Fanning the Sparks
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 great forest called Braem Wood. 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.
South and west it blew, dry, beneath a sun of molten gold. There had been no rain for long weeks in the land below, and the late-summer heat grew day by day. Brown leaves come early dotted some trees, and naked stones baked where small streams had run. In an open place where grass had vanished and only thin, withered brush held the soil with its roots, the wind began uncovering long-buried stones. They were weathered and worn, and no human eye would have recognized them for the remains of a city remembered in story yet otherwise forgotten.
Scattered villages appeared before the wind crossed the border of Andor, and fields where worried farmers trudged arid furrows. The forest had long since thinned to thickets by the time the wind swept dust down the lone street of a village called Kore Springs. The springs were beginning to run low this summer. A few dogs lay panting in the swelter, and two shirtless boys ran, beating a stuffed bladder along the ground with sticks. Nothing else stirred, save the wind and the dust and the creaking sign above the door of the inn, red brick and thatch-roofed like every other building along the street. At two stories, it was the tallest and largest structure in Kore Springs, a neat and orderly little town. The saddled horses hitched in front of the inn barely twitched their tails. The inn's carved sign proclaimed the Good Queen's Justice.
Blinking against the dust, Min kept an eye pressed to the crack in the shed's rough wall. She could just make out one shoulder of the guard on the shed door, but her attention was all for the inn further on. She wished the name were less ominously apt. Their judge, the local lord, had apparently arrived some time ago, but she had missed seeing him. No doubt he was hearing the farmer's charges; Admer Nem, along with his brothers and cousins and all their wives, had seemed in favor of an immediate hanging before one of the lord's retainers happened by. She wondered what the penalty was here for burning up a man's barn, and his milkcows with it. By accident, of course, but she did not think that would count for much when it all began with trespass.
Logain had gotten away in the confusion, abandoning them--he would, burn him!--and she did not know whether to be happy about that or not. It was he who had knocked Nem down when they were discovered just before dawn, sending the man's lantern flying into the straw. The blame was his, if anyone's. Only sometimes he had trouble watching what he said. Perhaps as well he was gone.
Twisting to lean back against the wall, she wiped sweat from her brow, though it only sprang out again. The inside of the shed was stifling, but her two companions did not appear to notice. Siuan lay stretched out on her back in a dark woolen riding dress much like Min's, staring at the shed roof, idly tapping her chin with a straw. Coppery-skinned Leane, willowy and as tall as most men, sat cross-legged in her pale shift, working on her dress with needle and thread. They had been allowed to keep their saddlebags, after they were searched for swords or axes or anything else that might help them escape.
"What's the penalty for burning down a barn in Andor?" Min asked.
"If we are lucky," Siuan replied without moving, "a strapping in the village square. Not so lucky, and it will be a flogging."
"Light!" Min breathed. "How can you call that luck?"
Siuan rolled onto her side and propped herself up on an elbow. She was a sturdy woman, short of beautiful though beyond handsome, and looked no more than a few years older than Min, but those sharp blue eyes had a commanding presence that did not belong on a young woman awaiting trial in a backcountry shed. Sometimes Siuan was as bad as Logain about forgetting herself; maybe worse. "When a strapping is done," she said in a brook-no-nonsense, do-not-be-foolish tone, "it is done, and we can be on our way. It wastes less of our time than any other penalty I can think of. Considerably less than hanging, say. Though I don't think it will come to that, from what I remember of Andoran law."
Wheezing laughter shook Min for a moment; it was that or cry. "Time? The way we are going, we've nothing but time. I swear we have been through every village between here and Tar Valon, and found nothing. Not a glimmer, not a whisper. I don't think there is any gathering. And we are on foot, now. From what I overheard, Logain took the horses with him. Afoot and locked in a shed awaiting the Light knows what!"
"Watch names," Siuan whispered sharply, shooting a meaning glance at the rough door with the guard on the other side. "A flapping tongue can put you in the net instead of the fish."
Min grimaced, partly because she was growing tired of Siuan's Tairen fisherman's sayings, and partly because the other woman was right. So far they had outrun awkward news--deadly was a better word than awkward--but some news had a way of leaping a hundred miles in a day. Siuan had been traveling as Mara, Leane as Amaena, and Logain had taken the name Dalyn, after Siuan convinced him Guaire was a fool's choice. Min still did not think anyone would recognize her own name, but Siuan insisted on calling her Serenla. Even Logain did not know their true names.
The real trouble was that Siuan was not going to give up. Weeks of utter failure, and now this, yet any mention of heading for Tear, which was sensible, set off a tempest that quailed even Logain. The longer they had searched without finding what Siuan sought, the more temper she had developed. Not that she couldn't crack rocks with it before. Min was wise enough to keep that particular thought to herself.
Leane finally finished with her dress and tugged it on over her head, doubling her arms behind her to do up the buttons. Min could not see why she had gone to the trouble; she herself hated needlework of any sort. The neckline was a little lower now, showing a bit of Leane's bosom, and it fit in a snugger way there and perhaps around the hips. But what was the point, here? No one was going to ask her to dance in this roasting shed.
Digging into Min's saddlebags, Leane pulled out the wooden box of paints and powders and whatnots that Laras had forced on Min before they set out. Min had kept meaning to throw it away, but somehow she had never gotten around to it. There was a small mirror inside the hinged lid of the box, and in moments Leane was at work on her face with small rabbit-fur brushes. She had never shown any particular interest in the things before. Now she appeared vexed that there was only a blackwood hairbrush and a small ivory comb to use on her hair. She even muttered about the lack of a way to heat the curling iron! Her dark hair had grown since they began Siuan's search, but it still came well short of her shoulders.
After watching a bit, Min asked, "What are you up to, Le--Amaena?" She avoided looking at Siuan. She could guard her tongue; it was just being cooped up and baked alive, that on top of the coming trial. A hanging or a public strapping. What a choice! "Have you decided to take up flirting?" It was meant for a joke--Leane was all business and efficiency--something to lighten the moment, but the other woman surprised her.
"Yes," Leane said briskly, peering wide-eyed into the mirror while she carefully did something to her eyelashes. "And if I flirt with the right man, perhaps we will not need to worry about strappings or anything else. At the least, I might get us lighter sentences."
Hand half-raised to wipe her face again, Min gasped--it was like an owl announcing it meant to become a hummingbird--but Siuan merely sat up facing Leane with a level "What brought this on?"
Had Siuan directed that gaze at her, Min suspected she would have confessed to things she had forgotten. When Siuan concentrated on you like that, you found yourself curtsying and leaping to do as you were told before you realized it. Even Logain did, most of the time. Except for the curtsy.
Leane calmly stroked a tiny brush along her cheekbones and examined the result in the small mirror. She did glance at Siuan, but whatever she saw, she answered in the same crisp tones she always used. "My mother was a merchant, you know, in furs and timber mainly. I once saw her fog a Saldaean lord's mind till he consigned his entire year's timber harvest to her for half the amount he wanted, and I doubt he realized what had happened until he was nearly back home. If then. He sent her a moonstone bracelet, later. Domani women don't deserve the whole reputation they have--stiffnecked prigs going by hearsay built most of it--but we have earned some. My mother and my aunts taught me along with my sisters and cousins, of course."
Looking down at herself, she shook her head, then returned to her ministrations with a sigh. "But I fear I was as tall as I am today on my fourteenth naming day. All knees and elbows, like a colt that grew too fast. And not long after I could walk across a room without tripping twice, I learned--" She drew a deep breath. "--learned my life would take me another way than being a merchant. And now that is gone, too. About time I put to use what I was taught all those years ago. Under the circumstances, I can't think of a better time or place."
Siuan studied her shrewdly a moment more. "That isn't the reason. Not the whole reason. Out with it."
Hurling a small brush into the box, Leane blazed up in a fury. "The whole reason? I do not know the whole reason. I only know I need something in my life to replace--what is gone. You yourself told me that is the only hope of surviving. Revenge falls short, for me. I know your cause is necessary, and perhaps even right, but the Light help me, that is not enough either; I can't make myself be as involved as you. Maybe I came too late to it. I will stay with you, but it isn't enough."
Anger faded as she began resealing pots and vials and replacing them, though she used more force than was strictly necessary. There was the merest hint of rose scent about her. "I know flirting isn't something to fill up the emptiness, but it is enough to fill an idle moment. Maybe being who I was born to be will suffice. I just do not know. This isn't a new idea; I always wanted to be like my mother and my aunts, daydreamed of it sometimes after I was grown."
Leane's face became pensive, and the last things went into the box more gently. "I think perhaps I've always felt I was masquerading as someone else, building up a mask until it became second nature. There was serious work to be done, more serious than merchanting, and by the time I realized there was another way I could have gone even so, I had the mask on too firmly to take off. Well, that is done with, now, and the mask is coming off. I even considered beginning with Logain a week ago, for practice. But I am out of practice, and I think he is the kind of man who might hear more promises than you meant to offer, and expect to have them fulfilled." A small smile suddenly appeared on her lips. "My mother always said if that happened, you had miscalculated badly; if there was no back way out, you had to either abandon dignity and run, or pay the price and consider it a lesson." The smile took on a roguish cast. "My Aunt Resara said you paid the price and enjoyed it."
Min could only shake her head. It was as if Leane had become a different woman. Talking that way about...! Even hearing it, she could hardly believe. Come to that, Leane actually looked different. For all of the work with brushes, there was not a hint of paint or powder on her face that Min could see, yet her lips seemed fuller, her cheekbones higher, her eyes larger. She was a more than pretty woman at any time, but now her beauty was magnified fivefold.
Siuan was not quite finished, though. "And if this country lord is one like Logain?" she said softly. "What will you do then?"
Leane drew herself up stiff-backed on her knees and swallowed hard before answering, but her voice was perfectly level. "Given the alternatives, what choice would you make?"
Neither blinked, and the silence stretched.
Before Siuan could answer--if she meant to; Min would have given a pretty to hear it--the chain and lock rattled on the other side of the door.
The other two women got slowly to their feet, gathering their saddlebags in calm preparation, but Min leaped up wishing she had her belt knife. Fool thing to wish for, she thought. Just get me in worse trouble. I'm no bloody hero in a story. Even if I jumped the guard--
The door opened, and a man with a long leather jerkin over his shirt filled the doorway. Not a fellow to be attacked by a young woman, even with a knife. Maybe not even with an axe. Wide was the word for him, and thick. The few hairs remaining on his head were more white than not, but he looked hard as an old oak stump. "Time for you girls to stand before the lord," he said gruffly. "Will you walk, or must we haul you like grain sacks? You go, either way, but I'd as soon not have to carry you in this heat."
Peeking past him, Min saw two more men waiting, gray-haired but just as hard, if not quite so big.
"We will walk," Siuan told him dryly.
"Good. Come, then. Step along. Lord Gareth won't like being kept waiting."
Promise to walk or no, each man took one of them firmly by the arm as they started up the dusty dirt street. The balding man's hand encircled Min's arm like a manacle. So much for running for it, she thought bitterly. She considered kicking his booted ankle to see if that would loosen his grip, but he looked so solid she suspected all it would earn her was a sore toe and being dragged the rest of the way.
Leane appeared lost in thought; she half-made small gestures with her free hand, and her lips moved silently as though reviewing what she meant to say, but she kept shaking her head and starting over again. Introspection wrapped Siuan, too, but she wore an openly worried frown, even chewing her underlip; Siuan never showed that much unease. All in all, the pair of them did nothing for Min's confidence.
The beam-ceilinged common room of the Good Queen's Justice did less. Lank-haired Admer Nem, a yellowed bruise around his swollen eye, stood to one side with half a dozen equally stout brothers and cousins and their wives, all in their best coats or aprons. The farmers eyed the three prisoners with a mixture of anger and satisfaction that made Min's stomach sink. If anything, the farmwives' glares were worse, pure hate. The rest of the walls were lined six deep with villagers, all garbed for the work they had interrupted for this. The blacksmith still wore his leather apron, and a number of women had sleeves rolled up, arms dusted with flour. The room buzzed with their murmuring among themselves, the elders as much as the few children, and their eyes latched onto the three women as avidly as the Nems' did. Min thought this must be as much excitement as Kore Springs had ever witnessed. She had seen a crowd with this mood once--at an execution.
The tables had been removed, except for one placed in front of the long brick fireplace. A bluff-faced, stocky man, his hair thick with gray, sat facing them in a well-cut coat of dark green silk, hands folded in front of him on the tabletop. A slim woman who showed as much age stood beside the table in a fine, gray wool dress embroidered with white flowers around the neck. The local lord, Min supposed, and his lady; country nobility little better informed of the world than their tenants and crofters.
The guards situated them in front of the lord's table and melted into the watchers. The woman in gray stepped forward, and the murmurs died.
"All here attend and give ear," the woman announced, "for justice will be meted today by Lord Gareth Bryne. Prisoners, you are called before the judgment of Lord Bryne." Not the lord's lady, then; an official of some sort. Gareth Bryne? The last Min remembered, he was Captain-General of the Queen's Guards, in Caemlyn. If it was the same man. She glanced at Siuan, but Siuan had her eyes locked on the wide floorboards in front of her feet. Whoever he was, this Bryne looked weary.
"You are charged," the woman in gray went on, "with trespass by night, arson and destruction of a building and its contents, the killing of valuable livestock, assault on the person of Admer Nem, and the theft of a purse said to contain gold and silver. It is understood that the assault and theft were the work of your companion, who escaped, but you three are equally culpable under the law."
She paused to let it sink in, and Min exchanged rueful glances with Leane. Logain would have to add theft to the stew. He was probably halfway to Murandy by now, if not more distant yet.
After a moment the woman began again. "Your accusers are here to face you." She gestured to the cluster of Nems. "Admer Nem, you will give your testimony."
The stout man eased forward in a blend of self-importance and self-consciousness, tugging at his coat where the wooden buttons strained over his middle, running his hands through thinning hair that kept dropping into his face. "Like I said, Lord Gareth, it was like this...."
He gave a fairly straightforward account of discovering them in the hayloft and ordering them out, though he made Logain near a foot taller and turned the man's single blow into a fight where Nem gave as good as he got. The lantern fell, the hay went up, and the rest of the family came spilling out of the farmhouse into the predawn; the prisoners were seized and the barn burned to the ground, and then the loss of the purse from the house was discovered. He did slight the part where Lord Bryne's retainer rode by as some of the family were bringing out ropes and eyeing tree limbs.
When he started on the "fight" again--this time he seemed to be winning--Bryne cut him off. "That will be enough, Master Nem. You may step back."
Instead, a round-faced one of the Nem women, of an age to be Admer's wife, joined him. Round-faced, but not soft; round like a frying pan or a river rock. And flushed with something more than anger. "You whip these hussies good, Lord Gareth, hear? Whip them good, and ride them to Jornhill on a rail!"
"No one called on you to speak, Maigan," the slim woman in gray said sharply. "This is a trial, not a petition meeting. You and Admer step back. Now." They obeyed, Admer with a shade more alacrity than Maigan. The gray-clad woman turned to Min and her companions. "If you wish to offer testimony, in defense or mitigation, you may now give it." There was no sympathy in her voice, nor anything else for that matter.
Min expected Siuan to speak--she always took the lead, did the talking--but Siuan never stirred or raised her eyes. Instead, it was Leane who moved toward the table, her eyes on the man behind it.
She stood as straight as ever, but her usual walk--a graceful stride, but a stride--had become a sort of glide, with just a hint of willowy sway to it. Somehow her hips and bosom seemed more obvious. Not that she flaunted anything; the way she moved just made you aware. "My Lord, we are three helpless women, refugees from the storms that sweep the world." Her usually brisk tones were gone, changed to a velvety soft caress. There was a light in her dark eyes, a sort of smoldering challenge. "Penniless and lost, we took shelter in Master Nem's barn. It was wrong, I know, but we were afraid of the night." A small gesture, hands half-raised, the insides of her wrists to Bryne, made her seem for a moment utterly helpless. Only for that moment, though. "The man Dalyn was a stranger to us really, a man who offered us his protection. In these days, women alone must have a protector, my Lord, yet I fear we made a poor choice." A widening of the eyes, an entreating look, said he could make a better for them. "It was indeed he who attacked Master Nem, my Lord; we would have fled, or worked to repay our night's lodging." Stepping around the side of the table, she knelt gracefully beside Bryne's chair and gently rested the fingers of one hand on his wrist as she gazed up into his eyes. A tremble touched her voice, but her slight smile was enough to set any man's heart racing. It--suggested. "My Lord, we are guilty of some small crime, yet not so much as we are charged with. We throw ourselves on your mercy. I beg you, my Lord, have pity on us, and protect us."
For a long moment, Bryne stared back into her eyes. Then, clearing his throat roughly, he scraped back his chair, rose, and walked around the opposite end of the table from her. There was a stir among the villagers and farmers, men clearing their throats as their lord had done, women muttering under their breath. Bryne stopped in front of Min. "What is your name, girl?"
"Min, my Lord." She caught a muffled grunt from Siuan and hastily added, "Serenla Min. Everyone calls me Serenla, my Lord."
"Your mother must have had a premonition," he murmured with a smile. He was not the first to react to the name in a like way. "Do you have any statement to make, Serenla?"
"Only that I am very sorry, my Lord, and it really wasn't our fault. Dalyn did it all. I ask for mercy, my Lord." That did not seem much alongside Leane's plea--anything at all would seem insignificant beside Leane's performance--but it was the best she could find. Her mouth was as dry as the street outside. What if he did decide to hang them?
Nodding, he moved over to Siuan, who was still studying the floor. Cupping a hand under her chin, he raised her eyes to his. "And what is your name, girl?"
With a jerk of her head, Siuan pulled her chin free and took a step back. "Mara, my Lord," she whispered. "Mara Tomanes."
Min groaned softly. Siuan was plainly frightened, yet at the same time she stared at the man defiantly. Min more than half-expected her to demand Bryne let them walk away on the instant. He asked her if she wished to make a statement, and she denied it in another unsteady whisper, but all the while looking at him as though she were the one in charge. She might be controlling her tongue, but certainly not her eyes.
After a time, Bryne turned away. "Take your place with your friends, girl," he told Leane as he returned to his chair. She joined them with a look of open frustration, and what in anyone else Min would have called a touch of petulance.
"I have reached my decision," Bryne said to the room at large. "The crimes are serious, and nothing I have heard alters the facts. If three men sneak into another's house to steal his candlesticks and one of them attacks the owner, all three are equally guilty. There must be recompense. Master Nem, I will give you the cost of rebuilding your barn, plus the price of six milkcows." The stout farmer's eyes brightened, until Bryne added, "Caralin will disburse the coin to you when she is content as to costs and prices. Some of your cows were going dry, I hear." The slim woman in gray nodded in satisfaction. "For the bump on your head, I award you one silver mark. Don't complain," he said firmly as Nem opened his mouth. "Maigan has given you worse for drinking too much." A ripple of laughter among the onlookers greeted that, not diminished at all by Nem's half-abashed glares, and perhaps spurred by the tight-lipped look Maigan gave her husband. "I will also replace the amount of the stolen purse. Once Caralin has satisfied herself as to how much was in it." Nem and his wife appeared equally disgruntled, but they held their tongues; it was plain he had given them what he would. Min began to feel hope.
Leaning his elbows on the table, Bryne turned his attention to her and the other two. His slow words tied her stomach into a knot. "You three will work for me, at the normal wages for whatever tasks you are given, until the coin I've paid out is repaid to me. Do not think I am being lenient. If you swear an oath that satisfies me you don't have to be guarded, you can work in my manor. If not, it means the fields, where you can be under someone's eyes every minute. Wages are lower in the fields, but it is your decision."
Frantically she racked her brain for the weakest oath that might satisfy. She did not like breaking her word in any circumstances, but she meant to be gone as soon as a chance presented, and she did not want too heavy an oathbreaking on her conscience.
Leane seemed to be searching, too, but Siuan barely hesitated before kneeling and folding her hands over her heart. Her eyes seemed fastened to Bryne's, and the challenge had not faded one bit. "By the Light and my hope of salvation and rebirth, I swear to serve you in whatever way you require for as long as you require, or may the Creator's face turn from me forever and darkness consume my soul." She delivered the words in a breathy whisper, but they created a dead silence. There was no oath stronger, unless it was the one a woman took on being made Aes Sedai, and the Oath Rod bound her to that as surely as to a part of her flesh.
Leane stared at Siuan; then she was on her knees, too. "By the Light and my hope of salvation and rebirth...."
Min floundered desperately, searching for some way out. Swearing a lesser oath than they did meant the fields for certain, and someone watching her every instant, but this oath....By what she had been taught, breaking it would be not much less than murder, maybe no less. Only there was no way out. The oath, or who knew how many years laboring in a field all day and probably locked up at night. Sinking down beside the other two women, she muttered the words, but inside she was howling. Siuan, you utter fool! What have you gotten me into now? I can't stay here! I have to go to Rand! Oh, Light, help me!
"Well," Bryne breathed when the last word was spoken, "I did not expect that. But it does suffice. Caralin, would you take Master Nem somewhere and find out what he thinks his losses amount to? And clear everyone else but these three out of here, too. And make arrangements to transport them to the manor. Under the circumstances, I don't think guards will be necessary."
The slim woman gave him a harassed look, but in short order she had everyone moving out in a milling throng. Admer Nem and his male kin stuck close to her, his face especially painted with avarice. The Nem women looked scarcely less greedy, but they still spared a few hard glowers for Min and the other two, who remained kneeling as the room emptied out. For herself, Min did not believe her legs could hold her up. The same phrases repeated over and over in her mind. Oh, Siuan, why? I can't stay here. I can't!
"We have had a few refugees through here," Bryne said when the last of the villagers had gone. He leaned back in his chair, studying them. "But never as odd a threesome as you. A Domani. A Tairen?" Siuan nodded curtly. She and Leane stood up, the slender, coppery-skinned woman delicately brushing her knees, Siuan simply standing. Min managed to join them, on wobbly legs. "And you, Serenla." Once more he gave the ghost of a smile at the name. "Somewhere in the west of Andor, unless I mistake your accent."
"Baerlon," she muttered, then bit her tongue too late. Someone might know Min was from Baerlon.
"I've heard of nothing in the west to make refugees," he said in a questioning tone. When she remained silent, he did not press it. "After you have worked off your debt, you will be welcome to remain in my service. Life can be hard for those who've lost their homes, and even a maid's cot is better than sleeping under a bush."
"Thank you, my Lord," Leane said caressingly, making a curtsy so graceful that even in her rough riding dress it looked part of a dance. Min's echo was leaden, and she did not trust her knees for a curtsy. Siuan simply stood there staring at him and said nothing at all.
"A pity your companion took your horses. Four horses would reduce your debt by some."
"He was a stranger, and a rogue," Leane told him, in a voice suitable for something far more intimate. "I for one am more than happy to exchange his protection for yours, my Lord."
Bryne eyed her--appreciatively, Min thought--but all he said was "At least you will be safely away from the Nems at the manor."
There was no reply for that. Min supposed scrubbing floors in Bryne's manor would not be much different from scrubbing floors in the Nem farmhouse. How do I get out of this? Light, how?
The silence went on, except for Bryne drumming his fingers on the table. Min would have thought he was at a loss for what to say next, but she did not think this man was ever off balance. More likely he was irritated that only Leane appeared to be showing any gratitude; she supposed their sentence could have been much worse, from his point of view. Perhaps Leane's heated glances and stroking tones had worked after a fashion, but Min found herself wishing the woman had remained the way she was. Being hung up by the wrists in the village square would be better than this.
Finally Caralin returned, muttering to herself. She sounded prickly, reporting to Bryne. "It will take days to get straight answers from those Nems, Lord Gareth. Admer would have five new barns and fifty cows, if I let him. At least I believe there really was a purse, but as to how much was in it...." She shook her head and sighed. "I will find out, eventually. Joni is ready to take these girls to the manor, if you are done with them."
"Take them away, Caralin," Bryne said, rising. "When you've sent them off, join me at the brickyard." He sounded weary again. "Thad Haren says he needs more water if he's to keep making bricks, and the Light alone knows where I will find it for him." He strode out of the common room as if he had forgotten all about the three women who had just sworn to serve him.
Joni turned out to be the wide, balding man who had come for them in the shed, waiting now in front of the inn beside a high-wheeled cart enclosed by a round canvas cover, with a lean brown horse in the shafts. A few of the villagers stood about to watch their departure, but most seemed to have gone back to their homes and out of the heat. Gareth Bryne was already far down the dirt street.
"Joni will see you safely to the manor," Caralin said. "Do as you are told, and you will not find the life hard." For a moment she considered them, dark eyes nearly as sharp as Siuan's; then she nodded to herself as if satisfied and hurried off after Bryne.
Joni held the curtains open for them at the back of the cart, but let them clamber up unaided and find places to sit on the cart bed. There was not so much as a handful of straw for padding, and the heavy covering trapped the heat. He said not a word. The cart rocked as he climbed up on the driver's seat, hidden by the canvas. Min heard him cluck to the horse, and the cart lurched off, wheels creaking slightly, bumping over occasional potholes.
There was just enough of a crack in the covering at the back for Min to watch the village dwindle behind them and vanish, replaced alternately by long thickets and rail-fenced fields. She felt too stunned to speak. Siuan's grand cause was to end scrubbing pots and floors. She should never have helped the woman, never stayed with her. She should have ridden for Tear at the first opportunity.
"Well," Leane said suddenly, "that worked out not badly at all." She was back to her usual brisk voice again, but there was a flush of excitement--excitement!--in it, and a high color in her cheeks. "It could have been better, but practice will take care of that." Her low laugh was almost a giggle. "I never realized how much fun it would be. When I actually felt his pulse racing...." For a moment she held out her hand the way she had placed it on Bryne's wrist. "I don't think I ever felt so alive, so aware. Aunt Resara used to say men were better sport than hawks, but I never really understood until today."
Holding herself against the sway of the cart, Min goggled at her. "You have gone mad," she said finally. "How many years have we sworn away? Two? Five? I suppose you hope Gareth Bryne will spend them dandling you on his knee! Well, I hope he turns you over it. Every day!" The startled look on Leane's face did nothing for Min's temper. Did she expect Min to take it as calmly as she appeared to? But it was not Leane that Min was really angry with. She twisted around to glare at Siuan. "And you! When you decide to give up, you don't do it small. You just surrender like a lamb at slaughter. Why did you choose that oath? Light, why?"
"Because," Siuan replied, "it was the one oath I could be sure would keep him from setting people to watch us night and day, manor house or not." Lying half stretched out on the rough planks of the cart, she made it sound the most obvious thing in the world. And Leane appeared to agree with her.
"You mean to break it," Min said after a moment. It came out in a shocked whisper, but even so she glanced worriedly at the canvas curtains that hid Joni. She did not think he could have heard.
"I mean to do what I must," Siuan said firmly, but just as softly. "In two or three days, when I can be sure they really aren't watching us especially, we will leave. I fear we must take horses, since ours are gone. Bryne must have good stables. I will regret that." And Leane just sat there like a cat with cream on her whiskers. She must have realized from the first; that was why she had not hesitated in swearing.
"You will regret stealing horses?" Min said hoarsely. "You plan to break an oath anyone but a Darkfriend would keep, and you regret stealing horses? I can't believe either of you. I don't know either of you."
"Do you really mean to stay and scrub pots," Leane asked, her voice just as low as theirs, "when Rand is out there with your heart in his pocket?"
Min glowered silently. She wished they had never learned she was in love with Rand al'Thor. Sometimes she wished she had never learned it. A man who barely knew she was alive, a man like that. What he was no longer seemed as important as the fact that he had never looked at her twice, but it was all of a piece, really. She wanted to say she would keep her oath, forget about Rand for however long it took her to work off her debt. Only, she could not open her mouth. Burn him! If I'd never met him, I wouldn't be in this pickle!
When the silence between them had gone on far too long for Min's liking, broken only by the rhythmic creak of the wheels and the soft thud of the horse's hooves, Siuan spoke. "I mean to do as I swore to do. When I have finished what I must do first. I did not swear to serve him immediately; I was careful not to even imply it, strictly speaking. A fine point, I know, and one Gareth Bryne might not appreciate, but true all the same."
Min sagged in amazement, letting herself lurch with the cart's slow motion. "You intend to run away, then come back in a few years and hand yourselves over to Bryne? The man will sell your hides to a tannery. Our hides." Not until she said that did she realize she had accepted Siuan's solution. Run away, then come back and....I can't! I love Rand. And he wouldn't notice if Gareth Bryne made me work in his kitchens the rest of my life!
"Not a man to cross, I agree," Siuan sighed. "I met him once--before. I was terrified he might recognize my voice today. Faces may change, but voices don't." She touched her own face wonderingly, as she sometimes did, apparently unaware of doing so. "Faces do change," she murmured. Then her tone firmed. "I've paid heavy prices already for what I had to do, and I will pay this one. Eventually. If you must drown or ride a lionfish, you ride and hope for the best. That is all there is to it, Serenla."
"Being a servant is far from the future I would choose," Leane said, "but it is in the future, and who knows what may happen before? I can remember too well when I thought I had no future." A small smile appeared on her lips, her eyes half-closed dreamily, and her voice became velvet. "Besides, I don't think he will sell our hides at all. Give me a few years of practice, and then a few minutes with Lord Gareth Bryne, and he will greet us with open arms and put us up in his best rooms. He'll deck us with silks, and offer his carriage to carry us wherever we want to go."
Min left her wrapped in her fantasy. Sometimes she thought the other two both lived in dreamworlds. Something else occurred to her. A small thing, but it was beginning to irritate. "Ah, Mara, tell me something. I've noticed some people smile when you call me by name. Serenla. Bryne did, and he said something about my mother having a premonition. Why?"
"In the Old Tongue," Siuan replied, "it means 'stubborn daughter.' You did have a stubborn streak when we first met. A mile wide and a mile deep." Siuan said that! Siuan, the most stubborn woman in the whole world! Her smile was as wide as her face. "Of course, you do seem to be coming along. At the next village, you might use Chalinda. That means 'sweet girl.' Or maybe--"
Suddenly the cart gave a harder lurch than any before, then picked up speed as if the horse were reaching for a gallop. Bumping around like grain on a chaffing sieve, the three women stared at one another in surprise. Then Siuan levered herself up and pulled aside the canvas hiding the driver's seat. Joni was gone. Throwing herself across the wooden seat, Siuan grabbed the reins and reared back, hauling the horse to a halt. Min threw open the back curtains, searching.
The road ran through a thicket here, nearly a small forest of oak and elm, pine and leatherleaf. The dust of their short dash was still settling, some of it on Joni, where he lay sprawled by the side of the hard-packed dirt road sixty or so paces back.
Instinctively Min leaped down and ran back to kneel beside the big man. He was still breathing, but his eyes were closed and a bloody gash on the side of his head was coming up in a purple lump.
Leane pushed her aside and felt Joni's head with sure fingers. "He will live," she said crisply. "Nothing seems broken, but he will have a headache for days after he wakes." Sitting back on her heels, she folded her hands, and her voice saddened. "There is nothing I can do for him in any case. Burn me, I promised myself I would not cry over it again."
"The question--" Min swallowed and started again. "The question is, do we load him in the back of the cart and take him on to the manor, or do we--go?" Light, I'm no better than Siuan!
"We could carry him as far as the next farm," Leane said slowly.
Siuan came up to them, leading the cart horse as if afraid the placid animal might bite. One glance at the man on the ground, and she frowned. "He never had that falling off the cart. I don't see root or rock here to cause it." She started studying the wood around them, and a man rode out of the trees on a tall black stallion, leading three mares, one shaggy and two hands shorter than the others.
He was a tall man in a blue silk coat, with a sword at his side, his hair curling to broad shoulders, darkly handsome despite a hardening as though misfortune had marked him deeply. And he was the last man Min expected to see.
"Is this your work?" Siuan demanded of him.
Logain smiled as he reined in beside the cart, though there was little amusement in it. "A sling is a useful thing, Mara. You are lucky I am here. I didn't expect you to leave the village for some hours yet, and barely able to walk then. The local lord was indulgent, it seems." Abruptly his face went even darker, and his voice was rough stone. "Did you think I would leave you to your fate? Maybe I should have. You made promises to me, Mara. I want the revenge you promised. I've followed you halfway to the Sea of Storms on this search, though you won't tell me what for. I've asked no questions as to how you plan to give me what you promised. But I will tell you this now. Your time is growing short. End your search soon, and deliver your promises, or I will leave you to find your own way. You'll quickly find most villages offer small sympathy to penniless strangers. Three pretty women alone? The sight of this," he touched the sword at his hip, "has kept you safe more times than you can know. Find what you are seeking soon, Mara."
He had not been so arrogant at the beginning of their journey. Then he had been humbly thankful for their help--as humbly as a man like Logain could manage, anyway. It seemed that time--and a lack of results--had withered his gratitude.
Siuan did not flinch away from his stare. "I hope to," she said firmly. "But if you want to go, then leave our horses and go! If you won't row, get out of the boat and swim by yourself! See how far you get with your revenge alone."
Logain's big hands tightened on his reins until Min heard his knuckles crack. He shivered with emotions in strong check. "I will stay a while longer, Mara," he said finally. "A little while longer."
For an instant, to Min's eyes, a halo flared around his head, a radiant crown of gold and blue. Siuan and Leane saw nothing, of course, though they knew what she could do. Sometimes she saw things about people--viewings, she called them--images or auras. Sometimes she knew what they meant. That woman would marry. That man would die. Small matters or grand events, joyous or bleak, there was never any rhyme or reason to who or where or when. Aes Sedai and Warders always had auras; most people never did. It was not always pleasant, knowing.
She had seen Logain's halo before, and she knew what it meant. Glory to come. But for him, perhaps above all men, surely that made no sense at all. His horse and his sword and his coat had come from playing at dice, though Min was not certain how fair the games had been. He had nothing else, and no prospects except Siuan's promises, and how could Siuan ever keep them? His very name was likely a death sentence. It just made no sense.
Logain's humor returned as suddenly as it had gone. Pulling a fat, roughly woven purse from his belt, he jangled it at them. "I've come by a few coins. We won't have to sleep in another barn for a while."
"We heard of it," Siuan said dryly. "I suppose I should have expected no better from you."
"Think of it as a contribution to your search." She stretched out her hand, but he tied the purse back to his belt with a faintly mocking grin. "I would not want to taint your hand with stolen coin, Mara. Besides, this way perhaps I can be sure you won't run off and leave me." Siuan looked as if she could have bitten a nail in two, but she said nothing. Standing in his stirrups, Logain peered down the road toward Kore Springs. "I see a flock of sheep coming this way, and a pair of boys. Time for us to
ride. They'll carry word of this as fast as they can run." Settling back down, he glanced at Joni, still lying there unconscious. "And they'll fetch help for that fellow. I don't think I hit him hard enough to hurt him badly."
Min shook her head; the man continually surprised her. She would not have thought he would spare a second thought for a man whose head he had just craked.
Siuan and Leane wasted no time scrambling into their high-cantled saddles, Leane onto the gray mare she called Moonflower, Siuan onto Bela, the short, shaggy mare. It was more of a scramble for Siuan. She was no horsewoman; after weeks in the saddle she still treated sedate Bela like a fiery-eyed warhorse. Leane handled Moonflower with effortless ease. Min knew she was somewhere in between; she climbed onto Wildrose, her bay, with considerably more grace than Siuan, considerably less than Leane.
"Do you think he will come after us?" Min asked as they started south, away from Kore Springs, at a trot. She meant the question for Siuan, but it was Logain who answered.
"The local lord? I doubt he thinks you important enough. Of course, he may send a man, and he'll certainly spread your descriptions. We will ride as far as we can manage before stopping, and again tomorrow." It seemed he was taking charge.
"We aren't important enough," Siuan said, bouncing awkwardly in her saddle. She might have been wary of Bela, but the look she directed at Logain's back said his challenge to her authority would not last long.
For herself, Min hoped Bryne considered them unimportant. He probably did. As long as he never learned their real names. Logain quickened the stallion's pace, and she heeled Wildrose to keep up, putting her thoughts ahead, not behind.
* * *
Tucking his leather gauntlets behind his sword belt, Gareth Bryne picked up the curl-brimmed velvet hat from his writing table. The hat was the latest fashion from Caemlyn. Caralin had seen to that; he had no care for fashion, but she thought he should dress suitably for his position, and it was the silks and velvets she laid out for him in the mornings.
As he set the high-crowned hat on his head, he caught sight of his shadowy reflection in one of the study windows. Fitting that it was so wavery and thin. Squint as much as he would, his gray hat and gray silk coat, embroidered with silver scrolls down the sleeves and collar, looked nothing like the helmet and armor he was used to. That was over and done. And this....This was something to fill empty hours. That was all.
"Are you certain you want to do this, Lord Gareth?"
He turned from the window to where Caralin stood beside her own writing table, across the room from his. Hers was piled with the estate account books. She had run his estates all the years he had been gone, and without doubt she still made a better job of it than he did.
"If you had set them to work for Admer Nem, as the law required," she went on, "this would be none of your affair at all."
"But I did not," he told her. "And would not if I had it to do again. You know as well as I do, Nem and his male kin would be trying to corner those girls day and night. And Maigan and the rest of the women would make their lives the Pit of Doom, that is if all three girls didn't accidentally fall down a well and drown."
"Even Maigan would not use a well," Caralin said dryly, "not with the weather we've been having. Still, I take your point, Lord Gareth. But they have had most of a day and a night to run in any direction. You will locate them as soon by sending out word of them. If they can be found."
"Thad can find them." Thad was over seventy, but he could still track yesterday's wind across stone by moonlight, and he had been more than happy to turn the brickyard over to his son.
"If you say so, Lord Gareth." She and Thad did not get on. "Well, when you bring them back, I can certainly use them in the house."
Something in her voice, casual as it was, pricked his attention. A touch of satisfaction. Practically from the day he arrived home Caralin had introduced a succession of pretty maids and farmgirls into the manor house, all willing and eager to help the lord forget his miseries. "They are oathbreakers, Caralin. I fear it's the fields for them."
A brief, exasperated tightening of her lips confirmed his suspicions, but she kept her tone indifferent. "The other two perhaps, Lord Gareth, but the Domani girl's grace would be wasted in the fields, and would suit serving at table very well. A remarkably pretty young woman. Still, it will be as you wish, of course."
So that was the one Caralin had picked out. A remarkably pretty young woman indeed. Though oddly different from the Domani women he had met. A touch hesitant here, a touch too fast there. Almost as if she were just now trying out her arts for the first time. That was impossible, of course. Domani women trained their daughters to twine men around their fingers almost from the cradle. Not that she had been ineffective, he admitted. If Caralin had sprung her on him among the farmgirls....Remarkably pretty.
So why was it not her face that kept filling his mind? Why did he find himself thinking of a pair of blue eyes? Challenging him as though wishing she had a sword, afraid and refusing to yield to fear. Mara Tomanes. He had been sure she was one to keep her word, even without oaths. "I will bring her back," he muttered to himself. "I will know why she broke oath."
"As you say, my Lord," Caralin said. "I thought she might do for your bedchamber maid. Sela is getting a bit old to be running up and down the stairs to fetch for you at night."
Bryne blinked at her. What? Oh. The Domani girl. He shook his head at Caralin's foolishness. But was he being any less foolish? He was the lord here; he should remain here to take care of his people. Yet Caralin had taken better care than he knew how, all the years he was gone. He knew camps and soldiers and campaigns, and maybe a bit of how to maneuver in court intrigues. She was right. He should take off his sword and this fool hat, and have Caralin write out their descriptions, and....
Instead, he said, "Keep a close eye on Admer Nem and his kin. They'll try to cheat you as much as they can."
"As you say, my Lord." The words were perfectly respectful; the tone told him to go teach his grandfather to shear sheep. Chuckling to himself, he went outside.
The manor house was really little more than a tremendously overgrown farmhouse, two rambling stories of brick and stone under a slate roof, added to again and again by generations of Brynes. House Bryne had owned this land--or it had owned them--since Andor was wrought from the wreckage of Artur Hawkwing's empire a thousand years before, and for all that time it had sent its sons off to fight Andor's wars. He would fight no more wars, but it was too late for House Bryne. There had been too many wars, too many battles. He was the last of the blood. No wife, no son, no daughter. The line ended with him. All things had to end; the Wheel of Time turned.
Twenty men waited beside saddled horses on the stone-paved yard in front of the manor house. Men even grayer than he, mostly, if they had hair. Experienced soldiers all, former squadmen, squadron leaders and bannermen who had served with him at one time or another in his career. Joni Shagrin, who had been Senior Bannerman of the Guards, was right at the front with a bandage around his temples, though Bryne knew for a fact his daughters had set their children to keep him in his bed. He was one of the few who had any family, here or anywhere else. Most had chosen to come serve Gareth Bryne again rather than drink away their pensions over reminiscences no one but another old soldier wanted to hear.
All wore swords belted over their coats, and a few carried long, steel-tipped lances that had hung for years on a wall until this morning. Every saddle had a fat blanket roll behind, and bulging saddlebags, plus a pot or kettle and full water bags, just as if they were riding out on campaign instead of a week's jaunt to chase down three women who set fire to a barn. Here was a chance to relive old days, or pretend to.
He wondered if that was what was rousting him out. He was certainly too old to go riding off after a set of pretty eyes on a woman young enough to be his daughter. Maybe his granddaughter. I am not that big a fool, he told himself firmly. Caralin could manage things better with him not getting in the way.
A lanky bay gelding came galloping up the oak lane that led down to the road, and the rider threw himself out of the saddle before the animal came to a full stop; the man half-stumbled but still managed to put fist to heart in a proper salute. Barim Halle, who served under him as a senior squadman years ago, was hard and wiry, with a leather egg for a head and white eyebrows that seemed to be trying to make up for the lack of other hair. "You been recalled to Caemlyn, my Captain-General?" he panted.
"No," Bryne said, too sharply. "What do you mean riding in here as though you had Cairhienin cavalry on your tail?" Some of the other horses were frisking, catching the bay's mood.
"Never rode that hard unless we was chasing them, my Lord." Barim's grin faded when the man saw he was not laughing. "Well, my Lord, I seen the horses, and I reckoned--" The man took another look at his face and cut off that line. "Well, actually, I got some news, too. I been over to New Braem to see my sister, and I heard plenty."
New Braem was older than Andor--"old" Braem had been destroyed in the Trolloc Wars, a thousand years before Artur Hawkwing--and it was a good place for news. A middling-sized border town well to the east of his estates, on the road from Caemlyn to Tar Valon. Even with Morgase's current attitude, the merchants would keep that road busy. "Well, out with it, man. If there's news, what is it?"
"Uh, just trying to figure where to start, my Lord." Barim straightened unconsciously, as though making a report. "Most important, I reckon, they say Tear has fallen. Aielmen took the Stone itself, and the Sword That Cannot Be Touched has flat been touched. Somebody drew it, they say."
"An Aielman drew it?" Bryne said incredulously. An Aiel would die before he touched a sword; he had seen it happen, in the Aiel War. Though it was said Callandor was not really a sword at all. Whatever that meant.
"They didn't say, my Lord. I heard names; Ren somebody or other most often. But they was talking it like fact, not rumor. Like everybody knew."
Bryne's forehead creased in a frown. Worse than troubling, if true. If Callandor had been drawn, then the Dragon was Reborn. According to the Prophecies, that meant the Last Battle was coming, the Dark One breaking free. The Dragon Reborn would save the world, so the Prophecies said. And destroy it. This was news enough by itself to have set Halle galloping, if he had thought twice.
But the leathery fellow was not finished. "Word come down from Tar Valon is near as big, my Lord. They say there's a new Amyrlin Seat. Elaida, my Lord, who was the Queen's advisor." Blinking suddenly, Halle hurried on; Morgase was forbidden ground, and every man on the estate knew it, though Bryne had never said so. "They say the old Amyrlin, Siuan Sanche, was stilled and executed. And Logain died, too. That false Dragon they caught and gentled last year. They talked it like it was true, my Lord. Some of them claimed they was in Tar Valon when it all happened."
Logain was no great news, even if he had started a war in Ghealdan by claiming to be the Dragon Reborn. There had been several false Dragons the last few years. He could channel, though; that was a fact. Until the Aes Sedai gentled him. Well, he was not the first man to be caught and gentled, cut off from the Power so he could never channel again. They said men like that, whether false Dragons or just poor fools the Red Ajah took against, never lived long. It was said they gave up wanting to live.
Siuan Sanche, though, that was news. He had met her once, nearly three years ago. A woman who demanded obedience and gave no reasons. Tough as an old boot, with a tongue like a file and a temper like that of a bear with a sore tooth. He would have expected her to tear any upstart claimant limb from limb with her bare hands. Stilling was the same as gentling for a man, but more rare by far. Especially for an Amyrlin Seat. Only two Amyrlins in three thousand years had suffered that fate, so far as the Tower admitted, though it was possible they could have hidden two dozen more; the Tower was very good at hiding what they wanted hidden. But an execution on top of stilling seemed unnecessary. It was said women survived stilling no better than men did gentling.
It all stank of trouble. Everyone knew the Tower had secret alliances, strings tied to thrones and powerful lords and ladies. With a new Amyrlin raised in this fashion, some would surely try to test whether the Aes Sedai still watched as closely. And once this fellow in Tear quelled any opposition--not that there was likely to be much if he really did have the Stone--he would move, against Illian or Cairhien. The question was, how quickly could he move? Would forces be gathered against him, or for him? He had to be the true Dragon Reborn, but the Houses would go both ways, and the people, too. And if petty squabbles broke out because the Tower--
"Old fool," he muttered. Seeing Barim give a start, he added, "Not you. Another old fool." None of this was his affair any longer. Except to decide which way House Bryne went, when the time came. Not that anyone would care, except to know whether or not to attack him. Bryne had never been a powerful House, or large.
"Uh, my Lord?" Barim glanced at the men waiting with their horses. "Do you think you might need me, my Lord?"
Without even asking where or why. He was not the only one bored with country life. "Catch up to us when you have your gear together. We'll be heading south on the Four Kings Road to start." Barim saluted and dashed away, dragging his horse behind him.
Climbing into his saddle, Bryne swung his arm forward without a word, and the men fell into a column of twos behind him as they headed down the oak lane. He meant to have answers. If he had to take this Mara by the scruff of the neck and shake her, he would have answers.
* * *
The High Lady Alteima relaxed as the gates of the Royal Palace of Andor swung open and her carriage rolled in. She had not been certain they would open. It had surely taken long enough to get a note taken in, and longer still to have a reply. Her maid, a thin girl acquired here in Caemlyn, goggled and all but bounced on the seat across from her at the excitement of actually entering the palace.
Snapping open her lace fan, Alteima tried to cool herself. It was still well short of midday; the heat would grow worse yet. To think she had always thought of Andor as cool. Hastily she reviewed what she meant to say one last time. She was a pretty woman--she knew exactly how pretty--with large brown eyes that made some mistakenly think her innocent, even harmless. She knew she was neither, but it suited her very well to have others believe her so. Especially here, today. This carriage had taken almost the last of the gold she had managed to carry away when she fled Tear. If she was to reestablish herself, she needed powerful friends, and there was none more powerful in Andor than the woman she had come to see.
The carriage halted near a fountain in a column-ringed courtyard, and a servant in red-and-white livery rushed to open the door. Alteima barely glanced at the courtyard or the serving man; her mind was all on the meeting ahead. Black hair spilled to the middle of her back from beneath a close-fitting cap of seed pearls, and more pearls lined the tiny pleats of her high-necked gown of watery green silk. She had met Morgase once, briefly, five years ago during a state visit; a woman who radiated power, as reserved and stately as one should expect of a queen, and also proper, in the Andoran way. Which meant prim. The rumors in the city that she had a lover--a man not much liked, it seemed--did not fit that very well, of course. But from what Alteima remembered, the formality of the gown--and the high neck-should please Morgase.
As soon as Alteima's slippers were firmly on the paving stones, the maid, Cara, leaped down and began fussing over the fall of the pleats. Until Alteima snapped her fan shut and slapped the girl's wrist with it; a courtyard was no place for that. Cara--such a foolish name--flinched back, clutching her wrist with a wounded look and the beginnings of tears.
Alteima compressed her lips in irritation. The girl did not even know how to take mild reproof. She had been fooling herself: the girl would not do; she was too obviously untrained. But a lady had to have a maid, especially if she was to differentiate herself from the mass of refugees in Andor. She had seen men and women laboring in the sun, even begging in the streets, while wearing the remnants of Cairhienin nobles' garb. She thought she had recognized one or two. Perhaps she should take one of them in service; who could know the duties of a lady's maid better than a lady? And if they were reduced to working with their hands, they should leap at the chance. It might be amusing to have a former "friend" for a maid. Too late for today, though. And an untrained maid, a local girl, said a little too clearly that Alteima was at the edge of her resources, only one step removed from those beggars herself.
She put on a look of concerned gentleness. "Did I hurt you, Cara?" she said sweetly. "Remain here in the carriage and soothe your wrist. I am certain someone will bring you cool water to drink." The mindless gratitude on the girl's face was stupefying.
The liveried men, well trained, stood looking at nothing at all. Still, word of Alteima's kindness would spread, if she knew anything about servants.
A tall young man appeared before her in the white-collared red coat and burnished breastplate of the Queen's Guard, bowing with a hand to his sword hilt. "I am Guardsman-Lieutenant Tallanvor, High Lady. If you will come with me, I will escort you to Queen Morgase." He offered an arm, which she took, but otherwise she was scarcely aware of him. She had no interest in soldiers unless generals and lords.
As he attended her down broad corridors seemingly full of scurrying men and women in livery--they took care not to impede her way, of course--she subtly examined the fine wall hangings, the ivory-inlaid chests and highchests, the bowls and vases of chased gold or silver, or thin Sea Folk porcelain. The Royal Palace did not display as much wealth as the Stone of Tear, but Andor was still a wealthy land, perhaps even as wealthy as Tear. An older lord would do nicely, malleable for a woman still young, perhaps a touch feeble and infirm. With vast estates. That would be a beginning, while she found out exactly where the strings of power lay in Andor. A few words exchanged with Morgase some years ago were not much of an introduction, but she had that which a powerful queen must want and need. Information.
Finally Tallanvor ushered her into a large sitting room with a high ceiling painted in birds and clouds and open sky, where ornately carved and gilded chairs stood before a polished white marble fireplace. A part of Alteima's mind noted with amusement that the wide red-and-gold carpet was Tairen work. The young man went to one knee. "My Queen," he said in a suddenly rough voice, "as you have commanded, I bring you the High Lady Alteima, of Tear."
Morgase waved him away. "You are welcome, Alteima. It is good to see you again. Sit, and we will talk."
Alteima managed a curtsy and murmured thanks before taking a chair. Envy curdled inside her. She had remembered Morgase as a beautiful woman, but the golden-haired reality told her how pale that memory had grown. Morgase was a rose in full bloom, ready to overshadow every other flower. Alteima did not blame the young soldier for stumbling on his way out. She was just glad he was gone, so she would not have to be aware of him looking at the two of them, comparing.
Yet, there were changes, too. Vast changes. Morgase, by the Grace of the Light, Queen of Andor, Defender of the Realm, Protector of the People, High Seat of House Trakand, so very reserved and stately and proper, wore a gown of shimmering white silk that showed enough bosom to shock a tavern maid in the Maule. It clung to hip and thigh dose enough to suit a Taraboner jade. The rumors were clearly true. Morgase had a lover. And for her to have altered so much, it was equally clear that she tried to please this Gaebril, not make him please her. Morgase still radiated power and a presence that filled the room, but that dress transformed both to something less.
Alteima was doubly glad she had worn a high neck. A woman that deep in a man's thrall could lash out in a jealous rage on the smallest provocation or none at all. If she met Gaebril, she would present him as near indifference as civility would allow. Even being suspected of thinking of poaching Morgase's lover could get her a hangman's noose instead of a rich husband on his last legs. She herself would have done the same.
A woman in red-and-white livery brought wine, an excellent Murandian, and poured it into crystal goblets deeply engraved with the rearing Lion of Andor. As Morgase took a goblet, Alteima noticed her ring, a golden serpent eating its own tail. The Great Serpent ring was worn by some women who had trained in the White Tower, as Morgase had, without becoming Aes Sedai, as well as by Aes Sedai themselves. It was a thousand-year tradition for the Queens of Andor to be Tower trained. But rumors were on every lip of a break between Morgase and Tar Valon, and the anti-Aes Sedai sentiment in the streets could have been quashed quickly had Morgase wanted to. Why was she still wearing the ring? Alteima would be careful of her words until she knew the answer.
The liveried woman withdrew to the far end of the room, out of earshot but close enough to see when the wine needed replenishing.
Taking a sip, Morgase said, "It is long since we met. Is your husband well? Is he in Caemlyn with you?"
Hastily Alteima shuffled her plans. She had not thought Morgase knew she had a husband, but she had always been able to think on the run. "Tedosian was well when I last saw him." The Light send he died soon. As well to get on with it. "He was of some question about serving this Rand al'Thor, and that is a dangerous chasm to straddle. Why, lords have been hung as if they were common criminals."
"Rand al'Thor," Morgase mused softly. "I met him once. He did not look like one who would name himself the Dragon Reborn. A frightened shepherd boy, trying not to show it. Yet thinking back, he seemed to be looking for some--escape." Her blue eyes looked inward. "Elaida warned me of him." She seemed unaware of having spoken those last words.
"Elaida was your advisor then?" Alteima said cautiously. She knew it was so, and it made the rumors of a break all the more difficult to believe. She had to know if it was true. "You have replaced her, now that she is Amyrlin?"
Morgase's eyes snapped back into focus. "I have not!" The next instant her voice softened again. "My daughter, Elayne, is training in the Tower. She has already been raised to the Accepted."
Alteima fluttered her fan, hoping sweat was not breaking out on her forehead. If Morgase did not know her own feelings toward the Tower, there was no way to speak safely. Her plans teetered on the edge of a precipice.
Then Morgase rescued them, and her. "You say your husband was of two minds about Rand al'Thor. And you?"
She nearly sighed with relief. Morgase might be behaving like ah untutored farmgirl over this Gaebril, but she still had her sense when it came to power and possible dangers to her realm. "I observed him closely, of course, in the Stone." That should plant the seed, if it needed planting. "He can channel, and a man who can channel is always to be feared. Yet he is the Dragon Reborn. There is no doubt. The Stone fell, and Callandor was in his hand when it did. The Prophecies...I fear I must leave decisions of what to do about the Dragon Reborn to those who are wiser than I. I only know that I am afraid to remain where he rules. Even a High Lady of Tear cannot match the courage of the Queen of Andor."
The golden-haired woman gave her a shrewd look that made her afraid she had overdone the flattery. Some did not like it too open. But Morgase merely leaned back in her chair and sipped her wine. "Tell me about him, this man who is supposed to save us, and destroy us doing it."
Success. Or at least, the beginnings of it. "He is a dangerous man beyond any question of the Power. A lion seems lazy, half-asleep, until suddenly he charges; then he is all speed and power. Rand al'hor seems innocent, not lazy, and naive, not asleep, but when he charges....He has no proper respect for person or position at all. I did not exaggerate when I said he has hanged lords. He is a breeder of anarchy. In Tear under his new laws, even a High Lord or Lady can be called before a magistrate, to be fined or worse, on the charges of the meanest peasant or fisherman. He...."
She kept strictly to the truth as she saw it; she could tell the truth as quickly as a lie when it was necessary. Morgase sipped her wine and listened; Alteima might have thought her lounging indolently, except that her eyes showed she was taking in every word and storing it. "You must understand," Alteima finished, "that I have only touched the surface. Rand al'Thor and what he has done in Tear are subjects for hours."
"You will have them," Morgase said, and in her mind Alteima smiled. Success. "Is it true," the Queen went on, "that he brought Aiel with him to the Stone?"
"Oh, yes. Great savages with their faces hidden half the time, and even the women ready to kill as soon as look. They followed him like dogs, terrorizing everyone, and took whatever they wanted from the Stone."
"I had thought it must be the wildest rumor," Morgase reflected. "There have been rumors this past year, but they have not come out of the Waste in twenty years, not since the Aiel War. The world certainly does not need this Rand al'Thor bringing the Aiel down on us again." Her look sharpened again. "You said 'followed.' They have gone?"
Alteima nodded. "Just before I left Tear. And he went with them." "With them!" Morgase exclaimed. "I feared he was in Cairhien right this--"
"You have a guest, Morgase? I should have been told, so I could greet her."
A big man strode into the room, tall, his gold-embroidered red silk coat fitting massive shoulders and a deep chest. Alteima did not need to see the radiant look on Morgase's face to name him as Lord Gaebril; the assurance with which he had interrupted the Queen did that. He lifted a finger, and the serving woman curtsied and left quickly; he did not ask Morgase's permission to dismiss her servants from her presence, either. He was darkly handsome, incredibly so, with wings of white at his temples.
Composing her face to commonplace, Alteima put on a marginally welcoming smile, suitable for an elderly uncle with neither power, wealth nor influence. He might be gorgeous, but even if he did not belong to Morgase, he was not a man she would try manipulating unless she absolutely had to. There was perhaps even more of an air of power about him than about Morgase.
Gaebril stopped by Morgase and put his hand on her bare shoulder in a very familiar way. She clearly came close to resting her cheek on the back of his hand, but his eyes were on Alteima. She was used to men looking at her, but these eyes made her shift uneasily; they were far too penetrating, saw far too much.
"You come from Tear?" The sound of his deep voice sent a tingle through her; her skin, even her bones, felt as though she had been dipped in icy water, but oddly her momentary anxiety melted.
It was Morgase who answered; Alteima could not seem to find her tongue with him watching her. "This is the High Lady Alteima, Gaebril. She has been telling me all about the Dragon Reborn. She was in the Stone of Tear when it fell. Gaebril, there really were Aiel--" The pressure of his hand cut her off. Irritation flashed across her face, but then it was gone, replaced by a smile beaming up at him.
His eyes, still on Alteima, sent that shiver through her again, and this time she gasped aloud. "So much talking must have fatigued you, Morgase," he said without shifting his gaze. "You do too much. Go to your bedchamber and sleep. Go now. I will wake you when you have rested enough."
Morgase stood immediately, still smiling at him devotedly. Her eyes seemed slightly glazed. "Yes, I am tired. I will take a nap now, Gaebril."
She glided from the room with never a glance at Alteima, but Alteima's attention was all on Gaebril. Her heart beat faster; her breath quickened. He was surely the handsomest man she had ever seen. The grandest, the strongest, the most powerful....Superlatives rolled through her mind like a flood.
Gaebril paid no more attention to Morgase's leaving than she did. Taking the chair the Queen had vacated, he leaned back with his boots stretched out in front of him. "Tell me why you came to Caemlyn, Alteima." Again the chill ran through her. "The absolute truth, but keep it brief. You can give me details later if I want them."
She did not hesitate. "I tried to poison my husband and had to flee before Tedosian and that trull Estanda could kill me instead, or worse. Rand al'Thor meant to let them do it, as an example." Telling made her cringe. Not because it was a truth she had kept hidden so much as because she found she wanted to please him more than anything else in the world, and she feared that he might send her away. But he wanted the truth. "I chose Caemlyn because I could not bear Illian and though Andor is little better, Cairhien is in near ruins. In Caemlyn, I can find a wealthy husband, or one who thinks he is my protector if need be, and use his power to--"
He stopped her with a wave of his hand, chuckling. "A vicious little cat, though pretty. Perhaps pretty enough to keep, with your teeth and claws drawn." Suddenly his face became more intent. "Tell me what you know of Rand al'Thor, and especially his friends, if he has any, his companions, his allies."
She told him, talking until her mouth and throat went dry, and her voice cracked and rasped. She never raised her goblet until he told her to drink; then she gulped the wine down and spoke on. She could please him. She could please him better than Morgase could think of.
* * *
The maids working in Morgase's bedchamber dropped hasty curtsies, surprised to see her there in the middle of the morning. Waving them out of the room, she climbed onto her bed still in her dress. For a time she lay staring at the gilded carvings of the bedposts. No Lions of Andor here, but roses. For the Rose Crown of Andor, but roses suited her better than lions.
Stop being stubborn, she chided herself, then wondered why. She had told Gaebril she was tired, and....Or had he told her? Impossible. She was the Queen of Andor, and no man told her to do anything. Gareth. Now why had she thought of Gareth Bryne? He had certainly never told her to do anything; the Captain-General of the Queen's Guards obeyed the Queen, not the other way around. But he had been stubborn, entirely capable of digging in his heels until she came around to his way. Why am I thinking of him? I wish he were here. That was ridiculous. She had sent him away for opposing her; about what no longer seemed quite dear, but that was not important. He had opposed her. She could remember the feelings she had had for him only dimly, as though he had been gone for years. Surely it had not been so long? Stop being stubborn!
Her eyes closed, and she fell immediately into sleep, a sleep troubled by restless dreams of running from something she could not see.
Copyright © 1993 by Robert Jordan