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

Wheel of Time • 14 • A Memory of Light

Robert Jordan


WHEEL OF TIME
Book Fourteen
A MEMORY OF LIGHT

Robert JORDAN and Brandon SANDERSON

For Harriet,
the light of Mr. Jordan's life,
and for Emily,
the light of mine.

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And the Shadow fell upon the Land, and the World was riven stone from stone. The oceans fled, and the mountains were swallowed up, and the nations were scattered to the eight corners of the World. The moon was as blood, and the sun was as ashes. The seas boiled, and the living envied the dead. All was shattered, and all but memory lost, and one memory above all others, of him who brought the Shadow and the Breaking of the World. And him they named Dragon.

—from Aleth nin Taerin alt a Camora,
The Breaking of the World.
Author unknown, the Fourth Age.

—  —

PROLOGUE
By Grace and Banners Fallen

Bayrd pressed the coin between his thumb and forefinger. It was thoroughly unnerving to feel the metal squish.

He removed his thumb. The hard copper now clearly bore its print, reflecting the uncertain torchlight. He felt chilled, as if he’d spent an entire night in a cellar.

His stomach growled. Again.

The north wind picked up, making torches sputter. Bayrd sat with his back to a large rock near the center of the war camp. Hungry men muttered as they warmed their hands around firepits; the rations had spoiled long ago. Other soldiers nearby began laying all of their metal—swords, armor clasps, mail—on the ground, like linen to be dried. Perhaps they hoped that when the sun rose, it would change the material back to normal.

Bayrd rolled the once-coin into a ball between his fingers. Light preserve us, he thought. Light... He dropped the ball to the grass, then reached over and picked up the stones he’d been working with.

“I want to know what happened here, Karam,” Lord Jarid snapped. Jarid and his advisors stood nearby in front of a table draped with maps. “I want to know how they drew so close, and I want that bloody Darkfriend Aes Sedai queen’s head!” Jarid pounded his fist down on the table. Once, his eyes hadn’t displayed such a crazed fervor. The pressure of it all—the lost rations, the strange things in the nights—was changing him.

Behind Jarid, the command tent lay in a heap. Jarid’s hair—grown long during their exile—blew free, face bathed in ragged torchlight. Bits of dead grass still clung to his coat from when he’d crawled out of the tent.

Baffled servants picked at the iron tent spikes, which—like all metal in the camp—had become soft to the touch. The tent’s mounting rings had stretched and snapped like warm wax.

The night smelled wrong. Of staleness, of rooms that hadn’t been entered in years. The air of a forest clearing should not smell like ancient dust. Bayrd’s stomach growled again. Light, but he would’ve liked to have something to eat. He set his attention on his work, slapping one of his stones down against the other.

He held the stones as his old pappil had taught him as a boy. The feeling of stone striking stone helped push away the hunger and coldness. At least something was still solid in this world.

Lord Jarid glanced at him, scowling. Bayrd was one of ten men Jarid had insisted guard him this night. “I will have Elayne’s head, Karam,” Jarid said, turning back to his captains. “This unnatural night is the work of her witches.”

“Her head?” Eri’s skeptical voice came from the side. “And how, precisely, is someone going to bring you her head?”

Lord Jarid turned, as did the others around the torchlit table. Eri stared at the sky; on his shoulder, he wore the mark of the golden boar charging before a red spear. It was the mark of Lord Jarid’s personal guard, but Eri’s voice bore little respect. “What’s he going to use to cut that head free, Jarid? His teeth?”

The camp stilled at the horribly insubordinate line. Bayrd stopped his stones, hesitating. Yes, there had been talk about how unhinged Lord Jarid had become. But this?

Jarid sputtered, face growing red with rage. “You dare use such a tone with me? One of my own guards?”

Eri continued inspecting the cloud-filled sky.

“You’re docked two months’ pay,” Jarid snapped, but his voice trembled. “Stripped of rank and put on latrine duty until further notice. If you speak back to me again, I’ll cut out your tongue.”

Bayrd shivered in the cold wind. Eri was the best they had in what was left of their rebel army. The other guards shuffled, looking down.

Eri looked toward the lord and smiled. He didn’t say a word, but somehow, he didn’t have to. Cut out his tongue? Every scrap of metal in the camp had gone soft as lard. Jarid’s own knife lay on the table, twisted and warped—it had stretched thin as he pulled it from his sheath. Jarid’s coat flapped, open; it had had silver buttons.

“Jarid... ” Karam said. A young lord of a minor house loyal to Sarand, he had a lean face and large lips. “Do you really think... really think this was the work of Aes Sedai? All of the metal in the camp?

“Of course,” Jarid barked. “What else would it be? Don’t tell me you believe those campfire tales. The Last Battle? Phaw.” He looked back at the table. Unrolled there, with pebbles weighting the corners, was a map of Andor.

Bayrd turned back to his stones. Snap, snap, snap. Slate and granite. It had taken work to find suitable sections of each, but Pappil had taught Bayrd to recognize all kinds of stone. The old man had felt betrayed when Bayrd’s father had gone off and become a butcher in the city, instead of keeping to the family trade.

Soft, smooth slate. Bumpy, ridged granite. Yes, some things in the world were still solid. Some few things. These days, you couldn’t rely on much. Once immovable lords were now soft as... well, soft as metal. The sky churned with blackness, and brave men—men Bayrd had long looked up to—trembled and whimpered in the night.

“I’m worried, Jarid,” Davies said. An older man, Lord Davies was as close as anyone was to being Jarid’s confidant. “We haven’t seen anyone in days. Not farmer, not queen’s soldier. Something is happening. Something wrong.”

“She cleared the people out,” Jarid snarled. “She’s preparing to pounce.”

“I think she’s ignoring us, Jarid,” Karam said, looking at the sky. Clouds still churned there. It seemed like months since Bayrd had seen a clear sky. “Why would she bother? Our men are starving. The food continues to spoil. The signs—”

“She’s trying to squeeze us,” Jarid said, eyes wide with fervor. “This is the work of the Aes Sedai.”

Stillness came suddenly to the camp. Silence, save for Bayrd’s stones. He’d never felt right as a butcher, but he’d found a home in his lord’s guard. Cutting up cows or cutting up men, the two were strikingly similar. It bothered him how easily he’d shifted from one to the other.

Snap, snap, snap.

Eri turned. Jarid eyed the guard suspiciously, as if ready to scream out harsher punishment.

He wasn't always this bad, was he? Bayrd thought. He wanted the throne for his wife, but what lord wouldn’t? It was hard to look past the name. Bayrd’s family had followed the Sarand family with reverence for generations.

Eri strode away from the command post.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Jarid howled.

Eri reached to his shoulder and ripped free the badge of the Sarand house guard. He tossed it aside and left the torchlight, heading into the night toward the winds from the north.

Most men in the camp hadn’t gone to sleep. They sat around firepits, wanting to be near warmth and light. A few with clay pots tried boiling cuts of grass, leaves, or strips of leather as something, anything, to eat.

They stood up to watch Eri go.

“Deserter,” Jarid spat. ‘After all we’ve been through, now he leaves. Just because things are difficult.”

“The men are starving, Jarid,” Davies repeated.

“I’m aware. Thank you so much for telling me about the problems with every bloody breath you have” Jarid wiped his brow with his trembling palm, then slammed it on his map. “We’ll have to strike one of the cities; there’s no running from her, not now that she knows where we are. Whitebridge. We’ll take it and resupply. Her Aes Sedai must be weakened after the stunt they pulled tonight, otherwise she’d have attacked.”

Bayrd squinted into the darkness. Other men were standing, lifting quarterstaffs or cudgels. Some went without weapons. They gathered sleeping rolls, hoisted packs of clothing to their shoulders. Then they began to trail out of the camp, their passage silent, like the movement of ghosts. No rattling of chain mail or buckles on armor. The metal was all gone. As if the soul had been stripped from it.

“Elayne doesn’t dare move against us in strength,” Jarid said, perhaps convincing himself. “There must be strife in Caemlyn. All of those mercenaries you reported, Shiv. Riots, maybe. Elenia will be working against Elayne, of course. Whitebridge. Yes, Whitebridge will be perfect.

“We hold it, you see, and cut the nation in half. We recruit there, press the men in western Andor to our banner. Go to... what’s the place called? The Two Rivers. We should find able hands there.” Jarid sniffed. “I hear they haven’t seen a lord for decades. Give me four months, and I’ll have an army to be reckoned with. Enough that she won’t dare strike at us with her witches... ”

Bayrd held his stone up to the torchlight. The trick to creating a good spearhead was to start outward and work your way in. He’d drawn the proper shape with chalk on the slate, then had worked toward the center to finish the shape. From there, you turned from hitting to tapping, shaving off smaller bits.

He’d finished one side earlier; this second half was almost done. He could almost hear his pappil whispering to him. We’re of the stone, Bayrd. No matter what your father says. Deep down, we’re of the stone.

More soldiers left the camp. Strange, how few of them spoke. Jarid finally noticed. He stood up straight and grabbed one of the torches, holding it high. “What are they doing? Hunting? WeVe seen no game in weeks. Setting snares, perhaps?”

Nobody replied.

“Maybe they’ve seen something,” Jarid muttered. “Or maybe they think they have. I’ll stand no more talk of spirits or other foolery; the witches are creating apparitions to unnerve us. That’s... that’s what it has to be.”

Rustling came from nearby. Karam was digging in his fallen tent. He came up with a small bundle.

“Karam?” Jarid said.

Karam glanced at Lord Jarid, then lowered his eyes and began to tie a coin pouch at his waist. He stopped and laughed, then emptied it. The gold coins inside had melted into a single lump, like pigs’ ears in a jar. Karam pocketed this lump. He fished in the pouch and brought out a ring. The blood-red gemstone at the center was still good. “Probably won’t be enough to buy an apple, these days,” he muttered.

“I demand to know what you are doing,” Jarid snarled. “Is this your doing?” He waved toward the departing soldiers. “You’re staging a mutiny, is that it?”

“This isn’t my doing,” Karam said, looking ashamed. “And it’s not really yours, either. I’m... I’m sorry.”

Karam walked away from the torchlight. Bayrd found himself surprised. Lord Karam and Lord Jarid had been friends from childhood.

Lord Davies went next, running after Karam. Was he going to try to hold the younger man back? No, he fell into step beside Karam. They vanished into the darkness.

“I’ll have you hunted down for this!” Jarid yelled after them, voice shrill. Frantic. “I will be consort to the Queen! No man will give you, or any member of your Houses, shelter or succor for ten generations!”

Bayrd looked back at the stone in his hand. Only one step left, the smoothing. A good spearhead needed some smoothing to be dangerous. He brought out another piece of granite he’d picked up for the purpose and carefully began scraping it along the side of the slate.

Seems I remember this better than I'd expected, he thought as Lord Jarid continued to rant.

There was something powerful about crafting the spearhead. The simple act seemed to push back the gloom. There had been a shadow on Bayrd, and the rest of the camp, lately. As if... as if he couldn’t stand in the light no matter how he tried. He woke each morning feeling as if someone he’d loved had died the day before.

It could crush you, that despair. But the act of creating something— anything—fought back. That was one way to challenge... him. The one none of them spoke of. The one that they all knew was behind it, no matter what Lord Jarid said.

Bayrd stood up. He’d want to do more smoothing later, but the spearhead actually looked good. He raised his wooden spear haft—the metal blade had fallen free when evil had struck the camp—and lashed the new spearhead in place, just as his pappil had taught him all those years ago.

The other guards were looking at him. “We’ll need more of those,” Morear said. “If you’re willing.”

Bayrd nodded. “On our way out, we can stop by the hillside where I found the slate.”

Jarid finally stopped yelling, his eyes wide in the torchlight. “No. You are my personal guard. You will not defy me!”

Jarid jumped for Bayrd, murder in his eyes, but Morear and Rosse caught the lord from behind. Rosse looked aghast at his own mutinous act. He didn’t let go, though.

Bayrd fished a few things out from beside his bedroll. After that, he nodded to the others, and they joined him—eight men of Lord Jarid’s personal guard, dragging the sputtering lord himself through the remnants of camp. They passed smoldering fires and fallen tents, abandoned by men who were trailing out into the darkness in greater numbers now, heading north. Into the wind.

At the edge of camp, Bayrd selected a nice, stout tree. He waved to the others, and they took the rope he’d fetched and tied Lord Jarid to the tree. The man sputtered until Morear gagged him with a handkerchief.

Bayrd stepped in close. He tucked a waterskin into the crook of Jarid's arm. “Don’t struggle too much or you’ll drop that, my Lord. You should be able to push the gag off—it doesn’t look too tight—and angle the waterskin up to drink. Here, I’ll take out the cork.”

Jarid stared thunder at Bayrd.

“It’s not about you, my Lord,” Bayrd said. “You always treated my family well. But, here, we can’t have you following along and making life difficult. There’s just something that we need to do, and you’re stopping everyone from doing it. Maybe someone should have said something earlier. Well, that’s done. Sometimes, you let the meat hang too long, and the entire haunch has to go.”

He nodded to the others, who ran off to gather bedrolls. He pointed Rosse toward the slate outcropping nearby and told him what to look for in good spearhead stone.

Bayrd turned back to the struggling Lord Jarid. “This isn’t witches, my Lord. This isn’t Elayne... I suppose I should call her the Queen. Funny, thinking of a pretty young thing like that as queen. I’d rather have bounced her on my knee at an inn than bow to her, but Andor will need a ruler to follow to the Last Battle, and it isn’t your wife. I’m sorry.”

Jarid sagged in his bonds, the anger seeming to bleed from him. He was weeping now. Odd thing to see, that.

“I’ll tell people we pass—if we pass any—where you are,” Bayrd promised, “and that you probably have some jewels on you. They might come for you. They might.” He hesitated. “You shouldn’t have stood in the way. Everyone seems to know what is coming but you. The Dragon is reborn, old bonds are broken, old oaths done away with... and I’ll be hanged before I let Andor march to the Last Battle without me.”

Bayrd left, walking into the night, raising his new spear onto his shoulder. I have an oath older than the one to your family, anyway. An oath the Dragon himself couldn’t undo. It was an oath to the land. The stones were in his blood, and his blood in the stones of this Andor.

Bayrd gathered the others and they left for the north. Behind them in the night, their lord whimpered, alone, as the ghosts began to move through camp.

—  —

Talmanes tugged on Selfar’s reins, making the horse dance and shake his head. The roan seemed eager. Perhaps Selfar sensed his master’s anxious mood.

The night air was thick with smoke. Smoke and screams. Talmanes marched the Band alongside a road clogged with refugees smudged with soot. They moved like flotsam in a muddy river.

The men of the Band eyed the refugees with worry. “Steady!” Talmanes shouted to them. “We can’t sprint all the way to Caemlyn. Steady!” He marched the men as quickly as he dared, nearly at a jog. Their armor clanked. Elayne had taken half of the Band with her to the Field of Merrilor, including Estean and most of the cavalry. Perhaps she had anticipated needing to withdraw quickly.

Well, Talmanes wouldn’t have much use for cavalry in the streets, which were no doubt as clogged as this roadway. Selfar snorted and shook his head. They were close now; the city walls just ahead—black in the night—held in an angry light. It was as if the city were a firepit.

By grace and banners fallen, Talmanes thought with a shiver. Enormous clouds of smoke billowed over the city. This was bad. Far worse than when the Aiel had come for Cairhien.

Talmanes finally gave Selfar his head. The roan galloped along the side of the road for a time; then Talmanes reluctantly forced his way across, ignoring pleas for help. Time he’d spent with Mat made him wish there were more he could offer these people. It was downright strange, the effect Mat-rim Cauthon had on a person. Talmanes looked at common folk in a very different light now. Perhaps it was because he still didn’t rightly know whether to think of Mat as a lord or not.

On the other side of the road, he surveyed the burning city, waiting for his men to catch up. He could have mounted all of them—though they weren’t trained cavalry, every man in the Band had a horse for long-distance travel. Tonight, he didn’t dare. With Trollocs and Myrddraal lurking in the streets, Talmanes needed his men in immediate fighting shape. Crossbowmen marched with loaded weapons at the flanks of deep columns of pike-men. He would not leave his soldiers open to a Trolloc charge, no matter how urgent their mission.

But if they lost those dragons...

Light illumine us, Talmanes thought. The city seemed to be boiling, with all that smoke churning above. Yet some parts of the Inner City— rising high on the hill and visible over the walls—were not yet aflame. The Palace wasn’t on fire yet. Could the soldiers there be holding?

No word had come from the Queen, and from what Talmanes could see, no help had arrived for the city. The Queen must still be unaware, and that was bad.

Very, very bad.

Ahead, Talmanes spotted Sandip with some of the Band’s scouts. The slender man was trying to extricate himself from a group of refugees.

“Please, good master,” one young woman was crying. “My child, my daughter, in the heights of the northern march...

“I must reach my shop!” a stout man bellowed. “My glasswares—”

“My good people,” Talmanes said, forcing his horse among them, “I should think that if you want us to help, you might wish to back away and allow us to reach the bloody city.”

The refugees reluctantly pulled back, and Sandip nodded to Talmanes in thanks. Tan-skinned and dark-haired, Sandip was one of the Band’s commanders and an accomplished hedge-doctor. The affable man wore a grim expression today, however.

“Sandip,” Talmanes said, pointing, “there.”

In the near distance, a large group of fighting men clustered, looking at the city.

“Mercenaries,” Sandip said with a grunt. “We’ve passed several batches of them. Not a one seemed inclined to lift a finger.”

“We shall see about that,” Talmanes said. People still flooded out through the city gates, coughing, clutching meager possessions, leading crying children. That flow would not soon slacken. Caemlyn was as full as an inn on market day; the ones lucky enough to be escaping would be only a small fraction compared to those still inside.

“Talmanes,” Sandip said quietly, “that city’s going to become a death trap soon. There aren’t enough ways out. If we let the Band become pinned inside...”

“I know. But—”

At the gates a wave of feeling surged through the refugees. It was almost a physical thing, a shudder. The screams grew more intense. Talmanes spun; hulking figures moved in the shadows inside the gate.

“Light!” Sandip said. “What is it?”

“Trollocs Talmanes said, turning Selfar. “Light! They’re going to try to seize the gate, stop the refugees.” There were five gates out of the city; if the Trollocs held all of them...

This was already a slaughter. If the Trollocs could stop the frightened people from fleeing, it would grow far worse.

“Hurry the ranks!” Talmanes yelled. “All men to the city gates!” He spurred Selfar into a gallop.

—  —

The building would have been called an inn elsewhere, though Isam had never seen anyone inside except for the dull-eyed women who tended the few drab rooms and prepared tasteless meals. Visits here were never for comfort. He sat on a hard stool at a pine table so worn with age, it had likely grayed long before Isam’s birth. He refrained from touching the surface overly much, lest he come away with more splinters than an Aiel had spears.

Isam’s dented tin cup was filled with a dark liquid, though he wasn’t drinking. He sat beside the wall, near enough the inn’s single window to watch the dirt street outside, dimly lit in the evening by a few rusty lanterns hung outside buildings. Isam took care not to let his profile show through the smeared glass. He never looked directly out. It was always best not to attract attention in the Town.

That was the only name the place had, if it could be said to have a name at all. The sprawling ramshackle buildings had been put up and replaced countless times over two thousand years. It actually resembled a good-sized town, if you squinted. Most of the buildings had been constructed by prisoners, often with little or no knowledge of the craft. They’d been supervised by men equally ignorant. A fair number of the houses seemed held up by those to either side of them.

Sweat dribbled down the side of Isam’s face, as he covertly watched that street. Which one would come for him?

In the distance, he could barely make out the profile of a mountain splitting the night sky. Metal rasped against metal somewhere out in the Town like steel heartbeats. Figures moved on the street. Men, heavily cloaked and hooded, with faces hidden up to the eyes behind blood-red veils.

Isam was careful not to let his eyes linger on them.

Thunder rumbled. The slopes of that mountain were filled with odd lightning bolts that struck upward toward the ever-present gray clouds. Few humans knew of this Town not so far from the valley of Thakan'dar, with Shayol Ghul itself looming above. Few knew rumors of its existence. Isam would not have minded being among the ignorant.

Another of the men passed. Red veils. They kept them up always. Well, almost always. If you saw one lower his veil, it was time to kill him. Because if you didn’t, he’d kill you. Most of the red-veiled men seemed to have no reason to be out, beyond scowling at each other and perhaps kicking at the numerous stray dogs--slat-ribbed and feral—whenever one crossed their path. The few women who had left shelter scuttled along the edges of the street, eyes lowered. There were no children to be seen, and likely few to be found. The Town was no place for children. Isam knew. He had grown from infancy here.

One of the men passing on the street looked up at Isam’s window and stopped. Isam went very still. The Samma N’Sei, the Eye Blinders, had always been touchy and full of pride. No, touchy was too mild a term. They required no more than whim to take a knife to one of the Talentless. Usually it was one of the servants who paid. Usually.

The red-veiled man continued to regard him. Isam stilled his nerves and did not make a show of staring back. His summons here had been urgent, and one did not ignore such things if one wished to live. But still... if the man took one step toward the building, Isam would slip into Tel’ararirhiod, secure in the knowledge that not even one of the Chosen could follow him from here.

Abruptly the Samma N’Sei turned from the window. In a flash he was moving away from the building, striding quickly. Isam felt some of his tension melt away, though it would never truly leave him, not in this place. This place was not home, despite his childhood here. This place was death.

Motion. Isam glanced toward the end of the street. Another tall man, in a black coat and cloak, was walking toward him, his face exposed. Incredibly, the street was emptying as Samma N’Sei darted off down other streets and alleys.

So it was Moridin. Isam had not been there to witness the Chosen’s first visit to the Town, but he had heard. The Samma N’Sei had thought Moridin one of the Talentless until he demonstrated differently. The constraints that held them did not hold him.

The numbers of dead Samma N’Sei varied with the telling, but the claim never dipped below a dozen. By the evidence of his eyes, Isam could believe it.

When Moridin reached the inn, the street was empty save for the dogs. And Moridin walked right on past. Isam watched as closely as he dared. Moridin seemed uninterested in him or the inn, which was where Isam had been instructed to wait. Perhaps the Chosen had other business, and Isam would be an afterthought.

After Moridin passed, Isam finally took a sip of his dark drink. The locals just called it “fire.” It lived up to its name. It was supposedly related to some drink from the Waste. Like everything else in the Town, it was a corrupt version of the original.

How long was Moridin going to make him wait? Isam didn’t like being here. It reminded him too much of his childhood. A servant passed—a woman with a dress so frayed that it was practically rags—and dropped a plate onto the table. The two didn’t exchange a word.

Isam looked at his meal. Vegetables—peppers and onions, mostly— sliced thin and boiled. He picked at one and took a taste, then sighed and pushed the meal aside. The vegetables were as bland as unseasoned millet porridge. There wasn’t any meat. That was actually good; he didn’t like to eat meat unless he’d seen it killed and slaughtered himself. That was a remnant of his childhood. If you hadn’t seen it slaughtered yourself, you couldn’t know. Not for certain. Up here, if you found meat, it could have been something that had been caught in the south, or maybe an animal that had been raised up here, a cow or a goat.

Or it could be something else. People lost games up here and couldn’t pay, then disappeared. And often, the Samma N’Sei who didn’t breed true washed out of their training. Bodies vanished. Corpses rarely lasted long enough for burial.

Burn this place, Isam thought, stomach unsettled. Burn it with

Someone entered the inn. He couldn’t watch both approaches to the door from this direction, unfortunately. She was a pretty woman, dressed in black trimmed with red. Isam didn’t recognize her slim figure and delicate face. He was increasingly certain he could recognize all of the Chosen; he’d seen them often enough in the dream. They didn’t know that, of course. They thought themselves masters of the place, and some of them were very skilled.

He was equally skilled, and also exceptionally good at not being seen.

Whoever this was, she was in disguise, then. Why bother hiding herself here? Either way, she had to be the one who had summoned him. No woman walked the Town with such an imperious expression, such self assurance, as if she expected the rocks themselves to obey if told to jump. Isam went quietly down on one knee.

That motion woke the ache inside his stomach from where he’d been wounded. He still hadn’t recovered from the fight with the wolf. He felt a stirring inside of him; Luc hated Aybara. Unusual. Luc tended to be the more accommodating one, Isam the hard one. Well, that was how he saw himself.

Either way, on this particular wolf, they agreed. On one hand, Isam was thrilled; as a hunter, he’d rarely been presented with such a challenge as Aybara. However, his hatred was deeper. He would kill Aybara.

Isam covered a grimace at the pain and bowed his head. The woman left him kneeling and took a seat at his table. She tapped a finger on the side of the tin cup for a few moments, staring at its contents, and did not speak.

Isam remained still. Many of those fools who named themselves Dark-friends would squirm and writhe when another asserted power over them. Indeed, he admitted with reluctance, Luc would probably squirm just as much.

Isam was a hunter. That was all he cared to be. When you were secure with what you were, there was no cause to resent being shown your place.

Burn it, but the side of his belly did ache.

“I want him dead,” the woman said. Her voice was soft, yet intense.

Isam said nothing.

“I want him gutted like an animal, his bowels spilled onto the ground, his blood a milkpan for ravens, his bones left to bleach, then gray, then crack in the heat of the sun. I want him dead, hunter.”

“Al’Thor.”

“Yes. You have failed in the past.” Her voice was ice. He felt a chill. This one was hard. Hard as Moridin.

In his years of service, he had learned contempt for most of the Chosen. They bickered like children, for all their power and supposed wisdom. This woman made him pause, and he wondered if he actually had spied on all of them. She seemed different.

“Well?” she asked. “Do you speak for your failures?”

“Each time one of the others has tasked me with this hunt,” he said, “another has come to pull me away and set me on some other task.”

In truth, he’d rather have continued his hunt for the wolf. He would not disobey orders, not direct ones from the Chosen. Other than Aybara, one hunt was much the same to him as another. He would kill this Dragon, if he had to.

“Such won’t happen this time,” the Chosen said, still staring at his cup. She hadn’t looked at him, and she did not give him leave to stand, so he remained kneeling. “All others have renounced claim on you. Unless the Great Lord tells you otherwise—unless he summons you himself-—you are to keep to this task. Kill al’Thor.”

Motion outside the window caused Isam to glance to the side. The Chosen didn’t look as a group of black-hooded figures passed. The winds didn’t cause the cloaks of these figures to stir.

They were accompanied by carriages; an unusual sight in the Town. The carriages moved slowly, but still rocked and thumped on the uneven street. Isam didn’t need to see into the carriages’ curtained windows to know that thirteen women rode inside, matching the number of Myrddraal. None of the Samma N’Sei returned to the street. They tended to avoid processions like this. For obvious reasons, they had... strong feelings about such things.

The carriages passed. So. Another had been caught. Isam would have assumed that the practice had ended, once the taint was cleansed.

Before he turned back to look at the floor, he caught sight of something more incongruous. A small, dirty face watching from the shadows of an alleyway across the street. Wide eyes but a furtive posture. Moridin’s passing, and the coming of the thirteens, had driven the Samma N’Sei off the street. Where they were not, the urchins could go in some safety. Maybe.

Isam wanted to scream at the child to go. Tell it to run, to risk crossing the Blight. To die in the stomach of a Worm was better than to live in this Town, and suffer what it did to you. Go! Flee! Die!

The moment passed quickly, the urchin retreating to the shadows.

Isam could remember being that child. He’d learned so many things then. How to find food that you could mostly trust, and wouldn’t vomit back up once you found out what was in it. How to fight with knives. How to avoid being seen or noticed.

And how to kill a man, of course. Everyone who survived long enough in the Town learned that particular lesson.

The Chosen was still looking at his cup. It was her reflection she was looking at, Isam realized. What did she see there?

“I will need help,” Isam finally said. “The Dragon Reborn has guards, and he is rarely in the dream.”

“Help has been arranged,” she said softly. “But you are to find him, hunter. None of this playing as you did before, trying to draw him to you. Lews Therin will sense such a trap. Besides, he will not deviate from his cause now. Time is short.”

She spoke of the disastrous operation in the Two Rivers. Luc had been in charge then. What knew Isam of real towns, real people? Almost, he felt a longing for those things, though he suspected that was really Luc’s emotion. Isam was just a hunter. People held little interest for him beyond the best places for an arrow to enter so as to hit the heart.

That Two Rivers operation, though... it stank like a carcass left to rot. He still didn’t know. Had the point really been to lure al’Thor, or had it been to keep Isam away from important events? He knew his abilities fascinated the Chosen; he could do something that they could not. Oh, they could imitate the way he stepped into the dream, but they needed channeling, gateways, time.

He was tired of being a pawn in their games. Just let him hunt; stop changing the prey with each passing week.

One did not say such things to the Chosen. He kept his objections to himself.

Shadows darkened the doorway to the inn, and the serving woman disappeared into the back. That left the place completely empty save for Isam and the Chosen.

“You may stand,” she said.

Isam did, hastily, as two men stepped into the room. Tall, muscular and red-veiled. They wore brown clothing like Aiel, but didn’t carry spears or bows. These creatures killed with weapons far deadlier.

Though he kept his face impassive, Isam felt a surge of emotion. A childhood of pain, hunger and death. A lifetime of avoiding the gaze of men like these. He fought hard to keep himself from trembling as they strode to the table, moving with the grace of natural predators.

The men dropped their veils and bared their teeth. Burn me. Their teeth were filed.

These had been Turned. You could see it in their eyes—eyes that weren’t quite right, weren’t quite human.

Isam nearly fled right then, stepping into the dream. He couldn’t kill both of these men. He’d have been reduced to ash before he managed to take down one of them. He’d seen Samma N’Sei kill; they often did it just to explore new ways of using their powers.

They didn’t attack. Did they know this woman was Chosen? Why, then, lower their veils? Samma N’Sei never lowered their veils except to kill—and only for the kills they were most eagerly anticipating.

“They will accompany you,” the Chosen said. “You shall have a handful of the Talentless as well to help deal with al’Thor’s guards.” She turned to him and, for the first time, she met his eyes. She seemed... revolted. As if she were disgusted to need his aid.

"They will accompany you,” she had said. Not “They will serve you.”

Bloody son of a dog. This was going to be a hateful job.

—  —

Talmanes threw himself to the side, narrowly avoiding the Trolloc’s axe. The ground trembled as the axe broke cobblestones; he ducked and rammed his blade through the creature’s thigh. The thing had a bull’s snout, and it threw back its head to bellow.

“Burn me, but you have horrid breath,” Talmanes growled, whipping his sword free and stepping back. The thing went down on one leg, and Talmanes hacked off its weapon hand.

Panting, Talmanes danced back as his two companions struck the Trolloc through the back with spears. You always wanted to fight Trollocs in a group. Well, you always wanted to fight anyone with a team on your side, but it was more important with Trollocs, considering their size and strength.

Corpses lay like heaps of trash in the night. Talmanes had been forced to fire the city gate’s guardhouses to give light; the half-dozen or so guards who had remained were now recruits in the Band, for the time being.

Like a black tide, the Trollocs began to retreat from the gate. They’d overextended themselves in pushing for it. Or, rather, being pushed for it. There had been a Halfman with this crew. Talmanes lowered his hand to the wound in his side. It was wet.

The guardhouse fires were burning low. He’d have to order a few of the shops set on fire. That risked letting the blaze spread, but the city was already lost. No sense in holding back now. “Brynt!” he yelled. “Set that stable aflame!”

Sandip came up as Brynt went running past with a torch. “They’ll be back. Soon, probably.”

Talmanes nodded. Now that the fighting was done, townspeople began to flood out of alleys and recesses, timidly making for the gate and— presumably—safety.

“We can’t stay here and hold this gate,” Sandip said. “The dragons...

I know. How many men did we lose?”

“I don’t have a count yet. A hundred, at least.”

Light, Mat’s going to have my hide when he hears about that. Mat hated losing troops. There was a softness to the man equal to his genius—an odd, but inspiring, combination. “Send some scouts to watch the city roadways nearby for approaching Shadowspawn. Heap some of these Trolloc carcasses to make barriers; they’ll work as well as anything else. You, soldier!”

One of the wearied soldiers walking past froze. He wore the Queen’s colors. “My Lord?”

“We need to let people know this gate out of the city is safe. Is there a horn call that Andoran peasants would recognize? Something that would bring them here?”

“ ‘Peasants,’ ” the man said thoughtfully. He didn’t seem to like the word. They didn’t use it often, here in Andor. “Yes, the Queen’s March.”

“Sandip?”

“I’ll set the sounders to it, Talmanes,” Sandip said.

“Good.” Talmanes knelt to clean his sword on a fallen Trolloc’s shirt, his side aching. The wound wasn’t bad. Not by normal terms. Just a nick, really.

The shirt was so grimy he almost hesitated to wipe his weapon, but Trolloc blood was bad for a blade, so he swabbed down the sword. He stood up, ignoring the pain in his side, then walked toward the gate, where he’d tied Selfar. He hadn’t dared trust the horse against Shadowspawn. He was a good gelding, but not Borderland-trained.

None of the men questioned him as he climbed into the saddle and turned Selfar westward, out of the city gate, toward those mercenaries he’d seen watching earlier. Talmanes wasn't surprised to find that they'd moved closer to the city. Fighting drew warriors like fire drawing cold travelers on a winter night.

They hadn’t joined in the battle. As Talmanes rode up, he was greeted by a small group of the sell-swords: six men with thick arms, and— likely—thick wits. They recognized him and the Band. Mat was downright famous these days, and so was the Band, by association. They undoubtedly also noticed the Trolloc bloodstains on Talmanes’ clothing and the bandage at his side.

That wound had really begun to burn fiercely now. Talmanes reined in Selfar, then patiently patted at his saddlebags. I stowed some tabac here somewhere...

“Well?” one of the mercenaries asked. The leader was easy to pick out; he had the finest armor. A man often became leader of a band like this by staying alive.

Talmanes fished his second-best pipe out of his saddlebag. Where was that tabac? He never took the best pipe into battle. His father had called that bad luck.

Ah, he thought, pulling out the tabac pouch. He placed some in the bowl, then removed a lighting twig and leaned over to stick it into a torch held by a wary mercenary.

“We aren’t going to fight unless paid,” the leader said. He was a stout man, surprisingly clean, though he could have done with a beard trim.

Talmanes lit his pipe, puffing smoke out. Behind him, the horns started blowing. The Queen’s March turned out to be a catchy tune. The horns were accompanied by shouts, and Talmanes looked back. Trollocs on the main thoroughfare, a larger batch this time.

Crossbowmen fell into ranks and began loosing at an order Talmanes couldn’t hear.

“We’re not—” the head man began again.

“Do you know what this is?” Talmanes asked softly around his pipe. “This is the beginning of the end. This is the fall of nations and the unification of humankind. This is the Last Battle, you bloody fool.”

The men shuffled uncomfortably.

“Do you... do you speak for the Queen?” the leader said, trying to salvage something. “I just want to see my men taken care of.”

“If you fight,” Talmanes said, “I’ll promise you a great reward.”

The man waited.

“I promise you that you’ll continue to draw breath,” Talmanes said, taking another puff.

“Is that a threat, Cairhienin?”

Talmanes blew out smoke, then leaned down from his saddle, putting his face closer to the leader. “I killed a Myrddraal tonight, Andoran,” he said softly. “It nicked me with a Thakan’dar blade, and the wound has gone black. That means I have a few hours at best before the blade’s poison burns me from the inside out and I die in the most agonizing way a man can.

Therefore, friend, I suggest that you trust me when I tell you that I really have nothing to lose.”

The man blinked.

“You have two choices,” Talmanes said, turning his horse and speaking loudly to the troop. “You can fight like the rest of us and help this world see new days, and maybe you’ll earn some coin in the end. I can’t promise that. Your other option is to sit here, watch people be slaughtered and tell yourselves that you don’t work for free. If you’re lucky, and the rest of us salvage this world without you, you’ll draw breath long enough to be strung up by your cowardly necks.”

Silence. Horns blew from the darkness behind.

The chief sell-sword looked toward his companions. They nodded in agreement.

“Go help hold that gate,” Talmanes said. “I’ll recruit the other mercenary bands to help.”

—  —

Leilwin surveyed the multitude of camps dotting the place known as the Field of Merrilor. In the darkness, with the moon not due to rise for some time, she could almost imagine that the cook fires were shipborne lanterns in a busy port at night.

That was probably a sight she would never see again. Leilwin Shipless was not a captain; she would never be one again. To wish otherwise was to defy the very nature of who she had become.

Bayle put a hand on her shoulder. Thick fingers, rough from many days of work. She reached up and rested her hand on his. It had been simple to slip through one of those gateways being made at Tar Valon. Bayle knew his way around the city, though he had grumbled about being there. “This place do set the hairs on my arms to points,” he’d said, and, “I did wish to never walk these streets again. I did wish it.”

He’d come with her anyway. A good man, Bayle Domon. As good as she’d found in these unfamiliar lands, despite moments of unsavory trading in his past. That was behind him. If he didn’t understand the right way of things, he did try.

“This do be a sight,” he said, scanning the quiet sea of lights. “What want you to do now?”

“We find Nynaeve al’Meara or Elayne Trakand.”

Bayle scratched at his bearded chin; he wore it after the Illianer style, with the upper lip shaved. The hair on his head was of varying lengths; he’d stopped shaving a portion of his head, now that she had freed him. She’d done that so they could marry, of course.

It was well; the shaven head would have drawn attention here. He’d done quite well as so’jhin once certain... issues had been resolved. In the end, however, she had to admit that Bayle Domon was not meant to be so’jhin. He was too rough-cut, and no tide would ever soften those sharp edges. That was how she wanted him, though she’d never say so out loud.

“It do be late, Leilwin,” he said. “Perhaps we should wait until morning.”

No. There was a quiet to the camps, true, but it was not the quiet of slumber. It was the quiet of ships waiting for the right winds.

She knew little of what was happening here—she hadn’t dared open her mouth in Tar Valon to ask questions, lest her accent reveal her as Seanchan. A gathering of this size did not occur without dedicated planning. She was surprised at the immensity of it; she’d heard of the meeting here, one that most of the Aes Sedai had come to attend. This exceeded anything she’d anticipated.

She started across the field, and Bayle followed, both of them joining the group of Tar Valon servants they had been allowed to accompany, thanks to Bayle’s bribe. His methods did not please her, but she had been able to think of no other way. She tried not to think too much about his original contacts in Tar Valon. Well, if she was never to be on a ship again, then Bayle would find no more opportunities for smuggling. That was a small comfort.

You’re a ship’s captain. That’s all you know, all you want. And now, Ship less. She shivered, and clenched her hands into fists to keep from wrapping her arms around herself. To spend the rest of her days on these unchanging lands, never able to move at a pace brisker than what a horse could provide, never to smell the deep-sea air, never to point her prow toward a horizon, hoist anchor, set sail and simply...

She shook herself. Find Nynaeve and Elayne. She might be Shipless, but she would not let herself slip into the depths and drown. She set her course and started walking. Bayle hunched down slightly, suspicious, and tried to watch all around them at once. He also glanced at her a few times, lips drawn to a line. She knew what that meant, by now.

“What is it?” she asked.

“Leilwin, what do we be doing here?”

“I’ve told you. We need to find—”

“Yes, but why? What do you think you will do? They do be Aes Sedai.”

“They showed me respect before.”

“And so you do think they’ll take us in?”

“Perhaps.” She eyed him. “Speak it, Bayle. You have something on your mind?

He sighed. “Why do we need be taken in, Leilwin. We could find ourselves a ship somewhere, in Arad Doman. Where there do be no Aes Sedai or Seanchan.”

“I wouldn’t run the kind of ship you prefer.”

He regarded her flatly. “I do know how to run an honest business, Leilwin. It would no be—”

She raised a hand, quieting him, then rested it on his shoulder. They stopped on the pathway. “I know, my love. I know. I’m speaking words to distract, to set us spinning in a current that goes nowhere.”

“Why?”

That single word scratched at her like a splinter under a fingernail. Why... Why had she come all this way, traveling with Matrim Cauthon, putting herself dangerously near the Daughter of the Nine Moons? My people live with a grave misconception of the world, Bayle. In doing so, they create injustice.”

“They did reject you, Leilwin,” he said softly. You do no longer exist.”

"I'll always be one of them. My name was revoked, but not my blood.”

“I do be sorry for the insult.”

She nodded curtly. “I am still loyal to the Empress, may she live forever. But the damane.... they are the very foundation for her rule. They are the means by which she creates order, by which she holds the Empire together. And the damane are a lie.”

Suldam could channel. The talent could be learned. Now, months after she had discovered the truth, her mind could not encompass all of the implications. Another might have been more interested in the political advantage; another might have returned to Seanchan and used this to gain power.

Almost, Leilwin wished she had done that. Almost.

But the pleas of the suldam... growing to know those Aes Sedai, who were nothing like what she’d been taught...

Something had to be done. And yet, in doing it, did she risk causing the entire Empire to collapse? Her movements must be considered very, very carefully, like the last rounds of a game of shal.

The two continued to follow the line of servants in the dark; one Aes Sedai or another often sent servants for something they had left in the White Tower, so traveling back and forth was common—a good thing for Leilwin. They passed the perimeter of the Aes Sedai camp without being challenged.

She was surprised at the ease of it until she spotted several men alongside the path. They were very easy to miss; something about them blended into the surroundings, particularly in the darkness. She noticed them only when one moved, breaking off from the others to fall into step a short distance behind her and Bayle.

In seconds, it was obvious that he’d picked the two of them out. Perhaps it was the way they walked, the way they held themselves. They’d been careful to dress plainly, though Bayle’s beard would mark him as Illianer.

Leilwin stopped—laying a hand on Bayle’s arm—and turned to confront the one following them. A Warder, she assumed from descriptions.

The Warder stalked up to them. They were still near the perimeter of the camp, the tents organized in rings. She had noticed with discomfort that some of the tents glowed with a light too steady to come from candle or lamp.

“Ho,” Bayle said, raising a friendly hand to the Warder. “We do be seeking an Aes Sedai named Nynaeve al’Meara. If she is not here, perhaps one named Elayne Trakand?”

“Neither makes their camp here,” the Warder said. He was a long-armed man, and he moved with grace. His features, framed by long, dark hair, looked... unfinished. Chiseled from rock by a sculptor who had lost interest in the project partway through.

“Ah,” Bayle said. “That do be our mistake, then. Could you point us to where they do be making camp? It do be a matter of some urgency, you see.” He spoke smoothly, easily. Bayle could be quite charming, when necessary. Much more so than Leilwin could.

“That depends,” the Warder said. “Your companion, she wishes to find these Aes Sedai, too?”

“She do—” Bayle began, but the Warder held up a hand.

“I would hear it from her,” he said, inspecting Leilwin.

“It do be what I wish,” Leilwin said. “My aged grandmother! These women, they did promise us payment, and I do mean to have it. Aes Sedai do not lie. Everyone do know this fact. If you will not take us to them, then provide someone who will!”

The Warder hesitated, eyes widening at the barrage of words. Then, blessedly, he nodded. “This way.” He led them away from the center of the camp, but he no longer seemed suspicious.

Leilwin let out a quiet breath and fell into step with Bayle behind the Warder. Bayle looked at her proudly, grinning so widely he’d certainly have given the two of them away if the Warder had looked back. She couldn’t help a hint of a smile herself.

The Illianer accent had not come naturally to her, but both had agreed that her Seanchan tongue was dangerous, particularly when traveling among Aes Sedai. Bayle claimed that no true Illianer would accept her as one of them, but she was clearly good enough to fool an outsider.

She felt relieved when they moved away from the Aes Sedai camp into the dark. Having two friends—they were friends, despite their troubles with one another—who were Aes Sedai did not mean she wanted to be inside a camp full of them. The Warder led them to an open area near the middle of the Field of Merrilor. There was a very large camp here, with a great number of small tents.

“Aiel,” Bayle said softly to her. “There do be tens of thousands of them.”

Interesting. Fearsome stories were told of Aiel, legends that could not all possibly be true. Still, the tales—if exaggerated—suggested that these were the finest warriors this side of the ocean. She would have welcomed sparring with one or two of them, had the situation been different. She rested a hand on the side of her pack; she’d stowed her cudgel in a long pocket on the side, easily within reach.

They certainly were a tall folk, these Aiel. She passed some of them lounging by campfires, seemingly relaxed. Those eyes, however, watched more keenly than the Warders’ had. A dangerous people, ready for killing while relaxing beside fires. She could not make out the banners that flapped above this camp in the night sky.

“Which king or queen do rule this camp, Warder?” she called.

The man turned to her, his features lost in the night shadow. “Your king, Illianer.”

At her side, Bayle stiffened.

My...

The Dragon Reborn. She was proud that she didn’t miss a step as they walked, but it was a near thing. A man who could channel. That was worse, far worse, than the Aes Sedai.

The Warder led them to a tent near the center of the camp. “You are fortunate; her light is on.” There were no guards at the tent entrance, so he called in and received permission to enter. He pulled back the flap with one arm and nodded to them, yet his other hand was on his sword, and he stood in fighting posture.

She hated putting that sword to her back, but she entered as ordered. The tent was lit by one of those unnatural globes of light, and a familiar woman in a green dress sat at a writing desk, working on a letter. Nynaeve al’Meara was what, back in Seanchan, one would call a telarti—a woman with fire in her soul. Leilwin had come to understand that Aes Sedai were supposed to be calm as placid waters. Well, this woman might be that on occasion-but she was the kind of placid water found one bend away from a furious waterfall.

Nynaeve continued to write as they entered. She no longer wore braids; her hair was loose around the top of her shoulders. It was a sight as strange as a ship with no mast.

‘I'll be with you in a moment, Sleete,” Nynaeve said. “Honestly, the way you lot have been hovering over me lately makes me think of a mother bird who has lost an egg. Don’t your Aes Sedai have work for you to do?

Lan is important to many of us, Nynaeve Sedai,” the Warder-Sleete— said in a calm, gravelly voice.

“Oh, and he’s not important to me? Honestly, I wonder if we should send you out to chop wood or something. If one more Warder comes to see if I need—”

She glanced up, finally seeing Leilwin. Nynaeve’s face immediately grew impassive. Cold. Burningly cold. Leilwin found herself sweating. This woman held her life in her hands. Why couldn’t it have been Elayne that Sleete had brought them to? Perhaps they shouldn’t have mentioned Nynaeve.

“These two demanded to see you,” Sleete said. His sword was out of its sheath. Leilwin hadn’t seen that. Domon muttered softly to himself. “They claim that you promised to pay them money, and they have come for it. They did not identify themselves in the Tower, however, and found a way to slip through one of the gateways. The man is from Illian. The woman, somewhere else. She’s disguising her accent.”

Well, perhaps she wasn’t as good with the accent as she’d assumed. Leilwin glanced at his sword. If she rolled to the side, he’d probably miss a strike, assuming he went for the chest or neck. She could pull the cudgel and—

She was facing an Aes Sedai. She’d never stand up from that roll. She’d be caught in a weave of the One Power, or worse.

“I know them, Sleete,” Nynaeve said, voice cool. “You did well in bringing them to me. Thank you.”

His sword was sheathed at once, and Leilwin felt cool air on her neck as he slipped out of the tent, quiet as a whisper.

“If you’ve come to beg forgiveness,” Nynaeve said, “you’ve come to the wrong person. I’ve half a mind to give you over to the Warders to question. Maybe they can bleed something useful about your people from that treacherous mind of yours.”

“It is good to see you again too, Nynaeve,” Leilwin said coolly.

“So what happened?” Nynaeve demanded.

What happened? What was the woman talking about?

“I did try,” Bayle suddenly said, regretfully. “I did fight them, but I was taken easily. They could have fired my ship, sunk us all, killed my men.”

“Better that you and all aboard should have died, Illianer,” Nynaeve said. “The ter’angreal ended up in the hands of one of the Forsaken; Semirhage was hiding among the Seanchan, pretending to be some kind of judge. A Truthspeaker? Is that the word?”

“Yes,” Leilwin said softly. She understood now. “I regret breaking my oath, but—”

“You regret it, Egeanin?” Nynaeve said, standing, knocking her chair back. “ ‘Regret’ is not a word I would use for endangering the world itself, bringing us to the brink of darkness and all but shoving us over the edge! She had copies of that device made, woman. One ended up around the neck of the Dragon Reborn. The Dragon Reborn himself, controlled by one of the Forsaken!”

Nynaeve flung her hands into the air. “Light! We were heartbeats from the end, because of you. The end of everything. No more Pattern, no more world, nothing. Millions of lives could have winked out because of your carelessness.”

“I... Leilwin’s failures seemed monumental, suddenly. Her life, lost. Her very name, lost. Her ship, stripped from her by the Daughter of the Nine Moons herself. All were immaterial in light of this.

“I did fight,” Bayle said more firmly. “I did fight with what I could give.”

“I should have joined you, it appears,” Leilwin said.

“I did try to explain that,” Bayle said grimly. “Many times now, burn me, but I did.”

“Bah,” Nynaeve said, raising a hand to her forehead. “What are you doing here, Egeanin? I had hoped you were dead. If you had died trying to keep your oath, then I could not have blamed you.”

I handed it to Suroth myself Leilwin thought. A price paid for my life, the only way out.

“Well?” Nynaeve glared at her. “Out with it, Egeanin.”

“I no longer bear that name.” Leilwin went down on her knees. “I have had all stripped from me, including my honor, it now appears. I give myself to you as payment.”

Nynaeve snorted. “We don’t keep people as if they were animals, unlike you Seanchan.”

Leilwin continued kneeling. Bayle rested a hand on her shoulder, but did not try to pull her to her feet. He understood well enough now why she had to do as she had. He was quite nearly civilized.

“On your feet,” Nynaeve snapped. “Light, Egeanin. I remember you being so strong you could chew rocks and spit out sand.”

“It is my strength that compels me,” she said, lowering her eyes. Did Nynaeve not understand how difficult this was? It would be easier to slit her own throat, only she had not the honor left to demand such an easy end.

“Stand!”

Leilwin did as told.

Nynaeve grabbed her cloak off the bed and threw it on. “Come. We’ll take you to the Amyrlin. Maybe she’ll know what to do with you.”

Nynaeve barged out into the night, and Leilwin followed. Her decision had been made. There was only one path that made sense, one way to preserve a shred of honor, and perhaps to help her people survive the lies they had been telling themselves for so long.

Leilwin Shipless now belonged to the White Tower. Whatever they said, whatever they tried to do with her, that fact would not change. They owned her. She would be a da covale to this Amyrlin, and would ride this storm like a ship whose sail had been shredded by the wind.

Perhaps, with what remained of her honor, she could earn this woman’s trust.

—  —

“It’s part of an old Borderlander relief for the pain,” Melten said, removing the bandage at Talmanes’ side. “The blisterleaf slows the taint left by the cursed metal.”

Melten was a lean, mop-haired man. He dressed like an Andoran woodsman, with a simple shirt and cloak, but spoke like a Borderlander. In his pouch he carried a set of colored balls that he’d sometimes juggle for the other members of the Band. In another life, he must have been a gleeman.

He was an unlikely man to be in the Band, but they all were, in one way or another.

“I don’t know how it dampens the poison,” Melten said. “But it does. It’s no natural poison, mind you. You can’t suck it free.”

Talmanes pressed his hand to the side. The burning pain felt like thorny vines crawling in under his skin, creeping forward and tearing at his flesh with every movement. He could feel the poison moving through his body. Light, but it hurt.

Nearby, the men of the Band fought through Caemlyn up toward the Palace. They’d come in through the southern gate, leaving the mercenary bands—under Sandip’s command—holding the western gate.

If there was human resistance anywhere in the city, it would be at the Palace. Unfortunately, fists of Trollocs roved the area between Talmanes’ position and the Palace. They kept running across the monsters and getting drawn into fights.

Talmanes couldn’t find out if, indeed, there was resistance above without getting there. That meant leading his men up toward the Palace, fighting all the way, and leaving himself open to being cut off from behind if one of those roving groups worked around behind him. There was nothing for it, though. He needed to find out what—if anything—remained of the Palace defenses. From there, he could strike further into the city and try to get the dragons.

The air smelled of smoke and blood; during a brief pause in the fighting, they’d piled dead Trollocs against the right side of the street to make room for passage.

There were refugees in this quarter of the city, too, though not a flood of them. A stream, maybe, seeping in from the darkness as Talmanes and the Band seized sections of the thoroughfare leading up toward the Palace. These refugees never demanded that the Band protect their goods or rescue their homes; they sobbed with joy at finding human resistance. Madwin was in charge of sending them toward freedom along the corridor of safety the Band had carved free.

Talmanes started up toward the Palace, atop the hill but only barely visible in the night. Though most of the city burned, the Palace was not aflame; its white walls hung in the smoky night like phantoms. No fire. That had to indicate resistance, didn’t it? Wouldn’t the Trollocs have attacked it as one of their first actions in the city?

He’d sent scouts along the street up ahead as he gave his men—and himself—a short breather.

Melten finished tying Talmanes’ poultice tight.

“Thank you, Melten,” Talmanes said, nodding to the man. “I can feel the poultice working already. You said this is part of the cure for the pain. What is the other part?”

Melten unhooked a metal flask from his belt and handed it over. “Shienaran brandy, full strength.”

“It’s not a good idea to drink in combat, man.”

“Take it,” Melten said softly. “Keep the flask and drink it deep, my Lord. Or come the next bell, you won’t be standing.”

Talmanes hesitated, then took the flask and took a long swallow. It burned like the wound. He coughed, then tucked the brandy away. “I believe you mistook your bottles, Melten. That was something you found in a tanning vat.”

Melten snorted. “And it’s said you have no sense of humor, Lord Talmanes.”

“I haven’t one,” Talmanes said. “Stay close with that sword of yours.”

Melten nodded, eyes solemn. “Dreadbane,” he whispered.

“What’s that?”

“Borderlander title. You slew a Fade. Dreadbane.”

“It had about seventeen bolts in it at the time.”

“Doesn’t matter.” Melten clasped him on the shoulder. “Dreadbane. When you can’t take the pain any longer, make two fists and raise them toward me. I will see the deed done.”

Talmanes stood up, unable to suppress a groan. They both understood. The several Borderlanders in the Band agreed; wounds made by a Thakan’dar blade were unpredictable. Some festered quickly, others made men sick. When one went black like Talmanes’, though... that was the worst. Nothing short of finding an Aes Sedai in the next few hours could save him.

“See,” Talmanes muttered, “it is a good thing I have no sense of humor, otherwise I should think the Pattern was playing a joke on me. Dennel! You have a map handy?” Light, but he missed Vanin.

“My Lord,” Dennel said, hurrying across the dark street carrying a torch and a hastily drawn map. He was one of the Band’s dragon captains. “I think I’ve found a faster way through the streets to where Aludra had the dragons stored.”

“We’re fighting to the Palace first,” Talmanes said.

“My Lord.” Dennel’s words came more softly from his wide lips. He was picking at his uniform, as if it didn’t fit right. “If the Shadow reaches those dragons...”

“I’m well aware of the dangers, Dennel, thank you. How fast could you move the things, assuming we reach them? I’m worried about extending ourselves too far, and this city is going up faster than oil-soaked love letters to a High Lords mistress. I want to get the weapons and leave the city as quickly as possible.”

“I can level an enemy bulwark in a shot or two, my Lord, but the dragons do not move quickly. They are attached to carts, so that will help, but they aren’t going to be any faster than... say, a line of supply wagons. And they would take time to set up properly and fire.”

“Then we continue to the Palace,” Talmanes said.

“But—”

“At the Palace,” he said sternly, “we might find women who can channel us a gateway straight to Aludra’s warehouse. Besides, if we find the Palace Guard still fighting, we know we have a friend at our backs. We will retrieve those dragons, but we’ll do it smartly.”

He noticed Ladwin and Mar hurrying down from above. “There are Trollocs up there!” Mar said, hastening up to Talmanes. “A hundred strong at least, hunkered down in the street.”

“Form ranks, men!” Talmanes shouted. “We push for the Palace!”

—  —

The sweat tent fell completely still.

Aviendha had anticipated incredulity, perhaps, at her tale. Questions, certainly. Not this painful silence.

Though she had not expected it, she did understand it. She had felt it herself after seeing her vision of the Aiel slowly losing ji’e’toh in the future. She had witnessed the death, dishonor and ruination of her people. At least now she had someone with whom to share that burden.

The heated stones in the kettle hissed softly. Someone should pour more water, but none of the room’s six occupants moved to tend it. The other five were all Wise Ones, naked—as was Aviendha—after the manner of sweat tents. Sorilea, Amys, Bair, Melaine and Kymer of the To-manelle Aiel. All stared straight ahead, each alone for the moment with her thoughts.

One by one, they straightened their backs and sat up, as if accepting a new burden. That comforted Aviendha; not that she’d expected the news to break them. It was still good to see them set their faces toward the danger instead of away from it.

“Sightblinder is too close to the world now,” said Melaine. “The Pattern has been twisted somehow. In the dream we still see many things that may or may not happen, but there are too many possibilities; we cannot tell one from another. The fate of our people is unclear to the dreamwalkers, as is the fate of the Car’a’carn once he spits in Sightblinder’s eye on the Last Day. We do not know the truth of what Aviendha saw.”

“We must test this,” Sorilea said, eyes like stone. “We must know. Is each woman now shown this vision instead of the other, or was the experience unique?”

“Elenar of the Daryne,” Amys said. “Her training is nearly complete; she will be the next to visit Rhuidean. We could ask Hayde and Shanni to encourage her.”

Aviendha suppressed a shudder. She understood too well how “encouraging” the Wise Ones could be.

“That would be well,” Bair said, leaning forward. “Perhaps this is what happens whenever someone goes through the glass columns a second time? Maybe that is why it is forbidden.”

None of them looked at Aviendha, but she could feel them considering her. What she had done was forbidden. Speaking of what happened in Rhuidean was also taboo.

There would be no reprimand. Rhuidean had not killed her; this was what the Wheel had spun. Bair continued to stare into the distance. Sweat trickled down the sides of Aviendha’s face and her breasts.

I do not miss taking baths, she told herself. She was no soft wetlander. Still, a sweat tent wasn’t truly necessary on this side of the mountains. There was no bitter cold at night, so the heat of the tent felt stifling, not comforting. And if water was plentiful enough for bathing...

No. She set her jaw. “May I speak?”

“Don’t be foolish, girl,” Melaine said. The woman was round in the belly, nearly to term. “You’re one of us now. No need to ask permission.” Girl? It would take time for them to see her truly as one of them, but they did make an effort. Nobody ordered her to make tea or to throw water on the kettle. With no apprentice around and no gai’shain handy, they took turns doing these tasks.

“I am less concerned with whether the vision repeats,” Aviendha said, “than with what I was shown. Will it happen? Can we stop it?”

“Rhuidean shows two types of vision,” Kymer said. She was a younger woman, perhaps less than a decade Aviendha’s senior, with deep red hair and a long, tanned face. “The first visit is what could be, the second, to the columns, what has happened.”

“This third vision could be either,” Amys said. “The columns always show the past accurately; why would they not show the future with equal accuracy?”

Aviendha’s heart lurched.

“But why,” Bair said softly, “would the columns show a despair that cannot change? No. I refuse to believe it. Rhuidean has always shown us what we needed to see. To help us, not destroy us. This vision must have a purpose as well. To encourage us toward greater honor?”

“Its unimportant,” Sorilea said curtly.

“But—” Aviendha began.

“It’s unimportant,” Sorilea repeated. “If this vision were unchangeable, if our destiny is to... fall... as you have spoken, would any of us stop fighting to change it?”

The room grew still. Aviendha shook her head.

“We must treat it as if it can be changed,” Sorilea said. “Best not to dwell on your question, Aviendha. We must decide what course to take.” Aviendha found herself nodding. “I... Yes, yes, you are correct, Wise One.”

“But what do we do?” Kymer asked. “What do we change? For now, the Last Battle must be won.”

“Almost,” Amys said, “I wish for the vision to be unchangeable, for at least it proves we win this fight.”

“It proves nothing,” Sorilea said. “Sightblinder’s victory would break the Pattern, and so no vision of the future can be sure or trusted. Even with prophecies of what might happen in Ages to come, if Sightblinder wins this battle, all will become nothing.”

“This vision I saw has to do with whatever Rand is planning,” Aviendha said.

They turned to her.

“Tomorrow,” she said. “From what you’ve told me, he’s preparing for an important revelation.”

“The Car’a’carn has a... fondness for dramatic presentations,” Bair said, her tone itself fond. “He’s like a crockobur who has toiled all night making a nest so that he can sing of it in the morning to all who will listen.”

Aviendha had been surprised to discover the gathering at Merrilor; she had found it only by using her bond to Rand al’Thor to determine where he was. Arriving here to find so many together, the wet lander forces collected, she wondered if this was part of what she’d seen. Was this gathering the start of what would become her vision?

“I feel as if I know more than I should.” She spoke almost to herself. “You have had a deep glimpse of what the future may hold,” Kymer said. “It will change you, Aviendha.”

“Tomorrow is key,” Aviendha said. “His plan.”

“From what you said,” Kymer replied, “it sounds as if he intends to ignore the Aiel, his own people. Why would he give boons to everyone else, but not to those who are most deserving? Does he seek to insult us?”

“I don’t think that is the reason,” Aviendha said. “I think he intends to make demands of those who attend, not grant them gifts.”

“He did mention a price,” Bair said. “A price he intends to make the others pay. No one has been able to pry the secret of this price from him.

He went through a gateway to Tear earlier this evening and returned with something,” Melaine said. “The Maidens report it—he keeps his oath to bring them with him, now. When we have inquired after his price, he has said that it is something that the Aiel need not worry about.”

Aviendha scowled. “He is making men pay him in order to do what we all know he must? Perhaps he has been spending too much time with that minder the Sea Folk sent him.”

“No, this is well,” Amys said. “These people demand much of the Car’a’carn. He has a right to demand something of them in return. They are soft; perhaps he intends to make them hard.”

“And so he leaves us out,” Bair said softly, “because he knows that we are already hard.”

The tent fell silent. Amys, looking troubled, ladled some water onto the kettle’s heated stones. It hissed as the steam rose.

“That is it,” Sorilea said. “He does not intend to insult us. He intends to do us honor, in his own eyes.” She shook her head. “He should know better.

Often,” Kymer agreed, “the Car’a’carn gives insult by accident, as if he were a child. We are strong, so his demand—whatever it is—matters not. If it is a price the others can pay, so can we.”

“He would not make these mistakes if he had been trained properly in our ways,” Sorilea murmured.

Aviendha met their eyes evenly. No, she had not trained him as well as he could have been trained—but they knew that Rand al’Thor was obstinate. Besides, she was their equal now. Although she had trouble feeling that way while facing Sorilea’s tight-lipped disapproval.

Perhaps it was spending so much time with wetlanders like Elayne, but suddenly, she did see things as Rand must. To give the Aiel an exemption from his price—if, indeed, that was what he intended—was an act of honor. If he had made a demand of them with the others, these very Wise Ones might have taken offense at being lumped with the wetlanders.

What was he planning? She saw hints of it in the visions, but increasingly, she was certain that the next day would start the Aiel on the road to their doom.

She must see that did not happen. This was her first task as a Wise One, and would likely be the most important she was ever given. She would not fail.

“Her task was not just to teach him,” Amys said. “What I wouldn’t give to know that he was safely under the watchful eyes of a good woman.” She looked at Aviendha, face laden with meaning.

“He will be mine,” Aviendha said, firmly. But not for you, Amys, or for our people. She was shocked at the strength of that sentiment within her. She was Aiel. Her people meant everything to her.

But this choice was not their choice. This choice was hers.

“Be warned, Aviendha,” Bair said, laying a hand on her wrist. “He has changed since you left. He has grown strong.”

Aviendha frowned. “In what way?”

“He has embraced death,” Amys said, sounding proud. “He may still carry a sword and wear the clothing of a wetlander, but he is ours now, finally and truly.”

“I must see this,” Aviendha said, standing. “I will discover what I can regarding his plans.”

“There is not much time remaining,” Kymer warned.

“One night remains,” Aviendha said. “It will be enough.”

The others nodded, and Aviendha started to dress. Unexpectedly, the others joined her, dressing as well. It appeared that they considered her news important enough that they would be going to share it with the other Wise Ones, rather than continuing to sit in conference.

Aviendha was the first to step out into the night; the cool air, away from the sweltering heat of the sweat tent, felt good on her skin. She took a deep breath. Her mind was heavy with fatigue, but sleep would need to wait.

The tent flaps rustled behind the other Wise Ones, Melaine and Amys speaking softly to one another as they hastened into the night. Kymer walked purposefully toward the Tomanelle section of the camp. Perhaps she would speak with her sister-father, Han, the Tomanelle chief.

Aviendha started to move off herself, but a bony hand took her arm. She glanced over her shoulder to see Bair standing behind her, dressed again in blouse and skirt.

“Wise One,” Aviendha said by reflex.

“Wise One,” Bair replied with a smile.

“Is there something...”

“I would go to Rhuidean,” Bair said, glancing at the sky. “Would you kindly make a gateway for me?”

“You’re going through the glass columns.”

“One of us needs to. Despite what Amys said, Elenar is not ready, particularly not to see... something of this nature. That girl spends half of her days squawking like a buzzard over the last scrap of a rotting carcass.”

“But—”

“Oh, don’t you start, too. You’re one of us now, Aviendha, but I’m still old enough to have tended your greatmother when she was a child.” Bair shook her head; her white hair almost seemed to glow in the filtered moonlight. “I am the best one to go,” she continued. “Channelers must be preserved for the battle to come. I would not have some child walk into those columns now. I will do it. Now, that gateway? Will you grant my request, or do I need to bully Amys into doing so?”

Aviendha would have liked to see anyone bully Amys into anything. Maybe Sorilea could do it. She said nothing, however, and created the proper weave to open a gateway.

The thought of another seeing what she’d seen made her stomach twist. What would it mean if Bair returned with the exact same vision? Would that indicate the future was more likely?

“It was that terrible, was it?” Bair asked softly.

“Horrible. It would have made spears weep and stones crumble, Bair. I would rather have danced with Sightblinder himself.”

“Then it is much better that I go than another. It should be the strongest of us who does this.”

Aviendha stopped herself from raising an eyebrow. Bair was as tough as good leather, but the other Wise Ones weren’t exactly flower petals. “Bair,” Aviendha said, a thought occurring to her. “Have you ever met a woman named Nakomi?”

“Nakomi.” Bair tried the word in her mouth. “An ancient name. I have never known anyone who uses it. Why?”

“I met an Aiel woman while traveling to Rhuidean,” Aviendha said. “She claimed not to be a Wise One, but she had a way about her...” She shook her head. “The question was merely idle curiosity.”

“Well, we shall know some of the truth of these visions,” Bair said, stepping toward the gateway.

“What if they are true, Bair?” Aviendha found herself asking. “What if there isn’t anything we can do?”

Bair turned. “You saw your children, you said?”

Aviendha nodded. She hadn’t spoken in detail of that segment of the vision. It had seemed more personal to her.

“Change one of their names,” Bair said. “Never speak of the name that child was called in the vision, not even to us. Then you shall know. If one thing is different, then others may be different as well. Will be different. This is not our fate, Aviendha. It is a path we will avoid. Together.”

Aviendha found herself nodding. Yes. A simple change, a small change, but full of meaning. “Thank you, Bair.”

The aging Wise One nodded to her, then stepped through the gateway, running in the night toward the city ahead.

—  —

Talmanes threw his shoulder against a hulking, boar-faced Trolloc in crude chain armor. The beast smelled horrid, like smoke, wet fur and unwashed flesh. It grunted at the force of Talmanes’ assault; the things always seemed surprised when he attacked them.

Talmanes pulled back, ripping his sword out of the beast’s side as it collapsed. He then lunged forward and rammed his sword into its throat, heedless of its ragged fingernails scratching at his legs. Life faded from the beady, too-human eyes.

Men fought, called, grunted, killed. The street ran up a steep incline toward the Palace. Trolloc hordes had entrenched here, holding position and keeping the Band from reaching the top.

Talmanes sagged against the side of a building—the one next to it was on fire, lighting the street with violent colors and bathing him in heat. Those fires seemed chilly compared to the flaring, horrible pain of his wound. The flare ran down his leg to his foot and was beginning to work its way across his shoulder.

Blood and bloody ashes, he thought. What I’d give for another few hours with my pipe and book, alone and peaceful. The people who spoke of glorious death in battle were complete flaming fools. There was nothing glorious about dying in this mess of fire and blood. Give him a quiet death any day.

Talmanes pushed himself back up to his feet, drops of sweat falling from his face. Below, Trollocs amassed themselves behind his rear position. They had closed the road behind Talmanes’ force, but Talmanes was able to proceed, cutting through the Trollocs ahead.

Retreat would be difficult to pull off. As well as this roadway being full of Trollocs, fighting in the city meant that Trollocs could wind through the streets in small groups and attack his flanks, as they advanced and later when they retreated.

“Throw everything you’ve got at them, men!” he bellowed, hurling himself up the street and into the Trollocs blocking the way up. The Palace was quite close now. He caught a goat-faced Trollocs sword on his shield right before it would have taken off Dennel’s head. Talmanes tried to shove the beast’s weapon back, but Light, Trollocs were strong. Talmanes barely kept this one from throwing him to the ground as Dennel recovered and attacked its thighs, bringing it down.

Melten fell in beside Talmanes. The Borderlander was true to his word to stay close, in case Talmanes needed a sword to end his life. The two led the push up the hill. The Trollocs began to give, then rallied, a snarling, roaring heap of dark fur, eyes and weapons in the firelight.

There were so many of them.

“Steady!” Talmanes yelled. “For Lord Mat and the Band of the Red Hand!”

If Mat were here, he would probably curse a lot, complain as much, then proceed to save them all with some battlefield miracle. Talmanes couldn’t reproduce Mat’s blend of insanity and inspiration, but his yell did seem to encourage the men. The ranks tightened. Gavid arrayed his two dozen crossbowmen—the last Talmanes had with him—atop a building that hadn’t burned away. They started driving flight after flight of bolts into the Trollocs.

That might have broken human enemies, but not Trollocs. The bolts dropped a few, but not as many as Talmanes would have hoped.

There’s another Fade back there, Talmanes thought. Pushing them forward. Light, I can’t fight another. I shouldn’t have fought the one I did!

He shouldn’t be on his feet. Melten’s flask of brandy was gone, long since drained to deaden what it could. His mind was already as fuzzy as he dared allow. He fell in with Dennel and Londraed at the front, fighting, concentrating. Letting Trolloc blood out onto the cobbles to stream down the hillside.

The Band gave a good fight of it, but they were outnumbered and exhausted. Down below, another Trolloc fist joined the ones on the street behind him.

That was it. He would have to either hit that force behind—turning his back on the one in front—or break his men into smaller units and send them retreating through side streets to regroup at the gate below.

Talmanes prepared to give the orders.

“Forward the White Lion!” voices yelled. “For Andor and the Queen!” Talmanes spun as men in white and red broke through the Trolloc lines atop the hill. A second force of Andoran pikemen poured out of a side alleyway, coming in behind the Trolloc horde that had just surrounded him. The Trollocs broke before the oncoming pikemen, and in moments the entire mass—like a pus-filled blister—burst, Trollocs scattering in all directions.

Talmanes stumbled back. Momentarily he had to prop himself up with his sword as Madwin took command of the counterstrike and his men killed many of the fleeing Trollocs.

A group of officers in bloodied Queens Guard uniforms rushed down the hillside; they didn’t look any better than the Band. Guybon led them. “Mercenary,” he said to Talmanes, “I thank you for showing up.”

Talmanes frowned. “You act as if we saved you. From my perspective, it happened the other way around.”

Guybon grimaced in the firelight. “You gave us some respite; those Trollocs were attacking the Palace gates. I apologize for taking so long to reach you—we didn’t realize, at first, what had drawn them in this direction.

Light. The Palace still stands?”

“Yes,” Guybon said. “We’re full of refugees, though.”

“What of channelers?” Talmanes asked, hopeful. “Why haven’t the Andoran armies returned with the Queen?”

“Darkfriends.” Guybon frowned. “Her Majesty took most of the Kinswomen with her, the strongest ones at least. She left four with enough power to make a gateway together, but—the attack—an assassin killed two of them before the other two could stop him. Alone, the two aren’t strong enough to send for help. They’re using their strength to Heal.”

“Blood and bloody ashes,” Talmanes said, though he felt a stab of hope as he said it. Perhaps these women could not make a gateway, but they might be able to Heal his wound. “You should lead the refugees out of the city, Guybon. My men hold the southern gate.”

“Excellent,” Guybon said, straightening. “But you will have to lead the refugees. I must defend the Palace.”

Talmanes raised an eyebrow at him; he didn’t take orders from Guybon. The Band had its own command structure, and reported only to the Queen. Mat had made that clear when accepting the contract.

Unfortunately, Guybon didn’t take orders from Talmanes, either. Talmanes took a deep breath, but then wavered, dizzy. Melten grabbed his arm to keep him from toppling over.

Light, but it hurt. Couldn’t his side just do the decent thing and grow numb? Blood and bloody ashes. He needed to get to those Kinswomen. Talmanes said hopefully, “Those two women who can Heal?”

“I have sent for them already,” Guybon said. “As soon as we saw this force here.”

Well, that was something.

“I do mean to stay here,” Guybon warned. “I wont abandon this post.

Why? The city is lost, man!”

“The Queen ordered us to send regular reports through gateways,” Guybon said. “Eventually, she’s going to wonder why we haven’t sent a messenger. She will send a channeler to see why we haven’t reported, and that messenger will arrive at the Palace’s Traveling ground. It—”

“My Lord!” a voice called. “My Lord Talmanes!”

Guybon cut off, and Talmanes turned to find Filger—one of the scouts—scrambling up the bloodied cobbles of the hillside toward him. Filger was a lean man with thinning hair and a couple of days’ worth of scruff, and the sight of him filled Talmanes with dread. Filger was one of those they’d left guarding the city gate below.

“My Lord,” Filger said, panting, “the Trollocs have taken the city walls. They’re packing the ramparts, loosing arrows or spears at anyone who draws too close. Lieutenant Sandip sent me to bring you word.”

“Blood and ashes! What of the gate?”

“We’re holding,” Filger said. “For now.”

“Guybon,” Talmanes said, turning back. “Show some mercy, man; someone needs to defend that gate. Please, take the refugees out and reinforce my men. That gate will be our only method of retreat from the city.”

“But the Queen’s messenger—”

“The Queen will figure out what bloody happened once she thinks to look here. Look about you! Trying to defend the Palace is madness. You don’t have a city any longer, but a pyre.”

Guybon’s face was conflicted, his lips a tight line.

“You know I’m right,” Talmanes said, his face twisted in pain. “The best thing you can do is reinforce my men at the southern gate to hold it open for as many refugees as can reach it.”

“Perhaps,” Guybon said. “But to let the Palace burn?”

“You can make it worth something,” Talmanes said. “What if you left some soldiers to fight at the Palace? Have them hold off the Trollocs as long as they can. That will draw the Trollocs away from the people escaping out this way. When they can hold no longer, your soldiers can escape the Palace grounds on the far side, and make their way around to the southern gate.”

“A good plan,” Guybon said, grudgingly. “I will do as you suggest, but what of you?”

“I have to get to the dragons,” Talmanes said. “We cant let them fall to the Shadow. They’re in a warehouse near the edge of the Inner City. The Queen wanted them kept out of sight, away from the mercenary bands outside. I have to find them. If possible, retrieve them. If not, destroy them.”

“Very well,” Guybon said, turning away, looking frustrated as he accepted the inevitable. “My men will do as you suggest; half will lead the refugees out, then help your soldiers hold the southern gate. The other half will hold the Palace a little longer, then withdraw. But I’m coming with you.

—  —

“Do we really need so many lamps in here?” the Aes Sedai demanded from her stool at the back of the room. It might as well have been a throne. “Think of the oil you’re wasting.”

“We need the lamps.” Androl grunted. Night rain pelted the window, but he ignored it, trying to focus on the leather he was sewing. It would be a saddle. At the moment, he was working on the girth that would go around the horse’s belly.

He poked holes into the leather in a double row, letting the work calm him. The stitching chisel he used made diamond-shaped holes—he could use the mallet on them for speed, if he wanted, but right now he liked the feel of pressing the holes without it.

He picked up his stitch-mark wheel, measuring off the locations for the next stitches, then worked another of the holes. You had to line the flat sides of the diamonds toward one another for holes like this, so that when the leather pulled, it didn’t pull on the flats. The neat stiches would help keep the saddle in good shape over the years. The rows needed to be close enough together to reinforce one another, but not so close that there was danger of them ripping into one another. Staggering the holes helped.

Little things. You just had to make sure the little things were done right, and—

His fingers slipped, and he punched a hole with the diamond pointing the wrong way. Two of the holes ripped into one another at the motion.

He nearly tossed the entire thing across the room in frustration. That was the fifth time tonight!

Light, he thought, pressing his hands on the table. What’s happened to my self-control?

He could answer that question with ease, unfortunately. The Black Tower is what happened. He felt like a multilegged nachi trapped in a dried-up tidal pool, waiting desperately for the water to return while watching a group of children work their way down the beach with buckets, gathering up anything that looked tasty...

He breathed in and out, then picked up the leather. This would be the shoddiest piece he’d done in years, but he would finish it. Leaving something unfinished was nearly as bad as messing up the details.

“Curious,” said the Aes Sedai—her name was Pevara, of the Red Ajah. He could feel her eyes on his back.

A Red. Well, common destinations made for unusual shipmates, as the old Tairen saying went. Perhaps he should use the Saldaean proverb instead. If his sword is at your enemy’s throat, don’t waste time remembering when it was at yours.

“So,” Pevara said, “you were telling me about your life prior to coming to the Black Tower?”

“I don’t believe that I was,” Androl said, beginning to sew. “Why? What did you want to know?”

“I’m simply curious. Were you one of those who came here on his own, to be tested, or were you one of those they found while out hunting?”

He pulled a thread tight. “I came on my own, as I believe Evin told you yesterday, when you asked him about me.”

“Hmm,” she said. “I’m being monitored, I see.”

He looked toward her, lowering the leather. “Is that something they teach you?”

“What?” Pevara asked innocently.

“To twist a conversation about. There you sit, all but accusing me of spying on you—when you were the one interrogating my friends about me.

I want to know what my resources are.”

“You want to know why a man would choose to come to the Black Tower. To learn to channel the One Power.”

She didn’t answer. He could see her deciding upon a response that would not run afoul of the Three Oaths. Speaking with an Aes Sedai was like trying to follow a green snake as it slipped through damp grass.

“Yes,” she said.

He blinked in surprise.

“Yes, I want to know,” she continued. “We are allies, whether either of us desires it or not. I want to know what kind of person I’ve slipped into bed with.” She eyed him. “Figuratively speaking, of course.

He took a deep breath, forcing himself to become calm. He hated talking with Aes Sedai, with them twisting everything about. That, mixed with the tension of the night and the inability to get this saddle right...

He would be calm, Light burn him!

“We should practice making a circle,” Pevara said. “It will be an advantage to us—albeit a small one—against Taim’s men, should they come for us.”

Androl put his dislike of the woman from his mind—he had other things to worry about—and forced himself to think objectively. “A circle?”

“Do you not know what one is?”

“Afraid not.”

She pursed her lips. “Sometimes I forget how ignorant all of you are...” She paused, as if realizing she’d said too much.

“All men are ignorant, Aes Sedai,” Androl said. “The topics of our ignorance may change, but the nature of the world is that no man may know everything.”

That didn’t seem to be the answer she’d been expecting, either. Those hard eyes studied him. She didn’t like men who could channel—most people didn’t—but with her it was more. She had spent her life hunting down men like Androl.

“A circle,” Pevara said, “is created when women and men join their strength in the One Power together. It must be done in a specific way.”

“The M’Hael will know about it, then.”

“Men require women to form a circle,” Pevara said. “In fact, a circle must contain more women than men except in very limited cases. One woman and man can link, as can one woman and two men, as can two women and two men. So the largest we could create is a circle of three, with me and two of you. Still, it could be of use to us.”

“I’ll find you two of the others to practice with,” Androl said. “Among those I trust, I’d say that Nalaam is the strongest. Emarin is very powerful too, and I don’t think he’s yet reached the height of his strength. Same for Jonneth.”

“They are the strongest?” Pevara asked. “Not yourself?”

“No,” he said, returning to his work. That rain picked up again outside, and chill air slipped under the door. One of the room’s lamps was burning low nearby, letting shadows into the room. He watched the darkness uncomfortably.

“I find that hard to believe, Master Androl,” she said. “They all look to you.”

“Believe what you wish, Aes Sedai. I’m weakest among them. Perhaps the weakest man in the Black Tower.”

This quieted her, and Androl rose to refill that dwindling lamp. As he sat back down, a rap on the door announced the entrance of Emarin and Canler. Although both were wet from the rain, they were nearly as opposite as men could be. One was tall, refined and careful, the other crotchety and prone to gossip. They had found common ground, somewhere, and seemed to enjoy one another’s company.

“Well?” Androl asked.

“It might work,” Emarin said, taking off his rain-soaked coat and hanging it on a hook beside the door. He wore clothing underneath embroidered after the Tairen style. “It would need to be a powerful rainstorm. The guards watch carefully.”

“I feel like the prize bull at a fair,” Canler grumbled, stomping some of the mud off his boots after hanging up his coat. “Everywhere we go, Taim’s favored watch us from the corners of their eyes. Blood and ashes, Androl. They know. They know we’re going to try running.”

“Did you find any weak points?” Pevara asked, leaning forward. “Someplace where the walls are less guarded?”

“It appears to depend upon the guards chosen, Pevara Sedai,” Emarin said, nodding to her.

“Hmm... I suppose that it would. Have I mentioned how intriguing I find it that the one of you who treats me with the most respect is a Tairen?”

“Being polite to a person is not a sign of respect for them, Pevara Sedai,” Emarin said. “It is merely a sign of a good upbringing and a balanced nature.”

Androl smiled. Emarin was an absolute wonder with insults. Half the time, the person didn’t figure out that he’d been mocked until they’d parted ways.

Pevara’s mouth pursed. “Well, then. We watch the rotation of guards. When the next storm arrives, we will use it as cover and escape over the wall near the guards we think are less observant.”

The two men turned to Androl, who caught himself watching the corner of the room where the shadow fell from a table. Was it growing larger? Reaching toward him...

“I don’t like leaving men behind,” he said, forcing himself to look away from the corner. “There are dozens upon dozens of men and boys here who aren’t yet under Taim’s control. We can’t possibly lead all of them out without drawing attention. If we leave them, we risk...”

He couldn’t say it. They didn’t know what was happening, not really. People were changing. Once-trustworthy allies became enemies overnight.

They looked like the same people, yet different at the same time. Different behind the eyes. Androl shivered.

“The women sent by the rebel Aes Sedai are still outside the gates,” Pevara said. They had been camped out there for a time, claiming the Dragon Reborn had promised them Warders. Taim had yet to let any of them in. “If we can reach them, we can storm the Tower and rescue those left behind.”

“Will it really be that easy?” Emarin asked. “Taim will have an entire village of hostages. A lot of the men brought their families.”

Canler nodded. His family was one of those. He wouldn’t willingly leave them.

“Beyond that,” Androl said softly, turning on his stool to face Pevara, “do you honestly think the Aes Sedai can win here?”

“Many of them have decades—some centuries—of experience.”

“How much of that was spent fighting?”

Pevara did not answer.

“There are hundreds of men who can channel in here, Aes Sedai,” Androl continued. “Each one has been trained—at length—to be a weapon. We don’t learn about politics or history. We don’t study how to influence nations. We learn to kill. Every man and boy here is pushed to the edges of his capacity, forced to stretch and grow. Gain more power. Destroy. And a lot of them are insane. Can your Aes Sedai fight that? Particularly when many of the men we trust—the very men we’re trying to save—will likely fight alongside Taim’s men if they see the Aes Sedai trying to invade?”

“Your arguments are not without merit,” Pevara said.

Just like a queen, he thought, unwillingly impressed at her poise.

“But surely we need to send information out,” Pevara continued. “An all-out assault may be unwise, but sitting here until we are all taken, one at a time... ”

“I do believe it would be wise to send someone,” Emarin said. “We need to warn the Lord Dragon.”

“The Lord Dragon,” Canler said with a snort, taking a seat by the wall. “He’s abandoned us, Emarin. We’re nothing to him. It—”

“The Dragon Reborn carries the world on his shoulders, Canler,” Androl said softly, catching Canler up short. “I don’t know why he’s left us here, but I’d prefer to assume it’s because he thinks we can handle ourselves.” Androl fingered the straps of leather, then stood up. “This is our time of proving, the test of the Black Tower. If we have to run to the Aes Sedai to protect us from our own, we subject ourselves to their authority. If we have to run to the Lord Dragon, then we will be nothing once he is gone.”

“There can be no reconciliation with Taim, now,” Emarin said. “We all know what he is doing.”

Androl didn’t look at Pevara. She had explained what she suspected was happening, and she—despite years of training at keeping her emotions in check—had not been able to quiet the fear in her voice as she spoke of it. Thirteen Myrddraal and thirteen channelers, together in a horrifying rite, could turn any channeler to the Shadow. Against his will. “What he does is pure, undiluted evil,” Pevara said. “This is no longer a division between the men who follow one leader and those who follow another. This is the Dark One’s work, Androl. The Black Tower has fallen under the Shadow. You must accept that.”

“The Black Tower is a dream,” he said, meeting her eyes. “A shelter for men who can channel, a place of our own, where men need not fear, or run, or be hated. I will not surrender that to Taim. I will not.”

The room fell silent save for the sounds of rain on the windows. Emarin began to nod, and Canler stood up, taking Androl by the arm.

“You’re right,” Canler said. “Burn me if you ain’t right, Androl. But what can we do? We’re weak, outnumbered.”

“Emarin,” Androl said, “did you ever hear about the Knoks Rebellion?

Indeed. It caused quite a stir, even outside of Murandy.”

“Bloody Murandians,” Canler spat. “They’ll steal your coat off your back and beat you bloody if you don’t offer your shoes, too.”

Emarin raised an eyebrow.

“Knoks was well outside Lugard, Canler,” Androl said. “I think you d find the people there not dissimilar to Andorans. The rebellion happened about... oh, ten years back, now.”

“A group of farmers overthrew their lord,” Emarin said. “He deserved it, by all accounts—Desartin was a horrid person, particularly to those beneath him. He had a force of soldiers, one of the largest outside of Lugard, and was looking as if he’d set up his own little kingdom. There wasn’t a thing the King could do about it.”

“And Desartin was overthrown?” Canler asked.

“By simple men and women who had had too much of his brutality, Androl said. “In the end, many of the mercenaries who had been his cronies stood with us. Though he’d seemed so strong, his rotten core led to his downfall. It seems bad here, but most of Taim’s men are not loyal to him. Men like him don’t inspire loyalty. They collect cronies, others who hope to share in the power or wealth. We can and will find a way to overthrow him.”

The others nodded, though Pevara simply watched him with pursed lips. Androl couldn’t help feeling a bit of the fool; he didn’t think the others should be looking to him, instead of someone distinguished like Emarin or someone powerful like Nalaam.

From the corner of his eye, he saw the shadows underneath the table lengthen, reaching for him. He set his jaw. They wouldn’t dare take him with so many people around, would they? If the shadows were going to consume him, they’d wait until he was alone, trying to sleep.

Nights terrified him.

They’re coming when I don’t hold to saidin now, he thought. Burn me, the Source was cleansed! I’m not supposed to be losing more of my wits!

He gripped the seat of his stool until the terror retreated, the darkness withdrawing. Canler—looking uncharacteristically cheerful—said he was going to fetch them something to drink. He wandered toward the kitchen, but nobody was to go about alone, so he hesitated.

“I suppose I could use a drink as well,” Pevara said with a sigh, joining him.

Androl sat down to continue his work. As he did, Emarin pulled over a stool, settling down beside him. He did so nonchalantly, as if merely looking for a good place to relax and wanting a view out the window.

Emarin, however, wasn’t the type to do things without several motivations. “You fought in the Knoks Rebellion,” Emarin said softly.

“Did I say that?” Androl resumed his work on the leather.

“You said that when the mercenaries switched sides, they fought with you. You used the word ‘us’ to refer to the rebels.”

Androl hesitated. Burn me. I really need to watch myself. If Emarin had noticed, Pevara would have as well.

“I was just passing through,” Androl said, “and was caught up in something unanticipated.”

“You have a strange and varied past, my friend,” Emarin said. “The more I learn of it, the more curious I become.”

“I wouldn’t say that I’m the only one with an interesting past,” Androl said softly. “Lord Algarin of House Pendaloan.”

Emarin pulled back, eyes widening. “How did you know?”

“Fanshir had a book of Tairen noble lines,” Androl said, mentioning one of the Asha’man soldiers who had been a scholar before coming to the Tower. “It included a curious notation. A house troubled by a history of men with an unmentionable problem, the most recent one having shamed the house not a few dozen years ago.”

“I see. Well, I suppose that it is not too much of a surprise that I am a nobleman.”

“One who has experience with Aes Sedai,” Androl continued, “and who treats them with respect, despite—or because of—what they did for his family. A Tairen nobleman who does this, mind you. One who does not mind serving beneath what you would term farmboys, and who sympathizes with citizen rebels. If I might say, my friend, that is not a prevalent attitude among your countrymen. I wouldn’t hesitate to guess you’ve had an interesting past of your own.”

Emarin smiled. “Point conceded. You would be wonderful at the Game of Houses, Androl.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” Androl said with a grimace. “Last time I tried my hand at it, I almost...” He stopped.

“What?”

“I’d rather not say,” Androl said, face flushing. He was not going to explain that period of his life. Light, people will think I’m as much a tale-spinner as Nalaam if I continue on like this.

Emarin turned to watch the rain hitting the window. “The Knoks Rebellion succeeded for only a short time, if I remember correctly. Within two years the noble line had reestablished itself and the dissenters were driven out or executed.”

“Yes,” Androl said softly.

“So we do a better job of it here,” Emarin said. “I’m your man, Androl. We all are.”

“No,” Androl said. “We are the Black Tower’s men. I’ll lead you, if I must, but this isn’t about me, or about you, or any of us individually. I am only in charge until Logain returns.”

If he ever returns, Androl thought. Gateways into the Black Tower don’t work any longer. Is he trying to return, but finds himself locked out?

“Very well,” Emarin said. “What do we do?”

Thunder crashed outside. “Let me think,” Androl said, picking up his piece of leather and his tools. “Give me one hour.

—  —

“I’m sorry,” Jesamyn said softly, kneeling beside Talmanes. “There is nothing I can do. This wound is too far along for my skill.”

Talmanes nodded, replacing the bandage. The skin all along his side had turned black as if from terrible frostbite.

The Kinswoman frowned at him. She was a youthful-looking woman with golden hair, though with channelers, ages could be very deceptive. “I’m amazed you can still walk.”

“I’m not certain it could be defined as walking,” Talmanes said, limping back toward the soldiers. He could still gimp along on his own, mostly, but the dizzy moments came more frequently now.

Guybon was arguing with Dennel, who kept pointing at his map and gesturing. There was such a haze of smoke in the air that many of the men had tied kerchiefs to their faces. They looked like a band of bloody Aiel.

. . even the Trollocs are pulling out of that quarter,” Guybon insisted. “There’s too much fire.”

“The Trollocs are pulling back to the walls all through the city,” Dennel replied. “They’re going to let the city burn all night. The only sector not burning is the one where the Waygate is. They knocked down all of the buildings there to create a firewall.”

“They used the One Power,” Jesamyn said from behind Talmanes. “I felt it. Black sisters. I would not suggest going in that direction.”

Jesamyn was the only Kinswoman remaining; the other had fallen. Jesamyn wasn’t powerful enough to create a gateway, but neither was she useless. Talmanes had watched her burn six Trollocs that had broken through his line.

He’d spent that skirmish sitting back, overcome by the pain. Fortunately, Jesamyn had given him some herbs to chew. They made his head feel fuzzier, but made the pain manageable. It felt as if his body were in a vise, being smashed slowly, but at least he could stay on his feet.

“We take the quickest route,” Talmanes said. “The quarter that isn't burning is too close to the dragons; I wont risk the Shadowspawn discovering Aludra and her weapons.” Assuming they haven't already.

Guybon glared at him, but this was the Band’s operation. Guybon was welcome, but he wasn’t part of their command structure.

Talmanes’ force continued through the dark city, wary of ambushes. Though they knew the approximate location of the warehouse, getting there was problematic. Many large streets were blocked by wreckage, fire or the enemy. His force had to crawl through alleyways and lanes so twisted that even Guybon and the others from Caemlyn had difficulty following their intended direction.

Their path skirted portions of the city that burned with a heat so strong, it was probably melting cobblestones. Talmanes stared at these flames until his eyes felt dry, then led his men in further detours.

Inch by inch, they approached Aludra’s warehouse. Twice they encountered Trollocs prowling for refugees to kill. They finished these off, the remaining crossbowmen felling over half of each group before they had time to respond.

Talmanes stood to watch, but did not trust himself to fight any longer. That wound had left him too weak. Light, why had he left his horse behind? Fool move, that. Well, the Trollocs would have chased it off anyway.

My thoughts are starting to go in circles. He pointed with his sword down a crossing alley. The scouts scurried on ahead and looked in both directions before giving the all clear. I can barely think. Not much longer now before the darkness takes me.

He would see the dragons protected first. He had to.

Talmanes stumbled out of the alley onto a familiar street. They were close. On one side of the street, structures burned. The statues there looked like poor souls trapped in the flames. The fires raged around them, and their white marble was slowly being overcome with black.

The other side of the street was silent, nothing there burning. Shadows thrown by the statues danced and played, like revelers watching their enemies burn. The air smelled oppressively of smoke. Those shadows—and the burning statues—seemed to move, to Talmanes’ fuzzy mind. Dancing creatures of shadow. Dying beauties, consumed by a sickness upon the skin, darkening it, feasting upon it, killing the soul...

“We’re close now!” Talmanes said. He pushed himself forward into a shambling run. He couldn’t afford to slow them down. If that fire reaches the warehouse....

They arrived at a burned-out patch of ground; the fire had been here, and gone, apparently. A large wooden warehouse had stood here once, but it had fallen in. Now the timbers only smoldered, and were heaped with rubble and half-burned Trolloc corpses.

The men gathered around him, silent. The only sound was that of crackling flames. Cold sweat dripped down Talmanes’ face.

“We were too late,” Melten whispered. “They took them, didn’t they? The dragons would have made explosions if they’d burned. The Shadow-spawn arrived, took the dragons and burned the place down.

Around Talmanes, exhausted members of the Band sank down to their knees. I’m sorry, Mat, Talmanes thought. We tried. We

A sudden sound like thunder cracked through the city. It shook Talmanes to his bones, and the men looked up.

“Light,” Guybon said. “The Shadowspawn are using the dragons?”

“Maybe not,” Talmanes said. Strength surged through him, and he broke into a run again. His men filled in around him.

Each footfall sent a jolt of agony up his side. He passed down the street with the statues, flames to his right, cold stillness to his left.

BOOM.

Those explosions didn’t sound loud enough to be dragons. Dared he hope for an Aes Sedai? Jesamyn seemed to have perked up at the sounds, and was running in her skirts alongside the men. The group barreled around a corner two streets from the warehouse and came up on the back ranks of a snarling force of Shadowspawn.

Talmanes bellowed with a startling ferocity and raised his sword in two hands. The fire of his wound had spread through his entire body; even his fingers burned with it. He felt as if he’d become one of those statues, consigned to burn with the city.

He beheaded a Trolloc before it knew he was there, then threw himself at the next creature in line. It drew back with an almost liquid grace, turning a face on him that had no eyes, a cloak that did not stir in the wind. Pale lips drew back in a snarl.

Talmanes found himself laughing. Why not? And men said he didn't have a sense of humor. Talmanes moved into Apple Blossoms in the Wind, striking forward wildly with a strength and fury to match the fire that was killing him.

The Myrddraal obviously had him at a disadvantage. At his best, Talmanes would have needed help fighting one. The thing moved like a shadow, flowing from one form to the next, its terrible blade darting toward Talmanes. It obviously felt it only needed to nick him.

It scored a hit on his cheek, the tip of its sword catching on his skin there and slicing a neat ribbon through the flesh. Talmanes laughed and struck at the weapon with his sword, causing the Fade’s mouth to open wide in surprise. That wasn’t how men were supposed to react. They were supposed to stumble at the burning flare of pain, cry out as they knew their life had ended.

“I’ve already had one of your flaming swords in me, you son of a goat,” Talmanes screamed, attacking time and time again. Blacksmith Strikes the Blade. Such an inelegant form. It fit his mood perfectly.

The Myrddraal stumbled. Talmanes swept back in a smooth motion, bringing his sword to the side and slicing the thing’s pale white arm free at the elbow. The limb twisted in the air, the Fade’s blade dropping from spasming fingers. Talmanes spun for momentum and brought his sword across with two hands, severing the Fade’s head from its neck.

Dark blood sprayed free and the thing fell, its remaining hand clawing at the bloodied stump as it collapsed. Talmanes stood over it, his sword suddenly feeling too heavy to hold. It slipped from his fingers, clanging to the paving stones. He tipped and lost his balance, falling face-first, but a hand caught him from behind.

“Light!” Melten exclaimed, looking at the body. “Another one?”

“I’ve found the secret to defeating them,” Talmanes whispered. “You just have to be dead already.” He chuckled to himself, though Melten just looked at him, seeming baffled.

Around them, dozens of Trollocs collapsed to the ground, writhing. They’d been linked to the Fade. The Band gathered around Talmanes, some bearing wounds; a few were down for good. They were exhausted and worn down; this batch of Trollocs could have ended them.

Melten retrieved Talmanes’ sword and swabbed it clean, but Talmanes found he was having trouble standing, so he sheathed it and had a man fetch a Trolloc spear for him to lean on.

“Ho, the back of the street!” a distant voice called. “Whoever you are, thank you!”

Talmanes limped forward, Filger and Mar scouting on ahead without needing orders. The street here was dark and cluttered with Trollocs that had fallen moments ago, so it was a moment before Talmanes could climb over the corpses and see who had called to him.

Someone had built a barricade at the end of the street. People stood atop it, including one who held aloft a torch. She had hair in braids, and wore a plain brown dress with a white apron. It was Aludra.

“Cauthon’s soldiers,” Aludra said, sounding unimpressed. “Your time, you certainly did take it coming for me.” In one hand, she held a stubby leather cylinder larger than a man’s fist, with a short length of dark fuse attached. Talmanes knew they exploded after she lit and threw them. The Band had used them before, hurling them from slings. They weren’t as devastating as dragons, but still powerful.

“Aludra,” Talmanes called, “you have the dragons? Please, tell me you saved them.”

She sniffed, waving for some people to pull apart a side of the barricade to admit his men. She appeared to have several hundred—maybe several thousand—townspeople back there, filling the street. As they opened the way for him, he saw a beautiful sight. Surrounded by townspeople, a hundred dragons rested there.

The bronze tubes had been fitted to wooden dragon carts to comprise a single unit, pulled by two horses. They were really quite maneuverable, all things considered. Those carts could be anchored in the ground to manage recoil, Talmanes knew, and the dragons fired once the horses were detached. There were more than enough people here to do the work horses should have been available to do.

“You think I would leave them?” Aludra asked. “This lot, they do not have the training to fire them. But they can pull a cart as well as anyone else.”

“We have to get them out,” Talmanes said.

“This, it is a new revelation to you?” Aludra asked. “As if I haven’t been trying to do that very thing. Your face, what is wrong with it?”

“I once ate a rather sharp cheese, and it has never quite sat right with me.”

Aludra cocked her head at him. Maybe if I smiled more when I made jokes, he thought idly, leaning against the side of the barricade. Then they’d understand what I meant. That, of course, raised the question: Did he want people to understand? It was often more amusing the other way. Besides, smiling was so garish. Where was the subtlety? And...

And he was really having trouble focusing. He blinked at Aludra, whose face had grown concerned in the torchlight.

“What about my face?” Talmanes raised a hand to his cheek. Blood. The Myrddraal. Right. “Just a cut.”

“And the veins?”

“Veins?” he asked, then noticed his hand. Tendrils of blackness, like ivy growing beneath the skin, had wound down his wrist and across the back of his hand toward the fingers. They seemed to be growing darker as he watched. “Oh, that. I’m dying, unfortunately. Terribly tragic. You wouldn’t happen to have any brandy, would you?”

“I—”

“My Lord!” a voice called.

Talmanes blinked, then forced himself to turn about, leaning on the spear. “Yes, Filger?”

“More Trollocs, my Lord. Lots of them! They’re filling in behind us.”

“Lovely. Set the table. I hope we have enough dinnerware. I knew we should have sent the maid for that five thousand seven hundred and thirty-first set.”

“Are you... feeling all right?” Aludra asked.

“Blood and bloody ashes, woman, do I look like I’m feeling well? Guybon! Retreat is cut off. How far from the east gates are we?”

“East gates?” Guybon called. “Maybe a half-hour march. We need to head further down the hill.”

“Onward we go, then,” Talmanes said. “Take the scouts and go on point. Dennel, make sure those local folk are organized to haul those dragons! Be ready to set up the weapons.”

“Talmanes,” Aludra said, stepping in. “Dragons’ eggs and powder, we have few of them left. We will need the supplies from Baerlon. Today, if you set up the dragons... A few shots for each dragon, this is all I can give you.”

Dennel nodded. “Dragons aren’t meant to make up frontline units all by themselves, my Lord. They need support to keep the enemy from coming too close and destroying the weapons. We can man those dragons, but we won’t last long without infantry.”

“That’s why we’re running,” Talmanes said. Fie turned, took a step, and was so woozy he almost fell. “And I believe... I believe I’ll need a horse...”

—  —

Moghedien stepped onto a platform of stone floating in the middle of an open sea. Glassy and blue, the water rippled in the occasional breeze, but there were no waves. Neither was there land in sight.

Moridin stood at the side of the platform, hands clasped behind his back. In front of him, the sea burned. The fire gave off no smoke, but it was hot, and the water near it hissed and boiled. Stone flooring in the middle of an endless sea. Water that burned. Moridin always had enjoyed creating impossibilities within his dreamshards.

“Sit,” Moridin said to her, not turning.

She obeyed, choosing one of the four chairs suddenly arranged near the center of the platform. The sky was deep blue, cloudless, and the sun hung at about three-quarters of the way to its zenith. How long had it been since she’d seen the sun in Tel’aran’rhiod? Lately, that omnipresent black storm had blanketed the sky. But, then, this wasn’t completely Tel’aran’rhiod. Nor was it Moridin’s dream, but a... melding of the two. Like a temporary lean-to built off the side of the dream world. A bubble of merged realities.

Moghedien wore a gown of black and gold, lacework on the sleeves faintly reminiscent of a spider’s web. Only faintly. One did well not to overuse a theme.

As she sat, Moghedien tried to exude control and self-confidence. Once, both had come easily for her. Today, trying to capture either was like trying to snatch dandelion seeds from the air, only to have them dance away from her hand. Moghedien gritted her teeth, angry at herself. She was one of the Chosen. She had made kings weep, armies tremble. Her name had been used by generations of mothers to frighten their children. And now...

She felt at her neck, found the pendant hanging there. It was still safe. She knew it was, but touching it brought her calmness.

“Do not grow too comfortable wearing that,” Moridin said. A wind blew across him, rippling the pristine ocean surface. On that wind she heard faint screams. “You are not completely forgiven, Moghedien. This is a probation. Perhaps when you fail next, I will give the mindtrap to Demandred.”

She sniffed. “He would toss it aside in boredom. Demandred wants only one thing. Al’Thor. Anyone who does not lead him toward his goal is unimportant to him.”

“You underestimate him,” Moridin said softly. “The Great Lord is pleased with Demandred. Very pleased. You, however... ”

Moghedien sank down in her chair, feeling her tortures anew. Pain such as few in this world had ever known. Pain beyond what a body should be able to endure. She held to the cour’souvra and embraced saidar. That brought some relief.

Before, channeling in the same room as the cour’souvra had been agonizing. Now that she, rather than Moridin, wore the pendant, it was not so. Not just a pendant, she thought, clutching it. My soul itself. Darkness within! She had never thought that she, of all people, would find herself subject to one of these. Was she not the spider, careful in all that she did?

She reached her other hand up, clasping it over the one that held the pendant. What if it fell, what if someone took it? She wouldn’t lose it. She couldn’t lose it.

This is what I have become? She felt sick. I have to recover. Somehow. She forced herself to let go of the mindtrap.

The Last Battle was upon them; already, Trollocs poured into the southern lands. It was a new War of the Shadow, but only she and the other Chosen knew the deeper secrets of the One Power. The ones she hadn’t been forced to give up to those horrible women...

No, don’t think about that. The pain, the suffering, the failure.

In this war, they faced no Hundred Companions, no Aes Sedai with centuries of skill and practice. She would prove herself, and past errors would be forgotten.

Moridin continued to stare at those impossible flames. The only sounds were that of the fire and of the water that boiled near it. He would eventually explain his purpose in summoning her, wouldn’t he? He had been acting increasingly strange, lately. Perhaps his madness was returning. Once, the man named Moridin—or Ishamael, or Elan Morin Tedronai—would have delighted in holding a cour’souvra for one of his rivals. Fie would have invented punishments, thrilled in her agony.

There had been some of that at the start; then... he had lost interest. Fie spent more and more time alone, staring into flames, brooding. The punishments he had administered to her and Cyndane had seemed almost routine.

She found him more dangerous this way.

A gateway split the air just to the side of the platform. “Do we really need to do this every other day, Moridin?” Demandred asked, stepping through and into the World of Dreams. Handsome and tall, he had jet hair and a prominent nose. He gave Moghedien a glance, noting the mindtrap on her neck before continuing. “I have important things to do, and you interrupt them.”

“There are people you need to meet, Demandred,” Moridin said softly. “Unless the Great Lord has named you Nae’blis without informing me, you will do as you are told. Your playthings can wait.”

Demandred’s expression darkened, but he did not object further. He let the gateway close, then moved to the side, looking down into the sea. He frowned. What was in the waters? She hadn’t looked. She felt foolish for not having done so. What had happened to her caution?

Demandred walked to one of the chairs near her, but did not sit. He stood, contemplating Moridin from behind. What had Demandred been doing? During her period bound to the mindtrap, she had done Moridin’s bidding, but had never found an answer to Demandred.

She shivered again, thinking of those months under Moridin’s control. I will have vengeance.

“You’ve let Moghedien free,” Demandred said. “What of this... Cyndane?”

“She is not your concern,” Moridin said.

Moghedien had not failed to notice that Moridin still wore Cyndane’s mindtrap. Cyndane. It meant “last chance” in the Old Tongue, but the woman’s true nature was one secret that Moghedien had discovered. Moridin himself had rescued Lanfear from Sindhol, freeing her from the creatures that feasted upon her ability to channel.

In order to rescue her, and of course to punish her, Moridin had slain her. That had allowed the Great Lord to recapture her soul and place it in a new body. Brutal, but very effective. Precisely the kind of solution the Great Lord preferred.

Moridin was focused on his flames, and Demandred on him, so Moghedien used the chance to slip out of her seat and walk to the edge of the floating stone platform. The water below was completely clear. Through it she could see people very distinctly. They floated with their legs chained to something deep below, arms bound behind them. They swayed like kelp.

There were thousands of them. Each of them looked up at the sky with wide, horrified eyes. They were locked in a perpetual state of drowning. Not dead, not allowed to die, but constantly gasping for air and finding only water. As she watched, something dark reached up from below and pulled one of them down into the depths. Blood rose like a blooming flower; it caused the others to struggle all the more urgently.

Moghedien smiled. It did her good to see someone other than herself suffering. These might simply be figments, but it was possible that they were ones who had failed the Great Lord.

Another gateway opened at the side of the platform, and an unfamiliar woman stepped through. The creature had alarmingly unpleasant features, with a hooked yet bulbous nose and pale eyes that were off center with one another. She wore a dress that tried to be fine, of yellow silk, but it only served to highlight the woman’s ugliness.

Moghedien sneered and returned to her seat. Why was Moridin admitting a stranger to one of their meetings? This woman could channel; she must be one of those useless women who called themselves Aes Sedai in this Age.

Granted, Moghedien thought, sitting, she is powerful How had Moghedien missed noticing one with this talent among the Aes Sedai? Her sources had picked out that wretched lightskirt Nynaeve almost immediately, yet they’d missed this hag?

“This is who you wish us to meet?” Demandred said, lips turning down.

“No,” Moridin said absently. “You’ve met Hessalam before.”

Hessalam? It meant... “without forgiveness” in the Old Tongue. The woman met Moghedien’s eyes proudly, and there was something familiar about her stance.

“I have things to be about, Moridin,” the newcomer said. “This had better be—”

Moghedien gasped. The tone in that voice...

“Do not take that tone with me,” Moridin cut in, speaking softly, not turning. “Do not take it with any of us. Currently, even Moghedien is favored more than you.”

Graendal?” Moghedien asked, horrified.

“Do not use that name!” Moridin said, spinning on her, the burning water flaring up. “It has been stripped from her.”

Graendal—Hessalam—sat down without looking again at Moghedien. Yes, the way the woman carried herself was right. It was her.

Moghedien almost chortled with glee. Graendal had always used her looks as a bludgeon. Well, now they were a bludgeon of a different type. How perfect! The woman must be positively writhing inside. What had she done to earn such a punishment? Graendal’s stature—her authority, the myths told about her—were all linked to her beauty. What now? Would she have to start searching for the most horrid people alive to keep as pets, the only ones who could compete with her ugliness?

This time, Moghedien did laugh. A quiet laugh, but Graendal heard. The woman shot her a glare that could have set a section of the ocean aflame all on its own.

Moghedien returned a calm gaze, feeling more confident now. She resisted the urge to stroke the cour’souvra. Bring what you will, Graendal, she thought. We are on level footing now. We shall see who ends this race ahead.

A stronger wind blew past, and ripples started to rise around them, though the platform itself remained secure. Moridin let his fire die out, and nearby, waves rose. Moghedien could make out bodies, little more than dark shadows, inside those waves. Some were dead. Others struggled for the surface, their chains removed, but as they neared the open air, something always towed them back down again.

“We are few, now,” Moridin said. “We four, and the one who is punished most, are all that remain. By definition, that makes us the strongest.”

Some of us are, Moghedien thought. One of us was slain by al’Thor, Moridin, and required the Great Lord’s hand to return him. Why had Moridin never been punished for his failure? Well, it was best not to look too long for fairness in the Great Lord’s hand.

“Still, we are too few.” Moridin waved a hand, and a stone doorway appeared on the side of the platform. Not a gateway, just a door. This was Moridin’s dreamshard; he could control it. The door opened, and a man strode through it and out onto the platform.

Dark-haired, the man had the features of a Saldaean—a nose that was faintly hooked, eyes that tilted. He was handsome and tall, and Moghedien recognized him. “The leader of those fledgling male Aes Sedai? I know this man, Mazri—”

“That name has been discarded,” Moridin said. “Just as each of us, upon being Chosen, discarded what we were and the names men called us. From this moment on, this man shall be known only as M’Hael. One of the Chosen.”

“Chosen?” Hessalam seemed to choke on the word. “This child? He—” She cut off.

It was not their place to debate if one was Chosen. They could argue among themselves, even plot, if they did so with care. But questioning the Great Lord... that was not allowed. Ever.

Hessalam said no more. Moridin would not dare call this man Chosen if the Great Lord had not decided it. There was no argument to be made. Still, Moghedien shivered. Taim... M’Hael... was said to be strong, perhaps as strong as the rest of them, but elevating one from this Age, with all of their ignorance.... It galled her to consider that this M’Hael would be regarded as her equal.

“I see the challenge in your eyes,” Moridin said, looking at the three of them, “though only one of you was foolish enough to start voicing it. M’Hael has earned his reward. Too many of our number threw themselves into contests with al’Thor when he was presumed to be weak. M’Hael instead earned Lews Therin’s trust, then took charge of the training of his weapons. He has been raising a new generation of Dreadlords to the Shadow’s cause. What do the three of you have to show for your work since being released?”

“You will know the fruits I have harvested, Moridin,” Demandred said, voice low. “You will know them in bushels and droves. Just remember my requirement: I face al’Thor on the field of battle. His blood is mine, and no one else’s.” He met each of their eyes in turn, then finally those of M’Hael. There seemed to be a familiarity to them. The two had met before.

You will have competition with that one, Demandred, Moghedien thought. He wants al’Thor nearly as much as you do.

Demandred had been changing lately. Once, he wouldn’t have cared who killed Lews Therin—so long as the man died. What made Demandred insist on doing the deed himself?

“Moghedien,” Moridin said. “Demandred has plans for the war to come. You are to assist him.”

Assist him?” she said. “I—”

“Do you forget yourself so quickly, Moghedien?” Moridin’s voice was silky. “You will do as you are told. Demandred wants you watching over one of the armies that now lacks proper monitoring. Speak a single word of complaint, and you will realize that the pain you have known up to now is but a shadow of true agony.”

Her hand went to the cour’souvra at her neck. Looking into his eyes, she felt her authority evaporate. I hate you, she thought. I hate you more for doing this to me in front of the others.

“The last days are upon us,” Moridin said, turning his back on them. “In these hours, you will earn your final rewards. If you have grudges, put them behind you. If you have plots, bring them to completion. Make your final plays, for this... this is the end.”

Talmanes lay on his back, staring up at a dark sky. The clouds above seemed to be reflecting light from below, the light of a dying city. That was wrong. Light came from above, didn’t it?

He’d fallen from the horse not long after starting for the city gate. He could remember that, most of the time. Pain made it hard to think. People yelled at one another.

I should have... I should have taunted Mat more, he thought, a hint of a smile cracking his lips. Stupid time to be thinking of such things. I have to... have to find the dragons. Or did we find them already... ?

“I’m telling you, the bloody things don’t work like that!” Dennel’s voice. “They’re not bloody Aes Sedai on wheels. We can’t make a wall of fire. We can send these balls of metal hurtling through the Trollocs.”

“They explode.” Guybon’s voice. “We could use the extras like I say.

Talmanes’ eyes drifted closed.

“The balls explode, yes,” Dennel said. “But we have to launch them first. Setting them all in a row and letting the Trollocs run over them wont do much.”

A hand shook Talmanes’ shoulder. “Lord Talmanes,” Melten said. “There is no dishonor in letting it end now. I know the pain is great. May the last embrace of the mother shelter you.”

A sword being drawn. Talmanes steeled himself.

Then he found that he really, really didn’t want to die.

He forced his eyes open and held up a hand to Melten, who stood over him. Jesamyn hovered nearby with arms folded, looking worried.

“Help me to my feet,” Talmanes said.

Melten hesitated, then did so.

“You shouldn’t be standing,” Jesamyn said.

“Better than being beheaded in honor,” Talmanes grumbled, gritting his teeth against the pain. Light, was that his hand? It was so dark, it looked as if it had been charred in a fire. “What... what is going on?

we're cornered, my Lord,” Melten said grimly, eyes solemn. He thought them all as good as dead. “Dennel and Guybon are arguing over placement of the dragons for a last stand. Aludra is measuring the charges.”

Talmanes, finally standing, sagged against Melten. Before him, two thousand people clustered in the large city square. They huddled like men in the wilderness seeking one another’s warmth on a cold night. Dennel and Guybon had set up the dragons in a half-circle bowed outward, pointing toward the center of the city, refugees behind. The Band was now committed to manning the dragons; three pairs of hands were needed to operate each weapon. Almost all of the Band had had at least some training.

The buildings nearby had caught fire, but the light was doing strange things. Why didn’t it reach the streets? Those were all too dark. As if they’d been painted. Like...

He blinked, clearing the tears of pain from his eyes, realization dawning. Trollocs filled the streets like ink flowing toward the half-circle of dragons that were pointed at them.

Something held the Trollocs back for the moment. They’re waiting until they are all together for a rush, Talmanes thought.

Calls and snarls came from behind. Talmanes pivoted, then clutched Melten’s arm as the world lurched. He waited for it to steady. The pain... the pain was actually dulling. Like glowing flames running out of fresh coal. It had feasted upon him, but there wasn’t much left of him for it to eat.

As things steadied, Talmanes saw what was creating the snarls. The square they were in adjoined the city wall, but the townspeople and soldiers had kept their distance from the wall, for it was coated with Trollocs, like a thick grime. They raised weapons in the air and roared down at the people.

“They throw down spears at anyone who comes too close, Melten said. “We’d been hoping to reach the wall, then follow it along to the gate, but we can’t—not with those things up there raining death upon us. All other routes are cut off.”

Aludra approached Guybon and Dennel. “Charges, I can set under the dragons,” she said to them; softly, but not as softly as she should have. “These charges, they will destroy the weapons. They may hurt the people in an unpleasant way.”

“Do it,” Guybon said very softly. “What the Trollocs would do is worse, and we cannot allow the dragons to fall into the Shadow’s hands. That’s why they’re waiting. Their leaders are hoping that a sudden rush will give them time to overwhelm us and seize the weapons.”

“They’re moving!” a soldier called from beside the dragons. “Light, they’re coming!”

That dark slime of Shadowspawn bubbled down the streets. Teeth, nails, claws, too-human eyes. The Trollocs came from all sides, eager for the kill. Talmanes struggled to draw breath.

On the walls, the calls grew excited. We’re surrounded, Talmanes thought.

Pressed back against the wall, caught in a net. We...

Pressed back against the wall.

“Dennel!” Talmanes shouted over the din. The captain of dragons turned from his line, where men waited with burning punks for the call to launch the one volley they’d have.

Talmanes took a deep breath that made his lungs burn. “You told me that you could level an enemy bulwark in only a few shots.”

“Of course,” Dennel called. “But were not trying to enter... ” He trailed off.

Light, Talmanes thought. We’re all so exhausted. We should have seen this. “You in the middle, Ryden’s dragon squad, about-face!” Talmanes screamed. “The rest of you, stay in position and fire at the oncoming Trollocs! Move, move, mover

The dragoners sprang into motion, Ryden and his men hastily turning their weapons about, wheels creaking. The other dragons began to fire a pattern of shot that sprayed through the streets entering the square. The booms were deafening, causing refugees to scream and cover their ears. It sounded like the end of the world. Hundreds, thousands of Trollocs went down in pools of blood as dragons’ eggs exploded in their midst. The square filled with white smoke that poured from the mouths of the dragons.

The refugees behind, already terrified by what they had just witnessed, shrieked as Ryden’s dragons turned on them, and most of them fell to the ground in fright, clearing a path. A path that exposed the Trolloc-infested city wall. Ryden’s line of dragons bowed inward like a cup, the reverse formation of those firing into the Trollocs behind, so that the tubes were pointed at the same section of city wall.

“Give me one of those bloody punks!” Talmanes shouted, holding out a hand. One of the dragoners obeyed, passing him a flaming brand with a glowing red tip. He pushed away from Melten, determined to stand on his own for the moment.

Guybon stepped up. The man’s voice sounded soft to Talmanes’ strained ears. “Those walls have stood for hundreds of years. My poor city. My poor, poor city.”

“It’s not your city any longer,” Talmanes said, raising his flaming brand high in the air, defiant before a wall thick with Trollocs, a burning city to his back. “It’s theirs.”

Talmanes swiped the brand down in the air, leaving a trail of red. His signal ignited a roar of dragonfire that echoed throughout the square.

Trollocs—pieces of them, at least—blew into the air. The wall under them exploded like a stack of children’s blocks kicked at a full run. As Talmanes wavered, his vision blackening, he saw the wall crumble outward. When he toppled, slipping into unconsciousness, the ground seemed to tremble from the force of his fall.

CHAPTER 1
Eastward the Wind Blew

The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose in the Mountains of Mist. 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.

Eastward the wind blew, descending from lofty mountains and coursing over desolate hills. It passed into the place known as the Westwood, an area that had once flourished with pine and leatherleaf. Here, the wind found little more than tangled underbrush, thick save around an occasional towering oak. Those looked stricken by disease, bark peeling free, branches drooping. Elsewhere needles had fallen from pines, draping the ground in a brown blanket. None of the skeletal branches of the Westwood put forth buds.

North and eastward the wind blew, across underbrush that crunched and cracked as it shook. It was night, and scrawny foxes picked over the rotting ground, searching in vain for prey or carrion. No spring birds had come to call, and—most telling—the howls of wolves had gone silent across the land.

The wind blew out of the forest and across Taren Ferry. What was left of it. The town had been a fine one, by local standards. Dark buildings, tall above their redstone foundations, a cobbled street, built at the mouth of the land known as the Two Rivers.

The smoke had long since stopped rising from burned buildings, but there was little left of the town to rebuild. Feral dogs hunted through the rubble for meat. They looked up as the wind passed, their eyes hungry.

The wind crossed the river eastward. Fiere, clusters of refugees carrying torches walked the long road from Baerlon to Whitebridge despite the late hour. They were sorry groups, with heads bowed, shoulders huddled. Some bore the coppery skin of Domani, their worn clothing displaying the hardships of crossing the mountains with little in the way of supplies. Others came from farther off. Taraboners with haunted eyes above dirty veils. Farmers and their wives from northern Ghealdan. All had heard rumors that in Andor, there was food. In Andor, there was hope.

So far, they had yet to find either.

Eastward the wind blew, along the river that wove between farms without crops. Grasslands without grass. Orchards without fruit.

Abandoned villages. Trees like bones with the flesh picked free. Ravens often clustered in their branches; starveling rabbits and sometimes larger game picked through the dead grass underneath. Above it all, the omnipresent clouds pressed down upon the land. Sometimes, that cloud cover made it impossible to tell if it was day or night.

As the wind approached the grand city of Caemlyn, it turned northward, away from the burning city—orange, red and violent, spewing black smoke toward the hungry clouds above. War had come to Andor in the still of night. The approaching refugees would soon discover that they’d been marching toward danger. It was not surprising. Danger was in all directions. The only way to avoid walking toward it would be to stand still.

As the wind blew northward, it passed people sitting beside roads, alone or in small groups, staring with the eyes of the hopeless. Some lay as they hungered, looking up at those rumbling, boiling clouds. Other people trudged onward, though toward what, they knew not. The Last Battle, to the north, whatever that meant. The Last Battle was not hope. The Last Battle was death. But it was a place to be, a place to go.

In the evening dimness, the wind reached a large gathering far to the north of Caemlyn. This wide field broke the forest-patched landscape, but it was overgrown with tents like fungi on a decaying log. Tens of thousands of soldiers waited beside campfires that were quickly denuding the area of timber.

The wind blew among them, whipping smoke from fires into the faces of soldiers. The people here didn’t display the same sense of hopelessness as the refugees, but there was a dread to them. They could see the sickened land. They could feel the clouds above. They knew.

The world was dying. The soldiers stared at the flames, watching the wood be consumed. Ember by ember, what had once been alive turned to dust.

A company of men inspected armor that had begun to rust despite being well oiled. A group of white-robed Aiel collected water—former warriors who refused to take up weapons again, despite their toh having been served. A cluster of frightened servants, sure that tomorrow would bring war between the White Tower and the Dragon Reborn, organized stores inside tents shaken by the wind.

Men and women whispered the truth into the night. The end has come. The end has come. All will fall. The end has come.

Laughter broke the air.

Warm light spilled from a large tent at the center of the camp, bursting around the tent flap and from beneath the sides.

Inside that tent, Rand al’Thor—the Dragon Reborn—laughed, head thrown back.

“So what did she do?” Rand asked when his laughter subsided. He poured himself a cup of red wine, then one for Perrin, who blushed at the question.

He’s become harder, Rand thought, but somehow he hasn’t lost that innocence of his. Not completely. To Rand, that seemed a marvelous thing. A wonder, like a pearl discovered in a trout. Perrin was strong, but his strength hadn’t broken him.

Well, Perrin said, you know how Marin is. She somehow manages to look at even Cenn as if he were a child in need of mothering. Finding Faile and me lying there on the floor like two fool youths... well, I think she was torn between laughing at us and sending us into the kitchen to scrub dishes. Separately, to keep us out of trouble.”

Rand smiled, trying to picture it. Perrin—burly, solid Perrin—so weak he could barely walk. It was an incongruous image. Rand wanted to assume his friend was exaggerating, but Perrin didn’t have a dishonest hair on his head. Strange, how much about a man could change while his core remained exactly the same.

Anyway,” Perrin said after taking a drink of wine, “Faile picked me up off the floor and set me on my horse, and the two of us pranced about looking important. I didn’t do much. The fighting was accomplished by the others—I’d have had trouble lifting a cup to my lips.” He stopped, his golden eyes growing distant. “You should be proud of them, Rand. Without Dannil, your father and Mat’s father, without all of them, I wouldn’t have managed half what I did. No, not a tenth.”

“I believe it.” Rand regarded his wine. Lews Therin had loved wine. A part of Rand—that distant part, the memories of a man he had been—was displeased by the vintage. Few wines in the current world could match the favored vintages of the Age of Legends. Not the ones he had sampled, at least.

He took a small drink, then set the wine aside. Min still slumbered in another part of the tent, sectioned off with a curtain. Events in Rand’s dreams had awakened him. He had been glad for Perrin’s arrival to take his mind off what he had seen.

Mienn... No. He would not let that woman distract him. That was probably the point of what he had seen.

“Walk with me,” Rand said. “I need to check on some things for tomorrow.”

They went out into the night. Several Maidens fell into step behind them as Rand walked toward Sebban Balwer, whose services Perrin had loaned to Rand. Which was fine with Balwer, who was prone to gravitate toward those holding the greatest power.

“Rand?” Perrin asked, walking beside him with a hand on Mah’alleinir. “I’ve told you about all of this before, the siege of the Two Rivers, the fighting... Why ask after it again?”

“I asked about the events before, Perrin. I asked after what happened, but I did not ask after the people it happened to.” He looked at Perrin, making a globe of light for them to see by as they walked in the night. “I need to remember the people. Not doing so is a mistake I have made too often in the past.”

The stirring wind carried the scent of campfires from Perrin’s nearby camp and the sounds of smiths working on weapons. Rand had heard the stories: Power-wrought weapons discovered again. Perrin’s men were working overtime, running his two Asha’man ragged, to make as many as possible.

Rand had lent him as many more Asha’man as he could spare, if only because—as soon as they’d heard—he’d had dozens of Maidens presenting themselves and demanding Power-wrought spearheads. It only makes sense, Rand al’Thor, Beralna had explained. His smiths can make four spearheads for every sword. She’d grimaced saying the word “sword,” as if it tasted like seawater.

Rand had never tasted seawater. Lews Therin had. Knowing facts like that had greatly discomforted him once. Now he had learned to accept that part of him.

“Can you believe what has happened to us?” Perrin asked. “Light, sometimes I wonder when the man who owns all these fancy clothes is going to walk in on me and start yelling, then send me out to muck the stables for being too bigheaded for my collar.”

“The Wheel weaves as the Wheel wills, Perrin. We've become what we needed to become.”

Perrin nodded as they walked on the path between tents, lit by the glow of the light above Rand’s hand.

“How does it... feel?” Perrin asked. “Those memories you’ve gained?

Have you ever had a dream that, upon waking, you remembered in stark clarity? Not one that faded quickly, but one that stayed with you through the day?”

“Yes,” Perrin said, sounding oddly reserved. “Yes, I can say that I have.

It’s like that,” Rand said. “I can remember being Lews Therin, can remember doing what he did, as one remembers actions in a dream. It was me doing them, but I don’t necessarily like them—or think I’d take those actions if I were in my waking mind. That doesn’t change the fact that, in the dream, they seemed like the right actions.”

Perrin nodded.

“He’s me,” Rand said. “And I’m him. But at the same time, I’m not.

Well, you still seem like yourself,” Perrin said, though Rand caught a slight hesitation on the word “seem.” Had Perrin been about to say “smell” instead? “You haven’t changed that much.”

Rand doubted he could explain it to Perrin without sounding mad. The person he became when he wore the mantle of the Dragon Reborn... that wasn’t simply an act, wasn’t simply a mask.

It was who he was. He had not changed, he had not transformed. He had merely accepted.

That didn’t mean he had all of the answers. Despite four hundred years of memories nestled in his brain, he still worried about what he had to do. Lews Therin hadn’t known how to seal the Bore. His attempt had led to disaster. The taint, the Breaking, all for an imperfect prison with seals that were now brittle.

One answer kept coming to Rand. A dangerous answer. One that Lews Therin hadn’t considered.

What if the answer wasn’t to seal the Dark One away again? What if the answer, the final answer, was something else? Something more permanent. Yes, Rand thought to himself for the hundredth time. But is it possible? They arrived at the tent where the clerks worked, the Maidens fanning out behind them, Rand and Perrin entering. The clerks were up late, of course, and they didn’t look surprised to see Rand enter.

“My Lord Dragon,” Balwer said, bowing stiffly from where he stood beside a table of maps and stacks of paper. The dried-up little man sorted his papers nervously, one knobby elbow protruding from a hole in his oversized brown coat.

“Report,” Rand said.

“Roedran will come,” Balwer said, his voice thin and precise. “The Queen of Andor has sent for him, promising him gateways made by those Kinswomen of hers. Our eyes in his court say he is angry that he needs her help to attend, but is insistent that he needs to be at this meeting—if only so he doesn’t look left out.”

“Excellent,” Rand said. “Elayne knows nothing of your spies?”

“My Lord!” Balwer said, sounding indignant.

“Have you determined who is spying for her among our clerks?” Rand asked.

Balwer sputtered. “Nobody—”

“She’ll have someone, Balwer,” Rand said with a smile. “She all but taught me how to do this, after all. No matter. After tomorrow, my intentions will be manifest for all. Secrets won’t be needed.”

None save the ones I keep closest to my own heart.

“That means everyone will be here for the meeting, right?” Perrin asked. “Every major ruler? Tear and Illian?”

“The Amyrlin persuaded them to attend,” Balwer said. “I have copies of their exchanges here, if you wish to see them, my Lords.”

“I would,” Rand said. “Send them to my tent. I will look them over tonight.”

The shaking of the ground came suddenly. Clerks grabbed stacks of papers, holding them down and crying out as furniture crashed to the ground around them. Outside, men shouted, barely audible over the sound of trees breaking, metal clanging. The land groaned, a distant rumble.

Rand felt it like a painful muscle spasm.

Thunder shook the sky, distant, like a promise of things to come. The shaking subsided. The clerks remained holding their stacks of paper, as if afraid to let go and risk them toppling.

It’s really here, Rand thought. I’m not readywe’re not ready—but it’s here anyway.

He had spent many months fearing this day. Ever since Trollocs had come in the night, ever since Lan and Moiraine had dragged him from the Two Rivers, he had feared what was to come.

The Last Battle. The end. He found himself unafraid now that it had come. Worried, but not afraid.

I’m coming for you, Rand thought.

“Tell the people,” Rand said to his clerks. “Post warnings. Earthquakes will continue. Storms. Real ones, terrible ones. There will be a Breaking, and we cannot avoid it. The Dark One will try to grind this world to dust.”

The clerks nodded, shooting concerned glances at one another by lamplight. Perrin looked contemplative, but nodded faintly, as if to himself.

“Any other news?” Rand asked.

“The Queen of Andor may be up to something tonight, my Lord,” Balwer said.

“ ‘Something’ is not a very descriptive word, Balwer,” Rand said.

Balwer grimaced. “I’m sorry, my Lord. I don’t have more for you yet; I only just received this note. Queen Elayne was awakened by some of her advisors a short time ago. I don’t have anyone close enough to know why.”

Rand frowned, resting his hand on Laman’s sword at his waist.

“It could just be plans for tomorrow,” Perrin said.

“True,” Rand said. “Let me know if you discover anything, Balwer. Thank you. You do well here.”

The man stood taller. In these last days—days so dark—every man looked for something useful to do. Balwer was the best at what he did, and was confident in his own abilities. Still, it did no harm to be reminded of the fact by one who employed him, particularly if his employer was none other than the Dragon Reborn.

Rand left the tent, Perrin following.

“You’re worried about it,” Perrin said. “Whatever it was that awoke Elayne.”

“They would not awaken her without good cause,” Rand said softly. “Considering her state.”

Pregnant. Pregnant with his children. Light! He had only just learned of it. Why hadn’t she been the one to tell him?

The answer was simple. Elayne could feel Rand’s emotions as he felt hers. She would have been able to feel how he had been, recently. Before Dragonmount. Back when...

Well, she wouldn’t have wanted to confront him with a pregnancy when he’d been in such a state. Beyond that, he hadn’t exactly made himself easy to find.

Still, it was a shock.

I’m going to be a father, he thought, not for the first time. Yes, Lews Therin had had children, could remember them and his love for them. It wasn’t the same.

He, Rand al’Thor, would be a father. Assuming he won the Last Battle.

“They wouldn’t have awakened Elayne without good reason,” he continued, returning to task. “I’m worried, not because of what might have happened, but because of the potential distraction. Tomorrow will be an important day. If the Shadow has any inkling of tomorrow’s importance, it will try whatever it can to keep us from meeting, from unifying.”

Perrin scratched at his beard. “I have people close to Elayne. People who keep watch on things for me.”

Rand raised his hand. “Let’s go talk to them. I have a great deal to do tonight, but... Yes, I can’t let this slip.”

The two turned toward Perrin’s camp nearby, picking up their pace, Rand’s bodyguards following like shadows with veils and spears.

—  —

The night felt too quiet. Egwene, in her tent, worked on a letter to Rand. She was not certain if she would send it. Sending it was not important. Writing it was about organizing her thoughts, determining what she wished to say to him.

Gawyn pushed his way into the tent again, hand on his sword, Warder cloak rustling.

“Are you going to stay in this time?” Egwene asked, dipping her pen, “or are you going to go right back out?”

“I don’t like this night, Egwene.” He looked over his shoulder. “Something feels wrong about it.”

“The world holds its breath, Gawyn, waiting upon the events of the morrow. Did you send to Elayne, as I requested?”

“Yes. She won’t be awake. It’s too late for her.”

“We shall see.”

It wasn’t long before a messenger arrived from Elayne’s camp, bearing a small folded letter. Egwene read it, then smiled. “Come,” she said to Gawyn, rising and gathering a few things. She waved a hand, and a gateway split the air.

“We’re Traveling there?” Gawyn asked. “It’s only a short walk.”

“A short walk would require the Amyrlin to call upon the Queen of Andor,” Egwene said as Gawyn stepped through the gateway first and checked the other side. “Sometimes, I don’t want to take an action that starts people asking questions.”

Siuan would have killed for this ability, Egwene thought as she stepped through the gateway. How many more plots could that woman have spun if she’d been able to visit others as quickly, quietly and easily as this?

On the other side, Elayne stood beside a warm brazier. The Queen wore a pale green dress, her belly swollen from the babes within. She hastened over to Egwene and kissed her ring. Birgitte stood to one side of the tent flaps, arms folded, wearing her short red jacket and wide, sky-blue trousers, her golden braid down over her shoulder.

Gawyn cocked an eyebrow at his sister. “I'm surprised you are awake.

I’m waiting for a report,” Elayne said, gesturing for Egwene to join her in a pair of cushioned chairs beside the brazier.

“Something important?” Egwene asked.

Elayne fawned. “Jesamyn forgot to check in again from Caemlyn. I left the woman strict orders to send to me every two hours, and yet she dallies. Light, its probably nothing. Still, I asked Serinia to go to the Traveling grounds to check on things for me. I hope you don’t mind.”

“You need rest,” Gawyn said, folding his arms.

“Thank you very much for the advice,” Elayne said, “which I will ignore, as I ignored Birgitte when she said the same thing. Mother, what is it you wished to discuss?”

Egwene handed over the letter she had been working on.

“To Rand?” Elayne asked.

“You have a different perspective on him than I. Tell me what you think of this letter. I might not send it to him. I haven’t decided yet.”

“The tone is... forceful,” Elayne noted.

“He doesn’t seem to respond to anything else.”

After a moment of reading Elayne lowered the letter. “Perhaps we should simply let him do as he wishes.”

“Break the seals?” Egwene asked. “Release the Dark One?”

“Why not?”

“Light, Elayne!”

“It has to happen, doesn’t it?” Elayne asked. “I mean, the Dark One’s going to escape. He’s practically free already.”

Egwene rubbed her temples. “There is a difference between touching the world and being free. During the War of Power, the Dark One was never truly released into the world. The Bore let him touch it, but that was resealed before he could escape. If the Dark One had entered the world, the Wheel itself would have been broken. Here, I brought this to show you.”

Egwene retrieved a stack of notes from her satchel. The sheets had been hastily gathered by the librarians of the Thirteenth Depository. “I’m not saying that we shouldn’t break the seals,” Egwene said. “I’m saying that we can’t afford to risk one of Rand’s crackbrained schemes with this.”

Elayne smiled fondly. Light, but she was smitten. I can rely on her, can’t

I? It was hard to tell with Elayne these days. The woman’s ploy with the Kinswomen....

“We have unfortunately found nothing pertinent in your library ter’angreal.” The statue of the smiling bearded man had nearly caused a riot in the Tower; every sister had wanted to read the thousands of books that it held. “All of the books seem to have been written before the Bore was opened. They will keep searching, but these notes contain everything we could gather on the seals, the prison and the Dark One. If we break the seals at the wrong time, I fear it would mean an end to all things. Here, read this.” She handed a page to Elayne.

“The Karaethon Cycle” Elayne asked, curious. “ And light shall fail, and dawn shall not come, and still the captive rails.’ The captive is the Dark One?

I think so,” Egwene said. “The Prophecies are never clear. Rand intends to enter the Last Battle and break the seals immediately, but that is a dreadful idea. We have an extended war ahead of us. Freeing the Dark One now will strengthen the forces of the Shadow and weaken us.

“If it is to be done—and I still don’t know that it has to be—we should wait until the last possible moment. At the very least, we need to discuss it. Rand has been right about many things, but he has been wrong, too. This is not a decision he should be allowed to make alone.”

Elayne shuffled through the sheets of paper, then stopped on one of them. “ ‘His blood shall give us the Light...’ ” She rubbed the page with her thumb, as if lost in thought. “ ‘Wait upon the Light.’ Who added this note?”

“That is Doniella Alievin’s copy of the Termendal translation of The Karaethon Cycle” Egwene said. “Doniella made her own notes, and they have been the subject of nearly as much discussion among scholars as the Prophecies themselves. She was a Dreamer, you know. The only Amyrlin that we know of to have been one. Before me, anyway.”

“Yes,” Elayne said.

“The sisters who gathered these for me came to the same conclusion that I have,” Egwene said. “There may be a time to break the seals, but that time is not at the start of the Last Battle, whatever Rand thinks. We must wait for the right moment, and as the Watcher of the Seals, it is my duty to choose that moment. I won’t risk the world on one of Rand’s overly dramatic stratagems.”

“He has a fair bit of gleeman in him,” Elayne said, again fondly. “Your argument is a good one, Egwene. Make it to him. He will listen to you. He does have a good mind, and can be persuaded.”

“We shall see. For now, I—”

Egwene suddenly sensed a spike of alarm from Gawyn. She glanced over to see him turning. Hoofbeats outside. His ears weren’t any better than Egwene’s, but it was his job to listen for things like this.

Egwene embraced the True Source, causing Elayne to do likewise. Birgitte already had the tent flaps open, hand on her sword.

A frazzled messenger leaped from horseback outside, eyes wide. She scrambled into the tent, Birgitte and Gawyn falling in beside her immediately, watching in case she came too close.

She didn’t. “Caemlyn is under attack, Your Majesty,” the woman said, gasping for breath.

“What!” Elayne leaped to her feet. “How? Did Jarid Sarand finally—”

“Trollocs,” the messenger said. “It started near dusk.”

“Impossible!” Elayne said, grabbing the messenger by the arm and hauling her out of the tent. Egwene followed hastily. “It’s been over six hours since dusk,” Elayne said to the messenger. “Why haven’t we heard anything until now? What happened to the Kinswomen?”

“I was not told, my Queen,” the messenger said. “Captain Guybon sent me to fetch you at speed. He just arrived through the gateway.”

The Traveling ground was not far from Elayne’s tent. A crowd had gathered, but men and women made way for the Amyrlin and Queen. In moments the two of them reached the front.

A group of men in bloodied clothing trudged through the open gateway, pulling carts laden with Elayne’s new weapons, the dragons. Many of the men seemed near collapse. They smelled of smoke, and their skin was blackened by soot. Not a few of them slumped unconscious as Elayne’s soldiers grabbed the carts, which were obviously meant for horses to pull, to help them.

Other gateways opened nearby as Serinia Sedai and some of the stronger of the Kinswomen—Egwene wouldn’t think of them as Elayne’s Kinswomen— created them. Refugees poured through like the waters of a suddenly unstopped river.

“Go,” Egwene said to Gawyn, weaving her own gateway—one to the Traveling grounds in the White Tower camp nearby. “Send for as many Aes Sedai as we can rouse. Tell Bryne to ready his soldiers, tell them to do as Elayne orders and send them through gateways to the outskirts of Caemlyn. We will show solidarity with Andor.”

Gawyn nodded, ducking through the gateway. Egwene let it vanish, then joined Elayne near the gathering of wounded, confused soldiers. Sumeko, of the Kinswomen, had taken charge of seeing that Healing was given to those in immediate danger.

The air was thick with the smell of smoke. As Egwene hurried to Elayne, she caught sight of something through one of the gateways. Caemlyn afire.

Light! She stood stunned for a moment, then hurried on. Elayne was speaking with Guybon, commander of the Queens Guard. The handsome man seemed barely able to remain on his feet, his clothing and arms alarmingly bloodied.

“Darkfriends killed two of the women you left to send messages, Your Majesty,” he was saying in a tired voice. “Another fell in the fighting. But we retrieved the dragons. Once we... we escaped... ” He seemed pained by something. “Once we escaped through the hole in the city wall, we found that several mercenary bands were making their way around the city toward the gate that Lord Talmanes had left defended. By coincidence they were near enough to aid in our escape.”

“You did well,” Elayne said.

“But the city—”

“You did well” Elayne repeated, voice firm. “You retrieved the dragons and rescued all of these people? I will see you rewarded for this, Captain.”

“Give your reward to the men of the Band, Your Majesty. It was their work. And please, if you can do anything for Lord Talmanes...” He gestured to the fallen man whom several members of the Band had just carried through the gateway.

Elayne knelt beside him, and Egwene joined her. At first, Egwene assumed that Talmanes was dead, with his skin blackened. Then he drew a ragged breath.

“Light,” Elayne said, Delving his prostrate form. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

“Thakan’dar blades,” Guybon said.

“This is beyond either of us,” Egwene said to Elayne, standing. “I...” She trailed off, hearing something over the groans of soldiers and carts creaking.

“Egwene?” Elayne asked softly.

“Do what you can for him,” Egwene said, standing and rushing away. She pushed through the confused crowd, following the voice. Was that... yes, there. She found an open gateway at the edge of the Traveling grounds, Aes Sedai in a variety of clothing hurrying through to see to the wounded. Gawyn had done his work well.

Nynaeve was asking, quite loudly, who was in charge of this mess. Egwene approached her from the side and grabbed her by the shoulder, surprising her.

“Mother?” Nynaeve asked. “What is this about Caemlyn burning? I—”

She cut off as she saw the wounded. She stiffened, then tried to go to them.

“There is one you need to see first,” Egwene said, leading her to where Talmanes lay.

Nynaeve drew in a sharp breath, then went to her knees and pushed Elayne gently aside. Nynaeve Delved Talmanes, then froze, eyes wide.

“Nynaeve?” Egwene said. “Can you—”

An explosion of weaves burst from Nynaeve like the sudden light of a sun coming out from behind clouds. Nynaeve wove the Five Powers together in a column of radiance, then sent it driving into Talmanes’ body.

Egwene left her to her work. Perhaps it would be enough, though he looked far gone. The Light willing, the man would live. She had been impressed with him in the past. He seemed precisely the type of man that the Band—and Mat—needed.

Elayne was near the dragons and was questioning a woman with her hair in braids. That must be Aludra, who had created the dragons. Egwene walked up to the weapons, resting her fingers on one of the long bronze tubes. She had been given reports on them, of course. Some men said they were like Aes Sedai, cast in metal and fueled by the powders from fireworks.

More and more refugees poured though the gateway, many of them townspeople. “Light,” Egwene said to herself. “There are too many of them. We cant house all of Caemlyn here at Merrilor.”

Elayne finished her conversation, leaving Aludra to inspect the wagons. It appeared that the woman wasn’t willing to rest for the night and see to them in the morning. Elayne walked toward the gateways.

“The soldiers say the area outside the city is secure,” Elayne said, passing Egwene. “I’m going through to have a look.”

“Elayne...” Birgitte said, coming up behind her.

“We’re going! Come on.”

Egwene left the Queen to it, stepping back to supervise the work. Romanda had taken charge of the Aes Sedai and was organizing the injured, separating them into groups depending on the urgency of their wounds.

As Egwene surveyed the chaotic mix, she noticed a pair of people standing nearby. A woman and man, Illianers by the looks of them. “What do you two want?”

The woman knelt before her. The fair-skinned, dark-haired woman had a firmness to her features, despite her tall, slender build. “I am Leilwin,” she said in an unmistakable accent. “I was accompanying Nynaeve Sedai when the call for Healing was raised. We followed her here.”

“You’re Seanchan,” Egwene said, startled.

“I have come to serve you, Amyrlin Seat.”

Seanchan. Egwene still held the One Power. Light, not every Seanchan she met was dangerous to her; still, she would not take chances. As some members of the Tower Guard came through one of the gateways, Egwene pointed to the Seanchan pair. “Take these somewhere safe and keep watch on them. I’ll deal with them later.”

The soldiers nodded. The man went reluctantly, the woman more easily. She couldn’t channel, so she wasn’t a freed damane. That didn’t mean she wasn’t a sul’dam, though.

Egwene returned to Nynaeve, who still knelt beside Talmanes. The sickness had retreated from the man’s skin, leaving it pale. “Take him somewhere to rest,” Nynaeve said tiredly to several watching members of the Band. “I’ve done what I can.”

She looked up at Egwene as the men carried him away. “Light,” Nynaeve whispered, “that took a lot out of me. Even with my angreal. I’m impressed that Moiraine managed it with Tam, all that time ago...” There seemed to be a note of pride in Nynaeve’s voice.

She had wanted to heal Tam, but could not—though, of course, Nynaeve had not known what she had been doing at the time. She had come a long, long way since then.

“Is it true, Mother?” Nynaeve asked, rising. “About Caemlyn?”

Egwene nodded.

“This is going to be a long night,” Nynaeve said, looking at the wounded still pouring through the gateways.

“And a longer tomorrow,” Egwene said. “Here, let us link. I’ll lend you my strength.”

Nynaeve looked shocked. “Mother?”

“You are better at Healing than I.” Egwene smiled. “I may be Amyrlin, Nynaeve, but I am still Aes Sedai. Servant of all. My strength will be of use to you.”

Nynaeve nodded and they linked. The two of them joined the group of Aes Sedai that Romanda had set Healing the refugees with the worst wounds.

“Faile has been organizing my network of eyes-and-ears,” Perrin said to Rand as the two of them hurried toward Perrin’s camp. “She might be there with them tonight. I’ll warn you, I’m not certain she likes you.”

She would be a fool to like me, Rand thought. She probably knows what I’m going to require of you before this is over.

“Well,” Perrin said, “I guess that she does like that I know you. She’s cousin to a queen, after all. I think she still worries you’ll go mad and hurt me.”

“The madness has already come,” Rand said, “and I have it in my grip. As for hurting you, she’s probably right. I don’t think I can avoid hurting those around me. It was a hard lesson to learn.”

“You implied that you’re mad,” Perrin said, hand resting on his hammer again as he walked. He wore it at his side, large though it was; he’d obviously needed to construct a special sheath for it. An amazing piece of work. Rand kept intending to ask whether it was one of the Power-wrought weapons his Asha’man had been making— “But Rand, you’re not. You don’t seem at all crazy to me.”

Rand smiled, and a thought fluttered at the edge of his mind. “I am mad, Perrin. My madness is these memories, these impulses. Lews Therin tried to take over. I was two people, fighting over control of myself. And one of them was completely insane.”

“Light,” Perrin whispered, “that sounds horrible.”

“It wasn’t pleasant. But... here’s the thing, Perrin. I’m increasingly certain that I needed these memories. Lews Therin was a good man. I was a good man, but things went wrong—I grew too arrogant, I assumed I could do everything myself. I needed to remember that; without the madness... without these memories, I might have gone charging in alone again.”

“So you are going to work with the others?” Perrin asked, looking up toward where Egwene and the other members of the White Tower were camped. “This looks an awful lot like armies gathering to fight one another.

I’ll make Egwene see sense,” Rand said. “I’m right, Perrin. We need to break the seals. I don’t know why she denies this.”

“She’s the Amyrlin now.” Perrin rubbed his chin. “She’s Watcher of the Seals, Rand. It’s up to her to make sure they’re cared for.”

“It is. Which is why I will persuade her that my intentions for them are correct.”

“Are you sure about breaking them, Rand?” Perrin asked. “Absolutely sure?”

“Tell me, Perrin. If a metal tool or weapon shatters, can you stick it back together and make it work properly?”

“Well, you can? Perrin said. “It’s better not to. The grain of the steel... well, you’re almost always better off reforging it. Melting it down, starting from scratch.”

“It is the same here. The seals are broken, like a sword. We can’t just patch the pieces. It won’t work. We need to remove the shards and make something new to go in their place. Something better.”

“Rand,” Perrin said, “that’s the most reasonable thing anyone has said on this topic. Have you explained it that way to Egwene?”

“She’s not a blacksmith, my friend.” Rand smiled.

“She’s smart, Rand. Smarter than either of us. She’ll understand if you explain it the right way.”

“We shall see,” Rand said. “Tomorrow.”

Perrin stopped walking, his face lit by the glow of Rand’s Power-summoned orb. His camp, beside Rand’s, contained a force as large as any on the field. Rand still found it incredible that Perrin had gathered so many, including—of all things—the Whitecloaks. Rand’s eyes-and-ears indicated that everyone in Perrin’s camp seemed loyal to him. Even the Wise Ones and Aes Sedai with him were more inclined to do what Perrin said than not.

Sure as the wind and the sky, Perrin had become a king. A different kind of king than Rand—a king of his people, who lived among them. Rand couldn’t take that same path. Perrin could be a man. Rand had to be something more, for a little time yet. He had to be a symbol, a force that everyone could rely upon.

That was terribly tiring. Not all of it was physical fatigue, but instead something deeper. Being what people needed was wearing on him, grinding as surely as a river cut at a mountain. In the end, the river would always win.

“I’ll support you in this, Rand,” Perrin said. “But I want you to promise me that you won’t let it come to blows. I won’t fight Elayne. Going up against the Aes Sedai would be worse. We can’t afford to squabble.”

“There won’t be fighting.”

“Promise me.” Perrin’s face grew so hard, one could have broken rocks against it. “Promise me, Rand.”

“I promise it, my friend. I’ll bring us to the Last Battle united.”

“That’ll do, then.” Perrin walked into his camp, nodding to the sentries. Two Rivers men, both of them—Reed Soalen and Kert Wagoner. They saluted Perrin, then eyed Rand and bowed somewhat awkwardly.

Reed and Kert. He’d known them both—Light, he’d looked up to them, as a child—but Rand had grown accustomed to people he’d known treating him as a stranger. He felt the mantle of the Dragon Reborn harden upon him.

“My Lord Dragon,” Kert said. “Are we... I mean...” He gulped and looked at the sky, and the clouds that seemed to be—despite Rand’s presence—creeping in on them. “Things look bad, don’t they?”

“The storms are often bad, Kert,” Rand said. “But the Two Rivers survives them. Such it will do again.”

“But... ” Kert said again. “It looks bad. Light burn me, but it does.”

“It will be as the Wheel wills,” Rand said, glancing northward. “Peace, Kert, Reed,” Rand said softly. “The Prophecies have nearly all been fulfilled. This day was seen, and our tests are known. We do not walk into them unaware.”

He hadn’t promised them they would win or that they would survive, but both men stood up straighter and nodded, smiling. People liked to know that there was a plan. The knowledge that someone was in control might be the strongest comfort that Rand could offer them.

“That’s enough bothering the Lord Dragon with your questions,” Perrin said. “Make sure you guard this post well—no dozing, Kert, and no dicing.”

Both men saluted again as Perrin and Rand passed into the camp. There was more cheer here than there was in other camps on the Field. The campfires seemed faintly brighter, the laughter faintly louder. It was as if the Two Rivers folk had managed, somehow, to bring home with them.

“You lead them well,” Rand said softly, moving quickly beside Perrin, who nodded toward those out at night.

“They shouldn’t need me to tell them what to do, and that’s that.” However, when a messenger came running into camp, Perrin was immediately in charge. He called the spindly youth by name and, seeing the boy’s flushed face and trembling legs—he was frightened of Rand—Perrin pulled him aside and spoke softly, but firmly, with him.

Perrin sent the boy off to find Lady Faile, then stepped over. “I need to talk to Rand again.”

“You’re talking to—”

“I need the real Rand, not the man who’s learned to talk like an Aes Sedai.”

Rand sighed. “It really is me, Perrin,” he protested. “I’m more me than I’ve been for ages.”

“Yes, well, I don’t like talking to you when your emotions are all masked.”

A group of Two Rivers men passed and saluted. He felt a sudden spike of cold solitude at seeing those men and knowing he could never be one of them again. It was hardest with the Two Rivers men. But he did let himself be more... relaxed, for Perrin’s sake.

“So, what was it?” he asked. “What did the messenger say?”

“You were right to be worried,” Perrin said. “Rand, Caemlyn has fallen. It’s overrun with Trollocs.”

Rand felt his face grow hard.

“You’re not surprised,” Perrin said. “You’re worried, but not surprised.

No, I’m not,” Rand admitted. “I thought it would be the south where they struck—I’ve heard word of Trolloc sightings there, and I’m half-certain that Demandred is involved. He has never been comfortable without an army. But Caemlyn... yes, it’s a clever strike. I told you they would try to distract us. If they can undercut Andor and draw her away, my alliance grows much shakier.”

Perrin glanced at where Elayne’s camp was set up right beside that of Egwene. “But wouldn’t it be good for you if Elayne ran off? She’s on the other side of this confrontation.”

“There is no other side, Perrin. There is one side, with a disagreement on how that side should proceed. If Elayne isn’t here to be part of the meeting, it will undermine everything I’m trying to accomplish. She’s probably the most powerful of all the rulers.”

Rand could feel her, of course, through the bond. Her spike of alarm let him know that she’d received this information. Should he go to her? Perhaps he could send Min. She had gotten up, and was moving away from the tent where he’d left her. And—

He blinked. Aviendha. She was here, at Merrilor. She hadn’t been here moments ago, had she? Perrin glanced at him, and he didn’t bother to wipe the shock from his face.

“We can’t let Elayne leave,” Rand said.

“Not even to protect her homeland?” Perrin asked, incredulous.

“If the Trollocs have already taken Caemlyn, then it’s too late for Elayne to do anything meaningful. Elayne’s forces will focus on evacuation. She doesn’t need to be there for that, but she does need to be here. Tomorrow morning.”

How could he make certain she stayed? Elayne reacted poorly to being told what to do—all women did—but if he implied...

“Rand,” Perrin said, “what if we sent in the Asha’man? All of them? We could make a fight of it at Caemlyn.”

“No,” Rand said, though the word hurt. “Perrin, if the city really is overrun—I’ll send men through gateways to be certain—then it’s lost. Taking back those walls would take far too much effort, at least right now. We cannot let this coalition break apart before I have a chance to forge it together. Unity will preserve us. If each of us goes running off to put out fires in our homelands, then we will lose. That’s what this attack is about.”

“I suppose that’s possible... Perrin said, fingering his hammer.

“The attack might unnerve Elayne, make her more eager to act,” Rand said, considering a dozen different lines of action. “Perhaps this will make her more vulnerable to agreeing with my plan. This could be a good thing.” Perrin frowned.

How quickly I’ve learned to use others. He had learned to laugh again. He had learned to accept his fate, and to charge toward it smiling. He had learned to be at peace with who he had been, what he had done.

That understanding would not stop him from using the tools given him. He needed them, needed them all. The difference now was that he would see the people they were, not just the tools he would use. So he told himself.

“I still think we should do something to help Andor,” Perrin said, scratching his beard. “How did they sneak in, do you think?”

“By Waygate,” Rand said absently.

Perrin grunted. “Well, you said that Trollocs can’t Travel through gateways; could they have learned how to fix that?”

“Pray to the Light they haven’t,” Rand said. “The only Shadowspawn they managed to make that could go through gateways were gholam, and Aginor wasn’t foolish enough to make more than a few of those. No, I’d bet against Mat himself that this was the Caemlyn Waygate. I thought she had that thing guarded!”

“If it was the Waygate, we can do something,” Perrin said. “We can’t have Trollocs rampaging in Andor; if they leave Caemlyn, they’ll be at our backs, and that will be a disaster. But if they’re coming in at a single point, we might be able to disrupt their invasion with an attack on that point.” Rand grinned.

“What’s so funny?”

“At least I have an excuse for knowing and understanding things no youth from the Two Rivers should.”

Perrin snorted. “Go jump in the Winespring Water. You really think this is Demandred?”

“It’s exactly the sort of thing he’d try. Separate your foes, then crush them one at a time. It’s one of the oldest strategies in warfare.”

Demandred himself had discovered it in the old writings. They’d known nothing of war when the Bore had first opened. Oh, they’d thought they understood it, but it had been the understanding of the scholar looking back on something ancient, dusty.

Of all those to turn to the Shadow, Demandred’s betrayal seemed the most tragic. The man could have been a hero. Should have been a hero.

I’m to blame for that, too, Rand thought. If I’d offered a hand instead of a smirk, if I'd congratulated instead of competed. If I’d been the man then that I am now....

Never mind that. He had to send to Elayne. The proper course was to send help for evacuating the city, Asha’man and loyal Aes Sedai to make gateways and free as many people as possible—and to make certain that for now, the Trollocs remained in Caemlyn.

“Well, I guess those memories of yours are good for something, then,” Perrin said.

“Do you want to know the thing that twists my brain in knots, Perrin?” Rand said softly. “The thing that gives me shivers, like the cold breath of the Shadow itself? The taint is what made me mad and what gave me memories from my past life. They came as Lews Therin whispering to me. But that very insanity is the thing giving me the clues I need to win. Don’t you see? If I win this, it will be the taint itself that led to the Dark One’s fall.”

Perrin whistled softly.

Redemption, Rand thought. When I tried this last time, my madness destroyed us. This time, it will save us.

“Go to your wife, Perrin,” Rand said, glancing at the sky. “This is the last night of anything resembling peace you shall know before the end. I’ll investigate and see how bad things are in Andor.” He looked back at his friend. “I will not forget my promise. Unity must come before all else. I lost last time precisely because I threw unity aside.”

Perrin nodded, then rested a hand on Rand’s shoulder. “The Light illumine you.”

“And you, my friend.”

CHAPTER 2
The Choke of an Ajah

Pevara did her very best to pretend that she was not terrified.

If these Asha’man had known her, they’d have realized that sitting still and quiet was not her natural state. She retreated to basic Aes Sedai training: appearing in control when she felt anything but.

She forced herself to rise. Canler and Emarin had withdrawn to visit the Two Rivers lads and make sure they were going about in pairs. That left only her and Androl again. He quietly tinkered with his leather straps as the rain continued outside. He used two needles at once to stitch, crossing the holes on either side. The man had the concentration of a master craftsman.

Pevara strolled over, causing him to look up sharply when she drew close. She smothered a smile. She might not look it, but she could move silently, when necessary.

She stared out of the windows. The rain had grown worse, splashing curtains of water against the glass. “After so many weeks of looking as if it would storm at any moment, it finally comes.”

“Those clouds had to break open eventually,” Androl said.

“The rain doesn’t feel natural,” she said, hands clasped behind her. She could feel the coldness through the glass. “It doesn’t ebb and flow. Just the same steady torrent. A great deal of lightning, but very little thunder.

“You think it’s one of those?” Androl asked. He didn’t need to say what “those” meant. Earlier in the week, common people in the Tower—none of the Asha’man—had begun bursting into flame. Just... flame, inexplicably. They’d lost some forty people. Many still blamed a rogue Asha’man, though the men had sworn nobody had been channeling nearby.

She shook her head, watching a group of people trudge past on the muddy street outside. She had been one of those, at first, who had called the deaths the work of an Asha’man gone mad. Now she accepted these events, and other oddities, as something far worse.

The world was unraveling.

She needed to be strong. Pevara herself had devised the plan of bringing women here to bond these men, though Tarna had suggested it. She couldn’t let them discover how disturbing she found it to be trapped in here, facing down enemies who could force a person to the Shadow. Her only allies men who, only months ago, she would have pursued with diligence and gentled without remorse.

She sat down on the stool Emarin had used earlier. “I would like to discuss this ‘plan’ you are developing.”

“I’m not sure I’ve actually developed one yet, Aes Sedai.”

“I might be able to offer some suggestions.”

“I wouldn’t say no to hearing them,” Androl said, though he narrowed his eyes.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Those people outside. I don’t recognize them. And...”

She looked back out the window. The only light came from buildings, shining an occasional red-orange glow into the drenched night. The passersby still moved very slowly down the street, in and out of the light of windows.

“Their clothing isn’t wet,” Androl whispered.

With a chill, Pevara realized he was right. The man at the front walked with a wide-brimmed, drooping hat on his head, but it didn’t break the rain or stream water. His rustic clothing was untouched by the downpour. And the dress of the woman beside him wasn’t blowing at all in the wind. Now Pevara saw that one of the younger men was holding his hand behind him, as if pulling the reins of a pack animal—but there was no animal there.

Pevara and Androl watched in silence until the figures passed too far into the night to be seen. Visions of the dead were growing increasingly common.

“You said you had a suggestion?” Androl’s voice trembled.

“I... Yes.” Pevara tore her eyes away from the window. “So far, Taim’s focus has been on the Aes Sedai. My sisters have all been taken. I am the last.”

“You’re offering yourself as bait.”

“They will come for me,” she said. “It is only a matter of time.”

Androl fingered the leather strap and looked pleased with it. “We should sneak you out.”

“Is that so?” she said, eyebrow raised. “I have been elevated to the position of maiden in need of rescue, have I? Very valiant of you.”

He blushed. “Sarcasm? From an Aes Sedai? I wouldn’t have thought I’d hear that.”

Pevara laughed. “Oh my, Androl. You really don’t know anything about us, do you?”

“Honestly? No. I’ve avoided your kind for most of my life.”

“Well, considering your... innate tendencies, perhaps that was wise.

I couldn’t channel before.”

“But you suspected. You came here to learn.”

“I was curious,” he said. “It’s something I hadn’t tried before.”

Interesting, Pevara thought. Is that what drives you then, leatherworker? What has set you drifting on the winds, from place to place?

“I suspect,” she said, “you have never tried jumping off a cliff before. The fact that you haven’t done something shouldn’t always be a reason to try it.

Actually, I have jumped off a cliff. Several of them.”

She raised an eyebrow at him.

“The Sea Folk do it,” he explained. “Off into the ocean. The braver you are, the higher the cliff you choose. And you have changed the topic of the conversation again, Pevara Sedai. You are quite skilled at that.”

“Thank you.”

“The reason,” he said, holding up a finger, “that I suggested we sneak you out is because this isn’t your battle. You shouldn’t have to fall here.”

“It isn’t because you want to hurry an Aes Sedai away, out of meddling in your business?”

“I came to you for help,” Androl said. “I don’t want to be rid of you; I’ll happily use you. However, if you fall here, you do so in a fight that is not your own. That isn’t fair.”

“Let me explain something to you, Asha’man,” Pevara said, leaning in. “This is my fight. If the Shadow takes this tower, it will mean terrible things for the Last Battle. I have accepted responsibility for you and yours; I will not turn away from it so easily.”

“You’ve accepted responsibility’ for us? What does that mean?”

Ah, perhaps I shouldn’t have shared that. Still, if they were going to be allies, perhaps he needed to know.

“The Black Tower needs guidance,” she explained.

“So that’s the point of bonding us?” Androl asked. “So we can be... corralled, like stallions to be broken?”

“Don’t be a fool. Surely you admit the value of the White Tower’s experience.”

“I’m not sure I’d say that,” Androl said. “With experience comes a determination to be set in your ways, to avoid new experiences. You Aes Sedai all assume that the way things have been done is the only way to do them. Well, the Black Tower will not be subject to you. We can look after ourselves.

And you’ve done a wonderful job of that so far, haven’t you?”

“That was unfair,” he said softly.

“Perhaps it was,” she admitted. “I’m sorry.”

“Your motivations don’t surprise me,” he said. “What you were doing here was obvious to the weakest of soldiers. The question I’ve had is this: Why, of all women, did the White Tower send Red sisters to bond us?

Who better? Our entire lives have been dedicated to dealing with men who can channel.”

“Your Ajah is doomed.”

“Is that so?”

“You exist to hunt down men who can channel,” he said. “To gentle them. See them... disposed of. Well, the Source is cleansed—”

“So you all say.”

“It is cleansed, Pevara. All things come and pass, and the Wheel turns. It was once pure, so it must someday be pure again. It has happened.”

And the way you look at shadows, Androl? Is that a sign of purity? The way that Nalaam mutters in unknown languages? Do you think we don't notice such things?

“You have two choices, as an Ajah,” Androl continued. “You can either continue to hunt us—ignoring the proof that we offer, that the Source is cleansed—or you can give up on being Red Ajah.”

“Nonsense. Of all Ajahs, the Reds should be your greatest ally.”

“You exist to destroy us!”

“We exist to make certain that men who can channel do not accidentally hurt themselves or those around them. Would you not agree that is a purpose of the Black Tower as well?”

“I suppose that might be part of it. The only purpose I have been told was that we are to be a weapon for the Dragon Reborn, but keeping good men from hurting themselves without proper training is important as well.

Then we can unite on that idea, can we not?”

“I would like to believe that, Pevara, but I’ve seen the way you and yours look at us. You see us as... as some stain that needs to be cleansed, or poison to be bottled.”

Pevara shook her head. “If what you say is true, and the Source is cleansed, then changes will come, Androl. The Red Ajah and the Asha’man will grow together in common purpose, over time. I’m willing to work with you now, here.”

“Contain us.”

“Guide you. Please. Trust me.”

He studied her by the light of the room’s many lamps. He did have a sincere face. She could see why the others followed him, though he was weakest among them. He had a strange mixture of passion and humility. If only he hadn’t been one of.... well... what he was.

I wish I could believe you,” Androl said, looking away. “You’re different from the others, I’ll admit. Not like a Red at all.”

“I think you’ll find we’re more varied than you suppose,” Pevara said. “There isn’t one single motive that makes a woman choose the Red.”

“Other than hatred of men.”

“If we hated you, would we have come here looking to bond you?” That was a sidestep, in truth. Though Pevara herself did not hate men, many Reds did—at the very least, many regarded men with suspicion. She hoped to change that.

“Aes Sedai motivations are odd sometimes,” Androl said. “Everyone knows that. Anyway, different though you are from many of your sisters, I’ve seen that look in your eyes.” He shook his head. “I won’t believe you’re here to help us. No more than I believed that the Aes Sedai who hunted down male channelers really thought they were helping the men. No more than I believe a headsman thinks he’s doing a criminal a favor by killing him. Just because a thing needs to be done doesn’t make the one doing it a friend, Pevara Sedai. I’m sorry.”

He turned back to his leather, working by the close light of a lantern on the table.

Pevara found her annoyance rising. She’d almost had him. She liked men; she had often thought Warders would be useful. Couldn’t the fool recognize a hand extended across the chasm when he saw it?

Calm yourself, Pevara, she thought. You won’t get anywhere if anger rules you. She needed this man on her side.

“That will be a saddle, won’t it?” she said.

“Yes.”

“You’re staggering the stitches.”

“It’s my own method,” he said. “Helps prevent rips from spreading. I think it looks nice, too.”

“Good linen thread, I assume? Waxed? And do you use a single lacing chisel for those holes, or a double? I didn’t get a good look.”

He glanced at her, wary. “You know leatherworking?”

“From my uncle,” she said. “He taught me a few things. Let me work in the shop, when I was little.”

“Maybe I’ve met him.”

She fell still. For all Androl’s comments that she was good at steering a conversation, she had blundered this one directly into places she didn’t like to go.

“Well?” he asked. “Where does he live?”

“Back in Kandor.”

“You’re Kandori” he asked, surprised.

“Of course I am. Don’t I look it?”

“I just thought I could pick out any accent,” he said, pulling a pair of stitches tight. “I’ve been there. Maybe I do know your uncle.”

“He’s dead,” she said. “Murdered by Darkfriends.”

Androl fell silent. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s been over a hundred years now. I miss my family, but they’d be dead by now even if the Darkfriends hadn’t killed them. Everyone I knew back home is dead.”

“My sorrow is deeper, then. Truly.”

“It is long past,” Pevara said. “I can remember them with fondness without having the pain intrude. But what of your family? Siblings? Nieces, nephews?”

“A smattering of each group,” Androl said.

“Do you ever see them?”

He eyed her. “You’re trying to engage me in friendly conversation to prove that you don’t feel awkward around me. But I’ve seen how you Aes Sedai look at people like me.”

“I—”

“Say you don’t find us repulsive.”

“I hardly think what you do should be—”

“Straight answer, Pevara.”

“Very well, fine. Men who can channel do discomfort me. You make me itch all over, and it has only grown worse the longer I’ve been here, surrounded by you.”

Androl nodded in satisfaction at having pulled it from her.

“However,” Pevara continued, “I feel this way because it has been ingrained in me over decades of life. What you do is terribly unnatural, but you yourself do not disgust me. You are just a man trying to do your best, and I hardly think that is worthy of disgust. Either way, I am willing to look beyond my inhibitions in the name of common good.”

“That’s better than I could have expected, I suppose.” He looked back toward the rain-splattered windows. “The taint is cleansed. This isn’t unnatural any longer. I wish... I wish I could just show you, woman.” He looked toward her sharply. “How does one form one of those circles you mentioned?”

“Well,” Pevara said, “I’ve never actually done it with a male channeler, of course. I did some reading before coming down here, but much of what we have is hearsay. So much has been lost. To start with, you must put yourself on the edge of embracing the Source, then open yourself to me. That is how we establish the link.”

“All right,” he said. “You’re not holding the Source, however.”

It was downright unfair, that a man could tell when a woman was holding the One Power and when she wasn’t. Pevara embraced the Source, flooding herself with the sweet nectar that was saidar.

She reached out to link with Androl as she would with a woman. That was how one was supposed to begin, according to the records. But it was not the same. Saidin was a torrent, and what she had read was true; she could do nothing with the flows.

“It’s working; my power is flowing into you.”

“Yes,” Pevara said. “But when a man and woman link, the man must be in control. You must take the lead.”

“How?” Androl asked.

“I don’t know. I’ll try to pass it. You must control the flows.”

He eyed her, and she prepared herself to pass control to him. Instead, he somehow seized it. She was caught in the tempestuous link, yanked—as if by her hair—right in.

The force of it nearly made her teeth rattle, and it felt as if her skin was being pulled off. Pevara closed her eyes, breathed deeply, and did not let herself fight back. She had wanted to try this; it could be useful. But she couldn’t help a moment of sheer panic.

She was linked with a male channeler,; one of the most feared things the land had ever known. Now he had control of her, completely. Her Power flowed through her, washing over him, and Androl gasped.

“So much...” he said. “Light, you’re strong.”

She allowed herself a smile. The link brought with it a storm of awareness. She could feel Androl’s emotions. He was as fearful as she was. He was also solid. She’d imagined that being linked to him would be terrible, because of his madness, but she sensed none of it.

But saidin... that liquid fire that he wrestled with, like a serpent that was trying to consume him. She pulled back. Was it tainted? She wasn’t certain she could tell. Saidin was so different, so alien. Reports from the early days fragmented, spoke of the taint like an oil slick upon a river. Well, she could see a river—more a stream, really. It appeared that Androl had been honest with her, and wasn’t very powerful. She could not sense any taint— but then again, she did not know what to look for.

“I wonder... Androl said. “I wonder if I can make a gateway with this power.”

“Gateways don’t work in the Black Tower anymore.”

“I know,” he said. “But I keep feeling that they’re just beyond my fingertips.”

Pevara opened her eyes, looking at him. She could feel his honesty within the circle, but creating a gateway required a lot of the One Power, at least for a woman. Androl would have to be orders of magnitude too weak for that weave. Could it require a different level of strength for a man?

He reached out a hand, using her Power somehow, mixed with his own. She could feel him pulling the One Power through her. Pevara tried to maintain her composure, but she did not like him having control. She could do nothing!

“Androl,” she said. “Release me.”

“It’s wonderful...” he whispered, eyes unfocused as he stood up. “Is this what it feels like, to be one of the others? Those with strength in the Power?”

He drew more of her power and used it. Objects in the room began to rise into the air.

“Androl!” Panic. It was the panic she’d felt after hearing that her parents were dead. She hadn’t known this sense of horror in over a hundred years, not since taking the test for her shawl.

He had control of her channeling. Absolute control. She began to gasp, trying to reach for him. She could not use saidar without him releasing it back to her—but he could use it against her. Images of him using her own strength to tie her in Air ran through her mind. She could not end the link. Only he could.

He noticed, suddenly, and his eyes widened. The circle vanished like a wink of the eye, and her power was her own again. Without thinking, she lashed out. This would not happen again. She would have the control. The weaves sprang from her before she knew what she was doing.

Androl fell to his knees, hand sweeping across his table as he threw his head back, brushing tools and scraps of leather to the floor. He gasped. “What have you done?”

“Taim said we could pick any of you,” Pevara muttered as she realized what she had done. She’d bonded him. The reverse, after a fashion, of what he’d done to her. She tried to calm her thundering heart. An awareness of him blossomed in the back of her mind, like what they’d known in the circle, but somehow more personal. Intimate.

“Taim is a monster!” Androl growled. “You know that. You take his word on what you can do, and you do it without my permission?”

“I... I...”

Androl clenched his jaw, and Pevara immediately felt something. Something alien, something strange. It felt like looking at herself. Feeling her emotions circled back on her endlessly.

Her self melded with his for a seeming eternity. She knew what it was like to be him, think his thoughts. She saw his life in the blink of an eye, was absorbed by his memories. She gasped and fell to her knees in front of him.

It faded. Not completely, but it faded. It felt like swimming a hundred leagues through boiling water, and only now emerging, having forgotten what it was like to have normal sensations.

“Light... she whispered. “What was that?”

He lay on his back. When had he fallen? He blinked, looking up at the ceiling. “I saw one of the others do it. Some of the Asha’man bond their wives.”

“You bonded me?” she said, horrified.

He groaned, rolling over. “You did it to me first.”

She realized, with horror, that she could still feel his emotions. His self. She could even understand some of what he was thinking. Not the actual thoughts, but some impressions of them.

He was confused, worried and... curious. He was curious about the new experience. Foolish man!

She’d hoped that the two bonds would have somehow canceled one another out. They did not. “We have to stop this,” she said. “I’ll release you. I vow it. Just... just release me.”

“I don’t know how,” he said, standing up and breathing in deeply. “I’m sorry.”

He was telling the truth. “That circle was a bad idea,” she said. He offered a hand to help her to her feet. She stood on her own without accepting it.

“I believe it was your bad idea before it was mine.”

“So it was,” she admitted. “It isn’t my first one, but it might be one of my worst.” She sat down. “We need to think through this. Find a way to—

The door to his shop slammed open.

Androl spun, and Pevara embraced the Source. Androl had grabbed his stitching groover in one hand like a weapon. He’d also seized the One Power. She could sense that molten force within him—weak because of his lack of talent, like a single small jet of magma, but still burning and hot. She could feel his awe. So it was the same for him as it was for her. Holding the One Power felt like opening your eyes for the first time, the world coming to life.

Fortunately, neither weapon nor the One Power was needed. Young Evin stood in the doorway, raindrops dribbling down the sides of his face. He shut the door and hurried to Androl’s workbench.

“Androl, it—” He froze, seeing Pevara.

“Evin,” Androl said. “You’re alone.”

“I left Nalaam to watch,” he said, breathing in and out. “It was important, Androl.”

“We are never to be a) one, Evin,” Androl said. “Never. Always in pairs. No matter the emergency.”

“I know, I know,” Evin said. “I’m sorry. It’s just—the news, Androl.” He glanced at Pevara.

“Speak,” Androl said.

“Welyn and his Aes Sedai are back,” Ewan said.

Pevara could feel Androl’s sudden tension. “Is he... one of us, still?”

Evin shook his head, sick. “He’s one of them. Probably Jenare Sedai is, too. I don’t know her well enough to tell for sure. Welyn, though... his eyes aren’t his own any longer, and he now serves Taim.”

Androl groaned. Welyn had been with Logain. Androl and the others had been holding to the hope that although Mezar had been taken, Logain and Welyn were still free.

“Logain?” Androl whispered.

“He isn’t here,” Evin said, “but Androl, Welyn says Logain will come back soon—and that he’s met with Taim, and they have reconciled their differences. Welyn is promising that Logain will come tomorrow to prove it. Androl... that’s it. We have to admit it now. They have him.”

Pevara could feel Androl’s agreement, and his horror. It mirrored her own.

—  —

Aviendha moved through the darkened camps silently.

So many groups. There had to be at least a hundred thousand people gathered here at the Field of Merrilor. All waiting. Like a breath taken in and held before a great leap.

The Aiel saw her, but she did not approach them. The wetlanders didn’t notice her, save for a Warder who spotted her as she skirted the Aes Sedai camp. That camp was a place of motion and activity. Something had happened, though she caught only fragments. A Trolloc attack somewhere?

She listened enough to determine that the attack was in Andor, in the city of Caemlyn. There was worry the Trollocs would leave the city and rampage across the land.

She needed to know more; would the spears be danced tonight? Perhaps Elayne would share news with her. Aviendha moved silently out of the Aes Sedai camp. Stepping softly in these wet lands, with their lush plants, presented different challenges than the Three-fold Land did. There, the dry ground was often dusty, which could muffle footsteps. Here, a dry twig could inexplicably be buried beneath wet grass.

She tried not to think about how dead that grass seemed. Once, she’d have considered those browns lush. Now, she knew these wetland plants should not look so wan and... and hollow.

Hollow plants. What was she thinking? She shook her head and crept through the shadows out of the Aes Sedai camp. She briefly contemplated sneaking back to surprise that Warder—he’d been hiding in a moss-worn cleft in the rubble of an old, fallen building and watching the Aes Sedai perimeter—but discarded the idea. She wanted to get to Elayne and ask her for details on the attack.

Aviendha approached another busy camp, ducked beneath the leafless branches of a tree—she didn’t know what type, but its limbs spread wide and high—and slipped inside the guard perimeter. A pair of wetlanders in white and red stood on “watch” near a fire. They didn’t come close to spotting her, though they did jump up and level polearms toward a thicket a good thirty feet away when an animal rustled in it.

Aviendha shook her head and passed them.

Forward. She needed to keep moving forward. What to do about Rand al’Thor? What were his plans for tomorrow? These were other questions she wanted to ask Elayne.

The Aiel needed a purpose once Rand al’Thor finished with them. That was clear from the visions. She had to find a way to give this to them. Perhaps they should return to the Three-fold Land. But... no. No. It tore her heart, but she had to admit that if the Aiel did so, they would be going to their graves. Their death, as a people, might not be immediate, but it would come. The changing world, with new devices and new ways of fighting, would overtake the Aiel, and the Seanchan would never leave them alone. Not with women who could channel. Not with armies full of spears that could, at any time, invade.

A patrol approached. Aviendha drew some fallen brown undergrowth over herself for camouflage, then lay down flat beside a dead shrub and remained perfectly still. The guards walked two handspans from her.

We could attack the Seanchan now, she thought. In my vision, the Aiel waited nearly a generation to attack—and that let the Seanchan strengthen their position.

The Aiel already spoke of the Seanchan and the confrontation that must inevitably come. The Seanchan would force it, everyone whispered. Except, in her vision, years had passed with the Seanchan failing to attack. Why? What could possibly have held them back?

Aviendha rose and crept across to the pathway the guards had taken. She took out her knife and rammed it down into the ground. She left it there, right beside a lantern on a pole, clearly visible even to wetlander eyes. Then she slipped back into the night, hiding near the back of the large tent that was her goal.

She crouched low and practiced her silent breathing, using the rhythm to calm herself. There were hushed, anxious voices inside the tent. Aviendha did her best not to pay attention to what they were saying. It wouldn’t be proper to eavesdrop.

As the patrol passed again, she stood up. When they cried out, having found her dagger, she slipped around to the front of the tent. There, avoiding the attention of guards distracted by the commotion, she lifted the flap and stepped inside the tent behind them.

Some people sat at a table on the far side of the very large tent, huddled around a lamp. They were so busy with their conversation that they did not see her, so she settled down near some cushions to wait.

It was very hard not to listen in, now that she was so close.

“.... must send our forces back!” one man barked. “The fall of the capital is a symbol, Your Majesty. A symbol! We cannot let Caemlyn go or the entire nation will collapse into chaos.”

“You underestimate the strength of the Andoran people,” said Elayne. She looked very much in control, very strong, her red-gold hair practically glowing in the lamplight. Several of her battle commanders stood behind her, lending authority and a sense of stability to the meeting. Aviendha was pleased to see the fire in her first-sister’s eyes.

“I have been to Caemlyn, Lord Lir,” Elayne continued. “And I have left a small force of soldiers there to watch and give warning if the Trollocs leave the city. Our spies will use gateways to sneak through the city and find where the remaining Trollocs are herding captives, and then we can mount rescue operations if the Trollocs continue to hold the city.”

“But the city itself!” Lord Lir said.

“Caemlyn is lost, Lir,” Lady Dyelin snapped. “We’d be fools to try to mount any kind of assault now.”

Elayne nodded. “I have held conference with the other High Seats, and they agree with my assessment. For now, the refugees who escaped are safe—I sent them on along toward Whitebridge with guards. If there are people alive within, we will try to rescue them with gateways, but I will not commit my forces to an all-out attack on Caemlyn’s walls.”

“But—”

“Taking the city again would be fruitless,” Elayne said, voice hard. “I know full well the damage that can be done to an army assaulting those walls! Andor will not collapse because of the loss of one city, no matter how important a city.” Her face was a mask, her voice as cold as good steel.

“The Trollocs will eventually leave the city,” Elayne continued. “They gain nothing by holding it—they will starve themselves out, if nothing else. Once they leave, we can fight them—and on far fairer ground. If you wish, Lord Lir, you may visit the city yourself and see that what I say is true. The soldiers there could use the inspiration of a High Seat.”

Lir frowned, but nodded. “I think I will.”

“Then go knowing my plan. We will begin sending in scouts before the night is through, trying to find pens of civilians to save, and Aviendha, what in the name of a bloody goat's left stone are you doing!”

Aviendha looked up from trimming her fingernails with her second knife. Bloody goat’s left stone? That was a new one. Elayne always knew the most interesting curses.

The three High Seats at the table jumped up, scrambling, throwing down chairs and reaching for swords. Elayne sat in her place, eyes and mouth wide.

“It is a bad habit,” Aviendha admitted, slipping her knife back into her boot. “My nails were growing long, but I should not have done it in your tent, Elayne. I am sorry. I hope I did not offend.”

“I’m not talking about your flaming nails, Aviendha,” Elayne said. “How... when did you arrive? Why didn’t the guards announce you?

They didn’t see me,” Aviendha said. “I didn’t wish to make a fuss, and wetlanders can be touchy. I thought they might turn me away, now that you are Queen.” She smiled as she said the last part. Elayne had much honor; the way of becoming a leader among the wetlanders was different from proper ways—things could be so backward over here—but Elayne had handled herself well and obtained her throne. Aviendha couldn’t have been more proud of a spear-sister who had taken a clan chief gai’shain.

“They didn’t... Elayne said. Suddenly, she was smiling. “You crept through the entire camp, to my tent at the center, and then slipped inside and sat down not five feet from me. And nobody saw.”

“I didn’t wish to make a fuss.”

“You have a strange way of not making a fuss.”

Elayne’s companions did not react with such calm. One of the three, young Lord Perival, gazed around him with worried eyes, as if searching for other intruders.

“My Queen,” Lir said. “We must punish this breach in security! I will find the men who were lax in their duty and see that they—”

“Peace,” Elayne said. “I will speak to my guards and suggest they keep their eyes a little more open. Still, guarding the front of a tent is a silly precaution—and always has been—as someone can just cut their way into the back.”

“And ruin a good tent?” Aviendha said, lips turning down. “Only if we had blood feud, Elayne.”

“Lord Lir, you may go inspect the city—from a good distance—if you wish,” Elayne said, standing. “If any of the rest of you wish to accompany him, you may. Dyelin, I will see you in the morning.”

“Very well,” the lords said in turn, then walked from the tent. Both kept distrustful eyes on Aviendha as they left. Dyelin just shook her head before following them, and Elayne sent her battle commanders out to coordinate scouting of the city. That left Elayne and Aviendha alone in the tent.

“Light, Aviendha,” Elayne said, embracing her, “if the people who want me dead had half of your skill... ”

“Did I do something wrong?” Aviendha said.

“Other than sneaking into my tent like an assassin?”

“But you are my first-sister...” Aviendha said. “Should I have asked? But we are not under a roof. Or... among wetlanders, is a tent considered a roof, as in a hold? I’m sorry, Elayne. Do I have toh! You are such an unpredictable people, it’s hard to know what will offend you and what will not.” Elayne just laughed. “Aviendha, you’re a gem. A complete and total gem. Light, but it’s good to see your face. I needed a friendly one tonight.

Caemlyn has fallen?” Aviendha asked.

“Near enough,” Elayne said, face growing colder. “It was that bloody Waygate. I thought it was safe—I had that thing all but bricked up, with fifty guards at the door and the Avendesora leaves taken and both put on the outside.”

“Someone inside Caemlyn let them in, then.”

“Darkfriends,” Elayne said. “A dozen members of the Guard—we were lucky enough that one man survived their betrayal and found his way out. Light, I don’t know why I should be surprised. If they’re in the White Tower, they’re in Andor. But these were men who had rejected Gaebril, and who seemed loyal. They waited all this time only to betray us now.”

Aviendha grimaced, but took one of the chairs to join Elayne at the table, rather than staying on the floor. Her first-sister preferred sitting that way. Her stomach had swelled with the children she bore.

“I sent Birgitte with the soldiers to the city to see what can be done,” Elayne said. “But we’ve done what we can for the night, the city watched, the refugees seen to. Light, I wish I could do more. The worst thing about being Queen is not the things you must do, but the things that you cannot.

We will bring the battle to them soon enough,” Aviendha said.

“We will,” Elayne said, eyes smoldering. “I will bring them fire and fury, repayment in kind for the flames they brought to my people.”

“I heard you speak to those men of not attacking the city.”

“No,” Elayne said. “I will not give them the satisfaction of holding my own walls against me. I have given Birgitte an order—the Trollocs will eventually abandon Caemlyn, of this we are sure. Birgitte will find a way to hasten that, so we can fight them outside of the city.”

“Do not let the enemy choose your battleground,” Aviendha said with a nod. “A good strategy. And... Rand’s meeting?”

“I will attend,” Elayne said. “I must, so it will be done. He had better not give us theatrics and stalling. My people die, my city burns, the world is two steps from the edge of a cliff. I will stay through the afternoon only; after that, I go back to Andor.” She hesitated. “Will you come with me?

Elayne...” Aviendha said. “I cannot leave my people. I am a Wise One now.”

“You went to Rhuidean?” Elayne asked.

“Yes,” Aviendha said. Though it pained her to keep secrets, she said nothing of her visions there.

“Excellent. I—” Elayne began, but was cut off.

“My Queen?” the tent guard called from outside. “Messenger for you.

Let them in.”

The guard opened the flaps for a young Guardswoman with a messenger’s ribbon on her coat. She performed an ornate bow, one hand removing her hat as the other held out a letter.

Elayne took the letter but didn’t open it. The messenger retreated. “Perhaps we can still fight together, Aviendha,” Elayne said. “If I have my way, I will have Aiel at my side as I reclaim Andor. The Trollocs in Caemlyn present a serious threat to all of us; even if I draw their main force out, the Shadow can continue to pour Shadowspawn through that Waygate.

“I’m thinking that while my armies fight the main body of Trollocs outside of Caemlyn—I will have to make the city inhospitable to the Shadowspawn somehow—I will send a smaller force through a gateway to seize the Waygate. If I could gain the aid of Aiel for that... ”

As she spoke, she embraced the Source—Aviendha could see the glow— and absently sliced the letter open, breaking the seal with a ribbon of Air. Aviendha raised an eyebrow.

“Sorry,” Elayne said, “I've reached the point in my pregnancy where I can channel again reliably, and I keep finding excuses...”

“Do not endanger the babes,” Aviendha said.

“I’m not going to endanger them,” Elayne said. “You’re as bad as Birgitte. At least no one has any goat’s milk here. Min says...” She trailed off, eyes flickering back and forth as she read the letter. Elayne’s expression darkened, and Aviendha prepared herself for a shock.

“Oh, that man...” Elayne said.

“Rand?”

“I think I may strangle him one of these days.”

Aviendha set her jaw. “If he’s offended—”

Elayne turned the letter around. “He insists that I return to Caemlyn to see to my people. He gives a dozen reasons why, going so far as to release me from my obligation’ to meet with him tomorrow.”

“He should not be insisting on anything with you.”

“Particularly not so forcefully,” Elayne said. “Light, this is clever. He’s obviously trying to bully me into staying. There’s a touch of Daes Dae’mar in this.”

Aviendha hesitated. “You seem proud. Yet I gather this letter is only one step away from being insulting!”

“I am proud,” Elayne said. “And angry at him. But proud because he knew to make me angry like that. Light! We’ll make a king out of you yet, Rand. Why does he want me at the meeting so badly? Does he think I’ll support his side just because of my affection for him?”

“You don’t know what his plan is, then?”

“No. It obviously involves all of the rulers. But I will attend, even though I’m likely to do so without having had any sleep tonight. I am meeting with Birgitte and my other commanders in an hour to go over plans for drawing out, then destroying, the Trollocs.” A fire still burned behind those eyes of hers. Elayne was a warrior, as true a one as Aviendha had ever known.

“I must go to him,” Aviendha said.

“Tonight?”

“Tonight. The Last Battle will soon begin.”

“As far as I’m concerned, it started the moment those bloody Trollocs set foot in Caemlyn,” Elayne said. “May the Light favor us. It is here.”

“Then the day of dying will come,” Aviendha said. “Many of us will soon wake from this dream. There may not be another night for Rand and myself. I came to you, in part, to ask you about this.”

“You have my blessing,” Elayne said softly. “You are my first-sister. Have you spent time with Min?”

“Not enough, and under other circumstances I would remedy that lack immediately. There is no time.”

Elayne nodded.

“I do think she feels better about me,” Aviendha said. “She did me a great honor in helping me understand the last step to becoming a Wise One. It may be appropriate to bend some of the customs. We have done well, under the circumstances. I would speak to her together with you, if there is time.”

Elayne nodded. “I can spare a moment or two between meetings. I’ll send for her.”

CHAPTER 3
A Dangerous Place

"Lord Logain and Taim have indeed patched up their differences,” Welyn said, sitting inside the common room of The Great Gathering. He wore bells in his dark braids, and he smiled widely. He always had smiled too much. “Both were worried about the division we’ve been suffering and agree it isn’t good for morale. We need to be focused on the Last Battle. This isn’t a time for squabbling.”

Androl stood just inside the door, Pevara beside him. It was surprising, how quickly this building—a former warehouse—had been transformed into a tavern. Lind had done her work well. There were a respectable bar and stools, and though the tables and chairs spread through the room didn’t match yet, the place could seat dozens. She also had a library with a considerable number of books, although she was very particular about who she allowed to use it. On the second floor, she planned private dining chambers and sleeping rooms for visitors to the Black Tower. Assuming Taim started letting visitors in again.

The room was quite packed, and the crowd included a large number of newer recruits, men who didn’t yet fall on either side of the growing dispute— either with Taim and his men, or with those loyal to Logain.

Androl listened to Welyn, feeling chilled. Welyn’s Aes Sedai, Jenare, sat beside him, hand resting fondly on his arm. Androl didn’t know her well, but he did know Welyn. And this thing with Welyn’s face and voice was not the same man.

We met with the Lord Dragon,” Welyn continued. “Surveying the Borderlands, preparing for humankind’s assault against the Shadow. He has rallied the armies of all nations to his banner. There are none who do not support him, other than the Seanchan, of course—but they have been driven back.

This is the time, and we will soon be called upon to strike. We need to focus one last time on our skills. The Sword and Dragon will be awarded liberally in the next two weeks. Work hard, and we will be the weapons that break the Dark One’s hold upon this land.”

“You say Logain is coming,” a voice demanded. “Why isn’t he back yet?” Androl turned. Jonneth Dowtry stood near Welyn's table. With his arms folded, glowering at Welyn, Jonneth was an intimidating sight. The Two Rivers man often had a friendly way about him, and it was easy to forget that he stood a head taller than you and had arms like those of a bear. He wore his black Asha’man coat, though it had no pins on the high collar— despite the fact that he was as strong in the One Power as any Dedicated.

‘Why isn’t he here?” Jonneth demanded. “You said that you returned with him, that he and Taim have spoken. Well, where is he?”

Don’t push, lad, Androl thought. Let him think we believe his lies!

“He took the M’Hael to visit the Lord Dragon,” Welyn said. “Both should be back on the morrow, the day after at the latest.”

“Why did Taim need Logain to show him the way?” Jonneth said stubbornly. “He could have gone on his own.”

“That boy is a fool,” Pevara hissed.

“He’s honest,” Androl replied quietly, “and he wants honest answers.” These Two Rivers lads were a good lot—straightforward and loyal. They weren’t particularly practiced in subterfuge, however.

Pevara fell silent, but Androl could feel her as she considered channeling and hushing Jonneth with some bindings of Air. They weren’t serious thoughts, just idle fancies, but Androl could sense them. Light! What had they done to one another?

She’s in my head, he thought. There’s an Aes Sedai, inside my head.

Pevara froze, then glanced at him.

Androl sought the void, that old soldier’s trick to help him seek clarity before a battle. Saidin was there, too, of course. He didn’t reach for it.

“What did you do?” Pevara whispered. “I can feel you there, but sensing your thoughts is harder.”

Well, that was something at least.

“Jonneth,” Lind called across the common room, interrupting the lad’s next question to Welyn. “Didn’t you hear the man saying how much traveling he’s been doing? He’s exhausted. Let him drink his ale and rest a spell before you pry stories out of him.”

Jonneth glanced at her, looking hurt. Welyn smiled deeply as the lad withdrew, pushing his way out of the common room. Welyn continued talking about how well the Lord Dragon was doing, and about how much each of them would be needed.

Androl released the void, feeling more relaxed. He looked around the room, trying to judge who in here he could rely upon. He liked many of these men, and many weren’t completely for Taim, yet he still couldn’t trust them. Taim had complete control of the Tower now, and private lessons with him and his chosen were coveted by the newcomers. Only the Two Rivers lads could be counted on to give any sort of support to Androl’s cause— and most of them other than Jonneth were too unpracticed to be of use.

Evin had joined Nalaam on the other side of the room, and Androl nodded his head to him, sending him out to follow Jonneth into the storm. Nobody was to be alone. That done, Androl listened to Welyn’s boasting, and noticed Lind picking her way through the crowd toward him.

Lind Taglien was a short, dark-haired woman; her dress was covered in lovely embroidery. She had always seemed to him a model of what the Black Tower could be. Civilized. Educated. Important.

Men made way for her; they knew not to spill their drinks or start fights in her inn. Lind’s anger was not something a wise man ever wanted to know. It was a good thing she ran the place so tightly. In a city full of male channelers, a simple tavern brawl could potentially go very, very wrong.

“Does this bother you as much as it does me?” Lind asked softly as she stepped up beside him. “Wasn’t he the one who, just a few weeks back, was talking about how Taim should be tried and executed for some of the things he’d done?”

Androl didn’t reply. What could he say? That he suspected that the man they’d known as Welyn was dead? That the entire Black Tower would soon be nothing but these monsters with the wrong eyes, the false smiles, the dead souls?

“I don’t believe him about Logain,” Lind said. “Something’s going on here, Androl. I’m going to have Frask follow him tonight, see where he—”

“No,” Androl said. “No. Don’t.” Frask was her husband, a man who had been hired to help Henre Haslin teach swordsmanship in the Black Tower. Taim thought that swordfighting was useless for Asha’man, but the Lord Dragon had insisted that the men be taught.

She eyed him. “You’re not saying you believe—”

“I’m saying that were in great danger right now, Lind, and I don’t want Frask making it worse. Do me a favor. Take note of what else Welyn says tonight. Maybe some of it will be useful for me to know.”

“All right,” she said, sounding skeptical.

Androl nodded toward Nalaam and Canler, who rose and headed over. Rain beat against the rooftop and the porch outside. Welyn kept right on talking, and the men were listening. Yes, it was incredible that he’d swapped sides so quickly, and that would make some suspicious. But many people respected him, and the way he was off just slightly wasn’t noticeable unless you knew him.

“Lind,” Androl said as she started to walk away.

She glanced back at him.

“You... lock this place up tightly tonight. Then maybe you and Frask should find your way into the cellar with some supplies, all right? You have a sturdy cellar door?”

“Yes,” she said. “For all the good it will do.” It wouldn’t matter how thick a door was if someone with the One Power came looking.

Nalaam and Canler reached them, and Androl turned to go, only to run directly into a man standing in the doorway behind him, someone he hadn’t heard approach. Rain dripped from his Asha’man coat, with the Sword and the Dragon on the high collar. Atal Mishraile had been one of Taim’s from the start. Fie didn’t have the hollow eyes; his evil was all his own. Tall, with long golden hair, he had a smile that never seemed to reach his eyes.

Pevara jumped when she saw him, and Nalaam cursed, seizing the One Power.

“Now, now,” a voice said. “No need for strife.” Mezar stepped in from the rain beside Mishraile. The short Domani man had graying hair and an air of wisdom to him, despite his transformation.

Androl met Mezar’s eyes, and it was like looking into a deep cavern. A place where light had never shone.

“Hello, Androl,” Mezar said, putting a hand on Mishraile’s shoulder, as if the two had been friends for a long time. “Why is it that Goodwoman Lind would need to fear, and shut herself in her cellar? Surely the Black Tower is as safe a place as there is?”

“I don’t trust a dark night full of storms,” Androl said.

“Perhaps that is wise,” Mezar replied. “Yet you go out into it. Why not stay where it is warm? Nalaam, I should like to hear one of your stories. Perhaps you could tell me of the time your father and you visited Shara?”

“It’s not that good a story,” Nalaam said. “I don’t know if I remember it that well.”

Mezar laughed, and Androl heard Welyn stand up behind him. “Ah, there you are! I was telling them you’d talk about defenses in Arafel.”

“Come listen,” Mezar said. “This will be important for the Last Battle.”

“Maybe I will return,” Androl said, voice cool. “Once my other work is done.”

The two stared at one another. To the side, Nalaam still held the One Power. He was as strong as Mezar, but would never be able to face both him and Mishraile—particularly not in a room crammed with people who would probably take the side of the two full Asha’man.

“Don’t waste your time with the pageboy, Welyn,” Coteren said from behind. Mishraile stepped aside to make room for this third newcomer. The bulky, beady-eyed man pressed a hand against Androl’s chest and shoved him aside as he passed. “Oh, wait. You can’t play pageboy anymore, can you?”

Androl entered the void and seized the Source.

Shadows immediately started moving in the room. Lengthening.

There weren’t enough lights! Why didn’t they light more lamps? The darkness invited those shadows in, and he could see them. These were real, each one a tendril of blackness, reaching for him. To pull him into them, to destroy him.

Oh, Light. I'm mad. I'm mad....

The void shattered, and the shadows—thankfully—retreated. He found himself shaking, pulling back against the wall, panting. Pevara watched him with an expressionless face, but he could feel her concern.

“Oh, by the way,” Coteren said. He was one of Taim’s most influential toadies. “Have you heard?”

“Heard what?” Androl managed to force out.

“You’ve been demoted, pageboy,” Coteren said, pointing toward the sword pin. “Taim’s orders. As of today. Back to soldier you go, Androl.”

“Oh, yes,” Welyn called from the center of the room. “I’m sorry I forgot to mention it. It has been cleared with the Lord Dragon, I’m afraid. You never should have been promoted, Androl. Sorry.”

Androl reached to his neck, to the pin there. It shouldn’t matter to him; what did it really mean?

But it did matter. He’d spent his entire life searching. He’d apprenticed to a dozen different professions. He’d fought in revolts, sailed two seas. All the while searching, searching for something he hadn’t been able to define.

He’d found it when he’d come to the Black Tower.

He pushed through the fear. Shadows be burned\'7d. He seized saidin again, the Power flooding him. He straightened up, going eye-to-eye with Coteren.

The larger man smiled and seized the One Power as well. Mezar joined him, and in the middle of the room, Welyn stood. Nalaam was whispering to himself in worry, eyes darting back and forth. Canler seized saidin and looked resigned.

Everything Androl could hold—all of the One Power he could muster— flooded into him. It was minuscule compared to the others. He was the weakest man in the room; the newest of recruits could manage more than he could.

“Are you going to make a go of it, then?” Coteren asked softly. “I asked them to leave you, because I knew you’d try it eventually. I wanted the satisfaction, pageboy. Come on. Strike. Let’s see it.”

Androl reached out, trying to do the one thing he could do, form a gateway. To him, this was something beyond weaves. It was just him and the Power, something intimate, something instinctive.

Trying to make a gateway now felt like trying to scramble up a hundred-foot glass wall with only his fingernails to give him purchase. He leaped, scrambled, tried. Nothing happened. He felt so close: if he could just push a little harder, he could...

The shadows lengthened. The panic rose in him again. Teeth gritted, Androl reached to his collar and ripped the pin free. He dropped it on the floorboards before Coteren with a clink. Nobody in the room spoke.

Then, burying his shame under a mountain of determination, he released the One Power and pushed past Mezar into the night. Nalaam, Canler and Pevara followed with anxious steps.

The rain washed over Androl. He felt the loss of that pin as he might have felt the loss of a hand.

“Androl...” Nalaam said. “I’m sorry.”

Thunder rumbled. They splashed through muddy puddles on the unpaved street. “It doesn’t matter,” Androl said.

“Maybe we should have fought,” Nalaam said. “Some of the lads in there would have supported us; they’re not all in his pocket. Once, Father and I, we fought down six Darkhounds—Light upon my grave, we did. If we survived that, we can deal with a few Asha’man dogs.”

“We’d have been slaughtered,” Androl said.

“But—”

“We’d have been slaughtered!” Androl said. “We don’t let them pick the battlefield, Nalaam.”

“But there will be a battle?” Canler asked, catching up to Androl on the other side.

“They have Logain,” Androl said. “They wouldn’t make the promises they’re making unless they did. Everything dies—our rebellion, our chances at a unified Black Tower—if we lose him.”

“So... ”

“So we’re going to rescue him,” Androl said, continuing forward. “Tonight.”

—  —

Rand worked by the soft, steady light of a saidin globe. Before Dragonmount, he’d begun avoiding this kind of common use of the One Power. Seizing it had made him sick, and using it had revolted him more and more.

That had changed. Saidin was part of him, and he needed to fear it no longer, now that the taint was gone. More importantly, he had to stop thinking of it—and of himself—as merely a weapon.

He would work by globes of light whenever he could. He intended to go to Flinn to learn Healing. He had little skill in it, but a little skill could save the life of someone wounded. All too often, Rand had used this wonder—this gift—only to destroy or kill. Was it any wonder that people looked upon him with fear? What would Tam say?

I guess I could ask him, Rand thought idly as he made a notation to himself on a piece of paper. It was still hard to get used to the idea of Tam being there, just one camp over. Rand had dined with him earlier. It had been awkward, but no more so than expected for a king inviting his father from a rural village to “dine.” They had laughed about it, which had made him feel much better.

Rand had let Tam return to Perrin’s camp rather than seeing him given honors and wealth. Tam didn’t want to be hailed as the Dragon Reborn’s father. He wanted to be what he’d always been—Tam al’Thor, a solid, dependable man by anyone’s measure, but not a lord.

Rand went back to the document in front of him. Clerks in Tear had advised him on the proper language, but he had done the actual writing; he hadn’t trusted any other hand—or any other eyes—with this document.

Was he being too careful? What his enemies could not anticipate, they could not work against. He had grown too distrustful after Semirhage had nearly captured him. He recognized this. However, he’d been holding secrets close to him for so long, it was difficult to let them out.

He started at the top of the document, rereading. Once, Tam had sent Rand to examine a fence for weak spots. Rand had done so, but when he’d returned, Tam had sent him on the same duty again.

It hadn’t been until the third pass that Rand had found the loose post that needed replacing. He still didn’t know if Tam had known about the post, or if his father had just been being his careful self.

This document was far more important than a fence. Rand would look it over a dozen more times this night, searching for problems he had not foreseen.

Unfortunately, it was hard to concentrate. The women were up to something. He could feel them through the balls of emotion in the back of his mind. There were four of those—Alanna was still there, somewhere to the north. The other three had been near to one another all night; now they’d made their way almost to his tent. What were they up to? It—

Wait. One of them had split off from the others. She was nearly here. Aviendha?

Rand stood up, walking to the front of his tent and throwing back the flaps.

She froze in place just outside, as if she’d been intending to sneak into his tent. She raised her chin, meeting his eyes.

Suddenly, shouts rose in the night. For the first time, he noticed that his guards were not in attendance. However, the Maidens made camp near his tent, and they appeared to be shouting at him. Not with joy, as he’d expected. Insults. Terrible ones. Several were screaming about what they’d do to certain parts of his body when they caught him.

“What is this?” he murmured.

“They don’t mean it,” Aviendha said. “It is a symbol to them of you taking me away from their ranks—but I have already left their ranks to join the Wise Ones. It is a... thing of the Maidens. It is actually a sign of respect. If they did not like you, they would not act this way.”

Aiel. “Wait,” he said. “How have I taken you from them?”

Aviendha looked him in the eyes, but color rose in her cheeks. Aviendha? Blushing? That was unexpected.

“You should understand already,” she said. “If you’d paid attention to what I told you about us...”

“Unfortunately, you had a complete woolhead of a student.”

“It is fortunate for him that I have decided to extend my training.” She took a step closer. “There are many things I still need to teach.” Her blush deepened.

Light. She was beautiful. But so was Elayne... and so was Min... and...

He was a fool. A Light-blinded fool.

‘Aviendha,” he said. “I love you, I truly do. But that’s a problem, burn it! I love all three of you. I don’t think I could accept this and choose—” Suddenly, she was laughing. “You are a fool, aren’t you, Rand al’Thor?

Often. But what—”

“We are first-sisters, Rand al’Thor, Elayne and I. When we get to know her better, Min will join us. We three will share in all things.”

First-sisters? He should have suspected, following that odd bonding. He raised a hand to his head. We will share you, they had said to him.

Leaving four bonded women to their pains was bad enough, but three bonded women who loved him? Light, he did not want to bring them pain!

“They say you have changed,” Aviendha said. “So many have spoken of it in the short time since my return that almost, I grow weary of hearing about you. Well, your face may be calm, but your emotions are not. Is this so terrible a thing to consider, being with the three of us?”

“I want it, Aviendha. I should hide myself because I do. But the pain...

You have embraced it, have you not?”

“It is not my pain I fear. It is yours.”

“Are we so weak, then, that we cannot bear what you can?”

That look in her eyes was unnerving.

“Of course not,” Rand said. “But how can I hope for pain in those I love?

The pain is ours to accept,” she said, raising her chin. “Rand al’Thor, your decision is simple, though you strive to make it difficult. Choose yes or no. Be warned; it is all three of us, or none of us. We will not let you come between us.”

He hesitated, then—feeling a complete lecher—he kissed her. Behind him, Maidens he hadn’t realized were watching began to yell louder insults, though he could now hear an incongruous joy to them. He pulled back from the kiss, then reached out, cupping the side of Aviendha’s face with his hand. “You’re bloody fools. All three of you.”

“Then it is well. We are your equals. You should know that I am a Wise One now.”

“Then perhaps we are not equals,” Rand said, “for I’ve only just begun to understand how little wisdom I possess.”

Aviendha sniffed. “Enough talk. You will bed me now.”

“Light!” he said. “A little forward, aren’t you? Is that the Aiel way of doing things?”

“No,” she said, blushing again. “I just... I am not very skilled with this.”

“You three decided this, didn’t you? Which of you came to me?”

She hesitated, then nodded.

“I’m never going to get to choose, am I?”

She shook her head.

He laughed and pulled her close. She was stiff, initially, but then melted against him. “So, do I go fight them first?” He nodded toward the Maidens.

“That is only for the wedding, if we decide you are worth marriage, fool man. And it would be our families, not members of our society. You really did ignore your lessons, didn’t you?”

He looked down at her. “Well, I’m glad there’s no fighting to do. I’m not sure how much time we have, and I was hoping to get some sleep tonight. Still...” He trailed off at the look in her eyes. “I’m... not getting any sleep, am I?”

She shook her head.

“Ah, well. At least I don’t have to worry about you freezing to death this time.”

“Yes. But it may happen that I die of boredom, Rand al’Thor, if you do not stop rambling.”

She took him by the arm and gently, but firmly, pulled him back into his tent—the calls of the Maidens growing louder, more insulting and more exuberant all at the same time.

—  —

“I suspect the reason is some kind of ter’angreal,” Pevara said. She crouched with Androl in the back room of one of the Black Tower’s general storehouses, and she did not find the position terribly comfortable. The room smelled of dust, grain and wood. Most buildings in the Black Tower were new, and this was no exception, the cedar boards still fresh.

“You know of a ter’angreal that could prevent gateways?” Androl asked. “Not specifically, no,” Pevara replied, shifting to a better position. “But it is generally accepted that what we know of ter’angreal comprises only the smallest portion of what was once known. There must be thousands of different types of ter’angreal, and if Taim is a Darkfriend, he has access to the Forsaken—who could likely explain to him the use and construction of things we can only dream about.”

“So we need to find this ter’angreal,” Androl said. “Block it, or at least figure out how it functions.”

“And escape?” Pevara asked. “Haven’t you already determined that leaving would be a poor choice?”

“Well... yes,” Androl admitted.

She concentrated, and could catch glimmers of what he was thinking. She’d heard that the Warder bond allowed an empathic connection. This seemed deeper. He was... yes, he really wished he could make gateways. He felt disarmed without them.

“It’s my Talent,” he said begrudgingly. He knew she’d sift out the reason eventually. “I can make gateways. At least, I could.”

“Really? With your level of strength in the One Power?”

“Or lack of it?” he asked. She could sense a little of what he was thinking. Though he accepted his weakness, he worried that it made him unfit to lead. A curious mix of self-confidence and self-consciousness.

“Yes,” he continued. “Traveling requires great strength in the One Power, but I can make large gateways. Before this all went wrong, the largest I ever made was a gateway thirty feet across.”

Pevara blinked. “Surely you’re exaggerating.”

“I’d show you, if I could ” He seemed completely honest. Either he was telling the truth, or his belief was due to his madness. She remained quiet, uncertain how to approach that.

“It’s all right,” he said. “I know that there are... things wrong with me. With most of us. You can ask the others about my gateways. There’s a reason Coteren calls me pageboy. It’s because the only thing I’m good at is delivering people from one place to another.”

“That’s a remarkable Talent, Androl. I’m certain the Tower would love to study it. I wonder how many people were born with it, but never knew, because the weaves for Traveling were unknown?”

“I’m not going to the White Tower, Pevara,” he said, putting an emphasis on the White.

She changed the topic. “You long for Traveling, yet you don’t want to leave the Black Tower. So what does this ter’angreal matter?”

“Gateways would be... useful,” Androl said.

He thought something, but she couldn’t catch hold of it. A quick flash of images and impressions.

“But if were not going anywhere...” she protested.

“You’d be surprised,” he said, raising his head to peer out over the windowsill at the alleyway. It was drizzling outside; the rain had finally let up. The sky was still dark, though. Dawn wouldn’t come for a few hours yet. “I’ve been... experimenting. Trying a few things I don’t think anyone else has ever tried.”

“I doubt they are things that haven’t ever been tried,” she said. “The Forsaken had access to the knowledge of Ages.”

“You really think one might be involved here?”

“Why not?” she asked. “If you were preparing for the Last Battle and wanted to make certain your enemies couldn’t resist you, would you let a crop of channelers train together, teach one another and become strong?

Yes,” he said softly. “I would, and then I’d steal them.”

Pevara closed her mouth. That was probably right. Talking of the Forsaken troubled Androl; she could feel his thoughts, clearer than before.

This bond was unnatural. She needed to be rid of it. After that, she wouldn’t mind having him properly bonded to her.

“I will not take responsibility for this situation, Pevara,” Androl said, again looking out. “You bonded me first.”

“After you betrayed the trust I gave you by offering a circle.”

“I didn’t hurt you. What did you expect to happen? Wasn’t the purpose of a circle to allow us to join our powers?”

“This argument is pointless.”

“You only say that because you’re losing.” He said it calmly, and he felt calm as well. She was coming to realize that Androl was a difficult man to rile.

“I say it because it’s true,” she said. “Do you disagree?”

She felt his amusement. He saw how she took control of the conversation. And... beside his amusement, he actually seemed impressed. He was thinking that he needed to learn to do what she did.

The inner door to the room creaked open, and Leish peered in. She was a white-haired woman, round and pleasant, an odd match for the surly Asha’man Canler, to whom she was married. She nodded to Pevara, indicating that half an hour had passed, then shut the door. Canler had reportedly bonded the woman, making her some kind of.... what? Female Warder?

Everything was backward with these men. Pevara supposed she could see the reason for bonding one’s spouse, if only so that each could have the comfort of knowing where the other was, but it felt wrong to use the bond in such a mundane way. This was a thing for Aes Sedai and Warders, not wives and husbands.

Androl regarded her, obviously trying to figure out what she was thinking—though these thoughts were complex enough to give him trouble. Such an odd man, this Androl Genhald. How did he so fully mix determination and diffidence, like two threads woven together? He did what needed to be done, all the while worrying that he shouldn’t be the one doing it.

“I don’t understand myself either,” he said.

He was also infuriating. How had he grown so good at understanding what she was thinking? She still had to fish to figure out his thoughts.

“Can you think that again?” he asked. “I didn’t catch it.”

“Idiot,” Pevara muttered.

Androl smiled, then peeked over the windowsill again.

“It’s not time,” Pevara said.

“You’re sure?”

“Yes,” she said. “And if you keep peeking, you might scare him off when he actually comes.”

Androl reluctantly crouched down again.

“Now,” Pevara said. “When he comes, you have to let me take the lead.”

“We should link.”

“No.” She would not put herself in his hands again. Not after what had happened last time. She shivered, and Androl glanced at her.

“There are very good reasons,” she said, “for not linking. I don’t mean to insult you, Androl, but your ability isn’t great enough to make the trade worthwhile. Better that there be two of us. You must accept this. On a battlefield, which would you rather have? One soldier? Or two—with one being only slightly less skilled—that you can send on different tasks and duties?”

He thought about it, then sighed. “All right, fine. You talk sense, this time.”

“I always talk sense,” she said, rising. “It’s time. Be ready.”

The two of them moved to either side of the doorway that led out into the alley. It stood open a crack by intention, the sturdy lock on the outside left hanging as if someone had forgotten to close it.

They waited silently, and Pevara began to worry that her calculations had been off. Androl would have a good laugh about that, and—

The door pushed open the rest of the way. Dobser poked his head in, lured by Evin’s offhanded comment that he’d nicked a bottle of wine from the back room after finding that Leish had forgotten to lock the door. According to Androl, Dobser was a known drunkard, and Taim had beaten him senseless more than once for getting into the wine.

She could feel Androl’s reaction to the man. Sadness. Deep, crushing sadness. Dobser had the darkness behind his eyes.

Pevara struck quickly, tying Dobser in Air and slamming a shield into place between the unsuspecting man and the Source. Androl hefted a cudgel, but it wasn’t needed. Dobser grew wide-eyed as he was hoisted into the air; Pevara put her hands behind her back, regarding him critically.

“Are you certain about this?” Androl asked softly.

“Too late now, regardless,” Pevara replied, tying off the weaves of Air.

The accounts seem to agree. The more dedicated a person was to the Light before being taken, the more dedicated they 11 be to the Shadow after falling. And so... ”

And so this man, who had always been rather lukewarm, should be easier to break, bribe or convert than others. That was important, as Taim’s lackeys would likely realize what had happened as soon as—

“Dobser?” a voice asked. Two figures darkened the doorway. “Do you have the wine? No need to watch the front; the woman isn’t—”

Welyn and another of Taim’s favored, Leems, stood in the doorway.

Pevara reacted immediately, throwing weaves at the two men while forming a thread of Spirit. They rebuffed her attempts at shielding them—it was tough to get a shield between the Source and a person holding the One Power—but her gags snapped into place, stopping their yells.

She felt Air wrapping around her, a shield trying to come between her and the Source. She lashed out with Spirit, slicing down the weaves by guessing where they would be.

Leems stumbled back, looking surprised as his weaves vanished. Pevara threw herself forward, weaving another shield and smashing it between him and the Source as she slammed her body into him, throwing him back against the wall. The distraction worked, and her shield cut him off from the One Power.

She flung a second shield at Welyn, but he hit her with his own threads of Air. They hurled her backward across the room. She wove Air as she crashed into the wall, grunting. Her vision swam, but she kept hold of that single thread of Air and by instinct, sweeping it forward, grabbed Welyn’s foot as he tried to run out of the building.

She felt the ground tremble from someone falling. He’d tripped, hadn't he? Dizzy, she couldn’t see straight.

She sat up, aching all over, but clung to the threads of Air she’d woven as gags. Let those go, and Taim’s men would be able to scream. If they did that, she died. They all died. Or worse.

She blinked the tears of pain from her eyes to find Androl standing over the two Asha’man, cudgel in his hand. He’d knocked them both out, it appeared, not trusting in shields he couldn’t see. Good thing, too, as her second shield hadn’t gotten into place. She set it now.

Dobser still hung where she’d put him, his eyes wider now. Androl looked at Pevara. “Light!” he said. “Pevara, that was incredible. You brought down two Asha’man, practically by yourself!”

She smiled in satisfaction and woozily took Androl’s hand, letting him help her to her feet. “What did you think the Red Ajah does with its time, Androl? Sit around and complain about men? We train to fight other channeled.”

She felt Androl’s respect as he busied himself, pulling Welyn into the building and shutting the door, then checking at the windows to make certain they hadn’t been seen. He drew the shades quickly, then channeled to make a light.

Pevara took a breath, then raised a hand and steadied herself against the wall.

Androl looked up sharply. “We need to take you to one of the others for Healing.”

“I’ll be fine,” she said. “Just took a thump to the head and it has the room shaking. It will wear off.”

“Let me see,” Androl said, walking over—his light hovering beside him. Pevara allowed him to putter about for a moment, checking her eyes, feeling her head for lumps. He moved his light closer to her eyes. “Does it hurt to look at this?”

“Yes,” she admitted, glancing away.

“Nausea?”

“Slight.”

He grunted, then took a handkerchief out of his pocket and poured some water on it from his flask. He adopted a look of concentration, and his light winked out. The handkerchief crackled softly, and when he handed it to her, it was frozen. “Hold this to the wound,” he said. “Tell me if you start to feel drowsy. It could grow worse if you fall asleep.”

“Are you worried for me?” she asked, amused, doing as he said.

“Just... what was it you told me earlier? Keeping watch over our assets?

I’m sure,” she said, pressing the iced bandanna to her head. “So you know field medicine as well?”

“I apprenticed with a town’s Wise Woman once,” he said absently as he knelt to bind the fallen men. Pevara was glad to release the weaves of Air on them, though she did keep the shields up.

“A Wise Woman took on a male apprentice?”

“Not at first,” Androl said. “It’s... a long story.”

“Excellent; a long story will keep me from falling asleep until the others come for us.” Emarin and the others had been instructed to go and be seen, establishing an alibi for the group, in case Dobser’s disappearance was noted.

Androl eyed her, replacing his light. Then he shrugged, continuing his work. “It started when I lost a friend to the fevers during a silverpike run out of Mayene. When I came back to the mainland, I started thinking that we could have saved Sayer if any of us had known what to do. So I went looking for someone who could teach me... ”

CHAPTER 4
Advantages to a Bond

And that was the end of it,” Pevara said, sitting against the wall. Androl could feel her emotions. They sat in the store room where they’d fought Taim’s men, waiting for Emarin—who claimed he could make Dobser talk. Androl himself had little skill in interrogation. The scent of grain had changed to a rancid stench. It spoiled suddenly, sometimes.

Pevara had grown quiet, both outside and in, as she’d spoken of the murder of her family by longtime friends.

“I still hate them,” she said. “I can think about my family without pain, but the Darkfriends... I hate them. At least I have some vengeance, as the Dark One certainly didn’t defend them. They spent all their lives following him, hoping for a place in his new world, only to have the Last Battle come long after their deaths. I suppose the ones living now won’t be any better off. Once we win the Last Battle, he will have their souls. I hope their punishment is lengthy.”

“You’re so certain we will win?” Androl asked.

“Of course we will win. It’s not a question, Androl. We can’t afford to make it one.”

He nodded. “You’re right. Continue.”

“There’s no more to say. Odd, to tell the story after all these years. For a long while, I couldn’t speak of it.”

The room fell silent. Dobser hung in his bonds, facing the wall, his ears plugged by Pevara's weaves. The other two were still unconscious. Androl had hit them hard, and he intended to see that they didn’t awaken anytime soon.

Pevara had shielded them, but she couldn’t possibly maintain three shields at once if the men tried to break free. Aes Sedai usually used more than one sister to hold one man. Three would be impossible for any single channeler, strong or not. She could tie off those shields, but Taim had set the Asha’man at practicing how to escape a tied-off shield.

Yes, best to make certain the other two didn’t wake. Useful though it would be just to cut their throats, he didn’t have the stomach for it. Instead he sent a tiny thread of Spirit and Air to touch each of their eyelids. He had to use a single weave, and a weak one, but he managed to touch all of their eyes. If the lids cracked a tiny bit, he’d know. That would have to be enough.

Pevara was still thinking about her family. She had been telling the truth; she did hate the Darkfriends. All of them. It was a measured hate, not out of control, but it was still strong after all of these years.

He would not have suspected that in this woman who seemed so often to smile. He could sense that she hurt. And, oddly, that she felt... lonely.

“My father killed himself,” Androl said, without really intending to.

She looked at him.

“My mother pretended it was an accident for years,” Androl continued. “He did it out in the woods, leaped from a cliff. He’d sat down with her the night before and explained what he was going to do.”

“She didn’t try to stop him?” Pevara asked, aghast.

“No,” Androl said. “Only a few years before she found the mother’s last embrace, I was able to pry some answers out of her. She was frightened of him. That was shocking to me; he’d always been so gentle. What had changed, in those last few years, to make her fear him?” Androl turned to Pevara. “She said that he saw things in the shadows. That he’d started to go mad.”

“Ah...”

“You asked me why I came to the Black Tower. You wanted to know why I asked to be tested. Well this thing that I am, it answers a question for me. It tells me who my father was, and why he did what he felt he needed to do.

“I can see the signs now. Our business did too well. Father could find quarries of stone and veins of metal when nobody else could. Men hired him to find valuable deposits for them. He was the best. Uncannily good. I could... see it in him at the end, Pevara. I was only ten, but I remember.

The fear in his eyes. I know that fear now.” He hesitated. “My father jumped off that cliff to save his family’s lives.”

“I’m sorry,” Pevara said.

“Knowing what I am, what he was, helps.”

It had started raining again, fat drops hitting the window like pebbles. The door into the shop opened, and Emarin, finally, peered in. He saw Dobser, hanging there, and looked relieved. Then he saw the other two and started. “What have you two done?”

“What needed to be done,” Androl said, standing. “What took you so long?”

“I nearly started another confrontation with Coteren,” Emarin said, still staring at the two captive Asha’man. “I think our time is short, Androl. We didn’t let them goad us, but Coteren seemed annoyed—more so than normal. I don’t think they’re going to tolerate us much longer.”

“Well, these captives put us on a countdown anyway,” Pevara said, moving Dobser over to make room for Emarin. “You really think you can make this man talk? I’ve tried interrogating Darkfriends before. They can be tough to crack.”

“Ah,” Emarin said, “but this is not a Darkfriend. This is Dobser.”

“I don’t think it’s really him,” Androl said, studying the man floating in his bonds. “I can’t accept that someone can be made to serve the Dark One.” He could sense Pevara’s disagreement; she really did think that was how it happened. Anyone who could channel could be Turned, she’d explained. The old texts spoke of it.

The idea made Androl want to sick up. Forcing someone to be evil? That shouldn’t be possible. Fate moved people about, put them in terrible positions, cost them their lives, sometimes their sanity. But the choice to serve the Dark One or the Light... surely that one choice could not be taken from a person.

The shadow he saw behind Dobser’s eyes was enough proof for Androl. The man he’d known was gone, killed, and something else—something evil—had been put into his body. A new soul. It had to be that.

“Whatever he is,” Pevara said, “I’m still skeptical that you can force him to speak.”

“The best persuasions,” Emarin said, hands clasped behind his back, “are those that aren’t forced. Pevara Sedai, if you would be so kind as to remove the weaves blocking his ears so that he can start to hear—but only remove them in the most minor way, as if the weave has been tied off and is failing. I want him to overhear what I’m about to say.”

She complied. At least, Androl assumed she did. Being double-bonded didn’t mean they could see one another’s weaves. He could feel her anxiety, however. She was thinking of Darkfriends she’d interrogated, was wishing for... something. A tool she’d used against them?

“I do think we can hide at my estates,” Emarin said in a haughty voice.

Androl blinked. The man held himself taller, more proudly, more... authoritatively. His voice became powerful, dismissive. Just like that, he had become a nobleman.

“No one will think to look for us there,” Emarin continued. “I will accept you as my associates, and the lesser among us—young Evin, for instance— can enter my employ as servants. If we play our hand correctly, we can build up a rival Black Tower.”

“I... don’t know how wise that would be,” Androl said, playing along.

“Silence,” Emarin said. “I will ask your opinion when it is required. Aes Sedai, the only way we will rival the White and Black Towers is if we create a place where male and female channelers work together. A... Gray Tower, if you will.”

“It is an interesting proposal.”

“It is the only thing that makes sense,” Emarin said, then turned to their captive. “He cannot hear what we say?”

“No,” Pevara said.

“Release him, then. I would speak to him.”

Pevara hesitantly did as instructed. Dobser dropped to the floor, barely catching himself. He stumbled for a moment, unsteady on his feet, then immediately glanced toward the exit.

Emarin reached behind his back, pulled something from his belt and tossed it to the floor. A small sack. It clinked as it hit. “Master Dobser,” Emarin said.

“What’s this?” Dobser asked, tentatively crouching down, taking the sack. He peeked into it, and his eyes widened noticeably.

“Payment,” Emarin said.

Dobser narrowed his eyes. “To do what?”

“You mistake me, Master Dobser,” Emarin said. “I’m not asking you to do anything, I’m paying you in apology. I sent Androl here to request your aid, and he seems to have... overstepped the bounds of his instructions.

I merely wished to speak with you. I did not intend to see you wrapped up in Air and tormented.”

Dobser glanced about himself, suspicious. “Where’d you find money like this, Emarin? What makes you think you can start giving orders? You’re just a soldier...” He looked at the pouch’s contents again.

I see that we understand each other,” Emarin said, smiling. “You’ll maintain my front for me, then?”

“I...” Dobser frowned. He looked at Welyn and Leems, lying unconscious on the floor.

Yes, Emarin said. That is going to be a problem, isn’t it? You don’t suppose we could just give Androl to Taim and blame him for this?”

Androl? Dobser said, snorting. The pageboy? Taking down two Ashaman? Nobody would believe it. Nobody.”

‘A valid point, Master Dobser,” Emarin said.

Just give em the Aes Sedai, Dobser said, jerking a finger toward her.

‘Alas, I have need of her. A mess, this is. A pure mess.”

“Well,” Dobser said, “maybe I could talk to the M’Hael for you. You know, straighten it out.”

That would be much appreciated,” Emarin said, taking a chair from beside the wall and setting it down, then placing another before it. He sat, waving for Dobser to sit down. “Androl, make yourself useful. Find something for Master Dobser and me to drink. Tea. You like sugar?”

No, Dobser said. “Actually, I heard there was wine round here somewhere...”

“Wine, Androl,” Emarin said, snapping his fingers.

Well, Androl thought, best to play the part. He bowed, shooting Dobser a calculated glare, then fetched some cups and wine from the storeroom. When he returned, Dobser and Emarin were chatting amicably.

I understand,” Emarin said. “I have had such trouble finding proper help inside the Black Tower. You see, the need to preserve my identity is imperative.”

“I can see that, m’Lord,” Dobser said. “Why, if anyone else knew a High Lord of Tear was among our ranks, there’d be no end to the boot licking. That I can tell you! And the M’Hael, well, he wouldn’t like someone with so much authority being here. No, not at all!”

“You see why I had to maintain my distance,” Emarin explained, holding out a hand and accepting a cup of wine as Androl poured it.

A High Lord of Tear? Androl thought, amused. Dobser seemed to be drinking it in as he did strong liquor.

“And we all thought you were fawning over Logain because you was stupid!” Dobser said.

“Alas, the lot I’ve been given. Taim would see through me in a moment if I were to spend too much time around him. So I was forced to go with Logain. He and that Dragon fellow, both are obviously farmers and wouldn’t recognize a highborn man.”

“I’ll say, m’Lord,” Dobser said, “I was suspicious.”

“As I thought,” Emarin said, taking a sip of the wine. “To prove it’s not poisoned,” he explained, before passing the cup to Dobser.

“ ’S all right, m’Lord,” Dobser said. “I trust you.” He gulped down the wine. “If you can’t trust a High Lord himself, who can you trust, right?

Quite right,” Emarin said.

“I can tell you this,” Dobser said, holding out his cup and wagging it for Androl to refill, “you’ll need to find a better way of keeping away from Taim. Following Logain won’t work anymore.”

Emarin took a long, contemplative sip from his cup of wine. “Taim has him. I see. I did guess it would be so. Welyn and the others showing up tells the tale.”

“Yeah,” Dobser said, letting Androl refill his cup again. “Logain is a strong one, though. Takes a lot of work to Turn a man like him. Willpower, you know? It will be a day or two to Turn him. Anyway, you might as well come out to Taim, explain what you’re up to. He’ll understand, and he keeps saying men are more useful to him if he doesn’t have to Turn them. Don’t know why. No choice but to Turn Logain, though. Awful process.” Dobser shivered.

“I’ll go and speak with him then, Master Dobser. Would you vouch for me, by chance? I’ll... see you paid for the effort.”

“Sure, sure,” Dobser said. “Why not?” He downed his wine, then lurched to his feet. “He’ll be checking on Logain. Always does, this time of night.

And that would be where?” Emarin said.

“The hidden rooms,” Dobser said. “In the foundations we’re building. You know the eastern section, where the collapse made all of that extra digging? That was no collapse, just an excuse for covering up extra work being done. And...” Dobser hesitated.

“And that’s enough,” Pevara said, tying the man up in air again and stopping his ears. She folded her arms, looking at Emarin. “I’m impressed.” Emarin spread his hands apart in a gesture of humility. “I have always had a talent for making men feel at ease. In truth, I didn’t suggest picking Dobser because I thought he’d be easy to bribe. I picked him because of his... well, understated powers of cognitive expression.”

“Turning someone to the Shadow doesn’t make him any less stupid,” Androl said. “But if you could do this, why did we have to jump him in the first place?”

“It’s a matter of controlling the situation, Androl,” Emarin said. “A man like Dobser mustn’t be confronted in his element, surrounded by friends with more wits than he. We had to scare him, make him writhe, then offer him a way to wiggle out.” Emarin hesitated, glancing at Dobser. “Besides, I don’t think we wanted to risk him going to Taim, which he very well might have done if I’d approached him in private without the threat of violence.

And now?” Pevara asked.

“Now,” Androl said, “we douse these three with something that will keep them sleeping until Bel Tine. We gather Nalaam, Canler, Evin and Jonneth. We wait for Taim to finish his inspection of Logain; we break in, rescue him and seize the Tower back from the Shadow.”

They stood in silence for a moment, the room lit only by the single, flickering lamp. Rain sprayed the window.

Well, Pevara said, so long as it’s not a difficult task you’re proposing, Androl...”

Rand opened his eyes to the dream, somewhat surprised to find that he had fallen asleep. Aviendha had finally let him doze. In truth, she was probably letting herself doze as well. She’d seemed as tired as he had. More, perhaps.

He climbed to his feet in the meadow of dead grass. He had been able to sense her concern not only through the bond but in the way she had held him. Aviendha was a fighter, a warrior, but even a warrior needed something to hold on to once in a while. Light knew that he did.

He looked about. This didn't feel like Tel’aran’rhiod', not completely. The dead field extended into the distance on all sides, presumably into infinity. This wasn't the true World of Dreams; it was a dreamshard, a world created by a powerful Dreamer or dreamwalker.

Rand began walking, feet crunching on dead leaves, though there were no trees. He could probably have sent himself back to his own dreams; though he had never been as good as many of the Forsaken at walking dreams, he could manage that much. Curiosity drove him forward.

I shouldn’t be here, he thought. I set wards. How had he come to this place and who had created it? He had a suspicion. There was one person who had often made use of dreamshards.

Rand felt a presence nearby. He continued walking, not turning, but knew that someone was now walking beside him.

“Elan,” Rand said.

“Lews Therin.” Elan still wore his newest body, the tall, handsome man who wore red and black. “It dies, and the dust soon will rule. The dust... then nothing.”

“How did you pass my wards?”

“I don’t know,” Moridin said. “I knew that if I created this place, you would join me in it. You cant keep away from me. The Pattern won’t allow it. We are drawn together, you and I. Time after time after time. Two ships moored on the same beach, beating against one another with each new tide.

Poetic,” Rand said. “You’ve finally let Mierin off her leash, I’ve seen.” Moridin stopped, and Rand paused, looking at him. The man’s rage seemed to come off him in waves of heat.

“She came to you?” Moridin demanded.

Rand said nothing.

“Do not pretend that you knew she still lived. You didn’t know, you couldn’t have known.”

Rand kept still. His emotions regarding Lanfear—or whatever she called herself now—were complicated. Lews Therin had despised her, but Rand had known her primarily as Selene, and had been fond of her—until, at least, she tried to kill Egwene and Aviendha.

Thinking of her made him think of Moiraine, made him hope for things he shouldn’t hope for.

If Lanfear still lives... might Moiraine as well?

He faced Moridin with calm confidence. “Loosing her is pointless, now,” Rand said. “She no longer holds any power over me.”

“Yes,” Moridin said. “I believe you. She does not, but I do think she still harbors something of a... grievance with the woman you chose. What is her name again? The one who calls herself Aiel but carries weapons?”

Rand did not rise to the attempt to rile him.

“Mierin hates you now, anyway,” Moridin continued. “I think she blames you for what happened to her. You should call her Cyndane. She has been forbidden to use the name she took upon herself.”

“Cyndane...” Rand said, trying out the word. “ ‘Last Chance’? Your master has gained humor, I see.”

“It was not meant to be humorous,” Moridin said.

“No, I suppose that it was not.” Rand looked at the endless landscape of dead grass and leaves. “It is hard to think that I was so afraid of you during those early days. Did you invade my dreams then, or bring me into one of these dreamshards? I was never able to figure it out.”

Moridin said nothing.

“I remember one time...” Rand said. “Sitting up by the fire, surrounded by nightmares that felt like Tel’aran’rhiod. You would not have been able to pull someone fully into the World of Dreams, yet I’m no dream-walker, able to enter on my own.”

Moridin, like many of the Forsaken, had usually entered Tel’aran’rhiod in the flesh, which was dangerous. Some said that entering in the flesh was an evil thing, that it lost you a part of your humanity. It also made you more powerful.

Moridin gave no clue as to what had happened on that night. Rand remembered those days faintly, traveling toward Tear. He remembered visions in the night, visions of his friends or family that would try to kill him. Moridin... Ishamael... had been pulling him against his will into dreams intersecting Tel’aran’rhiod.

You were mad, during those days,” Rand said softly, looking into Moridin’s eyes. He could almost see the fires burning there. “You’re still mad, aren't you? You just have it contained. No one could serve him without being at least a little mad.”

Moridin stepped forward. “Taunt as you wish, Lews Therin. The ending dawns. All will be given to the great suffocation of the Shadow, to be stretched, ripped, strangled.”

Rand took a step forward as well, right up to Moridin. They were the same height. “You hate yourself,” Rand whispered. “I can feel it in you, Elan. Once you served him for power; now you do it because his victory—and an end to all things—is the only release you’ll ever know. You’d rather not exist than continue to be you. You must know that he will not release you. Not ever. Not you.”

Moridin sneered. “He’ll let me kill you before this ends, Lews Therin. You, and the golden-haired one, and the Aiel woman, and the little darkhaired—”

“You act as if this is a contest between you and me, Elan,” Rand interrupted.

Moridin laughed, throwing his head back. “Of course it is! Haven’t you seen that yeti By the blood falls, Lews Therin! It is about us two. Just as in Ages past, over and over, we fight one another. You and I.”

No, Rand said. “Not this time. I’m done with you. I have a greater battle to fight.”

“Don’t try to—”

Sunlight exploded through the clouds above. There was often no sunlight in the World of Dreams, but now it bathed the area around Rand.

Moridin stumbled back. He looked up at the light, then gazed at Rand and narrowed his eyes. “Don’t think... don’t think I will believe your simple tricks, Lews Therin. Weiramon was shaken by what you did to him, but it’s not such a difficult thing, holding saidin and listening for people’s heartbeats to speed up.”

Rand exerted his will. The crackling dead leaves began to transform at his feet, turning green again, and shoots of grass broke through the leaves.

The green spread from him like spilled paint, and clouds above boiled away.

Moridin’s eyes opened wider. He stumbled, staring at the sky as the clouds retreated... Rand could feel his shock. This was Moridin’s dream-shard.

However, to draw another in, he had had to place it close to Tel’aran’rhiod. Those rules applied. There was something else, too, something about the connection between the two of them...

Rand strode forward, lifting his arms out to the sides. Grass sprouted in waves, red blossoms burst from the ground like a blush upon the land. The storm stilled, the dark clouds burned away by light.

“Tell your master!” Rand commanded. “Tell him this fight is not like the others. Tell him I’ve tired of minions, that I’m finished with his petty movement of pawns. Tell him that I’m coming for HIM!”

“This is wrong,” Moridin said, visibly shaken. “This isn’t... ” He looked at Rand for a moment, standing beneath the blazing sun, then vanished.

Rand let out a deep breath. The grass died around him, the clouds sprang back, the sunlight faded. Though Moridin was gone, holding on to that transformation of the landscape had been difficult. Rand sagged, panting, recovering from the exertion.

Here, willing something to be true could make it so. If only things were that simple in the real world.

He closed his eyes and sent himself away, to sleep for the short time before he had to rise. Rise, and save the world. If he could.

—  —

Pevara crouched beside Androl in the rainy night. Her cloak was soaked completely through. She knew a couple of weaves that would have been useful for that, but she didn’t dare channel. She and the others would be facing Turned Aes Sedai and women of the Black Ajah. They could sense it if she channeled.

“They’re definitely guarding the area,” Androl whispered. Ahead of them, the ground broke away into a large sequence of mazelike brickworks and trenches. These were the foundation rooms of what would eventually become the Black Tower proper. If Dobser was right, other rooms had been created within the foundation—hidden chambers, already complete, that would continue to be secret as the Tower itself was constructed.

A pair of Taim’s Asha’man stood chatting nearby. Though they tried to appear nonchalant, the effect was spoiled by the weather. Who would choose to stand outside on a night like this one? Despite a warm brazier lighting them and a weave of Air to send the rain streaming away, their presence was suspicious.

Guards. Pevara tried sending the thought to Androl directly.

It worked. She could feel his surprise as the thought intruded onto his own.

Something returned, fuzzy. We should take advantage.

Yes, she sent back. The next thought was too complex, though, so she whispered it. “How have you never before noticed that he left the foundation guarded at night? If there really are secret rooms, then the work on them would be done at night as well.”

“Taim set a curfew,” Androl whispered. “He lets us ignore it only when convenient to him—such as for Welyn’s return tonight. Besides, this area is dangerous, with those pits and trenches. It would be a good enough reason to set guards, except... ”

“Except,” Pevara said, “Taim isn’t exactly the type to care if a child or two break their necks poking around.”

Androl nodded.

Pevara and Androl waited in the rain, counting their breaths, until three ribbons of fire flew from the night and struck the guards directly in their heads. The two Asha’man dropped like sacks of grain. Nalaam, Emarin and Jonneth had done their work perfectly. Quick channeling; with luck, it either wouldn’t be noticed or would be thought the work of Taim’s men on guard.

Light, Pevara thought. Androl and the others really are weapons. She hadn’t stopped to consider that Emarin and the others would lead with lethal attacks. It was completely outside her experience as an Aes Sedai. Aes Sedai didn’t even kill false Dragons if they could help it.

“Gentling kills,” Androl said, eyes forward. “Albeit slowly.”

Light. Yes, there might be advantages to their bond—but it was also blasted inconvenient. She would have to practice shielding her thoughts.

Emarin and the others came in from the darkness, joining Pevara and Androl at the brazier. Canler remained behind, with the other Two Rivers lads, ready to lead them from the Black Tower in an escape attempt if something went wrong tonight. It made sense to leave him, despite his protests. He had a family.

They dragged the corpses into the shadows, but left the brazier burning. Someone looking for the guards would see that the light was still there, but the night was so misty and rainy one would have to draw close to realize that its attendants had vanished.

Though he often complained that he didn’t know why the others followed him, Androl immediately took charge of this group, sending Nalaam and Jonneth to watch at the edge of the foundation. Jonneth carried his bow, unstrung in the wet night. They were hoping the rain would let up, and that he’d be able to use it when they couldn’t risk channeling.

Androl, Pevara and Emarin slid down one of the muddy slopes into the foundation pits that had been dug. Mud splashed over her as she landed, but she was already soaked, and the rain washed away the grime.

The foundation was made of stones built up to form walls between rooms and hallways; down here, this became a labyrinth, with a steady stream of rain falling from above. In the morning, the Asha’man soldiers would be set to drying out the foundation.

How do we find the entrance? Pevara sent.

Androl knelt, a very small globe of light hovering above his hand. Drops of rain passed through the light, looking like tiny meteorites for a moment as they flashed and vanished. He rested fingers in the pooling water on the ground.

He looked up, then pointed. “It runs this way,” he whispered. “It’s going somewhere. That is where we’ll find Taim.”

Emarin grunted appreciatively. Androl raised a hand, summoning Jonneth and Nalaam down into the foundation with them, then led the way, stepping softly.

You. Quietly. Move. Well, she sent.

Trained as scout, he sent back. In woods. Mountains of Mist.

How many jobs had he done in his life? She had worried about him. A life such as he had led could indicate a dissatisfaction with the world, an impatience. The way he spoke of the Black Tower, though... the passion with which he was willing to fight... that said something different. This wasn’t just about a loyalty to Logain. Yes, Androl and the others respected Logain, but to them, he represented something far greater. A place where men like them were accepted.

A life like Androl’s could indicate a man who would not commit or be satisfied, but it could also indicate something else: a man who searched. A man who knew that the life he wanted existed out there. He just had to find it.

“They teach you to analyze people like that in the White Tower?” Androl whispered to her as he stopped beside a doorway and moved his globe of light in, then waved the others to follow.

No, she sent back, trying to practice this method of communicating, to make her thoughts smoother. Is something a woman picks up after her first century of life.

He sent back tense amusement. They passed into a series of unfinished rooms, none of them roofed, before reaching a section of unworked earth. Some barrels here held pitch, but they had been shifted to the side and the boards they normally sat upon had been pulled away. A pit opened in the ground here. The water trailed over the lip of the pit and down into darkness. Androl knelt and listened, then nodded to the others before slipping down into it. His splash came a second later.

Pevara followed him, dropping only a few feet. The water was cold on her feet, but she was already soaked. Androl hunched, leading the way under an earthen overhang, then stood up on the other side. His little globe of light revealed a tunnel. A trench had been dug here to hold the rainwater. Pevara judged they’d been standing directly above this when they’d taken down the guards.

Dobser right, she sent as the others splashed down behind. Taim building secret tunnels and chambers.

They crossed the trench and continued on. A short distance down the tunnel, they reached an intersection where the earthen walls were shored up, like the shafts of a mine. The five of them gathered there, looking in one direction, then another. Two paths.

“That way slopes upward,” Emarin whispered, pointing left. “Perhaps to another entrance into these tunnels?”

“We should probably move deeper,” Nalaam said. “Don’t you think?”

“Yes,” Androl said, licking his finger and testing the air. “The wind is blowing right. We’ll go that way first. Be careful. There will be other guards.”

The group slipped further down into the tunnels. How long had Taim been working on this complex? It didn’t seem terribly extensive—they didn’t pass other branchings—but still, it was impressive.

Suddenly Androl stopped, and the others pulled to a halt. A grumbling voice echoed up the tunnel, too soft for them to make out the words, accompanied by a flickering light on the walls. Pevara embraced the Source and prepared weaves. If she channeled, would someone in the foundation notice? Androl was obviously hesitant as well; channeling above, to kill the guards, had been suspicious enough. If Taim’s men down here sensed the One Power being used...

The figure was approaching, the light illuminating him.

A creak came from beside her, as Jonneth drew his restrung Two Rivers bow. There was barely room in the tunnel for it. He loosed with a snap, the air whistling. The grumbling cut off, and the light fell.

The group scrambled forward to find Coteren down on the ground, eyes staring up glassily, the arrow through his chest. His lantern burned fitfully on the ground beside him. Jonneth retrieved his arrow, then wiped it on the dead mans clothing. “That’s why I still carry a bow, you bloody son of a goat.”

“Here,” Emarin said, pointing at a thick door. “Coteren was guarding it.”

“Prepare yourselves,” Androl whispered, then shoved open the thick wooden door. Beyond, they found a line of crude cells built into the earthen wall—each one little more than a roofed cubbyhole burrowed into the earth with a door set in the opening. Pevara peeked in one, which was empty. The cubby didn’t have enough room for a man to stand up inside, and the room was unlit. Being locked in those cells would mean being trapped in blackness, squeezed into a space like a grave.

“Light!” Nalaam said. “Androl! He’s in here. It’s Logain!”

The others hurried to join him, and Androl picked the door’s lock with a surprisingly adept hand. They pulled open the cell door, and Logain rolled out with a groan. He looked horrible, covered in grime. Once, that curling dark hair and strong face might have made him handsome. He looked as weak as a beggar.

He coughed, then rose to his knees with Nalaam’s help. Androl knelt immediately, but not in reverence. He looked Logain in the eyes as Emarin gave the Asha’man leader his flask for a drink.

Well? Pevara asked.

It’s him, Androl thought, a wave of relief coming through the bond. It’s still him.

They’d have let him go if they’d Turned him, Pevara sent back, growing increasingly comfortable with this method of communicating.

Maybe. Unless this is a trap. “My Lord Logain.”

“Androl.” Logain’s voice was raspy. “Jonneth. Nalaam. And an Aes Sedai?” He inspected Pevara. For a man who had apparently suffered days, perhaps weeks, of incarceration, he looked remarkably lucid. “I remember you. What Ajah are you, woman?”

“Does it matter?” she replied.

“Greatly,” Logain said, trying to stand. He was too weak, and Nalaam had to support him. “How did you find me?”

“That is a story for once we are safe, my Lord,” Androl said. He peeked out the doorway. “Let’s move. We still have a difficult night ahead of us. I—”

Androl froze, then slammed the door.

“What is it?” Pevara asked.

“Channeling,” Jonneth said. “Powerful.”

Yells, muffled by the door and the dirt walls, sounded outside in the hallway.

“Someone found the guards,” Emarin said. “My Lord Logain, can you fight?”

Logain tried to stand on his own, then sagged again. His face grew determined, but Pevara felt Androl’s disappointment. Logain had been given forkroot; either that, or he was simply too tired to channel. Not surprising. Pevara had seen women in better shape than this who were too worn out to embrace the Source.

“Back!” Androl shouted, stepping to the side of the door—against the earthen wall. The door exploded in a weave of fire and destruction.

Pevara didn’t wait for the debris to settle; she wove Fire and released a column of destruction down the corridor beyond. She knew she was facing Darkfriends, or worse. The Three Oaths did not hinder her here.

She heard shouts, but something deflected the fire. Immediately, a shield tried to slam between her and the Source. She fought it off, barely, and ducked to the side, breathing deeply.

“Whoever it is, they’re strong,” Pevara said.

A voice called orders distantly, echoing in the tunnels.

Jonneth knelt down beside her, bow out. “Light, that’s Taim’s voice!”

“We cannot stand here,” Logain said. “Androl. A gateway.”

“I’m trying,” Androl said. “Light, I’m trying!”

“Bah,” Nalaam set Logain down beside the wall. “I’ve been in tighter spots before!” He joined the others at the doorway, flinging weaves down the corridor. Blasts shook the side walls, and dirt rained down from the roof above.

Pevara jumped in front of the doorway, releasing a weave, then knelt down beside Androl. He stared ahead, not seeing, face a mask of concentration. She could feel determination and frustration pulsing through the bond. She took his hand.

“You can do it,” she whispered.

The doorway erupted, and Jonneth fell back, arm burned. The ground trembled; the walls started to break apart.

Sweat dripped down the sides of Androl’s face. He gritted his teeth, his face going red, eyes opening wide. Smoke poured through the doorway, making Emarin cough as Nalaam Healed Jonneth.

Androl yelled, and he neared the top of that wall in his mind. He was almost there! He could—

A weave thumped against the room, a ripple in the earth, and the strained roof finally gave out. Earth poured down atop them, and all went black.

CHAPTER 5
To Require a Boon

Rand al’Thor awoke and drew in a deep breath. He slipped from the blankets in his tent, leaving Aviendha slumbering there, and threw on a robe. The air smelled wet.

He was reminded, in passing, of mornings during his youth, rising before dawn to milk the cow, which would need milking twice a day. Eyes closed, he remembered the sounds of Tam—already up—cutting new fence posts in the barn. Remembering the chilly air, stomping his feet into his boots, washing his face with water left to warm beside the stove.

On any morning, a farmer could open his door and look out on a world that was still new. Crisp frost. The first, tentative calls of birds. Sunlight breaking the horizon, like the morning yawn of the world.

Rand stepped up to the flaps of his tent and drew them back, nodding to Katerin, a short, golden-haired Maiden who was on guard. He looked out on a world that was far from new. This world was old and tired, like a peddler who had been to the Spine of the World and back on foot. Tents crowded the Field of Merrilor, cook fires trailing pillars of smoke toward the still-dark morning sky.

Everywhere, men worked. Soldiers oiled armor. Smiths sharpened spearheads. Women prepared feathers for fletching arrows. Breakfasts were served from meal wagons to men who should have slept better than they had. Everyone knew these were their last moments before the storm arrived.

Rand closed his eyes. He could feel it, the land itself, like a faint Warder bond. Beneath his feet, grubs crawled through the soil. The roots of the grasses continued to spread, ever so slowly, seeking nutrients. The skeletal trees were not dead, for water seeped through them. They slumbered. Bluebirds clustered in a nearby tree. They did not call out with the arrival of dawn. They huddled together, as if for warmth.

The land still lived. It lived like a man clinging to the edge of a cliff by his fingertips.

Rand opened his eyes. “Have my clerks returned from Tear?”

“Yes, Rand al’Thor,” said Katerin.

Send word to the other rulers,” Rand said. “I will meet with them in one hour at the center of the field where I commanded no tents be placed.”

Katerin went off to relay his command, leaving three other Maidens nearby to guard. Rand let the tent flaps close in front of him and turned around, then jumped as he found Aviendha—as bare as the day she’d been born—standing in the tent.

It is very difficult to sneak up on you, Rand al’Thor,” she announced with a smile. “The bond gives you too much of an advantage. I have to move very slowly, like a lizard at midnight, so that your sense of where I am does not change too quickly.”

Light, Aviendha! Why do you need to sneak up on me in the first place?”

“For this,” she said, then jumped forward, snatching his head and kissing him, her body pressed against his.

He relaxed, letting the kiss linger. “Unsurprisingly,” he mumbled around her lips, this is much more fun now that I don’t have to worry about freezing my bits off while doing it.”

Aviendha pulled back. “You should not speak of that event, Rand al’Thor.”

“But—”

“My toh is paid, and I am now first-sister to Elayne. Do not remind me of a shame that is forgotten.”

Shame? Why would she be ashamed of that when just now... He shook his head. He could hear the land breathing, could sense a beetle on a leaf half a league away, but sometimes he could not fathom Aiel. Or maybe it was just women.

In this case, it was probably both.

Aviendha hesitated beside the tent’s barrel of fresh water. “I suppose that we will not have time for a bath.”

“Oh, you like baths now?”

“I have accepted them as a part of life,” she said. “If I am going to live in the wetlands, then I will adopt some wetlander customs. When they are not foolish.” Her tone indicated that most of them were.

“What’s wrong?” Rand asked, stepping up to her.

“Wrong?”

“Something bothers you, Aviendha. I can see it in you, feel it in you.” She looked him over with a critical eye. Light, but she was beautiful. “You were much easier to manage before you received the ancient wisdom of your former self, Rand al’Thor.”

“I was?” he asked, smiling. “You didn’t act that way at the time.”

“That was when I was as a new child, inexperienced in Rand al’Thor’s boundless capacity to be frustrating.” She dipped her hands into the water and washed her face. “It is well; if I had known some of what was to come with you, I might have put on the white and never removed it.”

He smiled, then channeled, weaving Water and drawing the liquid from the barrel in a stream. Aviendha stepped back, watching with curiosity.

“You no longer seem bothered by the idea of a man channeling,” he noted as he fanned the water out into the air and heated it with a thread of Fire.

“There is no longer a reason to be bothered. If I were to be uncomfortable with you channeling, I would be behaving like a man refusing to forget a woman’s shame after her toh has been met.” She eyed him.

“I can’t imagine anyone being that crass,” he said, tossing aside his robe and stepping up to her. “Here. This is a relic from that ancient wisdom’ you apparently find so frustrating.”

He brought the water in, warmed perfectly, and shattered it into a thick misting spray that wove about them in a rush. Aviendha gasped, clutching his arm. She might be growing more comfortable with wetlander ways, but water still made her both uncomfortable and reverent.

Rand snatched some soap with Air and shaved it into part of the mix of water, sending a spinning whirl of bubbles around them, swirling up their bodies and pulling their hair into the air, twisting Aviendha’s about like a column before dropping it back lightly to her shoulders.

He used another wave of warm water to remove the soap, then pulled most of the wetness away, leaving them damp but not soaked. He dumped the water back into the barrel and, with a hint of reluctance, released saidin.

Aviendha was panting. “That... That was completely crackbrained and irresponsible.”

“Thank you,” he said, fetching a towel and tossing it to her. “You would consider most of what we did during the Age of Legends to be crackbrained and irresponsible. That was a different time, Aviendha. There were many more channelers, and we were trained from a young age. We didn’t need to know things like warfare, or how to kill. We had eliminated pain, hunger, suffering, war. Instead, we used the One Power for things that might seem common.”

“You’d only assumed that you’d eliminated war,” Aviendha said with a sniff. “You were wrong. Your ignorance left you weak.”

“It did. I can’t decide if I would have changed things, though. There were many good years. Good decades, good centuries. We believed we were living in paradise. Perhaps that was our downfall. We wanted our lives to be perfect, so we ignored imperfections. Problems were magnified through inattention, and war might have become inevitable if the Bore hadn’t ever been made.” He toweled himself dry.

“Rand,” Aviendha said, stepping up to him. “Today, I will require a boon.” She laid her hand on his arm. The skin of her hand was rough, callused from her days as a Maiden. Aviendha would never be a milk-softened lady like those from the courts of Cairhien and Tear. Rand liked that just fine. Hers were hands that had known work.

“What boon?” he asked. “I’m not certain I could deny you anything today, Aviendha.”

“I’m not yet certain what it will be.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You needn’t understand,” she said. “And you needn’t promise me you will agree. I felt I needed to give you warning, as one does not ambush a lover. My boon will require you to change your plans, perhaps in a drastic way, and it will be important.”

“All right...”

She nodded, as mystifying as ever, and began gathering up her clothing to dress for the day.

—  —

Egwene strode around a frozen pillar of glass in her dream. It almost looked like a column of light. What did it mean? She could not interpret it.

The vision changed, and she found a sphere. The world, she knew somehow. Cracking. Frantic, she tied it with cords, striving to hold it together. She could keep it from breaking, but it took so much effort...

She faded from the dream and started awake. She embraced the Source immediately and wove a light. Where was she?

She was wearing a nightgown and lying in bed back in the White Tower. Not her own rooms, which were still in disrepair following the assassins’ attack. Her study had a small sleeping chamber, and she’d bedded down in that.

Her head pounded. She could vaguely remember growing bleary-eyed the night before, listening in her tent at the Field of Merrilor to reports of Caemlyn’s fall. At some point during the late hours of the night, Gawyn had insisted that Nynaeve make a gateway back to the White Tower so Egwene could sleep in a bed, rather than on a pallet on the ground.

She grumbled to herself, rising. He’d probably been right, though she could remember feeling distinctly annoyed at his tone. Nobody had corrected him on it, not even Nynaeve. She rubbed at her temples. The headache wasn’t as bad as those she’d had when Halima had been “caring” for her, but it did hurt mightily. Undoubtedly, her body was expressing displeasure at the lack of sleep she’d given it in recent weeks.

A short time later—dressed, washed and feeling a little better—she left her rooms to find Gawyn sitting at Silviana’s desk, looking over a report, ignoring a novice who was lingering near the doorway.

“She’d hang you out the window by your toes if she saw you doing that,” Egwene said dryly.

Gawyn jumped. “It’s not a report from her stack,” he protested. “It’s the latest news from my sister about Caemlyn. It came by gateway for you just a few minutes ago.”

“And you’re reading it?”

He blushed. “Burn me, Egwene. It’s my home. It wasn’t sealed. I thought.. ”

“It’s all right, Gawyn,” she said with a sigh. “Let’s see what it says.”

“There’s not much,” he said with a grimace, handing it to her. At a nod from him the novice scurried away. A short time later, the girl came back with a tray of wizened bellfruit, bread and a pitcher of milk.

Egwene sat down at her desk in the study to eat, feeling guilty as the novice left. The bulk of the Tower’s Aes Sedai and soldiers camped in tents on the Field of Merrilor while she dined on fruit, no matter how old, and slept in a comfortable bed?

Still, Gawyn’s arguments had made sense. If everyone thought she was in her tent on the Field, then potential killers would strike there. After her near-death at the hands of the Seanchan assassins, she was willing to accept a few extra precautions. Particularly those that helped her get a good night’s sleep.

“That Seanchan woman,” Egwene said, staring into her cup. “The one with the Illianer. Did you speak with her?”

He nodded. “I have some Tower guards watching the pair. Nynaeve vouched for them, in a way.”

“In a way?”

“She called the woman several variations of wool-headed, but said she probably wouldn’t do you any intentional harm.”

“Wonderful.” Well, Egwene could make use of a Seanchan who was willing to talk. Light. What if she had to fight them and the Trollocs at the same time?

“You didn’t take your own advice,” she said, noting Gawyn’s red eyes as he sat down in the chair in front of her desk.

“Someone had to watch the door,” he said. “Calling for guards would have let everyone know that you were not at the Field.”

She took a bite of her bread—what had it been made of?—and looked over the report. He was right, but she didn’t like the idea of him going without sleep on a day like this. The Warder bond would only help him so far.

“So the city is truly gone,” she said. “Walls breached, palace seized. The Trollocs didn’t burn all of the city, I see. Much of it, but not all.”

“Yes,” Gawyn said. “But it is obvious that Caemlyn is lost.” She felt his tension through the bond.

“I’m sorry.”

“Many people escaped, but it’s hard to say what the city population was before the attack, with so many refugees. Hundreds of thousands are likely dead.”

Egwene breathed out. A large army’s worth of people, wiped out in one night. That was probably only the start of the brutality to come. How many had died in Kandor so far? They could only guess.

Caemlyn had held much of the Andoran army’s food supply. She felt sick, thinking of so many people—hundreds of thousands of them— stumbling across the landscape away from the burning city. Yet that thought was less terrifying than the risk of starvation to Elayne’s troops.

She drew up a note to Silviana, requiring her to send all sisters strong enough to provide Healing for the refugees, and gateways to carry them to Whitebridge. Perhaps she could deliver supplies there, though the White Tower was strained as it was.

“Did you see the note at the bottom?” Gawyn asked.

She had not. She frowned, then scanned a sentence added at the bottom in Silviana’s hand. Rand al’Thor had demanded that everyone meet with him by...

She looked up at the room’s old, freestanding wooden clock. The meeting was in a half-hour. She groaned, then began shoveling the rest of her breakfast into her mouth. It wasn’t dignified, but Light burn her if she was going to meet with Rand on an empty stomach.

“I’m going to throttle that boy,” she said, wiping her face. “Come on, let’s move.”

“We could always be last,” Gawyn said, rising. “Show him he doesn’t order us about.”

“And allow him the chance to meet with everyone else while I’m not there to counter what he has to say? I don’t like it, but Rand holds the reins right now. Everyone’s too curious to see what he’s going to do.”

She made a gateway back to her tent, into the corner that she’d set aside for Traveling. She and Gawyn stepped through and left the tent, into the clamor of the Field of Merrilor. People shouted outside; with a distant thunder of hooves, troops cantered and galloped as they took positions for the meeting. Did Rand realize what he’d done here? Putting soldiers together like this, leaving them edgy and uncertain, was like tossing a handful of fireworks into a stewpot and setting it onto the stove. Eventually, things were going to start exploding.

Egwene needed to manage the chaos. She strode out of her tent, Gawyn a step behind and to her left, and smoothed her face. The world needed an Amyrlin.

Silviana waited outside, dressed formally with stole and staff, as if she were going to a meeting of the Hall of the Tower.

“See to this, once the meeting starts,” Egwene said, handing her the note.

“Yes, Mother,” the woman said, then fell into step just behind Egwene and to her right. Egwene didn’t need to look to know that Silviana and Gawyn were pointedly ignoring each other.

At the west side of her camp, Egwene found a cluster of Aes Sedai arguing with one another. She passed through them and pulled silence in her wake. A groom brought her horse Sifter, a testy dapple gelding, and as she mounted, she looked at the Aes Sedai. “Sitters only.”

That produced a sea of calm, orderly complaints, each made with an Aes Sedai sense of authority. Each woman thought she had a right to be at the meeting. Egwene stared at them, and the women slowly came into line. They were Aes Sedai; they knew that squabbling was beneath them.

The Sitters gathered, and Egwene looked out over the Field of Merrilor as she waited. It was a large triangular area of Shienaran grassland, bounded on two sides by converging rivers—the Mora and the Erinin—and on the other by woods. The grass was broken by Dashar Knob, a rocky outcrop about a hundred feet high, with cliff walls, and on the Arafellin side of the Mora by Polov Heights, a flat-topped hill about forty feet high, with gradual slopes on three sides and a steeper slope on the river side. Southwest of Polov Heights lay an area of bogs, and nearby, the River Mora’s shallows, known as Hawval Ford, a convenient crossing place between Arafel and Shienar.

There was an Ogier stedding nearby, opposite some old stone ruins to the north. Egwene had paid her respects soon after arriving, but Rand had not invited the Ogier to his meeting.

Armies were converging. Borderlander flags came in from the west, where Rand had made his camp. Perrin’s own flag flew among those. Odd, that Perrin should have a flag.

From the south, Elayne’s procession wound its way toward the meeting place, smack in the middle of the Field. The Queen rode at the front. Her palace had burned, but she kept her eyes forward. Between Perrin and Elayne, the Tairens and Illianers—Light, who had let those armies camp so near one another?—marched in separate columns, both bringing almost their entire forces.

Best to be quick. Her presence would calm the rulers, perhaps prevent problems. They wouldn’t like being near so many Aiel. Each clan but the Shaido was represented. She still didn’t know if they’d support Rand or her. Some of the Wise Ones seemed to have listened to Egwene’s pleas, but she had received no commitments.

“Look there,” Saerin said, pulling up beside Egwene. “Did you invite the Sea Folk?”

Egwene shook her head. “No. I thought there was little chance they’d side against Rand.” In truth, after her meeting with the Windfinders in Tel’aran’rhiod, she hadn’t wanted to swim in negotiations with them again. She was afraid she’d wake up and find that she’d traded away not only her firstborn, but the White Tower itself.

They put up quite a show, appearing through gateways near Rand’s camp, wearing their colorful clothing, Wavemistresses and Swordmasters as proud as monarchs.

Light, Egwene thought. I wonder how long it’s been since a meeting of this scale occurred. Nearly every nation was represented, and then some, considering the Sea Folk and the Aiel. Only Murandy, Arad Doman and the Seanchan-held lands were missing.

The last of the Sitters finally mounted and pulled up beside her. Eager to move forward, but not daring to show it, Egwene started a slow ride toward the meeting place. Bryne’s soldiers fell in and formed an escort of tromping boots and pikes held high. Their white tabards were emblazoned with the Flame of Tar Valon, but they did not outshine the Aes Sedai. The way they marched accented the women at their center. Other armies relied on the strength of arms. The White Tower had something better.

Each army converged on the meeting place, the center of the field, where Rand had ordered no tents erected. So many armies together on ground perfect for a charge. This had better not go wrong.

Elayne set precedent by leaving the vast bulk of her force halfway there, continuing on with a smaller guard of about a hundred men. Egwene did the same. Other leaders began to trickle forward, their retinues coming to rest in a large ring around the central field.

Sunlight shone down upon Egwene as she approached the center. She couldn’t help but notice the large, perfectly broken circle of clouds above the field. Rand did affect things in strange ways. He needed no announcement to say that he was in attendance, no banner. The clouds pulled back and sunlight shone down when he was near.

It did not seem that he’d arrived at the center yet, however. She met up with Elayne. “Elayne, I’m sorry,” she said, not for the first time.

The golden-haired woman kept her eyes forward. “The city is lost, but the city is not the nation. We must have this meeting, but do so quickly, so that I can return to Andor. Where is Rand?”

“Taking his time,” Egwene said. “He’s always been like that.”

“I have spoken to Aviendha,” Elayne said, her bay horse shifting and snorting. “She spent last night with him, but he wouldn’t tell her what he intends this day.”

“He has mentioned demands,” Egwene said, watching the rulers gather with their retinues. Darlin Sisnera, King of Tear, was first. He would support her, for all the fact that he owed Rand his crown. The Seanchan threat still bothered him deeply. The middle-aged man with a dark, pointed beard was not particularly handsome, but self-composed and sure of himself. He bowed from horseback to Egwene, and she held out her ring.

He hesitated, then dismounted and came forward, bowing his head and kissing the ring. “The Light illumine you, Mother.”

“I am glad to see you here, Darlin.”

“So long as your promise holds. Gateways to my homeland should the moment require it.”

“It will be done.”

He bowed again, eyeing a man riding up toward Egwene from the other side. Gregorin, Steward of Illian, was Darlin’s equal in many ways-- but not all. Rand had named Darlin Steward of Tear, but the High Lords had asked for him to be crowned king. Gregorin remained merely a Steward. The tall man had lost weight recently, his round face—with its customary Illianer beard—starting to look sunken. He didn’t wait for Egwene to prod him; he swung from his horse and seized her hand, executing a flourishing bow and a kiss to the ring.

“I’m pleased the two of you could put aside differences to join me in this endeavor,” Egwene said, drawing their attention away from glares at one another.

“The Lord Dragon’s intentions are... troubling,” Darlin said. “He chose me to lead Tear because I opposed him when I felt it necessary. I believe he will listen to reason if I present it to him.”

Gregorin snorted. “The Lord Dragon do be perfectly reasonable. We do need to offer a good argument, and I do think he will listen.”

“My Keeper has some words for each of you,” Egwene said. “Please listen to what she has to say. Your cooperation will be remembered.”

Silviana rode forward and drew Gregorin aside to speak to him. There wasn’t much of importance to say, but Egwene had feared these two would end up chipping at one another. Silviana’s instruction was to keep them apart.

Darlin regarded her with a discerning gaze. He seemed to understand what she was doing, but didn’t complain as he mounted his horse.

“You seem troubled, King Darlin,” she said.

“Some old rivalries run deeper than the ocean’s depths, Mother. I can almost wonder if this meeting was the work of the Dark One, hoping that we would end up destroying one another and doing his work for him.”

“I understand,” Egwene said. “Perhaps it would be best if you advised your men—again, if you’ve already done so—that there are to be no accidents’ this day.”

“A wise suggestion.” He bowed, pulling back.

They were both with her, as was Elayne. Ghealdan would stand for Rand, if what Elayne said about Queen Alliandre was true. Ghealdan wasn’t so powerful that Alliandre worried her—the Borderlanders were another matter. Rand seemed to have won them over.

Each of their flags flew over their respective armies, and each ruler was in attendance save Queen Ethenielle, who was in Kandor trying to organize the refugees fleeing her homeland. She had left a sizable contingent for this meeting—including Antol, her eldest son—as if to state that what happened here was as important to Kandor’s survival as fighting on the border.

Kandor. The first casualty of the Last Battle. The entire country was said to be aflame. Would Andor be next? The Two Rivers? Steady, Egwene thought.

It felt awful to have to consider who was “for” whom, but it was her duty to do so. Rand could not direct the Last Battle personally, as he would undoubtedly wish to do. His mission would be to fight the Dark One; he would have neither the presence of mind nor the time to act as a commanding general as well. She intended to come from this meeting with the White Tower acknowledged as leading the collected forces against the Shadow, and she would not give up responsibility for the seals.

How much could she trust this man Rand had become? He wasn’t the Rand she’d grown up with. He was more akin to the Rand she’d come to know out in the Aiel Waste, only more confident. And, perhaps, more cunning. He had grown quite proficient at the Game of Houses.

None of these changes in him were terrible things, assuming he could still be reasoned with.

Is that the flag of Arad Doman? she thought, surprised. It wasn’t just the flag, it was the King’s flag, indicating he was riding with those forces that had just arrived on the field. Had Rodel Ituralde finally ascended to the throne, or had Rand picked someone else? The Domani king’s flag flew next to that of Davram Bashere, uncle to the Queen of Saldaea.

“Light.” Gawyn nudged his horse up beside hers. “That flag...”

“I see it,” Egwene said. “I’ll have to pin down Siuan: have her sources mentioned who took the throne? I was afraid the Domani would ride into battle without a leader.”

“The Domani? I was talking about that”

She followed his eyes. A new force was approaching, moving with apparent haste, under the banner of the red bull. “Murandy,” Egwene said. “Curious. Roedran has finally decided to join the rest of the world.”

The newly arrived Murandians made more show than they probably deserved. Their apparel, at least, was pretty: yellow and red tunics over mail; brass helmets with wide brims. The wide red belts bore the symbol of the charging bull. They kept their distance from the Andorans, wrapping around behind the Aiel forces and coming in from the northwest.

Egwene looked toward Rand’s camp. Still no sign of the Dragon himself.

“Come,” she said, nudging Sifter into motion toward the Murandian force. Gawyn fell in beside her, and Chubain brought a force of twenty soldiers as a guard.

Roedran was a corpulent man swathed in red and gold; she could practically hear the man’s horse groaning with each step. His thinning hair was more white than black, and he watched her with an unexpectedly keen expression. The King of Murandy was little more than ruler of one city, Lugard, but her reports indicated that this man wasn’t doing a bad job of expanding his rule. Given a few years, he might actually have a full kingdom to call his own.

Roedran held up a meaty hand, stopping his procession. She reined in her horse and waited for him to approach her, as would be customary. He didn’t.

Gawyn muttered a curse. Egwene let a smile tug at the edges of her lips. Warders could be useful, if only to express what she should not. Finally, she nudged her horse forward.

“So.” Roedran looked her over. “You’re the new Amyrlin. An Andoran.

The Amyrlin has no nationality,” Egwene said coolly. “I am curious to find you here, Roedran. When did the Dragon extend an invitation to you?

He didn’t.” Roedran waved for a cupbearer to bring him some wine. I thought it was high time Murandy stopped being left out of events.”

“And through whose gateways did you arrive? Surely you didn't cross Andor to reach here.”

Roedran hesitated.

“You came from the south,” Egwene said, studying him. “Andor. Elayne sent for you?”

“She did not send for me,” Roedran snapped. “The bloody Queen promised me if I supported her cause, she’d release a proclamation of intention, promising not to invade Murandy.” He hesitated. “Besides, I’ve been curious to see this false Dragon. Everybody in the world seems to have taken leave of their senses regarding him.”

“You do know what this meeting is about, don’t you?” Egwene said.

He waved a hand. “Talking this man out of his conquering ways, or something like that.”

“Good enough.” Egwene leaned forward. “I hear your rule is consolidating nicely, and that Lugard may actually have some real authority in Murandy for once.”

“Yes,” Roedran said, sitting up a bit straighten “That is true.”

Egwene leaned forward further. You re welcome, she said softly, then smiled. She turned Sifter and led her retinue away.

“Egwene,” Gawyn said softly, trotting his horse beside hers, “did you really just do that?”

“Does he look troubled?”

Gawyn glanced over his shoulder. “Very.”

“Excellent.”

Gawyn continued riding for a moment, then broke into a deep grin.

“That was positively evil.”

“He’s as boorishly rude as reports have made him out to be,” Egwene said. “He can suffer a few nights spent wondering how the White Tower has been pulling strings in his realm. If I’m feeling particularly vengeful, I’ll set up some good secrets for him to unearth. Now, where is that sheep-herder? He has the audacity to demand that we... ”

She trailed off as she saw him coming. Rand strode across the browning grass of the field, wearing red and gold. A tremendous bundle hovered in the air beside him, held up by weaves she could not see.

The grass greened at his feet.

It wasn’t a large change. Where he trod, the turf recovered, spreading from him like a soft wave of light through opening shutters. Men stepped back; horses stamped their hooves. Within minutes, the entire ring of troops stood on grass that lived again.

How long had it been since she’d seen a simple field of green? Egwene breathed out. Some of the gloom to the day had been lightened. “I’d give good coin to know how he does that,” she murmured under her breath.

“A weave?” Gawyn asked. “I’ve seen Aes Sedai make flowers bloom in winter.”

“I know of no weave that would be so extensive,” Egwene said. “It feels so natural. Go see if you can find out how he’s doing it. Maybe one of the Aes Sedai with Asha’man Warders will let the truth out.”

Gawyn nodded, slipping away.

Rand continued his walk, trailed by that large floating bundle, Asha’man in black and an honor guard of Aiel. The Aiel spurned regular ranks, sweeping the land like a swarm, fanning out. Even soldiers who followed Rand shied back from the Aiel. For many of the older soldiers, a wave of browns and tans like that meant death.

Rand walked calmly, purposefully. The cloth bundle he carried with Air began to unravel in front of him. Large swaths of canvas rippled in the wind before Rand, braiding with one another, leaving long trails behind themselves. Wooden poles and metal stakes fell from inside them, and Rand caught those in unseen threads of Air, spinning them.

He never broke stride. He didn’t look at the maelstrom of cloth, wood and iron, as canvas rippled in front of him like fish from the depths. Small clods of soil erupted from the ground. Some soldiers jumped.

He’s grown into quite the showman, Egwene thought as the poles spun and came down in the holes. Sweeping bands of cloth wrapped around them, tying themselves. In seconds, a massive pavilion settled into place, the Dragon banner flapping from one end, the banner with the ancient symbol of the Aes Sedai on the other.

Rand didn’t break stride as he reached the pavilion, cloth sides parting for him. “You may each bring five,” he announced as he stepped inside.

“Silviana,” Egwene said, “Saerin, Romanda, Lelaine. Gawyn will be our fifth when he returns.”

Sitters behind suffered the decision in silence. They couldn’t complain about her taking her Warder for protection or her Keeper for support. The other three she’d chosen were widely considered among the most influential in the Tower, and together the four she brought included two Aes Sedai each from Salidar and the White Tower loyalists.

The other rulers allowed Egwene to enter before them. All understood that this confrontation was, at its core, between Rand and Egwene. Or, rather, the Dragon and the Amyrlin Seat.

There were no chairs inside the pavilion, though Rand hung saidin globes of light at the corners, and one of the Asha’man deposited a small table at the center. She did a quick count. Thirteen glowing globes.

Rand stood facing her, arms behind his back, hand clasping his other forearm as had become his habit. Min stood at his side, one hand on his arm.

“Mother,” he said, nodding his head.

So he would pretend respect, would he? Egwene nodded back. “Lord Dragon.”

The other rulers and their small retinues filed in, many doing so with timidity until Elayne swept in, the sorrow on her face lightening as Rand smiled warmly at her. The wool-headed woman was still impressed with Rand, pleased with how he’d managed to bully everyone into coming here. Elayne considered it a matter of pride when he did well.

And you don’t feel a small measure of pride? Egwene asked herself. Rand al’Thor, once simple village boy and your near-betrothed, now the most powerful man in the world? You don’t feel proud of what he’s done?

Perhaps a little.

The Borderlanders entered, led by King Easar of Shienar, and there was nothing timid about them. The Domani were led by an older man that Egwene did not know.

“Alsalam,” Silviana whispered, sounding surprised. “He has returned.”

Egwene frowned. Why hadn’t any of her informants told her he had shown up? Light. Did Rand know that the White Tower had tried to take him into custody? Egwene herself had discovered that fact only a few days before, buried in a pile of Elaida’s papers.

Cadsuane entered, and Rand nodded to her, as if giving permission. She didn’t bring five, but neither did he seem to require her to be counted among Egwene’s five. That struck her as a bothersome precedent. Perrin stepped in with his wife, and they stayed to the side. Perrin folded his tree-trunk arms, wearing his new hammer at his belt. He was far easier to read than Rand was. He was worried, but he trusted Rand. Nynaeve did, too, burn her. She took her position near Perrin and Faile.

The Aiel clan chiefs and Wise Ones entered in a large mass—Rand’s “Bring only five” probably meant that each clan chief could bring five. Some Wise Ones, including Sorilea and Amys, made their way to Egwene’s side of the tent.

Light bless them, Egwene thought, releasing a held breath. Rand’s eyes flickered toward the women, and Egwene caught a tightening of his lips. He was surprised that all the Aiel didn’t back him, each and every one.

King Roedran of Murandy was one of the last to enter the tent, and Egwene noticed something curious as he did. Several of Rand’s Asha’man— Narishma, Flinn, Naeff—moved in behind Roedran. Others, near Rand, looked as alert as cats who had seen a wolf wander by.

Rand stepped over to the shorter, wider man and looked down into his eyes. Roedran stuttered for a moment, then started wiping his brow with a handkerchief. Rand continued to stare at him.

“What is it?” Roedran demanded. “You’re the Dragon Reborn, so they say. I do not know that I'd have let you—”

“Stop,” Rand said, raising a finger.

Roedran quieted immediately.

“Light burn me,” Rand said. “You’re not him, are you?”

“Who?” Roedran asked.

Rand turned away from him, waving his hand to make Narishma and the others stand down. They did so reluctantly. “I thought for certain...” Rand said, shaking his head. “Where are you?”

“Who?” Roedran asked loudly, almost squeaking.

Rand ignored him. The flaps to the pavilion had finally stilled, everyone inside. “So,” Rand said. “We are all here. Thank you for coming.”

“It’s not like we did have much of a bloody choice,” Gregorin grumbled. He’d brought a handful of Illianer nobility with him as his five, all members of the Council of Nine. “We did be caught between you and the White Tower itself. Light burn us.”

“You know by now,” Rand continued, “that Kandor has fallen and Caemlyn has been taken by the Shadow. The last remnants of Malkier are under assault at Tarwin’s Gap. The end is upon us.”

“Then why are we standing here, Rand al’Thor?” demanded King Paitar of Arafel. The aging man had only a thin ribbon of gray hair remaining on his head, but he was still broad-shouldered and intimidating. “Let us put an end to this posturing and be to it, man! There is fighting to be done.”

“I promise you fighting, Paitar,” Rand said softly. “All that you can stomach, and then some. Three thousand years ago, I met the Dark Ones forces in battle. We had the wonders of the Age of Legends, Aes Sedai who could do things that would make your mind reel, ter’angreal that could enable people to fly and make them immune to blows. We still barely won. Have you considered that? We face the Shadow in much the same state as it was then, with Forsaken who have not aged. But we are not the same people, not by far.”

The tent fell silent. Flaps blew in the breeze.

“What are you saying, Rand al’Thor?” Egwene said, folding her arms. “That we are doomed?”

“I’m saying we need to plan,” Rand said, “and present a unified attack. That we did poorly last time, and it nearly cost us the war. We each thought we knew the best way to go.” He met Egwene’s eyes. “In those days, every man and woman considered themselves to be the leader on the field. An army of generals. That is why we nearly lost. That is what left us with the taint, the Breaking, the madness. I was as guilty of it as anyone. Perhaps the most guilty.

“I will not have that happen again. I will not save this world only to have it broken a second time! I will not die for the nations of humanity, only to have them turn upon one another the moment the last Trolloc falls. You’re planning it. Light burn me, I know that you are!”

It would have been easy to miss the glances that Gregorin and Darlin shot at one another, or the covetous way Roedran watched Elayne. Which nations would be broken by this conflict, and which would step in—out of altruism—to help its neighbors? How quickly would altruism become greed, the chance to hold another throne?

Many of the rulers here were decent people. It took more than a decent person to hold that much power and not look afield. Even Elayne had gobbled up another country when the opportunity presented itself. She would do so again. It was the nature of rulers, the nature of nations. In Elayne’s case, it even seemed appropriate, as Cairhien would be better off beneath her rule than it had been.

How many would assume the same? That they, of course, could rule better—or restore order—in another land?

“Nobody wants war,” Egwene said, drawing the crowd’s attention. “However, I think what you are trying to do here is beyond your calling, Rand al’Thor. You cannot change human nature and you cannot bend the world to your whims. Let people live their lives and choose their own paths.”

“I will not, Egwene,” Rand said. There was a fire in his eyes, like the one she’d seen when he first sought to bring the Aiel to his cause. Yes, that emotion seemed very like Rand—frustration that people didn’t see the world as clearly as he thought he did.

“I don’t see what else you can do,” Egwene said. “Would you appoint an emperor, someone to rule over us all? Would you become a true tyrant, Rand al’Thor?”

He didn’t snap back a retort. He held out his hand to the side, and one of his Asha’man slipped a rolled paper into it. Rand took it and placed it on the table. He used the Power to unroll it and to keep it flat.

The oversized document was filled with tight, cramped letters. “I call it the Dragon’s Peace,” Rand said softly. “And it is one of the three things which I will require of you. Your payment, to me, in exchange for my life.”

“Let me see that.” Elayne reached for it, and Rand obviously let it go, because she was able to snatch it off the table before any of the other surprised rulers.

“It locks the borders of your nations to their current positions,” Rand said, arms behind his back again. “It forbids country from attacking country, and it requires the opening of a great school in each capital—fully funded and with doors open to those who wish to learn.”

“It does more than that,” Elayne said, one finger to the document as she read. “Attack another land, or enter into a minor armed border dispute, and the other nations of the world have an obligation to defend the country attacked. Light! Tariff restrictions to prevent the strangling of economies, barriers on marriage between rulers of nations unless the two lines of rule are clearly divided, provisions for stripping the land from a lord who starts a conflict... Rand, you really expect us to sign this?”

“Yes.”

The outrage from the rulers was immediate, though Egwene stood calmly, and shot a few glances at the other Aes Sedai. They seemed troubled. As well they should be—and this was only part of Rand’s “price.”

The rulers muttered, each wanting a chance at the document, but not wanting to shoulder in and look over Elayne’s shoulder. Fortunately, Rand had thought ahead, and smaller versions of the document were distributed.

“But there are very good reasons for conflict, sometimes!” Darlin said, looking over his document. “Such as creating a buffer between you and an aggressive neighbor.”

“Or what if some people from our country do be living across the border?” Gregorin added. “Do we not have the mandate to step in and protect them, if they do be oppressed? Or what if someone like the Seanchan do claim land that is ours? Forbidding war do seem ridiculous!”

“I agree,” Darlin said. “Lord Dragon, we should have the mandate to defend land that is rightfully ours!”

“I,” Egwene said, cutting through the arguments, “am more interested to hear his other two requirements.”

“You know one of them,” Rand said.

“The seals,” Egwene said.

“Signing this document would mean nothing to the White Tower,” Rand said, apparently ignoring the comment. “I cant very well forbid all of you to influence the others; that would be foolishness.”

“Its already foolishness,” Elayne said.

Elayne was not feeling so proud of him any longer, Egwene thought. “And as long as there are political games to be played,” Rand continued to Egwene, “the Aes Sedai will master them. In fact, this document benefits you. The White Tower always has believed war to be, as they say, shortsighted. Instead, I demand something else of you. The seals.”

“I am their Watcher.”

“In name only. They were only just discovered, and I possess them. It is out of respect for your traditional title that I approached you about them first.”

“Approached me? You didn’t make a request,” she said. “You didn’t make a demand. You came, told me what you were going to do and walked away.”

“I have the seals,” he repeated. “And I will break them. I won’t allow anything, not even you, to come between me and protecting this world.”

All around them arguments over the document continued, rulers muttering with their confidants and neighbors. Egwene stepped forward, facing Rand across the small table, the two of them ignored for the moment. “You won’t break them if I stop you, Rand.”

“Why would you want to stop me, Egwene? Give me a single reason why it would be a bad idea.”

“A single reason other than that it will let the Dark One loose on the world?”

“He was not loose during the War of Power,” Rand said. “He could touch the world, but the Bore being opened will not loose him. Not immediately.

And what was the cost of letting him touch the world? What are they now? Horrors, terrors, destruction. You know what is happening to the land. The dead walking, the strange twisting of the Pattern. This is what happens with the seals only weakened! What happens if we actually break them? The Light only knows.”

“It is a risk that must be taken.”

“I don’t agree. Rand, you don’t know what releasing his seals will do— you don t know if it might let him escape. You don’t know how close he was to getting out when the Bore was last secured. Shattering those seals could destroy the world itself! What if our only hope lies in the fact that he’s hindered this time, not completely free?”

“It won’t work, Egwene.”

“You don’t know that. How can you?”

He hesitated. “Many things in life are uncertain.”

“So you don’t know,” she said. “Well, I have been looking, reading, listening. Have you read the works of those who have studied this, thought about it?”

“Aes Sedai speculation.”

“The only information we have, Rand! Open the Dark One’s prison and all could be lost. We have to be more careful. This is what the Amyrlin Seat is for, this is part of why the White Tower was founded in the first place!” He actually hesitated. Light, he was thinking. Could she be getting through to him?

“I don’t like it, Egwene,” Rand said softly. “If I go up against him and the seals are not broken, my only choice will be to create another imperfect solution. A patch, even worse than the one last time—because with the old, weakened seals there, I’ll just be spreading new plaster over deep cracks. Who knows how long the seals would last this time? In a few centuries, we could have this same fight all over again.”

“Is that so bad?” Egwene said. “At least it’s sure. You sealed the Bore last time. You know how to do it.”

“We could end up with the taint again.”

“We’re ready for it, this time. No, it wouldn’t be ideal. But Rand... do we really want to risk this? Risk the fate of every living being? Why not take the simple path, the known path? Mend the seals again. Shore up the prison.”

“No, Egwene.” Rand backed away. “Light! Is this what it’s about? You want saidin to be tainted again. You Aes Sedai... you’re threatened by the idea of men who can channel, undermining your authority!”

“Rand al’Thor, don’t you dare be that level of a fool.”

He met her eyes. The rulers seemed to be paying little attention to this conversation, despite the fact that the world depended on it. They pored over Rand’s document, muttering in outrage. Perhaps that was what he had intended, to distract them with the document, then pounce for the real fight.

Slowly, the rage melted from his face, and he raised his hand to the side of his head. “Light, Egwene. You can still do it, like the sister I never had—tie my mind in knots and have me raving at you and loving you at the same time.”

“At least I’m consistent,” she said. They were now speaking very softly, leaning across the table toward one another. To the side, Perrin and Nynaeve were probably close enough to hear, and Min had joined them. Gawyn had returned, but he kept his distance. Cadsuane rounded the room, looking in the other direction—too pointedly. She was listening in.

“I am not making this argument in some fool hope to restore the taint,” Egwene said. “You know I’m better than that. This is about protecting humankind. I can’t believe you are willing to risk everything on a slender chance.”

“A slender chance?” Rand said. “We’re talking about entering darkness instead of founding another Age of Legends. We could have peace, an end to suffering. Or we could have another Breaking. Light, Egwene. I don’t know for certain if I could mend the seals, or make new ones, in the same way. The Dark One has to be ready for that plan.”

“And you have another one?”

“I’ve been telling it to you. I break the seals to get rid of the old, imperfect plug, and try again in a new way.”

“The world itself is the cost of failure, Rand.” She thought a moment. “There’s more here. What aren’t you telling me?”

Rand looked hesitant, and for a moment, he seemed the child she’d once caught sneaking bites of Mistress Cauthon’s pies with Mat. “I’m going to kill him, Egwene.”

“Who? Moridin?”

“The Dark One.”

She drew back in shock. “I’m sorry. What did you—”

“I’m going to kill him,” Rand said passionately, leaning in. “I’m going to end the Dark One. We will never have true peace so long as he is there, lurking. I’ll rip open the prison, I’ll enter it and I’ll face him. I’ll build a new prison if I have to, but first, I’m going to try to end all of this. Protect the Pattern, the Wheel, for good.”

“Light, Rand, you’re insane!”

“Yes. That is part of the price I have paid. Fortunately. Only a man with shaken wits would be daring enough to try this.”

“I’ll fight you, Rand,” she whispered. “I won’t let you pull all of us into this. Listen to reason. The White Tower should be guiding you here.”

“I’ve known the White Tower’s guidance, Egwene,” he replied. “In a box, beaten each day.”

The two locked eyes across the table. Nearby, other arguments continued.

“I don’t mind signing this,” Tenobia said. “It looks fine to me.”

“Bah!” Gregorin snarled. “You Borderlanders never care anything for southern politics. You’ll sign it? Well, good for you. I, however, won’t chain my country to the wall.”

“Curious,” Easar said. The calm man shook his head, pure white topknot bobbing. “As I understand, it’s not your country, Gregorin. Unless you’re assuming that the Lord Dragon will die, and that Mattin Stepaneos will not demand his throne back. He may be willing for the Lord Dragon to wear the Laurel Crown, but not you, I’m sure.”

“Isn’t all of this meaningless?” Alliandre asked. “The Seanchan are our worry now, aren’t they? Peace can never exist so long as they are there.

Yes,” Gregorin said. “The Seanchan and those cursed Whitecloaks.

We will sign it,” Galad said. Somehow the Lord Captain Commander of the Children of the Light had ended up holding the official copy of the document. Egwene didn’t look at him. It was hard not to stare. She loved Gawyn, and not Galad, but... well... it was hard not to stare.

“Mayene will sign it as well,” Berelain said. “I find the Lord Dragon’s will to be perfectly just.”

“Of course you’d sign it.” Darlin sniffed. “My Lord Dragon, this document seems designed to protect the interests of some nations more than others.”

“I want to hear what his third requirement is,” Roedran said. “I don’t care anything for talk of the seals; that is Aes Sedai business. He claimed there were three requirements, and we have heard only two.”

Rand raised an eyebrow. “The third and final price—the last thing you will pay me in exchange for my life on the slopes of Shayol Ghul—is this: I command your armies for the Last Battle. Utterly and completely. You do as I say, go where I say, fight where I say.”

This caused a larger eruption of arguments. It was obviously the least outrageous of the three demands, though it was impossible for reasons Egwene had already determined.

The rulers treated it as an attack on their sovereignty. Gregorin glowered at Rand through the din, only maintaining the most threadbare respect. Amusing, since he had the least authority of them all. Darlin shook his head, and Elayne’s face was livid.

Those on Rand’s side argued back, primarily the Borderlanders. They’re desperate, Egwene thought. They’re being overrun. They probably thought that if command were given to the Dragon, he would immediately march to the defense of the Borderlands. Darlin and Gregorin would never agree to that. Not with the Seanchan breathing down their necks.

Light, what a mess.

Egwene listened to the arguments, hoping they would set Rand on edge. Once, they might have. Now, he stood and watched, arms folded behind his back. His face became serene, though she was increasingly certain that was a mask. She’d seen flashes of his temper inside. Rand certainly was more in control of himself now, but he was by no means emotionless.

Egwene actually found herself smiling. For all of his complaints about Aes Sedai, for all of his insistence that he wouldn’t be controlled by them, he was acting more and more like one of them himself. She prepared to speak and take control, but something in the tent changed. A... feeling to the air. Her eyes seemed drawn to Rand. Sounds came from outside, sounds she couldn’t place. A faint cracking sound? What was he doing?

The arguments trailed off. One by one the rulers turned toward him. The sunlight outside dimmed, and she was glad for those spheres of light he had made.

“I need you,” Rand said softly to them. “The land itself needs you. You argue; I knew that you would, but we no longer have time for arguments. Know this. You cannot talk me out of my designs. You cannot make me obey you. No force of arms, nor weave of the One Power, can make me face the Dark One for you. I must do it of my own choice.”

“You would really toss the world for this, Lord Dragon?” Berelain asked.

Egwene smiled. The lightskirt suddenly didn’t seem so certain of the side she had chosen.

“I won’t have to,” Rand said. “You’ll sign it. To fail to do so means death.”

“So it’s extortion,” Darlin snapped.

“No,” Rand said, smiling toward the Sea Folk, who had said little as they stood near Perrin. They had simply read the document and nodded among themselves, as if impressed. “No, Darlin. It’s not extortion... it’s an arrangement. I have something you want, something you need. Me. My blood. I will die. We’ve all known this from the start; the Prophecies demand it. As you wish this of me, I will sell it to you in exchange for a legacy of peace to balance out the legacy of destruction I gave the world last time.”

He scanned the meeting, looking at each ruler in turn. Egwene felt his determination almost like a physical thing. Perhaps it was his ta’veren nature, or perhaps it was just the weight of the moment. A pressure rose inside the pavilion, making it difficult to breathe.

He’s going do it, she thought. They’ll complain, but they’ll bend.

“No,” Egwene said loudly, her voice breaking the air. “No, Rand al’Thor, we will not be bullied into signing your document, into giving you sole control of this battle. And you’re an utter fool if you think I believe you’d let the world—your father, your friends, all those you love, all of humanity— be slaughtered by Trollocs if we defy you.”

He met her eyes, and suddenly she wasn’t certain. Light, he wouldn’t really refuse, would he? Would he really sacrifice the world?

“You dare call the Lord Dragon foolish?” demanded Narishma.

“The Amyrlin is not to be spoken to that way,” Silviana said, stepping up beside Egwene.

The arguments began again, this time louder. Rand kept Egwene’s eyes, and she saw the flush of anger rise in his face. The shouting rose, tension mounting. Unrest. Anger. Old hatreds, flaring anew, fueled by terror.

Rand rested his hand on the sword he wore these days—the one with the dragons on the scabbard—his other arm folded behind his back.

“I will have my price, Egwene,” he growled.

“Require if you wish, Rand. You are not the Creator. If you go to the Last Battle with this foolishness, we’re all dead anyway. If I fight you, then there is a chance I can change your mind.”

“Ever the White Tower has been a spear at my throat,” Rand snapped. “Ever, Egwene. And now you really have become one of them.”

She met his stare. Inside, however, she was beginning to lose certainty. What if these negotiations did break down? Would she really drive her soldiers to fight Rand’s?

She felt as if she had tripped over a rock at the top of a cliff and was tipping toward the fall. There had to be a way to stop this, to salvage it!

Rand started to turn away. If he left the pavilion, that would be the end of it.

“Rand!” she said.

He froze. “I will not budge, Egwene.”

“Don’t do this,” she said. “Don’t throw it all away.”

“It cannot be helped.”

“Yes it can! All you have to do is stop being such a Light-burned, woolheaded, stubborn fool for once!”

Egwene drew herself back. How could she have spoken to him as if they were back in Emond’s Field, at their beginning?

Rand stared at her for a moment. “Well, you could certainly stop being a spoiled, self-certain, unmitigated brat for once, Egwene.” He threw up his arms. “Blood and ashes! This was a waste of time.”

He was very nearly right. Egwene didn’t notice someone new entering the tent. Rand did, however, and he spun as the flaps parted and let in light. He frowned at the interloper.

His frown died as soon as he saw the person who entered.

Moiraine.

CHAPTER 6
A Knack

The pavilion grew quiet again. Perrin hated a racket, and the people’s scents weren’t any better. Frustration, anger, fear. Terror.

Much of it was directed at the woman standing just inside the entrance to the pavilion.

Mat, you blessed fool, Perrin thought, breaking into a grin. You did it. You actually did it.

For the first time in a while, thinking of Mat made the colors swirl in his vision. He saw Mat on a horse, riding along a dusty road, tinkering with something he held. Perrin dismissed the image. Where had Mat gotten to now? Why hadn’t he come back with Moiraine?

It didn’t matter. Moiraine was back. Light, Moiraine! Perrin started toward her to give her an embrace, but Faile caught him by the sleeve. He followed her eyes.

Rand. His face had grown pale. He stumbled away from the table, as if all else had been forgotten, and pushed his way to Moiraine. He hesitantly reached out and touched her face. “By my mother’s grave,” Rand whispered, then fell to his knees before her. “How?”

Moiraine smiled, resting a hand on his shoulder. “The Wheel weaves as the Wheel wills, Rand. Have you forgotten that?”

“I...”

“Not as you will, Dragon Reborn,” she said gently. “Not as any of us will. Perhaps one day it will weave itself out of existence. I do not believe that day is today, nor a day soon.”

“Who is this woman?” Roedran said. “And what is she blathering about? I—” He cut off as something unseen flicked him on the side of the head, causing him to jump. Perrin glanced at Rand, then noticed the smile on Egwene's lips. He caught the scent of her satisfaction despite all of the people in the pavilion.

Nynaeve and Min, standing nearby, smelled utterly shocked. The Light willing, Nynaeve would stay that way for a little while. Shouting at Moiraine wouldn’t help right now.

“You haven’t answered my question,” Rand said.

“But I have,” Moiraine replied fondly. “It just was not the answer you wanted.”

Rand knelt, then threw his head back and laughed. “Light, Moiraine! You haven’t changed, have you?”

“We all change day by day,” she replied, then smiled. “Me more than some, lately. Stand up. It is I who should be kneeling before you, Lord Dragon. We all should.”

Rand rose and stepped back to allow Moiraine farther into the pavilion. Perrin caught another scent, and smiled as Thom Merrilin slipped into the tent behind her. The old gleeman winked at Perrin.

“Moiraine,” Egwene said, stepping forward. “The White Tower welcomes you back with open arms. Your service has not been forgotten.”

“Hmm,” Moiraine said. “Yes, I should think that having discovered a future Amyrlin would reflect well upon me. That is a relief, as I believe I was on a path to stilling, if not execution, before.”

“Things have changed.”

“Obviously.” Moiraine nodded. “Mother.” She passed Perrin, and gave him a squeeze on the arm, eyes twinkling.

One by one, the Borderlander rulers took swords in hands and bowed or curtsied toward her. Each one seemed to know her personally. Many of the others in the tent still looked baffled, though Darlin obviously knew who she was. He was more... thoughtful than confused.

Moiraine hesitated beside Nynaeve. Perrin couldn’t catch Nynaeve’s scent right then. That seemed ominous to him. Oh, Light. Here it comes...

Nynaeve enfolded Moiraine in a powerful embrace.

Moiraine stood for a moment, smelling distinctly shocked, hands out to the sides. Finally, she returned the embrace in a somewhat maternal way, patting Nynaeve on the back.

Nynaeve released her, pulling back, then wiped a tear from her eye. “Don’t you dare tell Lan about this,” she growled.

“I would not dream of it,” Moiraine said, moving on to stand in the center of the pavilion.

“Insufferable woman,” Nynaeve grumbled as she wiped a tear from the other eye.

“Moiraine,” Egwene said. “You’ve come at just the right time.”

“I have a knack for that.”

“Well,” Egwene continued as Rand stepped back up to the table, “Rand... the Dragon Reborn... has decided to hold this land for ransom to his demands, refusing to do his duty unless we agree to his whims.”

Moiraine pursed her lips, taking up the contract for the Dragon’s Peace as Galad set it on the table for her. She scanned it.

“Who is this woman?” Roedran said. “And why do we— Would you stop that!” He raised a hand as if he’d been smacked by a thread of Air, then glared at Egwene—however, this time one of the nearby Asha’man was the one who smelled satisfied.

“Nice shot, Grady,” Perrin whispered.

“Thank you, Lord Perrin.”

Grady would know her only by legend, of course, but tales of Moiraine had spread among those who followed Rand.

“Well?” Egwene said.

“ And it shall come to pass that what men made shall be shattered,’ ” Moiraine whispered. “ ‘The Shadow shall lie across the Pattern of the Age, and the Dark One shall once more lay his hand upon the world of man. Women shall weep and men quail as the nations of the earth are rent like rotting cloth. Neither shall anything stand nor abide.’ ”

The people shuffled their feet. Perrin looked questioningly at Rand.

“ ‘Yet one shall be born to face the Shadow,’ ” Moiraine said more loudly. “ ‘Born once more as he was born before and shall be born again, time without end! The Dragon shall be Reborn, and there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth at his rebirth. In sackcloth and ashes shall he clothe the people, and he shall break the world again by his coming, tearing apart all ties that bind!

“ ‘Like the unfettered dawn shall he blind us, and burn us, yet shall the Dragon Reborn confront the Shadow at the Last Battle, and his blood shall give us the Light. Let tears flow, O ye people of the world. Weep for your salvation!’ ”

“Aes Sedai,” Darlin said, “pardon, but that is very ominous.”

A Knack

“At least it shall be a salvation,” Moiraine said. “Tell me, Your Majesty. That prophecy commands you to shed tears. Are you to weep because your salvation comes with such pain and worry? Or, instead, are you to weep for your salvation? For the man who will suffer for you? The only one we know for certain will not walk away from this fight?”

She turned to Rand.

“These demands are unfair,” Gregorin said. “He requires us to keep our borders as they are!”

“ ‘He shall slay his people with the sword of peace,’ ” Moiraine said, “ and destroy them with the leaf.’ ”

It’s The Karaethon Cycle. I’ve heard these words before.

“The seals, Moiraine,” Egwene said. “He’s planning to break them. He defies the authority of the Amyrlin Seat.”

Moiraine did not look surprised. Perrin suspected she’d been listening outside before entering. It was very like her.

“Oh, Egwene,” Moiraine said. “Have you forgotten? ‘The unstained tower breaks and bends knee to the forgotten sign... ”

Egwene blushed.

“ ‘There can be no health in us, nor any good thing grow,’ ” Moiraine quoted, “ ‘for the land is one with the Dragon Reborn, and he one with the land. Soul of fire, heart of stone.’ ”

She looked to Gregorin. “ ‘In pride he conquers, forcing the proud to yield.’ ”

To the Borderlanders. “ ‘He calls upon the mountains to kneel...’ ”

To the Sea Folk. “ ‘.... and the seas to give way.’ ”

To Perrin, then Berelain. “ ‘.... and the very skies to bow.’ ”

To Darlin. “ ‘Pray that the heart of stone remembers tears...’ ”

Then, finally, to Elayne. “ . and the soul of fire, love.’ You cannot fight this. None of you can. I am sorry. You think he came to this on his own?” She held up the document. “The Pattern is balance. It is not good nor evil, not wisdom nor foolishness. To the Pattern, these things matter not, yet it will find balance. The last Age ended with a Breaking, and so the next one will begin with peace—even if it must be shoved down your throats like medicine given to a screaming babe.”

“If I may speak?” An Aes Sedai wearing a brown shawl stepped forward. “You may,” Rand said.

“This is a wise document, Lord Dragon,” the Brown said. She was a stout woman, more direct of tone than Perrin expected from a Brown. “But I see an enormous flaw to it, one that was raised earlier. So long as the Seanchan are exempt from it, it will be meaningless. There will be no peace so long as they conquer.”

“That’s an issue,” Elayne said, arms folded. “But not the only one. Rand, I see what you’re trying to do, and I love you for it. That does not remove the fact that this document is fundamentally untenable. For a peace treaty to work, both sides must continue to wish for peace because of the benefits presented.

“This grants no way to settle disputes. They will arise, they always do. Any document like this must give a way to settle such things; you must set up a way to punish an infraction save for the other countries to enter all-out war. Without that change, little grievances will mount and build pressure over years until they explode.

“As this is, it all but requires the nations to fall upon the first that breaks the peace. It doesn’t stop them from setting up a puppet regime in the fallen kingdom, or even in another kingdom. Over time, I fear this treaty will be viewed as null; what good is it if it protects only on paper? The end result of this will be war. Massive, overpowering war. You will have peace for a time, particularly while those who revere you live. But for every year of peace you gain, you will earn one of greater destruction once the thing falls apart.”

Rand rested his fingers on the document. “I will make peace with the Seanchan. We will add a provision. If their ruler does not sign, then the document is voided. Will you all agree to it then?”

“That fixes the lesser problem,” Elayne said softly, “but not the larger one, Rand.”

“There is yet a greater issue here,” a new voice said.

Perrin turned, surprised. Aviendha? She and the other Aiel had not participated in the arguments. They’d only watched. Perrin had almost forgotten they were there.

“You, too?” Rand said. “Come to walk on the shards of my dreams, Aviendha?”

“Don’t be a child, Rand al’Thor,” the woman said, striding up to place her finger on the document. “You have toh.”

“I left you out of it,” Rand protested. “I trust you, and all of the Aiel.”

“The Aiel aren’t in it?” Easar said. “Light, how did we miss that!”

“It is an insult,” Aviendha said.

Perrin frowned. She smelled very serious. From any other Aiel, he’d expect that sharp scent to be followed by a pulled-up veil and a raised spear.

“Aviendha,” Rand said, smiling. “The others are about to hang me for putting them in it, and you are angry for being left out?”

“I demand my boon of you,” she said. “This is it. Place the Aiel in your document, your ‘Dragon’s Peace.’ We will leave you otherwise.”

“You don’t speak for all of them, Aviendha,” Rand said. “You can’t—” All of the tent’s Wise Ones stepped up behind Aviendha, as if in rhythm together. Rand blinked.

“Aviendha carries our honor,” Sorilea said.

“Do not be foolish, Rand al’Thor,” Melaine added.

“This is a thing of the women,” Sarinde added. “We will not be satisfied until we are treated equally with the wetlanders.”

“Is this thing too difficult for us?” Amys asked. “Do you insult us by implying we are weaker than the others?”

“You’re all insane!” Rand said. “Do you realize that this would forbid you from fighting one another?”

“Not from fighting,” Aviendha said. “From fighting without cause.

War is your purpose,” Rand said.

“If you believe that, Rand al’Thor,” she said, voice cold, “I have trained you poorly indeed.”

“She speaks wisdom,” Rhuarc said, stepping up to the front of the crowd. “Our purpose was to prepare for your need of us at this Last Battle—our purpose was to be strong enough to be preserved. We will need another purpose. I have buried blood feuds for you, Rand al’Thor. I would not take them up again. I have friends now that I would rather not kill.”

“Madness,” Rand said, shaking his head. “All right, I’ll put you in.” Aviendha seemed satisfied, but something bothered Perrin. He didn’t understand the Aiel—Light, he didn’t understand Gaul, who had been with him for so long. Still, he’d noticed that the Aiel liked to be doing something. Even when they lounged, they were alert. When other men gamed or diced, the Aiel were often quietly doing something of use.

“Rand,” Perrin said, stepping up, taking him by the arm. “A moment, please?”

Rand hesitated, then nodded to him and waved his hand. “We’re sealed off; they can’t hear us now. What is this about?”

“Well, I just noticed something. The Aiel are like tools.”

“All right... ”

“And tools that aren’t used grow rusty,” Perrin said.

“Which is why they raid one another,” Rand said, rubbing his temple. “To keep up their skills. That is why I exempted them. Light, Perrin! I think this is going to be a disaster. If we include them in this document...”

“I don’t think you have a choice, now,” Perrin said. “The others will never sign it if the Aiel are left out.”

“I don’t know if they’ll sign it anyway,” Rand said. He looked longingly at the sheet on the table. “It was such a beautiful dream, Perrin. A dream of good for humanity. I thought I had them. Right up until Egwene called my bluff, I thought I had them.”

It was a good thing others couldn’t smell Rand’s emotions, or everyone there would have known that he’d never refuse to go against the Dark One. Rand showed not a hint of it on his face, but inside, Perrin knew he had been as nervous as a boy at his first shearing.

“Rand, don’t you see?” Perrin said. “The solution.”

Rand frowned at him.

“The Aiel,” Perrin said. “The tool that needs to be used. A treaty that needs to be enforced...”

Rand hesitated, then grinned widely. “You’re a genius, Perrin.”

“So long as it’s about blacksmithing, I suppose I know a thing or two.

But this... this isn’t about blacksmithing, Perrin...”

“Of course it is,” Perrin said. How could Rand not see that?

Rand turned, no doubt ending his weave. He strode up to the document, then held it up toward one of his clerks in the back of the pavilion. “I want two provisions added. First, this document is void if not signed by either the Seanchan Daughter of the Nine Moons or the Empress. Second... the Aiel—all but the Shaido—are to be written into the document as enforcers of the peace and mediators of disputes between nations. Any nation may call upon them if they feel abused, and the Aiel—not enemy armies—will provide redress. They can hunt criminals across national borders. They are to be subject to the laws of the nations in which they reside at the time, but they are not subjects of that nation.”

He turned to Elayne. “There is your enforcement, Elayne, the way to keep your small pressures from building.”

“The Aiel?” she asked skeptically.

“Will you agree to this, Rhuarc?” Rand asked. “Bael, Jheran, the rest of you? You claim to be left without purpose, and Perrin sees you as a tool that needs to be worked. Will you take this charge? To prevent war, to punish those who do wrong, to work with the rulers of nations to see justice served?

Justice as we see it, Rand al’Thor,” Rhuarc said, “or as they see it?”

“It will have to be according to the conscience of the Aiel,” Rand said. “If they call for you, they will have to know that they’ll receive your justice. This will not work if the Aiel simply become pawns. Your autonomy will be what makes this effective.”

Gregorin and Darlin began to complain, but Rand silenced them with a look. Perrin nodded to himself, arms folded. Their complaints were weaker now than they had been before. He smelled... thoughtfulness from many of them.

They see this as an opportunity, he realized. They view the Aiel as savages, and think they’ll be easy to manipulate once Rand is gone. Perrin grinned, imagining their defeat should they attempt that course.

“This is very sudden,” Rhuarc said.

“Welcome to the dinner party,” Elayne added, still staring daggers at Rand “Try the soup.” Oddly, she smelled proud. Strange woman.

“I warn you, Rhuarc,” Rand said. “You will need to change your ways. The Aiel will have to act together on these matters; the chiefs and Wise Ones will need to hold council to make decisions together. One clan cannot fight a battle while other clans disagree and fight for the other side.

“We will speak of it,” Rhuarc said, nodding to the other Aiel chiefs.

“This will mean an end to the Aiel.”

“A beginning as well,” Rand said.

The Aiel clan chiefs and the Wise Ones gathered separately to one side, and spoke in soft voices. Aviendha lingered, with Rand staring away, troubled. Perrin heard him whisper something, so soft Perrin’s ears barely made it out.

'.... your dream now... when you wake from this life, we will be no more...

Rand’s clerks, smelling frantic, came forward to begin working on the document’s additions. The woman Cadsuane watched all events with a stern expression.

She smelled extremely proud.

“Add a provision,” Rand said. “The Aiel can call upon other nations to aid them in their enforcement if they decide that their own numbers will not be enough. Give formal methods by which nations can petition the Aiel for redress or for permission to attack a foe.

The clerks nodded, working harder.

“You act as if this were settled,” Egwene said, eyes on Rand.

“Oh, it is far from that,” Moiraine said. “Rand, I have some words for you.”

“Are they words I will like? he asked.

“I suspect not. Tell me, why do you need to command the armies yourself? You will be traveling to Shayol Ghul where you will no doubt be unable to contact anyone.”

“Somebody needs to be in command, Moiraine.”

“On this point, I believe all would agree.”

Rand folded his arms behind his back, smelling troubled. I have taken responsibility for this people, Moiraine. I want to see that they’re cared for, that the brutalities of this battle are minimized.”

“I fear that is a poor reason to lead a battle,” Moiraine said softly. “You do not fight to preserve your troops; you fight to win. This leader need not be you, Rand. It should not be you.”

“I won’t have this battle turn into a tangle, Moiraine,” he said. “If you could see the mistakes we made last time, the confusion that can result when everyone thinks they are in control. Battle is turmoil, but we still need an ultimate commander to make decisions, to hold everything together.”

“What of the White Tower?” Romanda asked, stepping—half shoving— her way up beside Egwene. “We have the resources for efficient travel between battlefronts, we are coolheaded in times that would crush others, and we are trusted by all nations.”

That last bit prompted a raised eyebrow from Darlin.

“The White Tower does seem the optimal choice, Lord Dragon,” Tenobia added.

“No,” Rand said. “The Amyrlin is many things, but a leader of war... I do not think it a wise choice.”

Egwene, oddly, said nothing. Perrin studied her. He’d have thought that she’d jump at the chance to lead the war herself.

“It should be one of us,” Darlin said. “Chosen from those who would go to battle here.”

“I suppose,” Rand said. “So long as you all know who is in command, I will cede this point. You must meet my other demands, however.”

“You still insist that you must break the seals?” Egwene said.

“Do not worry, Egwene,” Moiraine said, smiling. “He is not going to break the seals.”

Rand’s face darkened.

Egwene smiled.

“You are going to break them,” Moiraine said to Egwene.

“What? Of course I’m not!”

“You are the Watcher of the Seals, Mother,” Moiraine said. “Did you not hear what I said earlier? ‘It shall come to pass that what men made shall be shattered, and the Shadow shall lie across the Pattern of the Age, and the Dark One shall once more lay his hand upon the world of man...’ It must happen.”

Egwene seemed troubled.

“You have seen this, have you not?” Moiraine whispered. “What have you dreamed, Mother?”

A Knack

Egwene didn’t respond at first.

What did you see?” Moiraine pressed, stepping closer to her.

His feet crunching,” Egwene said, staring Moiraine in the eyes. “As he strode forward, Rand’s feet stepped on the shards of the Dark One’s prison. I saw him, in another dream, hacking away at it to open it. But I never actually saw him opening it, Moiraine.”

“The shards were there, Mother,” Moiraine said. “The seals had been broken ”

“Dreams are subject to interpretation.”

You know the truth of this one. It does need to be done, and the seals are yours. You will break them, when the time is right. Rand, Lord Dragon Reborn, it is time to give them to her.”

“I don’t like this, Moiraine,” he said.

“Then not much has changed, has it?” she asked lightly. “I believe you have often resisted doing what you are supposed to. Particularly when I am the one to point it out to you.”

He paused for a moment, then laughed, reaching into the pocket of his coat. He slipped out three discs of cuendillar; each split by a sinuous line down the center. He set them on the table.

“How will she know the time?” he asked.

“She will,” Moiraine said.

Egwene smelled skeptical, and Perrin didn’t blame her. Moiraine always had believed in following the weave of the Pattern and bowing to the Wheel's turnings. Perrin didn’t see it that way. He figured you made your own path, and trusted in your own arms to do what needed to be done. The Pattern wasn’t a thing to depend on.

Egwene was Aes Sedai. It seemed that she felt she should see it as Moiraine did. Either that, or she was willing to agree and just take those seals into her hands. “I’ll break them, when I feel it must be done,” she said, taking the seals.

You 11 sign, then.” Rand took the document as the clerks protested the hastiness with which they’d had to work. It now had several additions on the back. One of the clerks cried out, reaching for the sand, but Rand did something with the One Power, drying the ink instantly as he placed the document before Egwene.

I will, she said, holding out a hand for a pen. She read the provisions carefully, the other sisters looking over her shoulders. They nodded one at a time.

Egwene put pen to paper.

“And now the rest,” Rand said, turning to measure reactions.

“Light, he’s grown clever,” Faile whispered beside Perrin. “Do you realize what he did?”

“What?” Perrin said, scratching his beard.

“He brought with him all he knew would support him,” Faile whispered. “The Borderlanders, who would sign practically anything to garner help for their homelands. Arad Doman, which he helped most recently. The Aiel... well, all right, who knows what the Aiel will do at a given time? But the idea stands.

“Then he let Egwene gather the others. It’s genius, Perrin. That way, with her bringing this coalition against him, all he really had to do was convince her. Once he swayed her to his side, the others would look foolish to stand apart.”

Indeed, as the rulers began to sign—Berelain going first and most eagerly—those who had supported Egwene started to fidget. Darlin stepped up and took the pen. He hesitated for a moment, then signed.

Gregorin followed. Then the Borderlanders, each in turn, followed by the King of Arad Doman. Even Roedran, who still seemed to find this entire thing a fiasco, signed. Perrin found that curious.

“He blusters a lot,” Perrin said to Faile, “but he knows this is good for his kingdom.”

“Yes,” she said. “He’s been acting a buffoon partially to throw everyone off, make them dismiss him. The document outlines current borders of nations to remain as they are,” Faile said. “That’s a huge boon to someone trying to stabilize his rule. But... ”

“But?”

“The Seanchan?” Faile said softly. “If Rand persuades them, does that allow them to keep the countries they have now? The women who are damane, are they allowed to slap one of those collars on any woman who passes their border?”

The tent stilled; perhaps Faile had spoken more loudly than she’d intended. Perrin sometimes had trouble remembering what ordinary people could and couldn’t hear.

“I will deal with the Seanchan,” Rand said. He stood over the table, watching as each ruler looked over the document, spoke with the counselors they’d brought, then signed.

“How?” Darlin asked. “They do not wish to make peace with you, Lord Dragon. I do think they’ll make this document meaningless.”

“Once we are done here,” Rand said softly, “I will go to them. They will sign.”

“And if they do not?” Gregorin demanded.

Rand rested his hand on the table, fingers spread. “I may have to destroy them. Or at least their ability to make war in the near future.”

The pavilion grew still.

“Could you do that?” Darlin asked.

I m not certain,” Rand admitted. “If I can, it may leave me weakened in a time when I need all of my strength. Light, it may be my only choice. A terrible choice, when I left them last time... We cannot have them striking at our backs while we fight the Shadow.” He shook his head, and Min stepped up to take his arm. “I will find a way to deal with them. Somehow, I'll find a way.”

The signing progressed. Some did it with great flourish, others in more casual fashion. Rand had Perrin, Gawyn, Faile and Gareth Bryne sign as well. He seemed to want anyone here who might rise to a position of leadership to have their names on the document.

Finally, only Elayne remained. Rand held out the quill to her.

“This is a difficult thing you ask of me, Rand,” Elayne said, arms folded, golden hair gleaming in the light of his globes. Why had the sky gone dim outside? Rand didn’t seem worried, but Perrin feared that the clouds had consumed the sky. A dangerous sign, if they now held sway where Rand had once kept them back.

‘I know it is difficult,” Rand said. “Perhaps if I gave you something in return...”

“What?”

“The war,” Rand said. He turned to the rulers. “You wanted one of you to lead the Last Battle. Will you accept Andor, and its queen, in this role?

Too young,” Darlin said. “Too new. No offense, Your Majesty.”

Alsalam snorted. “You’re one to talk, Darlin. Half the monarchs present have held their thrones for a year or less!”

What of the Borderlanders?” Alliandre asked. “They’ve fought against the Blight all of their lives.”

“We are overrun,” Paitar said. He shook his head. “One of us cannot coordinate this. Andor is as good a choice as any.”

“Andor is suffering an invasion of its own,” Darlin noted.

“You all are, or soon will be,” Rand said. “Elayne Trakand is a leader to her core; she taught me much of what I know about leadership. She has learned tactics from a great captain, and I’m certain she will rely upon all the great captains for advice. Someone must lead. Will you all accept her in this position?”

The others reluctantly nodded agreement. Rand turned to Elayne.

“All right, Rand,” she said. “I’ll do this, and I will sign, but you had better find a way to deal with the Seanchan. I want to see their ruler’s name on this document. None of us will be safe until it’s there.”

“What of the women held by the Seanchan?” Rhuarc asked. “I will admit, Rand al’Thor, our intention was to declare a blood feud with these invaders the moment more pressing battles were won.”

“If their ruler signs it,” Rand said, “I will ask about trading for goods to retrieve those channelers they have stolen. I will try to persuade them to release the lands they hold and return to their own country.”

“What if they refuse?” Egwene asked, shaking her head. “Will you let them sign it without giving on those points? Thousands are enslaved, Rand.”

“We cannot defeat them,” Aviendha said, speaking softly. Perrin eyed her. She smelled frustrated, but determined. “If we go to war with them, we will fall ”

“Aviendha is right,” Amys said. “The Aiel will not fight the Seanchan.” Rhuarc, startled, looked back and forth between the two.

“They have done horrible things,” Rand said, “but so far, the lands they have taken have benefited from strong leadership. If forced to it, I am content to allow them the lands they have, so long as they do not spread further. As for the women... what is done is done. Let us worry about the world itself first, then do what we can for those held captive.”

Elayne held the document for a moment, perhaps for the drama of it, then bent down and added her name to the bottom with a flourish.

“It is done,” Moiraine said as Rand picked up the document. “You will have peace this time, Lord Dragon.”

“We must survive first,” he said, holding the document with reverence. “I will leave you to make your battle preparations. I need to complete some tasks, Seanchan included, before I travel to Shayol Ghul. I do have a request for you, however. There is a dear friend who needs us...

—  —

Angry lightning blistered the clouded sky. Despite the shade, sweat lined Lan’s neck, matting his hair underneath his helmet. He’d not worn one in years; much of his time with Moiraine had required them to be nondescript, and helmets were anything but.

“How... how bad is it?” Andere grimaced, holding his side, and leaning back against a rock.

Lan looked to the battle. The Shadowspawn were amassing again. The monsters almost seemed to blend and shift together, one enormous dark force of howling, miasmic hatred as thick as the air—which seemed to hold in the heat and the humidity, like a merchant hoarding fine rugs.

“It’s bad,” Lan said.

“Knew it would be,” Andere said, breathing in and out quickly, blood seeping between his fingers. “Nazar?”

“Gone,” Lan said. The white-haired man had gone down in the same set-to that had nearly taken Andere. Lan’s rescue had not been quick enough. “I saw him gut a Trolloc as it killed him.”

“May the last embrace of the mother—” Andere spasmed in pain. “May the—”

“May the last embrace of the mother welcome you home,” Lan said softly.

“Don’t look at me that way, Lan,” Andere said. “We all knew what this was going to be when we... when we joined you.”

“That is why I tried to stop you.”

Andere scowled. “I—”

“Peace, Andere,” Lan said, rising. “What I wished was selfish. I came to die for Malkier. I have no right to deny that privilege to others.”

“Lord Mandragoran!” Prince Kaisel rode up, his once-fine armor bloodstained and dented. The Kandori prince still looked too young for this battle, but he’d proven himself to be as coolheaded as any grizzled veteran. “They’re forming up again.”

Lan walked across the rocky ground to where a groom held Mandarb. The black stallion bore cuts on his flanks from Trolloc weapons. Thank the Light, they were superficial. Lan rested a hand on the horse’s neck as Mandarb snorted. Nearby, his standard-bearer, a bald man named Jophil, raised the flag of Malkier, the Golden Crane. This was his fifth standard-bearer since yesterday.

Lan’s forces had seized the Gap with their initial charge, shoving the Shadowspawn back before they were able to emerge into the valley. That was more than Lan had expected. The Gap was a long, narrow piece of rocky ground nestled between craggy rises and peaks.

Holding this position required nothing clever. You stood, you died and you killed—as long as you could.

Lan commanded a cavalry. It wasn’t ideal for this kind of work— cavalries did best where they could spread out and had room to charge—but the passage through Tarwin’s Gap was narrow enough that only a small number of Trollocs could come through at once. That gave Lan a chance. At least it was more difficult for the Trollocs to take advantage of their superior numbers. They would have to pay a butcher’s bill for every yard they gained.

Trolloc carcasses had formed an almost furlike blanket leading through the canyon. Each time the creatures tried to push through the gorge, Lan’s men had resisted them with lances and polearms, swords and arrows, eventually slaughtering thousands and leaving them heaped for their fellows to climb over. But each clash similarly reduced Lan’s numbers.

Each assault forced his men to withdraw a little farther. Toward the mouth of the Gap. They were less than a hundred feet from it now.

Lan felt the fatigue pressing deep into his bones.

“Our forces?” Lan asked Prince Kaisel.

“Maybe six thousand still able to ride, Dai Shan.”

Less than half of what they’d started with a day before. “Tell them to mount up.”

Kaisel looked shocked. “We’re going to retreat?”

Lan turned to the lad.

Kaisel paled. Lan had been told that his gaze could unnerve any man; Moiraine had liked to joke that he could outstare rocks and had the patience of an oak. Well, he didn’t feel as sure of himself as people thought, but this boy should have known better than to ask if they were retreating.

“Of course,” Lan said, “and then were going to attack.”

“Attack?” Kaisel said. “We are on the defensive!”

“They’ll sweep us out,” Lan said, pulling himself into Mandarb’s saddle. “We’re exhausted, worn out and nearly broken. If we stand here and let them come at us again, we’ll fall without a whimper.”

Lan knew an ending when he saw one.

“Pass these orders,” Lan said to Prince Kaisel. “We will slowly pull out of the pass. You have the rest of the troops assemble on the plain, mounted and ready to attack the Shadowspawn as they come out of the Gap. A charge will do great damage; they won’t know what hit them.”

“Wont we be surrounded and overrun if we leave the pass?” Kaisel asked.

“This is the best we can do with the resources we have.”

“And then?”

“And then they eventually break through, slice our force into pieces and overrun us.”

Kaisel sat for a moment, then nodded. Again, Lan was impressed. He’d assumed this boy had come with him to find the glory of battle, to fight at the side of Dai Shan and sweep their enemies away. But no. Kaisel was a Borderlander to the core. He hadn’t come for glory. He’d come because he’d had to. Good lad.

“Give the order now. The men will be glad to get back on their horses again.” Too many of them had been forced to fight on foot because of the lack of maneuverability in the narrow confines.

Kaisel gave the orders, and those orders burned through Lan’s men like an autumn fire. Lan saw Andere being helped into his saddle by Bulen.

“Andere?” Lan said, heeling Mandarb toward him. “You are in no condition to ride. Go join the wounded at the back camp.”

“So I lie back there and let the Trollocs butcher me after finishing you lot?” Andere leaned forward in the saddle, teetering slightly, and Bulen looked up with concern. Andere waved him off and forced himself upright. “We’ve already moved the mountain, Lan. Let’s budge this feather and be through with it.”

Lan could offer no argument. He called the retreat to the men ahead of him in the pass. His remaining men bunched around him, slowly backing out toward the plain.

The Trollocs hooted and yelled in excitement. They knew that once they were free of the walls that restricted their movement, they would win this fight easily.

Lan and his small force left the narrow confines of the Gap, those on foot running toward their horses tethered near the mouth of the canyon.

The Trollocs—for once—needed no push from the Myrddraal to charge. Their footfalls were a low rumble on the stony ground.

Several hundred yards out of the Gap, Lan slowed Mandarb and turned. Andere brought his horse up beside Lan’s with difficulty, and they were joined by the other riders, who formed long lines of cavalry. Bulen cantered up to the other side of Lan.

The storm of Shadowspawn neared the mouth of the Gap, a charging force of thousands of Trollocs that would soon burst out into the open— and try to consume them.

Lan’s forces were silently lined up around him. Many were old men, the last remnants of their fallen kingdom. This force that had managed to plug the narrow gap now seemed tiny on the much larger plain.

“Bulen,” Lan said.

“Yes, Lord Mandragoran?”

“You claim to have failed me, years ago.”

“Yes, my Lord. It—”

“Any failing on your part is forgotten,” Lan said, eyes forward. “I am proud to have given you your hadoru

Kaisel rode up, nodding to Lan. “We are ready, Dai Shan.”

“This is for the best,” Andere said, grimacing, still holding to his wound, barely able to remain in the saddle.

“It is what must be,” Lan said. Not an argument. Not exactly.

“No,” Andere said. “It is more than that, Lan. Malkier is like a tree that lost its roots to whiteworms, the branches withering slowly. I’d rather be burned away in a flash.”

“I’d rather charge,” Bulen said, voice growing firm. “I’d rather charge now than let them overrun us. Let us die on the attack, with swords pointed home.”

Lan nodded, turning and raising his sword high above his head. He gave no speeches. He had given those already. The men knew what this was. One more charge, while they still had some strength, would mean something. Fewer Shadowspawn to flood into civilized lands. Fewer Trollocs to kill those who could not fight back.

The enemy seemed endless. A slavering, rampaging horde without battle line or discipline. Anger, destruction incarnate. Thousands upon thousands of them. They came forward like floodwaters suddenly released, surging out of the canyon.

Lan’s little force was but a pebble before them.

The men silently raised their swords to him, a final salute.

“Now!” Lan yelled. Now as they begin to spread out. It will do the most damage. Lan kicked Mandarb forward, leading the way.

Andere galloped beside Lan, clinging to his pommel with both hands. He didn’t try to raise a weapon; he’d have fallen from his saddle if he had.

Nynaeve was too far away for Lan to feel much of her through the bond, but sometimes very powerful emotions could stand out despite the distance. He tried to project confidence in case it reached her. Pride in his men. Love for her. He wished deeply for those to be the last things she remembered of him.

My arm will be the sword...

Hooves clattered on the ground. The Trollocs ahead hooted in delight, realizing that their prey had transformed a retreat into a charge of men rushing right into their grasp.

My breast itself a shield...

Lan could hear a voice, his father’s voice, speaking these words. That was foolish, of course. Lan had been a baby when Malkier had fallen.

To defend the Seven Towers...

He had never seen the Seven Towers stand against the Blight. He’d only heard stories.

To hold back the darkness...

The horses’ hooves were becoming a thunder. So loud, louder than he’d have thought possible. He held himself straight, sword out.

I will stand when all others fall.

The oncoming Trollocs leveled spears as the distance between the two opposing forces narrowed.

Al Chalidholara Malkier. For my sweet land Malkier.

It was the oath a Malkieri soldier took during their first posting to the Border. Lan had never spoken it.

He did so now in his heart.

Al Chalidholara Malkier!” Lan screamed. “Lances, set!” Light, but those hoofbeats were loud! Could six thousand make so much noise? He turned to look at those behind him.

At least ten thousand rode there.

What?

He pressed Mandarb forward through his surprise.

“Forward the Golden Crane!”

Voices, shouts, screams of power and joy.

The air ahead to the left split with a sudden vertical slash. A gateway three dozen paces wide—as large as Lan had ever seen—opened as if into the sun itself. From the other side, the brightness spilled out, exploded out. Charging men in full armor burst from the gateway, falling into place at Lan’s flank. They flew the flag of Arafel.

More gateways. Three, then four, then a dozen. Each broke the field in coordination, charging horsemen bursting forth with lances leveled, flying the flags of Saldaea, Shienar, Kandor. In seconds, his charge of six thousand had become a hundred thousand.

Trollocs in the front lines screamed, and some of them stopped running. Some held steady, spears angled to impale oncoming horses. Bunching up behind them—not being able to see clearly what was happening in front—other enraged hordes pushed eagerly forward, waving large swords with scythe-like blades and double-bitted battle-axes.

Those Trollocs at the front, holding spears, exploded.

From somewhere behind Lan, Asha’man began to send weaves to rip the earth, completely destroying the front ranks of Trollocs. As the carcasses collapsed to the ground, the middle ranks found themselves completely exposed, facing a storm of hooves, swords and lances.

Lan hit, swinging, crashing Mandarb through the snarling Trollocs. Andere was laughing.

“Back, you fool!” Lan yelled to him as he lashed out at the nearby Trollocs. “Direct the Asha’man to our wounded; have them protect the camp!”

“I want to see you smile, Lan!” Andere shouted, clinging to his horse’s saddle. “Show more emotion than a stone, for once! Surely this deserves it!”

Lan looked at the battle he’d never thought to win, seeing a last stand instead become a promising fight, and couldn’t help himself. He didn’t just smile, he laughed.

Andere obeyed his order, riding off to seek Healing and organize the back lines.

“Jophil,” Lan called. “Raise my banner high! Malkier lives on this day!”

CHAPTER 7
Into the Thick of It

Elayne stepped out of the pavilion after the meeting—and entered a grove of a dozen or so trees. And not just any trees: they were towering, healthy, huge-limbed, beautiful trees, hundreds of feet tall with massive trunks. The way she froze and gaped would have been embarrassing if everyone else hadn’t been doing the same. She looked to the side, where Egwene stood, mouth open, as she stared up into the huge trees. The sun still shone above, but the green leaves shaded the area, explaining why the light had dimmed inside the tent.

“These trees,” Perrin said, stepping forward and resting his hand on the thick, ribbed bark. “I’ve seen Great Trees like this before. Inside a stedding!'

Elayne embraced the Source. The glow of saidar was there, a warmth alongside that of the sun. She breathed in the Power, and was amused to notice that most of the women who could channel had done as she had the moment a stedding was mentioned.

“Well, whatever Rand is now,” Egwene said, folding her arms, “he can’t just make stedding appear.” She seemed to find the thought comforting.

“Where did he go?” Elayne asked.

“He strolled out there,” Perrin said, waving toward the trees. “And vanished.”

People were walking among the massive trunks: soldiers from the various camps, staring upward. She heard a Shienaran talking to Lord Agelmar close by. “We watched them grow, my Lord. They burst from the ground; it took less than five minutes for them to become so tall. I swear it, my Lord, or may I never draw blade again.”

“All right,” Elayne said, releasing the Source. “Lets begin. Nations are burning. Maps! We need maps!”

The other rulers turned toward her. In the meeting, with Rand standing there, few of them had objected to her being chosen to lead them. That was how it could be around him; a person was swept up in the tides of Rand’s will. Things seemed so logical when he spoke of them.

Many now looked displeased to have her put above them. Best to give them no time to dwell on it. “Where is Master Norry?” she said to Dyelin. “Could he have—”

“I have maps, Your Majesty,” Gareth Bryne said as he left the pavilion, Siuan at his side.

He seemed grayer than she remembered him; he wore a stiff white coat and trousers, the breast marked with the Flame of Tar Valon. He bowed in respect, but did not step too close. His uniform made his allegiance plain, as did Siuan’s protective hand on his arm.

Elayne remembered him standing with that same quiet expression behind her mother. Never presuming, always protecting the Queen. That queen had put him out to pasture. That event hadn’t been Elayne’s fault, but she could read the breached trust in Bryne’s face.

Elayne could not change what had come and gone. She could look only to the future. “If you have maps of this area and the potential battlefields presented to us, Lord Bryne, we would love to see them. I would like maps for the area between here and Caemlyn, a detailed map of Kandor and your best maps of the other Borderland areas.” To the rulers, she continued, “Gather your commanders and advisors! We must meet immediately with the other great captains to discuss our next course of action.”

It didn’t take long, though the confusion was pervasive as two dozen different factions set to work. Servants pulled open the sides of the pavilion, and Elayne ordered Sumeko to gather Kinswomen and guards to fetch tables and some chairs through a gateway from her camp. Elayne also sent for specific reports of what was happening at the Gap, where Rand had asked the bulk of the Borderlander armies to go and rescue Lan. The rulers and great captains had remained behind for the planning.

Shortly, Elayne and Egwene stood surveying Bryne’s detailed maps, which had been spread out across four tables. The rulers stood back and allowed the commanders to deliberate.

“This is good work, Bryne,” Lord Agelmar said. The Shienaran was one of the four remaining great captains. Bryne was another. The final two great captains—Davram Bashere and Rodel Ituralde—stood side by side at the end of another table, making corrections to a map of the western Borderlands. Ituralde had bags under his eyes, and his hands sometimes shook. From what Elayne had heard, he had suffered quite an ordeal in Maradon, having been rescued only very recently. She was surprised he was here, actually.

“All right,” Elayne said to the assembly. “We must fight. But how? Where?”

“Large forces of Shadowspawn have invaded three locations,” Bryne said. “Caemlyn, Kandor and Tarwin’s Gap. The Gap should not be abandoned, assuming our armies are enough to help Lord Mandragoran stabilize there. The likely result of our push there today will be the Shadowspawn pulling back into the pass. Keeping the enemy plugged up there is an unsuitable task for the Malkieri heavy cavalry alone. Perhaps we would best send him some pike companies? If he continues to plug that breach, we can devote the majority of our forces to combat in Andor and Kandor.”

Agelmar nodded. “Yes. That should be viable if we give Dai Shan the proper support. But we cannot risk letting Shienar become overrun as Kandor was. If they push out of the Gap...”

“We are prepared for an extended battle,” Lord Easar said. “Kandor’s resistance and Lan’s fight at the Gap have given us the time we need. Our people are pulling into our fortresses. We can hold, even if we lose the Gap.”

“Brave words, Your Majesty,” Gareth Bryne said, “but it would be best if we did not have to test the Shienarans in that way. Let us plan to hold the Gap with whatever force it takes to do so.”

“And Caemlyn?” Elayne asked.

Ituralde nodded. “An enemy force that deep behind our lines, with a Waygate to use for reinforcements... that is trouble.”

“Early reports from this morning,” Elayne said, “indicate they’re staying put for the time being. They burned large quarters of the city, but left other sections alone—and now that they have the city, the Trollocs have been set to work smothering the flames.”

“They will have to leave eventually,” Bryne said. “But it will be better if we can flush them out sooner, rather than later.”

“Why not consider a siege?” Agelmar asked. “I think the bulk of our armies should go to Kandor. I would not let the Throne of Clouds and the Three Halls of Trade fall as did the Seven Towers.”

“Kandor already has fallen,” Prince Antol said softly.

The great captains looked at the eldest son of the Kandori queen. A tall man, he had a silent way about him. Now he spoke boldly. “My mother fights for our country,” he said, “but it is a fight of vengeance and redemption. Kandor burns, and it rips my heart to know it, but we cannot stop that. Give Andor your greatest attention; it is too tactically important to ignore, and I would not see another land fall as mine has.”

The others nodded. “Wise advice, Highness,” Bashere said. “Thank you.

Also, do not forget Shayol Ghul,” Rhuarc said from the periphery, where he stood alongside Perrin, some Aes Sedai and several other Aiel chiefs. The great captains turned toward Rhuarc, as if having forgotten he was there.

“The Car’a’carn soon will assault Shayol Ghul,” Rhuarc said. “He will need spears at his back when he does so.”

“He will have them,” Elayne said. “Though that means four battle-fronts. Shayol Ghul, Tarwin’s Gap, Kandor and Caemlyn.”

“Let us focus on Caemlyn first,” Ituralde said. “I don’t like the idea of a siege there. We need to flush the Trollocs out. If we simply besiege them, it gives them more time to reinforce their numbers through that Waygate. We have to take them out now, on our terms.”

Agelmar nodded with a grunt, looking at the map of Caemlyn an aide had put on the table. “Can we stanch that flow? Retake the Waygate?”

“I’ve tried,” Elayne said. “This morning, we sent three separate forces through a gateway into the basement with the Waygate, but the Shadow is prepared and entrenched. None of the forces returned. I don’t know if we can take the Waygate back, or even destroy it.”

“What if we tried from the other side?” Agelmar asked.

“The other side?” Elayne asked. “You mean from inside the Ways?” Agelmar nodded.

“Nobody travels the Ways,” Ituralde said, aghast.

“The Trollocs do,” Agelmar said.

“I’ve been through them,” Perrin said, approaching the table. “And I’m sorry, my Lords, but I don’t think that taking the Waygate from the other side would work. From what I understand, we couldn’t destroy it—even with the One Power. And we couldn’t hold it inside, not with the Black Wind in there. Our best choice is to somehow get those Trollocs out of Caemlyn and then hold this side of the Waygate. If it is properly guarded, the Shadow would never be able to use it against us.”

“Very well,” Elayne said. “We will consider other options. Though, it occurs to me that we should send to the Black Tower for their Asha’man also. How many are there?”

Perrin cleared his throat. “I think you might want to be careful about that place, Your Majesty. Something’s going on there.”

Elayne frowned. “ ‘Something’?”

“I don’t know,” Perrin said. “I spoke to Rand about it, and he was worried, and said he was going to investigate. Anyway... just be careful.”

“I’m always careful,” Elayne said absently. “So how do we get those Trollocs out of Caemlyn?”

“Perhaps we can hide a large assault force in Braem Wood; it’s here, almost fifty leagues north of Caemlyn.” Bryne pointed at the map. “If a smaller company of soldiers were to go up to the city gates and get the Trollocs to chase them back to the Wood as bait in the trap... I always worried that an invading army would use the Wood for cover as a base for attacking the city. I never thought I’d be considering the same option myself.”

“Interesting,” Agelmar said, studying a map of the terrain around Caemlyn. “That seems like a solid prospect.”

“But what of Kandor?” Bashere asked. “The Prince is right that the country is beyond rescue, but we cannot simply let the Trollocs pour out into other lands.”

Ituralde scratched at his chin. “This entire matter is going to be difficult. Three Trolloc armies, with us forced to divide our attention between them. Yes, more and more, I realize that the right move is to focus on one of them and set delaying forces against the other two.”

“The Shadow’s army at Caemlyn is likely the smallest,” Agelmar said, “as the size of the Waygate has restricted their entry into the city.”

“Yes,” Bashere agreed. “Our chance for a quick victory on one of the battlefronts is best at Caemlyn. We should strike hard there with the largest of our assault forces. If we can win in Andor, it will reduce the number of fronts we have to fight on—and that will be extremely advantageous.

Yes,” Elayne said. “We reinforce Lan, but tell him that his job will be to hold there as long as he can. We place a second force at the border of Kandor, with the purpose of delaying there as well—perhaps a slow withdrawal, as conditions dictate. While those two fronts are held, we can focus our true attention—and our largest army—at breaking the Trollocs in Caemlyn.

Good,” Agelmar said. “I like it. But what force do we place in Kandor? What army can slow the Trollocs, but won’t require a large commitment of troops?”

“The White Tower?” Elayne asked. “If we send the Aes Sedai to Kandor, they can slow the Trollocs’ advance across the border. That will let the rest of us concentrate on Caemlyn.”

“Yes,” Bryne said. “I like it.”

“And what of the fourth battlefront?” Ituralde asked. “Shayol Ghul? Does anyone know what the Lord Dragon plans there?”

Nobody spoke.

“The Aiel will see to his needs,” Amys said from beside the clan chiefs. “You needn’t worry about us. Make your battle plans, and we will make ours.”

“No,” Elayne said.

“Elayne?” Aviendha said. “We—”

“This is precisely what Rand wished to avoid,” Elayne said forcefully. “The Aiel will work with the rest of us. The battle at Shayol Ghul could be the most important of all. I won’t have one group presuming to keep to themselves and fight alone. You’ll accept our help.”

And, she added to herself, our direction. The Aiel were excellent warriors, but there were some things they just wouldn’t admit. The usefulness of cavalry, for one.

The Aiel obviously did not like the prospect of wetlander command. They bristled, eyes narrowing.

“The Aiel are excellent irregulars,” Bryne said, looking to them. “I faced you on the Blood Snow, and I know how deadly you can be. However, if the Lord Dragon attacks Shayol Ghul, we will likely need to seize the valley and then hold it for as long as it takes him to battle with the Dark One. I don’t know how long that will take, but it could take hours. Days. Tell me, have you ever had to entrench and fight a protracted, defensive war?

We will do what needs to be done,” Rhuarc said.

“Rhuarc,” Elayne said. “You yourselves insisted on signing the Dragon’s Peace. You yourselves insisted that you be part of our coalition. I expect you to live up to your word. You will do as you are told.”

Bryne’s and Ituralde’s questions had set them off, but being told directly what to do made them back down. Rhuarc nodded. “Of course,” he said. “I have toh”

“Meet it by listening,” Elayne said, “and offering your opinion. If we’re going to fight on four different fronts at once, we’ll need a lot of coordination.” She looked at the gathered generals. “It occurs to me. We have four battlefronts, and four great captains...”

Bashere nodded. “No coincidence, that.”

“Well, it might be one.”

“There are no coincidences, Highness,” Bashere said. “If I’ve learned one thing traveling with the Lord Dragon, that is it. Four of us, four battlefronts.

We each take one, with Queen Elayne coordinating among us and overseeing the war effort as a whole.”

“I will go to the Malkieri,” Agelmar said. “Most of the Borderlanders fight there now.”

“What of Kandor?” Elayne said.

“If the Aes Sedai are to fight there,” Bryne said, “so will I. My place is with the White Tower.”

He doesn’t want to fight in Andor, Elayne thought. He doesn't want to fight alongside me. He wishes the break to be clean. “Who comes to Andor with me, then?”

“I’ll go,” Bashere said.

“And I to Shayol Ghul, then,” Ituralde said, nodding. “To fight alongside Aiel. A day I never thought I’d see, in truth.”

“Good,” Elayne said, pulling over a chair. “Then let’s dig into the thick of it and get to details. We need a central location for me to work from, and Caemlyn is lost. For now, I will use Merrilor. It is central, and has plenty of room to move troops and supplies around in. Perrin, do you think you could take charge of the logistics of this camp? Set up a Traveling ground, and organize the channelers to help with communications and supply operations?”

Perrin nodded.

“The rest of you,” she said, “let’s get to dividing the forces in detail and fleshing out the plans. We need a firm idea of how we are going to push those Trollocs out of Caemlyn so we can fight them on even ground.”

—  —

Hours later, Elayne stepped from the pavilion, her mind spinning with details of tactics, supply needs and troop placements. When she blinked, she could see maps in her mind’s eye, covered with Gareth Bryne’s cramped notations.

The others from the meeting began trailing away to their separate camps to begin executing their battle plans. The dimming sky had required lanterns to be set up around the pavilion. She vaguely remembered both lunch and dinner being brought to the meeting. She’d eaten, hadn’t she? There had simply been so much to do.

She nodded to those rulers who passed her, giving farewells. Most of the initial planning details had been worked out. On the morrow, Elayne would take her troops to Andor and begin the first leg of the counterattack against the Shadow.

The ground here was now soft and springy with deep green grass. Rand’s influence lingered, though he had departed. As Elayne inspected those towering trees, Gareth Bryne stepped up beside her.

She turned, surprised he hadn’t left the pavilion already. The only ones still here now were the servants and Elayne’s guards. “Lord Bryne?” she asked.

“I just wanted to say that I’m proud,” Bryne told her softly. “You did well in there.”

“I had hardly anything to add.”

“You added leadership,” Bryne said. “You aren’t a general, Elayne, and nobody expects you to be one. But when Tenobia complained about Saldaea being left exposed, you were the one who diverted her back to what matters. Tensions are high, but you kept us together, smoothed over bad feelings, prevented us from snapping at one another. Good work, Your Majesty. Very good work.”

She grinned. Light, but it was hard not to positively beam at his words. He wasn’t her father, but in many ways, he was as close to one as she had. “Thank you. And Bryne, the crown apologizes for—”

“Not a word of that,” he said. “The Wheel weaves as it wills. I don’t blame Andor for what happened to me.” He hesitated. “I’m still going to fight together with the White Tower, Elayne.”

“I understand.”

He bowed to her and strode off toward Egwene’s section of camp.

Birgitte stepped up to Elayne. “Back to our camp, then?” the woman asked.

“I...” Elayne hesitated, hearing something. A faint sound, yet somehow deep and powerful. She frowned, walking toward it, holding up a hand to still Birgitte as she started to ask what was happening.

The two of them rounded the pavilion, crossing green grass and blossoming morning’s breath, walking toward the sound, which grew stronger and stronger. A song. A beautiful song, unlike any she had ever heard, that made her tremble with its striking sonority.

It washed over her, enveloped her, vibrated through her. A joyful song, a song of awe and wonder, though she could not understand the words. She approached a group of towering creatures, like trees themselves, standing with their hands on the gnarled trunks of the trees Rand had grown, their eyes closed.

Three dozen Ogier of various ages, from those with eyebrows as white as new snow to those as young as Loial. He stood there with them, a smile raising the sides of his mouth as he sang.

Perrin, arms folded, stood nearby with his wife. “Your talk of going to the Asha’man had me thinking—if we need allies, what about the Ogier? I was going to see if I could find Loial, but before I could set out, I found them already here among these trees.”

Elayne nodded, listening to the Ogier song reach its climax, then fade, the Ogier bowing their heads. For a moment, all was peaceful.

Finally, an ancient Ogier opened his eyes and turned toward Elayne. His white beard reached low on his chest, below the white mustaches that drooped on either side of his mouth. He stepped forward, other ancients both male and female joining him. With them came Loial.

“You are the Queen,” the ancient Ogier said, bowing to her. “The one who leads this journey. I am Haman, son of Dal son of Morel. We have come to lend our axes to your fight.”

“I am pleased,” Elayne said, nodding to him. “Three dozen Ogier will add strength to our battle.”

“Three dozen, young one?” Haman laughed a rumbling laugh. “The Great Stump did not meet, did not debate this long time, to send you three dozen of our numbers. The Ogier will fight alongside humans. All of us. Every one of us who can hold an axe or long knife.”

“Wonderful!” Elayne said. “I will put you to good use.”

An older Ogier woman shook her head. “So hasty. So quick. Know this, young one. There were some who would have abandoned you, and the world, to the Shadow.”

Elayne blinked in shock. “You would have actually done it? Just... left us alone? To fight?”

“Some argued for it,” Haman said.

“I myself took that position,” the woman said. “I made the argument, though I did not truly believe it was right.”

“What?” Loial asked, stumbling forward. This seemed news to him. “You didn’t?”

The woman looked to him. “Trees will not grow if the Dark One claims this world.”

Loial looked surprised. “But why did you—”

“An argument must have opposition if it is to prove itself, my son,” she said. “One who argues truly learns the depth of his commitment through adversity. Did you not learn that trees grow roots most strongly when winds blow through them?” She shook her head, though she did seem fond. “That is not to say you should have left the stedding when you did. Not alone. Fortunately, that has been taken care of.”

“Taken care of?” Perrin asked.

Loial blushed. “Well, you see, Perrin, I am married now.”

“You didn’t mention this earlier!”

“Everything has come so quickly. I am married to Erith, though, you see. She’s just over there. Did you hear her singing? Isn’t her song beautiful? Being married is not so bad, Perrin. Why didn’t you tell me it was not so bad? I think I am rather fond of it.”

“I am pleased for you, Loial,” Elayne cut in. Ogier could talk quite long on tangents if one was not careful. “And thankful, to all of you, for joining us.”

“It is worth the price, perhaps,” Haman said, “just to see these trees. In all my life, men have only cut Great Trees. To see someone growing them instead... We made the correct decision. Yes, yes, we did. The others will need to see this...”

Loial waved to Perrin, apparently wanting to catch up. “Allow me to borrow him for a moment, Loial,” Elayne said, steering Perrin toward the center of the grove.

Faile and Birgitte joined her, and Loial waited behind. He seemed distracted by the mighty trees.

“I have a duty I want to assign you,” Elayne said softly to Perrin. “Losing Caemlyn threatens to send our armies into a supply crisis. Despite complaints of food prices, we had been keeping everyone fed, as well as accumulating stores for the battle ahead. Those stores are now gone.”

“What of Cairhien?” Perrin asked.

“It still has some food,” Elayne said. “As do the White Tower and Tear. Baerlon has good supplies of metals and powder—I need to find what we can draw from the other nations, and discover their food situation. It will be a massive task to coordinate stores and rations for all the armies. I’d like one person in charge of it all.”

“You were thinking of me?” Perrin said.

“Yes.”

“I’m sorry,” Perrin said. “Elayne, Rand needs me.”

“Rand needs us all.”

“He needs me more,” Perrin said. “Min saw it, he said. Without me at the Last Battle, he’ll die. Besides, I have a few fights to finish.”

“I’ll do it,” Faile said.

Elayne turned toward her, frowning.

“It is my duty to manage the affairs of my husband’s army,” Faile said. “You are his liege lady, Your Majesty, so your needs are his needs. If Andor is to command the Last Battle, then the Two Rivers will see it fed. Give me access to gateways large enough for wagons to drive through, give me troops to protect my movements, and give me access to the quartermaster records of anyone I want. I will see it done.”

It was logical and rational, but not what Elayne needed. How far did she trust this woman? Faile had proven herself deft at politics. That was useful, but did she really consider herself part of Andor? Elayne studied the woman.

“There is nobody better you can trust with this task, Elayne,” Perrin said. “Faile will see it done.”

“Perrin,” Elayne said. “There is a different matter involved in this. May we speak privately for a moment?”

“I’ll just tell her what it is when we're done, Your Majesty,” Perrin said. “I don’t keep secrets from my wife.”

Faile smiled.

Elayne eyed the two of them, then sighed softly. “Egwene came to me during our battle preparations. There is a certain... item of importance to the Last Battle that she needs to be delivered.”

“The Horn of Valere,” Perrin said. “You still have it, I hope.”

“We do. In the Tower, hidden. We moved it from the strongroom none too quickly. Last night, that room was broken into. I know only because of certain wards we set. The Shadow knows we have the Horn, Perrin, and the Dark One’s minions are looking for it. They can’t use it; it’s tied to Mat until he dies. But if the Shadow’s minions can capture it, he can keep Mat from using it. Or, worse—kill him, then blow it themselves.”

“You want to mask moving it,” Faile said, “using the supply runs to hide where you’re taking it.”

“We’d rather just give it to Mat straight out,” Elayne said. “But he can be... difficult, sometimes. I had hoped he would be here at this meeting.

He’s in Ebou Dar,” Perrin said. “Doing something with the Seanchan.

He told you?” Elayne asked.

“Not exactly,” Perrin said, looking uncomfortable. “We... have some kind of connection. I sometimes see where he is and what he’s doing.”

“That man,” Elayne said, “is never where he needs to be.”

“And yet,” Perrin said, “he always arrives there eventually.”

“The Seanchan are the enemy,” Elayne said. “Mat doesn’t seem to understand that, considering what he’s done. Light, I hope that man isn’t putting himself in trouble somehow...”

“I will do this,” Faile said. “I’ll care for the Horn of Valere. I’ll see it gets to Mat, guard it.”

“No offense to either of you,” Elayne said, “but I am hesitant to trust this to someone I don’t know well. That is why I came to you, Perrin.”

“That’s going to be a problem, Elayne,” Perrin said. “If they really are watching for the Horn, then they’ll expect you and Egwene to give it to someone you know well. Choose Faile. There is nobody I trust more than her, but she won’t be suspected, as she has no direct relationship with the White Tower.”

Elayne nodded slowly. “Very well. I’ll send word to you on how it will be delivered. For now, begin running supplies to establish precedent. Too many people know about the Horn. After we give it to you, I will send five suspect envoys from the White Tower and seed the right rumors. We hope that the Shadow will assume the Horn is being carried by one of those envoys. I want it to be where nobody expects, at least until we can put it into Matrim’s hands.”

—  —

“Four battlefronts, Lord Mandragoran,” Bulen repeated. “That’s what the messengers are saying. Caemlyn, Shayol Ghul, Kandor, and here. They want to try to bottle up the Trollocs here and in Kandor while trying hard to defeat those in Andor first.”

Lan grunted, guiding Mandarb around the reeking heap of dead Trollocs. The carcasses served as a bulwark now that his five Asha’man had pushed them up into mounds like dark, bloody hills before the Blight, where the Shadowspawn gathered.

The stench was horrible, of course. Many of the guards he passed in his rounds had thrown sprigleaf onto their fires to cover up the smell.

Evening approached, bringing its most dangerous hours. Fortunately, those black clouds above made nights so dark that Trollocs had trouble seeing anything. Dusk, however, was a time of strength to them—a time when the eyes of humans were hampered but the eyes of Shadowspawn were not.

The power of the united Borderlander attack had pushed the Trollocs back toward the mouth of the Gap. Lan was getting reinforced by the hour with pikemen and other foot to help him hold position. All in all, it looked far better here now than it had just a day before.

Still grim, though. If what Bulen said was right, his army would be stationed here as a stalling force. That meant fewer troops for him than he would have liked. He could not fault the tactics presented, however.

Lan passed into the area where the Shienaran lancers cared for their horses. A figure emerged from them and rode up beside Lan. King Easar was a compact man with a white topknot, recently arrived from the Field of Merrilor following a long day making battle plans. Lan began a horseback bow, but stopped as King Easar bowed to him.

“Your Majesty?” Lan asked.

“Agelmar has brought his plans for this battlefront, Dai Shan,” King Easar said, falling in beside him. “He would like to go over them with us. It is important that you are there; we fight beneath the banner of Malkier. We all agreed to it.”

“Tenobia?” Lan asked, genuinely surprised.

“In her case, a little encouragement was required. She came around. I also have word that Queen Ethenielle will leave Kandor and come here. The Borderlands fight together in this battle, and we do it with you at our head.”

They rode on in the fading light, row upon row of lancers saluting Easar. The Shienarans were the finest heavy cavalry in the world, and they had fought—and died—upon these rocks countless times, defending the lush lands to the south.

“I will come,” Lan agreed. “The weight of what you have given me feels like three mountains.”

“I know,” Easar said. “But we shall follow you, Dai Shan. Until the sky is rent asunder, until the rocks split underfoot, and until the Wheel itself stops turning. Or, Light send its blessing, until every sword is favored with peace.”

“What of Kandor? If the Queen comes here, who will lead that battle?”

“The White Tower rides to fight the Shadowspawn there,” Easar said. “You raised the Golden Crane. We were sworn to come to your aid, so we have.” He hesitated, and then his voice grew grim. “Kandor is beyond recovery now, Dai Shan. The Queen admits it. The White Towers job is not to recover it, but to stop the Shadowspawn from taking more territory.”

They turned and rode through the ranks of lancers. The men were required to spend dusk within a few paces of their mounts, and they made themselves busy, caring for armor, weapons and horses. Each man wore a longsword, sometimes two, strapped to his back, and all had maces and daggers at their belts. The Shienarans did not rely solely upon their lances; an enemy who thought to pin them without room to charge soon discovered that they could be very dangerous in close quarters.

Most of the men wore yellow surcoats over their plate-and-mail, bearing the black hawk. They gave their salutes with stiff backs and serious faces. Indeed, the Shienarans were a serious people. Living in the Borderlands did that.

Lan hesitated, then spoke in a loud voice. “Why do we mourn?”

The soldiers nearby turned toward him.

“Is this not what we have trained for?” Lan shouted. “Is this not our purpose, our very lives! This war is not a thing to mourn. Other men may have been lax, but we have not been. We are prepared, and so this is a time of glory.

“Let there be laughter! Let there be joy! Let us cheer the fallen and drink to our forefathers, who taught us well. If you die on the morrow, awaiting your rebirth, be proud. The Last Battle is upon us, and we are ready!

Lan wasn’t sure, exactly, what had made him say it. His words inspired a round of “Dai Shan! Dai Shan! Forward the Golden Crane!” He saw that some of the men were writing the speech down, to pass among the other men.

“You do have the soul of a leader, Dai Shan,” Easar said as they rode on.

“It is not that,” Lan said, eyes forward. “I cannot stand self-pity. Too many of the men looked as if they were preparing their own shrouds.”

“A drum with no head,” Easar said softly, flicking his horse’s reins. “A pump with no grip. A song with no voice. Still it is mine. Still it is mine.”

Lan turned, frowning, but the King gave no explanation for the poem. If his people were a serious people, their king was more so. Easar had wounds deep within that he chose not to share. Lan did not fault him in this; Lan himself had done the same.

Tonight, however, he caught Easar smiling as he considered whatever it was that had brought the poem to his lips.

“Was that Anasai of Ryddingwood?” Lan asked.

Easar looked surprised. “You have read Anasai’s work?”

“She was a favorite of Moiraine Sedai. It sounded as though it might be hers.”

“Each of her poems was written as an elegy,” Easar said. “This was for her father. She left instructions; it can be read, but should not be spoken out loud, except when it was right to do so. She did not explain when it would be right to do so.”

They reached the war tents and dismounted. No sooner had they done so, however, than the horns of alarm began to sound. Both men reacted, and Lan unconsciously touched the sword on his hip.

“Let us go to Lord Agelmar,” Lan shouted as men began to yell and equipment to rattle. “If you fight beneath my banner, then I will accept the role of leader gladly.”

“No hesitation at all?” Easar said.

“What am I?” Lan asked, swinging into the saddle. “Some sheepherder from a forgotten village? I will do my duty. If men are foolish enough to put me in charge of them, I’ll send them about theirs as well.”

Easar nodded, then saluted, the corners of his mouth rising in another smile. Lan returned the salute, then galloped Mandarb through the center of the camp. The men at the outskirts were lighting bonfires; Ashaman had created gateways to one of the many dying forests in the south for soldiers to gather wood. If Lan had his way, those five channelers would never waste their strength killing Trollocs. They were far too useful otherwise.

Narishma saluted Lan as he passed. Lan could not be certain that the great captains had chosen Borderlander Ashaman for him on purpose, but it seemed not to be a coincidence. He had at least one from each Borderlander nation—even one born to Malkieri parents.

We fight together.

CHAPTER 8
That Smoldering City

Atop Moonshadow, her deep brown mare from the royal stables, Elayne Trakand rode through a gateway of her own making.

Those stables were now in the hands of Trollocs, and Moon-shadow’s stablemates had undoubtedly found their way into cookpots by now. Elayne did not think too hard about what else—who else—might have ended up in those same pots. She set her face in determination. Her troops would not see their queen look uncertain.

She had chosen to come to a hill about a thousand paces to the northwest of Caemlyn, well out of bow range but close enough to see the city. Several mercenary bands had made their camp in these hills during the weeks following the Succession War. Those had all either joined the armies of Light or had disbanded, becoming roving thieves and brigands.

The foreguard had already secured the area, and Captain Guybon saluted as members of the Queens Guard—both male and female—surrounded Elayne’s horse. The air still smelled of smoke, and seeing Caemlyn smoldering like Dragonmount itself tossed a handful of bitter powder into the stew of emotions churning inside of her.

The once-proud city was dead, a pyre that pitched a hundred different columns of smoke toward the storm clouds above. The smoke reminded her of the spring burnings, when farmers would occasionally fire their fields to help clear them for planting. She hadn’t ruled Caemlyn for a hundred days, and already it was lost.

If dragons can do that to a city, she thought, surveying the hole that Talmanes had made in the nearest wall, the world will need to change. Everything we know about warfare will change.

“How many, would you say?” she asked the man who rode up beside her. Talmanes was only one day of rest away from the ordeal that should have cost him his life. He probably should have remained at Merrilor; he certainly wouldn’t be doing any frontline fighting in the near future.

“It is impossible to count their numbers, hidden as they are in the city, Your Majesty,” he said, bowing respectfully. “Tens of thousands, but probably not hundreds of thousands.”

The fellow was nervous around her, and he manifested it in a very Cairhienin way—by speaking with flowery respect. He was said to be one of Mat’s most trusted officers; she would have assumed that, by now, Mat would have corrupted the fellow far more. He didn’t curse once. Pity.

Other gateways opened nearby onto the yellow grass, and her forces came through, filling the fields and topping the hills. She had taken charge of a large army of warriors, which included many of the siswai’aman, to bolster her Queen’s Guard and the Andoran regulars under the command of Birgitte and Captain Guybon. A second contingent of Aiel—Maidens, Wise Ones and the remaining warriors—had been chosen to travel north to Shayol Ghul with Rand.

Only a handful of Wise Ones had come with Elayne, the ones who followed Perrin. Elayne would have liked more channelers than that. Still, she did have the Band and their dragons, which should make up for the fact that her only other channelers were the Kinswomen, many of whom were on the weaker side of strength in the Power.

Perrin and his force had come with her. That included Mayene’s Winged Guards, the Ghealdanin cavalry, the Whitecloaks—she still wasn’t sure what she thought of that—and a company of Two Rivers archers with Tam. Filling out her army was the group who called themselves the Wolf Guard, mostly refugees turned soldiers, some of whom had received combat training. And, of course, she had Captain Bashere and his Legion of the Dragon.

She had approved Bashere’s plan for the battle at Caemlyn. We will need to draw the fighting into the woods, he had explained. The archers will be deadly, loosing at the Trollocs upon their approach. If these lads can move as well as I am told they can in the forest, they’ll be just as dangerous once they’ve pulled back.

The Aiel, too, would be deadly in a forest, where the Trollocs wouldn’t be able to use their masses to overrun their opponents. Bashere himself rode nearby. Apparently, Rand had specifically told him to watch over her. As if she didn’t have Birgitte jumping every time she moved.

Rand had better stay safe so I can tell him what I think of him, she thought as Bashere approached in quiet conversation with Birgitte. Bashere was a bowlegged man with a thick mustache. He didn’t talk to Elayne the way a man should a queen... but then, the Queen of Saldaea was his niece, so perhaps he was just very comfortable around royalty.

He is first in line for the throne, Elayne reminded herself. Working with him would offer opportunities to further secure her ties to Saldaea. She still liked the idea of seeing one of her children on that throne. She lowered a hand to her stomach. The babes kicked and elbowed frequently now. Nobody had told her it would feel so much like... well, indigestion. Unfortunately, Melfane had, against all expectation, found some goat’s milk.

“What word?” Elayne asked as Birgitte and Bashere arrived, Talmanes moving his horse aside to make room.

“Scout reports of the city are in,” Bashere said.

“Bashere was right,” Birgitte said. “The Trollocs have been reined in, and the burning has mostly died out. A good half of the city still stands. Much of that smoke you see is from cook fires, not buildings.”

“Trollocs are stupid,” Bashere said, “but Halfmen are not. The Trollocs would have gleefully ransacked the city and lit fires all across it, but that would have threatened to let the fires get away from them. Either way, the truth is we don’t know what the Shadow is planning here, but they at least have the option of trying to hold the city for a time, should they desire.

Will they try that?” Elayne asked.

“I can’t say, honestly,” Bashere replied. “We don’t know their goals. Was this attack on Caemlyn intended to sow chaos and bring fear to our armies, or is it intended to take a stronghold and hold it long-term as a base from which to harry our forces? Back during the Trolloc Wars, the Fades did hold cities for that purpose.”

Elayne nodded.

“Pardon, Your Majesty?” a voice said. She turned to see one of the Two Rivers men stepping up. One of their leaders, Tam’s second-in-command. Dannil, she thought, that's his name.

“Your Majesty,” Dannil repeated. He fumbled a little, but actually spoke with some polish. “Lord Goldeneyes has his men set up in the forest.”

“Lord Talmanes, do you have your dragons in position?”

“Almost,” Talmanes said. “Pardon, Your Majesty, but I’m not certain the bows will be needed once those weapons fire. Are you certain you don’t want to lead with the dragons?”

“We need to goad the Trollocs into battle,” Elayne said. “The placement I outlined will work best. Bashere, what of my plan for the city itself?”

“I think everything is almost ready, but I’ll want to check,” Bashere said, knuckling his mustache in thought. “Those women of yours made gateways well enough, and Mayene gave us the oil. You’re sure you want to go through with something so drastic?”

“Yes.”

Bashere waited for more of a response, perhaps an explanation. When she didn’t give one, he moved off, issuing the last orders. Elayne turned Moonshadow to ride down the ranks of soldiers here at the front lines, where they’d set up near the forests. There wasn’t much she could do now, in these last moments as her commanders gave orders, but she could be seen riding with confidence. Where she passed, the men raised their pikes higher, lifted their chins.

Elayne kept her own eyes on that smoldering city. She would not look away, and she would not let anger control her. She would use the anger.

Bashere returned to her a short time later. “It’s done. The basements of many buildings that are still standing have been filled with oil. Talmanes and the others are in place. Once your Warder returns with word that the Kinswomen are prepared to open another round of gateways, we can proceed.”

Elayne nodded, and then removed her hand from her belly as Bashere glanced at it. She hadn’t realized she’d been holding it again. “What do you think of me going to battle while pregnant? Is it a mistake?”

He shook his head. “No. It proves just how desperate our situation is. It will make the soldiers think. Make them more serious. Besides...

What?”

Bashere shrugged. “Perhaps it will remind them that not everything in this world is dying.”

Elayne turned back, looking at the distant city. Farmers burned their fields in the spring to prepare them for new life. Maybe that was what Andor was suffering now.

“Tell me,” Bashere said. “Are you going to tell the men that you’re carrying the Lord Dragon’s child?”

Children, Elayne corrected in her head. “You presume to know something that may or may not be true, Lord Bashere.”

“I have a wife, and a daughter. I recognize the look in your eyes when you see the Lord Dragon. No woman with child touches her hand to her womb so reverently when looking on a man who is not the father.”

Elayne drew her lips into a line.

“Why do you hide it?” Bashere asked. “I’ve heard what some of the men think. They talk of some other man, a Darkfriend named Mellar, once Captain of your Guardswomen. I can see that the rumors are false, but others are not so wise. You could kill those rumors if you wished.”

“Rand’s children will be targets,” she said.

“Ah...” he replied. He knuckled his mustache for a moment.

“If you disagree with the reasoning, Bashere, speak your mind. I will not suffer a toady.”

“I’m no toady, woman,” he said with a huff. “But regardless, I hardly doubt your child could be a greater target than he or she already is. You’re high commander of the armies of the Light! I think your men deserve to know what exactly they’re fighting for.”

“It is not your business to know,” Elayne said, “nor is it theirs.”

Bashere raised an eyebrow at her. “The heir to the realm,” he said flatly, “is not the business of its subjects?”

“I believe you are overstepping your bounds, General.”

“Perhaps I am,” he said. “Maybe spending so much time with the Lord Dragon has warped the way I do things. That man... you could never tell what he was thinking. Half of the time, he wanted to hear my mind, as raw as I could lay it out. The other half of the time, it seemed like he’d break me in two just for commenting that the sky looked a little dark.” Bashere shook his head. “Just give it some thought, Your Majesty. You remind me of my daughter. She might have done something similar, and this is the advice I’d give her. Your men will fight more bravely if they know that you carry the Dragon Reborns heir.”

Men, Elayne thought. The young ones try to impress me with every stunt that comes into their fool heads. The old ones assume every young woman is in need of a lecture.

She turned her eyes toward the city again as Birgitte rode up and gave her a nod. The basements were filled with oil and pitch.

“Burn it,” Elayne said loudly.

Birgitte waved a hand. The Kinswomen opened their round of gateways, and men hurled lit torches through into the basements of Caemlyn. It didn’t take long for the smoke rising above the city to grow darker, more ominous.

“They won’t soon put that out,” Birgitte said softly. “Not with the dry weather we’ve been having. The entire city will go up like a haystack.”

The army gathered to stare at the city, particularly the members of the Queen’s Guard and the Andoran military. A few of them saluted, as one might salute the pyre of a fallen hero.

Elayne ground her teeth, then said, “Birgitte, make it known among the Guards. The children I carry were fathered by the Dragon Reborn.”

Bashere’s smile deepened. Insufferable man! Birgitte was smiling as she went to spread the word. She was insufferable, too.

The men of Andor seemed to stand taller, prouder, as they watched their capital burn. Trollocs started pouring from the gates, driven by the fires. Elayne made sure the Trollocs saw her army, then announced, “Northward!” She turned Moonshadow. “Caemlyn is dead. We take to the forests; let the Shadowspawn follow!”

—  —

Androl awoke with dirt in his mouth. He groaned, trying to roll over, but found himself bound in some way. He spat, licked his lips and blinked crusty eyes.

He lay with Jonneth and Emarin against an earthen wall, tied by ropes. He remembered... Light! The roof had fallen in.

Pevara? he sent. Incredible how natural that method of communication was beginning to feel.

He was rewarded with a groggy sensation from her. The bond let him know that she was nearby, probably tied up as well. The One Power was also lost to him; he clawed at it, but ran up against a shield. His bonds were tied to some kind of hook in the ground behind him, hindering his movement.

Androl shoved panic down with some effort. He couldn’t see Nalaam. Was he here? The group of them lay tied in a large chamber, and the air smelled of damp earth. They were still underground in a part of Taim’s secret complex.

If the roof fell in, Androl thought, the cells were probably destroyed. That explained why he and the others were tied up, but not locked away.

Someone was sobbing.

He strained around and found Evin tied nearby. The younger man wept, shaking.

“It’s all right, Evin,” Androl whispered. “We’ll find a way out of this.”

Evin glanced at him, shocked. The youth was tied in a different way, in a seated position, hands behind his back. “Androl? Androl, I’m sorry.”

Androl felt a twisting emotion. “For what, Evin?”

“They came right after the rest of you left. They wanted Emarin, I think. To Turn him. When he wasn’t there, they began asking questions, demands. They broke me, Androl. I broke so easily. I’m sorry...”

So Taim hadn’t discovered the fallen guards. “It’s not your fault, Evin.”

Footsteps sounded on the ground nearby. Androl feigned unconsciousness, but someone kicked him. “I saw you talking, pageboy,” Mishraile said, leaning down his golden-haired head. “I’m going to enjoy killing you for what you did to Coteren.”

Androl opened his eyes and saw Logain sagging in the grip of Mezar and Welyn. They dragged him near and dropped him roughly to the ground. Logain stirred and groaned as they tied him up. They stood, and one spat on Androl before moving over to Emarin.

“No,” Taim said from somewhere near. “The youth is next. The Great Lord demands results. Logain is taking too long.”

Evin’s sobs grew louder as Mezar and Welyn moved over to seize him under the arms.

“No!” Androl said, twisting. “No! Taim, burn you! Leave him alone! Take me!”

Taim stood nearby, hands clasped behind his back, in a sharp black uniform that resembled those of the Asha’man, but trimmed with silver. He wore no pins at his neck. He turned toward Androl, then sneered. “Take you? I am to present to the Great Lord a man who couldn’t channel enough to break a pebble? I should have culled you long ago.”

Taim followed the other two, who were dragging away the frantic Evin. Androl screamed at them, yelling until he was hoarse. They took Evin somewhere on the other side of the chamber—it was very large—and Androl could not see them because of the angle at which he was tied. Androl dropped his head back against the floor, closing his eyes. That didn’t prevent him from hearing poor Evin’s screams of terror.

“Androl?” Pevara whispered.

“Quiet.” Mishraile’s voice was followed by a thump and a grunt from Pevara.

I am really starting to hate that one, Pevara sent to him.

Androl didn’t reply.

They took the effort to dig us out of the collapsed room, Pevara continued. I remember some of it, before they shielded me and knocked me unconscious. It seems to have been less than a day since then. I guess Taim hasn’t yet hit his quota of Dread-lords Turned to the Shadow.

She sent it, almost, with levity.

Behind them, Evin’s screams stopped.

Oh, Light! Pevara sent. Was that Evin? All wryness vanished from her tone. What’s happening?

They’re Turning him, Androl sent back. Strength of will has something to do with resisting. That is why Logain hasn’t been Turned yet.

Pevara’s concern was a warmth through the bond. Were all Aes Sedai like her? He’d assumed they had no emotions, but Pevara felt the full range—although she accompanied it with an almost inhuman control over how those emotions affected her. Another result of decades of practice?

How do we escape? she sent.

I’m trying to untie my bonds. My fingers are stiff.

I can see the knot. It’s a hefty one, but I might be able to guide you.

He nodded, and they began, Pevara describing the turns of the knot as Androl tried to twist his fingers around them. He failed to get enough purchase on the bonds; he tried pulling his hands free and wiggling them out, but the ropes were too tight.

By the time he accepted defeat, his fingers were numb from the lack of circulation. It’s not going to work, he sent.

I’ve been trying to push out of this shield, Pevara replied. It’s possible, and I think our shields might be tied off. Tied-off shields fail.

Androl sent back agreement, though he couldn’t keep from feeling frustrated. How long could Evin hold out?

The silence taunted him. Why couldn’t he hear any sounds? Then he sensed something. Channeling. Could that be thirteen men? Light. If there were thirteen Myrddraal as well, the situation was dire. What would they do if they escaped? They couldn’t fight so many.

Which cliff did you choose? Pevara sent him.

What?

You said that when you were among the Sea Folk, they jumped off cliffs to prove their bravery. The higher the cliff, the braver the jumper. Which cliff did you choose?

The highest, he admitted.

Why?

I figured that once you’ve decided to jump off a cliff, you might as well pick the highest one. Why accept the risk, if not for the greatest prize?

Pevara sent back approval. We will escape, Androl. Somehow.

He nodded, mostly for himself, and set back at his knot.

A few moments later, Taim’s cronies returned. Evin squatted down beside Androl. Behind his eyes lurked something different, something awful. He smiled. “Well, that was certainly not as bad as I had assumed it would be, Androl.”

“Oh, Evin...”

“Don’t worry about me,” Evin said, resting a hand on Androl’s shoulder. “I feel great. No more fear, no more worry. We shouldn’t have been fighting all of this time. We are the Black Tower. We need to work together.”

You are not my friend, Androl thought. You might have his face, but Evin... Oh, Light. Evin is dead.

“Where is Nalaam?” Androl asked.

“Died in the cave-in, I’m afraid.” Evin shook his head. He leaned in. “They’re planning to kill you, Androl, but I think I can convince them that you’re worth Turning instead. You’ll thank me, eventually.”

The terrible thing inside of Evin’s eyes smiled, patted Androl on the shoulder, then rose and began chatting with Mezar and Welyn.

Behind them, Androl could barely see thirteen shadows trailing over to grab Emarin and drag him away to be Turned next. Fades, with cloaks that did not move.

Androl thought how lucky Nalaam was to be crushed in the collapse.

CHAPTER 9
To Die Well

Lan split the head of the Myrddraal in half down to the neck. He danced Mandarb back, letting the Fade thrash as it died, its convulsions twisting the pieces of its skull from the neck. Putrid black blood poured onto the rock, which had already been bloodied a dozen times.

“Lord Mandragoran!”

Lan wheeled toward the call. One of his men pointed back toward their camp, where a spout of bright red light was shooting into the air.

Noon already? Lan thought, raising his sword and signaling for his Malkieri to retreat. The Kandori and Arafellin troops were swinging in, light cavalry with bows, sending wave after wave of arrows into the mass of Trollocs.

The stench was tremendous. Lan and his men rode away from the front lines, passing two Asha’man and an Aes Sedai—Coladara, who had insisted on staying on as King Paitar’s advisor—channeling to set the Trolloc corpses aflame. That would make it more difficult for the next wave of Shadowspawn.

Lan’s armies had continued their brutal work, holding the Trollocs at the Gap like pitch holding back the spray of water in a leaking boat. The army fought in short rotations, an hour at a time. Bonfires and Asha’man lit the way at night, never giving the Shadowspawn the opportunity to advance.

After two days of grueling battle, Lan knew that this tactic would eventually favor the Trollocs. Humans were killing them by the wagonload, but the Shadow had been building its forces for years. Each night, the Trollocs fed upon the dead; they didn’t have to worry about mess supplies.

Lan kept his shoulders from sagging as he rode away from the front lines, making way for the next group of his troops, but he wanted to collapse and sleep for days. Despite the greater numbers given him by the Dragon Reborn, every man was required to take several shifts on the front lines each day. Lan always joined a few extra.

Finding sleep was not easy for his troops while also caring for their equipment, gathering wood for the bonfires and bringing supplies through gateways. As he surveyed those leaving the front lines with him, Lan sought for what he could do to strengthen them. Nearby, faithful Bulen was sagging. Lan would need to make sure the man slept more, or—

Bulen slid from the saddle.

Lan cursed, stopping Mandarb, and leaped down. He dashed to Bulen’s side and found the man staring blankly into the sky. Bulen had a massive wound in his side, the mail there ripped like a sail that had seen too much wind. Bulen had covered the wound by putting his coat on over his armor. Lan hadn’t seen him hit, nor had he seen the man covering up the wound.

Fool! Lan thought, feeling at Bulen’s neck.

No pulse. Fie was gone.

Fool! Lan thought again, bowing his head. You wouldn’t leave my side, would you? That’s why you hid it. You were afraid I'd die out there while you came back for Healing.

Either that, or you didn’t want to demand strength from the channelers. You knew they were pushed to their limits.

With teeth clenched, Lan picked up Bulen’s corpse and slung it over his shoulder. Fie hefted the body onto Bulen’s horse and tied it across the saddle. Andere and Prince Kaisel—the Kandori youth and his squad of a hundred usually rode with Lan—sat nearby, watching solemnly. Conscious of their eyes, Lan put his hand on the corpse’s shoulder.

“You did well, my friend,” he said. “Your praises will be sung for generations. May you shelter in the palm of the Creator’s hand, and may the last embrace of the mother welcome you home.” He turned to the others. “I will not mourn! Mourning is for those who regret, and I do not regret what we do here! Bulen could not have died a better death. I do not cry for him, I cheer!

He swung up into Mandarb’s saddle, holding the reins of Bulen’s horse, and sat tall. He would not let them see his fatigue. Or his sorrow. “Did any of you see Bakh fall?” he asked those riding near him. “He had a crossbow tied to the back of his horse. He always carried that thing with him. I swore that if it ever went off by accident, I’d have the Asha’man hang him by his toes from the top of a cliff.

“He died yesterday when his sword caught in a Trollocs armor. He left it and reached for his spare, but two more Trollocs pulled his horse out from underneath him. I thought he was dead then, and was trying to reach him, only to see him come up with that Light-burned crossbow of his and shoot a Trolloc right in the eye from two feet away. The bolt went clear through its head. The second Trolloc gutted him, but not before he put his boot knife in its neck.” Lan nodded. “I remember you, Bakh. You died well.” They rode for a few moments, and then Prince Kaisel added, “Ragon. He died well, too. Charged his horse straight at a group of thirty Trollocs that were coming in at us from the side. Probably saved a dozen men with that move, buying us time. He kicked one in the face as they pulled him down.

Yes, Ragon was a right insane man,” Andere said. “I’m one of the men he saved.” He smiled. “He did die well. Light, but he did. Of course, the craziest thing I’ve seen these last few days is what Kragil did when fighting that Fade. Did any of you see it...”

By the time they reached the camp, the men were laughing and toasting the fallen with words. Lan split off from them, and took Bulen to the Asha’man. Narishma was holding open a gateway for a supply cart. He nodded to Lan. “Lord Mandragoran?”

“I need to put him someplace cold,” Lan said, dismounting. “When this is done, and Malkier is reclaimed, we will want a proper resting place for the noble fallen. Until then, I will not have him burned or left to rot. He was the first Malkieri to return to Malkier’s king.”

Narishma nodded, Arafellin bells tinkling on the ends of his braids. He ushered a cart through the gateway, then held up a hand for the others to stop. He closed that gateway, then opened one to the top of a mountain.

Icy air blew through. Lan took Bulen off his horse. Narishma moved to help, but Lan waved him away, grunting as he heaved the corpse up onto his shoulder. He stepped through into the snows, the biting wind sharp on his cheeks, as if someone had taken a knife to them.

He laid Bulen down, then knelt and gently took the hadori from Bulen’s head. Lan would carry it into battle—so that Bulen could continue to fight—then return it to the body when the battle was through. An old Malkieri tradition. “You did well, Bulen,” Lan said softly. “Thank you for not giving up on me.”

He stood up, boots crunching the snow, and strode out through the gateway, hadori in hand. Narishma let the gateway close, and Lan asked for the location of the mountain—in case Narishma died in the fighting—so he could locate Bulen again.

They wouldn’t be able to preserve all of the Malkieri corpses this way, but one was better than none. Lan wrapped the leather hadori about the hilt of his sword, just below the crossguard, and tied it tight. He handed Mandarb off to a groom, holding up a finger to the horse and meeting his dark, liquid eyes. “No more biting grooms,” he growled at the stallion.

After that, Lan went looking for Lord Agelmar. He found the commander speaking with Tenobia outside the Saldaean section of camp. Men stood with bows nearby in lines of two hundred, watching the skies. There had already been a number of Draghkar attacks. As Lan stepped up, the ground started to shake and rumble.

The soldiers didn’t cry out. They were growing used to this. The land groaned.

The bare rock ground near Lan split. He jumped back in alarm as the shaking continued, watching tiny rents appear in the rock—hairline cracks. There was something profoundly wrong about the cracks. They were too dark, too deep. Though the area was still shaking, he stepped up, looking at the tiny cracks, trying to make them out in detail through the rumbling earthquake.

They seemed to be cracks into nothingness. They drew the light in, sucked it away. It was as if he was looking at fractures in the nature of reality itself.

The quakes subsided. The darkness within the cracks lingered for a few breaths, then faded away, the hairline fractures becoming just ordinary breaks in stone. Wary, Lan knelt down, inspecting them closely. Had he seen what he’d thought? What did it mean?

Chilled, he rose to his feet and continued on his way. It is not men alone who grow tired, he thought. The mother is weakening

He hastened through the Saldaean camp. Of those fighting at the Gap the Saldaeans had the most well-kept camp, run by the stern hands of the officers’ wives. Lan had left most of the Malkieri noncombatants in Fal Dara, and the other forces had come with few others except the warriors.

That wasn’t the Saldaean way. Though they normally didn’t go into the Blight, the women otherwise marched with their husbands. Each one could fight with knives, and would hold their camp to the death if the need arose. They had been extremely useful here in gathering and distributing supplies and tending the wounded.

Tenobia was arguing tactics with Agelmar again. Lan listened as the Shienaran great captain nodded to her demands. She didn’t have a bad grasp of things, but she was too bold. She wanted them to push into the Blight, and take the fight to the Trolloc spawning grounds.

Eventually, she noticed Lan. “Lord Mandragoran,” she said, eyeing him. She was a pretty enough woman, with fire in her eyes and long black hair. “Your latest sortie was a success?”

“More Trollocs are dead,” Lan said.

“We fight a glorious battle,” she said with pride.

“I lost a good friend.”

Tenobia paused, then looked at his eyes, perhaps searching for emotion in them. Lan didn’t give any. Bulen had died well. “The men who fight have glory,” Lan said to her, “but the battle itself is not glory. It simply is. Lord Agelmar, a word.”

Tenobia stepped aside and Lan drew Agelmar away. The aged general gave Lan a grateful look. Tenobia watched for a moment, then stalked off with two guards following hastily at her heels.

Shell be off into battle herself at some point if we don’t watch her, Lan thought. Her head is full of songs and stories.

Hadn’t he just encouraged his men to tell those same stories? No. There was a difference, he could feel a difference. Teaching the men to accept that they might die and to revere the honor of the fallen... that was different from singing songs about how wonderful it was to fight on the front lines.

Unfortunately, it took actual fighting to teach the difference. The Light send Tenobia wouldn’t do anything too rash. Lan had seen many a young man with that look in his eyes. The solution then was to work them to exhaustion for a few weeks, drilling them to the point that they thought only of their bed, not of the “glories” they would someday find. He doubted that would be appropriate for the Queen herself.

“She has been growing more rash ever since Kalyan married Ethenielle,” Lord Agelmar said quietly, joining Lan as they walked the back lines, nodding to passing soldiers. “I think that he was able to dampen her a featherweight or two, but now—without him or Bashere watching her...” He sighed. “Well, regardless. What is it you wished of me, Dai Shan?”

“We fight well here,” Lan said. “But I’m worried about how tired the men are. Will we be able to keep holding back the Trollocs?”

“You are right; the enemy will force its way through eventually,” Agelmar said.

“What do we do, then?” Lan asked.

“We will fight here,” Agelmar said. “And then, once we cannot hold, we will retreat to buy time.”

Lan stiffened. “Retreat?”

Agelmar nodded. “We are here to slow the Trollocs down. We will accomplish that by holding here for a time, then slowly pulling back across Shienar.”

“I did not come to Tarwin’s Gap to retreat, Agelmar.”

“Dai Shan, I’m led to believe you came here to die.”

That was nothing but the truth. “I will not abandon Malkier to the Shadow a second time, Agelmar. I came to the Gap—the Malkieri followed me here—to show the Dark One that we had not been beaten. To leave after we’ve actually been able to gain a footing...”

“Dai Shan,” Lord Agelmar said in a softer voice as they walked, “I respect your decision to fight. We all do; your march here alone inspired thousands. That may not have been your purpose, but it is the purpose the Wheel wove for you. The determination of a man set upon justice is a thing not lightly ignored. However, there is a time to put yourself aside and see the greater importance.”

Lan stopped, eyeing the aged general. “Take care, Lord Agelmar. It almost sounds as if you are calling me selfish.”

“I am, Lan,” Agelmar said. “And you are.”

Lan did not flinch.

“You came to throw your life away for Malkier. That, in itself, is noble. However, with the Last Battle upon us, it’s also stupid. We need you. Men will die because of your stubbornness.”

“I did not ask for them to follow me. Light! I did all that I could to stop them.”

“Duty is heavier than a mountain, Dai Shan.”

That time, Lan did flinch. How long had it been since someone had been able to do that to him with mere words? He remembered teaching that same concept to a youth out of the Two Rivers. A sheepherder, innocent of the world, fearful of the fate laid out before him by the Pattern.

“Some men,” Agelmar said, “are destined to die, and they fear it. Others are destined to live, and to lead, and they find it a burden. If you wished to keep fighting here until the last man fell, you could do it, and they’d die singing the glory of the fight. Or, you could do what we both need to do. Retreat when we’re forced to it, adapt, continuing delaying and stalling the Shadow as long as we can. Until the other armies can send us aid.

“We have an exceptionally mobile force. Each army sent you their finest cavalry. I’ve seen nine thousand Saldaean light horse perform complex maneuvers with precision. We can hurt the Shadow here, but their numbers are proving too great. Greater than I thought they would be. We will hurt more of them as we withdraw. We will find ways to punish them with every step we take backward. Yes, Lan. You made me commanding general of the field. That is my advice to you. It won’t be today, or perhaps for another week, but we will need to fall back.”

Lan walked on in silence. Before he could formulate a reply, he saw a blue light exploding in the air. The emergency signal from the Gap. The units that had just rotated onto the field needed help.

I will consider it, Lan thought. Pushing aside his fatigue, he dashed for the horselines where the groom would have delivered Mandarb.

He didn’t need to ride on this sortie. He had just gotten off one. He decided to go anyway, and caught himself yelling for Bulen to prepare a horse, and felt a fool. Light, but Lan had grown accustomed to the man’s help.

Agelmar is right, Lan thought as the grooms fell over themselves, saddling Mandarb. The stallion was skittish, sensing his mood. They will follow me. Like Bulen did. Leading them to death in the name of a fallen kingdom... leading myself to the same death... how is that any different from Tenobia’s attitude?

Before long, he was galloping back toward the defensive lines to find the Trollocs almost breaking through. He joined the rally, and this night, they held. Eventually, they would fail to do so. What then?

Then... then he would abandon Malkier again, and do what had to be done.

—  —

Egwene’s force had gathered at the southern portion of the Field of Merrilor. They had been slated to Travel to Kandor once Elayne’s force had been dispatched to Caemlyn. Rand’s armies had not yet entered Thakan’dar, but had instead moved to staging areas on the northern part of the Field, where supplies could be assembled more easily. He claimed the time wasn’t quite right for his assault; the Light send he was making progress with the Seanchan.

Moving so many people was a tremendous headache. Aes Sedai created gateways in a huge line, like the doorways along one side of a grand feast hall. Soldiers bunched up, waiting their turn to pass through. Many of the strongest channelers were not involved in this task; they would be channeling in combat soon enough, and creating gateways would only consume needed strength before the important work had begun.

The soldiers made way for the Amyrlin, of course. With the foreguard in place and a camp established on the other side, it was time for her to cross. She had spent the morning meeting with the Hall as they went over the supply reports and terrain assessments. She was glad she had allowed the Hall to take a larger role in the war; there was a great deal of wisdom to the Sitters, many of whom had lived well over a century.

“I don’t like being forced to wait this long,” Gawyn said, riding beside her.

She eyed him.

“I trust General Bryne’s battlefield assessment, as does the Hall,” Egwene said as they rode past the Illianer Companions, each man’s brilliant breastplate worked with the Nine Bees of Illian on the front. They saluted her, faces hidden behind their conical helmets, barred at the front.

She wasn’t certain she liked having them in her army—they would be more loyal to Rand than to her—but Bryne had insisted on it. He said that her force, though enormous, lacked an elite group like the Companions.

“I still say we should have left sooner,” Gawyn said as the two of them passed through the gateway to the border of Kandor.

“It has only been a few days.”

“A few days while Kandor burns.” She could sense his frustration. She could also feel that he loved her, fiercely. He was her husband, now. The marriage had been performed by Silviana in a simple ceremony the night before. It still felt odd to know that Egwene had authorized her own wedding. When you were the highest authority, what else could you do?

As they moved into the camp on the Kandori border, Bryne rode by, giving terse orders to scouting patrols. When he reached Egwene, he climbed out of the saddle and bowed low, kissing her ring. He then remounted and continued. He was very respectful, considering that he’d essentially been bullied into leading this army. Of course, he’d made his demands and they had been met, so perhaps he’d bullied them as well. Leading the White Tower’s armies had been an opportunity for him; no man liked being put out to pasture. The great captain shouldn’t have found himself there in the first place.

Egwene noted Siuan riding at Bryne’s side and smiled in satisfaction. He is bound tightly to us now.

Egwene surveyed the hills on the southeastern border of Kandor. Though they lacked greenery—like most places in the world now—their peaceful serenity gave no hint that the country beyond them burned. The capital, Chachin, was now little more than rubble. Before withdrawing to join the fight with the other Borderlanders, Queen Ethenielle had turned over rescue operations to Egwene and the Hall. They had done what they could, sending scouts through gateways along major roadways looking for refugees, then bringing them away to safety—if anywhere could be called safe now.

The main Trolloc army had left the burning cities and was now moving southeast toward the hills and the river that made up Kandor's border with Arafel.

Silviana rode up beside Egwene, opposite Gawyn. She spared him only a glare—those two really would have to stop snapping at one another; it was growing tiresome—before kissing Egwene’s ring. “Mother.”

“Silviana.”

“We have received an update from Elayne Sedai.”

Egwene allowed herself a smile. Both of them, independently, had taken to calling Elayne by her White Tower title as opposed to her civil title. “And?”

“She suggests that we set up a location where the wounded can be sent for Healing.”

“We’d talked about having the Yellows move from battlefield to battlefield,” Egwene said.

“Elayne Sedai is worried about exposing the Yellows to attack,” Silviana said. “She wants a stationary hospital.”

“That would be more efficient, Mother,” Gawyn said, rubbing his chin. “Finding the wounded after a battle is a brutal affair. I don’t know what I’d think of sending sisters to comb through the dead. This war could stretch weeks, even months, if the great captains are right. Eventually, the Shadow is going to start picking off Aes Sedai on the field.”

“Elayne Sedai was quite... insistent,” Silviana said. Her face was a mask, her tone steady, yet she also managed to convey severe displeasure. Silviana was proficient at that.

I helped put Elayne in charge, Egwene reminded herself. Refusing her would set a bad precedent. As would obeying her. Perhaps they could remain friends through it.

“Elayne Sedai shows wisdom,” Egwene said. “Tell Romanda that it must be done this way. Have the entire Yellow Ajah gather for Healing, but not at the White Tower.”

“Mother?” Silviana asked.

“The Seanchan,” Egwene said. She had to smother the serpent deep inside of her that writhed whenever she thought of them. “I will not risk the Yellows being attacked while alone and exhausted from Healing. The White Tower is exposed, and is a focus for the enemy—if not the Seanchan, then the Shadow.”

“A valid point.” Silviana sounded reluctant. “But where else? Caemlyn has fallen, and the Borderlands are too exposed. Tear?”

“Hardly,” Egwene said. That was Rand’s territory, and it seemed too obvious. “Send back to Elayne with a suggestion. Perhaps the First of Mayene will be willing to provide a suitable building, a very large one.” Egwene tapped the side of her saddle. “Send the Accepted and the novices with the Yellows. I don’t want those women on the battlefield, but their strength can be put to use in Healing.”

Linked to a Yellow, the weakest of novices could lend a trickle of strength and save lives. Many would be disappointed; they imagined slaying Trollocs. Well, this would be a way for them to fight without getting underfoot, untrained in combat as they were.

Egwene glanced over her shoulder. Movement through the gateways would not be finished any time soon. “Silviana, relay my words to Elayne Sedai,” Egwene said. “Gawyn, I have something I want to do.”

They found Chubain supervising the setup of a command camp in a valley west of the river that formed the boundary between Kandor and Arafel. They’d press forward into this hilly country to meet the oncoming Trollocs, deploying harrying forces in the adjoining valleys, with archers atop the hills alongside defensive units. The plan would be to strike hard at Trollocs as they tried to take the hills, doing as much damage as possible. The harrying units could swipe at enemy flanks while the defenders held the hills as long as they could.

The odds were good that they would eventually be pushed out of those hills and across the border into Arafel, but on the wide plains of Arafel their cavalries could be used to better advantage. Egwene’s force, like Lan’s, was meant to delay and slow the Trollocs until Elayne could defeat those in the south. Ideally they would hold until reinforcements could arrive.

Chubain saluted and led them to a tent that had already been erected nearby. Egwene dismounted and started to enter, but Gawyn laid a hand on her arm. She sighed, nodded and let him enter first.

Inside, on the floor with legs folded, sat the Seanchan woman that Nynaeve had called Egeanin, although the woman insisted on being called Leilwin. Three members of the Tower Guard watched over her and her Illianer husband.

Leilwin looked up as Egwene entered, then immediately rose to her knees and performed a graceful bow, forehead touching the tent floor. Her husband did as she did, though his motions seemed more reluctant. Perhaps he was merely a worse actor than she was.

“Out,” Egwene said to the three guards.

They did not argue, though their withdrawal was slow. As if she couldn’t handle herself with her Warder against two people who could not channel. Men.

Gawyn took up position at the side of the tent, leaving her to address the two prisoners.

“Nynaeve tells me you are marginally trustworthy, Egwene said to Leilwin. “Oh, sit up. Nobody bows that low in the White Tower, not even the lowest of servants.”

Leilwin sat up, but kept her eyes lowered. I have failed greatly in the duty assigned me, and in so doing have endangered the Pattern itself.”

“Yes,” Egwene said. “The bracelets. I’m aware. Would you like a chance to repay that debt?”

The woman bowed herself, forehead to the ground again. Egwene sighed, but before she could order the woman to rise, Leilwin spoke. “By the Light and my hope for salvation and rebirth,” Leilwin said, “I vow to serve you and protect you, Amyrlin, ruler of the White Tower. By the Crystal Throne and the blood of the Empress, I bind myself to you, to do as commanded in all things, and to put your life before my own. Under the Light, may it be so.” She kissed the floor.

Egwene looked at her, stunned. Only a Darkfriend would betray an oath such as that one. Of course, every Seanchan was close to being a Darkfriend.

You think I m not well protected?” Egwene asked. “You think that I need another servant?”

“I think only of repaying my debt,” Leilwin said.

In her tone, Egwene sensed a stiffness, a bitterness. That rang of authenticity. This woman did not like humbling herself in this manner.

Egwene folded her arms, troubled. “What can you tell me of the Seanchan military, its arms and strength, and of the plans of the Empress?”

‘I know some things, Amyrlin,” Leilwin said. “But I was a ship’s captain. What I do know is of the Seanchan navy, and that will be of little use to you.”

Of course, Egwene thought. She glanced at Gawyn, who shrugged.

Please, Leilwin said softly. “Allow me to prove myself to you somehow. I have little left to me. My name itself is no longer my own.”

First, Egwene said, “you will talk of the Seanchan. I don’t care if you think it’s irrelevant. Anything you tell me might be helpful.” Or, it might reveal Leilwin as a liar, which would be equally useful. “Gawyn, fetch me a chair. I’m going to listen to what she says. After that, we’ll see...

—  —

Rand rifled through the pile of maps, notes and reports. He stood with his arm folded behind his back, a single lamp burning on the desk. Sheathed in glass, the flame danced as breezes eddied through the tent where he stood alone.

Was the flame alive? It ate, it moved on its own. You could smother it, so in a way, it breathed. What was it to be alive?

Could an idea live?

A world without the Dark One. A world without evil.

Rand turned back to the maps. What he saw impressed him. Elayne was preparing well. He had not attended the meetings planning each battle. His attention was directed toward the north. Toward Shayol Ghul. His destiny. His grave.

He hated the way these battle maps, with notes for formations and groups, reduced men’s lives to scribbles on a page. Numbers and statistics. Oh, he admitted that the clarity—the distance—was essential for a battlefield commander. He hated it nonetheless.

Here before him was a flame that lived, yet here were also men who were dead. Now that he could not lead the war himself, he hoped to stay away from maps such as this one. He knew seeing these preparations would make him grieve for the soldiers he could not save.

A sudden chill ran across him, the hairs on his arms standing on end—a distinct shiver halfway between excitement and terror. A woman was channeling.

Rand raised his head and found Elayne frozen in the tent doorway. “Light!” she said. “Rand! What are you doing here? Are you trying to kill me with fright?”

He turned, settling his fingers on the battle maps, taking her in. Now here was life. Flushed cheeks, golden hair with a hint of honey and rose, eyes that burned like a bonfire. Her dress of crimson showed the swell of the children she bore. Light, she was beautiful.

“Rand al’Thor?” Elayne asked. “Are you going to talk to me, or do you wish to ogle me further?”

“If I can’t ogle you, whom can I ogle?” Rand asked.

“Don’t grin at me like that, farmboy,” she said. “Sneaking into my tent? Really. What would people say?”

“They’d say that I wanted to see you. Besides, I didn’t sneak in. The guards let me in.”

She folded her arms. “They didn’t tell me.”

“I asked them not to.”

“Then, for all intents and purposes, you were sneaking.” Elayne brushed by him. She smelled wonderful. “Honestly, as if Aviendha weren’t enough...

I didn’t want the regular soldiers to see me,” Rand said. “I worried it would disturb your camp. I asked the guards not to mention that I was here.” He stepped up to her, resting his hand on her shoulder. “I had to see you again, before...”

“You saw me at Merrilor.”

“Elayne... ”

“I’m sorry,” she said, turning back to him. “I am happy to see you, and I am glad you came. I’m just trying to get into my head how you fit into all of this. How we fit into all of this.”

“I don’t know,” Rand said. “I’ve never figured it out. I’m sorry.”

She sighed, sitting down in the chair beside her desk. “I suppose it is good to find there are some things you can’t fix with a wave of your hand.

There is much I can’t fix, Elayne.” He glanced at the desk, and the maps. “So much.”

Don't think about that.

He knelt before her, getting a cocked eyebrow until he placed his hand on her belly—hesitantly, at first. “I didn’t know,” he said. “Not until just recently, the night before the meeting. Twins, it is said?”

“Yes.”

“So Tam will be a grandfather,” Rand said. “And I will be...”

How was a man supposed to react to this news? Was it supposed to shake him, upend him? Rand had been given his share of surprises in life. It seemed he could no longer take two steps without the world changing on him.

But this... this wasn’t a surprise. He found that deep down, he’d hoped that someday he would be a father. It had happened. That gave him warmth. One thing was going right in the world, even if so many had gone wrong.

Children. His children. He closed his eyes, breathing in, enjoying the thought.

He would never know them. He would leave them fatherless before they were even born. But, then, Janduin had left Rand fatherless—and he had turned out all right. Just a few rough edges, here and there.

“What will you name them?” Rand asked.

“If there is a boy, I’ve been thinking of naming him Rand.”

Rand let himself go still as he felt her womb. Was that motion? A kick? “No,” Rand said softly. “Please do not name either child after me, Elayne. Let them live their own lives. My shadow will be long enough as it is.

Very well.”

He looked up to meet her eyes, and he found her smiling with fondness. She rested a smooth hand on his cheek. “You will be a fine father.”

“Elayne—”

“Not a word of it,” she said, raising a finger. “No talk of death, of duty.

We cannot ignore what will happen.”

“We needn’t dwell on it either,” she said. “I taught you so much about being a monarch, Rand. I seem to have forgotten one lesson. It is all right to plan for the worst possibilities, but you must not bask in them. You must not fixate on them. A queen must have hope before all else.”

“I do hope,” Rand said. “I hope for the world, for you, for everyone who must fight. That does not change the fact that I have accepted my own death.”

“Enough,” she said. “No more talk of this. Tonight, I will have a quiet dinner with the man I love.”

Rand sighed, but rose, seating himself in the chair beside hers as she called to the guards at the tent flap for their meal.

“Can we at least discuss tactics?” Rand asked. “I am truly impressed by what you’ve done here. I don’t think I could have done a better job.”

“The great captains did most of it.”

“I saw your annotations,” Rand said. “Bashere and the others are wonderful generals, geniuses even, but they think only of their specific battles. Someone needs to coordinate them, and you are doing that marvelously. You have a head for this.”

“No, I don’t,” Elayne said. “What I do have is a lifetime spent as the Daughter-Heir of Andor, being trained for wars that might come. Thank General Bryne and my mother for what you see in me. Did you find anything in my notes that you would change?”

“There is more than a hundred and fifty miles between Caemlyn and Braem Wood, where you plan to ambush the Shadow,” Rand noted. “That’s risky. What if your forces get overrun before they reach the Wood?”

“Everything depends on them beating the Trollocs to the Wood. Our harrying forces will be using the strongest, fastest mounts available. It will be a grueling race, there’s no question, and the horses will be near death by the time they reach the Wood. But we are hoping that the Trollocs will be the worse for wear by then as well, which should make our job easier.”

They talked tactics, and evening became night. Servants arrived with dinner, broth and wild boar. Rand had wished to keep his presence in the camp quiet, but there was nothing for that now that the servants knew.

He settled himself to dine, and let himself flow into the conversation with Elayne. Which battlefield was in the most danger? Which of the great captains should she champion when they disagreed, which they often did? How would this all work with Rand’s army, which still waited for the right time to attack Shayol Ghul?

The conversation reminded him of their time in Tear, stealing hidden kisses in the Stone between sessions of political training. Rand had fallen in love with her during those days. Real love. Not the admiration of a boy falling off a wall, looking at a princess—back then, he hadn’t understood love any more than a farmboy swinging a sword understood war.

Their love was born of the things they shared. With Elayne, he could speak of politics and the burden of rule. She understood. She truly did, better than anyone he knew. She knew what it was to make decisions that changed the lives of thousands. She understood what it was to be owned by the people of a nation. Rand found it remarkable that, though they had often been apart, their connection held. In fact, it felt even stronger. Now that Elayne was queen, now that they shared the children growing within her. “You wince,” Elayne said.

Rand looked up from his broth. Elayne’s dinner was half-finished—he had been making her speak a great deal. She seemed through anyway, and held a warm cup of tea.

“I what?” Rand asked.

“You wince. When I mentioned the contingents fighting for Andor, you flinched, just a little.”

It was not surprising she had noticed—Elayne had been the one to teach him to watch for minor tells in the expressions of those with whom he spoke.

“All of these people fight under my name,” Rand said. “So many people I do not even know will die for me.”

“That has ever been the burden of a ruler at war.”

“I should be able to protect them,” Rand said.

“If you think you can protect everyone, Rand al’Thor, you are far less wise than you pretend.”

He looked at her, meeting her eyes. “I don’t believe I can, but their deaths weigh on me. I feel as if I should be able to do more, now that I remember. He tried to break me, and he failed.”

“Is that what happened that day atop Dragonmount?”

He hadn’t spoken of it to anyone. He pulled his seat closer to hers. “Up there, I realized that I had been thinking too much on strength. I wanted to be hard, so hard. In driving myself so, I risked losing the ability to care. That was wrong. For me to win, I must care. That, unfortunately, means I must allow myself pain at their deaths.”

“And you remember Lews Therin now?” she whispered. “Everything he knew? That is not just an air you put on?”

“I am him. I always was. I remember it now.”

Elayne breathed out, eyes widening. “What an advantage Of all the people he had told that to, only she had responded in such a way. What a wonderful woman.

“I have all of this knowledge, yet it doesn’t tell me what to do.” He stood up, pacing. “I should be able to fix it, Elayne. No more should need to die for me. This is my fight. Why must everyone else go through such suffering?

You deny us the right to fight?” she said, sitting up straight.

“No, of course not,” Rand said. “I could deny you nothing. I just wish that somehow... somehow I could make this all stop. Shouldn’t my sacrifice be enough?”

She stood, taking his arm. He turned to her.

Then she kissed him.

“I love you,” she said. “You are a king. But if you would try to deny the good people of Andor the right to defend themselves, the right to stand in the Last Battle...” Her eyes flared, her cheeks flushed. Light! His comments had truly made her angry.

He never quite knew what she was going to say or do, and that excited him. Like the excitement of watching nightflowers, knowing that what was to come would be beautiful, but never knowing the exact form that beauty would take.

“I said I wouldn’t deny you the right to fight,” Rand said.

“It’s about more than just me, Rand. It’s about everyone. Can you understand that?”

“I suppose that I can.”

“Good.” Elayne settled back down and took a sip of her tea, then grimaced.

“It’s gone bad?” Rand asked.

“Yes, but I’m used to it. Still, it’s almost worse than drinking nothing at all, with how spoiled everything is.”

Rand walked to her and took the cup from her fingers. He held it for a moment, but did not channel. “I brought you something. I forgot to mention it.”

“Tea?”

“No, this is just an aside.” He handed the cup back to her and she took a sip.

Her eyes widened. “It’s wonderful. How do you do it?”

“I don’t,” Rand said, sitting. “The Pattern does.”

“But—”

“I am taveren,” Rand said. “Things happen around me, unpredictable things. For the longest time, there was a balance. In one town, someone would discover a great treasure unexpectedly under the stairs. In the next I visited, people would discover that their coins were fakes, passed to them by a clever counterfeiter.

“People died in terrible ways; others were saved by a miracle of chance. Deaths and births. Marriages and divisions. I once saw a feather drift down from the sky and fall point-first into the mud so it stuck there. The next ten that fell did the same thing. It was all random. Two sides to a flipping coin.

This tea is not random.”

“Yes, it is,” Rand said. “But, you see, I get only one side of the coin these days. Someone else is doing the bad. The Dark One injects horrors into the world, causing death, evil, madness. But the Pattern... the Pattern is balance. So it works, through me, to provide the other side. The harder the Dark One works, the more powerful the effect around me becomes.”

“The growing grass,” Elayne said. “The splitting clouds. The food unspoiled...”

“Yes.” Well, some other tricks helped on occasion, but he didn’t mention them. He fished in his pocket for a small pouch.

“If what you say is true,” Elayne replied, “then there can never be good in the world.”

“Of course there can.”

“Will the Pattern not balance it out?”

He hesitated. That line of reasoning cut too close to the way he had begun thinking before Dragonmount—that he had no options, that his life was planned for him. “So long as we care,” Rand said, “there can be good. The Pattern is not about emotions—it is not even about good or evil. The Dark One is a force from outside of it, influencing it by force.”

And Rand would end that. If he could.

“Here,” Rand said. “The gift I mentioned.” He pushed the pouch toward her.

She looked at him, curious. She untied the strings, and took from it a small statue of a woman. She stood upright, with a shawl about her shoulders, though she did not look like an Aes Sedai. She had a mature face, aged and wise, with a wise look about her and a smile on her face.

“An angreal?” Elayne asked.

“No, a Seed.”

“A... seed?”

“You have the Talent of creating ter’angreal,” Rand said. “Creating angreal requires a different process. It begins with one of these, an object created to draw your Power and instill it into something else. It takes time, and will weaken you for several months, so you should not attempt it while we are at war. But when I found it, forgotten, I thought of you. I had wondered what I could give you.”

“Oh, Rand, I have something for you as well.” She hurried over to an ivory jewelry chest that rested on a camp table and took a small object from it. It was a dagger with a short, dull blade and a handle made of deerhorn wrapped in gold wire.

Rand glanced at the dagger quizzically. “No offense, but that looks like a poor weapon, Elayne.”

“It’s a ter’angreal, something that may be of use when you go to Shayol Ghul. With it, the Shadow cannot see you.” She reached up to touch his face. He placed his hand on hers.

They stayed together long into the night.

CHAPTER 10
The Use of Dragons

Perrin rode Stayer, light cavalry from Elayne’s forces following behind him: Whitecloaks, Mayeners, Ghealdanin, joined by some of the Band of the Red Hand. Only a fraction of their armies. That was the point.

They swept along diagonally toward the Trollocs camped outside of Caemlyn. The city still smoldered; Elayne’s plan with the oil had driven the creatures out, for the most part, but some still held the walls above.

“Archers,” Arganda yelled, “loose!” His voice would be lost to most in the roar of the charge, the snorting of horses, the gallop of hooves. Enough would hear to start shooting, and the rest knew what to do anyway.

Perrin leaned low, hoping his hammer would not be needed on this sortie. They charged past the Trollocs, sweeping in front of them, launching arrows; then they turned away from the city.

Perrin glanced over his shoulder as he rode, and he was rewarded with the sight of Trollocs falling. The Band followed after Perrin's cavalry, getting close enough to launch arrows.

Trolloc arrows followed—thick and black, almost like spears, loosed from enormous bows. Some of Perrin's riders fell, but his attack had been swift.

The Trollocs didn’t break from their position outside the city walls. The riders slowed, Arganda coming up beside Perrin, watching over his shoulder.

“They still aren’t charging,” Arganda said.

“Then we’ll hit them again and again,” Perrin said. “Until they break.”

—  —

“Our attacks are continuing, Your Majesty,” the messenger said, riding through a gateway made by a pair of Kinswomen to where Elayne had her camp in the Wood. “Lord Goldeneyes sends word; they’ll continue through the day, if need be.”

She nodded, and the messenger rode back the way he had come. Braem Wood slumbered, trees bare, as if in winter. “It takes too much work to relay information back and forth to me,” Elayne said with dissatisfaction. “I wish we could have made those ter’angreal work; Aviendha said that one let you see over distance, and another talk that way. But wish and want trip the feet, as Lini says. Still, if I could see the fighting with my own eyes—” Birgitte said nothing. Eyes forward, the golden-haired Warder gave no sign at all that she’d heard the comment.

“After all,” Elayne said, “I can defend myself, as I have proven on a number of occasions.”

No response. The two horses walked softly beside one another, hooves on soft earth. The camp around them had been designed to be broken down and moved on the run. The soldiers’ “tents” were canvas tarps set over ropes pulled tight between trees. The only travel furniture was that of her own pavilion and the battle pavilion. The Kinswomen had one group ready with gateways to move Elayne and her commanders further into the woods.

Most of her forces waited at the ready, like a taut bow with the arrow nocked. She would not engage the Trollocs on their terms, however. By report, some of their fists still topped the city walls, and attacking directly would be a disaster, with them raining death on her from above.

She would draw them out. If that required patience, so be it. “I’ve decided,” Elayne continued to Birgitte. “I’ll just hop through a gateway to take a look at the Trolloc army myself. From a safe distance. I could—”

Birgitte reached beneath her shirt and removed the foxhead medallion she wore, one of the three imperfect copies Elayne had made. Mat had the original and a copy. Mellar had escaped with the other copy.

“You try anything like that,” Birgitte said, eyes still forward, “and I’ll throw you over my bloody shoulder like a drunken man with a barmaid on a rowdy night and carry you back to camp. Light help me, I’ll do it, Elayne.” Elayne frowned. “Remind me why, exactly, I gave you one of those medallions?”

“I’m not sure,” Birgitte said. “It showed remarkable foresight and an actual sense of self-preservation. Completely unlike you.”

“I hardly think that is fair, Birgitte.”

“I know! It is extremely unfair for me to have to deal with you. I wasn’t certain you’d noticed. Are all young Aes Sedai as reckless as you are, or did I just end up with the pick of this particular litter?”

“Stop whining,” Elayne muttered, maintaining a smile and a nod for the men who saluted as she passed. “I’m beginning to wish I had a Tower-trained Warder. Then, at least, I wouldn’t hear so much sauce.”

Birgitte laughed. “I don’t think you understand Warders half as well as you think you do, Elayne.”

Elayne let the matter die as they passed the Traveling ground, where Sumeko and the other Kinswomen were shuttling messengers back and forth from the battlefields. For now, Elayne’s agreement with them held.

In her dress pocket, Elayne carried Egwene’s—the Amyrlin Seat’s— official reply regarding the Kin and what Elayne had done. Elayne could almost sense heat radiating from the letter, but it was hidden behind official language and an agreement that now wasn’t the time to worry about such things.

Elayne would have to do more work there. Egwene would eventually see the logic of letting the Kinswomen work in Andor, beneath Elayne’s supervision. Just beyond the Traveling ground she noticed a tired-looking Shienaran accepting a waterskin from one of the Two Rivers men. The top-knotted man had an eyepatch and familiar features.

“Uno?” Elayne asked with shock, pulling Moonshadow to a halt.

Fie started, nearly spilling water over himself as he drank. “Elayne?” he asked, wiping his brow with his sleeve. “I’d heard that you’re the flaming— the Queen now. I guess that’s what should have happened, with you being the bloody Daughter-Heir. Sorry. The Daughter-Heir. Not bloody at all.” The Shienaran man grimaced.

“You can swear all you want, Uno,” Elayne said dryly. “Nynaeve isn’t around. What are you doing here?”

“The Amyrlin,” he said. “She flaming wanted a messenger, and I was bloody chosen. Already gave Egwene’s bloody report to your commanders, for all the bloody good it will do. We’ve set up our flaming battle positions and started scouting out Kandor, and the place is a bloody mess. You want details?”

Elayne smiled. “I’ll hear the report from my commanders, Uno,” she said. “Have a rest, and go have a flaming bath, you son of a shepherd’s boil.”

Uno blew a mouthful of water out at the comment. Elayne smiled. She’d heard that last curse from a soldier just the day before, and still didn’t know why it was considered to be so vile. It had the proper effect.

“I... No flaming bath for me,” Uno said. “Er, Your Majesty. I’ve had my five minutes of rest. The Trollocs could attack soon up in bloody Kandor, and I won’t have the others fighting without me.” He saluted her, hand across chest, and bowed before hurrying back toward the Traveling ground.

“Pity,” Birgitte said, “he was a good drinking companion. I’d have liked him to stay a little while.” Through the bond, Elayne felt a different reaction from her, as she watched Uno’s backside.

Elayne blushed. “There’s no time for that right now. Either of those things.”

“Just looking,” Birgitte said innocently. “I suppose we should go listen to the reports from the other battlefields.”

“We should,” Elayne said firmly.

Birgitte didn’t voice her annoyance, but Elayne could feel it. Birgitte hated battle planning, something Elayne found odd in a woman who had fought in thousands of battles, a hero who had saved countless lives during some of the great moments in history.

They came to the battle pavilion, one of the few full-sized tents the army carried. Inside, she found Bashere conferring with several of the commanders: Abell Cauthon, Gallenne and Trom, second-in-command of the White-cloaks. Galad himself, like Perrin, was with the harrying forces at Caemlyn. Elayne found Trom surprisingly agreeable—much more so than Galad himself.

“Well?” she asked.

“Your Majesty,” Trom said, bowing. He didn’t like the fact that she was Aes Sedai, but he hid it well. The others in the room saluted, though Bashere gave merely a friendly wave, then pointed at their battle maps.

“Reports from all fronts are in,” Bashere said. “Refugees from Kandor are flocking to the Amyrlin and her soldiers, and that includes a fair number of fighting men. House soldiers or merchant guards, for the most part. Lord Ituralde’s forces still await the Lord Dragon before moving on Shayol Ghul.” Bashere knuckled his mustache. “Once they move into that valley, there won’t be any retreat available.”

“And the Borderlander army?” Elayne asked.

“Holding,” Bashere said, pointing to another map, showing Shienar. Elayne wondered, idly, if Uno wished he were fighting with the rest of his people at the Gap. “Last messenger said they feared being overwhelmed, and were considering a controlled retreat.”

Elayne frowned. “Are things so bad there? They were supposed to hold until I could finish the Trollocs in Andor and join them. That was the plan.

It was,” Bashere agreed.

“You’re going to tell me that a plan, in warfare, lasts only until the first sword is drawn,” Elayne said. “Or maybe until the first arrow falls?”

“First lance is raised,” Bashere said under his breath.

“I realize that,” Elayne said, stabbing a finger at the map. “But I also know that Lord Agelmar is a good enough general to hold a pack of Trollocs, especially with the Borderlander armies there to back him up.”

“They are holding for now,” Bashere said. “But they’re still being mightily pressed.” He held up a hand to her objection. “I know you’re worried about a retreat, but I counsel that you shouldn’t try to overrule Agelmar. He deserves his reputation as a great captain, and he’s there, while we are far away. He will know what to do.”

She took a deep breath. “Yes. You are right. Do see if Egwene can send him any troops. Meanwhile, we need to win our battle here quickly.” Fighting on four fronts was going to drain resources quickly.

Elayne had not only familiar terrain to fight on, but also the best odds. If the other armies could hold steady while she obliterated the Trollocs in Andor, she could join Lan and Agelmar and turn the Gap from a stalemate into a victory. From there, she could reinforce Egwene and reclaim Kandor.

Elayne’s army was the linchpin of the entire operation. If she didn’t win in Andor, the other armies would have no eventual reinforcement. Lan and Ituralde would waste away, losing wars of attrition. Egwene might have a chance, depending on what the Shadow hurled her direction. Elayne didn’t want to find out.

“We need the Trollocs to charge us,” she said. “Now.”

Bashere nodded.

“Step up the harrying,” Elayne said. “Hit them with constant waves of arrows. Make it clear that if they don’t charge, we’re going to wear them down to nothing.”

“And if they just retreat back into the city?” Trom asked. “The fires are dying down.”

“Then, like it or not, we’ll bring those dragons in to start leveling Caemlyn. We cannot wait any longer.”

—  —

Androl struggled to stay awake. The drink they had given him... it made him drowsy. What was the purpose of that?

Something to do with channeling, Androl thought in a daze. The One Power was lost to him, though there was no shield. What kind of drink could do that to a man?

Poor Emarin lay weeping in his bonds. They had not managed to Turn him yet, but as the hours wore on, he seemed closer and closer to breaking. Androl stretched, twisting his head. He could barely make out the thirteen men Taim had been using for the process. They slumped as they sat around a table in the dim room. They were exhausted.

Androl remembered... Taim yelling the day before. He railed against the men, claiming their work went too slowly. They had expended much strength on the first men and women they’d Turned, and now they were apparently having a more difficult time.

Pevara slept. The tea had knocked her out. They’d given it to Androl after her, but almost as an afterthought. They seemed to forget about him much of the time. Taim had actually been angry when he’d found his minions had given the tea to Pevara. He’d wanted to Turn her next, apparently, and th