In the Darkness of Night
Rand eyed the Aes Sedai who spoke, his gaze dropping to the red shawl she was now adjusting around her shoulders. Lemai Sedai was a model of Aes Sedai arrogance, and the embodiment of the Red Ajah's contempt for men. That she had finally spoken, after numerous prompts and questions regarding the whereabouts of the man who had bonded her, was as much a relief as it was infuriating. They needed to get to Taim quickly but, despite orders from Adelorna to cooperate, the two Aes Sedai were being difficult. He glanced at the Green sister—Chloe—who had yet to utter a word and looked as though the Dark One himself was stalking her. Being in the presence of the Dragon Reborn clearly disturbed her. If only he could use her discomfort to his advantage.
"How far west?" Elnore's exasperated tone tore Rand from his thoughts. One look at her nearly made him forget his frustration. Her arms crossed beneath her breasts, Elnore met the Aes Sedai's haughty gaze with a look of cold determination. It was obvious that neither Lemai nor Chloe intimidated her. If anything, Rand had the distinct feeling the two Aes Sedai should watch their mouths lest they end up on the wrong side of Elnore's temper. In that way, she reminded him a great deal of Nynaeve.
After a lengthy silence, Elnore prompted, "I asked you a question, woman. You can either answer it voluntarily or I can beat it out of you. The choice is yours." Rand gave a soft snort of laughter, though he did not smile. Light! There were not many people who would threaten Aes Sedai in such a way. Many? More like none.
Lemai's face turned such a deep red that it almost looked purple. "You dare to threaten an Aes Sedai!"
When Elnore opened her mouth, Rand spoke quickly, "Adelorna Sedai gave you orders to assist me and you gave your word that you would. As far as I know, the only Aes Sedai able to betray their words are Black Ajah…" He eyed the woman coldly, letting the accusation hang in the air.
"I betray nothing!" Lemai sputtered, glancing at Chloe before tugging on the thick red shawl again, this time in an obvious attempt to calm herself. Was it possible the accusation could be true? "I am not certain how far west we need to travel. This is a big mistake. You have no idea how—" A glow sprang up around Elnore and Lemai's complaints faded into a muffled cry as Elnore used flows of Air to gag her. Lemai struggled to close her jaw, outrage in her eyes.
Clearing his throat, Rand rubbed at his mouth with one hand to hide his amusement. Lews Therin cackled in the back of his mind. We should keep this one close! If anyone can keep Cadsuane from us, it is this girl… There was truth in the madman's words, though according to Min's vision he needed to learn whatever the old woman had to teach him.
Elnore's blue gaze went to Chloe. "Is the one who bonded you also to the west?" This woman had enough sense not to offer her opinion and merely nodded. "Then west it is." In the time it took to blink, a large gateway snapped into existence a few paces away, though Rand was not certain where it led. When he gave Elnore a questioning look, she said, "Whitebridge." To the two Aes Sedai, she ordered, "You two go through first." Whatever warmth was in her voice when she spoke to him disappeared completely when she addressed the Aes Sedai. Without a word, she started through the gateway behind the two women but stopped at the last moment, glancing over her shoulder at him and grinning mischievously. "If I remember correctly, your Maiden bodyguards don't allow you to go through first, so I get to go next."
Rand glared at the girl, raising one eyebrow in admonishment, and was surprised when that simple look sent her leaping through the gateway with a sheepish grin. It was not the first time she had reacted in such a way, as though she had witnessed his displeasure in the past. Or future? Trying to make sense of it was enough to make his head throb. In truth, he found his emotions in flux where this young woman was involved. He did not know whether to be amused, surprised, or annoyed, and could best describe the result as a volatile conflagration of the three.
As he followed the three women through the Gateway and into the shadow of Whitebridge, he heard Lemai snap nasally, "No! No! You fool girl, they are much farther west than this!"
Elnore turned to the woman, her face a fierce mask, and pushed the Aes Sedai just as another gateway opened behind the falling sister. All Rand heard was a splash as the woman disappeared through the gateway. Light! Had she dropped the woman in the Aryth Ocean? Elnore channeled Air to pull the soaking wet Red back through the gateway. Elnore snarled, "Was that too far west?" The sodden woman nodded weakly. Elnore smiled, yet the threat never left her eyes. "Rand…the Lord Dragon…and I are about to enter a battlefield. Like it or not, you are with us! I suggest you stop behaving like a horse's backside and cooperate, else the best you can hope for is an unmarked grave between the Dragon Reborn and a bloody wilder!"
For the first time since leaving Emond's Field, Rand did not contain his urge and laughed with abandon. The Aes Sedai stared as if he was taken with madness, while Elnore grinned.
In moments, he reassumed his stony gaze and focused on the Red sister. "Elnore, teach Lemai Sedai to form a gateway, just as you did for the Ajah heads." Adelorna had been insistent that only she and those she had brought with her to the meeting be taught the weave for Traveling, but locating Taim would be quicker if Lemai and Chloe could weave gateways themselves. "Perhaps, in her infinite wisdom, she can open one closer to our objective, as though her life depended on it."
Though Elnore sighed loudly, she proceeded to do as he said without complaint or objection. He did not envy the girl in her task. Through his experiences with Aes Sedai, he had learned that they were not very eager to be taught anything and preferred, instead, to present themselves as authorities on all matters. Especially channeling.
He watched the women quietly, smiling slightly when he noted Elnore's miserable expression. Regardless of her obvious disdain for Aes Sedai, she approached the task with as much patience as could be expected. Both Lemai and Chloe listened intently, demanding that Elnore repeat her weave slowly. It was fortunate that he had allowed her to join him in his hunt for Taim, though he had not intended to do so. Once she had taught Adelorna and the others how to Travel, he had told her she should return to the Black Tower with Logain while he took Lemai and Chloe to find Taim. It was only after she had all but thrown a tantrum about the matter, then resorted to begging Rand to take her with him, that he had relented.
Several gateways winked in and out of existence, one right after the other. It was clearly Elnore's work, and it caused not only her students' brows to rise but it caused Rand's to do the same. The gateways were nearly as large as the ones Rand himself made. The girl is as strong in the One Power as Mierin! Lews Therin's declaration was somewhat of a shock—from Lews Therin's memories, Rand knew no woman had been close to Lanfear in strength in the One Power—though Rand somehow knew it to be true.
Whatever thoughts he had on the matter disappeared, however, when Elnore let loose with a loud curse and stomped toward him with her brow set in a scowl. The two Aes Sedai had apparently dismissed her once they were convinced they knew the weave. That was hardly a surprise.
"I could've bloody well found them by now," Elnore grumbled as she came to stand by Rand's side.
Rand ignored the girl's complaints and watched the two Aes Sedai as they began arguing. He could only hear bits and pieces of it, enough to know that they were arguing about how far west Taim and the others had gone. After several moments, the glow of saidar sprung up around Lemai and she opened a gateway to a spot several paces away. Rand nodded slightly in approval—it seemed Elnore had taught the Aes Sedai that, by Traveling a short distance from their current location, they could learn the area well enough to Travel elsewhere. Excellent. That would mean they would be able to move quickly.
He continued watching them, touching the bracelet Elnore had given him. It was cold against his skin, colder than the chill he normally felt when women nearby were holding saidar. Though he had had little opportunity to question the girl about it, he had learned a few interesting facts about it. An Asha'man, with the help of a female channeler, had created the first of its kind, though it had lacked some of the capabilities later versions possessed. He glanced down at the bracelet. Elnore had said that it would turn cold even if women had hidden their ability to channel, something he had not even known was possible; that alone made the trinket worth all the gold in Tar Valon, but being able to see the weaves that were being channeled around him was nothing short of amazing.
"I wish you had had that sooner," Elnore said softly, though there was an edge to her voice that made him tense. "If you had, maybe they wouldn't have gotten a chance to hurt you." He glanced over at her and found she had returned her gaze to the Aes Sedai. The way she was standing there, glaring at the two women with her arms folded and her jaw clenched, would have made Rand laugh had he not seen the look in her eyes. As much as she resembled Nynaeve in appearance, she had somehow managed to imitate Lan's threatening intensity.
"Why don't you like Aes Sedai?" he asked softly, keeping his gaze trained on her.
She looked up, the scowl fading from her delicate features. "You truly need to ask me that?" Those blue eyes filled with a strange mixture of sympathy for him and hatred for the women in question. "What they've done to you is enough reason to hate them. Enough to make me want to see every one of them burn."
The passion behind her words took him aback. Though he could tell her words were true, he knew there was more to her hatred of them than what they had done to him, and that it was tied to the reason she had gone to live with him and Min when she was fourteen. "They did something to you, too. Or you'd not have left the Tower to live with me and Min. You said I rescued you from that place." There was no question in his tone, merely a statement of fact. It was enough to make her visibly shudder. "What did they do to you, Elnore?"
"I…they…" In an instant her blue eyes filled with pain, and though she dropped her gaze to hide it, she did not do so quickly enough.
Reaching out, he tilted her chin up to force her to meet his eyes once again. It was the most tenderness he had shown anyone other than Min in a very long time, and it surprised him how good it felt. "You don't have to tell me right now"—it was neither the time nor the place for an emotional discussion—"but we will discuss this soon."
Elnore nodded, swallowing hard. At that moment, she looked more child than woman. It made him wonder just how old she was. When he inquired as to her age, she answered, "My twenty-second name day is in a few months."
Light! The girl was several months older than him! Her face did not reflect her age, however. If anything, she appeared to be at least five years younger than her true age. That meant she had begun slowing at a young age, likely younger than most Aes Sedai. How long had she been channeling? Vaguely, he recalled her mentioning it, but she had nattered on so incessantly, jumping from one topic to another with little or now warning, he had trouble remembering even half of what she had said.
"I believe I am ready now." Lemai's announcement drew Rand's attention. His questions would have to wait until later. "And I can open the gateway to a spot very near his location, but this is madness. We cannot possibly—"
Elnore interrupted, "When they bonded you two, did they use the extra bit for Compulsion?" Both women's eyes widened in surprise, but after a moment they nodded. "And what orders did they give?"
"Mishraile's orders were twofold," Lemai answered. "Do not attack him and do not attack Taim. The orders differed from the orders our original Warders…" The woman stumbled over the word, frowning. "The orders the men who bonded us had given."
"Nothing about attacking the other Asha'man?" When the two women shook their heads, Elnore nodded.
Rand eyed Elnore sideways, wondering if there was a point to her questions. "The oaths they swore when they became Aes Sedai prevent them from being of much use in this battle," he told her quietly.
"You mean the same way their oath against lying forces them to always tell the truth?" She asked the question scornfully, but her point was viable. An Aes Sedai could not take a life, or attack others directly, unless her own life was in danger. Or unless she is beating a prisoner mercilessly, or locking him in a box… Rand forced the thought from his mind. Now was not the time to dwell on what they had done to him. Or to wonder where Galina and Katerine were now. He still had nightmares of them returning. Of them capturing him again. He shivered, but Elnore's voice brought him back to the matter at hand. "Glare all you like," she told the two women, who were apparently miffed at her lack of respect, "but I'm well aware of how easily your so-called oaths can be evaded. It will not take long for you to feel the danger of our task. If you want to survive, I suggest you attune yourselves to that danger. And act on it." She paused. "Leave Taim and the two who bonded you to us."
Lemai actually smiled, though her gaze was calculating. "With a bit of training, and a few years of being taught to control that temper, you would make an excellent Red. Even if you are a wilder."
The look Elnore gave Lemai drained the color from the Aes Sedai's face. "Open the gateway as near to him as you can get," she ordered. Rand wondered if she realized they would likely have a long walk awaiting them on the other side of the gateway. If Lemai and Chloe were able to get them within a mile or less of Taim's lair, he would be thankful. "You both go through first and do as I told you. Either have a shield ready or have that bloody bonding weave of yours ready. Use it on whomever you see first. Once you manage to convince yourselves that you're in enough danger, attack to kill."
Turning, she faced Rand and began to channel Spirit and Earth. Some sort of shield, he thought. Saidar was so different from saidin. Despite his curiosity about the weave, he could not help but feel a flash of irritation. She was as bad as Nynaeve with that! Did no one teach women how to ask first? Later, he would see to it that she learned that lesson! "Elnore! What—"
"A protective shield," she answered, frowning. "It's better than any armor could ever be, but it's not perfect. Be careful." Ironically, Rand wanted to tell her the same thing—she was far less cautious than she should be, from what he had seen—but before he could voice his thoughts, she spun to face Lemai and drew her sword from its scabbard. Its blade was black, a dull color that did not reflect light, and near the hilt was a mark of some sort. He had yet to get a good look at it, unfortunately. That was yet another thing Rand intended to question her about; it was clear that the sword had been created or altered with the One Power, but there was something different about it. Perhaps a closer examination of it would give him the answers he sought. "Let's go."
The Red paused a moment, appraising the young woman before speaking. "I am not defenseless despite the Oaths. I spent years in the bowels of the Rahad and learned to protect myself long before sisters came to claim me. If I had a dagger…"
The woman did not have time to complete her sentence as Elnore pulled a long blade from the small of her back and lobbed it at Lemai. Rand was still puzzling out where Elnore had kept the blade hidden while the Red did not miss a beat, moving gracefully to snatch the weapon from the air.
Rand watched as Elnore's expression shifted from surprise at the catch to an appraising smile as the other women flipped the blade and caught the hilt. Testing the balance, Lemai spoke to Elnore, "Thank you. I assure you, when this blade is returned it will have tasted blood."
"Good," Elnore responded quietly, something in her tone causing Rand to gape at her. To hear such a sentiment coming from a girl that so resembled Nynaeve was disconcerting. In some ways, she seemed a strange combination of her parents—Nynaeve's temper and fierce protectiveness of those she loved combined with Lan's deadliness—but there was something else in those blue eyes as well. Something unsettling that he could not quite place, and was not certain he wished to.
"Let's go," he told them. "We likely have a long walk ahead of us, and I wish to see this done." The Aes Sedai sniffed before they went through the gateway, but Elnore just nodded at him and obeyed. Yet another quality this girl possessed that differed from her mother. Frowning, he followed the three women through the gateway, forcing his thoughts from Nynaeve lest they lead him to worrying about Min. Cadsuane had better bring the two women back quickly. And safely. He sighed inwardly. Whatever Cadsuane's reasons for leaving, and wherever she had gone, Rand had to focus on Taim and trust that Nynaeve would keep Min from harm.
Nisura looked up from the book she was reading when the light in the room began to flicker. The blazing fire one of the other attendants had built only an hour earlier was already dying, its shrinking flames crackling weakly. There were many disturbing occurrences of late, some of which none cared to discuss, but the inability to keep a fire burning for more than an hour or two at a time was more annoying than troubling. For Nisura, at least.
"I'll take care of it, my lady" she said to Amalisa when the woman started to get to her feet. Setting her book aside, Nisura crossed the room to add more wood to the fire. As she worked with the fire, she heard a worried sigh behind her. She had no need to ask who it was; Riven, one of Amalisa's new attendants from a lesser noble house in Kandor, was nothing if not predictable.
"Stop fretting, Riven," Amalisa said softly. "We have plenty of wood for the fire."
"It isn't just the fire, my lady. Certainly you see it, too. Fires burn out far before they should, the sky is unnaturally gray…men…vomiting beetles. The Dark One's touch, it grows stronger and—"
Amalisa clapped her hands to stop the young girl's flow of words. "Riven, that is enough. I will hear no more of this."
Clearing her throat, Nisura turned away from the fire. Though Riven seemed determined to point out the obvious in an effort to panic everyone around her, the girl was not wrong. The rapidly fading fires could be ignored and, perhaps, it was easy to pretend that Riven's story of the stable boy having beetles crawling from his mouth was merely a young girl's imagination, but the weather…it was not so easily explained. She looked toward the darkness beyond the arrowslits in the outside wall. The sky had been gray for days, and seemed to be growing darker. Anyone with eyes could see the thick clouds that refused to retreat, and without the slightest breeze to scatter them, it was unlikely the sky would clear any time soon. The air was thick and stagnant, making it uncomfortable to even breathe. The Dark One's touch was growing stronger; they all knew that, whether or not Riven spoke of it.
It was not a discussion on the Dark One's touch that Amalisa wished to avoid, however, but rather the topic such a discussion would lead to…the fact that the keep was practically defenseless. All but a handful of Shienaran soldiers had accompanied King Easar on his mysterious trek southward, and though few voiced their fears aloud there was a sense of foreboding in Fal Dara. If there were a raid from the Blight now…
Nisura sighed softly, her brow furrowing into a frown so deep it caused her eyes to ache. In the best of times, the towers were barely manned. These were hardly the best of times. Some took comfort in how quiet the Blight had been of late, but that only made Nisura worry more. The Blight never remained inactive for long. The longer the silence stretched, the more likely an attack became. Especially now.
The silence in the room stretched as the three women made weak attempts to return to their previous activities. Riven stood quietly by the window as Amalisa stared blankly at her book, not bothering to turn the page even after many minutes had passed. Nisura could not even manage that much, her gaze settling on the fire rather than on the open book on her lap. None of them had a right to question Easar about his decisions, but with Tarmon Gai'don drawing near… She could not bring herself to finish the thought. The Light send Fal Dara would be standing when the king returned.
Her thoughts were interrupted when the door was suddenly flung open and a young maid rushed inside. The girl barely curtsied to Amalisa before speaking. "My Lady, please, you must come. You are needed quickly."
In other countries, such an intrusion would be met, at best, with a tongue lashing. At worst, it would likely end with the maid being punished for her impropriety. But not in the Borderlands. Lady Amalisa got to her feet and gestured for Nisura and Riven to join her as she fell into step behind the maid. "Shalia, what is this about?"
"Rengar came in with an Aes Sedai, my lady," the maid said breathlessly as she led them down the hallway. "He found her near the Malkier Gate when he was leaving his watch. The Aes Sedai's horse was…dragging her. She's…" The girl glanced back at Amalisa. "I had him take her to one of the guest rooms in the women's apartments. My lady, she is not well. The horse didn't have a scratch on him, but she… Rengar thinks she must've fallen, though it makes no sense!"
Amalisa did not ask how Rengar had known the woman he found was an Aes Sedai, nor did she ask how the man had deduced that the woman had been injured in a fall. Instead, she just nodded, caught a guard in the hall and sent him to fetch Kathala. "Tell her to bring her herbs. Quickly!"
It did not take long to reach the room where the Aes Sedai lay. Surprisingly, Rengar was still in the room. Most soldiers would have left, rather than wait for Amalisa's arrival. Nisura nearly berated him for remaining in the room, but when her gaze fell upon the Aes Sedai she felt her breath catch.
The woman did, indeed, wear the Great Serpent ring, but she also wore a great deal of other jewelry. On one wrist, the woman wore a bracelet that was connected to four rings on her fingers. There was other jewelry as well—a jeweled belt, a ring, and more—but it was the ring the woman wore on a chain around her neck, the ring Amalisa had begun to closely examine, that drew Nisura's attention. The gold signet ring was worn with age, but the golden crane, which flew above a lance and crown, stood out as clearly as the sun. It was the ring of Malkieri kings.
Amalisa spoke, but Nisura did not hear her words. Instead, she looked upon the Aes Sedai. The woman's left arm was broken, the bone protruding from her forearm. Her dress was little more than a tattered rag. There was no doubt the woman had injuries they could not see. Yet somehow she had survived whatever nightmare she had encountered. Finally, Nisura looked up to the woman's face. It was battered and bruised, but it was still recognizable. The last she had seen this woman had been when Moiraine Sedai had been at the keep. The last Nisura had seen this woman, she had been on her way to Tar Valon for training. What had happened since then? Why was she alone now?
"Rengar," Amalisa ordered firmly, "send some men to Fal Moran. To Shol Arbela. Tell them to find an Aes Sedai and let her know that one of her sisters is in dire need. I fear herbs will not be enough to help this woman." Frowning, Amalisa smoothed the Aes Sedai's hair. She looked near tears.
"You know her, m'lady?" Rengar asked, his words slicing through the silence.
Nisura looked at Amalisa as they both nodded. Amalisa let out a shaky breath before answering, "Her name is…Nynaeve al'Meara."
Adelorna fought a yawn, though the effort was quite futile. It was late, and chances were she would get no sleep tonight. That she was not alone in that fate did not ease her exhaustion. Far from it. As long as the day had felt, tomorrow would prove to be just as long. Unfortunately. Perhaps she could find time to sleep the next day, if luck was with her.
A slight knock on her door was all the warning she received before Jesse stepped inside. "How did your meeting with Tsutama go?" she asked without pause, adjusting the brown shawl on her shoulders as she crossed the sitting room and sank into the plush chair across from Adelorna.
"Surprisingly well." Part of the reason their plan to oust Elaida had taken so long to implement was due to Galina's absence. But, once Tsutama Rath had taken the woman's place as Highest of the Red Ajah, things had changed. The others had not wanted to include her in their plans—Tsutama was too new to her position to understand the complexities Adelorna and the other Ajah heads had been forced to maneuver, much less why they had made the choices they had—but Adelorna had insisted. Had they not agreed upon raising her as Amyrlin, she doubted she would have wanted to include Tsutama either, but it was the right choice. Politically, she could not afford to alienate the Red Ajah. That did not mean, however, that bringing Tsutama into the fold had been easy.
Tsutama had always been a hard woman, and her exile had done nothing to change that. If anything, the Red seemed fiercer than before. Word had it that Toveine had returned much the same as Tsutama. Adelorna oft wondered whether it was wise to send Aes Sedai to Mistress Doweel's farm; in the end, it seemed the woman's harsh discipline only made the exiled Aes Sedai harder than they were before, and that was hardly the point of the exile.
"Did she agree to…" Trailing off, Jesse frowned. "To our plan?"
Adelorna nodded, if a bit hesitantly. "Some concessions had to be made. In addition to the two we expected."
The long sigh that escaped Jesse's lips was almost too soft to hear. "I feared that woman would cause problems. The Reds—"
"It is likely not as bad as you fear," Adelorna interrupted. "I told her of the agreement we made with the boy and, rather than being perturbed by it, she feels it presents new opportunities. The boy will not like what she has in mind, nor will a number of others, but it does not go against our agreement." Truthfully, she had been surprised by Tsutama's ideas and plans for the Red Ajah. Surprised and a bit apprehensive. The deal was done, though. There was naught she could do about it now.
Surprisingly, Jesse did not ask what other concessions had to be made. She would learn soon enough. "The other Ajah heads should be arriving soon," she said quietly, lightly stroking her brown shawl. "Along with the Sitters. It appears they had been tied up…with a trial."
Adelorna cocked an eyebrow at the woman. Tsutama had not mentioned a trial, nor had she given indication that anything was amiss at the Tower. "A trial for whom?"
"They captured the al'Vere girl as she was doing something to the Northharbor chain." Jesse's lips pursed in contemplation and she glanced at Adelorna's Warders before she continued, "The chain is now solid. It cannot be moved. I believe the child may have turned it to cuendillar. Another woman claiming to be Leane Sharif was captured in the process of doing the same to the Southharbor chain, yet she did not quite succeed."
Cuendillar? That the child had puzzled out how to create cuendillar was both interesting and vexing. While selling cuendillar could prove a wonderful way to make more money for the Tower, trying to sort the mess caused by the harbor chains being in one immobile piece would be problematic. Unfortunately, dealing with the chains would have to wait until much more important problems were solved. "So they tried the child. What was the result?"
Jesse snorted, a thing that seemed quite out of character for her. "She was found guilty, of course. It was difficult for them to reach any other conclusion with her insisting, right in front of the Hall, that she was the only true Amyrlin. She even cited the loophole in Tower law that allowed her—a mere Accepted!—to be raised." She shook her head in disgust. "They stilled her on the spot, as soon as the judgment had been made. Then, while we were meeting with the boy, Elaida had her birched before the entire Tower."
"Has she been executed?" Though her voice remained even, Adelorna nearly cringed at the thought. No doubt al'Thor would want blood if the al'Vere girl had been put to death. Worse, it would complicate their agreement.
"No. According to Shevan, Elaida decided against executing the girl. Instead, the child is…was…to be made a handmaiden for the Amyrlin."
Adelorna snorted. "Light, that woman's arrogance never ceases to amaze me! First she has a palace built for herself and now she wants an Accepted stilled for the sole purpose of making her a handmaiden?" She sighed, shaking her head. "The deal we made with the boy is worth deposing that fool. Another day with her as Amyrlin is another step closer to the total destruction of the Tower itself."
"I cannot disagree with that last sentiment," Jesse said dryly, "but the deal we made…it will not sit well with many here. You know as well as I that most sisters feel the boy should be under our control. Though Elaida approached it foolishly, they—"
"Elaida ruined any chance we had of ever getting that boy directly under our thumb without completely crushing him," Adelorna interrupted. "You heard him…saw how he reacted…any Aes Sedai is suspect unless she swears fealty to him. Any save one, and his disdain for her was clear." Cadsuane Melaidhrin. How that woman had insinuated herself into al'Thor's life was a mystery, but Adelorna had no doubt that Cadsuane had control of the boy to some extent, at least. Not only would Cadsuane refuse to swear fealty to anyone, she would never allow the Dragon Reborn to so much as blink without her permission. The only problem was that Cadsuane was more likely than not to decide she herself should lead the boy to Tarmon Gai'don without involving anyone at the Tower. Adelorna could not allow that, no matter Cadsuane's legendary status. "At least this agreement brings us closer to him. If we are close to him, we can gain his trust so we can guide him."
This time it was Jesse who laughed. "Trust? We gave him everything he wanted and walked away with little more than a quicker way to cover distance and an invitation to be guests at the Black Tower, where we would be severely outnumbered. Those Asha'man hate all Aes Sedai, no doubt, especially after Elaida's botched attack on them. No, I believe it will be nearly impossible for any woman who can channel to gain the Asha'man's trust, much less al'Thor's."
"He seems to trust the girl with him. Elnore." When Adelorna saw the grimace on Jesse's face, she raised an eyebrow. "Do not tell me you feel as Ferane does, or that you even entertain any of the ridiculous conclusions the others have come to."
The Brown sister took a deep breath. "No, I don't believe Ferane's explanation that the girl is Lanfear in disguise or that she has al'Thor under some type of Compulsion. If anything, she seemed to be following him rather than leading, but…you have to admit something is not quite right about her, and I don't mean her resemblance to Nynaeve al'Meara. For one thing, she is even stronger in the One Power than the three girls from the Two Rivers. And the things she seems to know…" With a deep frown, she trailed off. After a moment, she shook her head fiercely, causing her shoulder length brown hair to swing back and forth. "New discoveries are all well and good, but she removed a Warder bond! Only the sister who bonded a man should be able to do that!"
Adelorna let out a long breath. "I know. It certainly complicates matters, but you know as well as I that very few Warders would ask for such a thing. The bond itself ensures that the man bonded—"
"But if a man is freed from it," Jesse interrupted, "he is free from the effects as well." She paused. "Both good and bad."
Unfortunately, which parts of the bond were good and which parts were bad depended greatly on whether you were the one holding the bond. Aes Sedai rarely discussed the Warder bond, and not all sisters truly understood the effects of the bond, but none could deny that the men who were bonded, by far, got the worse end of things. The men, for their part, tended to focus on their increased stamina, never considering the price they paid for what, really, was a minor gift. Those trained at the Tower knew, for the most part, what they were getting into, but those bonded away from the Tower had little clue as to how significantly their lives would be altered. Still, once the bond was in place, it was exceedingly rare for a man to request his freedom. Would that reverence for the bond remain if he was out from under its influence, though? Adelorna wished she could believe that her Warders would ask to be bonded again, if freed, but what she knew of the bond—and common sense—told her otherwise.
Finally, after a long silence, she said, "We will need to experiment with the bond, Jesse. Quietly. Perhaps we can find a way to make a bond that cannot be removed." It was a terrible thing to consider—if a man was bonded against his will, there would be no path to freedom—but given the circumstances, and the growing numbers of male channelers, it would likely become necessary.
"That would solve a great many problems, wouldn't it?" Jesse eyed her sideways before looking away. "As well add Compulsion to the bond so it requires no effort on a sister's part to force his obedience." When Adelorna opened her mouth to angrily object, Jesse raised one hand. "I normally have more sense than to discuss Warders with a Green. We will have to address this at some point, but for now it will have to wait. We have more pressing matters. Our deal with the boy is a disaster, one that may ruin us before we ever begin."
Though Adelorna's jaw was still so tight she feared her teeth may crack from the pressure, she managed to respond, "Times are changing, Jesse, and we must change with them or be left behind. I thought that much was clear when we all first agreed to offer an alliance to Taim."
"Yes, it seemed necessary to form that alliance, but how much must we give him? And what good will it do us if he, as well as those Asha'man, remain unfettered?"
Folding her hands in her lap, Adelorna eyed the other woman. "Elaida's failures with al'Thor and the Black Tower should have taught us a lesson, but we've spent so long pushing the world the way we wished it to go, without any resistance, that we can't conceive of any other way to achieve our goals." She paused, but not for long enough for Jesse to speak. "If you want to move a mountain of stones, pushing on it is futile. Trying to do so will just make you look a fool and drain your energy." Her lips curled up slightly. "No, if you wish to move that mountain, you must do so a stone at a time. Then you can put each stone where you wish it to be. Use each in the manner you choose. And when the mountain is small enough…"
Jesse said nothing at first and, instead, crossed the room to pour herself a cup of tea. "So our goals have not changed?"
"On the contrary. Our goals are the same as ever, it's merely our methods that have changed. The White Tower must be whole again, and we Aes Sedai must change our ways if we are to continue to guide the world. When shaken by strong winds, a tree either bends or it breaks. I would rather us bend." Adelorna's attention went to the door when it eased open and the Sitters—minus the Reds—began filing in with the Ajah heads following closely behind. The last one to enter was Alarra. Once the door was closed, Adelorna cleared her throat. "I see no need to waste time. You all have been informed why we are meeting."
Her gaze drifted to the Green who set herself apart from the others and stood alone by the door. "Alarra, tell them what you know. Spare no detail."
Rand stood silently, surveying the destruction that surrounded him. There was little left of Taim's lair save some rubble and a few men who were drawing their last breaths. Taim had been more intelligent than Rand had believed—instead of his entire army, only twenty or so of Taim's men had been assembled. Taim himself had been nowhere in sight.
"Chloe, is this the one who bonded you?"
When Elnore spoke, Rand turned his gaze to the girl to find her hovering over a man who was fighting for breath. When Chloe nodded, Elnore turned toward the Aes Sedai and channeled, removing the bond, then turned back and drove her sword through the nearly dead man's chest. Though Rand had fought by Elnore's side earlier, he had been so absorbed in battle that he failed to recognize her abilities. Really, with him wielding Callandor, there had been little need for her to participate in the battle. Once they had made it to Taim's men, however, he had been the one doing more watching than acting.
On the fairly short walk from the gateway to the building that held Taim's men, Elnore had informed him that she and the two Aes Sedai could handle the impending battle. She had been worried about him, concerned that he had channeled too much at the Black Tower. At first, he had intended to take the lead in the battle despite Elnore's protests that he was nearing the point of exhaustion. That she was correct did not matter; all that mattered was getting Taim and his men. Removing them before they could do more harm. At the time, Rand had no idea how many men awaited them and was more than a little doubtful that two Aes Sedai and a young girl, no matter how competent she believed herself to be, could best Taim and his group of followers. It was for that reason that he reached for saidin, through the fat man angreal rather than Callandor, before he stepped through yet another gateway, this time one that led to the center of the two-story building the Aes Sedai had sworn held the men who had bonded them. It was fortunate that he had.
Elnore had channeled without hesitation, pulling down the chamber's ceiling around them. His head throbbing, Rand had channeled as well. Only moments before the building collapsed, completely crushing the first story of the building with the second, Rand had formed small domes of Air to protect himself, Elnore, and the Sisters from the falling slabs of stone.
As reckless as they were, Elnore's methods had proven effective. As the dust had begun to clear, they had found more than half of Taim's forces destroyed. Neither Rand nor the Aes Sedai had reprimanded Elnore for what she had done, despite knowing that she could have killed the two men that held Lemai and Chloe's bonds. Better to be alive, with a broken bond, than dead.
Those of Taim's men who had not been disabled too greatly, or killed, sought to form gateways, which Rand had easily blocked. Elnore had begun an unrelenting assault on the remaining enemies, engulfing the entire area in flame. Lemai and Chloe had done their part as well, rapidly channeling balls of fire to finish destroying the enemies that had been flailing about in an effort to stop the fire that had consumed them. Exhausted, and convinced that Elnore and the two Aes Sedai could handle cleaning up whatever resistance remained, Rand released the True Source. The wave of nausea left him but the only thing that kept him on his feet was sheer force of will.
"Mishraile is under here," Lemai spat.
Rand turned his gaze to the Red. Save a nasty burn on her neck, she appeared no worse for wear. Neither Chloe nor Elnore suffered as much as a scratch. Nor did Rand himself.
As Elnore moved toward the spot where Mishraile lay dying, Lemai blocked her path. "Wait!" The Aes Sedai presented a bloody blade to the young woman. She must have been quick to kill an Asha'man with the weapon during the short-lived battle. Rand could not help thinking the Maidens would be impressed. "I do not wish to forget how I was violated by this monster. Ever! I wish I could kill him myself, but I cannot because of the Compulsion. Do it for me, Elnore."
Clearing his throat, Rand spoke, "Our deal was to release you from the Bond. We never claimed it was possible to Heal a snapped Bond."
Snatching her shawl about her, the woman never moved her eyes from Elnore, "I know what was promised. I thought I knew what was possible until this child showed me otherwise. Elnore, I release you from you promise to free me my Bond, and ask you to do what I cannot. Kill Mishraile."
The welts and bruises covering Egwene's body kept her from breathing too deeply, but she had tired of lying on the cold stone floor. She almost regretted not having lost consciousness through the beatings she had suffered—she could definitely use some rest—yet she took a certain amount of pride in her ability to embrace pain. Given a bit more experience, she was certain she would be able to take the pain with a smile, just as Aviendha had once described to her. Still, there were some experiences she would gladly forego. Being birched in front of three hundred Aes Sedai was one of those experiences. Another was how she had been beaten afterward, as an incentive to share whatever information she knew.
Fighting a groan, she pushed herself from the floor and got to her feet. Sitting was not an option, not when her backside was beaten bloody. Elaida had been adamant about getting answers from her and, eventually, Egwene had given them. That those answers had not been entirely truthful was something Elaida and her lackeys would not learn until much later. Egwene supposed she should count herself lucky that the woman had not seen fit to use Compulsion on her to force the truth out of her. That, perhaps, was the only bit of luck she had had since her decision to take Bode's place to turn the harbor chains. Though some small part of her regretted that decision—Bode might have been punished for turning the chain to cuendillar but she did not risk being tried and stilled for what the sisters in the Tower saw as treason—Egwene knew she had done the right thing. Bode was a child and, if Egwene had anything to say about it, the girl would not be forced to unsafely hasten her progress. If she had anything to say about it. A soft sigh escaped her lips before she could stop it; it seemed she would have little say about anything now.
She could not help feeling for the Great Serpent ring that was no longer on her finger. Not that she expected it to be there. After falling into the river, she had lost consciousness and had not woken until she was nearly to the White Tower gates. Her Great Serpent ring had been gone then, taken from her by Katerine and the others who had been there to capture her. The lack of it made her feel more naked than the lack of a shift. Nothing left her feeling barer than the lack of ability to embrace the True Source, though. Nothing could fill that void within her now. Despite herself, she tried to embrace saidar. There was nothing there. Just her. Just her and the overwhelming emptiness that had once been filled by her ability to channel.
But I am still alive. And as long as I draw breath, there is hope. It was true. As like as not, her head would be on a chopping block when morning came but for now she was alive. Oddly, she felt no fear. She had no fear when she had first awakened either. At first she had believed it to be a side effect of the forkroot Katerine had dosed her with, but that was not the reason. She had known the risk when she had begun this war against Elaida; now she had to pay for her choices. Or did she?
Her eyes fluttered closed, and she was surprised that the darkness seemed to lessen. Blindly, she carefully shuffled her bare feet on the stone beneath her until she found a wall. A corner. Gently, she leaned against the wall and had to resist the urge to whimper when her skin touched the stone. Some things were out of her hands, but she would maintain the dignity suiting an Amyrlin until she drew her final breath. Even when she was birched in front of the entire Tower, after she had been tried and convicted of treason, she had not begged for mercy. She would not. The Amyrlin begged for nothing, even her own life.
It had angered Elaida, of course. After being taken to the Mistress of Novices and strapped until she was certain the skin had been flayed from her backside, Egwene had been presented to the Hall. Elaida had given her a chance, offered leniency—in the form of being put back in novice white and facing a daily strapping for more than three months—if she would publicly rescind her claim to the Amyrlin Seat.
Egwene smiled at the memory; instead of giving in to Elaida's demands, she had calmly stated that she was the true Amyrlin, legally elected by the Hall. It had taken four sisters to keep Elaida from physically attacking her; the woman's inability to control herself made her look even more foolish. Egwene had taken that chance to warn the Hall of her dream, to warn them of the coming Seanchan attack. She hoped someone would heed her warning. Whether or not they would, she did not know. The Hall had erupted then, but the result had been just what Egwene expected: she was convicted of falsely claiming to be Amyrlin. From there, it had gotten most unpleasant for her. The only thing she could think of, though, was not her own fate but the fate of the rebellion.
What would happen now? She prayed silently that Romanda and Lelaine could somehow stop their bickering long enough to bring order to the rebels. To raise a new Amyrlin. They could not surrender to Elaida. But who could lead them? Lelaine would be nearly as bad as Elaida and Romanda…well, she was hardly ideal but she was a better choice than Lelaine. Neither of them had what was needed, though. Neither had the strength or wisdom to lead the rebels to victory. Or to handle Rand. Egwene sighed. The Aes Sedai needed a firm hand to guide them, to raise them to the place in the world they had somehow lost. Egwene feared there was no one who could manage that now.
The sound of a door creaking open halted her thoughts on the matter. She half expected to see Elaida enter—no doubt the woman would happily be the one to tell her of her execution—yet instead, once her eyes adjusted to the soft light of the lamp, she saw Nicola's face. The girl, now dressed a novice, was carrying a tray of food in one hand and a small lamp in the other. Why had they sent a novice to her? Was this supposed to be a final kindness? A last meal before she was to be executed?
Nicola shifted nervously on her feet. She had been there when Egwene arrived with Katerine and the others. She had, surprisingly and sincerely, apologized for running away. That had been enough proof that she had not been the one to betray the plans to turn the harbor chains to cuendillar. "They thought you might still be sleeping, Mother." That she was naming a woman no longer to channel as the rightful Amyrlin did not seem to bother the girl. "Are you…I mean…how are you?"
Making no effort to cover her body, Egwene walked stiffly, but proudly, toward the door of her cell. Her spine was straight, her head held high. Dignified until the end. "I am alive, child." It still felt right to speak as the Amyrlin, despite not being able to channel. And, in all truth, Egwene knew it was not her ability to channel that made her the best choice to lead the Aes Sedai. Even if she could not channel, she was the only one who could lead these women properly. She just had to survive to do it. Channeling can be Healed. But death cannot. "Isn't it is a bit late for you to be up and about? And even later for food to be served?" Truthfully, Egwene was not certain of the time. Even the darkness of the cell could be attributed to the lack of windows.
"It is, but I was studying in the library and lost track of time. Felaana Sedai saw me there and told me to fetch you a meal before bed. She thought you may be waking soon." She paused, pushing the tray through the rectangular hole in the cell's door. "It isn't much, but I managed to find some leftovers from dinner."
Though she showed no reaction to the news, Egwene was a bit surprised Felaana had thought of her. The woman had been there when she was captured, and though she had kept Katerine from repeatedly slapping her, she had seemed to believe Egwene deserved to be executed. "At this point, stale bread and cold soup are quite welcome." There was no place to set the tray so she took the bowl of soup and bread and pushed the tray back toward Nicola. The thought of eating was enough to make her retch, but perhaps later she could manage to force some small amount of the soup down. She could almost hear Chesa chiding her to eat; the maid was convinced that Egwene never ate enough. "You should go, child. Even though you'll likely get out of your classes tomorrow"—Egwene knew from the secret histories that a public execution would mean novices and Accepted were dismissed from their classes—"you still need your rest."
Nicola flinched as though she had been slapped. "We have classes tomorrow, Mother. I…" Trailing off, the girl frowned. "You don't know, do you?" Egwene merely raised an eyebrow; such questions were superfluous, at best. Pointless, at worst. "You aren't to be executed. After your…your…"
"Birching and stilling," Egwene finished dryly. The Amyrlin could not flinch at mere words.
Nodding, Nicola managed to speak without stammering again. "Yes. Rumors spread quickly. I overheard some sisters discussing your fate and they said Elaida…well, she and the Hall decided not to have you executed. Instead you're to be her maid. They said that, if you proved you could take orders, your connection to the True Source would be Healed and you would be made a novice again."
Unable to help herself, Egwene laughed at that. Light! They had stilled her for no other reason than to break her will? Were they really that foolish? As much as she wished to feel the sweetness of saidar flowing through her again, she would not bend knee to Elaida to obtain it. She would rather lose her head. But if she was to be released, and if she was to be that close to Elaida, she would be in the perfect position to bring the woman down. When someone's connection to the True Source is severed, Siuan had once told her, she must find another reason to live. Something she wants as much as she wants to channel again. Ridding the Tower of Elaida and, in turn, reclaiming what was rightfully hers was that thing for Egwene. She would see it done, and her connection to the True Source would be Healed, on her terms rather than Elaida's.
"You aren't upset, Mother?"
"You will learn one day, child," Egwene began, suddenly feeling quite famished, "that as long as you draw breath no situation is impossible. Now leave the lamp burning for me and get to bed." She gave an approving nod when Nicola curtsied deeply. "I shall see you soon."
As the door slammed closed behind the girl, Egwene smiled slightly. Hope sprung anew. All was not lost. Far from it. The rebellion would go on and she would lead it, from inside the White Tower itself. She had much to do before morning, though. Much to plan.
Hurriedly, she dipped the bread into the soup and began to eat. Thoughts of dignity disappeared as she hungrily devoured her meal. Chesa would have been proud.
Author's note: I apologize for the extreme delay. Unfortunately, after waiting months for this to be edited, I have come to the conclusion that my beta reader has ditched me yet again. The person I used for a backup took three weeks to edit two pages of this and I gave up on him as well, so please forgive any errors you see (and tell me!). If any of you are interested in becoming a beta reader for this story, please let me know. Otherwise, it appears I will have to edit this fic myself. That may take some time, but even with the extra time I should be able to publish the chapters more frequently than I have been. Hope you all enjoy it. I appreciate the feedback so far, so please continue so I know how I'm doing. :-)