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

Wheel of Time • 12 • The Gathering Storm

Robert Jordan


WHEEL OF TIME
Book Twelve
THE GATHERING STORM

Robert JORDAN and Brandon SANDERSON

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FOREWORD

In November 2007, I received a phone call that would change my life forever. Harriet McDougal, wife and editor of the late Robert Jordan, called to ask me if I would complete the last book of The Wheel of Time.

For those who did not know Mr. Jordan had passed away, it pains me to be the one to break the news. I remember how I felt when—while idly browsing the Internet on September 16, 2007—I discovered that he had died. I was shocked, stunned, and disheartened. This wonderful man, a hero to me in my writing career, was gone. The world suddenly became a different place.

I first picked up The Eye of the World in 1990, when I was a teenage fantasy addict visiting my corner bookstore. I became a fan instantly and eagerly awaited The Great Hunt. Over the years, I’ve read the books numerous times, often re-reading the entire series when a new book was released. Time passed, and I decided I wanted to become a fantasy author—influenced, in large part, by how much I loved The Wheel of Time. And yet, never did I think that I would one day get that phone call from Harriet. It came to me as a complete surprise. I had not asked, applied, or dared wish for this opportunity—though when the request was made, my answer was immediate. I love this series as I have loved none other, and the characters feel like old, dear friends from my childhood.

I cannot replace Robert Jordan. Nobody could write this book as well as he could have. That is a simple fact. Fortunately, he left many notes, outlines, completed scenes, and dictated explanations with his wife and assistants. Before his passing, he asked Harriet to find someone to complete the series for his fans. He loved you all very much and spent the very last weeks of his life dictating events for the final volume. It was to be called A Memory of Light.

Eighteen months later, we are here. Mr. Jordan promised that the final book would be big. But the manuscript soon grew prohibitively huge; it would be three times the size of a regular Wheel of Time book, and the decision was made by Harriet and Tor to split A Memory of Light into thirds. There were several excellent breaking points that would give a full and complete story in each third. You may think of The Gathering Storm and its two followers as the three volumes of A Memory of Light or as the final three books of The Wheel of Time. Both are correct.

As of this writing, I am halfway done with the second third. We are working as quickly as is reasonable, and we don’t want you to have to wait too long to get the ending we were all promised nearly twenty years ago. (Mr. Jordan did write this ending himself before he passed away, and I have read it. And it is fantastic.) I have not tried to imitate Mr. Jordan’s style. Instead, I’ve adapted my style to be appropriate to The Wheel of Time. My main goal was to stay true to the souls of the characters. The plot is, in large part, Robert Jordan’s, though many of the words are mine. Imagine this book as the product of a new director working on some of the scenes of a movie while retaining the same actors and script.

But this is a big project, and it will take time to complete. I beg your patience as we spend these next few years perfecting this story. We hold in our hands the ending of the greatest fantasy epic of our time, and I intend to see it done right. I intend to remain true to Mr. Jordan’s wishes and notes. My artistic integrity, and love for the books, will not let me do anything less. In the end, I let the words herein stand as the best argument for what we are doing.

This is not my book. It is Robert Jordan’s book, and to a lesser extent, it is your book.

Thank you for reading.

BRANDON SANDERSON
June 2009

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For Maria Simons and Alan Romanczuk, without whom this book wouldn’t have been possible

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Ravens and crows. Rats. Mists and clouds. Insects and corruption. Strange events and odd occurrences. The ordinary twisted and strange. Wonders!

The dead are beginning to walk, and some see them. Others do not, but more and more, we all fear the night.

These have been our days. They rain upon us beneath a dead sky, crushing us with their fury, until as one we beg: “Let it begin!”

—Journal of the Unknown Scholar,
entry for The Feast of Freia, 1000 NE

PROLOGUE
What the Storm Means

Renald Fanwar sat on his porch, warming the sturdy blackoak chair crafted for him by his grandson two years before. He stared northward.

At the black and silver clouds.

He’d never seen their like before. They blanketed the entire horizon to the north, high in the sky. They weren’t gray. They were black and silver. Dark, rumbling thunderheads, as dark as a root cellar at midnight. With striking silver light breaking between them, flashes of lightning that gave off no sound.

The air was thick. Thick with the scents of dust and dirt. Of dried leaves and rain that refused to fall. Spring had come. And yet his crops didn’t grow. Not a sprout had dared poke through the earth.

He rose slowly from his chair, wood creaking, chair rocking softly behind him, and walked up to the edge of the porch. He chewed on his pipe, though its fire had gone out. He couldn’t be bothered to relight it. Those clouds transfixed him. They were so black. Like the smoke of a brushfire, only no brushfire smoke ever rose that high up in the air. And what to make of silver clouds? Bulging between the black ones, like places where polished steel shone through metal crusted with soot.

He rubbed his chin, glancing down at his yard. A small, whitewashed fence contained a patch of grass and shrubs. The shrubs were dead now, every one of them. Hadn’t lasted through that winter. He’d need to pull them out soon. And the grass... well, the grass was still just winter thatch. Not even any weeds sprouted.

A clap of thunder shook him. Pure, sharp, like an enormous crash of metal against metal. It rattled the windows of the house, shook the porch boards, seemed to vibrate his very bones.

He jumped back. That strike had been close—perhaps on his property. He itched to go inspect the damage. Lightning fire could destroy a man, burn him out of his land. Up here in the Borderlands, so many things were unintentional tinder—dry grass, dry shingles, dry seed.

But the clouds were still distant. That strike couldn’t have been on his property. The silver and black thunderheads rolled and boiled, feeding and consuming themselves.

He closed his eyes, calming himself, taking a deep breath. Had he imagined the thunder? Was he going off the side, as Gaffin always joked? He opened his eyes.

And the clouds were right there, directly above his house.

It was as if they had suddenly rolled forward, intending to strike while his gaze was averted. They dominated the sky now, sweeping distantly in either direction, massive and overwhelming. He could almost feel their weight pressing the air down around him. He drew in a breath that was heavy with sudden humidity, and his brow prickled with sweat.

Those clouds churned, dark black and silver thunderheads shaking with white blasts. They suddenly boiled downward, like the funnel cloud of a twister, coming for him. He cried out, raising a hand, as a man might before a powerfully bright light. That blackness. That endless, suffocating blackness. It would take him. He knew.

And then the clouds were gone.

His pipe hit the porch’s floorboards, clicking softly, tossing burned tabac out in a spray across the steps. He hadn’t realized he’d let it slip free. Renald hesitated, looking up at empty blue sky, realizing that he was cringing at nothing.

The clouds were off on the horizon again, some forty leagues distant. They thundered softly.

He picked up his pipe with a shaking hand, spotted from age, tanned from years spent in the sun. Just a trick of your mind, Renald, he told himself. You’re going off the side, sure as eggs is eggs.

He was on edge because of the crops. That had him on edge. Though he spoke optimistic words for the lads, it just wasn’t natural. Something should have sprouted by now. He’d farmed that land for forty years! Barley didn’t take this long to sprout. Burn him, but it didn’t. What was going on in the world these days? Plants couldn’t be depended on to sprout, and clouds didn’t stay where they should.

He forced himself to sit back down in his chair, legs shaking. Getting old, I am.... he thought.

He’d worked a farm all of his life. Farmsteading in the Borderlands was not easy, but if you worked hard, you could grow a successful life while you grew strong crops. “A man has as much luck as he has seeds in the field,” his father had always said.

Well, Renald was one of the most successful farmers in the area. He’d done well enough to buy out the two farms beside his, and he could run thirty wagons to market each fall. He now had six good men working for him, plowing the fields, riding the fences. Not that he didn’t have to climb down in the muck every day and show them what good farming was all about. You couldn’t let a little success ruin you.

Yes, he’d worked the land, lived the land, as his father always used to say. He understood the weather as well as a man could. Those clouds weren’t natural. They rumbled softly, like an animal growling on a dark night. Waiting. Lurking in the nearby woods.

He jumped at another crash of thunder that seemed too close. Were those clouds forty leagues away? Is that what he’d thought? Looked more like ten leagues away, now that he studied them.

“Don’t get like that,” he grumbled at himself. His own voice sounded good to him. Real. It was nice to hear something other than that rumbling and the occasional creak of shutters in the wind. Shouldn’t he be able to hear Auaine inside, getting supper ready?

“You’re tired. That’s it. Tired.” He fished in his vest pocket and pulled out his tabac pouch.

A faint rumbling came from the right. At first, he assumed it was the thunder. However, this rumbling was too grating, too regular. That wasn’t thunder. It was wheels turning.

Sure enough, a large, oxen-drawn wagon crested Mallard’s Hill, just to the east. Renald had named that hill himself. Every good hill needed a name. The road was Mallard’s Road. So why not name the hill that too?

He leaned forward in his chair, pointedly ignoring those clouds as he squinted toward the wagon, trying to make out the driver’s face. Thulin? The smith? What was he doing, driving a wagon laden halfway to the heavens? He was supposed to be working on Renald’s new plow!

Lean for one of his trade, Thulin was still twice as muscled as most farmhands. He had the dark hair and tan skin of a Shienaran, and kept his face shaved after their fashion, but he did not wear the topknot. Thulin’s family might trace its roots back to Borderland warriors, but he himself was just a simple country man like the rest of them. He ran the smithy over in Oak Water, five miles to the east. Renald had enjoyed many a game of stones with the smith during winter evenings.

Thulin was getting on—he hadn’t seen as many years as Renald, but the last few winters had prompted Thulin to start speaking of retirement. Smithing wasn’t an old man’s trade. Of course, neither was farming. Were there really any old man’s trades?

Thulin’s wagon approached along the packed earthen road, approaching Renald’s white-fenced yard. Now, that’s odd, Renald thought. Behind the wagon trailed a neat string of animals: five goats and two milkcows. Crates of black-feathered chickens were tied on the outside of the wagon, and the bed of the wagon itself was piled full of furniture, sacks and barrels. Thulin’s youthful daughter, Mirala, sat on the seat with him, next to his wife, a golden-haired woman from the south. Twenty-five years Thulin’s wife, but Renald still thought of Gallanha as “that southern girl.”

The whole family was in the wagon, leading their best livestock. Obviously on the move. But where? Off to visit relatives, perhaps? He and Thulin hadn’t played a round of stones in... oh, three weeks now. Not much time for visiting, what with the coming of spring and the hurried planting. Someone would need to mend the plows and sharpen the scythes. Who would do it if Thulin’s smithy went cold?

Renald tucked a pinch of tabac into his pipe as Thulin pulled the wagon up beside Renald’s yard. The lean, gray-haired smith handed the reins to his daughter, then climbed down from the wagon, feet throwing puffs of dust into the air when he hit the ground. Behind him the distant storm still brewed.

Thulin pushed open the fence gate, then strode up to the porch. He looked distracted. Renald opened his mouth to give greeting, but Thulin spoke first.

“I buried my best anvil in Gallanha’s old strawberry patch, Renald,” the big smith said. “You remember where that is, don’t you? I packed my best set of tools there as well. They’re well greased and inside my best chest, lined to keep it dry. That should keep the rust off of them. For a time at least.”

Renald closed his mouth, holding his pipe half-full. If Thulin was burying his anvil... well, it meant he wasn’t planning to come back for a while. “Thulin, what—”

“If I don’t return,” Thulin said, glancing northward, “would you dig my things out and see that they’re cared for? Sell them to someone who cares, Renald. I wouldn’t have just anyone beating that anvil. Took me twenty years to gather those tools, you know.”

“But Thulin!” Renald sputtered. “Where are you going?”

Thulin turned back to him, leaning one arm on the porch railing, those brown eyes of his solemn. “There’s a storm coming,” he said. “And so I figure I’ve got to head on to the north.”

“Storm?” Renald asked. “That one on the horizon, you mean? Thulin, it looks bad—burn my bones, but it does—but there’s no use running from it. We’ve had bad storms before.”

“Not like this, old friend,” Thulin said. “This ain’t the sort of storm you ignore.”

“Thulin?” Renald asked. “What are you talking about?”

Before he could answer, Gallanha called from the wagon box. “Did you tell him about the pots?”

“Ah,” Thulin said. “Gallanha polished up that set of copper-bottom pots that your wife always liked. They’re sitting on the kitchen table, waiting for Auaine, if she wants to go claim them.” With that, Thulin nodded to Renald and began to walk back toward the wagon.

Renald sat, stupefied. Thulin always had been a blunt one; he favored saying his mind, then moving on. That was part of what Renald liked about him. But the smith could also pass through a conversation like a boulder rolling through a flock of sheep, leaving everyone dazed.

Renald scrambled up, leaving his pipe on the chair and following Thulin down into the yard and to the wagon. Burn it, Renald thought, glancing to the sides, noticing the brown grass and dead shrubs again. He’d worked hard on that yard.

The smith was checking on the chicken crates tied to the sides of his vehicle. Renald caught up to him, reaching out a hand, but Gallanha distracted him.

“Here, Renald,” she said from the wagon box. “Take these.” She held out a basket of eggs, one lock of golden hair straying from her bun. Renald reached over to take the basket. “Give these to Auaine. I know you’re short on chickens on account of those foxes last fall.”

Renald took the basket of eggs. Some were white, some were brown. “Yes, but where are you going, Gallanha?”

“North, my friend,” Thulin said. He walked past, laying a hand on Renald’s shoulder. “There will be an army gathering, I figure. They’ll need smiths.”

“Please,” Renald said, gesturing with the basket of eggs. “At least take a few minutes. Auaine just put some bread in, one of those thick honey loaves that you like. We can discuss this over a game of stones.”

Thulin hesitated.

“We’d better be on the move,” Gallanha said softly. “That storm is coming.”

Thulin nodded, then climbed up into the wagon. “You might want to come north too, Renald. If you do, bring everything you can.” He paused. “You’re good enough with the tools you have here to do some small metalwork, so take your best scythes and turn them into polearms. Your two best scythes; now don’t go skimping around with anything that’s a second best or a third best. Get your best, because it’s the weapon you’re going to use.”

Renald frowned. “How do you know that there will be an army? Thulin, burn me, I’m no soldier!”

Thulin continued as if he hadn’t heard the comments. “With a polearm you can pull somebody off of a horse and stab them. And, as I think about it, maybe you can take the third best and make yourself a couple of swords.”

“What do I know about making a sword? Or about using a sword, for that matter?”

“You can learn,” Thulin said, turning north. “Everyone will be needed, Renald. Everyone. They’re coming for us.” He glanced back at Renald. “A sword really isn’t all that tough to make. You take a scythe blade and straighten it out, then you find yourself a piece of wood to act as a guard, to keep the enemy’s blade from sliding down and cutting your hand. Mostly you’ll just be using things that you’ve already got.”

Renald blinked. He stopped asking questions, but he couldn’t stop thinking them. They bunched up inside his brain like cattle all trying to force their way through a single gate.

“Bring all your stock, Renald,” Thulin said. “You’ll eat them—or your men will eat them—and you’ll want the milk. And if you don’t, then there’ll be men you can trade with for beef or mutton. Food will be scarce, what with everything spoiling so much and the winter stores having run low. Bring everything you’ve got. Dried beans, dried fruit, everything.”

Renald leaned back against the gate to his yard. He felt weak and limp. Finally, he forced out just one question. “Why?”

Thulin hesitated, then stepped away from the wagon, laying a hand on Renald’s shoulder again. “I’m sorry to be so abrupt. I... well, you know how I am with words, Renald. I don’t know what that storm is. But I know what it means. I’ve never held a sword, but my father fought in the Aiel War. I’m a Borderlander. And that storm means the end is coming, Renald. We need to be there when it arrives.” He stopped, then turned and looked to the north, watching those building clouds as a farmhand might watch a poisonous snake he found in the middle of the field. “Light preserve us, my friend. We need to be there.”

And with that, he removed his hand and climbed back into the wagon. Renald watched them ease off, nudging the oxen into motion, heading north. Renald watched for a long time, feeling numb.

The distant thunder cracked, like the sound of a whip, smacking against the hills.

The door to the farmhouse opened and shut. Auaine came out to him, gray hair in a bun. It had been that color for years now; she’d grayed early, and Renald had always been fond of the color. Silver, more than gray. Like the clouds.

“Was that Thulin?” Auaine asked, watching the distant wagon throw up dust. A single black chicken feather blew across the roadway.

“Yes.”

“And he didn’t stay, even to chat?”

Renald shook his head.

“Oh, but Gallanha sent eggs!” She took the basket and began to transfer the eggs into her apron to carry them inside. “She’s such a dear. Leave the basket there on the ground; I’m sure she’ll send someone for it.”

Renald just stared northward.

“Renald?” Auaine asked. “What’s gotten into you, you old stump?”

“She polished up her pots for you,” he said. “The ones with the copper bottoms. They’re sitting on her kitchen table. They’re yours if you want them.”

Auaine fell silent. Then he heard a sharp sound of cracking, and he looked over his shoulder. She had let her apron grow slack, and the eggs were slipping free, plopping to the ground and cracking.

In a very calm voice, Auaine asked, “Did she say anything else?”

He scratched his head, which hadn’t much hair left to speak of. “She said the storm was coming and they had to head north. Thulin said we should go too.”

They stood for another moment. Auaine pulled up the edge of her apron, preserving the majority of the eggs. She didn’t spare a glance for those that had fallen. She was just staring northward.

Renald turned. The storm had jumped forward again. And it seemed to have grown darker somehow.

“I think we ought to listen to them, Renald,” Auaine said. “I’ll... I’ll go fix up what we’ll need to bring with us from the house. You can go around back and gather the men. Did they say how long we’ll be gone?”

“No,” he said. “They didn’t even really say why. Just that we need to go north for the storm. And... that this is the end.”

Auaine inhaled sharply. “Well, you just get the men ready. I’ll take care of the house.”

She bustled inside, and Renald forced himself to turn away from the storm. He rounded the house and entered the barnyard, calling the farmhands together. They were a stout lot, good men, all of them. His own sons had sought their fortunes elsewhere, but his six workers were nearly as close to him as sons. Merk, Favidan, Rinnin, Veshir and Adamad gathered round. Still feeling dazed, Renald sent two to gather up the animals, two more to pack what grain and provisions they had left from the winter and the final man off to fetch Geleni, who had gone into the village for some new seed, just in case the planting had gone bad on account of their stores.

The five men scattered. Renald stood in the farmyard for a moment, then went into the barn to fetch his lightweight forge and pull it out into the sunlight. It wasn’t just an anvil, but a full, compact forge, made for moving. He had it on rollers; you couldn’t work a forge in a barn. All that dust could take fire. He heaved the handles, wheeling it out to the alcove set off to the side of the yard, built from good bricks, where he could do minor repairs when he needed to.

An hour later, he had the fire stoked. He wasn’t as skilled as Thulin, but he’d learned from his father that being able to handle a little of your own forgework made a big difference. Sometimes, you couldn’t squander the hours it would take to go to town and back just to fix a broken hinge.

The clouds were still there. He tried not to look at them as he left the forge and headed into the barn. Those clouds were like eyes, peeping over his shoulder.

Inside the barn, light sprinkled down through cracks in the wall, falling on dust and hay. He’d built the structure himself some twenty-five years back. He kept planning to replace some of those warped roofing planks, but now there wouldn’t be time.

At the tool wall, he reached for his third-best scythe, but stopped. Taking a deep breath, he took the best scythe off the wall instead. He walked back out to the forge and knocked the haft off the scythe.

As he tossed the wood aside, Veshir—eldest of his farmhands—approached, pulling a pair of goats. When Veshir saw the scythe blade on the forge, his expression grew dark. He tied the goats to a post, then trotted over to Renald, but said nothing.

How to make a polearm? Thulin had said they were good for yanking a man off his horse. Well, he would have to replace the snath with a longer straight shaft of ashwood. The flanged end of the shaft would extend beyond the heel of the blade, shaped into a crude spearpoint and clad with a piece of tin for strength. And then he would have to heat the blade and bang off the toe about halfway, making a hook that could tug a man off his horse and maybe cut him at the same time. He slid the blade into the burning coals to heat it, then began to tie on his apron.

Veshir stood there for a minute or so, watching. Finally, he stepped up, taking Renald by the arm. “Renald, what are we doing?”

Renald shook his arm free. “We’re going north. The storm is coming and we’re going north.”

“We’re going north for just a storm? It’s insanity!”

It was nearly the same thing Renald had said to Thulin. Distant thunder sounded.

Thulin was right. The crops... the skies... the food going bad without warning. Even before he’d spoken to Thulin, Renald had known. Deep within, he’d known. This storm would not pass overhead then vanish. It had to be confronted.

“Veshir,” Renald said, turning back to his work, “you’ve been a hand on this farm for... what, fifteen years now? You’re the first man I hired. How well have I treated you and yours?”

“You’ve done me well,” Veshir said. “But burn me, Renald, you’ve never decided to leave the farm before! These crops, they’ll wither to dust if we leave them. This ain’t no southerner wetfarm. How can we just go off?”

“Because,” Renald said, “if we don’t leave, then it won’t matter if we planted or not.”

Veshir frowned.

“Son,” Renald said, “you’ll do as I say, and that’s all we’ll have of it. Go finish gathering the stock.”

Veshir stalked away, but he did as he was told. He was a good man, if hotheaded.

Renald pulled the blade out of the heat, the metal glowing white. He laid it against the small anvil and began to beat on the knobby section where heel met beard, flattening it. The sound of his hammer on the metal seemed louder than it should have been. It rang like the pealing thunder, and the sounds blended. As if each beat of his hammer was itself a piece of the storm.

As he worked, the peals seemed to form words. Like somebody muttering in the back of his head. The same phrase over and over.

The storm is coming. The storm is coming....

He kept on pounding, keeping the edge on the scythe, but straightening the blade and making a hook at the end. He still didn’t know why. But it didn’t matter.

The storm was coming and he had to be ready.

Watching the bowlegged soldiers tie Tanera’s blanket-wrapped body across a saddle, Falendre fought the desire to begin weeping again, the desire to vomit. She was senior, and had to maintain some composure if she expected the four other surviving sul’dam to do so. She tried to tell herself she had seen worse, battles where more than a single sul’dam had died, more than one damane. That brought her too near thinking of exactly how Tanera and her Miri met their deaths, though, and her mind shied from it.

Huddling by her side, Nenci whimpered as Falendre stroked the damane’s head and tried to send soothing feelings through the a’dam. That often seemed to work, but not so well today. Her own emotions were too roiled. If only she could forget that the damane was shielded, and by whom. By what. Nenci whimpered again.

“You will deliver the message as I directed you?” a man said behind her.

No, not just any man. The sound of his voice stirred the pool of acid in her belly. She made herself turn to face him, made herself meet those cold, hard eyes. They changed with the angle of his head, now blue, now gray, but always like polished gemstones. She had known many hard men, but had she ever known one hard enough to lose a hand and moments later take it as if he had lost a glove? She bowed formally, twitching the a’dam so that Nenci did the same. So far they had been treated well for prisoners under the circumstances, even to being given washwater, and supposedly they would not remain prisoners much longer. Yet with this man, who could say what might make that change? The promise of freedom might be part of some scheme.

“I will deliver your message with the care it requires,” she began, then stumbled over her tongue. What honorific did she use for him? “My Lord Dragon,” she finished hurriedly. The words dried her tongue, but he nodded, so it must have sufficed.

One of the marath’damane appeared through that impossible hole in the air, a young woman with her hair in a long braid. She wore enough jewelry for one of the Blood, and of all things, a red dot in the middle of her forehead. “How long do you mean to stay here, Rand?” she demanded as if the hard-eyed young man were a servant rather than who he was. “How close to Ebou Dar are we here? The place is full of Seanchan, you know, and they probably fly raken all around it.”

“Did Cadsuane send you to ask that?” he said, and her cheeks colored faintly. “Not much longer, Nynaeve. A few minutes.”

The young woman shifted her gaze to the other sul’dam and damane, all taking their lead from Falendre, pretending there were no marath’damane watching them, and especially no men in black coats. The others had straightened themselves as best they could. Surya had washed the blood from her face, and from her Tabi’s face, and Malian had tied large compresses on them that made them appear to be wearing odd hats. Ciar had managed to clean off most of the vomit she had spilled down the front of her dress.

“I still think I should Heal them,” Nynaeve said abruptly. “Hits to the head can cause odd things that don’t come on right away.”

Surya, her face hardening, moved Tabi behind her as if to protect the damane. As if she could. Tabi’s pale eyes had widened in horror.

Falendre raised a pleading hand toward the tall young man. Toward the Dragon Reborn, it seemed. “Please. They will receive medical aid as soon as we reach Ebou Dar.”

“Give over, Nynaeve,” the young man said. “If they don’t want Healing, they don’t want it.” The marath’damane scowled at him, gripping her braid so hard that her knuckles turned white. He turned his own attention back to Falendre. “The road to Ebou Dar lies about an hour east of here. You can reach the city by nightfall if you press. The shields on the damane will evaporate in about half an hour. Is that right for the saidar-woven shields, Nynaeve?” The woman scowled at him in silence. “Is that right, Nynaeve?”

“Half an hour,” she replied finally. “But none of this is right, Rand al’Thor. Sending those damane back. It isn’t right, and you know it.”

For a moment, his eyes were even colder. Not harder. That would have been impossible. But for that long moment, they seemed to hold caverns of ice. “Right was easy to find when all I had to care for was a few sheep,” he said quietly. “Nowadays, sometimes it’s harder to come by.” Turning away, he raised his voice. “Logain, get everyone back through the gateway. Yes, yes, Merise. I’m not trying to command you. If you’ll deign to join us, though? It will be closing soon.”

Marath’damane, the ones who called themselves Aes Sedai, began filing through that mad opening in the air, as did the black-coated men, the Asha’man, all mingling with the hook-nosed soldiers. Several of those finished tying Tanera to the saddle of the horse. The beasts had been provided by the Dragon Reborn. How odd, that he should give them gifts after what had happened.

The hard-eyed young man turned back to her. “Repeat your instructions.”

“I am to return to Ebou Dar with a message for our leaders there.”

“The Daughter of the Nine Moons,” the Dragon Reborn said sternly. “You will deliver my message to her.”

Falendre stumbled. She was not in any way worthy to speak to one of the Blood, let alone the High Lady, daughter of the Empress, might she live forever! But this man’s expression allowed no argument. Falendre would find a way. “I will deliver your message to her,” Falendre continued. “I will tell her that... that you bear her no malice for this attack, and that you desire a meeting.”

“I still desire one,” the Dragon Reborn said.

As far as Falendre knew, the Daughter of the Nine Moons had never known about the original meeting. It had been arranged in secret by Anath. And that was why Falendre knew for certain that this man must be the Dragon Reborn. For only the Dragon Reborn himself could face one of the Forsaken and not only survive, but come out the victor.

Was that really what she had been? One of the Forsaken? Falendre’s mind reeled at the concept. Impossible. And yet, here was the Dragon Reborn. If he lived, if he walked the land, then the Forsaken would, too. She was muddled, her thoughts going in circles, she knew. She bottled up her terror—she would deal with that later. She needed to be in control.

She forced herself to meet those frozen gemstones this man had for eyes. She had to preserve some dignity if only to reassure the four other surviving sul’dam. And the damane, of course. If the sul’dam lost composure again, there would be no hope for the damane.

“I will tell her,” Falendre said, managing to keep her voice even, “that you still desire a meeting with her. That you believe there must be peace between our peoples. And I am to tell her that Lady Anath was... was one of the Forsaken.”

To the side, she saw some of the marath’damane push Anath through the hole in the air, maintaining a stately bearing despite her captivity. She always had tried to dominate above her station. Could she really be what this man said she was?

How was Falendre to face the der’sul’dam and explain this tragedy, this terrible mess? She itched to be away from it, to find someplace to hide.

“We must have peace,” the Dragon Reborn said. “I will see it happen. Tell your mistress that she can find me in Arad Doman; I will quell the battle against your forces there. Let her know that I give this as a sign of good faith, just as I release you out of good faith. It is no shame to be manipulated by one of the Forsaken, particularly not... that creature. In a way, I rest more easily, now. I worried that one of them would have infiltrated the Seanchan nobility. I should have guessed that it would be Semirhage. She always preferred a challenge.”

He spoke of the Forsaken with an incredible sense of familiarity, and it gave Falendre chills.

He glanced at her. “You may go,” he said, then walked over and passed through the rip in the air. What she would give to have that traveling trick for Nenci. The last of the marath’damane passed through the hole, and it closed, leaving Falendre and the others alone. They were a sorry group. Talha was still crying, and Malian looked ready to sick up. Several of the others had had bloodied faces before they washed, and faint red smears and flakes of crusted blood still marred their skin. Falendre was glad she had been able to avoid accepting Healing for them. She had seen one of those men Healing members of the Dragon’s party. Who knew what taint it would leave on a person to be beneath those corrupt hands?

“Be strong,” she commanded the others, feeling far more uncertain than she sounded. He had actually let her free! She’d barely dared hope for that. Best to be away soon. Very soon. She chivvied the others onto the horses he had given, and within minutes they were riding south, toward Ebou Dar, each sul’dam riding with her companion damane at her side.

The events of this day could mean having her damane stripped from her, being forbidden to hold the a’dam ever again. With Anath gone, punishment would be demanded of someone. What would High Lady Suroth say? Damane dead, the Dragon Reborn insulted.

Surely losing access to the a’dam was the worst that could happen to her. They wouldn’t make one such as Falendre da’covale, would they? The thought made the bile twist inside of her again.

She would have to explain the events of this day very carefully. There had to be a way she could present these matters in a way that would save her life.

She had given her word to the Dragon to speak directly to the Daughter of the Nine Moons. And she would. But she might not do so immediately. Careful consideration would have to be given. Very careful consideration.

She leaned in close to her horse’s neck, nudging her mount forward, ahead of the others. That way, they wouldn’t see the tears of frustration, pain and terror in her eyes.

Tylee Khirgan, Lieutenant-General of the Ever Victorious Army, sat her horse atop a forested hilltop, looking northward. Such a different place this land was. Her homeland, Maram Kashor, was a dry island on the very southeastern tip of Seanchan. The lumma trees there were straight, towering monsters, with fronds sprouting from the top like the hair crest of a member of the High Blood.

The things that passed for trees in this land were gnarled, twisting, branching shrubs by comparison. Their limbs were like the fingers of old soldiers, gone arthritic from years holding the sword. What had the locals called these plants? Brushwood trees? So odd. To think that some of her ancestors might have come from this place, traveling with Luthair Paendrag to Seanchan.

Her army marched down the road below, throwing dust into the air. Thousands upon thousands of men. Fewer than she’d had before, but not by many. It had been two weeks since her fight with the Aiel, where Perrin Aybara’s plan had worked impressively. Fighting alongside a man like him was always a bittersweet experience. Sweet for the sheer genius of it. Bitter for the worry that one day, they would face each other on the battlefield. Tylee was not one who enjoyed a challenge in a fight. She’d always preferred to win straight out.

Some generals said that never struggling meant never being forced to improve. Tylee figured that she and her men would do their improving on the practice field, and leave the struggling to her enemies.

She would not like to face Perrin. No, she would not. And not just because she was fond of him.

Slow hoofbeats sounded on the earth. She glanced to the side as Mishima rode his horse, a pale gelding, up next to hers. He had his helm tied to his saddle, and his scarred face was thoughtful. They were a pair, the two of them. Tylee’s own face bore its share of old scars.

Mishima saluted her, more respectful now that Tylee had been raised to the Blood. That particular message, delivered by raken, had been an unexpected one. It was an honor, and one she still wasn’t accustomed to.

“Still mulling over the battle?” Mishima asked.

“I am,” Tylee said. Two weeks, and still it dominated her mind. “What do you think?”

“Of Aybara, you mean?” Mishima asked. He still spoke to her like a friend, even if he kept himself from meeting her eyes. “He is a good soldier. Perhaps too focused, too driven. But solid.”

“Yes,” Tylee said, then shook her head. “The world is changing, Mishima. In ways we cannot anticipate. First Aybara, and then the oddities.”

Mishima nodded thoughtfully. “The men don’t want to speak of them.”

“The events have happened too often to be the work of delusion,” Tylee said. “The scouts are seeing something.”

“Men don’t just vanish,” Mishima said. “You think it’s the One Power?”

“I do not know what it is,” she said. She glanced over the trees around her. Some trees she’d passed earlier had begun to send out spring growth, but not a one of these had done so. They looked skeletal, though the air was warm enough for it to be planting season already. “Do they have trees like this in Halamak?”

“Not exactly like them,” Mishima said. “But I’ve seen their like before.”

“Should they have budded by now?”

He shrugged. “I’m a soldier, General Tylee.”

“I hadn’t noticed,” she said dryly.

He grunted. “I mean that I don’t pay attention to trees. Trees don’t bleed. Perhaps they should have budded, but perhaps not. Few things make sense on this side of the ocean. Trees that don’t bud in spring, that’s just another oddity. Better that than more marath’damane acting like they were of the Blood, everyone bowing and scraping to them.” He shuddered visibly.

Tylee nodded, but she didn’t share his revulsion. Not completely. She wasn’t certain what to think of Perrin Aybara and his Aes Sedai, let alone his Asha’man. And she didn’t know much more about trees than Mishima. But it felt to her that they should have started to bud. And those men the scouts kept seeing in the fields, how could they vanish so quickly, even with the One Power?

The quartermaster had opened up one of their packs of travel rations today and found only dust. Tylee would have started a search for a thief or a prankster if the quartermaster hadn’t insisted that he’d checked that pack just moments before. Karm was a solid man; he’d been her quartermaster for years. He did not make mistakes.

Rotting food was so common here. Karm blamed the heat of this strange land. But travel rations couldn’t rot or spoil, at least not this unpredictably. The omens were all bad, these days. Earlier today, she’d seen two dead rats lying on their backs, one with a tail in the mouth of the other. It was the worst omen she’d ever seen in her life, and it still chilled her to think of it.

Something was happening. Perrin hadn’t been willing to speak of it much, but she saw a weight upon him. He knew much more than he had spoken.

We can’t afford to be fighting these people, she thought. It was a rebellious thought, one she wouldn’t speak to Mishima. She didn’t dare ponder it. The Empress, might she live forever, had ordered that this land be reclaimed. Suroth and Galgan were the Empire’s chosen leaders in the venture, until the Daughter of the Nine Moons revealed herself. While Tylee couldn’t know the High Lady Tuon’s thoughts, Suroth and Galgan were united in their desire to see this land subdued. It was practically the only thing they did agree upon.

None of them would listen to suggestions that they should be looking for allies among the people of this land, rather than enemies. Thinking about it was close to treason. Insubordination, at least. She sighed and turned to Mishima, prepared to give the order to begin scouting for a place to camp for the night.

She froze. Mishima had an arrow through his neck, a wicked, barbed thing. She hadn’t heard it strike. He met her eyes, stunned, trying to speak and only letting out blood. He slid from the saddle and collapsed in a heap as something enormous charged through the underbrush beside Tylee, cracking gnarled branches, throwing itself at her. She barely had time to pull free her sword and shout before Duster—a good, solid warhorse that had never failed her in battle—reared in panic, tossing her to the ground.

That probably saved her life, as her attacker swung a thick-bladed sword, cutting into the saddle where Tylee had been. She scrambled to her feet, armor clanking, and screamed the alert. “To arms! Attack!”

Her voice joined hundreds who made the same call at virtually the same time. Men screamed. Horses whinnied.

An ambush, she thought, raising her blade. And we walked right into it! Where are the scouts? What happened? She launched herself at the man who had tried to kill her. He spun, snorting.

And for the first time, she saw just what he was. Not quite a man—instead, some creature with twisted features, the head covered in coarse brown hair, the too-wide forehead wrinkled with thick skin. Those eyes were disturbingly human-like, but the nose below was flattened like that of a boar and the mouth jutted with two prominent tusks. The creature roared at her, spittle spraying from its nearly human lips.

Blood of my Fathers Forgotten, she thought. What have we stumbled into? The monster was a nightmare, given a body and let loose to kill. It was a thing she had always dismissed as superstition.

She charged the creature, knocking aside its thick sword as it tried to attack. She spun, falling into Beat the Brushes, and separated the beast’s arm from its shoulder. She struck again, and its head followed the arm to the ground, cut free. It stumbled, somehow still walking three steps, before collapsing.

The trees rustled, more branches snapping. Just down from her hillside, Tylee saw that hundreds of the creatures had broken out of the underbrush, attacking the line of her men near the middle, causing chaos. More and more of the monsters poured between the trees.

How had this happened? How had these things gotten so close to Ebou Dar! They were well inside the Seanchan defensive perimeter, only a day’s march from the capital.

Tylee charged down the hillside, bellowing for her honor guard as more of the beasts roared out of the trees behind her.

Graendal lounged in a stonework room lined with adoring men and women, each one a perfect specimen, each one wearing little more than a robe of diaphanous white cloth. A warm fire played in the hearth, illuminating a fine rug of blood red. That rug was woven in the design of young women and men entangled in ways that would have made even an experienced courtesan blush. The open windows let in afternoon light, the lofty position of her palace giving a view of pines and a shimmering lake below.

She sipped sweetbristle juice, wearing a pale blue dress after the Domani cut—she was growing fond of their fashions, though her dress was far more filmy than the ones they wore. These Domani were too fond of whispering when Graendal preferred a nice sharp scream. She took another sip of juice. What an interestingly sour flavor it had. It was exotic during this Age, since the trees now grew only on distant islands.

Without warning, a gateway spun open in the center of the room. She cursed under her breath as one of her finest prizes—a succulent young woman named Thurasa, a member of the Domani merchant council—nearly lost an arm to the thing. The gateway let in a sweltering heat that marred the perfect mix of chill mountain air and fireplace warmth she had cultivated.

Graendal kept her composure, forcing herself to lounge back in her overstuffed velvet chair. A messenger in black strode through the portal, and she knew what he wanted before he spoke. Only Moridin knew where to find her, now that Sammael was dead.

“My Lady, your presence is required by—”

“Yes, yes,” she said. “Stand straight and let me see you.”

The youth stood still, just two steps into the room. And my, he was attractive! Pale golden hair as was so rare in many parts of the world, green eyes that shimmered like moss-grown pools, a lithe figure taut with just enough muscle. Graendal clicked her tongue. Was Moridin trying to tempt her by sending his very most pretty, or was the choice coincidental?

No. Among the Chosen, there were no coincidences. Graendal nearly reached out with a weave of Compulsion to seize the boy for herself. However, she restrained herself. Once a man had known that level of Compulsion, there was no way to recover him, and Moridin might be angered. She did need to worry about his whims. The man never had been stable, even during the early years. If she intended to see herself as Nae’blis someday, it was important not to rile him until it was time to strike.

She turned her attention away from the messenger—if she couldn’t have him, then she wasn’t interested in him—and looked through the open gateway. She hated being forced to meet with one of the other Chosen on their terms. She hated leaving her stronghold and her pets. Most of all, she hated being forced to grovel before one who should have been her subordinate.

There was nothing to be done about it. Moridin was Nae’blis. For now. And that meant, hate it or not, Graendal had no choice but to answer his summons. So she set aside her drink, then stood and walked through the gateway, her diaphanous pale blue gown shimmering with golden embroidery.

It was distractingly hot on the other side of the gateway. She immediately wove Air and Water, cooling the air around her. She was in a black stone building, with ruddy light coming in the windows. They had no glass in them. That reddish tint implied a sunset, but it was barely midafternoon back in Arad Doman. Surely she hadn’t traveled that far, had she?

The room was furnished only with hard chairs of the deepest black wood. Moridin certainly was lacking in imagination lately. Everything of black and red, and all focused on killing those fool boys from the village of Rand al’Thor. Was she the only one who saw that al’Thor himself was the real threat? Why not just kill him and be done with it?

The most obvious answer to that question—that none of them so far had proven strong enough to defeat him—was one she did not enjoy contemplating.

She walked to the window and found the reason for the rust-colored light. Outside, the claylike ground was stained red from the iron in the soil. She was on the second level of a deep black tower, the stones drawing in the burning heat of the sky. Very little vegetation sprouted outside, and that which did was spotted with black. So, it was the deep northeastern Blight. It had been some time since she’d been here. Moridin seemed to have located a fortress, of all things.

A collection of shoddy huts stood in the shadow of the fortress, and a few patches of blightstrain crops marked fields in the distance. They were probably trying a new strain, coaxing it to grow in the area. Perhaps several different crops; that would explain the patches. Guards prowled the area, wearing black uniforms despite the heat. Soldiers were necessary to fight off attacks from the various Shadowspawn that inhabited the lands this deep within the Blight. Those creatures obeyed no master save for the Great Lord himself. What was Moridin doing all the way out here?

Her speculation was cut short as footsteps announced other arrivals. Demandred entered through the doorway to the south, and he was accompanied by Mesaana. Had they arrived together, then? They assumed that Graendal did not know of their little alliance, a pact that included Semirhage. But honestly, if they wanted to keep that a secret, couldn’t they see that they shouldn’t answer a summons together?

Graendal hid a smile as she nodded to the two of them, then selected the largest and most comfortable-looking of the room’s chairs to sit in. She ran a finger along the smooth, dark wood, feeling the grain beneath the lacquer. Demandred and Mesaana regarded her coldly, and she knew them well enough to pick out hints of their surprise at seeing her. So. They had anticipated this meeting, had they? But not Graendal’s presence at it? Best to pretend that she herself was not confused. She smiled knowingly at the two of them and caught a flash of anger in Demandred’s eyes.

That man frustrated her, though she would never admit it out loud. Mesaana was in the White Tower, pretending to be one of what passed for an Aes Sedai in this Age. She was obvious and easy to read; Graendal’s agents in the White Tower kept her well apprised of Mesaana’s activities. And, of course, Graendal’s own newly minted association with Aran’gar was helpful as well. Aran’gar was playing with the rebel Aes Sedai, the ones who were besieging the White Tower.

Yes, Mesaana did not confuse her, and the others were equally easy to track. Moridin was gathering the Great Lord’s forces for the Last Battle, and his war preparations left him very little time for the south—though his two minions, Cyndane and Moghedien, occasionally showed their faces there. They spent their time rallying the Darkfriends and occasionally trying to follow Moridin’s orders that the two ta’veren—Perrin Aybara and Matrim Cauthon—be killed.

She was certain Sammael had fallen to Rand al’Thor during the struggle for Illian. In fact—now that Graendal had a clue that Semirhage had been pulling strings with the Seanchan—she was confident she knew the plans of every one of the other seven remaining Chosen.

Except Demandred.

What was that blasted man up to? She’d have traded all of her knowledge of Mesaana’s and Aran’gar’s doings for even a hint of Demandred’s plans. He stood there, handsome and hawk-nosed, his lips drawn in perpetual anger. Demandred never smiled, never seemed to enjoy anything. Though he was one of the foremost generals among the Chosen, warfare had never seemed to bring him joy. Once she had heard him say that he would laugh the day he could snap the neck of Lews Therin. And only then.

He was a fool to bear that grudge. To think he might have been on the other side—might have become the Dragon himself, had things turned out differently. Still, fool or not, he was extremely dangerous, and Graendal did not like being ignorant of his plans. Where had he set up? Demandred liked having armies to command, but there were none left moving in the world.

Save perhaps for those Borderlanders. Could he have managed to infiltrate them? That certainly would have been a coup. But surely she’d have heard something; she had spies in that camp.

She shook her head, wishing for a drink to wet her lips. This northern air was too dry; she much preferred the Domani humidity. Demandred folded his arms, remaining standing as Mesaana seated herself. She had chin-length dark hair and watery blue eyes. Her floor-length white dress bore no embroidery, and she wore no jewelry. A scholar to the core. Sometimes Graendal thought Mesaana had gone over to the Shadow because it offered a more interesting opportunity for research.

Mesaana was fully dedicated to the Great Lord now, just like the rest of them, but she seemed a second-rate member of the Chosen. Making boasts she couldn’t fulfill, allying herself to stronger parties but lacking the skill to manipulate them. She’d done evil works in the Great Lord’s name, but had never managed the grand achievements of Chosen like Semirhage and Demandred. Let alone Moridin.

And, as Graendal began to think on Moridin, the man entered. Now, there was a handsome creature. Demandred looked like a knob-faced peasant compared with him. Yes, this body was much better than his previous one. He was almost pretty enough to be one of her pets, though that chin spoiled the face. Too prominent, too strong. Still, that stark black hair atop a tall, broad-shouldered body.... She smiled, thinking of him kneeling in a filmy outfit of white, looking at her adoringly, his mind wrapped in Compulsion to the point that he saw nobody—nothing—other than Graendal.

Mesaana rose as soon as Moridin entered, and Graendal reluctantly did likewise. He wasn’t her pet, not yet. He was Nae’blis, and he had begun to demand more and more shows of obedience from them in recent days. The Great Lord gave him the authority. All three of the other Chosen reluctantly bowed their heads to him; only to him among all men would they show deference. He noted their obedience with stern eyes as he stalked to the front of the room, where the wall of charcoal black stones was set with a mantel. What had possessed someone to build a fortress out of black rock in the Blight’s heat?

Graendal sat back down. Were the other Chosen coming? If not, what did it mean?

Mesaana spoke before Moridin could say anything. “Moridin,” she said, stepping forward, “we need to rescue her.”

“You will speak when I give you leave, Mesaana,” he replied coldly. “You are not yet forgiven.”

She cringed, then obviously grew angry at herself for it. Moridin ignored her, glancing over at Graendal, eyes narrow. What was that look for?

“You may continue,” he finally said to Mesaana, “but remember your place.”

Mesaana’s lips formed a line, but she did not argue. “Moridin,” she said, tone less demanding. “You saw the wisdom in agreeing to meet with us. Surely that was because you are as shocked as we are. We do not have the resources to help her ourselves; she is bound to be well guarded by Aes Sedai and those Asha’man. You need to help us free her.”

“Semirhage deserves her imprisonment,” Moridin said, resting his arm on the mantel, still turned away from Mesaana.

Semirhage, captured? Graendal had just barely learned that the woman was impersonating an important Seanchan! What had she done to get herself captured? If there were Asha’man, then it seemed she’d managed to be taken by al’Thor himself!

Despite her startlement, Graendal maintained her knowing smile. Demandred glanced at her. If he and Mesaana had asked for this meeting, then why had Moridin sent for Graendal?

“But think of what Semirhage might reveal!” Mesaana said, ignoring Graendal. “Beyond that, she is one of the Chosen. It is our duty to aid her.”

And beyond that, Graendal thought, she is a member of the little alliance you two made. Perhaps the strongest member. Losing her will be a blow to your bid for control of the Chosen.

“She disobeyed,” Moridin said. “She was not to try to kill al’Thor.”

“She didn’t intend to,” Mesaana said hastily. “Our woman there thinks that the bolt of Fire was a reaction of surprise, not an intention to kill.”

“And what say you of this, Demandred?” Moridin said, glancing at the shorter man.

“I want Lews Therin,” Demandred said, his voice deep, his expression dark, as always. “Semirhage knows that. She also knows that if she’d killed him, I would have found her and claimed her life in retribution. Nobody kills al’Thor. Nobody but me.”

“You or the Great Lord, Demandred,” Moridin said, voice dangerous. “His will dominates us all.”

“Yes, yes, of course it does,” Mesaana cut in, stepping forward, plain dress brushing the mirror-bright black marble floor. “Moridin, the fact remains that she didn’t intend to kill him, just to capture him. I—”

“Of course she intended to capture him!” Moridin roared, causing Mesaana to flinch. “That was what she was ordered to do. And she failed at it, Mesaana. Failed spectacularly, leaving him wounded despite my express command that he wasn’t to be harmed! And for that incompetence, she will suffer. I will give you no aid in rescuing her. In fact, I forbid you to send her aid. Do you understand?”

Mesaana flinched again. Demandred did not; he met Moridin’s eyes, then nodded. Yes, he was a cold one. Perhaps Graendal underestimated him. He very well might be the most powerful of the three, more dangerous than Semirhage. She was emotionless and controlled, true, but sometimes emotion was appropriate. It could drive a man like Demandred to actions that a more coolheaded person couldn’t even contemplate.

Moridin looked down, flexing his left hand, as if it were stiff. Graendal caught a hint of pain in his expression.

“Let Semirhage rot,” Moridin growled. “Let her see what it is to be the one questioned. Perhaps the Great Lord will find some use for her in the coming weeks, but that is his to determine. Now. Tell me of your preparations.”

Mesaana paled just slightly, glancing at Graendal. Demandred’s face grew red, as if he was incredulous that they would be interrogated in front of another Chosen. Graendal smiled at them.

“I am perfectly poised,” Mesaana said, turning back to Moridin with a sweep of her head. “The White Tower and those fools who rule it will shortly be mine. I will deliver not just a broken White Tower to our Great Lord, but an entire brood of channelers who—one way or another—will serve our cause in the Last Battle. This time, the Aes Sedai will fight for us!”

“A bold claim,” Moridin said.

“I will make it happen,” Mesaana said evenly. “My followers infest the Tower like an unseen plague, festering inside of a healthy-looking man at market. More and more join our cause. Some intentionally, others unwittingly. It is the same either way.”

Graendal listened thoughtfully. Aran’gar claimed that the rebel Aes Sedai would eventually secure the Tower, though Graendal herself wasn’t certain. Who would be victorious, the child or the fool? Did it matter?

“And you?” Moridin asked Demandred.

“My rule is secure,” Demandred said simply. “I gather for war. We will be ready.”

Graendal itched for him to say more than that, but Moridin did not push. Still, it was much more than she’d been able to glean on her own. Demandred apparently held a throne and had armies. Which were gathered. The Borderlanders marching through the east seemed more and more likely.

“You two may withdraw,” Moridin said.

Mesaana sputtered at the dismissal, but Demandred simply turned and stalked away. Graendal nodded to herself; she’d have to watch him. The Great Lord favored action, and often those who could bring armies to his name were best rewarded. Demandred could very well be her most important rival—following Moridin himself, of course.

He had not dismissed her, and so she remained seated as the other two withdrew. Moridin stayed where he was, one arm leaning against the mantel. There was silence in the too-black room for a time, and then a servant in a crisp red uniform entered, bearing two cups. He was an ugly thing, with a flat face and bushy eyebrows, worth no more than a passing glance.

She took a sip of her drink and tasted new wine, just slightly tart, but quite good. It was growing hard to find good wine; the Great Lord’s touch on the world tainted everything, spoiling food, ruining even that which never should have been able to spoil.

Moridin waved the servant away, not taking his own cup. Graendal feared poison, of course. She always did when drinking from another’s cup. However, there would be no reason for Moridin to poison her; he was Nae’blis. While most of them resisted showing subservience to him, more and more he was exerting his will on them, pushing them into positions as his lessers. She suspected that, if he wished, he could have her executed in any manner of ways and the Great Lord would grant it to him. So she drank and waited.

“Did you glean much from what you heard, Graendal?” Moridin asked.

“As much as could be gleaned,” she answered carefully.

“I know how you crave information. Moghedien has always been known as the spider, pulling strings from afar, but you are in many ways better at it than she. She winds so many webs that she gets caught in them. You are more careful. You strike only when wise, but are not afraid of conflict. The Great Lord approves of your initiative.”

“My dear Moridin,” she said, smiling to herself, “you flatter me.”

“Do not toy with me, Graendal,” he said, voice hard. “Take your compliments and be silent.”

She recoiled as if slapped, but said no more.

“I gave you leave to listen to the other two as a reward,” Moridin said. “Nae’blis has been chosen, but there will be other positions of high glory in the Great Lord’s reign. Some much higher than others. Today was a taste of the privileges you might enjoy.”

“I live only to serve the Great Lord.”

“Then serve him in this,” Moridin said, looking directly at her. “Al’Thor moves for Arad Doman. He is to live unharmed until he can face me at that last day. But he must not be allowed to make peace in your lands. He will attempt to restore order. You must find ways to prevent that from happening.”

“It will be done.”

“Go, then,” Moridin said, waving a hand sharply.

She rose, thoughtful, and started toward the door.

“And Graendal,” he said.

She hesitated, glancing at him. He stood against the mantel, back mostly to her. He seemed to be staring at nothing, just looking at the black stones of the far wall. Strangely, he looked a great deal like al’Thor—of whom she had numerous sketches via her spies—when he stood like that.

“The end is near,” Moridin said. “The Wheel has groaned its final rotation, the clock has lost its spring, the serpent heaves its final gasps. He must know pain of heart. He must know frustration, and he must know anguish. Bring these to him. And you will be rewarded.”

She nodded, then made her way through the provided gateway, back to her stronghold in the hills of Arad Doman.

To plot.

Rodel Ituralde’s mother, now thirty years buried in the clay hills of his Domani homeland, had been fond of a particular saying: “Things always have to get worse before they can get better.” She’d said it when she’d yanked free his festering tooth as a boy, an ailment he’d earned while playing at swords with the village boys. She’d said it when he’d lost his first love to a lordling who wore a hat with feathers and whose soft hands and jeweled sword had proven he’d never known a real battle. And she’d say it now, if she were with him on the ridge, watching the Seanchan march upon the city nestled in the shallow valley below.

He studied the city, Darluna, through his looking glass, shading the end with his left hand, his gelding quiet beneath him in the evening light. He and several of his Domani kept to this small stand of trees; it would take the Dark One’s own luck for the Seanchan to spot him, even with looking glasses of their own.

Things always had to get worse before they could get better. He’d lit a fire under the Seanchan by destroying their supply depots all across Almoth Plain and into Tarabon. He shouldn’t be surprised, then, to see a grand army like this one—a hundred and fifty thousand strong at least—come to quench that fire. It showed a measure of respect. They did not underestimate him, these Seanchan invaders. He wished that they did.

Ituralde moved his looking glass, studying a group of riders among the Seanchan force. They rode in pairs, one woman of each pair wearing gray, the other red and blue. They were far too distant, even with the glass, for him to make out the embroidered lightning bolts on the dresses of those in red and blue, nor could he see the chains that linked each pair together. Damane and sul’dam.

This army had at least a hundred pairs, probably more. If that weren’t enough, he could see one of the flying beasts above, drawing close for its rider to drop a message to the general. With those creatures to carry their scouts, the Seanchan army had an unprecedented edge. Ituralde would have traded ten thousand soldiers for one of those flying beasts. Other commanders might have wanted the damane, with their ability to throw lightnings and cause the earth to heave, but battles—like wars—were won by information as often as they were by weapons.

Of course, the Seanchan had superior weapons as well as superior scouts. They also had superior troops. Though Ituralde was proud of his Domani, many of his men were ill trained or too old for fighting. He almost lumped himself in that latter group, as the years were beginning to pile on him like bricks on a pallet. But he gave no thought to retiring. When he’d been a boy, he’d often felt a sense of urgency—a worry that by the time he came of age, the great battles would all be done, all the glory won.

Sometimes, he envied boys their foolishness.

“They march hard, Rodel,” Lidrin said. He was a youth with a scar across the left side of his face, and he wore a fashionable thin black mustache. “They badly want to capture that city.” Lidrin had been untested as an officer before this campaign began. He was a veteran now. Although Ituralde and his forces had won nearly every engagement they’d had with the Seanchan, Lidrin had seen three of his companion officers fall, poor Jaalam Nishur among them. From their deaths, Lidrin had learned one of the bitter lessons of warfare: winning didn’t necessarily mean living. And following orders often didn’t mean either winning or living.

Lidrin didn’t wear his customary uniform. Neither did Ituralde or any of the men with him. Their uniforms had been needed elsewhere, and that left them with simple worn coats and brown trousers, many borrowed or bought from locals.

Ituralde raised his looking glass again, thinking on Lidrin’s comment. The Seanchan did indeed march with speed; they were planning to take Darluna quickly. They saw the advantage it would offer, for they were a clever foe, and they had returned to Ituralde an excitement he had assumed that he’d left behind years ago.

“Yes, they push hard,” he said. “But what would you do, Lidrin? An enemy force of two hundred thousand behind you, another of a hundred and fifty thousand ahead of you. With enemies on all sides, would you march your men maybe just a little too hard if you knew that you’d find refuge at the end?”

Lidrin did not respond. Ituralde turned his looking glass, examining spring fields clustered with workers going about their planting. Darluna was a large city for these parts. Nothing here in the west could match the grand cities of the east and south, of course, regardless of what people from Tanchico or Falme would like to claim. Still, Darluna had a sturdy granite wall a good twenty feet tall. There was no beauty to the fortification, but the wall was solid, and it wrapped a city big enough to make any country boy gawk. In his youth, Ituralde would have called it grand. That was before he’d gone to fight the Aiel at Tar Valon.

Either way, it was the best fortification to be found in the area, and the Seanchan commanders no doubt knew it. They could have chosen to hunker down on a hilltop; fighting surrounded would make full use of those damane. However, that would not only leave no retreat, but would leave them minimal opportunities for supply. A city would have wells and perhaps leftover winter stores inside the wall. And Darluna, which had had its garrisons pressed into service elsewhere, was far too small to offer serious resistance....

Ituralde lowered his looking glass. He didn’t need it to know what was happening as the Seanchan scouts reached the city, demanding that the gates be opened to the invading force. He closed his eyes, waiting.

Lidrin exhaled softly beside him. “They didn’t notice,” he whispered. “They’re moving the bulk of their forces up to the walls, waiting to be let in!”

“Give the order,” Ituralde said, opening his eyes. There was one problem with superior scouts like the raken. When you had access to a tool so useful, you tended to rely upon it. And reliance like that could be exploited.

In the distance, the “farmers” on the fields tossed aside their tools and pulled bows from hidden clefts in the ground. The gates to the city opened, revealing the soldiers hiding inside—soldiers that the Seanchan raken scouts had claimed were a four-day ride away.

Ituralde raised his looking glass. The battle began.

The Prophet’s fingers bit dirt, tearing trenches in the soil as he scrambled up to the top of the forested hillside. His followers straggled behind. So few. So few! But he would rebuild. The glory of the Dragon Reborn followed him, and no matter where he went, he found willing souls. Those with hearts that were pure, those who had hands that burned to destroy the Shadow.

Yes! Think not of the past, think of the future, when the Lord Dragon would rule all of the land! When men would be subject only to him, and to his Prophet beneath him. Those days would be glorious indeed, days when none would dare scorn the Prophet or deny his will. Days when the Prophet wouldn’t have to suffer the indignity of living near the very camp—the very one—as Shadowspawn like that creature Aybara. Glorious days. Glorious days were coming.

It was difficult to keep his thoughts on those future glories. The world around him was filthy. Men denied the Dragon and sought the Shadow. Even his own followers. Yes! That must have been why they had fallen. That must have been why so many died when assaulting the city of Malden and its Darkfriend Aiel.

The Prophet had been so certain. He had assumed that the Dragon would protect his people, lead them to a powerful victory. Then the Prophet would finally have gotten his wish. He could have killed Perrin Aybara with his own hands! Twist that too-thick bull’s neck in his fingers, twist it around, squeezing, feeling the bones crack, the flesh wring, the breath stop.

The Prophet reached the top of the ridge and brushed the dirt from his fingers. He breathed in and out, scanning around him, underbrush rustling as his few remaining followers climbed up toward him. The canopy was dense overhead, and very little sunlight peeked through. Light. Radiant light.

The Dragon had appeared to him the night before the attack. Appeared in glory! A figure of light, glowing in the air in shimmering robes. Kill Perrin Aybara! the Dragon had commanded. Kill him! And so the Prophet had sent his very best tool, Aybara’s own dear friend.

That boy, that tool, had failed. Aram was dead. The Prophet’s men had confirmed it. Tragedy! Was that why they had not prospered? Was that why, out of his thousands of followers, he now only had a bare handful? No. No! They must have turned against him, secretly worshipping the Shadow. Aram! Darkfriend! That was why he had failed.

The first of his followers—battered, dirtied, bloodied, exhausted—reached the top of the ridge. They wore threadbare clothing. Clothing that did not set them above others. The clothing of simplicity and goodness.

The Prophet counted them off. Fewer than a hundred. So few. This cursed forest was so dark, despite the daylight. Thick trunks stood shoulder-to-shoulder, and the sky overhead had grown dim with cloud cover. The underbrush of thin-branched boneweed shrubs matted together, forming an almost unnatural barrier, and those shrubs scratched like claws on his skin.

With that underbrush and the sharp earthen bank, the army could not follow this way. Though the Prophet had escaped from Aybara’s camp barely an hour before, he already felt safe. They would go north, where Aybara and his Darkfriends would not find them. There, the Prophet could rebuild. He had stayed with Aybara only because his followers had been strong enough to keep Aybara’s Darkfriends away.

His dear followers. Brave men, and true, every one. Killed by Darkfriends. He mourned them, bowing his head and muttering a prayer. His followers joined him. They were weary, but the light of zeal shone in their eyes. Any who were weak, or who lacked dedication, had fled or been killed long ago. These were the best, the mightiest, the most faithful. Each one had killed many Darkfriends in the name of the Dragon Reborn.

With them, he could rebuild. But first he had to escape Aybara. The Prophet was too weak, now, to face him. But later he would kill him. Yes... Fingers on that neck... Yes...

The Prophet could remember a time when he’d been called something else. Masema. Those days were growing very blurry to him, like memories from a former life. Indeed, just as all men were reborn into the Pattern, so had Masema been reborn—he had cast off his old, profane life and had become the Prophet.

The last of his followers joined him atop the cliff face. He spat at their feet. They had failed him. Cowards. They should have fought better! He should have been able to win that city.

He turned north and pushed his way forward. This landscape was growing familiar to him, though they had nothing like it up in the Borderlands. They would climb to the highlands, then cross over and enter Almoth Plain. There were Dragonsworn there, followers of the Prophet, even if many didn’t know of him. There he could rebuild quickly.

He pushed through a patch of the dark brush and entered a small clearing. His men followed quickly. They would need food, soon, and he would have to send them hunting. No fires. They couldn’t afford to alert—

“Hello, Masema,” a quiet voice said.

He hissed, spinning, his followers bunching around him and pulling out weapons. Swords for some, knives, quarterstaffs, and the occasional polearm. The Prophet scanned the dim afternoon clearing, searching for the one who had spoken. He found her standing on a little outcrop of rock a short distance away, a woman with a prominent Saldaean nose, slightly tilted eyes, and shoulder-length black hair. She wore green, with skirts divided for riding, her arms folded in front of her.

Faile Aybara, wife of the Shadowspawn, Perrin Aybara. “Take her!” the Prophet screamed, pointing. Several of his followers scrambled forward, but most hesitated. They had seen what he had not. Shadows in the forest behind Aybara’s wife, a half-circle of them. They were the shapes of men, with bows pointed into the clearing.

Faile waved with a sharp motion, and the arrows flew. Those of his followers who had run at his bidding fell first, crying out in the silent forest before falling to the loamy earth. The Prophet bellowed, each arrow seeming to pierce his own heart. His beloved followers! His friends! His dear brothers!

An arrow slammed into him, throwing him backward to the ground. Around him, men died, just as they had earlier. Why, why hadn’t the Dragon protected them? Why? Suddenly, the horror of it all returned to him, the sinking terror of watching his men fall in waves, at watching them die at the hands of those Darkfriend Aiel.

It was Perrin Aybara’s fault. If only the Prophet had seen earlier, back in the early days, before he’d even recognized the Lord Dragon for who he was!

“It’s my fault,” the Prophet whispered as the last of his followers died. It had taken several arrows to stop some of them. That made him proud.

Slowly, he forced himself back to his feet, hand to his shoulder, where the shaft sprouted. He’d lost too much blood. Dizzy, he fell to his knees.

Faile stepped down off her stone and entered the clearing. Two women wearing trousers followed. They looked concerned, but Faile ignored their protests that she stay back. She walked right up to the Prophet, then slid her knife from her belt. It was a fine blade, with a cast hilt that showed a wolf’s head. That was well. Looking at it, the Prophet remembered the day when he’d earned his own blade. The day his father had given it to him.

“Thank you for helping to assault Malden, Masema,” Faile said, stopping right in front of him. Then she reached up and rammed that knife into his heart. He fell backward, his own blood hot on his chest.

“Sometimes, a wife must do what her husband cannot,” he heard Faile tell her women as his eyes fluttered, trying to close. “It is a dark thing we did this day, but necessary. Let no one speak of it to my husband. He must never know.”

Her voice grew distant. The Prophet fell.

Masema. That had been his name. He’d earned his sword on his fifteenth birthday. His father had been so proud.

It’s over, then, he thought, unable to keep his eyes open. He closed them, falling as if through an endless void. Did I do well, Father, or did I fail?

There was no answer. And he joined with the void, tumbling into an endless sea of blackness.

CHAPTER 1
Tears from Steel

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 around the alabaster spire known as the White Tower. 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.

The wind twisted around the magnificent Tower, brushing perfectly fitted stones and flapping majestic banners. The structure was somehow both graceful and powerful at the same time; a metaphor, perhaps, for those who had inhabited it for over three thousand years. Few looking upon the Tower would guess that at its heart, it had been both broken and corrupted. Separately.

The wind blew, passing through a city that seemed more a work of art than a workaday capital. Each building was a marvel; even the simple granite shopfronts had been crafted by meticulous Ogier hands to evoke wonder and beauty. Here a dome hinted at the form of a rising sun. There a fountain sprang from the top of a building itself, cresting what appeared to be two waves crashing together. On one cobbled street, a pair of steep three-story buildings stood opposite one another, each crafted into the form of a maiden. The marble creations—half-statue, half-dwelling—reached with stone hands toward one another as if in greeting, hair billowing behind, immobile, yet carved with such delicacy that every strand seemed to undulate in the wind’s passing.

The streets themselves were far less grand. Oh, they had been laid out with care, radiating from the White Tower like streaks of sunlight. Yet that sunlight was dimmed by refuse and clutter, hints at the crowding the siege had caused. And perhaps the crowding wasn’t the only reason for the disrepair. The storefront signs and awnings hadn’t seen wash or polish in far too long. Rotting garbage piled where it had been dumped in alleys, drawing flies and rats but driving away all others. Dangerous toughs lounged on the street corners. Once, they’d never have dared do that, and certainly not with such arrogance.

Where was the White Tower, the law? Young fools laughed, saying that the city’s troubles were the fault of the siege, and that things would settle down once the rebels were quelled. Older men shook their gray-streaked heads and muttered that things had never been this bad, even when the savage Aiel had besieged Tar Valon some twenty years previously.

Merchants ignored both young and old. They had their own problems, mainly on Southharbor, where trade into the city by way of the river had nearly come to a halt. Thick-chested workers toiled beneath the eyes of an Aes Sedai wearing a red-fringed shawl; she used the One Power to remove wards and weaken the stone, while the workmen broke the rock apart and hauled it away.

The workmen had sleeves rolled up, exposing curls of dark hair along burly arms, as they swung pick or hammer, pounding at the ancient stones. They dripped sweat onto rock or into the water below as they dug at the roots of the chain that blocked passage into the city by river. Half of that chain was now indestructible cuendillar, called heartstone by some. The effort to tear it free and allow passage into the city was an exhausting one; the harbor stoneworks—magnificent and strong, shaped by the Power itself—were only one of the more visible casualties of the silent war between the rebel Aes Sedai and those who held the Tower.

The wind blew through the harbor, where idling porters stood watching the workers chip the stones away, one by one, sending flakes of gray-white dust to float on the water. Those with too much sense—or perhaps too little—whispered that such portents could mean only one thing. Tarmon Gai’don, the Last Battle, must quickly be approaching.

The wind danced away from the docks, passing over the tall white bulwarks known as the Shining Walls. Here, at least, one could find cleanliness and attention in the Tower Guard who stood watch, holding bows. Clean-shaven, wearing white tabards free from stain or wear, the archers watched over their barricades with the dangerous readiness of snakes prepared to strike. These soldiers had no intention of letting Tar Valon fall while they were on duty. Tar Valon had repelled every enemy. Trollocs had breached the walls, but been defeated in the city. Artur Hawkwing had failed to take Tar Valon. Even the black-veiled Aiel, who had ravaged the land during the Aiel War, had never taken the city. Many claimed this as a great victory. Others wondered what would have happened if the Aiel had actually wanted to cross into the city.

The wind passed over the western fork of the River Erinin, leaving the island of Tar Valon behind, passing the Alindaer Bridge soaring high to the right, as if taunting enemies to cross it and die. Past the bridge, the wind swept into Alindaer, one of the many villages near Tar Valon. It was a village mostly depopulated, as families had fled across the bridge for refuge in the city. The enemy army had appeared suddenly, without warning, as if brought by a blizzard. Few wondered at it. This rebel army was headed by Aes Sedai, and those who lived in the White Tower’s shadow rarely gambled on just what Aes Sedai could and couldn’t do.

The rebel army was poised, but uncertain. Over fifty thousand strong, it camped in a massive ring of tents around the smaller camp of Aes Sedai. There was a tight perimeter between the inner camp and the outer one, a perimeter that had most recently been intended to exclude men, particularly those who could wield saidin.

Almost, one could think that this camp of rebels intended to set up permanently. It had an air of common daily life about its workings. Figures in white bustled about, some wearing formal novice dresses, many others clothed in near approximations. Looking closely, one could see that many of these were far from young. Some had already reached their graying. But they were referred to as “children,” and obedient they were as they washed clothing, beat rugs, and scrubbed tents beneath the eyes of serene-faced Aes Sedai. And if those Aes Sedai glanced with uncommon frequency at the nail-like profile of the White Tower, one would be mistaken in assuming them uncomfortable or nervous. Aes Sedai were in control. Always. Even now, when they had suffered an indelible defeat: Egwene al’Vere, the rebel Amyrlin Seat, had been captured and imprisoned within the Tower.

The wind flicked a few dresses, knocked some laundry from its hangings, then continued westward in a rush. Westward, past towering Dragonmount, with its shattered and smoking apex. Over the Black Hills and across the sweeping Caralain Grass. Here, pockets of sheltered snow clung to shadows beneath craggy overhangs or beside the occasional stands of mountain blackwood. It was time for spring to arrive, time for new shoots to peek through the winter’s thatch and for buds to sprout on the thin-branched willows. Few of either had actually come. The land was still dormant, as if waiting, holding its breath. The unnatural heat of the previous autumn had stretched well into winter, pressing upon the land a drought that had baked the life from all but the most vigorous plants. When winter had finally arrived, it had come in a tempest of ice and snow, a lingering, killing frost. Now that the cold had finally retreated, the scattered farmers looked in vain for hope.

The wind swept across brown winter grass, shaking the trees’ still-barren branches. To the west, as it approached the land known as Arad Doman—cresting hills and short peaks—something suddenly slammed against it. Something unseen, something spawned by the distant darkness to the north. Something that flowed against the natural tide and currents of the air. The wind was consumed by it, blown southward in a gust, across low peaks and brown foothills to a log manor house, isolated, set upon the pine-forested hills in eastern Arad Doman. The wind blew across the manor house and the tents set up in the wide, open field before it, rattling pine needles and shaking tents.

Rand al’Thor, the Dragon Reborn, stood, hands behind his back as he looked out the open manor window. He still thought of them that way, his “hands,” though he now had only one. His left arm ended in a stump. He could feel the smooth, saidar-healed skin with the fingers of his good hand. Yet he felt as if his other hand should be there to touch.

Steel, he thought. I am steel. This cannot be fixed, and so I move on.

The building—a thick-logged structure of pine and cedar after a design favored by the Domani wealthy—groaned and settled in the wind. Something on that wind smelled of rotten meat. Not an uncommon scent, these days. Meat spoiled without warning, sometimes only a few minutes after butchering. Drying it or salting it didn’t help. It was the Dark One’s touch, and it grew with each passing day. How long until it was as overwhelming, as oily and nauseating, as the taint that had once coated saidin, the male half of the One Power?

The room he stood in was wide and long, thick logs making up the outer wall. Planks of pine—still smelling faintly of sap and stain—made up the other walls. The room was furnished sparsely: fur rug on the floor, a pair of aged crossed swords above the hearth, furniture of wood with the bark left on in patches. The entire place had been decorated in a way to say that this was an idyllic home in the woods, away from the bustle of larger cities. Not a cabin, of course—it was far too large and lavish for that. A retreat.

“Rand?” a soft voice asked. He didn’t turn, but felt Min’s fingers touch his arm. A moment later, her hands moved to his waist and he felt her head rest upon his arm. He could feel her concern for him through the bond they shared.

Steel, he thought.

“I know you don’t like—” Min began.

“The boughs,” he said, nodding out the window. “You see those pines, just to the side of Bashere’s camp?”

“Yes, Rand. But—”

“They blow the wrong direction,” Rand said.

Min hesitated, and though she gave no physical reaction, the bond brought him her spike of alarm. Their window was on the upper floor of the manor, and outside of it, banners set above the camp flapped against themselves: the Banner of Light and the Dragon Banner for Rand, a much smaller blue flag bearing the three red kingspenny blossoms to mark the presence of House Bashere. All three flew proud... yet just to the side of them, the needles on the pines blew in the opposite direction.

“The Dark One stirs, Min,” Rand said. He could almost think these winds a result of his own ta’veren nature, but the events he caused were always possible. The wind blowing in two directions at once... well, he could feel the wrongness in the way those pines moved, even if he did have trouble distinguishing the individual needles. His eyesight hadn’t been the same since the attack on that day he’d lost his hand. It was as if... as if he looked through water at something distorted. It was getting better, slowly.

This building was one in a long line of manors, estates and other remote hiding places Rand had used during the last few weeks. He’d wanted to keep moving, jumping from location to location, following the failed meeting with Semirhage. He’d wanted time to think, to consider, and hopefully time to confuse the enemies that might be searching for him. Lord Algarin’s manor in Tear had been compromised; a pity. That had been a good place to stay. But Rand had to keep moving.

Below, Bashere’s Saldaeans had set up a camp on the manor’s green—the open patch of grass out front, bounded by rows of fir and pine trees. Calling it the “green” seemed an irony, these days. Even before the army’s arrival, it hadn’t been green—it had been a patchy brown, winter thatch broken only occasionally by hesitant new shoots. Those had been sickly and yellow, and they had now been trampled by hooves or booted feet.

Tents covered the green. From Rand’s vantage on the second floor, the neat lines of small, peaked tents reminded him of squares on a stones board. The soldiers had noticed the wind. Some pointed, others kept their heads down, polishing armor, carrying buckets of water to the horselines, sharpening swords or lance points. At least it was not the dead walking again. The most firm-hearted of men could lose their will when spirits rose from their graves, and Rand needed his army to be strong.

Need. No longer was it about what Rand wanted or what he wished. Everything he did focused only on need, and what he needed most was the lives of those who followed him. Soldiers to fight, and to die, to prepare the world for the Last Battle. Tarmon Gai’don was coming. What he needed was for them all to be strong enough to win.

To the far left of the green, running below the modest hill where the manor rested, a twisting stream cut the ground, sprouting with yellow stickfinger reeds and scrub oak that had yet to send out spring buds. A small waterway, to be certain, but a fine source of fresh water for the army.

Just outside the window, the winds suddenly righted themselves, and the flags whipped around, blowing in the other direction. So it hadn’t been the needles after all, but the banners that had been in the wrong. Min let out a soft sigh, and he could feel her relief, though she still worried about him. That emotion was perpetual, lately. He felt it from all of them, each of the four bundles of emotions tucked away in the back of his mind. Three for the women he had allowed to place themselves there, one for the woman who had forced her way in against his will. One of them was drawing closer. Aviendha, coming with Rhuarc to meet with Rand at the manor house.

Each of the four women would regret their decision to bond him. He wished he could regret his decision to let them—or, at least, his decision to allow the three he loved. But the truth was that he needed Min, needed her strength and her love. He would use her as he used so many others. No, there was no place in him for regret. He just wished he could banish guilt as easily.

Ilyena! a voice said distantly in Rand’s head. My love.... Lews Therin Telamon, Kinslayer, was relatively quiet this day. Rand tried not to think too hard about the things Semirhage had said on the day when Rand had lost his hand. She was one of the Forsaken; she would say anything if she thought it would bring her target pain.

She tortured an entire city to prove herself, Lews Therin whispered. She has killed a thousand men a thousand different ways to see how their screams would differ from one another. But she rarely lies. Rarely.

Rand pushed the voice away.

“Rand,” Min said, softer than before.

He turned to look at her. She was lithe and slight of build, and he often felt that he towered over her. She kept her hair in short ringlets, the color dark—but not as dark as her deep, worried eyes. As always, she had chosen to wear a coat and trousers. Today, they were of a deep green, much like the needles on the pines outside. Yet, as if to contradict her tailored choice, she had had the outfit made to accentuate her figure. Silver embroidery in the shape of bonabell flowers ran around the cuffs, and lace peeked out from the sleeves beneath. She smelled faintly of lavender, perhaps from the soap she’d taken to most recently.

Why wear trousers only to trim herself up with lace? Rand had long abandoned trying to understand women. Understanding them would not help him reach Shayol Ghul. Besides, he didn’t need to understand women in order to use them. Particularly if they had information he needed.

He gritted his teeth. No, he thought. No, there are lines I will not cross. There are things even I will not do.

“You’re thinking about her again,” Min said, almost accusatory.

He often wondered if there was such a thing as a bond that worked only one way. He would have given much for one of those.

“Rand, she’s one of the Forsaken,” Min continued. “She would have killed all of us without a second thought.”

“She wasn’t intending to kill me,” Rand said softly, turning away from Min and looking out the window again. “Me she would have held.”

Min cringed. Pain, worry. She was thinking of the twisted male a’dam that Semirhage had brought, hidden, when she’d come impersonating the Daughter of the Nine Moons. The Forsaken’s disguise had been disrupted by Cadsuane’s ter’angreal, allowing Rand to recognize Semirhage. Or, at least, allowing Lews Therin to recognize her.

The exchange had ended with Rand losing a hand but gaining one of the Forsaken as his prisoner. The last time he’d been in a similar situation, it hadn’t ended well. He still didn’t know where Asmodean had gone or why the weasel of a man had fled in the first place, but Rand did suspect that he had betrayed much about Rand’s plans and activities.

Should have killed him. Should have killed them all.

Rand nodded, then froze. Had that been Lews Therin’s thought or his own? Lews Therin, Rand thought. Are you there?

He thought he heard laughter. Or perhaps it was sobbing.

Burn you! Rand thought. Talk to me! The time is coming. I need to know what you know! How did you seal the Dark One’s prison? What went wrong, and why did it leave the prison flawed? Speak to me!

Yes, that was definitely sobbing, not laughter. Sometimes it was hard to tell with Lews Therin. Rand continued to think of the dead man as a separate individual from himself, regardless of what Semirhage had said. He had cleansed saidin! The taint was gone and it could touch his mind no longer. He was not going to go insane.

The descent into terminal madness can be... abrupt. He heard her words again, spoken for the others to hear. His secret was finally out. But Min had seen a viewing of Rand and another man melded together. Didn’t that mean that he and Lews Therin were two separate people, two individuals forced into one body?

It makes no difference that his voice is real, Semirhage had said. In fact, it makes his situation worse....

Rand watched a particular group of six soldiers inspect the horselines that ran along the right side of the green, between the last line of tents and the line of trees. They checked the hooves one at a time.

Rand couldn’t think about his madness. He also couldn’t think about what Cadsuane was doing with Semirhage. That left only his plans. The north and the east must be as one. The west and the south must be as one. The two must be as one. That was the answer he’d received from the strange creatures beyond the red stone doorway. It was all he had to go on.

North and east. He had to force the lands into peace, whether they wanted it or not. He had a tenuous balance in the east, with Illian, Mayene, Cairhien and Tear all under his control in one way or another. The Seanchan ruled in the south, with Altara, Amadicia and Tarabon under their control. Murandy might soon be theirs, if they were pressing in that direction. That left Andor and Elayne.

Elayne. She was distant, far to the east, but he could still feel her bundle of emotions in his head. At such a distance, it was difficult to tell much, but he thought she was... relieved. Did that mean that her struggle for power in Andor was going well? What of the armies that had besieged her? And what were those Borderlanders up to? They had left their posts, joining together and marching south to find Rand, but giving no explanation of what they wanted of him. They were some of the best soldiers west of the Spine of the World. Their help would be invaluable at the Last Battle. But they had left the northlands. Why?

He was loath to confront them, however, for fear it could mean yet another fight. One he couldn’t afford at the moment. Light! He would have thought that, of all people, he could have depended on the Borderlanders to support him against the Shadow.

No matter, not for the moment. He had peace, or something close to it, in most of the land. He tried not to think about the recently placated rebellion against him in Tear or the volatility of the borders with Seanchan lands, or the plottings of the nobility in Cairhien. Every time he thought he had a nation secure, it seemed a dozen others fell apart. How could he bring peace to a people who refused to accept it?

Min’s fingers tightened on his arm, and he took a deep breath. He did what he could, and for now, he had two goals. Peace in Arad Doman and a truce with the Seanchan. The words he’d received beyond the doorway were now clear: He could not fight both the Seanchan and the Dark One. He had to keep the Seanchan from advancing until the Last Battle was over. After that, the Light could burn them all.

Why had the Seanchan ignored his requests for a meeting? Were they angered that he had captured Semirhage? He had let the sul’dam go free. Did that not speak of his good faith? Arad Doman would prove his intentions. If he could end the fight in Almoth Plain, he could show the Seanchan that he was serious in his suits for peace. He would make them see!

Rand took a deep breath, studying out the window. Bashere’s eight thousand soldiers were erecting peaked tents and digging an earthen moat and wall around the green. The growing bulwark of deep brown contrasted with the white tents. Rand had ordered the Asha’man to help with the digging, and though he doubted they enjoyed the humble work, it did speed the process greatly. Besides, Rand suspected that they—like he himself—secretly savored any excuse to hold saidin. He could see a small group of them in their stiff black coats, weaves spinning around them as they dug up another patch of ground. There were ten of them in the camp, though only Flinn, Naeff and Narishma were full Asha’man.

The Saldaeans worked quickly, wearing their short coats as they cared for their mounts and set pickets. Others took shovelfuls of dirt from the Asha’man mound and used it to pack into the bulwark. Rand could see there was that displeasure on the faces of many of the hawk-nosed Saldaeans. They didn’t like making camp in a wooded area, even one as sparsely flecked with pine as this hillside. Trees made cavalry charges difficult and could hide enemies as they approached.

Davram Bashere himself rode slowly through the camp, barking orders through that thick mustache of his. Beside him walked Lord Tellaen, a portly man in a long coat and wearing a thin Domani mustache. He was an acquaintance of Bashere’s.

Lord Tellaen put himself at risk by housing Rand; sheltering the troops of the Dragon Reborn could be seen as treason. But who was there to punish him? Arad Doman was in chaos, the throne under threat from several rebel factions. And then there was the great Domani general Rodel Ituralde and his surprisingly effective war against the Seanchan to the south.

Like his men, Bashere went about unarmored in a short blue coat. He also wore a pair of the baggy trousers that he favored, the bottoms tucked into his knee-high boots. What did Bashere think of being caught in Rand’s ta’veren web? In being, if not in direct opposition to the will of his queen, at least uncomfortably to the side of it? How long had it been since he had reported to his rightful ruler? Hadn’t he promised Rand that his queen’s support would be speedy in coming? How many months ago had that been?

I am the Dragon Reborn, Rand thought. I break all covenants and vows. Old allegiances are unimportant. Only Tarmon Gai’don matters. Tarmon Gai’don, and the servants of the Shadow.

“I wonder if we’ll find Graendal here,” Rand said thoughtfully.

“Graendal?” Min asked. “What makes you think she might be?”

Rand shook his head. Asmodean had said Graendal was in Arad Doman, though that had been months ago. Was she still here? It seemed plausible; it was one of the few major nations where she could be. Graendal liked to have a hidden base of power far from where the other Forsaken lurked; she wouldn’t have set up in Andor, Tear or Illian. Nor would she have been caught in the lands to the southwest, not with the Seanchan invasion.

She would have a hidden retreat somewhere. That was how she operated. Probably in the mountains, secluded, somewhere here in the north. He couldn’t be sure she was in Arad Doman, though it felt right to him, from what he knew of her. From what Lews Therin knew of her.

But it was only a possibility. He would be careful, watching for her. Each of the Forsaken that he removed would make the Last Battle that much easier to fight. It would—

Soft footsteps approached his closed door.

Rand released Min and they both spun, Rand reaching for his sword—a useless gesture, now. The loss of his hand, though it wasn’t his primary sword hand, would leave him vulnerable if he were to face a skilled opponent. Even with saidin to provide a far more potent weapon, his first instinct was for the sword. He’d have to change that. It might get him killed someday.

The door opened and Cadsuane strode in, as confident as any queen at court. She was a handsome woman, with dark eyes and an angular face. Her dark gray hair was up in a bun, a dozen tiny golden ornaments—each one a ter’angreal or angreal—hanging in their places atop it. Her dress was of a simple, thick wool, tied at the waist with a yellow belt, with more yellow embroidery across the collar. The dress itself was green, which was not uncommon, as that was her Ajah. Rand sometimes felt that her stern face—ageless, like that of any Aes Sedai who had worked long enough with the Power—would have fit better in the Red Ajah.

He relaxed his hand on his sword, though he did not release it. He fingered the cloth-tied hilt. The weapon was long, slightly curved, and the lacquered scabbard was painted with a long, sinuous dragon of red and gold. It looked as if it had been designed specifically for Rand—and yet it was centuries old, unearthed only recently. How odd, that they should find this now, he thought, and make a gift of it to me, completely unaware of what they were holding....

He had taken to wearing the sword immediately. It felt right beneath his fingers. He had told no one, not even Min, that he had recognized the weapon. And not, oddly, from Lews Therin’s memories—but Rand’s own.

Cadsuane was accompanied by several others. Nynaeve was expected; she often followed Cadsuane these days, like a rival cat she found encroaching on her territory. She did it for him, likely. The dark-haired Aes Sedai had never quite given up being Wisdom of Emond’s Field, no matter what she said, and she gave no quarter to anyone she thought was abusing one under her protection. Unless, of course, Nynaeve herself was the one doing the abusing.

Today, she wore a dress of gray with a yellow sash at the waist over her belt—a new Domani fashion, he had heard—and had the customary red dot on her forehead. She wore a long gold necklace and slim gold belt, with matching bracelets and finger rings, both studded with large red, green and blue gems. The jewelry was a ter’angreal—or, rather, several of them and an angreal too—comparable to what Cadsuane wore. Rand had occasionally heard Nynaeve muttering that her ter’angreal, with the gaudy gems, were impossible to match to her clothing.

Where Nynaeve wasn’t a surprise, Alivia was. Rand hadn’t been aware that the former damane had been involved in the... information gathering. Still, she was supposed to be even stronger than Nynaeve in the One Power, so perhaps she had been brought for support. One could never be too careful where the Forsaken were concerned.

There were streaks of white in Alivia’s hair, and she was just a bit taller than Nynaeve. That white in her hair was telling—any white or gray on a woman who wielded the One Power meant age. A great deal of it. Alivia claimed to be four centuries old. Today, the former damane wore a strikingly red dress, as if in an attempt to be confrontational. Most damane, once unleashed, remained timid. Not so with Alivia—there was an intensity to her that almost suggested a Whitecloak.

He felt Min stiffen, and he felt her displeasure. Alivia would help Rand die, eventually. That had been one of Min’s viewings—and Min’s viewings were never wrong. Except that she’d said she’d been wrong about Moiraine. Perhaps that meant that he wouldn’t have to...

No. Anything that made him think of living through the Last Battle, anything that made him hope, was dangerous. He had to be hard enough to accept what was coming to him. Hard enough to die when the time came.

You said we could die, Lews Therin said in the back of his mind. You promised!

Cadsuane said nothing as she walked across the room, helping herself to a cup of the spiced wine that sat on a small serving table beside the bed. Then she sat down in one of the red cedar chairs. At least she hadn’t demanded that he pour the wine for her. That sort of thing wasn’t beyond her.

“Well, what did you learn?” he asked, walking from the window and pouring himself a cup of wine as well. Min walked to the bed—with its frame of cedar logs and a skip-peeled headboard stained deeply reddish brown—and sat down, hands in her lap. She watched Alivia carefully.

Cadsuane raised an eyebrow at the sharpness in Rand’s voice. He sighed, forcing down his annoyance. He had asked her to be his counselor, and he had agreed to her stipulations. Min said there was something important he would need to learn from Cadsuane—that was another viewing—and in truth, he had found her advice useful on more than one occasion. She was worth her constant demands for decorum.

“How did the questioning go, Cadsuane Sedai?” he asked in a more moderate tone.

She smiled to herself. “Well enough.”

“Well enough?” Nynaeve snapped. She had made no promises to Cadsuane about civility. “That woman is infuriating!”

Cadsuane sipped her wine. “I wonder what else one could expect from one of the Forsaken, child. She has had a great deal of time to practice being... infuriating.”

“Rand, that... creature is a stone,” Nynaeve said, turning to him. “She’s yielded barely a single useful sentence despite days of questioning! All she does is explain how inferior and backward we are, with the occasional aside that she’s eventually going to kill us all.” Nynaeve reached up to her long, single braid—but stopped herself short of tugging on it. She was getting better about that. Rand wondered why she bothered, considering how obvious her temper was.

“For all the girl’s dramatic talk,” Cadsuane said, nodding to Nynaeve, “she has a reasonable grasp on the situation. Phaw! When I said ‘well enough’ you were to interpret it as ‘as well as you might expect, given our unfortunate constraints.’ One cannot blindfold an artist, then be surprised when he has nothing to paint.”

“This isn’t art, Cadsuane,” Rand said dryly. “It’s torture.” Min shared a glance with him, and he felt her concern. Concern for him? He wasn’t the one being tortured.

The box, Lews Therin whispered. We should have died in the box. Then... then it would be over.

Cadsuane sipped her wine. Rand hadn’t tasted his—he already knew that the spices were so strong as to render the drink unpalatable. Better that than the alternative.

“You press us for results, boy,” Cadsuane said. “And yet you deny us the tools we need to get them. Whether you name it torture, questioning, or baking, I call it foolishness. Now, if we were allowed to—”

“No!” Rand growled, waving a hand... a stump... at her. “You will not threaten or hurt her.”

Time spent in a dark box, being pulled forth and being beaten repeatedly. He would not have a woman in his power treated the same way. Not even one of the Forsaken. “You may question her, but some things I will not allow.”

Nynaeve sniffed. “Rand, she’s one of the Forsaken, dangerous beyond reason!”

“I am aware of the threat,” Rand said flatly, holding up the stump where his left hand had been. The metallic gold and red tattoo of a dragon’s body sparkled in the lamplight. Its head had been consumed in the Fire that had nearly killed him.

Nynaeve took a deep breath. “Yes, well, then you must see that normal rules shouldn’t apply to her!”

“I said no!” Rand said. “You will question her, but you will not hurt her!” Not a woman. I will keep to this one shred of light inside me. I’ve caused the deaths and sorrows of too many women already.

“If that is what you demand, boy,” Cadsuane said tersely, “then that is what shall be done. Just don’t whine when we are unable to drag out of her what she had for breakfast yesterday, let alone the locations of the other Forsaken. One begins to wonder why you insist we continue this farce at all. Perhaps we should simply turn her over to the White Tower and be done with it.”

Rand turned away. Outside, the soldiers had finished with the horselines. They looked good. Even and straight, the animals given just the right amount of slack.

Turn her over to the White Tower? That would never happen. Cadsuane wouldn’t let Semirhage out of her grip until she got the answers she wanted. The wind still blew outside, his own banners flapping before his eyes.

“Turn her over to the White Tower, you say?” he said, glancing back into the room. “Which White Tower? Would you entrust her to Elaida? Or did you mean the others? I doubt that Egwene would be pleased if I dropped one of the Forsaken in her lap. Egwene might just let Semirhage go and take me captive instead. Force me to kneel before the White Tower’s justice and gentle me just to give her another notch in her belt.”

Nynaeve frowned. “Rand! Egwene would never—”

“She’s Amyrlin,” he said, downing his cup of wine in one gulp. It was as putrid as he recalled. “Aes Sedai to the core. I’m just another pawn to her.”

Yes, Lews Therin said. We need to stay away from all of them. They refused to help us, you know. Refused! Said my plan was too reckless. That left me with only the Hundred Companions, no women to form a circle. Traitors! This is their fault. But... but I’m the one who killed Ilyena. Why?

Nynaeve said something, but Rand ignored her. Lews Therin? he said to the voice. What was it you did? The women wouldn’t help? Why?

But Lews Therin had begun sobbing again, and his voice grew distant.

“Tell me!” Rand yelled, throwing his cup down. “Burn you, Kinslayer! Speak to me!”

The room fell silent.

Rand blinked. He’d never... never tried speaking to Lews Therin out loud where others could hear. And they knew. Semirhage had spoken of the voice that he heard, dismissing Rand as if he were a common madman.

Rand reached up, running a hand through his hair. Or he tried to... but he used the arm that was only a stump, and it accomplished nothing.

Light! he thought. I’m losing control. Half the time, I don’t know which voice is mine and which is his. This was supposed to get better when I cleansed saidin! I was supposed to be safe....

Not safe, Lews Therin muttered. We were already mad. Can’t turn back from that now. He began to cackle, but the laughter turned to sobs.

Rand looked around the room. Min’s dark eyes were so worried he had to turn away. Alivia—who had watched the exchange about Semirhage with those penetrating eyes of hers—seemed too knowing. Nynaeve finally gave in and tugged on her braid. For once, Cadsuane didn’t chastise him for his outburst. Instead she just sipped her wine. How could she stand the stuff?

The thought was trivial. Ridiculous. He wanted to laugh. Only, the sound wouldn’t come out. He couldn’t summon even a wry humor, not anymore. Light! I can’t keep this up. My eyes see as if in a fog, my hand is burned away, and the old wounds in my side rip open if I do anything more strenuous than breathe. I’m dry, like an overused well. I need to finish my work here and get to Shayol Ghul.

Otherwise, there won’t be anything left of me for the Dark One to kill.

That wasn’t a thought to cause laughter; it was one to cause despair. But Rand did not weep, for tears could not come from steel.

For the moment, Lews Therin’s cries seemed enough for both of them.

CHAPTER 2
The Nature of Pain

Egwene stood up straight, backside aflame with the now-familiar agony of a solid beating beneath the hands of the Mistress of Novices. She felt like a rug that had just been pounded free of its dust. Despite that, she calmly straightened her white skirts, then turned to the room’s mirror and calmly dabbed the tears from the corners of her eyes. Only one tear in each eye this time. She smiled to her reflection, and her twin selves nodded to one another in satisfaction.

A small, dark-paneled room reflected behind her on the mirror’s silvery surface. Such a stern place it was, a sturdy stool in the corner, the top darkened and smoothed from years and years of use. A blockish desk, set with the Mistress of Novices’ thick tome. The narrow table directly behind Egwene had some carvings, but its leather padding was far more distinctive. Many a novice—and not a few Accepted—had bent down across that table, bearing the punishment for disobedience. Egwene could almost imagine that the table’s dark color had come from repeated tearstains. Many of her own had been shed there.

But none today. Only two tears, and neither had fallen from her cheeks. Not that she didn’t hurt; her entire body seemed to burn from the pain. Indeed, the severity of those beatings had increased the longer she continued to defy the powers in the White Tower. But as the beatings had grown more frequent and more painful, Egwene’s resolve to endure had grown as well. She hadn’t yet managed to embrace and accept the pain as the Aiel did, but she felt that she was close. The Aiel could laugh during the most cruel of tortures. Well, she could smile the moment she stood up.

Each lash she endured, each pain she suffered, was a victory. And victory was always a reason for happiness, no matter how one’s pride or one’s skin burned.

Standing beside the table behind Egwene, reflected in the mirror, was the Mistress of Novices herself. Silviana looked down at the leather strap in her hands, frowning. Her ageless square face seemed just faintly confused; she regarded the strap as one might a knife that refused to cut or a lamp that refused to light.

The woman was of the Red Ajah, a fact reflected in the trim on the hem of her simple gray dress and the fringed shawl on her shoulders. She was tall and stocky and she had her black hair back in a bun. In most ways Egwene considered her a superior Mistress of Novices. Even if she had administered a ridiculous number of punishments to Egwene. Perhaps because of that. Silviana did her duty. Light knew there were few enough in the Tower lately of whom that could be said!

Silviana looked up and met Egwene’s eyes in the mirror. She quickly put down the strap and washed all emotion from her face. Egwene turned around calmly.

Uncharacteristically, Silviana sighed. “When will you give this up, child?” she asked. “You’ve proven your point quite admirably, I must say, but you must know that I will continue to punish you until you submit. Proper order must be maintained.”

Egwene held in her shock. The Mistress of Novices rarely addressed Egwene except to offer instruction or reprobation. Still, there had been cracks before....

“Proper order, Silviana?” Egwene asked. “As it has been maintained elsewhere in the Tower?”

Silviana’s lips drew back in a line. She turned and made a notation in her book. “I will see you in the morning. Off to dinner with you.”

The morning punishment would be because Egwene had called the Mistress of Novices by her name without adding the honorific “Sedai” to the end. And likely because both knew that Egwene would not curtsy before she left.

“I will return in the morning,” Egwene said, “but dinner must wait. I have been ordered to attend Elaida this evening as she eats.” This session with Silviana had gone long—Egwene had brought quite a list of infractions with her—and now she wouldn’t have time to eat. Her stomach complained at the prospect.

Silviana showed just a brief moment of emotion. Was it surprise? “And you said nothing of this earlier?”

“Would it have changed anything if I had?”

Silviana did not respond to the question. “You will eat after attending the Amyrlin, then. I shall leave instructions for the Mistress of the Kitchens to hold you some food. Considering how often you are being given Healing these days, child, you will need to take your meals. I won’t have you collapsing from lack of nourishment.”

Stern, yet fair. A pity this one had found her way to the Red. “Very well,” Egwene said.

“And after eating,” Silviana said, raising a finger, “you shall return to me for showing disrespect to the Amyrlin Seat. She is never to be known as simply ‘Elaida’ to you, child.” She turned down to her ledger, adding, “Besides, Light only knows what kind of trouble you’ll be in by this evening.”

As Egwene left the small chamber behind—entering a wide, gray-stoned hallway with floor tiles of green and red—she considered that last comment. Perhaps it hadn’t been surprise that Silviana had shown upon hearing of Egwene’s visit to Elaida. Perhaps it had been sympathy. Elaida would not react well when Egwene stood up to her the way she had to all others in the Tower.

Was that why Silviana had decided to bring Egwene back for a final strapping after eating? With the orders Silviana had given, Egwene would be required to take food before returning for her punishment, even if Elaida heaped the strappings upon her.

It was a small kindness, but Egwene was grateful for it. Enduring the daily punishments was difficult enough without skipping meals.

As she pondered, two Red sisters—Katerine and Barasine—approached her. Katerine held a brass cup. Another dose of forkroot. Elaida wanted to make certain that Egwene couldn’t channel a trickle during the meal, it seemed. Egwene took the cup without protesting and downed it in a single gulp, tasting the faint, yet characteristic, hint of mint. She handed the cup back to Katerine with an offhanded gesture, and the woman had no choice but to accept it. Almost as if she were a royal cupbearer.

Egwene didn’t head for Elaida’s quarters immediately. The overly long punishment’s intrusion into the dinner hour ironically left her with a few spare moments—and she didn’t want to arrive early, for that would show Elaida deference. So instead she lingered outside the door of the Mistress of Novices with Katerine and Barasine. Would a certain figure come to visit the study?

In the distance, small clusters of sisters walked the hallway’s tiles of green and red. There was a furtive cast to their eyes, like hares venturing into a clearing to nibble at leaves, yet fearing the predator who hid in the shadows. Sisters in the Tower these days always wore their shawls, and they never went about alone. Some even held the Power, as if afraid of being jumped by footpads here in the White Tower itself.

“Are you pleased with this?” Egwene found herself asking. She glanced at Katerine and Barasine; both were, coincidentally, also part of the group that had first captured Egwene.

“What was that, child?” Katerine asked coolly. “Speaking to a sister without being asked a question first? Are you so eager for more punishment?” She wore a conspicuous amount of red, her dress a bright crimson slashed with black. Her dark hair curled slightly in its cascade down her back.

Egwene ignored the threat. What more could they do to her? “Set aside the bickering for a moment, Katerine,” Egwene said, watching a group of Yellows pass, their step quickening as they saw the two Reds. “Set aside the posturing for authority and the threats. Put these things away and look. Are you proud of this? The Tower spent centuries without an Amyrlin being raised from the Red. Now, when you finally have a chance, your chosen leader has done this to the Tower. Women who won’t meet the eyes of those they do not know familiarly, sisters who travel in clusters. The Ajahs behave as if they are at war with one another!”

Katerine sniffed at the comment, though the lanky Barasine hesitated, glancing over her shoulder at the group of Yellows hurrying down the corridor, several of them firing glances back at the two Reds.

“This was not caused by the Amyrlin,” Katerine said. “It was created by your foolish rebels and their betrayal!”

My rebels? Egwene thought with an inward smile. So you now see them as “mine,” rather than regarding me as just a poor Accepted who was duped? That’s progress.

“Were we the ones who pulled down a sitting Amyrlin?” Egwene asked. “Were we the ones who turned Warder against Warder, or the ones who failed to contain the Dragon Reborn? Have we chosen an Amyrlin who is so power-hungry, she’s ordered the construction of her own palace? A woman who has every sister wondering if she’ll be the next to be stripped of the shawl?”

Katerine didn’t respond, as though realizing that she shouldn’t be drawn into an argument with a mere novice. Barasine still watched the distant Yellows, her eyes wide. Worried.

“I should think,” Egwene said, “that the Red should not be the ones sheltering Elaida, but should instead provide her fiercest critics. For Elaida’s legacy will be your own. Remember that.”

Katerine glanced at her, eyes flaring, and Egwene suppressed a cringe. Perhaps that last had been too straightforward.

“You will report to the Mistress of Novices tonight, child,” Katerine informed her. “And explain how you showed disrespect to sisters and to the Amyrlin herself.”

Egwene held her tongue. Why was she wasting her time trying to convince Reds?

The aged wooden door behind her snapped shut, making Egwene jump and glance over her shoulder. The tapestries to either side stirred slightly, then went still. Egwene hadn’t realized that she’d left the door open just a crack as she’d left. Had Silviana listened to the conversation?

There was no more time to dawdle. It appeared that Alviarin wasn’t going to come this evening. Where was she? She always arrived for punishment right around the time that Egwene finished. Egwene shook her head, then strode away down the hallway. The two Reds followed—they stayed with her increasingly now, following her, watching her, at all times except when Egwene visited the quarters of other Ajahs for training. She tried to act as if those two sisters were an honorary retinue, rather than her jailers. She also tried to ignore the pain of her backside.

All signs indicated that Egwene was winning her war against Elaida. Earlier, at lunch, Egwene had heard the novices gossiping about the dramatic failure Elaida had suffered in failing to keep Rand captured. The event was several months past, now, and was supposed to have been secret. And then there was the rumor of Asha’man bonding sisters who had been sent to destroy them. Another mission of Elaida’s that wasn’t supposed to be known. Egwene had taken steps to keep these failures strong in the minds of the Tower’s occupants, much as she had with Elaida’s irregular treatment of Shemerin.

Whatever the novices were gossiping about, the Aes Sedai were hearing. Yes, Egwene was winning. But she was beginning to lose the satisfaction she’d once felt at that victory. Who could take joy in seeing the Aes Sedai unraveling like aged canvas? Who could feel glad that Tar Valon, the grandest of all great cities, was piled with refuse? As much as Egwene might despise Elaida, she could not exult at seeing an Amyrlin Seat lead with such incompetence.

And now, tonight, she would face Elaida in person. Egwene walked slowly through the hallways, pacing herself so as to not arrive early. How should she proceed at the dinner? During her nine days back in the Tower, Egwene had not so much as glimpsed Elaida. Attending the woman would be dangerous. If she offended Elaida just a hair too much, she could find herself being sent for execution. And yet, she could not simper and pander. She would not bow before the woman, not if it cost her life.

Egwene turned a corner, then pulled up short, nearly stumbling. The hallway ended abruptly in a stonework wall set with a bright tile mural. The image was that of an ancient Amyrlin, sitting on an ornate golden seat, holding forth her hand in warning to the kings and queens of the land. The plaque at the bottom declared it to be a depiction of Caraighan Maconar, ending the rebellion in Mosadorin. Egwene vaguely recognized the mural; the last she’d seen it, it had been on the wall of the Tower library. But when she’d seen it there, the Amyrlin’s face hadn’t been a mask of blood. The dead bodies depicted hanging from the eaves hadn’t been there either.

Katerine stepped up beside Egwene, face paling. Nobody liked to speak of the unnatural way rooms and corridors changed places in the Tower. The transformations made for a solemn reminder that squabbles over authority were secondary to larger, horrible troubles in the world. This was the first time Egwene had seen not only a corridor moved, but a depiction altered as well. The Dark One stirred, and the very Pattern itself was shaking.

Egwene turned and stalked away from the misplaced mural. She couldn’t focus on those problems right now. You scrubbed a floor clean by first picking a single spot and getting to work. She’d picked her spot. The White Tower had to be made whole.

Unfortunately, this detour was going to take more time. Egwene reluctantly hastened her pace; it wouldn’t do to be early, but she’d prefer not to be late either. Her two watchers hurried as well, skirts swishing as they backtracked through several corridors. As they did, Egwene caught sight of Alviarin hurrying around a corner, head down, walking toward the study of the Mistress of Novices. So she was going to her punishment after all. What had caused her to delay?

Two more turns and one flight of cold stone steps later, Egwene found herself cutting through the Red Ajah section of the Tower, as that now provided the quickest route up to the Amyrlin’s quarters. Red tapestries hung on the walls, accented by crimson tiles on the floor. The women walking the corridors wore expressions of a near uniform austerity, their shawls draped carefully over their shoulders and arms. Here, in their own Ajah’s quarters where they should be confident, they seemed insecure and suspicious, even of those servants who bustled about, bearing the Flame of Tar Valon on their chests. Egwene passed through the hallways, wishing she didn’t have to hurry so, as it made her look cowed. There was nothing to be done about it. At the center of the Tower, she climbed several flights of stairs, eventually reaching the hallway that led to the Amyrlin’s quarters.

Her busyness with novice chores and lessons had left her with little time to consider her confrontation with the false Amyrlin. This was the woman who had pulled down Siuan, the woman who had beaten Rand, and the woman who had pushed the Aes Sedai themselves to the very brink of collapse. Elaida needed to know Egwene’s anger, she needed to be humiliated and made ashamed! She....

Egwene stopped in front of Elaida’s gilded door. No.

She could imagine the scene easily. Elaida enraged, Egwene banished to the dark cells beneath the Tower. What good would that do? She could not confront the woman, not yet. That would only lead to momentary satisfaction followed by a debilitating failure.

But light, she couldn’t bow to Elaida either! The Amyrlin did no such thing!

Or... no. The Amyrlin did what was required of her. Which was more important? The White Tower, or Egwene’s pride? The only way to win this battle was to let Elaida think that she was winning. No... No, the only way to win was to let Elaida think there was no battle.

Could Egwene keep a civil tongue long enough to survive this night? She wasn’t certain. However, she needed to leave this dinner with Elaida feeling that she was in control, that Egwene was properly cowed. The best way to achieve that while maintaining some measure of pride would be to say nothing at all.

Silence. That would be her weapon this evening. Steeling herself, Egwene knocked.

Her first surprise came when an Aes Sedai opened the door. Didn’t Elaida have servants to perform that function? Egwene didn’t recognize the sister, but the ageless face was obvious. The woman was of the Gray, as indicated by her shawl, and she was slender with a full bust. Her golden brown hair fell to the middle of her back, and she had a haunted cast to her eyes, as if she’d been under great strain recently.

Elaida sat inside. Egwene hesitated in the doorway, looking in at her rival for the first time since departing from the White Tower with Nynaeve and Elayne to hunt the Black Ajah, a turning point that seemed an eternity ago. Handsome and statuesque, Elaida seemed to have lost a small measure of her sternness. She sat, secure and smiling faintly, as if thinking on some joke that only she understood. Her chair was almost a throne, carved, gilded and painted with red and white. There was a second place set at the table, presumably for the nameless Gray sister.

Egwene had never visited an Amyrlin’s own quarters before, but she could imagine what Siuan’s might have looked like. Simple, yet not stark. Just enough ornamentation to indicate that this was the room of someone important, but not enough to become a distraction. Under Siuan, everything would have served a function—perhaps several functions at once. Tables with hidden compartments. Wall hangings that doubled as maps. Crossed swords over the hearth that were oiled, should the Warders need them.

Or perhaps that was just fancy. Regardless, not only had Elaida taken different rooms for her quarters; her decorations were notably rich. The entire suite hadn’t been decorated yet—there was talk that she was adding to her rooms day by day—but what was there was very lavish. New silk brocades, all of red, hung from the walls and ceilings. The Tairen rug underfoot depicted birds aflight, and was so finely woven that it could almost be mistaken for a painting. Scattered through the room were pieces of furniture of a dozen different styles and makes, each one lavishly carved and inlaid with ivory. Here a series of vines, there a knobby ridged design, there crisscrossing serpents.

More infuriating than the extravagance was the stole across Elaida’s shoulders. It was striped with six colors. Not seven, but six! Though Egwene had not chosen an Ajah herself, she would have taken the Green. But that didn’t stop her from feeling a surge of anger at seeing that shawl with blue removed. One did not simply disband one of the Ajahs, even if one were the Amyrlin Seat!

But Egwene held her tongue. This meeting was about survival. Egwene could bear straps of pain for the good of the Tower. Could she bear Elaida’s arrogance as well?

“No curtsy?” Elaida asked as Egwene entered the room. “They said that you were stubborn. Well, then, you shall visit the Mistress of Novices when this supper is through and inform her of the lapse. What do you say to that?”

That you are a plague upon this structure as vile and destructive as any disease that has struck city and people in all years past. That you—

Egwene broke her gaze away from Elaida’s. And—feeling the shame of it vibrate through her very bones—she bowed her head.

Elaida laughed, obviously taking the gesture the right way. “Honestly, I expected you to be more trouble. It appears that Silviana does know her duty. That is well; I had worried that she, like far too many in the Tower lately, had been shirking. Well, be busy with you. I won’t wait all night to dine.”

Egwene clenched her fists, but said nothing. The back wall was set with a long serving table bearing several silver platters, their polished domed lids dripping with condensation from the heated contents. There was also a silver soup tureen. To the side, the Gray sister hovered near the door. Light! The woman was terrified. Egwene had rarely seen such an expression on a sister. What was causing it?

“Come, Meidani,” Elaida said to the Gray. “Are you going to hover all night? Sit down!”

Egwene covered a moment of shock. Meidani? She was one of those sent by Sheriam and the others to spy on the White Tower! As Egwene checked the contents of each platter, she shot a glance over her shoulder. Meidani had found her way to the small, less ornate seat at Elaida’s side. Did the Gray always wear such finery to supper? Her neck sparkled with emeralds and her muted green dress was of the most expensive silk, accentuating a bosom that might have been average on another woman, but that seemed ample on Meidani’s slender body.

Beonin said she’d warned the Gray sisters that Elaida knew they were spies. So why hadn’t Meidani fled the Tower? What was holding her here?

Well, at least now the woman’s expression of terror made sense. “Meidani,” Elaida said, sipping from a goblet of wine, “you are rather wan this day. Have you been getting enough sun?”

“I have been spending a great deal of time with historical records, Elaida,” Meidani said, voice uneven. “Have you forgotten?”

“Ah, that is right,” Elaida said musingly. “It will be good to know how traitors have been treated in the past. Beheading seems too easy and simple a punishment to me. Those who split our Tower, those who flaunt their defection, a very special reward will be needed for them. Well, continue your search then.”

Meidani sat down, hands in lap. Anyone other than an Aes Sedai would have had to mop her brow free of sweat. Egwene stirred the silver tureen, hand clutching the ladle with a white-knuckled grip. Elaida knew. She knew that Meidani was a spy, and yet she still invited the woman to dinner. To play with her.

“Hurry up, girl,” Elaida snapped at Egwene.

Egwene plucked up the tureen, the handles warm beneath her fingers, and walked over to the small table. She filled the bowls with a brownish broth bobbing with Queen’s Crown mushrooms. It smelled so heavily peppered that any other flavor would be indistinguishable. So much food had gone bad that without spice, the soup would be inedible.

Egwene worked mechanically, like a wagon wheel rolling behind the oxen. She didn’t have to make choices; she didn’t have to respond. She just worked. She filled the soup bowls precisely, then fetched the bread basket and placed one piece—not too crusty—on each small porcelain bread saucer. She returned with a circular dab of butter for each, cut quickly but precisely from the larger brick with a couple of flicks of the knife. One did not spend long as an innkeeper’s daughter without learning to serve a proper meal.

Even as she worked, she stewed. Each step was agony, and not because of her still-burning backside. That physical pain, oddly, seemed insignificant now. It was secondary to the pain of remaining silent, the pain of not allowing herself to confront this awful woman, so regal, so arrogant.

As the two women began their soup—pointedly ignoring the weevils in their bread—Egwene retreated to the side of the room and stood, hands clasped before her, posture stiff. Elaida glanced at her, then smiled, apparently seeing another sign of subservience. In reality, Egwene didn’t trust herself to move, for she feared that any activity would end with her slapping Elaida across the face. Light, but this was hard!

“What talk is there in the Tower, Meidani?” Elaida asked, dipping her bread in the soup.

“I... don’t have much time to listen....”

Elaida leaned forward. “Oh, surely you know something. You have ears, and even Grays must gossip. What are they saying about those rebels?”

Meidani paled further. “I... I...”

“Hmm,” Elaida said. “When we were novices, I don’t remember you being so slow of wit, Meidani. You haven’t impressed me these last few weeks; I begin to wonder why you were ever given the shawl. Perhaps it never belonged on your shoulders in the first place.”

Meidani’s eyes opened wide.

Elaida smiled at her. “Oh, I’m only teasing you, child. Back to your meal.”

She joked! Joked about how she had stolen the shawl from a woman, humiliating her to such an extent that she fled the Tower. Light! What had happened to Elaida? Egwene had met this woman before, and Elaida had struck her as stern, but not tyrannical. Power changed people. It appeared that in Elaida’s case, holding the Amyrlin Seat had taken her sternness and solemnity and replaced them with a heady sense of entitlement and cruelty.

Meidani looked up. “I... I have heard sisters express worry about the Seanchan.”

Elaida waved an indifferent hand, sipping her soup. “Bah. They are too distant to be of danger to us. I wonder if they’re secretly working for the Dragon Reborn. Either way, I suspect that the rumors about them are largely exaggerated.” Elaida glanced at Egwene. “It’s a source of constant amusement to me that some will believe anything that they hear.”

Egwene couldn’t speak. She could barely have sputtered. How would Elaida feel about these “exaggerated” rumors if the Seanchan slapped a cold a’dam around her idiot neck? Egwene could sometimes feel that band on her own skin, itching, impossible to move. Sometimes, it still made her faintly sick to move around freely, as if she felt that she should be locked away, chained to the post on the wall by a simple loop of metal.

She knew what she had dreamed, and knew those dreams to be prophetic. The Seanchan would strike at the White Tower itself. Elaida, obviously, discounted her warnings.

“No,” Elaida said, waving for Egwene to bring another ladle of soup. “These Seanchan are not the problem. The real danger is the complete lack of obedience shown by the Aes Sedai. What will I have to do to end those foolish talks at the bridges? How many sisters will have to do penance before they acknowledge my authority?” She sat, tapping her spoon against her soup cup. Egwene, at the serving table, picked up the tureen, retrieving the ladle from its silver holder.

“Yes,” Elaida mused, “if the sisters had been obedient, then the Tower wouldn’t be divided. Those rebels would have obeyed rather than running off like a silly flock of startled birds. If the sisters were obedient, we would have the Dragon Reborn in our hands, and those horrid men training in their ‘Black Tower’ would have been dealt with long ago. What do you think, Meidani?”

“I... obedience is certainly important, Elaida.”

Elaida shook her head as Egwene ladled soup into her bowl. “Anyone would admit that, Meidani. I asked what should be done. Fortunately, I have an idea myself. Doesn’t it strike you as strange that the Three Oaths contain no mention of obedience to the White Tower? Sisters cannot lie, cannot make a weapon for men to kill other men, and cannot use the Power as a weapon against others except in defense. Those oaths have always seemed too lax to me. Why no oath to obey the Amyrlin? If that simple promise were part of all of us, how much pain and difficulty could we have avoided? Perhaps some revision is in order.”

Egwene stood still. Once, she herself hadn’t understood the importance of the oaths. She suspected that many a novice and Accepted had questioned their usefulness. But she had learned, as every Aes Sedai must, their importance. The Three Oaths were what made the Aes Sedai. They were what kept the Aes Sedai doing what was best for the world, but more than that, they were a shelter from accusations.

Changing them... well, it would be an unprecedented disaster. Elaida should know that. The false Amyrlin just turned back to her soup, smiling to herself, no doubt contemplating a fourth oath to demand obedience. Couldn’t she see how that would undermine the Tower itself? It would transform the Amyrlin from a leader to a despot!

Egwene’s rage boiled within her, steaming like the soup in her hands. This woman, this... creature! She was the cause of the problems in the White Tower, she was the one who caused division between rebels and loyalists. She had taken Rand captive and beaten him. She was a disaster!

Egwene felt herself shaking. In another moment, she’d burst and let Elaida hear truth. It was boiling free from her, and she could barely contain it.

No! she thought. If I do that, my battle ends. I lose my war.

So Egwene did the only thing she could think of to stop herself. She dumped the soup on the floor.

Brownish liquid sprayed across the delicate rug of red, yellow and green birds aflight. Elaida cursed, jumping up from her seat and backing away from the spill. None of the liquid had gotten on her dress, which was a shame. Egwene calmly snatched a serving towel off of the table and began to mop up the spill.

“You clumsy idiot!” Elaida snapped.

“I’m sorry,” Egwene said, “I wish that hadn’t happened.” And she did. She wished none of this evening had occurred. She wished Elaida weren’t in control; she wished the Tower had never been broken. She wished she hadn’t been forced to spill the soup on the floor. But she had. And so she dealt with it, kneeling and scrubbing.

Elaida sputtered, pointing. “That rug is worth more than your entire village, wilder! Meidani, help her!”

The Gray didn’t offer a single objection. She scurried over and grabbed a bucket of chilled water, which had been cooling some wine, and hurried back to help Egwene. Elaida moved over to a door on the far side of the room to call for servants.

“Send for me,” Egwene whispered as Meidani knelt down to help clean.

“What?”

“Send for me to give me instruction,” Egwene said quietly, glancing at Elaida, whose back was turned. “We need to speak.”

Egwene had originally intended to avoid the Salidar spies, letting Beonin act as her messenger. But she had too many questions. Why hadn’t Meidani fled the Tower? What were the spies planning? Had any of the others been adopted by Elaida and beaten down as soundly as Meidani?

Meidani glanced at Elaida, then back at Egwene. “I may not seem it sometimes, but I’m still Aes Sedai, girl. You cannot order me.”

“I am your Amyrlin, Meidani,” Egwene said calmly, wringing a towelful of soup into a pitcher. “And you would do best to remember it. Unless you want the Three Oaths replaced with vows to serve Elaida for eternity.”

Meidani glanced at her, then cringed at Elaida’s shrill calls for servants. The poor woman had obviously seen a hard time lately.

Egwene laid a hand on her shoulder. “Elaida can be unseated, Meidani. The Tower will be reunited. I will see it happen, but we must keep courage. Send for me.”

Meidani looked up, studying Egwene. “How... how do you do it? They say you are punished three and four times a day, that you need Healing between so that they can beat you further. How can you take it?”

“I take it because I must,” Egwene said, lowering her hand. “Just as we all do what we must. Your service here watching Elaida is difficult, I can see, but know that your work is noticed and appreciated.”

Egwene didn’t know if Meidani really had been sent to spy on Elaida, but it was always better for a woman to think that her suffering was for a good purpose. It seemed to have been the right thing to say, for Meidani straightened, taking heart and nodding. “Thank you.”

Elaida was returning, behind her three servants.

“Send for me,” Egwene ordered Meidani again, voice a whisper. “I am one of the few in this Tower who has a good excuse to move between the various Ajah quarters. I can help heal what has been broken, but I will need your help.”

Meidani hesitated, then nodded. “Very well.”

“You!” Elaida snapped, stepping up to Egwene. “Out! I want you to tell Silviana to strap you as she’s never strapped a woman before! I want her to punish you, then Heal you on the spot, then beat you again! Go!”

Egwene stood, handing her towel to one of the servants. Then she walked to the exit.

“And don’t think that your clumsiness has allowed you to escape your duties,” Elaida continued from behind. “You will return and serve me again on another date. And if you so much as spill another drop, I will have you locked away in a cell with no windows or lights for a week. Do you understand?”

Egwene left the room. Had this woman ever been a true Aes Sedai, in control of her emotions?

Yet Egwene herself had lost control of her emotions. She should never have let herself get to a point where she’d been forced to drop the soup. She had underestimated how infuriating Elaida could be, but that would not happen again. She calmed herself as she walked, breathing in and out. Rage did her no good. You didn’t get mad at the weasel who was sneaking into your yard and eating your hens. You simply laid a trap and disposed of the animal. Anger was pointless.

Hands still smelling faintly of pepper and spices, she made her way down to the lowest level of the Tower, to the novices’ dining hall beside the main kitchens. Egwene had worked in those kitchens herself frequently during the last nine days; every novice was required to work chores. The smells of the place—charcoal and smoke, simmering soups and sharp, unscented soaps—were very familiar to her. The smells weren’t that different, actually, from the kitchen of her father’s inn back in the Two Rivers.

The white-walled room was empty, the tables sitting unattended, though there was a small tray on one of them, covered with a pot lid to keep it warm. Her cushion was there as well, left by the novices to soften the hard bench. Egwene approached, but ignored the cushion as she always did, though she was grateful for the gesture. She sat and removed the lid from the meal. Unfortunately, all she found was a bowl of the same brownish soup. There was no hint of the roast, gravy or long, thin buttered beans that had made up the rest of Elaida’s meal.

Still, it was food, and Egwene’s stomach was grateful for it. Elaida hadn’t ordered that she immediately go for punishment, and so Silviana’s order that she eat first took precedence. Or, at least, there was enough of an argument there to protect her.

She ate quietly, alone. The soup was indeed spicy, and it tasted as much of pepper as it had smelled, but she didn’t mind. Other than that, it was actually quite good. She’d also been left a few slices of bread, though she’d gotten the ends of the loaf. All in all, not a bad meal for someone who had thought she might get nothing.

Egwene ate contemplatively, listening to Laras and the scullions bang pots at washing up in the other room, surprised at how calm she felt. She had changed; something was different about her. Watching Elaida, finally confronting the woman who had been her rival all of these months, forced her to look at what she was doing in a new light.

She had imagined herself undermining Elaida and seizing control of the White Tower from within. Now she realized that she didn’t need to undermine Elaida. The woman was fully capable of doing that herself. Why, Egwene could picture the reaction of the Sitters and Ajah heads when Elaida announced her intention to change the Three Oaths!

Elaida would topple eventually, with or without Egwene’s help. Egwene’s duty, as Amyrlin, wasn’t to speed that fall—but to do whatever she could to hold the Tower and its occupants together. They couldn’t afford to fracture further. Her duty was to hold back the chaos and destruction that threatened them all, to reforge the Tower. As she finished off her soup, using the last piece of bread to wipe the remnants from the bowl, she realized she had to do whatever she could to be a strength to the sisters in the Tower. Time was growing very short. What was Rand doing to the world without guidance? When would the Seanchan attack to the north? They’d have to cut through Andor to get to Tar Valon, and what destruction would that cause? Surely she had some time to reforge the Tower before the attack came, but no moments to waste.

Egwene took her dish into the kitchen proper and washed it herself, earning a nod of approval from the hefty Mistress of the Kitchens. After that, Egwene made her way up to Silviana’s study. She needed to get her punishment done quickly; she still intended to visit Leane tonight, as was her custom. Egwene knocked, then entered, finding Silviana at her desk, leafing through a thick tome by the light of two silver lamps. When Egwene entered, Silviana marked the page with a small length of red cloth, then shut it. The worn cover read Meditations on the Kindling Flame, a history of the rise of various Amyrlins. Curious.

Egwene sat down on a stool before the desk—not flinching at the immediate sharp pain of her backside—and spoke calmly about the evening, omitting the fact that she’d dropped the bowl of soup on purpose. She did, however, say that she’d dropped it after Elaida had talked of revoking and changing the Three Oaths.

Silviana looked very thoughtful at that.

“Well,” the woman said, standing up and fetching her lash, “the Amyrlin has spoken.”

“Yes, I have,” Egwene said, standing up and positioning herself on the table, skirts and shift up for the beating.

Silviana hesitated, and then the strapping began. Oddly, Egwene felt no desire to cry out. It hurt, of course, but she just couldn’t scream. How ridiculous the punishment was!

She remembered her pain at seeing the sisters pass in the hallways, regarding one another with fear, suspicion and distrust. She remembered the agony of serving Elaida while holding her tongue. And she remembered the sheer horror at the idea of everyone in the Tower being bound by oath to obey such a tyrant.

Egwene remembered her pity for poor Meidani. No sister should be treated in such a way. Imprisonment was one thing. But beating a woman down, toying with her, hinting at the torture to come? It was insufferable.

Each of these things was a pain inside of Egwene, a knife to the chest, piercing the heart. As the beating continued, she realized that nothing they could do to her body would ever compare to the pain of soul she felt at seeing the White Tower suffer beneath Elaida’s hand. Compared with those internal agonies, the beating was ridiculous.

And so she began to laugh.

It wasn’t a forced laugh. It wasn’t a defiant laugh. It was the laughter of disbelief. Of incredulity. How could they think that beating her would solve anything? It was ludicrous!

The lashing stopped. Egwene turned. Surely that wasn’t all of it!

Silviana was regarding her with a concerned expression. “Child?” she asked. “Are you all right?”

“I am quite well.”

“You... are certain? How are your thoughts?”

She thinks I’ve broken under the strain, Egwene realized. She beats me and I laugh from it.

“My thoughts are well,” Egwene said. “I don’t laugh because I’ve been broken, Silviana. I laugh because it is absurd to beat me.”

The woman’s expression darkened.

“Can’t you see it?” Egwene asked. “Don’t you feel the pain? The agony of watching the Tower crumble around you? Could any beating compare to that?”

Silviana did not respond.

I understand, Egwene thought. I didn’t realize what the Aiel did. I assumed that I just had to be harder, and that was what would teach me to laugh at pain. But it’s not hardness at all. It’s not strength that makes me laugh. It’s understanding.

To let the Tower fall, to let the Aes Sedai fail—the pain of that would destroy her. She had to stop it, for she was the Amyrlin Seat.

“I cannot refuse to punish you,” Silviana said. “You realize that.”

“Of course,” Egwene said. “But please remind me of something. What was it you said about Shemerin? Why was it Elaida got away with taking the shawl from her?”

“It was because Shemerin accepted it,” Silviana replied. “She treated herself as if she really had lost the shawl. She didn’t fight back.”

“I will not make the same mistake, Silviana. Elaida can say whatever she wants. But that doesn’t change who I am, or who any of us are. Even if she tries to change the Three Oaths, there will be those who resist, who hold to what is correct. And so, when you beat me, you beat the Amyrlin Seat. And that should be amusing enough to make us both laugh.”

The punishment continued, and Egwene embraced the pain, took it into herself, and judged it insignificant, impatient for the punishment to cease.

She had a lot of work to do.

CHAPTER 3
The Ways of Honor

Aviendha crouched with her spear-sisters and some True Blood scouts atop the low, grassy hill, looking down at the refugees. They were a sorry lot, these Domani wetlanders, with dirtied faces that had not seen a sweat tent in months, their emaciated children too hungry to cry. One sad mule pulled a single cart among the hundred struggling people; what they hadn’t piled in the vehicle they carried. There wasn’t much of either. They plodded northeast along a pathway that couldn’t quite be called a road. Perhaps there was a village in that direction. Perhaps they were just fleeing the uncertainty of the coastal lands.

The hilly landscape was open save for the occasional stand of trees. The refugees hadn’t seen Aviendha and her companions, despite the fact that they were less than a hundred paces away. She’d never understood how wetlanders could be so blind. Didn’t they watch, noting any oddities on the horizon? Couldn’t they see that traveling so near to a hilltop practically invited scouts to spy on them? They should have secured the hill with their own scouts before coming anywhere near.

Didn’t they care? Aviendha shivered. How could you not care about eyes watching you, eyes that might belong to a man or Maiden holding a spear? Were they so eager to wake from the dream? Aviendha did not fear death, but there was a very big difference between embracing death and wishing for it.

Cities, she thought, they’re the problem. Cities were stinking, festering places, like sores that never healed. Some were better than others—Elayne did an admirable job with Caemlyn—but the best of them gathered too many people and taught them to grow comfortable staying in one place. If those refugees had been accustomed to travel and had learned to use their own feet, rather than relying on horses as wetlanders so often did, then it would not be so difficult for them to leave their towns. Among the Aiel, the craftsmen were trained to defend themselves, the children could live off the land for days, and even blacksmiths could travel great distances quickly. An entire sept could be on the move within an hour, carrying everything they needed on their backs.

Wetlanders were strange, doubtless. Still, she felt pity for the refugees. The emotion surprised her. While she was not heartless, her duty lay elsewhere, with Rand al’Thor. She had no reason to feel heartsore for a group of wetlanders she’d never met. But time spent with her first-sister, Elayne Trakand, had taught her that not all wetlanders were soft and weak. Just most of them. There was ji in caring for those who could not care for themselves.

Watching these refugees, Aviendha tried to see them as Elayne would, but she still struggled to understand Elayne’s form of leadership. It was not the simple leadership of a group of Maidens on a raid—that was both instinctive and efficient. Elayne would not watch these refugees for signs of danger or hidden soldiers. Elayne would feel a responsibility to them, even if they were not of her own people. She would find a way to send food, perhaps use her troops to secure a safe area for them to homestead—and in doing so, acquire a piece of this country for herself.

Once, Aviendha would have left these thoughts to clan chiefs and roofmistresses. But she wasn’t a Maiden any longer, and she had accepted that. She now lived under a different roof. She was ashamed that she had resisted the change for so long.

But that left her with a problem. What honor was there for her now? No longer a Maiden, not quite a Wise One. Her entire identity had been wrapped up in those spears, her self forged into their steel as surely as the carbon that strengthened them. She had grown from childhood certain that she would be Far Dareis Mai. Indeed, she had joined the Maidens as soon as possible. She had been proud of her life and of her spear-sisters. She would have served her clan and sept until the day when she finally fell to the spear, bleeding her last water onto the parched earth of the Three-fold Land.

This was not the Three-fold Land, and she had heard some algai’d’siswai wonder if the Aiel would ever return there. Their lives had changed. She didn’t trust change. It couldn’t be spotted or stabbed; it was more silent than any scout, more deadly than any assassin. No, she’d never trust it, but she would accept it. She would learn Elayne’s ways and how to think like a chief.

She would find honor in her new life. Somehow.

“They are no threat,” whispered Heirn, crouching with the True Bloods on the other side of the Maidens.

Rhuarc watched the refugees, alert. “The dead walk,” the Taardad clan chief said, “and men fall at random to Sightblinder’s evil, their blood corrupted like the water of a bad well. Those might be poor folk fleeing the ravages of war. Or they might be something else. We keep our distance.”

Aviendha glanced at the increasingly distant line of refugees. She did not think Rhuarc was right; these were not ghosts or monsters. There was always something... wrong about those. They left her with an itch, as if she were about to be attacked.

Still, Rhuarc was wise. One learned to be careful in the Three-fold Land, where a tiny twig could kill. The group of Aiel slipped off the hilltop and down onto the brown-grassed plain beyond. Even after months spent in the wetlands, Aviendha found the landscape strange. Trees here were tall and long-limbed, with too many buds. When the Aiel crossed patches of yellow spring grass among the fallen winter leaves, they all seemed so full of water that she half-expected the blades and leaves to burst beneath her feet. She knew the wetlanders said that this spring was unnaturally slow starting, but already it was more fertile than her homeland.

In the Three-fold Land, this meadow—with the hills to provide watchpoints and shelter—would have immediately been seized by a sept and used for farming. Here, it was just one of a thousand different untouched patches of land. The fault lay again in those cities. The nearest ones were too distant from this location to make it a good spot for a wetlander farmstead.

The eight Aiel quickly crossed the grasses, weaving between hillsides, moving with speed and stealth. Horses could not match a man’s feet, what with their thunderous galloping. Terrible beasts—why did the wetlanders insist on riding them? Baffling. Aviendha could begin to understand how a chief or queen must think, but she knew that she’d never completely understand wetlanders. They were just too strange. Even Rand al’Thor.

Especially Rand al’Thor. She smiled, thinking of his earnest eyes. She remembered the scent of him—wetlander soaps, which smelled of oil, mixed with that particular earthy musk that was all his own. She would marry him. She was as determined as Elayne in that regard; now that they were first-sisters, they could marry him together as was proper. Only, how could Aviendha marry anyone, now? Her honor had been in her spears, but Rand al’Thor now wore those at his waist, beaten and forged into a belt buckle, given to him by her own hand.

He had offered her marriage once. A man! Offering marriage! Another of those strange wetlander customs. Even disregarding the strangeness of it—disregarding the insult his proposal had shown Elayne—Aviendha could never have accepted Rand al’Thor as her husband. Couldn’t he understand that a woman must bring honor to a marriage? What could a mere apprentice offer? Would he have her come to him as an inferior? It would shame her completely to do that!

He must not have understood. She did not think him cruel, only dense. She would come to him when she was ready, then lay the bridal wreath at his feet. And she couldn’t do that until she knew who she was.

The ways of ji’e’toh were complex. Aviendha knew how to measure honor as a Maiden, but Wise Ones were different creatures entirely. She had thought she was gaining some small amount of honor in their eyes. They had allowed her, for instance, to spend a great deal of time with her first-sister in Caemlyn. But then, suddenly, Dorindha and Nadere had arrived and informed Aviendha that she had been ignoring her training. They had seized her like a child caught listening furtively outside the sweat tent, towing her away to join the rest of her clan as they left for Arad Doman.

And now... and now the Wise Ones treated her with less respect than they had before! They offered her no teaching. Somehow, she had misstepped in their eyes. That made her stomach twist. To shame herself before the other Wise Ones was almost as bad as showing fear before one as brave as Elayne!

So far, the Wise Ones had allowed Aviendha some honor by letting her serve punishments, but she didn’t know how she had shamed herself in the first place. Asking would—of course—only bring more shame. Until she unwove the problem, she could not meet her toh. Worse, there was a real danger of her making the mistake again. Until she sorted out this problem, she would remain an apprentice, and she would never be able to bring an honorable bridal wreath to Rand al’Thor.

Aviendha gritted her teeth. Another woman might have wept, but what good would that have done? Whatever her mistake, she had brought it upon herself, and it was her duty to right it. She would find honor again and she would marry Rand al’Thor before he died at the Last Battle.

That meant that whatever it was she had to learn, she needed to do so quickly. Very quickly.

They met up with another group of Aiel waiting in a small clearing amid a stand of pine trees. The ground was thick with discarded brown needles, the sky broken by the towering trunks. The group was small by the standards of clans and septs, barely two hundred people. In the middle of the clearing stood four Wise Ones, each wearing the characteristic brown woolen skirt and white blouse. Aviendha wore similar attire, which now felt as natural to her as the cadin’sor once had. The scouting party split up, men and Maidens moving to join members of their clans or societies. Rhuarc joined the Wise Ones, and Aviendha followed him.

Each of the Wise Ones—Amys, Bair, Melaine, and Nadere—gave her a glance. Bair, the only Aiel with the group who wasn’t Taardad or Goshien, had arrived only recently, perhaps to coordinate with the others. Whatever the reason, none of them seemed pleased. Aviendha hesitated. If she left now, would it seem as if she were trying to avoid their attention? Did she instead dare stay, and risk incurring their further displeasure?

“Well?” Amys said to Rhuarc. Though Amys had white hair, she looked quite young. In her case, this wasn’t due to working the Power—her hair had started turning silver when she’d been a child.

“It was as the scouts described, shade of my heart,” Rhuarc said. “Another pitiful band of wetlander refugees. I saw no hidden danger in them.”

The Wise Ones nodded, as if this was what they had expected. “That is the tenth band of refugees in less than a week,” said aged Bair, her watery blue eyes thoughtful.

Rhuarc nodded. “There are rumors of Seanchan attacks on harbors to the west. Perhaps the people move inland to avoid the raids.” He glanced at Amys. “This country boils like water spilled on a hearthstone. The clans are uncertain what Rand al’Thor wishes of them.”

“He was very clear,” Bair noted. “He will be pleased that you and Dobraine Taborwin secured Bandar Eban, as he asked.”

Rhuarc nodded. “But still, his intentions are not clear. He asked for us to restore order. Are we then to be like wetlander city guardsmen? That is no place for the Aiel. We are not to conquer, so we do not get the fifth. And yet it feels very much like conquest, what we do. The Car’a’carn’s orders can be clear yet confusing at the same time. He has a gift in that area, I think.”

Bair smiled, nodding. “Perhaps he intends for us to do something with these refugees.”

“And what would we do?” Amys asked, shaking her head. “Are we Shaido, expected to make gai’shain from wetlanders?” Her tone left little doubt as to what she thought of both Shaido and the idea of making wetlanders gai’shain.

Aviendha nodded in agreement. As Rhuarc said, the Car’a’carn had sent them to Arad Doman to “restore order.” But that was a wetlander concept; Aiel brought their own order with them. There was chaos to war and battle, true, but each and every Aiel understood his place, and would act within that place. The little children understood honor and toh, and a hold would continue to function after all of the leaders and Wise Ones were killed.

It was not so with wetlanders. They ran about like a basket of wild lizards suddenly dropped onto hot stones, taking no care for provisions when they fled. As soon as their leaders were occupied or distracted, banditry and chaos ruled. The strong took from the weak, and even blacksmiths were not safe.

What could Rand al’Thor expect the Aiel to do about it? They could not teach ji’e’toh to an entire nation. Rand al’Thor had told them to avoid killing Domani troops. But those troops—often corrupt and turned to banditry themselves—were part of the problem.

“Perhaps he will explain more when we arrive at this manor house of his,” said Melaine, shaking her head, red-gold hair catching the light. Her pregnancy was just beginning to show beneath her Wise One blouse. “And if he does not, then surely it is better for us to be here in Arad Doman than to spend yet more time lounging back in the land of the treekillers.”

“As you say,” Rhuarc agreed. “Let us move on, then. There is still a distance to run.” He moved off to speak with Bael. Aviendha took a step away, but a harsh glance from Amys made her freeze.

“Aviendha,” said the hard, white-haired woman. “How many Wise Ones went with Rhuarc to scout this refugee train?”

“None but me,” Aviendha admitted.

“Oh, and are you a Wise One now?” Bair asked.

“No,” Aviendha said, quickly, then shamed herself further by blushing. “I spoke poorly.”

“Then you shall be punished,” Bair said. “You are no longer a Maiden, Aviendha. It is not your place to scout; that is a task for others.”

“Yes, Wise One,” Aviendha said, looking down. She had not thought that going with Rhuarc would bring her shame—she had seen other Wise Ones do similar tasks.

But I am not a Wise One, she reminded herself. I am an apprentice only. Bair had not said that a Wise One could not scout; only that it had not been Aviendha’s place to go. It was about Aviendha herself. And about whatever it was she had done—or perhaps continued to do—to provoke the Wise Ones.

Did they think she had grown soft by spending time with Elayne? Aviendha herself worried that that was true. During her days in Caemlyn, she had begun to find herself enjoying the silks and baths. By the end, she had objected only feebly when Elayne had come up with an excuse to dress her in some impractical and frivolous garment with embroidery and lace. It was well that the others had come for her.

The others just stood there, looking at her expectantly, faces like red desert stones, impassive and stern. Aviendha gritted her teeth again. She would complete her apprenticeship and find honor. She would.

The call came to begin moving, and cadin’sor-clad men and women did so, running together in small groups. The Wise Ones moved as easily as the soldiers, despite their bulky skirts. Amys touched Aviendha’s arm. “You will run with me so that we can discuss your punishment.”

Aviendha fell into pace beside the Wise One at a brisk jog. It was a speed any Aiel could maintain almost indefinitely. Her group, from Caemlyn, had met up with Rhuarc as he was traveling from Bandar Eban to meet with Rand al’Thor in the western part of the country. Dobraine Taborwin, a Cairhienin, was still maintaining order in the capital city, where he’d reportedly located a member of the Domani ruling body.

Perhaps the group of Aiel could have Traveled through a gateway the rest of the distance. But it was not far—only a few days by foot—and they had left early enough to arrive at the appointed time without using the One Power. Rhuarc wanted to scout for himself some of the landscape near the manor house Rand al’Thor was using as a base. Other bodies of Goshien or Taardad Aiel would join them at the base, using gateways, if needed.

“What do you think of the Car’a’carn’s demands of us here in Arad Doman, Aviendha?” Amys asked as they ran.

Aviendha stifled a frown. What of her punishment? “It is an irregular request,” she said, “but Rand al’Thor has many strange ideas, even for a wetlander. This will not be the most unusual duty he has set for us.”

“And the fact that Rhuarc finds the duty discomforting?”

“I doubt that the clan chief is uncomfortable,” Aviendha said. “I suspect that Rhuarc speaks what he has heard others say, passing the information to the Wise Ones. He does not wish to shame others by revealing who has spoken of their fears.”

Amys nodded. What was the purpose of the questions? Surely the woman had guessed the same thing. She would not come to Aviendha for counsel.

They ran in silence for a time, with no mention of punishments. Had the Wise Ones forgiven her unknown slight? Surely they wouldn’t dishonor her in that way. Aviendha had to be given time to think out what she had done, otherwise her shame would be unbearable. She might err again, this time worse.

Amys gave no clue as to her thoughts. The Wise One had been a Maiden once, like Aviendha. She was hard, even for an Aiel. “And al’Thor himself?” Amys asked. “What do you think of him?”

“I love him,” Aviendha said.

“I did not ask Aviendha the silly girl,” Amys said curtly. “I asked Aviendha the Wise One.”

“He is a man of many burdens,” Aviendha said more carefully. “I fear that he makes many of those burdens heavier than they need be. I once thought that there was only one way to be strong, but I have learned from my first-sister that I was wrong. Rand al’Thor... I do not think he has learned this yet. I worry that he mistakes hardness for strength.”

Amys nodded again, as if in approval. Were these questions a test of some sort?

“You would marry him?” Amys asked.

I thought we weren’t talking about Aviendha the “silly girl,” Aviendha thought, but of course didn’t say it. One did not say such things to Amys.

“I will marry him,” she said instead. “It is not a possibility, but a certainty.” The tone earned her a glance from Amys, but Aviendha held her ground. Any Wise One who misspoke deserved to be corrected.

“And the wetlander Min Farshaw?” Amys asked. “She obviously loves him. What will you do about her?”

“She is my concern,” Aviendha said. “We will reach an accommodation. I have spoken with Min Farshaw, and I believe she will be easy to work with.”

“You would become first-sisters with her as well?” Amys asked, sounding just faintly amused.

“We will reach an accommodation, Wise One.”

“And if you cannot?”

“We will,” Aviendha said firmly.

“And how can you be so certain?”

Aviendha hesitated. Part of her wished to return only silence to that question, passing the leafless brush thickets and giving Amys no answer. But she was just an apprentice, and while she could not be forced to speak, she knew that Amys would keep pushing until the answer came out. Aviendha hoped she would not incur too much toh by her response.

“You know of the woman Min’s viewings?” Aviendha said.

Amys nodded.

“One of those viewings relates to Rand al’Thor and the three women he will love. Another relates to my children by the Car’a’carn.”

She said no more, and Amys pressed no more. It was enough. Both knew that one would sooner find a Stone Dog who would retreat than find a viewing of Min’s that went wrong.

On one hand, it was good to know that Rand al’Thor would be hers, although she would have to share him. She did not begrudge Elayne, of course, but Min... well, Aviendha did not really know her. Regardless, the viewing was a comfort. But it was also bothersome. Aviendha loved Rand al’Thor because she chose to, not because she was destined to. Of course, Min’s viewing didn’t guarantee that Aviendha would actually be able to marry Rand, so perhaps she had misspoken to Amys. Yes, he would love three women and three women would love him, but would Aviendha find a way to marry him?

No, the future was not certain, and for some reason that brought her comfort. Perhaps she should have worried, but she did not. She would get her honor back, and then she would marry Rand al’Thor. Perhaps he would die soon after, but perhaps an ambush would come and she would fall to an arrow this day. Worrying solved nothing.

Toh, however, was another matter.

“I misspoke, Wise One,” Aviendha said. “I implied that the viewing said I would marry Rand al’Thor. That is not true. All three of us will love him, and while that implies marriage, I do not know for certain.”

Amys nodded. There was no toh; Aviendha had corrected herself quickly enough. That was well. She would not add more shame on top of what she had already earned.

“Very well, then,” Amys said, watching the path ahead of her. “Let us discuss today’s punishment.”

Aviendha relaxed slightly. So she still had time to discover what she had done wrong. Wetlanders often seemed confused by Aiel ways with punishment, but wetlanders had little understanding of honor. Honor didn’t come from being punished, but accepting a punishment and bearing it restored honor. That was the soul of toh—the willing lowering of oneself in order to recover that which had been lost. It was strange to her that wetlanders couldn’t see this; indeed, it was strange that they didn’t follow ji’e’toh instinctively. What was life without honor?

Amys, rightly, wouldn’t tell Aviendha what she had done wrong. However, she was having no success thinking through the answer on her own, and it would cause less shame if she discovered the answer through conversation. “Yes,” Aviendha said carefully. “I should be punished. My time in Caemlyn threatened to make me weak.”

Amys sniffed. “You are no more weak than you were when you carried the spears, girl. A fair bit stronger, I should think. Your time with your first-sister was important for you.”

So that wasn’t it. When Dorindha and Nadere had come for her, they had said she needed to continue her training as an apprentice. Yet in the time since the Aiel had departed for Arad Doman, Aviendha had been given no lessons. She had been assigned to carry water, to mend shawls, and to serve tea. She had been given all manner of punishments with little explanation of what she had done wrong. And when she did something obvious—like going scouting when she shouldn’t have—the severity of her punishment was always greater than the infraction should have merited.

It was almost as if the punishment was the thing the Wise Ones wanted her to learn, but that could not be. She was not some wetlander who needed to be taught the ways of honor. What good would constant and unexplained punishment do, other than to warn of some grave mistake she had made?

Amys reached to her side, untying something hanging at her waist. The woolen bag she held up was about the size of a fist. “We have decided,” she said, “that we have been too lax in our instruction. Time is precious and we have no room left for delicacy.”

Aviendha covered her surprise. Their previous punishments were delicate?

“Therefore,” Amys said, handing over the small sack, “you will take this. Inside are seeds. Some are black, others are brown, others are white. This evening, before we sleep, you will separate the colors, then count how many there are of each one. If you are wrong, we will mix them together and you will start again.”

Aviendha found herself gaping, and she nearly stumbled to a stop. Hauling water was necessary work. Mending clothing was necessary work. Cooking meals was important work, particularly when no gai’shain had been brought with the small advance group.

But this... this was useless work! It was not only unimportant, it was frivolous. It was the kind of punishment reserved for only the most stubborn, or most shameful, of people. It almost... almost felt as though the Wise Ones were calling her da’tsang!

“By Sightblinder’s eyes,” she whispered as she forced herself to keep running. “What did I do?”

Amys glanced at her, and Aviendha looked away. Both knew that she didn’t want an answer to that question. She took the bag silently. It was the most humiliating punishment she had ever been given.

Amys moved off to run with the other Wise Ones. Aviendha shook off her stupor, her determination returning. Her mistake must have been more profound than she had thought. Amys’ punishment was an indication of that, a hint.

She opened the bag and glanced inside. There were three little empty algode bags inside to help with the separation, and thousands of tiny seeds nearly engulfed them. This punishment was meant to be seen, meant to bring her shame. Whatever she’d done, it was offensive not just to the Wise Ones, but to all around her, even if they—like Aviendha herself—were ignorant of it.

That only meant she had to be more determined.

CHAPTER 4
Nightfall

Gawyn watched the sun burn the clouds to death in the west, the final light fading. That haze of perpetual gloom kept the sun itself shrouded. Just as it hid the stars from his sight at night. Today the clouds were unnaturally high in the air. Often, Dragonmount’s tip would be hidden on cloudy days, but this thick, gray haze hovered high enough that most of the time, it barely brushed the mountain’s jagged, broken tip.

“Let’s engage them,” Jisao whispered from where he crouched beside Gawyn on the hilltop.

Gawyn glanced away from the sunset, back toward the small village below. It should have been still, save perhaps for a goodman checking on his livestock one last time before turning in. It should have been dim, unlit save for a few tallow candles burning in windows as people finished evening meals.

But it was not dim. It was not quiet. The village was alight with angry torches carried by a dozen sturdy figures. By that torchlight and the light of the dying sun, Gawyn could make out that each was wearing a nondescript uniform of brown and black. Gawyn couldn’t see the three-starred insignia on their uniforms, but he knew it was there.

From his distant vantage, Gawyn watched a few latecomers stumble from their homes, looking frightened and worried as they gathered with the others in the crowded square. These villagers welcomed the armed force with reluctance. Women clutched children, men were careful to keep their eyes downcast. “We don’t want trouble,” the postures said. They’d undoubtedly heard from other villages that these invaders were orderly. The soldiers paid for goods they took, and no young men were pressed into service—though they weren’t turned away either. A very odd invading army indeed. However, Gawyn knew what the people would think. This army was led by Aes Sedai, and who could say what was odd or normal when Aes Sedai were involved?

There were no sisters with this particular patrol, thank the Light. The soldiers, polite but stern, lined up the villagers and looked them over. Then a pair of soldiers entered each house and barn, inspecting it. Nothing was taken and nothing was broken. All very neat and cordial. Gawyn could almost hear the officer offering apologies to the village mayor.

“Gawyn?” Jisao asked. “I count barely a dozen of them. If we send Rodic’s squad to come in from the north, we’ll cut off both sides and smash them between us. It’s getting dark enough that they won’t see us coming. We could take them without so much as running up a lather.”

“And the villagers?” Gawyn asked. “There are children down there.”

“That hasn’t stopped us other times.”

“Those times were different,” Gawyn said, shaking his head. “The last three villages they’ve searched point a direct line toward Dorlan. If this group vanishes, the next one will wonder what it was they nearly uncovered. We’d draw the entire army’s eye in this direction.”

“But—”

“No,” Gawyn said softly. “We have to know when to fall back, Jisao.”

“So we came all this way for nothing.”

“We came all this way for an opportunity,” Gawyn said, backing away from the hilltop, making certain he didn’t show a profile on the horizon. “And now that I’ve inspected that opportunity, we’re not going to take it. Only a fool looses his arrow just because he’s got a bird in front of him.”

“Why wouldn’t you loose it if it’s right there in front of you?” Jisao asked as he joined Gawyn.

“Because sometimes the prize isn’t worth the arrow,” Gawyn said. “Come on.”

Below, waiting in the dark with lanterns hooded, were some of the very men the soldiers in the village were searching for. Gareth Bryne must have been very displeased to learn there was a harrying force hiding somewhere nearby. He’d been diligent in trying to flush it out, but the countryside near Tar Valon was liberally sprinkled with villages, forests and secluded valleys that could hide a small, mobile strike force. So far, Gawyn had managed to keep his Younglings out of sight while pulling off the occasional raid or ambush on Bryne’s forces. There was only so much you could do with three hundred men, however. Particularly when you faced one of the five Great Captains.

Am I destined to end up fighting against each and every man who has been a mentor to me? Gawyn took the reins of his horse and gave a silent order to withdraw by raising his right hand, then gestured sharply away from the village. The men moved without comment, dismounting and leading their mounts for both stealth and safety.

Gawyn had thought he was over Hammar and Coulin’s deaths; Bryne himself had taught Gawyn that the battlefield sometimes made allies into sudden foes. Gawyn had fought his former teachers, and Gawyn had won. That was the end of it.

Recently, however, his mind seemed determined to dredge up those corpses and carry them about. Why now, after so long?

He suspected his sense of guilt had to do with facing Bryne, his first and most influential instructor in the arts of war. Gawyn shook his head as he guided Challenge across the darkening landscape; he kept his men away from the road in case Bryne’s scouts had placed watchers. The fifty men around Gawyn walked as quietly as possible, the horses’ hoofbeats deadened by the springy earth.

If Bryne had been shocked to discover a harrying force striking at his outriders, then Gawyn had been equally shocked to discover those three stars on the uniforms of the men he slew. How had the White Tower’s enemies recruited the greatest military mind in all of Andor? And what was the Captain-General of the Queen’s Guard doing fighting with a group of Aes Sedai rebels in the first place? He should have been in Caemlyn protecting Elayne.

Light send that Elayne had arrived in Andor. She couldn’t still be with the rebels. Not with her homeland lacking a queen. Her duty to Andor outweighed her duty to the White Tower.

And what of your duty, Gawyn Trakand? he thought to himself.

He wasn’t certain he had duty, or honor, left to him. Perhaps his guilt about Hammar, his nightmares of war and death at Dumai’s Wells, were due to the slow realization that he might have given his allegiance to the wrong side. His loyalty belonged to Elayne and Egwene. What, then, was he still doing fighting a battle he didn’t care about, helping a side that—by all accounts—was opposed to the one Elayne and Egwene had chosen?

They’re just Accepted, he told himself. Elayne and Egwene didn’t choose this side—they are just doing what they’ve been ordered to do! But the things that Egwene had said to him all those months ago, back in Cairhien, suggested that she had made her decision willingly.

She had chosen a side. Hammar had chosen a side. Gareth Bryne had, apparently, chosen a side. But Gawyn continued to want to be on both sides. The division was ripping him apart.

An hour out of the village, Gawyn gave the order to mount and take to the road. Hopefully, Bryne’s scouts wouldn’t think to search the land outside the village. If they did, the tracks of fifty horsemen would be hard to miss. There was no avoiding that. The best thing now was to reach firm ground, where the signs of their passing would be hidden by a thousand years of footfalls and traffic. Two pairs of soldiers rode off in front and two pairs hung back to watch. The rest maintained their silence, though their horses now pounded a thunderous gallop. None asked why they were withdrawing, but Gawyn knew that they were wondering, just as Jisao had.

They were good men. Perhaps too good. As they rode, Rajar pulled his mount up beside Gawyn’s. Just a few months ago, Rajar had been a youth. But now Gawyn couldn’t think of him as anything other than a soldier. A veteran. Some men gained experience through years spent living. Other men gained experience through months spent watching their friends die.

Glancing upward, Gawyn missed the stars. They hid their faces from him behind those clouds. Like Aiel behind black veils. “Where did we go wrong, Rajar?” Gawyn asked as they rode.

“Wrong, Lord Gawyn?” Rajar asked. “I don’t know that we did anything wrong. We couldn’t have known which villages that patrol would choose to inspect, or that they wouldn’t turn along the old Wagonright Road, as you had hoped. Some of the men may be confused, but it was right to withdraw.”

“I wasn’t talking about the raid,” Gawyn said, shaking his head. “I’m talking about this whole bloody situation. You shouldn’t have to go on supply raids or spend your time killing scouts; you should have become a Warder to some freshly minted Aes Sedai by now.” And I should be back in Caemlyn, with Elayne.

“The Wheel weaves as the Wheel wills,” the shorter man said.

“Well, it wove us into a hole,” Gawyn muttered, glancing at the overcast sky once again. “And Elaida doesn’t seem too eager to pull us out of it.”

Rajar looked at Gawyn reproachfully. “The White Tower’s methods are its own, Lord Gawyn, and so are its motives. It isn’t for us to question. What good is a Warder who questions the orders of his Aes Sedai? A good way to get both of you killed, that is.”

You’re not a Warder, Rajar. That’s the problem! Gawyn said nothing. None of the other Younglings seemed to be plagued with these questions. To them, the world was much simpler. One did as the White Tower, and the Amyrlin Seat, commanded. Never mind if those commands seemed designed to get you killed.

Three hundred youths against a force of over fifty thousand hardened soldiers, commanded by Gareth Bryne himself? Will of the Amyrlin or not, that was a deathtrap. The only reason the Younglings had survived as long as they had was because of Gawyn’s familiarity with his teacher’s ways. He knew where Bryne would send patrols and outriding scouts, and knew how to evade his search patterns.

It was still a futile effort. Gawyn didn’t have nearly the troops needed for a true harrying force, particularly with Bryne entrenched in his siege. Beyond that, there was the remarkable matter of the army’s complete lack of a supply line. How were they getting food? They purchased supplies from the surrounding villages, but not nearly enough to feed themselves. How could they possibly have carried all they needed while still moving quickly enough to appear, without warning, in the middle of winter?

Gawyn’s attacks were next to meaningless. It was enough to make a man think that the Amyrlin just wanted him, and the other Younglings, out of the way. Before Dumai’s Wells, Gawyn had suspected that was the case. Now he was growing certain. And yet you continue to follow her orders, he thought to himself.

He shook his head. Bryne’s scouts were getting dangerously close to his base of operations, and Gawyn couldn’t risk killing any more of them without giving himself away. It was time to head back to Dorlan. Perhaps the Aes Sedai there would have a suggestion on how to proceed.

He hunkered down on his horse and continued riding into the night. Light, I wish I could see the stars, he thought.

CHAPTER 5
A Tale of Blood

Rand crossed the trampled manor green, banners flapping before him, tents surrounding him, horses whinnying in their pickets on the far west side. In the air hung the scents of an efficient war camp: smoke and savor from the stewpots were much stronger than the occasional whiff of horse dung or an unwashed body.

Bashere’s men maintained a tidy camp, busying themselves with the hundreds of little tasks that allowed the army to function: sharpening swords, oiling leathers, mending saddles, fetching water from the stream. Some practiced charges to the left, on the far side of the green, in the space between tent lines and the scraggly trees growing alongside the stream. The men held gleaming lances at the level as their horses trampled the muddy ground in a long swath. The maneuvers not only kept their skills sharp, but exercised the horses as well.

As always, Rand was trailed by a flock of attendants. Maidens were his guards, and the Aiel watched the Saldaean soldiers with wariness. Beside him were several Aes Sedai. They were always about him, now. The Pattern had no place for his onetime insistence that all Aes Sedai be kept at arm’s length. It wove as it willed, and experience had shown that Rand needed these Aes Sedai. What he wanted no longer mattered. He understood that now.

It was little comfort that many of these Aes Sedai in his camp had sworn allegiance to him. Everyone knew that Aes Sedai followed their oaths in their own ways, and they would decide what their “fealty” to him would require.

Elza Penfell—who accompanied him this day—was one of those who had sworn to him. Of the Green Ajah, she had a face that might be considered pretty, if one didn’t recognize the ageless quality that marked her as Aes Sedai. She was pleasant, for an Aes Sedai, despite the fact that she had helped kidnap Rand and lock him in a box for days, to be pulled out only for the occasional beating.

In the back of his mind, Lews Therin growled.

That was past. Elza had sworn. That was enough to allow Rand to use her. The other woman attending him today was less predictable; she was a member of Cadsuane’s retinue. Corele Hovian—a slim Yellow with blue eyes, wild dark hair, and a perpetual smile—had sworn no oaths to do as he said. Despite that, he felt a temptation to trust her, since she had once tried to save his life. It was only because of her, Samitsu and Damer Flinn that Rand had survived. One of two wounds in Rand’s side that would not heal—a gift from Padan Fain’s cursed dagger—still lingered as a reminder of that day. The constant pain of that festering evil overlaid the equal pain of an older wound beneath, the one Rand had taken while fighting Ishamael so long ago.

Soon, one of those wounds—or perhaps both—would spill Rand’s blood onto the rocks of Shayol Ghul. He wasn’t certain if they would be what killed him or not; with the number and variety of the different factors competing to take Rand’s life, even Mat wouldn’t have known which one was the best bet.

As soon as Rand thought of Mat, the colors swirled in his vision, forming into the image of a wiry, brown-eyed man wearing a wide-brimmed hat and tossing dice before a small crowd of watching soldiers. Mat wore a grin and seemed to be showing off, which was not unusual, though there didn’t seem to be any coin changing hands for his throws.

The visions came whenever he thought of Mat or Perrin, and Rand had stopped dismissing them. He did not know what caused the images to appear; probably his ta’veren nature interacting with the other two ta’veren from his home village. Whatever it was, he used it. Just another tool. It appeared that Mat was still with the Band, but was no longer camped in a forested land. It was hard to tell from the angle, but he looked to be outside a city somewhere. At least, that was a large road in the near distance. Rand had not seen the small, dark-skinned woman with Mat for some time. Who was she? Where had she gone?

The vision faded. Hopefully, Mat would return to him soon. He would need Mat and his tactical skills at Shayol Ghul.

One of Bashere’s quartermasters—a thick-mustached man with bowlegs and a squat body—saw Rand and approached with a quick step. Rand waved the Saldaean back; he had no mind for supply reports at the moment. The quartermaster saluted immediately and retreated. Once, Rand might have been surprised at how quickly he was obeyed, but no longer. It was right for the soldiers to obey. Rand was a king, though he didn’t wear the Crown of Swords at the moment.

Rand passed through the green, filled with tents and horse pickets now. He left the camp, passing the unfinished earthen bulwark. Here, pine trees continued down the sides of the gentle slope. Tucked into a stand of trees just to the right was the Traveling ground, a square section of ground roped off to provide a safe location for gateways.

One hung in the air at that moment, an opening to another place. A small group of people was making their way through, walking out onto the pinecone-strewn ground. Rand could see the weaves that made up the gateway; this one had been crafted with saidin.

Most of the people in the group wore the colorful clothing of Sea Folk—the men bare-chested, even in the chill spring air, the women in loose bright blouses. All wore loose trousers, and all had piercings in their ears or noses, the complexity of the adornments an indication of each person’s relative status.

As he waited for the Sea Folk, one of the soldiers who guarded the Traveling ground approached Rand with a sealed letter. The letter would be one sent via Asha’man from one of Rand’s interests in the east. Indeed, as he opened it, he found it was from Darlin, the Tairen king. Rand had left him with orders to gather an army and prepare it for marching into Arad Doman. That gathering had been completed for some time now, and Darlin wondered—yet again—about his orders. Could no one simply do as they were told?

“Send a messenger,” Rand said to the soldier, impatiently tucking the letter away. “Tell Darlin to continue recruiting. I want him to draft every Tairen who can hold a sword and either train him for combat or set him to work in the forges. The Last Battle is close. Very close.”

“Yes, my Lord Dragon,” the soldier said, saluting.

“Tell him that I will send an Asha’man when I want him to move,” Rand said. “I still intend to use him in Arad Doman, but I need to see what the Aiel have discovered first.”

The soldier bowed and retreated. Rand turned back to the Sea Folk. One of them approached him.

“Coramoor,” she said, nodding. Harine was a handsome woman in her middle years, with white streaking her hair. Her Atha’an Miere blouse was of a bright blue, colorful enough to impress a Tinker, and she had an impressive five gold rings in each ear as well as a nose chain strung with gold medallions.

“I did not expect you to come and meet us personally,” Harine continued.

“I have questions for you that could not wait.”

Harine looked taken aback. She was the Sea Folk ambassador to the Coramoor, which was their name for Rand. They were angry with Rand for the weeks he had spent without a Sea Folk minder—he had promised to keep one with him at all times—yet Logain had mentioned their hesitation to send Harine back. Why was that? Had she achieved greater rank, making her too important to attend him? Could one be too important to attend the Coramoor? Much about the Sea Folk made little sense to him.

“I will answer if I can,” Harine said guardedly. Behind her, porters moved the rest of her belongings through the gateway. Flinn stood on the other side, holding the portal open.

“Good,” Rand said, pacing back and forth before her as he spoke. At times, he felt so tired—so weary to his bones—that he knew he had to keep moving. Never stopping. If he did, his enemies would find him. Either that, or his own exhaustion, both mental and physical, would drag him down.

“Tell me this,” he demanded as he paced. “Where are the ships which have been promised? The Domani people starve while grain rots in the east. Logain said you had agreed to my demands, but I have seen nothing of your ships. It has been weeks!”

“Our ships are swift,” Harine said testily, “but there is a great distance to travel—and we must go through seas controlled by the Seanchan. The invaders have been extremely diligent with their patrols, and our ships have had to turn back and flee on several occasions. Did you expect that we would be able bring your food in an instant? Perhaps the convenience of these gateways has made you impatient, Coramoor. We must deal with the realities of shipping and war even if you do not.”

Her tone implied that he would have to deal with those realities in this case. “I expect results,” Rand said, shaking his head. “I expect no delays. I know you do not like being forced to keep your agreement, but I will suffer no lagging to prove a point. People die because of your slowness.”

Harine looked as if she’d been slapped. “Surely,” she said, “the Coramoor does not imply that we would not keep to our Bargain.”

The Sea Folk were stubborn and prideful, Wavemistresses more than most. They were like an entire race of Aes Sedai. He hesitated. I should not insult her so, not because I am frustrated about other things. “No,” he finally said. “No, I do not imply that. Tell me, Harine, were you punished much for your part in our agreement?”

“I was hung up by my ankles naked and strapped until I could scream no more.” As soon as the words left her mouth, her eyes opened in shock. Often, when influenced by Rand’s ta’veren nature, people said things they did not intend to admit.

“So harsh?” Rand said, genuinely surprised.

“It was not so bad as it could have been. I retain my position as Wavemistress for my clan.”

But it was obvious she had lost a great deal of face, or incurred great toh, or whatever the blasted Sea Folk called honor. Even when he wasn’t present, he caused pain and suffering!

“I am glad you have returned,” he forced himself to say. No smile, but a softer tone. That was the best he could do. “You have impressed me, Harine, with your levelheadedness.”

She nodded in thanks to him. “We will keep our Bargain, Coramoor. You needn’t fear.”

Something else struck him, one of the original questions he’d come to ask her. “Harine. I would ask you a somewhat delicate question about your people.”

“You may ask,” she said carefully.

“How do the Sea Folk treat men who can channel?”

She hesitated. “That is not a matter for the shorebound to know.”

Rand met her eyes. “If you agree to answer, then I will answer a question for you in return.” The best way to deal with the Atha’an Miere was not to push or bully, but to offer trade.

She paused. “If you give me two questions,” she said, “I will answer.”

“I will give you one question, Harine,” he said, raising a finger. “But I promise to answer you as truthfully as I can. It is a fair bargain, and you know it. I have little patience right now.”

Harine touched her fingers to her lips. “It is agreed, then, under the Light.”

“It is agreed,” Rand said. “Under the Light. My question?”

“Men who can channel are given a choice,” Harine said. “They can either step from the bow of their ship holding a stone which is also tied to their legs, or they can be dropped off on a barren isle with no food or water. The second is considered the more shameful option, but some few do take it, to live for a brief time longer.”

Not much different from what his own people did in gentling men, truth be told. “Saidin is cleansed now,” he said to her. “This practice must stop.”

She pursed her lips, regarding him. “Your... man spoke of this, Coramoor. Some find it difficult to accept.”

“It is true,” he said firmly.

“I do not doubt that you believe it to be so.”

Rand gritted his teeth, forcing down another burst of anger, his hand forming a fist. He had cleansed the taint! He, Rand al’Thor, had performed a deed the likes of which had not been seen since the Age of Legends. And how was it treated? With suspicion and doubt. Most assumed that he was going mad, and therefore seeing a “cleansing” that had not really happened.

Men who could channel were always distrusted. Yet they were the only ones who could confirm what Rand said! He’d imagined joy and wonder at the victory, but he should have known better. Though male Aes Sedai had once been as respected as their female counterparts, that had been long ago. The days of Jorlen Corbesan had been lost in time. All people could remember now was the Breaking and the Madness.

They hated male channelers. Yet, in following Rand, they served one. Did they not see the contradiction? How could he convince them that there was no longer reason to murder men who could touch the One Power? He needed them! Why, there might be another Jorlen Corbesan among the very men the Sea Folk tossed into the ocean!

He froze. Jorlen Corbesan had been one of the most talented Aes Sedai before the Breaking, a man who had crafted some of the most amazing ter’angreal Rand had ever seen. Except Rand had not seen them. Those were Lews Therin’s memories, not his. Jorlen’s research facility of Sharom had been destroyed—the man himself killed—by the backlash of Power from the Bore.

Oh, Light, Rand thought with despair. I’m losing myself. Losing myself in him.

The most terrifying part was that Rand could no longer make himself wish to banish Lews Therin. Lews Therin had known a way to seal the Bore, if imperfectly, but Rand had no idea how to approach the task. The safety of the world might depend on the memories of a dead madman.

Many of the people around Rand appeared shocked, and Harine’s eyes were both uncomfortable and a little frightened. Rand had been muttering to himself again, he realized, and he cut off abruptly.

“I accept your answer,” he said stiffly. “What is your question of me?”

“I will ask it later,” she said. “Once I have had a chance to consider.”

“As you wish.” He turned away, his retinue of Aes Sedai, Maidens and attendants following. “The Traveling ground guards will see you to your room and carry your luggage.” There was a veritable mountain of that. “Flinn, to me!”

The elderly Asha’man jumped through the gateway, motioning for the last of the porters to trot back to the docks on the other side. He let the portal twist back into a slash of light and vanish, then hurried after Rand. He spared a glance and a smile for Corele, who had bonded him as her Warder.

“I apologize for taking so long to return, Lord Dragon.” Flinn had a leathery face and only a few wisps of hair on his head. He looked a lot like some of the farmers Rand had known back in Emond’s Field, though he had been a soldier for most of his life. Flinn had come to Rand because he wanted to learn Healing. Rand had turned him into a weapon instead.

“You did as ordered,” Rand said, walking back toward the green. He wanted to blame Harine for the prejudices of an entire world, but that was not fair. He needed a better way, a way to make everyone see.

“I’ve never been exceptional at making gateways,” Flinn continued. “Not like Androl. I needed to—”

“Flinn,” Rand said, cutting in. “Enough.”

The Asha’man blushed. “I apologize, my Lord Dragon.”

To the side, Corele laughed softly, patting Flinn on the shoulder. “Don’t mind him, Damer,” she said in a lilting Murandian accent. “He’s been as surly as a winter thunderhead all morning.”

Rand glared at her, but she just smiled good-naturedly. Regardless of what the Aes Sedai thought of men who could channel in general, the ones who had taken Asha’man as Warders seemed as protective of them as mothers of their children. She had bonded one of his men, but that did not change the fact that Flinn was one of his men. An Asha’man first and foremost, a Warder second.

“What do you think, Elza?” Rand said, turning from Corele to the other Aes Sedai. “About the taint and what Harine said?”

The round-faced woman hesitated. She walked with hands behind her back, dark green dress marked only by subtle embroideries. Utilitarian, for an Aes Sedai. “If my Lord Dragon says that the taint has been cleansed,” the woman said carefully, “then it is certainly improper to express doubt of him where others can hear.”

Rand grimaced. An Aes Sedai answer for certain. Oath or no oath, Elza did as she wished.

“Oh, we were both there at Shadar Logoth,” Corele said, rolling her eyes. “We saw what you did, Rand. Besides, I can feel male power through dear Damer here when we link. It has changed. The taint is gone. Right as sunlight, it is, though channeling the male half still feels like wrestling with a summer whirlwind.”

“Yes,” Elza said, “but be that as it is, you must realize how difficult it will be for others to believe this, Lord Dragon. During the Time of Madness, it took decades for some people to accept that the male Aes Sedai were doomed to go insane. It will likely take longer for them to overcome their distrust, now that it has been ingrained for so long.”

Rand gritted his teeth. He had reached a small hill at the side of the camp, just beside the bulwark. He continued up to the top, Aes Sedai following. Here, a short wooden platform had been erected—a fire tower for launching arrows over the bulwark.

Rand stopped at the top of the hill, Maidens surrounding him. He barely noticed the soldiers who saluted him as he looked over the Saldaean camp with its neat tent lines.

Was this all he would leave to the world? A taint cleansed, yet men still killed or exiled for something they could not help? He had bound most nations to him. Yet he knew well that the tighter one tied a bale, the sharper the snap of the cords when they were cut. What would happen when he died? Wars and devastation to match the Breaking? He hadn’t been able to help that last time, for his madness and grief at Ilyena’s death had consumed him. Could he prevent something similar this time? Did he have a choice?

He was ta’veren. The Pattern bent and shaped around him. And yet, he had quickly learned one thing from being a king: the more authority you gained, the less control you had over your life. Duty was truly heavier than a mountain; it forced his hand as often as the prophecies did. Or were they both one and the same? Duty and prophecy? His nature as a ta’veren and his place in history? Could he change his life? Could he leave the world better for his passing, rather than leaving the nations scarred, torn and bleeding?

He watched the camp, men moving about their tasks, horses nosing at the ground, searching for patches of winter grass that had not already been chewed to their roots. Though Rand had ordered this army to travel light, there were still camp followers. Women to help with meals and laundry, blacksmiths and farriers to tend horses and equipment, young boys to run messages and to train on the weapons. Saldaea was a Borderland, and battle was a way of life for its people.

“I envy them, sometimes,” Rand whispered.

“My Lord?” Flinn asked, stepping up to him.

“The people of the camp,” Rand said. “They do as they are told, working each day under orders. Strict orders, at times. But orders or not, those people are more free than I.”

“You, Lord?” Flinn said, rubbing his leathery face with an aged finger. “You are the most powerful man alive! You’re ta’veren. Even the Pattern obeys your will, I should think!”

Rand shook his head. “It doesn’t work that way, Flinn. Those people out there, any one of them could just ride away. Escape, if they felt like it. Leave the battle to others.”

“I’ve known a few Saldaeans in my day, my Lord,” Flinn said. “Forgive me, but I have doubts that any one of them would do that.”

“But they could,” Rand said. “It’s possible. For all their laws and oaths, they are free. Me, I seem as if I can do as I wish, but I am tied so tightly the bonds cut my flesh. My power and influence are meaningless against fate. My freedom is all just an illusion, Flinn. And so I envy them. Sometimes.”

Flinn folded his hands behind his back, obviously uncertain how to respond.

We all do as we must, Moiraine’s voice from the past returned to his memory. As the Pattern decrees. For some there is less freedom than for others. It does not matter whether we choose or are chosen. What must be, must be.

She had understood. I’m trying, Moiraine, he thought. I will do what must be done.

“My Lord Dragon!” a voice called. Rand turned toward the sound and saw one of Bashere’s scouts running up the hill. The Maidens cautiously allowed the youthful, dark-haired man to approach.

“My Lord,” the scout said, saluting. “There are Aiel on the outskirts of the camp. We saw two of them prowling through the trees about half a mile down the slope.”

The Maidens immediately began to move their hands, speaking in their clandestine handtalk.

“Did any of those Aiel wave at you, soldier?” Rand asked dryly.

“My Lord?” the man asked. “Why would they do that?”

“They’re Aiel. If you saw them, that means they wanted you to—and that means they’re allies, not foes. Inform Bashere that we’ll be meeting with Rhuarc and Bael shortly. It is time to secure Arad Doman.”

Or maybe it was time to destroy it. Sometimes, it was difficult to tell the difference.

Merise spoke. “Graendal’s plans. Tell me again what you know of them.” The tall Aes Sedai—of the Green Ajah, like Cadsuane herself—maintained a stern expression, arms folded beneath her breasts, a silver comb slid into the side of her black hair.

The Taraboner woman was a good choice to lead the interrogation. Or, at least, she was the best choice Cadsuane had. Merise didn’t show a bit of discomfort at being so near to one of the most feared beings in all of creation, and she was relentless in her questioning. She did try a little too hard to prove how stern she was. The way she kept her hair pulled back into its bun with such force, for instance, or the way she flaunted her Asha’man Warder.

The room was on the second floor of Rand al’Thor’s Domani mansion, the outer wall made of thick round pine logs, the inner walls of wood planks, all stained a matching dark color. This chamber, which had once been a bedroom, had been emptied of nearly all furniture; there was not even a rug on the sanded wood floor. In fact, the only furniture in it now was the stout chair Cadsuane sat in.

Cadsuane sipped her tea, intentionally projecting an air of composure. That was important, especially if one wasn’t anything near composed on the inside. At the moment, for instance, Cadsuane wanted to crush the teacup between her hands, then perhaps spend an hour or so stamping on the shards.

She took another sip.

The source of her frustration—and the object of Merise’s questioning—hung in the air, held upside down by weaves of Air with her arms tied behind her back. The captive had short wavy hair and dark skin. Her face matched Cadsuane’s own for composed serenity, despite her circumstances. Wearing a simple brown dress—the hem held up around her legs by a weave of Air to keep it from obscuring her face—held bound and shielded, the prisoner somehow seemed the one in control.

Merise stood in front of the prisoner. Narishma leaned against the wall, the only other one in the room.

Cadsuane did not control the questioning herself, not yet. Letting another lead the interrogation worked to her advantage; it let her think and plan. Outside the room, Erian, Sarene, and Nesune held the prisoner’s shield, two more than were normally considered necessary.

One did not take chances with the Forsaken.

Their prisoner was Semirhage. A monster who many thought was simply a legend. Cadsuane did not know how many of the stories about the woman were true. She did know that Semirhage was not easily intimidated, unsettled or manipulated. And that was a problem.

“Well?” Merise demanded. “My question: you have an answer?”

Semirhage regarded Merise, icy contempt in her voice as she spoke. “Do you know what happens to a man when his blood is replaced with something else?”

“I did not—”

“He dies, of course,” Semirhage said, cutting Merise off with words like knives. “The death often happens instantly, and quick deaths are of little interest. With experiment, I discovered that some solutions can replace blood more effectively, allowing the subject to live for a short time after the transfusion.”

She fell silent.

“Answer the question,” Merise said, “or out the window you will hang again and—”

“The transfusion itself requires use of the Power, of course,” Semirhage interrupted again. “Other methods are not quick enough. I invented the weave myself. It can suddenly and instantly pull the blood from a body and deposit it in a bin, while at the same time taking a solution and pressing it into the veins.”

Merise gritted her teeth, glancing at Narishma. The Asha’man wore a coat and trousers of black, as usual, his long dark hair in braids woven with bells on the ends. He lounged against the log wall. He had a boyish face, but displayed a growing edge of danger. Perhaps that came from training with Merise’s other Warders. Perhaps it came from associating with people who would put one of the Forsaken to the question.

“My warning—” Merise began again.

“I had one subject survive an entire hour after the transfusion,” Semirhage said in a calm, conversational tone. “I count it as one of my greatest victories. He was in pain the entire time, of course. True pain, agony that he could feel in every vein of his body, right down to the near-invisible ones in his fingers. I know of no other way to bring such suffering to every part of the body at once.”

She met Merise’s eyes. “I will show you the weave someday.”

Merise paled just slightly.

With a whip of her hand, Cadsuane wove a shield of Air around Semirhage’s head to block her from hearing, then wove Fire and Air into two small balls of light, which she placed directly in front of the Forsaken’s eyes. The lights weren’t bright enough to blind or damage her eyes, but they would keep her from seeing. That was a particular trick of Cadsuane’s; too many sisters would think to deafen a captive, yet leave them capable of watching. One never knew who had learned to read lips, and Cadsuane had little inclination to underestimate her current captive.

Merise glanced at Cadsuane, a flash of annoyance in her eyes.

“You were losing control of her,” Cadsuane said firmly, setting her tea on the floor beside her chair.

Merise hesitated, then nodded, looking truly angry. Likely at herself. “This woman, nothing works on her,” she said. “She never changes the tone of her voice, no matter what we do to her. Every punishment I can think of only creates more threats. Each one more gruesome than the last! Light!” She gritted her teeth again, refolding her arms and breathing deeply through her nose. Narishma straightened as if to walk over to her, but she waved him back. Merise was appropriately firm with her Warders, though she did snap at anyone else who tried to keep them in their places.

“We can break her,” Cadsuane said.

“Can we, Cadsuane?”

“Phaw! Of course we can. She is human, just like anyone else.”

“True,” Merise said. “Though she’s lived for three thousand years. Three thousand, Cadsuane.”

“She spent the bulk of that time imprisoned,” Cadsuane said with a dismissive sniff. “Centuries locked up in the Dark One’s prison, likely in a trance or hibernation. Subtract those years, and she’s no older than any of us. A fair sight younger than some, I would imagine.”

It was a subtle reminder of her own age, something rarely discussed among Aes Sedai. The entire conversation about age was, in fact, a sign of how uncomfortable the Forsaken made Merise. Aes Sedai were practiced at appearing calm, but there was a reason that Cadsuane had kept those holding the shield outside the room. They gave away too much. Even the normally unflappable Merise lost control far too often during these interrogations.

Of course, Merise and the others—like all the women in the Tower these days—still fell short of what an Aes Sedai should be. These younger Aes Sedai had been allowed to grow soft and weak, prone to bickering. Some had allowed themselves to be bullied into swearing fealty to Rand al’Thor. Sometimes, Cadsuane wished she could simply send them all to penance for a few decades.

Or maybe that was just Cadsuane’s age speaking. She was old, and that was making her increasingly intolerant of foolishness. Over two centuries ago, she’d sworn to herself that she’d live to attend the Last Battle, no matter how long that took. Using the One Power lengthened one’s years, and she’d found that determination and grit could stretch those years even further. She was one of the oldest people alive.

Unfortunately, her years had taught her that no measure of planning or determination could make life turn out as you wanted. That didn’t stop her from being annoyed when it didn’t. One might have thought that the years would also have taught her patience, but it had done the opposite. The older she grew, the less inclined she was to wait, for she knew she didn’t have many years left.

Anyone who claimed that old age had brought them patience was either lying or senile.

“She can and will be broken,” Cadsuane repeated, “I am not going to allow a person who knows weaves from the Age of Legends to simply dance herself to execution. We are going to pull every scrap of knowledge from that woman’s brain, if we have to turn a few of her own ‘creative’ weaves on her.”

“The a’dam. If only the Lord Dragon would let us use it on her...” Merise said, glancing at Semirhage.

If ever Cadsuane had been tempted to break her word, it was regarding that. Slip an a’dam on the woman... but no, in order to force someone to talk with an a’dam, you had to give them pain. It was the same as torture, and al’Thor had forbidden it.

Semirhage had closed her eyes against Cadsuane’s lights, but she was still composed, controlled. What was going on in that woman’s mind? Did she wait for rescue? Did she think to force them to execute her so that she could avoid true torture? Did she really assume that she’d be able to escape, then wreak vengeance on the Aes Sedai who had questioned her?

Likely the last—and it was hard not to feel at least a hint of apprehension. The woman knew things about the One Power that hadn’t survived even in legends. Three thousand years was a long, long time. Could Semirhage break through a shield in a way that was unknown? If she could, why hadn’t she already? Cadsuane wouldn’t be entirely comfortable until she was able to get her hands on some of that forkroot tea.

“Your weaves, you can release them, Cadsuane,” Merise said, standing. “I have composed myself. I fear we will have to hang her out the window for a time, as I said. Perhaps we can threaten her with pain. She can’t know of al’Thor’s foolish requirements.”

Cadsuane leaned forward, releasing the weaves that hung the lights before the Forsaken’s eyes, but not removing the shield of Air that kept her from hearing. Semirhage’s eyes snapped open, then quickly found Cadsuane. Yes, she knew who was in charge. The two locked eyes.

Merise continued to question, asking about Graendal. Al’Thor thought the other Forsaken might be somewhere in Arad Doman. Cadsuane was far more interested in other questions, but Graendal made an acceptable starting point.

Semirhage responded to Merise’s questions with silence this time, and Cadsuane found herself thinking about al’Thor. The boy had resisted her teaching as stubbornly as Semirhage resisted questioning. Oh, true, he had learned some minor things—how to treat her with a measure of respect, how to at least feign civility. But nothing more.

Cadsuane hated admitting failure. And this was not a failure, not yet, but she was close. That boy was destined to destroy the world. And maybe save it, too. The first was inevitable; the second conditional. She could wish the two were reversed, but wishes were about as useful as coins carved from wood. You could paint them however you wanted, but they remained wood.

She gritted her teeth, putting the boy out of her mind. She needed to watch Semirhage. Each time the woman spoke, it could be a clue. Semirhage returned her stare, ignoring Merise.

How did you break one of the most powerful women who had ever lived? A woman who had perpetrated countless atrocities during the days of wonder before, even, the Dark One’s release? Meeting those black, onyx eyes, Cadsuane realized something. Al’Thor’s prohibition on hurting Semirhage was meaningless. They could not break this woman with pain. Semirhage was the great torturer of the Forsaken, a woman intrigued by death and agony.

No, she would not break that way, even if the means had been allowed them. With a chill, looking into those eyes, Cadsuane thought she saw something of herself in the creature. Age, craftiness and unwillingness to budge.

That, then, left a question for her. If given the task, how would Cadsuane go about breaking herself?

The concept was so disturbing that she was relieved when Corele interrupted the interrogation a few moments later. The slender, cheerful Murandian was loyal to Cadsuane and had been on duty watching over al’Thor this afternoon. Corele’s word that al’Thor would be meeting soon with his Aiel chiefs brought an end to the interrogation, and the three sisters maintaining the shield entered and towed Semirhage off to the room where they would set her bound and gagged with flows of Air.

Cadsuane watched the Forsaken go, carried on weaves of Air, then shook her head. Semirhage had been only the day’s opening scene. It was time to deal with the boy.

CHAPTER 6
When Iron Melts

Rodel Ituralde had seen a lot of battlefields. Some things were always the same. Dead men like piles of rags, lying in heaps. Ravens eager to dine. Groans, cries, whimpers and mumbles from those unlucky enough to need a long time to die.

Each battlefield also had its own individual print. You could read a battle like the trail of passing game. Corpses lying in rows that were disturbingly straight indicated a charge of footmen who had been pressed against volleys of arrows. Scattered and trampled bodies were the result of infantry breaking before heavy cavalry. This battle had seen large numbers of Seanchan crushed up against the walls of Darluna, where they had fought with desperation. Hammered against the stone. One section of wall was completely torn away where some damane had tried to escape into the city. Fighting in streets and among homes would have favored the Seanchan. They hadn’t made it in time.

Ituralde rode his roan gelding through the mess. Battle was always a mess. The only neat battles were the ones in stories or history books. Those had been cleansed and scoured by the abrasive hands of scholars looking for conciseness. “Aggressor won, fifty-three thousand killed” or “Defender stood, twenty thousand fallen.”

What would be written of this battle? It would depend on who was writing. They would neglect to include the blood, pounded into the earth to make mud. The bodies, broken, pierced and mangled. The ground torn in swaths by enraged damane. Perhaps they would remember the numbers; those often seemed important to scribes. Half of Ituralde’s hundred thousand, dead. On any other battlefield, fifty thousand casualties would have shamed and angered him. But he’d faced down a force three times his size, and one with damane at that.

He followed the young messenger who had fetched him, a boy of perhaps twelve, wearing a Seanchan uniform of red and green. They passed a fallen standard, hanging from a broken pole with the tip driven into mud. It bore the sign of a sun being crossed by six gulls. Ituralde hated not knowing the houses and names of the men he was fighting, but there was no way to tell with the foreign Seanchan.

The shadows cast by a dying evening sun striped the field. Soon a blanket of darkness would cradle the bodies, and the survivors could pretend for a time that the grassland was a grave for their friends. And for the people their friends had killed. He rounded a small hillock, coming to a scattered pattern of fallen Seanchan elite. Most of these dead wore those insectlike helms. Bent, cracked, or dented. Dead eyes stared blankly from openings behind twisted mandibles.

The Seanchan general was alive, if just barely. His helmet was off, and there was blood on his lips. He leaned against a large, moss-covered boulder, back supported by a bundled cloak, as if he were waiting for a meal to be delivered. Of course, that image was marred by his twisted leg and the broken haft of a spear punching through the front of his stomach.

Ituralde dismounted. Like most of his men, Ituralde wore worker’s clothing—simple brown trousers and coat, borrowed off of the man who had taken Ituralde’s uniform as part of the trap.

It felt odd to be out of uniform. A man like this General Turan did not deserve a soldier in drab. Ituralde waved the messenger boy to stand back, out of earshot, then approached the Seanchan alone.

“You’re him, then,” Turan said, looking up at Ituralde, speaking with that slow Seanchan drawl. He was a stout man, far from tall, with a peaked nose. His close-cropped black hair was shaved two finger widths up each side of his head, and his helm lay beside him on the ground, bearing three white plumes. He reached up with an unsteady black-gloved hand and wiped the blood from the corner of his mouth.

“I am,” Ituralde said.

“They call you a ‘Great Captain’ in Tarabon.”

“They do.”

“It’s deserved,” Turan said, coughing. “How did you do it? Our scouts....” His cough consumed him.

Raken,” Ituralde said once the cough subsided. He squatted down beside his foe. The sun was still a sliver in the west, lighting the battlefield with a glimmer of golden red light. “Your scouts see from the air, and truth is easy to hide from a distance.”

“The army behind us?”

“Women and youths, mostly,” Ituralde said. “A fair number of farmers as well. Wearing uniforms taken from my troops here.”

“And if we’d turned and attacked?”

“You wouldn’t have. Your raken told you that you were outnumbered. Better to chase after the smaller force ahead of you. Better than that to head for the city your scouts say is barely defended, even if it means marching your men near to exhaustion.”

Turan coughed again, nodding. “Yes. Yes, but the city was empty. How did you get troops into it?”

“Scouts in the air,” Ituralde said, “can’t see inside buildings.”

“You ordered your troops to hide inside for that long?”

“Yes,” Ituralde said. “With a rotation allowing a small number out each day to work the fields.”

Turan shook his head in disbelief. “You realize what you have done,” he said. There was no threat in his voice. In fact, there was a fair amount of admiration. “High Lady Suroth will never accept this failure. She will have to break you now, if only to save face.”

“I know,” Ituralde said, standing. “But I can’t drive you back by attacking you in your fortresses. I need you to come to me.”

“You don’t understand the numbers we have...” Turan said. “What you destroyed today is but a breeze compared to the storm you’ve raised. Enough of my people escaped today to tell of your tricks. They will not work again.”

He was right. The Seanchan learned quickly. Ituralde had been forced to cut short his raids in Tarabon because of the swift Seanchan reaction.

“You know you can’t beat us,” Turan said softly. “I see it in your eyes, Great Captain.”

Ituralde nodded.

“Why, then?” Turan asked.

“Why does a crow fly?” Ituralde asked.

Turan coughed weakly.

Ituralde did know that he could not win his war against the Seanchan. Oddly, each of his victories made him more certain of his eventual failure. The Seanchan were smart, well equipped and well disciplined. More than that, they were persistent.

Turan himself must have known from the moment those gates opened that he was doomed. But he had not surrendered; he had fought until his army broke, scattering in too many directions for Ituralde’s exhausted troops to catch. Turan understood. Sometimes, surrender wasn’t worth the cost. No man welcomed death, but there were far worse ends for a soldier. Abandoning one’s homeland to invaders... well, Ituralde couldn’t do that. Not even if the fight was impossible to win.

He did what needed to be done, when it needed to be done. And right now, Arad Doman needed to fight. They would lose, but their children would always know that their fathers had resisted. That resistance would be important in a hundred years, when a rebellion came. If one came.

Ituralde stood up, intending to return to his waiting soldiers.

Turan struggled, reaching for his sword. Ituralde hesitated, turning back.

“Will you do it?” Turan asked.

Ituralde nodded, unsheathing his own sword.

“It has been an honor,” Turan said, then closed his eyes. Ituralde’s sword—heron-marked—took the man’s head a moment later. Turan’s own blade bore a heron, barely visible on the gleaming length of blade the Seanchan had managed to pull. It was a pity that the two of them hadn’t been able to cross swords—though, in a way, these past few weeks had been just that, on a different scale.

Ituralde cleaned his sword, then slid it back into its sheath. In a final gesture, he slid Turan’s sword out and rammed it into the ground beside the fallen general. Ituralde then remounted and, nodding farewell to the messenger, made his way back across the shadowed field of corpses.

The ravens had begun.

“I’ve tried encouraging several of the serving men and Tower Guards,” Leane said softly, sitting beside the bars of her cell. “But it’s hard.” She smiled, glancing at Egwene, who sat on a stool outside the cell. “I don’t exactly feel alluring these days.”

Egwene’s responding smile was wry, and she seemed to understand. Leane wore the same dress that she’d been captured in, and it had not yet been laundered. Every third morning, she removed it and used the morning’s bucket of water—after washing herself clean with a damp rag—to clean the dress in her basin. But there was only so much one could do without soap. She’d braided her hair to give it a semblance of neatness, but could do nothing about her ragged nails.

Leane sighed, thinking of those mornings spent standing in the corner of her cell, hidden from sight, wearing nothing while she waited for the dress and shift to dry. Just because she was Domani didn’t mean she liked parading about without a scrap on. Proper seduction required skill and subtlety; nudity used neither.

Her cell wasn’t bad as cells went—she had a small bed, meals, plenty of water, a chamber pot that was changed daily. But she was never allowed out, and was always guarded by two sisters who kept her shielded. The only one who visited her—save for those trying to pry information from her regarding Traveling—was Egwene.

The Amyrlin sat on her stool, expression thoughtful. And she was Amyrlin. It was impossible to think of her any other way. How could a child so young have learned so quickly? That straight back, that poised expression. Being in control wasn’t so much about the power you had, but the power you implied that you had. It was much like dealing with men, actually.

“Have you... heard anything?” Leane asked. “About what they plan to do with me?”

Egwene shook her head. Two Yellow sisters sat chatting nearby on the bench, lit by a lamp on the table beside them. Leane hadn’t answered any of the questions her captors put to her, and Tower law was very strict about the questioning of fellow sisters. They couldn’t harm her, particularly not with the Power. But they could just leave her alone, to rot.

“Thank you for coming to see me these evenings,” Leane said, reaching through the lattice of bars to take Egwene’s hand. “I believe I owe my sanity to you.”

“It is my pleasure,” Egwene said, though her eyes showed a hint of the exhaustion she undoubtedly felt. Some of the sisters who visited Leane mentioned the beatings Egwene was suffering as “penances” for her insubordination. Odd, how a novice to be instructed could be beaten but a prisoner to be interrogated could not. And despite the pain, Egwene came to visit Leane in the cell virtually every night.

“I will see you free, Leane,” Egwene promised, still holding her hand. “Elaida’s tyranny cannot last. I’m confident it won’t be long now.”

Leane nodded, letting go and standing up. Egwene took hold of the bars and pulled herself to her feet, cringing ever so slightly at the motion. She nodded farewell to Leane, then hesitated, frowning.

“What is it?” Leane asked.

Egwene took her hands off of the bars and looked at her palms. They seemed to be coated with a reflective, waxy substance. Frowning, Leane looked at the bars, and was shocked to see Egwene’s handprints on the iron.

“What in the Light—” Leane said, poking at one of the bars. It bent beneath her finger like warm wax on the lip of a candle’s bowl.

Suddenly, the stones beneath Leane’s feet shifted, and she felt herself sinking. She cried out. Globs of melted wax starting to rain down from the ceiling, splattering across her face. They weren’t warm, but they were somehow liquid. They had the color of stone!

She gasped, panicked, stumbling and sliding as her feet sank deeper in the too-slick floor. A hand caught hers; she looked up to where Egwene had grabbed her. The bars melted out of the way as Leane watched, the iron drooping to the sides, then liquefying.

“Help!” Egwene screamed at the Yellows outside. “Burn you! Stop staring!”

Leane scrambled for purchase, terrified, trying to pull herself along the bars toward Egwene. She grasped only wax. A lump of bar came loose in her hand, squishing between her fingers, and the floor warped around her, sucking her down.

And then threads of Air seized her, yanking her free. The room lurched as she was tossed forward into Egwene, knocking the younger woman backward. The two Yellows—white-haired Musarin and short Gelarna—had jumped to their feet, and the glow of saidar surrounded them. Musarin called for help, watching the melting cell with wide eyes.

Leane righted herself, scrambling off of Egwene, her dress and legs coated with the strange wax, and stumbled back away from the cell. The floor here in the hallway felt stable. Light, how she wished she could embrace the source herself! But she was too full of forkroot, not to mention the shield.

Egwene climbed to her feet with a hand from Leane. The room fell still, lamp flickering, all of them staring at the cell. The melting had stopped, the bars split, the top halves frozen with drips of steel on their tips, the lower halves bent inward. Many had been flattened to the stones by Leane’s escape. The floor inside the room had bowed inward, like a funnel, the rocks stretching. Those stones bore gashes where Leane’s scrambling had scored them.

Leane stood, her heart beating, realizing that only seconds had passed. What should they do? Scuttle away in fear? Was the rest of the hallway going to melt, too?

Egwene stepped forward, tapping her toe against one of the bars. It resisted. Leane took a step forward, and her dress crunched, bits of stone—like mortar—falling free. She reached down and brushed at her skirt, and felt rough rock coating it instead of wax.

“These sorts of events are more frequent,” Egwene said calmly, glancing at the two Yellows. “The Dark One is getting stronger. The Last Battle approaches. What is your Amyrlin doing about it?”

Musarin glanced at her; the tall, aging Aes Sedai looked deeply disturbed. Leane took Egwene’s lead, forcing herself to be calm as she stepped up beside the Amyrlin, chips of stone falling from her dress.

“Yes, well,” Musarin said. “You shall return to your rooms, novice. And you...” She glanced at Leane, then at the remains of the cell. “We will... have to relocate you.”

“And get me a new dress as well, I assume,” Leane said, folding her arms.

Musarin’s eyes flickered at Egwene. “Go. This is no longer your business, child. We will care for the prisoner.”

Egwene gritted her teeth, but then she turned to Leane. “Stay strong,” she said, and hurried away, heading down the hallway.

Exhausted, disturbed by the stone-warping bubble of evil, Egwene walked with swishing skirts toward the Tower wing that contained the novices’ quarters. What would it take to convince the foolish women that there wasn’t time to spare for squabbling!

The hour was late, and few women walked the corridors, none of them novices. Egwene passed several servants bustling at late-night duties, their slippered feet falling softly on the floor tiles. These sectors of the Tower were populated enough that lamps burned on the walls, trimmed low, giving an orange light. A hundred different polished tiles reflected the flickering flames, looking like eyes that watched Egwene as she walked.

It was hard to comprehend that this quiet evening had turned into a trap that nearly killed Leane. If even the ground itself could not be trusted, then what could? Egwene shook her head, too tired, too sore, to think of solutions at the moment. She barely noticed when the floor tiles turned from gray to a deep brown. She just continued on, into the Tower wing, counting the doors she passed. Hers was the seventh...

She froze, frowning at a pair of Brown sisters: Maenadrin—a Saldaean—and Negaine. The two had been speaking in hushed whispers, and they frowned at Egwene as she passed them. Why would they be in the novices’ quarters?

But wait. The novices’ quarters didn’t have brown floor tiles. This section should have had nondescript gray tiles. And the doors in the hallway were spaced far too widely. This didn’t look at all like the novices’ quarters! Had she been so tired that she’d walked in completely the wrong direction?

She retraced her steps, passing the two Brown sisters again. She found a window and looked out. The rectangular white expanse of the Tower wing extended around her, just as it should. She wasn’t lost.

Perplexed, she looked back down the hallway. Maenadrin had folded her arms, regarding Egwene with a set of dark eyes. Negaine, tall and spindly, stalked up to Egwene. “What business have you here this time of night, child?” she demanded. “Did a sister send for you? You should be back in your room for sleep.”

Wordlessly, Egwene pointed out the window. Negaine glanced out, frowning. She froze, gasping softly. She looked back in at the hallway, then back out, as if unable to believe where she was.

In minutes, the entire Tower was in a frenzy. Egwene, forgotten, stood at the side of a hallway with a cluster of bleary-eyed novices as sisters argued with one another in tense voices, trying to determine what to do. It appeared that two sections of the Tower had been swapped, and the slumbering Brown sisters had been moved from their sections on the upper levels down into the wing. The novices’ rooms—intact—had been placed where the section of Brown sisters had been. Nobody remembered any motion or vibration when the swap happened, and the transfer appeared seamless. A line of floor tiles had been split right down the middle, then melded with tiles from the section that had shifted.

It’s getting worse and worse, Egwene thought as the Brown sisters decided—for now—that they would have to accept the switch. They couldn’t very well move sisters into rooms the size that novices used.

That would leave the Browns divided, half in the wing, half in their old location—with a clump of novices in the middle of them. A division aptly representative of the less-visible divisions the Ajahs were suffering.

Eventually, exhausted, Egwene and the others were sent off to sleep—though now she had to trudge up many flights of stairs before reaching her bed.

CHAPTER 7
The Plan for Arad Doman

“A storm is coming,” Nynaeve said, looking out the window of the manor.

“Yes,” replied Daigian from her chair by the hearth without bothering to glance at the window. “I think you might be right, dear. I swear, it seems as if it has been overcast for weeks!”

“It has been a single week,” Nynaeve said, holding her long, dark braid in one hand. She glanced at the other woman. “I haven’t seen a patch of clear sky in over ten days.”

Daigian frowned. Of the White Ajah, she was plump and curvaceous. She wore a small stone on her forehead as Moiraine had so long ago, though Daigian’s was an appropriately white moonstone. The tradition apparently had something to do with being a Cairhien noblewoman, as did the four colored slashes the woman wore on her dress.

“Ten days, you say?” Daigian said. “Are you certain?”

Nynaeve was. She paid attention to the weather; that was one of the duties of a village Wisdom. She was Aes Sedai now, but that didn’t mean she stopped being who she was. The weather was always there, in the back of her mind. She could sense the rain, sun, or snow in the wind’s whispers.

Lately, however, the sensations hadn’t been like whispers at all. More like distant shouts, growing louder. Or like waves crashing against one another, still far to the north, yet harder and harder to ignore.

“Well,” Daigian said, “I’m certain this isn’t the only time in history that it has been cloudy for ten days!”

Nynaeve shook her head, tugging on her braid. “It’s not normal,” she said. “And those overcast skies aren’t the storm I’m talking about. It’s still distant, but it’s coming. And it is going to be terrible. Worse than any I’ve ever seen. Far worse.”

“Well, then,” Daigian said, sounding slightly uncomfortable, “we will deal with it when it arrives. Are you going to sit down so that we can continue?”

Nynaeve glanced at the plump Aes Sedai. Daigian was extremely weak in the Power. The White might just be the weakest Aes Sedai that Nynaeve had ever met. By traditional—yet unspoken—rules, that meant that Nynaeve should be allowed to take the lead.

Unfortunately, Nynaeve’s position was still questionable. Egwene had raised her to the shawl by decree, just as she’d raised Elayne: there had been no testing, nor had Nynaeve sworn on the Oath Rod. To most—even those who accepted Egwene’s place as the true Amyrlin—those omissions made Nynaeve something less than Aes Sedai. Not an Accepted, but hardly equal to a sister.

The sisters with Cadsuane were particularly bad, as they hadn’t declared for either the White Tower or the rebels. And the sisters sworn to Rand were worse; most were still loyal to the White Tower, not seeing a problem with supporting both Elaida and Rand. Nynaeve still wondered what Rand had been thinking, allowing sisters to swear fealty to him. She’d explained his mistake to him on several occasions—quite rationally—but talking to Rand these days was like talking to a stone. Only less effective and infinitely more infuriating.

Daigian was still waiting for her to sit. Rather than provoke a contest of wills, Nynaeve did so. Daigian was still suffering from having lost her Warder—Eben, an Asha’man—during the fight with the Forsaken. Nynaeve had spent that fight completely absorbed by providing Rand with immense amounts of saidar to weave.

Nynaeve could still remember the sheer joy—the awesome euphoria, strength, and sheer feel of life—that had come from drawing that much power. It frightened her. She was glad the ter’angreal she’d used to touch that power had been destroyed.

But the male ter’angreal was still intact: an access key to a powerful sa’angreal. As far as Nynaeve knew, Rand had not been able to persuade Cadsuane to return it to him. As well she shouldn’t. No human being, not even the Dragon Reborn, should channel that much of the One Power. The things one could be tempted to do....

She’d told Rand that he needed to forget about the access key. Like talking to a stone. A big, red-haired, iron-faced idiot of a stone. Nynaeve harrumphed to herself. That caused Daigian to raise an eyebrow. The woman was quite good at controlling her grief, though Nynaeve—whose room in the Domani mansion was beside Daigian’s—heard the woman crying to herself at night. It was not easy to lose one’s Warder.

Lan....

No, best not to think of him at the moment. Lan would be fine. Only at the end of his journey of thousands of miles would he be in danger. It was there he intended to throw himself at the Shadow like a lone arrow loosed at a brick wall...

No! she thought to herself. He will not be alone. I saw to that.

“Very well,” Nynaeve said, forcing herself to focus, “let us continue.” She showed no deference to Daigian. She was doing this woman a favor, distracting her from her grief. That was how Corele had explained it, anyway. It wasn’t, certainly, for Nynaeve’s benefit that they met. She had nothing to prove. She was Aes Sedai, no matter what the others thought or implied.

This was all just a ruse to help Daigian. That was it. Nothing else.

“Here is the eighty-first weave,” the White said. The glow of saidar sprang up around her, and she channeled, crafting a very complex weave of Fire, Air and Spirit. Complex, but useless. The weave created three burning rings of fire in the air which glowed with unusual light, but what was the point of that? Nynaeve already knew how to make fireballs and balls of light; why waste time learning weaves that repeated what she already knew, only in a far more complicated way? And why did each ring have to be a slightly different color?

Nynaeve waved an indifferent hand, repeating the weave exactly. “Honestly,” she said, “that one seems the most useless of the bunch! What is the point of all of these?”

Daigian pursed her lips. She said nothing, but Nynaeve knew that Daigian thought that this all should be far more difficult for Nynaeve than it was. Eventually, the woman spoke. “You cannot be told much about the testing. The only thing I can say is that you will need to repeat these weaves exactly, and do so while undergoing extreme distraction. When the time comes, you will understand.”

“I doubt it,” Nynaeve said flatly, copying the weave three times over while she spoke. “Because—as I believe I’ve told you a dozen times already—I’m not going to be taking the test. I’m already Aes Sedai.”

“Of course you are, dear.”

Nynaeve ground her teeth. This had been a bad idea. When she’d approached Corele—supposedly a member of Nynaeve’s own Ajah—the woman had refused to acknowledge her as an equal. She’d been pleasant about it, as Corele often was, but the implication had been clear. She’d even seemed sympathetic. Sympathetic! As if Nynaeve needed her pity. She had suggested that if Nynaeve knew the hundred weaves each Accepted learned for the test to become Aes Sedai, it might help with her credibility.

The problem was, this placed Nynaeve in a situation where she was all but treated as a student again. She did see the use in knowing the hundred weaves—she’d spent far too short a time studying them, and virtually every sister knew it. However, by accepting the lessons, she hadn’t meant to imply that she saw herself as a student!

She reached for her braid, but stopped herself. Her visible expressions of emotion were another factor in how she was treated by the other Aes Sedai. If only she had that ageless face! Bah!

Daigian’s next weave made a popping sound in the air, and once again the weave itself was needlessly complex. Nynaeve copied it with barely a thought, committing it to memory at the same time.

Daigian stared at the weave for a moment, a distant look on her face.

“What?” Nynaeve asked testily.

“Hmm? Oh, nothing. I just... the last time I made that weave, I used it to startle... I... never mind.”

Eben. Her Warder had been young, maybe fifteen or sixteen, and she had been very fond of him. Eben and Daigian had played games together like a boy and an elder sister rather than Aes Sedai and Warder.

A youth of only sixteen, Nynaeve thought, dead. Did Rand have to recruit them so young?

Daigian’s face grew stiff, controlling her emotions far better than Nynaeve would have been able to.

Light send that I’m never in the same situation, she thought. At least not for many, many years. Lan wasn’t her Warder yet, but she meant to have him as soon as possible. He was already her husband, after all. It still angered her that Myrelle had the bond.

“I might be able to help, Daigian,” Nynaeve said, leaning forward, laying her hand on the other woman’s knee. “If I were to attempt a Healing, perhaps....”

“No,” the woman said curtly.

“But—”

“I doubt you could help.”

“Anything can be Healed,” Nynaeve said stubbornly, “even if we don’t know how yet. Anything save death.”

“And what would you do, dear?” Daigian asked. Nynaeve wondered if she refused to call her by name on purpose, or if it was an unconscious effect of their relationship. She couldn’t use “child,” as she would with an actual Accepted, but to call her “Nynaeve” might imply equality.

“I could do something,” Nynaeve said. “This pain you feel, it has to be an effect of the bond, and therefore something to do with the One Power. If the Power causes your pain, then the Power can take that pain away.”

“And why would I want that?” Daigian asked, in control once again.

“Well... well, because it’s pain. It hurts.”

“It should,” Daigian said. “Eben is dead. Would you want to forget your pain if you lost that hulking giant of yours? Have your feelings for him cut away like some spoiled chunk of flesh in an otherwise good roast?”

Nynaeve opened her mouth, but stopped. Would she? It wasn’t that simple—her feelings for Lan were genuine, and not due to a bond. He was her husband, and she loved him. Daigian had been possessive of her Warder, but it had been the affection of an aunt for her favored nephew. It wasn’t the same.

But would Nynaeve want that pain taken away? She closed her mouth, suddenly realizing the honor in Daigian’s words. “I see. I’m sorry.”

“It is nothing, dear,” Daigian continued. “The logic of it seems simple to me at times, but I fear that others do not accept it. Indeed, some might argue that the logic of the issue depends on the moment and the individual. Shall I show you the next weave?”

“Yes, please,” Nynaeve said, frowning. She herself was so strong in the Power—one of the strongest alive—that she often took little thought for her ability. It was much as a very tall man rarely paid attention to other people’s heights; everyone else was shorter than he, and so their different heights didn’t matter much.

What was it like to be this woman, who had spent longer as an Accepted than anyone else in memory? A woman who had barely attained the shawl, doing so—many said—by an eyelash and a whisper? Daigian had to show deference to all other Aes Sedai. If two sisters met, Daigian was always the lesser. If more than two sisters met, Daigian served them tea. Before the more powerful sisters, she was expected to scrape and grovel. Well, not that, she was Aes Sedai, but still....

“There is something wrong with this system, Daigian,” Nynaeve said absently.

“With the testing? It seems appropriate that there should be some kind of test to determine worthiness, and the performing of difficult weaves under stress strikes me as fulfilling that need.”

“I didn’t mean that,” Nynaeve said, “I mean the system that determines how we are treated. By each other.”

Daigian flushed. It was inappropriate to refer to another’s power, in any way. But, well, Nynaeve had never been very good at conforming to other people’s expectations. Particularly when they expected foolishness. “There you sit,” she said, “knowing as much as any other Aes Sedai—knowing more than many, I’d wager—and the moment any Accepted just off apron strings gains the shawl, you have to do what she says.”

Daigian’s blush deepened. “We should move on.”

It just wasn’t right. Nynaeve let the matter drop, however. She’d stepped in this particular pit once before in teaching the Kinswomen to stand up for themselves in front of Aes Sedai. Before long, they’d been standing up to Nynaeve too, which had not been her intention. She wasn’t certain she wanted to attempt a similar revolution among the Aes Sedai themselves.

She tried to turn back to the tutoring, but that sense of an impending storm kept drawing her eyes to the window. The room was on the second floor and had a good view of the camp outside. It was by pure happenstance that Nynaeve caught a glimpse of Cadsuane; that gray bun set with innocent-looking ter’angreal was obvious even from a distance. The woman was crossing the courtyard, Corele at her side, walking at a fair clip.

What is she doing? Nynaeve wondered. Cadsuane’s pace made her suspicious. What had happened? Something to do with Rand? If that man had gotten himself hurt again...

“Excuse me, Daigian,” Nynaeve said, standing. “I just remembered something that I must see to.”

The other woman started. “Oh. Well, all right then, Nynaeve. We can continue another time, I suppose.”

It wasn’t until Nynaeve had hurried out the door and down the stairs that she realized Daigian had actually used her name. She smiled as she walked out onto the green.

There were Aiel in the camp. That itself wasn’t uncommon; Rand often had a complement of Maidens to act as guards. But these Aiel were men, wearing the dusty brown cadin’sor and carrying spears at their sides. A fair number of them wore the headbands bearing Rand’s symbol on them.

That was why Cadsuane had been in such a hurry; if the Aiel clan chiefs had arrived, then Rand would be wanting to meet with them. Nynaeve strode across the green—which wasn’t very green at all—in a huff. Rand hadn’t sent for her. Probably not because he didn’t want to include her, but because he was just too wool-headed to think of it. Dragon Reborn or not, the man rarely thought to share his plans with others. She would have thought that after all this time, he would have realized the importance of getting advice from someone a little more experienced than he. How many times now had he gotten himself kidnapped, wounded or imprisoned because of his rashness?

All these others in camp might bow and scrape and dote on him, but Nynaeve knew that he was really just a sheepherder from Emond’s Field. He still got into trouble the same way he had when he and Matrim had pulled pranks as boys. Only now instead of flustering the village girls he could throw entire nations into chaos.

On the far northern side of the green—directly opposite the manor house, close to the front of the bulwark—the Aiel newcomers were setting up their camp, complete with tan tents. They arranged them differently than the Saldaeans; instead of straight rows, the Aiel preferred small groups, organized by society. Some of Bashere’s men called greetings to passing Aiel, but none moved to help. Aiel could be a prickly bunch, and while Nynaeve found the Saldaeans to be far less irrational than most, they were Borderlanders. Skirmishes with Aiel had been a way of life for them in earlier years, and the Aiel war itself was not so distant. For now, they all fought on the same side, but that didn’t keep the Saldaeans from stepping a little more carefully now that the Aiel had arrived in force.

Nynaeve scanned for signs of Rand or any Aiel she knew. She doubted that Aviendha would be with the group; she would be back in Caemlyn with Elayne, helping secure the throne of Andor. Nynaeve still felt guilty for leaving them, but somebody had needed to help Rand cleanse saidin. That wasn’t the sort of thing you left him to do alone. Now, where was he?

Nynaeve stopped at the boundary between the Saldaeans and the new Aiel camp. Soldiers carrying lances nodded to her in respect. Aiel in brown and green glided across the grass, their motions smooth as water. Women in blues and greens carried wash from the stream beside the manor house. Broad-needled pines shivered in the wind. The camp bustled like the village green at Bel Tine. Which way had Cadsuane gone?

She sensed channeling in the northeast. Nynaeve smiled, setting off with a determined step, yellow skirt swishing. The channeling would either be an Aes Sedai or a Wise One. Sure enough, she soon saw a larger Aiel tent erected at the corner of the green. She strode straight for it, her stares—or perhaps her reputation—encouraging Saldaean soldiers to get out of her way. The Maidens guarding the entrance did not try to stop her.

Rand stood inside, wearing black and red, leafing through maps on a sturdy wooden table, his left arm held behind his back. Bashere stood at his side, nodding to himself and studying a small map he held before him.

Rand looked up as Nynaeve entered. When had he started looking so much like a Warder, with that instant glance of assessment? Those eyes which picked out every threat, body tense as if expecting an attack at any time? I should never have let that woman take him from the Two Rivers, she thought. Look what it’s done to him.

She immediately frowned at her own foolishness. If Rand had stayed in the Two Rivers, he would have gone mad and perhaps destroyed them all—assuming, of course, the Trollocs, the Fades or the Forsaken themselves hadn’t accomplished the task first. If Moiraine hadn’t come for Rand, he’d now be dead. With him would have gone the light and hope of the world. It was just hard to abandon her old prejudices.

“Ah, Nynaeve,” Rand said, relaxing and turning back to his maps. He motioned for Bashere to inspect one of them, then turned back to her. “I was about to send for you. Rhuarc and Bael are here.”

Nynaeve raised an eyebrow, folding her arms. “Oh?” she asked flatly. “And here I’d assumed that all the Aiel in the camp meant we had been attacked by Shaido.”

His face hardened at her tone, and those eyes of his grew... dangerous. But then he lightened, shaking his head, almost as if to clear it. Some of the old Rand—the Rand who had been an innocent sheepherder—seemed to return. “Yes, of course you would have noticed,” he said. “I’m glad you are here. We will begin as soon as the clan chiefs return. I insisted they see their people settled before we began.”

He waved for her to sit; there were cushions on the floor, but no chairs. Aiel spurned those, and Rand would want them to be comfortable. Nynaeve eyed him, surprised at how tight her own nerves had become. He was just a wool-headed villager, no matter how much influence he’d found. He was.

But she could not shake away that look in his eyes, that flash of anger. Holding a crown was said to change many men for the worse. She intended to see that didn’t happen to Rand al’Thor, but what recourse would she have if he suddenly decided to have her imprisoned? He wouldn’t do that, would he? Not Rand.

Semirhage said he was mad, Nynaeve thought. Said that... he heard voices from his past life. Is that what is happening when he cocks his head, as if listening to things that nobody else can hear?

She shivered. Min was there in the tent, of course, sitting and reading a book in the corner: The Wake of the Breaking. Min looked too intently at the pages; she’d listened to the exchange between Rand and Nynaeve. What did she think of the changes in him? She was closer to him than anyone—close enough that, if they’d all been back in Emond’s Field, Nynaeve would have given the two of them a tongue-lashing strong enough to make their heads spin. Even though they weren’t in Emond’s Field and she was no longer Wisdom, she’d made certain that Rand knew of her displeasure. His response had been simple: “If I marry her, my death will bring her even more pain.”

More idiocy, of course. If you were planning to go into danger, then it was all the more reason to get married. Obviously. Nynaeve seated herself on the floor, arranging her skirts, and pointedly did not think of Lan. He had such a long distance to cover, and....

And she had to make sure that she was given his bond before he reached the Blight. Just in case.

Suddenly, she sat upright. Cadsuane. The woman wasn’t there; besides guards, the tent contained only Rand, Nynaeve, Min and Bashere. Was she off planning something that Nynaeve—

Cadsuane entered. The gray-haired Aes Sedai wore a simple tan dress. She relied on presence, not clothing, to draw attention, and of course her hair sparkled with its golden ornaments. Corele followed her in.

Cadsuane wove a ward against eavesdropping, and Rand did not object. He should stick up for himself more—that woman practically had him tamed, and it was unsettling how much he let her get away with. Like questioning Semirhage. The Forsaken were far too powerful and dangerous to treat lightly. Semirhage should have been stilled the moment they captured her... though Nynaeve’s opinion in that regard was directly related to her own experience in keeping Moghedien captive.

Corele gave Nynaeve a smile; she tended to have one of those for everyone. Cadsuane, as usual, ignored Nynaeve. That was fine. Nynaeve had no need for her approval. Cadsuane thought she could order everyone around just because she’d outlived every other Aes Sedai. Well, Nynaeve knew for a fact that age had little to do with wisdom. Cenn Buie had been as old as rain, but had about as much sense as a pile of rocks.

Many of the camp’s other Aes Sedai and camp leaders trickled into the tent over the next few minutes; perhaps Rand really had sent messengers, and would have called for Nynaeve. The newcomers included Merise and her Warders, one of whom was the Asha’man Jahar Narishma, bells tinkling on the ends of his braids. Damer Flinn, Elza Penfell, a few of Bashere’s officers also arrived. Rand glanced up when each one entered, alert and wary, but he quickly turned back to his maps. Was he growing paranoid? Some madmen grew suspicious of everyone.

Eventually, Rhuarc and Bael made their appearance, along with several other Aiel. They stalked through the tent’s large entrance like cats on the prowl. In an odd turn, a batch of Wise Ones—whom Nynaeve had been able to sense when they got close—were among the group. Often, with Aiel, an event was either considered clan chief business or Wise One business—much as things happened back in the Two Rivers with the Village Council and the Women’s Circle. Had Rand asked for them all to attend, or had they decided to come together for reasons of their own?

Nynaeve had been wrong about Aviendha’s location; she was shocked to see the tall, red-haired woman hovering at the back of the group of Wise Ones. When had she left Caemlyn? And why was she carrying that worn cloth with a frayed edge?

Nynaeve didn’t get a chance to ask Aviendha any questions, as Rand nodded to Rhuarc and the others, motioning for them to sit, which they did. Rand himself remained standing beside his map table. He placed his arms behind his back, hand clasping stump, a thoughtful look on his face. He offered no preamble. “Tell me of your work in Arad Doman,” he said to Rhuarc. “My scouts inform me that this land is hardly at peace.”

Rhuarc accepted a cup of tea from Aviendha—so she was still considered an apprentice—and turned to Rand. The clan chief did not drink. “We have had very little time, Rand al’Thor.”

“I don’t look for excuses, Rhuarc,” Rand said. “Only results.”

This brought flashes of anger to the faces of several of the other Aiel, and the Maidens at the doorway exchanged a furious burst of hand signals.

Rhuarc himself displayed no anger, though Nynaeve did think his hand tightened on his cup. “I have shared water with you, Rand al’Thor,” he said. “I would not think that you would bring me here to offer insults.”

“No insults, Rhuarc,” Rand said. “Just truths. We don’t have time to waste.”

“No time, Rand al’Thor?” Bael said. The clan chief of the Goshien Aiel was a very tall man, and he seemed to tower, even when sitting down. “You left many of us in Andor for months with nothing to do but polish spears and scare wetlanders! Now you send us to this land with impossible orders, then follow a few weeks later and demand results?”

“You were in Andor to help Elayne,” Rand said.

“She did not want or need help,” Bael said with a snort. “And she was right to refuse aid. I’d rather run across the entire Waste with a single skin of water than have leadership of my clan handed to me by another.”

Rand’s expression grew dark again, his eyes stormy, and Nynaeve was again reminded of the tempest brewing to the north.

“This land is broken, Rand al’Thor,” Rhuarc said, his voice calmer than Bael’s. “It is not making excuses to explain that fact, and it is not cowardice to be cautious about a difficult task.”

“We must have peace here,” Rand growled. “If you can’t manage—”

“Boy,” Cadsuane said, “perhaps you want to stop and think. How often have you known the Aiel to fail you? How often have you failed, hurt, or offended them?”

Rand snapped his mouth closed, and Nynaeve gritted her teeth at not having spoken up herself. She glanced at Cadsuane, who had been given a chair to sit upon—Nynaeve couldn’t recall ever seeing her sit on the floor. The chair had obviously been taken from the manor; it was constructed from pale elgilrim horns—which stretched out like open palms—and had a red cushion. Aviendha handed Cadsuane a cup of tea, which she sipped carefully.

With obvious effort, Rand pulled his temper back under control. “I apologize, Rhuarc, Bael. It has been a... wearing few months.”

“You have no toh,” Rhuarc said. “But please, sit. Let us share shade and speak with civility.”

Rand sighed audibly, then nodded, seating himself before the other two. The several Wise Ones in attendance—Amys, Melaine, Bair—didn’t seem inclined to participate in the discussion. They were observers, much—Nynaeve realized—as she herself was.

“We must have peace in Arad Doman, my friends,” Rand said, unrolling a map between them on the tent rug.

Bael shook his head. “Dobraine Taborwin has done well with Bandar Eban,” he said, “but Rhuarc spoke rightly when he called this land broken. It is like a piece of Sea Folk porcelain dropped from the tip of a high mountain. You told us to discover who was in charge and see if we could restore order. Well, as far as we can tell, no one is in charge. Each city has been left to fend for itself.”

“What of the Council of Merchants?” Bashere said, sitting down with them, knuckling his mustache as he studied the map. “My scouts say that they still hold some measure of power.”

“In the cities where they rule, this is true,” Rhuarc said. “But their influence is weak. There is only one member still in the capital, and she has little control there. We have stopped the fighting in the streets, but only with great effort.” He shook his head. “This is what comes from trying to control more lands than holds and clan. Without their king, these Domani do not know who is in charge.”

“Where is he?” Rand asked.

“Nobody knows, Rand al’Thor. He vanished. Some say months ago, others say it has been years.”

“Graendal might have him,” Rand whispered, studying the map intently. “If she’s here. Yes, I think she probably is. But where? She won’t be in the king’s palace, that’s not her way. She will have some place that is hers, a place where she can display her trophies. A location that would make a trophy itself, but not a place that one would think of immediately. Yes, I know. You’re right. That’s how she did it before....”

Such familiarity! Nynaeve shivered. Aviendha knelt beside her, holding out a cup of tea. Nynaeve took it, meeting the woman’s eyes, then began to whisper a question. Aviendha shook her head curtly. Later, her expression seemed to imply. Aviendha rose and retreated to the back of the room and then, grimacing, took out her frayed cloth and began pulling the threads out one at a time. What was the point of that?

“Cadsuane,” Rand said, stopping his whispering, speaking up. “What do you know of the Council of Merchants?”

“They are mostly women,” Cadsuane said, “and women of great cunning at that. However, they are also a selfish lot. It is their duty to choose the king, and with Alsalam’s disappearance, they should have found a replacement. Too many of them see this as an opportunity, and that keeps them from reaching an agreement. I can assume that they’ve separated in face of this chaos to secure power in their home cities, fighting for position and alliances as they each offer their own choice of king for the others to consider.”

“And this Domani army fighting the Seanchan?” Rand asked. “Is that their doing?”

“I know nothing of that.”

“You speak of the man Rodel Ituralde,” Rhuarc said.

“Yes.”

“He fought well twenty years ago,” Rhuarc said, rubbing his square chin. “He is of the ones you call a Great Captain. I should like to dance the spears with him.”

“You will not,” Rand said sharply. “Not while I live, at least. We will secure this land.”

“And you expect us to do this without fighting?” Bael asked. “This Rodel Ituralde reportedly fights like a sandstorm against the Seanchan, drawing their ire better—even—than you yourself, Rand al’Thor. He will not sleep while you conquer his homeland.”

“Once again,” Rand said, “we are not here to conquer.”

Rhuarc sighed. “Then why send us, Rand al’Thor? Why not use your Aes Sedai? They understand wetlanders. This country is like an entire kingdom of children, and we are too few adults to bring them to obedience. Particularly if you forbid us to spank them.”

“You can fight,” Rand said, “but only when you need to. Rhuarc, this has gone beyond the ability of Aes Sedai to fix. You can do this. People are intimidated by the Aiel; they will do as you say. If we can stop the Domani war with the Seanchan, perhaps this Daughter of the Nine Moons will see that I am serious in my desire for peace. Then maybe she’ll agree to meet with me.”

“Why not do as you’ve done before?” Bael asked. “Seize the land for your own?”

Bashere nodded, glancing at Rand.

“It won’t work, not this time,” Rand said. “A war here would take too many resources. You spoke of this Ituralde—he’s holding off the Seanchan with virtually no supplies and few men. Would you have us engage a man that resourceful?”

How thoughtful Bashere seemed, as if he were indeed considering engaging this Ituralde. Men! They were all the same. Offer them a challenge, and they’d be curious, no matter that the challenge would likely end with them spitted on a lance.

“There are few men alive like Rodel Ituralde,” Bashere said. “He would be a great help to our cause, for certain. I’ve always wondered if I could beat him.”

“No,” Rand said again, looking over the map. From what Nynaeve could see, it showed troop concentrations, marked with annotations. The Aiel were an organized mess of charcoal marks across the top of Arad Doman; Ituralde’s forces were deep into Almoth Plain, fighting Seanchan. The middle of Arad Doman was a sea of chaotic black annotations, likely the personal forces of various nobles.

“Rhuarc, Bael,” Rand said. “I want you to seize the members of the Council of Merchants.”

The tent was silent.

“Are you certain that is wise, boy?” Cadsuane finally asked.

“They’re in danger from the Forsaken,” Rand said, idly tapping the map with his fingers. “If Graendal really has taken Alsalam, then getting him back will do us no good. He’ll be so far beneath her Compulsion that he’ll barely have the mind of a child. She’s not subtle; she never has been. We need the Council of Merchants to choose a new king. That’s the only way to bring this kingdom peace and order.”

Bashere nodded. “It’s bold.”

“We are not kidnappers,” Bael said, frowning.

“You are what I say you are, Bael,” Rand said quietly.

“We are still free people, Rand al’Thor,” Rhuarc said.

“I will change the Aiel with my passing,” Rand said with a shake of his head. “I don’t know what you’ll be once this is all through, but you cannot remain what you were. I will have you take up this task. Of all those who follow me, I trust you the most. If we’re going to take the members of the Council without throwing this land further into war, I will need your cunning and stealth. You can prowl into their palaces and manors as you infiltrated the Stone of Tear.”

Rhuarc and Bael regarded one another, sharing a frown.

“Once you take the Council of Merchants,” Rand continued, apparently unconcerned about their worries, “move the Aiel into the cities where those merchants ruled. Make sure those cities don’t degenerate. Restore order as you did in Bandar Eban. From there, begin hunting bandits and enforcing the law. Supplies will soon arrive from the Sea Folk. Take cities on the coast first, then move inland. Within a month’s time, the Domani should be flowing toward you, rather than running away from you. Offer them safety and food, and order will take care of itself.”

A surprisingly rational plan. Rand really did have a clever mind, for a man. There was a lot of good in him, perhaps the very soul of a leader, if he could keep his temper in check.

Rhuarc continued to rub his chin. “It would help if we had some of your Saldaeans, Davram Bashere. Wetlanders do not like following Aiel. If they can pretend that wetlanders are in charge, then they will be more likely to come to us.”

Bashere laughed. “We’ll also make nice targets. As soon as we seize a few members of the merchant council, the rest will send assassins after us for certain!”

Rhuarc laughed as if he thought that a grand joke. The Aiel sense of humor was its own sort of oddity. “We will keep you alive, Davram Bashere. If we do not, we will stuff you and set you on that horse of yours, and you will make a grand quiver for their arrows!”

Bael laughed loudly at this, and the Maidens by the doors began another round of handtalk.

Bashere chuckled, though he didn’t seem to understand the humor either. “You sure this is what you want to do?” he asked Rand.

Rand nodded. “Divide some of your forces, send them with Aiel groups as Rhuarc decides.”

“And what of Ituralde?” Bashere asked, looking back at the map. “There won’t be peace for long once he realizes we’ve invaded his homeland.”

Rand tapped the map softly for a moment. “I will deal with him personally,” he finally said.

CHAPTER 8
Clean Shirts

A dockmaster’s sky, it was called. Those gray clouds, blotting out the sun, temperamental and sullen. Perhaps the others—here in the camp just outside of Tar Valon—hadn’t noticed the persistent clouds, but Siuan had. No sailor would miss them. Not dark enough to promise a storm, not light enough to imply smooth waters either.

A sky like that was ambiguous. You could set out and never see a drop of rain or a hint of stormwinds. Or, with barely a moment’s notice, you could find yourself in the middle of a squall. It was deceitful, that blanket of clouds.

Most ports charged a daily fee to each vessel moored in their harbors, but on days of storm—when no fisher could make a catch—the fee would be halved, or spared entirely. On a day like this, however, when there were gloomy clouds but no proof of storms, the dockmasters would charge a full day’s rent. And so the fisher had to make a choice. Stay in the harbor and wait, or go fishing to recoup the dock fees. Most days like this didn’t turn stormy. Most days like this were safe.

But if a storm did come on a day like this, it tended to be very bad. Many of the most terrible tempests in history had sprung from a dockmaster’s sky. That’s why some fishers had another name for clouds like those. They called them a lionfish’s veil. And it had been days since the sky had offered anything different. Siuan shivered, pulling her shawl close. It was a bad sign.

She doubted many fishers had chosen to go out this day.

“Siuan?” Lelaine asked, voice tinged with annoyance. “Do hurry up. And I don’t want to hear any more superstitious nonsense about the sky. Honestly.” The tall Aes Sedai turned away and continued along the walk.

Superstitious? Siuan thought indignantly. A thousand generations of wisdom isn’t superstition. It’s good sense! But she said nothing, and hurried after Lelaine. Around her, the camp of Aes Sedai loyal to Egwene continued its daily activities, as steady as a clock’s gears. If there was one thing Aes Sedai were good at, it was creating order. Tents were arranged in clusters, by Ajah, as if to imitate the White Tower’s layout. There were few men, and most of those who passed—soldiers on errands from Gareth Bryne’s armies, grooms caring for horses—were quick to be about their duties. They were far outnumbered by worker women, many of whom had gone so far as to embroider the pattern of the Flame of Tar Valon on their skirts or bodices.

One of the only oddities about the village—if one ignored the fact that there were tents instead of rooms and wooden walkways instead of tiled hallways—was the number of novices. There were hundreds and hundreds. In fact, the number had to be over a thousand now, many more than the Tower had held in recent memory. Once the Aes Sedai were reunited, novices’ quarters that hadn’t been used in decades would have to be reopened. They might even need the second kitchen.

These novices bustled around in families, and most of the Aes Sedai tried to ignore them. Some did this out of habit; who paid attention to novices? But others did so out of displeasure. By their estimation, women aged enough to be mothers and grandmothers—indeed, many who were mothers and grandmothers—shouldn’t have been entered into the novice book. But what could be done? Egwene al’Vere, the Amyrlin Seat, had declared that it should happen.

Siuan could still sense shock in some of the Aes Sedai she passed. Egwene was to have been carefully controlled. What had gone wrong? When had the Amyrlin gotten away from them? Siuan would have taken more smug delight from those looks if she hadn’t herself worried about Egwene’s continued captivity in the White Tower. That was a lionfish’s veil indeed. Potential for great success, but also for great disaster. She hurried after Lelaine.

“What is the status of the negotiations?” Lelaine asked, not bothering to look at Siuan.

You could go to one of the sessions yourself and find out, Siuan thought. But Lelaine wanted to be seen supervising, not taking an active hand. And asking Siuan, in the open, was also a calculated move. Siuan was known as one of Egwene’s confidants and still carried some measure of notoriety for having been Amyrlin herself. The things Siuan said to Lelaine weren’t important; being seen saying them, however, increased the woman’s influence in camp.

“They don’t go well, Lelaine,” Siuan said. “Elaida’s emissaries never promise anything, and seem indignant any time we raise important topics, like reinstating the Blue Ajah. I doubt they have any real authority from Elaida to make binding agreements.”

“Hmm,” Lelaine said thoughtfully, nodding to a group of novices. They bobbed into curtsies. In a shrewd decision, Lelaine had begun talking very acceptingly of the new novices.

Romanda’s dislike of them was well known; now that Egwene was gone, Romanda had begun to imply that once reconciliation was achieved, this “foolishness” with the aged novices would have to be dealt with swiftly. However, more and more of the other sisters were seeing Egwene’s wisdom. There was great strength among the new novices, and not a few would be raised to Accepted the moment the White Tower was achieved. Recently—by offering tacit acceptance of these women—Lelaine had given herself yet another tie to Egwene.

Siuan eyed the retreating family of novices. They had curtsied to Lelaine almost as quickly and as deferentially as they would have to the Amyrlin. It was becoming clear that, after months at a stalemate, Lelaine was winning the battle against Romanda for superiority.

And that was a very large problem.

Siuan didn’t dislike Lelaine. She was capable, strong-willed and decisive. They had been friends once, though their relationship had changed drastically with Siuan’s changed position.

Yes, she might say she liked Lelaine. But she didn’t trust the woman, and she particularly didn’t want to see her as Amyrlin. In another era, Lelaine would have done well in the position. But this world needed Egwene, and—friendship or not—Siuan couldn’t afford to let this woman displace the rightful Amyrlin. And she had to make certain Lelaine wasn’t taking action to prevent Egwene’s return.

“Well,” Lelaine said, “we shall have to discuss the negotiations in the Hall. The Amyrlin wants them to continue, so we certainly can’t let them stop. Yet there must be a way to make them effective. The Amyrlin’s desires must be seen to, wouldn’t you say?”

“Undoubtedly,” Siuan replied flatly.

Lelaine eyed her, and Siuan cursed herself for letting her emotions show. Lelaine needed to believe that Siuan was on her side. “I’m sorry, Lelaine. That woman has me in a fury. Why does Elaida hold talks if she won’t concede a single point?”

Lelaine nodded. “Yes. But who can say why Elaida does what she does? The Amyrlin’s reports indicate that Elaida’s leadership of the Tower has been... erratic at best.”

Siuan simply nodded. Fortunately, Lelaine didn’t seem to suspect Siuan’s disloyalty. Or she didn’t care about it. It was remarkable how innocuous the women thought Siuan was, now that her power had been so greatly reduced.

Being weak was a new experience. From her very early days in the White Tower, sisters had noted her strength and her sharpness of mind. Whispers of her becoming Amyrlin had begun almost immediately—at times, it seemed that the Pattern itself had pushed Siuan directly into the Seat. Though her hasty ascent to Amyrlin while so young had come as a surprise to many, she herself had not been shocked. When you fished with squid as bait, you shouldn’t be surprised to catch fangfish. If you wanted to catch eels, you used something else entirely.

When she’d first been Healed, her reduced power had been a disappointment. But that was changing. Yes, it was infuriating to be beneath so many, to lack respect from those around her. However, because she was weaker in power, many seemed to assume she was weaker in political skill as well! Could people really forget so quickly? She was finding her new status among the Aes Sedai to be liberating.

“Yes,” Lelaine said as she nodded to another group of novices, “I believe that it is time to send envoys to the kingdoms that al’Thor hasn’t conquered. We may not hold the White Tower itself, but that is no reason to abandon our political stewardship of the world.”

“Yes, Lelaine,” Siuan said. “But are you certain that Romanda won’t argue against that?”

“Why would she?” Lelaine said dismissively. “It wouldn’t make sense.”

“Little Romanda does makes sense,” Siuan said. “I think she disagrees just to spite you. But I did see her chatting with Maralenda earlier in the week.”

Lelaine frowned. Maralenda was a distant cousin to the Trakand line.

Siuan covered a smile. It was amazing how much you could accomplish when people dismissed you. How many women had she dismissed because they lacked visible power? How often had she been manipulated much as she now manipulated Lelaine?

“I shall look into it,” Lelaine said. It didn’t matter what she discovered; as long as she was kept busy worrying about Romanda, she wouldn’t be able to spend as much time stealing power from Egwene.

Egwene. The Amyrlin needed to hurry up and finish with her plotting in the White Tower. What good would it do to undermine Elaida if the Aes Sedai outside crumbled while Egwene wasn’t watching? Siuan could only keep Romanda and Lelaine distracted for so long, particularly now that Lelaine held such a distinct advantage. Light! Some days, she felt that she was trying to juggle buttered live silverpike.

Siuan checked the position of the sun behind that dockmaster’s sky. It was late afternoon. “Fish guts,” she muttered. “I’ll need to be going, Lelaine.”

Lelaine glanced at her. “You have washing, I presume? For that ruffian of a general of yours?”

“He’s not a ruffian,” Siuan snapped, then cursed herself. She’d lose much of her advantage if she kept snapping at those who thought themselves her betters.

Lelaine smiled, eyes twinkling as if she knew something special. Insufferable woman. Friend or not, Siuan had half a mind to wipe...

No. “I apologize, Lelaine,” Siuan forced out. “I get on edge, thinking of what that man demands of me.”

“Yes,” Lelaine said, downturning her lips. “I’ve considered on this, Siuan. The Amyrlin may have suffered Bryne’s bullying of a sister, but I won’t stand for it. You’re one of my attendants now.”

One of your attendants? Siuan thought. I thought that I was just supposed to support you until Egwene returned.

“Yes,” Lelaine mused, “I should think it’s time to put an end to your servitude to Bryne. I shall pay off your debt, Siuan.”

“Pay off my debt?” Siuan said, feeling a moment of panic. “Is that wise? Not that I wouldn’t mind being free of that man, of course, but my position offers me quite useful opportunities for listening in on his plans.”

“Plans?” Lelaine asked, frowning.

Siuan cringed inwardly. The last thing she wanted was to imply wrongdoing on Bryne’s part. Light, the man was strict enough to make Warders look sloppy in keeping their oaths.

She should just let Lelaine end this foolish servitude, but the thought made her stomach churn. Bryne was already disappointed that she’d broken her oath to him months before. Well, she hadn’t broken that oath—she’d just postponed her period of service. But try convincing the stubborn fool of that fact!

If she took the easy way out now, what would he think of her? He’d think that he’d won, that she’d proven herself unable to keep her word. There was no way she’d let that happen.

Besides, she wasn’t about to let Lelaine be the one who freed her. That would just move her debt from Bryne to Lelaine. The Aes Sedai would collect it in far more subtle ways, but each coin would end up being paid one way or another, if only through demands of loyalty.

“Lelaine,” Siuan said softly, “I don’t suspect the good general of anything. However, he controls our armies. Can he really be trusted to do as required without any supervision?”

Lelaine sniffed. “I’m not certain any man can be trusted without direction.”

“I hate doing his laundry,” Siuan said. Well, she did. Even if she wouldn’t be stopped from doing it for all of the gold in Tar Valon. “But if the duty keeps me close, with a listening ear....”

“Yes,” Lelaine said, nodding slowly. “Yes, I see that you are right. I will not forget your sacrifice, Siuan. Very well, you are dismissed.”

Lelaine turned, glancing down at her hand, as if longing for something. Probably wishing for the day when—as Amyrlin—she could offer her Great Serpent ring for a kiss when she parted ways with another sister. Light, but Egwene needed to return soon. Buttered silverpike! Buttered, flaming silverpike!

Siuan made her way toward the edge of the Aes Sedai camp. Bryne’s army surrounded the Aes Sedai camp in a large ring, but she was on the far side of the ring from Bryne. It would take a good half-hour to walk to his command post. Fortunately, she found a wagon driver who was taking a load of supplies, brought through a gateway, to the army. The short, grizzled man immediately agreed to let her ride with the turnips, though he did seem puzzled why she didn’t go get a horse, as befitted an Aes Sedai’s station. Well, it wasn’t that far, and riding with vegetables was a fate far less undignified than being forced to jounce around on the back of a horse. If Gareth Bryne wanted to complain about her tardiness, then he’d get an earful, he would!

She settled back against a lumpy sack of turnips, brown-skirted legs hanging over the back of the wagon. As the cart rolled up a slight incline, she could see over the Aes Sedai camp—with its white tents and citylike organization. Ringed around it was the army, with smaller tents in neat straight lines, and ringed around them was a growing ring of camp followers.

Beyond it all, the landscape was brown, the winter snows melted, but spring sprouts scarce. The countryside was pocketed with thickets of scrub oak; shadows in valleys and twisting lines of chimney smoke pointed to distant villages. It was surprising how familiar, how welcome, these grasslands felt. When she had first come to the White Tower, she’d been sure she’d never come to love this landlocked countryside.

Now she had lived much more of her life in Tar Valon than she had in Tear. It was difficult at times to recall that girl who had sewn nets and gone on early-morning trawling trips with her father. She’d become something else, a woman who traded in secrets rather than fish.

Secrets, those powerful, dominating secrets. They had become her life. No love save for youthful dalliances. No time for entanglements, or much room for friendships. She’d focused on only one thing: finding the Dragon Reborn. Helping him, guiding him, hopefully controlling him.

Moiraine had died following that same quest, but at least she had been able to go out and see the world. Siuan had grown old—in spirit, if not in body—cooped up in the Tower, pulling her strings and nudging the world. She’d done some good. Time would tell if those efforts had been enough.

She didn’t regret her life. Yet, at this moment, passing army tents—holes and broken ruts in the path shaking the cart, making it rattle like dried fishbones in a kettle—she envied Moiraine. How often had Siuan bothered to look out of her window toward the beautiful green landscape, before it all had started going sickly? She and Moiraine had fought so hard to save this world, but they had left themselves without anything to enjoy in it.

Perhaps Siuan had made a mistake in staying with the Blue, unlike Leane, who had taken the opportunity in their stilling and Healing to change to the Green Ajah. No, Siuan thought, wagon rattling, smelling of bitter turnips. No, I’m still focused on saving this blasted world. There would be no switching to the Green for her. Though, thinking of Bryne, she did wish that the Blue were a little more like the Green in certain ways.

Siuan the Amyrlin hadn’t had any time for entanglements, but what of Siuan the attendant? Guiding people with quiet manipulations required a lot more skill than bullying them with the power of the Amyrlin Seat, and it was proving more fulfilling. But it also left her without the crushing weight of responsibility she’d felt during her years leading the White Tower. Was there, perhaps, room in her life for a few more changes?

The wagon reached the far side of the army camp, and she shook her head at her own foolishness as she hopped down, then nodded her thanks to the wagon driver. Was she a girl, barely old enough for her first full-day blackfish trawl? There was no use in thinking of Bryne that way. At least not right now. There was too much to do.

She walked along the perimeter of the camp, army tents to her left. It was growing dark, and lanterns burning precious oil illuminated disorganized shanties and tents to her right. Ahead of her, a small circular palisade rose on the army side. It didn’t enclose the entire army—in fact, it was only big enough for several dozen officer tents and some larger command tents. It was to act as a fortification in an emergency, but always as a center of operations—Bryne felt it good to have a physical barrier separating the larger camp from the place where he held conference with his officers. With the confusion of the civilian camp, and with such a long border to patrol, it would be too easy for spies to approach his tents otherwise.

The palisade was only about three-quarters done, but work was progressing quickly. Perhaps he would choose to surround the entire army, eventually, if the siege continued long enough. For now, Bryne felt that the small, fortified command post would not only suggest security to the soldiers, but also lend them a sense of authority.

The eight-foot wooden stakes rose from the ground ahead, a line of sentinels standing side by side, points raised to the sky. While holding a siege one generally had a lot of manpower for work like this. The guards at the palisade gate knew to let her pass, and she quickly made her way to Bryne’s tent. She did have washing to do, but most of it would probably have to wait until the morning. She was supposed to meet Egwene in Tel’aran’rhiod as soon as it grew dark, and the glow of the sunset was already beginning to fade.

Bryne’s tent, as usual, shone with only a very faint light. While people outside squandered their oil, he scrimped. Most of his men lived better than he did. Fool man. Siuan pushed her way into the tent without calling. If he was foolish enough to change without going behind the screen, then he was foolish enough to be seen doing it.

He was seated at his desk working by the light of a solitary candle. He appeared to be reading scout reports.

Siuan sniffed, letting the tent flaps droop closed behind her. Not a single lamp! That man! “You will ruin your eyes reading by such poor light, Gareth Bryne.”

“I have read by the light of a single candle for most of my life, Siuan,” he said, turning over a page and not looking up. “And I’ll have you know that my eyesight is the same as it was when I was a boy.”

“Oh?” Siuan said. “So you’re saying that your eyesight was poor to begin with?”

Bryne grinned, but continued his reading. Siuan sniffed again, loudly, to make sure he heard. Then she wove a globe of light and sent it hovering over beside his desk. Fool man. She wouldn’t have him going so blind he fell in battle to an attack he didn’t see. After setting the light beside his head—perhaps too close for him to be comfortable with it without scooting over—she walked over to pluck clothing off the drying line she’d strung across the center of the tent. He’d voiced no complaint about her using the inside of his tent for drying laundry, and hadn’t taken it down. That was a disappointment. She’d been anticipating chastising him for that.

“A woman from the camp outside approached me today,” Bryne said, shifting his chair to the side, then picking up another stack of pages. “She offered me laundry service. She’s organizing a group of washwomen in the camp, and she claimed that she could do my wash more quickly and effectively than a single distracted maidservant could.”

Siuan froze, sparing a glance at Bryne, who was looking through his papers. His strong jaw was lit on the left by the even white light of her globe and on the right by the flickering orange candlelight. Some men were made weak by age, others were made to look tired or slovenly. Bryne had simply become distinguished, like a pillar, crafted by a master stonemason, then left to the elements. Age hadn’t reduced Bryne’s effectiveness or his strength. It had simply given him character, dusting his temples with silver, creasing his firm face with lines of wisdom.

“And what did you tell this woman?” she asked.

Bryne turned a page over. “I told her that I was satisfied with my laundry.” He looked up at her. “I have to say, Siuan, that I’m surprised. I had assumed that an Aes Sedai would know little of work such as this, but rarely have my uniforms known such a perfect combination of stiffness and comfort. You are to be commended.”

Siuan turned away from him, hiding her blush. Fool man! She had caused kings to kneel before her! She manipulated the Aes Sedai and planned for the deliverance of mankind itself! And he complimented her on her laundering skills?

The thing was, from Bryne, that was an honest and meaningful compliment. He didn’t look down on washwomen, or on runner boys. He treated all with equity. A person didn’t gain stature in Gareth Bryne’s eyes by being a king or queen; one gained stature by keeping to one’s oaths and doing one’s duty. To him, a compliment on laundry well done was as meaningful as a medal awarded to a soldier who had stood his ground before the enemy.

She glanced back at him. He was still watching her. Fool man! She hurriedly took down another of his shirts and began folding it.

“You never did explain to my satisfaction why you broke your oath,” he said.

Siuan froze, looking at the back wall of the tent, splayed with shadows of the still-hanging laundry. “I thought that you understood,” she said, continuing to fold. “I had important information for the Aes Sedai in Salidar. Besides, I couldn’t very well let Logain run about free, now could I? I had to find him and get him to Salidar.”

“Those are excuses,” Bryne said. “Oh, I know that they’re true. But you’re Aes Sedai. You can cite four facts and use them to hide the real truth as effectively as another might use lies.”

“So you claim I’m a liar?” she demanded.

“No,” he said. “Just an oathbreaker.”

She glanced at him, eyes widening. Why, she’d let him hear the rough side of....

She hesitated. He was watching her, bathed in the glow of the two lights, eyes thoughtful. Reserved, but not accusatory. “That question drove me here, you know,” he said. “It’s why I hunted you all that way. It’s why I finally swore to these rebel Aes Sedai, though I had little wish to be pulled into yet another war at Tar Valon. I did it all because I needed to understand. I had to know. Why? Why did the woman with those eyes—those passionate, haunting eyes—break her oath?”

“I told you I was going to return to you and fulfill that oath,” Siuan said, turning away from him and snapping a shirt in front of her to unwrinkle it.

“Another excuse,” he said softly. “Another answer from an Aes Sedai. Will I ever have the full truth from you, Siuan Sanche? Has anyone ever had it?” He sighed, and she heard papers rustle, the candle’s light flickering in the faint stir of his movements as he turned back to his reports.

“When I was still an Accepted in the White Tower,” Siuan said softly, “I was one of four people present when a Foretelling announced the imminent birth of the Dragon Reborn on the slopes of Dragonmount.”

His rustling froze.

“One of the three others present,” Siuan continued, “died on the spot. Another died soon after. I’m confident that she—the Amyrlin Seat herself—was murdered by the Black Ajah. Yes, it exists. If you tell anyone that I admitted that fact, I’ll have your tongue.

“Anyway, before she died, the Amyrlin sent Aes Sedai out hunting the Dragon. One by one, those women vanished. The Blacks must have tortured their names out of Tamra before killing her. She would not have given up those names easily. I still shiver, sometimes, thinking about what she must have gone through.

“Soon, there were just the two of us left who knew. Moiraine and me. We weren’t supposed to hear the Foretelling. We were just Accepted, in the room by happenstance. I believe that Tamra was somehow able to withhold our names from the Blacks, for if she hadn’t, we’d have undoubtedly been murdered like the others.

“That left two of us. The only two in all of the world who knew what was coming. At least, the only two who served the Light. And so I did what I had to, Gareth Bryne. I dedicated my life to preparing for the Dragon’s coming. I swore to see us through the Last Battle. To do whatever was necessary—whatever was necessary—to bear the burden I had been given. There was only one other person I knew I could trust, and she is now dead.”

Siuan turned, meeting his eyes across the tent. A breeze rippled the walls and fluttered the candle, but Bryne sat still, watching her.

“So you see, Gareth Bryne,” she said. “I had to delay fulfilling my oath to you because of other oaths. I swore to see this through to the end, and the Dragon has not yet met his destiny at Shayol Ghul. A person’s oaths must follow their order of importance. When I swore to you, I did not promise to serve you immediately. I was intentionally careful on that point. You will call it an Aes Sedai wordplay. I would call it something else.”

“Which is?” he asked.

“Doing what was necessary to protect you, your lands and your people, Gareth Bryne. You blame me for the loss of a barn and some cows. Well, then I suggest that you consider the cost to your people should the Dragon Reborn fail. Sometimes, prices must be paid so that a more important duty can be served. I would expect a soldier to understand that.”

“You should have told me,” he said, still meeting her eyes. “You should have explained who you were.”

“What?” Siuan asked. “Would you have believed me?”

He hesitated.

“Besides,” she said frankly, “I didn’t trust you. Our previous meeting had not been particularly... amicable, as I recall. Could I have taken that risk, Gareth Bryne, on a man I did not know? Could I have given him control over the secrets I alone know, secrets that needed to be passed on to the new Amyrlin Seat? Should I have spared even a moment when the entire world was wearing the hangman’s noose?”

She held those eyes, demanding an answer.

“No,” he finally admitted. “Burn me, Siuan, but no. You shouldn’t have waited. You shouldn’t have made that oath in the first place!”

You should have been more careful to listen,” she said, finally breaking his gaze with a sniff. “I suggest that if you swear someone into service in the future, you be careful to stipulate a time frame for that service.”

Bryne grunted and Siuan whipped the final shirt off of the drying line, causing it to shake, making a blurry shadow on the back wall of the tent.

“Well,” Bryne said, “I told myself I’d only hold you to work as long as it took me to get that answer. Now I know. I would say that—”

“Stop!” Siuan snapped, spinning on him and pointing.

“But—”

“Don’t say it,” she threatened. “I’ll gag you and leave you hanging in the air until sundown tomorrow. Don’t think that I won’t.”

Bryne sat, silent.

“I’m not finished with you yet, Gareth Bryne.” She whipped the shirt in her hands, then folded it. “I shall tell you when I am.”

“Light, woman,” he muttered, almost under his breath. “If I’d known you were Aes Sedai before chasing you to Salidar... if I’d known what I was doing....”

“What?” she demanded. “You wouldn’t have hunted me down?”

“Of course I would have,” he said indignantly. “I’d have just been more careful, and perhaps come better prepared. I went off hunting boars with a rabbit knife instead of a spear!”

Siuan set the folded shirt on top of the others, then picked up the stack. She gave him a suffering look. “I will do my best to pretend that you didn’t just compare me to a boar, Bryne. Kindly be a little more cautious with your tongue. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself without a maidservant, and you’ll have to let those ladies in the camp take up your laundry.”

He gave her a bemused look. Then he just laughed. She failed at keeping her own grin to herself. Well, after that exchange, he would know who was in control of this association.

But... Light! Why had she told him about the Foretelling? She’d rarely told anyone about that! As she packed the shirts in his trunk, she glanced at Bryne, who was still shaking his head and chuckling.

When other oaths no longer have a hold on me, she thought. When I’m certain the Dragon Reborn is doing what he is supposed to, perhaps there will be time. For once, I’m actually starting to look forward to being done with this quest. How remarkable.

“You should be bedding down, Siuan,” Bryne said.

“It’s early yet,” she said.

“Yes, but it’s sunset. Every third day you bed down uncharacteristically early, wearing that odd ring you have hidden between the cushions of your pallet.” He turned over a paper on his desk. “Please give my kind regards to the Amyrlin.”

She turned toward him, slack-jawed. He couldn’t know about Tel’aran’rhiod, could he? She caught him smiling in satisfaction. Well, perhaps he didn’t know about Tel’aran’rhiod, but he’d obviously guessed that the ring and her schedule had something to do with communicating with Egwene. Sly. He glanced over the top of his papers at her as she passed, and his eyes had a twinkle to them.

“Insufferable man,” she muttered, sitting down on her pallet and dismissing her globe of light. Then she sheepishly fished out the ring ter’angreal and put it around her neck, turned her back on him and lay down, trying to will herself to sleep. She made certain to rise early every third day so that she’d be tired at night. She wished she could put herself to sleep as easily as Egwene did.

Insufferable... insufferable man! She’d have to do something to get back at him. Mice in the bedsheets. That would be a good payback.

She lay for too long a time, but eventually coaxed herself to sleep, smiling faintly to herself at the prospect of an apt revenge. She awoke in Tel’aran’rhiod wearing nothing but a scandalous, barely covering shift. She yelped, immediately replacing that—through concentration—with a green dress. Green? Why green? She made it blue. Light! How was it that Egwene was always so good at controlling things in Tel’aran’rhiod while Siuan could barely keep her clothing from switching at every idle thought? It must have something to do with the fact that Siuan had to wear this inferior ter’angreal copy, which didn’t work as well as the original. It made her look insubstantial to others who saw her.

She was standing in the middle of the Aes Sedai camp, surrounded by tents. The flaps of any given structure would be open one moment, then closed the next. The sky was troubled by a violent, yet strangely silent, storm. Curious, but things were often strange in Tel’aran’rhiod. She closed her eyes, willing herself to appear in the study of the Mistress of Novices in the White Tower. When she opened her eyes, she was there. A small, wood-paneled room with a stout desk and a table for strappings.

She would have liked to have the original ring, but Elayne had taken that one with her. She should be thankful for even a small catch, as her father had been fond of saying. She could have been left without any of the rings. The Sitters thought this one had been with Leane when she’d been captured.

Was Leane all right? At any moment, the false Amyrlin could opt for execution. Siuan knew all too well how spiteful Elaida could be; she still felt a stab of sorrow when she thought of poor Alric. Had Elaida felt a single moment of guilt over murdering a Warder in cold blood, before the woman she was tearing down had been properly deposed?

“A sword, Siuan?” Egwene’s voice suddenly asked. “That’s novel.”

Siuan looked down, shocked to find herself holding a bloody sword, likely intended for Elaida’s heart. She made it vanish, then regarded Egwene. The girl looked the part of the Amyrlin, wearing that magnificent golden gown, her brown hair in an intricate arrangement set with pearls. Her face wasn’t ageless yet, but Egwene was getting very good at the calm serenity of an Aes Sedai. In fact, she seemed to have grown measurably better at that since her capture.

“You look well, Mother,” Siuan said.

“Thank you,” Egwene said, with a faint smile. She showed more of herself around Siuan than she did the others. They both knew how heavily Egwene had relied on Siuan’s teaching to get where she was.

Though she’d probably have made it there anyway, Siuan admitted. Just not quite as quickly.

Egwene glanced at the room around them, then grimaced faintly. “I realize I suggested this location last time, but I have seen enough of this room lately. I will meet you in the novices’ dining hall.” She vanished.

An odd choice, but very unlikely to conceal unwanted ears. Siuan and Egwene weren’t the only ones who used Tel’aran’rhiod for clandestine meetings. Siuan closed her eyes—she didn’t need to, but it seemed to help her—and imagined the novices’ dining hall, with its rows of benches and its bare walls. When she opened her eyes, she was there, as was Egwene. The Amyrlin settled back and a majestic stuffed chair appeared behind her, catching her gracefully as she sat. Siuan didn’t trust herself to do anything so complicated; she simply sat down on one of the benches.

“I think we may want to start meeting more frequently, Mother,” Siuan said, tapping the table as she ordered her thoughts.

“Oh?” Egwene asked, sitting up straighter. “Has something happened?”

“Several somethings,” Siuan said, “and I’m afraid a few of them smell as ripe as last week’s catch.”

“Tell me.”

“One of the Forsaken was in our camp,” Siuan said. She hadn’t wanted to think about that too frequently. The knowledge made her skin crawl.

“Is anyone dead?” Egwene asked, voice calm though her eyes looked to be steel.

“No, bless the Light,” Siuan said. “Other than those you already know about. Romanda made the connection. Egwene, the creature had been with us for some time, in hiding.”

“Who?”

“Delana Mosalaine,” Siuan said. “Or her serving woman, Halima. Most likely Halima, as I’ve known Delana for a great long time.” Egwene’s eyes widened just faintly. Halima had waited on Egwene. Egwene had been touched and served by one of the Forsaken. She took the news well. Like an Amyrlin.

“But Anaiya was killed by a man,” Egwene said. “Were those murders different?”

“No. Anaiya wasn’t murdered by a man, but by a woman wielding saidin. It must have been—it’s the only thing that makes sense.”

Egwene nodded slowly. Anything was possible where the Dark One was concerned. Siuan smiled in satisfaction and pride. This girl was learning to be Amyrlin. Light, she was Amyrlin!

“There’s more?” Egwene asked.

“Not much more on this topic,” Siuan said. “They got away from us, unfortunately. Disappeared the very day we discovered them.”

“What warned them, I wonder.”

“Well, that involves one of the other things I need to tell you.” Siuan took a deep breath. The worst of it was out, but this next part wouldn’t be much easier to stomach. “There was a meeting of the Hall that day, attended by Delana. In that meeting, an Asha’man announced that he could sense a man channeling in the camp. We think that is what informed her. It wasn’t until after Delana fled that we made the connection. It was that same Asha’man who told us that his fellow had encountered a woman who could channel saidin.”

“And why was an Asha’man in the camp?” Egwene asked coolly.

“He’d been sent as an envoy,” Siuan explained. “From the Dragon Reborn. Mother, it appears some of the men who follow al’Thor have bonded Aes Sedai.”

Egwene blinked a single time. “Yes. I had heard rumors of this. I had hoped that they were exaggerated. Did this Asha’man say who gave Rand permission to commit such an atrocity?”

“He’s the Dragon Reborn,” Siuan said, grimacing. “I don’t think he feels he needs permission. But, in his defense, it appears he didn’t know it was happening. The women his men bonded were sent by Elaida to destroy the Black Tower.”

“Yes.” Egwene finally showed a sliver of emotion. “So the rumors are accurate. All too accurate.” Her beautiful dress retained its shape, but bled to a deep brown in color, like Aiel clothing. Egwene didn’t seem to notice the change. “Will Elaida’s reign of disasters never cease?”

Siuan just shook her head. “We’ve been offered forty-seven Asha’man to bond as restitution, of sorts, for the women al’Thor’s men bonded. Hardly a fair trade, but the Hall decided to accept the offer nonetheless.”

“As well they should have,” Egwene said. “We shall have to deal with the Dragon’s foolishness at a later date. Perhaps his men acted without his direct orders, but Rand must take responsibility. Men. Bonding women!”

“They claim saidin is cleansed,” Siuan said.

Egwene raised an eyebrow, but did not object. “Yes,” she said, “I suppose that might be a reasonable possibility. We will need further confirmation, of course. But the taint arrived when all seemed won; why should it not leave when all seems to be approaching pure madness?”

“I hadn’t considered it that way,” Siuan said. “Well, what should we do, Mother?”

“Let the Hall deal with it,” Egwene said. “It seems they have matters in hand.”

“They’d be better at keeping them in hand if you’d return, Mother.”

“Eventually,” Egwene said. She sat back and laced her fingers in her lap, somehow looking far older than her face would suggest. “My work is here, for now. You’ll have to see that the Hall does as it should. I have great faith in you.”

“And it’s appreciated, Mother,” Siuan said, keeping her frustration inside. “But I’m losing control of them. Lelaine has begun to set herself up as a second Amyrlin—and is doing it by pretending to support you. She’s seen that appearing to act in your name serves herself.”

Egwene pursed her lips. “I would have thought Romanda would take the advantage, considering that she discovered the Forsaken.”

“I think she assumed she’d hold the advantage,” Siuan said, “but she spent too long basking in her victory. Lelaine has, with no small effort, become the most devoted servant of the Amyrlin who has ever lived. You would think that you and she were the closest of confidants, to hear her speak! She’s appropriated me as her attendant, and each time the Hall meets it’s ‘Egwene wanted this’ and ‘Remember what Egwene said when we did that.’ ”

“Clever,” Egwene said.

“Brilliant,” Siuan said, sighing. “But we knew one of them was eventually going to claw her way ahead of the other. I keep diverting her toward Romanda, but I don’t know how long I can keep her distracted.”

“Do your best,” Egwene said. “But don’t worry if Lelaine refuses to be diverted.”

Siuan frowned. “But she’s usurping your place!”

“By building upon it,” Egwene said, smiling. She finally noticed that her dress had changed to brown, for she switched it back in a heartbeat, not breaking the conversation. “Lelaine’s gambit will only succeed if I fail to return. She is using me as a source of authority. When I return, she’ll have no choice but to accept my leadership. She’ll have spent all of her effort building me up.”

“And if you don’t return, Mother?” Siuan asked softly.

“Then it will be better for the Aes Sedai to have a strong leader,” Egwene said. “If Lelaine has been the one to secure that strength, then so be it.”

“She has good reason to make certain you don’t return, you know,” Siuan said. “At the very least, she’s betting against you.”

“Well, she can’t very well be blamed for that.” Egwene let down her guard enough to show a grimace. “I’d be tempted to bet against myself, if I were on the outside. You’ll simply have to deal with her, Siuan. I can’t let myself be distracted. Not when I see so much potential for success here, and not when there is an even greater price for failure.”

Siuan knew that stubborn set to Egwene’s jaw. There would be no persuading her tonight. Siuan would simply have to try again during their next meeting.

All of it—the cleansing, the Asha’man, the crumbling of the Tower—made her shiver uncomfortably. Though she’d been preparing for these days for most of her life, it was still unsettling to have them finally arrive. “The Last Battle really is coming,” Siuan said, mostly to herself.

“It is,” Egwene said, voice solemn.

“And I’m going to face it with barely a lick of my former power,” Siuan said, grimacing.

“Well, perhaps we can get you an angreal once the Tower is whole again,” Egwene said. “We’ll be using everything we have when we ride against the Shadow.”

Siuan smiled. “That would be nice, but not necessary. I’m just grumbling out of habit, I suppose. I’m actually learning to deal with my... new situation. It’s not so difficult to stomach, now that I see that it has some advantages.”

Egwene frowned, as if trying to figure out what advantages there could be in lessened power. Finally, she shook her head. “Elayne once mentioned a room to me in the Tower, filled with objects of power. I assume it really exists?”

“Of course,” Siuan said. “The basement storeroom. It’s in the second level of the basement, on the northeast side. Little room with a plain wooden door, but you can’t miss it. It’s the only one in the hallway that is locked.”

Egwene nodded to herself. “Well, I can’t defeat Elaida through brute force. Still, it is nice to know of that. Is there anything else remarkable to report?”

“Not at the moment, Mother,” Siuan said.

“Then return and get some sleep.” Egwene hesitated. “And next time, we’ll meet in two days. Here in the novices’ dining hall, though we may want to begin meeting out in the city. I don’t trust this place. If there was a Forsaken in our camp, I’d bet half my father’s inn that there’s one spying on the White Tower too.”

Siuan nodded. “Very well.” She closed her eyes, and soon found herself blinking awake back in Bryne’s tent. The candle was out, and she could hear Bryne breathing quietly from his pallet on the other side of the tent. She sat up and looked across at him, though it was too dark to see anything more than shadows. Strangely, after talking about Forsaken and Asha’man, the sturdy general’s presence comforted her.

Is there anything else remarkable to report, Egwene? Siuan thought idly, rising to change out of her dress behind the screen and put on her sleeping gown. I think I might be in love. Is that remarkable enough? To her, it seemed stranger than the taint being cleansed or a woman channeling saidin.

Shaking her head, she tucked the dream ter’angreal back in its hiding place, then snuggled down beneath her blankets.

She’d forgo the mice, just this once.

CHAPTER 9
Leaving Malden

A cool spring breeze tickled Perrin’s face. Such a breeze should have carried with it the scents of pollen and crisp morning dew, of dirt overturned by sprouts pushing into the light, of new life and an earth reborn.

This breeze carried with it only the scents of blood and death.

Perrin turned his back to the breeze, knelt down and inspected the wagon’s wheels. The vehicle was a sturdy construction of hickory, wood darkened with age. It appeared to be in good repair, but Perrin had learned to be careful when dealing with equipment from Malden. The Shaido didn’t scorn wagons and oxen as they did horses, but they—like all Aiel—believed in traveling light. They hadn’t maintained the wagons or carts, and Perrin had found more than one hidden flaw during his inspection.

“Next!” he bellowed as he checked the first wheel’s hub. The comment was directed at the crowd of people waiting to speak with him.

“My Lord,” a voice said. It was deep and rough, like wood scraping against wood. Gerard Arganda, First Captain of Ghealdan. His scent was of well-oiled armor. “I must press the issue of our departure. Allow me to ride ahead with Her Majesty.”

The “Her Majesty” he referred to was Alliandre, Queen of Ghealdan. Perrin continued working with the wheel; he wasn’t as familiar with carpentry as he was with smithing, but his father had taught each of his sons to recognize signs of trouble in a wagon. Better to fix the problem before leaving than to be stranded halfway to the destination. Perrin ran his fingers across the smooth, brown hickory. The grain was clearly visible, and he tested for cracks with questing fingers, searching each point of stress. All four wheels looked good.

“My Lord?” Arganda asked.

“We all march together,” Perrin said. “That’s my order, Arganda. I won’t have the refugees thinking that we’re abandoning them.”

Refugees. There were over a hundred thousand of those to care for. A hundred thousand! Light, that was far more than lived in the entire Two Rivers. And Perrin was in charge of feeding every one of them. Wagons. Many men didn’t understand the importance of a good wagon. He lay down on his back, preparing to inspect the axles, and that gave him a view of the overcast sky, partially blocked by Malden’s nearby city wall.

The city was large for one this far north in Altara. It was almost more of a fortress than a city, with daunting walls and towers. Until the day before, the land around this city had been home to the Shaido Aiel, but they were gone now, many killed, others fled, their captives freed by an alliance between Perrin’s forces and the Seanchan.

The Shaido had left him two things: a scent of blood on the air and a hundred thousand refugees to care for. Though he was happy to give them their freedom, his goal in liberating Malden had been far different: the rescue of Faile.

Another Aiel group had been advancing on his position, but they’d slowed, then camped, and were no longer rushing toward Malden. Perhaps they’d been warned by Shaido fleeing the battle that they had a large army before them, one that had defeated the Shaido despite their channelers. It seemed this new group behind Perrin had as little desire to engage him as he had to engage them.

That gave him time. A little bit, at least.

Arganda was still watching. The captain wore his polished breastplate and had his slotted helmet under his arm. The squat man wasn’t a puffed-up fluff of an officer, but a common man who had risen through the ranks. He fought well and did as instructed. Usually.

“I’m not going to bend on this, Arganda,” Perrin said, pulling himself along the damp ground beneath the wagon.

“Could we at least use gateways instead?” Arganda asked, kneeling down, graying hair—shorn short—nearly brushing the ground as he peeked under the wagon.

“The Asha’man are near dead from fatigue,” Perrin snapped. “You know that.”

“They’re too tired for a large gateway,” Arganda said, “but maybe they could send a small group. My lady is exhausted from her captivity! Surely you don’t mean for her to march!”

“The refugees are tired too,” Perrin said. “Alliandre can have a horse to ride, but she’s leaving when the rest of us do. Light send that’s soon.”

Arganda sighed, but nodded. He stood up as Perrin ran fingers along the axle. He could tell stress in wood with a glance, but he preferred touch. Touch was more reliable. There was always a crack or a splintering where wood weakened, and you could feel it near to breaking. Wood was reliable like that.

Unlike men. Unlike himself.

He gritted his teeth. He didn’t want to think about that. He had to keep working, had to keep doing something to distract himself. He liked to work. He’d been given far too few opportunities for it lately. “Next!” he said, voice echoing against the bottom of the wagon.

“My Lord, we should attack!” a boisterous voice declared from beside the vehicle.

Perrin thumped his head back against the well-trampled grass, closing his eyes. Bertain Gallenne, Lord Captain of the Winged Guards, was to Mayene what Arganda was to Ghealdan. Aside from that single similarity, the two captains were about as different as men could be. Perrin could see Bertain’s large, beautifully worked boots, with clasps shaped like hawks, from beneath the wagon.

“My Lord,” Bertain continued. “A fine charge from the Winged Guard would scatter that Aiel rabble, of this I’m certain. Why, we easily dealt with the Aiel here in the city!”

“We had the Seanchan, then,” Perrin said, finishing with the rear axle and wriggling his way to the front to check the other one. He wore his old, stained coat. Faile would chastise him for that. He was supposed to present himself as a lord. But would she really expect him to wear a fine coat if he was going to spend an hour lying in the muddy grass, looking at the bottoms of wagons?

Faile wouldn’t want him to be in the muddy grass in the first place. Perrin hesitated, hand on the front axle, thinking of her raven hair and distinctive Saldaean nose. She held the sum total of his love. She was everything to him.

He had succeeded—he’d saved her. So why did he feel as if things were nearly as bad as they had been? He should rejoice, he should be ecstatic, should be relieved. He’d worried so much about her during her captivity. And yet now, with her safety secure, everything still felt wrong. Somehow. In ways he couldn’t explain.

Light! Would nothing just work as it was supposed to? He reached down for his pocket, wanting to finger the knotted cord he’d once carried there. But he’d thrown that away. Stop it! he thought. She’s back. We can go back to the way it was before. Can’t we?

“Yes, well,” Bertain continued, “I suppose the departure of the Seanchan could be a problem in an assault. But that Aiel group camped out there is smaller than what we already defeated. And if you are worried, you could send word to that Seanchan general and bring her back. Surely she would wish to fight alongside us again!”

Perrin forced himself back to the moment. His own foolish problems were irrelevant; right now, he needed to get these wagons moving. The front axle was good. He turned and pushed himself out from underneath the wagon.

Bertain was of medium height, though the three plumes rising from his helmet made him look taller. He had on his red eye patch—Perrin didn’t know where he’d lost the eye—and his armor gleamed. He seemed excited, as if he thought Perrin’s silence meant they would attack.

Perrin stood, dusting off his plain brown trousers. “We’re leaving,” he said, then held up a hand to forbid further argument. “We defeated the septs here, but we had them dosed with forkroot and there were damane on our side. We’re tired, wounded, and we have Faile back. There’s no further reason to fight. We run.”

Bertain didn’t look satisfied, but he nodded and turned away, stomping across the muddy ground toward where his men sat their mounts. Perrin looked at the small group of people who waited in a cluster around the wagon to speak with him. Once, this kind of business had frustrated Perrin. It seemed like pointless work, as many of the supplicants already knew what his answer would be.

But they needed to hear those answers from him, and Perrin had come to understand the importance of that. Besides, their questions helped distract him from the strange tension he felt at having rescued Faile.

He walked toward the next wagon in line, his small entourage following him. There were a good fifty of the wagons set in a long caravan train. The first ones were loaded with salvage from Malden; the middle ones were in the process of being treated likewise, and he had only two left to inspect. He had wanted to be well out of Malden before sunset. That would probably carry him far enough away to be safe.

Unless these new Shaido decided to give chase in revenge. With the number of people Perrin had to move, a blind man would be able to track them.

The sun drooped toward the horizon, a shining spot behind the cloud cover. Light, but this was a mess, with the chaos of organizing refugees and separate army camps. Getting away was supposed to be the easy part!

The Shaido camp was a disaster. His people had scavenged and packed many of the abandoned tents. Now cleared, the ground around the city was trampled weeds and mud, littered with refuse. The Shaido, being Aiel, had preferred to camp outside the city walls, rather than within them. They were a strange people, no denying that. Who would spurn a nice bed, not to mention a better military position, to stay outside in tents?

Aiel despised cities, though. Most of the buildings had either been burned during the initial Shaido assault or looted for riches. Doors beaten down, windows shattered, possessions abandoned on the streets and trampled by gai’shain running back and forth to fetch water.

People still scurried about like insects, moving through the city gates and around the former Shaido camp, grabbing what they could to stow it for transport. They’d have to leave the wagons behind once they decided to Travel—Grady couldn’t make a gateway big enough to pass a wagon through—but for now, the vehicles would be a big help. There were also a good number of oxen; someone else was inspecting those, making certain they were fit to pull the wagons. The Shaido had let many of the city’s horses run off. A shame, that. But you made use of what you had.

Perrin reached the next wagon, beginning his inspection with the vehicle’s long tongue, to which oxen would be harnessed. “Next!”

“My Lord,” said a scratchy voice, “I believe that I am next.”

Perrin glanced over at the speaker: Sebban Balwer, his secretary. The man had a dry, pinched face and a perpetual stoop that made him look almost like a roosting vulture. Though his coat and breeches were clean, it seemed to Perrin that they should shed puffs of dust each time Balwer stepped. He smelled musty, like an old book.

“Balwer,” Perrin said, running his fingers over the tongue, then checking the harness straps, “I thought you were speaking with the captives.”

“I have, indeed, been busy with my work there,” Balwer said. “However, I grew curious. Did you have to let the Seanchan take all of the captive Shaido channelers with them?”

Perrin glanced at the musty secretary. The Wise Ones who could channel had been knocked unconscious by forkroot; they’d been given over to the Seanchan while still unconscious, to do with as they pleased. The decision had not made Perrin popular with the Aiel among his allies, but he would not have those channelers running about to take revenge on him.

“I don’t see why I would want them,” he said to Balwer.

“Well, my Lord, there is much of great interest to learn. For instance, it appears that many of the Shaido are ashamed of their clan’s behavior. The Wise Ones themselves were at odds. Also, they have had dealings with some very curious individuals who offered them objects of power from the Age of Legends. Whoever they were, they could make gateways.”

“Forsaken,” Perrin said with a shrug, stooping down on one knee to check the right front wheel. “I doubt we’ll figure out which ones. Probably had a disguise on.”

From the corner of his eyes, he saw Balwer purse his lips at that comment.

“You disagree?” Perrin asked.

“No, my Lord,” he said. “The ‘objects’ the Shaido were given are very suspect, by my estimation. The Aiel were duped, though for what reason, I cannot yet fathom. However, if we had more time to search the city....”

Light! Was every person in the camp going to ask him for something they knew they couldn’t have? He got down on the ground to check the back of the wheel hub. Something about it bothered him. “We already know that the Forsaken oppose us, Balwer. They won’t rightly welcome Rand in with open arms to seal them away again, or whatever it is he’s going to do.”

Blasted colors, showing Rand in his mind’s eye! He pushed those away again. They appeared whenever he thought of Rand or Mat, bringing visions of them.

“Anyway,” Perrin continued, “I don’t see what you need me to do. We’ll take the Shaido gai’shain with us. The Maidens captured their fair share. You can interrogate them. But we’re leaving this place.”

“Yes, my Lord,” Balwer said. “It’s just a shame we lost those Wise Ones. My experience has been that they are those among the Aiel with the most... understanding.”

“The Seanchan wanted them,” Perrin said. “So they got them. I wouldn’t let Edarra bully me on the point, and what is done is done. What do you expect of me, Balwer?”

“Perhaps a message could be sent,” Balwer said, “to ask some questions of the Wise Ones when they awake. I....” He stopped, then stooped down to glance at Perrin. “My Lord, this is rather distracting. Couldn’t we find someone else to inspect the wagons?”

“Everyone else is either too tired or too busy,” Perrin said. “I want most of the refugees waiting in the camps to move when we give the marching order. And most of our soldiers are scavenging the city for supplies—each handful of grain they find will be needed. Half the stuff’s spoiled anyway. I can’t help with that work, since I need to be where people can find me.” He’d accepted that, cross though it made him.

“Yes, my Lord,” Balwer said. “But surely you can be somewhere accessible without crawling under wagons.”

“It’s work I can do while people talk to me,” Perrin said. “You don’t need my hands, just my tongue. And that tongue is telling you to forget the Aiel.”

“But—”

“There is nothing more I can do, Balwer,” Perrin said firmly, glancing up at him through the spokes of the wheel. “We’re heading north. I’m done with the Shaido; they can burn for all I care.”

Balwer pursed his thin lips again, and he smelled just slightly of annoyance. “Of course, my Lord,” he said, giving a quick bow. Then he withdrew.

Perrin squirmed out and stood up, nodding to a young woman who stood in a dirty dress and worn shoes at the side of the line of wagons. “Go fetch Lyncon,” he said. “Tell him to have a look at this wheel hub. I think the bearing’s been stripped, and the blasted thing looks ready to roll right off.”

The young woman nodded, running away. Lyncon was a master carpenter who had been unfortunate enough to be visiting relatives in Cairhien when the Shaido attacked. He’d had the will beaten nearly out of him. Perhaps he should have been the one to inspect the wagons, but with that haunted look in his eyes, Perrin wasn’t sure how far he trusted the man to do a proper inspection. He seemed good enough at fixing problems when they were pointed out to him, though.

And the truth was, as long as Perrin kept moving, he felt he was doing something, making progress. Not thinking about other issues. Wagons were easy to fix. They weren’t like people, not at all.

Perrin turned, glancing across the empty camp, pocked with firepits and discarded rags. Faile was walking back toward the city; she’d been organizing some of her followers to scout the area. She was striking. Beautiful. That beauty wasn’t just in her face or her lean figure, it was in how easily she commanded people, how quickly she always knew what to do. She was clever in a way Perrin never had been.

He wasn’t stupid; he just liked to think about things. But he’d never been good with people, not like Mat or Rand. Faile had shown him that he didn’t need to be good with people, or even with women, as long as he could make one person understand him. He didn’t have to be good at talking to anyone else as long as he could talk to her.

But now he couldn’t find the words to say. He worried about what had happened to her during her captivity, but the possibilities didn’t bother him. They made him angry, but none of what had happened was her fault. You did what you had to to survive. He respected her for her strength.

Light! he thought. I’m thinking again! Need to keep working. “Next!” he bellowed, stooping down to continue his inspection of the wagon.

“If I’d seen your face and nothing else, lad,” a hearty voice said, “I’d assume that we’d lost this battle.”

Perrin turned with surprise. He hadn’t realized that Tam al’Thor was one of those waiting to speak with him. That crowd had thinned, but there were still some messengers and attendants. At the back, the blocky, solid sheepherder leaned on his quarterstaff as he waited. His hair had all gone to silver. Perrin could remember a time when it had been a deep black. Back when Perrin had just been a boy, before he’d known a hammer or a forge.

Perrin’s fingers reached down, touching the hammer at his waist. He’d chosen it over the axe. It had been the right decision, but he’d still lost control of himself in the battle for Malden. Was that what bothered him?

Or was it how much he’d enjoyed the killing?

“What do you need, Tam?” he asked.

“I’m only bringing a report, my Lord,” Tam said. “The Two Rivers men are organized for the march, each man with two tents on his back, just in case. We couldn’t use water from the city, on account of the forkroot, so I sent some lads to the aqueduct to fill some barrels there. We could use a wagon to bring them back.”

“Done,” Perrin said, smiling. Finally, someone who did things that were needed without having to ask first! “Tell the Two Rivers men that I intend to have them back home as soon as possible. The moment Grady and Neald are strong enough to make a gateway. That could be a while, though.”

“That’s appreciated, my Lord,” Tam said. It felt so strange for him to use a title. “Can I speak to you alone for a moment, though?”

Perrin nodded, noticing that Lyncon was coming—his limp was distinctive—to look at the wagon. Perrin moved with Tam away from the group of attendants and guards, walking into the shadow of Malden’s wall. Moss grew green against the base of the massive blocks making up the fortification; it was strange that the moss was far brighter than the trampled, muddied weeds under their feet. Nothing but moss seemed green this spring.

“What is it, Tam?” Perrin asked as soon as they were far enough away.

Tam rubbed his face; there was gray stubble coming in. Perrin had pushed his men hard these last few days, and there hadn’t been time for shaving. Tam wore a simple blue wool coat, and the thick cloth was probably a welcome shield against the mountain breeze.

“The lads are wondering, Perrin,” Tam said, a little less formal now that they were alone. “Did you mean what you said about giving up on Manetheren?”

“Aye,” Perrin said. “That banner has been nothing but trouble since it first came out. The Seanchan, and everyone else, might as well know. I’m no king.”

“You have a queen who’s sworn you as her liege.”

He considered Tam’s words, working out the best response. Once that kind of behavior had made people think he was slow of thought. Now people assumed his thoughtfulness meant that Perrin was crafty and keen minded. What a difference a few fancy words in front of your name made!

“I think you’re right, in what you did,” Tam said, surprisingly. “Calling the Two Rivers Manetheren would not only have antagonized the Seanchan, but the Queen of Andor herself. It would imply that you meant to hold more than just the Two Rivers, that perhaps you wanted to conquer all that Manetheren once held.”

Perrin shook his head. “I don’t mean to conquer anything, Tam. Light! I don’t mean to hold what people say I’ve got. The sooner that Elayne takes her throne and sends a proper lord out to the Two Rivers, the better. We can be done with all of this Lord Perrin business and things can go back to normal.”

“And Queen Alliandre?” Tam asked.

“She can swear to Elayne instead,” Perrin said stubbornly. “Or maybe directly to Rand. He seems to like scooping up kingdoms. Like a child playing a game of wobbles.”

Tam smelled concerned. Troubled. Perrin looked away. Things should be simpler. They should be. “What?”

“I just thought you were over this,” Tam said.

“Nothing has changed from the days before Faile was taken,” Perrin said. “I still don’t like that wolf head banner either. I think maybe it’s time to take that one down too.”

“The men believe in that banner, Perrin, lad,” Tam said quietly. He had a soft way about him, but that made you listen when he spoke. Of course, he also usually spoke sense. “I pulled you aside because I wanted to warn you. If you provide a chance for the lads to return to the Two Rivers, some will go. But not many. I’ve heard most swear that they’ll follow you to Shayol Ghul. They know the Last Battle is coming—who couldn’t know that, with all of the signs lately? They don’t intend to be left behind.” He hesitated. “And neither do I, I reckon.” He smelled of determination.

“We’ll see,” Perrin said, frowning. “We’ll see.”

He sent Tam off with orders to requisition a wagon and take it for those water barrels. The soldiers would listen; Tam was Perrin’s First Captain, though that seemed backward to Perrin. He didn’t know much of the man’s past, but Tam had fought in the Aiel War, long ago; he’d held a sword before Perrin had been born. And now he followed Perrin’s orders.

They all did. And they wanted to keep doing so! Hadn’t they learned? He rested back against the wall, not walking back to his attendants, standing in the shadow.

Now that he seized upon it, he realized that was a part of what was bothering him. Not the whole of it, but some, tied in with what was troubling him. Even now that Faile had returned.

He hadn’t been a good leader lately. He’d never been a model one, of course, not even when Faile had been there to guide him. But during her absence, he’d been worse. Far worse. He’d ignored his orders from Rand, ignored everything, all to get her back.

But what else was a man supposed to do? His wife had been kidnapped!

He’d saved her. But in doing so, he’d abandoned everyone else. And because of him, men were dead. Good men. Men who had trusted in him.

Standing in that shadow, he remembered a moment—only a day past—when an ally had fallen to Aiel arrows, his heart poisoned by Masema. Aram had been a friend, one that Perrin had discarded in his quest to save Faile. Aram had deserved better.

I should never have let that Tinker pick up a sword, he thought, but he didn’t want to deal with this problem right now. He couldn’t. There was too much to do. He moved away from the wall, planning to inspect the last wagon in line.

“Next!” he barked as he began again.

Aravine Carnel stepped forward. The Amadician woman no longer wore her gai’shain robes; instead she had on a simple light green dress, not clean, that had been pulled out of the salvage. She was plump but her face still bore a haggard cast from her days as a captive. There was a determination about her. She was surprisingly good at organization, and Perrin suspected she was of noble heritage. She had the scent of it about her: self-confidence, an ease giving commands. It was a wonder those things had survived her captivity.

As he knelt down to look at the first wheel, he figured it was odd that Faile had chosen Aravine to supervise the refugees. Why not one of the youths from Cha Faile? Those dandies could be annoying, but they’d shown a surprising measure of competence.

“My Lord,” Aravine said, her practiced curtsy another indication of her background. “I have finished organizing the people for departure.”

“So soon?” Perrin asked, looking up from the wheel.

“It was not so difficult as we expected, my Lord. I commanded them to gather by nationality, then by town of birth. Not surprisingly, the Cairhienin form the largest bulk of them, followed by Altarans, then Amadicians, with some smattering of others. A few Domani, some Taraboners, the occasional Borderlander or Tairen.”

“How many can stand a day or two of marching without a ride in the wagons?”

“Most of them, my Lord,” she said. “The sick and elderly were expelled from the city when the Shaido took it. The people here are accustomed to being worked hard. They’re exhausted, Lord, but none too eager to be waiting here with those other Shaido camped not half a day’s march away.”

“All right,” Perrin said. “Start them marching immediately.”

“Immediately?” Aravine asked with surprise.

He nodded. “I want them on that road, marching northward, as soon as you can get them going. I’ll send Alliandre and her guard to lead the way.” That ought to keep Arganda from complaining, and it would get the refugees out of the way. The Maidens would be far better, and far more efficient, at gathering supplies alone. The scavenging was nearly finished anyway. His people would have to survive on the road for only a few weeks. After that, they could jump via gateway to someplace more secure. Andor, perhaps, or Cairhien.

Those Shaido behind had him anxious. They could decide to attack at any time. Better to get away and remove the temptation.

Aravine curtsied and hurried away to make preparations, and Perrin thanked the Light for someone else who didn’t see a need to question or second-guess him. He sent a boy to inform Arganda of the impending march, then finished his inspection of the wagon. After that, he stood up, wiping his hands on his trousers. “Next!” he said.

Nobody stepped forward. The only people remaining around him were guards, messenger boys and a few wagoneers waiting to hitch up their oxen and move the wagons off for loading. The Maidens had made a large pile of foodstuffs and supplies in the middle of the former camp, and Perrin could make out Faile there working to organize it.

Perrin sent the ring of attendants with him over to help her, then found himself alone. With nothing to do.

Just what he’d wanted to avoid.

The wind blew past again, carrying that awful stench of death. It also carried memories. The fury of the battle, the passion and thrill of each swing. Aiel were excellent warriors—the best the land knew. Each exchange had been close, and Perrin had earned his share of cuts and bruises, though those had since been Healed.

Fighting the Aiel had made him feel alive. Each one he’d slain had been an expert with the spears; each one could have killed him. But he’d won. During those moments of fighting, he’d felt a driving passion. The passion of finally doing something. After two months of waiting, each blow had meant a step closer to finding Faile.

No more talking. No more planning. He’d found purpose. And now it was gone.

He felt hollow. It was like... like the time when his father had promised him something special as a gift for Winternight. Perrin had waited months, eager, doing his chores to earn the unknown gift. When he’d finally received the small wooden horse, he’d been excited for a moment. But the next day, he’d been shockingly melancholy. Not because of the gift, but because there had no longer been anything to strive for. The excitement was gone, and only then had he realized how much more precious he’d found that anticipation than the gift itself.

Soon after that he’d begun visiting Master Luhhan’s forge, eventually becoming his apprentice.

He was glad to have Faile back. He rejoiced. And yet, now what was there for him? These blasted men saw him as their leader. Some even thought of him as their king! He’d never asked for that. He’d had them put away the banners every time they put them out, up until Faile had persuaded him that using them would be an advantage. He still didn’t believe that the wolfhead banner belonged there, flapping insolently above his camp.

But could he take it down? The men did look to it. He could smell pride on them every time they passed it. He couldn’t turn them away. Rand would need their aid—he’d need everyone’s aid—at the Last Battle.

The Last Battle. Could a man like him, a man who didn’t want to be in charge, lead these forces to the most important moment in their lives?

The colors swirled, showing him Rand, sitting in what appeared to be a stone Tairen home. Perrin’s old friend had a dark cast to his expression, like a man troubled by weighty thoughts. Even sitting like that, Rand looked regal. He was what a king was supposed to be, with that rich red coat, that noble bearing. Perrin was just a blacksmith.

He sighed, shaking his head and dispelling the image. He needed to seek out Rand. He could feel something tugging at him, pulling him.

Rand needed him. That had to be his focus now.

CHAPTER 10
The Last of the Tabac

Rodel Ituralde puffed quietly on his pipe, smoke curling from it like the sinuous coils of a snake. The smoke tendrils wrapped around themselves, pooling at the ceiling above him, then leaking out through cracks in the roof of the ramshackle shed. The boards in the walls were warped from age, opening slits to the outside, and the gray wood was cracked and splintering. A brazier burned in the corner and winds whistled through the cracks in the walls. Ituralde faintly worried those winds would blow over the entire building.

He sat on a stool, several maps on the table before him. At the corner of the table, his tabac pouch weighed down a wrinkled piece of paper. The small square was weathered and folded from being carried in his inside coat pocket.

“Well?” Rajabi asked. Thick of neck and determined of attitude, he was brown-eyed, with a wide nose and a bulbous chin. He was completely bald now, and faintly resembled a large boulder. He tended to act like a boulder, too. It could take a lot of work to get him rolling, but once you did, he was bloody hard to stop. He had been one of the first to join Ituralde’s cause, for all the fact that he had been poised to rebel against the king just a short time before.

It had been nearly two weeks since Ituralde’s victory at Darluna. He’d extended himself far for that victory. Perhaps too far. Ah, Alsalam, he thought. I hope this was all worth it, old friend. I hope you haven’t just gone mad. Rajabi might be a boulder, but the Seanchan are an avalanche, and we’ve brought them thundering down upon us.

“What now?” Rajabi prodded.

“We wait,” Ituralde said. Light, but he hated waiting. “Then we fight. Or maybe we run again. I haven’t made up my mind yet.”

“The Taraboners—”

“Won’t come,” Ituralde said.

“They promised!”

“They did.” Ituralde had gone to them himself, had roused them, had asked them to fight the Seanchan just one more time. They’d yelled and cheered, but had not followed with any haste. They would drag their feet. He’d gotten them to fight “one last time” on half a dozen different occasions now. They could see where this war was going, and he could no longer depend on them. If he’d ever been able to in the first place.

“Bloody cowards,” Rajabi muttered. “Light burn them, then! We’ll do it alone. We have before.”

Ituralde took a long, contemplative puff on his pipe. He’d chosen to finally use the Two Rivers tabac. This pipeful was the last in his store; he’d been saving it for months, now. Good flavor. Best there was.

He studied his maps again, holding a smaller one up before him. He could use better maps, that was certain. “This new Seanchan general,” Ituralde said, “is marshaling over three hundred thousand men, with a good two hundred damane.”

“We’ve beat large forces before. Look what we did at Darluna! You crushed them, Rodel!”

And doing so had required every bit of craftiness, skill and luck Ituralde could muster. Even then, he’d lost well over half his men. Now he ran, limping, before this second, larger force of Seanchan.

This time, they weren’t making any mistakes. The Seanchan didn’t rely solely on their raken. His men had intercepted several foot scouts, and that meant dozens hadn’t been caught. This time, the Seanchan knew Ituralde’s true numbers and his true location.

His enemies were done being herded and goaded; instead they hunted him, relentlessly, avoiding his traps. Ituralde had planned to retreat deeper and deeper into Arad Doman; that would favor his forces and stretch the Seanchan supply lines. He’d figured he could keep it up for another four or five months. But those plans were useless now; they’d been made before Ituralde had discovered there was an entire bloody army of Aiel running about Arad Doman. If the reports were to be believed—and reports about Aiel were often exaggerations, so he wasn’t sure how much to believe—there were upwards of a hundred thousand of them holding large sections of the north, Bandar Eban included.

A hundred thousand Aiel. That was as good as two hundred thousand Domani troops. Perhaps more. Ituralde well remembered the Blood Snow twenty years ago, when it had seemed he’d lost ten men for each Aiel who fell.

He was trapped, a walnut crushed between two stones. The best he’d been able to do was retreat here, to this abandoned stedding. That would give him an edge against the Seanchan. But only a small one. The Seanchan had a force six times the size of his own, and the greenest of commanders knew that fighting those odds was suicide.

“Have you ever seen a master juggler, Rajabi?” Ituralde asked, studying the map.

From the corner of his eye, Ituralde saw the bull-like man frown in confusion. “I’ve seen gleemen who—”

“No, not a gleeman. A master.”

Rajabi shook his head.

Ituralde puffed in thought before speaking. “I did, once. He was the court bard of Caemlyn. Spry fellow, with a wit that might better have belonged in a common room, for all the way he was decorated. Bards don’t often juggle; but this fellow didn’t mind the request. He liked juggling to please the young Daughter-Heir, so I understand.”

He removed the pipe from his mouth, tapping down the tabac.

“Rodel,” Rajabi said. “The Seanchan....”

Rodel held up a finger, situating his pipe before continuing. “The bard started by juggling three balls. Then he asked us if we thought he could do another. We cheered him on. He went to four, then five, then six. With each ball he added, our applause grew greater, and he always asked if we thought he could do another. Of course we said yes.

“Seven, eight, nine. Soon he had ten balls going in the air, flying in a pattern so complex that I couldn’t track them. He had to strain to keep them going; he kept having to reach down and grab balls that he nearly missed. He was too lost in concentration to ask us if he should add another, but the crowd called for it. Eleven! Go for eleven! And so, his assistant tossed another ball into the mess.”

Ituralde puffed.

“He dropped them?” Rajabi asked.

Rodel shook his head. “That last ‘ball’ wasn’t actually a ball at all. It was some kind of Illuminator’s trick; once it got halfway to the bard, it flashed and gave off a sudden burst of light and smoke. By the time our vision cleared, the bard was gone, and ten balls were lined up on the floor. When I looked around, I found him sitting at one of the tables with the rest of the diners, drinking a cup of wine and flirting with Lord Finndal’s wife.”

Poor Rajabi looked completely dumbfounded. He liked his answers neat and straightforward. Ituralde usually felt the same way, but these days—with their unnaturally overcast skies and sense of perpetual gloom—made him philosophic.

He reached out and took the worn, folded sheet of paper off the table from beneath his tabac pouch. He handed it to Rajabi.

“ ‘Strike hard against the Seanchan,’ ” Rajabi read. “ ‘Push them away, force them into their boats and back across their bloody ocean. I’m counting on you, old friend. King Alsalam.’ ” Rajabi lowered the letter. “I know of his orders, Rodel. I didn’t come into this because of him. I came because of you.”

“Yes, but I fight because of him,” Ituralde said. He was a king’s man; he always would be. He stood up, tapping out his tabac and grinding the embers beneath the heel of his boot. He set the pipe aside and took the letter from Rajabi, then walked to the door.

He needed to make a decision. Stay and fight, or flee for a worse location, but gain a little more time?

The shack groaned and wind shook the trees as Ituralde stepped outside into the overcast morning. The shed wasn’t Ogier-built, of course. It was too flimsy for that. This stedding had been abandoned for a long time. His men camped amid the trees. Hardly the best location for a war camp, but one made soup with the spices on hand; the stedding was far too useful to pass up. Another man might have fled to a city and hidden behind its walls, but here in these trees, the One Power was useless. Negating the Seanchan damane was better than walls, no matter how high.

We have to stay, Ituralde thought, watching his men work, digging in, erecting a palisade. He hated the thought of cutting down trees in a stedding. He’d known a few Ogier in his time, and respected them. These massive oaks probably held some lingering strength from the days when the Ogier had lived here. Cutting them down was a crime. But you did what you had to. Running might gain him more time, but it might just as easily lose him time. He had a few days here before the Seanchan hit him. If he could dig in well, he might force them into a siege. The stedding would make them hesitant, and the forests would work to the advantage of Ituralde’s smaller force.

He hated letting himself get pinned in. That was probably why he’d considered for so long, even though, deep down, he’d already known that it was time to stop running. The Seanchan had finally caught him.

He continued along the ranks, nodding to working men, letting himself be seen. He had forty thousand troops left, which was a marvel, considering the odds they had faced. These men should have deserted. But they’d seen him win impossible battle after impossible battle, tossing ball after ball into the air to greater and greater applause. They thought he was unstoppable. They didn’t understand that when one tossed more balls into the air, it wasn’t just the show that became more spectacular.

The fall at the end grew more spectacular as well.

He kept his dark thoughts to himself as he and Rajabi continued through the forested camp, inspecting the palisade. It was progressing nicely, the men setting thick tree trunks into freshly dug troughs. After his inspection, Ituralde nodded to himself. “We stay, Rajabi. Pass the word.”

“Some of the others say that staying here means dying for sure,” Rajabi responded.

“They’re wrong,” Ituralde said.

“But—”

“Nothing is sure, Rajabi,” Ituralde said. “Fill these trees inside the palisade with archers; they’ll be almost as effective as towers. We’ll need to set up a killing field outside. Cut down as many trees around the palisade here as possible, then set the logs inside as barriers, a second line of retreat. We’ll hold strong. Perhaps I’m wrong about those Taraboners, and they’ll ride to aid us. Or maybe the king has a hidden army stashed away to defend us. Blood and ashes, maybe we’ll fight them off here on our own. We’ll see how much they like fighting without their damane. We’ll survive.”

Rajabi straightened visibly, growing confident. That was the kind of talk Ituralde knew he expected. Like the others, Rajabi trusted the Little Wolf. They didn’t believe he could fail.

Ituralde knew better. But if you were going to die, you did it with dignity. The young Ituralde had often dreamed of wars, of the glory of battle. The old Ituralde knew there was no such thing as glory to be had in battle. But there was honor.

“My Lord Ituralde!” a runner called, trotting along the inside of the unfinished palisade wall. He was a boy, young enough that the Seanchan would probably let him live. Otherwise Ituralde would have sent the lad, and those like him, away.

“Yes?” Ituralde asked, turning. Rajabi stood like a small mountain at his side.

“A man,” the boy said, puffing. “The scouts caught him walking into the stedding.”

“Come to fight for us?” Ituralde said. It was not uncommon for an army to draw recruits. There were always those tempted by the lure of glory, or at least by the lure of steady meals.

“No, my Lord,” the boy said, puffing. “He says he’s come to see you.”

“Seanchan?” Rajabi barked.

The boy shook his head. “No. But he’s got nice clothes.”

Some lord’s messenger, then. Domani, or perhaps a Taraboner renegade. Whoever he was, he could hardly make their situation worse. “And he came alone?”

“Yes, sir.”

Brave man. “Bring him, then,” Ituralde said.

“Where will you receive him, my Lord?”

“What?” Ituralde snapped. “You think I’m some fancy merchant with a palace? The field here will do. Go get him, but take your time getting back. And make sure he’s properly guarded.”

The boy nodded and ran off. Ituralde waved over some soldiers and sent them running for Wakeda and the other officers. Shimron was dead, burned to char by a damane’s fireball. Too bad, that. Ituralde would rather have kept him than many of the others.

Most of the officers arrived before the stranger. Lanky Ankaer. One-eyed Wakeda, who might otherwise have been a handsome man. Squat Melarned. Youthful Lidrin, who continued to follow Ituralde after his father’s death.

“What is this I hear?” Wakeda asked, folding his arms as he strode up. “We’re staying in this death trap? Rodel, we don’t have the troops to resist. If they come, we’ll be trapped here.”

“You’re right,” Ituralde said simply.

Wakeda turned to the others, then back to Ituralde, a little of his irritation deflated in the face of Ituralde’s frank answer. “Well... why don’t we run, then?” He blustered a lot less now than he had just months ago, when Ituralde had first begun this campaign.

“I won’t give you sugar and lies,” Ituralde said, looking at them each in turn. “We’re in a bad shape. But we’ll be in a worse shape if we run. We’ve got no more holes to hide in. These trees will work to our advantage, and we can fortify. The stedding will negate the damane, and that alone is worth the price of staying. We fight here.”

Ankaer nodded, seeming to understand the gravity of the situation. “We have to trust him, Wakeda. He’s led us right so far.”

Wakeda nodded. “I suppose.”

Bloody fools. Four months ago, half of them would have killed him on sight for staying loyal to the king. Now they thought he could do the impossible. It was a pity; he was beginning to think he could have brought them back to Alsalam as loyalists. “All right,” he said, pointing at various spots along their fortification. “Here’s what we’re going to do to shore up the weak points. I want...”

He trailed off as he saw a group approaching through the clearing. The messenger boy, accompanied by a squad of soldiers, escorting a man in red and gold.

Something about the newcomer drew Ituralde’s eyes. Perhaps it was the height; the young man was as tall as an Aiel, and fair of hair like them as well. But no Aiel dressed in a fine red coat with sharp golden embroidery. There was a sword at his side, and the way the newcomer walked made Ituralde think he knew how to use it. He strode with firm, determined steps, as if he thought the soldiers around him an honor guard. A lord, then, and one accustomed to command. Why had he come in person, rather than sending a messenger?

The young lord stopped a short length in front of Ituralde and his generals, looking at each of them in turn, then focused on Ituralde. “Rodel Ituralde?” he asked. What accent was that? Andoran?

“Yes,” Ituralde said cautiously.

The young man nodded. “Bashere’s description was accurate. You appear to be boxing yourself in, here. Do you honestly expect to hold against the Seanchan army? They are many times your size, and your Tarabon allies do not appear... eager to join you in your defense.”

He had good intelligence, whoever he was. “I am not in the habit of discussing my defenses with strangers.” Ituralde studied the young lord. He was fit—lean and hard, though it was difficult to tell with the coat on. He favored his right hand, and on closer inspection, Ituralde noticed that the left hand was missing. Both of his forearms had some kind of strange red and gold tattoo on them.

Those eyes. Those were eyes which had seen death a number of times. Not just a young lord. A young general. Ituralde narrowed his eyes. “Who are you?”

The stranger met his eyes. “I am Rand al’Thor, the Dragon Reborn. And I need you. You and your army.”

Several of those with Ituralde cursed, and Ituralde glanced at them. Wakeda was incredulous, Rajabi surprised, young Lidrin openly dismissive.

Ituralde looked back at the newcomer. The Dragon Reborn? This youth? He supposed it could be possible. Most rumors agreed that the Dragon Reborn was a young man with red hair. But, then, rumors also claimed he was ten feet tall, and still others said his eyes glowed in dim light. And then there were the stories of him appearing in the sky at Falme. Blood and ashes, Ituralde didn’t know if he believed that the Dragon had been reborn in the first place!

“I haven’t time to argue,” the stranger said, face impassive. He seemed... older than he looked. He didn’t appear to care that he was surrounded by armed soldiers. In fact, his coming alone... it should have seemed like such a foolish act. Instead it made Ituralde thoughtful. Only one such as the Dragon Reborn himself could stride into a war camp like this, completely alone, and expect to be obeyed.

Burn him, if that fact by itself didn’t make Ituralde want to believe him. Either this man was who he claimed to be or he was an utter lunatic.

“If we go outside the stedding, I will prove I can channel,” the stranger said. “That should count for something. Give me leave, and I’ll have ten thousand Aiel here and several Aes Sedai, all of whom will swear to you that I am who I say.”

The rumors also said Aiel followed the Dragon Reborn. The men around Ituralde coughed and glanced about uncomfortably. Many had been Dragonsworn before coming to Ituralde. With the right words, this Rand al’Thor—or whoever he was—might be able turn Ituralde’s camp against itself.

“Even if we assume that I believe you,” Ituralde said carefully, “I don’t see that it matters. I have a war to fight. You have other business to concern you, I assume.”

You are my concern,” al’Thor said, eyes so hard that they seemed ready to burrow into Ituralde’s skull and search about inside for anything of use. “You must make peace with the Seanchan. This war gains us nothing. I want you up on the Borderlands; I can’t spare men to guard the Blight, and the Borderlanders themselves have abandoned their duties.”

“I have orders,” Ituralde said, shaking his head. Wait. He wouldn’t do as this youth asked if he didn’t have orders. Except... those eyes. Alsalam had had eyes like that, when they were both younger. Eyes that demanded obedience.

“Your orders,” al’Thor said. “They are from the king? That is why you throw yourselves against the Seanchan as you do?”

Ituralde nodded.

“I’ve heard of you, Rodel Ituralde,” al’Thor said. “Men I trust, men I respect, trust and respect you. Rather than fleeing and hiding, you hunker down here to fight a battle you know will kill you. All because of your loyalty to your king. I commend that. But it is time to turn away and fight a battle that means something. One that means everything. Come with me, and I’ll give you the throne of Arad Doman.”

Ituralde stood up sharply, alert. “After commending my loyalty, you expect me to unseat my own king!”

“Your king is dead,” al’Thor said. “Either that, or his mind has been melted like wax. More and more, I think Graendal has him. I see her touch on the chaos in this land. Whatever orders you have likely came from her. Why she wants you fighting the Seanchan, I haven’t yet been able to determine.”

Ituralde snorted. “You speak of one of the Forsaken as if you’ve had her as a dinner guest.”

Al’Thor met his eyes again. “I remember each of them—their faces, their mannerisms, the way they speak and act—as if I’ve known them for a thousand years. I remember them better than I remember my own childhood, sometimes. I am the Dragon Reborn.”

Ituralde blinked. Burn me, he thought. I believe him. Bloody ashes! “Let’s... let’s see this proof of yours.”

There were objections, of course, mostly from Lidrin, who thought it too dangerous. The others were shaken. Here was the man they’d sworn themselves to without ever meeting him. There seemed to be a... a force about al’Thor, drawing Ituralde in, demanding that he do as asked. Well, he’d see the proof, first.

They sent runners for horses to ride out of the stedding, but al’Thor spoke as if Ituralde was his man already. “Perhaps Alsalam lives,” al’Thor said as they waited. “If so, I can see that you would not want his throne. Would you like Amadicia? I will need someone to rule there and keep an eye on the Seanchan. The Whitecloaks fight there now; I’m not sure if I’ll be able to stop that conflict before the Last Battle.”

The Last Battle. Light! “I won’t take it if you kill the king there,” Ituralde said. “If the Whitecloaks have already killed him, or if the Seanchan have, then perhaps.”

King! What was he saying? Burn you! he thought to himself. At least wait until the proof is given before agreeing to accept thrones! There was a way about this man, the way he discussed events like the Last Battle—events that mankind had been fearing for thousands of years—as if they were items on the daily camp report.

Soldiers arrived with their horses, and Ituralde mounted, as did al’Thor, Wakeda, Rajabi, Ankaer, Melarned, Lidrin and a half-dozen lesser officers.

“I’ve brought a large number of Aiel into your lands,” Rand al’Thor said as they began to ride. “I had hoped to use them to restore order, but they are taking longer than I’d wished. I’m planning to secure the members of the merchant council; perhaps once I have them in hand, I’ll be able to improve the stability of the area. What do you think?”

Ituralde didn’t know what to think. Securing the merchant council? That sounded like kidnapping them. What had Ituralde gotten himself into? “It could work,” he found himself saying. “Light, it’s probably the best plan, all things considered.”

Al’Thor nodded, looking forward as they passed out of the palisade and moved out along a trail toward the edge of the stedding. “I’ll have to secure the Borderlands, anyway. I will care for your homeland. Burn those Borderlanders! What are they up to? No. No, not yet. They can wait. No, he’ll do. He can hold it. I’ll send him with Asha’man.” Suddenly, al’Thor turned to Ituralde. “What could you do if I gave you a hundred men who could channel?”

“Madmen?”

“No, most of them are stable,” al’Thor said, taking no apparent offense. “Whatever madness they incurred before I cleansed the taint is still there—removing the taint didn’t heal them—but few of them were far gone. And they won’t get worse, now that saidin is clean.”

Saidin? Clean? If Ituralde had his own men who could channel.... His own damane, in a way. Ituralde scratched his chin. It was coming at him quickly—but, then, a general had to be able to react quickly. “I could use them well,” he said. “Very well.”

“Good,” al’Thor said. They had left the stedding; the air felt different. “You’ve got a lot of land to watch, but many of the channelers I’ll give you can spin gateways.”

“Gateways?” Ituralde asked.

Al’Thor glanced at him, then seemed to grit his teeth, closing his eyes, shaking as if nauseated. Ituralde sat upright, suddenly alert, hand on his sword. Poison? Was the man wounded?

But no, al’Thor opened his eyes, and there seemed to be a look of ecstasy in those depths. He turned, waving his hand, and a line of light split the air in front of him. Men around Ituralde cursed, backing up. It was one thing for a man to claim he could channel; it was another to see him do so in front of you!

“That’s a gateway,” al’Thor said as the line of light turned around, opening a large black hole in the air. “Depending on the Asha’man’s strength, a gateway can be made wide enough to drive wagons through. You can travel nearly anywhere with speed, sometimes instantly, depending on circumstances. With a few trained Asha’man, your army could dine in Caemlyn in the morning, then have lunch in Tanchico a few hours later.”

Ituralde rubbed his chin. “Well now, that’s a thing to see. A thing to see indeed.” If this man spoke truthfully, and these gateways really did work.... “With this I could clear the Seanchan out of Tarabon, and maybe off the land entirely!”

“No,” al’Thor snapped. “We make peace with them. From what my scouts say, it’s going to be hard enough to bring them to agreement without promising them your head. I won’t rile them further. There is no time for squabbling. We have more important matters to be about.”

“Nothing is more important than my homeland,” Ituralde said. “Even if those orders are forged, I know Alsalam. He would agree with me. We won’t stand for foreign troops on the soil of Arad Doman.”

“A promise, then,” al’Thor said. “I will see the Seanchan out of Arad Doman. I promise you this. But we don’t fight them away any further than that. In exchange, you go to the Borderlands and protect against an invasion there. Hold back the Trollocs if they come, and lend me some of your officers to help secure Arad Doman. It will be easier to restore order if the people see that their own lords are working with me.”

Ituralde considered, though he knew already what his answer would be. That gateway could spirit his men away from this death trap. With Aiel on his side—with the Dragon Reborn as an ally—he really did have a chance of keeping Arad Doman secure. An honorable death was a good thing. But the ability to keep on fighting with honor... that was a prize far more precious.

“Agreed,” Ituralde said, holding out a hand.

Al’Thor took it. “Go break camp. You’re to be in Saldaea by nightfall.”

CHAPTER 11
The Death of Adrin

I think he should be beaten again, said Lerian, moving her fingers in the complex motions of Maiden handtalk. He is like a child, and when a child touches something dangerous, the child is beaten. If a child hurts himself because he was not taught properly to stay away from knives, then the shame is upon his parents.

The previous beating did not seem to do any good, Surial replied. He accepted it like a man, not a child, but did not change his actions.

Then we must try again, Lerian replied.

Aviendha dropped her rock into the pile by the watchpost, then turned around. She did not acknowledge the Maidens who watched the way into the camp, and they did not acknowledge her. Speaking to her while she was being punished would only heighten her shame, and her spear-sisters would not do that.

She also didn’t indicate that she understood their conversation. While nobody expected a former Maiden to forget handtalk, it was best to be unobtrusive. The handtalk belonged to the Maidens.

Aviendha selected a large stone from a second pile, then began to walk back into camp. If the Maidens continued their conversation, she could not tell, as she could no longer see their hands. But their discussion lingered with her. They were angered that Rand al’Thor had gone to meet with the general Rodel Ituralde without guards. It was not the first time he had acted so foolishly, and yet he seemed unwilling—or unable—to learn the proper way. Each time he put himself in danger without protection, he insulted the Maidens as surely as if he had slapped each one in the face.

Aviendha probably had some small toh toward her spear-sisters. Teaching Rand al’Thor of Aiel ways had been her task, and she had quite obviously failed. Unfortunately, she had a much greater toh toward the Wise Ones, even if she still didn’t know the reason. Her lesser duty to her spear-sisters would have to wait for an appropriate time.

Her arms ached from carrying rocks. They were smooth and heavy; she had been required to dig them out of the river beside the manor house. Only her time spent with Elayne—when she had been forced to bathe in water—had given her the strength to walk into that river. In that, she had not shamed herself. And at least this river was a small one—wetlanders might inaccurately call it a stream. A stream was a tiny mountain runoff in which you could dip your hands or fill a waterskin. Anything too large to step across was definitely a river.

The day was overcast, as usual, and the camp was subdued. Men who had bustled just days before—when the Aiel had arrived—were more lethargic now. The camp wasn’t by any means unkempt; Davram Bashere was too careful a commander to allow that, wetlander though he was. However, the men did move more slowly. She had heard some of them complain that the dark sky was dampening their moods. How strange wetlanders were! What did the weather have to do with one’s mood? She could understand being displeased that no raids were approaching, or that a hunt had gone poorly. But because there were clouds in the sky? Was shade so poorly appreciated here?

She shook her head, continuing on her way. She had chosen stones which would strain her muscles. To do otherwise would have been to make light of her punishment, and she wouldn’t do that—although each step pained her honor. She had to cross through the entire camp, in full sight, doing work that was useless! She would rather have been naked before them all outside of the sweat tent. She would rather have run a thousand laps, or been beaten so hard that she couldn’t walk.

She reached the side of the manor house and deposited her stone with a hidden sigh of relief. Two wetlander soldiers from Bashere’s army stood guarding the door into the manor, a counterpart to the two Maidens at the other end of Aviendha’s trek. As she stooped and picked up a large stone from a second pile by the wall, she overheard them speaking.

“Burn me, but it’s hot,” one of the men complained.

“Hot?” the other replied, glancing at the overcast sky. “You’re jesting.”

The first guard waved his hand at himself, puffing out and sweating. “How can you not feel that?”

“You must have a fever or something.”

The first guard shook his head. “I just don’t like the heat, that’s all.”

Aviendha picked up her rock and began to walk back across the green. After some contemplation, she had determined that being a wetlander required one common attribute: a fondness for complaining. During her first months in the wetlands, she had considered this shameful. Did that guard not care that he was losing face in front of his fellow by exposing his weakness?

They were all like that, even Elayne. If you listened to her talk about the aches, sicknesses and frustrations of her pregnancy, you would almost think she was approaching death! However, if complaining was something that Elayne did, then Aviendha refused to accept it as a sign of weakness. Her first-sister would not act in such a shameful way.

Therefore, there had to be some hidden honor in it. Perhaps the wetlanders exposed their weaknesses to their companions as a means of offering friendship and trust. If your friends knew of your weaknesses, it would give them an advantage should you dance the spears with them. Or, perhaps, the complaining was a wetlander way of showing humility, much as the gai’shain showed honor by being subservient.

She had asked Elayne about her theories and had received only a fond laugh in return. Was it some aspect of wetlander society that she was forbidden to discuss with outsiders, then? Had Elayne laughed because Aviendha had figured out something she was not meant to?

Either way, it was certainly a way to show honor, and that satisfied Aviendha. If only her own problems with the Wise Ones were as simple! It was expected that the wetlanders would act in erratic, unnatural ways. But what was she to do when Wise Ones behaved so strangely?

She was growing frustrated—not with the Wise Ones, but with herself. She was strong and brave. Not as brave as some others, of course; she could only wish to be as bold as Elayne. Still, Aviendha could think of only a few problems which she hadn’t been able to solve with the application of spears, the One Power or her wits. Yet she had failed utterly at deciphering her current predicament.

She reached the other side of the camp and deposited her stone, then brushed off her hands. The Maidens stood motionless and contemplative. Aviendha moved to the other pile and picked up an oblong rock with a jagged edge. It was three handspans wide, and the smooth surface threatened to slip in her fingers. She had to shift it several times before getting a good purchase. She headed back across the trampled winter thatch, past Saldaean tents, toward the manor house.

Elayne would say that Aviendha hadn’t thought the problem through. Elayne was calm and thoughtful when other people were tense. Aviendha sometimes grew frustrated with how much her first-sister liked to talk before committing to action. I need to be more like her. I need to remember that I’m not a Maiden of the Spear any longer. I can’t charge in with weapon held high.

She needed to approach problems as Elayne did. That was the only way she was going to get her honor back, and only then could she claim Rand al’Thor and make him hers as much as he was Elayne’s or Min’s. She could feel him through the bond; he was in his room, but was not sleeping. He pushed himself hard and slept too little.

The stone slipped in her fingers, and she nearly stumbled as she rebalanced her weight, hefting it in tired arms. Some of Bashere’s soldiers walked past, bemused expressions on their faces, and Aviendha felt herself blush. Although they might not know that she was being punished, she was shamed before them.

How would Elayne reason out this situation? The Wise Ones were angry at Aviendha for not “learning quickly enough.” And yet they didn’t teach her. They just asked those questions. Questions about what she thought of their situation, questions about Rand al’Thor or about the way Rhuarc had handled meeting with the Car’a’carn.

Aviendha couldn’t help feeling that the questions were tests. Was she answering incorrectly? If so, why didn’t they instruct her in the proper responses?

The Wise Ones didn’t think she was soft. What was left? What would Elayne say? Aviendha wished for her spears back so that she could stab something. Attack, test herself against another, work out her anger.

No, she thought forcefully. I am going to learn to do this as a Wise One. I will find honor again!

She reached the manor and dropped her rock. She wiped her brow; ignoring heat and cold as Elayne had taught her didn’t keep her from sweating when she worked her body this hard.

“Adrin?” one door guard asked his companion. “Light, you don’t look well. Truly.”

Aviendha glanced toward the doorway into the manor. The guard who had been complaining about the heat was sagging against the doorway, hand on his forehead. He really didn’t look well. Aviendha embraced saidar. She wasn’t the best at Healing, but perhaps she could—

The man reached up suddenly, scratching at the skin of his temples. His eyes rolled up in his head and his fingers tore gashes in his flesh. Only, instead of blood, the wounds spat out a black charcoal-like substance. Aviendha could feel the intense heat even from a distance.

The other guard gaped in horror as his friend ripped lines of black fire down the sides of his head. A blackish tar oozed out, boiling and hissing. The man’s clothing burst into flames and his flesh shriveled from the heat.

He didn’t utter a sound.

Aviendha shrugged off her shock, immediately weaving Air in a simple pattern to pull the unaffected guard to safety. His friend was now just a pulsing mound of black tar which, in places, sprouted blackened bones. There was no skull. The heat was so strong that Aviendha had to back away, pulling the guard with her.

“We... we’re being attacked!” the man whispered. “Channelers!”

“No,” Aviendha said, “this is something far more evil. Run for help!”

He seemed too shocked to move, but she shoved him into motion and he began to move. The tar itself didn’t seem to be spreading, which was a blessing, but it had already ignited the doorframe of the manor. It could have the entire building in flames before anyone inside was aware of the danger.

Aviendha wove Air and Water, intending to extinguish the flame. However, her weaves frazzled and wavered when they got near the fire. They didn’t unweave, but this fire somehow resisted them.

She took another step back from the awesome, burning intensity. Her brow prickled with sweat, and she had to raise her arm to shade her face from the heat. She could barely make out the black char at the center as it began to glow with the deep red and white of extremely hot coals. Soon, only hints of the black remained. The fire spread across the front wall of the building. Aviendha heard screams from inside.

Aviendha shook herself, then growled and wove Earth and Air, pulling chunks of the ground up around her. She hurled these at the fire, seeking to smother it. Her weave could not draw the heat out, but that did not stop her from using weaves to cast items into the fire. Chunks of grass-covered earth sizzled and hissed, wan blades flashing to ash before the incredible heat. Aviendha continued to work, sweating from both the exertion and the temperature.

In the distance, she heard people—perhaps the guard among them—calling for buckets.

Buckets? Of course! In the Three-fold Land, water was far too valuable to use in fighting fires. Dirt or sand was used. But here, they would use water. Aviendha took several steps backward, searching out the curling river that ran beside the manor. She could just barely make out its surface, reflecting the dancing reds and oranges of the flames. Already, the entire front of the manor was aflame! She felt channeling from inside—Aes Sedai or Wise Ones. Hopefully, they would escape out of the back of the building. The fire had engulfed the inner hallway, and the rooms off of it had no doors out.

Aviendha wove a massive column of Air and Water, pulling a spout of crystalline liquid from the river and drawing it toward her. The column of water undulated in the air like the creature on Rand’s banner, a glassy serpentine dragon that slammed against the flames. Steam hissed outward in an explosion, washing over her.

The heat was powerful and the wave of steam scalded her skin, but she did not back down. She pulled more water, hurling a thick column of it at the darkened mound, which she could only just make out through the steam.

That heat was so intense! Aviendha stumbled backward a few steps, gritting her teeth, continuing to work. Then there was a sudden explosion as another column of water burst from the river and slammed into the fire. This, along with her own, diverted nearly the entire flow of the river. Aviendha blinked. The other column was being directed by weaves she could not see, but she did notice a figure standing in a window up on the second floor, hand forward, face concentrating intensely. Naeff, one of Rand’s Asha’man. It was said he was particularly strong with Air.

The fires had retreated; only the tarry mound remained, radiating a powerful heat. The wall near it and the entryway inside had become a gaping, blackened hole. Aviendha continued to pull water and dump it on the charred black mass, though she was beginning to feel extremely tired. Handling so much water required her to channel almost to her capacity.

Soon the water stopped hissing. Aviendha slacked her flow, then let it dribble to a stop. The ground around her was a wet, blackened disarray that smelled heavily of soggy ash. Bits of wood and char floated in the muddy water, and the holes where she had ripped up earth were filled, making pools. She walked forward hesitantly, inspecting the lump that was the remains of the unfortunate soldier. It was glassy and black, like obsidian, and it sparkled wetly. She picked up a length of singed wood—broken from the wall by the force of her water column—and poked at the mass. It was hard and firm.

“Burn you!” a voice bellowed. Aviendha looked up. Rand al’Thor strode through the broken hole that now formed the front of the mansion. He stared at the sky, shaking his fist. “I am the one you want! You will have your war soon enough!”

“Rand,” Aviendha said hesitantly. Soldiers were milling about the green, looking concerned, as if expecting a battle. Bewildered servants peeked out of rooms inside the manor. The entire episode with the flames had taken less than five minutes.

“I will stop you!” Rand roared, causing calls of fright from both servants and soldiers. “Do you hear me! I am coming for you! Don’t waste your power! You will need it against me!”

“Rand!” Aviendha called.

He froze, then looked down at her, dazed. She met his eyes, and she could feel his anger, almost as she’d felt the intense flames just a short time before. He turned and stalked away, walking back into the building and up the blackened wooden steps.

“Light!” an anxious voice asked. “Does this sort of thing happen often when he is near?”

Aviendha turned to see a young man in an unfamiliar uniform standing and watching. He was lanky, with light brown hair and coppery skin—she didn’t remember his name, but she was fairly certain he was one of the officers Rand had brought back after meeting with Rodel Ituralde.

She turned back to the mess, listening to soldiers call orders in the distance. Bashere had arrived and was taking command, telling men to watch the perimeter, though he was likely just giving them something to do. This was not the beginning of an attack. It was just another of the Dark One’s touches on the world, like meat spoiling, beetles and rats appearing from nothing, and men dropping dead of strange diseases.

“Yes,” Aviendha said in response to the man’s question, “it happens often. More often around the Car’a’carn than in other places, at least. You have had similar events among your own men?”

“I have heard stories,” he said. “Only I dismissed them.”

“Not all stories are exaggerations,” she said, looking at the blackened remains of the soldier. “The Dark One’s prison is weak.”

“Bloody ashes,” the young man said, turning away. “What have you gotten us into, Rodel?” The man shook his head and stalked off.

Bashere’s officers began calling orders, organizing the men to clean up. Would Rand move out of the manor, now? When pockets of evil appeared, people often wanted to leave. And yet, through her bond with Rand, she felt no urgency. In fact... it seemed that he had gone back to rest! That man’s moods were becoming as erratic as Elayne’s during her pregnancy.

Aviendha shook her head and started gathering burned chunks of wood to help clean. As she worked, several Aes Sedai came out of the building and began inspecting the damage. The entire front of the manor was scored with black marks, and the hole where the entryway had been was at least fifteen feet across. One of the women, Merise, eyed Aviendha appreciatively. “A shame,” she said.

Aviendha straightened up, lifting a piece of charred wood, her clothing still soaked. With those clouds covering the sun, it would be long before she was dry. “A shame?” she asked. “About the manor?” The portly Lord Tellaen, owner of the place, moaned to himself as he sat on a stool inside the entryway, wiping his brow and shaking his head.

“No,” Merise said. “A shame about you, child. Your skill with weaves, it is impressive. If we had you in the White Tower, you’d have been an Aes Sedai by now. Your weaving, it has some roughness to it, but you’d learn to fix that quickly if taught by sisters.”

There was an audible sniff, and Aviendha spun. Melaine stood behind her. The golden-haired Wise One had her arms folded beneath her breasts, and her stomach was starting to bulge with child. Her face was not amused. How had Aviendha let the woman walk up behind her without hearing? She was letting her fatigue make her careless.

Melaine and Merise stared at each other for a long moment; then the tall Aes Sedai spun in a flurry of green skirts and moved off to speak with the servants who had been trapped by the flames, asking if any of them needed Healing. Melaine watched her go, then shook her head. “Insufferable woman,” she muttered. “To think, how we once regarded them!”

“Wise One?” Aviendha asked.

“I’m stronger than most Aes Sedai, Aviendha, and you’re far stronger than I am. You have a control and understanding of weaves that puts most of us to shame. Others have to struggle to learn what comes naturally to you. ‘Roughness to your weaves,’ she says! I doubt any of the Aes Sedai, save perhaps Cadsuane Sedai, could have managed what you did with that column of water. Moving water that far required you to use the river’s own flow and pressure.”

“Is that what I did?” Aviendha asked, blinking.

Melaine eyed her, then snorted again, softly to herself. “Yes, that is what you did. You have such great talent, child.”

Aviendha swelled with the praise; from Wise Ones, it was rare, but always sincere.

“But you refuse to learn,” Melaine continued. “There isn’t much time! Here, I have another question for you. What do you think of Rand al’Thor’s plan to kidnap these Domani merchant chiefs?”

Aviendha blinked again, so tired it was hard to think. It defied reason that the Domani used merchants as leaders in the first place. How could a merchant lead people? Did not merchants have to focus on their wares? It was ridiculous. Would the wetlanders ever stop shocking her with their strange ways?

And why was Melaine asking her about this now of all times?

“His plan seems a good one, Wise One,” Aviendha said. “Yet the spears do not like being used for kidnapping. I think the Car’a’carn should have spoken in terms of offering protection—forced protection—for the merchants. The chiefs would have responded better to being told they were protecting rather than kidnapping.”

“They would be doing the very same thing, no matter what you call it.”

“But what you call a thing is important,” Aviendha said. “It is not dishonest if both definitions are true.”

Melaine’s eyes twinkled, and Aviendha caught a hint of a smile on her lips. “What else do you think of the meeting?”

“Rand al’Thor still seems to think that the Car’a’carn can make demands like a wetlander king. This is my shame. I failed to explain the right way.”

Melaine waved a hand. “You have no shame there. We all know how bullheaded the Car’a’carn is. The Wise Ones have tried as well, and none have been able to train him correctly.”

So. That wasn’t the reason for her dishonor before the Wise Ones. What was it then? Aviendha ground her teeth in frustration, then forced herself to continue. “Regardless, he needs to be reminded. Again and again. Rhuarc is a wise and patient man, but not all clan chiefs are so. I know that some of the others wonder if their decision to follow Rand al’Thor was an error.”

“True,” Melaine said. “But look at what happened to the Shaido.”

“I did not say they were right, Wise One,” Aviendha said. A group of soldiers were hesitantly trying to pry up the glassy black mound. It appeared to have fused to the ground. Aviendha lowered her voice. “They are wrong to question the Car’a’carn, but they are speaking to one another. Rand al’Thor needs to realize that they will not accept offense after offense from him without end. They may not turn against him like the Shaido, but I would not put it past Timolan—for instance—to simply return to the Three-fold Land and leave the Car’a’carn to his arrogance.”

Melaine nodded. “Do not worry. We are aware of this... possibility.”

That meant Wise Ones had been sent to soothe Timolan, who was chief of the Miagoma Aiel. It would not be the first time. Did Rand al’Thor know how hard the Wise Ones worked behind his back to maintain Aiel loyalty? Probably not. He saw them all as one homogeneous group, sworn to him, to be used. That was one of Rand’s great weaknesses. He could not see that Aiel, like other people, did not like being used as tools. The clans were far less tightly knit than he believed. Blood feuds had been put aside for him. Couldn’t he understand how incredible that was? Couldn’t he see how tenuous that alliance continued to be?

But not only was he a wetlander by birth, he was not a Wise One. Few Aiel themselves saw the work the Wise Ones did in a dozen different areas. How simple life had seemed when she had been a Maiden! It would have dazzled her to know how much went on beyond her sight.

Melaine stared blindly at the broken building. “A remnant of a remnant,” she said, as if to herself. “And if he leaves us burned and broken, like those boards? What will become of the Aiel then? Do we limp back to the Three-fold Land and continue as we did before? Many will not want to leave. These lands offer too much.”

Aviendha blinked at the weight of those words. She had rarely given thought to what would happen after the Car’a’carn was finished with them. She was centered on the now, upon regaining her honor and being there to protect Rand al’Thor at the Last Battle. But a Wise One could not just think of the now or the tomorrow. She had to think of the years ahead and the times that would be brought upon the winds.

A remnant of a remnant. He had broken the Aiel as a people. What would become of them?

Melaine glanced back at Aviendha, her face softening. “Go to the tents, child, and rest. You look like a sharadan that has crawled on his belly across three days of sand.”

Aviendha looked down at her arms, seeing the flakes of ash from the burnings. Her clothing was soaked and stained, and she suspected that her face was just as filthy. Her arms ached from carrying the stones all day. Once she acknowledged the fatigue, it seemed to crash upon her like a windstorm. She gritted her teeth and forced herself to remain upright. She would not shame herself by collapsing! But she did turn to leave, as instructed.

“Oh, and Aviendha,” Melaine called. “We will discuss your punishment tomorrow.”

She turned in shock.

“For not finishing with the stones,” Melaine said, surveying the wreckage again. “And for not learning quickly enough. Go.”

Aviendha sighed. Another round of questions, and another undeserved punishment. There was a correlation of some sort. But what?

She was too exhausted to think about it for now. All she wanted was her bed, and she found herself treacherously recalling the soft, luxurious mattresses back in the palace of Caemlyn. She forced those thoughts out of her mind. Sleep that soundly, muffled in pillows and down comforters, and you’d be too relaxed to wake if someone tried to kill you in the night! How had she let Elayne convince her to sleep in one of those soft-feathered death traps?

Another thought occurred to her as she pushed that one away—a treacherous one. A thought of Rand al’Thor, resting in his room. She could go to him....

No! Not until she had her honor back. She would not go to him as a beggar. She would go to him as a woman of honor. Assuming that she could ever figure out what she was doing wrong.

She shook her head and trotted toward the Aiel camp at the side of the green.

CHAPTER 12
Unexpected Encounters

Egwene walked the cavernous halls of the White Tower, lost in thought. Her two Red keepers trailed along behind. They seemed a little sullen these days. Elaida ordered them to stay with Egwene more and more often; though the individuals changed, there were almost always two with her. And yet, it seemed that they could sense that Egwene considered them to be attendants rather than guards.

It had been well over a month since Siuan had conveyed her disturbing news in Tel’aran’rhiod, but still Egwene thought about it. The events were a reminder that the world was coming apart. This was a time when the White Tower should have been a source of stability. Instead, it divided against itself while Rand al’Thor’s men bonded sisters. How could Rand have allowed such a thing? There was obviously little left of the youth with whom she’d grown up. Of course, there was little of the youthful Egwene left either. Gone were the days when the two of them had seemed destined to end up married, living on a little farm in the Two Rivers.

That, oddly, led her to thinking of Gawyn. How long had it been since she’d last seen him, stealing kisses in Cairhien? Where was he now? Was he safe?

Keep focused, she told herself. Clean the patch of floor you’re working on first before you move on to the rest of the house. Gawyn could look after himself; he’d done a competent job of that in the past. Too competent, in some cases.

Siuan and the others would deal with the Asha’man matter. The other news was far more disturbing. One of the Forsaken, in the camp? A woman, yet channeling saidin instead of saidar? Egwene would have called it impossible, once. Yet she had seen ghosts in the halls of the White Tower, and the corridors seemed to rearrange on a daily basis. This was just another sign.

She shivered. Halima had touched Egwene, supposedly massaging her headaches away. Those headaches disappeared as soon as Egwene had been captured; why hadn’t she considered that Halima might have been causing them? What else had the woman been plotting? What hidden knots would the Aes Sedai stumble over, what traps had she laid?

One section of the floor at a time. Clean what you could reach, then move on. Siuan and the others would have to deal with Halima’s plots, too.

Egwene’s backside hurt, but the pain was growing increasingly irrelevant to her. Sometimes she laughed when beaten, sometimes not. The strap was unimportant. The greater pain—what had been done to Tar Valon—was far more demanding. She nodded to a group of white-clothed novices as they passed her in the hallway, and they bobbed down in curtsies. Egwene frowned, but didn’t chastise them—she just hoped that they wouldn’t draw penances from the trailing Reds for showing deference to Egwene.

Her goal was the quarters of the Brown Ajah, the section that was now down in the wing. Meidani had taken her time volunteering to train Egwene today. The command had finally come today, weeks after the first dinner with Elaida. Oddly, however, Bennae Nalsad had also offered to give her instruction this day. Egwene hadn’t spoken to the Shienaran Brown since that first conversation, some weeks before. She’d never repeated lessons with the same woman twice. And yet, the name had been given to her in the morning as the first of the day’s visits.

When she reached the east wing, which now held the Brown sector of the Tower, her Red minders reluctantly took up positions in the hallway outside, waiting for her return. Elaida probably would have liked them to stay with Egwene, but after the Reds themselves had been so exacting in protecting their boundary, there was little chance of another Ajah—even the mild Browns—letting a pair of Red sisters infiltrate their quarters. Egwene hurried her pace as she entered the section with brown tiled floors, passing bustling women in nondescript, muted dresses. It was going to be a full day, with her appointments with sisters, her scheduled beatings, and her regular novice load of scrubbing floors or other chores.

She arrived at Bennae’s door, but hesitated there. Most sisters agreed to train Egwene only when forced into the duty, and the experience was often unpleasant. Some of Egwene’s teachers disliked her because of her affiliation with the rebels, others were annoyed by how easily she could craft weaves, and still others were infuriated to find that she would not show them respect like a novice.

These “lessons,” however, had been among Egwene’s best chances to sow seeds against Elaida. She’d planted one of those during her first visit with Bennae. Had it begun to sprout?

Egwene knocked, and then entered at the call to come in. The sitting room inside was cluttered with the refuse of scholarship. Stacks and stacks of books—like miniature city towers—leaned against one another. Skeletons of various creatures were mounted in various states of construction; the woman owned enough bones to populate a menagerie. Egwene shivered when she noticed a full human skeleton in the corner, held upright and bound together with threads, some detailed notations written directly on the bones in black ink.

There was barely room to walk and only one clear place to sit—Bennae’s own stuffed chair, the armrests worn with a twin set of depressions, doubtless where the Brown’s arms had rested during countless late-night reading sessions. The low ceiling felt lower for the several mummified fowl and astronomical contraptions which hung above. Egwene had to duck her head beneath a model of the sun in order to reach the place where Bennae stood rifling through a stack of leather-bound volumes.

“Ah,” she said as she noticed Egwene. “Good.” Slender in a bony sort of way, she had dark hair that was streaked with gray from age. The hair was in a bun, and she—like many Browns—wore a simple dress that hadn’t been fashionable for a century or two.

Bennae moved over to her stuffed sitting chair, ignoring the stiffer chairs by the hearth—both of those had accumulated stacks of papers since Egwene’s previous visit. Egwene cleared off a stool, placing the dusty skeleton of a rat on the floor between two stacks of books about the reign of Artur Hawkwing.

“Well, I suppose we should get on with your instruction, then,” Bennae said, settling back in her chair.

Egwene kept her face calm. Had Bennae requested an opportunity to train Egwene again? Or had she been forced into it? Egwene could see an unsophisticated Brown sister getting repeatedly roped into a duty that nobody else wanted.

At Bennae’s request, Egwene performed a number of weaves, work far beyond the skill of most novices but easy for Egwene, even with her power dampened by forkroot. She tried to tease out the Brown’s feelings on the relocation of her quarters, but Bennae—like most of the Browns Egwene had spoken to—preferred to avoid that topic.

Egwene did some more weaves. After a time, she wondered just what the point of the meeting was. Hadn’t Bennae asked her to demonstrate most of these very same weaves during her previous visit?

“Very well,” Bennae said, getting herself a cup of tea from a pot warming on a small coal brazier. She didn’t offer any tea to Egwene. “You are skilled enough at that. But I wonder. Do you have the sharpness of mind, the ability to deal with difficult situations, that an Aes Sedai is required to have?”

Egwene said nothing, though she did pointedly pour herself some tea. Bennae did not object.

“Let’s see...” Bennae mused. “Suppose that you were in a situation where you were in conflict with some members of your own Ajah. You have happened upon information you weren’t supposed to know, and your Ajah’s leaders are quite upset with you. Suddenly, you find yourself being sentenced to some most unpleasant duties, as if they are trying to sweep you under the rug and forget about you. Tell me, in this situation, how would you react?”

Egwene almost choked on her tea. The Brown wasn’t very subtle. She had begun asking about the Thirteenth Depository, had she? And that had landed her in trouble? Few were supposed to know about the secret histories that Egwene had mentioned so casually during her previous visit here.

“Well,” Egwene said, sipping her tea, “let me approach it with a clear mind. Best to view it from the perspective of the Ajah’s leaders, I should think.”

Bennae frowned faintly. “I suppose.”

“Now, in this situation you describe, can we assume that these secrets have been entrusted to the Ajah for safekeeping? Ah, good. Well, from their perspective, important and careful plans have been upset. Think of how it must look. Someone has learned secrets they should not. That whispers of a disturbing leak somewhere among your most trusted members.”

Bennae paled. “I suppose I could see that.”

“Then the best way to handle the situation would be twofold,” Egwene said, taking another sip of tea. It tasted terrible. “First, the leaders of the Ajah would have to be reassured. They need to know that it wasn’t their fault that the information leaked. If I were the hypothetical sister in trouble—and if I’d done nothing wrong—I’d go to them and explain. That way they could stop searching for the one who let information slip.”

“But,” Bennae said, “that probably won’t help the sister—the hypothetical one in trouble—get out of her punishments.”

“It couldn’t hurt,” Egwene said. “Likely, she’s being ‘punished’ to keep her out of the way while the Ajah leaders search for a traitor. When they know there isn’t one, they’ll be more likely to look at the fallen sister’s situation with empathy—particularly after she’s offered them a solution.”

“Solution?” Bennae asked. Her teacup sat in her fingers, as if forgotten. “And which solution would you offer?”

“The best one: competence. Obviously, some people among the Ajah know these secrets. Well, if this sister were to prove her trustworthiness and her capability, perhaps the leaders of her Ajah would realize the best place for her is as one of the caretakers of the secrets. An easy solution, if you consider it.”

Bennae sat thoughtfully, a small mummified finch spinning slowly on its cord directly above her. “Yes, but will it work?”

“It is certainly better than serving in some forgotten storeroom cataloguing scrolls,” Egwene said. “Unjust punishment sometimes cannot be avoided, but it is best never to let others forget that it is unjust. If she simply accepts the way people treat her, then it won’t be long before they assume she deserves the position they’ve placed her in.” And thank you, Silviana, for that little bit of advice.

“Yes,” Bennae said, nodding. “Yes, I do suppose that you are correct.”

“I am always willing to help, Bennae,” Egwene said in a softer voice, turning back to her tea. “In, of course, hypothetical situations.”

For a moment, Egwene worried that she’d gone too far in calling the Brown by her name. However, Bennae met her eyes, then actually went so far as to bow her head just slightly in thanks.

If the hour spent with Bennae had been isolated, Egwene would still have found it remarkable. However, she was shocked to discover—upon leaving Bennae’s lair of a room—a novice waiting with a message instructing her to attend Nagora, a White sister. Egwene still had time before her meeting with Meidani, so she went. She couldn’t ignore a summons from a sister, though she would undoubtedly have to do extra chores later to make up for skipping the floor scrubbing.

At the meeting with Nagora, Egwene found herself being trained in logic—and the “logical puzzles” presented sounded very similar to a request for help in dealing with a Warder who was growing frustrated with his increasing age and inability to fight. Egwene gave what help she could, which Nagora declared to be “logic without flaw” before releasing her. After that, there was another message, this one from Suana, one of the Sitters of the Yellow Ajah.

A Sitter! It was the first time Egwene had been ordered to attend one of them. Egwene hurried to the appointment and was admitted by a maidservant. Suana’s quarters looked more like a garden than proper rooms. As a Sitter, Suana could demand quarters with windows, and she made full use of her inset balcony as an herb garden. But beyond that, she had mirrors positioned to reflect light into the room, which was overgrown with small potted trees, shrubs growing in large basins of earth, and even a small garden for carrots and radishes. Egwene noticed with displeasure a small pile of rotted tubers in one container, likely just harvested but somehow already spoiled.

The room smelled strongly of basil, thyme and a dozen other herbs. Despite the problems in the Tower, despite the rotted plants, she was buoyed by the scent of life in the room—the freshly turned earth and growing plants. And Nynaeve complained that the sisters in the White Tower ignored the usefulness of herbs! If only she could spend some time with sturdy, square-faced Suana.

Egwene found the woman remarkably pleasant. Suana ran her through a series of weaves, many of them related to Healing, where Egwene had never particularly shone. Still, her skill must have impressed the Sitter, for midway through the lesson—Egwene seated on a cushioned stool between two potted trees, Suana sitting more properly in a stiff leather-covered chair—the tone of the conversation changed.

“We should very much like to have you in the Yellow, I think,” the woman said.

Egwene started. “I’ve never shown particular skill for Healing.”

“Being of the Yellow isn’t about skill, child,” Suana said. “It’s about passion. If you love to make things well, to fix that which is broken, there would be a purpose for you here.”

“My thanks,” Egwene said. “But the Amyrlin has no Ajah.”

“Yes, but she’s raised from one. Consider it, Egwene. I think you would find a good home here.”

It was a shocking conversation. Suana obviously didn’t consider Egwene the Amyrlin, but the mere fact that she was recruiting Egwene to her Ajah said something. It meant she accepted Egwene’s legitimacy, at least to some degree, as a sister.

“Suana,” Egwene said, testing how far she could push that sense of legitimacy, “have the Sitters spoken of what to do about the tensions between the Ajahs?”

“I don’t see what can be done,” Suana replied, glancing toward her overgrown balcony. “If the other Ajahs have decided to see the Yellow as their enemy, then I cannot compel them to be less foolish.”

They likely say the same about you, Egwene thought, but said, “Someone must make the first steps. The shell of distrust is growing so thick that soon it will be hard to crack. Perhaps if some of the Sitters of different Ajahs began taking meals together, or were seen traveling the hallways in one another’s company, it would prove instructive for the rest of the Tower.”

“Perhaps...” Suana said.

“They aren’t your enemies, Suana,” Egwene said, letting her voice grow more firm.

The woman frowned at Egwene, as if realizing suddenly who she was taking advice from. “Well, then, I think it’s best that you ran along. I’m certain there is a great deal for you to do today.”

Egwene let herself out, carefully avoiding drooping branches and clusters of pots. Once she left the Yellow sector of the Tower and collected her Red Ajah attendants, she realized something. She’d gone through all three meetings without being assigned a single punishment. She wasn’t certain what to think of that. She’d even called two of them by name directly to their faces!

They were coming to accept her. Unfortunately, that was only a small part of the battle. The larger part was making certain the White Tower survived the strains Elaida was placing upon it.

Meidani’s quarters were surprisingly comfortable and homey. Egwene had always viewed the Grays as similar to the Whites, lacking passion, perfect diplomats who didn’t have time for personal emotions or frivolities.

These rooms, however, hinted at a woman who loved to travel. Maps hung within delicate frames, centered on the walls like prized pieces of art. A pair of Aiel spears hung on either side of one map; another was a map of the Sea Folk islands. While many might have opted for the porcelain keepsakes that were so commonly associated with the Sea Folk, Meidani had a small collection of earrings and painted shells, carefully framed and displayed, along with a small plaque beneath listing dates of collection.

The sitting room was like a museum dedicated to one person’s journeys. An Altaran marriage knife, set with four twinkling rubies, hung beside a small Cairhienin banner and a Shienaran sword. Each had a small plaque explaining its significance. The marriage knife, for instance, had been presented to Meidani for her help in settling a dispute between two houses over the death of a particularly important landowner. His wife had given her the knife as a token of thanks.

Who would have thought that the cowering woman of the dinner a few weeks back would have such a proud collection? The rug itself was labeled, the gift of a trader who had purchased it on the closed docks of Shara, then bestowed it on Meidani in thanks for Healing his daughter. It was of strange design, woven from what seemed to be tiny, dyed reeds, with tufts of an exotic gray fur trimming the edges. The pattern depicted exotic creatures with long necks.

Meidani herself sat on a curious chair made from woven wicker boughs, crafted to look like a growing thicket of branches that just happened to take the shape of a chair. It would have been horribly out of place in any other room in the Tower, but it fit within these quarters, where each item was different, none of them related yet somehow all connected with the common theme of gifts received during travels.

The Gray’s appearance was surprisingly different from what it had been during the dinner with Elaida. Instead of the low-cut colorful dress, she wore a high-necked gown of plain white, long and tapering, cut as if to deemphasize her bosom. Her deep golden hair was up in a bun, and she didn’t wear a single glimmer of jewelry. Was the contrast intentional?

“You took your time summoning me,” Egwene said.

“I didn’t want to appear suspicious before the Amyrlin,” Meidani said as Egwene crossed the exotic Shara rug. “Besides, I’m still not certain how I regard you.”

“I don’t care how you regard me,” Egwene said evenly, seating herself on an oversized oak chair, bearing a plaque that identified it as a gift from a moneylender in Tear. “An Amyrlin needs not the regard of those who follow her, so long as she is obeyed.”

“You’ve been captured and overthrown.”

Egwene raised an eyebrow, meeting Meidani’s gaze. “Captured, true.”

“The Hall among the rebels will have chosen a new Amyrlin by now.”

“I happen to know that they have not.”

Meidani hesitated. Revealing the existence of contact with the rebel Aes Sedai was a gamble, but if she couldn’t secure the loyalty of Meidani and the spies, then she was on shaky ground indeed. Egwene had assumed that it would be easy to gain the woman’s support, considering how frightened Meidani had been at supper. But it seemed that the woman was not as easily cowed as it had appeared.

“Well,” Meidani said. “Even if that is true, you must know that they picked you to be a figurehead. A puppet to be manipulated.”

Egwene held the woman’s gaze.

“You have no real authority,” Meidani said, voice wavering slightly.

Egwene did not look away. Meidani studied her, brow wrinkling slowly, step by step, furrows appearing across her smooth, ageless Aes Sedai face. She searched Egwene’s eyes, like a mason searching a piece of stone for flaws before setting it in place. What she found seemed to confuse her further.

“Now,” Egwene said, as if she had not just been questioned, “you will tell me precisely why you have not fled the Tower. While I do believe that your spying on Elaida is valuable, you must know how much danger you are in now that Elaida is aware of your true allegiance. Why not leave?”

“I... cannot say,” Meidani said, glancing away.

“I’m commanding you as your Amyrlin.”

“I still cannot say.” Meidani looked down at the floor, as if ashamed.

Curious, Egwene thought, hiding her frustration. “It is obvious that you do not understand the gravity of our situation. Either you accept my authority, or you accept that of Elaida. There is no middle ground, Meidani. And I promise you this: If Elaida retains the Amyrlin Seat, you will find her treatment of those she sees as traitors to be quite unpleasant.”

Meidani continued to look down. Despite her initial resistance, it seemed that she had little strength of will remaining.

“I see.” Egwene rose to her feet. “You’ve betrayed us, haven’t you? Did you go to Elaida’s side before you were exposed or after Beonin’s confession?”

Meidani looked up immediately. “What? No! I never betrayed our cause!” She seemed sickened, face pale, mouth a thin line. “How could you think that I’d support that horrid woman? I hate what she has done to the Tower.”

Well, that was straightforward enough; little room to wiggle around the Three Oaths in those statements. Either Meidani was true or she was Black—though Egwene had difficulty believing that a Black sister would endanger herself by telling a lie that could be exposed with such relative ease.

“Why not run, then?” Egwene asked. “Why stay?”

Meidani shook her head. “I cannot say.”

Egwene took a deep breath. Something about the entire conversation irritated her. “Will you at least tell me why you take dinner with Elaida so often? Surely it’s not because you enjoy such treatment.”

Meidani blushed. “Elaida and I were pillow-friends during our days as novices. The others decided that if I were to renew the relationship, perhaps it would lead to my gaining valuable information.”

Egwene folded her arms beneath her breasts. “It seems reckless to assume she would trust you. However, Elaida’s thirst for power is guiding her to make reckless moves of her own, so perhaps the plan was not completely ill advised. Regardless, she’ll never draw you into her confidence now that she knows of your true allegiances.”

“I know. But it was decided that I shouldn’t let on that I’m aware of her knowledge. If I were to back away now, it would let on that we’ve been warned—and that is one of the precious few edges we now hold.”

Precious few enough that she should have just run from the Tower. There was nothing to be gained by staying. Why, then? Something was holding the woman back, it seemed. Something strong. A promise?

“Meidani,” Egwene said, “I need to know what it is that you aren’t telling me.”

She shook her head; she almost looked afraid. Light! Egwene thought. I won’t do to her what Elaida does those evenings at supper.

Egwene sat back down. “Straighten your back, Meidani. You’re not some simpering novice. You’re Aes Sedai. Start acting like one.”

The woman looked up, eyes flashing at the taunt. Egwene nodded approvingly. “We will mend the damage that Elaida has done, and I will sit in my rightful place as Amyrlin. But we have work to do.”

“I can’t—”

“Yes,” Egwene said. “You can’t tell me what is wrong. I suspect that the Three Oaths are involved, though Light knows how. We can work around the problem. You can’t tell me why you’ve remained in the Tower. But can you show me?”

Meidani cocked her head. “I’m not sure. I could take you to—” She cut off abruptly. Yes, one of the Oaths was forcibly preventing her from continuing. “I might be able to show you,” Meidani finished lamely. “I’m not certain.”

“Then let’s find out. How dangerous will it be if those Red handlers of mine follow us?”

Meidani paled. “Dangerous.”

“Then we’ll have to leave them behind,” Egwene said, absently tapping the armrest of her oversized oak chair with one nail as she thought. “We could leave the Gray section of the Tower by another way, but if we are seen, it could raise difficult questions.”

“There have been a lot of Reds lurking near the entrances and exits of our quarters,” Meidani said. “I suspect all of the Ajahs are watching one another like that. It will be very difficult to get away without being noticed. They wouldn’t follow me alone, but if they see you...”

Spies, watching the other Ajah quarters? Light! Had it gotten so bad? That was like scouts being sent to watch enemy camps. She couldn’t risk being seen leaving with Meidani, but to go alone would draw attention, too—the Reds knew Egwene was supposed to be guarded.

That left a problem, one Egwene could think of only one way to solve. She eyed Meidani. How far to trust her? “You promise that you do not support Elaida, and that you accept my leadership?”

The woman hesitated, then nodded. “I do.”

“If I show you something, do you vow not to reveal it to anyone else without my permission first?”

She frowned. “Yes.”

Egwene made her decision. Taking a deep breath, she embraced the Source. “Watch closely,” she said, weaving threads of Spirit. Dampened by forkroot, she wasn’t strong enough to open a gateway, but she could still show Meidani the weaves.

“What is that?” Meidani asked.

“It’s called a gateway,” Egwene said. “Used for Traveling.”

“Traveling is impossible!” Meidani said immediately. “The ability has been lost for...” She trailed off, eyes opening more widely.

Egwene let the weave dissipate. Immediately, Meidani embraced the Source, looking determined.

“Think of the place you want to go,” Egwene said. “You have to know the place you’re leaving behind very well to make this work. I assume that you are familiar enough with your own quarters. Pick a destination where nobody is likely to be; gateways can be dangerous if they open in the wrong location.”

Meidani nodded, golden bun bobbing as she concentrated. She did an admirable job of imitating Egwene’s weave, and a gateway opened directly between the two of them, white line splitting the air and bending upon itself. The hole was on Meidani’s side; Egwene saw only a shimmering patch, like a draft of heat warping the air. She rounded the gateway, looking through the hole at a darkened stone hallway beyond. The tiles on the floor were of a subdued white and brown, and there were no windows within sight. In the depths of the Tower, Egwene guessed.

“Quickly,” Egwene said. “If I don’t return from your quarters after about an hour, my Red minders might begin to wonder what is taking so long. It’s already suspicious to have you, of all people, send for me. We can only hope that Elaida isn’t careful enough to wonder at the coincidence.”

“Yes, Mother,” Meidani said, rushing over and taking a bronze lamp from her table, the flame flickering at the spout. Then she hesitated.

“What?” Egwene asked.

“I’m just surprised.”

Egwene almost asked what was so surprising, but then she saw it in Meidani’s eyes. Meidani was surprised at how quickly she’d found herself obeying. She was surprised by how natural it was to think of Egwene as Amyrlin. This woman hadn’t been won over completely, not yet, but she was close.

“Quickly,” Egwene said.

Meidani nodded, stepping through the gateway, and Egwene followed. Though the floor beyond was free of dust, the corridor was thick with the musty scent of uncirculated air. The walls were bare of the ornamentations one saw occasionally in the upper corridors, and the only sound was that of a few distant rats scratching. Rats. In the White Tower. Once, that would have been impossible. The failure of the wards was just one more impossibility atop an ever-growing stack.

This was not an area often given attention by the Tower servants. That was probably why Meidani had chosen it to open the gateway. That was well and good, but she was probably erring on the side of safety. This deep within the Tower, it would take precious minutes to return to the main hallways and find whatever it was Meidani wished to show her. And that would present its own problems. What would happen if other sisters took note of Egwene moving through the corridors without her normal complement of Red Ajah guards?

Before Egwene could voice this concern, Meidani began to walk away. Not up the hallway toward the stairwells, but down it, moving deeper. Egwene frowned, but followed.

“I’m not certain if I’ll be allowed to show you,” Meidani said softly, her skirts swishing, the sound not unlike that of the faint scrambling of the distant rats. “I must warn you, however, that you may be surprised at what you are stepping into. It could be dangerous.”

Did Meidani mean physical danger or political danger? It seemed that Egwene was in about as much of the latter as was possible. Still, she nodded and accepted the warning with solemnity. “I understand. But if something dangerous is happening in the Tower, I must know of it. It is not only my right, but my duty.”

Meidani said no more. She led Egwene through the twisting passage, muttering that she’d have liked to have been able to bring her Warder. He was apparently out in the city on some errand. The hall spiraled not unlike the undulating coils of the Great Serpent itself. Just when Egwene was growing impatient, Meidani stopped beside a closed door. It looked no different from the dozens of other near-forgotten storage rooms that budded off the main corridor. Meidani raised a hesitant hand, then knocked sharply.

The door opened immediately, revealing a keen-eyed Warder with ruddy hair and a square jaw. He eyed Meidani, then turned to Egwene, his expression growing darker. His arm flinched, as if he’d just barely stopped himself from reaching for the sword at his side.

“That will be Meidani,” a woman’s voice said from inside the room, “come to report on her meeting with the girl. Adsalan?”

The Warder stepped aside, revealing a small chamber set with boxes for chairs. It held four women, all Aes Sedai. And, shockingly, each was of a different Ajah! Egwene hadn’t seen women of four different Ajahs so much as walk together in the hallways, let alone hold conference together. Not a single one of them was Red, and each of the four was a Sitter.

Seaine was the stately woman in white robes and silver trim. A Sitter from the White Ajah, she had thick black hair and eyebrows, and watery blue eyes that regarded Egwene with an even expression. Beside her was Doesine, a Sitter of the Yellow Ajah. She was slender and tall for a Cairhienin; her rich rose-colored dress was embroidered with gold. Her hair was adorned with sapphires, matched by the stone at her forehead.

Yukiri was the Gray sister sitting beside Doesine. Yukiri was one of the shortest women that Egwene had ever met, but she had a way of regarding others that always made her seem in control, even when accompanied by very tall Aes Sedai. The last woman was Saerin, an Altaran Sitter for the Brown. Like many Browns, she wore unornamented dresses, this one a nondescript tan. Her olive skin was marred by a scar on her left cheek. Egwene knew very little about her. Of all the sisters in the room, she seemed the least shocked to see Egwene.

“What have you done?” Seaine said to Meidani, aghast.

“Adsalan, bring them in here,” Doesine said, rising and gesturing urgently. “If someone were to walk by and see the al’Vere girl there....”

Meidani cringed before the stern words—yes, she would require a great deal of work before she had the bearing of an Aes Sedai again. Egwene stepped into the room, moving before the brutish Warder could pull her forward. Meidani followed, and Adsalan closed the door with a thump. The room was lit by a pair of lamps that didn’t give quite enough light, as if to complement the conspiratorial nature of the women’s conference.

The boxes might as well have been thrones for the way the four Sitters occupied them, and so Egwene sat herself on one as well. “You were not given leave to sit, girl,” Saerin said coldly. “Meidani, what is the meaning of this outrage? Your oath was to have prevented this sort of lapse!”

“Oath?” Egwene asked. “And which oath would this be?”

“Quiet, girl,” Yukiri snapped, slapping Egwene across the back with a switch of Air. It was such a faint punishment that Egwene almost laughed.

“I didn’t break my oath!” Meidani said quickly, stepping up beside Egwene. “You ordered me not to tell anyone of these meetings. Well, I have obeyed—I didn’t tell her. I showed her.” There was a spark of defiance in the woman. That was good.

Egwene wasn’t certain what was going on in the room, but four Sitters together presented her with an unequaled opportunity. She’d never thought to get a chance to speak with so many at once, and if these were willing to meet together, then perhaps they were free of the fractures undermining the rest of the Tower.

Or was their meeting a hint of something more dark? Oaths Egwene didn’t know about, meetings away from the upper corridors, a Warder guarding the door... were these women of four Ajahs, or of one? Had she unwittingly bumbled her way into the center of a nest of Blacks?

Heart beginning to race, Egwene forced herself not to jump to conclusions. If they were Black, then she was caught. If they were not, then she had work to do.

“This is very unexpected,” calm Seaine was saying to Meidani. “We’ll take extra care with the wording of your future orders, Meidani.”

Yukiri nodded. “I didn’t think that you’d be so childish as to expose us out of spite. We should have realized that you, like all of us, would have experience pushing and bending oaths to suit your needs.”

Wait, Egwene thought. That sounds like....

“Indeed,” Yukiri said. “I think that penance will be in order for this infraction. But what are we to do with this girl she brought? She’s not sworn on the Rod, and so it would be—”

“You gave her a fourth oath, didn’t you?” Egwene interrupted. “What under the Light were you thinking?”

Yukiri glanced at her, and Egwene felt another swish of Air. “You were not given leave to speak.”

“The Amyrlin needs no leave to speak,” Egwene said, staring the women down. “What have you done here, Yukiri? You betray all that we are! The Oaths are not to be used as tools of division. Has this entire Tower gone as insane as Elaida?”

“It’s not insanity,” Saerin said suddenly, butting into the conversation. The Brown shook her head, more commanding than Egwene would have expected for one of her Ajah. “It was only done out of necessity. This one couldn’t be trusted, not after siding with the rebels.”

“Do not think we’re unaware of your own involvement with that group, Egwene al’Vere,” Yukiri said. The haughty Gray was barely in control of her anger. “If we have our way, you will not be treated with such coddling as Elaida has shown you.”

Egwene gestured indifferently. “Still me, execute me or beat me, Yukiri, and the Tower will yet be in shambles. The ones you so easily label as rebels are not to blame for that. Secret meetings in the basements, oaths administered without warrant—these are crimes at least equal to that of dividing from Elaida.”

“You should not question us,” Seaine said in a quieter voice. She seemed more timid than the others. “Sometimes, difficult decisions must be made. We cannot have Darkfriends among the Aes Sedai, and measures have been taken to search them out. We here each proved to Meidani that we are not friends of the Shadow, and so there can be no harm in making her give an oath to us. It was a reasonable action to make certain we are all working for the same goals.”

Egwene kept her face calm. Seaine had all but admitted to the existence of the Black Ajah! Egwene had never expected to hear that from the mouth of a Sitter, particularly in front of so many witnesses. So these women were using the Oath Rod to search out Black sisters. If you took each sister, removed her oaths and made her reswear them, you could ask her if she were Black. A desperate method, but—Egwene decided—a legitimate one, considering the times.

“I concede that it is a reasonable plan,” Egwene said. “But swearing this woman to a new oath is unnecessary!”

“And if the woman is known to have other loyalties?” Saerin demanded. “Just because a woman isn’t a Darkfriend doesn’t mean she won’t betray us in other ways.”

And that oath of obedience was probably the reason Meidani couldn’t flee the Tower. Egwene felt a stab of sympathy for the poor woman. Sent by the Salidar Aes Sedai to return and spy on the Tower, discovered by these women—presumably—during their search for the Black, then revealed in her true purpose to Elaida. Three different factions, all pushing against her.

“It’s still inappropriate,” Egwene said. “But we can set that aside for now. What of Elaida herself? Have you determined if she is of the Black? Who gave you this charge, and how did your cabal form?”

“Bah! Why are we speaking with her?” Yukiri demanded, standing up and putting her hands on her hips. “We should be deciding what to do with her, not answering her questions!”

“If I am to help in your work,” Egwene said, “then I need to be aware of the facts.”

“You are not here to help, child,” Doesine said. The slender Cairhienin Yellow’s voice was firm. “Obviously, Meidani brought you to prove that we don’t have her completely beneath our thumbs. Like a child throwing a tantrum.”

“What of the others?” Seaine said. “We need to gather them and make certain that their orders are worded better. We wouldn’t want one of them to go to the Amyrlin before we know where her loyalties lie.”

Others? Egwene thought. Have they sworn all of the spies, then? It made sense. Discover one, and it would be easy to get the names of the others. “Have you found any actual members of the Black, then?” Egwene asked. “Who are they?”

“You are to remain quiet, child,” Yukiri said, focusing green eyes on Egwene. “One more word, and I shall see you taking penance until you run out of tears to weep.”

“I doubt you can order me to any more of it than I already have, Yukiri,” Egwene said calmly. “Unless I am to be in the Mistress of Novices’ study all day each day. Besides, if you sent me to her, what would I tell her? That you personally gave me penance? She’d know that I wasn’t scheduled to see you today. That might start raising questions.”

“We could just have Meidani order you to penance,” said Seaine the White.

“She won’t do such a thing,” Egwene said. “She accepts my authority as Amyrlin.”

The other sisters glanced at Meidani. Egwene held her breath. Meidani managed a nod, though she looked horrified to be defying the others. Egwene released a quiet breath of thanks.

Saerin looked surprised, but curious. Yukiri, still standing with her arms folded, was not so easily dissuaded. “That’s meaningless. We’ll just order her to send you to penance.”

“Will you?” Egwene said. “I thought that you told me that the fourth oath was meant to restore unity, to keep her from fleeing to Elaida with your secrets. Now you would use that oath like a cudgel, forcing her to become your tool?”

That brought silence to the room.

“This is why an oath of obedience is a terrible idea,” Egwene said. “No woman should have this much power over another. What you have done to these others is only one step shy of Compulsion. I’m still trying to decide if this abomination is in any way justified; the way you treat Meidani and the others will likely sway that decision.”

“Must I repeat myself?” Yukiri snapped, turning to the others. “Why are we wasting time clucking with this girl like hens left to the range? We need to make a decision!”

“We’re speaking with her because she seems determined to make herself a nuisance,” Saerin said curtly, regarding Egwene. “Sit down, Yukiri. I will deal with the child.”

Egwene met Saerin’s eyes, heart thumping. Yukiri sniffed, then seated herself, finally seeming to remember that she was Aes Sedai as she calmed her expression. This group was under a great deal of pressure. If it became known what they were doing...

Egwene kept her eyes on Saerin. She’d assumed that Yukiri was in charge of the group—she and Saerin were near in power, and many Browns were docile. But that had been a mistake; it was too easy to prejudge someone based on their Ajah.

Saerin leaned forward, speaking firmly. “Child, we must have your obedience. We cannot swear you to the Oath Rod, and I doubt you’d make an oath of obedience anyway. But you cannot continue this charade of being the Amyrlin Seat. We all know how often you take penance, and we all know what little good it is doing. So let me try something that I assume nobody else has tried with you: reason.”

“You may speak your mind,” Egwene said.

The Brown sniffed in response. “All right. For one thing, you can’t be Amyrlin. With that forkroot, you can barely channel!”

“Is the Amyrlin Seat’s authority, then, in her power to channel?” Egwene asked. “Is she nothing more than a bully, obeyed because she can force others to do as she demands?”

“Well, no,” Saerin said.

“Then I don’t see why my having been given forkroot has anything to do with my authority.”

“You’ve been demoted to novice.”

“Only Elaida is foolish enough to assume one can remove an Aes Sedai’s rank,” Egwene said. “She should never have been allowed to assume she had that power in the first place.”

“If she didn’t assume it,” Saerin said, “then you would be dead, girl.”

Egwene met Saerin’s eyes again. “Sometimes, I feel it would be better to be dead than to see what Elaida has done to the women of this Tower.”

That brought silence to the room.

“I must say,” Seaine said quietly, “your claims are completely irrational. Elaida is the Amyrlin because she was raised properly by the Hall. Therefore, you can’t be Amyrlin.”

Egwene shook her head. “She was ‘raised’ after a shameful and unorthodox removal of Siuan Sanche from the seat. How can you call Elaida’s position ‘proper’ in the face of that?” Something occurred to her, a gamble, but it felt right. “Tell me this. Have you interrogated any women who are currently Sitters? Have you found any Blacks among them?”

While Saerin’s eyes remained even, Seaine glanced away, troubled. There! Egwene thought.

“You have,” Egwene said. “It makes sense. If I were a member of the Black, I’d try very hard to get one of my fellow Darkfriends named as a Sitter. From there they can manipulate the Tower best. Now tell me this. Were any of these Black Sitters among those who raised Elaida? Did any of them stand to depose Siuan?”

There was silence.

Answer me,” Egwene said.

“We found a Black among the Sitters,” Doesine finally said. “And... yes, she was one of those who stood to depose Siuan Sanche.” Her voice was somber. She’d realized what Egwene was getting at.

“Siuan was deposed by the bare minimum number of Sitters required,” Egwene said. “One of them was Black, making her vote invalid. You stilled and deposed your Amyrlin, murdering her Warder, and you did it unlawfully.”

“By the Light,” Seaine whispered. “She’s right.”

“This is pointless,” Yukiri said, standing again. “If we begin second-guessing, trying to confirm which Amyrlins might have been raised by members of the Black, then we’d have reason to suspect every Amyrlin who ever held the seat!”

“Oh?” Egwene asked. “And how many of them were raised by a Hall filled by only the exact minimum number of currently sitting members? This is only one reason why it was a grave mistake to unseat Siuan this way. When I was raised, we made certain that every Sitter in the city was aware of what was happening.”

“False Sitters,” Yukiri said, pointing. “Given their places unlawfully!”

Egwene turned toward her, glad they couldn’t hear her nervously pounding heart. She had to remain in control. She had to. “You call us false, Yukiri? Which Amyrlin would you rather follow? The one who has been making novices and Accepted out of Aes Sedai, banishing an entire Ajah, and causing divisions in the Tower more dangerous than any army that ever assaulted it? A woman who was raised partially through the help of the Black Ajah? Or would you rather serve the Amyrlin who is trying to undo all of that?”

“Surely you’re not saying that you think we served the Black in raising Elaida,” Doesine said.

“I think we all are serving the interests of the Shadow,” Egwene said sharply, “so long as we allow ourselves to remain divided. How do you imagine the Black reacted to the near-secret deposing of an Amyrlin Seat, followed by a division among the Aes Sedai? I would not be surprised to find, after some investigation, that this nameless Black sister you discovered was not the only Darkfriend among the group who worked to unseat the rightful Amyrlin.”

This brought another round of silence to the room.

Saerin settled back and sighed. “We cannot change the past. Enlightening though your arguments are, Egwene al’Vere, they are ultimately fruitless.”

“I agree that we cannot change what has happened,” Egwene said, nodding to her. “However, we can look to the future. As admirable as I find your work to discover the Black Ajah, I am far more encouraged by your willingness to work together to do it. In the current Tower, cooperation between the Ajahs is rare. I challenge you to take that as your main goal, bringing unity to the White Tower. Whatever the cost.”

She stood up, and she half-expected a sister to rebuke her, but they almost seemed to have forgotten that they were speaking with a “novice” and a rebel. “Meidani,” Egwene said. “You accept me as Amyrlin.”

“Yes, Mother,” the woman said, bowing her head.

“I charge you, then, to continue your work with these women. They are not our enemies and they never were. Sending you back as a spy was a mistake, one I wish I’d been able to stop. Now that you are here, however, you can be of use. I regret that you must continue your performance before Elaida, but I commend you for your courage in that regard.”

“I will serve as needed, Mother,” she said, though she looked sick.

Egwene glanced at the others. “Loyalty is better earned than forced. Do you have the Oath Rod here?”

“No,” Yukiri said. “It’s difficult to sneak away. We can only take it on occasion.”

“A pity,” Egwene said. “I’d have liked to take the oaths. Regardless, you will promptly take it and release Meidani from the fourth oath.”

“We’ll consider it,” Saerin said.

Egwene raised an eyebrow. “As you wish. But know that once the White Tower is whole again, the Hall will learn of this action you have taken. I would like to be able to inform them that you were being careful, rather than seeking unwarranted power. If you need me in the next few days, you may send for me—but kindly find a way to deal with the two Red sisters who are watching me. I’d rather not use Traveling within the Tower again, lest I unwittingly reveal too much to those who would be better left ignorant.”

She left that statement hanging before walking to the door. The Warder didn’t stop her, though he did watch with those suspicious eyes of his. She wondered whose Warder he was—she didn’t believe any of the sisters inside the room had Warders, though she wasn’t certain. Perhaps he belonged to one of the other spies sent from Salidar, and had been drafted by Saerin and the others. That would explain his disposition.

Meidani quickly followed Egwene from the room, glancing over her shoulder, as if expecting argument or censure to fly out behind her. The Warder simply pulled the door shut.

“I can’t believe you succeeded,” the Gray said. “They should have strung you up by your heels and had you howling!”

“They are too wise for that,” Egwene said. “They’re the only ones in this blasted Tower—besides maybe Silviana—who have anything resembling heads sitting atop their shoulders.”

“Silviana?” Meidani asked with surprise. “Doesn’t she beat you every day?”

“Several times a day,” Egwene said absently. “She’s very dutiful, not to mention thoughtful. If we had more like her, the Tower wouldn’t have gotten to this state in the first place.”

Meidani regarded Egwene, an odd expression on her face. “You really are the Amyrlin,” she finally said. It was an odd comment. Hadn’t she just sworn that she accepted Egwene’s authority?

“Come on,” Egwene said, hastening her pace. “I need to get back before those Reds grow suspicious.”

CHAPTER 13
An Offer and a Departure

Gawyn stood, sword at the ready, facing down two Warders. The barn let in slots of light, air sparkling with dust and bits of straw kicked up from the fighting. Gawyn backed slowly across the packed dirt floor, passing through patches of light. The air was warm on his skin. Trickles of sweat ran down from his temples, but his grip was firm as the two Warders advanced on him.

The one in front was Sleete, a limber, long-armed man with rough-hewn features. In the barn’s uneven light, his face looked like an unfinished work one might find in a sculptor’s workshop, with long shadows across his eyes, his chin divided by a cleft, his nose crooked from being broken and not Healed. He wore long hair and black sideburns.

Hattori had been quite pleased when her Warder had finally arrived at Dorlan; she’d lost him at Dumai’s Wells, and his story was the sort gleemen and bards sang about. Sleete had lain wounded for hours before deliriously managing to grab his horse’s reins and pull himself into the saddle. It had loyally carried him, near unconscious, for hours before arriving at a nearby village. The villagers there had been tempted to sell Sleete to a local band of bandits—their leader had visited earlier promising them safety as a reward for revealing any refugees from the nearby battle. However, the mayor’s daughter had argued for Sleete’s life, convincing them that the bandits must be Darkfriends if they were seeking wounded Warders. The villagers had chosen to hide Sleete instead, and the girl had nursed him to safety.

Sleete had been forced to sneak away once he was well enough to travel; the girl had apparently taken quite a liking to him. Whispers among the Younglings said that Sleete’s escape had also come because he had begun feeling affection for the girl himself. Most Warders knew better than to let themselves grow attached. Sleete had left in the night, after the girl and her family fell asleep—but in return for the village’s mercy, he’d hunted down the bandits and seen to it that they would never plague the village again.

It was the marrow of stories and legends—at least, among regular, lesser men. For a Warder, Sleete’s story was almost commonplace. Men like him attracted legends as ordinary men attracted fleas. In fact, Sleete hadn’t wanted to share his tale; it had come out only owing to a vigorous campaign of questions from the Younglings. He still acted as if his survival were nothing to brag about. He was a Warder. Surviving against the odds, riding in delirium over miles of rough terrain, cutting down an entire band of thieves with wounds not fully healed—these were just the sorts of things you did when you were a Warder.

Gawyn respected them. Even the ones he had killed. Especially the ones he had killed. It took a unique kind of man to show this kind of dedication, this kind of vigilance. This kind of humility. While Aes Sedai manipulated the world and monsters like al’Thor got the glory, men like Sleete quietly did the work of heroes, each and every day. Without glory or recognition. If they were remembered, it was usually only by association with their Aes Sedai. Or it was by other Warders. You didn’t forget your own.

Sleete attacked, sword lancing forward in a straight thrust delivered for maximum speed. The Viper Flicks Its Tongue, a bold strike, made more effective because Sleete fought in tandem with the narrow, short man rounding toward Gawyn’s left. Marlesh was the only other Warder in Dorlan—and his arrival had been far less dramatic than Sleete’s. Marlesh had been with the original group of eleven Aes Sedai who had escaped Dumai’s Wells, and he had stayed with them the entire time. His own Aes Sedai, a pretty young Domani Green named Vasha, watched idly from the side of the barn.

Gawyn countered The Viper Flicks Its Tongue with Cat Dances on the Wall, knocking aside the strike and going for the legs in one sweep. It wasn’t intended to hit, however; it was a defensive move, meant to enable him to keep an eye on both opponents. Marlesh tried Leopard’s Caress, but Gawyn moved into Folding the Air, carefully knocking aside the blow and waiting for another from Sleete, who was the more dangerous of the two. Sleete repositioned, taking smooth steps, his blade to the side as he set his back to the massive piles of hay at the rear of the stuffy barn.

Gawyn moved into Cat on Hot Sand as Marlesh tried Hummingbird Kisses the Honeyrose. Hummingbird wasn’t the right form to use in such an attack; it was rarely useful against someone on the defensive, but Marlesh was obviously tired of being parried. He was getting eager. Gawyn could use that. And would.

Sleete was advancing again. Gawyn brought his sword back in to guard as the Warders approached in tandem. Gawyn immediately moved into Apple Blossoms in the Wind. His blade flashed three times, pushing a wide-eyed Marlesh back. Marlesh cursed, throwing himself forward, but Gawyn brought his sword up from the previous form and moved fluidly into Shake Dew from the Branch. He stepped forward into a series of six sharp blows, three at each opponent, knocking Marlesh back and to the ground—the man had stepped back into the fight too quickly—and forcing Sleete’s blade aside twice, then ending with his blade against the man’s neck.

The two Warders looked at Gawyn, shocked. They had borne similar expressions the last time Gawyn had defeated them, and the time before that. Sleete carried a heron-mark blade and was near-legendary in the White Tower for his prowess. He was said to have bested even Lan Mandragoran twice out of seven bouts, back when Mandragoran had been known to spar with other Warders. Marlesh wasn’t as renowned as his companion, but he was still a fully capable and trained Warder, no easy foe.

But Gawyn had won. Again. Things seemed so simple when he was sparring. The world contracted down—compressed like berries squeezed for their juice—into something smaller and easier to see from up close. All Gawyn had ever wanted was to protect Elayne. He wanted to defend Andor. Maybe learn to be a little more like Galad.

Why couldn’t life be as simple as a sword match? Opponents clear and arranged before you. The prize obvious: survival. When men fought, they connected. You became brothers as you traded blows.

Gawyn removed his blade and stepped away, sheathing it. He offered a hand to Marlesh, who took it, shaking his head as he stood. “You are remarkable, Gawyn Trakand. Like a creature of light, color and shadow when you move. I feel like a babe holding a stick when I face you.”

Sleete said nothing as he sheathed his own sword, but he did nod his head to Gawyn in respect—just as he had the last two times they’d fought. He was a man of few words. Gawyn appreciated that.

In the corner of the barn there was a half-barrel filled with water, and the men walked to it. Corbet, one of the Younglings, hurriedly dipped a ladleful and handed it to Gawyn. Gawyn gave it to Sleete. The older man nodded again and took a drink while Marlesh took a cup off the dusty windowsill and got himself a drink. “I’m saying, Trakand,” the short man continued, “we’ll need to find you a blade with some herons on it. No one should have to face you without knowing what they’re getting into!”

“I’m not a blademaster,” Gawyn said quietly, taking the ladle back from crook-nosed Sleete and having a drink. It was warm, which felt good. Less of a shock, more natural.

“You killed Hammar, didn’t you?” Marlesh asked.

Gawyn hesitated. The simplicity he’d felt before, while fighting, was already crumbling. “Yes.”

“Well, then you’re a blademaster,” Marlesh said. “Should have taken his sword when he fell.”

“It wasn’t respectful,” Gawyn said. “Besides, I didn’t have time to claim prizes.”

Marlesh laughed, as if at a joke, though Gawyn hadn’t intended one. He glanced over at Sleete, who was watching him with curious eyes.

A rustle of skirts announced the approach of Vasha. The Green had long black hair and striking green eyes that at times seemed almost catlike. “Are you done playing, Marlesh?” she asked with a faintly Domani accent.

Marlesh chuckled. “You should be happy to see me play, Vasha. I seem to recall my ‘playing’ saving your neck a couple of times on the battlefield.”

She sniffed and raised an eyebrow. Gawyn had rarely seen an Aes Sedai and Warder with as casual a relationship as these two. “Come,” she said, turning on her heel and walking toward the open barn doors. “I want to see what has been keeping Narenwin and the others so long indoors. It smells of decisions being made.”

Marlesh shrugged and tossed the cup to Corbet. “Whatever they’re deciding, I hope it involves moving. I don’t like sitting around in this village with those soldiers creeping up on us. If it gets any more tense in camp, I’m likely to run off and join the Tinkers.”

Gawyn nodded at that comment. It had been weeks since he’d last dared send the Younglings to raid. Bryne’s search parties were getting closer and closer to the village, and that allowed fewer and fewer rides out across the countryside.

Vasha passed out the doors, but Gawyn could still hear her say, “You can sound like such a child at times.” Marlesh just shrugged, waving farewell to Gawyn and Sleete before stepping out of the barn.

Gawyn shook his head, refilling the ladle and taking another drink. “Those two remind me of nothing so much as a brother and sister at times.”

Sleete smiled.

Gawyn replaced the ladle, nodded to Corbet, then moved to leave. He wanted to check on the Younglings’ evening meal and make certain it was being distributed properly. Some of the youths had taken to sparring and practicing when they should have been eating.

As he left, however, Sleete reached out and took his arm. Gawyn looked back in surprise.

“Hattori only has one Warder,” the man said in his gravelly, soft voice.

Gawyn nodded. “That’s not unheard-of for a Green.”

“It isn’t because she isn’t open to having more,” Sleete said. “Years ago, when she bonded me, she said that she would only take another if I judged him worthy. She asked me to search. She doesn’t think much on these kinds of things. Too busy with other matters.”

All right, Gawyn thought, wondering why he was being told this.

Sleete turned, meeting Gawyn’s eyes. “It’s been over ten years, but I’ve found someone worthy. She will bond you this hour, if you wish it.”

Gawyn blinked in surprise at Sleete. The lanky man was shrouded once more in his color-shifting cloak, wearing nondescript brown and green beneath. Others complained that because of his long hair and sideburns, Sleete looked more scruffy than a Warder should. But “scruffy” was the wrong term for this man. Rough, perhaps, but natural. Like uncut stones or a gnarled—yet sturdy—oak.

“I’m honored, Sleete,” Gawyn said. “But I came to the White Tower to study because of Andoran traditions, not because I was going to be a Warder. My place is beside my sister.” And if anyone is going to bond me, it will be Egwene.

“You came for those reasons,” Sleete said, “but those reasons have passed. You’ve fought in our war, you’ve killed Warders and defended the Tower. You are one of us. You belong with us.”

Gawyn hesitated.

“You search,” Sleete said. “Like a hawk, glancing this way and that, trying to decide whether to perch or to hunt. You’ll tire of flying eventually. Join us, and become one of us. You’ll find that Hattori is a good Aes Sedai. Wiser than most, far less prone to squabbles or foolishness than many in the Tower.”

“I can’t, Sleete,” Gawyn said, shaking his head. “Andor....”

“Hattori is not regarded as influential by the White Tower,” Sleete said. “The others rarely care what she does. To have you, she’d see herself assigned to Andor. You could have both, Gawyn Trakand. Think on it.”

Gawyn hesitated again, then nodded. “Very well. I’ll think on it.”

Sleete released his arm. “As much as a man can ask.”

Gawyn moved to leave, but then stopped, looking back toward Sleete in the dusty barn. Then Gawyn gestured toward Corbet and gestured with a curt sign. Leave and watch, it meant. The Youngling nodded eagerly—he was one of the youngest among them, always looking for something to do to prove himself. He’d watch the doors and give warning if anyone approached.

Sleete watched with curiosity as Corbet positioned himself, hand on his sword. Gawyn then stepped forward and spoke more quietly, too soft for Corbet to hear. “What do you think of what happened in the Tower, Sleete?”

The rough man frowned, then stepped back and leaned against the inside barn wall. With a glance during the casual move, Sleete checked out the window to make certain nobody was listening from that side.

“It’s bad,” Sleet finally said, tone hushed. “Warder shouldn’t fight Warder. Aes Sedai shouldn’t fight Aes Sedai. Should never happen. Not now. Not ever.”

“But it did,” Gawyn said.

Sleete nodded.

“And now we’ve got two different groups of Aes Sedai,” Gawyn continued, “with two different armies, one besieging the other.”

“Just keep your head down,” Sleete said. “There are hot tempers in the Tower, but there are wise minds as well. They’ll do the right thing.”

“Which is?”

“End it,” Sleete said. “With killing if necessary, other ways if possible. Nothing is worth this division. Nothing.”

Gawyn nodded.

Sleete shook his head. “My Aes Sedai, she didn’t like the feel of things in the Tower. Wanted to get out. She’s wise... wise and crafty. But she’s also not influential, so the others don’t listen to her. Aes Sedai. Sometimes, all they seem to care about is who carries the biggest stick.”

Gawyn leaned closer. One rarely heard talk about Aes Sedai ranking and influence. They didn’t have ranks, like the military, but they all instinctively knew who among them was in charge. How did it work? Sleete seemed to have some idea, but he didn’t talk further on it, so it would have to remain a mystery for now.

“Hattori got out,” Sleete continued softly. “Went on this mission to al’Thor, never knowing the depth of what it was about. She just didn’t want to be in the Tower. Wise woman.” He sighed, standing upright and laying a hand on Gawyn’s shoulder. “Hammar was a good man.”

“He was,” Gawyn said, feeling a twist in his stomach.

“But he would have killed you,” Sleete said. “Killed you cleanly and quickly. He was the one on the offensive, not you. He understood why you did what you did. Nobody made any good decisions that day. There weren’t any good decisions to be made.”

“I...” Gawyn just nodded. “Thank you.”

Sleete removed his hand and walked toward the entrance. He glanced back, however. “Some say that Hattori should have gone back for me,” he said. “Those Younglings of yours, they think she abandoned me at Dumai’s Wells. She didn’t. She knew I lived. She knew I hurt. But she also trusted me to do my duty while she did hers. She needed to get news to the Greens of what had happened at Dumai’s Wells, of what the Amyrlin’s true orders with al’Thor had entailed. I needed to survive. We did our duty. But once that message had been sent, if she hadn’t felt me approaching on my own, she would have come for me. No matter what. And we both know it.”

With that, he left. Gawyn was left thinking on the curious parting words. Sleete was often an odd one to talk to. As fluid as he was as a swordsman, he didn’t make conversation smoothly.

Gawyn shook his head, leaving the barn and waving Corbet free of watch duty. There was no possibility of Gawyn agreeing to become Hattori’s Warder. The offer had been tempting for a heartbeat, but only as a way of escaping his problems. He knew that he would not be happy as her Warder, or anyone’s Warder save Egwene’s.

He’d promised Egwene anything. Anything, as long as it didn’t hurt Andor or Elayne. Light, he’d promised her not to kill al’Thor. At least, not until after Gawyn could prove for certain that the Dragon had killed his mother. Why couldn’t Egwene see that the man she’d grown up with had turned into a monster, twisted by the One Power? Al’Thor needed to be put down. For the good of them all.

Gawyn clenched and unclenched his fist, stalking across the village center, wishing he could extend the peace and stillness of sword fighting to the rest of his life. The air was pungent with the scent of cows and dung from the barns; he would be glad to get back to a proper city. Dorlan’s size and remoteness might make it a good place to hide, but Gawyn strongly wished that Elaida had chosen a less odorous place to house the Younglings. His clothing seemed likely to carry the scent of cattle for the rest of his days—assuming the rebel army didn’t discover and slaughter them all in the next few weeks.

Gawyn shook his head as he approached the mayor’s house. The two-story building had a peaked roof and sat at the very center of the village. The main body of the Younglings was camped in the small field out behind the building. Once, that patch had grown blackberries, but the too-hot summer followed by the blizzard of a winter had killed the bushes. They were one of many casualties that were going to lead to an even harsher winter this year.

The field wasn’t the best place to camp—the men were constantly grumping about picking blackberry thorns out of their skin—but it was close to the center of the village while yet somewhat secluded. A few thorns were worth the convenience.

To reach the field, Gawyn had to cut across the unpaved village square and pass by the canal that ran past the front of the mayor’s house. He nodded to a group of women washing clothes there. The Aes Sedai had recruited them to do the wash for the sisters and for Gawyn’s officers. The pay was small for so much work, and Gawyn gave the women what little extra he could afford out of his own pocket, a gesture that had earned him laughter from Narenwin Sedai, but thanks from the village women. Gawyn’s mother had always taught that the workers were the spine of a kingdom; break them, and you’d soon find that you could no longer move. This city’s people might not be his sister’s subjects, but he would not see them taken advantage of by his troops.

He passed the mayor’s home, noting the closed shutters on the windows. Marlesh lounged outside, his petite Aes Sedai standing with hands on her hips and scowling at the door. Apparently, she had been refused entry. Why? Vasha didn’t have a great deal of rank among the Aes Sedai, but she also wasn’t as low as Hattori. If Vasha had been denied entrance... well, perhaps there were important words being shared inside the building. That made Gawyn curious.

His men would have ignored it—Rajar would have told him that Aes Sedai business was best left to their conferences, without unwanted ears flapping to make a mess of things. That was one reason that Gawyn wouldn’t make a good Warder. He didn’t trust Aes Sedai. His mother had, and look where that had gotten her. And how the White Tower had treated Elayne and Egwene... well, he might support the Aes Sedai, but he certainly didn’t trust them.

He rounded the back of the building, going about a perfectly legitimate inspection of the guards. Most of the Aes Sedai in the village didn’t have Warders—either they were Reds or they had left their Warders behind. Some few were old enough to have lost Warders to age and never chosen new ones. Two unfortunate women had lost their Warders at Dumai’s Wells. Gawyn and the others did their best to pretend they didn’t notice the red eyes or occasional sobs coming from their rooms.

The Aes Sedai, of course, claimed that they didn’t need the Youngling guards as protection. They were probably right. But Gawyn had seen dead Aes Sedai at Dumai’s Wells; they weren’t invincible.

At the back doors, Hal Moir saluted and let Gawyn enter to continue his inspection. Gawyn strode up a short, straight set of stairs and entered the upper hallway. There, he relieved Berden, the dark-skinned Tairen Youngling who was on watch. Berden was an officer, and Gawyn told him to go check on the food distribution in the camp. The man nodded, then left.

Gawyn hesitated in front of Narenwin Sedai’s room. If he wanted to hear what was going on between the Aes Sedai, the obvious thing to do would be to eavesdrop. Berden had been the only guard on the second floor, and there were no Warders to protect against unwanted ears. But the thought of listening in left a sour taste in Gawyn’s mouth. He shouldn’t have to eavesdrop. He was the commander of the Younglings, and the Aes Sedai were taking good advantage of his troops. They owed him information. Therefore, rather than trying to listen, he gave a firm knock on the door.

The knock was met by silence. Then the door cracked to show a sliver of Covarla’s frowning face. The light-haired Red had been in charge of the sisters in the city before being displaced, but she was still one of the more important women in Dorlan.

“We were not to be interrupted,” she snapped through the sliver of open doorway. “Your soldiers had orders to keep everyone out, even other sisters.”

“Those rules don’t apply to me,” Gawyn said, meeting her eyes. “My men are in serious danger in this village. If you won’t let me be part of the planning, then I demand at least to be able to listen.”

Covarla’s impassive face seemed to show annoyance. “Your impudence seems to grow by the day, child,” she said. “Perhaps you need to be removed and a more suitable replacement raised to captain that group.”

Gawyn clenched his jaw.

“You think they wouldn’t set you aside if a sister asked it of them?” Covarla asked, smiling faintly. “A sorry excuse for an army they may be, but they know their place. A pity the same cannot be said for their commander. Go back to your men, Gawyn Trakand.”

With that, she shut the door on him.

Gawyn itched to force his way into the room. But that would be satisfying for all of about two breaths, which was how long it would take the Aes Sedai to truss him up with the Power. How would that be for the Younglings’ morale? Seeing their commander, the brave Gawyn Trakand, cast out of the building with a gag of Air in his mouth? He ignored his frustration, turning back down the stairs. He went into the kitchen and leaned against the far wall, staring at the steps to the second floor. Now that he’d relieved Berden, he felt he needed to remain on watch himself or send a runner to fetch another man. He wanted to think for a few moments first; if their conference above took long, he’d appoint a replacement.

Aes Sedai. Sensible men stayed away from them when possible, and obeyed them with alacrity when staying away was impossible. Gawyn had trouble doing either; his bloodline prevented staying away, his pride interfered with obeying them. He had supported Elaida in the rebellion not because he liked her—she’d always been cold during her years acting as his mother’s advisor. No, he’d supported her because he’d disliked Siuan’s treatment of his sister and Egwene.

But would Elaida have treated the girls any better? Would any of them have? Gawyn had made his decision in a moment of passion; it hadn’t been the coolheaded act of loyalty that his men assumed.

Where was his loyalty, then?

A few minutes later, footsteps on the stairs and faint voices from the hallway above announced that the Aes Sedai had finished their secret conference. Covarla came down the stairs in red and yellow, saying something to the sisters behind her. “. . . can’t believe the rebels set up their own Amyrlin.”

Narenwin—thin and square-faced—came next, nodding. Then, shockingly, Katerine Alruddin walked out of the stairwell behind them. Gawyn stood up straight, stunned. Katerine had left the camp weeks before, the day after Narenwin’s arrival. The raven-haired Red had not been part of the original group that was ordered to Dorlan, and had used that as an excuse to return to the White Tower.

When had she come back to Dorlan? How had she come back? His men would have reported to Gawyn if they’d seen her. He doubted the watchposts could have missed her arrival.

She eyed Gawyn as the three Aes Sedai passed through the kitchen, smiling slyly. She’d noticed his shock.

“Yes,” Katerine said, turning to Covarla. “Imagine it—an Amyrlin without an actual seat to sit upon! They’re a group of foolish girls creating a child’s puppet show with dolls dressed up like their betters. Of course they would pick a wilder to do the duty, and a mere Accepted at that. They knew how pathetic the decision was.”

“But at least she was captured,” Narenwin noted, pausing at the doorway as Covarla passed through.

Katerine laughed sharply. “Captured and made to howl half the day. I wouldn’t want to be that al’Vere girl right now. Of course, it’s no less than she deserves for letting them put the Amyrlin’s shawl on her shoulders.”

What? Gawyn thought with shock.

The three passed out of the kitchen, voices fading. Gawyn barely noticed. He staggered back, hitting the wall for support. It couldn’t be! It sounded like... Egwene... He had to have misheard!

But Aes Sedai couldn’t lie. He’d heard rumors that the rebels had their own Hall and Amyrlin... but Egwene? It was ridiculous! She was only Accepted!

But who better to set up for a potential fall? Perhaps none of the sisters had been willing to put their necks on the line by taking the title. A younger woman like Egwene would have made a perfect pawn.

Pulling himself together, Gawyn hurried out of the kitchen and after the Aes Sedai. He passed into the late afternoon to find Vasha standing, mouth drooping, as she stared at Katerine. Apparently, Gawyn wasn’t the only one shocked by the Red’s sudden return.

Gawyn caught Tando, one of the Youngling guards at the front of the building, by the arm. “Did you see her enter the building?”

The young Andoran shook his head. “No, my Lord. One of the men inside reported seeing her meet with the other Aes Sedai—she came down out of the attic suddenly, it seems. But none of the guards knows how she got in!”

Gawyn released the soldier and dashed after Katerine. He caught up to the three women in the middle of the dusty town square. All three turned ageless faces toward him, wearing identical thin-mouthed frowns. Covarla’s eyes were particular harsh, but Gawyn didn’t care if they took the Younglings from him or if they tied him up in air. Humiliation didn’t matter. Only one thing mattered.

“Is it true?” he demanded. Then, cringing, he forced respect into his voice. “Please, Katerine Sedai. Is it true what I overheard you saying about the rebels and their Amyrlin?”

She eyed him, measuring him. “I suppose it would be good to pass this news among your soldiers. Yes, the rebel Amyrlin has been captured.”

“And her name?” Gawyn asked.

“Egwene al’Vere,” Katerine said. “Let the rumors spread truth, for once.” She nodded to him with dismissive curtness, then began walking with the other two again. “Put what I have taught you to good use. The Amyrlin insists that the raids be stepped up, and these weaves should lend you unprecedented mobility. Don’t be surprised if the rebels anticipate you, however. They know that we have their so-called Amyrlin, and have probably guessed that we have the new weaves as well. It won’t be long before Traveling is had by all. Use the edge you’ve been given before it dulls.”

Gawyn was barely listening. A piece of his mind was shocked. Traveling? A thing of legends. Was that how Gareth Bryne was keeping his army supplied?

However, the greater part of Gawyn’s brain was still numb. Siuan Sanche had been stilled and slated for execution, and she had simply been a deposed Amyrlin. What would they do with a false Amyrlin, a leader of a rebel faction?

Made to howl half the day....

Egwene was being tortured. She would be stilled! She probably had been already. After that, she would be executed. Gawyn watched the three Aes Sedai walk away. Then he turned slowly, strangely calm, laying his hand on the pommel of his sword.

Egwene was in trouble. He blinked deliberately, standing in the square, cattle calling distantly, water bubbling in the canal beside him.

Egwene would be executed.

Where is your loyalty, Gawyn Trakand?

He crossed the village, walking with a strangely sure step. The Younglings would be unreliable in an action against the White Tower. He couldn’t use them to mount a rescue. But he was unlikely to be able to manage one on his own. That left him with only one option.

Ten minutes later found him in his tent, carefully packing his saddlebags. Most of his things would have to stay. There were far scout outposts, and he had visited them before in surprise inspections. That would make a good excuse for him to leave the camp.

He couldn’t arouse suspicions. Covarla was right. The Younglings followed him. They respected him. But they were not his—they belonged to the White Tower, and would turn on him as quickly as he had turned on Hammar if it were the will of the Amyrlin. If any of them got a hint of what he was planning, he wouldn’t manage to get a hundred yards away.

He closed and latched his saddlebags. That would have to do. He pushed his way out of the tent, slinging the bags over his shoulder, then made his way toward the horse lines. As he walked, he flagged down Rajar, who was showing a squad of soldiers some advanced swordplay techniques. Rajar set another man in charge, then hurried over to Gawyn, frowning at the saddlebags.

“I’m going to inspect the fourth outpost,” Gawyn said.

Rajar glanced at the sky; it was already dimming. “So late?”

“Last time I inspected in the morning,” Gawyn said. Odd, how his heart wasn’t racing. Calm and even. “Time before that, it was the afternoon. But the most dangerous time to be surprised is evening, when it’s still light enough for an attack but late enough that men are tired and full of supper.”

Rajar nodded, joining Gawyn as he walked. “Light knows we need them for watchful scouts now,” he agreed. Bryne’s own scouts had been investigating villages not half a day’s ride from Dorlan. “I’ll get you an escort.”

“Not needed,” Gawyn said. “Last time, Outpost Four saw me coming from a good half a mile. A squad raises too much dust. I want to see how keen their eyes are when it’s just one rider.”

Rajar frowned again.

“I’ll be safe,” Gawyn said, forcing out a wry smile. “Rajar, you know I will be. What? Are you afraid I’ll be taken by bandits?”

Rajar relaxed, chuckling. “You? They’d sooner catch Sleete. All right, then. But make certain to send a messenger for me when you get back into camp. I’ll stay up half the night worrying if you don’t return.”

Sorry to cost you the sleep then, my friend, Gawyn thought, nodding. Rajar ran back to supervise the sparring, and Gawyn soon found himself just outside the camp, undoing Challenge’s hobble as a village boy—doubling as a stablehand—fetched his saddle.

“You have the look of a man who has made up his mind,” a quiet voice said suddenly.

Gawyn spun, hand falling to his sword. One of the shadows nearby was moving. Looking closely, he was able to make out the form of a shadowed man with a crooked nose. Curse those Warder cloaks!

Gawyn tried to feign casualness as he had with Rajar. “Happy to have something to do, I suppose,” he said, turning from Sleete as the stableboy approached. Gawyn tossed him a copper and took the saddle himself, dismissing the boy.

Sleete continued to watch from the shadow of a massive pine as Gawyn put the saddle on Challenge’s back. The Warder knew. Gawyn’s act had fooled everyone else, but he could sense that it wouldn’t work on this man. Light! Was he going to have to kill another man he respected? Burn you, Elaida! Burn you, Siuan Sanche, and your entire Tower. Stop using people. Stop using me!

“When shall I tell your men that you aren’t returning?” Sleete asked.

Gawyn pulled the saddle straps tight and waited for his horse to exhale. He looked over Challenge, frowning. “You don’t plan to stop me?”

Sleete chuckled. “I fought you thrice today and didn’t win a single bout, although I had a good man to lend me aid. You have the look about you of a man who will kill if needed, and I don’t thirst for death so eagerly as some might assume.”

“You’d fight me,” Gawyn said, finally doing up the saddle and lifting the bags into place, tying them on. Challenge snorted. The horse never did like carrying extra weight. “You’d die if you thought it was necessary. If you attacked, even if I killed you, it would raise a ruckus. I’d never be able to explain why I’d killed a Warder. You could stop me.”

“True,” Sleete said.

“Then why let me go?” Gawyn said, rounding the gelding and taking the reins. He met those shadowed eyes and thought he caught the faintest hint of a smile on the lips beneath them.

“Perhaps I just like to see men care,” Sleete said. “Perhaps I hope you’ll find a way to help end this. Perhaps I am feeling lazy and sore with a bruised spirit from so many defeats. May you find what you seek, young Trakand.” And with a rustle of the cloak, Sleete withdrew, fading into the darkness of oncoming night.

Gawyn slung himself into his saddle. There was only one place he could think to go for help in rescuing Egwene.

With a kick of the heels, he left Dorlan behind.

CHAPTER 14
A Box Opens

“So this is one of the Shadowsouled,” Sorilea said. The white-haired Wise One circled around the prisoner, looking thoughtfully at Semirhage. Of course, Cadsuane had not expected fear from one such as Sorilea. The Aiel woman was a rugged creature, like a statue that had weathered storm after storm, patient before the winds. Among the Aiel, this Wise One was a particular specimen of strength. She had arrived at the manor house only recently, coming with those who had brought al’Thor a report from Bandar Eban.

Cadsuane had anticipated finding many things among the Aiel who followed Rand al’Thor: fierce warriors, strange ways, honor and loyalty, inexperience with subtlety and politics. She had been right. One thing she had certainly not expected to find, however, was an equal. Certainly not in a Wise One who could barely channel. And yet, oddly, that was how she regarded the leathery-faced Aiel woman.

Not that she trusted Sorilea. The Wise One had her own goals, and they might not completely coincide with Cadsuane’s. However, she did find Sorilea capable, and there were blessed few people in the world these days who deserved that word.

Semirhage flinched suddenly, and Sorilea cocked her head. The Forsaken was not floating this time; she stood upright, wearing the stiff brown dress, her short, dark hair tangled from lack of brushing. She still projected superiority and control. Just as Cadsuane herself would have in a similar situation.

“What are these weaves?” Sorilea asked, gesturing. The weaves in question were the source of Semirhage’s occasional flinching.

“A personal trick of mine,” Cadsuane said, undoing the weaves and remaking them to show how they were done. “They ring a sound in your subjects’ ears every few minutes and flash a light in their eyes, keeping them from sleep.”

“You hope to make her so fatigued that she will talk,” Sorilea said, studying the Forsaken again.

Semirhage was warded to keep her from hearing them, of course. Despite two days without decent sleep, the woman wore a serene expression, eyes open but blocked by glowing lights. She had likely mastered some kind of mental trick to help her stave off exhaustion.

“I doubt it will break her,” Cadsuane admitted. “Phaw! It barely even makes her flinch.” She, Sorilea and Bair—an aged Wise One with no channeling ability—were the only ones in the room. The Aes Sedai maintaining Semirhage’s shield sat in their places outside.

Sorilea nodded. “One of the Shadowsouled will not be manipulated so easily. Still, you are wise to try, considering your... limitations.”

“We could speak to the Car’a’carn,” Bair said. “Convince him to turn this one over to us for a time. A few days of... delicate Aiel questioning and she would speak whatever you wish.”

Cadsuane smiled noncommittally. As if she would let another handle the questioning! This woman’s secrets were too valuable to risk, even in the hands of allies. “Well, you are welcome to ask,” she said, “but I doubt al’Thor will listen. You know how the fool boy can be when it comes to hurting women.”

Bair sighed. It was odd to think of this grandmotherly lady engaging in “delicate Aiel questioning.”

“Yes,” she said. “You are right, I suspect. Rand al’Thor is twice as stubborn as any clan chief I’ve known. And twice as arrogant too. To presume that women cannot bear pain as well as men!”

Cadsuane snorted at that. “To be honest, I considered having this one strung up and whipped, al’Thor’s prohibitions be blackened! But I don’t think it would work. Phaw! We’ll need to find something other than pain to break this one.”

Sorilea was still regarding Semirhage. “I would speak with her.”

Cadsuane made a motion, dismissing the weaves that kept Semirhage from hearing, seeing or speaking. The woman blinked—just once—to clear her vision, then turned to Sorilea and Bair. “Ah,” she said. “Aiel. You were such good servants, once. Tell me, how strongly does it bite, knowing how you betrayed your oaths? Your ancestors would cry for punishment if they knew how many deaths lay at the hands of their descendants.”

Sorilea gave no reaction. Cadsuane knew some tidbits of what al’Thor had revealed about the Aiel, things that had been said at second or third hand. Al’Thor claimed that the Aiel had once followed the Way of the Leaf, sworn not to do harm, before betraying their oaths. Cadsuane had been interested to learn of these rumors, and she was more interested to hear Semirhage corroborating them.

“She seems so much more human than I had anticipated,” Sorilea said to Bair. “Her expressions, her tone, her accent, while strange, are easy to understand. I had not expected that.”

Semirhage’s eyes narrowed for just a moment at that comment. Odd. That was a stronger reaction than virtually any of the punishments had produced. The flashes of light and sound prompted only slight involuntary twitches. This comment of Sorilea’s, however, seemed to affect Semirhage on an emotional level. Would the Wise Ones actually succeed so easily where Cadsuane had long failed?

“I think this is what we need to remember,” Bair said. “A woman is just a woman, no matter how old, no matter what secrets she remembers. Flesh can be cut, blood can be spilled, bones can be broken.”

“In truth, I feel almost disappointed, Cadsuane Melaidhrin,” Sorilea said, shaking a white-haired head. “This monster has very small fangs.”

Semirhage reacted no further. Her control was back, her face serene, her eyes imperious. “I have heard some little of you new, oathless Aiel and your interpretations of honor. I will very much enjoy investigating how much pain and suffering it will require before members of your clans will shame themselves. Tell me, how far do you think I would have to push before one of you would kill a blacksmith and dine on his flesh?”

She knew more than “some little” if she understood the near-sacred nature of blacksmiths among the Aiel. Sorilea stiffened at the comment, but let it go. She rewove the ward against listening, then paused, and placed the globes of light in front of Semirhage’s eyes as well. Yes, she was weak in the Power, but she was a very quick learner.

“Is it wise to keep her like this?” Sorilea asked, her tone implying that of any other she would have made a demand. For Cadsuane, she softened her words, and it almost brought a smile to Cadsuane’s lips. They were like two aged hawks, Sorilea and she, accustomed to roosting and reigning, now forced to nest in neighboring trees. Deference did not come easily to either one of them.

“If I were to choose,” Sorilea continued, “I think that I would have her throat slit and her corpse laid out on the dust to dry. Keeping her alive is like keeping a snapwood blacklance as a pet.”

“Phaw!” Cadsuane said, grimacing. “You’re right about the danger, but killing her now would be worse. Al’Thor cannot—or will not—give me an accurate count of the number of Forsaken he has slain, but he implies that at least half of them still live. They’ll be there to fight at the Last Battle, and each weave we learn from Semirhage is one fewer they can use to surprise us.”

Sorilea did not seem convinced, but she pressed the issue no further. “And the item?” she asked. “May I see it?”

Cadsuane almost snapped a no. But... Sorilea had taught Cadsuane Traveling, an incredibly powerful tool. That had been an offering, a hand extended. Cadsuane needed to work with these women, Sorilea most of all. Al’Thor was a bigger project than one woman could handle.

“Come with me,” Cadsuane said, leaving the wooden room. The Wise Ones followed. Outside, Cadsuane instructed the sisters—Daigian and Sarene—to make certain that Semirhage was kept awake, eyes open. It was unlikely to work, but it was the best strategy Cadsuane had at the moment.

Though... she did also have Semirhage’s momentary look, that hint of anger, displayed at Sorilea’s comment. When you could control a person’s anger, you could control their other emotions as well. That was why she had focused so hard on teaching al’Thor to rein in his temper.

Control and anger. What was it that Sorilea had said to get the reaction? That Semirhage seemed disappointingly human. It was as if Sorilea had come expecting one of the Forsaken to be as twisted as a Myrddraal or Draghkar. And why not? The Forsaken had been figures of legend for three thousand years, looming shadows of darkness and mystery. It could be disappointing to discover that they were, in many ways, the most human of the Dark One’s followers: petty, destructive and argumentative. At least, that was how al’Thor claimed they acted. He was so strangely familiar with them.

Semirhage saw herself as more than human, though. That poise, that control of her surroundings, was a source of strength for her.

Cadsuane shook her head. Too many problems and far too little time. The wooden hallway itself was another reminder of the al’Thor boy’s foolishness; Cadsuane could still smell smoke, strong enough to be unpleasant. The gaping hole in the front of the manor—draped only with a cloth—let in chill air during the spring nights. They should have moved, but he claimed that he would not be chased away.

Al’Thor seemed almost eager for the Last Battle. Or perhaps just resigned. To get there he felt he had to force his way through the petty squabbles of people like a midnight traveler pushing through banks of snow to arrive at the inn. The problem was, al’Thor wasn’t ready for the Last Battle. Cadsuane could feel it in the way he spoke, the way he acted. The way he regarded the world with that dark, nearly dazed expression. If the man he was now faced the Dark One to decide the fate of the world, Cadsuane feared for all people.

Cadsuane and the two Wise Ones reached her chamber in the manor, a sturdy undamaged room with a good view of the trampled green and camp out front. She made few demands in the way of decoration: a stout bed, a lockable trunk, a mirror and stand. She was too old and impatient to bother with anything else.

The trunk was a decoy; she kept some gold and other relatively worthless items in it. Her most precious possessions she either wore—in the form of her ter’angreal ornaments—or kept locked in a dingy-looking document box that sat on her mirror stand. Of worn oak, the stain uneven, the box had enough dings and dents to look used—but wasn’t so shabby as to be out of place with her other things. As Sorilea closed the door behind the three of them, Cadsuane disarmed the box’s traps.

It was strange to her how few Aes Sedai learned to innovate with the One Power. They memorized time-tested and traditional weaves, but gave barely a thought for what else they could do. True, experimenting with the One Power could be disastrous, but many simple extrapolations could be made without danger. Her weave for this box was one such. Until recently, she’d used a standard weave of Fire, Spirit and Air to destroy any documents in the box if an intruder opened it. Effective, if a bit unimaginative.

Her new weave was much more versatile. It didn’t destroy the items in the box—Cadsuane wasn’t certain if they could be destroyed. Instead, the weaves—inverted to be invisible—sprang out in twisting threads of Air and captured anyone in the room when the box was opened. Then another weave set out a large sound, imitating a hundred trumpets playing while lights flashed in the air to give the alarm. The weaves would also go off if anyone opened the box, moved it, or barely touched it with the most delicate thread of the One Power.

Cadsuane flipped up the lid. The extreme precaution was necessary. For inside this box were two items that presented very serious danger.

Sorilea walked over, looking in at the contents. One was a figurine of a wise, bearded man holding aloft a sphere, about a foot tall. The other was a black metallic collar and two bracelets: an a’dam made for a man. With this ter’angreal, a woman could turn a man who could channel into her slave, controlling his ability to touch the One Power. Perhaps controlling him completely. They had not tested the collar. Al’Thor had forbidden it.

Sorilea hissed quietly, ignoring the statue and focusing on the bracelets and collar. “This thing is evil.”

“Yes,” Cadsuane said. Rarely would she have called a simple object “evil,” but this one was. “Nynaeve al’Meara claims some familiarity with this thing. Though I have not been able to press out of the girl how she knows these things, she claims to know that there was only one male a’dam, and that she’d arranged for its disposal in the ocean. She also admits, however, that she didn’t see it destroyed personally. It may have been used as a pattern by the Seanchan.”

“This is unsettling to see,” Sorilea said. “If one of the Shadowsouled, or even one of the Seanchan, captured him with this....”

“Light protect us all,” Bair whispered.

“And the people who have these are the same people with whom al’Thor wishes to make peace?” Sorilea shook her head. “Creation of these abominations alone should warrant a blood feud. I heard that there were others like it. What of those?”

“Stored elsewhere,” Cadsuane said, shutting the lid. “Along with the female a’dam we took. Some acquaintances of mine—Aes Sedai who have retired from the world—are testing them trying to discover their weakness.” They also had Callandor. Cadsuane was loath to let it out of her sight, but she felt that the sword still held secrets that could be teased out.

“I keep this one here because I intend to find a way to test it on a man,” she said. “That would be the best way to discover its weaknesses. Al’Thor won’t allow any of his Asha’man to be leashed by it, however. Not for the shortest time.”

This made Bair uncomfortable. “A little like testing a spear’s strength by stabbing it into someone,” she muttered.

Sorilea, however, nodded in agreement. She understood.

One of the first things Cadsuane had done after capturing those female a’dam was put one on and practice ways to escape from it. She’d done so under carefully controlled circumstances, of course, with women she trusted to help her escape. They’d eventually had to do that. Cadsuane had been able to discover no way out on her own.

But if your enemy was planning to do something to you, you had to discover how to counter it. Even if that meant leashing yourself. Al’Thor couldn’t see this. When she asked, he simply muttered about “that bloody box” and being beaten.

“We have to do something about that man,” Sorilea said, meeting Cadsuane’s eyes. “He has grown worse since we last met.”

“He has,” Cadsuane said. “He’s surprisingly accomplished at ignoring my training.”

“Then let us discuss,” Sorilea said, pulling over a stool. “A plan must be arranged. For the good of all.”

“For the good of all,” Cadsuane agreed. “Al’Thor himself most of all.”

CHAPTER 15
A Place to Begin

Rand woke on the floor of a hallway. He sat up, listening to the distant sound of water. The stream outside the manor house? No... no, that was wrong. The walls and floor here were stone, not wood. No candles or lamps hung from the stonework, and yet there was light, ambient in the air.

He stood, then straightened his red coat, feeling strangely unafraid. He recognized this place from somewhere, distant in his memory. How had he come here? The recent past was clouded, and seemed to slip from him, like fading trails of mist....

No, he thought firmly. His memories obeyed, snapping back into place before the strength of his determination. He had been in the Domani manor house, awaiting a report from Rhuarc about the capture of the first few members of the merchant council. Min had been reading Each Castle, a biography, in the deep, green chair of the room they shared.

Rand had been exhausted, as he often was lately. He’d gone to lie down. He was asleep, then. Was this the World of Dreams? Though he had visited it on occasion, he knew very few specifics. Egwene and the Aiel dreamwalkers spoke of it only guardedly.

This place felt different from the dream world, and oddly familiar. He looked down the hallway; it was so long that it vanished into shadows, walls broken by doors at intervals, the wood dry and cracked. Yes... he thought, seizing at a memory. I have been here before, but not in a long time.

He chose one of the doors at random—he knew that it wouldn’t matter which one he picked—and pushed it open. There was a room beyond, of modest size. The far side was a series of gray stone arches, beyond them a little courtyard and a sky of burning red clouds. The clouds grew and sprang from one another like bubbles in boiling water. They were the clouds of an impending storm, unnatural though they were.

He looked more closely, and saw that each new cloud formed the shape of a tormented face, the mouth open in a silent scream. The cloud would swell, expanding upon itself, face distorting, jaw working, cheeks twisting, eyes bulging. Then it would split, other faces swelling out of its surface, yelling and seething. It was transfixing and horrifying at the same time.

There was no ground beyond the courtyard. Just that terrible sky.

Rand did not want to look toward the left side of the room. The fireplace was there. The stones that formed floor, hearth and columns were warped, as if they had been melted by an extreme heat. At the edges of his vision, they seemed to shift and change. The angles and proportions of the room were wrong. Just as they had been when he’d come here, long ago.

Something was different this time, however. Something about the colors. Many of the stones were black, as if they’d been burned, and cracks laced them. Distant red light glowed from within, as if they had cores of molten lava. There had once been a table here, hadn’t there? Polished and of fine wood, its ordinary lines a discomforting contrast to the distorted angles of the stones?

The table was gone, but two chairs sat before the fireplace, high backed and facing the flames, obscuring whomever might be sitting in them. Rand forced himself to walk forward, his boots clicking on stones that burned. He felt no heat, either from them or the fire. His breath caught and his heart pounded as he approached those chairs. He feared what he would find.

He rounded them. A man sat in the chair on the left. Tall and youthful, he had a square face and ancient blue eyes that reflected the hearthfire, turning his irises almost purple. The other chair was empty. Rand walked to it and sat down, calming his heart and watching the dancing flames. He had seen this man before in visions, not unlike the ones that appeared when he thought of Mat or Perrin.

The colors did not appear on this thought of his friends. That was odd, but somehow not unexpected. The visions he’d seen of the man in the other chair were different from the ones involving Perrin and Mat. They were more visceral, somehow, more real. At times during those visions, Rand had felt almost as if he could reach out and touch this man. He’d been afraid of what would happen if he did.

He had met the man only once. At Shadar Logoth. The stranger had saved Rand’s life, and Rand had often wondered who he had been. Now, in this place, Rand finally knew.

“You are dead,” Rand whispered. “I killed you.”

The man didn’t look from the fire as he laughed. It was a rough, low-throated laugh that held little true mirth. Once, Rand had known this man only as Ba’alzamon—a name for the Dark One—and had foolishly thought that in killing him, he had defeated the Shadow for good.

“I watched you die,” Rand said. “I stabbed you through the chest with Callandor. Isha—”

“That is not my name,” the man interrupted, still watching the flames. “I am known as Moridin, now.”

“The name is irrelevant,” Rand said angrily. “You are dead, and this is just a dream.”

“Just a dream,” Moridin said, chuckling. “Yes.” The man was clad in a black coat and trousers, the darkness relieved only by red embroidery on the sleeves.

Moridin finally looked at him. Flames from the fire cast bright red and orange light across his angular face and unblinking eyes. “Why do you always whine that way? Just a dream. Do you not know that many dreams are more truthful than the waking world?”

“You are dead,” Rand repeated stubbornly.

“So are you. I watched you die, you know. Lashing out in a tempest, creating an entire mountain to mark your cairn. So arrogant.”

Lews Therin had—upon discovering that he’d killed all that he loved—drawn upon the One Power and destroyed himself, creating Dragonmount in the process. Mention of this event always brought on howls of grief and anger in Rand’s mind.

But this time, there was silence.

Moridin turned back to watch the heatless flames. To the side, in the stones of the fireplace, Rand saw movement. Flickering bits of shadow, just barely visible through the cracks in the stones. The red-hot heat shone behind, like rock turned molten, and those shadows moved, frantic. Just faintly, Rand could hear scratching. Rats, he realized. There were rats behind the stones, being consumed by the terrible heat trapped on the other side. Their claws scratched, pushing through the cracks, as they tried to escape their burning.

Some of those tiny hands seemed almost human.

Just a dream, Rand told himself forcefully. Just a dream. But he knew the truth of what Moridin had said. Rand’s enemy still lived. Light! How many of the others had returned as well? Anger made him grip the armrest of the chair. Perhaps he should have been terrified, but he had stopped running from this creature and his master long ago. Rand had no room left for fear. In fact, it should be Moridin who feared, for the last time they had met, Rand had killed him.

“How?” Rand demanded.

“Long ago, I promised you that the Great Lord could restore your lost love. Do you not think that he can easily recover one who serves him?”

Another name for the Dark One was Lord of the Grave. Yes, it was true, even if Rand wished he could deny it. Why should he be surprised to see his enemies return, when the Dark One could restore the dead to life?

“We are all reborn,” Moridin continued, “spun back into the Pattern time and time again. Death is no barrier to my master save for those who have known balefire. They are beyond his grasp. It is a wonder we can remember them.”

So some of the others really were dead. Balefire was the key. But how had Moridin gotten into Rand’s dreams? Rand set wards each night. He glanced at Moridin, noticing something odd about the man’s eyes. Small black specks floated about in the whites, crossing back and forth like bits of ash blown on a leisurely wind.

“The Great Lord can grant you sanity, you know,” Moridin said.

“Your last gift of sanity brought me no comfort,” Rand said, surprising himself with the words. That had been Lews Therin’s memory, not his own. Yet Lews Therin was gone from his mind. Oddly, Rand felt more stable—somehow—here in this place where all else appeared fluid. The pieces of himself fit together better. Not perfectly, of course, but better than they had in recent memory.

Moridin snorted softly, but said nothing. Rand turned back to the flames, watching them twist and flicker. They formed shapes, like the clouds, but these were headless bodies, skeletal, backs arching in pain, writhing for a moment in fire, spasming, before flashing into nothing.

Rand watched that fire for a time, thinking. One might have thought that they were two old friends, enjoying the warmth of a winter hearth. Except that the flames gave no heat, and Rand would someday kill this man again. Or die at his hands.

Moridin tapped his fingers on the chair. “Why have you come here?”

Come here? Rand thought, with shock. Hadn’t Moridin brought him?

“I feel so tired,” Moridin continued, closing his eyes. “Is that you, or is it me? I could throttle Semirhage for what she did.”

Rand frowned. Was Moridin mad? Ishamael had certainly seemed crazy, at the end.

“It is not time for us to fight,” Moridin said, waving a hand at Rand. “Go. Leave me in peace. I do not know what would happen to us if we killed one another. The Great Lord will have you soon enough. His victory is assured.”

“He has failed before and will fail again,” Rand said. “I will defeat him.”

Moridin laughed again, the same heartless laugh as before. “Perhaps you will,” he said. “But do you think that matters? Consider it. The Wheel turns, time and time again. Over and over the Ages turn, and men fight the Great Lord. But someday, he will win, and when he does, the Wheel will stop.

“That is why his victory is assured. I think it will be this Age, but if not, then in another. When you are victorious, it only leads to another battle. When he is victorious, all things will end. Can you not see that there is no hope for you?”

“Is that what made you turn to his side?” Rand asked. “You were always so full of thoughts, Elan. Your logic destroyed you, didn’t it?”

“There is no path to victory,” Moridin said. “The only path is to follow the Great Lord and rule for a time before all things end. The others are fools. They look for grand rewards in the eternities, but there will be no eternities. Only the now, the last days.”

He laughed again, and this time there was joy in it. True pleasure.

Rand stood. Moridin eyed him warily, but did not get up.

“There is a way to win, Moridin,” Rand said. “I mean to kill him. Slay the Dark One. Let the Wheel turn without his constant taint.”

Moridin gave no reaction. He was still staring at the flames. “We are connected,” Moridin finally said. “That is how you came here, I suspect, though I do not understand our bond myself. I doubt you can understand the magnitude of the stupidity in your statement.”

Rand felt a flash of anger, but fought it down. He would not be goaded. “We shall see.”

He reached for the One Power. It was distant, far away. Rand seized it, and felt himself yanked away, as if on a line of saidin. The room vanished, and so did the One Power, as Rand entered a deep blackness.

Rand finally stopped thrashing in his sleep, and Min held her breath, hoping that he wouldn’t start again. She sat, legs tucked underneath her, wrapped in a blanket as she read in her chair at the corner of the room. A small lamp flickered and danced on the short table beside her, illuminating her stack of musty books. Falling Shale, Marks and Remarks, Monuments Past. Histories, most of them.

Rand sighed softly, but did not move. Min released her breath and settled back into her chair, finger marking her place in a copy of Pelateos’s Ponderings. With the shutters closed for the night, she could still hear the wind sough in the pines. The room smelled faintly of smoke from the strange fire. Aviendha’s quick thinking had made a potential disaster into a mere inconvenience. Not that she was being rewarded for it. The Wise Ones continued to work her as hard as a merchant’s last mule.

Min hadn’t been able to get close enough to her to have a conversation, despite the fact that they’d been in the camp together for some time now. She didn’t know how to think of the other woman. They had become a little more comfortable with one another that evening, sharing oosquai. But one day did not friends make, and she was definitely uncomfortable about sharing.

Min glanced again at Rand, lying on his back, eyes closed, breath coming evenly now. His left arm lay across his blankets, the stump exposed. She didn’t know how he managed to sleep, with those wounds in his side. As soon as she thought of them, she could feel the pain—it was all part of the rolled-up ball of Rand’s emotions in the back of her mind. She had learned to ignore the pain. She’d had to. For him, it would be much, much stronger. How he could stand it, she didn’t know.

She wasn’t Aes Sedai—thank the Light—but somehow she had bonded him. It was amazing; she could tell where he was, tell if he was distraught. She could mostly keep his emotions from overwhelming her except when they were passionate. But what woman didn’t want to be overwhelmed during those moments? It was a particularly... exhilarating experience with the bond, which let her feel both her own desire and the raging tempest of fire that was Rand’s desire for her.

The thought made her blush, and she pulled open Ponderings to distract herself. Rand needed his sleep, and she was going to let him have it. Besides, she needed to study, although she was confronted by conclusions that she didn’t like.

These books had belonged to Herid Fel, the kindly old scholar who had joined Rand’s school in Cairhien. Min smiled, remembering Fel’s distracted way of talking and his confused—yet somehow brilliant—discoveries.

Herid Fel was dead now, murdered, torn apart by Shadowspawn. He’d discovered something in these books, something he’d intended to tell Rand. Something about the Last Battle and the seals on the Dark One’s prison. Fel had been killed just before he could pass on the information. Perhaps it was coincidence; perhaps the books had nothing to do with his death. But perhaps they did. Min was determined to find the answers. For Rand, and for Herid himself.

She put down Ponderings and picked up Thoughts Among the Ruins, a work from over a thousand years ago. She’d marked a place with a small slip of paper, the very same now-worn note that Herid had sent to Rand shortly before the murder. Min turned it over in her fingers, reading it again.

Belief and order give strength. Have to clear rubble before you can build. Will explain when see you next. Do not bring girl. Too pretty.

She figured—from reading among his books—that she could trace his thoughts. Rand had wanted information on how to seal the Dark One’s prison. Could Fel have discovered what she thought she had?

She shook her head. What was she doing trying to solve a scholarly mystery? But who else was there? One of the Brown Ajah might be better suited, but could they be trusted? Even those who had made their oaths to him might decide that it was in Rand’s best interests to keep secrets from him. Rand himself was far too busy, and he was too impatient for books lately anyway. That left Min. She was beginning to piece together some of what he would have to do, but there was more—so much more—that was still unknown. She felt she was getting close, but it worried her to reveal what she’d discovered to Rand. How would he respond?

She sighed, scanning the book. She’d never thought that she, of all people, would become a fool for some man. Yet here she was, following him wherever he went, putting his needs before her own. That didn’t mean she was his pet, regardless what some of the people in camp said. She followed Rand because she loved him, and she could feel—literally—that he returned her love. Despite the harshness that was invading him bit by bit, despite the anger and the bleakness of his life, he loved her. And so she did what she could to help him.

If she could help solve this one puzzle, the puzzle of sealing the Dark One’s prison, she could achieve something not just for Rand, but for the world itself. What did it matter if soldiers in the camp didn’t know what her value was? It was probably better if everyone assumed her to be dismissible. Any assassin who came to kill Rand should think that he could ignore Min. The would-be killer would soon discover the knives hidden in Min’s sleeves. She wasn’t as good with them as Thom Merrilin was, but she knew more than enough to kill.

Rand turned in his sleep, but settled down again. She loved him. She hadn’t chosen to do so, but her heart—or the Pattern, or the Creator, or whatever was in charge of these things—had made the decision for her. And now she wouldn’t change her feelings if she could. If it meant danger, if it meant suffering the looks of men in the camp, if it meant... sharing him with others.

Rand stirred again. This time, he groaned and opened his eyes, sitting up. He raised his hand to his head, somehow managing to look more weary now than he had when he’d gone to sleep. He wore only his smallclothes, and his chest was bare. He sat like that for a long moment, then stood up, walking to the shuttered window.

Min pushed her book closed. “And what do you think you’re doing, sheepherder? You barely slept for a couple of hours!”

He opened the shutters and the window, exposing the dark night beyond. A stray curl of wind made her lamp flame shiver.

“Rand?” Min asked.

She could barely hear his voice when he replied. “He’s inside my head. He was gone during the dream. But he’s back now.”

She resisted sinking down in her chair. Light, but she hated hearing about Rand’s madness. She’d hoped that when he healed saidin, he would be free of the taint’s insanities. “He?” she asked, forcing her voice to be steady. “The voice of... Lews Therin?”

He turned, clouded night sky outside the window framing his face, the lamp’s uneven illumination leaving his features mostly in shadows.

“Rand,” she said, setting her book aside and joining him beside the window. “You have to talk to someone. You can’t keep it all inside.”

“I have to be strong.”

She tugged on his arm, turning him toward her. “Keeping me away means you’re strong?”

“I’m not—”

“Yes you are. There are things going on in there, behind those Aiel eyes of yours. Rand, do you think I will stop loving you because of what you hear?”

“You’ll be frightened.”

“Oh,” she said, folding her arms. “So I’m a fragile flower, am I?”

He opened his mouth, struggling for words, in the way he once had. Back when he’d been nothing more than a sheepherder on an adventure. “Min, I know you’re strong. You know I do.”

“Then trust me to be strong enough to bear what is inside you,” she said. “We can’t just pretend nothing has happened.” She forced herself onward. “The taint left marks on you. I know it did. But if you can’t share it with me, who can you share it with?”

He ran his hand through his hair, then turned away, beginning to pace. “Burn it all, Min! If my enemies discover my weaknesses, they will exploit them. I feel blind. I’m running in the dark on an unfamiliar path. I don’t know if there are breaks in the road, or if the whole cursed thing ends in a cliff!”

She laid a hand on his arm as he passed, stopping him. “Tell me.”

“You’ll think I’m mad.”

She snorted. “I already think you’re a wool-headed fool. Can it be much worse than that?”

He regarded her, and some of the tension left his face. He sat down on the edge of the bed, sighing softly. But it was progress.

“Semirhage was right,” Rand said. “I hear... things. A voice. The voice of Lews Therin, the Dragon. He speaks to me and responds to the world around me. Sometimes, he tries to seize saidin from me. And... and sometimes he succeeds. He’s wild, Min. Insane. But the things he can do with the One Power are amazing.”

He stared off into the distance. Min shivered. Light! He let the voice in his head wield the One Power? What did that mean? That he let the mad part of his brain take control?

He shook his head. “Semirhage claims that this is just insanity, tricks of my mind, but Lews Therin knows things—things that I don’t. Things about history, about the One Power. You had a viewing of me that showed two people merging into one. That means that Lews Therin and I are distinct! Two people, Min. He’s real.”

She walked over and sat next to him. “Rand, he’s you. Or you’re him. Spun out into the Pattern again. Those memories and things you can do, they’re remnants from who you were before.”

“No,” Rand said. “Min, he’s insane and I’m not. Besides, he failed. I won’t. I won’t do it, Min. I won’t hurt those I love, as he did. And when I defeat the Dark One, I won’t leave him able to return a short time later and terrorize us again.”

Three thousand years a “short time later”? She put her arms around him. “Does it matter?” she asked. “If there is another person, or if those are just memories from before, the information is useful.”

“Yes,” Rand said, seeming distant again. “But I’m afraid to use the One Power. When I do, I risk letting him take control. He can’t be trusted. He didn’t mean to kill her, but that doesn’t change the fact that he did. Light... Ilyena....”

Was this how it happened to all of them? Each one assuming that they were really sane, and that it was the other person inside of them who did horrible things?

“It’s done now, Rand,” she said, holding him close. “Whatever this voice is, it won’t grow any worse. Saidin is cleansed.”

Rand didn’t respond, but he did relax. She closed her eyes, enjoying the feeling of his warmth beside her, particularly since he’d left the window open.

“Ishamael lives,” Rand said.

She snapped her eyes open. “What?” Just when she was beginning to feel comfortable!

“I visited him in the World of Dreams,” Rand said. “And before you ask, no. It wasn’t just a nightmare and it wasn’t madness. It was real, and I can’t explain how I know. You will just have to trust me.”

“Ishamael,” she whispered. “You killed him!”

“Yes,” Rand said. “In the Stone of Tear. He has returned, bearing a new face and a new name, but it is him. We should have realized it would happen; the Dark One won’t abandon such useful tools without a fight. He can reach beyond the grave.”

“Then how can we win? If everyone we kill just comes back again....”

“Balefire,” Rand said. “It will kill them for good.”

“Cadsuane said—”

“I don’t care what Cadsuane said,” he snarled. “She is my advisor, and she gives advice. Only advice. I am the Dragon Reborn, and I will decide how we fight.” He stopped, taking a deep breath. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter if the Forsaken return, it doesn’t matter who or what the Dark One sends at us. In the end, I will destroy him, if possible. If not, then I will at least seal him away so tightly that the world can forget him.”

He glanced down at her. “For that... I need the voice, Min. Lews Therin knows things. Or... or I know things. Whichever it is, the knowledge is there. In a way, the Dark One’s own taint will destroy him, for it is what gave me access to Lews Therin.”

Min glanced at her books. Herid’s little slip of paper still peeked from the depths of Thoughts Among the Ruins. “Rand,” she said. “You have to destroy the seals to the Dark One’s prison.”

He looked at her, frowning.

“I’m sure of it,” she said. “I’ve been reading Herid’s books all this time, and I believe that’s what he meant by ‘clearing away the rubble.’ In order to rebuild the Dark One’s prison, you will first need to open it. Clear away the patch made on the Bore.”

She had expected him to be incredulous. Shockingly, he just nodded. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, that sounds right. I doubt that many will wish to hear it. If those seals are broken, there is no way to tell what will happen. If I fail to contain him...”

The prophecies didn’t say Rand would win. Only that he would fight. Min shivered again—blasted window!—but met Rand’s gaze. “You’ll win. You’ll defeat him.”

He sighed. “Faith in a madman, Min?”

“Faith in you, sheepherder.” Suddenly viewings spun around his head. She ignored them most of the time, unless they were new, but now she picked them out. Fireflies consumed in darkness. Three women before a pyre. Flashes of light, darkness, shadow, signs of death, crowns, injuries, pain and hope. A tempest around Rand al’Thor, stronger than any physical storm.

“We still don’t know what to do,” he said. “The seals are brittle enough that I could break them in my hands, but what then? How do I stop him? Does it say anything of that in your books?”

“It’s hard to tell,” she admitted. “The clues—if that’s what they are—are vague. I will keep looking. I promise. I’ll find answers for you.”

He nodded, and she was surprised to feel his trust through the bond. That was a frighteningly rare emotion from him recently, but he did seem softer than he had during previous days. Still stone, but perhaps with some few cracks, willing to let her inside. It was a beginning.

She tightened her arms around him and closed her eyes again. A place to begin, but with so little time left. It would have to do.

Carefully shielding her burning candle, Aviendha lit the pole-mounted lantern. It flickered alight, illuminating the green around her. Slumbering soldiers snored in rows of tents. The evening was cold, the air crisp, and branches rattled in the distance. A lonely owl hooted. And Aviendha was exhausted.

She’d crossed the grounds fifty times, lighting the lantern, blowing it out, then jogging back across the green and lighting her candle at the manor before walking carefully—shielding the flame—to light the lantern again.

Another month of these punishments and she’d probably go as mad as a wetlander. The Wise Ones would wake one morning and find her going for a swim, or carrying a half-full waterskin, or—even—riding a horse for pleasure! She sighed, too exhausted to think any further, and turned toward the Aiel section of camp to finally sleep.

Someone was standing behind her.

She started, hand going to her dagger, but relaxed as she recognized Amys. Of all the Wise Ones, only she—a former Maiden—could have sneaked up on Aviendha.

The Wise One stood with hands clasped before her, brown shawl and skirt flapping slightly in the wind. Aviendha’s skin prickled at the particularly chilly gust. Amys’ silver hair seemed almost ghostly in the evening light; a pine needle passing on the breeze had gotten lodged in it. “You approach your punishments with such... dedication, child,” Amys said.

Aviendha looked down. Pointing out her activities was to shame her. Was she running out of time? Had the Wise Ones finally decided to give up on her? “Please, Wise One. I only do as duty demands.”

“Yes, you do,” Amys said. She reached up, running her hand through her hair, and found the pine needle, then let it drop to the dead grass. “And, also, you do not. Sometimes, Aviendha, we are so concerned with the things we have done that we do not stop to consider the things we have not.”

Aviendha was glad for the darkness, which hid her shameful blush. In the distance, a soldier rang the evening bell to chime the hour, the soft metal ringing with eleven melancholy peals. How did she respond to Amys’ comments? There didn’t seem to be any proper response.

Aviendha was saved by a flash of light just beyond the camp. It was faint, but in the darkness, the flicker was easy to notice.

“What?” the Wise One asked, noticing Aviendha’s gaze and turning to follow it.

“Light,” Aviendha said. “From the Traveling grounds.”

Amys frowned, then the two of them moved toward the grounds. Soon they encountered Damer Flinn, Davram Bashere, a small guard of Saldaeans and Aiel walking into the camp. What did one think of a creature such as Flinn? The taint had been cleansed, but this man—and many of the others—had come, asking to learn, before that had happened. Aviendha herself would have sooner embraced Sightblinder himself as done that, but they had proven to be powerful weapons.

Amys and Aviendha moved to the side as the small party hurried toward the manor house, lit only by the distant flickering torches and the cloud-covered sky above. Though most of the force sent to meet the Seanchan had been made up of Bashere’s soldiers, there were several Maidens in the group. Amys locked eyes with one of them, an older woman named Corana. She hung back, and though it was difficult to tell in the darkness, she looked concerned. Perhaps angry.

“What news?” Amys asked.

“The invaders, these Seanchan,” Corana nearly spat the word, “they have agreed to another meeting with the Car’a’carn.”

Amys nodded. Corana, however, sniffed audibly, short hair ruffling in the chill breeze.

“Speak,” Amys said.

“The Car’a’carn sues too hard for peace,” Corana replied. “These Seanchan have given him reason to declare a blood feud, but he simpers and panders to them. I feel like a trained dog, sent to lick the feet of a stranger.”

Amys glanced at Aviendha. “What do you say to this, Aviendha?”

“My heart agrees with her words, Wise One. But, while the Car’a’carn is a fool in some things, he is not being one now. My mind agrees with him, and in this case, it is the mind I would follow.”

“How can you say that?” Corana snapped. She emphasized the you, as if to imply that Aviendha—recently a Maiden—should understand.

“Which is more important, Corana?” Aviendha replied raising her chin. “The argument you have with another Maiden, or the feud your clan has with its enemy?”

“The clan comes first, of course. But what does that matter?”

“The Seanchan deserve to be fought,” Aviendha said, “and you are right that it pains to ask them for peace. But you forget that we have a greater enemy. Sightblinder himself has a feud with all men, and our duty is larger than feuds between nations.”

Amys nodded. “There will be time enough to show the Seanchan the weight of our spears at another date.”

Corana shook her head. “Wise One, you sound like a wetlander. What care have we for their prophecies and stories? Rand al’Thor’s duty as Car’a’carn is much greater than his duty to the wetlanders. He must lead us to glory.”

Amys stared harshly at the blond Maiden. “You speak like a Shaido.”

Corana locked her stare for a moment, then wilted, turning away. “Pardon, Wise One,” she finally said. “I have toh. But you should know that the Seanchan had Aiel in their camp.”

“What?” Aviendha asked.

“They were leashed,” Corana said, “like their tame Aes Sedai. They were being shown off like prizes for our arrival, I suspect. I recognized many Shaido among them.”

Amys hissed softly. Shaido or not, Aiel being held as damane was a grave insult. And the Seanchan were flaunting their captives. She gripped her dagger.

“What do you say now?” Amys glanced at Aviendha.

Aviendha gritted her teeth. “The same, Wise One, though I’d almost rather cut out my tongue than admit it.”

Amys nodded, looking back at Corana. “Do not think that we will ignore this insult, Corana. Vengeance will come. Once this war is done, the Seanchan will feel the storm of our arrows and the tips of our spears. But not until after. Go tell the two clan chiefs what you have told me.”

Corana nodded—she would meet her toh later, in private, with Amys—and left. Damer Flinn and the others had already reached the manor house; would they wake Rand? He was sleeping now, though Aviendha had been forced to mute her bond in the middle of her night’s punishment, lest she endure sensations that she’d rather have avoided. At least, she’d rather have avoided them secondhand.

“There will be dangerous words of this among the spears,” Amys said thoughtfully. “There will be calls to attack, demands that the Car’a’carn give up his attempts to make peace.”

“Will they stay with him when he refuses?” Aviendha asked.

“Of course they will,” Amys said. “They’re Aiel.” She glanced at Aviendha. “We haven’t much time, child. Perhaps it is time to stop coddling you. I will think up better punishments for you starting tomorrow.”

Coddling me? Aviendha watched Amys stalk away. They couldn’t possibly come up with anything more useless or demeaning!

But she’d learned long ago not to underestimate Amys. With a sigh, Aviendha broke into a trot, heading back toward her tent.

CHAPTER 16
In the White Tower

“I’m curious to hear the novice speak. Tell me, Egwene al’Vere, how would you have handled the situation?”

Egwene looked up from the bowl of shells, two-legged steel nutcracker in one hand, a bulbous walnut in the other. It was the first time any of the Aes Sedai present had addressed her. She had begun to think that attending the three Whites would turn out to be another waste of time.

The afternoon’s location was a small inset balcony on the third level of the White Tower. Sitters could demand rooms with not only full windows, but balconies as well, something that was uncommon—though not unheard-of—for regular sisters. This one was shaped like a small turret, with a sturdy stone wall running around the rim in a curve, a similar stone hanging from the outcropping above. There was generous space between the two and the view was quite beautiful, eastward across the rising hills that eventually climbed to Kinslayer’s Dagger. The Dagger itself might have been distantly visible on a clear day.

A cool breeze blew across the balcony, and this high up it was fresh and unsullied by the stink of the city below. A sinuous pair of sticklesharps—with their three-pronged leaves and clinging vines—grew on each side of the balcony, their creeping tendrils covering the inside of the stonework and making it look almost like a deep forest ruin. The plants were more ornamentation than Egwene would have expected in the quarters of a White, but Ferane was reported to be a shade on the vain side. She probably liked it that her balcony was so distinctive, even if protocol required her to keep the vines pruned as to not mar the gleaming profile of the Tower itself.

The three Whites sat in wicker chairs at a low table. Egwene sat before them on a wicker stool, back to the open air, denied the view as she cracked nuts for the others. Any number of servants or kitchen workers could have done the work. But this was the sort of thing that sisters found to fill the time of novices whom they thought might be lounging about too much.

Egwene had thought that cracking the walnuts was just a pretense. After being ignored for the better part of an hour, she had begun to wonder, but all three were looking at her now. She shouldn’t have doubted her instincts.

Ferane had the coppery skin of a Domani, and a temperament to match, odd for a White. She was short, with an apple-shaped face and dark, lustrous hair. Her auburn dress was filmy but decent with a wide white sash at the waist to match her shawl, which she was currently wearing. The dress didn’t lack for embroidery, and the fabric did seem an indication, perhaps intentional, of her Domani heritage.

The other two, Miyasi and Tesan, both wore white, as if they feared that dresses of any other colors were a betrayal of their Ajah. That notion was becoming more and more common among all of the Aes Sedai. Tesan was a Taraboner, with her dark hair in beaded braids. The beads were white and gold, and they framed a narrow face that looked as if it had been pinched at top and bottom and pulled. She always looked worried about something. Though perhaps that was just the times. Light knew they all had a great deal to worry over.

Miyasi was more calm, her head topped by iron-gray hair in a bun. Her Aes Sedai face betrayed none of the many years that she must have seen for her hair to silver so fully. She was tall and plump, and she preferred her walnuts shelled very particularly. No fragments or broken pieces of nut for her, only full halves. Egwene carefully pried one from the shell she had cracked, then handed it over; the small brown lump was wrinkled and ridged, like the brain of a tiny animal.

“What was it you asked, Ferane?” Egwene asked, cracking another walnut and discarding the shell in a pail at her feet.

The White barely frowned at Egwene’s improper response. They were all growing accustomed to the fact that this “novice” seldom acted her presumed station. “I asked,” Ferane said coolly, “what you would have done in the Amyrlin’s place. Consider this part of your instruction. You know that the Dragon has been reborn and you know that the Tower must control him in order for the Last Battle to proceed. How would you handle him?”

A curious question. It didn’t sound much like “instruction.” But Ferane’s tone didn’t make it sound like an offer to complain about Elaida either. There was too much contempt for Egwene in that voice.

The other two Whites remained quiet. Ferane was a Sitter, and they deferred to her.

She’s heard how often I mention Elaida’s failure with Rand, Egwene thought, looking into Ferane’s steely black eyes. So. A test, is it? This would have to be handled very carefully.

Egwene reached for another walnut. “First, I would send a group of sisters to his home village.”

Ferane raised an eyebrow. “To intimidate his family?”

“Of course not,” Egwene said. “To interrogate them. Who is this Dragon Reborn? Is he a man of temper, a man of passions? Or is he a calm man, careful and cautious? Was he the type to spend time alone in the fields, or did he make quick friends of the other youths? Would you be more likely to find him in a tavern or a workshop?”

“But you already know him,” Tesan piped in.

“I do,” Egwene said, cracking the walnut. “But we were speaking of a hypothetical situation.” Best you remember that in the real world, I know the Dragon Reborn personally. As nobody else in this Tower does.

“Let us assume that you are you,” Ferane said. “And that he is Rand al’Thor, your childhood friend.”

“Very well.”

“Tell me,” Ferane said, leaning forward. “Of the types of men you listed just before, which best fits this Rand al’Thor?”

Egwene hesitated. “All of them,” she said, dropping a fragmented walnut into a small bowl with others. Miyasi wouldn’t touch it, but the other two weren’t so picky. “If I were me and the Dragon were Rand, I’d know him to be a rational person, for a man—if somewhat bullheaded at times. Well, most of the time. More importantly, I’d know him to be a good man at heart. And so, my next step would be to send sisters to him to offer guidance.”

“And if he rejected them?” Ferane asked.

“Then I’d send spies,” Egwene said, “and watch to see if he has changed from the man I once knew.”

“And while you waited and spied, he would terrorize the countryside, wreaking havoc and bringing armies to his banner.”

“And is that not what we want him to do?” Egwene asked. “I don’t believe he could have been prevented from taking Callandor, should we have wanted him to be. He has managed to restore order to Cairhien, unite Tear and Illian beneath one ruler, and presumably has gained the favor of Andor as well.”

“Not to mention subjugating those Aiel,” Miyasi said, reaching for a handful of nuts.

Egwene caught her with a sharp gaze. “Nobody subjugates the Aiel. Rand gained their respect. I was with him at the time.”

Miyasi froze, hand partway to the bowl of nutmeats. She shook herself, breaking Egwene’s gaze, grabbing the bowl and retreating back to her chair. A cool breeze blew across the balcony, rustling the vines, which Ferane had complained were not greening this spring like they should. Egwene returned to shelling walnuts.

“It seems,” Ferane said, “that you would simply let him sow chaos as he saw fit.”

“Rand al’Thor is like a river,” Egwene said. “Calm and placid when not agitated, but a furious and deadly current when squeezed too tightly. What Elaida did to him was the equivalent of trying to force the Manetherendrelle through a canyon only two feet wide. Waiting to discover a man’s temperament is not foolish, nor is it a sign of weakness. Acting without information is lunacy, and the White Tower deserved the tempest it riled up.”

“Perhaps,” Ferane said. “But you have still not told me how you would deal with the situation, once your information was collected and the time for waiting had passed.” Ferane was known for her temper, but at the moment her voice held the coldness common among Whites. It was the coldness of one who spoke without emotion, thinking about logic without tolerating outside influences.

It was not the best way to approach problems. People were much more complex than a set of rules or numbers. There was a time for logic, true, but there was also a time for emotion.

Rand was a problem she hadn’t allowed herself to dwell on—she needed to deal with one problem at a time. But there was also much to be said for planning ahead. If she didn’t consider how to deal with the Dragon Reborn, she’d eventually find herself in as bad a situation as Elaida.

He had changed from the man she had known. And yet the seeds of personality within him must be the same. She’d seen his rage during their months traveling together into the Aiel Waste. That hadn’t often come out during his childhood, but she could see now that it must have been lurking. It wasn’t that he had suddenly developed a temper; it was simply that nothing in the Two Rivers had upset him.

During the months she’d traveled with him, he’d seemed to harden with each step. He was under extraordinary pressures. How did one deal with such a man? She frankly had no idea.

But this conversation wasn’t about what to do with Rand, not really. It was about Ferane trying to determine what kind of woman Egwene was.

“Rand al’Thor sees himself as an emperor,” Egwene said. “And I suppose he is one, now. He will react poorly if he thinks he is being pushed or shoved in any particular direction. If I were to deal with him, I would send a delegation to honor him.”

“A lavish procession?” Ferane asked.

“No,” Egwene said. “But not a threadbare one either. A group of three Aes Sedai, led by a Gray, accompanied by a Green and a Blue. He views the Blue favorably because of past associations, and Greens are often perceived as the opposites to Reds, a subtle indication that we are willing to work with him rather than gentle him. A Gray because it would be expected, but also because if a Gray is sent, then it means negotiations, not armies, will follow.”

“Good logic,” Tesan said, nodding.

Ferane was not so easily convinced. “Delegations like this one have failed in the past. I believe that Elaida’s own delegation was led by a Gray.”

“Yes, but Elaida’s delegation was fundamentally flawed,” Egwene said.

“And why is that?”

“Why, because it was sent by a Red, of course,” Egwene said, cracking a nut. “I have trouble seeing the logic in raising a member of the Red Ajah to Amyrlin during the days of the Dragon Reborn. Doesn’t that seem destined to create animosity between him and the Tower?”

“One might say,” Ferane countered, “that a Red is needed during these troubled times, for the Red are the most experienced at dealing with men who can channel.”

“ ‘Dealing’ with is different from ‘working’ with,” Egwene said. “The Dragon Reborn should not have been left to run free, but since when has the White Tower been in the business of kidnapping and forcing people to our will? Are we not known as the most subtle and careful of all people? Do we not pride ourselves on being able to make others do as they should, all the while letting them think it was their idea? When in the past have we locked kings in boxes and beaten them for disobedience? Why now—of all the times under the Light—have we forsaken our fine practice and become simple footpads instead?”

Ferane selected a walnut. The other two Whites were sharing an unsettled look. “There is sense in what you say,” the Sitter finally admitted.

Egwene set aside the nutcracker. “Rand al’Thor is a good man, in his heart, but he needs guidance. These days are when we should have been at our most subtle. He should have been led to trust Aes Sedai above all others, to rely on our counsel. He should have been shown the wisdom in listening. Instead, he has been shown that we will treat him like an unruly child. If he is one, he cannot be allowed to think we regard him in such a way. Because of our bungling, he has taken some Aes Sedai captive, and has allowed still others to be bonded to those Asha’man of his.”

Ferane sat up stiffly. “Best not to mention that atrocity.”

“What is this?” Tesan said, shocked, hand raised to her breast. Some Whites never seemed to pay attention to the world around them. “Ferane? Did you know of this?”

Ferane didn’t respond.

“I’ve... heard this rumor,” said stout Miyasi. “If it is true, then something must be done.”

“Yes,” Egwene said. “Unfortunately, we cannot focus on al’Thor right now.”

“He is the greatest problem facing the world,” pinch-faced Tesan said, leaning forward. “We must deal with him first.”

“No,” Egwene said. “There are other issues.”

Miyasi frowned. “With the Last Battle impending, I can’t see any other issues of importance.”

Egwene shook her head. “In dealing with Rand now, we’d be like a farmer, looking at his wagon and worrying that there aren’t any goods in the bed for him to sell—but ignoring the fact that his axle is cracked. Fill the bed before it is time, and you’ll just break the wagon and be worse off than when you started.”

“And what, exactly, are you implying?” Tesan demanded.

Egwene looked back at Ferane.

“I see,” Ferane said. “You are referring to the division in the White Tower.”

“Can a cracked stone be a good foundation for a building?” Egwene asked. “Can a frayed rope hold a panicky horse? How can we, in our current state, hope to manage the Dragon Reborn himself?”

Ferane said, “Why, then, do you continue to enforce the division by insisting that you are the Amyrlin Seat? You defy your own logic.”

“And renouncing my claim on the Amyrlin Seat would mend the Tower?” Egwene asked.

“It would help.”

Egwene raised an eyebrow. “Let us assume, for a moment, that by renouncing my claim, I could persuade the rebel faction to rejoin the White Tower and accept Elaida’s leadership.” She raised the eyebrow further, indicating how likely she thought that was. “Would the divisions be healed?”

“You just said they would be,” Tesan said, frowning.

“Oh?” Egwene said. “Would sisters stop scurrying through the hallways, frightened to be alone? Would groups of women from different Ajahs stop regarding each other with hostility when they pass in the hallways? With all due respect, would we no longer feel the need to wear our shawls at all times to reinforce who we are and where our allegiance is?”

Ferane glanced down, briefly, at her white-fringed shawl.

Egwene leaned forward, continuing. “Surely you, of all women in the White Tower, can see the importance of the Ajahs working together. We need women with different skills and interests to gather into Ajahs. But does it make sense for us to refuse to work together?”

“The White has not caused this... regrettable tension,” Miyasi said with a little snort. “The others acting with such abundance of emotion have created it.”

“The present leadership has caused it,” Egwene said, “a leadership which teaches that it’s all right to still fellow sisters in secret, to execute Warders before their Aes Sedai are even brought to trial. That there’s nothing wrong with removing a sister’s shawl and reducing her to an Accepted, that there’s nothing wrong with disbanding an entire Ajah. And what of acting without the counsel of the Hall in something as dangerous as kidnapping and imprisoning the Dragon Reborn? Is it unexpected that the sisters would be so frightened and worried? Is it not all completely logical, what has happened to us?”

The three Whites were quiet.

“I will not submit,” Egwene said. “Not while doing so leaves us fractured. I will continue to assert that Elaida is not the Amyrlin. Her actions have proven it. You want to help battle the Dark One? Well, your first step is not to deal with the Dragon Reborn. Your first step should be to reach out to sisters of the other Ajahs.”

“Why us?” Tesan said. “The actions of others are not our responsibility.”

“And you are not to blame at all?” Egwene asked, letting a little of her anger seep through. Would none of her sisters accept a modicum of responsibility? “You, of the White, should have seen where this road would lead. Yes, Siuan and the Blue were not without their flaws—but you should have seen the flaw in pulling her down, then allowing Elaida to disband the Blue. Besides, I believe that several members of your own Ajah were integral to the act of setting up Elaida as Amyrlin.”

Miyasi recoiled slightly. The Whites did not like to be reminded of Alviarin and her failure as Elaida’s Keeper. Instead of turning against Elaida for ousting the White, they seemed to have turned against their own member for the shame she had caused them.

“I still think that this is work for the Grays,” Tesan said, but she sounded less convinced than she had just moments before. “You should speak with them.”

“I have,” Egwene said. Her patience was beginning to fray. “Some will not speak with me and continue to send me to penance. Others say these rifts are not their fault, but with some coaxing have agreed to do what they can. The Yellows have been very reasonable, and I think they’re beginning to see the problems in the Tower as a wound to be healed. I’m still working with several Brown sisters—they seem more fascinated by the problems than worried about them. I’ve sent several of them looking through the histories for examples of division, hoping they’ll run across the story of Renala Merlon. The connection should be easy to make, and perhaps they will begin to see that our problems here can be solved.

“The Greens have, ironically, been the most stubborn. They can be very like Reds in many ways, which is infuriating as they really should be willing to accept me as one who would have been among them. That only leaves the Blue, who have been banished, and the Red. I doubt that sisters of that last Ajah are going to be very receptive to my suggestions.”

Ferane sat back, thoughtful, and Tesan sat with three forgotten walnuts in her hand, staring at Egwene. Miyasi scratched at her iron-gray hair, eyes wide with surprise.

Had Egwene given away too much? Aes Sedai were remarkably like Rand al’Thor; they did not like to know when they were being maneuvered.

“You are shocked,” she said. “What, do you think I should simply sit—like most—and do nothing while the Tower crumbles? This white dress has been forced upon me, and I do not accept what it represents, but I will use it. A woman in novice white is one of the few who can pass from one Ajah quarter to another these days. Someone has to work to mend the Tower, and I am the best choice. Besides, it is my duty.”

“How very... reasonable of you,” Ferane said, her ageless brow furrowed.

“Thank you,” Egwene said. Were they worried that she’d overstepped her bounds? Angered that she’d been manipulating Aes Sedai? Coldly determined to see her punished yet again?

Ferane leaned forward. “Let us say that we wished to work toward mending the Tower. What path would you recommend?”

Egwene felt a surge of excitement. She’d had nothing but setbacks during the last few days. Idiot Greens! They would feel foolish indeed once she was accepted as Amyrlin.

“Suana, of the Yellow Ajah, will soon be inviting you three to share a meal with her,” Egwene said. At least, Suana would make the offer, once Egwene prodded her. “Accept and take your meal in a public place, perhaps one of the Tower gardens. Be seen enjoying one another’s company. I will try to get a Brown sister to invite you next. Let yourself be seen by the other sisters mixing among the Ajahs.”

“Simple enough,” Miyasi said. “Very little effort required, but excellent potential for gain.”

“We shall see,” Ferane said. “You may withdraw, Egwene.”

She didn’t like being dismissed so, but there was no helping it. Still, the woman had shown Egwene respect by using her name. Egwene stood up, and then—very carefully—nodded her head to Ferane. Though Tesan and Miyasi gave no strong reactions, both pairs of eyes widened slightly. By now, it was well known in the Tower that Egwene never curtsied. And, shockingly, Ferane bowed her head, just a degree, returning the gesture.

“Should you decide to choose the White, Egwene al’Vere,” the woman said, “know that you will find a welcome here. Your logic this day was remarkable for one so young.”

Egwene hid a smile. Just four days back, Bennae Nalsad had all but offered Egwene a place in the Brown, and Egwene was still surprised at how vigilantly Suana recommended the Yellow to her. Almost they made her change her mind—but that was mostly her frustration with the Green at the moment. “Thank you,” she said. “But you must remember that the Amyrlin must represent all Ajahs. Our discussion was enjoyable, however. I hope that you will allow me to join you again in the future.”

With that, Egwene withdrew, letting herself smile broadly as she nodded to Ferane’s sturdy, bowlegged Warder standing guard just inside the balcony. Her smile lasted right up until she left the White sector of the Tower and found Katerine waiting in the hallway. The Red was not one of the two assigned to Egwene earlier in the day, and talk about the Tower said that Elaida was relying on Katerine more and more now that her Keeper had vanished on a mysterious mission.

Katerine’s sharp face bore a smile of its own. That was not a good sign. “Here,” the woman said, offering a wooden cup holding a clear liquid. It was time for Egwene’s afternoon dose of forkroot.

Egwene grimaced, but took the cup and drank the contents. She wiped her mouth with her handkerchief, then began to walk down the hallway.

“And where are you going?” Katerine asked.

The smugness in her tone made Egwene hesitate. Egwene turned, frowning. “My next lesson—”

“You will have no further lessons,” Katerine said. “At least, not of the kind you have been receiving. All agree that your skill with weaves is impressive, for a novice.”

Egwene frowned. Were they going to raise her to Accepted again? She doubted that Elaida would allow her any more freedom, and she rarely spent any time in her quarters, so the extra space would be unimportant.

“No,” Katerine said, toying idly with the fringe on her shawl. “What you need to learn, it has been decided, is humility. The Amyrlin has heard of your foolish refusal to curtsy to sisters. In her opinion, it’s the last symbol of your defiant nature, and so you are to receive a new form of instruction.”

Egwene felt a moment of fear. “What kind of instruction?” she said, keeping her voice even.

“Chores and work,” Katerine said.

“I already do chores, just like the novices.”

“You mistake me,” Katerine said. “From now on, all you will do is chores. You are to report to the kitchens immediately—you will spend every afternoon working there. In the evenings, you will scrub floors. In the mornings you will report to the groundsmaster and work the gardens. This will be your life, those same three activities every day—five hours at each one—until you give up your foolish pride and learn to curtsy to your betters.”

It was an end to Egwene’s freedom, what little she had. There was glee in Katerine’s eyes.

“Ah, so you understand,” Katerine said. “No more visiting sisters in their quarters, wasting their time as you practice weaves that you have already mastered. No more laziness; now you will work instead. What think you of that?”

It wasn’t the difficulty of the work that worried Egwene—she didn’t mind the chores she did each day. It was the lack of contact with other sisters that would ruin her. How would she mend the White Tower? Light! It was a disaster.

She gritted her teeth and forced down her emotion. She met Katerine’s eyes, saying, “Very well. Let us go.”

Katerine blinked. She’d obviously expected a tantrum, or at least a fight. But this was not the time. Egwene turned her step toward the kitchens, leaving the quarters of the Whites behind. She couldn’t let them know how effective this punishment was.

She forced down her panic as she walked, the cavernous hallways of the inner Tower lined with bracketed lamps, long and sinuous, like the heads of serpents spouting tiny flames up toward the stone ceiling. She could deal with this. She would deal with this. They would not break her.

Perhaps she should work for a few days, then pretend that she had been humbled. Should she give the curtsy Elaida demanded? It was a simple thing, really. One curtsy, and she could go back to her more important duties.

No, she thought. No, that would not be the end of it. I’d lose the moment I gave that first curtsy. Giving in would prove to Elaida that Egwene could be broken. Curtsying would begin a descent into destruction. Soon, Elaida would decide that Egwene needed to start using honorifics for the Aes Sedai. The false Amyrlin would send Egwene back to work detail, knowing it had been effective before. Would Egwene bend there too? How long before any credibility she had ended up forgotten, trampled into the tiles of the Tower hallways?

She could not bend. The beatings had not changed her behavior; work detail must not change her either.

Three hours of working the kitchens did little to improve her mood. Laras, the hefty Mistress of Kitchens, had set Egwene at scrubbing out one of the ovenlike fireplaces. It was dirty, grimy work, not conducive to thinking. Not that there were many ways out of her situation.

Egwene knelt back on her heels, raising an arm and wiping her brow. The arm came away smeared with soot. Egwene sighed softly, her mouth and nose protected by a damp cloth to keep her from breathing too much ash. Her breath was hot and stuffy against her face, and her skin was sticky with sweat. The drops that fell from her face were stained with black soot; through the cloth she could smell the dull, crusty scent of ash that had been burned over and over and over again.

The fireplace was a large square construction of burned red bricks. It was open on both sides and more than large enough to crawl into—which was exactly what Egwene had to do. Dark crusts built up on the inside of the flue and chimney, and they needed to be scrubbed free lest they clog the chimney or break free and fall into the food. Outside in the dining room, Egwene could hear Katerine and Lirene chatting and laughing with each other. The Reds periodically poked heads in to check on her, but her real supervisor was Laras, who was scrubbing pots on the other side of the room.

Egwene had changed into a work dress for the duty. While it had once been white, it had been repeatedly used by novices cleaning the fireplaces, and the soot had been ground into the fibers. Patches of gray stained the cloth, like shadows.

She rubbed the small of her back, got back on her hands and knees, and crawled farther into the fireplace. Using a small wooden scrape, she worked clumps of ash free from seams between the bricks, then gathered it up and deposited it in brass buckets, the rims of which were powdered white and gray with ash. Her first task had been to dig out all of the loose soot and pile it into the buckets. Her hands were so blackened from the work she worried that the most furious scrubbing wouldn’t get them clean. Her knees ached, and they seemed a strange counterpart to her backside, which still stung from her regular morning beating.

She continued, scratching with her scrape at a blackened section of brick, dimly lit by the lantern she’d left burning in a corner inside the fireplace. She itched to use the One Power; but the Reds outside would sense her channeling, and she’d discovered that her afternoon dose of forkroot had been uncharacteristically strong, leaving her unable to channel as much as a trickle. In fact, it had been strong enough to leave her drowsy, which made the work even harder.

Was this to be her life? Trapped inside a fireplace, scrubbing at bricks nobody saw, locked away from the world? She couldn’t stand up to Elaida if everyone forgot about her. She coughed quietly, the sound echoing against the inside of the fireplace.

She needed a plan. Her only recourse seemed to be to use the sisters who were trying to root out the Black Ajah. But how to visit them? Without being trained by sisters, she had no way to escape her Red handlers by entering the domains of other Ajahs. Could she sneak away somehow while doing labor? If her absence were discovered, she’d probably end up in an even worse situation.

But she couldn’t let her life be dominated by this menial labor! The Last Battle was approaching, the Dragon Reborn ran free, and the Amyrlin Seat was on her hands and knees cleaning fireplaces! She gritted her teeth, scrubbing furiously. The soot had been baked on for so long that it formed a glossy black patina on the stone. She’d never get it all off. She just needed to make sure it was clean enough that none would break free.

Reflected in that glossy patina, she saw a shadow move across the opening of the far side of the fireplace. Egwene immediately reached for the Source—but, of course, she found nothing. Not with forkroot clouding her mind. But there was definitely someone outside the fireplace, crouching down, moving quietly....

Egwene gripped the scrape in one hand, slowly reaching down with the other to grab the brush she’d been using to scoop up ash. Then she spun.

Laras froze, peeking into the fireplace. The Mistress of Kitchens wore a large white apron, stained with a few soot marks itself. Her pudgy round face had seen its share of winters; her hair was starting to gray, and lines creased the sides of her eyes. Leaning over as she was, her jowls formed a second, third and fourth chin, and she gripped the side of the fireplace opening with a thick-fingered hand.

Egwene relaxed. Why had she been so certain that someone had been sneaking up on her? It was just Laras coming to check on her.

Yet why had the woman moved so silently? Laras glanced to the side, eyes narrowing. Then she raised a finger to her lips. Egwene felt herself tense again. What was going on?

Laras backed out of the fireplace, waving for Egwene to follow. The Mistress of Kitchens moved on light feet, far quieter than Egwene would have thought possible. Assistant cooks and scullions clanged away in other parts of the kitchen, but none were directly visible. Egwene crept free of the fireplace, tucking the scrape into her belt and wiping her hands on her dress. She pulled the cloth free from her face, breathing sweet, soot-free air. She took a deep breath, and received a harsh glare from Laras, followed by another finger to the lips.

Egwene nodded, following Laras through the kitchens. In a few moments she and Egwene stood in a pantry, thick with the scent of dried grains and aging cheeses. The tiles gave way to more durable brickwork here. Laras shoved aside a few sacks, then pulled open a piece of the floor. It was a wooden trapdoor, capped with shaved brickwork on the top to make it seem part of the floor. It revealed a small, rock-walled chamber underneath the pantry, large enough to hold a person, though a tall man would be cramped.

“You wait here until night,” Laras said in a low voice. “I can’t get you out right now, not with the Tower fluttery as a yard full of hens when the fox is about. But the garbage goes out late at night, and I’ll hide you among the girls who unload it. A dockworker will take you to a small boat and row you across the river. I have some friends among the guard; they’ll turn the other way. Once you reach the other side, it’s up to you what you do. I’d advise against going back to those fools who made you their puppet. Find some place to lie low until this all blows over, then come back and see if whoever’s in charge will take you in. Isn’t likely it will be Elaida, the way things are going....”

Egwene blinked in surprise.

“Well,” the heavyset woman said. “In you go.”

“I—”

“No time for jabbering!” Laras said, as if she weren’t the one doing all of the talking. She was obviously nervous, the way she kept glancing about and tapping her foot. But she’d obviously also done this sort of thing before. Why was the simple cook in the White Tower so skilled at sneaking, so handy with a plan to get Egwene out of the fortified and besieged city? And why did she have a bolt-hole in the kitchens in the first place? Light! How had she created it?

“Don’t worry about me,” Laras said, eyeing Egwene. “I can handle myself. I’ll keep all of the kitchen servants away from where you were working. Those Aes Sedai only check on you every half-hour or so—and since they just checked a minute ago, it will be a while before they look in again. When they do check, I can plead ignorance and everyone will assume you slipped out of the kitchens. We’ll soon have you out of the city and nobody will be the wiser.”

“Yes,” Egwene said, finally finding her tongue, “but why?” She had assumed that, after helping Min and Siuan, Laras wouldn’t be eager to help another fugitive.

Laras looked back at her, in the woman’s eyes a determination as hard as any Aes Sedai’s. Egwene certainly had overlooked this woman! Who was she really?

“I won’t be a party to the breaking of a girl’s spirit,” Laras said sternly. “Those beatings are shameful! Fool Aes Sedai. I’ve served loyally these years, I have, but now they’ve told me that you’re to be worked as hard as I can push you, indefinitely. Well, I can see when a girl has moved away from being instructed and into being beaten down. I won’t have it, not in my kitchens. Light burn Elaida for thinking she could do such a thing! Execute you or make you a novice, I don’t care. But this breaking is unacceptable!”

The woman stood, setting hands on hips, a puff of flour rising from her apron. Oddly, Egwene found herself considering the offer. She’d denied Siuan’s offer to save her, but if she fled now, she would return to the rebel camp having freed herself. That would be far superior to being rescued. She could get away from all this, away from the beatings, away from the drudgery.

To do what? To sit on the outside and watch the Tower collapse?

“No,” she said to Laras. “Your offer is very kind, but I can’t take it. I’m sorry.”

Laras frowned. “Now, you listen—”

“Laras,” Egwene interrupted, “one does not take that tone with an Aes Sedai, no matter that one is the Mistress of Kitchens.”

Laras hesitated. “Fool girl. You ain’t Aes Sedai.”

“Accept it or not, I still can’t go. Unless you intend to try stuffing me into that hole yourself—gagging and tying me to keep me from crying out, followed by escorting me across the river in person—then I suggest letting me return to my work.”

“But why?”

“Because,” Egwene said, glancing back at the fireplace. “Someone has to fight her.”

“You can’t fight like this,” Laras said.

“Each day is a battle,” Egwene said. “Each day I refuse to bend means something. Even if Elaida and her Reds are the only ones who know it, that’s something. A small something, but more than I could do from the outside. Come. I’ve still got two hours of work left.”

She turned and began to walk back toward the fireplace. A reluctant Laras closed the hatch on her hidden chamber, then joined her. The woman made much more noise now as she walked, brushing against counters, her footfalls sounding on the bricks. Curious how she’d been able to be so quiet when she wanted to.

A flash of red cloth, like the blood of a dead rabbit in the snow, moved through the kitchens. Egwene froze as Katerine, wearing a dress with crimson skirts and yellow trim, spotted her. The Red’s mouth was thin-lipped, her eyes narrow. Had she seen Egwene and Laras walk off?

Laras froze.

“I see now what I was doing wrong,” Egwene quickly said to the Mistress of Kitchens, eyeing a second hearth, which lay near where they had been standing in the pantry. “Thank you for showing it to me. I’ll be more careful now.”

“See that you are,” Laras said, shaking out of her shock. “Otherwise, you’ll see what a real punishment is like, not those halfhearted paddlings the Mistress of Novices gives. Now back to work with you.”

Egwene nodded, hurrying back toward the fireplace. Katerine held up a hand to forestall her. Egwene’s heart thumped traitorously.

“No need,” Katerine said. “The Amyrlin has demanded that the novice attend her tonight at dinner. I told the Amyrlin that one day of work would hardly break someone as foolishly stubborn as this child, but she is insistent. I guess you are to be given your first chance to prove your humility, child. I suggest you take it.”

Egwene glanced down at her blackened hands and soiled dress.

“Go, run,” Katerine said. “Wash up and clean yourself. The Amyrlin will not be kept waiting.”

Washing up proved to be nearly as difficult as cleaning the fireplace. The soot had stained her hands much in the way it had the work dress. Egwene spent the better part of an hour washing in a tub full of lukewarm water, trying to make herself presentable. Her fingernails were ragged from scraping the bricks, and it seemed that each time she rinsed her hair, she washed out an entire bucket’s worth of soot flakes.

However, she was glad for the chance. She rarely had much time for bathing; usually she could not stop for more than a quick scrub. As she rinsed and scrubbed in the small, gray-tiled bathing chamber, she considered her next step.

She had turned down the opportunity to flee. That meant she had to work with Elaida and her Reds, the only sisters she saw. But could they be made to see their errors? She wished she could send the whole lot of them for penance and be rid of them.

But no. She was Amyrlin; she represented all Ajahs, including the Red. She couldn’t treat them as Elaida had treated the Blues. They were the most antagonistic toward her, but that meant a greater challenge. She seemed to be making some headway with Silviana, and hadn’t Lirene Doirellin admitted that Elaida had made serious mistakes?

Maybe the Reds weren’t the only ones she could influence. There were always chance meetings with other sisters in the hallways. If one of them approached her to speak, the Reds couldn’t very well tow her away. They would show some decorum, and that would give Egwene a chance to interact a bit with other sisters.

But how to treat Elaida herself? Was it wise to let the false Amyrlin continue to think that Egwene was nearly cowed? Or was it time to make a stand?

By the end of her bath, Egwene felt a great deal cleaner and a great deal more confident. Her war had taken a serious turn for the worse, but she could still fight. She ran a hurried brush through her wet hair, threw on a new novice dress—my, how good it felt to have the soft, clean fabric on her skin!—and left to join her handlers.

They escorted her up to the Amyrlin’s chambers. Egwene passed several groups of sisters, and she held herself carefully erect for their benefit. The handlers took her through the Red sector of the Tower, the tiles on the floor shifting to a pattern of red and charcoal. There were more people walking about here, women in their shawls, servants bearing the Flame of Tar Valon on their chests. Never any Warders; that always felt strange to Egwene, since they were so common in other parts of the Tower.

A long climb and a few twists later, they arrived at Elaida’s quarters. Egwene checked her skirts unconsciously. She had determined during the walk that she needed to approach Elaida with silence, just as she had last time. Riling her further would only lead to more restrictions. Egwene would not debase herself, but neither would she go out of her way to insult Elaida. Let the woman think as she wished.

A servant opened the door, leading Egwene in, and into the dining chamber. There, she was shocked by what she found. She had assumed she’d attend Elaida alone, or maybe with Meidani. Egwene hadn’t for a moment considered that the dining room would be filled with women. There were five, one from each Ajah save the Red and the Blue. And each woman was a Sitter. Yukiri was there, as was Doesine, both from the clandestine hunters of the Black Ajah. Ferane was there, though she seemed surprised to see Egwene; had the White not known about this dinner earlier, or had she simply not mentioned it?

Rubinde, of the Green Ajah, sat beside Shevan of the Brown, a sister whom Egwene had been wanting to meet. Shevan was one of those who supported negotiating with the rebel Aes Sedai, and Egwene hoped to be able to nudge her more toward helping unify the White Tower from within.

There wasn’t a Red sister at the table other than Elaida. Was that because the Red Sitters were all out of the Tower? Perhaps Elaida thought the room balanced with her there, as she still thought of herself as Red, although she wasn’t supposed to.

It was a long table, crystal goblets sparkling and reflecting light from the ornate bronze standlamps, running along the walls painted a rusty red-yellow in color. Each woman wore a fine gown in the color of her Ajah. The room smelled of succulent meats and steamed carrots. The women chatted. Amicable, but forced. Tense. They didn’t want to be there.

Across the room, Doesine nodded to Egwene, almost in respect. It was an indication of something. “I’m here because you said that this sort of thing was important,” it seemed to say. Elaida sat at the head of the table, wearing a red dress with full sleeves, uncut garnets trimming them and the bodice, her face bearing a satisfied smile. Servants bustled back and forth, pouring wine and bringing food. Why had Elaida called a dinner of Sitters? Was this an attempt to heal the rifts in the White Tower? Had Egwene misjudged her?

“Ah, good,” Elaida said, noticing Egwene. “You’ve finally arrived. Come here, child.”

Egwene did so, walking through the room, the last few Sitters catching notice of her. Some seemed confused, others made curious, by her presence. As she walked, Egwene realized something.

This one evening could easily undo all that she’d worked for.

If the Aes Sedai here saw her subserviently waiting on Elaida, Egwene would lose integrity in their eyes. Elaida had declared that Egwene was cowed—but Egwene had proven otherwise. If she bent to Elaida’s will here, even a little, it would be seen as proof.

Light burn the woman! Why had she invited so many of the women that Egwene had been working to influence? Was it simple happenstance? Egwene joined the false Amyrlin at the head of the table, and a servant handed her a crystal pitcher of glistening red wine. “You are to keep my cup full,” Elaida said. “Wait there, but don’t come too close. I’d rather not have to smell the soot on you from your punishments this afternoon.”

Egwene clenched her jaw. Smell the soot? After an hour of scrubbing? Doubtful. From the side, she could see the satisfaction in Elaida’s eyes as she sipped her wine. Then Elaida turned to Shevan, who sat in the chair to Elaida’s right. The Brown was a lanky woman, with knobbed arms and an angular face, like a person made of gnarled sticks. Her eyes were thoughtful as she studied her hostess.

“Tell me, Shevan,” Elaida said. “Do you still insist on those foolish talks with the rebels?”

Shevan responded. “The sisters must be given a chance to reconcile.”

“They’ve had their chance,” Elaida said. “Honestly, I expected more of a Brown. You’re behaving doggedly, without a whit of understanding how the real world works. Why, even Meidani agrees with me, and she’s a Gray! You know how they are.”

Shevan turned away, seeming more disturbed than before. Why did Elaida invite them to dinner, if only to insult them and their Ajahs? As Egwene watched, the Red turned her attention to Ferane, and complained to her about Rubinde, a Sitter from the Green who also resisted Elaida’s efforts to end the talks. As she spoke, she raised her cup to Egwene, tapping it. Elaida had barely taken a few sips.

Egwene ground her teeth, filling the cup. The others had seen her do labor before—why, she’d cracked walnuts for Ferane. This wouldn’t ruin her reputation, not unless Elaida forced her to abase herself somehow.

But what was the point of this dinner? Elaida didn’t seem to be making any attempt to bring the Ajahs together. If anything, she was prying those rifts wider, the way she was dismissing those who disagreed with her. Occasionally, she would have Egwene refill her cup, but it never had room for more than a sip or two.

Slowly, Egwene began to understand. This dinner wasn’t about working with the Ajahs. It was about bullying the Sitters into doing as Elaida felt they should. And Egwene was simply there to be shown off! This was all about proving to the others how much power Elaida had—she could take someone that others had named Amyrlin, put a novice dress on her and send her to penance every day.

Egwene felt herself grow angry again. Why could Elaida always stir her emotions? Soup bowls were removed and plates of steamed, buttered carrots were brought, a hint of cinnamon striking the air. Egwene had not been given dinner, but she felt too sick to care about eating.

No, she thought, steeling herself. I will not end this early, like last time. I will endure. I am stronger than Elaida. I’m stronger than her madness.

The conversation continued, Elaida making insulting comments to the others, sometimes with intent, sometimes with apparent unawareness. The others steered the talk away from the rebels and toward the strangely overcast skies. Eventually, Shevan mentioned a rumor about the Seanchan working with Aiel far to the south.

“The Seanchan again?” Elaida said with a sigh. “You needn’t worry about them.”

“My sources say otherwise, Mother,” Shevan said stiffly. “I think we need to pay close attention to what they are doing. I have had some sisters ask this child about her experience with them, which has been extensive. You should hear the things they do to Aes Sedai.”

Elaida laughed a tinkling, melodic laugh. “Surely you know how the child is prone to exaggerate!” She glanced at Egwene. “Have you been spreading lies for your friend, the fool al’Thor? What did he tell you to say about these invaders? They are working for him, are they not?”

Egwene didn’t respond.

“Speak,” Elaida said, gesturing with her cup. “Tell these women you have been speaking lies. Confess or I’ll have you in penance again, girl.”

The penance she would take for not speaking would be better than suffering Elaida’s rage at contradicting her. Silence was the path to victory.

And yet, as Egwene glanced down the long mahogany table, set with bright white Sea Folk porcelain and flickering red candles, she saw five pairs of eyes studying her. She could see their questions. Egwene had spoken boldly to them when alone, but would she hold to her assertions now, faced by the most powerful woman in the world? A woman who held Egwene’s life in her hands?

Was Egwene the Amyrlin? Or was she just a girl who liked to pretend?

Light burn you, Elaida, she thought, gritting her teeth, seeing that she had been wrong. Silence wouldn’t lead to victory, not in front of these women. You are not going to like how this proceeds.

“The Seanchan are not working for Rand,” Egwene said. “And they are a severe danger to the White Tower. I have spread no lies. To say otherwise would be to betray the Three Oaths.”

“You haven’t taken the Three Oaths,” Elaida said sternly, turning toward her.

“I have,” Egwene said. “I’ve held no Oath Rod, but it isn’t the Rod that makes my words true. I have spoken the words of the oaths in my heart, and to me they are more dear, for I have nothing forcing me to hold to them. And by that oath holding me, I tell you again. I am a Dreamer, and I have Dreamed that the Seanchan will attack the White Tower.”

Elaida’s eyes flared for a moment, and she gripped her fork until her knuckles whitened. Egwene held her eyes, and finally Elaida laughed again. “Ah, stubborn as ever, I see. I shall have to tell Katerine that she was right. You’ll have penance for your exaggerations, child.”

“These women know I don’t speak lies,” Egwene said calmly. “And each time you insist that I do, you lower yourself in their eyes. Even if you disbelieve my Dream, you must admit that the Seanchan are a threat. They leash women who can channel, using them as weapons with a kind of twisted ter’angreal. I have felt the collar on my neck. I still feel it, sometimes. In my dreams. My nightmares.”

The room fell still.

“You are a foolish child,” Elaida said, obviously trying to pretend that Egwene was no threat. She should have turned to look at the eyes of the others. If she had, she’d have seen the truth. “Well, you have forced my hand. You will kneel before me, child, and beg forgiveness. Right now. Otherwise, I will lock you away alone. Is that what you want? Don’t think that the beatings will stop, however. You’ll still get your daily penance, you’ll just be thrown back into your cell after each one. Now, kneel and beg forgiveness.”

The Sitters glanced at one another. There was no backing down now. Egwene wished it hadn’t come to this. But it had, and Elaida had demanded a fight.

It was time to give her one. “And if I do not bow before you?” Egwene asked, meeting the woman’s eyes. “What then?”

“You will kneel, one way or another,” Elaida growled, embracing the Source.

“You’ll use the Power on me?” Egwene asked calmly. “Do you have to resort to that? Have you no authority without channeling?”

Elaida paused. “It is within my rights to discipline one who isn’t showing proper respect.”

“And so you will make me obey,” Egwene said. “Is this what you will do to everyone in the Tower, Elaida? An Ajah opposes you, and it is disbanded. Someone displeases you, and you try to destroy her right to be Aes Sedai. You will have every sister bowing down before you by the end of this.”

“Nonsense!”

“Oh?” Egwene asked. “And have you told them about your idea for a new oath? Sworn on the Oath Rod by every sister, an oath to obey the Amyrlin and support her?”

“I—”

“Deny it,” Egwene said. “Deny that you made the statement. Will the Oaths let you?”

Elaida froze. If she were Black, she could deny it, Oath Rod or not. But either way, Meidani could substantiate what Egwene had said.

“It was idle talk,” Elaida said. “Just speculation, thoughts spoken out loud.”

“There is often truth in speculation,” Egwene said. “You locked the Dragon Reborn himself in a box; you just threatened to do the same to me, in front of all of these witnesses. People call him a tyrant, but you are the one destroying our laws and ruling by fear.”

Elaida’s eyes opened wide, her anger visible. She seemed... shocked. As if she couldn’t understand how she’d gone from disciplining an unruly novice into debating an equal. Egwene saw the woman begin to weave a thread of Air. That had to be stopped. A gag of Air would end this debate.

“Go ahead,” Egwene said calmly. “Use the Power to silence me. As Amyrlin, shouldn’t you be able to talk an opponent into obedience, rather than resorting to force?”

Out of the corner of her eye, Egwene saw diminutive Yukiri, of the Gray, nod at that comment.

Elaida’s eyes flared in anger as she dropped the thread of Air. “I don’t need to rebut a mere novice,” Elaida snapped. “The Amyrlin doesn’t explain herself to one such as you.”

“ ‘The Amyrlin understands the most complex of creeds and debates,’ ” Egwene said, quoting from memory. “ ‘Yet in the end, she is the servant of all, even the lowest of laborers.’ ” That had been said by Balladare Arandaille, the first Amyrlin to be raised from the Brown Ajah. She’d used the words in her last writings before her death; those writings had been an explanation of her reign and what she had done during the Kavarthen wars. Arandaille had felt that once a crisis was passed, it was the moral duty of an Amyrlin to explain herself to the common people.

Sitting beside Elaida, Shevan nodded appreciatively. The quote was somewhat obscure; Egwene blessed Siuan’s quiet training in the wisdom of the former Amyrlins. Much of what she’d said had come from the secret histories, but there had been a number of nuggets from women such as Balladare as well.

“What is this nonsense you’re sputtering?” Elaida spat.

“What did you intend to do with Rand al’Thor once you captured him?” Egwene said, ignoring the comment.

“I don’t—”

“You’re not answering me,” Egwene said, nodding to the table of women, “but them. Have you explained yourself, Elaida? What were your plans? Or will you dodge this question just as you have the others I’ve asked?”

Elaida’s face was turning red, but she calmed herself with some effort. “I would have kept him secure, and well shielded, here in the Tower until it was time for the Last Battle. That would have prevented him from causing the suffering and chaos he’s created in many nations. It was worth the risk of angering him.”

“ ‘As the plow breaks the earth shall he break the lives of men, and all that was shall be consumed in the fire of his eyes,’ ” Egwene said. “ ‘The trumpets of war shall sound at his footsteps, the ravens feed at his voice, and he shall wear a crown of swords.’ ”

Elaida frowned, taken aback.

The Karaethon Cycle, Elaida,” Egwene said. “When you had Rand locked away to be kept ‘secure,’ had he yet taken Illian? Had he yet worn what he was to name the Crown of Swords?”

“Well, no.”