Crossroads of Twilight

Robert Jordan


THIS IS UNCORRECTED PRE-RELEASE.

CROSSROADS OF TWILIGHT

Book Ten of

The Wheel of Time

ROBERT JORDAN

And it shall come to pass, in the days when the Dark Hunt rides, when the right hand falters and

the left hand strays, that mankind shall come to the Crossroads of Twilight and all that is, all that was,

and all that will be shall balance on the point of a sword, while the winds of the Shadow grow.

- From The Prophecies of the Dragon

translation believed done by Jain

Charin, known as Jain Farstrider,

shortly before his disappearance

Prologue

Glimmers of the Pattern

Rodel Ituralde hated waiting, though he well knew it was the largest part of being a soldier.

Waiting for the next battle, for the enemy to move, to make a mistake. He watched the winter forest and

was as still as the trees. The sun stood halfway to its peak and gave no warmth. His breath misted white

in front of his face, frosting his neatly trimmed mustache and the black fox-fur lining his hood. He was

glad that his helmet hung at his pommel. His breastplate held the cold and radiated it through his coat

and all the layers of wool, silk and linen beneath. Even Dart’s saddle felt cold, as though the white

gelding were made of frozen milk. The helmet would have addled his brain.

Winter had come late to Arad Doman very late, but with a vengeance. From summer heat that

lingered unnaturally into fall to winter’s heart in less than a month. The leaves that had survived the long

summer’s drought had been frozen before they could change color, and now they glistened like strange,

ice-covered emeralds in the morning sun. The horses of the twenty-odd armsmen around him

occasionally stamped a hoof in the knee-deep snow. It had been a long ride this far, and they had further

to go whether this day turned out good or ill. Dark clouds roiled the sky to northward. He did not need

his weather-wise there to tell him the temperature would plummet before nightfall. They had to be under

shelter by then.

"Not as rough as winter before last, is it, my Lord" Jaalam said quietly. The tall young officer

had away of reading Ituralde’s mind and his voice was pitched for the others to hear. "Even so, I

suppose some men would be dreaming of mulled wine about now. Not this lot, of course. Remarkably

abstemious. They all drink tea, I believe. Cold tea. If they had a few birch switches, they’d be stripping

down for snow-baths."

‘They’ll have to keep their clothes on for the time being," Ituralde replied dryly, "but they might

get some cold tea tonight, if they’re lucky." That brought a few chuckles. Quiet chuckles. He had chosen

these men with care, and they knew about noise at the wrong time.

He himself could have done with a steaming cup of spiced wine, or even tea. But it was a long

time since merchants had brought tea to Arad Doman. A long time since any outland merchant had

ventured further than the border with Saldaea. By the rime news of the outside world reached him, it was

as stale as last month’s bread, if it was more than rumor to begin. That hardly mattered, though. If the

White Tower truly was divided against itself, or men who could channel really were being called to

Caemlyn, well, the world would have to do without Rodel Ituralde until Arad Doman was whole again.

For the moment, Arad Doman was more than enough for any sane man to go on with. Once again lie

reviewed the orders he had sent, carried by the fastest riders he had, to every noble loyal to the King-

Divided as they were by bad blood and old feuds, they still shared that much. They would gather their

armies and ride when orders came from the Wolf; at least, so long as he held the King’s favor. They

would even hide in the mountains and wait, for his order. Oh, they would chafe, and some would curse

his name, but they would obey. They knew the Wolf won battles. More, they knew he won wars. The

Little Wolf, they called him when they thought he could nor hear, but he did not care whether they drew

attention to his stature-well, not much-so long as they rode when and where he said.

Very soon they would be riding hard, moving to set a trap that would not spring for months. It

was a long chance he was taking. Complex plans had many ways to fall apart, and this plan had layers

inside layers. Everything would be ruined before it began if he failed to provide the bait. Or if someone

ignored his order to evade couriers from the King. They all knew his reasons, though, and even the most

stiff-necked shared them, though few were willing to speak of the matter aloud. He himself had moved

like a wraith racing on a storm since he received Alsalam’s latest command. In his sleeve the folded

paper lay tucked above the pale lace that fell onto his steel-backed gauntlet. They had one last chance,

one very small chance, to save Arad Doman. Perhaps even to save Alsalam from himself before the

Council of Merchants decided to put another man on the throne in his place. He had been a good ruler,

for over twenty years. The Light send that he could be again.

A loud crack to the south sent Ituralde’s hand to die hilt of his longsword. There was a faint

creak of leather and metal as others eased their weapons. For the rest, silence. The forest was as still as a

frozen tomb. Only a limb breaking under the weight of snow. After a moment, he let himself relax as

much as he had relaxed since the tales came north of the Dragon Reborn appearing in the sky at Falme.

Perhaps the man really was the Dragon Reborn, perhaps he really had appeared in the sky, but whatever

the truth, those tales had set Arad Doman on fire.

Ituralde was sure he could have put out that fire, given a freer hand. It was not boasting to think

so. He knew what he could do, with a battle, a campaign, or a war. But ever since the Council had

decided the King would be safer smuggled out of Bandar Eban, Alsalam seemed to have taken into his

head that he was the rebirth of Artur Hawkwing. His signature and seal had marked scores of battle

orders since, heading out from wherever the Council had him hidden. They would not: say where that

was, even to Ituralde himself. Every woman on the Council that he confronted went flat-eyed and

evasive at any mention of the King. He could almost believe they did nor know where Alsalam was. A

ridiculous thought, of course. The Council kept an unblinking eye on the King. Ituralde had always

believed the merchant Houses interfered too much, yet he wished they would interfere now. Why they

remained silent was a mystery, for a king who damaged trade did not remain long on the throne. He was

loyal to his oaths, and Alsalam was a friend, besides, but the orders the King sent could not have been

better written to achieve chaos. Nor could they be ignored. Alsalam was the King. But he had

commanded Ituralde to march north with all possible speed against a great gathering of Dragonsworn

that Alsalam supposedly knew of from secret spies; then ten days later, with no Dragonsworn yet in

sight, an order came to move south again, with all possible speed, against another gathering that never

materialized. He had been commanded to concentrate his forces to defend Bandar Eban when a threepronged

attack might have ended it all and to divide them when a hammer blow could have done the

same, to harry ground he knew the Dragonsworn had abandoned, and to march away from where he

knew they camped. Worse, Alsalam’s orders often had gone directly to the powerful nobles who were

supposed to be following Ituralde, sending Machir in this direction, Teacal in that, Rahman in a third.

Four rimes, pitched battles had resulted from parts of the army blundering into one another in the night

while moving to the King’s express command and expecting none but enemies ahead. And all the while

the Dragonsworn gained numbers, and confidence, Ituralde had had his triumphs-at Solanje and Maseen,

at Lake Somal and Kandelmar, the Lords of Katar had learned nor to sell the products of their mines and

forges to the enemies of Arad Doman-but always, Alsalam’s orders wasted his gains.

This last order was different, though. For one thing, a Gray Man had killed Lady Tuva trying to

stop it from reaching him. Why the Shadow might fear this order more than any other was a mystery, yet

it was all the more reason to move swiftly. Before Alsalam reached him with another. This order opened

many possibilities, and he had considered every last one he could see. But good ones all started here,

today. When small chances of success were all that remained, you had to seize them.

A snowjay’s strident cry rang out in the distance, then a second time, a third. Cupping his hands

around his mouth, Ituralde repeated the three harsh calls. Moments later a shaggy, pale dapple gelding

appeared out of the trees, his rider in a white cloak streaked with black. Man and horse alike would have

been hard to see in the snowy forest had they been standing still. The rider pulled up beside Ituralde. A

stocky man, he wore only a single sword, with a short blade, and there was a cased bow and a quiver

fastened to his saddle.

"Looks like they all came, my Lord," he said in his permanently hoarse voice, pushing his cowl

back from his head. Someone had cried to hang Donjel when he was young, though the reason was lost

in the years. What remained of his short-cropped hair was iron gray. The dark leather parch covering the

socket of his right eye was a remnant of another youthful scrape. One eye or two, though, he was the

best scout Ituralde had ever known. "Most anyways," he went on. "They put two rings of sentries around

the lodge, one inside the other. You can see them a mile of but nobody will get close without them at the

lodge hearing of it in time to get away. By the tracks, they didn’t bring no more men than you said they

could, not enough to count. Course," he added wryly "that still leaves you outnumbered a fair bit."

Ituralde nodded. He had offered the White Ribbon, and the men he was to meet had accepted.

Three days when men pledged under the Light, by their souls and hope of salvation, not to draw a

weapon against another or shed blood. The White Ribbon had not been tested in this war, however, and

these days, some men had strange ideas of where salvation lay. Those who called themselves

Dragonsworn, for instance. He had always been called a gambler, though he was not. The trick was in

knowing what risks you could take. And sometimes, in knowing which ones you had to take.

Pulling a packet sewn into oiled silk from his boottop, he handed it to Donjel. If I don’t reach

Coran Ford in two days, take this to my wife."

The scour tucked the packet somewhere beneath his cloak, touched his forehead, and turned his

horse west. He had carried its like for Ituralde before, usually on the eve of battle. The Light send this

was not the time Tamsin would have to open that packet. She would come after him-she had told him

so-the first incident ever of the living haunting the dead, "Jaalam," Ituralde said, "let us see what waits

at Lady Osana’s hunting lodge." As he heeled Dart forward, the other fell in behind him.

The sun rose to its height and began again to descend as they rode. The dark clouds in the north

moved closer, and the chill bit deeper. There was no sound but the crunch of hooves breaking through

the snowcrust. The forest seemed empty save for themselves. He did not see any of the sentries Donjel

had spoken of. The man’s opinion of what could be seen from a mile differed from that of most. They

would be expecting him, of course. And watching to make sure he was not followed by an army, White

Ribbon or no White Ribbon. A good many of them likely had reasons they felt sufficient to feather

Rodel Ituralde with arrows. A lord might pledge the White Ribbon for his men, but would all of those

feel bound? Sometimes, there were chances you just had to take. About mid-afternoon, Osana’s socalled

hunting lodge loomed suddenly out of the trees, a mass of pale towers and slender, pointed domes

that would have fitted well among the palaces of Bandar Eban itself. Her hunting had always been for

men or power, her trophies numerous and note-worthy despite her relative youth, and the "hunts" that

had taken place here would have raised eyebrows even in the capital. The lodge lay desolate, now.

Broken windows gaped like mouths with jagged teeth. None showed a glimmer of light or movement.

The snow covering the cleared ground around the lodge had been well trampled by horses, however. The

ornate brassbound gates of the main courtyard stood open, and he rode through without slowing,

followed by his men. The horses’ hooves clattered on the paving stones, where the snow had been

beaten to slush. No servants came out to greet him, not that he had expected any. Osana had vanished

early in the troubles that now shook Arad Doman like a dog shaking a rat, and her servants had drifted

quickly to others of her house, taking whatever places they could find. These days, the masterless

starved, or turned bandit. Or Dragonsworn. Dismounting in front of the broad marble stairway at the end

of the courtyard, he handed Dart’s reins to one of his armsmen, and Jaalam ordered the men to take

shelter where they could find it for themselves and the animals. Eyeing the marble balconies and wide

windows that surrounded the courtyard, they moved as if expecting a crossbow bolt between the

shoulder blades. One set of stable doors stood slightly ajar, but in spite of the cold, they divided

themselves between the corners of the courtyard, huddling with the horses where they could keep watch

in every direction. If the worst came, perhaps a few might make it out, removing his gauntlets, he tucked

them behind his belt and checked his lace as he climbed the stairs with Jaalam. Snow that had been

trodden underfoot and frozen again crackled beneath his boots. He refrained from looking anywhere but

straight ahead. He must appear supremely assured, as though there were no possibility events should go

other than he expected. Confidence was one key to victory. The other side believing you were confident

was sometimes almost as good as actually being confident. At the head of the stairs, Jaalam pulled open

one of the tall, carved doors by its gilded ring. Ituralde touched his beauty spot with a finger to make

sure it was in place-his cheeks were too cold to feel the black velvet star clinging-before he stepped

inside. As self-assured as he would have been at a ball.

The cavernous entry hall was as icy as the outside. Their breath made feathered mists. Unlit, the

space seemed already wreathed in twilight. The floor was a colorful mosaic of hunters and animals, the

tiles chipped in places, as though heavy weights had been dragged over them, or perhaps dropped. Aside

from a single toppled plinth that might once have held a large vase or a small statue, the hall was bare.

What the servants had not taken when they fled had long since been looted by bandits. A single man

awaited them, white-haired and more gaunt than when Ituralde had last seen him. His breastplate was

battered, and his earring was just a small gold hoop, but his face was immaculate, and the sparkling red

quarter moon beside his left eye would have gone well at court, in better times. "By the Light, be

welcome under the White Ribbon, Lord Ituralde," he said formally, with a slight bow. "By the Light, I

come under the White Ribbon, Lord Shimron," Ituralde replied, making his courtesy in return. Shimron

had been one of Alsalam’s most trusted advisers. Until he joined the Dragonsworn, at least. Now he

stood high in their councils. "My armsman is Jaalam Nishur, honor-bound to House Ituralde as are all

who came with me." There had been no House Ituralde before Rodel, but Shimron answered Jaalam’s

bow, hand to heart. "Honor be to honor. Will you accompany me, Lord Ituralde" he said as he

straightened.

The great doors to the ballroom were gone from their hinges, though Ituralde could hardly

imagine bandits looting those, for they left a tall pointed arch wide enough for ten men to pass. Within

the windowless oval room, half a hundred lanterns of every size and sort beat at shadows, though the

light barely reached the domed ceiling. Separated by a wide expanse of floor, two groups of men stood

against the painted walls, and if the White Ribbon had induced them to leave off helmets, all two

hundred or more were armored otherwise, and certainly no one had put aside his swords. To one side

were a few Domani lords as powerful as Shimron-Rajabi, Wakeda, Ankaer-each surrounded by his

cluster of lesser lords and sworn commoners, and smaller clusters, as few as two or three, many

containing no nobles at all. The Dragonsworn had councils, but no one commander. Still, each of those

men was a leader in his own right, some counting their followers in scores, a few in thousands. None

appeared happy to be where he was, and one or two shot glares across the floor, to where fifty or sixty

Taraboners stood in one solid mass and scowled back. Dragonsworn they might all be yet there was little

love lost between Domani and Taraboners. Ituralde almost smiled at the sight of the outlanders, though.

He had not dared to count on half so many appearing today.

"Lord Rodel Ituralde comes under the White Ribbon." Shimron’s voice rang through the lantern

shadows. "Let whoever may think of violence search his heart, and consider his soul." And that was the

end of formality.

"Why does Lord Ituralde offer the White Ribbon?" Wakeda demanded, one hand gripping the

hilt of his longsword and the other in a fist at his side. He was not a tall man, though caller than Ituralde

but as haughty as if he held the throne himself. Women had called him beautiful once. Now a slanting

black scarf covered the socket of his missing right eye, and his beauty-spot was a black arrowhead

pointing at the thick scar running from his cheek up onto his forehead. "Does he intend to join us? Or

ask us to surrender? All know the Wolf is bold as well as devious. Is he that bold?" A rumble rose

among the men on his side of the room, part mirth, part anger.

Ituralde clasped his hands behind his back to keep from fingering the ruby in his left ear. That

was widely known as a sign that lie was angry, and sometimes he did it on purpose, but he needed to

present a calm face, now. Even while the man spoke past his ear! No. Calm. Duels were entered into in

anger, but he was here to tight a duel, and that required calm. "Every man here knows we have another

enemy to the south," he said in a steady voice. "The Seanchan have swallowed Tarabon." He ran his

gaze over the Taraboners, and met flat stares. He never had been able to read Taraboners’ faces.

Between those preposterous mustaches-like hairy tusks, worse than a Saldaean’s! -And those ridiculous

veils, they might as well wear masks, and the poor light from the lanterns did not help. But he had seen

them veiled in mail, and he needed them. "They have flooded onto Almoth Plain, and moved ever north.

Their intent is clear. They mean to have Arad Doman, too. They mean to have the whole world, I fear."

"Does Lord Ituralde want to know who we will support if these Seanchan invade us." Wakeda

demanded.

"I have true faith you will fight for Arad Doman, Lord Wakeda," Ituralde said mildly. Wakeda

went purple at having the direct insult flung in his teeth, and his oath-men’s hands went to hilts.

"Refugees have brought word that there are Aiel on the plain, now," Shimron put in quickly, as

though he feared Wakeda might break the White Ribbon. None of Wakeda’s oath-men would draw steel

unless he did, or commanded them to, "They fight for the Dragon Reborn, so say the reports. He must

have sent them, perhaps as an aid to us. No one has ever defeated an Aiel army, not even Artur

Hawkwing. You recall the Blood Snow, Lord Ituralde, when we were younger? I believe you agree with

me that we did not defeat them there, whatever the histories may say and I cannot believe the Seanchan

have the numbers we did then. I myself have heard of Seanchan moving south, away from the border.

No, I suspect the next we hear will be of them retreating from the plain, not advancing on us." He was

not a bad commander in the field, but he had always been pedantic.

Ituralde smiled. Word came more swiftly from the south than from anywhere else, but he had

been afraid he would have to bring up the Aiel, and they might have thought he was trying to trick them.

He could hardly believe it himself, Aiel on Almoth Plain. He did not point out that Aiel sent to help the

Dragonsworn were more likely to have appeared in Arad Doman itself." I’ve questioned refugees, too,

and they speak of Aiel raids, not armies. Whatever the Aiel are doing on the plain may have slowed the

Seanchan, but it hasn’t turned them back. Their flying beasts have begun scouting on our side of the

border. That does not smack of retreat."

Producing the paper from his sleeve with a flourish, he held it up so all could see the Sword and

Hand impressed in green-and-blue wax. As always of late, he had used a hot blade to separate the Royal

Seal on one side while leaving it whole, so he could show it unbroken to doubters. There had been

plenty of those, when they heard some of Alsalam’s orders-"I have orders from King Alsalam to gather

as many men as I can, from wherever I can find them, and strike as hard as I can at the Seanchan." He

took a deep breach. Here, he took another chance-and Alsalam might have his head on die block unless

the dice fell the right way. "I offer a truce-I pledge in the King’s name not to move against you in any

way so long as the Seanchan remain a threat to Arad Doman, if you will all pledge the same and fight

beside me against them until they are beaten back." A stunned silence answered him. Bull-necked

Rajabi appeared poleaxed. Wakeda chewed his lip like a startled girl Then Shimron muttered, "Can they

be beaten back, Lord Ituralde? I faced their . . . their chained Aes Sedai on Almoth Plain, as did you."

Boots scraped the floor as men shifted their feet and faces darkened in bleak anger. No man liked to

think he was helpless before an enemy, but enough had been there in the early days, with Ituralde and

Shimron, for all to know what this enemy was like.

"They can be defeated. Lord Shimron," Ituralde replied, "even with their . . . little surprises." A

strange thing to call the earth erupting under your feet, and scouts that rode what looked like

Shadowspawn, but he had to sound assured as well as look it. Besides, when you knew what the enemy

could, do, you adapted. That had been one core of warfare long before the Seanchan appeared. Darkness

cut the Seanchan advantages, and so did storms, and a weather-wise could always tell yon when a storm

was coming. "A wise man stops chewing when he reaches bone," he continued, "but so far, the

Seanchan have had their meat sliced thin before they reached for it. I intend to give them a tough roast to

gnaw. More, I have a plan to make them snap so hard they’ll break their teeth on bone before they have

a mouthful of meat. Now. I have pledged. Will you?"

It was hard nor to hold his breath. Each man seemed to be looking inward. He could all butsee

them mulling it over. The Wolf had a plan. The Seanchan had chained Aes Sedai and flying beasts and

the Light alone knew what else. But the Wolf had a plan. The Seanchan. The Wolf. "If any man can

defeat them," Shimron said finally "you can, Lord Ituralde. I will so pledge."

"I do so pledge!" Rajabi shouted. "We’ll chase them back across the ocean where they came

from!" He had a bull’s temperament as well as its neck.

Surprisingly Wakeda thundered his agreement with equal enthusiasm, and then a storm of voices

broke, calling that they would match the King’s pledge, that they would smash the Seanchan, even some

that would follow the Wolf into the Pit of Doom. All very gratifying but not all Ituralde had come for.

"If you ask us to fight for Arad Doman," one voice shouted above the rest, "then ask us!" The

men who had been calling their pledges fell to angry mutters and half-heard curses.

Hiding his pleasure behind a bland expression, Ituralde turned to face the speaker, on the other

side of the room, The Taraboner was a lean man, with a sharp nose that made a tent of his veil. His eyes

were hard, though, and keen. Some of the other Taraboners frowned as if displeased he had spoken, so it

appeared they had no one leader any more than the Domani, but he had spoken, Ituralde had hoped for

the pledges he had received, but they were nor necessary to his plan. The Taraboners were. At least, they

would make it a hundred times more likely to work. He addressed the man courteously, with a bow.

"I offer you the chance to fight for Tarabon, my good Lord. The Aiel are making some confusion

on the plain; the refugees speak of it. Tell me, could a small company of your men-a hundred, perhaps

two-cross the plain in that disorder and enter Tarabon, if their armor was marked with stripes, as those

who ride for the Seanchan."

It seemed impossible the Taraboners face could grow any tighter, yet it did, and it was the turn of

the men on his side of the room to mutter angrily and curse. Enough word had come north for them to

know of a King and Panarch put on their thrones by the Seanchan and swearing fealty to an Empress on

the other side of the Aryth Ocean. They could not like reminders of how many of their countrymen now

rode for this Empress. Most of the "Seanchan" on Almoth Plain were Taraboners.

"What good could one small company do?" the lean man growled, contemptuous.

"Little good," Ituralde replied. "But if there were fifty such companies? A hundred?" These

Taraboners might have that many men behind them, all told. "If they all struck on the same day, all

across Tarabon? I myself would ride with them, and as many of my men as can be outfitted in Taraboner

armor. Just so you will know this is not simply a stratagem to get rid of you."

Behind him, the Domani began protesting loudly. Wakeda the loudest of all, if it could be

believed! The Wolf’s plan was all very well, but they wanted the Wolf himself at their head. Most of the

Taraboners began arguing among themselves, over whether so many men could cross the plain without

being discovered, even in such small bands, over what good, if any, they could do in Tarabon in small

companies, over whether they were willing to wear armor marked with Seanchan stripes. Taraboners

argued as easily as Saldaeans, and as hotly. Not the sharp-nosed man. He met Ituralde’s glare steadily.

Then gave a slight nod. It was hard to tell, behind those thick mustaches, but Ituralde thought he smiled.

The last tension faded from Ituralde’s shoulders. The fellow would not have agreed while the

others argued if he were not more of a leader among them than he seemed. The others would come too,

he was certain. They would ride south with him into the heart of what the Seanchan considered their

own, and slap them hard and full across the face. The Taraboners would want to stay afterwards, of

course, and continue the fight in their own homeland. He could not expect anything more. Which would

leave him and the two thousand men he could take with him to be hounded back north again, all the long

way across Almoth Plain. If the Light shone on him, hounded with fury. He returned the Taraboners

smile, if smile it was. With any luck, furious generals would not see where he was leading them, until it

was too late. And if they did... Well he had a second plan.

Eamon Valda held his cloak tight around himself as lie tramped through the snow among the trees. Cold

and steady, the wind sighed through the snow-laden branches, a deceptively quiet sound in the damp

gray light. It sliced through the thick white wool as through gauze, chilling him to the bone. The camp

sprawling around him through the forest was too quiet. Movement provided a little warmth, but in this,

men huddled together unless driven to move.

Abruptly he stopped in his tracks, wrinkling his nose at a sudden stench, a gagging foulness like

twenty midden heaps crawling with maggots. He did not gag; instead, he scowled. The camp lacked the

precision he preferred. The tents were clustered haphazardly wherever the limbs overhead grew thickest,

the horses tethered close by rather than properly picketed. It was the sort of slackness that led to filth.

Unwatched, the men would bury horse-dung under a few shovels of dirt to be done with it quicker, and

dig latrines where they would not have to walk far in the cold. Any officer of his who allowed that

would cease to be an officer, and learn firsthand how to use a shovel.

He was scanning the camp for the source of the smell, when suddenly there was no smell. The

wind did not change; the stink just vanished. He was startled for only a moment. Walking on, he

scowled all the harder. The stench had come from somewhere. He would find whoever thought

discipline had slackened, and make examples of them. Discipline had to be tight, now; tighter than ever.

At the edge of abroad clearing, he paused again. The snow in the clearing was smooth and

unmarked despite the camp hidden all around if. Staging back among the trees, lie scanned the sky.

Scudding gray clouds hid the noonday sun. A flicker of motion made his breath catch before he realized

it was just a bird, some small brown thing wary of hawks and staying low. He barked .a laugh that was

more than touched with bitterness. Little more than a month since the Light-cursed Seanchan had

swallowed Amador and the Fortress of Light in one unbelievable gulp, but he had learned new instincts.

Wise men learned, while fools ... Ailron had been a fool puffed up with old tales of glory brightened by

age and new hope of winning real power to go with his crown. He refused to see the reality in front of

his eyes, and Ailron’s Disaster had been the result. Valda had heard it named the Battle of Jeramel, but

only by some of the bare handful of Amadician nobles who escaped, dazed as poleaxed steers yet still

trying mechanically to put the best face on events. He wondered what Ailron had called it when the

Seanchan’s tame witches began tearing his orderly ranks to bloody rags. He could still see that in his

head, the earth turning to fountains of fire. He saw it in his dreams-Well, Ailron was dead, cut down

trying to flee the field and his head displaced on a Taraboner’s lance. A suitable death for a fool. He, on

the other hand, had over nine thousand of the Children gathered around him. A man who saw clearly

could make much out of that in times like these.

On the far side of the clearing, just inside the treeline, was a rude house that had once belonged

to a charcoal burner, a single room with winter-brawn weeds thick in the gaps between the stones. By all

appearances, the man had abandoned the place some time ago; parts of the thatch roof sagged

dangerously, and whatever had once filled the narrow windows was long since gone, replaced now by

dark blankets. Two guards stood beside the ill-fitting wooden door-big men with the scarlet shepherd’s

crook behind the golden sunflare on their cloaks. They had their arms wrapped around themselves and

were stamping their boots against the cold. Neither could have reached his sword in time to do any good,

had Valda been an enemy. Questioners liked to work indoors.

Their faces might have been carved stone as they watched him approach. Neither offered more

than a halfhearted salute. Not for a man without the shepherd’s crook, even if he was Lord-Captain

Commander of the Children. One opened his mouth as if to question Valda’s purpose, but Valda walked

by them and pushed open the rough door. At least they did not try to stop him. He would have killed

them both, if they had.

At his entrance, Asunawa looked up from the crooked table where he was perusing a small book,

one bony hand cupped around a steaming pewter cup that gave off the odor of spices. His ladder-backed

chair, the only other piece of furniture in the room, appeared rickety, but someone had strengthened it

with rawhide lashings. Valda tightened his mouth to stop a sneer. The High Inquisitor of the Hand of the

Light demanded a real roof, not a tent, even if it was thatch sorely in need of patching, and mulled wine

when no one else had tasted, wine of any sort in a week. A small fire burned on the stone hearth, too,

giving a meager warmth. Even cook fires had been banned since before the Disaster, to prevent smoke

from giving them away. Still, although most Children despised the Questioners, they held Asunawa in a

strange esteem, as if his gray hair and gaunt martyr’s face graced him with all the ideals of the Children

of the Light. That had been a surprise, when Valda first learned of it; he was unsure whether Asunawa

himself knew. In any case, there were enough Questioners to make trouble. Nothing he could not handle,

but it was best to avoid that sort of trouble. For now.

"It is almost time," he said, shutting the door behind him. "Are you ready?"

Asunawa made no move to rise or reach for the white cloak folded across the table beside him.

There was no sun-flare on that, just the scarlet crook. Instead, he folded his hands over the book, hiding

the pages. Valda thought it was Mantelar’s The Way of the Light. Odd reading for the High Inquisitor.

More suited to new recruits; those who could not read when they swore were taught so that could study

Mantelar’s words. "I have reports of an Andoran army in Murandy, my son," Asunawa said. "Deep in

Murandy, perhaps."

"Murandy is a long way from here," Valda said as though he did not recognize an old argument

starting anew. An argument that Asunawa often seemed to forget he had already lost. But what were

Andorans doing in Murandy? If the reports were true; so many were travelers fantasies wrapped in lies.

Andor. The very name rankled in Valda’s memory. Morgase was dead, or else a servant to some

Seanchan. They had little respect for titles other than their own. Dead or a servant, she was lost to him,

and more importantly by far, his plans for Andor were lost. Galadedrid had gone from a useful lever to

just another young officer, and one who was too popular with the common soldiers. Good officers were

never popular. But Valda was a pragmatic man. The past was the past. New plans had replaced Andor.

"Nor so far if we move east, across Altara my son, across the north of Altara. The Seanchan

cannot have moved far from Ebon Dar yet.

Spreading his hands to catch the hearthfire’s small warmth, Valda sighed. They had advanced

like a plague in Tarabon, and here in Amadicia. Why did the man think Altara was different? Are you

forgetting the witches in Altara? With an army of their own, need I remind you? Unless they’re into

Murandy by now." Those reports he believed, of the witches on the move. In spite of himself, his voice

rose. "Maybe this so-called Andoran army you’ve heard about is the witches, and their army! They gave

Caemlyn to al’Thor, remember! And Illian, and half the east. Do you really believe the witches are

divided? Do you!" Slowly he drew a deep breath, calming himself. Trying to. Every tale out of the east

was worse than the last. A gust of wind down the chimney blew sparks into the room, and he stepped

back with a curse. Bloody peasant hovel! Even the chimney was ill-made!

Asunawa snapped the small book shut between his palms. His hands were folded as in prayer,

but his deep-set eyes suddenly seemed hotter than the fire. "I believe the witches must be destroyed!

That is what I believe!"

"I’d settle for knowing how the Seanchan tame them." With enough fame witches, he could

drive al’Thor out of Andor, out of Illian and everywhere else he had settled like the Shadow itself. He

could better Hawkwing himself!

"They must be destroyed" Asunawa asserted stubbornly.

"And us with them?" Valda demanded.

A knock came at the door, and at Asunawa’s curt summons one of the guards from outside

appeared in the door-way, standing rigidly erect, arm snapping across his chest in a crisp salute. "My

Lord High Inquisitor," he said respect-fully, "the Council of the Anointed is here."

Valda waited. Would the old fool continue to be stubborn with all ten surviving Lords Captain

outside, mounted and ready to ride? What was done, was done. What had to be done.

"If it brings down the White Tower," Asunawa said finally, "I can be content. For now. I will

come to this meeting."

Valda smiled thinly. "Then I am content. We will see the witches fail together." Certainly, he

would see them fall, "I suggest you have your horse readied. We have a long way to ride by nightfall."

Whether Asunawa would see it with him was another matter.

Gabrelle enjoyed her rides through the wintry woods with Logain and Toveine. He always let Toveine

and her follow at their own pace in a semblance of privacy, so long as they did not lag too far behind.

The two Aes Sedai seldom spoke more than absolutely necessary though, even when they truly were

private. They were far from friends. In fact, Gabrelle often wished Toveine would ask to stay behind

when Logain offered these outings. It would have been very pleasant to be really alone.

Holding her reins in one green-gloved hand and keeping her fox-lined cloak shut with the other,

she let herself feel the cold, just a little, first for the refreshing vigor of it. The snow was not deep, but

the morning air was crisp. Dark gray clouds promised more snow, soon. High overhead flew a longwinded

bird of some sort. An eagle, perhaps; birds were not her strong point. Plants and minerals stayed

in one place while you studied them, and so did books and manuscripts, though those might crumble

under her fingers, if they were old enough. She could barely make the bird out at that height, in any case,

but an eagle fit the landscape-Woodland surrounded them, small dense thickets dotted among more

widely spaced trees. Great oaks and towering pines and firs had killed of most of the undergrowth,

though here and there the thick brown remains of a hardy vine, waiting for a still distant spring, clung to

a boulder or a low gray ledge of stone. She carefully held that landscape in her mind like a novice

exercise, chill and empty. With no one in sight except her two companions, she could almost imagine

she was somewhere other than the Black Tower. That horrid name came all too easily to mind, now. A

thing as real as the White Tower, and no longer "so-called" for anyone who laid eyes on the great stone

barracks, buildings that held hundreds of men in training, and the village that had grown up around

them. She had lived in that village for nearly two weeks, and there were parts of the Black Tower she

still had not seen. Its grounds covered miles, surrounded by the beginnings of a wall of black stone. Still,

she could almost forget, here in the woods.

Almost, except for the bundle of sensation and emotion, the essence of Logain Ablar, that always

rode in the back of her mind, a constant feel of controlled wariness, of muscles always on the edge of

tensing. A hunting wolf might feel that way, or perhaps a lion. The man’s head moved constantly; even

here he watched his surroundings as though expecting attack.

She had never had a Warder-they were needless flamboyance for Browns: a hired servant could

do all she needed-and it felt peculiar to be not only part of a bond, but at the wrong end of it, so to speak.

Worse than simply the wrong end; this bond required her to obey, and she was hedged about with

prohibitions. So it was not the same as a Warder bond, really. Sisters did not force their Warders to

obedience. Well, not very often. And sisters had not bonded men against their will for centuries. Still, it

did provide a fascinating study. She had worked at interpreting what she sensed. At times, she could

almost read his mind. Other times, it was like fumbling through a mineshaft with no lamp. She supposed

she would try to study if her neck were stretched on the headsman’s block. Which, in a very real way, it

was. He could sense her as well as she could him.

She must always remember that. Some of the Asha’man might believe the Aes Sedai were

resigned to their captivity, but only a fool could think fifty-one sisters who had been forcibly bonded

would all embrace resignation, and Logain was no fool. Besides, he knew they had been sent to destroy

the Black Tower. Yet if he suspected that they were still trying to find a way to end the threat of

hundreds of men who could channel. Light, constrained as they were, one order could halt them in their

tracks! You will do no thing to harm the Black Tower. She could not understand why that command had

not been given as a simple precaution. They must succeed. Fail, and the world was doomed, Logain

turned in his saddle, an imposing, broad-shouldered figure in a well-fitting coat dark as pitch, without a

touch of color save for the silver Sword and the red-and-gold Dragon on his high collar. His black cloak

was thrown back, as though he were refusing to let the cold touch him. He might be; these men seemed

to believe they had to fight everything, all the time. He smiled at her-reassuringly and she blinked. Had

she let too much anxiety slip into her end of the bond? It was such a delicate dance, trying to control her

emotions, to present just the right responses. It was almost like taking the test for the shawl, where every

weave had to be made exactly so, without the slightest falter, despite every manner of distraction, only

this test went on and on and on.

He turned his attention on Toveine, and Gabrelle exhaled softly. Just a smile, then. A

companionable gesture. He was often congenial. He might have been likable if he were anything but

what he was.

Toveine beamed back at him, and Gabrelle had to stop herself from shaking her head in

wonderment, not for the first time. Pulling her hood a little forward as though against the cold, so it

sheltered her face while giving her an edge to peek around, she studied the Red sister surreptitiously.

Everything she knew of the other woman said she buried her hates in shallow graves, if at all,

and Toveine loathed men who could channel as deeply as any Red Gabrelle had ever met. Any Red must

despise Logain Ablar, after the claims he had made, that the Red Ajah itself had set him up to become a

false Dragon. He might he holding his silence now, but the damage was done. There were sisters captive

with them who looked at Reds as though thinking they, at least were caught in a trap of their making.

Yet Toveine all but simpered at him.

Gabrelle bit her underlip in perplexed thought. True, Desandre and Lemai had ordered everyone

to achieve cordial relations with the Asha’man who held their bonds-the men must be lulled before the

sisters could do anything useful-but Toveine bristled openly at every command from either sister. She

had detested yielding to them, and might have refused if Lemai were not also Red, no matter that she

had admitted it must be so. Or that no one had recognized her authority once she led them into captivity.

She hated that, too. Yet that was when she had begun smiling at Logain.

For that matter, how could Logain sit at the other end of her bond and take that smile as anything

but fraud? Gabrelle had picked at that knot before, too, without coming close to untying it. He knew too

much about Toveine. Knowing her Ajah should have been enough. Yet Gabrelle felt as little suspicion in

him when he looked at the Red sister as when he looked at her. He was hardly free of suspicion; the man

was distrustful of everyone, it seemed. But less of any sister than of some Asha’man. That made no

sense, either.

He’s no fool, she reminded herself. So, why? And why for Toveine, as well? What is she

scheming at?

Abruptly, Toveine flashed that seemingly warm smile at her, and spoke as if she had voiced at

least one of her questions aloud. "With you near," she murmured in a mist of breath, "he’s barely aware

of me. You’ve made him your captive, sister."

Caught by surprise, Gabrelle flushed in spite of herself. Toveine never made conversation, and to

say she disapproved of Gabrelle’s situation with Logain was to understate drastically. Seducing him had

seemed such an obvious way to get close enough to learn his plans, his weaknesses. After all, even if he

was an Asha’man, she had been Aes Sedai long before he was born, and she was hardly a total innocent

when it came to men. He had been so surprised when he realized what she was doing that she almost

thought of him as the innocent. More fool she. Playing the Domani turned out to hide many surprises,

and a few pitfalls. Worst of all, a trap she could never reveal to anyone. Something she very much feared

that Toveine knew, though, at least in part. But then, any sister who had followed her lead must know,

too, and she thought several had. None had spoken of the problem, and none was likely to, of course.

Logain could mask the bond, in a crude way she believed would still allow her to find him however well

it hid his emotions, but sometimes when they shared a pillow, he let the masking slip. To say the least,

the results were ... devastating. There was no calm restraint, then, no cool study. Not much of reason at

all.

Hurriedly she summoned the image of the snowy landscape and fixed it in her mind. Trees and

boulders and smooth, white snow. Smooth, cold snow.

Logain did nor look back at her, or give any outward sign, but the bond told her that he was

aware of her momentary loss of control. The man brimmed with smugness! And satisfaction! It was all

she could do nor to seethe. But he would expect her to seethe, burn him! He had to know what she felt

from him. Letting her anger rise, though, only filled the fellow with amusement! And he was not even

attempting to hide it!

Toveine was wearing a small, satisfied smile, Gabrelle noticed, but she had only a moment to

wonder why.

They had the morning to themselves, but now another rider appeared through the trees, a

cloakless man in black who angled his horse in their direction when he saw them, and dug his bootheels

into his animal’s flanks for speed despite the snow. Logain reined in to wait, the image of calm, and

Gabrelle stiffened as she halted her mount beside him. The feelings carried by the bond had shifted.

Now they were the tension of a wolf waiting to spring. She expected to see his gauntleted hands on his

sword hilt rather than resting at ease on the tall pommel of his saddle.

The newcomer was almost as tall as Logain, with waves of golden hair to his wide shoulders and

a winning smile. She suspected he knew it was a winning smile. He was too pretty not to know, much

more beautiful than Logain. Life’s forges had hardened Logain’s face, and left edges. This young man

was smooth, yet. Still, the Sword and the Dragon decorated his coat collar. He studied the two sisters

with bright blue eyes. "Are you bedding both of them, Logain?" he said in a deep voice. "The plump one

looks cold-eyed, to me, but the other appears warm enough," Toveine hissed angrily and Gabrelle’s jaw

clenched. She had made no real secret of what she did-she was no Cairhienin, to cloak in privacy what

she was ashamed of in public-but that did not mean she expected to have it bantered about-Worse, the

man spoke as though they were tavern lightskirts!

"Don’t ever let me hear that again, Mishraile," Logain said quietly, and she realized the bond had

changed again. It was cold, now; cold to make the snow seem warm. Cold to make a grave seem warm.

She had heard that name before, Aral Mishraile, and felt distrust in Logain when he spoke it-certainly

more than he felt for her or Toveine-but this was the feel of killing. It was almost laughable. The man

held her prisoner, yet he was ready to do violence to defend her reputation? Part of her did want to

laugh, but she tucked the information away. Any scrap might be useful. The younger fellow gave no

sign of hearing a threat. His smile never faltered. "The M’Hael says you can go, if you want. Can’t see

why you’d want to take on recruiting."

"Someone has to," Logain replied in a level tone.

Gabrelle exchanged puzzled glances with Toveine. Why would Logain want to go recruiting?

They had seen parties of Asha’man return from that, and they were always tired from Traveling long

distances, and usually dirty and snappish besides. Men bearing the drum for the Dragon Reborn did not

always get the warmest welcome; it seemed even before anyone learned what they were really after.

And why were she and Toveine just hearing of it. She would have sworn he told her everything when

they were lying together.

Mishraile shrugged. "Plenty of Dedicated and Soldiers to do that sort of work. Of course, I

suppose it bores you looking after training all the time. Teaching fools to sneak around in the woods and

climb cliffs as if they couldn’t channel a whisker. Even a flyspeck village might look better." His smile

slid into a smirk, disdainful and not at ail winning. "Maybe if" you ask the M’Hael he’ll let you join his

classes at the palace. You wouldn’t be bored then."

Logain’s face never changed, but Gabrelle felt one sharp bolt of fury through the bond. She had

overheard tidbits about Mazrim Taim and his private classes, but all any of the sisters really knew was

that Logain and his cronies did not trust Taim or any who attended his lessons, and Taim appeared not to

trust Logain. Unfortunately, what the sisters could learn of the classes was limited; no one was bonded

to a man of Taim’s faction. Some thought the mistrust was because both men had claimed to be the

Dragon Reborn or even a sign of the madness that channeling brought to men. She had not detected any

evidence of insanity in Logain, and she watched for it as hard as she watched for signs he was about to

channel. If she were still bound to him when he went mad, it might seize her mind, too. Whatever

caused a crack in the Asha’man’s ranks must be exploited though.

Mishraile’s smile faded as Logain merely looked at him.

"Enjoy your flyspecks," he said finally pulling his horse around-A thud of his heel made the

animal spring away as he called over his shoulder, "Glory waits for some of us, Logain."

"He may nor enjoy his Dragon long," Logain murmured, watching the other man gallop off-

"He’s too free with his tongue." She did not think he meant the comment about her and Toveine, but she

could not fathom what else he could mean. And why was he suddenly worried? Hiding it very well,

especially considering the bond, but still, he was worried. Light, sometimes it seemed that knowing what

was in a man’s head made the confusion worse!

Abruptly he turned his gaze on her and Toveine, studying. A new thread of concern slipped

through the bond. About them? Or-an odd thought-for them?

"I fear we must cut short our ride," he said after a moment. "I have preparations to make."

He did not break into a gallop, but he still set a quicker pace back toward the village of the men

in training than he had coming out. He was concentrating on something, now; thinking hard, Gabrelle

suspected. The bond practically hummed with it. He must have been riding by instinct.

Before they had gone very far, Toveine moved her horse close to Gabrelle’s. Leaning in her

saddle, she tried to fix Gabrelle with an intent stare while darting quick glances at Logain as if afraid he

might look back and see them talking. She never seemed to pay attention to what the bond cold her. The

divided effort made her bob about like a puppet, in danger of falling.

"We must go with him" the Red whispered. "Whatever it takes, you must see to it." Gabrelle

raised her eyebrows, and Toveine had the grace to color, but she lost nothing of her insistence, "We

cannot afford to be left behind" she breathed hurriedly. "The man didn’t abandon his ambitions when he

came here. Whatever vileness he plans, we can do nothing if we aren’t right there when he tries."

"I can see what’s in front of my nose," Gabrelle said sharply, and felt relief when Toveine

simply nodded and fell silent. It was all Gabrelle could do to control the fear that was rising in her. Did

Toveine never think about what she must sense through the bond? Something that had always been there

in the connection with Logain-determination-now lay hard and sharp as a knife. She thought she knew

what it meant, this time, and knowing made her mouth dry. Against whom, she could not say but she

was sure that Logain Ablar was riding to war.

Slowly descending one of the wide hallways that spiraled gently through the White Tower, Yukiri felt

prickly as a starved cat. She could barely make herself listen to what the sister gliding beside her was

saying. The morning was still dim, first light darkened by the snow falling heavily on Tar Valon and the

middle levels of the Tower were as icy as a Borderland winter. Well, perhaps not so cold as that, she

allowed after a moment. She had not been that far north in a number of years, and memory expanded

what it did not shrink. That was the reason written records were so important. Except when you did not

dare write down anything, at least. Still, it was chill enough. For all the ancient builders’ cleverness and

skill, heat from the great furnaces in the basement never reached this high. Drafts made the flames dance

on the gilded standlamps, and some were strong enough to stir the heavy tapestries spaced along the

white walls, spring flowers and woodlands and exotic animals and birds alternating with scenes of

Tower triumphs that would never be displayed in the public areas below. Her own rooms, with their

warm fireplaces would once have been much more comfortable.

News from the outside world churned through her head despite her efforts to avoid it. Or rather,

more often, the lack of solid news. What eyes-and-ears reported from Altara and Arad Doman was all

confusion, and the few reports beginning to seep out of Tarabon again were frightening. Rumor put the

Borderland rulers everywhere from the Blight to Andor to Amadicia to the Aiel Waste; the only

confirmed fact was that none were where they were supposed to be, guarding the Blightborder. The Aiel

were everywhere and finally out of al’Thor’s control, it appeared, if they had ever been in it. The latest

news from Murandy made her want to grind her teeth and weep at the same time, while Cairhien...!

Sisters all over the Sun Palace, some suspected of being rebels and none known to be loyal, and still no

word of Coiren and her embassy since they departed the city, though they should have been back in Tar

Valon long since. And as if that were nor enough, al’Thor himself had vanished like a soap bubble yet

again. Could the tales that he had half-destroyed the Sun Palace be true? Light, the man could not go

mad yet! Or had Elaida’s witless offer of "protection" frightened him into hiding? Did anything frighten

him? He frightened her. He frightened the rest of the Hall, too, let them put whatever face on it they

wanted.

The only thing truly certain was that none of that mattered a spit in a rainstorm. Knowing so did

not help her mood in the slightest. Worry over being caught in a tangle of roses, even if the thorns might

kill you eventually, was a luxury when you had a knife point pressed to your ribs.

"Every time she’s left the Tower in the last ten years, it has been on her own affairs, so there are

no recent records to check," her companion murmured. "It’s difficult to learn exactly when she has been

out of the Tower and remain ... discreet." Her dark golden hair held back by ivory combs, Meidani was

tall, and slender enough to look over-balanced by her bosom, an effect emphasized by both the fit of her

dark silver embroidered bodice and the way she walked in a stoop to put her mouth more on the level of

Yukiri’s ear. Her shawl was caught on her wrists, the long gray fringe dragging on the floortiles.

"Straighten your backbone," Yukiri growled quietly. "My ears aren’t clogged with dirt."

The other woman jerked herself upright, faint splashes of color in her cheeks. Pulling her shawl

higher on her arms. Meidani half glanced over her shoulder coward her Warder Leonin, who was

following at a discreet distance. If they could barely hear the faint tinkle of the silver bells in the lean

man’s black braids, though, he could hear nothing said in a moderate tone. The man knew no more than

necessary-precious little, in fact, except that his Aes Sedai wanted certain things of him: that was enough

for any good Warder-and he might cause problems if he learned too much, but there was no need for

whispering. People who saw whispering wanted to know what the secret was.

The other Gray was no more the source of her irritation than the outside world, however, even if

the woman was a jackdaw in swan’s feathers. Not the main source, anyway. A disgusting thing, a rebel

pretending loyalty, yet Yukiri was actually glad that Saerin and Pevara had convinced her that they

should not yet turn Meidani and her sister jackdaws over to Tower Law. Their wings were clipped, now,

and they were useful. They might even gain a measure of clemency, for when they did face justice. Of

course, when the oath that had clipped Meidani’s wings came out; Yukiri might easily rind herself

wishing for clemency. Rebels or not, what she and the others had done with Meidani and her

confederates was as far outside the law as murder. Or treason. An oath of personal obedience-sworn on

the Oath Rod itself; sworn under duress-was all too close to Compulsion, which was clearly prohibited if

not really defined. Still, sometimes you had to smudge the plaster to smoke out hornets, and the Black

Ajah were hornets with venomous stings. The law would have its course in due time-without the law

there was nothing-but she needed to be more concerned with whether she would survive the smoking out

than with what penalties the law would exact. Corpses had no need to worry about punishment.

She motioned curtly for Meidani to go on, but no sooner had the other woman opened her mouth

than three Browns rounded a corner from another hallway right in front of them, flaunting their shawls

like Greens. Yukiri knew Marris Thornhill and Doraise Mesianes slightly, in the manner Sitters knew

sisters from other Ajahs who spent long periods in the Tower, which was to say enough to attach names

to faces and not much more. Mild and absorbed in their studies was how she would have described

them, if pressed. Elin Warrel was so newly raised to the shawl, she still should have been bobbing

curtsies on instinct. Instead of offering courtesies to a Sitter, though, all three stared at Yukiri and

Meidani the way cats stared at strange dogs. Or maybe dogs at strange cats. No mildness, there.

"May I ask about a point of Arafellan law Sitter?" Meidani said, as smoothly as if that was what

she had been intending to say all along.

Yukiri nodded, and Meidani began rambling about fishing rights on rivers versus lakes, hardly an

inspired choice. A magistrate might ask an Aes Sedai to listen to a case of fishing rights, but only to

bolster her own opinion if powerful people were involved and she was worried about an appeal to the

throne.

A single Warder trailed the Browns-Yukiri could not recall whether he belonged to Marris or

Doraise-a heavy-set fellow with a hard round face and a dark top-knot who eyed Leonin and the swords

on his back with a distrust surely picked up from his sister. That pair stalked by up the slowly spiraling

corridor with plump chins high, the skinny newling leaping anxiously to keep up. The Warder strode

after them radiating the air of a man in hostile country.

Hostility was all too usual, nowadays. The invisible walls between the Ajahs, once barely thick

enough to hide each Ajah’s own mysteries, had become hard stone ramparts with moats. No, not moats;

chasms, deep and wide. Sisters never left their own Ajah’s quarters alone, often took their Warders even

to the library and the dining rooms, and always wore their shawls, as though someone might mistake

their Ajah, otherwise. Yukiri herself was wearing her best, embroidered in silver and thread-of-gold,

with the long silk fringe that hung to her ankles. So she supposed she was flaunting her Ajah a bit, too.

And lately, she had been considering that a dozen years was long enough to go without a Warder. A

horrible thought, once she sifted out the source. No sister should have need of a Warder inside the White

Tower.

Not for the first time, the thought hit her hard that someone had to mediate among the Ajahs, and

soon, or the rebels would dance in through the front door, bold as thieves, and empty the house while the

rest of them squabbled over who got great-aunt Sumi’s pewter. But the only end of the thread she could

see to begin working out the snarl was to have Meidani and tier friends publicly admit that they had

been sent to the Tower by the rebels to spread rumors-tales they still insisted were true! -That the Red

Ajah had created Logain as a false Dragon. Could it be true. Without Pevara knowing? Impossible to

think that a Sitter, especially Pevara, could have been fooled. In any case, that bit of the tangle had been

overlaid with so many others by now that it scarcely could make any difference by itself. Besides, it

would throw away the aid of ten out of the fourteen women she could be sure were not Black Ajah, not

to mention likely exposing what the rest of them were doing, before the storm over it blew out.

She shivered, and it had nothing to do with drafts in the corridor. She and every other woman

who might reveal the truth would die before that storm ended, by so-called accident or in bed. Or she

might just vanish, apparently gone out of the Tower never to be seen again. She had no doubt of that.

Any evidence would be buried, so deep; an army with shovels could never dig it up. Even rumors would

be plastered over. It had happened before. The world and most sisters still believed Tamra Ospenya had

died in her bed. She had believed it. They had to have the Black Ajah wrapped up and tied as near as

possible, before they dared risk going public.

Meidani took up her report again once the Browns were safely past, but fell silent only moments

later when, just ahead of them, a big hairy hand suddenly thrust aside a tapestry from behind. An icy

draft swept out of the doorway that had been hidden by the tapestry’s brightly colored birds from the

Drowned Lands, and a heavy fellow in a thick brown work coat backed into the corridor, pulling a handcart

stacked high with split hickory that another serving man in a rough coat was pushing from behind.

Common laborers; neither had the white Flame on his chest.

At sight of two Aes Sedai the men hastily let the tapestry fall back into place and wrestled their

cart out of the way against the wall while trying to make their bows, almost toppling the load, which set

them grabbing at the sliding fire-wood frantically. No doubt they had expected to finish their work

without encountering any sisters. Yukiri always felt sympathy for the people who had to haul wood and

water and everything else up the servants’ ramps all the way from the ground, but she strode past them

with a scowl. Talk while walking was never overheard, and the hallways in the common areas had

seemed a good place to be private with Meidani. Much better than her own apartments, where any ward

against eavesdropping would only announce to everyone in the Gray quarter that she was discussing

secrets, and far worse, with whom. There were only two hundred or so sisters in the Tower at the

moment, a number the White Tower could swallow and seem vacant, and with everyone keeping to

themselves, the common areas should have been empty. So she had thought.

She had taken into account the livened servants rushing about to check lampwicks and oil levels

and a dozen other things, and the plain-clad workers carrying wicker baskets of the Light knew what on

their backs. They were always about in the early hours, readying the Tower for the day, but they made

hasty bows and curtsies and scurried to get out of a sister’s way. Out of hearing. Tower servants knew

how to be tactful, especially since anyone eavesdropping on a sister would be shown the door. Given the

present mood in the Tower, the servants were particularly quick to avoid so much as a chance of

overhearing things they should not.

What she had failed to reckon on was how many sisters would choose to walk outside the

quarters, by twos and threes, despite the hour and the cold, Reds trying to stare down anyone they

encountered except other Reds. Greens and Yellows competing for the crown of haughty and Browns

doing their best to outdo both. A few Whites, all but one Warderless, attempted to maintain a facade of

cool reason while jumping at their own footfalls. One little group was not out of sight for more than

minutes; it seemed, before another appeared, so Meidani spent nearly as much time chattering about

points of law as she did giving her report.

Worst of all, twice Grays smiled in what looked like relief on seeing others of their Ajah, and

would have joined them had Yukiri nor shaken her head. Which infuriated her no end because it let all

who saw know she had special reason to be alone with Meidani. Even if the Black Ajah took no notice,

and the Light send there was no reason they should, too many sisters spied on other Ajahs these days,

and in spite of the Three Oaths, the tales they carried somehow grew in the carrying. With Elaida

apparently dying to force the Ajahs into line by brute force, those tales too often resulted in penances,

and the best to be hoped for was that you could pretend to have chosen to rake it on for reasons of your

own. Yukiri had already suffered through one such, and she had no desire to waste days scrubbing floors

again, especially now that she had more on her plate than she knew what to do with. And taking the

alternative, a private visit to Silviana, was no better, even if it did save time! Elaida seemed fiercer than

ever since she summoned Silviana for her own supposedly private penance. The whole Tower was still

buzzing with that.

As much as Yukiri hated admitting it all that made her careful how she looked at the other sisters

she saw. Look too long, and you might seem to be spying yourself. Shift your gaze away too fast, and

you looked furtive, with the same result. Even so, she could barely keep her eyes from lingering on one

pair of Yellows who glided along a crossing corridor like queens in their own palace.

The dark stocky Warder following just far enough behind to give them privacy must have

belonged to Pritalle Nerbaijan, a green-eyed woman who had largely escaped the Saldaean nose,

because Atuan Larisett had no Warder. Yukiri knew little about Pritalle, but she would learn more after

seeing her in close conversation with Atuan. In high-necked gray slashed with yellow and a silk-fringed

shawl, the Taraboner was striking. Her dark hair, in thin, brightly beaded braids that hung to her waist,

framed a face that somehow seemed perfect as it was without being beautiful. She was even fairly

modest, at least as Yellows went. But she was the woman Meidani and the others were trying to study

without being caught out. The woman whose name they were afraid to speak aloud except behind strong

wards, Atuan Larisett was one of only three Black sisters Talene knew. That was how they organized

themselves; three women who knew each other, with each knowing one more the other two did not.

Atuan had been Talene’s "one more," so there was some hope she could be followed to two others.

Just before the pair passed out of view beyond the corner, Atuan glanced up the spiral hallway.

Her gaze only brushed by Yukiri, yet that was enough to make Yukiri’s heart leap into her throat. She

kept walking, holding her face calm with an effort, and risked a quick glance of her own when she

reached the corner. Atuan and Pritalle were already well along the corridor, heading toward the outer

ring. The Warder was in the way, but neither was looking back. Pritalle was shaking her head-To

something Atuan was saying? They were too far for Yukiri to hear any sound other than the faint click

of the dark Warder’s bootheels on the floor-tiles. It had just been a glance. Of course, it had. She

quickened her step to take her beyond sight if one of them did look over a shoulder, and let out a long

breath she had not realized she was holding. Meidani echoed her faintly her shoulders sagging.

Strange, how it takes us, Yukiri thought, squaring her own shoulders. When they first learned

Talene was a Darkfriend; Talene had been a shielded prisoner. And she still scared spitless, she admitted

to herself. Well, what they did to make her confess had scared them spitless first, but learning the truth

turned their tongues to dust. Now Talene was tethered tighter than Meidani, closely guarded even if she

did appear to walk free-how to keep a Sitter prisoner without anyone noticing had been beyond even

Saerin-and she was pathetically eager to offer up every scrap she knew or even suspected in hope it

might save her life not that she had any choice. Hardly an object of fear. As for the rest...

Pevara had tried to maintain that Talene must be wrong about Galina Casban, and went into a

rage that lasted a full day when she finally was convinced that her Red sister was really Black. She still

spoke of strangling Galina with her own hands. Yukiri herself had felt a cold detachment when Temaile

Kinderode was named. If there were Darkfriends in the Tower, it stood to reason some had to be Grays,

though perhaps disliking Temaile helped. She remained cool even after she did die sums and realized

that Temaile had left the Tower at the same time that three sisters were murdered. That provided more

names for suspicion, other sisters who had gone then, too, but Galina and Temaile and the rest were out

of the Tower, beyond reach for the moment, and only the two could be proven Darkfriends.

Atuan was right there, Black Ajah without doubt, walking the Tower as she wished, unrestrained

and unbound of the Three Oaths. And until Doesine could arrange for her to be questioned in secret-a

difficult matter, even for a Sitter of Atuan’s Ajah, since it had to be secret from everyone-until then, all

they could do was watch. A distant, carefully circumspect watching. It was like living with a red adder,

never knowing when you would find yourself eye-to-eye with it, never knowing when it might bite. Like

living in a den of red adders, and only being able to see one.

Suddenly, Yukiri realized that the wide, curving corridor was empty ahead as far as she could

see, and a glance back showed only Leonin behind. The Tower might have been empty save of the three

of them. Nothing in sight moved except the flickering flames on the stand lamps. Silence. Meidani gave

a small start. "Forgive me, Sitter. Seeing her so suddenly took me aback. Where was I? Oh, yes. I

understand that Celestin and Annharid are trying to find out her close friends in the Yellow." Celestin

and Annharid were Meidani’s fellow conspirators, both Yellow. There were two from each Ajah-except

the Red and the Blue, of course-which had proven very useful "I fear that won’t be much help. She has a

wide circle of friends, or did before the... current situation rose between the Ajahs." A touch of

satisfaction tinged her voice, however smooth her face; she was still a rebel, in spite of the added oath.

"Investigating all of them will be difficult, if not impossible."

"Forget her for the moment." It took an effort for Yukiri not to crane her neck trying to look

every way at once. A tapestry worked with large white flowers rippled slightly, and she hesitated until

she was sure it was a draft and not another servant coming our of a servant’s ramp. She never could

recollect where they were located. Her new topic was as dangerous as discussing Atuan, in its own way.

"Last night, I remembered you were a novice with Elaida, and close friends as I recall It would be a

good idea for you to renew that friendship.’

"That was some years ago," the taller woman replied stiffly, lifting her shawl to her shoulders

and wrapping it around herself as chough she suddenly felt the cold. "Elaida very properly broke it off

when she was raised Accepted. She might have been accused of favoritism if I were in a class she was

given to teach."

"As well for you that you weren’t a favorite," Yukiri said dryly. Elaida’s current ferocity had its

precedent. Before she went off to Andor years ago, she had pushed those she favored so hard that sisters

had needed to step in more than once. Siuan Sanche had been one of them, strange to remember, though

Siuan had never needed rescuing from standards she could not meet. Strange and sad. "Even so, you will

do everything in your power to renew that friendship."

Meidani walked two dozen paces along the corridor opening and closing her mouth, adjusting

and readjusting her shawl, twitching her shoulders as though trying to shrug off a horsefly, looking

everywhere but at Yukiri. How had the woman ever functioned as a Gray with so little self-control? "I

did try," she said finally, in a breathy tone. She still avoided Yukiri s eye." Several times. The Keeper . .

. Alviarin always put me off. The Amyrlin was busy, she had appointments, she needed rest. There was

always some excuse. I chink Elaida just doesn’t want to take up a friendship she dropped more than

thirty years ago."

So the rebels had remembered that friendship, too. How had they thought to use it? Spying, most

likely. She would have to mid out how Meidani was supposed to pass on what she learned. In any case,

the rebels had provided the tool, and Yukiri would use it. "Alviarin is out of your way. She left the

Tower yesterday, or maybe the day before. No one is quite certain. But the maids say she took spare

clothes, so it’s unlikely she’ll return for a few days at the soonest."

"Where could she have gone in this weather?" Meidani frowned. "It’s been snowing since

yesterday morning, and it was threatening before."

Yukiri stopped and used both hands to turn the other woman to face her. "The only thing that

need concern you, Meidani, is that she’s gone," she said firmly. Where had Alviarin gone in this? "You

have a clear path to Elaida, and you will take it. And you will keep a close watch to see if any-one might

be reading Elaida’s papers, just be sure no one sees you watching." Talene said the Black Ajah knew

every-thing that came out of the Amyrlin’s study before it was announced, and they needed someone

close to Elaida if they were to find out how it was done. Of course, Alviarin saw everything before

Elaida signed, and the woman had taken on more authority than any Keeper in memory, but that was no

reason to accuse her of being a Darkfriend. No reason not to, either. Her past was being investigated,

too. "Watch Alviarin, as well as much as you can, but Elaida’s papers are the important thing."

Meidani sighed and gave a reluctant nod. She might have to obey, but she knew the added

danger she would be in if Alviarin did turn out a Darkfriend. Yet Elaida herself still might be Black,

whatever Saerin and Pevara insisted. A Darkfriend as Amyrlin Seat. Now that was a thought to pickle

your heart.

"Yukiri!" a woman’s voice called from back up the hallway. A Sitter in the Hall of the Tower

did not jump like a startled goat at hearing her own name, but Yukiri did. If she had not been holding

onto Meidani, she might have fallen, and as it was, the pair of them staggered like drunken farmers at a

harvest dance.

Recovering, Yukiri jerked her shawl straight and set her face in a scowl that did not diminish

when she saw who was running toward her. Seaine was supposed to be keeping close to her own rooms,

with as many White sisters around her as she could manage, when she was not with Yukiri or one of the

other Sitters who knew about Talene and the Black Ajah, but here she was scurrying down the hallway

with only Bernaile Gelbarn, a stocky Taraboner and another of Meidani’s jackdaws, for company.

Leonin stepped aside, and gave Seaine a formal bow, fingertips pressed to his heart. Meidani and

Bernaile were foolish enough to exchange smiles. They were friends, but they should know better, when

they could not tell who might see.

Yukiri was in no mood for smiles. "Taking the air, Seaine?" she said sharply. "Saerin won’t be

pleased, when I tell her. Not at all pleased. I’m not pleased, Seaine." Meidani made a small sound in her

throat, and Bernaile’s head twitched, her multitude of narrow beaded braids rattling against one another.

The pair of them took to studying a tapestry that supposedly showed the humbling of Queen Rhiannon,

and for all their smooth faces, clearly they wished they were somewhere else. In their eyes, Sitters were

supposed to be equals. And so they were. Normally. After a fashion. Leonin should not have been able

to hear a word, but he could feel Meidani s mood, of course, and he moved a step further away. While

still keeping watch along the corridor, of course. A good man. A wise man. Seaine had sense enough to

look abashed. Unconsciously, she smoothed her dress, covered with snowy embroidery along the hem

and across the bodice, but almost immediately her hands knotted in her shawl and her eyebrows drew

down stubbornly. Seaine had been strong-willed from the day she first came to the Tower, a furnituremaker’s

daughter from Lugard who had talked her father into buying passage for her and her mother.

Passage for two upriver, but only one down. Strong-willed and confident. And frequently as blind to the

world around her as any Brown. Whites were often like that, all logic and no judgment. "There’s no

need for me to hide from the Black Ajah, Yukiri," she said.

Yukiri winced. Fool woman, naming the Black right out in the open. The corridor was still

empty in both directions as far as the curve allowed sight, but carelessness led to more carelessness. She

could be stubborn herself, when there was need, but at least she showed more brain than a goose about

when and where. She opened her mouth to give Seaine a piece of her mind, a sharp piece, but the other

woman rushed on before she could speak.

"Saerin told me I could find you." Seaine’s mouth tightened and spots of color flared in her

cheeks, at having asked permission or at having to ask. It was understandable for her to resent her

situation, of course. Just witless for her not to accept it. I need to talk to you alone, Yukiri. About the

second mystery."

For a moment, Yukiri was as puzzled as Meidani and Bernaile looked. They could sham not

listening, but that did not shut their ears. Second mystery? What did Seaine mean? Unless . . . Could she

mean the thing that had brought Yukiri into the hunt for the Black Ajah in the first place? Wondering

why the heads of the Ajahs were meeting in secret had lost its urgency compared to finding Darkfriends

among the sisters.

"Very well, Seaine," Yukiri said, more calmly than she felt. "Meidani, take Leonin down the hall

until you can just see Seaine and me around the curve. Keep a sharp eye for anyone coming this way.

Bernaile, do the same up the hall." They were moving before she finished speaking, and as soon as they

were out of earshot, she turned her attention to Seaine. "Well?"

To her surprise, the glow of saidar sprang up around the White Sitter, who wove a ward against

eavesdropping around the pair of them. It was a clear sign of secrets to any one who saw. This had better

be important.

"Think about it logically." Seaine’s voice was calm, but her hands still gripped her shawl in fists.

She stood very straight, towering over Yukiri though she was not much above average height herself.

"It’s more than a month, almost two, since Elaida came to me, and nearly two weeks since you found

Pevara and me. If the Black Ajah knew about me, I would be dead by now. Pevara and I would have

been dead before you and Doesine and Saerin ever walked in on us, Therefore, they don’t know. About

any of us. I admit I was frightened, at first, but I have control of myself, now. There’s no reason for the

rest of you to keep trying to treat me like a novice," a little heat invaded the calmness, "and a brainless

one, at that."

"You’ll have to talk to Saerin," Yukiri said curtly. Saerin had taken charge from the start. After

forty years in the Hall for the Brown, Saerin was very good at taking charge and Yukiri had no intention

of going against her unless she must, not without the Sitter’s privilege she could hardly claim in the

circumstances. As well try to catch a falling boulder. If Saerin could be convinced, Pevara and Doesine

would come around, and she herself would hardly try to stand in the way. "Now, what about this second

secret? You do mean the Ajah heads meeting?"

Seaine’s face took on a muley expression. Yukiri almost expected her ears to lie back. Then she

exhaled. "Did the head of your Ajah have a hand in choosing Andaya for the Hall? More than usual, I

mean?"

"She did," Yukiri replied carefully. Everyone had been sure Andaya would go into the Hall one

day perhaps in another forty or fifty years, yet Serancha had all but anointed her, when the customary

method was discussion until a consensus could he reached on two or three candidates, then a secret

ballot. That was Ajah business, though, as secret as Serancha’s name and title.

"I knew it." Seaine nodded excitedly, not at all her normal manner. "Saerin says that Juilaine was

hand-picked for the Brown, too, apparently not their usual way, and Doesine says the same about Suana,

though she was hesitant about saying anything. I think Suana maybe the head of the Yellow herself. In

any case, she was a Sitter for forty years the first time, and you know it isn’t common to take a chair

after you were a Sitter that long. And Ferane stepped down for the White less than ten years ago; no one

has ever entered the Hall again so soon. To cap it off, Talene says the Greens nominate choices and their

Captain-General chooses one, but Adelorna chose Rina without any nominations."

Yukiri managed to stifle a grimace, but only by a hair. Everyone had their suspicions about who

headed other Ajahs, else no one would ever have noticed the meetings in the first place, yet speaking

those names aloud was rude at best. Anyone but a Sitter might face penance for it. Of course, she and

Seaine both knew when it came to Adelorna. In her attempts to curry favor, Talene poured our all the

secrets of the Green without being asked. It embarrassed all of them, except Talene herself. At least it

explained why the Greens had been in such an outstanding rage when Adelorna was birched. Still,

Captain-General was a ridiculous title, Battle Ajah or no Battle Ajah. At least Head Clerk really

described what Serancha did, in a manner of speaking. Down the corridor, Meidani and her Warder were

standing just in sight on the curve, apparently talking quietly. One or the other always watched further

down around the curve, though. In the opposite direction, Bernaile was just in sight, too. Her head was

swiveling constantly as she tried to watch Yukiri and Seaine while keeping an eye out for anyone

approaching. The way she kept shifting from one foot to the other would attract attention, too, but these

days a sister alone outside her Ajah quarter was asking for trouble, and she knew it. This conversation

had to end soon.

Yukiri raised one finger. "Five Ajahs had to choose new Sitters after women they had in the Hall

joined the rebels.’ Seaine nodded, and Yukiri raised a second finger. "Each of those Ajahs chose a

woman as Sitter who wasn’t the . . . logical... choice." Seaine nodded again. A third ringer joined the

first two. "The Brown had to choose two new Sitters, but you didn’t mention Shevan. Is there

anything..." Yukiri smiled wryly, "odd . . . about her?"

"No; according to Saerin, Shevan would likely have been her replacement: when she decided to

step down, but-"

"Seaine, if you’re actually implying the Ajah heads conspired over who would go into the Halland

I never heard of a more cracked-brained notion! -If that’s what you’re suggesting, why would they

choose five odd women and one who isn’t?’

"Yes, I am suggesting it. With the rest of you keeping me practically under lock and key, I’ve

had more time for thinking than I know what to do with. Juilaine and Rina and Andaya gave me a hint,

and Ferane made me decide to check." What did Seaine mean about Andaya and the other two giving a

hint? Oh. Of course; Rina and Andaya were not really old enough to he in the Hall yet, either. The

custom of not talking about age soon enough became the habit of not thinking about it, either.

"Two might have been coincidence," Seaine went on, "even three, though that strains credulity,

but five makes a pattern. Except for the Blue, the Brown was the only Ajah to have two Sitters join the

rebels. Maybe there’s a reason in that why they chose one odd sister and one not, if I can figure it out.

But there is a pattern, Yukiri-a puzzle-and whether it’s rational or not, something tells me we had better

solve it before the rebels get here. It makes me feel as though some-body’s hand is on my shoulder, but

when I look, there isn’t anyone there."

What strained credulity was the idea of the Ajah heads conspiring in the first place. But then,

Yukiri thought, a conspiracy of Sitters is beyond far-fetched, and I’m in the middle of one. And there

was the simple fact that no one outside an Ajah was supposed to know the Ajah’s head, but the other

Ajah heads against all custom did. "If there’s a puzzle" she said wearily, "you have a long time to solve

it. The rebels can’t leave Murandy before spring, whatever they’ve told people, and the march upriver

will take months, if they hold their army together that long." She did not doubt they would, though, not

any longer. "Go back to your rooms before someone sees us standing here warded, and think on your

puzzle," she said, not unkindly, resting a hand on Seaine’s sleeve. "You’ll have to put up with being

looked after until we’re all sure you are safe."

The expression on Seaine’s face would have been called sullen on anyone but a Sitter. "I’ll speak

to Saerin again," she said, but the light of saidar around her vanished.

Watching her join Bernaile and the two of them glide up the curving hallway toward the Ajah

quarters; both as wary as fawns when wolves were out, Yukiri felt a heavy heart. It was a pity the rebels

could not get there before summer. At least that might make the Ajahs come together again, so sisters

were not forced to slink about the White Tower. As well wish for wings, she thought sadly.

Determined to keep her mood in check, she went to gather up Meidani and Leonin. She had a

Black sister to investigate, and at least investigation was a puzzle she knew how to work.

Gawyn’s eyes popped open in the darkness as a new wave of cold rose into the hayloft. The barn’s thick

stonewalls normally kept out the worst of the nights chill, if only the worst. Voices murmured below; no

one sounded excited. He took his hand away from the sword lying beside him and tugged his gauntlets

tighter. Like all the rest of the Younglings, he slept in every stitch he could put on. Probably it was just

time to wake some of the men around him for their sentry turns, but he was fully awake now himself and

he doubted he would find sleep again soon. In any case, his sleep was always fretful troubled by dark

dreams, haunted by the woman he loved. He did not know where Egwene was, or whether she was alive.

Or whether she could forgive him. He stood up; letting the loose hay he had pulled over himself slide off

his cloak, and buckled on his sword belt.

As he picked his way among the shadowy mounds of men sleeping atop the stacked bales of hay,

the faint scrape of boots on wooden rungs told him someone was climbing the ladder to the loft. A dim

figure appeared at the top of the ladder, then stopped to wait for him.

"Lord Gawyn!" Rajar’s deep voice said softly in a Domani accent unaltered by six years training

in Tar Valon. The First Lieutenant’s rumbling voice was always a surprise, coming from a slight man

who stood barely higher than Gawyn’s shoulder. Even so, had times been different, Rajar surely would

have been a Warder by this time. "I thought I’d have to wake you. A sister just arrived, on foot. A

messenger from the Tower, She wanted the sister in charge here. I told Tomil and his brother to take her

to the Mayor’s house before they turned in for the night."

Gawyn sighed. He should have gone home when he returned to Tar Valon and found the

Younglings expelled from the city, instead of letting himself be caught here by winter. Especially when

he was sure Elaida wanted them all dead. His sister Elayne would come to Caemyln eventually, if she

was nor already there. Certainty any Aes Sedai would see that the Daughter-Heir of Andor reached

Caemlyn in time to claim the throne before someone else could. The White Tower would not give up the

advantage of a queen who would also be Aes Sedai. On the other hand, Elayne could be on her way to

Tar Valon, too, or residing in the White Tower right that minute. He did nor how she had become

entangled with Siuan Sanche, or how deeply-she always dove into a pond without checking the depthbut

Elaida and the Hall of the Tower might want to question her closely, Daughter-Heir or not. Queen or

not. He was sure she could not be held accountable, though. She was still only one of the Accepted. He

had to tell himself that frequently.

The newest problem was that an army lay between him and Tar Valon, now. At least twenty-five

thousand soldiers on this side of the River Erinin and, he had to believe, as many on the west bank. They

had to be supporting the Aes Sedai who Elaida called rebels. Who else would dare besiege Tar Valon

itself? The way that army had appeared, though, seeming to materialize out of nowhere in the middle of

a snowstorm, was enough to raise prickles on his back still. Rumor and alarms always flew ahead of any

large force under arms on the march. Always. This one had arrived like spirits, in silence. The army was

as real as stone, however, so he could neither enter Tar Valon to find whether Elayne was in the Tower,

nor ride south. Any army would take notice of upwards of three hundred men on the move, and the

rebels would have no good will toward the Younglings. Even if he went alone, travel in winter was very

slow, and he could reach Caemlyn as quickly if he waited until spring. There was no hope of finding

passage on a ship, either. The siege would mire river traffic in a hopeless snarl. He was mired in a

hopeless snarl.

And now an Aes Sedai had come in the middle of the night. She would not simplify matters any.

"Let’s find our what news she brought," he said quietly, motioning Rajar down the ladder ahead

of him, Twenty horses and their stacked saddles crowded nearly every inch of the dark barn nor taken by

Mistress Millin’s two dozen or so milk cows in their stalls, so he and Rajar had to thread their way to the

wide doors. The only warmth came from the sleeping animals. The two men guarding the horses were

silent shadows, but Gawyn could feel them watching Rajar and him slip out into the icy night. They

would know about the messenger, and be wondering.

The sky was clear, and the waning moon still gave a fair light. The village of Dorian shone with

snow. Holding their cloaks close, the pair of them trudged knee-deep through the village in silence,

along what had once been the road to Tar Valon from a city that had not existed for hundreds of years.

Nowadays, nobody traveled in this direction from Tar Valon except to come to Dorian, and there was no

reason to come in winter. By tradition, the village supplied cheeses to the White Tower and to no one

else. It was a tiny place, just fifteen slate-roofed, gray stone houses with drifts of snow piled up as high

as the bottoms of the first-floor windows. A little distance behind each house stood its cow barn ail

crowded with men and horses now, as well as cows. Most of Tar Valon might well have forgotten

Dorian existed. Who thought about where cheese came from? It had seemed a very good place for

keeping out of sight. Until now. All the houses but one in the village were dark. Light leaked through the

shutters on several windows of Master Burlow’s dwelling, upstairs and down. Garon Burlow had the

misfortune to own the largest house in Dorian, in addition to being Mayor. Any villager who had shifted

sleeping arrangements to find a bed for an Aes Sedai must be regretting it by now; and Master Burlow

had had two rooms already empty.

Stamping the snow from his boots on the stone step, Gawyn rapped on the Mayor’s stout door

with a gauntleted fist. No one answered, and after a moment he lifted the latch and led Rajar in.

The beam-ceilinged front room was fairly large for a farmhouse, and dominated by several call

open-front cabinets, full of pewter and glazed crockery and a long, polished table lined with high-back

chairs. All of the oil lamps had been lit, an extravagance in winter, when a few tallow candles would do,

but the flames in the fireplace had made little impression on the split logs, yet, or on the temperature of

the room. Even so, the two sisters who had rooms above were barefoot on the rugless wooden floor,

with fur-lined cloaks hung hastily over their linen nightdresses. Katerine Alruddin and Tarna Feir were

watching a small woman in a dark yellow-slashed riding dress and cloak that were snow damp to her

hips. She stood as near the wide hearth as she would, tiredly warming her hands and shivering. Afoot in

the snow, she could not have made the trip from Tar Valon in less than two or three days, and even Aes

Sedai felt the cold eventually. She had to be the sister Rajar had spoken of, yet compared to the others,

the agelessness was hardly noticeable in her. Compared to the other two, she was hardly noticeable at

all.

The absence of the Mayor and his wife put an extra knot in Gawyn’s middle, though he had half

expected it. They would have been there making over the Aes Sedai, offering hot drinks and food, no

matter the hour, unless they had been sent back to their beds to give Katerine and Tarna privacy with the

messenger. Which likely meant he was a fool to want to know the message. But he had known that

before he left the barn.

"... boatman said he would stay where we landed until the siege lifted," the small woman was

saying in weary tones as Gawyn entered., "but he was so frightened, he could be leagues downriver by

now." As the cold from the doorway reached her, she looked around., and some of the fatigue drained

from her square face. "Gawyn Trakand" she said. "I have orders for you from the Amyrlin Seat, Lord

Gawyn."

"Orders?" Gawyn said, drawing oft his gauntlets and tucking them behind his belt to gain time.

Blunt truth might be in order for once, he decided, "Why would Elaida send me orders? Why should I

obey if she did? She disowned me, and the Younglings." Rajar had taken a respectful stance for the

sisters, hands folded behind his back, and he gave Gawyn a quick sidelong glance. He would not speak

out of turn, whatever Gawyn said, but the Younglings did not share Gawyn’s belief. Aes Sedai did what

they did, and no man could know why until a sister told him. The Younglings had cast their lots with the

White Tower whole-heartedly, embracing fate.

"That can wait, Narenwin," Katerine snapped, jerking her cloak tighter. Her black hair spilled

around her shoulders half in tangles, as though she had taken a few hasty swipes with a comb and given

up. There was an intensity about her that reminded Gawyn of a hunting lynx. Or maybe one wary of

traps. She spared half a glance for him and Rajar; no more, "I have pressing business in the Tower. Tell

me how to find this nameless fishing village. Whether or not your boatman is still there, I’ll find

someone to take me across."

"And me," Tarna put in, her strong jaw stubborn and her blue eyes sharp as spears. In contrast to

Katerine, Tarna’s long, pale yellow hair was as neat as if she had had a maid attending her before

coming downstairs. She was every bit as focused, though, just more controlled, "I also have urgent

reason to reach the Tower without any further delay." She gave Gawyn a nod and Rajar a lesser, cool as

the marble she seemed carved from. Yet, more friendly than the face she showed Katerine or got in

return. There was always a stiffness between the two women, though they shared the same Ajah. They

did not like one another, perhaps even disliked each other. With Aes Sedai, it was hard to be sure.

Gawyn would not be sorry to see either leave. Tarna had ridden into Dorian barely a day after the

mysterious army arrived, and however Aes Sedai determined these things, she immediately displaced

Lusonia Cole from her room upstairs and Covarla Bildene from command of the eleven other sisters

already in the village. She might have been a Green from the way she took charge of everything,

questioning the other sisters about the situation, even inspecting the Younglings closely every day as

though searching for possible Warders. Having a Red study them that way made the men start looking

over their shoulders. Worse, Tarna spent long hours out riding, no matter the weather, trying to find

some local who could show her a way into the city past the besiegers. Sooner or later, she would lead

their scouts back to Dorian. Katerine had come only yesterday, in a fury at having her path to Tar Valon

blocked, and straightaway took command from Tarna and her room from Covarla. Not that she used her

authority in the same way. She avoided the other sisters, refusing to tell anyone why she had

disappeared at Dumai’s Wells or where she had been. But she, too, had inspected the Younglings. With

an air of a woman examining an axe she had a mind to use, and not a care how much blood was shed.

He would not have been surprised if she had tried to bully him into cut-ting a way to the bridges into the

city for her. He would be more than happy to see them go, in fact. But then, when they left, he would

have to deal with Narenwin. And with Elaida’s orders.

"It’s hardly a village, Katerine," the shivering sister said, "just three or four squalid little

fisherman’s houses a hill day downriver by land. More than that from here." Plucking at her damp skirts,

she held them nearer the fire. "We may be able to find a way to send messages into the city but you two

are needed here. All that stopped Elaida sending fifty sisters, or more, rather than just me, was the

difficulty of getting even one tiny boat across the river unseen, even in darkness. I must say, I was

surprised to learn there were any sisters this close to Tar Valon. Under the circumstances, every sister

who is outside the city must-"

Tarna cut her off firmly with a raised hand. "Elaida cannot even know I am here." Katerine

closed her mouth and frowned, her chin lifting, but she let the other Red continue. "What were her

orders to you regarding the sisters in Dorian, Narenwin?" Rajar took to studying the floorboards in front

of his boors. He had faced battle without flinching, yet only a fool wanted to be around Aes Sedai who

were arguing.

The short woman fussed with her divided skirts a moment longer. "I was ordered to take charge

of the sisters I found here," she said stuffily, "and do what I could." After a moment, she sighed, and

amended herself reluctantly. "The sisters I found here under Covarla. But, surely-"

This time, Katerine broke in "I was never under Covarla, Narenwin, so those orders cannot apply

to me. In the morning, I will set out to find these three or four fisherman’s huts."

"But-"

"Enough, Narenwin," Katerine said in an icy voice. "You can make your arrangements with

Covarla." The black-haired woman gave her Ajah sister a glance from the corner of her eye. "I suppose

you may accompany me, Tarna. A fishing boat should have room for two." Tarna bent her head the

slightest fraction, possibly in thanks.

Their business concluded, the pair of Reds gathered their cloaks around them and glided toward

the door deeper into the house. Narenwin shot a vexed look at their backs and turned her attention to

Gawyn, her face settling into the semblance of a calm mask.

"Have you any word of my sister?" he asked before she could open her mouth. "Do you know

where she is?" The woman really was tired. She blinked, and he could almost see her forming an answer

that would tell him nothing.

Stopping halfway to the door, Tarna said, "Elayne was with the rebels when I saw her last." Every head

jerked toward her. "But your sister is safe from retribution," she went on calmly "so put that our of your

mind. Accepted can’t choose which sisters to obey. I give you my word; under the law, she can suffer no

lasting harm of it.’ She seemed unaware of Katerine’s frozen stare, or Narenwin’s popping eyes.

"You could have told me before this," Gawyn said roughly. No one spoke roughly to Aes Sedai,

not more then once but he was past caring. Were the other two surprised that Tarna knew the answer, or

surprised that she had given it? "What do you mean by no lasting harm?"

The pale-haired sister barked a laugh. "I can hardly promise she won’t suffer a few welts if she

puts her feet too far wrong. Elayne is one of the Accepted, not Aes Sedai. Yet that protects her from

greater harm if she is led astray by a sister. And you never asked. Besides, she doesn’t need rescuing,

even if you could manage it. She is with Aes Sedai. Now you know as much as I can tell you of her, and

I am going to find a few hours more sleep before daylight. I will leave you to Narenwin."

Katerine watched her go without altering her expression by an eyelash, a woman of ice with the

eyes of a hunting cat, but then she herself strode from the room so quickly that her cloak flared behind

her.

"Tarna is correct," Narenwin said once the door closed behind Katerine. The small woman might

not make a good show of Aes Sedai serenity and mystery alongside the other two, but alone she

managed very well. "Elayne is sealed to the White Tower. So are you, for all your talk of disowning.

The history of Andor seals you to the Tower."

"The Younglings are all sealed to the Tower by our own choice, Narenwin Sedai," Rajar said,

making a leg formally. Narenwin’s gaze remained on Gawyn. He closed his eyes, and it was all he could

do nor to scrub at them with the heels or his hands. The Younglings were sealed to the White Tower. No

one would ever forger that they had fought, on the very grounds of the Tower, to stop the rescue of a

deposed Amyrlin. For good or ill, the tale would follow them to their graves. He was marked by that, as

well, and by his own secrets. After all that bloodshed, he was the man who had ler Siuan Sanche walk

free. More importantly, though, Elayne bound him to the White Tower, and so did Egwene al’Vere, and

he did not know which tied the tighter knot, the love of his sister or the love of his heart. To abandon

one was to abandon all three, and while he breathed, he could not abandon Elayne or Egwene.

"You have my word that I will do all I can," he said wearily.’ What does Elaida want of me?"

The sky above Caemlyn was clear, the sun a pale golden ball near its noonday peak. It shed a brilliant

light on the blanket of white covering the surrounding countryside, but gave no warmth. Still, the

weather was warmer than Davram Bashere would have expected back home in Saldaea, though he did

not regret the marten-fur lining his new cloak. Cold enough in any case for his breath to have frosted his

thick mustaches with more white than the years had put in them. Standing in ankle-deep snow among

the leafless trees on a rise perhaps a league north of Caemlyn, he held a long, gold-mounted looking

glass to his eye, studying the activity on lower ground about a mile south of him. Quick nosed his

shoulder impatiently from behind, but he ignored the bay. Quick disliked standing still, but sometimes

you had to, whatever you wanted.

A sprawling camp was going up down there among the scattered trees, astride the road to Tar

Valon, soldiers unloading supply wagons, digging latrines, erecting tents and building lean-tos of brush

and tree-limbs scattered in clumps of varying size, each lord and lady keeping their own men close.

They expected to be in place for some time. From the horse-lines and the general extent of the camp, he

estimated close to five thousand men, give or take a few hundred. Fighting men: fletchers, farriers,

armorers, laundresses, wagon drivers and other camp followers as good as doubled that, though as usual

they were making their own camp on the fringes. Most of the camp followers spent more time staring

toward the rise where Bashere stood than they did working. Here and there a soldier paused in his labors

to peer toward the higher ground, too, but bannermen and squadmen quickly drove them back to their

work. The nobles and officers riding about the rising camp never so much as glanced north, that Bashere

saw. A fold of land hid them from the city, though he could see the silver-streaked gray walls from his

rise. The city knew they were there, of course; they had announced themselves that morning with

trumpets and banners in sight of the walls. Well out of bowshot, though-Laying siege to a city with high,

strong walls that stretched more than six leagues in circumference was no easy matter, and complicated

in this instance by Low Caemlyn, the warren of brick and stone houses and shops, windowless

warehouses and long markets, that lay outside Caemlyn’s walls. Seven more like camps were being

made, though, spaced around the city where they could cover every road, every gate that would allow a

sizable, sortie. They already had patrols out, and likely watchers lurked in the now-deserted buildings of

Low Caemlyn. Small parties might get past into the city, maybe a few pack animals by night, but not

near enough to feed one of the world’s great cities. Hunger and disease ended more sieges than swords

or siege-engines ever did. The only question was whether they brought down besieged or besieger first.

The plan seemingly had all been well thought-out by someone, but what confused him were the

banners in the camp below. It was a strong looking glass, crafted by a Cairhienin named Tovere, a gift

from Rand al’Thor, and he could make out most of the banners whenever a breeze straightened them. He

knew enough of Andoran sigils to pick out the Oak and Axe of Dawlin, Armaghn and the five Silver

Stars of Daerilla Raned and several more banners of lesser nobles who supported Naean Arawn’s claim

to the Lion Throne and the Rose Crown of Andor. Yet Jailin Maran’s cross-lurched Red Wall was down

there, coo, and Carlys Ankerin’s paired White Leopards, and Erain Talkend’s golden Winged Hand. By

all reports, they were oath-sworn to Naean’s rival Elenia Sarand. Seeing them with the others was like

seeing wolves and wolfhounds sharing a meal. With a cask of good wine opened in the bargain-Two

other banners, gold-fringed and at least twice the size of any others, were on display as well, though

both were too heavy for the occasional gust to make them more than stir. They shone with the glisten of

thick silk. He had seen the pair clearly enough earlier, however, when the banner-men rode back and

forth atop the rise that hid their camp, the banners spread out above them in the breeze of their gallop.

One was the Lion of Andor, white on red, the same as flew from the tall round towers dotted along the

city wall. In both cases it was a declaration of someone’s right to the throne and crown. The second

large banner below him proclaimed the woman throwing her claim against that of Elayne Trakand. Four

silver moons on a field of twilight blue, the sign of House Marne. All this was in support of Arymilla

Marne? A month ago, she would have been lucky if anyone except her own House or that half-witted

Nasin Caeren gave her a bed for the night!

"They ignore us," Bael growled. I could break them before sunset, and leave not one alive to see

the sun rise again, yet they ignore us."

Bashere looked sideways at the Aielman. Sideways and up. The man towered above him by well

over a foot. Only Bael’s gray eyes and a strip of sun-dark skin were visible above the black veil drawn

across his face. Bashere hoped the man was just shielding his mouth and nose from the cold-He was

carrying his short spears and bull-hide buckler, and he had a cased bow on his back and a quiver at his

hip, but only the veil mattered. This was no time for the Aiel to start killing. Twenty paces down slope

toward the camp, thirty more Aielmen were squatting on their heels, holding their weapons casually.

One in three had his face bare, so maybe it was the cold. With Aiel, you could never be sure, though.

Quickly considering several approaches, Bashere decided on lightness. "Elayne Trakand would not like

that, Bael, and if you’ve forgotten what it’s like being a young man, that means Rand al’Thor won’t like

it."

Bael grunted sourly. "Melaine told me what Elayne Trakand said. We must do nothing on her

part. That is simple-minded. When an enemy comes against you, you make use of whoever will dance

the spears by your side. Do they play at war the way they play at their Game of Houses?" "We are

outlanders, Bael. That counts in Andor."

The huge Aielman grunted again.

There seemed no point trying to explain the politics involved. Outland help could cost Elayne

what she was trying to gain, and her enemies knew it and knew she knew it, so they had no fear of

Bashere or Bael or the Legion of the Dragon, whatever their numbers. In fact, despite the siege, both

sides would go to great effort to avoid pitched battle. It was a war, but of maneuver and skirmishes

unless someone blundered, and the winner would be whoever gained an unassailable position or forced

the other into one that could not be defended. Bael likely would see it as no different from Daes’

Dae’mar. In all truth, Bashere saw a great deal of similarity himself. With the Blight on its doorstep,

Saldaea could not afford contests for the throne-Tyrants could be endured, and the Blight soon killed the

stupid and the greedy, but even this peculiar sort of civil war would allow the Blight to kill Saldaea.

He returned to studying the camp through his looking glass, trying to puzzle out how an utter

fool like Arymilla Marne could have gained the backing of Naean Arawnand and Elenia Sarand. That

pair was greedy and ambitious, each utterly convinced of her own right to the throne, and if he

understood the tangled web Andorans used to decide these matters, each had far better claim than

Arymilla. Wolves and wolfhounds were nor in it. This was wolves deciding to follow a lapdog. Perhaps

Elayne knew the reason, but she would barely even exchange notes with him, brief and uninformative.

Too much chance someone would learn of it and think she was plotting with him. it was very like the

Game of Houses.

"Someone is going to dance the spears, it seems," Bael said, and Bashere lowered the ornate tube

long enough to find where the Aielman was pointing.

There had been a steady stream of people fleeing the city ahead of the siege for days, but

someone had left it too lade. Half a dozen canvas-topped wagons stood halded in the middle of the Tar

Valon road just outside the edge of Low Caemyln, surrounded by fifty horsemen under a blue-and-white

quartered banner that appeared to show a running bear, or maybe some sort of thick-bodied hound, when

it rippled in a sudden wind. Dispirited folk huddled to one side, clutching cloaks around themselves,

men with their heads down, children clinging to women’s skirts. Some of the horsemen had dismounted

to ransack the wagons; chests and boxes and even what looked to be clothes already dotted the snow.

Likely they were searching for coin or drink though any other valuable that turned up would go into

someone’s saddlebags too. Soon enough someone would cut free the wagon teams, or perhaps they

would just take the wagons. Wagons and horses were always useful for an army, and the peculiar rules

of this very peculiar Andoran civil war did not appear to give much protection to those who were in the

wrong place at the wrong time. But the city gates were swinging open, and as soon as the gap was wide

enough, red-coated lancers poured out of the twenty-foot high arch at a gallop, sunlight glittering on

lance-points and breastplates and helmets, thundering down the road between the long, empty markets.

The Queen’s Guards were coming out. Enough of them, anyway. Bashere swung his glass back to the

wagons.

Apparently the officer under the bear, if a bear it was, had done his sums already. Fifty against

two hundred made very poor odds, with only a few wagons at stake. The men who had dismounted were

back in their saddles, and even as Bashere found them, the lot of them galloped away north toward him,

the blue-and-white banner streaming behind its staff-Most of the people huddled beside the road stared

after the departing soldiers, their confusion as clear as if he had been able to make out their faces, but a

few immediately rushed to begin gathering up their scattered belongings out of the snow and piling them

back into the wagons.

The arrival of the Guardsmen, drawing rein around the wagons a few minutes later, put a quick

end to that. Guardsmen quickly began herding people toward the wagons-Some still tried to dart past

them for some prized belonging, and one man began waving his arms in protest at a Guardsman, an

obvious officer with white plumes on his helmet and a red sash across his breastplate, but the officer

leaned from the saddle and backhanded the protester in the face. The fellow went down on his back like

a stone, and after one frozen moment, everyone who was not already scrambling onto the wagons went

scurrying, except a pair of men who paused to pick up the fallen man by his shoulders and heels, and

they hurried as best they could carrying his limp weight, A woman up on the last wagon in line was

already lashing her reins to get her team turned around and headed back toward the city.

Bashere lowered the glass to study the camp, then pressed it back to his eye for a closer look.

Men were still digging away with shovel and mattock, and others wrestling sacks and barrels down from

wagons. Nobles and officers walked their horses about the camp, keeping an eye on the work. All calm

as cattle in pasture. Finally, someone pointed coward the rise between them and the city, then another

and another, and mounted men began to trot, plainly shouting orders. The bear-banner was just coming

into sight of the camp on the height.

Tucking the glass beneath his arm, Bashere frowned. They had no guards on the high ground to

warn them of what might be happening beyond their sight. Even in the certainty no one was going to

offer battle that was stupid. It might also be useful, if the other camps were as careless, and if no one

corrected the mistake. He puffed irritably through his mustaches. If he had been going to fight the

besiegers.

A glance showed him the wagons halfway back to the Tar Valon Gate with their escort of

Guardsmen, the wagon drivers lashing their teams as it pursuit were breathing down their necks. Or

maybe it was just the officer with the sash, who was waving his sword over his head for some reason.

"There’ll be no dancing today," he said.

"Then I have better to do with my day than watch wetlanders dig holes," Bael replied, "May you

always find water and shade, Davram Bashere"

"At the moment, I’d rather have dry feet and a warm fire," Bashere muttered without thinking!

Then wished he had not. Step on a man’s formality and he might try to kill you, and the Aiel were

formal and strange besides.

But Bael threw back his head and laughed. "The wet-lands turn everything on its head Davram

Bashere." A curious gesture of his right hand brought the other Aiel to their feet, and they loped off

eastward in long, easy strides. The snow did not seem to give them any difficulty.

Sliding his looking glass into the leather case hanging from Quick’s saddlebow, Bashere

mounted and turned the bay west. His own escort had been waiting on the reverse slope, and they fell in

behind him with only the faint creak of leather and never a jingle of unsecured metal. They numbered

fewer than Bael’s escort, but they were tough men from his estates at Tyr, and he had led them into the

Blight many times before bringing them south. Every man had his assigned part of the trail to watch,

ahead or behind, left or right, high or low, and their heads swiveled constantly. He hoped they were not

just going through the motions. The forest was sparse here, every branch bare except on oak and

leatherleaf pine and fir, but the snow-covered land rolled so that a hundred mounted men could be fifty

paces away and unseen. Not that he expected any such thing, but then, what killed you was always what

you never expected. Unconsciously, he eased his sword in its scabbard. You just had to expect the

unexpected.

Tumad had command of the escort, as he did most days Bashere did not have something more

important for the young lieutenant to do. He could think clearly and see beyond what was in front of

him; he was destined for higher rank, if he lived long enough. A tall man, if a couple of hands shorter

than Bael, today he wore disgruntlement on his face like a second nose.

"What troubles you, Tumad?"

"The Aielman was right, my Lord." Tumad tugged angrily at his thick black beard with a

gauntleted fist, "These Andorans spit at our feet. I do not like having to ride away while they thumb an

ear at us" Well he was still young.

"You find our situation boring, perhaps?" Bashere laughed. "You need more excitement?

Tenobia is only fifty leagues north of us, and if rumor can be believed, she brought Ethenielle of Kandor

and Paita of Arafel and even that Shienaran Easar with her. All the might of the Borderlands come

looking for us, Tumad. Those Andorans down in Murandy don’t like us being in Andor, either, so I hear,

and if that Aes Sedai army they’re facing doesn’t chop them to pieces, or hasn’t already they may come

looking for us. So may the Aes Sedai, for that matter, sooner or later. We’ve ridden for the Dragon

Reborn, and I can’t see any sister forgetting that. And then there are the Seanchan, Tumad. Do you

really think we’ve seen the last of them? They will come to us, or we will have to go to them; one or the

other is sure. You young men don’t know excitement when it’s crawling in your mustache!"

Quiet chuckles rippled through the men following, men as old as Bashere himself for the most

part, and even Tumad flashed white teeth through his beard in a grin. They had all been on campaign

before, if never one so odd as this. Straightening around, Bashere watched the way through the trees, but

with only half his attention.

In all truth, Tenobia did worry him. The Light only knew why Easar and the others had decided

to leave the Blightborder together, much less strip away as many soldiers as hearsay said they had

brought south. Even hearsay divided by half. Doubtless they had reasons they considered good and

sufficient, and doubtless Tenobia shared them. But he knew her; he had taught her to ride, watched her

grow up, presented her the Broken Crown when she took the throne. She was a good ruler, neither too

heavy-handed nor coo light, intelligent if not always wise, brave without being foolhardy, but impulsive

was a mild description of her. Sometimes "hot-headed" was mild. And he was as sure as he could be that

she had her own goal aside from whatever the others aimed at. The head of Davram Bashere. If that was

so, she was unlikely to settle for another period of exile, after coming this far. The longer Tenobia

worried a bone in her teeth, the harder it was to convince her to give it up. It was a neat problem. She

should be in Saldaea guarding the Blightborder, but so should he. She could convict him of treason

twice over at least for what he had done since coming south, but he still could see no other way to have

gone. Rebellion-Tenobia could define that loosely when she chose-rebellion was horrible to

contemplate, yet he wanted his head firmly attached to his neck a while longer. A neat and thorny

problem.

The encampment containing the eight thousand-odd light cavalry he had left after Illian and the

Seanchan spread wider than the camp back on the Tar Valon Road, but it could not be said to sprawl.

The horselines were uniform rows with a farrier’s forge at either end, stretched between equally straight

rows of large gray or shell-white tents, though those showed a good many patches, now. Every man

could be mounted and ready to ride inside a count of fifty from a trumpet signal, and his sentries were

placed to make sure they had that count and more. Even the camp-followers’ tents and wagons, a

hundred paces south of the rest, were more orderly than the soldiers’ besieging the city as though they

had followed the example of the Saldaeans. Somewhat, at least.

As he rode in with his escort, men moved quickly and grimly among the horselines, almost as if

the signal to mount had been sounded. More than one had his sword drawn. Voices called to him, but at

the sight of a large crowd of men and women, mostly women, gathered in the center of the camp, he felt

a sudden numbness inside. He dug in his heels, and Quick sprang forward at a gallop. He did not know

whether anyone followed him or not. He heard nothing but the blood pounding in his ears, saw no thing

but the crowd in front of his own sharp-peaked tent. The tent he shared with Deira.

He did not rein in on reaching the crowd, just threw himself out of the saddle and hit the ground

running. He heard people speak without taking in what they were saying. They parted in front of him,

opening a path to his tent, or he would have run them over.

Just inside the tentflaps, he halted. The tent, large enough for twenty soldiers to sleep in, was

crowded to the walls with women, wives of nobles and officers, but his eyes quickly found his own

wife, Deira, seated on a folding chair in the middle of the carpets that served as a floor, and the

numbness faded. He knew she would die one day-they both would-but the only thing he feared was

living without her. Then he realized that some of the women were helping her to lower her dress to her

waist. Another was pressing a folded cloth to Deira’s left arm, and the cloth was growing red as blood

ran down her arm in a sheet and dripped from her fingers into a bowl set on the carpet. There was a

considerable amount of dark blood already in the bowl.

She saw him at the same instant, and her eyes flashed in a face that was much too pale. "It

comes from hiring outlanders, husband," she said fiercely, her right hand shaking a long dagger at him.

As tall as most men, inches caller than he, and beautiful, her face framed with raven hair winged with

white, she had a commanding presence that could become imperious when she was angry. Even when

she obviously could barely sit upright. Most women would have been flustered at being bare to the waist

in front of so many, with her husband present. Not Deira. "If you did not always insist on moving like

the wind, we could have good men from our own estates to do whatever was needful."

"A dispute with servants, Deira?" he said, cocking an eyebrow. "I never thought you’d start

taking knives to them." Several of the women gave him cool, sidelong glances. Not every man and wife

dealt together as he and Deira did. Some thought them odd since they seldom shouted.

Deira scowled at him, then grunted a short, involuntary laugh. "I will start at the beginning

Davram. And go slowly, so you can understand, she added with a small smile, pausing to thank the

women who draped a white linen sheet around her bare torso. "I returned from my ride to find two

strange men ransacking our tent. They drew daggers, so naturally, I hit one of them with a chair and

stabbed the other." She directed a grimace at her cut arm. "Not well enough, since he managed to touch

me. Then Zavion and some of the others came in, and the pair fled through a slit they had made in the

rear of the tent."

Several of the women nodded grimly and gripped the hilts of the daggers they all wore. Until

Deira said darkly "I told them to give chase, but they insisted on tending my scratch." Hands dropped

away from hilts, and faces colored, though none looked in the least apologetic for disobeying. They had

been in a ticklish position. Deira was their liege lady as he was their liege lord, but whether or nor she

called it a scratch, she could have bled to death if they had left her to go chasing the thieves. "In any

event," she went on, "I ordered a search. They won’t be hard to find. One has a lump on his head, and

the other is bleeding." She gave a sharp, satisfied nod.

Zavion, the sinewy, red-haired Lady of Gahaur, held up a threaded needle "Unless you have

taken up an interest in embroider my Lord," she said coolly, "may I suggest that you withdraw."

Bashere acquiesced with a small bow of his head. Deira never liked him to watch her being

sewn up. He never liked watching her being sewn up. Outside the tent, he paused to announce in a loud

voice that his lady wife was well and being tended, and that they should all go on about their business.

The men departed with wishes for Deira’s well being, but none of the women stirred a foot. He did not

press them. They would remain until Deira herself appeared, whatever he said, and a wise man tried to

avoid battles he would not only lose, but look foolish losing.

Tumad was waiting on the edge of the crowd, and he fell in beside Bashere, who walked with his

hands clasped tightly behind his back. He had been expecting this, or something like, for a long time, but

he had almost begun to think it would not happen. And he had never expected Deira to nearly die

because of it.

"The two men have been found my Lord," Tumad said. "At least, they apparently meet the

description the Lady Deira gave." Bashere’s head jerked around, murder on his face, and the younger

man quickly added, "They were dead, my Lord, just outside the camp. Each got one thrust with a narrow

blade." He stabbed a ringer at the base of his skull, just behind the ear. "It had to be more than one did it,

unless he was faster than a rock viper."

Bashere nodded. The price of failure often was death. Two to search, and how many to silence

them? How many remained, and how long before they tried again? Worst of all, who was behind it? The

White Tower? The Forsaken? It seemed a decision had been reached for him. No one except: Tumad

was close enough to hear him, but he spoke softly anyway, and chose his words cautiously. Sometimes,

the price of carelessness was death, too. "You know where to find the man who came to me yesterday?

Find him, and tell him I agree, but there will be a few more than we talked about."

The light feathery snow falling on the city of Cairhien dimmed the morning sunlight only a little, just

muting the brightness. From the tall narrow window in the Sun Palace, fitted with a casement of good

glass panes against the cold, Samitsu could see clearly the wooden scaffolding erected around the ruined

section of the palace, broken cubes of dark stone still littered with rubble and stepped towers that

stopped abruptly short of equaling the rest of the palace’s towers. One, the Tower of the Risen Sun, was

simply no longer there. Several of the city’s fabled "topless" towers loomed through the drifting white

flakes, enormous square spires with huge buttresses, much taller by far than any in the palace despite its

location on the highest hill in a city of hills. They were wrapped in their own scaffolds and still not

completely rebuilt twenty years after the Aiel had burned them; another twenty might see them done.

There were no workmen clambering; along the planks on any of the scaffolding, of course, not in this

weather. She found herself wishing the snow could give her a respite, too.

When Cadsuane departed a week past, leaving her in charge, her task had appeared

straightforward. Make sure the Cairhienin pot did not begin to boil again. That had appeared a simple

task at the time, though she had seldom dabbled in politics to speak of only one noble retained sizable

forces under arms, and Dobraine was cooperative, for the most part, seeming to want everything kept

quiet. Of course, he had accepted that fool appointment as ‘Steward of Cairhien for the Dragon Reborn."

The boy had named a "Steward" of Tear, too, a man who had been in rebellion against him a month

gone! If he had done as much in Illian... It seemed all too probable. Those appointments would cause no

end of trouble for sisters to sort out before all was said and done! The boy brought nothing but trouble!

Yet so far Dobraine seemed to be using his new post only to run the city. And to quietly rally support for

Elayne Trakand s claim to the Sun Throne, if she ever made one. Samitsu was satisfied to leave it at that,

not caring one way or another who took the Sun Throne. She did not care much for Cairhien at all.

The falling snow beyond her window swirled in a gust of wind like a white kaleidoscope. So...

tranquil. Had she ever valued tranquility before? She certainly could not recall it, if she had.

Neither the possibility of Elayne Trakand taking the throne nor Dobraine’s new title had brought

nearly as much consternation as the ridiculous, and ridiculously persistent, rumors about the al’Thor boy

going to Tar Valon to submit to Elaida, though she had done nothing to quell those. That tale had

everyone from nobles to stablemen half afraid to breathe which was very well and good for maintaining

the peace. The Game of Houses had ground to a halt; well, compared to how matters normally were in

Cairhien. The Aiel who came into the city from their huge camp a few miles east very likely helped,

however much they were hated by the general run of folk. Everyone knew they followed the Dragon

Reborn, and no one wanted to risk finding themselves on the wrong end of thousands of Aiel spears.

Young al’Thor was much more useful absent than present. Rumors out of the west of Aiel raiding

elsewhere-looting, burning, killing indiscriminately, so merchants’ hearsay claimed-gave people another

reason to step gingerly with those here.

In fact, there seemed to be no burrs to prick Cairhien out of its quiet, aside from the occasional

street brawl between Foregaters and city folk who considered the noisy, brightly clad Foregaters as alien

as the Aiel and a good deal safer to fight. The city was crowded to the attics, with people sleeping

anywhere they could find shelter from the cold, yet food supplies were more than adequate if not

overabundant, and trade was actually better than expected in winter-All in all, she should have felt

content that she was carrying out Cadsuane’s instructions as well as the Green could wish for. Except

that Cadsuane would expect more. She always did.

‘Are you listening to me, Samitsu!"

Sighing, Samitsu turned from the peaceful view through the window, taking pains not to smooth

her yellow-slashed skirts. The Jakanda-made silver bells in her hair tinkled faintly, but today the sound

failed to soothe her. At the best of times she did not feel entirely comfortable in her apartments in the

palace, though a blazing fire in the wide marble fireplace gave a good warmth and the bed in the next

room had the best-quality feather mattresses and goose-down pillows. All three of her rooms were

overly ornate in the severe Cairhienin fashion, the white ceiling plaster worked in interlocking squares,

the wide bar-cornices heavily gilded, and the wooden wall-panels polished to a soft glow yet dark even

so. The furnishings were darker still and massively constructed, edged with thin lines of gold leaf and

inlaid with patterned ivory wedges. The flowered Tairen carpet in this room seemed garishly disordered

compared to every thing else, and emphasized the surrounding stiffness. It all seemed too much like a

cage of late.

What really discomfited her, though, was the woman with her hair in ringlets to her shoulders

standing in the middle of the carpet, fists on her hips, a belligerent set to her chin, and a frown

narrowing her blue eyes. Sashalle wore the Great Serpent ring, of course, on her right hand, but also an

Aiel necklace and bracelet, fat beads of silver and ivory intricately worked and carved, gaudy against her

high-necked dress of brown wool, which was plain if fine and well-cut. Not crude pieces, certainly,

but... flamboyant, and hardly the sort a sister would wear. The oddity of that jewelry might hold the key

to much, if Samitsu could ever find the reason behind it. The Wise Ones, especially Sorilea, looked at

her as if she were a fool for not knowing without asking, and refused to be bothered with answering.

They did that all too often. Most especially Sorilea. Samitsu was unused to being thought a fool, and she

disliked it immensely.

Not for the first time, she found it difficult to meet the other sister’s gaze. Sashalle was the major

reason contentment eluded her, no matter how well everything was going otherwise. Most maddening,

Sashalle was a Red, yet despite her Ajah, she was oathsworn to young al’Thor. How could any Aes

Sedai swear fealty to a man who could channel? Maybe Verin had been right about ta’veren twisting

chance. Samitsu could not begin to think of any other reason for thirty-one sisters, five, of them Red, to

take such an oath.

"The Lady Ailil has been approached by lords and ladies who represent most of House Riatin’s

strength" she replied, much more patiently than she felt. "They want her to take the High Seat of Riatin,

and she wants White Tower approval. Aes Sedai approval, at least." For something to do besides match

stares-and likely lose-she moved to a blackwood table where a gold-worked silver pitcher sitting; on a

silver tray still gave off the faint scent of spices. Filling a cup with mulled wine provided an excuse to

break the fleering eye contact. Needing an excuse made her replace the pitcher on the tray with a sharp

clink. She found herself avoiding looking at Sashalle too often. Even now, she realized she was looking

at the other woman sideways. To her frustration, she could not quite make herself turn completely to

meet her stare.

‘Tell her no, Sashalle. Her brother was still alive when last seen, and rebellion against the

Dragon Reborn is nothing that need concern the Tower; certainly not now it’s done with." The memory

arose of Toram Riatin as last seen, running off into a strange fog that could take on solid form and kill, a

fog that resisted the One Power. The Shadow had walked outside the walls of Cairhien that day.

Samitsu’s voice tightened from the effort to stop it short of trembling. Not with fear, but anger. That had

been the day she failed at Healing young al’Thor. She hated failures, hated remembering them. And she

should not have to explain herself. "Most of Riatin’s strength is no tall. Those still tied to Toram will

oppose her, with force of arms if necessary, and in any case, fostering upheaval inside the Houses

themselves is no way to maintain the peace. There is a precarious balance in Cairhien now, Sashalle, but

it is a balance, and we mustn’t disturb it." She managed to stop short of saying Cadsuane would be

displeased if they did. That would hardly carry weight with Sashalle.

"Upheaval will come whether or not we foster it," the other sister said firmly. Her frown had

faded as soon as Samitsu showed she had been listening, though the set of her jaw remained. Perhaps it

was stubbornness rather than belligerence, yet that hardly mattered. The woman was not arguing or

trying to convince her, just stating her own position. And most galling of all, plainly doing that much as

a courtesy. "The Dragon Reborn is the herald of upheaval and change, Samitsu. The herald foretold.

And if he weren’t, this is Cairhien. Do you think they have really stopped playing at Daes Dae’mar? The

surface of the water may be still, but the fish never stop swimming."

A Red preaching the Dragon Reborn like a street corner demagogue! Light! "And if you are

wrong:" In spite of herself, Samitsu bit off the words. Sashalle-burn her! -maintained a perfect serenity.

"Ailil has forsworn any claim to the Sun Throne in favor of Elayne Trakand which is what the

Dragon Reborn desires, and she is ready to swear fealty to him, if I ask it. Toram led an army against

Rand al’Thor. I say the change is worth making and the chance worth taking, and I will tell her so."

The bells in Samitsu’s hair chimed at an irritated shake of her head, and she barely managed to

stop herself from sighing again. Eighteen of those Dragonsworn sisters remained in Cairhien. Cadsuane

had carried some away with her, then sent Alanna back to takeoff still more-and others of the eighteen

besides Sashalle stood higher than she, but the Aiel Wise Ones kept them out of her way. In principle,

she disapproved of how that was done-Aes Sedai could not be apprentices, not to anyone! It was

outrageous! -but in practice, it did make her job easier. They could not meddle or try to take charge with

Wise Ones running their lives and watching over their every hour. Unfortunately for some reason she

could not learn, the Wise Ones Looked differently on Sashalle and the other two sisters who had been

sailed at Dumai’s Wells. Stilled. She felt a faint shiver at the thought, but only faint! and it would be less

if she ever managed to work out how Damer Flinn had Healed what could not be Healed. At least

someone could Heal stilling, even if it was a man. A man channeling. Light, how the horror of yesterday

became merely the uneasiness of today, once you grew accustomed.

She was sure that Cadsuane would have arranged matters with the Wise Ones before leaving had

she known about the difference with Sashalle and Irgain and Ronaille. At least, she thought she was

sure. This was not the first time she had been pulled into one of the legendary Green’s designs.

Cadsuane could be more devious than a Blue, schemes inside plots wrapped in stratagems and all hidden

behind still others. Some were planned to fail in order to help others succeed, and only Cadsuane knew

which were which, not at all a comforting thought. In any case, those three sisters were free to come and

go, as they desired, do as they desired. And they certainly felt no need to follow the guidance Cadsuane

had left behind or to follow the sister she had named to lead. Only their mad oath to al’Thor guided or

constrained them.

Samitsu had never felt weak or ineffectual in her life except when her Talent failed her, yet she

very much wished that Cadsuane would return and take matters out of her hands. A few words delivered

in Ailil’s ear would quench any desire the lady bad to mount the High Seat, of course, yet it would come

to nothing unless she found some way to deflect Sashalle from her purpose. No matter that Ailil feared

having her silly secrets aired abroad, inconsistency in what Aes Sedai told her could well make her

decide it was better to try vanishing to her country estates rather than risk offending a sister whatever

she did. Cadsuane would be upset over losing Ailil. Samitsu herself would be upset. Ailil was a conduit

into half the plots brewing among the nobles, a gauge to be sure those intrigues were all still petty and

unlikely to bring any major disturbance. The cursed Red knew that. And once Sashalle gave Ailil this

permission, it would be her the woman came running to with her news, not Samitsu Tamagowa.

While Samitsu was floundering in her quandary, the door to the hallway opened to admit a pale,

stern-faced Cairhienin woman, a hand shorter than either Aes Sedai. Her hair was in a thick gray roll on

the nape of her neck, and she wore an unadorned gray dress so dark it was nearly black, the current

livery of a Sun Palace servant. Servants never announced themselves or asked admittance, of course, but

Corgaide Marendevin was hardly just another servant; the heavy silvery ring of long keys at her waist

was a badge of office. Whoever ruled Cairhien, the Holder of the Keys ruled the Sun Palace in simple

fact, and there was nothing submissive in Corgaide’s manner. She made a minimal curtsy carefully

aimed halfway between Samitsu and Sashalle.

"I was asked to report anything unusual," she said to the air, though it had been Samitsu who

asked-Very likely, she had known of the power struggle between them as soon as they did themselves.

Little in the palace escaped her. "I am cold there is an Ogier in the kitchens. He and a young man

supposedly are looking after work, as masons, but I have never heard of Ogier and human masons

working together. And Stedding Tsofu sent word no masons would be available from any stedding for

the foreseeable future, when we inquired after . . . the incident." The pause was barely perceptible, and

her grave expression did not alter, but hall the gossip about the attack on the Sun Palace laid it to

al’Thor’s doing, the other half to Aes Sedai. A few tales mentioned the Forsaken, but only to pair them

with either al’Thor or the Aes Sedai.

Pursing her lips in thought, Samitsu set aside the cursed tangle Cairhienin made of everything

they touched. Denials of Aes Sedai involvement: did little good; the Three Oaths only went so far in a

city where a simple yes or no could give rise to six contradictory rumors. But, Ogier . . . The palace

kitchens scarcely took in stray passersby, yet the cooks very likely would give an Ogier a hot meal just

for the strangeness of seeing him. Ogier were even more uncommon than usual, this last year or so. A

few were still seen now and then, but walking as fast as only an Ogier could, and seldom stopping in one

place more than long enough to sleep. They rarely traveled with humans, however, much less worked

with them. The pairing tickled something in her mind, though. Hoping to tease whatever it was into the

open, she opened her mouth to ask a few questions.

‘Thank you, Corgaide," Sashalle said with a smile. "You’ve been most helpful. But if you will

leave us, now?" Being abrupt with the Holder of the Keys was a good way to find yourself with dirty

bed-linens and poorly spiced meals, un emptied chamberpots and messages that went astray, a thousand

annoyances that could make fire a misery and leave you wading in mud trying to accomplish anything at

all, yet somehow that smile appeared to take the sting out o her words for Corgaide. The gray-haired

woman bowed her head slightly in assent and again made the smallest possible curtsy. This time,

obviously to Sashalle.

No sooner had the door closed behind the gray-haired woman than Samitsu thumped her silver

cup back on the tray hard enough to splash warm wine over her wrist and rounded on the Red sister. She

was on the brink of losing control of Ailil, and now the Sun Palace itself appeared to be slipping through

her fingers! It was as likely Corgaide would sprout wings and fly as keep silent about what she had seen

here, and whatever she said would flash through the palace and infect every servant down to the men

who mucked out the stables-That final curtsy had made it quite clear what she thought. Light, but

Samitsu hated Cairhien! The customs of civility between sisters were deeply ingrained, but Sashalle did

not stand high enough to make her hold her tongue in the face of this disaster, and she intended to

deliver the rough side of it.

Frowning at the other woman, though, she saw Sashalle’s face-really saw it, perhaps for the first

time-and suddenly she knew why it troubled her so, perhaps even why she had found it difficult to look

directly at the Red sister. It was no longer an Aes Sedai face, outside of time and standing apart from

age. Most people were unsure of the look until it was pointed out, but it was unmistakable to another

sister. Perhaps some bits remained, scraps that made Sashalle appear closer to beautiful than she really

was, vet anyone at all would put an age to her, somewhere short of her middle years. The realization

froze Samitsu’s tongue.

What was known about women who had been stilled was little better than rumor. They ran away

and hid from other sisters; eventually, they died. Usually, they died soon rather than late. The loss of

saidar was more than most women could bear for very long. But it was all really tittle-tattle; as far as she

knew, no one in a very long time had had the nerve to try learning more. The rarely acknowledged fear

in the darkest corner of every sister’s head, that the same fate might come to her one day in a careless

moment, kept anyone from wanting to know too much. Even Aes Sedai could hide their eyes when they

did not want to see. There were always those rumors, though, almost never mentioned and so vague you

could never recall where you heard them first, whispers on the edge of hearing, yet forever floating

about. One that Samitsu had only half remembered; till now, said that a woman who was stilled grew

young again, if she lived. It had always seemed ludicrous, till now. Regaining the ability to channel had

not given Sashalle back everything. Once more she would have to work with the Power for years to gain

the face that would proclaim her Aes Sedai to any sister who could see her clearly. Or . . . would she

regain it. It seemed inevitable, yet this was unmapped terrain. And if her face was changed, was

anything else about her changed as well: Samitsu shivered, harder than she had for the thought of

stilling. Perhaps it was as well she had gone slow in trying to puzzle out Darner’s way of Healing.

Fingering her Aiel necklace, Sashalle seemed unaware that Samitsu had any grievance over her

behavior, unaware of Samitsu s scrutiny-"This maybe nothing, or it may warrant looking into," she said,

"but Corgaide was only reporting what she heard. If we want to learn anything, we must go and see for

ourselves." Without another word, she gathered her skirts and started out of the apartments, leaving

Samitsu only a choice between following or remaining behind. It was intolerable! Yet remaining was

unthinkable.

Sashalle was no taller than she, not to speak of, but she had to hurry to keep up as the Red glided

swiftly along wide, square-vaulted corridors. Taking the lead was out of the question, unless she chose

to run. She fumed in silence, though it required gritting her teeth. Arguing with another sister in public

was improper at best. Worse, without any doubt, it would be futile. And that would only dig the hole she

was in deeper. She felt a very great desire to kick something.

Standlamps at regular intervals gave plenty of light even in the darkest stretches of hallway but

there was little color or decoration beyond the occasional tapestry with every-thing in it arranged in

orderly fashion, whether animals being hunted or nobles fighting gallantly in battle. A few niches in the

walls held ornaments of gold or Sea Folk porcelain, and in some corridors the cornices were worked in

friezes, most left unpainted. That was all. Cairhienin hid their opulence out of public view; as they did

with so much. The serving men and women who hurried industriously along the halls like streams of

ants wore livery the color of charcoal, except for those in service to nobles resident in the palace, who

seemed bright beside the rest, with their House badges embroidered on their breasts, and their collars

and sometimes sleeves marked in House colors. One or two even had a coat or dress all in House colors,

and appeared almost an outlander among the others. But they all kept their eyes down and barely paused

long enough to offer quick bows or curtsies to the two sisters as they passed. The Sun Palace required

countless hundreds of servants, and it seemed they were all scurrying about this morning tending their

chores.

Nobles strolled the hallways, too, offering their own cautious courtesies to the Aes Sedai as they

passed, perhaps with a greeting carefully balanced between an illusion of equality and the true state of

affairs, spoken in low voices that did nor carry far. They proved the old saying that strange times make

for strange traveling companions. Old enmities had been put away in the face of new dangers. For the

moment. Here, two or three pale Cairhienin lords in dark silk coats with thin stripes of color across the

front, some with the fronts of their heads shaved and powdered soldier-fashion, promenaded alongside

an equal number of dark Tairens, taller in their bright coats with fat, striped sleeves. There, a Tairen

noblewoman in a snug pearl-sewn cap, colorfully brocaded gown, and pale lace ruff walked arm-in-arm

beside a shorter Cairhienin noble with her hair in an elaborate tower that readied well above her

companion’s head, smoky gray lace under her chin, and narrow stripes of her House colors cascading

down the front of her wide-skirted dark silk. All like bosom-friends and trusted confidants.

Some pairings did look odder than others. A number of women had begun wearing outlandish

clothes of late, apparently never noticing how they drew men’s eyes and made even the servants struggle

not to stare. Tight breeches and a coat barely long enough to cover the hips were not suitable garments

for a woman, no matter how much effort went into rich embroidery or patterning the coat with

gemstones, jeweled necklaces and bracelets and pins with sprays of colorful feathers only pointed up the

oddity. And those brightly dyed boots, with their heels that added as much as a hand to a woman’s

height made them appear in danger of falling down with every swaying step.

"Scandalous." Sashalle muttered, eyeing one such pair of women and twitching her skirts in

displeasure.

"Scandalous," Samitsu murmured before she could stop herself, then snapped her mouth shut so

hard her teeth clicked. She needed to control her tongue. Voicing agreement just because she agreed was

a habit she could ill-afford with Sashalle.

Still she could not help glancing back at the pair in disapproval. And a bit of wonder. A year ago,

Alaine Chuliliandred and Fionnda Annariz would have been at each other’s throats. Or rather have had

their armsmen at one another’s throats. But then, who would have expected to see Bertome Saighan

walking peacefully with Weiramon Saniago, neither man reaching for the dagger at his belt? Strange

times and strange traveling companions. Doubtless they were playing the Game of Houses, maneuvering

for advantage as they always had, yet dividing lines that once were graven in stone now turned out to

have been drawn on water instead. Very strange times.

The kitchens were on the lowest level of the Sun Palace above ground., at the back, a cluster of

stone-walled beam-ceiling rooms centered around a long windowless room full of iron stoves and brick

ovens and dressed-stone fireplaces, and the heat was enough to make anyone forget the snow outside, or

even that it was winter. Normally, sweaty-faced cooks and under-cooks, as darkly clad as any other

palace servants beneath their white aprons, would have been scurrying about getting ready to prepare the

midday meal, kneading loaves on long flour-strewn tables topped with marble, basting the joints and

fowl that were turning on spits in the fireplaces. Now only the trotting spit-dogs were moving, eager to

earn their bits from the joints. Baskets of turnips and carrots stood unpeeled and unchopped, and smells

sweet and spicy came from untended pots of sauces. Even the scullions, boys and girls surreptitiously

wiping their faces on their aprons, stood on the fringe of a group of women clustered around one of the

tables. From the door-way, Samitsu could see the back of an Ogier’s head rising above them where he

was seated at the table, taller than most men would have been standing up, and broad with it. Of course,

Cairhienin were short by and large, and that helped. She laid a hand on Sashalle’s arm, and for a

wonder, the woman stopped where they were without protest.

" . . . vanished without leaving a clue where he was going?" the Ogier was asking in a deep

rumble like the earth shifting. His long, tufted ears, sticking up through dark hair that hung to his high

collar, flicked back and forth uneasily.

"Oh, do stop talking about him, Master Ledar," a woman’s voice answered in a quaver that

seemed well practiced. "Wicked, he was. Tore half the palace apart with the One Power, he did. He

could turn your blood to ice just looking at you, and kill you as soon as look. Thousands have died by

his own hand. Tens of thousands! Oh I never like talking about him."

"For someone as never likes talking about something, Eldrid Methin another woman said sharply

"you surely talk of little else." Stout and quite tall for a Cairhienin, nearly as tall as Samitsu herself with

a few strands of gray hair escaping her white plain-lace cap, she must have been the chief cook on duty

because everyone Samitsu could see quickly nodded agreement and twittered with laughter and said,

"Oh, right you are, Mistress Beldair," in a particularly sycophantic way. Servants had their own

hierarchies, as rigidly maintained as the Tower itself.

"But that sort of thing really is not for us to be gossiping over, Master Ledar," the stout woman

went on Aes Sedai business, that is, and not for the likes of you and me. Tell us more about the

Borderlands. Have you really seen Trollocs?"

"Aes Sedai," a man muttered. Hidden by the crowd around the table, he had to be Ledar’s

companion. Samitsu could see no grown men among the kitchen-folk this morning. "Tell me, do you

really think they bonded those men you were talking about, those Asha’man? As Warders? And what

about the one who died? You never said how."

"Why, it was the Dragon Reborn as killed him," Eldrid piped up. "And what else would Aes

Sedai bond a man as? Oh, terrible, they was, them Asha’man. Turn you to stone with a look, they could.

You can tell one just by looking at him, you know. Frightful glowing eyes, they have."

"Be quiet, Eldrid," Mistress Beldair said firmly. "Maybe they was Asha’man and maybe not,

Master Underhill. Maybe they was bonded and maybe not. All I or anyone else can say is they was with

him," the emphasis in her voice made plain who she was talking about; Eldrid might consider Rand

al’Thor fearful but this woman did not want to so much as name him, "and soon after he left, suddenly

the Aes Sedai was telling them what to do and they was doing it. Of course any fool knows to do as an

Aes Sedai says. Anyway those fellows are all gone off, now. Why are you so interested in them Master

Underhill? Is that an Andoran name?"

Ledar threw back his head and laughed, a booming sound that filled the room. His ears twitched

violently. "Oh, we want to know everything about the places we visit, Mistress Beldair. The

borderlands, you say? You might think its cold here, but we’ve seen trees crack open like nuts on the

fire from the cold in the borderlands. You have blocks of ice on the river, floating down from upstream,

but we’ve seen rivers as wide as the Alguenya frozen so merchants can drive loaded trains of wagons

across them, and men fishing through holes cut in ice nearly a span thick. At night, there are sheets of

light in the sky that seem to crackle, bright enough to dim the stars, and …"

Even Mistress Beldair was leaning towards the Ogier caught up, but one of the young scullions,

too short to see past the adults, glanced behind him, and his eyes went wide when they lit on Samitsu

and Sashalle. His gaze stayed fixed on them as if trapped, but he fumbled with one hand till he could tug

at Mistress Beldair’s sleeve. The first time she shook him off without looking around. At a second tug,

she her head with a scowl that vanished in a blink when she, too, saw the Aes Sedai.

"Grace favor you, Aes Sedai," she said, hastily tucking stray hair back under her cap as she

bobbed her curtsy. "How may I serve you?" Ledar broke off short in mid-sentence, and his ears stiffened

for a moment. He did not look toward the doorway.

"We wish to speak with your visitors" Sashalle said, moving into the kitchen. "We won’t disrupt

your kitchen for long."

"Of course, Aes Sedai." If the stout woman felt any surprise at two sisters wanting to talk to

kitchen visitors, she showed none. Head swinging from side to side to take in everyone, she clapped her

plump hands and began spouting orders. "Eldrid, those turnips will never peel themselves. Who was

watching the fig sauce? Dried figs are hard to come by! Where is your basting spoon, Kasi? Andil, run

fetch some...’ Cooks and scullions scattered in every direction, and a clatter of pots and spoons quickly

filled the kitchen, though everyone was plainly making an effort to be as quiet as possible so as not to

disturb the Aes Sedai. They were plainly making an effort not to even look in their direction, though that

involved some contortion.

The Ogier rose to his feet smoothly his head coming near the thick ceiling beams. His clothing

was what Samitsu remembered from meeting Ogier before, a long dark coat that flared over turneddown

boots. Stains on his coat said he had been traveling hard; Ogier were a fastidious people. He only

half turned to face her and Sashalle even as lie made a bow, and lie rubbed at his wide nose as if it

itched. Partially hiding his broad face, but he appeared young, for an Ogier. "Forgive us, Aes Sedai," he

murmured, "but we really must be moving on." Bending to gather a huge leather scrip that had a large

rolled blanker tied across the top and showed the impressions of several square shapes packed around

whatever else was stuffed inside, he hoisted the broad strap over one shoulder. His capacious coat

pockets bulged with angular shapes, too. "We have a long way to go before nightfall." His companion

remained seated, though, his hands spread on the tabletop, a pale-haired young man with a week’s

growth of beard who seemed to have slept more than one night in his rumpled brown coat. He watched

the Aes Sedai warily, with dark eyes that belonged on a cornered fox.

"Where are you going that you can reach by nightfall?" Sashalle did not stop until she was

standing in front of the young Ogier, close enough to need to crane her neck to look up at him, though

she made it seem graceful rather than awkward, as it should have been. "Are you on your way to the

meeting we’ve heard about, in Sledding Shangtai Master . . . Ledar, is it?" His tall ears twitched

violently, then were still, and his teacup-sized eyes narrowed almost as warily as the young man’s, till

the dangling ends of his eyebrows trailed onto his cheeks-"Ledar, son of Shandin son of Koimal, Aes

Sedai," he said reluctantly. "But I’m certainly not going to the Grand Stump. Why, the Elders wouldn’t

let me close enough to hear what was being said." He gave a deep bass chuckle that sounded forced.

"We can’t get where we’re going tonight, Aes Sedai, but every league behind us is a league we don’t

have to walk tomorrow. We need to be on our way." The unshaven young man stood up, running a hand

nervously along the long hilt of the sword buckled at his waist, yet he made no move to pick up the scrip

and blanket-roll at his feet and follow as the Ogier started toward the door that led to the street, even

when the Ogier said over his shoulder, "We need to go now, Karldin."

Sashalle glided fluidly into the Ogier’s path, though she had to take three strides to his one, "You

were asking after work as a mason, Master Ledar," she said in tones brooking no nonsense, "but your

hands are not as callused as any mason’s I’ve ever seen. It would be best for you to answer my

questions."

Suppressing a triumphant smile, Samitsu moved up beside the Red sister. So Sashalle thought

she could simply push her aside and ferret out what was going on, did she? The woman was in for a

surprise. "You really must stay a while longer," she said to the Ogier in a low voice; the noise in the

kitchen should keep anyone from overhearing, yet there was no need to take chances. "When I came to

the Sun Palace, I had already heard of a young Ogier, a friend of Rand al’Thor. He left Cairhien some

months past, in company with a young man named Karldin, Isn’t that right, Loial?’ The Ogier’s ears

wilted.

The young man bit off a coarse curse he should have known better than to mouth in front of

sisters. "I leave when I want to leave, Aes Sedai," he said harshly", but in a low voice. For the most part,

lie divided his gaze between her and Sashalle, yet he was watchful for any of the kitchen workers who

might come near. He did nor wish to be overheard, either. "Before I do, I want some answers. What

happened to ... my friends? And him. Did he go mad?" Loial sighed heavily, and made a pacifying

gesture with one huge hand, "Be easy. Karldin," be murmured, "Rand wouldn’t like you starting trouble

with Aes Sedai. Be easy." Karldin’s scowl only deepened.

Abruptly it occurred to Samitsu that she could have handled this better. Those were nor the eyes

of a cornered fox, but a wolf. She bad grown too accustomed to Damer and Jahar and Eben, safely

bonded and tamed. That might be an overstatement, though Merise was making an effort with Jahar-that

was Merise’s way-yet it seemed the horror of yesterday could become the complacency of today after

long enough exposure. Karldin Manfor was an Asha’man, too, and neither bonded nor tame. Was he

embracing the male half of the Power? She almost laughed. Did birds fly?

Sashalle was watching the young man with a studying frown, her hands much too still on her

skirts, but Samitsu was glad not to see the light of saidar around her. Asha’man could feel when a

woman held the Power, and that might make him act . . . precipitately. Certainly she and Samitsu

together could handle him-could they, if he already held the Power? Of course, they could-Of course! -

but it would be much better if they did not have to.

Sashalle certainly was making no move to take charge, now, so Samitsu laid a hand lightly on his

left arm. Through his coat sleeve, it felt like a bar of iron. So he was as uneasy as she. As uneasy as she?

Light, but Damer and those other two had spoiled all her instincts!

"He seemed sane as most men when I last saw him," she said softly, with just a slight emphasis.

None of the kitchen-folk were nearby, but a few had begun sneaking peeks toward the table. Loial

exhaled heavily in relief a sound like wind rushing across the mouth of a cave, but she kept her attention

on Karldin. "I don’t know where he is, but he was alive as of a few days ago." Alanna had been closemouthed

as a mussel beyond that, and over-bearing, too, with Cadsuane’s note in her fist. "Fedwin Morr

died of poison, I fear, but I have no idea who gave it to him." To her surprise, Karldin merely shook his

head, with a rueful grimace, and muttered something incomprehensible about wine. "As for the others,

they became Warders of their own free will." As much as any man did any thing of his free will. Her

Roshan certainly had not wanted to be a Warder, until she decided she wanted him for one. Even a

woman who was not Aes Sedai could usually make a man decide the way she wanted. ‘They’ thought it

a better choice, safer, than returning to ... the others like you. You see, the damage here was done with

saidin. You understand who must have been behind it? It was an attempt to kill the one whose sanity you

fear for."

That did not seem to surprise him, either. What sort of men were these Asha’man? Was their socalled

Black Tower a murder-pit? The tightness went out of his arm, though, and suddenly he was just a

road-weary young man who needed a shave. "Light!" he breathed. "What do we do now, Loial? Where

do we go?"

"I ... don’t know" Loial replied, his shoulders sagging tiredly and his long ears drooping. "I …

We have to find him, Karldin. Somehow. We can’: give up now. We have to ler him know we did what

he asked. As much as we could."

And what was it al’Thor had asked, Samitsu wondered. With a little luck, she could learn a great

deal from these two. A tired man, or Ogier, feeling lost and alone, was ripe for answering questions.

Karldin gave a small jump, his hand tightening on his swordhilt, and she bit back a curse of her

own as a palace serving woman came running into the room with her skirts gathered almost to her knees.

"Lord Dobraine’s been murdered!" the serving woman squealed. "We will all be killed in our beds! My

eyes have seen the dead walking, old Maringil himself, and my Mam says spirits will kill you if there

has been a murder done! They-!" Her mouth froze open when she caught the presence of Aes Sedai, and

she skidded to a halt still clutching her skirts. The kitchen folk seemed frozen, too, all watching the Aes

Sedai from the corners of their eyes to see what they would do.

"Not Dobraine," Loial moaned, ears lying flat against his head. "Not him." He looked as much

angry as saddened, his face stony. Samitsu did not think she had ever seen an Ogier angry.

"What is your name?" Sashalle demanded of the serving woman before Samitsu could even part

her lips. "How do you know he was murdered? How do you know he’s dead?" The woman swallowed,

her eyes held by Sashalle’s cool gaze. "Cera, Aes Sedai?" she said hesitantly, bending her knees in a

curtsy and only then realizing that she still had her skirts gathered up. Hastily smoothing them down

only seemed to fluster her more. "Cera Dofnal? They say . . . Everybody says Lord Dobraine is... I

mean, he was ... I mean . . ." She swallowed again, hard. "They all say his rooms are covered with

blood. He was found lying in a great pool of it. With his head cur off, they say."

"They say a great many things," Sashalle said grimly, "and usually they’re wrong. Samitsu, you

will come with me. If Lord Dobraine has been injured, you may be able to do something for him. Loial,

Karldin, you come, too, I don’t want you out of my sight before I have a chance to ask a few questions."

"Burn your questions!" the young Asha’man growled, shouldering his belongings. "I’m

leaving!" "No, Karldin," Loial said gently, laying a huge hand on his companion’s shoulder. "We can’t

go before we know about Dobraine. He’s a friend, Rand’s friend, and mine. We cant. Anyway, where

are we hurrying to?" Karldin looked away.

He had no answer,

Samitsu squeezed her eyes shut, and took a deep breath, but there was no help for it. She found

herself following Sashalle out of the kitchens, once more hurrying to keep up with the other woman’s

quick, gliding stride. In fact she found herself half-running; Sashalle set an even more rapid pace than

before.

The babbling of voices rose behind them as soon as they were out the door. The kitchen folk

probably all were pressing the serving woman for particulars, details she very likely would invent where

her knowledge failed. Ten different versions of events would find their way out of that kitchen, if not as

many as there were kitchen folk. Worst of all, ten different versions of events in the kitchen would find

their way out, every one adding to the rumors Corgaide, doubtless was already starting. She could hardly

recall a day that had gone so badly for her, so suddenly like slipping on one patch of ice only to find

another under her feet, then another. Cadsuane would have her hide to make gloves after this!

At least Loial and Karldin trailed after Sashalle as well. Whatever she learned from them might

still be put to advantage, a way to salvage something. Scurrying along at Sashalle’s side, she studied

them in brief glances over her shoulder. Taking short strides to keep from over-running the Aes Sedai,

the Ogier was frowning in worry. Over Dobraine, very likely but also perhaps over only completing his

mysterious task "as well as he could? That was a mystery she intended to solve. The young Asha’man

had no difficulty keeping up though he wore an expression of stubborn reluctance and his hand caressed

his swordhilt. The danger in him did not lie in steel. He stared suspiciously at the backs of the Aes Sedai

ahead, once meeting Samitsu’s glance with a dark glower. He had the sense to keep his mouth shut,

though. She would have to find a way to pry it open later for more than snarling.

Sashalle never glanced behind to make sure the pair were following, but then, she had to hear the

thud of the Ogier’s boots on the floor tiles. Her face was thoughtful and Samitsu would have given a

great deal to know what she was thinking. Sashalle might be oathsworn to Rand al’Thor, but what

protection did that give to an Asha’man? She was Red, after all. That had not changed with her face.

Light, this could be the worst patch of ice of all!

It was a long arduous climb from the kitchens to Lord Dobraine’s apartments in the Tower of the

Full Moon, which was usually set aside for visiting nobility of high rank, and all along the way, Samitsu

saw the evidence that Cera had been far from the first to hear what the ever-anonymous they had to say.

Rather than endless streams of servants Bowing along die corridors, small excited knots stood

whispering anxiously. At sight of the Aes Sedai, they sprang apart and scurried away. A handful did

gape at seeing an Ogier striding through the palace, yet for the most part, they all but fled. The nobles

that had been about before had all vanished, doubtless back to their own rooms to mull over what

opportunities and hazards Dobraine’s death afforded them. Whatever Sashalle thought, Samitsu no

longer doubted. If Dobraine had been alive, his own servants would have put paid to the rumor already,

For further confirmation, the hallways outside Dobraine’s rooms were crowded with ashen-faced

servants, their sleeves ringed to the elbows in the blue-and-white of House Taborwin. Some wept, and

others looked lost, their foundation stone pulled out from under them. At a word from Sashalle, they

stood aside for the Aes Sedai, moving drunkenly or mechanically. Dazed eyes swept by the Ogier

without actually registering what they saw. Few remembered to make even halfhearted courtesies.

Inside, the anteroom was almost as full of Dobraine’s servants, most staring as if poleaxed.

Dobraine himself lay motionless on a litter in the middle of the large room, his head still attached to his

body but his eyes closed and a drying sheet of blood, from a long cut in his scalp, spread across his still

features. A dark trickle had leaked from his slack mouth. Two serving men with tears streaming down

their cheeks paused in the act of laying a white cloth over his face at the entrance of the Aes Sedai.

Dobraine did not appear to be breathing, and there were bloodstained gashes in the chest of his coat,

with its thin stripes of color that marched down to his knees. Beside the litter, a dark blot larger than a

man’s body marred the green-and-yellow Tairen maze of the fringed carpet. Anyone who lost that much

blood had to be dead. Two other men lay sprawled on the floor, one with death-glazed eyes glaring at

the ceiling, the other on his side, an ivory knife hilt sticking up from his ribs where the blade had surely

reached his heart. Short, pale-skinned Cairhienin, both wore the Livery of palace servants, but a servant

never carried the long, wooden-handled dagger that lay beside each corpse. A House Taborwin man, his

foot drawn back to kick one of the corpses, hesitated on seeing the two sisters, then planted his boot hard

in the dead man’s ribs anyway. Clearly, proper decorum lay far from anyone’s mind at the moment.

"Move that cloth out of the way," Sashalle told the men by the litter. "Samitsu, see whether you

can still help Lord Dobraine."

Whatever she believed, instinct had moved Samitsu toward Dobraine, but that command-it was

deafly a command! -put a stutter in her step. Gritting her teeth, she kept moving, and knelt carefully

beside the litter, on the side away from the still damp blot, to put her hands on Dobraine’s blood-soaked

head. She never minded getting blood on her hands, but bloodstains were impossible to get out of silk

unless you channeled, and she still felt a pang of guilt at the waste when she used the Power for

something so mundane.

The necessary weaves were second nature to her, so much so that she embraced the Source and

delved the Cairhienin lord without a thought. And blinked in surprise. Instinct had made her go ahead,

though she had been certain there were three corpses in the room, yet life still flickered in Dobraine. A

tiny guttering flame that the shock of Healing might well extinguish. The shock of the Healing she

knew. Her eyes searched out the pale-haired Asha’man. He was crouched beside one of the dead

servants, calmly searching the man, oblivious to the shocked stares of the living servants. One of the

women suddenly noticed Loial, standing just inside the door, and goggled as if he had leapt out of thin

air. With his arms folded across his chest and a grim expression on his broad face, the Ogier looked as

though he were standing guard.

"Karldin, do you know the kind of Healing that Damer Flinn used," Samitsu asked. "The kind

that uses all of the Five Powers?"

He paused for a moment, frowning at her. "Flinn! I don’t even know what you’re talking about, I

don’t have much Talent for Healing anyway." Eyeing Dobraine, he added, "He looks dead to me, but I

hope you can save him. He was at the Wells." And he bent back to rummaging through the dead

servant’s coat.

Samitsu licked her lips. The thrill of being filled with Saidar always seemed diminished to her, in

situations like this. Situations when all of her possible choices were bad. Carefully, she gathered flows

of Air, Spirit and Water, weaving them just so, the basic weave of Healing that every sister knew. No

one in living memory had the Talent for Healing as strongly as she, and most sisters were limited in

what they could Heal, some to little more than bruises. By herself, she could Heal almost as well as a

linked circle. Most sisters could not regulate the weave to any degree at all; most did not even try to

learn. She had been able to from the start. Oh, she could not Heal one particular thing and leave

everything else as it was, the way Damer could; what she did would affect everything from the stab

wounds to the stuffed nose Dobraine was also suffering from. Delving had told her everything that ailed

him. But she could wash away the worst injuries as if they had never been, or Heal so whoever she

Healed appeared to have spent days recovering on her own, or anything in between. Each took no less of

her strength, but they did require less from the patient. The smaller the amount of change in the body,

the smaller the amount of the body’s strength it drained. Only, except for the gash in his scalp,

Dobraine’s wounds were all serious, four deep punctures in his lungs, two of them gashing the heart as

well. The strongest Healing would kill him before his wounds finished closing, while the weakest would

revive him long enough to drown in his own blood. She had to choose somewhere in the middle and

hope that she was right.

I am the best that ever has been, she thought grimly. Cadsuane had told her that, I am the best.

Altering the weave slightly, she let it sink into the motionless man, Some of the servants cried out in

alarm as Dobraine’s body convulsed. He half sat up, deep-set eyes opening wide, long enough for what

sounded all too much like a long death rattle to rush out of his mouth. Then his eyes rolled back in his

head, and he slipped from her grasp, thudding back down onto the litter. Hastily, she readjusted the

weave and delved him again, holding her breath. He lived. By a hair, and so weak he might yet die, but

it would not be those stabs that killed him, except indirectly. Even through die drying blood that matted

his hair, shaven away from his forehead, she could see the puckered pink line of a fresh, render scar

across his scalp. He would have the same beneath his coat, and he might be troubled by shortness of

breath when he exerted himself, if he pulled through, yet for the moment, he did live, and that was all

that mattered. For the moment. There was still the matter of who had wanted him dead, and why.

Releasing the Power, she stood unsteadily. Saidar draining out of her always made her feel tired.

One of the serving men, gaping, hesitantly handed her the cloth he had been going to lay on his lord’s

face, and she used it to wipe her hands. "Take him to his bed "she said. "Get as much mild honey-water

down him as you can. He needs to gain strength quickly. And find a Wise Woman ... a Reader, Yes, a

Reader. He will need her, too." He was out of her hands, now, and herbs might help. At least, they were

unlikely to harm, coming from a Reader, and at worst the woman would make sure they gave him

enough honey-water and not too much.

With much bowing and many murmurs of thanks, four of the serving men took up the litter and

carried Dobraine deeper into the apartments. Most of the other servants followed hurriedly, wearing

expressions of relief, and the rest dashed out into the corridor. An instant later, glad shouts and cheers

broke out, and she heard her name nearly as often as Dobraine’s. Very gratifying. It would have been

more satisfying if Sashalle had not smiled and given her an approving nod. Approving! And why not a

pat on the head, while she was about it?

Karldin had paid no mind at all to die Healing, insofar as Samitsu had noticed. Finishing his

search of the second corpse, he rose and crossed the room to Loial, attempting to show the Ogier

something, shielded by his body, without letting the Aes Sedai notice. Loial plucked it-a sheet of creamcolored

paper, creased from folding-out of the Asha’man’s hand and held it up in front of his face

opened out in his thick ringers, ignoring Karldin’s scowl

"But this makes no sense," the Ogier muttered, frowning as he read. "No sense at all. Unless-!"

He cut off abruptly, long ears flickering, and exchanged a tense look with the pale-haired fellow, who

gave a curt nod. "Oh, this is very bad," Loial, said. "If there were more than two, Karldin, if they found-

!" He choked off his words again at a frantic headshake from the young man.

"I will see that, please," Sashalle said, holding out her hand, and please or no please, it was not a

request. Karldin attempted to snatch the paper from Loial s hand-but the Ogier calmly handed it to

Sashalle who inspected it without any change of expression, then handed it to Samitsu. It was thick

paper, smooth and expensive, and new looking. Samitsu had to control her eyebrows’ desire to climb as

she read.

At my command, the bearers of this are to remove certain items, which they will know,

from my apartments and take them out of the Sun Palace-Make them private of my rooms,

give them whatever aid they require and keep silent on this matter, in the name of the

Dragon Reborn and on pain of his displeasure.

Dobraine Taborwin

She had seen Dobraine’s writing often enough to recognize the rounded hand as his. "Obviously

someone employs a very good forger," she said, earning a quick, contemptuous glance from Sashalle.

"It did seem unlikely he wrote it himself and was stabbed by his own men in mistake," the Red

said in cutting tones. Her gaze swung to Loial and the Asha’man. "What is it they might have found:"

she demanded. "What is it you are afraid they found?" Karldin stared back at her blandly.

"I just meant whatever they were looking for," Loial answered. "They had to be here to steal

something." But his tufted ears twitched so hard they almost vibrated before he could master them. Most

Ogier made very poor liars, at least while young.

Sashalle’s ringlets swung as she shook her head deliberately. "What you know is important. The

pair of you are not leaving until I know it, too."

‘And how are you going to stop us?" The very quietness of Karldin’s words made them more

dangerous. He met Sashalle’s gaze levelly, as it he had not a worry in the world. Oh, yes, very much a

wolf, not a fox.

"I thought I’d never find you," Rosara Medrano announced, marching into that moment of

perilous silence still wearing her red gloves and fur-lined cloak, with the hood thrown back to reveal the

carved ivory combs in her black hair. There were damp patches on the shoulders of the cloak from

melted snow. A tall woman, as brown as a sun-dark Aiel, she had gone out at first light to try finding

spices for some sort of fish stew from her native Tear. She spared only the briefest glance for Loial and

Karldin, and did not waste a moment inquiring after Dobraine. "A party of sisters has entered the city,

Samitsu. I rode like a madwoman to get here ahead of them, but they could be riding in at this moment.

There are Asha’man with them, and one of the Asha’man is Logain!"

Karldin barked a rough laugh. and suddenly Samitsu wondered whether she was going to live

long enough for Cadsuane to have her hide.

CHAPTER 1

Time to Be Gone

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

Rhiannon Hills. 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.

Born among the groves and vineyards that covered much of the rugged hills, the olive trees in

evergreen rows, the ordered vines leafless till spring, the cold wind blew west and north across the

prosperous farms dotting the land between the hills and the great harbor of Ebou Dar. The land lay

winter fallow still, but men and women were already oiling plowshares and tending harness, preparing

for the planting to come. They paid little mind to the trains of heavily laden wagons moving east along

the dirt roads carrying people who wore odd clothes and spoke with odd accents. Many of the strangers

seemed to be farmers themselves, familiar implements lashed to their wagon boxes, and in their wagons

unfamiliar saplings with roots balled in rough cloth, but they were heading on toward more distant land.

Nothing to do with life here and now. The Seanchan hand lay lightly on those who did not contest

Seanchan rule, and the farmers of the Rhiannon Hills had seen no changes in their lives. For them, rain

or the lack of it had always been the true ruler.

West and north the wind blew, across the broad blue-green expanse of the harbor, where

hundreds of huge ships sat rocking at anchor on choppy swells, some bluff-bowed and rigged with

ribbed sails, others long and sharp-prowed, with men laboring to match their sails and rigging to those of

the wider vessels. Not nearly so many ships still floated there as had only a few days before, though.

Many now lay in the shallows, charred wrecks heeled over on their sides, and burned frames settling in

the deep gray mud like blackened skeletons. Smaller craft skittered about the harbor, slanting under

triangular sails or crawling on oars like many-legged waterbugs, most carrying workers and supplies to

the ships that still floated. Other small vessels and barges rode tethered to what appeared to be treetrunks

shorn of branches, rising out of the blue-green water, and from those men dove holding stones to carry

them down swiftly to sunken ships below, where they tied ropes to whatever could be hauled up for

salvage. Six nights ago death had walked across the water here, the One Power killing men and women

and ships in darkness split by silver lightnings and hurtling balls of fires. Now, the rough rolling harbor,

filled with furious activity, seemed at peace by comparison, the chop giving up spray to the wind that

blew north and west across the mouth of the River Eldar, where it widened into the harbor, north and

west and inland.

Sitting cross-legged atop a boulder covered with brown moss, on the reed-fringed bank of the

river, Mat hunched his shoulders against the wind and cursed silently. There was no gold to be found

here, no women or dancing, no fun. Plenty of discomfort, though. In short, it was the last sort of place he

would choose, normally. The sun stood barely its own height above the horizon, the sky overhead was

pale slate gray, and thick purple clouds moving in from the sea threatened rain. Winter hardly seemed

winter without snow – he had yet to see a single flake in Ebou Dar – but a cold damp morning wind off

the water could serve as well as snow to chill a man to the bone. Four nights since he had ridden out of

the city in a storm, yet his throbbing hip seemed to think he was still soaked to the skin and clinging to a

saddle. This was no weather or time of day for a man to be out by his own choice. He wished he had

thought to bring a cloak. He wished he had stayed in bed.

Ripples in the land hid Ebou Dar, just over a mile to the south, and hid him from the city, as

well, but there was not a tree or anything more than scrub brush in sight. Being in the open this way

made him feel as though ants were crawling under his skin. He should be safe, though. His plain brown

woolen coat and cap were nothing like the clothes he was known by in the city. Instead of black silk, a

drab woolen scarf hid the scar around his neck, and the collar of his coat was turned up to hide that, as

well. Not a bit of lace or a thread of embroidery. Dull enough for a farmer milking cows. No one he

needed to avoid would know him to recognize if they saw him. Not unless they were close. Just the

same, he tugged the cap a bit lower.

"You intend to stay out here much longer, Mat?" Noal’s tattered dark blue coat had seen better

days, but then so had he. Stooped and white-haired, the broken-nosed old fellow was squatting on his

heels below the boulder, fishing off the riverbank with a bamboo pole. Most of his teeth were missing,

and sometimes he felt at a gap with his tongue as though surprised to find the empty space. "It’s cold, in

case you haven’t noticed. Everybody always thinks it’s warm in Ebou Dar, but winter is cold

everywhere, even places that make Ebou Dar feel like Shienar. My bones crave a fire. Or a blanket,

anyway. A man can be snug with a blanket, if he’s out of the wind. Are you going to do anything but

stare downriver?"

When Mat only glanced at him, Noal shrugged and went back to peering at the tarred wooden

float bobbing among the sparse reeds. Now and then he worked one gnarled hand as though his crooked

fingers felt the chill particularly, but if so, it was his own fault. The old fool had gone wading in the

shallows to scoop up minnows for bait with a basket that now sat half-submerged and anchored by a

smooth stone at the edge of the water. Despite his complaints about the weather, Noal had come along to

the river without urging or invitation. From things he had said, everyone he cared about was long years

dead, and the truth of it was, he seemed almost desperate for any sort of company. Desperate, indeed, to

choose Mat’s company when he could be five days from Ebou Dar by now. A man could cover a lot of

ground in five days if he had reason to and a good horse. Mat had thought on that very subject often

enough himself.

On the far side of the Eldar, half-hidden by one of the marshy islands that dotted the river, a

broad-beamed rowboat backed oars, and one of the crew stood up and fished in the reeds with a long

boathook. Another oarsman helped him heave what he had caught into the boat. At this distance, it

looked like a large sack. Mat winced and shifted his eyes downriver. They were still finding bodies, and

he was responsible. The innocent died along with the guilty. And if you did nothing, then only the

innocent died. Or as bad as died. Maybe worse than, depending on how you looked at it.

He scowled irritably. Blood and ashes, he was turning into a bloody philosopher! Taking

responsibility drained all the joy out of life and dried a man to dust. What he wanted right then was a

great deal of mulled wine in a snug common room full of music, and a plump, pretty serving maid on his

knee, somewhere far from Ebou Dar. Very far. What he had were obligations he could not walk away

from and a future he did not fancy. There seemed no help at all in being ta’veren, not if this was how the

Pattern shaped itself to you. He still had his luck, anyway. At least, he was alive and not chained in a

cell. Under the circumstances, that counted as luck.

From his perch, he had a fairly clear view down past the last low marshy river islands. Windcaught

spray drifted up the harbor like banks of fine mist, but not enough to hide what he needed to see.

He was attempting to do sums in his head, counting ships afloat, trying to count wrecks. He kept losing

his place, though, thinking he had counted vessels twice and starting over. The Sea Folk who had been

recaptured intruded on his thoughts, too. He had heard that gibbets in the Rahad, across the harbor,

displayed more than a hundred corpses, with placards listing ‘murder’ and ‘rebellion’ as their crimes.

Normally, the Seanchan used the headsman’s axe and the impaling stake, while the Blood got the

strangling cord, but property had to settle for being hanged.

Burn me, I did what I could, he thought sourly. There was no use feeling guilty that that was all

he could do. Not a bit of use. None! He had to concentrate on the people who escaped.

The Atha’an Miere who got away had taken ships in the harbor for their flight, and while they

might have seized some smaller craft, anything they could board and overwhelm in the night, they had

intended to carry off as many of their people as possible. With thousands of them laboring as prisoners

in the Rahad, that would have meant big ships, by choice, and that meant Seanchan greatships. Many of

the Sea Folk’s own vessels were large enough, for certain, but they all had been stripped of their sails

and rigging by that time, to be fitted out in the Seanchan fashion. If he could calculate how many

greatships remained, he might have some notion of how many Atha’an Miere had actually reached

freedom. Freeing the Sea Folk Windfinders had been the right thing to do, the only thing he could do,

but aside from the hangings, hundreds and hundreds of bodies had been fished out of the harbor in the

last five days, and the Light only knew how many had washed out to sea with the tides. The

gravediggers labored from sunup to sundown, and the graveyards were filled with weeping women and

children. Men, too. More than a few of those dead had been Atha’an Miere, with no one to weep while

they were dumped into mass graves, and he wanted some idea of the number he had saved to balance his

bleak suspicions of the number he had killed.

Estimating how many ships had made it out into the Sea of Storms was difficult, though, quite

apart from losing the count. Unlike Aes Sedai, Windfinders had no strictures against using the Power as

a weapon, not when the safety of their people was at stake, and they would have wanted to halt pursuit

before it began. No one gave chase in a burning ship. The Seanchan, with their damane, had even less

compunction against fighting back. Lightning bolts lacing through the rain as numerous as blades of

grass and balls of fire streaking across the sky, some the size of horses, and the harbor seemed aflame

from one side to the other, till even in a storm the night made any Illuminator’s show look stark.

Without turning his head he could count a dozen places where the charred ribs of a greatship stuck up

out of shallow water or a huge bluff-bowed hull lay on its side with the harbor waves licking against the

tilted deck, and twice as many where the lines of blackened timbers were finer, the remains of Sea Folk

rakers. Apparently they had disliked leaving their own vessels to people who had put them in chains.

Three dozen right in front of him, and that without adding in the sunken wrecks that had salvage boats

working over them. Perhaps a seafarer could tell greatship from raker by the tops of masts sticking out

of the water, but the task was beyond him.

Suddenly an old memory tugged at him, of lading ships for an attack from the sea, and how

many men could be crowded into how much space for how long. It was not his memory, really, from an

ancient war between Fergansea and Moreina, yet it seemed his. Realizing that he had not actually lived

one of those ancient bits of other men’s lives that were stuck in his head always took him a little by

surprise now, so maybe they were his, in a way. They were certainly sharper than some stretches of his

own life. The vessels he recalled had been smaller than most in the harbor, yet the principles were the

same.

"They don’t have enough ships," he muttered. The Seanchan had even more in Tanchico than

had come here, but the losses here were sufficient to make the difference.

"Enough ships for what?" Noal said. "I never saw so many in one place before." That was quite a

statement, coming from him. To hear Noal tell it, he had seen everything, and nearly always bigger or

grander than what was in front of his nose. Back home, they would have said he kept tight purse-strings

on the truth.

Mat shook his head. "They don’t have enough ships left to take them all back home."

"We don’t have to go home," a woman drawled behind him. "We’ve come home."

He did not quite jump at the slurred Seanchan accent, but it was a near thing before he

recognized who was speaking.

Egeanin was scowling, her eyes like blue daggers, but not for him. At least, he thought not. She

was tall and lean, with a hard face that was pale skinned despite a life at sea. Her green dress was bright

enough for a Tinker, or close to it, and embroidered with a mass of tiny yellow and white blossoms on

the high neck and down the sleeves. A flowered scarf tied tightly under her chin held a long black wig

on her head, spilling halfway down her back and over her shoulders. She hated the scarf and the dress,

which did not quite fit, but her hands checked every other minute to make sure the wig was straight.

That concerned her more than her clothes, though concern was not nearly a strong enough word.

She had only sighed over cutting her long fingernails short, but she almost had a fit, red-faced

and pop-eyed, when he told her she must shave her head completely. The way her hair had been cut

before, shaved above her ears with only a bowl-like cap and a wide shoulder-length tail in the back

remaining, shouted that she was of the Seanchan Blood, a lesser noble. Even someone who had never

laid eyes on a Seanchan would have remembered seeing her. She had agreed, reluctantly, but afterwards

she was close to hysterical until she was able to cover her scalp. Not for the reasons most women would

have gone over the moon, though. No, among the Seanchan, only the Imperial family shaved their

heads. Men who went bald began wearing wigs as soon as their hair started falling out to any noticeable

degree. Egeanin would have died before letting anyone think she was pretending to belong to the

Imperial family, even people who would never have had the thought in their lives. Well, that sort of

pretense did carry a death penalty among the Seanchan, but he would never have believed she would go

on about it so. What was one more death penalty when your neck was already being stretched for the

axe? The strangling cord, in her case. The noose would be for him.

Slipping the half-drawn knife back up his left sleeve, he slid down from the boulder. He landed

poorly and almost fell, barely hiding a wince at the stabbing jar to his hip. He did hide it, though. She

was a noblewoman and a ship captain, and she made enough tries at taking charge without him showing

any more weakness to give her an opening than he had to. She had come to him for help, not the other

way round, but that buttered no bread with her. Leaning against the boulder with his arms folded, he

pretended he was lounging, idly kicking at tufts of dead grass to work the pain out. That was sharp

enough to put sweat on his forehead despite the cold wind. Fleeing in that storm had cost him ground

with his hip, and he had not made it up yet.

"Are you sure about the Sea Folk?" he asked her. No point in mentioning the lack of ships again.

Too many Seanchan settlers had spread out from Ebou Dar anyway, and apparently even more from

Tanchico. However many ships they had, no power on earth would ever root all the Seanchan out, now.

Reaching toward the wig again, she hesitated, frowning at her short fingernails, and instead

tucked her hands under her arms. "What about them?" She knew he had been behind the Windfinders’

break for freedom, but neither of them had mentioned it specifically. She always tried to avoid talking

about the Atha’an Miere. Quite aside from all the sunken ships and dead, freeing damane was another

death penalty charge, and disgusting besides, in the Seanchan view, as bad as rape or molesting children.

Of course, she had helped free some damane herself, though to her way of looking, that was among the

least of her crimes. Still, she avoided that topic, too. There were quite a few subjects she held silent on.

"Are you certain about the Windfinders who were caught? I’ve heard talk about cutting off

hands, or feet." Mat swallowed a sour taste. He had seen men die, had killed men with his own hands.

The Light send him mercy, he had killed a woman, once! Not even the darkest of those other men’s

memories burned so hot as that, and a few of those were dark enough to need drowning in wine when

they floated to the surface. But the thought of deliberately cutting off somebody’s hands curdled his

stomach.

Egeanin’s head jerked, and for a moment he thought she would ignore his question. "Talk from

Renna, I’ll wager," she said, with a dismissive gesture. "Some sul’dam talk about that nonsense to

frighten recalcitrant damane when they’re new-leashed, but nobody’s done it in, oh, six or seven

hundred years. Not many, anyway, and people who can’t control their property without...mutilation...are

sei’mosiev to start." Her mouth twisted in loathing, though whether for mutilation or sei’mosiev was

unclear.

"Shamed or not, they do it," he snapped. Sei’mosiev went beyond being shamed, to a Seanchan,

but he doubted that anyone who deliberately cut off a woman’s hand could be humiliated enough to kill

themselves. "Is Suroth one of that ‘not many?’"

The Seanchan woman glared to match his and planted her fists on her hips, leaning forward with

her feet astride as though she were on the deck of a ship and about to berate a fumble-witted sailor. "The

High Lady Suroth doesn’t own these damane, you lump-brained farmer! They’re property of the

Empress, may she live forever. Suroth might as well slit her own wrists straightaway as order something

like that for Imperial damane. That’s even if she would; I’ve never heard of her mistreating her own. I’ll

try to put this in terms you can understand. If your dog runs away, you don’t maim it. You switch the

dog so it knows not to do that again, and you put it back in the kennel. Besides, damane are just too –"

"Too valuable," Mat finished for her drily. He had heard that till he was sick of it.

She disregarded his sarcasm, or maybe did not notice. In his experience, if a woman did not want

to hear something, she could ignore it till you yourself started to doubt you had spoken. "You’re finally

beginning to understand," she drawled, nodding. "Those damane you’re so worried about probably don’t

even have welts left by this time." Her gaze went to the ships in the harbor, and slowly took on a look of

loss, made deeper by the hardness of her face. Her thumbs ran across her fingertips. "You wouldn’t

believe what my damane cost me," she said in a quiet voice, "her and hiring the sul’dam for her. Worth

every throne I paid, of course. Her name’s Serrisa. Well-trained, responsive. She’ll gorge herself on

honeyed nuts, if you let her, but she never gets seasick or the sulks, the way some do. A pity I had to

leave her in Cantorin. I suppose I’ll never see her again." She sighed regretfully.

"I’m sure she misses you as much as you miss her," Noal said, flashing a gap-toothed smile, and

for all the world, he sounded sincere. Maybe he was. He contended that he had seen worse than damane

and da’covale, for what that was worth.

Egeanin’s back stiffened, and she frowned as if she did not believe his sympathy. Or else she had

just realized how she was staring at the ships in the harbor. Certainly, she turned away from the water

very deliberately. "I gave orders that no one was to leave the wagons," she said firmly. Likely, crewmen

on her ships had jumped at that tone. She jerked her head away from the river as though she expected

Mat and Noal to jump where she indicated, too.

"Did you, now?" Mat grinned, showing her teeth. He could manage an insolent grin that sent

most puffed-up fools into apoplexy. Egeanin was far from a fool, most times, but puffed-up she was.

Ship captain and noblewoman. He did not know which was worse. Bah for both! "Well, I was about

ready to head that way. Unless you’re not done fishing, Noal. We can wait here a while, if you’re not."

But the old man was already emptying the remaining silver-gray minnows out of his basket into

the water. His hands had been broken badly, maybe more than once by their lumpy appearance, yet they

were deft in winding his line around the bamboo pole. In the short time he had been fishing, he had

caught nearly a dozen fish, the largest less than a foot long, strung through the gills on a looped reed,

and he moved those to the basket before picking it up. He claimed that if he could find the right peppers,

he was going to make a fish stew – from Shara, of all places! As well say from the moon! – a stew that

would make Mat forget all about his hip. The way Noal went on about the peppers, Mat suspected any

forgetting would be because he was focused on finding enough ale to cool his tongue.

Egeanin, waiting impatiently, was paying no attention to Mat’s grin, either, so he slipped an arm

around her. If they were heading back, they might as well get started. She knocked his hand away from

her shoulder. The woman made some maiden aunts he had known look like tavern girls.

"We’re supposed to be lovers, you and I," he reminded her.

"There’s nobody here to see," she growled.

"How many times do I have to tell you, Leilwin?" That was the name she was using. She

claimed it was Taraboner. At any rate, it did not sound Seanchan. "If we don’t even hold hands unless

we see somebody watching, we’re going to look a pretty strange pair of lovers to anybody we don’t

see."

She snorted in derision, yet she let him put his arm back around her, and slipped hers around

him. But she gave him a warning stare at the same time.

Mat shook his head. She was crazy as a spring hare if she thought he enjoyed this. Most women

had a little padding over their muscles, at least the women he liked, but hugging Egeanin was like

hugging a fence post. Almost as hard, and definitely as stiff. He could not puzzle out what Domon saw

in her. Maybe she had not given the Illianer any choice. She had bought the man, after all, same as

buying a horse. Burn me, I’ll never understand these Seanchan, he thought. Not that he wanted to. The

only thing was, he had to.

As they were turning away, he took one last glance back at the harbor, and almost wished he had

not. Two small sailing craft broke through a wide wall of mist that was drifting slowly down the harbor.

Drifting against the wind. Time to be gone and past time.

It was better than two miles from the river to the Great North Road, across rolling countryside

covered in winter-brown grasses and weeds and dotted with clumps of vine-tangled bushes too thick to

push through even with most of the leaves gone. The rises hardly deserved the name of hill, not for

anyone who had climbed in the Sand Hills and the Mountains of Mist as a boy – there were gaps in his

own memories, but Mat could remember some of that – yet before long, he was glad he had an arm

around somebody. He had sat motionless on that bloody rock for too long. The throb in his hip had

faded to a dull ache, but it still made him limp, and without some sort of support, he would have been

staggering on the slopes. Not that he leaned on Egeanin, of course, but holding on helped steady him.

The woman frowned at him as though she thought he were trying to take advantage.

"If you did as you were told," she growled, "I wouldn’t need to carry you."

He showed his teeth again, this time not trying to disguise it as a smile. The way Noal scampered

along beside them easily, never missing a step despite balancing his basket of fish on his hip with one

hand and carrying his fishing pole in the other, was embarrassing. For all he looked hard-worn, the old

man was spry enough. Too spry by half, at times.

Their route slanted north of the Circuit of Heaven, with its long, open-ended tiers of polished

stone seats where, in warmer weather, wealthy patrons sat on cushions beneath colorful canvas awnings

to watch their horses race. Now, the awnings and poles were stowed away, the horses all in their country

stables, those the Seanchan had not taken, and the seats were empty save for a handful of small boys

darting up and down the tiers in a game of keep-away. Mat was fond of horses, and racing, but his eyes

slid past the Circuit toward Ebou Dar. Whenever he topped a rise, the city’s massive white ramparts

were visible, deep enough that they supported a road encircling the city on top, and looking gave him an

excuse to pause a moment. Fool woman! A scrap of a limp did not mean she was carrying him! He

managed to keep a good temper, take the rough with the smooth and no complaining. Why could she

not?

Inside the city white roofs and walls, white domes and spires, ringed in thin bands of color,

gleamed in the gray morning light, a picture of serenity. He could not make out the gaps where buildings

had burned to the ground. A long line of farmers’ high-wheeled ox-carts was trundling through the wide

arched gateway that opened on the Great North Road, men and women on their way to the city markets

with whatever they had left to sell this late in winter, and in their midst a merchant’s train of big, canvastopped

wagons behind six and eight-horse teams, carrying goods from the Light knew where. Seven

more trains, ranging from four wagons to ten, stood in line at the side of the road to wait for the

gateguards to finish their inspections. Trade never stopped entirely while the sun shone, no matter who

ruled a city, unless there was actual fighting. Sometimes it did not stop completely then. The stream of

people flowing the other way was mostly Seanchan, soldiers in ordered ranks with their segmented

armor painted in stripes and helmets that looked like the heads of huge insects, some marching and some

mounted, nobles who were always mounted, wearing ornate cloaks, pleated riding dresses and lace veils,

or voluminous trousers and long coats. Seanchan settlers were still departing the city, too, wagon upon

wagon filled with farmers and craftsmen and the tools of their trades. The settlers had begun leaving as

soon as they came off the ships, but it would be weeks before they were all gone. It was a peaceful

scene, workaday and ordinary if you ignored what lay behind it, yet every time they reached a place

where he could see the gates, his mind flashed back to six nights ago, and he was there again, at those

same gates.

The storm had grown worse as they crossed the city from the Tarasin Palace. Rain fell by

buckets, pounding the darkened city and slicking the paving stones under the horses’ hooves, and wind

howled off the Sea of Storms, driving the rain like stones from slings and jerking at cloaks so that

keeping at all dry was a lost cause. Clouds hid the moon, and the deluge seemed to soak up the light of

the pole-lanterns carried by Blaeric and Fen, on foot ahead of the rest. Then they entered the long

passageway through the city wall, and gained a bit of shelter, at least from the rain. The wind made the

high-ceilinged tunnel keen like a flute. The gate guards were waiting just inside the far end of the

passage, four of them also bearing pole-lanterns. A dozen more, half of them Seanchan, carried halberds

that could strike at a man in the saddle or pull him out of it. Two Seanchan with their helmets off were

peering from the lighted doorway of the guardhouse built into the white-plastered wall, and shifting

shadows behind them told of others inside. Too many to fight past quietly, maybe too many to fight past

at all. Not without everything going off like an Illuminator’s firework bursting in his hand.

The guards were not the danger, anyway, not the main danger. A tall, plump-faced woman in

dark blue, her divided ankle-length skirts bearing red panels worked with silver lightning bolts, stepped

past the men in the guardhouse door. A long silvery metal leash was coiled in the sul’dam’s left hand,

the free end connecting her to the graying woman in a dark gray dress who followed her out with an

eager grin. Mat had known they would be there. The Seanchan had sul’dam and damane at all the gates,

now. There could even be another pair inside, or two. They did not mean to let one woman who could

channel escape their nets. The silver foxhead medallion beneath his shirt lay cold against his chest; not

the cold that signaled someone embracing the Source nearby, just the accumulated chill of the night and

his flesh too icy to warm it, but he could not stop waiting for the other. Light, he was juggling fireworks

tonight, with the fuses lit!

The guards might have been puzzled by a noblewoman leaving Ebou Dar in the middle of the

night and that weather, with over a dozen servants and strings of packhorses indicating a journey of

some distance, but Egeanin was of the Blood, her cloak embroidered in an eagle with spread black-andwhite

wings, and long fingers on her red riding gloves to accommodate her fingernails. Ordinary

soldiers did not question what the Blood chose to do, even the low Blood. Which did not mean there

were no formalities. Anyone was free to leave the city when they wished, but the Seanchan recorded the

movement of damane, and three rode in the entourage, heads down and faces covered by the hoods of

their gray cloaks, each linked to a mounted sul’dam by the silvery length of an a’dam.

The plump-faced sul’dam walked by them with barely a glance, strolling down the tunnel. Her

damane peered intently at every woman they passed, though, sensing whether she could channel, and

Mat held his breath when she paused beside the last mounted damane with a slight frown. Even with his

luck, he would not bet against the Seanchan recognizing an Aes Sedai’s ageless face if they looked

inside that hood. There were Aes Sedai held as damane, but what were the odds that all three of

Egeanin’s would be? Light, what were the odds one of the low Blood would own three?

The plump-faced woman made a clicking sound, as you might to a pet dog, and twitched the

a’dam, and the damane followed her on. They were looking for marath’damane trying to escape the

leash, not damane. Mat still thought he might choke. The sound of dice rolling had started up again in

his head, loud enough to rival the occasional rumble of distant thunder. Something was going to go

wrong; he knew it.

The officer of the guards, a burly Seanchan with tilted eyes like a Saldaean but a pale honeybrown

skin, bowed courteously and invited Egeanin into the guardhouse, to have a cup of spiced wine

while a clerk wrote down the information about the damane. Every guardhouse Mat had ever seen was a

stark place, yet the lamplight glowing in the arrowslits made this one seem almost inviting. A

pitcherplant probably looked inviting to a fly, too. He had been glad of the rain dripping from the hood

of his cloak and running down his face. It disguised the sweat of nerves. He held one of his throwing

knives, resting flat atop the long bundle draped in front of his saddle. Lying flat like that, none of the

soldiers should notice. He could feel the woman inside the cloth breathing under his hands, and his

shoulders were knotted from waiting for her to cry out for help. Selucia kept her mount close to him,

peering at him from the shelter of her hood with her golden braid tucked out of sight, never even

glancing away when the sul’dam and damane walked by. A shout from Selucia would have put the

weasel in the chicken run as much as one from Tuon. He thought the threat of the knife had held both

women silent – they had to believe he was desperate enough or crazy enough to use it – but he still could

not be sure. There was so much about night he could not be sure of, so much off-balance and askew.

He remembered holding his breath, wondering when someone would notice that the bundle he

carried was richly embroidered and question why he was letting it get soaked with rain, wondering and

cursing himself for grabbing a wallhanging because it had been close to hand. In memory, everything

slowed. Egeanin stepped down, tossing her reins to Domon, who took them with a bow from his saddle.

Domon’s hood was pushed back just enough to show that his head was shaved on one side and his

remaining hair gathered in a braid that hung to his shoulder. Raindrops dripped from the stocky

Illianer’s short beard, yet he managed the proper stiff-necked arrogance of a so’jhin, hereditary upper

servant to one of the Blood and thus almost equal to the Blood. Definitely higher than any common

soldier. Egeanin glanced back toward Mat and his burden, her face a frozen mask that could pass for

hauteur if you did not know she was horrified by what they were doing. The tall sul’dam and her

damane turned briskly back up the tunnel, finished with their inspection. Vanin, just behind Mat leading

one of the strings of packhorses and as always sitting his horse like a sack of suet, leaned from his

saddle and spat. Mat did not know why that hung in his memory, but it did. Vanin spat, and trumpets

sounded, thin and sharp in the distance far behind them. From south of the city, where men had been

planning to fire Seanchan supplies stored along the Bay Road.

The officer of the guard hesitated at the sound of the trumpets, but suddenly a bell pealed loudly

in the city itself, then another, and then it seemed hundreds were clanging alarm in the night as the black

sky split with more lightning than any storm had ever birthed, silver-blue streaks stabbing down inside

the walls. They bathed the tunnel in flickering light. That was when the shouting started, amid the

explosions back in the city, and the screaming.

For a moment, Mat had cursed the Windfinders for moving sooner than he had been promised.

But the dice in his head had stopped, he realized. Why? It made him want to curse all over again, but

there was no time for even that. In the next instant the officer was hurriedly urging Egeanin back into

her saddle and on her way, hurriedly shouting orders to the men boiling out of the guardhouse, directing

one into the city at a run to see what the alarm was while he arrayed the rest against any threat from

inside or out. The plump-faced woman ran to place herself and her damane with the soldiers, along with

another pair of women linked by an a’dam, who came running from the guardhouse. And Mat and the

others galloped out into the storm, carrying with them three Aes Sedai, two of them escaped damane,

and the kidnaped heir to the Seanchan Crystal Throne, while behind them a far worse storm broke over

Ebou Dar. Lightning bolts more numerous than blades of grass....

With a shiver, Mat pulled himself back to the present. Egeanin scowled at him, and gave him an

exaggerated pull. "Lovers arm-in-arm don’t hurry," he muttered. "They...stroll." She sneered. Domon

had to be blinded by love. That, or he had taken too many thumps on the head.

The worst was over and done, in any case. Mat hoped that getting out of the city had been the

worst. He had not felt the dice since. They were always a bad sign. His backtrail was as muddled as he

could manage, and he was sure it would take someone as lucky as he to separate the gold from the dross.

The Seekers had been on Egeanin’s scent before that night, and she would be wanted on charges of

stealing damane now, as well, but the authorities would expect her to be riding as hard as she could and

already leagues from Ebou Dar, not sitting just outside the city. Nothing except a coincidence of timing

connected her to Tuon. Or to Mat, and that was important. Tylin certainly would have leveled her own

charges against him – no woman was going to forgive a man tying her up and shoving her under a bed,

even when she had suggested it – yet with any luck, he was beneath suspicion for anything else that had

happened that night. With any luck, no one except Tylin had a thought for him at all. Trussing a queen

like a pig for market would be enough to get a man dead usually, but it had to count for moldy onions

alongside the Daughter of the Nine Moons disappearing, and what could Tylin’s Toy have to do with

that? It still irritated him that he had been seen as a hanger-on – worse, a pet! – but there were

advantages.

He thought he was safe – from the Seanchan, anyway – yet one point worried him like a thorn

buried in his heel. Well, several did, most growing out of Tuon herself, but this one had a particularly

long point. Tuon’s disappearance should have been as shocking as the sun vanishing at noon, but no

alarm had been raised. None! No announcements of rewards or offers of ransom, no hot-eyed soldiers

searching every wagon and cart within miles, galloping through the countryside to root out every

cubbyhole and niche where a woman might be hidden. Those old memories told him something of

hunting for kidnapped royalty, yet except for the hangings and the burned ships in the harbor, from the

outside Ebou Dar seemed unchanged from the day before the kidnaping. Egeanin alleged that the search

would be in utter secrecy, that many of the Seanchan themselves might still not know Tuon was missing.

Her explanation involved the shock to the Empire and ill omens for the Return and the loss of sei’taer,

and she sounded as if she believed every word, but Mat refused to buy a penny’s worth. The Seanchan

were strange folk, but no one could be that strange. The silence of Ebou Dar made his skin prickle. He

felt a trap in that silence. When they reached the Great North Road, he was grateful that the city was

hidden behind the low hills.

The road was a broad highway, a major avenue of trade, wide enough for five or six wagons

abreast uncrowded, with a surface of dirt and clay that hundreds of years of use had packed nearly as

hard as the occasional ancient paving stone that stuck an edge or corner inches into the air. Mat and

Egeanin hurried across to the verge on the other side with Noal dogging their heels, between a

merchant’s train rumbling toward the city, guarded by a scar-faced woman and ten hard-eyed men in

leather vests covered with metal discs, and a string of the settlers’ oddly shaped wagons, rising to peaks

at the ends, that were heading north, some pulled by horses or mules, others by oxen. Clustered between

the wagons, barefoot boys used switches to herd four-horned goats with long black hair and big,

dewlapped white cows. One man at the rear of the wagons, in baggy blue breeches and a round red cap,

was leading a massive hump-backed bull by a thick cord tied to a ring in its nose. Except for his clothes,

he could have been from the Two Rivers. He eyed Mat and the others, walking in the same direction, as

if he might speak, then shook his head and plodded on without looking at them again. Contending with

Mat’s limp, they were not moving fast, and the settlers forged ahead slowly but steadily.

Hunch-shouldered and clutching the scarf beneath her chin with her free hand, Egeanin let out a

breath and loosened fingers that had begun to grip Mat’s side almost painfully. After a moment, she

straightened and glared at the farmer’s departing back as though she were ready to chase after him and

box his ears and his bull’s. If that were not bad enough, once the farmer was twenty or so paces away,

she shifted her scowl to a company of Seanchan soldiers marching down the middle of the road at a pace

that would soon overtake the settlers, perhaps two hundred men in a column four abreast followed by a

motley collection of mule-drawn wagons covered with tightly lashed canvas. The middle of the road was

left free for military traffic. Half a dozen well-mounted officers in thin-plumed helmets that hid all but

their eyes rode at the column’s head, looking neither left nor right, red cloaks spread neatly over their

horses’ cruppers. The banner following on the officers’ heels was marked with what looked like a

stylized silver arrowhead, or maybe an anchor, crossed by a long arrow and a jagged lightning bolt in

gold, with script and numerals below that Mat could not make out as gusts swept the banner this way

and that. The men on the supply wagons wore dark blue coats and breeches and square red-and-blue

caps, but the soldiers were even more showy than most Seanchan, their segmented armor striped in blue

banded at the bottom with silvery white and red banded with golden yellow, their helmets painted in all

four colors so they resembled the faces of fearsome spiders. A large badge with the anchor – Mat

thought it must be an anchor – and arrow and lightning was fastened to the front of each helmet, and

every man except the officers carried a double-curve bow at his side, with a bristling quiver at his belt

balancing a short-sword.

"Ship’s archers," Egeanin grumbled, glowering at the soldiers. Her free hand had left her scarf,

but it was still clenched in a fist. "Tavern brawlers. They always cause problems when they’re left

ashore too long."

They had a well-trained look, to Mat. Anyway, he had never heard of soldiers who did not get in

fights, especially when they were drunk or bored, and bored soldiers tended to get drunk. A corner of his

mind wondered how far those bows would carry, but it was an absent thought. He wanted nothing to do

with any Seanchan soldiers. If he had his way, he would have nothing to do with any soldiers ever again.

But his luck never ran that far, it seemed. Fate and luck were different, unfortunately. Two hundred

paces at most, he decided. A good crossbow would outrange them, or any Two Rivers bow.

"We’re not in a tavern," he said through his teeth, "and they’re not brawling now. So let’s not

start one just because you were afraid a farmer would speak to you." Her jaw set, and she shot him a

look hard enough to crack his skull. It was the truth, though. She was fearful of opening her mouth near

anyone who might recognize her accent. A wise precaution, in his book, but everything seemed to grate

at her. "We’ll have a bannerman over here asking questions if you keep glaring at them. Women around

Ebou Dar are famous for being demure," he lied. What could she know of local customs?

She gave him a sidelong frown – maybe she was trying to figure out what demure meant – but

she stopped grimacing at the archers. She just looked ready to bite instead of hit.

"That fellow’s dark as an Atha’an Miere," Noal muttered absently, staring at the passing

soldiers. "Dark as a Sharan. But I’d swear he has blue eyes. I’ve seen the like before, but where?"

Trying to rub his temples, he almost struck himself on the head with the bamboo fishing pole, and he

took a step as though he meant to ask the fellow where he had been born.

With a lurch, Mat caught the old man’s sleeve. "We’re going back to the show, Noal. Now. We

should never have left."

"I told you that," Egeanin said with a sharp nod.

Mat groaned, but there was nothing for it but to keep walking. Oh, it was way past time to be

gone. He only hoped he had not left it too late.

CHAPTER 2

Two Captains

About two miles north of the city a wide blue banner stretched between two tall poles rippled in

the wind, proclaiming Valan Luca’s Grand Traveling Show and Magnificent Display of Marvels and

Wonders in brilliant red letters large enough to be read from the road, perhaps a hundred paces east. For

those unable to read, it at least indicated the location of something out of the ordinary. This was The

Largest Traveling Show in the World, so the banner claimed. Luca claimed a great many things, but Mat

thought he must be telling the truth about that. The show’s canvas wall, ten feet high and tightly pegged

at the bottom, enclosed as much ground as a good-sized village. The people streaming by looked toward

the banner curiously, but the farmers and merchants had their work ahead of them and the settlers their

future, and none turned aside. Thick ropes fastened to posts set in the ground were meant to herd crowds

to the wide, arched entrance just behind the banner, but there was no one waiting to get in, not at this

hour. Of late, few came at any hour.

The fall of Ebou Dar had brought only a slight drop in attendance, once people realized the city

would not be looted and they did not have to flee for their lives, but with the Return, all those ships and

settlers, nearly everyone decided to hold on to their coin against more pressing needs. Two bulky men,

huddling in cloaks that might have come from a ragbag, were on duty beneath the banner to keep out

anyone who wanted to peek around without paying, but even those were in short supply, nowadays. The

pair, one with a crooked nose above a thick mustache and the other missing an eye, were squatting on

the dirt, tossing dice.

Surprisingly, Petra Anhill, the show’s strongman, stood watching the two horse-handlers play,

arms larger than most men’s legs folded across his chest. He was shorter than Mat, but at least twice as

wide, his shoulders straining the heavy blue coat his wife made him wear against the cold. Petra seemed

engrossed in the dicing, but the man did not gamble, not so much as pitching pennies. He and his wife,

Clarine, a dog trainer, saved every coin they could spare, and Petra needed small excuse to talk at length

about the inn they intended to buy one day. Even more surprising, Clarine was at his side, enveloped in a

dark cloak and apparently as absorbed in the gaming as he.

Petra glanced warily over his shoulder into the camp when he saw Mat and Egeanin approaching

arm-in-arm, which made Mat frown. People looking over their shoulders was never good. Clarine’s

plump brown face broke into a warm smile, though. Like most women in the show, she thought he and

Egeanin were romantic. The bent-nosed horse-handler, a heavy-shouldered Tairen named Col, leered as

he scooped up the wager, a few coppers. No one but Domon could see Egeanin as pretty, but to some

fools, nobility bestowed beauty. Or money did, and a noblewoman must be rich. A few thought any

noblewoman who abandoned her husband for the likes of Mat Cauthon might be open to leaving him,

too, and bringing her money with her. That was the story Mat and the others had put around to explain

why they were hiding from the Seanchan: a cruel husband and a lovers’ flight. Everyone had heard that

sort of tale, from gleemen or books if seldom real life, often enough to accept it. Col kept his head down,

though. Egeanin-Leilwin-had already drawn her belt knife on a sword-juggler, a too-handsome

fellow who had been overly suggestive in asking her to share a cup of wine in his wagon, and no one

doubted she would have used the blade if he had pressed his suit an inch further.

As soon as Mat reached the strongman, Petra said quietly, "There are Seanchan soldiers talking

to Luca, about twenty of them. The officer’s talking with him, leastwise." He did not sound frightened,

but worry creased his forehead, and he laid a protective hand on his wife’s shoulder. Clarine’s smile

faded, and she raised one hand to rest atop his. They trusted Lucas judgment, after a fashion, yet they

knew the risk they were running. Or thought they did. The risk they believed in was bad enough. "What

do they want?" Egeanin demanded, pushing free of Mat, before he could crack his teeth. In fact, no one

waited for him. "Hold these for me," Noal said, handing his pole and basket to the one-eyed man, who

gaped up at him. Straightening, Noal slipped a knobbly hand beneath his coat, where he kept two

longbladed knives. "Can we reach our horses?" he asked Petra. The strongman eyed him doubtfully. Mat

was not the only one unsure whether Noal still possessed all his wits.

"They don’t seem interested in searching," Clarine said hastily, making a hint of a curtsy to

Egeanin. Everyone was supposed to pretend Mat and the others were part of the show, but few managed

to carry it off with Egeanin. "The officer’s been in Luca’s wagon for a good half-hour, but the soldiers

have been standing by their horses all that time."

"I don’t think they’re here about you," Petra added respectfully. Again, to Egeanin. Why should he be

different? Probably practicing to welcome nobles to that inn. "We just didn’t want you to be surprised or

worried, seeing them. I’m sure Luca will send them off with no trouble." Despite his tone, the creases

remained in his forehead. Most men became upset if their wives ran off, and a nobleman could make

others bear the brunt of his ire. A traveling show, strangers just passing through, made a particularly

easy target without added complications. "You don’t have to worry about anybody talking out of turn,

my Lady." Glancing at the horse handlers, Petra added, "Does she, Col?" Bent-nose shook his head, his

eyes on the dice he was bouncing on his palm. He was a big man, but not as big as Petra, and the

strongman could straighten horseshoes with his bare hands.

"Everybody likes a chance to spit on a noble’s boots now and then," the one-eyed fellow

mumbled, peering into the basket of fish. He was almost as tall and wide-shouldered as Col, but his face

was all leathery wrinkles, and he had even fewer teeth than Noal. Glancing at Egeanin, he ducked his

head and added, "Begging your pardon, Lady. ‘Sides, this way we all get a little coin, which there ain’t

been much of lately. Right, Col? Anybody talks, them Seanchan’ll take us all up, maybe hang us like

they did them Sea Folk. Or put us to work cleaning them canals the other side of the harbor." Horse

handlers did whatever needed doing around the show, from mucking the horselines and cleaning

animals’ cages to erecting and taking down the canvas wall, but he shuddered as though digging out

silted canals in the Rahad was a worse prospect than hanging.

"Did I say anything about talking?" Col protested, spreading his hands. "I just asked how long

we’re going to sit here, that’s all. I just asked when we’re going to see some of this coin." "We sit here

as long as I say sit." It was remarkable how hard Egeanin could make that drawl sound without raising

her voice, like a blade sliding free of the scabbard. "You see your coin when we reach our destination.

There will be a little something extra for those who serve me faithfully. And a cold grave for anyone

who thinks on betrayal." Col pulled his much-patched cloak tight and widened his eyes trying to look

indignant, or maybe innocent, but he just appeared to be hoping she would come close enough for him to

filch her purse.

Mat ground his teeth. For one thing, that was his gold she was promising with such a free hand.

She had her own, but not near enough for this. More importantly, she was trying to take charge again.

Light, except for him, she would still be in Ebou Dar scheming to avoid the Seekers, if not already being

put to the question.

Except for him, she would never have thought of staying close to Ebou Dar to throw off pursuit, or

found a hiding place with Luca’s show. But why were soldiers there? The Seanchan would have sent a

hundred men, a thousand, for a vague suspicion of Tuon’s presence. If they suspected the Aes Sedai. . . .

No! Petra and Clarine did not know they were helping hide Aes Sedai, but they would have mentioned

sul’dam and damane, and the soldiers would not be hunting sisters without them. He fingered the

foxhead through his coat. He wore that waking and sleeping, and it might give him a little warning.

He never considered trying for the horses, and not just because Col and a dozen more like him

would go running to the Seanchan before he was well out of sight. They had no particular animosity

toward him or Egeanin that he knew-even Rumann, the swordjuggler, seemed to have settled in

happily with a contortionist named Adria-but some folks would not resist the temptation of a little

more gold, either. In any case, no warning dice tumbled in his head. And there were people inside those

canvas walls he could not leave behind.

"If they’re not searching, then we have nothing to worry about," he said confidently. "But thanks

for the warning, Petra. I’ve never liked surprises." The strongman made a small gesture as if to say it

was nothing, but Egeanin and Clarine looked at Mat as though startled to find him there. Even Col and

the one-eyed lout blinked at him. It took an effort to stop short of gritting his teeth again. "I’ll just

wander near Luca’s wagon and see what I can see. Lei 1 win, you and Noal find Olver and stay with

him." They liked the boy, everyone did, and that would keep them out of his hair. He could eavesdrop

better alone. And if they had to run, maybe Egeanin and Noal could help get the boy out, at least. The

Light send it did not come to that. He could see nothing but disaster in it.

"Well, I suppose nobody lives forever," Noal sighed, retrieving his bamboo pole and basket.

Burn him, but the fellow could make a colicky goat seem cheerful! Petra’s frown certainly deepened.

Married men always seemed to be worried, one reason Mat was in no hurry himself. As Noal vanished

around the corner of the canvas wall, the one-eyed man watched the fish go regretfully. He appeared to

be another without a full set of wits. He probably had a wife somewhere.

Mat pulled his cap almost down to his eyes. Still no dice. He tried not to think of how many

times he had nearly had his throat slit or his skull split without any dice. But surely they would have

been there if there was any real danger. Of course they would. He had not taken three steps inside the

entrance before Egeanin caught up to him and slipped her arm around his waist. He stopped in his

tracks, eyeing her balefully. She resisted his orders the way a trout fought the hook, but this went

beyond stubborn. "What do you think you’re doing? What if this Seanchan officer recognizes you?"

That seemed as likely as Tylin herself walking into the show, but anything that might make her leave

was worth grabbing.

"What are the chances this fellow is anyone I know?" she scoffed. "I don’t have . . ." her face

twisted for an instant, "didn’t have . . . many friends this side of the ocean, and none in Ebou Dar." She

touched an end of the black wig over her bosom. "Anyway, in this, my own mother wouldn’t recognize

me." Her voice turned bleak toward the end.

He was going to chip a tooth if he kept on clenching his jaw. Standing there arguing with her

would be worse than useless, but the way she had stared at those Seanchan soldiers was fresh in his

mind. "Don’t glare at anybody," he warned her. "Don’t even look at anybody."

"I’m a demure Ebou Dari woman." She made it sound a challenge.

"You can do all the talking." She made that into a warning. Light! When a woman was not

making everything smooth, she made things very rough indeed, and Egeanin never made anything

smooth. He was definitely in danger of chipping a tooth. Beyond the entrance, the show’s main street

meandered among wagons like those the Tinkers used, little houses on wheels with the wagon shafts

lifted against the drivers’ seats, and walled tents often as large as small houses. Most of the wagons were

brightly painted, every shade of red or green, yellow or blue, and many of the tents were just as colorful,

a few even striped. Here and there wooden platforms, where entertainers could perform, stood beside the

street, their colored bunting beginning to look a bit grubby.

The broad expanse of dirt, near thirty paces wide and beaten flat by thousands of feet, really was

a street, one of several that wound through the show. The wind whipped away faint gray streamers of

smoke rising from the tin chimneys that stuck from up from the roofs of the wagons, and from some

tents. Most of the showfolk were probably at breakfast if not still in bed. They rose late, as a rule-a rule

Mat approved-and no one would want to eat sitting around a cook fire outside in this cold. The only

person he saw was Aludra, the sleeves of her dark green dress pushed up her forearms, grinding

something with a bronze mortar and pestle on a table that folded down from the side of her vivid blue

wagon, just around the corner on one of the narrower side streets. Intent on her work, the slender

Taraboner did not see Egeanin and Mat. He could not help looking at her, though. With her dark hair in

thin, beaded braids that hung to her waist, Aludra was probably the most exotic of Luca’s marvels. He

advertised her as an Illuminator, and unlike many of the other performers and marvels, she really was

what Luca claimed, though Luca probably did not believe it himself. Mat wondered what she was

grinding. And whether it might explode. She had promised to reveal the secret of fireworks if he could

answer a riddle, but he had not found a glimmer, so far. He would, though. One way or another. Egeanin

poked a hard finger into his ribs. "We’re supposed to be lovers, as you keep reminding me," she

growled. "Who’s going to believe it if you stare at that woman as though you’re hungry?" Mat grinned

lasciviously. "I always look at pretty women, haven’t you noticed.-" Adjusting her head scarf with a

little more vigor than usual, she gave a disparaging grunt, and he was satisfied. Her prudish streak came

in handy now and then. Egeanin was on the run for her life, but she was still Seanchan, and she already

knew more about him than he liked. He was not about to trust her with all of his secrets. Even the ones

he did not know yet.

Luca’s wagon sat in the very middle of the show’s camp, the most favored position, as far as

possible from the smells of the animal cages and horselines situated along the canvas walls. The wagon

was garish even compared to the others in the show, a red and blue thing that shone like the finest

lacquerwork, every surface spotted with golden comets and stars. The phases of the moon, in silver, ran

all the way around just below the roofline. Even the tin chimney was painted in red and blue rings. A

Tinker would have blushed. To one side of the wagon two ranks of helmeted Seanchan soldiers stood

stiffly beside their horses, green-tasseled lances slanted at exactly the same angle. One of the men held

the reins of an extra mount, a fine dun gelding with strong haunches and good ankles. The soldiers’

blue-and-green armor appeared drab alongside Luca’s wagon.

Mat was unsurprised to see he was not the only one interested in the Seanchan. A dark stocking

cap covering his shaved head, Bayle Domon was squatting on his heels with his back against one wheel

of the green wagon that belonged to Petra and Clarine, about thirty paces beyond the soldiers. Clarine’s

dogs lay under the wagon, a motley collection of smallish animals sleeping huddled together. The thickbodied

Illianer was pretending to whittle, but all he had produced was a small pile of shavings at his

feet. Mat wished the fellow would grow a mustache to hide his upper lip or else shave off the rest of his

beard. Someone might connect an Illianer to Egeanin. Blaeric Negina, a tall fellow leaning against the

wagon as though keeping Domon company, had not hesitated to remove his Shienaran topknot to avoid

Seanchan notice, though he ran a hand over the black bristle growing on his head about as often as

Egeanin checked her wig. Maybe he should wear a cap. In their dark coats with frayed cuffs and welltraveled

boots, both men could pass for showfolk, maybe horse-handlers, except to other showfolk. They

were watching the Seanchan while trying to seem not to, but Blaeric was the more successful, as might

be expected from a Warder. His full attention appeared to be on Domon, except for an occasional glance

at the soldiers, as casual as could be. Domon scowled at the Seanchan when he was not glaring at the

lump of wood in his hand, as though ordering it to turn into a neat carving. The man had taken being

so’jbin entirely too much to heart.

Mat was trying to figure out how to sneak close to Luca’s wagon and eavesdrop unseen by the

soldiers when the door at the back of the wagon opened and a pale-haired Seanchan marched down the

steps, planting a helmet with a thin blue plume on his head as his boot touched the ground. Luca

appeared behind him, resplendent in scarlet embroidered with golden sunbursts, bowing with elaborate

flourishes as he followed the officer. Luca owned at least two dozen coats, most red and each gaudier

than the last. It was a good thing his wagon was the largest in the show, or he would not have had room

for them all.

Ignoring Luca, the Seanchan officer stepped up onto his gelding, adjusted his sword, and barked

orders that sent his men flowing into their saddles and forming a column of twos that moved off at a

slow walk toward the entrance. Luca stood watching them leave with a fixed smile on his face, poised

for another bow if any looked back.

Mat stayed well to the side of the street and let his mouth hang open, affecting to gape in wonder

as the soldiers rode by. Not that any of them so much as glanced his way-the officer stared straight

ahead and so did the soldiers behind him-but no one ever paid any mind to a country yokel, or

remembered one. To his surprise, Egeanin studied the ground in front of her toes, clutching the scarf

knotted beneath her chin, until the last horseman passed. Lifting her head to look after them, she pursed

her lips for a moment. "It seems I do know that boy," she drawled softly. "I carried him to Palme on

Fearless. His servant died, midvoyage, and he thought he could use one of my crew. I had to put him

straight. You’d have though he was of the Blood, the fuss he put up."

"Blood and bloody ashes," Mat breathed. How many other people had she gotten crosswise,

fixing her face in their minds? Egeanin being Egeanin, probably hundreds. And he had been letting her

walk around with just a wig and a change of clothes for disguise! Hundreds? Thousands, more likely.

She could irritate a brick.

In any case, the officer was gone now. Mat exhaled slowly. His luck really was still with him. At

times he thought that was all that kept him from bawling like a baby. He headed for Luca to find out

what the soldiers had wanted.

Domon and Blaeric reached Luca as quickly as he and Egeanin did, and the scowl on Domon’s

round face deepened as he stared at Mat’s arm around Egeanin’s shoulder. The Illianer understood the

necessity for the pretense, or said he did, yet he seemed to believe they could carry it off without so

much as touching hands. Mat removed his arm from her-there was nothing to carry off here;

Luca knew the truth; of everything-and Egeanin started to release him, too, yet after a look at Domon,

she tightened her grip on Mat’s waist instead, all without the slightest change of expression. Domon

continued to scowl, but at the ground, now. Mat decided he would understand the Seanchan long

before he understood women. Or Illianers, for that matter.

"Horses," Luca growled almost before Mat stopped walking. His frown took in all of them, but

he focused most of his anger on Mat. A little the taller, Luca stretched to stare down at Mat. "That’s

what he wanted. I showed him the warrant exempting me from the horse lottery, signed by the High

Lady Suroth herself, but was he impressed? It didn’t matter to him that I rescued a highranking

Seanchan." The woman had not been high-ranking, and he had not so much rescued her as given her a

way to travel as a hired performer, but Luca always exaggerated to his own advantage. "I don’t know

how long that exemption is really good for, anyway. The Seanchan are desperate for horses. They might

take it back any day!" His face was turning almost as red as his coat, and he jabbed a finger at Mat

repeatedly. "You’re going to get my horses taken! How do I move my show with no horses? Answer me

that, if you can. I was ready to leave as soon as I saw that madness in the harbor, until you twisted my

arm. You’re going to get my head cut off! I could be a hundred miles from here, if not for you, riding in

out of the night and snaring me in your crazy schemes! I’m not earning a penny here! There haven’t

been enough patrons the last three days to pay for feeding the animals one day! Half a day! I should

have left a month ago! More! I should have!" Mat almost laughed as Luca ran down into splutters.

Horses. That was all; just horses. Besides, the notion that the show’s heavyladen wagons could cover a

hundred miles in five days was as ludicrous as Luca’s wagon. The man could have gone a month ago,

two months, except for wanting to eke every copper he could out of Ebou Dar and its Seanchan

conquerors. And as for talking him into staying, six nights past, that had been as easy as falling out of

bed. Instead of laughing, Mat put a hand on Luca’s shoulder. The fellow was vain as a peacock, and

greedy besides, but there was no point making him angrier than he already was. "If you’d left that night,

Luca, you think nobody would have gotten suspicious? You would have had Seanchan tearing your

wagons apart before you made two leagues. You could say I saved you from that." Luca glowered.

Some people just could not see beyond their own noses. "Anyway, you can stop worrying. As soon as

Thom returns from the city, we can put as many miles behind us as you want." Luca leaped so suddenly

that Mat stepped back in alarm, but all the man did was caper in a little circle laughing. Domon goggled

at him, and even Blaeric stared. Sometimes, Luca seemed a flat bull-goose fool.

Luca had barely begun his dance when Egeanin shoved Mat away from her. "As soon as Merrilin

returns? I gave orders no one was to leave!" Her glare swung between him and Luca in cold fury, a cold

that burned. "I expect my orders to be obeyed!" Luca stopped cavorting abruptly and eyed her sideways,

then suddenly made her a bow with so many flourishes you could practically see the cloak. You could

almost see the embroidery on the cloak! He thought he had a way with a women, Luca did. "You

command, my sweet Lady, and I leap to obey." Coming upright, he shrugged apologetically. "But

Master Cauthon has gold, and I fear gold commands my first obedience." Mat’s chest full of gold coins

in this very wagon had been all the arm-twisting needed to convince him. Maybe Mat being ta’veren had

helped, but for enough gold, Valan Luca would help kidnap the Dark One. Egeanin drew a deep breath,

ready to berate Luca further, but the man turned his back and went scampering up the steps into his

wagon shouting, "Latelle! Latelle! We must roust everybody out immediately! We’re leaving at last, the

minute Merrilin returns! The Light be praised!"

A moment later, he was back again, dashing back down the short stair followed by his wife

drawing a black velvet cloak, sewn with glittering spangles, around herself. A stern-faced woman, she

wrinkled her nose at Mat as though he had a bad smell and gave Egeanin a look that likely made her

trained bears climb trees. Latelle disliked the idea of a woman running away from her husband even

when she knew it was a lie. Luckily, she seemed to worship Luca for some reason, and she liked gold

nearly as well as he did. Luca ran to the nearest wagon and began pounding on the door, and Latelle did

the same at the next.

Not waiting around to watch, Mat hurried off down one of the side streets. More of an alley

compared to the main street, it wound among the same sort of wagons and tents, all shut up tight against

the cold, with smoke streaming from the metal chimneys. There were no platforms for performers here,

but lines for drying laundry hung between some of the wagons, and here and there wooden toys lay

scattered on the ground. This street was for living only, the narrowness meant to discourage outsiders.

He moved quickly despite his hip-he had walked most of the ache out-but he had not gone ten

steps before Egeanin and Domon caught up to him. Blaeric had vanished, probably gone to tell the

sisters they were still safe and could finally leave. The Aes Sedai, masquerading as servants sick with

worry that their mistress’s husband would catch them, were fed up with being confined to their wagon,

not to mention fed up with sharing with the sul’-dam. Mat had made them share, so the Aes Sedai could

watch the ml’dam while the sul’dam kept the Aes Sedai out of his hair. Still Mat was glad Blaeric had

taken away the necessity for him to visit that wagon again. One or another of the sisters had summoned

him four or five times a day since their escape from the city, and he went when he could not avoid it, but

it was never a pleasant experience. Egeanin did not put her arm around him this time. She strode at his

side staring straight ahead, not bothering to check her wig, for once. Domon lumbered behind like a

bear, muttering under his breath in his heavy Illianer accent. The stocking cap exposed the fact that his

dark beard stopped abruptly at the middle of each ear, with only stubble above. It made him look . . .

unfinished. "Two captains on one ship make sure course for disaster," Egeanin drawled with overdone

patience. Her understanding smile looked as if it hurt her face.

"We aren’t on a ship," Mat replied.

"The principle’s the same, Cauthon! You are a farmer. I know you’re a good man in a tight

spot." Egeanin shot a dark look over her shoulder at Domon. He was the one who had brought her and

Mat together, back when she thought she was getting a hired man. "But this situation needs judgment

and experience. We’re in dangerous waters, and you have no knowledge of command."

"More than you might think," he told her dryly. He could have

spun out a list of the battles he remembered commanding, but only an historian would recognize most of

them, and maybe not even an historian. No one would believe it, anyway. He certainly would not if

someone else had made that claim. "Shouldn’t you and Domon be getting ready? You wouldn’t want to

leave anything behind." Everything she owned was already stowed away in the wagon she and Mat

shared with Domon-not a comfortable arrangement, that-but he quickened his step, hoping she would

take the hint. Besides, he saw his destination ahead. The bright blue wall-tent, crowded between a

virulent yellow wagon and an emerald green one, was barely large enough to hold three cots, but

providing shelter for everyone he brought out of Ebou Dar had required bribes to make people move and

more bribes to make others let them in. What he had been able to hire was what the owners were willing

to let him have. At rates suitable for a good inn. Juilin, a dark compact man with short black hair, was

sitting crosslegged on the ground in front of the tent with Olver, a thin little boy, if not so skinny as

when Mat first saw him, and short for ten, the age he claimed. Both coatless despite the wind, they were

playing Snakes and Foxes on a board the boy’s dead father had drawn for him on a piece of red cloth.

Tossing the dice, Olver counted the pips carefully and considered his move along the spiderweb of black

lines and arrows. The Tairen thief-catcher was paying less attention to the game. He sat up straight at the

sight of Mat.

Abruptly, Noal darted around from the rear of the tent, breathing hard as if he had been running.

Juilin glanced up in surprise at the old man, and Mat frowned. He had told Noal to come straight here.

Where had he gone instead? Noal looked at him expectantly, not with any guilt or embarrassment, just

eager to hear what Mat had to say.

"You know about the Seanchan?" Juilin asked, turning his attention to Mat, too.

A shadow moved inside the tent’s entry flaps, and a dark-haired woman, seated on the end of one

of the cots with an old gray cloak wrapped around her, leaned forward to rest a hand on Juilin’s arm.

And to give Mat a wary look. Thera was pretty, if you liked a mouth that always seemed to be pouting,

and it seemed that Juilin did, from the way he smiled at her reassuringly and patted her hand. She was

also Amathera Aelfdene Casmir Lounault, Panarch of Tarabon and the next thing to a queen. At least,

she had been, once. Juilin had known that, and so had Thom, yet no one thought to tell Mat until they

reached the show. He supposed it hardly mattered, alongside everything else. She answered faster to

Thera than to Amathera, she made no demands, except on Juilin’s time, and there seemed little chance

anyone would recognize her here. In any case, Mat hoped she felt more than gratitude for being rescued,

because Juilin certainly felt more for her. Who was to say a dethroned panarch could not fall in love

with a thief-catcher? Stranger things had happened. Though he was not sure he could name one,

offhand. "They just wanted to see the warrant for Luca’s horses," he said, and Juilin nodded, visibly

relaxing a little.

"As well they didn’t count the horselines." The warrant listed the exact number of horses Luca

was allowed to keep. The Seanchan could be generous with their rewards, but given their need for

mounts and wagon teams, they were not about to hand anyone a license to set up horse trading. "At best,

they would have taken the extra. At worst. . . ." The thief-catcher shrugged. Another cheerful soul.

With a gasp, Thera suddenly pulled her cloak tighter and jerked back into the depths of the tent.

Juilin looked behind Mat, his eyes going hard, and the Tairen could match the Warders when it came to

hard. Egeanin did not seem to catch hints, and she was glaring at the tent. Domon stood beside her with

his arms folded, sucking his teeth in thought or forced patience. "Get your tent packed up, Sandar,"

Egeanin ordered. "The show is leaving as soon as Merrilin returns." Her jaw tightened, and she did not

quite glare at Mat. Not quite. "Make sure your . . . woman . . . doesn’t give any trouble." Most lately,

Thera had been a servant, da’covale, the property of the High Lady Suroth, until Juilin stole her away.

To Egeanin, stealing da’covale was almost as bad as freeing damane.

"Can I ride Wind?" Olver exclaimed, bounding to his feet. "Can I, Mat? Can I, Leilwin?"

Egeanin actually smiled at him. Mat had yet to see her smile at anyone else, even Domon. "Not yet,"

Mat said. Not until they were far enough from Ebou Dar that no one was likely to remember the gray

winning races with a small boy on his back. "In a few days, maybe. Juilin, will you tell the others?

Blaeric already knows, so the sisters are taken care of." Juilin did not waste time, aside from ducking

inside the tent to reassure Thera. She seemed to need reassuring frequently. When he came out, carrying

a dark Tairen coat that was beginning to show wear, he told Olver to put the game away and help Thera

with the packing until he returned, then settled his flat-topped conical red hat on his head and started off,

shrugging into the coat. He never so much as glanced at Egeanin. She considered him a thief, offensive

in itself to a thief-catcher, and the Tairen had no love for her, either. Mat started to ask Noal where he

had been, but the old man darted nimbly after Juilin, calling over his shoulder that he would help let the

others know the show was leaving. Well, two could spread the word faster than one-Vanin and the four

surviving Redarms shared a crowded tent on one side of the show, while Noal himself shared another

with Thom and the two serving men, Lopin and Nerim, on the opposite side-and the question could

wait. Probably, he had just delayed to put his precious fish somewhere safe. In any case, the question

suddenly seemed unimportant. The noise of people shouting for horse handlers to bring their teams, and

others demanding at the top of their lungs to know what was happening, was beginning to fill the camp.

Adria, a slim woman holding a flowered green robe around her, came running up in bare feet and

vanished into the yellow wagon, where the other four contortionists lived. Somebody in the green wagon

bellowed hoarsely that people were trying to sleep. A handful of performers’ children, some performers

themselves, dashed by, and Olver looked up from folding the game. That was his most prized

possession, but if not for that, he plainly would have gone after them. It was going to take some time yet

before the show was ready to travel, but that was not what made Mat groan. He had just heard those

bloody dice start rattling in his head again.

CHAPTER 3

A Fan of Colors

at did not know whether to curse or weep. With the soldiers gone and Ebou Dar about to be left

in his dust, there seemed no reason for the dice, but there never was a bloody reason he could see until it

was too late. Whatever was coming might lie days in the future or only an hour, but he had never been

able to figure it out ahead of time. The only certainties were that something important-or dire-was

going to happen and that he would not be able to avoid it. Sometimes, like that night at the gate, he did

not understand why the dice had been tumbling even after they stopped. All he really knew for sure was

that however much the dice made him twitch like a goat with the itch, once they started, he did not want

them to stop ever. But they did. Sooner or later, they always did.

"Are you all right, Mat?" Olver said. "Those Seanchan can’t catch us." He attempted gruff

conviction, but a hint of question hung in his voice.

Abruptly Mat realized he had been staring at nothing. Egeanin frowned at him while fiddling

absentmindedly with her wig, plainly angry that he was ignoring her. Domon’s eyes had a studious look;

if he was not deciding whether to be upset on Egeanin’s behalf, Mat would eat his cap. Even Thera was

peeking at him past the tent’s entry flap, and she always tried to keep out of Egeanin’s sight. He could

not explain. Only a man with porridge for brains would believe he got warnings from hearing dice no

one could see. Or maybe a man marked by the Power. Or by the Dark One. He was not anxious to have

any of those things suspected about him. And it might be that night at the gate all over again. No, this

was not a secret he cared to reveal. It would do no good, anyway. "They’ll never catch us, Olver, not

you and me." He ruffled the boy’s hair, and Olver gave a wide-mouthed grin, confidence restored as

easy as that. "Not so long as we keep our eyes open and our wits about us. Remember, you can find a

way out of any difficulty if you keep your eyes and wits sharp, but if you don’t, you’ll trip over your

own feet." Olver nodded gravely, but Mat meant the reminder for the others. Or maybe himself. Light,

there was no way any of them could be more alert. Except for Olver, who thought it was all a great

adventure, they had all been jumping out of their skins since before leaving the city. "Go help Thera like

Juilin told you, Olver."

A sharp gust cut through Mat’s coat, making him shiver. "And put your coat on; it’s cold," he

added as the boy ducked past Thera into the tent. Rustles and scraping sounds from inside said that

Olver was setting to work, with or without his coat, but Thera remained crouched at the tent’s entrance,

peering at Mat. For all the care anybody but Mat Cauthon took, the boy could catch his death.

As soon as Olver disappeared, Egeanin stepped closer to Mat, her fists on her hips again, and he

groaned under his breath. "We are going to settle matters now, Cauthon," she said in a hard voice.

"Now! I won’t have our journey wrecked by you countermanding my orders."

"There’s nothing to settle," he told her. "I was never your hired hand, and that’s that." Somehow,

her face managed to grow harder, as good as shouting that she did not see matters like that. The woman

was as tenacious as a snapping turtle, but there had to be some way to pry her jaws from his leg. Burn

him if he wanted to be alone with the dice rolling in his head, yet that was better than having to listen to

them while arguing with her. "I’m going to see Tuon before we leave." The words popped out of his

mouth before they were clear in his head. He realized that they had been lying there for some time,

though, murky and slowly solidifying. The blood drained from Egeanin’s cheeks as soon as Tuon’s

name left his mouth, and he heard a squeak from Thera followed by the snap of the tentflaps being

jerked shut. The onetime panarch had absorbed a great many Seanchan ways while she was Suroth’s

property, and many of their taboos as well. Egeanin was made of harder stuff, however. "Why?" she

demanded. In almost the same breath, she went on, anxious and furious all at once. "You mustn’t call

her that. You must show respect." Harder in some ways. Mat grinned, but she did not seem to see the

joke. Respect? There was precious little respect in stuffing a gag in someone’s mouth and rolling them

up in a wall hanging. Calling Tuon High Lady or anything else was not going to change that. Of course,

Egeanin was more willing to talk about freeing damane than she was about Tuon. If she could have

pretended the kidnapping never happened, she would have, and as it was, she tried. Light, she had tried

to ignore it while it was happening. In her mind, any other crimes she might have committed paled to

nothing beside that. "Because I want to talk with her," he said. And why not? He had to, sooner or later.

People had begun trotting up and down the narrow street, now, half-dressed men with their shirts

hanging out and women with their hair still wrapped in night-kerchiefs, some leading horses and others

just milling about as far as he could make out. A wiry boy a little bigger than Olver went past doing

handsprings wherever the crowd gave him a pace of room, practicing or maybe playing. The sleepy

fellow in the deep green wagon still had not appeared. Luca’s Grand Traveling Show would not be

traveling anywhere for hours yet. There was plenty of time. "You could come with me," he suggested in

his most innocent voice. He should have thought of this before.

The invitation made Egeanin go fence-post stiff for true. It hardly seemed possible her face could

grow any paler, but an extra scrap of color leached out. "You will show her fitting respect," she said

hoarsely, clutching the knotted scarf with both hands as though trying to squeeze the black wig tighter

onto her head. "Come, Bayle. I want to make sure my things are stowed properly."

Domon hesitated as she turned and hurried away into the crowd without looking back, and Mat

watched him warily. He had vague memories of a flight on Demon’s rivership, once, but vague was the

best he could say of them. Thom was friendly with Domon, a point in the Illianer’s favor, yet he was

Egeanin’s man to the knife, ready to back her on anything down to disliking Juilin, and Mat trusted him

no further than he did her. Which was to say, not very far. Egeanin and Domon had their own goals, and

whether Mat Cauthon kept a whole hide did not factor in them. He doubted that the man really trusted

him, for that matter, but then, neither of them had much choice at the moment. "Fortune prick me,"

Domon muttered, scratching the bristles growing above his left ear, "whatever you do be up to, you may

be in over your head. I think she do be tougher than you do suspect." "Egeanin?" Mat said

incredulously. He looked around quickly to see whether anyone in the alley had heard his slip. A few

glanced at him and Domon as they brushed by, but nobody glanced twice. Luca was not the only one

eager to be gone from a city where the flow of patrons for the show had dried up and night lightning

setting the harbor on fire was a fresh memory. They might all have fled that first night, leaving Mat

nowhere to hide, except for Luca arguing them out of it. That promised gold had made Luca very

persuasive. "I know she’s tougher than old boots, Domon, but old boots don’t count with me. This isn’t

a bloody ship, and I’m not letting her take charge and ruin everything."

Domon grimaced as if Mat were goose-brained. "The girl, man. Do you believe you could be so

calm if you did be carried off in the night? Whatever you be playing at, with that wild talk of her being

your wife, have a care or she may shave your head at the shoulders."

"I was just cutting the fool," Mat muttered. "How many times do I have to say it? I was unnerved

for a minute." Oh, he had been that. Learning who Tuon was, while he was wrestling with her, would

have unnerved a bloody Trolloc.

Domon grunted in disbelief. Well, it was hardly the best story Mat had ever come up with. Except for

Domon, everyone who had heard him babbling seemed to accept the tale, though. Mat thought they had,

anyway. Egeanin might get a knot in her tongue at the very thought of Tuon, but she would have said

plenty if she believed he had been serious. Likely she would have put her knife in him.

Peeking in the direction Egeanin had gone, the Illianer shook his head. "Try to keep a grip on

your tongue from now on. Eg-. . . Leilwin . . . do near have a fit whenever she do think about what you

did say. I’ve heard her muttering under her breath, and you can wager the girl herself does take it no

lighter. You ‘cut the fool’ with her, and you may get us all shortened." He slid a finger across his throat

expressively and gave a curt nod before pushing through the crowd after Egeanin.

Watching him go, Mat shook his own head. Tuon, tough? True, she was the Daughter of the

Nine Moons and all of that, and she had been able to get under his skin with a look back in the Tarasin

Palace, when he thought she was just another Seanchan noblewoman with her nose in the air, but that

was just because she kept turning up where he did not expect. No more than that. Tough? She looked

like a doll made of black porcelain. How tough could she be? It was all you could do to keep her from

breaking your nose and maybe more, he reminded himself.

He had been careful not to repeat what Domon called "wild talk," but the truth of it was, he was going to

marry Tuon. The thought made him sigh. He knew it as sure as prophecy, which it was, in a way. He

could not imagine how such a marriage could come about; it seemed impossible, on the face of it, and he

would not weep if that proved to be so. But he knew it would not. Why did he always find himself

bloody lumbered with bloody women who pulled knives on him or tried to kick his head off? It was not

fair.

He intended to go straight to the wagon where Tuon and Selucia were being kept, with Setalle

Anan to watch-the innkeeper could make a stone seem soft; a pampered noblewoman and a lady’s

maid would give her no trouble, especially with a Redarm on duty outside. At least, they had not so far,

or he would have heard-but he found his feet wandering, taking him along the winding streets that ran

through the show. Bustle filled all of them, wide and narrow alike. Men rushed by leading horses that

frisked and shied, too long without exercise. Other people were taking down tents and packing the

storage wagons, or hauling cloth-wrapped bundles and brass-bound chests and casks and canisters of

every size out of the house-like wagons that had been standing here for months, partially unloading so

everything could be repacked for travel even while the teams were being harnessed. The din was

constant: horses whickered, women shouted for children, children cried over lost toys or yelled for the

pure pleasure of noise, men bellowed to know who had been at their harness or who had borrowed some

tool. A troupe of acrobats, slender but muscular women who worked on ropes dangling from tall poles,

had surrounded one of the horse handlers, all of them waving their arms and giving voice at the top of

their lungs and nobody listening. Mat paused a moment trying to figure out what they were arguing

over, but eventually he decided they were not sure themselves. Two fighting coatless men rolled on the

ground, watched closely by the likely cause, a willowy hot-eyed seamstress named Jameine, but Petra

appeared and pulled them apart before Mat could even get a bet down.

He was not afraid of seeing Tuon again. Of course not. He had stayed away, after sticking her

into that wagon, to give her time to settle down and collect herself. That was all. Only. . . . Calm,

Domon had called her, and it was true. Kidnapped in the middle of the night, snatched out into a storm

by people who would as soon have cut her throat as look at her, as far as she knew, and she had been by

far the coolest of them all. Light, she could have planned it herself, that was how upset she was! It had

made him feel as if the point of a knife were tickling between his shoulder blades then, and the knife

was back again just thinking about her. And those dice were rattling away inside his skull.

The woman’s hardly likely to offer to exchange vows here and now, he thought with a chuckle,

but it sounded forced even to him. Yet there was no reason under the sun for him to be afraid. He was

just properly wary, not afraid.

The show might have equaled a fair-sized village for size, but there was only so long a man could

wander about in that much space before he started doubling back on himself. Soon enough, too soon, he

found himself staring at a windowless wagon painted in faded purple, surrounded by canvas-topped

storage wagons and in sight of the southernmost horselines. The dung carts had not gone out this

morning, and the odor was strong. The wind carried a heavy scent from the nearest animal cages, too, a

musky smell of big cats and bears and the Light knew what else. Beyond the storage wagons and

pickets, a section of the canvas wall fell and another began to shake as men loosened the guy ropes

holding the poles. The sun, half-hidden by dark clouds now, had climbed halfway to its noonday peak or

better, but it was still too soon. Harnan and Metwyn, two of the Redarms, had already hitched the first

pair of horses to the shaft of the purple wagon and were almost done with the second pair. Soldiers well

trained in the Band of the Red Hand, they would be ready to take the road while the showfolk were still

figuring out which way the horses were supposed to face. Mat had taught the Band to move fast when

there was need. His own feet dragged as though he were wading in mud. Harnan, with that fool tattoo of

a hawk on his cheek, was the first to see him. Buckling a trace, the heavy-jawed file-leader exchanged

looks with Metwyn, a boyish-faced Cairhienin whose appearance belied his age and his weakness for

tavern brawls. They had no call to look surprised.

"Everything going smoothly? I want to be away in good time." Rubbing his hands together

against the cold, Mat eyed the purple wagon uneasily. He should have brought her a present, jewelry or

flowers. Either worked as well, with most women. "Smooth enough, my Lord," Harnan replied in a

cautious tone. "No shouting, no screaming, no crying." He glanced at the wagon as if he did not credit it

himself.

"Quiet suits me," Metwyn said, stringing one of the reins through a ring on a horse-collar.

"Woman starts crying, the only thing to do is leave, if you value your hide, and we can hardly drop these

off by the side of the road." But he glanced at the wagon, too, and shook his head in disbelief.

There really was nothing for Mat to do except go inside. So he did. It only took two tries, with a

smile fixed on his face, to make himself climb the short flight of painted wooden steps at the back of the

wagon. He was not afraid, but any fool would know enough to be nervous.

Despite the lack of windows, the interior of the wagon was well lighted, with four mirrored

lamps burning, and the lamps held good oil, so there was no rancid smell. But then, with the stink from

outside, it would have been hard to tell. He needed to find a better spot to park his wagon. A small brick

stove with an iron door, and an iron top for cooking, made the space toasty compared with outside. It

was not a large wagon, and every inch of wall that could be spared was covered with cabinets or shelves

or pegs for hanging clothing and towels and the like, but the table that could be let down on ropes was

snug against the ceiling, and the three women inside the wagon were hardly crowded. They could not

have been more different, those three. Mistress Anan was sitting on one of the two narrow beds built

into the walls, a regal woman with touches of gray in her hair, seemingly intent on her embroidery hoop

and not looking at all as if she were a guard. A large golden ring hung in each of her ears, and her

marriage knife dangled from a close-fitting silver necklace, the hilt with its red and white stones snug in

the cleavage exposed by the narrow plunging neckline of her Ebou Dari dress that had one side of the

skirt sewn up to expose yellow petticoats. She wore another knife, with a long, curved blade, tucked

behind her belt, but that was just the custom of Ebou Dar. Setalle had refused to take on any disguise,

which seemed well enough. No one had reason to be hunting for her, and finding clothes for everyone

else had been a big enough problem as it was. Selucia, a pretty woman with skin the color of buttery

cream, was cross-legged on the floor between the beds, a dark scarf covering her shaven head and a

sullen expression on her face, though normally she was dignified enough to make Mistress Anan look

flighty. Her eyes were as blue as Egeanin’s, and more piercing, and she had made more fuss than

Egeanin over losing her the rest of her hair. She disliked the dark blue Ebou Dari dress she had been

given, too, claiming the deep neckline was indecent, but it hid her as effectively as a mask. Few men

who glimpsed Selucia’s impressive bosom would be able to focus long on her face. Mat might have

enjoyed the view for a A F A N OF C O L O R S 137 moment or two himself, but there was Tuon, seated on

the wagon’s only stool, a leather-bound book open on her lap, and he could barely make himself look at

anything else. His wife-to-be. Light! Tuon was tiny, not just short but almost slim as a boy, and a loosefitting

dress of brown wool, bought from one of the showfolk, made her seem a child wearing her older

sister’s clothes. Not at all the sort of woman he enjoyed, especially with only a few days’ growth of

black stubble covering her scalp. If you ignored that, she was pretty, though, in a reserved way, with her

heart-shaped face and full lips, her eyes large dark liquid pools of serenity. That utter calmness almost

unnerved him. Not even an Aes Sedai would be serene in her circumstances. The bloody dice in his head

did not help matters.

"Setalle has been keeping me informed," she said in a cool drawl as he pulled the door shut. He

had gotten so he could tell a difference in Seanchan accents; Tuon’s made Egeanin sound as if she had a

mouthful of mush, but they all sounded slurred and slow. "She’s told me the story you have put about

concerning me, Toy."

Tuon had persisted in calling him that, back in the Tarasin Palace. He had not cared, then. Well, not

much.

"My name is Mat," he began. He never saw where the pottery cup in her hand came from, but he

managed to drop to the floor in time for it to shatter against the door instead of his head. "I am a servant,

Toy?" If Tuon’s tone had been cool before, now it was deep winter ice. She barely raised her voice, but

it was hard as ice, too. Her expression would have made a hanging judge look giddy. "A thieving

servant?" The book slid from her lap as she stood and bent to snatch up the lidded white chamber pot.

"A faithless servant?"

"We will need that," Selucia said deferentially, slipping the bulbous pot out of Tuon’s hands.

Setting it carefully to one side, she crouched at Tuon’s feet almost as if ready to hurl herself at Mat,

laughable as that was. Though nothing much seemed laughable right then.

Mistress Anan reached up to one of the railed shelves above her head and handed Tuon another

cup. "We have plenty of these," she murmured.

Mat shot her an indignant look, but her hazel eyes twinkled with amusement. Amusement! She

was supposed to be guarding those two!

A fist thumped on the door. "Do you need help in there?" Harnan called uncertainly. Mat

wondered which of them he was asking. "We have everything well in hand," Setalle called back, calmly

pushing her needle through the fabric stretched on her hoop. You would have thought that needlework

was the most important thing. "Go on about your work. Don’t dawdle." The woman was not Ebou Dari,

but she certainly had soaked up Ebou Dari ways. After a moment, boots thumped back down the steps

outside. It seemed Harnan had been too long in Ebou Dar, as well. Tuon turned the new cup in her hands

as though examining the flowers painted on it, and her lips quirked in a smile so small it almost might

have been Mat’s imagination. She was more than pretty when she smiled, but it was one of those smiles

that said she knew things he did not. He was going to break out in hives if she kept doing that. "I will

not be known as a servant, Toy." "My name is Mat, not . . . that other thing," he said, climbing to his

feet and cautiously testing his hip. To his surprise, it ached no worse after smacking the floorboards.

Tuon arched an eyebrow and hefted the cup in one hand. "I could hardly tell the showfolk I’d kidnapped

the Daughter of the Nine Moons," he said in exasperation. "The High Lady Tuon, peasant!" Selucia said

crisply. "She is under the veil!" Veil? Tuon had worn a veil in the palace, but not since.

The tiny woman gestured graciously, a queen granting license. "It is of no import, Selucia. He is

ignorant, yet. We must educate him. But you will change this story, Toy. I will not be a servant."

"It’s too late to change anything," Mat said, keeping an eye on that cup. Her hands looked frail, with

those long fingernails cut short, but he remembered how quick they were. "Nobody’s asking you to be a

servant." Luca and his wife knew the truth, but there had to be some reason to give everyone else why

Tuon and Selucia were kept confined to this wagon and guarded. The perfect solution had been a pair of

serving girls, about to be dismissed for theft, who had intended to betray their mistress’s flight with her

lover. It seemed perfect to Mat, anyway. To the showfolk, it only added to the romance. He had thought

Egeanin was going to swallow her tongue while he was explaining to Luca. Maybe she had known how

Tuon would take it. Light, he almost wished the dice would stop. How could a man think with that in his

head? "I couldn’t leave you behind to raise an alarm," he went on patiently. That was true, as far as it

went. "I know Mistress Anan has explained it to you." He thought about saying he had been babbling

from nerves when he said she was his wife-she must think him a complete looby!-but it seemed best

not to bring it up again. If she was willing to let the matter lie, all the better. "I know she’s already told

you this, but I promise no one’s going to hurt you. We’re not after ransom, just getting away with our

heads still attached. As soon as I can figure out how to send you home safe and sound, I will. I promise.

I’ll make you as comfortable as I can until then. You’ll just have to put up with the other." Tuon’s big

dark eyes crackled, heat lightning in a night sky, but she said, "It seems I will see what your promises

are worth, Toy." At her feet, Selucia hissed like a doused cat, her head halfturning as if to object, but

Tuon’s left hand wiggled, and the blueeyed woman blushed and went silent. The Blood used something

like Maiden handtalk with their upper servants. Mat wished he understood the signals.

"Answer me a question, Tuon," he said.

He thought he heard Setalle murmur, "Fool." Selucia’s jaw knotted, and a dangerous look

kindled in Tuon’s eyes, but if she was going to call him "Toy," he would be burned if he gave her any

titles.

"How old are you?" He had heard that she was only a few years younger than he, but looking at

her in that sack of a dress, it seemed impossible.

To his surprise, that dangerous spark burst into flame. Not just heat lightning, this time. He

should have been fried on the spot. Tuon threw back her shoulders and drew herself to her full height.

Such as that was; he doubted she could reach five feet with her heels flat however she stretched. "My

fourteenth true-name day will come in five months," she said in a voice that was far from cold. In fact, it

could have heated the wagon better than the stove. He felt a moment of hope, but she was not finished.

"No; you keep your birth names here, don’t you. That will be my twentieth naming day. Are you

satisfied, Toy? Did you fear you had stolen a . . . child?" She almost hissed the last word.

Mat waved his hands in front of him, frantically dismissing the suggestion. A woman started

hissing at him like a kettle, a man with any brains found a way to cool her down fast. She was gripping

the cup so tightly that tendons stood out on the back of her hand, and he did not want to try his hip with

another fall to the floor. Come to think on it, he was not sure how hard she had tried to hit him the first

time. Her hands were very fast. "I just wanted to know, that’s all," he said quickly. "I was curious,

making conversation. I’m only a little older myself." Twenty. So much for hoping she was too young to

marry for another three or four years. Anything that came between him and his wedding day would have

been welcome.

Tuon studied him suspiciously with her head tilted, then tossed the cup onto the bed beside

Mistress Anan and seated herself on the stool again, taking as much care about arranging her

voluminous woolen skirts as if they had belonged to a silk gown. But she continued to examine him

through her long eyelashes. "Where is your ring?" she demanded.

Unconsciously, he thumbed the finger on his left hand where the long ring usually lay. "I don’t

wear it all the time." Not when everybody in the Tarasin Palace knew he wore it. The thing would have

stood out, with his rough layabout’s garb, in any case. It was not even his signet, anyway, just a carver’s

try-piece. Strange, how his hand felt noticeably lighter without it. Too light. Strange that she remarked

on it, too. But then, why not? Light, those dice had him shying at shadows and jumping at sighs. Or

maybe it was just her, a discomforting thought.

He moved to sit on the unoccupied bed, but Selucia swung herself up onto it so quickly any of

the acrobats might have been jealous, and stretched out with her head propped on her hand.

That pushed her scarf askew for a moment, but she hurriedly straightened it, all the while staring at him

proud and cold as a queen. He looked at the other bed, and Mistress Anan set down her embroidery long

enough to ostentatiously smooth her skirts, making it clear she did not intend to share an inch. Burn her,

she was behaving as though she were guarding Tuon from him! Women always seemed to club together

so a man never had a fair chance. Well, he had managed to keep Egeanin from taking charge so far, and

he was not about to be bullied by Setalle Anan or a bosomy lady’s maid or the high and mighty High

Lady Daughter of the Nine bloody Moons! Only, he could hardly go shoving one of them out of the way

to find a place to sit.

Leaning against a drawered cabinet at the foot of the bed Mistress Anan was seated on, he tried

to think of what to say. He never had trouble thinking of what to say to women, but his brain seemed

deafened by the sound of those dice. All three women gave him disapproving looks-he could all but

hear one of them telling him not to slouch!-so he smiled. Most women thought his best smile very

winning.

Tuon let out a long breath that did not sound won over in the slightest. "Do you remember

Hawkwing’s face, Toy?" Mistress Anan blinked in surprise, and Selucia sat up on the bed frowning. At

him. Why would she frown at him? Tuon just continued to look at him, hands folded in her lap, as cool

and collected as a Wisdom at Sunday.

Mat’s smile felt frozen. Light, what did she know? How could she know anything? He lay beneath the

burning sun, holding his side with both hands, trying to keep the last of life from leaking out and

wondering whether there was any reason to hold on. Aideshar was finished, after this day’s work. A

shadow blotted the sun for an instant, and then a tall man in armor crouched beside him, helmet tucked

under his arm, dark deep-set eyes framing a hooked nose. "You fought well against me today,

Culain, and many days past," that memorable voice said. "Will you live with me in peace?" With his

last breath, he laughed in Artur Hawkwing’s face. He hated to remember dying. A dozen other

encounters skittered through his mind, too, ancient memories that were his, now. Artur Paendrag had

been a difficult man to get along with even before the wars started.

Drawing a deep breath, he took care choosing his words. This was no time to go spouting the Old

Tongue. "Of course I don’t!" he lied. A man who could not lie convincingly got short shrift from

women. "Light, Hawkwing died a thousand years ago! What kind of question is that?"

Her mouth opened slowly, and for a moment he was sure she meant to answer question with

question. "A foolish one, Toy," she replied finally, instead. "I can’t say why it popped into my head."

The stiffness in Mat’s shoulders relaxed, a little. Of course. He was ta’veren. People did things and said

things around him they never would elsewhere. Nonsense qualified. Still, a thing like that could become

uncomfortable when it hit too close to home. "My name is Mat. Mat Cauthon." He might as well not

have spoken. "I cannot say what I will do after returning to Ebou Dar, Toy. I have not decided. I may

have you made da’covah. You are not pretty enough for a cupbearer, but it might please me to have you

for one. Still, you have represented certain promises to me, so it pleases me now to promise, as well. So

long as you keep your promises, I will neither escape nor betray you in any way, nor will I cause

dissension among your followers. I believe that covers everything necessary." This time, Mistress Anan

gaped at her, and Selucia made a sound in her throat, but Tuon appeared not to notice either woman. She

just looked at him expectantly, waiting on a response. He made a sound in his throat, too. Not a

whimper, just a sound. Tuon’s face was as smooth as a stern mask of dark glass. Her calm was madness,

but this made gibbering look sane! She would have to be insane to think he would believe that offer.

Except, he thought she did mean it. That, or she was a better liar than he ever hoped to be. Again he had

that queasy sense that she knew more than he did. Ridiculous, of course, but there it was. He swallowed

a lump in his throat. A hard lump.

"Well, that does all right for you," he said, trying to buy time, "but what about Selucia?" Time

for what? He could not think with those dice pounding in his skull.

"Selucia follows my wishes, Toy," Tuon said impatiently. The blue-eyed woman herself

straightened and stared at him as though indignant that he had doubted that. For a lady’s maid, she could

look fierce when she tried.

Mat did not know what to say or do. Without thinking, he spat on his palm and offered his hand

as if sealing a bargain on a horse.

"Your customs are . . . earthy," Tuon said in a dry voice, but she spat on her own palm and

clasped his hand. " ‘Thus is our treaty written; thus is agreement made.’ What does that writing on your

spear mean, Toy?"

He did whimper this time, and not because she had read the Old Tongue inscription on his

ashandarei. A bloody stone would have whimpered. The dice had stopped as soon as he touched her

hand. Light, what had happened?

Knuckles rapped on the door, and he was so on edge that he moved without thought, spinning, a

knife coming into either hand ready to throw at whatever came in. "Stay behind me," he snapped. The

door opened, and Thom stuck his head in. The hood of his cloak was up, and Mat realized it was raining

outside. Between Tuon and the dice, he had missed the sound of rain hitting the wagon’s roof. "I trust

I’m not interrupting anything?" Thom said, knuckling his long white mustaches.

Mat’s face heated. Setalle had frozen with her embroidery needle trailing blue thread down to her

work, and her eyebrows seemed to be trying to climb over the top of her head. Tensed on the edge of the

other bed, Selucia watched him slip the knives back up his sleeves with considerable interest. He would

not have thought she was the sort to like dangerous men. That kind of woman was worth avoiding; they

tended to find ways to make a man need to be dangerous. He did not glance back at Tuon. She was

probably staring at him as if he had been capering like Luca. Just because he did not want to get married

did not mean he wanted his future wife to think him a fool.

"What did you find out, Thom?" he asked brusquely. Something had happened, or the dice would

not have stopped. A thought came that made his hair want to stand on end. This was the second time

they had stopped in Tuon’s presence. The third, counting the gate leading out of Ebou Dar. Three bloody

times, and all tied to her.

Limping slightly, the white-haired man came the rest of the way in, pushing back his hood, and

pulled the door shut behind him. His limp came from an old injury, not trouble in the city. Tall and lean

and leathery, with sharp blue eyes and snowy mustaches that hung below his chin, it seemed he would

draw attention wherever he went, but he had practice at hiding in plain sight, and his dark bronze coat

and brown wool cloak were suitable for a man with a little coin to spend but not too much. "The streets

are full of rumors about her," he said, nodding toward Tuon, "but nothing about her disappearing. I

bought drinks for a few Seanchan officers, and they seem to believe she’s snug in the Tarasin Palace or

off on an inspection trip. I didn’t sense any dissembling, Mat. They didn’t know."

"Did you expect public announcements, Toy?" Tuon said incredulously. "As it is, Suroth may be

considering taking her own life for the shame. Do you expect her to spread such an ill omen for the

Return about for everyone to see on top of that?" So Egeanin had been right. It still seemed impossible.

And it did not seem at all important compared to the dice stopping. What had happened’? He had

shaken hands with Tuon, that was all. Shaken hands and made a bargain. He meant to keep his side, but

what had the dice told him? That she would keep hers? Or that she would not? For all he knew,

Seanchan noblewomen were in the habit of marrying-what was it she had said she was going to make

him?-a cupbearer-maybe they married cupbearers all the time. "There’s more, Mat," Thom said,

eyeing Tuon thoughtfully, and with a hint of surprise. It came to Mat that she did not appear overly

concerned that Suroth might kill herself. Maybe she was as tough as Domon thought. What were the

bloody dice trying to tell him? That was what was important. Then Thom went on, and Mat forgot about

how tough Tuon might be and even the dice. "Tylin’s dead. They’re keeping it quiet for fear of

disturbances, but one of the Palace Guards, a young lieutenant who couldn’t hold his brandy, told me

they’re planning her funeral feast and Beslan’s coronation for the same day."

"How?" Mat demanded. She was older than he, but not that much older! Beslan’s coronation.

Light! How would Beslan cope with that, when he hated the Seanchan? It had been his plan to fire those

supplies on the Bay Road. He would have tried an uprising if Mat had not convinced him it would only

result in a slaughter, and not of Seanchan.

Thom hesitated, stroking his mustaches with a thumb. Finally, he sighed. "She was found in her

bedchamber the morning after we left, Mat, still bound hand and foot. Her head. . . . Her head had been

torn off."

Mat did not realize his knees had given way until he found himself sitting on the floor with his

head buzzing. He could hear her voice. You’ll get your bead cut off yet if you’re not careful, piglet, and I

wouldn’t like that. Setalle leaned forward on the narrow bed to press a hand against his cheek in

commiseration. "The Windfinders?" he said hollowly. He did not have to say more.

"According to what that lieutenant said, the Seanchan have settled on Aes Sedai for the blame.

Because Tylin had sworn the Seanchan oaths. That’s what they’ll announce at her funeral feast." "Tylin

dies the same night the Windfinders escape, and the Seanchan believe Aes Sedai killed her?" He could

not imagine Tylin dead. I’m going to have you for supper, duckling. "That doesn’t make sense, Thom."

Thom hesitated, frowning as he considered. "It could be political, in part, but I think that’s what

they really believe, Mat. That lieutenant said they’re sure the Windfinders were running too hard to stop

or go out of their way, and the quickest path out of the palace from the damane kennels goes nowhere

near Tylin’s apartments."

Mat grunted. He was sure it was not so. And if it were, there was nothing in the world he could

do about it.

"The mar ath’damane had reason to murder Tylin," Selucia said suddenly. "They must fear her

example for others. What reason had the damane you speak of? None. The hand of justice requires

motive and proof, even for damane and da’covale." She sounded as though she were reading the words

off a page. And she was looking at Tuon from the corner of her eye.

Mat looked over his shoulder, but if the tiny woman had been using her hands to tell Selucia

what to say, they were resting in her lap, now. She was watching him, a neutral expression on her face.

"Did you care for Tylin so deeply?" she said in a cautious voice.

"Yes. No. Burn me, I liked her!" Turning away, he scrubbed fingers through his hair, pushing the

cap off. He had never been so glad to get away from a woman in his life, but this . . . ! "And I left her

tied up and gagged so she couldn’t even call for help, easy prey for the gholam," he said bitterly. "It was

looking for me. Don’t shake your head. Thom. You know it as well as I do." "What is a . . . gholam?"

Tuon asked.

"Shadowspawn, my Lady," Thom said. He frowned worriedly. He did not take easily to worry,

but anybody except a fool would worry about a gholam. "It looks like a man, but it can slip through a

mousehole, or under a door, and it’s strong enough to. . . ." He harrumphed through his mustaches.

"Well, enough of that. Mat, she could have had a hundred guards around her, and it wouldn’t have

stopped that thing." She would not have needed a hundred guards if she had not taken up with Mat

Cauthon. "A gholam," Tuon murmured wryly. Suddenly she rapped Mat hard on the top of the head

with her knuckles. Clapping a hand to his scalp, he stared over his shoulder incredulously. "I’m very

happy that you show loyalty to Tylin, Toy," she told him in a severe voice, "but I won’t have

superstition in you. I will not have it. It does Tylin no honor." Burn him, Tylin’s death seemed to

concern her as little as whether or not Suroth committed suicide. What kind of woman was he going to

marry?

When a fist pounded on the door this time, he did not even bother to stand. He felt numb at the

core and scraped raw on the surface. Blaeric pushed into the wagon without asking, his dark brown

cloak dripping rain. It was an old cloak, worn thin in spots, but he appeared not to care whether rain

leaked through. The Warder ignored everyone but Mat, or almost everyone. The man actually took a

moment to consider Selucia’s bosom! "Joline wants you, Cauthon," he said, still studying her. Light!

This was all Mat needed to make it a fine day.

"Who is Joline?" Tuon demanded.

Mat ignored her. "Tell Joline I’ll see her once we’re on the road, Blaeric." The last thing he

wanted was to be forced to listen to more of the Aes Sedai’s grievances now.

"She wants you now, Cauthon."

With a sigh, Mat got to his feet and gathered his cap from the floor. Blaeric looked as if he might

try to drag him, otherwise. In his own current mood, he thought he might put a knife in the man if he

tried. And get his neck broken for his pains; a Warder would not take a knife in the ribs lightly. He was

fairly sure he had already died the one time he was allowed, and not in an old memory. Sure enough not

to take risks he could sidestep. "Who is Joline, Toy?" If he had not known better, he would have said

Tuon sounded jealous.

"A bloody Aes Sedai," he grumbled, tugging the cap on, and got one small pleasure for the day.

Tuon’s jaw dropped in shock. He shut the door behind him on the way out before she could find a word

to say. A very small pleasure. One butterfly on a midden heap. Tylin dead, and the Windfmders might

take the blame yet, whatever Thom said. And that was aside from Tuon and the bloody dice. A very tiny

butterfly on a very large midden. The sky was full of dark clouds, now, and the downpour steady. A

soaking rain, they would have called it back home. It began to slick his hair, cap or no, and seep through

his coat as soon as he stepped outside. Blaeric hardly seemed to notice, barely gathering his cloak. There

was nothing for it but for Mat to hunch his shoulders and splash through the widening puddles on the

dirt streets. By the time he could reach his wagon for a cloak, he would be drenched to the skin anyway.

Besides, the weather fit his spirits. To his surprise, rain or no rain, an incredible amount of work had

been done in the short time he was inside. The canvas wall was gone as far as he could see in either

direction, and half the storage wagons that had been around Tuon’s wagon were missing, too. So were

most of the animals that had been picketed on the horselines. A large, iron-barred cage containing a

black-maned lion trundled past toward the road behind a plodding team, the horses as unconcerned with

the apparently sleeping lion behind them as they were with the shower. Performers were already taking

to the road, too, though how they determined the order of leaving was a mystery. Most of the tents

seemed to have vanished; in one place three of the brightly colored wagons together might be missing,

another place every second wagon, while elsewhere the wagons standing and waiting still seemed a solid

mass. The only thing that said the showfolk were not scattering was Luca himself, a bright red cloak

gathered around him against the wet as he paraded along the street, stopping now and then to clap a man

on the shoulder or murmur something to a woman that made her laugh. If the show had been breaking

apart, Luca would have been out chasing down those who tried to leave. He held the show together as

much by persuasion as anything else, and he never let anyone leave without talking himself hoarse

trying to argue them out of it. Mat knew he should feel good about seeing Luca still there, though it had

never occurred to him that the man would run out on the gold, but right at that moment, he doubted that

anything could make him feel anything but numb and angry.

The wagon that Blaeric took him to was almost as large as Luca’s, but it had been whitewashed

rather than painted. The white had long since run and streaked and faded, and the rain was washing it a

little more toward gray, where the wood was not already bare. The wagon belonged to a company of

fools, four morose men who painted their faces for the show’s patrons, dousing each other with water

and hitting each other with inflated pigbladders, and otherwise spent their time and money imbibing as

much wine as they could buy. With what Mat had paid for rent, they might be drunk for months, and it

had cost more than that to make anyone take them in.

Four shaggy, nondescript horses were already hitched to the wagon, and Fen Mizar, Joline’s

other Warder, was up on the driver’s seat, swathed in an old gray cloak and reins in hand. His tilted eyes

watched Mat the way a wolf might watch an impudent cur. The Warders had been unhappy with Mat’s

plan from the start, sure they could have gotten the sisters away safely once they were outside the city

walls. Perhaps they could have, but the Seanchan hunted vigorously for women who could channel-the

show itself apparently had been searched four times in the days after Ebou Dar fell-and all it would

have taken was one slip to land all of them in the stewpot. From what Egeanin and Domon said, the

Seekers could make a boulder tell everything it had ever seen. Luckily, not all the sisters were as sure as

Joline’s Warders. Aes Sedai tended to dither when they could not agree on what to do.

When Mat reached the steps at the back of the wagon, Blaeric stopped him with a hand to his

chest. The Warder’s face might have been carved, no more concerned than a piece of wood with the rain

running down his cheeks. "Fen and I are grateful to you for getting her out of the city, Cauthon, but this

can’t continue. The sisters are crowded, sharing with those other women, and they don’t get on. There is

going to be trouble if we can’t find another wagon."

"Is that what this is about?" Mat said crossly, tugging his collar tighter. Not that it did much

good. He was already wet through on the back, and not much better in front. If Joline had pulled him

here to whine about the accommodations again. . . . "She’ll tell you what it’s about, Cauthon. Just you

remember what I said."

Grumbling under his breath, Mat climbed the dirt-streaked steps and went in, not quite slamming

the door behind him. The wagon was laid out much like the one Tuon was in, though with four beds,

two of them folded flat against the walls above the other two. He had no idea how the six women

arranged sleeping, but he suspected it was not done peacefully. The air in the wagon all but crackled like

grease on a griddle. Three women sat on each of the lower beds, each variously watching or ignoring the

women seated on the other bed. Joline, who had never been held as damane behaved as though the three

sul’dam did not exist. Reading a small wood-bound book, she was an Aes Sedai to the inch and

arrogance on a stick despite her well-worn blue dress, lately owned by a woman who taught the lions to

do tricks. The other two sisters knew firsthand what it was to be damane, though. Edesina watched the

three sul’dam warily, one hand resting near her belt knife, while Teslyn’s eyes shifted constantly,

looking at anything except the sul’dam, and her hands kneaded her dark woolen skirts. He did not know

how Egeanin had coerced the three sul’dam into helping damane escape, but even though they were

being sought by the authorities as surely as Egeanin, they had not changed their attitudes toward women

who could channel. Bethamin, tall and as dark as Tuon in an Ebou Dari dress with a very deep neckline

and skirts sewn up above her knee on one side to show faded red petticoats, seemed a mother waiting for

inevitable misbehavior by children, while yellow-haired Seta, in high-necked gray wool that covered her

completely, appeared to be studying dangerous dogs that would need to be caged sooner or later. Renna,

she of the talk about cutting off hands and feet, pretended to be reading, too, but every so often her

deceptively mild brown eyes rose from the slim volume to study the Aes Sedai, and when they did, she

smiled in an unpleasant way. Mat felt like cursing before one of them opened her mouth. A wise man

kept clear when women were at odds, especially if there were Aes Sedai among them, but this was how

it always was when he came to this wagon.

"This better be important, Joline." Unbuttoning his coat, he tried to shake some of the water off.

He thought he would do better wringing the garment out. "I just learned that the gholam killed Tylin the

night we left, and I’m in no mood for complaints." Joline marked her place carefully with an

embroidered marker and folded her hands on the book before speaking. Aes Sedai never hurried; they

just expected everyone else to. Without him, she likely would have been wearing an a’dam by now

herself, but he had never found Aes Sedai particularly noted for gratitude, either. She ignored what he

had said about Tylin. "Blaeric tells me the show has already begun moving," she said coolly, "but you

must stop it. Luca will only listen to you." Her mouth tightened slightly on the words. Aes Sedai also

were unused to not being listened to, and Greens were not the best at hiding their displeasure. "We must

abandon the idea of Lugard for the time being. We must take the ferry across the harbor and go to

Illian."

That was about as bad a suggestion as he had heard out of her, though she did not mean it for a

suggestion, of course; she was worse than Egeanin that way. With half the show already on the road, or

near enough, it would take all day just to get everyone down to the ferry landing, and it would mean

going into the city, besides. Heading for Lugard took the show away from the Seanchan as quickly as

possible, while they had soldiers camped all the way to the Illian border and maybe beyond. Egeanin

was reluctant to tell what she knew, but Thom had his ways of learning these things. Mat did not bother

to crack his teeth, though. He did not need to.

"No," Teslyn said in a tight voice, her Illianer accent strong. Leaning past Edesina, she looked as

though she chewed rocks three meals a day, hard-faced and set-jawed, but there was a nervousness in

her eyes, put there by her weeks as a damans. "No, Joline. I have told you, we do no dare risk it! We do

no dare!"

"Light!" Joline spat, slamming her book to the floor. "Take hold of yourself, Teslyn! Just

because you were held prisoner for a little time is no reason to go to pieces!"

"Go to pieces? Go to pieces? Let them put that collar on you and then speak of going to pieces!"

Teslyn’s hand went to her throat as though she felt the a’dam’s collar still. "Help me convince her,

Edesina. She will have us collared again, if we do let her!" Edesina drew back on herself against the

wall behind the bed-a slim, handsome woman with black hair spilling to her waist, she always went

silent when the Red and the Green argued, as they did often-but Joline did not spare her so much as a

glance. "You ask a rebel for help, Teslyn? We should have left her for the Seanchan! Listen to me. You

can feel it as well as I. Would you really accept a greater danger to avoid a lesser?" "Lesser!" Teslyn

snarled. "You do know nothing of-!" Renna held her book out at arm’s length and let it drop to the

floor with a bang. "If my Lord will excuse us a little while, we still have our a’dam, and we can teach

these girls to behave again in short order." Her accent had a musical quality, but the smile on her lips

never touched her brown eyes. "It never works to let them go slack this way." Seta nodded grimly and

stood as if to fetch out the leashes.

"I think we’re done with a’dam," Bethamin said, ignoring the shocked looks from the other two

sul’dam, "but there are other ways to settle these girls down. May I suggest my Lord return in an hour?

They’ll tell you what you want to know without any squabbling once they can’t sit down." She sounded

as though she meant exactly what she said. Joline was staring at the three sul’dam in outraged disbelief,

but Edesina was sitting up straight, gripping her belt knife with a determined expression, while Teslyn

was now the one shrinking back against the wall, her hands clasped tightly at her waist.

"That won’t be necessary," Mat said after a moment. Only a moment. However satisfying it

might be to have Joline "settled down," Edesina might draw that knife, and that would set the cat among

the chickens no matter how it turned out. "What greater danger are you talking about, Joline? Joline?

What danger is greater than the Seanchan right now?"

The Green decided her stare was making no impression on Bethamin and turned it on Mat,

instead. Had she been other than Aes Sedai, he would have said she looked sulky. Joline disliked

explaining. "If you must know, someone is channeling." Teslyn and Edesina nodded, the Red sister

reluctantly, the Yellow emphatically.

"In the camp?" he said in alarm. His right hand rose on its own to press against the silver

foxhead under his shirt, but the medallion had not turned cold.

"Far away," Joline replied, still unwilling. "To the north." "Much farther than any of us should

be able to sense channeling," Edesina put in, a touch of fear in her voice. "The amount of saidar being

wielded must be immense, inconceivable." She fell silent at a sharp glance from Joline, who turned back

to study Mat as though deciding how much she had to tell him. "At that distance," she went on, "we

wouldn’t be able to feel every sister in the Tower channeling. It has to be the Forsaken, and whatever

they’re doing, we do not want to be any closer than we can avoid."

Mat was still for a moment; then finally, he said, "If it’s far, then we stick with the plan."

Joline went on arguing, but he did not bother to listen. Whenever he thought of Rand or Perrin,

colors swirled in his head. A part of being ta’veren, he supposed. This time, he had not thought of either

of his friends, but the colors had suddenly been there, a fan of a thousand rainbows. This time, they had

almost formed an image, a vague impression that might have been a man and a woman seated on the

ground facing one another. It was gone in an instant, but he knew as surely as he knew his name. Not the

Forsaken. Rand. And he could not help wondering, what had Rand been doing when the dice stopped?

CHAPTER 4

The Tale of a Doll

Furyk Karede sat staring at his writing table without seeing the papers and maps spread out in

front of him. Both of his oil lamps were lit and sitting on the table, but he no longer had need of them.

The sun must be rimming the horizon, yet since waking from a fitful sleep and saying his devotions to

the Empress, might she live forever, he had only donned his robe, in the dark Imperial green that some

insisted on calling black, and sat here without moving since. He had not even shaved. The rain had

stopped, and he considered telling his servant Ajimbura to swing a window open for a little fresh air in

his room at The Wandering Woman. Clean air might clear his head. But over the last five days there had

been lulls in the rain that ended with sudden drenching downpours, and his bed was located between the

windows. He had needed to have his mattress and bedding hung in the kitchen to dry once already.

A tiny squeal and a pleased grunt from Ajimbura made him look up to find the wiry little man

displaying a limp rat half the size of a cat on the end of his long knife. It was not the first Ajimbura had

killed in this room recently, something Karede believed would not have happened if Setalle Anan still

owned the inn, though the number of rats in Ebou Dar seemed to be increasing well in advance of

spring. Ajimbura looked a little like a wizened rat himself, his grin both satisfied and feral. After more

than three hundred years under the Empire, the Kaensada hill tribes were only half civilized, and less

than half tamed. The man wore his white-streaked dark red hair in a thick braid that hung to his waist, to

make a good trophy if he ever found his way back to those near-mountains and fell in one of the endless

feuds between families or tribes, and he insisted on drinking from a silver-mounted cup that anyone who

looked closely could see was the top of someone’s skull.

"If you are going to eat that," Karede said as though there were any question, "you will clean it

in the stableyard out of anyone’s sight." Ajimbura would eat anything except for lizards, which were

forbidden to his tribe for some reason he would never make clear.

"But of course, high one," the man replied with the hunch of his shoulders that passed for a bow

among his people. "I know well the ways of the townspeople, and I would not embarrass the high one."

After close to twenty years in Karede’s service, without a reminder he still would have skinned out the

rat and roasted it over the flames in the small brick fireplace.

Scraping the carcass off the blade into a small canvas sack, Ajimbura tucked that into a corner

for later and carefully wiped his knife clean before sheathing it and settling on his heels to await

Karede’s needs. He would wait like that all day, if necessary, as patiently as a da¬ícovale. Karede had

never puzzled out exactly why Ajimbura had left his hill fort home to follow one of the Deathwatch

Guard. It was a much more circumscribed life than the man had known before, and besides, Karede had

nearly killed him three times before he made that choice.

Dismissing thoughts of his servant, he returned to the display on his writing table, though he had

no intention of taking up his pen for the moment. He had been raised to banner-general for achieving

some small success in the battles with the Asha’man, in days when few had achieved any, and now,

because he had commanded against men who could channel, some thought he must have wisdom to

share about fighting marath’damane. No one had had to do that in centuries, and since the so-called Aes

Sedai revealed their unknown weapon only a few leagues from where he sat, a great deal of thinking had

gone into how to cripple their power. That was not the only request littering the tabletop. Aside from the

usual run of requisitions and reports that needed his signature, his comments on the forces arrayed

against them in Illian had been solicited by four lords and three ladies, and on the special Aiel problem

by six ladies and five lords, but those questions would be decided elsewhere, very likely already had

been decided. His observations would only be used in the infighting over who controlled what in the

Return. In any event, war had always been a second calling for the Deathwatch Guard. Oh, the Guards

were always there whenever a major battle was fought, the swordhand of the Empress, might she live

forever, to strike at her enemies whether or not she herself was present, always to lead the way where

the fight was hottest, but their first calling was to protect the lives and persons of the Imperial family.

With their own lives, when necessary, and willingly given. And nine nights past, the High Lady Tuon

had vanished as if swallowed by the storm. He did not think of her as the Daughter of the Nine Moons,

could not until he knew she was no longer under the veil. He had not considered taking his own life,

either, though the shame cut him keenly. It was for the Blood to resort to the easy way to escape

disgrace; the Deathwatch Guard fought to the last. Musenge commanded her personal bodyguard, but as

the highestranking member of the Guard this side of the Aryth Ocean, it was Karede’s duty to return her

safely. Every cranny in the city was being searched on one excuse or another, every vessel larger than a

rowboat, but most often by men ignorant of what they were searching for, unaware that the fate of the

Return might rest on their diligence. The duty was his. Of course, the Imperial family was given to even

more complicated intrigues than the rest of the Blood, and the High Lady Tuon frequently played a very

deep game indeed, with a sharp and deadly skill. Only a few were aware that she had vanished twice

before, and had been reported dead, to the very arrangement of her funeral rites, all by her own

contriving. Whatever the reasons for her disappearance, though, he had to find and protect her. So far he

had no clue how. Swallowed by the storm. Or perhaps by the Lady of the Shadows. There had been

countless attempts to kidnap or assassinate her, beginning on the day of her birth. If he found her dead,

he must find who had killed her, who had given the ultimate commands, and avenge her whatever the

cost. That was his duty, too.

A slender man slipped into the room from the hallway without knocking. He might have been

one of the inn’s stablemen from his rough coat, but no local had his pale hair or the blue eyes that slid

across the room as though memorizing everything in it. His hand slipped under his coat, and Karede

rehearsed two ways of killing him bare-handed in the brief moment before he produced a small, goldbordered

ivory plaque worked with the Raven and the Tower. Seekers for Truth did not have to knock.

Killing them was frowned upon.

"Leave us," the Seeker told Ajimbura, tucking away the plaque once he was sure Karede had

recognized it. The little man remained crouched on his heels, motionless, and the Seeker’s eyebrows

rose in surprise. Even in the Kaensada Hills everyone knew a Seeker’s word was law. Well, perhaps not

in some of the more remote hill forts, not if they believed no one knew the Seeker was there, but

Ajimbura knew better than this.

"Wait outside," Karede commanded sharply, and Ajimbura rose with alacrity, murmuring, "I

hear and obey, high one." He studied the Seeker openly, though, as if to make sure the Seeker knew he

had marked his face, before leaving the room. He was going to get himself beheaded, one day.

"A precious thing, loyalty," the pale-haired man said, eyeing the tabletop, after Ajimbura pulled

the door shut behind himself. "You are involved in Lord Yulan’s plans, Banner-General Karede? I

would not have expected the Deathwatch Guard to be part of that."

Karede moved two bronze map-weights shaped like lions and let the map of Tar Valon roll up on

itself. The other had not been unrolled, yet. "You must ask Lord Yulan, Seeker. Loyalty to the Crystal

Throne is precious above the breath of life, followed closely by knowing when to keep silent. The more

who speak of a thing, the more will learn of it who should not."

No one short of the Imperial family rebuked a Seeker or whatever Hand guided him, but the

fellow appeared unaffected. Then again, he seated himself in the room’s cushioned armchair and made a

tent of his ringers, peering over them at Karede, who had the choice of moving his own chair or leaving

the man almost at his back. Most people would have been very nervous about having a Seeker behind

them. Most would have been nervous having a Seeker in the same room. Karede hid a smile and did not

move. He had only to turn his head a fraction, and he was trained at seeing clearly what lay in the

corners of sight.

"You must be proud of your sons," the Seeker said, "two following you into the Deathwatch

Guard, the third listed among the honored dead. Your wife would have been very proud." "What is your

name, Seeker?" The answering silence was deafening. More people rebuked Seekers than inquired after

their names.

"Mor," the reply came finally. "Almurat Mor." So. Mor. He had an ancestor who had come with

Luthair Paendrag, then, and was rightly proud. Without access to the breeding books, which no

da’covale was allowed, Karede had no way of knowing whether any of the tales about his own ancestry

were true-he also might have an ancestor who had once followed the great Hawkwing-but it did not

matter. Men who tried to stand on their forebears’ shoulders rather than their own feet often found

themselves shorter by a head. Especially da’covale.

"Call me Furyk. We are both the property of the Crystal Throne. What do you want of me,

Almurat? Not to discuss my family, I think." If his sons were in trouble, the fellow would never have

mentioned them so soon, and Kalia was beyond any misery. From the corner of his eye, Karede could

see the struggle on the Seeker’s face, though he hid it almost well enough. The man had lost control of

the interview-as he might have expected, flashing his plaque as though a Deathwatch Guard were not

ready to thrust a dagger into his own heart on command.

"Listen to a story," Mor said slowly, "and tell me what you think." His gaze was fastened to

Karede as if by tacks, studying, weighing, evaluating as though Karede were on the block at sale. "This

came to us in the last few days." By us, he meant the Seekers. "It began among the local people, as near

as we can tell, though we have not yet found the original source. Supposedly, a girl with a Seandar

accent has been extorting gold and jewelry from merchants here in Ebou Dar. The title Daughter of the

Nine Moons was mentioned." He grimaced with disgust, and for a moment, his fingertips turned white,

they were pressing against each other so hard. "None of the locals seem to understand what that title

means, but the description of the girl is remarkably precise. Remarkably accurate. And no one can recall

hearing this rumor before the night after . . . the night after Tylin’s murder was discovered," he finished,

choosing the least unpleasant event to fix the time.

"A Seandar accent," Karede said in a flat voice, and Mor nodded. "This rumor has passed to our

own people." That was not a question, but Mor nodded again. A Seandar accent and an accurate

description, two things no local could invent. Someone was playing a very dangerous game. Dangerous

for themselves, and for the Empire. "How does the Tarasin Palace take recent events?" There would be

Listeners among the servants, likely among even the Ebou Dari servants by now, and what the Listeners

heard soon passed to the Seekers.

Mor understood the question, of course. There was no need to mention what should not be

mentioned. He replied in an indifferent tone. "The High Lady Tuon’s entourage carries on as though

nothing has happened, except that Anath, her Truth Speaker, has taken to seclusion, but I am told that is

not unusual for her. Suroth herself is even more distraught in private than in public. She sleeps poorly,

snaps at her favorites, and has her property beaten over trifles. She ordered the death of one Seeker each

day until matters are rectified, and only rescinded the order this morning, when she realized she might

run out of Seekers before she ran out of days." His shoulders moved in a small shrug, perhaps to indicate

this was all in a day for Seekers, perhaps in relief at a near escape. "It’s understandable. If she is called

to account, she will pray for the Death of Ten Thousand Tears. The other Blood who know what has

happened are trying to grow eyes in the backs of their heads. A few have even quietly made funeral

arrangements, to cover any eventuality."

Karede wanted a clearer look at the man’s face. He was inured to insult-that was part of the

training-but this. . . . Pushing back his chair, he stood and sat at the edge of the writing table. Mor

stared at him unblinking, tensed to defend against an attack, and Karede drew a deep breath to still his

anger. "Why did you come to me if you believe the Deathwatch Guards are implicated in this?" The

effort of keeping his voice level almost strangled him. Since the first Deathwatch Guards swore on the

corpse of Luthair Paendrag to defend his son, there had never been treason among the Guards! Never!

Mor relaxed by increments as he realized that Karede did not intend to kill him, at least not right

then, but there was a haze of sweat on his forehead. "I have heard it said a Deathwatch Guard can see a

butterfly’s breath. Do you have anything to drink?" Karede gestured curtly to the brick hearth, where a

silver cup and pitcher sat near the flames, to keep warm. They had been there, untouched, since

Ajimbura brought them when Karede awoke. "The wine may be cool by now, but be free of it. And

when your throat is wet, you will answer my question. Either you suspect Guardsmen, or you wish to

play me in some game of your own, and by my eyes, I will know which, and why."

The fellow sidled to the hearth, watching him from the corner of his eye, but as Mor bent for the

pitcher, he frowned and then gave a small start. What appeared to be a silver-rimmed bowl with a ram’shorn-

patterned silver base sat beside the cup. Light of heaven, Ajimbura had been told often enough to

keep that thing out of sight! There was no doubt that Mor recognized it for what it was.

The man considered treason possible for the Guards? "Pour for me as well, if you will."

Mor blinked, showing a faint consternation-he held the only obvious cup-and then a light of

understanding appeared in his eyes. An uneasy light. He filled the bowl, too, a trifle unsteadily, and

wiped his hand on his coat before taking it up. Every man had his limits, even a Seeker, and a man

pushed to them was especially dangerous, but he was also off balance.

Accepting the skull-cup with both hands, Karede raised it high and lowered his head. "To the

Empress, may she live forever in honor and glory. Death and shame to her enemies."

"To the Empress, may she live forever in honor and glory," Mor echoed, bowing his head and

lifting his cup. "Death and shame to her enemies."

Putting Ajimbura’s cup to his lips, Karede was aware of the other man watching him drink. The

wine was indeed cool, the spices bitter, and there was a faint, acrid hint of silver polish; he told himself

the taste of dead man’s dust was his imagination. Mor dashed off half his own wine in hurried gulps,

then stared at his cup, seemed to realize what he had done, and made a visible effort to regain control of

himself. "Furyk Karede," he said briskly. "Born forty-two years ago to weavers, the property of one

Jalid Magonine, a craftsman in Ancarid. Chosen at fifteen for training in the Deathwatch Guards. Cited

twice for heroism and mentioned in dispatches three times, then, as a seven-year veteran, named to the

bodyguard of the High Lady Tuon upon her birth." That had not been her name then, of course, but

mentioning her birth-name would have been an insult. "That same year, as one of three survivors of the

first known attempt on her life, chosen for training as an officer. Service during the Muyami Uprising

and the Jianmin Incident, more citations for heroism, more mentions in dispatches, and assignment back

to the High Lady’s bodyguard just before her first true-name day." Mor peered into his wine, then

looked up suddenly. "At your request. Unusual, that. The following year, you took three serious wounds

shielding her with your body against another set of assassins. She gave you her most precious

possession, a doll. After more distinguished service, with further citations and mentions, you were

selected for the bodyguard of the Empress herself, may she live forever, and served there until named to

accompany the High Lord Turak to these lands with the Hailene. Times change, and men change, but

before going to guard the throne, you made two other requests for assignment to the High Lady Tuon’s

bodyguard. Most unusual. And you kept the doll until it was destroyed in the Great Fire of Sohima, a

matter often years."

Not for the first time, Karede was glad of the training that allowed him to maintain a smooth face

no matter what. Careless expressions gave away too much to an opponent. He remembered the face of

the small girl who had laid that doll on his litter. He could hear her still. You have protected my life, so

you must take Emela to watch over you in turn, she said. She can’t really protect you, of course; she’s

only a doll. But keep her to remind you that I will always hear if you speak my name. If I’m still alive, of

course.

"My honor is loyalty," he said, setting Ajimbura’s cup on the writing table carefully, so as not to

slop wine onto his papers. However often the fellow polished the silver, Karede did not think he

bothered to wash the thing. "Loyalty to the throne. Why did you come to me?"

Mor moved slightly, so the armchair was between them. No doubt he thought he was standing

casually, but he was clearly ready to throw the winecup. He had a knife under his coat in the small of his

back, and probably at least one other. "Three requests to join the High Lady Tuon’s bodyguard. And you

kept the doll." "That much, I understand," Karede told him dryly. The Guards were not supposed to

form attachments to those they were sent to guard. The Deathwatch Guard served only the Crystal

Throne, served whoever succeeded to the throne, with a whole heart and a whole faith. But he

remembered that serious child’s face, already aware she might not live to do her duty yet trying to do it

anyway, and he had kept the doll. "But there’s more to it than rumor of a girl, isn’t there?"

"A butterfly’s breath," the fellow murmured. "It is a pleasure to talk to someone who sees

deeply. On the night that Tylin was murdered, two damane were taken from the Tarasin Palace kennels.

Both were formerly Aes Sedai. Do you not find the coincidence too much?"

"I find any coincidence suspect, Almurat. But what has that to do with rumors and . . . other

matters?"

"This web is more tangled than you imagine. Several others left the palace that night, among

them a young man who was apparently Tylin’s pet, four men who were certainly soldiers, and an older

man, one Thom Merrilin, or so he called himself, who was supposedly a servant, but who displayed

much more education than would be expected. At one time or another, they were all seen with Aes Sedai

who were in the city before the Empire reclaimed it." Intent, the Seeker leaned forward slightly over the

back of the armchair. "Perhaps Tylin was not murdered because she swore fealty, but because she had

learned of things that were dangerous.

She might have been careless in what she revealed to the boy on the pillows, and he carried word

to Merrilin. We can call him that until we learn a better name. The more I learn of that one, the more

intriguing he is: knowledgeable of the world, well-spoken, at ease with nobles and crowns. A courtier, in

fact, if you didn’t know he was a servant. If the White Tower had certain plans in Ebou Dar, they might

send such a man to carry them out." Plans. Unthinking, Karede picked up Ajimbura’s cup and almost

drank before he realized what he was doing. He continued to hold the cup, though, so as not to give

away his turmoil. Everyone -those who knew, anyway-was sure the High Lady Tuon’s disappearance

was part of the contest to succeed the Empress, might she live forever. Such was life in the Imperial

family. If the High Lady were dead, after all, a new heir must be named. If she were dead. And if not. . .

. The White Tower would have sent their best, if they planned to carry her away. If the Seeker was not

playing him in some game of his own. Seekers could try to snare anyone short of the Empress herself,

might she live forever. "You have taken this notion to your superiors, and they rejected it, or you would

not come to me. That, or. . . . You haven’t mentioned it to them, have you? Why not?"

"Much more tangled than you can imagine," Mor said softly, eyeing the door as if suspecting

eavesdroppers. Why did he grow cautious now? "There are many . . . complications. The two damane

were removed by the Lady Egeanin Tamarath, who has had dealings with Aes Sedai before. Close

dealings, in fact. Very close. Clearly, she released the other damane to cover her escape. Egeanin left the

city that same night, with three damane in her entourage, and also, we believe, Merrilin and the others.

We don’t know who the third damane was-we suspect someone important among the Atha’an Miere,

or perhaps an Aes Sedai who was hiding in the city-but we have identified the sul’dam she used, and

two have close connections with Suroth. Who herself has many connections to Aes Sedai." For all his

wariness, Mor said that as if it were not a lightning bolt. No wonder he was on edge.

So. Suroth plotted with Aes Sedai and had corrupted at least some of the Seekers above Mor, and

the White Tower had placed men under one of their best to carry out certain actions. It was all

believable. When Karede was sent with the Forerunners, he had been tasked to watch the Blood for

over-ambition. There had always been a possibility, this far from the Empire, that they would try to set

up their own kingdoms. And he himself had sent men into a city he knew would fall whatever was done

to defend it, so they could harm the enemy from within.

"You have a direction, Almurat?"

Mor shook his head. "They went north, and Jehannah was mentioned in the palace stables, but

that seems an obvious attempt at deception. They will have changed direction at the first opportunity.

We have checked on boats large enough to have carried the party across the river, but vessels of that size

come and go all the time. There is no order in this place, no control." "This gives me a great deal to

think on."

The Seeker grimaced, a slight twisting of his mouth, but he seemed to realize he had gotten as

much commitment as Karede would make. He nodded once. "Whatever you choose to do, you should

know this. You may wonder how the girl extorted anything from these merchants. It seems two or three

soldiers always accompanied her. The description of their armor was also very precise." He half

stretched out a hand as though to touch Karede’s robe, but wisely let it fall back to his side. "Most

people call that black. You understand me? Whatever you choose to do, do not delay." Mor raised his

cup. "Your health, Banner-General. Furyk. Your health, and the health of the Empire."

Karede drained Ajimbura’s cup without hesitation. The Seeker departed as abruptly as he had

entered, and moments after the door closed behind him, it opened to admit Ajimbura. The little man

stared accusingly at the skull-cup in Karede’s hands.

"You know this rumor, Ajimbura?" As well ask whether the sun rose in the morning as ask

whether the fellow had been listening. He did not deny it, in any case.

"I would not soil my tongue with such filth, high one," he said, drawing himself up. Karede

permitted himself a sigh. Whether the High Lady Tuon’s disappearance was her own doing or some

other’s, she was in great danger. And if the rumor was some ploy by Mor, the best way to defeat

another’s game was to make the game your own. "Lay out my razor." Sitting down, he reached for his

pen, holding the sleeve of his robe clear of the ink with his left hand. "Then you will find Captain

Musenge, when he is alone, and give him this. Return quickly; I will have more instructions for you."

Shortly after noon on the following day, he was crossing the harbor on the ferry that departed each hour,

according to the strict ringing of bells. It was a lumbering barge that heaved as long sweeps propelled it

across the harbor’s choppy surface. The ropes lashing a merchant’s half-dozen canvas-covered wagons

to the cleats on the deck creaked with every shift, the horses stamped their hooves nervously, and the

oarsmen had to fend off wagon drivers and hired guards who wanted to empty their bellies over the side.

Some men had no stomach for the motion of water. The merchant herself, a plump-faced woman with a

coppery skin, stood in the bow wrapped in her dark cloak, balancing easily with the ferry’s movements,

staring fixedly at the approaching landing and ignoring Karede beside her. She might know that he was

Seanchan, from the saddle on his bay gelding if nothing else, but a plain gray cloak covered his redtrimmed

green coat, so if she thought of him at all, it was as an ordinary soldier. Not a settler, with a

sword on his hip. There might have been sharper eyes back in the city, despite all he had done to evade

them, but there was nothing he could do about that. With luck, he had a day, perhaps two, before anyone

realized he would not be returning to the inn any time soon.

Swinging into his saddle as soon as the ferry bumped hard against the landing dock’s leatherpadded

posts, he was first off when the loading gate swung aside, the merchant was still chivvying her

drivers to the wagons and the ferrymen unlashing wheels. He kept Aldazar to a slow walk across the

stones, still slippery with the morning’s rain, a litter of horse dung, and the leavings of a flock of sheep,

and let the bay’s pace increase only when he reached the Illian Road itself, though he kept short of a trot

even then. Impatience was a vice when beginning a journey of unknown length.

Inns lined the road beyond the landing, flat-roofed buildings, covered in cracked and flaking

white plaster and with faded signs out front or none at all. This road marked the northern edge of the

Rahad, and roughly dressed men slouching on benches in front of the inns sullenly watched him pass.

Not because he was Seanchan; he suspected they would have been no brighter for anyone on horseback.

Anyone who had two coins to rub, for that matter. Soon he left them behind, though, and the next few

hours took him past olive orchards and small farms where the workers were accustomed enough to

passersby on the road that they did not look up from their labors. The traffic was sparse in any case, a

handful of highwheeled farmers’ carts and twice a merchant’s train rumbling toward Ebou Dar,

surrounded by hired guards. Many of the drivers and both merchants wore those distinctive Illianer

beards. It seemed strange that Illian continued to send its trade to Ebou Dar while fighting to resist the

Empire, but people on this side of the Eastern Sea were often peculiar, with odd customs, and little like

the stories told of the great Hawkwing’s homeland. Often nothing like. They must be understood, of

course, if they were to be brought into the Empire, but understanding was for others, higher than he. He

had his duty.

The farms gave way to woodlands and fields of scrub, and his shadow was lengthening in front

of him, the sun more than halfway to the horizon, by the time he saw what he was looking for. Just

ahead, Ajimbura was squatting on the north side of the road, playing a reed flute, the image of an idler

shirking. Before Karede reached him, he tucked the flute behind his belt, gathered his brown cloak and

vanished into the brush and trees. Glancing behind to make sure the road was empty in that direction as

well, Karede turned Aldazar into the woodland at the same point. The little man was waiting just out of

sight of the road, among a stand of some sort of large pine tree, the tallest easily a hundred feet. He

made his hunch-shouldered bow and scrambled into the saddle of a lean chestnut with four white feet.

He insisted that white feet on a horse were lucky. "This way, high one?" he said, and at Karede’s gesture

of permission, turned his mount deeper into the forest.

They had only a short way to ride, no more than half a mile, but no one passing on the road could

have suspected what waited there in a large clearing. Musenge had brought a hundred of the Guard on

good horses and twenty Ogier Gardeners, all in full armor, along with pack animals to carry supplies for

two weeks. The packhorse Ajimbura had brought out yesterday, with Karede’s armor, would be among

them. A cluster of sul’dam were standing beside their own mounts, some petting the six leashed

damane. When Musenge rode forward to meet Karede with Hartha, the First Gardener, striding grimfaced

beside him with his greentasseled axe over his shoulder. One of the women, Melitene, the High

Lady Tuon’s der’sul’dam, stepped into her saddle and joined them.

Musenge and Hartha touched fists to heart, and Karede returned their salute, but his eyes went to

the damane. To one in particular, a small woman whose hair was being stroked by a dark, square-faced

sul’dam. A damane’s face was always deceptive - they aged slowly and lived a very long time - but

this one had a difference he had learned to recognize as belonging to those who called themselves Aes

Sedai. "What excuse did you use to get all of them out of the city at once?" he asked.

"Exercise, Banner-General," Melitene replied with a wry smile. "Everyone always believes

exercise." It was said the High Lady Tuon in truth needed no der’sul’dam to train her property or her

sul’dam, but Melitene, with less black than gray in her long hair, was experienced in more than her craft,

and she knew what he was really asking. He had requested that Musenge bring a pair of damane, if he

could. "None of us would be left behind, Banner-General. Never for this. As for Mylen. . . . " That must

be the former Aes Sedai. "After we left the city, we told the damane why we were going. It’s always

best if they know what’s expected. We’ve been calming Mylen ever since. She loves the High Lady.

They all do, but Mylen worships her as though she already sat on the Crystal Throne. If Mylen gets her

hands on one of these ‘Aes Sedai,’" she chuckled, "we’ll have to be quick to keep the woman from

being too battered to be worth leashing."

"I see no cause for laughter," Hartha rumbled. The Ogier was even more weathered and grizzled

than Musenge, with long gray mustaches and eyes like black stones staring out of his helmet. He had

been a Gardener since before Karede’s father was born, maybe before his grandfather. "We have no

target. We are trying to catch the wind in a net." Melitene sobered quickly, and Musenge began to look

grimmer than Hartha, if that was possible. In ten days, the people they sought would have put many

miles behind them. The best the White Tower could send would not be so blatant as to head due east

after trying the ruse of Jehannah, nor so stupid to as to head too close to north, yet that left a vast and

ever expanding area to be searched. "Then we must begin spreading our nets without delay," Karede

said, "and spread them finely." Musenge and Hartha nodded. For the Deathwatch Guard, what must be

done, would be done. Even to catching the wind.

CHAPTER 5

The Forging of a Hammer

He ran easily through the night in spite of the snow that covered the ground. He was one with the

shadows, slipping through the forest, the moonlight almost as clear to his eyes as the light of the sun. A

cold wind ruffled his thick fur, and suddenly brought a scent that made his hackles stand and his heart

race with a hatred greater than that for the Neverborn. Hatred, and a sure knowledge of death coming.

There were no choices to be made, not now. He ran harder, toward death.

Perrin woke abruptly in the deep darkness before dawn, beneath one of the high-wheeled supply

carts. Cold had seeped into his bones from the ground despite his heavy fur-lined cloak and two

blankets, and there was a fitful breeze, not strong or steady enough to be called a light wind, but icy.

When he scrubbed at his face with gauntleted hands, frost crackled in his short beard. At least it seemed

not to have snowed any more during the night. Too often he had awakened covered with a dusting

despite the shelter of a cart, and snowfall made things difficult for the scouts. He wished he could speak

with Elyas the same way he talked with wolves. Then he would not have to endure this endless waiting.

Weariness clung to him like a second skin; he could not recall when he had last had a sound

night’s sleep. Sleep, or the lack of it, seemed unimportant anyway. These days, only the heat of anger

gave him the strength to keep moving.

He did not think it was the dream that had wakened him. Every night he lay down expecting

nightmares, and every night they came. In the worst, he found Faile dead, or never found her. Those

woke him up in shivering sweats. Anything less horrible, he slept through, or only half-woke with

Trollocs cutting him up alive for the cookpot or a Draghkar eating his soul. This dream was fading

quickly, in the manner of dreams, yet he remembered being a wolf and smelling. . . . What? Something

wolves hated more than they did Myrddraal. Something a wolf knew would kill him. The knowledge he

had had in the dream was gone; only vague impressions remained. He had not been in the wolf dream,

that reflection of this world where dead wolves lived on and the living could go to consult them. The

wolf dream always remained clear in his head after he left, whether he had gone there consciously or

not. Yet this dream still seemed real, and somehow urgent. Lying motionless on his back, he sent his

mind questing, feeling for wolves. He had tried using wolves to help his hunt, to no avail. Convincing

them to take an interest in the doings of twolegs was difficult, to say the least. They avoided large

parties of men, and for them, half a dozen was large enough to stay clear of. Men chased away game,

and most men tried to kill a wolf on sight. His thoughts found nothing, but then, after a time, he touched

wolves, at a distance. How far, he could not be sure, but it was like catching a whisper almost on the

edge of hearing. A long way. That was strange. Despite scattered villages and manors and even the

occasional town, this was prime country for wolves, untouched forest for the most part, with plenty of

deer and smaller game. There was always a formality to speaking with a pack you were not part of.

Politely, he sent his name among wolves, Young Bull, shared his scent, and received theirs in reply,

Leafhunter and Tall Bear, White Tail and Feather and Thunder Mist, a cascade of others.

It was a sizable pack, and Leafhunter, a female with a feel of quiet certainty, was their leader.

Feather, clever and in his prime, was her mate. They had heard of Young Bull, were eager to speak with

the friend of the fabled Long Tooth, the first two-legs who had learned to speak with wolves after a gap

of time that carried the feel of Ages vanished into the mists of the past. It was all a torrent of images and

memories of scents that his mind turned into words, as the words he thought somehow became images

and scents they could understand.

There is something I want to learn, he thought, once the greetings were done. What would a wolf

hate more than the Neverborn? He tried to recall the scent from the dream, to add that, but it was gone

from his memory. Something that a wolf knows means death.

Silence answered him, and a thread of fear blended with hatred and determination and

reluctance. He had felt fear from wolves before-above all things they feared the wildfire that raced

through a forest, or so he would have said-but this was the prickling sort of fear that made a man’s skin

crawl, made him shiver and jump at things unseen. Laced with the resolution to go on no matter what, it

felt close to terror. Wolves never experienced that kind of dread. Except that these did.

One by one they faded from his consciousness, a deliberate act of shutting him out, until only

Leafhunter remained. The Last Hunt is coming, she said at last, and then she also was gone. Did I

offend? he sent. III did, it was in ignorance. But there was no reply. These wolves, at least, would not

speak with him again, not any time soon.

The Last Hunt is coming. That was what wolves called the Last Battle, Tarmon Gai’don. They

knew they would be there, at the final confrontation between the Light and the Shadow, though why was

something they could not explain. Some things were fated, as sure as the rise and fall of the sun and the

moon, and it was fated that many wolves would die in the Last Hunt. What they feared was something

else. Perrin had a strong sense that he also had to be there, was meant to be at least, but if the Last Battle

came soon, he would not be. He had a job of work in front of him that he could not shirk-would not!-

even for Tarmon Gai’don.

Putting nameless fears and the Last Battle alike out of his mind, he fumbled his gauntlets off and

felt in his coat pocket for the length of rawhide cord he kept there. In a morning ritual, his fingers made

another knot mechanically, then slid down the cord, counting. Twenty-two knots. Twenty-two mornings

since Faile was kidnapped.

At the start, he had not thought there was need to keep count. That first day, he had believed he

was cold and numb but focused, yet looking back he could see he had been overwhelmed by unbound

rage and a consuming need to find the Shaido as fast as possible. Men from other clans had been among

the Aiel who had stolen Faile, yet on the evidence, most were Shaido, and that was how he thought of

them. The need to rip Faile away from them, before she could be hurt, had gripped him by the throat till

he almost choked. He would rescue the other women captured with her, of course, but sometimes he had

to list their names in his head to make sure he did not forget them entirely. Alliandre Maritha Kigarin,

Queen of Ghealdan, and his liege woman. It still seemed off-kilter to have anyone oathsworn to him,

especially a queen-he was a blacksmith! He had been a blacksmith, once-but he had responsibilities

toward Alliandre, and she would never have been in danger except for him. Bain of the Black Rock

Shaarad and Chiad of the Stones River Goshien, Aiel Maidens of the Spear who had followed Faile to

Ghealdan and Amadicia. They had faced Trollocs in the Two Rivers, as well, when Perrin needed every

hand that could raise a weapon, and that earned them the right to call on him. Arrela Shiego and Lacile

Aldorwin, two foolish young women who thought they could learn to be Aiel, or some strange version

of Aiel. They were oathsworn to Faile, and so was Maighdin Dorlain, a penniless refugee Faile had

taken under her wing as one of her maids. He could not abandon Faile’s people. Faile ni Bashere

t’Aybara. The litany came back to her, his wife, the breath of his life. With a groan, he clutched the cord

so tightly that the knots impressed themselves painfully on a hand hardened by long days swinging the

hammer at a forge. Light, twenty-two days!

Working iron had taught him that haste ruined metal, but in the beginning, he had been hasty,

Traveling southward through gateways created by Grady and Neald, the two Asha’man, to where the

farthest traces of the Shaido had been found, then leaping south again, the direction their tracks went, as

soon as the Asha’man could make more gateways. Fretting every hour it took them to rest from making

the first and holding them open long enough for everyone to pass through, his mind was eaten up with

freeing Faile at any cost. What he found were days of increasing pain as the scouts spread farther and

farther through uninhabited wilderness without locating the slightest sign that anyone had been that way

before, until he knew he had to retrace his path, frittering away more days to cover ground the Asha’man

had taken him across in a step, searching for any indication of where the Shaido had turned aside.

He should have known they would turn. South took them toward warmer lands, without the snow

that seemed so strange to Aiel, yet it took them closer to the Seanchan in Ebou Dar, as well. He knew

about the Seanchan, and he should have expected the Shaido to learn! They were after pillage, not a

fight with Seanchan and damane. Days of slow marching with the scouts fanning out ahead, days when

falling snow blinded even the Aiel and forced them all to a chafing halt, until finally Jondyn Barran

found a tree scraped by a wagon and Elyas dug a broken Aiel spear shaft from beneath the snow. And

Perrin at last turned east, at most two days south of where he had Traveled to the first time. He had

wanted to howl when he realized that, yet he kept a tight hold on himself. He could not give way, not so

much as an inch, not when Faile was depending on him. That was when he began to husband his anger,

began to forge it.

Her kidnappers had gained a long lead because he was hasty, but since then, he had been as

careful as he had been in a smithy. His anger was hardened and shaped to a purpose. Since finding the

Shaido’s trail again, he had Traveled no farther in one jump than the scouts could go and come between

sunrise and sunset, and it was well that he had been cautious, because the Shaido changed directions

suddenly several times, zigzagging almost as though they could not decide on a destination. Or maybe

they had turned to joined others of their kind. All he had to go by were old traces, old camps buried by

snow, yet all of the scouts agreed the Shaido’s numbers had swollen. There had to be at least two or

three septs together, maybe more, a formidable quarry to hunt. Slowly but surely, though, he had begun

overtaking them. That was what was important.

The Shaido covered more ground on the march than he would have thought possible, given their

numbers and the snow, yet they did not seem to care whether anyone was tracking them. Perhaps they

believed no one dared. Sometimes they had camped several days in one spot. Anger forged to a purpose.

Ruined villages and small towns and estates littered the Shaido’s path as if they were human locusts,

storehouses and valuables looted, men and women carried off along with the livestock. Often no one

remained by the time he arrived, only empty houses, the people seeking somewhere for food to survive

until spring. He had crossed the Eldar into Altara where a small ferry used by peddlers and local

farmers, not merchants, once ran between two villages on the forested riverbanks. How the Shaido had

gotten across, he did not know, but he had the Asha’man make gateways. All that remained of the ferry

were the rough stone landings on either bank, and the few unburned structures were deserted except for

three slat-ribbed feral dogs that slunk away at the sight of humans. Anger hardened and shaped for a

hammer.

Yesterday morning, he had come to a tiny village where a double handful of stunned, dirty-faced

people had stared at the hundreds of lancers and bowmen riding out of the forest at first light behind the

Red Eagle of Manetheren and the crimson Wolfshead, the Silver Stars of Ghealdan and the Golden

Hawk of Mayene, followed by long lines of high-wheeled carts and strings of remounts. At first sight of

Gaul and the other Aiel, those people overcame their paralysis and began running for the trees in panic.

Catching a few to answer questions had been difficult; they were ready to run themselves to death rather

than let an Aiel near. Brytan had consisted of only a dozen families, but the Shaido had carried off nine

young men and women from there, along with all of their animals, only two days ago. Two days. A

hammer was a tool with a purpose, and a target.

He knew he had to be careful, or lose Faile forever, but being too careful could lose her, too.

Early yesterday he had told those who were going ahead to scout that they were to go farther than

before, push on harder, returning only with a full turn of the sun unless they found the Shaido sooner. In

a little while the sun would rise, and at most a few hours after that, Elyas and Gaul and the others would

return, the Maidens and Two Rivers men he knew could track a shadow across water. As fast as the

Shaido moved, the scouts could move faster. They were not encumbered with families and wagons and

captives. This time, they would be able to tell him exactly where the Shaido were. They would. He knew

it in his bones. The certainty flowed in his veins. He would find Faile and free her. That came before

anything, even living, so long as he lived long enough to accomplish it, yet he was a hammer, now, and

if there was any way to accomplish it, any way at all, he intended to hammer these Shaido into scrap.

Tossing the blankets aside, Perrin tugged his gauntlets back on, gathered his axe from where it

lay beside him, a half-moon blade balanced by a heavy spike, and rolled out into the open, rising to his

feet on trampled, frozen snow. Carts stood all around him in rows, in what had been Brytan’s fields. The

arrival of more strangers, so many, and armed, with their foreign banners, had been more than the

survivors of the little village could absorb. As soon as Perrin would let them, the pitiful remnant had fled

into the forest, carrying what they could on their backs and on dragsleds. They had run as hard as if

Perrin was another Shaido, not looking back for fear he was following them. As he slipped the axe haft

through the thick loop on his belt, a deeper shadow beside a nearby cart grew taller and resolved into a

man swathed in a cloak that seemed black in the darkness. Perrin was not surprised; the nearby

horselines thickened the air with the smell of several thousand animals, mounts and remounts and cart

horses, not to mention the sweet stink of horse dung, but he still had caught the other’s scent on waking.

Man smell always stood out. Besides, Aram was always there when Perrin woke, waiting. A waning

sickle moon low in the sky still gave enough light for him to make out the other man’s face, if not

clearly, and the brasspommeled hilt of his sword slanting up past his shoulder. Aram had been a Tinker

once, but Perrin did not think he would be again, even if he did wear a brightly striped Tinker coat.

There was a frowning hardness about Aram now that moon shadows could not hide. He stood as though

ready to draw that sword, and since Faile was taken, anger seemed a permanent part of his scent. A great

deal had changed when Faile was taken. Anyway, Perrin understood anger. He had not, not really,

before Faile was taken.

"They want to see you, Lord Perrin," Aram said, jerking his head toward two dim forms farther

away between the lines of carts. The words came out in a faint mist in the cold air. "I told them to let

you sleep." It was a fault Aram had, looking after him too much, unasked.

Testing the air, Perrin separated out the scents of those two shadows from the masking smell of

the horses. "I’ll see them now. Have Stepper readied for me, Aram." He tried to be in the saddle before

the rest of the camp woke. Partly that was because standing still for long seemed beyond him. Standing

still was not catching the Shaido. Partly it was to avoid having to share anyone’s company he could

avoid. He would have gone out with the scouts himself if the men and women already doing that job

were not so much better at it than he.

"Yes, my Lord." A jaggedness entered Aram’s scent as he trudged away across the snow, but

Perrin barely noted it. Only something important would make Sebban Balwer root himself out of his

blankets in the dark, and as for Selande Darengil. . . . Balwer appeared skinny even in a bulky cloak, his

pinched face all but hidden in the deep hood. Had he stood straight instead of hunching, he still would

have been at most a hand taller than the Cairhienin woman, who was not tall. With his arms wrapped

around himself, he was hopping from one foot to the other, trying to avoid the cold that must be soaking

through his boots. Selande, in a man’s dark coat and breeches, made a good effort at ignoring the

temperature despite the feathery white that marked every breath. She was shivering, but managed to

swagger standing still, with one side of her cloak thrown back and a gloved hand on the hilt of her

sword. The hood of her cloak was lowered, too, exposing hair cut short except for the tail in the back

that was tied at the nape of her neck with a dark ribbon. Selande was the leader of those fools who

wanted to be imitation Aiel, Aiel who carried swords. Her scent was soft and thick, like a jelly. She was

worried. Balwer smelled . . . intent . . . but then, he nearly always did, though there was never any heat

to his intensity, only focus.

The skinny little man stopped hopping to make a stiff, hurried bow. "The Lady Selande has news

I think you should hear from her lips, my Lord." Balwer’s thin voice was dry and precise, just like its

owner. He would sound the same with his neck on a headsman’s block. "My Lady, if you would?" He

was only a secretary-Faile’s secretary, and Perrin’s-a fussy self-effacing fellow for the most part, and

Selande was a noblewoman, but Balwer made that more than a request.

She gave him a sharp sideways glance, shifting her sword, and Perrin tensed to grab her. He did

not think she would actually draw on the man, but then again, he was not sure enough of her, or any of

her ridiculous friends, to put it out of the question. Balwer merely watched her, his head tilted to one

side, and his smell carried impatience, not concern.

With a toss of her head, Selande turned her attention to Perrin. "I see you, Lord Perrin

Goldeneyes," she began in the crisp accents of Cairhien, but, aware that he had little patience for her

pretend Aiel formality, she hurried on. "I have learned three things tonight. First, the least important,

Haviar reported that Masema sent another rider back toward Amadicia yesterday. Nerion tried to follow,

but lost him."

"Tell Nerion I said he isn’t to follow anybody," Perrin told her sharply. "And tell Haviar the

same. They should know that! They are to watch, listen, and report what they see and hear, no more. Do

you understand me?" Selande gave a quick nod, a thorn of fear entering her scent for a moment. Fear of

him, Perrin supposed, fear that he was angry with her. Yellow eyes on a man made some people uneasy.

He took his hand from his axe and clasped both hands behind his back.

Haviar and Nerion were more of Faile’s two dozen young fools, one Tairen, the other Cairhienin.

Faile had used the lot of them for eyes-and-ears, a fact that still irritated him for some reason, though she

had told him to his face that spying was a wife’s business. A man needed to listen hard when he thought

his wife was joking; she might not be. The whole notion of spying made him uncomfortable, but if Faile

could use them so, then so could her husband, when there was need. Just the two, though. Masema

seemed convinced that everyone except Darkfriends were fated to follow him sooner or later, yet he

might grow suspicious if too many left Perrin’s camp to join him.

"Don’t call him Masema, not even here," he added brusquely.

Lately the man claimed Masema Dagar was actually dead and risen from the grave as the

Prophet of the Lord Dragon Reborn, and he was touchier than ever about mention of his former name.

"You get careless with your tongue in the wrong place, and you might be lucky if he just has a few of

his bullyboys flog you the next time they can find you alone." Selande nodded again, gravely, and this

time without any fear smell. Light, those idiots of Faile’s lacked the sense to recognize what they should

be afraid of. "It’s almost dawn," Balwer murmured, shivering and pulling his cloak tighter. "All will be

waking before long, and some matters are best discussed unseen. If my Lady will continue?" Once

again, that was more than a suggestion. Selande and the rest of Faile’s hangers-on had been good only

for causing trouble, that Perrin could see, and Balwer looked to be trying to put a fly up her nose for

some reason, but she actually gave an embarrassed start and murmured an apology.

The darkness truly was beginning to lessen, Perrin realized, at least to his eyes. The sky overhead

still looked black, dusted with bright stars, yet he could almost make out the colors of the six thin stripes

that crossed the front of Selande’s coat. He could tell one from another, anyway. The realization that he

had slept later than usual made him growl. He could not afford to give in to weariness, however tired he

was! He needed to hear Selande’s report-she would not be worried about Masema sending out riders;

the man did that almost every day-yet he looked anxiously for Aram and Stepper. His ears picked up

the sounds of activity among the horselines, but there was no sign of his horse yet.

"The second thing, my Lord," Selande said, "is that Haviar has seen casks of salt fish and salt

beef branded with Altaran markings, a great many of them. He says there are Altarans among Mas . . .

among the Prophet’s people, too. Several appear to be craftsfolk, and one or two could be merchants or

town officials. Established men and women, in any case, solid folk, and some seem unsure they made

the right decision. A few questions might reveal from where the fish and beef came. And perhaps gain

more eyes-and-ears for you."

"I know where the fish and beef came from and so do you," Perrin said irritably. His hands

knotted into fists behind his back. He had hoped the speed with which he was moving would keep

Masema from sending out raiding parties. That was what they were, and as bad as the Shaido if not

worse. They offered people a chance to swear to the Dragon Reborn, and those who refused, sometimes

those who simply hesitated too long, died by fire and steel. In any case, whether or not they marched off

to follow Masema, those who swore were expected to donate generously in support of the Prophet’s

cause, while those who died were plainly Darkfriends, their belongings forfeit. Thieves lost a hand, by

Masema’s laws, but none of what his raiders did was thieving, according to Masema. By his laws,

murder and a whole host of other crimes merited hanging, yet a fair number of his followers seemed to

prefer killing to receiving oaths. There was more loot, that way, and for some of them murder was a fine

game to play before eating.

"Tell them to keep clear of these Altarans," Perrin went on. "All sorts drift into Masema’s

following, and even if they are having second thoughts, it won’t take them long to stink of zeal like the

rest. They wouldn’t hesitate to gut a neighbor then, much less somebody who’s asked the wrong

questions. What I want to know is what Masema’s doing, what he’s planning." That the man had some

scheme seemed obvious. Masema claimed it was blasphemy for anyone except Rand to touch the One

Power, claimed he wanted nothing more than to join Rand in the east. As always, thought of Rand

brought colors whirling through Perrin’s head, more vividly than usual this time, but anger melted them

to vapor. Blasphemy or no, Masema had accepted Traveling, which was not just channeling but men

channeling. And no matter what he claimed, he had done it to remain in the west as long as possible, not

to help rescue Faile. Perrin tended to trust people until they proved unreliable, but one sniff of Masema

had told him the fellow was as insane as a rabid animal and less trustworthy. He had considered ways to

stop that scheme, whatever it was.

Ways to stop Masema’s killing and burning. Masema had ten or twelve thousand men with him,

maybe more-the man was not very forthcoming about numbers, and the way they camped in a squalid

sprawl made counting impossible-while less than a quarter of that number followed Perrin, several

hundred of them cart drivers and grooms and others who would be more hindrance than help in a fight,

yet with three Aes Sedai and two Asha’man, not to mention six Aiel Wise Ones, he could halt Masema

in his tracks. The Wise Ones and two of the Aes Sedai would be eager to take part. More than simply

willing, at least. They wanted Masema dead. But dispersing Masema’s army would only break it into

hundreds of smaller bands that would scatter across Altara and beyond, still looting and killing, just for

themselves instead of in the name of the Dragon Reborn. Breaking the Shaido will do the same thing, he

thought, and pushed the thought away. Stopping Masema would take time he did not have. The man

would have to keep until Faile was safe. Until the Shaido were smashed to kindling. "What’s the third

thing you learned tonight, Selande?" he said roughly. To his surprise, the smell of worry coming from

the woman thickened.

"Haviar saw someone," she said slowly. "He did not tell me at first." Her voice hardened for a

moment. "I made sure that will not happen again!" Drawing a deep breath, she seemed to struggle with

herself, then burst out, "Masuri Sedai has visited Masema . . . the Prophet. It is true, my Lord; believe

me! Haviar has seen her more than once. She slips into their camp hooded and leaves the same way, but

he has had a good look at her face twice. A man accompanies her each time, and sometimes another

woman. Haviar has not seen the man well enough to be sure, but the description fits Rovair, Masuri’s

Warder, and Haviar is certain the second woman is Annoura Sedai."

She broke off abruptly, her eyes shining darkly in the moonlight as she watched him. Light, she

was as worried about how he would take it as by what it meant! He forced his hands to unclench.

Masema despised Aes Sedai as much as he did Darkfriends; he nearly considered them Darkfriends. So

why would he receive two sisters? Why would they go to him? Annoura’s opinion of Masema lay

hidden behind Aes Sedai mystery and doublejointed comments that could mean anything, but Masuri

had said straight out that the man needed to be put down like a mad dog.

"Make sure Haviar and Nerion keep a sharp eye for the sisters and see if they can eavesdrop on

one of their meetings with Masema." Could Haviar be mistaken? No, there were few women in

Masema’s camp, relatively speaking, and it passed belief that the Tairen could mistake one of those

unwashed murderous-eyed harridans for Masuri. The sort of women willing to march with Masema

usually made the men look like Tinkers. "Tell them to take care, though. Better to let the chance pass

than get caught at it. They’re no good to anyone strung up on a tree." Perrin knew he sounded gruff, and

tried to make his voice milder. That seemed harder since Faile was kidnapped. "You’ve done well,

Selande." At least he did not sound as if he were barking at her. "You and Haviar and Nerion. Faile

would be proud if she knew."

A smile lit up her face, and she stood a little straighter, if that was possible. Pride, clean and

bright, the pride of accomplishment, almost overwhelmed any other scent from her! "Thank you, my

Lord. Thank you!" You would have thought he had given her a prize. Maybe he had, come to think on it.

Though come to think Faile might not be best pleased that he was using her eyes-andears, or even knew

about them. Once, the thought of Faile displeased would have made him uneasy, but that was before he

learned about her spies. And that little matter of the Broken Crown that Elyas had let slip. Everybody

always said that wives kept their secrets close, but there were limits! Adjusting his cloak on his narrow

shoulders with one hand, Balwer coughed behind the other. "Well said, my Lord. Very well said. My

Lady, I’m sure you want to pass on Lord Perrin’s instructions as soon as possible. It wouldn’t do for

there to be any misunderstanding." Selande nodded without taking her eyes off Perrin. Her mouth

opened, and Perrin was sure she intended to say something about hoping he found water and shade.

Light, water was the one thing they had in plenty, even if it was mostly frozen, and this time of year,

nobody needed shade even at noon! She probably did intend it, because she hesitated before saying,

"Grace favor you, my Lord. If I may be so bold, Grace has favored the Lady Faile in you." Perrin jerked

his head in a nod of thanks. There was a taste of ashes in his mouth. Grace had a funny way of favoring

Faile, giving her a husband who still had not found her after more than two weeks of searching. The

Maidens said she had been made gai’shain, that she would not be mistreated, but they had to admit these

Shaido already had broken their customs a hundred different ways. In his book, being kidnapped was

mistreatment enough. Bitter ashes.

"The lady will do very well, my Lord," Balwer said softly, watching Selande vanish into the

darkness among the carts. This approval was a surprise; he had tried to talk Perrin out of using Selande

and her friends on the grounds they were hotheaded and unreliable. "She has the necessary instincts.

Cairhienin do, usually, and Tairens to some extent, at least the nobles, especially once-" He cut off

abruptly, and eyed Perrin cautiously. If he were another man, Perrin would have believed he had said

more than he intended, but he doubted Balwer slipped in that fashion. The man’s scent remained steady,

not jiggling the way it would in a man who was unsure. "May I offer one or two points on her report, my

Lord?"

The crunch of hooves in the snow announced the approach of Aram, leading Perrin’s dun stallion

and his own rangy gray gelding. The two animals were trying to nip at one another, and Aram was

keeping them well apart, though with some difficulty. Balwer sighed.

"You can say whatever you need to in front of Aram, Master Balwer," Perrin said. The little man

bowed his head in acquiescence, but he sighed again, too. Everybody in the camp knew that Balwer had

the skill of fitting together rumors and chance-heard comments and things people had done to form a

picture of what had really happened or what might, and Balwer himself considered that part of his job as

a secretary, but for some reason he liked to pretend he never did any such thing. It was a harmless

pretense, and Perrin tended to humor him.

Taking Stepper’s reins from Aram, he said, "Walk behind us awhile, Aram. I need to talk with

Master Balwer in private." Balwer’s sigh was so faint that Perrin barely heard it.

Aram fell in behind the two of them without a word as they began to walk, frozen snow cracking

beneath their feet, but his scent grew spiky again, and quivery, a thin, sour smell. This time, Perrin

recognized the scent, though he paid it no more mind than usual. Aram was jealous of anyone except

Faile who spent time with him. Perrin saw no way to put a stop to it, and anyway, he was as used to

Aram’s possessiveness as he was to the way Balwer hopped along at his side, glancing over his shoulder

to see whether Aram was close enough to hear when he finally decided to speak. Balwer’s razor-thin

scent of suspicion, curiously dry and not even warm but still suspicion, provided a counterpoint to

Aram’s jealousy. You could not change men who did not want to change. The horselines and supply

carts were located in the middle of the camp, where thieves would have a hard time reaching them, and

although the sky still looked black to most eyes, the cart drivers and grooms, who slept close to their

charges, were already awake and folding their blankets, some tending shelters made of pine boughs and

other small tree limbs harvested from the surrounding forest, in case they might be needed another night.

Cook fires were being lit and small black kettles set over them, though there was little to eat except

porridge or dried beans. Hunting and trapping added some meat, venison and rabbits, partridges and

woodhens and the like, but that could only go so far with so many to feed, and there had been nowhere

to buy supplies since before crossing the Eldar. A ripple of bows and curtsies and murmurs of "A good

morning, my Lord" and "The Light favor you, my Lord" followed Perrin, but the men and women who

saw him stopped trying to strengthen their shelters, and a few began to pull theirs down, as though they

had sensed his determination from his stride. They should have known his resolve by now. Since the day

he realized how badly he had blundered, he had not spent two nights in one place. He returned the

greetings without slowing. The rest of the camp made a thin ring around the horses and carts, facing the

encircling forest, with the Two Rivers men divided into four groups and the lancers from Ghealdan and

Mayene spaced between them. Whoever came at them, from whatever direction, would face Two Rivers

longbows and trained cavalry.

It was not a sudden appearance by the Shaido that Perrin feared, but rather Masema. The man

seemed to be following him meekly enough, but aside from this news of raiding, nine Ghealdanin and

eight Mayeners had vanished in the last two weeks, and no one believed they had deserted. Before that,

on the day Faile was stolen, twenty Mayeners had been ambushed and killed, and no one believed it had

been anyone but Masema’s men who did the killing. So an uneasy peace existed, a strange thorny sort of

peace, yet a copper wagered on it lasting forever was likely a copper lost. Masema pretended to be

unaware of any danger to that peace, but his followers seemed not to care one way or the other, and

whatever Masema pretended, they took their lead from him. Somehow, though, Perrin intended to see

that it endured until Faile was free. Making his own camp too tough a nut to crack was one way of

making the peace last.

The Aiel had insisted on having their own thin wedge of the strange pie, though there were fewer

than fifty of them, counting the gai’shain who served the Wise Ones, and he paused to study their low

dark tents. The only other tents erected anywhere in the camp were those of Berelain and her two

serving women, on the other side of the camp, not far from Brytan’s few houses. Fleas and lice in hordes

made those uninhabitable, even for hardened soldiers seeking shelter from the cold, and the barns were

putrid ramshackle affairs that let the wind howl through and harbored worse vermin than the houses.

The Maidens and Gaul, the only man among the Aiel not gai’shain, were all out with the scouts, and the

Aiel tents were silent and still, though the smell of smoke coming from some of the vent holes told him

the gai’shain were preparing breakfast for the Wise Ones, or serving it. Annoura was Berelain’s adviser,

and usually shared her tent, but Masuri and Seonid would be with the Wise Ones, maybe even helping

the gai’shain with breakfast. They still tried to hide the fact that the Wise Ones considered them

apprentices, though everyone in camp must be aware of it by now. Anyone who saw an Aes Sedai

actually carrying firewood or water, or heard one being switched, could make it out. The two Aes Sedai

were oathsworn to Rand-again the colors whirled in his head, an explosion of hues; again they melted

under his constant anger-but Edarra and the other Wise Ones had been sent to keep an eye on them.

Only the Aes Sedai themselves knew how tightly their oaths held them, or what room they saw

to maneuver between the words, and neither was allowed to hop unless a Wise One said toad.

Seonid and Masuri had both said Masema should be put down like a mad dog, and the Wise

Ones agreed. Or so they said. They had no Three Oaths to hold them to the truth, though in truth, that

particular Oath held the Aes Sedai more in letter than spirit. And he seemed to recall one of the Wise

Ones telling him that Masuri thought that the mad dog could be leashed. Not allowed to hop unless a

Wise One said toad. It was like a blacksmith’s puzzle with the edges of the metal pieces sharpened. He

needed to solve it, but one mistake and he could cut himself to the bone. From the corner of his eye,

Perrin caught Balwer watching him, lips pursed in thought. A bird studying something unfamiliar, not

afraid, not hungry, just curious. Gathering Stepper’s reins, he walked on so quickly that the little man

had to lengthen his stride into small jumps to catch up.

Two Rivers men had the segment of camp next to the Aiel, facing northeast, and Perrin

considered walking a little north, to where Ghealdanin lancers were camped, or south to the nearest

Mayener section, but taking a deep breath, he made himself lead his horse through his friends and

neighbors from home. They were all awake, huddling in their cloaks and feeding the remnants of their

shelters into the cook fires or cutting up the cold remains of last night’s rabbit to add to the porridge in

the kettles. Talk dwindled and the smell of wariness grew thick as heads lifted to watch him. Whetstones

paused in sliding along steel, then resumed their sibilant whispering. The bow was their preferred

weapon, but everyone carried a heavy dagger or a short-sword as well, or sometimes a longsword, and

they had picked up spears and halberds and other polearms with strange blades and points that the

Shaido had not thought worth carrying off with their pillage. Spears they were accustomed to, and hands

used to wielding the quarterstaff at feastday competitions found the polearms not much different once

the weight of metal on one end was accounted for. Their faces were hungry, tired and withdrawn.

Someone raised a halfhearted cry of "Goldeneyes!" but no one took it up, a thing that would

have pleased Perrin a month gone. A great deal had changed since Faile was taken. Now their silence

was leaden. Young Kenly Maerin, his cheeks still pale where he had scraped off his attempt at a beard,

avoided meeting Perrin’s eyes, and Jori Congar, lightfingered whenever he saw anything small and

valuable and drunk whenever he could manage it, spat contemptuously as Perrin passed by. Ban Crawe

punched Jori’s shoulder for it, hard, but Ban did not look at Perrin either.

Dannil Lewin stood up, tugging nervously at the thick mustache that looked so ridiculous

beneath his beak of a nose. "Orders, Lord Perrin?" The skinny man actually looked relieved when Perrin

shook his head, and he sat down again quickly, staring at the nearest kettle as though he were anxious

for the morning gruel. Maybe he was; nobody got a full belly lately, and Dannil had never had much

spare flesh on his bones. Behind Perrin, Aram made a disgusted sound very like a growl.

There were others here besides Two Rivers folk, yet they were no better. Oh, Lamgwin Dorn, a

hulking fellow with scars on his face, tugged his forelock and bobbed his head. Lamgwin looked like a

shoulderthumper, a tavern tough, but he was Perrin’s bodyservant now, when he had need of one, which

was not often, and he might just want to keep in a good odor with his employer. But Basel Gill, the stout

onetime innkeeper Faile had taken on as their shambayan, busied himself folding his blankets with

exaggerated care, keeping his balding head down, and Faile’s chief maid, Lini Eltring, a bony woman

whose tight white bun made her face seem even narrower than it was, straightened from stirring a kettle,

her thin lips compressed, and raised her long wooden spoon as if to fend Perrin off. Breane Taborwin,

dark eyes fierce in her pale Cairhienin face, slapped Lamgwin’s arm hard and frowned up at him. She

was Lamgwin’s woman, if not his wife, and the second of Faile’s three maids. They would follow the

Shaido till they dropped dead, if necessary, and fall on Faile’s neck when they found her, but only

Lamgwin had an ounce of welcome for Perrin. He might have gotten more from Jur Grady-the

Asha’man were estranged from everyone else themselves, by who and what they were, and neither had

shown any animosity toward Perrin-but despite the noise of people tramping about on the frozen snow

and cursing when they slipped, Grady was still wrapped in his blankets, snoring away beneath a pinebranch

lean-to. Perrin walked through his friends and neighbors and servants and felt alone. A man

could only proclaim his faithfulness so long before he just gave up. The heart of his life lay somewhere

to the northeast. Everything would return to normal once he had her back.

A thicket of sharpened stakes ten paces deep encircled the camp, and he went to the edge of the

Ghealdanin lancers’ section, where angled paths had been left for mounted men to ride out, though

Balwer and Aram had to fall in behind him in the narrow way. In front of the Two Rivers men, a man

afoot would have to twist and turn to make it through. The edge of the forest lay little more than a

hundred paces distant, easy bowshot for Two Rivers men, huge trees thrusting a canopy high into the

sky. Some of the trees here were strange to Perrin, but there were pines and leatherleaf and elms out

there, some as much as three or four paces thick at the base, and oaks that were larger still. Trees that big

killed anything larger than weeds or small bushes that tried to grow beneath them, leaving wide spaces

between, but shadows darker than the night filled those spaces. An old forest, one that could swallow

armies whole and never give up the bones. Balwer followed him all the way through the stakes before

deciding that this was as close to alone with Perrin as he was likely to get any time soon. "The riders

Masema has sent out, my Lord," he said, and holding his cloak close he cast a suspicious look back at

Aram, who met it with a flat stare.

"I know," Perrin said, "you think they’re going to the Whitecloaks." He was eager to be moving,

and that much farther from his friends. He put the hand holding his reins on the saddlebow, but refrained

from putting a boot in the stirrup. Stepper tossed his head, also impatient. "Masema could be sending

messages to the Seanchan just as easily."

"As you have said, my Lord. A viable possibility, to be sure. May I suggest once again, however,

that Masema’s view of Aes Sedai is very close to that of the Whitecloaks? In fact, identical. He would

see every last sister dead, if he could. The Seanchan view is more . . . pragmatic, if I may be permitted to

call it that. Less in accord with Masema, in any case."

"However much you hate Whitecloaks, Master Balwer, they aren’t at the root of every evil. And

Masema has dealt with the Seanchan before."

"As you say, my Lord." Balwer’s face did not change, but he reeked of doubt. Perrin could not

prove Masema’s meetings with the Seanchan, and telling anyone how he had learned of them would

only add to his present difficulties. That gave Balwer problems; he was a man who liked evidence. "As

for the Aes Sedai and the Wise Ones, my Lord. . . . Aes Sedai always seem to believe they know better

than anyone else, except possibly another Aes Sedai. I believe the Wise Ones are much the same."

Perrin snorted brief white plumes in the air. "Tell me something I don’t know. Like why Masuri

would meet with Masema, and why the Wise Ones allowed it. I’ll wager Stepper against a horseshoe

nail she didn’t do it without their permission." Annoura was another question, but she could be acting on

her own. It certainly seemed unlikely she was acting at Berelain’s behest. Shifting his cloak on his

shoulders, Balwer peered back across the rows of sharpened stakes into the camp, toward the Aiel tents,

squinting as if he hoped to see through the tent walls. "There are many possibilities, my Lord," he said

testily. "For some who swear an oath, whatever is not forbidden is permitted, and whatever is not

commanded can be ignored. Others take actions they believe will help their liege without first asking

permission. The Aes Sedai and the Wise Ones fall into one of those categories, it seems, but further than

that, I can only speculate, as matters stand." "I could just ask. Aes Sedai can’t lie, and if I press hard

enough, Masuri might actually tell me the truth."

Balwer grimaced as though at a sudden stomach pain. "Perhaps, my Lord. Perhaps. More likely

is that she would tell you something that sounds like the truth. Aes Sedai are experienced in that, as you

know. In any event, my Lord, Masuri would wonder how you knew to ask, and that line of thought

might lead to Haviar and Nerion. Under the circumstances, who can say who she might tell?

Straightforward is not always the best way. Sometimes, certain things must be done behind masks, for

safety." "I told you the Aes Sedai couldn’t be trusted," Aram said abruptly. "I told you that, Lord

Perrin." He fell silent when Perrin raised a hand, but the stink of fury from him was so strong that Perrin

had to exhale to clear his lungs. Part of him wanted to draw the scent deep and let it consume him.

Perrin studied Balwer carefully. If Aes Sedai could twist the truth till you could not tell up from

down, and they could and did, how far could you trust? Trust was always the question. He had learned

that in hard lessons. He took a firm check on his anger, though. A hammer had to be used with care, and

he was working a forge where one slip would tear the heart out of his chest. "And might matters change

if some of Selande’s friends began spending more time among the Aiel? They want to be Aiel, after all.

That ought to give them enough excuse. And maybe one of them can strike up a friendship with

Berelain, and with her advisor." "That should be possible, my Lord," Balwer said after the slightest

hesitation. "Lady Medore’s father is a High Lord of Tear, giving her sufficient rank to approach the First

of Mayene, and also a reason. Possibly one or two of the Cairhienin stand high enough, as well. Finding

those to live among the Aiel will be easier still." Perrin nodded. Infinite care with the hammer, however

much you wanted to smash whatever lay within reach. "Then do it. But, Master Balwer, you’ve been

trying to . . . guide . . . me to this since Selande left us. From now on, if you have a suggestion to make,

make it. Even if I say no to nine in a row, I’ll always listen to a tenth. I’m not a clever man, but I’m

willing to listen to people who are, and I think you are. Just don’t try poking me in the direction you

want me to go. I don’t like that, Master Balwer." Balwer blinked, then of all things, bowed with his

hands folded at his waist. He smelled surprised. And gratified. Gratified? "As you say, my Lord. My

previous employer disliked me suggesting actions unless I was asked. I won’t make the same mistake

again, I assure you." Eyeing Perrin, he seemed to reach a decision. "If I may say so," he said carefully,

"I have found serving you . . . pleasant . . . in ways I did not expect. You are what you seem, my Lord,

with no poisoned needles hidden away to catch the unwary. My previous employer was known widely

for cleverness, but I believe you are equally clever, in a different way. I believe I would regret leaving

your service. Any man might say these things to keep his place, but I mean them."

Poisoned needles? Before entering Perrin’s service, Balwer’s last employment had been as

secretary to a Murandian noblewoman fallen into hard times who could no longer afford to keep him.

Murandy must be a rougher place than Perrin thought. "I see no reason for you to leave my employ. Just

tell me what you want to do and let me decide, don’t try to prod. And forget the flattery."

"I never flatter, my Lord. But I am adept at shaping myself to my master’s needs; it is a

requirement of my profession." The little man bowed once more. He had never been this formal before.

"If you have no further questions, my Lord, may I go to find the Lady Medore?"

Perrin nodded. The little man bowed yet again, backing away, then went skittering toward the

camp, his cloak fluttering behind him as he dodged through the sharpened stakes like a sparrow hopping

across the snow. He was a strange fellow.

"I don’t trust him," Aram muttered, staring after Balwer. "And I don’t trust Selande and that lot.

They’ll throw in with the Aes Sedai, you mark my words."

"You have to trust somebody," Perrin said roughly. The question was, who? Swinging into

Stepper’s saddle, he booted the dun in the ribs. A hammer was useless lying at rest.

CHAPTER 6

The Scent of a Dream

The cold air seemed clean and fresh in Perrin’s nose as he galloped into the forest, the breezes

full of the crispness of the snow that fountained in sprays beneath Stepper’s hooves. Out here, he could

forget old friends who were willing to believe the worst on rumor. He could try to forget Masema, and

the Aes Sedai, and the Wise Ones. The Shaido were welded to the inside of his skull, however, an iron

puzzle that would not yield no matter how he twisted. He wanted to wrench it apart, but that never

worked with a blacksmith’s puzzle.

After one short burst of speed, he slowed the dun to a walk, feeling a touch of guilt. The darkness

beneath the forest canopy was deep, and stone outcrops between the tall trees warned of more hidden

beneath the snow, a hundred places that could break a running horse’s leg, and that without counting

gopher holes and fox dens and badger sets. There was no need to take the risk. A gallop would not free

Faile an hour sooner, and no horse could maintain that pace for long in any case. The snow here was

knee-deep in places where it had drifted, and deep enough elsewhere. He rode northeast, though. The

scouts would be coming from the northeast, with news of Faile. News of the Shaido, at least, a location.

He had hoped for that so often, prayed for it, but today, he knew it would come. Yet knowing only

increased his anxiety. Finding them was only the first part of solving this puzzle. Anger made his mind

flash from one thing to another, yet no matter what Balwer said, Perrin knew he was methodical at best.

He did not do well trying to think quickly, and lacking cleverness, methodical was going to have to do.

Somehow.

Aram caught up to him, running his gray hard, and slowed to ride just a little behind and to one

side like a heeling hound. Perrin let him. Aram never smelled comfortable when Perrin made him ride

alongside. The onetime Tinker did not speak, but eddies in the icy air brought his scent, a melange of

anger and suspicion and disgruntlement. He sat his saddle as tense as an over-wound clockspring and

watched the forest around them grimly, as though he expected Shaido to leap out from behind the

nearest tree. In truth, almost anything could have hidden from most men in these woods. Where the sky

overhead could be seen through the canopy of branches, it held a definite tinge of dark grayness, but for

the moment that cast the forest in shadows murkier than night, and the trees themselves were massive

columns of darkness. Yet even the shift of a black-winged jackdaw on a snow-mounded branch, its

feathers fluffed against the cold, caught Perrin’s eyes, and a hunting pine martin, a deeper black than the

darkness, cautiously raising its head on another. He caught the scent of both, too. A faint whiff of man

scent came from up in a massive oak with dark spreading limbs as thick as a pony. The Ghealdanin and

Mayeners had their mounted patrols circling the camp a few miles out, but he preferred to rely on Two

Rivers men closer in. He did not have enough men to ring the camp completely, yet they were used to

forests, and to hunting animals that might hunt them in turn, used to noticing movement that would

escape a man thinking in terms of soldiers and war. Ridgecats down from the mountains after sheep

could hide in plain sight, and bear and wild boar were known to double back on their pursuers and lie in

ambush.

From branches thirty and forty feet above the ground, the men could see anything that moved

below in time to warn the camp, and with their longbows, they could exact a heavy price from anyone

who tried to force a way past them. Yet the presence of the guard touched his mind as lightly as the

ptesence of the jackdaw. He was focused ahead through the trees and the shadows, intent on picking out

the first sign of the scouts returning. Abruptly Stepper tossed his head and snorted in a spew of mist,

eyes rolling in fear as he stopped dead, and Aram’s gray squealed and shied. Perrin leaned forward to

pat the trembling stallion’s neck, but his hand froze as he caught a trace of scent, a smell of burned

sulphur faint in the air, that made the hair on the back of his neck try to stand. Almost burnt sulphur; that

was only a pale imitation of this smell. It had a reek of. . . wrongness, of something that did not belong

in this world. The scent was not new-you could not ever have called that stink "fresh"-but not old,

either. An hour, perhaps less. Maybe about the time he had wakened. About the time he had dreamed of

this scent. "What is it, Lord Perrin?" Aram was having difficulty controlling his gray, which danced in

circles fighting the reins and wanting to run in any direction so long as it was away, but even while

sawing at his reins he had his wolfhead-pommeled sword out. He practiced with it daily, for hours on

end when he could, and those who knew about such things said he was good. "You may be able to make

out a black thread from a white in this, but it isn’t day yet to me. I can’t see anything well enough to

matter." "Put that away," Perrin told him. "It isn’t needed. Swords wouldn’t do any good, anyway." He

had to coax his trembling mount to move forward, but he followed the rank smell, scanning the snowcovered

ground ahead. He knew that smell, and not just from the dream.

It only took a little while to find what he was looking for, and Stepper gave a grateful whicker

when Perrin reined him in well short of a slab-like crest of gray stone, two paces wide, that jutted up to

his right. The snow all around was smooth and unmarked, but dog tracks covered the tilted span of

stone, as though a pack had scrambled over it as they ran. Dimness and shadows or no, they were plain

to Perrin’s eyes. Footprints larger than the palm of his hand, pressed into the stone as though it had been

mud. He patted Stepper’s neck again. No wonder the animal was frightened.

"Go back to the camp and find Dannil, Aram. Tell him I said to let everyone know there were

Darkhounds here, maybe an hour ago. And put your sword away. You wouldn’t want to try killing a

Darkhound with a sword, believe me."

"Darkhounds?" Aram exclaimed, peering around into the murky shadows between the trees.

There was an anxious fear in his scent, now. Most men would have laughed about travelers’ tales or

stories for children. Tinkers roamed the countryside, and knew what could found in the wilds. Aram

sheathed the sword on his back with obvious reluctance, but his right hand remained raised, halfreaching

for the hilt. "How do you kill a Darkhound? Can they be killed?" Then again, maybe he did not

have much good sense at that.

"Just be glad you don’t have to try, Aram. Now go do like I told you. Everyone needs to keep a

sharp lookout in case they come back. Not much chance of that, I’d say, but better safe." Perrin

remembered facing a pack of them once, and killing one. He thought he had killed one, after hitting it

with three good broadhead arrows. Shadowspawn did not die easily. Moiraine had had to finish that

pack, with balefire. "Make sure the Aes Sedai and Wise Ones learn of this, and the Asha’man." Small

chance any of them knew how to make balefire-the women might not admit knowing a forbidden

weave if they did, and maybe not the men either-but maybe they knew something else that could work.

Aram was reluctant to leave Perrin alone until Perrin snapped at him, and then he turned back toward the

camp trailing smells of umbrage and hurt, as if two men would have been a whit safer than one. As soon

as the other man was out of sight, Perrin reined Stepper southward, the direction the Darkhounds had

been heading. He did not want company for this, even Aram’s. Just because people sometimes noted his

sharp eyesight was no reason to flaunt it, or his sense of smell. There were already reasons enough to

shun him without adding more.

It might have been chance that the creatures had passed so near his camp, but the last few years

had made him uneasy with coincidences. All too often, they were not coincidence at all, not the way

other men counted such things. If this was another bit of his ta’-veren tugging at the Pattern, it was a bit

he could have done without.

The thing seemed to have more disadvantages than advantages even when it appeared to be

working in your favor. The chance that favored you one minute could turn on you in the next. And there

was always another possibility. Being ta’veren made you stand out in the Pattern, and some of the

Forsaken could use that to find you at times, or so he had been told. Maybe some Shadowspawn could,

too.

The trail he followed was surely near an hour old, but Perrin felt a tightness between his shoulder

blades, a prickling on his scalp. The sky was still a deep dark gray where it showed, even to his eyes.

The sun had not yet crested the horizon. Just before sunrise was one of the worst times to meet the Wild

Hunt, when darkness was changing to light but the light had not taken hold. At least there was no

crossroads nearby, no graveyard, but the only hearthstones to touch lay back in Brytan, and he was not

certain how much safety those hovels held. In his mind, he marked out the location of a nearby stream,

where the camp got its water by chopping through the ice. It was no more than ten or twelve paces wide

and only knee-deep, but putting running water between you and Darkhounds would stop them

supposedly. But then, so would facing them, supposedly, and he had seen the results of that. His nose

tested the breezes, searching for that old scent. And for any hint of a newer. Coming on those things

unaware would be worse than unpleasant.

Stepper caught scents almost as easily as Perrin, and sometimes noticed what they were sooner,

but whenever the dun balked, Perrin forced him forward. There were plenty of tracks scattered in the

snow, hoofprints of the mounted patrols going out and coming back, occasional sign of rabbits and

foxes, but the only marks left by the Darkhounds were where stone stuck up out of the snow. The burnt

sulphur smell was always strongest there, yet enough trace lingered in between to lead him to the next

place where their tracks showed. The huge pawprints overlapped one another, and there was no way to

tell how many Darkhounds there had been, but whether a pace wide or six, every rock surface they had

crossed was smothered in tracks from one side to the other. A larger pack than the ten he had seen

outside Illian. Much larger. Was that why there were no wolves in the area? He was sure that the

certainty of death he had felt in the dream was something real, and he had been a wolf in the dream.

As the trail began to curve to the west, he felt a growing suspicion that firmed into certainty as it

continued to bend. The Darkhounds had circled the camp completely, running right across the place

north of the camp where several huge trees lay half toppled and propped by their neighbors, each with a

tall chunk sliced cleanly out of its splintered trunk. The tracks covered a stone outcrop as smooth and

flat as a polished marble floor except for one hair-thin gouge cut through it straight as a plumb line.

Nothing resisted the opening of an Asha’man’s gateway, and two had opened here. A thick pine that had

fallen blocking one had a section four paces wide burned out of it, but the charred ends were as neat as if

they had come from a sawmill. It seemed that evidence of the One Power did not interest Darkhounds,

however. The pack had not paused there any more than anywhere else, or even slowed that he could tell.

Darkhounds could run faster than horses, and for longer, and the stench of them hardly seemed to have

faded more in one place than another. At two points in that circuit he had picked up a forking in the trail,

but that was only the pack coming from the north and departing south. Once around the camp, and then

on their way after whatever or whoever they were hunting. Plainly, that was not him. Perhaps the pack

had circled because they sensed him, sensed someone who was ta’veren, yet he doubted that

Darkhounds would have hesitated one instant at coming into the camp, had they been after him. The

pack he had faced before had entered the city of Illian, though it had not tried to kill him till later. But

did Darkhounds report what they saw, the way rats and ravens did? The thought made his jaw clench.

The Shadow’s attention was something any sane man feared, the Shadow’s attention might interfere

with freeing Faile. That concerned him more than anything else. Yet there were ways to fight

Shadowspawn, ways to fight the Forsaken, if it came to that. Whatever came between him and Faile,

Darkhounds or the Forsaken or anything else, he would find a way to go around or through, whichever

was necessary. A man could only have so much fear in him at one time, and all of his fear was centered

on Faile. There just was no room for any more.

Before he reached his starting place again, the breezes brought him the smells of people and

horses, sharp in the icy cold, and he reined Stepper to a slow walk, and then to a halt. He had spotted

some fifty or sixty horses near a hundred paces ahead. The sun had finally peeked above the horizon and

begun to send sharply slanted shafts of light through the forest canopy, reflecting off the snow and

lessening the gloom a little, though deep, dappled shadows remained between the sun’s slender fingers.

Some of those shadows enveloped him. The mounted party was not far from where he had first seen the

Darkhounds’ tracks, and he could see Aram’s sickly green cloak and red-striped coat, the Tinker

garments jarring with the sword on his back. Most of the riders wore rimmed red helmets shaped like

pots and dark cloaks over red breastplates, and the long red streamers on their lances stirred in the light

airs as the soldiers tried to keep watch in every direction. The First of Mayene often rode out in the

mornings, with a suitable bodyguard of the Winged Guards.

He started to slip away without having to meet Berelain, but then he saw three tall women afoot

among the horses, long dark shawls wrapped around their heads and draped over their upper bodies, and

he hesitated. Wise Ones rode when they had to, if unwillingly, but tramping a mile or two in the snow

wearing heavy woolen skirts was insufficient reason to force them onto horseback. Almost certainly

Seonid or Masuri was in that group, as well, though the Aiel women seemed to like Berelain for some

reason he could not fathom.

He had no thought of joining the riders, no matter who was with them, but hesitation cost him his

chance at evasion. One of the Wise Ones-he thought it was Carelle, a fire-haired woman who always

had a challenge in her sharp blue eyes-raised a hand to point in his direction, and the whole party

turned, the soldiers whipping their horses around and peering through the trees toward him, lances

tipped with a foot of steel half lowered. It was unlikely they could make him out clearly through the

deep pools of shadow and bright bars of sunlight. He was surprised the Wise One had, but then, Aiel

generally had sharp eyes.

Masuri was there, a slim woman in a bronze-colored cloak riding a dapple mare, and Annoura as

well, keeping her brown mare well back but marked by the dozens of thin dark braids that hung from the

opening of her cowl. Berelain herself sat a sleek bay gelding at the forefront, a tall beautiful young

woman with long black hair, in a red cloak lined with black fur. A simple flaw lessened her beauty,

though; she was not Faile. A worse flaw ruined it, as far as he was concerned. He had learned of Faile’s

kidnapping from her, and of Masema’s contact with the Seanchan, but nearly everyone in the camp

believed that he had slept with Berelain on the very night Faile was taken, and she had done nothing to

correct the tale. It was hardly the kind of story he could ask her to stand up and deny publicly, yet she

could have said something, told her maids to deny it, anything. Instead, Berelain held her silence, and

her maids, gossiping like magpies, actually fostered the tale. That sort of reputation stuck to a man, in

the Two Rivers. He had avoided Berelain since that night, and he would have ridden away now even

after they saw him, but she took a hoophandled basket from the maid accompanying her, a plump

woman wrapped in a blue-and-gold cloak, then spoke to the others and started her sleek bay gelding

toward him. Alone. Annoura raised a hand and called something after her, but Berelain never glanced

back. Perrin did not doubt she would follow wherever he went, and the way things were, leaving would

only make people believe he wanted to be private with her. He dug his heels into Stepper’s flanks,

meaning to join the others no matter how little he wanted to-let her follow him back to them if she

wanted-but she urged the bay to a canter despite the rough ground and the snow, even leaping a stone

outcrop, her red cloak flowing out behind her, and met him halfway. She was a good rider, he admitted

grudgingly. Not as good as Faile, but better than most.

"Your scowl is quite fierce," she laughed softly as she halted right in front of Stepper. From the

way she held her reins, she was ready to block him if he tried going around. The woman had no shame

at all! "Smile, so people think we are flirting." She pushed the basket at him with one crimson-gloved

hand. "This should make you smile, at least. I hear you forget to eat." Her nose wrinkled. "And to wash,

it seems. Your beard needs trimming, too. A careworn, somewhat disheveled husband rescuing his wife

is a romantic figure, but she might not think so well of a dirty ragamuffin. No woman will ever forgive

you ruining her image of you."

Suddenly confused, Perrin took the basket, sitting it in front of him on the tall pommel of his

saddle, and unconsciously rubbed at his nose. He was accustomed to certain smells from Berelain,

usually those of a hunting she-wolf, and he was the intended prey, but today she gave off no hunting

scent. Not a whisker of it. She smelled patient as stone, and amused, with undercurrents of fear. The

woman certainly had never been afraid of him that he recalled. And what did she have to be patient

about? For that matter, what did she have to amused about? A ridge cat smelling like a lamb would not

have confounded him more.

Confusion or no, his stomach rumbled at the aromas drifting from the lidded basket. Roasted

woodhen, unless he was much mistaken, and bread still warm from the baking. Flour was in short

supply, and bread almost as rare as meat. It was true that he missed eating some days. He really did

forget, sometimes, and when he remembered, eating was a chore, for he had to run the gauntlet of Lini

and Breane or be given the cold shoulder by people he had grown up with just to get a meal. Food right

under his nose made his mouth water. Would it be disloyal to eat food brought by Berelain? "Thank you

for the loaf and the woodhen," he said roughly, "but the last thing on earth I want is for anyone to think

we’re flirting. And I wash when I can, if it’s any of your business. It isn’t easy in this weather. Besides,

nobody else smells any better than I do." She did, he realized suddenly. There was no hint of sweat or

dirt under her light, flowery perfume. It irritated him that he had noticed she was wearing perfume, or

that she smelled clean. It seemed a betrayal.

Berelain’s eyes widened momentarily in startlement-why?-but then she sighed through her

smile, which was beginning to look fixed, and a thread of irritation entered her scent. "Have your tent

set up. I know there’s a good copper bathtub in one of your carts. You won’t have thrown that out.

People expect a noble to look like a noble, Perrin, and that includes being presentable, even when it

takes extra effort. It’s a bargain between you and them. You must give them what they expect as well as

what they need or want, or they lose respect and start resenting you for making them lose it. Frankly,

none of us can afford for you to let that happen.

We’re all far from our homes, surrounded by enemies, and I very much believe that you, Lord

Perrin Goldeneyes, may be our only chance of living to reach our homes again. Without you, everything

falls apart. Now smile, because if we’re flirting, then we aren’t talking about something else."

Perrin bared his teeth. The Mayeners and the Wise Ones were watching, but at fifty paces, in this

gloom, it would be taken for a smile. Lose respect? Berelain had helped strip him of any respect he once

had from the Two Rivers folk, not to mention Faile’s servants. Worse, Faile had given him some version

of that lecture about a noble’s duty to give people what they expected more than once. What be resented

was hearing this woman, of all people, echo his wife. "What are we talking about, then, that you don’t

trust your own people to know?"

Her face remained smooth and smiling, yet the undercurrent of fear in her scent strengthened. It

was nowhere near panic, but she believed herself in danger. Her gloved hands were tight on the bay’s

reins. "I’ve had my thief-catchers nosing about in Masema’s camp, making ‘friends.’ Not as good as

having eyes-and-ears there, but they took wine they supposedly stole from me, and they learned a little

by listening." For an instant she regarded him quizzically, tilting her head. Light! She knew Faile used

Selande and those other idiots as spies! It had been Berelain who told him about them in the first place.

Likely Gendar and Santes, her thiefcatchers, had seen Haviar and Nerion in Masema’s camp. Balwer

would have to be warned before he tried to set Medore on Berelain and Annoura. That would certainly

make a fine tangle. When he said nothing, she went on. "I put something in that basket besides bread

and a woodhen. A . . . document . . . that Santes found early yesterday, locked away in Masema’s camp

desk. The fool never saw a lock without wanting to know what it hid. If he had to meddle with what

Masema kept under lock and key, he should have memorized the thing instead of taking it, but what’s

done is done. Don’t let anyone see you reading it after I went to all this trouble to hide it!" she added

sharply as he lifted the basket’s lid, revealing a cloth-wrapped bundle and releasing stronger smells of

roasted bird and warm bread. "I’ve seen Masema’s men following you before. They could be watching

now!" "I’m not a fool," he growled. He knew about Masema’s watchers. Most of the man’s followers

were townsmen, and most of the rest awkward enough in the woods to shame a ten-year-old back home.

Which was not to say one or two might not be hiding somewhere among the trees close enough to spy

from among the shadows. They always kept their distance, since his eyes made them believe he was

some sort of half-tame Shadowspawn, so he seldom detected their scents, and he had had other things on

his mind this morning.

Fingering the cloth aside to expose the woodhen, almost as large as a fair-sized chicken, with its

skin crisply browned, he tore off one of the bird’s legs while feeling under the bundle and sliding out a

piece of heavy, cream-colored paper folded in four. Careless of grease-spots, he unfolded the paper atop

the bird, a little clumsily in his gauntlets, and read while nibbling on the leg. To everyone watching, he

would appear to be studying what part of the woodhen to attack next. A thick green wax seal, cracked on

one side, held an impression of what he decided were three hands, each with the forefinger and little

finger raised and the others folded. The letters written on the paper in a flowing script were oddly

formed, some unrecognizable, but the thing was readable with a little effort.

The bearer of this stands under my personal protection. In the name of the Empress,

may she live forever, give him whatever aid he requires in service to the Empire and speak of

it to none but me.

By her seal

Suroth Sabelle Meldarath

of Asinbayar and Barsabba

High Lady

"The Empress," he said softly, soft like iron brushing silk. Confirmation of Masema’s dealings

with the Seanchan, though for himself, he had needed none. It was not the sort of thing Berelain would

have lied about. Suroth Sabelle Meldarath must be someone important, to be handing out this kind of

document. "This will finish him, once Santes testified where he found it." Service to the Empire?

Masema knew Rand had fought the Seanchan! That rainbow burst into his head, and was swept

away. The man was a traitor! Berelain laughed as if he had said something witty, but her smile definitely

looked forced, now. "Santes told me no one saw him in the bustle of setting up camp, so I allowed him

and Gendar to go back with my last cask of good Tunaighan. They were supposed to return by an hour

after dark, but neither has. I suppose they could be sleeping it off, but they’ve never-" She broke off

with a startled sound, staring at him, and he realized that he had bitten the thighbone in half. Light, he

had stripped all the flesh from the leg without noticing. "I’m hungrier than I thought," he muttered.

Spitting the nub of bone into the palm of his gauntlet, he dropped the pieces to the ground. "It’s safe to

assume Masema knows you have this. I hope you’re keeping a heavy guard around you all the time, not

just when you ride out." "Gallenne has fifty men sleeping around my tent as of last night," she said, still

staring, and he sighed. You would think she had never seen anybody bite a bone in two before. "What

has Annoura told you?"

"She wanted me to give it to her to destroy, so if I was asked, I could say I didn’t have it and

didn’t know where it was, and she could support my word. I doubt that would satisfy Masema, though."

"No, I doubt it would." Annoura had to know that, too. Aes Sedai could be wrongheaded, or

even foolish upon occasion, but they were never stupid. "Did she say she would destroy it, or that if you

gave it to her, she could?"

Berelain’s brow furrowed in thought, and it took her a moment to say, "That she would." The

bay danced a few impatient steps, but she brought him under control easily, without paying attention. "I

can’t think what else she would want it for," she said after another pause. "Masema is hardly likely to be

susceptible to . . . pressure." Blackmail, she meant. Perrin could not see Masema standing still for that

either. Especially blackmail by an Aes Sedai.

Under cover of tearing the other leg loose from the bird, he managed to refold the piece of paper

and tuck it into his sleeve, where his gauntlet would keep it from falling out. It was still evidence. But of

what? How could the man be both a fanatic for the Dragon Reborn and a traitor? Could he have taken

the document from . . . ? Who? Some collaborator he had captured? But why would Masema keep it

locked away unless it had been meant for him? He had met with Seanchan. And how had he intended to

use it? Who could tell what a thing this would allow a man to call on? Perrin sighed heavily. He had too

many questions, and no answers. Answers required a quicker mind than his. Maybe Balwer would have

a notion. With a taste of food in it, his stomach wanted him to devour the leg in his hand and the rest of

the bird too, but he closed the lid firmly and tried to take measured bites. There was one thing he could

find out for himself. "What else has Annoura said? About Masema." "Nothing, besides that he’s

dangerous and I should avoid him, as if I didn’t know that already. She dislikes him and talking about

him." Another brief hesitation, and Berelain added, "Why?" The First of Mayene was used to intrigues,

and she listened for what was not said.

Perrin took another bite to give himself a moment while he chewed and swallowed. He was not

used to intrigues, yet he had been exposed to enough of them to know that saying too much could be

dangerous. So could saying too little, no matter what Balwer thought. "Annoura has been meeting with

Masema in secret. So has Masuri."

Berelain’s fixed smile remained in place, but alarm entered her scent. She started to twist in her

saddle as if to look back at the two Aes Sedai, and stopped herself, licking her lips with the tip of her

tongue. "Aes Sedai always have their reasons" was all she said. So, was she alarmed over her advisor

meeting Masema, or alarmed that Perrin knew, or . . . ? He hated all these complications. They just got

in the way of what was important. Light, he had managed to clean the second leg already! Hoping

Berelain had not noticed, he hastily tossed the bones aside. His belly growled for more.

Her people had maintained their distance, but Aram had ridden a short way toward Perrin and

Berelain and was leaning forward to peer at them through the shadowed trees. The Wise Ones were

standing to one side talking among themselves, seemingly unaware that they were over their ankles in

snow or that the cold breezes had picked up enough to flap the dangling ends of their shawls. Every so

often one or another of the three looked Perrin and Berelain’s way, too. Notions of privacy never kept a

Wise One from sticking her nose wherever she wanted. They were like Aes Sedai that way. Masuri and

Annoura were watching, too, though they appeared to be keeping their distance from one another. Perrin

would have wagered that without the Wise Ones there, both sisters would have been using the One

Power to eavesdrop. Of course, the Wise Ones probably knew how to do that, too, and they had allowed

Masuri’s visits to Masema. Would either Aes Sedai crack her teeth if they saw the Wise Ones listening

with the Power? Annoura seemed almost as careful with the Wise Ones as Masuri was. Light, he had no

time for this briar thicket! He had to live in it, though. "We’ve given tongues enough to wag over," he

said. Not that they needed any more than they had. Hooking the basket’s hoophandles over his pommel,

he heeled Stepper’s flanks. It could hardly be disloyal just to eat a bird.

Berelain did not follow immediately, yet before he reached Aram, she caught up and slowed her

bay beside him. "I’ll find out what Annoura is up to," she said determinedly, looking straight ahead. Her

eyes were hard. Perrin would have pitied Annoura, if he had not been ready to try shaking answers out

of her himself. But then, Aes Sedai seldom needed pity, and they seldom gave answers they did not want

to give. The next instant, Berelain was all smiles and gaiety again, though the scent of determination still

hung about her, almost crushing the fear scent. "Young Aram has been telling us all about Heartsbane

riding these woods with the Wild Hunt, Lord Perrin. Could it really be so, do you think? I remember

hearing those tales in the nursery." Her voice was light and amused and carrying. Aram’s cheeks turned

red, and some of the men beyond him laughed.

They stopped laughing when Perrin showed them the tracks in the stone slab.

CHAPTER 7

Blacksmith’s Puzzle

When the laughter cut off, Aram put on a smug grin, and with none of the fear scent he had given

off earlier. Anyone would have thought he had already seen the tracks himself and knew everything

there was to know. No one paid any mind to his smirk, however, or to much of anything except the huge

dog tracks impressed in stone, even Perrin’s explanation that the Darkhounds were long gone. Of course,

he could not tell them how he knew that, yet no one seemed to notice the lack. One of the sharply

slanting bars of early morning light was falling directly on the gray slab, illuminating it clearly. Stepper

had grown accustomed to the fading burnt-sulphur smell-at least he only snorted and laid back his

ears-but the other horses shied at the tilted stone. None of the humans except Perrin could detect that

smell, and most growled over their mounts’ fractious behavior and peered at the oddly marked stone as

if it were a curiosity displayed by a traveling show.

Berelain’s plump maid screamed when she saw the tracks, and swayed on the point of falling off

her round-bellied, nervously dancing mare, but Berelain merely asked Annoura in an absent fashion to

look after her and stared at the prints with as little expression as if she herself were Aes Sedai. Her hands

tightened on her reins, though, until the thin red leather paled across her knuckles. Bertain Gallenne, the

Lord Captain of the Winged Guards, his red helmet embossed with wings and bearing three thin crimson

plumes, had personal command of Berelain’s bodyguard this morning, and he forced his tall black

gelding close to the stone, swinging down from his saddle in knee-deep snow and removing his helmet

to frown at the stone slab with his one eye. A scarlet leather patch covered the empty socket of the other,

the strap cutting through his shoulder-length gray hair. His grimace said he saw trouble, but he always

saw the worst possibilities first. Perrin supposed that was better in a soldier than always seeing the best.

Masuri dismounted, too, but no sooner was she on the ground than she paused with her dapples reins in

one gloved hand, looking uncertainly toward the three sun-dark Aiel women. A few of the Mayener

soldiers muttered uneasily at that, yet they should have been used to it by now. Annoura hid her face

deeper in her gray hood as if she did not want to see the rock and gave Berelain’s maid a brisk shake; the

woman goggled at her in astonishment. Masuri, on the other hand, waited beside her mare with an

appearance of patience, spoiled only by smoothing the russet skirts of her silk riding dress as though

unaware of what she was doing. The Wise Ones exchanged silent glances, expressionless as sisters

themselves. Carelle stood on one side of Nevarin, a skinny green-eyed woman, and on the other Marline,

with eyes of twilight blue and dark hair, rare among Aiel, not covered completely with her shawl. All

three were tall women, as tall as some men, and none looked more than a few years older than Perrin,

but no one could have managed that calm self-assurance without more years than their faces claimed.

Despite the long necklaces and heavy bracelets of gold and ivory that they wore, their dark heavy skirts

and the dark shawls that almost hid their white blouses could have suited farm women, yet there was no

doubt who was in command between them and the Aes Sedai. In truth, sometimes there seemed to be

doubt who was in command between them and Perrin.

Finally, Nevarin nodded. And gave a warm and approving smile. Perrin had never before seen a

smile out of her. Nevarin did not walk around scowling, but she usually seemed to be searching for

someone to upbraid.

Not until that nod did Masuri hand her reins up to one of the soldiers. Her Warder was nowhere

to be seen, and that had to be the Wise Ones’ doing. Rovair usually stuck to her like a burr. Lifting her

divided skirts, she waded through the snow, deeper the closer to the stone she came, and began passing

her hands above the footprints, obviously channeling, though nothing happened that Perrin could see.

The Wise Ones watched her closely, but then, Masuri’s weaves were visible to them. Annoura displayed

no interest. The ends of the Gray sister’s narrow braids twitched as if she were shaking her head inside

her hood, and she moved her horse back from the maid, well out of the Wise Ones’ line of sight, though

that took her farther from Berelain, who anyone could think might want her advice now. Annoura really

did avoid the Wise Ones as much as she could.

"Fireside stories walking," Gallenne muttered, drawing his gelding away from the stone with a

sideways glance at Masuri. Aes Sedai, he honored, yet few men wanted to be close to an Aes Sedai who

was channeling. "Though I don’t know why I’m surprised anymore after what I’ve seen since leaving

Mayene." Intent on the tracks, Masuri did not seem to notice him.

A stir rippled through the mounted lancers, as though they had not really believed their own eyes

until their commander gave confirmation, and some of them began to smell of uneasy fear, as if

expecting Darkhounds to leap out of the shadows. Perrin could not pick out individuals among so many

with any ease, but the jittery rankness was strong enough that it had to come from more than a few.

Gallenne seemed to sense what Perrin smelled; he had his faults, but he had commanded soldiers

for a long time. Hanging his helmet on his long sword hilt, he grinned. The eyepatch gave it a grim

quality, a man who could see a joke in the face of death and expected others to see it, too. "If the Black

Dogs bother us, we’ll salt their ears," he announced in a loud and hearty voice. "That’s what you do in

the stories, isn’t it? Sprinkle salt on their ears, and they vanish." A few of the lancers laughed, though

the miasma of fear did not lessen appreciably. Stories told by the fire were one thing, those same stories

walking in the flesh quite another. Gallenne led his black to Berelain and rested a gauntleted hand on her

bay’s neck. He gave Perrin a considering look that Perrin returned levelly, refusing to take the hint.

Whatever the man had to say, he could say in front of him and Aram. Gallenne sighed. "They will keep

their nerve, my Lady," he said softly, "but the fact is, our position is precarious, with enemies on every

side and our supplies running out. Shadowspawn can only make matters worse. My duty is to you and

Mayene, my Lady, and with all respect to Lord Perrin, you may wish to alter your plans." Anger

crackled in Perrin-the man would abandon Faile!-but Berelain spoke before he could suggest it.

"There will be no alteration, Lord Gallenne." Sometimes it was easy to forget that she was a

ruler, small though Mayene was, but there was a regal note in her voice fit for the Queen of Andor. Back

straight, she made her saddle seem a throne, and she spoke loudly enough to make sure everyone heard

her decision, firmly enough that everyone knew the decision had been made. "If we have enemies all

around, then going on is as safe as turning back or turning aside. Yet if turning back or turning aside

were ten times safer, I would still go on. I intend to see the Lady Faile rescued if we must fight our way

through a thousand Darkhounds, and Trollocs as well. That I have sworn to do!"

A roar of cheers answered her, Winged Guards shouting and thrusting their lances into the air so

the red streamers danced. The smell of fear remained, but they sounded ready to cut their way through

any number of Trollocs rather than appear less in Berelain’s eyes. Gallenne commanded them, but they

felt more than fondness for their ruler, despite her reputation with men. Maybe because of it, in part.

Berelain had kept Tear from swallowing Mayene by playing one man who found her beautiful against

another. For his part, Perrin found it hard not to gape in surprise. She sounded as determined as he was!

She smelled as determined! Gallenne bowed his gray head in unwilling acceptance, and Berelain gave a

small, satisfied nod before turning her attention to the Aes Sedai beside the stone slab.

Masuri had stopped waving her hands about and was staring at the footprints, tapping a finger

against her lips thoughtfully. She was a pretty woman without being beautiful, though some of that

might have been Aes Sedai agelessness, with a grace and elegance that might also have come from being

Aes Sedai. It was often difficult to tell a sister who had been born on a hardscrabble farm from one born

in a grand palace. Perrin had seen her red-faced and angry, worn down and on the end of her tether, yet

despite hard travel and life in the Aiel tents, her dark hair and her clothing looked as though she had a

maid attending her, too. She might have been standing in a library.

"What have you learned, Masuri?" Berelain asked. "Masuri, if you please? Masuri?"

The last came a little more sharply, and Masuri gave a start, as though surprised to realize she

was not alone. Possibly she was startled; in many ways she seemed more of the Green Ajah than the

Brown, more intent on action than on contemplation, straight to the point and never vague, yet she was

still capable of losing herself completely in whatever captured her interest. Folding her hands at her

waist, she opened her mouth, but rather than speaking, she hesitated and looked a question at the Wise

Ones. "Go on, girl," Nevarin said impatiently, planting her fists on her hips in a jangle of bracelets. A

frown made her appear more her usual self, but neither of the other Wise Ones looked any more

approving. Three frowns in a row like three pale-eyed crows on a fence. "We were not simply letting

you exercise your curiosity. Get on with it. Tell us what you learned."

Masuri’s face reddened, but she spoke up immediately, her eyes on Berelain. She could not like

being called down in public, no matter what anyone knew of her relationship with the Wise Ones.

"Relatively little is known of Darkhounds, but I’ve made something of a study of them, in a

small way. Over the years, I have crossed the paths of seven packs, five of them twice and two others

three times." The color began to fade from her cheeks, and slowly she began to sound as if she were

lecturing. "Some ancient writers say there are only seven packs, others say nine, or thirteen, or some

other number they believed had special significance, but during the Trolloc Wars, Sorelana Alsahhan

wrote of ‘the hundred packs the Shadow’s hounds that hunt the night,’ and even earlier, Ivonell

Bharatiya supposedly wrote of ‘hounds born of the Shadow, in numbers like unto the nightmares of

mankind.’ Though in truth, Ivonell herself may be apocryphal. In any case, the-" She gestured as if

groping for a word. "Smell is not the right word, and neither is flavor. The sense of each pack is unique,

and I can say with certainty that I have never encountered this one before, so we know the number seven

is wrong. Whether the correct number is nine or thirteen or something else, tales of Darkhounds are

much more common than Darkhounds themselves, and they are extremely rare this far south of the

Blight. A second rarity: there may have been as many as fifty in this pack. Ten or twelve is the usual

limit. A useful maxim: two rarities combined call for close attention." Pausing, she raised a finger to

emphasize the point, then nodded when she thought Berelain had taken it, and folded her hands again. A

gusting breeze pushed her yellowish-brown cloak off one shoulder, yet she did not appear to notice the

loss of warmth. "There is always a feel of urgency about Darkhounds’ trails, but it varies according to a

number of factors, not all of which I can be certain of. This one has an intense admixture of. . . I suppose

you could call it impatience. That isn’t really strong enough, by far-as well call a stabwound a

pinprick-but it will do. I would say their hunt has been going on for some time, and their prey is

eluding them somehow. No matter what the stories say-by the way, Lord Gallenne, salt doesn’t harm

Darkhounds in the least." So she had not been entirely lost in thought after all. "Despite the stories, they

never hunt at random, though they will kill if the opportunity presents itself and doesn’t interfere with

the hunt. With Darkhounds, the hunt is paramount. Their quarry is always important to the Shadow,

though at times we cannot see why. They have been known to bypass the great and mighty to slay a

farmwife or a craftsman, or to enter a town or village and leave without killing, though clearly they

came for some reason. My first thought for what brought them here had to be discarded, since they

moved on." Her gaze flickered toward Perrin, so quickly he was not sure anyone else noticed. "Given

that, I strongly doubt they will return.

Oh, yes; and they are an hour or more gone. That, I’m afraid, is really all I can tell you." Nevarin

and the other Wise Ones nodded their approval as she finished, and a touch of color returned to her

cheeks, though it vanished quickly as she assumed a mask of Aes Sedai serenity. A shift in the breeze

brought her scent to Perrin, surprised and pleased, and upset at being pleased. "Thank you, Masuri

Sedai," Berelain said formally, making a small bow in her saddle that Masuri acknowledged with a

slight motion of her head. "You have put our minds at rest." Indeed, the fear smell among the soldiers

began to fade, though Perrin heard Gallenne grumble under his breath, "She might have told those last

bits first."

Perrin’s ears caught something else, too, through the stamping of horses’ hooves and men’s

quiet, relieved laughter. A bluetit’s trill sounded to the south, beyond the hearing of anyone else there,

followed closely by the buzzing call of a masked sparrow. Another bluetit sounded, closer, followed

again by a masked sparrow, and then the same pair called again closer still. There might be bluetits and

masked sparrows in Altara, but he knew these birds carried Two Rivers longbows. The bluetit meant

men were coming, more than a few and maybe unfriendly. The masked sparrow, that some back home

called the thiefbird for its habit of stealing bright objects, on the other hand. . . . Perrin ran a thumb along

the edge of his axe, but he waited for one more pair of calls, close enough that the others might have

noticed.

"Did you hear that?" he said, looking south as if he had just heard. "My sentries have spotted

Masema." That brought heads up, listening, and several men nodded when the calls were repeated,

closer still. "He’s coming this way."

Growling curses, Gallenne clapped his helmet onto his head and mounted. Annoura gathered her

reins, and Masuri began floundering back toward her dapple. The lancers shifted in their saddles and

began giving off smells of anger, once more touched with fear. The Winged Guards were owed a blood

debt by Masema, in their eyes, but none was anxious to try collecting with only fifty men, not when

Masema always rode with a hundred at his back.

"I will not run from him," Berelain announced. She stared south wearing a cold frown. "We will

wait for him here."

Gallenne opened his mouth, and closed it again without speaking-to her, at least. Drawing a

deep breath, he began to bellow orders arraying his Guardsmen. That was not an easy matter. No matter

how far apart the trees stood, forests were poor places for lancers. Any charge would be disjointed at its

start, and sticking a man with a lance was difficult when he could dodge behind a tree trunk and come

out behind you. Gallenne tried to form them in front of Berelain, between her and the approaching men,

but she gave him a sharp look, and the one-eyed man changed his commands, lining the lancers up in a

single crooked rank, bulging around massive trees but centered on her. One soldier Gallenne sent racing

back toward the camp, crouching low in his saddle with his lance low as if at the charge, riding as fast as

he could in spite of the snow and terrain. Berelain raised an eyebrow at that, yet said nothing.

Annoura began guiding her brown mare toward Berelain, but stopped when Masuri called her

name. The Brown sister had gathered her dapple but still stood in the snow with the Wise Ones around

her, who were tall enough in comparison to make her seem less than full-grown. Annoura hesitated until

Masuri summoned her again, more sharply, and then Perrin thought he heard Annoura sigh heavily

before she rode to them and dismounted. Whatever the Aiel women had to say, in voices pitched too

softly for Perrin to hear, clustering in front of Annoura with heads bent close to hers, the Taraboner

sister did not like. Her face remained hidden in her hood, but her thin braids swung ever faster with the

shaking of her head, and at last she turned away abruptly and put a foot in the stirrup of her saddle.

Masuri had been standing quietly, letting the Wise Ones have their say, but now she laid a hand on

Annoura’s sleeve and said something in a low voice that made Annoura’s shoulders slump and the Wise

Ones nod. Pushing back her hood to fall down her back, Annoura waited for Masuri to climb onto her

mare before mounting her own horse, and then the two sisters rode back to the line of lancers together,

crowding in beside Berelain with the Wise Ones pushing in between them, on the other side from Perrin.

Annoura’s wide mouth was turned down in a glum curve, and she was rubbing her thumbs nervously.

"What is it you’re planning?" Perrin asked, trying not to hide suspicious. Maybe the Wise Ones

had let Masuri meet with Masema, yet they still claimed to think the man was better dead. The Aes

Sedai could not use the Power as a weapon unless they were in danger, but the Wise Ones had no such

prohibition. He wondered whether they were linked. He knew more than he wanted about the One

Power, and enough about the Wise Ones to be sure that Nevarin would be in control if they had formed

a circle. Annoura opened her mouth, but snapped it shut at a warning touch from Carelle and glared at

Masuri. The Brown sister pursed her lips and shook her head slightly, which did not seem to mollify

Annoura. Her gloved hands gripped her reins so tightly that they shook.

Nevarin looked up at Perrin past Berelain as if she read his mind. "~We plan to see you safely

back to the camp, Perrin Aybara," she said sharply, "you and Berelain Paeron. We plan to see that as

many as possible survive this day, and the days to come. Do you have objections?"

"Just don’t do anything unless I tell you," he said. An answer like that could mean a lot of things.

"Not anything." Nevarin shook her head in disgust, and Carelle laughed as if he had made a huge joke.

None of the Wise Ones seemed to think any more response was needed. They had been commanded to

obey him, but their notions of obedience failed to square with any he had ever learned. Pigs would grow

wings before he got a better answer out of them.

He could have put a stop to it. He knew he should. No matter what the Wise Ones had planned,

meeting Masema this far from the others in the camp, when the man had to know who had stolen his

Seanchan paper, was like hoping to snatch your hand off the anvil before the hammer fell. Berelain was

almost as bad as the Wise Ones when it came to following orders, but he thought she would listen if he

gave an order to withdraw to the camp. He thought she would, for all that her smell said she had her

heels dug in hard. Staying was a senseless risk. He was sure he could convince her of that. Yet he did

not want to run from the man, either. Part of him said he was being a fool. The larger part smoldered

with anger that he found hard to control. Aram crowded in beside him scowling, but at least he had not

drawn his sword. Waving a sword might put a hot coal in the hayloft, and the time for a confrontation

with Masema had not come yet. Perrin rested a hand on his axe. Not yet.

Despite the sharply angled rays of light that penetrated through the thick branches overhead, the

forest as a whole lay wrapped in dim early-morning shadows. Even at noon, it would be dim here.

Sounds came to him first, the muffled thud of hooves in snow, the heavy breath of horses pushed for

speed, and then a mass of riders appeared, a disordered mob flowing north among the huge trees at a

near-gallop in spite of snow and rough ground. Rather than a hundred, they numbered two or three times

that. A horse went down with a scream and laying thrashing atop its rider, but none of the others so

much as slowed until, some seventy or eighty paces away, the man at their head raised a hand, and they

suddenly drew rein in sprays of snow, lathered horses blowing hard and steaming. Here and there, lances

stuck up among the riders. Most wore no armor, and many just a breastplate or a helmet, yet their

saddles were hung about with swords and axes and maces. Shafts of sunlight picked out a few faces,

grim flat-eyed men who looked as though they never had smiled and never would. It occurred to Perrin

that he might have made a mistake not to overrule Berelain. That was what came of hasty decisions, of

letting anger do his thinking. Everyone knew that she often rode out in the mornings, and Masema might

be desperate to recover his Seanchan document. Even with the Aes Sedai and Wise Ones, a fight in these

woods could turn bloody, a free-for-all where men, and women, could die without once seeing who

killed them. If no witnesses lived, it could always be blamed on bandits or even the Shaido. That had

happened before. And if there were witnesses left, Masema was not above hanging a few dozen of his

own men and claiming the guilty had been punished. He likely wanted to keep Perrin Aybara alive for a

while yet, though, and he would not have expected the Wise Ones, or a second Aes Sedai. Small points

to hang fifty-odd lives on. Very small points to hang Faile’s life on. Perrin eased his axe in its loop on

his belt. Beside him, Berelain smelled of cool calm and stony determination. No fear, oddly. Not a

whiff. Aram smelled . . . excited.

The two parties sat regarding one another in silence, until at last Masema rode forward, followed

by just two men, all three pushing back their hoods. None wore a helmet, or any piece of armor. Like

Masema, Nengar and Bartu were Shienaran, but like him, they had shaved off their topknots, leaving

bare heads with a look of skulls. The coming of the Dragon Reborn had broken all bonds, including

those that had pledged these men to fight the Shadow along the Blight. Nengar and Bartu each carried a

sword on his back and had another hanging at his saddlebow, and Bartu, shorter than the other two, had

a cased horsebow and a quiver fastened to his saddle, too. Masema wore no visible weapons. The

Prophet of the Lord Dragon Reborn needed none. Perrin was glad to see Gallenne watching the men

Masema had left behind, for there was something about Masema that drew the eye. Maybe it was only

knowing who he was, but that was more than enough. Masema stopped his rangy sorrel a few paces

from Perrin. The Prophet was a dark frowning man of average size with a faded arrow-scar white on his

cheek, in a worn brown woolen coat and a dark cloak with frayed edges. Masema cared nothing for

appearances, least of all his own. At his back, Nengar and Bartu held a fever in their eyes, but Masema’s

deep-set, almost black eyes seemed as hot as coals in a forge, as though the breezes must soon fan them

to a glow, and his smell was the jangled, darting sharpness of pure insanity. He ignored the Wise Ones

and Aes Sedai with a scorn he did not bother to hide. Wise Ones were worse than Aes Sedai, in his

view; they not only blasphemed by channeling the One Power, they were Aiel savages to boot, a double

sin. The Winged Guards could have been just more shadows beneath the trees. "You are taking a

picnic?" he said with a glance at the basket hanging from Perrin’s saddle. Normally, Masema’s voice

was as intense as his eyes, but now it sounded wry, and his lip curled as his eyes traveled to Berelain. He

had heard the rumors, of course.

A wave of rage shot through Perrin, but he seized onto it, forcing it back. Folding it in with the

rest, folding it tight. His anger had one target, and he would not waste it striking at another. Catching his

rider’s mood, Stepper bared his teeth at Masema’s gelding, and Perrin had to rein him in sharply. "There

were Darkhounds here in the night," he said, not very smoothly, but it was the best he could manage.

"They’re gone, and Masuri doesn’t think they’ll come back, so there’s no need to worry." Masema did

not smell worried. He never smelled of anything except madness. The sorrel thrust his head aggressively

toward Stepper, but Masema pulled him up with a harsh jerk. He rode well, Masema did, but he treated

his horses as he did people. For the first time, he looked at Masuri. Perhaps his gaze grew a little hotter,

if that was possible. "The Shadow can be found everywhere," he said, a heated pronouncement of

unquestionable truth. "No one need fear the Shadow who follows the Lord Dragon Reborn, may the

Light illumine his name. Even in death they will find the final victory of the Light."

Masuri’s mare shied as though burned by that gaze, yet Masuri controlled the animal with a

touch on the reins and met Masema’s stare with Aes Sedai inscrutability, as calm as a frozen pond.

Nothing hinted that she had been meeting this man in secret. "Fear is a useful spur to the wits, and to

determination, when well controlled. If we have no fear of our enemies, that leaves only contempt, and

contempt leads to the enemy’s victory." You could have thought she was speaking to a simple farmer

she had never met before. Annoura, watching, looked a little ill. Was she afraid their secret would come

out? That their plans for Masema could be spoiled?

Masema’s lip curled again, in a smile, or a sneer. The Aes Sedai seemed to cease to exist for him

as he turned his attention back to Perrin. "Some of those who follow the Lord Dragon have found a town

called So Habor." That was how he always referred to his followers: they really followed the Dragon

Reborn, not him. The fact that Masema told them what do and when and how was just a detail. "A tidy

place of three or four thousand people, about a day back, or a little less, to the south and west. It seems

they were out of the Aiel’s path, and their crop was good last year despite the drought. They have

storehouses full of barley, millet and oats, and other needful things, I should imagine. I know you are

running short on fodder. For your men as well as your horses." "Why would their storehouses be full

this time of year?" Berelain leaned forward with a frown, her tone just short of a demand, and not far

short of disbelief.

Scowling, Nengar put a hand to his saddle-sword. No one made demands of the Prophet of the

Lord Dragon. No one doubted him, either. No one who wished to live. Leather creaked as lancers shifted

their saddles, but Nengar ignored them. The smell of Masema’s madness slithered and flailed in Perrin’s

nose. Masema studied Berelain. He seemed unaware of Nengar or the lancers or the possibility that men

might start killing one another any moment. "A matter of greed," he said finally. "Apparently the grain

traders of So Habor thought to make larger profits by holding their stock until winter drove prices up.

But they normally sell west, into Ghealdan and Amadicia, and events there and in Ebou Dar have made

them fearful that anything they send out will be confiscated. Their greed has left them with full

storehouses and empty purses." A note of satisfaction entered Masema’s voice. He despised greed. But

then, he despised any human weakness, great or small. "I think they will part with their grain very

cheaply, now." Perrin smelled a trap, and it did not take a wolf’s nose. Masema had his own men and

horses to feed, and no matter how thoroughly they had scoured the country they crossed, they could not

be in much better shape than Perrin’s own people. Why had Masema not sent a few thousand of his

followers into this town and taken whatever it held? A day back. That would take him farther from Faile,

and maybe give the Shaido time to gain ground again. Was that the reason for this peculiar offer? Or a

further delay to keep Masema in the west, close to his Seanchan friends? "Perhaps there will be time to

visit this town after my wife is free." Once again, Perrin’s ears caught the faint sound of men and horses

moving through the forest before anyone else, coming from the west, this time, from the camp.

Gallenne’s messenger must have galloped the whole way.

"Your wife," Masema said in a flat voice, directing a look at Berelain that made Perrin’s blood

boil. Even Berelain colored, though her face remained smooth. "Do you really believe you will have

word of her today?"

"I do." Perrin’s voice was as flat as Masema’s, and harder. He clutched the pommel of his

saddle, atop the hoop-handles of Berelain’s basket, to keep from reaching for his axe. "Freeing her

comes first. Her and the others. We can fill our bellies to bursting once that’s done, but that comes first."

The horses approaching were audible to everyone, now. A long line of lancers appeared to the

west, sifting through the shadowed trees with another mounted line behind it, the red streamers and

breastplates of Mayene interspersed with the green streamers and burnished breastplates of Ghealdan.

The lines stretched from opposite Perrin down below the mass of horsemen who were waiting on

Masema. Men afoot ghosted from tree to tree, carrying long Two Rivers bows. Perrin found himself

hoping that they had not stripped the camp too far. Stealing that Seanchan paper might have forced

Masema’s hand, and he was a veteran of fighting along the Blight and against the Aiel. He might have

thought further ahead than simply riding out to find Berelain. It was like another blacksmith’s puzzle.

Move one piece to shift another just enough to let a third slip free. A camp with weakened defenders

could be overrun, and in these woods, numbers could count for as much as who had people channeling.

Did Masema want to keep his secret enough to try putting a seal to it here and now? Perrin realized that

he had moved one hand to rest on his axe, but he left it there. Among the mass of Masema’s followers,

horses moved nervously at tugs from their riders, men shouted and waved weapons, but Masema himself

studied the oncoming lancers and bowmen with no change of expression, neither more dour nor less.

They might have been birds hopping from branch to branch. The smell of him writhed madly,

unchanging.

"What is done to serve the Light, must be done," he said when the newcomers halted, some two

hundred paces away. That was easy range for a Two Rivers bowman, and Masema had seen

demonstrations, but he gave no sign that broadhead shafts might be aimed at his heart. "All else is dross

and trash. Remember that, Lord Perrin Goldeneyes. Everything else is dross and trash!"

Jerking his sorrel around without another word, he headed back toward his waiting men trailed

by Nengar and Bartu, all three pushing their horses without a care for broken legs or broken heads. The

waiting company fell in behind, a mob flowing south, now. A few men at the tail end stopped to drag a

limp shape from under the injured horse and put the animal out of its misery with a quick slash of a

dagger. Then they began gutting and butchering. That much meat could not be allowed to go to waste.

The rider, they left where they had dropped him.

"He believes every word he says," Annoura breathed, "but where does his belief lead him?"

Perrin considered asking her straight out where she thought Masema’s belief was leading him,

where she wanted to lead him, but she suddenly put on that impenetrable Aes Sedai calm. The tip of her

sharp nose had turned red from the cold; she regarded him with a level stare. You could pry that

Darkhound-marked stone out of the ground bare-handed as easily as get an answer from an Aes Sedai

who wore that look. He would have to leave questions to Berelain.

The man who had brought the lancers suddenly spurred his horse forward. A short compact

fellow in a silver-plated breastplate and a helmet with a barred faceguard and three short white plumes,

Gerard Arganda was a tough man, a soldier who had worked his way up from the bottom, against all

odds, to become the First Captain of Alliandre’s bodyguard. He had no liking for Perrin, who had

brought his queen south for no good reason and gotten her kidnapped, but Perrin expected him to stop

and make his respects to Berelain, perhaps confer with Gallenne. Arganda had a great deal of respect for

Gallenne, and often spent time with him both smoking their pipes. Instead, the roan floundered past

Perrin and the others, Arganda digging his heels into the animal’s sides, trying to force more speed.

When Perrin saw where the man was heading, he understood. A single horseman on a mousecolored

animal was approaching from the east at a steady walk, and beside him, an Aiel shuffled along on

snowshoes.

CHAPTER 8

Whirlpools of Color

Perrin did not realize he had moved until he found himself crouched over Stepper’s neck,

streaking after Arganda. The snow was no less deep, the ground no smoother, the light no better, but

Stepper raced through the shadows, unwilling to let the roan stay in the lead, and Perrin urged him to run

faster. The approaching rider was Elyas, his beard fanned out over his chest, a broad-brimmed hat

casting his face in shadows and his fur-lined cloak hanging down his back. The Aiel was one of the

Maidens, with a dark shoufa wrapped around her head and a white cloak, used for hiding against the

snow, worn over her coat and breeches of grays and browns and greens. Elyas and one Maiden, without

the others, meant Faile had been found. It had to.

Arganda ran his horse without a care for whether he broke the roan’s neck or his own, leaping

stone outcrops, splashing through the snow at a near-gallop, but Stepper overtook him just as he reached

Elyas and demanded in a harsh voice, "Did you see the queen, Machera? Is she alive? Tell me, man!"

The Maiden, Elienda, her sun-darkened face expressionless, raised a hand to Perrin. It might have been

meant for a greeting, or sympathy, but she never broke her skimming stride. With Elyas to make his

report to Perrin, she would carry hers to the Wise Ones.

"You’ve found her?" Perrin’s throat was suddenly dry as sand. He had waited so long for this.

Arganda snarled soundlessly through the steel bars of his helmet’s faceguard, knowing that Perrin was

not asking after Alliandre.

"We found the Shaido we’ve been following," Elyas said carefully, both hands on the pommel of

his saddle. Even Elyas, the fabled Long Tooth who had lived and run with wolves, was showing the

strain of too many miles and not enough sleep. His whole face sagged with a weariness emphasized by

the golden-yellow glow of his eyes beneath his hat brim. Gray streaked his thick beard and the hair that

he wore hanging to his waist and tied with a leather cord at the nape of his neck, and for the first time

since Perrin had known him, he looked old. "They’re camped around a fair-sized town they took, in

ridge country near forty miles from here. They’ve got no sentries to speak of close in, and those further

out seem to be watching for prisoners trying to escape more than anything else, so we got near enough

for a good look. But Perrin, there are more of them than we thought. At least nine or ten septs, the

Maidens say. Counting gai’shain-folks in white, anyway-there could be as many people in that camp

as in Mayene or Ebou Dar. I don’t know how many spear fighters, but ten thousand might be on the low

side from what I saw."

Knots of desperation twisted and tightened in Perrin’s stomach. His mouth was so dry he could

not have spoken had Faile miraculously appeared in front of him. Ten thousand algai’d’siswai, and even

weavers and silversmiths and old men who passed their days reminiscing in the shade would pick up a

spear if they were attacked. He had fewer than two thousand lancers, and they would have been

overmatched against an equal number of Aiel. Fewer than three hundred Two Rivers men, who could

wreak havoc with their bows at a distance but not stop ten thousand. That many Shaido would shred

Masema’s murderous rabble like a cat slaughtering a nest of mice. Even counting the Asha’man and the

Wise Ones and Aes Sedai. . . . Edarra and the other Wise Ones were hardly generous in what they told

him about Wise Ones, but he knew ten septs might have fifty women who could channel, maybe more.

Maybe fewer, too-there was no set number-but not enough fewer to make a difference.

With an effort, he strangled the despair welling up in him, squeezed until only writhing filaments

remained for his anger to burn up. A hammer had no place in it for despair. Ten septs or the whole

Shaido clan, they still had Faile, and he still had to find a way. "What does it matter how many there

are?" Aram demanded. "When Trollocs came to the Two Rivers, there were thousands, tens of

thousands, but we killed them just the same. Shaido can’t be worse than Trollocs."

Perrin blinked, surprised to find the man right behind him, not to mention Berelain and Gallenne

and the Aes Sedai. In his haste to reach Elyas, he had shut out everything else. Dimly visible through the

trees, the men Arganda had brought out to confront Masema still held their rough lines, but Berelain’s

bodyguard was forming a loose ring centered on Elyas and facing outward. The Wise Ones stood

outside the circle, listening to Elienda with grave faces. She spoke in a low murmur, sometimes shaking

her head. Her view of matters was no brighter than Elyas’s. He must have lost the basket in his haste, or

thrown it away, because it hung from Berelain’s saddle now. There was a look of. . . could it be

sympathy, on her face? Burn him, he was too tired to think straight. Only, now more than ever, he had to

think straight. His next mistake might be the last, for Faile.

"Way I heard it, Tinker," Elyas said quietly, "the Trollocs came to you in the Two Rivers, and

you managed to catch them in a vise. You have any fancy plans for catching the Shaido in a vise?"

Aram glared at him sullenly. Elyas had known him before he picked up a sword, and Aram disliked

being reminded of that time, despite his brightly colored clothes.

"Ten septs or fifty," Arganda growled, "there must be some way to free the Queen. And the

others, of course. And the others." His hard-bitten face was creased in a scowl of anger, yet he smelled

frantic, a fox ready chew off its own leg to escape a trap. "Will . . . ? Will they accept a ransom?" The

Ghealdanin looked around until he found Marline coming through the Winged Guards. She managed a

steady stride in spite of the snow, not staggering in the least. The other Wise Ones were no longer

anywhere to be seen among the trees, nor Elienda. "Will these Shaido take a ransom . . . Wise One?"

Arganda’s honorific had the sound of an afterthought. He no longer believed the Aiel with them had any

knowledge of the kidnapping, but there was a taint in him regarding Aiel. "I cannot say." Marline

seemed not to notice his tone. Arms folded across her chest, she stood looking at Perrin rather than

Arganda. It was one of those looks where a woman weighed and measured you till she could have sewn

you a suit of clothes or told you when your smallclothes were last washed. It would have made him

uncomfortable back when he had had time for such things. When she spoke again, there was nothing of

offering advice in her tone, merely a setting out of the facts. She might even have meant it so. "Your

wetlander paying of ransom goes against our custom. Gai’shain may be given as a gift, or traded for

other gai’shain , but they are not animals to be sold. Yet it seems the Shaido no longer follow ji’e’tob.

They make wetlanders gai’shain and take everything instead of only the fifth. They may set a price."

"My jewels are at your disposal, Perrin," Berelain put in, her voice steady and her face firm. "If

necessary, Grady or Neald can fetch more from Mayene. Gold, as well."

Gallenne cleared his throat. "Altarans are used to marauders, my Lady, neighboring nobles and

brigands alike," he said slowly, slapping his reins against his palm. Although reluctant to contra dict

Berelain, he clearly intended to anyway. "There’s no law this far from Ebou Dar, except what the local

lord or lady says. Noble or common, they’re accustomed to paying off anyone they can’t fight off, and

quick to tell the difference. It goes against reason that none of them tried to buy safety, yet we’ve seen

nothing but ruins in these Shaido’s path, heard of nothing but pillage right down to the ground. They

may accept an offer of ransom, and even take it, but can they be trusted to give anything in return? Just

making the offer gives away our one real advantage, that they don’t know we are here." Annoura shook

her head slightly, the barest movement, but Gallenne’s one eye caught it, and he frowned. "You

disagree, Annoura Sedai?" he asked politely. And with a hint of surprise.

The Gray was almost diffident at times, especially for a sister, but she never vacillated about

speaking up when she disagreed with advice offered to Berelain.

This time Annoura hesitated, though, and covered by pulling her cloak around herself and

arranging the folds with care. It was clumsy of her; Aes Sedai could ignore heat or cold when they

chose, remaining untouched when everyone around them was drenched with sweat or fighting to stop

their teeth chattering. An Aes Sedai who paid attention to the temperature was buying time to think,

usually about how to hide what she was thinking. Glancing toward Marline with a small frown, she

finally reached a decision, and the slight crease in her forehead vanished.

"Negotiation is always better than fighting," she said in cool Taraboner accents, "and in

negotiation, trust is always a matter of the precautions, yes? We must consider with care the precautions

that must be taken. There is also the question of who is to approach them. Wise Ones may no longer be

sacrosanct, since they took part in the battle at Dumai’s Wells. A sister, or a group of sisters, might be

better, yet even that must have careful arrangement.

"I myself am willing to -"

"No ransom," Perrin said, and when everyone stared at him, most in consternation, Annoura with

her face unreadable, he said it again, in a harder voice. "No ransom." He would not pay these Shaido for

making Faile suffer. She would be afraid, and they had to pay for that, not profit from it. Besides,

Gallenne had the right of it. Nothing Perrin had seen, in Altara or Amadicia or before that in Cairhien, so

much as hinted that the Shaido could be trusted to keep any bargain. As well trust rats in the grain bins

and cutworms with the harvest. "Elyas, I want to see their camp." When he was a boy he had known a

blind man, Nat Torfinn with his wrinkled face and thin white hair, who could disassemble any

blacksmith’s puzzle by touch. For years Perrin tried to learn how to duplicate that feat, but he never

could. He had to see how the pieces fit together before he could make sense of them. "Aram, find Grady

and tell him to meet me as fast as he can, at the Traveling ground." That was what they had come to call

the place where they arrived at the end of each jump, and departed from for the next. It was easier for

the Asha’man to weave a gateway in a place already touched by one they had woven before.

Aram gave one short, purposeful nod, then wheeled his gray and sped toward camp, but Perrin

could see arguments and questions and demands gathering on the faces around him. Marline was still

examining him, as though suddenly not quite sure what he was, and Gallenne was frowning at the reins

in his hands, no doubt seeing matters turn out badly whatever he did, but Berelain wore a perturbed

expression, objections visible in her eyes, and Annoura’s mouth had tightened to a thin line. Aes Sedai

disliked being interrupted, and, diffident for an Aes Sedai or not, she looked ready to vent her

displeasure. Arganda, his face growing red, opened his mouth with the clear intention of shouting.

Arganda had shouted often since his queen was kidnapped. There was no point in waiting to listen.

Digging in his heels, Perrin sent Stepper lunging through the line of Winged Guards, heading

back toward the sheared trees. Not at a run, but not dawdling, either-a quick trot through the towering

forests, hands tight on the reins and eyes already searching the dappled gloom for Grady. Elyas followed

on his gelding without a word. Perrin had been sure he had no room in him for another ounce of fear, yet

Elyas’ silence made the weight grow. The other man never saw an obstacle without seeing a way

around. His silence shouted of impassable mountains. There had to be a way, though. When they

reached the smooth stone outcrop, Perrin walked Stepper back and forth through the slanting bars of

light, around the toppled trees and between the standing ones, unable to make himself stop. He had to

keep moving. There had to be a way. His mind darted like a caged rat.

Elyas dismounted to squat and frown at the sliced stone, pay ing little heed to his gelding tugging

at the reins and trying to back away. Beside the stone, the thick trunk of a pine that had stood a good

fifty paces tall was propped up at one end by the splintered remains of its stump, high enough that Elyas

could have walked beneath the tree trunk upright. Brilliant rays of sunlight piercing the forest canopy

elsewhere seemed to deepen the shadow to near blackness around the track-marked outcrop but that trou

bled him no more than it did Perrin. His nose wrinkled at the burnt-sulphur smell that still hung in the

air. "I thought I caught this stink on the way here. I expect you’d have mentioned this if you didn’t have

things on your mind. A big pack. Bigger than any thing I’ve ever seen or heard of."

"That’s what Masuri said," Perrin said absently. What was keeping Grady? How many people

were there in Ebou Dar? That was the size of the Shaido camp. "She said she’s crossed the paths of

seven packs, and this isn’t one she’s seen before." "Seven," Elyas murmured in surprise. "Even an Aes

Sedai would have to go some to do that. Most tales of Darkhounds are just people frightened by the

dark." Frowning at the tracks crossing the smoothed stone, he shook his head, and sadness entered his

voice when he said, "They were wolves, once. The souls of wolves, anyway, caught and twisted by the

Shadow. That was the core used to make Darkhounds, the Shadowbrothers. I think that’s why the

wolves have to be at the Last Battle. Or maybe Darkhounds were made because wolves will be there, to

fight them. The Pattern makes Sovarra lace look like a piece of string, sometimes. Anyway, it was a long

time ago, during the Trolloc Wars as near as I can make out, and the War of the Shadow before that.

Wolves have long memories. What a wolf knows is never really forgotten while other wolves remain

alive. They avoid talking about Darkhounds, though, and they avoid Darkhounds, too. A hundred

wolves could die trying to kill one Shadowbrother. Worse, if they fail, the Darkhound can eat the souls

of those that aren’t quite dead yet, and in a year or so, there’d be a new pack of Shadowbrothers that

didn’t remember ever being wolves. I hope they don’t remember, anyway." Perrin reined in, though he

itched to keep moving. Shadowbrothers. The wolves’ name for Darkhounds had taken on a new

grimness. "Can they eat a man’s soul, Elyas? Say a man who can talk to wolves?" Elyas shrugged. Only

a handful of people could do what they did, as far as either man knew. An answer to that question might

come only at the point of death. More importantly right then, if they had been wolves, once, they must

be intelligent enough to report what they found. Masuri had implied as much. Foolishness to hope

otherwise. How long before they did? How long did he have to free Faile?

The sound of hooves crunching in snow announced riders coming, and he hurriedly told Elyas

that the Darkhounds had circled the camp, that they would be carrying word of him to whomever they

reported to.

"I wouldn’t worry overmuch, boy," the older man replied, watching warily for sight of the

oncoming horses. Moving away from the stone, he began to stretch, working muscles over-long in the

saddle. Elyas was too careful to be caught studying what would be swallowed in shadows to other eyes.

"Sounds like they’re hunting something more important than you. They’ll stay on that till they find it if

it takes all year. Don’t worry. We’ll get your wife out before those Darkhounds report you were here.

Not saying it’ll be easy, but we’ll do it." There was determination in his voice, and in his scent, but not

much hope. Almost none at all, in fact. Fighting despair, refusing to let it rise again, Perrin resumed

walking Stepper as Berelain and her bodyguard appeared through the trees, with Marline astride behind

Annoura. As soon as the Aes Sedai drew rein, the twilight-eyed Wise One slid to the ground, shaking

down her thick skirts to cover her dark stockings. Another woman might have appeared flustered over

having her legs exposed, but not Marline. She was merely straightening her clothes. Annoura was the

one who looked upset, a sour-faced disgruntlement that made her nose seem more like a beak. She kept

silent, but her mouth was set to bite. She must have been certain her offer to negotiate with the Shaido

would be accepted, especially with Berelain supporting and Marline seemingly neutral at worst. Grays

were negotiators and mediators, adjudicators and treaty makers. That might have been her motivation.

What else could it have been? A problem that he had to set aside while keeping it in mind. He had to

take into account anything that might interfere with freeing Faile, but the problem he had to solve lay

forty miles to the northeast. While the Winged Guards formed their protective circle among the towering

trees around the Traveling ground, Berelain brought her bay alongside Stepper and paced him, trying to

engage Perrin in talk, to entice him with the rest of the woodhen. She smelled uncertain, doubtful of his

decision. Maybe she hoped to talk him into attempting the ransom. He kept Stepper moving and refused

to listen. To make that attempt was to gamble everything on one toss of the dice. He could not gamble

with Faile as the stake. Methodical as working at a forge, that was the way. Light, but he was tired. He

folded himself in tighter around his anger, embracing the heat for energy.

Gallenne and Arganda arrived shortly after Berelain, with a double column of Ghealdanin

lancers in burnished breastplates and bright conical helmets who interspersed themselves among the

Mayeners between the trees. A trace of irritation entering her scent, Berelain left Perrin and rode to

Gallenne. The pair of them sat their horses knee-to-knee, the one-eyed man bending his head to listen to

what Berelain had to say. Her voice was low, but Perrin knew their subject, at least in part. Now and

then one of them glanced at him as he walked Stepper back and forth, back and forth. Arganda planted

his roan in one spot and stared south through the trees toward the camp, still as a statue yet radiating

impatience as a fire radiated heat. He was the picture of a soldier, with his plumes and his sword and his

silvered armor, his face as hard as stone, but he smelled on the brink of panic. Perrin wondered how he

himself smelled. You could never catch your own scent unless you were in a closed space. He did not

think he smelled of panic, just fear and anger. All would be well once he had Faile back. All would be

well, then. Back and forth, back and forth.

At last Aram appeared, with a yawning Jur Grady on a dark bay gelding, dark enough that the

white stripe on its nose made it seem almost a black. Dannil and a dozen Two Rivers men, spears and

halberds abandoned for the moment in favor of their longbows, rode close behind, but not too close. A

stocky fellow with a weathered face already beginning to show creases, though he was short of his

middle years yet, Grady looked like a sleepy farmer despite of the long-hiked sword at his waist and his

black coat with the silver sword pin on the high collar, but he had left the farm behind forever, and

Dannil and the others always gave him room. They gave Perrin room, too, hanging back and peering at

the ground, sometimes darting quick, embarrassed looks at him or Berelain. It did not matter. All would

be well. Aram tried to lead Grady to Perrin, but the Asha’man knew why he had been summoned. With

a sigh, he climbed down beside Elyas, who squatted in a patch of sunlight to mark a map in the snow

with his finger and speak of distance and direction, describing the place he wanted to go in detail, a

clearing on a slope that faced almost south, with the ridge above notched in three places.

Distance and direction were enough, if the distance and direction were precise, but the better the

picture in an Asha’man’s mind, the closer he could come to an exact spot.

"There’s no margin for error here, boy." Elyas’s eyes seemed to brighten with intensity.

Whatever others thought of Asha’man, they never intimidated him. "There’s lots of ridges in that

country, and the main camp is only a mile or so the other side of this one. There’ll be sentries, little

parties that camp in a different place every night, maybe less than two miles the other way. You put us

out off by much, and we’ll be seen for sure." Grady met that stare, unblinking. Then he nodded and

scrubbed stubby ringers through his hair, drawing a deep breath. He looked as weary as Elyas. As bonetired

as Perrin felt. Making gateways, holding them open long enough for thousands of people and

horses to pass through, was wearing work. "Are you rested enough?" Perrin asked him. Tired men made

mistakes, and mistakes with the One Power could be deadly. "Should I send for Neald?"

Grady stared up at him blearily, then shook his head. "Pager’s no more rested than me. Less,

maybe. I’m stronger than he is, a bit. Better if I do it." He turned to face northeast, and with no more

warning, a vertical slash of silver-blue appeared beside the trackmarked stone. Annoura jerked her mare

out of the way with a loud gasp as the line of light widened into an opening, a hole in the air that showed

a sunlit clearing on steep ground among trees much smaller than those around Perrin and the others. The

already splintered pine shivered as it lost another thin slice, groaned, and collapsed the rest of the way

with a snow-muffled crash that made the horses snort and dance. Annoura glared at the Asha’man, her

face growing dark, but Grady just blinked and said, "Does that look like the right place?" Elyas adjusted

his hat before nodding.

That nod was all Perrin waited for. He ducked his head and rode Stepper through into snow that

was over the dun’s fetlocks. It was a small clearing, but the sky full of white clouds overhead made it

seem vastly open after the forest behind. The light was almost blinding compared to the forest, though

the sun was still hidden by the tree-covered ridge above. The Shaido camp lay on the other side of that

ridge. He stared toward the height yearningly. It was all he could do to stay where he was rather than

race ahead to finally see where Faile was. He made himself turn Stepper to face the gateway as Marline

came out.

Still studying him, hardly taking her eyes away long enough to place her feet in the snow without

tripping, she moved to one side to let Aram and the Two Rivers men ride through. Accustomed to

Traveling if not to Asha’man by now, they barely bent their heads enough to clear the top of the

opening, and only the tallest did even that. It struck Perrin that the gateway was larger than the first one

of Grady’s make that he had passed through. He had had to dismount, then. It was a vague thought, no

more important than a fly buzzing. Aram rode straight to Perrin, tight-faced and smelling impatient and

eager to be going on, and once Dannil and the others were out of the way, climbing down and calmly

fitting arrows to bows while they watched the surrounding trees, Gallenne appeared, peering grimly at

the trees around them as though he expected an enemy to come dashing out, followed by half a dozen

Mayeners who had to lower their red-streamered lances to crowd through after him.

A long pause passed with the gateway empty, but just when Perrin had decided to go back and

see what was holding Elyas up, the bearded man led his horse out, with Arganda and six Ghealdanin

riding at his heels, discontent carved on their faces. Their shining helmets and breastplates were

nowhere to be seen, and they scowled as though they had been made to leave off their breeches.

Perrin nodded to himself. Of course. The Shaido camp was on the other side of this ridge, and so

was the sun. That gleaming armor would have been like mirrors. He should have thought of that. He was

still letting fear goad him into impatience and cloud his thinking. He had to be clearheaded, now more

than ever. The detail he missed now could kill him and leave Faile in Shaido hands. It was easier to say

that he had to let go of fear than to do it, though. How could he not be afraid for Faile? It had to be

managed, but how?

To his surprise, Annoura rode through the gateway just ahead of Grady, who was leading his

dark bay. Just as every time he had seen her pass through a gateway, she lay as flat on her mare as her

saddle’s high pommel would allow, grimacing at the opening that had been made with the tainted male

half of the Power, and as soon as she was clear of it, she urged her horse as far up the slope as she could

without entering the trees. Grady let the gateway snap shut, leaving the purple afterimage of a vertical

bar in Perrin’s eyes, and Annoura flinched and looked away, glaring at Marline, at Perrin. If she had

been anyone other than an Aes Sedai, he would have said she was simmering in a sullen fury. Berelain

must have told her to come, but it was not Berelain she blamed for her having to be there.

"From here, we go afoot," Elyas announced in a quiet voice that barely carried over the

occasional stamp of a horse’s hoof. He had said the Shaido were careless and had no sentries, or almost

none, but he spoke as if they could be within twenty paces. "A man on a horse stands out. The Shaido

aren’t blind, just blind for Aiel, which means they see twice as sharp as any of you, so don’t go

skylining yourselves when we reach the crest. And try not to make any more noise than you can help.

They aren’t deaf, either. They’ll find our tracks, eventually-can’t do much about that in snow-but we

can’t let them know we were here until after we’re gone." Already sour over being shorn of his armor

and plumes, Arganda began to argue about Elyas giving orders. Not being a complete fool, he did it in a

quiet voice that would not carry, but he had been a soldier since the age of fifteen, he had commanded

soldiers fighting Whitecloaks, Altarans and Amadicians, and as he was fond of pointing out, he had

fought in the Aiel War and lived through the Blood Snow, at Tar Valon. He knew about Aiel, and he did

not need an unbarbered woodsman to tell him how to put his boots on. Perrin let it pass, since the man

did his complaining in between telling off two men to hold the horses. He really was not a fool, just

afraid for his queen. Gallenne left all of his men behind, muttering that lancers were worse than useless

off their horses and would probably break their necks if he made them walk any distance. He was no

fool, either, but he did see the black side first. Elyas took the lead, and Perrin waited only long enough to

transfer the thick brass-bound tube of his looking glass from Stepper’s saddlebags to his coat pocket

before following.

The underbrush grew in clumps beneath the trees, which were mostly pine and fir, with clusters

of others that were winter-gray and leafless, and the terrain, no steeper than the Sand Hills back home, if

more rocky, presented no problems for Dannil and the other Two Rivers men, who ghosted up the slope

with arrows nocked and eyes watchful, almost as silent as the mist of their breath. Aram, no stranger to

the woods himself, stayed close to Perrin with his sword out. Once he started to chop a tangle of thick

brown vines out of his way until Perrin stopped him with a hand on his arm, yet he made little more

noise than Perrin, the faint crunch of boots in snow. It was no shock that Marline moved through the

trees as if she had grown up in a forest instead of the Aiel Waste, where anything that could be called a

tree was rare and snow unheard of, though it seemed that all of her necklaces and bracelets should have

made some clatter as they swung, but Annoura climbed with almost as little effort, floundering a little

with her skirts but deftly avoiding the sharp thorns of dead cat’sclaw and wait-a-minute vines. Aes Sedai

usually found a way to surprise you. She managed to keep a wary eye on Grady, too, though the

Asha’man appeared to be focused on putting one foot in front of the other. Sometimes he sighed heavily

and paused for a minute, frowning toward the crest ahead, but somehow he never fell behind. Gallenne

and Arganda were not young men, nor accustomed to walking where they could ride, and their breathing

began to grow heavier as they ascended, sometimes pulling themselves up from tree to tree, but they

watched one another nearly as much as they did the ground, each unwilling to let the other outdo him.

The four Ghealdanin lancers, on the other hand, slipped and slid, tripped over roots hidden beneath the

snow, caught their scabbards on vines, and growled curses when they fell on rocks or were stabbed by

thorns. Perrin began to consider sending them back to wait with the horses. That, or hitting them over

the head and leaving them to be picked up when he returned.

Abruptly, two Aiel stepped out of the undergrowth in front of Elyas, dark veils hiding their faces

to the eyes, white cloaks hanging down their backs and spears and bucklers in hand. They were Maidens

of the Spear by their height, which made them no less dangerous than any other algai’d’nswai, and in an

instant, nine longbows were drawn, broadhead points aimed at their hearts. "You could get hurt that

way, Tuandha," Elyas muttered. "You should know better, Sulin." Perrin motioned for the Two Rivers

men to lower their bows, and for Aram to lower his sword. He had caught their scents as soon as Elyas

had, before they stepped into the open.

The Maidens exchanged startled looks, but they unveiled, letting the dark veils hang down their

chests. "You see closely, Elyas Machera," Sulin said. Wiry and leather-faced, with a scar across one

cheek, she had sharp blue eyes that could pierce like awls, but they still looked surprised, now. Tuandha

was taller and younger, and she might have been pretty before losing her right eye and gaining a thick

scar than ran from her chin up under her sboufa. It pulled up one corner of her mouth in a half-smile, but

that was the only smile she ever gave.

"Your coats are different," Perrin said. Tuandha frowned down at her coat, all gray and green

and brown, then at Sulin’s identical garment. "Your cloaks, too." Elyas was tired, to make that slip.

"They haven’t started moving, have they?"

"No, Perrin Aybara," Sulin said. "The Shaido seem prepared to stay in one place for a time. They

made the people from the city leave and go north last night, those they would let leave." She gave a

small shake of her head, still perturbed by the Shaido forcing people to become gai’shain who did not

follow ji’e’toh. "Your friends Jondyn Barran and Get Ayliah and Hu Marwin have gone after them to

see if they can learn anything. Our spear-sisters and Gaul are making their way around the camp again.

We waited here for Elyas Machera to return with you." She seldom let emotion into her voice, and there

was none there now, but she smelled of sadness. "Come, I will show you."

The two Maidens turned up the slope, and he hurried after them, forgetting anyone else. A little

short of the crest, they crouched, then went to hands and knees, and he copied them, crawling the last

spans through the snow to peer past a tree over the top of the ridgeline. The forest ended there, fading

into scattered brush and isolated saplings on the downslope. He was high enough to see for several

leagues, across rolling ridges like long treeless hills to where a dark band of forest began again. He

could see everything he wanted to see, and so much less than he needed. He had tried to imagine the

Shaido camp from Elyas’ description, but the reality dwarfed his imaginings. A thousand paces below

lay a mass of low Aiel tents and every other sort of tent, a mass of wagons and carts and people and

horses. It spread for well over a mile in every direction from the gray stone walls of a city halfway to the

next rise. He knew the sprawl must be the same on the other side. It was not one of the great cities, not

like Caemlyn or Tar Valon, less than four hundred paces wide along the side he could see and narrower

on the others, it seemed, but still a city with high walls and towers and what looked like a fortress at the

northmost end. Yet the Shaido encampment swallowed it whole. Faile was somewhere in that great lake

of people. Fumbling his looking glass from his pocket, he remembered at the last instant to cup one hand

for shade on the far end of the tube. The sun was a golden ball almost ahead of him, just shy of halfway

to its noonday height. A stray reflection from the lens could ruin everything. Groups of people leapt up

in the looking glass, their faces clear, at least to his eye. Long-haired women with dark shawls over their

shoulders, draped in dozens of long necklaces, women with fewer necklaces milking goats, women

wearing the cadin’sor and sometimes carrying spears and bucklers, women peeking from the deep cowls

of heavy white robes as they scurried across snow already trampled halfway to mud. There were men

and children, too, but his eye skipped past them hungrily, ignored them. Thousands upon thousands of

women, just counting those in white. "Too many," Marline whispered, and he lowered the glass to glare

at her. The others had joined the Maidens and him, all lying in a row in the snow along the ridgeline.

The Two Rivers men were taking pains to keep their bowstrings up out of the snow without raising their

bows above the ridgeline. Arganda and Gallenne were using their own looking glasses to study the camp

below, and Grady was staring down the slope with his chin propped on his hands, every bit as intent as

the two soldiers. Maybe he was using the Power in some way. Marline and Annoura were staring at the

camp, too, the Aes Sedai licking her lips and the Wise One frowning. Perrin did not think Marline had

intended to speak aloud.

"If you think I’ll walk away just because there are more Shaido than I expected," he began

heatedly, but she broke in, meeting his scowl with a level look.

"Too many Wise Ones, Perrin Aybara. Wherever I look, I can see a woman channeling. Just for

a moment here, a moment there-Wise Ones do not channel all the time-but they are everywhere I

look. Too many to be the Wise Ones often septs." He drew a deep breath. "How many do you think

there are?" "I think maybe all the Shaido Wise Ones are down there," Marline replied, as calm as if she

were talking about the price of barley. "All who can channel."

All of them? That made no sense! How could they all be together here, when the Shaido seemed

to be scattered everywhere? At least, he had heard tales of what had to be Shaido raids all across

Ghealdan and Amadicia, tales of raids here in Altara long before Faile was taken and rumors from even

farther. Why would they all be together? If the Shaido intended to gather here, the whole clan. . . . No, he

had to deal with what he knew for fact. That was bad enough. "How many?" he asked again, in a

reasonable tone. "Do not growl at me, Perrin Aybara. I cannot say exactly how many Shaido Wise Ones

remain alive. Even Wise Ones die from sickness, snakebite, accident. Some died at Dumai’s Wells. We

found bodies left behind, and they must have carried away those they could for proper burial. Even

Shaido cannot have abandoned all custom. If all who remain alive are below, and the apprentices who

can channel, I would say perhaps four hundred. Perhaps more, but fewer than five hundred. There were

fewer than five hundred Shaido Wise Ones who could channel before they crossed the Dragonwall, and

perhaps fifty apprentices." Most farmers would have shown more emotion over the barley.

Still staring at the Shaido camp, Annoura made a strangled sound, half a sob. "Five hundred?

Light! Half the Tower from one clan? Oh, Light!"

"We could sneak in, in the night," Dannil murmured from down the row, "the way you sneaked

into that Whitecloak camp back home." Elyas gave a grunt that might have meant anything but did not

sound hopeful.

Sulin snorted derisively. "We could not sneak into that camp, not with any real hope of getting

out. You would be trussed like a goat for the spit before you passed the first tents." Perrin nodded

slowly. He had thought of slipping in under cover of darkness and somehow spiriting Faile away. And

the others, of course. She would not go without the others. He had never had any real belief that could

work, though, not against Aiel, and the size of the camp had quenched the last glimmers. He could

wander for days among that many people without finding her. Abruptly, he realized that he was not

having to fight down despair. The anger remained, but it was cold as steel in winter, now, and he could

not detect a single drop of the hopelessness that had threatened to drown him before. There were ten

thousand algai’d’siswai in that camp, and five hundred women who could channel-Gallenne had the

right of it; prepare for the worst, and all your surprises were pleasant ones-five hundred women who

would not hesitate to use the Power as a weapon; Faile was hidden like one snowflake in a meadow

covered with snow, but when you piled up so much, there just was no point in despair. You had to

buckle down or be plowed under. Besides, he could see the puzzle, now. Nat Torfinn had always said

any puzzle could be solved, once you found out where to push and where to pull.

To the north and south, the land had been cleared farther from the city than the rise where he lay.

Scattered farmhouses, none with smoke rising from its chimney, dotted the landscape, and rail fences

marked out fields beneath the snow, but more than a handful of men trying to approach from either

direction might as well carry torches and banners and blow trumpets. There seemed to be a road leading

roughly south through the farms and another roughly north. Useless to him, probably, but you never

could tell. Jondyn might bring back some information about the city, though what good that would do

when the city was in the middle of the Shaido, he could not begin to guess. Gaul and the Maidens who

were making their way around the camp would be able to tell him what lay beyond the next ridge. A

saddle in that ridge had the look of a road heading somewhere east. Oddly, a cluster of windmills stood

maybe a mile north of the saddle, long white arms turning slowly, and there appeared to another group

of windmills atop the next rise beyond. A row of arches, like a long narrow bridge, stretched down the

slope from the nearest windmills all the way to the city walls.

"Does anybody know what that is?" he asked, pointing. Studying it through the looking glass

told him nothing except that it seemed made of the same gray stone as the wall. The thing was much too

narrow for a bridge. It lacked side walls, and there did not seem to be anything for a bridge to cross. "It

is for bringing water," Sulin replied. "It runs for five miles, to a lake. I do not know why they did not

build their city closer, but most of the land around the lake looks as if it will be mud when the cold goes

away." She no longer stumbled over unfamiliar words like mud, yet a touch of awe remained in "lake,"

in the idea of so much water in one place. "You think to stop their water supply? That will surely make

them come out." She understood fighting over water. Most fighting in the Waste started with water.

"But I do not think -"

The colors erupted inside Perrin’s head, an explosion of hues so strong that sight and hearing

vanished. All sight except for the colors themselves, at least. They were a vast tide, as if all the times he

had pushed them out of his head had built a dam that they now smashed aside in a silent flood, swirling

in soundless whirlpools that tried to suck him under. An image coalesced in the middle of it, Rand and

Nynaeve sitting on the ground facing one another, as clear as if they were right in front of him. He had

no time for Rand, not now. Not now! Clawing at the colors like a drowning man clawing for the surface,

he - forced - them - out! Sight and hearing, the world around, crashed in on him.

". . . it’s madness," Grady was saying in worried tones. "Nobody can handle enough of saidin for

me to feel that far off! Nobody!"

"No one can handle that much of saidar, either," Marline murmured.

"But someone is."

"The Forsaken?" Annoura’s voice shook. "The Forsaken, using some sa’angreal we never

suspected. Or . . . or the Dark One himself."

They were all three peering back to the north and west, and if Marline looked calmer than

Annoura or Grady, she smelled as frightened and worried. Except for Elyas, the others were watching

those three with the look of men awaiting an announcement that a new Breaking of the World had

begun. Elyas’s face was accepting. A wolf would snap at a landslide carrying him to his death, but a

wolf knew that death came sooner or later, and you could not fight death.

"It’s Rand," Perrin muttered thickly. He shuddered as the colors tried to return, but he hammered

them down. "His business. He’ll take care of it, whatever it is." Everyone was staring at him, even

Elyas. "I need prisoners, Sulin. They must send out hunting parties. Elyas says they have sentries out a

few miles, small groups. Can you get me prisoners?"

"Listen to me carefully," Annoura said, the words rushing out of her. She rose up out of the snow

enough to reach over Marline and seize a fistful of Perrin’s cloak. "Something is happening, perhaps

wonderful, perhaps terrible, but in any case momentous, more so than anything in recorded history! We

must know what! Grady can take us there, close enough to see. I could take us if I knew the weaves. We

must know!"

Meeting her gaze, Perrin raised his hand, and she stopped with her mouth open. Aes Sedai never

shut up that easily, yet she did. "I told you what it is. Our work is right down there in front of us. Sulin?"

Sulin’s head swung from him to the Aes Sedai to Marline. Finally, she shrugged. "You will learn

little useful even if you put them to the question. They will embrace the pain and laugh at you. And

shame will be slow - if these Shaido can still be shamed." "Whatever I learn will be more than I know

now," he replied. His work lay in front of him. A puzzle to solve, Faile to free, and the Shaido to

destroy. That was all that mattered in the world.

CHAPTER 9

Traps

"And she complained again that the other Wise Ones are timid," Faile finished in her best meek

voice, shifting the tall basket she held balanced on one shoulder, shifting from foot to foot in the muddy

snow. The basket was not heavy, though filled with dirty laundry, and the wool of her white robe was

thick and warm, with two under-robes beneath, but her soft leather boots, themselves bleached white,

gave little protection from the cold slush. "I was told to report what the Wise One Sevanna said exactly,"

she added quickly. Someryn was one of the "other" Wise Ones, and her mouth had turned down at the

word timid. With her eyes lowered, that was all Faile could see of Someryn’s face. Gai’shain were

required to maintain a humble manner, especially the gai’shain who were not Aiel, and though she

looked up through her eyelashes to read Someryn’s expression, the other woman was taller than most

men, even Aiel men, a yellow-haired giant who towered over her. Most of what she could see was

Someryn’s over-large bosom, plump sun-dark cleavage exposed by a blouse unlaced halfway down her

chest and covered mainly by a massive collection of long necklaces, firedrops and emeralds, rubies and

opals, three-tiered strands of fat pearls and intricately patterned chains of gold. Most of the Wise Ones

seemed to dislike Sevanna, who "spoke for the chief until a new Shaido clan chief could be chosen, an

event unlikely to occur any time soon, and they tried to undercut her authority whenever they were not

squabbling among themselves or forming cliques, but many shared Sevanna’s love of wetlander jewelry,

and some had even begun wearing finger rings, like Sevanna. On her right hand Someryn wore a large

white opal that flashed caverns of red whenever she adjusted her shawl, and a long blue sapphire

surrounded by rubies on the left. She had not adopted silk clothing, however. Her blouse was plain white

algode, from the Waste, and her skirt and shawl thick wool as dark as the folded scarf that held her

waist-long yellow hair back from her face. The cold did not appear to discomfort her in the least. The

two of them stood just beyond what Faile thought of as the border between the Shaido camp and the

gai’shain camp-the prisoners’ camp-not that there really were two camps. A few gai’shain slept

among the Shaido, but the rest were kept to the center of the camp unless doing their assigned work,

cattle fenced off from the lure of freedom by a wall of Shaido. Most of the men and women who passed

them wore white gai’shain robes, though few as finely woven as what she wore. With so many to clothe,

the Shaido scooped up any sort of white cloth they could find. Some were garbed in layers of coarse

linen or toweling or robes of rough tent cloth, and many of the robes were stained with mud or soot.

Only now and then did one of the gai’shain show the height and pale eyes of an Aiel. The vast majority

were ruddy-faced Amadicians, oliveskinned Altarans, and pale Cairhienin, along with occasional

travelers or merchants from Illian or Tarabon or elsewhere who had found themselves in the worst place

at the worst time. The Cairhienin were the longest held and most resigned to their situation aside from

the handful of Aiel in white, but they all kept their eyes down and moved about their tasks as fast as the

trampled mush of snow and mud would allow. Gai’shain were expected to display humility, obedience,

and an eagerness to embrace both. Any less resulted in painful reminders.

Faile would very much have liked to hurry on herself. Cold feet were only a small part of it, and

eagerness to do Sevanna’s laundry less. Too many eyes could see her standing there in the open with

Someryn, and even with her deep cowl hiding her face, the broad mesh belt of shiny golden links around

her waist and a close-fitting collar to match marked her as one of Sevanna’s servants. No one called

them that - in Aiel eyes, being a servant was demeaning -but that was what they were, the wetlanders

at least, just unpaid and with fewer rights and less freedom than any servant Faile had ever heard tell of.

Sooner or later Sevanna herself was going to learn that Wise Ones were stopping her gai’shain to

question them. Sevanna had well over a hundred servants and kept adding to them, and Faile was certain

that every last one was repeating every word they heard Sevanna say to the Wise Ones. It was a brutally

efficient trap. Sevanna was a harsh mistress, in a rather casual way, never snapping, seldom openly

angry, but the slightest infraction, the smallest slip in demeanor or behavior, was punished immediately

with the switch or the strap, and every night the five gai’shain who had pleased her least that day were

chosen out for further punishment, sometimes a night bound and gagged on top of a beating, just to

encourage the rest. Faile did not want to think of what the woman would order for a spy. On the other

hand, the Wise Ones had made it clear that anyone who did not talk freely of what they heard, anyone

who tried to hold back or bargain, faced an uncertain future, possibly ending in a shallow grave.

Harming a gai’shain beyond the permitted limits of discipline was a violation of ji’e’toh, the web of

honor and obligation that governed the lives of Aiel, but wetlander gai’shain seemed to stand outside a

number of the rules.

Sooner or later, one side or the other of that trap would snap shut. All that had held the jaws apart

this long was that the Shaido seemed to see their wetlander gai’shain as no different from cart horses or

pack animals, though in truth the animals received far better treatment. Now and then a gai’shain tried

to run away, but aside from that, one simply gave them food and shelter, put them to work and punished

them if they faltered. The Wise Ones no more expected them to disobey, Sevanna no more expected

them to spy on her, than they expected a cart horse to sing. Sooner or later, though. . . . And that was not

the only trap Faile was caught in.

"Wise One, I have nothing more to tell," she murmured when Someryn said nothing. Unless you

were addled in the head, you did not just walk away from a Wise One, not until she dismissed you. "The

Wise One Sevanna talks freely in front of us, but she says little."

The tall woman remained silent, and after a long moment Faile dared to raise her eyes a little

more. Someryn was staring over Faile’s head, her mouth hanging open in stunned amazement.

Frowning, Faile shifted the basket on her shoulder and looked behind her, but there was nothing to

account for Someryn’s expression, just the sprawl of the camp, dark low Aiel tents mingled with peaked

tents and walled tents and every sort of tent, most in shades of dirty white or pale brown, others green or

blue or red or even striped. The Shaido took everything valuable when they struck, everything that might

prove useful, and they left behind nothing that resembled a tent.

As it was, they hardly had enough shelter to go around. There were ten septs gathered here, more

than seventy thousand Shaido and nearly as many gai’shain, by her estimate, and everywhere she saw

only the usual bustle, dark-clad Aiel going about their lives among scurrying white-clad captives. A

smith was working the bellows on his forge in front of an open tent with his tools laid out on a tanned

bull hide, children were herding flocks of bleating goats with switches, a trader was displaying her

goods in an open pavilion of yellow canvas, everything from golden candlesticks and silver bowls to

pots and kettles, all looted. A lean man with a horse on a lead stood talking with a gray-haired Wise One

named Masalin, no doubt seeking a cure for some ailment the animal had, from the way he kept pointing

at the horse’s belly. Nothing to make Someryn gape.

Just as Faile was about to turn back around, she noticed a darkhaired Aiel woman facing the

other way. Not just dark hair, but hair black as a raven’s wing, a great rarity among Aiel. Even from

behind, Faile thought she recognized Alarys, another of the Wise Ones. There were over four hundred

Wise Ones in the camp, but she had learned quickly to know all of them on sight. Mistaking a Wise One

for a weaver or a potter was a quick way to earn a switching.

It might have meant nothing that Alarys was standing stock still and looking in the same

direction as Someryn, or that she had let her shawl slide to the ground, except that just beyond her, Faile

recognized still another Wise One, also looking off to the north and west, and slapping at people who

walked in front of her. That had to be Jesain, a woman who would have been called short even if she

were not Aiel, with a great mass of hair red enough to make fire look pale and a temper to match.

Masalin was talking to the man with the horse and gesturing to the animal. She could not channel, but

three Wise Ones who could were all staring in the same direction. Only one thing could account for it;

they saw someone channeling up there on the forested ridgeline beyond the camp. A Wise One

channeling surely would not make any of them stare. Could it be an Aes Sedai? Or more than one?

Better not to get her hopes up. It was too soon.

A clout on the head staggered her, and she nearly dropped the basket. "Why are you standing

like a lump?" Someryn snarled. "Go on with your work. Go, before I . . . !"

Faile went, balancing the basket with one hand, lifting the skirts of her robe out of the muddy

snow with the other, and moving as quickly as she could without slipping and falling in the muck.

Someryn never hit anyone, and she never raised her voice. If she was doing both, it was best to be out of

her way with no delay. Humbly and obediently.

Pride said to maintain a cool defiance, a quiet refusal to yield, yet sense said that was the way to

find herself guarded twice as closely as she was. The Shaido might take the wetlander gai’shain for

domesticated animals, but they were not completely blind. They must think that she had accepted her

captivity as inescapable if she were to be able to escape, and that was very much on her mind. The

sooner, the better. Certainly before Perrin caught up. She had never doubted that Perrin was following

her, that he would find her somehow-the man would walk through a wall if he took it into his head!-

but she had to escape before that. She was a soldier’s daughter. She knew the Shaido’s numbers, she

knew the strength Perrin had to call on, and she knew she had to reach him before that clash could take

place. There was just the little matter of getting free of the Shaido, first.

What had the Wise Ones been looking at-the Aes Sedai or Wise Ones with Perrin? Light, she

hoped not, not yet! But other matters took precedence, the laundry not least. She carried the basket

toward what remained of the city of Maiden, weaving through a steady flow of gai’shain. Those leaving

the city each carried a pair of heavy buckets balanced on the ends of a pole carried across the shoulders,

while the buckets of those going in swayed, empty, on their poles. As many people as were in the camp

required a great deal of water, and this was how it came to them, bucket by bucket.

It was easy to tell the gai’shain who had been inhabitants of Maiden. This far north in Altara,

they were fair rather than olivecomplected, and some even had blue eyes, but all stumbled along in a

daze. Shaido climbing the city walls in the night had overwhelmed the defenses before most of the

residents knew they were in danger, and they still seemed unable to believe what their lives had come to.

Faile searched for a particular face, though, someone she hoped would not be carrying water

today. She had been looking ever since the Shaido made camp here, four days ago. Just outside the city

gates, which stood open and shoved back against the granite walls, she found her, a white-clad woman

taller than herself with a flat basket of bread on her hip and her hood pushed back just enough to show a

bit of dark reddish hair. Chiad appeared to be studying the iron-strapped gates that had failed to protect

Maiden, but she turned away from them as soon as Faile approached. They paused side by side, not

really looking at one another while they pretended to shift their baskets. There was no reason two

gai’shain should not talk to one another, but no one should remember that they had been captured

together. Bain and Chiad were not watched as closely as gai’shain serving Sevanna, but that might

change if anyone remembered. Almost everyone in sight was gai’shain, and from west of the

Dragonwall besides, yet too many had learned to curry favor by carrying tales and rumors. Most people

did what they must to survive, and some always tried to feather their own nests, whatever the

circumstances.

"They got away the first night here," Chiad murmured. "Bain and I led them out to the trees and

obscured the tracks coming back. No one seems to realize they are gone, as far as I can see.

With so many gai’shain, it seems a wonder these Shaido notice any who run away."

Faile heaved a small sigh of relief. Three days gone. The Shaido did notice runaways. Few

managed a full day of freedom, but the chances of success increased with every day uncaught, and it

seemed certain the Shaido would move on tomorrow, or the next day. They had not halted as long as this

since Faile was captured. She suspected they might be trying to march back to the Dragonwall and

recross into the Waste.

It had not been easy talking Lacile and Arrela into leaving without her. What finally convinced

them had been the argument that they could carry word to Perrin of where Faile was, along with a

warning of how many Shaido there were and a claim that Faile already had her own escape well in hand

and any interference by him might endanger that and her. She was sure she had made them believe all of

that-she did have her escape in hand, in a way; she had several plans, in fact, and one of them had to

work-but until this minute she had been half convinced the two women would decide their oaths to her

required them to stay. Water oaths were tighter than oaths of fealty in some ways, yet they left

considerable room for stupidity in the name of honor. In truth, she did not know whether the pair could

find Perrin, but either way, they were free and she had only two other women to worry about. Of course,

the absence of three of Sevanna’s servants would be noticed very quickly, within hours, and the best

trackers would be sent to bring them back. Faile was accustomed to the woods, but she knew better than

to pit herself against Aiel trackers. It was very unpleasant for "ordinary" gai’shain who ran away and

were recaptured. For Sevanna’s gai’shain, it might be better to die in the attempt. At best, they would

never be allowed the opportunity for a second try.

"The rest of us would have a better chance if you and Bain came with us," she said in a low

voice. The flow of men and women in white carrying water by them continued, no one seeming to more

than glance their way, but wariness had become ingrained in her these last two weeks. Light, it seemed

more like two years! "What difference can there be between helping Lacile and Arrela reach the forest

and helping the rest of us get further?" That was despair talking. She knew the difference-Bain and

Chiad were her friends and had taught her about Aiel ways, about ji’e’toh and even a little Maiden

handtalk-and it did not surprise her when Chiad turned her head slightly to regard her with gray eyes

that had nothing of gai’shain meekness in them. Nor did her voice, though she still spoke quietly.

"I will help you as far as I can because it is not right for the Shaido to hold you. You do not

follow ji’e’toh. I do. If I cast aside my honor and my obligations just because the Shaido have, then I

allow them to decide how I will act. I will wear white for a year and a day and then they will release me,

or I will walk away, but I will not throw away who I am." Without another word, Chiad strode off into

the throngs of gai’shain.

Faile half-raised a hand to stop her, then let it fall. She had asked that question before, receiving

a gentler answer, and in asking again, she had insulted her friend. She would have to apologize. Not to

keep Chiad’s help-the woman would not withdraw that-but because she had her own honor, even if

she did not follow ji’e’toh. You did not insult friends and simply forget it, or expect them to. Apologies

must wait, though. They dared not be seen talking too long.

Maiden had been a prosperous city, a producer of good wool and great quantities of fair-quality

wine, but an empty ruin inside the walls, now. As many of the slate-roofed houses were timber as were

stone, and fire had gotten loose during the looting. The southern end of the city was half piles of

blackened timbers decorated with icicles, half scorched, roofless walls. The streets everywhere, whether

stone-paved or dirt, were gray with windblown ash trampled into the snow, and the whole city stank of

charred wood. Water was one thing Maiden apparently never ran short of, but like all Aiel, the Shaido

placed a very high value on it, and they knew nothing of fighting fires. There was little in the Aiel Waste

that could burn. They might have let the entire city be consumed had they been finished with stealing,

and as it was, they dithered over the waste of water before forcing gai’shain into bucket lines at

spearpoint and letting the men of Maiden bring out their pumpwagons.

Faile would have thought the Shaido would at least have rewarded those men by allowing them

to leave with the people who had escaped being chosen for gai’shain, but the men who worked the

pumps were young and fit, just the sort the Shaido wanted for their gai’shain. The Shaido kept some of

the rules regarding gai’shain-women who were pregnant or had children under the age often had been

let go, and youths under sixteen, and the city’s blacksmiths, who had been both mystified and grateful-

but gratitude never entered into it.

Furniture littered the streets, large overturned tables and ornate chests and chairs, and sometimes

a crumpled wall hanging or broken dishes. Bits of clothing lay everywhere, coats and breeches and

dresses, most sliced to tatters. The Shaido had seized anything made of gold or silver, anything that had

gems, anything useful or edible, but the furnishings must have been hauled outside in the frenzy of

looting, then abandoned when whoever was carrying them decided that a little gilded edging or fine

carving did not make them worth the effort. Aiel did not use chairs in any case, except for chiefs, and

there was no room on the carts and wagons for any of those heavy tables. A few Shaido still wandered

through, searching the houses and inns and shops for anything they might have missed, yet most people

she saw were gai’shain carrying buckets. Aiel had no interest in cities except as storehouses to be

plundered. A pair of Maidens passed her, using the butts of their spears to drive a naked, wild-eyed man,

his arms bound behind him, toward the gates. Doubtless he had thought he could hide in a basement or

attic until the Shaido were gone. Doubtless the Maidens had thought to find a cache of coin or plate.

When a huge man in the cadin’sor of an algai’d’siswai stepped in front of her, she swerved to go around

him as smoothly as she could. A gai’shain always made way for any Shaido.

"You are very pretty," he said, putting himself in her way. He was the biggest man she had ever

seen, perhaps seven feet tall and thick in proportion. Not fat-she had never seen a fat Aiel-but very

wide. He belched, and she smelled wine fumes. Drunken Aiel she had seen, since they found all those

casks of wine here in Maiden. She felt no fear, though. Gai’shain might be punished for any number of

infractions, often for transgressions few of the wetlanders understood, but the white robes gave a certain

protection, too, and she had another layer besides.

"I am gai’shain to the Wise One Sevanna," she said in as obsequious a tone as she could

manage. To her disgust, she had gotten so she could manage it very well. "Sevanna would be displeased

if I shirked my duties to talk." She tried again to step around him, and gasped when he seized her arm in

a hand that could have wrapped around it twice with inches to spare.

"Sevanna has hundreds of gai’shain. She will not miss one for an hour or two."

The basket fell to the street as he plucked her into the air as easily as picking up a pillow. Before

she knew what was happening, he had her tucked beneath his arm, her own arms trapped at her sides.

She opened her mouth to scream, and he used his free hand to press her face flat against his chest. The

smell of sweaty wool filled her nose. All she could see was gray-brown wool. Where were those two

Maidens? Maidens of the Spear would not let him do this! Any Aiel who saw would step in! She never

expected help from any of the gai’shain. One or two might run for help, if she was lucky, but the very

first lesson a gai’shain learned was that even a threat of violence got you hung up by the ankles and

beaten till you howled. The first lesson wetlanders learned, at least; Aiel already knew: & gai’shain was

forbidden to offer violence for any reason. Any reason. Which did not stop her from kicking at the man

furiously. She might as well have been kicking a wall for all the impression it made. He was moving,

carrying her somewhere. She bit as hard down as hard as she could, and got a mouthful of coarse dirty

wool for her pains, her teeth sliding over muscle with no slack to give her purchase. He seemed made of

stone. She screamed, but her shriek sounded muffled even to her own ears.

Abruptly, the monster carrying her stopped.

"I made this one gai’shain, Nadric," another man’s deep voice said.

Faile felt a rumble of laughter in the chest against her face even before she heard it. She did not

stop her kicking, never stopped writhing or trying to shout, yet her captor seemed unaware of her efforts.

"She belongs to Sevanna now, Brotherless," the huge man-Nadric?-said contemptuously. "Sevanna

takes what she wants, and I take what I want. It is the new way."

"Sevanna took her," the other man replied calmly, "but I never gave her to Sevanna. I never

offered to trade her to Sevanna. Do you abandon your honor because Sevanna abandons hers?" There

was a long silence broken only by the smothered noises Faile was making. She did not stop struggling,

could not stop, but she might as well have been an infant in swaddling. "She is not pretty enough to fight

over," Nadric said finally. He did not sound frightened or even concerned.

His hands fell away from her, and Faile’s teeth ripped loose from his coat so suddenly she

thought one or two might be jerked out, but the ground smashed into her back and all of the air rushed

out of her lungs along with most of the wits from her head. By the time she could gather enough breath

to push up on her hands, the huge man was striding away down the alley, almost back to the street. It

was an alley, a narrow track of dirt between two stone buildings. No one would have seen what he did

back here. Shivering - she was not trembling, just shivering! - spitting out the taste of unwashed wool

and Nadric’s sweat, she glared at his back. If the knife she had hidden away had been within reach, she

would have stabbed him. Not pretty enough to fight over, was she? Part of her knew that was ludicrous,

but she was grabbing hold of anything that could feed her anger, just for the warmth of it. To help her

stop shivering. She would have stabbed him and stabbed him, until she could not lift her arms. Getting

up on legs that wobbled, she explored her teeth with her tongue. They were all sound, nothing broken or

missing. Her face had been scraped by the rough wool of Nadric’s coat, and her lips were bruised, but

she was unhurt. She reminded herself of that. She was unhurt, and free to walk out of the alley. As free

as anyone in gai’shain robes could be, anyway. If there were many like Nadric who no longer saw the

protection of those robes, then order was breaking down among the Shaido. The camp would be a more

dangerous place, but disorder would bring more opportunities for escape. That was how she had to look

at this. She had learned something that could aid her. If only she could stop shivering.

At last, reluctantly, she looked at her rescuer. She had recognized his voice. He stood well back

from her, watching her calmly, making no move to offer sympathy. She thought she would have

screamed if he touched her. Another absurdity, since he had rescued her, but a fact all the same. Rolan

was no more than a hand shorter than Nadric, and almost as wide, and she had reason to want to stab

him, too. He was not Shaido, but one of the Brotherless, the Mera’din, men who had left their clans

because they would not follow Rand al’Thor, and he had indeed been the one to "make her gai’shain."

True, he had kept her from freezing to death the night after she was captured by wrapping her in his own

coat, yet she would not have needed the covering if he had not cut off every last stitch of her clothing in

the first place. The first part of being made gai’shain was always being stripped, but that was no reason

to forgive him for any of it.

"Thank you," she said, the words sour on her tongue. "I do not ask for gratitude," he said mildly.

"Do not look at me as though you want to bite me just because you could not bite Nadric."

She managed not to snarl at him-barely; she could not have summoned meekness right then had

she wanted to-before she turned away and stalked back out to the street. Well, she tried to stalk. Her

legs were still shaking enough that it was more of a lurch. The passing gai’shain barely glanced in her

direction as they trudged along the street with their water buckets. Few of the captives wanted to share

anyone else’s troubles. They had enough of their own.

Reaching the laundry basket, she gave a sigh. It lay on its side, white silk blouses and dark silk

skirts divided for riding spilled out over the dirty ash-smeared pavement. At least it seemed no one had

trodden on them. Anyone who had been carrying water all morning, and had a day of it to look forward

to, could have been forgiven if they failed to step aside, with bits of clothing lying all around that had

been cut off the people of Maiden who had been made gai’shain. She would have tried to forgive them.

Righting the basket, she began gathering the clothes, shaking off the dirt and ash that would come loose

and careful not to grind in the rest. Unlike Someryn, Sevanna had taken to silk. She wore nothing else.

She was as proud of her silks as she was of her jewelry, and equally possessive of both. She would not

be pleased if any of these garments failed to be returned clean.

As Faile laid the last blouse atop the rest, Rolan reached past her and lifted the basket with one

hand. On the brink of snapping at him-she could carry her own burdens, thank you very much!-she

swallowed the words. Her brain was the only real weapon she possessed, and she had to use it instead of

letting her temper have control. Rolan had not been here by chance. That was straining credulity too far.

She had seen him frequently since she was captured, much more often than chance could account for.

He had been following her. What was it he had told Nadric? He had not given her to Sevanna or offered

to trade her. For all that he had been the one to capture her, she thought he disapproved of making

wetlanders gai’shain -most of the Brotherless did-but apparently he still claimed his rights to her.

She was sure she did not need to fear him trying to force her. Rolan had had his chance for that,

when he had her naked and bound, and he could have been looking at a fence post then. Perhaps he did

not like women in that way. In any case, the Brotherless were almost as much outsiders among the

Shaido as the wetlanders. None of the Shaido really trusted them, and the Brotherless themselves often

seemed like men holding their noses, accepting what they considered a lesser wrong rather than embrace

a greater, but no longer truly sure that it was lesser. If she could make a friend of the man, perhaps he

would be willing to help her. Not to escape, certainly-that would asking too much-but. . . .

Or would it? The only way to find out was to try. "Thank you," she said again, and this time she

worked up a smile. Surprisingly, he smiled back. A small smile, barely there at all, but Aiel were not

demonstrative. They could seem stone-faced till you became used to them.

For a few paces they walked along side by side in silence, him carrying the basket in one hand

and her holding up the skirts of her robes. They might have been out for a stroll. If you squinted. Some

of the passing gai’shain looked at them in surprise, but they always put their eyes down again quickly.

She could not think of how to begin-she did not want him to think she was flirting; he might like

women after all-but he took away the necessity.

"I have watched you," he said. "You are strong and fierce, and not afraid, I think. Most of the

wetlanders are frightened half out of their heads. They bluster until they are punished, and then they

weep and cower. I think you are a woman of much ji." "I am frightened," she replied. "I just try not let it

show. Crying never does any good." Most men believed that. Tears could get in your way if you let

them, but a few tears shed at night could help you make it through the next day.

"There are times to weep and times to laugh. I would like to see you laugh."

She did laugh, a dry laugh. "There’s little reason while I wear white, Rolan." She glanced at him

out of the corner of her eye. Was she going too fast? But he only nodded.

"Still, I would like to see it. Smiles suit your face. Laughter would suit it even better. I have no

wife, but I can make a woman laugh, sometimes. I have heard you have a husband?" Startled, Faile

tripped over her own feet and caught herself on his arm. Quickly, she snatched her hand away, studying

him past the edge of her cowl. He paused long enough for her to steady herself, then walked on when

she did. His expression was no more than mildly curious. Despite Nadric, Aiel custom was for a woman

to do the asking, after a man attracted her interest. Giving her gifts was one way. Making her laugh was

another. So much for his not liking women. "I do have a husband, Rolan, and I love him very much.

Very much. I can’t wait to return to him." "What happens while you are gai’shain cannot be held against

you when you put off white," he said calmly, "but perhaps you wetlanders do not see it that way. Still, it

can be lonely when you are gai’shain. Perhaps we can talk sometimes."

The man wanted to see her laugh, and she did not know whether to laugh or cry. He was

announcing that he did not intend to give up trying to attract her interest. Aiel women admired

perseverance in a man. Still, if Chiad and Bain would not, could not, help beyond giving her aid in

reaching the trees, Rolan was her best hope. She thought she could convince him, given time. Of course

she could; faint hearts never succeeded! He was a scorned outcast, accepted only because the Shaido

needed his spear. But she was going to have to give him a reason to persist.

"I would like that," she said carefully. A little flirting might be necessary after all, but she could

not go from telling him how much she loved her husband straight to wide-eyed and breathless. Not that

she had any intention of going that far-she was no Domani!-yet she might need to come close. For

the time being, a little reminder that Sevanna had usurped his "right" would not go amiss. "I have work

to do now, though, and I doubt Sevanna would be pleased if I spent the time talking to you instead."

Rolan nodded again, and Faile sighed. He might know how to make a woman laugh, as he claimed, but

he certainly did not talk very much. She was going to have to work to draw him out if she intended to

get anything more than jokes she did not understand. Even with Chiad and Bain’s help, Aiel humor

remained incomprehensible to her.

They had reached the broad square in front of the fortress at the north end of the city, a towered

mass of gray stone walls that had protected its inhabitants no better than the city walls. Faile thought she

had seen the lady who had ruled Maiden and everything for twenty miles around, a handsome dignified

widow in her middle years, among the gai’shain hauling water. White-clad men and women carrying

buckets crowded the stone-paved square. At the eastern end of the square, what looked like a section of

the city’s outer wall, gray and thirty feet high, was actually the wall of a huge cistern fed by an

aqueduct. Four pumps, each worked by a pair of men, gushed out water to fill the buckets, a good bit

more splashing to the paving stones than the men would have dared allow if they had known Rolan was

close enough to see. Faile had considered crawling through the tunnel-like aqueduct to escape, but they

had no way to keep anything dry, and wherever it let them out, they would be soaking wet and more

likely to freeze to death than make it more than a mile or two in the snow.

There were two other places in the city to get water, both fed by stone conduits underground, but

here a long, lion-footed blackwood table had been placed at the foot of the cistern wall. Once it had been

a banqueting table, the top inlaid with ivory, but the ivory wedges had been pried out and several

wooden washtubs sat on the tabletop now. A pair of wooden buckets stood beside the table, and at one

end a copper kettle steamed over a fire made from broken-up chairs. Faile doubted that Sevanna had her

laundry carried into the city to save her gai’shain the labor of hauling water out to the tents, but

whatever the reason, Faile was grateful. A basket of laundry was lighter than full water buckets. She had

carried enough of them to know. Two baskets stood on the table, but only one woman wearing the

golden belt and collar was at work, the sleeves of her white robe rolled up as high as they would go and

her long dark hair tied with a strip of white cloth to keep it from falling into the washtub’s water.

When Alliandre saw Faile approaching with Rolan, she straightened, drying her bare arms on her

robe. Alliandre Maritha Kigarin, Queen of Ghealdan, Blessed of the Light, Defender of Garen’s Wall

and a dozen more titles, had been an elegant, reserved woman, poised and stately. Alliandre the

gai’shain was still pretty, but she wore a perpetually harried expression. With damp patches on her robes

and her hands wrinkled from long immersion in the water, she could have passed for a pretty

washerwoman. Watching Rolan set down the basket and smile at Faile before striding away, watching

Faile return the smile, she raised a quizzical eyebrow. "He’s the one who captured me," Faile said,

setting pieces of clothing from the basket on the table. Even here among none but gai’shain, it was best

to talk while working. "He’s one of the Brotherless, and I think he doesn’t really approve of making

wetlanders gai’shain. I think he may help us."

"I see," Alliandre said. With one hand she brushed delicately at the back of Faile’s robe.

Frowning, Faile twisted to look over her shoulder. For a moment she stared at the dirt and ash

that covered her back from the shoulders down; then heat flooded her face. "I fell," she said quickly. She

could not tell Alliandre what had happened with Nadric. She did not think she could tell anyone. "Rolan

offered to carry my basket."

Alliandre shrugged. "If he helped me escape, I would marry him. Or not, as he wanted. He’s not

quite pretty, but it wouldn’t be painful, and my husband, if I had one, would never have to know. If he

had any sense, he would be overjoyed to have me back and ask no questions he didn’t want to hear

answers to." Hands tightening on a silk blouse, Faile gritted her teeth.

Alliandre was her liege woman, through Perrin, and she held to that well enough, at least insofar

as obeying commands, but the nature of the relationship had become strained. They had agreed that they

must try to think like servants, try to be servants, if they were to survive, yet that meant that each had

seen the other curtsying and scurrying to obey. Sevanna’s punishments were dealt out by the nearest

gai’shain to hand when she made her decision, and once Faile had been ordered to switch Alliandre.

Worse, Alliandre had been ordered to return the favor twice. Holding back only meant a taste of the

same for yourself plus the other woman having to endure a double dose from someone who would not

spare her arm. It had to make a difference when you had twice made your liege-lady kick and shriek.

Abruptly she realized that the blouse she was gripping was one of those that had picked up extra

dirt when the basket fell. Loosening her grip, she examined the garment anxiously. It did not seem that

she had ground the dirt in. For a moment, she felt relief, and then irritation at being relieved. Even more

irritating, the relief did not go away.

"Arrela and Lacile escaped three days ago," she said in a low voice. "They should be well away

by now. Where is Maighdin?" A worried frown appeared on the other woman’s face. "She is trying to

sneak into Therava’s tent. Therava passed us with a group of Wise Ones, and from what we overheard,

they seemed to be on their way to meet with Sevanna. Maighdin shoved her basket at me and said she

was going to try. I think. . . . I think she’s becoming desperate enough to take too many chances," she

said with a touch of hopelessness in her own voice. "She should have been here by now."

Faile drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. They were all becoming desperate. They had

gathered supplies for their escape-knives and food, boots and men’s breeches and coats that fit near

enough, all carefully hidden in the wagons; the white robes would serve as blankets, and as cloaks to

hide them in the snow-but the chance to use all that preparation seemed no closer now than the day

they were captured. Only two weeks. Twenty-two days to be exact. That should have not been long

enough to change anything, but their pretense of being servants was changing them in spite of all they

could do. Only two weeks, and they found themselves jumping to obey commands without thought,

worrying over punishments and whether they were pleasing Sevanna. The worst of it was, they could see

themselves doing these things, knew some part of them was being molded against their wills. For now,

they could tell themselves they were just doing what was needed to avoid suspicion until they could

escape, yet every day the reactions became more automatic. How long before escape was a pale dream

dreamed in the night after a day of being a perfect gai’shain in thought as well as deed? No one had

dared ask that question aloud, so far, and Faile knew that she herself tried not to think it, but the question

was always on the edge of her consciousness. In a way, she was afraid of it leaving. When it did, would

it already have been answered?

With an effort, she forced herself back from despondency. That was the second trap, and only

willpower held it open. "Maighdin knows she has to be careful," she said in a firm voice. "She will be

here soon, Alliandre."

"And if she is caught?"

"She won’t be!" Faile said sharply. If she was. . . . No. She had to think of victory, not defeat.

Faint hearts never won. Washing the silk was time-consuming. The buckets of water they fetched from

the cistern pumps were icy cold, but hot water scooped from the copper kettle brought the temperature in

the washtubs up to lukewarm. You could not wash silk in hot water. Sinking your hands into the

washtubs felt wonderful in the cold, but you always had to take them out again, and then the cold was

twice as bitter. There was no soap, not that was mild enough anyway, so each skirt and blouse had to be

submersed one by one and delicately scrubbed against itself. Then it was laid on a piece of toweling and

gently rolled up to squeeze out as much water as possible. The damp garment was dipped again, in

another washtub that was filled with a mixture of vinegar and water-that reduced fading and enhanced

the gloss of the silk-then rolled up in toweling again. The wet toweling was wrung out hard and spread

in the sun to dry wherever there was room, while each piece of silk was hung on a horizontal pole, slung

in the shade of a rough canvas pavilion erected at the edge of the square, and smoothed by hand to rub

out wrinkles. With luck, nothing would need ironing. Both of them knew how silk had to be cared for,

but ironing it needed experience neither of them had. None of Sevanna’s gai’shain did, not even

Maighdin, though she had been a lady’s maid even before entering Faile’s service, but Sevanna did not

accept excuses. Every time Faile or Alliandre went to hang another garment, they checked those already

there and smoothed any that seemed to need it.

Faile was adding hot water to a washtub when Alliandre said bitterly, "Here comes the Aes

Sedai."

Galina was Aes Sedai, complete with the ageless face and a golden Great Serpent ring on her

finger, but she wore white gai’shain robes, too-in silk as thick as anyone else’s wool, no less!-along

with a wide, elaborate belt of gold and firedrops that cinched her waist tightly and a tall matching collar

around her neck, jewels fit for a monarch. She was Aes Sedai, and sometimes rode out from the camp

alone, but she always returned, and she jumped when any Wise One crooked a finger, especially

Therava, whose tent she often shared. In a way, that last was the strangest thing of all. Galina knew who

Faile was, knew who her husband was and Perrin’s connection to Rand al’Thor, and she threatened to

reveal it to Sevanna unless Faile and her friends stole something from the very tent she slept in. That

was the third trap lying in wait for them. Sevanna was obsessed with al’Thor, insanely convinced that

she could somehow marry him, and if she learned about Perrin, Faile would never be allowed far enough

out of her sight to think of escape. She would be staked out like a goat to draw a lion.

Faile had seen Galina slinking and cowering, but now the sister glided through the square like a

queen disdaining the rabble around her, an Aes Sedai to the hilt. There were no Wise Ones here for her

simper at. Galina was pretty, but nowhere near beautiful, and Faile did not understand what Therava saw

in her, unless it was simply the pleasure of dominating an Aes Sedai. That still left the question of why

the woman remained when Therava seemed to take every opportunity to humiliate her.

Stopping a pace from the table, Galina surveyed them with a small smile that might have been

called pitying. "You are not progressing very far in your work," she said. She was not speaking of the

laundry.

It was Faile’s place to do the talking, but Alliandre spoke up, even more bitterly than before.

"Maighdin went to fetch your ivory rod this morning, Galina. When will we see some of the help you

promised?" Help in their escape was the carrot Galina offered along with the stick of threatening Faile’s

exposure. So far, however, they had seen only the stick.

"She went to Therava’s tent this morning?" Galina whispered, the blood draining from her face.

It dawned on Faile that the sun was halfway down to the horizon in the west, and her heart began

to thud painfully. Maighdin should have joined them long since.

The Aes Sedai seemed even more shaken than she. "This morning?" Galina repeated, looking

over her shoulder. She gave a start and a cry when Maighdin suddenly appeared out of the throng of

gai’shain crowding the square.

Unlike Alliandre, the golden-haired woman had grown tougher by the day since their capture.

She was no less desperate, but she seemed to focus it all into determination. She always had a presence

that belonged more to a queen than a lady’s maid, though most lady’s maids had it, but now she

stumbled past them, dulleyed, and plunged her hands into a water bucket, cupping a double handful to

her mouth to drink thirstily, then scrubbing the back of a hand across her mouth.

"I want to kill Therava when we go," she said thickly. "I would like to kill her now." Her blue

eyes took on life again, and heat. "You’re safe, Galina. She thought I was there to steal. I hadn’t started

looking. Something. . . . Something happened, and she left. After tying me up. For later." The heat faded

from her gaze to be replaced by puzzlement. "What is it, Galina? Even I feel it, and I have so little

ability these Aiel women decided I was no danger."

Maighdin could channel. Not reliably, though and not very much-from what little Faile knew,

the White Tower would have sent her away in a matter of weeks, and she claimed never to have gone-

so her ability would not be of much use in aiding their escape. Faile would have asked what she was

talking about, but she never got the chance.

Galina’s face was still pale, but otherwise she was all Aes Sedai calm. Except that she seized a

handful of Maighdin’s cowl and the hair beneath and wrenched her head back. "Never you mind what it

is," she said coolly. "Nothing to do with you. All you need worry about is getting me what I want. But

you should worry about that very hard."

Before Faile could move to defend Maighdin, another woman wearing the wide golden belt over

her white robes was there, pulling Galina away and slinging her to the ground. Plump and plain, Aravine

had been weary-eyed and resigned the first time Faile saw her, the day the Amadician woman handed

her the golden belt she wore and told her she was now in the service of "the Lady Sevanna." The

intervening days had stiffened Aravine even more than they had Maighdin, though.

"Are you mad, to lay hands on an Aes Sedai?" Galina snapped, struggling to her feet. Brushing

at the dirt staining her silk robes, she directed all her fury at the plump woman. "I will have you-"

"Shall I tell Therava you were manhandling one of Sevanna’s gai’shain?" Aravine broke in coldly. Her

accents were cultured. She might have been a merchant of some note, or perhaps even a noble, but she

never spoke of what she had been before putting on white. "The last time Therava thought you’d poked

your nose where she didn’t want it, everybody inside a hundred paces could hear you squealing and

begging."

Galina actually quivered with rage, the first time Faile had ever seen an Aes Sedai so outdone.

With a visible effort, she gained control of herself. Just. Her voice dripped acid. "Aes Sedai do what we

do for our own reasons, Aravine, reasons you could not possibly understand. You will regret incurring

this debt when I decide to collect payment. You will regret it to your heart." Giving her robes a last

brush, she stalked away, no longer the queen disdaining rabble but a leopard daring sheep to block her

path.

Watching her go, Aravine seemed unimpressed, and uninclined to chat. "Sevanna wants you,

Faile" was all she said.

Faile did not bother to ask why. She just dried her hands, rolled down her sleeves, and followed

the Amadician woman, after promising Alliandre and Maighdin to return as soon as she could. Sevanna

was fascinated with the three of them. Maighdin, the only true lady’s maid among her gai’shain, seemed

to interest her as much as Queen Alliandre, and Faile herself, a woman powerful enough to have a queen

as her liege woman, and sometimes she summoned one of them by name to help her change clothes or

bathe in the large copper bathtub that she used more often than the sweat tent, or just to pour her wine.

The rest of the time they were given the same chores as her other servants, but she never asked whether

they had already been assigned work or let them off because of it. Whatever Sevanna wanted, Faile

knew she still would be held accountable for the laundry along with the other two. Sevanna wanted what

she wanted when she wanted it, and she did not accept excuses.

There was no need for Faile to be shown the way to Sevanna’s tent, but Aravine led the way

through the throng of water carriers until they reached the first low Aiel tents, and then she pointed in

the opposite direction to Sevanna’s tent and said, "This way, first." Faile stopped where she stood.

"Why?" she asked suspiciously. There were actually men and women among Sevanna’s servants who

were jealous of the attentions she gave Faile, Alliandre and Maighdin, and though Faile had never

detected that in Aravine, some of the rest might well try to get them in trouble by passing on false

instructions.

"You will want to see this before you see Sevanna. Believe me." Faile opened her mouth to

demand more explanation, but Aravine simply turned and walked away. Faile gathered up the skirts of

her robes and followed.

All sorts and sizes of carts and wagons stood among the tents, their wheels replaced by sleds.

Most were piled high with bundles and wooden crates and barrels, with the wheels tied on top of the

loads, but she did not have to follow Aravine far before she saw a flatbed cart that had been emptied.

Except that the cart bed was not empty. Two women lay on the rough wooden planks, naked and cruelly

hogtied, shivering in the cold yet panting as if they were running. Both women’s heads hung tiredly, but

as if they somehow knew Faile was there, both looked up. Arrela, a dark Tairen as tall as most Aiel

women, averted her eyes in embarrassment.

Lacile, slim and pale and Cairhienin, went bright red. "They were brought back this morning,"

Aravine said, watching Faile’s face. "They will be untied before dark, since it’s the first time they’ve

tried to escape, though I doubt they will be in any condition to walk before tomorrow."

"Why did you show me this?" Faile said. They had been so careful to keep the connection

between them a secret. "You forget, my Lady, I was there when you were all put in white." Aravine

studied her a moment, then suddenly took Faile’s hands and turned them so that her own hands were

between Faile’s palms. Bending her knees just short of kneeling, she said quickly, "Under the Light and

by my hope of rebirth, I, Aravine Carnel, do pledge my fealty and obedience in all things to the Lady

Faile t’Aybara."

Only Lacile appeared to have noticed; the Shaido walking past paid no mind to two gai’shain

women. Faile jerked her hands free. "How do you know that name?" She had had to give more of her

name than Faile, of course, but she had chosen Faile Bashere once she realized that none of the Shaido

had a clue who Davram Bashere was. Aside from Alliandre and the others, only Galina knew the truth.

Or so she had thought. "And who have you told?" "I listen, my Lady. I overheard Galina speaking to

you, once." Anxiety touched Aravine’s voice. "And I have told no one." She did not sound surprised

that Faile wanted to hide her name, though clearly t’Aybara meant nothing to her. Perhaps Aravine

Carnel was not her true name, or not all of it. "In this place, secrets must be held as closely as in

Amador. I knew these women were yours, but I told no one. I know you intend to escape. I’ve been

certain since the second or third day, and nothing I’ve seen since convinces me otherwise. Accept my

oath, and take me with you. I can help, and what is more, I can be trusted. I have proved it by keeping

your secrets. Please." The last word came out strained, as if from someone unused to saying it. A

noblewoman, then, rather than a merchant.

The woman had proven nothing beyond that she could spy out secrets, but that in itself was a

useful trait. On the other hand, Faile knew of at least two gai’shain who had tried to escape and been

betrayed by others. Some people really did try to feather their own nests no matter what the

circumstances. But Aravine already knew enough to ruin everything. Faile thought about her hidden

knife again. A dead woman could betray nothing. But the knife was half a mile away, she could think of

no way to hide the body, and besides, the woman could have curried favor with Sevanna just by saying

she thought Faile was planning escape. Taking Aravine’s hands between hers, she spoke as quickly as

the other woman had. "Under the Light, I do accept your pledge and will defend and protect you and

yours through battle’s wrack and winter’s blast and all that time may bring. Now. Do you know anyone

else who can be trusted? Not people you think you can trust, people you know you can."

"Not with this, my Lady," Aravine said grimly. Her face shone with relief, though. She had not

been sure Faile would accept her. That it was relief rather that anything else made Faile tend to believe

in her. Tend to, which was not to say completely. "Half would betray their own mothers in hopes of

buying freedom, and the other half are too afraid to try or too stunned to be trusted not to panic. There

must be some, and I have my eye on one or two, but I want to be very careful. One mistake is one more

than I’ll be allowed."

"Very careful," Faile agreed. "Did Sevanna really send for me?

"If she didn’t-"

It seemed that she had, and Faile was quick about reaching Sevanna’s tent-quicker than she

would have liked, in truth; it was irritating to leap to avoid Sevanna’s displeasure-but no one paid her

the slightest heed when she walked in and stood meekly by the entry flaps.

Sevanna’s tent was no low Aiel structure, but a wall-tent of red canvas large enough to need two

center poles, lit by near a dozen mirrored stand-lamps. Two gilded braziers gave a little warmth,

emitting thin tendrils of smoke that eddied out through the smoke holes in the roof, but the interior was

little warmer than outside. Rich carpets, the snow carefully scraped away before they were laid, made a

floor of reds and greens and blues, Tairen mazes and flowers and animals. Tasseled silk cushions lay

strewn about the carpets, and one chair, a massive thing intricately carved and heavily gilded, sat in a

corner. Faile had never seen anyone sit in it, but its presence was supposed to evoke the presence of a

clan chief, she knew. She was just as happy to stand quietly with her eyes down. Three other gai’shain

with golden belts and collars, one a bearded male, stood along one wall of the tent, in case some service

was needed. Sevanna was there, and so was Therava. Sevanna was a tall woman, a little taller than Faile

herself, with pale green eyes and hair like spun gold. She might have been beautiful except for a strong

hint of avarice around her plump mouth. Little about her really seemed Aiel, beyond her eyes and hair

and sun-dark face. Her blouse was white silk, her skirt divided for riding and also silk, if a dark gray,

and the scarf folded around her temples was a blaze of crimson and gold. Also silk. Red boots peeked

out beneath the hem of her skirt when she moved. Jeweled rings decorated her every finger, and her

necklaces and bracelets of fat pearls and cut diamonds and rubies as large as pigeon’s eggs, sapphires

and emeralds and firedrops, paled anything Someryn had. Not a single one was Aiel-made. Therava, on

the other hand, was all Aiel, in dark wool and white algode, her hands bare and her necklaces and

bracelets gold and ivory. No finger rings or gems for her. Taller than most men, her dark red hair

touched with streaks of white, she was a blue-eyed eagle that it seemed must devour Sevanna like a

crippled lamb. Faile would rather anger Sevanna ten times than Therava once, but the two women faced

another across a table inlaid with ivory and turquoise, and Sevanna met Therava glare for glare.

"What is happening today means danger," Therava said with the air of someone tired of

repeating herself. And perhaps about to draw the knife at her belt. She caressed the hilt as she spoke, and

not entirely absently, Faile thought. "We need to put as much distance between ourselves and whatever

it is as we possibly can, and as soon as we can. There are mountains to the east. Once we reach them, we

can be safe until we gather all the septs together again. Septs that would never have been separated if

you had not been so sure of yourself, Sevanna."

"You speak of safety?" Sevanna laughed. "Have you grown so old and toothless you need to be

fed bread and milk? Look. These mountains of yours are how distant? How many days, or weeks, when

we must crawl through this cursed snow?" She gestured to the table between them where a map lay

spread out, weighted down with two thick golden bowls and a heavy three-pronged golden candlestick.

Most Aiel disdained maps, but Sevanna had taken to them along with other wetland customs. "Whatever

happened is far away, Therava. You agreed it is so, as did every Wise One. This city is full of food,

enough to feed us for weeks, if we remain here. Who is there to challenge us, if we do? And if we do. . .

. You have heard the runners, the messages. In two or three weeks, four at the most, ten more septs will

have joined me. Perhaps more! This snow will have melted by then, if these wetlanders from the city can

be believed. We will travel quickly instead of having to drag everything on sleds." Faile wondered

whether any of the city people had mentioned mud. "Ten more septs will join you" Therava said, her

voice flat except for the last word. Her hand tightened on the knife hilt. "You speak for the clan chief,

Sevanna, and so I was chosen to advise you as a clan chief, who must listen to advice for the good of our

clan. I advise you to move east and keep moving east. The other septs can join us as easily in those

mountains as here, and if we must go a little hungry on the way, who among us is a stranger to

privation?"

Sevanna fingered her necklaces, a large emerald on her right hand like green fire in the light of

the stand-lamps. Her mouth tightened, and seemed hungrier for it. She might have known privation, but

despite the lack of warmth in the tent, she no longer chose to. "I speak for the chief, and I say we will

remain here." There was more than a hint of challenge in her voice, but she did not give Therava a

chance to meet it. "Ah, I see that Faile has come. My good, obedient gai’shain." Taking something

wrapped in a cloth from the table, she stripped away the cloth. "Do you recognize this, Faile Bashere?"

What Sevanna held was a knife with a single-edged blade a hand and a half long, a simple tool of

the sort that thousands of farmers carried. Except that Faile recognized the pattern of rivets in the

wooden handle, and the chip in the edge. It was the knife that she had stolen and hidden away with such

care. She said nothing.

There was nothing to say. Gai’shain were forbidden to possess any weapon, even a knife except

when cutting meat or vegetables for cooking. She could not help jerking when Sevanna went on, though.

"As well Galina brought me this before you could use it. For whatever purpose. If you stabbed

someone, I would have to be very angry with you."

Galina? Of course. The Aes Sedai would not allow them to escape before they did as she wanted.

"She is shocked, Therava." Sevanna’s laughter was amused. "Galina knows what is required of

gai’shain, Faile Bashere. What should I do with her, Therava? That is advice you can give me. Several

wetlanders have been killed for hiding weapons, but I would hate to lose her."

Therava tipped Faile’s chin up with a finger and stared into her eyes. Faile met that gaze without

blinking, but she felt her knees tremble. She did not try telling herself it was only the cold. Faile knew

she was not a coward, but when Therava looked at her, Faile saw herself as a rabbit in that eagle’s

talons, alive and waiting for the beak to descend. It had been Therava who first told her to spy on

Sevanna, and however circumspect the other Wise Ones might have been, Faile had no doubt that

Therava would slit her throat without the slightest qualm if she failed her. There was no use pretending

the woman did not frighten her. She just had to control that fear. If she could.

"I think she was planning to run away, Sevanna. But I think she can learn to do as she is told."

The rough wooden table had been set out between the tents in the nearest open space to

Sevanna’s tent, a hundred paces away. At first, Faile thought that the shame of being naked would be the

worst of it, that and the icy cold that pebbled her skin. The sun sat low in the sky; the air had grown

colder, and it would get much colder before morning. She had to stay there till morning. The Shaido

were good at learning what shamed wetlanders, and they used shame as a punishment. She thought she

would die of blushing whenever anyone looked at her, but the Shaido who passed by did not even pause.

In itself, nudity was no reason for shame among Aiel. Aravine appeared in front of her, but she stopped

only long enough to whisper, "Keep your courage," and then she was gone. Faile understood. Whether

or not the woman was loyal, she did not dare do anything to help.

After a very short time, Faile no longer worried about shame. Her wrists had been tied behind

her, and then her ankles had been doubled back and tied to her elbows. She understood now why Lacile

and Arrela had been panting. Breathing was an effort in this position. The cold bit deeper and deeper,

until she was shivering uncontrollably, but even that soon seemed secondary. Cramps began to burn in

her legs, her shoulders, her sides, bunching muscles that seemed on fire, twisting tighter and tighter and

tighter. She focused on not screaming. That became the center of her existence.

She-would-not-scream. But, oh, Light, she hurt! "Sevanna ordered that you were to remain

here till dawn, Faile Bashere, but she did not say you could not have company." She had to blink several

times before she could see clearly. Sweat stung her eyes. How could she be sweating when she was

frozen to the marrow? Rolan was standing in front of her, and strangely, he was carrying a pair of low

bronze braziers full of glowing coals, with pieces of cloth wrapped around a leg of each to protect his

hands from the heat. Seeing her stare at the braziers, he shrugged. "Once, a night in the cold would not

have bothered me, but I have grown soft since I crossed the Dragonwall." She almost gasped when he

set the braziers beneath the table. Warmth flooded up through the cracks between the planks. Her

muscles still shrieked with cramps, but oh, the blessed warmth. She did gasp when the man put an arm

across her chest and the other across her bent knees. Suddenly she realized the pressure was gone from

her elbows. He had . . . squeezed . . . her. One of his hands began working at her thigh, and she almost

screamed as his fingers dug into knotted muscles, but she felt the knots begin to loosen. They still hurt,

his massaging hurt, but the pain in that one thigh muscle was changing in kind. Not growing less,

exactly, but she knew that it would, if he continued.

"You do not mind if I occupy myself while I try to think of a way to make you laugh, do you?"

he asked. Suddenly she realized that she was laughing, and not hysterically. Well, it was only partly

hysteria. She was trussed like a goose for the oven and being saved from the cold for the second time by

a man she thought maybe she would not stab after all, Sevanna would be watching her like a hawk from

now on, and Therava might be trying to kill her as an example; but she knew she was going to escape.

One door never closed but another opened. She was going to escape. She laughed until she cried.

CHAPTER 10

A Blazing Beacon

The wide-eyed maid was more used to kneading bread dough than doing up rows of tiny buttons,

but eventually she finished buttoning Elayne into her dark green riding dress, curtsied and stepped back

breathing heavily, though whether from the effort of concentration or just from being in the presence of

the Daughter-Heir was hard to tell. The Great Serpent ring on Elayne’s left hand might have had

something to do with it, too. Just over twenty miles in a straight line would take you from the manor of

House Matherin to the River Erinin and all its great commerce, but the distance was far greater in actual

miles to be covered through the Chishen Mountains, and people here were more accustomed to cattle

raids across the border from Murandy than any sort of visitor, especially a visitor who wrapped the

Daughter-Heir and an Aes Sedai into one package. The honor seemed beyond what some of the servants

could bear. Elsie had been painfully conscientious in folding the blue silk gown that Elayne had worn

last night and packing it away in a large leather traveling chest, one of a pair in the apartment’s dressing

room, so conscientious that Elayne had nearly taken over the task herself.

She had slept poorly at first, fitful and waking, then slept late when she could sleep, and she was

beyond chafing to be on her way back to Caemlyn.

This was the fifth time she had spent a night out of Caemlyn since learning the city was

threatened, and on each trip she had given a day to visiting three or four manors, once five, all the

property of men and women bound to House Trakand by blood or oaths, and every visit took time. The

press of time weighed down her bones, yet presenting the proper image was necessary. Riding clothes

were needed to travel from one manor to the next lest she arrived rumpled and looking a fugitive, but

she had to change before settling in whether it was for the night or just a few hours. Half those hours

might be taken up by shifting from riding clothes to a gown and back again, but riding clothes spoke of

haste and need, perhaps of desperation, while the coronet of the Daughter-Heir and an embroidered

gown trimmed with lace, unpacked from a set of traveling cases and donned after washing, portrayed

confidence and strength. She would have brought her own maid to add to the impression if Essande had

been up to keeping the pace in winter, though she suspected the white-haired woman’s slowness would

have had her chewing her tongue in frustration. Still, Essande could not have been as slow as this

goggled-eyed young Elsie.

At last Elsie handed her her fur-lined crimson cloak with a curtsy, and she slung the cloak around

her shoulders hastily. A fire blazed on the stone hearth, but the room was nowhere near warm, and

recently she could not seem to ignore the cold with any reliability.

The girl bobbed as she asked whether she could fetch men to carry down the chests if it pleased

Her Majesty. The first time she had done that, Elayne had gently explained that she was not yet Queen,

but Elsie seemed horrified at the idea of addressing her simply as my Lady, or even as Princess, though

in truth the last was considered very old-fashioned. Proper or not, it usually pleased Elayne to hear

someone acknowledge her right to the throne, but this morning she was too tired to be anything but

anxious to be on the road. Suppressing a yawn, she told Elsie curtly to fetch the men and be quick about

it, and turned for the paneled door. The girl rushed to open it for her, which took longer than if she had

done it herself, with a curtsy before opening and yet another after. Her divided silk skirts whispered

furiously against each other as she strode out of the room tugging on her red riding gloves. If Elsie had

delayed her one more second, she thought she would have screamed.

It was the girl who shrieked, however, before Elayne had gone three paces, a horrified howl that

sounded ripped from her throat. The cloak flared as Elayne spun around, embracing the True Source,

feeling the richness of saidar flood through her. Elsie was standing on the strip of carpet that ran along

the middle of the pale brown floor tiles, staring the other way down the hall with both hands pressed to

her mouth. Two crossing corridors opened in that direction, but there was not another soul in sight.

"What is it, Elsie?" Elayne demanded. She had several weaves already on the edge of forming, ranging

from a simple net of air to a fireball that would have demolished half the walls in front of her, and in her

present humor, she wanted to use one of them, to strike out with the Power. Her moods were uncertain

of late, to say the least.

The girl looked back over one shoulder, trembling, and if her eyes had been wide before, they

bulged now. Her hands remained clamped to mouth as if to prevent another scream. Dark-haired and

dark-eyed, tall and plump-bosomed in House Matherin’s gray-andblue livery, she was not really a girl-

Elsie might be four or five years older than herself-but the way she behaved made it difficult to think

of her any other way.

"What is it, Elsie? And don’t tell me it was nothing. You look as if you’d seen a ghost."

The girl flinched. "I did," she said unsteadily. That she gave Elayne no title showed just how

unsteady she was. "Lady Nelein, as was Lord Aedmun’s grandmother. She died when I was little, but I

remember even Lord Aedmun tiptoed around her temper, and the maids used to jump if she looked at

them, and other ladies who visited, too, and the lords, as well. Everybody was afraid of her. She was

right there in front of me, and she scowled so furious-" She broke off, blushing, when Elayne laughed.

It was more a laugh of relief than anything else. The Black Ajah had not somehow followed her

to Lord Aedmun’s manor.

There were no assassins waiting with knives in their fists, no sisters loyal to Elaida wanting to

whisk her back to Tar Valon. Sometimes she dreamed about those things, about all of them in the same

dream. She released saidar, reluctantly as always, regretful as that fullness of joy and life drained out of

her. Matherin supported her, but Aedmun might have taken it amiss if she had ruined half his home

place.

"The dead cannot harm the living, Elsie," she said gently. The more gently because she had

laughed, not to mention wanting to box the ninny’s ears. "They’re not of this world anymore, and they

can’t touch anything in it, including us." The girl nodded, and dropped another curtsy, but by the size of

her eyes and the trembling of her lips she was unconvinced. Elayne had no time to cosset her, though.

"Fetch the men for my cases, Elsie," she said firmly, "and don’t worry about ghosts." With yet another

curtsy the girl dashed off, her head swiveling anxiously in case the Lady Nelein leaped out of the

paneled walls. Ghosts! The fool girl was a ninny! Matherin was an old House, if not large or strong, and

the main stairs, leading down to the entry hall, were broad and trimmed with marble railings. The entry

hall itself was a generous space, with gray-and-blue floor tiles and mirrored oil lamps hanging on chains

from the ceiling twenty feet above. There was nothing in the way of gilding and little inlay, but ornately

carved chests and cabinets stood along the sides of the hall, and two wall hangings were displayed on

one wall. One showed men hunting leopards from horseback, a chancy business at best, and the other

women of House Matherin presenting a sword to the first Queen of Andor, an event that Matherin

treasured and that might or might not have actually happened.

Aviendha was already down, pacing restlessly in the hall, and Elayne sighed at the sight. They

would have shared a room, if not for the implication that Matherin could not provide adequately for two

visitors of note, but Aviendha did not really understand that the smaller the House, the loftier the pride.

Often, the smaller Houses possessed little more. Pride, she should have understood, since a fierce pride

and strength all but shone from her. Straightbacked and even taller than Elayne, a thick dark shawl

draped over her pale blouse and a folded gray head scarf holding back her long reddish hair, she was the

very picture of a Wise One despite only a year older than Elayne. Wise Ones who could channel often

appeared to be much younger than they were, and Aviendha had the dignity. At this moment she did,

anyway, though the pair of them had giggled together often enough. Of course, her only jewelry was a

long, silver Kandori necklace, an amber brooch in the shape of a turtle and a wide ivory bracelet, and

Wise Ones always wore festoons of necklaces and bracelets, but Aviendha was not a Wise One yet,

merely an apprentice. Elayne never thought of Aviendha as merely anything, but it did present problems

now and then. Sometimes she thought the Wise Ones considered her an apprentice of some sort as well,

or at least a student. A silly thought, to be sure, but sometimes. . . .

As Elayne reached the foot of the stairs, Aviendha adjusted her shawl and asked, "Did you sleep

well?" Her tone was untroubled, but anxiety nestled around her green eyes. "You did not send for wine

to help you sleep, did you? I made sure your wine was watered when we ate, but I saw you looking at

the wine pitcher." "Yes, Mother," Elayne said in a sickly sweet voice. "No, Mother. I was wondering

how Aedmun got his hands on such a fine vintage, Mother. It was a shame to water it. And I drank the

goat’s milk before I went to sleep." If anything brought her to birthing sickness, it would be goat’s milk!

And to think she used to like it. Aviendha planted her fists on her hips, such an embodiment of

indignation that Elayne had to laugh. There were inconveniences to being with child, ranging from

abrupt swings in her temper to tenderness in her breasts to always being tired, but the coddling was the

worst, in some ways. Everyone in the Royal Palace knew she was pregnant-a good many had known

before she did, courtesy of Min’s viewing and Min being too free with her tongue-and she did not

think she could have been so mothered when she was an infant. Still, she put up with all the bother with

as much grace as she could muster. Usually, she did. They were only trying to be helpful. She just

wished every woman she knew did not believe that pregnancy had made her brainless. Nearly every

woman she knew. Those who had never borne a child themselves were the worst.

Thinking of her baby-at times she wished Min had said whether it would be a boy or girl, or

rather that Aviendha or Birgitte could recall exactly what Min actually had said; Min was always right,

but the three of them had consumed a great deal wine that night, and Min had been gone from the palace

long before Elayne herself knew to ask-thinking of the child growing in her always made her think of

Rand, just as thinking of him made her think of the babe. One followed the other as surely as cream rose

in the milkpan. She missed Rand terribly, and yet she could not miss him. A part of him, the sense of

him, rode always in the back of her head unless she masked the bond, right alongside her sense of

Birgitte, her other Warder. The bond had its limits, however. He was somewhere to the west, far enough

that she could tell little more than that he was alive. Nothing more, really, though she thought she would

know if he had been badly injured. She was not sure she wanted to know what he was up to. He had

been far to the south for a long time after leaving her, and now, just this morning, he had Traveled to the

west. It was disconcerting, really, to feel him in one direction and then suddenly have him off in another,

even farther away. He could be pursuing enemies or running from enemies or any one of a thousand

things. She hoped very much it was something innocuous that made him Travel. He was going to die on

her all too soon-men who could channel always died of it-but she wanted so very much to keep him

alive as long as possible.

"He is well," Aviendha said almost as though she could read her mind. They had their own

shared sense of one another since their mutual adoption as first-sisters, but it did not go as far as the

Warder bond they and Min shared with Rand. "If he allows himself to be killed, I will cut off his ears."

Elayne blinked, then laughed again, and after a startled glance, Aviendha joined in. It was not

that funny, except maybe to an Aiel-Aviendha’s sense of humor was very odd-but Elayne could not

stop laughing, and Aviendha seemed as helpless. Shaking with mirth, they hugged one another and hung

on. Life was very strange. Had anyone told her a few years ago that she would share a man with another

woman-with two other women!-she would have called them mad. The very idea would have been

indecent. But she loved Aviendha every bit as much as she did Rand, only in a different way, and

Aviendha loved Rand as much as she did.

Denying that meant denying Aviendha, and she could as easily step out of het skin. Aiel women,

sisters or close friends, often married the same man, and seldom gave him any say in the matter. She was

going to marry Rand, and so was Aviendha, and so was Min. Whatever anyone said or thought, that was

all there was to it. If he lived long enough.

Suddenly she became afraid that her laughter was edging toward tears. Please, Light, let her not

be one of those women who became weepy when they were with child. It was bad enough not knowing

whether she was going to be melancholy or furious from one minute to the next. Hours might pass when

she felt perfectly normal, but then there were hours when she felt like a child’s ball bouncing down an

endless flight of stairs. This morning, she seemed to be on the stairs.

"He is well, and he will be well," Aviendha whispered fiercely, as if she intended to assure his

survival by killing anything that threatened him.

With the tips of her fingers, Elayne brushed a tear from her sister’s cheek. "He is well, and he

will be well," she agreed softly. But they could not kill saidin, and the taint on the male half of the

Power was what was going to kill him.

The lamps overhead flickered as one of the tall doors to the outside opened, letting in a gust of

air even colder than that in the entry hall, and they quickly moved a little apart, just holding hands.

Elayne schooled her face to a serene smoothness fully worthy of an Aes Sedai. She could not afford to

let anyone see her apparently seeking comfort in a hug. A ruler, or one who sought to rule, was not

allowed the slightest suggestion of weakness or tears, not in public. There were rumors enough about her

as it was, as many bad as good. She was benevolent or cruel, fair-minded or arbitrary, generous or

avaricious, all according to which tale you listened to. At least the tales balanced out one another, but

anyone who could say they had actually seen the Daughter-Heir huddling in the arms of her companion

might add a tale of fear to the blend, and if her enemies believed she was afraid, they would only grow

bolder. And stronger. Cowardice was the sort of rumor that stuck like greasy mud; you never could wash

it off completely. History recorded women who had lost their bids for the Lion Throne on no further

discernible grounds. Capability was a requirement for a successful ruler and wisdom was to be hoped

for, though women lacking both had gained the throne and muddled through somehow, but few would

support a coward, and none of those people she wanted on her side.

The man who came in, turning to push the massive door shut behind him, had only one leg and

used a crutch in place of the other. Even with fleece padding, the sleeve of his heavy woolen coat was

worn from it. A heavy-shouldered former soldier, Fridwyn Ros managed Lord Aedmun’s estate, with

the aid of a fat clerk who had blinked at the Daughter-Heir in consternation, gaped at her Great Serpent

ring with something near to awe, and scurried back to his ledgers in relief as soon as he realized she had

no business with him. He had probably feared a levy on the manor’s accounts. Master Ros had stared at

her ring in amazement, to be sure, but he had grinned with delight at the Daughter-Heir and regretted

that he could no longer ride for her with such sincerity that, had he been a liar, he would already have

bilked Aedmun and the clerk of everything they owned between them. She did not fear him carrying the

wrong tales.

His crutch made a rhythmic thump as he came up the hall, and he managed a credible bow in

spite of it, including Aviendha in his courtesy. He had been startled by her at first, but surprisingly quick

to catch their friendship, and if he did not entirely trust an Aiel, it meant he accepted her. You could not

ask for everything. "The men are strapping your cases to the pack animals, my Queen, and your escort is

ready." He was one of those who refused to call her anything except "my Queen" or "Majesty," but a

hint of doubt entered his voice at mention of her escort. He covered it hastily with a cough and hurried

on. "The men we’re sending with you are all mounted as well as I could manage. Young men, mainly,

and a few more experienced, but they all know which end of a halberd has the point. I wish the manor

could give you more, but I explained, when Lord Aedmun heard there were others claiming what’s

yours by right, he decided not to wait for spring, and he called in his armsmen and set out for Caemlyn.

We’ve had a couple of bad snowfalls since, but he might be halfway there by now with luck in the

passes." His gaze carried conviction, but he knew better than she that with the wrong luck Aedmun and

his armsmen might be dead in those passes.

"Matherin has always maintained faith with Trakand," Elayne told him, "and I put my trust that

it always will. I value Lord Aedmun’s loyalty, Master Ros, and yours."

She did not insult Matherin, and him, by promising to remember or offering rewards, yet Master

Ros’ broad smile said she had already given him as much reward as he desired. Matherin would receive

rewards, if they were earned, but they could not be held out as if offering to buy a horse.

Thumping along on his crutch, Master Ros bowed her to the door, and bowed her out onto the

broad granite step where servants wearing heavy coats waited in the bitter cold with a stirrup cup of hot

spiced wine that she rejected with a murmur. Until she had a chance to adjust to the sharp air, she

wanted both hands to hold her cloak closed. Aviendha would probably have found a way to make her

drop it anyway. She took a cup, after wrapping her shawl around her head and shoulders, the only

concession she made to the icy morning. She was ignoring the cold, of course. Elayne was the one who

had taught her how. Elayne tried again to push the cold away, and to her surprise, it receded. Not all the

way-she still felt chilly-but it was better than freezing.

The sky was clear, the sun bright as it sat over the mountains, but storm clouds could come

boiling across the surrounding peaks at any time. It would be best to reach their first destination today as

quickly as possible. Unfortunately, Fireheart, her tall black gelding, was living up to his name, rearing

and snorting gouts of steamy breath as if he had never worn a bridle before, and Aviendha’s leggy archnecked

gray had taken it into her head to imitate him, dancing in the knee-deep snow and trying to go

anywhere except where the groom tried to lead her. She was a more spirited animal than Elayne would

have chosen for her sister, yet Aviendha herself had insisted after learning the mare’s name. Siswai

meant spear, in the Old Tongue. The grooms seemed capable women, but they appeared to think they

needed to calm the animals before handing them over. It was all Elayne could do not to snap at them that

she had managed Fireheart before they ever saw him.

Her escort was already mounted, to avoid standing in the snow, twenty-odd riders in the whitecollared

red coats and brightly burnished breastplates and helmets of the Queen’s Guard. Master Ros’

doubt might be explained by the fact that the riders’ coats were silk, as were their red breeches with the

white stripe up each leg, and by the pale lace they wore at neck and cuff. They certainly appeared more

ceremonial than effective. Or it might have been that they were all women. Women were uncommon in

jobs that required using weapons, just the occasional merchants’ guard or a rare woman who turned up

in an army during time of war, and Elayne had never heard of a group of all-female soldiers before she

created one. Except the Maidens, of course, but they were Aiel and a different matter. She hoped people

would think them an affectation on her part, and largely decorative with all the lace and silk. Men tended

to underestimate a woman carrying weapons until they faced one, and even most other women tended to

think her a brainless fool. Bodyguards usually tried to appear so ferocious that no one would dare trying

to get past them, but her enemies would just find a new way to attack if she stood the whole Queen’s

Guard around her shoulder-to-shoulder. A bodyguard her enemies would dismiss until it was too late for

more than regrets was her aim. She intended to make their uniforms more elaborate, partly to feed those

misconceptions and partly to feed the women’s pride as soldiers marked out from the rest, but she

herself had no doubts. Every one of them, from merchants’ guards to Hunters of the Horn, had been

carefully chosen for her skills, experience and courage. She was ready to put her life in their hands. She

already had.

A lean woman wearing a lieutenant’s two golden knots on the shoulder of her red cloak saluted

Elayne with an arm across her chest, and her roan gelding tossed his head, making the silver bells in his

mane chime faintly, as if he too were saluting. "We are ready, my Lady, and the area is clear." Caseille

Raskovni was one of those who had been a merchant’s guard, and her Arafellin accents were not those

of an educated woman, but her voice was brisk and nononsense. She used the proper form of address,

and would until Elayne was crowned, yet she was ready to fight to gain that crown for Elayne. Very,

very few, male or female, signed the roster of the Queen’s Guard these days unless they were ready for

that. "The men Master Ros handed over are ready, too. As ready as they’ll ever be." Clearing his throat,

the man shifted his crutch and took to studying the snow in front of his boots.

Elayne could see what Caseille meant. Master Ros had scraped together eleven men from the

manor to send to Caemlyn and outfitted them with halberds and short-swords and what armor he could

find, nine antique helmets without faceguards and seven breastplates with dents that made them

vulnerable. Their mounts were not bad, though hairy with their winter coats, but even huddled as their

riders were in thick cloaks, she could see that eight were unlikely to need to shave above once in a week,

if that. The men Master Ros had described as being experienced had wrinkled faces and bony hands and

probably not a full set of teeth between them. He had not been lying or trying to stint; Aedmun would

have gathered all the fit men in the area to take with him and outfitted them in the best he had. The story

had been the same everywhere. Apparently a great number of hale and hearty men scattered the length

of Andor were trying to reach her in Caemlyn. And none of them likely to get into the city until all was

decided, now. She could search every day without finding a single band. Still, this little bunch held their

halberds as if they knew how to use them. Then again, that was not hard to do sitting a saddle at rest

with the halberd’s butt tucked in your stirrup. She could have managed that.

"We have visited nineteen of these manors, sister," Aviendha said softly, moving closer until

their shoulders touched, "and counting these, we have gathered two hundred and five boys too young to

be blooded and old men who should have laid down the spear long ago. I have not asked befote. You

know your people and your ways. Is this worth the time you give it?" "Oh, yes, sister." Elayne kept her

voice just as low, so the onelegged former soldier and the servants could not overhear. The best of

people could turn muleheaded if they realized you wanted them to behave a certain way. Particularly if

they realized that the help they had painfully gathered and offered, and you had accepted, was not what

you were after at all. "Everyone in that village down by the river knows I’m here by now, and so do half

the farms for miles.

By noon, the other half will know, and by tomorrow, the next village over, and more farms.

News travels slowly in winter, especially in this country. They know I’ve spoken my claim to the throne,

yet if I gain the throne tomorrow or die tomorrow, they might not learn of it before the middle of spring,

maybe not even until summer. But today they know that Elayne Trakand is alive that she visited the

manor in silks and jewels and summoned men to her banner. People twenty miles from here will claim

they saw me and touched my hand. Few people can say that without speaking in favor of whoever they

claim to have seen, and when you speak in favor of someone, you convince yourself to favor them.

There are men and women in nineteen places around Andor talking about how they saw the Daughter-

Heir just this last week, and every day the area that talk covers spreads like an inkblot. "If I had time, I’d

visit every village in Andor. It won’t make a hair of difference in what happens in Caemlyn, but it may

make all the difference after I win." She would not admit to any possibility other than winning.

Especially not given who would take the throne if she failed. "Most Queens in our history spent the first

years of their rule gathering the people solidly behind them, Aviendha, and some never did, but harder

times than these are coming. I may not have one year before I need every Andoran to stand behind me. I

can’t wait until I have the throne. Harder times are coming, and I have to be ready. Andor has to be

ready, and I must make it so," she finished firmly.

Smiling, Aviendha touched Elayne’s cheek. "I think I will learn a great deal about being a Wise

One from you." To her mortification, Elayne blushed in embarrassment. Her cheeks felt on fire! Maybe

the swings in humor were worse than the cosseting. Light, she had months of this to look forward to!

Not for the first time, she found a kernel of resentment toward Rand. He had done this to her-all right,

she had helped him, instigated the doing, in fact, but that was beside the point-he had done this and

walked away with a smug grin on his face. She doubted his grin tiad really been smug, but she could

picture it all too easily. Let him dart from giddy to weepy every other hour and see how he liked it! I

can’t think in a straight line, she thought irritably. That was his fault, too.

The grooms finally deemed Fireheart and Aviendha’s Siswai meek enough to be mounted by

ladies, and Aviendha climbed to her saddle from the stone mounting block with a good deal more grace

than she once had shown, arranging her bulky undivided skirts to cover as much of her dark-stockinged

legs as possible. She still believed that her own legs were superior to any horse, yet she had become a

passable rider. Though she did have a tendency to look surprised when the horse did as she wanted.

Fireheart tried to dance once Elayne was on his back, but she reined him in smartly, and a bit more

sharply than she would have normally. Her teetering moods had taken her to a sudden sense of dread for

Rand, and if she could not ensure his safety, there was one male at hand she could make certain did

exactly as he was supposed to. Six of the Guardswomen led the way down the road from the manor at a

slow walk, all the depth of snow would allow, with the rest following her and Aviendha in smart

columns, the last horsewomen in line leading the pack animals. The local men trailed behind raggedly

with their own packhorse, a shaggy creature tied about with cookpots and rough bundles and even half a

dozen live chickens. A few cheers greeted them as they rode through the thatch-roofed village and

across the stone bridge that crossed a snake-curved frozen stream, loud cries of "Elayne of the Lily!"

and "Trakand! Trakand!" and "Matherin stands!" But she saw a woman crying on her husband’s chest,

and tears on his face, too, and another woman who stood with her back to the riders and her head down,

refusing even to look. Elayne hoped she would send their sons home to them. There should be little

fighting at Caemlyn, unless she blundered badly, but there would be some, and once the Rose Crown

was hers, battles lay ahead. To the south lay the Seanchan, and to the north, Myrddraal and Trollocs

waiting to descend for Tarmon Gai’don. Andor would bleed sons in the days to come. Burn her, she was

not going to cry!

Beyond the bridge, the road slanted up again, a steep climb through pine and fir and leatherleaf,

but it was no more than a long mile to the mountain meadow they sought. The snow shining beneath the

midmorning sun still bore the marks of hooves coming from where a gateway had left a deep furrow in

the snow. It could have been nearer the manor, but the possibility of someone standing where your

gateway opened was always the danger.

The glow of saidar surrounded Aviendha as they rode into the meadow. She had made the

gateway to come here from their last stop yesterday afternoon, a manor a hundred miles north, so she

would weave the gateway to go to Caemlyn, but the sight of Aviendha shining with the Power made

Elayne go broody. Whoever made the gateway to leave Caemlyn always ended up making all the others

until they returned, since she learned the ground at each place her gateway touched, but on each of their

five trips, Aviendha had asked to make that first gateway. She might simply have wanted the practice, as

she claimed, though Elayne hardly had more practice than she did, but another possibility had come to

mind. Maybe Aviendha wanted to keep her from channeling, in any considerable amount at least.

Because she was pregnant. The weave that had made them sisters of the same mother could not have

been used if either of them had been with child, because the unborn child would have shared in the

bond, a thing it could not be strong enough to survive, but surely one of the Aes Sedai in the palace

would have said something if channeling was to be avoided in pregnancy. Then again, very few Aes

Sedai ever bore children. They might not know. She was aware there were many things Aes Sedai did

not know, however much they might pretend otherwise to the rest of the world-she herself had taken

advantage of that presumption from time to time-but it seemed very strange that they might be ignorant

of something so important to most women. It was as though a bird knew how to eat every seed and grain

except barley, so supposedly knew, because if it did not know how to eat barley, what else might it be

ignorant of? Wise Ones bore children, though, and they had said nothing about-

Abruptly concerns over her babe and channeling and what Aes Sedai might or might not know

were pushed right out of her head. She could feel someone channeling saidar. Not Aviendha, not

someone on one of the surrounding mountains, not anyone near as close as that. This was distant, like a

beacon blazing on a far mountaintop in the night. A very distant mountain. She could not imagine how

much of the One Power was needed for her to feel channeling at that distance. Every woman in the

world who could channel must be able to sense this. To point straight to it. And the beacon lay to the

west. Nothing had changed in the bond with Rand, she could not have said exactly where he was within

a hundred miles, but she knew.

"He’s in danger," she said. "We must go to him, Aviendha."

Aviendha gave herself a shake and stopped staring westward. The glow remained around her,

and Elayne could feel that she had drawn on the Source as deeply as she could. But even as Aviendha

turned to her, she felt the amount of saidar the other woman held dwindle. "We must not, Elayne."

Aghast, Elayne twisted in Fireheart’s saddle to stare at her. "You want to abandon him? To

that!" No one could handle so much of saidar, not the strongest circle, not unaided. Supposedly a

sa’angreal existed, greater than anything else ever made, and if what she had heard was correct, that

might be able to handle this. Maybe. But from what she had heard, no woman could use it and live, not

without ter’angreal made for the purpose, and no one had ever seen one that she knew of. Surely no

sister would try even if she had found one. That much of the One Power could level mountain ranges at

a stroke! No sister would try except perhaps one of the Black Ajah. Or worse, one of the Forsaken.

Maybe more than one. What else could it be? And Aviendha simply wanted to ignore it, when she must

know that Rand was there?

The Guardswomen, unaware, were still waiting patiently on their horses, keeping watch on the

treeline around the meadow and little concerned with that after their reception at the manor, though

Caseille was watching Elayne and Aviendha, a slight frown visible behind the face-bars of her helmet.

She knew they never delayed at opening a gateway. The men from the manor were gathered around their

packhorse, pawing at the bundles and apparently arguing over whether or not something had been

included. Aviendha still moved her gray closer to Elayne’s black and spoke in a voice that would not

carry.

"We know nothing, Elayne. Not whether he is dancing the spears or this is something else. If he

dances the spears and we rush in, will he attack us before he knows who are? Will we distract him

because he does not expect us, and allow his enemies to win? If he dies, we will find who took his life

and kill them, but if we go to him now, we go blindly, and we may bring disaster on our backs." "We

could be careful," Elayne said sullenly. It infuriated her that she was feeling sullen, and showing it, but

all she could do was ride her moods and try not let them get the upper hand completely. "We don’t have

to Travel right to the spot." Gripping her pouch, feeling the small ivory carving of a seated woman that

nestled inside, she looked pointedly at her sister’s amber brooch. "Light, Aviendha, we have angreal,

and neither of us is exactly helpless." Oh, Light, now she was sounding petulant. She knew very well

that both of them together, angreal and all, would be flies battling a flame against what they could

sense, but even so, a flybite at the right moment might make the difference. "And don’t tell me I’ll

endanger the baby. Min said she will be born strong and healthy. You told me so yourself. That means I

will live at least long enough for my daughter to be born." She hoped for a daughter. Fireheart chose that

moment to nip at the gray, and Siswai nipped back, and for a bit Elayne was occupied with getting her

gelding under control and keeping Aviendha from being thrown and telling Caseille that they did not

need any help, and by the end of it, she was not feeling sullen any longer. She wanted to smack Fireheart

right between his ears.

Aside from making the animal obey the reins, Aviendha behaved as if nothing had happened at

all. She did frown, a little uncertainly, her face framed by the dark wool of her shawl, but her uncertainty

had nothing to do with the horse.

"I have told you about the rings in Rhuidean," she said slowly, and Elayne gave an impatient

nod. Every woman who wanted to become a Wise One was sent through a ter’angreal before she began

training. It was something like the ter’angreal used to test novices for being raised to Accepted in the

White Tower, except that in this one, a woman saw her whole life. All of her possible lives, really, every

decision made differently, an infinite fan of lives based on differing choices. "No one can remember all

of that, Elayne, only bits and pieces. I knew I would love Rand al’Thor . . . " she was still uncomfortable

sometimes about using just his first name in front of others, "and that I would find sister-wives. For most

things, all you retain is a vague impression at best. A hint of warning, sometimes. I think if we go to him

now, something very bad will happen. Maybe one of us will die, maybe both in spite of what Min said."

That she said Min’s name without fumbling was a measure of her concern. She did not know

Min very well, and usually named her formally, as Min Farshaw. "Perhaps he will die. Perhaps

something else. I do not know for sure-maybe we will all survive, and we will sit around a fire with

him roasting pecara when we find him-but the glimmer of a warning is there in my head." Elayne

opened her mouth angrily. Then she closed it again, anger draining away like water down a hole, and her

shoulders slumped. Perhaps Aviendha’s glimmer was true and perhaps not, but the fact was that her

arguments had been good from the start. A great risk taken in ignorance, and taking it might bring

disaster. The beacon had grown brighter still. And he was there, right where the beacon was. The bond

did not tell her so, not at this distance, but she knew. And she knew she had to leave him to take care of

himself while she took care of Andor.

"I don’t have anything to teach you about being a Wise One, Aviendha," she said quietly. "You

are already much wiser than I. Not to mention braver and more coolheaded. We return to Caemlyn."

Aviendha colored faintly under the praise-she could be very sensitive, at times-but she wasted no

time in opening the gateway, a rotating view of a stableyard in the Royal Palace that widened into a hole

in the air and let snow from the meadow fall onto the clean-swept paving stones as near three hundred

miles away as made no difference. The sense of Birgitte, somewhere in the palace, sprang alive in

Elayne’s head. Birgitte had a headache and a sour stomach, not unusual occurrences of late, but they

suited Elayne’s mood all too well.

I must leave him to take care of himself, she thought as she rode through. Light, how often had

she thought that? No matter. Rand was the love of her heart and the joy of her life, but Andor was her

duty.

CHAPTER 11

Talk of Debts

The gateway was positioned so that Elayne seemed to be riding out of a hole in the wall against

the street, into a square marked out for safety by sand-filled wine barrels standing on the paving stones.

Oddly, she could not feel a single woman channeling anywhere in the palace, though it housed more

than a hundred and fifty with the ability. Some would be stationed on the city’s outer walls, of course,

too far for her to sense anything short of a linked circle, and a few would be out of the city altogether,

yet someone in the palace was almost always using saidar, whether to try forcing one of the captive

sul’dam to admit that she really could see weaves of the One Power or simply to smooth the wrinkles

from a shawl without heating an iron. Not this morning, though. Windfinder arrogance often matched

the worst shown by any Aes Sedai, yet even that must be quashed by what they sensed. Elayne thought

that if she climbed to a high window, she must be able to see the weaves of that great beacon, hundreds

of leagues distant as they were. She felt like an ant that had just become aware of mountains, an ant

comparing the Spine of the World to the hills it had always held in awe. Yes, even the Windfinders must

be walking small in the face of that.

On the eastern side of the palace and fronted on north and south by two-story-high stables of

pure white stone, the Queen’s Stableyard traditionally was given over to the Queen’s personal horses

and carriages, and she had hesitated over using it before the Lion Throne was acknowledged hers. The

steps that led to the throne were as delicate as any court dance, and if the dance sometimes came to

resemble a tavern brawl, you still had to make your steps with grace and precision in order to gain your

goal. Claiming the perquisites before being confirmed had cost some women their chance to rule. In the

end, she had decided it was not a transgression that would make her seem over-proud. Besides, the

Queen’s Stableyard was relatively small and had no other use. There were fewer people to keep away

from an opening gateway here. In fact, when she entered it, the stone-paved yard was empty apart from

a single red-coated groom standing in one of the arched stable doorways, but he turned to give a shout

inside, and dozens more came spilling out as she guided Fireheart clear of the marked-off square. After

all, she might have returned with an entourage of powerful lords and ladies, or perhaps they just hoped

she had. Caseille brought the Guardswomen through the gateway, and ordered most to dismount and see

to their animals. She and half a dozen more remained in their saddles, keeping watch over the heads of

the people afoot. Even here, she would not leave Elayne unguarded. Particularly here, where she faced

more danger than in any manor she had visited. The Matherin men milled about, getting in the way of

grooms and Guards while gaping at the white stone balconies and colonnades that overlooked the yard

and the spires and golden domes visible beyond. The cold seemed less here than in the mountains-

refusing to let it touch her, as far as she could at present, did not make her totally unaware-but men and

women and horses all still breathed faint plumes of mist. The odor of horse dung seemed strong, too,

after the clean air of the mountains. A hot bath in front of a roaring fire would be welcome. Afterward,

she would have to plunge back into the business of securing the throne, but right now a long soak would

be just the thing.

A pair of grooms ran to Fireheart. One took his bridle with a hurried curtsy for Elayne, more

concerned with seeing that the tall gelding made no bother while Elayne dismounted than with making

courtesies herself, and another who made his bow and remained bent with his hands making a stirrup for

Elayne. Neither gave more than a glance at the view of a snow-covered mountain meadow where they

would normally see a stone wall. The stableworkers were accustomed to gateways by now. She had

heard that they garnered drinks in the taverns by boasting of how often they saw the Power used and the

things they supposedly had seen done with it. Elayne could imagine what those tales sounded like by the

time they reached Arymilla. She rather enjoyed the thought of Arymilla chewing her fingernails.

As she set foot on the paving stones, a cluster of Guardswomen appeared around her, in crimson

hats with white plumes lying flat on the broad brims, and lace-edged crimson sashes, embroidered with

the White Lion, that slanted across their bright breastplates. Not until then did Caseille take the

remainder of Elayne’s escort to the stable. Their replacements were just as wary, eyes watching every

direction, hands hovering near their sword hilts, except for Deni, a wide, placid-faced woman who

carried a long brassstudded cudgel. They were only nine in number-Only nine, Elayne thought bitterly.

I need only nine bodyguards in the Royal Palace itself!-yet every one who carried a sword was expert.

Women who followed the "trade of the sword," as Caseille called it, had to be good, or else sooner or

later they were cut down by some fellow whose only advantage was strength enough to batter her down.

Deni possessed no facility with a sword at all, but the few men who had tested her cudgel regretted

doing so. Despite her bulk, Deni was very quick, and she had no concept of fighting fair, or of practice,

for that matter.

Rasoria, the stocky under-lieutenant in charge, seemed relieved when the grooms led Fireheart

off. If Elayne’s bodyguard had their way, no one except themselves would have been allowed within

arm’s reach. Well, maybe they were not quite that bad, but they looked with suspicion at almost

everyone except Birgitte and Aviendha. Rasoria, a Tairen despite her blue eyes and the yellow hair she

wore cut short, was among the worst in that regard, even insisting on watching the cooks make Elayne’s

meals and having everything tasted before it was brought up. Elayne had not protested, however overzealous

they might be. One experience of drugged wine was more than enough, even when she knew she

would live at least long enough to bear her child. But it was neither the Guardswomen’s mistrust nor the

need for it that tightened her mouth. It was Birgitte, weaving her way through the crowded stableyard,

but not toward her.

Aviendha was last to appear out of the gateway, of course, after she was sure that everyone was

through, and before she let the gateway wink out of existence, Elayne started in her direction, striding

off so suddenly that her escort had to leap to maintain their guarding ring around her. As quickly as she

moved, though, Birgitte, with her thick golden braid hanging to her waist, was there first, helping

Aviendha down and handing the gray mare over to a long-faced groom who seemed almost as leggy as

Siswai. Aviendha always had more difficulty getting off a horse than getting on, but Birgitte had more

than assistance in mind. Elayne and her escort arrived just in time to hear the woman say to Aviendha in

a low, hurried voice, "Did she drink her goat’s milk? Did she get enough sleep? She feels. . . ." Her

voice trailed off at the end, and she drew a deep breath before turning to face Elayne, outwardly calm,

and unsurprised to find her right there. The bond did work both ways.

Birgitte was not a big woman, though she stood taller than Elayne in her heeled boots, as tall as

Aviendha, but she usually had a presence that was only heightened by the uniform of the Captain-

General of the Queen’s Guards, a short red coat with a high white collar worn over baggy blue trousers

tucked into gleaming black boots, four golden knots on her left shoulder and four bands of gold on each

white cuff. After all, she was Birgitte Silverbow, a hero out of legend. She remained wary of trying to

live up to those legends; she claimed that the stories were grossly inflated where they were not complete

fabrications. Yet she was still the same woman who had done every one of the things that formed the

heart of those legends and more besides. Now, despite her apparent composure, unease tinged the

concern for Elayne that flowed through the bond along with her headache and her sullen stomach. She

knew very well that Elayne hated for them to check on her behind her back. That was not the whole

reason for Elayne’s irritation, but the bond let Birgitte know just how upset she was. Aviendha, calmly

unwrapping her shawl from around her head and draping it over her shoulders, attempted the gaze of a

woman who had done nothing wrong and certainly was not involved with anyone else who had done

anything wrong. She might have managed it if she had not widened her eyes for an added touch of

innocence. Birgitte was a bad influence on her in some ways. "I drank the goat’s milk," Elayne said in a

level voice, all too conscious of the Guardswomen ringing the three of them. Facing outward, eyes

scanning the yard and the balconies and the rooftops, nearly every one was certainly listening. "I got

enough sleep. Is there anything else you want to ask me?" Aviendha’s cheeks colored faintly.

"I think I have all the answers I need for the moment," Birgitte replied without a hint of the blush

Elayne had been hoping for. The woman knew she was tired, knew she had to be lying about the sleep.

The bond was decidedly inconvenient at times. She had drunk nothing but half a cup of

extremely well watered wine last night, but she was beginning to have Birgitte’s morning-after head and

her sour stomach. None of the other Aes Sedai she had spoken to about the bond had mentioned

anything of the kind, but she and Birgitte all too often mirrored one another, physically and emotionally.

The last presented real problems when her moods were on a seesaw. Sometimes she managed to shrug it

off, or fight it off, but today she knew she was going to have to suffer until Birgitte was Healed. She

thought the mirroring must occur because they were both women. No one had heard of anyone bonding

another woman before. Few had heard of it now, to tell the truth, and some of them seemed to believe it

could not be true. A Warder was male as surely as a bull was male. Everyone knew that, and not many

stopped to think that anything that "everyone knew" deserved close examination.

Being caught in a lie, when she was trying to follow Egwene’s dictate about living as if she had

already taken the Three Oaths, made Elayne defensive, and that made her blunt. "Is Dyelin back?" "No,"

Birgitte said just as bluntly, and Elayne sighed. Dyelin had left the city days before Arymilla’s army

appeared, taking Reanne Corly with her to make gateways and speed her travel, and a great deal

depended on Dyelin’s return. On what news she brought back. On whether she brought anything besides

news. Choosing who would be Queen of Andor was quite simple, boiled down to essentials. There were

over four hundred Houses in the realm, but only nineteen strong enough that others would follow where

they led. Usually, all nineteen stood behind the Daughter-Heir, or most of them, unless she was plainly

incompetent. House Mantear had lost the throne to Trakand when Mordrellen died only because

Tigraine, the Daughter-Heir, had vanished and Mantear had begun running heavily to boy children. And

because Morgase Trakand had gathered thirteen Houses in her support. Only ten of the nineteen were

necessary to ascend the throne, by law and custom. Even claimants who still thought they should have

the throne themselves usually fell in with the rest, or at least fell silent and gave up their pursuit, once

another woman had ten Houses at her back.

Things had been bad enough when she had three declared rivals, but now Naean and Elenia were

united behind Arymilla Marne, of all people, the least likely of the three to have succeeded, and that

meant she had two Houses-two large enough to count;

Matherin and those eighteen others she had visited were too small-her own Trakand and

Dyelin’s Taravin, to face six. Oh, Dyelin insisted that Carand, Coelan and Renshar would come to

Elayne, and Norwelyn and Pendar and Traemane besides, but the first three wanted Dyelin herself on the

throne, and the last three seemed to have gone into hibernation. Dyelin was firm in her loyalty, though,

and tireless on Elayne’s behalf. She persisted in her belief that some of the Houses that were keeping

silent could be convinced to support Elayne. Of course, Elayne could not approach them herself, but

Dyelin could. And now the situation verged on desperate. Six Houses supporting Arymilla, and only a

fool would think she had not sent feelers out toward the others. Or that some might listen just because

she did have six already.

Despite the fact that Caseille and her Guards had vacated the courtyard, Elayne and the others

had to thread their way across the paving stones though a crowd. The men from Matherin were finally

down off their horses, but they were still moiling about, dropping their halberds and picking them up

only to drop them again, trying to unload their packhorse there in the stableyard. One of the boys was

chasing a chicken that somehow had gotten loose and was scuttling between the horses’ legs, while one

of the wrinkled old men shouted encouragement, though whether for the boy or the chicken was unclear.

A leather-faced bannerman with the merest fringe of white hair remaining, in a faded red coat that

strained across his belly, was trying to establish order with the help of an only slightly younger

Guardsman, both of them likely returned from their pensions, as a good many had, but another of the

boys seemed about to lead his shaggy horse into the palace itself, and Birgitte had to order him out of

the way before Elayne could enter. The boy, a fuzz-cheeked lad who could not have been above

fourteen, gaped at Birgitte as widely as he had at the palace. She was certainly more picturesque in her

uniform than the Daughter-Heir in a riding dress, and he had already seen the Daughter-Heir. Rasoria

gave him a shove back toward the old bannerman, shaking her head.

"I don’t naming know what I can do with them," Birgitte grumbled as a maid liveried in red-andwhite

took Elayne’s cloak and gloves in the small entry hall. Small in terms of the Royal Palace. With

gilded stand-lamps flickering between narrow, fluted white columns, it was half again the size of

Matherin’s main entry hall, though the ceiling was not so high. Another maid with the White Lion on the

left breast of her dress, a girl not that much older than the boy who had tried to bring his horse inside,

offered a ropework silver tray with tall cups of steaming spiced wine before simultaneous frowns from

Aviendha and Birgitte made her shy back. "The flaming boys fall asleep if they’re put on guard,"

Birgitte went on, scowling at the retreating maid. "The old men stay awake, but half can’t remember

what they’re flaming supposed to do if they see somebody trying to scale the bloody wall, and the other

half together couldn’t fight off six shepherds with a dog." Aviendha raised an eyebrow at Elayne and

nodded.

"They aren’t here to fight," Elayne reminded them as they started down a blue-tiled corridor

lined with mirrored stand-lamps and inlaid chests, Birgitte and Aviendha on either side of her and the

Guardswomen spreading out a few paces ahead of them and behind. Light, she thought, I wouldn’t have

taken the wine! Her head pounded in rhythm with Birgitte’s, and she touched her temple, wondering

whether she should order her Warder to go find Healing immediately.

Birgitte had other ideas, though. She eyed Rasoria and the others in front, then looked over her

shoulder and motioned those following to fall back a little more. That was strange. She had handpicked

every last woman in the Guards, and she trusted them. Even so, when she spoke it was in a hurried nearwhisper,

bending her head close to Elayne. "Something happened just before you returned. I was asking

Sumeko if she’d Heal me before you got back, and she suddenly fell over in a faint. Her eyes just rolled

up in her head, and down she went. It isn’t only her. Nobody will admit a flaming thing, not to me, but

the other Kin I’ve seen have been jumping out of their bloody skins, and the Windfinders, too. Not one

of them could spit if she had to. You were back before I could find a sister, but I suspect they’d give me

the fish eye, too. They’ll tell you, though."

The palace required the population of a large village to keep running, and servants had begun to

appear, liveried men and women scurrying along the corridors, flattening themselves against the walls or

ducking into crossing hallways to make room for Elayne’s escort, so she explained the little she knew in

as soft a voice and as few words as possible. Some rumors she did not mind reaching the streets, and

inevitably Arymilla, but tales of Rand could be as bad as tales of the Forsaken by the time they were

twisted through a few retellings. Worse, in a way. No one would believe the Forsaken were trying to put

her on the throne as a puppet. "In any event," she finished, "it’s nothing to do with us here."

She thought she sounded very convincing, very cool and detached, but Aviendha reached out to

squeeze her hand, for an Aiel as much as a comforting hug with so many people to see, and Birgitte’s

sympathy flooded through the bond. It was more than commiseration; it was the shared feeling of a

woman who had already suffered the loss she herself feared and more. Gaidal Cain was lost to Birgitte

as surely as if he were dead, and on top of that, her memories of her past lives were fading. She

remembered almost nothing clearly before the founding of the White Tower, and not all of that. Some

nights, the fear that Gaidal would fade from her memory, too, that she would lose any remembrance of

actually having known and loved him, left her unable to sleep until she drank as much brandy as she

could hold. That was a poor solution, and Elayne wished she could offer a better, yet she knew her own

memories of Rand would not die until she did, and she could not imagine the horror of knowing those

memories might leave her. Still, she hoped someone Healed Birgitte’s morning-after head soon, before

her own split open like an over-ripe melon. Her ability with Healing fell short of the task, and

Aviendha’s was no stronger. Despite the emotion she could feel in Birgitte, the other woman kept her

face smooth and unconcerned. "The Forsaken," she muttered dryly. And softly. That was not a name to

bandy about. "Well, as long as it has nothing to do with us, we’re bloody all right." A grunt that might

have been a laugh gave her the lie. But then, although Birgitte said she had never been a soldier before,

she had a soldier’s view. Long odds were usually the only odds you could find, but you still had to get

the job done. "I wonder what they think of it?" she added, nodding toward the four Aes Sedai who had

just stepped out of a crossing corridor down the hallway.

Vandene, Merilille, Sareitha and Careane had their heads together as they walked, or rather, the

last three were clustered around Vandene, leaning toward her and talking with urgent gestures that made

the fringes on their shawls sway. Vandene glided along slowly as if she were alone, paying no heed. She

had always been slender, but her dark green dress, embroidered with flowers on the sleeves and

shoulders, hung on her as though made for a stouter woman, and the white hair gathered at the nape of

her neck seemed in need of a brush. Her expression was bleak, but that might have had nothing to do

with whatever the other sisters were saying. She had been joyless ever since her sister’s murder. Elayne

would have wagered that dress had belonged to Adeleas. Since the murder, Vandene wore her sister’s

clothes more often than her own. Not that that accounted for the fit. The two women had been of a size,

but Vandene’s appetite for food had died with her sister. Her taste for most things seemed to have died

then.

Sareitha, a Brown whose dark square face was not yet touched with agelessness, saw Elayne just

then, and put a hand on Vandene’s arm as if to draw her up the corridor. Vandene brushed the Tairen

woman’s hand away and glided on with the merest glance at Elayne, disappearing on along the hallway

they had come out of. Two women in novice white, who had been following the others at a respectful

distance, offered quick curtsies to the remaining sisters and hastened after Vandene. Merilille, a tiny

woman in dark gray that made her Cairhienin paleness seem like ivory, stared as if she might follow.

Careane adjusted her green-fringed shawl on shoulders wider than those of many men and exchanged

quiet words with Sareitha. The pair of them turned to meet Elayne as she approached, making her

curtsies almost as deep as the novices had given them. Merilille noticed the Guardswomen and blinked,

then noticed Elayne and gave a start. Her curtsy matched the novices’. Merilille had worn the shawl for

over a hundred years, Careane for more than fifty, and even Sareitha had worn it longer than Elayne

Trakand, but standing among Aes Sedai went with strength in the Power, and none of these three was

more than middling strong among sisters. In Aes Sedai eyes, increased strength gave, if not increased

wisdom, at least increased weight to your opinions. With a sufficient gap, those opinions became

commands. Sometimes, Elayne thought the Kin’s way was better.

"I don’t know what it is," she said before any of the other Aes Sedai could speak, "but there is

nothing we can do about it, so we might as well quit worrying. We have enough right in front of us

without fretting over things we can’t affect."

Rasoria half-turned her head, frowning and plainly wondering what she had missed, but the

words smoothed the anxiety from Sareitha’s dark eyes. Perhaps not from the rest of her, since her hands

moved as if she wanted to smooth her brown skirts, yet she was willing to follow the lead of a sister who

stood as high as Elayne. Sometimes, there were advantages to standing high enough that you could quell

objections with a sentence. Careane had already regained serenity, if she had ever lost it. It sat easily on

her, though she looked more like a wagon driver than an Aes Sedai despite her beryl-slashed silks and

smooth, ageless coppery face.

But then, Greens usually were made of tougher stuff than Browns. Merilille did not look at all

serene. Wide eyes and half-parted lips gave her the appearance of startlement. That was usual for her,

though.

Elayne continued along the hallway, hoping they would go about their business, but Merilille fell

in beside Birgitte. The Gray should have taken primacy among the three, but she had developed a

tendency to wait for someone to tell her what to do, and she shifted over without a word when Sareitha

politely asked Birgitte to give her room. The sisters were unfailingly courteous to Elayne’s Warder when

she was acting as Captain-General. It was Birgitte as Warder they tried to ignore. Aviendha received no

such civility from Careane, who elbowed in between her and Elayne. Anyone not trained in the White

Tower was a wilder by definition, and Careane despised wilders. Aviendha pursed her lips though she

did not draw her belt knife or even suggest that she might, for which Elayne was grateful. Her first-sister

could be . . . precipitate, at times. On second thought, she would have forgiven a little hastiness from

Aviendha right then. Custom forbade rudeness toward another Aes Sedai under any circumstances, but

Aviendha could have growled threats and waved her knife to her heart’s content. That might have been

enough to make the threesome leave, even if in a tizzy. Careane did not seem to notice the cool green

gaze marking her.

"I told Merilille and Sareitha it was nothing we could do anything about," she said calmly. "But

shouldn’t we be ready to flee if it comes closer? There’s no shame flying from that. Even linked, we

would be moths fighting a forest fire. Vandene wouldn’t bother to listen."

"We really should make some sort of preparations, Elayne," Sareitha murmured absently, as if

making lists in her head. "It’s when you don’t make plans that you wish you had. There are a number of

volumes in the library here that mustn’t be left behind. I believe several can’t be found in the Tower

library." "Yes." Merilille’s voice was breathless, and as anxious as her large dark eyes. "Yes, we really

should be ready to go. Perhaps. . . . Perhaps we should not wait. Surely going from necessity would not

violate our agreement. I am sure it would not." Only Birgitte as much as glanced at her, but she flinched.

"If we do go," Careane said as if Merilille had not spoken, "we’ll have to take all of the Kin with

us. Allow them to scatter, and the Light only knows what they’ll do or when we will ever catch them

again, especially now that some have learned to Travel." There was no bitterness in her voice, though

only Elayne among the sisters in the palace could Travel. It seemed to make a difference to Careane that

the Kinswomen had begun in the White Tower, even if most had been put out and a few had run away.

She had identified no fewer than four of them herself, including one runaway. At least they were not

wilders.

Sareitha’s mouth tightened, though. It weighed on her that several Kinswomen could weave

gateways, and she had very different notions of the Kin. Normally, she limited her objections to the

occasional frown or disparaging grimace, since Elayne had made her own views clear, but the stress of

the morning seemed to have loosened her tongue. "We do indeed need to take them with us," she said in

a cutting tone, "else they’ll all be claiming to be Aes Sedai as soon as they’re out of our sight. Any

woman who maintains she was put out of the Tower over three hundred years ago will claim anything!

They need to be kept under a close watch, if you ask me, instead of going about as they please, most

especially those who can Travel. They may have gone where you told them and come back so far,

Elayne, but how long before one of them doesn’t return? Mark my words, once one of them escapes,

others will follow, and we will have a mess on our hands we’ll never clean up."

"There is no reason for us to go anywhere," Elayne said firmly, as much for the Guards as for the

sisters. That distant beacon was still in the same spot where she had first sensed it, and if it did move, the

chance seemed small that it would move toward Caemlyn, much less actually come there, but a rumor

that Aes Sedai were planning flight might be enough to engender a stampede, mobs clawing to reach the

gates ahead of whatever could frighten Aes Sedai. An army sacking the city would not kill as many. And

these three chattered away as if there were no one to hear but the wall hangings! There was some excuse

for Merilille, but not the others. "We will remain here, as the Amyrlin Seat has commanded, until the

Amyrlin commands otherwise. The Kinswomen will continue to receive every courtesy until they are

welcomed back into the Tower, and that is the Amyrlin’s command, too, as you very well know. And

you will continue teaching the Windfinders and go about your lives as Aes Sedai should. We are

supposed to deal with people’s fears and soothe them, not spread senseless gossip and panic."

Well, perhaps she had been a touch more than firm. Sareitha put her gaze on the floor tiles like a

rebuked novice. Merilille flinched again at mention of the Windfinders, but that was to be expected. The

others gave lessons, but the Sea Folk held Merilille as tightly as they did one of their apprentices. She

slept in their quarters and normally was not seen without two or three of them, and her trailing meekly at

their heels. They refused to accept anything less than meekness from her.

"Of course, Elayne," Careane said hastily. "Of course. None of us would suggest disobeying the

Amyrlin." Hesitating, she adjusted her green-fringed shawl over her arms, seemingly occupied with

setting it just so. She did spare a pitying look for Merilille. "But speaking of the Sea Folk, could you tell

Vandene to take her share of the lessons?" When Elayne said nothing, her voice took on an edge that

would have been called sullen in anyone not Aes Sedai. "She says she’s too busy with those two

runaways, but she finds enough time to keep me talking some nights until I’m half asleep. That pair is

already so cowed they wouldn’t squeak if their dresses caught fire. They don’t need her attention. She

could take her portion of teaching those cursed wilders. Vandene needs to start behaving as an Aes

Sedai, too!"

Standing or no, rebuke or no, she gave Elayne a baleful glare that took her a moment to smother.

Elayne had been the one who made the bargain that led to Aes Sedai having to teach Windfinders, but so

far she herself had managed to miss giving more than a handful of lessons, claiming the press of other,

more important duties. Besides, the Sea Folk saw a shorebound teacher as a hireling, even an Aes Sedai,

and a hireling with less standing than a scullion at that. A scullion who might try to cheat on her labor.

She still thought Nynaeve had gone away just to avoid giving those lessons. Certainly no one expected

to end up in Merilille’s state, but even a few hours at a time was bad enough.

"Oh, no, Careane," Sareitha put in, still avoiding Elayne’s eye. And Merilille’s. In her opinion,

the Gray had gotten herself into this fix and thus deserved what came of it, but she did try not to rub salt

in the wounds. "Vandene is distraught over her sister, and Kirstian and Zarya help her occupy her

mind." Whatever she thought of the other Kin, she accepted that Zarya was a runaway, as she had to,

since Zarya was one of those Careane had recognized, and if Kirstian must be a liar, her own lie would

make her pay in full for that. Runaways were not treated kindly. "I spend hours with her, too, and she

almost never talks of anything but Adeleas. It’s as if she wants to add my memories to her own. I think

she needs to be allowed as much time as she needs, and those two keep her from being alone too often."

Giving Elayne a sidelong glance, she drew breath. "Still, teaching the Windfinders is certainly . . .

challenging. Perhaps an hour now and then would help pull her out of despondency, if only by making

her angry. Don’t you agree, Elayne? Just an hour or two, now and then."

"Vandene will be allowed as much time to grieve for her sister as she needs or wants," Elayne

said in level tones. "And there will be no more discussion of it."

Careane sighed heavily and rearranged her shawl again. Sareitha sighed faintly and began

twisting the Great Serpent ring on the forefinger of her left hand. Perhaps they had sensed her mood, or

perhaps it was just that neither looked forward to another session with the Windfinders. Merilille’s

permanently surprised expression did not change, but then, her sessions with the Sea Folk lasted all day

and all night unless Elayne managed to pry her away, and the Windfinders were becoming less and less

willing to let her go no matter how Elayne pried.

At least she had managed to avoid being curt with the three. It took an effort, especially with

Aviendha there. Elayne did not know what she would do if she ever lost her sister. Vandene was not

only grieving for a sister, she was searching for Adeleas’s murderer, and there could be no doubt that the

killer was Merilille Ceandevin, Careane Fransi or Sareitha Tomares. One of them, or worse, more than

one. The charge was hard to believe of Merilille, in her present condition, but it was not easy to believe

of any sister. As Birgitte had pointed out, one of the worst Darkfriends she had ever met, during the

Trolloc Wars, was a mild-as-milk lad who jumped at loud noises. And poisoned an entire city’s water

supply. Aviendha’s suggestion was to put all three to the question, which had horrified Birgitte, but

Aviendha was considerably less in awe of Aes Sedai than she once had been. The proper courtesies must

be maintained, until there was evidence to convict. Then there would be no courtesy at all.

"Oh," Sareitha said, brightening suddenly. "Here’s Captain Mellar. He was a hero again while

you were gone, Elayne." Aviendha gripped the hilt of her belt knife, and Birgitte stiffened. Careane’s

face went very still, very cold, and even Merilille managed a disapproving hauteur. Neither sister made

any secret of her dislike for Doilan Mellar.

With a narrow face, he was not pretty, or even handsome, yet he moved with a swordsman’s lithe

grace that spoke of physical strength. As Captain of Elayne’s bodyguard, he rated three golden knots of

rank, and he wore them soldered to each shoulder of his brightly burnished breastplate. An ignorant

observer might have thought he outranked Birgitte. The falls of snow-white lace at his throat and wrists

were twice as thick and twice as long as those worn by any of the Guardswomen, but he had left off the

sash again, perhaps because it would have obscured one set of golden knots. He claimed that he wanted

nothing more in life than to command her bodyguard, yet he frequently talked of battles he had fought as

a mercenary. It seemed he had never been on the losing side, and victory had often come from his

unsung efforts on the field. He swept off his white-plumed hat in a deep, flourishing bow, managing his

sword deftly with one hand, then offered a slightly lesser to Birgitte with an arm across his chest in

salute. Elayne arranged a smile on her face. "Sareitha says you were a hero again, Captain Mellar. How

so?"

"Nothing more than my duty to my queen." Despite a voice thick with self-deprecation, his

answering smile was warmer than it should have been. Half the palace thought him the father of

Elayne’s child. That she had not crushed that rumor seemed to make him believe he had prospects. The

smile never reached his dark eyes, though. They remained as cold as death. "My duty to you is my

pleasure, my Queen."

"Captain Mellar led another sortie without orders yesterday," Birgitte said in a carefully even

voice. "This time the righting almost spilled into the Far Madding Gate, which he had ordered left open

against his return." Elayne felt her face growing hard. "Oh, no," Sareitha protested. "It wasn’t like that at

all. A hundred of Lord Luan’s armsmen tried to reach the city in the night, but they left it too late, and

sunrise caught them. So did three times their number of Lord Nasin’s men. If Captain Mellar hadn’t

opened the gates and led a rescue, they’d have been cut to pieces in sight of the walls. As it was, he

managed to save eighty for your cause." Smiling, Mellar basked in the Aes Sedai’s praise as if he had

not heard Birgitte’s criticism. Of course, he seemed unaware of Careane and Merilille’s disapproving

stares, too. He always managed to ignore disapproval.

"How did you know they were Lord Luan’s men, Captain?" Elayne asked quietly. A small smile

that should have given Mellar warning appeared on Birgitte’s face. But then, he was one of those who

seemed not to believe she was a Warder. Even if he did, few except Warders and Aes Sedai knew what

the bond entailed. If anything, Mellar’s expression grew more smug. "I didn’t go by banners, my Queen.

Anybody can carry a banner. I recognized Jurad Accan through my looking glass. Accan is Luan’s man

to his toenails. Once I knew that. . . . " He made a dismissive gesture in a flurry of lace. "The rest was no

more than taking a little exercise."

"And did this Jurad Accan bring any message from Lord Luan? Anything signed and sealed,

affirming House Norwelyn’s support for Trakand?"

"Nothing in writing, my Queen, but as I said-" "Lord Luan has not declared for me, Captain."

Mellar’s smile faded somewhat. He was unused to being cut short. "But, my Queen, Lady Dyelin says

that Luan is as good as in your camp right now. Accan showing up is proof of-"

"Of nothing, Captain," Elayne said coldly. "Perhaps Lord Luan will be in my camp eventually,

Captain, but until he declares, you’ve given me eighty men who need to be watched." Eighty out of a

hundred. And how many of hers had he lost? And he had risked Caemlyn doing it, burn him! "Since you

can find time in your duties commanding my bodyguard to lead sorties, you can find time to arrange for

watching them. I won’t spare anyone from the walls for it. Set Master Accan and his fellows to drilling

the men I’ve brought in from the manors. That will keep them all busy and out of trouble most of each

day, but I leave it to you how to keep them away from the walls the rest of the time. And I do expect

them kept away from the walls and out of trouble, Captain. You may see to it now."

Mellar stared at her, stunned. She had never taken him to task before, and he did not like it,

particularly in front of so many witnesses. There were no over-warm smiles now. His mouth twitched,

and a sullen heat grew in his eyes. But there was nothing for him to do except to jerk another bow,

murmur "As my Queen commands" in a hoarse voice, and leave with as good a grace as he could

muster. Before he had gone three paces he was striding down the hall as if to trample anyone who got in

his way. She would have to tell Rasoria to take care. He might try to soothe his bile by taking it out on

those who had seen and heard. Merilille and Careane gave almost identical nods; they would have seen

Mellar called down, and preferably put out of the palace, long since.

"Even if he did wrong," Sareitha said carefully, "and I am not convinced that he did, Captain

Mellar saved your life at risk to his own, Elayne, your life and that of the Lady Dyelin. Was there really

need to embarrass him in front of the rest of us?" "Never think I avoid paying my debts, Sareitha."

Elayne felt Aviendha grip one of her hands, and Birgitte the other. She gave each of them a light

squeeze. When you were surrounded by enemies, it was good to have a sister and a friend close by. "I

am going to find a hot bath now, and unless one of you wishes to scrub my back . . . ?"

They could recognize a dismissal, and they departed more gracefully than Captain Mellar,

Careane and Sareitha already discussing whether or not the Windfinders would actually want lessons

today, Merilille trying to look every direction at once in hope of avoiding any Windfinders. What would

they talk of later, though? Whether Elayne was having a spat with the father of her child? Whether they

had successfully hidden their guilt in killing Adeleas?

I always pay my debts, Elayne thought, watching them go. And I help my friends pay theirs.

CHAPTER 12

A Bargain

A bath was not hard to find, though Elayne had to wait in the hall frowning at the lion-carved

doors of her apartments, drafts flickering the mirrored stand-lamps while Rasoria and two of the

Guardswomen went in to search. Once they were sure there were no assassins lying in wait, and guards

had been arrayed in the corridor and outer room, Elayne entered to find white-haired Essande waiting in

the bedchamber with Nans and Sephanie, the two young tirewomen she was training. Essande was slim,

with Elayne’s Golden Lily embroidered over her left breast and a very great dignity emphasized by her

deliberate way of moving, though some of that came from age and aching joints she refused to

acknowledge. Naris and Sephanie were sisters, fresh-faced, sturdy and shy-eyed, proud of their livery

and happy to have been chosen out for this rather than cleaning hallways but almost as much in awe of

Essande as of Elayne. There were more experienced maids available, women who had worked years in

the palace, but sadly, girls who had come seeking any sort of work they could find were safer.

Two copper bathtubs sat on thick layers of toweling laid atop the rose-colored floor tiles where

one of the carpets had been rolled up, evidence that word of Elayne’s arrival had flown ahead of her.

Servants had a knack for learning what was happening that the Tower’s eyes-and-ears might envy. A

good blaze in the fireplace and tight casements in the windows made the room warm after the corridors,

and Essande waited only to see Elayne enter the room before sending Sephanie off at a run to fetch the

men with the hot water. That would be brought up in double-walled pails with lids to keep it from

getting cold on the way from the kitchens, though it might be delayed a little by Guardswomen checking

to make sure there were no knives hidden in the water.

Aviendha eyed the second bathtub almost as doubtfully as Essande eyed Birgitte, the one still

uneasy about actually stepping into water and the other still not accepting that anyone more than

necessary should be present during a bath, but the white-haired woman wasted no time before quietly

bustling Elayne and Aviendha both into the dressing room, where another fire on a wide marble hearth

had taken the chill from the air. It was a great relief to have Essande help her out of her riding clothes,

knowing that she had more ahead of her than a hasty wash and a show of ease while worrying about how

quickly she could move on to her next destination. Other pretenses awaited, the Light help her, and other

worries, but she was home, and that counted for much. She could almost forget about that beacon

shining in the west. Almost. Well, not at all, really, but she could manage to stop fretting over it as long

as she did not dwell on the thing.

By the time they had been undressed-with Aviendha slapping Naris’ hands away and removing

her own jewelry, doing her best to pretend that Naris did not exist and her garments were somehow

removing themselves-by the time they had been bundled into embroidered silk robes and had their hair

tied up in white toweling-Aviendha tried to wrap the towel around her own head three times, and only

after the construction collapsed down her neck for the third time did she allow Naris to do it, muttering

about getting so soft that she soon would need someone to lace up her boots until Elayne began laughing

and she joined in, throwing her head back so that Naris had to start over again-by the time all that was

done and they had returned to the bedchamber, the bathtubs were full and the scent of the rose oil that

had been added to the water filled the air. The men who had brought up the water were gone, of course,

and Sephanie was waiting with her sleeves pushed above her elbows in case someone wanted her back

scrubbed. Birgitte was sitting on the turquoise-inlaid chest at the foot of the bed, her elbows on her

knees.

Elayne allowed Essande to help her off with her pale green, swallow-worked robe and sank into

her tub immediately, submerging herself to her neck in water just a hair short of too hot. That left her

knees poking up, but it immersed most of her in the warmth, and she sighed, feeling weariness leach out

of her and languor creep in. Hot water might have been the greatest single gift of civilization.

Staring at the other tub, Aviendha gave a start when Naris attempted to remove her robe,

lavender and embroidered with flowers on the wide sleeves. Grimacing, she finally allowed it, and

stepped gingerly into the water, but she snatched the round soap out of Sephanie’s hand and began

washing herself vigorously. Vigorously, but very careful not to slop so much as a spoonful of water over

the tub’s rim. The Aiel did use water for washing, as well as in the sweat tents, especially for rinsing out

the shampoo they made from a fat leaf that grew in the Waste, yet the dirty water was conserved and

used for watering crops. Elayne had shown her two of the great cisterns beneath Caemlyn, fed by a pair

of underground rivers and large enough that the far side of each was lost in a forest of thick columns and

shadows, but the arid Waste was in Aviendha’s bones.

Ignoring Essande’s pointed looks-she seldom said two words more than necessary, and thought

baths no time to say anything-Birgitte talked while they bathed, though she took care of what she said

in front of Naris and Sephanie. It was unlikely they were in the pay of another House, but maids

gossiped almost as freely as men-it seemed almost a tradition. Some rumors were worth fostering,

nonetheless. Mostly Birgitte talked of two huge merchants’ trains that had arrived yesterday from Tear,

the wagons heavy with grain and salted beef, and another from Illian with oil and salt and smoked fish.

It was always worthwhile reminding people that food continued to flow into the city. Few merchants

braved the roads of Andor in winter, none carrying anything as cheap as food, but gateways meant that

Arymilla could intercept all the merchants she wished and her forces still would starve long before

Caemlyn felt the first pangs of hunger. The Windfinders, who were making most of those gateways,

reported that the High Lord Darlin-claiming the title of Steward in Tear for the Dragon Reborn, of all

things!-was besieged in the Stone of Tear by nobles who wanted the Dragon Reborn out of Tear

completely, but even they were unlikely to try stopping a rich trade in grain, particularly since they

believed the Kin who accompanied the Windfinders were Aes Sedai. Not that any real attempt was made

at deception, but Great Serpent rings had been made for Kinswomen who had passed their tests for

Accepted before being put out of the Tower, and if anyone drew the wrong conclusion, no one actually

lied to them. The water was going to shed its heat if she waited much longer, Elayne decided, so she

took a rose-scented soap from Sephanie and allowed Naris to begin scrubbing her back with a longhandled

brush. If there had been news of Gawyn or Galad, Birgitte would have mentioned it straight off.

She was as eager to hear as Elayne, and she could not have held it back. Gawyn’s return was one rumor

they dearly wanted to reach the streets. Birgitte performed her duties well as Captain-General, and

Elayne meant her to keep the position, if she could be convinced, but having Gawyn there would allow

both women to relax a little. Most of the soldiers in the city were mercenaries, and only enough of them

to man the gates strongly and make a display along the miles of wall surrounding the New City, but they

still numbered more than thirty companies, each with its own captain who inevitably was full of pride,

obsessed with precedence, and ready to squabble over any imagined slight from another captain at the

drop of a straw. Gawyn had trained his whole life to command armies. He could deal with the

squabblers, leaving her free to secure the throne. Apart from that, she simply wanted him away from the

White Tower. She prayed that one of her messengers had gotten through and that he was well downriver

by this time. Egwene had been besieging Tar Valon with her army for more than a week, now, and it

would be the cruelest spinning of fate for Gawyn to be caught between his oaths to defend the Tower

and his love for Egwene.

Worse, he had already broken that oath once, or at least bent it, for love of his sister and perhaps

his love of Egwene. If Elaida ever suspected that Gawyn had aided Siuan’s escape, whatever credit he

had gained by helping her replace Siuan as Amyrlin would evaporate like a dewdrop, and if he was still

within Elaida’s reach when she learned, he would find himself in a cell, and lucky to avoid the

headsman. Elayne did not resent his decision to aid Elaida; he could not have known enough then to

make any other choice. A good many sisters had been confused over what was happening, too. A good

many still seemed to be. How could she ask Gawyn to see what Aes Sedai could not?

As for Galad. . . . She had grown up unable to like the man, sure he must resent her, and resent

Gawyn most of all. Galad had to have thought he would be First Prince of the Sword one day, until

Gawyn was born. Her earliest memories of him were of a boy, a young man, already behaving more like

a father or uncle than a brother, giving Gawyn his first lessons with a sword. She remembered being

afraid he would break open Gawyn’s head with the practice blade. But he had never given more than the

bruises any youth expected in learning swords. He knew what was right, Galad did, and he was willing

to do what was right no matter the cost to anyone, including himself. Light, he had started a war to help

her and Nynaeve escape from Samara, and it was likely he had known the risk from the start! Galad

fancied Nynaeve, or had for a time-it was hard to imagine he still felt that way, with him a Whitecloak,

the Light only knew where and doing what-but the truth was, he had started that war to rescue his

sister. She could not condone him being a Child of the Light, she could not like him, yet she hoped that

he was safe and well. She hoped he found his way home to Caemlyn, too. News of him would have been

nearly as welcome as news of Gawyn. That surprised her, but it was true. "Two more sisters came while

you were away. They’re at the Silver Swan." Birgitte made it sound as though they were merely

stopping at an inn because every bed in the palace was taken. "A Green with two Warders and a Gray

with one. They came separately. A Yellow and a Brown left the same day, so there are still ten

altogether. The Yellow went south, toward Far Madding. The Brown was heading east."

Sephanie, waiting patiently beside Aviendha’s tub with nothing to do, exchanged a glance with

her sister over Elayne’s head and grinned. Like many in the city, they knew for a fact that the presence

of Aes Sedai at the Silver Swan signified White Tower support for Elayne and House Trakand.

Watching the two girls like a hawk, Essande nodded; she knew it, too. Every streetsweeper and

ragpicker was aware that the Tower was divided against itself, but even so, the name still carried weight,

and an image of strength that never failed. Everyone knew the White Tower had lent support to every

rightful Queen of Andor. In truth, most sisters looked forward to a sitting monarch who was also Aes

Sedai, the first in a thousand years and the first since the Breaking of the World to be openly known as

Aes Sedai, but Elayne would not be surprised to find there was a sister in Arymilla’s camp, keeping

discreetly out of notice. The White Tower never placed all of its coin on one horse unless the race was

fixed.

"That’s enough of the brush," she said, irritably twisting away from the bristles. Well trained, the

girl laid the brush down on a stool and handed her a large Illianer sponge that she used to begin sluicing

off soap. She wished she knew what those sisters meant. They were like a grain of sand in her slipper, so

tiny a thing that you could hardly imagine it being a discomfort, but the longer it remained, the larger it

seemed. The sisters at the Silver Swan were becoming a sizable stone just by being there.

Since before she arrived in Caemlyn the number at the inn had been changed frequently, a few

sisters leaving every week and a few coming to replace them. The siege had not changed anything; the

soldiers surrounding Caemlyn were no more likely to try stopping an Aes Sedai from going where she

wanted than were the rebellious nobles in Tear. There had been Reds in the city too, for a while, asking

after men heading for the Black Tower, but the more they learned, the more they had let their

disgruntlement show, and the last pair had ridden out of the city the day after Arymilla appeared before

the walls. Every Aes Sedai who entered the city was carefully watched, and none of the Reds had gone

near the Silver Swan, so it seemed unlikely the sisters there had been sent by Elaida to kidnap her. For

some reason she imagined little groups of Aes Sedai scattered from the Blight to the Sea of Storms, and

constant streams of sisters flowing between, gathering information, sharing information. A peculiar

thought. Sisters used eyes-and-ears to watch the world, and rarely shared what they learned unless it was

a threat to the Tower itself. Likely those at the Swan were among the sisters sitting out the Tower’s

troubles, waiting to see whether Egwene or Elaida would end with the Amyrlin Seat before they

declared themselves. That was wrong-an Aes Sedai should stand for what she thought was right

without worrying over whether she was choosing the winning side!-but these made her uneasy for

another reason.

Recently one of her watchers at the Swan had overheard a disturbing name, murmured and

quickly shushed, as if in fear of eavesdroppers. Cadsuane. Not a common name, that. And Cadsuane

Melaidhrin had meshed herself closely with Rand while he was in Cairhien. Vandene did not think much

of the woman, calling her opinionated and muleheaded, but Careane had almost fainted in awe at

hearing her name. It seemed the stories surrounding Cadsuane amounted to legends. Trying to deal with

the Dragon Reborn single-handed was just the sort of thing Cadsuane Melaidhrin might do. Not that

Elayne had concerns about Rand and any Aes Sedai, except that he might outrage her beyond her

control-the man was too pigheaded himself sometimes to see where his own good lay!-but why

would a sister in Caemlyn mention her name? And why had another hushed her? Despite the hot

bathwater, she shivered, thinking of all the webs the White Tower had spun through the centuries, so

fine that none could see them except the sisters who did the spinning, so convoluted that none but those

sisters could have unraveled them. The Tower spun webs, the Ajahs spun webs, even individual sisters

spun webs. Sometimes those schemes blended into one another as though guided by a single hand. Other

times they had pulled one another apart. That was how the world had been shaped for three thousand

years. Now the Tower had divided itself neatly into rough thirds, one third for Egwene, one for Elaida,

and one that was standing aside. If those last were in contact with one another, exchanging

information-forming plans?-the implications. . . . A sudden tumult of voices, dimmed by the closed

door, made her sit up straight. Naris and Sephanie squealed and leaped to clutch one another, staring

wide-eyed at the door.

"What in the bloody flaming . . . ?" Snarling, Birgitte hurled herself off the chest and out of the

room, slamming the door behind her. The voices rose higher.

It did not sound as if the Guardswomen were fighting, just arguing at the tops of the lungs, and

the bond carried mainly anger and frustration, along with her bloody headache, but Elayne climbed out

of the bathtub, holding out her arms for Essande to slip her robe on. The white-haired woman’s

calmness, and perhaps Elayne’s, soothed the two maids enough that they blushed when Essande looked

at them, but Aviendha leaped from her tub, splashing water everywhere, and dashed dripping into the

dressing room. Elayne expected her to return with her belt knife, but instead she came back surrounded

by the glow oisaidar and holding the amber turtle in one hand. With the other she handed Elayne the

angreal that had been in her belt pouch, an aged ivory carving of a woman clothed only in her hair.

Excepting the towel atop her head, Aviendha wore only a wet sheen, and she angrily waved Sephanie

away when the woman tried to put her robe on her. Knife or no knife, Aviendha still tended to think as if

she were going to fight with a blade and might need to move suddenly. "Put this back in the dressing

room," Elayne said, handing the ivory angreal to Essande. "Aviendha, I really don’t think we need The

door opened a crack, and Birgitte put her head in, scowling. Naris and Sephanie jumped, not so soothed

as they had seemed.

"Zaida wants to see you," Birgitte growled at Elayne. "I told her she’d have to wait, but-" With

a sudden yelp, she staggered into the room, catching her balance after two steps and whirling to face the

woman who had pushed her.

The Wavemistress of Clan Catelar did not look as though she had pushed anyone. The ends of

her intricately knotted red sash swirling about her knees, she entered the room calmly, followed by two

Windfinders, one of whom shut the door in Rasoria’s angry face. All three swayed when they moved

nearly as much as Birgitte did in her heeled boots. Zaida was short, with streaks of gray in her tightly

curled hair, but her dark face was one of those that grew more beautiful with the years, and her beauty

only seemed magnified by the golden chain, heavy with small medallions, that connected one of her fat

golden earrings to her nose ring. More importantly, her air was one of command. Not of arrogance, but

of the knowledge that she would be obeyed. The Windfinders eyed Aviendha, still glowing with the

Power, and Chanelle’s angular face tightened, yet aside from a murmur from Shielyn that "the Aiel girl"

was ready to weave, they remained silent and waited. The eight earrings in Shielyn’s ears marked her as

Windfinder to a Clan Wavemistress, and Chanelle’s honor-chain carried nearly as many golden

medallions as that of Zaida herself. Both were women of authority, and it was plain in the way they held

themselves and moved, yet one needed to know nothing of the Atha’an Miere to know as soon as one

saw them that Zaida din Parede held the first spot.

"Your boots must have tripped you, Captain-General," she murmured with a small smile on her

full lips, one dark tattooed hand toying with the golden scent-box that dangled on her chest. "Clumsy

things, boots." She and the two Windfinders were barefoot as always. The soles of the Atha’an Miere’s

feet were as tough as shoe-soles, unbothered by rough decks or cold floor tiles. Strangely, in addition to

their blouses and trousers of brightly colored silk brocades, each woman wore a wide stole of plain

white that hung below her waist and almost hid her multitude of necklaces. "I was taking a bath," Elayne

said in a tight voice. As if they could not see that with her hair done up and her robe clinging to her

damply. Essande was almost quivering with indignation, which meant she must be beside herself with

fury. Elayne felt close to it herself. "I will be taking a bath again as soon as you go. I will speak with you

when I have finished taking my bath. If it pleases the Light." There! If they were going to shove into her

rooms, let them chew on that for ceremony!

"The grace of the Light be upon you also, Elayne Sedai," Zaida replied smoothly. She raised an

eyebrow at Aviendha, though neither at the continuing light of saidar, since Zaida could not channel,

nor at her nudity, since the Sea Folk were quite casual about that, at least out of sight of landmen. "You

have never invited me to bathe with you, though it would have been courteous, but we will not speak of

that. I have learned that Nesta din Reas Two Moons is dead, killed by the Seanchan. We mourn her

loss." All three women touched their white stoles and touched fingertips to lips, yet Zaida seemed as

impatient with formality as Elayne. Without raising her voice or speeding its pace, she merely pushed

on, almost shockingly abrupt and to the point for one of the Sea Folk.

"The First Twelve of the Atha’an Miere must meet to choose another Mistress of the Ships.

What is happening to the west makes it clear there can be no delay." Shielyn’s mouth tightened, and

Chanelle raised her pierced scent box to her nose as if to drown the smell of something. Its spicy

perfume was sharp enough to slice through the scent of rose oil in the room. However they had

described what they sensed to Zaida, she displayed no unease, or anything but certainty. Her gaze held

steady on Elayne’s face. "We must be ready for whatever comes, and for that we need a Mistress of the

Ships. In the name of the White Tower, you promised twenty teachers. I cannot take Vandene in her

grief, or you, but I will take the other three with me. The rest, the White Tower owes, and I will expect

prompt payment. I have sent to the sisters at the Silver Swan to see whether some of them will meet the

Tower’s debt, but I cannot wait on their reply. If it pleases the Light, I will bathe with the other

Wavemistresses tonight at the harbor of Illian."

Elayne fought very hard to keep her own face smooth. The woman just announced that she

intended to scoop up every Aes Sedai lying around loose in Caemlyn and carry them off? And it

sounded very much as if she did not intend to leave any of the Windfinders behind. That made Elayne’s

heart sink. Until Reanne returned, there were seven of the Kin with sufficient strength to weave a

gateway, but two of those could not make one large enough to admit a horse cart. Without the

Windfinders, plans for keeping Caemlyn supplied from Tear and Illian became problematical at best.

The Silver Swan! Light, whoever Zaida had sent would reveal every line of the bargain she had made!

Egwene was not going to thank her for spilling that mess out into the open. She did not think she had

ever had so many problems dropped in her lap in the course of one short statement.

"I regret your loss, and the Atha’an Miere’s loss," she said, thinking fast. "Nesta din Reas was a

great woman." She had been a powerful woman, anyway, and a very strong personality. Elayne had felt

happy to walk away with more than her shift after her one meeting with her. Speaking of shifts, she

could not afford time to dress. Zaida might not wait. She belted her robe tighter. "We must talk. Have

wine brought for our guests, Essande, and tea for me. Weak tea," she sighed at a burst of caution

through the bond to Birgitte. "In the smaller sitting room. Will you join me, Wavemistress?"

To her surprise, Zaida merely nodded as if she had expected this. That started Elayne thinking

about Zaida’s side of the bargain between them. The bargains; there were two, really, and that might be

a key point.

No one had expected the smaller sitting room to be used for some time, so the air held a chill

even after Sephanie rushed with a spark-wheel to light the kindling laid beneath split oak on the wide

white hearth and scurried out of the room. Flames leapt up from the fatwood, catching on the log atop

the fire-irons as the women arrayed themselves in the lightly carved low-backed chairs arranged in a

semicircle in front of the fireplace. Well, Elayne and the Sea Folk women arrayed themselves, Elayne

arranging her robe carefully over her knees and wishing Zaida had delayed just an hour so she could be

properly dressed, the Windfinders coolly waiting for the Wavemistress to take a chair, then sitting to

either side of her. Birgitte stood in front of the writing table with her hands on her hips and her feet

apart, her face a thunderhead. The bond carried a clear desire to wring an Atha’an Miere neck. Aviendha

leaned casually against one of the sideboards, and even when Essande brought her robe and pointedly

held it out for her, she merely put it on and resumed her pose with her arms folded beneath her breasts.

She had released saidar, but the turtle was still in her hand, and Elayne suspected she was ready to

embrace the Power again in an instant. Neither Aviendha’s cold green-eyed stare nor Birgitte’s scowl

affected the Sea Folk in the least, however. They were who they were, and they knew who they were.

"The Atha’an Miere were promised twenty teachers," Elayne said, emphasizing slightly. Zaida had said

that she had been promised, that she would collect payment, but that bargain had been made with Nesta

din Reas. Of course, Zaida might believe she would become the new Mistress of the Ships herself.

"Proper teachers, to be selected by the Amyrlin Seat. I know that the Atha’an Miere pride themselves on

meeting their bargains in full, and the Tower will meet its side, too. But you knew when sisters here

agreed to teach, that it was temporary. And a bargain quite apart from that made with the Mistress of the

Ships. You admitted as much when you agreed for Windfinders to weave gateways to bring supplies to

Caemlyn from Illian and Tear. Surely you would not have gotten involved in the affairs of the

shorebound for any reason other than paying off a bargain. But if you are leaving, your help is at an end,

and so is our requirement to teach. I fear you will harvest no teachers at the Silver Swan, either. The

Atha’an Miere will have to wait until the Amyrlin sends teachers. According to the bargain made with

the Mistress of the Ships." A pity she could not demand they stay away from the inn, but it might

already be too late for that, and every reason she could think of sounded hollow. An argument that

shattered for lack of a center would only embolden Zaida.. The Atha’an Miere were ferocious hagglers.

Scrupulous, but ferocious. She had to go very slowly, very carefully. "My sister has you by the ear,

Zaida din Parede," Aviendha chortled, slapping her thigh. "Hung up by the ankles, in fact." That was a

Sea Folk punishment that she found incredibly amusing, for some reason.

Elayne stifled a burst of irritation. Aviendha enjoyed chances to tweak the Sea Folk’s noses-she

had begun while they were fleeing Ebou Dar and never really stopped-but this was no time for it.

Chanelle stiffened, her calm face sinking into a glare. The lean woman had been the butt of Aviendha’s

nose-tweaking more than once, including a regrettable episode involving oosquai, a very potent Aiel

drink. The glow of saidar actually surrounded her! Zaida could not see that, but she knew about the

oosquai and Chanelle being carried to her bed, sicking up the whole way, and she raised a peremptory

hand toward the Windfinder. The glow faded, and Chanelle’s face darkened. It might have been a blush

or anger.

"All that you say may be so," Zaida said, which was not far from insulting, especially said to an

Aes Sedai. "In any event, Merilille was not part of that. She agreed to be one of the teachers long before

she reached Caemlyn, and she will go with me to continue her teaching."

Elayne drew a long breath. She could not even try to argue Zaida out of this. A great part of the

White Tower’s influence rested on the fact that the Tower kept its word as surely as the Sea Folk. That it

was known to keep its word. Oh, people said you had to listen carefully to be sure an Aes Sedai had

promised what you thought she had, and that was often true, but once the promise was clear, it was as

good as an oath under the Light. At least the Windfinders were not likely to let Merilille get away. They

hardly let her out of their sight. "You may have to return her to me, if I have particular need of her." If

Vandene and the two helpers found proof that she was Black Ajah. "If that happens, I will arrange a

replacement." And who that could be, she had no idea. "She has the rest of her year to serve. At least a

year, by the bargain." Zaida gestured as if making a concession. "But so long as you understand that her

replacement must come before she leaves. I will not let her go without another in her place." "I suppose

that will do," Elayne replied calmly. It would bloody well have to, since she had no other choice!

Zaida smiled faintly and let the silence stretch. Chanelle shifted her feet, but more in impatience

than as if to rise, and the Wavemistress did not stir. Plainly she wanted something more, intended

another bargain, and plainly she wanted Elayne to speak first. Elayne set herself to outwait the other

woman. The fire had begun to blaze and crackle, sending sparks up the chimney and radiating a fine

warmth into the room, but her damp robe absorbed the chill in the air and transferred it to her skin.

Ignoring the cold was all very well, but how were you supposed to ignore being cold and wet? She met

Zaida’s gaze levelly and matched her tiny smile. Essande returned, followed by Naris and Sephanie

carring ropework trays, the one with a silver teapot in the shape of a lion and thin green cups of Sea Folk

porcelain, the other hammered silver cups and a tall-necked wine pitcher that gave off the aroma of

spices. Everyone took wine, except for Elayne, who was never offered the choice. Peering into her tea,

she sighed. She could see the bottom of the cup quite clearly. If they made it any weaker, they might as

well give her water!

After a moment, Aviendha strode across the room to set her winecup back on the tray atop one of

the sideboards and pour herself a cup of tea. She gave Elayne a nod and a smile combining sympathy

with a suggestion that she really preferred watery tea to wine. Elayne smiled back in spite of herself.

First-sisters shared the bad as well as the good. Birgitte grinned over the top of her silver cup, and

proceeded to empty half of it in a gulp. The bond carried her amusement at the grumpiness she felt from

Elayne. And it still carried her headache, in no way reduced. Elayne rubbed her temple. She should have

insisted that Merilille Heal the woman as soon as she had seen her. A number of the Kin outstripped

Merilille when it came to Healing, but she was the only sister in the palace with a halfway decent ability.

"You have great need of women to make these gateways," Zaida said suddenly. Her full mouth

was no longer smiling. She disliked having spoken first.

Elayne sipped her wretched excuse for tea and said nothing. "It might please the Light that I

could leave one or two Windfmders here," Zaida went on. "For a set time." Elayne wrinkled her brow as

though considering. She needed those bloody women, and more than one or two. "What would you ask

in return?" she said finally.

"One square mile of land on the River Erinin. Good land, mind. Not marshy or boggy. It is to be

Atha’an Miere land in perpetuity. Under our laws, not Andor’s," she added as if that were a small

afterthought hardly worth mentioning.

Elayne choked on her tea. The Atha’an Miere hated leaving the sea, hated being out of sight of it.

And Zaida was asking for land a thousand miles from the nearest salt water? Asking for it to be ceded

absolutely, at that. Cairhienin and Murandians and even Altarans had bled trying to take bits of Andor,

and Andorans had bled to keep them out. Still, one square mile was a small bit, and a small price to keep

Caemlyn supplied. Not that she would let Zaida know that. And if the Sea Folk began trading directly

into Andor, then Andoran goods would be able to move in Sea Folk bottoms everywhere the Sea Folk

sailed, and that was everywhere. Zaida surely knew that already, but there was no point in letting her

know that Elayne had thought of it. The Warder bond urged caution, yet there were times for boldness,

as Birgitte should know better than anyone.

"Sometimes tea goes down the wrong way." Not a lie; merely an evasion. "For a square mile of

Andor, I deserve more than two Windfinders. The Atha’an Miere got twenty teachers and more for help

using the Bowl of the Winds, and when they go you will have twenty to replace them. You have twentyone

Windfinders with you. For a mile of Andor, I should have all twenty-one, and twenty-one more in

their places when they leave, for as long as Aes Sedai teach Sea Folk." Best not to let the woman think

that was her way of rejecting the offer out of hand. "Of course, the normal customs duties would apply

to any goods moving off this land into Andor."

Zaida raised her silver cup to her mouth, and when she lowered it, she wore the tiniest smile. Yet

Elayne thought it was a smile of relief rather than triumph. "Goods moving into Andor, but not goods

coming from the river onto our land. I might leave three Windfinders. For half a year, say. And they

must not be used in fighting. I will not have my people die for you, and I will not have other Andorans

angry at us because Sea Folk have killed some of them."

"They will be asked only to make gateways," Elayne said, "though they must make them

wherever I require." Light! As if she intended using the One Power as a weapon! The Sea Folk did so

without a second thought, but she was trying very hard to behave as Egwene demanded, as though she

had already taken the Three Oaths. Besides, if she blasted those camps outside the walls with saidar, or

allowed anyone else to, not a House in Andor would stand with her. "They must stay until my crown is

secure, whether that is half a year or longer." The crown should be hers in much less time, but as her old

nurse Lini used to say, you counted your plums in the basket, not on the tree. Once the crown was hers,

though, she would not need Windfinders to supply the city, and in all truth, she would be happy to see

their backs. "But three is not nearly enough. You will want Shielyn, since she is your Windfinder. I will

keep the rest."

The medallions on Zaida’s honor-chain swayed gently as she shook her head. "Talaan and

Metarra are apprentices still. They must return to their training. The others have duties, too. Four might

be spared until your crown is secure."

From there it was just a matter of bargaining. Elayne had never expected to keep the apprentices,

and Windfinders to Clan Wavemistresses could not be spared either, which she had expected. Most

Wavemistresses used their Windfinders and Swordmasters as close advisors, and would be parted from

one as easily as she would be parted from Birgitte. Zaida tried to exclude others as well, such as

Windfinders who served on large vessels like rakers and skimmers, but that would have disqualified the

greater number right there, and Elayne refused, and refused to come down in her demands unless Zaida

came up in her offers. Which the woman did slowly, grudging every concession. But not so slowly as

Elayne might have expected. Clearly, the Wavemistress needed this bargain as much as she herself

needed women who could weave gateways. "Under the Light, it is agreed," she was able to say at last,

kissing the fingertips of her right hand and leaning forward to press them to Zaida’s lips. Aviendha

grinned, obviously impressed. Birgitte kept a smooth face, but the bond said she found it hard to believe

Elayne had come out so well.

"It is agreed, under the Light," Zaida murmured. Her fingers on Elayne’s lips were hard and

callused, though she could not have hauled on a rope herself in many years. She looked quite satisfied

for a woman who had yielded nine of the fourteen Windfinders who had been on the table. Elayne

wondered how many of those nine would be women whose ships had been destroyed by the Seanchan in

Ebou Dar. Losing a ship was a serious matter among the Atha’an Miere, whatever the reason, and

maybe cause enough to want to stay away from home a little longer. No matter.

Chanelle looked glum, her tattooed hands tight on the knees of her red brocaded trousers, yet not

so glum as might be expected from a Sea Folk woman who would have to remain ashore a while longer.

She was to command the Windfinders who stayed, and she did not like it that Zaida had acceded to her

being under Elayne’s authority, and Birgitte’s. There were to be no more Sea Folk striding about the

palace as if they owned it and making demands left and right. But then, Elayne suspected that Zaida had

come to this meeting knowing she would leave some of her party behind, and Chanelle had come

knowing she would command them. That hardly mattered, either, nor did it matter what advantage Zaida

hoped to gain toward becoming Mistress of the Ships. That she saw some was clear as good glass. All

that mattered was that Caemlyn would not go hungry. That and the . . . the bloody beacon still blazing in

the west. No, she would be a queen, and she could not be a moonstruck girl. Caemlyn and Andor were

all that could matter.

CHAPTER 13

High Seats

Zaida and the two Windfinders departed from Elayne’s apartments, graceful and outwardly

unhurried but with almost as little ceremony as they had entered, a bare wish that the Light illumine

Elayne and see her safe. For Atha’an Miere, that was almost rushing off without a word. Elayne decided

that if Zaida did indeed want to be the next Mistress of the Ships, the woman had a rival she hoped to

steal a march on. It might be well for Andor if Zaida did attain the Atha’an Miere throne, or whatever

the Sea Folk called it; bargain or no bargain, she would always be aware that Andor had helped her, and

that had to be for the good. Though if she failed, her rival would be aware of where Andor’s favor had

gone, too. Still, it was all if and maybe. Here and now was another thing altogether.

"I do not expect anyone to manhandle an ambassador," she said quietly once the doors had

closed behind them, "but in the future I do expect the privacy of my rooms. Even ambassadors are not to

be allowed simply to wander in. Am I understood?"

Rasoria nodded, her face wooden, but by the color that flashed into her cheeks, she felt the

mortification of having let the Sea Folk pass as keenly as Birgitte, and the bond . . . writhed. . . until

Elayne felt her own face growing red with a stinging embarrassment. "You did nothing wrong, exactly,

but don’t let it happen again." Light, now she sounded a dolt! "We will speak no more of it," she said

stiffly. Oh, burn Birgitte and the bond! They would have had to wrestle with Zaida to stop her, but

adding bone-deep humiliation to the other woman’s headache was piling insult on injury! And Aviendha

had no call to grin in that . . . that smarmy way. Elayne did not know when or how her sister had learned

that she and Birgitte sometimes reflected one another, but Aviendha found the whole thing vastly

amusing. Her sense of humor could be rough at times.

"I think you two will make each other melt, one day," she said, laughing. "But then, you already

played that joke, Birgitte Trahelion." Birgitte scowled at her, sudden alarm crushing embarrassment in

the bond, and she returned such a look of innocence it seemed her eyes might fall out of her face.

Better not to ask, Elayne decided. When you ask questions, Lini used to say, then you have to

hear the answers whether you want to or not. She did not want to hear, not with Rasoria studiously

examining the floor tiles in front of her boots and the rest of the Guardswomen in the anteroom failing to

pretend not to be listening. She had never realized how precious privacy was until she lost it completely.

Near enough completely, anyway. "I am going to finish my bath now," she said calmly. Blood and

ashes, what joke had Birgitte played on her? Something that made her . . . melt? It could not have been

much if she still did not know what it was.

Unfortunately, the bath water had gone cold. Tepid, anyway. Hardly anything she wanted to sit

in. A little while longer soaking would have been wonderful, but not at the expense of waiting while the

tubs were emptied bucket by bucket and more hot water brought up. The entire palace must know she

was back by now, and the First Maid and the First Clerk would be anxious to make their daily reports.

Daily when she was in the city, and doubly anxious because she had been gone for a day. Duty came

before pleasure, if you were going to rule a country. And that went doubly for trying to gain the throne

in the first place.

Aviendha pulled the towel from her head and shook down her hair, appearing relieved that she

would not have to climb into water again. She started for the dressing room, shedding her robe before

she reached the door, and had donned most of her garments when Elayne and the maids entered. With

only a few mutters, she let Naris complete the job, although little remained beyond stepping into her

heavy woolen skirt. She slapped the maid’s hands away and tightened the laces of her soft knee-high

boots herself.

For Elayne, it was not so easy. Unless some emergency loomed, Essande felt slighted when she

did not discuss her choice of dresses. With close servants, there was always a delicate balance to

maintain. Without exception a bodyservant knew more of your secrets than you thought she did, and she

saw you at your worst, grumpy, tired, weeping in your pillow, in rages and sulks. Respect had to go both

ways, or the situation became impossible. So Aviendha was sitting on one of the padded benches,

allowing Naris to comb out her hair, before Elayne could conclude on a simple gray in fine wool,

embroidered in green on the high neck and the sleeves and trimmed with black fox. It was not so much

that she had difficulty deciding, but that Essande kept putting forward silks sewn with pearls or

sapphires or firedrops, each more ornately embroidered than the last. No matter that the throne was not

yet hers, Essande wanted to dress her every day as a queen readying for an audience. There had been a

point to that, back when every day brought delegations of merchants to offer petitions or make their

respects, especially outlanders hoping the troubles in Andor would not affect their trade. The old saying

that who held Caemlyn held Andor had never really been true, and in merchant eyes, the chances she

would actually gain the throne had diminished with the arrival of Arymilla’s army outside the gates.

They could count the Houses arrayed on either side as easily as they could count coin.

Even Andoran merchants avoided the Royal Palace now, keeping out of the Inner City as much

as possible so no one would think they had gone to the palace, and bankers came well hooded, in

anonymous carriages. None wished her ill, that she knew, and certainly none wanted to anger her, but

neither did they want to anger Arymilla, not now. Still, the bankers did come, and so far she had not

heard of any merchants presenting petitions to Arymilla.

That would be the first sign that her cause was lost. Getting into the dress took twice as long as it

should have, since Essande allowed Sephanie to help Elayne. The girl breathed heavily the whole time,

unaccustomed as yet to dressing someone else and fearful of making a mistake under Essande’s eye.

Much more than of making one in front of her mistress, Elayne suspected. Apprehension made the

sturdy young woman clumsy, clumsiness made her more painstaking, and taking pains made her worry

more about mistakes, so the result was that she moved more slowly than the frail older woman ever had.

Finally, however, Elayne found herself seated facing Aviendha, letting Essande draw an ivory comb

through her curls. In Essande’s view, allowing one of the girls to slip a shift over Elayne’s head or fasten

her buttons was one thing, but risking either of them making a tangle in her hair quite another. Before

the comb had made two dozen strokes, though, Birgitte appeared in the doorway. Essande sniffed, and

Elayne could all but see the woman grimace behind her back. Essande had given way on Birgitte being

present at baths, however reluctantly, but the dressing room was sacrosanct.

Surprisingly, Birgitte let the maid’s disapproval slide past without so much as a placating look.

Usually, she refrained from pushing Essande an inch further than Elayne required. "Dyelin has returned,

Elayne. She’s brought company. The High Seats of Mantear, Haevin, Gilyard and Northan." For some

reason, the bond carried streaks of puzzlement and annoyance. Shared headache or no, Elayne could

have jumped for joy. If Essande had not had the comb deep in her hair, she might have. Four! She had

never expected Dyelin to accomplish so much. Hoped for it, prayed for it, but never expected it,

certainly not in one short week. In truth, she had been sure Dyelin would return empty-handed. Four

gave her an equal footing with Arymilla. It was galling to think of being on "an equal footing" with that

foolish woman, but truth was truth. Mantear, Haevin, Gilyard and Northan. Why not Candraed? That

was the fifth House Dyelin had gone to approach. No. She had four more Houses, and she was not going

to fret over the lack of one.

"Entertain them in the formal sitting room until I can come, Birgitte." The small sitting room had

been sufficient for Zaida-she hoped the Wavemistress had not noticed the slight-but four High Seats

required more. "And ask the First Maid to arrange apartments." Apartments. Light! The Atha’an Miere

would have to be hurried out of theirs to make room. Until they left, most beds that did not have two

occupants had three. "Essande, the green silk with the sapphires, I think. And sapphires for my hair, too.

The large sapphires."

Birgitte left still feeling puzzled and upset. Why? Surely she could not think she should have left

Dyelin cooling her heels because of Zaida? Oh, Light, now she was feeling puzzled over Birgitte feeling

puzzled; if that was allowed to feed on itself, they would both end up dizzy! As the door closed, Essande

moved to the nearest wardrobe wearing a smile that might have been called triumphant.

Looking at Aviendha, who had motioned Naris and her comb away and was folding a dark gray

scarf to tie her hair back, Elayne smiled herself. She needed something to take her out of that spinning

loop. "Maybe you should wear silks and gems just this once more, Aviendha," she said in a gently

teasing tone. "Dyelin won’t mind, of course, but the others aren’t used to Aiel. They might think I’m

entertaining a stablehand."

She meant it for a joke-they twitted one another about clothes all the time, and Dyelin looked

askance at Aviendha whatever she wore-but her sister frowned at the wardrobes lining the wall, then

nodded and set the scarf down beside her on the tufted cushion. "Just so these High Seats will be

properly impressed. Do not think I will do this all the time. It is a favor to you." For someone just doing

a favor, she pored over the clothes that Essande pulled out with a great deal of interest before deciding

on a dark blue velvet slashed with green, and a silver net to catch her hair. They were her clothes, made

for her, but since reaching Caemlyn she had avoided them as if they were crawling with death’shead

spiders. Stroking the sleeves, she hesitated as if she might change her mind, but finally she let Naris do

up the tiny pearl buttons.

She declined Elayne’s offer of emeralds that would have suited the gown admirably, keeping her

silver snowflake necklace and heavy ivory bracelet, but at the last minute she did pin the amber turtle to

her shoulder.

"You can never tell when it might be needful," she said. "Better safe than sorry," Elayne agreed.

"Those colors look beautiful on you." It was true, but Aviendha blushed. Compliment her on how well

she shot a bow or how fast she could run, and she took it as no more than her due, but she had difficulty

coming to grips with the fact that she was beautiful. That was a part of herself she had managed to

ignore, till recently.

Essande shook her head in disapproval, unaware that the brooch was an angreal. Amber did not

go with blue velvet. Or maybe it was Aviendha’s horn-hilted knife, which she tucked behind her green

velvet belt. The white-haired woman made sure that Elayne wore a small dagger with sapphires on the

scabbard and pommel, hanging from a belt of woven gold. Everything had to be just so to gain

Essande’s approbation.

Rasoria gave a start when Aviendha entered the anteroom in her high-necked velvets. The

Guardswomen had never seen her in anything but Aiel garb before. Aviendha scowled as if they had

laughed, and gripped her belt knife firmly, but luckily her attention was diverted by a cloth-covered tray

sitting on the long side table against the wall. Elayne’s midday meal had been delivered while they were

dressing. Whisking the blue-striped cloth aside, Aviendha tried to interest Elayne in eating, smiling and

pointing out how sweet the stew of dried plums would be and exclaiming over the pieces of pork in the

grainy mush. Slivers, they looked like. Rasoria cleared her throat and mentioned that a fire was burning

nicely in the apartment’s larger sitting room. She would be more than happy to carry the tray in for the

Lady Elayne. Everyone tried to make sure Elayne ate properly, however they saw "properly," but this

was ridiculous. The tray had been sitting there some time. The mush was a congealed mass that would

have stuck in the bowl if she turned it upside down!

She had the High Seats of four Houses waiting on her, and they had waited long enough. She

pointed that out, but offered to let the two of them eat if they were hungry. In fact, she implied that she

might insist on them eating. That was enough to make Aviendha drop the cloth back over the tray with a

shudder, and Rasoria wasted no more time, either.

It was only a short walk down the icy hallway to the formal sitting room, and the only things that

moved, aside from them, were the bright winter wall hangings that stirred in the corridor’s drafts, but the

Guardswomen formed a ring around Elayne and Aviendha and kept watch as if they expected Trollocs.

It was only with an effort that Elayne convinced Rasoria there was no need to search the sitting room

before she entered. The Guardswomen served her and obeyed her, but they also were pledged to keep

her alive, and they could be as muley over that last duty as Birgitte was over deciding whether she was

Warder, Captain-General or elder sister at any given moment. Likely, following on the heels of the

incident with Zaida, Rasoria would have wanted the lords and ladies waiting inside to surrender their

weapons! The threat with the mush might have had its part, too. After a short argument, however,

Elayne and Aviendha swept in through the wide doorway together, and alone. Elayne’s feeling of

satisfaction did not last, though. The sitting room was large, meant to accept dozens of people

comfortably, a dark-paneled space with layered carpets covering the floor tiles and a horseshoe arch of

high-back chairs in front of a tall fireplace of white marble with fine red veins. Here, important

dignitaries could be received with more honor than an audience before the throne, because it was more

intimate. The blaze dancing along the logs on the hearth had barely had time to take an edge off the chill

in the air, but that certainly was not the reason Elayne felt as if she had been struck in the stomach. She

understood Birgitte’s puzzlement, now.

Dyelin turned from warming her hands at the fire as they entered. A strong-faced woman with

fine lines at the corners of her eyes and hints of gray in her golden hair, she had not waited to change on

reaching the palace, and still wore a riding dress of deep gray that showed a few travel stains on the

hem. Her curtsy was the merest bend of her neck, the slightest dip of her knees, but she intended no

discourtesy. Dyelin knew who she was as surely as Zaida did-her only jewelry was a small golden pin

in the shape of Taravin’s Owl and Oak on her shoulder, a clear statment that High Seat of Taravin

needed nothing more-yet she had almost died to prove her loyalty to Elayne. "My Lady Elayne," she

said formally, "it gives me honor to present to you Lord Perival, High Seat of House Man tear."

A pretty, golden-haired boy in a plain blue coat jerked away from peering through the fourbarreled

kaleidoscope on a gilded stand taller than he was. He had a silver cup in his hand that Elayne

hoped very much did not contain wine, or at least extremely well watered if it did. One of the side tables

held several trays laden with pitchers and cups. And an ornate teapot she knew might as well be filled

with water. "My pleasure, my Lady Elayne," he piped, blushing and managing a credible bow despite a

little clumsiness in handling the sword belted to his waist. The weapon looked much too long for him.

"House Mantear stands with House Trakand." She returned his courtesy in a daze, spreading her skirts

mechanically.

"Lady Catalyn, High Seat of House Haevin," Dyelin continued. "Elayne," a dark-eyed young

woman at her side murmured, touching her dark green divided skirts and making a fractional dip that

might possibly have been intended for a curtsy, though perhaps she just meant to imitate Dyelin. Or

perhaps she wanted to avoid poking her chin against the large enameled brooch on the high neck of her

dress, the Blue Bear of Haevin. Her hair was caught in a silver net worked with the Blue Bear, too, and

she wore a long ring with the sigil as well. A touch too much pride of House, perhaps. Despite her cool

haughtiness, she was a woman only by courtesy, her cheeks still round with baby fat. "Haevin stands

with Trakand, obviously, or I would not be here." Dyelin’s mouth tightened slightly, and she gave the

girl a hard glance that Catalyn seemed not to see. "Lord Branlet, High Seat of House Gilyard."

Another boy, this one with unruly black curls, in green embroidered with gold on the sleeves,

who hastily set his winecup down on a side table as if uneasy at being seen with it. His blue eyes were

too big for his face, and he nearly tripped himself with his sword, bowing. "It is my pleasure to say that

House Gilyard stands for Trakand, Lady Elayne." Halfway through, his voice broke from treble to bass,

and he blushed even harder than Perival.

"And Lord Conail, High Seat of House Northan." Conail Northan grinned over the rim of his

silver cup. Tall and lean, in a gray coat with sleeves just too short to cover his bony wrists, he had an

engaging grin, merry brown eyes, and an eagle’s beak for a nose. "We drew straws for the order to be

introduced, and I drew short. Northan stands with Trakand. Can’t let a ninny like Arymilla take the

throne." He managed his sword smoothly, and he at least had reached his majority, but if he was many

months past sixteen, Elayne would eat his turned-down boots and his silver-knot spurs.

Their youth was no surprise, of course, but she had expected Conail to have a graying head at his

side to advise him and the others to have their guardians looking over their shoulders. There was no one

else in the room aside from Birgitte, standing in front of the tall arched windows with her arms folded

beneath her breasts. Bright midday sunlight flooding through the clear glass set in the casements made

her a silhouette of displeasure. "Trakand welcomes all of you, and I welcome all of you," Elayne said,

suppressing her dismay. "I will not forget your support, and Trakand will not forget." Something of her

consternation must have crept through, because Catalyn’s mouth compressed and her eyes glittered.

"I am past my guardianship, as you must know, Elayne," she said in a stiff voice. "My uncle,

Lord Arendor, said at the Feast of Lights that I was as ready as I would ever be and might as well have

free rein then as in a year. Truth, I think he wanted more time to go hunting while he still can. He has

always loved hunting, and he’s quite old." Once again she failed to see Dyelin’s frown. Arendor Haevin

and Dyelin were roughly of an age.

"I have no guardian either," Branlet said uncertainly, his voice nearly as high-pitched as

Catalyn’s.

Dyelin gave him a sympathetic smile and smoothed his hair back from his forehead. It promptly

fell forward again. "Mayv was riding alone, as she liked to do, and her horse stepped into a gopher

hole," she explained quietly. "By the time anyone found her, it was too late. There has been some . . .

discussion . . . over who’s to take her place."

"They’ve been arguing for three months," Branlet muttered For a moment he looked younger

than Perival, a boy trying to find his way with no one to show him the path. "I’m not supposed to tell

anyone that, but I can tell you. You’re going to be the Queen." Dyelin put a hand on Perival’s shoulder,

and he stood up straighter, though he still was shorter than she. "Lord Willin would be here with Lord

Perival, but the years have him bedridden. Age creeps up on us all, eventually." She shot another look at

Catalyn, but the girl was studying Birgitte, now, her lips pursed. "Willin said I was to tell you that he

sends his good wishes and also one he considers a son."

"Uncle Willin told me to uphold the honor of Mantear and of Andor," Perival said, intent as only

a child being serious could be. "I will try, Elayne. I will try very hard."

"I’m sure you will succeed," Elayne told him, managing to put at least a little warmth into her

tone. She wanted to chase them all out and ask Dyelin some very pointed questions, but that could not

be, not right away. Whatever their ages, they were all the High Seats of powerful Houses, and she had to

offer refreshment and at least a modicum of conversation before they went to change from their journey.

"Is she really the Captain-General of the Queen’s Guards?" Catalyn asked as Birgitte handed

Elayne a thin blue porcelain cup of slightly darkened hot water. The girl spoke as though Birgitte was

not there. Birgitte raised an eyebrow before leaving, but Catalyn seemed practiced in not seeing what

she did not want to see. The winecup in her plump hand gave off the sharply sweet aroma of spices.

There was not so much as a drop of honey in Elayne’s miserable excuse for tea.

"Yes, and my Warder, too," she said. Politely. As ready as she would ever be! The girl probably

thought it a compliment. She deserved a switching for pure rudeness, yet you could not switch a High

Seat. Not when you needed her support.

Catalyn’s eyes flashed to Elayne’s hands, but the Great Serpent ring did nothing to alter the

coolness of her expression. "They gave you that? I had not heard you had been raised Aes Sedai. I

thought the White Tower had sent you home. When your mother died. Or perhaps because of the

troubles in the Tower we hear about. Imagine, Aes Sedai squabbling like farmwives at market. But how

can she be a general or a Warder without a sword? In any case, my aunt Evelle says a woman should

leave swords to men. You don’t shoe your own horse when you have a farrier, or grind your own grain

when you have a miller." A quote from Lady Evelle, no doubt. Elayne schooled her face, ignoring the

only slightly buried insults. "An army is a general’s sword, Catalyn. Gareth Bryne says a general who

uses another blade is mistaking the job." The name seemed to make no impression on her, either.

Miners’ children in the Mountains of Mist knew Gareth Bryne’s name! Aviendha appeared at Elayne’s

side, smiling as though delighted at the opportunity to talk with the girl. "Swords are no use at all," she

said sweetly. Sweetly! Aviendha! Elayne had never realized her sister could dissemble so skillfully. She

had a cup of mulled wine, too. It would have been too much to expect her to continue drinking bitter tea

out of sisterly affection. "You should learn the spear. Also the knife, and the bow. Birgitte Trahelion

could shoot your eyes out at two hundred paces with her bow. Maybe at three hundred."

"The spear?" Catalyn said faintly. And then, in a slightly incredulous tone, "My eyes?"

"You have not met my sister," Elayne said. "Aviendha, Lady Catalyn Haevin. Catalyn, Aviendha

of the Nine Valleys Taardad." Perhaps she should have done that the other way around, but Aviendha

was her sister, and even a High Seat must settle for being introduced to the sister of the Daughter-Heir.

"Aviendha is Aiel. She’s studying to become a Wise One."

The fool girl’s mouth dropped open at the start, her chin falling more and more with each

pronouncement until she was gaping like a fish. Very satisfying. Aviendha gave Elayne a smaller smile,

her green eyes sparkling with approbation above her winecup. Elayne kept her own face smooth, but she

wanted to grin back.

The others were much more easily handled, much less infuriating. Perival and Branlet were shy

their first time in Caemlyn much less in the Royal Palace, hardly saying two words unless someone drew

them out. Conail did think the claim that Aviendha was Aiel must be a joke, and nearly got her belt knife

in his brisket for laughing raucously, but luckily, he thought that was a joke as well Aviendha adopted

an icy composure that might have made her seem a Wise One in her usual clothes; in velvets, she

appeared even more a lady of the court no matter how she fingered her knife. And Branlet did keep

sneaking sidelong peaks at Birgitte. It took Elayne a little while to realize that he was watching her walk

in her heeled boots-those wide trousers were actually quite snug over the hips-but she only sighed.

Fortunately, Birgitte never noticed, and the bond would have let Elayne know even if she tried to hide it.

Birgitte liked having men look at her. Grown men. It would have done Elayne’s cause no good if her

Warder smacked young Branlet’s bottom.

Mainly they wanted to know whether Reanne Corly was an Aes Sedai. None of the four had ever

seen a sister before, but they thought she must be, since she could channel, and carry them and their

armsmen across hundreds of miles in a step. It was a good opportunity to practice evasion without

actually lying, helped by the Great Serpent ring on her own finger. A lie would taint her relations with

these four at the start, but it would hardly do to hope that rumors of Aes Sedai aid would filter out to

Arymilla while spreading the truth about freely. Of course, all four were eager to let her know how

many armsmen they had brought, a total of just over three thousand, nearly half of them crossbowmen

or halberdiers who would be especially useful on the walls. That was a sizable force for four Houses to

have had ready to hand when Dyelin came calling, but then, no House wanted its High Seat unguarded

in these times. Kidnapping was not unheard of when (he throne sat in question. Conail said as much,

with a laugh; he seemed to find everything worth a laugh. Branlet nodded and scrubbed a hand through

his hair. Elayne wondered how many of his numerous aunts, uncles and cousins knew he was gone, and

what they would do when they learned.

"If Dyelin had been willing to wait a few days," Catalyn said, "I could have brought more than

twelve hundred men." That was the third time in as many sentences that she had managed to point out

that she had brought the largest contingent by a considerable margin. "I have sent to all of the Houses

pledged to Haevin."

"And I to every House pledged to Northan," Conail added. With a grin, of course. "Northan may

not summon as many swords as Haevin or Trakand - or Mantear," he put in with a bow to Perival, "but

whoever rides when the Eagles call will be riding for Caemlyn." "They will not ride very fast in winter,"

Perival said quietly. And astonishingly, since no one had spoken to him. "I think that whatever we do,

we will have to do it with who we have now." Conail laughed and cuffed the lad’s shoulder and told him

to buck up his spirits, because every man with a heart was on his way to Caemlyn to support the Lady

Elayne, but Elayne studied Perival more closely. His blue eyes met hers for a moment without blinking

before he shyly lowered his gaze. A boy, but he knew what he had ridden into better than Conail or

Catalyn, who proceeded to tell them yet again how many armsmen she had brought, and how many

Haevin could call on, as if everyone there except Aviendha did not know exactly how many rode to each

House’s summons, in trained soldiers and farmers who had carried a halberd or pike in some war and

village men who could be drafted at need. Close enough to exactly, anyway. Lord Willin had done good

work with young Perival. Now she had to keep it from going to waste. Eventually it was time to

exchange kisses, with Branlet blushing to his hair, and Perival blinking bashfully when Elayne bent to

him, and Conail vowing never to wash his cheek. Catalyn returned a surprisingly hesitant peck to Elayne

‘s cheek, as if it had just occurred to her that she had consented to placing Elayne above her, but after a

moment she nodded to herself, cool pride settling back on her like a mantle. Once the four were handed

over to the maids and serving men who would take them to the apartments that Elayne hoped the First

Maid had had time to ready, Dyelin refilled her winecup and settled herself in one of the tall, carved

chairs with a weary sigh.

"As fine a week’s work as I’ve ever done, if I do say so myself. I got Candraed out of the way

straight off. I never thought Danine would be able to make up her mind, and it only took an hour to

prove me right, though I had to stay three to keep from offending her. The woman must keep in bed till

noon from being unable to decide to which side of the mattress to climb down from! The rest were ready

to see sense with only a little convincing. No one with any sense wants to risk Arymilla gaining the

throne."

For a moment, she frowned at her wine, then fixed Elayne with a steady look. She never

hesitated to speak her mind, whether or not she thought Elayne would agree, and plainly she intended to

do so now. "It may have been a mistake to pass these Kinswomen off as Aes Sedai, however sidemouthed

we’ve been about it. The strain may be too much to ask of them, and it puts us all at risk. This

morning, for no reason I could make out, Mistress Corly was staring and gaping like a goose-girl come

to the city. I think she almost failed at weaving the gateway to bring us here. That would have been

wonderful, everyone lined up to ride through a miraculous hole in the air that never materialized. Not to

mention that it would have stuck me in Catalyn’s company for the Light knows how long. Odious child!

There’s a good mind there, if someone took her in hand for a few years, but she has a double dose of the

viperous Haevin tongue."

Elayne gritted her teeth. She knew how cutting Haevins could be. The whole family took, pride

in it! Catalyn obviously did. And she was tired of explaining what on this day could frighten any woman

who could channel. She was tired of being reminded of what she was trying to ignore. That bloody

beacon was still blazing in the west, an utter impossibility both for its size and its duration. The thing

had been unchanging for hours! Anyone who channeled for this long without a rest must have fallen over

with exhaustion by now. And Rand bloody al’Thor was right there, in the heart of it. She was certain of

that! He was alive, but that only made her want to slap his face for putting her through this. Well, his

face was not there, but-

Birgitte slammed her silver cup down on a side table so hard that wine flew everywhere. Some

laundress was going to sweat to take that stain out of her coatsleeve. A maid would labor for hours to

restore the side table’s polish. "Children!" she barked. "People are going to die because of the decisions

they make, and they’re flaming children, Conail worst of all! You heard him, Dyelin. He wants to

challenge Arymilla’s champion like Artur bloody Hawkwing! Hawkwing never fought anybody’s

flaming champion, and he knew when he was younger than Lord Northan that it was a fool’s game to

rest so much on a flaming duel, but Conail thinks he can win Elayne the flaming throne with his flaming

sword!" "Birgitte Trahelion is right," Aviendha said fiercely. Her hands were fists gripping her skirts.

"Conail Northan is a fool! But how could anyone follow those children into the dance of spears? How

could anyone ask them to lead?"

Dyelin regarded them both, and chose to answer Aviendha first. She was plainly bemused by

Aviendha’s garb. But then, she was bemused by Aviendha and Elayne adopting one another as sisters,

by Elayne having an Aiel friend in the first place. That Elayne chose to include that friend in their

counsels was something she tolerated. Though not without letting her toleration show. "I became High

Seat of Taravin at fifteen, when my father died in a skirmish on the Altaran Marches. My two younger

brothers died fighting cattle raiders out of Murandy that same year. I listened to advisors, but I told

Taravin riders where to strike, and we taught the Altarans and the Murandians to look elsewhere for

their thieving. The times choose when children must grow up, Aviendha, not we, and in these times, a

High Seat who is a child cannot be a child any longer. "As for you, Lady Birgitte," she went on in a

drier voice. "Your language is, as ever . . . pungent." She did not ask how Birgitte presumed to know so

much of Artur Hawkwing, things no historian knew, but she studied her appraisingly. "Branlet and

Perival will take guidance from me, and so will Catalyn, I think, much as I regret the time I’ll have to

spend with the girl. As for Conail, he’s hardly the first young man to think he’s invincible and immortal.

If you can’t keep him reined in as Captain-General, I suggest you try walking for him. The way he was

eyeing those breeches of yours, he’ll follow anywhere you lead."

Elayne . . . shrugged off. . . the pure fury welling up in her. Not her fury, any more than it had

been her anger at Dyelin in the first place, or her anger at Birgitte splashing wine about. It was

Birgitte’s. She did not want to slap Rand’s face. Well, she did, but that was beside the point. Light,

Conail had been looking at Birgitte, too? "They are the High Seats of their Houses, Aviendha. No one in

their Houses would thank me for treating them as less; far from it. The men who ride for them will fight

to keep them alive, but it is Perival and Branlet, Conail and Catalyn they ride for, not me. Because they

are the High Seats." Aviendha frowned, and folded her arms as though pulling a shawl around herself,

but she nodded. Abruptly, and reluctantly-no one rose to such prominence among the Aiel without

years of experience, and the approval of the Wise Ones-but she nodded. "Birgitte, you will have to

deal with them, Captain-General to High Seat. White hair wouldn’t necessarily make them any wiser,

and it definitely wouldn’t make them any easier to deal with. They’d still have their own opinions, and

with years of experience to give them weight, most likely they’d be ten times as certain they knew what

needs to be done better than you do. Or than I do." She made a great effort to keep her tone clear of

sharpness, and no doubt Birgitte felt the effort. At least, the flow of rage through the bond suddenly

diminished. It was only tamped down, not gone-Birgitte enjoyed having men look, at least when she

wanted them to look, but she very much did not like anyone saying she was trying to attract their

attention-yet even so, she knew the danger to both of them of letting their emotions run too free.

Dyelin had begun sipping at her wine, still studying Birgitte. Only a bare handful knew the truth that

Birgitte desperately wanted to keep hidden, and Dyelin was not among them, yet Birgitte had been

careless enough, a slip of the tongue here, a slip there, that the older woman was certain that some

mystery hid behind Birgitte’s blue eyes. The Light only knew what she would think if she solved that

riddle. As it was, the two were oil and water. They could argue over which way was up, and certainly

over everything else. This time, Dyelin clearly thought she had won, foot and horse. "Be that as it may,

Dyelin," Elayne continued, "I would have been more pleased if you had brought their advisors with

them. What’s done is done, but Branlet troubles me in particular. If Gilyard accuses me of kidnapping

him, matters become worse than they were, not better."

Dyelin waved that away. "You don’t know the Gilyards well, do you? The way they squabble

among themselves, they may not notice the boy is gone before summer, and if they do, none will

repudiate what he’s done. None of them will admit they were so busy in arguing over who’s to be his

guardian that they forgot to keep an eye on him. And second, none of them will admit they weren’t

consulted beforehand. In any event, Gilyard would stand for Zaida before standing for Marne, and they

don’t like Arawn or Sarand much better."

"I hope you’re right, Dyelin, because I’m appointing you to deal with any angry Gilyards who

appear. And while you’re advising the other three, you can keep a thumb on Conail so he doesn’t do

anything completely harebrained."

For all her talk, the first suggestion made Dyelin wince slightly. The second made her sigh.

It made Birgitte laugh out loud. "If you have any problems, I’ll lend you a pair of breeches and

some boots, and you can walk for him."

"Some women," Dyelin murmured into her wine, "can make a fish bite by crooking a finger,

Lady Birgitte. Other women have to drag their bait all over the pond." Aviendha laughed at that, but

Birgitte’s anger began to edge upward in the bond. A wave of cold air swept into the room as the door

opened, and Rasoria entered, coming to a stiff attention. "The First Maid and the First Clerk have come,

my Lady Elayne," she announced. Her voice faltered at the end, as she caught the mood in the room. A

blind goat could have caught it, with Dyelin smug as a cat in the creamery, and Birgitte scowling at her

and Aviendha both, and Aviendha choosing this moment to remember that Birgitte was Birgitte

Silverbow, which on this occasion made her stare at the floor, as abashed as if she had been laughing at

a Wise One. Now and again Elayne wished her friends could all get on as well as she and Aviendha did,

but somehow they managed to rub on together, and she supposed that was really all she could ask from

real people. Perfection was a thing for books and gleemen’s stories. "Send them in," she told Rasoria.

"And don’t disturb us unless the city is under attack. Unless it is important," she amended. In stories,

women who gave orders like that were always setting themselves up for disaster. Sometimes, there were

lessons in stories, if you looked for them.

CHAPTER 14

What Wise Ones Know

alwin Norry, the First Clerk, and Reene Harfor, the First Maid, entered together, him making a

jerky, unpracticed bow, and her a graceful curtsy that was neither too low nor too shallow. They could

not have been more different. Mistress Harfor was round-faced and regally dignified, her hair in a neat

gray bun atop her head, Master Norry tall and gawky as a wadingbird, with his little remaining hair

sticking up behind his ears like sprays of white feathers. Each carried an embossed leather folder stuffed

with papers, but she held hers at her side as if not to rumple her formal scarlet tabard, unwrinkled as it

always seemed to be, no matter the hour or how long she had been on her feet, while he clutched his

folder to his narrow chest as if to hide old inkstains, of which several spotted his tabard, including a

large blot that made the White Lion’s tail end in a black tuft. Courtesies done, they immediately put a

little distance between them, each not quite watching the other.

As soon as the door closed behind Rasoria, the glow of saidar sprung up around Aviendha, and

she wove a ward against eavesdropping that clung to the walls of the room. What was said between

them was now as safe as they could make it, and Aviendha would know if anyone even tried to listen

with the Power. She was very good with this sort of weave.

"Mistress Harfor," Elayne said, "if you will begin." She did not offer wine or seats, of course.

Master Norry would have been shocked to his toenails by such a lapse in the proprieties, and Mistress

Harfor might well have been offended. As it was, Norry twitched and glanced sideways at Reene, and

her mouth thinned. Even after a week’s meetings, their dislike for giving their reports where the other

could hear was palpable. They were jealous of their fiefs, the more so since the First Maid had moved

into territory that once might have been considered Master Norry’s responsibility. Of course, running the

Royal Palace had always been the First Maid’s charge, and it might be said that her new duties were

only an extension of that. It would not be said by Halwin Norry, though. The blazing logs settled in the

fireplace with a loud crack, sending a shower of sparks up the chimney.

"I am convinced the Second Librarian is . . . a spy, my Lady," Mistress Harfor said finally,

ignoring Norry as if to make him disappear. She had resisted letting anyone else know that she was

searching out spies in the palace, yet the First Clerk knowing seemed to grate on her worst of all. His

only authority over her, if such it was, came from paying the palace accounts, and he never questioned

an expenditure, but even that little was more than she wished. "Every three or four days Master Harnder

visits an inn called the Hoop and Arrow, supposedly for the ale made by the innkeeper, one Millis

Fendry, but Mistress Fendry also keeps pigeons, and whenever Master Harnder visits, she sends off a

pigeon that flies north. Yesterday, three of the Aes Sedai staying at the Silver Swan found reason to visit

the Hoop and Arrow, though it caters to a much poorer crowd than the Swan. They came and went

hooded, and were closeted with Mistress Fendry in private for over an hour. All three are Brown Ajah. I

fear that indicates Master Harnder’s employer."

"Hairdressers, footmen, cooks, the master cabinetmaker, no fewer than five of Master Norry’s

clerks, and now one of the librarians."

Leaning back in her chair and crossing her legs, Dyelin glowered sourly. "Is there anyone we

won’t eventually learn is a spy, Mistress Harfor?" Norry stretched his neck uncomfortably; he took the

malfeasance of his clerks as a personal affront. "I have hopes I may be reaching the bottom of that

barrel, my Lady," Mistress Harfor said complacently. Neither spies nor the High Seats of powerful

Houses ruffled her. Spies were pests she intended to rid the palace of as surely as she kept it clear of

fleas and rats-though she had been forced to accept Aes Sedai aid with rats recently-while powerful

nobles were like rain or snow, facts of nature to be endured until they went away, but nothing to get

flustered over. "There are only so many people who can be bought, and only so many can afford to buy,

or want to." Elayne tried to picture Master Harnder, but all she could bring up in her mind was vague, a

chubby, balding man who blinked incessantly. He had served her mother, and as she recalled, Queen

Mordrellen before that. No one commented on the fact that it seemed he also served the Brown Ajah.

Every ruler’s palace between the Spine of the World and the Aryth Ocean contained the Tower’s eyesand-

ears. Any ruler with half a brain expected it. Doubtless the Seanchan would soon be living under the

White Tower’s gaze, too, if they were not already. Reene had discovered several spies for the Red Ajah,

assuredly legacies of Elaida’s time in Caemlyn, but this librarian was the first for another Ajah. Elaida

would not have liked other Ajahs knowing what went on in the palace while she was advisor to the

Queen.

"A pity we have no false stories we want the Brown Ajah to believe," she said lightly. A great

pity they, and the Reds, knew about the Kin. At best, they had to know there were a large number of

women in the palace who could channel, and it would not take them long to figure out who they were.

That would create any number of problems down the road, yet those difficulties did lie somewhere in the

future. Always plan ahead, Lini used to say, but worry too hard over next year, and you can trip over

tomorrow. "Watch Master Harnder and try to find out his friends. That will have to suffice for the time

being." Some spies depended on their ears, either to hear gossip or listen at doors; others lubricated

tongues with a few friendly cups of wine. The first part of counteracting a spy was to find out how he

learned what he sold.

Aviendha snorted loudly and, spreading her skirts, started to sit down on the carpet before

realizing what she wore. With a warning glance at Dyelin, she perched stiffly on the front edge of a

chair instead, the picture of a court lady with her eyes flashing. Except that a lady of the court would not

have checked the edge of her belt knife with a thumb. Left to her own devices, Aviendha would slit

every spy’s throat as soon as it could be stretched for the knife. Spying was a vile business, in her view,

no matter how often Elayne explained that every spy found was a tool that could be used to make her

enemies believe what she wanted. Not that every spy necessarily worked for an enemy. Most of those

the First Maid had uncovered took money from more than one source, and among those she had

identified were King Roedran of Murandy, various Tairen High Lords and Ladies, a handful of

Cairhienin nobles, and a fair number of merchants. A good many people were interested in what

happened in Caemlyn, whether for its effect on trade or other reasons. Sometimes it seemed that

everyone spied on everyone else.

"Mistress Harfor," she said, "you haven’t found any eyes-andears for the Black Tower."

Like most people who heard the Black Tower mentioned, Dyelin shivered, and took a deep drink

of her wine, but Reene just grimaced faintly. She had decided to ignore the fact that they were men who

could channel, since she could not change matters. To her, the Black Tower was . . . an annoyance.

"They haven’t had time, my Lady. Give them a year, and you’ll find footmen and librarians taking their

coin, too."

"I suppose I will." Dreadful thought. "What else do you have for us today?"

"I’ve had a word with Jon Skellit, my Lady. A man who turns his coat once is often amenable to

turning it again, and Skellit is." Skellit, a barber, was in the pay of House Arawn, which for the present

made him Arymilla’s man.

Birgitte bit off an oath in midword-for some reason, she tried to watch her language around

Reene Harfor-and spoke in a pained voice. "You had a word with him? Without asking anyone?"

Dyelin was under no compunctions regarding the First Maid, and she muttered, "Mother’s milk

in a cup!" Elayne had never heard her use an obscenity before. Master Norry blinked and almost

dropped his folder, and busied himself with not looking at Dyelin. The First Maid, however, merely

paused until sure she and Birgitte were done, then went on calmly.

"The time seemed ripe, and so did Skellit. One of the men he hands his reports to left the city and

hasn’t returned yet, while it appears the other broke his leg. The streets are always icy where a fire has

been put out." She said that so blandly, it seemed more than likely she had engineered the man’s fall

somehow. Hard times uncovered hard talents in the most surprising people. "Skellit is quite agreeable to

carrying his next communication out to the camps himself. He saw a gateway made, and he won’t have

to pretend terror." You would have thought she herself had been seeing merchants’ wagons rumble out

of holes in the air for her entire life. "What’s to stop this barber keeping on running once he’s outside

the fla . . . uh . . . the city?" Birgitte demanded irritably, beginning to pace in front of the fire with her

hands clasped behind her. Her heavy golden braid should have been bristling. "If he goes, Arawn will

hire somebody else, and you’ll have to hunt him out all over again. Light, Arymilla must have heard of

the gateways almost as soon as she arrived, and Skellit has to know it." It was not the thought of Skellit

escaping that irritated her, or not only that. The mercenaries thought they had been hired to stop soldiers,

but for a few silvers they would allow one or two to slip through the gates by night in either direction.

One or two could do no harm, as they saw matters. Birgitte did not like being reminded of that.

"Greed will stop him, my Lady," Mistress Harfor replied calmly. "The thought of earning gold

from the Lady Elayne as well as from Lady Naean is enough to make the man breathe hard. It’s true,

Lady Arymilla must already have heard of the gateways, but that only adds credit to Skellit’s reason for

going in person." "And if his greed is great enough for him to try earning still more gold by turning his

coat a third time?" Dyelin said. "He could cause a great deal of . . . mischief, Mistress Harfor."

Reene’s tone became a little crisper. She would never step over the boundaries, but she disliked

anyone thinking her careless. "Lady Naean would have him buried under the nearest snowdrift, my

Lady, as I made certain he is aware. She has never been patient. As I am sure you are aware. In any case,

the news we get from the camps is quite sparse, to say the least, and he might see a few things we would

like to know."

"If Skellit can tell us which camp Arymilla, Elenia and Naean will be in and when, I’ll give him

his gold with my own hand," Elayne said deliberately. Elenia and Naean stayed close to Arymilla, or she

kept them close, and Arymilla was much less patient than Naean, much less willing to believe that

anything could function without her presence. She spent half of each day riding from camp to camp, and

never slept in the same two nights running, as far as anyone could learn. "That is the only thing he can

tell us of the camps that I want to know." Reene inclined her head. "As you say, my Lady. I will see to

it." She too often tried not to say things straight out in front of Norry, but she gave no sign that she had

heard any reproof. Of course, Elayne was not sure she actually would rebuke the woman openly.

Mistress Harfor would continue to perform her duties properly if she did, and she certainly would

continue hunting spies with undiminished ardor, if for no other reason than their presence in the palace

offended her, yet Elayne might find a dozen inconveniences in every day, a dozen small discomforts that

added up to misery, and not a one that she could directly attribute to the First Maid.

We must follow the steps of the dance as surely as our servants, her mother had told her once.

You can keep hiring new servants, and spend all your time training them and suffering till they learn,

only to find yourself back where you started, or you can accept the rules as they do, and live

comfortably while you use your time to rule.

"Thank you, Mistress Harfor," she said, for which she received another precise curtsy. Reene

Harfor was another who knew her own worth. "Master Norry?"

The heron-like man gave a start and stopped frowning at Reene. In some ways, he saw the

gateways as his, and not to be trifled with. "Yes, my Lady. Of course." His voice was a dusty monotone.

"I trust the lady Birgitte already has informed you of the merchants’ trains from Illian and Tear. I

believe that is . . . um . . . her usual custom when you return to the city." For a moment, his eyes rested

reproachfully on Birgitte. He would never think of causing Elayne the smallest irritation even if she

shouted at him, but he lived by his own set of rules, and, in a mild fashion, he resented Birgitte stealing

his chance to enumerate the wagons and casks and barrels that had arrived. He did love his numbers. At

least, Elayne supposed it was in a mild fashion. There seemed to be very little heat in Mister Norry.

"She did," she told him, with just a hint of apology, not enough to embarrass him. "I fear some

of the Sea Folk are leaving us. We’ll only have half the number to make gateways after today." His

fingers spidered across the leather folder against his chest as though feeling the papers within. She had

never seen him consult one. "Ah. Ah. We shall . . . cope, my Lady." Halwin Norry always coped. "To

continue, there were nine arsons yesterday and last night, slightly more than usual. Three attempts were

made to fire warehouses storing food. None successful, I hasten to add." He might hasten to add, yet he

did it in that same drone. "If I may say so, the Guards patrolling the streets are having an effect-the

number of assaults and thefts has declined to little more than normal for this time of year-but it seems

evident that some hand is directing the arsons. Seventeen buildings were destroyed, all save one

abandoned," his mouth narrowed in disapproval; it would take far more than a siege to make him leave

Caemlyn, "and in my opinion, all of the fires were placed so as to draw the water-wagons as far as

possible from the warehouses where attempts were made. I now believe that pattern holds for every fire

we’ve seen these past weeks."

"Birgitte?" Elayne said.

"I can try plotting the warehouses on a map," Birgitte replied doubtfully, "and put extra Guards

on the streets that seem to be farthest away, but it’s still leaving a lot to fla . . . uh . . . to chance." She

did not look toward Mistress Harfor, but Elayne felt a faint hint of a blush from her. "Anybody can have

flint and steel in a belt pouch, and it only takes a minute with some dry straw to start a fire."

"Do what you can," Elayne told her. It would be pure luck if they caught an arsonist in the act,

and beyond luck if the arsonist could say more than that she had been handed coin by someone with a

hood hiding her face. Tracing that gold back to Arymilla or Elenia or Naean would require Mat

Cauthon’s luck. "Have you anything more, Master Norry?"

Knuckling his long nose, he avoided her gaze. "It has . . . uh . . . come to my attention," he said

hesitantly, "that Marne, Arawn and Sarand have all recently taken very large loans against the revenues

of their estates." Mistress Harfor’s eyebrows climbed before she got them under control.

Peering into her teacup, Elayne discovered that she had actually emptied it. Bankers never told

anyone how much they had loaned to whom, or against what, but she did not ask how he knew. It would

be . . . embarrassing. For both of them. She smiled when her sister took the cup, then grimaced when

Aviendha returned with it filled again. Aviendha seemed to think she should drink weak tea till her eyes

floated! Goat’s milk was better, but dishwater for tea would do. Well, she would hold the bloody cup,

but she did not have to drink.

"The mercenaries," Dyelin growled, the heat in her eyes enough to make a bear back up. "I’ve

said it before, and I’ll say it again; the trouble with sell-swords is they don’t always stay bought." She

had opposed hiring mercenaries to help defend the city from the start, though the fact was that without

them, Arymilla could have ridden in with her army by any gate she picked, or near enough. There

simply had not been enough men to guard every gate properly otherwise, much less man the walls.

Birgitte had opposed the mercenaries, too, yet she had accepted Elayne’s reasons, if reluctantly. She still

distrusted them, but now she shook her head. Sitting on the arm of a chair near the fire, she rested her

spurred boot on the seat. "Mercenaries have a concern for their reputations if not their honor. Changing

sides is one thing; actually betraying a gate is something else entirely. A company that did that would

never be hired again, anywhere. Arymilla would have to offer enough for a captain to live the rest of his

life like a lord, and at least convince his men they’d be able to, as well." Norry cleared his throat. Even

that sounded dusty, somehow. "It seems they may have borrowed against the same revenues twice or

even three times. The bankers, of course, are . . . unaware . . . of this, as yet."

Birgitte began to curse, then cut herself off. Dyelin scowled at her wine hard enough to make it

turn sour. Aviendha squeezed Elayne’s hand, just a quick pressure quickly released. The fire crackled in

a shower of sparks, some nearly reaching the carpets. "The mercenary companies will have to be

watched." Elayne raised a hand to forestall Birgitte. The other woman had not opened her mouth, but the

bond shouted volumes. "You will have to find the men for it somewhere." Light! They seemed to be

guarding against as many people inside the city as outside! "It shouldn’t take that many, but we need to

know if they start to act strangely, or secretively, Birgitte. That might be our only warning." "I was

thinking what to do if one of the companies does sell out," Birgitte said wryly. "Knowing won’t be

enough unless I have men to rush to any gate I think is going to be betrayed. And half the soldiers in the

city are mercenaries. Half the rest are old men who were living on their pensions a few months gone. I’ll

shift the mercenaries’ postings at irregular intervals. It will be harder for them to betray a gate if they

can’t be sure where they’ll be tomorrow, but that doesn’t make it impossible." Protest how she would

that she was no general, she had seen more battles and sieges than any ten generals living, and she knew

very well how these matters unfolded.

Elayne almost wished she had wine in her cup. Almost. "Is there any chance the bankers will

learn what you have, Master Norry? Before the loans come due?" If they did, some might decide they

preferred Arymilla on the throne. She could strip the country’s coffers to repay those loans, then. She

might even do it. Merchants rode the political winds, whichever way they blew. Bankers had been

known to attempt to influence events. "In my opinion, it is unlikely, my Lady. They would have to . . .

um . . . ask the right questions of the right people, but bankers are normally . . . um . . . closemouthed . . .

with one another. Yes, I think it unlikely. For the time being."

There was nothing to be done in any case. Except to tell Birgitte there might be a new source for

assassins and kidnappers. Only given her hard expression and a sudden grimness in the bond, she had

already realized that. There would be little chance of keeping the bodyguard under a hundred women,

now. If there ever had been.

"Thank you, Master Norry," Elayne said. "You’ve done well, as always. Let me know

immediately if you see any indications that the bankers have asked those questions."

"Of course, my Lady," he murmured, ducking his head like an egret darting after a fish. "My

Lady is very kind." When Reene and Norry left the room, him holding the door for her and making a

bow that was a hair more graceful than usual and her giving him a slight bow of her head as she glided

past him into the corridor, Aviendha did not release the ward she was holding. As soon as the door

closed, its solid sound swallowed by the ward, she said, "Someone tried to listen."

Elayne shook her head. There was no way to tell who-a Black sister? A curious Kinswoman?-

but at least the eavesdrop had failed. Not that there was much chance of anyone getting past one of

Aviendha’s wards, maybe not even the Forsaken, but she would have spoken up right away if someone

had.

Dyelin took Aviendha’s announcement with less aplomb, muttering about the Sea Folk. She had

not turned a hair at hearing that half the Windfinders were leaving, not in front of Reene and Norry, but

now she demanded to know the whole story. "I never did trust Zaida," she grumbled when Elayne

finished. "This agreement sounds good for trade, I suppose, but it wouldn’t surprise me if she had one of

the Windfinders try to listen in. She struck me as a woman who wants to know everything, just in case it

might be useful one day." There was very little hesitant about Dyelin, yet she hesitated now, rolling her

winecup between her palms. "Are you certain this . . . this beacon . . . can’t harm us, Elayne?" "As

certain as I can be, Dyelin. If it was going to crack open the world, I think it would have by now."

Aviendha laughed, but Dyelin turned quite pale. Really! Sometimes you had to laugh if only to keep

from crying.

"If we tarry much longer now that Norry and Mistress Harfor are gone," Birgitte said,

"somebody might start wondering why." She waved a hand at the walls, indicating the ward she could

not see. She knew it was still in place, though. The daily meetings with the First Maid and the First

Clerk always concealed a little something more.

Everyone gathered around her as she moved a pair of golden Sea Folk porcelain bowls on one of

the side tables and pulled a muchfolded map from inside her short coat. It rode there always, except

when she slept, and then it resided beneath her pillow. Spread out, with empty winecups at the corners to

hold it flat, the map displayed Andor from the River Erinin to the border between Altara and Murandy.

In truth, it could have been said to show all of Andor, since what lay farther west had been only half

under Caemlyn’s control for generations. It had hardly been a masterpiece of the mapmaker’s art to

begin with, and creases obscured much of the detail, but it showed the terrain well enough, and every

town and village was marked, every road and bridge and ford. Elayne set her teacup down at arm’s

length from the map to avoid spilling on it and adding more stains. And to rid herself of the wretched

excuse for tea.

"The Borderlanders are moving," Birgitte said, pointing to the forests north of Caemlyn, to a spot

above Andor’s northmost border, "but they haven’t covered much ground. At this rate, they’ll be well

over a month getting close to Caemlyn." Swirling her silver cup, Dyelin peered into the dark wine, then

looked up suddenly. "I thought you northerners were used to snow, Lady Birgitte." Even now she had to

probe, and telling her not to would only make her ten times as certain that Birgitte was hiding secrets,

and twenty times as determined to learn them. Aviendha scowled at the older woman-when she was

not in awe of Birgitte, sometimes she became fiercely protective of Birgitte’s secrets-but Birgitte

herself met Dyelin’s gaze levelly, with no hint of alarm in the bond. She had become quite comfortable

with the lie about her origins. "I haven’t been back to Kandor in a long time." That was simple truth,

though it had been far longer than Dyelin could have imagined. The country had not even been called

Kandor, then. "But no matter what you’re used to, moving two hundred thousand soldiers, not to

mention the Light alone knows how many camp followers, is slow going in winter. Worse, I sent

Mistress Ocalin and Mistress Fote to visit some of the villages a few miles south of the border." Sabeine

Ocalin and Julanya Fote were Kinswomen who could Travel. "They say the villagers think the

Borderlanders are camped for the winter."

Elayne tsked, frowning at the map as she traced distances with a finger. She was counting on

news of the Borderlanders, if not on the Borderlanders themselves. Word of an army that size entering

Andor should be leaping ahead of it like wildfire in dry grass. No one but a fool could believe they had

marched all those hundreds of leagues to try conquering Andor, but everyone who heard would be

speculating on their intentions and what to do about them, a different opinion on every tongue. Once the

news began to spread, anyway. When it did, she had an advantage over everyone else. She had arranged

for the Borderlanders to cross into Andor into the first place, and she had already arranged for them to

leave. The choice had not been very difficult. Stopping them would have been a bloody affair, if it could

have been managed at all, and they wanted no more than the width of a road to march onward into

Murandy, where they thought they would find the Dragon Reborn. That was her doing, as well. They hid

their reason for seeking Rand, and she was not about to give them a true location, not when they had as

many as a dozen Aes Sedai with them and hid that fact, too. But once news of them reached the High

Seats. . . . "It should work," she said softly. "If necessary, we can plant rumors of the Borderlanders

ourselves."

"It should work," Dyelin agreed, then added in a dark voice, "As long as Bashere and Bael keep

a close rein on their men. It’s going to be a volatile mix, with Borderlanders, Aiel and the Legion of the

Dragon all within a few miles of one another. And I can’t see how we can be sure the Asha’man won’t

do something mad." She ended with a sniff. In her book, a man had to be mad in the first place, or he

would never have chosen to become an Asha’man. Aviendha nodded. She disagreed with Dyelin almost

as frequently as Birgitte did, but for the most part, the Asha’man were one thing they agreed on.

"I’ll make sure the Borderlanders stay well clear of the Black Tower," Elayne reassured them,

though she had done the same before. Even Dyelin knew that Bael and Bashere would hold their forces

in check - neither man wanted a battle he did not need, and Davram Bashere certainly would not fight

his own countrymen - but anyone had a right to be uneasy about the Asha’man and what they might

do. She slid her finger from the six-pointed star identifying Caemlyn across the few miles to the ground

the Asha’man had usurped. The Black Tower was not marked, but she knew all too well exactly where it

lay. At least that was well away from the Lugard Road. Sending the Borderlanders south into Murandy

without upsetting the Asha’man would not be difficult. Her mouth compressed at the thought that she

must not upset the Asha’man, but there was nothing to be done about it any time soon, so she mentally

shifted the black-coated men to one side. What could not be dealt with now, had to be dealt with later.

"And the others?" She did not have to say more. Six major Houses remained uncommitted-at least to

her or Arymilla. Dyelin claimed they would all come to Elayne eventually, but they showed no sign of it

so far. Sabeine and Julanya had been looking for word of those six, too. Both women had spent the last

twenty years as peddlers, accustomed to hard journeys, sleeping in stables or under the trees, and

listening to what people did not say as much as to what they said. They made perfect scouts. It would be

a great loss if they had to be shifted to helping keep the city supplied. "Rumor has Lord Luan a dozen

places, east and west." Frowning at the much-creased map as though Luan’s position should have been

marked on it, Birgitte muttered a curse, much viler than called for, now that Reene Harfor was absent.

"Always the next village over, or the one beyond that. Lady Ellorien and Lord Abelle seem to have

vanished completely, difficult as that has to be for a High Seat. At least, Mistress Ocalin and Mistress

Fote haven’t been able to find a whisper of them, or of any House Pendar or House Traemane armsmen,

either. Not a man or a horse." That was very unusual. Someone was exerting great effort. "Abelle was

always a ghost when he wanted to be," Dyelin muttered, "always able to catch you wrong-footed.

Ellorien. . . ." Brushing fingers against her lips, she sighed. "The woman’s too flamboyant to disappear.

Unless she’s with Abelle or Luan. Or both of them." She was not happy with that idea, no matter what

she said.

"As for our other "friends’," Birgitte said, "Lady Arathelle crossed out of Murandy five days

ago, here." She touched the map lightly, some two hundred miles south of Caemlyn. "Four days ago,

Lord Pelivar crossed about five or six miles west of that, and Lady Aemlyn here, another five or six

miles."

"Not together," Dyelin said, nodding. "Did they bring any Murandians? No? Good. They could

be moving to their estates, Elayne. If they move further apart, we’ll know for certain." Those three

Houses made her most anxious of all. "They could be heading home," Birgitte agreed, reluctantly as

always when agreeing with Dyelin. Drawing her intricate braid over her shoulder, she gripped it in a fist

almost the way Nynaeve did. "The men and horses must be worn out, after marching into Murandy in

winter. But all we can be sure of is that they’re on the move."

Aviendha snorted. With her in elegant velvets, it was a startling sound. "Always assume your

enemy will do what you do not want. Decide what you least want them to do, and plan on that."

"Aemlyn, Arathelle and Pelivar aren’t enemies," Dyelin protested weakly. Wherever she believed their

allegiance would fall in time, those three had announced their support of Dyelin herself for the throne.

Elayne had never read of any queen being forced onto the throne-that sort of thing might not

have made it into the histories in any case-yet Aemlyn, Arathelle and Pelivar seemed willing to try,

and not for hope of power for themselves. Dyelin did not want the throne, but she would hardly be a

passive ruler. The simple fact was that Morgase Trakand’s final year had been marred by blunder after

blunder, and few knew or believed that she had been a captive of one of the Forsaken during that time.

Some Houses wanted anyone except another Trakand on the throne. Or thought they did.

"What is the last thing we want them to do?" Elayne said. "If they disperse to their estates, then

they are out of it until spring at the earliest, and everything will be decided by then." The Light willing,

it would. "But if they continue on to Caemlyn?" "Without the Murandians, they don’t have enough

armsmen to challenge Arymilla." Studying the map, Birgitte rubbed her chin.

"If they don’t know by now that the Aiel and the Legion of the Dragon are staying out of this,

they’ll have to learn of it soon, but they’ll want to be careful. None of them seems foolish enough to

provoke a fight they can’t win when they don’t have to. I’d say they’ll camp somewhere to the east or

southeast, where they can keep an eye on events and maybe influence what happens." Downing the last

of her wine, which must have been cold by now, Dyelin exhaled heavily and walked over to fill her cup

again. "If they come to Caemlyn," she said in a leaden tone, "then they are hoping that Luan or Abelle

or Ellorien will join them. Perhaps all three."

"Then we must figure out how to stop them reaching Caemlyn before our plans come to fruit,

without making them permanent enemies." Elayne worked to make her voice as sure and firm as

Dyelin’s was dull. "And we must plan what to do in case they arrive here too early. If that happens,

Dyelin, you will have to convince them the choice is between me and Arymilla. Otherwise, we’ll be in a

tangle we may never straighten out, and all of Andor in it with us."

Dyelin grunted as if she had been punched. The last time the great Houses split evenly among

three claimants for the Lion Throne had been nearly five hundred years ago, and seven years of open

war followed before a queen was crowned. The original claimants were all dead by that point.

Without thinking, Elayne picked up her teacup and took a sip.

The tea had gone cold, but honey exploded on her tongue. Honey! She looked at Aviendha in

astonishment, and her sister’s lips quirked in a small smile. A conspiratorial smile, as if Birgitte did not

know exactly what had happened. Even their strangely enhanced bond did not extend to her tasting what

Elayne did, yet she had surely felt Elayne’s surprise and pleasure on tasting the tea. Planting fists on

hips, she adopted a censorious look. Or rather, she tried to; despite all she could do, a smile crept onto

her face, too. Abruptly, Elayne realized that Birgitte’s headache was gone. She did not know when it had

vanished, but it certainly was not there any longer.

"Hope for the best and plan for the worst," she said. "Sometimes, the best actually happens."

Dyelin, unaware of the honey or anything except that they were all three grinning, harrumphed loudly.

"And sometimes it doesn’t happen. If your clever scheme comes off exactly as planned, Elayne, we

won’t have any need for Aemlyn or Ellorien or the others, but it’s a terrible gamble. All it takes to go

wrong is - " The left-hand door opened to admit a wave of cold and an apple-cheeked woman with icy

eyes and the golden knot of an under-lieutenant on her shoulder. She might have knocked first, but if so,

the ward had sealed off the sound. Like Rasoria, Tzigan Sokorin had been a Hunter for the Horn before

joining Elayne’s bodyguard. It seemed the guard had changed. "The Wise One Monaelle wishes to see

the Lady Elayne," Tzigan announced, drawing herself up rigidly. "Mistress Karistovan is with her."

Sumeko could be put off, but not Monaelle. Arymilla’s people would as soon interfere with Aes Sedai as

with the Aiel, yet only something important would have brought a Wise One into the city. Birgitte knew

that, too; she immediately began folding the map up again. Aviendha let the warding dissipate and

released the Source.

"Ask them to come in," Elayne said.

Monaelle did not wait on Tzigan, gliding into the room as soon as the ward vanished, her

multitude of gold and ivory bracelets rattling as she lowered her shawl from shoulders to elbows in the

comparative warmth. Elayne did not know how old Monaelle was - Wise Ones were not as reticent

about age as Aes Sedai, but they were oblique - yet she appeared not far into her middle years. There

were hints of red in her waist-long yellow hair, but not a touch of gray. Short for an Aiel, shorter than

Elayne, with a mild, motherly face, she was barely strong enough in the Power to have been accepted in

the White Tower, but strength did not count among Wise Ones, and among them, she stood very high.

More importantly for Elayne and Aviendha, she had been the midwife at their rebirth as first-sisters.

Elayne offered her a curtsy, ignoring Dyelin’s disapproving sniff, and Aviendha made a deep bow,

folding herself over her hands. Aside from the duties owed to her midwife under Aiel customs, she was

still only an apprentice Wise One, after all.

"I assume your need for privacy is ended, since you lowered the ward," Monaelle said, "and it is

time I checked on your condition, Elayne Trakand. It should be done twice in the month until full term."

Why was she frowning at Aviendha? Oh, Light, the velvets!

"And I have come to see what she does," Sumeko added, following the Wise One into the room.

Sumeko was imposing, a stout woman with confident eyes, in well-cut red-belted yellow wool, with

silver combs in her straight black hair, and a red-enameled silver circle-pin on the high neck of her

dress. She might have been a noblewoman or a successful merchant. Once she had shown a certain

diffidence, at least around Aes Sedai, but no longer. Not with Aes Sedai or soldiers of the Queen’s

Guards. "You may go," she told Tzigan. "This doesn’t concern you." Or with nobles, for that matter.

"You may leave, too, Lady Dyelin, and you, Lady Birgitte." She studied Aviendha as if considering

adding her to the list. "Aviendha may remain," Monaelle said. "She is missing a great many lessons, and

she must learn this sooner or later." Sumeko nodded in acceptance of Aviendha, but she kept a coolly

impatient gaze on Dyelin and Birgitte.

"Lady Dyelin and I have matters to discuss," Birgitte said, stuffing the folded map back under

her red coat as she started for the door. "I’ll tell you tonight what we’ve thought of, Elayne." Dyelin

gave her a sharp look, almost as sharp as the one she had given Sumeko, but she set her winecup on one

of the trays and made her courtesies to Elayne, then waited with visible impatience while Birgitte bent to

murmur at length in Monaelle’s ear and the Wise One replied briefly, but just as quietly. What were they

whispering about? Probably goat’s milk.

Once the door closed behind Tzigan and the other two women, Elayne offered to send for more

wine, since what was in the pitchers was cold, but Sumeko declined curtly, and Monaelle politely if

rather absently. The Wise One was studying Aviendha with such intensity that the younger woman

began to redden and looked away, gripping her skirts.

"You mustn’t take Aviendha to task about her clothes, Monaelle," Elayne said. "I asked her to

wear them, and she did as a favor to me."

Pursing her lips, Monaelle thought before answering. "Firstsisters should give one another

favors," she said finally. "You know your duty to our people, Aviendha. So far, you have done well at a

difficult task. You must learn to live in two worlds, so it is fitting that you become comfortable in those

clothes." Aviendha began to relax. Until Monaelle continued. "But not too comfortable. From now on,

you will spend every third day and night in the tents. You can return with me tomorrow. You have a

great deal to learn yet before you can become a Wise One, and that is as much your duty as is being a

binding cord."

Elayne reached out and took her sister’s hand, and when Aviendha tried to let go after one

squeeze, she held on. After a brief hesitation, Aviendha clung, too. In a strange way, having Aviendha

there had comforted Elayne for the loss of Rand; she was not only a sister but a sister who also loved

him. They could share strength and make each other laugh when they wanted to cry, and they could cry

together when that was needed. One night in three alone very likely meant one night in three weeping

alone. Light, what was Rand doing? That awful beacon to the west was still blazing as strongly as ever,

and she was certain that he was in the heart of it. Not one particle had changed in the bond with him, but

she was certain. Suddenly she realized that she had a crushing grasp on Aviendha’s hand, and Aviendha

was holding hers as fiercely. They loosened their grips at the same instant. Neither let go, however.

"Men cause trouble even when they are elsewhere," Aviendha said softly.

"They do," Elayne agreed.

Monaelle smiled at the exchange. She was among the few who knew about the bonding of Rand,

and who the father of Elayne’s baby was. None of the Kinswomen did, though. "I’d think you’ve let a

man cause you all the trouble he could, Elayne," Sumeko said primly. The Kin’s Rule followed the rules

for novices and Accepted, forbidding not only children but anything that might lead to them, and they

held to it strictly. Once, a Kinswoman would have swallowed her tongue before suggesting an Aes Sedai

fell short of their Rule. Much had changed since then, however. "I’m supposed to travel to Tear today so

I can bring back a shipment of grain and oil tomorrow, and it is growing late, so if you are done talking

about men, I suggest you let Monaelle get on with what she came for."

Monaelle positioned Elayne in front of the fireplace, close enough that the heat from the nearly

consumed logs was near to uncomfortable-it was best if the mother was very warm, she explained-

then the glow of saidar surrounded her, and she began to weave threads of Spirit and Fire and Earth.

Aviendha watched almost as avidly as Sumeko.

"What is this?" Elayne asked as the weave settled around her and sank into her. "Is it like

Delving?" Every Aes Sedai in the palace had Delved her, though only Merilille had sufficient skill with

Healing for it to be much use, but neither they nor Sumeko had been able to say much more than that she

was with child. She felt a faint tingling, a sort of hum inside her flesh. "Don’t be silly, girl," Sumeko

said absently. Elayne raised an eyebrow, and even thought of waving her Great Serpent ring under

Sumeko’s nose, but the round-faced woman did not appear to notice. She might not have noticed the

ring, either. She was leaning forward, peering as though she could see the weave inside Elayne’s body.

"The Wise Ones learned about Healing from me. And from Nynaeve, I suppose," she allowed after a

moment. Oh, Nynaeve would have gone up like an Illuminator’s firework, hearing that. But then,

Sumeko had outstripped Nynaeve long since. "And they did learn the simple form from Aes Sedai." A

snort like ripping canvas showed what Sumeko thought of the "simple" form, the only sort of Healing

Aes Sedai had known for thousands of years. "This is something of the Wise Ones’ own." "It is called

Caressing the Child," Monaelle said in an abstracted voice. Most of her attention was focused on the

weave. A simple Delving to learn what ailed someone-it was simple, come to think-would have been

finished by now, but she altered the flows, and the hum inside Elayne changed pitch, sinking deeper. "It

may be some part of Healing, a sort of Healing, but we have known this since before we were sent to the

Three-fold Land. Some of the ways the flows are used are similar to what Sumeko Karistovan and

Nynaeve al’Meara showed us. In Caressing the Child, you learn the health of mother and child, and by

changing the weaves, you can cure some problems of either, but they will not work on a woman who is

not with child. Or on a man, of course." The hum grew louder, until it seemed everyone must be able to

hear it. Elayne thought her teeth were vibrating.

An earlier thought returned to her, and she said, "Will channeling hurt my child? If I channel, I

mean."

"No more than breathing does." Monaelle let the weave vanish with a grin. "You have two. It is

too early to say whether they are girls are boys, but they are healthy, and so are you." Two! Elayne

shared a wide smile with Aviendha. She could almost feel her sister’s delight. She was going to have

twins. Rand’s babies. A boy and a girl, she hoped, or two boys. Twin girls would present all manner of

difficulties for the succession. No one ever gained the Rose Crown with everyone behind her. Sumeko

made an urgent sound in her throat, gesturing toward Elayne, and Monaelle nodded. "Do exactly as I

did, and you will see." Watching Sumeko embrace the Source and form the weave, she nodded again,

and the round Kinswoman let it sink into Elayne, letting out a gasp as if she felt the humming herself.

"You will not have to worry about birthing sickness," Monaelle went on, "but you will find that you

have difficulty in channeling sometimes. The threads may slip away from you as though greased or fade

like mist, so you will have to try again and again to make the simplest weave or hold it. This may grow

worse as your pregnancy progresses, and you will not be able to channel at all while in labor or giving

birth, but it will come right after the children are born. You soon will become moody, too, if that has not

already started, weepy one minute and snarling the next. The father of your child will be wise to step

warily and keep his distance as much as he can."

"I hear she’s already snapped his head off once this morning," Sumeko muttered. Releasing the

weave, she straightened and adjusted her red belt around her girth. "This is remarkable, Monaelle. I

never thought of a weave that could only be used on a pregnant woman."

Elayne’s mouth tightened, but what she said was "You can tell all of that with this weave,

Monaelle?" It was best that people thought her babes were Doilan Mellar’s. Rand al’Thor’s children

would be targets, stalked for fear or advantage or hatred, but no one would think twice about Mellar’s,

perhaps not even Mellar. It was for the best, and that was that.

Monaelle threw back her head, laughing so hard that she had to wipe a corner of her eyes with

her shawl. "I know this from bearing seven children and having three husbands, Elayne Trakand. The

ability to channel shields you from the birthing sickness, but there are other prices to pay. Come,

Aviendha, you must try, too. Carefully, now. Exactly as I did."

Eagerly, Aviendha embraced the Source, but before she had begun to weave a thread, she let

saidar go and turned her head to stare toward the dark-paneled wall. Toward the west. So did Elayne,

and Monaelle, and Sumeko. The beacon that had been burning for so long had just vanished. One instant

it had been there, that raging blaze of saidar, and then it was gone as if it had never existed.

Sumeko’s massive bosom heaved as she drew a deep breath. "I think something very wonderful

or very terrible has happened today," she said softly. "And I think I am afraid to learn which."

"Wonderful," Elayne said. It was done, whatever it was, and Rand was alive. That was wonderful

enough. Monaelle glanced at her quizzically. Knowing about the bond, she could puzzle out the rest, but

she only fingered one of her necklaces in a thoughtful manner. In any case, she would pry it out of

Aviendha soon enough.

A knock at the door made them all start. All but Monaelle, anyway. Pretending not to see the

other women jump, she focused a little too intently on adjusting her shawl which made the contrast all

the greater. Sumeko coughed to hide her embarrassment. "Come," Elayne said loudly. A half-shout was

necessary to be heard through the door even without a ward.

Caseille put her head into the room, plumed hat in hand, then came in the rest of the way and

closed the door carefully behind her. The white lace at her neck and wrists was fresh, the lace and lions

on her sash gleamed, and her breastplate sparkled as if freshly burnished, but obviously she had gone

right back on duty after cleaning up from their overnight trip. "Forgive me for interrupting, my Lady,

but I thought you should know right away. The Sea Folk are in a frenzy, those that are still here. It seems

one of their apprentices has gone missing."

"What else?" Elayne said. A missing apprentice might be bad enough, but something in

Caseille’s face told her there was more.

"Guardswoman Azeri happened to tell me that she saw Merilille Sedai leaving the palace about

three hours ago," Caseille said reluctantly. "Merilille and a woman who was cloaked and hooded. They

took horses, and a loaded pack mule. Yurith said the second woman’s hands were tattooed. My Lady, no

one had any reason to be looking for-" Elayne waved her to silence. "No one did anything wrong,

Caseille. No one will be blamed." Not among the Guards, anyway. A fine pickle this was. Talaan and

Metarra, the two apprentice Windfinders, were very strong in the Power, and if Merilille had been able

to talk either one into trying to become Aes Sedai, she might have been able to convince herself that

taking the girl where she could be entered into the novice book was reason enough to evade her own

promise to teach the Windfinders. Who would be more than upset over losing Merilille, and more than

furious over the apprentice. They would blame everyone in sight, and Elayne most of all.

"Is this general knowledge about Merilille?" she asked. "Not yet, my Lady, but whoever saddled

their horses and loaded that mule won’t hold their tongues. Stablehands don’t have much to gossip

about." More of a brush fire than a pickle, then, and small chance of putting it out before it reached the

barns. "I hope you will dine with me later, Monaelle," Elayne said, "but you must forgive me, now."

Duty to her midwife or no, she did not wait for the other woman’s assent. Trying to douse the fire might

be enough to stop the barns from catching. Maybe. "Caseille, inform Birgitte, and tell her I want an

order sent to the gates immediately to watch for Merilille. I know; I know; she may be out of the city

already, and the gate guards won’t stop an Aes Sedai, anyway, but maybe they can delay her, or frighten

her companion into scuttling back into the city to hide. Sumeko, would you ask Reanne to assign every

Kinswoman who can’t Travel to start searching through the city. It’s a small hope, but Merilille may

have thought it was too late in the day to start out. Check every inn, including the Silver Swan, and. . . ."

She hoped Rand had done something wonderful today, but she could not waste time even

thinking about that now. She had a throne to gain and angry Atha’an Miere to deal with, before they

could vent their anger on her, it was to be hoped. In short, it was a day like every other since she

returned to Caemlyn, and that meant her hands were quite full enough.

CHAPTER 15

Gathering Darkness

The evening sun was a ball of blood on the treetops, casting a lurid light across the camp, a

widely spaced sprawl of horselines and canvas-covered wagons and high-wheeled carts and tents in

every size and sort with the snow between trampled to slush. Not the time of day or sort of place that

Elenia wished to be on horseback. The smell of boiling beef wafting from the big black iron cookpots

was enough to turn her stomach. The cold air frosted her breath and promised a bitter night to come, and

the wind cut through her best red cloak without regard for the thick lining of plush white fur. Snowfox

was supposed to be warmer than other furs, but she had never found it so. Holding the cloak closed with

one gloved hand, she rode slowly and tried very hard, if not very successfully, not to shiver. Given the

hour, it seemed more than likely she would be spending the night here, but as yet, she had no idea where

she would sleep.

Doubtless in some lesser noble’s tent, with the lord or lady shuffled off to find haven elsewhere

and trying to put the best face on being evicted, but Arymilla liked leaving her on tenterhooks until the

very last, about beds and everything else. One suspense was no sooner dispelled than another replaced it.

Plainly the woman thought the constant uncertainty would make her squirm, perhaps even strive to

please. That was far from the only miscalculation Arymilla had made, beginning with the belief that

Elenia Sarand’s claws had been clipped.

She had just four men with the two Golden Boars on their cloaks as escort-and her maid, Janny,

of course, huddling in her cloak till she seemed a bundle of green wool piled on her saddle-and she had

not seen a single fellow more in the camp who she could be sure held a scrap of loyalty to Sarand. Here

and there one of the clumps of men huddled around the campfires with their laundresses and

seamstresses displayed House Anshar’s Red Fox, and a double column of horsemen wearing Baryn’s

Winged Hammer passed her heading in the opposite direction at a slow walk, hard-faced behind the bars

of their helmets. They were of little real account, in the long run. Karind and Lir had gotten singed badly

by being slow when Morgase took the throne. This time they would take Anshar and Baryn wherever the

advantage lay the instant they saw it clearly, abandoning Arymilla with as great an alacrity as they had

leapt to join her. When the time came. Most of the men trudging through the muddy slush or peering

hopefully into those disgusting cookpots were levies, farmers and villagers gathered up when their lord

or lady marched, and few wore any sort of House badge on their shabby coats and patched cloaks. Even

separating putative soldiers from farriers and fletchers and the like was near impossible, since nearly all

had belted on a sword of some description, or an axe. Light, a fair number of the women wore knives

large enough to be called short-swords, but there was no way to tell some conscripted farmer’s wife

from a wagon driver. They wore the same thick wool and had the same rough hands and weary faces. It

did not really matter, in any case. This winter siege was a dire mistake-the armsmen would begin

going hungry long before the city did-but it gave Elenia an opportunity, and when an opening

presented itself, you struck. Keeping her hood back far enough to show her features clearly in spite of

the freezing wind, she nodded graciously to every unwashed lout who so much as looked in her

direction, and ignored the surprised starts that some gave at her condescension.

Most would remember her affability, remember the Golden Boars her escort wore, and know that

Elenia Sarand had taken notice of them. On such a foundation power was built. A High Seat as much as

a queen stood atop a tower built of people. True, those at the bottom were bricks of the basest clay, yet if

those common bricks crumpled in their support, the tower fell. That was something Arymilla appeared

to have forgotten, if she had ever known. Elenia doubted that Arymilla spoke to anyone lower than a

steward or a personal servant. Had it been . . . prudent . . . she herself would have passed a few words at

every campfire, perhaps grasping a grubby hand now and then, remembering people she had

encountered before or at least dissembling well enough to make it seem she did. Pure and simple,

Arymilla lacked the wit to be queen.

The camp covered more ground than most towns, more like a hundred clustered camps of

varying sizes than one, so she was free to wander without worrying too much about straying close to the

outer boundaries, but she took a care anyway. The guards on sentry would be polite, unless they were

utter fools, yet without any doubt they had their orders. On principle, she approved of people doing as

they were told, but it would be best to avoid any embarrassing incidents. Especially given the likely

consequences if Arymilla actually thought she had been trying to leave. She had already been forced to

endure one frigid night sleeping in some soldier’s filthy tent, a shelter hardly worth the name, complete

with vermin and badly patched holes, not to mention the lack of Janny to help her with her clothes and

add a little warmth under the sorry excuse for blankets, and that had been for no more than a perceived

slight. Well, it had been an actual slight, but she had not thought Arymilla bright enough to catch it.

Light, to think that she must step warily around that . . . that pea-brained ninny! Pulling her cloak closer,

she tried to pretend that her shudder was just a reaction to the wind. There were better things to dwell

on. More important things. She nodded to a wide-eyed young man with a dark scarf wrapped around his

head, and he recoiled as though she had glared. Fool peasant!

It was grating to think that, only a few miles away, that young chit Elayne sat snug and warm in

the comfort of the Royal Palace, attended by scores of well-trained servants and likely without two

thoughts in her head beyond what to wear tonight at a supper prepared by the palace cooks. Rumor had

the girl with child, possibly by some Guardsman. It might be so. Elayne had never possessed any more

sense of decency than her mother. Dyelin was the brain there, a sharp mind and dangerous

notwithstanding her pathetic lack of ambition, perhaps advised by an Aes Sedai. There must be at least

one real Aes Sedai among all those absurd rumors. So many fabulations drifted out of the city that

telling reality from nonsense became difficult-Sea Folk making holes in the air? Absolute drivel!-yet

the White Tower clearly had an interest in putting one of its own on the throne. How could it not? Even

so, Tar Valon seemed to be pragmatic when it came to these matters. History clearly showed that

whoever reached the Lion Throne would soon find that she was the one the Tower actually had favored

all along. The Aes Sedai would not lose their connection to Andor through a lack of nimbleness,

particularly not with the Tower itself riven. Elenia was as certain of that as she was of her own name. In

fact, if half what she heard of the Tower’s situation was true, the next Queen of Andor might find herself

able to demand whatever she wanted in return for keeping that connection intact. In any event, no one

was going to rest the Rose Crown on her head before summer at the earliest, and a great deal could

change before then. A very great deal.

She was making her second round of the camp when the sight of another small mounted party

ahead of her, picking its slow way between the scattered campfires in the last light, made her scowl and

draw rein sharply. The women were cloaked and deeply hooded, one in strong blue silk lined with black

fur, the other in plain gray wool, but the silver Triple Keys worked large on the four armsmen’s cloaks

named them clearly enough. She could think of any number of people she would rather encounter than

Naean Arawn. In any case, while Arymilla had not precisely forbidden them to meet without her-

Elenia heard her teeth grind as much as felt them, and forced her face smooth-for the moment, it

seemed wisest not to press matters. Especially when there seemed no possible advantage to such a

meeting.

Unfortunately, Naean saw her before she could turn aside. The woman spoke hastily to her escort

and, while armsmen and maid were still bowing in their saddles, spurred toward Elenia at a pace that

sent clods of slush flying from her black gelding’s hooves. The Light burn the fool! On the other hand,

whatever was goading Naean to recklessness might be valuable to know, and dangerous not to. It might,

but finding out presented its own dangers. "Stay here and remember that you’ve seen nothing," Elenia

snapped at her own meager retinue and dug her heels into Dawn Wind’s flanks without waiting for any

reply. She had no need for elaborate bows and courtesies every time she turned around, not beyond what

seemliness demanded, and her people knew better than to do anything other than what she commanded.

It was everyone else she had to worry about, burn them all! As the long-legged bay sprang forward, she

lost her grip on her cloak, and it streamed behind her like the crimson banner of Sarand. She refused to

gather the cloak under control, flailing around in front of farmers and the Light alone knew who, so the

wind razored through her riding dress, another reason for irritation.

Naean at least had the sense to slow and meet her little more than halfway, beside a pair of

heavily laden carts with their empty shafts lying in the muck. The nearest fire was almost twenty paces

away, and the nearest tents farther, their entry flaps laced tight against the cold. The men at the fire were

intent on the big iron pot steaming over the flames, and if the stench from it was enough to make Elenia

want to empty her stomach, at least the wind that carried the stink would keep stray words from their

ears. But they had better be important words.

With a face as pale as ivory in its frame of black fur, Naean might have been called beautiful by

some despite more than a hint of harshness around her mouth and eyes as cold as blue ice. Straightbacked

and outwardly quite calm, she seemed untouched by events. Her breath, making a white mist,

was steady and even. "Do you know where we are sleeping tonight, Elenia?" she said coolly.

Elenia made no effort at all to stop from glaring. "Is that what you want?" Risking Arymilla’s

displeasure for a brainless question!

The thought of risking Arymilla’s displeasure, the thought that Arymilla’s displeasure was

something she needed to avoid, made her snarl. "You know as much as I, Naean." Tugging at her reins,

she was already turning her mount away when Naean spoke again, with just a hint of heat.

"Don’t play the simpleton with me, Elenia. And don’t tell me you aren’t as ready as I am to chew

off your own foot to escape this trap. Now, can we at least pretend to civility?" Elenia kept Dawn Wind

half turned away from the other woman and looked at her sideways, past the fur-trimmed edge of her

hood. That way, she could keep an eye on the men crowding around the nearest fire, too. No House

badges displayed there. They could belong to anyone. Now and then one fellow or another shielding

bare hands in his armpits glanced toward the two ladies on horseback, but their real interest was on

shuffling near enough the fire to get warm. That, and how long it was going to take for the beef to boil

down to something approaching mush. That sort seemed able to eat anything.

"Do you think you can escape?" she asked quietly. Civility was all very well, but not at the

expense of remaining here for all to see any longer than absolutely necessary. If Naean saw a way out,

though. . . . "How? The pledge you signed to support Marne has been posted across half of Andor by

now. Besides, you can hardly think Arymilla will just allow you to ride away." Naean flinched, and

Elenia could not help a tight smile. The woman was not so untouched as she feigned. She still managed

to keep her voice level, though.

"I saw Jarid yesterday, Elenia, and even at a distance he looked like a thundercloud, galloping fit

to break his mount’s neck and his own. If I know your husband, he’s already planning a way to cut you

out of this. He would spit in the Dark One’s eye for you." That was true; he would. "I’m sure you can

see it would be best if I were part of those plans."

"My husband signed the same pledge you did, Naean, and he is an honorable man." He was too

honorable for his own good, in simple fact, but what Elenia wanted had been his guide since before their

wedding vows. Jarid had signed the pledge because she wrote and told him to, not that she had any

choice as matters were, and he would even repudiate it, however reluctantly, if she were mad enough to

ask it. Of course, there was the difficulty in letting him know what she did want at the moment. Arymilla

was very careful not to let her within a mile of him. She had everything in hand-as far as she could in

the circumstances-but she needed to let Jarid know, if only to stop him from "cutting her a way out."

Spit in the Dark One’s eye? He could take them both to ruin in the belief he was helping her, and he

might do it even knowing it meant their ruination.

It required a great effort not to allow the frustration and fury suddenly welling up inside her to

show on her face, but she covered the strain with a smile. She took considerable pride in being able to

produce a smile for any situation. This one held a touch of surprise. And a touch of disdain. "I’m not

planning anything, Naean, and neither is Jarid, I’m sure. But if I were, why would I include you?"

"Because if I am not included in those plans," Naean said bluntly, "Arymilla might learn of

them. She may be a blind fool, but she’ll see once she’s told where to look. And you might find yourself

sharing a tent with your betrothed every night, not to mention protected by his armsmen."

Elenia’s smile melted, but her voice turned to ice, matching the frozen ball that abruptly filled

her stomach. "You want to be careful what you say, or Arymilla may ask her Taraboner to play cat’s

cradle with you again. In truth, I think I can guarantee as much."

It seemed impossible that Naean’s face could grow any whiter, yet it did. She actually swayed in

her saddle, and caught Elenia’s arm as if to keep from falling. A gust of wind flung her cloak about, and

she let it flail. Those once-cold eyes were quite wide, now. The woman made no effort to hide her fear.

Perhaps she was too far gone to be capable of hiding it. Her voice came breathy and panicked. "I know

you and Jarid are planning something, Elenia. I know it! Take me with you, and . . . and I will pledge

Arawn to you as soon as I can be free of Arymilla." Oh, she was shaken, to offer that.

"Do you want to draw more attention than you already have?" Elenia snapped, pulling free of the

other woman’s grasp. Dawn Wind and the black gelding danced nervously, catching their riders’ moods,

and Elenia reined her bay hard to quiet him. Two of the men at the fire hurriedly put their heads down.

No doubt they thought they saw two noblewomen arguing in the graying evening and wanted to attract

no part of that anger on themselves. Yes; it must be only that. They might carry tales, but they knew

better than to get mixed in their betters’ arguments.

"I have no plans to . . . escape; none at all," she said in a quieter voice. Drawing her cloak close

again, she calmly turned her head to check the carts, and the nearest tents. If Naean was frightened

enough. . . . When an opening presented itself. . . . There was no one close enough to overhear, but she

still kept her voice low. "Matters might change, of course. Who can say? If they do, I make you this

promise, under the Light and by my hope of rebirth, I will not leave without you." A startled hope

bloomed on Naean’s face. Now to present the hook. "If, that is, I have in my possession a letter written

in your own hand, signed and sealed, in which you explicitly repudiate your support of Marne, of your

own free will, and swear the support of House Arawn to me for the throne. Under the Light and by your

hope of rebirth. Nothing less will do." Naean’s head jerked back, and she touched her lips with her

tongue. Her eyes shifted as though searching for a way out, for help. The black continued to snort and

dance, but she barely tightened her reins enough to keep him from bolting, and even that seemed

unconscious. Yes, she was frightened. But not too frightened to know what Elenia was demanding. The

history of Andor contained too many examples for her not to know. A thousand possibilities remained

so long as nothing was in writing, but the mere existence of such a letter would put a bit between

Naean’s teeth and the reins in Elenia’s hands. Publication meant Naean’s destruction, unless Elenia was

fool enough to admit to coercion. She could try to hang on after that revelation, yet even a House with

many fewer antagonisms between its members than Arawn, many fewer cousins and aunts and uncles

ready to undercut one another in a heartbeat, would still break apart. The lesser Houses that had been

tied to Arawn for generations would seek protection elsewhere. In a matter of years, if not sooner, Naean

would be left as the High Seat of a minor and discredited remnant. Oh, yes; it had happened before.

"We’ve been together long enough." Elenia gathered her reins. "I wouldn’t want to set tongues

wagging. Perhaps we will have another chance to speak alone before Arymilla takes the throne." What a

vile thought! "Perhaps."

The other woman exhaled as if all of the breath in her body were leaking out, but Elenia went on

about turning her horse away, neither slowly nor in haste, not stopping until Naean said urgently,

"Wait!"

Looking back over her shoulder, she did just that. Waited. Without speaking a word. What

needed to be said had been said. All that remained was to see whether the woman was desperate enough

to deliver herself into Elenia’s hands. She should be. She had no Jarid to work for her. In fact, anyone in

Arawn who suggested that Naean needed rescuing likely would find herself imprisoned for thwarting

Naean’s expressed will. Without Elenia, she could grow old in captivity. With the letter, though, her

captivity would be of a different kind. With the letter, Elenia would be able to allow her every

appearance of complete freedom. Apparently she was bright enough to see that. Or maybe just

frightened enough of the Taraboner.

"I will get it to you as soon as I can," she said at last, in a resigned voice.

"I look forward to seeing it," Elenia murmured, barely bothering to mask her satisfaction. But

don’t wait too long, she almost added, and just stopped herself. Naean might be beaten, but a beaten foe

could still put a knife in your back if goaded too far. Besides which, she feared Naean’s threat as much

as Naean feared hers. Perhaps more. So long as Naean did not know that, however, her blade had no

point.

As she rode back to her armsmen, Elenia’s mood was more buoyant than it had been since. . . .

Certainly since before her "res cuers" had turned out to be Arymilla’s men. Perhaps since before Dyelin

had imprisoned her in Aringill in the first place, though she had never lost hope there. Her prison had

been the governor’s house, quite comfortable, even if she had to share an apartment with Naean.

Communicating with Jarid certainly had presented no problem, and she thought she had made some

inroads with the Queen’s Guards in Aringill. So many of them had been new-come out of Cairhien that

they were . . . unsure . . . where their true loyalties lay.

Now, this wonderfully fortuitous encounter with Naean lifted her spirits so much that she smiled

at Janny and promised her a bevy of new dresses once they were inside Caemlyn. Which produced a

properly grateful smile from the plump-cheeked woman. Elenia always bought new dresses for her maid

when she felt particularly good, every one fine enough for a successful merchant. It was one way to

insure loyalty and discretion, and for twenty years, Janny had delivered both.

The sun was only a red rim above the trees now, and it was time to find Arymilla so she could be

told where she was sleeping tonight. The Light send it was a decent bed, in a warm tent that was not too

smoky, with a decent meal beforehand. She could not ask more, at present. Even that did not dent her

mood, though. She not only nodded to the clusters of men and women they rode past, she smiled at

them. She almost went so far as to wave. Matters were progressing better than they had in quite some

time. Naean was not simply disposed of as a rival for the throne, she had been leashed and brought to

heel, or as good as, and that might-would!-be sufficient to bring Karind and Lir. And there were

those who would accept anyone other than another Trakand on the throne. Ellorien, for one. Morgase

had had her flogged\ Ellorien would never stand for any Trakand. Aemlyn, Arathelle and Abelle were

possibilities, too, with their own grievances that could be exploited. Perhaps Pelivar or Luan, as well.

She had her feelers out. And she would not squander the advantage of Caemlyn, as that hoyden Elayne

had. Historically, holding Caemlyn was enough to gather the support of at least four or five Houses by

itself. The timing would be key, certainly, or all the advantage would fall to Arymilla, but Elenia could

already see herself seated on the Lion Throne, with the High Seats kneeling to swear fealty. She already

had her list of which High Seats would need to be replaced. No one who had opposed her was going to

be allowed to cause her trouble later. A series of unfortunate accidents would see to that. A pity she

could not choose their replacements, but accidents could happen with incredible frequency.

Her happy contemplation was shattered by the scrawny man who suddenly came up beside her

on a stocky gray, his eyes feverishly bright in the fading light. For some reason, Nasin had sprigs of

green fir stuck in his thin white hair. It made him look as if he had been climbing in a tree, and his red

silk coat and cloak were so worked with brightly colored flowers they could have passed for Illianer

carpets. He was ludicrous. He was also High Seat of the most powerful single House in Andor. And he

was quite mad. "Elenia, my darling treasure," he brayed, spraying spittle, "how sweet the sight of you is

to my eyes. You make honey seem stale and roses drab."

Without need for conscious thought, she hastily reined Dawn Wind back and to the right, putting

Janny’s brown mare between her and him. "I am not your betrothed, Nasin," she snapped, seething at

having to say that aloud for everyone to hear. "I am married, you old fool! Wait!" she added, flinging up

a hand. The imperative word and the gesture were for her armsmen, who had laid hands on sword hilts

and were glaring at Nasin. Some thirty or forty men wearing House Caeren’s Sword and Star were

following the man, and they would not hesitate to cut down anyone they thought was threatening their

High Seat. Some already had blades half-drawn. They would not harm her, of course. Nasin would have

them hanged to a man if she was even bruised. Light, she did not know whether to laugh or cry over

that. "Are you still afraid of that young oaf Jarid?" Nasin demanded, angling his mount to follow her.

"He has no right to keep bothering you. The better man won, and he should acknowledge it. I’ll

challenge him!" One hand, plainly bony even in its tight red glove, fumbled at a sword he probably had

not drawn in twenty years. "I will cut him down like a dog for frightening you!" Elenia moved Dawn

Wind deftly, so they described a circle around Janny, who murmured apologies to Nasin and pretended

to take her mare out of his way while getting in it. Mentally, Elenia added a little embroidery to the

dresses she would buy. Addlepated as he was, Nasin could go in a blink from honeyed words of courtly

love to groping at her as if she were the lowest sort of tavern maid.

That, she could not endure, not again, certainly not in public. Circling, she forced a worried

smile onto her face, though in truth, the smile took more effort than the worry. If this old fool forced

Jarid to kill him, it would ruin everything! "You know I could not abide to have men fight over me,

Nasin." Her voice was breathy and anxious, but she did not try to control it. Breathy and anxious suited

well enough. "How could I love a man with blood on his hands?" The ridiculous man frowned down

that long nose till she began to wonder whether she had gone too far. He was mad as a spring hare, but

not in everything. Not always. "I had not realized you were so . . . sensitive," he said finally. Without

stopping his effort to ride around Janny. His decrepit face brightened. "But I should have known. I will

remember, from now on. Jarid may live. So long as he doesn’t pester you." Abruptly, he seemed to

notice Janny for the first time, and with an irritated grimace, he raised his hand high, balling it into a fist.

The plump woman visibly steeled herself for the blow without moving aside, and Elenia gritted her

teeth. Silk embroidery. Definitely unsuitable for a maid, but Janny had earned it.

"Lord Nasin, I have been looking for you everywhere" a woman’s simpering voice cried, and the

circling stopped. Elenia exhaled in relief as Arymilla rode up in the twilight with her entourage, and had

to stifle a surge of fury at feeling relief. In over-elaborately embroidered green silk, with lace under her

chin and at her wrists, Arymilla was plump verging on stout, with a vacuous smile and brown eyes that

were always wide with affected interest even when there was nothing to be interested in. Lacking the

brains to tell the difference, she possessed just enough cunning to know there were things that should

interest her, and she did not want anyone to think she had missed them. The only real concern she had

was her own comfort and the income to ensure it, and the only reason she wanted the throne was that the

royal coffers could provide greater comfort than the revenues of any High Seat. Her entourage was

larger than Nasin’s, though only half were armsmen wearing the Four Moons of her House. For the most

part, hangers-on and sycophants made up the rest, lesser lords and ladies of minor Houses and others

willing to lick Arymilla’s wrist for a place near power. She did love people to fawn over her. Naean was

there, too, on the edge of the group with her armsmen and maid, apparently cool-eyed and in control of

herself once more. But keeping well away from Jaq Lounalt, a lean man with one of those farcical

Taraboner veils covering his huge mustaches and a conical cap pushing the hood of his cloak to a

ridiculous height. The fellow smiled too much, as well. He hardly looked a man who could reduce

someone to begging with just a few cords. "Arymilla," Nasin said in a confused tone, then frowned at

his fist as if surprised to find it raised. Lowering his hand to the pommel of his saddle, he beamed a

smile at the silly woman. "Arymilla, my dear," he said warmly. Not with the sort of warmth he often

directed at Elenia. Somehow, it seemed, he had become at least half-convinced that Arymilla was his

daughter, and his favorite at that. Once, Elenia had heard him reminiscing at length with the woman

about her "mother," his last wife, dead nearly thirty years now. Arymilla managed to hold her end of the

conversation, too, though she had never met Miedelle Caeren as far as Elenia knew. Still, despite all his

fatherly smiles for Arymilla, his eyes sought through the shadowed crowd on horseback behind her, and

his face relaxed when he found Sylvase, his granddaughter and heir, a sturdy, placid young woman who

met his gaze, unsmiling, then pulled her dark, fur-lined cowl well forward. She never smiled or frowned

or showed any emotion at all that Elenia had ever detected, just kept an unvarying cowlike expression.

Plainly, she had a cow’s wits, too. Arymilla kept Sylvase closer than she did Elenia or Naean, and so

long as she did, there was no chance that Nasin would be forced to retire from his honors. He was mad,

assuredly, but sly. "I hope you’re taking good care of my little Sylvase, Arymilla," he murmured. "There

are fortune hunters everywhere, and I want the darling girl kept safe."

"Of course, I am," Arymilla replied, brushing her overfed mare past Elenia without so much as a

glance. Her tone was honeysweet, and sickeningly doting. "You know I’ll keep her as safe as I keep

myself." Smiling that empty-headed smile, she set about straightening Nasin’s cloak on his shoulders

and smoothing it with the air of someone settling a shawl on a beloved invalid. "It’s much too cold out

for you. I know what you need. A warm tent and some hot spiced wine. I’ll be happy to have my maid

prepare it for you. Arlene, accompany Lord Nasin to his tent and fix him some good spiced wine."

A slim woman in her entourage gave a violent twitch, then rode forward slowly, pushing back

the hood of her plain blue cloak to reveal a pretty face and a tremulous smile. Suddenly all lickspittles

and toad-eaters were adjusting their cloaks against the wind or snugging their gloves, looking anywhere

except at Arymilla’s maid. Especially the women. One of them could have been chosen as easily, and

they knew it. Oddly, Sylvase did not look away. It was impossible to see her face in the shadows of her

hood, but the opening turned to follow the slender woman. Nasin’s grin showed his teeth, making him

look even more like a goat than usual. "Yes. Yes, mulled wine would be good. Arlene, is it? Come,

Arlene, there’s a good girl. Not too chill, are you?" The girl squeaked as he swept a corner of his cloak

around her shoulders and gathered her so close she was leaning out of her saddle. "You’ll be warm in

my tent, I promise." Without so much as a glance back, he rode off at a walk, chortling and whispering

at the young woman under his arm. His armsmen followed with the creak of leather and the slow, wet

clop of hooves in the muck. One of them laughed, as if another had said something funny. Elenia shook

her head in disgust. Pushing a pretty woman in front of Nasin to distract him was one thing-she did not

even have to be that pretty; any woman the old fool could corner was in danger-but using your own

maid was revolting. Not as revolting as Nasin himself, though. "You promised to keep him away from

me, Arymilla," she said in a low, tight voice. That lecherous old crackbrain might have forgotten her

existence for the moment, but he would remember the next time he saw her. "You promised to keep him

occupied."

Arymilla’s face grew sullen, and she petulantly tugged her riding gloves tighter. She had not

gotten what she wanted. That was a great sin, to her. "If you want to be safe from admirers, you ought to

stay close to me instead of wandering about loose. Can I help it if you attract men? And I did rescue

you. I haven’t heard any thanks for that."

Elenia’s jaw clenched so hard that it began to ache. Pretending that she supported this woman of

her own choice was enough to make her want to bite something. Her choices had been made clear

enough; write to Jarid or endure an extended honeymoon with her "betrothed." Light, she might have

taken the choice if not for the certainty that Nasin would lock her up in some out-of-the-way manor and,

after she had put up with his pawing, eventually forget she was there. And leave her there. Arymilla

insisted on the pretense, though. She insisted on a great many things, some of them utterly insufferable.

Yet they had to be suffered. For the time being. Perhaps, once matters were set straight, Master Lounalt

could offer his attentions to Arymilla for a few days. From somewhere she summoned an apologetic

smile, and made herself bend her neck as if she were one of the boot-licking leeches who were watching

her avidly. After all, if she crawled for Arymilla, it only proved they were right to. The feel of their eyes

on her made her want to bathe. Doing this in front of Naean made her want to shriek. "I offer you all the

gratitude that’s in me, Arymilla." Well, that was no lie. All the gratitude that was in her came about

equal to a desire to strangle the other woman. Very slowly. She had to inhale deeply before she could

get the next part out, though. "You must forgive me for being slow, please." A very bitter word. "Nasin

made me quite distraught. You know how Jarid would react if he learned of Nasin’s behavior." Her own

voice took on a honed edge at that last, but the fool woman giggled. She giggled! "Of course you’re

forgiven, Elenia," she laughed, her face lightening. "All you need do is ask. Jarid is a hothead, isn’t he?

You must write to him and tell him how content you are. You are content, aren’t you? You can dictate to

my secretary. I do hate staining my fingers with ink, don’t you?"

"Certainly I’m content, Arymilla. How could I not be?" Smiling required no effort at all, this

time. The woman actually thought she was clever. Using Arymilla’s secretary precluded any possibility

of secret inks, but she could tell Jarid quite openly to do absolutely nothing without her counsel, and the

brainless fluff would think she was only obeying.

Nodding with a smug self-satisfaction, Arymilla gathered her reins, imitated by her coterie. If

she stuck a pot on her head and called it a hat, they would all wear pots, too. "It is getting late," she said,

"and I want an early start in the morning. Aedelle Baryn’s cook has an excellent repast waiting on us.

You and Naean must ride with me, Elenia." She made it sound as though she were hon oring them, and

they had no choice except to behave as though she were, falling in on either side of her. "And Sylvase,

of course. Come, Sylvase."

Nasin’s granddaughter brought her mare closer, but not up beside Arymilla. She followed a little

behind, with Arymilla’s sycophants crowding on her heels since they had not been invited to ride with

Arymilla. Despite the fitful, icy wind tugging at their cloaks, several of the women and two or three of

the men tried unsuccessfully to engage the girl in conversation. She seldom said two words together.

Still, with no High Seat in reach to fawn over, a High Seat’s heir would do, and maybe one of the

fellows hoped to marry well. Likely one or two were more in the nature of guards, or at least spies

making sure she did not try to communicate with anyone in her House. This lot would find that exciting,

touching on the edges of power. Elenia had her own plans for Sylvase. Arymilla was another with no

objections to nattering away when anyone with sense would be muffling herself in her cowl, and her

chatter as they rode through the dying light flitted from what Lir’s sister would offer at supper to the

plans for her coronation. Elenia listened only enough to murmur approvingly at what seemed

appropriate spots. If the fool wanted to offer a sworn amnesty to those who opposed her, far be it from

Elenia Sarand to tell her she was a fool. It was painful enough having to . . . simper. . . at the woman

without listening to her. Then one thing Arymilla said hit her ear like an awl.

"You and Naean won’t mind sharing a bed, will you? It seems we are short of decent tents here."

She flitted on, but for a moment, Elenia could not hear a word. She felt as though her skin had

been stuffed with snow. Turning her head slightly, she met Naean’s shocked gaze. There was no

possible way Arymilla could know about their chance meeting, not yet, and even if she did, why would

she offer them a chance to plot together? A trap? Spies to listen to what they said? Naean’s maid, or. . . .

Or Janny? The world seemed to spin. Black and silver flecks floated in front of Elenia’s eyes. She

thought she was about to faint. Abruptly she realized that Arymilla had addressed something to her

directly and was waiting on an answer with an increasingly impatient scowl. Frantically, she cast her

mind about. Yes, she had it. "A gilded coach, Arymilla?" What a ridiculous notion. As well ride in a

Tinker’s wagon! "Oh, delightful! You do have such marvelous ideas!"

Arymilla’s pleased simper put a little ease into Elenia’s breathing. The woman was a brainless

fool. Maybe there was a shortage of suitable tents. More likely she just thought they were safe, now.

Tamed. Elenia turned her bared teeth into a simper of her own. But she put aside any idea of having the

Taraboner "entertain" the woman, even for an hour. With Jarid’s signature on that pledge, there was

only one way to clear her path to the throne. Everything was in hand and ready to go forward. The only

question was whether Arymilla or Nasin should die first.

Night pressed down on Caemlyn with a hard cold driven deep by sharp winds. Here and there a

glow of light spilling from an upper window spoke of people still awake, but most shutters were drawn,

and a thin sliver of moon low in the sky only seemed to emphasize the darkness. Even the snow coating

rooftops and piled along the fronts of buildings where it had escaped the day’s traffic was a shadowy

gray. The lone man muffled head to ankles in a dark cloak, striding through the frozen slush left on the

paving stones, answered to Daved Hanlon or Doilan Mellar with equal ease; a name was no more than a

coat, and a man changed his coat whenever needed. He had worn a number over the years. Given his

wishes, he would have had his feet up in front of a roaring fire in the Royal Palace, a mug in his hand, a

pitcher of brandy at his side, and a willing wench on his knee, but he had others’ wishes to serve. At

least the footing was better here in the New City. Not good, with this frozen muck underfoot that could

turn a careless step into a sprawl, yet a man’s boots were less likely to go out from under him here than

back on the steeper hills of the Inner City. Besides, darkness suited him tonight.

There had been few people in the streets when he started out, and the number had dwindled away

as darkness deepened. Wise people stayed indoors once night fell. Occasionally, dim shapes skulked in

the deeper shadows, but after a brief study of Hanlon, they scuttled around corners ahead of him, or

withdrew into alleys trying to muffle their curses as they floundered in snow that likely had not been

touched by the sun. He was not bulky, and little taller than the average run of men, with his sword and

breastplate hidden by his cloak to boot, but footpads looked for weakness or hesitation, and he moved

with an obvious self-confidence, plainly unafraid of lurkers. An attitude helped by the long dagger

concealed in his gauntleted right hand.

He kept an eye out for patrols of Guardsmen as he walked, but he did not expect to see any. The

strongarms and prowlers would have sought other hunting grounds if the Guards were about. Of course,

he could send nosy Guardsmen on their way with a word, yet he wanted no observers of any kind, and

no questions why he was so far from the palace afoot. His step hesitated as two heavily cloaked women

appeared at a crossing well ahead, but they moved on without glancing his way, and he breathed more

easily. Very few women would venture out at this time of night without a man along to wield sword or

cudgel, and even without seeing their faces he would have wagered a fistful of gold to a horse apple that

pair were Aes Sedai. Or else some of those strange women who filled most of the beds in the palace.

The thought of that lot brought a scowl, and a prickling between his shoulder blades like the

brush of nettles. Whatever was going on in the palace, it was enough to give him the grips. The Sea Folk

women were bad enough, and not just because they went swaying along the halls in that seductive way,

then pulled a knife on a man. He had not even thought of patting one on the bottom after he realized they

and the Aes Sedai were staring at one another like strange cats in a box. And plainly, however

impossibly, the Sea Folk were the larger cats. The others were worse, in a way. No matter what the

rumors said, he knew the look of Aes Sedai, and it did not include wrinkles. Yet some of them could

channel, and he had the disturbing notion that they all could.

Which made no sense at all. Maybe the Sea Folk had some sort of peculiar dispensation, but as

for these Kin, as Falion called them, everyone knew that if three women who could channel and were

not Aes Sedai sat down at the same table, Aes Sedai would appear before they could finish a pitcher of

wine and tell them to move on and never speak to one another again. And make sure they did it, besides.

That was given. But there those women sat in the palace, over a hundred of them, holding their private

meetings, walking around Aes Sedai without one frown between them. Until today, anyway, and

whatever had set them huddling like frightened hens, the Aes Sedai had been every bit as anxious. There

were too many oddities to suit him. When Aes Sedai behaved oddly, it was time for a man to look to the

safety of his own skin. With a curse he jerked himself out of his reverie. A man needed to look out for

his skin in the night, too, and letting his concentration drift was no way to do it. At least he had not

stopped, or even slowed. After a few more steps, he smiled a thin smile and thumbed the blade of his

dagger. The wind sighed down the street and fell, whistled across rooftops and fell, and in the brief

silences between he could hear the faint crunch of the boots that had been following him since shortly

after he left the palace. At the next crossing street, he turned to his right at the same steady unhurried

pace, then suddenly flattened his back against the front of a stable that stood hard on the corner. The

wide stable doors were shut, and likely barred on the inside, but the smell of horse and horse dung hung

in the icy air. The inn across the street was closed up tight, as well, its windows shuttered and dark, the

only sound aside from the wind the creak of its swinging sign he could not make out in the night. No one

to see what they should not.

He had a moment’s warning, the sound of boots quickened in an effort not to let him out of sight

too long, and then a cowled head was thrust cautiously around the corner. Not cautiously enough, of

course. His left hand darted into the cowl to seize a throat at the same time his right made a practiced

stop-thrust with the dagger. He half expected to find a breastplate, or a mail shirt under the man’s coat,

and he was ready if he did, but an inch of steel sank easily beneath the fellow’s breastbone. He did not

know why that seemed to paralyze a man’s lungs, so he could not cry out, until he had drowned in his

own blood, but he knew that it did. Still, tonight he had no time to wait. No Guards in sight at present

did not mean matters would stay that way for long. With a quick wrench, he slammed the man’s head

against the stable’s stone wall hard enough to crack a skull, then shoved his dagger to the hilt, feeling

the blade grate as it dug through the fellow’s spine.

His breathing remained steady-killing was just a thing that, had to be done now and again,

nothing to get excited over-but he hurriedly lowered the corpse to the snow against the wall and

crouched beside it, wiping his blade on the dead man’s dark coat while sticking his other hand into his

armpit to tug off his steelbacked gauntlet. Head swiveling, he watched the street both ways as he felt

quickly across the man’s face in the darkness. A rasp of stubble under his fingers told him that it was a

man, but no more. Man, woman or child made no difference to him-fools behaved as though children

had no eyes to see or tongues to tell what they saw-yet he wished there had been a mustache or a

bulbous nose, anything to spark a memory and tell him who this fellow had been. A squeeze at the dead

man’s sleeve found thick wool, neither fine nor particularly rough, and a sinewy arm that could have

belonged to clerk or wagon driver or footman. To any man, in short, just like the coat. Searching down

the body, he rifled through the fellow’s pockets, finding a wooden comb and a ball of twine, which he

tossed aside. At the man’s belt, his hand paused. A leather sheath hung there, empty. No man on earth

could have drawn a dagger after Hanlon’s blade found his lungs. Of course, there was good cause for a

man to carry his knife unsheathed when he walked out at night, but the reason that came most readily to

mind right then was to stab someone in the back or cut a throat. It was only a fleeting pause, though.

Wasting no time on speculation, he sliced off the fellow’s purse beneath the drawstrings. The weight of

the coins he spilled into his hand and hastily stuffed into his own pocket told him there was no gold,

likely not even a piece of silver, but a cut purse and no coins would make whoever found the body think

him the prey of strongarms. Straightening, he tugged on his gauntlet, and only moments after driving his

blade home, he was striding along the slush-covered pavement once more, dagger held close to his side

beneath his cloak and eyes wary. He did not relax until he was a street away from the dead man, and

then he did not relax very far.

Most people who heard of the killing would accept the tale of murder for theft that he had laid

out for them, but not whoever had sent the fellow. Following all the way from the palace meant that he

had been sent, but by whom? He was fairly sure that any of the Sea Folk who wanted a knife put in him

would have done the deed herself. For all that the Kin troubled him just by being there, they seemed to

keep quiet and walk small. True, people who practiced avoiding notice were the most likely to resort to a

hired knife in the night, but he had never exchanged more than three words at a time with any of them,

and he certainly had never tried to finger one. The Aes Sedai seemed more likely, yet he was sure he had

done nothing to rouse their suspicions. Still, any one of them might have her own reasons for wanting

him dead. You could never tell with Aes Sedai. Birgitte Trahelion was a silly bint who seemed to think

she really was a character out of a story, maybe even the real Birgitte, if there had ever been a real

Birgitte, but she could well think he was a threat to her position. She might be a strumpet, wiggling

around the corridors in those trousers the way she did, yet she had a cold eye. That one could order a

throat slit without blinking. The last possibility was the one that worried him most, though. His own

masters were not the most trusting of people, and not always the most trustworthy. And the Lady

Shiaine Avarhin, who currently gave him his orders, was the one who had sent a summons that had

pulled him into the night. Where a fellow just happened to be waiting to follow him, knife in hand. He

did not believe in coincidence, no matter what people said about this al’Thor.

Thoughts of turning back to the palace came and went in a flash. He had gold tucked away; he

could bribe his way through the gates as easily as anyone else, or just order one opened long enough to

let him ride out. But it would mean spending the rest of his life watching his back, and anyone who

came inside arm’s length of him might be the one sent to kill him. Not so different from the way he lived

now. Except for the certainty that someone would put poison in his soup or a knife through his ribs

sooner or later. Besides, that stone-eyed trull Birgitte was the most likely culprit. Or an Aes Sedai. Or

maybe he had offended these Kin somehow. Still, it always paid to be careful. His fingers flexed around

the dagger’s hilt. Life was good at the moment, with plenty of comfort and plenty of women impressed

or frightened into compliance by a Captain of the Guards, but life on the run was always preferable to

death here and now.

Finding the correct street, much less the correct house, was not one narrow side street looked

very like another when darkness swathed both-but he took a care and eventually found himself

pounding on the front doors of a tall, shadowed pile that could have belonged to a wealthy but discreet

merchant. Except he knew now that it did not. Avarhin was a tiny House, extinct some said, but one

daughter of it remained, and Shiaine possessed money. One of the doors swung open, and he flung up a

hand against the sudden glare of light. His left hand; the dagger in his right, he kept concealed and

ready. Squinting through his spread fingers, he recognized the woman at the door, in the plain dark dress

of a maid. Not that that eased his mind by a hair.

"Give us a kiss, Falion," he said as he stepped inside. Leering, he reached for her. Left-handed,

of course.

The long-faced woman brushed his hand aside and shut the door firmly behind him. "Shiaine is

closeted with a visitor in the front sitting room upstairs," she said calmly, "and the cook is in her

bedchamber. There is no one else in the house. Hang your cloak on the rack. I will let her know you are

here, but you may have to wait."

Hanlon let his leer vanish and his hand drop. For all of her ageless face, handsome was the best

that Falion could be called, and even that might be stretching the truth, with her cold gaze and a colder

manner in the bargain. She was hardly the sort of woman he would have chosen to fondle, but it seemed

she was being punished by one of the Chosen and he was supposed to be part of the punishment, which

altered matters. To some extent. Tumbling a woman who had no choice had never troubled him, and

Falion certainly had none. Her maid’s dress was simple truth; she did the work of four or five women by

herself, maids and scullions and spit-girl, sleeping when she could and truckling whenever Shiaine

frowned. Her hands were rough and red from doing laundry and scrubbing floors. Yet she was likely to

survive her punishment, and the last thing he wanted was an Aes Sedai with a personal grudge against

Daved Hanlon. Not when circumstances might well change before he had an opportunity to put a knife

through her heart, anyway.

Reaching an accommodation with her had been easy, though. She seemed to have a practical

view. When others could see, he rumpled her every time she came in reach, and when there was time, he

bundled her up to her tiny maid’s room under the eaves. Where they mussed the bedclothes, then sat on

the narrow bed in the cold and exchanged information. Though at her urging, he did give her a few

bruises, just in case Shiaine chose to check. He hoped she remembered that it was at her urging.

"Where are the others?" he said, swinging his cloak off and hanging it on the leopard-carved

cloak rack. The sound of his boots on the floor tiles bounced from the entry hall’s high ceiling. It was a

fine space, with painted plaster cornices and several rich wall hangings on carved panels that were

polished to a faint glow, well lit by mirrored stand-lamps with enough gilding for the Royal Palace

itself, but burn him if it was much warmer than outside. Falion raised an eyebrow at the dagger in his

hand, and he sheathed it with a tight smile. He could have it out again faster than anyone would believe,

and his sword near as fast. "The streets are full of thieves at night." Despite the chill, he removed his

gauntlets and tucked them behind his sword belt. Anything else might make it appear he thought himself

in danger. The breastplate should be enough anyway, come the worst.

"I do not know where Marillin is," she said over her shoulder, already turning away and

gathering her skirts for the stairsteps. "She went out before sunset. Murellin is in the stables with his

pipe. We can talk after I inform Shiaine you’ve arrived."

Watching her climb the stairs, he grunted. Murellin, a hulking fellow Hanlon did not like at his

back, was banished to the stables behind the house whenever he wanted to smoke his pipe, because

Shiaine disliked the smell of the rough tabac he used, and since he usually took a pot of ale with him, or

even a pitcher, he should not be coming in any time soon. Marillin worried him more. She was Aes

Sedai, too, apparently as much under Shiaine’s orders as Falion, or himself, but he had no agreements

with her. No arguments, either, yet he distrusted any Aes Sedai on principle, Black Ajah or not. Where

had she gone? To do what? What a man did not know could kill him, and Marillin Gemalphin spent

entirely too much time off doing things he knew nothing about. He was coming to the conclusion that

there were entirely too many things in Caemlyn he knew nothing about. Past time he learned, if he

wanted to live.

With Falion gone, he went from the icy entry hall straight to the kitchen at the back of the house.

The brick-walled room was empty, of course-the cook knew better than to poke her nose out of her

room in the basement once she was sent away for the night-and the black iron stove and the ovens

stood cold, but a small blaze on the long stone hearth made the kitchen one of the few rooms in the

house that would be warm. Compared to the rest, at least. Shiaine was a stingy woman, except when it

came to her own comforts. The fire here was only in case she happened to want mulled wine in the

night, or a heated egg-milk. He had been in this house above half a dozen times since coming to

Caemlyn, and he knew which cabinets held the spices and which room off the kitchen always held a

cask of wine. Always good wine. Shiaine never stinted there. Not with that she intended to drink herself,

anyway. By the time Falion returned, he had the honeypot and a dish of ginger and cloves sitting on the

wide kitchen table with a pitcher full of wine, and a poker thrust into the fire. Shiaine might say "come

now" and mean "now," but when she wanted to make a man wait, it could be near daylight before she

saw him. These calls always cost him sleep, burn the woman! "Who is the visitor?" he asked.

"He gave no name, not to me," Falion said, propping the door to the hall open with a chair. That

let some of the sparse warmth leak out, but she would want to be able to hear if Shiaine summoned her.

Or maybe she wanted to make sure the other woman was not able to eavesdrop. "A lean man, tall and

hard, with the look of a soldier. An officer of some rank, maybe a noble, by his manner, and Andoran by

his accents. He seems intelligent and cautious. His clothes are quite plain, though costly, and he wears

no rings or pins." Frowning at the table, she turned to one of the tall open-front cabinets beside the door

to the hallway and added a second pewter cup to the one he had set out for himself. It had never

occurred to him to set out two. Bad enough he had to fix his own wine. Aes Sedai or no Aes Sedai, she

was the maid. But she took a chair at the table and pushed the dish of spices away from her for all the

world as though she expected him to serve.

"Shiaine had two visitors yesterday, however, more careless than this fellow," she went on.

"One, in the morning, had the Golden Boars of Sarand on the cuff of his gauntlets. He probably thought

no one would notice small-work, if he thought at all. A plump, yellow-haired man in his middle years

who looked down his nose at everything, complimented the wine as though surprised to find a decent

vintage in the house, and wanted Shiaine to have me beaten for showing insufficient respect." She said

even that in a cold, measured voice. The only time she had had any heat in her was when Shiaine put the

strap to her. He had heard her howl right enough then. "A countryman who has seldom been to Caemlyn

but believes he knows how his betters behave, I should say. You can mark him by a wart on his chin and

a small half-moon scar beside his left eye. The fellow in the afternoon was short and dark, with a sharp

nose and wary eyes, and no scars or marks I could see, though he wore a ring with a square garnet on his

left hand. He was sparing with words, very mindful to give away nothing in the little I heard, but he

carried a dagger with the Four Moons of House Marne on the pommel."

Folding his arms, Hanlon leaned against the side of the fire place and kept his face smooth

despite a desire to scowl. He had been sure that the plan was for Elayne to take the throne, though what

came after remained a mystery. She had been promised to him as a queen. Whether or not she wore a

crown when he took her mattered not a whit to him except for the spice it added-breaking that longlegged

bit to saddle would be pure pleasure if she had been a farmer’s daughter, especially after the chit

cut a slice off him today in front of all those other women!-but dealings with Sarand and Marne said

maybe Elayne was meant to die uncrowned. Maybe, in spite of all the promises that he could romp a

queen, he had been placed where he was so he could kill her at some selected moment, when her death

would bring some specific result sought by Shiaine. Or rather by the Chosen who had given her her

orders. Moridin, the fellow was called, a name Hanlon had never heard before com ing to this house.

That did not trouble him. If a man had the nerve to call himself one of the Chosen, Hanlon was not fool

enough to question it. The likelihood that he was no more than a dagger in this did trouble him. So long

as a dagger did the job, what matter if it broke in the doing? Much better to be the fist on the hilt than

the blade.

"Did you see any gold change hands?" he asked. "Did you hear anything?"

"I would have said," she replied thinly. "And by our agreement, it is my turn for a question."

He managed to mask his irritation behind an expectant look. The fool woman always asked about

the Aes Sedai in the palace or those she called the Kin, or about the Sea Folk. Silly questions. Who was

friendly with whom, and who unfriendly. Who exchanged private words and who avoided one another.

What he had heard them say. As if he had nothing to do with his time but lurk around the hallways

spying on them. He never lied to her-there was too much chance she might learn the truth, even mired

here in this house as a maid; she was Aes Sedai, after all-but it was growing difficult to come up with

something he had not already told her, and she was adamant that he give information if he expected to

receive any. Still, he had a few tidbits to offer today, some of the Sea Folk going off, and the whole lot

of them jumping for most of the day as if they had icicles shoved down their backs. She would have to

settle for that. What he needed to know was important, not bloody gossip.

Before she could get her question out, though, the door to the outside opened. Murellin was large

enough that he almost filled the doorway, yet icy cold still swirled in, a gust that made the small fire

dance and sent sparks flying up the chimney until the big man pushed the door shut. He gave no sign

that he felt the chill, but then, his brown coat looked thick as two cloaks. Besides, the man was not only

the size of an ox, he had the wits of one. Setting a tall wooden mug down on the table with a thump, he

tucked his thumbs behind his wide belt and eyed Hanlon resentfully. "You messing with my woman?"

he muttered.

Hanlon gave a start. Not from any fear of Murellin, not with the oaf on the other side of the table.

What startled him was the Aes Sedai leaping from her chair and snatching up the wine pitcher. Dumping

in the ginger and cloves, she added a scoop of honey and swirled the pitcher around as if that was going

to mix everything, then used a fold of her skirt to pull the poker from the fire and shove it into the wine

without checking to see whether it was hot enough yet. She never looked in Murellin’s direction at all.

"Your woman?" Hanlon said carefully. That earned a smirk from the other man.

"Near enough. The Lady figured I might as well use what you aren’t. Anyway, Fally and me

keep each other warm nights." Murellin started around the table, still grinning, but at the woman, now.

A shout echoed in the hallway, and he stopped with a sigh, his grin fading.

"Falion!" Shiaine’s distant voice called sharply. "Bring Hanlon up now and be quick about it!"

Falion set the pitcher on the table hard enough to slop wine over the rim and was heading for the door

before Shiaine finished. When the other woman spoke, Falion jumped.

Hanlon jumped too, if for a different reason. Catching up to her, he seized her arm as she took

the first step on the stairs. A quick glance back showed the kitchen door closed. Maybe Murellin did feel

the cold. He kept his voice low anyway. "What was that all about?"

"It is none of your business," she said curtly. "Can you get me something that will make him

sleep? Something I can put in his ale or wine? He will drink anything, however it tastes." "If Shiaine

thinks I’m not obeying orders, it bloody well is my business, and you ought to see it that way, too, if you

have two bloody thoughts to rub together."

She tilted her head, staring down that long nose at him, cold as a fish. "This has nothing to do

with you. As far as Shiaine is concerned, I will still belong to you when you are here. You see, certain

matters changed." Suddenly, something unseen grasped his wrist tightly and pulled his hand from her

sleeve. Something else latched on to his throat, squeezing till he could not draw breath.

Futilely, he scrabbled left-handed for his dagger. Her tone remained cool. "I thought certain

other matters should change accordingly, but Shiaine does not see things logically. She says that when

the Great Master Moridin wishes my punishment lessened, he will say so. Moridin gave me to her.

Murellin is her way of making sure I understand that. Her way of making sure I know that I am her dog

until she says otherwise." Abruptly she drew a deep breath, and the pressure vanished from his wrist and

throat. Air had never tasted so sweet. "You can get what I ask for?" she said, as calm as if she had not

just tried to kill him with the bloody Power. Just the thought that that had been touching him made his

skin crawl.

"I can . . . " he began hoarsely, and stopped to swallow, rubbing at his throat. It felt as though it

had been cinched in a hangman’s noose. "I can get you something that will put him in a sleep he’ll never

wake from." As soon as it was safe, he was going to gut her like a goose.

She snorted derisively. "I would be the first Shiaine suspected, and I might as well cut my own

wrists as object to anything she decided to do. It will be enough if he sleeps the nights through. Leave

the thinking to me, and we will both be the better for it."

Resting a hand on the carved newelpost, she glanced up the stairs. "Come. When she says now,

she means now." A pity he could not hang her up like a goose to wait for the knife. Following her, his

boots thumped on the treads, sending a clatter through the entry hall, and it struck him that he had not

heard the visitor leave. Unless the house had some secret way out he did not know, there was only the

front door, the one in the kitchen, and a second at the back that could only be reached by passing the

kitchen. So it seemed he was to meet this soldier. Maybe it was supposed to come as a surprise.

Surreptitiously, he eased his dagger in its sheath.

As expected, the front sitting room had a fine blaze burning away in the wide fireplace of blueveined

marble. It was a room worth the looting, with Sea Folk porcelain vases on the gilt-edged side

tables, and tapestries and carpets that would fetch a pretty price. Except that one of the carpets was

likely worthless, now. A low blanket-covered mound lay near the middle of the room, and if the fellow

that made it had not stained the carpet with his blood, Hanlon would eat the boots sticking out from one

end.

Shiaine herself was sitting in a carved armchair, a pretty woman in gold-embroidered blue silk

with an ornate belt of woven gold and a heavy gold necklace around her slim neck. Glossy brown hair

hung below her shoulders even caught in a net of intricate lace. She looked delicate at first glance, but

there was something vulpine about her face, and her smile never touched those big brown eyes. She was

using a lace-edged handkerchief to clean a small dagger capped with a firedrop on the pommel. "Go tell

Murellin that I will have a . . . bundle . . . for him to dispose of later, Falion," she said calmly.

Falion’s face remained smooth as polished marble, but she made a curtsy that lacked little of

cringing before she scuttled out of the room at a run.

Watching the woman and her dagger from the corner of his eye, Hanlon moved to the covered

mound and bent to lift a corner of the blanket. Glazed blue eyes stared out of a face that might have been

hard, alive. The dead always looked softer. Apparently he had been neither as cautious nor as intelligent

as Falion thought him. Hanlon let the blanket fall and straightened. "He said something you objected to,

my Lady?" he said mildly. "Who was he?" "He said several things I objected to." She held her dagger

up, studying the small blade to be sure it was clean, then slid it into a gold-worked sheath at her waist.

"Tell me, is Elayne’s child yours?" "I don’t know who fathered the whelp," he said wryly. "Why, my

Lady? Do you think I’d go soft? The last chit who claimed I’d gotten a child on her, I stuffed her down a

well to cool her head and made sure she stayed there." There were a long-necked silver wine pitcher and

two chased silver cups sitting on a tray on one of the side tables. "Is this safe?" he asked, peering into

the cups. Both had wine in the bottom, but a little addition to one would have turned the dead man into

easy prey.

"Catrelle Mosenain, an ironmonger’s daughter from Maerone," the woman said, just as smoothly

as if it were common knowledge, and he very nearly flinched in surprise. "You split her head open with

a rock before you pitched her down, no doubt to spare her drowning." How did she know the wench’s

name, much less about the rock? He had not remembered her name himself. "No, I doubt you would go

soft, but I would hate to think you were kissing the Lady Elayne without letting me know. I would

purely hate that."

Suddenly she frowned at the bloodstained handkerchief in her hand and rose gracefully to glide

to the fireplace and toss it into the flames. She stood there warming herself, never even glancing in his

direction. "Can you arrange for some of the Seanchan women to escape? Best if it can be both those

called sul’dam and the ones called damane" she stumbled a little over the strange words, "but if you

can’t do both, then a few of the sul’dam should do. They will free some of the others."

"Maybe." Blood and bloody ashes, she was dancing from one thing to another worse than Falion

tonight. "It won’t be easy, my Lady. They’re all guarded close."

"I didn’t ask whether it was easy," she said, staring into the flames. "Can you shift guards away

from the food warehouses? It would please me if some of those actually burned. I am tired of attempts

that always fail."

"That I cannot do," he muttered. "Not unless you expect me to go into hiding right after. They

keep a record of orders that would make a Cairhienin wince. And it wouldn’t do any good anyway, not

with those bloody gateways bringing in more wagons every bloody day." In truth, he was not sorry for

that. Queasy over the means used, certainly, but not sorry. He expected the palace would be the last

place in Caemlyn to go hungry in any case, but he had lived out sieges on both sides of the lines, and he

had no intention of ever boiling his boots for soup again. Shiaine wanted fires, though.

"Another answer I did not ask for." She shook her head, still looking into the fireplace, not at

him. "But perhaps something can be done there. How close are you to actually . . . enjoying Elayne’s

affections?" she finished primly.

"Closer than the day I arrived in the palace," he growled, glowering at her back. He tried never

to offend those the Chosen had set above him, but the chit was trying him. He could snap that slender

neck like a twig! To keep his hands from her throat, he filled one of the cups and held it with no

intention of drinking. In his left hand, of course. Just because there was one dead man in the room

already did not mean she had no plans to make it two corpses. "But I have to go slow. It isn’t as if I can

back her into a corner and tickle her out of her shift."

"I suppose not," Shiaine said in a muffled voice. "She is hardly the sort of woman you are used

to." Was she laughing! Was she amused at him? It was all he could do not to throw down the winecup

and strangle the fox-faced bint.

Suddenly she turned around, and he blinked as she casually slipped her dagger back into its

sheath. He had never seen her draw the bloody thing! He took a swallow of wine without thinking, and

almost choked when he realized what he had done. "How would you like to see Caemlyn looted?" she

asked. "Well enough, if I have a good company at my back and a clear path to the gates." The wine had

to be safe. Two cups meant she had drunk, too, and if he had picked up the dead man’s, there could not

be enough poison left in it to sicken a mouse. "Is that what you want? I follow orders as well as the next

man." He did when he seemed likely to survive them, or when they came from the Chosen. As well die

for a fool as disobey the Chosen. "But sometimes it helps to know more than ‘go there and do that.’ If

you told me what you’re after here in Caemlyn, I might be able to help you reach it faster."

"Of course." She smiled a toothy smile while her eyes stayed as flat as brown stones. "But first,

tell me why there is fresh blood on your gauntlet?"

He smiled back. "A footpad who got unlucky, my Lady." Maybe she had sent the man and

maybe not, but he added her throat to the list of those he intended to slit. And he might as well add

Marillin Gemalphin, too. After all, a lone survivor was the only one who could tell the tale of what had

happened.

CHAPTER 16

The Subject of Negotiations

The morning sun sat on the horizon, leaving the nearer side of Tar Valon still wrapped in

shadows, but the snow that covered everything gleamed brightly. The city itself seemed to shine behind

its long white walls, all bravely towered and bannered, yet to Egwene, sitting her roan gelding on the

riverbank above the city, it seemed even farther away than it really was. The Erinin widened to more

than two miles here, and the Alindrelle Erinin and Osendrelle Erinin, flowing to either side of the island,

were almost half that, so that Tar Valon appeared to sit in the middle of a great lake, unreachable despite

the massive bridges that stood high above the waters so that ships could sail beneath them easily. The

White Tower itself, a thick bone-white shaft rising to an impossible height from the city’s heart, filled

her own heart with a yearning for home. Not for the Two Rivers, but for the Tower. That was her home,

now. A plume of smoke caught her eye, a faint black line rising from the far bank beyond the city, and

she grimaced. Daishar stamped a hoof in the snow, but a pat on the neck sufficed to soothe the roan. It

would take more to soothe his rider. Homesickness was the smallest part of it. Minuscule, compared to

the rest.

With a sigh, she rested her reins on the high pommel of her saddle and raised the long brassbound

looking glass. Her cloak fell back, slipping off one shoulder, but she ignored the cold that misted

her breath and placed a gloved hand to shield the front lens against the sun’s glare. The city walls leaped

closer in her sight. She focused on the tall curving arms of Northharbor that pushed out into the

upstream currents. People moved purposefully atop the battlements that enfolded the harbor, but she

could barely discern men from women at that distance. Still, she was glad that she was not wearing her

seven-striped stole, and that her face was deep within her cowl, just in case someone there had a stronger

glass than she. The wide mouth of the man-made harbor was blocked by a massive iron chain drawn taut

a few feet above the water. Tiny dots on the water, diving birds fishing in front of the harbor, gave the

chain scale. One single pace-long link would have required two men to lift it. A rowboat might slip

under that barrier, but no vessel of any size would enter unless the White Tower allowed. Of course, the

chain was only intended to keep out enemies. "There they are, Mother," Lord Gareth murmured, and she

lowered the glass. Her general was a stocky man in a plain breastplate worn over a plain brown coat,

without any touch of gilt or embroidery anywhere. His face was bluff and weathered behind the bars of

his helmet, and the years had given him a strange sort of comforting calmness. All you need do was look

at Gareth Bryne to know that if the Pit of Doom opened in front of him, he would smother his fear and

go about doing what needed doing. And other men would follow him. He had proved on battlefield after

battlefield that following him was the path to victory. A good man to have following her. Her eyes

followed his gauntleted hand, pointing upriver.

Just coming in sight around a point of land, five, six-no, seven-riverships were slicing

furrows down the Erinin. Large vessels as such things were seen on the river, one with three masts, their

triangular sails stood out tight, and their long sweeps cut hard through the blue-green water to add a little

more speed.

Everything about the craft spoke of a burning desire for speed, a desire to reach Tar Valon now!

The river was deep enough here that ships could run within shouting distance of the banks in places, but

these sailed in almost single file as close to the middle of the Erinin as the steersmen could manage and

hold the wind. Sailors clinging to the mastheads kept watch along the shoreline, and not for mudbanks.

In fact, they had nothing at all to fear so long as they kept out of bowshot. True, from where she

sat her horse, she could have set fire to every one of those ships, or simply cut holes through their hulls

and let them sink. The work of moments. Yet doing so surely meant some of those aboard would drown.

The currents were strong, the water like ice, and the swim to shore long, for those who actually could

swim. Even one death would make what she did using the Power as a weapon. She was trying to live as

though already bound by the Three Oaths, and the Oaths protected those vessels from her or any other

sister. A sister who had sworn on the Oath Rod would not be able to make herself set those weaves,

perhaps not even to form them, unless she could convince herself she was in immediate danger from the

ships. But neither captains nor crews believed that, apparently.

As the riverships came closer, shouts thinned to threadbare by distance drifted across the water.

The lookouts up on the masts pointed to her and Gareth, and it quickly became apparent they took her

for an Aes Sedai with her Warder. Or at least, the captains were unwilling to take the chance she was

not. After a moment, the beat of the sweeps increased. Only by a fraction, but the oarsmen labored to

find that fraction. A woman on the quarterdeck of the lead vessel, likely the captain, waved her arms as

if demanding still more effort, and a handful of men began running up and down the deck, tightening

this line or loosening that to change the angle of the sails, though Egwene could not see that they

achieved anything. There were men on those decks other than sailors, and most of those crowded to the

railings, a handful raising looking glasses of their own. Some seemed to be measuring the distance left

to cover before they reached the safety of the harbor. She thought about weaving a flare, a starburst of

light, perhaps with a loud bang, just above each of the vessels. That would certainly let anyone aboard

with brains realize that neither speed nor distance kept them safe here, only a forbearance born of the

Three Oaths. They should know that they were safe because of Aes Sedai.

Exhaling heavily, she shook her head and mentally upbraided herself. That simple weave would

also attract attention in the city, certainly more than the appearance of a single sister. Sisters often came

to the riverbank to stare at Tar Valon and the Tower. Even if the only reaction to her flares was some

sort of counterdisplay, once begun, that sort of contest could be very difficult to put a stop to. Once

begun, matters might well escalate out of hand. There were too many opportunities for that, as it was,

the more so these last five days.

"The harbormaster hasn’t let above eight or nine ships in at one time since we arrived," Gareth

said as the first vessel drew abreast of them, "but the captains seemed to have worked out the timing.

Another clutch will appear soon, and reach the city about the time the Tower Guards are sure these

fellows actually came to enlist. Jimar Chubain knows enough to guard against me sneaking men in

aboard ships. He has more of the Guards crowded into the harbors than anywhere except at the bridge

towers, and not many anywhere else, so far as I can learn. That will change, though. The flow of ships

starts at first light and keeps up till near nightfall, here and at Southharbor too. This lot doesn’t seem to

be carrying as many soldiers as most do. Every plan is brilliant until the day comes, Mother, but then

you must adapt to circumstances or be ridden down."

Egwene made a vexed sound. There must be two hundred or more passengers altogether on those

seven ships. A few might be merchants or traders or some other sort of innocent traveler, but the low sun

glittered off helmets and breastplates and steel discs sewn to leather jerkins. How many shiploads

arrived each day? Whatever the number, a steady flow was pouring into the city to enlist under High

Captain Chubain. "Why do men always rush so hard to kill or be killed?" she muttered irritably. Lord

Gareth looked at her calmly. He sat his horse, a big bay gelding with a white stripe down his nose, like a

statue. Sometimes, she thought she knew one small part of how Siuan felt about the man. Sometimes she

thought it would be worth whatever effort was needed to startle him, just to see him startled.

Unfortunately, she knew the answer to her own question as well as he did. At least as it applied

to men going soldiering. Oh, there were men enough who rushed to support a cause or defend what they

thought what was right, and some who sought adventure, whatever they believed that was, yet the

simple fact was that for carrying a pike or spear, a man could earn twice each day what he would get for

walking behind another man’s plow, and half again as much if he could ride well enough to join the

cavalry. Crossbowmen and archers fell in between. The man who worked for another could dream of

having his own farm or shop one day, or a beginning toward one that his sons could build on, but he

surely had heard a thousand tales of men soldiering for five years or ten and coming home with enough

gold to set themselves up in comfort, tales of ordinary men who rose to become generals, or lords. For a

poor man, Gareth had said bluntly, staring down the point of a pike could be a better view than the hind

end of somebody else’s plow horse. Even if he was far more likely to die from the pike than earn fame

or fortune. A bitter way to look at it, yet she imagined that was how most of those men on the ships saw

matters, too. But then, that was how she had gotten her own army. For every man who wanted to see the

usurper pulled from the Amyrlin Seat, for every man who even knew for certain who Elaida was, ten if

not a hundred had joined for the pay. Some of the men on the ship were raising their hands, to show the

guards on the harbor walls they were not holding weapons.

"No," she said, and Lord Gareth sighed. His voice remained calm, but his words were hardly

comforting when he spoke. "Mother, so long as the harbors remain open, Tar Valon will eat better than

we do, and rather than growing weaker with hunger, the Tower Guard will grow larger and stronger. I

very much doubt that Elaida will let Chubain rush out to attack us, as much as I wish he would. Every

day you wait only adds to the butcher’s bill we’ll have to pay sooner or later. I’ve said from the start it

will come to an assault, in the end, and that hasn’t changed, but everything else has. Have the sisters put

me and my men inside the walls now, and I can take Tar Valon. It won’t be clean. It never is. But I can

take the city for you. And fewer will die than if you delay."

A knot formed in her belly, twisted tight till she could hardly breathe. Carefully, step by step, she

performed novice exercises to make it loosen. The bank contained the river, guiding without controlling.

Calm settled on her, in her.

Too many people had begun seeing the uses of gateways, and in a way, Gareth represented the

worst. His business was war, and he was very good at it. As soon as he learned a gateway could take

more than a small group of people at one time, he had seen the implications. Even the great walls of Tar

Valon, beyond the range of any siege catapult not on a barge, and worked with the Power till the largest

catapult could not mark them in any case, might as well be made of paper against an army that could

Travel. But whether Gareth Bryne had learned or not, other men would seize on that idea. The

Asha’man already had, it seemed. War had always been ugly, yet it was going to grow uglier. "No," she

repeated. "I know people are going to die before this is over." The Light help her, she could see them

dying just by closing her eyes. Even more would die if she made the wrong decisions, though, and not

just here. "But I have to keep the White Tower alive-against Tarmon Gai’don-to stand between the

world and the Asha’man-and the Tower will die if this comes to sisters killing one another in the

streets of Tar Valon." That had already happened once. It could not be allowed a second time. "If the

White Tower dies, hope dies. I shouldn’t have to tell you that again."

Daishar snorted and tossed his head, lunging as though he had sensed her irritation, but she

reined him in firmly and slipped the looking glass into the tooled leather case hanging from her saddle.

The diving birds gave up their fishing and sprang into the air as the thick chain that blocked Northharbor

began to droop. It would dip beneath the surface well before the first ship reached the harbor mouth.

How long ago had it been that she reached Tar Valon by that same route? Almost beyond memory, it

seemed. An Age gone. It had been another woman who came ashore and was met by the Mistress of

Novices.

Gareth shook his head with a quick grimace. But then, he never gave up, did he? "You have to

keep the White Tower alive, Mother, but my job is to give it to you. Unless things have changed that I

don’t know about. I can see sisters whispering and looking over their shoulders even if I don’t know

what it means. If you still want the Tower, it will come to an assault, better soon than late."

Suddenly the morning seemed darker, as though clouds had obscured the sun. Whatever she did,

the dead were going to pile up like cordwood, but she had to keep the White Tower alive. She had to.

When there were no good choices, you had to choose the one that seemed least wrong.

"I’ve seen enough here," she said quietly. With one last glance at that narrow line of smoke

beyond the city, she turned Daishar toward the trees a hundred paces back from the river, where her

escort waited among the evergreen leatherleaf and winter-bare beech and birch.

Two hundred light cavalry, in boiled leather breastplates or coats covered with metal discs,

would certainly have attracted notice appearing on the riverbank, but Gareth had convinced her of the

necessity of these men with their slender lances and short horsebows. Without any doubt, that smoke

plume on the far bank rose from burning wagons or supplies. Pinpricks, yet those pinpricks came every

night, sometimes one, sometimes two or three, till everyone looked for smoke first thing on rising.

Hunting the raiders down had proved impossible, so far. Sudden snow squalls flared around the

pursuers, or fierce freezing night winds, or the tracks simply vanished abruptly, the snow beyond the last

hoofprint as smooth as fresh fallen. The residues of weavings made it plain enough they were being

aided by Aes Sedai, and there was no point in taking a chance that Elaida had men and maybe sisters on

this side of the river, too. Few things could please Elaida more than getting her hands on Egwene

al’Vere.

They were not her whole escort, of course. Besides Sheriam, her Keeper, she had ridden out with

six more Aes Sedai this morning, and those who had Warders had brought them, so behind the sister

eight men waited in color-shifting cloaks that rippled in queasymaking fashion when a breeze caught

them and otherwise made parts of riders and horses seem to vanish into the tree trunks. Aware of the

dangers-from raiders, at least-aware that their Aes Sedai were wound tight to near breaking, they

watched the surrounding copse as though the cavalrymen were not there. The safety of their own Aes

Sedai was their primary concern, and that they trusted to no one else. Sarin, a black-bearded stump of a

man, not that short but very wide, stayed so close to Nisao that he seemed to loom over the diminutive

Yellow, and Jori managed to loom over Morvrin as well, though he was actually shorter than she. As

broad as Sarin, but very short even for a Cairhienin. Myrelle’s three Warders, the three she dared

acknowledge, clustered around her until she could not have moved her horse without pushing one of

theirs out of her way. Anaiya’s Setagana, lean and dark and as beautiful as she was plain, almost

managed to surround her by himself, and Tervail, with his bold nose and scarred face, did the same with

Beonin. Carlinya had no Warder, not unusual for a White, but she studied the men from the depths of

her fur-lined cowl as if thinking about rinding one.

Not too long ago, Egwene would have hesitated to be seen with those six women. They and

Sheriam had all sworn fealty to her, for various reasons, and neither they nor she wanted the fact known

or even suspected. They had been her way to influence events, to the extent that she could, when

everyone thought her no more than a figurehead, a girl Amyrlin the Hall of the Tower could use as it

wished and no one listened to. The Hall had lost that illusion when she brought them to declare war on

Elaida, finally admitting what they had been about since the day they had fled the Tower in the first

place, but that only made the Hall, and the Ajahs, worry over what she would do next and try to figure

out how to make sure that whatever it was met with their approval. The Sitters had been very surprised

when she accepted their suggestion of a council, one sister from each Ajah, to advise her with their

wisdom and experience. Or perhaps they thought her success with the declaration of war had gone to her

head. Of course, she had just told Morvrin and Anaiya and the others to make sure they were the sisters

chosen, and they retained enough prestige within their Ajahs to manage it, just. She had been listening to

their advice, if not always taking it, for weeks by that time, but now there was no longer any need to

arrange furtive meetings or pass messages in secret.

It seemed, however, that there had been an addition to the party while Egwene was staring at the

Tower.

Sheriam, wearing the narrow blue stole of her office outside her cloak, managed a very formal

bow from her saddle. The flamehaired woman could be incredibly formal at times. "Mother, the Sitter

Delana wishes to speak with you," she said as if Egwene could not see the stout Gray sister sitting there

on a dappled mare almost as dark as Sheriam’s black-footed mount. "On a matter of some importance,

so she says." And the slight touch of asperity meant Delana had not told her what matter. Sheriam would

not have liked that. She could be very jealous of her position. "In private, if you please, Mother," Delana

said, pushing back her dark hood to reveal hair nearly the color of silver. Her voice was deep for a

woman’s, but it hardly carried the urgency of someone with important matters to speak of.

Her presence was something of a surprise. Delana often supported Egwene in the Hall of the

Tower, when Sitters were quibbling over whether a particular decision actually concerned the war

against Elaida. That meant the Hall was required to support Egwene’s commands as if they had stood

with the greater consensus, and even the Sitters who had stood for war did not half like that little fact,

which made for endless quibbling. They wanted to pull Elaida down, yet left to themselves, the Hall

would have done nothing but argue. Truth to tell, though, Delana’s support was not always welcome.

One day she could be the very image of a Gray negotiator seeking consensus, and the next so strident in

her arguments that every Sitter within hearing got her back up. She had been known to set the cat among

the pigeons in other ways, too. No fewer than three times now, she had demanded the Hall make a

formal declaration that Elaida was Black Ajah, which inevitably led to an awkward silence until

someone called for the sitting to be adjourned. Few were willing to discuss the Black Ajah openly.

Delana would discuss anything, from how they were to find proper clothes for nine hundred and eightyseven

novices to whether Elaida had secret supporters among the sisters, another topic that gave most

sisters a case of the prickles. Which left the question of why she had ridden out so early, and by herself.

She had never approached Egwene before without another Sitter or three for company. Delana’s pale

blue eyes gave away no more than did her smooth Aes Sedai face.

"While we ride," Egwene told her. "We will want a little privacy," she added when Sheriam

opened her mouth. "Stay back with the others, please." The Keeper’s green eyes tightened in what might

almost have been anger. An efficient Keeper, and eager with it, she had pinned her hopes on Egwene

and made little secret that she disliked being excluded from any meeting Egwene had. Upset or not, she

bowed her head in acceptance with only a small hesitation. Sheriam had not always known which of

them commanded, but she did now.

The land tended upward from the River Erinin, not in hills but simply rising toward the

monstrous peak that loomed to the west, so massive it seemed to mock the name mountain.

Dragonmount would have towered above everything else even in the Spine of the World; in the

relatively flat country around Tar Valon, its whitecapped crest seemed to reach the heavens, especially

when a thin thread of smoke was streaming away from the jagged top as it was now. A thin thread at that

height would be something else entirely, close at hand. Trees gave out less than halfway up

Dragonmount, and no one had ever succeeded in reaching the crest or even coming close, though it was

said the slopes were littered with the bones of those who had tried. Why anyone would try in the first

place, no one could quite explain. Sometimes the long evening shadow of the mountain stretched all the

way to the city. People who lived in the region were accustomed to Dragonmount dominating the sky,

much as they were accustomed to the White Tower looming above the city walls and visible for miles.

Both were unchanging fixtures that had always been there and always would be, but crops and crafts

occupied the people’s lives, not mountains or Aes Sedai.

In tiny hamlets often or a dozen stone houses roofed in thatch or slate, and the occasional village

of a hundred, children playing in the snow or carrying buckets of water from the wells stopped to gape at

the soldiers riding along the dirt tracks that passed for roads when not covered in snow. They carried no

banners, but a few of the soldiers wore the Flame of Tar Valon worked on their cloaks or coatsleeves,

and the Warders’ strange cloaks named at least some of the women as Aes Sedai. Even this near the city,

sisters had been an uncommon sight till recently, and they were still something to make a child’s eyes

gleam. But then, the soldiers themselves probably came close in the list of marvels. The farms that fed

Tar Valon covered most of the land, stone-walled fields surrounding sprawling houses and tall barns of

stone or brick, with copses and coppices and thickets of trees between, and groups of farm children often

ran a little distance parallel to the line of travel, leaping across the snow like hares. Winter chores kept

most older folk indoors, but those who ventured out, heavily bundled against the cold, spared barely a

glance for soldiers or Warders or Aes Sedai. Spring would be coming soon, and the plowing and

planting, and what Aes Sedai did would not affect that. The Light willing, it would not. There was no

point to guards unless they rode as if expecting an attack, and Lord Gareth had arranged a strong party

of fore-riders and lines of flankers, with trailers riding to the rear while he led the mass of the soldiers

right behind the Warders who followed closely on the heels of Sheriam and the "council." They all made

a large, lopsided ring around Egwene, and she could almost imagine she was riding through the

countryside alone with Delana if she did not look around too closely. Or if she looked beyond. Instead of

pressing the Gray Sitter to speak-it was a long ride back to camp, and no one was allowed to weave a

gateway where the weave might be observed; there was plenty of time to hear what Delana had to say-

Egwene compared the farms they passed to those in the Two Rivers. Perhaps the realization that

the Two Rivers was no longer home made her study them. Acknowledging the truth could never be a

betrayal, yet she needed to remember the Two Rivers. You could forget who you were if you forgot

where you came from, and sometimes the innkeeper’s daughter from Emond’s Field seemed a stranger

to her. Any of these farms would have looked decidedly odd, set down near Emond’s Field, though she

could not put a finger on why, exactly. A different shape to the houses, a different slant to the roofs. And

more often slate topped a house than thatch, here, when you could make out either through the snow that

was often mounded on the rooftops. Of course, there was less thatch and more stone and brick in the

Two Rivers now than there had been. She had seen it, in Tel’aran’rhiod. Change came so slowly you

never noticed it creeping up on you, or far too fast for comfort, but it came. Nothing stayed the same,

even when you thought it did. Or hoped it would.

"Some think you’re going to bond him your Warder," Delana said suddenly in a quiet voice. She

might have been engaging in casual conversation. Her whole attention seemed to be on arranging the

hood of her cloak with green-gloved hands. She rode well, blending with the motion of her mare so

effortlessly that she appeared unaware of the animal. "Some think perhaps you already have. I haven’t

had one myself for some time, but just knowing your Warder is there can be a comfort. If you choose the

right one." Egwene raised an eyebrow-she was proud that she did not gape at the woman; this was the

very last topic she would have expected-and Delana added, "Lord Gareth. He spends a great deal of

time with you. He’s rather older than is usual, but Greens often choose a more experienced man for their

first. I know you never actually had an Ajah, yet I often think of you as a Green. I wonder, will Siuan be

relieved if you bond him, or upset? Sometimes I think one, sometimes the other. Their relationship, if it

can be called that, is most peculiar, yet she seems completely unembarrassed." "You must ask Siuan

herself about that." Egwene’s smile had some bite in it. So did her tone, for that matter. She did not

entirely understand herself why Gareth Bryne had offered her his loyalty, but the Hall of the Tower had

better uses for its time than gossiping like village women. "You can tell whoever you choose that I’ve

bonded no one, Delana. Lord Gareth spends time with me, as you put it, because I am the Amyrlin and

he is my general. You may remind them of that, as well." So Delana thought of her as a Green. That was

the Ajah she would have chosen, though in truth, she wanted only one Warder. But Gawyn was either

inside Tar Valon or else on his way to Caemlyn, and either way, she would not lay hands on him soon.

She patted Daishar’s neck unnecessarily and tried to keep her smile from becoming a glare. It had been

pleasant to forget the Hall, among other things, for a while. The Hall made her understand why Siuan

had so often looked like a bear with a sore tooth when she was Amyrlin.

"I wouldn’t say it has become a matter for wide discussion," Delana murmured. "So far. Still,

there is some interest in whether you will bond a Warder, and who. I doubt that Gareth Bryne would be

considered a wise pick." She twisted in her saddle to look behind them. At Lord Gareth, Egwene

thought, but when the Sitter turned back around, she said, very softly, "Sheriam was never your choice

for Keeper, of course, but you must know that the Ajahs set the rest of that lot to watch you, as well."

Her dappled gray mare was shorter than Daishar, so she had to look up at Egwene, which she tried to do

without seeming to. Those watery blue eyes were suddenly quite sharp. "There was some thought that

Siuan might be advising you . . . too well . . . after the way you brought about the declaration of war

against Elaida. But she’s still resentful over her changed circumstances, isn’t she? Sheriam is seen as the

most likely culprit, now. In any case, the Ajahs want a little warning if you decide to pull another

surprise." "I thank you for the warning," Egwene said politely. Culprit? She had proven to the Hall that

she would not be their puppet, yet most insisted on thinking she had to be someone’s. At least no one

suspected the truth about her council. It was to be hoped no one did.

"There is another reason you should be wary," Delana went on, the intensity in her eyes belying

the casualness of her voice. This was more important to her than she wanted Egwene to know. "You

may be sure that any advice one of them gives you comes straight from the head of her Ajah, and as you

know, the head of an Ajah and its Sitters don’t always see eye to eye. Listening too closely could put

you at odds with the Hall. Not every decision concerns the war, remember, but you will surely want

some of those to go your way." "An Amyrlin should listen to every side before making any decision,"

Egwene replied, "but I’ll remember your warning when they advise me, Daughter." Did Delana think

she was a fool? Or perhaps the woman was trying to make her angry. Anger made for hasty decisions

and rash words that sometimes were hard to take back. She could not imagine what Delana was aiming

at, but when Sitters could not manipulate her one way, they tried another. She had gotten a great deal of

practice in sidestepping manipulation since being raised Amyrlin. Taking deep, regular breaths, she

sought the balance of calm and found it. She had entirely too much practice at that, too, of late.

The Gray looked up at her past the edge of her hood, her face utterly smooth. But her pale blue

eyes were very sharp, now, like augers. "You might inquire what they think on the subject of

negotiations with Elaida, Mother."

Egwene almost smiled. The pause had been very deliberate. Apparently Delana disliked being

called Daughter by a woman younger than most novices. Younger than most who had come from the

Tower, let alone the newest. But then, Delana herself was too young to be a Sitter. And she could not

hold her temper as well as the innkeeper’s daughter. "And why would I ask that?" "Because the subject

has come up in the Hall in the last few days. Not as a proposal, but it has been mentioned, very quietly,

by Varilin, and by Takima, and also by Magla. And Faiselle and Saroiya have appeared interested in

what they have had to say." Calm or no calm, a worm of anger suddenly writhed inside Egwene, and

crushing it was no easy task. Those five had been Sitters before the Tower was broken, but more

importantly, they were divided between the two major factions struggling for control of the Hall. In

reality, they were divided between following Romanda or Lelaine, yet that pair would oppose one

another if it meant they both drowned. They also kept an iron grip on their followers. She might believe

the others had been panicked by events, but not Romanda or Lelaine. For half a week now, talk of Elaida

or retaking the Tower had been all but overwhelmed by worried conversations over that impossibly

powerful, impossibly long eruption of the Power. Nearly everyone wanted to know what had caused it,

and nearly everyone was afraid to learn. Only yesterday had Egwene been able to convince the Hall that

it must be safe for a small party to Travel to where that eruption had been-even the memory was strong

enough for everyone to pinpoint exactly where it had been-and most sisters still seemed to be holding

their collective breath until Akarrin and the others returned. Every Ajah had wanted a representative, but

Akarrin had been the only Aes Sedai to push forward.

Neither Lelaine nor Romanda seemed concerned, however. Violent and prolonged as the display

had been, it also had been very far away, and no harm done that they could see; if it was the Forsaken’s

work, as seemed certain, the chance of learning anything was vanishingly small, and the possibility that

they could do anything to counter it even smaller. Wasting time and effort on impossibilities was

senseless when an important task lay right in front of them. So they said, gritting their teeth over finding

themselves in agreement. They did agree that Elaida must be stripped of the stole and staff, though,

Romanda with almost as much fervor as Lelaine, and if Elaida unseating a former Blue as Amyrlin had

enraged Lelaine, Elaida’s proclamation that the Blue Ajah was disbanded had made her near-rabid. If

they were allowing talk of negotiation. . . . It made no sense.

The last thing Egwene wanted was for Delana or anyone else to suspect that Sheriam and the

others were more than a set of sheepdogs set to watch her, but she summoned them with a sharp call.

They were smart enough to keep the secrets that needed keeping, since their own Ajahs would have their

hides if even the half came out, and with no great haste, they came forward and rode in a cluster around

her, their faces all masks of Aes Sedai serenity and patience. Then Egwene told Delana to repeat what

she had said. For all her initial request for privacy, the Gray made only a perfunctory demurral before

complying. And that was the end of calm and patience.

"That’s madness," Sheriam said before anyone else could open her mouth. She sounded angry,

and perhaps a little frightened. Well she might be. Her name was on a list of those marked for stilling.

"None of them can really believe negotiation is possible." "I should hardly think so," Anaiya put in

dryly. Her plain face belonged on a farmwife rather than a Blue sister, and she dressed very simply,

publicly at least, in good wool, but she handled her bay gelding as easily as Delana did her mare. Very

little could ruffle Anaiya’s calm. Of course, there was no Blue among the Sitters talking negotiation.

Anaiya looked an unlikely soldier, but for Blues, this was war to the knife, no quarter asked or given.

"Elaida has made the situation quite clear."

"Elaida is irrational," Carlinya said with a toss of her head that made her cowl fall to her

shoulders and shook her short dark curls. She pulled the hood back into place irritably. Carlinya seldom

showed any hint of emotion, yet her pale cheeks were nearly as flushed as Sheriam’s, and heat filled her

voice. "She cannot possibly believe that we will all come crawling back to her now. How can Saroiya

believe she will accept anything less?" "Crawling is what Elaida has demanded, though," Morvrin

muttered acridly. Her usually placid round face wore a sour expres sion, too, and her plump hands were

tight on her reins. She scowled so hard at a flight of magpies, scattering from a stand of birch trees at the

passage of horses, that it seemed they should fall out of the sky. "Takima likes the sound of her own

voice, sometimes. She must be talking to hear herself."

"Faiselle must, too," Myrelle said darkly, glaring at Delana as though she were to blame. The

olive-skinned woman was known for her temper, even among Greens. "I never expected to hear that sort

of talk out of her. She’s never been a fool before." "I can’t believe Magla really means any such thing,"

Nisao insisted, peering at each of them in turn. "She just can’t. For one thing, as much as I hate to say it,

Romanda has Magla so tight under her thumb that Magla squeaks whenever Romanda sneezes, and the

only doubt Romanda has is whether Elaida should be birched before she’s exiled."

Delana’s expression was so bland, she had to be suppressing a smug smile. Plainly, this was

exactly the reaction she had hoped for. "Romanda holds Saroiya and Varilin just as firmly, and Takima

and Faiselle hardly put one foot in front of the other without Lelaine’s permission, but they still said

what they said. I think your advisors are closer to the feelings of most sisters, though, Mother."

Smoothing her gloves, she gave Egwene a sidelong look. "You may be able to nip this in the bud, if you

move firmly. It seems you will have the support you need from the Ajahs. And mine, of course, in the

Hall. Mine, and enough more to stop it dead." As if Egwene needed support to accomplish that. Perhaps

she was trying to ingratiate herself. Or just to make it appear that support of Egwene was her only

concern.

Beonin had been riding in silence, clutching her cloak around her and peering at a spot between

her brown mare’s ears, but suddenly she shook her head. Ordinarily, her large blue-gray eyes made her

appear startled, but they peered from her hood in a blaze of anger as she glared from one of her

companions to another, including Egwene. "Why should negotiations be out of the question?"

Sheriam blinked at her in surprise, and Morvrin opened her mouth with a scowl, but Beonin

plunged on, directing her ire at Delana, now, her Taraboner accent stronger than usual. "We are Gray,

you and I. We negotiate, mediate. Elaida, she has stated the conditions most onerous, but that is often

the case in the beginning of negotiations. We can reunite the White Tower and assure the safety of

everyone, if we only talk."

"We also judge," Delana snapped, "and Elaida has been judged." That was not precisely true, but

she seemed more startled than anyone else by Beonin’s outburst. Her voice dripped acid. "Perhaps you

are willing to negotiate yourself into being birched. I am not, and I think you will find few others who

are, either." "The situation, it has altered," Beonin persisted. She stretched a hand toward Egwene,

almost pleading. "Elaida would not have made the proclamation she did concerning the Dragon Reborn

unless she had him in hand, one way or another. That flare ofsaidar was a warning. The Forsaken must

be moving, and the White Tower, it must be-" "Enough," Egwene cut in. "You are willing to open

negotiations with Elaida? With the Sitters still in the Tower?" she amended. Elaida would never talk.

"Yes," Beonin said fervently. "Matters can be arranged to everyone’s satisfaction. I know they

can."

"Then you have my permission."

Immediately everyone but Beonin began talking frantically on top of one another, trying to

dissuade her, telling her this was insanity. Anaiya shouted as loudly as Sheriam, gesturing emphatically,

and Delana’s eyes bulged in what looked like near terror. Some of the outriders began looking toward

the sisters as much as they watched the farms they were riding past, and there was a stir among the

Warders, who certainly had no need of their bonds at the moment to know their Aes Sedai were agitated,

but they held their places. Wise men kept their noses out of the way when Aes Sedai began raising their

voices.

Egwene ignored the shouts and arm-waving. She had considered every possibility she could

think of for ending this struggle with the White Tower whole and united. She had talked for hours with

Siuan, who had more reason than anyone to want to unseat Elaida. If it could have saved the Tower,

Egwene would have surrendered to Elaida, forget whether the woman had come to the Amyrlin Seat

legally. Siuan had nearly had apoplexy at the suggestion, yet she had agreed, reluctantly, that preserving

the Tower superseded every other consideration. Beonin wore such a beautiful smile, it seemed a crime

to quench it.

Egwene raised her voice just enough to be heard over the others. "You will approach Varilin and

the others Delana named, and arrange to approach the White Tower. These are the terms I will accept:

Elaida is to resign and go into exile." Because Elaida would never accept back the sisters who had

rebelled against her. An Amyrlin had no say over how an Ajah governed itself, but Elaida had declared

that the sisters who fled the Tower were no longer members of any Ajah. According to her, they would

have to beg readmittance to their Ajahs, after serving a penance under her direct control. Elaida would

not reunite the Tower, only shatter it worse than it already was. "Those are the only terms I will accept,

Beonin. The only terms. Do you understand me?" Beonin’s eyes rolled up in her head, and she would

have fallen from her horse if Morvrin had not caught her, muttering under her breath as she held the

Gray upright and slapped her face, not lightly. Everyone else stared at Egwene as though they had never

seen her before. Even Delana, who must have planned for something like this to happen from the first

word she had said. They had come to a halt with Beonin’s fainting fit, and the ring of soldiers around

them drew up at a shouted command from Lord Gareth. Some stared toward the Aes Sedai, their anxiety

plain even with their faces hidden behind the bars of their helmets. "It’s time to get back to camp,"

Egwene said. Calmly. What had to be done had to be done. Perhaps surrender would have healed the

Tower, but she could not believe it. And now it might come down to Aes Sedai facing one another in the

streets of Tar Valon, unless she could find a way to make her plan succeed. "We have work to do," she

said, gathering her reins, "and there isn’t much time left." She prayed there was enough.

CHAPTER 17

Secrets

Once Delana was sure that her noxious seed had taken root, she murmured that it might be best if

they were not seen arriving back at the camp together and slipped away, pushing her mare to a quick trot

through the snow and leaving the rest of them to ride on in uneasy silence except for the crunch of the

horses’ hooves. The Warders maintained their distance behind, and the escorting soldiers had their

attention back on the farms and thickets, without so much as a glance toward the Aes Sedai that Egwene

could see, now. Men never knew when to keep their mouths shut, though. Telling a man to be quiet only

made him gossip all the harder, just to close friends he could trust, to be sure, as if they in turn would

not tell everyone who would listen. The Warders might be different-Aes Sedai always insisted they

were, those who had Warders-but no doubt the soldiers would talk of sisters arguing, and no doubt

they would say Delana had been sent off with a flea in her ear. The woman had planned this very

carefully.

Worse than fireweed or stranglervine could grow if that seed was allowed to sprout, but the Gray

Sitter had sheltered herself from blame very neatly. Truth almost always did come out in the end, but by

the end, truth was often so wrapped around with rumors and speculation and absolute lies that most

people never did believe it.

"I trust I don’t have to ask whether any of you had heard about this before." Egwene said that

quite casually, seemingly studying the countryside as they rode, but she was pleased when everyone

denied it outright with considerable indignation, including Beonin, who was working her jaw and

glaring at Morvrin. Egwene trusted them as far as she dared-they could not have given her their oaths

without meaning to hold to every word; not unless they were Black Ajah, a niggling possibility that

accounted for most of her caution-yet even oaths of fealty left room for the most loyal people doing the

worst possible thing in the belief that it was in your best interest. And people who had been coerced into

their oaths could be adept at spotting the gaps and leeways. "The real question," she continued, "is what

was Delana after?" She had no need to explain, not for these women, every one experienced in the Game

of Houses. If all Delana had wanted was to stop negotiations with Elaida while keeping her own name

out of it, she could simply have spoken to Egwene alone at any time. Sitters needed no excuse to come

to the Amyrlin’s study. Or she could have used Halima, who slept on a pallet in Egwene’s tent most

nights despite being Delana’s secretary. Egwene was troubled with headaches, and some nights only

Halima’s massages could soothe them so she could sleep. For that matter, an anonymous note might

have been sufficient to make her present the Hall with an edict forbidding negotiations. The touchiest

quibbler would have to admit that talks to end the war certainly touched on the war. But plainly Delana

wanted Sheriam and the others to know, too. Her talebearing was an arrow aimed at another target.

"Strife between the Ajah heads and the Sitters," Carlinya said, as cool as the snow. "Perhaps

strife between the Ajahs." Casually adjusting her cloak, intricately embroidered white-on-white but lined

with dense black fur, she might have been discussing the price of a spool of thread. "Why she wants

these things, I can’t begin to say, but those will be the results, unless we are very careful, and she could

not know we would be careful, or that we have any reason to be, so logically one or both must be her

aim."

"The first answer that comes to mind isn’t always correct, Carlinya," Morvrin said. "There’s no

saying that Delana thought her actions through as carefully as you have, or that she thought along the

same lines." The stout Brown believed more in common sense than logic, or so she said, but in truth she

seemed to blend the two, a combination that made her very hardheaded, and suspicious of quick or easy

answers. Which was not a bad thing to be. "Delana may be trying to sway some among the Sitters on

some issue that’s important to her. Maybe she hopes to get Elaida declared Black Ajah after all. No

matter the results, her goal may be something we don’t even suspect. Sitters can be as petty as anyone

else. For all we know, she might have a grudge against one of those she named dating back to when she

was a novice and they taught her. Better to concentrate on what will come of it than to worry about why

until we know more." Her tone was as placid as her broad face, but Carlinya’s cool composure flickered

to cool disdain for a moment. Her rationality made few concessions for human foibles. Or for anyone

disagreeing with her.

Anaiya laughed, a sound of almost motherly amusement that made her bay dance a few steps

before she reined him back to a walk. A motherly farmwife amused by the antics of others in the village.

Even some sisters were foolish enough to dismiss her that easily. "Don’t sulk, Carlinya. You are very

probably right. No, Morvrin, she probably is. In any event, I believe we can squash any hopes she has

for discord." That did not sound amused at all. No Blue was amused by anything that might hamper

pulling Elaida down.

Myrelle gave a savage nod of agreement, then blinked in surprise when Nisao said, "Can you

afford to stop this, Mother?" The tiny Yellow did not speak up often. "I don’t mean whatever Delana is

trying to do. If we can settle on what that is," she added quickly, making a gesture at Morvrin, who had

opened her mouth again. Nisao looked a child alongside the other women, but it was a peremptory

gesture. She was Yellow, after all, with all the selfassurance that implied, and unwilling to step back for

anyone in most circumstances. "I mean the talk of parley with the Sitters in the Tower."

For a moment, everyone gaped at her, even Beonin. "And why would we want to allow that?"

Anaiya said finally, in a dangerous voice. "We didn’t come all this way to talk to Elaida." She was a

farmwife with a cleaver hidden behind her back and a mind to use it, now.

Nisao looked up at her and sniffed dismissively. "I didn’t say we wanted it. I asked whether we

dare stop it." "I hardly see the difference." Sheriam’s voice was icy, and her face pale. With anger,

Egwene thought, but it might have been fear.

"Then think for a while, and you might see it," Nisao said dryly. Dry the way a knife-blade was

dry, and equally cutting. "At present, talk of negotiations is limited to five Sitters, and very quiet, but

will it remain so? Once word spreads that talks were proposed and rejected, how long before despair sets

in? No, hear me out! We all set off full of righteous fury for justice, yet here we sit, staring at the walls

of Tar Valon, while Elaida sits in the Tower. We’ve been here nearly two weeks, and for all anyone can

see, we may be here two years, or twenty. The longer we sit with nothing happening, the more sisters

will start making excuses for Elaida’s crimes. The more they’ll start thinking that we have to mend the

Tower, never mind the cost. Do you want to wait until sisters start slipping back to Elaida one by one? I

myself do not fancy standing on the riverbank defying the woman with just the Blue Ajah and the rest of

you for company. Negotiations will at least let everyone see that something is happening."

"No one is going to return to Elaida," Anaiya protested, shifting on her saddle, but she wore a

troubled frown, and she sounded as if she could see it happening. The Tower beckoned to every Aes

Sedai. Very likely even Black sisters yearned for the Tower to be whole again. And there it stood, just a

few miles away, but seemingly out of reach.

"Talk could buy time, Mother," Morvrin said reluctantly, and no one could put as much

reluctance in her voice as she. Her frown was thoughtful, and not at all pleased. "A few more weeks, and

Lord Gareth might be able to find the ships he needs to block the harbors. That will alter everything, in

our favor. With no way for food to get in or mouths to get out, the city will be starving inside a month."

Egwene hung on to a smooth face with an effort. There was no real hope of ships to block the

harbor, though none cf them knew that. Gareth had made it plain enough to her, however, long before

leaving Murandy. Originally, he had hoped to buy vessels while they marched north along the Erinin,

using them to ferry supplies until they reached Tar Valon, then sinking them in the harbor mouths.

Using gateways to reach Tar Valon had put paid to that in more ways than one. Word of the siege had

left the city with the first ships sailing after the army arrived, and now, as far north and south as he had

sent riders, ship captains were carrying out their business ashore by boat, from anchorages well out in

the river. No captain was willing to risk the chance her ship would simply be seized. Gareth made his

reports only to her, and his officers only to him, yet any sister could have known if she talked with a few

soldiers.

Fortunately, even sisters looking for Warders rarely spoke to soldiers. They were generally

accounted a thieving, unlettered lot who only bathed by accident, when they had to wade a stream. Not

the kind of man any sister spent time with except when compelled to. It made keeping secrets easier, and

some secrets were essential. Including, sometimes, secrets kept from those seemingly on your side. She

could remember not thinking that way, but that was a part of the innkeeper’s daughter she had been

obliged to leave behind. This was another world, with very different rules from Emond’s Field. A

misstep there meant a summons to the Women’s Circle. Here, a misstep meant death or worse, and for

more than herself. "The Sitters remaining in the Tower should be willing to talk," Carlinya put in, with a

sigh. "They have to know that the longer the siege lasts, the more chance Lord Gareth will find his ships.

I cannot think how long they will continue talking, though, when they realize we do not mean to

surrender."

"Elaida will insist on that," Myrelle muttered, yet she did not seem to be arguing, just talking to

herself, and Sheriam shivered, drawing her cloak around her as though she had let the cold touch her.

Only Beonin looked happy, sitting eager and upright in her saddle, dark honey hair framing a

wide smile inside her hood. She did not press her case, however. She was good at negotiation, so

everyone said, and knew when to wait.

"I did say you could begin," Egwene said. Not that she had meant it for more than a setdown, yet

if you were going to live by the Three Oaths, then you had to stand by what you said. She could not wait

to hold the Oath Rod. It would be so much easier, then. "Just make sure you’re very careful what you

say. Unless they think we all grew wings to fly here, they must suspect we’ve rediscovered Traveling,

but they can’t be certain unless someone confirms it. It’s better for us if they stay uncertain. That must

be one secret you hold as tightly as you hold the secret of our ferrets in the Tower."

Myrelle and Anaiya jerked at that, and Carlinya looked around as though fearful, though neither

Warders nor soldiers were close enough to hear unless someone shouted. Morvrin merely took on an

even more sour expression. Even Nisao looked a little ill, though she had had nothing to do with the

decision to send sisters back to the Tower in secret, supposedly answering Elaida’s summons. The Hall

might be happy to learn that ten sisters were in the Tower trying to undermine Elaida however they

could, even if the effort had borne no apparent fruit so far, but the Sitters would most definitely be

unhappy at realizing that it had been kept secret because these women feared that some of the Sitters

might actually be Black Ajah. As well for Sheriam and the others to reveal their oaths to Egwene as

reveal that. The results for them might not be very different. The Hall had not ordered anyone birched

yet, but the way most Sitters chafed at the bit over Egwene’s control of the war, it could hardly come as

a surprise if they jumped at the chance to show they still had some authority while simultaneously

expressing their displeasure forcefully.

Beonin was apparently the only one who had opposed that decision-at least, until it became

apparent the others were going ahead anyway-but she drew a shuddering breath, too, and a tightness

settled around her eyes. In her case, the sudden realization of just what she had undertaken might have

played its part, too. Just finding someone in the Tower who was willing to talk might prove a daunting

task. Eyes-and-ears inside Tar Valon could offer only hearsay about events inside the Tower; news of

the Tower itself came only in dribs and drabs, from sisters venturing into Tel’aran’rhiod to glimpse

fleeting reflections of the waking world, but every last one of those scraps told of Elaida ruling by edict

and caprice, with not even the Hall daring to stand against her. Beonin’s face took on a grayish tinge, till

she began to appear more sickly than Nisao. Anaiya and the others looked as bleak as death. A wave of

gloom rose in Egwene. These were among the strongest against Elaida, even the foot-dragging Beonin,

who always wanted to talk rather than act. Well, Grays were noted for believing that anything could be

solved with enough talk. They should try that on a Trolloc sometime, or just a footpad, and see how far

they got! Without Sheriam and the rest, resistance to Elaida would have fallen apart before it ever had a

chance to coalesce. It nearly had anyway. But Elaida was as firmly seated in the Tower as ever, and after

all they had gone through, all they had done, it seemed that even Anaiya saw it all melting away into

disaster. No! Drawing a deep breath, Egwene straightened her shoulders and sat erect in her saddle. She

was the lawful Amyrlin, no matter what the Hall had thought they were getting when they raised her,

and she had to keep the rebellion against Elaida alive to have any hope of healing the Tower. If that

required a pretense of negotiations, it would not be the first time Aes Sedai had pretended to aim at one

thing while targeting another. Whatever was required to keep the rebellion alive and pull Elaida down,

she would do. Whatever was required.

"Stretch the talks out as long as you can," she told Beonin. "You can talk about anything, so long

as you keep the secrets that need keeping, but agree to nothing, and keep them talking." Swaying in her

saddle, the Gray definitely looked sicker than Anaiya. She almost appeared ready to empty her stomach.

When the camp came into sight, with the sun nearly halfway to its noonday peak, the escort of lightly

armored horsemen broke away back toward the river, leaving Egwene and the sisters to ride the last mile

across the snow followed by the Warders. Lord Gareth paused as if he wanted to speak with her once

more, but finally he turned his bay east after the cavalry, trotting to catch up as they vanished beyond a

long, coppiced stand of trees. He would not bring up their disagreement, or their discussions, where

anyone else could hear, and he believed that Beonin and the others just what everyone else thought

them, the Ajahs’ watchdogs. She felt a little sad at holding things back from him, but the fewer who

knew a secret, the more likely it would remain secret. The camp was a sprawl of tents in every shape and

size and color and state of repair that almost covered a broad tree-rimmed pasture, halfway between Tar

Valon and Dragonmount, inside a ring of horselines and rows of wagons and carts in almost as many

shapes as there were wagons and carts. Chimney smoke rose in several places a few miles beyond the

treeline, but the local farmers stayed away except for selling eggs and milk and butter, or sometimes

when one needed Healing from some accident, and there was no sign at all of the army Egwene had

brought so far. Gareth had concentrated his forces along the river, part occupying the bridge towns on

both banks and the rest in what he called reserve camps, placed where men could be rushed to help fight

off any sortie in strength from the city, just in case he was wrong about High Captain Chubain. Always

consider the possibility your assumptions are wrong, he had told her. No one objected to his placements,

of course, not in general anyway. Any number of sisters were ready to nitpick the details, but holding

the bridge towns was the only way to besiege Tar Valon, after all. By land, it was. And a good many

Aes Sedai were pleased to have the soldiers out of sight if not out of mind.

Three Warders in color-shifting cloaks came riding out from the camp as Egwene and the others

approached, one of them very tall and one quite short, so they seemed arranged in steps. Making their

bows to Egwene and the sisters, nodding to the Warders behind, they all had that dangerous look of men

so confident that they had no need to convince anyone how dangerous they were, which somehow made

it all the more evident. A Warder at his ease and a lion resting on a hill, so went an old saying among

Aes Sedai. The rest of it was lost in the years, but there really was no need to say more. The sisters were

not entirely complacent about the safety of even a camp full of Aes Sedai, under the circumstances.

Warders patrolled closely for miles in every direction, lions on the prowl. Anaiya and the others, all but

Sheriam, scattered as soon as they reached the first row of tents beyond the wagons. Each would be

seeking out the head of her Ajah, ostensibly to report on Egwene’s* ™ S E C R E T S 417 ride to the river

with Lord Gareth, and more importantly, to make sure those Ajah heads knew that some of the Sitters

were talking about negotiations with Elaida and that Egwene was being firm. It would have been easier

if she knew who those women were, but even oaths of fealty did not stretch to revealing that. Myrelle

had nearly swallowed her tongue when Egwene suggested it. Being dropped into a job without training

was hardly the best way to learn it, and Egwene knew she had oceans to learn yet about being Amyrlin.

Oceans to learn, and a job of work to do at the same time. "If you will forgive me, Mother," Sheriam

said when Beonin, the last to go, vanished among the tents trailed by her scar-faced Warder, "I have a

writing table piled high with paper." The lack of enthusiasm in her voice was understandable. The

Keeper’s stole came along with ever-growing stacks of reports to be sorted and documents to be

prepared. Despite her zeal for the rest of the job, which in this case was to keep the camp running,

Sheriam had been heard to mutter fervent wishes, when confronted by yet another mound of papers, that

she was still Mistress of Novices. Still, as soon as Egwene gave permission, she booted her blackfooted

dapple to a trot, scattering a covey of workmen in rough coats and mufflers wrapped around their heads,

who were carrying large baskets on their backs. One fell flat on his face in the halffrozen muck that

passed for a street. Sheriam’s Arinvar, a slim Cairhienin with graying temples, paused long enough to

make sure the fellow was getting to his feet, then spurred his dark bay stallion after her, leaving the

workman to his curses, most of which seemed to be directed at his companions’ laughter. Everyone

knew that when an Aes Sedai wanted to go somewhere, you got out of the way.

What had spilled out of the fellow’s basket onto the street caught Egwene’s eye and made her

shiver, a tall heap of meal crawling with weevils till it seemed there were as many moving black specks

as meal. The men must all have been carrying ruined meal to the midden heaps. There was no use

bothering to sift anything that infested-only someone who was starving could eat it-but too many

baskets of meal and grain had to be disposed of every day.

For that matter, half the barrels of salt pork and salt beef opened for use stank so that there was

nothing to be done except bury them. For the servants and workmen, at least those who had experience

of camp life, that was nothing new. A little worse than usual, but not unheard of. Weevils could appear

any time, and merchants trying to stretch their profits always sold some rotting meat along with the

good. Among the Aes Sedai, though, it was cause for deep worry. Every barrel of meat, every sack of

grain or flour or meal, had been surrounded by a Keeping as soon as bought, and whatever was woven

into a Keeping could not change until the weave was removed. But still the meat rotted and the insects

multiplied. It was as though saidar itself was failing. You could get a sister to make jokes about the

Black Ajah before you could get her to talk about that.

One of the laughing men caught sight of Egwene watching them and nudged the mud-covered

fellow, who moderated his language, though not very far. He even glowered as if blaming her for his

fall. With her face half-hidden by her hood and the Amyrlin’s stole folded in her belt pouch, they

seemed to take her for one of the Accepted, not all of whom had enough proper clothing to always dress

as they should, or perhaps a visitor. Women frequently slipped into the camp, often keeping their faces

hidden in public until they left again whether they wore fine silks or threadbare wool, and showing a

sour expression to a stranger or an Accepted was certainly safer than grimacing at an Aes Sedai. It

seemed odd not to have everyone in sight bobbing and bowing. She had been in the saddle since before

first light, and if a hot bath was out of the question-water had to be carried in from the wells that had

been dug half a mile west of the camp, which made all but the most fastidious or self-absorbed sisters

limit themselves -if a long hot soak was not to be had, she still would have liked to put her feet back on

the ground. Or better yet, put them up on a footstool. Besides, refusing to let the cold touch you was not

at all the same as warming your hands at a toasty brazier. Her own writing table would have its pile of

paper, too. Last night she had told Sheriam to give her the reports on the state of wagon repairs and the

supply of fodder for the horses. They would be dry and boring, but she checked on different areas every

day, so she could at least tell whether what people told her was based on fact or wishes. And there were

always the eyes-and-ears’ reports.

The Ajahs decided to pass along to the Amyrlin Seat made for fascinating reading when

compared to what Siuan and Leane gave her from their agents. It was not so much that there were

contradictions, yet what the Ajahs chose to keep to themselves could draw interesting pictures. Comfort

and duty both pulled her toward her study-just another tent, really, though everyone called it the

Amyrlin’s study-but this was an opportunity to look around without having everything hastily made

ready ahead of her arrival. Pulling her hood a little further forward to better conceal her face, she

touched her heels lightly to Daishar’s flanks. There were few people mounted, mostly Warders, though

the infrequent groom added to the traffic, leading a horse at as close to a trot as could be managed in the

ankle-deep slush, but no one seemed to recognize her or her mount. In contrast to the nearly empty

streets, the wooden walkways, no more than rough planks pegged atop sawn logs, shifted slightly under

the weight of people. The handful of men, dotting the streams of women like raisins in a cheap cake,

walked twice as fast as anyone else. Excepting Warders, men got their business among Aes Sedai done

as quickly as possible. Nearly all the women had their faces hidden, their breath misting in the openings

of their hoods, yet it was easy to pick out Aes Sedai from visitors whether their cloaks were plain or

embroidered and lined with fur. The crowds parted in front of a sister. Anyone else had to weave her

way through. Not that many sisters were about on this frigid midmorning. Most would be snug in their

tents. Alone or in twos or threes, they would be reading, or writing letters, or questioning their visitors

about whatever information those women had brought. Which might or might not be shared with the rest

of a sister’s Ajah, much less with anyone else. The world saw Aes Sedai as a monolith, towering and

solid, or it had before the current division in the Tower became common knowledge, yet the pure fact

was that the Ajahs stood apart in all but name, the Hall their only true meeting point, and the sisters

themselves were little more than a convocation of hermits, speaking three words beyond what was

absolutely required only with a few friends. Or with another sister they had joined in some design.

Whatever else changed about the Tower, Egwene was sure that never would. There was no point

pretending that Aes Sedai had ever been anything but Aes Sedai or ever would be, a great river rolling

onward, all its powerful currents hidden deep, altering its course with imperceptible slowness. She had

built a few hasty dams in that river, diverting a stream here and a stream there for her own purposes, yet

she knew they were temporary structures. Sooner or later those deep currents would undercut her dams.

She could only pray they lasted long enough. Pray, and shore up as hard as she could. Very occasionally

one of the Accepted appeared in the throng, with the seven bands of color on the hood of her white

cloak, but most by far were novices in unadorned white wool. Only a handful of the twenty-one

Accepted in the camp actually possessed banded cloaks, and they saved their few banded dresses for

teaching classes or attending sisters, yet great efforts had been made to see that every novice was

dressed in white at all times, even if she only had one change. The Accepted inevitably tried to move

with the swanlike glide of Aes Sedai, and one or two nearly managed despite the tilting of the walkways

underfoot, but the novices darted along almost as quickly as the few men, scurrying on errands or

hurrying to classes in groups of six or seven.

Aes Sedai had not had so many novices to teach in a very long time, not since before the Trolloc

Wars, when there had been many more Aes Sedai as well, and the result of finding themselves with near

a thousand students had been utter confusion until they were organized into these "families." The name

was not strictly official, yet it was used even by Aes Sedai who still disliked taking any woman who

asked. Now every novice knew where she was supposed to be and when, and every sister could at least

find out. Not to mention that the number of runaways had declined. That was always a concern for Aes

Sedai, and several hundred of these women might well attain the shawl. No sister wanted to lose one of

those, or any, for that matter, not before the decision was made to send a woman away. Women still

slipped off occasionally after realizing that the training was harder than they had expected and the road

to an Aes Sedai’s shawl longer, but quite apart from the families making it easier to keep track, running

away seemed to be less attractive to women who had five or six cousins, as they were called, to lean on.

Well short of the big square pavilion that served as the Hall of the Tower, she turned Daishar

down a side street. The walkway in front of the pale brown canvas pavilion was empty - the Hall was

not a place anyone approached without business there - but the much-patched side curtains were kept

down without a reason to make the workings of the Hall public, so there was no telling who might step

out. Any Sitter would recognize Daishar at a glance, and some Sitters she would as soon avoid even

more than others. Lelaine and Romanda, for example, who resisted her authority as instinctively as they

opposed each other. Or any of those who had begun talking of negotiations. It was too much to believe

that they were just hoping to rally spirits, or they would not have kept to whispers. The courtesies had to

be maintained, though, no matter how often she wished she could box someone’s ears, yet no one could

think she was being snubbed if Egwene did not see her. A faint silvery light flashed behind a tall canvas

wall just ahead of her, surrounding one of the camp’s two Traveling grounds, and a moment later two

sisters emerged from behind one of the flaps. Neither Phaedrine nor Shemari was strong enough to

weave a gateway by herself, but linked she thought they could just manage one big enough to walk

through. Heads close together in deep conversation, strangely they were just pinning on their cloaks.

Egwene kept her face averted anyway as she rode by. Both of the Browns had taught her as a novice,

and Phaedrine still seemed surprised that Egwene was Amyrlin. Lean as a heron, she was quite capable

of wading out into the muck to ask whether Egwene needed assistance. Shemari, a vigorous squarefaced

woman who looked more like a Green than a librarian, was always beyond proper in her behavior.

Much beyond. Her deep curtsies, suitable for a novice, carried at least a suggestion of mockery no

matter how smooth her expression, not least because she had been known to curtsy when she saw

Egwene a hundred paces away.

Where had they been, she wondered. Somewhere indoors, perhaps, or at least warmer than the

camp. No one really kept track of the sisters’ comings and goings, of course, not even the Ajahs. Custom

ruled everyone, and custom strongly discouraged direct questions about what a sister was doing or

where she was going. Most likely, Phaedrine and Shemari had been to hear from some of their eyes-andears

face to face. Or maybe to look at a book in some library. They were Brown. But she could not help

thinking of Nisao’s comment about sisters slipping away to Elaida. It was quite possible to hire a

boatman to make the crossing to the city, where dozens of tiny water gates gave entrance to anyone who

wished it, but with a gateway, there was no need to risk exposure by riding to the river and asking after

boats. Just one sister returning to the Tower with the knowledge of that weave would give away their

largest advantage. And there was no way to stop it. Except to keep heart in the opposition to Elaida.

Except to make the sisters believe there could be a quick end to this. If only there was a way to a quick

end.

Not far beyond the Traveling ground, Egwene drew rein and frowned at a long wall-tent, even

more patched than the Hall. An Aes Sedai came swanning down the walkway-she wore a plain dark

blue cloak, and the cowl hid her face, but novices and others skipped out of her way as they never would

have for a merchant, say-and paused in front of the tent, looking at it for a long moment before

pushing aside the entry flap to go inside, her unwillingness as clear as if she had shouted. Egwene had

never gone in there. She could feel saidar being channeled inside, though faintly. The amount necessary

was surprisingly small. A quick visit from the Amyrlin should not draw too much attention, however.

She very much wanted to see what she had set in motion. Dismounting in front of the tent, though, she

discovered a trifling difficulty. There was nowhere to tie Daishar. The Amyrlin always had someone

rushing to hold her stirrup and take away her horse, but she stood there holding the gelding’s reins, and

clusters of novices bustled past with no more than a quick glance, dismissing her as one of the visitors.

By this time, every novice knew all of the Accepted on sight, but few had seen the Amyrlin Seat close

up. She did not even have the ageless face to tell them she was Aes Sedai. With a rueful laugh, she put a

gloved hand into her belt pouch. The stole would tell them who she was, and then she could order one of

them to hold her horse for a few minutes. Unless they thought it was a joke in bad taste, at least. Some

of the novices from Emond’s Field had tried to pull the stole from her neck, to keep her from getting in

trouble. No, that was past and dealt with.

Abruptly, the entry flap was pushed open and Leane emerged, fastening her dark green cloak

with a silver pin in the shape of a fish. The cloak was silk, and richly embroidered in silver and gold, as

was the bodice of her riding dress. Her red gloves were embroidered on the backs, too. Leane paid

minute attention to her clothes since joining the Green Ajah. Her eyes widened lightly at the sight of

Egwene, but her coppery face smoothed immediately. Taking in the situation at a glance, she put out a

hand to stop a novice who appeared to be by herself. Novices went to classes by family. "What’s your

name, child?" Much had changed about Leane, but not her briskness. Except when she wanted it to,

anyway. Most men turned to putty when Leane’s voice grew languorous, but she never wasted that on

women. "Are you on an errand for a sister?" The novice, a pale-eyed woman close to her middle years,

with an unblemished skin that had never seen a day’s work in the field, gaped openly before recovering

enough to make her curtsy, a smoothly practiced spreading of her white skirts with mittened hands. As

tall as most men but willowy and graceful and beautiful, Leane lacked the ageless look, too, yet hers was

one of the two most well known faces in the camp. Novices pointed her out in awe, a sister who had

once been Keeper, who had been stilled, and Healed so she could channel again, if not so strongly as

before. And then she had changed Ajahs! The newest women in white already had learned that that just

never happened, though the other was becoming a part of lore, unfortunately. It was harder to make a

novice go slowly when you could not point out that she risked ending her quest for the shawl by burning

herself out and losing the One Power forever.

"Letice Murow, Aes Sedai," the woman said respectfully, in a lilting Murandian accent. She

sounded as if she wanted to say more, perhaps to give a title, but one of the first lessons on joining the

Tower was that you had left behind who you used to be. It was a hard lesson, for some, especially those

who possessed titles. "I’m going to visit my sister. I haven’t seen her more than a minute since before

we left Murandy." Relatives were always put in different novice families, as were women who had

known each other before being entered in the novice book. It encouraged making new friends, and cut

down on the inevitable tensions when one was learning faster than the other or had a higher potential.

"She’s free of classes, too, until the afternoon, and-" "Your sister will have to wait a while longer,

child," Leane broke in. "Hold the Amyrlin’s horse for her." Letice gave a start and stared at Egwene,

who had finally managed to extract her stole. Handing Daishar’s reins to the woman, she lowered her

cowl and settled the long narrow strip of cloth onto her shoulders. Light as a feather in her pouch, the

stole had real weight hanging around her neck. Siuan claimed that sometimes you could feel every

woman who had ever worn the stole hanging from the ends of it, a constant reminder of responsibility

and duty, and Egwene believed every word. The Murandian gaped at her harder than she had for Leane,

and took longer to remember to curtsy. No doubt she had heard that the Amyrlin was young, but it

seemed unlikely she had given a thought to how young. "Thank you, child," Egwene said smoothly.

There had been a time when she felt strange calling a woman ten years older than herself child.

Everything changed, with time. "It won’t be for long. Leane, would you ask someone to send a groom

for Daishar? Now that I’m out of the saddle, I’d as soon stay out, and Letice should be allowed to see

her sister."

"I will see to it myself, Mother."

Leane offered a fluid curtsy and moved away with never a hint that there was more between

them than this chance encounter. Egwene trusted her far more than she did Anaiya or even Sheriam. She

certainly kept no secrets from Leane, any more than from Siuan. But their friendship was yet another

secret that had to be kept. For one thing, Leane had eyes-and-ears actually inside Tar Valon if not in the

Tower itself, and their reports came to Egwene and Egwene alone. For another, Leane was much petted

for accommodating so well to her reduced status, and every sister welcomed her, if only because she

was living proof that stilling, the deepest dread of any Aes Sedai, could be reversed. They welcomed her

with open arms, and because she was less, now, standing below at least half the sisters in the camp, they

often spoke in front of her about matters they would never want the Amyrlin to know of. So Egwene did

not so much as glance after her as she left. Instead, she, offered Letice a smile-the woman reddened

and bobbed another curtsy-then entered the tent, stripping off her gloves and tucking them behind her

belt.

Inside, eight mirrored stand-lamps stood along the walls between low wooden chests. One with a

bit of worn gilding and the rest of painted iron, no two of the lamps had the same number of arms, but

they provided good illumination, if not so bright as outside. Assorted tables that seemed to have come

from seven different farm kitchens made a row down the center of the canvas ground-cloth, the benches

of the three farthest occupied by a half a dozen novices with their cloaks folded beside them, each

woman surrounded by the glow of the Power. Tiana, the Mistress of Novices, hovered anxiously over

them, walking between the tables, and surprisingly, so did Sharina Melloy, one of the novices acquired

in Murandy.

Well, Sharina was not exactly hovering, just watching calmly, and perhaps it should not have

been a surprise to find her there. A dignified, gray-haired grandmother with a tight bun on the back of

her head, Sharina had run a very large family with a very firm hand, and she seemed to have adopted all

of the other novices as granddaughters or grandnieces. She was the one who had organized them into

those tiny families, completely on her own and apparently out of simple disgust at seeing everyone

flounder around. Most Aes Sedai went more than a touch tight-mouthed if reminded of that, though they

had accepted the form quickly enough once they realized how much easier it made keeping track and

organizing classes. Tiana was inspecting the novices’ work so closely that it seemed obvious she was

attempting to ignore Sharina’s presence. Short and slight, with large brown eyes and a dimple in her

cheek, Tiana somehow looked young despite her ageless face, particularly alongside the taller novice’s

creased cheeks and broad hips.

The pair of Aes Sedai channeling at the table nearest the entrance, Kairen and Ashmanaille, had

an audience of two as well, Janya Frende, a Sitter for the Brown, and Salita Toranes, a Sitter for the

Yellow. The Aes Sedai and the novices were all performing the same task. In front of each woman, a

close net woven of Earth, Fire and Air surrounded a small bowl or cup or the like, all made by the

camp’s blacksmiths, who were very puzzled at why the sisters wanted such things made of iron, not to

mention having them made as finely as if they were silver. A second weave, Earth and Fire woven just

so, penetrated each net to touch the object, which was slowly turning white. Very, very slowly, in every

case. Ability with the weave improved with practice, but of the Five Powers, strength in Earth was the

key, and beside Egwene herself, only nine sisters in the camp-along with two of the Accepted and

nearly two dozen novices-had sufficient of that to make the weaves work at all. Few among the sisters

wanted to give any time to it, though. Ashmanaille, lean enough to make her seem taller than she really

was, fingers tapping the tabletop on either side of the simple metal cup in front her, was frowning

impatiently as the edge of whiteness crept upward past halfway. Kairen’s blue eyes were cold enough

that it seemed her stare alone might shatter the tall goblet she was working on. That had only the

smallest rim of white at the bottom. It must have been Kairen Egwene had seen going in.

Not everyone was unenthusiastic, though. Janya, slim in her pale bronze silks and wearing her

brown-fringed shawl draped over her arms, studied what Kairen and Ashmanaille were doing with the

eagerness of one who wished she could be doing the same. Janya wanted to know everything, to know

how everything was done and why it happened that way. She had been extremely disappointed when she

could not learn to make ter’angreal-only three sisters aside from Elayne had managed that, so far, with

very spotty success-and she had made a concerted effort to learn this skill even after the testing

showed she fell short of the required strength in using Earth.

Salita was the first to notice Egwene. Round-faced and almost as dark as charcoal, she eyed

Egwene levelly, and the Yellow fringe of her shawl swayed slightly as she made a very precise curtsy,

exact to the inch. Raised in Salidar, Salita was part of a disturbing pattern: too many Sitters who were

too young for the position. Salita had only been Aes Sedai for thirty-five years, and rarely was a woman

given a chair before wearing the shawl for a hundred or more. Siuan saw a pattern, anyway, and thought

it disturbing, though she could not say why. Patterns she could not understand always disturbed Siuan.

Still, Salita had stood for war against Elaida, and frequently supported Egwene in the Hall. But not

always, and not in this. "Mother," she said coolly. Janya’s head jerked up, and she broke into a beaming

smile. She also had stood for war, the only woman who had been a Sitter before the Tower divided to do

so excepting Lelaine and Lyrelle, two of the Blues, and if her support for Egwene was not always

unwavering, it was so here. As usual, words spilled out of her. "I will never get over this, Mother. It’s

simply amazing. I know we shouldn’t be surprised any longer when you come up with something no one

else has thought of-sometimes I think we’ve gotten too set in our ways, too sure what can and cannot

be done-but to puzzle out how to make cuendillar . . . !" She paused for breath, and Salita moved into

the gap smoothly. And coldly. "I still say it is wrong," she said firmly. "I admit the discovery was a

brilliant piece of work on your part, Mother, but Aes Sedai should not be making things for . . . sale."

Salita invested that word with all the scorn of a woman who accepted the income from her estate in Tear

without ever thinking how it had been come by. The attitude was not uncommon, though most sisters

lived on the Tower’s generous yearly allowance. Or had, before the Tower split apart. "On top of

which," she went on, "nearly half the sisters forced into this are Yellow. I receive complaints every day.

We, at least, have more important uses for our time than making . . . trinkets." That earned her a hard

glare from Ashmanaille, a Gray, and a frigid stare from Kairen, who was Blue, but Salita ignored them.

She was one of those Yellows who seemed to think the other Ajahs were only adjuncts to her own,

which of course had the only truly useful purpose among them.

"And novices should not be doing weaves of this complexity at all," Tiana added, joining them.

The Mistress of Novices was never shy about speaking up to Sitters, or to the Amyrlin, and she wore a

disgruntled expression. She did not appear to realize that it deepened her dimple and made her look

sulky. "It is a remarkable discovery, and I for one have no objections to trade, but some of these girls

can barely manage to make a ball of fire change color with any surety. Letting them handle weaves like

this will only make it more difficult to stop them from leaping to things they can’t handle, and the Light

knows, that’s difficult enough already. They may even do themselves an injury."

"Nonsense, nonsense," Janya exclaimed, waving a slender hand as if to brush away the very

idea. "Every girl who’s been chosen can already make three balls of fire at once, and this requires very

little more of the Power. There’s no danger at all, so long as they’re under a sister’s supervision, and

they always are. I’ve seen the roster. Besides, what we make in a day will bring enough to pay the army

for a week or more, but the sisters alone can’t produce near that much." Squinting slightly, she suddenly

appeared to be looking through Tiana. The cascade from her tongue never slowed, yet she seemed to be

talking at least half to herself. "We will have to take great care in the selling. The Sea Folk have a

voracious appetite for cuendillar, and there are plenty of their ships still at Illian and Tear by all

accounts-the nobles there are greedy for it, too-but