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

Wheel of Time • 13 • Towers of Midnight

Robert Jordan


WHEEL OF TIME
Book Thirteen
TOWERS OF MIDNIGHT

Robert JORDAN and Brandon SANDERSON

For Jason Denzel, Melissa Craib, Bob Kluttz, Jennifer Liang,
Linda Taglieri, Matt Hatch, Leigh Butler, Mike Mackert,
and all those readers who over the years have made
The Wheel of Time part of their lives, and in doing so
have made the lives of others better.

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It soon became obvious, even within the stedding, that the Pattern was growing frail. The sky darkened. Our dead appeared, standing in rings outside the borders of the stedding, looking in. Most troublingly, trees fell ill, and no song would heal them.

It was in this time of sorrows that I stepped up to the Great Stump. At first, I was forbidden, but my mother, Covril, demanded I have my chance. I do not know what sparked her change of heart, as she herself had argued quite decisively for the opposing side. My hands shook. I would be the last speaker, and most seemed to have already made up their minds to open the Book of Translation. They considered me an afterthought.

And I knew that unless I spoke true, humanity would be left alone to face the Shadow. In that moment, my nervousness fled. I felt only a stillness, a calm sense of purpose. I opened my mouth, and I began to speak.

—from The Dragon Reborn, by Loial,
son of Arent son of Halan, of Stedding Shangtai

PROLOGUE
Distinctions

Mandarb's hooves beat a familiar rhythm on broken ground as Lan Mandragoran rode toward his death. The dry air made his throat rough and the earth was sprinkled white with crystals of salt that precipitated from below. Distant red rock formations loomed to the north, where sickness stained them. Blight marks, a creeping dark lichen.

He continued riding east, parallel to the Blight. This was still Saldaea, where his wife had deposited him, only narrowly keeping her promise to take him to the Borderlands. It had stretched before him for a long time, this road. He'd turned away from it twenty years ago, agreeing to follow Moiraine, but he'd always known he would return. This was what it meant to bear the name of his fathers, the sword on his hip, and the hadori on his head.

This rocky section of northern Saldaea was known as the Proska Flats. It was a grim place to ride; not a plant grew on it. The wind blew from the north, carrying with it a foul stench. Like that of a deep, sweltering mire bloated with corpses. The sky overhead stormed dark, brooding.

That woman, Lan thought, shaking his head. How quickly Nynaeve had learned to talk, and think, like an Aes Sedai. Riding to his death didn't pain him, but knowing she feared for him... that did hurt. Very badly.

He hadn't seen another person in days. The Saldaeans had fortifications to the south, but the land here was scarred with broken ravines that made it difficult for Trollocs to assault; they preferred attacking near Maradon.

That was no reason to relax, however. One should never relax, this close to the Blight. He noted a hilltop; that would be a good place for a scout's post. He made certain to watch it for any sign of movement. He rode around a depression in the ground, just in case it held waiting am-bushers. He kept his hand on his bow. Once he traveled a little farther eastward, he'd cut down into Saldaea and cross Kandor on its good roadways. Then—

Some gravel rolled down a hillside nearby.

Lan carefully slid an arrow from the quiver tied to Mandarb's saddle. Where had the sound come from? To the right, he decided. Southward. The hillside there; someone was approaching from behind it.

Lan did not stop Mandarb. If the hoofbeats changed, it would give warning. He quietly raised the bow, feeling the sweat of his fingers inside his fawn-hide gloves. He nocked the arrow and pulled carefully, raising it to his cheek, breathing in its scent. Goose feathers, resin.

A figure walked around the southern hillside. The man froze, an old, shaggy-maned packhorse walking around beside him and continuing on ahead. It stopped only when the rope at its neck grew taut.

The man wore a laced tan shirt and dusty breeches. He had a sword at his waist, and his arms were thick and strong, but he didn't look threatening. In fact, he seemed faintly familiar.

„Lord Mandragoran!” the man said, hastening forward, pulling his horse after. „I've found you at last. I assumed you'd be traveling the Kre-mer Road!”

Lan lowered his bow and stopped Mandarb. „Do I know you?”

„I brought supplies, my Lord!” The man had black hair and tanned skin. Borderlander stock, probably. He continued forward, overeager, yanking on the overloaded packhorse's rope with a thick-fingered hand. „I figured that you wouldn't have enough food. Tents—four of them, just in case—some water too. Feed for the horses. And—”

„Who are you?” Lan barked. „And how do you know who I am?”

The man drew up sharply. „I'm Bulen, my Lord. From Kandor?”

From Kandor... Lan remembered a gangly young messenger boy. With surprise, he saw the resemblance. „Bulen? That was twenty years ago, man!”

„I know, Lord Mandragoran. But when word spread in the palace that the Golden Crane was raised, I knew what I had to do. I've learned the sword well, my Lord. I've come to ride with you and—”

„The word of my travel has spread to Aesdaishar?”

„Yes, my Lord. El'Nynaeve, she came to us, you see. Told us what you'd done. Others are gathering, but I left first. Knew you'd need supplies.”

Burn that woman, Lan thought. And she'd made him swear that he would accept those who wished to ride with him! Well, if she could play games with the truth, then so could he. Lan had said he'd take anyone who wished to ride with him. This man was not mounted. Therefore, Lan could refuse him. A petty distinction, but twenty years with Aes Sedai had taught him a few things about how to watch one's words.

„Go back to Aesdaishar,” Lan said. „Tell them that my wife was wrong, and I have not raised the Golden Crane.”

„But—”

„I don't need you, son. Away with you.” Lan's heels nudged Mandarb into a walk, and he passed the man standing on the road. For a few moments, Lan thought that his order would be obeyed, though the evasion of his oath pricked at his conscience.

„My father was Malkieri,” Bulen said from behind.

Lan continued on.

„He died when I was five,” Bulen called. „He married a Kandori woman. They both fell to bandits. I don't remember much of them. Only something my father told me: that someday, we would fight for the Golden Crane. All I have of him is this.”

Lan couldn't help but look back as Mandarb continued to walk away. Bulen held up a thin strap of leather, the hadori, worn on the head of a Malkieri sworn to fight the Shadow.

„I would wear the hadori of my father,” Bulen called, voice growing louder. „But I have nobody to ask if I may. That is the tradition, is it not? Someone has to give me the right to don it. Well, I would fight the Shadow all my days.” He looked down at the hadori, then back up again and yelled, „I would stand against the darkness, al'Lan Mandragoran! Will you tell me I cannot?”

„Go to the Dragon Reborn,” Lan called to him. „Or to your queen's army. Either of them will take you.”

„And you? You will ride all the way to the Seven Towers without supplies?”

„I'll forage.”

„Pardon me, my Lord, but have you seen the land these days? The Blight creeps farther and farther south. Nothing grows, even in once-fertile lands. Game is scarce.”

Lan hesitated. He reined Mandarb in.

„All those years ago,” Bulen called, walking forward, his packhorse walking behind him. „I hardly knew who you were, though I know you lost someone dear to you among us. I've spent years cursing myself for not serving you better. I swore that I would stand with you someday.” He walked up beside Lan. „I ask you because I have no father. May I wear the hadori and fight at your side, al'Lan Mandragoran? My King?”

Lan breathed out slowly, stilling his emotions. Nynaeve, when next I see you... But he would not see her again. He tried not to dwell upon that.

He had made an oath. Aes Sedai wiggled around their promises, but did that give him the same right? No. A man was his honor. He could not deny Bulen.

„We ride anonymously,” Lan said. „We do not raise the Golden Crane. You tell nobody who I am.”

„Yes, my Lord,” Bulen said.

„Then wear that hadori with pride,” Lan said. „Too few keep to the old ways. And yes, you may join me.”

Lan nudged Mandarb into motion, Bulen following on foot. And the one became two.

Perrin slammed his hammer against the red-hot length of iron. Sparks sprayed into the air like incandescent insects. Sweat beaded on his face.

Some people found the clang of metal against metal grating. Not Perrin. That sound was soothing. He raised the hammer and slammed it down.

Sparks. Flying chips of light that bounced off his leather vest and his apron. With each strike, the walls of the room—sturdy leatherleaf wood— fuzzed, responding to the beats of metal on metal. He was dreaming, though he wasn't in the wolf dream. He knew this, though he didn't know how he knew.

The windows were dark; the only light was that of the deep red fire burning on his right. Two bars of iron simmered in the coals, waiting their turn at the forge. Perrin slammed the hammer down again.

This was peace. This was home.

He was making something important. So very important. It was a piece of something larger. The first step to creating something was to figure out its parts. Master Luhhan had taught Perrin that on his first day at the forge. You couldn't make a spade without understanding how the handle fit to the blade. You couldn't make a hinge without knowing how the two leaves moved with the pin. You couldn't even make a nail without knowing its parts: head, shaft, point.

Understand the pieces, Perrin.

A wolf lay in the corner of the room. It was large and grizzled, fur the color of a pale gray river stone, and scarred from a lifetime of battles and hunts. The wolf laid its head on its paws, watching Perrin. That was natural. Of course there was a wolf in the corner. Why wouldn't there be? It was Hopper.

Perrin worked, enjoying the deep, burning heat of the forge, the feel of the sweat trailing down his arms, the scent of the fire. He shaped the length of iron, one blow for every second beat of his heart. The metal never grew cool, but instead retained its malleable red-yellow.

What am I making? Perrin picked up the length of glowing iron with his tongs. The air warped around it.

Pound, pound, pound, Hopper sent, communicating in images and scents. Like a pup jumping at butterflies.

Hopper didn't see the point of reshaping metal, and found it amusing that men did such things. To a wolf, a thing was what it was. Why go through so much effort to change it into something else?

Perrin set the length of iron aside. It cooled immediately, fading from yellow, to orange, to crimson, to a dull black. Perrin had pounded it into a misshapen nugget, perhaps the size of two fists. Master Luhhan would be ashamed to see such shoddy work. Perrin needed to discover what he was making soon, before his master returned.

No. That was wrong. The dream shook, and the walls grew misty.

I'm not an apprentice. Perrin raised a thick-gloved hand to his head. I'm not in the Two Rivers any longer. I'm a man, a married man.

Perrin grabbed the lump of unshaped iron with his tongs, thrusting it down on the anvil. It flared to life with heat. Everything is still wrong. Perrin smashed his hammer down. It should all be better now! But it isn't. It seems worse somehow.

He continued pounding. He hated those rumors that the men in camp whispered about him. Perrin had been sick and Berelain had cared for him. That was the end of it. But still those whispers continued.

He slammed his hammer down over and over. Sparks flew in the air like splashes of water, far too many to come from one length of iron. He gave one final strike, then breathed in and out.

The lump hadn't changed. Perrin growled and grabbed the tongs, setting the lump aside and taking a fresh bar from the coals. He had to finish this piece. It was so important. But what was he making?

He started pounding. I need to spend time with Faile, to figure things out, remove the awkwardness between us. But there's no time! Those Light-blinded fools around him couldn't take care of themselves. Nobody in the Two Rivers ever needed a lord before.

He worked for a time, then held up the second chunk of iron. It cooled, turning into a misshapen, flattened length about as long as his forearm. Another shoddy piece. He set it aside.

If you are unhappy, Hopper sent, take your she and leave. If you do not wish to lead the pack, another will. The wolf's sending came as images of running across open fields, stalks of grain brushing along his snout. An open sky, a cool breeze, a thrill and lust for adventure. The scents of new rain, of wild pastures.

Perrin reached his tongs into the coals for the final bar of iron. It burned a distant, dangerous yellow. „I can't leave.” He held the bar up toward the wolf. „It would mean giving in to being a wolf. It would mean losing myself. I won't do that.”

He held the near-molten steel between them, and Hopper watched it, yellow pinpricks of light reflecting in the wolf's eyes. This dream was so odd. In the past, Perrin's ordinary dreams and the wolf dream had been separate. What did this blending mean?

Perrin was afraid. He'd come to a precarious truce with the wolf inside of him. Growing too close to the wolves was dangerous, but that hadn't prevented him turning to them when seeking Faile. Anything for Faile. In doing so, Perrin had nearly gone mad, and had even tried to kill Hopper.

Perrin wasn't nearly as in control as he'd assumed. The wolf within him could still reign.

Hopper yawned, letting his tongue loll. He smelled of sweet amusement.

„This is not funny.” Perrin set the final bar aside without working on it. It cooled, taking on the shape of a thin rectangle, not unlike the beginnings of a hinge.

Problems are not amusing, Young Bull, Hopper agreed. But you are climbing back and forth over the same wall. Come. Let us run.

Wolves lived in the moment; though they remembered the past and seemed to have an odd sense for the future, they didn't worry about either. Not as men did. Wolves ran free, chasing the winds. To join them would be to ignore pain, sorrow and frustration. To be free...

That freedom would cost Perrin too much. He'd lose Faile, would lose his very self He didn't want to be a wolf. He wanted to be a man. „Is there a way to reverse what has happened to me?”

Reverse? Hopper cocked his head. To go backward was not a way of wolves.

„Can I...” Perrin struggled to explain. „Can I run so far that the wolves cannot hear me?”

Hopper seemed confused. No. „Confused” did not convey the pained sendings that came from Hopper. Nothingness, the scent of rotting meat, wolves howling in agony. Being cut off was not a thing Hopper could conceive.

Perrin's mind grew mzzy. Why had he stopped forging? He had to finish. Master Luhhan would be disappointed! Those lumps were terrible. He should hide them. Create something else, show he was capable. He could forge. Couldn't he?

A hissing came from beside him. Perrin turned, surprised to see that one of the quenching barrels beside the hearth was boiling. Of course, he thought. The first pieces I finished. I dropped them in there.

Suddenly anxious, Perrin grabbed his tongs and reached into the turbulent water, steam engulfing his face. He found something at the bottom and brought it out with his tongs: a chunk of white-hot metal.

The glow faded. The chunk was actually a small steel figurine in the shape of a tall, thin man with a sword tied to his back. Each line on the figure was detailed, the ruffles of the shirt, the leather bands on the hilt of the tiny sword. But the face was distorted, the mouth open in a twisted scream.

Aram, Perrin thought. His name was Aram.

Perrin couldn't show this to Master Luhhan! Why had he created such a thing?

The figurine's mouth opened farther, screaming soundlessly. Perrin cried out, dropping it from the tongs and jumping back. The figurine fell to the wood floor and shattered.

Why do you think so much about that one? Hopper yawned a wide-jawed wolf yawn, tongue curling. It is common that a young pup challenges the pack leader. He was foolish, and you defeated him.

„No,” Perrin whispered. „It is not common for humans. Not for friends.”

The wall of the forge suddenly melted away, becoming smoke. It felt natural for that to happen. Outside, Perrin saw an open, daylit street. A city with broken-windowed shops.

„Maiden,” Perrin said.

A smoky, translucent image of himself stood outside. The image wore no coat; his bare arms bulged with muscles. He kept his beard short, but it made him look older, more intense. Did Perrin really look that imposing? A squat fortress of a man with golden eyes that seemed to glow, carrying a gleaming half-moon axe as large as a man's head.

There was something wrong about that axe. Perrin stepped out of the smithy, passing through the shadowy version of himself. When he did, he became that image, axe heavy in his hand, work clothes vanishing and battle gear replacing it.

He took off running. Yes, this was Maiden. There were Aiel in the streets. He'd lived this battle, though he was much calmer this time. Before, he'd been lost in the thrill of fighting and of seeking Faile. He stopped in the street. „This is wrong. I carried my hammer into Maiden. I threw the axe away.”

A horn or a hoof, Young Bull, does it matter which one you use to hunt? Hopper was sitting in the sunlit street beside him.

„Yes. It matters. It does to me.”

And yet you use them the same way.

A pair of Shaido Aiel appeared around a corner. They were watching something to the left, something Perrin couldn't see. He ran to attack them.

He sheared through the chin of one, then swung the spike on the axe into the chest of the other. It was a brutal, terrible attack, and all three of them ended on the ground. It took several stabs from the spike to kill the second Shaido.

Perrin stood up. He did remember killing those two Aiel, though he had done it with hammer and knife. He didn't regret their deaths. Sometimes a man needed to fight, and that was that. Death was terrible, but that didn't stop it from being necessary. In fact, it had been wonderful to clash with the Aiel. He'd felt like a wolf on the hunt.

When Perrin fought, he came close to becoming someone else. And that was dangerous.

He looked accusingly at Hopper, who lounged on a street corner. „Why are you making me dream this?”

Making you? Hopper asked. This is not my dream, Young Bull. Do you see my jaws on your neck, forcing you to think it?

Perrin's axe streamed with blood. He knew what was coming next. He turned. From behind, Aram approached, murder in his eyes. Half of the former Tinker's face was coated in blood, and it dripped from his chin, staining his red-striped coat.

Aram swung his sword for Perrin's neck, the steel hissing in the air. Perrin stepped back. He refused to fight the boy again.

The shadowy version of himself split off, leaving the real Perrin in his blacksmith's clothing. The shadow exchanged blows with Aram. The Prophet explained it to me... You're really Shadowspawn.... 1 have to rescue the Lady Faile from you....

The shadowy Perrin changed, suddenly, into a wolf. It leaped, fur nearly as dark as that of a Shadowbrother, and ripped out Aram's throat.

„No! It didn't happen like that!”

It is a dream, Hopper sent.

„But I didn't kill him,” Perrin protested. „Some Aiel shot him with arrows right before....”

Right before Aram would have killed Perrin.

The horn, the hoof, or the tooth, Hopper sent, turning and ambling toward a building. Its wall vanished, revealing Master Luhhan's smithy inside. Does it matter? The dead are dead. Two-legs do not come here, not usually, once they die. I do not know where it is that they go.

Perrin looked down at Aram's body. „I should have taken that fool sword from him the moment he picked it up. I should have sent him back to his family.”

Does not a cub deserve his fangs? Hopper asked, genuinely confused. Why would you pull them?

„It is a thing of men,” Perrin said.

Things of two-legs, of men. Always, it is a thing of men to you. What of things of wolves?

„I am not a wolf.”

Hopper entered the forge, and Perrin reluctantly followed. The barrel was still boiling. The wall returned, and Perrin was once again wearing his leather vest and apron, holding his tongs.

He stepped over and pulled out another figurine. This one was in the shape of Tod al'Caar. As it cooled, Perrin found that the face wasn't distorted like Aram's, though the lower half of the figurine was unformed, still a block of metal. The figurine continued to glow, faintly reddish, after Perrin set it down on the floor. He thrust his tongs back into the water and pulled free a figure of Jori Congar, then one of Azi al'Thone.

Perrin went to the bubbling barrel time and time again, pulling out figurine after figurine. After the way of dreams, fetching them all took both a brief second and what seemed like hours. When he finished, hundreds of figurines stood on the floor facing him. Watching. Each steel figure was lit with a tiny fire inside, as if waiting to feel the forger's hammer.

But figurines like this wouldn't be forged; they'd be cast. „What does it mean?” Perrin sat down on a stool.

Mean? Hopper opened his mouth in a wolf laugh. It means there are many little men on the floor, none of which you can eat. Your kind is too fond of rocks and what is inside of them.

The figurines seemed accusing. Around them lay the broken shards of

Aram. Those pieces seemed to be growing larger. The shattered hands began working, clawing on the ground. The shards all became little hands, climbing toward Perrin, reaching for him.

Perrin gasped, leaping to his feet. He heard laughter in the distance, ringing closer, shaking the building. Hopper jumped, slamming into him. And then...

Perrin started awake. He was back in his tent, in the field where they'd been camped for a few days now. They'd run across a bubble of evil the week before that had caused angry red, oily serpents to wiggle from the ground all through camp. Several hundred were sick from their bites; Aes Sedai Healing had been enough to keep most of them alive, but not restore them completely.

Faile slept beside Perrin, peaceful. Outside, one of his men tapped a post to count off the hour. Three taps. Still hours until dawn.

Perrin's heart pounded softly, and he raised a hand to his bare chest. He half-expected an army of tiny metal hands to crawl out from beneath his bedroll.

Eventually, he forced his eyes closed and tried to relax. This time, sleep was very elusive.

Graendal sipped at her wine, which glistened in a goblet trimmed with a web of silver around the sides. The goblet had been crafted with drops of blood caught in a ring pattern within the crystal. Frozen forever, tiny bubbles of brilliant red.

„We should be doing something,” Aran'gar said, lounging on the chaise and eyeing one of Graendal's pets with a predatory hunger as he passed. „I don't know how you stand it, staying so far from important events, like some scholar holed up in a dusty corner.”

Graendal arched an eyebrow. A scholar? In some dusty corner? Natrin's Barrow was modest compared to some palaces she had known, during the previous Age, but it was hardly a hovel. The furnishings were fine, the walls bearing an arching pattern of thick, dark hardwoods, the marble of the floor sparkling with inlaid chips of mother-of-pearl and gold.

Aran'gar was just trying to provoke her. Graendal put the irritation out of her mind. The fire burned low in the hearth, but the pair of doors— leading out onto a fortified walkway three stories in the air—were open, letting in a crisp mountain breeze. She rarely left a window or door open to the outside, but today she liked the contrast: warmth from one side, a cool breeze from the other.

Life was about feeling. Touches on your skin, both passionate and icy. Anything other than the normal, the average, the lukewarm.

„Are you listening to me?” Aran'gar asked.

„I always listen,” Graendal said, setting aside her goblet as she sat on her own chaise. She wore a golden, enveloping dress, sheer but buttoned to the neck. What marvelous fashions these Domani had, ideal for teasing while revealing.

„I loathe being so removed from things,” Aran'gar continued. „This Age is exciting. Primitive people can be so interesting.” The voluptuous, ivory-skinned woman arched her back, stretching arms toward the wall. „We're missing all of the excitement.”

„Excitement is best viewed from a distance,” Graendal said. „I would think you'd understand that.”

Aran'gar fell silent. The Great Lord had not been pleased with her for losing control of Egwene al'Vere.

„Well,” Aran'gar said, standing. „If that is your thought on it, I will seek more interesting evening sport.”

Her voice was cool; perhaps their alliance was wearing thin. In that case, it was time for reinforcement. Graendal opened herself and accepted the Great Lord's dominance of her, feeling the thrilling ecstasy of his power, his passion, his very substance. It was so much more intoxicating than the One Power, this raging torrent of fire.

It threatened to overwhelm and consume her, and despite being filled with the True Power, she could channel only a thin trickle of it. A gift to her from Moridin. No, from the Great Lord. Best not to begin associating those two in her mind. For now, Moridin was Nae'blis. For now only.

Graendal wove a ribbon of Air. Working with the True Power was similar, yet not identical, to working with the One Power. A weave of the True Power would often function in a slightly different way, or have an unanticipated side effect. And there were some weaves that could only be crafted by the True Power.

The Great Lord's essence forced the Pattern, straining it and leaving it scarred. Even something the Creator had designed to be eternal could be unraveled using the Dark One's energies. It bespoke an eternal truth— something as close to being sacred as Graendal was willing to accept. Whatever the Creator could build, the Dark One could destroy.

She snaked her ribbon of Air through the room toward Aran'gar. The other Chosen had stepped out onto the balcony; Graendal forbade the creation of gateways inside, lest they damage her pets or her furnishings. Graendal lifted the ribbon of Air up to Aran'gar's cheek and caressed it delicately.

Arangar froze. She turned, suspicious, but it took only a moment for her eyes to open wide. She wouldn't have felt the goose bumps on her arms to indicate Graendal was channeling. The True Power gave no hint, no sign. Male or female, no one could see or sense the weaves—not unless he or she had been granted the privilege of channeling the True Power.

„What?” the woman asked. „How? Moridin is—”

„Nae'blis,” Graendal said. „Yes. But once the Great Lord's favor in this regard was not confined to the Nae'blis.” She continued to caress Arangar's cheek, and the woman flushed.

Arangar, like the other Chosen, lusted for the True Power while fearing it at the same time—dangerous, pleasurable, seductive. When Graendal withdrew her line of Air, Arangar stepped back into the room and returned to her chaise, then sent one of Graendal's pets to fetch her toy Aes Sedai. Lust still burned Arangar's cheeks; likely she would use Delana to distract herself. Arangar seemed to find it amusing to force the homely Aes Sedai into subservience.

Delana arrived moments later; she always remained nearby. The Shien-aran woman was pale-haired and stout, with thick limbs. Graendal's lips turned down. Such an unpretty thing. Not like Arangar herself. She'd have made an ideal pet. Maybe someday Graendal would have the chance to make her into one.

Arangar and Delana began to exchange affections on the chaise. Arangar was insatiable, a fact Graendal had exploited on numerous occasions, the lure of the True Power being only the latest. Of course, Graendal enjoyed pleasures herself, but she made certain that people thought she was far more self-indulgent than she was. If you knew what people expected you to be, you could use those expectations. It—

Graendal froze as an alarm went off in her ears, the sound of crashing waves beating against one another. Arangar continued her pleasures; she couldn't hear the sound. The weave was very specific, placed where her servants could trip it to give her warning.

Graendal climbed to her feet, strolling around the side of the room, giving no indication of urgency. At the door, she sent a few of her pets in to help distract Arangar. Best to discover the scope of the problem before involving her.

Graendal walked down a hallway hung with golden chandeliers and ornamented with mirrors. She was halfway down a stairwell when Garumand—the captain of her palace guard—came bustling up. He was Saldaean, a distant cousin of the Queen, and wore a thick mustache on his lean, handsome face. Compulsion had made him utterly loyal, of course.

„Great Lady,” he said, panting. „A man has been captured approaching the palace. My men recognize him as a minor lord from Bandar Eban, a member of House Ramshalan.”

Graendal frowned, then waved for Garumand to follow as she made her way to one of her audience chambers—a small, windowless room decorated in crimson. She wove a ward against eavesdropping, then sent Garumand to bring the intruder.

Soon, he returned with some guards and a Domani man dressed in bright greens and blues, a beauty mark shaped like a bell on his cheek. His neat, short beard was tied with tiny bells, and they jingled as the guards shoved him forward. He brushed off his arms, glaring at the soldiers, and straightened his ruffled shirt. „Am I to understand that I have been delivered to—”

He cut off with a choking sound as Graendal wrapped him in weaves of Air and dug into his mind. He stuttered, eyes growing unfocused.

„I am Piqor Ramshalan,” he said in a monotone. „I have been sent by the Dragon Reborn to seek an alliance with the merchant family residing in this fortification. As I am smarter and more clever than al'Thor, he needs me to build alliances for him. He is particularly afraid of those living in this palace, which I find ridiculous, since it is distant and unimportant.

„Obviously, the Dragon Reborn is a weak man. I believe that by gaining his confidence, I can be chosen as the next King of Arad Doman. I wish for you to make an alliance with me, not with him, and will promise you favors once I am king. I d—”

Graendal waved a hand and he cut off in midword. She folded her arms, hairs bristling as she shivered.

The Dragon Reborn had found her.

He had sent a distraction for her.

He thought he could manipulate her.

She instantly wove a gateway to one of her most secure hiding places. Cool air wafted in from an area of the world where it was morning, not early evening. Best to be careful. Best to flee. And yet...

She hesitated. He must know pain... he must know frustration... he must know anguish. Bring these to him. You will be rewarded.

Aran'gar had fled from her place among Aes Sedai, foolishly allowing herself to be sensed channeling saidin. She still bore punishment for her failure. If Graendal left now—discarding a chance to twist al'Thor about himself—would she be similarly punished?

„What is this?” Aran'gar's voice asked outside. „Let me through, you fools. Graendal? What are you doing?”

Graendal hissed softly, then closed the gateway and composed herself. She nodded for Aran'gar to be allowed into the room. The lithe woman stepped up to the doorway, eyeing—and assessing—Ramshalan. Graendal shouldn't have sent the pets to her; the move had likely made her suspicious.

„Al'Thor has found me,” Graendal said curtly. „He sent this one to make an 'alliance' with me, but did not tell him who I was. Al'Thor likely wants me to think that this man stumbled upon me accidentally.”

Aran'gar pursed her lips. „So you'll flee? Run from the center of excitement again?”

„This, from you?”

„I was surrounded by enemies. Flight was my only option.” It sounded like a practiced line.

Words like those were a challenge. Aran'gar would serve her. Perhaps... „Does that Aes Sedai of yours know Compulsion?”

Aran'gar shrugged. „She's been trained in it. She's passably skilled.”

„Fetch her.”

Aran'gar raised an eyebrow, but nodded in deference, disappearing to run the errand herself—probably to gain time to think. Graendal sent a servant for one of her dove cages. They arrived with the bird before Aran'gar was back, and Graendal carefully wove the True Power—once again thrilling in the rush of holding it—and crafted a complex weave of Spirit. Could she remember how to do this? It had been so long.

She overlaid the weave on the bird's mind. Her vision seemed to snap. In a moment, she could see two images in front of her—the world as she saw it and a shadowed version of what the bird saw. If she focused, she could turn her attention to one or the other.

It made her mind hurt. The vision of a bird was entirely different from that of a human being: She could see a much larger field, and the colors were so vivid as to be nearly blinding, but the view was blurry, and she had trouble judging distance.

She tucked the bird's sight into the back of her head. A dove would be unobtrusive, but using one was more difficult than a raven or a rat, the Dark One's own favored eyes. The weave worked better on those than it did other animals. Though, most vermin that watched for the Dark One had to report back before he knew what they'd seen. Why that was, she was not certain—the intricacies of the True Power's special weaves never had made much sense to her. Not as much as they had to Aginor, at least.

Aran'gar returned with her Aes Sedai, who was looking increasingly timid these days. She curtsied low to Graendal, then remained in a subservient posture. Graendal carefully removed her Compulsion from Ramsha-lan, leaving him dazed and disoriented.

„What is it you wish me to do, Great One?” Delana asked, glancing at Arangar and then back at Graendal.

„Compulsion,” Graendal said. „As intricate and as complex as you can make it.”

„What do you wish it to do, Great Lady?”

„Leave him able to act like himself,” Graendal said. „But remove all memory of events here. Replace them with a memory of talking to a merchant family and securing their alliance. Add a few other random requirements on him, whatever occurs to you.”

Delana frowned, but she had learned not to question the Chosen. Graendal folded her arms and tapped one finger as she watched the Aes Sedai work. She felt increasingly nervous. Al'Thor knew where she was. Would he attack? No, he wouldn't harm women. That particular failing was an important one. It meant she had time to respond. Didn't she?

How had he managed to trace her to this palace? She had covered herself perfectly. The only minions she'd let out of her sight were under Compulsion so heavy that it would kill them to remove it. Could it be that the Aes Sedai he kept with him—Nynaeve, the woman gifted in Healing— had been able to undermine and read Graendal's weaves?

Graendal needed time, and she needed to discover what al'Thor knew. If Nynaeve al'Meara had the skill needed to read Compulsions, that was dangerous. Graendal needed to lay him a false trail, delay him—hence her requirement that Delana create a thick Compulsion with strange provisions in it.

Bring him agony. Graendal could do that.

„You next,” she said to Arangar once Delana had finished. „Something convoluted. I want al'Thor and his Aes Sedai to find the touch of a man on the mind.” That would confuse them further.

Arangar shrugged, but did as asked, laying down a thick and complex Compulsion on the unfortunate Ramshalan's mind. He was somewhat pretty. Did al'Thor assume she'd want him for one of her pets? Did he even remember enough of being Lews Therin to know that about her? Her reports on how much of his old life he remembered were contradictory, but he seemed to be recalling more and more. That was what worried her. Lews Therin could have tracked her to this palace, perhaps. She'd never expected that al'Thor would be able to do the same.

Arangar finished.

„Now,” Graendal said, releasing her weaves of Air and speaking to Ramshalan, „return and tell the Dragon Reborn of your success here.”

Ramshalan blinked, shaking his head. „I... Yes, my Lady. Yes, I believe the ties we made today will be extremely beneficial to both of us.” He smiled. Weak-minded fool. „Perhaps we should dine and drink to our success, Lady Basene? It has been a wearying trip to see you, and I—”

„Go,” Graendal said coldly.

„Very well. You will be rewarded when I am king!”

Her guards led him away, and he began whistling with a self-satisfied air. Graendal sat down and closed her eyes; several of her soldiers stepped over to guard her, their boots soft on the thick rug.

She looked through the dove's eyes, accustoming herself to its strange way of seeing. At her order, a servant picked it up and carried it to a window in the hallway outside the room. The bird hopped onto the windowsill. Graendal gave it a soft nudge to go forward; she wasn't practiced enough to take control completely. Flying was far more difficult than it looked.

The dove flapped out of the window. The sun was lowering behind the mountains, outlining them in angry red and orange, and the lake below fell into a deep, shadowy blue-black. The view was thrilling but nauseating as the dove soared up into the air and landed on one of the towers.

Ramshalan eventually walked out of the gates below. Graendal nudged the dove and it leaped off the tower, plunging toward the ground. Graendal gritted her teeth at the stomach-churning descent, the palace stoneworks becoming a blur. The dove leveled out and flapped after Ramshalan. He seemed to be grumbling to himself, though she could make out only rudimentary sounds through the dove's unfamiliar earholes.

She followed him for some time through the darkening woods. An owl would have been better, but she didn't have one captive. She chided herself for that. The dove flew from branch to branch. The forest floor was a messy tangle of underbrush and fallen pine needles. She found that distinctly unpleasant.

There was light up ahead. It was faint, but the dove's eyes could easily pick out light and shadow, motion and stillness. She nudged it to investigate, leaving Ramshalan.

The light was coming from a gateway in the middle of a clear patch, spilling forth a warm glow. There were figures standing before it. One of them was al'Thor.

Graendal felt instant panic. He was here. Looking down over the ridge, toward her. Darkness within! She hadn't known for certain if he'd be here in person, or if Ramshalan would travel through a gateway to give his report. What game was al'Thor playing? She landed her dove on a branch. Aran'gar was complaining and asking Graendal what she was seeing. She'd seen the dove, and would know what Graendal was up to.

Graendal concentrated harder. The Dragon Reborn, the man who had once been Lews Therin Telamon. He knew where she was. He had once hated her deeply; how much did he remember? Did he recall her murder of Yanet?

Al'Thors tame Aiel brought Ramshalan forward, and Nynaeve inspected him. Yes, that Nynaeve did seem to be able to read Compulsion. She knew what to look for, at least. She would have to die; al'Thor relied upon her; her death would bring him pain. And after her, al'Thors dark-haired lover.

Graendal nudged the dove down onto a lower branch. What would al'Thor do? Graendal's instincts said he wouldn't dare move, not until he unraveled her plot. He acted the same now as he had during her Age; he liked to plan, to spend time building to a crescendo of an assault.

She frowned. What was he saying? She strained, trying to make sense of the sounds. Cursed bird's earholes—the voices sounded like croaks. Cal-landor? Why was he talking about Callandor? And a box...

Something burst alight in his hand. The access key. Graendal gasped. He'd brought that with him? It was nearly as bad as balefire.

Suddenly she understood. She'd been played.

Cold, terrified, she released the dove and snapped her eyes open. She was still sitting in the small, windowless room, Aran'gar leaning beside the doorway with arms folded.

Al'Thor had sent Ramshalan in, expecting him to be captured, expecting him to have Compulsion placed on him. Ramshalan's only purpose was to give al'Thor confirmation that Graendal was in the tower.

Light! How clever he's become.

She released the True Power and embraced less-wonderful saidar. Quickly! She was so unsettled that her embrace nearly failed. She was sweating.

Go. She had to go.

She opened a new gateway. Aran'gar turned, staring through the walls in the direction of al'Thor. „So much power! What is he doing?”

Aran'gar. She and Delana had made the weaves of Compulsion.

Al'Thor must think Graendal dead. If he destroyed the place and those Compulsions remained, al'Thor would know that he'd missed and that Graendal lived.

Graendal formed two shields and slammed them into place, one for

Aran'gar, one for Delana. The women gasped. Graendal tied off the weaves and bound the two in Air.

„Graendal?” Aran'gar said, voice panicked. „What are you—”

It was coming. Graendal leaped for the gateway, rolling through it, tumbling and ripping her dress on a branch. A blinding light rose behind her. She struggled to dismiss the gateway, and caught one glimpse of the horrified Aran'gar before everything behind was consumed in beautiful, pure whiteness.

The gateway vanished, leaving Graendal in darkness.

She lay, heart beating at a terrible speed, nearly blinded by the glare. She'd made the quickest gateway she could, one that led only a short distance away. She lay in the dirty underbrush atop a ridge behind the palace.

A wave of wrongness washed over her, a warping in the air, the Pattern itself rippling. A balescream, it was called—a moment when creation itself howled in pain.

She breathed in and out, trembling. But she had to see. She had to know. She rose to her feet, left ankle twisted. She hobbled to the treeline and looked down.

Natrin's Barrow—the entire palace—was gone. Burned out of the Pattern. She couldn't see al'Thor on his distant ridge, but she knew where he was.

„You,” she growled. „You have become far more dangerous than I assumed.”

Hundreds of beautiful men and women, the finest she'd gathered, gone. Her stronghold, dozens of items of Power, her greatest ally among the Chosen. Gone. This was a disaster.

No, she thought. I live. She'd anticipated him, if only by a few moments. Now he would think she was dead.

She was suddenly the safest she'd been since escaping the Dark One's prison. Except, of course, that she'd just caused the death of one of the Chosen. The Great Lord would not be pleased.

She limped away from the ridge, already planning her next move. This would have to be handled very, very carefully.

Galad Damodred, Lord Captain Commander of the Children of the Light, yanked his booted foot free of the ankle-deep mud with a slurping sound. Bitemes buzzed in the muggy air. The stench of mud and stagnant water threatened to gag him with each breath as he led his horse to drier ground on the path. Behind him trudged a long, twisting column four men wide, each one as muddied, sweaty and weary as he was.

They were on the border of Ghealdan and Altara, in a swampy wetland where the oaks and spicewoods had given way to laurels and spidery cypress, their gnarled roots spread like spindly fingers. The stinking air was hot—despite the shade and cloud cover—and thick. It was like breathing in a foul soup. Galad steamed beneath his breastplate and mail, his conical helmet hanging from his saddle, his skin itching from the grime and salty sweat.

Miserable though it was, this route was the best way. Asunawa would not anticipate it. Galad wiped his brow with the back of his hand and tried to walk with head high for the benefit of those who followed him. Seven thousand men, Children who had chosen him rather than the Seanchan invaders.

Dull green moss hung from the branches, drooping like shreds of flesh from rotting corpses. Here and there the sickly grays and greens were relieved by a bright burst of tiny pink or violet flowers clustering around trickling streams. Their sudden color was unexpected, as if someone had sprinkled drops of paint on the ground.

It was strange to find beauty in this place. Could he find the Light in his own situation as well? He feared it would not be so easy.

He tugged Stout forward. He could hear worried conversations from behind, punctuated by the occasional curse. This place, with its stench and biting insects, would try the best of men. Those who followed Galad were unnerved by the place the world was becoming. A world where the sky was constantly clouded black, where good men died to strange twistings of the Pattern, and where Valda—the Lord Captain Commander before Galad— had turned out to be a murderer and a rapist.

Galad shook his head. The Last Battle would soon come.

A clinking of chain mail announced someone moving up the line. Galad glanced over his shoulder as Dain Bornhald arrived, saluted, and fell into place beside him. „Damodred,” Dain said softly, their boots squishing in mud, „perhaps we should turn back.”

„Backward leads only to the past,” Galad said, scanning the pathway ahead. „I have thought about this much, Child Bornhald. This sky, the wasting of the land, the way the dead walk... There is no longer time to find allies and fight against the Seanchan. We must march to the Last Battle.”

„But this swamp,” Bornhald said, glancing to the side as a large serpent slid through the underbrush. „Our maps say we should have been out of it by now.”

„Then surely we are near the edge.”

„Perhaps,” Dain said, a trail of sweat running from his brow down the side of his lean face, which twitched. Fortunately, he'd run out of brandy a few days back. „Unless the map is in error.”

Galad didn't respond. Once-good maps were proving faulty these days. Open fields would turn to broken hills, villages would vanish, pastures would be arable one day, then suddenly overgrown with vines and fungus. The swamp could indeed have spread.

„The men are exhausted,” Bornhald said. „They're good men—you know they are. But they are starting to complain.” He winced, as if anticipating a reprimand from Galad.

Perhaps once he would have given one. The Children should bear their afflictions with pride. However, memories of lessons Morgase had taught— lessons he hadn't understood in his youth—were nagging at him. Lead by example. Require strength, but first show it.

Galad nodded. They were nearing a dry clearing. „Gather the men. I will speak to those at the front. Have my words recorded, then passed to those behind.”

Bornhald looked perplexed, but did as commanded. Galad stepped off to the side, climbing up a small hill. He placed his hand on the hilt of his sword, inspecting his men as the companies at the front gathered around. They stood with slouched postures, legs muddied. Hands flailed at bitemes or scratched at collars.

„We are Children of the Light,” Galad announced, once they were gathered. „These are the darkest days of men. Days when hope is weak, days when death reigns. But it is on the deepest nights when light is most glorious. During the day, a brilliant beacon can appear weak. But when all other lights fail, it will guide!

„We are that beacon. This mire is an affliction. But we are the Children of the Light, and our afflictions are our strength. We are hunted by those who should love us, and other pathways lead to our graves. And so we will go forward. For those we must protect, for the Last Battle, for the Light!

„Where is the victory of this swamp? I refuse to feel its bite, for I am proud. Proud to live in these days, proud to be part of what is to come. All the lives that came before us in this Age looked forward to our day, the day when men will be tested. Let others bemoan their fate. Let others cry and wail. We will not, for we will face this test with heads held high. And we will let it prove us strong!”

Not a long speech; he did not wish to extend their time in the swamp overly much. Still, it seemed to do its duty. The men's backs straightened, and they nodded. Men who had been chosen to do so wrote down the words, and moved back to read them to those who had not been able to hear.

When the troop continued forward, the men's footsteps no longer dragged, their postures were no longer slumped. Galad remained on his hillside, taking a few reports, letting the men see him as they passed.

When the last of the seven thousand had gone by, Galad noted a small group waiting at the base of the hill. Child Jaret Byar stood with them, looking up at Galad, sunken eyes alight with zeal. He was gaunt, with a narrow face.

„Child Byar,” Galad said, walking down from the hillside.

„It was a good speech, my Lord Captain Commander,” Byar said fervently. „The Last Battle. Yes, it is time to go to it.”

„It is our burden,” Galad said. „And our duty.”

„We will ride northward,” Byar said. „Men will come to us, and we will grow. An enormous force of the Children, tens of thousands. Hundreds of thousands. We will wash over the land. Maybe we will have enough men to cast down the White Tower and the witches, rather than needing to ally with them.”

Galad shook his head. „We will need the Aes Sedai, Child Byar. The Shadow will have Dreadlords, Myrddraal, Forsaken”

„Yes, I suppose.” Byar seemed reluctant. Well, he'd seemed reluctant about the idea before, but he had agreed to it.

„Our road is difficult, Child Byar, but the Children of the Light will be leaders at the Last Battle.”

Valda's misdeeds had tarnished the entire order. More than that, Galad was increasingly convinced that Asunawa had played a large role in the mistreatment and death of his stepmother. That meant the High Inquisitor himself was corrupt.

Doing what was right was the most important thing in life. It required any sacrifice. At this time, the right thing to do was flee. Galad could not face Asunawa; the High Inquisitor was backed by the Seanchan. Besides, the Last Battle was more important.

Galad stepped swiftly, walking through the muck back toward the front of the line of Children. They traveled light, with few pack animals, and his men wore their armor—their mounts were laden with food and supplies.

At the front, Galad found Trom speaking with a few men who wore leathers and brown cloaks, not white tabards and steel caps. Their scouts. Trom nodded to him in respect; the Lord Captain was one of Galad's most trusted men. „Scouts say there's a small issue ahead, my Lord Captain Commander,” Trom said.

„What issue?”

„It would be best to show it to you directly, sir,” said Child Barlett, the leader of the scouts.

Galad nodded him forward. Ahead, the swampy forest seemed to be thinning. Thank the Light—did that mean they were nearly free?

No. As Galad arrived, he found several other scouts looking out at a dead forest. Most trees in the swamp bore leaves, though sickly ones, but those ahead were skeletal and ashen, as if burned. There was some kind of sickly white lichen or moss growing over everything. The tree trunks looked emaciated.

Water flooded this area, a wide but shallow river with a very slow current. It had swallowed the bases of many of the trees, and fallen tree limbs broke the dirty brown water like arms reaching toward the sky.

„There are corpses, my Lord Captain Commander,” one of the scouts said, gesturing upriver. „Floating down. Looks like the remnants of a distant battle.”

„Is this river on our maps?” Galad asked.

One by one, the scouts shook their heads.

Galad set his jaw. „Can this be forded?”

„It's shallow, my Lord Captain Commander,” Child Barlett said. „But we'll have to watch for hidden depths.”

Galad reached out to a tree beside him and broke free a long branch, the wood snapping loudly. „I will go first. Have the men remove their armor and cloaks.”

The orders went down the line, and Galad took off his armor and wrapped it in his cloak, then tied it to his back. He hiked up his trousers as far as he could, then stepped down the gentle bank and plowed forward into the murky water. The sharply cold spring runoff made him tense. His boots sank inches into the sandy bottom, filling with water, stirring up swirls of mud. Stout made a louder splash as he stepped into the water behind.

It wasn't too difficult to walk in; the water only came up to his knees. He used his stick to find the best footing. Those skeletal, dying trees were unnerving. They didn't seem to be rotting, and now that he was closer, he could better see the ash-gray fuzz among the lichen that coated their trunks and branches.

The Children behind splashed loudly as more and more of them entered the wide stream. Nearby, bulbous forms floated down the river to catch upon rocks. Some were the corpses of men, but many were larger. Mules, he realized, catching a better look at a snout. Dozens of them. They'd been dead for some time, judging by the bloat.

Likely a village upstream had been attacked for its food. This wasn't the first group of dead they'd found.

He reached the other side of the river, then climbed out. As he unrolled his trouser legs and donned his armor and cloak, he felt his shoulder aching from the blows Valda had given him. His thigh still stung, too.

He turned and continued down the game trail northward, leading the way as other Children reached the bank. He longed to ride Stout, but he dared not. Though they were out of the river, the ground was still damp, uneven, and pocked with hidden sinkholes. If he rode, he could easily cost Stout a broken leg and himself a broken crown.

So he and his men walked, surrounded by those gray trees, sweating in the miserable heat. He longed for a good bath.

Eventually, Trom jogged up the line to him. „All men are across safely.” He checked the sky. „Burn those clouds. I can never tell what time it is.”

„Four hours past midday,” Galad said.

„You're certain?”

„Yes.”

„Weren't we to stop at midday to discuss our next step?” That meeting was to have taken place once they got through the swamp.

„For now, we have few choices,” Galad said. „I will lead the men northward to Andor.”

„The Children have met... hostility there.”

„I have some secluded land up in the northwest. I will not be turned away there, regardless of who controls the throne.”

Light send that Elayne held the Lion Throne. Light send that she had escaped the tangles of the Aes Sedai, though he feared the worst. There were many who would use her as a pawn, al'Thor not the least of them. She was headstrong, and that could make her easy to manipulate.

„We'll need supplies,” Trom said. „Forage is difficult, and more and more villages are empty.”

Galad nodded. A legitimate concern.

„It's a good plan, though,” Trom said, then lowered his voice. „I'll admit, Damodred, I worried that you'd refuse leadership.”

„I could not. To abandon the Children now, after killing their leader, would be wrong.”

Trom smiled. „It's as simple as that to you, isn't it?”

„It should be as simple as that to anyone.” Galad had to rise to the station he had been given. He had no other option. „The Last Battle comes and the Children of the Light will fight. Even if we have to make alliances with the Dragon Reborn himself, we will fight.”

For some time, Galad hadn't been certain about al'Thor. Certainly the Dragon Reborn would have to fight at the Last Battle. But was that man al'Thor, or was he a puppet of the Tower, and not the true Dragon Reborn? That sky was too dark, the land too broken. Al'Thor must be the Dragon Reborn. That didn't mean, of course, that he wasn't also a puppet of the Aes Sedai.

Soon they passed beyond the skeletal gray trees, reaching ones that were more ordinary. These still had yellowed leaves, too many dead branches. But that was better than the fuzz.

About an hour later, Galad noted Child Barlett returning. The scout was a lean man, scarred on one cheek. Galad held up a hand as the man approached. „What word?”

Barlett saluted with arm to chest. „The swamp dries out and the trees thin in about one mile, my Lord Captain Commander. The field beyond is open and empty, the way clear to the north.”

Light be thanked! Galad thought. He nodded to Barlett, and the man hurried back through the trees.

Galad glanced back at the line of men. They were muddied, sweaty, and fatigued. But still, they were a grand sight, their armor replaced, their faces determined. They had followed him through this pit of a swamp. They were good men.

„Pass the word to the other Lords Captain, Trom,” Galad said. „Have them send word to their legions. We'll be out of this in under an hour.”

The older man smiled, looking as relieved as Galad felt. Galad continued onward, jaw set against the pain of his leg. The cut was well bound, and there was little danger of further damage. It was painful, but pain could be dealt with.

Finally free of this bog! He would need to plot their next course carefully, staying away from any towns, major roads, or estates held by influential lords. He ran through the maps in his head—maps memorized before his tenth nameday.

He was thus engaged when the yellow canopy thinned, clouded sunlight peeking between branches. Soon he caught sight of Barlett waiting at the edge of the line of trees. The forest ended abruptly, almost as neat as a line on a map.

Galad sighed in relief, relishing the thought of being out in the open again. He stepped from the trees. Only then did an enormous force of troops begin to appear, climbing over a rise directly to his right.

Armor clanged, horses whinnying, as thousands of soldiers lined up atop the rise. Some were Children in their plate and mail, with conical helms shined to perfection. Their pristine tabards and cloaks shone, sunbursts glittering at the breasts, lances raised in ranks. The larger number were foot soldiers, not wearing the white of the Children, but instead simple brown leathers. Amadicians, likely provided by the Seanchan. Many had bows.

Galad stumbled back, hand going to his sword. But he knew, immediately, that he had been trapped. Not a few of the Children wore clothing adorned with the crook of the Hand of the Light—the Questioners. If ordinary Children were a flame to burn away evil, the Questioners were a raging bonfire.

Galad did a quick count. Three to four thousand Children and at least another six to eight thousand foot, half of those with bows. Ten thousand fresh troops. His heart sank.

Trom, Bornhald and Byar hastened out of the forest behind Galad along with a group of other Children. Trom cursed softly.

„So,” Galad said, turning to the scout, Barlett, „you are a traitor?”

„You are the traitor, Child Damodred,” the scout replied, face hard.

„Yes,” Galad said, „I suppose it could be perceived that way.” This march through the swamp had been suggested by his scouts. Galad could see now; it had been a delaying tactic, a way for Asunawa to get ahead of Galad. The march had also left Galad's men tired while Asunawa's force was fresh and ready for battle.

A sword scraped in its sheath.

Galad immediately raised a hand without turning. „Peace, Child Byar.” Byar would have been the one to reach for his weapon, probably to strike down Barlett.

Perhaps something of this could be salvaged. Galad made his decision swiftly. „Child Byar and Child Bornhald, you are with me. Trom, you and the other Lords Captain bring our men out in ranks onto the field.”

A large cluster of men near the front of Asunawa's force was riding forward, down the hillside. Many wore the crook of the Questioners. They could have sprung their ambush and killed Galad's group quickly. Instead, they sent down a group to parley. That was a good sign.

Galad mounted, suppressing a wince for his wounded leg. Byar and Bornhald mounted as well, and they followed him onto the field, hoofbeats muffled by the thick, yellowed grass. Asunawa himself was among the group approaching. He had thick, graying eyebrows and was so thin as to appear a doll made of sticks, with fabric stretched across them to imitate skin.

Asunawa was not smiling. He rarely did.

Galad pulled his horse up before the High Inquisitor. Asunawa was surrounded by a small guard of his Questioners, but was also accompanied by five Lords Captain, each of whom Galad had met with—or served under—during his short time in the Children.

Asunawa leaned forward in his saddle, sunken eyes narrowing. „Your rebels form ranks. Tell them to stand down or my archers will loose.”

„Surely you would not ignore the rules of formal engagement?” Galad said. „You would draw arrows upon men as they form ranks? Where is your honor?”

„Darkfriends deserve no honor,” Asunawa snapped. „Nor do they deserve pity.”

„You name us Darkfriends then?” Galad asked, turning his mount slightly. „AH seven thousand Children who were under Valda's command? Men your soldiers have served with, eaten with, known and fought beside? Men you yourself watched over not two months ago?”

Asunawa hesitated. Naming seven thousand of the Children as Darkfriends would be ridiculous—it would mean that two out of three remaining Children had gone to the Shadow.

„No,” Asunawa said. „Perhaps they are simply... misguided. Even a good man can stray down shadowed paths if his leaders are Darkfriends.”

„I am no Darkfriend.” Galad met Asunawa's eyes.

„Submit to my questioning and prove it.”

„The Lord Captain Commander submits himself to no one,” Galad said. „Under the Light, I order you to stand down.”

Asunawa laughed. „Child, we hold a knife to your throat! This is your chance to surrender!”

„Golever,” Galad said, looking at the Lord Captain at Asunawa's left. Golever was a lanky, bearded man, as hard as they came—but he was also fair. „Tell me, do the Children of the Light surrender?”

Golever shook his head. „We do not. The Light will prove us victorious.”

„And if we face superior odds?” Galad asked.

„We fight on.”

„If we are tired and sore?”

„The Light will protect us,” Golever said. „And if it is our time to die, then so be it. Let us take as many enemies with us as we may.”

Galad turned back to Asunawa. „You see that I am in a predicament. To fight is to let you name us Darkfriends, but to surrender is to deny our oaths. By my honor as the Lord Captain Commander, I can accept neither option.”

Asunawa's expression darkened. „You are not the Lord Captain Commander. He is dead.”

„By my hand,” Galad said, unsheathing his weapon, holding it forward so that the herons gleamed in the light. „And I hold his sword. Do you deny that you yourself watched me face Valda in fair combat, as prescribed by law?”

„As by the law, perhaps,” Asunawa said. „But I would not call that fight fair. You drew on the powers of Shadow; I saw you standing in darkness despite the daylight, and I saw the Dragon's Fang sprout on your forehead. Valda never had a chance.”

„Harnesh,” Galad said, turning to the Lord Captain to the right of Asunawa. He was a short man, bald, missing one ear from fighting Drag-onsworn. „Tell me. Is the Shadow stronger than the Light?”

„Of course not,” the man said, spitting to the side.

„If the Lord Captain Commander's cause had been honorable, would he have fallen to me in a battle under the Light? If I were a Darkfriend, could I have slain the Lord Captain Commander himself?”

Harnesh didn't answer, but Galad could almost see the thoughts in his head. The Shadow might display strength at times, but the Light always revealed and destroyed it. It was possible for the Lord Captain Commander to fall to a Darkfriend—it was possible for any man to fall. But in a duel before the other Children? A duel for honor, under the Light?

„Sometimes the Shadow displays cunning and strength,” Asunawa cut in before Galad could continue to question. „At times, good men die.”

„You all know what Valda did,” Galad said. „My mother is dead. Is there an argument against my right to challenge him?”

„You have no rights as a Darkfriend! I will parley no more with you, murderer.” Asunawa waved a hand, and several of his Questioners drew swords. Immediately, Galad's companions did the same. Behind, he could hear his weary forces hastily closing their ranks.

„What will happen to us, Asunawa, if Child fights Child?” Galad asked softly. „I will not surrender, and I would not attack you, but perhaps we can reunite. Not as enemies, but as brothers separated for a time.”

„I will never associate with Darkfriends,” Asunawa said, though he sounded hesitant. He watched Galad's men. Asunawa would win a battle, but if Galad's men stood their ground, it would be a costly victory. Both sides would lose thousands.

„I will submit to you,” Galad said. „On certain terms.”

„No!” Bornhald said from behind, but Galad raised a hand, silencing him.

„What terms would those be?” Asunawa asked.

„You swear—before the Light and the Lords Captain here with you—that you will not harm, question, or otherwise condemn the men who followed me. They were only doing what they thought was right.”

Asunawa's eyes narrowed, his lips forming a straight line.

„That includes my companions here,” Galad said, nodding to Byar and Bornhald. „Every man, Asunawa. They must never know questioning.”

„You cannot hinder the Hand of the Light in such a way! This would give them free rein to seek the Shadow!”

„And is it only fear of Questioning that keeps us in the Light, Asunawa?” Galad asked. „Are not the Children valiant and true?”

Asunawa fell silent. Galad closed his eyes, feeling the weight of leadership. Each moment he stalled increased the bargaining position for his men. He opened his eyes. „The Last Battle comes, Asunawa. We haven't time for squabbling. The Dragon Reborn walks the land.”

„Heresy!” Asunawa said.

„Yes,” Galad said. „And truth as well.”

Asunawa ground his teeth, but seemed to be considering the offer.

„Galad,” Bornhald said softly. „Don't do this. We can fight. The Light will protect us!”

„If we fight, we will kill good men, Child Bornhald,” Galad said, without turning. „Each stroke of our swords will be a blow for the Dark One. The Children are the only true foundation that this world has left. We are needed. If my life is what is demanded to bring unity, then so be it. You would do the same, I believe.” He met Asunawa's eyes.

„Take him,” Asunawa snapped, looking dissatisfied. „And tell the legions to stand down. Inform them that I have taken the false Lord Captain Commander into custody, and will Question him to determine the extent of his crimes.” He hesitated. „But also pass the word that those who followed him are not to be punished or Questioned.” Asunawa spun his horse and rode away.

Galad turned his sword and handed it out to Bornhald. „Return to our men; tell them what happened here, and do not let them fight or try to rescue me. That is an order.”

Bornhald met his eyes, then slowly took the sword. At last, he saluted. „Yes, my Lord Captain Commander.”

As soon as they turned to ride away, rough hands grabbed Galad and pulled him from Stout's saddle. He hit the ground with a grunt, his bad shoulder throwing a spike of agony across his chest. He tried to climb to his feet, but several Questioners dismounted and knocked him down again.

One forced Galad to the ground, a boot on his back, and Galad heard the metallic rasp of a knife being unsheathed. They cut his armor and clothing free.

„You will not wear the uniform of a Child of the Light, Darkfriend,” a Questioner said in his ear.

„I am not a Darkfriend,” Galad said, face pressed to the grassy earth. „I will never speak that lie. I walk in the Light.”

That earned him a kick to the side, then another, and another. He curled up, grunting. But the blows continued to fall.

Finally, the darkness took him.

The creature that had once been Padan Fain walked down the side of a hill. The brown weeds grew in broken patches, like the scrub on the chin of a beggar.

The sky was black. A tempest. He liked that, though he hated the one who caused it.

Hatred. It was the proof that he still lived, the one emotion left. The only emotion. It was all that there could be.

Consuming. Thrilling. Beautiful. Warming. Violent. Hatred. Wonderful. It was the storm that gave him strength, the purpose that drove him. Al'Thor would die. By his hand. And perhaps after that, the Dark One. Wonderful...

The creature that had been Padan Fain fingered his beautiful dagg'er, feeling the ridges of the designs in the fine golden wire that wrapped its hilt. A large ruby capped the end of its hilt, and he carried the weapon unsheathed in his right hand so that the blade extended between his first two fingers. The sides of those fingers had been cut a dozen times over.

Blood dripped from the tip of the dagger down onto the weeds. Crimson spots to cheer him. Red below, black above. Perfect. Did his hatred cause that storm? It must be so. Yes.

The drops of blood fell alongside spots of darkness that appeared on dead leaves and stems as he moved farther north into the Blight.

He was mad. That was good. When you accepted madness into yourself— embraced it and drank it in as if it were sunlight or water or the air itself—it became another part of you. Like a hand or an eye. You could see by madness. You could hold things with madness. It was wonderful. Liberating.

He was finally free.

The creature that had been Mordeth reached the bottom of the hill and did not look back at the large, purplish mass that he'd left atop it. Worms were very messy to kill the right way, but some things needed to be done the right way. It was the principle of the thing.

Mist had begun to trail him, creeping up from the ground. Was that mist his madness, or was it his hatred? It was so familiar. It twisted around his ankles and licked at his heels.

Something peeked around a hillside nearby, then ducked back. Worms died loudly. Worms did everything loudly. A pack of Worms could destroy an entire legion. When you heard them, you went the other way, quickly. But then, it could be advantageous to send scouts to go judge the direction of the pack, lest you continue on and run across it again elsewhere.

So the creature that had been Padan Fain was not surprised when he rounded the hillside and found a nervous group of Trollocs there, a Myrddraal guiding them.

He smiled. My friends. It had been too long.

It took a moment for their brutish brains to come to the obvious— but false—conclusion: If a man was wandering around, then Worms couldn't be near. Those would have srnelled his blood and come for him. Worms preferred humans over Trollocs. That made sense. The creature that had been Mordeth had tasted both, and Trolloc flesh had little to recommend it.

The Trollocs tore forward in a mismatched pack, feathers, beaks, claws, teeth, tusks. The creature that had been Fain stood still, mist licking his unshod feet. How wonderful! At the very back of the group, the Myrddraal hesitated, its eyeless gaze fixed on him. Perhaps it sensed that something was terribly, terribly wrong. And right, of course. You couldn't be one without the other. That wouldn't make sense.

The creature that had been Mordeth—he would need a new name soon—smiled deeply.

The Myrddraal turned to run away.

The mist struck.

It rolled over the Trollocs, moving quickly, like the tentacles of a leviathan in the Aryth Ocean. Lengths of it snapped forward through Trolloc chests. One long rope whipped above their heads, then shot forward in a blur, taking the Fade in the neck.

The Trollocs screamed, dropping, spasming. Their hair fell out in patches, and their skin began to boil. Blisters and cysts. When those popped, they left craterlike pocks in the Shadowspawn skin, like bubbles on the surface of metal that cooled too quickly.

The creature that had been Padan Fain opened his mouth in glee, closing his eyes to the tumultuous black sky and raising his face, lips parted, enjoying his feast. After it passed, he sighed, holding his dagger tighter— cutting his flesh.

Red below, black above. Red and black, red and black, so much red and black. Wonderful.

He walked on through the Blight.

The corrupted Trollocs climbed to their feet behind him, lurching into motion, spittle dropping from their lips. Their eyes had grown sluggish and dull, but when he desired it, they would respond with a frenzied battle lust that would surpass what they had known in life.

He left the Myrddraal. It would not rise, as rumors said they did. His touch now brought instant death to one of its kind. Pity. He had a few nails he might have otherwise put to good use.

Perhaps he should get some gloves. But if he did, he couldn't cut his hand. What a problem.

No matter. Onward. The time had come to kill al'Thor.

It saddened him that the hunt must end. But there was no longer a reason for a hunt. You didn't hunt something when you knew exactly where it was going to be. You merely showed up to meet it.

Like an old friend. A dear, beloved old friend that you were going to stab through the eye, open up at the gut and consume by handfuls while drinking his blood. That was the proper way to treat friends.

It was an honor.

Malenarin Rai shuffled through supply reports. That blasted shutter on the window behind his desk snapped and blew open again, letting in the damp heat of the Blight.

Despite ten years serving as commander of Heeth Tower, he hadn't grown accustomed to the heat in the highlands. Damp. Muggy, the air often full of rotting scents.

The whistling wind rattled the wooden shutter. He rose, walking over to pull it shut, then twisted a bit of twine around its handle to keep it closed.

He walked back to his desk, looking over the roster of newly arrived soldiers. Each name had a specialty beside it—up here, every soldier had to fill two or more duties. Skill at binding wounds. Swift feet for running messages. A keen eye with a bow. The ability to make the same old mush taste like new mush. Malenarin always asked specifically for men in the last group. Any cook who could make soldiers eager to come to mess was worth his weight in gold.

Malenarin set aside his current report, weighing it down with the lead-filled Trolloc horn he kept for the purpose. The next sheet in his stack was a letter from a man named Barriga, a merchant who was bringing his caravan to the tower to trade. Malenarin smiled; he was a soldier first, but he wore the three silver chains across his chest that marked him as a master merchant. While his tower received many of its supplies directly from the Queen, no Kandori commander was denied the opportunity to barter with merchants.

If he was lucky, he'd be able to get this outlander merchant drunk at the bargaining table. Malenarin had forced more than one merchant into a year of military service as penance for entering bargains he could not keep. A year of training with the Queen's forces often did plump foreign merchants a great deal of good.

He set that sheet beneath the Trolloc horn, then hesitated as he saw the last item for his attention at the bottom of the stack. It was a reminder from his steward. Keemlin, his eldest son, was approaching his fourteenth nameday. As if Malenarin could forget about that! He needed no reminder.

He smiled, setting the Trolloc horn on the note, in case that shutter broke open again. He'd slain the Trolloc who had borne that horn himself. Then he walked over to the side of his office and opened his battered oak trunk. Among the other effects inside was a cloth-wrapped sword, the brown scabbard kept well oiled and maintained, but faded with time. His father's sword.

In three days, he would give it to Keemlin. A boy became a man on his fourteenth nameday, the day he was given his first sword and became responsible for himself. Keemlin had worked hard to learn his forms under the harshest trainers Malenarin could provide. Soon his son would become a man. How quickly the years passed.

Taking a proud breath, Malenarin closed the trunk, then rose and left his office for his daily rounds. The tower housed two hundred and fifty soldiers, a bastion of defense that watched the Blight.

To have a duty was to have pride—just as to bear a burden was to gain strength. Watching the Blight was his duty and his strength, and it was particularly important these days, with the strange storm to the north, and with the Queen and much of the Kandori army having marched to seek the Dragon Reborn. He pulled the door to his office closed, then threw the hidden latch that barred it on the other side. It was one of several such doors in the hallway; an enemy storming the tower wouldn't know which one opened onto the stairwell upward. In this way, a small office could function as part of the tower defense.

He walked to the stairwell. These top levels were not accessible from the ground level—the entire bottom forty feet of the tower was a trap. An enemy who entered at the ground floor and climbed up three flights of garrison quarters would discover no way up to the fourth floor. The only way to go to the fourth level was to climb a narrow, collapsible ramp on the outside of the tower that led from the second level up to the fourth. Running on it left attackers fully exposed to arrows from above. Then, once some of them were up but others not, the Kandori would collapse the ramp, dividing the enemy force and leaving those above to be killed as they tried to find the interior stairwells.

Malenarin climbed at a brisk pace. Periodic slits to the sides of the steps looked down on the stairs beneath, and would allow archers to fire on invaders. When he was about halfway to the top, he heard hasty footfalls coming down. A second later, Jargen—sergeant of the watch—rounded the bend. Like most Kandori, Jargen wore a forked beard; his black hair was dusted with gray.

Jargen had joined the Blightwatch the day after his fourteenth name-day. He wore a cord looped around the shoulder of his brown uniform; it bore a knot for each Trolloc he'd killed. There had to be approaching fifty knots in the thing by now.

Jargen saluted with arm to breast, then lowered his hand to rest on his sword, a sign of respect for his commander. In many countries, holding the weapon like that would be an insult, but Southerners were known to be peevish and ill-tempered. Couldn't they see that it was an honor to hold your sword and imply you found your commander a worthy threat?

„My Lord,” Jargen said, voice gruff. „A flash from Rena Tower.”

„What?” Malenarin asked. The two fell into step, trotting up the stairwell.

„It was distinct, sir,” Jargen said. „Saw it myself, I did. Only a flash, but it was there.”

„Did they send a correction?”

„They may have by now. I ran to fetch you first.”

If there had been more news, Jargen would have shared it, so Malenarin did not waste breath pressing him. Shortly, they stepped up onto the top of the tower, which held an enormous mechanism of mirrors and lamps. With the apparatus, the tower could send messages to the east or west—where other towers lined the Blight—or southward, along a line of towers that ran to the Aesdaishar Palace in Chachin.

The vast, undulating Kandori highlands spread out from his tower. Some of the southern hills were still lightly laced with morning fog. That land to the south, free of this unnatural heat, would soon grow green, and Kandori herdsmen would climb to the high pastures to graze their sheep.

Northward lay the Blight. Malenarin had read of days when the Blight

had barely been visible from this tower. Now it ran nearly to the base of the stonework. Rena Tower was northwest as well. Its commander—Lord Niach of House Okatomo—was a distant cousin and a good friend. He would not have sent a flash without reason, and would send a retraction if it had been an accident.

„Any further word?” Malenarin asked.

The soldiers on watch shook their heads. Jargen tapped his foot, and Malenarin folded his arms to wait for a correction.

Nothing came. Rena Tower stood within the Blight these days, as it was farther north than Heeth Tower. Its position within the Blight was normally not an issue. Even the most fearsome creatures of the Blight knew not to attack a Kandori tower.

No correction came. Not a glimmer. „Send a message to Rena,” Malenarin said. 'Ask if their flash was a mistake. Then ask Farmay Tower if they have noticed anything strange.”

Jargen set the men to work, but gave Malenarin a flat glance, as if to ask, „You think I haven't done that already?”

That meant messages had been sent, but there was no word back. Wind blew across the tower top, creaking the steel of the mirror apparatus as his men sent another series of flashes. That wind was humid. Far too hot. Malenarin glanced upward, toward where that same black storm boiled and rolled. It seemed to have settled down.

That struck him as very discomforting.

„Flash a message backward,” Malenarin said, „toward the inland towers. Tell them what we saw; tell them to be ready in case of trouble.”

The men set to work.

„Sergeant,” Malenarin said, „who is next on the messenger roster?”

The tower force included a small group of boys who were excellent riders. Lightweight, they could go on fast horses should a commander decide to bypass the mirrors. Mirror light was fast, but it could be seen by one's enemies. Besides, if the line of towers was broken—or if the apparatus was damaged—they would need a means to get word to the capital.

„Next on the roster...” Jargen said, checking a list nailed to the inside of the door onto the rooftop. „It would be Keemlin, my Lord.”

Keemlin. His Keemlin.

Malenarin glanced to the northwest, toward the silent tower that had flashed so ominously. „Bring me word if there is a hint of response from the other towers,” Malenarin said to the soldiers. „Jargen, come with me.”

The two of them hurried down the stairs. „We need to send a messenger southward,” Malenarin said, then hesitated. „No. No, we need to send several messengers. Double up. Just in case the towers fall.” He began moving again.

The two of them left the stairwell and entered Malenarin's office. He grabbed his best quill off the rack on his wall. That blasted shutter was blowing and rattling again; the papers on his desk rustled as he pulled out a fresh sheet of paper.

Rena and Farmay not responding to flash messages. Possibly overrun or severely hampered. Be advised. Heeth will stand.

He folded the paper, holding it up to Jargen. The man took it with a leathery hand, read it over, then grunted. „Two copies, then?”

„Three,” Malenarin said. „Mobilize the archers and send them to the roof. Tell them danger may come from above.”

If he wasn't merely jumping at shadows—if the towers to either side of Heeth had fallen so quickly—then so could those to the south. And if he'd been the one making an assault, he'd have done anything he could to sneak around and take out one of the southern towers first. That was the best way to make sure no messages got back to the capital.

Jargen saluted, fist to chest, then withdrew. The message would be sent immediately: three times on legs of horseflesh, once on legs of light. Malenarin let himself feel a hint of relief that his son was one of those riding to safety. There was no dishonor in that; the messages needed to be delivered, and Keemlin was next on the roster.

Malenarin glanced out his window. It faced north, toward the Blight. Every commander's office did that. The bubbling storm, with its silvery clouds. Sometimes they looked like straight geometric shapes. He had listened well to passing merchants. Troubled times were coming. The Queen would not have gone south to seek a false Dragon, no matter how cunning or influential he might be. She believed.

It was time for Tarmon Gai'don. And looking out into that storm, Malenarin thought he could see to the very edge of time itself. An edge that was not far distant. In fact, it seemed to be growing darker. And there was a darkness beneath it, on the ground northward.

That darkness was advancing.

Malenarin dashed out of the room, racing up the steps to the roof, where the wind swept against men pushing and moving mirrors.

„Was the message sent to the south?” he demanded.

„Yes, sir,” Lieutenant Landalin said. He'd been roused to take command of the tower's top. „No reply yet.”

Malenarin glanced down, and picked out three riders breaking away from the tower at full speed. The messengers were off. They would stop at Barklan if it wasn't being attacked. The captain there would send them on southward, just in case. And if Barklan didn't stand, the boys would continue on, all the way to the capital if needed.

Malenarin turned back to the storm. That advancing darkness had him on edge. It was coming.

„Raise the hoardings,” he ordered Landalin. „Bring up the store hitch-ings and empty the cellars. Have the loaders gather all of the arrows and set up stations for resupplying the archers, and put archers at every choke point, kill slit and window. Start the firepots and have men ready to drop the outer ramps. Prepare for a siege.”

As Landalin barked orders, men rushed away. Malenarin heard boots scrape stone behind him, and he glanced over his shoulder. Was that Jar-gen back again?

No. It was a youth of nearly fourteen summers, too young for a beard, his dark hair disheveled, his face streaming with sweat caused— presumably—by a run up seven levels of the tower.

Keemlin. Malenarin felt a stab of fear, instantly replaced with anger. „Soldier! You were to ride with a message!”

Keemlin bit his lip. „Well, sir,” he said. „Tian, four places down from me. He is five, maybe ten pounds lighter than I. It makes a big difference, sir. He rides a lot faster, and I figured this would be an important message. So I asked for him to be sent in my place.”

Malenarin frowned. Soldiers moved around them, rushing down the stairs or gathering with bows at the rim of the tower. The wind howled outside and thunder began to sound softly—yet insistently.

Keemlin met his eyes. „Tian's mother, Lady Yabeth, has lost four sons to the Blight,” he said, softly enough that only Malenarin could hear. „Tian's the only one she has left. If one of us has a shot at getting out, sir, I figured it should be him.”

Malenarin held his son's eyes. The boy understood what was coming. Light help him, but he understood. And he'd sent another away in his place.

„Kralle,” Malenarin barked, glancing toward one of the soldiers passing by.

„Yes, my Lord Commander?”

„Run down to my office,” Malenarin said. „There is a sword in my oaken trunk. Fetch it for me.”

The man saluted, obeying.

„Father?” Keemlin said. „My nameday isn't for three days.”

Malenarin waited with arms behind his back. His most important task at the moment was to be seen in command, to reassure his troops. Kralle returned with the sword; its worn scabbard bore the image of the oak set aflame. The symbol of House Rai.

„Father....” Keemlin repeated. „I—”

„This weapon is offered to a boy when he becomes a man,” Malenarin said. „It seems it is too late in coming, son. For I see a man standing before me.” He held the weapon forward in his right hand. Around the tower top, soldiers turned toward him: the archers with bows ready, the soldiers who operated the mirrors, the duty watchmen. As Borderlanders, each and every one of them would have been given his sword on his fourteenth name-day. Each one had felt the catch in the chest, the wonderful feeling of coming of age. It had happened to each of them, but that did not make this occasion any less special.

Keemlin went down on one knee.

„Why do you draw your sword?” Malenarin asked, voice loud so that every man atop the tower would hear.

„In defense of my honor, my family, or my homeland,” Keemlin replied.

„How long do you fight?”

„Until my last breath joins the northern winds.”

„When do you stop watching?”

„Never,” Keemlin whispered.

„Speak it louder!”

„Never!”

„Once this sword is drawn, you become a warrior, always with it near you in preparation to fight the Shadow. Will you draw this blade and join us, as a man?”

Keemlin looked up, then took the hilt in a firm grip and pulled the weapon free.

„Rise as a man, my son!” Malenarin declared.

Keemlin stood, holding the weapon aloft, the bright blade reflecting the diffuse sunlight. The men atop the tower cheered.

It was no shame to find tears in one's eyes at such a moment. Malenarin blinked them free, then knelt down, buckling the sword belt at his son's waist. The men continued to cheer and yell, and he knew it was not only for his son. They yelled in defiance of the Shadow. For a moment, their voices rang louder than the thunder.

Malenarin stood, laying a hand on his son's shoulder as the boy slid his sword into its sheath. Together they turned to face the oncoming Shadow. There!” one of the archers said, pointing upward. „There's something in the clouds!”

„Draghkar!” another one said.

The unnatural clouds were close now, and the shade they cast could no longer hide the undulating horde of Trollocs beneath. Something flew out from the sky, but a dozen of his archers let loose. The creature screamed and fell, dark wings flapping awkwardly.

Jargen pushed his way through to Malenarin. „My Lord,” Jargen said, shooting a glance at Keemlin, „the boy should be below.”

„Not a boy any longer,” Malenarin said with pride. „A man. What is your report?”

„All is prepared.” Jargen glanced over the wall, eyeing the oncoming Trollocs as evenly as if he were inspecting a stable of horses. „They will not find this tree an easy one to fell.”

Malenarin nodded. Keemlin s shoulder was tense. That sea of Trollocs seemed endless. Against this foe, the tower would eventually fall. The Trollocs would keep coming, wave after wave.

But every man atop that tower knew his duty. They'd kill Shadow-spawn as long as they could, hoping to buy enough time for the messages to do some good.

Malenarin was a man of the Borderlands, same as his father, same as his son beside him. They knew their task. You held until you were relieved.

That's all there was to it.

CHAPTER 1
Apples First

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 above the misty peaks of Imfaral. 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.

Crisp and light, the wind danced across fields of new mountain grass stiff with frost. That frost lingered past first light, sheltered by the omnipresent clouds that hung like a death mask high above. It had been weeks since those clouds had budged, and the wan, yellowed grass showed it.

The wind churned morning mist, moving southward, chilling a small pride of torm. They reclined on a flat, lichen-stained granite shelf, waiting to bask in morning sunlight that would not arrive. The wind poured over the shelf, racing down a hillside of scraggly mura trees, with ropelike bark and green tufts of thick, needlelike leaves atop them.

At the base of the foothills, the wind turned eastward, passing an open plain kept free of trees and scrub by the soldier's axe. The killing field surrounded thirteen fortresses, tall and cut entirely from unpolished black marble, their blocks left rough-hewn to give them a primal feeling °f unformed strength. These were towers meant for war. By tradition they were unoccupied. How long that would last—how long tradition itself would be remembered in a continent in chaos—remained to be seen.

The wind continued eastward, and soon it was playing with the masts of half-burned ships at the docks of Takisrom. Out into the Sleeping Bay, it passed the attackers: enormous greatships with sails painted blood red. They sailed southward, their grisly work done.

The wind blew onto land again, past smoldering towns and villages, open plains filled with troops and docks fat with warships. Smoke, war calls and banners flew above dying grass and beneath a dockmaster's gloomy sky.

Men did not whisper that this might be the end of times. They yelled it. The Fields of Peace were aflame, the Tower of Ravens was broken as prophesied and a murderer openly ruled in Seandar. This was a time to lift one's sword and choose a side, then spill blood to give a final color to the dying land.

The wind howled eastward over the famed Emerald Cliffs and coursed out over the ocean. Behind, smoke seemed to rise from the entire continent of Seanchan.

For hours, the wind blew—making what would have been called tradewinds in another Age—twisting between whitecaps and dark, mysterious waves. Eventually, the wind encountered another continent, this one quiet, like a man holding his breath before the headsman's axe fell.

By the time the wind reached the enormous, broken-peaked mountain known as Dragonmount, it had lost much of its strength. It passed around the base of the mountain, then through a large orchard of apple trees, lit by early-afternoon sunlight. The once-green leaves had faded to yellow.

The wind passed by a low wooden fence, tied at its joints with tan linen twine. Two figures stood there: a youth and a somber man in his later years. The older man wore a pair of worn brown trousers and a loose white shirt with wooden buttons. His face was so furrowed with wrinkles that it seemed kin to the bark of the trees.

Almen Bunt didn't know a lot about orchards. Oh, he had planted a few trees back on his farm in Andor. Who didn't have a tree or two to fill in space on the dinner table? He'd planted a pair of walnut trees on the day he'd married Adrinne. It had felt good to have her trees there, outside his window, after she'd died.

Running an orchard was something else entirely. There were nearly three hundred trees in this field. It was his sister's orchard; he was visiting while his sons managed his farm near Carysford.

In his shirt pocket, Almen carried a letter from his sons. A desperate letter, pleading for help, but he couldn't go to them. He was needed here.

Besides, it was a good time for him to be out of Andor. He was a Queen's man. There had been times, recently, when being a Queen's man could get someone into as much trouble as having one too many cows in his pasture.

„What do we do, Almen?” Adim asked. „Those trees, they... Well, it ain't supposed to happen like this.” The boy of thirteen had golden hair from his father's side.

Almen rubbed his chin, scratching at a patch of whiskers he'd missed during shaving. Hahn, Adim's older brother, approached them. The lad had carved Almen a set of wooden teeth as an arrival gift earlier in the spring. Wondrous things, held together by wires, with gaps for the few remaining teeth he had. But if he chewed too hard, they'd go all out of shape.

The rows of trees were straight and perfectly spaced. Graeger—Almen s brother-in-law—always had been meticulous. But he was dead now, which was why Almen had come. The neat rows of trees continued on for spans and spans, carefully pruned, fertilized, and watered.

And during the night, every single one of them had shed their fruit. Tiny apples, barely as large as a man's thumb. Thousands of them. They'd shriveled during the night, then fallen. An entire crop, gone.

„I don't know what to say, lads,” Almen finally admitted.

„You, at a loss for words?” Hahn said. Adim's brother had darker coloring, like his mother, and was tall for his fifteen years. „Uncle, you usually have as much to say as a gleeman who's been at the brandy for half the night!” Hahn liked to maintain a strong front for his brother, now that he was the man of the family. But sometimes it was good to be worried.

And Almen was worried. Very worried.

„We barely have a week's grain left,” Adim said softly. „And what we've got, we got by promises on the crop. Nobody will give us anything, now. Nobody has anything.”

The orchard was one of the largest producers in the region; half the men in the village worked it during one stage or another. They were depending on it. They needed it. With so much food going bad, with their stores used up during the unnatural winter...

And then there was the incident that had killed Graeger. The man had walked around a corner over in Negin Bridge and vanished. When people went looking, all they found was a twisted, leafless tree with a gray-white trunk that smelled of sulphur.

The Dragon's Fang had been scrawled on a few doors that night. People were more and more nervous. Once, Almen would have named them all fools, jumping at shadows and seeing bloody Trollocs under every cobblestone.

Now... well, now he wasn't so sure. He glanced eastward, toward Tar

Valon. Could the witches be to blame for the failed crop? He hated being so close to their nest, but Alysa needed the help.

They'd chopped down that tree and burned it. You could still smell brimstone in the square.

„Uncle?” Hahn said, sounding uncomfortable. „What... what do we do?”

„I...” What did they do? „Burn me, but we should all go to Caemlyn. I'm sure the new Queen has everything cleared up there by now. We can get me settled right by the law. Who ever heard of such a thing, gaining a price on your head for speaking out in favor of the Queen?” He realized he was rambling. The boys kept looking at him.

„No,” Almen continued. „Burn me, boys, but that's wrong. We can't go. We need to keep on working. This isn't any worse than when I lost my entire millet field to a late frost twenty years back. We'll get through this, right as Light we will.”

The trees themselves looked fine. Not an insect bite on them, leaves a little yellowed, but still good. Sure, the spring buds had come late, and the apples had grown slowly. But they had been growing.

„Hahn,” Almen found himself saying. „You know your father's felling axe has those chips on it? Why don't you go about getting it sharpened? Adim, go fetch Uso and Moor and their carts. We'll sort through those fallen apples and see if any aren't rotted too badly. Maybe the pigs will take them.” At least they still had two. But there'd been no piglets this spring.

The youths hesitated.

„Go on now,” Almen said. „No use dallying because we've had a setback.”

The lads hastened off, obedient. Idle hands made idle minds. Some work would keep them from thinking about what was to come.

There was no helping that for him. He leaned down on the fence, feeling the rough grooves of the unsanded planks under his arms. That wind tugged at the tails of his shirt again; Adrinne had always forced him to tuck it in, but now that she was gone, he... well, he never had liked wearing it that way.

He tucked the shirt in anyway.

The air smelled wrong somehow. Stale, like the air inside a city. Flies were starting to buzz around the shriveled bits that had once been apples.

Almen had lived a long time. He'd never kept count; Adrinne had done that for him. It wasn't important. He knew he'd seen a lot of years, and that was that.

He'd seen insects attack a crop; he'd seen plants lost to flood, to drought, or to negligence. But in all his years, he'd never seen anything like this. This was something evil. The village was already starving. They didn't talk about it, not when the children or youths were around. The adults quietly gave what they had to the young and to women who were nursing. But the cows were going dry, the stores spoiling, the crops dying.

The letter in his pocket said his own farm had been set upon by passing mercenaries. They hadn't harmed anyone, but they'd taken every scrap of food. His sons survived only by digging half-grown potatoes from the crop and boiling them. They found nineteen out of every twenty rotting in the ground, inexplicably full of worms despite green growth above.

Dozens of nearby villages were suffering the same way. No food to be had. Tar Valon itself was having trouble feeding its people.

Staring down those neat, perfect rows of useless apple trees, Almen felt the crushing weight of it. Of trying to remain positive. Of seeing all his sister had worked for fail and rot. These apples... they were supposed to have saved the village, and his sons.

His stomach rumbled. It did that a lot lately.

This is it then, isn't it? he thought, eyes toward the too-yellow grass below. The fight just ended.

Almen slumped down, feeling a weight on his shoulders. Adrinne, he thought. There had been a time when he'd been quick to laugh, quick to talk. Now he felt worn, like a post that had been sanded and sanded and sanded until only a sliver was left. Maybe it was time to let go.

He felt something on his neck. Warmth.

He hesitated, then turned weary eyes toward the sky. Sunlight bathed his face. He gaped; it seemed so long since he'd seen pure sunlight. It shone down through a large break in the clouds, comforting, like the warmth of an oven baking a loaf of Adrinne's thick sourdough bread.

Almen stood, raising a hand to shade his eyes. He took a deep, long breath, and smelled... apple blossoms? He spun with a start.

The apple trees were flowering.

That was plain ridiculous. He rubbed his eyes, but that didn't dispel the image. They were blooming, all of them, white flowers breaking out between the leaves. The flies buzzed into the air and zipped away on the wind. The dark bits of apple on the ground melted away, like wax before a flame. In seconds, there was nothing left of them, not even juice. The ground had absorbed them.

What was happening? Apple trees didn't blossom twice. Was he going mad?

Footsteps sounded softly on the path that ran past the orchard. Almen spun to find a tall young man walking down out of the foothills. He had deep red hair and he wore ragged clothing: a brown cloak with loose sleeves and a simple white linen shirt beneath. The trousers were finer, black with a delicate embroidery of gold at the cuff.

„Ho, stranger,” Almen said, raising a hand, not knowing what else to say, not even sure if he'd seen what he thought he'd seen. „Did you... did you get lost up in the foothills?”

The man stopped, turning sharply. He seemed surprised to find Almen there. With a start, Almen realized the man's left arm ended in a stump.

The stranger looked about, then breathed in deeply. „No. I'm not lost. Finally. It feels like a great long time since I've understood the path before me.”

Almen scratched the side of his face. Burn him, there was another patch he'd missed shaving. His hand had been shaking so much that he might as well have skipped the razor entirely. „Not lost? Son, that pathway only leads up the slopes of Dragonmount. The area's been hunted clean, if you were hoping to find some game. There's nothing back there of use.”

„I wouldn't say that,” the stranger said, glancing over his shoulder. „There are always things of use around, if you look closely enough. You can't stare at them too long. To learn but not be overwhelmed, that is the balance.”

Almen folded his arms. The man's words ... it seemed they were having two different conversations. Perhaps the lad wasn't right in the head. There was something about the man, though. The way he stood, the way those eyes of his stared with such calm intensity. Almen felt like standing up and dusting off his shirt to make himself more presentable.

„Do I know you?” Almen asked. Something about the young man was familiar.

„Yes,” the lad said. Then he nodded toward the orchard. „Gather your people and collect those apples. They'll be needed in the days to come.”

„The apples?” Almen said, turning. „But—” He froze. The trees were burgeoning with new, ripe red apples. The blossoms he'd seen earlier had fallen free, and blanketed the ground in white, like snow.

Those apples seemed to shine. Not just dozens of them on each tree, but hundreds. More than a tree should hold, each one perfectly ripe.

„I am going mad,” Almen said, turning back to the man.

„It's not you who is mad, friend,” the stranger said. „But the entire world. Gather those apples quickly. My presence will hold him off for a time, I think, and whatever you take now should be safe from his touch.”

That voice... Those eyes, like gray gemstones cut and set in his face. „I do know you,” Almen said, remembering an odd pair of youths he had given a lift in his cart years ago. „Light! You're him, aren't you? The one they're talking about?”

The man looked back at Almen. Meeting those eyes, Almen felt a strange sense of peace. „It is likely,” the man said. „Men are often speaking of me.” He smiled, then turned and continued on his way down the path.

„Wait,” Almen said, raising a hand toward the man who could only be the Dragon Reborn. „Where are you going?”

The man looked back with a faint grimace. „To do something I've been putting off. I doubt she will be pleased by what I tell her.”

Almen lowered his hand, watching as the stranger strode away, down a pathway between two fenced orchards, trees laden with blood-red apples. Almen thought—for a moment—he could see something around the man. A lightness to the air, warped and bent.

Almen watched the man until he vanished, then dashed toward Alysa's house. The old pain in his hip was gone, and he felt as if he could run a dozen leagues. Halfway to the house, he met Adim and the two workers coming to the orchard. They regarded him with concerned eyes as he pulled to a halt.

Unable to speak, Almen turned and pointed back at the orchards. The apples were red specks, dotting the green like freckles.

„What's that?” Uso asked, rubbing his long face. Moor squinted, then began running toward the orchard.

„Gather everyone,” Almen said, winded. „Everyone from the village, from the villages nearby, people passing on Shyman's road. Everyone. Get them here to gather and pick.”

„Pick what?” Adim asked with a frown.

„Apples,” Almen said. „What else bloody grows on apple trees! Listen, we need every one of those apples picked before the day ends. You hear me? Go! Spread the word! There's a harvest after all!”

They ran off to look, of course. It was hard to blame them for that. Almen continued on, and as he did, he noticed for the first time that the grass around him seemed greener, healthier.

He looked eastward. Almen felt a pull inside of him. Something was tugging him softly in the direction the stranger had gone.

Apples first, he thought. Then... well, then he'd see.

CHAPTER 2
Questions of Leadership

Thunder rumbled above, soft and menacing like the growl of a distant beast. Perrin turned his eyes toward the sky. A few days ago, the pervasive cloud cover had turned black, darkening like the advent of a horrible storm. But rain had come only in spurts.

Another rumble shook the air. There was no lightning. Perrin patted Stayer on the neck; the horse smelled skittish—prickly, sweaty. The horse wasn't the only one. That scent hung above his enormous force of troops and refugees as they tramped across the muddy ground. That force created a thunder of its own, footsteps, hoofbeats, wagon wheels turning, men and women calling.

They had nearly reached the Jehannah Road. Originally, Perrin had planned to cross that and continue on northward, toward Andor. But he'd lost a great deal of time to the sickness that had struck his camp—both Asha'man had nearly died. Then this thick mud had slowed them even further. All told, it had been over a month since they'd left Maiden, and they'd traveled only as far as Perrin had originally hoped to go in a week.

Perrin put his hand into his coat pocket, feeling at the small blacksmith's puzzle there. They'd found it in Maiden, and he'd taken to riddling with it. So far, he hadn't figured out how to get the pieces apart. It was as complex a puzzle as he'd ever seen.

There was no sign of Master Gill or the people Perrin had sent on ahead with supplies. Grady had managed a few small gateways ahead to send scouts to find them, but they had returned without news. Perrin was beginning to worry about them.

„My Lord?” a man asked. He stood beside Perrin's horse. Turne was a lanky fellow with curly red hair and a beard he tied off with leather cords. He carried a warrior's axe in a loop at his belt, a wicked thing with a spike at the back.

„We can't pay you much,” Perrin said. „Your men don't have horses?”

„No, my Lord,” Turne said, glancing at his dozen companions. „Jarr had one. We ate it a few weeks back.” Turne smelled unwashed and dirty, and above those scents was an odd staleness. Had the man's emotions gone numb? „If you don't mind, my Lord. Wages can wait. If you have food... well, that will be enough for now.”

I should turn them away, Perrin thought. We already have too many mouths to feed. Light, he was supposed to be getting rid of people. But these fellows looked handy with their weapons, and if he turned them away, they'd no doubt turn to pillaging.

„Go walk down the line,” Perrin said. „Find a man named Tam al'Thor— he's a sturdy fellow, dressed like a farmer. Anyone should be able to point you in his direction. Tell him you spoke to Perrin, and I said to take you on for meals.”

The dirty men relaxed, and their lanky leader actually smelled grateful. Grateful! Sell-swords—maybe bandits—grateful to be taken on only for meals. That was the state of the world.

„Tell me, my Lord,” Turne said as his group began to hike down the line of refugees. „Do you really have food?”

„We do,” Perrin said. „I just said so.”

„And it doesn't spoil after a night left alone?”

„Course it doesn't,” Perrin said sternly. „Not if you keep it right.” Some of their grain might have weevils in it, but it was edible. The man seemed to find that incredible, as if Perrin had said his wagons would soon sprout wings and fly off for the mountains.

„Go on now,” Perrin said. „And make sure to tell your men that we run a tight camp. No fighting, no stealing. If I get a whiff of you making trouble, you'll be out on your ears.”

„Yes, my Lord,” Turne said, then hastened off to join his men. He smelled sincere. Tam wasn't going to be pleased to have another batch of mercenaries to watch over, but the Shaido were still out there somewhere. Most of them seemed to have turned eastward. But with how slowly Perrin's force had been traveling, he was worried the Aiel might change their minds and come back for him.

He nudged Stayer forward, flanked by a pair of Two Rivers men. Now that Aram was gone, the Two Rivers men had—unfortunately—taken it upon themselves to provide Perrin with bodyguards. Todays annoyances were Wil al'Seen and Reed Soalen. Perrin had tried chewing out the men about it. But they insisted, and he had bigger worries to bother him, not the least of which were his strange dreams. Haunting visions of working the forges and being unable to create anything of worth.

Put them out of your mind, he told himself, riding up the long column, al'Seen and Soalen keeping up. You have nightmares enough while awake. Deal with those first.

The meadow around him was open, though the grass was yellowing, and he noticed with displeasure several large swaths of dead wildflowers, rotting. The spring rains had turned most areas like this into mud traps. Moving so many refugees was slow, even discounting the bubble of evil and the mud. Everything took longer than he expected, including getting out of Maiden.

The force kicked up mud as it marched; most of the refugees' trousers and skirts were covered with it, and the air was thick with its sticky scent. Perrin neared the front of their line, passing riders in red breastplates, lances held high, their helms like rimmed pots. The Winged Guard of Mayene. Lord Gallenne rode at their front, red-plumed helm held at his side. His bearing was formal enough that you might think he was riding in a parade, but his single eye was keen as he scanned the countryside. He was a good soldier. There were a lot of good soldiers in this force, though sometimes it was tough as bending a horseshoe to keep their hands from one another's throats.

„Lord Perrin!” a voice shouted. Arganda, First Captain of Ghealdan, pushed through the Mayener lines riding a tall roan gelding. His troops rode in a wide column beside the Mayeners—ever since Alliandre's return, Arganda had been set on equal treatment. He'd complained that the Winged Guard often rode in front. Rather than spur further arguments, Perrin had ordered their columns to ride side by side.

„Was that another batch of mercenaries?” Arganda demanded, pulling his horse up beside Perrin.

„A small band,” Perrin said. „Probably once the guard of some local city's lord.”

„Deserters.” Arganda spat to the side. „You should have sent for me.

My queen would want them strung up! Don't forget that we're in Gheal-dan now.”

„Your queen is my leigewoman,” Perrin said as they reached the front of the column. „We're not stringing anyone up unless we have proof of their crimes. Once everyone is safely back where they belong, you can start sorting through the sell-swords and see if you can charge any of them. Until then, they're just hungry men looking for someone to follow.”

Arganda smelled frustrated. Perrin had gained a few weeks of goodwill from him and Gallenne following the successful assault on Maiden, but old divisions were resurfacing in the endless mud, under a sky full of tumbling thunderheads.

„Don't worry yourself,” Perrin said. „I have men watching over the newcomers.” He also had them watching the refugees. Some were so docile that they would hardly go to the privy without being instructed to do so; others kept looking over their shoulders, as if expecting Shaido to spring from the distant line of oaks and sweetgum trees at any moment. People who smelled that terrified could be trouble, and the various factions of his camp already walked as if trudging through itchweed.

„You may send someone to talk to the newcomers, Arganda,” Perrin said. „Talk only. Find out where they're from, learn whether they did serve a lord, see if they can add anything to the maps.” They didn't have any good maps of the area, and had been forced to have the Ghealdanin men— Arganda included—draw some from memory.

Arganda rode off, and Perrin moved to the front of the column. Being in charge did have its nice moments; up here, the smells of unwashed bodies and pungent mud weren't nearly so strong. Ahead, he could finally see the Jehannah Road like a long strap of leather cutting through the highland plains, running in a northwestern direction.

Perrin rode, lost in thought for a time. Eventually, they reached the roadway. The mud didn't look as bad on the road as it had in the meadows— though if it were like any other road Perrin had traveled on, it would have its mires and washed-out sections. As he reached it, he noticed Gaul approaching. The Aiel had been off scouting ahead, and as Perrin's horse stepped up onto the road, he noticed that someone was riding behind Gaul up toward them.

It was Fennel, one of the farriers that Perrin had sent ahead with Master Gill and the others. Perrin felt a wash of relief to see him, but it was followed by worry. Where were the others?

„Lord Perrin!” the man said, riding up. Gaul stepped to the side. Fennel was a wide-shouldered man, and carried a long-handled workman's axe strapped to his back. He smelled of relief. „Praise the Light. I thought you'd never get here. Your man says the rescue worked?”

„It did, Fennel,” Perrin said, frowning. „Where are the others?”

„They went on ahead, my Lord,” Fennel said, bowing from horseback. „I volunteered to stay behind, for when you caught up. We needed to explain, you see.”

„Explain?”

„The rest turned toward Lugard,” Fennel explained. „Along the road.”

„What?” Perrin said, frustrated. „I gave them orders to continue northward!”

„My Lord,” Fennel said, looking abashed. „We met travelers coming from that way; said that mud made the roads to the north almost completely impassable for wagons or carts. Master Gill decided that heading to Caemlyn through Lugard would be the best way to follow your orders. Sorry, my Lord. That's why one of us had to stay behind.”

Light! No wonder the scouts hadn't found Gill and the others. They'd gone in the wrong direction. Well, after slogging through mud for weeks himself—sometimes having to stop and wait out storms—Perrin couldn't blame them for deciding to take the road. That didn't stop him from feeling frustrated.

„How far behind are we?” Perrin asked.

„I've been here five days, my Lord.”

So Gill and the others had been slowed too. Well, that was something, at least.

„Go get yourself something to eat, Fennel,” Perrin said. „And thank you for staying behind to let me know what happened. It was a brave thing you did, waiting alone for so long.”

„Somebody had to do it, my Lord.” He hesitated. „Most feared you hadn't ... well, that things had gone wrong, my Lord. You see, we figured you'd be faster than us, since we had those carts. But from the look of things here, you decided to bring the entire town with you!”

It wasn't far from the truth, unfortunately. He waved Fennel on.

„I found him about an hour along the road,” Gaul said softly. „Beside a hill that would make an excellent camp. Well watered, with a good view of the surrounding area.”

Perrin nodded. They'd have to decide what to do—wait until Grady and Neald could make large gateways, follow along after Master Gill and the others on foot, or send most people northward and send only a few toward

Lugard. Regardless of the decision, it would be good to camp for the day and sort through things. „Pass the word to the others, if you will,” Perrin said to Gaul. „We'll hike down the road to the place you found, then discuss what to do next. And ask some of the Maidens if they'd scout along the road in the other direction to make sure we're not going to be surprised by anyone moving up the road behind us.”

Gaul nodded and moved off to pass the word. Perrin remained sitting atop Stayer, thinking. He had half a mind to send Arganda and Alliandre off to the northwest right now, setting on a path to Jehannah. But the Maidens had picked out some Shaido scouts watching his army. Those were probably there to make sure Perrin wasn't a threat, but they made him uneasy. These were dangerous times.

It was best to keep Alliandre and her people with him for now, both for her safety and his own, at least until Grady and Neald recovered. The snakebites from the bubble of evil had affected the two of them and Masuri—the only one of the Aes Sedai who had been bitten—worse than the others.

Still, Grady was starting to look hale again. Soon he'd be able to make a gateway large enough to move the army through. Then Perrin could send Alliandre and the Two Rivers men home. He himself could Travel back to Rand, pretend to make up—most people would still think that he and Rand had parted ways angrily—and then finally be rid of Berelain and her Winged Guard. Everything could go back to the way it should be.

Light send it all went that easily. He shook his head, dispelling the swirling colors and visions that appeared to his eyes whenever he thought of Rand.

Nearby, Berelain and her force were marching out onto the road, looking very pleased to reach some solid footing. The beautiful dark-haired woman wore a fine green dress and a belt of firedrops. Her neckline was discomfortingly low. He'd started relying on her during Faile's absence, once she'd stopped treating him like a prize boar to be hunted and skinned.

Faile was back now, and it appeared his truce with Berelain was over. As usual, Annoura rode near her, though she didn't spend the time chatting with Berelain as she once had. Perrin never had figured out why she'd been meeting with the Prophet. Probably never would, considering what had happened to Masema. A day out of Maiden, Perrin's scouts had run across a group of corpses that had been killed with arrows and robbed of their shoes, belts, and any valuables. Though ravens had gotten the eyes, Perrin had smelled Masema's scent through the rot.

The Prophet was dead, killed by bandits. Well, perhaps that was a fitting end for him, but Perrin still felt he'd failed. Rand had wanted Masema brought to him. The colors swirled again. Either way, it was time for Perrin to return to Rand. The colors swirled, showing Rand standing in front of a building with a burned front, staring westward. Perrin banished the image. His duty was done, the Prophet seen to, Alliandre's allegiance secure. Only, Perrin felt as if something were still very wrong. He fingered the blacksmith's puzzle in his pocket. To understand something... you have to figure out its parts ...

He smelled Faile before she reached him, heard her horse on the soft earth. „So, Gill turned toward Lugard?” she asked, stopping beside him.

He nodded.

„That may have been wise. Perhaps we should turn that way too. Were those more sell-swords who joined us?”

„Yes.”

„We must have picked up five thousand people these last few weeks,” she said thoughtfully. „Perhaps more. Odd, in this desolate landscape.”

She was beautiful, with her raven hair and strong features—a good Saldaean nose set between two tilted eyes. She was dressed for riding in deep wine red. He loved her dearly, and praised the Light that he'd gotten her back. Why did he feel so awkward around her now?

„You're troubled, my husband,” she noted. She understood him so well, it was almost as if she could read scents. It seemed to be a thing of women, though. Berelain could do it too.

„We've gathered too many people,” he said with a grunt. „I should start turning them away.”

„I suspect they'd find their way back to our force anyway.”

„Why should they? I could leave orders.”

„You can't give orders to the Pattern itself, my husband.” She glanced over at the column of people as they moved onto the road.

„What do—” He cut off, catching her meaning. „You think this is me? Being ta'veren?'

„Every stop along our trip, you've gained more followers,” Faile said. „Despite our losses against the Aiel, we came out of Maiden with a stronger force than when we started. Haven't you found it odd that so many of the former gai'shain are taking to Tarn's training with weapons?”

„They were beaten down so long,” Perrin said. „They want to stop that from happening again.”

„And so coopers learn the sword,” Faile said, „and find they have a talent for it. Masons who never thought of fighting back against the Shaido now train with the quarterstaff. Sell-swords and armsmen flock to us.”

„It's coincidence.”

„Coincidence?” She sounded amused. „With a ta'veren at the army's head?”

She was right, and as he fell silent, he could smell her satisfaction at winning the argument. He didn't think of it as an argument, but she'd see it as one. If anything, she'd be mad that he hadn't raised his voice.

„This is all going to end in a few days, Faile,” he said. „Once we have gateways again, I'll send these people to their proper places. I'm not gathering an army. I'm helping some refugees to get home.” The last thing he needed was more people calling him „my Lord” and bowing and scraping.

„We shall see,” she said.

„Faile.” He sighed and lowered his voice. „A man's got to see a thing for what it is. No sense in calling a buckle a hinge or calling a nail a horseshoe. I've told you; I'm not a good leader. I proved that.”

„That's not how I see it.”

He gripped the blacksmith's puzzle in his pocket. They'd discussed this during the weeks since Maiden, but she refused to see sense. „The camp was a mess while you were gone, Faile! I've told you how Arganda and the Maidens nearly killed one another. And Aram—Masema corrupted him right under my nose. The Aes Sedai played at games I can't guess, and the Two Rivers men ... you see how they look at me with shame in their eyes.”

Faile's scent spiked with anger when he said that, and she turned sharply toward Berelain.

„It's not her fault,” Perrin said. „If I'd been able to think of it, I'd have stopped the rumors dead. But I didn't. Now I've got to sleep in the bed I made for myself. Light! What is a man if his own neighbors don't think well of him? I'm no lord, Faile, and that's that. I've proven it soundly.”

„Odd,” she said. „But I've been speaking to the others, and they tell a different story. They say that you kept Arganda contained and put out flare-ups in camp. Then there's the alliance with the Seanchan; the more I learn of that, the more impressed I am. You acted decisively in a time of great uncertainty, you focused everyone's efforts, and you accomplished the impossible in taking Maiden. Those are the actions of a leader.”

„Faile ...” he said, suppressing a growl. Why wouldn't she listen? When she'd been a captive, nothing had mattered to him but recovering her. Noth-ing. It didn't matter who had needed his help, or what orders he'd been given. Tarmon Gai'don itself could have started, and he'd have ignored it in order to find Faile.

He reali2ed now how dangerous his actions had been. Trouble was, he'd take those same actions again. He didn't regret what he'd done, not for a moment. A leader couldn't be like that.

He never should have let them raise that wolfhead banner in the first place. Now that he'd completed his tasks, now that Faile was back, it was time to put all of that foolishness behind him. Perrin was a blacksmith. It didn't matter what Faile dressed him in, or what titles people gave him. You couldn't make a drawknife into a horseshoe by painting it, or by calling it something different.

He turned to the side, where Jori Congar rode before the column, that blasted red wolfhead banner flapping proudly from a pole taller than a cavalryman's lance. Perrin opened his mouth to shout for him to take it down, but Faile spoke suddenly.

„Yes, indeed,” she said, musingly. „I've been thinking on this for the last few weeks, and—odd though it seems—I believe my captivity may have been precisely what we needed. Both of us.”

What? Perrin turned to her, smelling her thoughtfulness. She believed what she'd said.

„Now,” Faile said, „we need to speak of—”

„Scouts returning,” he said, perhaps more abruptly than he intended. „Aiel up ahead.”

Faile glanced as he pointed, but of course she couldn't see anything yet. She knew of his eyes, though. She was one of the few who did.

The call went up as others noticed the three figures in cadin'sor approaching alongside the road, the ones Perrin had sent to scout. Two Maidens hurried for the Wise Ones and one loped up to Perrin.

„There is something beside the road, Perrin Aybara,” the woman said. She smelled concerned. That was a dangerous sign. „It is something that you will wish to see.”

Galad woke to the sound of a tent flap rustling. Sharp pains burned at his side where he had been repeatedly kicked; they matched the duller aches on his shoulder, left arm, and thigh where he'd been wounded by Valda. His pounding headache was almost strong enough to drown out all else.

He groaned, rolling onto his back. All was dark around him, but pinprick lights shone in the sky. Stars? It had been overcast for so long.

No ... something was wrong about them. His head pulsed with pain, and he blinked tears from the corner of his eyes. Those stars looked so faint, so distant. They made no familiar patterns. Where could Asunawa have taken him that the very stars were different?

As his mind cleared, he began to make out his surroundings. This was a heavy sleeping tent, constructed to be dark during the daylight hours. The lights above weren't stars at all, but sunlight through the occasional pinholes of wear in the canvas.

He was still naked, and with tentative fingers he determined that there was dried blood on his face. It had come from a long gash in his forehead. If he didn't wash it soon, infection was likely. He lay on his back, breathing in and out with care. If he took in too much air at once, his side screamed.

Galad did not fear death or pain. He had made the right choices. It was unfortunate that he'd needed to leave the Questioners in charge; they were controlled by the Seanchan. However, there had been no other option, not after he'd walked into Asunawa's hands.

Galad felt no anger at the scouts who had betrayed him. The Questioners were a valid source of authority in the Children, and their lies had no doubt been convincing. No, the one he was angry at was Asunawa, who took what was true and muddied it. There were many who did that in the world, but the Children should be different.

Soon the Questioners would come for him, and then the true price for saving his men would be exacted with their hooks and knives. He had been aware of that price when he'd made his decision. In a way, he had won, for he had manipulated the situation best.

The other way to ensure his victory was to hold to the truth under their questioning. To deny being a Darkfriend with his final breath. It would be difficult, but it would be right.

He forced himself to sit up, expecting—and weathering—the dizziness and nausea. He felt around. His legs were chained together, and that chain was locked to a spike that had been driven deep into the earth, piercing the rough canvas tent bottom.

He tried yanking it free, just in case. He pulled so hard that his muscles failed him and he nearly passed out. Once he had recovered, he crawled to the side of the tent. His chains gave him enough room to reach the flaps. He took one of the cloth ties—used to hold the flaps up when they were opened—and spat on it. Then, methodically, he wiped the grime and blood from his face.

The cleaning gave him a goal, kept him moving and stopped him from thinking about the pain. He carefully scrubbed the crusted blood from his cheek and nose. It was difficult; his mouth was dry. He bit down on his tongue to get saliva. The strips were not canvas, but a lighter material. They smelled of dust.

He spat on a fresh section, then worked the spittle into the cloth. The wound to his head, the dirt on his face ... these things were marks of victory for the Questioners. He would not leave them. He would go into their tortures with a clean face.

He heard shouts outside. Men preparing to break down the camp. Would that delay their questioning? He doubted it. Striking camp could take hours. Galad continued cleaning, soiling the lengths of both straps, using the work as a kind of ritual, a rhythmic pattern to give him a focus for meditation. His headache withdrew, the pains of his body becoming less significant.

He would not run. Even if he could escape, fleeing would invalidate his bargain with Asunawa. But he would face his enemies with self-respect.

As he finished, he heard voices outside the tent. They were coming for him. He scrabbled quietly back to the stake in the ground. Taking a deep breath despite the pain, he rolled onto his knees. Then he took the top of the iron spike in his left hand and pushed, heaving himself to his feet.

He wobbled, then steadied himself, standing up all the way. His pains were nothing, now. He had felt insect bites that were worse. He put his feet wide in a warriors stance, his hands held before himself with his wrists crossed. He opened his eyes, back straight, staring at the tent flaps. It wasn't the cloak, the uniform, the heraldry, or the sword that made a man. It was the way he held himself.

The flaps rustled, then drew open. The outside light was brilliant to Galad s eyes, but he did not blink. He did not flinch.

Silhouettes moved against an overcast sky. They hesitated, backlit. He could tell they were surprised to see him standing there.

„Light!” one exclaimed. „Damodred, how is it that you're awake?” Unexpectedly, the voice was familiar.

„Trom?” Galad asked, his voice ragged.

Men spilled into the room. As his eyes adjusted, Galad made out stocky Trom, along with Bornhald and Byar. Trom fumbled with a set of keys.

„Stop!” Galad said. „I gave orders to you three. Bornhald, there is blood on your cloak! I commanded you not to try to free me!”

„Your men obeyed your orders, Damodred,” a new voice said. Galad looked up to see three men entering the room: Berab Golever, tall and bearded; Alaabar Harnesh, his bald, shadowed head missing its left ear; Brandel Vordarian, a blond hulk of a man from Galad's native Andor. All three were Lords Captain, all three had stood with Asunawa.

„What is this?” Galad asked them.

Harnesh opened a sack and dumped something bulbous to the ground in front of Galad. A head.

Asunawa's.

All three men drew swords and knelt before him, the points of their weapons stabbing the canvas. Trom unlocked the manacles at Galad's feet.

„I see,” Galad said. „You have turned your swords on fellow Children.”

„What would you have had us do?” Brandel asked, looking up from his kneeling position.

Galad shook his head. „I do not know. Perhaps you are right; I should not chide you on this choice. It may have been the only one you could have made. But why did you change your minds?”

„We have lost two Lords Captain Commander in under half a year,” Harnesh said in a gruff voice. „The Fortress of the Light has become a playground for the Seanchan. The world is in chaos.”

„And yet,” Golever said, „Asunawa marched us all the way out here to have us battle our fellow Children. It was not right, Damodred. We all saw how you presented yourself, we all saw how you stopped us from killing one another. Faced with that, and with the High Inquisitor naming as Darkfriend a man we all know to be honorable ... Well, how could we not turn against him?”

Galad nodded. „You accept me as Lord Captain Commander?”

The three men bowed their heads. „All the Lords Captain are for you,” Golever said. „We were forced to kill a third of those who wore the red shepherd's crook of the Hand of the Light. Some others united with us; some tried to flee. The Amadicians did not interfere, and many have said they'd rather join with us than return to the Seanchan. We have the other Amadicians—and the Questioners who tried to run—held at swordpoint.”

„Let free those who wish to leave,” Galad said. „They may return to their families and their masters. By the time they reach the Seanchan, we will be beyond their grasp.”

The men nodded.

„I accept your allegiance,” Galad said. „Gather the other Lords Captain and fetch me supply reports. Strike camp. We march for Andor.”

None of them asked whether he needed rest, though Trom did look worried. Galad accepted the white robe a Child brought to him, and then sat in a hastily supplied chair as another-Child Candeiar, a man expert in wounds entered to inspect his injuries. Galad didn't feel wise or strong enough to bear the title he did.

But the Children had made their decision. The light would protect them for it.

CHAPTER 3
The Arnyrlin's Anger

Egwene floated in blackness. She was without form, lacking shape or body. The thoughts, imaginings, worries, hopes, and ideas of all the world extended into eternity around her.

This was the place between dreams and the waking world, a blackness pinpricked with thousands upon thousands of distinct lights, each more focused and intense than the stars of the skies. They were dreams, and she could look in on them, but did not. The ones she wanted to see were warded, and most of the others were mysteries to her.

There was one dream she longed to slip into. She restrained herself. Though her feelings for Gawyn were still strong, her opinion of him was muddled recently. Getting lost in his dreams would not help.

She turned about, looking through the expanse. Recently, she'd started coming here to float and think. The dreams of all the people here—some from her world, some from shadows of it—reminded her why she fought. She must never forget that there was an entire world outside the White Tower's walls. The purpose of Aes Sedai was to serve that world.

Time passed as she lay bathed in the light of dreams. Eventually, she willed herself to move, and located a dream she recognized—though she wasn't certain how she did it. The dream swept up toward her, filling her vision.

She pressed her will against the dream and sent a thought into it. Nynaeve. It is time to stop avoiding me. There is work to be done, and I have news for you. Meet me in two nights in the Hall of the Tower. If you do not come, I will be forced to take measures. Your dalliance threatens us all.

The dream seemed to shudder, and Egwene pulled back as it vanished. She'd already spoken to Elayne. Those two were loose threads; they needed to be truly raised to the shawl, with the oaths administered.

Beyond that, Egwene needed information from Nynaeve. Hopefully, the threat mixed with a promise of news would bring her. And that news was important. The White Tower finally unified, the Amyrlin Seat secure, Elaida captured by the Seanchan.

Pinprick dreams streaked around Egwene. She considered trying to contact the Wise Ones, but decided against it. How should she deal with them? The first thing was to keep them from thinking they were being „dealt with.” Her plan for them was not yet firm.

She let herself slip back into her body, content to spend the rest of the night with her own dreams. Here, she couldn't keep thoughts of Gawyn from visiting her, nor did she want to. She stepped into her dream, and into his embrace. They stood in a small stone-walled room shaped like her study in the Tower, yet decorated like the common room of her fathers inn. Gawyn was dressed in sturdy Two Rivers woolens and did not wear his sword. A more simple life. It could not be hers, but she could dream...

Everything shook. The room of past and present seemed to shatter, shredding into swirling smoke. Egwene stepped back, gasping, as Gawyn ripped apart as if made of sand. All was dust around her, and thirteen black towers rose in the distance beneath a tarlike sky.

One fell, and then another, crashing to the ground. As they did, the ones that remained grew taller and taller. The ground shook as several more towers fell. Another tower shook and cracked, collapsing most of the way to the ground—but then, it recovered and grew tallest of all.

At the end of the quake, six towers remained, looming above her. Egwene had fallen to the ground, which had become soft earth covered in withered leaves. The vision changed. She was looking down at a nest. In it, a group of fledgling eagles screeched toward the sky for their mother. One of the eaglets uncoiled, and it wasn't an eagle at all, but a serpent. It began to strike at the fledglings one at a time, swallowing them whole. The eaglets simply continued to stare into the sky, pretending that the serpent was their sibling as it devoured them.

The vision changed. She saw an enormous sphere made of the finest crystal. It sparkled in the light of twenty-three enormous stars, shining down on it where it sat on a dark hilltop. There were cracks in it, and it was being held together by ropes.

There was Rand, walking up the hillside, holding a woodsman's axe. He reached the top and hefted the axe, then swung at the ropes one at a rime, chopping them free. The last one parted, and the sphere began to break apart, the beautiful globe falling in pieces. Rand shook his head.

Egwene gasped, came awake, and sat upright. She was in her rooms in the White Tower. The bedchamber was nearly empty—she'd had Elaida's things removed, but hadn't completely furnished it again. She had only a washstand, a rug of thick-woven brown fibers, and a bed with posts and drapes. The window shutters were closed; morning sunlight peeked through.

She breathed in and out. Rarely did dreams unsettle her as much as this one had.

Calming herself, she reached down to the side of her bed, picking up the leather-bound book she kept there to record her dreams. The middle of the three this night was the clearest to her. She felt the meaning of it, interpreting it as she sometimes could. The serpent was one of the Forsaken, hidden in the White Tower, pretending to be Aes Sedai. Egwene had suspected this was the case—Verin had said she believed it so.

Mesaana was still in the White Tower. But how did she imitate an Aes Sedai? Every sister had resworn the oaths. Apparently Mesaana could defeat the Oath Rod. As Egwene carefully recorded the dreams, she thought about the towers, looming, threatening to destroy her, and she knew some of the meaning there too.

If Egwene did not find Mesaana and stop her, something terrible would happen. It could mean the fall of the White Tower, perhaps the victory of the Dark One. Dreams were not Foretellings—they didn't show what would happen, but what could.

Light, she thought, finishing her record. As if I didn't have enough to worry about.

Egwene rose to call her maids, but a knock at the door interrupted her. Curious, she walked across the thick rug—wearing only her nightgown— and opened the door enough to see Silviana standing in the antechamber. Square-featured and dressed in red, she had her hair up in its typical bun, and her red Keeper's stole over her shoulders.

'Mother,” the woman said, her voice tense. „I apologize for waking you.”

„I wasn't asleep,” Egwene said. „What is it? What has happened?”

„He's here, Mother. At the White Tower.”

„Who?”

„The Dragon Reborn. He's asking to see you.”

„Well, this is a pot of fisherman's stew made only with the heads,” Siuan said as she stalked through a hallway of the White Tower. „How did he get through the city without anyone seeing him?”

High Captain Chubain winced.

As well he should, Siuan thought. The raven-haired man wore the uniform of the Tower Guard, a white tabard over his mail emblazoned with the flame of Tar Valon. He walked with a hand on his sword. There had been some talk that he might be replaced as High Captain now that Bryne was in Tar Valon, but Egwene had followed Siuan's advice not to do so. Bryne didn't want to be High Captain, and he would be needed as a field general for the Last Battle.

Bryne was out with his men; finding quarters and food for fifty thousand troops was proving to be near impossible. She'd sent him word, and could feel him getting closer. Stern block of wood though the man was, Siuan felt that his stability would have been nice to have near her right now. The Dragon Reborn? Inside Tar Valon?

„It's not really that surprising he got so far, Siuan,” Saerin said. The olive-skinned Brown had been with Siuan when they'd seen the captain racing by, pale-faced. Saerin had white at her temples, some measure of age as an Aes Sedai, and had a scar on one cheek, the origin of which Siuan hadn't been able to pry out of her.

„There are hundreds of refugees pouring into the city each day,” Saerin continued, „and any man with half an inclination to fight is being sent for recruitment into the Tower Guard. It's no wonder nobody stopped al'Thor.”

Chubain nodded. „He was at the Sunset Gate before anyone questioned him. And then he just... well, he just said he was the Dragon Reborn, and that he wanted to see the Amyrlin. Didn't yell it out or anything, said it calm as spring rain.”

The hallways of the Tower were busy, though most of the women didn't seem to know what they were to do, darting this way and that like fish in a net.

Stop that, Siuan thought. He's come into our seat of power. He's the one caught in the net.

„What is his game, do you think?” Saerin asked.

„Burn me if I know,” Siuan replied. „He's bound to be mostly insane by now. Maybe he's frightened, and has come to turn himself in.”

„I doubt that.”

„As do I,” Siuan said grudgingly. During these last few days, she'd found—to her amazement—that she liked Saerin. As Amyrlin, Siuan hadn't had time for friendships; it had been too important to play the Ajahs off one another. She'd thought Saerin obstinate and frustrating. Now that they weren't butting heads so often, she found those attributes appealing.

„Maybe he heard that Elaida was gone,” Siuan said, „and thought that he would be safe here, with an old friend on the Amyrlin Seat.”

„That doesn't match what I've read of the boy,” Saerin replied. „Reports call him mistrustful and erratic, with a demanding temper and an insistence on avoiding Aes Sedai.”

That was what Siuan had heard as well, though it had been two years since she'd seen the boy. In fact, the last time he'd stood before her, she'd been the Amyrlin and he'd been a simple sheepherder. Most of what she knew of him since then had come through the Blue Ajah's eyes-and-ears. It took a great deal of skill to separate speculation from truth, but most agreed about al'Thor. Temperamental, distrustful, arrogant. Light burn Elaida! Siuan thought. If not for her, we'd have had him safely in Aes Sedai care long ago.

They climbed down three spiraling ramps and entered another of the White Tower's white-walled hallways, moving toward the Hall of the Tower. If the Amyrlin was going to receive the Dragon Reborn, then she'd do it there. Two twisting turns later—past mirrored stand-lamps and stately tapestries—they entered one last hallway and froze.

The floor tiles here were the color of blood. That wasn't right. The ones here should have been white and yellow. These glistened, as if wet.

Chubain inhaled sharply, hand going to his sword hilt. Saerin raised an eyebrow. Siuan was tempted to barrel onward, but these places where the Dark One had touched the world could be dangerous. She might find herself sinking through the floor, or being attacked by the tapestries.

The two Aes Sedai turned and walked the other way. Chubain lingered for a moment, then hurried after. It was easy to read the tension in his face. First the Seanchan, and now the Dragon Reborn himself, come to assault the Tower on his watch.

As they passed through the hallways, they met other sisters flowing in the same direction. Most of them wore their shawls. One might have argued that was because of the news of the day, but the truth was that many still held to their distrust of other Ajahs. Another reason to curse Elaida. Egwene had been working hard to reforge the Tower, but one couldn't mend years' worth of broken nets in one month.

They finally arrived at the Hall of the Tower. Sisters clustered in the wide hallway outside, divided by Ajah. Chubain hurried to speak with his guards at the door, and Saerin entered the Hall proper, where she could wait with the other Sitters. Siuan remained standing with the dozens outside.

Things were changing. Egwene had a new Keeper to replace Sheriarn. The choice of Silviana made a great deal of sense—the woman was known to have a level head, for a Red, and choosing her had helped forge the two halves of the Tower back together. But Siuan had harbored a small hope that she herself would be chosen. Now Egwene had so many demands on her time—and was becoming so capable on her own—that she was relying on Siuan less and less.

That was a good thing. But it was also infuriating.

The familiar hallways, the scent of freshly washed stone, the echoing of footsteps... When last she'd been in this place, she'd commanded it. No longer.

She had no mind to climb her way into prominence again. The Last Battle was upon them; she didn't want to spend her time dealing with the squabbles of the Blue Ajah as they reintegrated into the Tower. She wanted to do what she'd set out to do, all those years before with Moiraine. Shepherd the Dragon Reborn to the Last Battle.

Through the bond, she felt Bryne arrive before he spoke. „Now, there's a concerned face,” he said, piercing the hallways dozens of hushed conversations as he walked up behind her.

Siuan turned to him. He was stately and remarkably calm—particularly for a man who had been betrayed by Morgase Trakand, then sucked into Aes Sedai politics, then told he was going to be leading his troops on the front lines of the Last Battle. But that was Bryne. Serene to a fault. He soothed her worries just by being there.

„You came faster than I'd assumed you'd be able to,” she said. „And I do not have a 'concerned face,' Gareth Bryne. I'm Aes Sedai. My very nature is to be in control of myself and my surroundings.”

„Yes,” he said. „And yet, the more time I spend around the Aes Sedai, the more I wonder about that. Are they in control of their emotions? Or do those emotions just never change? If one is always concerned, one will always look the same.”

She eyed him. „Fool man.”

He smiled, turning to look through the hallway full of Aes Sedai and Warders. „I was already returning to the Tower with a report when your messenger found me. Thank you.”

„You're welcome,” she said gruffly.

„They're nervous,” he said. „I don't think I've ever seen the Aes Sedai like this.”

„Well, can you blame us?” she snapped.

He looked at her, then raised a hand to her shoulder. His strong, callused fingers brushed her neck. „What is wrong?”

She took a deep breath, glancing to the side as Egwene finally arrived, walking toward the Hall in conversation with Silviana. As usual, the somber Gawyn Trakand lurked behind like a distant shadow. Unacknowledged by Egwene, not bonded as her Warder, yet not cast from the Tower either. He'd spent the nights since the reunification guarding Egwene's doors, despite the fact that it angered her.

As Egwene neared the entrance to the Hall, sisters stepped back and made way, some reluctantly, others reverently. She'd brought the Tower to its knees from the inside, while being beaten every day and doused with so much forkroot she could barely light a candle with the Power. So young. Yet what was age to Aes Sedai?

„I always thought I would be the one in there,” Siuan said softly, just for Bryne. „That I would receive him, guide him. I was the one who was to be sitting in that chair.”

Bryne's grip tightened. „Siuan, I...”

„Oh, don't be like that,” she growled, looking at him. „I don't regret a thing.”

He frowned.

„It's for the best,” Siuan said, though it twisted her insides in knots to admit it. „For all her tyranny and foolishness, it is good that Elaida removed me, because that is what led us to Egwene. She'll do better than I could have. It's hard to swallow—I did well as Amyrlin, but I couldn't do that. Lead by presence instead of force, uniting instead of dividing. And so, I'm glad that Egwene is receiving him.”

Bryne smiled, and he squeezed her shoulder fondly.

„What?” she asked.

„I'm proud of you.”

She rolled her eyes. „Bah. That sentimentality of yours is going to drown me one of these days.”

„You can't hide your goodness from me, Siuan Sanche. I see your heart.”

„You are such a buffoon.”

„Regardless. You brought us here, Siuan. Whatever heights that girl climbs to, she'll do it because you carved the steps for her.”

„Yes, then handed the chisel to Elaida.” Siuan glanced toward Egwene, who stood inside the doorway into the Hall. The young Amyrlin glanced over the women gathered outside, and nodded in greeting to Siuan. Maybe even a little in respect.

„She's what we need now,” Bryne said, „but you're what we needed then. You did well, Siuan. She knows it, and the Tower knows it.”

That felt very good to hear. „Well. Did you see him when you came in?”

„Yes,” Bryne said. „He's standing below, watched over by at least a hundred Warders and twenty-six sisters—two full circles. Undoubtedly he's shielded, but all twenty-six women seemed in a near panic. Nobody dares touch him or bind him.”

„So long as he's shielded, it shouldn't matter. Did he look frightened? Haughty? Angry?”

„None of that.”

„Well, what did he look like, then?”

„Honestly, Siuan? He looked like an Aes Sedai.”

Siuan snapped her jaw closed. Was he taunting her again? No, the general seemed serious. But what did he mean?

Egwene entered the Hall, and then a white-dressed novice went scuttling away, tailed by two of Chubain's soldiers. Egwene had sent for the Dragon. Bryne remained with his hand on Siuan's shoulder, standing just behind her in the hallway. Siuan forced herself to be calm.

Eventually, she saw motion at the end of the hallway. Around her, sisters began to glow as they embraced the Source. Siuan resisted that mark of insecurity.

Soon a procession approached, Warders walking in a square around a tall figure in a worn brown cloak, twenty-six Aes Sedai following behind. The figure inside glowed to her eyes. She had the Talent of seeing ta'veren, and al'Thor was one of the most powerful of those to ever live.

She forced herself to ignore the glow, looking at al'Thor himself. It appeared that the boy had become a man. All hints of youthful softness were gone, replaced with hard lines. He'd lost the unconsciously slumped posture that many young men adapted, particularly the tall ones. Instead he embraced his height as a man should, walking with command. Siuan had seen false Dragons during her time as Amyrlin. Odd, how much this man should look like them. It was—

She froze as he met her eyes. There was something indefinable about them, a weight, an age. As though the man behind them was seeing through the light of a thousand lives compounded in one. His face did look like that of an Aes Sedai. Those eyes, at least, had agelessness.

The Dragon Reborn raised his right hand—his left arm was folded behind his back—and halted the procession. „If you please,” he said to the Warders, stepping through them.

The Warders, shocked, let him pass; the Dragon's soft voice made them

step away. They should have known better. Al'Thor walked up to Siuan, and she steeled herself. He was unarmed and shielded. He couldn't harm her. Still, Bryne stepped up to her side and lowered his hand to his sword.

„Peace, Gareth Bryne,” al'Thor said. „I will do no harm. You've let her bond you, I assume? Curious. Elayne will be interested to hear of that. And Siuan Sanche. You've changed since we last met.”

„Change comes to all of us as the Wheel turns.”

„An Aes Sedai answer for certain.” Al'Thor smiled. A relaxed, soft smile. That surprised her. „I wonder if I will ever grow accustomed to those. You once took an arrow for me. Did I thank you for that?”

„I didn't do it intentionally, as I recall,” she said dryly.

„You have my thanks nonetheless.” He turned toward the door to the Hall of the Tower. „What kind of Amyrlin is she?”

Why ask me? He couldn't know of the closeness between Siuan and Egwene. „She's an incredible one,” Siuan said. „One of the greatest we've had, for all the fact that she's only held the Seat a short time.”

He smiled again. „I should have expected nothing less. Strange, but I feel that seeing her again will hurt, though that is one wound that has well and truly healed. I can still remember the pain of it, I suppose.”

Light, but this man was making a muddle of her expectations! The White Tower was a place that should have unnerved any man who could channel, Dragon Reborn or not. Yet he didn't seem worried in the least.

She opened her mouth, but was cut off as an Aes Sedai pushed through the group. Tiana?

The woman pulled something out of her sleeve and proffered it to Rand. A small letter with a red seal. „This is for you,” she said. Her voice sounded tense, and her fingers trembled, though the tremble was so faint that most would have missed it. Siuan had learned to look for signs of emotion in Aes Sedai, however.

Al'Thor raised an eyebrow, then reached over and took it. „What is it?”

„I promised to deliver it,” Tiana said. „I would have said no, but I never thought you'd actually come to ... I mean...” She cut herself off, closing her mouth. Then she withdrew into the crowd.

Al'Thor slipped the note into his pocket without reading it. „Do your best to calm Egwene when I am done,” he said to Siuan. Then he took a deep breath and strode forward, ignoring his guards. They hastened after him, the Warders looking sheepish, but nobody dared touch him as he strode between the doors and into the Hall of the Tower.

Hairs bristled on Egwene's arms as Rand came into the room, unaccompanied. Aes Sedai outside crowded around the doorway, trying to look as if they were not gawking. Silviana glanced at Egwene. Should this meeting be Sealed to the Hall?

No, Egwene thought.. They need to see me confront him. Light, but I don't feel ready for this.

There was no helping it. She steeled herself, repeating in her head the same words she'd been going over all morning. This was not Rand al'Thor, friend of her childhood, the man she'd assumed that she'd one day marry. Rand al'Thor she could be lenient with, but leniency here could bring about the end of the world.

No. This man was the Dragon Reborn. The most dangerous man ever to draw breath. Tall, much more confident than she ever remembered him being. He wore simple clothing.

He walked directly into the center of the Hall, his Warder guards remaining outside. He stopped in the center of the Flame on the floor, surrounded by Sitters in their seats.

„Egwene,” Rand said, voice echoing in the chamber. He nodded to her, as if in respect. „You have done your part, I see. The Amyrlin's stole fits you well.”

From what she had heard of Rand recently, she had not anticipated such calm in him. Perhaps it was the calm of the criminal who had finally given himself up.

Was that how she thought of him? As a criminal? He had done acts that certainly seemed criminal; he had destroyed, he had conquered. When she'd last spent any length of time with Rand, they had traveled through the Aiel Waste. He had become a hard man during those months, and she saw that hardness in him still. But there was something else, something deeper.

„What has happened to you?” she found herself asking as she leaned forward on the Amyrlin Seat.

„I was broken,” Rand said, hands behind his back. 'And then, remarkably, I was reforged. I think he almost had me, Egwene. It was Cadsuane who set me to fixing it, though she did so by accident. Still, I shall have to lift her exile, I suspect.”

He spoke differently. There was a formality to his words that she didn't recognize. In another man, she would have assumed a cultured, educated background. But Rand didn't have that. Could tutors have trained him so quickly?

„Why have you come before the Amyrlin Seat?” she asked. „Have you come to make a petition, or have you come to surrender yourself to the White Tower's guidance?”

He studied her, hands still behind his back. Just behind him, thirteen sisters quietly filed into the Hall, the glow of saidar around them as they maintained his shield.

Rand didn't seem to care about that. He studied the room, looking at the various Sitters. His eyes lingered on the seats of Reds, two of which were empty. Pevara and Javindhra hadn't yet returned from their unknown mission. Only Barasine—newly chosen to replace Duhara—was in attendance. To her credit, she met Rand's eyes evenly.

„I've hated you before,” Rand said, turning back to Egwene. „I've felt a lot of emotions, in recent months. It seems that from the very moment Moiraine came to the Two Rivers, I've been struggling to avoid Aes Sedai strings of control. And yet, I allowed other strings—more dangerous strings—to wrap around me unseen.

„It occurs to me that I've been trying too hard. I worried that if I listened to you, you'd control me. It wasn't a desire for independence that drove me, but a fear of irrelevance. A fear that the acts I accomplished would be yours, and not my own.” He hesitated. „I should have wished for such a convenient set of backs upon which to heap the blame for my crimes.”

Egwene frowned. The Dragon Reborn had come to the White Tower to engage in idle philosophy? Perhaps he had gone mad. „Rand,” Egwene said, softening her tone. „I'm going to have some sisters talk to you to decide if there is anything... wrong with you. Please try to understand.”

Once they knew more about his state, they could decide what to do with him. The Dragon Reborn did need freedom to do as the prophecies said he would, but could they simply let him roam away, now that they had him?

Rand smiled. „Oh, I do understand, Egwene. And I am sorry to deny you, but I have too much to do. People starve because of me, others live in terror of what I have done. A friend rides to his death without allies. There is so little time to do what I must.”

„Rand,” Egwene said, „we have to make sure.”

He nodded, as if in understanding. „This is the part I regret. I did not wish to come into your center of power, which you have achieved so well, and defy you. But it cannot be helped. You must know what my plans are so that you can prepare.

„The last time I tried to seal the Bore, I was forced to do it without the help of the women. That was part of what led to disaster, though they may have been wise to deny me their strength. Well, blame must be spread evenly, but I will not make the same mistakes a second time. I believe that saidin and saidar must both be used. I don't have the answers yet.”

Egwene leaned forward, studying him. There didn't seem to be madness in his eyes. She knew those eyes. She knew Rand.

Light, she thought. I'm wrong. I can't think of him only as the Dragon Reborn. I'm here for a reason. He's here for a reason. To me, he must be Rand. Because Rand can be trusted, while the Dragon Reborn must be feared.

„Which are you?” she whispered unconsciously.

He heard. „I am both, Egwene. I remember him. Lews Therin. I can see his entire life, every desperate moment. I see it like a dream, but a clear dream. My own dream. It's part of me.”

The words were those of a madman, but they were spoken evenly. She looked at him, and remembered the youth that he had been. The earnest young man. Not solemn like Perrin, but not wild like Mat. Solid, straightforward. The type of man you could trust with anything.

Even the fate of the world.

„In one month's time,” Rand said, „I'm going to travel to Shayol Ghul and break the last remaining seals on the Dark One's prison. I want your help.”

Break the seals? She saw the image from her dream, Rand hacking at the ropes that bound the crystalline globe. „Rand, no,” she said.

„I'm going to need you, all of you,” he continued. „I hope to the Light that this time, you will give me your support. I want you to meet with me on the day before I go to Shayol Ghul. And then... well, then we will discuss my terms.”

„Your terms?” Egwene demanded.

„You will see,” he said, turning as if to leave.

„Rand al'Thor!” she said, rising. „You will not turn your back on the Amyrlin Seat!”

He froze, then turned back toward her.

„You can't break the seals,” Egwene said. „That would risk letting the Dark One free.”

„A risk we must take. Clear away the rubble. The Bore must be opened fully again before it can be sealed.”

„We must talk about this,” she said. „Plan.”

„That is why I came to you. To let you plan.”

He seemed amused. Light! She sat back down, angry. That bullhead-edness of his was just like that of his father. „There are things we must speak of, Rand. Not just this, but other things—the sisters your men have bonded not the least among them.”

„We can speak of that when we next meet.”

She frowned at him.

„And so here we come to it,” Rand said. He bowed to her—a shallow bow, almost more a tip of the head. „Egwene al'Vere, Watcher of the Seals, Flame of Tar Valon, may I have your permission to withdraw?”

He asked it so politely. She couldn't tell if he was mocking her or not. She met his eyes. Don't make me do anything I would regret, his expression seemed to say.

Could she really confine him here? After what she'd said to Elaida about him needing to be free?

„I will not let you break the seals,” she said. „That is madness.”

„Then meet with me at the place known as the Field of Merrilor, just to the north. We will talk before I go to Shayol Ghul. For now, I do not want to defy you, Egwene. But I must go.”

Neither of them looked away. The others in the room seemed not to breathe. The chamber was still enough for Egwene to hear the faint breeze making the rose window groan in its lead.

„Very well,” Egwene said. „But this is not ended, Rand.”

„There are no endings, Egwene,” he replied, then nodded to her and turned to walk from the Hall. Light! He was missing his left hand! How had that happened?

The sisters and Warders reluctantly parted for him. Egwene raised a hand to her head, feeling dizzy.

„Light!” Silviana said. „How could you think during that, Mother?”

„What?” Egwene looked about the Hall. Many of the Sitters were slumping visibly in their seats.

„Something gripped my heart,” Barasine said, raising a hand to her breast, „squeezing it tight. I didn't dare speak.”

„I tried to speak,” Yukiri said. „My mouth wouldn't move.”

„Ta'veren” Saerin said. „But an effect as strong as that ... I felt that it would crush me from the inside.”

„How did you resist it, Mother?” Silviana asked.

Egwene frowned. She hadn't felt that way. Perhaps because she thought of him as Rand. „We need to discuss his words. The Hall of the Tower will reconvene in one hour's time for discussion.” That conversation would be Sealed to the Hall. „And someone follow to make sure he really leaves.”

„Gareth Bryne is doing so,” Chubain said from outside.

The Sitters pulled themselves to their feet, shaken. Silviana leaned down. „You're right, Mother. He can't be allowed to break the seals. But what are we to do? If you won't hold him captive...”

„I doubt we could have held him,” Egwene said. „There's something about him. I... I had the sense he could have broken that shield without a struggle.”

„Then how? How do we stop him?”

„We need allies,” Egwene said. She took a deep breath. „He might be persuaded by people that he trusts.” Or he might be forced to change his mind if confronted by a large enough group united to stop him.

It was now more vital that she speak with Elayne and Nynaeve.

CHAPTER 4
The Pattern Groans

What is it?” Perrin asked, trying to ignore the sharp scent of rotting meat. He couldn't see any corpses, but by his nose, the ground should be littered with them.

He stood with an advance group at the side of the Jehannah Road, looking northward across a rolling plain with few trees. The grass was brown and yellow, as in other places, but it grew darker farther away from the road, as if infected with some disease.

„I've seen this before,” Seonid said. The diminutive, pale-skinned Aes Sedai stooped at the edge of the road, turning the leaf of a small weed over in her fingers. She wore green wool, fine but unornamented, her only jewelry her Great Serpent ring.

Thunder rumbled softly above. Six Wise Ones stood behind Seonid, arms folded, faces unreadable. Perrin hadn't considered telling the Wise Ones—or their two Aes Sedai apprentices—to stay behind. He was probably lucky they let him accompany them.

„Yes,” Nevarin said, bracelets clattering as she knelt and took the leaf from Seonid. „I visited the Blight once as a girl; my father felt it important for me to see. This looks like what I saw there.”

Perrin had been to the Blight only once, but the look of those dark specks was indeed distinctive. A redjay fluttered down to one of the distant trees and began picking at branches and leaves, but found nothing of interest and took wing again.

The disturbing thing was, the plants here seemed better than many they'd passed along the way. Covered with spots, but alive, even thriving.

Light, Perrin thought, taking the leaf as Nevarin handed it to him. It smelled of decay. What kind of world is it where the Blight is the good alternative?

„Mori circled the entire patch,” Nevarin said, nodding to a Maiden standing nearby. „It grows darker near the center. She could not see what was there.”

Perrin nudged Stayer down off the road. Faile followed; she didn't smell the least bit afraid, though Perrin's Two Rivers armsmen hesitated.

„Lord Perrin?” Wil called.

„It's probably not dangerous,” Perrin said. „Animals still move in and out of it.” The Blight was dangerous because of what lived there. And if those beasts had somehow come southward, they needed to know. The Aiel strode after him without a comment. And since Faile had joined him, Berelain had to as well, Annoura and Gallenne trailing her. Blessedly, Alliandre had agreed to remain behind, in charge of the camp and refugees while Perrin was away.

The horses were already skittish, and the surroundings didn't help their moods any. Perrin breathed through his mouth to dampen the stench of rot and death. The ground was wet here too—if only those clouds would pass so they could get some good sunlight to dry the soil—and the horses' footing was treacherous, so they took their time. Most of the meadow was covered in grass, clover and small weeds, and the farther they rode, the more pervasive the dark spots became. Within minutes, many of the plants were more brown than they were green or yellow.

Eventually they came to a small dale nestled amid three hillsides. Perrin pulled Stayer to a halt; the others bunched up around him. There was a strange village here. The buildings were huts built from an odd type of wood, like large reeds, and the roofs were thatch—but thatch built from enormous leaves, as wide as two man's palms.

There were no plants here, only a very sandy soil. Perrin slid free of the saddle and stooped down to feel it, rubbing the gritty stuff between his fingers. He looked at the others. They smelled confused.

He cautiously led Stayer forward into the center of the village. The Blight was radiating from this point, but the village itself showed no touch of it. Maidens scattered forward, veils in place, Sulin at their head. They did a quick inspection of the huts, signing to one another with quick gestures, then returned.

„Nobody?” Faile asked.

„No,” Sulin said, cautiously lowering her veil. „This place is deserted.”

„Who would build a village like this,” Perrin asked, „in Ghealdan of all places?”

„It wasn't built here,” Masuri said.

Perrin turned toward the slender Aes Sedai.

„This village is not native to this area,” Masuri said. „The wood is unlike anything I've seen before.”

'The Pattern groans,” Berelain said softly. „The dead walking, the odd deaths. In cities, rooms vanish and food spoils.”

Perrin scratched his chin, remembering a day when his axe had tried to kill him. If entire villages were vanishing and appearing in other places, if the Blight was growing out of rifts where the Pattern was fraying... Light! How bad were things becoming?

„Burn the village,” he said, turning. „Use the One Power. Scour as many of the tainted plants as you can. Maybe we can keep it from spreading. We'll move the army to that camp an hour away, and will stay there tomorrow if you need more time.”

For once, neither the Wise Ones nor the Aes Sedai voiced so much as a sniff of complaint at the direct order.

Hunt with us, brother.

Perrin found himself in the wolf dream. He vaguely remembered sitting drowsily by the dwindling light of an open lamp, a single flame shivering on its tip, waiting to hear a report from those dealing with the strange village. He had been reading a copy of The Travels of Jain Farstrider that Gaul had found among the salvage from Maiden.

Now Perrin lay on his back in the middle of a large field with grass as tall as a man's waist. He gazed up, grass brushing his cheeks and arms as it shivered in the wind. In the sky, that same storm brewed, here as in the waking world. More violent here.

Staring up at it—his vision framed by the stalks of brown and green grass and stems of wild millet—he could almost feel the storm growing closer. As if it was crawling down out of the sky to engulf him.

Young Bull! Come! Come hunt!

The voice was that of a wolf. Perrin by instinct knew that she was called Oak Dancer, named for the way she had scampered between saplings as a whelp. There were others, too. Whisperer. Morninglight. Sparks, boundless. A good dozen wolves called to him, some living wolves who slept, others the spirits of wolves who had died.

They called to him with a mixture of scents and images and sounds. The smell of a spring buck, pocking the earth with its leaps. Fallen leaves crumbling beneath running wolves. The growls of victory, the thrill of a pack running together.

The invitations awakened something deep within him, the wolf he tried to keep locked away. But a wolf could not be locked up for long. It: either escaped or it died; it would not stand captivity. He longed to leap to his feet and send his joyous acceptance, losing himself in the pack. He was Young Bull, and he was welcome here.

„No!” Perrin said, sitting up, holding his head. „I will not lose myself in you.”

Hopper sat in the grass to his right. The large gray wolf regarded Perrin, golden eyes unblinking, reflecting flashes of lighting from above. The grass came up to Hopper's neck.

Perrin lowered a hand from his head. The air was heavy, full of humidity, and it smelled of rain. Above the scent of the weather and that of the dry field, he could smell Hopper's patience.

You are invited, Young Bull, Hopper sent.

„I can't hunt with you,” Perrin explained. „Hopper, we spoke of this. I'm losing myself. When I go into battle, I become enraged. Like a wolf.”

Like a wolf? Hopper sent. Young Bull, you are a wolf. And a man. Come hunt.

„I told you I can't! I will not let this consume me.” He thought of a young man with golden eyes, locked in a cage, all humanity gone from him. His name had been Noam—Perrin had seen him in a village called Jarra.

Light, Perrin thought. That's not far from here. Or at least not far from where his body slumbered in the real world. Jarra was in Ghealdan. An odd coincidence.

With a ta veren nearby, there are no coincidences.

He frowned, rising and scanning the landscape. Moiraine had told Perrin there was nothing human left inside of Noam. That was what awaited a wolfbrother if he let himself be completely consumed by the wolf.

„I must learn to control this, or I must banish the wolf from me,” Perrin said. „There is no time left for compromise, Hopper.”

Hopper smelled dissatisfied. He didn't like what he'd called a human tendency to wish to control things.

Come, Hopper sent, standing up in the grass. Hunt.

Come learn, Hopper sent, frustrated. The Last Hunt comes.

Hopper's sendings included the image of a young pup making his first kill. That and a worry for the future—a normally unwolflike attribute, the Last Hunt brought change.

Perrin hesitated. In a previous visit to the wolf dream, Perrin had demanded that Hopper train him to master the place. Very inappropriate for a young wolf—a kind of challenge to the elder's seniority—but this was a response. Hopper had come to teach, but he would do it as a wolf taught.

„I'm sorry,” Perrin said. „I will hunt with you—but I must not lose myself.”

These things you think, Hopper sent, displeased. How can you think such images of nothing? The response was accompanied by images of blankness—an empty sky, a den with nobody in it, a barren field. You are Young Bull. You will always be Young Bull. How can you lose Young Bull? Look down, and you will see his paws beneath. Bite, and his teeth will kill. There is no losing this.

„It is a thing of humans.”

The same empty words over and over, Hopper sent.

Perrin took a deep breath, sucking in and releasing the too-wet air. „Very well,” he said, hammer and knife appearing in his hands. „Let's go.”

You hunt game with your hooves? An image of a bull ignoring its horns and trying to leap onto the back of a deer and stomp it to the ground.

„You're right.” Perrin was suddenly holding a good Two Rivers longbow. He wasn't as good a shot as Jondyn Barran or Rand, but he could hold his own.

Hopper sent a bull spitting at a deer. Perrin growled, sending back a wolf's claws shooting from its paws and striking a deer at a distance, but this only seemed to amuse Hopper further. Despite his annoyance, Perrin had to admit that it was a rather ridiculous image.

The wolf sent the image to the others, causing them to howl in amusement, though most of them seemed to prefer the bull jumping up and down on the deer. Perrin growled, chasing after Hopper toward the distant woods, where the other wolves waited.

As he ran, the grasses seemed to grow more dense. They held him back, like snarled forest undergrowth. Hopper soon outpaced him.

Run, Young Bull!

I'm trying, Perrin sent back.

Not as you have before!

Perrin continued to push his way through the grass. This strange Place, this wonderful world where wolves ran, could be intoxicating. And dangerous. Hopper had warned Perrin of that more than once.

Dangers for tomorrow. Ignore them for now, Hopper sent, growing more distant. Worry is for two-legs.

I can't ignore my problems! Perrin thought back.

Yet you often do, Hopper sent.

It struck true—more true, perhaps, than the wolf knew. Perrin burst into a clearing and pulled to a halt. There, lying on the ground, were the three chunks of metal he'd forged in his earlier dream. The large lump the size of two fists, the flattened rod, the thin rectangle. The rectangle glowed faintly yellow-red, singeing the short grass around it.

The lumps vanished immediately, though the simmering rectangle left a burned spot. Perrin looked up, searching for the wolves. Ahead of him, in the sky above the trees ahead, a large hole of blackness opened up. He could not tell how far it was away, and it seemed to dominate all he could see while being distant at the same time.

Mat stood there. He was fighting against himself, a dozen different men wearing his face, all dressed in different types of fine clothing. Mat spun his spear, and never saw the shadowy figure creeping behind him, bearing a bloody knife.

„Mat!” Perrin cried, but he knew it was meaningless. This thing he was seeing, it was some kind of dream or vision of the future. It had been some time since he'd seen one of these. He'd almost begun to think they would stop coming.

He turned away and another darkness opened in the sky. He saw sheep, suddenly, running in a flock toward the woods. Wolves chased them, and a terrible beast waited in the woods, unseen. He was there, in that dream, he sensed. But who was he chasing, and why? Something looked wrong with those wolves.

A third darkness, to the side. Faile, Grady, Elyas, Gaul ... all walked toward a cliff, followed by thousands of others.

The vision closed. Hopper suddenly shot back through the air, landing beside Perrin, skidding to a stop. The wolf wouldn't have seen the holes; they had never appeared to his eyes. Instead, he regarded the burned patch with disdain and sent the image of Perrin, unkempt and bleary-eyed, his beard and hair untrimmed and his clothing disheveled. Perrin remembered the time; it had been during the early days of Faile's captivity.

Had he really looked that bad? Light, but he seemed ragged. Almost like a beggar. Or... like Noam.

„Stop trying to confuse me!” Perrin said. „I became that way because I was dedicated to finding Faile, not because I was giving in to the wolves!”

The newest pups always blame the elders of the pack. Hopper bounded through the grasses again.

What did that mean? The scents and images confused him. Growling,

Perrin charged forward, leaving the clearing and reentering the grasses. Once again the stalks resisted him. It was like fighting against a current, Hopper shot on ahead.

„Burn you, wait for me!” Perrin yelled.

If we wait, we lose the prey. Run, Young Bull!

Perrin gritted his teeth. Hopper was a speck in the distance now, almost to the trees. Perrin wanted to think on those visions, but there wasn't time. If he lost Hopper, he knew that he would not see him again this night. Fine, he thought with resignation.

The land lurched around him, grasses speeding by in a flash. It was as if Perrin had leaped a hundred paces in one step. He stepped again, shooting forward. He left a faint blur behind him.

The grasses parted for him. The wind blew in his face with a comfortable roar. That primal wolf inside of him sparked to wakefulness. Perrin reached the woods and slowed. Each step now took him a jump of only about ten feet. The other wolves were there, and they formed up and ran with him, excited.

Two feet, Young Bull? Oak Dancer asked. She was a youthful female, her pelt so light as to be almost white, with a streak of black running along her right side.

He didn't answer, though he did allow himself to run with them through the trees. What had seemed like a small stand had become an expansive forest. Perrin moved past trunks and ferns, barely feeling the ground beneath his feet.

This was the way to run. Powerful. Energetic. He loped over fallen logs, his jumps taking him so high that his hair brushed the bottoms of the branches. He landed smoothly. The forest was his. It belonged to him, and he understood it.

His worries began to melt away. He allowed himself to accept things as they were, not as what he feared they might become. These wolves were his brothers and sisters. A running wolf in the real world was a masterwork of balance and control. Here—where the rules of nature bent to their will— they were far more. Wolves bounded to the sides and leaped off trees, nothing holding them to the ground. Some actually took to the branches, soaring from limb to limb.

It was exhilarating. Had he ever felt so alive? So much a part of the world around him, yet master of it at the same time? The rough, regal leatherleafs were interspersed with yew and the occasional ornamented spicewood in full bloom. He threw himself into the air as he passed one of these, the wind of his passing pulling a storm of crimson blossoms from the branches. They surged around him in a swirling blur, caught in the currents, cradling him in their sweet scent.

The wolves began to howl. To men, one howl was like another. To Perrin, each was distinct. These were the howls of pleasure, the initiation of a hunt.

Wait. This is what I feared! I cannot let myself be trapped. I am a man, not a wolf

At that moment, however, he caught scent of a stag. A mighty animal, worthy prey. It had passed this way recently.

Perrin tried to restrain himself, but anticipation proved too strong. He tore off down the game trail after the scent. The wolves, including Hopper, did not race ahead of him. They ran with him, their scents pleased as they let him take the lead.

He was the herald, the point, the tip of the attack. The hunt roared behind him. It was as if he led the crashing waves of the ocean itself. But he was also holding them back.

I cannot make them slow for me, Perrin thought.

And then he was on all fours, his bow tossed aside and forgotten, his hands and legs becoming paws. Those behind him howled anew at the glory of it. Young Bull had truly joined them.

The stag was ahead. Young Bull picked it out through the trees; it was a brilliant white, with a rack of at least twenty-six points, the winter felt worn away. And it was enormous, larger than a horse. The stag turned, looking sharply at the pack. It met Perrins eyes, and he smelled its alarm. Then, with a powerful surge of its hind legs—flanks taut with muscles— the stag leaped off the trail.

Young Bull howled his challenge, racing through the underbrush in pursuit. The great white stag bounded on, each leap taking it twenty paces. It never hit a branch or lost its footing, despite the treacherous forest floor coated with slick moss.

Young Bull followed with precision, placing his paws where hooves had fallen just moments before, matching each stride exactly. He could hear the stag panting, could see the sweat foaming on its coat, could smell its fear.

But no. Young Bull would not accept the inferior victory of running his prey to exhaustion. He would taste the blood of the throat, pumping full force from a healthy heart. He would best his prey in its prime.

He began to vary his leaps, not following the stag's exact path. He needed to be ahead, not follow! The stag's scent grew more alarmed. That drove Young Bull to greater speed. The stag bolted to the right, and Young

Bull leaped, hitting an upright tree trunk with all four paws and pushing himself sideways to change directions. His turn gained him a fraction of a heartbeat.

Soon he was bounding a single breath behind the stag, each leap bringing him within inches of its hooves. He howled, and his brothers and sisters replied from just behind. This hunt was all of them. As one.

But Young Bull led.

His howl became a growl of triumph as the stag turned again. The chance had come! Young Bull leaped over a log and seized the stag's neck in his jaws. He could taste the sweat, the fur, the warm blood beneath pooling around his fangs. His weight threw the stag to the ground. As they rolled, Young Bull kept his grip, forcing the stag to the forest floor, its skin laced scarlet with blood.

The wolves howled in victory, and he let go for a moment, intending to bite at the front of the neck and kill. There was nothing else. The forest was gone. The howls faded. There was only the kill. The sweet kill.

A form crashed into him, throwing him back into the brush. Young Bull shook his head, dazed, snarling. Another wolf had stopped him. Hopper! Why?

The stag bounded to its feet, and then bounded off through the forest again. Young Bull howled in fury and rage, preparing to run after it. Again Hopper leaped, throwing his weight against Young Bull.

If it dies here, it dies the last death, Hopper sent. This hunt is done, Young Bull. We will hunt another time.

Young Bull nearly turned to attack Hopper. But no. He had tried that once, and it had been a mistake. He was not a wolf. He—

Perrin lay on the ground, tasting blood that was not his own, exhaling deeply, his face dripping with sweat. He pushed himself to his knees, then sat down, panting, shaking from that beautiful, terrifying hunt.

The other wolves sat down, but they did not speak. Hopper lay beside Perrin, setting his grizzled head on aged paws.

„That,” Perrin finally said, „is what I fear.”

No, you do not fear it, Hopper sent.

„You're telling me what I feel?”

You do not smell afraid, Hopper sent.

Perrin lay back, staring up at the branches above, twigs and leaves crumpling beneath him. His heart thumped from the chase. „I worry about it, then.”

Worry is not the same as fear, Hopper sent. Why say one and feel the other? worry, worry, worry. It is all that you do.

„No. I also kill. If you're going to teach me to master the wolf dream, it's going to happen like this?”

Yes.

Perrin looked to the side. The stag's blood had spilled on a dry log, darkness seeping into the wood. Learning this way would push him to the very edge of becoming a wolf.

But he had been avoiding this issue for too long, making horseshoes in the forge while leaving the most difficult and demanding pieces alone, un-touched. He relied on the powers of scent he'd been given, reaching out to wolves when he needed them—but otherwise he'd ignored them.

You couldn't make a thing until you understood its parts. He wouldn't know how to deal with—or reject—the wolf inside him until he understood the wolf dream.

„Very well,” Perrin said. „So be it.”

Galad cantered Stout through the camp. On all sides, Children erected tents and dug firepits, preparing for the night. His men marched almost until nightfall each day, then arose early in the morning. The sooner they reached Andor, the better.

Those Light-cursed swamps were behind them; now they traveled over open grasslands. Perhaps it would have been faster to cut east and catch one of the great highways to the north, but that wouldn't be safe. Best to stay away from the movements of the Dragon Reborn's armies and the Seanchan. The Light would shine upon the Children, but more than one valiant hero had died within that Light. If there was no danger of death, there could be no bravery, but Galad would rather have the Light shine on him while he continued to draw breath.

They had camped near the Jehannah Road and would cross it on the morrow to continue north. He had sent a patrol to watch the road. He wanted to know what kind of traffic the highway was drawing, and he was in particular need of supplies.

Galad continued on his rounds through camp, accompanied by a handful of mounted attendants, ignoring the aches of his various wounds. The camp was orderly and neat. The tents were grouped by legion, then set up forming concentric rings with no straight pathways. That was intended to confuse and slow attackers.

A section of the camp lay empty near the middle. A hole in the formation where the Questioners had once set up their tents. He had ordered the

Ouestioners spread out, two assigned to each company. If the Questioners were not set apart from the others, perhaps they would feel more kinship with the other Children. Galad made a note to himself to draw up a new camp layout, eliminating that hole.

Galad and his companions continued through the camp. He rode to be seen, and men saluted as he passed. He remembered well the words that Gareth Bryne had once said: Most of the time, a general's most important function was not to make decisions, but to remind men that someone would make decisions.

„My Lord Captain Commander,” said one of his companions. Brandel Vordarian. He was an older man, eldest of the Lords Captain who served under Galad. „I wish you would reconsider sending this missive.”

Vordarian rode directly beside Galad, with Trom on his other side. Lords Captain Golever and Harnesh rode behind, within earshot, and Bornhald followed, acting as Galad s bodyguard for the day.

„The letter must be sent,” Galad said.

„It seems foolhardy, my Lord Captain Commander,” Vordarian continued. Clean-shaven, with silver washing his golden hair, the Andoran was an enormous square of a man. Galad was vaguely familiar with Vordarian's family, minor nobles who had been involved in his mother's court.

Only a fool refused to listen to advice from those older and wiser than himself. But only a fool took all of the advice given him.

„Perhaps foolhardy,” Galad replied. „But it is the right thing to do.” The letter was addressed to the remaining Questioners and Children under the control of the Seanchan; there would be some who had not come with Asu-nawa. In the letter, Galad explained what had happened, and commanded them to report to him as soon as possible. It was unlikely any would come, but the others had a right to know what had happened.

Lord Vordarian sighed, then made way as Harnesh rode up beside Galad. The bald man scratched absently at the scar tissue where his left ear had been. „Enough about this letter, Vordarian. The way you go on about it tries my patience.” From Galad's observation, there were many things that tried the Murandian's patience.

„You have other matters you wish to discuss, I assume?” Galad nodded to a pair of Children cutting logs, who stopped their work to salute him.

„You told Child Bornhald, Child Byar, and others that you plan to ally us with the witches of Tar Valon!”

Galad nodded. „I understand that the notion might be troubling, but if you consider, you will see that it is the only right decision.”

„But the witches are evil!”

„Perhaps,” Galad said. Once, he might have denied that. But listening to the other Children, and considering what those at Tar Valon had done to | his sister, was making him think he might be too soft on the Aes Sedai. „However, Lord Harnesh, if they are evil, they are insignificant when compared to the Dark One. The Last Battle comes. Do you deny this?”

Harnesh and the others looked up at the sky. That dreary overcast had stretched for weeks now. The day before, another man had fallen to a strange illness where beetles had come from his mouth as he coughed. Their food stores were diminishing as more and more was found spoiled.

„No, I do not deny it,” Harnesh muttered.

„Then you should rejoice,” Galad said, „for the way is clear. We must fight at the Last Battle. Our leadership there may show the way of Light to many who have spurned us. But if it does not, we will fight regardless, for it is our duty. Do you deny this, Lord Captain?”

„Again, no. But the witches, my Lord Captain Commander?”

Galad shook his head. „I can think of no way around it. We need allies. Look about you, Lord Harnesh. How many Children do we have? Even with recent recruits, we are under twenty thousand. Our fortress has been taken. We are without succor or allegiance, and the great nations of the world revile us. No, don't deny it! You know that it is true.”

Galad met the eyes of those around him, and one by one they nodded.

„The Questioners are at fault,” Harnesh muttered.

„Part of the blame is theirs,” Galad agreed. „But it is also because those who would do evil look with disgust and resentment upon those who stand for what is right.”

The others nodded.

„We must tread carefully,” Galad said. „In the past, the boldness—and perhaps overeagerness—of the Children has alienated those who should have been our allies. My mother always said that a victory of diplomacy did not come when everyone got what they wanted—that made everyone assume they'd gotten the better of her, which encouraged more extravagant demands. The trick is not to satisfy everyone, but to leave everyone feeling they reached the best possible result. They must be satisfied enough to do as you wish, yet dissatisfied enough to know that you bested them.”

„And what does this have to do with us?” Golever said from behind. „We follow no queen or king.”

„Yes,” Galad said, „and that frightens monarchs. I grew up in the court of Andor. I know how my mother regarded the Children. In every dealing with them, she either grew frustrated or decided that she had to suppress them absolutely. We cannot afford either reaction! The monarchs of these lands must respect us, not hate us.”

„Darkfriends,” Harnesh muttered.

„My mother was no Darkfriend,” Galad said quietly.

Harnesh flushed. „Excepting her, of course.”

„You speak like a Questioner,” Galad said. „Suspecting everyone who opposes us of being a Darkfriend. Many of them are influenced by the Shadow, but I doubt that it is conscious. That is where the Hand of the Light went wrong. The Questioners often could not tell the difference between a hardened Darkfriend, a person who was being influenced by Darkfriends, and a person who simply disagreed with the Children.”

„So what do we do?” Vordarian asked. „We bow to the whims of monarchs?”

„I don't yet know what to do,” Galad confessed. „I will think on it. The right course will come to me. We cannot become lapdogs to kings and queens. And yet, think of what we could achieve inside of a nations boundaries if we could act without needing an entire legion to intimidate that nation's ruler.”

The others nodded at this, thoughtful.

„My Lord Captain Commander!” a voice called.

Galad turned to see Byar on his white stallion cantering toward them. The horse had belonged to Asunawa; Galad had refused it, preferring his own bay. Galad pulled his group to a halt as the gaunt-faced Byar neared, his white tabard pristine. Byar wasn't the most likable of men in the camp, but he had proven to be loyal.

Byar was not, however, supposed to be in the camp.

„I set you watching Jehannah Road, Child Byar,” Galad said firmly. „That duty was not to end for a good four hours yet.”

Byar saluted as he pulled up. „My Lord Captain Commander. We captured a suspicious group of travelers on the road. What would you have us do with them?”

„You captured them?” Galad asked. „I sent you to watch the road, not take prisoners.”

„My Lord Captain Commander,” Byar said. „How are we to know the character of those passing unless we speak with them? You wanted us to watch for Darkfriends.”

Galad sighed. „I wanted you to watch for troop movements or merchants we could approach, Child Byar.”

These Darkfriends have supplies,” Byar said. „I think they might be merchants.”

Galad sighed. Nobody could deny Byar's dedication—he'd ridden with Galad to face Valda when it could have meant the end of his career. And yet there was such a thing as being too zealous.

The thin officer looked troubled. Well, Galad s instructions hadn't been precise enough. He would have to remember that in the future, par-ticularly with Byar. „Peace,” Galad said, „you did no wrong, Child Byar. How many of these prisoners are there?”

„Dozens, my Lord Captain Commander.” Byar looked relieved. „Come.”

He turned his mount to lead the way. Already, cook fires were springing up in the pits, the scent of burning tinder rising in the air. Galad caught slices of conversation as he rode past the soldiers. What would the Seanchan do with those Children who had remained behind? Was it really the Dragon Reborn who had conquered Illian and Tear, or some false Dragon? There was talk of a gigantic stone from the sky having struck the earth far to the north in Andor, destroying an entire city and leaving a crater.

The talk among the men revealed their worries. They should have understood that worry served no useful function. None could know the weaving of the Wheel.

Byar's captives turned out to be a group of people with a surprisingly large number of heavily laden carts, perhaps a hundred or more. The people clustered together around their carts, regarding the Children with hostility. Galad frowned, doing a quick inspection.

„That's quite a caravan,” Bornhald said softly at his side. „Merchants?”

„No,” Galad said softly. „That's travel furniture—notice the pegs on the sides, so they can be carried in pieces. Sacks of barley for horses. Those are farrier's tools wrapped in canvas at the back of that cart to the right. See the hammers peeking out?”

„Light!” Bornhald whispered. He saw it too. These were the camp followers of an army of substantial size. But where were the soldiers?

„Be ready to separate them,” Galad told Bornhald, dismounting. He walked up to the lead cart. The man driving it had a thick figure and a ruddy face, with hair that had been arranged in a very poor attempt at hiding his increasing baldness. He nervously worked a brown felt hat in his hands, a pair of gloves tucked into the belt of his stout jacket. Galad could see no weapons on him.

Beside the cart stood two others, much younger. One was a bulky, muscular type with the look of a fighter—but not a soldier—who could be some trouble. A pretty woman clutched his arm, biting her lower lip.

The man in the cart gave a start upon seeing Galad. Ah, Galad thought, so he knows enough to recognize Morgase's stepson.

„So, travelers,” Galad said carefully. „My man says you told him that you are merchants?”

„Yes, good Lord,” said the driver.

„I know little of this area. Are you familiar with it?”

„Not much, sir,” the driver said, wringing that hat in his hands. „We are actually far from home ourselves. I am Basel Gill, of Caemlyn. I have come south seeking business with a merchant in Ebou Dar. But these Sean-chan invaders have left me unable to do my trade.”

He seemed very nervous. At least he hadn't lied about where he was from. „And what was this merchant's name?” Galad asked.

„Why, Falin Deborsha, my Lord,” Gill said. „Are you familiar with Ebou Dar?”

„I have been there,” Galad said calmly. „This is quite a caravan you have. Interesting collection of wares.”

„We have heard that there are armies mobilizing here in the south, my Lord. I purchased many of these supplies from a mercenary troop who was disbanding, and thought I could sell them down here. Perhaps your own army has need of camp furniture? We have tents, mobile smithy equipment, everything that soldiers could use.”

Clever, Galad thought. Galad might have accepted the lie, but the „merchant” had too many cooks, washwomen, and farriers with him, and not nearly enough guards for so valuable a caravan.

„I see,” Galad said. „Well, it happens that I do have need of supplies. Particularly food.”

„Alas, my Lord,” the man said. „Our food cannot be spared. Anything else I will sell, but the food I have promised by messenger to someone in Lugard.”

„I will pay more.”

„I made a promise, my good Lord,” the man said. „I could not break it, regardless of the price.”

„I see.” Galad waved to Bornhald. The soldier gave commands, and Children in white tabards moved forward, weapons out.

„What... what are you doing?” Gill asked.

„Separating your people,” Galad said. „We'll talk to each of them alone and see if their stories match. I worry that you might have been... un-forthcoming with us. After all, what it seems like to me is that you are the camp followers of a large army. If that is the case, then I would very much like to know whose army it is, not to mention where it is.”

Gill's forehead started to sweat as Galad's soldiers efficiently separated the captives. Galad waited for a time watching Gill. Eventually Bornhald and Byar came jogging up to him, hands on their swords.

„My Lord Captain Commander,” Bornhald said urgently.

Galad turned away from Gill. „Yes?”

„We may have a situation here,” Bornhald said. His face was flushed with anger. Beside him, Byar's eyes were wide, almost frenzied. „Some of the prisoners have talked. It's as you feared. A large army is nearby. They've skirmished with Aiel—those fellows over there in the white robes are actually Aiel themselves.”

„And?”

Byar spat to the side. „Have you ever heard of a man called Perrin Goldeneyes?”

„No. Should I have?”

„Yes,” Bornhald said. „He killed my father.”

CHAPTER 5
Writings

Gawyn hastened down the hallways of the White Tower, booted feet thumping on a deep blue rug atop crimson and white floor tiles. Mirrored stand-lamps reflected light, each like a sentry along the way.

Sleete walked quickly beside him. Despite the lamps' illumination, Sleete's face seemed half-shrouded in shadow. Perhaps it was the two-day stubble on his jaw—an oddity for a Warder—or the long hair, clean but unshorn. Or maybe it was his features. Uneven, like an unfinished drawing, with sharp lines, a cleft in his chin, a hook to his once-broken nose, cheekbones that jutted out.

He had the lithe motions of a Warder, but with a more primal feel than most. Rather than the huntsman moving through the woods, he was the silent, shadow-bound predator that prey never saw until the teeth were flashing.

They reached an intersection where several of Chubain's guards stood watch down one of the halls. They had swords at their sides and wore white tabards emblazoned with the Flame of Tar Valon. One held up a hand.

„I'm allowed in,” Gawyn said. „The Amyrlin—”

„The sisters aren't done yet,” the guard replied, hostile.

Gawyn ground his teeth, but there was nothing to be done about it. He and Sleete stepped back and waited until—finally—three Aes Sedai Walked out of a guarded room. They looked troubled. They strode away, followed by a pair of soldiers carrying something wrapped in a white cloth. The body.

Finally, the two guards reluctantly stepped aside and let Gawyn and Sleete pass. They hurried down the hallway and entered a small reading room. Gawyn hesitated beside the door, glancing back down the hallway. He could see some Accepted peeking around a corner, whispering.

This murder made four sisters killed. Egwene had her hands full trying to keep the Ajahs from turning back to their mistrust of one another. She'd warned everyone to be alert, and told sisters not to go about alone. The Black Ajah knew the White Tower well, their members having lived here for years. With gateways, they could slip into the hallways and commit murder.

At least, that was the official explanation for the deaths. Gawyn wasn't so certain. He ducked into the room, Sleete following.

Chubain himself was there. The handsome man glanced at Gawyn, lips turning down. „Lord Trakand.”

„Captain,” Gawyn replied, surveying the room. It was about three paces square, with a single desk set against the far wall and an unlit coal-burning brazier. A bronze stand-lamp burned in the corner, and a circular rug nearly filled nearly the entire floor. That rug was stained with a dark liquid beneath the desk.

„Do you really think you'll find anything the sisters did not, Trakand?” Chubain asked, folding his arms.

„I'm looking for different things,” Gawyn said, going forward. He knelt down to inspect the rug.

Chubain sniffed, then walked into the hallway. The Tower Guard would watch over the area until servants had come to clean it. Gawyn had a few minutes.

Sleete stepped up to one of the guards just inside the doorway. They weren't as antagonistic toward him as they tended to be toward Gawyn. He still hadn't figured out why they were like that with him.

„She was alone?” Sleete asked the man in his gravelly voice.

„Yes,” the guard said, shaking his head. „Shouldn't have ignored the Amyrlin's advice.”

„Who was she?”

„Kateri Nepvue, of the White Ajah. A sister for twenty years.”

Gawyn grunted as he continued to crawl across the floor, inspecting the rug. Four sisters from four different Ajahs. Two had supported Egwene, one had supported Elaida, and one had been neutral, only recently returned. All had been killed on different levels of the Tower during different times of day.

It certainly did seem like the work of the Black Ajah. They weren't looking for specific targets, just conven« ,*nt ones. But it felt wrong to him. Why not Travel into the sisters' quarters at night and kill them in their sleep? Why did nobody sense channeling from the places where the women were killed?

Sleete inspected the door and lock with a careful eye. When Egwene had told Gawyn he could visit the scenes of the murders if he wished, he'd asked if he could bring Sleete with him. In Gawyn's previous interactions with the Warder, Sleete had proven himself to be not only meticulous, but discreet.

Gawyn continued looking. Egwene was nervous about something, he was certain. She wasn't being completely forthcoming about these murders. He found no slits in the carpet or tiles, no cuts in the furniture of the cramped room.

Egwene claimed the murderers were coming in by gateway, but he'd found no evidence of that. True, he didn't know much about gateways yet, and people could reportedly make them hang above the ground so they didn't cut anything. But why would the Black Ajah care about that? Besides, this room was so tiny, it seemed to him it would have been very hard to get in without leaving some trace.

„Gawyn, come here,” Sleete said. The shorter man was still kneeling beside the doorway.

Gawyn joined him. Sleete threw the deadbolt a few times in its lock. „This door might have been forced,” he said softly. „See the scrape here on the deadbolt? You can pop open this kind of lock by sliding a thin pick in and pushing it on the deadbolt, then putting pressure on the handle. It can be done very quietly.”

„Why would the Black Ajah need to force a door?” Gawyn asked.

„Maybe they Traveled into the hallway, then walked until they saw Hght under a doorway,” Sleete said.

„Why not then make a gateway to the other side?”

„Channeling could have alerted the woman inside,” Sleete said.

„That's true,” Gawyn said. He looked toward the bloody patch. The desk was set so that the occupant's back would be to the doorway. That arrangement made Gawyn's shoulder blades itch. Who would put a desk like that? An Aes Sedai who thought she was completely safe, and who Wanted to be sitting away from the distractions outside. Aes Sedai, for all

of their cunning, sometimes seemed to have remarkably underdeveloped senses of self-preservation.

Or maybe they just didn't think like soldiers. Their Warders dealt with that sort of thought. „Did she have a Warder?”

„No,” Sleete said. „I've met her before. She didn't have one.” He hesitated. „None of the sisters murdered had Warders.”

Gawyn gave Sleete a raised eyebrow.

„Makes sense,” Sleete said. „Whoever is doing the killing didn't want to alert Warders.”

„But why kill with a knife?” Gawyn said. All four had been killed that way. „The Black Ajah doesn't have to obey the Three Oaths. They could have used the Power to kill. Much more direct, much easier.”

„But that would also risk alerting the victim or those around,” Sleete noted.

Another good point. But still, something about these killings didn't seem to add up.

Or maybe he was just stretching at nothing, struggling to find something he could do to help. A part of him thought that if he could aid Egwene with this, maybe she would soften toward him. Perhaps forgive him for rescuing her from the Tower during the Seanchan attack.

Chubain entered a moment later. „I trust Your Lordship has had sufficient time,” he said stiffly. „The staff is here to clean.”

Insufferable man! Gawyn thought. Does he have to be so dismissive toward me? I should—

No. Gawyn forced himself to keep his temper. Once, that hadn't been nearly so hard.

Why was Chubain so hostile toward him? Gawyn found himself wondering how his mother would have handled such a man as this. Gawyn didn't often think of her, as doing so brought his mind back to al'Thor. That murderer had been allowed to walk away from the White Tower itself! Egwene had held him in her hand, and had released him.

True, al'Thor was the Dragon Reborn. But in his heart, Gawyn wanted to meet al'Thor with sword in hand and ram steel through him, Dragon Reborn or not.

Al'Thor would rip you apart with the One Power, he told himself. You're being foolish, Gawyn Trakand. His hatred of al'Thor continued to smolder anyway.

One of Chubain's guards came up, speaking, pointing at the door. Chubain looked annoyed they hadn't found the forced lock. The Tower Guard was not a policing force—the sisters had no need of that, and were more effective at this kind ot investigation anyway. But Gawyn could tell that Chubain wished he could stop the murders. Protecting the Tower, and its occupants, was part of his duty.

So he and Gawyn worked for the same cause. But Chubain acted as if this were a personal contest between them. Though his side did, essentially, meet defeat by Bryne's side in the Tower division, Gawyn thought. And as far as he knows, I'm one of Bryne's favored men.

Gawyn wasn't a Warder, yet he was a friend of the Amyrlin. He dined with Bryne. How would that look to Chubain, particularly now that Gawyn had been given power to look in on the murders?

Light! Gawyn thought as Chubain shot him a hostile glace. He thinks I'm trying to take his position. He thinks I want to be High Captain of the Tower Guard!

The concept was laughable. Gawyn could have been First Prince of the Sword—should have been First Prince of the Sword—leader of Andor's armies and protector of the Queen. He was son to Morgase Trakand, one of the most influential and powerful rulers Andor had ever known. He had no desire for this man's position.

That wouldn't be how it looked to Chubain. Disgraced by the destructive Seanchan attack, he must feel that his position was in danger.

„Captain,” Gawyn said, „may I speak with you in private?”

Chubain looked at Gawyn suspiciously, then nodded toward the hallway. The two of them retreated. Nervous Tower servants waited outside, ready to clean the blood away.

Chubain folded his arms and inspected Gawyn. „What is it you wish of me, my Lord?”

He often emphasized the rank. Calm, Gawyn thought. He still felt the shame of how he'd bullied his way into Bryne's camp. He was better than that. Living with the Younglings, enduring the confusion and then the shame of the events surrounding the Tower's breaking, had changed him. He couldn't continue down that path.

„Captain,” Gawyn said, „I appreciate you letting me inspect the room.”

„I didn't have much choice.”

„I realize that. But you have my thanks nonetheless. It's important to me that the Amyrlin see me helping. If I find something the sisters miss, it could mean a great deal for me.”

„Yes,” Chubain said, eyes narrowing. „I suspect it could.”

„Maybe she'll finally have me as her Warder.”

Chubain blinked. „Her... Warder?”

„Yes. Once, it seemed certain that she would take me, but now... well, if I can help you with this investigation, perhaps it will cool her anger at me.” He raised a hand, gripping Chubain's shoulder. „I will remember your aid. You call me Lord, but my title is all but meaningless to me now. All I want is to be Egwene's Warder, to protect her.”

Chubain wrinkled his brow. Then he nodded and seemed to relax. „I heard you talking. You're looking for marks of gateways. Why?”

„I don't think this is the work of the Black Ajah,” Gawyn said. „I think it might be a Gray Man, or some other kind of assassin. A Darkfriend among the palace staff, perhaps? I mean, look at how the women are killed. Knives.”

Chubain nodded. „There were some signs of a struggle too. The sisters doing the investigation mentioned that. The books swept from the table. They thought it was done by the woman flailing as she died.”

„Curious,” Gawyn said. „If I were a Black sister, I'd use the One Power, regardless of the fact that others might sense it. Women channel all the time in the Tower; this wouldn't be suspicious. I'd immobilize my victim with weaves, kill her with the Power, then escape before anyone thought oddly of it. No struggle.”

„Perhaps,” Chubain said. „But the Amyrlin seems confident that this is the work of Black sisters.”

„I'll talk to her and see why,” Gawyn said. „For now, perhaps you should suggest to those doing the investigation that it would be wise to interview the palace servants? Give this reasoning?”

„Yes ... I think I might do that.” The man nodded, seeming less threatened.

The two stepped aside, Chubain waving the servants to enter for their cleaning. Sleete came out, looking thoughtful. He held something up, pinched between his fingers. „Black silk,” he said. „There's no way of knowing if it came from the attacker.”

Chubain took the fibers. „Odd.”

„A Black sister wouldn't seem likely to proclaim herself by wearing black,” Gawyn said. „A more ordinary assassin, though, might need the dark colors to hide.”

Chubain wrapped the fibers in a handkerchief and pocketed them. „I'll take these to Seaine Sedai.” He looked impressed.

Gawyn nodded to Sleete, and the two of them retreated.

„The White Tower is abuzz these days with returning sisters and new Warders,” Sleete said softly. „How would anyone—no matter how stealthy— travel the upper levels wearing black without drawing attention?”

„Gray Men are supposed to be able to avoid notice,” Gawyn said. „I think this is more proof. I mean, it seems odd that nobody has actually seen rhese Black sisters. We're making a lot of assumptions.”

Sleete nodded, eyeing a trio of novices who had gathered to gawk at the guards. They saw Sleete looking and chittered to one another before scampering away.

„Egwene knows more than she's saying,” Gawyn said. „I'll talk to her.”

„Assuming she'll see you,” Sleete said.

Gawyn grunted irritably. They walked down a series of ramps to the level of the Amyrlin's study. Sleete remained with him—his Aes Sedai, a Green named Hattori, rarely had duties for him. She still had her eyes on Gawyn for a Warder; Egwene was being so infuriating, Gawyn had half a mind to let Hattori bond him.

No. No, not really. He loved Egwene, though he was frustrated with her. It had not been easy to decide to give up Andor—not to mention the Younglings—for her. Yet she still refused to bond him.

He reached her study, and approached Silviana. The woman sat at her neat, orderly Keeper's desk in the antechamber before Egwene's study. The woman inspected Gawyn, her eyes unreadable behind her Aes Sedai mask. He suspected that she didn't like him.

„The Amyrlin is composing a letter of some import,” Silviana said. „You may wait.”

Gawyn opened his mouth.

„She asked not to be interrupted,” Silviana said, turning back to the paper she had been reading. „You may wait.”

Gawyn sighed, but nodded. As he did so, Sleete caught his eye and gestured that he was going. Why had he accompanied Gawyn down here in the first place? He was an odd man. Gawyn waved farewell, and Sleete vanished into the hallway.

The antechamber was a grand room with a deep red rug and wood trim on the stone walls. He knew from experience that none of the chairs were comfortable, but there was a single window. Gawyn stepped up to it for some air and rested his arm on the recessed stone, staring out over the white Tower grounds. This high up, the air felt crisper, newer.

Below, he could see the new Warder practice grounds. The old ones were dug up where Elaida had begun building her palace. Nobody was sure what Egwene would end up doing with the construction.

The practice grounds were busy, a bustle of figures sparring, running, fencing. With the influx of refugees, soldiers and sell-swords, there were many who presumed themselves Warder material. Egwene had opened the grounds to any who wanted to train and try to prove themselves, as she intended to push for as many women as were ready to be raised over the next few weeks.

Gawyn had spent a few days training, but the ghosts of men he had killed seemed more present down there. The grounds were a part of his past life, a time before everything had gone wrong. Other Younglings had easily—and happily—returned to that life. Already Jisao, Rajar, Durrent and most of his other officers had been chosen as Warders. Before long, nothing would remain of his band. Except for Gawyn himself.

The inner door clicked, followed by hushed voices. Gawyn turned to find Egwene, dressed in green and yellow, walking over to speak with Sil-viana. The Keeper glanced at him, and he thought he caught a trace of a frown on her face.

Egwene saw him. She kept her face Aes Sedai serene—she'd grown good at that so quickly—and he found himself feeling awkward.

„There was another death this morning,” he said quietly, walking up to her.

„Technically,” Egwene said, „it was last night.”

„I need to talk to you,” Gawyn blurted.

Egwene and Silviana shared a look. „Very well,” Egwene said, gliding back into her study.

Gawyn followed, not looking at the Keeper. The Amyrlin's study was one of the grandest rooms in the Tower. The walls were paneled with a pale striped wood, carved to show fanciful scenes, marvelously detailed. The hearth was marble, the floor made of deep red stone cut into diamond blocks. Egwene's large, carved desk was set with two lamps. They were in the shape of two women raising their hands to the air, flames burning between each set of palms.

One wall had bookcases filled with books arranged—it seemed—by color and size rather than by subject. They were ornamental, brought in to trim the Amyrlin's study until Egwene could make her own selections.

„What is it you find so necessary to discuss?” Egwene said, sitting down at her desk.

„The murders,” Gawyn said.

„What about them?”

Gawyn shut the door. „Burn me, Egwene. Do you have to show me the Amyrlin every time we speak? Once in a while, can't I see Egwene?”

„I show you the Amyrlin,” Egwene said, „because you refuse to accept her. Once you do so, perhaps we can move beyond that.”

„Light! You've learned to talk like one of them.”

„That's because I am one of them,” she said. „Your choice of words betrays you. The Amyrlin cannot be served by those who refuse to see her authority.”

„I accept you,” Gawyn said. „I do, Egwene. But isn't it important to have people who know you for yourself and not the title?”

„So long as they know that there is a place for obedience.” Her face softened. „You aren't ready yet, Gawyn. I'm sorry.”

He set his jaw. Don't overreact, he told himself. „Very well. Then, about the assassinations. We've realized that none of the women killed had Warders.”

„Yes, I was given a report on that,” Egwene said.

„Regardless,” he said, „it brings my thoughts to a larger issue. We don't have enough Warders.”

Egwene frowned.

„We're preparing for the Last Battle, Egwene,” Gawyn said. „And yet there are sisters without Warders. A lot of sisters. Some had one, but never took another after he died. Others never wanted one in the first place. I don't think you can afford this.”

„What would you have me do?” she said, folding her arms. „Command the women to take Warders?”

„Yes.”

She laughed. „Gawyn, the Amyrlin doesn't have that kind of power.”

„Then get the Hall to do it.”

„You don't know what you're saying. The choosing and keeping of a Warder is a very personal and intimate decision. No woman should be forced to it.”

„Well,” Gawyn said, refusing to be intimidated, „the choice to go to war is very 'personal' and 'intimate' as well—yet all across the land, men are called into it. Sometimes, feelings aren't as important as survival.

„Warders keep sisters alive, and every Aes Sedai is going to be of vital importance soon. There will be legions upon legions of Trollocs. Every sister on the field will be more valuable than a hundred soldiers, and every sister Healing will be able to save dozens of lives. The Aes Sedai are assets that belong to humanity. You cannot afford to let them go about unprotected.”

Egwene drew back, perhaps at the fervor of his words. Then, unexpectedly, she nodded. „Perhaps there is... wisdom in those words, Gawyn.”

„Bring it before the Hall,” Gawyn said. „At its core, Egwene, a sister not bonding a Warder is an act of selfishness. That bond makes a man a better soldier, and we'll need every edge we can find. This will also help prevent the murders.”

„I will see what can be done,” Egwene said.

„Could you let me see the reports the sisters are giving?” Gawyn said, „About the murders, I mean?”

„Gawyn,” she said, „I've allowed you to be a part of the investigation because I thought it might be good to have a different set of eyes looking things over. Giving you their reports would just influence you to draw the same conclusions as they do.”

„At least tell me this,” he said. „Have the sisters raised the worry that this might not be the work of the Black Ajah? That the assassin might be a Gray Man or a Darkfriend?”

„No, they have not,” Egwene said, „because we know that the assassin is not one of those two.”

„But the door last night, it was forced. And the women are killed with knives, not the One Power. There are no signs of gateways or—”

„The killer has access to the One Power,” Egwene said, speaking very carefully. „And perhaps they are not using gateways.”

Gawyn narrowed his eyes. Those sounded like the words of a woman stepping around her oath not to lie. „You're keeping secrets,” he said. „Not just from me. From the entire Tower.”

„Secrets are needed sometimes, Gawyn.”

„Can't you trust me with them?” He hesitated. „I'm worried that the assassin will come for you, Egwene. You don't have a Warder.”

„Undoubtedly she will come for me, eventually.” She toyed with something on her desk. It looked like a worn leather strap, the type used to punish a criminal. Odd.

She? „Please, Egwene,” he said. „What's going on?”

She studied him, then she sighed. „Very well. I've told this to the women doing the investigation. Perhaps I should tell you too. One of the Forsaken is in the White Tower.”

He lowered his hand to his sword. „What? Where! You have her captive?”

„No,” Egwene said. „She's the assassin.”

„You know this?”

„I know Mesaana is here; I've dreamed that it is true. She hides among us. Now, four Aes Sedai, dead? It's her, Gawyn. It's the only thing that makes sense.”

He bit off questions. He knew very little of Dreaming, but knew she had the Talent. It was said to be like Foretelling.

„I haven't told the entire Tower,” Egwene continued. „I worry that if they knew one of the sisters around them is secretly one of the Forsaken, it would divide us all again, as under Elaida. We'd all be suspicious of one another.

„It's bad enough now, with them thinking Black sisters are Traveling in to commit murders, but at least that doesn't make them suspicious of one another. And maybe Mesaana will think that I'm not aware it is her. But there, that's the secret you begged to know. It's not a Black sister we hunt, but one of the Forsaken.”

It was daunting to consider—but no more so than the Dragon Reborn walking the land. Light, a Forsaken in the Tower seemed more plausible than Egwene being the Amyrlin Seat! „We'll deal with it,” he said, sounding far more confident than he felt.

„I have sisters searching the histories of everyone in the Tower,” Egwene said. „And others are watching for suspicious words or actions. We'll find her. But I don't see how we can make the women any more secure without inciting an even more dangerous panic.”

„Warders,” Gawyn said firmly.

„I will think on it, Gawyn. For now, there is something I need of you.”

„If it is within my power, Egwene.” He took a step toward her. „You know that.”

„Is that so?” she asked dryly. „Very well. I want you to stop guarding my door at night.”

„What? Egwene, no!”

She shook her head. „You see? Your first reaction is to challenge me.”

„It is the duty of a Warder to offer challenge, in private, where his Aes Sedai is concerned!” Hammar had taught him that.

„You are not my Warder, Gawyn.”

That brought him up short.

„Besides,” Egwene said, „you could do little to stop one of the Forsaken. This battle will be fought by sisters, and I am being very careful with the wards I set. I want my quarters to look inviting. If she tries to attack me, perhaps I can surprise her with an ambush.”

„Use yourself as bait?” Gawyn was barely able to get the words out. 'Egwene, this is madness!”

„No. It's desperation. Gawyn, women I am responsible for are dying. Murdered in the night, in a time when you yourself said we will need every woman.”

For the first time, fatigue showed through her mask, a weariness of tone and a slight slump to her back. She folded her hands in front of her, suddenly seeming worn.

„I have sisters researching everything we can find about Mesaana,” Egwene continued. „She's not a warrior, Gawyn. She's an administrator, a planner. If I can confront her, I can defeat her. But we must find her first. Exposing myself is only one of my plans—and you are right, it is dangerous. But my precautions have been extensive.”

„I don't like it at all.”

„Your approval is not required.” She eyed him. „You will have to trust me.”

„I do trust you,” he said.

„All I ask is that you show it for once.”

Gawyn gritted his teeth. Then he bowed to her and left the study, trying—and failing—to keep the door from shutting too hard when he pulled it closed. Silviana gave him a disapproving look as he passed her.

From there, he headed for the training grounds despite his discomfort with them. He needed a workout with the sword.

Egwene let out a long sigh, sitting back, closing her eyes. Why was it so hard to keep her feelings in check when dealing with Gawyn? She never felt as poor an Aes Sedai as she did when speaking with him.

So many emotions swirled within her, like different kinds of wine spilling and mixing together: rage at his stubbornness, burning desire for his arms, confusion at her own inability to place one of those before the other.

Gawyn had a way of boring through her skin and into her heart. That passion of his was entrancing. She worried that if she bonded him, it would infect her. Was that how it worked? What did it feel like to be bonded, to sense another's emotions?

She wanted that with him, the connection that others had. And it was important that she have people she could rely upon to contradict her, in private. People who knew her as Egwene, rather than the Amyrlin.

But Gawyn was too loose, too untrusting, yet.

She looked over her letter to the new King of Tear, explaining that Rand was threatening to break the seals. Her plan to stop him would depend on her gathering support from people he trusted. She had conflicting reports about Darlin Sisnera. Some said he was one of Rand's greatest supporters, while others claimed he was one of Rand's greatest detractors.

She set the letter aside for the moment, then wrote some thoughts on how to approach the Hall on the Warder issue. Gawyn made an excellent argument, though he went too far and assumed too much. Making a plea for women who had no Warders to choose one, explaining all of the advantages and pointing out how it could save lives and help defeat the Shadow that would be appropriate.

She poured herself some mint tea from the pot on the side of her desk. Oddly, it hadn't been spoiling as often lately, and this cup tasted quite good. She hadn't told Gawyn of the other reason she'd asked him to leave her door at nights. She had trouble sleeping, knowing he was out there, only a few feet away. She worried she'd slip and go to him.

Silviana's strap had never been able to break her will, but Gawyn Trakand ... he was coming dangerously close to doing so.

Graendal anticipated the messenger's arrival. Even here, in her most secret of hiding places, his arrival was not unexpected. The Chosen could not hide from the Great Lord.

The hiding place was not a palace, a fine lodge or an ancient fortress. It was a cavern on an island nobody cared about, in an area of the Aryth Ocean that nobody ever visited. So far as she knew, there was nothing of note or interest anywhere near.

The accommodations were downright dreadful. Six of her lesser pets cared for the place, which was merely three chambers. She'd covered over the entrance with stone, and the only way in or out was by gateway. Fresh water came from a natural spring, food from stores she'd brought in previously, and air through cracks. It was dank, and it was lowly.

In other words, it was precisely the sort of place where nobody would expect to find her. Everyone knew that Graendal could not stand a lack of luxury. That was true. But the best part about being predictable was that it allowed you to do the unexpected.

Unfortunately, none of that applied to the Great Lord. Graendal watched the open gateway before her as she relaxed on a chaise of yellow and blue silk. The messenger was a man with flat features and deep tanned skin, wearing black and red. He didn't need to speak—his presence was the message. One of her pets—a beautiful, black-haired woman with large brown eyes who had once been a Tairen high lady—stared at the gateway, She looked frightened. Graendal felt much the same way.

She closed the wood-bound copy of Alight in the Snow in her hands and stood up, wearing a dress of thin black silk with ribbons of streith running down it. She stepped through the gateway, careful to project an air of confidence.

Moridin stood inside his black stone palace. The room had no furniture;

only the hearth, with a fire burning. Great Lord! A fire, on such a warm day? She maintained her composure, and did not begin to sweat.

He turned toward her, the black flecks of saa swimming across his eyes. „You know why I have summoned you.” Not a question.

„I do.”

„Aran'gar is dead, lost to us—and after the Great Lord transmigrated her soul the last time. One might think you are making a habit of this sort of thing, Graendal.”

„I live to serve, Nae'blis,” she said. Confidence! She had to seem confident.

He hesitated just briefly. Good. „Surely you do not imply that Aran'gar had turned traitor.”

„What?” Graendal said. „No, of course not.”

„Then how is what you did a service?”

Graendal pasted a look of concerned confusion on her face. „Why, I was following the command I was given. Am I not here to receive an accolade?”

„Far from it,” Moridin said dryly. „Your feigned confusion will not work on me, woman.”

„It is not feigned,” Graendal said, preparing her lie. „While I did not expect the Great Lord to be pleased to lose one of the Chosen, the gain was obviously worth the cost.”

„What gain?” Moridin snarled. „You allowed yourself to be caught unaware, and foolishly lost the life of one of the Chosen! We should have been able to rely on you, of all people, to avoid stumbling over al'Thor.”

He didn't know that she'd bound Aran'gar and left her to die; he thought this was a mistake. Good. „Caught unaware?” she said, sounding mortified. „I never... Moridin, how could you think that I'd let him find me by accident!”

„You did this intentionally?”

„Of course,” Graendal said. „I practically had to lead him by the hand to Natrins Barrow. Lews Therin never was good at seeing facts directly in front of his nose. Moridin, don't you see? How will Lews Therin react to what he has done? Destroying an entire fortress, a miniature city of its own, with hundreds of occupants? Killing innocents to reach his goal? Will that sit easily within him?”

Moridin hesitated. No, he had not considered that. She smiled inwardly. To him, ai'Thor's actions would have made perfect sense. They were the most logical, and therefore most sensible, means of accomplishing a goal.

But al'Thor himself... his mind was full of daydreams about honor

and virtue. This event would not sit easily within him, and speaking of him as Lews Therin to Moridin would reinforce that. These actions would tear at al'Thor, rip at his soul, lash his heart raw and bleeding. He would have nightmares, wear his guilt on his shoulders like the yoke of a heavily laden cart.

She could vaguely remember what it had been like, taking those first few steps toward the Shadow. Had she ever felt that foolish pain? Yes, unfortunately. Not all of the Chosen had. Semirhage had been corrupt to the bone from the start. But others of them had taken different paths to the Shadow, including Ishamael.

She could see the memories, so distant, in Moridin's eyes. Once, she'd not been sure who this man was, but now she was. The face was different, but the soul the same. Yes, he knew exactly what al'Thor was feeling.

„You told me to hurt him,” Graendal said. „You told me to bring him anguish. This was the best way. Aran'gar helped me, though she did not flee when I suggested. That one always has confronted her problems too aggressively. But I'm certain the Great Lord can find other tools. We took a risk, and it was not without cost. But the gain... Beyond that, Lews Therin now thinks I am dead. That is a large advantage.”

She smiled. Not too much pleasure. Merely a little satisfaction. Mori-din scowled, then hesitated, glancing to the side. At nothing. „I am to leave you without punishment, for now,” he finally said, though he didn't sound pleased about it.

Had that been a communication directly from the Great Lord? As far as she knew, all Chosen in this Age had to go to him in Shayol Ghul to receive their orders. Or at least suffer a visit from that horrid creature Shai-dar Haran. Now the Great Lord appeared to be speaking to the Nae'blis directly. Interesting. And worrisome.

It meant the end was very near. There would not be much time left for posturing. She would see herself Nae'blis and rule this world as her own once the Last Battle was done.

„I think,” Graendal said, „that I should—”

You are to stay away from al'Thor,” Moridin said. „You are not to be punished, but I don't see reason to praise you either. Yes, al'Thor may be hurt, but you still bungled your plan, costing us a useful tool.”

Of course,” Graendal said smoothly, „I will serve as it pleases the Great Lord. I was not going to suggest that I move against al'Thor anyway. He thinks me dead, and so best to let him remain in his ignorance while I work elsewhere, for now.”

„Elsewhere?”

Graendal needed a victory, a decisive one. She sifted through the different plans she'd devised, selecting the most likely to succeed. She couldn't move against al'Trior? Very well. She would bring to the Great Lord something he'd long desired.

„Perrin Aybara,” Graendal said. She felt exposed, having to reveal her intentions to Moridin. She preferred to keep her plots to herself. However, she doubted she'd be able to escape this meeting without telling him. „I will bring you his head.”

Moridin turned toward the fire, clasping his hands behind his back. He watched the flames.

With a shock, she felt sweat trickle down her brow. What? She was able to avoid heat and cold. What was wrong? She maintained her focus... it just didn't work. Not here. Not near him.

That unsettled her deeply.

„He's important,” Graendal said. „The prophecies—”

„I know the prophecies,” Moridin said softly. He did not turn. „How would you do it?”

„My spies have located his army,” Graendal said. „I have already set some plans in motion regarding him, just in case. I retain the group of Shadowspawn given me to cause chaos, and I have a trap prepared. It will break al'Thor, ruin him, if he loses Aybara.”

„It will do more than that,” Moridin said softly. „But you will never manage it. His men have gateways. He will escape you.”

„He will escape you,” Moridin said softly.

The sweat trickled down her cheek, then to her chin. She wiped it casually, but her brow continued to bead.

„Come,” Moridin said, striding from the hearth and toward the hallway outside.

Graendal followed, curious but afraid. Moridin led her to a nearby door, set in the same black stone walls. He pushed it open.

Graendal followed him inside. The narrow room was lined with shelves. And on them were dozens—perhaps hundreds—of objects of Power. Darkness within! she thought. Where did he get so many?

Moridin walked to the end of the room, where he picked through objects on a shelf. Graendal entered, awed. „Is that a shocklance?” she asked, pointing to a long thin bit of metal. „Three binding rods? A rema'kar? Those pieces of a sho—”

„It is unimportant,” he said, selecting an item.

„If I could just—”

„You are close to losing favor, Graendal,” he said, turning and holding long, spikelike piece of metal, silvery and topped with a large metal head set with golden inlay. „I have found only two of these. The other is being put to good use. You may use this one.”

„A dreamspike?” she said, eyes opening wide. How badly she'd wanted to have one of these! „You found two?”

He tapped the top of the dreamspike and it vanished from his hand. „You will know where to find it?”

„Yes,” she said, growing hungry. This was an object of great Power. Useful in so many different ways.

Moridin stepped forward, seizing her eyes with his own. „Graendal,” he said softly, dangerously. „I know the key for this one. It will not be used against me, or others of the Chosen. The Great Lord will know if you do. I do not wish your apparent habit to be indulged further, not until Aybara is dead.”

„I... yes, of course.” She felt cold, suddenly. How could she feel cold here? And while still sweating?

„Aybara can walk the World of Dreams,” Moridin said. „I will lend you another tool, the man with two souls. But he is mine, just as that spike is mine. Just as you are mine. Do you understand?”

She nodded. She couldn't help herself. The room seemed to be growing darker. That voice of his... it sounded, just faintly, like that of the Great Lord.

„Let me tell you this, however,” Moridin said, reaching forward with his right hand, cupping her chin. „If you do succeed, the Great Lord will be pleased. Very pleased. That which has been granted you in sparseness will be heaped upon you in glory.”

She licked her dry lips. In front of her, Moridin's expression grew distant.

„Moridin?” she asked hesitantly.

He ignored her, releasing her chin and walking to the end of the room. From a table, he picked up a thick tome wrapped in pale tan skin. He flipped to a certain page and studied it for a moment. Then he waved for her to approach.

She did so, careful. When she read what was on the page, she found herself stunned.

Darkness within! „What is this book?” she finally managed to force out. Where did these prophecies come from?”

„They have long been known to me,” Moridin said softly, still studying the book. „But not to many others, not even the Chosen. The women and

men who spoke these were isolated and held alone. The Light must never know of these words. We know of their prophecies, but they will never know all of ours.”

„But this...” she said, rereading the passage. „This says Aybara will die!”

„There can be many interpretations of any prophecy,” Moridin said. „But yes. This Foretelling promises that Aybara will die by our hand. You will bring me the head of this wolf, Graendal. And when you do, anything you ask shall be yours.” He slapped the book closed. „But mark me. Fail, and you will lose what you have gained. And much more.”

He opened a portal for her with a wave of the hand; her faint ability to touch the True Power—that hadn't been removed from her—allowed her to see twisted weaves stab the air and rend it, ripping a hole in the fabric of the Pattern. The air shimmered there. It would lead back to her hidden cavern, she knew.

She went through without a word. She didn't trust her voice to speak without shaking.

CHAPTER 6
Questioning Intentions

Morgase Trakand, once Queen of Andor, served tea. She moved from person to person in the large pavilion Perrin had taken from Maiden. It had sides that could be rolled up and no tent floor.

Large though the tent was, there was barely enough room for all who had wanted to attend the meeting. Perrin and Faile were there, of course, sitting on the ground. Next to them sat golden-eyed Elyas and Tam al'Thor, the simple farmer with the broad shoulders and the calm manners. Was this man really the father of the Dragon Reborn? Of course, Morgase had seen Rand al'Thor once, and the boy hadn't looked much more than a farmer himself.

Beside Tam sat Perrin's dusty secretary, Sebban Balwer. How much did Perrin know of his past? Jur Grady was there also, wearing his black coat with a silver sword pin on the collar. His leathery farmer's face was hollow-eyed and still pale from the sickness he'd suffered recently. Neald—the other Asha'man—was not there. He hadn't yet recovered from his snakebites.

All three Aes Sedai were there. Seonid and Masuri sat with the Wise Ones, and Annoura sat beside Berelain, occasionally shooting glances at the six Wise Ones. Gallenne sat on Berelain's other side. Across from them sat Alliandre and Arganda.

The officers made Morgase think of Gareth Bryne. She hadn't seen him in a long while, not since she'd exiled him for reasons she still couldn't quite explain. Very little about that time in her life made sense to her now. Had she really been so infatuated with a man that she'd banished Aemlyn and Ellorien?

Anyway, those days were gone. Now Morgase picked her way carefully through the room and saw that people's cups were kept full.

„Your work took longer than I'd expected,” Perrin said.

„You gave us a duty to attend to, Perrin Aybara,” Nevarin replied. „We accomplished it. It took us as much time as needed to do it correctly. Surely you don't imply that we did otherwise.” The sandy-haired Wise One sat directly in front of Seonid and Masuri.

„Give over, Nevarin,” Perrin grunted as he unrolled a map before him on the ground; it had been drawn by Balwer using instructions from the Ghealdanin. „I wasn't questioning you. I was asking if there were any problems in the burning.”

„The village is gone,” Nevarin said. „And every plant we found with a hint of Blight has been burned to ash. As well we did. You wetlanders would have much trouble dealing with something as deadly as the Blight.”

„I think,” Faile said, „that you would be surprised.”

Morgase glanced at Faile, who locked eyes with the Wise One. Faile sat like a queen, once again dressed to her station in a fine dress of green and violet, pleated down the sides and divided for riding. Oddly, Voiles sense of leadership seemed to have been enhanced by her time spent with the Shaido.

Morgase and Faile had quickly gone back to being mistress and servant. In fact, Morgase's life here was strikingly similar to what it had been in the Shaido camp. True, some things were different; Morgase wasn't likely to be strapped here, for instance. That didn't change the fact that— for a time—she and the other four women had been equals. No longer.

Morgase stopped beside Lord Gallenne and refilled his cup, using the same skills she'd cultivated in attending Sevanna. At times, being a servant seemed to require more stealth than being a scout. She wasn't to be seen, wasn't to distract. Had her own servants acted this way around her?

„Well,” Arganda said, „if anyone is wondering where we've gone, the smoke from that fire is an easy indicator.”

„We're far too many people to think of hiding,” Seonid said. Recently, she and Masuri had begun being allowed to speak without reprimand from the Wise Ones, though the Green did still glance at the Aiel women before speaking. It galled Morgase to see that. Sisters of the Tower, made apprentices to a bunch of wilders? It was said to have been done at Rand al'Thor's order, but how would any man—even the Dragon Reborn—be capable of such a thing?

It discomforted her that the two Aes Sedai no longer seemed to resist their station. A person's situation in life could change her dramatically. Gaebril, then Valda, had taught Morgase that lesson. The Aiel captivity had been merely another step in the process.

Each of these experiences had moved her farther away from the Queen she had been. Now she didn't long for fine things or her throne. She just wanted some stability. That, it seemed, was a commodity more precious than gold.

„It doesn't matter,” Perrin said, tapping the map. „So, we're decided? We chase after Gill and the others on foot for now, sending scouts by gateway to find them, if possible. Hopefully, we'll catch them before they reach Lugard. How long to the city would you say, Arganda?”

„Depends on the mud,” the wiry soldier said. „There's a reason we call this time of year the swamping. Wise men don't travel during the spring melt.”

„Wisdom is for those who have time for it,” Perrin muttered, counting off distance on the map with his fingers.

Morgase moved to refill Annoura's cup. Pouring tea was more complicated than she'd ever assumed. She had to know whose cup to take aside and fill, and whose to fill while they were holding it. She had to know precisely how high to fill a cup so that it would not spill, and how to pour the tea without rattling the porcelain or splashing. She knew when to not be seen and when to make a slight production out of filling cups in case she'd missed people, forgotten them or misjudged their needs.

She carefully took Perrin's cup from beside him on the ground. He liked to gesture when he spoke, and could knock the cup from her hand if she was unwary. All in all, there was a remarkable art to serving tea—an entire world that Morgase the Queen had never bothered to notice. She refilled Perrin's cup and placed it back beside him. Perrin asked other questions about the map—nearby towns, potential sources of resup-ply. He had a lot of promise as a leader, even if he was rather inexperienced. A little advice from Morgase—

She cut that thought off. Perrin Aybara was a rebel. The Two Rivers was part of Andor, and he'd named himself lord of it, flying that wolfhead banner. At least the flag of Manetheren had been taken down. Flying that had been nothing short of an open declaration of war.

Morgase no longer bristled every time someone named him a lord, but she also didn't intend to offer him any help. Not until she determined how to move him back beneath the cloak of the Andoran monarchy.

Besides, Morgase grudgingly admitted, Faile is sharp enough to give any advice I would have.

Faile was actually a perfect complement to Perrin. Where he was a blunt and leveled lance at charge, she was a subtle cavalry bow. The combination of the two—with Faile's connections to the Saldaean throne—was what really worried Morgase. Yes, he'd taken down the Manetheren banner, but he'd ordered that wolfhead banner taken down before. Often, forbidding something was the best way to ensure that it happened.

Alliandre s cup was half empty. Morgase moved over to refill it; like many highborn ladies, Alliandre always expected her cup to be full. Alliandre glanced at Morgase, and there was a faint glimmer of discomfort in those eyes. Alliandre felt uncertain what their relationship should be. That was curious, as Alliandre had been so haughty during their captivity. The person Morgase had once been, the Queen, wanted to sit Alliandre down and give a lengthy explanation of how to better maintain her grandeur.

She'd have to learn on her own. Morgase was no longer the person she had once been. She wasn't sure what she was, but she would learn how to do her duty as a lady's maid. This was becoming a passion for her. A way to prove to herself that she was still strong, still of value.

In a way, it was terrifying that she worried about that.

„Lord Perrin,” Alliandre said as Morgase moved away. „Is it true that you're planning on sending my people back to Jehannah after you find Gill and his group?”

Morgase continued past Masuri—the Aes Sedai liked her cup refilled only when she tapped on it lightly with her fingernail.

„I do,” Perrin replied. „We all know it wasn't completely your will to join us in the first place. If we hadn't brought you along, you'd never have been captured by the Shaido. Masema is dead. Time to let you return to governing your nation.”

„With all due respect, my Lord,” Alliandre said. „Why are you recruiting from among my countrymen if not to gather an army for future use?”

„I'm not trying to recruit,” Perrin said. „Just because I don't turn them away doesn't mean I intend to enlarge this army any further.”

„My Lord,” Alliandre said. „But surely it is wise to keep what you have.”

„She has a point, Perrin,” Berelain added softly. „One need only look at the sky to know the Last Battle is imminent. Why send her force back? I'm certain that the Lord Dragon will have need of every soldier from every land sworn to him.”

„He can send for them when he decides to,” Perrin said stubbornly.

„My Lord,” Alliandre said. „I did not swear to him. I swore to you. If Ghealdan will march for Tarmon Gai'don, it should do so beneath your banner.”

Perrin stood up, startling several people in the tent. Was he leaving? He walked to the open side of the tent without a word, poking his head out. „Wil, come here,” he called.

A weave of the One Power kept people outside from listening in. Morgase could see Masuri's weaves, tied off and warding the tent. Their intricacy seemed to mock her own minuscule talent.

Masuri tapped the side of her cup, and Morgase hastened to refill it. The woman liked to sip tea when nervous.

Perrin turned back into the tent, followed by a handsome youth carrying a cloth-wrapped bundle. „Unfurl it,” Perrin said. The young man did so, looking apprehensive. It bore the wolfhead emblem that was Perrin's sigil.

„I didn't make this banner,” Perrin said. „I never wanted it, but— upon advice—I let it fly. Well, the reasons for doing that are past. I'd order the thing taken down, but that never seems to work for long.” He looked to Wil. „Wil, I want it passed through camp. I'm giving a direct order. I want each and every copy of this blasted banner burned. You understand?”

Wil paled. „But—”

„Do it,” Perrin said. „Alliandre, you'll swear to Rand as soon as we find him. You won't ride beneath my banner, because I won't have a banner. I'm a blacksmith, and that's the end of it. I've stomached this foolishness for too long.”

„Perrin?” Faile asked. She looked surprised. „Is this wise?”

Fool man. He should have at least talked to his wife about this. But men would be men. They liked their secrets and their plans.

„I don't know if it's wise. But it what I'm doing,” he said, sitting down. Be off, Wil. I want those banners burned by tonight. No holdouts, you understand?”

Wil stiffened, then spun and strode from the tent without giving a reply. The lad looked as if he felt betrayed. Oddly, Morgase found herself feeling a little of the same. It was foolish. This was what she wanted—it was what Perrin should do. And yet, the people were frightened, with good reason. That sky, the things that were happening in the world... Well, in a time like this, perhaps a man could be excused for taking command.

„You are a fool, Perrin Aybara,” Masuri said. She had a blunt way about her.

„Son,” Tarn addressed Perrin, „the lads put a lot of stock in that banner.”

„Too much,” Perrin said.

„Perhaps. But it's good to have something to look to. When you took down the other banner, it was hard on them. This will be worse.”

„It needs to be done,” Perrin said. „The Two Rivers men have gotten too attached to it, started talking like they're going to stay with me instead of going back to their families where they belong. When we get gateways working again, Tarn, you'll be taking them and going.” He looked at Berelain. „I suppose I can't be rid of you and your men. You'll go back with me to Rand.”

„I wasn't aware,” Berelain said stiffly, „that you needed to 'be rid' of us. You seemed far less reluctant to accept my support when demanding the services of my Winged Guardsmen in rescuing your wife.”

Perrin took a deep breath. „I appreciate your help, all of you. We did a good thing in Maiden, and not just for Faile and Alliandre. It was a thing that needed doing. But burn me, that's over now. If you want to go on to follow Rand, I'm sure he'll have you. But my Asha'man are exhausted, and the tasks I was given are complete. I've got these hooks inside of me, pulling me back to Rand. Before I can do that, I need to be done with all of you.”

„Husband,” Faile said, her words clipped. „Might I suggest that we begin with the ones who want to be sent away?”

„Yes,” Aravine said. The former gai'shain sat near the back of the tent, easy to overlook, though she had become an important force in Perrin's camp administration. She acted as something of an unofficial steward for him. „Some of the refugees would be happy to return to their homes.”

„I'd rather move everyone, if I can,” Perrin said. „Grady?”

The Asha'man shrugged his shoulders. „The gateways I've made for scouts haven't taxed me too much, and I think I could make some larger ones. I'm still a little weak, but I am mostly over the sickness. Neald will need more time, though.”

„My Lord.” Balwer coughed softly. „I have some figures of curious note. Moving as many people as you now have through gateways will take hours, maybe days. It won't be a quick endeavor, as when we approached Maiden.”

„That's going to be rough, my Lord,” Grady said. „I don't think I could hold one open such a long time. Not if you want me strong enough to be in fighting shape, just in case.”

Perrin settled back down, inspecting the map again. Berelain's cup was empty; Morgase hurried over to fill it. „All right, then,” Perrin said. „We'll start sending some smaller groups of refugees away, but those who want to leave first.”

„Also,” Faile said. „Perhaps it is time to send messengers to contact the Lord Dragon; he might be willing to send more Asha'man.”

Perrin nodded. „Yes.”

„Last we knew,” Seonid said, „he was in Cairhien. The largest number of the refugees are from there, so we could begin by sending some of them home, along with scouts to meet with the Lord Dragon.”

„He's not there,” Perrin said.

„How do you know?” Edarra set down her cup. Morgase crept around the perimeter of the tent and snatched it for refilling. Eldest of the Wise Ones, and perhaps foremost among them—it was hard to tell with Wise Ones—Edarra looked strikingly young for her reported age. Morgase's own tiny ability in the One Power was enough to tell her that this woman was strong. Probably the strongest in the room.

„I...” Perrin seemed to flounder. Had he a source of information he wasn't sharing? „Rand has a habit of being where you don't expect him. I doubt he's remained in Cairhien. But Seonid is right—it's the best place to start looking.”

„My Lord,” Balwer said. „I worry about what we might, ahem, blunder into if we are not careful. Fleets of refugees, returning through gateways unexpectedly? We have been out of touch for some time. Perhaps, in addition to contacting the Dragon, we could send scouts to gather information?”

Perrin nodded. „I could approve that.”

Balwer settled back, looking pleased, though that man was strikingly good at hiding his emotions. Why did he want so badly to send someone to Cairhien?

„I'll admit,” Grady said, „I'm worried about moving all of these people. Even once Neald is well, it's going to be exhausting to hold gateways open long enough to get them all through.”

„Perrin Aybara,” Edarra said. „There may be a way to fix this problem.”

„How?”

„These apprentices have been speaking of something. A circle, it is called? If we linked together, the Ashaman and some of us, then perhaps we could give them the strength to create larger gateways.”

Perrin scratched at his beard. „Grady?”

„I've never linked in a circle before, my Lord. But if we could figure it out...well, bigger gateways would move more people through faster. That could help a lot.”

„All right,” Perrin said, turning back to the Wise One. „What would it cost me for you to try this?”

„You have worked too long with Aes Sedai, Perrin Aybara,” Edarra said with a sniff. „Not everything must be done at a cost. This will benefit us all. I have been contemplating suggesting it for some time.”

Perrin frowned. „How long have you known that this might work?”

„Long enough.”

„Burn you, woman, why didn't you bring it to me earlier, then?”

„You seem hardly interested in your position as chief, most of the time,” Edarra said coldly. „Respect is a thing earned and not demanded, Perrin Aybara.”

Morgase held her breath at that insolent comment. Many a lord would snap at someone for that tone. Perrin froze, but then nodded, as if that were the expected answer.

„Your Asha'man were sick when I first thought of this,” Edarra continued. „It would not have worked before. This is the appropriate time to raise the question. Therefore, I have done so.”

She insults Aes Sedai with one breath, Morgase thought, then acts just like one with the next. Still, being a captive in Maiden had helped Morgase begin to understand Aiel ways. Everyone claimed the Aiel were incomprehensible, but she gave talk like that little credence. Aiel were people, like any other. They had odd traditions and cultural quirks, but so did everyone else. A queen had to be able to understand all of the people within her realm— and all of her realm's potential enemies.

„Very well,” Perrin said. „Grady, don't fatigue yourself too much, but start working with them. See if you can manage forming a circle.”

„Yes, my Lord,” Grady said. The Asha'man always seemed somewhat distant. „Might be good to involve Neald in this. He gets dizzy when he stands, but he's been itching to do something with the Power. This might be a way for him to get back into practice.”

„All right,” Perrin said.

„We have not finished talking of the scouts we are sending to Cairhien,” Seonid said. „I would like to be with the group.”

Perrin scratched his bearded chin. „I suppose. Take your Warders, two Maidens and Pel Aydaer. Be unobtrusive, if you can.”

„Also Camaille Nolaisen will go,” Faile said. Of course she would add one Cha Faile to the group.

Balwer cleared his throat. „My Lord. We are in dire need of paper and new pen nibs, not to mention some other delicate materials.”

„Surely that can wait.” Perrin frowned.

„No,” Faile said slowly. '„No, husband, I think this is a good suggestion. We should send one person to collect supplies. Balwer, would you go and fetch the things yourself?”

„If my Lady wishes it,” the secretary said. „I have ached to visit this school the Dragon has opened in Cairhien. They would have the supplies we need.”

„I suppose you can go, then,” Perrin said. „But nobody else. Light! Any more, and we might as well send the whole burning army through.”

Balwer nodded, looking satisfied. That one was obviously spying for Perrin now. Would he tell Aybara who she really was? Had he done so already? Perrin didn't act as if he knew.

She gathered up more cups; the meeting was beginning to break up. Of course Balwer would offer to spy for Aybara; she should have approached the dusty man earlier, to see what the price would be to keep his silence. Mistakes like that could cost a queen her throne.

She froze, hand halfway to a cup. You're not a queen any longer. You have to stop thinking like one!

During the first weeks following her silent abdication, she'd hoped to find a way to return to Andor, so she could be a resource for Elayne. However, the more she'd considered it, the more she'd realized that she had to stay away. Everyone in Andor had to assume that Morgase was dead. Each queen had to make her own way, and Elayne might seem a puppet to her own mother if Morgase returned. Beyond that, Morgase had made many enemies before leaving. Why had she done such things? Her memory of those times was cloudy, but her return would only rip open old wounds.

She continued gathering up cups. Perhaps she should have done the noble thing and killed herself. If enemies of the throne discovered who she was, they could use her against Elayne, the same way that the Whitecloaks would have. But for now, she was not a threat. Besides, she was confident that Elayne would not risk Andor's safety, even to save her mother.

Perrin bade farewell to the attendees and gave some basic instructions for the evening camp. Morgase knelt down, using a rag to wipe dirt from the side of a teacup that had rolled over. Niall had told her that Gaebril was dead, and al'Thor held Caemlyn. That would have prompted Elayne to return, wouldn't it? Was she queen? Had the Houses supported her, or had they acted against her because of what Morgase had done?

The scouting party might bring news that Morgase hungered for. She would have to find a way into any meeting discussing their reports, per-haps by offering to serve the tea. The better she grew at her job as Faile's maid, the closer she'd be able to get to important events.

As the Wise Ones made their way from the tent, Morgase caught sight of someone outside. Tallanvor, dutiful as always. Tall, broad of shoulder, he wore his sword at his waist and a look of pointed concern in his eyes.

He'd followed her practically nonstop since Maiden, and while she'd complained of it out of principle, she didn't mind. After two months apart he wanted to take every opportunity to be together. Looking into those beautiful young eyes of his, she could not entertain the notion of suicide even for the good of Andor. She felt a fool for that. Hadn't she let her heart lead her into enough trouble already?

Maiden had changed her, though. She'd missed Tallanvor dearly. And then he'd come for her, when he shouldn't have risked himself so. He was more devoted to her than to Andor itself. And for some reason, that was exactly what she needed. She began to make her way toward him, balancing eight cups in the crook of her arm while carrying the saucers in her hand.

„Maighdin,” Perrin said as she passed out of the tent. She hesitated, turning back. Everyone but Perrin and his wife had withdrawn.

„Come back here, please,” Perrin said. „And Tallanvor, you might as well come in. I can see you lurking out there. Honestly. It's not as if anyone was going to swoop down and steal her away while she was inside a tent full of Wise Ones and Aes Sedai!”

Morgase raised an eyebrow. From what she'd seen, Perrin himself had followed Faile around lately nearly as much.

Tallanvor shot her a smile as he entered. He took some of the cups from her arm, then both of them presented themselves before Perrin. Tallanvor bowed formally, which gave Morgase a stab of annoyance. He was still a member of the Queen's Guard—the only loyal member, as far as she knew. He shouldn't be bowing to this rural upstart.

„I was given a suggestion back when you first joined us,” Perrin said gruffly. „Well, I think it's about time I took it. Lately, you two are like youths from different villages, mooning over one another in the hour before Sunday ends. It's high time you were married. We could have Alliandre do it, or maybe I could. Do you have some tradition you follow?”

Morgase blinked in surprise. Curse Lini for putting that idea in Per-rin's head! Morgase felt a sudden panic, though Tallanvor glanced at her questioningly.

„Go change into something nicer if you want,” Perrin said. „Gather any you want to witness and be back here in an hour. Then we'll get this silliness over with.”

She felt her face grow hot with anger. Silliness? How dare he! And in such a way! Sending her off like a child, as if her emotion—her love—was merely an inconvenience to him?

He was rolling up his map, but then Faile's hand placed on his arm caused him to look up and notice that his orders had not been followed.

„Well?” Perrin asked.

„No,” Morgase said. She kept her gaze on Perrin; she didn't want to see the inevitable disappointment and rejection in Tallanvor's face.

„What?” Perrin asked.

„No, Perrin Aybara,” Morgase said. „I will not be back here in an hour to be married.”

„But—”

„If you want tea served, or your tent cleaned, or something packed, then call for me. If you wish your clothing washed, I will oblige. But I am your servant, Perrin Aybara, not your subject. I am loyal to the Queen of Andor. You have no authority to give me this sort of command.”

„I—”

„Why, the Queen herself wouldn't demand this! Forcing two people to marry because you're tired of the way they look at one another? Like two hounds you intend to breed, then sell the pups?”

„I didn't mean it that way.”

„You said it nonetheless. Besides, how can you be sure of the young man's intentions? Have you spoken to him, asked him, interviewed him as a lord should in a matter like this?”

„But Maighdin,” Perrin said. „He does care for you. You should have seen the way he acted when you were taken. Light, woman, but it's obvious!”

„Matters of the heart are never obvious.” Pulling herself up to her full height, she almost felt a queen again. „If I choose to marry a man, I will make that decision on my own. For a man who claims he doesn't like being in charge, you certainly do like giving commands. How can you be sure that I want this young man's affections? Do you know my heart?”

To the side, Tallanvor stiffened. Then he bowed formally to Perrin and strode from the tent. He was an emotional one. Well, he needed to know that she would not be shoved around. Not anymore. First Gaebril, then valda, and now Perrin Aybara? Tallanvor would be ill-served if he were to receive a woman who married him because she was told to do so.

Morgase measured Perrin, who was blushing. She softened her tone.

„You're young at this yet, so I'll give you advice. There are some things a lord should be involved in, but others he should always leave untouched. You'll learn the difference as you practice, but kindly refrain from making demands like this one until you've at least counseled with your wife.”

With that, she curtsied—still carrying the teacups—and withdrew. She shouldn't have spoken to him so. Well, he shouldn't have made a command like that! It seemed she had some spark left in her after all. She hadn't felt that firm or certain of herself since... well, since before Gae-bril's arrival in Caemlyn! Though she would have to find Tallanvor and soothe his pride.

She returned the cups to the nearby washing station, then went through the camp, looking for Tallanvor. Around her, servants and workers were busy at their duties. Many of the former gai'shain still acted as if they were among the Shaido, bowing and scraping whenever someone so much as looked at them. Those from Cairhien were the worst; they'd been held longest, and Aiel were very good at teaching lessons.

There were, of course, a few real Aiel gai'shain. What an odd custom. From what Morgase had been able to determine, some of the gai'shain here had been taken by the Shaido, then had been liberated in Maiden. They retained the white, and so that meant they were now acting as slaves to their own relatives and friends.

Any people could be understood. But, she admitted, perhaps the Aiel would take longer than others. Take, for instance, that group of Maidens loping through camp. Why did they have to force everyone out of their way? There was no—

Morgase hesitated. Those Maidens were heading straight for Perrin's tent. They looked like they had news.

Her curiosity getting the better of her, Morgase followed. The Maidens left two guards by the front tent flaps, but the ward against eavesdropping had been removed. Morgase rounded the tent, trying to look as if she was doing anything other than eavesdropping, feeling a stab of shame for leaving Tallanvor to his pain.

„Whitecloaks, Perrin Aybara,” Sulin's stout voice reported from inside. „There is a large force of them on the road directly in front of us.”

CHAPTER 7
Lighter than a Feather

The air felt calmer at night, though the thunder still warned Lan that not all was well. In his weeks traveling with Bulen, that storm above seemed to have grown darker.

After riding southward, they continued on to the east; they were somewhere near the border between Kandor and Saldaea, on the Plain of Lances. Towering, weathered hills—steep-sided, like fortresses—rose around them.

Perhaps they'd missed the border. There often was no marker on these back roads, and the mountains cared not which nation tried to claim them.

„Master Andra,” Bulen said from behind. Lan had purchased a horse for him to ride, a dusty white mare. He still led his packhorse, Scouter.

Bulen caught up to him. Lan insisted upon being called „Andra.” One follower was bad enough. If nobody knew who he was, they couldn't ask to come with him. He had Bulen to thank—inadvertently—for the warning of what Nynaeve had done. For that, he owed the man a debt.

Bulen did like to talk, though.

'Master Andra,” Bulen continued. „If I may suggest, we could turn south at the Berndt Crossroads, yes? I know a waypoint inn in that direction that serves the very best quail. We could turn eastward again on the road to South Mettler. A much easier path. My cousin has a farm along that road—-cousin on my mother's side, Master Andra—and we could—” „We continue this way,” Lan said.

„But South Mettler is a much better roadway!”

„And therefore much better traveled too, Bulen.”

Bulen sighed, but fell silent. The hadori looked good around his head and he had proven surprisingly capable with the sword. As talented a student as Lan had seen in a while.

It was dark—night came early here, because of those mountains. Compared to the areas near the Blight, it also felt chilly. Unfortunately, the land here was fairly well populated. Indeed, about an hour past the crossroads they arrived at an inn, windows still glowing with light.

Bulen looked toward it longingly, but Lan continued on. He had them traveling at night, mostly. The better to keep from being seen.

A trio of men sat in front of the inn, smoking their pipes in the darkness. The pungent smoke wound in the air, past the inns windows. Lan didn't give them much consideration until—as a group—they broke off their smoking. They unhooked horses from the fence at the side of the inn.

Wonderful, Lan thought. Highwaymen, watching the night road for weary travelers. Well, three men shouldn't prove too dangerous. They rode behind Lan at a trot. They wouldn't attack until they were farther from the inn. Lan reached to loosen his sword in its sheath.

„My Lord,” Bulen said urgently, looking over his shoulder. „Two of those men are wearing the hadori'.'

Lan spun around, cloak whipping behind him. The three men approached and did not stop. They split around him and Bulen.

Lan watched them pass. „Andere?” he called. „What do you think you're doing?”

One of the three—a lean, dangerous-looking man—glanced over his shoulder, his long hair held back with the hadori. It had been years since Lan had seen Andere. He looked as if he'd given up his Kandori uniform, finally; he was wearing a deep black cloak and hunting leathers underneath.

„Ah, Lan,” Andere said, the three men pulling up to stop. „I didn't notice you there.”

„I'm sure you didn't,” Lan said flatly. 'And you, Nazar. You put your hadori away when you were a lad. Now you don one?”

„I may do as I wish,” Nazar said. He was getting old—he must be past his seventieth year—but he carried a sword on his saddle. His hair had gone white.

The third man, Rakim, wasn't Malkieri. He had the tilted eyes of a Saldaean, and he shrugged at Lan, looking a little embarrassed.

Lan raised his fingers to his forehead, closing his eyes as the three rode ahead. What foolish game were they playing? No matter, Lan thought, opening his eyes.

Bulen started to say something, but Lan quieted him with a glare. He turned southward off the road, cutting down a small, worn trail.

Before long, he heard muffled hoofbeats from behind. Lan spun as he saw the three men riding behind him. Lan pulled Mandarb to a halt, teeth gritted. „I'm not raising the Golden Crane!”

„We didn't say you were,” Nazar said. The three parted around him again, riding past.

Lan kicked Mandarb forward, riding up to them. „Then stop following me.”

„Last I checked, we were ahead of you,” Andere said.

„You turned this way after me,” Lan accused.

„You don't own the roads, Lan Mandragoran,” Andere said. He glanced at Lan, face shadowed in the night. „If you haven't noticed, I'm no longer the boy the Hero of Salmarna berated so long ago. I've become a soldier, and soldiers are needed. So I will ride this way if I please.”

„I command you to turn and go back,” Lan said. „Find a different path eastward.”

Rakim laughed, his voice still hoarse after all these years. „You're not my captain any longer, Lan. Why would I obey your orders?” The others chuckled.

„We'd obey a king, of course,” Nazar said.

„Yes,” Andere said. „If he gave us commands, perhaps we would. But I don't see a king here. Unless I'm mistaken.”

„There can be no king of a fallen people,” Lan said. „No king without a kingdom.”

„And yet you ride,” Nazar said, flicking his reins. „Ride to your death in a land you claim is no kingdom.”

„It is my destiny.”

The three shrugged, then pulled ahead of him.

„Don't be fools,” Lan said, voice soft as he pulled Mandarb to a halt. „This path leads to death.”

„Death is lighter than a feather, Lan Mandragoran,” Rakim called over „is shoulder. „If we ride only to death, then the trail will be easier than I'd thought!”

Lan gritted his teeth, but what was he to do? Beat all three of them senseless and leave them beside the road? He nudged Mandarb forward.

The two had become five.

Galad continued his morning meal, noting that Child Byar had come to speak with him. The meal was simple fare: porridge with a handful of raisins stirred in. A simple meal for every soldier kept them all from envy. Some Lords Captain Commander had dined far better than their men. That would not do for Galad. Not when so many in the world starved.

Child Byar waited inside the flaps of Galad's tent, awaiting recognition. The gaunt, sunken-cheeked man wore his white cloak, a tabard over mail underneath.

Galad eventually set aside his spoon and nodded to Byar. The soldier strode up to the table and waited, still at attention. There were no elaborate furnishings to Galad's tent. His sword—Valda's sword—lay on the plain table behind his wooden bowl, slightly drawn. The herons on the blade peeked out from beneath the scabbard, and the polished steel reflected Byar's form.

„Speak,” Galad said.

„I have more news about the army, my Lord Captain Commander,” Byar said. „They are near where the captives said they would be, a few days from us.”

Galad nodded. „They fly the flag of Ghealdan?”

„Alongside the flag of Mayene.” That flame of zeal glinted in Byar's eyes. „And the wolfhead, though reports say they took that down late yesterday. Goldeneyes is there. Our scouts are sure of it.”

„Did he really kill Bornhald's father?”

„Yes, my Lord Captain Commander. I have a familiarity with this creature. He and his troops come from a place called the Two Rivers.”

„The Two Rivers?” Galad said. „Curious, how often I seem to hear of that place, these days. Is that not where al'Thor is from?”

„So it is said,” Byar replied.

Galad rubbed his chin. „They grow good tabac there, Child Byar, but I have not heard of them growing armies.”

„It is a dark place, my Lord Captain Commander. Child Bornhald and I spent some time there last year; it is festering with Darkfriends.”

Galad sighed. „You sound like a Questioner.”

„My Lord Captain Commander,” Byar earnestly continued, „my Lord, please believe me. I am not simply speculating. This is different.”

Galad frowned. Then he gestured toward the other stool beside his table. Byar took it.

„Explain yourself,” Galad said. „And tell me everything you know of this Perrin Goldeneyes.”

Perrin could remember a time when simple breakfasts of bread and cheese had satisfied him. That was no longer the case. Perhaps it was due to his relationship with the wolves, or maybe his tastes had changed over time. These days he craved meat, especially in the morning. He couldn't always have it, and that was fine. But generally he didn't have to ask.

That was the case this day. He'd risen, washed his face, and found a servant entering with a large chop of ham, steaming and succulent. No beans, no vegetables. No gravy. Just the ham, rubbed with salt and seared over the fire, with a pair of boiled eggs. The serving woman set them on his table, then withdrew.

Perrin wiped his hands, crossing the rug of his tent and taking in the ham's scent. Part of him felt he should turn it away, but he couldn't. Not when it was right there. He sat down, took up fork and knife and dug in.

„I still don't see how you can eat that for breakfast” Faile noted, leaving the washing chamber of their tent, wiping her hands on a cloth. Their large tent had several curtained divisions to it. She wore one of her unobtrusive gray dresses. Perfect, because it didn't distract from her beauty. It was accented by a sturdy black belt—she had sent away all of her golden belts, no matter how fine. He'd suggested finding her one that was more to her liking, and she'd looked sick.

„It's food,” Perrin said.

„I can see,” she said with a snort, looking herself over in the mirror. „What did you think I assumed it was? A rock?”

„I meant,” Perrin said between bites, „that food is food. Why should I care what I eat for breakfast and what I eat for a different meal?”

„Because it's strange,” she said, clasping on a cord holding a small blue stone. She regarded herself in the mirror, then turned, the loose sleeves of her Saldaean-cut dress swishing. She paused beside his plate, grimacing. „I'm having breakfast with Alliandre. Send for me if there is news.”

He nodded, swallowing. Why should a person have meat at midday, but refuse it for breakfast? It didn't make sense.

He'd decided to remain camped beside the Jehannah Road. What else was he to do, with an army of Whitecloaks directly ahead, between him and Lugard? His scouts needed time to assess the danger. He'd spent much time thinking about the strange visions he'd seen, the wolves chasing sheep toward a beast and Faile walking toward a cliff. He hadn't been able to make sense of them, but could they have something to do with the Whitecloaks? Their appearance bothered him more than he wanted to admit, but he harbored a tiny hope that they would prove insignificant and not slow him too much.

„Perrin Aybara,” a voice called from outside his tent. „Do you give me leave to enter?”

„Come in, Gaul,” he called. „My shade is yours.”

The tall Aiel strode in. „Thank you, Perrin Aybara,” he said, glancing at the ham. „Quite a feast. Do you celebrate?”

„Nothing besides breakfast.”

„A mighty victory,” Gaul said, laughing.

Perrin shook his head. Aiel humor. He'd stopped trying to make sense of it. Gaul settled himself on the ground and Perrin sighed inwardly before picking up his plate and moving to sit on the rug across from Gaul. Perrin placed the meal in his lap and continued to eat.

„You need not sit on the floor because of me,” Gaul said.

„I'm not doing it because I need to, Gaul.”

Gaul nodded.

Perrin cut off another bite. This would be so much easier if he grabbed the whole thing in his fingers and started ripping off chunks. Eating was simpler for wolves. Utensils. What was the point?

Thoughts like that gave him pause. He was not a wolf, and didn't want to think like one. Maybe he should start having fruit for a proper breakfast, as Faile said. He frowned, then turned back to his meat.

„We fought Trollocs in the Two Rivers,” Byar said, lowering his voice. Galad's porridge cooled, forgotten on the table. „Several dozen men in our camp can confirm it. I killed several of the beasts with my own sword.”

„Trollocs in the Two Rivers?” Galad said. „That's hundreds of leagues from the Borderlands!”

„They were there nonetheless,” Byar said. „Lord Captain Commander Niall must have suspected it. We were sent to the place on his orders. You know that Pedron Niall would not have simply jumped at nothing.”

„Yes. I agree. But the Two Rivers?”

„It is full of Darkfriends,” Byar said. „Bornhald told you of Golden-eyes. In the Two Rivers, this Perrin Aybara was raising the flag of ancient Manetheren and gathering an army from among the farmers. Trained soldiers may scoff at farmers pressed into service, but get enough of them together, and they can be a danger. Some are skilled with the staff or the bow.”

„I am aware,” Galad said flatly, recalling a particularly embarrassing lesson he'd once been given.

„That man, this Perrin Aybara,” Byar continued. „He's Shadowspawn, as plain as day. They call him Goldeneyes because his eyes are golden, no shade that any person has ever known. We were certain that Aybara was bringing the Trollocs in, using them to force the people of the Two Rivers to join his army. He eventually ran us out of the place. Now he's here, before us.” A coincidence, or something more?

Byar was obviously thinking along the same lines. „My Lord Captain Commander, perhaps I should have mentioned this earlier, but the Two Rivers wasn't my first experience with this creature Aybara. He killed two of the Children on a forgotten road in Andor some two years ago. I was traveling with Bornhald's father. We met Aybara in a campsite off a main road. He was running with wolves like a wildman! He killed two men before we could subdue him, then escaped into the night after we had him captured. My Lord, he was to be hanged.”

„There are others who can confirm this?” Galad asked.

„Child Oratar can. And Child Bornhald can confirm what we saw in the Two Rivers. Goldeneyes was at Falme, too. For what he did there alone he should be brought to justice. It is clear. The Light has delivered him to us.”

„You're certain our people are among the Whitecloaks?” Perrin asked.

„I could not see faces,” Gaul said, „but Elyas Machera's eyes are very keen. He says he's certain he saw Basel Gill.”

Perrin nodded. Elyas' golden eyes would be as good as Perrin's own.

„Sulin and her scouts have similar reports,” Gaul said, accepting a cup of ale poured from Perrin's pitcher. „The Whitecloak army has a large number of carts, much like the ones we sent ahead. She discovered this early in the morning, but asked me to pass these words to you once you awoke, as she knows that wetlanders are temperamental when disturbed in the morning.”

Gaul obviously had no idea that he might be giving offense. Perrin was a wetlander. Wetlanders were temperamental, at least in the opinion of the Aiel. So Gaul was stating an accepted fact. Perrin shook his head, trying one of the eggs. Overcooked, but edible. „Did Sulin spot anyone she recognized?”

„No, though she saw some gai'shain” Gaul said. „However, Sulin is a Maiden, so perhaps we should send someone to confirm what she said— someone who won't demand the opportunity to wash our smallclothes.”

„Trouble with Bain and Chiad?” Perrin asked.

Gaul grimaced. „I swear, those women will drive the mind from me. What man should be expected to suffer such things? Almost better to have Sightblinder himself as a gai'shain than those two.”

Perrin chuckled.

„Regardless, the captives look unharmed and healthy. There is more to the report. One of the Maidens saw a flag flying over the camp that looked distinctive, so she copied it down for your secretary, Sebban Balwer. He says that it means the Lord Captain Commander himself rides with this army.”

Perrin looked down at the last chunk of ham. That was not good news. He'd never met the Lord Captain Commander, but he bad met one of the Whitecloak Lords Captain once. That had been the night when Hopper had died, a night that had haunted Perrin for two years.

That had been the night when he had killed for the first time.

„What more do you need?” Byar leaned in close, sunken eyes alight with zeal. „We have witnesses who saw this man murder two of our own! Do we let him march by, as if innocent?”

„No,” Galad said. „No, by the Light, if what you say is true then we cannot turn our backs on this man. Our duty is to bring justice to the wronged.”

Byar smiled, looking eager. „The prisoners revealed that the Queen of Ghealdan has sworn fealty to him.”

„That could present a problem.”

„Or an opportunity. Perhaps Ghealdan is precisely what the Children need. A new home, a place to rebuild. You speak of Andor, my Lord Captain Commander, but how long will they suffer us? You speak of the Last Battle, but it could be months away. What if we were to free an entire nation from the grip of a terrible Darkfriend? Surely the Queen—or her successor—would feel indebted to us.”

„Assuming we can defeat this Aybara.”

„We can. Our forces are smaller than his, but many of his soldiers are farmers.”

„Farmers you just pointed out can be dangerous,” Galad said. „They should not be underestimated.”

„Yes, but I know we can defeat them. They can be dangerous, yes, but they will break before the might of the Children. This time, finally, Gold-eneyes won't be able to hide behind his little village fortifications or his ragtag allies. No more excuses.”

Was this part of being ta'veren? Could Perrin not escape that night, years ago? He set his plate aside, feeling sick.

„Are you well, Perrin Aybara?” Gaul said.

„Just thinking.” The Whitecloaks would not leave him alone, and the Pattern—burn it!—was going to keep looping them into his path until he dealt with them.

„How large is their army?” Perrin asked.

„There are twenty thousand soldiers among them,” Gaul replied. „There are several thousand others who have likely never held a spear.”

Servants and camp followers. Gaul kept the amusement from his voice, but Perrin could smell it on him. Among the Aiel, nearly every man—all but blacksmiths—would pick up a spear if they were attacked. The fact that many wetlanders were incapable of defending themselves either befuddled or infuriated the Aiel.

„Their force is large,” Gaul continued, „but ours is larger. And they have no algai'd'siswai nor Asha'man, nor channelers of any type, if Sebban Balwer's word is not in error. He seems to know much of these White-cloaks.”

„He's right. Whitecloaks hate Aes Sedai and think anyone who can use the One Power is a Darkfriend.”

„We move against him, then?” Byar asked.

Galad stood. „We have no choice. The Light has delivered him into our hands. But we need more information. Perhaps I should go to this Aybara and let him know that we hold his allies, and then ask his army to meet with us on the field of battle. I'd rather draw him out to make use of my cavalry.”

„What do you want, Perrin Aybara?” Gaul asked.

What did he want? He wished he could answer that.

Send more scouts,” Perrin said. „Find us a better place to camp. We'll want to offer parley, but there s no way under the Light I'm leaving. Gill and the others in the hands of the Whitecioaks. We'll give the Children chance to return our people. If they don't... well, then we'll see “

CHAPTER 8
The Seven-Striped Lass

Mat sat on a worn stool, his arms leaning against a dark wooden bar counter. The air smelled good—of ale, smoke, and of the washcloth that had recently wiped the counter. He liked that. There was something calming about a good, rowdy tavern that was also kept clean. Well, clean as was reasonable, anyway. Nobody liked a tavern that was too clean. That made a place feel new. Like a coat that had never been worn or a pipe that had never been smoked.

Mat flipped a folded letter between two fingers of his right hand. That letter, on thick paper, was sealed with a glob of blood-red wax. He had been carrying it only a short time, but it was already a source of as much aggravation to him as any woman. Well, maybe not an Aes Sedai, but most any other woman. That was saying a lot.

He stopped spinning the letter and tapped it on the counter. Burn Verin for doing this to him! She held him by his oath like a fish caught on a hook.

Well, Master Crimson?” asked the tavernkeeper. That was the name he was using these days. Best to be safe. „You want a refill or not?”

The tavernkeeper leaned down before him, crossing her arms. Melli Craeb was a pretty woman, with a round face and auburn hair that curled quite fetchingly. Mat would have given her his best smile—there was not a woman he had met who did not melt for his best smile—but he was a married man now. He could not go breaking hearts; it would not be right.

Though, leaning as she did showed some ample bosom. She was a short woman, but she kept the area behind the bar raised. Yes, a nice bosom indeed. He figured she would be good for a bit of kissing, perhaps tucked into one of the booths at the back of the tavern. Of course, Mat did not look at women anymore, not like that. He did not think about her for him to kiss. Maybe for Talmanes. He was so stiff, a good kiss and cuddle would do him good.

„Well?” Melli asked.

„What would you do if you were me, Melli?” His empty mug sat beside him, a few suds clinging to the rim.

„Order another round,” she said immediately. „For the entire bar. It would be downright charitable of you. People like a charitable fellow.”

„I meant about the letter.”

„You promised not to open it?” she said.

„Well, not exactly. I promised that if I opened it, I'd do exactly what it said inside.”

„Gave an oath, did you?”

He nodded.

She snatched it from his fingers, causing him to yelp. He reached to take it back but she pulled away, turning it over in her fingers. Mat suppressed an urge to reach for it again; he had played more than a few games of take-away, and had no urge to look the buffoon. A woman liked nothing more than to make a man squirm, and if you let her do it, she would only keep going.

Still, he began to sweat. „Now, Melli...”

„I could open it for you,” she said, leaning back against the other side of the bar, looking over the letter. Nearby, a man called for another mug of ale, but she waved him down. The red-nosed man looked as if he had had enough anyway. Melli's tavern was popular enough that she had a half-dozen serving girls taking care of the patrons. One would get to him eventually. „I could open it,” she continued to Mat, „and could tell you what's inside.”

Bloody ashes! If she did that, he would have to do what it said. Whatever it bloody said! All he had to do was wait a few weeks, and he would be free. He could wait that long. Really, he could. „It wouldn't do,” Mat said, sitting up with a jerk as she reached her thumb between two sides of the letter, as if to rip it. „I'd still have to do what it said, Melli. Don't you do that, now. Be careful!”

She smiled at him. Her tavern, The Seven-Striped Lass, was one of the best in western Caemlyn. Ale with a robust flavor, games of dice when you wanted them, and not a rat to be seen. They probably did not want to risk running afoul of Melli. Light, but the woman could shame the whiskers off a man's cheeks without much trying. „You never did tell me who it was from,” Melli said, turning the letter over. „She's a lover, isn't she? Got you tied up in her strings?”

She had the second part right enough, but a lover? Verin? It was ridiculous enough to make Mat laugh. Kissing Verin would have been about as much fun as kissing a lion. Of the two, he would have chosen the lion. It would have been much less likely to try to bite him.

„I gave my oath, Melli,” Mat said, trying not to show his nervousness. „Don't you go opening that, now.”

„I didn't give any oath,” she said. „Maybe I'll read it, and then not tell you what it says. Just give you hints, now and then, as encouragement.”

She eyed him, full lips smiling. Yes, she was a pretty one. Not as pretty as Tuon, though, with her beautiful skin and large eyes. But Melli was still pretty, particularly those lips of hers. Being married meant he could not stare at those lips, but he did give her his best smile. It was called for, this time, though it could break her heart. He could not let her open that letter.

„It's the same thing, Melli,” Mat said winningly. „If you open that letter and I don't do what it says, my oath is as good as dishwater.” He sighed, realizing there was one way to get the letter back. „The woman who gave it to me was Aes Sedai, Melli. You don't want to anger an Aes Sedai, do you?”

„Aes Sedai?” Melli suddenly looked eager. „I've always fancied going up to Tar Valon, to see if they'll let me join them.” She looked at the letter, as if more curious about its contents.

Light! The woman was daft. Mat had taken her for the sensible type. He should have known better. He began to sweat more. Could he reach the letter? She was holding it close....

She set it down on the bar before him. She left one finger on the letter, directly in the middle of the wax seal. „You'll introduce me to this Aes Sedai, when you next meet her.”

„If I see her while I'm in Caemlyn,” Mat said. „I promise it.”

„Can I trust you to keep your word?”

He gave her an exasperated look. „What was this whole bloody conversation about, Melli?”

She laughed, turning and leaving the letter on the bar, going to help the gap-toothed man who was still calling for more ale. Mat snatched the letter, tucking it carefully into his coat pocket. Bloody woman. The only way for him to stay free of Aes Sedai plots was to never open this letter. Well, not exactly free. Mat had plenty of Aes Sedai plotting around him; he had them coming out of his ears. But only a man with sawdust for brains would ask for another.

Mat sighed, turning on his stool. A varied crowd clogged The Seven-Striped Lass. Caemlyn was fuller than a lionfish at a shipwreck these days practically bursting at the seams. That kept the taverns busy. In the corner some farmers in workcoats fraying at the collars played at dice. Mat had played a few rounds with them earlier, and had paid for his drink with their coins, but he hated gambling for coppers.

The bluff-faced man in the corner was still drinking—must be fourteen mugs sitting empty beside him now—his companions cheering him onward. A group of nobles sat off from the rest, and he would have asked them for a nice game of dice, but the expressions on their faces could have frightened away bears. They had probably been on the wrong side of the Succession war.

Mat wore a black coat with lace at the cuffs. Only a little lace, and no embroidery. Reluctantly, he had left his wide-brimmed hat back in camp, and he had grown a few days' scrub on his chin. That itched like he had fleas, and he looked a bloody fool. But the scrub made him harder to recognize. With every footpad in the city having a picture of him, it was best to be safe. He wished being ta'veren would help him for once, but it was best not to count on that. Being ta'veren had not been good for anything he could tell.

He kept his scarf tucked low and his coat buttoned, the high collar up nearly to his chin. He had already died once, he was fairly certain, and was not eager to try again.

A pretty serving girl walked by, slender and wide-hipped, with long dark hair she let hang free. He moved to the side, allowing his empty mug to look lonely and obvious on the counter, and she walked over with a smile to refill it. He grinned at her and tipped a copper. He was a married man, and could not afford to charm her, but he could keep an eye out for his friends. Thom might like her. A girl might make him stop moping about so much, at least. Mat watched the girl's face for a time to be certain he would recognize her again.

Mat sipped at his ale, one hand feeling at the letter in his pocket. He did not speculate at what was in it. Do that, and he would be only one step from ripping it open. He was a little like a mouse staring at a trap with moldy cheese in it. He did not want that cheese. It could rot, for all he cared.

The letter would probably instruct him to do something dangerous. And embarrassing. Aes Sedai had a fondness for making men look like fools. Light he hoped that she had not left instructions for him to help someone in trouble. If that were the case, surely she would have seen to it herself.

He sighed and took another pull on his ale. In the corner, the drinking man finally toppled over. Sixteen mugs. Not bad. Mat set aside his own drink, left a few coins as payment, then nodded farewell to Melli. He collected his winnings on the wager regarding the drinking man from a long-fingered fellow in the corner. Mat had bet on seventeen mugs, which was close enough to win some. Then he was on his way, taking his walking stick from the stand by the door.

The bouncer, Berg, eyed him. Berg had a face ugly enough to make his own mother wince. The shoulderthumper did not like Mat, and from the way Berg looked at Melli, that was probably because he figured Mat was trying to make eyes at his woman. Never mind that Mat had explained he was married, and did not do that sort of thing any longer. Some men would be jealous no matter what they were told.

The streets of Caemlyn were busy, even at this late hour. The paving stones were damp from a recent shower, though those clouds had passed by and—remarkably—left the sky open to the air. He moved northward along the street, heading for another tavern he knew, one where men diced for silver and gold. Mat was not about any specific task tonight, just listening for rumors, getting a feel for Caemlyn. A lot had changed since he had been here last.

As he walked, he could not help looking over his shoulder. Those bloody pictures had him unnerved. Many of the people on the street seemed suspicious. A few Murandians passed, looking so drunk that he could have lit their breath on fire. Mat kept his distance. After what had happened to him in Hinderstap, he figured he could not be too careful. Light, he had heard stories of paving stones attacking people. If a man could not trust the rocks under his feet, what could he trust?

He eventually reached the tavern he wanted, a cheery place called The Dead Man's Breath. It had two toughs out front, holding cudgels they patted against enormous palms. Lots of extra tavern toughs were being hired these days. Mat would have to watch himself, not win too much. Tavern-keepers did not like a man winning too much, as it could bring a fight. Unless the man spent his winnings on food and drink. Then he could win all he liked, thank you very much.

The inside of this tavern was darker than The Seven-Striped Lass had been. The men here hunched low over drinks or games, and there was not much food being served. Just strong drinks. The wooden bar had nails whose heads jutted out a fingernail or so high and jabbed you in the arms. Mat figured they were working to pull themselves free and run for the door.

The tavernkeeper, Bernherd, was a greasy-haired Tairen with a mouth so small it looked like he had swallowed his lips by mistake. He smelled of radishes, and Mat had never seen him smile, not even when tipped. Most tavernkeepers would smile at the Dark One himself for a tip.

Mat hated gambling and drinking in a place where you had to keep one hand on your coin purse. But he had a mind to win some real money tonight, and there were dice games going and coins clinking, so he felt somewhat at home. The lace on his coat did get glances. Why had he taken to wearing that, anyway? Best have Lopin pull it off his cuffs when he got back to the camp. Well, not all of it. Some of it, maybe.

Mat found a game at the back being played by three men and a woman in breeches. She had short golden hair and nice eyes; Mat noticed those purely for Thom's sake. She had a full bosom, anyway, and lately Mat had a mind for women who were more slender through the chest.

In minutes Mat was dicing with them, and that calmed him a measure. He kept his coin pouch in sight, though, laying it on the floor in front of him. Before long, the pile of coins beside it grew, mostly silvers.

„You hear about what happened over at Farrier's Green?” one of the men asked his fellows as Mat tossed. „It was a terrible thing.” The speaker was a tall fellow, with a pinched-up face that looked like it had been closed in a door a few times. He called himself Chaser. Mat figured that was because the women ran away from him after they got a look at that face, and he had to run after them.

„What?” Clare asked. She was the golden-haired woman. Mat gave her a smile. He did not dice against women much, as most claimed to find dicing improper. Never mind that they never complained when a man bought them something nice with what he had won. Anyway, dicing with women was not fair, since one of his smiles could set their hearts fluttering and they would get all weak in the knees. But Mat did not smile at girls that way anymore. Besides, she had not responded to any of his smiles anyway.

„Jowdry,” Chaser said as Mat shook his dice. „They found him dead this morning. Throat ripped clean out. Body was drained of blood, like a wineskin full of holes.”

Mat was so startled that he threw the dice, but did not watch them roll. „What?” he demanded. „What did you say?”

„Here now,” Chaser said, looking toward Mat. „It's just someone we knew. Owed me two crowns, he did.”

„Drained of blood,” Mat said, „Are you sure? Did you see the body?” „What?” Chaser said, grimacing. „Bloody ashes, man! What's wrong with you?”

„Chaser,” Clare said. „Will you look at that?”

The lean man glanced down, as did Mat. The dice he had tossed—all three of them—had landed still and were balanced on their corners. Light! He had tossed coins so they fell on their sides before, but he had never done anything like this.

Right there, all of a sudden, the dice started rattling inside his head. He almost jumped clear to the ceiling. Blood and bloody ashes! Those dice in his head never meant anything good. They only stopped when something changed, something that usually meant bad news for poor Matrim Cauthon.

„I ain't never...” Chaser said.

„We'll call that a loss,” Mat said, tossing a few coins down and scooping up the rest of his winnings.

„What do you know about Jowdry?” Clare demanded. She was reaching for her waist. Mat would have bet gold against coppers on her having a knife there, the way she glared at him.

„Nothing,” Mat said. Nothing and too much at the same time. „Excuse me.”

He hastily crossed the tavern. As he did, he noticed one of the thick-armed toughs from the door standing and talking to Bernherd the tavern-keeper, pointing at a piece of paper in his hands. Mat could not see what was on it, but he could guess: his own face.

He cursed and ducked out onto the street. He took the first alley he saw, breaking into a run.

The Forsaken hunting him, a picture of his face in the pocket of every footpad in the city and a corpse killed and drained of its blood. That could only mean one thing. The gholam was in Caemlyn. It seemed impossible that it could have gotten here this quickly. Of course, Mat had seen it squeeze through a hole not two handspans wide. The thing did not seem to have a right sense of what was possible and what was not possible.

Blood and bloody ashes, he thought, ducking his head. He needed to collect Thom and get back to the Band's camp outside of the city. He hastened down the dark, rain-slicked street. Paving stones reflected the lit oil lamps ahead. Elayne kept the Queen's Walk well illuminated at night.

He had sent word to her, but had not gotten a reply. How was that for gratitude? By his count, he had saved her life twice. Once should have been enough to reduce her to tears and kisses, but he had not seen even a peck on the cheek. Not that he wanted one; not from royalty. Best to avoid! them.

You're married to a bloody high lady of the Seamhan, he thought. Daughter of the Empress herself There was no avoiding royalty now! Not for him. At least Tuon was pretty. And good at playing stones. And very keen of wit, good for talking to, even if she was flaming frustrating most of the...

No. No thinking of Tuon right now.

Anyway, he had received no reply from Elayne. He would need to be more firm. It was not just Aludra and her dragons now. The bloody gholam was in the city.

He stepped out onto a large, busy street, hands pushed into the pockets of his coat. In his haste, he had left his walking staff back in The Dead Man's Breath. He grumbled to himself; he was supposed to be spending his days relaxing, his nights dicing in fine inns, and his mornings sleeping late while waiting for Verin's thirty-day requirement to run out. Now this.

He had a score to settle with that gholam. The innocents it had slaughtered while lurking around Ebou Dar were bad enough, and Mat had not forgotten Nalesean and the five Redarms who had been murdered either. Bloody ashes, it had had enough to answer for already. Then it had taken Tylin.

Mat removed a hand from his pocket, feeling at the foxhead medallion, resting—as always—against his chest. He was tired of running from that monster. A plan started to form in his mind, accompanied by the rattling of dice. He tried to banish the image of the Queen lying in bonds Mat himself had tied, her head ripped free. There would have been so much blood. The gholam lived on fresh blood.

Mat shivered, shoving his hand back into his pocket as he approached the city gate. Despite the darkness, he could pick out signs of the battle that had been fought here. An arrowhead embedded into the doorway of a building to his left, a dark patch on the wall of a guardhouse, staining the wood beneath the window. A man had died there, perhaps while firing a crossbow out, and had slumped down over the windows ledge, bleeding his lifeblood down the wood.

That siege was over now, and a new Queen—the right Queen—held the throne. For once, there had been a battle and he had missed it. Remembering that lightened his mood somewhat. An entire war had been fought over the Lion Throne, and not one arrow, blade or spear had entered the conflict seeking Matrim Cauthon's heart.

He turned right, along the inside of the city wall. There were a lot of inns here. There were always inns near city gates. Not the nicest ones, but almost always the most profitable ones.

Light spilled from doorways and windows, painting the road golden in atches. Dark forms crowded the alleyways except where the inns had hired men to keep the poor away. Caemlyn was strained. The flood of refugees, the recent fighting, the... other matters. Stories abounded of the dead walking, of food spoiling, of whitewashed walls suddenly going grimy.

The inn where Thom had chosen to perform was a steep-roofed, brick-fronted structure with a sign that showed two apples, one eaten down to the core. That made it stark white, the other was stark red—colors .of the An-doran flag. The Two Apples was one of the nicer establishments in the area.

Mat could hear the music from outside. He entered and saw Thom sitting atop a small dais on the far side of the common room, playing his flute and wearing his patchwork gleeman's cloak. His eyes were closed as he played, his mustache drooping long and white on either side of the instrument. It was a haunting tune, „The Marriage of Cinny Wade.” Mat had learned it as „Always Choose the Right Horse,” and still was not used to it being performed as slowly as Thom did.

A small collection of coins was scattered on the floor in front of Thom. The inn allowed him to play for tips. Mat stopped near the doorway and leaned back to listen. Nobody spoke in the common room, though it was stuffed so full Mat could have made half a company of soldiers just with the men inside. Every eye was on Thom.

Mat had been all around the world now, walking a great deal of it on his own two feet. He had nearly lost his skin in a dozen different cities, and had stayed in inns far and near. He had heard gleemen, performers and bards. Thom made the entire lot seem like children with sticks, banging on pots.

The flute was a simple instrument. A lot of nobles would rather hear the harp instead; one man in Ebou Dar had told Mat the harp was more elevated.” Mat figured he would have gone slack-jawed and saucer-eyed if he had heard Thom play. The gleeman made the flute sound like an extension of his own soul. Soft trills, minor scales and powerfully bold long holds. Such a lamenting melody. Who was Thom sorrowing for?

The crowd watched. Caemlyn was one of the greatest cities in the world, but still the variety seemed incredible. Crusty Illianers sat beside smooth Domani, crafty Cairhienin, stout Tairens and a sprinkling of Bor-derlanders. Caemlyn was seen as one of the few places where one could be safe from both the Seanchan and the Dragon. There was a bit of food, too.

Thom finished the piece and moved on to another without opening hjs eyes. Mat sighed, hating to break up Thom's performance. Unfortunately it was time to be moving on back to camp. They had to talk about the I gholam, and Mat needed to find a way to get through to Elayne. Maybe Thom would go talk to her for him.

Mat nodded to the innkeeper—a stately, dark-haired woman named Bromas. She nodded to Mat, hoop earrings catching the light. She was a little older than his normal taste—but then, Tylin had been her age. He would keep her in mind. For one of his men, of course. Maybe Vanin.

Mat reached the stage, then began to scoop up the coins. He would let Thom finish and—

Mat's hand jerked. His arm was suddenly pinned by the cuff to the stage, a knife sticking through the cloth. The thin length of metal quivered. Mat glanced up to find Thom still playing, though the gleeman had cracked an eye before throwing the knife.

Thom raised his hand back up and continued playing, a smile showing on his puckered lips. Mat grumbled and yanked his cuff free, waiting as Thom finished this tune, which was not as doleful as the other. When the lanky gleeman lowered the flute, the room burst into applause.

Mat favored the gleeman with a scowl. „Burn you, Thom. This is one of my favorite coats!”

„Be glad I did not aim for the hand,” Thom noted, wiping down the flute, nodding to the cheering and applause of the inn's patrons. They called for him to continue, but he shook a regretful head and replaced his flute in its case.

„I almost wish you would have,” Mat said, raising his cuff and sticking a finger through the holes. „Blood would not have shown that much on the black, but the stitching will be obvious. Just because you wear more patches than cloak doesn't mean I want to imitate you.”

„And you complain that you're not a lord,” Thom said, leaning down to collect his earnings.

„I'm not!” Mat said. „And never mind what Tuon said, burn you. I'm no bloody nobleman.”

„Ever heard of a farmer complaining that his coat stitches would show?”

„You don't have to be a lord to want to dress with some sense,” Mat grumbled.

Thom laughed, slapping him on the back and hopping down. „I'm sorry, Mat. I moved by instinct, didn't realize it was you until I saw the face attached to the arm. By then, the knife was already out of my fingers.”

Mat sighed. „Thom,” he said grimly, „an old friend is in town. One who leaves folks dead with their throats ripped clean out.”

Thom nodded, looking troubled. „I heard about it from some Guardsmen during my break. And we're stuck here in the city unless you decide...”

„I'm not opening the letter,” Mat said. „Verin could have left instructions for me to crawl all the way to Falme on my hands, and I'd bloody have to do it! I know you hate the delay, but that letter could make a much worse delay.”

Thom nodded reluctantly.

„Let's get back to camp,” Mat said.

The Band's camp was a league outside of Caemlyn. Thom and Mat had not ridden in—walkers were less conspicuous, and Mat would not bring horses into the city until he found a stable that he trusted. The price of good horses was getting ridiculous. He had hoped to leave that behind once he left Seanchan lands, but Elayne's armies were buying up every good horse they could find, and most of the not-so-good ones, too. Beyond that, he had heard that horses had a way of disappearing these days. Meat was meat, and people were close to starving, even in Caemlyn. It made Mat's skin crawl, but it was the truth.

He and Thom spent the walk back talking about the gbolam, deciding very little other than to make everyone alert and have Mat start sleeping in a different tent every night.

Mat glanced over his shoulder as the two of them crested a hilltop. Caemlyn was ablaze with the light of torches and lamps. Illumination hung over the city like a fog, grand spires and towers lit by the glow. The old memories inside him remembered this city—remembered assaulting it before Andor was even a nation. Caemlyn had never made for an easy fight. He did not envy the Houses that had tried to seize it from Elayne.

Thom stepped up beside him. „It seems like forever since we left here last, doesn't it, Mat?”

„Burn me, but it does,” Mat said. „What ever convinced us to go hunt-ing those fool girls? Next time, they can save themselves.”

Thom eyed him. „Aren't we about to do the same thing? When we go to the Tower of Ghenjei?” It's different. We can't leave her with them. Those snakes and foxes—”

„I'm not complaining, Mat,” Thom said. „I'm just thoughtful.”

Thom seemed thoughtful a lot, lately. Moping around, caressing that worn letter from Moiraine. It was only a letter. „Come on,” Mat said, turn-ing back along the road. „You were telling me about getting in to see the Queen?”

Thom joined him on the dark roadway. „I'm not surprised she hasn't replied to you, Mat. She's probably got her hands full. Word is that Trol-locs have invaded the Borderlands in force, and Andor is still fractured from the Succession. Elayne—”

„Do you have any good news, Thom?” Mat said. „Tell me some, if you do. I've a mind for it.”

“I wish that The Queen's Blessing were still open. Gill always had tidbits to share.”

“Good news,” Mat prodded again.

“All right. Well, the Tower of Ghenjei is right where Domon said. I have word from three other ship's captains. It's past an open plain several hundred miles northwest of Whitebridge.”

Mat nodded, rubbing his chin. He felt like he could remember something of the tower. A silvery structure, unnatural, in the distance. A trip on a boat, water lapping at the sides. Bayle Domon's thick Illianer accent...

Those images were vague to Mat; his memories of the time were full of more holes than one of Jori Congar's alibis. Bayle Domon had been able to tell them where to find the tower, but Mat wanted confirmation. The way Domon bowed and scraped for Leilwin made Mat itch. Neither showed Mat much affection, for all the fact that he had saved them. Not that he had wanted any affection from Leilwin. Kissing her would be about as fun as kissing a stoneoak's bark.

„You think Domon's description will be enough for someone to make us one of those gateways there?” Mat asked.

„I don't know,” Thom said. „Though that's a secondary problem, I should think. Where are we going to find someone to make a gateway? Verin has vanished.”

„I'll find a way.”

„If you don't, we'll end up spending weeks traveling to the place,' Thom said. „I don't like—”

„I'll find us a gateway,” Mat said firmly. „Maybe Verin will come back and release me from this bloody oath.”

„Best that one stays away,” Thom said. „I don't trust her. There's something off about that one.”

„She's Aes Sedai,” Mat said. „There's something off about them all— like dice where the pips don't add up—but for an Aes Sedai, I kind of like Verin. And I'm a good judge of character, you know that.”

Thom raised an eyebrow. Mat scowled back.

„Either way,” Thom said, „we should probably start sending guards with you when you visit the city.”

„Guards won't help against the gholam.”

„No, but what of the thugs who jumped you on your way back to camp three nights back?”

Mat shivered. „At least those were just good, honest thieves. They only wanted my purse, nice and natural. Not a one had a picture of me in their pockets. And it's not like they were twisted by the Dark One's power to go crazy at sunset or anything.”

„Still,” Thom said.

Mat made no argument. Burn him, but he probably should be bringing soldiers with him. A few Redarms, anyway. The camp was just ahead. One of Elayne's clerks, a man named Norry, had granted the Band permission to camp in Caemlyn's proximity. They had to agree to allow no more than a hundred men to go into the city on a given day, and had to camp at least a league from the walls, out of the way of any villages and not on anyone's farmland.

Talking to that clerk meant Elayne knew Mat was here. She had to. But she had sent no greetings, no acknowledgment that she owed Mat her skin.

At a bend in the road, Thom's lantern showed a group of Redarms lounging by the side. Gufrin, sergeant of a squad, stood and saluted. He was a sturdy, broad-shouldered man. Not terribly bright, but keen eyed.

„Lord Mat!” he said.

„Any news, Gufrin?” Mat asked.

The sergeant frowned to himself. „Well,” he said. „I think there's something you might want to know.” Light! The man spoke more slowly than a drunk Seanchan. „The Aes Sedai came back to camp today. While you was away, my Lord.”

„All three of them?” Mat asked.

„Yes, my Lord.”

Mat sighed. If there had been any hope of this day turning out to be anything other than sour, that washed it away. He had hoped they would stay inside the city for a few more days.

He and Thom continued, leaving the road and heading down a path through a field of blackwasp nettles and knifegrass. The weeds crunched as they walked, Thom's lantern lighting the brown stalks. On one hand, it was good to be back in Andor again; it almost felt like home, with those stands of leatherleaf trees and sourgum. However, coming back to find it looking so dead was disheartening. What to do about Elayne? Women were troublesome. Aes Sedai were worse. Queens were the worst of the lot. And she was all bloody three How was he going to get her to give him her foundries? He had taken Verin's offer in part because he thought it would get him to Andor quicker and therefore to start work on Aludra's dragons!

Ahead, the Band's camp sat on a small series of hills, entrenched around the largest of them at the center. Mat's force had met up with Estean and the others that had gone ahead to Andor, and the Band was well and truly whole again. Fires burned; there was no trouble finding dead wood for fires these days. Smoke lingered in the air, and Mat heard men chatting and calling. It was not too late yet, and Mat did not enforce a curfew. If he could not relax, at least his men could. It might be the last chance they got before the Last Battle.

Trollocs in the Borderlands, Mat thought. We need those dragons. Soon.

Mat returned salutes from a few guard posts and parted with Thom, meaning to go find a bed and sleep on his problems for the night. As he did, he noted a few changes he could make to the camp. The way the hillsides were arranged, a light cavalry charge could come galloping through the corridor between them. Only someone very bold would try such a tactic, but he had done just that during the Battle of Marisin Valley back in old Coremanda. Well, not Mat himself, but someone in those old memories.

More and more, he simply accepted those memories as his own. He had not asked for them—no matter what those bloody foxes claimed—but he had paid for them with the scar around his neck. They had been useful on more than one occasion.

He finally reached his tent, intending to get fresh smallclothes before finding a different tent for the night, when he heard a woman's voice calling to him. „Matrim Cauthon!”

Bloody ashes. He had almost made it. He turned reluctantly.

Teslyn Baradon was not a pretty woman, though she might have made a passable paperbark tree, with those bony fingers, those narrow shoulders and that gaunt face. She wore a red dress, and over the weeks her eyes had lost most of the nervous skittishness she had shown since spending time as a damane. She had a glare so practiced she could have won a staring contest with a post.

„Matrim Cauthon,” she said, stepping up to him. „I do be needing to speak with you.”

„Well, seems that you're doing so already,” Mat said, dropping his hand from his tent flap. He had a slight fondness for Teslyn, against his better judgment, but he was not about to invite her in. No more than he would invite a fox into his henhouse, regardless of how kindly he thought of the fox in question.

„So I do be,” she replied. „You've heard the news of the White Tower?”

„News?” Mat said. „No, I've heard no news. Rumors, though... I've a brainful of those. Some say the White Tower has been reunified, which is what you're probably talking about. But I've also heard just as many claiming that it is still at war. And that the Amyrlin fought the Last Battle in Rand's place, and that the Aes Sedai have decided to raise an army of soldiers by giving birth to them, and that flying monsters attacked the White Tower. That last one is probably just stories of raken drifting up from the south. But I think the one about Aes Sedai raising an army of babies holds some water.”

Teslyn regarded him with a flat stare. He did not look away. Good thing Mat's father had always said he was more stubborn than a flaming tree stump.

Remarkably, Teslyn sighed, her face softening. „You be, of course, rightly skeptical. But we cannot ignore the news. Even Edesina, who foolishly sided with the rebels, does wish to return. We do plan to go in the morning. As it is your habit to sleep late, I wanted to come to you tonight in order to give you my thanks.”

„Your what?”

„My thanks, Master Cauthon,” Teslyn said dryly. „This trip did not be easy upon any of us. There have been moments of... tension. I do not say that I agree with each decision you made. That do not remove the fact that without you, I would still be in Seanchan hands.” She shivered. „I pretend, during my more confident moments, that I would have resisted them and eventually escaped on my own. It do be important to maintain some illusions with yourself, would you not say?”

Mat rubbed his chin. „Maybe, Teslyn. Maybe indeed.”

Remarkably, she held out her hand to him. „Remember, should you ever come to the White Tower, you do have women there who are in your debt, Matrim Cauthon. I do not forget.”

He took the hand. It felt as bony as it looked, but it was warmer than he had expected. Some Aes Sedai had ice running in their veins, that was for certain. But others were not so bad.

She nodded to him. A respectful nod. Almost a bow. Mat released her and, feeling as unsettled as if someone had kicked his legs out from un-derneath him. She turned to walk back toward her own tent.

You'll be needing horses,” he said. „If you wait to leave until I get up in the morning, I'll give you some. And some provisions. Wouldn't do for you to starve before you get to Tar Valon, and from what we've seen lately the villages you'll pass won't have anything to spare.”

„You told Joline—”

„I counted my horses again,” Mat said. Those dice were still rattling in his head, burn them. „I did another count of the Band's horses. Turns out we have some to spare. You may take them.”

„I did not come to you tonight to manipulate you into giving me horses,” Teslyn said. „I do be sincere.”

„So I figured,” Mat said, turning lifting up the flap to his tent. „That's why I made the offer.” He stepped into the tent.

There, he froze. That scent...

Blood.

CHAPTER 9
Blood in the Air

Mat ducked immediately. That instinct saved his life as something swung through the air above his head. Mat rolled to the side, his hand hitting something wet as it touched the floor. „Murder!” he bellowed. „Murder in the camp! Bloody murder!”

Something moved toward him. The tent was completely black, but he could hear it. Mat stumbled, but luck was with him as again something swished near him.

Mat hit the ground and rolled, flinging his hand to the side. He had left...

There! He came up beside his sleeping pallet, his hand grasping at the long wooden haft there. He threw himself backward to his feet, hauling the ashandarei up, then spun and slashed—not at the form moving through the tent toward him, but at the wall.

The fabric cut easily and Mat leaped out, clutching his long-bladed spear in one hand. With his other hand, he reached for the leather strap at his neck, his fingernails ripping at his skin in his haste. He pulled the fox-head medallion off and turned in the brush outside the tent.

A weak light came from a nearby lantern on a post at an intersection of camp pathways. By it, Mat made out the figure sliding out the rip in the tent. A figure he had feared to see. The gholam looked like a man, slender with sandy hair and unremarkable features. The only thing distinct about the thing was the scar on its cheek.

It was supposed to look harmless, supposed to be forgettable. If most people saw this thing in a crowd, they would ignore it. Right up to the point where it ripped their throat out.

Mat backed away. His tent was near a hillside, and he backed up to it, pulling the foxhead medallion up and wrapping it tightly by its leather strap to the side of his ashandarei s blade. It was far from a perfect fit, but he had practiced this. The medallion was the only thing he knew that could hurt the gholam. He worked swiftly, still yelling for help. Soldiers would be no use against this thing, but the gholam had said before that it had been ordered to avoid too much notice. Attention might frighten it away.

It did hesitate, glancing toward the camp. Then it turned back to Mat stepping forward. Its movements were as fluid as silk rippling in the wind. „You should be proud,” it whispered. „The one who now controls me wants you more than anyone else. I am to ignore all others until I have tasted your blood.”

In its left hand, the creature carried a long dagger. Its right hand dripped blood. Mat felt a freezing chill. Who had it killed? Who else had been murdered in Matrim Cauthon s stead? The image of Tylin flashed in his mind again. He had not seen her corpse; the scene was left to his imagination. Unfortunately, Mat had a pretty good imagination.

That image in his head, smelling the blood on the air, he did the most foolish thing he could have. He attacked.

Screaming in the open darkness, Mat spun forward, swinging the ashandarei. The creature was so fast. It seemed to flow out of the way of his weapon.

It rounded him, like a circling wolf, footsteps barely making a sound in the dried weeds. It struck, its form a blur, and only a backward jump by reflex saved Mat. He scrambled through the weeds, swinging the ashandarei. It seemed wary of the medallion. Light, without that, Mat would be dead and bleeding on the ground!

It came at him again, like liquid darkness. Mat swung wildly and clipped the gholam more by luck than anything else. The medallion made a searing hiss as it touched the beast's hand. The scent of burned flesh rose in the air, and the gholam scrambled back.

„You didn't have to kill her, burn you,” Mat yelled at it. „You could have left her! You didn't want her; you wanted me!”

The thing merely grinned, its mouth an awful black, teeth twisted. „A bird must fly. A man must breathe. I must kill.” It stalked forward, and

Mat knew he was in trouble. The cries of alarm were loud now. It had only been a few moments, but a few more, and help would arrive. Only a few more moments...

„I've been told to kill them all,” the gholam said softly. „To bring you out The man with the mustache, the aged one who interfered last time, the little dark-skinned woman who holds your affection. All of them, unless I take you now.”

Burn that gholam; how did the thing know about Tuon? How? It was impossible!

He was so startled that he barely had time to raise the ashandarei as the gholam leaped for him. Mat cursed, twisting to the side, but too late. The creature's knife flashed in the air. Then the weapon jerked and ripped sideways from its fingers. Mat started, then felt something wrap around him and jerk him backward, out of the reach of the gholam's swipe.

Weaves of Air. Teslyn! She stood in front of his tent, her face a mask of concentration.

„You won't be able to touch it directly with weaves!” Mat screamed as her Air deposited him a short distance from the gholam. If she had been able to bloody raise him up high enough, he would have been fine with that! But he had never seen an Aes Sedai lift someone more than a pace or so in the air.

He scrambled to the side, the gholam charging after him. Then something large flew between them, causing the gholam to dodge fluidly. The object—a chair!—crashed into the hillside beside them. The gholam spun as a large bench smashed into it, throwing it backward.

Mat steadied himself, looking at Teslyn, who was reaching into his tent with invisible weaves of Air. Clever woman, he thought. Weaves could not touch the gholam, but something thrown by them could.

That would not stop it. Mat had seen the creature pluck out a knife that had been rammed into its chest; it had shown the indifference a man would show at plucking a burr from his clothing. But now soldiers were leaping over pathways, carrying pikes or swords and shields. The entire camp was being lit up.

The gholam gave Mat a glare, then dashed off toward the darkness out-side of camp. Mat spun, then froze as he saw two Redarms set pikes against the oncoming gholam. Gorderan and Fergin. Both men who had survived the time in Ebou Dar.

„No!” Mat yelled. „Let it—”

Too late. The gholam indifferently slid between the pikes, grabbing each man's throat in a hand, then crushing its fingers together. With a spin, it ripped free their flesh, dropping both men. Then it was off into the darkness.

Burn you! Mat thought, starting to dash after it. I'll gut you and—

He froze. Blood in the air. From inside his tent. He had nearly forgotten that.

Olver! Mat scrambled back to the tent. It was dark within, though the scent of blood once again assaulted him. „Light! Teslyn, can you—”

A globe of light appeared behind him.

The light of her globe was enough to illuminate a terrible scene inside. Lopin, Mats serving man, lay dead, his blood darkening the tent floor in a large black pool. Two other men—Riddem and Will Reeve, Redarms who had been guarding his door—were heaped onto his sleeping pallet. He should have noticed that they were missing from their post. Fool!

Mat felt a stab of sorrow for the dead. Lopin, who had only recently shown that he was recovered from Nalesean's death. Light burn him, he had been a good man! Not even a soldier, just a serving man, content to have someone to take care of. Mat now felt terrible for having complained about him. Without Lopin's help, Mat would not have been able to escape Ebou Dar.

And the four Redarms, two of whom had survived Ebou Dar and the gholam's previous attack.

I should have sent word, Mat thought. Should have put the entire camp on alert. Would that have done any good? The gholam had proven itself practically unstoppable. Mat had the suspicion that it could cut down the entire Band in getting to him, if it needed to. Only its master's command that it avoid attention prevented it from doing so.

He did not see any sign of Olver, though the boy should have been sleeping on his pallet in the corner. Lopin's blood had pooled nearby, and Olver's blanket was soaking it up from the bottom. Mat took a deep breath and began searching through the shambles, overturning blankets and looking behind travel furniture, worried at what he might find.

More soldiers arrived, cursing. The camp was coming alert: horns of warning blowing, lanterns being lit, armor clanking.

„Olver,” Mat said to the soldiers gathering at his doorway. He had searched the entire bloody tent! „Has anyone seen him?”

„I think he was with Noal,” said Slone Maddow, a wide-eared Redarm. „They—”

Mat shoved his way out of the tent, then ran through camp toward Noal's tent. He arrived just as the white-haired man was stepping out, looking about in alarm.

„Olver?” Mat asked, reaching the older man.

„He's safe, Mat,” Noal said, grimacing. „I'm sorry—I didn't mean to alarm you. We were playing Snakes and Foxes, and the boy fell asleep on v floor. I pulled a blanket over him; he's been staying up so late waiting for you these nights that I figured it was best not to wake him. I should have sent word.”

„You're sorry?” Mat said, grabbing Noal in an embrace. „You bloody wonderful man. You saved his life!”

An hour later, Mat sat with Thorn and Noal inside Thorn's small tent. A dozen Redarms guarded the place, and Olver had been sent to sleep in Teslyn's tent. The boy did not know how close he had come to being killed. Hopefully he never would.

Mat wore his medallion again, though he needed to find a new leather strap. The ashandarei had cut the other one up pretty bad. He would need to find a better way to tie it on there.

„Thorn,” Mat said softly, „the creature threatened you, and you too, Noal. It didn't mention Olver, but it did mention Tuon.”

„How would the thing know about her?” Thom asked, scratching at his head.

„The guards found another corpse outside of the camp. Derry.” Derry was a soldier who had gone missing a few days back, and Mat had presumed him to have deserted. It happened sometimes, though desertion was irregular in the Band. „He'd been dead a few days.”

„It took him that long ago?” Noal said, frowning. Noal's shoulders were stooped and he had a nose the shape of a large, bent pepper growing right out the middle of his face. He had always looked... worn to Mat. His hands were so gnarled, they seemed to be all knuckles.

„It must have interrogated him,” Mat said. „Found out people I spent time with, where my tent was.”

„Is the thing capable of that?” Thom said. „It seemed more like a hound to me, hunting you out.”

It knew where to find me in Tylin's palace,” Mat said. „Even after I was gone, it went to her rooms. So either it asked someone, or it was observing. We'll never know if Derry was tortured, or if he just ran across the gholam while it was sneaking about the camp and spying. But the thing is clever.”

It wouldn't actually go after Tuon, would it? Threatening his friends was probably just a way to unhinge Mat. After all, the thing had shown tonight that it still had orders to avoid too much attention. That didn't console Mat much. If that monster hurt Tuon...

There was only one way to make sure that didn't happen.

„So what do we do?” Noal asked.

„We're going to hunt it,” Mat said softly, „and we're going to kill the bloody thing.”

Noal and Thorn fell silent.

„I won't have this thing chasing us all the way to the Tower of Ghen-jei,” Mat said.

„But can it be killed, Mat?” Thom asked.

„Anything can be killed,” Mat said. „Teslyn proved that she could still hurt it using the One Power, if she was clever. We'll have to do something similar.”

„What?” Noal asked.

„I don't know yet,” Mat said. „I want you two to continue your preparations; get us ready so that we can leave for the Tower of Ghenjei as soon as my oath to Verin will let us. Burn me, I still need to talk to Elayne. I want Aludra's dragons started. I'll have to write her another letter. Stronger, this time.

„For now, we're going to make some changes. I'm going to start sleeping in the city. A different inn each night. We'll let the Band know it, so if the gholam listens, it will find out. There will be no need for it to attack the men.

„You two will need to move to the city too. Until this is done, until it is dead or I am. The question is what to do about Olver. The thing didn't mention him, but...”

He saw understanding in Thorn's and Noal's eyes. Mat had left Tylin behind, and she was dead now. He was not going to do the same to Olver.

„We'll have to take the boy with us,” Thom said. „Either that or send him away.”

„I heard the Aes Sedai talking earlier,” Noal said, rubbing his face with a bony finger. „They're planning to leave. Maybe send him with them?”

Mat grimaced. The way Olver leered at women, the Aes Sedai would have him strung up by his toes in a day flat. Mat was surprised it had not happened already. If he ever found out which of the Redarms was teaching the boy to act that way around women...

„I doubt we'd be able to get him to go,” Mat said. „He'd be out of their sight and back here their first night away.”

Thom nodded in agreement.

„We'll have to take him with us,” Mat said. „Have him stay at the inns inside the city. Maybe that—”

„Matrim Cauthon!” The shrill call came from outside Thorn's tent.

Mat sighed, then nodded to the other two and stood up. He stepped out of the tent to find that Joline and her Warders had bullied their way hrough the Redarms and had nearly yanked open the tent flaps to come stalking in. His appearance drew her up short.

Several of the Redarms looked abashed at having let her through, but the men could not be blamed. Bloody Aes Sedai would bloody do what they bloody pleased.

The woman herself was everything that Teslyn was not. Slender and pretty, she wore a white dress with a deep neckline. She often smiled, though that smile became thin-lipped when she turned it on Mat, and she had large brown eyes. The type of eyes that could suck a man in and try to drown him.

Pretty as she was, Mat did not think of her as a match for one of his friends. He would never wish Joline upon someone he liked. In fact, he was too gentlemanly to wish her on most of his enemies. Best she stayed with Fen and Blaeric, her Warders, who were madmen in Mat's opinion.

Both were Borderlanders—one Shienaran, the other Saldaean. Fen's tilted eyes were hard. He always seemed to be looking for someone to murder; each conversation with him was an interview to see if you fit the criteria. Blaerics topknot was growing in, and getting longer, but it was still too short. Mat would have mentioned that it looked remarkably like a badger's tail glued to his head, except that he did not feel like being murdered today. It had already been a bloody awful evening.

Joline folded her arms beneath her breasts. „It appears that your reports of this... creature that is chasing you were accurate.” She sounded skeptical. He had lost five good men, and she sounded skeptical. Bloody Aes Sedai.

„And?” he asked. „You know something about gholam?”

„Not a thing,” she said. „Regardless, I need to return to the White Tower. I will be leaving tomorrow.” She looked hesitant. „I would like to ask if you would lend me some horses for the trip. Whatever you can spare. I will not be picky.”

Nobody in town would sell you any, eh?” Mat said with a grunt.

Her face became even more serene.

Well, all right,” Mat said. „At least you asked nicely this time, though I can see how hard it was for you. I've promised some to Teslyn already. You have some too. It will be worth it to have you bloody women out of my hair.”

Thank you,” she said, her voice controlled. „However, a word of advice. Considering the company you often keep, you might want to learn to con-trol your language.”

„Considering the company I keep all too often,” Mat said, „it's bloodv amazing I don't swear more. Off with you, Joline. I need to write a lettei to Her Royal bloody Majesty Queen Elayne the prim.”

Joline sniffed. „Are you going to swear at her too?”

„Of course I am,” Mat muttered, turning to go back to Thorn's tent „How else is she going to trust that it's really from me?”

CHAPTER 10
After the Taint

I agree with those counts,” Elyas said, walking at Perrin's side. Grady walked on the other side, thoughtful in his black coat. Montem al'San and Azi al'Thone—Perrin's two guards for the day—trailed behind.

It was still early in the morning. Perrin was ostensibly checking on guard posts, but he really just wanted to be walking. They'd moved the camp to an elevated meadow along the Jehannah Road. It had a good water supply and was near enough to the road to control it, but far enough back to be defensible.

On one side of the meadow, an ancient statue lay before a patch of trees. The statue had fallen on its side long ago, and most of it was now buried, but an arm rose from the earth, holding the hilt of a sword. The blade was thrust into the ground.

„I shouldn't have sent Gill and the others ahead,” Perrin said. „That let them be snatched up by the first passing force.”

„You couldn't have anticipated this,” Elyas said. „Nor could you have anticipated being delayed. Where would you have left them? Shaido were coming up behind, and if our battle at Maiden hadn't gone well, Gill and the others would have been trapped between two groups of enemy Aiel.”

Perrin growled to himself. His booted feet stuck a little in the sodden ground. He hated the scent of that trampled, stagnant mud mixed with rotting dead plants. It wasn't nearly as bad as the Blight disease, but it seemed to him the whole land was only a few steps away from that.

They approached a guard post. Two men—Hu Barran and Darl Coplin—stood watch here. There would be additional scouts, of course: Two Rivers men in trees, Maidens patrolling the ground. But Perrin had learned that a few men given posts around the camp lent everyone inside a sense of order.

The guards saluted him, though Darl's salute was sloppy. They gave off an odd mixture of scents—regret, frustration, disappointment. And embarrassment. That last one was faint, but still there. Perrin's supposed dalliance with Berelain was still recent in their minds, and Faile's return seemed to increase their discomfort. In the Two Rivers, one did not easily live down a reputation for infidelity.

Perrin nodded to them, then continued on. He didn't do much formal inspecting. If the men knew he would walk by sometime each day, they'd keep themselves in order. For the most part. Last night, he had needed to prod sleeping Berin Thane awake with his boot, and he was always careful to watch for the scent of strong drink among them. He wouldn't put it past Jori Congar to sneak a nip or two while on guard.

„All right,” Perrin said. „The Whitecloaks have our people and our supplies.” He grimaced, thinking of the grain purchased in So Habor going to fill Whitecloak bellies. „Could we sneak in and free them?”

„I don't see the need for sneaking,” Grady said from behind. „Pardon, my Lord, but you seem to be making this a larger problem than it is.”

Perrin looked back at the leathery man. „They're Whitecloaks, Grady. They're always a large problem.”

„They won't have anyone who can channel the One Power.” Grady shrugged, hands clasped behind his back as he walked. With the black coat, the pin and the increasingly soldierlike attitude, he was looking less and less like a farmer. „Neald is feeling better. He and I could pound those Children down until they give us what we want.”

Perrin nodded. He hated the idea of letting the Asha'man loose with impunity. The scent of burned flesh in the air, the earth ripped apart and broken. The scents of Dumai's Wells. However, he couldn't afford another distraction like Maiden. If there were no other choice, he'd give the order.

Not yet, though. There are no coincidences with ta'veren. The wolves, the Whitecloaks. Things he had been outrunning for some time were returning to hunt him. He'd pushed the Children out of the Two Rivers. Many of the men who had been with him then now followed him here.

„Perhaps it will come to that,” Perrin said to Grady, still walking. „But maybe not. We've got a larger force than they do, and with that blasted wolfhead banner finally taken down, they may not realize who we are. We fly the banner of the Queen of Ghealdan, and they're passing through Alliandre's territory. Likely they saw the supplies in our people's carts and decided to 'protect them.' Some discussion, perhaps a little intimidation, may be enough to persuade them to return our people.”

Elyas nodded, and Grady seemed to agree, though Perrin wasn't convinced by his own words. The Whitecloaks had haunted him since his early days out of the Two Rivers. Dealing with them had never been simple.

It felt like the time had come. Time to make an end to his troubles with them, one way or another.

He continued his rounds, arriving at the Aiel section of the camp. He nodded at a pair of Maidens lounging on guard with relaxed alertness. They didn't stand up or salute—which suited him fine—though they did nod. He'd apparently gained great ji in their eyes by the way he'd planned, then accomplished, the attack on the Shaido.

The Aiel maintained their own guard posts, and he had no reason to inspect them. But he included them in his rounds anyway. It seemed that if he was going to visit the other sections of camp, he should do it here, too.

Grady stopped suddenly and spun toward the Wise Ones' tents.

„What?” Perrin asked urgently, scanning the camp. He couldn't see anything unusual.

Grady smiled. „I think they've managed it.” He started into the Aiel camp, ignoring the glares several Maidens gave him. They might very well have tossed him out, Asha'man or no, if Perrin hadn't been there.

Neald, Perrin thought. He's been working with the Aes Sedai to figure out circles. If Grady had seen something in the weaves...

Perrin followed, and soon they reached a ring of Wise One tents in the center of the Aiel camp, the area between them dried—perhaps by weaves—and the ground packed down. Neald, Edarra and Masuri sat there. Fager Neald was a young Murandian with a mustache that curled to points. He wore no pins on the collar of his black coat, though he'd likely be promoted as soon as the group returned from their excursion. He'd grown in Power since they'd begun.

He was still pale from the snakebites he'd taken, but looked much better than he had only a few days back. He was smiling, staring at the air in front of him, and he smelled exuberant.

A large gateway split the air. Perrin grunted. It appeared to lead back to a place where they'd camped several weeks ago—an open field of no real note.

'It's working?” Grady said, kneeling down beside Neald.

„It's beautiful, Jur,” Neald said softly. His voice bore no hint of the bravado he often displayed. „I can feelsaidar. It's like I'm more complete now.”

„You're channeling it?” Perrin asked.

„No. I don't need to. I can use it.”

„Use it how?” Grady asked, eager.

„I... It's hard to explain. The weaves are saidin, but I seem to be able to strengthen them with saidar. So long as I can make a gateway on my own it appears that I can increase the Power—and size—with what the women lend me. Light! It's wonderful. We should have done this months ago.”

Perrin glanced at the two women, Masuri and Edarra. Neither seemed as exultant as Neald. Masuri looked a little sick, and she smelled of fear. Edarra smelled curious and wary. Grady had mentioned that creating a circle this way seemed to require the men to gain control over the women.

„We'll send the scouting group through to Cairhien soon, then,” Perrin said, fingering the blacksmith's puzzle in his pocket. „Grady, arrange with the Aiel about that mission, set up the gateways as they ask.”

„Yes, my Lord,” Grady said, rubbing his leathery face. „I should probably learn this technique rather than continuing on rounds. Though there's something I'll be wanting to talk to you about first. If you've the time.”

„If you wish,” Perrin said, stepping away from the group. To the side, several of the other Wise Ones came forward and told Neald it was their turn to try the circle with him. They didn't act at all as if Neald were in charge, and he was quick to obey. He'd been walking lightly around the Aiel since he'd said something a little too frisky to a Maiden and ended up playing Maiden's Kiss.

„What is this about, Grady?” Perrin asked once they were a little way off.

„Well, Neald and I are both well enough to make gateways, it seems,” Grady said. „I was wondering if I might...” He seemed hesitant. „Well, if I might have leave to slip over to the Black Tower for an afternoon, to see my family.”

That's right, Perrin thought. He's got a wife and a son. The Asha'man didn't often talk about them. Actually, he didn't often talk about much.

„I don't know, Grady,” Perrin said, glancing up at the darkly clouded sky. „We have Whitecloaks ahead, and there's still no telling for sure if those Shaido will loop around and try to ambush us. I'm loath to be without you until I know we're someplace safe.”

„It needn't be for long, my Lord,” Grady said earnestly. Perrin sometimes forgot how young the man was, only six or seven years older than himself. Grady seemed so much older in that black coat, with his sun-darkened face.

„We'll find a time,” Perrin said. „Soon. I don't want to upset anything until we have word of what's been happening since we left.” Information could be potent. Balwer had taught him that.

Grady nodded, looking placated, though Perrin hadn't given him any-thing definite. Light! Even the Asha'man were starting to smell like people ho saw him as their lord. They'd been so aloof when this all began.

„You never worried about this before, Grady,” Perrin said. „Has something changed?”

„Everything,” Grady said softly. Perrin got a whiff of his scent. Hopeful „It changed a few weeks back. But of course you don't know. Nobody knows. Fager and I weren't certain at first, and we weren't sure if we should tell anyone for fear of sounding delusional.”

„Know what?”

„My Lord, the taint. It's gone'.'

Perrin frowned. Was this madness speaking? But Grady didn't smell mad.

„It happened on that day,” Grady said, „when we saw something to the north. My Lord, I know it sounds unbelievable, but it is true'.'

„Seems the sort of thing Rand might have been about,” Perrin said, and the colors swirled in front of him. He banished them. „If you say it, I'll trust you, Grady. But what does this have to do with the Black Tower and your family? You want to go see if other Asha'man agree?”

„Oh, they'll agree,” Grady said. „It's... well, my Lord, I'm a simple man. Sora, she's always been the thinker. I do what needs doing, and that's that. Well, joining the Black Tower, that was something that needed doing. I knew what was going to happen when I was tested. I knew it was in me. It was in my father, you see. We don't talk about it, but it was there. Reds found him young, right after I was born.

„When I joined the Lord Dragon, I knew what would happen to me. A few more years and I'd be gone. Might as well spend them fighting. The Lord Dragon told me I was a soldier, and a soldier can't leave his duty. So I haven't asked to go back before now. You needed me.”

„That's changed?”

My Lord, the taint is gone. I'm not going to go mad. That means... well, I always had a reason to fight. But now I've got a reason to live, too.”

Looking into the man's eyes, Perrin understood. What must it have been like? Knowing that you'd eventually go mad and need to be executed. Likely by your friends, who would call it a mercy.

That was what Perrin had sensed in the Asha'man all along, the reason they held themselves apart, often seeming so somber. Everyone else fought for life. The Asha'man... they'd fought to die.

That's how Rand feels, Perrin thought, watching the colors swirl again and his friend appear. He was riding his large black horse through a city with muddy streets, speaking with Nynaeve, who rode beside him.

Perrin shook his head and banished the image. „We'll get you home Grady,” he promised. „You'll have some time with her before the end comes.”

Grady nodded, glancing at the sky as a low rumble of thunder came from the north. „I just want to talk to her, you know? And I need to see little Gadren again. I won't recognize the lad.”

„I'm sure he's a handsome child, Grady.”

Grady laughed. It felt odd, but good, to hear that from the man. „Handsome? Gadren? No, my Lord, he might be big for his age, but he's about as pretty as a stump. Still, I love him something fierce.” He shook his head, amused. „But I should be off learning this trick with Neald. Thank you, my Lord.”

Perrin smiled, watching him go as a Maiden came hurrying into camp. She reported to the Wise Ones, but spoke loud enough to let Perrin hear. „There is a stranger riding along the road toward camp. He flies a flag of peace, but he wears the clothing of these Children of the Light.”

Perrin nodded, gathering his guards. As he hastened toward the front of the camp, Tam appeared and fell in beside him. They arrived just as the Whitecloak approached the first guard posts. The man rode a brilliant white gelding, and he carried a long pole with a white banner. His white clothing— mail with a tabard under the cloak—bore a yellow sunburst on the breast.

Perrin felt a sharp sinking feeling. He recognized this man. Dain Bornhald.

„I come to speak with the criminal Perrin Aybara,” Bornhald announced in a loud voice, pulling to a stop.

„I'm here, Bornhald,” Perrin called, stepping out.

Bornhald looked at him. „It is you. The Light has delivered you to us.”

„Unless it has also delivered you an army three or four times the size of the one you have now,” Perrin called, „then I doubt very much that it will matter.”

„We have in our possession people who claim fealty to you, Aybara.”

„Well, you can let them ride on back to our camp, and we'll be on our way.”

The young Whitecloak turned his mount to the side, scowling. „We have unfinished business, Darkfriend.”

„No need for this to turn nasty, Bornhald,” Perrin said. „The way I see it, we can still each go our own way.”

„The Children would rather die than leave justice undone,” Dain said, then spat to the side. „But I will leave that for the Lord Captain Comander to explain. He wishes to see you for himself. I have been ordered to me and tell you that he is waiting beside the road a short ride ahead. He would like you to meet with him.”

„You think I'm going to walk into such an obvious trap?” Perrin asked.

Bornhald shrugged. „Come or do not. My Lord Captain Commander is a man of honor, and swears by oath you will return safely—which is more than I'd have given a Darkfriend. You may bring your Aes Sedai if you have them, for safety.” With that, Bornhald turned his mount and galloped away.

Perrin stood thoughtfully, watching him retreat.

„You're not really thinking of going, are you, son?” Tam asked.

„I'd rather know for certain who I'm facing,” Perrin said. „And we did ask for parley. Maybe bargain for our people back. Burn me, Tam. I have to at least try before attacking them.”

Tam sighed, but nodded.

„He mentioned Aes Sedai,” Perrin said, „but not Asha'man. I'll bet he doesn't know much about them. Go have Grady dress like a Two Rivers man and tell him to report to me, along with Gaul and Sulin. Ask Edarra if she'll join us too. But don't tell my wife about this. We five will go on ahead and see if the Whitecloaks will really meet with us peacefully. If something goes wrong, we'll have Grady ready to get us out by gateway.”

Tam nodded and hurried away. Perrin waited nervously until Tam returned with Gaul, Sulin and Edarra. Grady came a few minutes later, wearing a brown wool cloak and brown and green clothing borrowed from one of the Two Rivers men. He carried a longbow, but walked like a soldier, with his back straight, his eyes keen as he looked about him. There was a particular air of danger to him that no common villager would bear. Hopefully, it wouldn't spoil the disguise.

The six of them broke away from camp, and blessedly, Faile didn't seem to have heard what was happening. Perrin would bring her if there was a longer parley or discussion, but he intended this trip to be quick, and he needed to be able to move without worrying about her.

They went on foot, and found the Whitecloaks a short distance ahead down the road. There looked to be only about a dozen of them, standing near a small tent that had been set up beside the road. They were upwind, which relaxed Perrin a little. He caught scents of anger and disgust, but it didn't feel like a trap to him.

As he and the others neared, someone stepped from the small tent, wearing white. The tall man had fine features and short, dark hair. Most women would probably call him handsome. He smelled... better than the other Whitecloaks. They had a wild scent to them, like that of a rabid animal. This leader of theirs smelled calm, and not sickly at all.

Perrin glanced toward his companions.

„I do not like this, Perrin Aybara,” Edarra said, looking from side to side. „These Children have a sense of wrongness about them.”

„Archers could hit us from those trees,” Tam said with a grunt, nodding to a stand in the distance.

„Grady, you're holding the Power?” Perrin asked.

„Of course.”

„Be ready, just in case,” Perrin said, then stepped forward toward the small group of Whitecloaks. Their leader studied Perrin with hands clasped behind his back. „Golden eyes,” the man said. „So it is true.”

„You're the Lord Captain Commander?” Perrin asked.

„I am.”

„What will it take for you to release the people of mine you're holding?”

„My men tell me they tried such an exchange once,” the Whitecloak leader said. „And that you deceived them and betrayed them.”

„They had kidnapped innocents,” Perrin said. „And demanded my life in return. Well, I took my people back. Don't force me to do the same thing here.”

The Whitecloak leader narrowed his eyes. He smelled thoughtful. „I will do what is right, Goldeneyes. The cost is irrelevant. My men tell me you murdered several Children a few years back, and have never known justice for it. That you lead Trollocs to attack villages.”

„Your men are not very reliable,” Perrin said with a growl. „I want a more formal parley, where we can sit down and discuss. Not something improvised like this.”

„I doubt that will be needed,” the Whitecloak leader said. „I am not here to bargain. I merely wanted to see you for myself. You wish your people freed? Meet my army on the field of battle. Do this, and I will release the captives, regardless of the outcome. They are obviously not soldiers. I will let them go.”

„And if I refuse?” Perrin asked.

„Then it will not bode... well for their health.”

Perrin ground his teeth.

„Your force will face ours under the Light,” the Whitecloak leader said. „Those are our terms.”

Perrin glanced to the side. Grady met his eyes, and there was an obvious question in them. He could take the Whitecloak leader captive right here, with barely a thought.

Perrin was tempted. But they had come under the Whitecloak's oath f safety. He would not break the peace. Instead, he turned, and led his people back toward his camp.

Galad watched Aybara withdraw. Those golden eyes were unsettling. He had discounted Byar's insistence that this man was not merely a Dark-friend, but Shadowspawn. However, looking into those eyes, Galad was no longer certain he could dismiss those claims.

To the side, Bornhald let out a breath. „I can't believe you wanted to do this. What if he had brought Aes Sedai? We couldn't have stopped the One Power.”

„They would not have harmed me,” Galad said. „And besides, if Aybara had the ability to assassinate me here with the One Power, he could have done the same to me in my camp. But if he is as you and Child Byar say, then he worries greatly about his image. He didn't lead Trollocs against the Two Rivers directly. He pretended to defend them.” Such a man would act with subtlety. Galad had been safe.

He'd wanted to see Aybara himself, and he was glad he had. Those eyes... they were almost a condemnation by themselves. And Aybara had reacted to the mention of the murdered Whitecloaks, stiffening. Beyond that, there was the talk his people gave of him in alliance with the Sean-chan and having with him men who could channel.

Yes, this Aybara was a dangerous man. Galad had been worried about committing his forces to fighting here, but the Light would see them through it. Better to defeat this Aybara now, than to wait and face him at the Last Battle. As quickly as that, he made his decision. The right decision. They would fight.

„Come,” Galad said, waving to his men. „Let's get back to camp.”

CHAPTER 11
An Unexpected Letter

They can't possibly think I'll sign this,” Elayne said, tossing the sheaf of papers onto the floor beside her chair. „It's unlikely that they do,” Dyelin said. Her golden hair was pristine, her firm face controlled, her slim body poised. The woman was perfect! It was unfair that she should look so pristine while Elayne felt like a sow, fattened up and ripe for the slaughter.

The hearth in Elayne's sitting room crackled warmly. Wine sat in a pitcher on one of the wall's sideboards, but of course she wasn't allowed any of that. If one more person tried to offer her bloody goat's milk...

Birgitte lounged near the far wall, golden braid hanging over her right shoulder, contrasting with her white-collared red coat and sky-blue trousers. She'd poured herself a cup of tea, and smiled over it, amused by Elayne's annoyance. Elayne could feel the emotion through the bond!

They were the only ones in the room. Elayne had retired to the sitting room after accepting the proposal from Ellorien's messenger, explaining that she would like to „consider” the offer in private. Well, she'd consider it! Consider it trash, for that was all it was!

„This is an insult,” she said, sweeping her hand toward the pages.

„Do you intend to keep them imprisoned forever, Elayne?” Dyelin asked, raising an eyebrow. „They can't afford to pay a ransom, not after what they spent funding their Succession bid. That leaves you with a decision.”

„They can rot,” Elayne said, folding her arms. „They raised armies gainst me and besieged Caemlyn!”

„Yes,” Dyelin said flatly. „I believe I was there.”

Elayne cursed softly to herself, then stood up and began to pace. Birgitte eyed her; they both knew that Melfane had suggested that Elayne avoid taxing herself. Elayne met the Warder's eyes stubbornly, then continued her pacing. Burn her, and burn that bloody midwife! Walking wasn't taxing.

Ellorien was one of the last vocal holdouts to Elayne's rule, and was the most problematic—save, perhaps, for Jarid Sarand. These months marked the beginning of a long period of testing for Elayne. How would she stand on certain issues? How easily would she be pushed? How much did she take after her mother?

They should know that she wouldn't be easily intimidated. But the unfortunate truth was that she stood atop a precarious perch made of teacups, stacked high. Each of those cups was an Andoran House; some had supported her willingly, others grudgingly. Very few of them were as sturdy as she would have liked.

„The captive nobles are a resource,” Elayne said. „They should be viewed as such.”

Dyelin nodded. The noblewoman had a way of goading Elayne, forcing her to stretch for the answers they both knew she needed to find. „A resource is meaningless unless eventually expended,” Dyelin noted. She held a cup of wine. Blasted woman.

„Yes,” Elayne said, „but to sell a resource short would be to establish a reputation for carelessness.”

„Unless you sell something just before its value plummets,” Dyelin said. „Many a merchant has been called foolish for trading ice peppers at a discount, only to be called wise when prices fall even further.”

„And these captives? You see their value falling soon?”

'Their Houses have been compromised,” Dyelin said. „The stronger your position becomes, Elayne, the less valuable these political captives grow. You shouldn't squander the advantage, but neither should you lock it away until nobody cares anymore.”

„You could execute them,” Birgitte said.

They both stared at her.

What?” Birgitte said. „It's what they deserve, and it would establish a hard fisted reputation.”

It's not right,” Elayne said. „They should not be killed for supporting someone else for the throne. There can be no treason where there is no Queen.”

„So our soldiers can die, but the nobles bloody walk away?” Birgitte asked. Then she raised a hand before Elayne could protest. „Spare the lec-ture, Elayne. I understand. I don't agree, but I understand. It's always been this way.”

Elayne returned to her pacing. She did stop, however, to stomp on El-lorien's proposal as she passed it. That earned her an eye roll from Birgitte but it felt good. The „proposal” was a list of empty promises that concluded with a demand that Elayne release the captives for „the good of Andor.” Ellorien claimed that since the captives had no funds, the crown should pardon them and release them to help rebuild.

Truth be told, Elayne had been considering doing so. But now if she released them, the three would see Ellorien as their savior! Any gratitude that Elayne could have gained would instead be given to her rival. Blood and bloody ashes!

„The Windfinders are beginning to ask after the land you promised them,” Dyelin noted.

„Already?”

The older woman nodded. „The request still troubles me. Why do they want a sliver of land like that?”

„They earned it,” Elayne said.

„Perhaps. Though this does mean that you're the first Queen in five generations to cede a portion of Andor—no matter how small—to a foreign entity.”

Elayne took a deep breath, and oddly found herself calmer. Blasted mood swings! Hadn't Melfane promised those would grow less pronounced as the pregnancy progressed? Yet at times she still felt her emotions bouncing around like a ball in a children's game.

Elayne composed herself and sat. „I cannot allow this. The Houses are all looking for opportunities to shoulder their way into power.”

„You would be doing the same in their place, I warrant,” Dyelin said.

„Not if I knew that the Last Battle was approaching,” Elayne snapped. „We need to do something to direct the nobles toward more important matters. Something to unify them behind me, or at least convince them that I'm not to be toyed with.”

„And you have a means of achieving this?” Dyelin asked.

„Yes,” Elayne said, glancing eastward. „It's time to seize Cairhien.”

Birgitte choked quietly on her tea. Dyelin merely raised an eyebrow. „A bold move.”

„Bold?” Birgitte asked, wiping her chin. „It's bloody insane. Elayne, you barely have your fingers on Andor.”

„That makes the timing even better,” Elayne said. „We have momen-Besides, if we move for Cairhien now, it will show that I mean to be more than a simpering puff of a queen.”

„I doubt anyone expects that of you,” Birgitte said. „If they do, they obably took one too many knocks to the head during the fighting.”

„She's right, however uncouth the presentation,” Dyelin agreed. She lanced at Birgitte, and Elayne could feel a stab of dislike through Birgitte's bond. Light! What would it take to make the two of them get along? „Nobody doubts your strength as a queen, Elayne. That won't stop the others from seizing what power they can; they know they're unlikely to be able to get it later.”

„I don't have fifteen years to stabilize my rule, like Mother,” Elayne said. „Look, we all know what Rand kept saying about me taking the Sun Throne. A steward rules there now, waiting for me, and after what happened to Colavaere, nobody dares disobey Rand's edicts.”

„By taking that throne,” Dyelin said, „you risk looking as if you're letting al'Thor hand it to you.”

„So?” Elayne said. „I had to take Andor on my own, but there is nothing wrong with me accepting his gift of Cairhien. His Aiel were the ones to liberate it. We'd be doing the Cairhienin a favor by preventing a messy Succession. My claim to the throne is strong, at least as strong as anyone else's, and those loyal to Rand will fall behind me.”

„And do you not risk overextending yourself?”

„Possibly,” Elayne said, „but I think it's worth the risk. In one step I could become one of the most powerful monarchs since Artur Hawkwing.”

Further argument was cut off by a polite knock at the door. Elayne glanced at Dyelin, and the woman's thoughtful expression meant she was considering what Elayne had said. Well, Elayne would strike for the Sun Throne, with or without Dyelin's approval. The woman was becoming increasingly useful to Elayne as an advisor—Light be praised that Dyelin hadn't wanted the throne herself!—but a queen could not let herself fall into the trap of relying on any one person too much.

Birgitte answered the door, letting in the storklike Master Norry. He was dressed in red and white, his long face characteristically somber. He carried his leather folder under one arm, and Elayne suppressed a groan. „I thought we were finished for the day.”

I thought so as well, Your Majesty,” he said. „But several new matters have arisen. I thought that they might be... um... interesting to you.”

'What do you mean?”

„Well, Your Majesty,” Norry said, „you know that I am not... par-ticularly fond of certain types of work. But in light of recent additions to my staff, I have seen reason to expand my attentions.”

„You're taking about Hark, aren't you?” Birgitte said. „How's the worthless piece of grime doing?”

Norry glanced at her. „He is... er... grimy, I should say.” He looked back at Elayne. „But he is rather adept, once given proper motivation. Please forgive me if I have taken liberties, but after the encounters recently-—and the guests to your dungeons they provided—I thought it wise.”

„What are you talking about, Master Norry?” Elayne asked.

„Mistress Basaheen, Your Majesty,” Norry said. „The first instruction I gave our good Master Hark was to watch the Aes Sedai s place of residence—a certain inn known as The Greeting Hall.”

Elayne sat upright, feeling a burst of excitement. Duhara Basaheen had repeatedly attempted to gain audience with Elayne by bullying the various members of the palace staff. They all knew now, however, that she was not to be admitted. Aes Sedai or not, she was a representative of Elaida, and Elayne intended to have nothing to do with her.

„You had her watched,” Elayne said eagerly. „Please tell me you discovered something I can use to banish that insufferable woman.”

„Then I am under no condemnation?” Master Norry asked carefully, still as dry and unexcited as ever. He was yet inexperienced when it came to spying.

„Light no,” Elayne said. „I should have ordered it done myself. You've saved me from that oversight, Master Norry. If what you've discovered is good enough news, I might just be likely to kiss you.”

That prompted a reaction; his eyes widened in horror. It was enough to make Elayne laugh, and Birgitte chuckled as well. Dyelin didn't seem pleased. Well, she could go suck on a goat's foot, for all Elayne cared.

„Er... well,” Norry said, „that wouldn't be necessary, Your Majesty. I had thought that, if there were Darkfriends pretending to be Aes Sedai in the city”—he, like the others, had learned not to refer to Falion and the others as „Aes Sedai” in Elayne's presence—”we might want to keep good watch on any who purported to be from the White Tower.”

Elayne nodded eagerly. My, but Norry could ramble!

„I'm afraid I must disappoint Your Majesty,” Norry said, obviously noting Elayne's excitement, „if you are hoping for proof that this woman is a Darkfriend.”

„Oh.”

„However,” Norry said, raising a slender finger. „I have reason to be-lieve that Duhara Sedai may have had a hand in the document you seem to be treating with... um... unusual reverence.” He glanced at the pages Elayne had tossed to the floor. One bore the distinct outline of her shoe.

„Duhara has been meeting with Ellorien?” Elayne asked.

„Indeed she has,” Master Norry said. „The visits are growing more fre-ent. They are done with some measure of secrecy as well.”

Elayne glanced at Dyelin. „Why does Duhara want my rivals freed?”

Dyelin looked troubled. „She couldn't be so foolish as to assume she can raise up a movement against you, particularly using a group of broken, bankrupt lords and ladies.”

„Your Majesty?” Norry asked. „If I may offer a comment...”

„Of course, Master Norry.”

„Perhaps the Aes Sedai is trying to curry favor with the Lady Ellorien. We don't know for certain they conspired on this proposal; it simply seemed likely, judging from the frequency and timing of the Aes Sedai's visits. But she may not have reason to support your enemies so much as she has reason to be in the good graces of some of the city's nobility.”

It was possible. Duhara wasn't likely to return to the White Tower, no matter how often Elayne suggested that she do so. To go back would be to present Elaida with empty hands and a hostile Andor. No Aes Sedai would be so easily dissuaded. However, if she could return with the loyalty of some of the Andoran nobility, it would be something.

„When Duhara left her inn to visit Ellorien's home,” Elayne said, „how did she dress?” Though Ellorien had briefly spoken of returning to her estates, she hadn't left, perhaps realizing that it wasn't politically useful as of yet. She resided in her mansion in Caemlyn at the moment.

„In a cloak, Your Majesty,” Norry said. „With the hood drawn.”

„Rich or poor?”

“I ... I don't know,” Norry replied, sounding embarrassed. „I could fetch Master Hark—”

“That won't be needed,” Elayne said. „But tell me. Did she go alone?”

No. I believe she always had a rather large contingent of attendants with her.”

Elayne nodded. She was willing to bet that while Duhara wore a cloak and drawn hood, she left her Great Serpent ring on and chose a distinctively rich cloak for the subterfuge, along with taking attendants. Master Norry,” Elayne said, „I fear that you've been played.”

„Your Majesty?”

Dyelin was nodding. „She wanted to be seen visiting Ellorien. She didn't want the visits to be official—that would put her too formally against your throne. But she wanted you to know what she was doing.”

„She's blatantly mingling with my enemies,” Elayne said. „It's a warning. She threatened me earlier, saying that I would not appreciate being in opposition to her and Elaida.”

„Ah,” Norry said, deflated. „So my initiative wasn't so keen after all.”

„Oh, it was still valuable,” Elayne said. „If you hadn't had her watched we'd have missed this—which would have been embarrassing. If someone is going to go out of her way to insult me, then I at least want to be aware of it. If only so that I know whom to behead later on.”

Norry paled.

„Figuratively, Master Norry,” she said. As much as she'd like to do it. And Elaida too! She dared send a watchdog to „counsel” Elayne? Elayne shook her head. Hurry up, Egwene. We need you in the Tower, The world needs you there.

She sighed, turning back to Norry. „You said there were 'several new matters' that needed my attention?”

„Indeed, Your Majesty,” he said, getting out his horrible leather folder. He removed a page from it—one he did not regard with nearly as much reverence as most he collected. Indeed, he pinched this one between two fingers and held it aloft, like a man picking up a dead animal found in the gutter. „You will recall your orders regarding mercenary bands?”

„Yes,” she said, grimacing. She was getting thirsty. Gloomily, she eyed the cup of warm goat's milk on the table next to her chair. News of battle brought bands of sell-swords eager to offer their services.

Unfortunately for most of the mercenaries, the siege had been a short one. News traveled fast, but weary and hungry soldiers traveled slowly. Soldier bands continued to arrive at the city in a steady flow, the men in them disappointed to find no need for their weapons.

Elayne had begun by sending them away. Then she'd realized the foolishness in this. Every man would be needed at Tarmon Gai'don, and if Andor could provide an extra five or ten thousand soldiers to the conflict, she wanted to do so.

She didn't have the coin to pay them now, but neither did she want to lose them. So instead, she had ordered Master Norry and Captain Guybon to give all of the mercenary bands the same instructions. They were to allow no more than a certain number of soldiers into Caemlyn at a time, and they were to camp no closer than one league from the city.

This was to leave them with the idea that she'd meet with them evenally and offer them work. She just might do that, now that she had de- cided to take the Sun Throne. Of course, the last sell-swords she'd hired had gone rotten on her more often than not.

Against her better judgment, she picked up the cup of milk and took sip. Birgitte nodded in satisfaction, but Elayne grimaced. Better to go thirsty!

„Well,” Master Norry said, looking over the page in his fingers, „one of the mercenary captains has taken it upon himself to send you a very... familiar letter. I wouldn't have brought it to you, but upon second reading it seems that it is something you should see. The ruffian's claims are outlandish, but I would not like to have been the one to ignore them, should they prove... um... accurate.”

Curious, Elayne reached for the paper. Outlandish claims? She didn't know any mercenary captains. The scrawl on the page was uneven, there were numerous crossed out words, and some of the spelling was... creative. Whoever this man was, she—

She blinked in surprise as she reached the bottom of the letter. Then she read it again.

Your Royal Bloody Pain in My Back,

We're bloody waiting here to talk to you, and we're getting angry perturbed. (That means angry.) Thom says that you're a queen now, but I figure that changes nothing, sense you acted like a queen all the time anyway. Don't forget that I carried hailed your pretty little backside out of a hole in Tear, but you acted like a queen then, so I guess I don't know why I'm suprised now that you act like one when you really are a queen.

So I'm thinking I should treat you like a bloody Queen and send you a bloody letter and all, speaking with high talk and getting your attention. I even used my ring as a signet, like it was paper proper. So here is my formal salutation. So BLOODY STOP TURNING ME AWAY so we can talk. I need your bellfounders. It's bloody important.

—Mat

p.s. Salutation means greeting.

p.p.s. Don't mind the scratched out words and bad spellings. I was going to rewrite this letter, but Thom is laffing so hard at me that I want to be done.

p.p.s. Don't mind me calling your backside pretty. I hardly ever spent any time looking at it, as I've an awareness that you'd pull my eyes out if you saw me. Besides, I'm married now, so that all doesn't matter.

Elayne couldn't decide whether to be outraged or exuberant. Mat was in Andor, and Thom was alive! They'd escaped Ebou Dar. Had they found Olver? How had they gotten away from the Seanchan?

So many emotions and questions welled up in her. Birgitte stood upright, frowning, feeling the emotions. „Elayne? What is it? Did the man insult you?”

Elayne found herself nodding, tears forming in her eyes.

Birgitte cursed, striding over. Master Norry looked taken aback, as if regretting that he'd brought the letter.

Elayne burst into laughter.

Birgitte froze. „Elayne?”

„I'm all right,” Elayne said, wiping the tears from her eyes and forcing herself to take a deep breath. „Oh, Light. I needed that. Here, read it.”

Birgitte snatched the letter, and as she read, her face lightened. She chuckled. „You have a nice backside? He should be talking. Mat's got as fine a rump as comes on a man.”

„Birgitte!” Elayne said.

„Well it's true,” the Warder said, handing back the letter. „I find his face far too pretty, but that doesn't mean I can't judge a good backside when I see one. Light, it will be good to have him back! Finally, someone I can go drinking with who doesn't look at me as their bloody military superior.”

„Contain yourself, Birgitte,” Elayne said, folding the letter up. Norry looked scandalized by the exchange. Dyelin said nothing. It took a lot to faze that woman, and she'd heard worse from Birgitte.

„You did well, Master Norry,” Elayne said. „Thank you for bringing this to my attention.”

„You do indeed know these mercenaries, then?” he asked, a hint of surprise sounding in his voice.

„They're not mercenaries. Actually, I'm not certain what they are. Friends. And allies, I should hope.” Why had Mat brought the Band of the Red Hand to Andor? Were they loyal to Rand? Could she make use of them? Mat was a scoundrel, but he had a strangely good eye for tactics and warfare. A soldier under his command would be worth ten of the sell-sword riffraff she'd been forced to hire recently.

„My pardon, Your Majesty, for my mistake,” Norry said. „I should have brought this to you sooner. My informants told me that this group was recently in the employ of the Crown of Murandy, so I discounted their leader’s insistence that he wasn’t a mercenary.”

„You did well, Master Norry,” Elayne said, still feeling amused and nsulted. It was odd how often one moved between those two emotions when Matrim Cauthon was involved. „Light knows I've been busy enough. But please, if someone claims to know me personally, at least bring it to Birgitte's attention.”

„Yes, Your Majesty.”

„Arrange a meeting with Master Cauthon,” she said, idly wishing she had time to write him back a letter as insulting as the one he'd written her. „Tell him he must bring Thom with him. To... keep him in line.”

„As you wish, Your Majesty,” Norry said with a characteristically stiff bow. „If I may withdraw...”

She nodded in thanks and he left, pulling the door closed. Elayne held Mat's letter idly between two fingers. Could she use Mat, somehow, to help her with the troubles Ellorien was making? As she'd used the Borderlanders? Or was that too obvious?

„Why did he mention bellfounders, do you think?” Birgitte asked.

„It could be something as simple as needing a new bell to ring the hour for his camp.”

„But you don't think it's simple.”

„Mat's involved,” Elayne said. „He has a way of complicating things, and the way he wrote that line makes it smell like one of his schemes.”

„True. And if he merely wanted a bell, he could win himself enough to buy it after an hour dicing.”

„Come now,” Elayne said. „He's not that lucky.”

Birgitte snorted into her tea. „You need to pay better attention, Elayne. That man could dice with the Dark One and win.”

Elayne shook her head. Soldiers, Birgitte included, could be such a superstitious lot. „Make certain to have a few extra Guardswomen on duty when Mat comes. He can be exuberant, and I wouldn't want him to make a scene.”

Who is this man?” Dyelin asked, sounding confused. One of the other two ta'veren who grew up with Rand al'Thor,” Birgitte said, gulping down her tea. She'd given up drinking while Elayne was pregnant. At least someone else had to suffer too.

Mat is ... a particularly dynamic individual,” Elayne said. „He can be very useful when properly harnessed. When he is not—which is most of the time—he can be an outright disaster. But whatever else can be said about the man, he and his Band know how to fight.”

„You're going to use them, aren't you?” Birgitte said, eyeing her appre-ciatively.

„Of course,” Elayne said. „And, from what I remember Mat saying, he has a lot of Cairhienin in the Band. They are native sons. If I arrive with that section of the Band as part of my army, perhaps the transition will be easier.”

„So you really do intend to go through with this?” Dyelin asked. „Taking the Sun Throne? Now?”

„The world needs unity,” Elayne said, standing. „With Cairhien, I begin knitting us all together. Rand already controls Illian and Tear, and has bonds to the Aiel. We're all connected.”

She glanced to the west, where she could feel that knot of emotions that was Rand. The only thing she ever sensed from him these days was a cold anger, buried deeply. Was he in Arad Doman?

Elayne loved him. But she didn't intend to see Andor become merely another part of the Dragon's empire. Besides, if Rand were to die at Shayol Ghul, who would rule that empire? It could break up, but she worried that someone—Darlin, perhaps—would be strong enough to hold it together. If so, Andor would stand alone between an aggressive Seanchan empire to the southwest, Rand's successor to the northwest and the southeast and the Borderlanders united together in the north and northeast.

She could not let that happen. The woman in her cringed to think of planning for Rand's death, but the Queen could not be so squeamish. The world was changing.

„I realize it will be difficult to administer two nations,” Elayne said. „But I must hold Cairhien. For the good of both thrones.”

She turned and met Dyelin's eyes, and the older woman nodded slowly. „It seems you are committed.”

„I am,” Elayne said. „But I feel I'm going to need reliable use of Traveling if I'm going to manage it. Let's set up a meeting for me with Sumeko and Alise. We need to discuss the future of the Kin.”

CHAPTER 12
An Empty Ink Bottle

Min sat on a window ledge in the Stone of Tear, enjoying the warmth. The afternoon breeze was refreshing, laden though it was with humidity and the scents of the city below. The Tairens had been calling the weather „chilly,” which made Min smile. How would these folk respond to a good Andoran winter, with snow piled up at the sides of buildings and icicles hanging from the eaves?

All that could be said of the weather lately was that it was less sweltering than usual. The warmth that Min was enjoying, however, had nothing to do with the heat in the air.

Sunlight shone upon the city. In the Stone's courtyards, Defenders in their striped sleeves and breeches kept stopping and looking up toward the open sky. The clouds still lurked on the horizon, but they were broken around the city in an unnatural ring. Perfectly circular.

The warmth that Min felt was not caused by the sunlight. „How can you just sit there?” Nynaeve demanded. Min turned her head. The window was wide open, and the walls of the Stone were thick. Min sat on the windowsill with her knees bent, her bare toes touching the wall on the other side. Her boots and stockings lay on the floor beside a stack of books.

Nynaeve paced the room. The Stone of Tear had withstood sieges and storms, wars and desolation, but Min wondered if it had ever survived any. thing quite like Nynaeve al'Meara in a pique. The dark-haired Aes Sedai had spent the last three days stalking through the corridors like a crackling thunderhead, intimidating Defenders, terrifying servants.

„Three days,” Nynaeve said. „Three days he's been gone! The Last Battle looms, and the Dragon Reborn is missing.”

„He's not missing,” Min said softly. „Rand knows where he is.”

„You do as well,” Nynaeve said, her voice curt.

„I'm not leading you to him, Nynaeve.”

„And why not? Surely you can't—”

„He needs to be alone.”

Nynaeve cut off. She walked over to the corner table and poured herself a cup of chilled Tremalking black. Chilled tea. That seemed so odd. Tea was meant to be warming during cold days.

Min turned her eyes northward again, into the distant, cloud-smothered haze. As far as she could determine through the bond, she was looking directly at him. Was he in Andor, perhaps? Or in the Borderlands? She'd been tempted to use the bond to seek him out at first, when he'd felt that awful anguish. Pain deeper than the wounds in his side. Agony, anger and despair. In those moments, Rand had seemed more dangerous than he ever had before. Not even that night—when he'd knelt above her, strangling her with one hand—had he been as frightening.

And then...

She smiled. And then had come the warmth. It radiated from the bond like the comfort of a winter hearth. Something wonderful was happening, something she'd been awaiting without knowing it.

„It will be all right, Nynaeve,” she said.

„How can you say that?” The woman took a sip of her tea. „He didn't destroy Ebou Dar, but that doesn't mean he's not dangerous. You heard what he nearly did to Tam. His own father, Min.”

„A man should not be condemned for what he 'nearly' did, Nynaeve. He stopped himself.”

„He didn't stop himself at Natrin's Barrow.”

„That was necessary.”

„You didn't believe that at the time.”

Min took a deep breath. Nynaeve had been goading her into arguments lately; she certainly had good reason to be tense. Her husband was riding toward his death. The Dragon Reborn—a man she saw as her charge, still—was wandering alone, and there was nothing Nynaeve could do. And if there was one thing Nynaeve hated, it was being powerless.

„Nynaeve,” Min said. „If this lasts much longer, I'll lead you to him. I promise.”

The Aes Sedai narrowed her eyes. „ 'Much longer?”

„A few days.”

„In a few days he could level Cairhien.”

„Do you really think he would do that, Nynaeve?” Min asked softly.

„Truly?”

„Do I?” Nynaeve gripped her cup of tea, staring down at its contents.

„Once I would have laughed at the idea. I knew Rand al'Thor, and the boy still inside him. The man he's become frightens me. I always told him he needed to grow up. And then... and then he did.” She shivered visibly.

Min started to reply, but motion drew her attention. Two Maidens— Surial and Lerian—guarded the open doorway to the hallway; they'd turned to watch someone approach. There were always Maidens around Min, these days.

Sarene Nemdahl entered the small room a moment later. Min's quarters in the Stone were not expansive—she rarely used them, instead staying with Rand. Her sitting room had a thick blue-and-white rug and a small cherry desk, but nothing else.

Sarene wore her dark hair in its customary beaded braids framing her near-perfect face. „Cadsuane Sedai,” Sarene said, „she has need of you.”

„Is that so?” Nynaeve said. „Well, perhaps Cadsuane Sedai can—”

„Alanna is gone,” Sarene continued, unruffled. „Vanished right from her chambers. The Defenders, they didn't see her go, and there was no sign of a gateway.”

„Oh. Well, let's go then.” Nynaeve bustled out of the chamber.

And I'm telling you that I felt nothing,” Corele said. She smiled, tapping the side of her nose. „I don't know how she got out. Unless you think she somehow invented flying—which I daresay wouldn't be outside reason, considering some of what has occurred lately.”

Fool woman, Cadsuane thought, leveling a flat stare at Corele. The woman's flippancy was preferable to the self-importance of some other Aes aedai, but today Cadsuane hadn't the patience for it.

The Yellow shrugged, still smiling, but said nothing further. Cadsuane Placed hands on hips, surveying the small chamber. Room for a trunk to hold clothing, a cot for sleeping and a desk. Cadsuane would have expected Aes Sedai to demand more, even in Tear. Of course, Alanna didn't often rveal her intimate connection to the Dragon. Most didn't know of it.

Two other Aes Sedai—Rafela Cindal and Bera Harkin—stood at the side of the room. Bera said she'd felt Alanna channeling, but nothing demanding Certainly not enough to create a gateway.

Burn that woman! Cadsuane had thought Alanna well in hand, despite recent stubbornness. She'd obviously slipped out intentionally. The clothing from the trunk was gone and the writing desk was mostly bare. Only an empty ink bottle remained.

„She said nothing to you?” Cadsuane said.

„No, Cadsuane Sedai,” Bera replied. „We haven't spoken more than passing words in weeks. I... well, I did often hear weeping in her room.”

„What is all the fuss about?” a new voice said. Cadsuane glanced at the doorway as Nynaeve arrived and met Cadsuane's stare. „She's only one person, and so far as I understand, she was free to leave when she wished.”

„Phaw,” Cadsuane said. „The girl isn't 'only one person.' She's a tool. An important one.” She reached over to the desk, holding up a sheet of paper that they'd found in the room. It had been folded with a blood-red seal of wax on one side. „Do you recognize this?”

Nynaeve frowned. „No. Should I?”

Lying or truthful? Cadsuane hated not being able to trust the words of someone who called herself an Aes Sedai. But Nynaeve al'Meara had never held the Oath Rod.

Those eyes looked genuinely confused. Nynaeve should be trustworthy; she prided herself on her honesty. Unless that was a front. Unless she was Black.

Careful, she thought. You'll end up as distrustful as the boy is. Nynaeve hadn't given Alanna the note, which eliminated her last good theory on its origin.

„So, what is it, Cadsuane Sedai?” Nynaeve demanded. At least she used the honorific; Cadsuane nearly chided the girl for her tone. But, truth be told, she felt as frustrated as Nynaeve did. There were times when such emotions were justified. Facing the end of the world with the Dragon Reborn completely out of control was one of them.

„I'm not sure,” Cadsuane said. „The letter was opened in haste—the paper was torn. It was dropped on the floor, and the note inside taken, along with clothing and emergency items.”

„But why does it matter?” Nynaeve asked. Behind her, Min slipped into the room, two Maidens taking up positions by the door. Had Min yet figured out the real reason the Aiel trailed her?

„Because, Nynaeve,” Min said. „She is a pathway to him.”

Nynaeve sniffed. „She's been no more helpful than you, Min.”

As persuasive as you can be, Nynaeve,” Cadsuane said dryly, „the Shadow has means to make people more forthcoming.”

Nynaeve blushed furiously, then began muttering under her breath. Alanna could point the way to the Dragon Reborn. If agents of the Dark One had taken her, there would be no hiding Rand from them. Their traps had been deadly enough when they'd needed to coax and lure him into them.

„We've been fools,” Nynaeve said. „There should have been a hundred Maidens guarding her.”

„The Forsaken have known where to find him before,” Cadsuane said, though inwardly she agreed. She should have seen Alanna better watched. „And he has survived. This is simply one more thing to be aware of.” She sighed. „Can someone bring us some tea?”

Bera was actually the one who went to fetch it, though Cadsuane hadn't taken any care to cultivate influence with the woman. Well, a reputation was worth something, it appeared.

Bera returned shortly; Cadsuane had stepped out into the hall to think. She accepted the cup and braced herself for the tea's bitter taste— she'd asked for it partially because she needed a moment to think, and an empty-handed woman often looked nervous.

She raised the cup to her lips. What next? Ask the Defenders at the gate of the Stone? Last night, Alanna—after being prodded—had confirmed that al'Thor was still in the same place. Up north, Andor perhaps. For three days. What was the fool boy—

Cadsuane froze. The tea tasted good.

It was wonderful, as a matter of fact. Perfectly sweetened with honey. Faint bitterness and a relaxing flavor. It had been weeks, perhaps months, since Cadsuane had tasted tea that wasn't spoiled.

Min gasped, turning sharply toward the northern quarter of the city. The two Maidens in the doorway were gone in a heartbeat, dashing down the hallway. Cadsuane's suspicions were confirmed; their careful watch of Min had been less about protecting her and more about watching for signs of...

„He's here,” Min said softly.

CHAPTER 13
For What Has Been Wrought

Min burst from the Dragonwall Gate on the eastern side of the Stone and dashed across the courtyard. What seemed like an entire clan's worth of Aiel flooded out behind her, breaking around Min like deer breaking around an oak. They weaved between startled Defenders and grooms, moving with grace and speed toward the wall.

It was galling how easily they outpaced her—years ago, she'd prided herself on being able to beat any boy she knew in an honest footrace. Now... well, too many months spent picking through books, perhaps.

She still outpaced the Aes Sedai, who were bridled by their need to maintain proper decorum. Min had long ago tossed aside all sense of decorum for her towering sheepherder. And so she ran, thankful for her breeches and boots, making for the gate.

And there he was. She pulled up sharply, looking through an open column of Aiel in cadin'sor toward the man himself, standing and speaking with two Defenders who were part of the wall guard. He glanced at her as she grew close; he could feel her coming, as she felt him.

Rand had found an old, long brown cloak somewhere. It had sleeves like a coat, though it fell loose from the shoulders. Underneath it, he had on a shirt and fine black trousers.

Now that he was close, the warmth through the bond seemed overwhelming. Couldn't the others see it? It made her want to raise her arm and shade her eyes, though there was nothing to actually see. It was just the bond. Except... the air did seem to distort around him. Was that a trick of the sunlight? New viewings spun around his head. She normally ignored those, but she couldn't do so now. An open cavern, gaping like a mouth. Bloodstained rocks. Two dead men on the ground, surrounded by ranks and ranks of Trollocs, a pipe with smoke curling from it.

Rand met her gaze, and—despite the bond—she was amazed at what she saw in him. Those gray gemstone eyes of his were deeper. There were faint wrinkles around them. Had those been there before? Surely he was too young for that.

Those eyes did not look young. Min felt a moment of panic as his eyes held hers. Was this the same man? Had the Rand she loved been stolen away, replaced with an ancient force of a man she could never know or understand? Had she lost him after all?

And then he smiled, and the eyes—deep though they had become— were his. That smile was something she'd been waiting a very long time to see again. It was now much more confident than the one he'd shown her during their early days together, yet it was still vulnerable. It let her see a part of him that others were never allowed.

That part was the youth, somehow innocent still. She ran up to him and seized him in an embrace. „You wool-headed fool! Three days? What have you been doing for three days}”

„Existing, Min,” he said, wrapping his arms around her.

„I wasn't aware that was such a difficult task.”

„It has been for me at times.” He fell silent, and she was content to hold him. Yes, this was the same man. Changed—and for the better—but still Rand. She clung to him. She didn't care that people were gathering, more and more of them. Let them watch.

Finally she exhaled, reluctantly pulling back. „Rand, Alanna is gone. She vanished earlier today.”

„Yes. I felt her go. Northward somewhere. The Borderlands, perhaps Arafel.”

„She could be used against you, to find where you are.” He smiled. Light, but it felt good to see that expression on his face again! „The Shadow does not need her to find me, Min, nor will it ever again. All its eyes are fixed directly upon me, and will be until I blind them.”

„What? But Rand—”

“It's all right, Min. The time when it could silence me quietly—and therefore win—has passed. The confrontation is assured and the scream that begins the avalanche has been sounded.”

He seemed afire with life. The thrill of it was intoxicating. He left an arm around her—the arm that ended in a stump—as he turned to regard the Aiel. „I have toh.” Though the courtyard behind them was in chaos, the Aiel stood quietly.

They were ready for this, Min thought. The Aiel weren't hostile, exactly but they didn't share the excitement of the Defenders. The Tairens thought Rand had returned to lead them to the Last Battle.

„In the Waste,” Rhuarc said, stepping forward, „there is an animal. The meegerling. It looks much like a rat, but it is far more stupid. If you place it near grain, it will go straight toward it, regardless of the danger. No matter how many times it falls in a trench between itself and the food it will repeat the same action if you move it back to the start. Aiel children amuse themselves with the game.” He studied Rand. „I had not thought you would be a meegerling, Rand al'Thor.”

„I promise I will never leave you again,” Rand said. „Not of my own choice, and not without informing and—if they consent—bringing Maidens as a guard.”

The Aiel did not budge. „This will prevent you from earning more toh” Rhuarc said. „It will not change what has gone before. And promises have been made before.”

„This is true,” Rand said, meeting Rhuarc's eyes. „I will meet my toh, then.”

Something passed between them, something Min didn't understand, and the Aiel parted, looking more relaxed. Twenty Maidens came forward to act as a guard around Rand. Rhuarc retreated with the others, joining a small group of Wise Ones who watched from the periphery.

„Rand?” Min said.

„It will be all right,” he said, though there was a grim cast to his emotions. „This was one of the things I needed to fix. One of many.” He took his arm from around her and scanned the courtyard, feeling hesitant, as if he were looking for something. Whatever it was, he didn't see it, so he began to stride toward King Darlin, who had just arrived in a hurry.

King Darlin bowed, hand on the pommel of his narrow side-sword. „My Lord Dragon. Are we to march, finally?”

„Walk with me, Darlin,” Rand said in reply as he moved through the courtyard. „There is much to do. Who else is here? Narishma, Flinn. Excellent.” He nodded to the two black-coated Asha'man who arrived at a run. „Your Aes Sedai? Ah, there they come. Well, that will be next. Kai-nea, would you be so kind as to gather me some messengers?”

One of the Maidens—a woman with oddly dark hair for an Aiel—ran as off to do as requested. Min frowned, keeping pace with Rand and Darlin the two Asha'man fell into step behind. Nynaeve and Merise led the group of Aes Sedai. They stopped when they saw Rand approaching, as if to let him be the one who came to meet them. They pulled together in a clump, fiddling with their clothing, look-ne more unsettled than Aes Sedai normally did.

Rand crossed the bustling, open courtyard, walking into the shadow of the Stone's towering fortifications, then stepped up to them.

„Rand al'Thor,” Nynaeve said, folding her arms as he walked up to them. „You are—”

'An idiot?” Rand finished, sounding amused. „An arrogant fool? An impulsive, wool-headed boy in need of a sound ear-boxing?” „Er. Yes.”

„All true, Nynaeve,” he said. „I see it, now. Perhaps I've finally gained a portion of wisdom. I do think you need some new insults, however. The ones you use are wearing out like last year's lace. Someone send for Cadsuane. I promise not to execute her.”

The Aes Sedai seemed shocked by his brusque tone, but Min smiled. His confidence had surged again following the confrontation with the Aiel. It was supremely satisfying to see him disarm Aes Sedai, objections and condemnations dying on their lips. Merise sent a servant to fetch Cadsuane. „Narishma,” Rand said, turning. „I need you to visit that Borderlander army that came looking for me. I'm assuming it's still in Far Madding. Tell the leaders there that I accept their terms and will come in a few days to meet with them.”

„My Lord Dragon?” Narishma said. „Is that prudent, considering the nature of that place?”

„Prudent? Prudence is for those who intend to live long lives, Narishma. Darlin, I need the High Lords and Ladies lined up to receive me. One of these arriving messengers should be sufficient for the task. Also, post word that the White Tower has been reunified, and that Egwene al'Vere is the Amyrlin Seat.”

„What?” Merise said. Several of the other Aes Sedai gasped. Rand,” Min said. „I doubt the Amyrlin will be pleased to have you publicizing the division.”

A valid point,” Rand said. „Darlin, write a proclamation that Egwene al'Vere has succeeded Elaida a'Roihan as the Amyrlin. That should be enough to inform without revealing too much. Light knows I don't need to do anything else to make Egwene angry with me....” Else?” Corele asked, paling.

„Yes,” Rand said offhandedly. „I've already been to the White Tower to see her.”

„And they let you go?” Corele asked.

„I didn't allow them other options. Darlin, kindly marshal our forces here. I want them gathered by the evening. Flinn, we'll need gateways Large ones. A circle might be needed.”

„Tarwin's Gap?” Nynaeve said, eager.

Rand glanced at her and hesitated. Min could feel his pain—sharp spiking, real—as he spoke. „Not yet, Nynaeve. I've poured hot oil into the White Tower, and it will be boiling soon. Time. We don't have time! I will get help to Lan, I vow it to you, but right now I must prepare to face Egwene.”

„Face her?” Nynaeve said, stepping forward. „Rand, what have you done?”

„What needed to be done. Where is Bashere?”

„He was out of the city with his men, my Lord Dragon,” Flinn said, „running their horses. Should be back soon.”

„Good. He's going with me to Arad Doman. You too, Nynaeve. Min.” He looked at her, and those unfathomable eyes seemed to draw her in. „I need you, Min.”

„You have me. Stupid looby.”

„Callandor” he said. „It plays a part in this. You have to find out how. I cannot seal the Bore the way I tried last time. I'm missing something, something vital. Find it for me.”

„I will, Rand.” A cold shiver ran through her. „I promise.”

„I trust you.” He looked up as a figure in a deep hooded cloak walked out of one of the Stone's many guard posts.

„Cadsuane Melaidhrin,” Rand said, „I pardon you for past mistakes and I revoke your exile. Not that it was ever anything more than a minor inconvenience to you.”

She sniffed, lowering the hood. „If you believe that wearing a cloak in this heat is a 'minor' inconvenience, boy, then you need a lesson in contrast. I trust you see the error in your deed. It strikes me as unsuitable that I should need 'forgiveness' or a 'pardon' in the first place.”

„Well, then,” Rand said. „Please accept my pardon alongside my apology. You may say I have been under unusual stress as of late.”

„Of all people,” Cadsuane said sternly, „you cannot afford to let the pressure of life drive you.”

„On the contrary. I am who I have become because of that pressure, Cadsuane. Metal cannot be shaped without the blows of the hammer. But that is beside the point. You tried to manipulate me, and you failed horri-bly. But in that failure, you have shown me something.”

„Which is?”

„I thought I was being forged into a sword,” Rand said, eyes growing distant. „But I was wrong. I'm not a weapon. I never have been.”

„Then what are you?” Min asked, genuinely curious.

He merely smiled. „Cadsuane Sedai, I have a task for you, if you will accept it.”

„I expect that will depend on the task,” she said, folding her arms.

„I need you to locate someone. Someone who is missing, someone I now suspect may be in the hands of well-meaning allies. You see, I've been informed that the White Tower is holding Mattin Stepaneos.”

Cadsuane frowned. „And you want him?”

„Not at all. I haven't decided what to do about him yet, so he can stay Egwene's problem for the time. No, the person I want is probably somewhere in the Caralain Grass. I'll explain more when we are not in the open.”

The High Lords and Ladies were gathering. Rand looked toward them, though once again he scanned the courtyard, as if looking for something. Something that made him feel anxious.

He turned back to the High Lords and Ladies. Min watched them skeptically. Aside from Darlin, she'd never been impressed with them. Rand rested his hand on her shoulder. The gathered nobles looked disheveled, apparently summoned from naps or meals, although they wore an assortment of fine silks and ruffles. They looked oddly out of place in the Stone's courtyard, where everyone else had a purpose.

I shouldn't be so harsh on them, Min thought, folding her arms. But then, she had watched their plotting and pandering frustrate Rand. Besides, she'd never been fond of those who thought themselves more important than everyone else.

„Form a line,” Rand said, walking up to them.

The High Lords and Ladies looked at him, confused.

A line” Rand said, voice loud and firm. „Now.”

They did so, arranging themselves with haste. Rand began to walk down the row, starting with Darlin, looking each man or woman in the eye. Rand's emotions were... curious. Perhaps a touch angry. What was he doing?

The courtyard grew still. Rand continued down the line, looking at each of the nobles in turn, not speaking. Min glanced to the side. Near the end of the line, Weiramon kept glancing at Rand, then looking away. The tall man had thinning gray hair, his beard oiled to a point.

Rand eventually reached him. „Meet my eyes, Weiramon,” Rand said softly.

„My Lord Dragon, surely I am not worthy to—”

„Do it.”

Weiramon did so with an odd difficulty. He looked as if he was gritting his teeth, his eyes watering.

„So it is you,” Rand said. Min could feel his disappointment. Rand looked to the side, to where Anaiyella stood last in line. The pretty woman had pulled away from Rand, her head turned. „Both of you.”

„My Lord—” Weiramon began.

„I want you to deliver a message for me,” Rand said. „To the others of your... association. Tell them that they cannot hide among my allies any longer.”

Weiramon tried to bluster, but Rand took a step closer. Weiramon's eyes opened wide, and Anaiyella cried out, shading her face.

„Tell them,” Rand continued, voice soft but demanding, „that I am no longer blind.”

„Why...” Anaiyella said. „Why are you letting us go?”

„Because today is a day of reunion,” Rand said. „Not a day of death. Go.”

The two stumbled away, looking drained. The others in the courtyard watched with surprise and confusion. The Aiel, however, began to beat their spears against their shields. Anaiyella and Weiramon seemed to keep to the shadows of the courtyard as they ducked into the Stone.

„Leeh,” Rand said. „Take two others. Watch them.”

Three Maidens split from those watching over Rand, darting after the two former nobles. Min stepped up to Rand, taking his arm. „Rand? What was that? What did you see in them?”

„The time for hiding is past, Min. The Shadow made its play for me and lost. It is war, not subterfuge, that turns the day now.”

„So they're Darkfriends?” Min asked, frowning.

Rand turned to her, smiling. „They are no longer a threat. I—” He cut off suddenly, looking to the side. Min turned, and grew chill.

Tam al'Thor stood nearby. He had just walked out of a nearby entrance into the Stone, pausing on a low set of steps leading down to the courtyard. Rand's emotions grew apprehensive again, and Min realized what he'd been searching for earlier.

Tam looked at his son, falling still. His hair was gray and his face lined, yet he was solid in a way that few people were.

Rand lifted his hand, and the crowd—Aes Sedai included—parted. Rand passed through them, Min following behind, crossing to the steps up the Stone. Rand climbed a few of those steps, hesitant. The courtyard fell silent; even the gulls stopped calling.

Rand stopped on the steps, and Min could feel his reluctance, his hame, his terror. It seemed so strange. Rand—who had faced Forsaken without a tremor—was afraid of his father.

Rand took the last few steps in two sudden strides and grabbed Tam in an embrace. He stood one step down, which brought them near an equal height. In fact, in that posture, Tam almost seemed a giant, and Rand but a child who was clinging to him.

There, holding to his father, the Dragon Reborn began to weep.

The gathered Aes Sedai, Tairens and Aiel watched solemnly. None shuffled or turned away. Rand squeezed his eyes shut. „I'm sorry, Father,” he whispered. Min could barely hear. „I'm so sorry.”

„It's all right, son. It's all right.”

„I've done so much that is terrible.”

„Nobody walks a difficult path without stumbling now and again. It didn't break you when you fell. That's the important part.”

Rand nodded. They held each other for a time. Eventually, Rand pulled back, then gestured to Min, standing at the base of the steps.

„Come, Father,” Rand said. „There is someone I want to introduce to you.”

Tam chuckled. „It's been three days, Rand. I've already met her.”

„Yes, but I didn't introduce you. I need to.” He waved to Min, and she raised an eyebrow, folding her arms. He looked at her pleadingly, so she sighed and climbed up the steps.

„Father,” Rand said, resting his hand on Min's back. „This is Min Far-shaw. And she's very special to me.”

CHAPTER 14
A Vow

Egwene walked up the side of a gentle slope, the grass green at her feet, the air cool and pleasant. Lazy butterflies floated from blossom to blossom, like curious children peeking into cupboards. Egwene made her shoes vanish so she could feel the blades beneath her feet.

She took a deep breath, smiling, then looked up at the boiling black clouds. Angry, violent, silent despite flashes of amethyst lightning. Terrible storm above, quiet, placid meadow beneath. A dichotomy of the World of Dreams.

Oddly, Tel'aran'rbiod felt more unnatural to her now than it had during her first few visits using Verin's ter'angreal. She'd treated this place like a playground, changing her clothes on a whim, assuming that she was safe. She hadn't understood. Tel'aran'rbiod was about as safe as a bear trap painted a pretty color. If the Wise Ones hadn't straightened her out, she might not have lived to become Amyrlin.

Yes, I think this is it. The rolling green hills, the stands of trees. It was the first place she'd come, well over a year ago. There was something meaningful about standing here, having come so far. And yet it seemed she would have to cover an equal distance before this was done, and in far shorter a time.

When she'd been captive in the Tower, she had reminded herself—-repeatedly—that she could focus on only one problem at a time. The reunification of the White Tower had to come first. Now, however, both problems and possible solutions seemed uncountable. They overwhelmed her drowning her in all of the things she should he doing.

Fortunately, during the last few days, several unexpected stores of grain had been discovered in the city. In one case a forgotten warehouse, owned by a man who had died over the winter. The others were smaller, a few sacks here and there. Remarkably, none of them had borne any kind of rot.

She had two meetings this evening, dealing with other problems. Her biggest difficulty was going to be the perceptions of the people she met with. Neither group would see her as what she had become.

She closed her eyes, willing herself away. When she opened her eyes, she was standing in a large room, deeply shadowed in the corners, its columns rising like thick towers. The Heart of the Stone of Tear.

Two Wise Ones sat on the floor at the center of the room, amid a forest of columns. Above their light brown skirts and white blouses, their faces were distinctly different. Bair's was wrinkled with age, like leather left to cure in the sun. For all her occasional sternness, smile lines wove from her eyes and mouth.

Amys' face was silky smooth, an effect of being able to channel. Her face was not ageless, but she could have been Aes Sedai for the emotion she showed.

The two had their shawls at their waists, their blouses unlaced. Egwene sat before them but left herself wearing wetlander clothing. Amys raised an eyebrow; was she thinking that Egwene should have changed? Or did she appreciate that Egwene did not imitate something she was not? It was difficult to tell.

„The battle within the White Tower is over,” Egwene said.

„The woman Elaida a'Roihan?” Amys asked.

„Taken by the Seanchan,” Egwene said. „I have been accepted as Amyrlin by those who followed her. My position is far from secure—at times, I feel balanced atop a stone that sits balanced atop another stone. But the White Tower is again whole.”

Amys clicked her tongue softly. She raised her hand and a striped stole—an Amyrlin's stole—appeared in it. „I suppose you should be wearing this, then.”

Egwene let out a soft, slow breath. It was remarkable to her, sometimes, how much stock she put in the opinions of these women. She took the stole, putting it around her shoulders.

Sorilea will dislike this news,” Bair said, shaking her head. „She still had a hope that you would leave those fools in the White Tower and return to us.”

„Please take care,” Egwene said, summoning herself a cup of tea. „I am not only one of those fools, my friend, but I am their leader. Queen of the fools, you might say.”

Bair hesitated. „I have toh.”

„Not for speaking the truth,” Egwene assured her. „Many of them are fools, but are we not all fools at some point? You did not abandon me to my failures when you found me walking Tel'aran'rbiod. In like manner \ cannot abandon those of the White Tower.”

Amys' eyes narrowed. „You have grown much since we last met, Egwene al'Vere.”

That sent a thrill through Egwene. „I had much need to grow. My life has been difficult of late.”

„When confronted by a collapsed roof,” Bair said, „some will begin to haul away the refuse, becoming stronger for the process. Others will go to visit their brother's hold and drink his water.”

„Have you seen Rand recently?” Egwene asked.

„The Car'a'carn has embraced death,” Amys said. „He has given up trying to be as strong as the stones, and has instead achieved the strength of the wind.”

Bair nodded. „Almost, we will have to stop calling him a child.” She smiled. „Almost.”

Egwene gave no hint of her shock. She'd expected them to be displeased with Rand. „I wish you to know the respect I have for you. You have much honor for taking me in as you did. I think that the only reason I see farther than my sisters is because you taught me to walk with my back straight and head high.”

„It was a simple thing,” Amys said, obviously pleased. „One that any woman would have done.”

„There are few pleasures more satisfying than taking a cord someone else has knotted,” Bair said, „then teasing it straight again. However, if the cord is not of good material, then no untangling will save it. You gave us fine material, Egwene al'Vere.”

„I wish that there were a way,” Egwene said, „to train more sisters in the ways of the Wise Ones.”

„You could send them to us,” Amys said. „Particularly if they need punishing. We wouldn't coddle them like the White Tower.”

Egwene bristled. The beatings she'd taken had been „coddling”? That was a fight she didn't want to join, however. The Aiel would always assume wetlander ways to be soft, and there was no changing that assumption.

„I doubt the sisters would agree to that,” Egwene said carefully. „But hat might work would be to send young women—those still train—to study with you. That was part of why my training was so effective; I wasn't yet set in the ways of the Aes Sedai.” „Would they agree to this?” Bair asked.

„They might,” Egwene said. „If we sent Accepted. Novices would be onsidered too inexperienced, sisters too dignified. But Accepted... perhaps. There would need to be a good reason that seems to benefit the White Tower.”

„You should tell them to go,” Bair said, „and expect them to obey.

Have you not the most honor among them? Should they not listen to your counsel when it is wise?”

„Does the clan always do as a chief demands?” Egwene said.

„Of course not,” Amys said. „But wetlanders are always fawning over kings and lords. They seem to like being told what to do. It makes them feel safe.”

„Aes Sedai are different,” Egwene said.

„The Aes Sedai keep implying that we should all be training in the White Tower,” Amys said. Her tone indicated what she thought of that idea. „They drone on, as noisy as a blind chippabird that cannot tell if it's day or night. They need to see that we will never do such a thing. Tell them that you're sending women to us to study our ways so we can understand one another. It is only the truth; they needn't know that you also expect them to be strengthened by the experience.”

„That might work.” Egwene was pleased; the plan was only a few hairs off from what she eventually wanted to accomplish.

„This is a topic to consider in easier days,” Bair said. „I sense greater trouble in you than this, Egwene al'Vere.”

„There is a greater trouble,” she said. „Rand al'Thor. Has he told you what he declared when he visited the White Tower?”

„He said he angered you,” Amys said. „I find his actions odd. He visits you after all his talk of the Aes Sedai locking him up and putting him in a box?”

„He was... different when he came here,” Egwene said. „He has embraced death,” Bair said again, nodding. „He becomes the Car'a'carn truly.”

He spoke powerfully,” Egwene said, „but his words were those of madness. He said he is going to break the seals on the Dark One's prison.” Amys and Bair both froze. You are certain of this?” Bair asked. „Yes.”

„This is disturbing news,” Amys said. „We will consult with him on this. Thank you for bringing this to us.”

„I will be gathering those who resist him.” Egwene relaxed. Until that moment, she hadn't been certain which way the Wise Ones would go. „Perhaps Rand will listen to reason if enough voices are present.”

„He is not known for his willingness to listen to reason,” Amys said with a sigh, rising. Egwene and Bair did so as well. The Wise Ones' blouses were laced in an instant.

„The time is long past for the White Tower to ignore the Wise Ones” Egwene said, „or for the Wise Ones to avoid the Aes Sedai. We must work together. Hand in hand as sisters.”

„So long as it isn't some sun-blinded ridiculous thought about the Wise Ones training in the Tower,” Bair said. She smiled to show it was a joke, but succeeded only in baring her teeth.

Egwene smiled. She did want the Wise Ones to train in the Tower. There were many methods of channeling that the Aes Sedai did better than the Wise Ones. On the other hand, the Wise Ones were better about working together and—Egwene admitted reluctantly—with leadership.

The two groups could learn much from one another. She would find a way to tie them together. Somehow.

She fondly bade farewell to the two Wise Ones, watching as they faded from Tel'aran'rhiod. Would that their counsel alone proved enough to turn Rand from his insane plan. But it was unlikely.

Egwene took a breath. In an instant she stood in the Hall of the Tower, her feet planted directly on the Flame of Tar Valon painted on the floor. Seven spirals of color wound out from her, spinning toward the perimeter of the domed chamber.

Nynaeve was not there. Egwene drew her lips to a line. That woman! Egwene could bring the White Tower to its knees, turn a staunch member of the Red Ajah to her side, earn the respect of the toughest Wise Ones. But Light help her if she needed the loyalty of her friends! Rand, Gawyn, Nynaeve—all infuriating in their own ways.

She folded her arms to wait. Perhaps Nynaeve would still come. If not, this wouldn't be the first time she had disappointed Egwene. A massive rose window dominated the far wall behind the Amyrlin Seat itself. The Flame at the center sparkled, as if there were sunlight beyond, though Egwene knew those boiling black clouds covered all the sky of the World of Dreams.

She turned from the window, then froze.

There, set into the glass below the Flame of Tar Valon, was a large segment in the shape of the Dragon's Fang. That wasn't part of the original window. Egwene stepped forward, inspecting the glass.

There is a third constant besides the Creator and the Dark One, Verin's me-ticulous voice said, a memory from another time. There is a world that lies ithin each of these others, inside all of them at the same time. Or perhaps sur~ rounding them. Writers in the Age of Legends called it Tel'aran'rhiod.

Did this window represent one of those, another world where Dragon and Amyrlin ruled Tar Valon side by side?

„That's an interesting window,” a voice said from behind her.

Egwene started, spinning. Nynaeve stood there, wearing a dress of bright yellow trimmed with green across the high bodice and along the skirt. She wore a red dot at the center of her forehead, and had her hair woven into its characteristic braid.

Egwene felt a surge of relief. Finally! It had been months since she'd seen Nynaeve. Cursing inside for letting herself be surprised, she smoothed her face and embraced the Source, weaving Spirit. A few inverted wards might help keep her from being startled again. Elayne was supposed to arrive a little later.

„I didn't choose this pattern,” Egwene said, looking back at the Rose Window. „This is Tel'aran'rhiod's interpretation.”

„But the window itself is real?” Nynaeve asked.

„Unfortunately,” Egwene said. „One of the holes the Seanchan left when they attacked.”

„They attacked}” Nynaeve asked.

„Yes,” Egwene said. Something you would have known if you'd ever responded to my summons!

Nynaeve folded her arms, and the two of them regarded one another across the room, Flame of Tar Valon centering the floor beneath them. This would have to be handled very carefully; Nynaeve could be as prickly as the worst of thornbushes.

„Well,” Nynaeve said, sounding distinctly uncomfortable, „I know you're busy, and Light knows I have enough things to be doing. Tell me the news you think I need to know, and I'll be off.”

„Nynaeve,” Egwene said, „I didn't bring you here only to give you news.”

Nynaeve grasped her braid. She knew she should be rebuked for the way she'd avoided Egwene.

„Actually,” Egwene continued, „I wanted to ask your advice.”

Nynaeve blinked. „Advice on what?”

Well,” Egwene said, strolling across the Flame, „you're one of the few people I can think of who has been in a situation similar to mine.”

„Amyrlin?” Nynaeve asked flatly.

„A leader,” Egwene said, passing Nynaeve and nodding for her to walk beside her, „that everyone thinks is too young. Who rose to her position abruptly. Who knows she is the right woman for the job, yet has only grudging acceptance from most of those near her.”

„Yes,” Nynaeve said, walking with Egwene, eyes growing distant. „You I could say I know something of being in that situation.”

„How did you deal with it?” Egwene asked. „It seems that everything I do, I need to do myself—because if I don't, they ignore me once I'm out of sight. Many assume that I give orders just to be seen making noise, or they resent my position above them.”

„How did I deal with it when I was Wisdom?” Nynaeve asked. „Egwene, I don't know if I did. I could barely keep myself from boxing Jon Thane's ears half the days, and don't get me talking about Cenn!”

„But eventually they respected you.”

„It was a matter of not letting them forget my station. They couldn't be allowed to continue to think of me as a young girl. Establish your authority quickly. Be firm with the women in the Tower, Egwene, because they'll begin by seeing how far they can push you. And once you've let them push you a handspan, it's harder than winter molasses to get back what you've lost.”

„All right,” Egwene said.

„And don't come up with idle work for them to do,” Nynaeve said. They passed out of the Hall of the Tower, strolling through the hallways. „Get them used to you giving orders, but make those orders good ones. Make sure they don't bypass you. I'd guess that it might be easy for them to start looking to the Sitters or the Ajah heads instead of you; women in Emond's Field started going to the Women's Circle instead of me.

„If you discover that the Sitters are making decisions that should have come before the entire Hall, you have to make a big fuss about it. Trust me. They'll grouse that you're making too much noise over small things, but they'll think twice about doing something important without your attention.”

Egwene nodded. It was good advice, though—of course—it came colored by Nynaeve's view of the world. „I think the biggest problem,” Egwene said, „is that I have so few true supporters.”

„You have me. And Elayne.”

„Do I?” Egwene said, stopping in the hallway and looking at Nynaeve. „Do I really have you, Nynaeve?”

The former Wisdom stopped beside her. „Of course you do. Don't be silly”

„And how will it seem,” Egwene asked, „if those who know me best fuse my authority? Might it seem to the others that there is something hev do not know? Some weakness that only my friends have seen?”

Nynaeve froze. Suddenly, her honesty melted into suspicion, her eyes narrowing. „This wasn't about asking me for advice at all, was it?”

„Of course it was,” Egwene said. „Only a fool would ignore the advice of those who support her. But how did it feel for you, those first weeks when you became Wisdom? When all the women you were supposed to be leading looked at you only as the girl they had known?”

„Terrible,” Nynaeve said softly.

„And were they wrong to do so?”

„Yes. Because I'd become something more. It wasn't me any longer, it was my station.”

Egwene met the older woman's eyes, holding them, and an understanding passed between them.

„Light,” Nynaeve said. „You caught me quite soundly, didn't you?”

„I need you, Nynaeve,” Egwene said. „Not just because you're so strong in the Power, not just because you're a clever, determined woman. Not just because you're refreshingly untainted by Tower politics, and not just because you're one of the few who knew Rand before this all began. But because I need people I can trust implicitly. If you can be one of those.”

„You'll have me kneeling on the ground,” Nynaeve said. „Kissing your ring.”

„And? Would you have done it for another Amyrlin?”

„Not happily.”

„But you'd have done it.”

„Yes.”

„And do you honestly think there is another who would do a better job than I?”

Nynaeve hesitated, then shook her head.

Then why is it so bitter for you to serve the Amyrlin? Not me, Nynaeve, but the station.”

Nynaeve's face looked as if she'd drunk something very bitter. „This will ... not be easy for me.”

I ve never known you to avoid a task because it was difficult, Nynaeve.” „The station. All right. I'll try.” Then you might begin by calling me Mother.” Egwene held up a finger to cut off Nynaeve's objection. „To remind yourself, Nynaeve. It needn't be permanent, at least not in private. But you must begin thinking of me as I Amyrlin.”

„All right, all right. You've pricked me with enough thorns. I already feel as if I've been drinking windsatter's draught all day.” She hesitated, then added, „Mother.” She almost seemed to choke on the word.

Egwene smiled encouragingly.

„I won't treat you the way women did me after I was first named Wisdom,” Nynaeve promised. „Light! Odd to be able to feel as they did Well, they were still fools. I'll do better; you'll see it. Mother.”

It sounded a little less forced that time. Egwene broadened her smile. There were few ways to motivate Nynaeve better than a competition.

Suddenly, a tinkling bell rang in Egwene's mind. She'd almost forgotten her wards. „I think Elayne has arrived.”

„Good,” Nynaeve said, sounding relieved. „Let's go to her, then.” She began striding back toward the Hall, then froze. She glanced back. „If it pleases you, Mother.”

I wonder if she'll ever be able to say that without sounding awkward, Egwene thought. Well, so long as she's trying. „An excellent suggestion.” She joined Nynaeve. Upon arriving in the Hall, however, they found it empty. Egwene folded her arms, looking around.

„Maybe she went looking for us,” Nynaeve said.

„We'd have seen her in the hallway,” Egwene said. „Besides...”

Elayne popped into the room. She wore a regal white gown, sparkling with diamonds. As soon as she saw Egwene, she smiled broadly, rushing over and taking her hands. „You did it, Egwene! We're whole again!”

Egwene smiled. „Yes, though the Tower is still injured. There is much to do.”

„You sound like Nynaeve.” Elayne glanced at Nynaeve, smiling.

„Thank you,” Nynaeve said dryly.

„Oh, don't be so silly.” Elayne walked over and gave Nynaeve a friendly hug. „I'm glad you're here. I'd worried that you wouldn't come, and Egwene would have to hunt you down and pull your toes off one at a time.”

„The Amyrlin,” Nynaeve said, „has much better things to do. Isn't that right, Mother?”

Elayne started, looking amazed. She got a glimmer in her eye, and hid a smile. She assumed that Nynaeve had been given a tongue-lashing. But, of course, Egwene knew that wouldn't have worked with Nynaeve; it would be like trying to yank a burr out of your skin when its spines had gone in the wrong way.

„Elayne,” Egwene said. „Where did you go, before we returned?”

„What do you mean?” she said.

„When you first came here, we were gone. Did you go somewhere looking for us?”

Elayne seemed perplexed. „I channeled into my terangreal, went to sleep, and you were here when I appeared.”

„Then who set off the wards?” Nynaeve asked.

Troubled, Egwene reset the wards and then—thinking carefully—she wove an inverted ward against eavesdropping but altered it to allow a little bit of sound through. With another weave, she projected that little bit far out around them.

Someone who grew near would hear them as if whispering. They'd edge closer, but the sound would remain a whisper. Perhaps that would draw them closer, inch by inch, as they strained to hear.

Nynaeve and Elayne watched her make the weaves, Elayne looking awed, though Nynaeve nodded thoughtfully to herself.

„Sit, please,” Egwene said, making herself a chair and sitting in it. „We have much to discuss.” Elayne made herself a throne, probably unconsciously, and Nynaeve made a seat copying the chairs of the Sitters in the room. Egwene, of course, had moved the Amyrlin Seat.

Nynaeve looked from one throne to another, obviously dissatisfied. Maybe that was why she'd resisted these meetings for so long; Egwene and Elayne had risen so far.

It was time for some honey to take away the bitterness. „Nynaeve,” Egwene said. „I'd like it very much if you could return to the Tower and teach more of the sisters in your new method of Healing. Many are learning it, but they could use more instruction. And there are others who are reluctant to abandon the old ways.”

„Stubborn goats,” Nynaeve said. „Show them cherries and they'll still eat the rotten apples, if they've been doing it long enough. I'm not sure it would be prudent for me to come, though. Er, Mother.”

„Why is that?”

Rand,” Nynaeve said. „Someone has to keep an eye on him. Someone other than Cadsuane, at least.” Her lips turned down at that woman's name. „He's changed recently.”

Changed?” Elayne said, sounding concerned. „What do you mean?”

Have you seen him recently?” Egwene asked.

No,” Elayne said immediately. Too quickly. It was undoubtedly the truth-—Elayne wouldn't lie to her—but there were things she was hiding about Rand. Egwene had suspected it for a time. Could she have bonded him?

„He has changed,” Nynaeve said. „And it's a very good thing. Mother... you don't know how bad he grew. There were times when T was terrified of him. Now ... that's gone. He's the same person—he even talks the same way as before. Quietly, without anger. Before it was like the quiet of a knife being drawn, and now it's like the quiet of a breeze.”

„He's awakened,” Elayne said suddenly. „He's warm now.”

Egwene frowned. „What does that mean?”

„I... Actually, I don't know.” Elayne blushed. „It came out. Sorry.”

Yes, she'd bonded him. Well, that could be useful. Why didn't she wish to speak of it? Egwene would have to talk to her alone sometime.

Nynaeve was studying Elayne with narrowed eyes. Had she noticed as well? Her eyes flickered toward Elayne's chest, then down at her belly.

„You're pregnant!” Nynaeve accused suddenly, pointing at Elayne.

The Andoran queen blushed. That was right, Nynaeve wouldn't know of the pregnancy, though Egwene had heard from Aviendha.

„Light!” Nynaeve said. „I didn't think I'd let Rand out of my sight long enough for that. When did it happen?”

Elayne blushed. „Nobody said that he—”

Nynaeve gave Elayne a flat stare, and the Queen blushed further. Both knew Nynaeve's feelings about propriety in these matters—and, in truth, Egwene agreed. But Elayne's private life was none of her business.

„I'm happy for you, Elayne,” Egwene said. „And for Rand. I'm not certain what I think of the timing. You should know that Rand is planning to break the remaining seals upon the Dark One's prison, and in so doing, risk releasing him upon the world.”

Elayne pursed her lips. „Well, there are only three seals left, and they're crumbling.”

„So what if he is running that risk?” Nynaeve said. „The Dark One will be freed when the final seal crumbles; best if it happens when Rand is there to battle him.”

„Yes, but the seals? That's foolhardy. Surely Rand can face the Dark One, and defeat him, and seal him away without taking that risk.”

„Maybe you're right,” Nynaeve said.

Elayne looked troubled.

This was a more lukewarm reception than Egwene had expected. She'd thought that the Wise Ones would resist her, while Nynaeve and Elayne would immediately see the danger.

Nynaeve has been around him too much, Egwene thought. She was likely caught up by his ta'veren nature. The Pattern bent around him. Those near him would begin to see things his way, would work—unconsciously—to see his will done.

That had to be the explanation. Normally, Nynaeve was so levelheaded about these sorts of things. Or... well, Nynaeve wasn't exactly levelheaded, really. But generally did see the right way things needed to be done, so long as that right way didn't involve her being wrong.

„I need both of you to return to the Tower,” Egwene said. „Elayne, I know what you're going to say—and yes, I realize that you are Queen, and that Andor's needs must be met. But so long as you haven't taken the oaths, other Aes Sedai will think you undeserving.”

„She's right, Elayne,” Nynaeve said. „You needn't visit for long— enough time to be raised formally to an Aes Sedai and be accepted into the Green Ajah. The nobles of Andor won't know the difference, but other Aes Sedai will.”

„True,” Elayne said. „But the timing is... awkward. I don't know if I want to risk swearing the oaths while pregnant. It might harm the children.”

That gave Nynaeve pause.

„You may have a point,” Egwene said. „I will have someone look into whether or not the oaths are dangerous in pregnancy. But Nynaeve, I want you back here for certain.”

„It will leave Rand completely unattended, Mother.”

„I'm afraid it is impossible to avoid.” Egwene met Nynaeve's eyes. „I won't have you as an Aes Sedai free of the oaths. No, close your mouth—I know you try to hold to the oaths. But so long as you are free of the Oath Rod itself, others will wonder if they could be free as well.”

„Yes,” Nynaeve said. „I suppose.”

„So you will return?”

Nynaeve clenched her jaw, and seemed to be fighting an internal battle. Yes, Mother,” she said. Elayne opened her eyes wider in shock.

„This is important, Nynaeve,” Egwene said. „I doubt there is anything you alone could do to stop Rand now. We need to gather allies for a unified front.”

„All right,” Nynaeve said.

„What worries me is the testing,” Egwene said. „The Sitters have begun to argue that—while it was all right to raise you and the others in exile-you should still have to go through the testing, now that the White Tower is reunified. They make very good arguments. Perhaps I can argue that your difficult challenges recently should earn you an exemption. We don't have time to teach you two all of the weaves you'd need.”

Elayne nodded. Nynaeve shrugged. „I'll do the testing. If I'm going to come back, then I might as well do this properly.”

Egwene blinked in surprise. „Nynaeve, these are very complex weaves I haven't had time to memorize all of them; I swear that many are need-lessly ornate simply to be difficult.” Egwene had no intention of going through the testing herself, and didn't need to. The law was specific. Bv being made Amyrlin, she had become Aes Sedai. Things weren't as clear in regards to Nynaeve and the others that Egwene had raised.

Nynaeve shrugged again. „The hundred testing weaves aren't so bad I could show them to you right here, if you wanted me to.”

„When have you had time to learn those?” Elayne exclaimed.

„I haven't spent the last few months mooning about and dreaming of Rand al'Thor.”

„Securing the throne of Andor is not 'mooning about'!”

„Nynaeve,” Egwene cut in, „if you truly have the weaves memorized, then being raised properly would help me a great deal. It would look less like I'm favoring my friends.”

„The testing is supposed to be dangerous,” Elayne said. „Are you sure you have the weaves in hand?”

„I'll be fine,” Nynaeve said.

„Excellent,” Egwene said. „I'll expect you here in the morning.”

„So soon!” Nynaeve said, aghast.

„The sooner you can hold that Oath Rod, the sooner I'll be able to stop worrying about you. Elayne, we'll still have to do something about you.”

„The pregnancy,” Elayne said. „It's interfering with my ability to channel. That's getting better—I could get here, thankfully—but it's still a problem. Explain to the Hall it would be too dangerous for me—and for the babes—to undergo the testing while unable to channel consistently.”

„They might suggest you wait,” Nynaeve said.

„And lef me run around without the oaths?” Elayne said. „Though I would like to know if anyone's taken the oaths while pregnant before, just to be sure.”

„I'll find what I can,” Egwene said. „Until then, I have another task for you.”

„I am rather busy with ruling Andor, Mother.”

„I know,” Egwene said. „Unfortunately, there's nobody else I can ask. I need more dream ter'angreal.'

„I might be able to manage,” Elayne said. „Assuming I can start channeling reliably.”

„What happened to the dream ter'angreal you had?” Nynaeve asked Egwene.

„Stolen,” Egwene said. „By Sheriam—who, by the way, was Black Ajah”

The two gasped, and Egwene realized that the revelation of the hundreds of Black sisters was unknown to them. She took a deep breath. „Steel yourselves,” she said. „I've got a painful story for you. Before the Seanchan attack, Verin came to—”

At that moment, the bell went off in her head again. Egwene willed herself to move. The room blinked around her, and she was suddenly standing outside in the hallway, where her wards were set. She came face-to-face with Talva, a thin woman with a bun of golden hair. She had once been of the Yellow Ajah, but was one of the Black sisters who had fled the Tower. Weaves of Fire sprang up around Talva, but Egwene had already begun working on a shield. She slammed it between the other woman and the Source, immediately weaving Air to snare her. A sound came from behind. Egwene didn't think; she moved herself, relying on practiced familiarity with Tel'aran'rhiod. She appeared behind a woman who was letting loose a jet of Fire. Alviarin. Egwene snarled, beginning another shield as Alviarin's wave of Fire hit the unfortunate Talva, causing her to scream as her flesh burned. Alviarin spun, then yelped, vanishing. Burn her! Egwene thought. Alviarin was at the very top of the list of people she wanted captured. The hallway fell still, Talva's corpse— blackened and smoking—slumping to the ground. She'd never awaken; die here, and one died in the real world.

Egwene shivered; that murderous weave had been meant for her. I relied too much on channeling, she thought. Thought happens more quickly than weaves can be made. I should have imagined ropes around Alviarin.

No, Alviarin would still have been able to jump away from ropes. Egwene hadn't been thinking like a Dreamer. Lately, her mind had been on the Aes Sedai and their problems, and weaves had come naturally to her. But she couldn't let herself forget that in this place, thought was more powerful than the One Power. Egwene looked up as Nynaeve barreled out of the Hall, Elayne follow-ing more cautiously. „I sensed channeling,” Nynaeve said. She looked at the burned corpse. „Light!” Black sisters,” Egwene said, folding her arms. „It seems they're mak-ing good use of those dream ter'angreal. I'd guess they're under orders to prowl the White Tower at night. Perhaps looking for us, perhaps looking for information to use against us.” Egwene and the others had done that very thing during Elaida's reign.

„We shouldn't have met here,” Nynaeve said. „Next time, we'll use a different place.” She hesitated. „If it suits you, Mother.”

„It might,” Egwene said. „It might not. We'll never defeat them unless we can find them.”

„Walking into traps is hardly the best way to defeat them, Mother” Nynaeve said flatly.

„Depends on your preparation,” Egwene said. She frowned. Had she just seen a flutter of black cloth, ducking around a corner? Egwene was there in a moment; Elayne's startled curse sounded down the hallway behind her. My, but the woman had a tongue on her.

The place was empty. Eerie, almost too silent. That was normal in Tel'aran'rhiod.

Egwene remained full of the One Power, but moved back to the other two. She had cleansed the White Tower, but an infestation remained, hiding at its heart.

I will find you, Mesaana, Egwene thought, then waved for the others to join her. They moved to the hillside where she'd been earlier, a place where she could give a more detailed explanation of events they'd missed.

CHAPTER 15
Use a Pebble

Nynaeve hastened through the paved streets of Tear, the Asha'man Naeff at her side. She could still feel that storm to the north, distant but terrible. Unnatural. And it was moving southward. Lan was up there. „Light protect him,” she whispered. „What was that, Nynaeve Sedai?” Naeff asked.

„Nothing.” Nynaeve was getting used to having the black-coated men around. She did not feel an uncomfortable chill when she looked at Naeff. That would be silly. Saidin had been cleansed, with her own help. No need to be uncomfortable. Even if the Asha'man did sometimes stare off into nothing, muttering to themselves. Like Naeff, who was looking into the shadow of a nearby building, hand on his sword.

„Careful, Nynaeve Sedai,” he said. „There's another Myrddraal following us.”

„You're... certain, Naeff?”

The tall, rectangular-faced man nodded. He was talented with weaves— particularly Air, which was unusual for a man—and he was very polite to Aes Sedai, unlike some of the other Asha'man. „Yes, I'm certain,” he said. „I don't know why I can see them and others cannot. I must have a Talent for it. They hide in shadows, scouts of some sort, I think. They haven't struck yet; I think they're wary because they know I can see them.”

He’d taken to night walks through the Stone of Tear, watching the Mydraal that only he could see. His madness wasn't getting worse, but old injuries wouldn't go away. He'd always bear this scar. Poor man. At least his madness wasn't as bad as some of the others'.

Nynaeve looked forward, marching down the wide, paved street I Buildings passed on either side, designed in Tear's haphazard way. A large mansion, with two small towers and a bronze, gatelike door sat beside an inn of only modest size. Across from them was a row of homes with wrought iron worked into the doors and windows, but a butcher's shop had been built right in the middle of the line.

Nynaeve and Naeff were heading for the All Summers neighborhood which was just inside the western wall. It wasn't the richest section of Tear but it was definitely prosperous. Of course, in Tear, there was really only one division: commoner or noble. Many of the nobles still considered commoners completely different—and wholly inferior—creatures.

They passed some of those commoners. Men in loose breeches tied at the ankles, colorful sashes at the waist. Women in high-necked dresses, pale aprons hanging at the front. Wide straw hats with flat tops were common, or cloth caps that hung to one side. Many people carried clogs on a string over their shoulders to use once they returned to the Maule.

The people passing Nynaeve now wore worried faces, some glancing over their shoulders in fear. A bubble of evil had hit the city in that direction. Light send that not too many were hurt, for she didn't have much time to spare. She had to return to the White Tower. It galled her to have to obey Egwene. But obey she would, and leave as soon as Rand returned. He'd gone somewhere this morning. Insufferable man. At least he'd taken Maidens with him. He'd reportedly said he needed to fetch something.

Nynaeve quickened her step, Naeff at her side, until they were nearly running. A gateway would have been faster, but it wouldn't be safe; she couldn't be certain they wouldn't slice into someone. We're growing too dependent on those gateways, she thought. Our own feet hardly seem good enough anymore.

They turned a corner into a street where a group of nervous Defenders—-wearing black coats and silvery breastplates, black and gold sleeves puffing out at the sides—stood in a line. They parted for her and Naeff, and while they looked relieved that she'd arrived, they still clutched their polearms nervously.

The city beyond them looked faintly... blander than it should. Washed out. The paving stones were a lighter shade of gray, the walls of the buildings a fainter brown or gray than they should have been.

„You have men inside searching for wounded?” Nynaeve asked.

One of the Defenders shook his head. „We've been keeping people out, er, Lady Aes Sedai. It's not safe.”

Most Tairens still weren't accustomed to showing Aes Sedai respect. Until recently, channeling had been outlawed in the city.

„Send your men ro search,” Nynaeve said firmly. „The Lord Dragon ill be upset if your timidity costs lives. Start at the perimeter. Send for me if you find anyone I can help.”

The guardsmen moved off. Nynaeve turned to Naeff, and he nodded, She turned and took a step into the affected section of town. When her foot hit the paving stone, the stone turned to dust. Her food sank through the shattered paving stone and hit packed earth.

She looked down, feeling a chill. She continued forward, and the stones fell to powder as she touched them. She and Naeff made their way to a nearby building, leaving a trail of powdered rock behind. The building was an inn with nice balconies on the second floor, delicate ironwork patterns on the glass windows, and a darkly stained porch. The door was open, and as she lifted her foot up to step onto the low porch, the boards also turned to powder. She froze, looking down. Naeff stepped up beside her, then knelt down, pinching the dust between his fingers.

„It's soft,” he said quietly, „as fine a powder as I've ever touched.”

The air smelled unnaturally fresh, contrasting strangely with the silent street. Nynaeve took a deep breath, then went into the inn. She had to push forward, walking with the wooden floor at her knees, the boards disintegrating as she touched them.

The inside was dim. The stand-lamps no longer burned. People sat about the room, frozen in midmotion. Most were nobles with fine clothing, the men wearing beards oiled to a point. One sat at a nearby tall table with long-legged chairs. He had a mug of morning ale halfway to his lips. He was motionless, his mouth open to accept the drink.

Naeff's face was grim, although little seemed to surprise or unsettle Asha'man. As he took another step forward, Nynaeve lunged and grabbed his arm. He frowned at her, and she pointed down. Right in front of him—barely visible beneath the still-whole floorboards right ahead of them-—the ground fell away. He'd been about to step into the inn's cellar.

Light,” Naeff said, stepping back. He knelt down, then tapped the board in front of him. It fell to dust, showering down into the dark cellar below.

Nynaeve wove Spirit, Air and Water to Delve the man sitting at the chair her. Normally she would touch someone to Delve them, but she hesitated this time. It would work without touch, but would not be as effective for Healing.

Her Delving found nothing. No life, no sense that he had ever alive. His body wasn't even flesh. With a sinking feeling, she Delved other people in the darkened room. A serving maid carrying breakfast towari three Andoran merchants. A corpulent innkeeper, who must have had trouble navigating between the close-set tables. A woman in a rich dress sitting in the very back of the room, primly reading a small book.

There was no life in any of them. These weren't corpses; they were husks. Fingers trembling, Nynaeve reached out and brushed the shoulder of the man at the high table. He immediately fell to powder, dust showering downward in a puff. The chair and floorboards underneath did not dissolve.

„There is nobody here to save,” Nynaeve said.

„Poor people,” Naeff said. „Light shelter their souls.”

Nynaeve often had trouble feeling pity for the Tairen nobles—-of all the people she had met, they seemed among the most arrogant. But nobody deserved this. Besides, a large number of commoners had been caught in this bubble as well.

She and Naeff made their way out of the building, Nynaeve's frustration mounting as she tugged on her braid. She hated feeling helpless. Like with the poor guard who had started the fire back at the manor house in Arad Doman, or the people who were struck down by strange diseases. The dusty husks this day. What was the good of learning to Heal if she couldn't help people?

And now she had to leave. Go back to the White Tower. It felt like running away. She turned to Naeff. „Wind,” she said.

„Nynaeve Sedai?”

„Give the building a gust of wind, Naeff,” she said. „I want to see what happens.”

The Asha'man did as she asked, his invisible weaves blowing a jet of air. The entire building burst, shattering into dust that blew away, like the white seeds of a dandelion. Naeff turned to her.

„How wide did they say this bubble was?” she asked.

„About two streets wide in all directions.”

„We need more wind,” she said, beginning a weave. „Create a gust as large as you can. If there is anyone wounded in here, we'll find them this way.”

Naeff nodded. The two of them strode forward, creating wind. They shattered buildings, causing them to burst and fall. Naeff was far more skilled at the process than she, but Nynaeve was stronger in the One Power. Together, they swept the crumbling buildings, stones and husks before them in a dust storm.

It was exhausting work, but they kept at it. She hoped—against reason—that she might find someone to help. Buildings fell before her and Naeff, the dust caught in swirling air. They pushed the dust in a circle moving inward. Like a woman sweeping the floor.

They passed people frozen on the streets in midstride. Oxen pulling a cart. Heart-wrenchingly, some children playing in an alley. All fell to dust.

They found nobody alive. Eventually, she and Naeff had dissolved all of the broken part of the city and blown the dust into the center. Nynaeve looked at it, kept swirling in place by a small cyclone Naeff had woven. Curious, Nynaeve channeled a tongue of Fire into the cyclone, and the dust caught alight.

Nynaeve gasped; that dust went up like dried paper thrown into a fire, creating a roaring tempest of flames. She and Naeff backed away, but it was over in a flash. It didn't leave any ash behind.

If we hadn't gathered it, she thought, watching the fire fade away, someone might have dropped a candle on it. A fire like that...

Naeff stilled his winds. The two of them stood in the center of an open circle of bare earth with periodic holes for cellars. On the edges, buildings had been sliced into, rooms open to the air, some structures having collapsed. It was eerie, to see this hollow area. Like a gouged-out eye socket in an otherwise healthy face.

Several groups of Defenders stood at the perimeter. She nodded to Naeff, and they walked to the largest group. „You didn't find anyone?” she demanded.

„No, Lady Aes Sedai,” a man said. „Er... well, we did find a few, but they were dead already.”

Another man nodded, a barrel-like fellow whose uniform was very tight. „Seems anyone who had even a toe inside of that ring fell dead. Found a few of them missing only a foot or part of their arm. But they were dead anyway.” The man shuddered visibly.

Nynaeve closed her eyes. The entire world was falling apart, and she was powerless to Heal it. She felt sick and angry.

Maybe they caused it,” Naeff said softly. She opened her eyes to see him nodding toward the shadows of a building nearby. „The Fades. There are three of them there, Nynaeve Sedai, watching us.”

Naeff...” she said, frustrated. Telling him the Fades weren't real didn't help. I have to do something, she thought. Help someone. „Naeff, stand still. She took hold of his arm and Delved him. He looked at her, surprised, but didn't object.

She could see the madness, like a dark network of veins digging into his mind. It seemed to pulse, like a small beating heart. She'd found similar corruption recently in other Asha'man. Her skill with Delving was improv-ing, her weaves more refined, and she could find things once hidden to her She had no idea how to fix what was wrong, though.

Anything should be Healable, she told herself. Anything but death itself. She concentrated, weaving all Five Powers, and carefully prodded at the mad-ness, remembering what had happened when she'd removed the Compulsion from Graendal's unfortunate servant. Naeff was better off with this madness than he would be if she damaged his mind further.

Oddly, the darkness did seem similar to Compulsion. Was that what the taint had done? Bent the men who used the One Power with the Dark One's own Compulsion?

She carefully wove a counterweave opposite the madness, then laid it over Naeff's mind. The weave just faded away, doing nothing.

She gritted her teeth. That should have worked. But, as seemed so common lately, it had failed.

No, she thought. No, I can't just sit back. She Delved deeper. The darkness had tiny, thornlike projections stuck into Naeff's mind. She ignored the people gathering around her, and inspected those thorns. She carefully used weaves of Spirit to pry one free.

It came out with some resistance, and she quickly Healed the spot where it had punctured Naeff's flesh. The brain seemed to pulse, looking more healthy. One by one, she pried the others free. She was forced to maintain her weaves, holding the barbs back, lest they plunge down again. She began to sweat. She was already tired from sweeping the area clean, and no longer could spare concentration to keep the heat off her. Tear was so muggy.

She continued working, preparing another counterweave. Once she had pried up each and every thorn, she released her new weave. The dark patch undulated and shook, like something alive.

Then it vanished.

Nynaeve stumbled back, drained near to exhaustion. Naeff blinked, then looked around. He raised a hand to his head.

Light! she thought. Did I hurt him? I shouldn't have barreled into that. I could have—

„They're gone,” Naeff said. „The Fades ... I can't see them anymore. He blinked. „Why would Fades be hiding in the shadows anyway? If I could see them, they'd have killed me, and—” He looked at her, focusing-”What did you do?”

„I... I think I just Healed your madness.” Well, she'd done something to it. What she'd done hadn't been any standard Healing, and hadn't even used Healing weaves. But it had worked, it seemed. Naeff smiled deeply, seeming bewildered. He took her hand with both of his then knelt before her, growing teary-eyed. „For months, I have felt as if I were always being watched. As if I would be murdered the moment I turned back on the shadows. Now I... Thank you. I need to go find Nelavaire.”

„Off with you, then,” Nynaeve said. Naeff left her in a dash, running back toward the Stone to search out his Aes Sedai.

I can't let myself begin to think that nothing I do matters. That's what the Dark One wants. As she watched Naeff hasten away, she noticed that the clouds above were breaking. Rand had returned.

Workers began clearing away the rubble of buildings that had half turned to dust, and Nynaeve ended up speaking soothingly to the worried Tairens who began to cluster around the perimeter. She didn't want there to be a panic; she assured everyone that the danger was past, and then she asked to meet with any families who had lost someone.

She was still doing this—talking softly with a thin, worried woman— when Rand found her. The woman was a commoner, wearing a high-necked dress with three aprons and a straw hat. Her husband had worked in the inn Nynaeve had entered. The woman kept glancing at the hole in the ground that had been the cellar.

After a moment, Nynaeve noticed Rand, watching her and standing with his arms behind his back, hand clasping his stump. Two Maidens guarded him, a pair of women named Somma and Kanara. Nynaeve finished speaking with the Tairen, but the woman's tearful eyes wrenched her heart. How would she react, if she lost Lan?

Light protect him. Please, please protect him, she prayed. She unhooked her coin pouch and sent the woman off with it. Perhaps that would help. Rand stepped up to Nynaeve. „You care for my people. Thank you.” I care for any who need it,” Nynaeve said.

As you've always done,” Rand said. „Along with caring for some who don't need it.”

Like you?” she said, raising an eyebrow. No, I've always needed it. That and more.”

Nynaeve hesitated. That wasn't something she'd ever expected him to admit. Why hadn't he gotten rid of that old cloak? It was faded and dull. This is my fault,” Rand said, nodding toward the hole in the city. Rand, don't be a fool.”

„I don't know if anyone can avoid being a fool at times,” he said „\ blame myself because of my delays. We've been putting off the confrontation with him for too long. What happened here today? The building turned to dust?”

„Yes,” Nynaeve said. „Their substance was removed. Everything crum-bled the moment we touched it.”

„He would do this to the entire world,” Rand said, his voice growing soft. „He stirs. The longer we wait—holding on by our fingernails—the more he destroys what remains. We can delay no longer.”

Nynaeve frowned. „But Rand, if you let him free, won't that make it even worse?”

„Perhaps for a short burst,” Rand said. „Opening the Bore will not free him immediately, though it will give him more strength. It must be done regardless. Think of our task as climbing a tall stone wall. Unfortunately, we are delaying, running laps before attempting the climb. Each step tires us for the fight to come. We must face him while still strong. That is why I must break the seals.”

„I...” Nynaeve said. „I think I actually believe you.” She was surprised to realize it.

„Do you, Nynaeve?” he asked, sounding oddly relieved. „Do you really?”

„I do.”

„Then try to convince Egwene. She will stop me, if she can.”

„Rand... she has called me back to the Tower. I'll need to go today.”

Rand looked saddened. „Well, I suspected that she might do that eventually.” He took Nynaeve by the shoulder in an odd gesture. „Don't let them ruin you, Nynaeve. They'll try.”

„Ruin me?”

„Your passion is part of you,” Rand said. „I tried to be like them, though I wouldn't have admitted it. Cold. Always in control. It nearly destroyed me. That is strength to some, but it is not the only type of strength. Perhaps you could learn to control yourself a little more, but I like you as you are. It makes you genuine. I would not see you become another 'perfect' Aes Sedai with a painted mask of a face and no care for the feelings and emotions of others.”

„To be Aes Sedai is to be calm,” Nynaeve replied.

„To be Aes Sedai is to be what you decide it is,” Rand said, his stump still held behind his back. „Moiraine cared. You could see it in her, even when she was calm. The best Aes Sedai I've known are the ones who other complain aren't what an Aes Sedai should be.”

Nynaeve found herself nodding, then was annoyed at herself. She was taking advice from Rand alThor?

There was something different about Rand now. Quiet intensity and careful words. He was a man you could take advice from without feeling he speaking down to you. Like his father, actually. Not that she'd ever admit that to either one of them.

„Go to Egwene,” Rand said, releasing her shoulder. „But when you can, I would like it very much if you returned to me. I will need your counsel gain. At the very least, I would like you by my side as I go to Shayol Ghul. I cannot defeat him with saidin alone, and if we are going to use Callandor, I will need two women I trust in the circle with me. I have not decided upon the other. Aviendha or Elayne, perhaps. But you for certain.”

„I will be there, Rand.” She felt oddly proud. „Hold still for a moment. I won't hurt you. I promise.”

He raised an eyebrow, but did nothing as she Delved him. She was so tired, but if she was going to leave him, she needed to take this opportunity to Heal his madness. It seemed, suddenly, the most important thing she could do for him. And for the world.

She Delved, staying away from the wounds at his side, which were pits of darkness that seemed to try to suck in her energy. She kept her attention on his mind. Where was the—

She stiffened. The darkness was enormous, covering the entirety of his mind. Thousands upon thousands of the tiny black thorns pricked into his brain, but beneath them was a brilliant white lacing of something. A white radiance, like liquid Power. Light given form and life. She gasped. It coated each of the dark tines, driving into his mind alongside them. What did it mean?

She didn't have any idea how to begin working on this. There were so many barbs. How could he even think with that much darkness pressing against his brain? And what had created the whiteness? She'd Healed Rand before, and hadn't noticed it then. Of course, she'd never seen the darkness until recently. Her practice with Delving was likely the reason. She reluctantly withdrew. „I'm sorry,” she said. „I can't Heal you.” Many have tried on those wounds—you yourself included. They are simply unhealable. I don't think on them much, these days.”

„Not the wounds in your side,” Nynaeve said. „The madness. I...” You can Heal madness?” „I think I did so in Naeff.”

Rand grinned widely. „You never cease to... Nynaeve, do you realize that the most Talented of Healers during the Age of Legends had difficulty with diseases of the mind? Many believed it was not possible to Heal mad-ness with the One Power.”

„I'll Heal the others,” she said. „Narishma, Flinn at the least, befor go. All of the Asha'man probably have at least a hint of this taint upon their minds. I don't know if I'll be able to get to the Black Tower.” Or if I want to go there.

„Thank you,” Rand said, looking northward. „But no, you shouldn't go to the Black Tower. I will need to send someone there, but it will be handled carefully. Something's happening with them. But I have so much to do... „

He shook his head, then looked to her. „That is one pit I cannot cross at the moment. Speak well of me to Egwene. I need her to be an ally.”

Nynaeve nodded, then—feeling foolish—gave him a hug before hurrying off to seek out Narishma and Flinn. A hug. For the Dragon Reborn. She was turning as silly as Elayne. She shook her head, thinking that perhaps some time in the White Tower would help her regain her levelheadedness.

The clouds had returned.

Egwene stood at the very apex of the White Tower, on the flat, circular roof, holding to the waist-high wall. Like a creeping fungus—like insects in a swarm—the clouds had closed up above Tar Valon. The sunlights visit had been Welcome, but brief.

The tea was back to tasting stale again. The grain stores they'd discovered were running out, and the next sacks to come in had been filled with weevils. The Land is One with the Dragon.

She breathed in, smelling the new air, looking out over Tar Valon. Her Tar Valon.

Saerin, Yukiri and Seaine—three of the sisters who had been the original hunters for the Black Ajah in the Tower—waited patiently behind her. They were among her most ardent supporters now, and her most useful. Everyone expected Egwene to favor the women who had been among those who split from Elaida, so being seen spending time with Aes Sedai who had stayed in the White Tower was helpful.

„What have you discovered?” Egwene asked.

Saerin shook her head, joining Egwene at the wall. The scar on her cheek and the white at her temples made the olive-skinned and blunt-faced Brown look like an aging general. „Some of the information you requeste was uncertain even three thousand years ago, Mother.”

„Whatever you can give me will help, daughter,” Egwene said. „So long as we do not depend on the facts entirely, incomplete knowledge is better than complete ignorance.”

Saerin snorted softly, but obviously recognized the quote from Yasicca Cellaech, an ancient Brown scholar.

„And you two?” Egwene asked Yukiri and Seaine.

„We're looking,” Yukiri said. „Seaine has a list of possibilities. Some are actually reasonable.”

Egwene raised an eyebrow. Asking a White for theories was always nteresting, but not always useful. They had a tendency to ignore what was plausible, focusing on remote possibilities.

„Let us begin there, then,” Egwene said. „Seaine?”

„Well,” Seaine said, „I will begin by saying that one of the Forsaken undoubtedly has knowledge that we can't guess at. So there may be no way to ascertain how she defeated the Oath Rod. For instance, there might be a way to disable it for a short time, or perhaps there are special words that can be used to evade its effects. The rod is a thing of the Age of Legends, and though we've used it for millennia, we don't really understand it. No more than we do most ter'angreal.”

„Very well,” Egwene said.

„But,” Seaine said, getting out a sheet of paper, „that taken into account, I have three theories on how one might defeat swearing on the rod. First, it is possible that the woman has another Oath Rod. Others were once said to exist, and it's plausible that one rod could release you from the oaths of another. Mesaana could have been holding one secretly. She could have taken the Three Oaths while holding our rod, then somehow used the other to negate those oaths before swearing that she was not a Darkfriend.”

Tenuous,” Egwene said. „How would she have released herself without us knowing? It requires channeling Spirit.”

„I considered that,” Seaine said.

„Not surprising,” Yukiri said.

Seaine eyed her, then continued. „This is the reason Mesaana would have needed a second Oath Rod. She could have channeled Spirit into it, then inverted the weave, leaving her linked to it.”

It seems improbable,” Egwene said.

„Improbable?” Saerin replied. „It seems ridiculous. I thought you said some of these were plausible, Yukiri.”

„This one is the least likely of the three,” Seaine said. „The second method would be easier. Mesaana could have sent a look-alike wearing the Mirror of Mists. Some unfortunate sister—or novice, or even some un-trained woman who could channel—under heavy Compulsion. This woman could have been forced to take the oaths in Mesaana's place. Then, since this person wouldn't be a Darkfriend, she could speak truthfully that she wasn't.”

Egwene nodded thoughtfully. „That would have taken a lot of prepa-ration.”

„From what I've been able to learn about her,” Saerin said, „Mesaan was good at preparation. She excelled at it.”

Saerin's task had been to discover whatever she could about Mesaana's true nature. They had all heard the stories—who didn't know the names of each of the Forsaken, and their most terrible deeds, by heart? But Egwene put little faith in stories; she wanted something more hardfast, if she could get it.

„You said there was a third possibility?” Egwene asked.

„Yes,” Seaine said. „We know that some weaves play with sound. Variations on vocal weaves are used to enhance a voice to project to a crowd, and in the ward against eavesdropping—indeed, they're used in the various tricks used to listen in on what is being said nearby. Complex uses of the Mirror of Mists can change a person's voice. With some practice, Doesine and I were able to fabricate a variation on a weave that would alter the words we spoke. In effect, we said one thing, but the other person heard another thing entirely.”

„Dangerous ground to walk, Seaine,” Saerin said, her voice gruff. „That is the kind of weave that could be used for ill purposes.”

„I couldn't use it to lie,” Seaine said. „I tried. The oaths hold—so long as the weave was there, I couldn't speak words that I knew another would hear as lies, even if they were truth when they left my lips. Regardless, it was an easy weave to develop. Tied off and inverted, it hung in front of me and altered my words in a way I'd indicated.

„Theoretically, if Mesaana had this weave in force, she could have taken up the Oath Rod and sworn whatever she wished. 'I vow that I will lie whenever I feel like it' for instance. The Oath Rod would have bound her with that vow, but the weaves would have changed the sounds in the air as they passed her lips. We'd have heard her saying the proper oaths.

Egwene gritted her teeth. She'd assumed that defeating the Oath Rod would be difficult. And yet here was a simple weave capable of the feat. She should have known—never use a boulder when a pebble will do, as her mother had often said.

„With this,” Egwene said, „they could have been slipping Darkfriends . into ranks of the Aes Sedai for years.”

„Unlikely,” Saerin said. „None of the Black sisters we captured knew of this wave. If they had, then they'd have tried to use it when we made hem reswear the oaths. I suspect that if Mesaana does know this trick, she kept it to herself. The usefulness of it would vanish once too many people became aware of it.”

„Still,” Egwene said. „What do we do? Knowing of the weave, we could probably find a way to check for it—but I doubt that the sisters would be willing to go through the reswearing process again.”

„And if it were to catch one of the Forsaken?” Yukiri asked. „It might be worth ruffling a few feathers to catch the fox hiding in the henhouse.”

„She wouldn't be caught,” Egwene said. „Besides, we don't know if she's using one of these methods. Seaine's logic suggests that it might be possible—without too much trouble—to defeat the Oath Rod. The actual method Mesaana used is less important than the possibility of the act.”

Seaine glanced at Yukiri. None of the three had questioned Egwene's knowledge that one of the Forsaken was in the White Tower, but she knew they'd been skeptical. Well, at least they now understood that it might be possible to defeat the Oath Rod.

„I want you to continue your work,” Egwene said. „You and the others were effective at capturing several Black sisters and unearthing the ferrets. This is much the same thing.” Merely far, far more dangerous.

„We'll try, Mother,” Yukiri said. „But one sister among hundreds? One of the most crafty and evil creatures ever to have lived? I doubt she will leave many clues. Our investigations into the murders have, so far, yielded very little in the way of results.”

„Keep at it anyway,” Egwene said. „Saerin, what have you to report?”

„Tales, rumors and whispers, Mother,” Saerin said with a grimace. „You likely know the most famous stories regarding Mesaana—how she ran the schools in lands conquered by the Shadow during the War of Power. So far as I can tell, those legends are quite true. Marsim of Manetheren speaks of that in detail in her Annals of the Final Nights, and she's often a reliable source. Alrom gathered quite a full report of living through one of those schools, and fragments of it have survived.

Mesaana wished to be a researcher, but was rejected. The details are not clear. She also governed the Aes Sedai who went to the Shadow, lead-ing them in battle at times, if Alrom's report is to be believed. I'm not convinced it is; I think it likely Mesaana's leadership was more figurative.”

Egwene nodded slowly. „But what of her personality? Who is she?”

Saerin shook her head. „The Forsaken are more monsters in the night than real 'personalities' to most, Mother, and much has been lost or mis-quoted. From what I can tell, among the Forsaken you could think of her as the realist—the one who, rather than sitting high on a throne, steps in and gets her hands dirty. Elandria Borndat's Seeing Through the Breaking insists that, unlike Moghedien and Graendal, Mesaana was willing to take the reins directly.

„She was never known as the most skilled or powerful of the Forsaken but she was extremely capable. Elandria explains that she did what needed to be done. When others would be scheming, she would be carefully building up defenses and training new recruits.” Saerin hesitated. „She... well, she sounds much like an Amyrlin, Mother. The Shadow's Amyrlin.”

„Light,” Yukiri said. „Little wonder she set up here.” The Gray seemed very unsettled by that.

„The only other thing I could find of relevance, Mother,” Saerin said, „was a curious reference from the Blue scholar Lannis, who indicated that Mesaana was second only to Demandred in sheer anger.”

Egwene frowned. „I'd assume that all of the Forsaken are full of hate.”

„Not hate,” Saerin said. „Anger. Lannis thought Mesaana was angry—at herself, at the world, at the other Forsaken—because she wasn't one of those at/ the forefront. That could make her very dangerous.”

Egwene nodded slowly. She's an organizer, she thought. An administrator who hates being relegated to that position.

Was that why she'd stayed in the Tower after the Black sisters had been found? Did she desire to bring some great accomplishment to the Dark One? Verin had said that the Forsaken shared one unifying trait: their selfishness.

She tried to deliver a broken White Tower, Egwene thought. But that has failed. She was probably part of the attempt to kidnap Rand as well. Another fiasco. And the women sent to destroy the Black Tower?

Mesaana would need something grand to offset so many failures. Killing Egwene would work. That might send the White Tower back into division.

Gawyn had been mortified when she'd said she might use herself as bait. Dared she do so? She gripped the railing, standing above the Tower, above the city that depended on her, looking out on a world that needed her.

Something had to be done; Mesaana had to be drawn out. If what Saerin said was true, then the woman would be willing to fight directly—she wouldn't hide and poke from the shadows. Egwene's task, then, was to tempt her with an opportunity, one that didn't seem obvious, one she couldn't resist.

„Come” Egwene said, walking toward the ramp back down into the Tower. „I have some preparations to make.”

CHAPTER 16
Shanna'har

Faile walked the camp in the waning evening light, making her way toward the quartermaster's tent. Perrin had sent their group of scouts through the gateway to Cairhien; they'd return the next morning.

Perrin was still brooding about the Whitecloaks. Over the last several days, the two armies had exchanged several letters, Perrin trying to maneuver for a second, more formal parley while the Whitecloaks insisted on a battle. Faile had given Perrin choice words about sneaking off to meet with the Whitecloaks without her.

Perrin was stalling as he let Elyas and the Aiel scout the Whitecloaks to try to find a way to sneak their people out, but it was unlikely to be an option. He'd succeeded back in the Two Rivers, but there had been only a handful of captives then. Now there were hundreds.

Perrin was not dealing well with his guilt. Well, Faile would talk with him shortly. She continued through the camp, passing the Mayener section to her left, with banners flying high.

I will have to deal with that one soon as well, Faile thought, looking up at Berelain's banner. The rumors about her and Perrin were problematic. She'd suspected that Berelain might try something in Faile's absence, but taking him into her tent at night seemed particularly forward.

Faile's next steps would have to be taken with extreme care. Her husband, his people, and his allies were all balanced precariously. Faile found herself wishing she could ask her mother for advice.

That shocked her, and she hesitated, stopping on the worn pathway of trampled yellow grass and mud. Light, Faile thought. Look what has happened to me.

Two years ago, Faile—then called Zarine—had run from her home in Saldaea to become a Hunter for the Horn. She'd rebelled against her duties as the eldest, and the training her mother had insisted she undergo.

She hadn't run because she'd hated the work; indeed, she'd proven ad-ept at everything required of her. So why had she gone? In part for adventure. But in part—she admitted to herself only now—because of all the assumptions. In Saldaea, you always did what was expected of you. Nobody wondered if you would do your duty, particularly if you were a relative of the Queen herself.

And so... she'd left. Not because she'd hated what she would become, but because she had hated the fact that it had seemed so inevitable. Now here she was, using all of the things her mother had insisted she learn.

It was nearly enough to make Faile laugh. She could tell a host of things about the camp from a mere glance. They'd need to find some good leather for the cobblers soon. Water wasn't a problem, as it had been raining light sprinkles often over the last few days, but dry wood for campfires was an issue. One group of refugees—a collection of former wetlander gai'shain who watched Perrin's Aiel with outright hostility—would need attention. As she walked, she watched to make certain the camp had proper sanitation, and that the soldiers were caring for themselves. Some men would show utmost concern for their horses, then forget to eat anything proper—or at least healthy. Not to mention their habit of spending half the night gossiping by the campfires.

She shook her head and continued walking, entering the supply ring, where food wagons had been unloaded for the horde of cooks and serving maids. The supply ring was almost a village itself, with hundreds of people quickly wearing pathways in the muddy grass. She passed a group of dirty-raced youths digging pits in the ground, then a patch of women chattering and humming as they peeled potatoes, children gathering the rinds and throwing them into the pits. There weren't many of those children, but errins force had gathered a number of families from around the country-Side who—starving—had begged to join.

Serving men ran baskets of peeled potatoes to cooking pots, which were slowly being filled with water by young women making trips to the stream. Journeyman cooks prepared coals for roasting and older cooks were mixing spices into sauces that could be poured over other foods, which was really the only way to give flavor to such mass quantities.

Elderly women—the few in the camp—shuffled past with bent backs and light wicker baskets bearing herbs clutched on thin arms, their shawls rippling as they chatted with crackling voices. Soldiers hurried in and out, carrying game. Boys between childhood and manhood gathered sticks for tinder; she passed a small gaggle of these who had grown distracted cap-turing spiders.

It was a tempest of confusion and order coexisting, like two sides of a coin. Strange how well Faile fit in here. Looking back at herself only a few years before, she was amazed to realize that she saw a spoiled, self-centered child. Leaving the Borderlands to become a Hunter for the Horn? She'd abandoned duties, home and family. What had she been thinking?

She passed some women milling grain, then walked around a fresh batch of wild scallions lying on a blanket beside them, waiting to be made into soup. She was glad she'd left and met Perrin, but that didn't excuse her actions. With a grimace, she remembered forcing Perrin to travel the Ways in the darkness, alone. She didn't even recall what he'd done to set her off, though she'd never admit that to him.

Her mother had once called her spoiled, and she'd been right. Her mother had also insisted that Faile learn to run the estates, and all the while Faile had dreamed of marrying a Hunter for the Horn and spending her life far away from armies and the boring duties of lords.

Light bless you, Mother, Faile thought. What would she, or Perrin, have done without that training? Without her mother's teachings, Faile would have been useless. Administration of the entire camp would have rested on Aravine's shoulders. Capable though the woman was as Perrin's camp steward, she couldn't have managed this all on her own. Nor should she have been expected to.

Faile reached the quartermaster's station, a small pavilion at the very heart of the cooking pits. The breeze brought an amalgamation of scents: fat seared by flames, potatoes boiling, peppered sauces spiced with garlic, the wet, sticky scent of potato peelings being carried to the small herd or hogs they'd managed to bring out of Maiden.

The quartermaster, Bavin Rockshaw, was a pale-faced Cairhienin with blond speckled through his graying brown hair, like the fur on a mixed-breed dog. He was spindly through the arms, legs and chest, yet had an almost perfectly round paunch. He had apparently worked at j quartermastering as far back as the Aiel War, and was an expert—a master as practiced in overseeing supply operations as a master carpenter was at woodworking.

That, of course, meant that he was an expert at taking bribes. When saw Faile, he smiled and bowed stiffly enough to be formal, but without mentation. „I'm a simple soldier, doing his duty,” that bow said.

„Lady Faile!” he exclaimed, waving over some of his serving men. „Here to inspect the ledgers, I assume?”

„Yes, Bavin,” she said, though she knew there would be nothing suspicious in them. He was far too careful. Still, she made a cursory motion of going through the records. One of the men brought her a stool, another a table upon which to place the ledgers, and yet another a cup of tea. She was impressed at how neatly the col-umns added up. Her mother had explained that often, a quartermaster would make many messy notations, referencing other pages or other ledgers, separating different types of supplies into different books, all to make it more difficult to track what was going on. A leader who was befuddled by the notations would assume that the quartermaster must be doing his job.

There was none of that here. Whatever tricks of numbering Bavin was using to obscure his thievery, they were nothing short of magical. And he was stealing, or at least being creative in how he doled out his foodstuffs. That was inevitable. Most quartermasters didn't really consider it thievery; he was in charge of his supplies, and that was that.

„How odd it is,” Faile said as she leafed through the ledger. „The strange twists of fate.”

„My Lady?” Bavin asked.

„Hmm? Oh, it is nothing. Only that Torven Rikshan's camp has received their meals each evening a good hour ahead of the other camps. I'm certain that's just by chance.”

Bavin hesitated. „Undoubtedly, my Lady.”

She continued to leaf through the ledgers. Torven Rikshan was a Cairhienin lord, and had been placed in charge of one of the twenty camps within the larger mass of refugees. He had an usually large number of nobles in his particular camp. Aravine had brought this to Faile's attention; she wasn't certain what Torven had given to receive supplies for meals more quickly, but it wouldn't do. The other camps might feel that Perrin was favoring one over another.

Yes,” Faile said, laughing lightly. „Merely coincidence. These things happen in a camp so large. Why, just the other day Varkel Tius was complaining to me that he had put in a requisition for canvas to repair torn tents, but hasn't had his canvas for nearly a week now. Yet I know for a fact that Soffi Moraton ripped her tent during the stream crossing but had it repaired by that evening.”

Bavin was silent.

Faile made no accusations. Her mother had cautioned that a good quartermaster was too valuable to toss into prison, particularly when the next man was likely to be half as capable and equally corrupt. Faile's duty was not to expose or embarrass Bavin. It was to make him worried enough that he kept himself in check. „Perhaps you can do something about these irregularities, Bavin,” she said, closing the ledger. „I loathe to burden you with silly matters, but the problems must not reach my husband's ears. You know how he is when enraged.”

Actually, Perrin was about as likely to hurt a man like Bavin as Faile was to flap her arms and fly away. But the camp didn't see it that way. They heard reports of Perrin's fury in battle, along with her occasional arguments with him—provoked by Faile so that they could have a proper discussion—and assumed he had a terrible temper. That was good, so long as they also thought of him as honorable and kind. Protective of his people, yet filled with rage at those who crossed him.

She rose from the stool, handing the ledgers to one of the men, curly-haired and with ink stains on his fingers and jerkin. She smiled at Bavin, then made het way out of the supply ring. She noted with displeasure that the bunch oPwild scallions beside the pathway had spoiled in the moments since she'd seen them last, their stalks melted and runny, as if they'd been rotting in the sun for weeks. These spoilings had begun only recently inside of camp, but by reports, it happened far more frequently out in the countryside.

It was hard to tell the hour with the sky so full of clouds, but it seemed from the darkening horizon that her time to meet with Perrin had come. Faile smiled. Her mother had warned her what would happen to her, had told her what was expected of her, and Faile had worried that she would feel trapped by life.

But what Deira hadn't mentioned was how fulfilling it would be. Perrin made the difference. It was no trap at all to be caught with him.

Perrin stood with one foot up on the stump of a felled tree, facing north. The hilltop let him look out over the plains toward the cliffs of Garens Wall rising like the knuckles of a slumbering giant.

He opened his mind, questing out for wolves. There were some in the distance, almost too faint to feel. Wolves stayed away from large gatherings of men.

The camp spread out behind him, watchfires fluttering at its boundaries.

This hillside was far enough away to be secluded, but not so distant as to be solitary He wasn't certain why Faile had asked him to meet her here at dusk, she'd smelled excited, so he hadn't pried. Women liked their secrets. He heard Faile coming up the side of the hill, stepping softly on the wet grass. She was good at being quiet—not nearly as good as Elyas or one of the Aiel, but better than one might think of her. But he could smell her scent, soap with lavender. She used that particular soap only on days she deemed special.

She stepped atop the hillside, beautiful, impressive. She wore a violet vest over a long silk blouse of a lighter shade. Where had she gotten the clothing? He hadn't seen her in this fine outfit before.

„My husband,” she said, stepping up to him. He could faintly hear oth-' ers near the foot of the hill—probably Cha Faile. She'd left them behind. „You look concerned.”

„It's my fault that Gill and the others were captured, Faile,” he said. „My failures continue to mount. It's a wonder anyone follows me.”

„Perrin,” she said, laying a hand on his arm. „We've spoken of this. You mustn't say such things.”

„Why?”

„Because I've never known you to be a liar,” she said with a softly chiding tone.

He looked at her. It was growing dark, though he could still make out details. She'd have a harder time seeing them.

„Why do you continue to fight this?” she asked. „You are a good leader, Perrin.”

„I wouldn't have given myself up for them,” he said.

She frowned. „What does that have to—”

„Back in the Two Rivers,” Perrin said, turning away from her, looking north again, „I was ready to do it. When the Whitecloaks had Mat's family and the Luhhans, I'd have given myself up. This time, I wouldn't have. Even when I spoke to their leader, asking his price, I knew I wouldn't give myself up.”

You're becoming a better leader.”

How can you say that? I'm growing callous, Faile. If you knew the things I did to get you back, the things I would have done...” He fingered the hammer at his side. The tooth or the claw, Young Bull, it matters not. He'd thrown away the axe, but could he blame it for his brutality? It was only a tool. He could use the hammer to do the same terrible things.

Its not callous,” Faile said, „or selfish. You're a lord now, and you can't let it be known that capturing your subjects will undermine your rule. Do you think Queen Morgase would abdicate to tyrants who kidnapped her subjects? No leader could rule that way. Your inability to stop evil men does not make you evil yourself.”

„I don't want this mantle, Faile. I never have.”

„I know.”

„Sometimes I wish I'd never left the Two Rivers. I wish I'd let Ran run off to his destiny, leaving regular folk behind to live their lives.”

He caught a scent of annoyance from her.

„But if I'd stayed,” he added hastily, „I'd never have met you. So I'm glad I left. I'm just saying I'll be glad when this is all through and finished and I can go back to someplace simple.”

„You think the Two Rivers will ever go back to being the way you remember it?”

He hesitated. She was right—when they'd gone, it had already been showing signs of change. Refugees from across the mountains moving in, the villages swelling. Now, with so many men joining him in war, getting ideas into their heads about having a lord...

„I could find someplace else,” he said, feeling stubborn. „There are other villages. They won't all change.”

„And you'd drag me off to one of these villages, Perrin Aybara?” she said.

„I...” What would happen if Faile, his beautiful Faile, were confined to a sleepy village? He always insisted that he was only a blacksmith. But was Faile a blacksmith's wife? „I would never force you to do anything, Faile,” he said, cupping her face in his hand. He always felt awkward when touching her satin cheeks with his thick, callused fingers.

„I'd go, if you really wanted me to,” she replied. That was odd. He'd normally expect a snap from her at his awkward tongue. „But is it what you want? Is it really?”

„I don't know what I want,” he said frankly. No, he didn't want to drag Faile off to a village. „Maybe... life as a blacksmith in a city, somewhere?

„If you wish it,” she repeated. „Of course, that would leave the Two Rivers without a lord. They'd have to find someone else.”

„No. They don't need a lord. That's why I have to stop them treating me like one.”

„And you think they'd give up on the idea that quickly?” Faile asked, smelling amused. „After they've seen how everyone else does it? After the way they fawned over that fool Luc? After welcoming in all of those people from Almoth Plain, who are used to lords?”

What would the Two Rivers folk do if he stepped down as their lord.

In a sinking moment of realization, he knew that Faile was right. Surely they'd pick someone who'd do a better job of it than me, he thought. Maybe Master al'Vere.

But could Perrin trust that? Men like Master al'Vere or Tam might down the position. Might they end up picking someone like old Cenn Buie? Would they have a choice? If Perrin stepped aside, might some person who figured himself highborn seize power?

Can't be a fool, Perrin Aybara, he thought. Almost anyone would be better than you.

Still, the thought of someone else taking control—someone else being lord-filled him with intense anxiety. And a surprising amount of sadness.

„Now,” Faile said, „stop your brooding. I have grand intentions for this evening.” She clapped her hands loudly three times, and movements began below. Soon, servants crested the hillside. Perrin recognized them as people she'd appropriated from among the refugees, a group as loyal to her as Cha Faile.

They carried canvas, which they spread on the ground. Then they covered that with a blanket. And what was that he smelled coming up from below? Ham?

„What is this, Faile?” he asked.

„At first,” she said, „I assumed that you had something special planned for our shanna'har. I grew nervous when you didn't mention it, however, and so I asked. It appears that you do not celebrate it in the Two Rivers, odd though that is.”

„Shanna'har?” Perrin asked, scratching his head.

„In the coming weeks,” Faile said, „we will have been married one year. This is our first shanna'har, our marriage celebration.” She folded her arms, watching as her servants arranged a meal on the blanket. „In Saldaea, we celebrate the shanna'har each year in the early summer. It is a festival to mark another year together, another year with neither husband nor wife fallen to the Trollocs. Young couples are told to savor their first shanna'har, much as one savors the first taste of a succulent meal. Our marriage will only be new to us once.” The servants laid out a meal, including several glass bowls with candles in them. Faile dismissed the servants with a smile and a wave, and they retreated down the side of the hill. Faile had obviously taken care to make the meal look lavish. The blanket was embroidered, perhaps taken from Shaido spoils. The meal was served on silver plates and platters, ham a bed of boiled barley and capers across the top. There was even wine. Faile stepped closer to him. „I realize that there has been much, this year, that is not worth savoring. Maiden, the Prophet, that harsh winter. But if these things are the cost for being with you, Perrin, then I would pay them freely a dozen times over.

„If all were well, we would spend this next month giving gifts to on another, affirming our love, celebrating our first summer as husband and wife. I doubt we will have the month of ease that is our right, but at least we should spend and enjoy this evening together.”

„I don't know if I can, Faile,” he said. „The Whitecloaks, the sky Light! The Last Battle itself is almost here. The Last Battle, Faile! How can I feast while my people are being held under threat of execution and while the world itself may die?”

„If the world itself is going to die,” Faile said, „is this not the time when a man must take time to appreciate what he has? Before it is all taken?”

Perrin hesitated. She laid a hand on his arm, her touch so soft. She hadn't raised her voice. Did she want him to yell? It was so hard to tell when she wanted an argument and when she didn't. Maybe Elyas would have advice for him.

„Please,” she said softly. „Try to relax for one evening. For me.”

„All right,” he said, laying his hand on hers.

She led him to the blanket and they settled down, side by side before the array of silver dishes. Faile lit more candles off of the lit ones the servants had left. The night was chilly—the clouds seemed to draw summer warmth away. „Why do this outside?” Perrin said. „And not in our tent?”

„I asked Tam what you do in the Two Rivers for shannahar” she said. „And as I feared, I learned that you don't celebrate it. That is really quite backward, you realize—we'll need to change the custom, once things settle down. Regardless, Tam said that the closest they had was something he and his wife did. Once a year, they would pack up a full meal—as extravagant as they could afford—and hike to a new place in the woods. They would dine there and spend the day with one another.” She snuggled up against him. „Our wedding was done in the Two Rivers fashion, so I wished this day to be after that fashion as well.”

He smiled. Despite his earlier objections his tension was easing. The food smelled good, and his stomach growled, prompting Faile to sit up and take his plate and hand it to him.

He dug in. He tried to keep his manners, but the food was excellent, and it had been a long day. He found himself ripping into the ham with ferocity, though he tried to take care not to drip on the fancy blanket.

Faile ate more slowly, the scent of amusement mixing with that of her soap.

„What?” Perrin asked, wiping his mouth. She was lit only by the candles that the sun was fully down. „There's much of the wolf in you, my husband.”

He froze, noticing that he'd been licking his fingers. He growled at self wiping them instead on a napkin. As much as he liked wolves, he woudn't invite them to the dinner table with him. „Too much of the wolf in me,” he said.

„You are what you are, my husband. And I happen to love what you are, so that is well.”

He continued to chew on his cut of the ham. The night was quiet, the servants having retreated far enough away that he couldn't smell or hear them. Likely Faile had left orders that they weren't to be disturbed, and with the trees at the base of the hillside, they wouldn't have to worry about being observed.

„Faile,” he said softy, „you need to know what I did while you were captive. I did things I worried would turn me into someone you would no longer want. It wasn't only the deal with the Seanchan. There were people in a city, So Habor, that I can't stop thinking of. People that maybe I should have helped. And there was a Shaido, with his hand—”

„I heard about that. It seems that you did what you had to.”

„I'd have gone much farther,” Perrin admitted. „Hating myself all the way. You spoke of a lord being strong enough to resist letting himself be manipulated. Well, I'll never be that strong. Not if you're taken.”

„We shall have to make certain I don't get taken.”

„It could ruin me, Faile,” he said softly. „Anything else, I think I could handle. But if you are used against me, nothing will matter. I'd do anything to protect you, Faile. Anything.”

„Perhaps you should wrap me up in soft cloth, then,” she said dryly, and tuck me away in a locked room.” Oddly, her scent was not offended.

„I wouldn't do that,” Perrin said. „You know I wouldn't. But this means I have a weakness, a terrible one. The type a leader can't have.”

She snorted. „You think other leaders don't have weaknesses, Perrin? every King or Queen of Saldaea has had their own. Nikiol Dianatkhah was a drunkard, despite being known as one of our greatest kings, and Belairah married and put her husband away four times. Her heart always did lead her to trouble. Jonasim had a son whose gambling ways nearly brought her House to ruin, and Lyonford couldn't keep his temper if challenged. Each and every one was a great monarch. And all had their share of Weaknesses.”

Perrin continued to chew on his food, thoughtful.

„In the Borderlands,” Faile said, „we have a saying. 'A polished sword reflects the truth.' A man can claim to be diligent in his duties, but if his sword isn't polished, you know that he's been idle.

„Well, your sword is bright, my husband. These last few weeks, you keep saying that you led poorly during my captivity. You'd have me believe that you led the entire camp to ruin and dust! But that's not true at all You kept them focused; you inspired them, maintained a strong presence and kept the air of a lord.”

„Berelain's behind some of that,” he said. „I half think the woman would have bathed me herself if I'd gone another day without.”

„I'm certain that wouldn't have been good for the rumors,” Faile noted dryly.

„Faile, I—”

„I'll deal with Berelain,” Faile said. Her voice sounded dangerous. „That's one duty you needn't distract yourself with.”

„But—”

„I'll deal with her,” Faile said, her voice more firm. It was not wise to challenge her when she smelled that way, not unless he wanted to start a full argument. She softened, taking another bite of barley. „When I said you were like a wolf, my husband, I wasn't talking about the way you eat. I was talking about the way you give your attention. You are driven. Given a problem to solve, no matter how grand, and you will see it done.

„Can't you understand? That's a wonderful trait in a leader- It is exactly what the Two Rivers will need. Assuming, of course, that you have a wife to care for some of the smaller issues.” She frowned. „I wish you'd spoken to me about the banner before burning it. It will be difficult to raise it again without looking foolish.”

„I don't want to raise it again,” Perrin said. „That's why I had them burn it.”

„But why?”

He took another bite of his ham, pointedly not watching her. She smelled curious, almost desperately so.

I can't lead them, he thought. Not until I know if I can master the wolf How could he explain? Explain that he feared the way it took control when he fought, when he wanted something too badly?

He would not rid himself of the wolves; they had become too much a part of him. But where would he leave his people, where would he leave Faile, if he lost himself to what was inside of him?

He again remembered a dirty creature, once a man, locked in a cage-There is nothing left in this one that remembers being a man...

„My husband,” Faile said, resting a hand on his arm. „Please.” She smelled of pain. That twisted his heart about. „It has to do with those Whitecloaks,” Perrin said. „What? Perrin, I thought I said—”

„It has to do,” Perrin said firmly, „with what happened to me the first time I met with them. And what I'd begun to discover in the days before.” Faile frowned. „I've told you that I killed two Whitecloaks,” he said. „Before I met you.”

„Yes.”

„Settle back,” he said. „You need to know the whole story.” And so he told her. Hesitantly at first, but the words soon grew easier. He spoke of Shadar Logoth, and of their group being scattered. Of Egwene letting him take the lead, perhaps the first time he'd been forced to do that.

He'd already told her of his meeting with Elyas. She knew much about Perrin, things that he'd never told anyone else, things he'd never even spoken of with Elyas. She knew about the wolf. She knew that he feared he'd lose himself.

But she didn't know what he felt in battle. She didn't know what it had felt like to kill those Whitecloaks, to taste their blood—either in his own mouth, or through his link with the wolves. She didn't know what it had been like to be consumed by anger, fear and desperation when she'd been taken. These were the things he haltingly explained.

He told her of the frenzy he'd gone into when searching for her in the wolf dream. He spoke of Noam and what he feared would happen to him. And of how it related to how he acted when he fought.

Faile listened, sitting quietly atop the hilltop, arms wrapped around her legs, lit by candlelight. Her scents were subdued. Perhaps he should have held some things back. No woman wanted to know what a beast her husband became when he killed, did she? But now that he was speaking, he wanted to be rid of his secrets. He was tired of them.

Each word spoken made him relax more. It did what the meal— touching though it had been—hadn't been able to. In telling her of his struggles, he felt some of his burden lift.

He finished by speaking of Hopper. He wasn't certain why he'd saved the wolf for last; Hopper was part of much Perrin had told before—the Whitecloaks, the wolf dream. But it felt right to reserve Hopper until the end, so he did.

As he finished, he stared at the flame of one of the candles. Two of them had gone out, leaving others still to flicker. That wasn't dim light to his eyes. He had trouble remembering what the days had been like when his senses had been as weak as an ordinary man's.

Faile leaned against him, wrapping his arm around her. „Thank you” she said.

He let out a deep sigh, leaning back against the stump behind him, feeling her warmth.

„I want to tell you about Maiden,” she said.

„You don't have to,” he said. „Just because I—”

„Hush. I was quiet while you spoke. It's my turn.”

„All right.”

It should have been worrying for him to hear about Maiden. He lay with his back to the stump, sky crackling with energy above, the Pattern itself in danger of unraveling, while his wife spoke of being captured and beaten. Yet it was one of the most oddly relaxing things he'd ever experienced.

The events in that city had been important to her, maybe even good for her. Though he was angered at hearing how Sevanna had trussed Faile up naked and left her overnight. Someday he'd hunt that woman down.

Not today, however. Today he had his wife in his arms, and her strong voice was a comfort. He should have realized she would have planned her own escape. In fact, listening to her careful preparation, he began to feel a fool. She'd been worried that he'd get himself killed trying to rescue her— she didn't say it, but he could infer it. How well she knew him.

Faile left some things out. He didn't mind. Faile would be like a penned and caged animal without her secrets. He got a good hint of what she was hiding, though. It was something to do with that Brotherless who had captured her, something about Faile's plans to trick the man and his friends into helping her escape. Perhaps she'd felt a fondness for him, and didn't wish Perrin to regret killing him. That wasn't necessary. Those Brotherless had been with the Shaido, and they had attacked and killed men under Perrin's protection. No act of kindness would redeem that. They deserved their deaths.

That gave him pause. The Whitecloaks probably said very similar things about him. But the Whitecloaks had attacked first.

She finished. It was very late, now, and Perrin reached over to a bundle that Faile's servants had brought up, pulling out a blanket.

„Well?” Faile asked as he settled back, putting his arm around her again.

„I'm surprised that you didn't give me an earful for barreling in like a wild bull and stomping all over your plans.”

That made her smell satisfied. It wasn't the emotion he'd expected, but he'd long ago stopped trying to decipher the ways of women's thought.

„I almost brought the matter up tonight,” Faile said, „so that we could have a proper argument and a proper reconciliation.”

„Why didn't you?”

„I decided that this night should be done in the Two Rivers way.”

„And you think husbands and wives don't argue in the Two Rivers?” he asked, amused.

„Well, perhaps they do. But you, husband, always seem uncomfortable when we yell. I'm very glad you've begun to stand up for yourself, as is proper. But I have asked much from you to adapt to my ways. I thought, tonight, I would try to adapt to yours.”

Those were words that he had never expected to hear from Faile. It seemed the most personal thing she could ever have given him. Embarrassingly, he felt tears in his eyes, and he pulled her tight.

„Now,” she said, „I'm not a docile sheep, mind you.”

„I would never think that,” he said. „Never.”

She smelled satisfied.

„I'm sorry I didn't give much thought to you escaping on your own,” Perrin said.

„I forgive you.”

He looked down at her, those beautiful dark eyes reflecting the candlelight. „Does this mean we can have the reconciliation without the argument?”

She smiled. „I will allow it, this once. And, of course, the servants have strict orders to ensure our solitude.”

He kissed her. It felt so very right, and he knew that the worries he'd had—and the awkwardness that had been between them since Maiden— were gone. Whether it had been something real or something he imagined, it had passed.

He had Faile back, truly and completely.

CHAPTER 17
Partings, and a Meeting

The morning after the gholam attack, Mat woke from dreams rotten as last month's eggs, feeling stiff and aching. He had spent the night sleeping in a hollow he'd found beneath Aludra's supply wagon. He had chosen the location by random chance, using his dice.

He climbed out from under the wagon, standing and rolling his shoulder, feeling it pop. Bloody ashes. One of the best things about having money was not having to sleep in ditches. There were beggars who spent nights better than this.

The wagon smelled of sulphur and powders. He was tempted to peek under the oiled tarp that stretched over the back of, but there would be no point. Aludra and her powders were incomprehensible. So long as the dragons performed, Mat did not mind not knowing how they worked. Well, he did not mind it much. Not enough to risk irritating her.

She was not there at the wagon, fortunately for Mat. She would complain at him again for not having gotten her a bellfounder. She seemed to think him her own personal messenger boy. An unruly one, who refused to do his job properly. Most women had moments like that.

He walked through camp, brushing bits of straw from his hair. He almost went searching for Lopin to have him draw a bath, until he remembered that Lopin was dead. Bloody ashes! Poor man.

Thinking about poor Lopin put Mat in an even more dour mood as he walked toward where he'd find some breakfast. Juilin found him first. The short Tairen thief-catcher wore his flat-topped conical hat and dark blue „Mat,” he said. „Is it true? You've given permission for the Aes Sedai to go back to the Tower?”

„They didn't need my permission,” Mat said, wincing. If the women heard it said that way, they would tan his hide and make saddle leather from it. „I'm planning to give them horses, though.”

„They have them already,” Juilin said, looking in the direction of the picket lines. „Said you gave them permission.”

Mat sighed. His stomach growled, but food would have to wait. He walked toward the picket lines; he would need to make sure the Aes Sedai did not make off with his best stock.

„I've been thinking I might go with them,” Juilin said, joining Mat. „Take Thera to Tar Valon.”

„You're welcome to leave any time,” Mat said. „I won't hold you here.” Juilin was a good enough fellow. A little stiff at times. Well, very stiff. Juilin could make a Whitecloak look relaxed. He was not the type you wanted to take with you dicing; he would spend the night scowling at everyone in the tavern and muttering about the crimes they had certainly committed. But he was reliable, and a good hand to have in a pinch.

„I want to get back to Tear,” Juilin said. „But the Seanchan would be so close, and Thera ... It worries her. She doesn't much like the idea of Tar Valon either, but we don't have many choices, and the Aes Sedai promised that if I came with them, they'd get me work in Tar Valon.”

„So, this is parting, then?” Mat said, stopping and turning to him.

„For now,” Juilin said. He hesitated, then held out his hand. Mat took it and shook, and then the thief-catcher was off to gather his things and his woman.

Mat thought for a moment, then changed his mind and headed for the cook tent. Juilin would slow the Aes Sedai, probably, and he wanted to fetch something.

A short time later, he arrived at the picket lines fed and carrying a cloth-wrapped bundle under his arm. The Aes Sedai had, of course, created an inordinately large caravan out of some of his best horses. Teslyn and Joline also seemed to have decided they could commandeer some pack ani-mals and some soldiers to do the loading. Mat sighed and walked into the mess, checking over the horses.

Joline sat on Moonglow, a mare of Tairen stock that had belonged to one of the men Mat had lost in the fighting to escape the Seanchan. The more reserved Edesina had mounted Firewisp, and was glancing occasion-ally at two women who stood to the side. Dark-skinned Bethamin and pale, yellow-haired Seta were former sul'dam.

The Seanchan women tried very hard to look aloof as the group gath-ered. Mat sauntered up to them.

„Highness,” Seta said, „it is true? You're going to allow these to roam free of you?”

„Best to be rid of them,” Mat said, wincing at her choice of titles for him. Did they have to throw around such words that like they were wooden pennies? Anyway, the two Seanchan women had changed a great deal since beginning with the group, but they still seemed to find it odd that Mat did not wish to use the Aes Sedai as weapons. „Do you want to go, or do you want to stay?”

„We will go,” Bethamin said firmly. She was determined to learn, it seemed, „Yes,” Seta said, „though I sometimes think it might be better to simply let us die, as opposed to... Well, what we are, what we represent, means that we are a danger to the Empire.”

Mat nodded. „Tuon is a sul'dam” he said.

The two women looked down.

„Go with the Aes Sedai,” Mat said. „I'll give you your own horses, so you don't have to rely on them. Learn to channel. That'll be more use than dying. Maybe someday you two can convince Tuon of the truth. Help me find a way to fix this without causing the Empire to collapse.”

The two women looked to him, more firm and confident, suddenly. „Yes, Highness,” Bethamin said. „It is a good purpose for us to have. Thank you, Highness.”

Seta actually got tears in her eyes! Light, what did they think he had just promised them? Mat retreated before they could get any more odd ideas in their heads. Flaming women. Still, he could not help feeling sorry for them. Learning that they could channel, worrying they might be a danger to everyone around them.

That's bow Rand felt, Mat thought. Poor fool. As always, the colors swirled when he thought of Rand. He tried not to do it too often, and before he could banish those colors, he caught a glimpse of Rand shaving in a fine, gilded mirror hanging in a beautiful bathing chamber.

Mat gave some orders to get the sul'dam horses, then he walked over toward the Aes Sedai. Thom had arrived and he strolled over. „Light, Mat,” he said. „You look like you tangled with a briarstitch patch and came out sore.

Mat raised a hand to his hair, which was probably a real sight. „I lived the night, and the Aes Sedai are leaving. I've half a mind to dance a jig at that.” 'Thom snorted. „Did you know those two were going to be here?”

„The sul'dam? I figured.”

„No, those two.” He pointed.

Mat turned, frowning as he found Leilwin and Bayle Domon riding their possessions were rolled up on the backs of their horses. Leilwin—then known as Egeanin—had once been a Seanchan noblewoman, but Tuon had stripped her name away. She wore a dress with divided skirts of muted gray. Her short dark hair had grown out, and hung over her ears.

She climbed from her saddle and stalked in Mat's direction.

„Burn me,” Mat said to Thom, „if I can be rid of her, too, I'll almost start thinking that life has turned fair on me.”

Domon followed her as they approached. He was her so'jhin. Or... could he still be so'jhin, now that she had no title? Well, either way, he was her husband. The Illianer was thick of girth, and strong. He was not too bad a fellow, except when he was around Leilwin. Which was always.

„Cauthon,” she said, stepping up to him.

„Leilwin,” he replied. „You're leaving?”

„Yes.”

Mat smiled. He really was going to do that dance!

„I always intended to make my way to the White Tower,” she continued. „I set my mind there on the day I left Ebou Dar. If the Aes Sedai are leaving, I will go with them. A ship is always wise to join a convoy, when the right opportunity is presented.”

„Too bad to see you go,” Mat lied, tipping his hat to her. Leilwin was as tough as a hundred-year oak stuck with bits of axe left over from the men foolish enough to try to chop it down. If her horse threw a shoe on the road to Tar Valon, she would likely sling the animal over her shoulder and carry it the rest of the way.

But she did not like Mat, for all he had done to save her skin. Maybe it was because he had not let her take charge, or maybe because she had been forced act like his lover. Well, he had not enjoyed that part either. It had been like holding a sword by the blade and pretending that it did not sting.

Though it had been fun to watch her squirm.

„Be well, Matrim Cauthon,” Leilwin said. „I don't envy the place you've put yourself in. In some ways, I think the winds that carry you may actu-ally be rougher than the ones which have buffeted me, recently.” She nodded to him, then turned to go.

Domon reached over, laying a hand on Mat's arm. „You did do as you said. By my aged grandmother! You gave a bumpy ride of it, but you did do as you said. My thanks.”

The two of them moved off. Mat shook his head, waving to Thom and strolling over to the Aes Sedai. „Teslyn,” Mat said. „Edesina. Joline. All ' well?”

„It is,” Joline said.

„Good, good,” Mat said. „You have sufficient pack animals?”

„They will do, Master Cauthon,” Joline said. Then, covering a wince she added, „Thank you for giving them to us.”

Mat smiled broadly. My, but it was amusing to hear her trying to acr respectful! She had obviously expected Elayne to welcome her and the others with open arms, not turn them away from the palace without an audience.

Joline eyed Mat, lush lips pressed together. „I would liked to have tamed you, Cauthon,” she said. „I've still half a mind to return someday and see the job done properly.”

„I'll wait breathlessly for that, then,” he said, taking the cloth-wrapped package from under his arm. He handed it up to her.

„What is this?” she asked, not reaching for it.

Mat shook the bundle. „Parting gift,” he said. „Where I come from, you never let a traveler depart without giving her something for the road. It would be rude.”

Reluctantly, she accepted it and peeked inside. She was obviously surprised to find that it contained a collection of about a dozen powdered sweetbuns. „Thank you,” she said, frowning.

„I'm sending soldiers with you,” Mat said. „They'll bring my horses back once you arrive in Tar Valon.”