Book Seven


To Harriet,
who deserves the credit
once again


There can be no health in us, nor any good thing grow, for the land is one with the Dragon Reborn, and he one with the land. Soul of fire, heart of stone, in pride he conquers, forcing the proud to yield. He calls upon the mountains to kneel, and the seas to give way, and the very skies to bow. Pray that the heart of stone remembers tears, and the soul of fire, love.

—From a much-disputed translation of The Prophecies of the Dragon
by the poet Kyera Termendal, of Shiota,
believed to have been published between
FY 700 and FY 800


From the tall arched window, close onto eighty spans above the ground, not far below the top of the White Tower, Elaida could see for miles beyond Tar Valon, to the rolling plains and forests that bordered the broad River Erinin, running down from north and west before it divided around the white walls of the great island city. On the ground, long morning shadows must have been dappling the city, but from this prominence all seemed clear and bright. Not even the fabled “topless towers” of Cairhien had truly rivaled the White Tower: Certainly none of Tar Valon’s lesser towers did, for all that men spoke far and wide of them and their vaulting sky-bridges.

This high, an almost constant breeze lessened the unnatural heat gripping the world. The Feast of Lights past, snow should have covered the ground deep, yet the weather belonged in the depths of a hard summer. Another sign that the Last Battle approached and the Dark One touched the world, if more were needed. Elaida did not let the heat touch her even when she descended, of course. The breeze was not why she had had her quarters moved up here, despite the inconvenience of so many stairs, to these simple rooms.

Plain russet floor tiles and white marble walls decorated by a few tapestries could not compare with the grandeur of the Amyrlin’s study and the rooms that went with it far below. She still used those rooms occasionally—they held associations with the power of the Amyrlin Seat in some minds—but she resided here, and worked here more often than not. For the view. Not of city or river or forests, though. Of what was beginning in the Tower grounds. Great diggings and foundations spread across what had been the Warders’ practice yard, tall wooden cranes and stacks of cut marble and granite. Masons and laborers swarmed over the workings like ants, and endless streams of wagons trailed through the gates onto the Tower grounds, bringing more stone. To one side stood a wooden “working model,” as the masons called it, big enough for men to enter crouching on their heels and see every detail, where every stone should go. Most of the workmen could not read, after all—neither words nor mason’s drawn plans. The “working model” was as large as some manor houses.

When any king or queen had a palace, why should the Amyrlin Seat be relegated to apartments little better than those of many ordinary sisters? Her palace would match the White Tower for splendor, and have a great spire ten spans higher than the Tower itself. The blood had drained from the chief mason’s face when he heard that. The Tower had been Ogier-built, with assistance from sisters using the Power. One look at Elaida’s face, however, set Master Lerman bowing and stammering that of course all would be done as she wished. As if there had been any question.

Her mouth tightened with exasperation. She had wanted Ogier masons again, but the Ogier were confining themselves to their stedding for some reason. Her summons to the nearest, Stedding Jentoine, in the Black Hills, had been met with refusal. Polite, yet still refusal, without explanation, even to the Amyrlin Seat. Ogier were reclusive at best. Or they might be withdrawing from a world full of turmoil; Ogier stayed clear of human strife.

Firmly Elaida dismissed the Ogier from her mind. She prided herself on separating what could be from what could not. Ogier were a triviality. They had no part in the world beyond the cities they had built so long ago and seldom visited now except to make repairs.

The men below, crawling beetle-like over the building site, made her frown slightly. Construction went forward by inches. Ogier might be out of the question, yet perhaps the One Power could be used again. Few sisters possessed real strength in weaving Earth, but not that much was required to reinforce stone, or bind stone to stone. Yes. In her mind, the palace stood finished, colonnaded walks and great domes shining with gilt and that one spire reaching to the heavens... Her eyes rose to the cloudless sky, to where the spire would peak, and she let out a long sigh. Yes. The orders would be issued today. The towering case clock in the room behind her chimed Third Rise, and in the city gongs and bells pealed the hour, the sound faint here, so high above. With a smile, Elaida left the window, smoothing her red-slashed dress of cream silk and adjusting the broad, striped stole of the Amyrlin Seat on her shoulders.

On the ornately gilded clock, small figures of gold and silver and enamel moved with the chimes. Horned and snouted Trollocs fled from a cloaked Aes Sedai on one level; on another a man representing a false Dragon tried to fend off silver lightning bolts that had obviously been hurled by a second sister. And above the clockface, itself above her head, a crowned king and queen knelt before an Amyrlin Seat in her enameled stole, with the Flame of Tar Valon, carved from a large moonstone, atop a golden arch over her head.

She did not laugh often, but she could not help a quietly pleased chuckle at the clock. Cemaile Sorenthaine, raised from the Gray, had commissioned it dreaming of a return to the days before the Trolloc Wars, when no ruler held a throne without the Tower’s approval. Cemaile’s grand plans came to naught, however, as did Cemaile, and for three centuries the clock sat in a dusty storage room, an embarrassment no one dared display. Until Elaida. The Wheel of Time turned. What was once, could be again. Would be again.

The case clock balanced the door to her sitting room, and her bed-chamber and dressing room beyond. Fine tapestries, colorful work from Tear and Kandor and Arad Doman, with thread-of-gold and thread-of-silver glittering among the merely dyed, hung each exactly opposite its mate. She had always liked order. The carpet covering most of the tiles came from Tarabon, patterned in red and green and gold; silk carpets were the most precious. In each corner of the room a marble plinth carved in unpretentious verticals held a white vase of fragile Sea Folk porcelain with two dozen carefully arranged red roses. To make roses bloom now required the One Power, especially with the drought and heat; a worthwhile use, in her opinion. Gilded carving covered both the only chair—no one sat in her presence now—and the writing table, but in the stark style of Cairhien. A simple room, really, with a ceiling barely two spans high, yet it would do until her palace was ready. With the view, it would.

The tall chairback held the Flame of Tar Valon picked out in moon-stones above her dark head as she sat. Nothing marred the polished surface of the table except for three boxes of Altaran lacquerwork, arranged just so. Opening the box covered with golden hawks among white clouds, she removed a slim strip of thin paper from atop the pile of reports and correspondence inside. For what must have been the hundredth time, she read the message come from Cairhien by pigeon twelve days ago. Few in the Tower knew of its existence. None but she knew its contents, or would have a glimmer of what it meant if they did. The thought almost made her laugh again.

The ring has been placed in the bull’s nose. I expect a pleasant journey to market.No signature, yet she needed none. Only Galina Casban had known to send that glorious message. Galina, whom Elaida trusted to do what she would have trusted to no one else save herself. Not that she trusted anyone fully, but the head of the Red Ajah more than any other. She herself had been raised from the Red, after all, and in many ways still thought of herself as Red.

The ring has been placed in the bull’s nose.Rand al’Thor—the Dragon Reborn, the man who had seemed on the point of swallowing the world, the man who had swallowed entirely too much of it—Rand al’Thor was shielded and in Galina’s control. And none who might support him knew. Even a chance of that, and the wording would have been different. By various earlier messages, it seemed he had rediscovered how to Travel, a Talent lost to Aes Sedai since the Breaking, yet that had not saved him. It had even played into Galina’s hands. Apparently he had a habit of coming and going without warning. Who would suspect that this time he had not gone, but been taken? Something very like a giggle rose in her.

Inside another week, two at most, al’Thor would be in the Tower, closely supervised and guided safely until Tarmon Gai’don, his ravaging of the world stopped. It was madness to allow any man who could channel to run free, but most of all the man prophecy said must face the Dark One in the Last Battle, the Light send that it lay years off yet in spite of the weather. Years would be needed to arrange the world properly, beginning with undoing what al’Thor had done.

Of course, the damage he had wrought was nothing beside what he could have caused, free. Not to mention the possibility that he might have gotten himself killed before he was needed. Well, that troublesome young man would be wrapped in swaddling and kept safe as an infant in his mother’s arms until time to take him to Shayol Ghul. After that, if he survived...

Elaida’s lips pursed. The Prophecies of the Dragon seemed to say he would not, which undeniably would be for the best.

“Mother?” Elaida almost gave a start as Alviarin spoke. Entering without so much as a knock! “I have word from the Ajahs, Mother.” Slim and cool-faced, Alviarin wore the Keeper’s narrow stole in white, matching her dress, to show she had been raised from the White, but in her mouth “Mother” became less a title of respect and more an address to an equal.

Alviarin’s presence was enough to dent Elaida’s good mood. That the Keeper of Chronicles came from the White, not the Red, always served as a biting reminder of her weakness when she was first raised. Some of that had been dispelled, true, but not all. Not yet. She was tired of regretting that she had so few personal eyes-and-ears outside Andor. And that her predecessor and Alviarin’s had escaped—been helped to escape; they must have had help!—escaped before the keys to the Amyrlin’s great network could be wrested out of them.

She more than wanted the network that was hers by right. By strong tradition the Ajahs sent to the Keeper whatever dribbles from their own eyes-and-ears they were willing to share with the Amyrlin, but Elaida was convinced the woman kept back some of even that trickle. Yet she could not ask the Ajahs for information directly. Bad enough to be weak without going begging to the world. The Tower, anyway, which was as much of the world as really counted.

Elaida kept her own face every bit as cool as the other woman’s, acknowledging her only with a nod while she pretended to examine papers from the lacquered box. Slowly she turned them over one by one, returned them to the box slowly. Without really seeing a word. Making Alviarin wait was bitter, because it was petty, and petty ways were all she had to strike at one who should have been her servant.

An Amyrlin could issue any decree she wished, her word law and absolute. Yet as a practical matter, without support from the Hall of the Tower, many of those decrees were wasted ink and paper. No sister would disobey an Amyrlin, not directly at least, yet many decrees required a hundred other things ordered to implement them. In the best of times that could come slowly on occasion so slowly it never happened, and these were far from the best.

Alviarin stood there, calm as a frozen pond. Closing the Altaran box, Elaida kept out the strip of paper that announced her sure victory. Unconsciously she fingered it, a talisman. “Has Teslyn or Joline finally deigned to send more than word of their safe arrival?”

That was meant to remind Alviarin that no one could consider herself immune. Nobody cared what happened in Ebou Dar, Elaida least of all; the capital of Altara could fall into the sea, and except for the merchants, not even the rest of Altara would notice. But Teslyn had sat in the Hall nearly fifteen years before Elaida had commanded her to resign her chair. If Elaida could send a Sitter—a Red Sitter—who had supported her rise off as ambassador to a flyspeck throne with no one sure why but a hundred rumors flowering, then she could come down on anyone. Joline was a different matter. She had held her chair for the Green only a matter of weeks, and everyone was sure the Greens had selected her to show they would not be cowed by the new Amyrlin, who had handed her a fearsome penance. That bit of insolence could not be allowed to pass, of course, and had not been. Everyone knew that, too.

It was meant to remind Alviarin that she was vulnerable, but the slim woman merely smiled her cool smile. So long as the Hall remained as it was, she was immune. She riffled through the papers in her hand, plucking one out. “No word from Teslyn or Joline, Mother, no, though with the news you have received so far from the thrones...” That smile deepened into something dangerously close to amusement. “They all mean to try their wings, to see if you are as strong as... as your predecessor.” Even Alviarin had enough sense not to speak the Sanche woman’s name in her presence. It was true, though; every king and queen, even mere nobles, seemed to be testing the limits of her power. She must make examples.

Glancing at the paper, Alviarin went on. “There is word from Ebou Dar, however. Through the Gray.” Had she emphasized that, to drive the splinter deeper? “It appears Elayne Trakand and Nynaeve al’Meara are there. Posing as full sisters, with the blessings of the rebel... embassy... to Queen Tylin. There are two others, not identified, who may be doing the same. The lists of who is with the rebels are incomplete. Or they may just be companions. The Grays are uncertain.”

“Why under the Light would they be in Ebou Dar?” Elaida said dismissively. Certainly Teslyn would have sent news of that. “The Gray must be passing along rumors, now. Tarna’s message said they are with the rebels in Salidar.” Tarna Feir had reported Siuan Sanche there, too. And Logain Ablar, spreading those vicious lies no Red sister could lower herself to acknowledge, much less deny. The Sanche woman had a hand in that obscenity, or the sun would rise in the west tomorrow. Why could she not simply have crawled away and died, decently out of sight, like other stilled women?

It required effort not to draw a deep breath. Logain could be hanged quietly as soon as the rebels were dealt with; most of the world thought him dead long since. The filthy slander that the Red Ajah had set him up as a false Dragon would die with him. When the rebels were dealt with, the Sanche woman could be made to hand over the keys to the Amyrlin’s eyes-and-ears. And name the traitors who had helped her escape. A foolish hope to wish that Alviarin would be named among them. “I can hardly see the al’Meara girl running to Ebou Dar claiming to be Aes Sedai, much less Elayne, can you?”

“You did order Elayne found, Mother. As important as putting a leash on al’Thor, you said. When she was among three hundred rebels in Salidar, it was impossible to do anything, but she will not be so well protected in the Tarasin Palace.”

“I have no time for gossip and rumors.” Elaida bit off each word with contempt. Did Alviarin know more than she should, mentioning al’Thor, and leashing? “I suggest you read Tarna’s report again, then ask yourself whether even rebels would allow Accepted to pretend to the shawl.”

Alviarin waited with visible patience for her to finish, then examined her sheaf again and pulled out four more sheets. “The Gray agent sent sketches,” she said blandly, proffering the pages. “He is no artist, but Elayne and Nynaeve are recognizable.” After a moment, when Elaida did not take the drawings, she slipped them under the rest.

Elaida felt the color of anger and embarrassment rising in her cheeks. Alviarin had led her down this path deliberately by not bringing out those sketches at the first. She ignored that—anything else would only be more embarrassing still—but her voice became cold. “I want them taken, and brought to me.”

The lack of curiosity on Alviarin’s face made Elaida wonder again how much the woman knew that she was not supposed to. The al’Meara girl might well provide a handle on al’Thor, coming from the same village. All the sisters knew that, just as they knew that Elayne was Daughter-Heir of Andor, and that her mother was dead. Vague rumors linking Morgase to the Whitecloaks were so much nonsense, for she would never have gone to the Children of the Light for help. She was dead, leaving not even a corpse behind, and Elayne would be Queen. If she could be wrested away from the rebels before the Andoran Houses put Dyelin on the Lion Throne instead. It was not widely known what made Elayne more important than any other noble with a strong claim to a throne. Aside from the fact that she would be Aes Sedai one day, of course.

Elaida had the Foretelling sometimes, a Talent many thought lost before her, and long ago she had Foretold that the Royal House of Andor held the key to winning the Last Battle. Twenty-five years gone and more, as soon as it became clear that Morgase Trakand would gain the throne in the Succession, Elaida had fastened herself to the girl, as she was then. How Elayne was crucial, Elaida did not know, but Foretelling never lied. Sometimes she almost hated the Talent. She hated things she could not control.

“I want all four of them, Alviarin.” The other two were unimportant, certainly, but she would take no chances. “Send my command to Teslyn immediately. Tell her—and Joline—that if they fail to send regular reports from now on, they will wish they had never been born. Include the information from the Macura woman.” Her mouth twisted around that last.

The name made Alviarin shift uneasily, too, and no wonder. Ronde Macura’s nasty little infusion was something to make any sister uncomfortable. Forkroot was not lethal—at least you woke, if you drank enough to sleep—but a tea that deadened a woman’s ability to channel seemed aimed too directly at Aes Sedai. A pity the information had not been received before Galina went; if fork-root worked on men as well as it seemed to on women, it would have made her task considerably easier.

Alviarin’s ill ease lasted only a moment; a mere instant and she was all self-possession again, unyielding as a wall of ice. “As you wish, Mother. I am sure they will leap to obey, as of course they should.”

A sudden flash of irritation swept Elaida like fire in dry pasture. The fate of the world in her hands, and petty stumbling blocks kept rising beneath her feet. Bad enough that she had rebels and recalcitrant rulers to handle, but too many Sitters still brooded and grumbled behind her back, fertile ground for the other woman to plow. Only six were firmly under her own thumb, and she suspected as many at least listened closely to Alviarin before they voted. Certainly nothing of importance passed through the Hall unless Alviarin agreed to it. Not open agreement, not with any ac-know ledg ment that Alviarin bore a shred more influence or power than a Keeper should, but if Alviarin opposed... At least they had not gone so far as to reject anything Elaida sent them. They simply dragged their feet and too often let what she wanted starve on the floor. A pitifully small thing for which to be happy. Some Amyrlins had become little more than puppets once the Hall acquired a taste for rejecting what they put forward.

Her hands clenched, and a tiny crackle came from the strip of paper.

The ring has been placed in the bull’s nose.Alviarin looked as composed as a marble statue, but Elaida no longer cared. The shepherd was on his way to her. The rebels would be crushed and the Hall cowed, Alviarin forced to her knees and every fractious ruler brought to heel, from Tenobia of Saldaea, who had gone into hiding to avoid her emissary, to Mattin Stepaneos of Illian, who was trying to play all sides at once again, trying to agree with her and the Whitecloaks, and with al’Thor for all she knew. Elayne would be placed on the throne in Caemlyn, without her brother to get in the way and with a full knowledge of who had set her there. A little time back in the Tower would make the girl damp clay in Elaida’s hands.

“I want those men rooted out, Alviarin.” There was no need to say who she meant; half the Tower could talk of nothing but those men in their Black Tower, and the other half whispered about them in corners.

“There are disturbing reports, Mother.” Alviarin looked through her papers once more, but Elaida thought it was only for something to do. She did not pluck out any more pages, and if nothing else disturbed the woman for long, this unholy midden outside Caemlyn must.

More rumors? Do you believe the tales of thousands flocking to Caemlyn in answer to that obscene amnesty?” Not the least of what al’Thor had done, but hardly cause for worry. Just a pile of filth that must be safely cleared before Elayne was crowned in Caemlyn.

“Of course not, Mother, but—”

“Toveine is to lead; this task belongs properly to the Red.” Toveine Gazal had been fifteen years away from the Tower, until Elaida summoned her back. The other two Red Sitters who had resigned and gone into a “voluntary” retreat at the same time were nervous-eyed women now, but unlike Lirene and Tsutama, Toveine had only hardened in her solitary exile. “She is to have fifty sisters.” There could not be more than two or three men at this Black Tower actually able to channel, Elaida was certain. Fifty sisters could overwhelm them easily. Yet there might be others to deal with. Hangers-on, camp followers, fools full of futile hopes and insane ambitions. “And she is to take a hundred—no, two hundred—of the Guard.”

“Are you certain that is wise? The rumors of thousands are certainly madness, but a Green agent in Caemlyn claims there are over four hundred in this Black Tower. A clever fellow. It seems he counted the supply carts that go out from the city. And you are aware of the rumors Mazrim Taim is with them.”

Elaida fought to keep her features smooth, and barely succeeded. She had forbidden mention of Taim’s name, and it was bitter that she did not dare—did not dare!—impose the penalty on Alviarin. The woman looked her straight in the eyes; the absence of so much as a perfunctory “Mother” this time was marked. And the temerity of asking whether her actions were wise! She was the Amyrlin Seat! Not first among equals; the Amyrlin Seat!

Opening the largest of the lacquered boxes revealed carved ivory miniatures laid out on gray velvet. Often just handling her collection soothed her, but more, like the knitting she enjoyed, it let whoever was attending her know their place, if she seemed to give more attention to the miniatures than to what they had to say. Fingering first an exquisite cat, sleek and flowing, then an elaborately robed woman with a peculiar little animal, some fantasy of the carver, almost like a man covered in hair, crouched on her shoulder, at length Elaida chose out a curving fish, so delicately carved that it seemed nearly real despite the aged yellow of the ivory.

“Four hundred rabble, Alviarin.” She felt calmer already, for Alviarin’s mouth had thinned. Just a fraction, but she savored any crack in the woman’s façade. “If there are that many. Only a fool could believe that more than one or two can channel. At most! In ten years, we have found only six men with the ability. Just twenty-four in the last twenty years. And you know how the land has been scoured. As for Taim...” The name burned her mouth; the only false Dragon ever to escape being gentled once in the hands of Aes Sedai. Not a thing she wanted in the Chronicles under her reign, certainly not until she decided how it should be recorded. At present the Chronicles told nothing after his capture.

She stroked her thumb along the fish’s scales. “He is dead, Alviarin, else we would have heard from him long since. And not serving al’Thor. Can you think he went from claiming to be the Dragon Reborn to serving the Dragon Reborn? Can you think he could be in Caemlyn without Davram Bashere at least trying to kill him?” Her thumb moved faster on the ivory fish as she reminded herself that the Marshal-General of Saldaea was in Caemlyn taking orders from al’Thor. What was Tenobia playing at? Elaida held it all inside, though, presenting a face as calm as one of her carvings.

“Twenty-four is a dangerous number to speak aloud,” Alviarin said with an ominous quiet, “as dangerous as two thousand. The Chronicles record only sixteen. The last thing needed now is for those years to rear up again. Or for sisters who know only what they were told to learn the truth. Even those you brought back hold their silence.”

Elaida put on a bemused look. So far as she knew, Alviarin had learned the truth of those years only on being raised Keeper, but her own knowledge was more personal. Not that Alviarin could be aware of that. Not for certain, anyway. “Daughter, whatever comes out, I have no fear. Who is going to impose a penance on me, and on what charge?” That skirted truth nicely, but apparently it impressed the other woman not at all.

“The Chronicles record a number of Amyrlins who took on public penance for some usually obscure reason, but it has always seemed to me that is how an Amyrlin might have it written if she found herself with no choice except—”

Elaida’s hand slapped down on the table. “Enough, daughter! I am Tower law! What has been hidden will remain hidden, for the same reason it has for twenty years—the good of the White Tower.” Only then did she feel the bruise beginning on her palm; she lifted her hand to reveal the fish, broken in two. How old had it been? Five hundred years? A thousand? It was all she could do not to quiver with rage. Her voice certainly thickened with it. “Toveine is to lead fifty sisters and two hundred of the Tower Guards to Caemlyn, to this Black Tower, where they will gentle any man they find able to channel and hang him, along with as many others as they can take alive.” Alviarin did not even blink at the violation of Tower law. Elaida had spoken the truth as she meant it to be; with this, with everything, she was Tower law. “For that matter, hang up the dead as well. Let them be a warning to any man who thinks of touching the True Source. Have Toveine attend me. I will want to hear her plan.”

“It will be as you command, Mother.” The woman’s reply was as cool and smooth as her face. “Though if I may suggest, you might wish to reconsider sending so many sisters away from the Tower. Apparently the rebels found your offer wanting. They are no longer in Salidar. They are on the march. The reports come from Altara, but they must be into Murandy by now. And they have chosen themselves an Amyrlin.” She scanned the top sheet of her sheaf of papers as if searching for the name. “Egwene al’Vere, it seems.”

That Alviarin had left this, the most important piece of news, until now, should have made Elaida explode in fury. Instead, she threw back her head and laughed. Only a firm hold on dignity kept her from drumming her heels on the floor. The surprise on Alviarin’s face made her laugh harder, till she had to wipe her eyes with her fingers.

“You do not see it,” she said when she could speak between ripples of mirth. “As well you are Keeper, Alviarin, not a Sitter. In the Hall, blind as you are, within a month the others would be holding you in a cabinet and taking you out when they needed your vote.”

“I see enough, Mother.” Alviarin’s voice held no heat; if anything, it should have coated the walls with frost. “I see three hundred rebel Aes Sedai, perhaps more, marching on Tar Valon with an army led by Gareth Bryne, acknowledged a great captain. Discounting the more ridiculous reports, that army may number over twenty thousand, and with Bryne to lead they will gain more at every village and town they pass. I do not say they have hope of taking the city, of course, but it is hardly a matter for laughter. High Captain Chubain should be ordered to increase recruiting for the Tower Guard.”

Elaida’s gaze fell sourly on the broken fish, and she stood and stalked to the nearest window, her back to Alviarin. The palace under construction took away the bitter taste, that and the slip of paper she still clutched.

She smiled down on her palace-to-be. “Three hundred rebels, yes, but you should read Tarna’s account again. At least a hundred are on the point of breaking already.” She trusted Tarna to some extent, a Red with no room in her head for nonsense, and she said the rebels were ready to jump at shadows. Quietly desperate sheep looking for a shepherd, she said. A wilder, of course, yet still sensible. Tarna should be back soon, and able to give a fuller report. Not that it was needed. Elaida’s plans were already working among the rebels. But that was her secret.

“Tarna has always been sure she could make people do what it was clear they would not.” Had there been an emphasis in that, a significance of tone? Elaida decided to ignore it. She had to ignore too much from Alviarin, but the day would come. Soon.

“As for their army, daughter, she says two or three thousand men at most. If they had more, they would have made sure she saw them, to over-awe us.” In Elaida’s opinion, eyes-and-ears always exaggerated, to make their information seem more valuable. Only sisters could be truly trusted. Red sisters, anyway. Some of them. “But I would not care if they did have twenty thousand, or fifty, or a hundred. Can you even begin to guess why?” When she turned, Alviarin’s face was all smooth composure, a mask over blind ignorance. “You seem to be conversant with all the aspects of Tower law. What penalty do rebels face?”

“For the leaders,” Alviarin said slowly, “stilling.” She frowned slightly, skirts swaying just barely as her feet shifted. Good. Even Accepted knew this, and she could not understand why Elaida asked. Very good. “For many of the rest, too.”

“Perhaps.” The leaders might themselves escape that, most of them, if they submitted properly. The minimum penalty in law was to be birched in the Grand Hall before the assembled sisters, followed by at least a year and a day in public penance. Yet nothing said the penance must be served all at once; a month here, a month there, and they would still be atoning their crimes ten years from now, constant reminders of what came of resisting her. Some would be stilled, of course—Sheriam, a few of the more prominent so-called Sitters—but only sufficient to make the rest fear putting a foot wrong again, not enough to weaken the Tower. The White Tower had to be whole, and it had to be strong. Strong, and firmly in her grasp.

“Only one crime among those they have committed demands stilling.” Alviarin opened her mouth. There had been ancient rebellions, buried so deep that few among the sisters knew; the Chronicles stood mute, the lists of stilled and executed confined to records open only to Amyrlin, Keeper and Sitters, aside from the few librarians who kept them. Elaida allowed Alviarin no opportunity to speak. “Any woman who falsely claims the title of Amyrlin Seat must be stilled. If they believed they had any chance of success, Sheriam would be their Amyrlin, or Lelaine, or Carlinya, or one of the others.” Tarna reported that Romanda Cassin had come out of her retirement; Romanda surely would have seized the stole with both hands if she saw the tenth part of a chance. “Instead, they have plucked out an Accepted!”

Elaida shook her head in wry amusement. She could quote every word of the law setting out how a woman was chosen Amyrlin—she had made good use of it herself, after all—and never once did it require that the woman be a full sister. Obviously she must be, so those who framed the law never stated it, and the rebels had squirmed through that crack. “They know their cause is hopeless, Alviarin. They plan to strut and bluster, try to dig out some protection against penalty for themselves, then yield the girl as a sacrifice.” Which was a pity. The al’Vere girl was another possible handle on al’Thor, and when she reached her full strength in the One Power, she would have been one of the strongest in a thousand years or more. A true pity.

“Gareth Bryne and an army hardly sound like strutting to me. It will take their army five or six months to reach Tar Valon. In that time, High Captain Chubain could increase the Guard—”

“Their army,” Elaida sneered. Alviarin was such a fool; for all her cool exterior, she was a rabbit. Next she would be spouting the Sanche woman’s nonsense about the Forsaken being loose. Of course, she did not know the secret, but just the same... “Farmers carrying pikes, butchers with bows and tailors on horseback! And every step of the way, thinking of the Shining Walls, that held Artur Hawkwing at bay.” No, not a rabbit. A weasel. Yet soon or late, she would be weasel-fur trim on Elaida’s cloak. The Light send it soon. “Every step of the way, they will lose a man, if not ten. I would not be surprised if our rebels appear with nothing more than their Warders.” Too many people knew of the division in the Tower. Once the rebellion was broken, of course, it could be made to seem all a ploy, a part of gaining control of young al’Thor perhaps. An effort of years, that, and generations before memories faded. Every last rebel would pay for that on her knees.

Elaida clenched her fist as though she held all the rebels by the throat. Or Alviarin. “I mean to break them, daughter. They will split open like a rotten melon.” Her secret assured that, however many farmers and tailors Lord Bryne hung on to, but let the other woman think as she would. Suddenly the Foretelling took hold of her, a certainty about things she could not see stronger than if they had been laid out before her. She would have been willing to step blindly over a cliff on that certainty. “The White Tower will be whole again, except for remnants cast out and scorned, whole and stronger than ever. Rand al’Thor will face the Amyrlin Seat and know her anger. The Black Tower will be rent in blood and fire, and sisters will walk its grounds. This I Foretell.”

As usual, the Foretelling left her trembling, gasping for breath. She forced herself to stand still and straight, to breathe slowly; she never let anyone see weakness. But Alviarin... Her eyes were wide as they could open, lips parted as if she had forgotten the words she meant to speak. A paper slid from the sheaf in her hands and almost fell before she could catch it. That recalled her to herself. In a flash she regained her serene mask, a perfect picture of Aes Sedai calm, but she definitely had been jolted to her heels. Oh, very good. Let her chew on the certain surety of Elaida’s victory. Chew and break her teeth.

Elaida drew a deep breath and seated herself behind her writing table again, putting the broken ivory fish to one side where she did not have to look at it. It was time to exploit her victory. “There is work to be done today, daughter. The first message is to go to the Lady Caraline Damodred...”

Elaida spun out her plans, enlarging on what Alviarin knew, revealing some that she did not, because at the last an Amyrlin did have to work through her Keeper, however much she hated the woman. There was a pleasure in watching Alviarin’s eyes, watching her wonder what else she still did not know. But while Elaida ordered, divided and assigned the world between the Aryth Ocean and the Spine of the World, in her mind frolicked the image of young al’Thor on his way to her like a caged bear, to be taught to dance for his dinner.

The Chronicles could hardly record the years of the Last Battle without mentioning the Dragon Reborn, but she knew that one name would be written larger than all others. Elaida do Avriny a’Roihan, youngest daughter of a minor House in the north of Murandy, would go down in history as the greatest and most powerful Amyrlin Seat of all time. The most powerful woman in the history of the world. The woman who saved humankind.

The Aiel standing in a deep fold in the low, brown-grass hills seemed carved figures, ignoring sheets of dust sweeping ahead of a gusting wind. That snow should have been deep on the ground this time of year did not bother them; none had ever seen snow, and this oven heat, with the sun still well short of its peak, was less than where they came from. Their attention remained fixed on the southern rise, waiting for the signal that would announce the arrival of the destiny of the Shaido Aiel.

Outwardly, Sevanna looked like the others, though a ring of Maidens marked her out, resting easily on their heels, dark veils already hiding their faces to the eyes. She also waited, and more impatiently than she let on, but not to the exclusion of everything else. That was one reason why she commanded and the rest followed. The second was that she saw what could be if you refused to let outworn custom and stale tradition tie your hands.

A slight flicker of her green eyes to the left showed twelve men and one woman, each with round bull-hide buckler and three or four short spears, garbed in gray-and-brown cadin’sor that blended as well with the terrain here as in the Three-fold Land. Efalin, short graying hair hidden by the shoufa wrapped around her head, sometimes glanced Sevanna’s way; if a Maiden of the Spear could be said to be uneasy, Efalin was. Some Shaido Maidens had gone south, joining the fools capering around Rand al’Thor, and Sevanna did not doubt others talked of it. Efalin must be wondering whether providing Sevanna with an escort of Maidens, as if she had been Far Dareis Mai once herself, was enough to balance that. At least Efalin had no doubts where true power lay.

Like Efalin, the men led Shaido warrior societies, and they eyed one another between watching the rise. Especially blocky Maeric, who was Seia Doon, and scar-faced Bendhuin, of Far Aldazar Din. After today, no longer would anything hold back the Shaido from sending a man to Rhuidean, to be marked as the clan chief if he survived. Until that happened, Sevanna spoke as the clan chief since she was the widow of the last chief. Of the last two chiefs. And let those who muttered that she carried bad luck choke on it.

Gold and ivory bracelets clattered softly as she straightened the dark shawl over her arms and adjusted her necklaces. Most of those were gold and ivory too, but one was a mass of pearls and rubies that had belonged to a wetlander noblewoman—the woman now wore white and hauled and fetched alongside the other gai’shain back in the mountains called Kinslayer’s Dagger—with a ruby the size of a small hen’s egg nestled between her breasts. The wetlands held rich prizes. A large emerald on her finger caught sunlight in green fire; finger rings were one wetlander custom worth adopting, no matter the stares often aimed at hers. She would have more, if they matched this one for magnificence.

Most of the men thought Maeric or Bendhuin would be first to receive the Wise Ones’ permission to try Rhuidean. Only Efalin in that group suspected that none would, and she only suspected; she also was astute enough to voice her suspicions circumspectly to Sevanna and not at all to anyone else. Their minds could not encompass the possibility of shedding the old, and in truth, if Sevanna was impatient to don the new, she was also aware that she must bring them to it slowly. Much had changed already in the old ways since the Shaido crossed the Dragonwall into the wetlands—still wet, compared to the Three-fold Land—yet more would change. Once Rand al’Thor was in her hands, once she had wed the Car’a’carn, the chief of chiefs of all the Aiel—this nonsense of the Dragon Reborn was wetlander foolishness—there would be a new way of naming clan chiefs, and sept chiefs as well. Perhaps even the heads of the warrior societies. Rand al’Thor would name them. Pointing where she told him, of course. And that would be only the beginning. The wetlander notion of handing down rank to your children, and their children, for instance.

The wind swept higher for a moment, blowing south. It would cover the sound of the wetlanders’ horses and wagons.

She shifted her shawl again, then suppressed a grimace. At all costs she must not appear nervous. A glance to the right stilled worry as soon as begun. Over two hundred Shaido Wise Ones clustered there, and normally at least some would be watching her like vultures, but their eyes were all on the rise. More than one adjusted her shawl uneasily or smoothed bulky skirts. Sevanna’s lip curled. Sweat beaded on some of those faces. Sweat! Where was their honor that they showed nerves before every gaze?

Everyone stiffened slightly as a young Sovin Nai appeared above them, lowering his veil as he scrambled down. He came straight to her, as was proper, but to her irritation he raised his voice enough for all to hear. “One of their forward scouts escaped. He was wounded, but still on his horse.”

The society leaders began to move before he finished speaking. That would never do. They would lead in the actual fighting—Sevanna had never more than held a spear in her life—but she would not let them forget for a moment who she was. “Throw every last spear against them,” she ordered loudly, “before they can ready themselves.” They rounded on her as one.

“Every spear?” Bendhuin demanded incredulously. “You mean except for the screens—”

Glowering, Maeric spoke right on top of him. “If we keep no reserve, we can be—”

Sevanna cut them both off. “Every spear! These are Aes Sedai we dance with. We must overwhelm them immediately!” Efalin and most of the others schooled their faces to stillness, but Bendhuin and Maeric frowned, ready to argue. Fools. They faced a few dozen Aes Sedai, a few hundred wetlander soldiers, yet with the more than forty thousand algai’d’siswai they had insisted on, they still wanted their screens of scouts and their spears in reserve as if they faced other Aiel or a wetlander army. “I speak as the clan chief of the Shaido.” She should not have to say that, but a reminder could do no harm. “They are a handful.” She weighted every word with contempt now. “They can be run down if the spears move quickly. You were ready to avenge Desaine this sunrise. Do I smell fear now? Fear of a few wetlanders? Has honor gone from the Shaido?”

That turned their faces to stone, as intended. Even Efalin showed eyes like polished gray gems as she veiled; her fingers moved in Maiden hand-talk, and as the society leaders sprinted up the rise, the Maidens around Sevanna followed. That was not what she had intended, but at least the spears were moving. Even from the bottom of the fold she could see what had seemed bare ground disgorging cadin’sor-clad figures, all hurrying south with the long strides that could run down horses. There was no time to waste. With a thought to have words with Efalin later, Sevanna turned to the Wise Ones.

Chosen from the strongest of the Shaido Wise Ones who could wield the One Power, they were six or seven for every Aes Sedai around Rand al’Thor, yet Sevanna saw doubt. They tried to hide it behind stony faces, but it was there, in shifting eyes, in tongues wetting lips. Many traditions fell today, traditions old and strong as law. Wise Ones did not take part in battles. Wise Ones kept far from Aes Sedai. They knew the ancient tales, that the Aiel had been sent to the Three-fold Land for failing the Aes Sedai, that they would be destroyed if ever they failed them again. They had heard the stories, what Rand al’Thor had claimed before all, that as part of their service to the Aes Sedai, the Aiel had sworn to do no violence.

Once Sevanna had been sure those stories were lies, but of late she believed the Wise Ones knew them for truth. None had told her so, of course. It did not matter. She herself had never made the two journeys to Rhuidean required to become a Wise One, but the others had accepted her, however reluctant some had been. Now they had no choice but to go on accepting. Useless traditions would be carved into new.

“Aes Sedai,” she said softly. They leaned toward her in a muted clatter of bracelets and necklaces, to catch her low words. “They hold Rand al’Thor, the Car’a’carn. We must take him from them.” There were scattered frowns. Most believed she wanted the Car’a’carn taken alive in order to avenge the death of Couladin, her second husband. They understood that, but they would not have come here for it. “Aes Sedai,” she hissed angrily. “We kept our pledge, but they broke theirs. We violated nothing, but they have violated everything. You know how Desaine was murdered.” And of course they did. The eyes watching her were suddenly sharper. Killing a Wise One ranked with killing a pregnant woman, a child or a blacksmith. Some of those eyes were very sharp. Therava’s, Rhiale’s, others’. “If we allow these women to walk away from that, then we are less than animals, we will have no honor. I hold my honor.”

On that she gathered her skirts with dignity and climbed the slope, head high, not looking back. She was certain the others would follow. Therava and Norlea and Dailin would see to that, and Rhiale and Tion and Meira and the rest who had accompanied her a few days past to see Rand al’Thor beaten and put back into his wooden chest by the Aes Sedai. Her reminder had been for those thirteen even more than the others, and they dared not fail her. The truth of how Desaine had died tied them to her.

Wise Ones with their skirts looped over their arms to free their legs could not keep up with the algai’d’siswai in cadin’sor however hard they ran, though race they did. Five miles across those low rolling hills, not a long run, and they topped a crest to see the dance of spears already begun. After a fashion.

Thousands of algai’d’siswai made a huge pool of veiled gray-and-brown surging around a circle of wetlander wagons, which itself surrounded one of the small clumps of trees that dotted this region. Sevanna drew an angry breath. The Aes Sedai had even had time to bring all of their horses inside. The spears encircled the wagons, pressed in on them, showered arrows toward them, but those at the front seemed to push against an invisible wall. At first the arrows that arched highest passed over this wall, but then they too began striking something unseen and bouncing back. A low murmur rose among the Wise Ones.

“You see what the Aes Sedai do?” Sevanna demanded, as though she also could see the One Power being woven. She wanted to sneer; the Aes Sedai were fools, with their vaunted Three Oaths. When they finally decided they must use the Power as a weapon instead of just to make barriers, it would be too late. Provided the Wise Ones did not stand too long staring. Somewhere in those wagons was Rand al’Thor, perhaps still doubled into a chest like a bolt of silk. Waiting for her to pick him up. If the Aes Sedai could hold him, then she could, with the Wise Ones. And a promise. “Therava, take your half to the west now. Be ready to strike when I do. For Desaine, and the toh the Aes Sedai owe us. We will make them meet toh as no one ever has before.”

It was a foolish boast to speak of making someone meet an obligation they had not acknowledged, yet in the angry mutters from the other women, Sevanna heard other furious promises to make the Aes Sedai meet toh. Only those who had killed Desaine on Sevanna’s orders stood silent. Therava’s narrow lips tightened slightly, but finally she said, “It will be as you say, Sevanna.”

At an easy lope, Sevanna led her half of the Wise Ones to the east side of the battle, if it could be called that yet. She had wanted to remain on a rise where she could have a good view—that was how a clan chief or battle leader directed the dance of spears—but in this one thing she found no support even from Therava and the others who shared the secret of Desaine’s death. The Wise Ones made a sharp contrast with the algai’d’siswai as she lined them up in their white algode blouses and dark wool skirts and shawls, their glittering bracelets and necklaces and their waist-length hair held back by dark folded scarves. For all their decision that if they were to be in the dance of the spears, they would be in it, not on a rise apart, she did not believe they yet realized that the true battle today was theirs to fight. After today, nothing would be the same again, and tethering Rand al’Thor was the smallest part.

Among the algai’d’siswai staring toward the wagons only height quickly told men from Maidens. Veils and shoufa hid heads and faces, and cadin’sor was cadin’sor aside from the differences of cut that marked clan and sept and society. Those at the outer edge of the encirclement appeared confused, grumbling among themselves as they waited for something to happen. They had come prepared to dance with Aes Sedai lightning, and now they milled impatiently, too far back even to use the horn bows still in leather cases on their backs. They would not have to wait much longer if Sevanna had her way.

Hands on hips, she addressed the other Wise Ones. “Those to the south of me will disrupt what the Aes Sedai are doing. Those to the north will attack. Forward the spears!” With the command, she turned to watch the destruction of the Aes Sedai who thought they had only steel to face.

Nothing happened. In front of her the mass of algai’d’siswai seethed uselessly, and the loudest sound was the occasional drumming of spears on bucklers. Sevanna gathered her anger, winding it like thread from the spinning. She had been so sure they were ready after Desaine’s butchered corpse was displayed to them, but if they still found attacking Aes Sedai unthinkable, she would chivvy them to it if she had to shame them all till they demanded to put on gai’shain white.

Suddenly a ball of pure flame the size of a man’s head arched toward the wagons, sizzling and hissing, then another, dozens. The knot in her middle loosened. More fireballs came from the west, from Therava and the rest. Smoke began to rise from burning wagons, first gray wisps, then thickening black pillars; the murmurs of the algai’d’siswai changed pitch, and if those directly in front of her moved little, there was a sudden sense of pressing forward. Shouts drifted from the wagons, men yelling in anger, bellowing in pain. Whatever barriers the Aes Sedai had made were down. It had begun, and there could be only one ending. Rand al’Thor would be hers; he would give her the Aiel, to take all of the wetlands, and before he died he would give her daughters and sons to lead the Aiel after her. She might enjoy that; he was quite pretty, really, strong and young.

She did not expect the Aes Sedai to go down easily, and they did not. Fireballs fell among the spears, turning cadin’sor-clad figures to torches, and lightnings struck from a clear sky, hurling men and earth into the air. The Wise Ones learned from what they saw, though, or perhaps they already knew and had hesitated before; most channeled so seldom, especially where anyone besides Wise Ones could see, that only another Wise One knew whether any given woman could. Whatever the reason, no sooner did lightning begin to fall among the Shaido spears than more struck toward the wagons.

Not all reached its target. Balls of fire streaking through the air, some large as horses now, silver lightning stabbing toward the ground like spears from the heavens, sometimes suddenly darted aside as if striking an invisible shield, or erupted violently in midair, or simply vanished altogether. Roars and crashes filled the air, warring with shouts and screams. Sevanna stared at the sky in delight. It was like the Illuminators’ displays she had read about.

Suddenly the world turned white in her eyes; she seemed to be floating. When she could see again, she was flat on the ground a dozen paces from where she had stood, aching in every muscle, struggling for breath and covered with a scattering of dirt. Her hair wanted to lift away from her. Other Wise Ones were down as well, around a ragged hole a span across torn in the ground; thin tendrils of smoke rose from the dresses of some. Not everyone had fallen—the battle of fire and lightning continued in the sky—but too many. She had to throw them back into the dance.

Forcing herself to breathe, she scrambled to her feet, not bothering to brush off the dirt. “Push spears!” she shouted. Seizing Estalaine’s angular shoulders, she started to drag the woman to her feet, then realized from her staring blue eyes that she was dead and let her fall. She pulled a dazed Dorailla erect instead, then seized up a spear from a fallen Thunder Walker and waved it high. “Forward the spears!” Some of the Wise Ones seemed to take her literally, plunging into the mass of algai’d’siswai. Others kept their heads better, helping those who could rise, and the storm of fire and lightning continued as she raged up and down the line of Wise Ones, waving her spear and shouting. “Push spears! Forward the spears!”

She felt like laughing; she did laugh. With dirt all over her and the battle raging, she had never been so exhilarated before in her life. Almost she wished she had chosen to become a Maiden of the Spear. Almost. No Far Dareis Mai could ever be clan chief, any more than a man could be a Wise One; a Maiden’s route to power was to give up the spear and become a Wise One. As wife of a clan chief she had been wielding power at an age when a Maiden was barely trusted to carry a spear or a Wise One’s apprentice to fetch water. And now she had it all, Wise One and clan chief, though it would take some doing yet to have that last title in truth. Titles mattered little so long as she had the power, but why should she not have both?

A sudden scream made her turn, and she gaped at the sight of a shaggy gray wolf ripping Dosera’s throat out. Without thought she plunged her spear into its side. Even as it twisted to snap at the spear haft, another waist-tall wolf bounded past her to hurl itself onto the back of one of the algai’d’siswai, then another wolf, and more, tearing into cadin’sor-clad figures wherever she looked.

Superstitious fear lanced through her as she pulled her spear free. The Aes Sedai had called wolves to fight for them. She could not take her gaze from the wolf she had killed. The Aes Sedai had... No. No! It could change nothing. She would not let it.

Finally she managed to pull her eyes away, but before she could shout encouragement to the Wise Ones again, something else stilled her tongue and made her stare. A knot of wetlander horsemen in red helmets and breastplates, laying about them with swords, thrusting with long lances, in the middle of the algai’d’siswai. Where had they come from?

She did not realize she had spoken aloud until Rhiale answered her. “I tried to tell you, Sevanna, but you would not listen.” The flame-haired woman eyed her bloody spear distastefully; Wise Ones were not supposed to carry spears. She ostentatiously laid the weapon in the crook of her elbow, the way she had seen chiefs do, as Rhiale went on. “Wetlanders have attacked from the south. Wetlanders and siswai’aman.” She imbued the word with all the scorn proper for those who would name themselves Spears of the Dragon. “Maidens as well. And... And there are Wise Ones.”

“Fighting?” Sevanna said incredulously before realizing how it sounded. If she could toss out decayed custom, surely those sun-blinded fools to the south who still called themselves Aiel could as well. She had not expected it, though. No doubt Sorilea had brought them; that old woman reminded Sevanna of a landslide plunging down a mountain, carrying all before it. “We must attack them at once. They will not have Rand al’Thor. Or ruin our vengeance for Desaine,” she added when Rhiale’s eyes widened.

“They are Wise Ones,” the other woman said in a flat tone, and Sevanna understood bitterly. Joining the dance of spears was bad enough, but Wise One attacking Wise One was more than even Rhiale would countenance. She had agreed that Desaine must die—how else could the other Wise Ones, not to mention the algai’d’siswai, be brought to attack Aes Sedai, which they must do to put Rand al’Thor in their hands, and with him all the Aiel?—yet that was done in secret, surrounded by like-minded women. This would be before everyone. Fools and cowards, all of them!

“Then fight those enemies you can bring yourself to fight, Rhiale.” She bit off every word with as much scorn as she could, but Rhiale merely nodded, adjusted her shawl with another glance at the spear on Sevanna’s arm and returned to her place in the line.

Perhaps there was a way to make the other Wise Ones move first. Better to attack by surprise, but better anything than that they should snatch Rand al’Thor from her very hands. What she would not give for a woman who could channel and would do as she was told without balking. What she would not give to be on a rise, where she could see how the battle went.

Keeping her spear ready and a wary eye out for wolves—those she could see were either killing men and women in cadin’sor or were dead themselves—she returned to shouting encouragement. To the south more fire and lightning fell among the Shaido than before, but it made no difference that she could tell. That battle, with its explosions of flame and earth and people, continued unabated.

“Push spears!” she shouted, waving hers. “Push spears!” Among the churning algai’d’siswai she could not make out any of the fools who had tied a bit of red cloth around their temples and named themselves siswai’aman. Perhaps they were too few to alter the course of events. The knots of wet-landers certainly seemed few and far between. Even as she watched, one was swarmed under, men and horses, by stabbing spears. “Push spears! Push spears!” Exultation filled her voice. If the Aes Sedai called ten thousand wolves, if Sorilea had brought a thousand Wise Ones and a hundred thousand spears, the Shaido would still emerge victorious today. The Shaido, and herself. Sevanna of the Jumai Shaido would be a name remembered forever.

Suddenly a hollow boom sounded amid the roar of battle. It seemed to come from the direction of the Aes Sedai wagons, but nothing told her whether they had caused it, or the Wise Ones. She disliked things she did not understand, yet she was not about to ask Rhiale or the others and flaunt her ignorance. And her lack of the ability all here had, save her. It counted for nothing among themselves, but another thing she did not like was for others to have power she did not.

A flicker of light among the algai’d’siswai, a sense of something turning, caught the corner of her eye, but when she turned to look, there was nothing. Again the same thing happened, a flash of light seen on the edge of vision, and again when she looked there was nothing to see. Too many things she did not understand.

Shouting encouragement, she eyed the line of Shaido Wise Ones. Some appeared bedraggled, head scarves gone and long hair hanging loose, skirts and blouses covered with dirt or even singed. At least a dozen lay stretched out in a row, groaning, and seven more were still, shawls laid over their faces. It was those on their feet that interested her. Rhiale, and Alarys with her rare black hair all awry. Someryn, who had taken to wearing her blouse unlaced to show even more generous cleavage than Sevanna herself, and Meira, with her long face yet more grim than usual. Stout Tion, and skinny Belinde, and Modarra, as tall as most men.

One of them should have told her if they did something new. The secret of Desaine bound them to her; even for a Wise One, revelation of that would lead to a lifetime of pain—and worse, shame—trying to meet toh, if the one revealed was not simply driven naked into the wilderness to live or die as she could, likely to be killed like a beast by any who found her. Even so, Sevanna was sure they took as much delight as the rest in concealing things from her, the things that Wise Ones learned during their apprenticeships, and in the journeys to Rhuidean. Something would have to be done about that, but later. She would not display weakness by asking what they did now.

Turning back to the battle, she found the balance changing, and in her favor it appeared. To the south fireballs and lightning bolts plummeted as heavily as ever, but not in front of her, and it seemed not to the west or north either. What struck toward the wagons still failed to reach the ground more often than not, yet there was a definite slackening of the Aes Sedai’s efforts. They had been forced onto the defensive. She was winning!

Even as the thought flushed through her like pure heat, the Aes Sedai went silent. Only to the south did fire and lightning still fall among the algai’d’siswai. She opened her mouth to shout victory, and another realization silenced her. Fire and lightning stormed down toward the wagons, stormed down and crashed against some unseen obstruction. Smoke from burning wagons was beginning to outline the shape of a dome as it streamed up and finally billowed from a hole in the top of the invisible enclosure.

Sevanna whirled to confront the line of Wise Ones, her face such that several flinched back from her, and maybe from the spear in her hand. She knew she looked ready to use it; she was ready. “Why have you let them do this?” she raged. “Why? You were to obstruct whatever they did, not allow them to make more walls!”

Tion looked ready to empty her stomach, but she planted her fists on broad hips and faced Sevanna directly. “It was not the Aes Sedai.”

“Not the Aes Sedai?” Sevanna spat. “Then who? The other Wise Ones? I told you we must attack them!”

“It was not women,” Rhiale said, her voice faltering. “It was not—” Face pale, she swallowed.

Sevanna turned slowly to stare at the dome, only then remembering to breathe again. Something had risen through the hole where the smoke gushed out. One of the wetlander banners. The smoke was not enough to obscure it completely. Crimson, with a disc half white and half black, the colors divided by a sinuous line, just like the piece of cloth the siswai’aman wore. Rand al’Thor’s banner. Could he possibly be strong enough to have broken free, overwhelmed all the Aes Sedai and raised that? It had to be.

The storm still battered at the dome, but Sevanna heard murmurs behind her. The other women were thinking of retreat. Not her. She had always known that the easiest path to power lay through conquering men who already possessed it, and even as a child she was sure she had been born with the weapons to conquer them. Suladric, clan chief of the Shaido, fell to her at sixteen, and when he died, she chose out those most likely to succeed. Muradin and Couladin each believed he alone had captured her interest, and when Muradin failed to return from Rhuidean, as so many men did, one smile convinced Couladin that he had overwhelmed her. But the power of a clan chief paled beside that of the Car’a’carn, and even that was nothing beside what she saw before her. She shivered as if she had just seen the most beautiful man imaginable in the sweat tent. When Rand al’Thor was hers, she would conquer the whole world.

“Press harder,” she commanded. “Harder! We will humble these Aes Sedai for Desaine!” And she would have Rand al’Thor.

Abruptly there was a roar from the front of the battle, men shouting, screaming. She cursed that she could not see what was happening. Again she shouted for the Wise Ones to press harder, but if anything, it seemed the fall of flame and lightning against the dome lessened. And then there was something she could see.

Close to the wagons, cadin’sor-clad figures and earth erupted into the air with a thunderous crash, not in one place, but in a long line. Again the ground exploded, and again, again, each time a little farther from the encircled wagons. Not a line, but a solid ring of exploding ground and men and Maidens that she had no doubt ran all the way around the wagons. Again and again and again, ever expanding, and suddenly algai’d’siswai were pushing past her, buffeting through the line of Wise Ones, running.

Sevanna beat at them with her spear, flailing at heads and shoulders, not caring when the spearhead came away redder then before. “Stand and fight! Stand, for the honor of the Shaido!” They rushed by unheeding. “Have you no honor! Stand and fight!” She stabbed a fleeing Maiden in the back, but the rest just trampled over the fallen woman. Abruptly she realized that some of the Wise Ones were gone, and others picking up the injured. Rhiale turned to run, and Sevanna seized the taller woman’s arm, threatening her with the spear. She did not care that Rhiale could channel. “We must stand! We can still have him!”

The other woman’s face was a mask of fear. “If we stand, we die! Or else we end chained outside Rand al’Thor’s tent! Stay and die if you wish, Sevanna. I am no Stone Dog!” Ripping her arm free, she sped eastward.

For a moment more, Sevanna stood there, letting the men and Maidens push her this way and that as they streamed by in panic. Then she tossed down the spear and felt her belt pouch, where a small cube of intricately carved stone lay. Well that she had hesitated over throwing that away. She had another cord for her bow yet. Gathering her skirts to bare her legs, she joined in the chaotic flight, but if all the rest fled in terror, she ran with plans whirling through her head. She would have Rand al’Thor on his knees before her, and the Aes Sedai as well.

Alviarin finally left Elaida’s apartments, as cool and collected as ever on the surface. Inside, she felt wrung out like a damp cloth. She managed to keep her legs steady down the long curving flights of stairs, marble even in the very heights. Liveried servants bowed and curtsied as they scurried about their tasks, seeing only the Keeper in all her Aes Sedai serenity. As she went lower, sisters began to appear, many wearing their shawls, fringed in the colors of their Ajahs, as if to emphasize by formality that they were full sisters. They eyed her as she passed, uneasy often as not. The only one to ignore her was Danelle, a dreamy Brown sister. She had been part of bringing down Siuan Sanche and raising Elaida, but lost in her own thoughts, a solitary with no friends even in her own Ajah, she seemed unaware that she had been shoved aside. Others were all too aware. Berisha, a lean and hard-eyed Gray, and Kera, with the fair hair and blue eyes that appeared occasionally among Tairens and all the arrogance so common to Greens, went so far as to curtsy. Norine made as if to, then did not; big-eyed and nearly as dreamy as Danelle at times, and as friendless, she resented Alviarin; if the Keeper came from the White, in her eyes it should have been Norine Dovarna.

The courtesy was not required toward the Keeper, not from a sister, but no doubt they hoped she might intercede with Elaida should that become necessary. The others merely wondered what commands she carried, whether another sister was to be singled out today for some failure in the Amyrlin’s eyes. Not even Reds went within five levels of the Amyrlin’s new apartments unless summoned, and more than one sister actually hid when Elaida came below. The very air seemed heated, thick with a fear that had nothing to do with rebels or men channeling.

Several sisters tried to speak, but Alviarin brushed past, barely polite, hardly noticing worry bloom in their eyes when she refused to pause. Elaida filled her mind as much as theirs. A woman of many layers, Elaida. The first look at her showed a beautiful woman filled with dignified reserve, the second a woman of steel, stern as a bared blade. She overwhelmed where others persuaded, bludgeoned where others tried diplomacy or the Game of Houses. Anyone who knew her saw her intelligence, but only after a time did you realize that for all her brains, she saw what she wanted to see, would try to make true what she wanted to be true. Of the two indisputably frightening things about her, the lesser was that she so often succeeded. The greater was her Talent for Foretelling.

So easy to forget that, erratic and infrequent; it had been so long since the last Foretelling that the very unpredictability made it strike like a thunderbolt. No one could say when it would come, not even Elaida, and no one could say what it would reveal. Now Alviarin almost felt the woman’s shadowy presence following and watching.

It might be necessary to kill her yet. If so, Elaida would not be the first she had killed in secret. Still, she hesitated to take that step without orders, or at least permission.

She entered her own apartments with a sense of relief, as though Elaida’s shade could not cross the threshold. A foolish thought. If Elaida had a suspicion of the truth, a thousand leagues would not keep her from Alviarin’s throat. Elaida would expect her to be hard at work, personally penning orders for the Amyrlin’s signature and seal—but which of those orders were actually to be carried out had yet to be decided. Not by Elaida, of course. Nor by herself.

The rooms were smaller than those Elaida occupied, though the ceilings reached higher, and a balcony looked over the great square in front of the Tower from a hundred feet up. Sometimes she went out on the balcony to see Tar Valon spread out before her, the greatest city in the world, filled with countless thousands who were less than pieces on a stone’s board. The furnishings were Domani, pale striped wood inlaid with pearlshell and amber, bright carpets in patterns of flowers and scrolls, brighter tapestries of forest and flowers and grazing deer. They had belonged to the last occupant of these rooms, and if she retained them for any reason beyond not wanting to waste time choosing new, it was to remind herself of the price of failure. Leane Sharif had dabbled in schemes and failed, and now she was cut off from the One Power forever, a helpless refugee dependent on charity, doomed to a life of misery until she either ended it or simply put her face to the wall and died. Alviarin had heard of a few stilled women who managed to survive, but she would doubt those stories until she met one. Not that she had the slightest desire to do so.

Through the windows she could see the brightness of early afternoon, yet before she was halfway across her sitting room, the light suddenly faded into dim evening. The darkness did not surprise her. She turned and went to her knees immediately. “Great Mistress, I live to serve.” A tall woman of dark shadow and silver light stood before her. Mesaana.

“Tell me what happened, child.” The voice was crystal chimes.

On her knees, Alviarin repeated every word that Elaida had said, though she wondered why it was necessary. In the beginning she had left out unimportant bits, and Mesaana knew every time, demanded every word, every gesture and facial expression. Plainly she eavesdropped on those meetings. Alviarin had tried to work out the logic of it and failed. Some things did work to logic, though.

She had met others of the Chosen, whom fools called the Forsaken. Lan-fear had come within the Tower, and Graendal, imperious in their strength and knowledge, making it clear without words that Alviarin was far beneath them, a scullery maid to run errands and wriggle with pleasure if she received a kind word. Be’lal had snatched Alviarin away in the night while she slept—to where she still did not know; she had wakened back in her own bed, and that had terrified her even more than being in the presence of a man who could channel. To him she was not even a worm, not even a living thing, just a piece in a game, to move at his command. First had been Ishamael, years before the others, plucking her out of the hidden mass of the Black Ajah to place her at its head.

To each she had knelt, saying that she lived to serve and meaning it, obeying as they commanded, whatever the command. After all, they stood only a step below the Great Lord of the Dark himself, and if she wanted the rewards of her service, the immortality it seemed they already possessed, it was well to obey. To each she knelt, and only Mesaana had appeared with an inhuman face. This cloak of shadow and light must be woven with the One Power, but Alviarin could see no weave. She had felt the strength of Lanfear and Graendal, had known from the first instant how much stronger in the Power they were than she, but in Mesaana she sensed... nothing. As if the woman could not channel at all.

The logic was clear, and stunning. Mesaana hid herself because she might be recognized. She must reside in the Tower itself. On the face of it, that seemed impossible, yet nothing else fit. Given that, she must be one of the sisters; surely she was not among servants, bound to labor and sweat. But who? Too many women had been out of the Tower for years before Elaida’s summons, too many had no close friends, or none at all. Mesaana must be one of those. Alviarin very much wanted to know. Even if she could make no use of it, knowledge was power.

“So our Elaida has had a Foretelling,” Mesaana chimed, and Alviarin realized with a start that she had reached the end of her recital. Her knees hurt, but she knew better than to rise without permission. A finger of shadow tapped silver lips thoughtfully. Had she seen any sister make that gesture? “Strange that she should be so clear and so erratic at the same time. It was always a rare Talent, and most who had it spoke so only poets could understand. Usually until it was too late to matter, at least. Everything always became clear then.” Alviarin kept silent. None of the Chosen conversed; they commanded or demanded. “Interesting predictions. The rebels breaking—like a rotten melon?—was that part of it?”

“I am not certain, Great Mistress,” she said slowly—had it been?—but Mesaana only shrugged.

“Either it is or it is not, and either way can be used.”

“She is dangerous, Great Mistress. Her Talent could reveal what should not be revealed.”

Crystalline laughter answered her. “Such as? You? Your Black Ajah sisters? Or perhaps you think to safeguard me? You are a good girl sometimes, child.” That silvery voice was amused. Alviarin felt her face heat and hoped that Mesaana read the shame, not the anger. “Do you suggest that our Elaida should be disposed of, child? Not yet, I think. She has her uses still. At least until young al’Thor reaches us, and very likely after. Write out her orders and see to them. Watching her play her little games is certainly amusing. You children almost match the ajah at times. Will she succeed in having the King of Illian and the Queen of Saldaea kidnapped? You Aes Sedai used to do that, didn’t you, but not for—what?—two thousand years? Who will she try to put on the throne of Cairhien? Will the offer of being king in Tear overcome the High Lord Darlin’s dislike of Aes Sedai? Will our Elaida choke on her own frustration first? A pity she resists the idea of a larger army. I’d have thought her ambitions would leap at that.”

The interview was coming to a close—they never lasted longer than for Alviarin to report and be given her own orders—but she had a question yet to ask. “The Black Tower, Great Mistress.” Alviarin wet her lips. She had learned much since Ishamael appeared to her, not least that the Chosen were neither omnipotent nor all-knowing. She had risen because Ishamael killed her predecessor in his wrath at discovering what Jarna Malari had begun, yet it had not ended for another two years, after the death of another Amyrlin. She often wondered whether Elaida had had any hand in the death of that one, Sierin Vayu; certainly the Black Ajah had not. Jarna had had Tamra Ospenya, the Amyrlin before Sierin, squeezed like a bunch of grapes—obtaining little juice, as it turned out—and made her appear to have died in her sleep, but Alviarin and the other twelve sisters of the Supreme Council had paid in pain before they could convince Ishamael they had no responsibility for it. The Chosen were not all-powerful, and they did not know everything, yet sometimes they knew what no one else did. Asking could be dangerous, though. “Why” was the most dangerous; the Chosen never liked to be asked why. “Is it safe to send fifty sisters to deal with them, Great Mistress?”

Eyes glowing like twin full moons regarded her in silence, and a chill slid up Alviarin’s spine. Jarna’s fate flashed into her mind. Publicly Gray, Jarna had never shown any interest in the ter’angreal no one knew a use for—until the day she became snared in one untried for centuries. How to activate it remained a mystery still. For ten days no one could reach her, only listen to her throat-wrenching shrieks. Most of the Tower thought Jarna a model of virtue; when what could be recovered was buried, every sister in Tar Valon and every one who could reach the city in time attended the funeral.

“You have curiosity, child,” Mesaana said finally. “That can be an asset, properly directed. Wrongly directed...” The threat hung in the air like a gleaming dagger.

“I will direct it as you command, Great Mistress,” Alviarin breathed hoarsely. Her mouth was dry as dust. “Only as you command.” But she would still see that no Black sisters went with Toveine. Mesaana moved, looming over her so she had to crane her neck to look up at that face of light and shadow, and suddenly she wondered whether the Chosen knew her thoughts.

“If you would serve me, child, then you must serve and obey me. Not Semirhage or Demandred. Not Graendal or anyone else. Only me. And the Great Lord, of course, but me above all save him.”

“I live to serve you, Great Mistress.” That came out in a croak, but she managed to emphasize the added word.

For a long moment silvery eyes stared down at her unblinking. Then Mesaana said, “Good. I will teach you, then. But remember that a pupil is not a teacher. I choose who learns what, and I decide when they can make use of it. Should I find you have passed on the smallest scrap or used even a hair of it without my direction, I will extinguish you.”

Alviarin worked moisture back into her mouth. There was no anger in those chimes, only certainty. “I live to serve you, Great Mistress. I live to obey you, Great Mistress.” She had just learned something about the Chosen that she could hardly credit. Knowledge was power.

“You have a little strength, child. Not much, but enough.”

A weave appeared seemingly from nowhere.

“This,” Mesaana chimed, “is called a gateway.”

Pedron Niall grunted as Morgase placed a white stone on the board with a smile of triumph. Lesser players might set two dozen more stones each yet, but he could see the inevitable course now, and so could she. In the beginning the golden-haired woman seated on the other side of the small table had played to lose, to make the game close enough to be interesting for him, but it had not taken her long to learn that that led to obliteration. Not to mention that he was clever enough to see through the subterfuge and would not tolerate it. Now she plied all her skill and managed to win nearly half their games. No one had beaten him so often in a good many years.

“The game is yours,” he told her, and the Queen of Andor nodded. Well, she would be Queen again; he would see to that. In green silk, with a high lace collar brushing her chin, she looked every inch a queen despite the sheen of perspiration on her smooth cheeks. She hardly appeared old enough to have a daughter Elayne’s age, though, much less a son Gawyn’s.

“You did not realize I saw the trap you were laying from your thirty-first stone, Lord Niall, and you took my feint from the forty-third stone to be my real attack.” Excitement sparkled in her blue eyes; Morgase liked to win. She liked playing to win.

It was all meant to lull him, of course, the playing at stones, the politeness. Morgase knew she was a prisoner in the Fortress of the Light in all but name, albeit a luxuriously pampered prisoner. And a secret one. He had allowed stories of her presence to spread, but issued no proclamations. Andor had too strong a history of opposing the Children of the Light. He would announce nothing until legions moved into Andor, with her their figurehead. Morgase certainly knew that, as well. Very probably she also knew he was aware of her attempts to soften him. The treaty she had signed gave the Children rights in Andor they had never possessed anywhere except here in Amadicia, and he expected that she already planned how to lighten his hand on her land, how to remove his hand altogether as soon as she could. She had only signed because he backed her into a corner, yet confined in that corner, she fought on as skillfully as she maneuvered on a stones board. For one so beautiful, she was a tough woman. No, she was tough, and that was that. She did let herself be caught up in the pure pleasure of the game, but he could not count that a fault when it gave him so many pleasant moments.

Had he been even twenty years younger, he might have played more to her true game. Long years as a widower stretched behind him, and the Lord Captain Commander of the Children of the Light had little time for pleasantries with women, little time for anything except being Lord Captain Commander. Had he been twenty years younger—well, twenty-five—and she not trained by the Tar Valon witches. It was easy to forget that, in her presence. The White Tower was a sink of iniquity and the Shadow, and she touched deeply by it. Rhadam Asunawa, the High Inquisitor, would have tried her for her months in the White Tower and hanged her without delay, had Niall allowed it. He sighed regretfully.

Morgase kept her victorious smile, but those big eyes studied his face with an intelligence she could not hide. He filled her goblet and his own with wine from the silver pitcher sitting in a bowl of cool water that had been ice a little while ago.

“My Lord Niall...” The hesitation was just right, the slim hand half-stretched across the table toward him, the added respect in how she addressed him. Once she had called him simply Niall, with more contempt than she would have handed a drunken groom. The hesitation would have been just right had he not had the measure of her. “My Lord Niall, surely you can order Galad to Amador so I may see him. Just for a day.”

“I regret,” he replied smoothly, “that Galad’s duties keep him in the north. You should be proud; he is one of the best young officers among the Children.” Her stepson was a lever to use on her at need, one best used now by keeping him away. The young man was a good officer, perhaps the best to join the Children in Niall’s time, and there was no need to put strains on his oath by letting him know his mother was here, and a “guest” only by courtesy.

No more than a slight tightening of her mouth, quickly gone, betrayed her disappointment. This was not the first time she had made that request, nor would it be the last. Morgase Trakand did not surrender just because it was plain she was beaten. “As you say, my Lord Niall,” she said, so meekly that he nearly choked on his wine. Submissiveness was a new tactic, one she must have worked up with difficulty. “It is just a mother’s—”

“My Lord Captain Commander?” a deep, resonant voice broke in from the doorway. “I fear I have important news that cannot wait, my Lord.” Abdel Omerna stood tall in the white-and-gold tabard of a Lord Captain of the Children of the Light, bold face framed by wings of white at his temples, dark eyes deep and thoughtful. From head to toe he was fearless and commanding. And a fool, though that was not apparent at a glance.

Morgase drew in on herself at the sight of Omerna, so small a motion most men would not have noticed. She believed him spymaster for the Children, as everyone did, a man to be feared almost as much as Asunawa, perhaps more. Even Omerna himself did not know he was but a decoy to keep eyes away from the true master of spies, a man known only to Niall himself. Sebban Balwer, Niall’s dry little stick of a secretary. Yet decoy or not, something useful did pass through Omerna’s hands on occasion. On rare occasions, something dire. Niall had no doubts what the man had brought; nothing else except Rand al’Thor at the gates would have sent him barging in this way. The Light send it was all a rug merchant’s madness.

“I fear our gaming is done for this morning,” Niall told Morgase, standing. He offered her a slight bow as she rose, and she acknowledged it by inclining her head.

“Until this evening, perhaps?” Her voice still held that almost docile tone. “That is, if you will dine with me?”

Niall accepted, of course. He did not know where she was leading with this new tactic—not where an oaf might suppose, he was sure—but it would be amusing to find out. The woman was full of surprises. Such a pity she was tainted by the witches.

Omerna advanced as far as the great sunflare of gold, set in the floor, that had been worn by feet and knees over centuries. It was a plain room aside from that and the captured banners that lined the walls high beneath the ceiling, age-tattered and worn. Omerna watched her skirt around him without really acknowledging his presence, and when the door closed behind her, he said, “I have not yet found Elayne or Gawyn, my Lord.”

“Is that your important news?” Niall demanded irritably. Balwer reported Morgase’s daughter in Ebou Dar, still mired to her neck with the witches; orders concerning her had already been sent to Jaichim Carridin. Her other son still toiled with the witches as well, it seemed, in Tar Valon, where even Balwer possessed few eyes-and-ears. Niall took a long swallow of cool wine. His bones felt old and brittle and cold of late, yet the Shadow-spawned heat made his skin sweat enough, and dried his mouth.

Omerna gave a start. “Ah... no, my Lord.” He fumbled in a pocket of his white undercoat and pulled out a tiny bone cylinder with three red stripes running its length. “You wanted this brought as soon as the pigeon arrived in the—” He cut off as Niall snatched the tube.

This was what he had been waiting for, the reason a legion was not already on its way to Andor with Morgase riding at its head, if not leading. If it was not all Varadin’s madness, the ravings of a man unbalanced by watching Tarabon collapse into anarchy, Andor would have to wait. Andor, and maybe more.

“I... I have confirmation that the White Tower truly has broken,” Omerna went on. “The... the Black Ajah has seized Tar Valon.” No wonder he sounded nervous, speaking heresy. There was no Black Ajah; all of the witches were Darkfriends.

Niall ignored him and broke the wax sealing the tube with his thumb-nail. He had used Balwer to start those rumors, and now they came back to him. Omerna believed every rumor his ears caught, and his ears caught them all.

“And there are reports that the witches are conferring with the false Dragon al’Thor, my Lord.”

Of course the witches were conferring with him! He was their creation, their puppet. Niall shut out the fool’s blather and moved back to the gaming table while he drew a slim roll of paper from the tube. He never let anyone know more of these messages than that they existed, and few knew that much. His hands trembled as they unrolled the thin paper. His hands had not trembled since he was a boy facing his first battle, more than seventy years ago. Those hands seemed little more than bone and sinew now, but they still possessed enough strength for what he had to do.

The writing was not that of Varadin, but of Faisar, sent to Tarabon for a different purpose. Niall’s stomach twisted into a knot as he read; it was in clear language, not Varadin’s cipher. Varadin’s reports had been the work of a man on the brink of madness if not over, yet Faisar confirmed the worst of it and more. Much more. Al’Thor was a rabid beast, a destroyer who must be stopped, but now a second mad animal had appeared, one that might be even more dangerous than the Tar Valon witches with their tame false Dragon. But how under the Light could he fight both?

“It... it seems that Queen Tenobia has left Saldaea, my Lord. And the... the Dragonsworn are burning and killing across Altara and Mu-randy. I have heard the Horn of Valere has been found, in Kandor.”

Still half-distracted, Niall looked up to find Omerna at his side, licking his lips and wiping sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. No doubt he hoped for a glance at what was in the message. Well, everyone would know soon enough.

“It seems one of your wilder fancies wasn’t so wild after all,” Niall said, and that was when he felt the knife go in under his ribs.

Shock froze him long enough for Omerna to pull the dagger free and plunge it in again. Other Lord Captain Commanders had died this way before him, yet he had never thought it would be Omerna. He tried to grapple with his killer, but there was no force in his arms. He hung on to Omerna with the man supporting him, the pair of them eye to eye.

Omerna’s face was red; he looked ready to weep. “It had to be done. It had to be. You let the witches sit there in Salidar unhindered, and...” As if suddenly realizing that he had his arms around the man he was murdering, he pushed Niall away.

Strength had gone from Niall’s legs now as well as his arms. He fell heavily against the gaming table, turning it over. Black and white stones scattered across the polished wooden floor around him; the silver pitcher bounced and splashed wine. The cold in his bones was leaching out into the rest of him.

He was not certain whether time had slowed for him or everything really did happen so quickly. Boots thudded across the floor, and he lifted his head wearily to see Omerna gaping and wide-eyed, backing away from Eamon Valda. Every bit as much the picture of a Lord Captain as Omerna in his white-and-gold tabard and white undercoat, Valda was not so tall, not so plainly commanding, but the dark man’s face was hard, as ever, and he had a sword in his hands, the heron-mark blade he prized so highly.

“Treason!” Valda bellowed, and drove the sword through Omerna’s chest.

Niall would have laughed if he could; breath came hard, and he could hear it bubbling in the blood in his throat. He had never liked Valda—in fact, he despised the man—but someone had to know. His eyes shifted, found the slip of paper from Tanchico lying not far from his hand; it might be missed there, but not if his corpse clutched it. And that message had to be read. His hand seemed to crawl across the floorboards so slowly, brushing the paper, pushing it as he fumbled to take hold. His vision was growing misty. He tried to force himself to see. He had to... The fog was thicker. Part of him tried to shake that thought; there was no fog. The fog was thicker, and there was an enemy out there, unseen, hidden, as dangerous as al’Thor or more. The message. What? What message? It was time to mount and out sword, time for one last attack. By the Light, win or die, he was coming! He tried to snarl.

Valda wiped his blade on Omerna’s tabard, then suddenly realized the old wolf still breathed, a rasping, bubbling sound. Grimacing, he bent to make an end—and a gaunt, long-fingered hand caught his arm.

“Would you be Lord Captain Commander now, my son?” Asunawa’s emaciated face belonged on a martyr, yet his dark eyes burned with a fervor to unnerve even those who did not know who he was. “You may well be, after I attest that you killed Pedron Niall’s assassin. But not if I must say that you ripped open Niall’s throat as well.”

Baring teeth in what could pass for a smile, Valda straightened. Asunawa had a love of truth, a strange love; he could tie it into knots, or hang it up and flay it while it screamed, but so far as Valda knew, he never actually lied. A look at Niall’s glazed eyes, and the pool of blood spreading beneath him, satisfied Valda. The old man was dying.

“May, Asunawa?”

The High Inquisitor’s gaze burned hotter as Asunawa stepped back, moving the snowy cloak away from Niall’s blood. Even a Lord Captain was not supposed to be that familiar. “I said may, my son. You have been oddly reluctant to agree that the witch Morgase must be given to the Hand of the Light. Unless you give that assurance—”

“Morgase is needed yet.” Breaking in gave Valda considerable pleasure. He did not like Questioners, the Hand of the Light as they called themselves. Who could like men who never met an enemy not disarmed and in chains? They held themselves apart from the Children, separate. Asunawa’s cloak bore only the scarlet shepherd’s crook of the Questioners, not the flaring golden sun of the Children that graced his own tabard. Worse, they seemed to think their work with racks and hot irons was the only true work of the Children. “Morgase gives us Andor, so you cannot have her before we have it. And we cannot take Andor until the Prophet’s mobs are crushed.” The Prophet had to be first, preaching the coming of the Dragon Reborn, his mobs burning villages too slow to proclaim for al’Thor. Niall’s chest barely moved, now. “Unless you want to trade Amadicia for Andor, instead of holding both? I mean to see al’Thor hung and the White Tower ground to dust, Asunawa, and I did not go along with your plan just to see you toss it all on the midden.”

Asunawa was not taken aback; he was no coward. Not here, with hundreds of Questioners in the Fortress and most of the Children wary of putting a foot wrong around them. He ignored the sword in Valda’s hands, and that martyr’s face took on a look of sadness. His sweat seemed to be tears of regret. “In that case, since Lord Captain Canvele believes that the law must be obeyed, I fear—”

I fear Canvele agrees with me, Asunawa.” Since dawn he did, since he realized that Valda had brought half a legion into the Fortress. Canvele was no fool. “The question is not whether I will be Lord Captain Commander when the sun sets today, but who will guide the Hand of the Light in its digging for truth.”

No coward, Asunawa, and even less a fool than Canvele. He neither flinched nor demanded how Valda thought to bring this about. “I see,” he said after a moment, and then, mildly, “Do you mean to flout the law entirely, my son?”

Valda almost laughed. “You can examine Morgase, but she is not to be put to the question. You can have her for that when I am done with her.” Which might take a little time; finding a replacement for the Lion Throne, one who understood her proper relationship to the Children as King Ailron did here, would not happen overnight.

Perhaps Asunawa understood and perhaps not. He opened his mouth, and there was a gasp from the doorway. Niall’s pinch-faced secretary stood there, purse-mouthed and knobby, narrow eyes trying to stare at everything except the bodies stretched out on the floor.

“A sad day, Master Balwer,” Asunawa intoned, his voice sorrowful iron. “The traitor Omerna has slain our Lord Captain Commander Pedron Niall, the Light illumine his soul.” Not an advance on the truth; Niall’s chest no longer moved, and killing him had been treason. “Lord Captain Valda entered too late to save him, but he did slay Omerna in the full depth of his sin.” Balwer gave a start and began dry-washing his hands.

The birdlike fellow made Valda itch. “Since you are here, Balwer, you may as well be useful.” He disliked useless people, and the scribbler was the very form of uselessness. “Carry this message to each Lord Captain in the Fortress. Tell them the Lord Captain Commander has been murdered, and I call for a meeting of the Council of the Anointed.” His first act on being named Lord Captain Commander would be to boot the dried-up little man out of the Fortress, boot him so far he bounced twice, and choose a secretary who did not twitch. “Whether Omerna was bought by the witches or the Prophet, I mean to see Pedron Niall avenged.”

“As you say, my Lord.” Balwer’s voice was dry and narrow. “It shall be as you say.” He apparently found himself able to look on Niall’s body at last; as he bowed himself out jerkily, he hardly looked at anything else.

“So it seems you will be our next Lord Captain Commander after all,” Asunawa said once Balwer was gone.

“So it seems,” Valda answered dryly. A tiny slip of paper lay next to Niall’s outstretched hand, the sort used in sending messages by pigeon. Valda bent and picked it up, then exhaled in disgust. The paper had been sitting in a puddle of wine; whatever had been written on it was lost, the ink a blur.

“And the Hand will have Morgase when your need for her is done.” That was not in the slightest a question.

“I will hand her to you myself.” Perhaps a little something might be arranged to sate Asunawa’s appetite for a while. It might make sure Morgase remained amenable, too. Valda dropped the bit of rubbish on Niall’s corpse. The old wolf had lost his cunning and his nerve with age, and now it would be up to Eamon Valda to bring the witches and their false Dragon to heel.

Flat on his belly on a rise, Gawyn surveyed disaster beneath the afternoon sun. Dumai’s Wells lay miles to the south now, across rolling plain and low hills, but he could still see the smoke from burning wagons. What had happened there after he led what he could gather of the Younglings in breaking out, he did not know. Al’Thor had seemed well in charge, al’Thor and those black-coated men who appeared to be channeling, taking down Aes Sedai and Aiel alike. It had been the realization that sisters were fleeing that told him it was time to go.

He wished he could have killed al’Thor. For his mother, dead by the man’s doing; Egwene denied it, but she had no proof. For his sister. If Min had spoken the truth—he should have made her leave the camp with him, whatever she wanted; there was too much he should have done differently today—if Min was right, and Elayne loved al’Thor, then that dreadful fate was reason enough to kill. Maybe the Aiel had done the work for him. He doubted it, though.

With a sour laugh he raised the tube of his looking glass. One of the golden bands bore an inscription. “From Morgase, Queen of Andor, to her beloved son, Gawyn. May he be a living sword for his sister and Andor.” Bitter words, now.

There was not much to see beyond sere grass and small, scattered clumps of trees. The wind still gusted, raising waves of dust. Occasionally a flash of movement in a crease between squat ridges spoke of men on the move. Aiel, he was sure. They blended with the land too well to be green-coated Younglings. The Light send that more had escaped than those he had brought out.

He was a fool. He should have killed al’Thor; he had to kill him. But he could not. Not because the man was the Dragon Reborn, but because he had promised Egwene not to raise a hand against al’Thor. As a lowly Accepted, she had vanished from Cairhien, leaving Gawyn only a letter that he had read and reread until the paper was ready to tear along the folds, and he would be unsurprised to learn she had gone to aid al’Thor in some way. He could not break his word, least of all to the woman he loved. Never his word to her. Whatever the cost to himself. He hoped she would accept the compromise he had made with his honor; he had raised not a hand to harm, but none to help, either. The Light send she never asked that of him. It was said that love addled men’s brains, and he was the proof.

Suddenly he pressed the looking glass to his eye as a woman galloped a tall black horse into the open. He could not make out her face, but no servant would be wearing a dress divided for riding. So at least one Aes Sedai had managed to escape. If sisters had made it out of the trap alive, maybe more of the Younglings had too. With luck, he could find them before they were killed in small groups by the Aiel. First there was the matter of this sister, though. In many ways he would rather have gone on without her, but leaving her alone, maybe to take an arrow she never saw coming, was not an option he could allow himself. As he started to rise and wave to her, though, the horse stumbled and fell, pitching her over its head.

He cursed, then again when the looking glass showed him an arrow standing up from the black’s side. Hastily he scanned the hills, and bit down on another curse; maybe two dozen veiled Aiel stood on a crest staring toward downed horse and rider, less than a hundred paces from the Aes Sedai. Quickly he glanced back. The sister rose unsteadily to her feet. If she kept her wits and used the Power, there should be no way a few Aiel could harm her, especially if she took shelter against more arrows behind the fallen horse. Even so, he would feel better when he had gathered her in. Rolling away from the crest to lessen the chances of the Aiel seeing him, he slid down the reverse slope until he could stand. He had brought five hundred and eighty-one Younglings south, almost every one who was far enough along in training to leave Tar Valon, but fewer than two hundred waited on their horses in the hollow. Before disaster struck at Dumai’s Wells, he was certain there had been a plot afoot to see that he and the Younglings died without returning to the White Tower. Why, he did not know, nor whether the scheme came from Elaida or Galina, but it had succeeded well enough, if not exactly in the way its devisers had thought. Small wonder that he would have preferred to go on without Aes Sedai, had he any choice.

He stopped beside a tall gray gelding with a young rider. Young, as indeed all the Younglings were—many did not need to shave beyond every third day, and a few still only pretended even that—but Jisao wore the silver tower on his collar, marking him a veteran of the fighting when Siuan Sanche was deposed, and scars beneath his clothes from fighting since. He was one of those who could skip the razor most mornings; his dark eyes belonged to a man thirty years older, though. What did his own eyes look like Gawyn wondered.

“Jisao, we have a sister to pull out of the—”

The hundred or so Aiel who came trotting over the low rise to the west recoiled in surprise at finding the Younglings below, but neither surprise nor the Younglings’ superior numbers held them back. In a flash they veiled and plunged down the slope, darting in with spears stabbing at horses as often as  riders, working in pairs. Yet if the Aiel knew how to fight men on horseback, the Younglings had recently had rough lessons in how to fight Aiel, and slow learners did not live long in their ranks. Some carried slender lances, ending in a foot and a half of steel with a crossguard to prevent the head penetrating too deeply, and all could use their swords as well as any but a blademaster. They fought in twos and threes, each man watching another’s back, keeping their mounts moving so the Aiel could not hamstring the animals. Only the quickest Aiel managed to get inside those circles of flashing steel. The war-trained horses themselves were weapons, splitting skulls with their hooves, seizing men with their teeth and shaking them like dogs worrying rats, jaws tearing away half a man’s face. The horses screamed as they fought, and men grunted with effort, shouted with the fever that over-took men in battle, the fever that said they were alive and would live to see another sunrise if they had to wade waist-deep in blood. They shouted as they killed, shouted as they died; there seemed little difference.

Gawyn had no time to watch or listen, though. The only Youngling afoot, he attracted attention. Three cadin’sor-clad figures dodged through the horsemen, rushing at him with spears ready. Perhaps they thought him easy meat, three on one. He disabused them. His sword left the scabbard smoothly, as smoothly as he flowed from The Falcon Stoops to The Creeper Embraces the Oak to The Moon Rises Over the Lakes. Three times he felt the shock in his wrists of blade meeting flesh, and that quickly three veiled Aielmen were down; two still moving weakly, but they were out of the fight as much as the other. The next to confront him was a different matter.

A lean fellow, overtopping Gawyn by a hand, he moved like a snake, spear flickering while his buckler darted and slanted to deflect sword strokes with a force Gawyn could feel to his shoulders. The Wood Grouse Dances became Folding the Air became The Courtier Taps His Fan, and the Aiel man met each of them at the cost of a slash along his ribs, while Gawyn took a gash on his thigh that only a quick twist kept from being a stab clean through.

They circled one another, oblivious to whatever happened around them. Blood oozed hot down Gawyn’s leg. The Aiel man feinted, hoping to draw him off balance, feinted again; Gawyn shifted from stance to stance, sword now high, now low, hoping the man would extend one of those half-thrusts just a little too far.

In the end, it was chance that decided matters. The Aiel man abruptly stumbled a step, and Gawyn ran him through the heart before he even saw the horse that had backed into the man.

Once he would have felt regret; he had grown up believing that if two men must fight, the duel should proceed honorably and cleanly. More than half a year of battles and skirmishes had taught him better. He put a foot on the Aiel man’s chest and wrenched his blade free. Ungallant, but fast, and in battle, slow was often dead.

Only, when his sword was free, there was no need for speed. Men were down, Younglings and Aielmen, some groaning, some still, and the rest of the Aiel streaming away to the east, harried by two dozen Younglings, including some who should know better. “Hold!” he shouted. If the idiots allowed themselves to become separated, the Aiel would cut them to dogmeat. “No pursuit! Hold, I said! Hold, burn you!” The Younglings pulled up reluctantly.

Jisao reined his gelding around. “They just thought to cut a path through us on the way wherever they’re going, my Lord.” His sword dripped red from half its length. Gawyn caught the reins of his own bay stallion and swung into the saddle, not waiting to clean or sheath his blade. No time to see who was dead, who might live. “Forget them. That sister is waiting for us. Hal, keep your half-troop to look after the wounded. And watch those Aiel; just because they’re dying doesn’t mean they have quit. The rest, follow me.” Hal saluted with his sword, but Gawyn was already digging in his spurs.

The skirmish had not lasted long, yet too long however short. When Gawyn reached the crest, only the dead horse was to be seen, its saddlebags turned out. Scanning through his looking glass revealed not a sign of the sister, the Aiel or anything else living. All that moved was windblown dust and a dress on the ground near the horse, stirring in the gusts. The woman must have sprinted to be so completely out of sight so quickly.

“She can’t have gone far, even running,” Jisao said. “We can find her if we fan out.”

“We’ll search after we see to the wounded,” Gawyn replied firmly. He was not about to split up his men with Aiel roaming loose. Only a few hours yet till sunset, and he wanted a tight camp on high ground before then. It might be as well if he did manage to find a sister or two; someone was going to have to explain this catastrophe to Elaida, and he would as soon it was an Aes Sedai facing her wrath, not him.

Turning his bay with a sigh, he rode back down to see what the butcher’s bill had been this time. That had been his first real lesson as a soldier. You always had to pay the butcher. He had a feeling there would be bigger bills due soon. The world would forget Dumai’s Wells in what was coming.

High Chasaline

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 in the great forest called Braem Wood. 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.

North and east the wind blew as the searing sun rose higher in a cloudless sky, north and east through parched trees with brown leaves and bare branches, through scattered villages where the air shimmered from the heat. The wind brought no relief, no hint of rain, much less snow. North and east it blew, past an ancient arch of finely worked stone that some said had been a gateway to a great city and others a monument to some long forgotten battle. Only weathered, illegible remnants of carving remained on the massive stones, mutely recalling the lost glories of storied Coremanda. A few wagons trundled by in sight of the arch, along the Tar Valon Road, and folk afoot shielded their eyes from dust raised by hooves and wagon wheels and driven by the wind. Most had no idea where they were going, only that the world seemed to turn somersaults, all order ending where it was not gone already. Fear drove some on, while others were drawn by something they could not quite see and did not understand, and most of them were afraid, too.

Onward the wind traveled, across the gray-green River Erinin, heeling ships that still carried trade north and south, for there had to be trade even in these days, though none could be sure where it was safe to trade. East of the river, the forests began to thin, giving way eventually to low rolling hills covered in brown, tinder-dry grass and dotted sparsely with small clumps of trees. Atop one of those hills stood a circle of wagons, many with the canvas scorched or else completely burned away from the iron hoops. On a makeshift flagstaff, trimmed from a young tree dead in the drought and lashed to a bare wagon hoop for more height, waved a crimson banner, a black-and-white disc in its heart. The Banner of Light, some called it, or al’Thor’s Banner. Others had darker names, and shivered as they spoke them in whispers. The wind shook the banner hard and was gone quickly, as if glad to be away.

Perrin Aybara sat on the ground with his broad back against a wagon wheel, wishing the wind lingered. It had been cooler for a moment. And the wind from the south had cleared the scent of death from his nostrils, a scent that reminded him where he was supposed to be, the last place he wanted to be. Much better here, inside the wagon circle, his back to the north, where he could forget after a fashion. The surviving wagons had been hauled up to the hilltop yesterday, in the afternoon, once men could find strength to do more than thank the Light they still breathed. Now the sun climbed again, and the heat with it.

Irritably, he scratched at his short curly beard; the more he sweated, the more it itched. Sweat rolled down the face of every man he could see except the Aiel, and water lay nearly a mile away to the north now. But so did the horrors, and the smells. Most considered it a fair trade. He should have been doing his duty, yet the touch of guilt did not move him. Today was High Chasaline, and back home in the Two Rivers there would be feasting all day and dancing all night; the Day of Reflection, when you were supposed to remember all the good things in your life and anyone who voiced a complaint could find a bucket of water upended over his head to wash away bad luck. Not something anybody wanted when the weather was cold, as it should be; a bucket of water would be a pleasure now. For a man lucky to be alive, he found it remarkably hard to pull up any good thoughts. He had learned things about himself yesterday. Or maybe it had been this morning, after it was all done.

He could sense a few of the wolves still, a handful of those that survived and were now on their way elsewhere, far from here, far from men. The wolves were still the talk of the camp, uneasy speculation over where they had appeared from and why. A few believed Rand had called them. Most thought the Aes Sedai had. The Aes Sedai did not say what they thought. No blame came from the wolves—what had happened, had happened—but he could not match their fatalism. They had come because he called them. Shoulders wide enough to make him seem shorter than he was slumped under the weight of responsibility. Now and then he heard other wolves, that had not come, speak with scorn to those that had: This was what came of mixing with the two-legs. Nothing else could be expected.

It was a strain to keep his thoughts to himself. He wanted to be home, in the Two Rivers. Small chance of that, perhaps ever again. He wanted to howl that the scornful ones were right. He wanted to be with his wife anywhere at all, and everything the way it was before. The chances of which seemed little better, maybe worse. Far more than the yearning for home, more even than the wolves, worry about Faile ate inside him like a ferret trying to burrow out of his middle. She had actually seemed glad to see him leave Cairhien. What was he to do about her? He could not think of words to describe how much he loved his wife, and needed her, but she was jealous where she had no cause, hurt where he had done nothing, angry where he could not see why. He must do something, but what? The answer eluded him. Careful thought was all he had, while Faile was flashing quicksilver.

“The Aiel should put some clothes on them,” Aram muttered primly, scowling at the ground. He squatted nearby, patiently holding the reins of a rangy gray gelding; he seldom went far from Perrin. The sword strapped to his back jarred with his green-striped Tinker coat, hanging undone for the heat. A rolled kerchief tied around his forehead kept sweat from his eyes. Once Perrin had thought him almost too good-looking for a man. A bleak darkness had settled in him, though, and now he wore a scowl as often as not. “It isn’t decent, Lord Perrin.”

Perrin put aside thoughts of Faile reluctantly. With time, he could puzzle it out. He had to. Somehow. “It is their way, Aram.”

Aram grimaced as if he might spit. “Well, it isn’t a decent way. It keeps them under control, I suppose—nobody would run far or make trouble like that—but it isn’t decent.”

There were Aiel all over the place, of course. Tall, aloof men in grays and browns and greens, their only bit of color the scarlet strip of cloth tied around their temples, with the black-and-white disc on their foreheads. Siswai’aman, they called themselves. Sometimes that word tickled the edge of his memory, like a word he should know. Ask one of the Aielmen, and he looked as if you had babbled nonsense. But then, they ignored the strips of cloth, too. No Maiden of the Spear wore the scarlet headband. Whether white-haired or looking barely old enough to leave her mother, every Maiden stalked about giving the siswai’aman challenging stares that seemed somehow self-satisfied, while the men looked back flat-eyed, with a smell almost of hunger, a matter of jealousy by the scent of all of them, though over what Perrin could not begin to imagine. Whatever it was, it was not new, and it did not seem likely to come to blows. A few of the Wise Ones were inside the wagons as well, in bulky skirts and white blouses, wearing their dark shawls in defiance of the heat, glittering bracelets and necklaces of gold and ivory making up for the plainness of the rest of their clothes. Some appeared amused by the Maidens and the siswai’aman, and others exasperated. All of them—Wise Ones, Maidens and siswai’aman—ignored the Shaido the way Perrin would have a stool or a rug.

The Aiel had taken two hundred or so Shaido prisoners yesterday, men and Maidens—not many, considering the numbers involved—and they moved about freely. In a manner of speaking. Perrin would have been a lot more comfortable had they been guarded. And clothed. Instead, they fetched water and ran errands, naked as the day they were born. With other Aiel, they were meek as mice. Anyone else received a proudly defiant stare for noticing them. Perrin was not the only one who tried not to notice them, and Aram not the only one to mutter. A good many of the Two Rivers men in camp did one or both. A good many of the Cairhienin nearly had apoplexy whenever they saw one of the Shaido. The Mayeners just shook their heads as though it were all a joke. And ogled the women. They had as little shame as the Aiel, the Mayeners.

“Gaul explained it to me, Aram. You know what a gai’shain is, don’t you? About ji’e’toh and serving a year and a day and all that?” The other man nodded, which was a good thing. Perrin did not know much himself. Gaul’s explanations of Aiel ways often left him more confused. Gaul always thought it all self-evident. “Well, gai’shain aren’t allowed to wear anything one of the algai’d’siswai might wear—that means ‘spear fighters,’ ” he added at Aram’s questioning frown. Suddenly he realized he was looking straight at one of the Shaido as she trotted in his general direction, a tall young woman, golden-haired and pretty despite a long thin scar down her cheek and other scars elsewhere. Very pretty and very naked. Clearing his throat roughly, he pulled his eyes away. He could feel his face heating. “Anyway, that is why they are... the way they are. Gai’shain wear white robes, and they don’t have any here. It’s just their way.” Burn Gaul and burn his explanations, he thought. They could cover them with something!

“Perrin Goldeneyes,” said a woman’s voice, “Carahuin sends to know whether you wish water.” Aram’s face went purple, and he jerked himself around in his squat, presenting his back to her.

“No, thank you.” Perrin did not need to look up to know it was the golden-haired Shaido woman. He kept peering off at nothing in another direction. Aiel had a peculiar sense of humor, and Maidens of the Spear—Carahuin was a Maiden—had the most peculiar. They had quickly seen how the wetlanders reacted to the Shaido—they would have needed to be blind not to—and suddenly gai’shain were being sent to wetlanders left and right, and Aiel all but rolling on the ground at the blushes and stammers and even the shouting. He was sure that Carahuin and her friends were watching now. This was at least the tenth time one of the gai’shain women had been sent to ask him whether he wanted water or had a spare whet-stone or some such bloody fool thing.

Abruptly a thought struck him. The Mayeners were seldom bothered this way. A handful of Cairhienin plainly enjoyed looking, if not so openly as the Mayeners, and some of the older Two Rivers men, who should have known better. The point was, none of them had had a second spurious message that he knew of. Those who reacted the most, on the other hand... Cairhienin, who had shouted the loudest about indecency, and two or three of the younger Two Rivers men, who stammered and blushed so hard they looked ready to melt, had been pestered until they fled the wagons entirely...

With an effort Perrin looked up at the gai’shain’s face. At her eyes. Focus on her eyes, he thought frantically. They were green, and large, and not at all meek. Her scent was pure fury. “Thank Carahuin for me, and tell her you could oil my spare saddle, if she doesn’t mind. And I don’t have a clean shirt. If she wouldn’t mind you doing some laundry?”

“She will not mind,” the woman said in a tight voice, then turned and trotted off.

Perrin whipped his eyes away, though the image did stay in his head. Light, Aram was right! But with luck, he might just have stopped any more visitations. He would have to point this out to Aram, and the Two Rivers men. Maybe the Cairhienin would listen too.

“What are we going to do about them, Lord Perrin?” Still looking away, Aram no longer spoke of gai’shain.

“That is Rand’s to decide,” Perrin said slowly, satisfaction fading. It might be odd to think of people wandering about naked as a small problem, but this was definitely a bigger. And one he had been avoiding as hard as he had what lay to the north.

On the far side of the wagon circle, nearly two dozen women sat on the ground. All well-dressed for travel, many wore silk, most with light linen dustcloaks, but not a bead of sweat showed on any face. Three appeared young enough that he might have asked them for a dance before he married Faile.

If they weren’t Aes Sedai, anyway, he thought wryly. Once he had danced with an Aes Sedai, and nearly swallowed his tongue when he realized who he swung about. And she had been a friend, if that word applied to Aes Sedai. How new does an Aes Sedai have to be for me to put an age to her? The others looked ageless, of course; maybe in their twenties, maybe their forties, changing from one glance to the next, always uncertain. That was what their faces said, though several showed gray in their hair. You just could not tell with Aes Sedai. About anything.

“At least those are no danger anymore,” Aram said, jerking his head toward three of the sisters a little apart from the rest.

One wept, face on her knees; the other two stared haggardly at nothing, one of them plucking aimlessly at her skirt. They had been much the same since yesterday; at least none was screaming any longer. If Perrin had the straight of it, which he was not sure he did, they had been stilled somehow when Rand broke free. They would never channel the One Power again. To Aes Sedai, it was probably better to be dead.

He would have expected the other Aes Sedai to comfort them, care for them somehow, but most ignored the three entirely, although a little too studied in looking anywhere and everywhere else. For that matter, the stilled Aes Sedai refused to acknowledge the rest, either. In the beginning, at least, a few of the other sisters had approached, each by herself, calm to the eye yet smelling sharply of aversion and reluctance, but they got nothing for their pains, not word or glance. None had gone near this morning.

Perrin shook his head. The Aes Sedai seemed to do a lot of ignoring of what they did not want to admit. For instance, the black-coated men standing over them. There was an Asha’man for each sister, even the three who had been stilled, and they never seemed to blink. For their part, the Aes Sedai looked past the Asha’man, or through them; they might as well not have existed.

It was quite a trick. He could not make himself disregard the Asha’man, and he was not under their guard. They ranged from fuzz-cheeked boys to gray-haired, balding gansers, and it was not their grim, high-collared black coats or the sword each wore at his hip that made them dangerous. Every Asha’man could channel, and somehow they were keeping the Aes Sedai from channeling. Men who could wield the One Power, a thing of nightmares. Rand could, of course, but he was Rand, and the Dragon Re-born besides. These fellows made Perrin’s hackles rise.

The captive Aes Sedai’s surviving Warders sat some distance off, under their own guard. Thirty or so of Lord Dobraine’s armsmen in bell-shaped Cairhienin helmets and as many Mayener Winged Guards in red breast-plates, each sharp-eyed as if guarding leopards. A good attitude, under the circumstances. More Warders than there were Aes Sedai; a number of the prisoners were Green Ajah, apparently. More guards than Warders, a good many more, and maybe few enough at that.

“The Light send we don’t see any more grief from that lot,” Perrin muttered. Twice during the night the Warders had tried to break free. In truth, those outbreaks had been suppressed more by the Asha’man than by the Cairhienin or Mayeners, and they had not been gentle. None of the Warders had been killed, but at least a dozen nursed broken bones none of the sisters had yet been allowed to Heal.

“If the Lord Dragon cannot make the decision,” Aram said quietly, “maybe it should be made by somebody else. To protect him.”

Perrin gave him a sidelong look. “What decision? The sisters told them not to make another attempt, and they’ll obey their Aes Sedai.” Broken bones or no, unarmed as they were, hands tied behind their backs, the Warders still looked like a wolfpack awaiting the lead wolf’s command to attack. None would rest easy until his Aes Sedai was free, maybe until all of the sisters were free. Aes Sedai and Warders; a stack of well-aged oak, ready for a flame. But even Warders and Aes Sedai had proved no match for Asha’man.

“I did not mean the Warders.” Aram hesitated, then shuffled closer to Perrin and lowered his voice further, to a hoarse whisper. “The Aes Sedai kidnapped the Lord Dragon. He can’t trust them, not ever, but he won’t do what he has to, either. If they died before he knew it—”

“What are you saying?” Perrin almost choked as he sat bolt upright. Not for the first time, he wondered whether there was any Tinker left in the other man. “They’re helpless, Aram! Helpless women!”

“They are Aes Sedai.” Dark eyes met Perrin’s golden stare levelly. “They cannot be trusted, and they cannot be turned loose. How long can Aes Sedai be held against their will? They’ve been doing what they do far longer than the Asha’man. They must know more. They’re a danger to the Lord Dragon, and to you, Lord Perrin. I have seen them look at you.”

Across the wagon circle, the sisters were talking among themselves in whispers even Perrin could not hear, mouths held close to ears. Now and again one did look at him and Aram. At him, not Aram. He had caught a double handful of names. Nesune Bihara. Erian Boroleos and Katerine Alruddin. Coiren Saeldain, Sarene Nemdahl and Elza Penfell. Janine Pavlara, Beldeine Nyram, Marith Riven. Those last were the young sisters, but young or ageless, they watched him with faces so serene it seemed they had the upper hand despite the Asha’man. Defeating Aes Sedai was not easy; making them admit defeat lay on the far side of impossible.

He forced his hands to unknot and rest on his knees, giving an appearance of calm he was nowhere near feeling. They knew he was ta’veren, one of those few the Pattern would shape itself around for a time. Worse, they knew he was tied to Rand in some way nobody understood, least of all himself or Rand. Or Mat; Mat was in that tangle, too, another ta’veren, though neither of them as strongly as Rand. Given half a chance those women would have him—and Mat—inside the White Tower as fast as they would Rand, tethered like goats until the lion came. And they had kidnapped Rand, mistreated him. Aram was right about one thing; they could not be trusted. But what Aram suggested—he would not—could not!—countenance such a thing. The thought made him queasy.

“I’ll hear no more of that,” he growled. The onetime Tinker opened his mouth, but Perrin cut him off. “Not a word, Aram, do you hear me? Not one word!”

“As my Lord Perrin commands,” Aram murmured, inclining his head.

Perrin wished he could see the man’s face. There was no anger in the smell of him, no resentment. That was the worst of it. There had been no anger scent even when Aram suggested murder.

A pair of Two Rivers men climbed up on the wheels of the next wagon, peering across the wagon bed and down the hill toward the north. Each wore a bristling quiver on his right hip and a stout, long-bladed knife, almost a short-sword, on his left. A good three hundred men from home had followed Perrin here. He cursed the first to call him Lord Perrin, cursed the day he had stopped trying to quash it. Even with the murmurs and noises usual in a camp this size, he had no trouble hearing the pair.

Tod al’Caar, a year younger than Perrin, let out a long breath, as if seeing what lay below for the first time. Perrin could almost sense the lanky man’s lantern jaw working. Tod’s mother had willingly let him go only for the honor of her son following Perrin Goldeneyes. “A famous victory,” Tod said finally. “That’s what we won. Wasn’t it, Jondyn?”

Grizzled Jondyn Barran, gnarled as an oak root, was one of the few older men among the three hundred. A better bowshot than anyone in the Two Rivers except Master al’Thor and a better hunter than anyone at all, he was one of the Two Rivers’ less distinguished residents. Jondyn had not worked a day more than he had to since he was old enough to leave his father’s farm. The forests and the hunt were all he cared about, that and drinking too much at feastdays. Now he spat loudly. “If you say so, boy. Was those bloody Asha’man won it, anyway. And welcome to it, I say. Too bad they don’t take it and go someplace else to celebrate.”

“They aren’t so bad,” Tod protested. “I wouldn’t mind being one myself.” That sounded more boast and bluff than truth. Smelled it, too; without looking, Perrin was sure he was licking his lips. Likely Tod’s mother had used tales of men who could channel to frighten him not so many years ago. “I mean to say, Rand—that is, the Lord Dragon—it still sounds odd, doesn’t it, Rand al’Thor being the Dragon Reborn and all?” Tod laughed, a short, uneasy sound. “Well, he can channel, and it doesn’t seem so—he doesn’t—I mean...” He swallowed loudly. “Besides, what could we have done about all those Aes Sedai without them?” That came out in a whisper. He smelled afraid now. “Jondyn, what are we going to do? I mean, Aes Sedai prisoners?”

The older man spat again, louder than before. He did not bother to lower his voice, either. Jondyn always said what he thought no matter who heard, another reason for his bad repute. “Better for us if they’d all died yesterday, boy. We’ll pay for that before it’s done. Mark me, we’ll pay large.”

Perrin shut out the rest, no easy task with his ears. First Aram, and now Jondyn and Tod, if not so directly. Burn Jondyn! No, the man might make Mat look industrious, but if he spoke it, others thought it. No Two Rivers man would willingly harm a woman, but who else wished the Aes Sedai prisoners dead? And who might try to achieve the wish?

He scanned the wagon circle uneasily. The thought that he might have to protect the Aes Sedai prisoners was not pleasant, but he did not shirk it. He had little fondness for any Aes Sedai, least of all for these, but he had grown up in the unspoken certainty that a man would put himself at risk to protect a woman as far she allowed; whether he liked her or even knew her was beside the point. True, an Aes Sedai could tie any man she chose into a knot nine ways from next feastday, but cut off from the Power, they became like anyone else. That was the struggle whenever he looked at them. Two dozen Aes Sedai. Two dozen women who might not know how to defend themselves without the Power.

For a bit he studied the Asha’man guards, every one wearing a face like grim death. Except the three overseeing the stilled women. They tried to appear as somber as the rest, but under the attempt lay something else. Satisfaction, maybe. If only he was close enough to catch a scent of them. Any Aes Sedai was a threat to the Asha’man. Perhaps the reverse was true, too. Perhaps they would only still them. From the little he had picked up, stilling an Aes Sedai amounted to a killing that just took a few years for the corpse to lie down.

Whatever the case, he decided reluctantly, he had to leave the Asha’man to Rand. They spoke only to each other and the prisoners, and Perrin doubted they would listen to anyone but Rand. The question was, what would Rand say? And what could Perrin do if he said the wrong thing?

Putting that problem aside, he scratched his beard with one finger. The Cairhienin were too nervous about Aes Sedai to consider harming them, and the Mayeners too respectful, but he would keep an eye on them anyway. Who would have thought Jondyn would go as far as he had? Among the Cairhienin or Mayeners, he possessed some influence, though it would surely vanish if they once thought. He was really just a blacksmith, after all. That left the Aiel. Perrin sighed. He was not certain how much influence even Rand truly had with the Aiel.

It was difficult picking out individual scents with so many people around, but he had grown used to telling as much by smells as by what his eyes told him. The siswai’aman who came close enough smelled calm but alert, a smooth, strong scent. They hardly appeared to notice the Aes Sedai. The Maidens’ aromas were spiky with suppressed fury and grew spikier when they looked at the prisoners. And the Wise Ones... Every Wise One who had come here from Cairhien was able to channel, though none had the ageless face. He supposed they used the One Power too seldom. Still, smooth-cheeked like Edarra or as leathery-faced as white-haired Sorilea, they carried themselves with a self-possession easily matching the Aes Sedai’s. Graceful women for the most part, most of them tall, as nearly all Aiel were, they seemed to ignore the sisters completely.

Sorilea’s eyes passed across the prisoners without pausing, and she went right on talking softly to Edarra and another Wise One, a lean, yellow-haired woman he did not know by name. If only he could make out what they were saying. They walked by, not a line changing on those three un-ruffled faces, but their scents were another matter. When Sorilea’s gaze swept over the Aes Sedai, the smell of her went cold and distant, grim and purposeful, and as she spoke to the other two, their scents changed to match hers.

“A fine bloody stew,” he growled.

“Trouble?” Aram asked, sitting up straighter on his heels, right hand poised to dart for the wolfhead-pommeled sword hilt jutting above his shoulder. He had become very good with that sword in a very short time, and he was never loath to use it.

“There’s no trouble, Aram.” That was not quite a lie. Jolted out of his glum brooding, Perrin really looked at the others for the first time. At all of them together. He did not like what he saw, and the Aes Sedai were only part.

Cairhienin and Mayeners watched Aiel suspiciously, which was no more than the Aiel’s return suspicion, especially toward the Cairhienin. No real surprise there. Aiel did have a certain reputation, after all, for being none too friendly to anyone born this side of the Spine of the World, Cairhienin least of all. Simple truth was, Aiel and Cairhienin hated each other about as hard as it was possible to hate. Neither side had really put their enmity aside—the best that could be said was that it was on a loose leash—yet up to now he had been convinced they would hold it in. For Rand’s sake if no other reason. A mood hung in the camp, though, a tension that had wound everyone tight. Rand was free now, and temporary alliances were just that, after all; temporary. Aiel hefted their spears when they looked at the Cairhienin, and the Cairhienin grimly fingered their swords. So did the Mayeners; they had no quarrel with the Aiel, had never fought them except for the Aiel War when everybody had, but if it came to a fight, there was little doubt which side they would be on. The Two Rivers men, too, probably.

The dark mood had settled deepest into the Asha’man and the Wise Ones, though. The black-coated men paid no more heed to the Maidens and the siswai’aman than to Cairhienin or Mayeners or Two Rivers men, but they studied the Wise Ones with faces almost as dark as those they directed at the Aes Sedai. Very likely they made small distinction between one woman who could wield the Power and another. Any could be an enemy and dangerous; thirteen together were deadly dangerous, and there were better than ninety Wise Ones in the camp or nearby. Fewer than half the number of Asha’man, but still enough to do damage if they chose. Women who could channel, yet they seemed to follow Rand; they seemed to follow Rand, yet they were women who could channel.

The Wise Ones looked at the Asha’man only a trifle less coldly than they did the Aes Sedai. The Asha’man were men who could channel, but they followed Rand; they followed Rand, but... Rand was a special case. According to Gaul, his channeling was not mentioned in the prophecies about their Car’a’carn, but the Aiel seemed to pretend that inconvenient fact did not exist. The Asha’man were not in those prophecies at all, though. It must be like discovering you had a pride of rabid lions fighting on your side. How long would they remain loyal? Maybe it would be better to put them down now. His head fell back against the wagon wheel, eyes closed, and his chest heaved in silent, mirthless laughter. Think of the good things on High Chasaline. Burn me, he thought wryly, I should have gone with Rand. No, it was best to know, and better soon than late. But what in the Light was he to do? If the Aiel and the Cairhienin and Mayeners turned on one another, or worse, the Asha’man and the Wise Ones... A barrel full of snakes, and the only way to find out which were vipers was to stick your hand in. Light, I wish I was home, with Faile, and a forge to work, and nobody calling me bloody lord.

“Your horse, Lord Perrin. You didn’t say whether you wanted Stepper or Stayer, so I saddled—” At Perrin’s golden-eyed glare, Kenly Maerin shied back into the dun stallion he was leading.

Perrin made a soothing gesture. Not Kenly’s fault. What could not be mended had to be endured. “Easy, lad. You did right. Stepper will do just fine. You chose well.” He hated speaking to Kenly that way. Short and stocky, Kenly was barely old enough to marry or leave home—and certainly not old enough for the patchy beard he was trying to cultivate in imitation of Perrin—yet he had fought Trollocs at Emond’s Field and done well yesterday. But he grinned broadly at praise from Lord Perrin bloody Goldeneyes.

Rising, Perrin took his axe from where he had propped it under the wagon, out of sight and for a little while out of mind, and thrust the haft through the loop on his belt. A heavy half-moon blade balanced by a thick curving spike; a thing made for no other purpose than killing. The axe haft felt too familiar to his hands for comfort. Did he even remember what a good forge-hammer felt like? There were other things besides “Lord Perrin” that it might be too late to change. A friend had once told him to keep the axe until he began to like using it. The thought made him shiver in spite of the heat.

He swung into Stepper’s saddle, shadowed by Aram with the gray, and sat facing south, into the wagon circle. At least half again as tall as even the tallest of the Aiel, Loial was just stepping carefully over crossed wagon tongues. With the size of him, he did look as though he might break one of the heavy wooden shafts with a heedless step. As usual, the Ogier had a book in his hand, a thick finger marking his place, and the capacious pockets of his long coat bulged with more. He had spent the morning in a tiny clump of trees he called restful and shady, but whatever the shade among those trees, the heat was affecting him, too. He looked tired, and his coat was undone, his shirt unlaced, and his boots rolled down below his knees. Or maybe it was more than the heat. Just inside the wagons Loial paused, peering at the Aes Sedai and the Asha’man, and his tufted ears quivered uneasily. Eyes big as teacups rolled toward the Wise Ones, and his ears vibrated again. Ogier were sensitive to the mood of a place.

When he saw Perrin, Loial came striding across the camp. Sitting his saddle, Perrin was two or three hands shorter than Loial standing. “Perrin,” Loial whispered, “this is all wrong. It isn’t right, and it is dangerous besides.” For an Ogier it was a whisper. He sounded like a bumblebee the size of a mastiff. Some of the Aes Sedai turned their heads.

“Could you speak a little louder?” Perrin said almost under his breath. “I think somebody in Andor didn’t hear. In the west of Andor.”

Loial looked startled, then grimaced, long eyebrows brushing his cheeks. “I do know how to whisper, you know.” This time it was unlikely anyone could hear clearly more than three paces away or so. “What are we going to do, Perrin? It is wrong holding Aes Sedai against their will, wrong and wrongheaded, too. I have said that before, and I will again. And that isn’t even the worst. The feel here... One spark, and this place will erupt like a wagonload of fireworks. Does Rand know about this?”

“I don’t know,” Perrin said to both questions, and after a moment the Ogier nodded reluctantly.

“Someone has to know, Perrin. Someone has to do something.” Loial looked north, over the wagons behind Perrin, and Perrin knew there was no putting it off longer.

Unwillingly he turned Stepper. He would rather have worried over Aes Sedai and Asha’man and Wise Ones till his hair fell out, but what had to be done, had to be done. Think of the good on High Chasaline.

The Butcher’s Yard

At first Perrin did not look downslope toward where he would ride, where he should have gone with Rand this morning. Instead he sat his saddle at the edge of the wagons and sent his eyes anywhere else, though the view everywhere made him want to sick up. It was like being hit in the belly with a hammer.

Hammerstroke. Nineteen fresh graves atop a squat hill to the east; nineteen Two Rivers men who would never see home again. A blacksmith seldom had to see people die because of his decisions. At least the Two Rivers men had obeyed his orders. There would have been more graves, otherwise. Hammerstroke. Rectangles of newly turned earth blanketed the next slope over from that, as well, near to a hundred Mayeners, and more Cairhienin, who had come to Dumai’s Wells to die. Never mind causes or reasons; they had followed Perrin Aybara. Hammerstroke. The ridge-face to the west seemed solid graves, maybe a thousand or more. A thousand Aiel, buried standing upright, to face each sunrise. A thousand. Some were Maidens. The men tied his stomach into knots; the women made him want to sit down and cry. He tried telling himself that they all had chosen to be here, that they had had to be here. Both things were true, but he had given the orders, and that made the responsibility for those graves his. Not Rand’s, not the Aes Sedai’s; his.

The living Aiel had only stopped singing over their dead a short while ago, haunting songs, sung in parts, that lingered in the mind.

Life is a dream—that knows no shade.
Life is a dream—of pain and woe.
A dream from which—we pray to wake.
A dream from which—we wake and go.
Who would sleep—when the new dawn waits?
Who would sleep—when the sweet winds blow?
A dream must end—when the new day comes.
This dream from which—we wake and go.

They appeared to find comfort in those songs. He wished he could, too, but as far as he could see, the Aiel truly did not seem to care whether they lived or died, and that was mad. Any sane man wanted to live. Any sane man would run as far as he could from a battle, run as hard as he could.

Stepper tossed his head, nostrils flaring at the smells from below, and Perrin patted the dun’s neck. Aram was grinning as he looked at what Perrin tried to block out. Loial’s face had so little expression it might have been carved from wood. His lips moved slightly, and Perrin thought he heard, “Light, let me never see the like again.” Drawing a deep breath, he made his eyes follow theirs, to Dumai’s Wells.

In some ways it was not as bad as the graves—he had known some of those people since he was a child—but it all crashed down on him at once anyway, like the scent in his nose made solid and smashing him between the eyes. The memories he wanted to forget came rushing back. Dumai’s Wells had been a killing ground, a dying ground, but now it was worse. Less than a mile away, the charred remains of wagons stood around a small copse of trees nearly hiding the low stone copings of the wells. And surrounding that...

A seething sea of black, vultures and ravens and crows in tens of thousands, swirling up in waves and settling again, concealing the broken earth. For which Perrin was more than grateful. The Asha’man’s methods had been brutal, destroying flesh and ground with equal impartiality. Too many Shaido had died to bury in less than days, even had anyone cared to bury them, so the vultures gorged, and the ravens, and the crows. The dead wolves were down there, too; he had wanted to bury them, but that was not the wolves’ way. Three Aes Sedai corpses had been found, their channeling unable to save them from spears and arrows in the madness of battle, and half a dozen dead Warders, too. They were buried in the clearing near the wells.

The birds were not alone with the dead. Far from it. Black-feathered waves rose around Lord Dobraine Taborwin and over two hundred of his mounted Cairhienin armsmen, and Lord Lieutenant Havien Nurelle with all that remained of his Mayeners aside from the guards on the Warders. Con with two white diamonds on blue picked out the Cairhienin officers, all but Dobraine himself, and the Mayeners’ red armor and red-streamered lances made a brave show amid the carnage, but Dobraine was not the only one who held a cloth to his nose. Here and there a man leaned from the saddle trying to empty a stomach already emptied earlier. Mazrim Taim, almost as tall as Rand, was afoot in his black coat with the blue-and-gold Dragons climbing the sleeves, and maybe a hundred more of the Asha’man. Some of them heaved up their bellies, too. There were Maidens by the score, more siswai’aman than Cairhienin and Mayeners and Asha’man combined, and several dozen Wise Ones to boot. All supposedly in case the Shaido returned, or perhaps in case some of the dead were only shamming, though Perrin thought anyone who pretended at being a corpse here would soon go insane. All centered around Rand.

Perrin should have been down there with the Two Rivers men. Rand had asked for them, spoken about trusting men from home, but Perrin had made no promises. He’ll have to settle for me, and late, he thought. In a little bit, when he managed to steel himself to the butcher’s yard below. Only, butcher knives did not mow down people, and they were tidier than axes, tidier than vultures.

The black-coated Asha’man faded into the sea of birds, death swallowed by death, and ravens and crows surging up hid the others, but Rand stood out in the tattered white shirt he had been wearing when rescue came. Though perhaps he hardly needed deliverance by that time. The sight of Min, close beside Rand in pale red coat and snug breeches, made Perrin grimace. That was no place for her, or anyone, but she stayed closer to Rand since the rescue than even Taim did. Somehow Rand had managed to free both himself and her well before Perrin broke through, or even the Asha’man, and Perrin suspected she saw Rand’s presence as the only real safety.

Sometimes as he strode across that charnel ground, Rand patted Min’s arm or bent his head as if speaking to her, but not with his main attention. Dark clouds of birds billowed around them, the smaller darting away to feed elsewhere, the vultures giving ground reluctantly, some refusing to take wing, extending featherless necks and squawking defiantly as they waddled back. Now and then Rand stopped, bending over a corpse. Sometimes fire darted from his hands to strike down vultures that did not give way. Every time, Nandera, who led the Maidens, or Sulin, her second, argued with him. Sometimes Wise Ones did, too, from the way they tugged at the body’s coat as if demonstrating something. And Rand would nod and move on. Not without backward glances, though. And only until another body caught his attention.

“What is he doing?” demanded a haughty voice at Perrin’s knee. By scent he knew her before he looked down. Statuesque and elegant in a green silk riding dress and thin linen dust-cloak, Kiruna Nachiman was sister to King Paitar of Arafel and a powerful noble in her own right, and becoming Aes Sedai had done nothing to dampen her manner. Trapped in what he was watching, he had not heard her approach. “Why is he down in that? He should not be.”

Not all the Aes Sedai in the camp were prisoners, though those who were not had been keeping out of sight since yesterday, talking among themselves, Perrin suspected, and trying to figure out what had happened at the last. Maybe trying to figure some way around it. Now they were out in force. Bera Harkin, another Green, stood at Kiruna’s shoulder, a farm-wife by looks despite her ageless face and fine woolen dress, but every scrap as proud as Kiruna in her own way. This farmwife would tell a king to scrape his boots before coming into her house, and be sharp about it. She and Kiruna together led the sisters who had come to Dumai’s Wells with Perrin, or perhaps passed leadership back and forth between them. It was not exactly clear, which was hardly unusual with Aes Sedai.

The other seven stood in a covey not far away. Or maybe in a pride, lionesses, not quail, by their air of being in charge. Their Warders were arrayed behind them, and if the sisters were all outward serenity the Warders made no bones of their feelings. They were disparate men, some in those color-shifting cloaks that seemed to make parts of them disappear, but whether short or tall, thick or thin, just standing there they looked like violence on a frayed leash.

Perrin knew two of those women well, Verin Mathwin and Alanna Mosvani. Short and stout and almost motherly at times in a distracted way, when she was not studying you like a bird studying a worm, Verin was Brown Ajah. Alanna, slim and darkly pretty though a little haggard around the eyes of late for some reason, was Green. Altogether, five of the nine were Green. Once, some time ago, Verin had told him not to trust Alanna too far, and he more than took her at her word. Nor did he trust any of the others, including Verin. Neither did Rand, for all they had fought on his side yesterday, and despite what had happened at the end. Which Perrin still was not sure he believed, even though he had seen it.

A good dozen Asha’man lounged by a wagon about twenty paces from the sisters. A cocky fellow named Charl Gedwyn had charge of them this morning, a hard-faced man who swaggered standing still. All wore a pin in the shape of a silver sword on their tall coat collars, and four or five besides Gedwyn had a Dragon in gold-and-red enamel fastened on the other side. Perrin supposed that had to do with rank in some way. He had seen both on some of the other Asha’man. Not precisely guards, they managed to be wherever Kiruna and the others were. Just taking their ease. And keeping a sharp eye open. Not that the Aes Sedai took any notice, not that you could see. Even so, the sisters smelled wary, and puzzled, and infuriated. Part of that had to be because of the Asha’man.

“Well?” Kiruna’s dark eyes flashed impatience. He doubted that many people kept her waiting.

“I don’t know,” he lied, patting Stepper’s neck again. “Rand doesn’t tell me everything.”

He understood a little—he thought he did—but he had no intention of telling anyone. That was Rand’s to reveal, if he chose. Every body that Rand looked at belonged to a Maiden; Perrin was convinced of it. A Shaido Maiden without a doubt, but he was not sure how much difference that made to Rand. Last night he had walked away from the wagons to be by himself, and as the sound of men laughing because they were alive faded behind him, he found Rand. The Dragon Reborn, who made the world tremble, sitting on the ground, alone in the dark, his arms wrapped around himself, rocking back and forth.

To Perrin’s eyes, the moon was nearly as good as the sun, but right then he wished for pitch blackness. Rand’s face was drawn and twisted, the face of a man who wanted to scream, or maybe weep, and was fighting it down with every scrap of his fiber. Whatever trick the Aes Sedai knew to keep the heat from touching them, Rand and the Asha’man knew, too, but he was not using it now. The night’s heat would have done for a more-than-warm summer day, and sweat slid down Rand’s cheeks as much as Perrin’s.

He did not look around, though Perrin’s boots rustled loudly in the dead grass, yet he spoke hoarsely, still rocking. “One hundred and fifty-one, Perrin. One hundred and fifty-one Maidens died today. For me. I promised them, you see. Don’t argue with me! Shut up! Go away!” Despite his sweat, Rand shivered. “Not you, Perrin; not you. I have to keep my promises, you see. Have to, no matter how it hurts. But I have to keep my promise to myself, too. No matter how it hurts.”

Perrin tried not to think about the fate of men who could channel. The lucky ones died before they went mad; the unlucky died after. Whether Rand was lucky or unlucky, everything rested on him. Everything. “Rand, I don’t know what to say, but—”

Rand seemed not to hear. Back and forth he rocked. Back and forth. “Isan, of the Jarra Sept of the Chareen Aiel. She died for me today. Chuonde of the Spine Ridge Miagoma. She died for me today. Agirin of the Shelan Daryne...

There had been nothing for it but to settle on his heels and listen to Rand recite all one hundred and fifty-one names in a voice like pain stretched to breaking, listen and hope Rand was holding on to sanity.

Whether or not Rand was still completely sane, though, if a Maiden who came to fight for him had been missed down there somehow, Perrin was sure that not only would she be buried decently with the others on the ridge, there would be one hundred and fifty-two names in that list. And that was none of Kiruna’s business. Not that, or Perrin’s doubts. Rand had to stay sane, or sane enough anyway, and that was that. Light, send it so!

And the Light burn me for thinking it so coldly, Perrin thought.

From the corner of his eye he saw her full mouth tighten momentarily. She liked not knowing everything about as well as being made to wait. She would have been beautiful, in a grand sort of manner, except that hers was a face used to getting what it wanted. Not petulant, just absolutely certain that whatever she wanted was right and proper and must be. “With so many crows and ravens in one place, there are certainly hundreds, perhaps thousands, ready to report what they’ve seen to a Myrddraal.” She made no effort to mask her irritation; she sounded as though he had brought every bird there himself. “In the borderlands, we kill them on sight. You have men, and they have bows.”

It was true, a raven or crow was all too likely to be a spy for the Shadow, but disgust welled up in him. Disgust and weariness. “To what point?” With that many birds, the Two Rivers men and the Aiel could shoot every arrow they had and spies would still report. Most times there was no way to tell whether the bird you killed was the spy or the one that flew away. “Hasn’t there been enough killing? There will be more soon enough. Light, woman, even the Asha’man are sated!”

Eyebrows rose among the onlooking clutch of sisters. No one spoke to Aes Sedai that way, not a king or a queen. Bera gave him a look that said she was considering hauling him out of the saddle and boxing his ears. Still peering toward the shambles below, Kiruna smoothed her skirts, her face coldly determined. Loial’s ears trembled. He had a deep but uneasy respect for Aes Sedai; close to twice as tall as most of the sisters, sometimes he behaved as though one might step on him without noticing if he got in her way.

Perrin gave Kiruna no chance to speak. Give an Aes Sedai a finger, and she took your whole arm, unless she decided to take more. “You’ve been staying clear of me, but I have a few things to say to you. You disobeyed orders yesterday. If you want to call it changing the plan,” he pushed on when she opened her mouth, “then call it that. If you think that makes it better.” She and the other eight had been told to stay with the Wise Ones, well back from the actual fighting, guarded by the Two Rivers men and the Mayeners. Instead they had plunged right into the thick of it, wading in where men were trying to cut one another into dogmeat with swords and spears. “You took Havien Nurelle with you, and half the Mayeners died for it. You don’t go your own way with no regard anymore. I won’t see men die because you suddenly think you see a better way, and the Dark One take whateveryone else thinks. Do you understand me?”

“Are you finished, farmboy?” Kiruna’s voice was dangerously calm. The face she turned up to him might have been carved from some dark ice, and she reeked of affront. Standing on the ground, she somehow made it seem that she was looking down at him. Not an Aes Sedai trick, that; he had seen Faile do it. He suspected most women knew how. “I will tell you something, though the meanest intelligence should be able to reason it out. By the Three Oaths, no sister may use the One Power as a weapon except against Darkfriends or Shadowspawn or in defense of her life, or that of her Warders or another sister. We could have stood where you would have had us and watched until Tarmon Gai’don without ever being able to do anything effective. Not until we were in danger ourselves. I do not like having to explain my actions, farmboy. Do not make me do it again. Do you understand?”

Loial’s ears wilted, and he stared straight ahead so hard that it was plain he wished he were anywhere but here, even with his mother, who wanted to marry him off. Aram’s mouth hung open, and he always tried to pretend Aes Sedai did not impress him at all. Jondyn and Tod climbed down from their wagon wheel just a touch too casually; Jondyn managed to stroll away, but Tod ran, looking back over his shoulder.

Her explanation sounded reasonable; it was probably the truth. No, by another of the Three Oaths, it was the truth. There were loopholes, though. Like not speaking the whole truth, or talking around it. The sisters might well have put themselves in danger so they could use the Power as a weapon, but Perrin would eat his boots if they had not also been thinking they could reach Rand before anybody else. What would have happened then was anyone’s guess, but he was certain their plans had not included anything like what actually happened.

“He’s coming,” Loial said suddenly. “Look! Rand is coming.” Dropping to a whisper, he added, “Be careful, Perrin.” For an Ogier, it truly was a whisper. Aram and Kiruna probably heard quite clearly, and maybe Bera, but certainly no one besides. “They did not swear anything to you!” His voice went back to its normal boom. “Do you think he might talk to me about what went on inside the camp? For my book.” He was writing a book about the Dragon Reborn, or at least taking notes for one. “I really didn’t see much once the... the fighting began.” He had been at Perrin’s side in the thick of it, wielding an axe with a haft nearly as long as he was tall; it was hard to take note of much else when you were trying to stay alive. If you listened to Loial, you would think he was always somewhere else when things became dangerous. “Do you think he might, Kiruna Sedai?”

Kiruna and Bera exchanged looks, then without a word glided across the ground to Verin and the others. Peering after them, Loial heaved a sigh, a wind through caverns.

“You really should have a care, Perrin,” he breathed. “You’re always so hasty with your tongue.” He sounded like a bumblebee the size of a cat instead of a mastiff. Perrin thought he might learn to whisper yet, if they spent enough time around Aes Sedai. He motioned the Ogier to be quiet, though, so he could listen. The sisters began talking right away, but not a sound reached Perrin’s ears. Clearly they had erected a barrier with the One Power.

Clear to the Asha’man as well. They went from lounging to up on their toes in a heartbeat, every line of them focused on the sisters. Nothing said they had taken hold of saidin, the male half of the True Source, but Perrin would have wagered Stepper they had. By Gedwyn’s angry sneer, he was ready to use it, too.

Whatever obstruction the Aes Sedai had raised, they must have dropped it. They folded their hands, turning to look down the slope in silence. Glances passed among the Asha’man, and finally Gedwyn waved them back to apparent indolence. He looked disappointed. Growling irritably, Perrin turned back to look beyond the wagons.

Rand was strolling up the slope with Min on his arm, patting her hand and talking with her. Once he threw back his head and laughed, and she ducked hers to do the same, brushing back dark ringlets that hung to her shoulders. You might have thought him a countryman out with his girl. Except that he had belted on his sword, and sometimes he ran his hand down the long hilt. And except for Taim right at his other shoulder. And the Wise Ones following almost as close behind. And the rings of Maidens and siswai’aman, Cairhienin and Mayeners that completed the procession.

What a relief that he would not have to ride down into that shambles after all; but he needed to warn Rand about all the tangled enmities he had seen this morning. What would he do if Rand did not listen? Rand had changed since leaving the Two Rivers, most of all since being kidnapped by Coiren and that lot. No. He had to be sane.

When Rand and Min entered the wagon circle, most of the procession remained outside, though they hardly came alone, but with quite an assembly in its own right.

Taim shadowed Rand, of course, dark and slightly hook-nosed and what Perrin supposed most women would consider good-looking. A number of the Maidens had certainly given him second looks, and third; they were forward about that sort of thing. As Taim stepped inside, he glanced to Gedwyn, who shook his head just a hair. A grimace flashed across Taim’s face, gone as soon as it appeared.

Nandera and Sulin were right at Rand’s heels, equally of course, and Perrin wondered they did not bring twenty more Maidens. They hardly seemed to let Rand bathe without Maidens guarding the tub, that Perrin could see. He did not understand why Rand put up with it. Each had her shoufa draped around her shoulders, baring short hair cut with a tail at the back. Nandera was a sinewy woman, hair more gray than yellow, but her tough features managed to be handsome if not beautiful. Sulin—wiry, scarred, leathery and white-haired—made Nandera look pretty and almost soft. They glanced at the Asha’man, too, without exactly seeming to, then scanned both groups of Aes Sedai just as circumspectly. Nandera’s fingers flashed Maiden handtalk. Not for the first time, Perrin wished he could understand it, but a Maiden would give up the spear to marry a toad before teaching their handtalk to a man. A Maiden Perrin had not noticed, sitting on her heels against a wagon a few paces from Gedwyn, answered the same way, and so did another who until that moment had been playing at cat’s cradle with a spear-sister near the prisoners.

Amys brought the Wise Ones in and took them aside to confer with Sorilea and a few of the others who had stayed inside the wagons. Despite a face too young for her waist-long white hair, Amys was an important woman, second among the Wise Ones to Sorilea. They used no One Power tricks to shield their talk, but seven or eight Maidens immediately encircled them and began singing softly to themselves. Some sat, some stood, some squatted on their heels, each by herself, and all happenstance. If you were a fool.

It seemed to Perrin that he sighed a great deal since he became mixed up with Aes Sedai and Wise Ones. Maidens, too. Women in general just seemed to give him fits of late.

Dobraine and Havien, leading their horses and minus their soldiers, brought up the rear. Havien had finally seen a battle; Perrin wondered whether he would be so eager to see the next. About the same age as Perrin, he did not look as young today as the day before yesterday. Dobraine, with the front of his long, mostly gray hair shaved in the style of Cairhienin soldiers, definitely was not young, and yesterday definitely had not been his first battle, yet the truth was, he looked older too, and worried. So did Havien. Their eyes sought out Perrin.

Another time, he would have waited to see what they wanted to talk about, but now he slipped from his saddle, tossed Stepper’s reins to Aram, and went to Rand. Others were there ahead of him. Only Sulin and Nandera held their silence.

Kiruna and Bera had moved the moment Rand stepped inside the wagons, and as Perrin approached, Kiruna was saying grandly to Rand, “You refused Healing yesterday, but anyone can see you are still in pain, even if Alanna was not ready to leap out of her—” She cut off as Bera touched her arm, but she picked up again almost without pause. “Perhaps you are ready to be Healed now?” That had the sound of “Perhaps you have come to your fool senses?”

“The matter of the Aes Sedai must be settled without any more delay, Car’a’carn,” Amys said formally, right atop Kiruna.

“They should be given into our care, Rand al’Thor,” Sorilea added at the same time that Taim spoke.

“The Aes Sedai problem does need to be settled, my Lord Dragon. My Asha’man know how to handle them. They could be held at the Black Tower easily.” Dark, slightly tilted eyes flickered toward Kiruna and Bera, and Perrin realized with a shock that Taim meant all the Aes Sedai, not just those who were prisoners now. For that matter, though Amys and Sorilea frowned at Taim, the looks they directed at the two Aes Sedai meant the same.

Kiruna smiled at Taim, at the Wise Ones, a thin smile to fit her lips. It was maybe a fraction harder when directed at the man in the black coat, but she seemed not to realize his intent yet. It was enough that he was who he was. What he was. “Under the circumstances,” she said coolly, “I am certain that Coiren Sedai and the others will give me their parole. You have no more need to worry—”

The others spoke all at once.

“These women have no honor,” Amys said contemptuously, and this time it was clear she included all of them. “How could their parole mean anything? They—”

“They are da’tsang,” Sorilea said in a grim voice, as though pronouncing sentence, and Bera frowned at her. Perrin thought that was something in the Old Tongue—again, the word seemed almost something he should recognize—but he did not know why it should make the Aes Sedai scowl. Or why Sulin should suddenly nod agreement with the Wise One, who went on like a boulder rumbling downhill. “They deserve no better than any other—”

“My Lord Dragon,” Taim said, as if belaboring the obvious, “surely you want the Aes Sedai, all of them, in charge of those you trust, those you know can deal with them, and who better—?”

“Enough!” Rand shouted.

They fell silent as one, but their reactions were very different. Taim’s features went blank, though he smelled of fury. Amys and Sorilea exchanged glances and adjusted their shawls in near unison; their scents were identical, too, and matched their faces in pure determination. They wanted what they wanted and intended to have it, Car’a’carn or no. Looks passed between Kiruna and Bera, as well, speaking such volumes that Perrin wished he could read them the way his nose read scent. His eyes saw two serene Aes Sedai, in command of themselves and anything else they wished to be in command of; his nose smelled two women who were anxious, and more than a little afraid. Of Taim, he was sure. They still seemed to think they could deal with Rand, one way or another, and with the Wise Ones, but Taim and the Asha’man put the fear of the Light into them.

Min tugged at Rand’s shirtsleeve—she had been studying everybody at once, and the scent of her was almost as worried as the sisters’. He patted her hand while glaring hard at everyone else. Including Perrin, when he opened his mouth. Everybody in the camp was watching, from the Two Rivers men to the Aes Sedai prisoners, though only a few Aiel stood close enough to hear anything. People might watch Rand, but they tended to stay clear of him, too, if they could.

“The Wise Ones will take charge of the prisoners,” Rand said at last, and Sorilea suddenly smelled so satisfied that Perrin knuckled his nose vigorously. Taim shook his head in exasperation, but Rand rounded on him before he could speak. He had tucked a thumb behind the buckle of his sword belt, a Dragon etched and gilded, and his knuckles were white from gripping it; his other hand worked on the dark boarhide of his sword hilt. “The Asha’man are supposed to train—and recruit—not stand guard. Especially on Aes Sedai.” Perrin’s hackles stirred as he realized what aroma wafted from Rand when he looked at Taim. Hatred, touched with fear. Light, he had to be sane.

Taim gave a short, reluctant nod. “As you command, my Lord Dragon.” Min glanced uneasily at the black-coated man and moved closer to Rand.

Kiruna smelled of relief, but with one last glance at Bera, she drew herself up in stubborn certainty. “These Aiel women are quite worthy—some might have done well, had they come to the Tower—but you cannot simply hand Aes Sedai over to them. It is unthinkable! Bera Sedai and I will—”

Rand raised a hand, and her words stopped in their tracks. Maybe it was his stare, like blue-gray stone. Or maybe it was what showed clearly through his torn sleeve, one of the red-and-gold Dragons that wound around his forearms. The Dragon glittered in the sunlight. “Did you swear fealty to me?” Kiruna’s eyes popped as though something had struck her in the pit of her stomach.

After a moment, she nodded, however unwillingly. She looked as dis-believing now as she had the day before, when she knelt down there by the wells at battle’s end and swore beneath the Light and by her hope of salvation and rebirth to obey the Dragon Reborn and serve him until the Last Battle had come and gone. Perrin understood her shock. Even without the Three Oaths, had she denied it, he would have doubted his own memories. Nine Aes Sedai on their knees, faces aghast at the words coming out of their mouths, reeking of disbelief. Right now Bera’s mouth was puckered up as though she had bitten a bad plum.

An Aiel man joined the small group, a tall man about the same height as Rand, with a weathered face and touches of gray in his dark red hair, who nodded to Perrin and touched Amys’ hand lightly. She might have pressed his hand for a moment in return. Rhuarc was her husband, but that was about as much affection as Aiel displayed in front of others. He was also clan chief of the Taardad Aiel—he and Gaul were the only two men who did not wear the siswai’aman headband—and since last night he and a thousand spears had been out scouting in force.

A blind man in another country could have sensed the temper around Rand, and Rhuarc was no fool. “Is this the right moment, Rand al’Thor?” When Rand motioned him to speak, he went on. “The Shaido dogs are still fleeing east as fast as they can run. I saw men with green coats on horses to the north, but they avoided us, and you said to let them go unless they gave trouble. I think they were hunting any Aes Sedai who escaped. There were several women with them.” Cold blue eyes glanced at the two Aes Sedai, anvil flat and anvil hard. Once, Rhuarc had walked lightly around Aes Sedai—any Aiel had—but that had ended yesterday, if not before.

“Good news. I’d give almost anything to have Galina, but still, good news.” Rand touched the hilt of his sword again, eased the blade in its dark scabbard. The action seemed unconscious. Galina, a Red, had been in charge of the sisters who held him prisoner, and if he was calm about her today, yesterday he had been in a fury that she had gotten away. Even now his calm was icy, the sort that could hide smoldering rage, and his scent made Perrin’s skin crawl. “They are going to pay. Every one of them.” There was nothing to say whether Rand meant the Shaido or the Aes Sedai who had escaped or both.

Bera moved her head uneasily, and he turned his attention back to her and Kiruna. “You swore fealty, and I trust that.” He held up his hand, thumb and forefinger nearly touching to show how far. “Aes Sedai always know better than anybody else, or so they think. So I trust you to do what I say, but you won’t so much as take a bath without my permission. Or a Wise One’s.”

This time it was Bera who looked as though she had been struck. Her light brown eyes swiveled to Amys and Sorilea with astonished indignation, and Kiruna quivered with the effort of not doing the same. The two Wise Ones merely shifted their shawls, but once again their aromas were identical. Contentment rolled off of them in waves, a very grim contentment. Perrin thought it a good thing the Aes Sedai did not have his nose, or they would have been ready to go to war right then and there. Or maybe run, and dignity be hanged. That was what he would have done.

Rhuarc stood there idly examining the point of one of his short spears. This was Wise Ones’ business, and he always said he did not care what the Wise Ones did so long as they kept their fingers out of clan chiefs’ business. But Taim... He made a show of not caring, folding his arms and looking around the camp with a bored expression, yet his scent was strange, complex. Perrin would have said the man was amused, definitely in a better humor than before.

“The oath we took,” Bera said at last, planting her hands on her ample hips, “is sufficient to hold anyone but a Darkfriend.” The twist she gave to “oath” was almost as bleak as the one she gave “Darkfriend.” No, they did not like what they had sworn to. “Do you dare to accuse us—?”

“If I thought that,” Rand snapped, “you would be on your way to the Black Tower with Taim. You swore to obey. Well, obey!”

For a long moment Bera hesitated, then in an instant was as regal from head to toe as any Aes Sedai could be. Which was saying something. An Aes Sedai could make a queen on her throne look a slattern. She curtsied slightly, stiffly inclining her head a fraction.

Kiruna, on the other hand, made a visible effort to take hold of herself, the calm she assumed hard and brittle as her voice. “Must we then request permission of these worthy Aielwomen to ask whether you are willing to be Healed yet? I know Galina treated you harshly. I know you are welts from shoulders to knees. Accept Healing. Please.” Even “please” sounded part of an order.

Min stirred at Rand’s side. “You should be grateful for it, as I was, sheepherder. You don’t like hurting. Somebody has to do it, or else...” She grinned mischievously, very nearly the Min Perrin remembered from before she was kidnapped. “. . . or else you won’t be able to sit a saddle.”

“Young men and fools,” Nandera said suddenly to no one in particular, “sometimes bear pain they do not have to as a badge of their pride. And their foolishness.”

“The Car’a’carn,” Sulin added dryly, also to the air, “is not a fool. I think.”

Rand smiled back at Min fondly, and gave Nandera and Sulin wry looks, but when he raised his eyes to Kiruna again, they were stone once more. “Very well.” As she started forward, he added, “But not from you.” Her face grew so stiff it appeared ready to crack. Taim’s mouth quirked in a wry almost-smile, and he stepped toward Rand, but without taking his eyes from Kiruna, Rand flung out a hand behind him. “From her. Come here, Alanna.”

Perrin gave a start. Rand had pointed straight to Alanna with never so much as a glance. That prickled something in the back of his head, but he could not make out what. It seemed to catch Taim, as well. The man’s face became a bland mask, yet dark eyes flickered between Rand and Alanna, and the only name Perrin could put to the scent that writhed in his nose was “puzzled.”

Alanna gave a start, too. For whatever reason, she had been on edge ever since joining Perrin on his way here, her serenity at best a thin veneer. Now she smoothed her skirts, shot a defiant stare at Kiruna and Bera of all people, and glided around in front of Rand. The other two sisters watched her, like teachers intending to make sure a pupil performed well and still not convinced she would. Which made no sense. One of them might be the leader, yet Alanna was Aes Sedai, the same as they. It all deepened Perrin’s suspicion. Mixing with Aes Sedai was too much like wading the streams in the Waterwood near to the Mire. However peaceful the surface, currents beneath could snatch you off your feet. More undercurrents seemed to appear here every moment, and not all from the sisters.

Shockingly, Rand cupped Alanna’s chin, turning her face up. There was a hiss of indrawn breath from Bera, and for once, Perrin agreed. Rand would not have been so forward with a girl at a dance back home, and Al-anna was no girl at a dance. Just as surprising, her reaction was to blush and smell of uncertainty. Aes Sedai did not blush, in Perrin’s experience, and they were never uncertain.

“Heal me,” Rand said, a command, not a request. The red in Alanna’s, face deepened, and anger touched her scent. Her hands trembled as she reached up to take his head between them.

Unconsciously Perrin rubbed the palm of his hand, the one a Shaido spear had laid open yesterday. Kiruna had Healed several gashes in him, and he had had Healing before, too. It felt like being plunged headfirst into a freezing pond; it left you gasping and shaking and weak-kneed. Hungry, too, usually. The only sign Rand gave that anything had been done, though, was a slight shiver.

“How do you stand the pain?” Alanna whispered at him.

“It’s done, then,” he said, removing her hands. And turned from her without a word of thanks. Seeming on the point of speaking, he paused, half-turning to look back toward Dumai’s Wells.

“They have all been found, Rand al’Thor,” Amys said gently.

He nodded, then again, more briskly. “It’s time to be gone. Sorilea, will you name Wise Ones to take over the prisoners from the Asha’man? And also as companions for Kiruna and... my other liegewomen.” For an instant, he grinned. “I wouldn’t want them to err through ignorance.”

“It shall be done as you say, Car’a’carn.” Adjusting her shawl firmly, the leather-faced Wise One addressed the three sisters. “Join your friends until I can find someone to hold your hands.” It was not unexpected that Bera would frown indignantly, or Kiruna become frost personified. Alanna gazed at the ground, resigned, almost sullen. Sorilea was having none of it. Clapping hands sharply, she made brisk shooing motions. “Well? Move! Move!”

Reluctantly, the Aes Sedai let themselves be herded, making it seem they simply were going where they wished. Joining Sorilea, Amys whispered something that Perrin did not quite catch. The three Aes Sedai apparently did, though. They stopped dead, three very startled faces looking back at the Wise Ones. Sorilea just clapped her hands again, louder than before, and shooed even more briskly.

Scratching his beard, Perrin met Rhuarc’s eyes. The clan chief smiled faintly and shrugged. Wise Ones’ business. That was all very well for him; Aiel were fatalistic as wolves. Perrin glanced at Gedwyn. The fellow was watching Sorilea lecture the Aes Sedai. No, it was the sisters he watched, a fox staring at hens in a coop just out of his reach. The Wise Ones have to be better than the Asha’man, Perrin thought. They have to be.

If Rand noticed the byplay, he ignored it. “Taim, you take the Asha’man back to the Black Tower as soon as the Wise Ones have charge of the prisoners. As soon as. Remember to keep an eye out for any man who learns too fast. And remember what I said about recruiting.”

“I can hardly forget, my Lord Dragon,” the black-coated man replied dryly. “I will handle that trip personally. But if I may bring it up again... You need a proper honor guard.”

“We have been over that,” Rand said curtly. “I have better uses for the Asha’man. If I need an honor guard, those I am keeping will do. Perrin, will you—?”

“My Lord Dragon,” Taim broke in, “you need more than a few Asha’man around you.”

Rand’s head turned toward Taim. His face matched any Aes Sedai for giving nothing away, but his scent made Perrin’s ears try to lie back. Razor-sharp rage abruptly vanished in curiosity and caution, the one thin and probing, the other foglike; then slashing, murderous fury consumed both. Rand shook his head just slightly, and his smell became stony determination. Nobody’s scent changed that fast. Nobody’s.

Taim had only his eyes to go by, of course, and all they could tell him was that Rand had shaken his head, if just barely. “Think. You have chosen four Dedicated and four soldiers. You should have Asha’man.” Perrin did not understand that; he thought they were all Asha’man.

“You think I can’t teach them as well as you?” Rand’s voice was soft, the whisper of a blade sliding in its sheath.

“I think the Lord Dragon is too busy for teaching,” Taim replied smoothly, yet the anger smell rose again. “Too important. Take men who need the least of it. I can choose the furthest along—”

“One,” Rand cut in. “And I will choose.” Taim smiled, spreading his hands in acquiescence, but the scent of frustration nearly overwhelmed anger. Again Rand pointed without looking. “Him.” This time, he seemed surprised to find he was pointing directly at a man in his middle years sitting atop an upturned cask on the other side of the wagon circle, paying no attention to the gathering around Rand. Instead, elbow on his knee and chin propped on his hand, he was frowning at the Aes Sedai prisoners. The sword and Dragon glittered on the high collar of his black coat. “What is his name, Taim?”

“Dashiva,” Taim said slowly, studying Rand. He smelled even more surprised than Rand did, and irritated, too. “Corlan Dashiva. From a farm in the Black Hills.”

“He will do,” Rand said, but he did not sound sure himself.

“Dashiva is gaining his strength rapidly, but his head is in the clouds often as not. Even when it isn’t, he is not always entirely there. Maybe he’s just a daydreamer, and maybe the taint on saidin is touching his brain already. Better for you to chose Torval or Rochaid or—”

Taim’s opposition seemed to sweep away Rand’s uncertainty. “I said Dashiva will do. Tell him he’s to come with me, then turn the prisoners over to the Wise Ones and go. I don’t intend to stand here all day arguing. Perrin, ready everyone to move. Find me when they are.” Without another word he strode off, Min clinging to his arm, and Nandera and Sulin like shadows. Taim’s dark eyes glittered; then he was stalking away himself, shouting for Gedwyn and Rochaid, Torval and Kisman. Black-coated men came running.

Perrin grimaced. With everything he had to tell Rand, he had not opened his mouth once. At that, maybe it would come better away from the Aes Sedai and the Wise Ones. And Taim.

Really there was not much for him to do. He was supposed to be in charge since he had brought the rescue, but Rhuarc knew what needed doing better than he ever would, and a word to Dobraine and Havien was sufficient for the Cairhienin and Mayeners. They still wanted to say something, though they held back until they were alone and Perrin asked what it was.

Then Havien burst out, “Lord Perrin, it’s the Lord Dragon. All that searching through the corpses—”

“It seemed a little... excessive,” Dobraine interrupted smoothly. “We worry for him, as you can understand. A great deal depends on him.” He might look a soldier, and he was, but he was a Cairhienin lord, too, and steeped in the Game of Houses, with all its careful talk, like any other Cairhienin.

Perrin was not steeped in the Game of Houses. “He’s still sane,” he said bluntly. Dobraine simply nodded, as if to say of course, shrugged to say he had never intended to question, but Havien went bright red. Watching them go to their men, Perrin shook his head. He hoped he was not lying.

Gathering the Two Rivers men, he told them to saddle their horses and ignored all the bowing, most of which looked spur-of-the-moment. Even Faile said that sometimes Two Rivers people carried bowing too far; she said they were still working out how to behave with a lord. He thought about shouting “I am not a lord” at them, but he had done that before, and it never worked.

When all the others rushed for their animals, Dannil and Tell Lewin remained behind. Brothers, both were beanpoles and they looked much alike, except that Dannil affected mustaches like downturned horns in the Taraboner style, while Tell wore narrow lines of dark hair, in the fashion of Arad Doman, under a nose like a pickaxe. Refugees had brought a lot of new things into the Two Rivers.

“Those Asha’man coming with us?” Dannil asked. When Perrin shook his head, he exhaled so hard in relief that his thick mustaches stirred.

“What about the Aes Sedai?” Ban said anxiously. “They’ll go free, now, won’t they? I mean, Rand is free. The Lord Dragon, that is. They can’t stay prisoners, not Aes Sedai.”

“You two just have everybody ready to ride,” Perrin said. “Leave worrying about Aes Sedai to Rand.” The pair even winced alike. Two fingers rose to scratch worriedly at mustaches, and Perrin jerked his hand away from his chin. A man looked as if he had fleas when he did that.

The camp was abustle in no time. Everyone had been expecting to move soon, yet everyone had things left undone. The captive Aes Sedai’s servants and wagon drivers hurriedly loaded the last items into the wagons and began hitching teams with a jingle of harness. Cairhienin and Mayeners seemed to be everywhere, checking saddles and bridles. Unclothed gai’shain went running every which way, though there did not seem to be much for the Aiel to ready.

Flashes of light outside the wagons announced the departure of Taim and the Asha’man. That made Perrin feel better. Of the nine who remained, another besides Dashiva was in his middle years, a stocky fellow with a farmer’s face, and one, with a limp and a fringe of white hair, might easily have been a grandfather. The rest were younger, some little more than boys, yet they watched all the hubbub with the self-possession of men who had seen as much a dozen times. They did keep to themselves, though, and together except for Dashiva, who stood a few paces apart staring at nothing. Remembering Taim’s caution about the fellow, Perrin hoped he was daydreaming.

He found Rand seated on a wooden crate with his elbows on his knees. Sulin and Nandera squatted easily to either side of Rand, both studiously avoiding looking at the sword at his hip. Holding their spears and bull-hide bucklers casually, here in the midst of people loyal to Rand, they kept a watch on anything that moved near him. Min sat on the ground at his feet with her legs tucked under, smiling up at him.

“I hope you know what you’re doing, Rand,” Perrin said, shifting the axe haft so he could drop to his heels. No one was close enough to hear except for Rand and Min and the two Maidens. If Sulin or Nandera went running to the Wise Ones, so be it. Without more preamble he launched into what he had seen so far this morning. What he had smelled, too, though he did not say that, Rand was not among the few who knew about him and wolves; he made it all seem what he had seen and heard. The Asha’man and the Wise Ones. The Asha’man and the Aes Sedai. The Wise Ones and the Aes Sedai. The whole tangle of tinder that might burst into flame any moment. He did not spare the Two Rivers men. “They’re worried, Rand, and if they are sweating, you can be sure some Cairhienin is thinking about doing something. Or a Tairen. Maybe just helping the prisoners escape, maybe something worse. Light, I could see Dannil and Tell and fifty more besides helping them get away, if they knew how.”

“You think something else would be that much worse?” Rand said quietly, and Perrin’s skin prickled.

He met Rand’s gaze directly. “A thousand times,” he said in just as quiet a voice. “I won’t be part of murder. If you will be, I’ll stand in your way.” A silence stretched, unblinking blue-gray eyes meeting unblinking golden.

Frowning at each of them in turn, Min made an exasperated sound in her throat. “You two woolheads! Rand, you know you’ll never give an order like that, or let anyone else give it, either. Perrin, you know he won’t. Now the pair of you stop acting like two strange roosters in a pen.”

Sulin chuckled, but Perrin wanted to ask Min how certain she was, although that was not a question he could voice here. Rand scrubbed his fingers through his hair, then shook his head, for all the world like a man disagreeing with somebody who was not there. The sort of voice that madmen heard.

“It’s never easy, is it?” Rand said after a time, looking sad. “The bitter truth is, I can’t say which would be worse. I don’t have any good choices. They saw to that themselves.” His face was despondent, but rage boiled in his scent. “Alive or dead, they’re a millstone on my back, and either way, they could break it.”

Perrin followed his gaze to the Aes Sedai prisoners. They were on their feet now, and all together, though even so they managed to put a little distance between the three who had been stilled and the rest. The Wise Ones around them were being curt with their orders, by the gestures they made and the tight faces on the sisters. Maybe the Wise Ones were better than Rand keeping them, too. If only he could be sure.

“Did you see anything, Min?” Rand said.

Perrin gave a start and directed a warning glance at Sulin and Nandera, but Min laughed softly. Leaning against Rand’s knee, she really did look the Min he knew, for the first time since finding her at the wells. “Perrin, they know about me. The Wise Ones, the Maidens, maybe all of them. And they don’t care.” She had a talent she kept hidden much as he did the wolves. Sometimes she saw images and auras around people, and sometimes she knew what they meant. “You can’t know what that’s like, Perrin. I was twelve when it started, and I didn’t know to make a secret of it. Everybody thought I was just making things up. Until I said a man on the next street was going to marry a woman I saw him with, only he was already married. When he ran off with her, his wife brought a mob to my aunts’ house claiming I was responsible, that I’d used the One Power on her husband or given the two of them some kind of potion.” Min shook her head. “She wasn’t too clear. She just had to blame somebody. There was talk of me being a Darkfriend, too. There had been some Whitecloaks in town earlier, trying to stir people up. Anyway, Aunt Rana convinced me to say I had just overheard them talking, and Aunt Miren promised to spank me for spreading tales, and Aunt Jan said she’d dose me. They didn’t, of course—they knew the truth—but if they hadn’t been so matter-of-fact about it, about me just being a child, I could have been hurt, or even killed. Most people don’t like somebody knowing things about their future; most people don’t really want to know it themselves, not unless it’s good anyway. Even my aunts didn’t. But to the Aiel, I am sort of a Wise One by courtesy.”

“Some can do things others cannot,” Nandera said, as if that was enough explanation.

Min laughed again and reached out to touch the Maiden’s knee. “Thank you.” Settling her feet beneath her, she looked up at Rand. Now that she was laughing again, she seemed radiant. That held even after she became serious. Serious, and not very pleased. “As for your question, nothing of any use. Taim has blood in his past and blood in his future, but you could guess that. He’s a dangerous man. They seem to be gathering images like Aes Sedai.” A sidelong look through lowered eyelashes at Dashiva and the other Asha’man said who she meant. Most people had few images around them, but Min said Aes Sedai and Warders always did. “The problem is, what I can see is all blurry. I think it’s because they’re holding the Power. That often seems true with Aes Sedai, and it’s worse when they’re actually channeling. Kiruna and that lot have all sorts of things around them, but they stay so close together that it all... well... jumbles together most of the time. It’s even muddier with the prisoners.”

“Never mind the prisoners,” Rand told her. “That’s what they’ll stay.”

“But Rand, I keep feeling there is something important, if I could only pick it out. You need to know.”

“ ‘If you don’t know everything, you must go on with what you do know,’ ” Rand quoted wryly. “It seems I never do know everything. Hardly enough, most of the time. But there’s no choice but to go on, is there.” That was not at all a question.

Loial strode up, bubbling with energy despite his obvious weariness. “Rand, they say they’re ready to go, but you promised to talk to me while it’s fresh.” Abruptly his ears twitched with embarrassment, and that booming voice became plaintive. “I am sorry; I know it can’t be enjoyable. But I must know. For the book. For the Ages.”

Laughing, Rand got to his feet and tugged at the Ogier’s open coat. “For the Ages? Do writers all talk like that? Don’t worry, Loial. It will still be fresh when I tell you. I won’t forget.” A grim, sour scent flashed from him despite the smile, and was gone. “But back in Cairhien, after we all have a bath and sleep in a bed.” Rand motioned for Dashiva to come closer.

The man was not skinny, yet he moved in a hesitant, creeping way, hands folded at his waist, that made him seem so. “My Lord Dragon?” he said, tilting his head.

“Can you make a gateway, Dashiva?”

“Of course.” Dashiva began dry-washing his hands, flicking at his lips with the tip of his tongue, and Perrin wondered whether the man was always this jittery, or just when speaking to the Dragon Reborn. “That is to say, the M’hael teaches Traveling as soon as a student shows himself strong enough.”

“The M’Hael?” Rand said, blinking.

“The Lord Mazrim Taim’s title, my Lord Dragon. It means ‘leader.’ In the Old Tongue.” The fellow’s smile managed to be nervous and patronizing at the same time. “I read a great deal on the farm. Every book the peddlers brought by.”

“The M’Hael,” Rand muttered disapprovingly. “Well, be that as it may. Make me a gateway to near Cairhien, Dashiva. It’s time to see what the world has been up to while I was away, and what I have to do about it.” He laughed then, in a rueful way, but the sound of it made Perrin’s skin prickle.

Hill of the Golden Dawn

On a wide low hilltop some miles north and east of the city of Cairhien, well away from any road or human habitation, a thin vertical slash of pure light appeared, taller than a man on a horse. The ground sloped away in every direction, undulating gently; nothing more than occasional brush obscured the view for more than a mile, all the way to the surrounding forest. Brown grass fell as the light seemed to rotate, widening into a square opening in midair. A number of the dead stems were slit lengthwise, sliced finer than any razor could have. By a hole in the air.

The instant the gateway was fully open, veiled Aiel poured out, men and Maidens, spreading in every direction to encircle the hill. Almost hidden in the torrent, four sharp-eyed Asha’man took up positions around the gateway itself, peering toward the encircling woodland. Nothing stirred except with the wind, dust, tall grass and branches in the distance, yet each Asha’man studied the vista with the fervor of a starving hawk searching for a rabbit. A rabbit watching for a hawk might have been as intent, but never with that air of menace.

There was really no break in the flow. One moment it was a flood of Aiel, the next, mounted Cairhienin armsmen galloping out two by two, the crimson Banner of Light going up at their head as soon as it cleared the gateway. Without a pause Dobraine drew his men aside and began forming them up a little down the slope, helmeted and gauntleted in precise ranks, lances raised to the same angle. Seasoned campaigners, they were ready to wheel and charge in any direction at his gesture.

On the heels of the last Cairhienin, Perrin rode Stepper through, the dun passing in one stride from the hill below Dumai’s Wells to the hill in Cairhien, and ducked in spite of himself. The upper edge of the thing stood well above his head, but he had seen the damage a gateway could do and had no wish to test whether they were safer standing still. Loial and Aram followed close behind—the Ogier, afoot with his long-hafted axe on his shoulder, bent his knees—and then the Two Rivers men, crouching on their saddles well beyond the gateway. Rad al’Dai carried the Red Wolfhead banner, Perrin’s because everyone said it was, and Tell Lewin the Red Eagle.

Perrin tried not to look at those, especially the Red Eagle. The Two Rivers men wanted things both ways. He was a lord, so he had to have banners. He was a lord, but when he told them to get rid of those bloody banners, they never vanished for long. The Red Wolfhead named him something he was not and did not want to be, while the Red Eagle... More than two thousand years after Manetheren died in the Trolloc Wars, close to a thousand after Andor swallowed part of what once had been Manetheren, that banner was still as good as an act of rebellion for an Andorman. Legends still walked in some men’s minds. Of course it had been a few generations since Two Rivers folk had had any notion that they were Andormen, but Queens’ minds did not change so easily.

He had met the new Queen of Andor what seemed a long time ago, in the Stone of Tear. She had not been Queen then—and was not yet, really, until she was crowned in Caemlyn—but Elayne seemed a pleasant young woman, and pretty, though he was not partial to fair-haired women. A bit taken with herself, of course, as Daughter-Heir. Taken with Rand, too, if snuggling in corners meant anything. Rand meant to give her not only the Lion Throne of Andor, but the Sun Throne of Cairhien. Surely she would be grateful enough to let the flying of a flag pass when it did not really mean anything. Watching the Two Rivers men deploy behind those banners, Perrin shook his head. It was a worry for another day, in any case.

There was nothing like armsmen’s precision in the Two Rivers men, most boys like Tod, farmers’ sons and shepherds, yet they knew what to do. Every fifth man took the reins of four more horses while the other riders hurriedly dismounted, longbows already strung and in hand. Those on the ground straggled together in rough lines, looking around with more interest than anything else, but they checked their quivers with practiced gestures and handled their bows with familiarity, the great Two Rivers bows, even when strung nearly as tall as the men who drew them. With those bows, not a man of them but could shoot farther than anyone outside the Two Rivers would believe. And hit what he aimed at.

Perrin hoped there would be none of that today. Sometimes he dreamed of a world where there never was. And Rand...

“Do you believe my enemies have been asleep while I was... away?” Rand had said suddenly as they stood waiting for Dashiva to open the gateway. He had on a coat rooted out of the wagons, well-cut green wool, but hardly what he usually wore now. Short of taking the coat off a Warder’s back or a cadin’sor from an Aielman, it was the only garment in the camp to fit him. Truth, you would have thought he insisted on silk and fine embroidery, the way he had had those wagons searched top to bottom, yesterday and this morning.

The wagons stretched out in line, teams hitched, canvas covers and iron hoops taken down. Kiruna and the rest of the sworn sisters sat packed into the lead wagon, and not happy. They had ceased their protests as soon as they saw that protesting did no good, but Perrin could still hear coldly angry mutters. At least they rode. Their Warders surrounded the wagon afoot, silent and stony, while the Aes Sedai prisoners stood in a rigid, sullen cluster ringed by every Wise One who was not with Rand, which was to say all but Sorilea and Amys. The prisoners’ Warders glowered in another clump a hundred paces off, cold death waiting despite their injuries and siswai’aman guards. Except for Kiruna’s big black, its reins held by Rand, and a mouse-colored mare with fine ankles for Min, the Aes Sedai’s and Warders’ horses not assigned to Asha’man—or used to fill out wagon teams; that had caused a commotion worse than making their owners walk!—were all tied to long lead lines fastened to the wagons’ tailgates.

“Do you believe it, Flinn? Grady?”

One of the Asha’man waiting to go through first, the stocky fellow with a farmer’s face, looked at Rand uncertainly, then at the leathery old man with the limp. Each wore a silver-sword pin on his collar, but not the Dragon. “Only a fool thinks his enemies stand still when he isn’t looking, my Lord Dragon,” the old man said in a gruff voice. He sounded like a soldier.

“What about you, Dashiva?”

Dashiva gave a start, surprised to be addressed. “I... grew up on a farm.” He tugged his sword belt straight, which it did not need. Supposedly they trained with the swords as much as with the Power, but Dashiva did not seem to know one end from the other. “I don’t know much about having enemies.” Despite his awkwardness, there was a kind of insolence to him. But then, the whole lot seemed weaned on arrogance.

“If you stay near me,” Rand said softly, “you will.” His smile made Perrin shiver. He smiled while he gave orders to go through the gateway as though they would be attacked on the other side. There were enemies everywhere, he told them. Always remember that. There were enemies everywhere, and you never knew who.

The exodus continued unabated. Wagons rumbled from Dumai’s Wells to Cairhien, the sisters in the first like statues of ice being lurched about. Their Warders trotted alongside, hands gripping sword hilts and eyes never resting on one spot; clearly they thought their Aes Sedai needed protection as much from those already on the hill as from anyone who might appear. The Wise Ones marched through herding their charges; a number used sticks to prod the Aes Sedai along, though the sisters made a good job pretending there were neither Wise Ones nor prods. The Shaido gai’shain came, trotting in a column four wide under the gaze of a single Maiden; she pointed to a place out of the way before darting to join the other Far Dareis Mai, and the gai’shain knelt there in lines, naked as jaybirds and proud as eagles. The remaining Warders followed under their guard, radiating a massed fury that Perrin could smell over everything else, then Rhuarc with the rest of the siswai’aman and Maidens, and four more Asha’man, each leading a second horse for one of the first four, and Nurelle and his Winged Guards with their red-streamered lances.

The Mayeners were puffed up over being the rear guard, laughing and shouting boasts to the Cairhienin of what they would have done had the Shaido returned, though in fact they were not last. Last of all came Rand on Kiruna’s gelding, and Min on her mare. Sorilea and Amys strode along to one side of the tall black horse, Nandera and half a dozen Maidens to the other, and Dashiva led a placid-looking bay mare at their heels. The gateway winked out, and Dashiva blinked at where it had been, smiling faintly, then scrambled clumsily into the mare’s saddle. He seemed to be talking to himself, but it was probably because his sword tangled in his legs and he nearly fell. Surely he was not mad already.

An army covered the hill, all arrayed for an attack that plainly was not coming. A small army, only a few thousand, though it would have seemed fair-sized before the Aiel brought their numbers across the Dragonwall. Guiding his horse slowly toward Perrin, Rand scanned the countryside. The two Wise Ones followed closely, talking softly and watching him; Nandera and the Maidens followed, watching everything else. Had Rand been a wolf, Perrin would have said he was testing the air. He carried the Dragon Scepter across his high saddlebow, a two-foot length of spearhead decorated with a green-and-white tassel and carved with Dragons, and now and then he weighed it lightly in his hand as if to remind himself of it.

When Rand reined in, he studied Perrin as intently as he had the surrounding country. “I trust you,” he said finally, nodding. Min stirred in her saddle, and he added, “And you, Min, of course. And you, too, Loial.” The Ogier shifted uncertainly, with a hesitant glance for Perrin. Rand looked around the hillside, at the Aiel and the Asha’man and all the rest. “So few I can trust,” he whispered tiredly. His scent was jumbled enough for two men, anger and fear, determination and despair. And woven through it all, weariness.

Be sane, Perrin wanted to tell him. Hold on. A wash of guilt held his tongue, though. Because it was the Dragon Reborn he wanted to say it to, not his friend since childhood. He wanted his friend to stay sane; the Dragon Reborn had to stay sane.

“My Lord Dragon,” one of the Asha’man called abruptly. He looked little more than a boy, with dark eyes as big as any girl’s and neither sword nor Dragon on his collar, but pride in his bearing. Narishma, Perrin had heard him called. “To the southwest.”

A figure had appeared, running out from the trees a mile or more away, a woman with skirts hiked to her thighs. To Perrin’s eyes she was clearly Aiel. A Wise One, he thought, though there was no real way to tell at sight. He was just certain. The sight of her brought back all his edginess. Somebody out here, just where they happened to come out of the gateway, could not be good news. The Shaido had been troubling Cairhien again when he set off after Rand, but to the Aiel, a Wise One was a Wise One, whatever her clan. They visited like neighbors over for tea while their clans killed one another. Two Aiel trying to kill each other would step back to let a Wise One pass between. Maybe yesterday had changed that and maybe not. He exhaled wearily. At best she could not be good news.

Nearly everyone on the hill seemed to feel the same. Ripples of motion ran everywhere, spears hefted, arrows nocked. Cairhienin and Mayeners shifted in their saddles, and Aram drew his sword, eyes shining with anticipation. Loial leaned on his tall axe and fingered the edge regretfully. The head was shaped like that of a huge wood-axe, but engraved with leaves and scrolls and inlaid with gold. The inlay was a trifle scuffed from the axe’s late use. If he had to use it again, he would, but with as much reluctance as Perrin used his and for many of the same reasons.

Rand simply sat his horse and watched, face unreadable. Min edged her mare close enough to stroke his shoulder like someone trying to soothe a mastiff with its hackles up.

The Wise Ones also gave no sign of disturbance, but neither did they stay still. Sorilea gestured, and a dozen of the women guarding the Aes Sedai broke off to join her and Amys, well away from Rand and out of even Perrin’s hearing. Few had any gray in their hair, and Sorilea’s was the only lined face, but then, there was hardly a gray hair to be seen on any of the Wise Ones here. The fact was, not many Aiel lived to have much gray hair. These women had position, though, or influence, however Wise Ones decided such things. Perrin had seen Sorilea and Amys confer with the same lot before, though confer was not quite the word. Sorilea spoke, with an occasional word from Amys, and the others listened. Edarra raised a protest, but Sorilea smothered it, apparently without breaking stride, then pointed out two of their number, Sotarin and Cosain. Immediately, they gathered their skirts over their arms and sped off toward the newcomer, legs flashing.

Perrin patted Stepper’s neck. No more killing. Not yet.

The three Wise Ones met nearly half a mile from the hill and stopped. They spoke, just for a moment, and then all came on at a run, back to the hill. And straight to Sorilea. The newcomer, a youngish, long-nosed woman with a mass of incredibly red hair, spoke hurriedly. Sorilea’s face grew stonier by the word. Finally the red-haired woman finished—or rather Sorilea cut her short with a few words—and the lot turned to face Rand. None made a move toward him, though. They waited, hands folded at their waists and shawls looped over their arms, inscrutable as any Aes Sedai.

“The Car’a’carn,” Rand muttered dryly under his breath. Swinging a leg over, he slid from his saddle, then helped Min to the ground.

Perrin climbed down too, and led Stepper after them to the Wise Ones. Loial trailed along, and Aram followed on his horse, not dismounting until Perrin motioned him to. Aiel did not ride, not unless it was absolutely necessary anyway, and they considered it rude for anyone to face them from horseback. Rhuarc joined them, and Gaul, who wore a scowl for some reason. It went without saying that Nandera and Sulin and the Maidens came too.

The red-haired newcomer began as soon as Rand drew near. “Bair and Megana set watches every way you might possibly come back to the treekillers’ city, Car’a’carn, but in truth, no one thought this would be—”

“Feraighin,” Sorilea said, sharply enough to draw blood. The red-haired woman’s teeth clicked as she snapped her mouth shut, and she stared fixedly at Rand with brilliant blue eyes, avoiding Sorilea’s glare.

Finally Sorilea took a breath and turned her attention to Rand. “There is trouble in the tents,” she said in a flat voice. “Rumors began among the treekillers that you have gone to the White Tower with the Aes Sedai who came, gone to bend knee to the Amyrlin Seat. None who know the truth dared speak, or the result would have been worse.”

“And what is the result?” Rand asked quietly. He exuded tension, and Min began stroking his shoulder again.

“Many believe you have abandoned the Aiel,” Amys told him just as quietly. “The bleakness has returned. Every day a thousand or more throw down their spears and vanish, unable to face our future, or our past. Some may be going to the Shaido.” For a moment disgust tinged her voice. “There have been whispers that the true Car’a’carn would not give himself to the Aes Sedai. Indirian says if you have gone to the White Tower, it cannot be willingly. He is ready to take the Codarra north, to Tar Valon, and dance the spears with any Aes Sedai he finds. Or any wetlander; he says you must have been betrayed. Timolan mutters that if the tales are true, you have betrayed us, and he will take the Miagoma back to the Three-fold Land. After he sees you dead. Mandelain and Janwin hold their counsel, but they listen to Indirian and Timolan both.” Rhuarc grimaced, sucking air between his teeth; for an Aiel, that was as much as tearing his hair in despair.

“It’s not good news,” Perrin protested, “but you make it sound a death sentence. Once Rand shows himself, the rumors are done.”

Rand scrubbed a hand through his hair. “If that was so, Sorilea wouldn’t look like she had swallowed a lizard.” For that matter, Nandera and Sulin looked as though their lizards were still alive on the way down. “What haven’t you told me yet, Sorilea?”

The leather-faced woman gave him a thin, approving smile. “You see beyond what is said. Good.” Her tone stayed flat as worked stone, though. “You return with Aes Sedai. Some will believe that means you did bend knee. Whatever you say or do, they will believe you wear an Aes Sedai halter. And that is before it is known you were a prisoner. Secrets find crevices a flea could not slip through, and a secret known by so many has wings.”

Perrin eyed Dobraine and Nurelle, watching with their men, and swallowed queasily. How many of those who followed Rand did so because he had the weight of the Aiel massed behind him? Not all, certainly, but for every man who had chosen because Rand was the Dragon Reborn, five or even ten had come because the Light shone brightest on the strongest ranks. If the Aiel broke away, or splintered...

He did not want to think about that possibility. Defending the Two Rivers had stretched his abilities as far as they would go, maybe farther. Ta’veren or not, he had no illusions he was one of those men who ended up in the histories; that was for Rand. Village-sized problems were his limit. Yet he could not help himself. His mind churned. What to do if the worst came? Lists ran up in his head: who would remain loyal and who might try to slip away. The first list was sufficiently short and the second sufficiently long to dry his throat. Too many people still schemed for advantage as if they had never heard of the Prophecies of the Dragon or the Last Battle. He suspected some still would the day after Tarmon Gai’don began. The worst of it was, most would not be Darkfriends, just people looking out for their own interests first. Loial’s ears hung limp; he saw it, too.

No sooner did Sorilea finish speaking to Rand than her eyes whipped to one side in a glare to bore holes in iron. “You were told to remain in the wagon.” Bera and Kiruna came to an abrupt halt, and Alanna nearly stumbled into them. “You were told not to touch the One Power without permission, but you listened to what was said here. You will learn that I mean what I say.”

Despite Sorilea’s auguring stare, the three held their ground, Bera and Kiruna with icy dignity, Alanna with smoldering defiance. Loial’s huge eyes rolled toward them, then toward the Wise One; if his ears had been limp before, now they wilted completely, and his long eyebrows dropped to his cheeks. Poring uneasily over his mental lists, Perrin wondered absently how far the Aes Sedai intended to push. Eavesdropping with the Power! They might find a reaction from the Wise Ones worse than Sorilea’s bark. From Rand, too.

Not this time, however. Rand seemed unaware of them. He looked right through Sorilea. Or maybe listened to something nobody else could hear again. “What of the wetlanders?” he said finally. “Colavaere has been crowned queen, hasn’t she?” It was not really a question.

Sorilea nodded, thumb tapping the hilt of her belt knife, but her attention never left the Aes Sedai. Who was chosen king or queen among the wetlanders was of small concern to Aiel, especially among the treekilling Cairhienin.

An icicle stabbed into Perrin’s chest. That Colavaere of House Saighan wanted the Sun Throne was no secret; she had schemed for it from the day Galldrian Riatin was assassinated, before Rand had even declared himself the Dragon Reborn, and kept scheming after it became public knowledge that Rand meant the throne for Elayne. Few knew she was a cold-blooded murderer, however. And Faile was in the city. At least she was not alone. Bain and Chiad would be close to her. They were Maidens and her friends, maybe almost what the Aiel called near-sisters; they would not let her be harmed. The icicle would not go away, though. Colavaere hated Rand, and by extension anyone close to Rand. Such as, perhaps, the wife of a man who was Rand’s friend. No. Bain and Chiad would keep her safe.

“This is a delicate situation.” Moving closer to Rand, remarkably, Kiruna ignored Sorilea. For such a scrawny woman, the Wise One had eyes like hammers. “Whatever you do can have serious repercussions. I—”

“What has Colavaere said about me?” Rand asked Sorilea in a too-casual tone. “Has she harmed Berelain?” Berelain, the First of Mayene, was who Rand had left in charge of Cairhien. Why did he not ask about Faile?

“Berelain sur Paendrag is well,” Sorilea murmured, without stopping her study of the Aes Sedai. Outwardly Kiruna stayed calm despite being interrupted and ignored, but the gaze she fixed on Rand could have frozen a forge-fire solid with the bellows pumping. For the rest, Sorilea gestured to Feraighin.

The red-haired woman gave a start and cleared her throat; plainly she had not expected to be allowed a word. She put dignity back on like a hastily donned garment. “Colavaere Saighan says you have gone to Caemlyn, Car’a’carn, or maybe to Tear, but wherever you have gone, all must remember that you are the Dragon Reborn and must be obeyed.” Feraighin sniffed; the Dragon Reborn was no part of Aiel prophecies, only the Car’a’carn. “She says you will return and confirm her on the throne. She speaks often to the chiefs, encouraging them to move the spears south. In obedience to you, she says. She does not see the Wise Ones, and hears only the wind when we speak.” This time her sniff was a fair approximation of Sorilea’s. No one told the clan chiefs what to do, but angering the Wise Ones was a bad way to start convincing the chiefs of anything.

It made sense to Perrin, though, to the part of him that could think of anything besides Faile. Colavaere probably had never paid enough attention to the “savages” to realize the Wise Ones did more than dispense herbs, but she would want every last Aiel out of Cairhien. The question was, given the circumstances, had any of the chiefs listened to her? But the question Rand asked was not the obvious.

“What else has happened in the city? Anything you’ve heard, Feraighin. Maybe something that might only seem important to a wetlander.”

She tossed her red mane contemptuously. “Wetlanders are like sandflies, Car’a’carn: who can know what they find important? Strange things sometimes happen in the city, so I have heard, as they do among the tents. People sometimes see things that cannot be, only for a time, what cannot be, is. Men, women, children have died.” Perrin’s skin prickled: he knew she meant what Rand called “bubbles of evil,” rising from the Dark One’s prison like froth in a fetid swamp, drifting along the Pattern till they burst. Perrin had been caught in one once; he never wanted to see another... “If you mean what the wetlanders do,” she went on, “who has time to watch sandflies? Unless they bite. That minds me of one thing. I do not understand it, but perhaps you do. These sandflies will bite sooner or later.”

“What sandflies? Wetlanders? What are you talking about?”

Feraighin was not as good as Sorilea at that level look, yet no Wise One that Perrin had seen appreciated others’ impatience. Not even the chief of chiefs’. Thrusting her chin up, she gathered her shawl and answered. “Three days ago the treekillers Caraline Damodred and Toram Riatin approached the city. They issued a proclamation that Colavaere Saighan is a usurper, but they sit in their camp south of the city and do nothing except send a few people into the city now and then. Away from their camp, a hundred of them will run from one algai’d’siswai, or even a gai’shain. The man called Darlin Sisnera and other Tairens arrived by ship below the city yesterday and joined them. They have been feasting and drinking ever since, as if celebrating something. Treekiller soldiers gather in the city at Colavaere Saighan’s command, yet they watch our tents more than they do the other wetlanders’ or the city itself. They watch, and do nothing. Perhaps you know the why of all this, Car’a’carn, but I do not, nor does Bair or Megana, or anyone else in the tents.”

Lady Caraline and Lord Toram led the Cairhienin who refused to accept that Rand and the Aiel had conquered Cairhien, just as High Lord Darlin led their counterparts in Tear. Neither revolt amounted to much; Caraline and Toram had been sitting in the foothills of the Spine of the World for months, making threats and claims, and Darlin the same down in Haddon Mirk. But not any longer, it seemed. Perrin found himself running a thumb lightly along the edge of his axe. The Aiel were in danger of slipping away, and Rand’s enemies were coming together in one place. All it needed now was for the Forsaken to appear. And Sevanna with her Shaido. That would put the cream on the honeycake. Yet none of it was any more important than whether somebody saw a nightmare walking. Faile had to be safe; she just had to be.

“Better watching than fighting,” Rand murmured thoughtfully, listening to something unseen again.

Perrin agreed with Rand wholeheartedly—just about anything was better than fighting—but Aiel did not see it that way, not when it came to enemies. From Rhuarc to Sorilea, Feraighin to Nandera and Sulin, they stared as though Rand had said sand was better to drink than water.

Feraighin drew herself up practically on tiptoe. She was not particularly tall for an Aiel woman, not quite to Rand’s shoulder, but she appeared to be trying to put herself nose-to-nose. “There are few more than ten thousand in that wetlander camp,” she said reprovingly, “and fewer in the city. They can be dealt with easily. Even Indirian remembers that you commanded no wetlander killed except in self-defense, but they will make trouble left to themselves. It does not help that there are Aes Sedai in the city. Who can know what they—”

“Aes Sedai?” The words came out cold, Rand’s knuckles white on the Dragon Scepter. “How many?” At the smell of him the skin between Perrin’s shoulders crawled; suddenly he could feel the Aes Sedai prisoners watching, and Bera and Kiruna and the rest.

Sorilea lost all interest in Kiruna. Her hands planted themselves on her hips and her mouth narrowed. “Why did you not tell me this?”

“You gave me no chance, Sorilea,” Feraighin protested a touch breathily, shoulders hunching. Blue eyes swung to Rand, and her voice firmed. “There may be as many as ten or more, Car’a’carn. We avoid them, of course, especially since...” Back to Sorilea and breathiness. “You did not want to hear about the wetlanders, Sorilea. Only our own tents. You said so.” To Rand, her back straightening. “Most of them stay beneath the roof of Arilyn Dhulaine, Car’a’carn, and seldom leave it.” To Sorilea, hunching. “Sorilea, you know I would have told you everything. You cut me short.” As she realized how many were watching, and how many beginning to smile, among the Wise Ones anyway, Feraighin’s eyes grew wild, and her cheeks reddened. Her head swung between Rand and Sorilea, and her mouth worked but no sound came out. Some of the Wise Ones began laughing behind their hands; Edarra did not bother with a hand. Rhuarc threw back his head and roared.

Perrin certainly did not feel like laughing. An Aiel could find something funny in having a sword stuck through him. Aes Sedai on top of everything else. Light! He cut straight through to what was important. “Feraighin? My wife, Faile, is she well?”

She gave him a half-distracted stare, then visibly pulled together the tatters of her poise. “I think Faile Aybara is well, Sei’cair,” she said with cool composure. Or almost. She tried to sneak glances at Sorilea from the corner of her eye. Sorilea was not amused, or anything close to it; arms folded, she gave Feraighin a perusal that made the one she had given Kiruna seem mild.

Amys put a hand on Sorilea’s arm. “She is not at fault,” the younger woman murmured, too softly to reach any ears but the leathery Wise One’s and Perrin’s. Sorilea hesitated, then nodded; the flaying glare faded to her usual cantankerousness. Amys was the only one Perrin had seen able to do that, the only one Sorilea did not trample down when she got in her way. Well, she did not trample Rhuarc, but with him it was more a boulder ignoring a thunderstorm; Amys could make it stop raining.

Perrin wanted more of Feraighin—she thought Faile was well?—but before he could open his mouth, Kiruna bulled in with her usual tact.

“Now, listen to me carefully,” she told Rand, gesturing emphatically under his nose. “I called the situation delicate. It is not. The situation is complex beyond your imagining, so fragile a breath could shatter it. Bera and I will accompany you to the city. Yes, yes, Alanna; and you, as well.” She waved away the slender Aes Sedai impatiently. Perrin thought she was trying that looming trick. She did seem to be peering down her nose at Rand, though tall as she was, he stood head and shoulders taller. “You must let yourself be guided by us. One wrong move, one wrong word, and you may deliver to Cairhien the same disaster you gave Tarabon and Arad Doman. Worse, you can do incalculable damage to matters about which you know almost nothing.”

Perrin winced. The whole speech could not have been better designed to inflame Rand. But Rand simply listened till she was done, then turned to Sorilea. “Take the Aes Sedai to the tents. All of them, for now. Make sure everyone knows they’re Aes Sedai. Let it be seen that they hop when you say toad. Since you hop when the Car’a’carn says it, that should convince everybody I’m not wearing an Aes Sedai leash.”

Kiruna’s face grew bright red; she smelled of outrage and indignation so strongly that Perrin’s nose itched. Bera tried to calm her, without much success, while shooting you-ignorant-young-lout looks at Rand, and Alanna bit her lip in an effort not to smile. Going by the odors drifting from Sorilea and the others, Alanna had no reason to be pleased.

Sorilea gave Rand a slash of smile. “Perhaps, Car’a’carn,” she said dryly. Perrin doubted that she hopped for anyone. “Perhaps it will.” She did not sound convinced.

With another shake of his head, Rand stalked off with Min, shadowed by the Maidens and issuing orders as to who was to go with him and who with the Wise Ones. Rhuarc began ordering the siswai’aman. Alanna followed Rand with her eyes. Perrin wished he knew what was going on there. Sorilea and the others watched Rand, too, and they smelled anything but gentle.

Feraighin was standing alone, he realized. Now was his chance. But when he tried to catch her up, Sorilea and Amys and the rest of the “council” surrounded her, neatly shouldering him away. They moved some distance before they began showering her with questions, the sharp looks directed at Kiruna and the other two sisters leaving no doubt they would tolerate no further eavesdropping. Kiruna appeared to be considering it, glowering till it seemed a wonder her dark hair was not standing on end. Bera was speaking to her firmly, and without trying Perrin heard “sensible” and “patience,” “cautious” and “foolish.” Which applied to whom was not evident.

“There will be fighting when we reach the city.” Aram sounded eager.

“Of course not,” Loial said stoutly. His ears twitched, and he peered uncomfortably at his axe. “There won’t be, will there, Perrin?”

Perrin shook his head. He did not know. If only the other Wise Ones would leave Feraighin alone, just for a few moments. What did they have to talk about that was so important?

“Women,” Gaul muttered, “are stranger than drunken wetlanders.”

“What?” Perrin said absently. What would happen should he simply push through the circle of Wise Ones? As if she had read his mind Edarra gave him a pointed frown. So did some of the others; sometimes it did seem women could read men’s minds. Well...

“I said women are strange, Perrin Aybara. Chiad told me she would not lay a bridal wreath at my feet; she actually told me.” The Aiel man sounded scandalized. “She said she would take me for a lover, her and Bain, but no more.” Another time that would have shocked Perrin, though he had heard it before; Aiel were incredibly... free... about such things. “As if I am not good enough for a husband.” Gaul snorted angrily. “I do not like Bain, but I would marry her to make Chiad happy. If Chiad will not make a bridal wreath, she should stop trying to entice me. If I cannot catch her interest well enough for her to marry me, she should let me go.”

Perrin frowned at him. The green-eyed Aiel man was taller than Rand, nearly a head taller than he. “What are you talking about?”

“Chiad, of course. Have you not been listening? She avoids me, but every time I see her, she pauses long enough to make sure I have seen her. I do not know how you wetlanders do it, but with us, that is one of the ways a woman uses. When you least expect her, she is in your eyes, then gone. I did not even know she was with the Maidens until this morning.”

“You mean she’s here?” Perrin whispered. That icicle was back, now a blade, hollowing him out. “And Bain? Here, too?”

Gaul shrugged. “One is seldom far from the other. But it is Chiad’s interest I want, not Bain’s.”

“Burn their bloody interest!” Perrin shouted. The Wise Ones turned to look at him. In fact, people all over the hillside did. Kiruna and Bera were staring, faces entirely too thoughtful. With an effort he managed to lower his voice. He could do nothing about the intensity, though. “They were supposed to be protecting her! She’s in the city, in the Royal Palace, with Colavaere—with Colavaere!—and they were supposed to be protecting her.”

Scratching his head, Gaul looked at Loial. “Is this wetlander humor? Faile Aybara is out of short skirts.”

“I know she’s not a child!” Perrin drew a deep breath. It was very hard keeping a level tone with his belly full of acid. “Loial, will you explain to this... to Gaul, that our women don’t run around with spears, that Colavaere wouldn’t offer to fight Faile, she’d just order somebody to cut her throat or throw her off a wall or...” The images were too much. He was going to empty his stomach in a moment.

Loial patted him awkwardly on the shoulder. “Perrin, I know you’re worried. I know how I’d feel if I thought anything happened to Erith.” The tufts on his ears quivered. He was a fine one to talk; he would run as hard as he could to avoid his mother and the young Ogier woman she had chosen for him. “Ah. Well. Perrin, Faile is waiting for you, safe and sound. I know it. And you know she can care for herself. Why, she could care for herself and you and me, and Gaul, as well.” His booming laugh sounded forced, and it quickly faded to grave seriousness. “Perrin... Perrin, you know you can’t always be there to protect Faile, however much you want to. You are ta’veren; the Pattern spun you out for a purpose, and it will use you for that purpose.”

“Burn the Pattern,” Perrin growled. “It can all burn, if it keeps her safe.” Loial’s ears went rigid with shock, and even Gaul looked taken aback.

What does that make me? Perrin thought. He had been scornful of those who scribbled and scrabbled for their own ends, ignoring the Last Battle and the Dark One’s shadow creeping over the world. How was he different from them?

Rand reined the black in beside him. “Are you coming?”

“I’m coming,” Perrin said bleakly. He had no answer for his own questions, but he knew one thing. To him, Faile was the world.

Into Cairhien

Perrin would have set a harder pace than Rand did, though he knew the horses could not have stood it long. Half the time they rode at a trot, the other half ran alongside their animals. Rand seemed unaware of anyone else, except that he always had a hand for Min if she stumbled. For the rest, he was lost in some other world, blinking in surprise when he noticed Perrin, or Loial. Truth to tell, nobody was any better. Dobraine’s men and Havien’s stared straight ahead, chewing their own worries over what they would find. The Two Rivers men had soaked in Perrin’s dark mood. They liked Faile—truth be told, some worshipped her—and if she had been hurt in any way... Even Aram’s eagerness grew bleak once he realized that Faile might be in danger. Every man focused on the leagues before them, toward the city ahead. Except for the Asha’man, anyway; close behind Rand like a cluster of ravens, they studied the country the column crossed, still wary of an ambush. Dashiva slumped in his saddle like a sack, and muttered darkly to himself when he had to run; he glared as if he hoped there was an ambush.

Small chance of that. Sulin and a dozen Far Dareis Mai trotted ahead of the column in Perrin’s sight, with as many more farther ahead, probing the way, and an equal number on the flanks. Some had thrust their short spears into the harnesses that held their bow cases on their backs, so the spear-heads bobbed above their heads; the short horn bows were out, arrows nocked. They kept equally sharp watch for anything that might threaten the Car’a’carn and on Rand himself, as though they suspected he might vanish again. If any trap waited, any danger approached, they would find it.

Chiad was one of the Maidens with Sulin, a tall woman with dark reddish hair and gray eyes. Perrin stared at her back, willing her to drop behind the others and speak to him. Now and then she spared him a glance, but she avoided him as if he had three diseases, all catching. Bain was not with the column; most of the Maidens followed much the same route with Rhuarc and the algai’d’siswai, but moving more slowly because of the wagons and prisoners.

Faile’s black mare trotted behind Stepper, her reins tied to his saddle. The Two Rivers men had brought Swallow from Caemlyn when they joined him before Dumai’s Wells. Every time he looked at the mare prancing along behind him, his wife’s face swelled in his thoughts, her bold nose and generous mouth, flashing dark eyes tilted above high cheekbones. She loved the animal, maybe almost as much as she did him. A woman as proud as she was beautiful, as fiery as she was proud. Davram Bashere’s daughter would not hide, or even hold her tongue, not for the likes of Colavaere.

Four times they stopped to rest the mounts, and he ground his teeth at the delay. Taking good care of horses was second nature to him; he checked Stepper absently, gave the stallion a little water by rote. Swallow he was more careful with. If Swallow reached Cairhien safely... A notion had planted itself in his mind. If he brought her mare to Cairhien, Faile would be all right. It was ludicrous, a boy’s fancy, a small boy’s foolish fancy, and it would not go away.

At each of those stops, Min tried to reassure him. With a bantering grin, she said he looked like death on a winter morning, just waiting for somebody to shovel his grave full. She told him if he approached his wife with a face like that, Faile would slam the door on him. But she had to admit that none of her viewings promised that Faile was unharmed.

“Light, Perrin,” she said at last in exasperated tones, snugging her gray riding gloves, “if anyone tries to harm the woman, she’ll make him wait out in the hall till she has time for him.” He very nearly growled at her. It was not that the two disliked each other, exactly.

Loial reminded Perrin that Hunters for the Horn could take care of themselves, that Faile had survived Trollocs unscathed. “She is well, Perrin,” he boomed heartily, trotting beside Stepper with his long axe across his shoulders. “I know she is.” But he said the same twenty times, and each time he sounded a little less hearty.

The Ogier’s final attempt at heartening went further than Loial intended. “I am sure Faile can look after herself, Perrin. She is not like Erith. I can hardly wait for Erith to make me her husband so I can tend her; I think I’d die if she changed her mind.” At the end of that, his mouth remained open, and his huge eyes popped; ears fluttering, he stumbled over his own boots and nearly fell. “I never meant to say that,” he said hoarsely, striding along beside Perrin’s horse once more. His ears still trembled. “I am not sure I want to—I’m too young to get—” Swallowing hard, he gave Perrin an accusing look, and spared one for Rand up ahead, too. “It is hardly safe to open your mouth with two ta’veren about. Anything at all might come out!” Nothing that might not have come off his tongue anyway, as he well knew, though it might have happened one time in a thousand, or a thousand times a thousand, without ta’veren there. Loial knew that also, and the fact of it seemed to frighten him as much as anything Perrin had ever seen. Some considerable time passed before the Ogier’s ears stopped shaking.

Faile filled Perrin’s mind, but he was not blind, not completely. What he at first saw without seeing, as they rode south and west, began to seep in at the edges. The weather had been hot when he headed north from Cairhien, less than two weeks ago, yet it seemed the Dark One’s touch had gained a harder hold, grinding the land more desperately than before. Brittle grass crackled beneath the horses’ hooves, shriveled brown creepers spiderwebbed rocks on the hillsides, and naked branches, not merely leafless but dead, cracked when the arid wind gusted. Evergreen pine and leatherleaf stood brown and yellow often as not.

Farms had begun appearing after a few miles, plain structures of dark stone laid out in squares, the first in isolated clearings in the forest, then coming more thickly as the woodland thinned to trees hardly deserving the name. A cart road straggled there, running over the shoulders and crests of hills, accommodating stone-walled fields more than the terrain. Most of those early farms looked deserted, here a ladderback chair lying on its side in front of a farmhouse, there a rag doll by the roadside. Slat-ribbed cattle and lethargic sheep dotted pastures where frequently ravens squabbled over carcasses; hardly a pasture but had a carcass or two. Streams ran in trickles down channels of dried mud. Cropland that should have been blanketed with snow looked ready to crumble to dust, where it was not dust already, blowing away.

A tall plume of dust marked the passage of the column, until the narrow dirt way joined the broad stone-paved road that led from Jangai Pass. Here there were people, though few, and those often lethargic, dull-eyed. With the sinking sun almost halfway down to the horizon now, the air was an oven. The occasional ox-cart or horse-drawn wagon hurried off the road, down narrow tracks or even into fields, out of the way. The drivers, and the handful of farm folk in the open, stood blank-faced as they watched the three banners pass.

Close to a thousand armed men was reason enough to stare. A thousand armed men, heading somewhere in a hurry, with a purpose. Reason enough to stare, and be thankful when they passed out of sight.

At last, when the sun had less than twice its own height yet to fall, the road topped a rise, and there two or three miles before them lay Cairhien. Rand drew rein, and the Maidens, all together now, dropped to their heels where they were. They kept those sharp eyes out, though.

Nothing could be seen moving on the nearly treeless hills around the city, a great mass of gray stone sinking toward the River Alguenya on the west, square-walled, square-towered and stark. Ships of all sizes lay anchored in the river, and some tied to the docks of the far bank, where the granaries were; a few vessels moved under sail or long sweeps. They gave an impression of peace and prosperity. With not a cloud in the sky, the light was sharp, and the huge banners flying from the city’s towers stood plain enough to Perrin when the wind unfurled them. The scarlet Banner of Light and the white Dragon Banner with its serpentine creature scaled scarlet and gold, the wavy-rayed Rising Sun of Cairhien, gold on blue. And a fourth, given equal prominence with the rest. A silver diamond on a field checked yellow and red.

Lowering a small looking glass from his eye, a scowling Dobraine stuffed it into a worked-leather tube tied to his saddle. “I hoped the savages had it wrong somehow, but if House Saighan flies with the Rising Sun, Colavaere has the throne. She will have been distributing gifts in the city every day; coin, food, finery. It is traditional for the Coronation Festival. A ruler is never more popular than for the week after taking the throne.” He eyed Rand sideways; the strain of speaking straight out hollowed his face. “The commoners could riot if they dislike what you do. The streets could run with blood.”

Havien’s gray gelding danced his rider’s impatience, and the man himself kept looking from Rand to the city and back. It was not his city; he had made it clear earlier that he cared little what ran in the streets, so long as his own ruler was safe.

For long moments Rand studied the city. Or seemed to, anyway; whatever he saw, his face was bleak. Min studied him, worriedly, maybe pityingly. “I will try to see they don’t,” he said at last. “Flinn, remain here with the soldiers. Min—”

She broke in on him sharply. “No! I am going where you go, Rand al’Thor. You need me, and you know it.” The last sounded more plea than demand, but when a woman planted her fists on her hips that way and fixed her eyes to you, she was not begging.

“I am going, too,” Loial added, leaning on his long-hafted axe. “You always manage to lo things when I’m somewhere else.” His voice took on a plaintive edge. “It won’t do, Rand. It will not do for the book. How can I write about things if I am not there?”

Still looking at Min, Rand half-raised a hand toward her, then let it fall. She met his gaze levelly.

“This is... madness.” Holding his reins stiffly, Dashiva booted the plump mare closer to Rand’s black. Reluctance twisted his features; perhaps even Asha’man worried at being too near Rand. “All it needs is one man with a... a bow, or a knife, and you don’t see him in time. Send one of the Asha’man to do what needs doing, or more, if you think it’s necessary. A gateway to the palace, and it can be done before anyone knows what has happened.”

“And sit here past dark,” Rand cut in, reining his gelding around to face Dashiva, “until they know this place well enough to open one? That way brings bloodshed for sure. They’ve seen us from the walls, unless they’re blind. Sooner or later they will send somebody to find out who we are, and how many.” The rest of the column remained hidden behind the rise, and the banners were down there, too, but men sitting their horses on a ridge with Maidens for company would indeed attract curiosity. “I will do this my way.” His voice rose in anger, and he smelled of cold fury. “Nobody dies unless it can’t be avoided, Dashiva. I’ve had a bellyful of death. Do you understand me? Nobody!”

“As my Lord Dragon commands.” The fellow inclined his head, but he sounded sour, and he smelled...

Perrin rubbed his nose. The smell... skittered, dodging wildly through fear and hate and anger and a dozen more emotions almost too quickly to make out. He no longer doubted the man was mad, however good a face the fellow put on. Perrin no longer really cared, either. This close...

Digging his heels into Stepper’s flanks, he started for the city and Faile, not waiting for the rest, barely noticing Aram close behind. He did not have to see Aram to know he would be there. All he could think of was Faile. If he got Swallow safely into the city... He made himself keep Stepper at no more than a quick walk. A galloping rider drew eyes, and questions, and delays. At that pace, the others caught up with Aram and him fast enough, those who were coming. Min had gotten her way, it seemed, and so had Loial. The Maidens fanned out ahead, some giving Perrin sympathetic looks as they trotted by. Chiad studied the ground until she was beyond him.

“I still don’t like this plan,” Havien muttered on one side of Rand. “Forgive me, my Lord Dragon, but I do not.”

Dobraine, on Rand’s other side, grunted. “We have been over that, Mayener. If we did as you want, they would close the gates on us before we covered a mile.” Havien growled something under his breath and danced his horse a few paces. He had wanted every man to follow Rand into the city.

Perrin glanced over his shoulder, past the Asha’man. Damer Flinn, recognizable by his coat, and a few of the Two Rivers men were visible on the ridge, standing and holding their horses. Perrin sighed. He would not have minded having the Two Rivers men along. But Rand was probably right, and Dobraine had backed him up.

A few men could enter where a small army could not. If the gates were shut, the Aiel would have to besiege the city, if they still would, and then the killing began anew. Rand had stuffed the Dragon Scepter into one of the geldings’ saddlebags so just the carved butt stuck out, and that plain coat looked like nothing the Dragon Reborn would wear. For the Asha’man, nobody in the city had any idea what a black coat meant. A few men were easier to kill than a small army, too, even if most of them could channel. Perrin had seen an Asha’man take a Shaido spear through his belly, and the man had died no harder than any other.

Dashiva grumbled under his breath; Perrin caught “hero” and “fool” in equally disparaging tones. Without Faile, he might have agreed. Once Rand peered toward the Aiel encampment sprawled over the hills two or three miles east of the city, and Perrin held his breath, but whatever thoughts Rand had, he kept on the road. Nothing mattered more than Faile. Nothing, whether or not Rand saw it so.

A good half-mile short of the gates, they rode into another camp, one that made Perrin frown. It was big enough for a city itself, a thick band of ramshackle brush huts and rickety tents made from scraps, on burned-over ground, clinging to the high gray walls as far as he could see. This had been called Foregate once, warren of twisting streets and alleys, before the Shaido burned it. Some of the people stared in silence as the strange party passed, at an Ogier, and Aiel Maidens, but most scuttled about their business with wary, sullen faces and a care to notice nothing that was not right in front of them. The bright colors and often tattered cast-off finery worn by Foregaters mingled with the somber garb more usual for Cairhienin, the plain dark clothes of villagers and farmers. The Foregaters had been in the city when Perrin left, along with thousands of refugees from deeper inside the country. Many of those faces bore bruises and worse, cuts and slashes, often unbandaged. Colavaere must have put them out. They would not have left the shelter of the walls on their own; Foregaters and refugees alike feared the return of the Shaido the way a man who had been seared to the bone feared hot iron.

The road ran straight through the camp to the Jangai Gates, three tall square arches flanked by towers. Helmeted men lounged up on the battlements, peering down through the gaps in the stone teeth. Some stared off toward the men on the hilltop, and here and there an officer with a con held a looking glass to his eye. Rand’s small party drew inquiring glances. Men ahorseback and Aiel Maidens; not common companions. Crossbows showed atop the serrated wall, but no one raised a weapon. The iron-bound gates stood open. Perrin held his breath. He wanted very much to gallop for the Sun Palace and Faile.

Just inside the gates sat a squat stone guard house, where strangers to the city were supposed to register before entering. A square-faced Cairhienin officer watched them pass with a disgruntled frown, eyeing the Maidens uneasily. He just stood there, watching.

“As I told you,” Dobraine said once they were by the guard house. “Colavaere gave free access to the city for Coronation Festival. Not even someone under order of arrest can be denied or detained. It is tradition.” He sounded relieved, though. Min sighed audibly, and Loial let out a breath that could have been heard two streets over. Perrin’s chest was still too tight for sighing. Swallow was inside Cairhien. Now, if he could only get her to the Royal Palace.

Up close, Cairhien carried out what it had promised from afar. The highest of the hills lay inside the walls, but terraced and faced with stone till they no longer seemed hills at all. Broad, crowded streets met at right angles. In this city, even the alleys made a grid. The streets rose and fell reluctantly with the hills, often simply cutting through. From shops to palaces, the buildings were all stark squares and severe rectangles, even the great buttressed towers, each wrapped in scaffolding on a hilltop, the once-fabled topless towers of Cairhien, still being rebuilt after burning in the Aiel War. The city seemed harder than stone, a bruising place, and shadows stretching across everything heightened the effect. Loial’s tufted ears twitched almost without stopping; a worried frown creased his forehead, and his dangling eyebrows brushed his cheek.

There were few signs of Coronation Festival, or High Chasaline. Perrin had no notion what the Festival might entail, but in the Two Rivers, the Day of Reflection was a time of merriment and forgetting the bleakness of winter. Here, a near hush hung in the air, despite the number of people. Anywhere else, Perrin might have thought it the unnatural heat dragging people’s spirits down, but except for Foregaters, Cairhienin were a sober, austere lot. On the surface, at least; what lay underneath, he would as soon not think about. The hawkers and cart-peddlers he remembered were gone from the streets, the musicians and tumblers and puppet shows. Those people would be in the ragtag camp outside the walls. A few closed, dark-painted sedan chairs threaded through the quiet throngs, some with House banners a little larger than con standing stiffly above. They moved as slowly as the ox-carts with goad-wielding drivers walking alongside, axles squealing in the stillness. Outlanders stood out, no matter how little color they wore, because few except outlanders rode. The almost inevitably shorter natives looked like pale-faced crows in their dark garb. Aiel stood out too, of course. Whether one alone or ten together, they walked in clearings through the crowds; eyes darted away and space just opened up around them wherever they went.

Aiel faces turned toward the party as it made its slow way through the crowds. Even if not all recognized Rand in his green coat, they knew who a tall wetlander escorted by Maidens must be. Those faces sent a chill down Perrin’s spine: considering. They made him thankful Rand had left all of the Aes Sedai behind. Aside from the Aiel, the Dragon Reborn moved through a river of unconcern that parted for the Maidens and closed in again behind the Asha’man.

The Royal Palace of Cairhien, the Sun Palace, the Palace of the Rising Sun in Splendor—Cairhienin were great ones for names, each more extravagant than the last—stood atop the highest hill in the city, a dark mass of square stone with stepped towers looming over everything. The street, the Way of the Crown, became a long broad ramp rising toward the palace, and Perrin drew a deep breath as they started up. Faile was up there. She had to be, and safe. Whatever else, she had to be safe. He touched the knot holding Swallow’s reins to a ring on his pommel, stroked the axe at his waist. The horses’ shod hooves rang loudly on the paving stones. The Maidens made no sound at all.

The guards on the great, open bronze gates watched their slow approach and exchanged glances. They were colorful for Cairhienin soldiers, ten men with the Rising Sun in gold on their dark breastplates and scarves in House Saighan’s colors tied below the heads of their halberds. Perrin could have written out their thoughts. Thirteen men on horseback, but in no hurry, and only two wearing armor, one in Mayener red. Any trouble would come from Caraline Damodred and Toram Riatin, and Mayeners had no place in that. And there was a woman, and an Ogier. Surely they intended no trouble. Still, three dozen or so Maidens trotting ahead of the horses hardly looked as though they were coming for tea. For an instant all hung balanced. Then a Maiden veiled herself. The guards jerked as if goosed, and one slanted his halberd and darted for the gates. Two steps he took, and stopped, rigid as a statue. Every guard stood stiff; nothing moved but their heads.

“Good,” Rand murmured. “Now tie off the flows and leave them for later.”

Perrin shrugged uncomfortably. The Asha’man had spread out behind, taking up most of the width of the ramp; they must be using the Power. Very likely the eight of them could tear the whole palace apart. Maybe Rand could have by himself. But if those towers began spewing crossbow bolts, they would die with everyone else, caught in the open on this ramp that no longer seemed so wide.

Nobody sped up. Any eyes at the tall narrow windows of the palace, on the colonnaded walks high above, must see nothing out of the ordinary. Sulin flashed Maiden hand-talk, and the one who had veiled lowered the black cloth hurriedly, face flushing. A slow walk, up the stone ramp. Some of the guards’ helmeted heads shook wildly, eyes rolling; one seemed to have fainted, slumping upright with his chin on his chest. Their mouths strained, open, but no sound came out. Perrin tried not to think about what had gagged them. A slow walk, through the open bronze gates, into the main courtyard.

There were no soldiers here. The stone balconies around the courtyard stood empty. Liveried servants rushed out with downcast eyes to take the horses’ reins and hold stirrups. Stripes of red and yellow and silver ran down the sleeves of otherwise dark coats and dresses, and each had the Rising Sun small on the left breast. That was more color than Perrin had seen on a Cairhienin servant before. They could not see the guards outside, and likely would have done little different if they had. In Cairhien, servants played their own version of Daes Dae’mar, the Game of Houses, but they pretended to ignore the doings of those above them. Taking too much notice of what happened among your betters—or at least, being seen to take notice—might mean being caught up in it. In Cairhien, maybe in most lands, ordinary folk could be crushed unnoticed where the mighty walked.

A blocky woman led Stepper and Swallow away without really looking at him. Swallow was inside the Sun Palace, and it made no difference. He still did not know whether Faile was alive or dead. A fool boy’s fool fancy.

Shifting his axe at his hip, he followed Rand up the broad gray stairs at the far end of the courtyard, and nodded when Aram reached over his shoulder again to ease his sword. Liveried men swung open the great doors at the head of the stairs, bronze like the outer gates and marked large with the Rising Sun of Cairhien.

Once, the entry hall would have stunned Perrin with its grandeur. Thick square columns of dark marble held a square-vaulted ceiling ten paces above floor tiles that alternated dark blue and deep gold. Gilded Rising Suns marched around the cornices, and friezes carved in the walls showed Cairhienin triumphs in battle. The hall was empty, save for a handful of young men clustered beneath one of the friezes who fell silent when Perrin and the rest entered.

Not all men, he realized. All wore swords, but four of the seven were women, in coats and snug breeches much like Min’s, their hair cut short as the men’s. Not that that was particularly short; men and women alike had it gathered in a kind of tail that reached their shoulders, tied with a dark ribbon. One of the women wore green a little paler than normal for Cairhienin, and another bright blue; all the rest were in dark colors, with a few bright stripes across their chests. They studied Rand’s party—with an especial view for himself, Perrin realized; his yellow eyes took people aback, although he hardly noticed it anymore unless somebody jumped, or made a commotion—studied in silence until the last of the Asha’man was in and the doors swung shut. The boom of the closing covered a moment of fierce whispering; then they came swaggering closer, the women strutting even more arrogantly than the men, which took some doing. Even the way they knelt was arrogant.

The green-clad woman glanced at the one in blue, who had her head down, and said, “My Lord Dragon, I am Camaille Nolaisen. Selande Darengil leads our society...” She blinked at a fierce look from the woman in blue. Despite the glare, Selande smelled afraid to her bones, if Perrin was making out who was who properly. Clearing her throat, Camaille went on, “We did not think—We did not expect you to return—so soon.”

“Yes,” Rand said softly. “I doubt anyone thought I would return—so soon. None of you has any reason to be afraid of me. None at all. If you believe anything, believe that.” Surprisingly, he looked right at Selande when he said that. Her head whipped up, and as she stared at him, the fear smell faded. Not completely, but down to a tatter. How had Rand known it was there? “Where is Colavaere?” Rand asked.

Camaille opened her mouth, but it was Selande who answered. “In the Grand Hall of the Sun.” Her voice grew stronger as she spoke, the scent of her fear growing weaker. Oddly, a slight tinge of jealousy touched it once, just for an instant, when she glanced at Min. Sometimes his sense of smell was more confusing than enlightening. “It is the third Sunset Convocation,” she went on. “We are not important enough to attend. Besides, I think we of the societies make her uneasy.”

“The third,” Dobraine muttered. “The ninth sunset after her coronation already. She wasted no time. At least they will all be together. No one of any rank or pretension will miss it, Cairhienin or Tairen.”

Drawing herself up on her knees, Selande managed to make it seem she was meeting Rand eye-to-eye. “We are ready to dance the blades for you, my Lord Dragon.” Sulin shook her head, wincing, and another Maiden groaned audibly; several looked and smelled ready to do some violence then and there. The Aiel could not decide what to make of these young wet-landers. The problem in Aiel eyes were that they were trying to be Aiel, in a way, to follow ji’e’toh, their version of it, anyway. These seven were not the lot; hundreds of the idiots, at least, could be found all over the city, organized into societies in imitation of the Aiel. Half the Aiel Perrin had heard mention them wanted to help; the other half wanted to strangle them.

For himself, he did not care whether they mangled ji’e’toh to mincemeat. “Where is my wife?” he demanded. “Where is Faile?” The young fools exchanged guarded looks. Guarded!

“She is in the Grand Hall of the Sun,” Selande said slowly. “She—she is one of Queen—of Colavaere’s lady attendants.”

“Put your eyes back in your head, Perrin,” Min whispered. “She must have a good reason. You know she must.”

Shrugging inside his coat, Perrin tried to gather himself. One of Colavaere’s attendants? Whatever her reason, it must be good. That much he was sure of. But what could it be?

Selande and the others were passing those guarded looks about again. One of the men, a young fellow with a pointed nose, whispered fierce and low, “We swore not to tell anyone! Not anyone! On water oath!”

Before Perrin could demand to be told Rand spoke. “Selande, lead the way to the Grand Hall. There will be no blades. I am here to see justice done, to all who deserve it.”

Something in his voice made Perrin’s hackles rise. A hardness grim as a hammer’s face. Faile did have a good reason. She had to.

A Broken Crown

Wide and tall as the corridors were, they felt close, and dim despite tall gilded stand-lamps with mirrors on every branch, lit wherever daylight could not penetrate. Tapestries hung few and far between on the walls, scenes of hunt or battle with people and animals arranged more precisely than ever nature had. Scattered niches held bowls and vases and now and then a small statue, in gold or silver or alabaster, but even the statues seemed to emphasize that they were stone or metal, as if the sculptors had tried to banish curves.

The city’s hush was magnified here. The sound of their boots on the floor tiles echoed, a hollow foreboding march, and Perrin did not think it was so to his ears alone. Loial’s quivered at every other step, and he peered down crossing corridors as though wondering what might leap out. Min held herself stiffly and took ginger steps, grimacing ruefully when she glanced at Rand; she seemed to make an effort not to walk closer to him, and not particularly pleased with herself over it. The young Cairhienin started off swaggering like peacocks, but that arrogance faded as the drumming of their heels reverberated. Even the Maidens felt it; Sulin was the only one whose hand did not sometimes rise toward the veil hanging down her chest.

There were servants everywhere, of course, pale, narrow-faced men and women in dark coats and dresses with the Rising Sun on the left breast and sleeves striped in Colavaere’s colors. Some gaped in recognition as Rand passed by; a handful dropped to their knees, heads bowed. Most went on about their tasks after a small pause for deep bow or curtsy. It was just as in the courtyard. Show proper respect to your betters, whoever they are; obey them and otherwise ignore what they do, and perhaps you will not be entangled in it. It was a way of thinking that set Perrin’s teeth on edge. Nobody should have to live that way.

Two fellows in Colavaere’s livery, standing before the gilt-covered doors to the Grand Hall of the Sun, frowned at sight of the Maidens, and maybe at the young Cairhienin. Older folk usually looked askance at the young-lings’ carrying on every bit as much as the Aiel did. More than one parent had tried to put an end to it, had ordered sons or daughters to give over, instructed armsmen and servants to chase off others’ like-minded sons and daughters like common vagrants or street ruffians. Perrin would not have been surprised if these doormen slanted their gilded staffs to stop Selande and her friends from going through the open doorways, nobility or not, and perhaps even the Maidens. Few Cairhienin still dared call Aiel savages, not where they could be heard, but most thought it. The pair gathered themselves, drew deep breaths—and saw Rand over the Maidens’ heads. Their eyes nearly popped out of their faces. Each man glanced sideways at the other, and then they were on their knees. One stared fixedly at the floor; the other squeezed his eyes shut, and Perrin heard him praying under his breath.

“So am I loved,” Rand said softly. He hardly sounded himself. Min touched his arm, her face pained. Rand patted her hand without looking at her, and for some reason that seemed to pain her even more.

The Grand Hall of the Sun was immense, with an angle-vaulted ceiling a full fifty paces high at its peak and great golden lamps hung on gilded chains thick enough to move the gates of a fortress. It was immense, and it was full, people crowding among massive square columns of blue-black veined marble that stood in two rows to either side of the center aisle. The folk at the rear noticed the newcomers first. In long coats and short, some in bright colors or embroidered, some travel-worn, they stared curiously. Intently. The few women in the back of the hall wore riding dresses and had faces as hard as the men, gazes as direct.

Hunters for the Horn, Perrin thought. Dobraine had said that every noble who could be there would, and most Hunters were nobly born, or claimed to be. Whether or not they recognized Rand, they sensed something, hands feeling for swords and daggers that were not there this evening. More Hunters than not sought adventure and a place in the histories along with the Horn of Valere. Even if they did not know the Dragon Re-born, they knew danger when they saw it.

The others in the Grand Hall were less attuned to danger, or rather, more to intrigues and plots than to open hazard. Perrin was a third of the way down the long center aisle, close on Rand’s heels, before gasps ran through the chamber like a wind. Pale Cairhienin lords with colorful slashes across the chests of their dark silk coats, some with the front of their heads shaved and powdered; Cairhienin ladies with stripes on their dark high-necked gowns and lace falls covering their hands, their hair in intricate towers that often added a good foot of height. Tairen High Lords and Lords of the Land with oiled beards trimmed to points, in velvet hats and coats of red and blue and every color, with puffy, satin-striped sleeves; Tairen ladies in even more colorful gowns, with wide lace ruffs and close caps studded with pearls and moonstones, firedrops and rubies. They knew Perrin, and they knew Dobraine and even Havien and Min, but most importantly, they knew Rand. A ripple of knowing that kept pace up the Hall with him. Eyes widening, jaws dropping, they went so stiff Perrin almost thought the Asha’man had bound them like the guards outside the palace. The chamber was a sea of sweet perfumes, and beneath that under-currents of salty sweat, but through it oozed fear, a quivering sort of smell.

His attention was all on the far end of the Hall, though, on the deep blue marble dais where the Sun Throne stood, shining like its namesake with gilt, the wavy-rayed Rising Sun huge atop the high back. Colavaere rose slowly, peering down the aisle over Rand’s head. Her nearly black dress bore not a single stripe of nobility, but the great mass of curls rising above her head had to have been dressed around the crown she wore, the Rising Sun in gold and yellow diamonds. Seven young women flanked the Sun Throne in dark-bodiced gowns with lace snugged under their chins and skirts striped vertically in Colavaere’s yellow and red and silver. It seemed that Cairhienin fashion was different for the Queen, and for the Queen’s attendants.

A flicker of motion behind the throne picked out an eighth woman, hidden, but Perrin cared about neither Colavaere nor anyone else except the woman to her immediate right. Faile. Her slightly tilted eyes fastened on him, dark liquid moons, yet not a line altered of her coolly decorous expression. If anything, her face grew tighter. His nose strained for the scent of her, but the perfume was too strong, and the fear. She had a reason for being there on the dais, a good reason. She did.

Rand touched Sulin’s sleeve. “Wait here,” he said. Scowling, the scar on her leathery face standing out as white as her hair, she scanned his face, then nodded with obvious reluctance. Her free hand gestured anyway, and another gasp ran through the chamber as the Maidens veiled. It was almost laughable; the eight men in black coats, trying to watch everywhere at once, could probably kill them all before the first Maiden drove home a spear, but no one knew who or what they were. No one looked at them twice, a handful of men with their swords sheathed. Only at the Maidens. And Rand. Hadn’t they noticed that not a one of those men sweated a drop more than Rand? Perrin felt as if he were bathing in his.

Stepping past the Maidens with Min still close beside him, Rand stopped as first Perrin, then Dobraine and Havien joined him. And Aram, of course, like Perrin’s shadow. Rand studied them each in turn, nodding slowly. He studied Perrin longest, and took the longest time to nod. The gray-haired Cairhienin and the young Mayener wore faces like death. Perrin did not know how his own looked, but his jaw was locked tight. No one was going to harm Faile, no matter what she had done, no matter why. No matter what he had to do to stop it.

Their boots drummed loud in the silence as they crossed the huge golden mosaic of the Rising Sun in the blue-tiled floor and approached the throne. Hands gripping her skirts, Colavaere wet her lips, and her eyes darted between Rand and the doors behind him.

“Looking for Aes Sedai?” Rand’s voice echoed. He smiled unpleasantly. “I sent them to the Aiel camp. If the Aiel can’t teach them manners, no one can.” A shocked murmur rose, and fell raggedly. Fear became stronger than the perfumes in Perrin’s nose.

Colavaere gave a start. “Why would I—?” Drawing a deep breath, she gathered dignity. A more than handsome woman in her middle years, without a touch of gray in her dark hair, she bore a regal presence that had nothing to do with the crown. She had been born to command; to reign, so she thought. And her eyes, weighing and measuring, betrayed a hard intelligence. “My Lord Dragon,” she said, making a curtsy so deep it nearly mocked itself, “I welcome you back. Cairhien welcomes you back.” The way she said it, she seemed to be repeating herself.

Slowly Rand climbed the steps of the dais. Min half-made to follow him, then folded her arms. Perrin did follow, to be nearer Faile, but only partway. It was her gaze that stopped him. A gaze that probed every bit as much as Colavaere’s. At him as much as at Rand. Perrin wished he could smell her. Not to try discovering why or what, just for the smell of her. The wash of perfumes and fright was too great. Why did she not speak? Why did she not come to him? Or smile? Just a smile.

Colavaere stiffened a splinter’s worth, but only that. Her head came no more than level with Rand’s chest, though her towered hair rose almost as tall as he. His eyes slid from her face and along the women lined up on either side of the throne. He might have paused on Faile. Perrin could not be sure.

Rand rested his hand on one heavy arm of the Sun Throne. “You know I mean this for Elayne Trakand.” His voice was emotionless.

“My Lord Dragon,” Colavaere replied smoothly, “Cairhien had been too long without a ruler. A Cairhienin ruler. You yourself said you have no interest in the Sun Throne for yourself. Elayne Trakand would have had some claim,” a small, quick gesture dismissed such a claim, “if she were alive. Rumor says she is dead, like her mother.” A dangerous thing to say. A good many rumors said Rand had killed both mother and daughter. The woman was no coward.

“Elayne is alive.” The words were still flat as a planed board, but Rand’s eyes burned. Perrin could not pick out his smell any more than Faile’s, but he did not need his nose to know rage bottled right in front of him. “She will have the crowns of Andor, and of Cairhien.”

“My Lord Dragon, what is done cannot be undone. If anything has offended you—”

For all her dignity, all her courage, Colavaere made a visible effort not to flinch as Rand reached out and took hold of the Sun Crown. There was a loud crack of metal snapping, and the crown flexed, hardly disarraying her tower of curls as it pulled away, slowly straightening. A few of the brilliant yellow stones popped from their settings and fell. He held up the stretched arc of metal, and slowly it bent back on itself until the ends met, and... Maybe the Asha’man could see what happened, could understand, but to Perrin, one moment the crown was broken, the next it was whole again. No one among the nobles made a sound, not even a shuffling of boots; Perrin thought they might be afraid to. To his nose, stark terror was stronger than any other scent now. It did not quiver; it spasmed wildly.

“Whatever can be done,” Rand said softly, “can be undone.”

Colavaere’s face drained of blood. The few wisps of hair that had escaped her coiffure made her seem wild, at bay. Swallowing, she opened her mouth twice before any words came out. “My Lord Dragon...” It was a breathy whisper, but as she went on, her voice became stronger. And edged with desperation. She seemed to forget anyone else was present. “I have kept the laws you made, maintained your policies. Even those that go against the ancient laws of Cairhien, against all custom.” She probably meant the laws that had let a noble kill a farmer or craftsman and walk away. “My Lord Dragon, the Sun Throne is yours to give. I... know that. I—I was wrong to take it without your leave. But I have the right to it, by birth and blood. If I must have it from your hand, then give it to me, by your hand. I have the right!” Rand only looked at her; he said nothing. He seemed to be listening, but not to her.

Perrin cleared his throat. Why was Rand dragging this out? It was done, or nearly. Let whatever else had to be done, be done. Then he could take Faile away, where they could talk. “Did you have the right to murder Lord Maringil and High Lord Meilan?” Perrin demanded. There was no doubt in his mind she had had it done; they had been her biggest rivals for the throne. Or she, and they, thought they were, anyway. Why was Rand just standing there? He knew all of this. “Where is Berelain?”

Before the name was off his tongue he wanted to call it back. Faile only glanced at him, her face still a cool mask of propriety, but that glance could have set water aflame. “A jealous wife is like a hornets’ nest in your mattress,” the saying went. No matter how you twitched, you got stung.

“You dare accuse me of so vile a crime?” Colavaere demanded. “There is no proof. There can be no proof! Not when I am innocent.” Abruptly she seemed to become aware of where she was, of the nobles crowded shoulder-to-shoulder among the columns, watching and listening. Whatever else could be said of her, she did have courage. Standing straight, she did her best to stare Rand in the eye without tilting her head too far back. “My Lord Dragon, eight days ago at sunrise I was crowned Queen of Cairhien according to the laws and usages of Cairhien. I will keep my oath of fealty to you, but I am Queen of Cairhien.” Rand only stared at her, silent. And troubled, Perrin would have said. “My Lord Dragon, I am Queen, unless you would rip all our laws away.” Still silence from Rand, and an unblinking stare.

Why doesn’t he end it? Perrin wondered.

“These charges against me are false. They are mad!” Only that silent stare for answer. Colavaere moved her head uneasily. “Annoura, advise me. Come, Annoura! Advise me!”

Perrin thought she spoke to one of the women with Faile, but the woman who stepped from behind the throne did not wear the striped skirts of an attendant. A broad face with a wide mouth and a beak of a nose regarded Rand from beneath dozens of long thin dark braids. An ageless face. To Perrin’s surprise, Havien made a sound in his throat and began grinning. His own hackles were standing straight.

“I cannot do this, Colavaere,” the Aes Sedai said in a Taraboner accent, shifting her gray-fringed shawl. “I fear I have allowed you to misperceive my relationship to you.” Drawing a deep breath, she added, “There... there is no need for this, Master al’Thor.” Her voice became slightly unsteady for a moment. “Or my Lord Dragon, if you prefer. I assure you, I harbor no ill intentions toward you. If I did, I would have struck before you knew I was here.”

“You might well have died if you had.” Rand’s voice was icy steel; his face made it seem soft. “I’m not who has you shielded, Aes Sedai. Who are you? Why are you here? Answer me! I don’t have much patience with... your kind. Unless you want to be hauled out to the Aiel camp? I wager the Wise Ones can make you speak freely.”

This Annoura was not slow-witted. Her eyes darted to Aram, then to the aisle where the Asha’man stood. And she knew. They had to be who he meant, in their black coats, grim faces dry when every other but hers and Rand’s glistened. Young Jahar was watching her like a hawk watching a rabbit. Incongruously, Loial stood in the midst of them with his axe propped against his shoulder. One big hand managed to hold an ink bottle and an open book, pressed awkwardly against his chest, while the other scribbled as fast as he could dip a pen fatter than Perrin’s thumb. He was taking notes. Here!

The nobles heard Rand as well as Annoura did. They had been watching the veiled Maidens uneasily; now they crowded back from the Asha’man, pressing together like fish in a barrel. Here and there someone sagged in a faint, held up by the throng.

Shivering, Annoura adjusted her shawl, and regained all the vaunted Aes Sedai composure. “I am Annoura Larisen, my Lord Dragon. Of the Gray Ajah.” Nothing about her said that she was shielded, and in the presence of men who could channel. She seemed to answer as a favor. “I am the advisor to Berelain, First of Mayene.” So that was why Havien was grinning like a madman; he had recognized the woman. Perrin did not feel like grinning at all. “This has been kept secret, you understand,” she went on, “because of the attitude of Tear both toward Mayene and toward Aes Sedai, but I think me the time for secrets, it is past, yes?” Annoura turned to Colavaere, and her mouth firmed. “I let you think what you would think, but Aes Sedai do not become advisors simply because someone tells them they are. Most especially when they already advise someone else.”

“If Berelain confirms your story,” Rand said, “I will parole you to her custody.” Looking at the crown, he seemed to realize for the first time that the spray of gold and gems was still in his hand. Very gently he set it on the silk-covered seat of the Sun Throne. “I don’t think every Aes Sedai is my enemy, not entirely, but I won’t be schemed against, and I won’t be manipulated, not anymore. It’s your choice, Annoura, but if you make the wrong one, you will go to the Wise Ones. If you live long enough. I won’t hobble the Asha’man, and a mistake could cost you.”

“The Asha’man,” Annoura said calmly. “I quite understand.” But she touched her lips with her tongue.

“My Lord Dragon, Colavaere plotted to break her oath of fealty.” Perrin had wished so hard for Faile to speak that he jumped when she did, stepping out of the line of attendants. Choosing her words carefully, she confronted the would-be queen like a stooping eagle. Light, but she was beautiful! “Colavaere swore to obey you in all things and uphold your laws, but she has made plans to rid Cairhien of the Aiel, to send them south and return all to as it was before you came. She also said that if you ever returned, you would not dare change anything she had done. The woman she told these things, Maire, was one of her attendants. Maire vanished soon after telling me. I have no proof, but I believe she is dead. I believe Colavaere regretted revealing too much of her mind, too soon.”

Dobraine strode up the steps to the dais, his helmet under his arm. His face might have been cold iron. “Colavaere Saighan,” he announced in a formal voice that carried to every corner of the Grand Hall, “by my immortal soul, under the Light, I, Dobraine, High Seat of House Taborwin, do arraign and censure you of treason, the penalty for which is death.”

Rand’s head went back, eyes closed. His mouth moved slightly, but Perrin knew that only he and Rand heard what was said. “No. I cannot. I will not.” Perrin understood the delay now. Rand was searching for a way out. Perrin wished he could see one.

Colavaere certainly did not hear, but she wanted a way out, too. She looked around wildly, to the Sun Throne, to her other attendants, to the assembled nobility, as though they might step forward to defend her. Their feet could as well have been set in cement; a sea of carefully blank, sweaty faces confronted her, and eyes that avoided hers. Some of those eyes rolled toward the Asha’man, but not too openly. The already considerable space between nobles and Asha’man widened noticeably.

“Lies!” she hissed, hands knotted in her skirts. “All lies! You sneaking little—!” She took a step toward Faile. Rand stretched his arm between them, though Colavaere appeared not to see it, and Faile looked as though she wished he had not. Anyone who attacked her was in for a surprise.

“Faile does not lie!” Perrin growled. Well, not about something like this.

Once again Colavaere recovered herself. Slight as her height was, she drew up every inch of it. Perrin almost admired her. Except for Meilan, and Maringil, and this Maire, and the Light alone knew how many others. “I demand justice, my Lord Dragon.” Her voice was calm, stately. Royal. “There is no proof of any of this... this filth. A claim that someone who is no longer in Cairhien says I spoke words I never did? I demand the Lord Dragon’s justice. By your own laws, there must be proof.”

“How do you know she is no longer in Cairhien?” Dobraine demanded. “Where is she?”

“I assume she has gone.” She addressed her answer to Rand. “Maire left my service, and I replaced her with Reale, there.” She gestured toward the third attendant on the left: “I have no idea where she is. Bring her forward if she is in the city, and let her make these ridiculous charges to my face. I will fling her lies in her face.” Faile looked murder at her. Perrin hoped she would not produce one of those knives she kept hidden about her; she had a habit of doing that when she became angry enough.

Annoura cleared her throat. She had been studying Rand much too closely for Perrin’s comfort. She reminded him of Verin suddenly, that look of a bird examining a worm. “May I speak, Master... ah... my Lord Dragon?” At his curt nod, she went on, adjusting her shawl. “Of young Maire, I know nothing except that one morning she was here, and before nightfall, she was nowhere to be found and none knew where she had gone. But Lord Maringil and High Lord Meilan, they are a different matter. The First of Mayene, she brought with her two most excellent thief-catchers, men experienced in ferreting out crimes. They have brought before me two of the men who waylaid the High Lord Meilan in the streets, though both insist they only held his arms while others did the stabbing. Also they brought me the servant who put poison in the spiced wine Lord Maringil liked to drink at bedtime. She also protests her true innocence; her invalid mother would have died, and she herself, had Lord Maringil not. So she says, and in her case, I believe she speaks truly. Her solace at confession was not false, I think. Both the men and the woman agree in this: the orders for their actions came from the mouth of Lady Colavaere herself.”

Word by word the defiance leached out of Colavaere. She still stood, yet it seemed a wonder; she appeared as limp as a damp rag. “They promised,” she mumbled to Rand. “They promised you would never return.” Too late, she clamped both hands over her mouth. Her eyes bulged. Perrin wished he could not hear the sounds coming from her throat. No one should make sounds like that.

“Treason and murder.” Dobraine sounded satisfied. Those whimpered screams did not touch him. “The penalty is the same, my Lord Dragon. Death. Except, by your new law, it is hanging for murder.” For some reason, Rand looked at Min. She returned his gaze with profound sadness. Not for Colavaere. For Rand. Perrin wondered whether a viewing was involved.

“I—I demand the headsman,” Colavaere managed in a strangled voice. Her face sagged. She had become old on the spot, and her eyes were mirrors of stark terror. But with nothing left, she fought on, for the scraps. “It is—it is my right. I will not be... hanged like some commoner!”

Rand seemed to struggle with himself, shaking his head in that disturbing way. When he spoke at last, his words were winter cold and anvil hard. “Colavaere Saighan, I strip you of your titles.” He drove the words like nails. “I strip of you of your lands and estates and possessions, of everything but the dress you stand in. Do you own—did you own a farm? A small farm?”

Each sentence staggered the woman. She swayed drunkenly on her feet, soundlessly mouthing the word “farm” as if she had never heard it before. Annoura, Faile, everyone stared at Rand in amazement or curiosity or both. Perrin not least. A farm? If there had been silence in the Grand Hall before, now it seemed that no one even breathed.

“Dobraine, did she own a small farm?”

“She owns... owned... many farms, my Lord Dragon,” the Cairhienin replied slowly. Clearly he understood no more than Perrin did. “Most are large. But the lands near the Dragonwall have always been divided into smallholdings, less than fifty hides. All of the tenants abandoned them during the Aiel War.”

Rand nodded. “Time to change that. Too much land has lain fallow too long. I want to move people back there, to farm again. Dobraine, you will find out which farm of those Colavaere owned near the Dragonwall is the smallest. Colavaere, I exile you to that farm. Dobraine will see you’re provided with what is needed to make a farm work, and with someone to teach you how to till the soil. And with guards to see that you never go farther from it than you can walk in a day, so long as you live. See to it, Dobraine. In a week I want her on her way.” A bewildered Dobraine hesitated before nodding. Perrin could catch murmurs from the assembly behind him now. This was unheard of. None understood why she was not to die. And the rest! Estates had been confiscated before, but never all, never nobility itself. Nobles had been exiled, even for life, but never to a farm.

Colavaere’s response was immediate. Eyes rolling up in her head, she collapsed, crumpling backward toward the steps.

Perrin darted to catch her, but someone was ahead of him. Before he had taken a full step, her fall simply stopped. She slumped in midair, slanting over the steps to the dais, head dangling. Slowly, her unconscious form rose, swung around and settled gently in front of the Sun Throne. Rand. Perrin was sure the Asha’man would have let her fall.

Annoura tsked. She did not appear surprised, or perturbed, except that her thumbs rubbed her forefingers nervously. “I suspect she would have preferred the headsman. I will see to her if you have your man, your... Asha’man...”

“She’s not your concern,” Rand said roughly. “She is alive, and... She is alive.” He drew a long, ragged breath. Min was there before he let it out; she only stood near him, yet she looked as if she wanted to do something more. Slowly his face firmed. “Annoura, you will take me to Berelain. Release her, Jahar; she’ll be no trouble. Not with one of her and nine of us. I want to find out what has been going on while I was away, Annoura. And what Berelain means bringing you here behind my back. No, don’t speak. I’ll hear it from her. Perrin, I know you want some time with Faile. I—”

Rand’s gaze swept slowly around the hall, over all the nobles waiting silently. Under his stare, none dared move a muscle. The scent of fear far outweighed any other, convulsing sharply. Except for the Hunters, everyone there had given him the same oath as had Colavaere. Perhaps just being in this gathering was treason, too? Perrin did not know.

“This audience is at an end,” Rand said. “I will forget every face that departs now.”

Those at the front, the highest-ranking, the most powerful, began their progress toward the doors without too much haste, avoiding the Maidens and the Asha’man standing in the aisle, while the rest waited their turn. Every mind must have been turning over what Rand had said, though. What precisely did he mean by “now”? Purposeful strides quickened, skirts were lifted. Hunters, nearest the doors, began slipping out, first one at a time, then in a flood, and seeing them, lesser nobles among the Cairhienin and Tairens darted ahead of the higher. In moments it was a milling mass at the doors, men and women pushing and elbowing to get out. Not one looked back at the woman stretched out before the throne she had held so briefly.

Old Fear, and New Fear

Rand passed through the struggling mob without any difficulty, of  course. Maybe it was the presence of the Maidens and the Asha’man, or maybe Rand or one of the black-coated fellows did something with the Power, but the crowd parted for him, with Min holding to his arm, and a very subdued Annoura attempting to speak to him, and Loial, who was still trying with some difficulty to write in his book and carry his axe. Staring at one another, Perrin and Faile missed their chance to join them before the crowd closed up again.

She said nothing for a time, and neither did he, not what he wanted to say, not with Aram there, staring at them like some worshipful hound. And Dobraine, frowning down at the unconscious woman put in his charge. No one else remained on the dais. Havien had gone with Rand, to find Berelain, and as soon as Rand went, the other attendants had darted away toward the doors without a second glance at Perrin or Faile. Or Colavaere. Without the first glance, for that matter. They just lifted their striped skirts and ran. Grunts and curses drifted from the pack, not all in men’s voices. Even with Rand gone, those people wanted to be elsewhere, and now. Perhaps they thought Perrin stayed to watch and report, though had any glanced back, they would have seen his eyes were not on them.

Climbing the rest of the way, he took Faile’s hand and breathed in the scent of her. This close, the lingering perfumes did not matter. Anything else could wait. She produced a red lace fan from somewhere, and before spreading it to cool herself, touched first her cheek, then his. There was a whole language of fans in her native Saldaea. She had taught him a little. He wished he knew what the cheek-touching meant; it must be something good. On the other hand, her scent carried a spiky shading he knew too well.

“He should have sent her to the block,” Dobraine muttered, and Perrin shrugged uncomfortably. From the man’s tone, it was not clear whether he meant that that was what the law called for or that it would have been more merciful. Dobraine did not understand. Rand could have sprouted wings first.

Faile’s fan slowed to barely moving, and she eyed Dobraine sideways over the crimson lace. “Her death might be best for everyone. That is the prescribed penalty. What will you do, Lord Dobraine?” Sidelong or not, it still managed to be very direct, a very meaningful gaze.

Perrin frowned. Not a word for him, but questions for Dobraine? And there was that undertone of jealousy in her aroma, making him sigh.

The Cairhienin gave her a level look in return while thrusting his gauntlets behind his sword belt. “What I was commanded to do. I keep my oaths, Lady Faile.”

The fan snapped open and shut, faster than thought. “He actually sent Aes Sedai to the Aiel? As prisoners?” Disbelief tinged her voice.

“Some, Lady Faile.” Dobraine hesitated. “Some swore fealty on their knees. This I saw with my own eyes. They went to the Aiel, too, but I do not think they can be called prisoners.”

“I saw it, too, my Lady,” Aram put in from his place on the steps, and a wide smile split his face when she glanced at him.

Red lace described a fluttering hitch. What she did with the fan seemed almost unconscious. “You both saw.” The relief in her voice—and in her scent—was so strong that Perrin stared.

“What did you think, Faile? Why would Rand lie, especially when everyone would know in a day?”

Instead of answering immediately, she frowned down at Colavaere. “Is she still under? Not that it matters, I suppose. She knows more than I would say here. Everything we worked so hard to keep hidden. She let that slip to Maire, too. She knows too much.”

Dobraine thumbed one of Colavaere’s eyes open none too gently. “As if hit with a mace. A pity she did not break her neck on the steps. But she will go to her exile and learn to live as a farmer.” A brief, jaggedy, vexed smell wafted from Faile.

Abruptly it hit Perrin what his wife had been proposing so obliquely; what Dobraine had rejected just as indirectly. Every hair on his body tried to stand. From the start he had known that he had married a very dangerous woman. Just not how dangerous. Aram was peering at Colavaere, his lips pursed in dark thought; the man would do anything for Faile.

“I don’t think Rand would like it if anything prevented her reaching that farm,” Perrin said firmly, eyeing Aram and Faile in turn. “I wouldn’t like it, either.” He felt rather proud of himself. That was talking around the point as well as any of them.

Aram bowed his head briefly—he understood—but Faile tried to look innocent above her gently fluttering fan, with no notion what he was talking about. Suddenly he realized not all the fear scent came from the people still milling at the door. A thin, quivering thread of it wafted from her. Fear under control, yet it was there.

“What’s the matter, Faile? Light, you’d think Coiren and that lot had won instead of...” Her face did not change, but the thread grew thicker. “Is that why you didn’t say anything at first?” he asked softly. “Were you afraid we had come back as puppets, and them pulling the strings?”

She eyed the rapidly diminishing crowd across the Grand Hall. The nearest of them was a long way, and all making a good deal of noise, but she lowered her voice even so. “Aes Sedai can do that sort of thing, I’ve heard. My husband, no one knows more than I that even Aes Sedai would find hard times trying to make you dance for a puppet, much harder than a man who’s just the Dragon Reborn, but when you walked in here, I was more afraid than at any time since you left.” Amusement trickled through in the first of that, like tiny bubbles in his nose, and warm fondness, and love, the smell of her, clear and pure and strong, but all of those faded by the end, leaving that thin trembling thread.

“Light, Faile, it’s true. Every word Rand said. You heard Dobraine, and Aram.” She smiled, and nodded, and worked her fan. That thread still quivered in his nostrils, though. Blood and ashes, what does it take to convince her? “Would it help if he had Verin dance the sa’sara? She will, if he tells her to.” He meant it for a joke. All he knew of the sa’sara was that it was scandalous—and that Faile had once admitted knowing how to dance it, though recently she sidestepped and all but denied it. He meant it for a joke, but she closed her fan and tapped it on her wrist. He knew that one: I am giving your suggestion serious thought.

“I don’t know what would be enough, Perrin.” She shivered slightly. “Is there anything an Aes Sedai would not do, or put up with, if the White Tower told her to? I have studied my history, and I was taught to read between the lines. Mashera Donavelle bore seven children for a man she loathed, whatever the stories say, and Isebaille Tobanyi delivered the brothers she loved to their enemies and the throne of Arad Doman with them, and Jestian Redhill...” She shivered again, not so slightly.

“It’s all right,” he murmured, wrapping her in his arms. He had studied several books of history himself, but he had never seen those names. The daughter of a lord received a different education from a blacksmith’s apprentice. “It really is true.” Dobraine averted his eyes, and so did Aram, though with a pleased grin.

She resisted at first, but not very hard. He could never be sure when she would avoid a public embrace and when welcome it, only that if she did not want one, she made it clear in no uncertain terms, with or without words. This time she snuggled her face into his chest and hugged him back, squeezing harder.

“If any Aes Sedai ever harms you,” she whispered, “I will kill her.” He believed her. “You belong to me, Perrin t’Bashere Aybara. To me.” He believed that, too. As her hug grew fiercer, so did the thorny scent of jealousy. He almost chuckled. It seemed the right to put a knife in him was reserved to her. He would have chuckled, except that filament of fear remained. That, and what she had said about Maire. He could not smell himself, but he knew what was there. Fear. Old fear, and new fear, for the next time.

The last of the nobles forced their way from the Grand Hall, without anyone being trampled. Sending Aram off to tell Dannil to bring the Two Rivers men into the city—and wondering how he was going to feed them—Perrin offered Faile his arm and led her out, leaving Dobraine with Colavaere, who was finally showing signs of awakening. He had no wish to be around when she woke, and Faile, with her hand on his wrist, seemed not to either. They walked quickly, eager to reach their rooms, if not necessarily for the same reasons.

The nobles apparently had not stopped their flight once they were out of the Grand Hall. The corridors were empty except for servants who kept their eyes down and moved at a silent rush, but before they had gone very far, Perrin caught the sound of footsteps and realized they were being followed. It seemed unlikely that Colavaere had any open supporters still, but if there were any, they might think to strike at Rand through his friend, walking alone with his wife while the Dragon Reborn was elsewhere.

Only, when Perrin spun about, hand to his axe, he stared instead of drawing the weapon. It was Selande and her friends from the entry hall, with eight or nine new faces. They gave a start when he turned, and exchanged abashed glances. Some were Tairens, including a woman who stood taller than all but one of the Cairhienin men. She wore a man’s coat and tight breeches, just like Selande and the rest of the women, with a sword on her hip. He had not heard that this nonsense had spread to the Tairens.

“Why are you following us?” he demanded. “If you try to make me any of your woolhead trouble, I vow I’ll kick the lot of you from here to Bel Tine!” He had had problems before with these idiots, or some just like them, anyway. All they thought about was their honor, and fighting duels, and taking one another gai’shain. That last really set the Aiel’s teeth on edge.

“Attend my husband and obey,” Faile put in sharply. “He is not a man to be trifled with.” Gawking stares vanished, and they backed away, bowing, competing over flourishes. They were still at it when they vanished around a turn.

“Bloody young buffoons,” Perrin muttered, offering Faile his wrist again.

“My husband is wise in his years,” she murmured. Her tone was utterly serious; her smell was something else again.

Perrin managed not to snort. True, a few of them might be a year or two older than he, but they all were like children with their playing at Aiel. Now, with Faile in a good mood, seemed as good a time as any to begin what they had to talk about. What he had to talk about. “Faile, how did you come to be one of Colavaere’s attendants?”

“The servants, Perrin.” She spoke softly; nobody two steps away could have heard a word. She knew all about his hearing, and the wolves. That was nothing a man could keep from his wife. Her fan touched her ear, admonishing caution in speech. “Too many people forget servants are there, but servants listen too. In Cairhien, they listen far too much.”

None of the liveried people he saw were doing any listening. The few who did not duck down side corridors when they saw him and Faile went by at a near run, gazes on the floor and gathered in on themselves. Any sort of news spread quickly in Cairhien. Events in the Grand Hall would have flown. The word was in the streets by now, probably on its way out of the city already. Without any doubt there were eyes-and-ears in Cairhien for the Aes Sedai, and the Whitecloaks, and likely more thrones than not.

In that hushed voice, she went on despite her caution to him. “Colavaere could not be fast enough to take me in, once she learned who I am. My father’s name impressed her as much as my cousin’s.” She finished with a little nod, as if she had answered everything.

It was a good enough answer. Almost. Her father was Davram, High Seat of House Bashere, Lord of Bashere, Tyr and Sidona, Guardian of the Blightborder, Defender of the Heartland, and Marshal-General to Queen Tenobia of Saldaea. Faile’s cousin was Tenobia herself. More than reason for Colavaere to leap at Faile for one of her attendants. But he had had time to mull things over now, and he prided himself that he was becoming used to her ways. Married life taught a man about women; or about one woman, anyway. The answer she had not given, confirmed something. Faile had no concept of danger, not where she herself was concerned.

He could not speak of it there in the corridor, of course. Whisper how he would, she did not have his ears, and doubtless she would insist every servant within fifty paces was listening. Holding his patience, he walked on with her until they reached the rooms that had been set aside for them what seemed an age ago now. The lamps had been lit, making shimmers on the dark polished walls, each tall wooden panel carved in concentric rectangles. In the square stone fireplace the hearth was swept bare and laid with a few pitiful branches of leatherleaf. They were almost green.

Faile went straight to a small table where two golden pitchers stood beaded with moisture on a tray. “They have left us blueberry tea, my husband, and wine punch. The wine is from Tharon, I think. They cool the punch in the cisterns beneath the palace. Which would you prefer?”

Perrin unbuckled his belt and tossed belt and axe on a chair. He had planned out what he had to say very carefully on the way here. She could be a prickly woman. “Faile, I missed you more than I can say, and worried about you, but—”

“Worried about me!” she snapped, spinning to face him. She stood straight and tall, eyes fierce as those of her falcon namesake, and her fan made a coring motion toward his middle. Not part of the language of fans; she made the same gesture with a knife sometimes. “When almost the first words from your mouth were to ask after that... that woman!”

His jaw dropped. How could he have forgotten the smell filling his nostrils? He nearly put a hand up to see whether his nose was bleeding. “Faile, I wanted her thief-catchers. Be—” No, he was not stupid enough to repeat that name. “She said she had proof of the poison before I left. You heard her! I just wanted the proof, Faile.”

It did no good. That spiky stench softened not a whit, and the thin, sour smell of hurt joined it. What under the Light had he said to hurt her?

Her proof! What I gathered went for nothing, but her proof put Colavaere’s head on the block. Or should have.” That was his opening, but she was not about to let him push a word in edgewise. She advanced on him, looking daggers, her fan darting like one. All he could do was back away. “Do you know what story that woman put about?” Faile almost hissed. A black viper could not have dripped so much venom. “Do you? She said the reason you were not here was that you were at a manor not far from the city. Where she could visit you! I told the story I prepared—that you were hunting, and the Light knows you spent enough days hunting!—but everyone believed I was putting a good face on you and her! Together! Colavaere delighted in it. I could believe she only took that Mayener strumpet as an attendant to throw the two of us together. ‘Faile, Berelain, come lace my gown.’ ‘Faile, Berelain, come hold the mirror for the hairdresser.’ ‘Faile, Berelain, come wash my back.’ So she could amuse herself waiting for us to claw one another’s eyes out! That is what I have put up with! For you, you hairy-eared—!”

His back thumped against the wall. And something snapped inside him. He had been frightened spitless for her, terrified, ready to face down Rand or the Dark One himself. And he had done nothing, had never encouraged Berelain, had done everything in his wits to chase the woman away. For which his thanks was this.

Gently he took her by the shoulders and lifted her until those big tilted eyes were level with his. “You listen to me,” he said calmly. He tried to make his voice calm, at least; it came out more of a growl in his throat. “How dare you speak to me like that? How dare you? I worried myself near to death for fear you’d been hurt. I love you, and nobody else but you. I want no other woman but you. Do you hear me? Do you?” Crushing her to his chest, he held her, wanting to never let her go. Light, he had been so afraid. He shook even now, for what might have been. “If anything happened to you, I’d die, Faile. I would lie down on your grave and die! Do you think I don’t know how Colavaere found out who you are? You made sure she found out.” Spying, she had told him once, was a wife’s work. “Light, woman, you could have ended like Maire. Colavaere knows you’re my wife. My wife. Perrin Aybara, Rand al’Thor’s friend. Did it ever occur to you she might be suspicious? She could have... Light, Faile, she could have...”

Abruptly he realized what he was doing. She was making sounds against his chest, but no words he could recognize. He wondered that he did not hear her ribs creaking. Berating himself for an oaf, he let her go, arms springing apart, but before he could apologize, her fingers clutched his beard.

“So you love me?” she said softly. Very softly. Very warmly. She was smiling, too. “A woman likes to hear that said the right way.” She had dropped the fan, and her free hand drew fingernails down his cheek, not far from hard enough to draw blood, but her throaty laugh held heat, and the smoldering in her eyes was as far from anger as possible. “A good thing you didn’t say you never looked at another woman, or I would think you had gone blind.”

He was too stunned for words, too stunned even to gape. Rand understood women, Mat understood women, but Perrin knew he never would. She was always as much kingfisher as falcon, changing direction faster than he could think, yet this... That thorny scent was gone completely, and in its place was another smell of her he knew well. A smell that was her, pure and strong and clean. Add that to her eyes, and any moment she was going to say something about farmgirls at harvest. They were notorious, apparently, Saldaean farmgirls.

“As for you lying down on my grave,” she went on, “if you do, my soul will haunt yours, I promise you. You will mourn me a decent time, and then you’ll find yourself another wife. Someone I’d approve of, I hope.” With a soft laugh, she stroked his beard. “You really aren’t fit to take care of yourself, you know. I want your promise.”

Best not to crack his teeth on that. Say he would not, and this wonderful mood might be swallowed in a firestorm. Quicksilver was not in it, really. Say he would... By the smell of her, every word was the Light’s pure truth, but he would believe that when horses roosted in trees. He cleared his throat. “I need to bathe. I haven’t seen soap in I don’t know how long. I must smell like an old barn.”

Leaning against his chest, she drew a deep breath. “You smell wonderful. Like you.” Her hands moved on his shoulders. “I feel as—” The door banged open.

“Perrin, Berelain isn’t—I’m sorry. Forgive me.” Rand stood shifting his feet, not at all like the Dragon Reborn. There were Maidens in the hallway outside. Min put her head around the doorframe, took one look, grinned at Perrin and ducked back out of sight.

Faile stepped away so smoothly, so stately, that no one would ever have guessed what she had been saying a moment before. Or what she had been about to say. There were spots of color in her cheeks, though, bright and hot. “So kind of you, my Lord Dragon,” she said coolly, “to drop in so unexpectedly. I apologize for not hearing your knock.” Maybe those blushes were as much anger as embarrassment.

It was Rand’s turn to blush, and scrub a hand through his hair. “Bere-lain isn’t in the palace. She’s spending the night on that Sea Folk ship anchored in the river, of all things. Annoura didn’t tell me till I was nearly to Berelain’s apartments.”

Perrin tried very hard not to wince. Why did he have to keep saying the woman’s name? “You wanted to talk to me about something else, Rand?” He hoped he had not put too much emphasis in that, yet he hoped Rand caught it. He did not look at Faile, but he tested the air gingerly. No jealousy, not yet. A good deal of anger, however.

For a moment Rand stared at him, looked through him. Listening to something else. Perrin folded his arms to stop from shuddering.

“I need to know,” Rand said finally. “Are you still unwilling to command the army against Illian? I have to know now.”

“I’m no general,” Perrin said raggedly. There would be battles in Illian. Images flashed in his head. Men all around him, and the axe in his hands spinning, hewing his way through. Always more men, however many he cut down, in endless ranks. And in his heart, a seed growing. He could not face that again. He would not. “Besides, I thought I was supposed to stay close to you.” That was what Min had said, from one of her viewings. Twice Perrin had to be there, or Rand would go down to disaster. Once had been Dumai’s Wells, maybe, but there was still another to come.

“We all must take risks.” Rand’s voice was very quiet. And very hard. Min peered around the doorframe again, looking as if she wanted to come to him, but she glanced at Faile and stayed outside.

“Rand, the Aes Sedai...” A smart man would let this lie, probably. He had never claimed to be particularly smart, though. “The Wise Ones are ready to skin them alive, or near enough. You can’t let them be harmed, Rand.” In the corridor, Sulin turned to study him through the doorway.

The man he thought he knew laughed, a wheezing sound. “We all have to take risks,” he repeated.

“I won’t let them be hurt, Rand.”

Cold blue eyes met his gaze. “You won’t let it?”

I won’t,” Perrin told him levelly. He did not flinch from that stare, either. “They are prisoners, and no threat. They’re women.”

“They are Aes Sedai.” Rand’s voice was so like Aram’s back at Dumai’s Wells that it nearly took Perrin’s breath.


“I do what I have to do, Perrin.” For a moment he was the old Rand, not liking what was happening. For a moment he looked tired to death. A moment only. Then he was the new Rand again, hard enough to mark steel. “I won’t harm any Aes Sedai who doesn’t deserve it, Perrin. I can’t promise more. Since you don’t want the army, I can use you elsewhere. Just as well, really. I wish I could let you rest longer than a day or two, but I can’t. There’s no time. No time, and we must do what we must. Forgive me for interrupting you.” He sketched a bow, one hand on the hilt of his sword. “Faile.”

Perrin tried to catch his arm, but he was out of the room, the door closing behind him, before Perrin could move. Rand was not really Rand anymore, it seemed. A day or two? Where in the Light did Rand mean him to go, if not to the army gathering down on the Plains of Maredo?

“My husband,” Faile breathed, “you have the courage of three men. And the sense of a child on leading strings. Why is it that as a man’s courage goes up, his sense goes down?”

Perrin grunted indignantly. He refrained from mentioning women who set themselves to spy on people who had committed murders and almost certainly knew they were spying. Women always talked about how logical they were compared to men, but for himself, he had seen precious little of it.

“Well, perhaps I don’t really want the answer even if you know it.” Stretching with her arms over her head, she gave a throaty laugh. “Besides, I don’t mean to let him spoil the mood. I still feel as forward as a farmgirl at—Why are you laughing? Stop laughing at me, Perrin t’Bashere Aybara! Stop it, I say, you uncouth oaf! If you don’t—”

The only way to put an end to it was to kiss her. In her arms he forgot Rand and Aes Sedai and battles. Where Faile was, was home.

Pitfalls and Tripwires

Rand felt the Dragon Scepter in his hand, felt every line of the carved Dragons against his heron-branded palm as clearly as if he were running his fingers over them, yet it seemed someone else’s hand. If a blade cut it off, he would feel the pain—and keep going. It would be another’s pain.

He floated in the Void, surrounded by emptiness beyond knowing, and saidin filled him, trying to grind him to dust beneath steel-shattering cold and heat where stone would flash to flame, carrying the Dark One’s taint on its flow, forcing corruption into his bones. Into his soul, he feared sometimes. It did not make him feel so sick to his stomach as it once had. He feared that even more. And larded through that torrent of fire, ice and filth—life. That was the best word. Saidin tried to destroy him. Saidin filled him to overflowing with vitality. It threatened to bury him, and it enticed him. The war for survival, the struggle to avoid being consumed, magnified the joy of pure life. So sweet even with the foulness. What would it be like, clean? Beyond imagining. He wanted to draw more, draw all there was.

There lay the deadly seduction. One slip, and the ability to channel would be seared out of him forever. One slip and his mind was gone, if he was not simply destroyed on the spot, and maybe everything around him too. It was not madness, focusing on the fight for existence; it was like highwalking blindfolded over a pit full of sharpened stakes, basking in so pure a sense of life that thinking of giving it up was like thinking of a world forever in shades of gray. Not madness.

His thoughts whirled through his dance with saidin, slid across the Void. Annoura, peering at him with that Aes Sedai gaze. What was Berelain playing at? She had never mentioned an Aes Sedai advisor. And those other Aes Sedai in Cairhien. Where had they come from, and why? The rebels outside the city. What had emboldened them to move? What did they intend now? How could he stop them, or use them? He was becoming good at using people; sometimes he made himself sick. Sevanna and the Shaido. Rhuarc already had scouts on the way to Kinslayer’s Dagger, but at best they could only find out where and when. The Wise Ones who could find out why, would not. There were a lot of why’s connected to Sevanna. Elayne, and Aviendha. No, he would not think of them. No thoughts of them. None. Perrin, and Faile. A fierce woman, falcon by name and nature. Had she really attached herself to Colavaere just to gather evidence? She would try to protect Perrin if the Dragon Reborn fell. Protect him from the Dragon Reborn, should she decide it necessary; her loyalties were to Perrin, but she would decide for herself how to meet them. Faile was no woman to do meekly as her husband told her, if such a woman existed. Golden eyes, staring challenge and defiance. Why was Perrin so vehement about the Aes Sedai? He had been a long time with Kiruna and her companions on the road to Dumai’s Wells. Could Aes Sedai really do with him what everybody feared? Aes Sedai. He shook his head without being aware. Never again. Never! To trust was to be betrayed; trust was pain.

He tried to push that thought away. It came a little too close to raving. Nobody could live without giving trust somewhere. Just not to Aes Sedai. Mat, Perrin. If he could not trust them... Min. Never a thought of not trusting Min. He wished she were with him, instead of snugged in her bed. All those days a prisoner, days of worry—more for him than herself, if he knew her—days of being questioned by Galina and ill-treated when her answers failed to please—unconsciously he ground his teeth—all of that, and the strain of being Healed on top of it, had caught up with her at last. She had stayed by his side until her legs gave way, and he had to carry her to her bedchamber, with her sleepily protesting all the way that he needed her with him. No Min here, no comforting presence to make him laugh, make him forget the Dragon Reborn. Only the war with saidin, and the whirlwind of his thoughts, and...

They must be done away with. You must do it. Don’t you remember the last time? That place by the wells was a pittance. Cities burned whole out of the earth were nothing. We destroyed the world! DO YOU HEAR ME? THEY HAVE TO BE KILLED, WIPED FROM THE FACE... !

Not his, that voice shouting inside his skull. Not Rand al’Thor. Lews Therin Telamon, more than three thousand years dead. And talking in Rand al’Thor’s head. The Power often drew him out of his hiding place in the shadows of Rand’s mind. Sometimes Rand wondered how that could be. He was Lews Therin reborn, the Dragon Reborn, no denying that, but everybody was someone reborn, a hundred someones, a thousand, more. That was how the Pattern worked; everyone died and was reborn, again and again as the Wheel turned, forever without end. But nobody else talked with who they used to be. Nobody else had voices in their heads. Except madmen.

What about me, Rand thought. One hand tightened on the Dragon Scepter, the other on his sword hilt. What about you? How are we different from them?

There was only silence. Often enough, Lews Therin did not answer. Maybe it had been better when he never had.

Are you real? the voice said at last, wonderingly. That denial of Rand’s existence was as usual as refusing to answer. Am I? I spoke to someone. I think I did. Inside a box. A chest. Wheezing laughter, soft. Am I dead, or mad, or both? No matter. I am surely damned. I am damned, and this is the Pit of Doom. I am... d-damned, wild, that laughing, now, and t-this—is the P-Pit of—

Rand muted the voice to an insect’s buzz, something he had learned while cramped into that chest. Alone, in the dark. Just him, and the pain, and the thirst, and the voice of a long-dead madman. The voice had been a comfort sometimes, his only companion. His friend. Something flashed in his mind. Not images, just flickers of color and motion. For some reason they made him think of Mat, and Perrin. The flashes had begun inside the chest, them and a thousand more hallucinations. In the chest, where Galina and Erian and Katerine and the rest stuffed him every day after he was beaten. He shook his head. No. He was not in the chest anymore. His fingers ached, clenched around scepter and hilt. Only memories remained, and memories had no force. He was not—

“If we must make this journey before you eat, let us make it. The evening meal is long finished for everyone else.”

Rand blinked, and Sulin stepped back from his stare. Sulin, who would stand eye-to-eye with a leopard. He smoothed his face, tried to. It felt a mask, somebody else’s face.

“Are you well?” she asked.

“I was thinking.” He made his hands unknot, shrugged inside his coat. A better-fitting coat than the one he had worn from Dumai’s Wells, dark blue and plain. Even after a bath he did not feel clean, not with saidin in him. “Sometimes I think too much.”

Nearly twenty more Maidens clustered at one end of the windowless, dark-paneled room. Eight gilded stand-lamps against the walls, mirrored to increase the light, provided illumination. He was glad of that; he did not like dark places anymore. Three of the Asha’man were there, too, the Aiel women to one side of the chamber, the Asha’man to the other. Jonan Adley, an Altaran despite his name, stood with his arms folded, working eyebrows like black caterpillars in deep thought. Perhaps four years older than Rand, he was intent on earning the silver sword of the Dedicated. Eben Hopwil carried more flesh on his bones and fewer blotches on his face than when Rand had first seen him, though his nose and ears still seemed the biggest part of him. He fingered the sword pin on his collar as if surprised to find it there. Fedwin Morr would have worn the sword as well, had he not been in a green coat suitable for a well-to-do merchant or a minor noble, with a little silver embroidery on cuffs and lapels. Of an age with Eben, but stockier and with almost no blotches, he did not look happy that his black coat was stuffed into the leather scrip by his feet. They were the ones Lews Therin had been raving about, them and all the rest of the Asha’man. Asha’man, Aes Sedai, anyone who could channel set him off, often as not.

“Think too much, Rand al’Thor?” Enaila gripped a short spear in one hand and her buckler and three more spears in the other, yet she sounded as if she were shaking a finger at him. The Asha’man frowned at her. “Your trouble is, you do not think at all.” Some of the other Maidens laughed softly, but she was not making a joke. Shorter than any other Maiden there by at least a hand, she had hair as fiery as her temper, and an odd view of her relationship to him. Her flaxen-haired friend Somara, who stood head and shoulders taller, nodded agreement; she held the same peculiar view.

He ignored the comment, but could not stop a sigh. Somara and Enaila were the worst, yet none of the Maidens could decide whether he was the Car’a’carn, to be obeyed, or the only child of a Maiden ever known to the Maidens, to be cared for as a brother, bullied as a son for a few. Even Jalani there, not many years from playing with dolls, seemed to think he was her younger brother, while Corana, graying and nearly as leather-faced as Sulin, treated him like an older. At least they only did that around themselves, not often where other Aiel could hear. When it counted, he would be the Car’a’carn. And he owed it to them. They died for him. He owed them whatever they wanted.

“I don’t intend to spend all night here while you lot play Kiss the Daisies,” he said. Sulin gave him one of those looks—in dresses or in cadin’sor, women tossed those looks about like farmers scattering seed—but the Asha’man abandoned staring at the Maidens and slung the straps of their scrips over their shoulders. Push them hard, he had told Taim, make them weapons, and Taim had delivered. A good weapon moved as the man who held it directed. If only he could be sure it would not turn in his hand.

He had three destinations tonight, but one of those the Maidens could not be allowed to know. No one but himself. Which of the other two came first he had decided earlier, yet he hesitated. The journey would be known soon enough, yet there were reasons to keep it secret as he could.

When the gateway opened there in the middle of the room, a sweetish smell familiar to any farmer drifted through. Horse dung. Wrinkling her nose as she veiled, Sulin led half the Maidens through at a trot. After a glance to him, the Asha’man followed, drawing deeply on the True Source as they went, as much as they could hold.

Because of that, he could feel their strength as they passed him. Without that, it took some effort to tell a man could channel, longer still unless he cooperated. None were near as strong as he. Not yet, anyway; there was no saying how strong a man would be until he stopped growing stronger. Fedwin stood highest of the three, but he had what Taim called a bar. Fedwin did not really believe he could affect anything at a distance with the Power. The result was that at fifty paces his ability began to fade, and at a hundred he could not weave even a thread of saidin. Men gained strength faster than women, it seemed, and a good thing. These three were all strong enough to make a gateway of useful size, if just barely in Jonan’s case. Every Asha’man was that he had kept.

Kill them before it is too late, before they go mad, Lews Therin whispered. Kill them, hunt down Sammael, and Demandred, and all the Forsaken. I have to kill them all, before it is too late! A moment of struggle as he attempted to wrest the Power away from Rand and failed. He seemed to try that more often of late, or to seize saidin on his own. The second was a bigger danger than the first. Rand doubted that Lews Therin could take the True Source away once Rand held it; he was not certain he could take it from Lews Therin, either, if the other reached it first.

What about me? Rand thought again. It was nearly a snarl, and no less vicious for falling short. Wrapped in the Power as he was, anger spider-webbed across the outside of the Void, a fiery lace. I can channel, too. Madness waits for me, but it already has you! You killed yourself, Kinslayer, after you murdered your wife and your children and the Light alone knows how many others. I won’t kill where I don’t have to! Do you hear me, Kinslayer? Silence answered.

He drew a deep, uneven breath. That web of fire flickered, lightning in the distance. He had never spoken to the man—it was the man, not just a voice; a man, entire with memories—never spoken to him like that before. Perhaps it might drive Lews Therin away for good. Half the man’s mad rantings were tears over his dead wife. Did he want to drive Lews Therin away? His only friend in that chest.

He had promised Sulin to count to one hundred before following, but he did it by fives, then stepped more than a hundred and fifty leagues to Caemlyn.

Night had closed down on the Royal Palace of Andor, moonshadows cloaking delicate spires and golden domes, but a gentle breeze did nothing to break the heat. The moon hung above, still almost full, giving some light. Veiled Maidens scurried around the wagons lined up behind the largest of the palace stables. The odor of the stable muck the wagons hauled away every day had long since soaked into the wood. The Asha’man had hands to their faces, Eben actually pinching his nose shut.

“The Car’a’carn counts quickly,” Sulin muttered, but she lowered her veil. There would be no surprises here. No one would stay near those wagons who did not have to.

Rand let the gateway close as soon as the remaining Maidens came through, right behind him, and as it winked out of existence, Lews Therin whispered, She is gone. Almost gone. There was relief in his voice; the bond of Warder and Aes Sedai had not existed in the Age of Legends.

Alanna was not really gone, no more than she had been any time since bonding Rand against his will, but her presence had lessened, and it was the lessening that made Rand truly aware. You could become used to anything, begin taking it for granted. Near to her, he walked around with her emotions nestled in the back of his head, her physical condition as well, if he thought about it, and he knew exactly where she was as well as he knew his own his hand’s place, but just as with his hand, unless he thought about it, it just was. Only distance had any effect, but he could still feel that she was somewhere east of him. He wanted to be aware of her. Should Lews Therin fall silent and all the memories of the chest somehow be wiped from his head, he would still have the bond to remind him, “Never trust Aes Sedai.”

Abruptly he realized that Jonan and Eben still held saidin too. “Re-lease,” he said sharply—that was the command Taim used—and he felt the Power vanish from them. Good weapons. So far. Kill them before it’s too late, Lews Therin murmured. Rand released the Source deliberately, and reluctantly. He always hated letting go of the life, the enhanced senses. Of the struggle. Inside, though, he was tense, a jumper ready to leap, ready to seize it once more. He always was, now.

I have to kill them, Lews Therin whispered.

Shoving the voice back, Rand sent one of the Maidens, Nerilea, a square-faced woman, into the palace and began pacing alongside the wagons, thoughts spinning again, faster than before. He should not have come here. He should have sent Fedwin, with a letter. Spinning. Elayne. Aviendha. Perrin. Faile. Annoura. Berelain. Mat. Light, he should not have come. Elayne and Aviendha. Annoura and Berelain. Faile and Perrin and Mat. Flashes of color, quick motion just out of sight. A madman muttering angrily in the distance.

Slowly he became aware of the Maidens talking among themselves. About the smell. Implying that it came from the Asha’man. They wanted to be heard, or they would have been using handtalk; there was moonlight enough for that. Moonlight enough to see the color in Eben’s face, too, and how Fedwin’s jaw was set. Maybe they were not boys any longer, not since Dumai’s Wells certainly, but they were still only fifteen or sixteen. Jonan’s eyebrows had drawn down so far they seemed to be sitting on his cheeks. At least nobody had seized saidin again. Yet.

He started to step over to the three men, then raised his voice instead. Let them all hear. “If I can put up with foolishness from Maidens, so can you.”

If anything, the color in Eben’s face deepened. Jonan grunted. All three saluted Rand with fist to chest; then they turned to one another. Jonan said something in a low voice, glancing at the Maidens, and Fedwin and Eben laughed. The first time they saw Maidens they had stumbled between wanting to goggle at these exotic creatures they had only read about and wanting to run before the murderous Aiel of the stories killed them. Nothing much frightened them anymore. They needed to relearn fear.

The Maidens stared at Rand, and began talking with their hands, sometimes laughing softly. Wary of the Asha’man they might be, yet Maidens being Maidens—Aiel being Aiel—risk only made taunts more fun. Somara murmured aloud about Aviendha settling him down, which earned firm nods of approval. Nobody’s life was ever this tangled in the stories.

As soon as Nerilea returned saying that she had found Davram Bashere and Bael, the clan chief leading the Aiel here in Caemlyn, Rand took off his sword belt, and so did Fedwin. Jalani produced a large leather bag for the swords and the Dragon Scepter, holding it as if the swords were poisonous snakes, or perhaps long dead and rotten. Though in truth she would not have held it so gingerly in either case. Putting on a hooded cloak that Corana handed him, Rand held his wrists together behind his back, and Sulin bound them with a cord. Tightly, muttering to herself.

“This is nonsense. Even wetlanders would call it nonsense.”

He tried not to wince. She was strong, and using every ounce of it. “You have run away from us too often, Rand al’Thor. You have no care for yourself.” She considered him a brother of an age with herself, but irresponsible at times. “Far Dareis Mai carries your honor, and you have no care.”

Fedwin glowered while his own wrists were tied, though the Maiden binding him hardly put out much effort. Watching, Jonan and Eben frowned deeply. They disliked this plan as much as Sulin did. And understood it as  little. The Dragon Reborn did not have to explain himself, and the Car’a’carn seldom did. No one said anything, though. A weapon did not complain.

When Sulin stepped around in front of Rand, she took one look at his face, and her breath caught. “They did this to you,” she said softly, and reached for her heavy-bladed belt knife. A foot or more of steel, it was almost a short-sword, though none but a fool would say that to an Aiel.

“Pull up the hood,” Rand told her roughly. “The whole point of this is that no one recognize me before I reach Bael and Bashere.” She hesitated, peering into his eyes. “I said, pull it up,” he growled. Sulin could kill most men with her bare hands, but her fingers were gentle settling the hood around his face.

With a laugh, Jalani snatched the hood down over his eyes. “Now you can be sure no one will know you, Rand al’Thor. You must trust us to guide your feet.” Several Maidens laughed.

Stiffening, he barely stopped short of seizing saidin. Barely. Lews Therin snarled and gibbered. Rand forced himself to breathe normally. It was not total darkness. He could see moonlight below the edge of the hood. Even so, he stumbled when Sulin and Enaila took his arms and led him forward.

“I thought you were old enough to walk better than that,” Enaila murmured in mock surprise. Sulin’s hand moved. It took him a moment to realize she was stroking his arm.

All he could see was what lay just before him, the moonlit flagstones of the stableyard, then stone steps, floors of marble by lamplight, sometimes with a long runner of carpet. He strained his eyes at the movement of shadows, felt for the telltale presence of saidin, or worse, the prickling that announced a woman holding saidar. Blind like this, he might not know he was under attack until too late. He could hear the whisper of a few servants’ feet as they hurried on nighttime chores, but no one challenged five Maidens apparently escorting two hooded prisoners. With Bael and Bashere living in the palace and policing Caemlyn with their men, doubtless stranger sights had been seen in these corridors. It was like walking a maze. But then he had been in one maze or another since leaving Emond’s Field, even when he had thought that he walked a clear path.

Would I know a clear path if I saw one? he wondered. Or have I been at this so long I’d think it was a trap?

There are no clear paths. Only pitfalls and tripwires and darkness. Lews Therin’s snarl sounded sweaty, desperate. The way Rand felt.

When Sulin finally led them into a room and shut the door, Rand tossed his head violently to throw back the hood—and stared. Bael and Davram he had expected, but not Davram’s wife, Deira, nor Melaine, nor Dorindha.

“I see you, Car’a’carn.” Bael, the tallest man Rand had ever seen, sat cross-legged on the green-and-white floor tiles in his cadin’sor, an air about him even at ease that said he was ready to move in a heartbeat. The clan chief of the Goshien Aiel was not young—no clan chief was—and there was gray in his dark reddish hair, but anyone who thought him soft with age was in for a sad surprise. “May you always find water and shade. I stand with the Car’a’carn, and my spears stand with me.”

“Water and shade may be all very well,” Davram Bashere said, hooking a leg over the gilded arm of his chair, “but myself I would settle for chilled wine.” Little taller than Enaila, he had his short blue coat undone, and sweat glistened on his dark face. Despite his apparent indolence, he looked even harder than Bael, with his fierce tilted eyes, and his eagle’s beak of a nose above thick gray-streaked mustaches. “I offer congratulations on your escape, and your victory. But why do you come disguised as a prisoner?”

“I prefer to know whether he is bringing Aes Sedai down on us,” Deira put in. A large woman gowned in gold-worked green silk, Faile’s mother stood as tall as any Maiden there except Somara, long black hair slashed with white at the temples, her nose only a little less bold than her husband’s. Truth, she could give him lessons in looking fierce, and she was very like her daughter in one respect. Her loyalty was to her husband, not Rand. “You’ve taken Aes Sedai prisoner! Are we now to expect the entire White Tower to descend upon our heads?”

“If they do,” Melaine said sharply, adjusting her shawl, “they will be dealt with as they deserve.” Sun-haired, green-eyed and beautiful, no more than a handful of years older than Rand by her face, she was a Wise One, and married to Bael. Whatever had caused the Wise Ones to change their view of Aes Sedai, Melaine, Amys and Bair had changed the most.

“What I wish to know,” the third woman said, “is what you will do about Colavaere Saighan.” While Deira and Melaine had presence, great presence, Dorindha outshone both, though it was difficult to see how exactly. The roofmistress of Smoke Springs Hold was a solid, motherly woman, much nearer handsome than pretty, with creases at the corners of her blue eyes and as much white in her pale red hair as Bael had gray, yet of the three women, any eye with a brain behind it would have said she held sway. “Melaine says that Bair considers Colavaere Saighan of little importance,” Dorindha went on, “but Wise Ones can be as blind as any man when it comes to seeing the battle ahead and missing the scorpion underfoot.” A smile for Melaine robbed the words of their sting; Melaine’s answering smile certainly said she took none. “A roofmistress’s work is finding those scorpions before anyone is stung.” She also was Bael’s wife, a fact that still disconcerted Rand, for all it had been her choice and Melaine’s. Perhaps partly because it had been theirs; among Aiel, a man had little say if his wife chose a sister-wife. It was not a common arrangement even among them.

“Colavaere has taken up farming,” Rand growled. They blinked at him, wondering whether that was a joke. “The Sun Throne is empty again, and waiting for Elayne.” He had considered weaving a ward against listeners, but a ward could be detected by anyone searching, man or woman, and its presence would announce that something interesting was being said. Well, everything said here would be known from the Dragonwall to the sea soon enough.

Fedwin was already rubbing his wrists, while Jalani sheathed her knife. No one looked at them twice; all eyes were on Rand. Frowning at Nerilea, he waggled his bound hands until Sulin sliced the cords. “I didn’t realize this was to be a family gathering.” Nerilea looked a trifle abashed, maybe, but no one else did.

“After you marry,” Davram murmured with a smile, “you will learn you must choose very carefully what to keep from your wife.” Deira glanced down at him, pursing her lips.

“Wives are a great comfort,” Bael laughed, “if a man does not tell them too much.” Smiling, Dorindha ran her fingers into his hair—and gripped for a moment as though she meant to tug his head off. Bael grunted, but not for Dorindha’s fingers alone. Melaine wiped her small belt knife on her heavy skirt and sheathed it. The two women grinned at one another over his head while he rubbed at his shoulder, where a small spot of blood stained his cadin’sor. Deira nodded thoughtfully; it seemed she had just gotten an idea.

“What woman could I hate enough to marry her to the Dragon Reborn?” Rand said coldly. That caused a silence solid enough to touch.

He tried to take rein on his anger. He should have expected this. Melaine was not just a Wise One, she was a dreamwalker, as were Amys and Bair. Among other things, they could talk to one another in their dreams, and to others; a useful skill, though they had only used it for him once. It was Wise Ones’ business. No wonder at all that Melaine was abreast of everything that had happened. No wonder that she told Dorindha everything, Wise Ones’ business or no; the two women were best friends and sisters rolled into one. Once Melaine let Bael know of the kidnapping, of course he had told Bashere; expecting Bashere to keep that from his wife was like expecting him to keep it secret that their house was on fire. Inch by inch he drew the anger in, forced it down.

“Has Elayne arrived?” He tried to make his voice casual, and missed. No matter. There were reasons everyone knew for him to be anxious. Andor might not be as unquiet as Cairhien, but Elayne on the throne was the fastest way to settle both lands. Maybe the only way.

“Not yet.” Bashere shrugged. “But tales have come north of Aes Sedai with an army somewhere in Murandy, or maybe Altara. That could be young Mat and his Band of the Red Hand, with the Daughter-Heir and the sisters who fled the Tower when Siuan Sanche was deposed.”

Rand rubbed his wrists where the cords had chafed. All that “captive” rigmarole had been on the chance Elayne was here already. Elayne, and Aviendha. So he could come and go without them learning of it till he was gone. Maybe he would have found a way to peek at them. Maybe... He was a fool, and no maybe about that.

“Do you mean those sisters to swear oath to you, too?” Deira’s tone was icy as her face. She did not like him; as she saw it, her husband had set off down a road that likely would end with his head on a pike over a gate in Tar Valon, and Rand had put his feet on that road. “The White Tower will not hold still for your coercing Aes Sedai.”

Rand made her a small bow, and burn her if she took it for mocking. Deira ni Ghaline t’Bashere never gave him a title, never even used his name; she could as well have been talking to a footman, and not a very intelligent or trustworthy one. “Should they choose to swear, I’ll accept their oaths. I doubt many are exactly eager to return to Tar Valon. If they choose otherwise, they can go their own way, so long as they don’t put themselves against me.”

“The White Tower has put itself against you,” Bael said, leaning forward with his fists on his knees. His blue eyes made Deira’s voice seem warm. “An enemy who comes once, will come again. Unless they are stopped. My spears will follow wherever the Car’a’carn leads.” Melaine nodded, of course; she very likely wanted every last Aes Sedai shielded and kneeling under guard if not bound hand and foot. But Dorindha nodded as well, and Sulin, and Bashere knuckled his mustaches thoughtfully. Rand did not know whether to laugh or weep.

“Don’t you think I’ve enough on my plate without a war against the White Tower? Elaida grabbed my throat and was slapped down.” The ground erupting in fire and torn flesh. Ravens and vultures gorging. How many dead? Slapped down. “If she has sense enough to stop there, I will too.” So long as they did not ask him to trust. The chest. He was shaking his head, half-aware of Lews Therin suddenly moaning about the dark and the thirst. He could ignore, he had to ignore, but not forget, or trust.

Leaving Bael and Bashere arguing over whether Elaida did have sense enough to stop, now that she had begun, he moved to a map-covered table against the wall, beneath a tapestry of some battle where the White Lion of Andor stood prominent. Apparently Bael and Bashere used this room for their planning. A little rooting around found the map he needed, a large roll displaying all of Andor from the Mountains of Mist to the River Erinin, and parts of the lands to the south as well, Ghealdan and Altara and Murandy.

“The women held captive in the treekillers’ lands are allowed to cause no trouble, so why should any others?” Melaine said, apparently in answer to something he had not heard. She sounded angry.

“We will do what we must, Deira t’Bashere,” Dorindha said calmly; she was seldom anything but. “Hold to your courage, and we will arrive where we must go.”

“When you leap from a cliff,” Deira replied, “it is too late for anything but holding to your courage. And hoping there’s a haywain at the bottom to land in.” Her husband chuckled as though she was making a joke. She did not sound it.

Spreading the map out and weighting the corners with ink jars and sand bottles, Rand measured off distances with his fingers. Mat was not moving very fast if rumor placed him in Altara or Murandy. He took pride in how fast the Band could march. Maybe the Aes Sedai were slowing him, with servants and wagons. Maybe there were more sisters than he had thought. Rand realized his hands were clenched into fists and made them straighten. He needed Elayne. To take the throne here and in Cairhien; that was why he needed her. Just that. Aviendha... He did not need her, not at all, and she had made it clear she had no need for him. She was safe, away from him. He could keep them both safe by keeping them as far from him as possible. Light, if he could only look at them. He needed Mat, though, with Perrin being stubborn. He was not sure how Mat had suddenly become expert on everything to do with battle, but even Bashere respected Mat’s opinions. About war, anyway.

“They treated him as da’tsang,” Sulin growled, and some of the other Maidens growled wordlessly in echo.

“We know,” Melaine said grimly. “They have no honor.”

“Will he truly hold back after what you describe?” Deira demanded in disbelieving tones.

The map did not extend far enough south to show Illian—no map on the table showed any part of that country—but Rand’s hand drifted down across Murandy, and he could imagine the Doirlon Hills, not far inside Illian’s borders, with a line of hillforts no invading army could afford to ignore. And some two hundred and fifty miles to the east, across the Plains of Maredo, an army such as had not been seen since the nations gathered before Tar Valon in the Aiel War, maybe not since Artur Hawkwing’s day. Tairen, Cairhienin, Aiel, all poised to smash into Illian. If Perrin would not lead, then Mat must. Only there was not enough time. There was never enough time.

“Burn my eyes,” Davram muttered. “You never mentioned that, Melaine. Lady Caraline and Lord Toram camped right outside the city, and High Lord Darlin as well? They didn’t come together by chance, now right at this time, they did not. That’s a pit of vipers to have on your doorstep, whoever you are.”

“Let the algai’d’siswai dance,” Bael replied. “Dead vipers bite no one.”

Sammael had always been at his best defending. That was Lews Therin’s memory, from the War of the Shadow. With two men inside one skull, maybe it was to be expected that memories would drift between them. Had Lews Therin suddenly found himself recalling herding sheep, or cutting firewood, or feeding the chickens? Rand could hear him faintly, raging to kill, to destroy; thoughts of the Forsaken almost always drove Lews Therin over the brink.

“Deira t’Bashere speaks truly,” Bael said. “We must stay on the path we have begun until our enemies are destroyed, or we are.”

“That was not how I meant it,” Deira said dryly. “But you are right. We have no choice, now. Until our enemies are destroyed, or we are.”

Death, destruction and madness floated in Rand’s head as he studied the map. Sammael would be at those forts soon after the army struck, Sammael with the strength of a Forsaken and the knowledge of the Age of Legends. Lord Brend, he called himself, one of the Council of Nine, and Lord Brend they called him who refused to admit the Forsaken were loose, but Rand knew him. With Lews Therin’s memory, he knew Sammael’s face, knew him to the bone.

“What does Dyelin Taravin intend with Naean Arawn and Elenia Sarand?” Dorindha asked. “I confess I do not understand this shutting people away.”

“What she does there is hardly important,” Davram said. “It is her meetings with those Aes Sedai that concern me.”

“Dyelin Taravin is a fool,” Melaine muttered. “She believes the rumors about the Car’a’carn kneeling to the Amyrlin Seat. She will not brush her hair unless those Aes Sedai give her permission.”

“You mistake her,” Deira said firmly. “Dyelin is strong enough to rule Andor; she proved that at Aringill. Of course she listens to the Aes Sedai—only a fool ignores Aes Sedai—but to listen is not to obey.”

The wagons that had been brought from Dumai’s Wells would have to be searched again. The fat-little-man angreal had to be there somewhere. None of the sisters who escaped could have had a clue what it was. Unless, perhaps, one had stuck a souvenir of the Dragon Reborn in her pouch. No. It had to be in the wagons somewhere. With that, he was more than a match for any of the Forsaken. Without it... Death, destruction and madness.

Suddenly what he had been hearing rushed forward. “What was that?” he demanded, turning from the ivory-inlaid table.

Surprised faces turned toward him. Jonan straightened from where he had been slouching against the doorframe. The Maidens, squatting easily on their heels, suddenly appeared alert. They had been talking idly among themselves; even they were wary around him now.

Fingering one of her ivory necklaces, Melaine shared a decided look between Bael and Davram, then spoke before anyone else. “There are nine Aes Sedai at an inn called The Silver Swan, in what Davram Bashere calls the New City.” She said the word “inn” in an odd way, and “city” as well; she had only known them from books before coming across the Dragonwall. “He and Bael say we must leave them alone unless they do something against you. I think you have learned about waiting for Aes Sedai, Rand al’Thor.”

“My fault,” Bashere sighed, “if fault there is. Though what Melaine expects to do, I can’t say. Eight sisters stopped at The Silver Swan almost a month ago, just after you left. Now and then a few more come or go, but there are never more than ten at one time. They keep to themselves, cause no trouble, and ask no questions that Bael or I can learn. A few Red sisters have come into the city, as well; twice. Those at The Silver Swan all have Warders, but these never do. I’m sure they are Reds. Two or three appear, ask after men heading for the Black Tower, and after a day or so, they leave. Without learning much, I’d say. That Black Tower is as good as a fortress for holding in secrets. None of them has made trouble, and I would rather not trouble them until I know it is necessary.”

“I didn’t mean that,” Rand said slowly. He sat down in a chair opposite Bashere, gripping the carved arms till his knuckles hurt. Aes Sedai gathering here, Aes Sedai gathering in Cairhien. Happenstance? Lews Therin rumbled like thunder on the horizon about death and betrayal. He would have to warn Taim. Not about the Aes Sedai at The Silver Swan—Taim certainly knew already; why had he not mentioned it?—about staying away from them, keeping the Asha’man away. If Dumai’s Wells was to be an end, there could be no new beginnings here. Too many things seemed to be spinning out of control. The harder he tried to gather them all in, the more there were and the faster they spun. Sooner or later, everything was going to fall, and shatter. The thought dried his throat. Thom Merrilin had taught him to juggle a little, but he had never been very good. Now he had to be very good indeed. He wished he had something to wet his throat.

He did not realize he had spoken that last aloud until Jalani straightened from her crouch and strutted across the room to where a tall silver pitcher stood on a small table. Filling a hammered silver goblet, she brought it back to Rand with a smile, her mouth opening as she proffered it. He expected something rude, but a change came over her face. All she said was, “Car’a’carn,” then went back to her place with the other Maidens, so dignified it seemed she was imitating Dorindha, or maybe Deira. Somara gestured in handtalk, and suddenly every Maiden was red-faced and biting her lips to keep from laughing. Every Maiden but Jalani, who was just red-faced.

The wine punch tasted of plums. Rand could remember fat sweet plums from the orchards across the river when he was young, climbing the trees to pick them himself... Tilting his head back, he drained the goblet. There were plum trees in the Two Rivers, but no orchards of them, and certainly not across any river. Keep your bloody memories to yourself, he snarled at Lews Therin. The man in his head laughed at something, giggling quietly to himself.

Bashere frowned at the Maidens, then glanced at Bael and his wives, all impassive as stone, and shook his head. He got on well with Bael, but Aiel in general mystified him. “Since no one is bringing me any drink,” he said, rising, and went to pour his own. He took a long swallow that wet his heavy mustaches. “Now, that’s cooling. Taim’s way of enrolling men seems to sweep up every fellow who’d like to follow the Dragon Reborn. He has delivered a goodly army to me, men who lack whatever it is your Asha’man need. They all talk wide-eyed about walking though holes in the air, but none has been anywhere near the Black Tower. I’m trying out a few thoughts young Mat had.”

Rand waved that away with the empty goblet. “Tell me about Dyelin.” Dyelin of House Taravin would be next in line for the throne should anything happen to Elayne, but he had told her he was having Elayne brought to Caemlyn. “If she thinks she can take the Lion Throne, I can find a farm for her, too.”

“Take the throne?” Deira said incredulously, and her husband laughed out loud.

“I have no understanding of wetlander ways,” Bael said, “but I do not think that is what she has done.”

“Far from it.” Davram carried the pitcher over to pour more punch for Rand. “Some lesser lords and ladies who thought to curry favor proclaimed for her at Aringill. She moves quickly, Lady Dyelin. Within four days she had the two leaders hanged, for treason to the Daughter-Heir Elayne, and ordered another twenty flogged.” He chuckled approvingly. His wife sniffed. Likely she would have had the road lined with gibbets all the way from Aringill to Caemlyn.

“Then what was that about her ruling Andor?” Rand demanded. “And imprisoning Elenia and Naean.”

“They are the ones who tried to claim the throne,” Deira said, dark eyes sparkling angrily.

Bashere nodded. He was much calmer. “Only three days ago. When word arrived of Colavaere’s coronation, and the rumors from Cairhien that you had gone to Tar Valon began to sound more real. With trade beginning again, there are so many pigeons in the air between Cairhien and Caemlyn, you could walk on their backs.” Putting the pitcher back, he returned to his chair. “Naean proclaimed for the Lion Throne in the morning, Elenia before midday, and by sunset Dyelin, Pelivar and Luan had arrested them both. They announced Dyelin as Regent the next morning. In Elayne’s name, until Elayne returns. Most of the Houses of Andor have declared support for Dyelin. I think some would like her to take the throne herself, but Aringill keeps even the most powerful careful of their tongues.” Closing one eye, Bashere pointed at Rand. “You, they do not mention at all. Whether that is good or bad, it will take a wiser head than mine to say.”

Deira offered a cool smile, looking down that nose of hers. “Those... lickspittles... you allowed to make free of the palace have all fled the city, it seems. Fled Andor, some of them, according to rumor. You should know, they were all behind either Elenia or Naean.”

Rand carefully set his full goblet on the floor beside his chair. He had only let Lir and Arymilla and the rest remain in order to try pushing Dyelin and those who supported her into cooperation with him. They would never have left Andor to the likes of Lord Lir. With time and Elayne’s return, it might yet work. But everything was whirling faster and faster, whirling away from his fingers. There were a few things he could control, though.

“Fedwin, there, is an Asha’man,” he said. “He can bring messages to me in Cairhien, if there’s need.” That with a glare for Melaine, who returned the blandest sort of look. Deira studied Fedwin as she might a dead rat some overeager dog had dropped on her rug. Davram and Bael were more considering; Fedwin tried to stand straighter under their gaze. “Don’t let anyone know who he is,” Rand went on. “No one. That’s why he isn’t wearing black. I am taking two more to Lord Semaradrid and High Lord Weiramon tonight. They’ll have need when they face Sammael in the Doirlon Hills. I will be busy chewing on Cairhien for a while yet, it seems.” And maybe Andor, too.

“Does this mean you will send the spears forward at last?” Bael said. “You give the orders tonight?”

Rand nodded, and Bashere gave a great hoot of laughter. “Now, that calls for a good wine. Or it would if it wasn’t hot enough to make a man’s blood thick as porridge.” Laughter slid into a grimace. “Burn me, but I wish I could be there. Still, I suppose holding Caemlyn for the Dragon Reborn is no small thing.”

“You always want to be where the swords are bared, my husband.” Deira sounded quite fond.

“The fifth,” Bael said. “You will allow the fifth in Illian, when Sammael has fallen?” Aiel custom allowed taking the fifth part of all that was in a place taken by force of arms. Rand had forbidden it here in Caemlyn; he would not give Elayne a city looted even that much.

“They will have the fifth,” Rand said, but it was not of Sammael or Illian that he thought. Bring Elayne quickly, Mat. It ran wild in his head, across Lews Therin’s cackling. Bring her quickly, before Andor and Cairhien both erupt in my face.

The Figurehead

We must stop here tomorrow.” Egwene shifted carefully on her folding chair; it had a tendency to fold on its own, sometimes. “Lord Bryne says the army is running short of food. Our camp is certainly short of everything.”

Two stubby tallow candles burned on the wooden table in front of her. That folded, too, for easy packing, but it was sturdier than the chair. The candles in the tent that served as her study were supplemented by an oil lantern hanging from the centerpole up near the peak. The dim yellow light flickered, making faint shadows dance on patched canvas walls that were a far cry from the grandeur of the Amyrlin’s study in the White Tower, but that did not upset her. Truth be known, she herself was some considerable distance short of the grandeur normally associated with the Amyrlin Seat. She knew very well that the seven-striped stole on her shoulders was the only reason any stranger would believe her Amyrlin. If they did not think it an extremely foolish joke. Odd things had happened in the White Tower’s history—Siuan had told her secret details of some of them—yet surely nothing so odd as her.

“Four or five days would be better,” Sheriam mused, studying the sheaf of papers in her lap. Slightly plump, with high cheekbones and tilted green eyes, in her dark green riding dress she managed to look elegant and commanding despite her perch on one of the two precarious stools in front of the table. Exchange her narrow blue stole of the Keeper of the Chronicles for the Amyrlin’s, and anyone would think she wore it by right. Sometimes she certainly seemed to believe the striped stole rested on her own shoulders. “Or perhaps longer. It would not hurt to build our stores up once more.”

Siuan, atop the other rickety stool, shook her head slightly, but Egwene did not need the hint. “One day.” She might be just eighteen and well short of a true Amyrlin’s grandeur, but she was no fool. Too many of the sisters seized on any excuse for a halt—too many of the Sitters, as well—and if they stopped too long, it might be impossible to start them moving again. Sheriam opened her mouth.

“One, daughter,” Egwene said firmly. Whatever Sheriam thought, the fact was that Sheriam Bayanar was the Keeper and Egwene al’Vere the Amyrlin. If only Sheriam could be brought to realize that. And the Hall of the Tower; they were worse. She wanted to snarl or snap or maybe throw something, but after close to a month and half, she already had a lifetime’s practice in keeping her face and voice smooth at far greater provocation than this. “Any longer, and we’ll begin to strip the countryside bare. I won’t leave people to starve. On the practical side, if we take too much from them, even paid for, they’ll give us a hundred problems in return.”

“Raids on the herds and flocks and thieves at the store-wagons,” Siuan murmured. Studying her divided gray skirts, not looking at anyone, she seemed to be thinking aloud. “Men shooting at our guards at night, maybe setting fire to whatever they can reach. A bad business. Hungry people become desperate in a hurry.” Those were the same reasons Lord Bryne had given Egwene, in very nearly the same words.

The fiery-haired woman shot Siuan a hard look. Many sisters had a difficult time with Siuan. Her face was probably the best known in the camp, young enough to have looked proper above an Accepted’s dress, or a novice’s for that matter. That was a side effect of being stilled, though not many had known it; Siuan could hardly walk a step without sisters staring at her, the once Amyrlin Seat, deposed and cut off from saidar, then Healed and restored to at least some ability, when everyone knew that was impossible. Many welcomed her back warmly as a sister once more, for herself and for the miracle that held out hope against whatevery Aes Sedai feared beyond death, but just as many or more offered lukewarm toleration or condescension or both, blaming her for their present situation.

Sheriam was one of those who thought Siuan should instruct the new young Amyrlin in protocol and the like, which everyone believed she hated, and keep her mouth closed unless she was called upon. She was less than she had been, no longer Amyrlin and no longer anywhere near so strong in the Power. It was not cruelty as Aes Sedai saw it. The past was past; what was now, was, and must be accepted. Anything else only brought greater pain. By and large, Aes Sedai admitted change slowly, but once they did, for most it was as if things had always been that way. “One day, Mother, as you say,” Sheriam sighed at last, bowing her head slightly. Less in submission, Egwene was sure, than to hide a grimace over her stubbornness. She would accept the grimace if the acquiescence came with it. For the time being, she had to.

Siuan bowed her head, too. To hide a smile. Any sister might be appointed to any post, but the social pecking order was quite rigid, and Siuan stood a long way further down than she had. That was one reason.

The papers on Sheriam’s lap were duplicated on Siuan’s, and on the table in front of Egwene. Reports on everything from the number of candles and sacks of beans remaining in the camp to the state of the horses, and the same for Lord Bryne’s army. The army’s camp encircled the Aes Sedai’s, with a ring perhaps twenty steps wide between, but in many ways they might as well have been a mile apart. Surprisingly, Lord Bryne insisted on that as much as the sisters. The Aes Sedai did not want soldiers wandering among their tents, a lot of unwashed, illiterate ruffians with light fingers often as not, and it seemed the soldiers did not want Aes Sedai wandering among them either—though, perhaps wisely, they held their reasons close. They marched toward Tar Valon to pull down a usurper to the Amyrlin Seat and raise Egwene in her place, yet few men were truly comfortable around Aes Sedai. Few enough women, either.

As Keeper, Sheriam would have been all too happy to take these minor matters out of Egwene’s hands. She had said as much, explaining how minor they were, how the Amyrlin Seat should not be burdened with day-to-day trifles. Siuan, on the other hand, said a good Amyrlin paid attention to just those, not trying to duplicate the work of dozens of sisters and clerks, yet checking on something different every day. That way she had a good idea of what was happening and what needed doing before someone came running to her with a crisis already breaking into shards. A feel for how the wind was blowing, Siuan called it. Making sure these reports reached her had required weeks, and Egwene was sure that once she let them pass to Sheriam’s control, she would never again learn anything until it was long dealt with. If then.

A silence stretched as they began reading the next paper in each stack.

They were not alone. Chesa, seated on cushions to one side of the tent, spoke. “Too little light is bad for the eyes,” she murmured almost to herself, holding up one of Egwene’s silk stockings that she was darning. “You’ll never catch me ruining my eyes over words in this little light.” Just short of stout, with a twinkle in her eyes and a merry smile, Egwene’s maid was always trying to slip advice to the Amyrlin as though talking about herself. She could have been in Egwene’s service twenty years instead of less than two months, and three times as old as Egwene instead of barely twice. Tonight, Egwene suspected that she talked to fill silences. There was a tension in the camp since Logain had escaped. A man who could channel, shielded and under close guard, yet he had slipped away like fog. Everyone walked on edge wondering how, wondering where he was, what he intended to do now. Egwene wished harder than most that she could be sure she knew where Logain Ablar was.

Giving her papers a firm snap of her wrists, Sheriam frowned at Chesa; she did not understand why Egwene let her maid be present at these meetings, much less let her chatter away freely. It probably never occurred to her that Chesa’s presence and her unexpected chatter frequently unsettled her just enough to help Egwene sidestep advice she did not want to take and postpone decisions she did not want to make, at least not the way Sheriam wanted them made. Certainly the notion had never occurred to Chesa; she smiled apologetically and returned to her darning, occasionally murmuring to herself.

“If we continue, Mother,” Sheriam said coolly, “we may finish before dawn.”

Staring at the next page, Egwene rubbed her temples. Chesa might be right about the light. She had another headache coming on. Then again, it might be the page, detailing what money was left. The stories she had read never mentioned how much coin was required to keep an army. Pinned to the sheet were notes from two of the Sitters, Romanda and Lelaine, suggesting the soldiers be paid less frequently, paid less in fact. More than suggesting, really, just as Romanda and Lelaine were more than simply two Sitters in the Hall. Other Sitters followed where they led, if not all by any means, while the only Sitter Egwene could count on was Delana, and her not far. It was rare that Lelaine and Romanda agreed on anything, and they could hardly have chosen a worse. Some of the soldiers had sworn oaths, yet most were there for their pay, and maybe the hope of loot.

“The soldiers are to be paid as before,” Egwene muttered, crumpling the two notes. She was not going to let her army melt away, any more than she would allow looting.

“As you command, Mother.” Sheriam’s eyes sparkled with pleasure. The difficulties must be clear to her—anyone who thought her less than very intelligent was in deep trouble—but she did have a blind spot. If Romanda or Lelaine said the sun was coming up, Sheriam most likely would claim it was going down; she had had almost as much sway with the Hall as they did now, perhaps more, until they put a halt to it between them. The opposite was true, as well; those two would speak against anything Sheriam wanted before they stopped to think. Which had its uses, all in all.

Egwene’s fingers tapped on the tabletop, but she made them stop. The money had to be found—somewhere, somehow—but she did not have to let Sheriam see her worry.

“That new woman will work out,” Chesa murmured over her sewing. “Tairens always carry their noses high, of course, but Selame does know what’s required of a lady’s maid. Meri and I will settle her down soon enough.” Sheriam rolled her eyes irritably.

Egwene smiled to herself. Egwene al’Vere with three maids waiting on her; as unbelievable as the stole itself. But the smile lasted only a heartbeat. Maids had to be paid, too. A tiny sum, balanced against thirty thousand soldiers, and the Amyrlin could hardly do her own laundry or mend her own shifts, but she could have managed splendidly with Chesa alone. And would have, had she any choice in it. Less than a week earlier Romanda had decided that the Amyrlin needed another servant and found Meri among the refugees who huddled in every village until they were chased away, and not to be outdone, Lelaine produced Selame from the same source. The two women were crowded into Chesa’s small tent before Egwene knew either existed.

The principle of the thing was wrong: three maids when there was not enough silver to pay the army halfway to Tar Valon, servants chosen for her without any say; and then there was the fact that she had yet another, if one who received not a copper. Everyone believed Marigan was the Amyrlin’s maidservant, anyway.

Beneath the edge of the table she felt her belt pouch, felt the bracelet inside. She should wear it more; it was a duty. Keeping her hands low, she dug the bracelet out and slipped it around her wrist, a band of silver made so the catch was invisible once closed. Made with the One Power, the bracelet snapped shut beneath the table, and she very nearly snatched it off again.

Emotion flooded into a corner of her mind, emotion and awareness, a little pocket, as if she were imagining it. Not imagination, though; all too real. Half of an a’dam, the bracelet created a link between her and the woman who wore the other half, a silver necklace the wearer could not remove herself. They were a circle of two without embracing saidar, Egwene always leading by virtue of the bracelet. “Marigan” was asleep now, her feet sore from walking all day and days past, but even sleeping, fear oozed though most strongly; only hate ever came near fear in the stream that flowed through the a’dam. Egwene’s reluctance came from the constant gnawing of the other woman’s terror, from having worn the necklace end of an a’dam once, and from knowing the woman on the far end. She hated sharing any part of her.

Only three women in the camp knew that Moghedien was a prisoner, hidden in the midst of Aes Sedai. If it came out, Moghedien would be tried, stilled and executed in short order. If it came out, Egwene might not be far behind her, and Siuan and Leane, as well. They were the other two who knew. At best she would have the stole stripped away.

For hiding one of the Forsaken from justice, she thought grimly, I’ll be lucky if they just stick me back with the Accepted. Unconsciously she thumbed the golden Great Serpent ring on the first finger of her right hand.

Then again, however just such a punishment might be, it was unlikely. She had been taught that the wisest of the sisters was chosen Amyrlin Seat, yet she had learned better. The choosing of an Amyrlin was as hotly contested as electing a mayor in the Two Rivers, and maybe more; no one bothered to stand against her father in Emond’s Field, but she had heard about elections in Deven Ride and Taren Ferry. Siuan had only been raised Amyrlin because the three before her each had died after just a few years on the Amyrlin Seat. The Hall had wanted someone young. Speaking of age to a sister was at least as rude as slapping her face, yet she had begun to get some idea how long Aes Sedai lived. Rarely was anyone chosen Sitter before she had worn the shawl seventy or eighty years at least, and Amyrlins generally longer. Often much longer. So when the Hall deadlocked between four sisters raised Aes Sedai less than fifty years before, and Seaine Herimon of the White suggested a woman who had worn the shawl only ten years, it might have been as much exhaustion as Siuan’s qualifications in administration that brought the Sitters to stand for her.

And Egwene al’Vere, who in many eyes should still have been a novice? A figurehead, easily directed, a child who had grown up in the same village with Rand al’Thor. That last definitely had its part in the decision. They would not take back the stole, but she would find the little authority she had managed to accumulate gone. Romanda, Lelaine and Sheriam might actually come to blows over which would march her about by the scruff of her neck. “That looks much like a bracelet I saw Elayne wearing.” The papers on Sheriam’s lap crackled as she leaned forward for a better look. “And Nynaeve. They shared it, as I recall.”

Egwene gave a start. She had been careless. “It’s the same. A remembrance gift, when they left.” Twisting the silver circlet around her wrist, she felt a stab of guilt that was all her own. The bracelet appeared segmented, but so cunningly you could not see how exactly. She had hardly thought of Nynaeve and Elayne since their departure for Ebou Dar. Perhaps she should call them back. Their search was not going well, it seemed, though they denied it. Still, if they could find what they were after... Sheriam was frowning, whether or not at the bracelet, Egwene could not say. She could not allow Sheriam to start thinking too much on that bracelet, though; if she ever noticed that the necklace “Marigan” wore was a match, there might be painfully awkward questions.

Rising, Egwene smoothed her skirt as she moved around the table. Siuan had acquired several pieces of information today; one could be put to good use now. She was not the only one with secrets. Sheriam looked surprised when she stopped too close for the other woman to stand.

“Daughter, I’ve learned that a few days after Siuan and Leane arrived in Salidar, ten sisters left, two from each Ajah there except the Blue. Where did they go, and why?”

Sheriam’s eyes narrowed a fraction, but she wore serenity as comfortably as her dress. “Mother, I can hardly recall every—”

“No dancing around, Sheriam.” Egwene moved a little closer, until their knees almost touched. “No lies by omission. The truth.”

A frown creased Sheriam’s smooth forehead. “Mother, even if I knew, you cannot trouble yourself with every little—”

“The truth, Sheriam. The whole truth. Must I ask before the entire Hall why I cannot have the truth from my Keeper? I will have it, daughter, one way or another. I will have it.”

Sheriam’s head swiveled as though she was looking for a way to escape. Her eyes fell on Chesa, hunched over her sewing, and she all but gasped with relief. “Mother, tomorrow, when we are alone, I am sure I can explain everything to your satisfaction. I must speak with a few of the sisters first.”

So they could work up what Sheriam was to tell her tomorrow. “Chesa,” Egwene said, “wait outside, please.” For all that she seemed focused on her work to the exclusion of everything else, Chesa bounded to her feet in a flash and very nearly ran from the tent. When Aes Sedai were at odds, anyone with half a brain went elsewhere. “Now, daughter,” Egwene said. “The truth. All that you know. This is as private as you will be,” she added when Sheriam glanced at Siuan.

For a moment Sheriam adjusted her skirts, plucking at them really, avoiding Egwene’s eyes, no doubt still working out evasions. But the Three Oaths trapped her. She could not speak an untrue word, and whatever she thought of Egwene’s true position, slipping behind her back was a long way from denying her authority to her face. Even Romanda maintained the proper courtesies, if only by a hair at times.

Drawing a deep breath, Sheriam folded her hands in her lap and spoke to Egwene’s chest, matter-of-fact. “When we learned the Red Ajah was responsible for setting Logain up as a false Dragon, we felt something had to be done.”

“We” certainly meant the small coterie of sisters she had gathered around her; Carlinya and Beonin and the rest held as much real sway as most Sitters, if not actually in the Hall. “Elaida was sending out demands for every sister to return to the Tower, so we chose ten sisters to do just that, by the fastest means they could manage. They all should be there long since. Quietly making sure that every sister in the Tower understands the truth of what the Reds did with Logain. Not—” She hesitated, then finished in a rush. “Not even the Hall knows of them.”

Egwene stepped away, rubbing her temples again. Quietly making sure. In the hope that Elaida would be deposed. Not exactly a bad scheme, really; it might even work, eventually. It might take years, too. But then, for most sisters, the longer they could go without truly doing anything, the better. With enough time, they could convince the world that the White Tower had never really broken. It had been broken before, even if only a handful knew it. Maybe, with enough time, they could find a way to adjust everything so it had not, really. “Why keep it from the Hall, Sheriam? Surely you don’t think any of them would betray your plan to Elaida.” Half the sisters eyed the other half askance for fear of Elaida’s sympathizers. Partly for fear of that.

“Mother, a sister who decided that what we do is a mistake would hardly let herself be chosen a Sitter. Any such would have taken herself away long since.” Sheriam had not relaxed, but her voice took on the patient, instructing tone she seemed to think had the greatest effect on Egwene. Usually, though, she was more adroit at changing the subject. “Those suspicions are the worst problem we face for the time being. No one really trusts anyone. If we could only see how to—”

“The Black Ajah,” Siuan cut in quietly. “That’s what chills your blood like a silverpike up your skirts. Who can say for sure who is Black, and who can say what a Black sister might do?”

Sheriam darted another hard look at Siuan, but after a moment the force went out of her. Or rather, one sort of tension replaced another. She glanced at Egwene, then nodded, reluctantly. By the sour twist to her mouth, she would have made another evasion had it not been plain Egwene would not stand for it. Most sisters in the camp believed now, but after more than three thousand years denying the Black Ajah’s existence, it was a queasy belief. Almost no one would open her mouth on that topic, no matter what they believed.

“The question, Mother,” Siuan went on, “is what happens when the Hall does find out.” She seemed to be thinking aloud again. “I can’t see any Sitter accepting the excuse that she couldn’t be told because she might be on Elaida’s side. And as for the possibility she might be Black Ajah... Yes, I think they will be quite upset.”

Sheriam’s face paled slightly. It was a wonder she did not go dead white. “Upset” did not begin to cover it. Yes, Sheriam would face much more than upset if this came out.

Now was the time to drive home her advantage, but another question occurred to Egwene. If Sheriam and her friends had sent—what were they? Not spies. Ferrets, maybe, sent into the walls after rats—if Sheriam had sent ferrets into the White Tower, could... ?

A sudden stab of pain through that pocket of sensations in the back of her head sent everything else flying. Had she felt it directly, it would have been numbing. As it was, her eyes bulged in shock. A man who could channel was touching the necklace around Moghedien’s neck; this was one link no man could be brought into. Pain, and something unheard of from Moghedien. Hope. And then it was all gone, the awareness, the emotions. The necklace was off.

“I... need some fresh air,” she managed. Sheriam started to rise, and Siuan, but she waved them back down. “No, I want to be alone,” she said hastily. “Siuan, find out everything Sheriam knows about the ferrets. Light, I mean the ten sisters.” They both stared at her, but thank the Light, neither followed as she snatched the lantern from its hook and hurried out.

It would not do for the Amyrlin to be seen running, yet she came close, hoisting her divided skirts as well as she could with her free hand and very nearly trotting. A cloudless sky made the moonlight bright, dappling the tents and wagons with shadows. Most people in the camp were asleep, but low fires still burned here and there. A handful of Warders were about, a few servants. Too many eyes to see if she ran. The last thing she wanted was someone offering help. She realized she was panting, but from alarm, not exertion.

Thrusting her head and the lantern into “Marigan’s” tiny tent, she found it empty. The blankets that made up the pallet on the ground lay in a sprawl, tossed aside by someone in a hurry.

And what if she had still been here? she wondered. With the necklace off, and maybe whoever freed her? Shivering, she withdrew slowly. Moghedien had good reason to dislike her, very personally, and the only sister who could match one of the Forsaken alone, when she could channel at all, was in Ebou Dar. Moghedien could have killed Egwene without anyone noticing; even had a sister felt her channel, there would be nothing remarkable in that. Worse, Moghedien might not have killed her. And no one would have known anything until they found the pair of them gone.

“Mother,” Chesa fussed behind her, “you should not be out in the night air. Night air is bad air. If you wanted Marigan, I could have fetched her.”

Egwene very nearly jumped. She had not been aware of Chesa following her. She studied the people at the nearest fires. They had gathered for companionship, not warmth in this unholy heat, and they were not close, but maybe someone had seen who went into “Marigan’s” tent. She certainly had few visitors. And no men among them. A man might well have been remarked. “I think she has run away, Chesa.”

“Why, that wicked woman!” Chesa exclaimed. “I always said she had a mean mouth and a sneaking eye. Slinking away like a thief after you took her in. She’d be starving by a road, if not for you. No gratitude at all!”

She followed all the way back to the tent where Egwene slept, nattering on about wickedness in general, the thanklessness of “Marigan” in particular, and how that sort should be handled, which seemed to jump between switching them till they settled down and tossing them out before they could run away, tucked around cautions that Egwene check her jewelry to be sure it was all still there.

Egwene barely heard. Her mind spun. It could not have been Logain, could it? He could not have known about Moghedien, much less come back to rescue her. Could he? Those men Rand was gathering, those Asha’man. Rumor in every village carried whispers of Asha’man and the Black Tower. Most of the sisters tried to pretend they were unaffected by dozens of men who could channel gathering in one spot—the worst of the tales had to be inflated; rumor always exaggerated—but Egwene’s toes wanted to curl under with fright whenever she thought of them. An Asha’man could have... But why? How would he have known, any more than Logain?

She was trying to avoid the only reasonable conclusion. Something far worse than Logain come back, or even Asha’man. One of the Forsaken had freed Moghedien. Rahvin was dead by Rand’s hand, according to Nynaeve, and he had killed Ishamael as well, or so it seemed. And Aginor and Balthamel. Moiraine had killed Be’lal. That left only Asmodean, Demandred and Sammael among the men. Sammael was in Illian. No one knew where the others were, or any of the women who survived. Moiraine had done for Lanfear too, or they had done for each other, but all the other women were still alive, so far as anyone knew. Forget the women. It had been a man. Which? Plans had been laid long since in case one of the Forsaken struck at the camp. No one sister here could equal any of the Forsaken by herself, but linked in circles was another matter, and any Forsaken who stepped into their camp would find circles forming on every side of him. Or her. Once they realized who she was. The Forsaken showed no signs of agelessness, for some reason. Maybe it was some effect of being connected to the Dark One. They...

This was dithering. She had to start thinking clearly.


“... look like you need your head rubbed for the ache again is what, is what you... Yes, Mother?”

“Find Siuan and Leane. Tell them to come to me. But don’t let anyone hear you.”

Grinning, Chesa dropped a curtsy and scampered out. She could hardly avoid knowing the currents that swirled around Egwene, yet she found all the plotting and scheming fun. Not that she knew more than surface, and little enough of that. Egwene did not doubt her loyalty, but Chesa’s opinion of what was exciting might change if she learned the depth of those swirls.

Channeling the oil lamps inside the tent alight, Egwene blew out the lantern and set it carefully in a corner. Maybe she had to think clearly, but she still felt as if she was stumbling in the dark.

A Pair of Silverpike

Egwene was sitting in her chair—one of the few real chairs in the camp, with a little plain carving like a farmer’s best armchair, roomy and comfortable enough that she felt only a touch of guilt about taking up valuable wagon space for it—she was sitting there trying to pull her thoughts together when Siuan swept aside the entry flaps and ducked into the tent. Siuan was not happy.

“Why in the Light did you run off?” Her voice had not changed with her face, and she chided with the best even when she did it in respectful tones. Barely respectful. Her blue eyes remained the same, too; they could have done for a saddlemaker’s awls. “Sheriam brushed me aside like a fly.” That surprisingly delicate mouth twisted bitterly. “She was gone almost as soon as you were. Don’t you realize she handed herself to you? She certainly does. Her, and Anaiya and Morvrin and the lot of them. You can be sure they’ll spend tonight trying to bail water and patch holes. They could manage it. I don’t see how, but they might.”

Almost as the last word left her mouth, Leane entered. A tall, willowy woman, her coppery face was as youthful as Siuan’s, and for the same reason; she also was more than old enough to be Egwene’s mother, in truth. Leane took one look at Siuan and threw up her hands as much as the roof of the tent would allow. “Mother, this is a foolish risk.” Her dark eyes went from dreamy to flashing, but her voice had a languorous quality even when she was irritated. Once, it had been brisk. “If anyone sees Siuan and me together this way—”

“I don’t care if the whole camp learns your squabbling is a fraud,” Egwene broke in sharply, weaving a small barrier against eavesdropping around the three of them. It could be worked through with time, but not without detection, so long as she held the weave instead of tying it off.

She did care, and perhaps she should not have called them both, but her first half-coherent thought had been to summon the two sisters she could count on. No one in the camp so much as suspected. Everyone knew the former Amyrlin and her former Keeper detested one another every bit as much as Siuan detested being tutor to her successor. Should any sister uncover the truth, they might well find themselves doing penance for a long time to come, and not an easy one—Aes Sedai appreciated being made fools of even less than other people; kings had been made to pay for that—but in the meanwhile their supposed animosity resulted in a certain leverage with the other sisters, including Sitters. If they both said the same thing, it must be so. Another incidental effect of being stilled was very useful, one no one else knew about. The Three Oaths no longer held them; they could lie like wool merchants, now.

Schemes and deceptions on every side. The camp was like some fetid swamp where strange growths sprouted unseen in mists. Maybe anywhere Aes Sedai gathered was like that. After three thousand years of plotting, however necessary, it was hardly surprising that scheming had become second nature to most sisters and only a breath away for the rest. The truly horrible thing was that she found herself beginning to enjoy all the machinations. Not for their own sake, but as puzzles, though no twisted bits of iron could intrigue her a quarter so much. What that said about her, she did not want to know. Well, she was Aes Sedai, whatever anyone thought, and she had to take the bad of it with the good.

“Moghedien has escaped,” she went on without pause. “A man removed the a’dam from her. A man who can channel. I think one of them took the necklace away; it wasn’t in her tent, that I saw. There might be some way to find it using the bracelet, but if there is, I don’t know it.”

That took the starch right out of them. Leane’s legs gave way, and she dropped like a sack onto the stool Chesa sometimes used. Siuan sat down on the cot slowly, back very straight, hands very still on her knees. Incongruously, Egwene noticed that her dress had tiny blue flowers embroidered in a wide Tairen maze around the bottom, a band that made the divided skirts seem one when she was still. Another band curved becomingly across the bodice. Concern for her clothes, that they be pretty instead of just suitable, was certainly a small change, looking at it one way—she never took it to extremes—yet in another, it was as drastic as her face. And a puzzle. Siuan resented the changes, and resisted them. Except for this one.

Leane, on the other hand, in true Aes Sedai fashion embraced what had changed. A young woman again—Egwene had overheard a Yellow exclaiming in wonder that both were prime childbearing age, by everything she could find—she might never have been Keeper, never have had any other face. The very image of practicality and efficiency became the ideal of an indolent and alluring Domani woman. Even her riding dress was cut in the style of her native land, and no matter that its silk, so thin it barely seemed opaque, was as impractical as the pale green color for traveling dusty roads. Told that having been stilled had broken all ties and associations, Leane had chosen the Green Ajah over a return to the Blue. Changing Ajahs was not done, but then, no one had been stilled and then Healed before, either. Siuan had gone right back into the Blue, grumbling over the idiotic need to “entreat and appeal for acceptance” as the formal phrase went.

“Oh, Light!” Leane breathed as she thumped onto the stool with considerably less than her usual grace. “We should have turned her over for trial the first day. Nothing we’ve learned from her is worth letting her loose on the world again. Nothing!” It was a measure of her shock; she did not normally go about stating the obvious. Her brain had not grown indolent, whatever her outward demeanor. Languid and seductive Domani women might be on the outside, but they were still known as the sharpest traders anywhere.

“Blood and bloody—! We should have had her watched,” Siuan growled through her teeth.

Egwene’s eyebrows rose. Siuan must be as shaken as Leane. “By who, Siuan? Faolain? Theodrin? They don’t even know you two are of my party.” A party? Five women. And Faolain and Theodrin were hardly eager adherents, especially Faolain. Nynaeve and Elayne could be counted too, of course, and Birgitte certainly, even if she was not Aes Sedai, but they were a long way off. Stealth and cunning were still her major strengths. Plus the fact that no one expected them of her. “How should I have explained to anyone why they were supposed to watch my serving woman? For that matter, what good would it have done? It had to be one of the Forsaken. Do you really think Faolain and Theodrin together could have stopped him? I’m not sure I could have, even linked with Romanda and Lelaine.” They were the next two strongest women in the camp, as strong in the Power as Siuan used to be.

Siuan visibly forced a scowl from her face, but even so, she snorted. She often said that if she could no longer be Amyrlin, then she would teach Egwene how to be the best Amyrlin ever, yet the transition from lion on a hill to mouse underfoot was difficult. Egwene allowed her no little latitude because of that.

“I want the two of you to ask about among those near the tent Moghedien was sleeping in. Someone must have seen the man. He had to come afoot. Anybody opening a gateway inside a space that little risked cutting her in two, however small he wove it.”

Siuan snorted, louder than the first time. “Why bother?” she growled. “Do you mean to go chasing after like some fool hero in a gleeman’s fool story and bring her back? Maybe tie up all the Forsaken at one go? Win the Last Battle while you’re at it? Even if we get a description head to toe, nobody knows one Forsaken from another. Nobody here, anyway. It’s the most bloody useless barrel of fish guts I ever—!”

“Siuan!” Egwene said sharply, sitting up straighter. Latitude was one thing, but there were limits. She did not put up with this even from Romanda.

Color bloomed slowly in Siuan’s cheeks. Struggling to master herself, she kneaded her skirts and avoided Egwene’s eyes. “Forgive me, Mother,” she said finally. She almost sounded as if she meant it.

“It has been a difficult day for her, Mother,” Leane put in with an impish smile. She was very good at those, though she generally used them to set some man’s heart racing. Not promiscuously, of course; she possessed discrimination and discretion in ample supply. “But then, most are. If she could only learn not to throw things at Gareth Bryne every time she gets angry—”

“Enough!” Egwene snapped. Leane was only trying to take a little of the pressure from Siuan, but she was in no mood for it. “I want to know anything I can learn about whoever freed Moghedien, even if it’s just whether he was short or tall. Any scrap that makes him less a shadow creeping in the dark. If that’s not more than I have a right to ask.” Leane sat quite still, staring at the flowers in the carpet in front of her toes.

The redness spread to cover nearly Siuan’s whole face; with her fair skin, it made her look like a sunset. “I... humbly beg your pardon, Mother.” This time, she did sound penitent. Her difficulty meeting Egwene’s gaze was obvious. “Sometimes it’s hard to... No, no excuses. I humbly beg pardon.”

Egwene fingered her stole, letting the moment set itself as she looked at Siuan without blinking. That was something Siuan herself had taught her, but after a bit she shifted uneasily on the cot. When you knew you were in the wrong, silence pricked, and the pricks drove home that you were wrong. Silence was a very useful tool in a number of situations. “Since I can’t recall what I should forgive,” she said at last, quietly, “there seems to be no need. But, Siuan... Don’t let it happen again.”

“Thank you, Mother.” A hint of wry laughter curled the corners of Siuan’s mouth. “If I may say so, I seem to have taught you very well. But if I may suggest... ?” She waited for Egwene’s impatient nod. “One of us should carry your order to Faolain or Theodrin to ask the questions, very sulky at being made a messenger. They’ll occasion a deal less comment than Leane or I. Everyone knows you are their patron.”

Egwene agreed immediately. She still was not thinking clearly, or she would have seen that for herself. The headachy feeling was back again. Chesa claimed it came from too little sleep, but sleeping was difficult when your head felt taut as a drumhead. It would take a larger head than hers not to feel tight, stuffed with as many worries as she had. Well, at least now she could pass on the secrets that had kept Moghedien hidden, how to weave disguises with the Power and how to mask your ability from other women who could channel. Revealing those had been too risky when they might have led to unmasking Moghedien.

A bit more acclaim, she thought wryly. There had been great petting and exclaiming when she announced the once-lost secret of Traveling, which at least had been her own, and more praise since for every one of the secrets she had wrenched out of Moghedien, like pulling a back tooth each time. None of the acclaim made an ounce of difference in her position, though. You could pat a talented child on the head without forgetting she was a child.

Leane departed with a curtsy and a dry comment that she was not sorry somebody else would have less than a full night’s rest for once. Siuan waited; no one could be allowed to see her and Leane leaving together. For a time Egwene merely studied the other woman. Neither spoke; Siuan seemed lost in thought. Finally she gave a start and stood, straightening her dress, plainly preparing to go.

“Siuan,” Egwene began slowly, and found herself uncertain how to continue.

Siuan thought she understood. “You were not only right, Mother,” she said, looking Egwene straight in the eye, “you were lenient. Too lenient, though I say it who shouldn’t. You are the Amyrlin Seat, and no one may be insolent or impertinent to you. If you’d given me a penance that made even Romanda feel sorry for me, it would have been no more than I deserved.”

“I will remember that next time,” Egwene said, and Siuan bowed her head as if in acceptance. Maybe it was. Unless the changes in her ran deeper than seemed possible, there almost certainly would be a next time, and more after that. “But what I want to ask about is Lord Bryne.” All expression vanished from Siuan’s face. “Are you sure you wouldn’t like me to... intervene?”

“Why would I want that, Mother?” Siuan’s voice was blander than cold water soup. “The only duties I have are teaching you the etiquette of your office and handing Sheriam reports from my eyes-and-ears.” She still retained some of her former network, though it was doubtful any knew who their reports went to now. “Gareth Bryne hardly requires enough of my time to interfere with that.” She almost always referred to him that way, and even when she used his title, she put a bite into it.

“Siuan, a burned barn and a few cows couldn’t cost that much.” Not compared with paying and feeding all those soldiers, certainly. But she had offered before, and the stiff reply was the same.

“I thank you, Mother, but no. I won’t have him saying I break my word, and I swore to work the debt off.” Abruptly, Siuan’s stiffness dissolved in laughter, rare when she spoke about Lord Bryne. Scowls were much more common. “If you need to worry about somebody, worry about him, not me. I need no help handling Gareth Bryne.”

And that was the strange part. Weak she might be in the One Power, now, but not so weak that Siuan had to keep on as his servant, spending hours up to her elbows in hot soapy water with his shirts and smallclothes. Perhaps she did so in order to have someone at hand on whom she could loose the temper she was otherwise forced to keep in a sack. Whatever the reason, it occasioned no little talk, and confirmed her oddness in many eyes; she was Aes Sedai, after all, if rather far down. His methods of dealing with her temper—once she threw plates and boots, anyway—outraged her and provoked threats of dire consequences, yet though she could have wrapped him up unable to stir a finger, Siuan never touched saidar around him, not to do his chores and not even when it meant being turned over his knee. That fact she had kept hidden from most so far, but some things slipped out when she was in a rage, or when Leane was in a humor. There seemed to be no explanation. Siuan was not weak-spirited or a fool, she was neither meek nor afraid, she was not...

“You might as well be on your way, Siuan.” Clearly, some secrets were not going to be revealed tonight. “It’s late, and I know you want your bed.”

“Yes, Mother. And, thank you,” she added, though Egwene could not have said for what.

After Siuan left, Egwene rubbed her temples once more. She wanted to pace. The tent would not do; it might be the largest in the camp occupied by just one person, but that meant less than two spans by two, and it was crowded with cot and chair and stool, washstand and stand-mirror and no fewer than three chests full of clothes. Chesa had seen to those last, and Sheriam, and Romanda and Lelaine and a dozen more Sitters. They kept seeing to them; a few more gifts of silk shifts or stockings, one more dress grand enough to receive a king, and there would be need for a fourth chest. Maybe Sheriam and the Sitters hoped all the fine dresses would blind her to anything else, but Chesa just thought the Amyrlin Seat had to be clothed suitably for her station. Servants, it seemed, believed in following the correct rituals as much as the Hall ever did. Shortly Selame would be there; it was her turn to undress Egwene for bed, another ritual. Only, between her head and her restless feet, she was not ready for bed yet.

Leaving the lamps burning, she hurried out before Selame could arrive. Walking would clear her head, and maybe tire her enough that she could sleep soundly. Putting herself to sleep would be no problem—the Wise One dreamwalkers had taught her that skill early on—yet finding any rest in it was another matter. Especially when her mind boiled with a list of worries that began with Romanda and Lelaine and Sheriam, then ran through Rand, Elaida, Moghedien, the weather and on out of sight.

She avoided the area near Moghedien’s tent. If she asked questions herself, too much importance would be given to a servant running away. Discretion had become part of her. The game she played allowed few slips, and being careless where you knew it did not matter could lead to being careless where it did. Worse, you could discover you had been wrong about where it mattered. The weak must be bold cautiously. That was Siuan again; she truly did her best to teach, and she knew this particular game very well.

There were no more people out and about in the moon-shadowed camp than had been there before, handfuls slouched wearily around low fires, exhausted by their evening’s labors after a hard day’s journey. Those who saw her rose tiredly to make their courtesies as she passed, murmuring “The Light shine on you, Mother” or something like, occasionally asking her blessing, which she gave with a simple “The Light bless you, my child.” Men and women old enough to be her grandparents sat back down beaming from that, yet she wondered what they actually believed about her, what they knew. All the Aes Sedai presented an unbroken front to the outside world, including their own servants. But Siuan said that if you believed a servant knew twice what he should, you only knew half the truth. Still, those bows and curtsies and murmurs followed her from one clump of people to the next, comforting her with the possibility that there were some at least who did not see her as a child the Hall brought out when they needed her.

As she passed an open area surrounded by ropes tied to posts driven into the ground, a gateway’s silver slash of light flashed vivid in the darkness as it rotated open. It was not really light, though; it cast no shadows. She paused to watch beside a corner post. No one at the nearby fires even looked up; they were used to this by now. A dozen or more sisters, twice as many servants and a number of Warders bustled out, returning with messages and wicker cages of pigeons from the dovecotes in Salidar, a good five hundred miles west and south as the goose flew.

They began scattering before the gateway closed, carrying their burdens to Sitters, to their Ajahs, a few back to their own tents. Most nights, Siuan would have been with them; she seldom trusted anyone else to fetch messages destined for her even if most were in codes or ciphers. Sometimes the world seemed to hold more networks of eyes-and-ears than it did Aes Sedai, though most were severely truncated by circumstance. The majority of agents for the various Ajahs seemed to be lying low until the “difficulties” in the White Tower subsided, and a good many of the individual sisters’ eyes-and-ears had no idea where the woman they served was at present.

Several of the Warders saw Egwene and made careful bows, with a respect proper to the stole; sisters might eye her askance, but the Hall had raised her Amyrlin and the Gaidin needed no more. A number of the servants offered bows or curtsies, too. Not one of the Aes Sedai hurrying away from the gateway so much as glanced in her direction. Perhaps they did not notice her. Perhaps.

In a way, that anybody could still hear from any of their eyes-and-ears at all was one of Moghedien’s “gifts.” The sisters with the strength to make gateways had all been in Salidar long enough to know it well. Those who could weave a gateway of useful size were able to Travel almost anywhere from there, and land right on the spot. Trying to Travel to Salidar, however, would have meant spending half of each night learning the new roped-off patch of ground, more for some, every time they made camp. What Egwene had pried from Moghedien was a way to journey from a place you did not know well to one you did. Slower than Traveling, Skimming was not one of the lost Talents—no one had ever heard of it—so even the name was credited to Egwene. Anyone who could Travel could Skim, so every night sisters Skimmed to Salidar, checking the dovecotes for birds that had returned to where they had been hatched, then Traveled back.

The sight should have pleased her—the rebel Aes Sedai had gained Talents the White Tower thought lost forever, as well as learned new ones, and those abilities would help cost Elaida the Amyrlin Seat before all was done—yet instead of pleasure, Egwene felt sourness. Being snubbed had nothing to do with it, or not much, anyway. As she walked on, the fires grew farther between, then faded behind; all around her lay the dark shapes of wagons, most with canvas tops stretched over iron hoops, and tents glowing palely in the moonlight. Beyond, the army’s campfires climbed the surrounding hills all around, the stars brought to ground. The silence from Caemlyn tied her middle into knots, whatever anyone else thought.

The very day they left Salidar a message had arrived, though Sheriam had not bothered to show it to her until a few days ago, and then with repeated warnings on the need to keep the contents secret. The Hall knew, but no one else must. More of the ten thousand secrets that infested the camp. Egwene was sure she never would have seen it if she had not kept going on about Rand. She could recall every carefully chosen word, written in a tiny hand on paper so thin it was a wonder the pen had not torn through.

We are well settled at the inn of which we spoke, and we have met with the wool merchant. He is a very remarkable young man, everything that Nynaeve told us. Still, he was courteous. I think he is somewhat afraid of us, which is to the good. It will go well.You may have heard rumors about men here, including a fellow from Saldaea. The rumors are all too true, I fear, but we have seen none of them and will avoid them if we can. If you pursue two hares, both will escape you.Verin and Alanna are here, with a number of young women from the same region as the wool merchant. I will try to send them on to you for training. Alanna has formed an attachment to the wool merchant which may prove useful, though it is troubling too. All will go well, I am sure.MeranaSheriam emphasized the good news, as she saw it. Merana, an experienced negotiator, had reached Caemlyn and been well received by Rand, the “wool merchant.” Wonderful news, to Sheriam. And Verin and Alanna would be bringing Two Rivers girls to become novices. Sheriam was sure they must be coming down the same road they themselves were headed up. She seemed to think Egwene would be all aglow at the expectation of seeing faces from home. Merana would handle everything. Merana knew what she was doing.

“That’s a bucket of horse sweat,” Egwene muttered at the night. A gap-toothed fellow carrying a large wooden bucket gave a start and gaped at her, so amazed he forgot to bow.

Rand, courteous? She had seen his first meeting with Coiren Saeldain, Elaida’s emissary. “Overbearing” summed it up nicely. Why should he be different with Merana? And Merana thought he was afraid, thought that was good. Rand was seldom afraid even when he should be, and if he was now, Merana should remember that fear could make the mildest man dangerous, remember that Rand was dangerous just being who he was. And what was this attachment Alanna had formed? Egwene did not entirely trust Alanna. The woman did extremely odd things at times, maybe impetuously and maybe with some deeper motive. Egwene would not put it past her to find a way into Rand’s bed; he would be clay in the hands of a woman like her. Elayne would break Alanna’s neck if that was so, but that was the least of it. Worst of all, no more of the pigeons Merana had taken with her had appeared in the Salidar dovecotes.

Merana should have had some word to send, if only that she and the rest of the embassy had gone to Cairhien. Lately the Wise Ones did little more than acknowledge Rand was alive, yet it seemed he was there, sitting on his hands as far as she could make out. Which should have been a warning beacon. Sheriam saw it differently. Who could say why any man did what he did? Probably not even the man himself, most of the time, and when it came to one who could channel... Silence proved all was well; Merana surely would have reported any real difficulty. She must be on her way to Cairhien, if not there already, and there was no need to report further until she could send word of success. For that matter, Rand in Cairhien was success of a sort. One of Merana’s goals, if not the most important, had been to ease him out of Caemlyn so that Elayne could return there safely and take the Lion Throne, and the dangers of Cairhien had dissipated. Incredible as it seemed, the Wise Ones said Coiren and her embassy had left the city on their way back to Tar Valon. Or maybe not so incredible. It all made a sort of sense, given Rand, given the way Aes Sedai did things. Even so, to Egwene, it all felt... wrong.

“I have to go to him,” she muttered. One hour, and she could straighten everything out. Underneath, he was still Rand. “That’s all there is to it. I have to go to him.”

“That isn’t possible, and you know it.”

If Egwene had not had herself on a tight rein, she would have jumped a foot. As it was, her heart pounded even after she made out Leane by the light of the moon. “I thought you were...” she said before she could stop herself, and only just managed not to say Moghedien’s name.

The taller woman fell in beside her, keeping a careful watch for other sisters as they walked. Leane did not have Siuan’s excuse for spending time with her. Not that being seen together once should cause any harm, but...

“Should not” isn’t always “will not,” Egwene reminded herself. Slipping the stole from her shoulders, she folded it to carry in one hand. At a glance, from a distance, Leane might well be taken for an Accepted despite her dress; many Accepted lacked enough of the banded white dresses to wear one all the time. From a distance, Egwene might be taken for one, too. Not the most pacifying thought.

“Theodrin and Faolain are asking around near Marigan’s tent, Mother. They weren’t especially pleased. I did a fine sulk over carrying messages, if I do say so. Theodrin had to stop Faolain dressing me down for it.” Leane’s laughter was quiet and breathy. Situations that grated Siuan’s teeth usually amused her. She was cosseted by most of the other sisters for how well she had adjusted.

“Good, good,” Egwene said absently. “Merana misstepped somehow, Leane, or he wouldn’t be staying in Cairhien, and she wouldn’t be keeping quiet.” Off in the distance, a dog bayed at the moon, then others, until they were abruptly silenced by shouts that, perhaps luckily, she could not quite understand. A number of the soldiers had dogs tagging along; there were none in the Aes Sedai camp. Any number of cats, but no dogs.

“Merana does know what she is doing, Mother.” It sounded very like a sigh. Leane and Siuan both agreed with Sheriam. Everyone did, except her. “When you give someone a task, you have to trust it to them.”

Egwene sniffed and folded her arms. “Leane, that man could strike sparks from a damp cloth, if it wore the shawl. I don’t know Merana, but I’ve never seen an Aes Sedai who qualified as a damp cloth.”

“I’ve met one or two,” Leane chuckled. This time her sigh was plain. “But not Merana, true. Does he really believe he has friends inside the Tower? Alviarin? That might make him difficult for Merana, I suppose, but I can hardly see Alviarin doing anything to risk her place. She was always ambitious enough for three.”

“He has a letter supposedly from her.” She could still see Rand gloating over receiving letters from Elaida and Alviarin both, back before she herself left Cairhien. “Maybe her ambitions make her think she can replace Elaida with him on her side. That’s if she really wrote it. He thinks he’s clever, Leane—maybe he is—but he doesn’t believe he needs anyone.” Rand would go on thinking he could handle anything by himself right up until one of those anythings crushed him. “I know him inside and out, Leane. Being around the Wise Ones seems to have infected him, or maybe he infected them. Whatever the Sitters think, whatever any of you think, an Aes Sedai’s shawl doesn’t impress him any more than it does the Wise Ones. Sooner or later he’ll exasperate a sister until she does something about it, or one of them will push him the wrong way, not realizing how strong he is, and what his temper is now. After that there might be no going back. I’m the only one who can deal with him safely. The only one.”

“He can hardly be as... irritating... as those Aielwomen,” Leane murmured wryly. Even she found it difficult to be amused by her experiences with the Wise Ones. “But it hardly matters. ‘The Amyrlin Seat being valued with the White Tower itself...’ ”

A pair of women appeared between the tents ahead, moving slowly as they talked. Distance and shadows obscured their faces, yet it was clear they were Aes Sedai from the way they carried themselves, an assurance that nothing hiding in any darkness could harm them. No Accepted on the brink of the shawl could manage quite that degree of confidence. A queen with an army at her back might not. They were coming toward her and Leane. Leane quickly turned in to the deeper dimness between two wagons.

Scowling with frustration, Egwene nearly pulled her out again and marched on. Let it all come into the open. She would stand before the Hall and tell them it was time they realized the Amyrlin’s stole was more than a pretty scarf. She would... Following Leane, she motioned the other woman to walk on. What she would not do was throw everything on the midden heap in a fit of pique.

Only one Tower law specifically limited the power of the Amyrlin Seat. A fistful of irritating customs and a barrel full of inconvenient realities, but only one law, yet it could not have been a worse for her purposes. “The Amyrlin Seat being valued with the White Tower itself, as the very heart of the White Tower, she must not be endangered without dire necessity, therefore unless the White Tower be at war by declaration of the Hall of the Tower, the Amyrlin Seat shall seek the lesser consensus of the Hall of the Tower before deliberately placing herself in the way of any danger, and she shall abide by the consensus that stands.” What rash incident by an Amyrlin had inspired that, Egwene did not know, but it had been law for something over two thousand years. To most Aes Sedai, any law that old attained an aura of holiness; changing it was unthinkable.

Romanda had quoted that... that bloody law as though lecturing a half-wit. If the Daughter-Heir of Andor could not be allowed within a hundred miles of the Dragon Reborn, how much more they must preserve the Amyrlin Seat. Lelaine sounded almost regretful, most likely because she was agreeing with Romanda. That had nearly curdled both their tongues. Without them, both of them, the lesser consensus lay as far out of reach as the greater. Light, even that declaration of war only required the lesser consensus! So if she could not obtain permission... Leane cleared her throat. “You can hardly do much if you go in secret, Mother, and the Hall will find out, soon or late. I think you would find it difficult to have an hour to yourself after that. Not that they’d dare put a guard on you, precisely, but there are ways. I can quote examples from... certain sources.” She never mentioned the hidden records directly unless they were behind a ward.

“Am I so transparent?” Egwene asked after a moment. There were only wagons around them here, and beneath the wagons the dark mounds of sleeping wagon drivers and horse handlers and all the rest needed to keep so many vehicles moving. It was remarkable just how many conveyances over three hundred Aes Sedai required, when few would condescend to ride even a mile in wagon or cart. But there were tents and furnishings and foodstuffs, and a thousand things needed to keep the sisters and those who served them. The loudest sounds here were snores, a chorus of frogs.

“No, Mother,” Leane laughed softly. “I just thought what I would do. But it’s well known I’ve lost all my dignity and sense; the Amyrlin Seat can hardly take me for a model. I think you must let young Master al’Thor go as he will, for a time anyway, while you pluck the goose that’s in front of you.”

“His way may lead us all to the Pit of Doom,” Egwene muttered, but it was not an argument. There had to be a way to pluck that goose and still keep Rand from making dangerous mistakes, but she could not see it now. Not frogs; those snores sounded like a hundred saws cutting logs full of knots. “This is as bad a spot for a soothing walk as I’ve ever visited. I think I might as well go to bed.”

Leane tilted her head. “In that case, Mother, if you will forgive me, there’s a man in Lord Bryne’s camp... After all, whoever heard of a Green without even one Warder?” From the sudden quickening in her voice, you might have thought she was off to meet a lover. Considering what Egwene had heard about Greens, perhaps there was not that much difference.

Back among the tents, the last of the fires had been doused with dirt; no one took risks with fire when the countryside was tinder dry. A few tendrils of smoke rose lazily in the moonlight where the job had not been well done. A man murmured drowsily in his sleep inside a tent, and here and there a cough drifted out or a rasping snore, but otherwise the camp lay silent and still. Which was why Egwene was surprised when someone stepped from the shadows in front of her, especially someone wearing the simple white dress of a novice.

“Mother, I need to speak to you.”

“Nicola?” Egwene had made a point of fixing name to face for every novice, no easy chore given how sisters hunted all along the army’s path for girls and young women who could learn. Active search was still not well thought of—custom was to wait for the girl to ask, best of all to wait for her to come to the Tower—but ten times as many novices studied in the camp now as the White Tower had held in years. Nicola was one to be remembered, though, and besides, Egwene had often noticed the young woman staring at her. “Tiana won’t be pleased if she finds you up this late.” Tiana Noselle was the Mistress of Novices, known equally for a comforting shoulder when a novice needed to cry and an unyielding stance when it came to rules.

The other woman shifted as if to hurry away, then straightened her back. Sweat glistened on her cheeks. The darkness was cooler than the light had been, but not what anyone would call cool, and the simple trick of ignoring heat or cold came only with the shawl. “I know I’m supposed to ask to see Tiana Sedai and then ask her to see you, Mother, but she’d never let a novice approach the Amyrlin Seat.”

“About what, child?” Egwene asked. The woman was older by six or seven years at least, but that was the proper address for a novice.

Fidgeting with her skirt, Nicola stepped closer. Large eyes met Egwene’s perhaps more directly than a novice’s should have. “Mother, I want to go as far as I can.” Her hands plucked at her dress, but her voice was cool and self-possessed, fit for an Aes Sedai. “I won’t say they are holding me back, but I am sure I can become stronger than they say. I just know I can. You were never held back, Mother. No one has ever gained so much of her strength as fast as you. All I ask is the same chance.”

Movement in the shadow behind Nicola turned into another sweaty-faced woman, this one in short coat and wide trousers, carrying a bow. Her hair hung to her waist in a braid tied with six ribbons, and she wore short boots with raised heels.

Nicola Treehill and Areina Nermasiv seemed an odd pair to be friends. Like many of the older novices—women with nearly ten years on Egwene were tested now, though many sisters still grumbled that they were ten years too old to accept novice discipline—like many of those older women, Nicola was ferocious in her desire to learn, by all reports, and she had a potential bettered only by Nynaeve, Elayne and Egwene herself among living Aes Sedai. In fact, Nicola apparently was making great strides, often great enough that her teachers had to slow her down. Some said she had begun picking up weaves as if she already knew them. Not only that, but she already demonstrated two Talents, although the ability to “see” ta’veren was minor, while the major Talent, Foretelling, emerged so that no one understood what she had Foretold. She herself did not remember a word she said. All in all, Nicola was already marked by the sisters as someone to watch despite her late start. The begrudging agreement to test women older than seventeen or eighteen probably could be laid at Nicola’s feet.

Areina, on the other hand, was a Hunter for the Horn who swaggered as much as a man and sat around talking of adventures, those she had had and those she would, when she was not practicing with her bow. Very likely she had picked that weapon up from Birgitte, along with her manner of dress. She certainly seemed to have no interest in anything beside the bow, except flirting occasionally, in a rather forward manner, though not lately. Perhaps long days on the road left her too tired for it, if not for archery. Why she was still traveling with them, Egwene could not understand; it was hardly likely that Areina believed the Horn of Valere would turn up along their march, and impossible that she even suspected it was hidden away inside the White Tower. Very few people knew that. Egwene was not certain even Elaida did.

Areina seemed a posturing fool, but Egwene felt a certain sympathy for Nicola. She understood the woman’s discontent, understood wanting to know it all now. She had been that way, too. Maybe she still was. “Nicola,” she said gently, “we all have limits. I’ll never match Nynaeve Sedai, for example, whatever I do.”

“But if I could only have the chance, Mother.” Nicola actually wrung her hands in pleading, and there was a touch of it in her voice, yet her eyes still met Egwene’s levelly. “The chance you had.”

“What I did—because I had no choice, because I didn’t know better—is called forcing, Nicola, and it is dangerous.” She had not heard that term until Siuan apologized for doing it to her; that was one time Siuan truly had seemed repentant. “You know if you try to channel more of saidar than you’re ready to handle, you risk burning yourself out before you ever come close to your full strength. Best you learn to be patient. The sisters won’t let you be anything else until you are ready, anyway.”

“We came to Salidar on the same riverboat as Nynaeve and Elayne,” Areina said suddenly. Her gaze was more than direct; it was challenging. “And Birgitte.” For some reason, she said the name bitterly.

Nicola made shushing motions. “There’s no need to bring that up.” Oddly, she did not sound as if she meant it.

Hoping she was keeping her face half so smooth as Nicola’s, Egwene tried to quell a sudden uneasiness. “Marigan” had come to Salidar on that boat, too. An owl hooted, and she shivered. Some people thought hearing an owl in moonlight meant bad news was coming. She was not superstitious, but... “No need to bring up what?”

The other two women exchanged looks, and Areina nodded.

“It was on the walk from the river to the village.” For all her supposed reluctance, Nicola peered straight into Egwene’s eyes. “Areina and I heard Thom Merrilin and Juilin Sandar talking. The gleeman, and the thief-taker? Juilin said if there were Aes Sedai in the village—we weren’t sure, yet—and they learned Nynaeve and Elayne had been pretending to be Aes Sedai, then we were all jumping into a school of silverpike, which I take it isn’t very safe.”

“The gleeman saw us and hushed him,” Areina put in, fingering the quiver at her waist, “but we heard.” Her voice was hard as her stare.

“I know they’re both Aes Sedai now, Mother, but wouldn’t they still be in trouble if anyone found out? The sisters, I mean? Anybody who pretends to be a sister is in trouble if they find out, even years later.” Nicola’s face did not change, but her gaze suddenly seemed to be trying to fix Egwene’s. She leaned a little forward, intent. “Anybody at all. Isn’t that so?”

Emboldened by Egwene’s silence, Areina grinned. An unpleasant grin in the night. “I hear Nynaeve and Elayne were sent out of the Tower on some task by the Sanche woman back when she was Amyrlin. I hear you were sent off by her, too, at the same time. Got into all sorts of trouble when you came back.” Sly insinuation slithered into her voice. “Do you remember them playing at Aes Sedai?”

They stood there looking at her, Areina leaning insolently on her bow, Nicola so expectant the air should have crackled.

“Siuan Sanche is Aes Sedai,” Egwene said coldly, “and so are Nynaeve al’Meara and Elayne Trakand. You will show them proper respect. To you, they are Siuan Sedai, Nynaeve Sedai and Elayne Sedai.” The pair blinked in surprise. Inside, her stomach quivered. With outrage. After everything she had been through tonight, she was confronted with blackmail from these... ? She could not think of a word bad enough. Elayne could have; Elayne listened to stablemen and wagon drivers and every sort, memorizing the words she should have refused to hear. Unfolding the striped stole, Egwene draped it carefully across her shoulders.

“I don’t think you understand, Mother,” Nicola said hastily. Not fearfully, however; just attempting to force her point. “I merely worried that if anyone found out that you had—” Egwene gave her no chance to go further.

“Oh, I understand, child.” The fool woman was a child, however old she was. Any number of the older novices gave trouble, usually in the form of insolence toward Accepted set to teach them, but even the silliest had sense enough to avoid impertinence to the sisters. It fanned her anger to white heat, that the woman had the gall to try this on with her. They were both taller than she, if not by much, but she planted her fists on her hips and drew herself up, and they shrank away as though she loomed. “Do you have any notion how serious it is to bring charges against a sister, especially for a novice? Charges based on a conversation you claim to have heard between men now a thousand miles away! Tiana would skin you alive and put you to scrubbing pots the rest of your natural life.” Nicola kept trying to push a word in—apologies, they sounded like this time, and more protests that Egwene did not understand, frantic attempts to change everything—but Egwene ignored her and rounded on Areina. The Hunter took another step back, wetting her lips and looking remarkably uncertain. “You needn’t think you would walk away clear, either. Even a Hunter could be hauled to Tiana for a thing like this. If you’re lucky enough not to be flogged at a wagon tongue, the way they do soldiers caught stealing. Either way, you’ll be tossed out by the road with your welts for company.”

Drawing a deep breath, Egwene folded her hands at her waist. Clutched together, they would not tremble. All but cowering, the pair looked suitably chastened. She hoped those downcast eyes and slumped shoulders and shifting feet were not feigned. By rights, she should send them to Tiana right now. She had no idea what the penalty might be for trying to blackmail the Amyrlin Seat, but it seemed likely that being turned out of the camp would be the least of it. In Nicola’s case, the turning out would have to wait until her teachers were satisfied she knew enough of channeling not to hurt herself or others by accident. Nicola Treehill would never be Aes Sedai, though, once that charge was laid against her; all that potential would go for nothing.

Except... Any woman caught pretending to be Aes Sedai was set down so hard she would still be whimpering years later, and an Accepted caught might very well consider the other woman fortunate, but surely Nynaeve and Elayne were safe now they really were sisters. Herself, as well. Only, it might take no more than a whisper of this to erase any chance of making the Hall acknowledge her truly the Amyrlin Seat. As well jaunt off to Rand, and then tell the Hall to their faces. She dared not allow these two to see her doubt, or even suspect.

“I will forget this,” she said sharply. “But if I hear so much as a whisper of it again, from anyone...” She drew a ragged breath—if she heard shouts of it, there might be little she could do—but by the way they jumped, they read a threat that pricked deep. “Get to your beds before I change my mind.”

In an instant they became a flurry of curtsies, of “Yes, Mother” and “No, Mother” and “As you command, Mother.” They scurried away looking back over their shoulders at her, every step faster than the last, until they were running. She had to walk on sedately, but she wanted to run too.

Unseen Eyes

Selame was waiting when Egwene got back to her tent, a rail-thin woman with dark Tairen coloring and a nearly impervious self-assurance. Chesa was right; she did carry her long nose raised, as though recoiling from a bad smell. Yet if her manner with the other maids was arrogant, she was in reality quite different around her patroness. As Egwene entered, Selame folded herself into a curtsy so deep her head nearly brushed the carpet, skirts spread as wide as they would go in the cramped quarters. Before Egwene had taken her second step inside, the woman leaped up, fussing over her buttons. And fussing over her, too. Selame had very little sense.

“Oh, Mother, you went out with your head uncovered again.” As if she had ever worn any of those beaded caps the woman favored, or the embroidered velvet things Meri favored, or Chesa’s plumed hats. “Why, you’re shivering. You should never go walking out-of-doors without a shawl and parasol, Mother.” How was a parasol supposed to stop shivering? With sweat trickling down her own cheeks however fast she dabbed with her handkerchief, Selame never thought to ask why she shivered, which was perhaps just as well. “And you went alone, in the night. It just isn’t proper, Mother. Besides, there are all those soldiers, rough men, with no decent respect for any woman, even Aes Sedai. Mother, you simply mustn’t...”

Egwene let the foolish words wash over her in the same way she let the woman undress her, paying less than half a mind. Ordering her to be quiet would only produce so many hurt looks and abused sighs that it made little difference. Except for the brainless chatter, Selame performed her duties diligently, if with so many flourishes they became a dance of grand gestures and obsequious curtsies. It seemed impossible that anyone could be as silly as Selame, always concerned with appearances, always worrying over what people would think. To her, people were Aes Sedai and the nobility, and their upper servants. By her book, no one else mattered; perhaps no one else thought, by her book. It probably was impossible. Egwene was not about to forget who had found Selame in the first place, any more than she did who had found Meri. True, Chesa was a gift from Sheriam, but Chesa had shown her loyalties to Egwene more than once. Egwene wanted to tell herself the tremors that the other woman took for shivers were quivers of rage, yet she knew a worm of fear writhed in her belly. She had come too far, had too much to do yet, to allow Nicola and Areina to put a spoke through her wheels.

As her head popped through the top of a clean shift, she caught a bit of the skinny woman’s prattle and stared. “Did you say ewe’s milk?”

“Oh, yes, Mother. Your skin is so soft, and nothing will keep it that way like bathing in ewe’s milk.”

Maybe she really was an idiot. Hustling a protesting Selame out, Egwene brushed her own hair, turned down her own cot, placed the now useless a’dam bracelet in the small carved ivory box where she kept her few pieces of jewelry, then extinguished the lamps. All by myself, she thought sarcastically in the darkness. Selame and Meri will have conniptions.

Before retiring, however, she padded to the entrance and opened a small gap in the doorflaps. Outside was moonlit stillness and silence, broken by a night heron’s cry that suddenly cut off in a shriek. There were hunters abroad in the darkness. After a moment something moved in the shadows beside a tent across the way. It looked like a woman.

Perhaps idiocy did not disqualify Selame any more than dour-faced gloom eliminated Meri. It could be either one. Or someone else entirely. Even Nicola or Areina, however unlikely. She let the tentflap fall shut with a smile. Whoever the watcher was would not see where she went tonight.

The way the Wise Ones had taught her to put herself to sleep was simple. Eyes closed, feeling each part of the body relax in turn, breathing in time with her heartbeat, mind unfocused and drifting, all but one tiny corner, drifting. Sleep swept over her in moments, but it was the sleep of a dreamwalker.

Formless, she floated deep within an ocean of stars, infinite points of light glimmering in an infinite sea of darkness, fireflies beyond counting flickering in an endless night. Those were dreams, the dreams of everyone sleeping anywhere in the world, maybe of everyone in all possible worlds, and this was the gap between reality and Tel’aran’rhiod, the space separating the waking world from the World of Dreams. Wherever she looked ten thousand fireflies vanished as people woke, and ten thousand new were born to replace them. A vast ever-changing array of sparkling beauty. She did not waste time in admiration, though. This place held dangers, some deadly. She was sure she knew how to avoid those, but one peril in this place aimed straight at her if she lingered too long, and being caught in it would be embarrassing to say the least. Keeping a wary eye out—well, it would have been a wary eye had she had eyes here—she moved. She had no sense of motion. It seemed she stood still and that glittering ocean swirled around her until one light settled before her. Every twinkling star looked exactly like every other, yet she knew this was Nynaeve’s dream. How she knew was another matter; not even the Wise Ones understood that recognition.

She had considered trying to find Nicola’s dreams, and Areina’s. Once she unearthed them, she knew exactly how to sink the fear of the Light into their bones, and she did not give a fig that every bit of it was proscribed. Practicality sent her here instead, not fear of the forbidden. She had done what was not done before, and she was certain she would again should it become necessary. Do what you must, then pay the price for it, was what she had been taught, by the same women who had marked off those forbidden areas. It was refusal to admit the debt, refusal to pay, that often turned necessity to evil. But even if that pair were asleep, locating someone’s dreams the first time was arduous at best, without guarantees. Days of efforts—nights of it, rather—were more likely to deliver nothing. This was at least sure.

Slowly she moved closer through everlasting darkness, though once again it seemed that she stayed still and the pinpoint of light grew, to a glowing pearl, an iridescent apple, a full moon, until it filled her vision entirely with brightness, all the world. She did not touch it, though, not yet. A space finer than a hair remained between. Ever so gently, she reached across that gap. With what, lacking a body, was as much a mystery as how she knew one dream from another. Her will, the Wise Ones said, but she still did not understand how that could be. As though laying a finger to a soap bubble, she kept her touch very delicate indeed. The shining wall shimmered like spun glass, pulsed like a heart, delicate and alive. A little firmer touch, and she would be able to “see” inside, “see” what Nynaeve was dreaming. A bit firmer still, and she could actually step inside and be a part of the dream. That carried hazards, especially with anyone of a strong mind, but either looking in or stepping in could be mortifying. For example, if the dreamer happened to be dreaming of a man she was particularly interested in. Apologies alone took half the night when you did that. Or, with a hooking sort of motion, like rolling a fragile bead across a tabletop, she could snatch Nynaeve out, into a dream of her own making, a part of Tel’aran’rhiod itself, where she was in complete control. She was sure that would work. Of course, that was one of the forbidden things, and she did not think Nynaeve would appreciate it.


The dream winked out, the soap bubble pricked. Despite the message, she would have giggled had she possessed a throat. A disembodied voice in your dream could have a startling effect. Especially if you were afraid the speaker might be peeking. Nynaeve was not one to forget even when it was an accident.

That light-spangled sea whirled about her once more until she settled on another sparkling pinpoint. Elayne. The two women very likely slept no more than a dozen paces apart in Ebou Dar, but distance had no meaning here. Or perhaps it had a different meaning.

This time when she delivered her message, the dream pulsed and changed. It still appeared exactly the same as every other, but even so, to her it was transformed. Had the words drawn Elayne into another dream? They would remain, however, and she would remember on waking.

With Nicola and Areina’s bowstrings dampened a little more, it was time to turn her attention to Rand. Unfortunately, finding his dreams would be as useless as finding an Aes Sedai’s. He shielded his somewhat as they did theirs, although apparently a man’s shield differed from a woman’s. An Aes Sedai’s shield was a crystal carapace, a seamless sphere woven of Spirit, but however transparent it appeared, it might as well have been steel. She could not recall how many fruitless hours she had frittered away trying to peer through his. Where a sister’s shielded dream seemed brighter, close up, his were dimmer. It was like staring into muddy water; some-times you had the impression that something had moved deep in those gray-brown swirls, but you could never tell what.

Again the endless array of lights spun and settled, and she approached a third woman’s dream. Gingerly. So much lay between her and Amys that it seemed akin to approaching her mother’s dreams. In truth, she had to admit, she wanted to emulate Amys in many ways. She desired Amys’ respect every bit as greatly as she did the Hall’s. Maybe, if she had to choose, she would choose Amys’. Certainly, there was no Sitter she esteemed as highly as she did Amys. Pushing away a sudden diffidence, she tried to make her “voice” softer, to no avail. AMYS, THIS IS EGWENE. I MUST SPEAK WITH YOU.

We will come, a voice murmured to her. Amys’ voice.

Startled, Egwene backed away. She felt like laughing at herself. Perhaps it was just as well to be reminded that the Wise Ones had long years’ more experience at this. There were times she was afraid she might have been spoiled by not having to work harder for her abilities with the One Power. Then again, as if to make up for it, sometimes everything else seemed like trying to climb a cliff in a rainstorm.

Abruptly she caught movement at the very edge of her field of vision. One of those points of light slid through the sea of stars, drifting toward her of its own volition, growing larger. Only one dream would do that, one dreamer. In a panic, she fled, wishing she had a throat to scream, or curse, or just shout. Especially at the tiny corner of her that wanted to stay where she was and wait.

Not even the stars moved this time. They simply disappeared, and she was leaning against a thick redstone column, panting as though she had sprinted a mile, heart beating fit to burst. After a moment, she looked down at herself and began to laugh a trifle unsteadily, trying to catch her breath. She had on a full-skirted gown of shimmering green silk, worked in thread-of-gold in wide, ornate bands across the bodice and along the hem. That bodice also showed considerably more bosom than she ever would waking, and a broad cinched belt of woven gold made her waist seem smaller than it really was. Then again, maybe it was smaller. Here in Tel’aran’rhiod, you could be however you wanted, whatever you wanted. Even when the wanting was unconscious, if you were not careful. Gawyn Trakand had unfortunate effects on her, very unfortunate.

That tiny part of her still wished she had waited to be overtaken by his dream. Overtaken and absorbed by it. If a dreamwalker loved somebody to distraction, or hated them beyond reason, most especially if the emotion was returned, she could be pulled into that person’s dream; she drew the dream, or it drew her, as a lodestone drew iron filings. She certainly did not hate Gawyn, but she could not afford to be trapped in his dream, not tonight, trapped until he wakened, being as he saw her. Which was a good deal more beautiful than she truly was; oddly, he appeared less beautiful than he was in life. There was no question of a strong mind or concentration when love or hate that strong was involved. Once you were in that dream, there you remained until the other person stopped dreaming about you. Remembering what he dreamed of doing with her, what they had done in his dreams, she felt a fiery blush suffusing her face.

“A good thing none of the Sitters can see me now,” she muttered. “They’d never take me for anything but a girl, then.” Grown women did not flutter and moon over a man this way; she was certain of that. Not women with any sense, anyway. What he dreamed of would come, but at a time of her choosing. Obtaining her mother’s permission might be difficult, yet surely she would not withhold it even if she had never laid eyes on Gawyn. Marin al’Vere trusted her daughters’ judgment. Now it was time for her youngest daughter to show a little of that judgment and put these fancies away until a better time.

Looking around, she almost wished she could go on letting Gawyn fill her thoughts. More massive columns ran in every direction, supporting a soaring, vaulted ceiling and a great dome. None of the gilded lamps hanging from golden chains overhead were lit, yet there was light of a sort, light that was just there, without source, neither bright nor dim. The Heart of the Stone, inside the great fortress called the Stone of Tear. Or rather its image in Tel’aran’rhiod, an image as real as the original in many ways. This was where she had met the Wise Ones before, their choice. A strange one for Aiel, it seemed to her. She would have expected Rhuidean, now that it was open, or somewhere else in the Aiel Waste, or simply wherever the Wise Ones happened to be. Every place except Ogier stedding had its reflection in the World of Dreams—even the stedding did, really; but they could not be entered, just as Rhuidean had once been closed. The Aes Sedai camp was out of the question, of course. A number of the sisters now had access to ter’angreal that allowed them to enter the World of Dreams, and since none really knew what they were doing, they often began their ventures by appearing in the camp of Tel’aran’rhiod as though setting out on a normal journey.

Like angreal and sa’angreal, by Tower law ter’angreal were the property of the White Tower, no matter who happened to possess them for the present. Very seldom did the Tower insist, at least when possession lay somewhere like the so-called Great Holding in this very Stone of Tear—eventually they would come to the Aes Sedai, and the White Tower had always been good at waiting when it needed to—but those actually in Aes Sedai hands were in the gift of the Hall, of individual Sitters. The loan, really; they were almost never given. Elayne had learned to duplicate dream ter’angreal, and she and Nynaeve had taken two with them, but the rest were in the Hall’s possession now, along with the other sorts Elayne had made. Which meant that Sheriam and her little circle could use them whenever they wished, and most assuredly Lelaine and Romanda, though it was likely those two sent others instead of entering Tel’aran’rhiod themselves. Until quite recently, no Aes Sedai had walked the dream in centuries, and they still had considerable difficulties, most of which stemmed from a belief that they could learn by themselves. Even so, the last thing Egwene wanted was any of their followers spying on this meeting tonight.

As though the thought of spies had made her more sensitive, she became aware of being watched by unseen eyes. That sensation was always present in Tel’aran’rhiod, and not even the Wise Ones knew why, but although hidden eyes always seemed to be there, actual watchers might be present as well. It was not Romanda or Lelaine on her mind, now.

Trailing her hand against the column, she walked all the way around it slowly, studying the redstone forest as it ran away in deepening shadows. The light surrounding her was not real; anybody in one of those shadows would see the same light around them while shadows hid her. People did appear, men and women, flickering images that rarely lasted more than a few heartbeats. She had no interest in those who touched the World of Dreams in their sleep; anyone might do that by happenstance, but luckily for them, only for moments, seldom long enough to face any of the dangers. The Black Ajah possessed dream ter’angreal, too, stolen from the Tower. Worse, Moghedien knew Tel’aran’rhiod as well as any dreamwalker. Perhaps better. She could control this place and anyone in it as easily as turning her hand.

For a moment Egwene wished she had spied on Moghedien’s dreams while the woman was prisoner, just once, just enough to be able to distinguish them. But even identifying her dreams would not reveal where she was now. And there had been the possibility of being drawn in against her will. She certainly despised Moghedien enough, and the Forsaken most assuredly hated her without bounds. What happened in there was not real, not even as real as in Tel’aran’rhiod, but you remembered it as if it was. A night in Moghedien’s power would have been a nightmare she likely would have relived every time she went to sleep for the rest of her life. Maybe awake, too.

Another circuit. What was that? A dark, regally beautiful woman in pearl-covered cap and lace-ruffed gown strode from the shadows and vanished. A Tairen woman dreaming, a High Lady or dreaming herself as one. She might be plain and dumpy, a farmwife or a merchant, awake.

Better to have spied on Logain than Moghedien. She still would not know where he was, but she might have some idea of his plans. Of course, being pulled into his dream might not have been much more pleasant than being drawn into Moghedien’s. He hated all Aes Sedai. Arranging his escape had been one of those necessary things; she just hoped the price would not be too high. Forget Logain. Moghedien was the danger, Moghedien who might come after her, even here, especially here, Moghedien who... Suddenly she became aware of how heavily she was moving, and made a vexed sound in her throat, very nearly a groan. The beautiful gown had become a full set of plate-and-mail armor like that of Gareth Bryne’s heavy cavalry. An open-faced helmet rested on her head, with a crest in the shape of the Flame of Tar Valon, by the feel. It was very irritating. She was beyond this sort of lack of control.

Firmly she changed the armor to what she had worn meeting the Wise Ones before. It was just a matter of thought. Full skirt of dark wool and loose white algode blouse, just as she had worn while studying with them, complete with a fringed shawl so green it was nearly black and a folded head scarf to hold her hair back. She did not duplicate their jewelry, of course, all the multitudes of necklaces and bracelets. They would laugh at her for that. A woman built her collection over the years, not in the blink of a dream.

“Logain is on his way to the Black Tower,” she said aloud; she certainly hoped he was; at least there would be some check on him then, or so she hoped, and if he was caught and gentled again, Rand could not blame any sister following her, “and Moghedien has no way of knowing where I am.” That, she tried to make sound a certainty.

“Why should you fear the Shadowsouled?” asked a voice behind her, and Egwene tried to climb into the air. This being Tel’aran’rhiod, and she a dreamwalker, she was more than her own height above the floorstones before she came to herself. Oh, yes she thought, floating, I’m far beyond all those beginner’s mistakes. If this went on, next she would be jumping when Chesa gave her good morning.

Hoping she was not blushing too badly, she let herself settle slowly; perhaps she could retain a little dignity.

Perhaps, yet Bair’s aged face had more creases than usual from a grin that seemed nearly to touch her ears. Unlike the other two women with her, she could not channel, but that had nothing to do with dreamwalking. She was as skilled as either, more in some areas. Amys was smiling too, if not so broadly, but sun-haired Melaine threw back her head and roared.

“I have never seen anyone...” Melaine just managed to get out. “Like a rabbit.” She gave a little hop and lifted a full pace into the air.

“I recently caused Moghedien some hurt.” Egwene was quite proud of her poise. She liked Melaine—the woman was much less thorny since she was with child; with twins, actually—but at the moment Egwene could have strangled her cheerfully. “Some friends and I damaged her pride, if not much more. I think she would like the opportunity to repay me.” On impulse, she changed her clothes once more, to the sort of riding dress she wore every day now, in lustrous green silk. The Great Serpent encircled her finger with gold. She could not tell them everything, but these women were friends too, and they deserved to know what she could tell.

“Wounds to the pride are remembered long after wounds to the flesh.” Bair’s voice was thin and high, yet strong, a reed of iron.

“Tell us about it,” Melaine said, with an eager smile. “How did you shame her?” Bair’s was just as enthusiastic. In a cruel land, you either learned to laugh at cruelty or spent your life weeping; in the Three-fold Land, the Aiel had learned to laugh long since. Besides, shaming an enemy was considered an art.

Amys studied Egwene’s new clothes for a moment, then said, “That can come later, I think. We are to talk, you said.” She gestured to where the Wise Ones liked to talk, out beneath the vast dome at the heart of the chamber.

Why they chose that spot was another mystery Egwene could not puzzle out. The three women settled themselves cross-legged, spreading their skirts neatly, only a few paces from what seemed to be a sword made of gleaming crystal, rising hilt-first from where it had been driven into the floor-stones. They paid it no mind whatsoever—it was no part of their prophecies—any more than they did the people who flashed into existence around the great chamber, but here was always where they came.

Fabled Callandor would indeed function as a sword despite its appearance, but in truth it was a male sa’angreal, one of the most powerful ever made in the Age of Legends. She felt a little shiver, thinking of male sa’angreal. It had been different when there was only Rand. And the Forsaken, of course. But now there were these Asha’man. With Callandor, a man could draw enough of the One Power to level a city in a heartbeat and devastate everything for miles. She walked wide around it, holding her skirts aside reflexively. From the Heart of the Stone Rand had drawn Callandor in fulfillment of the Prophecies, then returned it for his own reasons. Returned it, and snared it round with traps woven in saidin. They would have their reflection, too, one that might trigger as decisively as the original should the wrong weaves be tried nearby. Some things in Tel’aran’rhiod were all too real.

Trying not to think of the Sword That Is Not a Sword, Egwene placed herself before the three Wise Ones. Fastening their shawls around their waists, they unlaced their blouses. That was how Aiel women sat with friends, in their tents beneath a hot sun. She did not sit, and if that made her seem a supplicant or on trial, so be it. In a way, in her heart, she was. “I’ve not told you why I was summoned away from you, and you have not asked.”

“You will tell us when you are ready,” Amys said complacently. She looked of an age with Melaine despite hair white as Bair’s tumbling to her waist—her hair had begun turning when she was little older than Egwene—but she was the leader among the three, not Bair. For the first time, Egwene wondered just how old she was. Not a question you asked a Wise One, any more than an Aes Sedai.

“When I left you, I was one of the Accepted. You know about the division in the White Tower.” Bair shook her head and grimaced; she knew, but she did not understand. None of them did. To Aiel, it was as unreal as clan or warrior society dividing against itself. Perhaps it was also affirmation in their eyes that Aes Sedai were less than they should be. Egwene went on, surprised that her voice was collected, steady. “The sisters who oppose Elaida have raised me as their Amyrlin. When Elaida is pulled down, I will sit on the Amyrlin Seat, in the White Tower.” She added the striped stole to her clothes and waited. Once she had lied to them, a serious transgression under ji’e’toh, and she was not sure how they would react to learning this truth she had hidden. If only they believed, at least. They merely looked at her.

“There is a thing children do,” Melaine said carefully after a time. Her pregnancy did not show yet, but already she had the inner radiance, making her even more beautiful than usual, and an inward, unshakable calm. “Children all want to push spears, and they all want to be the clan chief, but eventually they realize that the clan chief seldom dances the spears himself. So they make a figure and set it on a rise.” Off to one side the floor suddenly mounded up, no longer stone tiles but a ridge of sun-baked brown rock. Atop it stood a shape vaguely like a man, made of twisted twigs and bits of cloth. “This is the clan chief who commands them to dance the spears from the hill where he can see the battle. But the children run where they will, and their clan chief is only a figure of sticks and rags.” A wind whipped the cloth strips, emphasizing the hollowness of the shape, and then ridge and figure were gone.

Egwene drew a deep breath. Of course. She had atoned for her lie according to ji’e’toh, by her own choice, and that meant it was as if the lie had never been spoken. She should have known better. But they had struck to the heart of her situation as though they had been weeks in the Aes Sedai camp. Bair studied the floor, not wanting to witness her shame. Amys sat with chin in hand, sharp blue gaze trying to dig to her heart.

“Some see me so.” Another deep breath, and she pushed the truth out. “All but a handful do. Now. By the time we finish our battle, they will know I am their chief, and they will run as I say.”

“Return to us,” Bair said. “You have too much honor for these women. Sorilea already has a dozen young men picked out for you to view in the sweat tents. She has a great desire to see you make a bridal wreath.”

“I hope she will be there when I wed, Bair”—to Gawyn, she hoped; that she would bond him, she knew from interpreting her dreams, but only hope and the certainty of love said they would wed—“I hope all of you will, but I’ve made my choice.”

Bair would have argued further, and Melaine too, but Amys raised a hand, and they fell silent, if not pleased. “There is much ji in her decision. She will bend her enemies to her will, not run from them. I wish you well in your dance, Egwene al’Vere.” She had been a Maiden of the Spear, and often thought as one still. “Sit. Sit.”

“Her honor is her own,” Bair said, frowning at Amys, “but I have another question.” Her eyes were an almost watery blue, yet when they turned on Egwene, they were sharp as ever Amys’ had been. “Will you bring these Aes Sedai to kneel to the Car’a’carn?”

Startled, Egwene nearly fell the last foot to the floorstones rather than sitting. There was no hesitation in her answer, though. “I can’t do that, Bair. And would not if I could. Our loyalty is to the Tower, to the Aes Sedai as a whole, above even the lands we were born in.” That was true, or was supposed to be, though she wondered how the claim squared in their minds with her and the others’ rebellion. “Aes Sedai don’t even swear fealty to the Amyrlin, and certainly not to any man. That would be like one of you kneeling to a clan chief.” She made an illustration the way Melaine had, by concentrating on its reality; Tel’aran’rhiod was infinitely malleable if you knew how. Beyond Callandor three Wise Ones dropped to their knees before a clan chief. The man strongly resembled Rhuarc, the women the three in front of her. She only held it for an instant, but Bair glanced at it and sniffed loudly. The notion was preposterous.

“Do not compare those women to us.” Melaine’s green eyes sparkled with something very like their old sharpness; her tone was honed like a razor.

Egwene held her tongue. The Wise Ones seemed to despise Aes Sedai, all except her, or perhaps better to say they were contemptuous. She thought they might actually resent the prophecies that linked them to Aes Sedai. Before she had been summoned by the Hall to be raised Amyrlin, Sheriam and her circle of friends had met here regularly with these three, but that had ended as much because the Wise Ones refused to hide their contempt as because Egwene finally had been called. In Tel’aran’rhiod, a confrontation with someone more familiar with the place could be mortifying in the extreme. Even with Egwene, there was a distance now, and certain matters they would not discuss, such as whatever they knew of Rand’s plans. Before, she had been one with them, a student in dream-walking; after, she was Aes Sedai, even before they learned what she had just told them.

“Egwene al’Vere will do as she must,” Amys said. Melaine gave her a long look and rearranged her shawl ostentatiously, shifted several long necklaces in a clatter of ivory and gold, but said nothing. Amys seemed even more the leader than she had been. The only Wise One Egwene had ever seen make other Wise Ones defer to her so easily was Sorilea.

Bair had imagined tea before her, as it might be in the tents, a golden teapot worked with lions from one country, a silver tray edged in ropework from another, tiny green cups of delicate Sea Folk porcelain. The tea tasted real, of course, felt real going down. Despite a hint of some sweet berry or herb she did not recognize, it was too bitter for Egwene’s tongue. She imagined a little honey in it and took another sip. Too sweet. A touch less honey. Now it tasted right. That was something you could not do with the Power. Egwene doubted that anyone had the skill to weave threads of saidar fine enough to remove honey from tea.

For a moment she sat peering into her teacup, thinking about honey and tea and fine threads of saidar, but that was not what held her silent. The Wise Ones wanted to guide Rand no less than Elaida or Romanda or Lelaine, or very likely any other Aes Sedai. Of course, they only wanted to direct the Car’a’carn in a way that was best for the Aiel, yet those sisters wanted to direct the Dragon Reborn toward what was best for the world, as they saw it. She did not spare herself. Helping Rand, keeping him from putting himself at odds with Aes Sedai beyond recovery, those meant guiding him, too. Only, I’m right, she reminded herself. Whatever I do is as much for his own good as for anybody else’s. None of the others ever think about what’s right for him. But it was best to remember that these women were more than simply her friends and followers of the Car’a’carn. No one was ever simply anything, she was learning.

“I do not think you wished only to tell us you are now a woman chief among the wetlanders,” Amys said over her teacup. “What troubles your mind, Egwene al’Vere?”

“What troubles me is what always does.” She smiled to lighten the mood. “Sometimes I think Rand is going to give me gray hairs before my time.”

“Without men, no woman would have gray hairs.” Normally, that would have been a joke on Melaine’s tongue, and Bair would have made another over the vast knowledge of men Melaine had gained in just a few months of marriage, but not this time. All three women simply watched Egwene and waited.

So. They wished to be serious. Well, Rand was serious business. She just wished she could be sure they saw it anything at all the way she did. Balancing her cup on her fingertips, she told them everything. About Rand, anyway, and her fears since learning of the silence from Caemlyn. “I don’t know what he’s done—or what she has; everybody tells me how experienced Merana is, but she’s had none with the likes of him. When it comes to Aes Sedai, if you hid this cup in a meadow, he’d still manage to step on it inside three paces. I know I could do better than Merana, but...”

“You could return,” Bair suggested again, and Egwene shook her head firmly.

“I can do more where I am, as Amyrlin. And there are rules even for the Amyrlin Seat.” Her mouth twisted for an instant. She did not like admitting that, especially not to these women. “I can’t even visit him without the Hall’s permission. I’m Aes Sedai now, and I have to obey our laws.” That came out more fiercely than she intended. It was a stupid law, but she had not yet found a way around it. Besides, they wore so little expression she was sure they were snickering incredulously inside. Not even a clan chief had the right to say when or where a Wise One could go. The three women across from her exchanged long looks. Then Amys set her teacup down and said, “Merana Ambrey and other Aes Sedai followed the Car’a’carn to the treekillers’ city. You need have no fear he will put his foot wrong with her, or any of your sisters with her. We will see that there is no difficulty between him and any Aes Sedai.”

“That hardly sounds like Rand,” Egwene said doubtfully. So Sheriam had been right about Merana. But why was she still silent?

Bair cackled with laughter. “Most parents have more trouble with their children than lies between the Car’a’carn and the women who came with Merana Ambrey.”

“So long as he isn’t the child,” Egwene chuckled, relieved that someone was amused at something. The way these women felt about Aes Sedai, they would have been spitting nails if they thought any sister was gaining influence with him. On the other hand, Merana had to gain some, or she might as well leave now. “But Merana should have sent a report. I don’t understand why she hasn’t. You’re certain there isn’t any—?” She could not think of how to finish. There was no way that Rand could have stopped Merana from sending off a pigeon.

“Perhaps she sent a man on a horse.” Amys grimaced faintly; as much as any Aiel, she found riding repugnant. Your own legs were good enough. “She brought none of the birds that wetlanders use.”

“That was foolish of her,” Egwene muttered. Foolish did not come close. Merana’s dreams would be shielded, so there was no point trying to talk to her there. Even if they could be found. Light, but it was vexing! She leaned forward intently. “Amys, promise me you won’t try to stop him from talking with her, or make her so angry she does something foolish.” They were quite capable of that; more than capable. They had putting an Aes Sedai’s back up perfected to a Talent. “She’s just supposed to convince him that we mean him no harm. I’m sure Elaida has some nasty surprise hidden behind her skirts, but we don’t.” She would see to that, if anyone had different notions. Somehow, she would. “Promise me?”

They passed unreadable looks back and forth. They could not like the idea of letting a sister near Rand, certainly not unhindered. Doubtless one of them would contrive to be present whenever Merana was, but she could live with that so long as they did not hinder too much.

“I promise, Egwene al’Vere,” Amys said finally, in a voice flat as worked stone.

Probably she was offended that Egwene had required a pledge, but Egwene felt as though a weight had lifted. Two weights. Rand and Merana were not at each other’s throats, and Merana would have a chance to do what she had been sent to do. “I knew I’d have the unvarnished truth from you, Amys. I can’t tell you how glad I am to hear it. If anything were wrong between Rand and Merana... Thank you.”

Startled, she blinked. For an instant, Amys wore cadin’sor. She made some sort of small gesture, too. Maiden handtalk, perhaps. Neither Bair nor Melaine, sipping their tea, gave any sign that they had noticed. Amys must have been wishing she were somewhere else, away from the tangle Rand had made of everybody’s life. It would be embarrassing, shaming, for a Wise One dream-walker to lose control of herself in Tel’aran’rhiod even for an instant. To the Aiel, shame hurt far worse than pain, but it had to be witnessed to be shame. If it was not seen, or those who saw refused to admit it, then it might as well never have happened. A strange people, but she certainly did not want to shame Amys. Composing her face, she went on as if nothing had happened.

“I must ask a favor. An important favor. Don’t tell Rand—or anybody—about me. About this, I mean to say.” She lifted an end of her stole. Their faces made an Aes Sedai’s best calm look maniacal. Stone was not in it. “I don’t mean lie,” she added hastily. Under ji’e’toh, asking someone to lie was little better than telling one yourself. “Just don’t bring it up. He’s already sent somebody to ‘rescue’ me.” And won’t he be furious when he finds out I shuffled Mat off to Ebou Dar with Nynaeve and Elayne, she thought. She had had to do it, though. “I don’t need rescuing, and I don’t want it, but he thinks he knows better than everybody. I’m afraid he might come hunting for me himself.” Which frightened her more—that he might appear in the camp alone, raging, with three hundred or so Aes Sedai around him? Or that he might come with some of the Asha’man? Either way, a disaster.

“That would be... unfortunate,” Melaine murmured, though she was seldom one for understatement, and Bair muttered, “The Car’a’carn is head-strong. As bad as any man I have ever known. And a few women, for that matter.”

“We will hold your confidence close, Egwene al’Vere,” Amys said gravely.

Egwene blinked at the quick agreement. But perhaps it was not so surprising. To them, the Car’a’carn was only another chief, just more so, and Wise Ones had certainly been known to keep things from a chief they thought he should not know.

After that there was not much to say, though they talked a while longer over more cups of tea. She longed for a lesson in walking the dream, but could not ask with Amys there. Amys would go, and she wanted her company more than learning. The closest the Wise Ones came to telling her anything Rand was actually doing was when Melaine grumbled that he should finish the Shaido and Sevanna now, and both Bair and Amys frowned at her so, she turned bright red. After all, Sevanna was a Wise One, as Egwene knew quite bitterly. Not even the Car’a’carn would be allowed to interfere with even a Shaido Wise One. And she could not give them details of her own circumstances. That they had leaped right to the most shaming part did nothing to lessen the shame she would feel talking about it—it was very hard not to drop back into behaving, even thinking, as the Aiel did when she was around them; for that matter, she thought it might have shamed her had she never met an Aiel—and the only sort of advice they had about dealing with Aes Sedai lately was of a nature that Elaida herself would not try to follow. An Aes Sedai riot, unlikely as it sounded, might result. Worse, they already thought badly enough of Aes Sedai without her adding wood to the fire. Some day she wanted to forge a link between the Wise Ones and the White Tower, but that would never happen unless she managed to dampen that fire down. Another thing she had no idea how to do, as yet.

“I must go,” she said at last, standing. Her body lay asleep in her tent, but there was never quite enough rest in sleep while you were in Tel’aran’rhiod. The others rose with her. “I hope you will all be very careful. Moghedien hates me, and she would certainly try to hurt anyone who’s my friend. She knows a great deal about the World of Dreams. At least as much as Lanfear did.” That was as close as she could come to warning them without saying right out that Moghedien might know more than they. Aiel pride could be prickly. They took her meaning, though, and without offense.

“If the Shadowsouled meant to threaten us,” Melaine said, “I think they would have by now. Perhaps they believe we are no threat to them.”

“We have glimpsed those who must be dreamwalkers, including men.” Bair shook her head incredulously: no matter what she knew about the Forsaken, she considered male dreamwalkers about as common as legs on snakes. “They avoid us. All of them.”

“I think we are as strong as they,” Amys added. In the One Power, she and Melaine were no stronger than Theodrin and Faolain—far from weak, indeed stronger than most Aes Sedai, but far from a Forsaken’s strength, too—yet in the World of Dreams, knowledge of Tel’aran’rhiod was often as powerful as saidar, more at times. Here, Bair was the equal of any sister. “But we will take care. It is the enemy you underestimate who kills you.”

Egwene took Amys’ hand and Melaine’s, and would have Bair’s had there been a way. Instead, she included her with a smile. “I’ll never be able to tell you what your friendship means to me, what you mean to me.” Despite everything, that was simple truth. “The whole world seems to be changing every time I blink. You three are one of the few firm spots in it.”

“The world does change,” Amys said, sadly. “Even mountains are worn away by the wind, and no one can climb the same hill twice. I hope we will always be friends in your eyes, Egwene al’Vere. May you always find water and shade.” And with that, they were gone, back to their own bodies.

For a time she stood frowning at Callandor but not seeing it, until suddenly she gave herself an exasperated shake. She had been thinking about that endless field of stars. If she waited there long, Gawyn’s dream would find her again, swallow her the way his arms would shortly thereafter. A pleasant way to spend the rest of the night. And a childish waste of time.

Firmly she made herself step back to her sleeping body, but not to ordinary sleep. She never did that anymore. That one corner of her brain remained fully aware, cataloging her dreams, filing away those that foretold the future, or at any rate gave glimpses of the possible course it might take. At least she could tell that much now, though the only one she had been able to interpret so far was the dream that told of Gawyn becoming her Warder. Aes Sedai called this Dreaming, and the women who could do it Dreamers, all long dead but her, yet it had no more to do with the One Power than dreamwalking did.

Perhaps it was inevitable she should dream first of Gawyn, because she had been thinking of him.

She stood in a vast, dim chamber where everything was indistinct. Everything except Gawyn, slowly coming toward her. A tall, beautiful man—had she ever thought his half-brother Galad was more beautiful?—with golden hair and eyes of the most wonderful deep blue. He had some distance to cover yet, but he could see her; his gaze was fixed on her like an archer’s on the target. A faint sound of crunching and grating hung in the air. She looked down. And felt a scream building in her. On bare feet, Gawyn walked across a floor of broken glass, shards breaking at every slow step. Even in that faint light she could see the trail of blood left by his slashed feet. She flung out a hand, tried to shout for him to stop, tried to run to him, but just that quickly she was elsewhere.

In the way of dreams she floated above a long, straight road across a grassy plain, looking down upon a man riding a black stallion. Gawyn. Then she was standing in the road in front of him, and he reined in. Not because he saw her, this time, but the road that had been straight now forked right where she stood, running over tall hills so no one could see what lay beyond. She knew, though. Down one fork was his violent death, down the other, a long life and a death in bed. On one path, he would marry her, on the other, not. She knew what lay ahead, but not which way led to which. Suddenly he did see her, or seemed to, and smiled, and turned his horse along one of the forks... And she was in another dream. And another. Another. And again.

Not all had any bearing on the future. Dreams of kissing Gawyn, of running in a cool spring meadow with her sisters the way they had as children, slid by along with nightmares where Aes Sedai with switches chased her through endless corridors, where misshapen things lurched through shadows all around, where a grinning Nicola denounced her to the Hall and Thom Merrilin came forward to give evidence. Those she discarded; the others she tucked away, to be prodded and poked later in the hope she might understand what they meant.

She stood before an immense wall, clawing at it, trying to tear it down with her bare hands. It was not made of brick or stone, but countless thousands of discs, each half white and half black, the ancient symbol of the Aes Sedai, like the seven seals that had once held the Dark One’s prison shut. Some of those seals were broken now, though not even the One Power could break cuendillar, and the rest had weakened somehow, but the wall stood strong however she beat at it. She could not tear it down. Maybe it was the symbol that was important. Maybe it was the Aes Sedai she was trying to tear down, the White Tower. Maybe...

Mat sat on a night-shrouded hilltop, watching a grand Illuminator’s display of fireworks, and suddenly his hand shot up, seized one of those bursting lights in the sky. Arrows of fire flashed from his clenched fist, and a sense of dread filled her. Men would die because of this. The world would change. But the world was changing; it always changed.

Straps at waist and shoulder held her tightly to the block, and the headsman’s axe descended, but she knew that somewhere someone was running, and if they ran fast enough, the axe would stop. If not... In that corner of her mind, she felt a chill.

Logain, laughing, stepped across something on the ground and mounted a black stone; when she looked down, she thought it was Rand’s body he had stepped over, laid out on a funeral bier with his hands crossed at his breast, but when she touched his face, it broke apart like a paper puppet.

A golden hawk stretched out its wing and touched her, and she and the hawk were tied together somehow; all she knew was that the hawk was female. A man lay dying in a narrow bed, and it was important he not die, yet outside a funeral pyre was being built, and voices raised songs of joy and sadness. A dark young man held an object in his hand that shone so brightly she could not see what it was.

On and on they came, and she sorted feverishly, desperately tried to understand. There was no rest in it, but it must be done. She would do what must be done.

An Oath

You asked to be wakened before the sun, Mother.”

Egwene’s eyes popped open—she had set herself a time to wake only moments from now—and despite herself she started back against her pillow from the face above her. Stern through a sheen of perspiration, it was not a pleasant sight first thing in the morning. Meri’s manner was perfectly respectful, but a pinched nose, a permanently downturned mouth and dark eyes sharp with censure said she had never seen anyone half as good as they should be or pretended to be, and her flat tone turned every meaning head to heels.

“I hope you slept well, Mother,” she said, while her expression managed a fair accusation of sloth. Her black hair, in tight coils over her ears, seemed to pull her face painfully. The unrelieved drab dark gray she always wore, however it made her sweat, only added to the gloom.

It was a pity she had not managed a little real rest. Yawning, Egwene rose from her narrow cot and scrubbed her teeth with salt, washed her face and hands while Meri laid out her clothes for the day, donned stockings and a clean shift, then suffered herself to be dressed. “Suffered” was the word.

“I fear some of these knots will pull, Mother,” the cheerless woman murmured, drawing the brush through Egwene’s hair, and Egwene very nearly told her she had not deliberately tangled it in her sleep.

“I understand we will rest here today, Mother.” Bone idleness, seethed Meri’s reflection in the stand-mirror.

“This shade of blue will set off your coloring nicely, Mother,” Meri said as she did up Egwene’s buttons, her face an accusation of vanity.

Filled with relief that she would have Chesa tonight, Egwene donned the stole and fled almost before the woman finished.

Not even a rim of the sun showed above the hills to the east. The land humped up all around in long ridges and irregular mounds, sometimes hundreds of feet high, that often looked as though monstrous fingers had squeezed them. Shadows like twilight bathed the camp lying in one of the broad valleys between, but it was well awake in the heat that never really lifted. Smells of breakfast cooking filled the air, and people bustled about, though there was none of the rush that would have meant a day’s marching ahead. White-clad novices darted about at a near run; a wise novice always carried out her chores as quickly as she could. Warders never seemed hurried, of course, but even servants carrying the morning meal to Aes Sedai appeared to stroll this morning. Well, almost. In comparison to the novices. The whole camp was taking advantage of the halt. A clatter and curses as a jack-lever slipped announced wagonwrights making repairs, and a distant tapping of hammers told of farriers reshoeing horses. A dozen candlemakers had their molds lined up already, and the kettles heating to melt the carefully hoarded drippings and tag-ends of every candle that had been burned. More big black kettles stood on fires to boil water for baths and laundry, and men and women were heaping clothes up nearby. Egwene gave little notice to any of the activity.

The thing of it was, she was certain Meri did not do it apurpose; she could not help her face. Even so, she was as bad as it would be to have Romanda for a maid. The thought made her laugh out loud. Romanda as lady’s maid would have her mistress toeing the line in no time; no doubt as to who would run and fetch in that pair. A gray-haired cook paused in raking coals from atop an iron oven to give her a grin of shared amusement. For a moment, anyway. Then he realized he was grinning at the Amyrlin Seat, not just some young woman walking by, and the grin melted crookedly as he jerked a bow before bending back to his work.

If she sent Meri off, Romanda would only find a new spy. And Meri would again be starving her way from village to village. Adjusting her dress—she really had gone before the woman was quite finished—Egwene’s fingers found a small linen bag, the strings tucked behind her belt. She did not have to lift it all the way to her nose to smell rose petals and a blend of herbs with a cool scent. It made her sigh. A face like a headsman’s, spying for Romanda without any doubt, and trying to perform her duties as well as she could. Why were these things never easy?

Approaching the tent she used as a study—many called it the Amyrlin’s study, as if it were rooms in the Tower—a solemn satisfaction replaced worry over Meri. Whenever they halted for a day, Sheriam would be there before her with fat sheaves of petitions. A laundress imploring clemency on a charge of theft when she had been caught with the jewelry sewn into her dress, or a blacksmith begging a testimonial for his work, which he could not use unless he intended to leave, and likely not then. A harness maker asking the Amyrlin’s prayers for her to give birth to a daughter. One of Lord Bryne’s soldiers requesting the Amyrlin’s personal blessing to his wedding a seamstress. There was always a slew from older novices, appealing visits to Tiana and even extra chores. Anyone had the right to petition the Amyrlin, but those in service to the Tower seldom did, and never novices. Egwene suspected that Sheriam worked to dig up petitioners, something to butter the cat’s paws, to keep her out of Sheriam’s hair while the Keeper took care of what she considered important. This morning, Egwene thought she might make Sheriam eat those petitions for her breakfast.

When she entered the tent, though, Sheriam was not there. Which perhaps should not have been a surprise, given the night before. The tent was not empty, however.

“The Light illumine you this morning, Mother,” Theodrin said, making a deep curtsy that set the brown fringe of her shawl swaying. She had all the fabled Domani grace, though her high-necked dress was really quite modest. Domani women were not known for modesty. “We did as you commanded, but no one saw anybody near Marigan’s tent last night.”

“Some of the men remembered seeing Halima,” Faolain added sourly, with a much briefer bend of her knees, “but aside from that, they hardly recalled whether they went to sleep.” Many women disapproved of Delana’s secretary, but it was her next remark that made Faolain’s round face darker than usual. “We met Tiana while we were roaming about. She told us to go to bed and be quick about it.” Unconsciously she stroked the blue fringe on her shawl. New Aes Sedai almost always wore their shawls more often than they needed to, so Siuan said.

Giving them a smile she hoped was welcoming, Egwene took her place behind the small table. Carefully; the chair tilted for a moment anyway, until she reached down and pulled the leg straight. An edge of folded parchment peeked out from beneath the stone inkwell. Her hands twitched toward it, but she made them be still. Too many sisters saw little need for courtesy. She would not be one of those. Besides, these two had a claim on her.

“I am sorry for your difficulties, daughters.” Made Aes Sedai by her decree on being raised Amyrlin, they faced the same predicament as she, but lacking the added shield of the Amyrlin’s stole, small shield that that had proved. Most sisters behaved as though they were still only Accepted. What went on inside the Ajahs was seldom known outside, but it was rumored that they truly had had to beg admittance, and that guardians had been named to oversee their behavior. No one had ever heard the like, but everyone took it for fact. She had done them no favor. Another thing that had been necessary, though. “I will speak to Tiana.” It might do some good. For a day, or an hour.

“Thank you, Mother,” Theodrin said, “but there is no need to bother yourself.” Still, she also touched her shawl, hands lingering. “Tiana wanted to know why we were up so late,” she added after a moment, “but we didn’t tell her.”

“There was no need for secrecy, daughter.” A pity they had not found a witness, though. Moghedien’s rescuer would remain a shadow half-glimpsed. Always the most frightening sort. She glanced at the tiny corner of parchment, itching to read it. Maybe Siuan had discovered something. “Thank you both.” Theodrin recognized a dismissal and made her manners to go, but stopped when Faolain remained where she was.

“I wish I had held the Oath Rod already,” Faolain told Egwene in tones of frustration, “so you could know what I say is true.”

“This isn’t the time to bother the Amyrlin,” Theodrin began, then folded her hands and turned her attention to Egwene. Patience blended with something else on her face. Clearly the stronger of the two in the Power, she always took the lead, yet this time she was prepared to step back. In aid of what, Egwene wondered.

“It isn’t the Oath Rod that makes a woman Aes Sedai, daughter.” Whatever some believed. “Speak the truth to me, and I will believe it.”

“I don’t like you.” Faolain’s mop of dark curls swayed as she shook her head for emphasis. “You must know that. You probably think I was mean when you were a novice, when you came back to the White Tower after running away, but I still believe you didn’t get half the punishment you should have. Maybe my admitting it will help you know I speak the truth. It isn’t as though we have no choice even now. Romanda offered to take us under her protection, and so did Lelaine. They said they’d see we were tested and raised properly as soon we return to the Tower.” Her face grew angrier, and Theodrin rolled her eyes and broke in.

“Mother, what Faolain is fumbling all around without getting to the point is that we didn’t attach ourselves to you because we had no choice. And we didn’t do it in gratitude for the shawl.” She pursed her lips as if thinking that raising them Aes Sedai in the manner Egwene had was not really a gift to inspire much gratitude.

“Then why?” Egwene asked, leaning back. The chair shifted, but held.

Faolain jumped in before Theodrin could more than open her mouth. “Because you are the Amyrlin Seat.” She still sounded angry. “We can see what happens. Some of the sisters think you’re Sheriam’s puppet, but most believe Romanda or Lelaine tells you where and when to step. It is not right.” Her face was twisted in a scowl. “I left the Tower because what Elaida did wasn’t right. They raised you Amyrlin. So I am yours. If you will have me. If you can trust me without the Oath Rod. You must believe me.”

“And you, Theodrin?” Egwene said quickly, schooling her face. Knowing how the sisters felt was bad enough; hearing it again was... painful.

“I am yours, too,” Theodrin sighed, “if you’ll have me.” She spread her hands disparagingly: “We are not much, I know, but it looks as though we are all you have. I must admit I was hesitant, Mother. Faolain is the one who kept insisting we do this. Frankly...” She settled her shawl again unnecessarily, and her voice firmed. “Frankly, I do not see how you can win out over Romanda and Lelaine. But we are trying to behave as Aes Sedai, even though we aren’t really, yet. We will not be that, Mother, whatever you say, until the other sisters see us as Aes Sedai, and that won’t happen until we have been tested and have sworn the Three Oaths.”

Plucking the folded scrap of parchment out from under the inkwell, Egwene fingered it while she thought. Faolain was the driving force behind this? That seemed as unlikely as a wolf befriending the shepherd. She suspected “dislike” was a mild word for what Faolain felt for her, and the woman must know Egwene hardly saw her as a potential friend. If they had accepted either Sitter’s arrangement, mentioning the offer might be a good means of disarming her suspicions.

“Mother,” Faolain said, and stopped, looking surprised at herself. It was the first time she had addressed Egwene so. Drawing a deep breath, she went on. “Mother, I know you must have a hard time believing us, since we’ve never held the Oath Rod, but—”

“I wish you would stop bringing that up,” Egwene said. It was well to be careful, but she could not afford to refuse every offer of help for fear of plots. “Do you think everybody believes Aes Sedai because of the Three Oaths? People who know Aes Sedai know a sister can stand truth on its head and turn it inside out if she chooses to. Myself, I think the Three Oaths hurt as much as they help, maybe more. I will believe you until I learn you’ve lied to me, and I will trust you until you show you don’t deserve it. The same way everybody else does with one another.” Come to think of it, the Oaths did not really change that. You still had to take a sister on trust most of the time. The Oaths just made people warier about it, wondering whether and how they were being manipulated. “Another thing. You two are Aes Sedai. I don’t want to hear any more about having to be tested, or hold the Oath Rod, or any of it. Bad enough you have to face that nonsense without parroting it yourselves. Have I made myself clear?”

The two women standing on the other side of the table murmured hastily that she had, then exchanged long looks. This time, it was Faolain who appeared indecisive. Finally, Theodrin glided around to kneel beside Egwene’s chair and kiss her ring. “Under the Light and by my hope of salvation and rebirth, I, Theodrin Dabei, swear fealty to you, Egwene al’Vere, to faithfully serve and obey on pain of my life and honor.” She looked at Egwene questioningly.

It was all Egwene could do to nod. This was no part of Aes Sedai ritual; this was how noble swore to ruler. Even some rulers did not receive so strong an oath. Yet no sooner had Theodrin risen with a relieved smile than Faolain took her place.

“Under the Light and by my hope of salvation and rebirth, I, Faolain Orande...”

All that she could have wished for and more. From any other sisters, at least, who were not just as likely to be sent to fetch another’s dustcloak if the wind rose.

When Faolain finished, she remained kneeling, but stiffly upright. “Mother, there is the matter of my penance. For what I said to you, about not liking you. I will set it myself, if you wish, but it is your right.” Her voice was as rigid as her posture, yet not at all fearful. She looked ready to stare down a lion. Eager to, in fact.

Biting her lip, Egwene nearly laughed aloud. Keeping her face smooth took effort; maybe they would take it for a hiccough. However much they claimed they were not really Aes Sedai, Faolain had just proved how much of one she was. Sometimes sisters set themselves penances, in order to maintain the proper balance between pride and humility—that balance was much prized, supposedly, and the only reason given usually—but certainly none sought to have one imposed. Penance set by another could be quite harsh, and the Amyrlin was supposed to be harder in this than the Ajahs. Either way, though, many sisters made a haughty display of submission to the greater will of the Aes Sedai, an arrogant showing of their lack of arrogance. The pride of humility, Siuan called it. She considered telling the woman to eat a handful of soap just to see her expression—Faolain had a mean tongue—but instead...

“I don’t hand out penance for telling the truth, daughter. Or for not liking me. Dislike to your heart’s content, so long as you keep your oath.” Not that anyone except a Darkfriend would break that particular oath. Still, there were ways around almost anything. But weak sticks were better than none, when you were fending off a bear.

Faolain’s eyes widened, and Egwene sighed as she motioned the woman to rise. Had their positions been reversed, Faolain would have put her nose firmly in the dust.

“I’m setting you two tasks to begin, daughters,” she went on.

They listened carefully, Faolain not even blinking, Theodrin with a thoughtful finger to her lips, and this time when she dismissed them, they said, “As you command, Mother,” in unison as they curtsied.

Egwene’s good mood was fleeting, though. Meri arrived with her breakfast on a tray as Theodrin and Faolain departed, and when Egwene thanked her for the rose-petal pomander, she said, “I had a few spare moments, Mother.” By her expression, that could have been an accusation that Egwene worked her too hard, or that she herself did not work hard enough. Not a pleasant spice for the stewed fruit. For that matter, the woman’s face might sour the mint tea and turn the warm crusty bun hard as a rock. Egwene sent her away before eating. The tea was weak anyway. Tea was one of the things in short supply.

The note that had been under the inkwell proved no better seasoning. “Nothing of interest in the dream,” said Siuan’s fine script. So Siuan had been in Tel’aran’rhiod last night too; she did a good deal of spying there. It mattered little whether she had been hunting some sign of Moghedien, though that would have been insanely foolish, or something else; nothing was nothing.

Egwene grimaced, and not just for the “nothing.” Siuan in Tel’aran’rhiod last night meant a visit from Leane sometime today, complaining. Siuan most definitely no longer was allowed any of the dream ter’angreal, not since she had tried to teach some of the other sisters about the World of Dreams. It was not so much that she knew little more than they, or even that few sisters believed they actually needed a teacher to learn anything, but Siuan possessed a tongue like a rasp and no patience. Usually she managed to hold her temper, but two outbursts of shouting and fist-shaking, and she had been fortunate just to find herself denied access to the ter’angreal. Leane was given one whenever she asked, though, and frequently Siuan used it in secret. That was one of the few real bones of contention between them; both would have been in Tel’aran’rhiod every night if they could.

With a grimace Egwene channeled the tiniest spark of Fire to set a corner of the parchment alight and held it until it burned nearly to her fingers. Nothing left to be found by anyone rooting through her belongings and reported where it would rouse suspicions.

Breakfast almost done, she was still alone, and that was not usual. Sheriam might well be avoiding her, but Siuan should have been there. Popping a last bit of the bun into her mouth and washing it down with a final swallow of tea, she rose to go find her, only to have the object of her intended search stalk into the tent. Had Siuan had a tail, she would have been lashing it.

“Where have you been?” Egwene demanded, weaving a ward against listeners.

“Aeldene pulled me out of my blankets first thing,” Siuan growled, dropping onto one of the stools. “She still thinks she’ll pump the Amyrlin’s eyes-and-ears out of me. No one gets that! No one!”

When Siuan had first arrived in Salidar, a stilled woman on the run, a deposed Amyrlin the world thought dead, the sisters might well not have let her stay except that she knew not only the Amyrlin Seat’s network of agents, but also that of the Blue Ajah, which she had run before being raised to the stole. That had given her a certain influence, just as Leane’s agents inside Tar Valon had given her some. The arrival of Aeldene Stone-bridge, who had taken her place with the Blue eyes-and-ears, had changed matters for Siuan. Aeldene had been outraged that reports from the handful of Blue agents Siuan had managed to reach had been handed to women outside the Ajah. That Aeldene’s own position had been revealed—only two or three sisters were supposed to know, even within the Blue—infuriated her to near apoplexy. She not only snatched back control of the Blue network, not only upbraided Siuan in a voice that might have been heard a mile off, she very nearly went for Siuan’s throat. Aeldene was from an Andoran mining village in the Mountains of Mist, and it was said her crooked nose came from fighting with her fists when she was a girl. Aeldene’s actions had started others thinking.

Egwene returned to her unsteady chair and pushed her breakfast tray aside. “Aeldene won’t take it away from you, Siuan, and neither will anyone else.” When Aeldene reclaimed the Blue eyes-and-ears, others had begun thinking that the Blue should not have the Amyrlin’s as well. No one suggested that it should be in Egwene’s control. The Hall was to have it. So Romanda said, and Lelaine. Each intended to be the one in charge, of course, the one those reports came to first, for being first to know had advantages. Aeldene thought those agents should be added to the Blue network since Siuan was Blue. At least Sheriam was content simply to be handed all the reports Siuan received. Which she usually was. “They can’t make you give it up.”

Egwene filled her teacup again, setting it and the blue-glazed honey-pot on the corner of the table nearest Siuan, but the other woman only stared at them. The anger had gone out of her. She slumped on the stool. “You never really think about strength,” she said, half to herself. “You’re aware of it, whether you’re stronger than somebody else, but you don’t think about it. You just know that she defers to you, or you to her. There was no one stronger than me, before. No one, since...” Her eyes dropped to her hands, stirring uneasily on her lap. “Sometimes, when Romanda is hammering at me, or Lelaine, it suddenly hits me like a gale. They’re so far above me now, I should be holding my tongue until they give me permission to speak. Even Aeldene is, and she’s no more than middling.” She forced her head upright, mouth tight and voice bitter. “I suppose I’m adjusting to reality. That’s ingrained in us, too, driven deep before you ever test for the shawl. But I don’t like it. I don’t!”

Egwene picked up her pen from beside the inkwell and the sand jar, fiddling with it while she chose words. “Siuan, you know how I feel about what needs to be changed. There’s too much we do because Aes Sedai have always done it that way. But things are changing, no matter who believes it will all go back to how it was. I doubt anyone else was ever raised Amyrlin without being Aes Sedai first.” That should have elicited a comment on the White Tower’s hidden records—Siuan often said there was nothing that had not occurred at least once in the Tower’s history, though this did seem to be a first—but Siuan sat there disheartened, like a sack. “Siuan, the Aes Sedai way isn’t the only way, and not even always the best. I intend to make sure we follow the best way, and whoever can’t learn to change, or won’t, had better learn to live with it.” Leaning across the table, she tried to make her expression encouraging. “I never did figure out how Wise Ones determine precedence, but it isn’t strength in the Power. There are women who can channel who defer to women who can’t. One, Sorilea, would never have made it to Accepted, yet even the strongest jump when she says toad.”

“Wilders,” Siuan said dismissively, but it lacked force.

“Aes Sedai, then. I wasn’t raised Amyrlin because I am the strongest. The wisest women are chosen for the Hall or to be ambassadors or advisors, the most skillful anyway, not those with the most strength.” Best not to say skillful in what, though Siuan certainly possessed those particular skills too.

“The Hall? The Hall might send me for tea. They might have me sweep out when they’ve finished sitting.”

Sitting back, Egwene threw down the pen. She wanted to shake the woman. Siuan had kept going when she could not channel at all, and now her knees began to fold? Egwene was on the point of telling her about Theodrin and Faolain—that should get some rise, and approval—when she saw an olive-skinned woman ride past the open tent flaps looking lost in thought beneath the wide gray hat she wore to keep off the sun.

“Siuan, it’s Myrelle.” Letting the ward go, she rushed outside. “Myrelle,” she called. Siuan needed a victory to wash the taste of being bullied out of her mouth, and this might be just the thing. Myrelle was one of Sheriam’s lot, and apparently with a secret all her own.

Reining in her sorrel gelding, Myrelle looked around, and gave a start when she saw Egwene. By her expression, the Green sister had not realized what part of the camp she was passing through. A thin dustcloak hung down the back of her pale gray riding dress. “Mother,” she said hesitantly, “if you will forgive me, I—”

“I will not forgive you,” Egwene cut in, making her flinch. Any doubt vanished that Myrelle had heard about last night from Sheriam. “I will talk with you. Now.”

Siuan had come outside too, but instead of watching the sister climb uneasily from her saddle, she stared down the rows of tents toward a stocky, graying man with a battered breastplate strapped over his buff-colored coat, leading a tall bay in their direction. His presence was a surprise. Lord Bryne usually communicated with the Hall by messenger, and his rare visits mostly finished before Egwene learned he had come. Siuan assumed such a look of Aes Sedai serenity it nearly made you forget her youthful face.

Glancing briefly at Siuan, Bryne made a leg, handling his sword with a spare grace. A weathered man, he was only moderately tall, but the way he carried himself made him seem taller. There was nothing flashy about him; the sweat on his broad face made him seem to be about a job of work. “Mother, may I speak with you? Alone?”

Myrelle turned as if to go, and Egwene snapped, “You stay right there! Right where you are!” Myrelle’s mouth dropped open. Her surprise seemed as much for her own obedience as Egwene’s decisive tone, and it faded into bitter resignation that she quickly hid behind a cool façade. One belied by the way she twiddled her reins.

Bryne did not even blink, though Egwene was sure he at least had an inkling of her situation. She suspected that very little surprised him, or unsettled him. Just the sight of him had made Siuan ready to fight back, for all it was apparently she who started most of their arguments. Already her fists rested on her hips and her gaze was fixed on him, an auguring stare that should have made anyone uneasy even had it not come from an Aes Sedai. Myrelle offered more than helping Siuan, though. Perhaps. “I intended to ask you to come this afternoon, Lord Bryne. I ask now.” She had questions to put to him. “We can talk then. If you will forgive me.”

Instead of accepting her dismissal, he said, “Mother, one of my patrols found something just before dawn, something I think you should see for yourself. I can have an escort ready in—”

“No need for that,” she broke in quickly. “Myrelle, you will come with us. Siuan, would you ask someone to bring my horse, please? Without delay.”

Riding out with Myrelle would be better than confronting her here, if Siuan’s patched-together clues really pointed at anything, and on a ride she could ask Bryne her questions, but neither fueled her haste. She had just spotted Lelaine striding toward her through the tentrows, Takima at her side. With one exception, all the women who had been Sitters before Siuan was deposed had drifted to either Lelaine or Romanda. Most of the newly chosen Sitters went their own way, which was slightly better in Egwene’s view. Just slightly.

Even at a little distance the set of Lelaine’s shoulders was evident. She looked ready to walk through whatever got in her way. Siuan saw her as well and darted off without pausing for so much as a curtsy, yet there was no time to make a clean escape short of leaping onto Lord Bryne’s horse.

Lelaine planted herself in front of Egwene, but it was Bryne she fixed with eyes sharp as tacks, considering, calculating what he was doing there. She had larger fish to put on the fire, though. “I must speak with the Amyrlin,” she said peremptorily, pointing toward Myrelle. “You will wait; I will talk to you after.” Bryne bowed, not too deeply, and led his horse where she pointed. Men who had any brains at all soon learned arguments did little good with Aes Sedai, and with Sitters the tally was usually none.

Before Lelaine could open her mouth, Romanda was suddenly there, radiating command so strongly that at first Egwene did not even notice Varilin with her, and the slender, red-haired Sitter for the Gray was inches taller than most men. The only surprise was that Romanda had not appeared sooner. She and Lelaine watched one another like hawks, neither allowing the other near Egwene alone. The glow of saidar surrounded both women at the same instant, and each wove a ward around the five of them to stop eavesdropping. Their eyes clashed, challenging in faces utterly cool and collected, but neither let her ward drop.

Egwene bit her tongue. In a public place, it was up to the strongest sister present to decide whether a conversation should be warded, and protocol said the Amyrlin made that decision wherever she was present. She had no desire for the not-quite apologies mentioning it would bring, though. If she pressed, they would accede, of course. While behaving as though soothing a petulant toddler. She bit her tongue, and boiled inside. Where was Siuan? That was not fair—getting horses saddled required more than moments—but she wanted to grip her skirts to keep her hands away from her head.

Romanda dropped the staring match first, though not in defeat. She rounded on Egwene so suddenly that Lelaine was left staring past her and looking foolish. “Delana is making trouble again.” Her high-pitched voice was almost sweet, but it held a sharpness that emphasized the lack of any title of respect. Romanda’s hair was completely gray, gathered in a neat bun on the nape of her neck, but age had certainly not softened her. Takima, with her long black hair and aged ivory complexion, had been almost nine years a Brown Sitter, as forceful in the Hall as in the classroom, yet she stood a meek pace back, hands folded at her waist. Romanda led her faction as firmly as Sorilea. She was one to whom strength was indeed all-important, and in truth, Lelaine seemed not far behind.

“She plans to lay a proposal before the Hall,” Lelaine put in sourly, refusing to look at Romanda at all, now. Agreeing with the other woman certainly pleased her as little as speaking second. Aware that she had gained an edge, Romanda smiled, a faint curving of her lips.

“About what?” Egwene asked, playing for time. She was certain she knew. It was very hard not to sigh. It was very hard not to rub her temples.

“Why the Black Ajah, of course, Mother,” Varilin replied, lifting her head as if surprised at the question. Well she might be; Delana was rabid on the subject. “She wants the Hall to condemn Elaida openly as Black.” She stopped abruptly when Lelaine raised a hand. Lelaine allowed her followers more leeway than Romanda, or maybe she just did not have as tight a grip.

“You must speak with her, Mother.” Lelaine had a warm smile when she chose to use it. Siuan said they had been friends once—Lelaine had accepted her back with some version of welcome—yet Egwene thought that smile a practiced tool.

“And say what?” Her hands ached to soothe her head. These two each made sure the Hall passed only what she wanted, certainly little that Egwene suggested, with the result that nothing much at all was passed, and they wanted her to intercede with a Sitter? Delana did support her proposals, true—when they suited her. Delana was a weathervane, turning with the last breath of air to pass, and if she turned in Egwene’s direction a great deal of late, it did not mean very much. The Black Ajah seemed her only fixed point. What was keeping Siuan?

“Tell her she must stop, Mother.” Lelaine’s smile and tone made her seem to be counseling a daughter. “This foolishness—worse than foolishness—has everyone at daggers’ points. Some of the sisters are even beginning to believe, Mother. It will not be long before the notion spreads to the servants, and the soldiers.” The look she directed toward Bryne was full of doubt. Bryne appeared to be attempting to chat with Myrelle, who was staring at the warded group and running her reins uneasily through her gloved hands.

“Believing what is plain is hardly foolish,” Romanda barked. “Mother...” In her mouth, that sounded entirely too much like “girl.”

“. . . the reason Delana must be stopped is she does no good and considerable harm. Perhaps Elaida is Black—though I have strong doubts, whatever secondhand gossip that trollop Halima brought; Elaida is wrongheaded to a fault, but I cannot believe her evil—yet even if she is, trumpeting it will make outsiders suspicious of every Aes Sedai and drive the Black into deeper hiding. There are methods to dig them out, if we don’t frighten them into flight.”

Lelaine’s sniff bordered on a snort. “Even were this nonsense true, no self-respecting sister would submit to your methods, Romanda. What you’ve suggested is close to being put to the question.” Egwene blinked in confusion; neither Siuan nor Leane had brought her a whisper of this. Luckily, the Sitters were not paying her enough mind to notice. As usual.

Planting her fists on her hips, Romanda squared around on Lelaine. “Desperate days demand desperate actions. Some might ask why anyone would put her dignity ahead of exposing the Dark One’s servants.”

“That sounds dangerously near an accusation,” Lelaine said, eyes narrowing.

Romanda was the one smiling now, a cold flinty smile. “I will be the first to submit to my methods, Lelaine, if you are the second.”

Lelaine actually growled, taking half a step toward the other woman, and Romanda leaned toward her, chin thrust out. They looked ready to begin pulling hair and rolling in the dirt, and Aes Sedai dignity be hanged. Varilin and Takima glared at one another like two maidservants supporting their mistresses, a long-legged wading bird in a scowling match with a wren. The whole lot of them seemed to have forgotten Egwene entirely.

Siuan came running up in a broad straw hat, leading a fat dun mare with white-stockinged hind legs, and skidded to a halt when she saw the warded gathering. One of the grooms was with her, a lanky fellow in a long, frayed vest and a patched shirt, holding the reins of a tall roan. The wards were invisible to him, but saidar did not hide the faces. His eyes went very wide, and he began licking his lips. For that matter, passersby walked wide around the tent and pretended to see nothing, Aes Sedai, Warders and servants alike. Bryne alone frowned and studied them as though wondering what was hidden from his ears. Myrelle was retying her saddlebags, plainly on the point of leaving.

“When you have decided what I should say,” Egwene announced, “then I can decide what to do.” They really had forgotten her. All four stared at her in amazement as she walked between Romanda and Lelaine and out through the doubled wards. There was nothing to feel as she brushed by the weave, of course; they had never been made to stop anything as solid as a human body.

When she scrambled onto the roan, Myrelle drew a deep breath and emulated her in resignation. The wards had vanished, though the glow still enveloped the two Sitters, each more the image of frustration than the other as they stood watching. Hurriedly Egwene donned the thin linen dust-cloak that had been draped in front of her gelding’s saddle, and the riding gloves that were tucked into a small pocket in the cloak. A wide-brimmed hat hung from the saddle’s high pommel, deep blue to match her dress, with a spray of white plumes pinned slanting across the front that shouted of Chesa’s hand. Heat she could ignore, but the glare of the sun was another matter. Removing plumes and pin, she tucked them into the saddlebags, put the hat on her head and tied the ribbons beneath her chin.

“Shall we go, Mother?” Bryne asked. He was already mounted, the helmet that had been hanging from his saddle now obscuring his face behind steel bars. It looked quite natural on him, as though he had been born for armor.

She nodded. There was no attempt to stop them. Lelaine would not stoop to shouting halt in public, of course, but Romanda... Egwene felt a sense of relief as they rode away, yet her head seemed to be splitting. What was she to do about Delana? What could she do?

The main road in this area, a wide stretch of dirt packed so hard nothing could raise dust from it, ran through the army’s camp and along the gap between that and the Aes Sedai’s. Bryne angled across it, through the rest of the army on the other side.

Although the army camp held thirty times or more as many people as the Aes Sedai camp, there seemed to be few more tents than for the sisters and those who served them, all scattered out across the flats and up the hillsides. Most of the soldiers slept in the open. But then, it was hard to remember the last time rain had fallen, and there certainly was not a cloud to be seen. Strangely, there were more women than in the sisters’ camp, though they seemed fewer at first glance, among so many men. Cooks tended kettles and laundresses attacked great heaps of clothing, while some worked with the horses or wagons. A fair number appeared to be wives; at least, they sat about knitting or darning dresses or shirts or stirring small cookpots. Armorers had set up almost anywhere she looked, hammers making steel ring on their anvils, and fletchers adding arrows to bundles by their feet, and farriers checking horses. Wagons of every sort and size stood everywhere, hundreds, perhaps thousands; the army seemed to scoop up every one it found along its path. Most of the foragers were already out, but a few high-wheeled carts and lumbering wagons still trundled away in search of farms and villages. Here and there soldiers raised a cheer as they rode by. “Lord Bryne!” and “The Bull! The Bull!” That was his sigil. Nothing about Aes Sedai or the Amyrlin Seat.

Egwene twisted around in her saddle to make sure Myrelle was still close behind. She was, letting her horse follow on its own, a far-off, slightly sickly expression on her face. Siuan had taken a position at the rear, shepherd to their lone sheep. Then again, she might just have been afraid to urge her mount ahead. The dun was positively a butterball, but Siuan would probably treat a pony like a warhorse.

Egwene felt a stab of irritation at her own animal. His name was Daishar; Glory, in the Old Tongue. She would much rather be riding Bela, a shaggy little mare not much slimmer than Siuan’s dun that she had ridden out of the Two Rivers. Sometimes she thought she must look a doll, perched atop a gelding that could be taken for a warhorse, but the Amyrlin had to have a proper mount. No shaggy cart horses. Even if this rule was of her own making, she felt as confined as a novice.

Turning in the saddle, she said, “Do you expect any opposition ahead, Lord Bryne?”

He glanced at her sideways. She had asked the same once before leaving Salidar and twice while crossing Altara. Not enough to rouse suspicions, she thought.

“Murandy is like Altara, Mother. Neighbor too busy scheming against neighbor, or outright fighting him, to band together for anything short of a war, and not to any great degree then.” His tone was very dry. He had been Captain-General of the Queen’s Guards in Andor, with years of border skirmishes against the Murandians behind him. “Andor will be another matter, I fear. I am not looking forward to that.” He turned another way, climbing a gentle slope to avoid three wagons rumbling over rocks in the same direction.

Egwene tried not to grimace. Andor. Before, he had just said no. These were the tail end of the Cumbar Hills, somewhat south of Lugard, the capital of Murandy. Even if they were lucky, the border of Andor lay at least ten days ahead.

“And when we reach Tar Valon, Lord Bryne. How do you plan to take the city?”

“No one has asked me that yet, Mother.” She had only thought his voice was dry before; now it was dry. “By the time we reach Tar Valon, the Light willing, I’ll have two or three times as many men as I do now.” Egwene winced at the idea of paying so many soldiers; he did not seem to notice. “With that, I will lay siege. The hardest part will be finding ships, and sinking them to block Northharbor and Southharbor. The harbors are as much the key as holding the bridge towns, Mother. Tar Valon is larger than Cairhien and Caemlyn together. Once food stops going in...” He shrugged. “Most of soldiering is waiting, when it isn’t marching.”

“And if you don’t have that many soldiers?” She had never thought of all those people going hungry, women and children. She had never really thought of anyone being involved except the Aes Sedai, and the soldiers. How could she have been so foolish? She had seen the results of war in Cairhien. Bryne seemed to take it so lightly. But then, he was a soldier; privation and death must be everyday to soldiers. “What if you only have... say... what you do now?”

“Siege?” Apparently some of what they had been saying had finally broken into whatever Myrelle was thinking. She booted the sorrel forward, making a number of men jump aside, some falling on their faces. A few opened their mouths angrily, then saw her ageless features and shut their jaws again, glowering. They might as well not have existed for all of her. “Artur Hawkwing besieged Tar Valon for twenty years and failed.” Abruptly she realized ears were about and lowered her voice, but it was still acid. “Do you expect us to wait twenty years?”

That acid washed over Gareth Bryne without leaving a stain. “Would you prefer a direct assault right off, Myrelle Sedai?” He could have been asking whether she wanted her tea sweet or bitter. “Several of Hawkwing’s generals tried, and their men were slaughtered. No army has ever managed to breach Tar Valon’s walls.”

That was not strictly true, Egwene knew. In the Trolloc Wars, an army of Dreadlord-led Trollocs had actually plundered and burned a part of the White Tower itself. At the end of the War of the Second Dragon, an army trying to rescue Guaire Amalasan before he was gentled had reached the Tower, too. Myrelle could not know, though, much less Bryne. Access to those secret histories, hidden deep in the Tower library, was set out in a law that was itself secret, and revealing the existence of either records or law was treason. Siuan said if you read between the lines, you found hints of things that had not been recorded even there. Aes Sedai were very good at hiding truth when they thought it necessary, even from themselves.

“With a hundred thousand or what I have now,” Bryne continued, “I will be the first. If I can block the harbors. Hawkwing’s generals never managed that. The Aes Sedai always raised those iron chains in time to stop the ships getting into the harbor mouth and sank them before they could be placed to hinder trade. Food and supplies got in. It will come to your assault eventually, but not until the city’s weakened, if I have my way.” His voice was still... ordinary. A man discussing an outing. His head turned toward Myrelle, and though his tone did not change, the intensity in his eyes was evident even behind his faceguard. “And you all agreed I would, when it came to the army. I won’t throw men away.”

Myrelle opened her mouth, then closed it slowly. Plainly she wanted to say something but did not know what. They had given their word, she and Sheriam and those who had been running things when he appeared in Salidar, however much giving it galled. However much the Sitters tried to get round it. They had given no word. Bryne acted as though they had, though, and so far he had managed to get away with it. So far.

Egwene felt ill. She had seen war. Images flashed in her head, men fighting, killing their way through the streets of Tar Valon, dying. Her eyes fell on a square-jawed fellow chewing his tongue while he sharpened a pikehead. Would he die in those streets? The grizzled, balding man running his fingers so carefully down each arrow before sliding the shaft into his quiver? And there. That lad swaggering in his high riding boots. He looked too young to shave. Light, so many were boys. How many would die? For her. For justice, for the right, for the world, but at the heart, for her. Siuan raised her hand, but did not complete the gesture. Had she been close enough, she could not pat the Amyrlin Seat on the shoulder where everyone could see.

Egwene straightened her back. “Lord Bryne,” she said in a tight voice, “what is it you want me to see?” She thought he half-glanced at Myrelle before answering.

“Better you see it for yourself, Mother.”

Egwene thought her head might break open. If Siuan’s clues led to anything at all, she might just skin Myrelle. If they did not, she might skin Siuan. And she might throw Gareth Bryne in for good measure.

A Morning of Victory

The crooked hills and ridges surrounding the camp showed every sign of the drought and unseasonable heat. The unholy heat in truth; even the dullest scullion scrubbing pots saw the Dark One’s touch on the world. The true forest lay behind them to the west, but twisted oaks grew out of the rocky slopes, sourgums and pines of unfamiliar shape, and trees Egwene had no names for, brown and yellow and bare-branched. Not winter-bare or brown. Starved for moisture and coolness. Dying, if the weather did not change soon. Beyond the last of the soldiers a river ran off south and west, the Reisendrelle, twenty paces wide and flanked on either side by hard-baked mud studded with stones. Swirling around rocks that might have made crossing hazardous in other days, the water rose short of the horses’ knees as they forded. Egwene felt her own problems dwindle in size. Despite her head, she offered a small prayer for Nynaeve and Elayne. Their search was as important as anything she did. More. The world would live if she failed, but they had to succeed.

They traveled southward at an easy canter, slowing when the hillside slant of the land grew too great or the horses had to climb any distance through trees and sparse scrub, but keeping to the lowland as much as possible and covering ground quickly. Bryne’s big-nosed gelding, sure-footed and strong, hardly seemed to mind which way the ground tilted or whether smooth or rough, yet Daishar kept pace easily. Sometimes Siuan’s plump animal labored, though she might just have been picking up her rider’s anxiety. No amount of practice could make Siuan anything but a terrible rider, nearly throwing her arms around the mare’s neck climbing upslope, almost falling from the saddle going down, awkward as a duck afoot on the flats and not far from wide-eyed as the horse. Myrelle actually regained some of her humor watching Siuan. Her own white-footed sorrel picked her way in delicate swoops like a swallow, and Myrelle rode with an assurance and flare that made Bryne appear stolid and workmanlike.

Before they had gone very far, riders appeared atop a high ridge to the west, perhaps a hundred men in column, the rising sun glinting off breast-plates and helmets and lance points. At their head streamed a long white pennant Egwene could not make out, but she knew it bore the Red Hand. She had not expected to see them so close to the Aes Sedai camp.

“Dragonsworn animals,” Myrelle muttered, watching the horsemen parallel their route. Her gloved hands tightened on her reins—with fury, not fear.

“The Band of the Red Hand puts out patrols,” Bryne said placidly. With a glance at Egwene, he added, “Lord Talmanes seems concerned about you, Mother, last I spoke to him.” He put no more emphasis on that than the other.

“You’ve spoken with him?” Every vestige of Myrelle’s serenity vanished. The anger she had to hold in with Egwene, she could safely unleash on him. She all but shook with it. “That is very close to treason, Lord Bryne. It might well be treason!” Siuan had been dividing her attention between her horse and the men on the ridge, and she did not look at Myrelle, but she stiffened. No one had tied the Band and treason together before.

They rounded a bend in the hill valley. A farm clung to a hillside, or what had been a farm once. One wall of the small stone house had collapsed, and a few charred timbers stuck up beside the soot-coated chimney like grimy fingers. The roofless barn was a blackened hollow box of stone, and scattered ash marked where sheds might once have stood. All across Altara they had seen as bad and worse, entire villages sometimes, the dead lying in the streets, food for ravens and foxes and feral dogs that fled when people came close. Stories of anarchy and murder in Tarabon and Arad Doman suddenly had flesh and bones. Many men seized any excuse to turn bandit or settle old grudges—Egwene hoped fervently it was so—but the name on every survivor’s lips was Dragonsworn, and the sisters blamed Rand as surely as if he had carried the torches himself. They would use him still if they could, though, control him if they found a way. She was not the only Aes Sedai to believe in doing what she must even when she had to hold her nose.

Myrelle’s anger affected Bryne as little as rain affected a boulder. Egwene had a sudden image of storms whirling about his head and flood-waters swirling around his knees while he just kept striding ahead. “Myrelle Sedai,” he said with the calm she should have shown, “when ten thousand men or more are shadowing my backtrail, I want to know what their intentions are. Especially this particular ten thousand or more.”

This was a dangerous topic. However happy Egwene was that they were past questions of Talmanes’ concern over her, she should have been grinding her teeth that he had mentioned her at all, but she was so startled she sat bolt upright in her saddle. “Ten thousand? Are you sure?” The Band had had little more than half that when Mat brought it to Salidar hunting her and Elayne.

Bryne merely shrugged. “I gather recruits as I go, and so does he. Not as many, but some men have notions about serving Aes Sedai.” More people than not would have been distinctly uneasy, saying that to three sisters; he said it with a wry smile. “Besides, it seems the Band has a certain reputation from the fighting in Cairhien. The tale is, Shen an Calhar never loses, whatever the odds.” That was what drove men to join, here as back in Altara, the thought that two armies must mean a battle. Trying to stand aside might end as hard as choosing the wrong side; at best there would be no pickings for neutrals. “I’ve had a few deserters to my ranks from Talmanes’ newlings. Some seem to think the Band’s luck is tied up in Mat Cauthon and can’t be there without him.”

Something close to a sneer twisted Myrelle’s lips. “These fool Murandians’ fears are certainly useful, but I did not think you were a fool, too. Talmanes follows us because he fears we might turn against his precious Lord Dragon, but if he truly intended to attack, don’t you think he would have by now? These Dragonsworn can be dealt with once more important matters are done. Communicating with him, however... !” Giving herself a shake, she managed to regain her serenity. On the surface, at least. Her tone could still have scorched wood. “You mark me, Lord Bryne...”

Egwene let Myrelle’s words pass her by. Bryne had looked at her when he mentioned Mat. The sisters thought they knew the situation with the Band, and Mat, and did not think on it much, but Bryne apparently did. Tilting her head so the brim of her hat obscured her face, she studied him from the corner of her eye. He was oathbound to build the army and lead it until Elaida was brought down, but why had he sworn? Surely he could have found some lesser oath, and it surely would have been accepted by sisters who only thought to use all those soldiers as a Foolday mask to frighten Elaida. Having him on their side was comforting; even the other Aes Sedai seemed to feel that. Like her father, he was the sort of man who made you believe there was no cause for panic whatever the situation. Having him oppose her, she realized suddenly, might be as bad as having the Hall against her, and never mind the army. The one approving comment Siuan had ever had of him was that he was formidable, even if she did try to change her remark immediately to mean something else. Any man Siuan Sanche thought formidable was one to be mindful of.

They splashed across a tiny stream, a rivulet that barely wet the horses’ hooves. A bedraggled crow, feeding on a fish that had stranded itself in water too shallow to swim, fluttered its tattered wings on the edge of flight, then settled back to its meal.

Siuan also was studying Bryne—the mare made much easier going when she forgot to saw at the reins or dig her heels in at just the wrong moment. Egwene had asked her about Lord Bryne’s motives, but Siuan’s own tangled connection to the man left her little except acid when it came to him. She either hated Gareth Bryne to his bootsoles or loved him, and imagining Siuan in love was like imagining that crow swimming.

The ridgeline where the Band’s soldiers had been showed only cockeyed lines of dead conifers now. She had not noticed them going. Mat had a reputation as a soldier? Crows swimming did not come close. She had believed he commanded only because of Rand, and that had been hard enough to swallow. Believing because you think you know is dangerous, she reminded herself, eying Bryne.

“. . . should be flogged!” Myrelle’s voice still burned. “I warn you, if I hear that you’ve met with this Dragonsworn again... !”

Rain washing over that boulder as far as Bryne was concerned, or so it seemed. He rode easily, occasionally murmuring “Yes, Myrelle Sedai” or “No, Myrelle Sedai” without any hint of distress and without lessening the watch he kept on the countryside. No doubt he had seen the soldiers leave. However he mustered the patience—Egwene was sure fear was no part of it—she was in no mood to listen to that.

“Be quiet, Myrelle! No one is going to do anything to Lord Bryne.” Rubbing her temple, she thought of asking one of the sisters back in the camp for Healing. Neither Siuan nor Myrelle had much ability there. Not that Healing would do any good if it was just lack of sleep and worry. Not that she wanted whispers spreading that the strain was growing too great for her. Besides, there were other ways to deal with headaches than Healing, although not here.

Myrelle’s mouth tightened only for an instant. With a toss of her head, she turned her face away, color in her cheeks, and Bryne suddenly appeared absorbed in examining a red-winged hawk wheeling off to their left. Even a brave man could know when to be discreet. Folding its wings, the hawk plummeted toward unseen prey behind a stand of bedraggled leatherleafs. Egwene felt that way, swooping on targets she could not see, hoping she had chosen the right one, hoping there was a target there.

She drew breath, wishing it were steadier. “Just the same, Lord Bryne, I think it’s best you don’t meet Talmanes again. Surely you know as much of his intentions as you need by this time.” Light send Talmanes had not said too much already. A pity she could not send Siuan or Leane to caution him, if he would take it, but given feelings among the sisters, she might as well risk going to see Rand.

Bryne bowed in his saddle. “As you command, Mother.” There was no mockery in his tone; there never was. He had obviously learned to school his voice around Aes Sedai. Siuan hung back, frowning at him. Perhaps she could dig out where his loyalties lay. For all her animosity, she spent a great deal of time in his company, much more than she absolutely had to.

With an effort, Egwene kept her hands on Daishar’s reins, away from her head. “How much further, Lord Bryne?” Keeping impatience from her voice was more difficult.

“Just a little way, Mother.” For some reason, he halfway turned his head to look at Myrelle. “Not far, now.”

Increasingly, farms dotted the region, as many clinging to hillsides as on the flats, though the Emond’s Fielder in Egwene said that made no sense, low gray stone houses and barns, and unfenced pastures with a few slat-ribbed cows and sad-looking black-tailed sheep. Not all had been burned by far, only one here and one there. Supposedly the burnings were to let the others know what would happen if they did not declare for the Dragon Reborn.

At one farm, she saw some of Lord Bryne’s foragers with a wagon. That they were his was plain as much by the way he eyed them and nodded as by the lack of a white pennant. The Band always flaunted itself; aside from the banners, some had of late taken to wearing a red scarf tied around the arm. Half a dozen cattle and maybe two dozen sheep lowed and baaed under the guard of men on horseback, and other men toted sacks from barn to wagon past a slump-shouldered farmer and his family, a sullen lot in dark rough woolens. One of the little girls, wearing a deep bonnet like the others, had her face pressed to her mother’s skirts, apparently crying. Some of the boys had their fists clenched, as if they wanted to fight. The farmer would be paid, but if he could not really spare what was taken, if he had had a mind to resist close on twenty men in breastplates and helmets, those burned farms would have given him pause. Quite often Bryne’s soldiers found charred corpses in the ruins, men and women and children who had died trying to get out. Sometimes the doors and windows had been sealed up from outside.

Egwene wondered whether there was any way to convince the farmers and villagers that there was a difference between the brigands and the army. She wanted to, very much, but she did not see how, short of letting her own soldiers go hungry until they deserted. If the sisters could see no difference between the brigands and the Band, there seemed no hope for the country folk. As the farm dwindled behind them, she resisted the urge to twist around in her saddle and look back. Looking would change nothing.

Lord Bryne was as good as his word. Perhaps three or four miles from the camp—three or four in a straight line; twice that over the country they had crossed—they rounded the shoulder of a hill spotted with brush and trees, and he drew rein. The sun stood almost halfway to its crest, now. Another road ran below, narrower and much more winding than the one through the camp. “They had the idea traveling by night would take them safe past the bandits,” he said. “Not a bad notion, as it turns out, or else they’ve just had the Dark One’s own luck. They’ve come from Caemlyn.”

A merchant train of some fifty large wagons behind teams of ten or so lay stretched out along the road, halted under the eyes of more of Bryne’s soldiers. A few of the soldiers were afoot, supervising the transfer of barrels and bags from the merchants’ wagons to half a dozen of their own. One woman in a plain dark dress waved her arms and pointed vigorously to this item or that, either protesting or bargaining, but her fellows stood in a glum silent knot. A short way farther up the road, grim fruit decorated the spreading limbs of an oak, men hanging by the neck from every bare branch. Bare except for crows, almost enough to make the tree seem leaved in black. They had larger than fish to feed on, these birds. Even at a distance it was not a sight to ease Egwene’s head, or her stomach.

“This what you wanted me to see? The merchants, or the bandits?” She could not see a dress on any of those dangling corpses, and when the bandits hanged people, they included women and children. Anyone could have put the corpses there, Bryne’s soldiers, the Band—that the Band hanged any of the so-called Dragonsworn they caught made little difference to the sisters—or even some local lord or lady. Had the Murandian nobles worked together, all the brigands might have hung from trees by now, but that was like asking cats to dance. Wait. He had said Caemlyn. “Is it something to do with Rand? Or the Asha’man?”

This time he looked from her to Myrelle and back quite openly. Myrelle’s hat cast shadows on her face. She appeared sunk in gloom, sagging in her saddle and not at all the confident rider she had been earlier. He seemed to reach a decision. “I thought you should hear before anybody else did, but perhaps I misunderstood...” He eyed Myrelle again.

“Hear what, you hairy-eared lump?” Siuan growled, thumping the fat mare closer with her heels.

Egwene made a soothing gesture toward her. “Myrelle can hear anything I do, Lord Bryne. She has my complete trust.” The Green sister’s head jerked around. From her stricken look, anyone would doubt they had heard Egwene correctly, but after a moment Bryne nodded.

“I see that matters have... changed. Yes, Mother.” Removing his helmet, he set it on the pommel of his saddle. He still seemed reluctant, picking his words with care. “Merchants carry rumors the way dogs do fleas, and that lot down there has a fine crop. I don’t say any of it is true, of course, but...” It was odd, seeing him so hesitant. “Mother, one tale that caught them up on the road is that Rand al’Thor has gone to the White Tower and sworn fealty to Elaida.”

For a moment Myrelle and Siuan looked much alike, blood draining from their faces as they envisioned catastrophe. Myrelle actually swayed in her saddle. For a moment Egwene could only stare at him. Then she startled herself, and the others, by bursting out laughing. Daishar danced in surprise, and settling him on the rocky slope settled her nerves as well. “Lord Bryne,” she said, patting the gelding’s neck, “that isn’t so, believe me. I know it for a fact, as of last night.”

Siuan heaved an instant sigh, and Myrelle was only a heartbeat behind. Egwene felt like laughing again, at their expressions. So incredibly relieved they were wide-eyed. Children who had been told the Shadowman was not under the bed. Aes Sedai calm indeed.

“That’s good to hear,” Bryne said flatly, “but even if I sent away every man down there, the tale will still reach my ranks. It will go through the army like wildfire crossing these hills.” That cut her mirth short. That could be disaster, left alone.

“I will have sisters announce the truth to your soldiers tomorrow. Will six Aes Sedai who know of themselves be enough? Myrelle, here, and Sheriam. Carlinya and Beonin, Anaiya and Morvrin.” Those sisters would not like having to meet with the Wise Ones, but they would not be able to refuse her, either. Would not want to, really, to stop this tale spreading. Should not want to, at least. Myrelle’s tiny wince was followed by a resigned twist of her mouth.

Leaning an elbow on his helmet, Bryne studied Egwene and Myrelle. He never so much as peeked at Siuan. His bay stamped a hoof on the rocks, and a covey of some sort of dove with bright blue wings whirred into the air from beneath bushes a few paces away, making Daishar and Myrelle’s roan start skittishly. Bryne’s mount did not stir. He had heard of the gateways, without doubt, though he surely knew nothing of what they were—Aes Sedai did keep secrets by habit, and had some hope of keeping that one from Elaida—and he certainly knew nothing at all about Tel’aran’rhiod—that vital secret was easier to guard with no manifestations anyone could see—yet he did not ask how. Perhaps he was accustomed to Aes Sedai and secrets by now.

“So long as they say the words straight,” he said at last. “If they hedge even a hair...” His stare was not an attempt to intimidate, just to drive the point home. He seemed satisfied by what he saw in her face. “You do very well, it appears, Mother. I wish you continued success. Set your time for this afternoon, and I will come. We should confer regularly. I will come whenever you send for me. We should begin making firm plans how to put you on the Amyrlin Seat once we reach Tar Valon.”

His tone was guarded—very likely he still was not entirely sure what was going on, or how far he could trust Myrelle—and it took her a moment to realize what he had done. It made her breath catch. Maybe she was just becoming too used to the way Aes Sedai shaded words, but... Bryne had just said the army was hers. She was sure of it. Not the Hall’s, and not Sheriam’s; hers.

“Thank you, Lord Bryne.” That seemed little enough, especially when his careful nod, his eyes steady on hers, seemed to confirm her belief. Suddenly she had a thousand more questions. Most of which she could not ask even were they alone. A pity she could not take him into her confidence completely. Caution until you’re sure, and then a little more caution. An old saying that applied very well to any dealings that brushed against Aes Sedai. And even the best men would talk things over with their friends, perhaps especially when things were supposed to be secret. “I’m sure you have a thousand details to see to, what’s left of the morning,” she said, gathering her reins. “You go on back. We will ride a little more.”

Bryne protested, of course. He almost sounded like a Warder, talking of the impossibility of watching every way at once and how an arrow in the back could kill an Aes Sedai as quickly as it could anyone else. The next man who told her that, she decided, was going to pay for it. Three Aes Sedai were surely the equal of three hundred men. In the end, for all his grumbles and grimaces, he had no choice but to obey. Donning his helmet, he started his horse down the uneven slope toward the merchant train, instead of back the way they had come, but that was even better from her point of view.

“Will you lead the way, Siuan,” she said when he was a dozen strides below.

Siuan glared after him as though he had been badgering her the whole time. With a snort, she tugged her straw hat straight, wheeled her mare around—well, dragged her around—and heeled the stout animal to a walk. Egwene motioned Myrelle to follow. Like Bryne, the woman had no choice.

At first Myrelle directed sidelong glances at her, plainly expecting her to bring up the sisters sent to the White Tower, plainly gathering excuses for why they had to be kept secret even from the Hall. The longer Egwene rode in silence, the more uneasily the other shifted in her saddle. Myrelle began wetting her lips, fine cracks spreading in that Aes Sedai calm. A very useful tool, silence.

For a time the only sounds were their horses’ hooves and the occasional cry of a bird in the brush, but as Siuan’s direction became clear, angling a little west from the path back to the camp, Myrelle’s shifting increased until she might have been sitting on nettles. Maybe there was something to those bits and pieces Siuan had gathered after all.

When Siuan took another turn westward, between two misshapen hills that bent toward each other, Myrelle drew rein. “There... There is a waterfall in that direction,” she said, pointing east. “Not very large, even before the drought, but quite pretty even now.” Siuan stopped too, looking back with a small smile.

What could Myrelle be hiding? Egwene was curious. Glancing at the Green sister, she gave a start at a single bead of perspiration on the woman’s forehead, glistening in the shadow just at the edge of her wide gray hat. She most certainly wanted to know what could shake an Aes Sedai enough to make her sweat.

“I think Siuan’s way will offer even more interesting sights, don’t you?” Egwene said, turning Daishar, and Myrelle seemed to fold in on herself. “Come along.”

“You know everything, don’t you?” Myrelle muttered unsteadily as they rode between the leaning hills. More than one drop of sweat decorated her face now. She was shaken to her core. “Everything. How could you... ?” Suddenly she jerked upright in her saddle, staring at Siuan’s back. “Her! Siuan’s been your creature from the beginning!” She sounded almost indignant. “How could we have been so blind? But I still don’t understand. We were so circumspect.”

“If you want to keep something hidden,” Siuan said contemptuously over her shoulder, “don’t try to buy coin peppers this far south.”

What in the world were coin peppers? And what were they talking about? Myrelle shuddered. It was a measure of how upset she was that Siuan’s tone brought no quick snap to put the other woman in her place. Instead, she licked her lips as though they were suddenly very dry.

“Mother, you have to understand why I did it, why we did it.” The frantic edge to her voice was fit for confronting half the Forsaken, and her in her shift. “Not just because Moiraine asked, not just because she was my friend. I hate letting them die. I hate it! The bargain we make is hard on us, sometimes, but harder on them. You must understand. You must!”

Just when Egwene thought she was about to reveal everything, Siuan halted her round mare again and faced them. Egwene could have slapped her. “It might go easier with you, Myrelle, if you lead the rest of the way,” she said coldly. Disgustedly, in fact. “Cooperation might mean mitigation. A little.”

“Yes.” Myrelle nodded, hands working incessantly on the reins. “Yes, of course.”

She looked on the point of tears as she took the lead. Siuan, falling in behind, appeared relieved for just an instant. Egwene thought she herself was going to burst. What bargain? With whom? Letting who die? And who was “we”? Sheriam and the others? But Myrelle would have heard, and exposing her own ignorance hardly seemed advisable at this point. An ignorant woman who keeps her mouth shut will be thought wise, the saying went. And there was another: Keeping the first secret always means keeping ten more. There was nothing for it but to follow, holding everything in. Siuan was going to get a talking-to, though. The woman was not supposed to be keeping secrets from her. Grinding her teeth, Egwene tried to appear patient, unconcerned. Wise.

Almost back to the road the camp was on, a few miles to the west, Myrelle led the way up a low flat-topped hill covered with pine and leatherleaf. Two huge oaks kept anything else from growing in the wide depression on the crown. Beneath thick intertwined branches stood three peaked tents of patched canvas, and a picket line of horses, with a cart nearby, and five tall warhorses each carefully picketed away from the others. Nisao Dachen, in a simply cut bronze-colored riding dress, waited under the awning in front of one of the tents as if to welcome guests, with Sarin Hoigan at her side in the olive green coat so many of the Gaidin wore. A bald-headed stump of a man with a thick black beard, Nisao’s Warder still stood taller than she. A few paces away, two of Myrelle’s three Gaidin warily watched them descend into the hollow, Croi Makin, slender and yellow-haired, and Nuhel Dromand, dark and bulky, with a beard that left his upper lip bare. No one looked surprised in the least. Obviously one of the Warders had been keeping guard and given warning. Nothing in sight warranted all the secrecy, though, or Myrelle’s lip-licking. For that matter, if Nisao waited in welcome, why did her hands keep stroking her divided skirts? She looked as if she would rather face Elaida while shielded.

Two women peering around a corner of one of the tents ducked back hurriedly, but not before Egwene recognized them. Nicola and Areina. Suddenly she felt very uneasy. What had Siuan brought her to?

Siuan showed no nervousness at all as she dismounted. “Bring him out, Myrelle. Now.” She was getting her own back with a vengeance; her tone made a file seem smooth. “It’s too late for hiding.”

Myrelle barely managed a frown at being addressed so, and it appeared an effort. Visibly pulling herself together, she jerked her hat from her head and climbed down without a word, glided to one of the tents and vanished inside. Nisao’s already big eyes followed her, growing wider by the moment. She seemed frozen to the spot.

No one but Siuan was near enough to overhear. “Why did you break in?” Egwene demanded softly as she got down. “I’m sure she was about to confess... whatever it is... and I still don’t have a clue. Coin peppers?”

“Very popular in Shienar, and Malkier,” Siuan said just as quietly. “I only heard that after I left Aeldene this morning. I had to make her lead the way; I didn’t know it, not exactly. It would hardly have done much good to let her discover that, now would it? I didn’t know about Nisao, either. I thought they hardly ever spoke to one another.” She glanced at the Yellow sister and gave her head an irritated shake. A failure to learn something was a failure Siuan did not tolerate well in herself. “Unless I’ve gone blind and stupid, what these two...” Grimacing as though she had a mouthful of something rotten, she spluttered trying to find a name to fit. Abruptly she caught Egwene’s sleeve. “Here they come. Now you’ll see for yourself.”

Myrelle left the tent first, then a man in just boots and breeches who had to duck low through the doorflaps, a bared sword in his hand and scars crisscrossing his lightly furred chest. He was head and shoulders and more taller than her, taller than any of the other Warders. His long dark hair, held by a braided leather cord around his temples, was more streaked with gray than when Egwene has seen him last, but there was nothing at all soft in Lan Mandragoran. Pieces of the puzzle suddenly clicked into place, yet it still would not come apart for her. He had been Warder to Moiraine, the Aes Sedai who had brought her and Rand and the rest out of the Two Rivers what seemed an Age ago, but Moiraine was dead killing Lanfear, and Lan had gone missing in Cairhien right after. Maybe it was all clear to Siuan; to her, it was mostly mud.

Murmuring something to Lan, Myrelle touched his arm. He flinched slightly, like a nervous horse, but his hard face never turned from Egwene. Finally, though, he nodded and pivoted on his heel, strode farther away beneath the branches of the oaks. Gripping the sword hilt in both hands above his head, blade slanted down, he rose onto the ball of one booted foot and stood motionless.

For a moment, Nisao frowned at him as though she, too, saw a puzzle. Then her gaze met Myrelle’s, and together their eyes swept to Egwene. Instead of coming to her, they went to each other, exchanging hasty whispers. At least, it was an exchange at first. Then Nisao merely stood there, shaking her head in disbelief or denial. “You dropped me into this,” she groaned aloud at last. “I was a blind fool to listen to you.”

“This should be... interesting,” Siuan said as they finally turned toward her and Egwene. The twist she gave the word made it sound decidedly unpleasant.

Myrelle and Nisao hurriedly touched hair and dresses as they crossed the short distance, making certain everything was in order. Perhaps they had been caught out—In what? Egwene wondered—but apparently they intended to put the best face they could on matters.

“If you will step inside, Mother,” Myrelle said, gesturing to the nearest tent. Only the slightest tremor in her voice betrayed her cool face. The sweat was gone. Wiped away, of course, but it had not returned.

“Thank you, no, daughter.”

“Some wine punch?” Nisao asked with a smile. Hands clasped at her breast, she looked anxious anyway. “Siuan, go tell Nicola to bring the punch.” Siuan did not move, and Nisao blinked in surprise, her mouth thinning. The smile returned in an instant, though, and she raised her voice a little. “Nicola? Child, bring the punch. Made with dried blackberries, I fear,” she confided to Egwene, “but quite restorative.”

“I don’t want punch,” Egwene said curtly. Nicola emerged from behind the tent, yet she showed no sign of running to obey. Instead, she stood staring at the four Aes Sedai, chewing her underlip. Nisao flashed a glare of what could only be called distaste, but said nothing. Another piece of the puzzle snapped into place, and Egwene breathed a trifle easier. “What I want, daughter, what I require, is an explanation.”

Best face or no, it was a thin veneer. Myrelle stretched out a pleading hand. “Mother, Moiraine did not choose me just because we were friends. Two of my Warders belonged first to sisters who died. Avar and Nuhel. No other sister has saved more than one in centuries.”

“I only became involved because of his mind,” Nisao said hastily. “I have some interest in diseases of the mind, and this must rightly be called one. Myrelle practically dragged me into it.”

Smoothing her skirts, Myrelle directed a dark look at the Yellow that was returned with interest. “Mother, when a Warder’s Aes Sedai dies, it is as though he swallows her death and is consumed by it from the inside. He—”

“I know that, Myrelle,” Egwene broke in sharply. Siuan and Leane had told her a good bit, though neither knew she had asked because she wanted to know what to expect with Gawyn. A poor bargain, Myrelle had called it, and perhaps it was. When a sister’s Warder died, grief enveloped her; she could control it somewhat, sometimes, hold it in, but sooner or later it gnawed a way out. However well Siuan managed when others were around, she still wept alone many nights for her Alric, killed the day she was deposed. Yet what were even months of tears, compared with death itself? The stories were full of Warders dying to avenge their Aes Sedai, and indeed it was very often the case. A man who wanted to die, a man looking for what could kill him, took risks not even a Warder could survive. Perhaps the most horrible part of it, to her, was that they knew. Knew what their fate would be if their Aes Sedai died, knew what drove them when she did, knew nothing they did could change it. She could not imagine the courage required to accept the bargain, knowing.

She stepped aside, so she could see Lan clearly. He still stood motionless, not even seeming to breathe. Apparently forgetting the tea, Nicola had seated herself cross-legged on the ground to watch him. Areina squatted on her heels at Nicola’s side with her braid pulled over her shoulder, staring even more avidly. Much more avidly, actually, since Nicola sometimes darted furtive glances at Egwene and the others. The rest of the Warders made a small cluster, pretending to watch him too while keeping a close eye on their Aes Sedai.

A more than warm breeze stirred, ruffling the dead leaves that carpeted the ground, and with shocking suddenness, Lan was moving, shifting from stance to stance, blade a whirling blur in his hands. Faster and faster, till he seemed to sprint from one to the next, yet all as precise as the movements of a clock. She waited for him to stop, or at least slow, but he did not. Faster. Areina’s mouth slowly dropped open, eyes going wide with awe, and for that matter, so did Nicola’s. They leaned forward, children watching candy set to dry on the kitchen table. Even the other Warders really divided their attention between their Aes Sedai and him now, but in contrast to the two women, they watched a lion that might charge any moment.

“I see you are working him hard,” Egwene said. That was part of the method for saving a Warder. Few sisters were willing to make the attempt, given the rate of failure, and the cost of it to themselves. Keeping him from risks was another. And bonding him again; that was the first step. Without doubt Myrelle had taken care of that little detail. Poor Nynaeve. She might well strangle Myrelle, when she learned. Then again, she might countenance anything that kept Lan alive. Maybe. For Lan’s part, he deserved the worst he received, letting himself be bonded by another woman when he knew Nynaeve was pining for him.

She thought she had kept her voice clear, but something of what she felt must have crept through, because Myrelle began trying to explain again.

“Mother, passing a bond is not that bad. Why, in point of fact, it’s no more than a woman deciding who should have her husband if she dies, to see he is in the right hands.”

Egwene stared at her so hard that she stepped back, almost tripping over her skirts. It was only shock, though. Every time she thought she had heard of the strangest possible custom, another popped up stranger still.

“We aren’t all Ebou Dari, Myrelle,” Siuan said dryly, “and a Warder isn’t a husband. For most of us.” Myrelle’s head came up defiantly. Some sisters did marry a Warder, a handful; not many married at all. No one inquired too closely, but rumor said she had married all three of hers, which surely violated custom and law even in Ebou Dar. “Not that bad, you say, Myrelle? Not that bad?” Siuan’s scowl matched her tone; she sounded as if she had a vile taste in her mouth.

“There is no law against it,” Nisao protested. To Egwene, not Siuan. “No law against passing a bond.” Siuan received a frown that should have made her step back and shut her mouth. She was having none of it, though.

“That’s not the point, is it?” she demanded. “Even if it hasn’t been done in—what? four hundred years or more?—even if customs have changed, you might have escaped with a few stares and a little censure if all you and Moiraine had done was pass his bond between you. But he wasn’t asked, was he? He was given no choice. You might as well have bonded him against his will. In fact, you bloody well did!”

At last the puzzle came clear for Egwene. She knew she should feel the same disgust as Siuan. Aes Sedai put bonding a man against his will on a level with rape. He had as much chance to resist as a farmgirl would if a man the size of Lan cornered her in a barn. If three men the size of Lan did. Sisters had not always been so particular, though—a thousand years earlier, it would hardly have been remarked—and even today an argument could sometimes be made as to whether a man had actually known what he was agreeing to. Hypocrisy was a fine art among Aes Sedai sometimes, like scheming or keeping secrets. The thing was, she knew he had resisted admitting his love for Nynaeve. Some nonsense about how he was bound to be killed sooner or later and did not want to leave her a widow; men always did spout drivel when they thought they were being logical and practical. Would Nynaeve have let him walk away unbonded, had she had the chance, whatever he said? Would she herself let Gawyn? He had said he would accept, yet if he changed his mind... ?

Nisao’s mouth worked, but she could not find the words she wanted. She glared at Siuan as though it were all her fault, yet that was nothing alongside the scowl she directed at Myrelle. “I should never have listened to you,” she growled. “I must have been mad!”

Somehow, Myrelle still managed to maintain a smooth face, but she wavered a little, as though her knees had gone weak. “I did not do it for myself, Mother. You must believe that. It was to save him. As soon as he is safe, I will pass him on to Nynaeve, the way Moiraine wanted, just as soon as she’s—”

Egwene flung up a hand, and Myrelle stopped as if she had clapped it over her mouth. “You mean to pass his bond to Nynaeve?”

Myrelle nodded uncertainly, Nisao much more vigorously. Scowling, Siuan muttered something about doubling a wrong making it three times as bad. Lan still had not slowed. Two grasshoppers whirred up from the leaves behind him, and he spun, sword flicking them out of the air without a pause.

“Are your efforts succeeding? Is he any better? How long have you had him, exactly?”

“Only two weeks,” Myrelle replied. “Today is the twentieth. Mother, it could require months, and there is no guarantee.”

“Perhaps it is time to try something different,” Egwene said, more to herself than anyone else. More to convince herself than for any other reason. In his circumstances, Lan was hardly an easy present to hand anyone, but bond or no bond, he belonged to Nynaeve more than he ever would to Myrelle.

When she crossed the hollow to him, though, doubts sprang up strong. He whirled to face her in his dance, sword streaking toward her. Someone gasped as the blade halted abruptly only inches from her head. She was relieved that it had not been her.

Brilliant blue eyes regarded her intently from beneath lowered brows, in a face all planes and angles that might have been carved from stone. Lan lowered his sword slowly. Sweat coated him, yet he was not even breathing hard. “So you are the Amyrlin now. Myrelle told me they had raised one, but not who. It seems you and I have a good deal in common.” His smile was as cold as his voice, as cold as his eyes.

Egwene stopped herself from adjusting her stole, reminding herself that she was Amyrlin and Aes Sedai. She wanted to embrace saidar. Until this moment, she had not realized exactly how dangerous he was. “Nynaeve is Aes Sedai now, too, Lan. She’s in need of a good Warder.” One of the other women made a noise, but Egwene held her gaze on him.

“I hope she finds a hero out of legend.” He barked a laugh. “She’ll need the hero just to face her temper.”

The laugh convinced her, icy hard as it was. “Nynaeve is in Ebou Dar, Lan. You know what a dangerous city that is. She is searching for something we need desperately. If the Black Ajah learns of it, they’ll kill her to get it. If the Forsaken find out...” She had thought his face bleak before, but the pain that tightened his eyes at Nynaeve’s danger confirmed her plan. Nynaeve, not Myrelle, had the right. “I am sending you to her, to act as her Warder.”

“Mother,” Myrelle said urgently behind her.

Egwene flung out a hand to silence her. “Nynaeve’s safety will be in your hands, Lan.”

He did not hesitate. Or even glance at Myrelle. “It will take at least a month to reach Ebou Dar. Areina, saddle Mandarb!” On the point of turning away, he paused, lifting his free hand as if to touch her stole. “I apologize for ever helping you leave the Two Rivers. You, or Nynaeve.” Striding away, he vanished into the tent he had come out of earlier, but before he had gone two steps, Myrelle and Nisao and Siuan were all clustered around her.

“Mother, you don’t understand what you are proposing,” Myrelle said breathlessly. “You might as well give a child a lighted lantern to play with in a haybarn. I began readying Nynaeve as soon as I felt his bond pass to me. I thought I had time. But she was raised to the shawl in a blink. She isn’t ready to handle him, Mother. Not him, not the way he is.”

With an effort Egwene made herself be patient. They still did not understand. “Myrelle, even if Nynaeve could not channel a lick...” She could not, actually, unless she was angry. “. . . that would make no difference, and you know it. Not in whether she can handle him. There’s one thing you haven’t been able to do. Give him a task so important that he has to stay alive to carry it out.” That was the final element. Supposedly it worked better than the rest. “To him, Nynaeve’s safety is that important. He loves her, Myrelle, and she loves him.”

“That explains...” Myrelle began softly, but Nisao burst out incredulously atop her.

“Oh, surely not. Not him. She might love him, I suppose, or think she does, but women have been chasing Lan since he was a beardless boy. And catching him, for a day or a month. He was quite a beautiful boy, however hard that might be to believe now. Still, he does appear to have his attractions.” She glanced sideways at Myrelle, who frowned slightly, tiny spots of color blooming in her cheeks. She did not react any further, but that was more than enough. “No, Mother. Any woman who thinks she has leashed Lan Mandragoran will find she has collared only air.”

Egwene sighed in spite of herself. Some sisters believed there was one more part of saving a Warder whose bond was broken by death; putting him into the arms—into the bed—of a woman. No man could focus on death then, the belief ran. Myrelle, it seemed, had taken care of that herself, too. At least she had not actually married him, not if she meant to pass him on. It would be just as well if Nynaeve never found out.

“Be that as it may,” she told Nisao absently. Areina was fastening the girths on Mandarb’s saddle with a brisk competence, the tall black stallion standing with head high but allowing it. Plainly this was not the first time she had been around the animal. Nicola stood close by the thick bole of the farther oak, arms crossed beneath her breasts, staring at Egwene and the others. She looked ready to run. “I don’t know what Areina has squeezed out of you,” Egwene said quietly, “but the extra lessons for Nicola stop now.”

Myrelle and Nisao jumped, mirror images of surprise. Siuan’s eyes grew to the size of teacups, but luckily she recovered before anyone noticed. “You really do know everything,” Myrelle whispered. “All Areina wants is to be around Lan. I think she believes he’ll teach her things she can use as a Hunter. Or maybe that he’ll go off on the Hunt with her.”

“Nicola wants to be another Caraighan,” Nisao muttered caustically. “Or another Moiraine. I think she had some notion she could make Myrelle give Lan’s bond to her. Well! At least we can deal with that pair as they deserve, now that he’s out in the open. Whatever happens to me, it will be a joy to know they’ll be squealing from here to year’s end.”

Siuan finally realized what had been going on, and outrage warred on her face with the wondering looks she directed at Egwene. That someone else had puzzled matters out first probably upset her as much as Nicola and Areina blackmailing Aes Sedai. Or perhaps not. Nicola and Areina were not Aes Sedai themselves, after all. That drastically changed Siuan’s view of what was allowed. But then, it did the same for any sister.

With so many eyes turned her way, and not a friendly gaze in the lot, Nicola backed up against the oak tree and seemed to be trying to back further. Stains on that white dress would put her in hot water when she returned to the camp. Areina was still absorbed in Lan’s horse, unaware of what was crashing down on her head.

“That would be justice,” Egwene agreed, “but not unless you two face full justice yourselves.”

Nobody was looking at Nicola anymore. Myrelle’s eyes filled her face, and Nisao’s opened wider yet. Neither seemed to dare crack her teeth. Siuan wore grim satisfaction like another skin; by her lights, they deserved no mercy at all. Not that Egwene intended to give much.

“We will speak further when I come back,” she told them as Lan reappeared, his sword buckled on over a green coat undone to reveal an unlaced shirt, bulging saddlebags draped over his shoulder. The color-shifting Warder cloak hanging down his back wrenched the eye as it swirled behind him.

Leaving the stunned sisters to stew in their own juices, Egwene went to meet him. Siuan would keep them on a fine simmer, should they show any sign of falling off. “I can have you in Ebou Dar sooner than a month,” she said. He only nodded impatiently and called for Areina to bring Mandarb. His intensity was unnerving, an avalanche poised to fall, held back by a thread.

Weaving a gateway where he had been practicing the sword, a good eight feet by eight, she stepped through onto what seemed to be a ferry, floating in darkness that stretched forever. Skimming required a platform, and though it could be anything you chose to imagine, every sister seemed to have one she preferred. For her that was this wooden barge, with stout railings. If she fell off, she could make another barge beneath her, although where she came out then would be something of a question, but for anyone who could not channel, that fall would be as endless as the black that ran off in every direction. Only at the near end of the barge was there any light, the gateway giving a constricted view of the hollow. That light did not penetrate the darkness at all, yet there was light of a sort. At least, she could see quite clearly, as in Tel’aran’rhiod. Not for the first time she wondered whether this actually was some part of the World of Dreams.

Lan followed without needing to be told, leading his horse. He examined the gateway as he came through, studied the darkness as his boots and the stallion’s hooves thudded across the deck planks to her. The only question he asked was “How quickly will this take me to Ebou Dar?”

“It won’t,” she said, channeling to swing the gate shut, then closing the gateway. “Not right to the city.” Nothing moved that anyone could have seen; there was no wind or breeze, nothing to feel. They were in motion, though. And fast; faster than she could imagine anything moving. It must be six hundred miles or more they had to go. “I can put you out five, maybe six days north of Ebou Dar.” She had seen the gateway woven when Nynaeve and Elayne Traveled south, and she remembered enough for Skimming to the same place.

He nodded, peering ahead as though he could see their destination. He reminded her of an arrow in a drawn bow.

“Lan, Nynaeve is staying at the Tarasin Palace, a guest of Queen Tylin. She might deny she’s in any danger.” Which she certainly would, indignantly if Egwene knew Nynaeve, and rightfully so. “Try not to make a point of it—you know how stubborn she is—but you mustn’t pay that any mind. If necessary, just protect her without letting her know.” He said nothing, did not glance at her. She would have had a hundred questions in his place. “Lan, when you find her, you must tell her that Myrelle will give your bond to her as soon as you three can be together.” She had thought of passing that information along herself, but it seemed better not to let Nynaeve know he was coming. She was as besotted with him as... as... As I am with Gawyn, she thought ruefully. If Nynaeve knew he was on his way, there would be little room in her head for anything else. With the best will in the world, she would let the search fall on Elayne. Not that she would curl up and daydream, but any searching she did would be with dazzled eyes. “Are you listening to me, Lan?”

“Tarasin Palace,” he said in flat voice, without shifting his gaze. “Guest of Queen Tylin. Might deny she’s in danger. Stubborn, as if I didn’t know already.” He looked at her then, and she almost wished he had not. She was full of saidar, full of the warmth and the joy and the power, the sheer life, but something stark and primal raged in those cold blue eyes, a denial of life. His eyes were terrifying; that was all there was to it. “I will tell her everything she needs to know. You see, I listen.”

She made herself meet his stare without flinching, but he only turned away again. There was a mark on his neck, a bruise. It might—just might—be a bite. Perhaps she should caution him, tell him he did not have to be too... detailed... in any explanations about himself and Myrelle. The thought made her blush. She tried not to see the bruise, but now she had noticed it, she could not seem to see anything else. Anyway, he would not be that foolish. You could not expect a man to be sensible, but even men were not that scatterbrained.

In silence they floated, moving without moving. She had no fears of the Forsaken suddenly appearing here, or anyone else. Skimming had its oddities, some of which made for safety, and privacy. If two sisters wove gateways on the same spot only moments apart, aiming to Skim to the same place, they would not see one another, not unless it was exactly the same spot, with the weaves exactly identical, and neither precision was as easy to achieve as it might seem.

After a time—it was hard to tell how long exactly, but she thought well under half an hour—the barge stopped suddenly. Nothing altered in the feel, nor in the weaves she held. She simply knew that one moment they were speeding through the blackness, and the next standing still. Opening a gateway just at the barge’s bow—she was not sure where one opened at the stern would lead, and not anxious to find out, frankly; Moghedien had found the very idea frightening—she motioned Lan to go ahead. The barge only existed so long as she was present, another thing like Tel’aran’rhiod.

He swung back the ferry gate, leading Mandarb out, and when she followed, he was already in the saddle. She left the gateway open for her return. Low rolling hills ran off in every direction, covered in withered grass. There was not a tree to be seen, nothing more than patches of shriveled scrub brush. The stallion’s hooves kicked up little spurts of dust. The morning sun in that cloudless sky baked even hotter here than in Murandy. Long-winged vultures circled over something to the south, and in another place to the west.

“Lan,” she began, meaning to make sure he understood what he was to tell Nynaeve, but he forestalled her.

“Five or six days, you said,” he said, peering south. “I can make it faster. She will be safe, I promise.” Mandarb danced, impatient as his rider, but Lan held him easily. “You’ve come a very long way since Emond’s Field.” Looking down at her, he smiled. Any warmth in it was swallowed by his eyes. “You have a hold on Myrelle and Nisao, now. Don’t let them argue with you again. By your command, Mother. The watch is not done.” With a small bow, he dug in his heels, walking Mandarb just far enough to put her clear of the dust before setting the horse to a gallop.

Watching him speed southward, she closed her mouth. Well. He had noticed in the middle of all that sword practice, noticed and done the sums correctly. Apparently including sums he could not have suspected before seeing her with the stole. Nynaeve had better take care; she always did think men were dimmer than they actually were.

“At least they can’t get into any real trouble,” she told herself aloud. Lan topped a hill and vanished over the other side. Had there been any real danger in Ebou Dar, Elayne or Nynaeve would have said something. They did not meet often—she just had too much to do—but they had worked out a way to leave messages in the Salidar of Tel’aran’rhiod whenever there was need for one.

A wind that might have come from an open oven gusted up sheets of dust. Coughing, she covered her mouth and nose with a corner of the Amyrlin’s striped stole and hurriedly retreated through the gateway to her ferry. The journey back was silent and boring, leaving her to worry whether she had done the right thing sending Lan, whether it was right to keep Nynaeve in the dark. It’s done, she kept telling herself, but that did not help.

When she stepped once more into the hilltop hollow beneath the oak trees, Myrelle’s third Warder, Avar Hachami, had joined the others, a hawk-nosed man with thick, gray-streaked mustaches like down-curving horns. All four Gaidin were hard at work, the tents down and nearly folded. Nicola and Areina trotted back and forth loading all the camp paraphernalia into the cart, everything from blankets to cookpots and black iron washkettle. They really did trot, not pausing, but at least half their attention was on Siuan and the other two sisters, over near the treeline. For that matter, the Warders gave the three Aes Sedai much more than half their consideration. Their ears might as well have been up in points. Who was simmering who seemed to be a question.

“. . . not speak to me in that manner, Siuan,” Myrelle was saying. Not only loud enough to be heard across the clearing, but cold enough to take the edge off the weather. Arms folded tightly beneath her breasts, she was drawn up to every inch of height, imperious to the point of bursting. “Do you hear me? You will not!”

“Are you lost to all propriety, Siuan?” Nisao’s hands were knotted in her skirts in a vain attempt to keep herself from quivering, and the heat in her voice easily matched the ice in Myrelle’s. “If you’ve forgotten simple manners completely, you can be taught again!”

Facing them with her hands on her hips, Siuan moved her head jerkily, struggling both to keep a glare on her face and to keep it fixed on the other two. “I... I am only...” When she saw Egwene approaching, her relief bloomed like a flower in spring. “Mother...” That was almost a gasp. “. . . I was explaining possible penalties.” She drew a long breath, and went on more definitely. “The Hall will have to invent them as they go, of course, but I think they might well start with making these two pass their Warders to others, since they seem so fond of it.”

Myrelle squeezed her eyes shut, and Nisao turned to look at the Warders. Her expression never changed, calm if a touch flushed, but Sarin stumbled to his feet and took three quick steps toward her before she raised a hand to stop him. A Warder could sense his Aes Sedai’s presence, her pain, her fear and anger, every bit as much as Egwene could feel Moghedien’s when she wore the a’dam. No wonder all the Gaidin moved on their toes and looked ready to spring at something; they might not know what had driven their Aes Sedai to the brink of despair, but they knew the two women were at that brink.

Which was exactly where Egwene wanted them. She did not like this part of it. All the maneuvering was like a game, but this... I do what I must, she thought, unsure whether that was an attempt to stiffen her backbone or an attempt to excuse what she was about to do. “Siuan, please send Nicola and Areina back to the camp.” What they did not see, they could not tell. “We can’t have their tongues flapping, so make sure they know what will happen to them. Tell them they have one more chance, because the Amyrlin is feeling merciful, but they’ll never get another.”

“I think I can manage that much,” Siuan replied, and gathering her skirts, she stalked off. No one could stalk like Siuan, yet she seemed more eager to be away from Myrelle and Nisao than anything else.

“Mother,” Nisao said, choosing her words, “before you left, you said something—indicated there might be some way—for us to avoid—some way we might not have to—” She glanced at Sarin again. Myrelle would have been a study in Aes Sedai serenity as she examined Egwene, except that her fingers were laced together so tightly that her knuckles strained the thin leather of her gloves. Egwene motioned them to wait.

Nicola and Areina, turning away from the cart, saw Siuan coming and went stiff as posts. Which was no wonder, considering that Siuan advanced as though she intended to walk right over them and the cart. Areina’s head swiveled, searching, but before she could think to actually run, Siuan’s hands darted out and caught each of them by an ear. What she said was too low to carry, yet Areina stopped trying to pry her ear free. Her hands stayed on Siuan’s wrist, but she almost seemed to be using it to hold herself up. A look of such horror oozed across Nicola’s face that Egwene wondered whether Siuan might be going too far. But then, maybe not, under the circumstances; they were going to walk free of their crime. A pity she could not find a way to harness such a talent for ferreting out what was hidden. A way to harness it safely.

Whatever Siuan said, when she loosed their ears, the pair immediately turned toward Egwene and dropped into curtsies. Nicola’s was so low it nearly put her face on the ground, and Areina came close to falling on hers. Siuan clapped hands sharply, and the two women bounded to their feet, scrambled to untie a pair of shaggy wagon horses from the picket line. They were astride bareback and galloping out of the hollow so quickly, it was a wonder they did not have wings.

“They won’t even talk in their sleep,” Siuan said sourly when she returned. “I can still handle novices and scoundrels, at least.” Her eyes stayed on Egwene’s face, avoiding the other two sisters entirely.

Suppressing a sigh, Egwene turned to Myrelle and Nisao. She had to do something about Siuan, but first things first. The Green sister and the Yellow eyed her warily. “It is very simple,” she said in a firm voice. “Without my protection, you will very likely lose your Warders, and almost certainly wish you’d been skinned alive by the time the Hall finishes with you. Your own Ajahs may have a few choice words for you, as well. It may be years before you can hold your heads up again, years before you don’t have sisters looking over your shoulder every minute. But why should I protect you from justice? It puts me under an obligation; you might do the same again, or worse.” The Wise Ones had their part in this, though it was not exactly ji’e’toh. “If I’m to take on that responsibility, then you must have an obligation too. I must be able to trust you utterly, and I can only see one way to do that.” The Wise Ones, and then Faolain and Theodrin. “You must swear fealty.”

They had been frowning, wondering where she was headed, but wherever they thought, it was not where she ended. Their faces were a study. Nisao’s jaw dropped, and Myrelle looked as though she had been hit between the eyes with a hammer. Even Siuan gaped in disbelief.

“Im-p-possible,” Myrelle spluttered. “No sister has ever—! No Amyrlin has required—! You can’t really think—!”

“Oh, do be quiet, Myrelle,” Nisao snapped. “This is all your fault! I should never have listened—! Well. Done is done. And what is, is.” Peering at Egwene from beneath lowered brows, she muttered, “You are a dangerous young woman, Mother. A very dangerous woman. You may break the Tower more than it already is, before you’re done. If I was sure of that, if I had the courage to do my duty and face whatever comes—” Yet she knelt smoothly, pressing her lips to the Great Serpent ring on Egwene’s finger. “Beneath the Light and by my hope of rebirth and salvation...”Not the same wording as Faolain and Theodrin, but every scrap as strong. More. By the Three Oaths, no Aes Sedai could speak a vow she did not mean. Except the Black Ajah, of course; it seemed obvious they must have found a way to lie. Whether either of these women was Black was a problem for another time, though. Siuan, eyes popping and mouth working without sound, looked like a fish stranded on a mudbank.

Myrelle tried another protest, but Egwene just thrust out her right hand with the ring, and Myrelle’s knees folded in jerks. She gave the oath in bitter tones, then looked up. “You’ve done what has never been done before, Mother. That is always dangerous.”

“It won’t be the last time,” Egwene told her. “In fact... My first order to you is that you will tell no one that Siuan is anything but whateverybody thinks. My second is, you will obey any order she gives as if it came from me.”

Their heads turned toward Siuan, faces unruffled. “As you command, Mother,” they murmured together. It was Siuan who looked ready to faint.

She was still staring at nothing when they reached the road and turned their horses east toward the Aes Sedai camp and the army. The sun still climbed toward its zenith, still well short. It had been a morning eventful as most days. Most weeks, for that matter. Egwene let Daishar amble.

“Myrelle was right,” Siuan mumbled finally. With her rider’s mind elsewhere, the mare moved with something close to a smooth gait; she actually made Siuan appear a competent rider. “Fealty. No one has ever done that. No one. There isn’t so much as a hint in the secret histories. And them, obeying me. You aren’t just changing a few things, you’re rebuilding the boat while sailing a storm! Everything is changing. And Nicola! In my day, a novice would have wet herself if she even thought of blackmailing a sister!”

“Not their first attempt,” Egwene told her, relating the facts in as few words as possible.

She expected Siuan to explode in a fury at the pair, but instead the woman said, quite calmly, “I fear our two adventurous lasses are about to meet with accidents.”

“No!” Egwene reined in so suddenly that Siuan’s mare ambled another half-dozen paces before she could bring the animal under control and turn her, all the while muttering imprecations under her breath. She sat there giving Egwene a patient look that outdid Lelaine at her worst.

“Mother, they have a club over your head, if they’re ever smart enough to think it out. Even if the Hall doesn’t force you into a penance, you can watch any hope you have with them sail right over the horizon.” She shook her head disgustedly. “I knew you would do it when I sent you out—I knew you’d have to—but I never thought Elayne and Nynaeve were witless enough to bring back anyone who knew. Those two girls deserve all they’ll catch if this gets out. But you can’t afford to let it out.”

“Nothing is to happen to Nicola or Areina, Siuan! If I approve killing them for what they know, who’s next? Romanda and Lelaine, for not agreeing with me? Where does it stop?” In a way, she felt disgusted with herself. Once, she would not have understood what Siuan meant. It was always better to know than to be ignorant, but sometimes ignorance was much more comfortable. Heeling Daishar on, she said, “I won’t have a day of victory spoiled with talk of murder. Myrelle wasn’t even the beginning, Siuan. This morning, Faolain and Theodrin were waiting...” Siuan brought the plump mare in closer to listen as they rode.

The news did not relieve Siuan’s concern over Nicola and Areina, but Egwene’s plans certainly put a sparkle in her eye and a smile of anticipation on her lips. By the time they reached the Aes Sedai camp, she was eager to take on her next task. Which was to tell Sheriam and the rest of Myrelle’s friends that they were expected in the Amyrlin’s study at midday. She could even say quite truthfully that nothing would be required of them that other sisters had not done before.

For all her talk of victory, Egwene did not feel so zestful. She barely heard blessings and calls for blessings, acknowledging them with only a wave of her hand, and was sure she missed more than she did hear. She could not countenance murder, but Nicola and Areina would bear watching. Will I ever reach a place where the difficulties don’t keep piling up? she wondered. Somewhere a victory did not seem to have to be matched by a new danger.

When she walked into her tent, her mood sank right to her feet. Her head throbbed. She was beginning to think she should just stay away from the tent altogether.

Two carefully folded sheets of parchment sat neatly atop the writing table, each sealed with wax and each bearing the words “Sealed to the Flame.” For anyone other than the Amyrlin, breaking that seal was accounted as serious as assaulting the Amyrlin’s person. She wished she did not have to break them. There was no doubt in her mind who had written those words. Unfortunately, she was right.

Romanda suggested—“demanded” was a better word—that the Amyrlin issue an edict “Sealed to the Hall,” known only to the Sitters. The sisters were all to be summoned one by one, and any who refused was to be shielded and confined as a suspected member of the Black Ajah. What they were to be summoned for was left rather vague, but Lelaine had more than hinted this morning. Lelaine’s own missive bore her manner all over it, mother to child, what should be done for Egwene’s own good and everyone’s. The edict she wanted was only to be “Sealed to the Ring”; any sister could know, and in fact, in this case they would have to. Mention of the Black Ajah was to be forbidden as fomenting discord, a serious charge under Tower law, with appropriate penalties.

Egwene dropped onto her folding chair with a groan, and of course the legs shifted and nearly deposited her on the carpet. She could delay and sidestep, but they would keep coming back with these idiocies. Sooner or later one would introduce her modest proposal to the Hall, and that would put the fox in the henyard. Were they blind? Fomenting discord? Lelaine would have every sister convinced not just that there was a Black Ajah, but that Egwene was part of it. The stampede of Aes Sedai back to Tar Valon and Elaida could not be far behind. Romanda just meant to set off a mutiny. There were six of those hidden in the secret histories. Half a dozen in more than three thousand years might not be very many, but each had resulted in an Amyrlin resigning, and the entire Hall as well. Lelaine knew that, and Romanda. Lelaine had been a Sitter for nearly forty years, with access to all the hidden records. Before resigning to go into a country retreat, as many sisters did in age, Romanda had held a chair for the Yellow so long that some said she had had as much power as any Amyrlin she sat under. Being chosen to sit a second time was nearly unheard of, but Romanda was not one to let power reside anywhere outside her own hands if she could manage.

No, they were not blind; just afraid. Everybody was, including her, and even Aes Sedai did not always think clearly when they were afraid. She refolded the pages, wanting to crumple them up and stamp her feet on them. Her head was going to burst.

“May I come in, Mother?” Halima Saranov swayed into the tent without waiting for an answer. The way Halima moved always drew every male eye from age twelve to two days past the grave, but then, if she hid herself in a heavy cloak from the shoulders down, men still would stare. Long black hair, glistening as if she washed it every day in fresh rainwater, framed a face that made sure of that. “Delana Sedai thought you might want to see this. She’s putting it before the Hall this morning.”

The Hall was sitting without so much as informing her? Well, she had been away, but custom if not law said the Amyrlin must be informed before the Hall could sit. Unless they were sitting to depose her, anyway. At that moment, she would almost have taken it as a blessing. She eyed the folded sheet of paper Halima laid on her table much as she would a poisonous snake. Not sealed; the newest novice could read it, so far as Delana was concerned. The declaration that Elaida was a Darkfriend, of course. Not quite as bad as Romanda or Lelaine, but if she heard the Hall had broken up in a riot, she would hardly blink.

“Halima, I could wish you’d gone home when Cabriana died.” Or at least that Delana had had the sense to seal the woman’s information to the Hall. Or even to the Flame. Instead of telling every sister she could collar.

“I could hardly do that, Mother.” Halima’s green eyes flashed with what seemed challenge or defiance, but she only had two ways to look at anyone, a wide, direct stare that dared and a lidded gaze that smoldered. Her eyes caused a lot of misunderstanding. “After Cabriana Sedai told me what she’d learned about Elaida? And her plans? Cabriana was my friend, and friend to you, to all of you opposing Elaida, so I had no choice. I only thank the Light she mentioned Salidar, so I knew where to come.” She put her hands on a waist as small as Egwene’s had been in Tel’aran’rhiod and tilted her head to one side, studying Egwene intently. “Your brain is hurting again, isn’t it? Cabriana used to have such pains, so bad they made her toes cramp. She had to soak in hot water till she could bear to put on clothes. It took days, sometimes. If I hadn’t come, yours could have gotten that bad eventually.” Moving around behind the chair, she began kneading Egwene’s scalp. Halima’s fingers possessed a skill that melted pain away. “You could hardly ask another sister for Healing as often as you have these aches. It’s just tightness, anyway. I can feel it.”

“I suppose I couldn’t,” Egwene murmured. She rather liked the woman, whatever anyone said, and not just for her talent in smoothing away headaches. Halima was earthy and open, a country woman however much time she had spent gaining a skim of city sophistication, balancing respect for the Amyrlin with a sort of neighborliness in a way Egwene found refreshing. Startling, sometimes, but enlivening. Even Chesa did not do better, but Chesa was always the servant, even if friendly, while Halima never showed the slightest obsequiousness. Yet Egwene really did wish she had gone back to her home when Cabriana fell from that horse and broke her neck.

It might have been useful had the sisters accepted Cabriana’s belief that Elaida intended to still half of them and break the rest, but everyone was sure Halima had garbled that somehow. It was the Black Ajah they latched on to. Women unused to being afraid of anything had taken what they had always denied and terrified themselves half-witless with it. How was she to root the Darkfriends out without scattering the other sisters like a frightened covey of quail? How to stop them scattering sooner or later anyway? Light, how?

“Think on looseness,” Halima said softly. “Your face is loose. Your neck is loose. Your shoulders...” Her voice was almost hypnotic, a drone that seemed to caress each part of Egwene’s body she wanted to relax.

Some women disliked her just for the way she looked, of course, as though a particularly lascivious man had dreamed her, and a good many claimed she flirted with anything in breeches, which Egwene could not have approved of, but Halima admitted she liked looking at men. Her worst critics never claimed she had done more than flirt, and she herself became indignant at the suggestion. She was no fool—Egwene had known that at their first conversation, the day after Logain escaped, when the headaches had begun—not at all the brainless flipskirt. Egwene suspected it was much as with Meri. Halima could not help her face or her manner. Her smile seemed inviting or teasing because of the shape of her mouth; she smiled the same at man or woman or child. It was hardly her fault that people thought she was flirting when she was only looking. Besides, she had never mentioned the headaches to anyone. If she had, every Yellow sister in the camp would be laying siege. That indicated friendship, if not loyalty. Egwene’s eyes fell on the papers on the writing table, and her thoughts drifted under Halima’s stroking fingers. Torches ready to be tossed into the haystack. Ten days to the border of Andor, unless Lord Bryne was willing to push without knowing why, and no opposition before. Could she hold those torches back ten days? Southharbor. Northharbor. The keys to Tar Valon. How could she be sure of Nicola and Areina, short of Siuan’s suggestion? She needed to arrange for every sister to be tested before they reached Andor. She had the Talent for working with metals and ores, but it was rare among Aes Sedai. Nicola. Areina. The Black Ajah.

“You’re tensing again. Stop worrying over the Hall.” Those soothing fingers paused, then began once more. “This would do better tonight, after you’ve had a hot bath. I could work your shoulders and back, everywhere. We haven’t tried that, yet. You’re stiff as a stake; you should be supple enough to bend backwards and put your head between your ankles. Mind and body. One can’t be limber without the other. Just put yourself in my hands.”

Egwene teetered on the brink of sleep. Not a dream-walker’s sleep; just sleep. How long since she had done that? The camp would be in an uproar once Delana’s proposal got out, which it would soon enough, and that was before she had to tell Romanda and Lelaine she had no intention of issuing their edicts. But there was one thing yet today to look forward to, a reason to remain awake. “That will be nice,” she murmured, meaning more than the promised massage. Long ago she had pledged that one day she would bring Sheriam to heel, and today was the day. At last she was beginning to be the Amyrlin, in control. “Very nice.”

The Bowl of the Winds

Aviendha would have sat on the floor, but three other women occupying the boat’s small room left not quite enough space, so she had to be content with folding her legs atop one of the carved wooden benches built against the walls. That way, it was not so much like sitting in a chair. At least the door was shut, and there were no windows, only fanciful carved scrollwork piercing the walls near the ceiling. She could not see the water outside, but the piercings let in the smell of salt and the slap of waves against the hull and the splash of the oars. Even the shrill hollow cries of some sort of birds shouted of vast expanses of water. She had seen men die for a pool they might have stepped across, but this water was bitter beyond belief. Reading of it was not at all the same as tasting it. And the river had been at least half a mile wide where they boarded this boat with its two oddly leering oarsmen. Half a mile of water, and not a drop fit for drinking. Who could imagine useless water?

The motion of the boat had changed, to a rocking back and forth. Were they out of the river, yet? Into what was called “the bay”? That was wider still, far wider, so Elayne said. Aviendha locked her hands on her knees and tried desperately to think of anything else. If the others saw her fear, the shame would follow her to the end of her days. The worst of it was, she had suggested this, after hearing Elayne and Nynaeve talk of the Sea Folk. How could she have known what it would be like?

The blue silk of her dress felt incredibly smooth, and she latched on to that. She was barely used to skirts at all—she still yearned for the cadin’sor the Wise Ones had made her burn when she began training with them—and here she wore a silk dress—of which she now owned four!—and silk stockings instead of stout wool, and a silk shift that made her aware of her skin in a way she never had been before. She could not deny the beauty of the dress, no matter how odd it was to find herself wearing such things, but silk was precious, and rare. A woman might have a scarf of silk, to be worn on feastdays and envied by others. Few women had two. It was different among these wetlanders, though. Not everyone wore silk, yet sometimes it seemed to her every second person did. Great bolts and even bales of it came by ship from the lands beyond the Three-fold Land. By ship. On the ocean. Water stretching to the horizon, with many places where, if she understood correctly, you could not see land at all. She came close to shivering at the impossible thought. None of the others looked as if they wished to talk. Elayne absently twisted the Great Serpent ring on her right hand and peered at something not to be seen inside the four walls. These worries often overtook her. Two duties confronted her, and if one lay nearer her heart, she had chosen the one she considered more important, more honorable. It was her right and duty to become the chief, the queen, of Andor, but she had chosen to continue hunting. In a way, however important their search, that was like putting something before clan or society, yet Aviendha felt pride. Elayne’s view of honor was as peculiar at times as the notion of a woman being a chief, or her becoming chief just because her mother had been, but she followed it admirably. Birgitte, in the wide red trousers and short yellow coat Aviendha envied, sat toying with her waist-long braid, lost in thought as well. Or maybe sharing part of Elayne’s worries. She was Elayne’s first Warder, which upset the Aes Sedai back in the Tarasin Palace no end, though it did not seem to bother their Warders. Wetlander customs were so curious they hardly bore thinking about.

If Elayne and Birgitte seemed to deflect any thought of talk, Nynaeve al’Meara, directly opposite Aviendha by the door, rebuffed it firmly. Nynaeve; not Nynaeve al’Meara. Wetlanders liked to be called by only half their names, and Aviendha was trying to remember, however much it felt like using a honey-name. Rand al’Thor was the only lover she had ever had, and she did not think even of him so intimately, but she had to learn their ways if she was to wed one of them.

Nynaeve’s deep brown eyes stared through her. Her knuckles were white on a thick braid as dark as Birgitte’s was golden, and her face had gone beyond pale to a faint green. From time to time she emitted a tiny muted groan. She did not usually sweat; she and Elayne had taught Aviendha the trick. Nynaeve was a puzzle. Brave to the point of madness sometimes, she moaned over her supposed cowardice, and here she displayed her shame for all to see without a care. How could the motion disturb her so, when all that water did not?

Water again. Aviendha shut her eyes to avoid seeing Nynaeve’s face, but that only made the sounds of the birds and the lapping water fill her head.

“I have been thinking,” Elayne said suddenly, then paused. “Are you all right, Aviendha? You...” Aviendha’s cheeks reddened, but at least Elayne did not say aloud that she had jumped like a rabbit at the sound of her voice. Elayne seemed to realize how close she had come to revealing Aviendha’s dishonor; color flushed her own cheeks as she continued. “I was thinking about Nicola, and Areina. About what Egwene told us last night. You don’t suppose they can cause her any trouble, do you? What is she to do?”

“Rid herself of them,” Aviendha said, drawing a thumb across her neck. The relief of speaking, of hearing voices, was so great that she almost gasped. Elayne appeared shocked. She was remarkably softhearted at times.

“It might be for the best,” Birgitte said. She had revealed no more name than that. Aviendha thought her a woman with secrets. “Areina could have made something of herself with time, but—Don’t look at me that way, Elayne, and stop going all prim and indignant in your head.” Birgitte often slipped back and forth between the Warder who obeyed and the older first-sister who instructed whether or not you wished to learn. Right then, waving an admonishing finger, she was the first-sister. “You two wouldn’t have been warned to stay away if it was a difficulty the Amyrlin could solve by having them set to work with the laundresses or the like.”

Elayne gave a sharp sniff in the face of what she could not deny, and adjusted her green silk skirts where they were drawn up in front to expose layers of blue and white petticoats. She was wearing the local fashion, complete with creamy lace at her wrists and around her neck, a gift from Tylin Quintara, as was the close-fitting necklace of woven gold. Aviendha did not approve. The upper half of the dress, the bodice, fitted as snugly as that necklace, and a missing narrow oval of cloth revealed the inner slopes of her breasts. Walking about where all could see was not the same as the sweat tents; people in the streets of the city were not gai’shain. Her own dress had a high neck that brushed her chin with lace and no parts of it missing.

“Beside,” Birgitte went on, “I would think Marigan would worry you more. She frightens me spitless.”

That name got through to Nynaeve, as well it might. Her groaning ceased, and she sat up straight. “If she comes after us, we will just settle for her again. We’ll... we’ll...” Drawing breath, she stared at them pointedly, as if they were arguing with her. What she said, in a faint voice, was. “Do you think she will?”

“Fretting will do no good,” Elayne told her, much more calmly than Aviendha could have managed if she thought one of the Shadowsouled had marked her out. “We will just have to do as Egwene said and be careful.” Nynaeve muttered something inaudible, which was probably just as well.

Silence descended again, Elayne settling to a browner study than before, Birgitte propping her chin on one hand as she frowned at nothing. Nynaeve kept right on grumbling under her breath, but she had both hands pressed to her middle now, and from time to time she paused to swallow. The splashing of water seemed louder than ever, and the cries of the birds.

“I have been thinking too, near-sister.” She and Elayne had not reached the point of adopting each other as first-sisters yet, but she was sure they would, now. Already they brushed each other’s hair, and every night in the dark shared another secret never told to anyone else. This Min woman, though... That was for later, when they were alone.

“About what?” Elayne asked absently.

“Our search. We prepare for success, but we are as far away as when we began. Does it make sense not to use every weapon at hand? Mat Cauthon is ta’veren, yet we work to avoid him. Why not take him with us? With him, we might find the bowl at last.”

“Mat?” Nynaeve exclaimed incredulously. “As well stuff your shift full of nettles! I would not endure the man if he had the bowl in his coat pocket.”

“Oh, do be quiet, Nynaeve,” Elayne murmured, without any heat. She shook her head wonderingly, taking no notice of the other’s sudden glower. “Prickly” only began to describe Nynaeve, but they were all used to her ways. “Why didn’t I think of that? It is so obvious!”

“Maybe,” Birgitte murmured dryly, “you had Mat the scoundrel set so hard in your mind, you couldn’t see he had any use.” Elayne gave her a cool stare, chin raised, then abruptly grimaced, and nodded reluctantly. She did not accept criticism easily.

“No,” Nynaeve said in a voice that somehow managed to be sharp and weak at the same time. The sickly cast of her face had deepened, but it no longer seemed caused by the boat’s heaving. “You cannot possibly mean it! Elayne, you know what a torment he can be, how stubborn he is. He’ll insist on bringing those soldiers of his like a feastday parade. Try finding anything in the Rahad with soldiers at your shoulder. Just try! Inside two steps, he’ll try to take charge, flaunting that ter’angreal at us. He’s a thousand times worse than Vandene or Adeleas, or even Merilille. The way he behaves, you would think we’d walk into a bear’s den just to see the bear!”

Birgitte made a noise in her throat that might have been amusement, and received a darted glare. She returned such a look of bland innocence that Nynaeve began to sound as if she were choking.

Elayne was more soothing; she probably would try to make peace in a water-feud. “He is ta’veren, Nynaeve. He alters the Pattern, alters chance, just being there. I’m ready to admit we need luck, and a ta’veren is more than luck. Besides, we can snare two birds at once. We should not have been letting him run loose all this time, no matter how busy we were. That’s done no one any good, him least of all. He needs to be made fit for decent company. We will put him on a short rein from the start.”

Nynaeve smoothed her skirts with considerable vigor. She claimed to have no more interest in dresses than Aviendha—in what they looked like, anyway; she was always muttering about good plain wool being fine enough for anybody—yet her own blue dress was slashed with yellow on the skirts and sleeves, and she herself had chosen its design. Every stitch she owned was silk or embroidered or both, all cut with what Aviendha had learned to recognize as fine care.

For once Nynaeve appeared to understand she would not get her way. Sometimes she threw amazing tantrums until she did, not that she would admit that was what they were. The glower faded to a grumpy sulk. “Who will ask him? Whoever does, he will make her beg. You know he will. I’d sooner marry him!”

Elayne hesitated, then said firmly, “Birgitte will. And she won’t beg; she will tell him. Most men will do as you say if you use a firm, confident voice.” Nynaeve looked doubtful, and Birgitte jerked erect on her bench, startled for the first time Aviendha had ever seen. With anyone else, Aviendha might have said she looked a little afraid, too. Birgitte would have done very well as Far Dareis Mai, for a wetlander. She had remarkable skill with a bow.

“You are the clear choice, Birgitte,” Elayne went on quickly. “Nynaeve and I are Aes Sedai, and Aviendha might as well be. We cannot possibly do it. Not and maintain proper dignity. Not with him. You know what he is like.” What had happened to all that talk of a firm, confident voice? Not that Aviendha had ever noticed that working for anyone except Sorilea. It surely had not so far on Mat Cauthon that she had seen. “Birgitte, he can’t have recognized you. If he had, he would have said something by now.”

Whatever that meant, Birgitte leaned back against the wall and laced her fingers over her stomach. “I should have known you’d get back at me ever since I said it was a good thing your bottom wasn’t any—” She stopped, and a faint satisfied smile appeared on her lips. Nothing changed in Elayne’s expression, but plainly Birgitte thought she had gained a measure of revenge. It must have been something felt through the Warder bond. How Elayne’s bottom entered into anything, though, Aviendha could not puzzle out. Wetlanders were so... odd... at times. Birgitte continued, still wearing that smile. “What I don’t understand is why he starts chafing as soon as he sees you two. It can’t be that you snagged him off here. Egwene was as deep in that as you, but I saw him treat her with more respect than most of the sisters do. Besides, the times I’ve glimpsed him coming out of The Wandering Woman, he looked to be enjoying himself.” Her smile became a grin that made Elayne sniff disapprovingly.

“That is one thing we need to change. A decent woman cannot be in the room with him. Oh, do wipe that smirk off your face, Birgitte. I vow, you are as bad as he, sometimes.”

“The man was born just to be a trial,” Nynaeve muttered sourly.

Suddenly Aviendha was forcibly reminded that she was on a boat as everything lurched, swaying and swinging around to a halt. Rising and straightening dresses, they gathered the light cloaks they had brought. She did not don hers; the sunlight here was not so bright that she needed the hood to keep it from her eyes. Birgitte only draped hers over one shoulder and pushed open the door, following up the three steps after Nynaeve had rushed past her with a hand clapped over her mouth.

Elayne paused to tie her cloak ribbons and arrange the hood around her face, red-gold curls peeking out all around. “You did not say much, near-sister.”

“I said what I had to say. The decision was yours.”

“The key thought was yours, though. Sometimes I think the rest of us are turning into half-wits. Well.” Half turning to the steps, not quite looking at her, Elayne paused. “Distances bother me, sometimes, over water. I think I will look only at the ship, myself. Nothing else.” Aviendha nodded—her near-sister had a fine delicacy—and they went up.

On the deck, Nynaeve was just shaking off Birgitte’s offer of help and pushing herself up from the railing. The two oarsmen looked on in amusement as she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. Shirtless fellows with a brass hoop in each ear, they must have had frequent use for the curved daggers shoved behind their sashes. Most of their attention went to working their pairs of long sweeps, though, walking back and forth on the deck to hold the heaving boat in place near a ship that almost took Aviendha’s breath with its size, looming above their suddenly very tiny vessel, its three great masts reaching taller than most trees she had seen even here in the wetlands. They had chosen it because it was the largest of the hundreds of Sea Folk ships anchored in the bay. On a ship that big, surely it must be possible to forget all the surrounding water. Except...

Elayne had not really acknowledged her shame, and if she had, a near-sister could know your deepest humiliation without it mattering, but... Amys said she had too much pride. She made herself turn and look away from the boat.

She had never seen so much water in her life, not if every drop seen before had been gathered in one place, all of it rolling gray-green and here and there frothing white. Her eyes darted, trying to avoid taking it in. Even the sky seemed larger here, immense, with a liquid gold sun crawling up from the east. A gusting wind blew, somewhat cooler than on the land and never failing entirely. Clouds of birds flurried in the air, gray and white and sometimes splotched with black, giving those shrill cries. One, all black except for its head, skimmed along the surface with its long lower beak slicing through the water, and a slanted line of ungainly brown birds—pelicans, Elayne had named them—suddenly folded their wings one by one and plummeted with great splashes, bobbing back to the top, where they floated, tilting up beaks of incredible size. There were ships everywhere, many almost as large as the one behind her, not all belonging to the Atha’an Miere, and smaller vessels with one or two masts moving under triangular sails. Smaller ships still, mastless like the boat she was on, with a high sharp peak at the front and a low flat house at the back, spidered across the water on oars, one pair or two, or sometimes three. One long, narrow boat that must have had twenty to a side looked like a hundred-legs skittering along. And there was land. Maybe seven or eight miles distant, sunlight gleamed off the white-plastered buildings of the city. Seven or eight miles of water.

Swallowing, she turned back more swiftly than she had turned away. She thought her cheeks must be greener than Nynaeve’s had been. Elayne was watching her, trying to keep a smooth face, but wetlanders showed their emotions so plainly her concern was visible. “I am a fool, Elayne.” Even with her, using no more of her name made Aviendha feel uneasy; when they were first-sisters, when they were sister-wives, it would be easier. “A wise woman listens to wise advice.”

“You are braver than I will ever be,” Elayne replied, quite seriously. She was another who kept denying that she had any courage. Maybe that was also a wetlander custom? No, Aviendha had heard wetlanders speak of their own bravery; these Ebou Dari, for one, seemed unable to utter three words without boasting. Elayne drew a deep breath, steeling herself. “Tonight we will talk about Rand.”

Aviendha nodded, but she did not see how that followed from talk of courage. How could sister-wives manage a husband if they did not talk of him in detail? That was what the older women told her, anyway, and the Wise Ones. They were not always so forthcoming, of course. When she complained to Amys and Bair that she must be ill because she felt as though Rand al’Thor was carrying some part of her around with him, they had fallen down laughing. You will learn, they cackled at her, and, You would have learned sooner had you grown up in skirts. As if she had ever wanted any life but that of a Maiden, running with her spear-sisters. Maybe Elayne felt something of the same emptiness. Speaking of him did seem to make the hollowness grow even while filling it.

For some time she had been aware of voices rising, and now she heard the words.

“. . . you earringed buffoon!” Nynaeve was shaking her fist at a very dark man peering down at her from over the tall side of the ship. He looked calm, but then, he could not see the glow of saidar surrounding her. “We are not after the gift of passage, so it doesn’t matter whether you refuse it to Aes Sedai! You let down a ladder this instant!” The men at the oars were missing their grins. Apparently they had failed to see the serpent rings back at the stone landing, and they did not look pleased to learn they had Aes Sedai aboard.

“Oh, dear,” Elayne sighed. “I must retrieve this, Aviendha, or we’ve wasted the morning just so she could lose her breakfast porridge.” Gliding across the deck—Aviendha was proud of knowing the proper names for things on boats—Elayne addressed the man up on the ship. “I am Elayne Trakand, Daughter-Heir of Andor and Aes Sedai of the Green Ajah. My companion is quite truthful. We do not seek the gift of passage. But we must speak with your Windfinder on a matter of urgency. Tell her we know of the Weaving of Winds. Tell her we know of Windfinders.”

The man above frowned down at her, then abruptly vanished without a word.

“The woman will probably think you mean to blab her secrets,” Nynaeve muttered, jerking her cloak into place. She tied the ribbons fiercely. “You know how afraid they are that Aes Sedai will haul them all off to the Tower, if it’s known most can channel. Only a ninny thinks she can threaten people, Elayne, and still get anywhere.”

Aviendha burst out laughing. By the startled look Nynaeve gave her, she did not see the joke she had made on herself. Elayne’s lips quivered, though, however she tried to hold them. You could never be sure about wetlander humor; they found strange things funny and missed the best.

Whether or not the Windfinder felt threatened, by the time Elayne had paid the boatmen and cautioned them to wait for their return—with Nynaeve grumbling over the amount and telling them she would box their ears if they left, and how she was to manage that nearly set Aviendha laughing again—by the time all that was done, it seemed a decision had been reached to allow them on. No ladder was lowered, but instead a flat piece of wood, the two ropes it hung from becoming one and running up to a thick pole swung out over the side from one of the masts. Nynaeve took her place sitting on the board with dire warnings for the boatmen if they even thought of trying to look up her skirts, and Elayne blushed and held hers tightly around her legs, hunched over so she appeared ready to fall off headfirst as she wobbled into the air and disappeared from sight onto the ship. One of the fellows looked upward anyway, until Birgitte struck him on the nose with her fist. They certainly did not watch her ascent.

Aviendha’s belt knife was small, with a blade not half a foot long, but the oarsmen frowned worriedly when she drew it. Her arm went back, and they fell sprawling to the deck as the knife whirled over their heads to sink with a solid thunk into the thick wooden post at the front of the boat. Looping the cloak over her arms like a shawl, she hoisted her skirts well above her knees so she could climb over the oars and retrieve her blade, then took her place on the dangling board. She did not replace the knife in its sheath. For some reason the two men exchanged confused looks, but they kept their eyes down as she was lifted up. Perhaps she was beginning to get a feel for wetlander customs.

Settling onto the great ship’s deck, she gaped, almost forgetting to climb off the narrow seat. She had read of the Atha’an Miere, but reading and seeing was as different as reading of saltwater and tasting it. They were all dark, for one thing, much darker than the Ebou Dari, even darker than most Tairens, with straight black hair and black eyes and tattooed hands. Bare-chested, barefoot men with bright narrow sashes holding up baggy breeches of some dark cloth that had an oily look to it, and women in blouses as brilliantly colored as their sashes, all with a sway to their movements, gliding gracefully with the rocking of the ship. Sea Folk women had very strange customs when it came to men, according to what she had read, dancing with no more than a single scarf for covering and worse, but it was the earrings that made her stare. Most had three or four, often with polished stones, and several actually had a small ring in one side of their noses! The men did, too, the earrings at least, and just as many heavy gold and silver chains around their necks. Men! Some wetlander men wore rings in their ears, true—most Ebou Dari men seemed to—but so many! And necklaces! Wetlanders did have strange ways. The Sea Folk never left their ships—never—so she had read, and supposedly they ate their dead. She had not been quite able to credit that, but if the men wore necklaces, who could say what else they did?

The woman who came to meet them wore breeches and blouse and sash like the others, but hers were of brocaded yellow silk, the sash knotted intricately with ends trailing to her knee, and one of her necklaces bore a small golden box of intricate piercework. A sweetly musky scent surrounded her. Gray streaked her hair heavily, and she had a grave face. Five small fat golden rings decorated each of her ears, and a fine chain connected one to a similar ring in her nose. Tiny medallions of polished gold dangling from the chain flashed in the sunlight as she studied them.

Aviendha pulled her hand down from her own nose—to wear that chain, always tugging!—and barely managed to suppress a laugh. Wet-lander customs were odd beyond belief, and surely no one deserved the name better than the Sea Folk.

“I am Malin din Toral Breaking Wave,” the woman said, “Wavemis-tress of Clan Somarin and Sailmistress of Windrunner.” A Wavemistress was important, like a clan chief, yet she seemed at a loss, looking from one face to the next, until her eye fell on the Great Serpent rings Elayne and Nynaeve wore, and then she exhaled in resignation. “If it pleases you to come with me, Aes Sedai?” she said to Nynaeve.

The back of the ship was raised, and she led the way inside that by a door, then down a hallway to a large room—a cabin—with a low ceiling. Aviendha doubted Rand al’Thor would have been able to stand upright beneath one of the thick beams. Except for a few lacquered chests, everything seemed to have been built in place, cabinets along the walls, even the long table that ran half the length of the room and the armchairs that surrounded it. It was difficult to think of something the size of this ship being made of wood, and even after all her time in the wetlands, the sight of all that polished wood nearly made her gasp. It glowed almost as much as the gilded lamps, hanging unlit in some sort of cage so they remained upright as the ship moved with the waves. In truth, the ship hardly seemed to move at all, at least in comparison with the boat they had been on, but unfortunately the back of the cabin, of the ship, was a line of windows with the painted and gilded shutters standing open, giving a splendid view of the bay. Worse, there was no land in sight out those windows. No land at all! Her throat seized. She could not have spoken. She could not have screamed, although that was what she wanted to do.

Those windows and what they showed—what they did not show—had caught her eyes so quickly that it took her a moment to realize people were there already. A fine thing! Had they wished, they could have killed her before she knew. Not that they showed any sign of hostility, but you could never be too careful with wetlanders.

A spindly old man with deep-set eyes was sitting at his ease atop one of the chests; what little hair remained to him was white, and his dark face had a kindly look, though a full dozen earrings altogether and a number of thick gold chains around his neck gave his expression a strange twist in her eyes. Like the men above, he was barefoot and bare-chested, but his breeches were a dark blue silk, and his long sash a bright red. An ivory-hilted sword was thrust through that sash, she noted with disdain, as well as two curved daggers to match.

The slender, handsome woman with her arms folded and a grimly foreboding frown was more worthy of notice. She wore only four earrings in each ear, and fewer medallions on her chain than Malin din Toral, and her clothing was all in reddish-yellow silk. She could channel; Aviendha knew that, this close. She must be the woman they had come for, the Wind-finder. And yet it was another who held Aviendha’s eye. And for that matter, Elayne’s and Nynaeve’s and Birgitte’s.

The woman who had looked up from an unrolled map on the table might have been as old as the man by her white hair. Short, no taller than Nynaeve, she looked like someone who had once been stocky and was beginning to go stout, but her jaw thrust forward like a hammer, and her black eyes spoke of intelligence. And power. Not the One Power, just that of someone who said “go” and knew that people would go, yet she had it strongly. Her breeches were brocaded green silk, her blouse blue, and her sash red like the man’s. The stout-bladed knife in a gilded sheath tucked behind that sash had a round pommel covered with red and green stones; firedrops and emeralds, Aviendha thought. Twice as many medallions hung from her nose chain as from Malin din Toral’s, and another, thinner gold chain connected the six rings in each of her ears. Aviendha barely kept her hand from going to her own nose again.

Without a word the white-haired woman came to stand in front of Nynaeve, rudely examining her from head to toe, frowning in particular at Nynaeve’s face and the Great Serpent ring on her right hand. She took no time about it, and with a grunt moved on from her ruffled object of study to give Elayne the same quick, intense scrutiny, and then Birgitte. At last she spoke. “You are not an Aes Sedai.” Her voice sounded like rocks tumbling.

“By the nine winds and Stormbringer’s beard, I am not,” Birgitte replied. Sometimes she said things even Elayne and Nynaeve seemed not to understand, but the white-haired woman jumped as if she had been goosed, and stared a long moment before turning to frown up at Aviendha.

“You are not Aes Sedai, either,” she grated after the same examination.

Aviendha drew herself to her full height, feeling as though the woman had rummaged through her garments and twirled her about to look at her better. “I am Aviendha, of the Nine Valleys sept of the Taardad Aiel.”

The woman gave twice the start she had for Birgitte, black eyes going wide. “You are not garbed as I expected, girl” was all she said, though, and strode back to the far end of the table, where she planted her fists on her hips and studied them all again, much as she might have some strange animal she had never seen before. “I am Nesta din Reas Two Moons,” she said at last, “Mistress of the Ships to the Atha’an Miere. How do you know what you know?”

Nynaeve had been working on a scowl since the woman first looked at her, and now she snapped, “Aes Sedai know what they know. And we expect more in the way of manners than I’ve seen so far! I certainly saw more the last time I was on a Sea Folk ship. Maybe we should find another, where the people don’t all have sore teeth.” Nesta din Reas’ face grew darker, but Elayne of course stepped into the breech, removing her cloak and laying it over the edge of the table.

“The Light illumine you and your vessels, Shipmistress, and send the winds to speed you all.” Her curtsy was moderately deep; Aviendha had become a judge of these things, for all she thought it looked the most awkward thing any woman could ever do. “Forgive us if there have been words in haste. We mean no disrespect to one who is as a queen to the Atha’an Miere.” That with a speaking look for Nynaeve. Nynaeve only shrugged, though.

Elayne introduced herself again, and the rest of them, to strange reactions. That Elayne was Daughter-Heir produced none, though that was a high position among the wetlanders, and that she was Green Ajah and Nynaeve Yellow received sniffs from Nesta din Reas and sharp looks from the spindly old man. Elayne blinked, taken aback, but she went on smoothly. “We have come for two reasons. The lesser is to ask how you mean to aid the Dragon Reborn, who according to the Jendai Prophecy you call the Coramoor. The greater is to request the help of this vessel’s Windfinder. Whose name,” she added gently, “I regret I do not yet know.”

The slender woman who could channel reddened. “I am Dorile din Eiran Long Feather, Aes Sedai. I may help, if it pleases the Light.”

Malin din Toral looked abashed, too. “The welcome of my ship to you,” she murmured, “and the grace of the Light be upon you until you leave his decks.”

Not so Nesta din Reas. “The Bargain is with the Coramoor,” she said in a hard voice, and made a sharp cutting gesture. “The shorebound have no part of it, except where they tell of his coming. You, girl, Nynaeve. What ship gave you the gift of passage? Who was his Windfinder?”

“I can’t recall.” Nynaeve’s airy tone was at odds with the stony smile she wore. She had a deathgrip on her braid, too, but at least she had not embraced saidar again. “And I am Nynaeve Sedai, Nynaeve Aes Sedai, not girl.”

Putting her hands flat on the table, Nesta din Reas directed a stare at her that reminded Aviendha of Sorilea. “Perhaps you are, but I will know who revealed what should not have been revealed. She has lessons of silence to learn.”

“A split sail is split, Nesta,” the old man said suddenly, in a deep voice much stronger than his bony limbs suggested. Aviendha had taken him for a guard, but his tone was that of an equal. “It might be well to ask what aid Aes Sedai would have of us, in days when the Coramoor has come, and the seas rage in endless storms, and the doom of the Prophecy sails the oceans. If they are Aes Sedai?” That with a raised eyebrow to the Wind-finder.

She answered quietly, in a respectful voice. “Three can channel, including her.” She pointed at Aviendha. “I have never met anyone so strong as they. They must be. Who else would dare wear the ring?”

Waving her to silence, Nesta din Reas turned that same iron gaze on the man. “Aes Sedai never ask aid, Baroc,” she growled. “Aes Sedai never ask anything.” He met her gaze mildly, but after a moment she sighed as though he had stared her down. The eyes she aimed at Elayne were no whit softer, though. “What would you have of us...” She hesitated. “. . . Daughter-Heir of Andor?” Even that sounded skeptical.

Nynaeve gathered herself, ready to launch into an attack—Aviendha had had to listen to more than one tirade sparked by the Aes Sedai back in the Tarasin Palace and their habit of forgetting that she and Elayne were Aes Sedai too; someone not even Aes Sedai denying it might bring the shedding of blood—Nynaeve gathered herself up and opened her mouth... And Elayne silenced her with a touch on the arm and a whisper too low for Aviendha to hear. Nynaeve’s face was still crimson, and she looked about to pull her braid out slowly by the roots, yet she held her tongue. Maybe Elayne could make peace in a water-feud.

Of course, Elayne could not be pleased, when not only her right to be called Aes Sedai but her right to the title of Daughter-Heir was doubted so openly. Most would have thought her quite calm, but Aviendha knew the signs. The raised chin spoke of anger; add eyes open as wide as they would go, and Elayne was a torch to overwhelm Nynaeve’s ember. Besides, Birgitte was on her toes, face like stone and eyes like fire. She did not usually mirror Elayne’s emotions, except when they were very strong. Wrapping her fingers around the hilt of her belt knife, Aviendha readied herself to embrace saidar. She would kill the Windfinder first; the woman was not weak in the Power, and she would be dangerous. They could find others with so many ships about.

“We seek a ter’angreal.” Except that her tone was cool, anyone who did not know her would think Elayne was absolutely serene. She faced Nesta din Reas, but she addressed everyone, perhaps especially the Windfinder. “With it, we believe we can remedy the weather. It must trouble you as much as it does the land. Baroc spoke of endless storms. You must be able to see the Dark One’s touch, the Father of Storms’ touch, on the sea just as we do on the land. With this ter’angreal, we can change that, but we cannot do it alone. It will require many women working together, perhaps a full circle of thirteen. We think those women should include Windfinders. No one else knows so much of weather, not any Aes Sedai living. That is the aid we ask.”

Dead silence met her speech, until Dorile din Eiran said carefully, “This ter’angreal, Aes Sedai. What is it called? How does it look?”

“It has no name, that I know,” Elayne told her. “It is a thick crystal bowl, shallow but something over two feet across, and worked inside with clouds. When it is channeled into, the clouds move—”

“The Bowl of the Winds,” the Windfinder broke in excitedly, stepping toward Elayne as if she did not realize it. “They have the Bowl of the Winds.”

“You truly have it?” The Wavemistress’s eyes were fixed on Elayne eagerly, and she also took an involuntary step.

“We are looking for it,” Elayne said. “But we know it is in Ebou Dar. If it is the same—”

“It must be,” Malin din Toral exclaimed. “By your description, it must!”

“The Bowl of the Winds,” Dorile din Eiran breathed. “To think it would be found again after two thousand years here! It must be the Coramoor. He must have—”

Nesta din Reas’ hands slapped together loudly. “Do I see a Wavemis-tress and her Windfinder, or two deckgirls at their first shipmeet?” Malin din Toral’s cheeks reddened with a proud anger, and she bent her head stiffly, pride in that as well. Twice as flushed, Dorile din Eiran bowed, touching fingertips to forehead, lips and heart.

The Shipmistress frowned at them a moment, before going on. “Baroc, summon the other Wavemistresses who hold this port, and the First Twelve as well. With their Windfinders. And let them know you will hoist them by their toes in their own rigging if they do not hurry.” As he rose, she added, “Oh. And have tea sent down. Working out the terms of this bargain will be thirsty.”

The old man nodded; that he might dangle Wavemistresses by their toes and that he must send tea were accepted equally. Eyeing Aviendha and the others, he sauntered out with that rolling walk. She changed her opinion when she saw his eyes close up. It might have been a fatal mistake to kill the Windfinder first.

Someone must have been awaiting orders of the sort, because Baroc was only gone moments before a slim, pretty young man with a single thin ring in each ear entered carrying a wooden tray that bore a square blue-glazed teapot with a golden handle and large blue cups of thick pottery. Nesta din Reas waved him out—“He will spread enough tales as it is, without hearing what he should not,” she said when he was gone—and directed Birgitte to pour. Which she did, to Aviendha’s surprise, and maybe her own.

The Shipmistress settled Elayne and Nynaeve in chairs at one end of the table, apparently intent on beginning her bargaining. Aviendha refused a chair—at the other end of the table—but Birgitte took one, swinging the arm out, then latching it back when she was seated. The Wavemistress and the Windfinder were excluded from that discussion, too, if discussion it could be called. The words were too low to hear, but Nesta din Reas emphasized everything she said with a finger driven like a spear, Elayne had her chin so high she seemed to be looking down her nose, and if Nynaeve for once was managing to keep her face calm, she seemed to be trying to climb her own braid.

“If it pleases the Light, I will speak with both of you,” Malin din Toral said, looking from Aviendha to Birgitte, “but I think I must hear your story first.” Birgitte began to look alarmed as the woman sat down across from her.

“Which means I can speak first with you, if it pleases the Light,” Dorile din Eiran told Aviendha. “I have read of the Aiel. If it pleases you, tell me, if an Aiel woman must kill a man every day, how are there any men left among you?”

Aviendha did her best not to stare. How could the woman believe such nonsense?

“When did you live among us?” Malin din Toral said over her teacup at the near end of the table. Birgitte was leaning away from her as though she wanted to climb over the back of the chair.

At the far end of the table, Nesta din Reas’ voice rose for a moment. “. . . came to me, not I to you. That sets the basis for our bargain, even if you are Aes Sedai.”

Slipping into the room, Baroc paused between Aviendha and Birgitte. “It seems your shoreboat departed as soon as you came below, but have no worry; Windrunner has boats to put you on the shore.” Walking on down the cabin, he took a chair below Elayne and Nynaeve and joined right in. When they looked at whichever was speaking, the other could observe them unnoticed. They had lost an advantage, one they needed. “Of course the bargain is on our terms,” he said in tones of disbelief that it could be otherwise, while the Shipmistress studied Elayne and Nynaeve as a woman might two goats she meant to skin for a feast. Baroc’s smile was almost fatherly. “Who asks must of course pay highest.”

“But you must have lived among us to know those ancient oaths,” Malin din Toral insisted.

“Are you well, Aviendha?” Dorile din Eiran asked. “Even here, the motion of a ship sometimes affects shorefolk—No? And my questions do not offend? Then tell me. Do Aiel women truly tie a man down before you—I mean, when you and he—when you—” Cheeks reddened, she broke off with a weak smile. “Are many Aiel women as strong in the One Power as you?”

It was not the Windfinder’s foolish fumbling about that had made the blood drain from Aviendha’s face, or that Birgitte appeared ready to run once she could manage to unlatch the chair arm again, or even that Nynaeve and Elayne were apparently discovering they were two bright-eyed girls at a fair, in the hands of well-seasoned traders. They would all blame her, and rightly. She was the one who had said if they could not take the ter’angreal back to Egwene and the other Aes Sedai once found, why not secure these Sea Folk women they spoke of? Time could not be wasted, waiting for Egwene al’Vere to say they could return. They would blame her, and she would meet her toh, but she was remembering the boats she had seen on the deck, stacked upside down atop one another. Boats without any shelter on board. They would blame her, but whatever debt she owed she was going to repay a thousandfold in shame by the time she was taken across seven or eight miles of water in an open boat.

“Do you have a bucket?” she asked the Windfinder faintly.

White Plumes

The Silver Circuit was misnamed at first glance, but Ebou Dar liked grand names, and sometimes it seemed that the worse they fit, the better. The grimiest tavern Mat had seen in the city, smelling of very old fish, bore the name of The Queen’s Glory in Radiance, while The Golden Crown of Heaven graced a dim hole across the river in the Rahad with only a blue door to mark it, where black stains from old knife fights splotched the grimy floor. The Silver Circuit was for racing horses.

Removing his hat, he fanned himself with the broad brim, and went so far as to loosen the black silk scarf he wore to hide the scar around his neck. The morning air shimmered with heat already, yet crowds packed the two long earthen banks that flanked the course where the horse would run up and back. That was all there was to the Silver Circuit. The murmur of voices almost drowned out the cries of the gulls overhead. There was no charge to watch, so saltworkers in the white vest of their guild and gaunt-faced farmers who had fled from the Dragonsworn inland rubbed shoulders with ragged Taraboners wearing transparent veils across their thick mustaches, weavers in vests with vertical stripes, printers in horizontal stripes and dyers with hands stained to the elbow. The unrelieved black of Amadician countrymen, buttoned to the neck though the wearers seemed about to sweat to death, stood alongside Murandian village dresses with long colorful aprons so narrow they must be only for show, and even a handful of copper-skinned Domani, the men in short coats if they wore one, the women in wool or linen so thin it clung like silk. There were apprentices, and laborers from the docks and warehouses, tanners who had a small space around them in the crowd because of the smell of their work, and filthy-faced street children watched closely because they would steal whatever they could lay hand to. There was little silver among the working people, though.

All of them were above the thick hemp ropes strung on posts. Below was for those who did have silver, and gold; the well-born, the well-dressed and the well-to-do. Smug menservants poured punch into silver cups for their masters, fluttery maids waved feathered fans to cool their mistresses, and there was even a capering fool with white-painted face and jingling brass bells on his black-and-white hat and coat. Haughty men in high-crowned velvet hats strutted with slender swords on their hips, their hair brushing silk coats slung across their shoulders and held by gold or silver chains between the narrow, embroidered lapels. Some of the women had hair shorter than the men and some longer, arranged in as many ways as there were women; they wore wide hats with plumes or sometimes fine netting to obscure their faces, and gowns usually cut to show bosom whether in the local style or from elsewhere. The nobles, beneath brightly colored parasols, glittered with rings and earrings, necklaces and bracelets in gold and ivory and fine gems as they stared down their noses at everyone else. Well-fed merchants and moneylenders, with just a touch of lace and perhaps one pin or a ring bearing a fat polished stone, humbly bowed or curtsied to their betters, who very likely owed them vast sums. Fortunes changed hands at the Silver Circuit, and not just in wagers. It was said lives and honor changed hands, too, below the ropes.

Replacing his hat, Mat raised his hand, and one of the bookers came—a hatchet-faced woman, with a nose like an awl—spreading bony hands as she bowed, murmuring the ritual “As my Lord wishes to wager, so shall I write truly.” The Ebou Dari accent managed to be soft despite clipping the ends off some words. “The book is open.” Like the saying, the open book embroidered on the breast of her red vest came from a time long past, when the wagers were written into a book, but he suspected he was the only one there who knew that. He remembered many things he had never seen, from times long gone to dust.

With a quick glance at the odds for the morning’s fifth race, chalked on the slate the poleman held up behind the red-vested woman, he nodded. Wind was only the third favorite, despite his victories. He turned to his companion. “Put it all on Wind, Nalesean.”

The Tairen hesitated, fingering the point of his oiled black beard. Sweat glistened on his face, yet he kept his coat with its fat, blue-striped sleeves fastened to the top and wore a square cap of blue velvet that did nothing to keep the sun off. “All of it, Mat?” He spoke softly, trying to keep the woman from hearing. The odds could change any time until you actually offered your wager. “Burn my soul, but that little piebald looks fast, and so does that pale dun gelding with the silvery mane.” They were the favorites today, new to the city and like all things new, of great expectation.

Mat did not bother to glance toward the ten horses entered in the next race that were parading at one end of the course. He had already taken a good look while putting Olver up on Wind. “All of it. Some idiot clubbed the piebald’s tail; he’s already half mad from the flies. The dun is showy, but he has a bad angle to his fetlocks. He may have won some in the country, but he’ll finish last today.” Horses were one thing he knew on his own; his father had taught him, and Abell Cauthon had a sharp eye for horseflesh.

“He looks more than showy to me,” Nalesean grumbled, but he was not arguing any more.

The booker blinked as Nalesean, sighing, pulled purse after fat purse from his bulging coat pockets. At one point she opened her mouth to protest, but the Illustrious and Honored Guild of Bookers always claimed it would take any wager in any amount. They even wagered with ship-owners and merchants as to whether a ship would sink or prices change; rather, the guild itself did, not individual bookers. The gold went into one of her iron-strapped chests, each carried by a pair of fellows with arms as thick as Mat’s legs. Her guards, hard-eyed and bent-nosed in leather vests that showed arms still thicker, held long brass-bound cudgels. Another of her men handed her a white token bearing a detailed blue fish—every booker had a different sigil—and she wrote the wager, the name of the horse and a symbol indicating the race on the back with a fine brush that she took from a lacquered box held by a pretty girl. Slim, with big dark eyes, the girl directed a slow smile at Mat. The hatchet-faced woman certainly did not smile. Bowing again, she slapped the girl casually and walked off whispering to her poleman, who hastily wiped his slate with a cloth. When he held it up again, Wind was listed at the shortest odds. Rubbing her cheek surreptitiously, the girl scowled back at Mat as though the slap had been his fault.

“I hope your luck is in,” Nalesean said, holding the token carefully for the ink to dry. Bookers could be touchy about paying on a token with smeared ink, and no one was touchier than an Ebou Dari. “I know you don’t lose often, but I’ve seen it happen, burn me but I have. There’s a lass I mean to step out with at the dancing tonight. Just a seamstress...” He was a lord, though not a bad fellow really, and such things seemed important to him. “. . . but pretty enough to dry your mouth. She likes trinkets. Golden trinkets. She likes fireworks, too—I hear some Illuminators are setting up for tonight; you’ll be interested in that—but it’s trinkets make her smile. She won’t be friendly if I cannot afford to make her smile, Mat.”

“You’ll make her smile,” Mat said absently. The horses were still walking in a circle above the starting poles. Olver sat proudly on Wind’s back, broad mouth grinning to split his more-than-plain face from jug-ear to jug-ear. In Ebou Dari races, all the riders were boys; a few miles inland, they used girls. Olver was the smallest here today, the lightest, not that the leggy gray gelding needed the advantage. “You’ll make her laugh till she can’t stand up.” Nalesean gave him a frown he barely noticed. The man should know gold was one thing Mat never had to worry about. He might not always win, but close enough. His luck had nothing to do with whether Wind won anyway. Of that he was sure.

Gold did not concern him, but Olver did. There was no rule against the boys using their switches on each other instead of their mounts. In every race so far, Wind had broken to the lead and stayed there, but if Olver took any hurt, even just a bruise, Mat would never hear the end. Not from Mistress Anan, his innkeeper, not from Nynaeve or Elayne, not from Aviendha or Birgitte. The onetime Maiden of the Spear and the peculiar woman Elayne had taken as a Warder were the last he would have expected to gush with maternal feelings, yet they had already tried to move the boy out of The Wandering Woman behind his back and into the Tarasin Palace. Anywhere with so many Aes Sedai was the last place for Olver, or for anybody, but one bump and instead of telling Birgitte and Aviendha they had no right to take the boy, Setalle Anan would likely hustle him off there herself. Olver would probably cry himself to sleep if he was not allowed to race anymore, but women never understood these things. For about the thousandth time, Mat cursed Nalesean for sneaking Olver and Wind to those first races. Of course, they had to find something to fill all the idle hours on their hands, but they could have found something else. Cutting purses could have been no worse in the women’s eyes.

“Here’s the thief-catcher,” Nalesean said, stuffing the token into his coat. He did not quite sneer. “Much good he’s done so far. We’d have done better to bring another fifty soldiers instead.”

Juilin strode though the crowd purposefully, a dark, hard man using a slender bamboo staff as tall as himself for a walking stick. With a flat-topped conical red Taraboner cap on his head and a plain coat, tight to the waist then flaring to his boot tops, well-worn and plainly not the coat of someone rich, he normally would not have been allowed below the ropes, but he made out to study the horses and ostentatiously bounced a fat coin on his palm. Several of the bookers’ guards looked at him suspiciously, but the gold crown let him pass.

“Well?” Mat said sourly, tugging his hat low, once the thief-catcher reached him. “No, let me tell you. They slipped out of the palace again. No one saw them go, again. Nobody has any bloody idea where they are, again.”

Juilin tucked the coin carefully into his coat pocket. He would make no wager; he seemed to save every copper that came into his hands. “All four of them took a closed coach from the palace to a landing on the river, where they hired a boat. Thom hired another to follow and see where they’re going. Nowhere dark or unpleasant, I’d say, by their clothes. But it is true, nobles wear silk to crawl in the mud.” He grinned at Nalesean, who folded his arms and pretended to be engrossed in the horses. The grin was a mere baring of teeth. They were both Tairen, but the gap between noble and common stood wide in Tear, and neither man liked the other’s company.

“Women!” Several finely dressed specimens nearby turned to eye Mat askance from beneath bright parasols. He frowned right back, though two were pretty, and they set to laughing and chattering among themselves as though he had done something amusing. A woman would do a thing until you were sure she always would, then do something else just to fuddle you. But he had promised Rand to see Elayne safely to Caemlyn, and Nynaeve and Egwene with her. And he had promised Egwene to see the other two safe on this trip to Ebou Dar, not to mention Aviendha; that was the price of getting Elayne to Caemlyn. Not that they had told him why they needed to be here; oh, no. Not that they had spoken twenty words to him since arriving in the bloody city!

“I’ll see them safe,” he muttered under his breath, “if I have to stuff them into barrels and haul them to Caemlyn in a cart.” He might be the only man in the world who could say that about Aes Sedai without looking over his shoulder, maybe even including Rand and those fellows he was gathering. He touched the foxhead medallion hanging under his shirt to make sure it was there, though he never took it off, even to bathe. It did have flaws, but a man liked to be reminded. “Tarabon must be terrible now for a woman not used to taking care of herself,” Juilin murmured. He was watching three veiled men in tattered coats and baggy once-white trousers scramble up the bank ahead of a pair of bookmen’s guards waving their clubs. No rule said the poor could not come below the ropes, but the bookers’ guards did. The two pretty women who had eyed Mat appeared to be making a private wager on whether the Taraboners would outrun the guards.

“We’ve more than enough women right here without sense to come in out of the rain,” Mat told him. “Go back to that boat landing and wait for Thom. Tell him I need him as soon as possible. I want to know what those fool bloody women are up to.”

Juilin’s look did not quite call him a fool. They had, after all, been trying to find out exactly that for over a month now, ever since coming here. With a last glance at the fleeing men, he sauntered back the way he had come, once more bouncing the coin in his hand.

Frowning, Mat peered across the race course. It was barely fifty paces to the crowd on the other side, and faces leaped out at him—a bent, white-haired old man with a hooked nose, a sharp-faced woman under a hat that seemed mostly plumes, a tall fellow who looked like a stork in green silk and gold braid, a nicely plump, full-mouthed young woman who appeared about to come out of her dress at the top. The longer the heat continued, the fewer and thinner garments women in Ebou Dar wore, but for once he hardly gave them any notice. Weeks had gone by since he so much as glimpsed the women who concerned him now.

Birgitte certainly needed no one to hold her hand; a Hunter for the Horn, anyone who troubled her would be in a deep hole by his estimation. And Aviendha... All she needed was someone to keep her from stabbing everybody who looked at her crossways. As far as he was concerned, she could knife whoever she wanted so long as it was not Elayne. For all the bloody Daughter-Heir walked about with her nose in the air, she turned moon-eyed around Rand, and for all Aviendha behaved as if she would stab any man who glanced her way, she did the same. Rand usually knew how to deal with women, but he had jumped into a bear pit letting that pair come together. It was a short road to disaster, and why ruin had not happened was beyond Mat.

For some reason his eyes drifted back to the sharp-faced woman. She was pretty, if vulpine. About Nynaeve’s age, he estimated; it was hard to tell at the distance, but he could judge women as well as he could horses. Of course, women could fool you faster than any horse. Slim. Why did she make him think of straw? What he could see of her hair beneath the plumed hat was dark. No matter.

Birgitte and Aviendha could do without his shepherding, and normally he would have said the same of Elayne and Nynaeve, however wrong-headed, conceited and downright pushy they could be. That they had been sneaking out all this time said differently, though. Wrongheadedness was the key. They were the sort who berated a man for meddling and chased him away, then berated him again for not being there when he was needed. Not that they would admit he was needed, even then, not them. Raise a hand to help and you were interfering, do nothing and you were an un-trustworthy wastrel.

The fox-faced woman across the way popped into his view again. Not straw; a stable. Which made no more sense. He had had fine times in stables with many a young woman and some not so young, but she wore modestly cut blue silk with a high neck right under her chin trimmed in snowy lace, and more spilling over her hands. A lady, and he avoided noblewomen like death. Playing haughty like a harp, expecting a man always to be at their beck and call. Not Mat Cauthon. Strangely, she was fanning herself with a spray of white plumes. Where was her maid? A knife. Why should she make him think of a knife? And... fire? Something burning, anyway.

Shaking his head, he tried to focus on what was important. Other men’s memories, of battles and courts and lands vanished centuries ago, filled holes in his own, places where his own life suddenly went thin or was not there at all. He could remember fleeing the Two Rivers with Moiraine and Lan quite clearly for example, but almost nothing more until reaching Caemlyn, and there were gaps before and after, as well. If whole years of his own growing up lay beyond recall, why should he expect to recollect every woman he had met? Maybe she reminded him of some woman dead a thousand years or more; the Light knew that happened often enough. Even Birgitte sometimes tickled his memory. Well, there were four women here and now who had his brain tied in knots. They were what was important.

Nynaeve and the others were avoiding him as if he had fleas. Five times he had been to the palace, and the once they would see him, it was to say they were too busy for him and send him away like an errand boy. It all added up to one thing. They thought he would interfere with whatever they were up to, and the only reason he would do that was if they were putting themselves in danger. They were not complete fools; idiots often, but not complete fools. If they saw danger, there was danger. Some places in this city, being a stranger or showing a coin could bring a knife in your ribs, and not even channeling would stop it if they did not see in time. And here he was, with Nalesean and a dozen good men from the Band, not to mention Thom and Juilin, who actually had rooms in the servants’ quarters of the palace, all left to twiddle their thumbs. Those thick-skulled women were going to get their throats cut yet. “Not if I can help it,” he growled. “What?” Nalesean said. “Look. They’re lining up, Mat. The Light burn my soul, I hope you’re right. That piebald doesn’t look half-crazed to me; he looks eager.”

The horses were prancing, taking their places between tall poles stuck in the ground, with streamers tailing from the tops of them in a warm breeze, blue and green and every color, some striped. Five hundred paces down the track of hard-beaten red clay an identical number of streamered poles made another row. Each rider had to round the same-colored streamer as floated to his right at the start and then return. A booker stood at either end of the line of horses, just to the front, a round woman and a rounder man, each with a white scarf held overhead. The bookers took turns at this, and were not allowed to accept wagers on a race they started.

“Burn me,” Nalesean muttered. “Light, man, be easy. You’ll tickle your seamstress under the chin yet.” A roar drowned the last word as the scarves came down, and the horses surged forward, even the sound of their hooves submerged in the noise of the crowd. In ten strides Wind had the lead, Olver lying close on his neck, with the silver-maned dun only a head back. The piebald trailed in the pack, where the riders’ switches already rose and fell frantically.

“I told you the dun was dangerous,” Nalesean moaned. “We shouldn’t have wagered everything.”

Mat did not bother to answer. He had another purse in his pocket and loose coins besides. He called the purse his seed; with that, with even a few of the coins in it, and a game of dice, he could repair his fortunes whatever happened this morning. Halfway down the course, Wind still held the lead, the dun clinging close a full length ahead of the next horse. The pie-bald was running fifth. After the turn would come the hazard; boys on trailing animals were known to slash at those who rounded the stakes ahead of them.

Following the horses, Mat’s eyes swept across the sharp-faced woman again... and snapped back. The shouts and screams of the crowd faded. The woman was shaking her fan at the horses and jumping excitedly, but suddenly he saw her in pale green and a rich gray cloak, her hair caught in a frothy net of lace, skirts held up delicately as she picked her way across a stable not far from Caemlyn.

Rand still lay there moaning in the straw, even if the fever seemed gone; at least he was not shouting anymore at people who were not there. Mat eyed the woman suspiciously as she knelt beside Rand. Maybe she could help as she claimed, but Mat did not trust as he once had. What was a fine lady like this doing in a village stable? Caressing the ruby-tipped hilt of the dagger hidden by his coat, he wondered why he had ever trusted. It never paid. Never.

“. . . weak as a day-old kitten,” she was saying as she reached beneath her cloak. “I think...

A knife appeared in her hand so suddenly, streaking for Mat’s throat, that he would have been dead if he had not been ready. Dropping flat, he seized her wrist, just pushing it away from him, the curved Shadar Logoth blade sweeping out to lie against her slim white neck. The woman froze, trying to look down at the sharp edge dimpling her skin. He wanted to slice. Especially when he saw where her own dagger had stabbed into the stable wall. Around the slim blade a black circle of char grew, and a thin gray tendril of smoke rose from wood about to burst into flame.

Shivering, Mat rubbed a hand across his eyes. Just carrying that Shadar Logoth knife had nearly killed him, eating those holes in his memories, but how could he forget a woman who tried to kill him? A Darkfriend—she had admitted as much—who tried to kill him with a dagger that set a bucket of water near boiling when they tossed it in after securing her in the tackroom. A Darkfriend who had been hunting Rand and him. What chance she was in Ebou Dar when he was, at the races on the same day? Ta’veren might be the answer—he liked thinking of that about as much he did the Horn of bloody Valere—but the fact was, the Forsaken knew his name. That stable had not been the last time Darkfriends tried putting an end to Mat Cauthon.

He staggered as Nalesean suddenly began pounding his back. “Look at him, Mat! Light of heaven, look at him!”

The horses had rounded the far poles and were well on their way back. Head stretched out, mane and tail flying behind, Wind streaked down the course with Olver clinging to his back like a part of the saddle. The boy rode as if he had been born there. Four lengths behind, the piebald pounded furiously, rider working his switch in a futile effort to close. Just like that they slashed across the finish line, with the next nearest horse another three lengths back. The white-maned dun came last. The moans and mutters of losing bettors overwhelmed the shouts of winners. Losing tokens made a shower of white onto the track, and dozens of the bookers’ servants rushed out to clear them away before the next race. “We have to find that woman, Mat. I’d not put it past her to run off without paying out so much as she owes us.” From what Mat had heard, the bookers’ guild was more than harsh the first time one of its members tried anything of the sort, and deadly the second, but they were commoners, and that was enough for Nalesean.

“She’s standing right over there in plain view.” Mat gestured without taking his eyes from the fox-faced Darkfriend. Glaring at a token, she hurled it to the ground, and even lifted her skirts to stamp on it. Plainly not a wager on Wind. Still grimacing, she began threading her way through the crowd. Mat stiffened. She was leaving. “Gather our winnings, Nalesean, then take Olver back to the inn. If he misses his reading lesson, you’ll kiss the Dark One’s sister before Mistress Anan lets him out for another race.”

“Where are you going?”

“I saw a woman who tried to kill me,” Mat said over his shoulder.

“Give her a trinket next time,” Nalesean shouted after him. Following the woman was no trouble, with that white-plumed hat for a banner bobbing through the crowd on the other side. The earthen banks gave way to a large open area where brightly lacquered coaches and sedan chairs waited under the watchful eyes of drivers and bearers. Mat’s horse Pips was one of scores being guarded by members of the Ancient and Worshipful Guild of Stablemen. There was a guild for most things in Ebou Dar, and woe to anyone who trespassed on their ground. He paused, but she walked on by the conveyances that had brought those with position or money. No maid, and now not even a chair. No one walked in this heat who had money to ride. Had my Lady come on hard times?

The Silver Circuit lay just south of the tall white-plastered city wall, and she strolled up the hundred paces or so of road to the broad pointed arch of the Moldine Gate and in. Trying to appear casual, Mat followed. The gateway was ten spans of dim tunnel, but her hat stood out among the folk passing through. People who had to walk seldom wore plumes. She seemed to know where she was going on the other side. The plumes wove through the crowds ahead of him, unhurried but always moving forward.

Ebou Dar shone white in the morning sun. White palaces with white columns and screened wrought-iron balconies cheek-by-jowl with white-plastered weavers’ shops and fishmongers and stables, great white houses with louvered shutters hiding their arched windows beside white inns with painted signs hanging in front and open markets under long roofs where live sheep and chickens, calves and geese and ducks made a barnyard din alongside their fellows already butchered and hanging. All white, stone or plaster, except here and there bands of red or blue or gold on turnip-shaped domes and pointed spires that had balconies running around them. There were squares everywhere, always with a statue larger than life on a pedestal or a splashing fountain that only emphasized the heat, always packed with people. Refugees filled the city, and merchants and traders of every sort. Never a trouble but brought profit to somebody. What Saldaea had once sent into Arad Doman now came downriver to Ebou Dar, and so did what Amadicia had traded into Tarabon. Everyone scurried, for a coin or a thousand, for a bite to eat today. The aroma that hung in the air was equal parts perfume, dust and sweat. Somehow, it all smelled desperate.

Barge-filled canals sliced through the city, crossed by dozens of bridges, some so narrow that two people would have to squeeze past one another, others large enough that shops actually lined them, hanging out over the water. On one of those, he suddenly realized that the white-plumed hat had stopped. People flowed around him as he did, too. The shops here were really just open wooden nooks, with heavy plank shutters that could be let down to close them off at night. Raised overhead now, the shutters displayed signs for the shops. The one above the plumed hat showed a golden scale and hammer, sign of the goldsmiths’ guild, though plainly not of a particularly prosperous member. Through a momentary gap in the crowd, he saw her look back, and turned hurriedly to the narrow stall to his right. On the wall at the back hung finger rings, and boards displaying stones cut in all sorts of designs.

“My Lord wishes a new signet ring?” the birdlike fellow behind the counter asked, bowing and dry-washing his hands. Skinny as a rail, he had no worry of anyone stealing his goods. Cramped into a corner on a stool sat a one-eyed fellow who might have had trouble standing upright inside the cubicle, with a long cudgel studded with nail heads propped between his massive knees. “I can cut any design, as my Lord can see, and I have tryrings for the size, of course.”

“Let me see that one.” Mat pointed at random; he needed some reason to stand here until she went on. It might be a good time to decide exactly what he was going to do.

“A fine example of the long style, my Lord, much in favor now. Gold, but I work in silver, as well. Why, I think the size is right. If my Lord would care to try it on? My Lord may wish to examine the fine detail of the carving? Does my Lord prefer gold or silver?”

With a grunt that he hoped might be taken for answer to some of that, Mat shoved the proffered ring onto the second finger of his left hand and pretended to examine the dark oval of carved stone. All he really saw was that it was as long as the joint of his finger. Head down, he studied the woman from the corner of his eye the best he could through gaps that opened in the throng. She was holding a wide, flat gold necklace up to the light.

There was a Civil Guard in Ebou Dar, but not a very efficient one, seldom to be seen on the streets. If he denounced her, it would be his word against hers, and even if he was believed, a few coins might let her walk free even on that charge. The Civil Guard was cheaper than a magistrate, but either could be bought unless someone powerful was watching, and then if enough gold lay in the offer.

A swirl in the crowd suddenly turned into a Whitecloak, conical helmet and long mail shirt gleaming like silver, snowy cloak with the flaring golden sun billowing as he strode along confident that a path would clear for him. Which it certainly did; few willingly put themselves in the way of the Children of the Light. Yet for every eye that slid away from the stone-faced man, another beamed on him approvingly. The sharp-faced woman not only looked at him openly, she smiled. A charge laid against her might or might not put her in prison, but it could be the spark to ignite a city full of tales about Darkfriends in the Tarasin Palace. Whitecloaks were good at whipping up mobs, and to them, Aes Sedai were Darkfriends. As the Child of the Light passed her, she laid down the necklace, apparently regretful, and turned to go.

“Does the style suit my Lord?”

Mat gave a start. He had forgotten the skinny man and the ring, too. “No, I don’t want—” Frowning, he tugged at the ring again. It would not budge!

“No need to pull; you might crack the stone.” Now that he was no longer a potential customer, Mat was no longer my Lord, either. Sniffing, the fellow kept a sharp eye on him lest he try to run. “I have some grease. Deryl, where’s that grease-pot?” The guard blinked and scratched his head as if wondering what a grease-pot was. The white-plumed hat was halfway to the end of the bridge already.

“I’ll take it,” Mat snapped. No time for haggling. Hauling a fistful of coins from his coat pocket, he slapped them down on the counter, mostly gold and a little silver. “Enough?”

The ringmaker’s eyes bulged. “A little too much,” he quavered uncertainly. His hands hesitated above the coins, then two fingers pushed a pair of silver pennies toward Mat. “So much?”

“Give them to Deryl,” Mat growled as the bloody ring slipped from his finger. The skinny man was hurriedly raking up the rest of the coins. Too late to try backing out of the purchase. Mat wondered by just how much he had overpaid. Stuffing the ring into his pocket, he hastened after the Darkfriend. The hat was nowhere to be seen.

Twinned statues decorated the end of the bridge, pale marble women over a span tall, each with one breast bared and a hand raised to point toward something in the sky. In Ebou Dar, a bare chest symbolized openness and honesty. Ignoring stares, he climbed up beside one of the women, steadying himself with an arm around her waist. A street ran along the canal, and two more split off at angles ahead, all full of people and carts, sedan chairs and wagons and coaches. Someone shouted in a rough voice about real women being warmer, and a number in the crowd laughed. White plumes appeared from behind a blue-lacquered coach on the left-hand fork.

Leaping down, he pushed up the street after her, ignoring the curses of those he bumped. It was an odd chase. In the mass of people, with wagons and coaches constantly getting in his way, he could not keep a clear sight of the hat from the street. Scampering up the broad marble steps of a palace, he got another glimpse, then scurried back down to shove ahead. The rim of a tall fountain gave him yet another view, then an upended barrel against a wall, and a crate that had just been unloaded from an oxcart. Once he clung to the side of a wagon until the driver threatened him with her whip. With all the climbing and looking, he did not narrow the Darkfriend’s lead very much. But then, he still had no notion what to do if he caught her. Suddenly, when he hoisted himself up onto the narrow coping along the face of one of the big houses, she was not there anymore.

Frantically he looked up and down the street. The white plumes no longer waved through the crowd. In easy sight were half a dozen houses much like the one he was clinging to, several palaces of various sizes, two inns, three taverns, a cutler’s shop with a knife and a pair of scissors on its sign, a fishmonger with a board painted in fifty kinds of fish, two rugweavers with unrolled carpets spread on tables beneath awnings, a tailor’s shop and four cloth sellers, two shops displaying lacquerware, a goldsmith, a silversmith, a livery stable... The list was too long. She could have gone into any of them. Or none. She might have taken a turn he had not seen.

Jumping down, he settled his hat, muttering under his breath... and saw her, almost at the top of the wide stairs leading to a palace nearly across from him, already half-hidden by the tall fluted columns out front. The palace was not large, with only two slim spires and a single pear-shaped dome banded in red, but Ebou Dari palaces always gave the ground floor to servants and kitchens and the like. The better rooms were high, to catch the breezes. Doormen liveried in black and yellow bowed deeply and swung the carved doors wide before she reached them. A servant inside curtsied, apparently saying something, and immediately turned to lead her deeper. She was known. He would have wagered everything on it.

For a while after the doors closed, he stood there studying the palace. Not the richest in the city by far, but only a noble would dare build its like. “But who in the Pit of Doom lives there?” he muttered finally, plucking off his hat to fan himself. Not her, not when she had to walk. A few questions in the taverns along the street would tell him. And word of his queries would seep to the palace, sure as dirt soiled your hands.

Someone said, “Carridin.” It was a scrawny, white-haired fellow lounging nearby in the shade. Mat looked at him questioningly, and he grinned, showing gaps in his teeth. His stooped shoulders and sad weathered face did not fit his fine gray coat. Despite a bit of lace at his neck, he was the very picture of hard times. “You asked who lived there. The Chelsaine Palace is let to Jaichim Carridin.”

Mat’s hat paused. “You mean the Whitecloak ambassador?”

“Aye. And Inquisitor of the Hand of the Light.” The old man tapped a gnarled finger against the side of his beak of a nose. Both looked to have been broken several times. “Not a man to bother unless you must, and then I’d think three times.”

Unconsciously Mat hummed a bit of “Storm from the Mountains.” Not a man to bother indeed. Questioners were the nastiest of the Whitecloaks. A Whitecloak Inquisitor who had a Darkfriend come to call.

“Thank you—” Mat gave a start. The fellow was gone, swallowed up in the crowd. Strange, but he had looked familiar. Maybe another long-dead acquaintance drifting out of those old memories. Maybe... It hit him like an Illuminator’s nightflower exploding inside his head. A white-haired man with a hooked nose. That old man had been at the Silver Circuit, standing not far from the woman who had just gone into Carridin’s rented palace. Turning his hat in his hands, he frowned uneasily at the palace. The Mire never held a bog like this one. He could feel the dice tumbling in his head suddenly, and that was always a bad sign.


Carridin did not look up immediately from the letter he was writing when the Lady Shiaine, as she called herself, was shown in. Three ants struggled futilely in the wet ink, trapped. Everything else might be dying, but ants and cockroaches and every sort of vermin seemed to thrive. Carefully he pressed the blotter down. He was not about to begin again for a few ants. A failure to send this report, or a report of failure, might doom him as surely as those mired insects, yet it was fear of a different failure that tightened his guts.

He had no worry of Shiaine reading what he wrote. It was in a cipher known to only two men beside himself. So many bands of “Dragonsworn” at work, each stiffened by a core of his most trusted men, so many more who might be bandits or even truly sworn to that filth, al’Thor. Pedron Niall might not like that last, but his command had been to plunge Altara and Murandy into blood and chaos from which only Niall and the Children of the Light could rescue them, a madness clearly to be laid at the feet of this so-called Dragon Reborn, and that he had done. Fear held both countries by the throat. Tales that the witches marched across the same country were an added reward. Tar Valon witches and Dragonsworn, Aes Sedai carrying off young women and setting up false Dragons, villages in flames and men nailed to the doors of their barns—it was all one in half the street rumors, now. Niall would be pleased. And send more orders. How he expected Carridin to snatch Elayne Trakand out of the Tarasin Palace was beyond reason. Another ant skittered across the ivory-inlaid table onto the page, and his thumb stabbed down, destroying it. And smearing a word to illegibility. The entire report would need to be redone. He wanted a drink very badly. There was brandy in a crystal flask on the table by the door, but he did not want the woman to see him drinking. Suppressing a sigh, he shoved the letter aside and pulled a kerchief from his sleeve to wipe his hand. “So, Shiaine, do you finally have progress to report? Or have you just come for more money?”

She smiled at him lazily from a tall carved armchair. “There are expenses associated with a search,” she said in almost the accents of an Andoran noble. “Especially when we want no questions asked.”

Most people would have been unsettled by the sight of Jaichim Carridin, even cleaning a pen nib, with his steely face and deep-set eyes, the white tabard over his coat bearing the golden sunburst of the Children of the Light impressed upon the crimson shepherd’s crook of the Hand. Not Mili Skane. That was her real name, though she did not know he knew. A saddler’s daughter from a village near Whitebridge, she had gone to the White Tower at fifteen, another thing she thought secret. It was hardly the best start, becoming a Friend of the Dark because the witches told her she could not learn to channel, but before that year was out she had not only found a circle in Caemlyn but made her first kill. In the seven years since, she had added nineteen more. She was one of the best assassins available, and a hunter who could find anyone or anything. That much he had been told when she was sent to him. A circle reported to her now. Several of them actually were nobles and almost all were older, but neither thing mattered among those who served the Great Lord. Another circle working for Carridin was led by a gnarled beggar with one eye, no teeth and a habit of bathing only once in the year. Had circumstances been different, Carridin himself would have knelt to Old Cully, the only name the stinking villain admitted to. Mili Skane surely groveled for Old Cully, and so did every last companion of her circle, noble or not. It irritated Carridin that “Lady Shiaine” would be on her knees in a flash if the straggly-haired old beggar entered the room, but for him sat with her legs crossed, smiling and twitching her slippered foot as if impatient to be done. She had been ordered to obey him absolutely, by one even Old Cully would grovel for, and besides, he had a desperate need of success. Niall’s schemes could go to dust, but not this.

“Many things can be excused,” he said, laying the pen on its ivory stand and shoving back his chair, “for those who accomplish the tasks they are given.” He was a tall man, and he loomed threateningly. He was well aware that the gilt-framed mirrors on the wall showed a figure of strength, a dangerous man. “Even dresses and baubles and gambling, paid for with coin that was to go for information.” That twitching foot froze for instant, then began again, but her smile was forced, her face pale. Her circle obeyed her instantly, but they would string her up by the heels and skin her alive if he spoke the word. “You have not accomplished very much, have you? In fact, you do not seem to have accomplished anything.”

“There are difficulties, as you well know,” she said breathily. She managed to meet his eyes squarely, though.

“Excuses. Tell me of difficulties surmounted, not those you stumble over and fall. You can fall a long way if you fail in this.” Turning his back, he strode to the nearest window. He could fall a long way, too, and he did not want to risk her seeing anything in his eyes. Sunlight slanted through the ornate stone screen. The high-ceilinged room, with its green-and-white-tiled floor and bright blue walls, stayed comparatively cool behind the thick walls of the palace, but the heat outside seeped in near the windows. He could almost feel the brandy across the room. He could not wait for her to be gone.

“My Lord Carridin, how can I have anyone ask too openly about objects of the Power? That will cause questions, and there are Aes Sedai in the city, you will recall.”

Peering down at the street through the scroll-carvings, he wrinkled his nose at the smell. Every sort was jammed together down there. An Arafellin with his hair in two long braids and a curved sword on his back tossed a coin to a one-armed beggar, who scowled at the gift before tucking it under his rags and resuming his piteous cries to the passersby. A fellow in a torn, bright red coat and even brighter yellow breeches came running from a shop clutching a bolt of cloth to his chest, pursued by a shouting pale-haired woman who had her skirts pulled above her knees and was outpacing the burly guard who lumbered behind her waving his truncheon. The driver of a red-lacquered coach with the moneylenders’ gold coins and open hand on the door shook his whip at the driver of a canvas-covered wagon whose team had become entangled with the coach’s, the pair filling the street with curses. Grimy street urchins crouched behind a dilapidated cart while they snatched puny, shriveled fruit brought in from the country. A Taraboner woman pushed her way through the crowd, veiled, her dark hair in thin braids, drawing every male eye in her dusty red dress that shaped itself to her form shamelessly.

“My Lord, I must have time. I must! I cannot do the impossible, certainly not in days.”

Trash, all of them. Grubbers for gold and Hunters for the Horn, thieves, refugees, even Tinkers. Scum. Riots would be easy to start, a purge for all this filth. Outlanders were always the first targets, always to blame for whatever was wrong, along with neighbors who had the misfortune to be on the wrong side of grudges, women who peddled herbs and cures, and folk with no friends, especially if they lived alone. Properly guided, as carefully as such things could be, a good riot might well burn the Tarasin Palace down around that useless jade Tylin and the witches as well. He glared at the swarm below. Riots did tend to get out of hand; the Civil Guard might stir itself, and inevitably a handful of true Friends would be snapped up. He could not afford the chance that some of those might be from the circles he had hunting. For that matter, even a few days of rioting would disrupt their work. Tylin was not important enough for that; she did not matter at all, in truth. No, not yet. Niall, he could afford to disappoint, but not his true master.

“My Lord Carridin...” A note of defiance had entered Shiaine’s voice. He had let her stew too long. “My Lord Carridin, some of my circle question why we are looking for...”

He started to turn, to put her down hard—he needed success, not excuses, not questions!—but her voice dwindled to nothing as his eyes fell on a young man standing diagonally across the street, in a blue coat with enough red-and-gold embroidery on the sleeves and lapels for two nobles. Taller than most, he was fanning himself with a broad-brimmed black hat and adjusting his neck scarf as he spoke to a stooped, white-haired man. Carridin recognized the young man.

Suddenly he felt as though a knotted rope had been fastened around his head and was being drawn ever tighter. For an instant a face hidden behind a red mask filled his vision. Night-dark eyes stared at him, and then were endless caverns of flame, and still staring. Within his head, the world exploded in fire, cascading images that battered him and swept him beyond screaming. The forms of three young men stood unsupported in air, and one of them began to glow, the form of the man in the street, brighter and brighter till it must have seared any living eyes to ash, brighter still, burning. A curled golden horn sped toward him, its cry pulling his soul, then flashed into a ring of golden light, swallowing him, chilling him until the last fragment of him that recalled his name was sure his bones must splinter. A ruby-tipped dagger hurdled straight at him, curved blade striking him between the eyes and sinking in, in, until gold-wrapped hilt and all was gone, and he knew agony that washed away all thought that what had gone before was pain. He would have prayed to a Creator he had long abandoned if he remembered how. He would have shrieked if he remembered how, if he remembered that humans shrieked, that he was human. On and on, more and more...

Raising a hand to his forehead, he wondered why it trembled. His head ached, too. There had been something... He gave a start at the street below. Everything was changed in the blink of an eye, the people different, wagons moved, colorful coaches and chairs replaced by others. Worse, Cauthon was gone. He wanted to swallow that whole flask of brandy in one gulp.

Suddenly he realized that Shiaine had stopped talking. He turned, ready to continue putting her in her place.

She was leaning forward in the act of rising, one hand on the arm of her chair, the other raised in a gesture. Her narrow face was fixed in petulant defiance, but not at Carridin. She did not move. She did not blink. He was not sure she breathed. He barely noticed her.

“Ruminating?” Sammael said. “Can I at least hope that it is about what you are here to find for me?” He stood only a little taller than average, a muscular, solid man in a coat of the high-collared Illianer style, so covered with gold-work it was hard to tell the cloth was green, but more than being one of the Chosen gave him stature. His blue eyes were colder than winter’s heart. A livid scar burned down his face from golden hairline to the edge of golden, square-cut beard, and it seemed a suitable decoration. Whatever got in his way was brushed aside, trampled or obliterated. Carridin knew Sammael would have turned his bowels to water if the man had been just someone met by chance.

Hurriedly moving from the window, he dropped to his knees before the Chosen. He despised the Tar Valon witches; indeed, he despised anyone who used the One Power, meddling with what had broken the world once, wielding what mere mortals should not touch. This man used the Power, too, but the Chosen could not be called mere mortals. Perhaps not mortals at all. And if he served well, neither would he be. “Great Master, I saw Mat Cauthon.”

“Here?” Oddly, for a moment, Sammael seemed taken aback. He murmured something under his breath, and the blood drained from Carridin’s face at one caught word.

“Great Lord, you know I would never betray—”

“You? Fool! You haven’t the stomach. Are you certain it was Cauthon you saw?”

“Yes, Great Master. In the street. I know I can find him again.”

Sammael frowned down at him, stroking his beard, looking through and beyond Jaichim Carridin. Carridin did not like feeling insignificant, especially when he knew it was true.

“No,” Sammael said finally. “Your search is the most important thing, the only thing, so far as you are concerned. Cauthon’s death would be conve nient, certainly, but not if it draws attention here. If it appears that attention is already here, should he take an interest in your search, then he dies, but otherwise, he can wait.”


“Did you mishear me?” Sammael’s scar pulled his smile into a snarl on one side. “I saw your sister Vanora recently. She did not look well, at first. Screaming and weeping, twitching constantly and pulling at her hair. Women do suffer worse than men from the attentions of Myrddraal, but even Myrddraal must find their pleasures somewhere. Don’t worry that she suffered too long. The Trollocs are always hungry.” The smile faded; his voice was stone. “Those who disobey can find themselves over a cookfire, too. Vanora seemed to be smiling, Carridin. Do you think you would smile, turning on a spit?”

Carridin swallowed in spite of himself, and quelled a pang for Vanora, with her ready laugh and her skill with horses, daring to gallop where others feared to walk. She had been his favorite sister, yet she was dead and he was not. If there were any mercies in the world, she had not learned why. “I live to serve and obey, Great Master.” He did not believe he was a coward, but no one disobeyed one of the Chosen. Not more than once.

“Then find what I want!” Sammael roared. “I know it’s hidden somewhere in this kjasic flyspeck of a city! Ter’angreal, angreal, even sa’angreal! I have tracked them, traced them! Now you find them, Carridin. Do not make me grow impatient.”

“Great Master...” He worked his mouth to find moisture. “Great Master, there are witches... Aes Sedai... here. I cannot be sure how many. If they hear a whisper...”

Waving him to silence, Sammael paced a few quick steps, three times up and back, hands clasped behind his back. He did not look worried, only... considering. Finally he nodded. “I will send you... someone... to deal with these Aes Sedai.” He barked a short laugh. “I almost wish I could see their faces. Very well. You have a little while longer. Then perhaps someone else will have a chance.” He lifted a strand of Shiaine’s hair with a finger; she still did not move; her eyes stared unblinking. “This child would certainly leap at the opportunity.” Carridin fought down a stab of fear. The Chosen cast down as quickly as they raised up, and as often. Failure never went unpunished. “Great Master, the favor I asked of you. If I might know... Have you... will you—?”

“There is very little luck in you, Carridin,” Sammael said with another smile. “You had better hope you have more carrying out my orders. It seems that someone is making sure at least some of Ishamael’s commands are still carried out.” He was smiling, but he seemed far from amused. Or perhaps it was just the scar. “You failed him, and you’ve lost your entire family for it. Only my hand protects you, now. Once, long ago, I saw three Myrddraal make a man give them his wife and his daughters one by one, then beg them to cut off his right leg, then the left, then his arms, and burn out his eyes.” The perfectly ordinary conversational tone made the recitation worse than any shouts or snarls ever could have. “It was a game with them, you understand, to see how much they could make him beg them to take. They left his tongue for last, of course, but there wasn’t a great deal of him remaining by then. He had been quite powerful, handsome and famous. Envied. No one would ever envy what they finally tossed to the Trollocs. You wouldn’t believe the sounds it made. Find what I want, Carridin. You will not like it if I withdraw my hand.”

Abruptly there was a vertical line of light in the air before the Chosen. It seemed to turn in some fashion, widening as it did into a square... hole. Carridin gaped. He was staring through a hole in the air, at somewhere full of gray columns and thick mist. Sammael stepped through, and the opening snapped shut, a brilliant bar of light that vanished, leaving only a purple afterimage glowing in Carridin’s eyes.

Unsteadily, he pushed himself to his feet. Failure was always punished, but no one survived disobeying one of the Chosen.

Suddenly Shiaine moved, completing her halted rise from the chair. “You mark me, Bors,” she began, then cut off, staring at the window where he had been standing. Her eyes darted, found him, and she jumped. He could have been one of the Chosen himself from the way those eyes bulged.

No one survived disobeying the Chosen. He pressed his hands against his temples. His head felt tight to bursting. “There is a man in the city, Mat Cauthon. You will—” She gave a small start, and he frowned. “You know him?”

“I have heard the name,” she said warily. And angrily, he would have said. “Few linked to al’Thor remain unknown for long.” As he stepped closer, she crossed her arms protectively in front of herself, and held her place with an obvious effort. “What is a seedy farmboy doing in Ebou Dar? How did he—?”

“Don’t bother me with foolish questions, Shiaine.” His head had never hurt like this; never. It felt as though a dagger was being driven into his skull between his eyes. No one survived... “You will put your circle to locating Cauthon immediately. All of them.” Old Cully was coming tonight, slipping in through the back of the stables; she did not need to know there would be others. “Nothing else is to get in the way.”

“But I thought—”

She broke off with a gasp as he seized her neck. A slim dagger appeared in her hand, but he wrenched it away. She twisted and jerked, but he drove her face down onto the table, her cheek smudging still-damp ink on the discarded letter to Pedron Niall. The dagger, stabbing down just in front of her eyes, froze her. By chance, the blade piercing the paper had caught an ant by the tip of one leg. It struggled as vainly as she had.

“You are an insect, Mili.” The pain in his head made his voice rasp. “It is time you understand that. One insect is much like another, and if one won’t do...” Her eyes followed his thumb down, and when it flattened on the ant, she flinched.

“I live to serve and obey, master,” she breathed. She had said that to Old Cully every time he saw them together, but never before to him.

“And this is how you will obey...” No one survived disobedience. No one.

A Touch on the Cheek

The Tarasin Palace was a mass of shining marble and white plaster, with screened balconies of white-painted wrought iron and columned walks as much as four stories above the ground. Pigeons wheeled around pointed domes and tall, balcony-wreathed spires banded in red and green tiles, glittering in the sun. Sharp-arched gates in the palace itself led to various courtyards, and more pierced the high wall hiding the gardens, but deep, snowy white steps ten spans wide climbed on the side facing Mol Hara Square to great doors carved in coiling patterns like the balcony screens and covered with beaten gold.

The dozen or so guards lined up before those doors, sweating in the sun, wore gilded breastplates over green coats and baggy white trousers stuffed into dark green boots. Green cords secured thick twists of white cloth around glittering golden helmets, with the long ends hanging down their backs. Even their halberds and the scabbards of their daggers and short swords shone with gold. Guards for being looked at, not fighting. But then, when Mat reached the top, he could see swordsmen’s calluses on their hands. Always before he had entered through one of the stableyards, to peruse the palace horses in passing, but this time he was going in the way a lord would.

“The Light’s blessing on all here,” he said to their officer, a man not much older than he. Ebou Dari were polite people. “I’ve come to leave a message for Nynaeve Sedai and Elayne Sedai. Or to give it to them, if they’ve returned.” The officer stared at him, looked at the stairs in consternation. Gold cord as well as green on his pointed helmet signified some rank Mat did not know, and he carried a gilded rod instead of a halberd, with a sharp end and a hook like an ox-goad. By his expression, no one had ever come up that way before. Studying Mat’s coat, he mulled it over visibly, and at last decided he could not tell him to go away. With a sigh, the man murmured a benison in return and asked Mat’s name, pushed open a small door in one of the larger and ushered him into a grand entry hall encircled by five stone-railed balconies beneath a domed ceiling painted like the sky, complete with clouds and a sun.

The guard’s snapping fingers summoned a slim young serving woman in a white dress, sewn up on the left to show green petticoats and embroidered on the left breast with a green Anchor and Sword. She scurried across the red-and-blue marble floor looking startled, curtsying to Mat and the officer each. Short black hair framed a sweetly pretty face, with silken olive skin, and her livery had the deep narrow neckline common to all women except nobles in Ebou Dar. For once, Mat did not really notice. When she heard what he wanted, her big black eyes widened even more. Aes Sedai were not unpopular in Ebou Dar, exactly, but most Ebou Dari would go a long distance out of their way to avoid one.

“Yes, Sword-Lieutenant,” she said, bobbing again. “Of course, Sword-Lieutenant. May it please you to follow me, my Lord?” It did.

Outside, Ebou Dar sparkled white, but inside, color ran wild. There seemed to be miles of broad corridor in the palace, and here the high ceiling was blue and the walls yellow, there the walls pale red and the ceiling green, changing with every turn, combinations to jar any eye but a Tinker’s. Mat’s boots sounded loud on floor tiles that made patterns of two or three or sometimes four colors in diamonds or stars or triangles. Wherever hallways crossed the floor was a mosaic of tiny tiles, intricate swirls and scrolls and loops. A few silk tapestries displayed scenes of the sea, and arched niches held carved crystal bowls and small statues and yellow Sea Folk porcelain that would fetch a fine penny anywhere. Occasionally a liveried servant hurried along silently, often as not carrying a silver tray, or a golden.

Normally, displays of wealth made Mat feel comfortable. For one thing, where there was money, some might stick to his fingers. This time he felt impatient, more so by the step. And anxious. The last time he had felt the dice rolling so hard in his head was just before he found himself with three hundred of the Band, a thousand of Gaebril’s White Lions on a ridge to his front and another thousand coming hard up the road behind him, when all he had been trying to do was ride away from the entire mess. That time he had avoided the chop by the grace of other men’s memories and more luck than he had a right to. The dice almost always meant danger, and something else he had not figured out yet. The prospect of having his skull cracked was not enough, and once or twice there had been no possibility of such, yet the upcoming likelihood of Mat Cauthon dead in some spectacular fashion seemed the most usual cause. Unlikely, maybe, in the Tarasin Palace, but unlikely did not make the dice go away. He was going to leave his message, grab Nynaeve and Elayne by the scruff of the neck if he had an opportunity, give them a talking-to that made their ears glow, and then get out.

The young woman glided ahead of him until they reached a short, bullish man a little older than she, another servant, in tight white breeches, a white shirt with wide sleeves, and a long green vest with the Anchor and Sword of House Mitsobar in a white disc. “Master Jen,” she said, curtsying once more, “this is Lord Mat Cauthon, who wishes to leave a message for the honored Elayne Aes Sedai and the honored Nynaeve Aes Sedai.”

“Very good, Haesel. You may go.” He bowed to Mat. “May it please you to follow me, my Lord?”

Jen led him as far as a dark, grim-faced woman short of her middle years, and bowed. “Mistress Carin, this is Lord Mat Cauthon, who wishes to leave a message for the honored Elayne Aes Sedai and the honored Nynaeve Aes Sedai.”

“Very good, Jen. You may go. May it please you to follow me, my Lord?”

Carin took him up a sweeping flight of marble stairs, the risers painted yellow and red, to a skinny woman named Matilde, who handed him over to a stout fellow named Bren, who led him to a balding man named Madic, each a little older than the one before. Where five corridors met like the spokes of a wheel, Madic left him with a round woman called Laren, who had a touch of gray at her temples and a stately carriage. Like Carin and Matilde, she wore what the Ebou Dari called a marriage knife, hanging hilt down from a close-fitting silver necklace between more than plump breasts. Five white stones in the hilt, two set in red, and four red stones, one surrounded by black, said three of her nine children were dead, two sons in duels. Rising out of her curtsy to Mat, Laren began to float up one of the hallways, but he hurried to catch her arm.

Dark eyebrows rose slightly as she glanced at his hand. She had no dagger except the marriage knife, but he released her immediately. Custom said she could only use that on her husband, yet there was no point in pushing. He did not soften his voice, though. “How far do I have to go to leave a note? Show me to their rooms. A pair of Aes Sedai shouldn’t be that hard to find. This isn’t the bloody White Tower.”

“Aes Sedai?” a woman said behind him in a heavy Illianer accent. “If you do seek two Aes Sedai, you have found two.”

Laren’s face did not change, or almost not. Her nearly black eyes darted past him, and he was sure they tightened with worry.

Doffing his hat, Mat turned wearing an easy smile. With that silver foxhead around his neck, Aes Sedai did not put him off at all. Well, not very much. It had those flaws. Maybe the smile was not that easy.

The two women confronting him could not have been more different. One was slender, with a fetching smile, in a green-and-gold dress that showed a hint of what he judged to be a fine bosom. Except for that ageless face, he might have thought to strike up a conversation. It was a pretty face, with eyes large enough for a man to sink into. A pity. The other had the agelessness too, but seeing it took him a moment. He thought she was scowling until he realized that must be her normal expression. Her dark, almost black, dress covered her to the wrists and chin, for which he was grateful. She looked scrawny as an old bramble. She looked as if she ate brambles for breakfast.

“I’m trying to leave a message for Nynaeve and Elayne,” he told them. “This woman—” He blinked, looking down each of the corridors. Servants hurried by, but Laren was nowhere in sight. He would not have thought she could move so fast. “Anyway, I want to leave a note.” Suddenly cautious, he added, “Are you friends of theirs?”

“Not exactly,” the pretty one said. “I am Joline, and this is Teslyn. And you are Mat Cauthon.” Mat’s stomach tightened. Nine Aes Sedai in the palace, and he had to walk into the two who followed Elaida. And one of them Red. Not that he had anything to fear. He lowered his hand to his side before it could touch the foxhead under his clothes.

The one who ate brambles—Teslyn—stepped closer. She was a Sitter, according to Thom, though what a Sitter was doing here even Thom did not understand. “We would be their friends if we could. They do need friends, Master Cauthon, as do you.” Her eyes tried to dig holes in his head.

Joline moved to flank him, laying a hand on his lapel. He would have considered that smile inviting from another woman. She was Green Ajah. “They are on dangerous ground and blind to what lies beneath their feet. I know you are their friend. You might show it by telling them to abandon this nonsense before it is too late. Foolish children who go too far can find themselves punished quite severely.”

Mat wanted to back away; even Teslyn stood close enough to be almost touching him. Instead he put on his most insolent grin. It had always landed him in trouble back home, but it seemed appropriate. Those dice in his head could have nothing to do with this pair, or they would have stopped spinning. And he did have the medallion. “They see pretty well, I’d say.” Nynaeve badly needed to be snatched down a peg or six, and Elayne even more, but he was not about to stand by and listen to this woman talk Nynaeve down. If that meant defending Elayne too, so be it. “Maybe you should abandon your nonsense.” Joline’s smile vanished, but Teslyn replaced it with one of her own, a razored smile.

“We do know about you, Master Cauthon.” She looked a woman who wanted to skin something, and whoever was handy would do. “Ta’veren, it do be said. With dangerous associations of your own. That do be more than hearsay.”

Joline’s face was ice. “A young man in your position who wished to be assured of his future could do much worse than seek the protection of the Tower. You should never have left it.”

His stomach clenched tighter. What else did they know? Surely not about the medallion. Nynaeve and Elayne knew, and Adeleas and Vandene, and the Light only knew who they had told, but surely not this pair. There was worse than ta’veren or the foxhead, though, or even Rand, as far as he was concerned. If they knew about the bloody Horn... Abruptly he was yanked away from them so hard that he stumbled and nearly dropped his hat. A slender woman with a smooth face and nearly white hair gathered at the back of her neck had him by sleeve and lapel. Reflexively Teslyn seized him the same way on the other side. He recognized the straight-backed newcomer in her plain gray dress, in a way. She was either Adeleas or Vandene, two sisters—real sisters, not just Aes Sedai—who might as well have been twins; he never could tell them apart for certain. She and Teslyn stared at one another, chill and serene, two cats with a paw on the same mouse.

“No need to tear my coat off,” he growled, trying to shrug free. “My coat?” He was not sure they heard. Even wearing the foxhead he was not prepared to go as far as prying their fingers free—unless he had to.

Two other Aes Sedai accompanied whichever sister it was, though one, a dark, stocky woman with inquisitive eyes, was marked by no more than the Great Serpent ring and the brown-fringed shawl she wore, displaying the white Flame of Tar Valon among vines on her back. She appeared to be just a little older than Nynaeve, which made her Sareitha Tomares, only two years or so Aes Sedai.

“Do you stoop to kidnapping men in the halls now, Teslyn?” the other said. “A man who cannot channel can hardly be of interest to you.” Short and pale in lace-trimmed gray slashed with blue, she was all cool ageless elegance and confident smile. A Cairhienin accent identified her. He had certainly attracted the top dogs in the yard. Thom had not been sure whether Joline or Teslyn was in charge of Elaida’s embassy, but Merilille led the one from those idiots who had tricked Egwene into becoming their Amyrlin.

Mat could have shaved with Teslyn’s return smile. “Do no dissemble with me, Merilille. Mat Cauthon do be of considerable interest. He should no be running loose.” As if he was not standing there listening!

“Don’t fight over me,” he said. Tugging his coat was not making anyone let go. “There’s enough to go around.”

Five sets of eyes made him wish he had kept his mouth shut. Aes Sedai had no sense of humor. He pulled a little harder, and Vandene—or Adeleas—jerked back hard enough to pull the coat out of his hand. Vandene, he decided. She was Green, and he had always thought she wanted to turn him upside down and shake the secret of the medallion out of him. Whichever she was, she smiled, part knowing, part amused. He saw nothing funny. The others did not look at him long. He might as well have vanished.

“What he needs,” Joline said firmly, “is to be taken into custody. For his own protection, and more. Three ta’veren coming out of a single village? And one of them the Dragon Reborn? Master Cauthon should be sent to the White Tower immediately.” And he had thought her pretty.

Merilille only shook her head. “You overestimate your situation here, Joline, if you think I will simply allow you to take the boy.”

“You overestimate yours, Merilille.” Joline stepped closer, until she was looking down at the other woman. Her lips curved, superior and condescending. “Or do you understand that it’s only a wish not to offend Tylin that keeps us from confining all of you on bread and water until you can be returned to the Tower?”

Mat expected Merilille to laugh in her face, but she shifted her head slightly as if she really wanted to break away from Joline’s gaze.

“You would not dare.” Sareitha wore Aes Sedai tranquility like a mask, face smooth and hands calmly adjusting her shawl, but her breathy voice shouted that it was a mask.

“These are children’s games, Joline,” Vandene murmured dryly. Surely that was who she was. She was the only one of the three who really did appear unruffled.

Faint splashes of color blossomed on Merilille’s cheeks as if the white-haired woman had spoken to her, but her own gaze steadied. “You can hardly expect us to go meekly,” she told Joline firmly, “and there are five of  us. Seven, counting Nynaeve and Elayne.” The last was a clear afterthought, and reluctant at that.

Joline arched an eyebrow. Teslyn’s bony fingers did not loosen their grip any more than Vandene’s, but she studied Joline and Merilille with an unreadable expression. Aes Sedai were a country of strangers, where you never knew what to expect until it was too late. There were deep currents here. Deep currents around Aes Sedai could snatch a man to his death without them so much as noticing. Maybe it was time to start prying at fingers.

Laren’s sudden reappearance saved him the effort. Struggling to control her breath as if she had been running, the plump woman spread her skirts in a curtsy markedly deeper than she had given him. “Forgiveness for disturbing you, Aes Sedai, but the Queen summons Lord Cauthon. Forgiveness, please. It’s more than my ears are worth if I don’t bring him straight away.”

The Aes Sedai looked at her, all of them, till she began to fidget; then the two groups stared at one another as if trying to see who could out–Aes Sedai who. And then they looked at him. He wondered whether anybody was going to move.

“I can’t keep the Queen waiting, now can I?” he said cheerily. From the sniffs, you would have thought he had pinched somebody’s bottom. Even Laren’s brows drew down in disapproval.

“Release him, Adeleas,” Merilille said finally.

He frowned as the white-haired woman complied. Those two ought to wear little signs with their names, or different-color hair ribbons or something. She gave him another of those amused, knowing smiles. He hated that. It was a woman’s trick, not just Aes Sedai, and they usually did not know anything at all like what they wanted you to believe. “Teslyn?” he said. The grim Red still had hold of his coat with both hands. She peered up at him, ignoring everyone else. “The Queen?”

Merilille opened her mouth and hesitated, obviously changing what she had been going to say. “How long do you intend to stand here holding him, Teslyn? Perhaps you will explain to Tylin why her summons is disregarded.”

“Consider well who you do tie yourself to, Master Cauthon,” Teslyn said, still looking only at him. “Wrong choices can lead to an unpleasant future, even for a ta’veren. Consider well.” Then she let go.

As he followed Laren, he did not allow himself to show his eagerness to be away, but he did wish the woman would walk a little faster. She glided along ahead of him, regal as any queen. Regal as any Aes Sedai. When they reached the first turning, he looked over his shoulder. The five Aes Sedai were still standing there, staring after him. As if his look had been a signal, they exchanged silent glances and went, each in a different direction. Adeleas came toward him, but a dozen steps before reaching him she smiled at him again and disappeared through a doorway. Deep currents. He preferred swimming where his feet could touch the bottom of the pond.

Laren was waiting around the corner, hands on broad hips and her face much too smooth. Beneath her skirts, he suspected, her foot was tapping impatiently. He gave her his most winning smile. Giggling girls or gray-haired grandmothers, women softened for that one; it had won him kisses and eased him out of predicaments more often than he could count. It was almost as good as flowers. “That was neatly done, and I thank you. I’m sure the Queen doesn’t really want to see me.” If she did, he did not want to see her. Everything he thought about nobles was tripled for royalty. Nothing he had found in those old memories changed that, and some of those fellows had spent considerable time around kings and queens and the like. “Now, if you will just show me where Nynaeve and Elayne stay...”

Strangely, the smile did not seem to have any effect. “I would not lie, Lord Cauthon. It would be more than my ears are worth. The Queen is waiting, my Lord. You are a very brave man,” she added, turning, then said something more under her breath. “Or a very great fool.” He doubted he had been supposed to hear that.

A choice between going to see the Queen and wandering miles of corridor until he stumbled on somebody who would tell him what he wanted to know? He went to see the Queen.

Tylin Quintara, by the Grace of the Light, Queen of Altara, Mistress of the Four Winds, Guardian of the Sea of Storms, High Seat of House Mitsobar, awaited him in a room with yellow walls and a pale blue ceiling, standing before a huge white fireplace with a stone lintel carved into a stormy sea. She was well worth seeing, he decided. Tylin was not young—the shiny black hair cascading over her shoulders had gray at the temples, and faint lines webbed the corners of her eyes—nor was she exactly pretty, though the two thin scars on her cheeks had nearly vanished with age. Handsome came closer. But she was... imposing. Large dark eyes regarded him majestically, an eagle’s eyes. She had little real power—a man could ride beyond her writ in two or three days and still have a lot of Altara ahead—but he thought she might make even an Aes Sedai step back. Like Isebele of Dal Calain, who had made the Amyrlin Anghara come to her. That was one of the old memories; Dal Calain had vanished in the Trolloc Wars.

“Majesty,” he said, sweeping his hat wide in a bow and flourishing an imaginary cloak, “by your summons do I come.” Imposing or not, it was hard to keep his eyes away from the not small lace-trimmed oval where her white-sheathed marriage-knife hung. A very nicely rounded sight indeed, yet the more bosom a woman displayed, the less she wanted you to look. Openly, at least. White-sheathed; but he already knew she was a widow. Not that it mattered. He would as soon tangle himself with that fox-faced Darkfriend as with a queen. Not looking at all was difficult, but he managed. Most likely she would call guards rather than draw the gem-encrusted dagger thrust behind a woven-gold belt to match the collar her marriage knife hung from. Maybe that was why the dice were still rolling in his head. The possibility of an encounter with the headsman would set them spinning if anything did.

Layered silk petticoats rippled white and yellow as she crossed the room and walked slowly all the way around him. “You speak the Old Tongue,” she said once she stood in front of him again. Her voice was low-pitched and musical. Without waiting for a reply, she glided to a chair and sat, adjusting her green skirts. An unconscious gesture; her gaze remained fixed on him. He thought she could probably tell when his smallclothes had been washed last. “You wish to leave a message. I have what is necessary.” A lace fall at her wrist swayed as she gestured to a small writing table standing beneath a gilt-framed mirror. All the furnishings were gilded and carved like bamboo.

Tall triple-arched windows opening onto a wrought-iron balcony admitted a sea breeze that was surprisingly pleasant, if not exactly cool, yet Mat felt hotter than in the street, and it had nothing to do with her stare. Deyeniye, dyu ninte concion ca’lyet ye. That was what he had said. The bloody Old Tongue popping out of his mouth again without him knowing it. He had thought he had that little bother under control. No telling when those bloody dice would stop or for what. Best to keep his eyes to himself and his mouth shut as much as possible. “I thank you, Majesty.” He made very sure of those words.

Thick sheets of pale paper already waited on the slanted table, at a comfortable height for writing. He propped his hat against the table leg. He could see her in the mirror. Watching. Why had he let his tongue run loose? Dipping a golden pen—what else would a queen have?—he composed what he wanted to write in his head before bending over the paper with an arm curled around it. His hand was awkward and square. He had no love of writing.

I followed a Darkfriend to the palace Jaichim Carridin is renting. She tried to kill me once, and maybe Rand as well. She was greeted like an old friend of the house.For a moment he studied that, biting the end of the pen before realizing he was scoring the soft gold. Maybe Tylin would not notice. They needed to know about Carridin. What else? He added a few more reasonably worded lines. The last thing he wanted was to put their backs up.

Be sensible. If you have to go traipsing around, let me send a few men along to keep you from having your heads split open. Anyway, isn’t it about time I took you back to Egwene? There’s nothing here but heat and flies, and we can find plenty of those in Caemlyn.There. They could not ask for pleasanter than that.

Blotting the page carefully, he folded it four times. Sand in a small golden bowl covered a coal. He puffed on it till it glowed, then used it to light a candle and picked up the stick of red wax. As the sealing wax dripped onto the edges of the paper, it suddenly struck him that he had a signet ring in his pocket. Just something the ringmaker had carved to show his skill, but better than a plain lump. The ring was slightly longer than the pool of solidifying wax, yet most of the sigil took.

For the first time he got a good look at what he had bought. Inside a border of large crescents, a running fox seemed to have startled two birds into flight. That made him grin. Too bad it was not a hand, for the Band, but appropriate enough. He certainly needed to be crafty as a fox to keep up with Nynaeve and Elayne, and if they were not exactly flighty, well... Besides, the medallion had made him fond of foxes. He scrawled Nynaeve’s name on the outside, and then Elayne’s, as an afterthought. One or the other, they should see it soon.

Turning with the sealed letter held in front of him, he gave a start as his knuckles brushed against Tylin’s bosom. He stumbled back against the writing table, staring and trying not to turn red. Staring at her face; just her face. He had not heard her approach. Best to simply ignore the brushing, not embarrass her any further. She probably thought he was a clumsy lout as it was. “There is something in this you should know, Majesty.” Insufficient room remained between them to lift the letter. “Jaichim Carridin is entertaining Darkfriends, and I don’t mean arresting them.”

“You are certain? Of course you are. No one would make that charge without being certain.” A furrow creased her forehead, but she gave her head a shake and the frown disappeared. “Let us speak of more pleasant things.”

He could have yelped. He told her the Whitecloak ambassador to her court was a Darkfriend, and all she did was grimace?

“You are Lord Mat Cauthon?” There was just a hint of question in the title. Her eyes minded him more than ever of an eagle’s. A queen could not like someone coming to her pretending to be a lord.

“Just Mat Cauthon.” Something told him she would hear a lie. Besides, letting people think he was a lord was just a ruse, one he would rather have managed without. In Ebou Dar you could find a duel any time you turned around, but few challenged lords except other lords. As it was, in the last month he had cracked a number of heads, bloodied four men and run half a mile to escape a woman. Tylin’s stare made him nervous. And those dice still rattled about in his skull. He wanted out of there. “If you’ll tell me where to leave the letter, Majesty... ?”

“The Daughter-Heir and Nynaeve Sedai seldom mention you,” she said, “but one learns to hear what is not said.” Casually she reached up and touched his cheek; he half-raised his own hand uncertainly. Had he smeared ink there, chewing the pen? Women did like to tidy things, including men. Maybe queens did, too. “What they do not say, but I hear, is that you are an untamed rogue, a gambler and chaser after women.” Her eyes held his, expression never altering a hair, and her voice stayed firm and cool, but as she spoke, her fingers stroked his other cheek. “Untamed men are often the most interesting. To talk to.” A finger outlined his lips. “An untamed rogue who travels with Aes Sedai, a ta’veren who, I think, makes them a little afraid. Uneasy, at the least. It takes a man with a strong liver to make Aes Sedai uneasy. How will you bend the Pattern in Ebou Dar, just Mat Cauthon?” Her hand settled against his neck; he could feel his pulse throbbing against her fingers.

His mouth fell open. The writing table behind his back rattled against the wall as he tried to back away. The only way out was to push her aside or climb over her skirts. Women did not behave this way! Oh, some of those old memories suggested they did, but it was mainly memories of memories that that woman had done this or this woman had done that; the things he recalled clearly were battles for the most part, and no help here at all. She smiled, a faint curl of her lips that did not lessen the predatory gleam in her eyes. The hair on his head tried to stand up.

Her eyes flickered over his shoulder to the mirror, and she turned abruptly, leaving him gaping at her back as she moved away. “I must arrange to speak with you again, Master Cauthon. I—” She cut off as the door swung all the way open, apparently surprised, but then he realized she had seen it begin moving in the mirror.

A slender young man entered, limping slightly, a dark lad with sharp eyes that flicked by Mat with barely a pause. Black hair hung to his shoulders, and he wore one of those coats that was never meant to be worn normally draped across his shoulders, green silk, with a gold chain across his chest and gold leopards worked on the lapels. “Mother,” he said, bowing to Tylin and touching his lips with his fingers.

“Beslan.” She filled the name with warmth, and kissed him on both cheeks and his eyelids. The firm, even icy, tone she had used with Mat might as well have never been. “It went well, I see.”

“Not as well as it might.” The boy sighed. Despite his eyes, he had a mild manner to him, and a soft voice. “Nevin nicked my leg on the second pass, then slipped on the third so I ran him through the heart instead of his sword-arm. The offense was not worth killing, and now I must pay condolences to his widow.” He seemed to regret that as much as this Nevin’s death.

Tylin’s beaming face hardly seemed right on a woman whose son had just told her he had killed a man. “Just be sure your visit is brief. Stab my eyes, but Davindra will be one of those widows who wants comforting, and then you will either have to marry her or kill her brothers.” By her tone, the first alternative was much the worse, the second merely a nuisance. “This is Master Mat Cauthon, my son. He is ta’veren. I hope you will make a friend of him. Perhaps you two will go to the Swovan Night dances together.”

Mat jumped. The last thing he wanted was to go anywhere with a fellow who fought duels and whose mother wanted to stroke Mat Cauthon’s cheek. “I am not much for balls,” he said quickly. Ebou Dari liked festivals beyond reason. Here High Chasaline was just past, and they had five more in the next week, two all-day affairs, not just the simpler evening feasts. “I do my dancing in taverns. The rougher sort, I’m afraid. Nothing you’d like.”

“I favor taverns of the rougher sort,” Beslan said with a smile, in that soft voice. “The balls are for older people, and their pretties.”

After that, it was all downhill on crumpling shingle. Before Mat knew what was happening, Tylin had him sewed up in a sack. He and Beslan would be attending the festivals together. All of the festivals. Hunting, Beslan called it, and when Mat said hunting for girls without thinking—he would never have said that in front of somebody’s mother had he thought—the boy laughed and said, “A girl or a fight, pouting lips or a flashing blade. Whichever dance you’re dancing at the moment is always the most fun. Wouldn’t you say so, Mat?” Tylin smiled at Beslan fondly.

Mat managed a weak laugh. This Beslan was mad, him and his mother both.

The Triumph of Logic

Mat stalked out of the palace when Tylin finally let him go, and had he thought it would do any good, he would have run. The skin between his shoulder blades prickled so, he almost forgot the dice dancing in his head. The worst moment—the very worst of a dozen bad—had been when Beslan teased his mother, saying she should find herself a pretty for the balls, and Tylin laughingly claimed a queen had no time for young men, all the while looking at Mat with those bloody eagle’s eyes. Now he knew why rabbits ran so fast. He stumped across Mol Hara Square not seeing anything. Had Nynaeve and Elayne been cavorting with Jaichim Carridin and Elaida in the fountain beneath that statue of some long-dead queen, two spans or more tall and pointing to the sea, he would have passed by without a second look.

The common room of The Wandering Woman was dim and comparatively cool after the bright heat outside. He took off his hat gratefully. A faint haze of pipesmoke hung in the air, but the arabesque-carved shutters across the wide arched windows let in more than enough light. Some bedraggled pine branches had been tied above the windows for Swovan Night. In one corner, two women with flutes and a fellow with a small drum between his knees provided a shrill, pulsing sort of music that Mat had come to like. Even at this time of the day there were a few patrons, outland merchants in moderately plain woolens with a sprinkling of Ebou Dari, most in the vests of various guilds. No apprentices or even journeymen here; so close to the palace, The Wandering Woman was hardly an inexpensive place to drink or eat, much less sleep.

The rattle of dice at a table in the corner echoed the feel in his head, but he turned the other way, to where three of his men sat on benches around another table. Corevin, a thickly muscled Cairhienin with a nose that made his eyes seem even smaller than they were, sat stripped to the waist, holding his tattooed arms over his head while Vanin wound strips of bandage around his middle. Vanin was three times Corevin’s size, but he looked like a balding sack of suet overflowing his bench. His coat appeared to have been slept in for a week; it always did, even an hour after one of the serving women ironed it. Some of the merchants eyed the three uneasily, but none of the Ebou Dari; men or women, they had seen the same or worse, often.

Harnan, a lantern-jawed Tairen file leader with a crude tattoo of a hawk on his left cheek, was berating Corevin. “. . . don’t care what the flaming fish-seller said, you goat-spawned toad, you use your bloody club and don’t go accepting flaming challenges just because—” He cut off when he saw Mat, and tried to look as if he had not been saying what he had. He just looked as if he had a toothache.

If Mat asked, it would turn out Corevin had slipped and fallen on his own dagger or some such foolery Mat was supposed to pretend to believe. So he just leaned his fists on the table as if he saw nothing out of the ordinary. Truth to tell, it was not that out of the ordinary. Vanin was the only man who had not been in two dozen scrapes already; for some reason, men looking for trouble walked as wide of Vanin as they did Nalesean. The only difference was that Vanin seemed to like it that way. “Has Thom or Juilin been here yet?”

Vanin did not look up from tying the bandages. “Haven’t seen hide, hair nor toenail. Nalesean was in for a bit, though.” There was no “my lord” nonsense from Vanin. He made no bones about not liking nobles. With the unfortunate exception of Elayne. “Left an iron-strapped chest up in your room, and went out babbling about trinkets.” He made as if to spit through the gap in his teeth, then glanced at one of the serving women and did not. Mistress Anan was death on anybody spitting on her floors, or tossing bones, or even tapping out a pipe. “The boy’s out back in the stable,” he went on before Mat could ask, “with his book and one of the innkeeper’s daughters. Another of the girls spanked his bottom for pinching hers.” Finishing the last knot, he gave Mat an accusatory look, as if it had been his fault in some way.

“Poor little mite,” Corevin muttered, twisting to see whether the bandages would stay in place. He had a leopard and a boar inked on one arm, a lion and a woman on the other. The woman did not seem to be wearing much except her hair. “Sniveling, he was. Though he did brighten when Leral let him hold her hand.” The men all looked after Olver like a gaggle of uncles, though certainly the sort no mother would want near her son.

“He’ll live,” Mat said dryly. The boy was probably picking up these habits from his “uncles.” Next, they would give him a tattoo. At least Olver had not sneaked out to run with the street children; he seemed to enjoy that almost as much as he did making himself a nuisance to grown women. “Harnan, you wait here, and if you see Thom or Juilin, collar them. Vanin, I want you to see what you can learn around the Chelsaine Palace, over near the Three Towers Gate.” Hesitating, he looked over the room. Serving women drifted in and out of the kitchens with food and, more often, drink. Most of the patrons seemed intent on their silver cups, though a pair of women in weaver’s vests argued quietly, ignoring their wine punch and leaning across the table at one another. Some of the merchants appeared to be haggling, waving hands and dipping fingers in their drinks to scribble numbers on the table. The music should mask his words from eavesdroppers, but he lowered his voice anyway.

News that Jaichim Carridin had Darkfriends coming to call screwed Vanin’s round face into a scowl, as if he might spit no matter who saw. Harnan muttered something about filthy Whitecloaks, and Corevin suggested denouncing Carridin to the Civil Guard. That got such disgusted looks from the other two that he buried his face in a cup of ale. He was one of the few men Mat knew who could drink Ebou Dari ale in this heat. Or drink it at all, for that matter.

“Be careful,” Mat warned when Vanin stood. It was not that he was worried, really. Vanin moved with surprising lightness for such a fat man. He was the best horsethief in two countries at the least, and could slip by even a Warder unseen, but... “They’re a nasty lot. Whitecloaks or Dark-friends, either one.” The man only grunted and motioned for Corevin to gather his shirt and coat and come along.

“My Lord?” Harnan said as they left. “My Lord, I heard there was a fog in the Rahad yesterday.”

On the point of turning away, Mat stopped. Harnan looked worried, and nothing much worried him. “What do you mean, a fog?” In this heat, fog thick as porridge would not last a heartbeat.

The file leader shrugged uncomfortably and peered into his mug. “A fog. I heard there was... things... in it.” He looked up at Mat. “I heard people just disappeared. And some was found eaten, parts of them.” Mat managed not to shiver. “The fog’s gone, isn’t it? You weren’t in it. Worry when you are. That’s all you can do.” Harnan frowned doubtfully, but that was the pure truth. These bubbles of evil—that was what Rand called them, what Moiraine had—burst where and when they chose, and there did not seem to be anything even Rand could do to stop them. Worrying about it did as much good as worrying whether a roof tile would fall on your head in the street tomorrow. Less, since you could decide to stay indoors.

There was something that was worth worrying over, though. Nalesean had left their winnings sitting upstairs. Bloody nobles tossed gold around like water. Leaving Harnan studying his mug, Mat headed for the railless stairs at the back of the room, but before he reached them, one of the serving women accosted him.

Caira was a slender, full-lipped girl with smoky eyes. “A man came in looking for you, my Lord,” she said, twisting her skirts from side to side and looking up at him through long lashes. There was a certain smokiness in her voice, too. “Said he was an Illuminator, but he looked seedy to me. He ordered a meal, and left when Mistress Anan wouldn’t give it. He wanted you to pay.”

“Next time, pigeon, give the meal,” he told her, slipping a silver mark into the plunging neck of her dress. “I’ll speak to Mistress Anan.” He did want to find an Illuminator—a real one, not some fellow selling fireworks full of sawdust—but it hardly mattered now. Not with the gold lying unguarded. And fogs in the Rahad, and Darkfriends, and Aes Sedai, and bloody Tylin taking leave of her senses, and...

Caira giggled and twisted like a stroked cat. “Would you like me to bring some punch to your room, my Lord? Or anything?” She smiled hopefully, invitingly.

“Maybe later,” he said, tapping her nose with a fingertip. She giggled again; she always did. Caira would have her skirt sewn to show petticoats to the middle of her thigh or higher had Mistress Anan allowed it, but the innkeeper looked after her serving women almost as closely as she did her daughters. Almost. “Maybe later.”

Trotting up the wide stone stairs, he put Caira out of his mind. What was he to do about Olver? The boy would find himself in real trouble one day if he thought he could treat women that way. He was going to have to keep him away from Harnan and the others as much as possible, he supposed. They were a bad influence on a boy. To have this on top of everything else! He had to get Nynaeve and Elayne out of Ebou Dar before something worse went wrong.

His room was at the front, with windows overlooking the square, and as he reached for the door, the hallway floor behind him squeaked. In a hundred inns, it would not even have registered, but the floors in The Wandering Woman did not squeak.

He looked back—and spun just in time to drop his hat and catch the descending truncheon with his left hand instead of his skull. The blow stung his hand to numbness, but he held on desperately as thick fingers dug into his throat, forcing him back against the door to his room. His head hit with a thump. Silver-rimmed black spots danced in his vision, obscuring a sweating face. All he could really see was a big nose and yellow teeth, and those seemed hazy. Suddenly he realized he was on the far edge of consciousness; those fingers were closing off blood to his brain along with air. His free hand went beneath his coat, fumbling over the hilts of his knives as though his fingers no longer remembered what they were for. The cudgel wrenched free. He could see it rising, feel it rising to smash his skull. Focusing everything, he jerked a knife from its scabbard and thrust.

His attacker let out a high-pitched scream, and Mat was vaguely aware of the club bouncing off his shoulder as it fell to the floor, but the man did not let go of his throat. Stumbling, Mat drove him back, tearing at the clutching fingers with one hand, driving his knife repeatedly with the other.

Abruptly the fellow fell, sliding from Mat’s blade. The knife nearly followed him to the floor. So did Mat. Gulping breath, sweet air, he clung to something, a doorway, to hold himself on his feet. From the floor a plain-faced man stared up at him with eyes that would never see anything again, a heavyset fellow with curled Murandian mustaches, in a dark blue coat fit for a small merchant or a prosperous shopkeeper. Not the look of a thief about him at all.

Abruptly he realized they had stumbled through an open door in their fight. It was a smaller room than Mat’s, windowless, a pair of oil lamps on small tables beside the narrow bed providing a murky illumination. A lanky, pale-haired man straightened from a large open chest, staring oddly at the corpse. The chest took up most of the free space in the room.

Mat opened his mouth to apologize for intruding so roughly, and the lanky man snatched a long dagger from his belt, a cudgel from the bed, and leaped over the chest at him. That had not been the look you gave a dead stranger. Clinging unsteadily to the doorframe, Mat threw under-handed, the hilt no sooner leaving his hand than he was scrabbling under his coat for another. His knife stuck squarely in the other man’s throat, and Mat almost fell again, this time from relief, as the man clutched himself, blood spurting between his fingers, and toppled backward into the open chest.

“It’s good to be lucky,” Mat croaked.

Staggering, he retrieved his knife, wiping it clean on the fellow’s gray coat. A better coat than the other; still wool, but of a better cut. A lesser lord would not have been ashamed to wear it. Andoran, by the collar. He sank onto the bed, frowning at the man sprawled in the chest. A noise made him look up.

His manservant was in the doorway, trying unsuccessfully to hide a large black iron frying pan behind his back. Nerim kept a full set of pots, and everything else he thought a lord’s servant might need traveling, in the small room he shared with Olver next to Mat’s. He was short even for a Cairhienin, and skinny to boot. “My Lord has blood on his coat again, I fear,” he murmured in melancholy tones. The day he sounded anything else, the sun would rise in the west. “I do wish my Lord would be more careful of his clothes. It is so hard to remove blood without a stain, and the insects hardly need any encouragement to eat holes. This place has more insects than I have ever seen, my Lord.” No mention at all of two dead men, or what he had intended with the frying pan.

That scream had drawn other attention; The Wandering Woman was not the sort of inn where screams passed unremarked. Feet pounded in the hallway, and Mistress Anan pushed Nerim firmly out of her way and raised her skirts to step around the corpse on the floor. Her husband followed her in, a square-faced, gray-haired man with the double earring of the Ancient and Honorable League of the Nets dangling from his left ear. The two white stones on the lower hoop said he owned other boats besides the one he captained. Jasfer Anan was part of the reason Mat was careful not to smile too much at any of Mistress Anan’s daughters. The man wore a work knife stuffed behind his belt and a longer, curved blade too, and his long blue-and-green vest revealed arms and chest crisscrossed with dueling scars. He was alive, though, and most of the men who had given those scars were not.

The other reason for caution was Setalle Anan herself. Mat had never before let himself be turned off a girl because of her mother, even if that mother owned the inn where he was staying, but Mistress Anan had a way about her. Large gold hoops in her ears swung as she surveyed the dead men without a flinch. She was pretty despite a touch of gray in her hair, and her marriage knife nestled in roundness that normally would have drawn his eyes like moths to a candle, yet looking at her that way would have been like looking at... Not his mother. At an Aes Sedai, maybe—though he had done that, of course, just to look—or at Queen Tylin, the Light help him there. Putting a finger on why was not easy. She simply had a way about her. It was just difficult to think of doing anything that would offend Setalle Anan.

“One of them jumped me in the hall.” Mat kicked the chest lightly; it made a hollow sound despite the dead man slumped inside with his arms and legs dangling out. “This is empty except for him. I think they meant to fill it with whatever they could steal.” The gold, perhaps? Not likely they could have heard of that, won only hours ago, but he would ask Mistress Anan about a safer place to keep it.

She nodded calmly, hazel eyes serene. Men knifed in her inn did not ruffle her feathers. “They insisted on carrying it up themselves. Their stock, so they claimed. They took the room just before you came in. For a few hours, they said, to sleep before traveling on toward Nor Chasen.” That was a small village on the coast to the east, but it was unlikely they would have told the truth. Her tone implied as much. She frowned at the dead men as though wishing she could shake them alive to answer questions. “They were picky about the room, though. The pale-haired man was in charge. He turned down the first three he was offered, then accepted this, that was meant for a single servant. I thought he was being stingy with a coin.”

“Even a thief can be tightfisted,” Mat said absently. This could have qualified to start those dice rolling in his head—a head that would have been cracked open for sure without the luck of that fellow stepping on the one board in the whole inn that would squeak—but the bloody things were still tumbling. He did not like it.

“You think it was chance then, my Lord?”

“What else?”

She had no answer, but she frowned at the corpses again. Maybe she was not so sanguine as he had thought. She was not native to Ebou Dar, after all.

“Too many roughs in the city of late.” Jasfer had a deep voice, and speaking normally he seemed to be barking commands on a fishing boat. “Maybe you ought to think on hiring guards.” All Mistress Anan did was lift an eyebrow at her husband, but his hands rose defensively. “Peace be on you, wife. I spoke without thinking.” Ebou Dari women were known to express displeasure with a husband in a sharp fashion. It was not beyond possibility that a few of his scars came from her. The marriage knife had several uses.

Thanking the Light he was not married to an Ebou Dari, Mat replaced his own knife in its sheath alongside the others. Thank the Light he was not married at all. His fingers brushed paper.

Mistress Anan was not letting her husband off easily. “You frequently do, husband,” she said, fingering the hilt between her breasts. “Many women would not let it pass. Elynde always tells me I am not firm enough when you speak out of line. I need to provide a good example for my daughters.” Acerbity melted into a smile, if a small one. “Consider yourself chastised. I will refrain from telling you who should haul which net on which boat.”

“You are too kind to me, wife,” he replied dryly. There was no guild for innkeepers in Ebou Dar, but every inn in the city was in the hands of a woman; to Ebou Dari, bad luck of the worst sort would dog any inn owned by a man or any vessel owned by a woman. There were no women in the fishermen’s guild.

Mat pulled out the paper. It was snowy white, expensive and stiff, and folded small. The few lines on it were printed in square letters like those Olver might use. Or an adult who did not want the hand recognized.

ELAYNE AND NYNAEVE ARE PUSHING TOO FAR. REMIND THEM THEY ARE STILL IN DANGER FROM THE TOWER. WARN THEM TO BE CAREFUL, OR THEY WILL BE KNEELING TO ASK ELAIDA’S PARDON YET.That was all; no signature. Still in danger? That suggested it was nothing new, and somehow it did not fit with them being snared up by the rebels. No, that was the wrong question. Who had slipped him this note? Obviously somebody who thought they could not simply hand it to him. Who had had the opportunity since he put the coat on this morning? It had not been there then, for sure. Somebody who had gotten close. Somebody... Unbidden, he found himself humming a snatch of “She Dazzles My Eyes and Clouds My Mind.” Around here the tune had different words; they called it “Upside Down and ’Round and ’Round.” Only Teslyn or Jo-line fit, and that was impossible.

“Bad news, my Lord?” Mistress Anan asked.

Mat stuffed the note into his pocket. “Does any man ever get to understand women? I don’t mean just Aes Sedai. Any women.”

Jasfer roared, and when his wife directed a meaning gaze his way, he only laughed harder. The look she gave Mat would have shamed an Aes Sedai for its perfect serenity. “Men have it quite easy, my Lord, if they only looked or listened. Women have the difficult task. We must try to understand men.” Jasfer took hold of the doorframe, tears rolling down his dark face. She eyed him sideways, tilting her head, then turned, all cool calmness—and punched him under the ribs with her fist so hard that his knees buckled. His laughter took on a wheeze without stopping. “There is a saying in Ebou Dar, my Lord,” she said to Mat over her shoulder. “ ‘A man is a maze of brambles in darkness, and even he does not know the way.’ ”

Mat snorted. Fat lot of help she was. Well, Teslyn or Joline or somebody else—it must have been somebody else, if he could only think who—the White Tower was a long way away. Jaichim Carridin was right here. He frowned at the two corpses. And so were a hundred other scoundrels. Somehow he would see those two women safely out of Ebou Dar. The trouble was, he did not have a clue how. He wished those bloody dice would stop, and be done with it.

The apartments Joline shared with Teslyn were quite spacious, including a bedchamber for each of them, plus one apiece for their maids and another that would have done quite well for Blaeric and Fen, if Teslyn could have stood to have her Warders with them. The woman saw every man as a potentially rabid wolf, and there was no gainsaying her when she truly wanted something. As inexorable as Elaida, she ground down whatever lay in her path. They stood as equals in every real way, certainly, but not many managed to prevail over Teslyn without a clear advantage. She was at the writing table in the sitting room when Joline entered, her pen making an awful scritch-scritch. She was always parsimonious with the ink.

Without a word, Joline swept by her and out onto the balcony, a long cage of white-painted iron. The scrollwork was so tight that the men working in the garden three stories below would have a difficult time seeing that there was anyone within. Flowers in this region ordinarily thrived in heat, wild colors to outshine the interior of the palace, but nothing bloomed down there. Gardeners moved along the gravel walks with buckets of water, yet nearly every leaf was yellow or brown. She would not have admitted it under torture, but the heat made her afraid. The Dark One was touching the world, and their only hope a boy who was running wild.

“Bread and water?” Teslyn said suddenly. “Send the Cauthon boy off to the Tower? If there do be changes in what we did plan, you will please inform me before telling others.”

Joline felt a touch of heat in her cheeks. “Merilille needed to be set down. She lectured when I was a novice.” So had Teslyn; a severe teacher who held her classes with an iron grip. Just the way she spoke was a reminder, a marked warning not to go against her, equal or not. Merilille, though, stood lower. “She used to make us stand in front of the class, and she would dig and dig for the answer she wanted, until we stood there in front of everyone, weeping with frustration. She pretended to sympathize, or perhaps she really did, but the more she patted us and told us not to cry, the worse it was.” She cut off abruptly. She had not intended to say all that. It was Teslyn’s fault, always looking at her as if she were about to be upbraided for a spot on her dress. But she should understand; Merilille had taught her, too.

“You have remembered that all this time?” Stark incredulity painted Teslyn’s voice. “The sisters who did teach us did only do their duty. Sometimes I do think what Elaida did say of you do be right.” The annoying scritch-scritch resumed.

“It... simply came to mind when Merilille began as if she were truly an ambassador.” Instead of a rebel. Joline frowned at the garden. She despised every one of those women who had broken the White Tower, and flaunted the break before all the world. Them and anyone who aided them. But Elaida had blundered too, horribly. The sisters who were rebels now could have been reconciled, with a little effort. “What did she say of me? Teslyn?” The sound of the pen continued, like fingernails scraping across a slate. Joline went back inside. “What did Elaida say?”

Teslyn laid another sheet atop her letter, either to blot or to shield it from Joline’s eyes, but she did not answer immediately. She scowled at Jo-line—or perhaps just looked; it was difficult to say with her at times—and at last sighed. “Very well. If you must know. She did say you still do be a child.”

“A child?” Joline’s shock had no effect on the other woman.

“Some,” Teslyn said calmly, “do change little from the day they do put on novice white. Some do change no at all. Elaida does believe you have no grown up yet and never will.”

Joline tossed her head angrily, unwilling to let herself speak. To have that said by someone whose mother had been a child when she herself gained the shawl! Elaida had been petted too much as a novice, made over too much for her strength and the remarkable speed of her learning. Joline suspected that was why she was in such a fury about Elayne and Egwene and the wilder Nynaeve; because they were stronger than she, because they had spent far less time as novices, no matter that they had been pushed ahead too fast. Why, Nynaeve had never been a novice at all, and that was completely unheard of.

“Since you did bring it up,” Teslyn went on, “perhaps we should try to take advantage of the situation.”

“What do you mean?” Embracing the True Source, Joline channeled Air to lift the silver pitcher on the turquoise-inlaid side table and fill a silver goblet with punch. As always, the joy of embracing saidar thrilled her, soothing even as it exhilarated.

“It do be obvious, I should think. Elaida’s orders do still stand. Elayne and Nynaeve are to be returned to the Tower as soon as found. I did agree to wait, but perhaps we should wait no longer. A pity the al’Vere girl does no be with them. But two will put us back in Elaida’s good graces, and if we can add the Cauthon boy... I do think those three will make her welcome us as if we did come with al’Thor himself. And this Aviendha will make a fine novice, wilder or no.”

The goblet floated into Joline’s hand on Air, and she reluctantly released the Power. She had never lost the ardor she felt the first time she touched the Source. Dewmelon punch was a poor substitute for saidar. The worst part of her penance before leaving the Tower had been losing the right to touch saidar. Almost the worst part. She had set it all herself, but Elaida had made it clear that if she did not make it harsh, Elaida would. She had no doubt the result would have been much worse, then. “Her good graces? Teslyn, she humiliated us for no more reason than to show the others that she could. She sent us to this fly-ridden hole as far from everything important as she could, short of the other side of the Aryth Ocean, ambassadors to a queen with less power than a dozen of her own nobles, any one of whom could snatch the throne from her tomorrow if they could be bothered to. And you want to wheedle your way back into Elaida’s favor?”

“She do be the Amyrlin Seat.” Teslyn touched the letter with the page lying atop it, moving the sheets a bit this way then a bit that, as if framing her thoughts. “Remaining silent for a time did let her know we are no lap-dogs, but remaining silent too long could be seen as treason.”

Joline sniffed. “Ridiculous! When they’re returned they’ll only be punished for running away, and now for pretending to be full sisters.” Her mouth tightened. They were both guilty there, and those who allowed them to, as well, but it made a sharp difference when one of them claimed her own Ajah. By the time the Green Ajah finished with Elayne for that, it would be a very chastened young woman indeed who took the throne of Andor. Though it might be best if Elayne secured the Lion Throne first. Her training had to be completed, either way. Joline did not intend to see Elayne lost to the Tower, whatever she had done.

“Do no forget joining with the rebels.”

“Light, Teslyn, they were probably scooped up just like the girls the rebels took out of the Tower. Does it really matter a whit whether they begin mucking out stalls tomorrow or next year?” That was surely as much as the novices and Accepted with the rebels would have to face. “Even the Ajahs can wait to have them in hand, really. It is not as if they aren’t safe. They are Accepted, after all, and they certainly seem content to stay where we can reach them whenever we choose. I say, let us sit where Elaida put us, and continue to fold our hands and hold our tongues. Until she asks nicely to find out what we are doing.” She did not say that she was prepared to wait until Elaida found herself deposed as Siuan had been. The Hall surely would not put up with the bullying and bungling forever, but Teslyn was Red, after all, and would not appreciate hearing that.

“I suppose there do be no urgency,” Teslyn said slowly, the unspoken “but” all but shouting itself.

Drawing a ball-footed chair to the table with another flow of Air, Jo-line settled herself to convincing her companion that silence remained the best policy. Still a child, was she? If she had her way, Elaida would not get so much as a word out of Ebou Dar until she begged for it.

The woman on the table arched up as far as her bonds would allow, eyes bulging, throat corded with a piercing scream that went on and on. Abruptly the scream was a loud choking rasp instead, and she convulsed, shaking from wrists to ankles, then collapsed in silence. Wide-open eyes stared sightlessly at the cobwebbed basement ceiling.

Giving vent to curses was irrational, but Falion could have turned the air as blue as any stableman. Not for the first time she wished she had Temaile here instead of Ispan. Questions were answered eagerly for Temaile, and nobody died until she was ready. Of course, Temaile enjoyed the work entirely too much, but that was beside the point.

Channeling once more, Falion gathered the woman’s clothes from the filthy floor and dropped them atop the body. The red leather belt fell off, and she snatched it up by hand and slapped it back onto the pile. Perhaps she should have used other methods, but straps and pincers and hot irons were so... messy. “Leave the body in an alley somewhere. Slit the throat so it looks as if she was robbed. You can keep the coins in her purse.”

The two men squatting on their heels against the stone wall exchanged looks. Arnin and Nad might have been brothers by their appearance, all black hair and beady eyes and scars, with more muscles than any three men could need, but they did have sufficient brains to carry out simple orders. Usually. “Forgiveness, Mistress,” Arnin said hesitantly, “but no one will believe—”

“Do as you are told!” she snapped, channeling to haul him to his feet and slam him back against the stones. His head bounced, yet that surely could do him no damage.

Nad rushed to the table, babbling, “Yes, Mistress. As you command, Mistress.” When she released Arnin, he did not babble, but he staggered over without any more objections to help gather up the body like so much rubbish and carry it out. Well, it was so much rubbish, now. She regretted the outburst. Letting temper take control was irrational. It did seem to be effective at times, though. After all these years, that still surprised her.

“Moghedien, she will not like this,” Ispan said as soon as the men had gone. The blue and green beads that were worked into her many slim black braids clacked as she shook her head. She had remained in the shadows the whole time, in a corner, with a small ward woven so she could not hear.

Falion managed not to glare. Ispan was the last companion she would have chosen for herself. She was Blue, or had been. Perhaps she still was. Falion did not really think herself any less White Ajah because she had joined the Black. Blues were too fervent, tying emotion around what should be viewed with utter dispassion. Rianna, another White, would have been her choice. Though the woman did have odd, unsound notions on several points of logic. “Moghedien has forgotten us, Ispan. Or have you received some private word from her? In any case, I am convinced this cache does not exist.”

“Moghedien, she says that it does.” Ispan began firmly, but her voice quickly grew warm. “A store of angreal, and sa’angreal, and ter’angreal. We will have some part of them. Angreal of our very own, Falion. Perhaps even sa’angreal. She has promised.”

“Moghedien was wrong.” Falion watched shock widen the other woman’s eyes. The Chosen were only people. Learning that lesson had stunned Falion too, but some refused to learn. The Chosen were vastly stronger, infinitely more knowledgeable, and quite possibly they had already received the reward of immortality, but by all evidence they schemed and fought each other as hard as two Murandians with one blanket. Ispan’s shock quickly gave way to anger. “There are others looking. Would they all look for nothing? There are Friends of the Dark looking; they must have been sent by others of the Chosen. If the Chosen look, can you still say there is nothing?” She would not see. If a thing could not be found, the most obvious reason was that it was not there.

Falion waited. Ispan was not stupid, only awestruck, and Falion did believe in making people teach themselves what they should already be aware of. Lazy minds needed to be exercised.

Ispan paced, swishing her skirts and frowning at the dust and old cobwebs. “This place smells. And it is filthy!” She shuddered as a large black cockroach went skittering up the wall. The glow surrounded her for a moment; a flow squashed the beetle with a popping sound. Making a face, Ispan wiped her hands on her skirts as if she had used them instead of the Power. She had a delicate stomach, though fortunately not when she could remove herself from the actual deed. “I will not report the failure to one of the Chosen, Falion. She would make us envy Liandrin, yes?”

Falion did not quite shiver. She did, however, cross the basement and pour herself a cup of plum punch. The plums had been old, and the punch was too sweet, but her hands remained steady. Fear of Moghedien was perfectly sensible, but yielding to fear was not. Perhaps the woman was dead. Surely she would have summoned them by now else, or snatched them sleeping into Tel’aran’rhiod again to tell her why they had not yet carried out her commands. Until she saw a body, though, the only logical choice was to continue as if Moghedien would appear any moment. “There is a way.”

“How? Put every Wise Woman in Ebou Dar to the question? How many are there? A hundred? Two hundred perhaps? The sisters in the Tarasin Palace, they would notice this, I think.”

“Forget your dreams of owning a sa’angreal, Ispan. There is no long-hidden store house, no secret basement beneath a palace.” Falion spoke in cool, measured tones, perhaps more measured the more agitated Ispan became. She had always enjoyed mesmerizing a class of novices with the sound of her voice. “Almost all of the Wise Women are wilders, highly unlikely to know what we wish to learn. No wilder has ever been found keeping an angreal, much less a sa’angreal, and they surely would have been found. On the contrary, by every record, a wilder who discovers any object tied to the Power rids herself of it as soon as possible, for fear of attracting the wrath of the White Tower. Women who are put out of the Tower, on the other hand, seem not to have the same fear. As you well know, when they are searched before leaving, fully one in three has secreted something about her person, an actual object of the Power or something she believes is one. Of the few Wise Women who qualify at present, Callie was the perfect choice. When she was put out four years ago, she tried to steal a small ter’angreal. A useless thing that makes images of flowers and the sound of a waterfall, but still an object tied to saidar. And she tried to discover all the other novices’ secrets, succeeding more often than not. If there was even a single angreal in Ebou Dar, not to speak of a vast store house, do you think she could have been four years here without locating it?”

“I do wear the shawl, Falion,” Ispan said with extraordinary asperity. “And I do know all of that as well as you. You said there was another way. What way?” She simply would not apply her brain.

“What would please Moghedien as greatly as the cache?” Ispan simply stared at her, tapping her foot. “Nynaeve al’Meara, Ispan. Moghedien abandoned us to go chasing after her, but obviously she escaped somehow. If we give Nynaeve—and the Trakand girl, for that matter—to Moghedien, she would forgive us a hundred sa’angreal.” Which clearly demonstrated that the Chosen could be irrational, of course. It was best, of course, to be extremely careful with those who were both irrational and more powerful than you. Ispan was not more powerful.

“We should have killed her as I wanted, when she first appeared,” she spat. Waving her hands, she stalked up and down, grime crunching loudly beneath her slippers. “Yes, yes, I know. Our sisters in the palace, they might have become suspicious. We do not wish to draw their eyes. But have you forgotten Tanchico? And Tear? Where those two girls appear, disaster follows. Me, I think if we cannot kill them, we should remain as far from Nynaeve al’Meara and Elayne Trakand as we can. As far as we can!”

“Calm yourself, Ispan. Calm yourself.” If anything, Falion’s soothing tone only seemed to agitate the other woman more, but Falion was confident. Logic must prevail over emotion.

Sitting on an upended barrel in the sparse coolness of a narrow, shaded alley, he studied the house across the busy street. Suddenly he realized he was touching his head again. He did not have a headache, but his head felt... peculiar... sometimes. Most often when he thought of what he could not remember.

Three stories of white plaster, the house belonged to a goldsmith who supposedly was being visited by two friends she had met on a journey north some years ago. The friends had only been glimpsed on arrival and not seen since. Finding that out had been easy, finding out they were Aes Sedai only a trifle more difficult.

A lean young man in a torn vest, whistling his way down the street with no good on his mind, paused when he glimpsed him sitting on the barrel. His coat and his location in the shadows—and the rest of him, he admitted ruefully—probably looked tempting. He reached under his coat. His hands no longer possessed the strength or flexibility for swordwork, but the two long knives he had carried for well over thirty years had surprised more than one swordsman. Maybe something showed in his eyes, because the lean young man thought better of it and whistled his way on.

Beside the house, the gate that led back to the goldsmith’s stable swung open, and two burly men appeared pushing a barrow piled high with soiled straw and muck. What were they up to? Arnin and Nad were hardly the lads to be mucking out stables.

He would stay here until dark, he decided, then see whether he could find Carridin’s pretty little killer again.

Once again he pulled his hand down from his head. Sooner or later, he would remember. He did not have much time left, but it was all he did have. He remembered that much.

As the Plow Breaks the Earth

Seizing saidin long enough to unknot the ward he had woven across one corner of the anteroom, Rand raised his small silver-mounted cup and said, “More tea.” Lews Therin muttered angrily in the back of his head.

Carved chairs heavy with gilt stood in paired lines to either side of a golden Rising Sun, two paces wide, set into the polished stone floor, and another tall chair so gilded it seemed entirely gold topped a small dais that was just as elaborate, but he sat cross-legged on a carpet spread for the occasion, green and gold and blue in a Tairen maze. The three clan chiefs seated across from him would have disliked him receiving them from a chair even if they were offered their own. They were another maze, to be trod warily. He was in his shirt, sleeves pushed up his forearms to expose the red-and-gold Dragon that curled around each, glittering metallically. The Aielmen’s cadin’sor covered theirs, on the left arm alone. Perhaps the reminder of who he was—that he too had been to Rhuidean when the journey meant death for most men who entered—perhaps it was unnecessary. Perhaps.

Those three faces gave away little as they watched Merana come from the corner where she had been sealed off. Janwin’s creased face could have been carved from old wood, but it always looked that way, and if his blue-gray eyes seemed stormy, so did they always too. Even his hair looked like storm clouds. He was an even-tempered man, though. Indirian and one-eyed Mandelain might have been thinking of something else, except that their unblinking gazes followed her. Lews Therin suddenly went silent, as if he too watched, through Rand’s eyes.

Merana’s ageless features revealed even less than the clan chiefs’. Smoothing her pale gray skirts under, she knelt beside Rand and lifted the teapot. A massive ball of gold-washed silver, with leopards for feet and handle and another crouched on the lid, it required both of her hands and wavered a little as she carefully filled Rand’s cup. Her manner seemed to say she did this because she wanted to, for reasons of her own that none of them could begin to understand; her manner shouted Aes Sedai louder than her face did. Was that to the good, or the bad?

“I do not allow them to channel without permission,” he said. The clan chiefs kept silent. Merana rose and moved to kneel beside each in turn. Mandelain covered his cup with a broad hand to indicate he wanted no more. The other two held out theirs, blue-gray eyes and green alike studying her. What did they see? What more could he do?

Replacing the heavy teapot on the thick leopard-handled tray, she remained on her knees. “May I serve my Lord Dragon in any way else?”

Her voice was self-possession itself, but after he motioned her back to her corner, after she had risen and turned, slim hands clutched at her skirts for an instant. Yet that might have been because turning brought her to face Dashiva and Narishma. The two Asha’man—to be precise, Narishma was still only a soldier, the lowest level of Asha’man, with neither the sword nor the Dragon on his collar—the Asha’man stood impassively between two of the tall golden-framed mirrors that lined the walls. At least, the younger man looked impassive, at first glance. Thumbs tucked behind his sword belt, he ignored Merana and paid little more attention to Rand or the Aielmen, yet at a second glance you saw that his dark too-big eyes never rested, as if he expected the unexpected to leap out of the air any moment. And who could say it would not? Dashiva appeared to have his head in the clouds; his lips moved soundlessly, and he blinked and frowned at nothing.

Lews Therin snarled when Rand looked at the Asha’man, but it was Merana who occupied the dead man inside Rand’s head. Only a fool thinks a lion or a woman can truly be tamed.

Irritably, Rand suppressed the voice to a muted buzz. Lews Therin could break through, but not without effort. Grabbing hold of saidin, he rewove the ward that shut Merana away from their voices. Releasing the Source again increased his irritation, the hissing in his head, the water drops on red coals. An echo pulsing in time with Lews Therin’s mad, distant rage.

Merana stood behind the barrier she could neither see nor feel, head high and hands folded at her waist as if a shawl were looped over her arms. Aes Sedai to her toenails. She watched him and the clan chiefs with cool eyes, light brown flecked with yellow. My sisters do not all realize how very much we need you, she had told him this morning in this very room, but all of us who swore will do whatever you ask that would not violate the Three Oaths. He had just wakened when she came with Sorilea escorting her. Neither seemed to care at all that he was still in a robe, with only one bite taken from his breakfast bread. I have more than a little skill in negotiation and mediation. My sisters have other skills. Let us serve you, as we pledged. Let me serve you. We need you, but you have some need of us, too.

Ever present, Alanna lay nestled in a corner of his brain. She was weeping again. He could not understand why she wept so often. He had forbidden her to come near him unless summoned, or leave her room without an escort of Maidens—the sisters who had sworn to him had been found rooms last night, in the Palace where he could keep an eye on them—but he had sensed tears from the moment she bonded him, tears and a raw grief like being ripped by claws. Sometimes it was less, sometimes more, yet always there. Alanna also had told him he needed the sworn sisters, screamed it at him finally, with her face red and tears rolling down her cheeks, before literally running from his presence. And she had spoken of serving, too, though he doubted that Merana’s present tasks were what either had in mind. Perhaps some sort of livery would make it clear?

The clan chiefs watched Merana watch them. Not so much as the flicker of an eyelash betrayed their thoughts.

“The Wise Ones have told you where the Aes Sedai stand,” Rand said bluntly. Sorilea had told him they knew, but the fact would have been clear from the lack of surprise when they first saw Merana fetch and curtsy. “You’ve seen her bring the tray and pour your tea. You’ve seen her come and go as I say. If you want, I’ll have her dance a jig.” Convincing the Aiel that he was not on the end of an Aes Sedai leash was the most needed service any of the sisters could do him right now. He would have them all doing jigs, if necessary.

Mandelain adjusted the gray-green patch over his right eye, the way he did when he wanted a moment to think. A thick puckered scar ran up his forehead from behind the leather patch and halfway across his mostly bald head. When he finally spoke, it was only a little less blunt than Rand. “Some say an Aes Sedai will do anything to have what she wants.”

Indirian lowered heavy white eyebrows and peered down his long nose at his tea. Of only average height for an Aiel man, he was shorter than Rand by half a hand, yet everything about him seemed long. The heat of the Waste appeared to have melted away every spare ounce of flesh and a few more besides. His cheekbones stood out sharp, and his eyes were emeralds set in caves. “I do not like speaking of Aes Sedai.” His deep, rich voice was always a shock, coming from that gaunt face. “What is done, is done. Let the Wise Ones deal with them.”

“Better to speak of the Shaido dogs,” Janwin said mildly. Which was almost as great a shock, coming from his fierce face. “Within a few months, less than half a year at most, every Shaido who can be will be dead—or made gai’shain.” Just because his voice was soft did not mean he was. The other two nodded; Mandelain smiled eagerly.

They still seemed unconvinced. The Shaido had been the professed reason for this meeting, and no less important for not being the most important. Not unimportant—the Shaido had made trouble long enough—just not on the same page with the Aes Sedai in his book. They did present problems, though. Three clans joining Timolan’s Miagoma, already near Kinslayer’s Dagger, might well be able to do as Janwin said, but there were those who could not be made gai’shain and could not be killed. Some were more critical than others. “What of the Wise Ones?” he asked.

For a moment their faces became unreadable; not even Aes Sedai could do that so well as Aiel. Facing the One Power did not frighten them, not where it showed, at least; no one could outrun death, so Aiel believed, and a hundred Aes Sedai in a rage could not make a lone Aiel lower the veil once raised. But learning that Wise Ones had taken part in the fighting at Dumai’s Wells had hit them like watching the sun rise by night and the moon by day in a blood-red sky.

“Sarinde tells me almost all of the Wise Ones will run with the algai’d’siswai,” Indirian said at last, reluctantly. Sarinde was the Wise One who had followed him from Red Springs, clan hold of the Codarra. Or perhaps “followed” was not the right word; Wise Ones seldom did. In any case, most of the Codarra Wise Ones, and the Shiande and the Daryne, would go north with the spears. “The Shaido Wise Ones will be...