Chapter 8: Burn

Unbearable heat surrounded her, pulling her apart where she stood at the flames heart. Lungs choked and burning, barely able to breathe, each gasp searing her throat as though the fire was coursing through her, consuming everything even her soul. Screams, not her own, rushed though her head, filling it with visions of blood, her nostrils filling with the stench of death.
And no matter how she wanted to she could not shout, could not cry out from the pain or the horror, could not run from her fear, just stand sightlessly, enduring.

But her hand was gripping something in a tight fist, refusing to let go, though she knew that this was the source of her torment. It was cool on her flesh, which was impossible for the heat surrounded her on every side and yet this object whatever it could be was untouched, unchanged by all the events around her. She knew that she should drop it but her hand would not obey her fevered command, as though the object were stuck to her, as though it were her addiction and no matter how painful she needed it. And she burned.

Then, in the blink of an eye, everything stopped, the fire quenched, the sounds and smell evaporated. She fell to her knees, skin pricked by the blackened gravel at her feet, her strength leaving her as the fire did. Gulping in air that never tasted so sweet she looked down at her skin that was as lightly tanned from travel and pure as it had always been, when it should have been blackened and bloody from the flames, though her body still remembered the pain, refusing to move. Pain called her attention to her tightly closed fist and slowly, feeling a strange sense of soreness, she unfurled it to find a golden ring gleaming like a treasure, a crane taking flight before her eyes. But despite its apparent coolness it had branded her, the soft skin of her palm, marred previously only by the identical pinprick scars like thorns on either hand, had risen and puffed. But she could make out the insignia of the flying crane, forever branded on her.

'
With a start Nynaeve awoke, drenched in the sweat of her prophetic nightmare, and clutched her hand, checking for the brand she had always thought would be there. But no angry skin met her prying fingers, just the thorn-like scar in the centre, a scar she didn't remember getting. Gasping as she had done in that dream world, she searched her belt pouch in the cool night air. The sounds of celebration had died hours ago leaving a eerie silence hanging in the atmosphere, like a shroud of death, but at that moment Nynaeve's heart was pounding in her ears making her unaware of the quietness that surrounded her. Finally she found what she had been looking for. There, glinting in the moonlight was a golden ring, the exact copy of the one in the dream and just as precious. Frowning she studied it, turning it over and over, as though trying to discover its secret but she only found the signet ring given to her by her love. And yet she feared it, preferring to keep it locked up in the belt pouch she wore for the entire journey lest it stir up the memory of their separation.

Finally she stood, and, slipping on a plain blue dress, left her room, knowing that now sleep was beyond her. Sighing, she allowed the refreshing breeze enter her lungs, the wind skipping across the snow filled landscape as she walked, untouched and undaunted by the whiteness around her. The same dream every night, engulfed in flame with no possible escape and yet she could not fathom the meaning of her recurring nightmare.
This was not the only thing stopping her sleep. The dance she had shared with Mat had stirred up memories and above all feelings from what seemed like a past life, on a farm in the backwater of Andor. Familiar but alien landscapes met her minds eye, along with the faces of people who she knew nothing of. Above all she could see the face of Davey Fletcher.

"He died," she whispered. Mat stepped up beside her, boots crunching on the snow and his cloak wrapped tightly around him and his breath wisping out into the night. She knew he had been following her since she left the inn, trying desperately to remain in the shadows but to no avail. She didn't need to look up at him to know he was there. "He was a really nice boy."

"You remember?" Mat asked gently, his hand creeping up to touch her shoulder.

"No," she answered, not shrugging off his touch, not seeming to mind it at all. In fact it felt natural.

Mat sighed, disappointed by her answer. He had hoped that by jogging her memory it would break down the barriers that held her old life back.

"He was killed in a farming accident during the harvest," he informed her, gazing carefully at her profile. No emotions played on her face, leaving him unsure of her feelings. Nevertheless he continued his monologue. "You were distraught. It was no secret that the two of you would have been married the following spring. His death left you somewhat," he paused, trying to think of the right word. "Cold. I think it was around that time that you started to take the Wisdom business seriously, especially the bit about Wisdoms never marrying."

They were silent for a few minutes, leaving nothing but the wind to be heard. Shivering Mat tugged his cloak closer and removed his hand from Nynaeve's shoulder. She must be freezing, he thought taking in the thin dress she was wearing but she seemed unscathed by the biting wind.

"My parents?" she asked, her brow creasing as though she were trying to remember something but with no success. Mat found this hard to believe for Nynaeve he had known had a memory like a steel trap, bringing up every transgression he ever made.

"They lived out of the village," he explained patiently though uncomfortable with the fact he had to explain someone's own parents to them. "Your mother was called Elnore but she died when you were born." He looked down at her to see an expression of distress over her features. He wanted to touch her, to let her know that he was there and that she could cry on his shoulder, as he had so often done on hers as a child. However, he stayed his hand, knowing that his old friend did not particularly like to display affection publicly. He had marvelled at how her pride, her need to remain strong often gave her the edge of coldness, even with her fiery temper but now he just wished she would let someone else in.

With some effort Nynaeve controlled her emotions, very conscious of the man standing next to her. It would not do to show her disappointment to this boy, no matter their connections.

"So I never knew her?" she said, swallowing the tears that threatened. Why did it hurt so much to think that she never knew her mother? She couldn't even remember the village he talked of and yet the absence of a mother hit her hard.

"No," Mat answered gravely, content to wait until she asked for his condolence rather than give it presumptuously. "So you were left with your father. He was a nice man from what I heard but he didn't really have a clue about how to raise you." He paused, letting this new information sink in before he continued. "So he treated you like the son he never had, teaching you wood craft and how to hunt. Of course the women's council did not approve but there was nothing they could really do, what with you living outside the village, just the two of you." No one really knew what went on out there for all those years because Nynaeve's father lead a rather solitary life with his only child. He did remember them coming into the village now and then and he heard his mother gossiping with the neighbours about how the pair hardly ever spoke to each other, showing no affection in the company of others, not even the barest of touches.

"So that's why I' m so good at, what was it? Ah yes, creeping about," Nynaeve said, trying to brush aside the fact that she did not remember a thing about her father, not a touch, not a smell, not a taste. It made her feel empty inside.

The silence grew over them again with Mat blowing on his freezing hands to try and warm them. He noticed that Nynaeve was staring straight ahead at the undergrowth no doubt in thought over the things he had revealed.

"Did I love Davey?" she asked suddenly, her voice so even that it was monotonous but she knew it was the wrong question. What she really wanted to know was did she really love Lan?

"I don't know," he answered truthfully, unaware of her thoughts. "It was clear that he adored you and his parents certainly liked you but I was young, I didn't really know about girls feelings back then."

"And now you do?" she said sceptically, an eyebrow creeping up her forehead, a ghost of a smile blooming on her face but still she did not look at him, instead she focused on the undergrowth that they had walked to. With Mat it was hard to keep humour out of any conversation.

Mat spread his arms wide, in a gesture of innocence, instantly regretting it as a gust of wind tore at his cloak. He opened his mouth, ready to let rip an amusing comment but he had no time to. Nynaeve threw herself at him, so that even her slight form was enough to send them into the cushion of snow. Mat looked to where he had been standing before, a trolloc spear quivering where his boots foot prints still remained.

"Blood and ashes," he cursed as a trolloc burst from the undergrowth, its ugly face contorted into a war cry. Still on his chest, Nynaeve raised a hand and a ball of fire flew from her outstretched fingers. But instead of hitting the trolloc in the chest, it careered past. "You missed!" Mat hollered, shoving her off and seizing the spear, legs spread wide to meet the attacker as two more Trollocs appeared from nowhere. "It was right in front of you!"

A blast caught his eye as it did their attackers, slowing them down as they gazed up into the sky that was exploding colours and light to be seen from miles around. Instantly there were cries of alarm coming from the look out post, followed by the shouts of the soldiers as they leapt from their beds and the clatter of metal as they seized their armour. The Trollocs were even dazzled by the sudden light, faltering I their loping runs and giving Mat the chance to dispatch the first runner. Further along he heard more rustling and roars as more Trollocs burst through and into the town. As Mat whirled to face the second trolloc he caught the smug smile on Nynaeve's face as her firework caught the attention of the soldiers.

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Lan trudged doggedly through the thickening snow, leading his prize horse and his pack horse behind him, finding navigating the snow capped trees too difficult on horse back. Rand walked beside him, again unaffected by the cold, so calm that he could be taking a walk in a garden. Though his features betrayed nothing, Lan was anything but calm, his mind racing with worry for his beloved wife. What was she doing in such a desolate wilderness with no one but a half-wit jailor and an untrustworthy fox to guard her back? Was she warm enough in this killing cold? Did she need his arms around her, to hold her close and feel his heart beat against his, to cocoon her against this empty world? Did she even think of him at all?

He shook the unsavoury thought from his head. Of course she thought of him, he was certain, but was it with the same longing, the same need that made him pursue her across half the world?

Rand had long since sensed his friends unease and had chosen to remain silent for most of his journey, giving Lan time to evaluate his state of mind and, Lan thought, concoct his own. Why was this man, the Dragon Reborn, really here? Was it loyalty to the woman who came from the same village, the woman who had followed him when they stole from Esmond's Field that dark night, intent on rescuing them from the clutches of an Aes Sedai? It was possible Lan theorized, that he did feel a strong tie to Nynaeve. But it was equally plausible that Rand had another motive, a motive that lay in the position he had found himself in as the saviour of the world in need of friends and allies, powerful and trustworthy. Nynaeve had already proven herself to fit those criteria. Could Rand be looking for his wife for the simple reason that he required to use her down the road?

Rand seemed to feel the Warder's suspicious musings, shifting his unnerving eyes, sometimes grey, sometimes blue, to meet Lan's icy ones. But before either could open their mouth they were bathed in a sudden light, as though the sun had risen early and burst through the snow filled clouds above.

Both men's heads shot up to look at the illuminated sky, light picking up on each snowflake as it fell, and saw what appeared to be a firework, its trail beginning in the forest some distance away. Immediately they heard inaudible cries from some far off camp followed by the unmistakable sound of metal striking metal.

Immediately Lan swung himself into the saddle, knowing that speed was of the essence despite the low-slung branches that made up this forest. Rand followed his lead, vaulting into his seat and flattening his lean form against his steeds back so he did not sit upright, making it harder to be hit by the trees.

"No Rand," Lan ordered, his voice full of command from his seat, reaching across to seize his companion's reigns. "This is not a fight you should be involved in."

Rand opened his mouth to protest but Lan raised his hand, silencing the younger man.

"We cannot risk it. Follow me with the pack horse," the Warder finished, turning his horse and hurtling through the forest, kicking up snow in his wake and pressing his body as low as possible. The hard man ignored the icy wind that clawed at his hair, battered his face and made his tears spring to his eyes. But he did not care about the beating he was taking, all he cared for was spurring his horse onwards to where he was convinced Nynaeve needed him.