear of the creatures, they were happy to oblige, especially since the Lord Dragon paid in silver for every corpse.

Cheers rose, of course; no one else would be walking about with an escort of Maidens of the Spear, and there was the Dragon Scepter. “The Light illumine the Lord Dragon!” and “Grace favor the Lord Dragon!” and the like showered from every side. Many even sounded sincere, though it was difficult to tell with men bellowing at the top of their lungs. Others only stared woodenly, or turned their horses and rode away, not too fast. After all, there was no telling when he might decide to call down lightning or make the ground split open; men who channeled did go mad, and who knew what a madman might do or when? Whether cheering or not, they eyed the Maidens warily. Few had really grown accustomed to seeing women carrying weapons like men; besides, everyone knew Aiel were every bit as unpredictable as madmen.

The noise was not enough to keep Rand from hearing what the Maidens were saying behind him.

“He has a fine sense of humor. Who is he?” That was Enaila.

“His name is Leiran,” Somara replied. “A Cosaida Chareen. You think he has humor because he thought your joke better than his. He does look to have strong hands.” Several of the Maidens chortled.

“Did you not think Enaila funny, Rand al’Thor?” Sulin was striding at his side. “You did not laugh. You never laugh. Sometimes I do not think you have a sense of humor.”

Stopping dead, Rand rounded on them so suddenly that several reached for their veils and looked about for what had startled him. He cleared his throat. “An irascible old farmer named Hu discovered one morning that his best rooster had flown into a tall tree beside his farm pond and wouldn’t come down, so he went to his neighbor, Wil, and asked for help. The men had never gotten along, but Wil finally agreed, so the two men went to the pond and began climbing the tree, Hu first. They meant to frighten the rooster out, you see, but the bird only kept flying higher, branch by branch. Then, just as Hu and the rooster reached almost the very top of the tree, with Wil right behind, there was a loud crack, the branch under Hu’s feet broke away, and down he went into the pond, splashing water and mud everywhere. Wil scrambled down as fast as he could and reached out to Hu from the bank, but Hu just lay there on his back, sinking deeper into the mud until only his nose stuck out of the water. Another farmer had seen what happened, and he came running and pulled Hu out of the pond. ‘Why didn’t you take Wil’s hand?’ he asked Hu. ‘You could have drowned.’ ‘Why should I take his hand now?’ Hu grumped. ‘I passed him just a moment ago in broad daylight, and he never spoke a word to me.’ ” He waited expectantly.

The Maidens exchanged blank looks. Finally Somara said, “What happened with the pond? Surely the water is the point of this story.”

Throwing up his hands, Rand started for the red-striped pavilion again. Behind him he heard Liah say, “I think it was supposed to be a joke.”

“How can we laugh when he doesn’t know what happened to the water?” Maira said.

“It was the rooster,” Enaila put in. “Wetlander humor is strange. I think it was something about the rooster.”

He tried to stop listening.

The Defenders stiffened even more rigidly at his approach, if that was possible, and the two standing before the gold-fringed entry flaps stepped aside smoothly, pulling them open. Their eyes stared past the Aiel women.

Rand had led the Defenders of the Stone once, in a desperate fight against Myrddraal and Trollocs in the halls of the Stone of Tear itself. They would have followed anyone who stepped forward to lead that night, but it had been him.

“The Stone still stands,” he said quietly. That had been their battlecry. Quick smiles flashed across some of those faces before they snapped back to wooden stillness. In Tear commoners did not smile at what a lord said unless absolutely sure the lord wanted them to smile.

Most of the Maidens squatted easily outside, spears across their knees, a posture they could hold for hours without moving a muscle, but Sulin followed Rand inside with Liah, Enaila and Jalani. If those Defenders had all been childhood friends of Rand, the Maidens would have been as cautious, but the men inside were not friends at all.

Colorful, fringed carpets floored the pavilion, Tairen mazes and elaborate scrollwork patterns, and in the middle sat a massive table, heavily carved and gilded and garishly inlaid with ivory and turquoise, that very likely needed a wagon all to itself for transport. The map-covered table separated a dozen sweaty-faced Tairens from half as many Cairhienin, who suffered even more from the heat, each man holding a golden goblet that self-effacing servants in black-and-gold livery kept filled with punch. All the nobles were in silk, but the clean-shaven Cairhienin, short, slight and pale compared to the men on the other side of the table, wore coats dark and sober except for bright horizontal slashes of their House colors across the chest, the number indicating the rank of the House, while the Tairens, most with beards oiled and trimmed to neat points, wore padded coats that were a garden of red and yellow and green and blue, satin and brocade, silver thread and thread-of-gold. The Cairhienin were solemn, even dour, most gaunt-cheeked and each with the front of his head shaved and powdered in what had once been the fashion only among soldiers in Cairhien, not lords. The Tairens smiled and sniffed scented handkerchiefs and pomanders that filled the pavilion with their heavy aromas. Beside the punch, the one thing they seemed to have in common was flat-eyed stares for the Maidens, followed hard by the pretense that the Aiel were invisible.

The High Lord Weiramon, oiled beard and hair streaked gray, bowed deeply. He was one of four High Lords there, in elaborately silver-worked boots, the others being unctuous, overly plump Sunamon; Tolmeran, whose iron-gray beard seemed a spear point on the shaft of his leanness; and potato-nosed Torean, looking more a farmer than most farmers—but Rand had given Weiramon the command. For the time being. The other eight were lesser lords, some clean-shaven though with no less gray in their hair; they were here through their oaths of fealty to one or another of the High Lords, yet they all had some experience of fighting.

Weiramon was not short for a Tairen, though Rand stood a head taller, but he always reminded Rand of a banty rooster, all puffed out chest and strutting. “All hail the Lord Dragon,” he intoned, bowing, “soon to be Conqueror of Illian. All hail the Lord of the Morning.” The rest were no more than a breath behind, Tairens spreading arms wide, Cairhienin touching hand to heart.

Rand grimaced. Lord of the Morning had been one of Lews Therin’s titles, or so the fragmentary histories said. A great deal of knowledge had been lost in the Breaking of the World, and more went up in smoke during the Trolloc Wars and later during the War of the Hundred Years, yet surprising shards sometimes survived. He was surprised that Weiramon’s use of the title had not brought Lews Therin’s mad yammering. Come to think of it, Rand had not heard that voice since shouting at it. As far as he could recall that was the first time he had ever actually addressed the voice sharing his head. The possibilities behind that sent a chill down his back.

“My Lord Dragon?” Sunamon dry-washed fleshy hands. He seemed to be trying not to see the shoufa wrapped around Rand’s head. “Are you—?” Swallowing his words, he put on an ingratiating smile; asking a potential madman—potential at the very least—whether he was well was perhaps not what he wanted to say. “Would the Lord Dragon like some punch? A Lodanaille vintage mixed with honeymelon.” A lanky Lord of the Land sworn to Sunamon, a man named Estevan with a hard jaw and harder eyes, motioned sharply, and a servant darted for a golden goblet from a side table against the canvas wall; another hurried to fill it.

“No,” Rand said, then more strongly, “No.” He waved the servant away without really seeing him. Had Lews Therin actually heard? Somehow that made the whole thing worse. He did not want to think about the possibility now; he did not want to think of it at all. “As soon as Hearne and Simaan get here, almost everything will be in place.” Those two High Lords should be arriving soon; they led the last large parties of Tairen soldiers to have left Cairhien, over a month ago. Of course, there were smaller groups on the way south, and more Cairhienin. More Aiel, too; the stream of Aiel would draw things out. “I want to see—”

Abruptly he realized the pavilion had gone very quiet, very still, except for Torean suddenly tipping back his head to gulp down the rest of his punch. He scrubbed a hand across his mouth and held out the goblet for more, but the servants seemed to be trying to fade into the red-striped walls. Sulin and the other three Maidens were suddenly up on their toes, ready to veil.

“What is it?” he asked quietly.

Weiramon hesitated. “Simaan and Hearne have ... gone to Haddon Mirk. They are not coming.” Torean snatched a worked-gold pitcher from one of the servants and filled his own goblet, slopping punch onto the carpets.

“And why have they gone there instead of coming here?” Rand did not raise his voice. He was sure he knew the answer. Those two—and five more High Lords besides—had been sent to Cairhien mainly to occupy minds set to plot against him.

Malicious smiles flickered among the Cairhienin, most half-hidden in quickly raised goblets. Semaradrid, the highest-ranking, slashes of color on his coat to below the waist, wore his sneer openly. A long-faced man with white streaks at his temples and dark eyes that could chip stone, he moved stiffly from wounds suffered in his land’s civil war, but his limp came from fighting Tear. His main reason for cooperating with the Tairens was that they were not Aiel. But then, the Tairens’ main reason for cooperating was that the Cairhienin were not.

It was one of Semaradrid’s countrymen who answered, a young lord named Meneril who had half Semaradrid’s stripes on his coat, and on his face a scar from the civil war that pulled up the left corner of his mouth in a permanent sardonic smile. “Treason, my Lord Dragon. Treason and rebellion.”

Weiramon might have been hesitant about saying those words to Rand’s face, yet he was not about to let an outlander speak for him. “Yes, rebellion,” he said hurriedly, glaring at Meneril, but his usual pomposity quickly returned. “And not only them, my Lord Dragon. The High Lords Darlin and Tedosian and the High Lady Estanda are in it, too. Burn my soul, but they all put their names to a letter of defiance! It seems some twenty or thirty minor nobles are involved as well, some little more than jumped-up farmers. Light-blasted fools!”

Rand almost admired Darlin. The man had opposed him openly from the start, fleeing the Stone when it fell and trying to rouse resistance among the country nobles. Tedosian and Estanda were different. Like Hearne and Simaan they had bowed and smiled, called him Lord Dragon and plotted behind his back. Now his forbearance was repaid. No wonder Torean was spilling punch over his white-streaked beard as he drank; he had been involved deeply with Tedosian, and with Hearne and Simaan for that matter.

“They wrote more than defiance,” Tolmeran said in a cold voice. “They wrote that you are a false Dragon, that the fall of the Stone and your drawing of The Sword That Is Not a Sword were some Aes Sedai trick.” There was a hint of question in his tone; he had not been in the Stone of Tear the night it fell to Rand.

“What do you believe, Tolmeran?” It was a seductive claim in a land where channeling had been outlawed before Rand changed the law, and Aes Sedai were at best tolerated, where the Stone of Tear had stood invincible for close to three thousand years before Rand took it. And a familiar claim. Rand wondered whether he would find Whitecloaks when these rebels were laid by the heels. He thought Pedron Niall might be too smart to allow that.

“I think you drew Callandor,” the lean man said after a moment. “I think you are the Dragon Reborn.” Both times there was a slight emphasis on “think.” Tolmeran had courage. Estevan nodded; slowly, but he did it. Another brave man.

Even they did not ask the obvious question, though, whether Rand wanted the rebels rooted out. Rand was not surprised. For one thing, Haddon Mirk was no easy place to root anyone out of, a huge tangled forest lacking villages, roads or even paths. In the choppy mountainous terrain along its northernmost edge a man would be lucky to cover a handful of miles in a long day, and armies could maneuver until their food ran out without finding one another. Perhaps more importantly, whoever asked that question could be suspected of volunteering to lead the expedition, and a volunteer could be suspected of wanting to join Darlin, not lay him by the heels. Tairens might not play Daes Dae’mar, the Game of Houses, the way Cairhienin did—that lot read volumes in a glance and heard more in a sentence than you ever meant to put there—but they still schemed and watched one another, suspicious of schemes, and they believed everyone else did the same.

Still, it suited Rand to leave the rebels where they were for now. All of his attention had to be on Illian; it had to be seen to be there. But he could not be seen as soft, either. These men would not turn on him, but Last Battle or no Last Battle, only two things kept the Tairens and Cairhienin from each other’s throats. They preferred each other to Aielmen, if barely, and they feared the wrath of the Dragon Reborn. If they lost that fear, they would be trying to kill one another, and the Aiel, before you could say Jak o’ the Mists.

“Does anyone speak in their defense?” he asked. “Does anyone know any mitigation?” If any did, they held their tongues; counting the servants, nearly two dozen pairs of eyes watched him, waiting. Perhaps the servants most intently of all. Sulin and the Maidens watched everything except him. “Their titles are forfeited, their lands and estates confiscated. Arrest warrants are to be signed for every man whose name is known. And every woman.” That could present a problem; the penalty in Tear for rebellion was death. He had changed some laws, but not that one, and it was too late now. “Publish it that whoever kills one of them will be absolved of murder, and whoever aids them will be charged with treason. Any who surrender will be spared their lives,” which might solve the difficulty of Estanda—he would not order a woman executed—if he could work how to manage it, “but those who persist will hang.”

The nobles shifted uneasily and exchanged glances, whether Tairen or Cairhienin. Blood drained from more than one face. They had certainly expected the death sentences—there could be no less for rebellion, and with war in the offing—but the stripping of titles plainly shocked them. Despite all the laws Rand had changed in both lands, despite lords hauled before magistrates and hanged for murder or fined for assault, they still thought there was some difference bred in the bone, some natural order that made them lions by right and commoners sheep. A High Lord who went to the gibbet died a High Lord, but Darlin and the others would die peasants in these men’s eyes, a much worse fate than the dying itself. The servants remained poised with their pitchers, waiting to refill any goblet that had to be tilted very far in drinking. Features as expressionless as ever, there seemed to be a cheerfulness in some of those eyes not there before.

“Now that that’s settled,” Rand said, dragging off the shoufa as he went to the table, “let’s see the maps. Sammael is more important than a handful of fools rotting in Haddon Mirk.” He hoped they did rot. Burn them!

Weiramon’s mouth tightened, and Tolmeran quickly smoothed out a frown. Sunamon’s face was so smooth it might have been a mask. The other Tairens looked as doubtful, and the Cairhienin as well, though Semaradrid hid it well. Some had seen Myrddraal and Trollocs during that attack on the Stone, and some had seen his duel with Sammael at Cairhien, yet they thought his claim the Forsaken were loose a symptom of insanity. He had heard whispers that he had wrought all the destruction at Cairhien himself, striking out maniacally at friend and foe alike. Going by Liah’s stony face, one of them was going to get a Maiden’s spear through him if they did not guard those looks.

They gathered around the table, though, as he tossed down the shoufa and rummaged through the maps scattered in layers. Bashere was right; men would follow madmen who won. So long as they won. Just as he found the map he wanted, a detailed drawing of the eastern end of Illian, the Aiel chiefs arrived.

Bruan of the Nakai Aiel was first to enter, followed closely by Jheran of the Shaarad, Dhearic of the Reyn, Han of the Tomanelle, and Erim of the Chareen, each acknowledging the nods of Sulin and the three Maidens. Bruan, a massive man with sad gray eyes, really was the leader of the five clans Rand had sent south so far. None of the others objected; Bruan’s oddly placid manner belied his battle skills. Clothed in the cadin’sor, shoufa hanging loose about their necks, they were unarmed except for their heavy belt knives, but then, an Aiel was hardly unarmed even when he had only his hands and feet.

The Cairhienin simply pretended they were not there, but the Tairens made a point of sneering and sniffing ostentatiously at their pomanders and scented handkerchiefs. Tear had lost only the Stone to the Aiel, and that with the aid of the Dragon Reborn, as they believed—or of Aes Sedai—but Cairhien had twice been ravaged by them, twice defeated and humiliated.

Except for Han, the Aiel ignored them all. Han, white-haired and with a face like creased leather, glared murderously. He was a prickly man at best, and it might not have helped that some of the Tairens were as tall as he. Han was short for an Aiel—which meant well above average for a wetlander—and as touchy about it as Enaila. And of course, Aiel despised “treekillers,” one of their names for Cairhienin, beyond any other wetlanders. Their other name for them was “oathbreakers.”

“The Illianers,” Rand said firmly, smoothing the map out. He used the Dragon Scepter to hold down one end and a gold-mounted inkpot and matching sand-bowl for the other. He did not need these men to start killing each other. He did not think they would—while he was there, at least. In stories allies eventually came to trust and like one another; he doubted these men ever would.

The rolling Plains of Maredo extended a little distance into Illian, giving way to forested hills well short of the Manetherendrelle, and the River Shal branching off from it. Five inked crosses about ten miles apart marked the eastern edge of those hills. The Doirlon Hills.

Rand put his finger on the middle cross. “Are you sure Sammael has not added any new camps?” A slight grimace on Weiramon’s face made him snap irritably, “Lord Brend, if you prefer, then, or the Council of Nine, or Mattin Stepaneos den Balgar, if you want the king himself. Are they still like this?”

“Our scouts say so,” Jheran said calmly. Slender as a blade is slender, his light brown hair heavily streaked with gray, he was always calm now that the Shaarad’s four-hundred-year blood feud with the Goshien Aiel had ended with Rand’s coming. “Sovin Nai and Duadhe Mahdi’in keep a close watch.” He nodded slightly in satisfaction, and so did Dhearic. Jheran had been Sovin Nai, a Knife Hand, before becoming chief, and Dhearic Duadhe Mahdi’in, a Water Seeker. “We know any changes in five days by runners.”

“My scouts believe they are,” Weiramon said as if Jheran had not spoken. “I send a new troop every week. It takes a full month for them to come and go, but I assure you, I am as up-to-date as the distance allows.”

The Aiel’s faces might have been carved from stone.

Rand ignored the interplay. He had tried before to hammer shut the gaps between Tairen, Cairhienin and Aiel, and they always sprang apart as soon as his back turned. It was useless effort.

As for the camps... He knew there were still only five; he had visited them, in a manner of speaking. There was a ... place ... that he knew how to enter, a strange, unpeopled reflection of the real world, and he had walked the wooden walls of those massive hillforts there. He knew the answers to almost every question he intended to ask, but he was juggling plans within plans like a gleeman juggling fire. “And Sammael is still bringing more men up?” This time he emphasized the name. The Aiel’s expressions did not change—if the Forsaken were loose, the Forsaken were loose; the world had to be faced as it was, not as you wished it to be—but the others darted those quick, worried glances at him. They had to get used to it sooner or later. They had to believe sooner or later.

“Every man in Illian who can hold a spear without tripping over it, or so it seems,” Tolmeran said with a glum expression. He was as eager to fight the Illianers as any Tairen—the two nations had hated each other since they were wrested from the wreckage of Artur Hawkwing’s empire; their history was one of wars fought on the slightest excuse—but he seemed a little less likely than the other High Lords to think every battle could be won by one good charge. “Every scout that makes it back reports the camps larger, with more formidable defenses.”

“We should move now, my Lord Dragon,” Weiramon said forcefully. “The Light burn my soul, I can catch the Illianers with their breeches around their ankles. They’ve tied themselves down. Why, they hardly have any horse at all! I’ll crush them in detail, and the way will be open to the city.” In Illian, as in Tear and Cairhien, “the city” was the city that had given the nation its name. “Burn my eyes, I will put your banner over Illian in a month, my Lord Dragon. Two at most.” Glancing at the Cairhienin, he added as if the words were being pulled from him, “Semaradrid and I will.” Semaradrid bowed slightly. Very slightly.

“No,” Rand said curtly. Weiramon’s was a plan for disaster. A good two hundred and fifty miles lay between the camp and Sammael’s great hillforts across a plain of grass where a fifty-foot rise was considered a tall hill and a thicket of two hides a forest. Sammael had scouts, too; any rat or raven could be one of Sammael’s scouts. Two hundred and fifty miles. Twelve or thirteen days for the Tairens and Cairhienin, with luck. The Aiel could make it in perhaps five, if they pushed—a lone scout or two moved faster than an army, even among Aiel—but they were no part of Weiramon’s design. Long before Weiramon reached the Doirlon Hills, Sammael would be ready to crush the Tairen, not the other way around. A fool plan. Even more foolish than the one Rand had given them. “I’ve given your orders. You hold here until Mat arrives to take command, and even then, no one moves a foot until I think I have enough numbers here. There are more men on their way, Tairens, Cairhienin, Aiel. I mean to smash Sammael, Weiramon. Smash him forever, and bring Illian under the Dragon Banner.” That much was true. “I only wish I could be with you, but Andor requires my attention yet.”

Weiramon’s face became sour stone, Semaradrid’s grimace should have turned the wine in his punch to vinegar, and Tolmeran wore such a lack of expression that his disapproval was plain as a fist in the nose. In Semaradrid’s case, it was the delay that worried. He had pointed out more than once that if every day brought more men to the camp here, it also brought more to the forts in Illian. No doubt Weiramon’s plan was the result of his urgings, though he would have made a better. Tolmeran’s doubts centered on Mat. Despite what he had heard from Cairhienin of Mat’s skill in battle, Tolmeran thought it flattery from fools for a country man who happened to be a friend of the Dragon Reborn. They were honest objections, and Semaradrid’s even had validity—if the plan they had been given had been more than another screen. It was unlikely Sammael depended entirely on rats and ravens for his spying. Rand expected there were human spies in the camp for other Forsaken as well, and probably for the Aes Sedai.

“It shall be as you say, my Lord Dragon,” Weiramon said heavily. The man was brave enough when it came to battle, but a pure blind idiot unable to think beyond the glory of the charge, his hatred of Illianers, his contempt for Cairhienin and Aiel “savages.” Rand was sure Weiramon was exactly the man he needed. Tolmeran and Semaradrid would not move too soon so long as Weiramon held the command.

For a long while further they talked and Rand listened, asking occasional questions. There was no more opposition, no more suggestions that the attack be made now, no discussion of the attack at all. What Rand questioned Weiramon and the others about was wagons, wagons and what was in them. The Plains of Maredo had few villages and far between, no city except Far Madding in the north, and barely enough farmland to feed the people already there. A huge army would need a constant stream of wagons out of Tear bringing everything from flour for bread to nails for horseshoes. Except for Tolmeran, the High Lords were of the opinion that the army could carry what it needed to cross the plain and then could live off Illian; there seemed to be a certain relish in the thought of stripping their ancient enemy’s lands to the ground like a swarm of locusts. The Cairhienin had a different opinion, especially Semaradrid and Meneril. Not only commoners had gone hungry during Cairhien’s civil war and the Shaido’s siege of their capital; their hollow cheeks spoke eloquently of that. Illian was a fat land, and even the Doirlon Hills held farms and vineyards, but Semaradrid and Meneril did not want to trust their soldiers’ bellies to uncertain forage if there was another way. As for Rand, he did not want Illian ravaged any more than could not be avoided.

He did not really press anyone. Sunamon assured him the wagons were being assembled, and he had long since learned his lesson about telling Rand one thing and doing another. Supplies were being gathered all across Tear, despite Weiramon’s grimaces of impatience with the whole notion and Torean’s sweaty mutters about the expense. The important thing, though, was that the plan he had given them was going forward—and would be seen to be going forward.

Leavetaking involved more grandiose prattle and elaborate bows while he rewound the shoufa around his head and took up the Dragon Scepter again, with halfhearted invitations to stay for a banquet and equally insincere offers to attend him to his departure if he could not remain to eat the feast they would have prepared. Tairen or Cairhienin, they avoided the company of the Dragon Reborn as much as they safely could without losing his favor, while pretending that they did no such thing. Most especially they wanted to be elsewhere when he channeled. They did escort him to the entrance and a few steps outside, of course, but Sunamon sighed audibly when he left them, and Rand heard Torean actually giggling in relief.

The Aiel chiefs went with Rand silently, and the Maidens outside joined Sulin and the other three in making a ring around the six men as they started toward the green-striped tent. This time there were only a few cheers, and the chiefs said nothing. They had said almost as little back in the pavilion. When Rand commented on it, Dhearic said, “These wetlanders do not want to hear us.” He was a husky man, within a finger width of Rand’s height, with a big nose and paler streaks prominent in his golden hair. His blue eyes were filled with contempt. “They hear only the wind.”

“Did they tell you of those who rebel against you?” Erim asked. Taller than Dhearic, he had a pugnacious jaw and almost as much white as red in his hair.

“They did,” Rand said, and Han frowned at him.

“If you are sending these Tairens after their own kind, it is a mistake. Even if they could be trusted, I do not think they could do it. Send the spears. One clan would be enough and more.”

Rand shook his head. “Darlin and his rebels can wait. Sammael is what’s important.”

“Then let us go to Illian now,” Jheran said. “Forget these wetlanders, Rand al’Thor. Already there are nearly two hundred thousand spears gathered here. We can destroy the Illianers before Weiramon Saniago and Semaradrid Maravin can be halfway there.”

For a moment Rand squeezed his eyes shut. Was everyone going to argue with him? These were not men who would give way at a frown from the Dragon Reborn. The Dragon Reborn was only a wetlander prophecy; they followed He Who Comes With the Dawn, the Car’a’carn, and as he had long since grown tired of hearing, even the Car’a’carn was not a king. “I want your word to stay here until Mat tells you to move. A promise from each of you.”

“We will stay, Rand al’Thor.” Bruan’s deceptively mild voice had a tight edge. The others’ agreements came in harder voices, but they came.

“But it is wasting time,” Han added, twisting his mouth. “May I never know shade if it is not.” Jheran and Erim nodded.

Rand had not expected them to give in so quickly. “Now and then you have to waste time to save it,” he said, and Han snorted.

Back at the green-striped tent the Thunder Walkers had lifted up the sides on poles, letting the breeze blow through the shaded interior. Hot and dry as it was, the Aiel seemed to find it refreshing. Rand did not think he sweated a drop less than he had in the sun. He pulled off the shoufa as he settled to the layered rugs with Bruan and the other chiefs facing him. The Maidens added their number to the Thunder Walkers around the tent; every so often banter between them drifted in, and laughter at it. This time Leiran seemed to be getting the better of it; at least, the Maidens rattled spears against bucklers at him twice. Rand understood almost none of it.

Thumbing his short-stemmed pipe full of tabac, he passed the goat-skin pouch around for the chiefs to fill their pipes—he had found a small cask of good Two Rivers leaf in Caemlyn—then channeled his alight while they sent a Thunder Walker for a burning twig from one of the cookfires. When all the pipes were lit they settled down to talk, puffing contentedly.

The conversation lasted fully as long as his discussion with the lords, not because there was that much to talk about but because Rand had talked alone with the wetlanders. Aiel were touchy about honor; their lives were governed by ji’e’toh, honor and obligation, with rules as complex and odd as their humor. They talked of the Aiel still on their way down from Cairhien, of when Mat would arrive and of what if anything should be done about the Shaido. They talked about hunting and women and whether brandy was as good as oosquai, and about humor. Even patient Bruan finally spread his hands in surrender and gave up trying to explain Aiel jokes. What under the Light was funny about a woman stabbing her husband by accident, whatever the circumstances, or a man ending up married to the sister of the woman he wanted to marry? Han grumped and snorted and refused to believe Rand did not understand; he laughed so hard at the one about the stabbing that he nearly fell over. The one thing they did not talk about was the coming war against Illian.

When they left, Rand stood squinting at the sun, halfway down toward the horizon. Han was repeating the story about the stabbing, and the departing chiefs chuckled over it again. Tapping his pipe out on the heel of his palm, Rand ground the dottle underfoot in the dust. There was still time to return to Caemlyn and meet Bashere, but he went back inside the tent and sat watching the sun sink. As it touched the horizon, turning red as blood, Enaila and Somara brought him a plate of mutton stew heaped high enough for two men, a round loaf of bread and a pitcher of mint tea that had been set in a bucket of water to cool.

“You do not eat enough,” Somara said, trying to smooth his hair before he moved his head away.

Enaila eyed him. “If you did not avoid Aviendha so, she would see that you ate.”

“He attracts her interest, then runs from her,” Somara muttered. “You must attract her again. Why do you not offer to wash her hair?”

“He should not be that forward,” Enaila said firmly. “Asking to brush her hair will be more than enough. He does not want her to think him forward.”

Somara sniffed. “She will not think he is forward when he runs from her. You can be too modest, Rand al’Thor.”

“You do realize that neither of you is my mother, don’t you?”

The two cadin’sor-clad women looked at each other in confusion. “Do you think this is another wetlander joke?” Enaila asked, and Somara shrugged.

“I do not know. He does not look amused.” She patted Rand on the back. “I am sure it was a good joke, but you must explain it to us.”

Rand suffered in silence, grinding his teeth, while they watched him eat. They literally watched every spoonful. Matters became no better when they left with his plate and Sulin joined him. Sulin had some blunt, and most improper, advice on how he could reattract Aviendha’s notice; among the Aiel, it was the sort of thing a first-sister might do for a first-brother.

“You must be decently modest in her eyes,” the white-haired Maiden told him, “but not so modest she thinks you boring. Ask her to scrape your back in the sweat tent, but shyly, with your eyes downcast. When you undress for bed, let yourself dance as if life pleases you, then apologize when you suddenly realize she is there and put yourself straight into your blankets. Can you blush?”

A great deal of suffering in silence. The Maidens knew too much, and not enough.

When they returned to Caemlyn, well after the sun had gone down, Rand crept into his apartment with his boots in his hands, fumbling his way through the anteroom into his bedchamber in the dark. Even if he had not known Aviendha would be there, already on her pallet on the floor by the wall, he would have felt her presence. In the stillness of the night, he could hear her breathing. For once it seemed he had managed to wait long enough for her to fall asleep. He had tried to stop this, but Aviendha paid him no mind and the Maidens laughed at his “shyness” and “modesty.” Good things in a man when alone, they agreed, so long as not carried too far.

He climbed into his bed with a sense of relief that Aviendha was already asleep—and some disgruntlement that he dared not light a lamp to wash—and she turned over on her pallet. Very likely she had been awake all along.

“Sleep well and wake,” was all she said.

Thinking what idiocy it was to feel this sudden contentment because a woman he wanted to avoid told him good night, he stuffed a goose-down pillow beneath his head. Aviendha probably thought this the most marvelous joke; taunting was almost an art among Aiel, and the nearer it came to bringing blood, the better. Sleep began to come, and his last conscious thought was that he had a huge joke of his own, though only he and Mat and Bashere knew it yet. Sammael had no sense of humor at all, but that great hammer of an army waiting in Tear was the biggest joke the world had ever seen. With any luck, Sammael would be dead before he knew he should laugh.

A Different Dance

The Golden Stag lived up to its name in most ways. Polished tables and benches with rose-carved legs dotted the large common room. One white-aproned serving girl did nothing but sweep the white stone floor. Blue-and-gold scroll-work made a broad painted band on the plaster walls just below the high beamed ceiling. The fireplaces were well-dressed stone, their hearths decorated with a few evergreen branches, and a stag chiseled above each lintel supporting a winecup in branching antlers. A tall clock with a little gilding stood on one mantel. A knot of musicians played on a small dais at the back, two perspiring men in their shirtsleeves with keening flutes, a pair plucking nine-string bitterns, and a red-faced woman in a blue-striped dress working tiny wooden hammers across a dulcimer on thin legs. More than a dozen serving maids scurried in and out, stepping quickly in their aprons and pale blue dresses. Most were pretty, though some carried nearly as many years as Mistress Daelvin, the round little innkeeper with her wispy gray bun at the nape of her neck. Just the sort of place Mat liked; it fairly oozed comfort and an air of money. He had chosen it because it sat nearly dead center in the town, but the other had not hurt.

Not everything fitted the second-best inn in Maerone, of course. The smells from the kitchen were mutton and turnips again, and the inevitable spicy barley soup, and they mingled with the smell of dust and horses from outside. Well, food was a problem in a town jammed with refugees and soldiers, and more in camps all around it. Men’s voices singing raucous marching songs came and went in the street, the sounds of boots and horses’ hooves and men cursing the heat. The common room was hot, too, without a breath of air stirring; had the windows been swung out, dust would soon have coated everything inside, and it still would not have done much for the heat inside. Maerone was a griddle.

As far as Mat could see, the whole bloody world was drying up, and he did not want to think about why. He wished he could forget the heat, forget why he was in Maerone, forget everything. His good green coat, gold-embroidered on collar and cuffs, was undone, his fine linen shirt unlaced, yet he still sweated like a horse. It might have helped to remove the black silk scarf looped around his neck, but he seldom did where anyone could see. Draining the last of his wine, he set the burnished pewter cup on the table at his elbow and picked up his broad-brimmed hat to fan himself. Whatever he drank no sooner went in than he sweated it out.

When he chose to stay at the Golden Stag, the lords and officers of the Band of the Red Hand followed his lead, which meant all others stayed clear. That usually did not displease Mistress Daelvin. She could have rented out every bed five times over just among the lords and lordlings of the Band, and that sort paid well, had few fights and usually took them outside before spilling blood. This midday, however, only nine or ten men occupied the tables, and she occasionally blinked at the empty benches, patted at her bun and sighed; she would not sell much wine before evening. A large part of her profits came from wine. The musicians played vigorously, though. A handful of lords pleased with the music—anyone with gold deserved a “my Lord” so far as they were concerned—could be more generous than a room full of common soldiers.

Unfortunately for the musicians’ purses, Mat was the only man listening, and he winced at every third note. It really was not their fault; the music sounded fine if you did not know what you were listening to. Mat did—he had taught it to them, clapping the beat and humming—but no one else had heard that tune in more than two thousand years. The best to be said was that they had the rhythms right.

A bit of conversation caught his ear. Tossing his hat down, he waved his cup to signal for more wine and leaned across his table toward the three men drinking around the next. “What was that?”

“We are trying to figure out how to win some of our money back from you,” Talmanes said, unsmiling over his winecup. He was not upset. Only a few years older than Mat’s twenty, and a head shorter, Talmanes seldom smiled. The man always made Mat think of a compressed spring. “No one can beat you at cards.” The commander of half the Band’s cavalry, he was a lord here in Cairhien, but the front of his head was shaved and powdered, though sweat had washed some of it away. A good many younger Cairhienin lords had taken up soldiers’ styles. Talmanes’ coat was plain, too, without a noble’s slashes of color, although he was entitled to quite a few.

“Not so,” Mat protested. True, when his luck was in, it was perfect, but it ran in cycles, especially with things that had as much order as a deck of cards. “Blood and ashes! You won fifty crowns from me last week.” Fifty crowns; a year or so ago, he would have turned backflips at winning one crown, and wept at the thought of losing one. A year or so ago, he had not had one to lose.

“How many hundred behind does that leave me?” Talmanes asked dryly. “I want a chance to win some back.” If he ever did start winning against Mat with any consistency, he would start worrying too. Like most of the Band, he took Mat’s luck as a talisman.

“Dice are no bloody good,” Daerid said. Commander of the Band’s foot, he drank thirstily and ignored a grimace only half-hidden behind Nalesean’s oiled beard. Most nobles Mat had met thought dice common, fit only for peasants. “I have never seen you end the day behind at dice. It has to be something you have no control over, no hand in, if you understand.”

Just a little taller than his fellow Cairhienin Talmanes, Daerid was a good fifteen years older, his nose broken more than once and three white scars crisscrossing his face. The only one of the three not nobly born, he wore the front of his head shaved and powdered, too; Daerid had been a soldier all his life.

“We thought horses,” Nalesean put in, gesturing with his pewter cup. A blocky man, taller than either of the Cairhienin, he led the other half of the cavalry in the Band. Given the heat, Mat often wondered why he kept his luxuriant black beard, but he trimmed it every morning to keep the point sharp. And where Daerid and Talmanes wore their plain gray coats hanging open, Nalesean had his—green silk with those padded Tairen sleeves striped and cuffed in gold satin—buttoned to the neck. His face glistened with sweat that he ignored. “Burn my soul, but your luck holds hard with battle and cards. And dice,” he added with another grimace at Daerid. “But in horse racing, it’s all the horse.”

Mat smiled and propped his elbows on the table. “Find yourself a good horse, and we’ll see.” His luck might not affect a horse race—aside from dice and cards and the like, he could never be sure what it would touch or when—but he had grown up watching his father trade horseflesh, and his own eye for a horse was fairly sharp.

“Do you want this wine, or not? I cannot pour it if I cannot reach your cup.”

Mat glanced over his shoulder. The serving maid behind him with a polished pewter pitcher was short and slim, a dark-eyed, pale-cheeked beauty with black curls nestling on her shoulders. And that precise, musical Cairhienin accent made her voice into chimes. He had had his eye on Betse Silvin since the first day he walked into the Golden Stag, but this was his first chance to speak to her; there were always five things that needed doing immediately and ten that should have been done yesterday. The other men had already buried their faces in their wine, leaving him as alone with the woman as they could without walking out. They had manners, even the two nobles.

Grinning, Mat swung his legs over the bench and held out his cup for her to fill. “Thank you, Betse,” he said, and she bobbed a curtsy. When he asked her to pour one for herself and join him, however, she set the pitcher on the table, folded her arms and tilted her head to one side, eyeing him up and down.

“I hardly think Mistress Daelvin would like that. Oh, no, I do not think she would. Are you a lord? They all seem to jump for you, but no one calls you ‘my Lord.’ They barely even bow; just the commoners.”

Mat’s eyebrows shot up. “No,” he said, more curtly than he wished, “I am not a lord.” Rand could let people run around calling him Lord Dragon and the like, but that was not for Matrim Cauthon. No, indeed. Taking a deep breath, he put his grin back on. Some women tried to nudge a man off balance, but it was a dance he was good at. “Just call me Mat, Betse. I’m sure Mistress Daelvin won’t mind if you just sit with me.”

“Oh, yes, she would. But I suppose I can talk a bit; you must be almost a lord. Why are you wearing that in this heat?” Leaning forward, she pushed his scarf down with a finger. He had not been paying attention, and had let it slip a little. “What is this?” She ran her finger along the pale thickened ridge that circled his neck. “Did someone try to hang you? Why? You are too young to be a hardened scofflaw.” He pulled his head back and hastily retied the black silk to hide his scar, but Betse was not put off. Her hand dipped into the unlaced front of his shirt to pull up the silver foxhead medallion he wore on a leather thong. “Was it for stealing this? It looks valuable; is it valuable?” Mat snatched the medallion away, stuffed it back where it belonged. The woman hardly drew breath, certainly not enough for him to get a word in. He heard Nalesean and Daerid chuckling behind him, and his face darkened. Sometimes his luck with gambling was stood on its head with women, and they always found it funny. “No, they would not have let you keep it if you stole it, would they?” Betse chattered on. “And if you are almost a lord, I suppose you can own things like that. Perhaps it was because you knew too much. You look a young man who knows a great deal. Or thinks he does.” She smiled one of those shrewd little smiles that women wore when they wanted to fuddle a man. It seldom meant they knew anything, but they could make you think they did. “Did they try to hang you for thinking you knew too much? Or was it for pretending to be a lord? Are you sure you are not a lord?”

Daerid and Nalesean were laughing right out, now, and even Talmanes was chuckling, though they tried to pretend it was about something else. Daerid wheezingly interjected some tale about a man falling off a horse whenever he had breath enough, but there was nothing funny in the bits Mat heard.

He kept his grin on, though. He was not going to be routed even if she could talk faster than he could run. She was very pretty, and he had spent the last few weeks talking to the likes of Daerid and worse, sweaty men who sometimes forgot to shave and too often had no chance to bathe. Perspiration beaded Betse’s cheeks, but she gave off a faint smell of lavender-scented soap. “Actually, I got that scratch for knowing too little,” he said lightly. Women always liked it when you played down your scars; the Light knew he was growing enough of them. “I know too much now, but too little then. You could say I was hanged for knowledge.”

Shaking her head, Betse pursed her lips. “That sounds like it is supposed to be witty, Mat. Lordlings say witty things all the time, but you say you are not a lord. Besides, I am a simple woman; wit goes right over my head. I think simple words are best. Since you are not a lord, you should speak simply, or else some might think you were playing at being a lord. No woman likes a man pretending to be what he is not. Maybe you could explain what you were trying to say?”

Maintaining his smile was an effort. Bandying words with her was not going at all the way he wanted. He could not tell whether she was a complete nit or just managing to make him trip over his ears trying to keep up. Either way, she was still pretty, and she still smelled of lavender, not sweat. Daerid and Nalesean seemed to be choking to death. Talmanes was humming “A Frog on the Ice.” So he was skidding about with his feet in the air, was he?

Mat put down his winecup and rose, bowing over Betse’s hand. “I am who I am and no more, but your face drives words right out my head.” That made her blink; whatever they said, women always like flowery talk. “Will you dance?”

Not waiting for an answer, he led her toward where a clear floor stretched the length of the common room through the tables. With luck, dancing would slow her tongue a little, and he was lucky, after all. Besides, he had never heard of a woman whose heart was not softened by dancing. Dance with her, and she will forgive much; dance well, and she will forgive anything. That was a very old saying. Very old.

Betse hung back, biting her lip and looking for Mistress Daelvin, but the plump little innkeeper only smiled and waved Betse on, then patted ineffectually at the tendrils escaping her bun and went back to chivvying the other serving maids as though the tables were full. Mistress Daelvin would have been all over any man she thought was behaving improperly—despite her placid appearance, she kept a short cudgel in her skirts and sometimes used it; Nalesean still eyed her carefully when she came close—but if a free-spending man wanted a dance, what was the harm in that? He held Betse’s hands outstretched to either side. There should be just enough room between the tables. The musicians began to play louder, if no better.

“Follow me,” he told her. “The steps are simple to start.” In time to the music he began, dip and a gliding sidestep to the right, left foot sliding after. Dip and a gliding step and slide, with arms outstretched.

Betse caught on quickly, and she was light on her feet. When they reached the musicians, he smoothly lifted her hands overhead and spun himself and her back to back. Then it was dip and sidestep, twirl face-to-face, dip, sidestep and twirl, again and again, all the way back to where they began. She fell into that just as swiftly, smiling up at him in delight whenever the turns allowed. She truly was pretty.

“A little more complicated now,” he murmured, turning so they faced the musicians side by side, wrists crossed and hands linked in front of them. Right knee up, slight kick left, then glide forward and right. Left knee up, slight kick right, then glide forward and left. Betse laughed as they wove their way to the performers once more. The steps became more intricate with each passage, but she needed only one demonstration to match him, light as a feather in his hands with each twist and turn and spin. Best of all, she did not say a word.

The music caught him up, missed notes and all, and the pattern dance, and memories floated in his head as they floated back and forth across the floor. In memory he was a head taller, with long golden mustaches and blue eyes. He wore a red-sashed coat of amber silk with a ruff of finest Barsine lace and yellow sapphire studs from Aramaelle on his chest, and he danced with a darkly beautiful emissary of the Atha’an Miere, the Sea Folk. The fine gold chain linking her nose ring to one of her multitude of earrings held tiny medallions that identified her as Wavemistress of Clan Shodin. He did not care how powerful she was; that was for the king to worry over, not a middling lord. She was beautiful and light in his arms, and they danced beneath the great crystal dome at the court of Shaemal, when all the world envied Coremanda’s splendor and might. Other memories flitted around the edges, sparking off bits of that remembered dance. The morrow would bring news of increasingly heavy Trolloc raids out of the Great Blight, and another month word that Barsine of the golden spires had been ravaged and burned and the Trolloc hordes were sweeping south. So would begin what later would be called the Trolloc Wars, though none gave it that name to begin, three hundred years and more of all but unbroken battle, blood, fire and ruin before the Trollocs were driven back, the Dreadlords hunted down. So would begin the fall of Coremanda, with all its wealth and power, and Essenia, with its philosophers and famed seats of learning, of Manetheren and Eharon and all of the Ten Nations, smashed even in victory to rubble from which other lands would rise, lands that barely remembered the Ten Nations as more than myths of a happier time. But that lay ahead, and he banished those memories in the pleasure of this one. Tonight he danced the pattern dance with...

He blinked, for an instant startled by sunlight streaming through the windows and the fair face beaming up at him through a sheen of perspiration. Very nearly he fumbled the complex interweaving of his feet with Betse’s as they whirled down the floor, but he caught himself before tripping her, the steps coming instinctively. This dance was his as surely as those memories were, borrowed or stolen, but so seamlessly woven into those he really had lived that he could no longer tell the difference without thinking. All his, now, filling holes in his own memories; he might as well have lived them all.

It had been true, what he told her about the scar on his neck. Hanged for knowledge, and for lack of it. Twice he had stepped through a ter’angreal like a bull-goose fool, a country idiot thinking it simple as a walk across the meadow. Well, almost as simple. The results only hardened his mistrust of anything to do with the One Power. The first time he had been told he was fated to die and live again, among other things he did not want to hear. Some of those other things had set him on the path to his second journey through a ter’angreal, and that had led to him having a rope tied around his neck.

A series of steps, each taken for good cause or pure necessity, each seeming so reasonable at the time, and each leading to things he had never imagined. He always seemed to find himself caught in that sort of dance. He had been dead for sure until Rand cut him down and revived him. For the hundredth time he remade a promise to himself. From now on he was going to watch where he put his feet. No more jumping into things without thinking what might come of it.

In truth, he had gained more than the scar that day. The silver foxhead for one, its single eye shaded to look like the ancient symbol of Aes Sedai. Sometimes he laughed so hard over that medallion that his ribs hurt. He did not trust any Aes Sedai, so he even bathed and slept with the thing around his neck. The world was a funny place—funny peculiar, usually.

Another gain really had been knowledge, if unwanted knowledge. Slices of other men’s lives packed his head now, thousands of them, sometimes only a few hours, sometimes years altogether though in patches, memories of courts and combats stretching for well over a thousand years, from long before the Trolloc Wars to the final battle of Artur Hawkwing’s rise. All his now, or they might as well be.

Nalesean and Daerid and Talmanes were clapping to the music, and the other men scattered around the tables too. Men of the Band of the Red Hand, urging their commander on in his dance. Light but that name made Mat cringe inside. It had belonged to a legendary band of heroes who died trying to save Manetheren. Not a man who rode or marched behind the Band’s banner but thought they would end up in the legends too. Mistress Daelvin was clapping as well, and the rest of the maids had stopped to watch.

Those other men’s memories were why the Band followed Mat, though they did not know. Because his head held memories of more battles and campaigns than a hundred men could have faced. Whether he had been on the winning side or the losing, he remembered how those battles were won or lost, and it took only a little wit to translate that into winning for the Band. So far it had, at least. When he could find no way to avoid the fighting.

More than once he had wished those bits of other men were out of his head. Without them, he would not be where he was, commanding nearly six thousand soldiers and more wanting to join every day, about to lead them south and take command of the bloody invasion of a land controlled by one of the bloody Forsaken. He was no hero, and did not want to be one. Heroes had a bad habit of getting killed. When you were a hero, it was toss the dog a bone and shove him into a corner out of the way, unless it was promise the dog a bone and send him out to hunt again. The same for soldiers, for that matter.

On the other hand, without those memories he would not have six thousand soldiers around him. He would stand alone, ta’veren and tied to the Dragon Reborn, a naked target and known to the Forsaken. Some of them apparently knew entirely too much about Mat Cauthon. Moiraine had claimed he was important, that maybe Rand needed him and Perrin both to win the Last Battle. If she had been right, he would do what he had to—he would; he just had to get used to the idea—but he was not about to be a bloody hero. If he could just figure out what to do about the bloody Horn of Valere... Offering up a small prayer for Moiraine’s soul, he hoped she had been wrong.

He and Betse reached the end of the clear space for the final time, and she collapsed against his chest laughing when he stopped. “Oh, that was wonderful. I felt like I was in a royal palace somewhere. Can we do it again? Oh, can we? Can we?” Mistress Daelvin applauded for a moment, then realized the other serving maids were standing about and rounded on them, sending them scurrying like chickens with vigorous waves of her arms.

“Does ‘Daughter of the Nine Moons’ mean anything to you?” The words just popped out. It was thinking about those ter’angreal that did it. Wherever he found the Daughter of the Nine Moons—Please, Light, let it be a long time yet! It was a fervent thought—wherever he found her, it would not be serving table at a small-town inn crammed full of soldiers and refugees. Then again, who could say when it came to prophecy? It had been prophecy, in a way. To die and live again. To marry the Daughter of the Nine Moons. To give up half the light of the world to save the world, whatever that meant. He had died, after all, swinging on that rope. If that was true, the rest had to be. No way out of that.

“Daughter of the Nine Moons?” Betse said breathlessly. Lack of breath did not slow her down. “Is it an inn? A tavern? Not here in Maerone, I know that. Maybe across the river in Aringill? I have never been to—”

Mat laid a finger across her lips. “It doesn’t matter. Let’s dance another dance.” A country dance this time; something from the here and now, with no memories but his attached to it. Only, he really did have to think to tell them apart now.

A throat clearing made him glance over his shoulder, and he sighed at the sight of Edorion standing in the doorway, steel-backed gauntlets tucked behind his sword belt and helmet beneath his arm. The young Tairen lord had been a plump, pink-cheeked man when Mat gambled with him in the Stone of Tear, but he had grown harder and sun-dark since coming north. The rimmed helmet bore no plumes now, and chips and dents marred the once ornate gilding on his breastplate. His puffy-sleeved coat was blue striped with black, but showing wear.

“You told me to remind you of your rounds at this hour.” Edorion coughed into his fist; he ostentatiously did not glance at Betse. “But I could come back later if you wish.”

“I’ll come now,” Mat told him. It was important to make rounds every day, inspect something different every day; those other men’s memories told him that, and he had come to trust them about things like this. If he was stuck in this job, he might as well try to do it right. Doing it right might keep him alive. Besides, Betse had drawn away from him and was trying to pat sweat from her face with her apron and straighten her hair at the same time. The euphoria was fading from her face. It did not matter. She would remember. Dance well with a woman, he thought smugly, and she’s halfway yours.

“Give these to the musicians,” he told her, folding three gold marks into her hand. However badly they had played, for a time the tune had taken him away from Maerone and the immediate future. Anyway, women liked generosity. This was going very well. With a bow, just short of kissing her hand, he added, “Until later, Betse. We’ll dance again when I come back.”

To his surprise, she waggled a finger under his nose and gave an admonitory shake of her head as if she had read his mind. Well, he had never claimed to understand women.

Settling his hat on his head, he took up his black-hafted spear from beside the door. That was another gift from the other side of that ter’angreal, with its inscription of the shaft in the Old Tongue and its odd head like a short sword blade marked with two ravens.

“We’ll do the drinking rooms today,” he told Edorion, and they strode out into the full heat of midday, into the bedlam of Maerone.

It was a small, unwalled town, though fifty times larger than anything he had seen before leaving the Two Rivers. An overgrown village, really, few of the brick and stone buildings more than a single story high and only the inns rising as much as three, with as many roofs of wooden shingles or thatch as slate or tile. Now the streets, most hard-packed dirt, were thronged with people. The townsfolk were of every sort, mainly Cairhienin and Andorans. Although it lay on the Cairhienin side of the Erinin, Maerone was in no nation now, but balanced between, with folk from half a dozen lands living there or passing through. There had even been three or four Aes Sedai since Mat arrived. Even wearing the medallion he walked wide of them—no need to seek out trouble—but they all moved on as quickly as they came. His luck did run good when it was important. So far it had.

The townspeople hurried about their business, for the most part ignoring the many ragged men, women and children who wandered about blankly. All Cairhienin, those last usually found their way down to the river before returning to the refugee camps ringing the town. Few left to go home, though. The civil war might be over up in Cairhien, but there were still brigands, and they feared the Aiel. For all Mat knew, they feared running into the Dragon Reborn. The simple truth of it was, they had run as far as they could; none had energy remaining for much beyond those trips to the river to stare at Andor.

The Band’s soldiers added to the crowds, ones or threes meandering about the shops and taverns, troops in formation, crossbowmen and archers in jerkins covered with steel discs, pikemen in battered breastplates cast off by their betters or looted from the dead. Everywhere rode breastplated horsemen, Tairen lancers in rimmed helmets and Cairhienin in bell-shaped helmets, even some Andorans in conical helmets with barred face-guards. Rahvin had tossed a good many men out of the Queen’s Guards, men too loyal to Morgase, and some had joined the Band. Hawkers wove through the mass with their trays, crying needles and thread, ointments claimed to be good for any wound and remedies for everything from blisters to watery bowels to camp fever, soap, tin pots and cups guaranteed not to rust out, woolen stockings, knives and daggers of the finest Andoran steel—the seller’s word on it—every sort of thing that a soldier might need or the vendors thought he might be convinced he did. The din was such that any hawkers’ bellows were swallowed up three paces away.

The soldiers recognized Mat right away, of course, and many raised cheers, even men too far away to see more than his broad-brimmed hat and odd spear. Those picked him out as clearly as any noble’s sigil. He had heard all the rumors about why he disdained armor and helmet; there were all sorts, from mad bravery to the claim that only a weapon forged by the Dark One himself could kill him. Some said the hat had been given him by Aes Sedai, and as long as he wore it nothing could kill him. The fact was it was an ordinary hat, and he wore it because it gave good shade. And because it was a good reminder to stay clear of anywhere he might need helmet and armor. The tales circulating about his spear, with that inscription that few even among the nobles could read, were more extravagant still. None could match the truth, though. That raven-marked blade had been made by Aes Sedai during the War of the Shadow, before the Breaking; it never needed sharpening, and he doubted he could break it if he tried.

Waving to acknowledge shouts of “The Light illumine Lord Matrim!” and “Lord Matrim and victory!” and such drivel, he made his way through the crowds with Edorion. At least he did not have to push; they gave way as soon as they saw him. He wished so many of the refugees did not stare as though he had the key to their hopes hidden in his pocket. Aside from making sure they got food from the wagon trains coming up from Tear, he did not know what he could do. A good many were dirty as well as ragged.

“Did the soap get out to the camps?” he muttered.

Edorion heard despite the uproar. “It did. Most trade it back to the peddlers for cheap wine. They don’t want soap; they want to cross the river, or else drown their miseries.”

Mat grunted sourly. Passage to Aringill was one thing he could not give them.

Until civil war and worse tore Cairhien apart, Maerone had been a transit point for trade between Cairhien and Tear, which meant it had almost as many inns and taverns as it did houses. The first five he poked his nose into varied little, from The Fox and Goose to The Wagoner’s Whip, stone buildings with packed tables and the occasional budding fistfight, which Mat ignored. No one was drunk, though.

The River Gate, all the way across town, had been Maerone’s best inn, but heavy planks nailed across its sun-carved doors served as a reminder to the innkeepers and tapsters not to get the Band’s soldiers drunk. Still, even sober soldiers fought, Tairen against Cairhienin against Andoran, foot against horse, one lord’s men against another’s, veterans against new recruits, soldiers against civilians. Fights were quelled before they got out of hand, though, by soldiers carrying cudgels and wearing red armbands that stretched from wrist to elbow. Each unit had to take its turn providing Redarms, different men every day, and the Redarms had to pay for any damage the day they were on duty. It made them industrious in keeping the peace.

At The Fox and Goose a gleeman was juggling flaming batons, a stout man in his middle years, while another, a skinny balding fellow at The Erinin Inn, had his harp in hand and declaimed part of The Great Hunt of the Horn. Despite the heat each wore his distinctive cloak, all covered with patches in a hundred colors that fluttered when he moved; a gleeman would give up a hand before that cloak. They had fairly attentive audiences—many of the onlookers came from villages that eagerly greeted a gleeman’s visit—more so than the girl singing on a table in a tavern called The Three Towers. She was pretty enough, with her long dark curls, but a song about true love was not likely to interest the raucously laughing men drinking there. The remaining places had no entertainment beyond a musician or two, yet the crowds were louder still, and dice games at half the tables made Mat’s fingers twitch. But he really did almost always win, at least with dice, and it would not be right to take coin from his own soldiers. That was what most of the men at the tables were; few refugees had coin to spend in common rooms.

A handful of others dotted the members of the Band. Here a lean, fork-bearded Kandori with a moonstone the size of his thumbnail in one earlobe and silver chains across the chest of his red coat, there a copper-skinned Domani woman, though wearing a modest blue dress, with quick eyes and gemmed rings on all her fingers, elsewhere a Taraboner in a conical flat-topped blue cap, thick mustache hidden behind a transparent veil. Plump men in Tairen coats tight to the waist or bony fellows in Murandian coats hanging to the knee; sharp-eyed women in dresses high-necked or ankle-length, but always in well-cut wool of sober color. Merchants all, ready to leap in when tirade reopened between Andor and Cairhien. And in every common room two or three men sat apart from the others, usually alone, for the most part hard-eyed fellows, some well dressed, others little better garbed than the refugees, but every one looking as if he knew how to use the sword at his hip or on his back. Mat identified two women with that lot, though neither showed a weapon; one had a long walking staff propped against her table, and he supposed the other had knives hidden in her riding dress. He carried a few throwing knives tucked about his person, too. He was sure he knew what she and the others were about, and she was a fool if she went at it unarmed.

As he and Edorion stepped out of The Wagoner’s Whip, Mat stopped to watch a blocky woman in divided brown skirts wend her way through the crowds. Unblinking eyes that caught everything in the street belied the apparent placidity of her round face, and so did the studded cudgel at her belt, and a dagger heavy-bladed enough to do for an Aielman. So, a third woman in the lot. Hunters for the Horn was what they were, the legendary Horn of Valere that would call dead heroes back from the grave to fight in the Last Battle. Whoever found it would earn a place in the histories. If there’s anyone left to write a bloody history, Mat thought wryly.

Some believed the Horn would turn up where there was turmoil and strife. Four hundred years since the Hunt of the Horn was last called, and this time people had all but dropped out of the trees to take the oaths. He had seen flocks of Hunters in the streets of Cairhien, and he expected to see more flocks when he reached Tear. Without doubt they would be streaming toward Caemlyn now as well. He wished one of them had found the thing. To the best of his knowledge the Horn of bloody Valere lay somewhere deep in the White Tower, and if he knew anything about Aes Sedai he would be surprised if a dozen of them were aware of it.

A troop of foot behind a mounted officer in a dented breastplate and a Cairhienin helmet marched between him and the blocky woman, close to two hundred pikemen, weapons a tall forest of spikes, followed by fifty or more archers with quivers on hips and bows slung on shoulders. Not the Two Rivers longbow Mat had grown up with, but a fair enough weapon. He had to find enough crossbows to go around, though the archers would not willingly make the change. They sang as they marched, the massed voices enough to punch through the rest of the noise.

“You’ll feed on beans and on rotten hay,
and a horse’s hoof come your naming day.
You’ll sweat and bleed till you grow old,
and your only gold will be dreams of gold,
if you go to be a soldier.
If you go to be a soldier.”

A fat knot of civilians trailed along behind, townsmen and refugees mingled, young men all, watching curiously and listening. It never ceased to amaze Mat. The worse the song made soldiering seem—this was far from the worst—the larger the crowd. Sure as water was wet, some of those men would be talking to a bannerman before the day was out, and most who did would sign their names or make their mark. They must think the song was an attempt to scare them off and keep the glory and loot. At least the pikes were not singing “Dance with Jak o’ the Shadows.” Mat hated that song. Once the lads realized Jak o’ the Shadows was death, they started panting to find a bannerman.

“Your girl will marry another man.
A muddy grave will be all your land.
Food for the worms and none to mourn.
You’ll curse the day you were ever born,
if you go to be a soldier.
If you go to be a soldier.”

“There’s a good deal of wondering,” Edorion said casually as the formation swung on down the street with its trail of idiots, “about when we’ll be heading south. There are rumors.” He peered at Mat from the corner of his eye, measuring his mood. “I noticed the farriers checking the teams for the supply wagons.”

“We’ll move when we move,” Mat told him. “No need to let Sammael know we’re coming.”

Edorion gave him a level look. This Tairen was no dunce. Not that Nalesean was—he was just overeager sometimes—but Edorion had a sharp mind. Nalesean would never have noticed the farriers. Too bad that House Aldiaya outranked House Selorna, or Mat would have had Edorion in Nalesean’s place. Fool nobles and their fool fixation on rank. No, Edorion was no blockhead; he knew that as soon as the Band moved south word would speed ahead with the river traffic, and maybe by pigeon as well. Mat would not have placed a bet against spies in Maerone if he had felt his luck strong enough to pound his skull apart.

“There’s also a rumor the Lord Dragon was in the town yesterday,” Edorion said, as softly as the street noise would allow.

“The biggest thing that happened yesterday,” Mat said wryly, “was I had my first bath in a week. Now come on. It’s going to take half what daylight is left to finish this as it is.”

He would have given a pretty to find out how that rumor began. Only off by a half day, and there certainly had been no one to see. It had been the small hours of morning when a slash of light suddenly appeared in his room at The Golden Stag. He had thrown himself desperately across the four-posted bed, one boot on and one half off, pulling the knife he wore hanging between his shoulder blades before he realized it was Rand, stepping out of one of those bloody holes in nothing, apparently from the palace in Caemlyn by the columns visible before the opening winked out. It was startling, him coming in the middle of the night, without any Aiel, and popping right into Mat’s room, which last still made the hair on Mat’s neck stand up. That thing could have sliced him in two had he been standing in the wrong place. He did not like the One Power. The whole thing had been very strange.

“Make haste slowly, Mat,” Rand said, striding up and down. He never looked in Mat’s direction. Sweat slicked his face, and his jaw was tight. “He has to see it coming. Everything depends on it.”

Seated on his bed, Mat jerked his boot the rest of the way off and dropped it on the scrap of rug Mistress Daelvin had given him. “I know,” he said sourly, pausing to rub an ankle he had cracked on a bedpost. “I helped make the bloody plan, remember?”

“How do you know you’re in love with a woman, Mat?” Rand did not stop his striding, and he dropped it in as if it fit what he had been saying.

Mat blinked. “How in the Pit of Doom should I know? That’s one snare I’ve never put a foot in. What brought that on?”

But Rand only moved his shoulders as though shrugging something off. “I’ll finish Sammael, Mat. I promised that; I owe it to the dead. But where are the others? I need to finish them all.”

“One at a time, though.” He barely managed to keep the question out of that; there was no telling what Rand might take into his head these days.

“There are Dragonsworn in Murandy, Mat. In Altara, too. Men sworn to me. Once Illian is mine, Altara and Murandy will drop like ripe plums. I’ll make contact with the Dragonsworn in Tarabon—and in Arad Doman—and if the Whitecloaks try to keep me out of Amadicia, I’ll crush them. The Prophet has Ghealdan primed, and Amadicia almost, so I hear. Can you imagine Masema as the Prophet? Saldaea will come to me; Bashere is sure of it. All the Borderlands will come. They have to! I am going to do it, Mat. Every land united before the Last Battle. I’m going to do it!” Rand’s voice had taken on a feverish tone.

“Sure, Rand,” Mat said slowly, depositing his other boot beside the first. “But one thing at a time, right?”

“No man should have another man’s voice in his head,” Rand muttered, and Mat’s hands froze in the act of tugging off a woolen stocking. Oddly, he found himself wondering whether the pair had another day’s wear in them. Rand knew something of what had happened inside that ter’angreal in Rhuidean—knew he had somehow gained knowledge of soldiering, anyway—but not the whole of it. Mat thought not the whole of it. Not about other men’s memories. Rand did not seem to notice anything out of the ordinary. He just scrubbed fingers through his hair and went on. “He can be gulled, Mat—Sammael always thinks in straight lines—but is there any opening he can slip through? If there’s any mistake, thousands will die. Tens of thousands. Hundreds will anyway, but I don’t want it to be thousands.”

Mat grimaced so fiercely that a sweaty-faced hawker trying to sell him a dagger, the hilt half-covered in colorful glass “gems,” nearly dropped the thing burying himself in the crowd. It had all been like that with Rand, bouncing from the invasion of Illian to the Forsaken to women—Light, Rand was the one who always had the way with women, him and Perrin—from the Last Battle to the Maidens of the Spear to things Mat hardly understood, seldom listening to Mat’s replies and sometimes not even waiting for them. Hearing Rand talk about Sammael as if he knew the man was more than just disconcerting. He knew Rand would go mad eventually, but if madness was creeping in already...

And what of the others, those fools Rand was gathering who wanted to channel, and this fellow Taim, who already could? Rand had just dropped that in casually; Mazrim Taim, false bloody Dragon, teaching Rand’s bloody students or whatever they were. When they all started going insane, Mat did not want to be within a thousand miles.

Only he had as much choice as a leaf in a whirlpool. He was ta’veren, but Rand was more so. Nothing in the Prophecies of the Dragon about Mat Cauthon, but he was caught, a shoat under a fence. Light, but he wished he had never seen the Horn of Valere.

It was with a grim face that he stalked through the next dozen taverns and common rooms, circling out from The Golden Stag. They were really no different from the first, packed tables full of men drinking and dicing and arm-wrestling, musicians often as not drowned out by the uproar, Redarms quashing fights as soon as they began, a gleeman reciting The Great Hunt in one—that was popular even without Hunters about—in another a short, pale-haired woman singing a slightly bawdy song somehow made bawdier by her round face of wide-eyed innocence.

His bleak mood held when he left The Silver Horn—idiotic name!—and its innocent-faced singer. Maybe that was why he went running toward the shouting that erupted down the street in front of another inn. The Redarms would take care of it if it involved soldiers, but Mat shoved his way through the crowd anyway. Rand going mad, leaving him hanging out in the storm. Taim and those other idiots ready to follow him into insanity. Sammael waiting in Illian, and the rest of the Forsaken the Light knew where, all probably looking for a chance to take Mat Cauthon’s head in passing. That did not even count what the Aes Sedai would do to him if they laid hands on him again: the ones who knew too much, anyway. And everybody thinking he was going to go out and be a bloody hero! He usually tried to talk his way out of a fight if he could not walk wide of it, but right then he wanted an excuse to punch somebody in the nose. What he found was not anything he expected.

A crowd of townspeople, short, drably clothed Cairhienin and a sprinkling of taller Andorans in brighter colors, made an expressionless ring around two tall lean men with curled mustaches, long Murandian coats in bright silk, and swords with ornate, gilded pommels and quillons. The fellow in a red coat stood grinning in amusement while he watched the one in yellow shake a boy little taller than Mat’s waist by the collar like a dog shaking a rat.

Mat held on to his temper; he reminded himself that he did not know what had started all this. “Easy with the boy,” he said, laying a hand on yellow-coat’s arm. “What did he do to deserve—?”

“He touched me horse!” the man snapped in a Mindean accent, shaking off Mat’s hand. Mindeans boasted—boasted!—that they had the worst tempers of anyone in Murandy. “I’ll break his skinny peasant neck for him! I’ll wring his scrawny—!”

Without another word Mat brought the butt of his spear up hard, straight between the fellow’s legs. The Murandian’s mouth opened, but no sound came out. His eyes rolled up till almost nothing showed but white. The boy darted off as the man’s legs folded, depositing him on knees and face in the street. “No, you won’t,” Mat said.

That was not the end of it, of course; the man in the red coat snatched at his sword. He managed to bare an inch of blade before Mat cracked his wrist with the spear-butt. Grunting, he let go the sword hilt, but grabbed for the long-bladed dagger on his belt with his other hand. Hastily Mat clipped him over the ear; not hard, but the fellow went down atop the other man. Bloody fool! Mat was not sure whether he was describing red-coat or himself.

Half a dozen Redarms had finally pushed through the onlookers, Tairen cavalrymen awkward afoot in knee boots, their swollen black-and-gold sleeves crushed under the armbands. Edorion had the boy in hand, a gaunt sullen-looking lad of six or so, wriggling bare toes in the dust and now and again giving an experimental tug at Edorion’s grip. He was perhaps the ugliest child Mat had ever seen, with a squashed nose, a mouth too wide for his face and ears too big that stuck out besides. By the holes in his coat and breeches, he was one of the refugees. He looked more dirt than anything else.

“Settle this out, Harnan,” Mat said. That was a lantern-jawed Redarm, a file leader with a long-suffering expression and a crude tattoo of a hawk on his left cheek. The fashion seemed to be spreading through the Band, but most limited themselves to parts of the body normally covered. “Find out what caused all this, then run these two louts out of town.” They deserved that much, whatever the provocation.

A skinny man in a Murandian coat of dark wool wiggled through the onlookers and dropped to his knees beside the pair on the ground. Yellow-coat had begun emitting strangled groans, and red-coat was beginning to clutch his head in his hands and mumble what sounded like imprecations. The newcomer made more noise than both together. “Oh, me Lords! Me Lord Paers! Me Lord Culen! Are you killed?” He stretched trembling hands toward Mat. “Oh, don’t kill them, me Lord! Not helpless like this. They’re Hunters for the Horn, me Lord. I’m their man, Padry. Heroes, they are, me Lord.”

“I’m not going to kill anybody,” Mat cut in, disgusted. “But you get these heroes on their horses and out of Maerone by sunset. I don’t like grown men who threaten to break a child’s neck. Sunset!”

“But, me Lord, they’re injured. He’s only a peasant boy, and he was molesting Lord Paers’ horse.”

“I was only sitting on it,” the boy burst out. “I was not—what you said.”

Mat nodded grimly. “Boys don’t get their necks broken for sitting on a horse, Padry. Not even peasant boys. You get these two gone, or I’ll see about breaking their necks.” He motioned to Harnan, who nodded sharply to the other Redarms—file leaders never did anything themselves, any more than bannermen did—who snatched Paers and Culen up roughly and hustled them away groaning with Padry trailing behind, wringing his hands and protesting that his masters were in no condition to ride, that they were Hunters for the Horn and heroes.

Edorion still held the source of all this bother by an arm, Mat realized. The Redarms were gone, and the townsfolk drifting away. No one glanced twice at the boy; they had their own children to look after, and a hard enough time doing that. Mat exhaled heavily. “Don’t you realize you could be hurt ‘just sitting’ on a strange horse, boy? A man like that probably rides a stallion that could trample a little boy into the bottom of his stall so no one could ever tell you were there.”

“A gelding.” The boy gave another jerk at Edorion’s grip, and finding it had not loosened, put on a sulky face. “It was a gelding, and it would not have hurt me. Horses like me. I am not a little boy: I am nine. And my name is Olver, not boy.”

“Olver, is it?” Nine? He might be. Mat had trouble telling, especially with Cairhienin children. “Well, Olver, where are your mother and father?” He looked around, but the refugees he saw passed by as quickly as the townsfolk. “Where are they, Olver? I have to get you back to them.”

Instead of answering, Olver bit his lip. A tear trickled from one eye, and he scrubbed it away angrily. “The Aiel killed my papa. One of those ... Shado. Mama said we were going to Andor. She said we were going to live on a farm. With horses.”

“Where is she now?” Mat asked softly.

“She got sick. I—I buried her where there were some flowers.” Suddenly Olver kicked Edorion and began thrashing in his grip. Tears rolled down his face. “You let me go. I can take care of myself. You let me go.”

“Take care of him until we can find somebody,” Mat told Edorion, who gaped at him in the middle of trying to fend the boy off and hold on to him at the same time.

“Me? What am I to do with this leopard of a carpet mouse?”

“Get him a meal, for one thing.” Mat’s nose wrinkled; by the smell, Olver had spent at least a little time on the floor of that gelding’s stall. “And a bath. He stinks.”

“You talk to me,” Olver shouted, rubbing at his face. The tears helped him rearrange the dirt. “You talk to me, not over my head!”

Mat blinked, then bent down. “I’m sorry, Olver. I always hated people doing that to me, too. Now, this is how it is. You smell bad, so Edorion here is going to take you to The Golden Stag, where Mistress Daelvin is going to let you have a bath.” The sulkiness on Olver’s face grew. “If she says anything, you tell her I said you could have one. She can’t stop you.” Mat held in a grin at the boy’s sudden stare; that would have spoiled it. Olver might not like the idea of a bath, but if someone might try to stop him from having one... “Now, you do what Edorion says. He’s a real Tairen lord, and he’s going to find you a good hot meal, and some clothes without holes in them. And some shoes.” Best not to add “somebody to look after you.” Mistress Daelvin could take care of that; a little gold would overcome any reluctance.

“I do not like Tairens,” Olver mumbled, frowning first at Edorion then Mat. Edorion had his eyes shut and was muttering to himself. “He is a real lord? Are you a lord, too?”

Before Mat could say anything, Estean came running through the crowd, lumpy face red and sweat-soaked. His dented breast-late retained few shreds of its former gilded glory, and the red satin stripes on his yellow coatsleeves were worn. He did not at all look the son of the richest lord in Tear. But then, he never had. “Mat,” he puffed, shoving fingers through lank hair that kept falling over his forehead. “Mat... Down at the river...”

“What?” Mat cut in irritably. He was going to start having “I am not a bloody lord” embroidered on his coats. “Sammael? The Shaido? The Queen’s Guards? The bloody White Lions? What?”

“A ship, Mat,” Estean panted, raking at his hair. “A big ship. I think it’s the Sea Folk.”

That was unlikely; the Atha’an Miere never took their ships farther from open sea than the nearest port. Still... There were not very many villages along the Erinin to the south, and the supplies the wagons could carry were going to run thin before the Band reached Tear. He had already hired riverboats to trail along with the march, but a larger vessel would be more than useful.

“Look after Olver, Edorion,” he said, ignoring the man’s grimace. “Estean, show me this ship.” Estean nodded eagerly and would have set out at a run again if Mat had not grabbed his sleeve to slow him to a walk. Estean was always eager, and he learned slowly; the combination was the reason he bore five bruises from Mistress Daelvin’s cudgel.

The numbers of refugees grew as Mat neared the river, both going down and coming back lethargically. Half-a-dozen broad-beamed ferries sat tied to the long tarred-timber docks, but the oars had been carried away and there was not a crewman in sight on any of them. The only boats showing any activity were half-a-dozen rivercraft, stout one-and two-masted vessels that had put in briefly on their way upriver or down. The barefoot crewmen barely stirred on the boats Mat had hired; their holds were full, and their captains assured him they could sail as soon as he gave the word. Ships moved on the Erinin, wallowing bluff-bowed craft with square sails and quick narrow vessels with triangular sails, but nothing crossing between Maerone and walled Aringill, where the White Lion of Andor flew.

That banner had flown above Maerone, too, and the Andoran soldiers who held the town had not been willing to let the Band of the Red Hand enter. Rand might hold Caemlyn, but his command did not extend to the Queen’s Guards here, or the units that Gaebril had raised, like the White Lions. The White Lions were somewhere to the east now—they had fled in that direction, anyway, and any of a dozen rumors of brigands could have been their work—but the rest had crossed the river after sharp skirmishing with the Band. Nothing had crossed the Erinin since.

The only thing Mat really saw, though, was a ship anchored in the middle of the broad river. It really was a Sea Folk vessel, taller and longer than any of the river craft but still sleek, with two raked masts. Dark figures climbed about in the rigging, some bare-chested in baggy breeches that looked black at the distance, some in bright-colored blouses marking the women. Half the crew would be women, near enough. The big square sails had been pulled up to the crossyards, yet they hung in slack folds, ready to be loosed in an instant.

“Find me a boat,” he told Estean. “And some rowers.” Estean would need to be reminded of that. The Tairen blinked at him, raking at his hair. “Hurry, man!” Estean nodded jerkily and lurched into a run.

Walking down to the end of the nearest dock, Mat propped his spear on his shoulder and dug his looking glass from his coat pocket. When he put the brass-bound tube to his eye, the ship leaped closer. The Sea Folk appeared to be waiting for something, but what? Some glanced toward Maerone, but most were staring the opposite way, including everyone on the tall quarterdeck; that would be where the Sailmistress was, and the other ship’s officers. He swung the looking glass to the far side of the river, crossing a long narrow rowboat with dark men at the oars, racing toward the ship.

There was something of a commotion on one of Aringill’s long docks, nearly the twins of Maerone’s. White-collared red coats and burnished breastplates denoted Queen’s Guardsmen, plainly meeting a knot of arrivals from the ship. What made Mat whistle softly was the pair of fringed red parasols among the newcomers, one of two tiers. Sometimes those old memories came in handy; that two-tiered parasol marked a clan Wavemistress, the other her Swordmaster.

“I have a boat, Mat,” Estean announced breathlessly at his shoulder. “And some rowers.”

Mat turned the looking glass back to the ship. By the activity on deck, they were hauling the small boat up on the other side, but already men at the capstan were hauling the anchor up and the sails were being shaken out. “Looks like I won’t need it,” he muttered.

On the other side of the river the Atha’an Miere delegation vanished up the dock with an escort of guardsmen. The whole thing made no sense. Sea Folk nine hundred miles from the sea. Only the Mistress of the Ships outranked a Wavemistress; only the Master of the Blades outranked a Swordmaster. No sense at all, not by any of those other men’s memories. But they were old; he “remembered” that less was known of the Atha’an Miere than of any people except the Aiel. He knew more of Aiel from his own experience than from those memories, and that little enough. Maybe somebody who knew the Sea Folk today could make top from bottom in it.

Already sails billowed above the Sea Folk ship, with the anchor still being hauled dripping onto the foredeck. Whatever had them in such a hurry, it apparently would not take them back to the sea. With slowly increasing speed the vessel glided upriver, curving toward the marsh-lined mouth of the Alguenya a few miles north of Maerone.

Well, it was nothing to do with him. With one last regretful look at the ship—the thing would have carried as much as all the smaller craft he had hired put together—Mat shoved the looking glass back in his pocket and turned his back on the river. Estean was still hovering, staring at him.

“Tell the rowers they can go, Estean,” Mat sighed, and the Tairen stumped away muttering to himself and scrubbing his hands through his hair.

More mud was visible than the last time he had come down to the river a few days ago. Just a sticky strip less than a hand wide between the water and the pace-deep band of cracked mud above, but proof even a river like the Erinin was slowly drying up. Nothing to do with him. Nothing he could do about it, anyway. He turned and headed back to his rounds of the taverns and common rooms; it was important that nothing seem out of the ordinary about today.

When the sun went down, Mat was back in The Golden Stag, dancing with Betse, minus her apron, while the musicians played as loudly as they could. Country dances this time, and tables pushed back to make room for six or eight couples. Dark brought a little coolness, but only by comparison with daylight. Everyone still sweated. Men laughing and drinking filled the benches, and the serving girls scurried to put mutton, turnips and barley soup on the tables and keep ale mugs and winecups full.

Surprisingly, the women seemed to consider dancing a break from lugging trays about. At least, every one of them smiled eagerly when it was her turn to dab perspiration from her face and doff her apron for a dance, though she sweated just as hard once it began. Maybe Mistress Daelvin had worked out some sort of schedule. If she had, Betse was an exception. That slender young woman fetched wine for no one but Mat, danced with no one but Mat, and the innkeeper beamed at them so much like a mother at her daughter’s wedding that it made Mat uncomfortable. In fact, Betse danced with him till his feet hurt and his calves ached, yet she never ceased smiling, her eyes shining with pure pleasure. Except when they stopped to catch breath, of course. For him to catch breath; she certainly showed no need. As soon as their feet halted, her tongue took off at a gallop. For that matter, it did the same whenever he tried to kiss her, and she always turned her head, exclaiming over something or other, so he kissed an ear or hair instead of lips. She always seemed startled by it, too. He still could not figure out whether she was an utter featherhead or very clever.

It was closer to two hours past midnight than one by the clock when he finally told her he had had enough for one night. Disappointment crossed her face, and a small pout appeared. She looked ready to dance until dawn. She was not alone; one of the older serving women was leaning on one hand against a wall to massage a foot, but most of the others appeared bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as Betse. The greater part of the men appeared to be wearing out, fixed smiles on those letting themselves be dragged away from their benches and a good many just waving the women away. Mat did not understand. It must be because the man did most of the work in dancing, he decided, all the lifting and turning. And women were light; leaping about simply took less energy for them. Blinking at a stout serving maid who was whirling Estean around the floor rather than the other way—the man could dance; he had that talent—Mat pressed a gold coin into Betse’s hand, a fat Andoran crown, for her to buy herself something pretty.

She studied the coin for a moment, then lifted up on her toes to kiss him lightly on the mouth, like the brush of a feather. “I would never hang you whatever you did. You will dance with me tomorrow?” Before he could answer she giggled and darted away, eyeing him over her shoulder even when she started trying to pull Edorion out to the dance area. Mistress Daelvin intercepted the pair and, shoving an apron into Betse’s hands, jerked a thumb toward the kitchens.

Mat limped slightly as he made his way to the table against the back wall where Talmanes, Daerid and Nalesean had ensconced themselves. Talmanes was staring into his winecup as if to find deep answers. A grinning Daerid was watching Nalesean try to fend off a plump serving maid with gray eyes and light brown hair while not admitting that his feet were sore. Mat leaned his fists on the table. “The Band moves south at first light. You best start making preparations.” The three men gaped at him.

“That is only a few hours,” Talmanes protested at the same time that Nalesean said, “It will take that long just to root them out of the drinking rooms.”

Wincing, Daerid shook his head. “None of us will get any sleep tonight.”

“I will,” Mat said. “One of you wake me in two hours. First light, and we’re marching.”

Which was how he found himself astride Pips, his sturdy brown gelding, in the gray predawn, with his spear across his saddle and his unstrung longbow shoved beneath his saddle girth, with not enough sleep and an ache behind his eyes, watching the Band of the Red Hand leave Maerone. All six thousand of them. Half horse, half foot, and all making enough noise to rouse the dead. Despite the hour, people lined the streets and hung gawking from every upper window.

The Band’s square red-fringed banner led the way, a red hand on white, the Band’s motto crimson-embroidered below. Dovie’andi se tovya sagain. “It’s time to toss the dice.” Nalesean, Daerid and Talmanes rode with the flag, ten mounted men pounding away at brass kettledrums hung with scarlet skirting, and as many trumpeters adding flourishes. Behind came Nalesean’s horsemen, a mixture of Tairen armsmen and Defenders of the Stone, Cairhienin lordlings with con on their backs and retainers at their heels, and a sprinkling of Andorans, each squadron and troop with its own long banner bearing the Red Hand, a sword and a number. Mat had had them draw lots for who got which number.

The mixing had caused some grumbling; more than a little, truth to tell. In the beginning, Cairhienin horse all followed Talmanes, and Tairens Nalesean. The foot had been a mongrel lot from the start. There had been mutters about making each unit the same size, too, and the numbers on the pennants. Lords and captains had always gathered as many men as would follow, who were known as Edorion’s men, or Meresin’s, or Alhandrin’s. They still did some of that—for example, Edorion’s five hundred called themselves Edorion’s Hammers, not the First Squadron—but Mat had driven it into their heads that every man belonged to the Band, not whatever land he had happened to be born in, and any who did not like doing things his way were free to leave. The remarkable thing was, none had.

Why they stayed was hard to understand. Certainly, they won when he led them, but some still died. He had a difficult time keeping them fed and seeing they got their pay more or less on time, and they might as well forget the wealth they boasted they were going to loot. Nobody had seen a coin of it so far, and he did not see much chance they ever would. It was madness.

The First Squadron raised a cheer quickly taken up by the Fourth and Fifth. Carlomin’s Leopards and Reimon’s Eagles, they called themselves. “Lord Matrim and victory! Lord Matrim and victory!”

If Mat had had a rock handy, he would have thrown it at them.

The infantry came next in a flowing snake, each company behind a drum beating cadence as well as one of the long pennants, theirs with a pike instead of a sword across the hand, twenty ranks bristling with pikes followed by five of archers or cross-bowmen. Each company had a flute or two as well, and they sang to the music.

“We drink all night and dance all day,
and on the girls we spend our pay,
and when we’re done, then we’ll away,
to dance with Jak o’ the Shadows.”

Mat waited out the song until the first of Talmanes’ cavalry appeared, then dug his heels into Pips’ flanks. No need to attend the supply wagons at the tail end, or the strings of remounts. Horses would go lame between here and Tear, or die from things the farriers could not remedy, and a cavalryman without a horse was not worth much. On the river seven small ships crept downstream under triangular sails, little faster than the current. Each carried a small white flag with the Red Hand. Other craft were setting forth, too, some sprinting south under every scrap of canvas they could hold.

As he caught up to the head of the column the sun finally peeked above the horizon, sending the first rays across the rolling hills and scattered thickets. He pulled his hat low against the glare of the brilliant sliver. Nalesean had a gauntleted fist to his mouth, stifling an impressive yawn, and Daerid sat slumped in his saddle, heavy-lidded, as if he might drift off to sleep right there. Only Talmanes was straight-backed, wide-eyed and alert. Mat felt more in sympathy with Daerid.

Even so, he raised his voice to be heard over the drums and trumpets. “Put the scouts out as soon as we’re beyond sight of the town.” Both forest and open country lay farther south, but a fairly well established road cut across both; most traffic went by water, but enough had gone on foot or wagon over the years to mark out a track. “And shut that bloody noise up.”

“The scouts?” Nalesean said wonderingly. “Burn my soul, there’s no one with so much as a spear inside ten miles of us, unless you think the White Lions have stopped running, and if they have, they won’t come closer than fifty miles if they have any notion we’re about.”

Mat ignored him. “I want to make thirty-five miles today. When we can do thirty-five every day, we’ll see how far we can push it.” They gaped at him, of course. Horses could not maintain that pace very long, and anybody but Aiel considered twenty-five miles an excellent day’s march for foot. But he had to play this out the way it had been dealt. “Comadrin wrote, ‘Attack on ground where your enemy believes you will not, from an unexpected direction at an unexpected time. Defend where your enemy believes you are not, and when he believes you will run. Surprise is the key to victory, and speed is the key to surprise. For the soldier, speed is life.’ ”

“Who is Comadrin?” Talmanes asked after a moment, and Mat had to gather himself to answer.

“A general. Dead a long time. I read his book once.” He remembered reading it, anyway, more than once; he doubted a copy existed anywhere now. For that matter, he remembered meeting Comadrin, after losing a battle to him some six hundred years before Artur Hawkwing. Those memories did creep up on him. At least he had not delivered that little speech in the Old Tongue; he usually managed to avoid that sort of thing now.

Watching the mounted scouts fan out ahead across the rolling river plain, Mat relaxed. His part of it was begun, according to plan. A hasty departure on short notice as if he were trying to sneak away south, but showy enough to make sure it was noticed. The combination would make him seem a fool, and that was to the good, too. Teaching the Band to move fast was a good idea—moving fast could keep you away from the fighting—but their progress was sure to be noted from the river if nowhere else. He scanned the sky; no ravens or crows, but that did not mean much. No pigeons, either, yet if none had left Maerone this morning he would eat his saddle.

In a few days at most Sammael would learn the Band was coming, hurrying, and the word Rand had put about down in Tear would have made it clear that Mat’s arrival would signal the imminent invasion of Illian. At the best speed the Band could do, it was still more than a month to Tear. With any luck, Sammael would be cracked like a louse between two rocks before Mat ever had to come within a hundred miles of the man. Sammael could see everything coming—almost everything—but it was going to be a different dance than he expected. Different than anyone but Rand, Mat and Bashere expected. That was the real plan. Mat actually found himself whistling. For once everything was going to work out the way he expected.

Threads Woven of Shadow

Cautiously Sammael stepped onto flowery silk carpets, leaving the gateway open in case he needed to retreat and holding hard to saidin. Usually he refused meetings except on neutral ground, or his own, but this was the second time he had come here. A matter of necessity. He had never been a trusting man, and was less so since hearing bits of what had passed between Demandred and the three women, and Graendal certainly had told him only enough to support some gain she saw for herself. He quite understood; he had plans of his own the other Chosen knew nothing about. There would only be one Nae’blis, and that was a prize worth as much as immortality itself.

He stood on a deep dais, marble-railed at one end, where tables and chairs of gilded work and carved ivory, some quite disgusting in their details, were arranged to command the rest of the long, columned hall, ten feet below. No stairs led down there; it was a huge, extravagant pit in which to present entertainment. Sunlight sparkled through tall windows where colored glass made elaborate patterns. None of the sun’s blistering heat penetrated; the air was cool, though he felt it only remotely. Graendal had no more need than he to make such an effort, but of course she would. The wonder was that she had not extended the net to the entire palace.

There was something different in the lower part of the chamber since his last visit, but he could not see what. Three long wading pools ran down the center of the hall, each with a fountain—sleek forms, motion frozen in stone—that sent water almost to the carved marble ribs of the arched ceiling overhead. Men and women sported in the pools wearing scraps of silk or less, while others garbed in little more performed along the sides, acrobats and jugglers, dancers in varied styles and musicians playing flutes and horns, drums and all sorts of stringed instruments. Of every size, every shade of skin and hair and eyes, each was more physically perfect than the last. It was all meant to amuse whoever stood on the dais. It was idiocy. A waste of time and energy. Typical of Graendal.

The dais had been empty except for himself when he stepped onto it, but with saidin filling him, he smelled Graendal’s sweet perfume, like an air from a garden of flowers, and heard her slippers whispering on the carpets well before she spoke behind him. “Are my pets not beautiful?”

She joined him at the railing, smiling at the display below. Her thin blue Domani gown clung and more than hinted. As usual she had a ring with different stones on every finger, four or five gem-encrusted bracelets on each wrist, and a wide collar of huge sapphires snugged around the gown’s high neck. He did not know about such things, but he suspected hours had gone into arranging those sun-gold curls touching her shoulders, and the moondrops seemingly scattered through them; there was something about their casualness that hinted at precision.

Sammael sometimes wondered about her. He had never met her until he chose to abandon a losing cause and follow the Great Lord, but everyone knew of her, famous and honored, a dedicated ascetic, treating those with disturbed minds Healing could not touch. At that first meeting, when she accepted his initial pledges to the Great Lord, every trace of the abstemious benefactor was gone, as if she had deliberately become the opposite of everything she had been before. On the surface her total fixation was her own pleasure, nearly obscuring a desire to pull down everyone who had a particle of power. And that in turn almost hid her own thirst for power, very seldom exercised openly. Graendal had always been very good at hiding things in plain sight. He thought he knew her better than any of the other Chosen did—she had accompanied him to Shayol Ghul to make his obeisance—but even he did not know all the layers of her. She had as many shades as a jegal had scales, slipping from one to another as quickly as lightning. She had been the mistress then, he the acolyte, for all his accomplishments as a general. That situation had changed.

None of the waders or performers looked up, but with her appearance they became more energetic, more graceful if that was possible, attempting to display themselves to best advantage; they existed to please her. Graendal made sure of that.

She gestured to four acrobats, a dark-haired man supporting three slim women, coppery skins oiled and gleaming. “They are my favorites, I think. Ramsid is the Domani king’s brother. The woman standing on his shoulders is Ramsid’s wife; the other two are the king’s youngest sister and eldest daughter. Don’t you find it remarkable what can be learned with the proper encouragement? Consider all the talents going to waste.” That was one of her favorite concepts. A place for everyone and everyone in their place, chosen for them according to their talents and the needs of society. Which needs always seemed to center on her own desires. The whole thing bored Sammael; had her precepts been applied to him, he would still stand where he was.

The male acrobat turned slowly to give them a good view; he held a woman straight-armed to either side while they hung by one hand from the grip of the one on his shoulders. Graendal had already moved on, to a very dark-skinned man and woman with curly hair, both of great beauty. The slender pair played oddly elongated harps, with chimes that resonated to the plucked strings in crystalline echoes. “My newest acquisitions, from the lands beyond the Aiel Waste. They should thank me for rescuing them. Chiape was Sh’boan, a sort of empress, newly widowed, and Shaofan was to marry her and become Sh’botay. For seven years she would have ruled absolutely, then died. Whereupon he would have chosen a new Sh’boan and ruled absolutely until his death in seven years. They have followed that cycle for nearly three thousand years without a break.” She gave a small laugh and shook her head wonderingly. “Shaofan and Chiape insist the deaths are natural. The Will of the Pattern, they call it. To them everything is the Will of the Pattern.”

Sammael kept his eyes on the people below. Graendal prattled like a fool, but only a true fool took her for one. What she seemed to let slip among her babbling was often planted as carefully as a conje needle. The key was picking out why, and what she meant to gain. Why would she suddenly have snatched pets from so far away? She seldom went out of her way. Was she trying to divert him toward the lands beyond the Waste by making him think she had an interest there? The battlefield was here. The Great Lord’s first touch when he broke free would land here. The rest of the world would be whipped by the fringes of storms, even racked by storms, but those storms would generate here.

“Since so much of the Domani king’s family met with your approval,” he said dryly, “I am surprised no more did.” If she wanted to divert him, she would find a way to slide it in again. She never thought anyone knew her tricks well enough to see through them.

A lithe dark-haired woman, not young but with the sort of pale beauty and elegance that would last all her life, appeared at his elbow cradling a crystal goblet of dark wine punch in both hands. He took it, though he had no intention of drinking; beginners watched for a major assault till their eyes burned, and let a lone assassin walk up behind them. Alliances, however temporary, were all very well, but the fewer of the Chosen who remained on the Day of Return, the greater the chance among the survivors to be named Nae’blis. The Great Lord had always encouraged such ... competition; only the fittest were worthy to serve. At times Sammael believed that the one chosen to rule the world forever would be the last of the Chosen left standing.

The woman turned back to a muscular young man who held a golden tray with another goblet and a tall matching pitcher. Both wore diaphanous white robes, and neither gave so much as the flicker of an eye to the gateway, opening into his apartments in Illian. When she served Graendal, the woman’s face was a portrait of worship. There was never any trouble about speaking in front of her servants and pets, though they would not number a single Friend of the Dark among them. She distrusted Friends of the Dark, claiming they were too easily swayed, but the level of Compulsion used on those who served her personally left little room for anything beyond adoration.

“I almost expect to see the king himself here serving wine,” he continued.

“You know I choose only the most exquisite. Alsalam is not up to my standard.” Graendal took the wine from the woman with barely a glance, and not for the first time Sammael wondered whether the pets were another screen, like the chattering. A little prodding might shake something loose.

“Sooner or later you will slip, Graendal. One of your visitors will recognize one who serves him wine or turns down his bed, and he will have sense enough to hold his tongue until he leaves. What will you do if someone descends on this palace with an army to rescue a husband or a sister? An arrow may not be a shocklance, yet it can still kill you.”

She threw back her head and laughed, a trill of gay amusement, plainly too silly to see the implied insult. Plainly, as long as you did not know her. “Oh, Sammael, why would I let them see anything but what I want them to? I certainly do not send my pets to serve them. Alsalam’s supporters and his opponents, even the Dragonsworn, leave here thinking I support them and only them. And they do not want to disturb an invalid.” His skin tingled slightly as she channeled, and for an instant her image changed. Her skin became coppery but dull, her hair and eyes dark but flat; she appeared gaunt and frail, a once-beautiful Domani woman slowly losing a battle against illness. He barely stopped his lip from curling. One touch would prove the angular contours of that face were not hers—only the most subtle use of Illusion could pass that test—but Graendal seemed wedded to flamboyance. The next moment she was herself again, wearing a wry smile. “You would not believe how they all trust and listen to me.”

It never ceased to amaze him that she chose to remain here in a palace well known across Arad Doman, with civil war and anarchy all around her. Of course, he did not think she had let any others of the Chosen know where she had established herself. That she trusted him with the knowledge made him wary. She liked her comforts, and never wanted to expend much effort to keep them, yet this palace was in sight of the Mountains of Mist, and considerable work was necessary to keep the turmoil away from her, to keep anyone from asking where the former owner had gone, along with his family and servants. Sammael would not be surprised if every Domani who visited here left believing that this land had been handed down in her family since the Breaking. She used Compulsion so often like a hammer that one might forget that she could wield the weaker forms of it with great delicacy, twisting a mind’s path so subtly that even the closest examination might miss every trace of her. In fact, she might have been the best at that who ever lived.

He let the gateway vanish but held on to saidin; her tricks would not work on a man wrapped in the Source. And in truth, he enjoyed the struggle for survival, though it was unconscious now; only the strongest deserved to survive, and he proved his own fitness to himself every day in that battle. There was no way she could know he still grasped saidin, but she smiled briefly into her goblet as if she did. He liked people pretending to know things almost as little as he liked them knowing things he did not. “What do you have to tell me?” he said, more roughly than he intended.

“About Lews Therin? You never seem interested in anything else. Now, he would be a pet. I would make him the centerpiece of every display. Not that he is handsome enough, normally, but who he is makes up for that.” Smiling into her goblet again, she added in a murmur that would have been inaudible without saidin in him, “And I do like them tall.”

It was an effort not to stand up as straight as he could. He was not short, but it rankled that his height did not match his ability. Lews Therin had been a head taller than he; so was al’Thor. There was always an assumption that the taller man was the better. It took another effort not to touch the scar that slanted across his face from hairline to square-cut beard. Lews Therin had given him that; he kept it for a reminder. He suspected she had misunderstood his question on purpose, to bait him. “Lews Therin is long dead,” he said harshly. “Rand al’Thor is a jumped-up farmboy, a choss-haulcr who has been lucky.”

Graendal blinked at him as if surprised. “Do you really think so? There has to be more than luck behind him. Luck could not have carried him so far, so fast.”

Sammael had not come to talk about al’Thor, yet ice formed at the base of his spine. Thoughts he had forced himself to dismiss came oozing back. Al’Thor was not Lews Therin, but al’Thor was Lews Therin’s soul reborn, as Lews Therin himself had been the rebirth of that soul. Sammael was neither philosopher nor theologian, yet Ishamael had been both, and he claimed to have divined secrets hidden in that fact. Ishamael had died mad, true, but even when he was still sane, back when it seemed they surely would drive Lews Therin Telamon to defeat, he claimed this struggle had gone on since the Creation, an endless war between the Great Lord and the Creator using human surrogates. More, he avowed that the Great Lord would almost as soon have turned Lews Therin to the Shadow as have broken free. Maybe Ishamael had been a little mad then, too, but there had been efforts to turn Lews Therin. And Ishamael said that it had happened in the past, the Creator’s champion made a creature of the Shadow and raised up as the Shadow’s champion.

There were unsettling implications in those claims, ramifications Sammael did not want to consider, but the thing that shoved itself to the front of his mind was the possibility that the Great Lord might really want to make al’Thor Nae’blis. It could not happen in a vacuum. Al’Thor would need help. Help—that could explain his supposed luck so far. “Have you learned where al’Thor is hiding Asmodean? Or anything of Lanfear’s whereabouts? Or Moghedien’s?” Of course, Moghedien always hid herself; the Spider was forever popping up just when you were sure she was finally dead.

“You know as much as I do,” Graendal said blithely, pausing for a sip from her goblet. “Myself, I think Lews Therin killed them. Oh, don’t grimace at me. Al’Thor, since you insist.” The thought did not seem to disturb her, but then, she would never find herself in open conflict with al’Thor. That had never been her way. If al’Thor ever discovered her, she simply would abandon everything and re-establish herself elsewhere—or else surrender before he could strike a blow, then begin convincing him that she was indispensable. “There are rumors out of Cairhien about Lanfear dying at Lews Therin’s hands the same day he killed Rahvin.”

“Rumors! Lanfear has been aiding al’Thor since the beginning, if you ask me. I would have had his head in the Stone of Tear except that someone sent Myrddraal and Trollocs to save him! That was Lanfear; I am certain. I’m done with her. The next time I see her, I’ll kill her! And why would he kill Asmodean? I would if I could find him, but he has gone over to al’Thor. He’s teaching him!”

“Always some excuse for your failures,” she whispered into her punch, again too softly for him to have heard without saidin. In a louder voice, she said, “Choose your own explanations, if you wish. You may even be right. All I know is that Lews Therin seems to be removing us from the game one by one.”

Sammael’s hand trembled with anger, nearly slopping punch from his goblet before he could still it. Rand al’Thor was not Lews Therin. He himself had outlived the great Lews Therin Telamon, handing out praise for victories he could not have won himself and expecting others to lap it up. His only regret was that the man had not left a grave for him to spit on.

Waving ringed fingers in time to a snatch of music from below, Graendal spoke absently, as though her real attention was on the tune. “So many of us have died confronting him. Aginor and Balthamel. Ishamael, Be’lal and Rahvin. And Lanfear and Asmodean, whatever you believe. Possibly Moghedien; she might be creeping about in the shadows waiting until the rest of us have fallen—she’s foolish enough. I do hope you have somewhere prepared to run. There doesn’t seem to be any doubt that he is going after you next. Soon, I would say. I’ll face no armies here, but Lews Therin is gathering quite a large one to hurl against you. The price you pay if you must be seen to wield power as well as wield it.”

He did have lines of retreat prepared, as it happened—that was only prudent—but hearing in her voice the certainty of his need infuriated him. “And if I destroy al’Thor then, it will violate none of the Great Lord’s command.” He did not understand, but there was no requirement to understand the Great Lord, only to obey. “As far as you’ve told it to me. If you have held back...”

Graendal’s eyes hardened to blue ice. She might avoid confrontation, but she did not like threats. The next instant she was all inane smiles again. As changeable as the weather in M’jinn. “What Demandred told me that the Great Lord told him, I have passed on to you, Sammael. Every word. I doubt even he would dare lie in the Great Lord’s name.”

“But you’ve told me little enough of what he plans to do,” Sammael said softly, “him or Semirhage or Mesaana. Practically nothing.”

“I have told you what I know.” She sighed irritably. Perhaps she was telling the truth. She seemed to regret not knowing herself. Perhaps. With her, anything and everything could be show. “For the rest... Think back, Sammael. We used to plot against one another almost as hard as we fought Lews Therin, yet we were winning before he caught us all gathered at Shayol Ghul.” She shuddered, and for a moment her face looked haggard. Sammael did not want to remember that day either, or what came after, a dreamless sleep while the world changed past recognition and all he had wrought vanished. “Now we have awakened in a world where we should stand so far above ordinary mortals as to be another species—and we are dying. For a moment forget who will be Nae’blis. Al’Thor—if you must call him by that name—al’Thor was as helpless as a babe when we woke.”

“Ishamael did not find him so,” he said—of course, Ishamael had been mad then—but she continued as if he had not spoken.

“We behave as if this is the world we knew, when nothing is what we knew. We die one by one, and al’Thor grows stronger. Lands and people gather behind him. And we die. Immortality is mine. I do not want to die.”

“If he frightens you, then kill him.” Before the words were well out of his mouth he would have swallowed them if he could.

Disbelief and scorn twisted Graendal’s face. “I serve the Great Lord and obey, Sammael.”

“As do I. As well as any.”

“So good of you to deign to kneel to our Master.” Her voice was as wintry as her smile, and his face darkened. “All I say is that Lews Therin is as dangerous now as he ever was in our own time. Frightened? Yes, I am frightened. I intend to live forever, not meet Rahvin’s fate!”

“Tsag!” The obscenity at least made her blink and truly look at him. “Al’Thor—al’Thor, Graendal! An ignorant boy, whatever Asmodean manages to teach him! A primitive lout who probably still believes that nine-tenths of what you and I take for granted is impossible! Al’Thor makes a few lords bow and thinks he has conquered a nation. He hasn’t the will to close his fist and truly conquer them. Only the Aiel—Bajad drovja! Who would have thought they could change so?”—he had to get a grip on himself; he never cursed like this; it was a weakness—“only they truly follow him, and not all of them. He hangs by a thread, and he will fall, one way or another.”

“Will he? What if he is ... ?” She stopped, raising her goblet so rapidly that punch spilled onto her wrist, and gulped until the goblet was almost empty. The elegant serving woman came scurrying with the crystal pitcher. Graendal thrust out the goblet to be refilled and went on breathlessly. “How many of us will die before it is done? We must stand together as we never have before.”

That was not what she had started to say. He ignored the ice that gripped his spine once more. Al’Thor would not be chosen Nae’blis. He would not! So she wanted them to stand together, did she? “Then link with me. The pair of us linked would be more than a match for al’Thor. Let that be the beginning of our new standing together.” His scar tightened as he smiled at the sudden blankness on her face. The link had to come from her, but with only the two of them, she would have to give him control and trust him to choose when to end it. “So. It seems we will go on as before.” There had never been any question of it, really; trust was no part of any of them. “What more do you have to tell me?” That was the reason he had come here, not to listen to her rattle on about Rand al’Thor. Al’Thor would be dealt with. Directly or indirectly.

She stared at him, gathering herself, eyes glittering with enmity. Finally she said, “Little enough.” She would not forget that he had seen her lose control. None of her anger came out in her voice; her tone was smooth, even offhand. “Semirhage missed the last gathering; I don’t know why, and I do not think Mesaana or Demandred does either. Mesaana in particular was annoyed, though she tried to hide it. She thinks Lews Therin soon will be in our hands, but then she has said the same every time. She was sure Be’lal would kill or capture him in Tear; she was very proud of that trap. Demandred warns you to be careful.”

“So Demandred knows you and I meet,” he said flatly. Why had he ever expected to receive more than driblets from her?

“Of course he does. Not how much I tell you, but that I tell you something. I am trying to bring us together, Sammael, before it is too—”

He cut in sharply. “You deliver a message to Demandred from me. Tell him I know what he is up to.” Events to the south had Demandred’s mark all over them. Demandred had always liked using proxies. “Tell him to be careful. I won’t have him or his friends interfering in my plans.” Perhaps he could direct al’Thor’s attention there; that would likely put an end to him. If other means did not work. “So long as they steer clear of me, his lackeys can carve out what he wants, but they will steer clear or he will answer for it.” There had been a long struggle after the Bore was opened into the Great Lord’s prison, many years before enough strength was gathered to move openly. This time, when the final seal was shattered, he would present the Great Lord with nations ready to follow. If they did not know who they followed, what did that matter? He would not fail, as Be’lal and Rahvin had. The Great Lord would see who served him best. “You tell him!”

“If you wish it,” she said, grimacing reluctantly. An instant later that lazy smile came onto her face again. Changeable. “All these threats weary me. Come. Listen to the music and calm yourself.” He started to tell her he had no interest in music, as she knew very well, but she turned to the marble railing. “There they are. Listen.”

The very dark man and woman had come to the foot of the dais with their peculiar harps. Sammael supposed the chimes added something to their playing; what, he could not say. They beamed reverently up at Graendal when they saw her watching.

Despite her own advice to listen, Graendal went on talking. “A peculiar place they come from. Women who can channel are required to marry the sons of women who can channel, and everyone of those bloodlines is marked with tattoos on their faces at birth. No one with the markings is allowed to marry anyone without; any child of such a union is killed. Tattooed males are killed in their twenty-first year in any case, and cloistered before, ignorant even of how to read.”

So she had come back to it after all. She truly must think he was simple. He decided to plant a small barb of his own. “Do they bind themselves like criminals?”

A look of puzzlement flashed across her face and was hastily suppressed. Plainly she had not reasoned it out; there was no reason she should. Few people in their time had ever committed one violent crime, let alone more. Before the Bore, at least. She did not admit her ignorance, of course. There were times when it was best to hide lack of knowledge, but Graendal often carried the practice to a fault. That was why he had mentioned it; he knew it would dig at her, and serve her right for the useless shreds she doled out.

“No,” she said as if she had understood. “The Ayyad, as they call themselves, live in their own small towns, avoiding everyone else, and supposedly never channel without permission or orders from the Sh’botay or Sh’boan. In fact, they are the real power, and the reason the Sh’botay and Sh’boan only rule seven years.” Rich laughter bubbled up in her for a moment. She herself had always believed in being the power behind the power. “Yes, a fascinating land. Too far from the center to be of any use for many years, of course.” She made a slight, dismissive gesture, fluttering beringed fingers. “There will be plenty of time to see what can be made of it after the Day of Return.”

Yes, she definitely wanted him to think she had some interest there. If she really had, she never would have mentioned the place. He set his untouched goblet on the tray the muscular fellow had ready before his hand finished moving. Graendal did train her servants well. “I am sure their music is fascinating,” if you cared for that sort of thing, “but I have preparations to see to.”

Graendal laid a hand on his arm. “Careful preparations, I trust? The Great Lord will not be pleased if you disturb his plans.”

Sammael’s mouth tightened. “I have done everything short of surrendering to convince al’Thor I am no threat to him, but the man seems obsessed with me.”

“You could abandon Illian, start again elsewhere.”

“No!” He had never run from Lews Therin, and he would not run from this provincial buffoon. The Great Lord could not mean to put one like that above the Chosen. Above him! “You have told me all of the Great Lord’s command?”

“I dislike repeating myself, Sammael.” Her voice held a touch of exasperation, her eyes a hint of anger. “If you did not believe me the first time, you will not now.”

He stared at her a moment longer, then nodded brusquely. Very probably she had told the truth there; a lie touching the Great Lord could rebound with deadly force. “I see no reason to meet again until you have something to tell me besides whether Semirhage was there or not.” His brief frown at the harpists should be enough to convince her she had succeeded in her misdirection; he turned his gaze into a disapproving sweep across the people splashing in the pools, the acrobats and the rest, so it would not seem obvious. All this wasted effort, all this display of flesh, really did disgust him. “Next time you can come to Illian.”

She shrugged as though it did not matter, but her lips moved slightly, and his saidin-enhanced hearing plucked “If you are still there” from the air.

Icily Sammael opened a gateway back to Illian. The muscular young man failed to move quickly enough; he did not have time to scream before he was sliced in two down the middle, him and the tray and the crystal pitcher. The edge of a gateway made a razor seem blunt. Graendal pursed her lips peevishly at the loss of one of her pets.

“If you want to help us stay alive,” Sammael told her, “find out how Demandred and the others mean to carry out the Great Lord’s instructions.” He stepped through the gateway, never taking his eyes from her face.

Graendal maintained her vexed expression until the gateway closed behind Sammael, then allowed herself to tap her fingernails on the marble railing. With his golden hair Sammael might have been handsome enough to stand among her pets, if he would let Semirhage remove the burned furrow that slanted across his face; she was the only one remaining with the skill to do what would once have been a simple matter. It was an idle thought. The real question was whether her effort had paid off.

Shaofan and Chiape played their strange atonal music, full of complex harmonies and odd dissonances, quite beautifully; their faces shone with joy that they might be pleasing her. She nodded, and could almost feel their delight. They were much happier now than they would have been left to themselves. So much effort to procure them, and solely for this few minutes with Sammael. Of course, she could have taken less trouble—anyone at all from their lands would have done as well—but she had her standards even when preparing a momentary subterfuge. Long ago she had chosen to seek every pleasure, to deny herself none that did not threaten her standing with the Great Lord.

Her eyes fell on the offal staining her carpet, and her nose twitched irritably. The weaving might be salvaged, but it annoyed her that she would have to remove the blood herself. She gave quick orders, and Osana ran to oversee having the carpet removed. And Rashan’s remains disposed of.

Sammael was a transparent fool. No, not a fool. He was deadly enough when he had something to fight directly, something he could see clearly, but he might as well be blind when it came to subtleties. Very likely he believed her ruse was intended to mask what she and the others were up to. One thing he would never consider was that she knew every twitch of his mind, every twist of his thoughts. After all, she had spent nearly four hundred years studying the workings of minds far more convoluted than his. Transparent, he was. However much he tried to hide it, he was frantic. He was trapped in a box of his own devising, a box he would defend to the death rather than abandon, a box in which he very probably would die.

She sipped her wine, and her forehead furrowed slightly. Possibly she had already achieved her end with him, though she had expected it to take four or five visits. She would have to find reason to call on him in Illian; it was best to observe the patient even after it appeared the desired path had been taken.

Whether the boy was a simple farm lad or Lews Therin himself truly come back—she could not make up her mind on that—he had proven himself far too dangerous. She served the Great Lord of the Dark, but she did not mean to die, not even for the Great Lord. She would live forever. Of course, one did not go against even the slightest of the Great Lord’s wishes unless one wished to spend an eternity dying and another eternity wishing for the lesser agony of that long death. Still, Rand al’Thor had to be removed, but it would be Sammael who earned the blame. If he realized that he had been aimed at Rand al’Thor like a dornat set to hunt, she would be very much surprised. No, not a man to recognize subtleties.

Far from stupid, though. It would be interesting to discover how he had found out about the binding. She herself would never have learned had Mesaana not made a rare slip while venting her anger on an absent Semirhage; her fury had been strong enough that she did not realize how much she had revealed. How long had Mesaana been tucked away inside the White Tower? The mere fact that she was opened interesting avenues. If there were some way to discover where Demandred and Semirhage had placed themselves, it might be possible to work out what they intended to do. They had not trusted her with that. Oh, no. Those three had worked together since before the War of Power. On the surface, at least. She was sure they had plotted against one another as assiduously as any of the Chosen, but whether Mesaana undercut Semirhage or Semirhage Demandred, she had never yet found a crack between them into which a wedge could be driven.

A scuff of boots announced an arrival, but not men to replace the carpet and remove Rashan. Ebram was a tall, well-made young Domani in tight red breeches and a flowing white shirt; he could have fit into her collection of pets if he had been more than a merchant’s son. His eyes were intent on her as he knelt, dark and shining. “The Lord Ituralde has come, Great Mistress.”

Graendal set the goblet atop a table that at first glance seemed to be inlaid with ivory dancers. “Then he shall speak with the Lady Basene.”

Ebram rose smoothly and offered an arm for the frail Domani woman he now saw. He knew who lay behind the weaving of Illusion, but even so the reverence on his face faded slightly; she knew it was Graendal, not Basene, whom he worshiped. At the moment she did not care. Sammael was at the very least pointed at Rand al’Thor, and perhaps launched. As for Demandred and Semirhage and Mesaana... Only she herself knew that she had made her own journey to Shayol Ghul and down to the lake of fire. Only she knew that the Great Lord had all but promised to name her Nae’blis, a promise sure to be fulfilled with al’Thor out of the way. She would be the most obedient of the Great Lord’s servants. She would sow chaos till the harvest made Demandred’s lungs explode.

Semirhage let the iron-bound door close behind her. One of the glowbulbs, salvaged from the Great Lord alone knew where, flickered fitfully, but they still gave better light than the candles and oil lamps she had to accept in this time. Aside from the light, the place had the intimidating look of a prison, rough stone walls and a bare floor with a small crude wooden table in one corner. Not her notion; she would have had it all spotless white and gleaming cueran, sleek and sterile. This place had been prepared before she knew the need. A pale-haired silk-clad woman hung spread-eagled from nothing in the middle of the room, glaring at her defiantly. An Aes Sedai. Semirhage hated Aes Sedai.

“Who are you?” the patient demanded. “A Darkfriend? A Black sister?”

Ignoring the noise, Semirhage quickly checked the buffer between the woman and saidar. If it failed, she could mask the wretch again with no trouble—it was a measure of the woman’s weakness that she could afford to leave the knotted buffer unwatched—but taking care was second nature to her, taking each step in its exact turn. Now for the woman’s clothing. Someone in garments felt safer than someone without. Delicately she wielded Fire and Wind, slicing away dress and shift and every scrap right down to the patient’s shoes. Drawing everything out in front of the woman in one compressed bundle, she channeled again, Fire and Earth, and fine dust rained down onto the stone floor.

The woman’s blue eyes bulged. Semirhage doubted she could duplicate those simple feats even if she had been able to follow them.

“Who are you?” This time there was an edge to the demand. Fear perhaps. It was always good if that began early.

Precisely Semirhage located the centers in the woman’s brain that received messages of pain from the body, and just as meticulously began to stimulate them with Spirit and Fire. Only a little at first, building slowly. Too much at once could kill in moments, yet it was remarkable how far the system could be taken if fed in finely increasing increments. Working on something you could not see was a difficult task, even this close, but she was as knowledgeable about the human body as anyone had ever been.

The spread-eagled patient shook her head as if she could shake off the pain, then realized she could not and fixed Semirhage with a stare. Semirhage merely watched, and maintained the net. Even in something as hurried as this must be, she could afford a little patience.

How she did hate any who called themselves Aes Sedai. She had been one herself, a true Aes Sedai, not an ignorant fool like the simpleton hanging before her. She had been known, famed, whisked to every corner of the world for her ability to mend any injury, to bring people back from the brink when everyone else said there was nothing more to be done. And a delegation from the Hall of the Servants had offered her a choice that was no choice: to be bound never to know her pleasures again, and with that binding be able to see the end of life approach; or else to be severed, and cast out as Aes Sedai. They had expected her to accept binding; that was the rational, proper thing to do, and they were rational, proper men and women. They never expected her to flee. She had been one of the first to go to Shayol Ghul.

Fat beads of sweat popped out on the patient’s pale face. Her jaw knotted, and her nostrils flared as she sucked in air. Now and then she gave a small grunt. Patience. Soon, now.

It had been jealousy, the jealousy of those who could not do what she could. Had anyone she pulled back from death’s grasp ever said they would rather have died than suffer the little extra she exacted? And the others? There were always those who deserved to suffer. What matter that she enjoyed giving them their deserts? The Hall and its hypocritical whining about legalities and rights. She had deserved the right to do as she did; she had earned the right. She had been more valuable to the world than all those together who entertained her with their screams. And in jealousy and spite the Hall had tried to pull her down!

Well, some of them had fallen into her hands during the war. Given time she could break the strongest man, the proudest woman, mold them exactly as she wanted them to be. The process might be slower than Compulsion, but it was infinitely more enjoyable, and she did not think even Graendal could undo what she did. Compulsion could be unraveled. But her patients... On their knees they had begged to give their souls to the Shadow, and had served obediently until they died. Each time Demandred had been full of what a coup it was, another Counselor of the Hall publicly proclaiming allegiance to the Great Lord, but for her the best part had been the way their faces went pale, even years later, when they saw her, the way they hurried to assure her that they remained faithful to what she had made of them.

The first sob ripped out of the woman hanging in the air and was stifled. Semirhage waited impassively. Haste might be necessary here, but too much haste could spoil everything. More sobbing erupted, overwhelming the patient’s efforts to subdue it, growing louder, louder, until it swelled to a howl. Semirhage waited. The woman shone with a greasy slick of sweat; her head flung from side to side, flailing her hair, and she jerked helplessly in her unseen tethers, convulsive flutters. Full-throated, ear-shattering shrieks lasted until breath was exhausted and began again as soon as lungs could be filled. Those wide bulging blue eyes saw nothing; they seemed to be glazing. Now it began.

Semirhage cut off her streams of saidar abruptly, but minutes passed before the screams subsided into panting. “What is your name?” she asked gently. The question did not matter as long as it was one the woman would answer. It could have been “Do you still defy me?”—it was often pleasant to keep on with that one until they pleaded to prove they no longer did—but she needed to make every question count this time.

Involuntary shudders ran through the hanging woman. Giving Semirhage a wary, slitted gaze, she licked her lips, coughed, and finally muttered hoarsely, “Cabriana Mecandes.”

Semirhage smiled. “It is good to tell me the truth.” There were pain centers in the brain, and pleasure centers. She stimulated one of the latter, just for a few moments but hard, as she moved closer. The jolt widened Cabriana’s eyes as far as they would go; she gasped and shook. Plucking a handkerchief from her sleeve, Semirhage lifted the woman’s wondering face and tenderly dabbed away sweat. “I know this is very hard on you, Cabriana,” she said warmly. “You must try not to make it more difficult.” With a soft touch she smoothed damp hair away from the woman’s face. “Would you like something to drink?” Not waiting for an answer, she channeled; a battered metal flask floated from the small table in the corner to her hand. The Aes Sedai never took her eyes from Semirhage, but she drank thirstily. After a few swallows, Semirhage took the flask away and returned it to the table. “Yes, that’s better, isn’t it? Remember, try not to make it difficult for yourself.” As she turned away, the woman spoke again, in a rasping voice.

“I spit in the milk of your mother, Darkfriend! Do you hear me? I...”

Semirhage stopped listening. Any other time there would have been a spreading glow of pleasure that the patient’s defiance had not been crushed yet. The purest exhilaration came from shaving away defiance and dignity in minute slices, watching the patient finally realize that they were going and struggle vainly to cling to what remained. No time for that now. Carefully she once more set the web on the pain centers of Cabriana’s brain and knotted it. Normally she liked to be in personal control, but some haste was necessary. Triggering the net, she channeled to extinguish the lights and left, closing the door behind her. Darkness would work its part, too. Alone, in the dark, with the pain.

Despite herself Semirhage made a vexed sound. There was no finesse in this. She did not like having to hurry. And to be called away from her charge; the girl was willful and obdurate, the circumstances difficult.

The corridor came close to matching the chamber for bleakness, a broad shadowy shaft through stone, with crossing passageways that she had no desire to explore nearly lost in the murk. Only two other doors were in sight, one leading to her present quarters. They were comfortable enough rooms if she had to be here, but she made no move toward them. Shaidar Haran stood in front of that door, black-clad and wreathed in dimness like smoke, so still that it was almost a shock when it spoke, a sound of bone dust being ground.

“What have you learned?”

The summons to Shayol Ghul had resulted in a warning from the Great Lord. WHEN YOU OBEY SHAIDAR HARAN, YOU OBEY ME. WHEN YOU DISOBEY SHAIDAR HARAN... However much the warning nettled, there had been no need for more. “Her name. Cabriana Mecandes. I could hardly learn more so quickly.”

It flowed across the hallway in that eye-wrenching way, ebon cloak hanging in denial of motion. One moment it was a statue ten paces away, the next it loomed over her so she had the choice of backing away or craning her neck to look up at that dead-white, eyeless face. Backing away was out of the question. “You will drain her completely, Semirhage. You will squeeze her dry, without delay, and tell me every scrap that you learn.”

“I promised the Great Lord that I would,” she told it coldly.

Bloodless lips twisted in a smile. That was its only reply. Turning sharply, it strode away through patches of shadow—and abruptly was gone.

Semirhage wished she knew how Myrddraal did that. It had nothing to do with the Power, but on the edges of shadow, where light was becoming dark, a Myrddraal could suddenly be elsewhere, in another shadow far away. Long ago Aginor had tested over a hundred of them to destruction in a vain effort to learn how it was done. The Myrddraal themselves did not know; she herself had proved that.

Abruptly she realized that her hands were pressed hard against her stomach, which seemed a ball of ice. It had been many years since she had felt fear anywhere except facing the Great Lord in the Pit of Doom. The frozen lump began to melt as she moved to the other prison door. Later she would analyze the emotion dispassionately; Shaidar Haran might be different from any other Myrddraal she had ever seen, but it was still a Myrddraal.

Her second patient, hanging like the first in midair, was a blocky, square-faced man in a green coat and breeches suitable for fading into a forest. A full half of the glowbulbs here shimmered on the edge of failure—that any had survived so long was a miracle—but Cabriana’s Warder was unimportant, really. What was needed, for whatever purpose, rested in the Aes Sedai’s mind, yet the Myrddraal apparently had been told to capture an Aes Sedai, and in their minds for some reason Aes Sedai and Warders seemed inseparable. As well they had, though. She had not before had an opportunity to break one of these storied fighters.

His dark eyes tried to bore holes through her head as she removed his clothing and boots and destroyed them as she had Cabriana’s. He was hairy, a mass of large hard muscles and scars. He never flinched. He said nothing. His defiance was different from the woman’s. Hers was bold, flung in your face, his a quiet refusal to bend. He might be harder to crack than his mistress. Normally he would have been much the more interesting.

Pausing, Semirhage studied him. There was something... A tightness around the mouth and eyes. As if he already fought pain. Of course. That peculiar bond between Aes Sedai and Warder. Strange that these primitives should have come up with something that none of the Chosen understood, yet it was so. From the little she knew, this fellow quite possibly felt at least some of what the other patient was undergoing. Another time that would present interesting possibilities. Now, it only meant that he thought he knew what he was facing.

“Your owner does not take very good care of you,” she said. “If she was more than a savage, there would be no need for you to be marred with all those scars.” His expression changed only slightly. To a tinge of contempt. “So.”

This time she set the net on the pleasure centers and began the slowly increasing stimulation. He was intelligent. He frowned, shook his head, then his eyes narrowed, fixed on her like chips of dark ice. He knew he should not be feeling that rising bliss, and though he could not see her net, he knew it had to be her work, so he set himself to fight it. Semirhage almost smiled. No doubt he thought pleasure easier to fight than pain. On rare occasions she had broken patients with no more than this. It gave her little enjoyment, and afterward they could not think coherently, simply wanting more of the ecstasy that bloomed in their heads, but it was quick, and they would do absolutely anything for more. That lack of coherence was why she had not used it on the other patient; she needed answers there. This fellow would learn the difference soon enough.

Difference. She put a finger to her lips in thought. Why was Shaidar Haran different from every other Myrddraal? She did not like discovering an oddity just when everything seemed to be going in their favor, and a Myrddraal set above the Chosen, even occasionally, was more than a mere oddity. Al’Thor was blinded, his attention all on Sammael, and Graendal was letting Sammael know enough to keep him from ruining everything with his pride. Of course, Graendal and Sammael were certainly scheming for advantage, together or separately. Sammael was a hot so-far with warped steering planes, and Graendal not much easier to predict. They had never learned that power came only from the Great Lord, handed out as he chose, for his own reasons. At his whims; she could think that in the safety of her head.

More troubling were the Chosen who had vanished. Demandred insisted they must be dead, but she and Mesaana were not so sure. Lanfear. If there was any justice, time would give her Lanfear. The woman was always there when least expected, always behaving as if she had the right to dabble her fingers in others’ plans, always flitting to safety if her dabbling brought ruin. Moghedien. She skulked out of sight, but she had never gone so long before without making herself known, just to remind the rest of them that she, too, was Chosen. Asmodean. A traitor, and so doomed, but he really had vanished, and Shaidar Haran’s existence and her own orders here combined to remind her that the Great Lord worked in his own ways toward his own goals.

The Chosen were no more than pieces on the board; they might be Counselors and Spires, but they were still pieces. If the Great Lord moved her here secretly, might he not be moving Moghedien or Lanfear, or even Asmodean? Might Shaidar Haran not be sent to deliver covert commands to Graendal or Sammael? Or for that matter, to Demandred or Mesaana? Their uneasy alliance—if it could be called by so strong a name—had lasted a long time, but neither would tell her if they received secret orders from the Great Lord, any more than she would ever let them learn of the orders that had brought her here, or those that had had her send Myrddraal and Trollocs to the Stone of Tear to battle those sent by Sammael.

If the Great Lord meant to make al’Thor Nae’blis, she herself would kneel to him—and wait for a slip to deliver him into her hands. Immortality meant infinite time to wait. There would always be other patients to amuse her in the meantime. What troubled her was Shaidar Haran. She had never been more than an indifferent tcheran player, but Shaidar Haran was a new piece on the board, one of unknown strength and purpose. And one daring way to capture your opponent’s High Counselor and turn it to your side was to sacrifice your Spires in a false attack. She would kneel if need be, for as long as need be, but she would not be sacrificed.

An odd feel to the net pulled her out of her thoughts. She took one look at the patient and clicked her tongue in exasperation. His head hung to one side, chin dark with blood where he had chewed his tongue, eyes staring and already filmed over. Inattention, and she had let the stimulation grow too fast, too far. With an irritation that never touched her face, she stopped channeling. There was no point trying to stimulate the brain of a corpse.

A sudden thought occurred to her. If the Warder could feel what the Aes Sedai felt, was the reverse true? Eyeing the scars that decorated the man’s body, she was sure it was impossible; even these simple fools would have altered the bond if it meant sharing the feel of that. Still, she abandoned the cadaver and stepped across the corridor with some haste.

Screams heard before she opened the iron-bound door onto darkness brought a deep breath of relief. Killing the woman before draining her of everything she knew would probably have meant remaining here until another Aes Sedai was captured. At the least.

There were barely intelligible words among the throat-shredding howls, words that seemed to have all the force of the patient’s soul behind them. “Pleeeeaaaase! Oh, Light, PLEEEEAAAASE!”

Semirhage smiled faintly. There was a little fun in this after all.

A Matter of Thought

Seated on her mattress, Elayne finished the one hundred strokes with her left hand, then put the hairbrush away in her small leather traveling case and pushed it back under the narrow bed. A dull ache rested behind her eyes from a day spent channeling, making ter’angreal. Too often trying to make ter’angreal Nynaeve, balanced atop their loose-jointed stool, had long since completed brushing her waist-length hair and was nearly done replaiting her braid loosely for sleep. Sweat made her face glisten.

Even with the one window open, the small room was stifling. The moon hung fat in a star-filled black sky. Their stub of candle provided a fitful glow. Candles and lamp oil were in short supply in Salidar; no one got more than a scrap of light at night unless they had to work with pen and ink. The room truly was cramped, with little space to move around the two short beds. Most of what they owned was packed away in a pair of battered brass-bound chests. Accepted’s dresses and cloaks they certainly had no need of now hung from pegs in the walls, where ragged holes in the crazed yellowing plaster showed the lathing beneath. A tiny table with a tilt was shoved between the beds, and a rickety washstand in the corner held a white pitcher and basin with an amazing number of chips between them. Even Accepted who had their heads patted at every turn were not indulged.

A handful of bedraggled blue and white wildflowers—fooled by the weather into blooming late, and not very well—stuck out of a yellow vase with a broken neck between a pair of brown pottery cups on the table. The only other spot of color was a green-striped song sparrow in a wicker cage. Elayne was nursing it for a broken wing. She had tried her small skill with Healing on another bird, but songbirds at least were too small to survive the shock.

No complaining, she told herself firmly. Aes Sedai lived a little better, novices and servants a little worse, and Gareth Bryne’s soldiers slept on the ground most often. What can’t be changed must be endured. Lini used to say that all the time. Well, Salidar held small enough comfort, and no luxury. And no coolness, either.

Pulling her shift away from her body, she blew down her front. “We want to be there ahead of them, Nynaeve. You know how they go on if they have to wait.”

Not a breath of breeze stirred, and the parched air seemed to pull perspiration from every pore. There must be something that could be done about the weather. Of course, if there was, Sea Folk Windfinders would probably already have done it, but she still might think of something, if only the Aes Sedai would give her time enough away from ter’angreal. As Accepted, she supposedly could take her studies where she wanted, but... If they thought I could eat and show them how to make ter’angreal at the same time, I wouldn’t have a minute to myself. At least there would be a break in that tomorrow.

Shifting to her bed, Nynaeve frowned and fiddled with the a’dam bracelet on her wrist. She always insisted one of them wear it even when they slept, though it produced decidedly odd and unpleasant dreams. There was hardly need; the a’dam would hold Moghedien just as well hanging on a peg, and on top of that, she shared a truly tiny cubbyhole with Birgitte. Birgitte was as good a guard as could be, and besides, Moghedien almost wept any time Birgitte so much as frowned. She had the least reason to want Moghedien alive, the most to want her dead, which the woman knew very well. Tonight the bracelet would be less use than usual.

“Nynaeve, they’ll be waiting.”

Nynaeve sniffed loudly—she did not do well being at anyone’s beck and call—but she took one of two flattened stone rings from the table between the beds. Both too large for a finger, one was striped and flecked blue and brown, the other blue and red, and each was twisted so it had only one edge. Unfastening the leather thong hanging around her neck, Nynaeve threaded the blue-and-brown ring alongside another, heavy and gold. Lan’s signet. She touched the thick gold band tenderly before tucking both inside her shift.

Elayne picked up the blue-and-red ring, frowning at it.

The rings were ter’angreal she had made in imitation of one now in Siuan’s possession, and despite their simple appearance, they were complex beyond belief. Sleeping with one next to your skin would take you into Tel’aran’rhiod, the World of Dreams, a reflection of the real world. Perhaps of all worlds; some Aes Sedai claimed that there were many worlds, as if all variations of the Pattern had to exist, and that all those worlds together made up a still larger Pattern. The important thing was that Tel’aran’rhiod reflected this world, and had properties that were extremely useful. Especially since the Tower knew nothing of entering it, so far as they could discover.

Neither of these rings worked quite as well as the original, though they did work. Elayne was getting a little better at that; of four attempts to produce a copy, only one had been a failure. A much better average than with the things she made from scratch. But what if one of her failures did worse than simply not work, or not work very well? Aes Sedai had been stilled studying ter’angreal. Burned out, it was called when it happened by accident, yet it was just as final. Nynaeve did not think so, of course but Nynaeve would not be satisfied till she Healed somebody three days dead.

Elayne turned the ring in her fingers. What it did was simple enough to understand, but the “how” still escaped her. “How” and “why” were the keys. With the rings she thought the pattern of colors had as much to do with it as the shape—anything other than the twisted ring did nothing, and the one that had turned out solid blue just gave you horrific nightmares—but she was not sure how to reproduce the original’s red, blue and brown. Yet the fine structure of her copies was the same, the way the tiniest bits of them, too small to see or even detect without the One Power, were arranged. Why should the colors matter? There seemed to be one common thread in those tiny structures for ter’angreal that required channeling to work, and another for those that simply made use of the Power—stumbling on that was what allowed her to even attempt to make original ter’angreal—but there was so much she did not know, so much she was guessing at.

“Are you going to sit there all night?” Nynaeve asked dryly, and Elayne gave a start. Setting one of the pottery cups back on the table, Nynaeve arranged herself on her bed, hands folded across her middle. “You were the one who mentioned not keeping them waiting. For myself, I don’t mean to give those biddies an excuse to chew my tailfeathers.”

Hastily Elayne slipped the speckled ring—it was not really stone anymore, though it had started out that way—onto a cord that she tied around her own neck. The second pottery cup also held a tincture of herbs that Nynaeve had prepared, slightly sweetened with honey to negate a bitter taste. Elayne drank about half, from past experience enough to help her sleep even with a headache. Tonight was one of those nights she could not afford to dally.

Stretching out on the cramped bed, she channeled briefly to extinguish the candle, then flapped her shift to produce a little cool. Well, a stir in the air, anyway. “I wish Egwene would get better. I am tired of the scraps Sheriam and the rest of them toss us. I want to know what is happening!”

She had touched on a hazardous topic, she realized. Egwene had been injured a month and a half ago in Cairhien, on the day Moiraine and Lanfear died. The day Lan vanished.

“The Wise Ones say she is getting better,” Nynaeve murmured sleepily in the dark. For once she did not sound as if she had followed the path to Lan. “That’s what Sheriam and her little circle say, and they have no reason to lie even if they could.”

“Well, I wish I could look over Sheriam’s shoulder tomorrow night.”

“As well wish—” Nynaeve stopped for a yawn. “As well wish the Hall will choose you Amyrlin while you’re about it. You might have that one, granted. By the time they choose anyone, we’ll both be gray-haired enough for the job.”

Elayne opened her mouth to reply, but with the other woman’s example, it turned into a yawn too. Nynaeve began to snore, not loudly, but with dogged persistence. Elayne let her eyes drift shut, but her thoughts tried to remain focused in spite of herself.

The Hall certainly was being dilatory, the Sitters meeting for less than an hour some days and often not at all. To talk to one, you would think she saw no urgency, though of course the Sitters for the six Ajahs—there were no Reds in Salidar, of course—did not tell other Aes Sedai what they discussed in session, much less an Accepted. They certainly had cause for dispatch. If their intentions remained secret, their gathering surely no longer did. Elaida and the Tower would not ignore them forever. Beyond that, the Whitecloaks were still only a few miles away in Amadicia, and rumors had begun of Dragonsworn right here in Altara. The Light alone knew what Dragonsworn might get up to if Rand had no control over them. The Prophet was a good example—or rather a horrid one. Riots, homes and farms burned, people murdered for not showing enough fervor in support of the Dragon Reborn.

Nynaeve’s snoring sounded like cloth ripping, but in the distance. Another yawn cracked Elayne’s jaws; she turned on her side and snuggled into the thin pillow. Reasons for dispatch. Sammael sat in Illian, and it was only a few hundred miles to the Illianer border, far too close with one of the Forsaken. The Light alone knew where the other Forsaken were, or what they were scheming. And Rand; they had to be concerned about Rand. He was not a danger, of course. He could never be that. But he was the key to everything; the world truly did bend itself around him now. She would bond him, somehow. Min. She and the embassy had to be more than halfway to Caemlyn by now. No snows to slow them. Another month yet for them to arrive. Not that she was concerned about Min going to Rand. What was the girl thinking of? Min. Sleep slid over her, and she slid into Tel’aran’rhiod ...

... and found herself standing in the main street of silent night-shrouded Salidar, with the moon gibbous overhead. She could see quite clearly, more so than moonlight alone would have allowed. There was always a sense of light in the World of Dreams, from everywhere and nowhere, as if the darkness itself had some dark glow. But then, dreams were like that, and this was a dream, if not any ordinary dream.

The village here reflected the real Salidar, but in strange facsimile, more still than even night would make it. Every window was dark, and an air of emptiness hung heavily, as if no one occupied any of the buildings. Of course, no one did, here. A nightbird’s reedy cry was answered by another, then a third, and something made a faint rustling noise as it skittered away in the odd half-light, but the stables would be empty, and the picket lines outside the village, and the clearings where sheep and cattle had been gathered. Wild creatures there would be in plenty, but none domesticated. Details changed between one glance and the next; the thatch-roofed buildings remained the same, yet a water barrel would be in a slightly different place, or gone, a door that had stood open was closed. The more ephemeral a thing was in the real world, the more its position or condition might change, the less firm its reflection.

Occasionally motion flickered in the dark street, someone appearing and vanishing after a few steps, or even floating across the ground as if flying. Many people’s dreams could touch Tel’aran’rhiod, but only briefly. Which was lucky for them. Another property of the World of Dreams was that what happened to you here was still real when you woke. If you died here, you did not wake. A strange reflection. Only the heat was the same.

Nynaeve stood there in an Accepted’s white dress with the banded hem, impatient beside Siuan and Leane. She had the silver bracelet, too, though it would not work from here to the waking world; it still held Moghedien, but Nynaeve, out of her body, would not be feeling anything through it. Leane was regally slim, though in Elayne’s opinion her barely opaque Domani gown of thin silk detracted from her elegance. The color kept shifting, too; that sort of thing happened until you learned what you were doing here. Siuan was better. She wore a simple dress of blue silk, with a scooped neck just low enough to show the twisted ring on a necklace. On the other hand, lace trim sometimes appeared on the dress and the necklace changed from a plain silver chain to elaborate pieces with rubies or firedrops or emeralds set in gold, with earrings to match, then back to the plain chain.

That was the original ring hanging around Siuan’s neck; she appeared as solid as any of the buildings. To herself, Elayne looked just as solid, but she knew that to the others she seemed slightly misty, like Nynaeve and Leane. You almost thought you might see the moonlight through them. That was what using a copy did. She could sense the True Source, but as she was, saidar felt tenuous; if she tried to channel, that would be meager too. With the ring Siuan wore, it would not be so, but that was the price of having secrets someone else knew and you did not dare have exposed. Siuan trusted the original more than Elayne’s copies, so she wore it—or sometimes Leane did—while Elayne and Nynaeve, who could use saidar, made do.

“Where are they?” Siuan demanded. Her neckline swooped up and down. The dress was green, now, the necklace a strand of fat moonstones. “It’s bad enough they want to stick an oar into my work and row as they please; now they make me wait.”

“I do not know why it upsets you for them to come along,” Leane told her. “You like watching them make mistakes. They do not know half of what they think they do.” For a moment her gown slid dangerously close to transparency; a close torque of fat pearls appeared around her neck and vanished. She did not notice. She had even less experience here than Siuan.

“I need some real sleep,” Siuan muttered. “Bryne tries to run me breathless. But I have to wait on the pleasure of women who’ll spend half the night remembering how to walk. Not to mention being lumbered with these two.” She frowned at Elayne and Nynaeve, then rolled her eyes skyward.

Nynaeve gripped her braid firmly, a sure indication of temper working. For once, Elayne agreed with her wholeheartedly. It was more than difficult being a teacher with pupils who thought they knew more than they did and were far more likely to call down the teacher than the teacher was to get away with calling them down. Of course, the others were far worse than Siuan or Leane. Where were the others?

Movement appeared up the street. Six women, surrounded by the glow of saidar, who did not vanish. As usual, Sheriam and the rest of her council had dreamed themselves into their own bedchambers and walked out. Elayne was not sure how far they understood the attributes of Tel’aran’rhiod yet. In any case, they often insisted on doing things their own way even when there was a better. Who could know better than an Aes Sedai?

The six Aes Sedai truly were beginners in Tel’aran’rhiod, and their dresses changed every time Elayne looked at them. First one was wearing the embroidered Aes Sedai shawl, fringed in the color of her Ajah and with the white Flame of Tar Valon a bold teardrop on the back, then four were, then none. Sometimes it was a light traveling cloak, as to keep dust off, with the Flame on back and left breast. Their ageless faces showed no signs of the heat, of course—Aes Sedai never did—and no sign they were aware of how their clothes were changing, either.

They were as misty as Nynaeve or Leane. Sheriam and the others put more faith in dream ter’angreal that required channeling than in the rings. They just did not seem willing to believe that Tel’aran’rhiod had nothing to do with the One Power. At least Elayne could not tell which were using her copies. Somewhere about them three would have a small disc of what had once been iron, scribed on both sides with a tight spiral and powered by a flow of Spirit, the only one of the Five Powers that could be channeled in your sleep. Except here, anyway. The other three would be carrying small plaques once amber, with a sleeping woman worked inside each. Even if she had all six ter’angreal in front of her, Elayne would not have been able to pick out the two originals; those copies had gone very well. Just the same, it was still copying.

As the Aes Sedai came down the dirt street together, she heard the tail end of their conversation, though she could not make head nor foot of it.

“... will scorn our choice, Carlinya,” fiery-haired Sheriam was saying, “but they will scorn any choice we make. We might as well stay by our decision. You do not need me to list reasons again.”

Morvrin, a stout Brown sister with gray-streaked hair, snorted. “After all our work with the Hall, we would have a hard time changing their minds now.”

“As long as no ruler scoffs, why should we care?” Myrelle said heatedly. The youngest of the six, not many years Aes Sedai, she sounded decidedly irritated.

“What ruler would dare?” Anaiya asked, much like a woman asking what child would dare track mud on her carpets. “In any case, no king or queen knows enough of what passes among Aes Sedai to understand. Only the sisters’ opinions need concern us, not theirs.”

“What worries me,” Carlinya replied coolly, “is that if she is easily guided by us, she may be as easily guided by others.” The pale, almost black-eyed White was always cool, some would say icy.

Whatever they were talking about, it was nothing they wanted to discuss in front of Elayne or the others; they fell silent just before reaching them.

Siuan and Leane’s reaction to the newcomers had been to turn their backs on each other sharply, as if they had been having words interrupted by the Aes Sedai’s arrival. For Elayne’s part, she quickly checked her dress. It was the proper banded white. She did not know how she felt about that, appearing in the right dress without thought; she would have wagered that Nynaeve had had to change her garb after appearing. But then, Nynaeve was far more intrepid than she, struggling against limits that she herself acquiesced to. How could she ever manage to rule Andor? If her mother was dead. If.

Sheriam, slightly plump and with high cheekbones, turned tilted green eyes on Siuan and Leane. For a moment she wore a blue-fringed shawl. “If you two cannot learn to get along, I vow I’ll send both of you to Tiana.” It had the sound of something said often and no longer really meant.

“You worked together long enough,” Beonin said in her heavy Taraboner accent. A pretty Gray with honey-colored hair in a multitude of braids, she had blue-gray eyes that constantly looked startled. Nothing surprised Beonin, though. She would not believe the sun came up in the morning until she saw for herself, yet if one morning it did not, Elayne doubted that Beonin would turn a hair. It would just confirm that she had been right to demand proof. “You can and must work together again.”

Beonin sounded as if she had said that so often that she hardly thought of it. All the Aes Sedai were long since used to Siuan and Leane. They had begun handling them as they might have managed two girls who could not stop squabbling. Aes Sedai did have a tendency to see anyone who was not as a child. Even these two who once had been sisters.

“Send them to Tiana or don’t,” Myrelle snapped, “but don’t talk about it.” Elayne did not think the darkly beautiful woman was angry at Siuan or Leane. Perhaps not at anyone or anything in particular. She had a volatile temper remarkable even among Greens. Her golden yellow silk dress became high-necked, but with an oval cutout that exposed the tops of her breasts; she wore a peculiar necklace, too, like a wide silver collar supporting three small daggers, hilts nestling in her cleavage. A fourth dagger appeared and was gone so quickly it might have been imagination. She eyed Nynaeve up and down as if searching for fault. “Are we going to the Tower, or aren’t we? If we are going to do this, we might as well accomplish something useful while we are about it.”

Elayne knew why Myrelle was angry, now. When she and Nynaeve first came to Salidar, they had been meeting Egwene in Tel’aran’rhiod every seven days to share what they had learned. Which had not always been easy, since Egwene was always accompanied by at least one of the Aiel dreamwalkers she was studying with. Meeting without a Wise One or two had taken some pains. In any case, all that ended when they reached Salidar. These six Aes Sedai of Sheriam’s council had taken over the meetings, when they had had only the three original ter’angreal and little more knowledge of Tel’aran’rhiod than how to reach it. That had been just when Egwene was injured, which left Aes Sedai facing Wise Ones, two sets of proud resolute women, each suspicious of what the other wanted, neither willing to yield an inch or bow her neck a hair.

Of course, Elayne did not know what went on at those meetings, but she had her own experiences to go by, and fragments dropped here and there by Sheriam and the others.

Aes Sedai were sure they could learn anything once they knew there was something to be learned, usually required the respect due a queen, and always expected to be told what they wanted to know without delays or quibbles. They had apparently demanded answers about everything, from what Rand was planning to when Egwene would be well enough to return to the World of Dreams, to whether it was possible to spy on people’s dreams in Tel’aran’rhiod or to enter the World of Dreams physically, or bring someone into the dream against their will. They had even asked more than once whether it was possible to affect the real world by what you did in the dream, a pure impossibility they apparently doubted. Morvrin had read a little about Tel’aran’rhiod, enough to come up with plenty of questions, though Elayne suspected Siuan supplied her share. She thought Siuan was angling to attend the meetings herself, but the Aes Sedai seemed to think it concession enough to allow her to use the ring as an aid in her work with the eyes-and-ears. Aes Sedai interference in that work was what upset her.

As for the Aiel... Wise Ones—the dreamwalkers, at least, Elayne was aware from her own encounters, not only knew just about everything there was to know about the World of Dreams, but looked on it almost as a private preserve. They did not like anyone coming there in ignorance, and had a rough way of dealing with what they saw as foolishness. Besides which, they were a closemouthed lot, apparently fiercely loyal to Rand, unwilling to say much more than that he was alive, or that Egwene would return to Tel’aran’rhiod when she was well enough, and more than unwilling to answer questions they considered improper. Which last could mean that they did not believe the questioner knew enough yet to hear the answer, or that question or answer or both somehow violated their strange philosophy of honor and obligation. Elayne knew little more of ji’e’toh than that it existed, and that it made for very peculiar, very touchy behavior.

All in all, it was a recipe for disaster, and Elayne thought it very probably was served up fresh every seven days, at least from the Aes Sedai point of view.

Sheriam and the other five had required lessons every night in the beginning, but now there were only two times they did so. The night before meeting the Wise Ones, as if to hone their skills one last time before a contest. And the night after, usually tight-mouthed, as if to work out what had gone wrong and how to counter it. Myrelle was probably already seething over tomorrow night’s disaster. There surely would be one of some kind.

Morvrin turned to Myrelle and opened her mouth, but suddenly there was another woman among them. It took Elayne a moment to recognize Gera, one of the cooks, in those ageless features. Wearing a green-fringed shawl with the Flame of Tar Valon on her back and weighing no more than half what she really did, Gera raised an admonitory finger to the Aes Sedai—and was gone.

“So those are her dreams, are they?” Carlinya said coolly. Her snow-white silk dress grew sleeves that hung in points over her hands, and a high tight neck under her chin. “Someone should speak to her.”

“Leave over, Carlinya,” Anaiya chuckled. “Gera’s a good cook. Let her have her dreams. I can see the attraction myself.” Abruptly she became slimmer and taller. Her features did not really alter; she wore the same plain, motherly face as always. With a laugh she changed back. “Can’t you see the fun in something for once, Carlinya?” Even Carlinya’s sniff was cool.

“Clearly,” Morvrin said, “Gera saw us, but will she remember?” Her dark, steely eyes were thoughtful. Her dress, plain dark wool, held the steadiest among the six. Details shifted, but so subtly that Elayne could not really say what was different.

“Of course she will,” Nynaeve said acerbically. She had explained this before. Six Aes Sedai looked at her, eyebrows rising, and she moderated her voice. A little. She hated scrubbing pots, too. “If she remembers the dream, she will. But only as a dream.”

Morvrin frowned. She ran Beonin a close second in wanting proof. Nynaeve’s long-suffering expression was going to get her in trouble, whatever her tone. Before Elayne could say anything to take the Aes Sedai’s attention from Nynaeve, though, Leane spoke up with an expression close to a simper.

“Don’t you think we should go, now?”

Siuan snorted contemptuously at the timidity, and Leane cut her eyes at her sharply. “Yes, you’ll want to have as much time in the Tower as possible,” Siuan said, diffident in turn, and Leane sniffed.

They really did it very well. Sheriam and the others never suspected that Siuan and Leane were not simply two stilled women clinging to a purpose that might keep them alive, clinging to the edge of what they had been. Two women childishly at one another’s throats all the time. The Aes Sedai should have remembered that Siuan had had the reputation of a strong-willed and devious manipulator, and to a lesser extent so had Leane. Had they presented a unified front, or shown their true faces, the six would have remembered, and looked hard at everything the pair said. But divided, spitting rancor in each other’s face, all but groveling to the Aes Sedai and plainly not even aware of it... When one was reluctantly forced to agree with what the other said, it lent extra weight. When one objected on obviously frivolous grounds, so did that. Elayne knew they used the pretense to guide Sheriam and the others toward supporting Rand. She just wished she knew what else they used it for.

“They’re right,” Nynaeve said firmly, giving Siuan and Leane a disgusted look. Their pretence irked Nynaeve no end: Nynaeve would not have groveled for her life. “You should know by now that the longer you spend here, the less real rest you get. Sleep while you are in Tel’aran’rhiod doesn’t do as much good as ordinary sleep. Now, remember that if you see anything out of the ordinary, you need to be careful.” She truly did hate repeating herself—the fact showed clearly in her voice—but with these women, Elayne had to admit it was too often necessary. If only Nynaeve did not sound as if she were talking to dim-witted children. “When somebody dreams themselves into Tel’aran’rhiod like Gera, but they’re having a nightmare, sometimes the nightmare survives, and those are very dangerous. Avoid anything that looks unusual. And try to control your thoughts this time. What you think of here can become real. That Myrddraal that popped out of nowhere last time might have been a leftover nightmare, but I think one of you let her mind wander. You were talking about the Black Ajah, if you’ll remember, and discussing whether they were letting Shadowspawn into the Tower.” As if that were not bad enough, she had to add, “You won’t impress the Wise Ones tomorrow night if you drop a Myrddraal into the middle of everything.” Elayne winced.

“Child,” Anaiya said gently, adjusting the blue-fringed shawl that was suddenly looped over her arms, “you have been doing very good work, but that doesn’t excuse a peevish mouth.”

“You have been given a number of privileges,” Myrelle said, not at all gently, “but you seem to forget that they are privileges.” Her frown should have been enough to make Nynaeve quake. Myrelle had been increasingly hard on Nynaeve the past weeks. She had her shawl on, too. They all did, a bad sign.

Morvrin snorted bluntly. “When I was Accepted, any girl who spoke to an Aes Sedai that way would have spent the next month scrubbing floors, if she was due to be raised Aes Sedai the next day.”

Elayne spoke up hurriedly, hoping she could forestall their own disaster. Nynaeve had put on what she probably thought was a conciliatory face, but she looked sulky and stubborn. “I am sure she didn’t mean anything, Aes Sedai. We have been working very hard. Please forgive us.” Adding herself might help, since she had done nothing. It might also have them both scrubbing floors. At least it made Nynaeve look at her. And think, apparently, since her features smoothed into something that did seem appeasing and she made a curtsy and stared at the ground as though abashed. Maybe she really was. Maybe. Elayne rushed on as if Nynaeve had made a formal apology and had it accepted. “I know you all do want to spend as much time as possible at the Tower, so perhaps we shouldn’t wait any longer? If you will all visualize Elaida’s study, just as you saw it last time?” Elaida was never called the Amyrlin in Salidar, and in the same way the Amyrlin’s study in the White Tower had its name shifted. “Everyone fix it in your minds, so we all arrive together.”

Anaiya was the first to nod, but even Carlinya and Beonin let themselves be diverted.

It was unclear whether the ten of them moved or Tel’aran’rhiod moved around them. It could have been either from the little Elayne really understood; the World of Dreams was almost infinitely malleable. One moment they were standing in the street in Salidar, the next in a large and ornate room. The Aes Sedai gave satisfied nods, still inexperienced enough to be pleased at anything that worked as they thought it should.

As surely as Tel’aran’rhiod reflected the waking world, this room reflected the power of the women who had occupied it over the last three thousand years. The gilded stand-lamps were unlit, but there was light, in the odd way of Tel’aran’rhiod and dreams. The tall fireplace was golden marble from Kandor, the floor polished redstone from the Mountains of Mist. The walls had been paneled a relatively short time ago—a mere thousand years—in pale wood, oddly striped and carved with marvelous beasts and birds that Elayne was sure had come straight out of the carver’s imagination. Gleaming pearly stone framed tall arched windows that let onto the balcony overlooking the Amyrlin’s private garden; that stone had been salvaged from a nameless city submerged in the Sea of Storms during the Breaking of the World, and no one had ever found its like elsewhere.

Each woman who used that room put her own mark on it, if only for the time of her possession, and Elaida was no different. A heavy thronelike chair, an ivory Flame of Tar Valon cresting the high back, stood behind a massive writing table ornately carved in triple-linked rings. The tabletop was bare except for three boxes of Altaran lacquerwork, each precisely the same distance from the next. A plain white vase stood atop a severe white plinth against one wall. The vase held roses, the number and color changing at every look, but always arranged with a harsh rigidity. Roses, at this time of year, in this weather! The One Power had been wasted to make them grow. Elaida had done the same when she was advisor to Elayne’s mother.

Above the fireplace hung a painting in the new style, on stretched canvas, of two men fighting among clouds, hurling lightning. One man had a face of fire, and the other was Rand. Elayne had been at Falme; the painting was not too far from the truth. A tear in the canvas across Rand’s face, as though something heavy had been thrown at it, had been mended almost invisibly. Plainly Elaida wanted a constant reminder of the Dragon Reborn, and just as plainly she was not happy having to look at it.

“If you will excuse me,” Leane said before all the satisfied nodding was done, “I must see if my people have received my messages.” Every Ajah except the White had a network of eyes-and-ears scattered across the nations, and so did a good many individual Aes Sedai, but Leane was rare, perhaps unique, in that as Keeper she had created a net in Tar Valon itself. No sooner had she spoken than she vanished.

“She should not be wandering about alone here,” Sheriam said in an exasperated voice. “Nynaeve, go after her. Stay with her.”

Nynaeve gave her braid a tug. “I don’t think—”

“Very often you do not,” Myrelle cut her off. “For once do as you are told, when you are told, Accepted.”

Exchanging wry glances with Elayne, Nynaeve nodded, visibly suppressing a sigh, and disappeared. Elayne had little sympathy. Had Nynaeve not indulged her irritation back in Salidar it might have been possible to explain that Leane could be anywhere in the city, that it would be almost impossible to find her, and that she had been venturing into Tel’aran’rhiod alone for weeks.

“Now to see what we can learn,” Morvrin said, but before anyone could move, Elaida was behind the writing table, glaring.

An unyielding stern-faced woman, handsome rather than beautiful, and dark of hair and eye, Elaida wore a blood-red dress, with the striped stole of the Amyrlin Seat about her shoulders. “As I have Foretold,” she intoned. “The White Tower will be reunited under me. Under me!” She pointed harshly to the floor. “Kneel, and ask forgiveness of your sins!” With that, she was gone.

Elayne let out a long breath, and was gratified to realize she was not the only one.

“A Foretelling?” Beonin’s forehead creased thoughtfully. She did not sound worried, but she might well have. Elaida did have the Foretelling, if fitfully. When the Foretelling laid hold of a woman and she knew a thing would happen, it did.

“A dream,” Elayne said, and was surprised at how steady her voice was. “She’s asleep and dreaming. No wonder if she dreams everything to her liking.” Please, Light, let it only be that.

“Did you notice the stole?” Anaiya asked no one in particular. “It had no blue stripe.” The Amyrlin’s stole was supposed to have one stripe for each of the seven Ajahs.

“A dream,” Sheriam said flatly. She sounded unafraid, but she had her blue-fringed shawl on again and was clutching it around her. So was Anaiya.

“Whether it is or not,” Morvrin said placidly, “we may as well do what we came for.” Not much could frighten Morvrin.

The abrupt stir of activity at the Brown sister’s words made it suddenly clear how still everyone had gone. She, Carlinya and Anaiya glided swiftly out to the anteroom, where the Keeper’s worktable would be. That was Alviarin Freidhen, under Elaida; a White, strangely, though the Keeper always came from the Amyrlin’s own Ajah.

Siuan stared after them testily. She claimed there was often more to be learned from Alviarin’s papers than from Elaida’s, for Alviarin sometimes seemed to know more than the woman she supposedly served, and twice Siuan had found evidence that Alviarin had countermanded Elaida’s orders, apparently without repercussions. Not that she had told Elayne or Nynaeve what orders. There were definite limits to Siuan’s sharing.

Sheriam, Beonin and Myrelle gathered at Elaida’s desk, opened one of the lacquered boxes, and began rifling through the papers inside. Elaida kept her recent correspondence and reports there. The box, worked in golden hawks fighting among white clouds in a blue sky, would suddenly shut again every time one of them let go of the lid, until they remembered to hold it open, and the papers themselves changed even as they were being read. Paper truly was ephemeral. Amid vexed tsks and annoyed sighs, the Aes Sedai persevered.

“Here’s a report from Danelle,” Myrelle said, hastily scanning a page. Siuan tried to join them—Danelle, a young Brown, had been part of the cabal that deposed her—but Beonin gave her a sharp frown that sent her back to a corner grumbling to herself. Beonin had returned her attention to the box and its documents before Siuan had taken three steps; the other two women never noticed. Myrelle went right on talking. “She says that Mattin Stepaneos accepts wholeheartedly, Roedran is still trying to take every side, while Alliandre and Tylin want more time to consider their answers. There’s a note here in Elaida’s hand. ‘Press them!’ ” She clicked her tongue as the report melted into air in her hand. “It did not say about what, but there can be only two possibilities to take in those four.” Mattin Stepaneos was King of Illian and Roedran of Murandy, while Alliandre was Queen of Ghealdan and Tylin of Altara. The subject had to be Rand or the Aes Sedai opposing Elaida.

“At least we know our emissaries still have as good a chance as Elaida’s,” Sheriam said. Of course, Salidar had sent none to Mattin Stepaneos; Lord Brend of the Council of Nine, Sammael, was the true power in Illian. Elayne would have given a pretty to know what Elaida proposed that Sammael was willing to support, or at least let Mattin Stepaneos say that he would support. She was sure the three Aes Sedai would have given as much, but they just went on snatching documents out of the lacquerwork box.

“The arrest warrant for Moiraine, it is still in force,” Beonin said, shaking her head as the sheet in her hand suddenly turned to a fat sheaf. “She does not yet know Moiraine is dead.” Grimacing at the pages, she let them fall; they scattered like leaves, and melted into air before settling. “Elaida still means to build herself a palace, too.”

“She would,” Sheriam said dryly. Her hand jerked as she took in what appeared to be a short note. “Shemerin has run away. The Accepted Shemerin.”

All three glanced at Elayne before turning back to the box, which they had to open again. None made any comment on what Sheriam had said.

Elayne very nearly ground her teeth. She and Nynaeve had told them Elaida was reducing Shemerin, a Yellow sister, to the Accepted, but of course they had not believed. An Aes Sedai could be made to do penance, she might be cast out, but she could not be demoted short of stilling. Only, it seemed that Elaida was doing exactly as that, whatever Tower law said. Maybe she was rewriting Tower law.

A number of things they had told these women had not really been believed. Such young women, Accepted, could not know enough of the world to know what could be and what not. Young women were credulous, gullible; they might well see and believe what was not there at all. It was an effort not to stamp her foot. An Accepted took what Aes Sedai wished to hand out and did not ask for what Aes Sedai did not choose to give. Such as apologies. She kept her face smooth and her smoldering inside.

Siuan felt under no such restraints. Most of the time she did not. When the Aes Sedai were not looking at her, she bathed them all in a glower. Of course, if one of the three glanced in her direction, her face became meek acceptance in a twinkling. She was very practiced at that. A lion survives by being a lion, she had once told Elayne, and a mouse by being a mouse. Even so, Siuan made a poor and reluctant mouse.

Elayne thought she detected worry in Siuan’s eyes. This task had been Siuan’s since she proved to the Aes Sedai that she could use the ring safely—after secret lessons for her and Leane from Nynaeve and Elayne, true—and a prime source of information. It took time to reestablish contact with eyes-and-ears scattered across the nations, and redirect their reports from the Tower to Salidar. If Sheriam and the others meant to take this over, Siuan might be less useful. In the history of the Tower no network of agents had ever been run by any but a full sister until Siuan came to Salidar with her knowledge of the Amyrlin’s eyes-and-ears, and the Blue Ajah’s that she had run before becoming Amyrlin. Beonin and Carlinya were openly reluctant to depend on a woman who was no longer one of them, and the others were not far behind. Truth to tell, they were none of them comfortable around a woman who had been stilled.

There really was nothing for Elayne to do, either. The Aes Sedai might call this a lesson, they might even think of it so, but she knew from past experience that if she tried to do any teaching without being asked, she would have her nose snapped off in short order. She was there to answer any questions they might have and nothing more. She thought of a stool—it appeared, the legs carved in vines—and sat down to wait. A chair would have been more comfortable, but it might occasion comment. An Accepted sitting too comfortably was often considered an Accepted with not enough to do. After a moment Siuan made herself an almost identical stool. She gave Elayne a tight smile—and the Aes Sedai backs a scowl.

The first time Elayne had visited this room in Tel’aran’rhiod, there had been a semicircle of such stools, a dozen or more, in front of the heavily carved table. Each visit since had seen fewer, and now none. She was sure that indicated something, though she could not imagine what. She was sure Siuan thought so, too, and very likely had puzzled out a reason, but if she had, she had not shared it with Elayne or Nynaeve.

“The fighting in Shienar and Arafel is dying down,” Sheriam murmured half to herself, “but still nothing here to say why it began. Skirmishes only, yet Bordermen do not fight one another. They have the Blight.” She was Saldaean, and Saldaea was one of the Borderlands.

“At least the Blight is still quiet,” Myrelle said. “Almost too quiet. It cannot last. A good thing that Elaida has plenty of eyes-and-ears through the Borderlands.” Siuan managed to combine a wince with a glare at the Aes Sedai. Elayne did not think she had managed yet to make contact with any of her agents in the Borderlands; they lay a long way from Salidar.

“I would feel better if the same could be said of Tarabon.” The page in Beonin’s hand grew longer and wider; she glanced at it, sniffed, and tossed it aside. “The eyes-and-ears in Tarabon, they are still silent. All of them. The only word she has of Tarabon is rumors from Amadicia that Aes Sedai are involved in the war.” She shook her head at the absurdity of committing such rumors to paper. Aes Sedai did not involve themselves in civil wars. Not openly enough to be detected, at any rate. “And there are no more than a handful of confused reports from Arad Doman, it seems.”

“We will know about Tarabon soon enough ourselves,” Sheriam said soothingly. “A few more weeks.”

The search went on for hours. There was never any shortage of documents; the lacquered box never emptied. In fact, the stack inside sometimes increased with the removal of a paper. Of course, only the shortest held steady long enough to be read in full, but occasionally a letter or report that had already been scanned would come out of the box again. Long stretches passed in silence, yet some documents elicited comment; a few the Aes Sedai discussed. Siuan began stringing a cat’s-cradle between her hands, apparently paying no attention at all. Elayne wished she could do the same, or better yet read—a book appeared on the floor at her feet, The Travels of Jain Farstrider, before she made it go away—but women who were not Aes Sedai were granted more leeway than those training to be. Still, she learned a few things by listening.

Aes Sedai involvement in Tarabon was not the only rumor that had found its way to Elaida’s writing table. Pedron Niall’s ingathering of the Whitecloaks was rumored to have as its goal everything from seizing the throne of Amadicia—which he certainly had no need of—to crushing the wars and anarchy in Tarabon and Arad Doman, to supporting Rand. Elayne would believe that when the sun rose in the west. There were reports of strange occurrences in Illian and Cairhien—there might have been others, but those were the ones they saw—villages taken by madness, nightmares walking in daylight, two-headed calves that talked, Shadowspawn appearing out of thin air. Sheriam and the other two passed over those lightly; the same sort of stories drifted to Salidar from parts of Altara and Murandy and across the river from Amadicia. The Aes Sedai dismissed them as hysteria among people learning of the Dragon Reborn. Elayne was not so sure. She had seen things they had not, for all their years and experience. Her mother was rumored to be raising an army in the west of Andor—under the ancient flag of Manetheren, of all things!—as well as being held prisoner by Rand and fleeing to every nation imaginable, including the Borderlands and Amadicia, which last was purely unimaginable. Apparently the Tower believed none of it. Elayne wished she knew what to believe.

She stopped fretting over where her mother really was when she heard Sheriam mention her name. Not speaking to her; reading hurriedly from a square sheet of paper that became a long parchment with three seals at the bottom. Elayne Trakand was to be located and returned to the White Tower at all costs. If there was any more bungling, those who failed would “envy the Macura woman.” That made Elayne shiver; on their way to Salidar a woman named Ronde Macura had come within an eyelash of sending her and Nynaeve back to the Tower like bundles of wash to the laundry. The ruling house of Andor, Sheriam read, was “the key,” which made as little sense. The key to what?

None of the three Aes Sedai so much as glanced in her direction. They just exchanged glances and went on with what they were doing. Perhaps they had forgotten her, but then again, perhaps not. Aes Sedai did what they did. If she was to be shielded from Elaida, that was an Aes Sedai decision, and if they decided for some reason to hand her to Elaida bound hand and foot, that was their choice too. “The pike does not ask the frog’s permission before dining,” as she remembered Lini saying.

Elaida’s response to Rand’s amnesty was evident in the condition of the report. Elayne could almost see her crumpling the sheet of paper in her fist, starting to rip it apart, then coldly smoothing it out and adding it to the box. Elaida’s rages were almost always cold. She had not written anything on that document, but scrawled biting words on another, enumerating the Aes Sedai in the Tower, made clear she was almost ready to declare publicly that any who did not obey her order to return were traitors. Sheriam and the other two discussed the possibility calmly. However many sisters intended to obey, some would have far to travel; some might not even have received the summons yet. In any case, such a decree would confirm to the world all the rumors of a divided Tower. Elaida must be near panic to consider such a thing, or else maddened beyond reason.

A sliver of cold slid down Elayne’s backbone, and nothing to do with whether Elaida was fearful or engaged. Two hundred ninety four Aes Sedai in the Tower, supporting Elaida. Nearly one-third of all Aes Sedai, almost as many as had gathered in Salidar. It might be that the best that could be expected was for the rest to split down the middle as well. After a great rush in the beginning, the numbers coming into Salidar had slowed to a trickle. Perhaps the flow to the Tower had dwindled as well. It could be hoped.

For a time they did their searching in silence, then Beonin exclaimed, “Elaida, she has sent emissaries to Rand al’Thor.” Elayne leaped to her feet, and barely held her tongue at a clutching gesture from Siuan, spoiled a little by her failure to make the cat’s-cradle disappear first.

Sheriam reached for the single sheet, but it became three before her hand touched it. “Where is she sending them?” she asked at the same time Myrelle asked, “When did they leave Tar Valon?” Serenity hung on by its fingernails.

“To Cairhien,” Beonin said. “And I did not see when, if it was mentioned. But they certainly will go on to Caemlyn as soon as they discover where he is.”

Even so, that was good; it might take a month or more to travel from Cairhien to Caemlyn. The Salidar embassy would reach him first, surely. Elayne had a ragged map tucked away beneath her mattress back in Salidar, and every day she marked off how far she thought they might have traveled toward Caemlyn.

The Gray sister was not finished. “It seems that Elaida, she means to offer him support. And an escort to the Tower.” Sheriam’s eyebrows rose.

“That is preposterous.” Myrelle’s olive cheeks darkened. “Elaida was Red.” An Amyrlin was of all Ajahs and none, yet no one could simply abandon where they came from.

“That woman will do anything,” Sheriam said. “He might find the White Tower’s support attractive.”

“Perhaps we can send a message to Egwene through the Aiel women?” Myrelle suggested in a doubtful tone.

Siuan gave a loud, and very phony, cough, but Elayne had had all she could stand. Warning Egwene was vital, of course—Elaida’s people would surely drag her back to the Tower if they discovered her in Cairhien, and not to a pleasant reception—but the rest ... ! “How can you think Rand would listen to anything Elaida says? Do you think he does not know she was Red Ajah, and what that means? They aren’t going to offer him support, and you know it. We have to warn him!” There was a contradiction in that, and she knew it, but worry had hold of her tongue. If anything happened to Rand, she would die.

“And how do you suggest that we do that, Accepted?” Sheriam asked coolly.

Elayne was afraid she must look like a fish, with her mouth hanging open. She had not a clue what answer to give. She was saved suddenly by distant screaming, followed by wordless shouts from the anteroom. She was closest to the door, but she ran through with the others on her heels.

The room was empty except for the Keeper’s writing table, with its piles of papers and stacks of scrolls and documents, and a row of chairs against one wall where Aes Sedai would sit while waiting to speak to Elaida. Anaiya, Morvrin and Carlinya were gone, but one of the tall outer doors was still swinging shut. A woman’s frantic screams rolled through the narrowing opening. Sheriam, Myrelle and Beonin almost knocked Elayne down in their haste to reach the hall. They might have appeared misty, but they felt solid enough.

“Be careful,” Elayne shouted, yet there was really nothing to do but gather her skirts and follow as quickly as possible with Siuan. They stepped into a scene from nightmare. Literally.

Some thirty paces to their right, the tapestry-hung corridor suddenly widened into a stony cavern that seemed to stretch forever, lit in dim patches by the red glow of scattered fires and braziers. There were Trollocs everywhere, great manlike shapes, their all-too-human faces distorted by bestial muzzles and snouts and beaks, sporting horns or tusks or feathered crests. Those in the distance appeared more indistinct than the nearest, only half-formed, while the nearest were giants twice as tall as a man, even larger than any real Trolloc, all clad in leather and black spiked mail, howling and capering around cookfires and cauldrons, racks and strange spiked frames and metal shapes.

It really was a nightmare, though larger than any Elayne had heard of from Egwene or the Wise Ones. Once freed of the mind that created them, such things sometimes drifted through the World of Dreams and sometimes latched on to a particular spot. Aiel dreamwalkers destroyed each as a matter of course whenever they found one, but they—and Egwene—had told her the best thing to do was avoid any she saw altogether. Unfortunately, Carlinya apparently had not listened when she and Nynaeve passed that on.

The White sister was bound and hanging by her ankles from a chain that disappeared into darkness overhead. To Elayne’s eyes the glow of saidar still surrounded her, but Carlinya writhed frantically and screamed as she was slowly lowered headfirst toward a great bubbling black kettle of boiling oil.

Even as Elayne ran into the corridor, Anaiya and Morvrin halted at the border where hallway abruptly became cavern. For all of a heartbeat, they halted, then suddenly their hazy forms seemed to elongate toward the boundary, like smoke drawn into a chimney. No sooner had they touched it than they were inside, Morvrin shouting as two Trollocs turned great iron wheels that stretched her out tighter and tighter, Anaiya dangling by her wrists as Trollocs danced about her, flogging her with metal-tipped whips that tore long rents in her dress.

“We must link,” Sheriam said, and the glow surrounding her merged with that around Myrelle and Beonin. Even so, it did not come near the brightness of that around a single woman in the waking world, a woman who was not a misty dream.

“No!” Elayne shouted urgently. “You mustn’t accept it as real. You must treat it as—” She seized Sheriam’s arm, but the flow of Fire the three had woven, tenuous even with them linked, touched the dividing line between dream and nightmare. The weave vanished there as if the nightmare had absorbed it, and in the same instant the three Aes Sedai became drawn out, mist caught in a wind. They had time only for startled yells before they touched the boundary and vanished. Sheriam reappeared inside, her head sticking up from a dark metal bell shape. Trollocs turned handles and jerked levers on the outside, and Sheriam’s red hair flailed wildly as she shrieked in rising crescendos. Of the other two there was no sign, but Elayne thought she could hear more screaming in the distance, someone wailing “No!” over and over, another shrieking for help.

“Do you remember what we told you about dispelling nightmares?” Elayne asked.

Eyes fixed on the scene in front of her, Siuan nodded. “Deny its reality. Try to fix things in your mind as they would be without it.”

That had been Sheriam’s mistake, all the Aes Sedai’s mistake probably. By trying to channel against the nightmare they had accepted it as real, and that acceptance had pulled them into it as surely as walking in, leaving them helpless unless they remembered what they had forgotten. Which they showed no sign of doing. The climbing shrieks augered into Elayne’s ears.

“The corridor,” she muttered, trying to form in her head how it had been when she saw it last. “Think of the corridor the way you remember it.”

“I’m trying, girl,” Siuan growled. “It isn’t working.”

Elayne sighed. Siuan was right. Not a line of the scene before them so much as wavered. Sheriam’s head was almost vibrating above the metal shroud that enclosed the rest of her. Morvrin’s howls came in strained pants; Elayne almost thought she could hear the woman’s joints being pulled apart. Carlinya’s hair, hanging below her, was almost touching the roiling surface of the hot oil. Two women were not enough. The nightmare was too big.

“We need the others,” she said.

“Leane and Nynaeve? Girl, if we knew where to find them, Sheriam and the rest would be dead before...” She trailed off, staring at Elayne. “You don’t mean Leane and Nynaeve, do you? You mean Sheriam and...” Elayne only nodded; she was too frightened to speak. “I don’t think they can hear us from here, or see us. Those Trollocs haven’t even glanced our way. That means we have to try from inside.” Elayne nodded again. “Girl,” Siuan said in a toneless voice, “you have a lion’s courage, and maybe a fisherbird’s sense.” With a heavy sigh, she added, “But I don’t see any other way myself.”

Elayne agreed with her about everything except the courage. If she had not had her knees locked, she would have been in a heap on the floor tiles, patterned in all the colors of the Ajahs. She realized she had a sword in her hand, a great gleaming length of steel, absolutely useless even had she known how to wield it. She let it fall, and it vanished before reaching the floor. “Waiting isn’t helping anything,” she muttered. Much longer, and the little courage she had managed to scrape together would surely evaporate.

Together she and Siuan stepped toward the boundary. Elayne’s foot touched that dividing line, and suddenly she felt herself being pulled in, sucked like water through a tube.

One instant she was standing in the hallway, staring at the horrors, the next she was lying on her belly on rough gray stone, wrists and ankles tightly tied in the small of her back, and the horrors were all around her. The cavern stretched endless in every direction; the Tower corridor no longer seemed to exist. Screams filled the air, echoing from rocky walls and a ceiling dripping stalactites. A few paces from her a huge black cauldron stood steaming over a roaring fire. A boar-snouted Trolloc, complete with tusks, was tossing in lumps that seemed to be unidentifiable roots. A cookpot. Trollocs ate anything. Including people. She thought of her hands and feet free, but the coarse rope still dug into her flesh. Even the pale shadow of saidar had vanished; the True Source no longer existed for her, not here. A nightmare in truth, and she was well and truly caught.

Siuan’s voice cut through the screams in a pained moan. “Sheriam, listen to me!” The Light alone knew what was being done to her; Elayne could not see any of the others. Only hear them. “This is a dream! Aah ... aaaaaaah! Th-think how it should be!”

Elayne took it up. “Sheriam, Anaiya, everybody, listen to me! You must think of the corridor as it was! As it really is! This is only real as long as you believe it!” She set the image of the corridor in her head firmly, colored tiles in ordered rows and gilded stand-lamps and brilliant woven tapestries. Nothing changed. The screams still echoed. “You must think of the corridor! Hold it in your minds, and it will be real! You can defeat this if you try!” The Trolloc looked at her; it had a thick sharp-pointed knife in its hand now. “Sheriam, Anaiya, you have to concentrate! Myrelle, Beonin, concentrate on the corridor!” The Trolloc heaved her onto her side. She tried to wriggle away, but a massive knee held her in place effortlessly while the thing began slicing at her clothes like a hunter skinning a deer carcass. Desperately she held on to the image of the hallway. “Carlinya, Morvrin, for the love of the Light, concentrate! Think of the corridor! The corridor! All of you! Think of it hard!” Grunting something in a harsh language never meant for a human tongue, the Trolloc flipped her facedown again and knelt on her, thick knees crushing her arms against her back. “The corridor!” she screamed. It tangled heavy fingers in her hair, yanked her head back. “The corridor! Think of the corridor!” The Trolloc’s blade touched her tight-stretched neck beneath her left ear. “The corridor! The corridor!” The blade began to slide.

Suddenly she was staring at colored floor tiles under her nose. Clapping hands to her throat, marveling that they were free to move, she felt wetness and brought her fingers up to stare at them. Blood, but only a tiny smear. A shudder rippled through her. If that Trolloc had succeeded in cutting her throat... No Healing could have cured that. Shuddering again, she pushed slowly to her feet. It was the Tower hallway outside the Amyrlin’s study, with no sign of Trollocs or caverns.

Siuan was there, looking a mass of bruises in a torn dress, and the Aes Sedai, misty forms of near ruin. Carlinya was in the best shape, and she stood wide-eyed and shaking, fingering dark hair that now ended frizzily a hand from her scalp. Sheriam and Anaiya seemed to be weeping heaps of bloody rags. Myrelle huddled in on herself, white-faced, naked and covered with long red scratches and welts. Morvrin moaned every time she moved, and she moved unnaturally, as though her joints did not work properly anymore. Beonin’s dress appeared to have been clawed to shreds, and she was panting on her knees, more wide-eyed than ever, holding on to the wall to keep from falling over.

Abruptly Elayne realized that her own dress and shift were hanging from her shoulders, neatly sliced open down the front. A hunter skinning a deer carcass. She shivered so hard she almost fell. Repairing the garments was a simple matter of thought, but she was not sure how long it would take to repair her memories.

“We must go back,” Morvrin said, kneeling awkwardly between Sheriam and Anaiya. Despite her stiffness and groans, she sounded as stolid as ever. “There is Healing to be done, and none here can manage it as we are.”

“Yes.” Carlinya touched her short hair again. “Yes, it might be best if we returned to Salidar.” Her voice was a decidedly unsteady version of its normal iciness.

“I will stay a little while, if no one objects,” Siuan told them. Or rather suggested, in that ill-fitting humble voice. Her dress was whole again, but the bruises remained. “I might learn a little more that’s useful. All that’s wrong with me are a few lumps, and I’ve had worse falling in a boat.”

“You look more as if someone had dropped a boat on you,” Morvrin told her, “but the choice is yours.”

“I will stay, too,” Elayne said. “I can help Siuan, and I wasn’t hurt at all.” She was aware of the nick on her throat every time she swallowed.

“I don’t need any help,” Siuan said, at the same time that Morvrin said in an even firmer voice, “You kept your head very well tonight, child. Don’t spoil it now. You are coming with us.”

Elayne nodded grumpily. Arguing would get her nowhere except into hot water. You would have thought the Brown sister was the teacher here, and Elayne the pupil. They probably thought she had stumbled into the nightmare the same way they did. “Remember, you can step out of the dream straight into your own body. You do not have to go back to Salidar first.” There was no way of telling whether they heard her. Morvrin had turned away as soon as she nodded.

“Be easy, Sheriam,” the stout woman said soothingly. “We will be back in Salidar in a few moments. Be easy, Anaiya.” Sheriam at least had stopped crying, though she still moaned in pain. “Carlinya, will you help Myrelle? Are you ready, Beonin? Beonin?” The Gray raised her head and stared at Morvrin a moment before nodding.

The six Aes Sedai vanished.

With a last glance at Siuan, Elayne was only a moment behind, but she did not go to Salidar. Someone would very likely be coming to Heal the scrape on her neck, if they had noticed it, but for a little while they would be concerned with six Aes Sedai who would wake looking as if they had been pushed through some monstrous clockworks. Elayne had those few minutes, and another destination in mind.

The Grand Hall in her mother’s palace in Caemlyn did not appear around her with any ease. There was a feel of resistance before she stood on a red-and-white tiled floor beneath the great arched roof, between rows of massive white columns. Once more light seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. The huge windows overhead, depicting the White Lion of Andor alternating with the earliest queens of the realm and scenes of great Andoran victories, were indistinct with the night outside.

Immediately she saw the difference from what she knew that had made coming here difficult. On the dais at the end of the hall where the Lion Throne should have stood was instead a grandiose monstrosity made of Dragons sparkling gold and red in gilt and enamel, with sunstones for their eyes. Her mother’s throne had not been removed from the chamber. It stood on a kind of pedestal, behind and above the monstrous thing.

Elayne walked slowly down the hall and climbed the white marble stairs to stare up at the gilded throne of Andoran Queens. The White Lion of Andor, picked out in moonstones against a field of rubies on the back, would have stood above her mother’s head.

“What are you doing, Rand al’Thor?” she whispered harshly. “What do you think you are doing?”

She was terribly afraid that he was bungling matters without her there to guide him between the pitfalls. True, he had handled the Tairens well enough, and apparently the Cairhienin, but her people were different, bluff and straightforward, with a dislike of being maneuvered or bullied. What had worked in Tear or Cairhien could blow up in his face like an Illuminator’s display of fireworks.

If only she could be with him. If only she could warn him about the Tower’s embassy. Elaida had to have some trick hidden, to spring when he least expected it. Would he be sensible enough to see it? For that matter, she had no idea what the Salidar embassy’s orders were. Despite Siuan’s efforts, most Aes Sedai in Salidar still seemed of two minds about Rand al’Thor; he was the Dragon Reborn, prophesied savior of humanity, but then again, he was a man who could channel, doomed to madness, death and destruction.

Take care of him, Min, she thought. Reach him quickly and take care of him.

A stab of jealousy hit her that Min would be there to do what she wanted to. She might have to share him, but she would have part of him all to herself. She would bond him as her Warder, whatever it took.

“It will be done.” She stretched a hand up toward the Lion Throne, to swear as queens had sworn since there was an Andor. The pedestal was too high for her to reach, but the intent should count. “It will be done.”

Time was running out. An Aes Sedai would be coming, back in Salidar, to wake her and Heal the pitiful scratch on her neck. With a sigh, she stepped out of the dream.

Demandred moved out from behind the columns of the Grand Hall and looked from the two thrones to where the girl had vanished. Elayne Trakand, unless he missed his guess wildly, and using a minor ter’angreal by the faint look of her, one made for training beginning students. He would have given much to know what was in her head, but her words and expression had been plain enough. She did not like what al’Thor was doing here, not in the least, and meant to do something about it. A determined young woman, he suspected. In any case, another thread in the tangle yanked, however feeble the pull turned out to be.

“Let the Lord of Chaos rule,” he told the thrones—though he still wished he knew why it had to be so—and opened a gateway to leave Tel’aran’rhiod.

The Storm Gathers

Nynaeve woke the next morning at first light feeling grumpy. She had a sense of bad weather coming, yet a glance out of the window revealed not a single cloud marring the still gray sky. Already the day promised to be another oven. Her shift was sweat-damp and twisted from tossing and turning. Once she had been able to rely on her ability to Listen to the Wind, but it seemed to have gone all askew since leaving the Two Rivers, when it did not desert her completely.

Waiting her turn to use the washstand did not help, either, nor listening to Elayne’s recital of what had happened after she left them in Elaida’s study. Her own night had been one long futile search through the streets of Tar Valon, empty save for herself, pigeons, rats and heaps of garbage. That had been a shock. Tar Valon was always kept spotless; Elaida must be neglecting the city terribly for garbage to show in Tel’aran’rhiod. Once she had glimpsed Leane through the window of a tavern near South-harbor, of all places, but when she hurried inside, the common room was empty except for the freshly painted blue tables and benches. She should just have given up, but Myrelle had been badgering her lately, and she wanted a clear conscience when she told the woman that she had tried. Myrelle could pounce on an evasion as quickly as anyone Nynaeve had ever seen or heard of. To finish it off, she had stepped out of Tel’aran’rhiod last night to find Elayne’s ring already back on the table and Elayne fast asleep. If there had been a prize for useless effort, she would have won it walking away. And now to learn that Sheriam and the rest had nearly gotten themselves killed ... Even the song sparrow’s chirping in its wicker cage earned a sour look.

“They think they know everything,” Nynaeve muttered disparagingly. “I told them about nightmares. I warned them, and last night was not the first time.” It made no difference that all six sisters had been Healed before she so much as got back from Tel’aran’rhiod. Much too easily it could have ended much worse—because they thought they knew it all. The irritated tugs she gave her braid delayed redoing it for the day. The a’dam bracelet sometimes caught on her hair, too, but she was not about to take it off. It was Elayne’s turn to wear it today, but she was just as likely to leave it on a peg on the wall. Worry tickled through the bracelet, and the inevitable fear, but more than anything else, frustration. Doubtless “Marigan” was already helping with breakfast; having to do chores seemed to grate at her more than being a prisoner did. “That was good thinking on your part, Elayne. You didn’t say how you ended up in it yourself after trying to warn everybody else.”

Still scrubbing with her facecloth, Elayne shuddered. “It wasn’t so hard to think of it. A nightmare that size needed all of us to handle. Maybe they learned a little humility. Maybe their meeting with the Wise Ones tonight won’t be so bad.”

Nynaeve nodded to herself. As she had thought. Not about Sheriam and the others; Aes Sedai would find humility when goats flew on wings, and a day before the Wise Ones at that. About Elayne. She had probably let herself be caught in the nightmare, though the girl would never admit it. Nynaeve was not sure whether Elayne thought taking credit for bravery was boasting or whether she simply did not realize how brave she was. Either way, Nynaeve was torn between admiration for the other woman’s courage and a wish that just once Elayne would acknowledge it. “I thought I saw Rand.” That brought the facecloth down.

“Was he there in the flesh?” That was dangerous, according to the Wise Ones; it risked losing some part of what made you human. “You warned him about that.”

“When did he start listening to sense? I only glimpsed him. Maybe he just touched Tel’aran’rhiod in a dream.” Unlikely, that. He apparently hedged his dreams with wards so strong she did not think he could reach the World of Dreams any other way than in the flesh, not even if he had been a Dreamwalker and had one of the rings. “Maybe it was somebody who looked a little like him. As I said, I only saw him for a moment, in the square in front of the Tower.”

“I should be there with him,” Elayne muttered. Emptying the basin into the night jar, she moved aside to let Nynaeve reach the washstand. “He needs me.”

“What he needs is what he has always needed.” Nynaeve glowered as she refilled the basin from the pitcher. She did hate washing in water that had stood all night. At least it was not cold; there was no such thing as cold water anymore. “Somebody to box his ears once a week on general principles and keep him on the straight and narrow.”

“It isn’t fair.” A clean shift going over Elayne’s head muffled the words. “I worry about him all the time.” Her face popped out the top, looking more worried than indignant whatever her tone, and she pulled a banded white dress from one of the pegs. “I even worry about him in my dreams! Do you think he spends all his time fretting about me? I don’t.”

Nynaeve nodded, though a part of her considered that it was not exactly the same. Rand had been told Elayne was safe with Aes Sedai, if not where. How could Rand ever be safe? She bent over the basin, and Lan’s ring fell out of her shift, dangling on its leather cord. No, Elayne was right. Whatever Lan was doing, wherever he was, she doubted he thought of her half as often as she did of him. Light, let him be alive even if he doesn’t think of me at all. That possibility made her angry enough to pull her braid out by the roots, if she had not had her hands full of soap and facecloth. “You can’t concern yourself over a man all the time,” she said sourly, “even if you do want to be a Green. What did they find out last night?”

It was a long tale, though with little meat to it, and after a bit Nynaeve sat down on Elayne’s bed to listen and ask questions. Not that the answers told her much either. It was just not the same when you did not see the documents yourself. All very well to learn Elaida finally knew about Rand’s amnesty, but what did she mean to do about it? Proof the Tower was approaching rulers might actually be good news; it might light a fire under the Hall. Something had to. Elaida sending an embassy to Rand was certainly a worry, but he could not be fool enough to listen to anyone who came from Elaida. Could he? There just was not enough in what Elayne had overheard. And what was Rand doing putting the Lion Throne on a pedestal? What was he doing with a throne at all? He might be the Dragon Reborn and this Aiel car-whatever, but she could not get past the fact that she had tended him when he was a child and paddled his bottom when he needed it.

Elayne went right ahead dressing, and was done before her story was. “I’ll tell you the rest later,” she said hastily, and flew out the door.

Nynaeve grunted and went back to clothing herself unhurriedly. Elayne was teaching her first class of novices today, something Nynaeve had not been allowed to do yet. But if she was not trusted to teach novices, there was still Moghedien. She would be done with her breakfast chores shortly.

The only trouble was, when Nynaeve found the woman, Moghedien was up to her elbows in soapy water, the silver necklace of the a’dam looking especially out of place. She was not alone; a dozen other women were industriously scrubbing clothes on washboards in a wooden-fenced yard, amid steaming kettles of boiling water. More were hanging the first wash on long lines strung between poles, but heaps of bed linens and smallclothes and every sort of thing waited their turn on the washboards. The look Moghedien gave Nynaeve should have been enough to fry her hide. Hatred, shame and outrage rolled through the a’dam, nearly enough to swamp the ever-present fear.

The woman in charge, a sticklike gray-haired woman named Nildra, came bustling up, a stirring paddle held like a scepter and her dark woolen skirts tied up to the knee to keep them off ground muddy from spilled water. “Good morning, Accepted. I suppose you want Marigan, eh?” Her tone was a dry blend of respect with knowledge that tomorrow she might find any one of the Accepted added to her laundresses for a day or a month, to be worked and chivvied as hard as the rest if not harder. “Well, I can’t let her go, yet. I’m shorthanded as it is. One of my girls is getting married today, another ran off, and two are on light work because they’re pregnant. Myrelle Sedai told me I could have her. Maybe I can do without her in a few hours. I’ll see.”

Moghedien straightened, opening her mouth, but Nynaeve silenced her with a firm look—and a conspicuous touch to the a’dam bracelet on her wrist—and she resumed work. All it would take would be a few wrong words from Moghedien, a complaint that would never come from the farm woman she appeared to be, to start her on a path to stilling and the headsman, and Nynaeve and Elayne on one not much better. Nynaeve could not help swallowing in relief when Moghedien bent back to her washboard, mouth working as she muttered under her breath. Immense shame and outright fury surged through the a’dam.

Nynaeve managed a smile for Nildra and murmured something, she was not sure what, then stalked off to one of the communal kitchens to find breakfast. Myrelle, again. She wondered if the Green had taken against her personally for some reason. She wondered if she was going to harvest a permanently sour stomach from keeping Moghedien. She was practically eating goosemint like candy since putting the a’dam on the woman.

It was easy enough to get a clay mug full of tea with honey and a bun hot from the oven, but once she had them, she walked while she ate. Sweat beaded on her face. Even at that early hour heat was building and the air dry. The rising sun formed a dome of molten gold above the forest.

The dirt streets were full, as usual when there was light to see. Aes Sedai glided past serenely, ignoring dust and heat, mysterious-faced on mysterious errands, often with Warders heeling them, cold-eyed wolves vainly pretending to be tame. There were soldiers everywhere, usually marching or riding in blocks, though Nynaeve did not understand why they were allowed to crowd the streets so when they had camps in the woods. Children darted about, often aping the soldiers with sticks for swords and pikes. White-clad novices trotted through the throng about their chores. Servants moved somewhat more slowly, women with armloads of sheets for Aes Sedais’ beds or baskets of bread from the kitchens, men leading ox-carts piled with firewood, hauling chests or shouldering whole sheep carcasses for the kitchens. Salidar had not been made to hold so many people; the village was ready to pop at the seams.

Nynaeve kept moving. An Accepted’s day was supposedly her own for the most part, unless she was teaching novices, to be used studying what she chose to, alone or with an Aes Sedai, but an Accepted who appeared to be doing nothing could be snapped up by any Aes Sedai. She did not intend to spend the day helping a Brown sister catalog books or copying out notes for a Gray. She hated copying, with all that tongue clicking if she made a blot and all those sighs because her script was not as neat as a clerk’s. So she wove through the dust and the crowd, and kept an eye out for Siuan and Leane. She was angry enough to channel without using Moghedien.

Every time she became aware of the heavy gold ring nestling between her breasts she thought, He has to be alive. Even if he’s forgotten me, Light, just let him be alive. Which last, of course, only made her angrier. If al’Lan Mandragoran so much as let forgetting her cross his mind, she would set him straight. He had to be alive. Warders often died avenging their Aes Sedai—it was as sure as the sun coming up that no Warder would let anything stand in the way of that retribution—but there was no way for Lan to avenge Moiraine any more than if she had fallen off a horse and broken her neck. She and Lanfear had killed one another. He had to be alive. And why should she feel guilty over Moiraine’s death? True, it had freed Lan for her, but she had had nothing to do with it. Yet her first thought on learning Moiraine was dead, however momentary, had been joy that Lan was free, not sorrow for Moiraine. She could not rid herself of shame over that, and it made her angrier than ever.

Suddenly she saw Myrelle stalking down the street in her direction with yellow-haired Croi Makin, one of her three Warders, striding at her side, a young splinter of a man but hard as rock. A determined look on her face, the Aes Sedai certainly showed no effects from the night before. There was nothing to say Myrelle was looking for her, but Nynaeve quickly ducked into a large stone building that had once been one of Salidar’s three inns.

The broad common room had been cleared and furnished like a reception room; its plaster walls and high ceiling had been patched, a few bright tapestries had been hung, and a few colorful rugs lay scattered on a floor that no longer looked precisely splintered but still did not want to hold a polish. The shaded interior actually seemed cool after the street. Cooler, at least. It was also in use.

Logain stood insolently in front of one of the wide unlit fireplaces, the tails of his gold-embroidered red coat shoved behind his back, under the watchful gaze of Lelaine Akashi, her blue-fringed shawl marking the occasion as formal. A slender woman with a dignified air that could sometimes break in a warm smile, she was one of the three Sitters for the Blue Ajah in the Hall of the Tower in Salidar. Today it was her penetrating eye most in evidence as she studied Logain’s audience.

Two men and a woman resplendent in embroidered silks and gold jewelry, all three graying, and one of the men nearly bald and wearing a square-cut beard and long mustache to make up for it. Powerful Altaran nobles, they had arrived the day before with strong escorts and as much suspicion for one another as for the Aes Sedai gathering an army inside Altara. Altarans gave allegiance to a lord or a lady or a town, with little if any left for a nation called Altara, and few nobles paid taxes, or heed to what the queen in Ebou Dar said, but they gave heed to an army in their midst. The Light alone knew what effect the rumors of Dragonsworn had on them. For the moment, though, they forgot to stare haughtily at one another or defiantly at Lelaine. Their eyes were fixed on Logain as they might have been on a huge, brightly colored viper.

To complete the cycle, copper-skinned Burin Shaeren, looking carved from an uprooted stump, watched both Logain and the visitors, a man ready to move suddenly and violently in the blink of an eye. Lelaine’s Warder was there only partly to guard Logain—supposedly Logain was in Salidar of his own free will, after all—and mainly to protect the man from his visitors and a knife in his heart.

For his part, Logain appeared to flourish under all those stares. A tall man with curling hair that touched his broad shoulders, dark and handsome if hard of face, he looked as proud and confident as an eagle. It was a promise of vengeance that put the light in his eyes, though. If he could not repay everyone he wanted to, he could at least repay some. “Six Red sisters found me in Cosamelle about a year before I proclaimed myself,” he said as Nynaeve came in. “Javindhra, the leader was called, though one named Barasine talked a good deal. And I heard Elaida mentioned, as if she knew what these were about. They found me asleep, and I thought I was done when they shielded me.”

“Aes Sedai,” the listening woman broke in harshly. Stocky and hard-eyed, she had a thin scar across her cheek that Nynaeve found incongruous on a woman. Altaran women did have a reputation for fierceness, of course, though very likely overblown. “Aes Sedai, how can what he claims be true?”

“I do not know how, Lady Sarena,” Lelaine said calmly, “but it was confirmed to me by one who cannot lie. He speaks true.”

Sarena’s face did not change, but her hands clenched into fists behind her back. One of her companions, the tall gaunt-faced man with more gray hair than black, had his thumbs tucked behind his sword belt, trying to appear at ease, but his grip was white-knuckle tight.

“As I was saying,” Logain went on with a smooth smile, “they found me, and gave me a choice of death on the spot or taking what they offered. A strange choice, not at all what I expected, but not one I had to think long on. They did not come out and say they had done this before, but there was a practiced feel to it. They gave no reasons, but it seems clear, looking back. Bringing in a man who could channel carried little glory; pulling down a false Dragon, though...”

Nynaeve frowned. He was so casual about it, a man discussing the day’s hunting, yet it was his own downfall he spoke of, and every word another nail in Elaida’s coffin. Maybe in a coffin for the whole Red Ajah. If the Reds had pushed Logain to name himself the Dragon Reborn, could they have done the same for Gorin Rogad or Mazrim Taim? Perhaps for all the false Dragons throughout history? She could all but see the thoughts turning in the Altarans’ minds like gears in a mill, reluctantly at first, then spinning faster and faster.

“For a whole year they helped me avoid other Aes Sedai,” Logain said, “sent messages when one was near, though there weren’t many then. After I proclaimed myself, and began to gather a following, they sent news of where the king’s armies were, and in what numbers. How else do you think I always knew where to strike and when?” His listeners shifted their feet, as much for his feral grin as for his words.

He hated Aes Sedai. Nynaeve was sure of that from the few times she had been able to bring herself to study him. Not that she had done so since before Min left, or learned anything when she had. Once she had thought studying him would be looking at the problem from a different angle—never was just how different men were as clear as in using the Power—but it was worse than staring into a dark hole; there was nothing there, not even the hole. All in all, being around Logain was unsettling. He had watched her every move with a burning intensity that made her shiver even knowing she could wrap him up in the Power if he so much as lifted a finger wrong. Not the sort of fervor that men’s eyes often directed at women, but a pure contempt that never touched his face at all, which made it all the more horrifying. Aes Sedai had shut him away from the One Power forever; Nynaeve could imagine her own feelings if anyone did that to her. He could not revenge himself on all Aes Sedai, however. What he could do was destroy the Red Ajah, and he was making a fair beginning to it.

This was the first time three had come at once, but every week or so brought another lord or lady to hear his tale, from across Altara and sometimes as far as Murandy, and every one left looking squeezed flat by what Logain had to say. Small wonder; the only news more shocking would have been for the Aes Sedai to admit the Black Ajah really did exist. Well, they were not about to do that, not publicly, and for much the same reason they held news of Logain as close as possible. It might have been the Red Ajah who did this, but they were still Aes Sedai, and too many people could not tell one Ajah from another. All in all, only a few were brought to hear Logain, yet every one of that handful was chosen for the power of the House they led. Houses that now would lend their support to the Aes Sedai in Salidar, if not always openly, or at worst, withhold support from Elaida.

“Javindhra sent me word when more Aes Sedai came,” Logain said, “the ones hunting me, and where they would be, so I could come on them before they knew.” Lelaine’s serene, ageless features hardened for a moment, and Burin’s hand drifted toward his sword hilt. Sisters had died before Logain was captured. Logain did not seem to notice their reactions. “The Red Ajah never played me false until they betrayed me in the end.”

The bearded man was staring at Logain so hard it was plain he was making himself do it. “Aes Sedai, what of his followers? Perhaps he was safe in the Tower, but he was captured a good many leagues closer to where we stand.”

“They were not all killed or captured,” the gaunt-faced lord put in right behind him. “Most escaped, melted away. I know my history, Aes Sedai. Raolin Darksbane’s followers dared attack the White Tower itself after he was taken, and Guaire Amalasan’s as well. We remember too well Logain’s army marching across our lands to want it to come again, to rescue him.”

“You need have no fear of that.” Lelaine eyed Logain with a brief smile, as a woman might a fierce dog she knew tamed to her leash. “He has no more desire for glory, only to make some small restitution for the harm he did. Besides which, I doubt many of his former followers would come if he did call, not after he was carried to Tar Valon in a cage and gentled.” Her light laugh was echoed by the Altarans, but only after a moment, and weakly. Logain’s face was an iron mask.

Abruptly Lelaine noticed Nynaeve just inside the doorway, and her eyebrows rose. She had exchanged pleasant words with Nynaeve more than once, and praised her and Elayne’s supposed discoveries, but she could be as quick as any other Aes Sedai to call down an Accepted who put a foot wrong.

Nynaeve dropped a curtsy, gesturing with the clay mug, now empty of tea. “Pardon me, Lelaine Sedai. I must take this back to the kitchen.” She darted out into the baking street before the Aes Sedai could say a word.

Luckily, Myrelle was nowhere in sight now. Nynaeve was in no mood for yet another lecture on showing responsibility or holding her temper or any one of a dozen fool things. An even better piece of luck, Siuan was standing not thirty paces away, facing Gareth Bryne in the middle of the street with the passing throng parting around them. Like Myrelle, Siuan showed no sign of the battering Elayne had reported; perhaps they would have more respect for Tel’aran’rhiod if they could not simply step out and have their blunders Healed. Nynaeve moved closer.

“What is the matter with you, woman?” Bryne growled at Siuan. His gray head lowered over her youthful-seeming one; booted feet planted wide and fists on hips made him seem as wide as a boulder. The sweat rolling down his face might have been on someone else’s for all the mind he paid it. “I compliment you on how soft my shirts are, and you snap my head off. And I said you looked cheerful, hardly the opening of a battle, I thought. It was a compliment, woman, if not one with roses in it.”

“Compliments?” Siuan growled right back, blue eyes blazing up at him. “I don’t want your compliments! It just pleases you that I have to iron your shirts. You are a smaller man than I ever thought, Gareth Bryne. Do you expect me to trail after you like a camp follower when the army marches, hoping for more of your compliments? And you will not address me so, as woman! It sounds like ‘Here, dog!’ ”

A vein started throbbing on Bryne’s temple. “It pleases me that you keep your word, Siuan. And if the army ever does march, I expect you to continue keeping it. I never asked that oath of you; it was your own choice, to try wiggling out of responsibility for what you did. You never thought you’d be called to keep it, did you? Speaking of the army marching, what have you heard while groveling for the Aes Sedai and kissing their feet?”

In one heartbeat Siuan went from fiery rage to icy calm. “That is no part of my oath.” You might have thought her a young Aes Sedai, standing there straight-backed with that coolly arrogant defiance, one who had not worked with the Power long enough to take on agelessness. “I will not spy for you. You serve the Hall of the Tower, Gareth Bryne, on your oath. Your army will march when the Hall decides. Listen for their words, and obey when you hear.”

The change in Bryne was as lightning quick. “You would be an enemy worth crossing swords with,” he chuckled admiringly. “You would be a better...” That fast the chuckle faded back into a glower. “The Hall, is it? Bah! You tell Sheriam she might as well stop avoiding me. What can be done here has been done. Tell her a wolfhound kept in a cage might as well be a pig when the wolves come. I didn’t gather these men to be sold at market.” With a short nod, he went striding off through the crowd. Siuan stared after him, frowning.

“What was that all about?” Nynaeve asked, and Siuan gave a start.

“None of your business is what it was,” she snapped, smoothing her dress. You would have thought Nynaeve had sneaked up on her purposely. The woman always took everything personally.

“Let it pass,” Nynaeve said levelly. She was not going to let herself be led off down a side trail. “What I won’t let pass is studying you.” She was going to do something useful today if it killed her. Siuan opened her mouth, looking around. “No, I don’t have Marigan, and right now, I don’t need her. You’ve let me near you twice—twice!—since I found a clue that something in you might be Healed. I mean to study you today, and if I don’t, I will tell Sheriam you’re disobeying her orders to make yourself available. I swear I will!”

For a moment she thought the other woman was going to dare her to do her worst, but at last Siuan said grudgingly, “This afternoon. I am busy this morning. Unless you think what you want is more important than helping your Two Rivers friend?”

Nynaeve stepped closer. No one in the street was paying them any mind beyond a glance in passing, but she lowered her voice anyway. “What are they planning about him? You keep saying they haven’t made up their minds what to do, but they must have come to some conclusion by now.” If they had, Siuan would know of it, whether she was supposed to or not.

Abruptly Leane was there, and Nynaeve might as well not have spoken. Siuan and Leane glared at one another, stiff-backed as two strange cats in a small room.

“Well?” Siuan muttered with a tight jaw.

Leane sniffed, and her curls swung as she tossed her head. A sneer twisted her lips, yet her words did not match expression or tone. “I tried to talk them out of it,” she spat, but softly. “Only they had not listened to you enough to even consider it. You won’t be meeting the Wise Ones tonight.”

“Fishguts!” Siuan growled, and turning on her heel, she stalked away, but no more quickly than Leane in the opposite direction.

Nynaeve almost threw up her hands in frustration. Talking as if she were not there, as if she did not know exactly what they were talking about. Ignoring her. Siuan had better appear this afternoon as promised, or she would find a way to wring her out and hang her up to dry! She jumped as a woman spoke behind her.

“Those two should be sent to Tiana for a sound switching.” Lelaine stepped up beside Nynaeve, looking first after Siuan then Leane. Going around sneaking up on people! There was no sign of Logain or Burin or the Altaran nobles. The Blue sister shifted her shawl. “They are not what they were, of course, but one would think they could retain a little decorum. It will not do if they actually come to hair-pulling in the street.”

“Sometimes people just rub one another the wrong way,” Nynaeve said. Siuan and Leane worked so hard to maintain their fiction, the least she could do was support it. How she hated people sneaking up on her.

Lelaine eyed Nynaeve’s hand on her braid, and she snatched it away. Too many knew about that habit; a habit she had tried hard to break. But what the Aes Sedai said was “Not when it impinges on the dignity of Aes Sedai, child. Women who serve Aes Sedai should show some reserve in public however silly they are in private.” There was certainly nothing to be said to that; nothing safe, anyway. “Why did you come in where I was showing Logain just now?”

“I thought the room was empty, Aes Sedai,” Nynaeve said hastily. “I’m sorry. I hope I did not disturb you.” That was no answer—she could hardly say she had been hiding from Myrelle—but the slender Blue only met her eyes for a moment.

“What do you think Rand al’Thor will do, child?”

Nynaeve blinked in confusion. “Aes Sedai, I haven’t seen him in half a year. All I know is what I’ve heard here. Is the Hall ... ? Aes Sedai, what has the Hall decided about him?”

Scrutinizing Nynaeve’s face, Lelaine pursed her lips. Those dark eyes, seeming to see inside your head, were quite unsettling. “A remarkable coincidence. You come from the same village as the Dragon Reborn, and so does that other girl, Egwene al’Vere. Great things were expected when she became a novice. Do you have any idea where she is?” She did not wait for an answer. “And the other two young men, Perrin Aybara and Mat Cauthon. Both ta’veren as well, so I understand. Remarkable, indeed. Then there is you, with your extraordinary discoveries despite your limitations. Wherever Egwene is, does she also venture where none of us have gone? All of you have occasioned a good deal of discussion among the sisters, as you may imagine.”

“I hope they say good things,” Nynaeve said slowly. There had been many questions about Rand since coming to Salidar, especially since the embassy left for Caemlyn—some Aes Sedai seemed able to speak of little else to her—but this seemed something different. That was the trouble with talking to Aes Sedai. Half the time you could not be sure what they meant or what they were after.

“Do you still have hopes of Healing Siuan and Leane, child?” Nodding as if Nynaeve had answered, Lelaine sighed. “Sometimes I think Myrelle is right. We indulge you too much. Whatever your discoveries, perhaps we should put you in Theodrin’s charge until your block against channeling at will is broken. Considering what you have done in the last two months, think what you could do then.” Gripping her braid unconsciously, Nynaeve tried to get a word in edgewise, a carefully framed protest, but Lelaine ignored the attempt. Which was probably for the best. “You do Siuan and Leane no favors, child. Let them forget who and what they were and be content with who and what they are. From the way they behave, the only thing that keeps them from forgetting completely is you, and your foolish attempts to Heal what cannot be Healed. They are no longer Aes Sedai. Why hold out false hope?”

There was a hint of compassion in her voice, and a tinge of contempt too. Those not Aes Sedai were less, after all, and Siuan and Leane’s ruse had definitely painted them among the least. Plus, of course, no few here in Salidar blamed the Tower’s troubles on Siuan, on her plotting while Amyrlin. Very likely they believed she deserved everything that had happened to her and more.

What had been done complicated the whole thing, though. Stilling was rare. Before Siuan and Leane, no woman had been tried and stilled in one hundred and forty years, and none burned out in at least a dozen. A stilled woman usually tried to get as far from Aes Sedai as she could. No doubt if Lelaine had been stilled, she would want to forget being Aes Sedai if she could. No doubt she would like to forget that Siuan and Leane had been, too, that all that had been taken away from them. If they could be seen as two women never able to channel, never Aes Sedai, a good many Aes Sedai would be more comfortable.

“Sheriam Sedai has given me permission to try,” Nynaeve said as firmly as she dared to a full sister. Lelaine held her eyes until she let her gaze drop. Her knuckles whitened around her braid before she could let go, but she kept her face smooth. Trying to trade stares with an Aes Sedai was a woolhead’s trick for an Accepted.

“We are all fools sometimes, child, yet a wise woman learns to limit how often. Since you seem to have finished breakfast, I suggest you rid yourself of that mug and find something to do before you find yourself in hot water instead. Have you ever considered cutting your hair short? No matter. Off with you.”

Nynaeve dropped a curtsy, but it was being made to the Aes Sedai’s back before she reached the bottom of it. Safe from Lelaine’s eyes, she glowered at the woman. Cut her hair? She lifted her braid and shook it at the retreating Aes Sedai. That she had waited until it was safe made her furious, though if she had not waited she would almost certainly be on her way to join Moghedien at the laundry, with a stop to see Tiana on the way. Months sitting here in Salidar doing nothing—for all practical purposes it seemed she was, no matter what she and Elayne managed to pull out of Moghedien—amid Aes Sedai who did nothing except talk and wait while the world went on its way to ruin without them, and Lelaine thought she should cut her hair! She had pursued the Black Ajah, been captured and escaped, captured one of the Forsaken in turn—well, none of them knew that—helped the Panarch of Tarabon regain her throne however briefly, and now all she did was sit and take credit for what she could shake loose from Moghedien. Cut her hair? She might as well shave herself bald for all the good it would do!

She caught sight of Dagdara Finchey striding through the throng, as wide as any man in the street and taller than most, and the round-faced Yellow made her angry, too. One reason she had chosen to remain in Salidar was to study with the Yellows, for they knew more of Healing than anyone else; everyone said so. But if any of them knew more than she already did, they were not sharing it with a mere Accepted. The Yellows should have been the most welcoming to her desire to Heal anything and everything, even stilling, but they were the least. Dagdara would have had her scrubbing floors from sunup to sundown until she gave up “foolish notions and wasting time” if Sheriam had not intervened, while Nisao Dachen, a diminutive Yellow with eyes that could drive nails, refused to even speak to Nynaeve as long as she persisted in trying to “alter how the Pattern has been woven.”

To top it all off, her weather sense still told her a storm was on its way, closer now, while the cloudless sky and burning sun taunted her.

Muttering to herself, she tucked the clay mug into the back of a passing woodcart and set off weaving through the crowded street. There was nothing to do except keep moving until Moghedien was free, and the Light knew how long that would be. A whole morning wasted, added to a string of wasted days.

Many of the Aes Sedai nodded and smiled at her, but by the simple expedient of smiling back apologetically and quickening her step for a few paces as if hurrying somewhere, she avoided stopping for the inevitable questions about what new things they might expect out of her. In her present mood she might just tell them exactly what she thought, which would be foolish in the extreme. Doing nothing. Asking her what Rand was going to do. Telling her to cut her hair. Bah!

Of course, they were not all smiles. Not only did Nisao look right through Nynaeve; Nynaeve had to step nimbly out of the way before the tiny woman walked right over her. And a haughty, pale-haired Aes Sedai with a prominent chin, guiding a tall roan gelding through the crowd, cast a sharp blue-eyed frown at her as she rode by. Nynaeve did not recognize her. The woman was perfectly neat in a riding dress of pale gray silk, but the light linen dustcloak folded in front of her saddle spoke of travel and named her a new arrival. Adding to the likelihood that she was new come, the lanky green-coated Warder at her heels on a tall gray warhorse looked uneasy. Warders never looked uneasy, but Nynaeve supposed joining a rebellion against the Tower might make for an exception. Light! Even new arrivals came ready to put her back up!

And then there was scar-faced Uno, his head shaven except for a topknot and his missing eye covered by a patch painted with a hideous glaring red replacement. Pausing in the leather-lunged flaying of an abashed young man in plate-and-mail armor who stood holding the reins of a horse with a lance lashed to the saddle, Uno directed a warm grin in Nynaeve’s direction. Well, it would have been warm without the eyepatch. Nynaeve’s grimace made him blink and hurry back to dressing down the soldier.

It was not Uno or his eyepatch that soured her stomach. Not exactly. He had accompanied her and Elayne to Salidar, and once promised to steal horses—“borrow,” he called it—if they wanted to leave. No chance of that now. Uno wore a band of golden braid on the cuffs of his worn dark coat now; he was an officer, training heavy cavalry for Gareth Bryne, and much too caught up in it to bother himself with Nynaeve. No, that was not true. If she said she wanted to go, he would procure horses in a matter of hours, and she would ride with an escort of top-knotted Shienarans who had given their allegiance to Rand and were only in Salidar because she and Elayne brought them there. Only, she would have to admit she had been wrong in deciding to stay, admit she had been lying all those times she had told him she was happy right where she was. Making those admissions was just beyond her. Uno’s main reason for staying was that he thought he should look after her and Elayne. He would hear no admissions from her!

The whole thought of leaving Salidar was a new one, sparked by Uno, and it set her thinking fiercely. If only Thom and Juilin had not gone jaunting off to Amadicia. Not that they had made the trip for the fun of it, really. Back in the days when it seemed die Aes Sedai here might really do something, they had volunteered to scout out what was going on across the river. Meaning to penetrate as far as Amador itself, they had been gone well over a month, and would not return for days more at best. They were not the only scouts, of course; even Aes Sedai and Warders had been sent, though most of those were aimed farther west, at Tarabon. A show of doing something, and the delay before any could return with word, was a good excuse to wait. Nynaeve wished she had not let the two men go. Neither would have, had she said no.

Thom was an old gleeman, though he had once been considerably more, and Juilin a thief-taker from Tear, both competent men who knew how to handle themselves in strange places, and handy in a number of ways. They had accompanied her and Elayne to Salidar, too, and neither would have asked questions if told she wanted to leave. Undoubtedly they would have said a good deal behind her back, but not to her face, the way Uno would.

It was galling to admit that she really needed them, but she was not sure she knew how to go about stealing a horse. In any case, an Accepted would be noticed fooling around the horses, in the stables as much as out on the soldiers’ picket lines, and if she changed out of the banded white dress, she would certainly be seen and reported before she got anywhere near a horse. Even if she managed it, she would be pursued. Runaway Accepted, like runaway novices, were almost always brought back to face punishment that erased any thought of a second attempt. When you began training to be Aes Sedai, Aes Sedai were not finished with you until they said they were.

It was not fear of punishment that held her, of course. What was a switching or two against the chance of being killed by the Black Ajah, or facing one of the Forsaken? It was just a matter of whether she really wanted to go. Where would she go, for instance? To Rand, in Caemlyn? Egwene in Cairhien? Would Elayne come? Certainly, if they went to Caemlyn. Was it a desire to do something, or fear that Moghedien was going to be discovered? The punishment for running away would not be a patch on that! She had reached no conclusion when she rounded a corner and found herself looking at Elayne’s novice class, gathered in an open space between two thatch-roofed stone houses where the fallen-in ruins of a third had been cleared away.

More than twenty white-clad women sat on low stools in a semicircle, watching Elayne guide two of their number through an exercise. The glow of saidar surrounded all three women. Tabiya, a green-eyed freckle-faced girl of sixteen or so, and Nicola, a slender black-haired woman Nynaeve’s age, were unsteadily passing a small flame back and forth. It wavered and sometimes vanished for an instant when one was too slow to catch it up from the other and maintain it. In her present mood, Nynaeve could clearly see the flows they wove.

Eighteen novices had been whisked away when Sheriam and the rest fled—Tabiya was one of those—but most in this group were like Nicola, newly recruited since the Aes Sedai established themselves in Salidar. Nicola was not the only woman there older than usual for a novice; a good half were. When Nynaeve and Elayne went to the Tower, Aes Sedai rarely tested women much older than Tabiya—Nynaeve had been remarked for her age as much as for being a wilder—but perhaps in desperation, the Aes Sedai here had expanded their testing to women even a year or two beyond Nynaeve. The result was that Salidar now held more novices than the White Tower had for years. That success had made the Aes Sedai send sisters out across Altara in a village-by-village search.

“Do you wish you were teaching that class?”

The voice at her shoulder made Nynaeve’s stomach turn over. Twice in one morning. She wished she had some goosemint in her belt pouch. If she kept letting herself be taken by surprise, she was going to end up sorting papers for a Brown yet.

Of course, the apple-cheeked Domani woman was not Aes Sedai. Back in the Tower, Theodrin would have been raised to the shawl already, but here she had been raised to something more than Accepted, less than a full sister. She wore her Great Serpent ring on her right hand not her left, and a green dress that went well with her bronze coloring, but she could not choose an Ajah or wear the shawl.

“I have better things to be about than teaching a bunch of thickheaded novices.”

Theodrin only smiled at the tartness in Nynaeve’s voice. She was quite nice, really. “A thickheaded Accepted to teach thickheaded novices?” Usually, she was nice. “Well, once we have you where you can channel without being ready to thump their heads, you will be teaching novices too. And I would not be surprised if you were raised soon after, the things you’ve been discovering. You know, you have never told me what your trick was.” Wilders almost always had some trick they had learned, the first unveiling of the ability to channel. The other thing most wilders had in common was a block, something they had built up in their minds to hide their channeling even from themselves.

Nynaeve kept her face smooth with an effort. To be able to channel whenever she wanted. To be raised Aes Sedai. Neither would remedy the problem of Moghedien, but she would be able to go where she wanted then, study as she wanted without anyone telling her this or that simply could not be Healed. “People got well when they shouldn’t. I would get so mad that somebody was going to die, that everything I knew about herbs wasn’t enough ...” she shrugged. “And they got well.”

“Much better than mine.” The slender woman sighed. “I could make a boy want to kiss me, or not want to. My block was men, not anger.” Nynaeve looked at her incredulously, and Theodrin laughed. “Well, it was emotion, too. If there was a man present, and I liked or disliked him a great deal, I could channel. If I felt neither one way nor the other, or there wasn’t a man at all, I might as well have been a tree so far as saidar was concerned.”

“How did you ever break through that?” Nynaeve asked curiously. Elayne had the novices all paired off now, fumbling their way through passing small flames back and forth.

Theodrin’s smile deepened, but a blush stained her cheeks, too. “A young man named Charel, a groom in the Tower stables, began making eyes at me. I was fifteen, and he had the most gorgeous smile. The Aes Sedai let him sit in on my lessons, quietly in a corner, so I could channel at all. What I didn’t know was that Sheriam had arranged for him to meet me in the first place.” Her cheeks darkened more. “I also didn’t know he had a twin sister, or that after a few days, the Charel sitting in the corner was really Marel. When she took off her coat and shirt one day in the middle of my lesson, I was so shocked I fainted. But after that, I could channel whenever I wanted.”

Nynaeve burst out laughing—she could not help it—and despite her blushes Theodrin joined in without restraint. “I wish it could be that easy for me, Theodrin.”

“Whether it is or not,” Theodrin said, her laughter fading, “we will break down your block. This afternoon—”

“I’m studying Siuan this afternoon,” Nynaeve cut in hastily, and Theodrin’s mouth tightened.

“You have been avoiding me, Nynaeve. In the past month you’ve managed to wriggle out of all but three appointments. I can accept your trying and failing, but I will not accept you being afraid to try.”

“I am not,” Nynaeve began indignantly, as a small voice asked whether she was trying to hide the truth from herself. It was so disheartening to try and try and try—and fail.

Theodrin let her have no more than those few words. “Allowing that you have commitments today,” she said calmly, “I will see you tomorrow, and every day thereafter, or I will be forced to take other steps. I don’t want to do that, and you do not want me to, but I mean to break your block down. Myrelle has asked me to make special efforts, and I vow that I will.”

The near echo of what she had told Siuan made Nynaeve’s jaw drop. This was the first time the other woman had used the increased authority of her position. It would be just the way Nynaeve’s luck was running today for her and Siuan to end up waiting to see Tiana side by side.

Theodrin did not wait for a reply. She merely nodded as if she had received agreement, then glided off up the street. Nynaeve could almost see a fringed shawl around her shoulders. This morning was not going well at all. And Myrelle again! She wanted to scream.

Over among the novices, Elayne gave her a proud smile, but Nynaeve only shook her head and turned away. She was going back to her room. It was a measure of how the day was progressing that before she was halfway there Dagdara Finchey crashed into her running and knocked her flat on her back. Running! An Aes Sedai! The big woman did not stop, either, or as much as shout an apology over her shoulder as she plowed through the crowd.

Nynaeve picked herself up, dusted herself off, stumped the rest of the way to her room and slammed the door behind her. It was hot and close, the beds were unmade until Moghedien could get around to them, and worst of all, Nynaeve’s weather sense told her there should have been a hailstorm breaking over Salidar right that minute. But she would not be surprised there, or trampled.

Flinging herself down atop her rumpled sheets, she lay fingering the silver bracelet, thoughts skittering from what she might manage to dig out of Moghedien today to whether Siuan would appear that afternoon, from Lan to her block to whether she was going to stay in Salidar. It would not be running away, really. She would probably go to Caemlyn, to Rand; he did need somebody to keep his head from swelling too big, and Elayne would like that. She just wished leaving—not running away!—had not begun to seem even more attractive after Theodrin announced her intentions.

She expected to have some sign in the emotions oozing through the a’dam that Moghedien was finished with her work, and to have to go find her—she often hid when she was sulking—but the shame and outrage never decreased, and the door banging open came as a complete surprise.

“So there you are,” Moghedien grated. “Look!” She held up her hands. “Ruined!” To Nynaeve they looked no different from any hands that been doing laundry; white and wrinkled, true, but that would fade. “It is not enough that I must live in squalor, fetching and carrying like a servant, now I’m expected to labor like some primitive—!”

Nynaeve cut her off by a simple expedient. She thought of one quick stroke of a switch, what it felt like, then shifted the thought into the part of her mind that held Moghedien’s received emotions. The other woman’s dark eyes widened, and her mouth clamped shut, lips compressing. Not a hard blow, but a reminder.

“Close the door and sit down,” Nynaeve said. “You can make the beds later. We are going to have a lesson.”

“I am used to better than this,” Moghedien grumbled as she complied. “A night laborer in Tojar was used to better!”

“Unless I miss my guess,” Nynaeve told her sharply, “a night laborer in wherever didn’t have a death sentence hanging over his head. Any time you want it, we can tell Sheriam exactly who you are.” It was pure bluff—Nynaeve’s stomach clenched up in a burning ball at the mere thought—but a sickening flood of fear roared out of Moghedien. Nynaeve almost admired how steady the woman’s face remained; had she felt like that, she would have been shrieking and gnashing her teeth on the floor.

“What do you want me to show you?” Moghedien said in a level tone. They always had to tell her what they wanted out of her. She practically never volunteered anything unless they pressed her to a point Nynaeve considered the brink of torture.

“We’ll try something you haven’t been very successful with teaching. Detecting a man’s channeling.” So far, that was the only thing she and Elayne had not been able to pick up quickly. It could be useful if she did decide to go to Caemlyn.

“Not easy, especially with no man to practice on. A pity you haven’t been able to Heal Logain.” There was no mockery in Moghedien’s voice or on her face, but she glanced at Nynaeve and hurried on. “Still, we can try the forms again.”

The lesson truly was not easy. It never was, even with something Nynaeve could learn right away once the weaves became clear. Moghedien could not channel without Nynaeve allowing her to, without Nynaeve guiding her, in fact, but in a new lesson Moghedien had to give the lead for how the flows were to go. It made a pretty tangle, the main reason they were not able to learn a dozen new things from her every day. In this case Nynaeve already had some idea of how the flows were woven, but it was an intricate lacework of all of the Five Powers that made Healing seem simple, and the pattern shifted at blinding speed. Its difficulty was the reason it had never been used very often, Moghedien claimed. It also gave you a grinding headache if kept up very long.

Nynaeve lay back on her bed and worked at it as hard as she could, though. If she did go to Rand, she might need this, and there was no telling how soon. She channeled the flows all by herself, too; an occasional thought of Lan or Theodrin kept her anger twisted up tight enough. Sooner or later Moghedien was going to be called to account for her crimes, and where would Nynaeve be then, used to drawing on the other woman’s power whenever she wanted? She had to live and work with her own limits. Could Theodrin find a way to break her block? Lan had to be alive, so she could find him. The ache became a pain that bored at her temples. A tightness appeared around Moghedien’s eyes, and she rubbed at her head sometimes, but underneath the fear the bracelet carried a current of what almost seemed contentment. Nynaeve supposed that even when you did not want to teach, it must bring a certain satisfaction. She was not sure she liked Moghedien displaying such a normal human response.

She was not sure how long the lesson went on, with Moghedien murmuring, “Almost” and “Not quite,” but when the door banged open again, she nearly lifted straight up off the mattress. The sudden bolt of fear from Moghedien would have accompanied howling in another woman.

“Have you heard, Nynaeve?” Elayne asked, pushing the door to. “There’s an emissary from the Tower, from Elaida.”

Nynaeve forgot the words she would have shouted if her heart had not been clogging her throat. She even forgot her headache. “An emissary? You’re sure?”

“Of course I’m sure, Nynaeve. Do you think I’d come running for gossip? The whole village is aflutter.”

“I don’t know why,” Nynaeve said sourly. The grating inside her skull was back. And all the goosemint in her scrip of herbs under the bed would not have quieted the burning in her stomach. Would the girl never learn to knock? Moghedien had both hands pressed to her belly as though she could use some goosemint as well. “We did tell them Elaida knew about Salidar.”

“Maybe they believed us,” Elayne said, dropping onto the foot of Nynaeve’s bed, “and maybe they didn’t, but this drove it home. Elaida knows where we are, and likely what we are up to. Any of the servants could be her eyes-and-ears. Maybe even some of the sisters. I caught a glimpse of the emissary, Nynaeve. Pale yellow hair and blue eyes that could freeze the sun. A Red named Tarna Feir, Faolain said. One of the Warders who was keeping guard escorted her in. When she looks at you, she could be looking at a stone.”

Nynaeve looked at Moghedien. “We’re done with the lesson for now. Come back in an hour and you can make the beds.” She waited until Moghedien had gone, tight-lipped and gripping her skirts in fists, then turned to Elayne. “What ... message did she bring?”

“They certainly didn’t tell me, Nynaeve. Every Aes Sedai I passed was wondering the same thing. I heard when Tarna was told she’d be received by the Hall of the Tower, she laughed. And not as if she was amused. You do not think...” Elayne chewed at her underlip for a moment. “You don’t think they could really decide to...”

“Go back?” Nynaeve said incredulously. “Elaida will want them to come the last ten miles on their knees, and the final mile on their bellies! Even if she didn’t, even if this Red says, ‘Come home. All is forgiven and dinner’s waiting,’ do you think they could brush aside Logain so easily?”

“Nynaeve, Aes Sedai could brush aside anything to make the White Tower whole again. Anything. You don’t understand them the way I do; there were Aes Sedai in the palace from the day I was born. The question now is, what is Tarna saying to the Hall? And what are they saying to her?”

Nynaeve rubbed her arms irritably. She had no answers, only hopes, and her weather sense told her that that hailstorm that was not there was beating the roofs of Salidar like drums. The feeling went on for days.


“You had these Illuminators brought to Amador?” Many would have flinched to hear such a cold tone from Pedron Niall, but not the man standing on the inlaid golden sunburst before Niall’s plain high-backed chair. He exuded confidence and competence. Niall continued, “There is a reason I have two thousand of the Children guarding the border with Tarabon, Omerna. Tarabon is quarantined. No one is allowed across the border. Not a sparrow would cross if I had my way.”

Omerna was the picture of what an officer of the Children of the Light was supposed to be, tall and commanding, with a bold, fearless face, a strong chin and waves of white at his temples. His dark eyes seemed more than capable of surveying the harshest battlefield undismayed, as indeed they had. At the moment they seemed to indicate deeply considered thought. The white-and-gold tabard of a Lord Captain, Anointed of the Light, suited him. “My Lord Captain Commander, they wish to establish a chapter house here.” Even his voice, deep and mellifluous, fit the image. “Illuminators travel everywhere. It should be possible to slip agents among them easily. Agents welcomed into every town, every noble’s manor, every ruler’s palace.” Supposedly Abdel Omerna was a relatively minor member of the Council of Anointed. In truth, he was the Children of the Light’s spymaster. After a manner of speaking. “Think of it!”

What Niall thought was that the Guild of Illuminators was Taraboner to the last man and woman, and Tarabon was infected with chaos and madness that he would not let loose in Amadicia. If cauterizing that infection had to wait, he could at least isolate it. “They will be treated like anyone else who slips through, Omerna. Kept under guard, allowed to talk to no one, and escorted out of Amadicia without delay.”

“If I may insist, my Lord Captain Commander, their usefulness is worth the little gossip they might spread. They keep to themselves. And aside from their use for my agents, the prestige of having an Illuminators’ chapter house in Amador would be considerable. The only chapter house, now. The one in Cairhien has been abandoned, and the one in Tanchico surely has been, too.”

Prestige! Niall rubbed his left eye to soothe an involuntary flutter. Little point in getting angry with Omerna, but restraint took an effort. The morning heat cooked his temper over a slow fire. “They do indeed keep to themselves, Omerna. They live with their own, travel with their own, and barely speak to anyone else. Do you mean to have these agents marry Illuminators? They rarely marry outside their guild, and there is no way to become an Illuminator except by birth.”

“Ah. Well. I am sure a way can be found.” Nothing could dent that façade of confidence and competence.

“It shall be done as I say, Omerna.” The man actually opened his mouth again, but Niall forestalled him irritably. “As I say, Omerna! I’ll hear no more on it! Now what information do you have today? What useful information? That is your function. Not providing fireworks for Ailron.”

Omerna hesitated, plainly wanting to make another plea for his precious Illuminators, but in the end he said portentously, “The reports of Dragonsworn in Altara are more than rumor, it seems. And perhaps in Murandy as well. The infestation is small, but it will grow. A strong move now could settle for them and the Aes Sedai in Salidar in one—”

“Do you dictate strategy for the Children now? Gather information, and leave its use to me. What else do you have for me?”

The man’s response to being cut off was a calm bow of acquiescence. Omerna was very good at remaining calm; it was perhaps what he did best. “I have good news. Mattin Stepaneos is ready to join you. He hesitates to make a public announcement, but my people in Illian report that he soon will. He is reported eager.”

“That would be remarkably good,” Niall said dryly. Remarkable, certainly. Among the banners and pennants lining the cornices of the chamber, Mattin Stepaneos’ Three Leopards, silver on black, hung next to a gold-fringed Illianer Royal Standard, nine bees worked in thread-of-gold on green silk. The Illianer king came out on top in the Troubles finally, at least to the point of forcing a treaty that affirmed the border between Amadicia and Altara where it was at the beginning, but Niall doubted the man would ever forget that he had had the advantage of terrain and numbers at Soremaine and still been defeated and captured. If the Illianer Companions had not covered the field for the rest of the army to escape Niall’s trap, Altara would be a fief of the Children today, and very likely Murandy and even Illian. Worse, Mattin Stepaneos had a Tar Valon witch for an advisor, though he hid the fact, and her. Niall sent emissaries because he dared not leave a path untried, but yes, Mattin Stepaneos joining him willingly would be remarkable indeed. “Continue. And be brief. I have a busy day today, and I can read your written reports later.”

Despite those instructions Omerna’s rendition was long, delivered in a sonorous voice full of certainty. Al’Thor had barely extended his control in Andor beyond Caemlyn. His lightning onslaught was clearly stalled at last—as Omerna carefully pointed out that he had predicted. There was little chance the Borderlands would join the Children against the false Dragon any time soon; lords in Shienar, Arafel and Kandor were taking advantage of the Blight’s quiet to rebel, and the Queen of Saldaea had gone into seclusion in the country, in fear of the same according to Omerna. His agents were at work, however, and the Borderland rulers would be brought to heel as soon as these small rebellions were quashed. On the other hand, the rulers of Murandy, Altara and Ghealdan were ready to fall into line, though making ambivalent noises at present to soothe the Tar Valon witches. Alliandre of Ghealdan knew her throne was shaky, knew she needed the Children to avoid plummeting as abruptly as her predecessors, while both Tylin of Altara and Roedran of Murandy hoped that the Children’s weight would make them more than figureheads at last. Plainly the man considered those lands already as good as in Niall’s coat pocket.

Within Amadicia, the picture was even better, by Omerna’s reckoning. Recruits flocked to the Children’s banners in greater numbers than for years. Strictly speaking, that was none of Omerna’s concern, but he always larded his reports with any good news he could find. The Prophet would not trouble the land much longer; at present his rabble squabbled over looting villages and manors in the north, and might well scatter back into Ghealdan at the next push by Ailron’s soldiers. Little room remained in the jails, because Darkfriends and Tar Valon spies were being arrested faster than they could be hanged. The search for Tar Valon witches had found only two so far, but over a hundred women had been put to the question, an indication of how vigilant the patrols were. And fewer refugees from Tarabon were being apprehended, proof the quarantine was becoming more effective; those caught were being thrown back into Tarabon as fast as they could be taken back to the border. He hurried past that last, unsurprising given his stupidity with the Illuminators.

Niall listened just enough to know where to nod. Omerna had been an adequate commander in the field, so long as someone told him what to do, but in his present position, his credulous stupidity was trying. He had reported Morgase dead, her corpse seen and identified beyond doubt, up to the very day Niall brought him face-to-face with her. He had ridiculed “rumors” that the Stone of Tear had fallen, and still denied that the mightiest fortress in the world could have been taken by any outside force; there had been treason, he insisted, a High Lord who had betrayed the Stone to al’Thor and Tar Valon. He maintained that the disaster at Falme and the troubles in Tarabon and Arad Doman were the work of Artur Hawkwing’s armies come back across the Aryth Ocean. He was convinced that Siuan Sanche had not been deposed at all, that al’Thor was insane and dying, that Tar Valon had murdered King Galldrian to deliberately set off the civil war in Cairhien, and that these three “facts” were somehow tied into those ridiculous rumors, always from somewhere conveniently far away, of people bursting into flame or nightmares leaping out of thin air and slaughtering whole villages. He was not sure how exactly, but he was working on a grand theory he promised to deliver any day, a theory that supposedly would unravel all the witches’ schemes and deliver Tar Valon into Niall’s hands.

That was the way with Omerna; he either invented convoluted reasons for what happened, or else seized on gossip in the streets and swallowed it whole. He spent a good deal of his time listening to gossip, in manor houses and in the streets. Not only had he been seen drinking in the taverns with Hunters for the Horn, it was an ill-kept secret that he had laid out huge sums for no fewer than three supposed Horns of Valere. Each time he had carried the thing off to the country and puffed on it for days, till even he had to admit that no dead heroes out of legend were going to come riding back from the grave. Even so, the failures were unlikely to stop him from future purchases in dark alleys or the back rooms of taverns. The simple form of it was this: where a spymaster should doubt his own face in the mirror, Omerna believed anything.

Eventually the man ran down, and Niall said, “I will give your reports due consideration, Omerna. You have done well.” How the fellow preened, smoothing his tabard. “Leave me, now. On your way out, send Balwer in. I have some letters to dictate.”

“Of course, my Lord Captain Commander. Ah.” In the middle of his bow, Omerna frowned and fumbled in the pocket of his white undercoat, pulling out a tiny bone cylinder that he handed to Niall. “This arrived at the pigeoncote this morning.” Three thin red stripes ran the length of the cylinder, meaning it was to be brought to Niall with the wax seals intact. And the man had almost forgotten it.

Omerna waited, no doubt hoping for a hint of what the cylinder contained, but Niall waved him toward the door. “Do not forget Balwer. If Mattin Stepaneos might join me, I must write and see if I can add a little weight to his making the right decision.” Omerna had no choice but to make his bow anew and go.

Even when the door closed behind the man, Niall only fingered the cylinder. These rare special messages seldom brought good news. Rising slowly—of late he sometimes felt age in his bones—he filled a plain silver goblet with punch, but then left it sitting on the table and flipped open a folder of scroll-worked leather lined with linen. It contained a single sheet of heavy paper, crumpled and partly torn, a street artist’s drawing in colored chalks of two men fighting in clouds, one with a face made of fire, the other with dark reddish hair. Al’Thor.

All his plans to hinder the false Dragon had gone awry, all his hopes to slow the man’s tide of conquest, to divert him. Had he waited too long, let al’Thor grow too powerful? If so, there was only one way to deal with him quickly, the knife in the dark, the arrow from a rooftop. How long did he dare wait? Did he dare risk not waiting? Too much haste could spell disaster as surely as too long a delay.

“My Lord sent for me?”

Niall eyed the man who had entered so silently. On the face of it, it hardly seemed possible that Balwer could move without a dry rustle announcing his presence. Everything about him was narrow and pinched; his brown coat hung from knobby shoulders, and his legs looked as if they might snap under his desiccated weight. He moved like a bird hopping from limb to limb. “Do you believe the Horn of Valere will call dead heroes back to save us, Balwer?”

“Perhaps, my Lord,” Balwer said, folding his hands fussily. “Perhaps not. I would not count on it, myself.”

Niall nodded. “And do you think Mattin Stepaneos will join me?”

“Again, perhaps. He will not want to finish dead or a puppet. His first and only concern is to hold on to the Laurel Crown, and the army gathering in Tear must make him sweat for that.” Balwer smiled thinly, a bare compression of lips. “He has spoken openly about accepting my Lord’s proposal, but on the other hand I’ve just learned he has been communicating with the White Tower. Apparently he has agreed to something, though I don’t yet know what.”

The world knew that Abdel Omerna was the Children’s spymaster. Such a position should have been secret, of course, but stableboys and beggars pointed him out in the street, warily, lest the most dangerous man in Amadicia see them. The truth was that Omerna was a decoy, a fool who did not know himself that he was only a mask hiding the true master of spies in the Fortress of the Light. Sebban Balwer, Niall’s prim dried-up little secretary with his disapproving mouth. A man no one would ever suspect, or credit if he was named to them.

Where Omerna believed everything, Balwer believed nothing, perhaps not even in Darkfriends, or the Dark One. If Balwer did believe in anything, it was looking over men’s shoulders, listening to their whispers, rooting out their secrets. Of course, he would have served any master as well as he did Niall, but that was all to the good. What Balwer learned was never tainted by what he knew had to be true, or wanted to be true. Disbelieving everything, he always managed to root out truth.

“No more than I expected out of Illian, Balwer, but even he can be brought round.” He would have to be. It could not be too late. “Is there any fresh word from the Borderlands?”

“Not yet, my Lord. But Davram Bashere is in Caemlyn. With thirty thousand light horse, my informants claim, but I think no more than half that. He would not weaken Saldaea too far, however quiet the Blight, even if Tenobia commanded him to.”

Niall grunted, the corner of his left eye trembling. He fingered the sketch lying in its folder; supposedly it was a fair likeness of al’Thor. Bashere in Caemlyn; a good reason for Tenobia to be hiding in the country from his envoy.

There was no good news from the Borderlands, whatever Omerna thought. The “minor rebellions” Omerna reported were minor, but not rebellions of the sort the man thought. Along the Blightborder men were arguing over whether al’Thor was another false Dragon or the Dragon Reborn. Borderlanders being as they were, sometimes those arguments flared into small-scale battles. The fighting had begun in Shienar about the time the Stone of Tear was falling, confirmation of the witches’ involvement if any was needed. How it would all be settled was yet in doubt, according to Balwer.

That al’Thor remained confined to Caemlyn was one of the few things Omerna had right. Yet why, with Bashere and Aiel and the witches? Not even Balwer had been able to answer that. Whatever the reason, the Light be praised for it! The Prophet’s mobs had settled in to loot the north of Amadicia, true, but they were consolidating their hold, killing or putting to flight any who refused to declare for the Prophet of the Dragon. Ailron’s soldiers had only stopped retreating because the accursed Prophet had stopped advancing. Alliandre and the others Omerna was certain would join him were in fact dithering, putting off his ambassadors with flimsy excuses and delays. He suspected they no more knew how they would leap than he did.

On the surface everything seemed to be going al’Thor’s way at the moment, except for whatever held him in Caemlyn, but Niall had always been at his most dangerous when he was outnumbered and with his back to the wall.

If the rumors could be believed, Carridin was doing well in Altara and Murandy, though not as quickly as Niall would have liked. Time was as much an enemy as al’Thor or the Tower. Yet even if Carridin was only doing well in the rumors, that should be enough. Perhaps it was time to extend the “Dragonsworn” into Andor. Perhaps Illian, as well, though if the army gathering in Tear was not enough to show Mattin Stepaneos the path, a few farms and villages raided would hardly make a difference. The size of that army horrified Niall; if it was half what Balwer reported, a quarter, it still horrified him. Nothing like it had been seen since Artur Hawkwing’s day. Rather than frighten men into joining Niall, an army like that might intimidate them into falling in behind the Dragon banner. Could he have found a year, just half a year, he would have accounted it worth al’Thor’s whole army of fools and villains and Aiel savages.

All was not lost, of course. All was never lost as long as you were alive. Tarabon and Arad Doman were as useless to al’Thor and the witches as to him, two pits full of scorpions; only a fool would put a hand in there until more of the scorpions killed one another off. If Saldaea was lost, which he would not concede, Shienar and Arafel and Kandor still hung in the balance, and balances could be tipped. If Mattin Stepaneos wanted to ride two horses at once—he had always liked to try that—he could yet be forced to choose the right one. Altara and Murandy would be prodded to the proper side, and Andor would drop into his hand whether or not he decided a touch of Carridin’s whip was required. In Tear, Balwer’s agents had convinced Tedosian and Estanda to join Darlin, turning a show of defiance into real rebellion, and the man was confident the same could be done in Cairhien, and in Andor. Another month, two at the outside, and Eamon Valda would arrive from Tar Valon; Niall could have done without Valda, but then the great majority of the Children’s strength would be in one spot, ready to use where it could do the most good.

Yes, he had a good deal on his side yet. Nothing had solidified, but everything coalesced. Time was all that was needed.

Realizing he still held the bone cylinder, he cracked the wax seal with a thumbnail and carefully drew out the thin paper rolled up inside.

Balwer said nothing, but his mouth compressed again, not in a smile this time. Omerna he put up with, knowing the man a fool, much preferring to remain hidden himself, but he did not like Niall receiving reports that bypassed him, from men he did not know.

A tiny, spidery scrawl covered the slip in a cipher that few besides Niall knew, none of them in Amador. For him, reading it was as easy as reading his own hand. The sign at the bottom made him blink, and so did the contents. Varadin was, or had been, one of the best of his personal agents, a rug seller who did good service during the Troubles while peddling his wares through Altara, Murandy and Illian. What he earned there had set him up as a wealthy merchant in Tanchico, regularly supplying fine carpets and wines to the palaces of King and Panarch, as well as to most of the nobles of their courts, and always leaving with his eyes and ears full. Niall had thought him long since dead in the upheaval there; this was the first word from him in a year. From what Varadin wrote, it would have been better if he truly had been a year dead. In the jerky hand of a man on the brink of madness, it was a wild disjointed ramble about men riding strange beasts and flying creatures, Aes Sedai on leashes and the Hailene. That meant Forerunners in the Old Tongue, but there was not even an attempt to explain why Varadin was terrified of them or who they were supposed to be. Plainly the man had taken a brain fever from watching his country disintegrate around him.

Annoyed, Niall crumpled the paper and threw it aside. “First I must sit through Omerna’s idiocy and now this. What else do you have for me, Balwer?” Bashere. Matters could become nasty with Bashere to general al’Thor’s armies. The man had earned his reputation. A dagger in the shadows for him?

Balwer’s eyes never left Niall’s face by so much as a flicker, but Niall knew the tiny ball of paper on the floor would end up in the man’s hands unless he burned it. “Four things that might be of interest, my Lord. The least first. The rumors about meetings between the Ogier stedding are true. For Ogier, they seem to be showing some haste.” He did not say what the meetings were about, of course; getting a human into an Ogier Stump was as impossible as getting an Ogier to spy. Easier to have the sun rise at night. “Also, there are an unusual number of Sea Folk ships in the southern ports, not taking cargo, not sailing.”

“What are they waiting for?”

For a moment Balwer’s mouth tightened as though drawstrings had been pulled shut. “I do not know yet, my Lord.” Balwer never liked admitting there were any human secrets he could not ferret out. Trying to learn more than the surface of what went on among the Atha’an Miere was like trying to learn how the Guild of Illuminators made fireworks, an exercise in futility. At least the Ogier might eventually make known the decisions of their meetings.


“The news of middling interest is ... peculiar, my Lord. Al’Thor has reliably been reported in Caemlyn, in Tear and in Cairhien, sometimes on the same day.”

“Reliably? Reliable madness. The witches probably have two or three men who look like al’Thor, enough to fool anyone who doesn’t know him. That would explain a good deal.”

“Perhaps, my Lord. My informants are reliable.”

Niall slapped the leather folder closed, hiding al’Thor’s face. “And the news of greatest interest?”

“I have it from two sources in Altara—reliable sources, my Lord—that the witches in Salidar claim the Red Ajah encouraged Logain to become a false Dragon. All but created him, in fact. They have Logain in Salidar—or a man they say is Logain—and are showing him to nobles they bring there. I have no proof, but I suspect they are telling the same tale to any ruler they can reach.”

Frowning, Niall studied the banners overhead. Those represented enemies from nearly every land; no one had ever defeated him twice, and few once. The banners were all faded with age, now. Like him. Yet he was not too faded to see an end to what he had begun. Every banner taken in bloody battle, where you never really knew what was happening beyond sight of your own eyes, where certain victory and certain defeat could be equally ephemeral. The worst battle he had ever fought, armies blundering into one another in the night near Moisen, during the Troubles, had been clear as a bright summer’s day compared to the one he fought now.

Could he have been wrong? Could the Tower really be broken? A struggle of some sort between the Ajahs? Over what? Al’Thor? If the witches were fighting among themselves, there would be many in the Children ready to advocate Carridin’s solution, a strike to destroy Salidar and as many of the witches as possible. Men who believed thinking of tomorrow was thinking ahead but never considered next week or next month, let alone next year. Valda, for one; perhaps it was just as well he had not reached Amador yet. For another, Rhadam Asunawa, the High Inquisitor of the Questioners. Valda always wanted to use an axe, even when a poniard was best for the task at hand. Asunawa just wanted every woman who had ever spent a night in the Tower hanged as of yesterday, every book that mentioned Aes Sedai or the One Power burned, and the words themselves banned. Asunawa never had a thought beyond those goals, nor a care for costs. Niall had worked too hard, risked too much, to allow this to become a struggle between the Children and the Tower in the eyes of the world.

In truth, it did not matter whether he was wrong. If he was, it still could be very much to his advantage. Perhaps more than if he was right. With a little luck, he could shatter the White Tower past repairing, splinter the witches into shards easily ground to dust. Al’Thor would surely falter then, while remaining enough of a threat to be used as a goad. And he could hold closely to the truth. Fairly closely.

Without taking his eyes from the banners, he said, “The split in the Tower is real. The Black Ajah rose up, the victors hold the Tower and the losers were driven out to lick their wounds in Salidar.” He looked at Balwer, and nearly smiled. One of the Children would have been protesting that there was no Black Ajah, or rather that all the witches were Darkfriends; the newest recruit would have. Balwer merely looked at him, not at all as if he had just blasphemed against all the Children stood for. “The only decision to make is whether the Black Ajah won or lost. I think they won. Most people will think of whoever holds the Tower as the real Aes Sedai. Let them associate real Aes Sedai with Black Ajah. Al’Thor is a creature of the Tower, a vassal of the Black Ajah.” Lifting his winecup from the table, he took a sip; it did not help the heat. “Perhaps I can fit it in with why I haven’t moved against Salidar yet.” Through his emissaries, he had been using the failure to move as proof of how dire he saw the threat from al’Thor; he was willing to let the witches congregate on Amadicia’s doorstep rather than be diverted from the danger of the false Dragon. “The women there, appalled after all these years at how pervasive the Black Ajah is, repelled at last by the evil they’ve been immersed in...” His inventiveness ran out—they were all servants of the Dark One; what evil could repel them?—but after a moment Balwer took it up.

“Perhaps they’ve decided to throw themselves on my Lord’s mercy, even ask my Lord’s protection. Losers in a rebellion, weaker than their enemies, fearing to be crushed; a man falling off a cliff to certain death will stretch out a hand even to his worst enemy. Perhaps...” Balwer tapped bony fingers against his lips in thought. “Perhaps they are ready to repent their sins and renounce being Aes Sedai?”

Niall stared at him. He suspected the Tar Valon witches’ sins were among the things Balwer did not believe in. “That is absurd,” he said flatly. “It’s the sort of thing I might expect from Omerna.”

His secretary’s face remained as prim as ever, but he began dry-washing his hands the way he did when he felt insulted. “What my Lord might expect to hear from him, but just the sort of thing that will be repeated where he does most of his listening, in the streets and where nobles gossip over wine. Absurdities are never laughed at there; only listened to. What is too absurd to believe is believed because it is too absurd to be a lie.”

“How would you present it? I will start no rumor of the Children dealing with witches.”

“It would only be rumor, my Lord.” Niall’s gaze hardened, and Balwer spread his hands. “As my Lord wishes. Each retelling always adds embellishment, so a simple tale has the best chance of the core surviving. I suggest four rumors, my lord, not one. The first, that the division in the Tower was caused by a Black Ajah uprising. The second, that the Black Ajah won, and control the Tower. Third, the Aes Sedai in Salidar, repelled and horrified, are renouncing being Aes Sedai. And fourth, they have approached you, seeking mercy and protection. For most people, each will be a confirmation of the others.” Tugging on his lapels, Balwer gave a narrow self-satisfied smile.

“Very good, Balwer. Let it be so.” Niall took a deeper drink of wine. The heat was making him feel his age. His bones seemed brittle. But he would last long enough to see the false Dragon put down and the world united to face Tarmon Gai’don. Even if he did not live to lead in the Last Battle, the Light would surely grant him that much. “And I want Elayne Trakand and her brother Gawyn found, Balwer, and brought to Amador. See to it. You may leave me now.”

Instead of going, Balwer hesitated. “My Lord knows I never suggest any course of action.”

“But you mean to suggest one now? What is it?”

“Press Morgase, my Lord. More than a month has passed, and she still considers my Lord’s proposal. She—”

“Enough, Balwer.” Niall sighed. Sometimes he wished Balwer were not an Amadician, but a Cairhienin who had taken in the Game of Houses with his mother’s milk. “Morgase is more committed to me every day, whatever she believes. I would like it better had she accepted immediately—I could have Andor raised against al’Thor today, with a thick leavening of Children to stiffen it—but every day that she remains my guest ties her to me more tightly. Eventually she will discover she is allied to me because the world believes she is, tangled so tightly she can never escape. And no one will ever be able to say I coerced her, Balwer. That is important. It is always harder to abandon an alliance the world thinks you entered freely than one you can prove you were forced into. Reckless haste leads to ruin, Balwer.”

“As my Lord says.”

Niall gestured a dismissal, and the man bowed his way out. Balwer did not understand. Morgase was a rugged opponent. Pressed too hard, she would turn and fight whatever the odds. Yet pressed just hard enough, she would fight the enemy she thought she saw and never see the trap building around her until it was too late. Time pressed down on him, all the years he had lived, all the months he desperately needed, but he would not let haste ruin his plans.

The stooping falcon struck the large duck in an explosion of feathers, and the two birds separated, the duck tumbling toward the ground. Banking sharply in the cloudless sky, the falcon swooped back onto her falling prey, clutched it in her talons. The weight of the duck burdened her, but she struggled back toward the people waiting below.

Morgase wondered whether she was like the falcon, too proud and too determined to realize when she had latched on to a prize too heavy for her wings to support. She tried to make her gloved hands loosen their grip on her reins. Her wide-brimmed white hat, with its long white plumes, provided a little protection from the unrelenting sun, but sweat beaded on her face. In a riding dress of green silk embroidered in gold, she did not look a prisoner.

Figures mounted and afoot filled the long pasture of dried brown grass, though they did not crowd it. A cluster of musicians in white-embroidered blue tabards, with flutes and bitterns and tambours, produced a light tune suitable for an afternoon over chilled wine. A dozen handlers in long, elaborately worked leather vests over billowing white shirts stroked hooded falcons perched on their gauntleted arms, or puffed short pipes and blew streams of blue smoke at their birds. Twice as many brightly liveried servants moved about with fruits and wine in golden gob lets on golden trays, and a band of men clad in bright mail encircled the pasture just short of the largely bare-branched trees. All in aid of Morgase and her retinue, to ensure their hawking went safely.

Well, that was the reason given, though the Prophet’s people were a good two hundred miles north and brigands seemed unlikely this close to Amador. And despite the women clustered around her on their mares and geldings, in bright silk riding dresses and wide-brimmed hats resplendent with colored plumes, their hair in the long ringlets currently in fashion in the Amadician court, Morgase’s retinue in truth consisted of Basel Gill, awkward on his horse off to one side, with his jerkin of metal discs straining around his girth over the red silk coat she had procured him so he would not be outshone by the servants, and Paitr Conel, even more awkward in a page’s red-and-white coat and displaying the nervousness he had shown since she added him to her party. The women were nobles from Ailron’s court, “volunteers” to be Morgase’s ladies-in-waiting. Poor Master Gill fingered his sword and eyed the Whitecloak guards disconsolately. That was what they were, though, as usual when escorting her out of the Fortress of Light, not wearing their white cloaks. And they were guards. If she tried to ride too far or remain out too long, their commander, a hard-eyed young man named Norowhin who hated pretending to be other than a Whitecloak, would “suggest” that she return to Amador because the heat was growing too great, or because of a sudden rumor of bandits in the area. There was no arguing with fifty armored men, not with any dignity. Norowhin had come within a hair of taking her reins from her the first time. That was the reason she never let Tallanvor accompany her on these rides. That young fool might insist on her honor and rights if there were a hundred men against him. He spent his spare hours practicing the sword as though he expected to carve a way to freedom for her.

Startlingly a sudden breeze brushed her face, and she realized that Laurain had leaned from her saddle to fan her with a white lace fan. A slender young woman with dark eyes set slightly too close together, Laurain wore a permanent simper. “It must be so gratifying for Your Majesty to learn that her son has joined the Children of the Light. And to have attained rank so quickly.”

“That should be no surprise,” Altalin said, fanning her own plump face. “Her Majesty’s son would of course rise quickly, as the sun in splendor does.” She basked in the appreciative murmurs from some of the other women for her pitiful pun.

Morgase kept her face smooth with difficulty. Niall’s news last evening, during one of his surprise visits, had come as a shock. Galad a Whitecloak! At least he was safe, so Niall said. But unable to visit her; the duties of a Child of the Light kept him away. But assuredly he would be part of her escort when she returned to Andor at the head of an army of the Children.

No, Galad was no more safe than Elayne or Gawyn. Perhaps less. The Light send that Elayne was secure in the White Tower. The Light send that Gawyn was alive; Niall claimed not to know where he was, except that he was not in Tar Valon. Galad was a knife to her throat. Niall would never be so crude as to even suggest it, but one simple order from him could send Galad where he would surely die. The one protection he had was that Niall might think she did not care as much for him as for Elayne and Gawyn.

“I am pleased for him if it is what he seeks,” she told them in an indifferent tone. “But he is Taringail’s son, not mine, Taringail was a marriage of state, you understand. Strange, but he has been dead so long, I can hardly recall his face. Galad is free to do as he will. It is Gawyn who will be First Prince of the Sword when Elayne follows me on the Lion Throne.” She waved away a servant with a goblet on a tray. “Niall could at least have provided us with decent wine.” A wave of anxious titters answered her. She had had some success in drawing them closer to her, yet none could be easy about offending Pedron Niall, not where it might get back to him. Morgase took every opportunity to do so in their hearing. It convinced them of her bravery, important if she was to gain even partial allegiance. Perhaps more importantly, for her own mind at least, it helped maintain the illusion that she was not Niall’s prisoner.

“I hear that Rand al’Thor displays the Lion Throne like a trophy from the hunt.” That was Marande, a pretty woman with a heart-shaped face, somewhat older than the others. The sister of the High Seat of House Algoran, she was powerful in her own right, perhaps powerful enough to have resisted Ailron, but not Niall. The others reined their mounts aside for her to heel her bay gelding closer to Morgase. There was no question of gaining any sort of allegiance or friendship from Marande.

“I have heard as much,” Morgase replied blithely. “The lion is a dangerous animal to hunt, and the Lion Throne more so. Especially for a man. It always kills men who seek it.”

Marande smiled. “I also hear he gives high places to men who can channel.”

That produced uneasy glances among the other women, and a worried buzz. One of the younger women, Marewin, slight and little more than a girl, swayed in her high-cantled saddle as if she might faint. News of al’Thor’s amnesty had spawned frightening tales; rumors only, Morgase fervently hoped. The Light send it was all rumor, men who could channel gathering in Caemlyn, carousing in the Royal Palace, terrorizing the city.

“You hear a great deal,” Morgase said. “Do you spend all your time listening at cracked doors?”

Marande’s smile deepened. She had been unable to resist pressure to become one of Morgase’s attendants, but she was powerful enough to show her displeasure without fear. She was like a thorn driven deep into the foot, impossible to dislodge and giving a sharp jab at every step. “I have little time left from the pleasure of serving Your Majesty to listen anywhere, but I do try to catch what news I can of Andor. So I may converse with Your Majesty. I hear the false Dragon consorts daily with Andoran nobles. Lady Arymilla and Lady Naean, Lord Jarid and Lord Lir. Others, friends of theirs.”

One of the falconers lifted a hooded, sleek gray bird with black wings up to Morgase. Silver bells on the falcon’s jesses tinkled as she shifted on the handler’s gauntlet.

“Thank you, but I have had enough of hawking for today,” Morgase told him, then raised her voice. “Master Gill, gather the escort. I am returning to the city.”

Gill gave a start. He knew very well that all he was there for was to ride at her heels, but he began waving and shouting orders to the Whitecloaks as if he believed they would obey. For her part, Morgase turned her black mare immediately. She did not take the animal faster than a walk, of course. Norowhin would have been on her like a flash if he saw a possibility she was considering escape.

As it was, the cloakless Whitecloaks were galloping to form up their escort before the mare had gone ten steps, and before she reached the edge of the meadow, Norowhin was at her side, a dozen men ahead and the rest close behind. The servants and musicians and falconers were left to gather themselves up and follow as quickly as they could.

Gill and Paitr took their places behind her, and then came the ladies-in-waiting. Marande wore her smile like a badge of triumph now, though some of the others frowned in disapproval. Not too openly—even if she had had to yield to Niall, the woman was a force to be reckoned with in Amadicia—but most of them did try to do their best at a task they did not want. For the greater part they would likely have attended Morgase willingly; it was residing inside the Fortress of the Light they did not like.

Morgase would have smiled herself if she could be sure Marande would not see it. The only reason she had not insisted weeks ago that the woman be sent away was how free she was with her tongue. Marande enjoyed pricking her with how far Andor had fallen from her grasp, but the names she chose were a balm to Morgase. All men and women who had opposed her during the Succession, all sycophants of Gaebril. She expected no less of them, and no more. Had Marande named others, the result would have been different. Lord Pelivar or Abelle or Luan, Lady Arathelle or Ellorien or Aemlyn. Others. They had never been part of Marande’s stabs, and they would have been if even a whisper from Andor had made her think of them. So long as Marande did not mention them, there was at least hope that they had not knelt to al’Thor. They had supported Morgase’s first claim to the throne, and they might yet again, the Light willing.

Nearly leafless forest gave way to a road of hard-packed dirt, and they took it south toward Amador. Stretches of woods alternated with coppiced trees and fallow stone-fenced fields, with thatch-roofed stone houses and barns standing well back from the road. A good many people crowded the way, raising dust that made Morgase tie a silk kerchief across her face, though they scrambled aside onto the verge at the first glimpse of such a large party of armed and armored men. Some even darted into the trees or leaped fences and scurried across the fields. The Whitecloaks ignored them, and no farmers appeared to shake a fist or shout at the trespassers. Several of the farms had an abandoned look, with no chickens or animals in sight.

Among the people on the road there was an ox-cart here, a man with a few sheep there, somewhere else a young woman herding a flock of geese. Plainly they were all local people. Some had a bundle shouldered or a fat scrip, but most were empty-handed, walking as if with no idea where they were going. The numbers of the latter sort had increased every time Morgase had been allowed to leave Amador, no matter in which direction.

Adjusting the kerchief over her nose, Morgase eyed Norowhin sideways. He was about Tallanvor’s age and height, but there the resemblance ended. Red-faced under his burnished conical helmet and peeling from the sun, he had never been handsome. A lanky build and a thrusting nose made her think of a pickaxe. Every time she left the Fortress of the Light, he led her “escort,” and every time she tried to engage him in conversation. Whitecloak or not, every inch she could shift him from being her jailor was a victory. “Are these people refugees from the Prophet, Norowhin?” They could not all be; as many were heading north as south.

“No,” he said curtly, without even glancing at her. His eyes scanned the roadsides as if he expected a rescue to appear for her any moment.

That, unfortunately, was the sort of response she had had so far, but she persevered. “Who are they, men? Not Taraboners, surely. You do a very good job of moving them on.” She had seen a party of Taraboners, fifty or so men, women and children, dirty and half falling with weariness, being herded west like cattle by mounted Whitecloaks. Only the bitter knowledge that she could do absolutely nothing had enabled her to hold her tongue. “Amadicia is a rich land. Even this drought cannot have driven so many from their farms in just a few months.”

Norowhin’s face worked. “No,” he said finally. “They are refugees from the false Dragon.”

“But how? He is hundreds of leagues from Amadicia.”

Again a struggle was plain on the man’s sunburned face, either for words or against speaking. “They believe he is the true Dragon Reborn,” he said at last, sounding disgusted. “They say he has broken all bonds, according to the Prophecies. Men forsake their lords, apprentices desert their masters. Husbands abandon their families, and wives their husbands. It is a plague carried on the wind, a wind that blows from the false Dragon.”

Morgase’s eyes fell on a young man and woman huddled in each other’s arms, watching her party pass. Sweat streaked the dirt on their faces, and dust coated their plain clothes. They looked hungry, their cheeks sunken, their eyes too big. Could this be happening in Andor? Had Rand al’Thor done this to Andor too? If he has, he will pay. The problem was making sure the cure was not worse than the disease. To deliver Andor, even from this, and hand it to the Whitecloaks...

She tried to keep the conversation going, but having delivered himself of more words than he had ever before spoken to her at one time, Norowhin retreated into monosyllables. It did not matter; if she could crack his reserve once, she could again.

Twisting in her saddle, she tried to see the young man and woman, but they were hidden behind the Whitecloak soldiers. That did not matter either. Those faces would reside in her memory, alongside her promise.

A Saying in the Borderlands

For a moment Rand wished for the days when he could have strolled the Palace corridors alone. This morning he was accompanied by Sulin and twenty Maidens, by Bael, clan chief of the Goshien Aiel, with half a dozen Sovin Nai, Knife Hands, from the Jhirad Goshien for Bael’s honor, and by Bashere with as many of his hawk-nosed Saldaeans. They crowded the broad, tapestry-hung hallway, the cadin’sor-clad Far Dareis Mai and Sovin Nai staring through servants who bowed or curtsied hastily and got out of the way, and the younger Saldaeans swaggering in their short coats and their baggy breeches tucked into their boots. It was hot even here in the shaded passage, and dust motes danced in the air. Some of the servants wore the red-and-white livery they had worn when Morgase ruled, but most were new, garbed in whatever they had on when they came applying for the job, a motley collection of farmers’ and tradesmen’s woolens, mainly dark and plain but running the range of colors, with here and there splashes of embroidery or bits of lace.

Rand made a mental note to have Mistress Harfor, the First Maid, find livery enough to go around, so the newcomers would not feel required to work in their best clothes. Palace livery was certainly finer than anything country folk had except perhaps for feastdays. The servants numbered fewer than in Morgase’s day, and a good many of the red-and-white attired men and women were gray and stooped, out of the pensioners’ quarters. Instead of fleeing when so many others did, they had quit their retirement rather than see the palace become run down. Another mental note. Have Mistress Harfor—First Maid was an unprepossessing title, but Reene Harfor ran the Royal Palace day-to-day—find enough servants so these oldsters could enjoy their pensions. Were the pensions still being paid with Morgase dead? He should have thought of that before; Halwin Norry, the chief clerk, would know. It was like being beaten to death with feathers. Everything reminded him of something else to be done. The Ways; that was no feather. He had the Waygate here in Caemlyn under guard, and those near Tear and Cairhien, but he could not even be sure how many more there were.

Yes, he would have traded all the bows and curtsies, all the honor guards, all the questions and burdens, all the people whose needs had to be met, for the days when he had to worry about providing a coat for himself. Of course, in those days he would not have been allowed to stroll these corridors at all, certainly not without a different sort of guard, one to make sure he did not slip a silver-and-gold chalice from its niche in the wall, or an ivory carving from a lapis-inlaid table.

At least Lews Therin’s voice was not muttering at him this morning. At least he seemed to be getting the way of the mental trick Taim had shown him; sweat trickled down Bashere’s face, but the heat hardly touched Rand. He wore his silver-embroidered coat of gray silk buttoned to the neck, and if he felt a little warm, he did not sweat a drop. Taim assured him that in time he would not even feel heat or cold great enough to disable another man. It was a matter of distancing from himself, of concentrating inward, a little like the way he prepared to embrace saidin. Strange that it should be so close to the Power yet have nothing to do with it at all. Did Aes Sedai do the same? He had never seen one sweat. Had he?

Abruptly he laughed out loud. Wondering whether Aes Sedai ever sweated! Maybe he was not mad yet, but he could pass fair for a wool-headed fool.

“Did I say something funny?” Bashere asked dryly, knuckling his mustaches. Some of the Maidens looked at him expectantly; they were making an effort to understand wetlander humor.

How Bashere kept his equanimity, Rand did not know. A rumor had reached the Palace that very morning, of fighting in the Borderlands, between Borderlanders. Travelers’ tales sprang up like weeds after rain, but this had come from the north, apparently with merchants who had been at least as far as Tar Valon. Nothing in it said where or who exactly. Saldaea was as likely as anywhere else, and Bashere had had no word from there since he left months ago, yet he might have heard that the price of turnips had risen for all the effect the rumor had had on him.

Of course, Rand knew nothing of what was going on in the Two Rivers either—unless vague mutters of an uprising somewhere in the west touched his home; in these days, that could be anything or nothing—but it was not the same for him. He had abandoned the Two Rivers. Aes Sedai had spies everywhere, and he would not wager a copper that the Forsaken did not as well. The Dragon Reborn had no interest in the flyspeck village where Rand al’Thor had grown up; he was far beyond that. If he was not, then Emond’s Field was a hostage to use against him. Still, he would not split hairs with himself. Abandonment was abandonment.

If I could find a way to escape my destiny, do I deserve to? That was his own thought, not Lews Therin’s.

Shifting shoulders that suddenly seemed to ache dully, he kept his voice light. “Forgive me, Bashere. Something odd just occurred to me, but I have been listening. You were saying Caemlyn is filling up. For every man who ran away because he was afraid of the false Dragon, two have come because I’m not, and he isn’t. You see?”

Bashere grunted, which might have meant anything.

“How many have come for other reasons, Rand al’Thor?” Bael was the tallest man Rand had ever seen, a good hand taller than Rand himself. He made an odd contrast with Bashere, who stood shorter than any of the Maidens except Enaila. Gray streaked thickly through Bael’s dark reddish hair, but his face was lean and hard, his blue eyes sharp. “You have enemies enough for a hundred men. Mark me, they will try to strike at you again. There could even be Shadowrunners among them.”

“Even if there are no Darkfriends,” Bashere put in, “trouble brews in the city like tea left on the boil. A number of people have been severely beaten, evidently for doubting you’re the Dragon Reborn, and one poor fellow was hauled from a tavern into a barn and hanged from the rafters for laughing at your miracles.”

“My miracles?” Rand said incredulously.

A wrinkled, white-haired serving man in a too-large coat of livery, with a large vase in his hands, trying to bow and step out of the way at the same time, tripped on his heel and fell backward. The pale green vase, paper-thin Sea Folk porcelain, flew over his head and went tumbling end-over-end across the dark red floor tiles, spinning and bouncing until it came to rest, upright, thirty or so paces down the hall. The old man scrambled to his feet with surprising spryness and ran to snatch up the vase, running his hands over it and exclaiming in disbelief as much as relief when he found not a chip or a crack. Other servants stared with just as much incredulity, before abruptly coming to themselves and hurrying on about their tasks. They avoided looking at Rand so hard that several forgot to bow or curtsy.

Bashere and Bael exchanged looks, and Bashere blew out his thick mustaches.

“Strange occurrences, then,” he said. “Every day there’s another story about a child falling headfirst onto paving stones from a window forty feet up, without so much as a single bruise. Or a grandmother getting in the way of two dozen runaway horses, only somehow they don’t even buffet her, much less knock her down and trample her. Some fellow threw five crowns twenty-two times straight at dice the other day, and they lay that at your feet, too. Luckily for him.”

“It is said,” Bael added, “that yesterday a basket of roof tiles fell from a roof and landed in the street unbroken in the shape of the ancient symbol of the Aes Sedai.” He glanced at the openmouthed white-haired servant, clutching the vase to his chest as they passed. “I do not doubt that it did.”

Rand exhaled slowly. They did not mention the other sort, of course. The man who stumbled on a step and was hanged when his kerchief caught on the door latch. The loose slate ripped from a roof by a high wind that sailed through an open window and a doorway to kill a woman sitting at table with her family. The sort of thing that did happen, but rarely. Only such things were not rare around him. For good or ill, for ill as often as good, he twisted chance merely by being within a few miles. No, if the Dragons disappeared from his arms and the branded herons from his palms, he was still marked. There was a saying in the Borderlands: “Duty is heavier than a mountain, death lighter than a feather.” Once you had that mountain firmly on your shoulders, there was no way to put it down. There was no one else to carry it anyway, and no use whining about it.

He made his voice brisk. “Have you found the men who did the hanging?” Bashere shook his head. “Then find them, and arrest them for murder. I want a stop put to this. Doubting me isn’t a crime.” Rumor said the Prophet had made it one, but there was nothing he could do about that yet. He did not even know where Masema was, beyond somewhere in Ghealdan or Amadicia. If he had not gone elsewhere meantime. Yet another note chalked up in his head; he had to find the man and rein him somehow.

“No matter how far it goes?” Bashere said. “There are whispers you’re a false Dragon who killed Morgase with Aes Sedai help. The people are supposed to rise up against you and avenge their queen. There may be more than one someone. It isn’t clear.”

Rand’s face hardened. The first part he could live with—he had to; there were too many variations to stamp out however many times he denied it—but he would not tolerate incitement to rebellion. Andor would be one land he did not split apart in war. He would give Elayne a land as unblemished as it had come to him. If he ever found her, he would. “Find who began it,” he said harshly, “and toss them in prison.” Light, how to find who started a whisper? “If they seek pardon, they can ask Elayne for it.” A young serving woman in a rough brown dress, dusting a blue spun-glass bowl, caught sight of his face, and the bowl dropped from her suddenly shaking hands and shattered. He did not always alter chance. “Is there any good news? I could do with some.”

The young woman bent unsteadily to gather up the shards of the bowl, but Sulin glanced at her, just glanced, and she sprang back, flattening herself wide-eyed against a tapestry showing a leopard hunt. Rand did not understand it, but some women seemed more frightened of the Maidens than they did of Aiel men. The young woman looked at Bael as if hoping he would protect her. He did not appear to see her at all.

“That depends on how you define good news.” Bashere shrugged. “I’ve learned that Ellorien of House Traemane and Pelivar of House Coelan entered the city three days ago. Sneaked in, you might say, and neither has come near the Inner City that I’ve heard. Talk in the streets has Dyelin of House Taravin in the country nearby. None of them has responded to your invitations. I’ve heard nothing to connect any of them to the whispers.” He glanced at Bael, who gave a slight shake of his head.

“We hear less than you, Davram Bashere. These people speak more freely around other wetlanders.”

It was good news in any case. Those were people Rand needed. If they believed him a false Dragon, he could find a way around that. If they believed he had killed Morgase... Well, so much the better if they remained loyal to her memory, and her blood. “Send them fresh invitations to visit me. Include Dyelin’s name; they may know where she is.”

“If I send such an invitation,” Bashere said doubtfully, “it may do no more than remind them there’s a Saldaean army in Andor.”

Rand hesitated, then nodded, suddenly grinning. “Ask the Lady Arymilla to carry it. I don’t doubt she’ll leap at the chance to show them how close she is to me. But you write it out.” Moiraine’s lessons in playing the Game of Houses were coming in useful once more.

“I do not know whether it is good news or bad,” Bael said, “but the Red Shields tell me two Aes Sedai have taken rooms at an inn in the New City.” The Red Shields had been helping Bashere’s men police Caemlyn and were now taking it over alone. Bael grinned slightly at the chagrin on Bashere’s face. “We hear less, Davram Bashere, but perhaps sometimes we see more.”

“Is one of them our friend who likes cats?” Rand asked. The stories of an Aes Sedai in the city persisted; sometimes there were two, or three, or a whole party. The closest Bashere or Bael had come to anything at all, though, were a few stories of an Aes Sedai who Healed dogs and cats, but always the next street over, told by someone who had been told by someone who had heard it in a tavern or in the market.

Bael shook his head. “I do not think so. The Red Shields said these two seem to have arrived in the night.” Bashere looked interested—he seldom let an opportunity pass to repeat that Rand needed Aes Sedai—but Bael was frowning slightly, so slightly it would not have been noticeable on anyone but an Aiel. Aiel were careful in their dealings with Aes Sedai, even reluctant.

Those few words contained plenty for Rand to think on, and every path came back to himself. Two Aes Sedai had to have a reason to come into Caemlyn, when their sisters were avoiding the city since he appeared there. The most likely reason was something to do with him. In the best of times few people journeyed by night, and these were not the best times. Aes Sedai arriving in the dark might be trying to avoid notice, and the most likely notice for them to avoid was his. On the other hand, they might just be going somewhere urgently. Which could spell a mission for the Tower. The truth of it was, he could not think what might be more important to the Tower right now than himself. Or they might be on their way to join the Aes Sedai that Egwene insisted were going to support him.

Whatever it was, he wanted to know. The Light alone knew what the Aes Sedai were up to—the Tower or Elayne’s hidden lot—but he had to find out. There were too many of them, and they could be too dangerous, for him not to. How would the Tower react when Elaida learned of his amnesty? How would any Aes Sedai? Had they heard yet?

As they approached the doors at the end of the corridor, he opened his mouth to tell Bael to ask one of the Aes Sedai to come to the Palace. He could handle two Aes Sedai if it came to that—so long as they did not catch him by surprise—but there was no point taking chances until he knew who they were and what they were about.

Pride fills me. I am sick with the pride that destroyed me!

Rand missed a step. That was the first time today that Lews Therin’s voice had spoken inside his head—and too much like a comment on his thoughts of Aes Sedai for comfort—but it was not what made him swallow what he had been going to say and stop dead.

Because of the heat the doors stood open, giving out into one of the Palace gardens. The flowers were gone, and some of the rose and whitestar bushes looked wilted, but the shade trees still stood, if with few leaves, around the white marble fountain that splashed in the garden’s heart. A woman in bulky brown wool skirts and a loose white algode blouse stood beside the fountain, a gray shawl looped over her arms, staring in wonder as she often did at water with no use except to be looked at. Rand’s eyes drank in the lines of Aviendha’s face, the waves of reddish hair falling to her shoulders from the folded gray scarf fastened around her temples. Light but she was beautiful. Studying the spray of water, she had not seen him yet.

Did he love her? He did not know. She was all tangled in his head and his dreams with Elayne, and even Min. What he did know was that he was dangerous; he had nothing to offer any woman except pain.

Ilyena, Lews Therin wept. I killed her! The Light consume me forever!

“A pair of Aes Sedai showing up like that might be important,” Rand said quietly. “I think I should visit this inn and see why they’re here.” Almost everyone stopped when he did, but Enaila and Jalani exchanged glances and kept on right past him toward the garden. He raised his voice a fraction and hardened it considerably more. “The Maidens here will come with me. Anyone who wants to put on a dress and discuss matchmaking can stay behind.”

Enaila and Jalani stiffened and spun to face him, indignation lighting their eyes. A good thing Somara was not in today’s guard; she might have gone on anyway. Sulin’s fingers flashed in Maiden handtalk, and whatever she had to say, it quenched indignation and set embarrassed flames in the two Maidens’ cheeks instead. The Aiel had all sorts of hand signals for when silence was best. Every clan had its private set, and every society as well, besides which there were those all the Aiel knew, but only the Maidens had made a language of them.

Rand did not wait for Sulin to finish before turning away from the garden. These Aes Sedai might leave Caemlyn as quickly as they had come. He glanced over his shoulder. Aviendha was still staring at the water; she had not seen him. He quickened his step. “Bashere, would you send one of your men to have horses readied? At the South Stable Gate.” The main gates of the Palace opened onto the Queen’s Plaza, which would be full of people hoping for a glimpse of him. It would have taken half an hour to make a way through, if he was lucky.

Bashere motioned, and one of the younger Saldaeans loped ahead in that rolling stride of a man more used to a saddle. “A man must know when to retreat from a woman,” Bashere said to the air, “but a wise man knows that sometimes he must stand and face her.”

“Young men,” Bael said indulgently. “A young man chases shadows and runs from moonlight, and in the end he stabs himself in the foot with his own spear.” Some of the other Aiel chuckled, Maidens and Knife Hands alike. The older ones did.

Irritated, Rand looked over his shoulder again. “Neither of you would look well in a dress.” Surprisingly, the Maidens and Knife Hands laughed again, more loudly. Maybe he was getting a grip on Aiel humor.

It was as he expected when he rode out of the South Stable Gate into one of the Inner City’s curving streets. Jeade’en’s hooves rang on the paving stones as the stallion frisked; the dapple seldom got out of the stable of late. There were plenty of people in the street, but nowhere near the numbers to be expected on the other side of the Palace and all going about their own business. Even so, fingers pointed, and people leaned close to one another, murmuring. Some might have recognized Bashere—unlike Rand, he had been out and about in the city often—but anybody emerging from the Palace, especially with an escort of trotting Aiel, had to be important. The murmurs and pointing fingers followed.

Despite the stares, Rand tried to enjoy the beauties of the Ogier-built Inner City. The few occasions he found to just enjoy anything were precious. Streets curved out from the shining white Royal Palace, flowing along the contours of the hills like a part of the land. Everywhere stood slender towers covered in colored tiles, or domes of gold or purple or white, sparkling in the sunlight. Here a line of sight had been left clear to give a view of tree-filled park, there a rise threw the eyes across the city to the rolling plains and forests beyond the tall silver-streaked white wall that enclosed all of Caemlyn. The Inner City had been laid out to delight and soothe the eye. According to the Ogier, only Tar Valon itself and storied Manetheren had ever surpassed it, and many humans, Andorans foremost among them, believed that Caemlyn matched either.

The pure white walls of the Inner City marked the beginning of the surrounding New City, with its own domes and spires, some trying to match the height of those in the Inner City on its higher hills. Here the narrower streets were packed full of humanity, and even the broad boulevards, split down the middle by tree-lined expanses, were filled with people and ox-carts and horse-drawn wagons, folk on horseback and in carriages and sedan chairs. A buzz hung in the air, as from a huge hive of bees.

Passage was slower here, though the crowds gave way. They did not know who he was any more than did those in the Inner City, but no one wanted to get in the way of striding Aiel. It simply took time with so many people. And there was every sort of person. Farmers in rough woolens and merchants in coats or dresses of finer cut. Craftsmen hurrying about their trades and hawkers crying their wares from trays and pushcarts, everything from pins and ribbons to fruit and fireworks, the last two equally dear now. A gleeman in his patch-covered cloak rubbed shoulders with three Aiel inspecting the blades displayed on tables before a cutler’s workshop. Two lean fellows with their dark hair in braids and swords on their backs—Hunters for the Horn, Rand expected—stood chatting with a number of Saldaeans as they listened to a woman playing the flute and a man the tambour on a street corner. Cairhienin, shorter and paler, stood out among the Andorans, and so did the darker Tairens, but Rand saw Murandians in long coats and Altarans in elaborate vests, fork-bearded Kandori, even a pair of Domani with long thin mustaches and earrings.

Another sort of people stood out too, those who wandered about in rumpled coats and wrinkled dresses, often dusty and always blinking and staring, plainly with nowhere to go and no idea of what to do next. That sort had gone as far as they could toward what they sought. Him. The Dragon Reborn. What he was to do with them he had no notion, yet they were his responsibility, one way or another. No matter that he had not asked them to throw over their lives, had not wanted them to abandon everything. They had. Because of him. And if they learned who he was, they might well overwhelm the Aiel and tear him apart in their eagerness just to touch him.

He touched the fat-little-man angreal in his coat pocket. A fine thing, if it came to him using the One Power to protect himself against people who had given up everything because of him. That was why he seldom ventured into the city. One reason, anyway. There was just too much to be done to go for an idle ride.

The inn Bael led him to, toward the western end of the city, was called Culain’s Hound, three stories of stone with a red tile roof. On the twisting side street, the passing throng backed up both ways, narrowing to crowd around Rand’s party when it stopped. Rand touched the angreal again—two Aes Sedai; he should be able to handle them without resorting to that—before dismounting and going in. Not before three Maidens and a pair of Knife Hands, of course, all on their toes and a hair from veiling. He could have taught a cat to sing first. Leaving two Saldaeans with the horses, Bashere and the others strode in at his heels along with Bael, the rest of the Aiel following except for those who had taken up guard outside. What they found was not what Rand expected.

The common room could have changed places with any of a hundred or more in Caemlyn, great barrels of ale and wine lining one plain plastered wall, topped with smaller casks of brandy, and a gray-striped cat sprawled on top of all, a pair of stone fireplaces, the hearths swept bare, and three or four aproned serving women moving among tables and benches scattered around a bare wooden floor beneath a beamed ceiling. The innkeeper, a round-faced man with three chins, a white apron straining around his bulk, trotted up washing his hands and eyeing the Aiel only a touch nervously. Caemlyn had learned they were not going to pillage and burn everything in sight—convincing the Aiel that Andor was not a conquered land and they could not take the fifth had been a harder proposition—but that was not to say innkeepers were used to having two dozen appear in their common rooms at once.

The innkeeper concentrated on Rand and Bashere. Mainly on Bashere. Both were clearly men of substance by their clothes, but Bashere was the elder by a good many years and thus likely to be the more important. “Welcome, my Lord, my Lords. What may I offer you? I have wines from Murandy as well as Andoran, brandy from...”

Rand ignored the man. What was not like a hundred other common rooms was the patrons. At this hour he would have expected one or two men perhaps, but there were none. Instead most of the tables were filled with plainly dressed young women, girls really for the most part, who twisted around on their benches, teacups in hand, to gawk at the new arrivals. More than one gasped at Bael’s height. Not all of them stared at the Aiel, though, and it was the near dozen who gaped at him that made Rand’s eyes widen. He knew them. Not all well, but he did know them. One in particular seized his attention.

“Bode?” he said in disbelief. That big-eyed girl staring at him—when had she gotten old enough to put her hair in a braid?—was Bodewhin Cauthon, Mat’s sister. And there was plump Hilde Barran sitting next to skinny Jerilin al’Caar, and pretty Marisa Ahan, with her hands clapped to her cheeks the way she always did when surprised, and buxom Emry Lewin and Elise Marwin and Darea Candwin and... They were from Emond’s Field, or close by. Darting a look over the rest of the tables, he realized the others must be Two Rivers girls, too. Most of them, anyway—he saw a Domani face, and one or two more that might well be from off—but every dress could have been seen any day on the Green in Emond’s Field. “What under the Light are you doing here?”

“We are on our way to Tar Valon,” Bode managed despite gaping. The only thing about her that looked at all like Mat was a mischievous something around the eyes. Her astonishment at seeing him vanished quickly in a broad smile of wonder and delight. “To become Aes Sedai, like Egwene and Nynaeve.”

“We could ask the same of you,” willowy Larine Ayellin put in, arranging her thick braid over her shoulder with studied casualness. The oldest of the Emond’s Field girls—a good three years younger than him, but the only one besides Bode to have her hair braided—she had always had a good opinion of herself. She was pretty enough for all the boys to have confirmed it for her. “Lord Perrin hardly said two words about you except to say you were off having adventures. And wearing fine coats, which I see you are.”

“Is Mat well?” Bode asked, suddenly anxious. “Is he with you? Mother worries about him so. He wouldn’t even remember to put on clean stockings if someone didn’t tell him.”

“No,” Rand said slowly, “he’s not here. But he’s well.”

“We hardly expected to find you in Caemlyn,” Jancy Torfinn piped up in her high voice. She could not be more than fourteen; she was the youngest, at least among the Emond’s Fielders. “Verin Sedai and Alanna Sedai will be pleased, I’ll wager. They’re always asking what we know about you.”

So those were the two Aes Sedai. He knew Verin, a Brown sister, more than slightly. He did not know what to think about her being here, though. That was hardly most important anyway. These girls were from home. “Everything is all right in the Two Rivers, then? In Emond’s Field? Perrin got there all right, it seems. Wait! Lord Perrin?”

That opened the sluice gate. The rest of the Two Rivers girls were more interested in studying the Aiel with sidelong peeks, especially Bael, and a few spared glances for the Saldaeans, but the Emond’s Field girls crowded around Rand, all trying to tell him everything at once, all jumbled up and wrong way round, interspersed with questions about himself and Mat, about Egwene and Nynaeve, most of which he could not have answered in under an hour had they given him a chance.

Trollocs had invaded the Two Rivers, but Lord Perrin drove them off. They went on so about the great battle, everyone talking at the same time, that it was hard to pick out any details except that there had been one. Everybody fought, of course, but it had been Lord Perrin who saved everybody. Always Lord Perrin; any time he said just Perrin they corrected him in the perfunctory way they might someone who said horse when he should have said sawhorse.

Even with the news that the Trollocs were beaten, Rand’s chest tightened. He had abandoned them to this. If he had gone, there might not have been such a long list of the dead, so many names that he knew. But if he had gone, he would not have the Aiel behind him. Cairhien would not be his, as much as it was, and Rahvin would likely be sending a united Andor against him and the Two Rivers. There was a price to be paid for any decision he made. There was a price for who he was. Other people paid it. He had to keep reminding himself that it was a far smaller price than they would pay without him. The reminder did not help much, though.

Taking his expression for dismay at the listing of Two Rivers’ dead, the girls hastened on to happier things. It seemed Perrin had married Faile, too. Rand wished him happiness in that, and wondered how long any happiness they found could last. The girls thought it romantic and wonderful, and only seemed to regret that there had been no time for the usual wedding parties. They were quite approving of Faile, quite admiring, and a touch envious, even Larine.

There had been Whitecloaks, too, and with them Padan Fain, the old peddler who used to come to Emond’s Field every spring. The girls seemed unsure whether the Whitecloaks had been friends or enemies, but to Rand, Fain made the difference if there was any real doubt. Fain was a Darkfriend, maybe worse than a Darkfriend, who would do anything to harm Rand and Mat and Perrin. Especially Rand. Maybe the worse news they had to tell him was that no one knew whether Fain was dead. In any case, the Whitecloaks were gone, the Trollocs were gone, and refugees were flooding in across the Mountains of Mist, bringing all sorts of new things, from customs to trades, plants and seeds to clothes. One of the other girls was a Domani, and there were two Taraboners and three from Almoth Plain.

“Larine bought a Domani dress,” little Jancy laughed, cutting her eyes, “but her mother made her take it back to the seamstress.” Larine raised her hand, then thought better of it and simply rearranged her braid with a sniff. Jancy giggled.

“Who cares about dresses?” Susa al’Seen exclaimed. “Rand doesn’t care about dresses.” A slight, fluttery girl, Susa had always been excitable, and right now she was bouncing on her toes. “Alanna Sedai and Verin Sedai tested everybody. Well. Almost everybody ...”

“Cilia Cole wanted to be tested, too,” Marce Eldin, a stocky girl, put in. Rand did not much remember her, except that she had always had her nose in a book, even walking in the street. “She insisted! She passed, but they told her she was too old to be a novice.”

Susa went right on over Marce. “... And we all passed ...”

“We’ve been traveling all day and practically all night since Whitebridge,” Bode put in. “It is so good to stay in one place a little while.”

“Have you seen Whitebridge, Rand?” Jancy said on top of Bode. “The White Bridge itself?”

“... And we’re going to Tar Valon to become Aes Sedai!” Susa finished with a glare that took in Bode, Marce and Jancy. “In Tar Valon!”

“We will not be going to Tar Valon just yet.”

The voice from the door to the street spun the girls’ attention from Rand, but the two Aes Sedai just coming in waved aside their questions offhandedly. The Aes Sedai’s regard was all for Rand. They were disparate women, despite the common link of their faces. Either could have been any age at all, but Verin was short and plump, square-faced, with a touch of gray in her hair, while the other, who must be Alanna, was dark and slender, a beautiful vulpine woman with waves of black hair and a light in her eyes that spoke of a temper. And with a slight redness around them, as if she had been crying, though Rand could hardly believe an Aes Sedai weeping. Her riding dress was gray silk slashed with green, and looked as if she had just donned it, while Verin’s pale brown appeared slightly rumpled. If Verin paid little heed to her clothes, though, her dark eyes were sharp enough. They latched on to Rand as tightly as mussels on a rock.

Two men in dull green coats followed them into the common room, one stocky and gray-haired, the other a tall dark whip of a man, but each had a sword on his hip, and the fluid way they moved would have named them Warders even without the Aes Sedai. They ignored Rand entirely, instead watching the Aiel and Saldaeans with a stillness that spoke of sudden movement in check. For their part, the Aiel did not move exactly, but there was an air of veils going up about them, Maidens and Knife Hands alike, and the young Saldaeans’ fingers suddenly hovered near sword hilts. Only Bael and Bashere appeared truly at ease. The girls noticed nothing except the Aes Sedai, but the fat innkeeper sensed the mood and began wringing his hands, no doubt seeing his common room destroyed, if not his whole inn.

“There will be no trouble,” Rand said loudly and levelly, for the innkeeper, for the Aiel. For everyone, he hoped. “No trouble unless you start it, Verin.” Several of the girls goggled at him, speaking so to an Aes Sedai, and Larine sniffed loudly.

Verin studied him with birdlike eyes. “Who are we to start trouble near you? You have come far since I saw you last.”

For some reason, he did not want to talk about that. “If you’ve decided not to go to Tar Valon, then you must have heard the Tower is broken.” That caused a startled buzz among the girls; they certainly had not heard. The Aes Sedai gave no reaction at all. “Do you know where those who oppose Elaida are?”

“There are things we should discuss in private,” Alanna said calmly. “Master Dilham, we will need your private dining room.” The innkeeper nearly fell over himself assuring her that it was at her disposal.

Verin started toward a side door. “This way, Rand.” Alanna looked at him, raising a questioning eyebrow.

Rand held in a wry grin. They had just walked in and taken charge, but it seemed that Aes Sedai did that as naturally as breathing. The Two Rivers girls stared at him with varying degrees of commiseration. Doubtless they expected the Aes Sedai to skin him if he did not speak right and sit straight. Perhaps Verin and Alanna did, too. With a smooth bow he motioned for Alanna to proceed him. So he had come a long way, had he? They had no idea how far.

Alanna acknowledged his bow with a nod, gathered her skirts and glided after Verin, but trouble followed immediately. The two Warders made as if to trail the Aes Sedai, and before they had taken a full step a pair of cold-eyed Sovin Nai moved to block them, while Sulin’s fingers flickered in handtalk, sending Enaila and a blocky Maiden named Dagendra toward the door the Aes Sedai were approaching. The Saldaeans looked to Bashere, who gestured for them to stay, but then he himself looked a question at Rand.

Alanna made a vexed sound. “We will speak with him alone, Ihvon.” The slender Warder frowned, then nodded slowly.

Verin glanced back, looking slightly startled, as though pulled from deep thought. “What? Oh, yes, of course. Tomas, stay here, please.” The gray-haired Warder appeared doubtful, and he gave Rand a hard look before lounging back against the wall beside the door to the street. At least, he was lounging if a tripwire could be said to be lounging. Only then did the Knife Hands relax—as much as Aiel ever relaxed.

“I want to talk to them alone,” Rand said, looking straight at Sulin. For a moment he thought she meant to dispute him. Her jaw firmed stubbornly; finally handtalk passed between her, Enaila and Dagendra, and they moved back, looking at him and shaking their heads in disapproval. Sulin’s fingers moved again, and all the Maidens laughed. He wished there was some way to learn handtalk; Sulin had been scandalized when he asked.

Confused looks passed among the Two Rivers girls as Rand started after the Aes Sedai, and he closed the door behind them on a rising buzz. It was a small room, but with polished chairs instead of benches and pewter candlesticks on both the polished table and the vine-carved mantel above the fireplace. The two windows were shut, yet no one made a move to open one. He wondered if either Aes Sedai had noticed that the heat touched him no more than it did them.

“Will you be taking them to the rebels?” he asked immediately.

Frowning, Verin smoothed her skirts. “You know considerably more about that than we do.”

“We did not hear of events in the Tower until Whitebridge.” Alanna’s tone was cool, but there was heat in the eyes she kept fixed on him. “What do you know of ... rebels?” A world of distaste entered her voice with that word.

So they had heard the rumors first in Whitebridge, and made haste here, keeping everything from the girls. And by the reactions of Bode and the others, the decision not to go to Tar Valon was fresh. Seemingly they had found confirmation this morning. “I don’t suppose you’ll tell me who your spy in Caemlyn is.” They merely looked at him, Verin tilting her head to study him. Strange how Aes Sedai gazes had been so unsettling once, so serene whatever was happening, so knowing. Having an Aes Sedai stare at him, or even two, no longer made his stomach turn uneasily. Pride, Lews Therin laughed madly, and Rand suppressed a grimace. “I’ve been told rebels exist. You haven’t denied knowing where they are. I mean no harm to them, far from it. I have reason to believe they might support me.” He kept back his main reason for wanting to know. Perhaps Bashere was right, perhaps he did need Aes Sedai backing, but mainly he wanted to know because he had been told Elayne was with them. He needed her to gain Andor peacefully. That was his only motive in seeking her. The only one. He was as dangerous to her as to Aviendha. “For the love of the Light, if you know, tell me.”

“If we did know,” Alanna replied, “we would have no right to tell anyone. Should they decide to support you, you may be certain they will seek you out.”

“In their time,” Verin said, “not yours.”

He smiled grimly. He should have expected as much, or as little. Moiraine’s advice was in the front of his head. Trust no woman who wore the shawl on the day she died.

“Is Mat with you?” Alanna asked as if that were the last thing on her mind really.

“If I knew where he was, why should I tell you? Turn and turn about?” They did not seem to think that was funny.

“It is foolish to treat us as enemies,” Alanna murmured, moving toward him. “You look tired. Are you getting enough rest?” He stepped back from her raised hand, and she stopped. “Like you, Rand, I mean no harm. Nothing I do here will cause you any injury.”

Since she had said it straight out, it must be so. He nodded, and she raised her hand to his head. His skin tingled faintly as she embraced saidar, and a familiar warm ripple passed through him, the feel of her checking his health.

Alanna nodded in satisfaction. And suddenly the warmth was heat, one great flash of it, as if he stood for a heartbeat in the middle of a roaring furnace. Even after it passed, he felt odd, aware of himself as he never had been before, aware of Alanna. He swayed, head light, muscles watery. An echo of confusion and unease rang from Lews Therin.

“What did you do?” he demanded. In a fury, he seized saidin. The strength of it helped hold him upright. “What did you do?”

Something beat at the flow between him and the True Source. They were trying to shield him! Weaving his own shields, he slammed them into place. He truly had gone far, and learned much, since Verin last saw him. Verin staggered, putting a hand on the table for support, and Alanna grunted as if he had punched her.

“What did you do?” Even deep in the cold emotionless Void as he was, his voice grated. “Tell me! I made no promises not to hurt you. If you don’t tell me—”

“She bonded you,” Verin said quickly, but if her serenity had been ruffled, it cloaked her again in an instant. “She bonded you as one of her Warders. That is all.”

Alanna recovered her composure even faster. Shielded, she faced him calmly, arms folded, a hint of contentment about her eyes. Contentment! “I said I would not injure you, and I have done exactly the opposite of injury.”

Drawing deep slow breaths, Rand tried to settle himself. He had walked into it like a puppy. Rage crawled across the outside of the Void. Calm. He must be calm. One of her Warders. She was Green then; not that that made any difference. He knew little of Warders, certainly not how to break the bond, or if it could be broken. All Rand felt from Lews Therin was a sense of stunned shock. Not for the first time Rand wished Lan had not gone galloping away after Moiraine died.

“You said you won’t be going to Tar Valon. In that case, since you don’t seem to know whether you know where the rebels are, you can remain here in Caemlyn.” Alanna opened her mouth, but he rode over her. “Be grateful if I decide not to tie off those shields and leave you like that!” That got their attention. Verin’s mouth tightened, and Alanna’s eyes could have done for that furnace he had felt. “You will stay away from me, though. Both of you. Unless I send for you, the Inner City is barred to you. Try to break that, and I will leave you shielded, and in a cell besides. Do we understand one another?”

“Perfectly.” Despite her eyes, Alanna’s voice was ice. Verin merely nodded.

Flinging open the door, Rand stopped. He had forgotten the Two Rivers girls. Some were talking to the Maidens, some were just studying them and whispering over their tea. Bode and a handful of the Emond’s Fielders were questioning Bashere, who had a pewter mug in his fist and one foot up on a bench. They looked half-entertained, half-aghast. The door banging open whipped their heads around.

“Rand,” Bode exclaimed, “this man is saying awful things about you.”

“He says you’re the Dragon Reborn,” Larine spluttered. The girls in the rest of the room apparently had not heard; they gasped.

“I am,” Rand said wearily.

Larine sniffed and folded her arms beneath her breasts. “As soon as I saw that coat I knew you had gotten a big head, running off with an Aes Sedai the way you did. I knew it before you talked so disrespectfully to Alanna Sedai and Verin Sedai. But I didn’t know you had become a stone blind jack-fool.”

Bode’s laugh was more appalled than amused. “You shouldn’t say such a thing even as a joke, Rand. Tam raised you better than that. You’re Rand al’Thor. Now stop this foolishness.”

Rand al’Thor. That was his name, but he hardly knew who he was. Tam al’Thor had raised him, but his father had been an Aiel chief, now long dead. His mother had been a Maiden, but not Aiel. That was as much as he really knew of who he was.

Saidin still filled him. Gently he wrapped Bode and Larine in flows of Air and lifted them until their shoes dangled a foot above the floor. “I am the Dragon Reborn. Denying won’t change it. Wishing won’t change it. I’m not the man you knew back in Emond’s Field. Do you understand now? Do you?” He realized he was shouting and clamped his mouth shut. His stomach was lead, and he was trembling. Why had Alanna done what she did? What Aes Sedai scheme was hatching behind that pretty face? Trust none of them, Moiraine had said.

A hand touched his arm, and his head jerked around.

“Please let them down,” Alanna said. “Please. They are frightened.”

They were more than frightened. Larine’s face seemed drained of blood, and her mouth gaped as wide as it would go, as if she wanted to scream and had forgotten how. Bode was sobbing so hard she quivered. They were not the only ones. The rest of the Two Rivers girls had huddled together as far from him as they could get, and most of them were crying too. The serving maids were in that tight cluster as well, weeping as hard as anyone else. The innkeeper had sagged to his knees, goggle-eyed and gurgling wordlessly.

Rand eased the two girls back down and hastily let go of saidin. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.” As soon as they could move, Bode and Larine fled to join the other girls clutching one another. “Bode? Larine? I’m sorry. I won’t hurt you, I promise.” They did not look at him. None of them did. Sulin was certainly looking at him, and the rest of the Maidens too, blank-faced, flat-eyed disapproving stares.

“What’s done is done,” Bashere said, setting down his mug. “Who knows? Perhaps it’s for the best.”

Rand nodded slowly. It probably was. Best that they wanted to stay clear of him. Best for them. He just wished he could have talked a little while longer about home. A little while longer with them seeing only Rand al’Thor. His knees still wobbled from the bonding, but once he began moving, he did not stop until he was back in Jeade’en’s saddle. Best that they were afraid of him. Best that he forgot the Two Rivers. He wondered whether that mountain ever got lighter for a time, or only kept on getting heavier.

Lessons and Teachers

As soon as Rand was out the door Verin let loose the breath she had been holding. Once she had told Siuan and Moiraine how dangerous he was. Neither had listened, and now the passage of little more than a year saw Siuan stilled and probably dead, while Moiraine... The streets crawled with rumors about the Dragon Reborn in the Royal Palace, most beyond belief, and none that was credible mentioned an Aes Sedai. Moiraine might have decided to let him think he was going his own way, but she would never allow him to get far from her, not now when he was rising to such power. Not now when the hazard he presented had grown so great. Had Rand turned on her, more violently than he just had on them? He had aged since she last saw him; his face bore the tightness of struggle. The Light knew he had reason enough, but could it be the struggle for sanity as well?

So. Moiraine dead, Siuan dead, the White Tower broken, and Rand possibly on the edge of madness. Verin tsked irritably. If you took risks, sometimes the bill came due when you least expected, in the last way you expected. Almost seventy years of delicate work on her part, and now it might all go for naught because of one young man. Even so, she had lived too long, been through too much, to allow herself to be dismayed. First things first; take care of what can be done now before worrying too long over what might never be. That lesson had been forced on her, but she had taken it to heart.

The first thing was to settle the young women down. They still huddled like a flock of sheep, weeping and holding on to one another and hiding their faces. She quite understood; this was not her first time to confront a man who could channel, much less the Dragon Reborn himself, and her stomach heaved as if on a ship at sea. She began with comforting words, patting a shoulder here, stroking hair there, trying to make her voice motherly. Convincing them that Rand was gone—which in most cases meant convincing them to open their eyes—went a long way toward bringing relative calm. At least the sobbing subsided. But Jancy kept demanding piercingly that someone tell her Rand had been lying, that it had all been a trick, while Bodewhin was just as shrill in wanting her brother found and rescued—Verin would have given a great deal to know where Mat was—and Larine blubbered that they had to leave Caemlyn immediately, on the minute.

Verin drew one of the serving maids aside. A plain-faced woman at least twenty years older than any of the Two Rivers folk, she was wide-eyed, although wiping away tears with her apron and shaking. After requesting her name, Verin said, “Bring them all nice fresh tea, Azril, hot and with plenty of honey, and put a little brandy in it.” Considering the younger women for a moment, she added, “Make it more than a little. A generous splash each.” That should help soothe their nerves. “And you and the other maids have some, as well.” Azril sniffed and blinked and wiped her face, but she curtsied; being sent about her regular duties seemed to lessen her tears, if not her fright.

“Serve them in their rooms,” Alanna said, and Verin nodded agreement. A little sleep would do wonders. They were only a few hours out of bed, but brandy atop all their hard travel should do the trick.

The order caused a commotion.

“We can’t hide here,” Larine managed around sniffles and hiccoughs. “We have to go! Now! He’ll kill us!”

Bodewhin’s cheeks glistened damply, but her face had taken on a determined cast. That Two Rivers stubbornness was going to cause more than one of these young women trouble. “We have to find Mat. We can’t leave him with ... with a man who can... We can’t! Even if it is Rand, we just can’t!”

“I want to see Caemlyn,” Jancy squeaked, though she was still trembling.

The rest joined in right on top of those three, a handful tremulously supporting Jancy despite their fear, the majority adamantly in favor of departure. One of the young women from Watch Hill, a tall, pretty girl named Elle, fair-haired for the Two Rivers, began to wail again at the top of her lungs.

It was all Verin could do not to smack the lot of them. There was excuse for the youngest, but Larine and Elle and the others with their hair braided were supposed to be women. Most had not been touched, and the danger was gone. On the other hand, they were all tired, Rand’s visit had been a shock, and they were likely to face a good many more in the near future, so she held her exasperation in check.

Alanna did not. Even among Greens she was noted for her quicksilver disposition, and it was worse of late. “You will go to your rooms now,” she said coolly, but her voice was all that was cool. Verin sighed as the other Aes Sedai wove Air and Fire into Illusion. Gasps filled the room, and already wide eyes bulged. There was no real need for this, but custom frowned on interfering with another sister publicly, and in truth, Verin found the sudden cessation of Elle’s howls a relief. Her own nerves were far from their best. The untrained young women could not see the flows, of course; to them it seemed that Alanna was growing taller with every word. Her voice grew with it, tone unchanged, but booming to match her apparent size. “You are to be novices, and the first lesson a novice must learn is to obey Aes Sedai. Immediately. Without complaint or quibble.” Alanna stood in the middle of the common room unchanged—to Verin, at least—but the Illusion’s head touched the ceiling beams. “Now, run! Whoever is not in her room by the time I count five will regret it to her dying day. One. Two...” Before she reached three there was a mad squealing scramble on the stairs at the back of the room; it was a wonder no one was trampled.

Alanna did not bother to go beyond four. As the last of the Two Rivers girls vanished above, she released saidar, the Illusion vanished, and she gave a short satisfied nod. Verin expected the young women would have to be cajoled even to peek out of their rooms now. Perhaps it was just as well. With matters as they were, she did not want anyone sneaking out for a view of Caemlyn and having to be retrieved.

Of course, Alanna had had her effect elsewhere, too. It was necessary to coax the maids out from under the tables where they had hidden, and the one who had collapsed trying to crawl to the kitchen had to be helped back onto her feet. They made no noise; they just trembled like leaves in a high wind. Verin had to give each one a little push to start her moving, and repeated her orders about the brandy and tea three times before Azril stopped gazing at her as if watching her sprout another head. The innkeeper’s jaw was on his chest; his eyes seemed ready to fall out of his face. Verin looked at Tomas and motioned to the swaying fellow.

Tomas gave her a wry look—he always did when she asked him to clear up trivial matters, yet he seldom questioned her orders—then clapped an arm around Master Dilham’s shoulders and asked in a jovial tone whether the two of them might not share a few mugs of the inn’s best wine. A good man, Tomas, skilled in surprising areas. Ihvon had seated himself with his back against the wall and his boots up on a table. He managed to keep an eye on the door to the street and one on Alanna. A very cautious eye on Alanna. He was more than solicitous of her since Owein, her other Warder, had died in the Two Rivers—and wisely more than wary of her temper, though she usually managed to control it better than she had today. Alanna herself showed no interest in helping clean up the mess she had made. She stood in the middle of the common room looking at nothing, arms folded. To anyone not Aes Sedai she probably seemed serenity incarnate. To Verin, Alanna was a woman ready to explode.

Verin touched her arm. “We must talk.” Alanna looked at her, eyes unreadable, then without a word glided toward the private dining room.

Behind her Verin heard Master Dilham say in a shaken voice, “Do you suppose I could claim the Dragon Reborn patronized my inn? He did come in, after all.” For a brief moment she smiled; he would be all right, at least. Her smile vanished as she closed the door, sealing her and Alanna in.

Alanna was already stalking back and forth in the small room, the silk of her divided skirts whispering like swords sliding from scabbards. There was no face of serenity now. “The gall of the man. The utter gall! Detaining us! Restricting us!”

Verin watched her for a few moments before speaking. It had taken her ten years to get over Balinor’s death and bond Tomas. Manna’s emotions had been raw since Owein’s death, and she had held them in far too long. The occasional bouts of weeping she had allowed herself since departing the Two Rivers were not enough of a release. “I suppose he can keep us out of the Inner City with guards at the gate, but he cannot really hold us in Caemlyn.”

That got the withering glance it deserved. They could leave with little difficulty—however much Rand had taught himself, there was little chance he had managed to discover wards—but it would mean relinquishing the Two Rivers girls. No Aes Sedai had found a trove like the Two Rivers in ... Verin could not imagine how long. Perhaps not since the Trolloc Wars. Even young women of eighteen—the limit they had set for themselves—often found it hard to accept the strictures of the novitiate, yet had they extended the limit only five years, she and Alanna could have brought out twice as many, if not more. Five of these girls—five!—had the spark inborn, including Mat’s sister and Wile and young Jancy; they would channel eventually whether anyone taught them or not and be very strong. She and Alanna had left two more behind to be gathered up in a year or so, when they were old enough to leave home. That was safe enough; a girl with the ability born in her very rarely manifested it before fifteen without training. The rest showed exceptional promise; all of them. The Two Rivers was a lode of pure gold.

Now that she had the other woman’s attention, Verin changed the subject. She certainly had no intention of abandoning those young women. Or of moving any further from Rand than she had to. “Do you think he is right about rebels?”

Manna’s fists tightened for a moment on her skirts. “The possibility repels me! Could we really have come to ... ?” She trailed off, sounding lost. Her shoulders slumped. Tears bubbled just beneath the surface, barely held in check.

Now that the other woman’s anger was dulled, Verin had questions to ask before sharpening it again. “Is there any prospect your butcher can tell you more of what has happened in Tar Valon, if you dig?” The woman was not really Alanna’s; she was a Green Ajah agent, discovered because Alanna had noticed an emergency signal of some sort outside her shop. Not that Alanna had told Verin what it was, of course. Verin certainly would not have revealed any Brown signal.

“No. She knows no more than the message she gave me, and that dried her mouth so, she was hardly able to form words. All loyal Aes Sedai to return to the Tower. All is forgiven.” That was the essence of it, anyway. A flash of anger lit Alanna’s eyes, but only for a moment and not as strong as before. “If not for all those rumors, I’d never have let you know who she is.” That, and her emotions being unbalanced. At least she had stopped pacing.

“I know,” Verin said, sitting down at the table, “and I will respect the confidence. Now. You must agree that message makes the rumors true. The Tower is broken. In all probability, there are rebels somewhere. The question is, what do we do about it?”

Alanna looked at her as if she were mad. Small wonder. Siuan had to have been deposed by the Hall of the Tower, according to Tower law. Even a suggestion of going against Tower law was unthinkable. But then, the Tower broken was unthinkable.

“If you have no answer now, think on it. And think on this. Siuan Sanche was part of finding young al’Thor in the first place.” Alanna opened her mouth—doubtless to ask how Verin knew, and whether she had been part of it, too—but Verin gave her no chance. “Only a simpleton would believe that role played no part in bringing her down. Coincidences that large do not exist. So think what Elaida’s view of Rand must be. She was Red, remember. While you are thinking, answer me this. What were you at, bonding him like that?”

The question should not have caught Alanna by surprise, yet it did. She hesitated, then drew out a chair and sat, arranging her skirts before she answered. “It was the logical thing to do, with him right there in front of us. It should have been done long ago. You could not—or would not.” Like most Greens, she was somewhat amused by other Ajahs’ insistence that each sister have only one Warder. What Greens thought of the Reds having none was better left unsaid. “They all should have been bonded at the first chance. They are too important to run loose, him most of all.” Color blossomed suddenly in her cheeks; it would be a good while yet before she had full control of her emotions again.

Verin knew what caused the blushes; Alanna had let her tongue run away with her. They had had Perrin under their eyes for long weeks while testing young women in the Two Rivers, but Alanna had quickly gone silent on the subject of bonding him. The reason was as simple as a heated promise from Faile—delivered well out of Perrin’s hearing—that if Alanna did any such thing, she would not leave the Two Rivers alive. Had Faile known more of the bond between Aes Sedai and Gaidin, that threat would not have worked, yet her ignorance if nothing else had stayed Alanna’s hand. Very likely it had been frustration over that, plus the frayed state of her nerves, that had led to what she did with Rand. Not only bonding him, but doing so without his permission. That had not been done in hundreds of years.

Well, Verin thought dryly, I have broken a few customs in my time. “Logical?” she said, smiling to take the sting from her words. “You sound like a White. Well. Now that you have him, what are you going to do with him? Considering the lessons he taught us. I am minded of a fireside tale when I was a girl, about a woman who put saddle and bridle on a lion. She found it a fine and wonderful ride, but then discovered she could never dismount and never sleep.”

Shivering, Alanna rubbed her arms. “I still cannot believe he is so strong. If only we had linked sooner. And I tried... I failed... He is so strong!”

Verin barely kept from shivering herself. They could not have linked sooner, not unless Alanna was suggesting they should have linked before she bonded him. Verin was not sure what the result of that would have been. In any case, it had been a series of extremely bad moments, from discovering that they could not cut him off from the True Source to the contemptuous ease with which he had shielded them, snapping their connections to saidar like thread. Both of them at once. Remarkable. How many would it take to shield and hold him? The full thirteen? That was only tradition, but it might be necessary with him. At any rate, that was speculation for another day. “And then there is the matter of his amnesty.”

Alanna’s eyes widened. “Surely you don’t believe that! With every false Dragon there have been tales that he was gathering men who could channel, all as false as the men. They wanted power for themselves, not to share it with other men.”

“He is not a false Dragon,” Verin said quietly, “and that may change everything. If one rumor is true, so can another be, and the amnesty has been on every tongue since Whitebridge.”

“Even if it is, perhaps no one has come. No decent man wants to channel. If more than a handful wanted it, we would have had false Dragons every week.”

“He is ta’veren, Alanna. He draws what he needs to him.”

Alanna’s mouth worked, her hands now white-knuckled fists on the table. Every shred of Aes Sedai tranquility gone, she trembled visibly. “We can’t allow... Men channeling, loosed on the world? If it is true, we must stop it. We must!” She was on the point of springing up again, eyes flashing.

“Before we can decide what to do about them,” Verin said calmly, “we need to know where he is keeping them. The Royal Palace seems likely, but finding out may be difficult with the Inner City denied to us. This is what I propose...” Alanna leaned forward intently.

There was a good deal to be worked out, though most would come later. A good many questions to be answered, later. Was Moiraine dead, and if so, how had she died? Were there rebels, and what should her and Alanna’s stance be concerning them? Should they try to deliver Rand to Elaida, or to these rebels? Where were they? That knowledge would be valuable whichever way the other questions were answered. How were they to make use of the so very fragile leash Alanna had placed on Rand? Should one or both try to take Moiraine’s place? For the first time since Alanna had begun to let her emotions over Owein creep to the surface, Verin was glad she had held them in long enough to become so volatile. In her raveled condition, Alanna was bound to be more amenable to guidance, and Verin knew exactly how some of those questions had to be answered. She did not think Alanna would like some of those answers. Best not to let her learn them until it was too late to change them.

Rand raced back to the Palace at a gallop, slowly outdistancing even the running Aiel, ignoring their shouts as he ignored the shaken fists of people forced to leap out of Jeade’en’s way, and the jumble of overturned sedan chairs and coaches locked wheel-to-wheel with market carts in his wake. Bashere and the Saldaeans barely kept up on their smaller horses. He was not sure why he was in such a hurry—the news he carried was not that urgent—but as the shakiness faded from his arms and legs, he realized more and more that he was aware of Alanna still. He could feel her. It was as if she had crawled inside his head and taken up residence. If he could feel her, could she feel him the same way? What else could she do? What else? He had to get away from her.

Pride, Lews Therin cackled, and for once Rand did not try to silence the voice.

He had a different destination than the palace in mind, but Traveling required you to know the place you left from even better than the place you were going. At the South Stable he tossed the stallion’s reins to a leather-vested groom and ran, his long legs carrying him ahead of the Saldaeans down corridors where servants gaped at him, arresting bows and curtsies as he sped past. In the Great Hall he grasped saidin, opened the hole in air and darted through into the clearing near the farm, letting the Source go.

Releasing a long breath, he sank to his knees in the dead leaves. The heat beneath the bare branches hammered him; he had lost the necessary concentration a long while back. He could still feel her, but it was fainter here—if a certainty that she was in that direction could be said to be faint. He could have pointed it out with his eyes closed.

For a moment he took hold of saidin again, that rage of fire and ice and sour slime. He held a sword in his hands, a sword made of fire, of Fire, a heron dark on the slightly curved red blade, though he did not recall thinking of it. Fire, but the long hilt felt cool and firm against his palms. The Void made no difference, the Power made no difference. Alanna was still there, curled up in a corner of his brain, watching him.

With a bitter laugh he released the Power again and knelt there. He had been so sure. Only two Aes Sedai. Of course he could handle them; he had handled Egwene and Elayne together. What could they possibly do to him? He realized he was still laughing. He did not seem able to stop. Well, it was funny. His fool pride. Overconfidence. It had gotten him in trouble before, and more than him. He had been so sure that he and the Hundred Companions could seal the Bore safely...

Leaves crackled as he forced himself to his feet. “That was not me!” he said hoarsely. “That was not me! Get out of my head! All of you get out of my head!” Lews Therin’s voice murmured indistinctly, distantly. Alanna waited silently, patiently, in the back of his head. The voice seemed afraid of her.

Deliberately Rand brushed off the knees of his breeches. He would not surrender to this. Trust no Aes Sedai; he would remember that from now on. A man without trust might as well be dead, Lews Therin giggled. He would not surrender.

Nothing had changed about the farm. Nothing and everything. The farmhouse and the barn were the same, the chickens and goats and cows. Sora Grady watched his arrival from a window, blank-faced and cold. She was the only woman now; all the other wives and sweethearts had gone with the men who failed Taim’s testing. Taim had the students in a clear area of hard red clay and fitful weeds beyond the barn. All seven of them. Aside from Sora’s husband, Jur, only Damer Flinn, Eben Hopwil and Fedwin Morr remained from that first testing. The others were new, all looking almost as young as Fedwin and Eben.

Except for white-haired Damer, the students sat in a line facing away from Rand. Damer stood in front of them, frowning as he stared at a head-sized stone thirty paces away.

“Now,” Taim said, and Rand felt Damer seize saidin, saw him inexpertly weave Fire and Earth.

The stone exploded, and Damer and the other students threw themselves flat to escape flying shards. Not Taim; stone splinters bounced off the shield of Air that he had thrown up at the last instant. Lifting his head warily, Damer wiped blood from a shallow gouge below his left eye. Rand’s mouth tightened; it was only luck that none of those flying pieces had struck him. He glanced back at the farmhouse; Sora was still there, unhurt apparently. And still staring at him. The chickens had hardly paused in their scratching; they seemed to be used to this.

“Perhaps you will remember what I say next time,” Taim said calmly, letting his weave vanish. “Shield as you strike, or you may kill yourself.” He glanced at Rand as if he had been aware he was there all the time. “Continue,” he told the students, and walked toward Rand. His hawk-nosed face seemed to have a cruel cast today.

As Damer sat down in the line, blotchy-faced Eben stood up, nervously tugging a big ear as he used Air to lift another stone from a pile off to one side. His flows wobbled, and he dropped it once before setting it in place.

“Is it safe to leave them alone like that?” Rand asked as Taim reached him.

The second stone exploded like the first, but this time all of the students had woven shields. So had Taim, surrounding himself and Rand. Without a word Rand took hold of saidin again and made his own shield, forcing Taim’s away from him. Taim’s mouth quirked in that near smile.

“You said to push them, my Lord Dragon, so I push. I make them do everything with the Power, the chores, everything. The newest got his first hot meal last night. If they can’t heat it themselves, they eat cold. For most things it still takes twice as long as doing it by hand, but they’re learning the Power as fast as they can, believe me. Of course, there still aren’t very many.”

Ignoring the implied question, Rand looked around. “Where’s Haslin? Not drunk again? I told you, he’s only to have wine at night.” Henre Haslin had been Master of the Sword for the Queen’s Guards, in charge of training recruits, until Rahvin began remaking the Guards, discarding everyone faithful to Morgase or sending them off to fight in Cairhien. Too old for campaigning, Haslin had been handed his pension and shown the gate, and when news of Morgase’s death spread through Caemlyn, he crawled into a winejar. But he thought Rahvin—Gaebril, to him—had killed Morgase, not Rand, and he could teach. When he was sober.

“I sent him away,” Taim said. “What good are swords?” Another rock exploded. “I can barely avoid stabbing myself, and I’ve never felt the lack. They have the Power, now.”

Kill him! Kill him now! Lews Therin’s voice echoed hollowly through the Void. Rand stamped the echo out, but he could not stamp out the anger that suddenly seemed a shell around the emptiness containing him. The Void kept his voice drained of emotion, though. “Find him, Taim, and bring him back. Tell him you have changed your mind. Tell the students that. Tell them whatever you choose, but I want him here, giving lessons every day. They need to be part of the world, not apart from it. What are they supposed to do if they can’t channel? When you were shielded by the Aes Sedai, you might still have escaped if you knew how to use a sword, how to fight with your hands.”

“I did escape. Here I am.”

“Some of your followers broke you free, so I heard, else you’d have ended up in Tar Valon like Logain, gentled. These men won’t have followers. Find Haslin.”

The other man bowed smoothly. “As my Lord Dragon commands. Was that what brought my Lord Dragon here? Haslin and swords?” The merest hint of contempt tinged his voice, but Rand ignored it.

“There are Aes Sedai in Caemlyn. Trips to the city have to stop, yours and the students’ too. The Light only knows what will happen if one of them runs into an Aes Sedai and she recognizes what he is.” Or for that matter, when he recognized her, as he assuredly would. He would probably run or strike out in a panic, and either would mark him. Either would doom him. From what Rand saw, Verin or Alanna could wrap up any of the students like a child.

Taim shrugged. “Doing an Aes Sedai’s head like one of those rocks isn’t beyond them even now. The weave is only a little different.” Glancing over his shoulder, he raised his voice. “Concentrate, Adley. Concentrate.” The lanky fellow standing in front of the other students, all arms and legs, gave a start and lost saidin, then fumbled it back again. Another rock exploded as Taim turned back to Rand. “For that matter, I can ... remove ... them myself, if you are not up to it.”

“If I wanted them dead, I’d have killed them.” He thought he could do it, if they tried to kill him, or gentle him. He hoped he could. But would they try either after bonding him? That was one thing he did not intend to let Taim know; even without Lews Therin’s mutters he did not trust the man enough to expose any weakness he could hide. Light, what sort of hold did I let Alanna get on me? “If the time comes to kill Aes Sedai, I’ll let you know. Until then, no one is to so much as shout at one unless she’s trying to take his head off. In fact, you’re all to stay as far from Aes Sedai as you can. I want no incidents, nothing to put them against me.”

“You think they are not already?” Taim murmured. Again Rand ignored him. This time because he was not sure of the answer.

“And I don’t want anybody dead or gentled because his head is too big for his cap. Make sure they know it. I hold you responsible for them.”

“As you wish,” Taim said with another shrug. “Some will die sooner or later, unless you mean to keep them cooped here forever. Even if you do, some will probably die. It’s almost unavoidable, unless I slow the lessons. You would not have to husband them so, if you let me go out looking.”

There it was again. Rand looked at the students. A sweating, pale-haired youth with blue eyes was having a hard time moving a stone into place. He kept losing saidin, and the rock moved by small leaps across the ground. In a few hours the wagon would be coming out from the Palace with the applicants who had arrived since midday yesterday. Four this time. Some days it was only three, or two, though the numbers had been increasing generally. Eighteen since he brought Taim out here seven days ago, and only three of them could learn to channel. Taim insisted that was a remarkable number considering that they simply walked into Caemlyn looking for the opportunity. He had also pointed out more than once that at this rate, they could match the Tower in six years or so. Rand needed no reminders that he did not have six years. And he did not have time to let them train more slowly.

“How would you do it?”

“Using gateways,” Taim had picked that up right away; he was very quick with everything Rand showed him. “I can visit two or even three villages a day. Villages will be easier in the beginning than even small towns. I’ll leave Flinn to watch the lessons—he’s the furthest along, despite what you saw—and take Grady or Hopwil or Morr. You’ll have to supply some decent horses. The nag that pulls our cart won’t do.”

“What do you intend, though? Just ride in and announce that you’re looking for men who want to channel? You’ll be lucky if the villagers don’t try to hang you.”

“I can be a little more circumspect than that,” Taim said dryly. “I will say I’m recruiting men to follow the Dragon Reborn.” A little more circumspect? Not much. “That should frighten the people just enough to keep them from my throat long enough to gather in whoever is willing. And it culls out anybody who isn’t ready to support you. I don’t suppose you mean to train up men who’ll turn on you the first chance they find.” He raised a questioning eyebrow, but did not wait for the unnecessary answer. “Once I have them safely away from the village, I can bring them here through a gateway. Some might panic, but they should not be too hard to handle. Once they’ve agreed to follow a man who can channel, they can hardly balk at letting me test them. Those who fail, I’ll send on to Caemlyn. It’s time you started rasing an army of your own instead of depending on others. Bashere could change his mind; he will, if Queen Tenobia tells him to. And who can know what these so-called Aiel will do.” This time he paused, but Rand held his tongue. He had thought along the same lines himself, if certainly not about the Aiel, but Taim had no need to know that. After a moment the man went on as if he had never brought up the subject. “I’ll make you a wager. You name the price. The first day I recruit, I will find as many men who can learn as walk into Caemlyn in a month on their own. Once Flinn and some of the others are ready to go out without me...” He spread his hands. “I will match the White Tower for you in less than a year. And every man a weapon.”

Rand hesitated. Letting Taim go off was a risk. The man was too aggressive. What would he do if he came across an Aes Sedai on one of his recruiting trips? Maybe he would keep his word and spare her life, but what if she discovered what he was? What if she shielded and captured him? That was a loss Rand could not afford. He could not train students and do everything else he had to do as well. Six years to match the Tower. If Aes Sedai did not find this place first and destroy it and the students before they knew enough to defend themselves. Or less than a year. Finally he nodded. Lews Therin’s voice was a mad buzz in the distance. “You will have your horses.”

Questions and Answers

“Well?” Nynaeve said as patiently as she could. Keeping her hands in her lap was an effort, as was sitting still on her bed. She stifled a yawn. The hour was early, and she had not slept well for three nights now. The wicker cage was empty, the song sparrow set free. She wished she was free. “Well?”

Elayne was kneeling on her own bed, head and shoulders out the window into the tiny alley behind the house. From there she had just the slimmest line of sight to the rear of the Little Tower, where most of the Sitters were already receiving the Tower envoy this morning. A slight view, but enough to see a bit of the ward against eavesdropping that enclosed the inn. It was the sort that stopped anyone who was trying to listen with the Power. The price of sharing knowledge.

After a moment Elayne sat back on her heels, frustration painting her face. “Nothing. You said those flows could slip through undetected. I don’t think I was noticed, but I certainly heard nothing.”

That last was directed at Moghedien, on their rickety stool in a corner. The woman’s lack of sweat irritated Nynaeve no end. She claimed it took time working with the Power before you could achieve the detachment necessary to ignore heat or cold, not much better than the Aes Sedais’ vague promises that it would come “eventually.” Nynaeve and Elayne dripped sweat, Moghedien looked cool as an early spring day, and Light, it grated!

“I said they should.” Moghedien’s dark eyes darted defensively, though mostly she kept her gaze on Elayne; she always concentrated on whoever wore the a’dam bracelet. “Should. There are thousands of ways to spin wards. It can take days to spin a hole through one.”

Nynaeve held her tongue, but barely. They had been trying for days. This was the third since Tarna Feir’s arrival, and the Hall still held the Red sister’s message from Elaida closely. Well, Sheriam and Myrelle and that lot knew—Nynaeve would not have been surprised if they had known before the Hall did—but even Siuan and Leane had been shut outside of those daily meetings. At least, they had professed to be.

Nynaeve realized she was plucking at her skirts, and stilled her hands. Somehow, they had to find out what Elaida wanted—and more importantly, the Hall’s answer. They had to. Somehow.

“I have to go,” Elayne sighed. “I must show some more sisters how I make ter’angreal.” Very few Aes Sedai in Salidar showed the knack, but they all wanted to learn, and most seemed to think they could, once they made Elayne demonstrate often enough. “You might as well take this,” she added, unfastening the bracelet. “I want to try something new in the making after the sisters are done with me, and then I have a novice class.” She did not sound happy about that either, not the way she had before the first time. After every class, she came back so full of irritation she bristled like a cat. The youngest girls were overeager, leaping ahead to things they had no idea how to handle, often without asking first, and the oldest, although a little more cautious, were much more likely to argue, or plain balk at an order from a woman six or seven years their junior. Elayne had taken to muttering “fool novices” and “headstrong idiots” like an Accepted of ten years. “You can have time for questions. Maybe you’ll have more luck with how to detect a man than I have.”

Nynaeve shook her head. “I’m supposed to help Janya and Delana with their notes this morning.” She could not help grimating. Delana was a Sitter for the Gray Ajah as Janya was for the Brown, but Nynaeve would get no glimmer of anything from them. “And then I have another lesson from Theodrin.” Another waste of time. Everybody in Salidar was wasting time. “Wear it,” she said as Elayne started to hang the bracelet on a wall peg with their clothes.

The golden-haired woman gave an affected sigh, but refastened the bracelet. In Nynaeve’s opinion, Elayne was entirely too trusting of the a’dam. True, so long as the necklace remained on Moghedien’s neck, any woman able to channel could find her with the bracelet, and control her. If no one wore the bracelet, she could not move more than a dozen paces from it without falling to her knees retching, and the same if she shifted the bracelet more than a few inches from where it had been left, or tried to unfasten the necklace herself. Maybe it would hold her even on the peg, but maybe one of the Forsaken could reason a way around that, given enough chances. Once, in Tanchico, Nynaeve had left Moghedien shielded and bound with the Power, for just a few moments, and she managed to escape. The how of that had been one of the first things Nynaeve questioned her about once she was captured again, though prying out an answer almost required wringing her neck. A tied-off shield was vulnerable, it seemed, if the woman shielded had a little time and patience. Elayne insisted that would not work against the a’dam—there was no knot to attack, and with the necklace around her neck Moghedien could not even try to touch saidar without permission—but Nynaeve preferred taking no chances.

“Do your copying slowly,” Elayne said. “I’ve copied for Delana before. She hates blots or mistakes. She’ll make you do it over fifty times to get a clean page if need be.”

Nynaeve scowled. Her own hand might not be as clean and delicate as Elayne’s, but she was not some lout who had just learned which end of the pen to dip in the ink. The younger woman took no notice, simply slipped out of the room with a final smile. Maybe she had only meant to be helpful. If the Aes Sedai ever learned how much Nynaeve hated copying, they would start assigning it to her for punishment.

“Perhaps you ought to go to al’Thor,” Moghedien said abruptly. She was sitting differently, straighter. Her dark eyes held steady on Nynaeve’s. Why?

“What do you mean?” Nynaeve demanded.

“You and Elayne should go to Caemlyn, to Rand, She can be queen, and you...” Moghedien’s smile was not at all pleasant. “Sooner or later, they will sit you down and dig for how you can make all these marvelous discoveries yet quake like a girl caught with stolen sweets when you try to channel for them.”

“I do not—!” She was not going to explain herself, not to this woman. Why was Moghedien so forward all of a sudden? “Just you remember, whatever happens to me if they find out the truth, your head will be on the chopping block before the week is done.”

“Whereas you will have much longer to suffer. Semirhage once made a man scream his every waking hour for five years. She even kept him sane, but in the end even she could not keep his heart beating. I doubt any of these children have a tenth of Semirhage’s skill, but you may find out firsthand how much they do have.”

How could the woman be saying this? Her normal cringing anxiety had been shed like a snake skin. They could have been two equals discussing something of casual interest. No, worse. Moghedien’s attitude said it was of casual interest to her, but dire to Nynaeve. Nynaeve wished she had the bracelet. It would have been a comfort. Moghedien’s emotions could not possibly be as cool and calm as her face, and her voice.

Nynaeve’s breath caught. The bracelet. That was it. The bracelet was not in the room. A ball of ice formed in the pit of her stomach; the sweat suddenly seemed to roll more heavily down her face. Logically, whether the bracelet was there or not made no difference. Elayne had it on—Please, Light, don’t let her have taken it off!—and the other half of the a’dam was firmly around Moghedien’s neck. Only, logic had nothing to do with it. Nynaeve had never been alone with the Woman without the bracelet there. Or rather, the only times she had had ended in near total disaster. Moghedien had not been wearing the a’dam then, but that made no difference either. She was one of the Forsaken, they were alone, and Nynaeve had no way to control her. She gripped her skirts to keep from gripping her belt knife.

Moghedien’s smile deepened, as if she had read her thoughts. “In this, you can be sure I have your best interests at heart. This,” her hand hovered near the necklace for a moment, carefully not touching it, “will hold me in Caemlyn as well as here. Slavery there is better than death here. But don’t take too long to decide. If these so-called Aes Sedai resolve to return to the Tower, what better gift to take the new Amyrlin Seat than you, a woman so close to Rand al’Thor? And Elayne. If he feels for her half what she does for him, holding her will tie a cord to him he’ll never be able to cut.”

Nynaeve stood, forcing her knees straight. “You can make the beds and clean the room, now. I expect to find it spotless when I return.”

“How much time do you have?” Moghedien said before she reached the door. The woman could have been asking whether the water was hot for tea. “A few more days at most before they send their answer back to Tar Valon? A few hours? How will they balance Rand al’Thor, and even Elaida’s supposed crimes, against making their precious White Tower whole again?”

“Pay special attention to the chamber pots,” Nynaeve said without turning around. “I want them clean this time.” She left before Moghedien could say anything else, shutting the door behind her firmly.

She leaned back against the rough wooden planks, breathing deeply in the cramped windowless hallway. Dipping into her belt pouch, she plucked out a small sack and popped two frilly goosemint leaves into her mouth. Goosemint took time to soothe a burning belly, but she chewed and swallowed as though haste could make it work faster. The last few moments had been one blow after another as Moghedien shattered one thing after another that she had known. Even with all her distrust, she had believed the woman cowed. False. Oh, Light, false. She had been sure Moghedien knew almost as little about Elayne and Rand as the Aes Sedai did. False. And for her to suggest going to him... They had talked too freely in front of her. What else had they let slip, and what use could Moghedien make of it?

Another Accepted entered the dim hall from the small house’s front room, and Nynaeve straightened, tucking the goosemint away and smoothing her dress. Every room but the front one had been made into sleeping quarters, and Accepted and servants filled them, three or four to a room not much larger than the one behind her and sometimes two to a bed. The other Accepted was a slight woman, almost wispy, with gray eyes and a quick grin. An Illianer, Emara did not like Siuan or Leane, which Nynaeve found easy to understand, and thought they should be sent away—decently, as she put it—the way stilled women always had been, but aside from that she was pleasant, not even resenting Elayne and Nynaeve’s “extra space” or “Marigan” doing their chores. No few did.

“I hear you do be copying for Janya and Delana,” she said in her high-pitched voice, brushing past toward her own room. “Take my advice, and write as fast you can. Janya does care more for getting all her words down than for a few smudges.”

Nynaeve glared at Emara’s back. Write slow for Delana. Write fast for Janya. A fine lot of counsel that added up to. In any case, she could not make herself worry about blotting copy now. Or even about Moghedien, until she had a chance to talk it over with Elayne.

Shaking her head and muttering under her breath, she stalked outside. Maybe she had been taking things for granted, letting things slip, but it was time to give herself a good shake and stop it. She knew who she had to find.

In the last few days a quiet had settled over Salidar, although the streets were just as crowded. For one thing, the forges outside the village were silent. Everyone had been told to guard their tongues while Tarna was there, about the embassy on its way to Caemlyn, about Logain, who was safely tucked away in one of the soldiers’ camps, even about the soldiers themselves, and why they had been gathered. It left most fearful of saying anything at all above a whisper. The low buzz of talk had an anxious note.

Everyone was affected. Servants who normally hurried now moved hesitantly, casting fearful glances over their shoulders. Even Aes Sedai seemed wary beneath their calm, eyeing each other in a calculating manner. There were few soldiers in the streets now, as though Tarna had not seen her fill the first day and come to her own conclusions. The wrong answer to the Hall would put nooses around all their necks; even rulers and nobles who wanted to stand aside from the Tower troubles would likely hang any soldiers they laid hands on, just to keep the notion of rebellion from spreading. Feeling the uncertainty, those few wore carefully blank faces or anxious frowns. Except for Gareth Bryne, waiting patiently in front of the Little Tower. He had been there every day, from before the Sitters arrived until they left. She thought he wanted to make sure they remembered him, and what he was doing for them. The one time she had seen the Sitters coming out, they had not appeared pleased to see him.

Only the Warders seemed no different for the Red sister’s arrival. The Warders and the children. Nynaeve gave a start when three small girls burst up in front of her like quail, ribbons in their hair, sweaty, dusty and laughing as they ran. The children did not know what Salidar waited for, and likely would not understand if they did know. Each Warder would follow his Aes Sedai, whatever she decided and wherever she went, and never turn a hair.

Most of the muted talk seemed to be about the weather. That and tales from elsewhere about strange happenings, two-headed calves talking and men smothered by swarms of flies, all the children in a village disappearing in the middle of the night and people struck dead by something unseen in broad daylight. Anyone who could think clearly knew that the drought and unseasonable heat were the Dark One’s hand touching the world, but even most Aes Sedai doubted Elayne and Nynaeve’s claims that the other happenings were as real, that bubbles of evil were rising from the Dark One’s prison as the seals weakened, rising and drifting along the Pattern till they burst. Most people could not think clearly. Some blamed it all on Rand. Some said the Creator was displeased that the world had not gathered behind the Dragon Reborn, or displeased that the Aes Sedai had not captured and gentled him, or displeased that Aes Sedai were opposing a seated Amyrlin. Nynaeve had heard people say the weather would come right as soon as the Tower was whole again. She pushed through the crowd.

“... swear it’s true!” murmured a cook all flour to her elbows. “There’s a Whitecloak army massed the other side of the Eldar, just waiting word from Elaida to attack.” Aside from the weather and two-headed calves, tales of Whitecloaks outnumbered every other sort, but Whitecloaks waiting orders from Elaida? The heat had melted the woman’s brains!

“The Light stand witness, it’s true,” a grizzled carter muttered to a frowning woman whose well-cut wool dress marked her an Aes Sedai’s maid. “Elaida’s dead. The Red’s come to summon Sheriam to be the new Amyrlin.” The woman nodded, accepting every word of it.

“I say Elaida’s a fine Amyrlin,” one rough-coated man said, shifting a bundle of fagots on his shoulder. “As fine as any.” He did not murmur to his companion. He spoke loudly, trying hard not to look around to see who had heard him.

Nynaeve’s mouth twisted sourly. He wanted to be overheard. How had Elaida discovered Salidar so quickly? Tarna must have left Tar Valon soon after Aes Sedai began gathering in the village. Siuan had pointed out darkly that a goodly number of Blue sisters were still missing—the original message to gather in Salidar had been aimed at Blues—and Alviarin was accomplished at applying the question. A stomach-turning thought, but not as wrenching as the most common explanation: secret supporters of Elaida here in Salidar. Everybody looked sideways at everybody else, and the woodman was not the first Nynaeve had heard say much the same, in the same manner. Aes Sedai might not say it, but Nynaeve suspected some wanted to. It all stirred Salidar into a stew, and not a tasty one. It made what she was doing even more right.

Finding who she sought took time. She needed groups of children playing, and there were not many children in Salidar. Sure enough, Birgitte was watching five boys scramble about the street throwing a small bag of pebbles at each other, all laughing uproariously whenever one of them was hit, including the one hit. It made no more sense than most boys’ games. Or men’s.

Birgitte was not alone, of course. She seldom was unless she made an effort to be. Areina stood at her shoulder, dabbing at the perspiration streaming down her face and trying not to show boredom with the children. A year or two younger than Nynaeve, Areina wore her dark hair in a braid patterned after Birgitte’s golden one, though still little below her shoulders; Birgitte’s hung properly to the waist. Her clothes copied Birgitte, too, a waist-length coat of pale gray and voluminous bronze-colored trousers, gathered at the ankle above short boots with raised heels, as did the bow she carried and the quiver at her waist. Nynaeve did not think Areina had ever held a bow before meeting Birgitte. She ignored the woman.

“I need to talk to you,” she told Birgitte. “Alone.”

Areina glanced at her, blue eyes close to contempt. “I’d think you’d be wearing your shawl this fine day, Nynaeve. Oh, my. You seem to be sweating like a horse. Why is that?”

Nynaeve’s face tightened. She had befriended the woman before Birgitte had, but the friendship melted on reaching Salidar. Learning that Nynaeve was not full Aes Sedai brought something more than disappointment. Only a request from Birgitte had held Areina back from informing the Aes Sedai that she had masqueraded as one. Besides, Areina had taken the oaths as a Hunter for the Horn, and Birgitte was certainly a better model for that life than Nynaeve. To think she had once pitied the woman her bruises!

“From your face,” Birgitte said with a sweaty grin, “either you’re ready to strangle somebody—probably Areina here—or else your dress fell off in the middle of a pack of soldiers and you weren’t wearing a shift.” Areina snorted a laugh, but she looked shocked. Why she should, Nynaeve did not know; the woman had had plenty of time to become used to Birgitte’s so-called sense of humor, more suited as it was to some unshaven man with his nose in a mug and his belly full of ale.

Nynaeve studied the boys’ play for a minute to give her irritation a chance to die down. Worse than useless to let herself get angry when she had a favor to ask.

Seve and Jaril were among the boys dodging and tossing the bag. The Yellows had been right about them; time was what they had needed. After close to two months in Salidar with other children and no fear, they laughed and shouted as loudly as the rest.

A sudden thought hit her like a hammer. “Marigan” still looked after them, if grudgingly, saw that they were bathed and fed, but now that they were talking again, at any time they might tell that the woman was not their mother. Perhaps they already had. That might not cause questions, but then again it might, and questions could bring the house of twigs they had built tumbling down on their heads. The ball of ice reappeared in the pit of Nynaeve’s belly. Why had she not thought of this before?

She gave a start as Birgitte touched her arm. “What is wrong, Nynaeve? You look as though your best friend died and cursed you with her last breath.”

Areina was striding away, stiff-backed, casting, one look over her shoulder at them. The woman could watch Birgitte drink and flirt with men without turning a hair, and even try to emulate her, yet she bristled every time Birgitte wanted to be alone with Elayne or Nynaeve. Men were no threat; only women could be friends in Areina’s book, but only she could be Birgitte’s friend. The idea of having two friends seemed foreign to her. Well, enough and be done with her.

“Could you get horses for us?” Nynaeve tried to steady her voice. That was not what she had come to ask, but Seve and Jaril made it an excellent question. “How long will it take?”

Birgitte drew her out of the street, to the mouth of a narrow alley between two weathered houses, and looked around carefully before answering. No one was close enough to overhear, or pay them any mind. “A day or two. Uno was just telling me—”

“Not Uno! We will leave him out of this. Just you, me, Elayne and Marigan. Unless Thorn and Juilin return in time. And Areina, I suppose, if you insist.”

“Areina’s a fool some ways,” Birgitte said slowly, “but life will wring that out of her, or wring her out. You know I’d never insist on her going along if you and Elayne don’t want her.”

Nynaeve kept silent. The woman was behaving as if she was the jealous one! It was none of her affair if Birgitte wanted to take up with somebody as fickle as Areina.

Rubbing a knuckle across her lips, Birgitte frowned. “Thorn and Juilin are good men, but the best way to avoid trouble is to make sure no one wants to trouble you. A dozen or so Shienarans in armor—or out—would go a long way toward that. I don’t understand you and Uno. He is tough, and he’d follow you and Elayne into the Pit of Doom.” A sudden grin bloomed on her face. “Besides, he’s a well-set-up fellow.”

“We do not need anyone to hold our hands,” Nynaeve told her stiffly. Well set up? That painted eyepatch flashed queasily across her mind, and the scars. The woman had the strangest taste in men. “We can handle anything that comes our way. I’d think we’ve already proved that, if it needed proof.”

“I know we can, Nynaeve, but we’ll draw trouble like flies to a midden. Altara’s at a slow boil. Every day brings another tale of Dragonsworn, and I’ll wager my best silk dress against one of your old shifts that half of them are really just brigands who’ll see four women alone as easy meat. We will have to prove we’re not every second day. Murandy’s worse, I hear, full of Dragonsworn and bandits and refugees from Cairhien, afraid the Dragon Reborn will fall on them any day. I assume you don’t mean to cross over into Amadicia. I assume it’s Caemlyn.” Her intricate braid swung slightly as she tilted her head and raised a questioning eyebrow. “Does Elayne agree with you about Uno?”

“She will,” Nynaeve muttered.

“I see. Well, when she does, I will procure as many horses as we need. But I want her to tell me why we should not take Uno.”

The unyielding finality of her tone heated Nynaeve’s face angrily. If she did ask Elayne ever so sweetly to tell Birgitte that Uno was to stay here, they might well find him waiting down the road, and Birgitte all amazement over how he knew they were going and which way. The woman might be Elayne’s Warder, but sometimes Nynaeve wondered which of them was really in charge. When she found Lan—when, not if!—she intended to make him swear oaths fit to curl his hair that he would abide by her decisions.

She drew deep calming breaths. No point arguing with a stone wall. She might as well get on to the reason she had hunted up Birgitte in the first place.

Casually she took a step deeper into the narrow alley, making the other woman follow. Brown stubble remained underfoot from the brush that had been cleared out of it. Trying to appear offhanded, she studied the press in the street. Still no one giving them more than a glance. She lowered her voice anyway. “We need to know what Tarna is telling the Hall, and what they’re telling her. Elayne and I have tried to find out, but they ward the meetings against eavesdropping. Only with the Power, though. They’re so caught up that someone can listen in that way, they seem to have forgotten about pressing an ear to a door. If someone were to—”

Birgitte cut her off in a flat voice. “No.”

“At least consider it. Elayne or I are ten times as likely to be caught as you.” She thought of adding that Elayne was rather clever, but the other woman sniffed.

“I said no! You’ve been many things since I’ve known you, Nynaeve, but never silly. Light, they’ll announce it to everyone in a day or two.”

“We need to know now,” Nynaeve hissed, swallowing. “You man-brained idiot.” Silly? Of course she had never been silly! She must not be angry. If she could convince Elayne to go, they might not be here in a day or two. Best not to open that bag of snakes again.

Shuddering—a touch ostentatiously, Nynaeve thought—Birgitte leaned on her bow. “I was caught spying on Aes Sedai once. They tossed me out on my ear three days later, and I left Shaemal as fast as I could reach a horse. I will not go through that to gain you a day you don’t need.”

Nynaeve remained calm. She made an effort to maintain a smooth face, to not grind her teeth, to not yank her braid. She was calm. “I never heard any story about you spying on Aes Sedai.” As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she wanted them back. The core of Birgitte’s secret was that she was the Birgitte in the stories. Nothing that made that connection was ever to be mentioned.

For a moment Birgitte’s face was stone, hiding everything inside. It was enough to make Nynaeve shiver; there was too much pain wrapped in the other woman’s secret. Finally stone became flesh once more, and Birgitte sighed. “Time changes things. I hardly recognize half those tales myself, and the other half not at all. We’ll not speak of it again.” That was very plainly not a suggestion.

Nynaeve opened her mouth with no clear idea of what to say—her own debt to Birgitte meant she did not want to poke at the woman’s pain, but to be balked over two simple requests ... !—and a third woman’s voice spoke suddenly from the mouth of the alley.

“Nynaeve, Janya and Delana want you right this minute.”

Nynaeve tried to climb straight up into the air; her heart tried to climb through the roof of her mouth.

In the mouth of the alley, novice-clad Nicola looked startled for a moment. So did Birgitte; then she studied her bow, looking amused.

Nynaeve had to swallow twice before she could force a word out. How much had the woman heard? “If you think that’s any way to speak to an Accepted, Nicola, you had best learn better quickly, or you will be taught.”

It was a properly Aes Sedai thing to say, but the slender woman’s dark eyes surveyed Nynaeve, weighing and measuring. “I am sorry, Accepted,” she said, curtsying. “I will try to be more careful.”

The curtsy was just exactly deep enough for an Accepted, to the inch, and if the tone was cool, it was not cool enough to call her down for. Areina had not been the only traveling companion disappointed by learning the truth about Elayne and Nynaeve, but Nicola had agreed to keep the secret as if surprised they thought they had to ask. Then, after testing revealed she could learn to channel, the weighing and measuring entered her eyes.

Nynaeve understood all too well. Nicola lacked the inborn spark—without teaching, she would never have touched saidar—but already her promise was spoken of, the strength she would have one day if she applied herself. Two years earlier, with more potential than any novice in centuries, she would have caused real excitement. That was before Elayne and Egwene, and Nynaeve herself, though. Nicola never said anything, yet Nynaeve was certain she was determined to match Elayne and Nynaeve, if not better them. She never stepped over the line of propriety, but she often walked it.

Nynaeve gave her a sharp nod. Understanding did not stop her wanting to dose the fool woman with triple-strength sheeps-tongue root for pure idiocy. “See that you do. Go tell the Aes Sedai I will be with them in just a few moments.” Nicola curtsied again, but as she turned away, Nynaeve said, “Wait.” The woman stopped immediately. It was not there now, but for an instant Nynaeve had been sure she saw a flash of—satisfaction? “Did you tell me everything?”

“I was sent to tell you to come, Accepted, and I did.” Bland as water a week in the pitcher.

“What did they say? Their exact words.”

“Exact words, Accepted? I don’t know that I can remember their exact words, but I’ll try. Remember it was them who said it; I’m only repeating. Janya Sedai said something like, ‘If that fool girl doesn’t show up soon, I vow she won’t be able to sit down comfortably until she’s old enough to be a grandmother.’ And Delana Sedai said, ‘She’ll be that old before she decides to appear. If she isn’t here inside the quarter hour, I will turn her hide into dust rags.’ ” Her eyes were innocence itself. “That was about twenty minutes ago, Accepted. Maybe a little longer.”

Nynaeve very nearly swallowed again. Just because Aes Sedai could not lie did not mean every threat had to be taken literally, but sometimes a sparrow would starve on the difference. With anybody but Nicola, she would have yelped “Oh, Light!” and scurried. Not under those eyes. Not in front of a woman who seemed to be storing up a list of her weaknesses. “In that case, I suppose there’s no need for you to run ahead of me. Go on about your duties.” Turning her back on Nicola’s curtsy as if she had no care in the world, she spoke to Birgitte. “I’ll talk with you later. I suggest you do nothing about the matter until then.” With luck that might keep her away from Uno. With a great deal of luck.

“I will consider your suggestion,” Birgitte said gravely, but there was nothing grave about the mixture of sympathy and amusement on her face. The woman knew Aes Sedai. In some ways, she knew more about Aes Sedai than any Aes Sedai.

There was nothing for it but to accept and hope. As Nynaeve started up the street, Nicola fell in beside her. “I told you to be about your duties.”

“They said to come back when I found you, Accepted. Is that one of your herbs? Why do you use herbs? Is it because you can’t—? Forgive me, Accepted. I should not have mentioned that.”

Nynaeve blinked at the sack of goosemint in her hand—she did not remember taking it out—and stuffed it back in her pouch. She wanted to chew the whole sackful of leaves. She ignored the apology and its cause; one was surely as false as the other was deliberate. “I use herbs because Healing isn’t always necessary.” Would the Yellows disapprove if that got back to them? They were contemptuous of herbs; they only seemed interested in illnesses that did need Healing. Or those where it was not cracking pecans with a sledgehammer, anyway. What was she doing worrying over what she said to Nicola in case it should be carried to Aes Sedai? The woman was a novice, no matter how she looked at her and Elayne. It did not matter how she looked at them. “Keep quiet,” she said irritably. “I want to think.”

Nicola did keep quiet as they wended their way through the crowded streets, but it seemed to Nynaeve that the woman’s steps dragged. Perhaps it was only imagination, but Nynaeve’s knees began to ache from the effort of not outpacing her. Under no circumstances would she let Nicola see her even appear to hurry.

The situation set a slow burn inside her. Of everybody who could have been sent to fetch her, it was hard to imagine anyone worse than Nicola and her eyes. Birgitte was probably running off to find Uno right that minute. The Sitters were probably telling Tarna they were ready to kneel and kiss Elaida’s ring. Seve and Jaril were probably telling Sheriam they did not know “Marigan” from a wild goose. It had been that kind of day, and the molten sun stood only a quarter toward its peak in the cloudless sky.

Janya and Delana were waiting in the front room of the small house they shared with three other Aes Sedai. Each with her own bedroom, of course. Each Ajah had a house for its meetings, but Aes Sedai were scattered about through the village depending on when they had come in. Frowning at the floor, lips pursed, Janya appeared unaware of their arrival. Pale-haired Delana, though—her hair was so fair there was no telling whether there was white in it or not—Delana focused her equally pale blue eyes on them as soon as they set foot inside the door. Nicola jumped. Nynaeve would have felt better about that had she not done the same. Usually the stout Gray’s eyes were no different from any other Aes Sedai’s, but when she really focused on you, it was as if nothing else existed but you. Some said Delana was successful as a mediator because both sides would agree just to make her stop staring at them. You started thinking of what you had done wrong even if you had done nothing. The list that popped into Nynaeve’s head made her curtsy as deeply as Nicola before she knew it.

“Ah,” Janya said, blinking as if they had sprung out of the floor, “there you are.”

“Forgive me for being late,” Nynaeve said hastily. Let Nicola hear whatever she wanted. Delana was staring at her, not Nicola. “I lost track of the time, and—”

“No matter.” Delana’s voice was deep for a woman, her accent a throaty echo of Uno’s Shienaran. It was oddly melodious in such a round woman, but then Delana was oddly graceful for one so stout. “Nicola, be off with you. You’ll be running errands for Faolain until your next lesson.” Nicola wasted no time dropping another curtsy and darting out. Maybe she had wanted to hear what the Aes Sedai said to Nynaeve for being late, but no one walked any lines with Aes Sedai.

Nynaeve would not have cared if Nicola sprouted wings. She had just realized there was no inkpot on the table where the Aes Sedai took their meals, no sand bowl, no pen, no paper. None of what she would need. Had she been supposed to bring it? Delana was still staring at her. The woman never stared at anyone that long. She never stared at all unless she had a reason.

“Would you like cool mint tea?” Janya said, and it was Nynaeve’s turn to blink. “I do think tea is comforting. It smooths conversation, I always find.” Not waiting for an answer, the birdlike Brown sister began filling mismatched cups from a blue-striped teapot on the sideboard. A rock stood in place of one of the sideboard’s legs. Aes Sedai might have more room, but their furnishings were just as battered. “Delana and I decided our notes could wait for another time. We will just talk, instead. Honey? I prefer it without, myself. All that sweetness ruins the flavor. Young women always want their honey. Such wonderful things, you’ve been doing. You and Elayne.” A loud throat-clearing made her look at Delana questioningly. After a moment Janya said, “Ah. Yes.”

Delana had pulled one of the chairs from the table into the middle of the bare floor. One cane-bottomed chair. From the moment Janya mentioned conversation Nynaeve had known that that was not at all what was going to happen. Delana motioned to the chair, and Nynaeve took a seat on the very edge of it, accepted a cup on a chipped saucer from Janya with a murmured “Thank you, Aes Sedai.” She did not have long to wait.

“Tell us about Rand al’Thor,” Janya said. She appeared ready to say more, but Delana cleared her throat again; Janya blinked and fell silent, sipping her tea. They stood to either side of Nynaeve’s chair. Delana glanced at her, then sighed and channeled the third cup to herself. It floated across the room. Delana fixed on her again in that way that seemed to bore holes in your head, Janya apparently lost in thought and maybe not seeing her at all.

“I’ve told you everything I know,” Nynaeve sighed. “Well, told Aes Sedai, anyway.” She had, too. Nothing she knew could harm him—not any more than knowing what he was, anyway—and it might help if she could make the sisters see him as a man. Not a man who could channel; just a man. Not an easy task with the Dragon Reborn. “I don’t know any more.”

“Don’t sulk,” Delana snapped. “And don’t fidget.”

Nynaeve set her cup back in the saucer and wiped her wrist on her skirt.

“Child,” Janya said, her tone all compassion, “I know you think you’ve told all you know, but Delana... I cannot think you would hold back on purpose—”

“Why would she not?” Delana barked. “Born in the same village. Watched him grow up. Her loyalties may be more to him than to the White Tower.” That razor gaze descended on Nynaeve again. “Tell us something you haven’t told before. I’ve heard all your stories, girl, so I will know.”

“Try, child. I’m sure you don’t want to make Delana angry with you. Why—” Janya cut off at another throat-clearing.

Nynaeve hoped they thought her teacup rattling meant she was rattled as