Rand walked stiff-legged and nervous at first, beside the Warder. Face it on your feet. It was easy for Lan to say. He had not been summoned by the Amyrlin Seat. He was not wondering if he would be gentled before the day was done, or worse. Rand felt as if he had something caught in his throat; he could not swallow, and he wanted to, badly.
The corridors bustled with people, servants going about their morning chores, warriors wearing swords over lounging robes. A few young boys carrying small practice swords stayed near their elders, imitating the way they walked. No sign remained of the fighting, but an air of alertness clung even to the children. Grown men looked like cats waiting for a pack of rats.
Ingtar gave Rand and Lan a peculiar look, almost troubled, opening his mouth, then saying nothing as they passed him. Kajin, tall and lean and sallow, pumped his fists over his head and shouted, “Tai’shar Malkier! Tai’shar Manetheren!” True blood of Malkier. True blood of Manetheren.
Rand jumped. Light, why did he say that? Don’t be a fool, he told himself. They all know about Manetheren here. They know every old story, if it has fighting in it. Burn me, I have to take a rein on myself.
Lan raised his fists in reply. “Tai’shar Shienar!”
If he made a run for it, could he lose himself in the crowd long enough to reach his horse? If she sends trackers after me … With every step he grew more tense.
As they approached the women’s apartments, Lan suddenly snapped, “Cat Crosses the Courtyard!”
Startled, Rand instinctively assumed the walking stance as he had been taught, back straight but every muscle loose, as if he hung from a wire at the top of his head. It was a relaxed, almost arrogant, saunter. Relaxed on the outside; he certainly did not feel it inside. He had no time to wonder what he was doing. They rounded the last corridor in step with each other.
The women at the entrance to the women’s apartments looked up calmly as they came closer. Some sat behind slanted tables, checking large ledgers and sometimes making an entry. Others were knitting, or working with needle and embroidery hoop. Ladies in silks kept this watch, as well as women in livery. The arched doors stood open, unguarded except for the women. No more was needed. No Shienaran man would enter uninvited, but any Shienaran man stood ready to defend that door if needed, and he would be aghast at the need.
Rand’s stomach churned, harsh and acid. They’ll take one look at our swords and turn us away. Well, that’s what I want, isn’t it? If they turn us back, maybe I can still get away. If they don’t call the guards down on us. He clung to the stance Lan had given him as he would have to a floating branch in a flood; holding it was the only thing that kept him from turning tail and running.
One of the Lady Amalisa’s attendants, Nisura, a round-faced woman, put aside her embroidery and stood as they came to a stop. Her eyes flickered across their swords, and her mouth tightened, but she did not mention them. All the women stopped what they were doing to watch, silent and intent.
“Honor to you both,” Nisura said, bowing her head slightly. She glanced at Rand, so quickly he was almost not sure he had seen it; it reminded him of what Perrin had said. “The Amyrlin Seat awaits you.” She motioned, and two other ladies — not servants; they were being honored — stepped forward for escorts. The women bowed, a hair more than Nisura had, and motioned them through the archway. They both gave Rand a sidelong glance, then did not look at him again.
Were they looking for all of us, or just me? Why all of us?
Inside, they got the looks Rand expected — two men in the women’s apartments where men were rare — and their swords caused more than one raised eyebrow, but none of the women spoke. The two men left knots of conversation in their path, soft murmurs too low for Rand to make out. Lan strode along as if he did not even notice. Rand kept pace behind their escorts and wished he could hear.
And then they reached the Amyrlin Seat’s chambers, with three Aes Sedai in the hall outside the door. The tall Aes Sedai, Leane, held her golden-flamed staff. Rand did not know the other two, one of the White Ajah and one Yellow by their fringe. He remembered their faces, though, staring at him as he had run through these same halls. Smooth Aes Sedai faces, with knowing eyes. They studied him with arched eyebrows and pursed lips. The women who had brought Lan and Rand curtsied, handing them over to the Aes Sedai.
Leane looked Rand over with a slight smile. Despite the smile, her voice had a snap to it. “What have you brought the Amyrlin Seat today, Lan Gaidin? A young lion? Better you don’t let any Greens see this one, or one of them will bond him before he can take a breath. Greens like to bond them young.”
Rand wondered if it was really possible to sweat inside your skin. He felt as if he was. He wanted to look at Lan, but he remembered this part of the Warder’s instructions. “I am Rand al’Thor, son of Tam al’Thor, of the Two Rivers, which once was Manetheren. As I have been summoned by the Amyrlin Seat, Leane Sedai, so do I come. I stand ready.” He was surprised that his voice did not shake once.
Leane blinked, and her smile faded to a thoughtful look. “This is supposed to be a shepherd, Lan Gaidin? He was not so sure of himself this morning.”
“He is a man, Leane Sedai,” Lan said firmly, “no more, and no less. We are what we are.”
The Aes Sedai shook her head. “The world grows stranger every day. I suppose the blacksmith will wear a crown and speak in High Chant. Wait here.” She vanished inside to announce them.
She was only gone a few moments, but Rand was uncomfortably aware of the eyes of the remaining Aes Sedai. He tried to return their gaze levelly, the way Lan had told him to, and they put their heads together, whispering. What are they saying? What do they know? Light, are they going to gentle me? Was that what Lan meant about facing whatever comes?
Leane returned, motioning Rand to go in. When Lan started to follow, she thrust her staff across his chest, stopping him. “Not you, Lan Gaidin. Moiraine Sedai has a task for you. Your lion cub will be safe enough by himself.”
The door swung shut behind Rand, but not before he heard Lan’s voice, fierce and strong, but low for his ear alone. “Tai’shar Manetheren!”
Moiraine sat to one side of the room, and one of the Brown Aes Sedai he had seen in the dungeon sat to the other, but it was the woman in the tall chair behind the wide table who held his eyes. The curtains had been partially drawn over the arrowslits, but the gaps let in enough light behind her to make her face hard to see clearly. He still recognized her, though. The Amyrlin Seat.
Quickly he dropped to one knee, left hand on sword hilt, right fist pressed to the patterned rug, and bowed his head. “As you have summoned me, Mother, so have I come. I stand ready.” He lifted his head in time to see her eyebrows rise.
“Do you now, boy?” She sounded almost amused. And something else he could not make out. She certainly did not look amused. “Stand up, boy, and let me have a look at you.”
He straightened and tried to keep his face relaxed. It was an effort not to clench his hands. Three Aes Sedai. How many does it take to gentle a man? They sent a dozen or more after Logain. Would Moiraine do that to me? He met the Amyrlin Seat’s look eye to eye. She did not blink.
“Sit, boy,” she said finally, gesturing to a ladder-back chair that had been pulled around squarely in front of the table. “This will not be short, I fear.”
“Thank you, Mother.” He bowed his head, then, as Lan had told him, glanced at the chair and touched his sword. “By your leave, Mother, I will stand. The watch is not done.”
The Amyrlin Seat made an exasperated sound and looked at Moiraine. “Have you let Lan at him, Daughter? This will be difficult enough without him picking up Warder ways.”
“Lan has been teaching all the boys, Mother,” Moiraine replied calmly. “He has spent a little more time with this one than the others because he carries a sword.”
The Brown Aes Sedai shifted on her chair. “The Gaidin are stiff-necked and proud, Mother, but useful. I would not be without Tomas, as you would not lose Alric. I have even heard a few Reds say they sometimes wish for a Warder. And the Greens, of course …”
The three Aes Sedai were all ignoring him, now. “This sword,” the Amyrlin Seat said. “It appears to be a heron-mark blade. How did he come by that, Moiraine?”
“Tam al’Thor left the Two Rivers as a boy, Mother. He joined the army of Illian, and served in the Whitecloak War and the last two wars with Tear. In time he rose to be a blademaster and the Second Captain of the Companions. After the Aiel War, Tam al’Thor returned to the Two Rivers with a wife from Caemlyn and an infant boy. It would have saved much, had I known this earlier, but I know it now.”
Rand stared at Moiraine. He knew Tam had left the Two Rivers and come back with an outlander wife and the sword, but the rest… Where did you learn all that? Not in Emond’s Field. Unless Nynaeve told you more than she’s ever told me. An infant boy. She doesn’t say his son. But I am.
“Against Tear.” The Amyrlin Seat frowned slightly. “Well, there was blame enough on both sides in those wars. Fool men who would rather fight than talk. Can you tell if the blade is authentic, Verin?”
“There are tests, Mother.”
“Then take it and test it, Daughter.”
The three women were not even looking at him. Rand stepped back, gripping the hilt hard. “My father gave this sword to me,” he said angrily. “Nobody is taking it from me.” It was only then that he realized Verin had not moved from her chair. He looked at them in confusion, trying to recover his equilibrium.
“So,” the Amyrlin Seat said, “you have some fire in you besides whatever Lan put in. Good. You will need it.”
“I am what I am, Mother,” he managed smoothly enough. “I stand ready for what comes.”
The Amyrlin Seat grimaced. “Lan has been at you. Listen to me, boy. In a few hours, Ingtar will leave to find the stolen Horn. Your friend, Mat, will go with him. I expect that your other friend — Perrin? — will go, also. Do you wish to accompany them?”
“Mat and Perrin are going? Why?” Belatedly he remembered to add a respectful, “Mother.”
“You know of the dagger your friend carried?” A twist of her mouth showed what she thought of the dagger. “That was taken, too. Unless it is found, the link between him and the blade cannot be broken completely, and he will die. You can ride with them, if you want. Or you can stay here. No doubt Lord Agelmar will let you remain as a guest as long as you wish. I will be leaving today, as well. Moiraine Sedai will accompany me, and so will Egwene and Nynaeve, so you will stay alone, if you stay. The choice is yours.”
Rand stared at her. She is saying I can go as I want. Is that what she brought me here for? Mat is dying! He glanced at Moiraine, sitting impassively with her hands folded in her lap. She looked as if nothing in the world could concern her less than where he went. Which way are you trying to push me, Aes Sedai? Burn me, but I’ll go another. But if Mat’s dying … I can’t abandon him. Light, how are we going to find that dagger?
“You do not have to make the choice now,” the Amyrlin said. She did not seem to care, either. “But you will have to choose before Ingtar leaves.”
“I will ride with Ingtar, Mother.”
The Amyrlin Seat nodded absently. “Now that that is dealt with, we can move on to important matters. I know you can channel, boy. What do you know?”
Rand’s mouth fell open. Caught up in worrying about Mat, her casual words hit him like a swinging barn door. All of Lan’s advice and instructions went spinning. He stared at her, licking his lips. It was one thing to think she knew, entirely another to find out she really did. The sweat finally seeped out on his forehead.
She leaned forward in her seat, waiting for his answer, but he had the feeling she wanted to lean back. He remembered what Lan had said. If she’s afraid of you… He wanted to laugh. If she was afraid of him.
“No, I can’t. I mean… I didn’t do it on purpose. It just happened. I don’t want to — to channel the Power. I won’t ever do it again. I swear it.”
“You don’t want to,” the Amyrlin Seat said. “Well, that’s wise of you. And foolish, too. Some can be taught to channel; most cannot. A few, though, have the seed in them at birth. Sooner or later, they wield the One Power whether they want to or not, as surely as roe makes fish. You will continue to channel, boy. You can’t help it. And you had better learn to channel, learn to control it, or you will not live long enough to go mad. The One Power kills those who cannot control its flow.”
“How am I supposed to learn?” he demanded. Moiraine and Verin just sat there, unruffled, watching him. Like spiders. “How? Moiraine claims she can’t teach me anything, and I don’t know how to learn, or what. I don’t want to, anyway. I want to stop. Can’t you understand that? To stop!”
“I told you the truth, Rand,” Moiraine said. She sounded as if they were having a pleasant conversation. “Those who could teach you, the male Aes Sedai, are three thousand years dead. No Aes Sedai living can teach you to touch saidin any more than you could learn to touch saidar. A bird cannot teach a fish to fly, nor a fish teach a bird to swim.”
“I have always thought that was a bad saying,” Verin said suddenly. “There are birds that dive and swim. And in the Sea of Storms are fish that fly, with long fins that stretch out as wide as your outstretched arms, and beaks like swords that can pierce …” Her words trailed off and she became flustered. Moiraine and the Amyrlin Seat were staring at her without expression.
Rand took the interruption to try to regain some control of himself. As Tam had taught him long ago, he formed a single flame in his mind and fed his fears into it, seeking emptiness, the stillness of the void. The flame seemed to grow until it enveloped everything, until it was too large to contain or imagine any longer. With that it was gone, leaving in its place a sense of peace. At its edges, emotions still flickered, fear and anger like black blotches, but the void held. Thought skimmed across its surface like pebbles across ice. The Aes Sedai’s attention was only off him for a moment, but when they turned back his face was calm.
“Why are you talking to me like this, Mother?” he asked. “You should be gentling me.”
The Amyrlin Seat frowned and turned to Moiraine. “Did Lan teach him this?”
“No, Mother. He had it from Tam al’Thor.”
“Why?” Rand demanded again.
The Amyrlin Seat looked him straight in the eye and said, “Because you are the Dragon Reborn.”
The void rocked. The world rocked. Everything seemed to spin around him. He concentrated on nothing, and the emptiness returned, the world steadied. “No, Mother. I can channel, the Light help me, but I am not Raolin Darksbane, nor Guaire Amalasin, nor Yurian Stonebow. You can gentle me, or kill me, or let me go, but I will not be a tame false Dragon on a Tar Valon leash.”
He heard Verin gasp, and the Amyrlin’s eyes widened, a gaze as hard as blue rock. It did not affect him; it slid off the void within.
“Where did you hear those names?” the Amyrlin demanded. “Who told you Tar Valon pulls the lines on any false Dragon?”
“A friend, Mother,” he said. “A gleeman. His name was Thom Merrilin. He’s dead, now.” Moiraine made a sound, and he glanced at her. She claimed Thom was not dead, but she had never offered any proof, and he could not see how any man could survive grappling hand-to-hand with a Fade. The thought was extraneous, and it faded away. There was only the void and the oneness now.
“You are not a false Dragon,” the Amyrlin said firmly. “You are the true Dragon Reborn.”
“I am a shepherd from the Two Rivers, Mother.”
“Daughter, tell him the story. A true story, boy. Listen well.”
Moiraine began speaking. Rand kept his eyes on the Amyrlin’s face, but he heard.
“Nearly twenty years ago the Aiel crossed the Spine of the World, the Dragonwall, the only time they have ever done so. They ravaged through Cairhien, destroyed every army sent against them, burned the city of Cairhien itself, and fought all the way to Tar Valon. It was winter and snowing, but cold or heat mean little to an Aiel. The final battle, the last that counted, was fought outside the Shining Walls, in the shadow of Dragonmount. In three days and three nights of fighting, the Aiel were turned back. Or rather they turned back, for they had done what they came to do, which was to kill King Laman of Cairhien, for his sin against the Tree. It is then that my story begins. And yours.”
They came over the Dragonwall like a flood. All the way to the Shining Walls. Rand waited for the memories to fade, but it was Tam’s voice he heard, Tam sick and raving, pulling up secrets from his past. The voice clung outside the void, clamoring to get in.
“I was one of the Accepted, then,” Moiraine said, “as was our Mother, the Amyrlin Seat. We were soon to be raised to sisterhood, and that night we stood attendance on the then Amyrlin. Her Keeper of the Chronicles, Gitara Moroso, was there. Every other full sister in Tar Valon was out Healing as many wounded as she could find, even the Reds. It was dawn. The fire on the hearth could not keep the cold out. The snow had finally stopped, and in the Amyrlin’s chambers in the White Tower we could smell the smoke of outlying villages burned in the fighting.”
Battles are always hot, even in the snow. Had to get away from the stink of death. Tam’s delirious voice clawed at the empty calm inside Rand. The void trembled and shrank, steadied, then wavered again. The Amyrlin’s eyes bored at him. He felt sweat on his face again. “It was all a fever dream,” he said. “He was sick.” He raised his voice. “My name is Rand al’Thor. I am a shepherd. My father is Tam al’Thor, and my mother was—”
Moiraine had paused for him, but now her unchanging voice cut him off, soft and relentless. “The Karaethon Cycle, the Prophecies of the Dragon, says that the Dragon will be reborn on the slopes of Dragonmount, where he died during the Breaking of the World. Gitara Sedai had the Foretelling sometimes. She was old, her hair as white as the snow outside, but when she had the Foretelling, it was strong. The morning light through the windows was strengthening as I handed her a cup of tea. The Amyrlin Seat asked me what news there was from the field of battle. And Gitara Sedai started up out of her chair, her arms and legs rigid, trembling, her face as if she looked into the Pit of Doom at Shayol Ghul, and she cried out, ‘He is born again! I feel him! The Dragon takes his first breath on the slope of Dragonmount! He is coming! He is coming! Light help us! Light help the world! He lies in the snow and cries like the thunder! He burns like the sun!’ And she fell forward into my arms, dead.”
Slope of the mountain. Heard a baby cry. Gave birth there alone, before she died. Child blue with the cold. Rand tried to force Tam’s voice away. The void grew smaller. “A fever-dream,” he gasped. I couldn’t leave a child. “I was born in the Two Rivers.” Always knew you wanted children, Kari. He pulled his eyes away from the Amyrlin’s gaze. He tried to force the void to hold. He knew that was not the way, but it was collapsing in him. Yes, lass. Rand is a good name. “I — am — Rand — al’Thor!” His legs trembled.
“And so we knew the Dragon was Reborn,” Moiraine went on. “The Amyrlin swore us to secrecy, we two, for she knew not all the sisters would see the Rebirth as it must be seen. She set us to searching. There were many fatherless children after that battle. Too many. But we found a story, that one man had found an infant on the mountain. That was all. A man and an infant boy. So we searched on. For years we searched, finding other clues, poring over the Prophecies. ‘He will be of the ancient blood, and raised by the old blood.’ That was one; there were others. But there are many places where the old blood, descended from the Age of Legends, remains strong. Then, in the Two Rivers, where the old blood of Manetheren seethes still like a river in flood, in Emond’s Field, I found three boys whose namedays were within weeks of the battle at Dragonmount. And one of them can channel. Did you think Trollocs came after you just because you are ta’veren? You are the Dragon Reborn.”
Rand’s knees gave way; he dropped to a squat, hands slapping the rug to catch himself from falling on his face. The void was gone, the stillness shattered. He raised his head, and they were looking at him, the three Aes Sedai. Their faces were serene, smooth as unruffled ponds, but their eyes did not blink. “My father is Tam al’Thor, and I was born …” They stared at him, unmoving. They’re lying. I am not … what they say! Some way, somehow, they’re lying, trying to use me. “I will not be used by you.”
“An anchor is not demeaned by being used to hold a boat,” the Amyrlin said. “You were made for a purpose, Rand al’Thor. ‘When the winds of Tarmon Gai’don scour the earth, he will face the Shadow and bring forth Light again in the world.’ The Prophecies must be fulfilled, or the Dark One will break free and remake the world in his image. The Last Battle is coming, and you were born to unite mankind and lead them against the Dark One.”
“Ba’alzamon is dead,” Rand said hoarsely, and the Amyrlin snorted like a stablehand.
“If you believe that, you are as much a fool as the Domani. Many there believe he is dead, or say they do, but I notice they still won’t risk naming him. The Dark One lives, and he is breaking free. You will face the Dark One. It is your destiny.”
It is your destiny. He had heard that before, in a dream that had maybe not been entirely a dream. He wondered what the Amyrlin would say if she knew Ba’alzamon had spoken to him in dreams. That’s done with. Ba’alzamon is dead. I saw him die.
Suddenly it came to him that he was crouching like a toad, huddling under their eyes. He tried to form the void again, but voices whirled through his head, sweeping away every effort. It is your destiny. Babe lying in the snow. You are the Dragon Reborn. Ba’alzamon is dead. Rand is a good name, Kari. I will not be used! Drawing on his own native stubbornness, he forced himself back upright. Face it on your feet. You can keep your pride, at least. The three Aes Sedai watched with no expression.
“What …” With an effort he steadied his voice. “What are you going to do to me?”
“Nothing,” the Amyrlin said, and he blinked. It was not the answer he had expected, the one he had feared. “You say you want to accompany your friend with Ingtar, and you may. I have not marked you out in any way. Some of the sisters may know you are ta’veren, but no more. Only we three know who you truly are. Your friend Perrin will be brought to me, as you were, and I will visit your other friend in the infirmary. You may go as you will, without fear that we will set the Red sisters on you.”
Who you truly are. Anger flared up in him, hot and corrosive. He forced it to stay inside, hidden. “Why?”
“The Prophecies must be fulfilled. We let you walk free, knowing what you are, because otherwise the world we know will die, and the Dark One will cover the earth with fire and death. Mark me, not all Aes Sedai feel the same. There are some here in Fal Dara who would strike you down if they knew a tenth of what you are, and feel no more remorse than for gutting a fish. But then, there are men who’ve no doubt laughed with you who would do the same, if they knew. Have a care, Rand al’Thor, Dragon Reborn.”
He looked at each of them in turn. Your Prophecies are no part of me. They returned his gaze so calmly it was hard to believe they were trying to convince him he was the most hated, the most feared man in the history of the world. He had gone right through fear and come out the other side in some place cold. Anger was all that kept him warm. They could gentle him, or burn him to a crisp where he stood, and he no longer cared.
A part of Lan’s instructions came back to him. Left hand on the hilt, he twisted the sword behind him, catching the scabbard in his right, then bowed, arms straight. “By your leave, Mother, may I depart this place?”
“I give you leave to go, my son.”
Straightening, he stood there a moment longer. “I will not be used,” he told them. There was a long silence as he turned and left.
The silence stretched on in the room after Rand left until it was broken by a long breath from the Amyrlin. “I cannot make myself like what we just did,” she said. “It was necessary, but … Did it work, Daughters?”
Moiraine shook her head, just the slightest movement. “I do not know. But it was necessary, and is.”
“Necessary,” Verin agreed. She touched her forehead, then peered at the dampness on her fingers. “He is strong. And as stubborn as you said, Moiraine. Much stronger than I expected. We may have to gentle him after all before …” Her eyes widened. “But we cannot, can we? The Prophecies. The Light forgive us for what we are loosing on the world.”
“The Prophecies,” Moiraine said, nodding. “Afterwards, we will do as we must. As we do now.”
“As we must,” the Amyrlin said. “Yes. But when he learns to channel, the Light help us all.”
The silence returned.
There was a storm coming. Nynaeve felt it. A big storm, worse than she had ever seen. She could listen to the wind, and hear what the weather would be. All Wisdoms claimed to be able to do that, though many could not. Nynaeve had felt more comfortable with the ability before learning it was a manifestation of the Power. Any woman who could listen to the wind could channel, though most were probably as she had been, unaware of what she was doing, getting it only in fits and starts.
This time, though, something was wrong. Outside, the morning sun was a golden ball in a clear blue sky, and birds sang in the gardens, but that was not it. There would have been nothing to listening to the wind if she could not foretell the weather before the signs were visible. There was something wrong with the feeling this time, something not quite the way it usually was. The storm felt distant, too far off for her to feel at all. Yet it felt as if the sky above should have been pouring down rain, and snow, and hail, all at the same time, with winds howling to shake the stones of the keep. And she could feel the good weather, too, lasting for days yet, but that was muted under the other.
A bluefinch perched in an arrowslit like a mockery of her weather sense, peering into the hallway. When it saw her, it vanished in a flash of blue and white feathers.
She stared at the spot where the bird had been. There is a storm, and there isn’t. It means something. But what?
Far down the hall full of women and small children she saw Rand striding away, his escort of women half running to keep up. Nynaeve nodded firmly. If there was a storm that was not a storm, he would be the center of it. Gathering her skirts, she hurried after him.
Women with whom she had grown friendly since coming to Fal Dara tried to speak to her; they knew Rand had come with her and that they were both from the Two Rivers, and they wanted to know why the Amyrlin had summoned him. The Amyrlin Seat! Ice in the pit of her belly, she broke into a run, but before she left the women’s apartments, she had lost him around too many corners and beyond too many people.
“Which way did he go?” she asked Nisura. There was no need to say who. She heard Rand’s name in the conversation of the other women clustered around the arched doors.
“I don’t know, Nynaeve. He came out as fast as if he had Heartsbane himself at his heels. As well he might, coming here with a sword at his belt. The Dark One should be the least of his worries after that. What is the world coming to? And him presented to the Amyrlin in her chambers, no less. Tell me, Nynaeve, is he really a prince in your land?” The other women stopped talking and leaned closer to listen.
Nynaeve was not sure what she answered. Something that made them let her go on. She hurried away from the women’s apartments, head swiveling at every crossing corridor to look for him, fists clenched. Light, what have they done to him? I should have gotten him away from Moiraine somehow, the Light blind her. I’m his Wisdom.
Are you, a small voice taunted. You’ve abandoned Emond’s Field to fend for itself. Can you still call yourself their Wisdom?
I did not abandon them, she told herself fiercely. I brought Mavra Mallen up from Deven Ride to look after matters till I get back. She can deal well enough with the Mayor and the Village Council, and she gets on well with the Women’s Circle.
Mavra will have to get back to her own village. No village can do without its Wisdom for long. Nynaeve cringed inside. She had been gone months from Emond’s Field.
“I am the Wisdom of Emond’s Field!” she said aloud.
A liveried servant carrying a bolt of cloth blinked at her, then bowed low before scurrying off. By his face he was eager to be anywhere else.
Blushing, Nynaeve looked around to see if anyone had noticed. There were only a few men in the hall, engrossed in their own conversations, and some women in black-and-gold going about their business, giving her a bow or curtsy as she passed. She had had that argument with herself a hundred times before, but this was the first time it had come to talking to herself out loud. She muttered under her breath, then pressed her lips firmly together when she realized what she was doing.
She was finally beginning to realize her search was futile when she came on Lan, his back to her, looking down on the outer courtyard through an arrowslit. The noise from the courtyard was all horses and men, neighing and shouting. So intent was Lan that he did not, for once, seem to hear her. She hated the fact that she could never sneak up on him, however softly she stepped. She had been accounted good at woodscraft back in Emond’s Field, though it was not a skill in which many women took any interest.
She stopped in her tracks, pressing her hands to her stomach to quiet a flutter. I ought to dose myself with rannel and sheepstongue root, she thought sourly. It was the mixture she gave anyone who moped about and claimed they were sick, or behaved like a goose. Rannel and sheepstongue root would perk you up a little, and did no harm, but mainly it tasted horrible, and the taste lasted all day. It was a perfect cure for acting the fool.
Safe from his eyes, she studied the length of him, leaning against the stone and fingering his chin as he studied what was going on below. He’s too tall, for one thing, and old enough to be my father, for another. A man with a face like that would have to be cruel. No, he’s not that. Never that. And he was a king. His land was destroyed while he was a child, and he would not claim a crown, but he was a king, for that. What would a king want with a village woman? He’s a Warder, too. Bonded to Moiraine. She has his loyalty to death, and ties closer than any lover, and she has him. She has everything I want, the Light burn her!
He turned from the arrowslit, and she whirled to go.
“Nynaeve.” His voice caught and held her like a noose. “I wanted to speak to you alone. You always seem to be in the women’s apartments, or in company.”
It took an effort to face him, but she was sure her features were calm when she looked up at him. “I’m looking for Rand.” She was not about to admit to avoiding him. “We said all we need to say long ago, you and I. I shamed myself — which I will not do again — and you told me to go away.”
“I never said—” He took a deep breath. “I told you I had nothing to offer for brideprice but widow’s clothes. Not a gift any man could give a woman. Not a man who can call himself a man.”
“I understand,” she said coolly. “In any case, a king does not give gifts to village women. And this village woman would not take them. Have you seen Rand? I need to talk to him. He was to see the Amyrlin. Do you know what she wanted with him?”
His eyes blazed like blue ice in the sun. She stiffened her legs to keep from stepping back, and met him glare for glare.
“The Dark One take Rand al’Thor and the Amyrlin Seat both,” he grated, pressing something into her hand. “I will make you a gift and you will take it if I have to chain it around your neck.”
She pulled her eyes away from his. He had a stare like a blue-eyed hawk when he was angry. In her hand was a signet ring, heavy gold and worn with age, almost large enough for both her thumbs to fit through. On it, a crane flew above a lance and crown, all carefully wrought in detail. Her breath caught. The ring of Malkieri kings. Forgetting to glare, she lifted her face. “I cannot take this, Lan.”
He shrugged in an offhand way. “It is nothing. Old, and useless, now. But there are those who would know it when they saw it. Show that, and you will have guestright, and help if you need it, from any lord in the Borderlands. Show it to a Warder, and he will give aid, or carry a message to me. Send it to me, or a message marked with it, and I will come to you, without delay and without fail. This I swear.”
Her vision blurred at the edges. If I cry now, I will kill myself. “I can’t… I do not want a gift from you, al’Lan Mandragoran. Here, take it.”
He fended off her attempts to give the ring back to him. His hand enveloped hers, gentle but firm as a shackle. “Then take it for my sake, as a favor to me. Or throw it away, if it displeases you. I’ve no better use for it.” He brushed her cheek with a finger, and she gave a start. “I must go now, Nynaeve mashiara. The Amyrlin wishes to leave before midday, and there is much yet to be done. Perhaps we will have time to talk on the journey to Tar Valon.” He turned and was gone, striding down the hall.
Nynaeve touched her cheek. She could still feel where he had touched her. Mashiara. Beloved of heart and soul, it meant, but a love lost, too. Lost beyond regaining. Fool woman! Stop acting like a girl with her hair still not braided. It’s no use letting him make you feel …
Clutching the ring tightly, she turned around, and jumped when she found herself face-to-face with Moiraine. “How long have you been there?” she demanded.
“Not long enough to hear anything I should not have,” the Aes Sedai replied smoothly. “We will be leaving soon. I heard that. You must see to your packing.”
Leaving. It had not penetrated when Lan said it. “I will have to say goodbye to the boys,” she muttered, then gave Moiraine a sharp look. “What have you done to Rand? He was taken to the Amyrlin. Why? Did you tell her about — about …?” She could not say it. He was from her own village, and she was just enough older than he to have looked after him a time or two when he was little, but she could not even think about what he had become without her stomach twisting.
“The Amyrlin will be seeing all three, Nynaeve. Ta’veren are not so common that she would miss the chance to see three together in one place. Perhaps she will give them a few words of encouragement, since they are riding with Ingtar to hunt those who stole the Horn. They will be leaving about the time we do, so you had better hurry with any farewells.”
Nynaeve dashed to the nearest arrowslit and peered down at the outer courtyard. Horses were everywhere, pack animals and saddle horses, and men hurrying about them, calling to each other. The only clear space was where the Amyrlin’s palanquin stood, its paired horses waiting patiently without any attendants. Some of the Warders were out there, looking over their mounts, and on the other side of the courtyard, Ingtar stood with a knot of Shienarans around him in armor. Sometimes a Warder or one of Ingtar’s men crossed the paving stones to exchange a word. “I should have gotten the boys away from you,” she said, still looking out. Egwene, too, if I could do it without killing her. Light, why did she have to be born with this cursed ability? “I should have taken them back home.”
“They are more than old enough to be off apron strings,” Moiraine said dryly. “And you know very well why you could never do that. For one of them, at least. Besides, it would mean leaving Egwene to go to Tar Valon alone. Or have you decided to forgo Tar Valon yourself? If your own use of the Power is not schooled, you will never be able to use it against me.”
Nynaeve spun to face the Aes Sedai, her jaw dropping. She could not help it. “I don’t know what you are talking about.”
“Did you think I did not know, child? Well, as you wish it. I take it that you are coming to Tar Valon? Yes, I thought so.”
Nynaeve wanted to hit her, to knock away the brief smile that flashed across the Aes Sedai’s face. Aes Sedai had not been able to wield power openly since the Breaking, much less the One Power, but they plotted and manipulated, pulled strings like puppet-masters, used thrones and nations like stones on a stones board. She wants to use me, too, somehow. If a king or a queen, why not a Wisdom? Just the way she’s using Rand, I’m no child, Aes Sedai.
“What are you doing with Rand, now? Have you not used him enough? I don’t know why you have not had him gentled, now the Amyrlin’s here with all those other Aes Sedai, but you must have a reason. It must be some plot you’re hatching. If the Amyrlin knew what you were up to, I wager she’d—”
Moiraine cut her off. “What possible interest could the Amyrlin have in a shepherd? Of course, if he were brought to her attention in the wrong way, he might be gentled, or even killed. He is what he is, after all. And there is considerable anger about last night. Everyone is looking for whom to blame.” The Aes Sedai fell silent, and let the silence stretch. Nynaeve stared at her, grinding her teeth.
“Yes,” Moiraine said finally, “much better to let a sleeping lion sleep. Best you see to your packing, now.” She moved off in the direction Lan had gone, seeming to glide across the floor.
Grimacing, Nynaeve swung her fist back against the wall; the ring dug at her palm. She opened her hand to look at it. The ring seemed to heat her anger, focus her hate. I will learn. You think because you know, you can escape me. But I will learn better than you think, and I will pull you down for what you’ve done. For what you’ve done to Mat, and to Perrin. For Rand, the Light help him and the Creator shelter him. Especially for Rand. Her hand closed around the heavy circlet of gold. And for me.
Egwene watched the liveried maid folding her dresses into a leather-covered travel chest, still a little uncomfortable, even after nearly a month’s practice, with someone else doing what she could very well have done herself. They were such beautiful dresses, all gifts from the Lady Amalisa, just like the gray silk riding dress she wore, though that was plain except for a few white morningstar blossoms worked on the breast. Many of the dresses were much more elaborate. Any one of them would shine at Sunday, or at Bel Tine. She sighed, remembering that she would be in Tar Valon for the next Sunday, not Emond’s Field. From the little Moiraine had told her of novice training — almost nothing, really — she expected she might not be home for Bel Tine, in the spring, or even the Sunday after that.
Nynaeve put her head into the room. “Are you ready?” She came the rest of the way in. “We must be down in the courtyard soon.” She wore a riding dress, too, in blue silk with red loversknots on the bosom. Another gift from Amalisa.
“Nearly, Nynaeve. I am almost sorry to be going. I don’t suppose we’ll have many chances in Tar Valon to wear the nice dresses Amalisa gave us.” She gave an abrupt laugh. “Still, Wisdom, I won’t miss being able to bathe without looking over my shoulder the whole time.”
“Much better to bathe alone,” Nynaeve said briskly. Her face did not change, but after a moment her cheeks colored.
Egwene smiled. She’s thinking about Lan. It was still odd to think of Nynaeve, the Wisdom, mooning after a man. She did not think it would be wise to put it to Nynaeve in quite that way, but of late, sometimes the Wisdom acted as strangely as any girl who had set her heart on a particular man. And one who doesn’t have enough sense to be worthy of her, at that. She loves him, and I can see he loves her, so why can’t he have sense enough to speak up?
“I don’t think you should call me Wisdom any longer,” Nynaeve said suddenly.
Egwene blinked. It was not required, exactly, and Nynaeve never insisted on it unless she was angry, or being formal, but this … “Why ever not?”
“You are a woman, now.” Nynaeve glanced at her unbraided hair, and Egwene resisted the urge to hurriedly twist it into a semblance of a braid. Aes Sedai wore their hair any way they wanted, but wearing hers loose had become a symbol of starting on a new life. “You are a woman,” Nynaeve repeated firmly. “We are two women, a long way from Emond’s Field, and it will be longer still before we see home again. It will be better if you simply call me Nynaeve.”
“We will see home again, Nynaeve. We will.”
“Don’t try to comfort the Wisdom, girl,” Nynaeve said gruffly, but she smiled.
There was a knock at the door, but before Egwene could open it, Nisura came in, agitation all over her face. “Egwene, that young man of yours is trying to come into the women’s apartments.” She sounded scandalized. “And wearing a sword. Just because the Amyrlin let him enter that way … Lord Rand should know better. He is causing an uproar. Egwene, you must speak to him.”
“Lord Rand,” Nynaeve snorted. “That young man is growing too big for his breeches. When I get my hands on him, I’ll lord him.”
Egwene put a hand on Nynaeve’s arm. “Let me speak to him, Nynaeve. Alone.”
“Oh, very well. The best of men are not much better than housebroken.” Nynaeve paused, and added half to herself, “But then, the best of them are worth the trouble of housebreaking.”
Egwene shook her head as she followed Nisura into the hall. Even half a year before, Nynaeve would never have added the second part. But she’ll never housebreak Lan. Her thoughts turned to Rand. Causing an uproar, was he? “Housebreak him?” she muttered. “If he hasn’t learned manners by this time, I’ll skin him alive.”
“Sometimes that is what it takes,” Nisura said, walking quickly. “Men are never more than half-civilized until they’re wedded.” She gave Egwene a sidelong glance. “Do you intend to marry Lord Rand? I do not mean to pry, but you are going to the White Tower, and Aes Sedai seldom wed — none but some of the Green Ajah, that I’ve ever heard, and not many of them — and …”
Egwene could supply the rest. She had heard the talk in the women’s apartments about a suitable wife for Rand. At first it had caused stabs of jealousy, and anger. He had been all but promised to her since they were children. But she was going to be an Aes Sedai, and he was what he was. A man who could channel. She could marry him. And watch him go mad, watch him die. The only way to stop it would be to have him gentled. I can’t do that to him. I can’t! “I do not know,” she said sadly.
Nisura nodded. “No one will poach where you have a claim, but you are going to the Tower, and he will make a good husband. Once he has been trained. There he is.”
The women gathered around the entrance to the women’s apartments, both inside and out, were all watching three men in the hallway outside. Rand, with his sword buckled over his red coat, was being confronted by Agelmar and Kajin. Neither of them wore a sword; even after what had happened in the night, these were still the women’s apartments. Egwene stopped at the back of the crowd.
“You understand why you cannot go in,” Agelmar was saying. “I know that things are different in Andor, but you do understand?”
“I didn’t try to go in.” Rand sounded as if he had explained all this more than once already. “I told the Lady Nisura I wanted to see Egwene, and she said Egwene was busy, and I’d have to wait. All I did was shout for her from the door. I did not try to enter. You’d have thought I was naming the Dark One, the way they all started in on me.”
“Women have their own ways,” Kajin said. He was tall for a Shienaran, almost as tall as Rand, lanky and sallow. His topknot was black as pitch. “They set the rules for the women’s apartments, and we abide by them even when they are foolish.” A number of eyebrows were raised among the women, and he hastily cleared his throat. “You must send a message in if you wish to speak to one of the women, but it will be delivered when they choose, and until it is, you must wait. That is our custom.”
“I have to see her,” Rand said stubbornly. “We’re leaving soon. Not soon enough for me, but I still have to see Egwene. We will get the Horn of Valere and the dagger back, and that will be the end of it. The end of it. But I want to see her before I go.” Egwene frowned; he sounded odd.
“No need to be so fierce,” Kajin said. “You and Ingtar will find the Horn, or not. And if not, then another will retrieve it. The Wheel weaves as the Wheel wills, and we are but threads in the Pattern.”
“Do not let the Horn seize you, Rand,” Agelmar said. “It can take hold of a man — I know how it can — and that is not the way. A man must seek duty, not glory. What will happen, will happen. If the Horn of Valere is meant to be sounded for the Light, then it will be.”
“Here is your Egwene,” Kajin said, spotting her.
Agelmar looked around, and nodded when he saw her with Nisura. “I will leave you in her hands, Rand al’Thor. Remember, here, her words are law, not yours. Lady Nisura, do not be too hard on him. He only wished to see his young woman, and he does not know our ways.”
Egwene followed Nisura as the Shienaran woman threaded her way through the watching women. Nisura inclined her head briefly to Agelmar and Kajin; she pointedly did not include Rand. Her voice was tight. “Lord Agelmar. Lord Kajin. He should know this much of our ways by now, but he is too big to spank, so I will let Egwene deal with him.”
Agelmar gave Rand a fatherly pat on the shoulder. “You see. You will speak with her, if not exactly in the way you wished. Come, Kajin. We have much to see to yet. The Amyrlin still insists on …” His voice trailed away as he and the other man left. Rand stood there, looking at Egwene.
The women were still watching, Egwene realized. Watching her as well as Rand. Waiting to see what she would do. So I’m supposed to deal with him, am I? Yet she felt her heart going out to him. His hair needed brushing. His face showed anger, defiance, and weariness. “Walk with me,” she told him. A murmur started up behind them as he walked down the hall beside her, away from the women’s apartments. Rand seemed to be struggling with himself, hunting for what to say.
“I’ve heard about your … exploits,” she said finally. “Running through the women’s apartments last night with a sword. Wearing a sword to an audience with the Amyrlin Seat.” He still said nothing, only walked along frowning at the floor. “She didn’t … hurt you, did she?” She could not make herself ask if he had been gentled; he looked anything but gentle, but she had no idea what a man looked like afterwards.
He gave a jerk. “No. She didn’t … Egwene, the Amyrlin …” He shook his head. “She didn’t hurt me.”
She had the feeling he had been going to say something else entirely. Usually she could ferret out whatever he wanted to hide from her, but when he really wanted to be stubborn, she could more easily dig a brick out of a wall with her fingernails. By the set of his jaw, he was at his most stubborn right now.
“What did she want with you, Rand?”
“Nothing important. Ta’veren. She wanted to see ta’veren.” His face softened as he looked down at her. “What about you, Egwene? Are you all right? Moiraine said you would be, but you were so still. I thought you were dead, at first.”
“Well, I’m not.” She laughed. She could not remember anything that had happened after she had asked Mat to go to the dungeons with her, not until waking in her own bed that morning. From what she had heard of the night, she was almost glad she could not remember. “Moiraine said she would have left me a headache for being foolish if she could have Healed the rest and not that, but she couldn’t.”
“I told you Fain was dangerous,” he muttered. “I told you, but you wouldn’t listen.”
“If that’s the way you are going to talk,” she said firmly, “I will give you back to Nisura. She won’t talk to you the way I am. The last man who tried to push his way into the women’s apartments spent a month up to his elbows in soapy water, helping with the women’s laundry, and he was only trying to find his betrothed and make up an argument. At least he knew enough not to wear his sword. The Light knows what they’d do to you.”
“Everybody wants to do something to me,” he growled. “Everybody wants to use me for something. Well, I won’t be used. Once we find the Horn, and Mat’s dagger, I’ll never be used again.”
With an exasperated grunt, she caught his shoulders and made him face her. She glared up at him. “If you don’t start talking sense, Rand al’Thor, I swear I will box your ears.”
“Now you sound like Nynaeve.” He laughed. As he looked down at her, though, his laughter faded. “I suppose — I suppose I’ll never see you again. I know you have to go to Tar Valon. I know that. And you’ll become an Aes Sedai. I am done with Aes Sedai, Egwene. I won’t be a puppet for them, not for Moiraine, or any of them.”
He looked so lost she wanted to put his head on her shoulder, and so stubborn she really did want to box his ears. “Listen to me, you great ox. I am going to be an Aes Sedai, and I’ll find a way to help you. I will.”
“The next time you see me, you will likely want to gentle me.”
She looked around hastily; they were alone in their stretch of the hall. “If you don’t watch your tongue, I will not be able to help you. Do you want everyone to know?”
“Too many know already,” he said. “Egwene, I wish things were different, but they aren’t. I wish … Take care of yourself. And promise me you won’t choose the Red Ajah.”
Tears blurred her vision as she threw her arms around him. “You take care of yourself,” she said fiercely into his chest. “If you don’t, I’ll — I’ll…” She thought she heard him murmur, “I love you,” and then he was firmly unwrapping her arms, gently moving her away from him. He turned and strode away from her, almost running.
She jumped when Nisura touched her arm. “He looks as if you set him a task he won’t enjoy. But you mustn’t let him see you cry over it. That negates the purpose. Come. Nynaeve wants you.”
Scrubbing her cheeks, Egwene followed the other woman. Take care of yourself, you wool-headed lummox. Light, take care of him.