This was written as part of the 2007 Yuletide Treasure Fanfic Exchange, which I had thought I posted here as well. Apparently I didn't or it disappeared. In any case, for the exchange I was able to write the story I had always wanted to write since I read The Eye of the World all those years ago: the story of Eldrene and Aemon and the fall of Manetheren.


Please note: This story takes place a long time before the Dragon was Reborn. Many things were different then. Those changes are deliberate.


In memoriam,

James Oliver Rigney, Jr.,

the Creator


The Honor of the Red Eagle

.

The wind howled and twisted, bursting forth from the column of fire that swept through the stone city.

Reaching out like claws, the wind grabbed the Trollocs and their Myrddraal masters, holding them in place if they tried to flee the flames of vengeance and madness engulfing the city.

Their screams were not loud enough to rise above the roar of the wind and the fire.

At the center of the firestorm the wind became a gentle breeze, sweeping into a garden courtyard.

The sweet scent of pink and red roses had once delicately floated above the ornamental pool. The water was gone now, the roses ash. Only trees remained, their branches polished smooth and white in an instant.

At the very center of the eye of the hurricane of fire, there was no wind, only a terrible stillness.

A woman sat on the ceramic tile edge of the pool. A delicate golden coronet held back long hair the same color as the flames beyond the garden. She wore a green velvet gown and two rings on her fingers, and before this day no one could have known which one she valued more. The ring on her right hand was a serpent eating its own tail.

In that hand she clutched a hoop, knuckles nearly the same shade as the alabaster. But that was the only sign of strain, as her pale blue eyes watched the intricate weave of saidar that she held over the city.

Within, she could feel the hollowness that warned she had stretched too far, too much, borne power no human could withstand.

But as long as she had her vengeance, nothing else mattered.

The wind and fire were her eyes and ears, as she searched the city and mountain beyond and struck down all she found. Her will was lightning, and none escaped it. Some Shadowspawn attempted to flee to the Ogier grove, perhaps believing she would continue to spare it - she surrounded it in a ring of fire and burned it to the ground.

At last she was the only living thing within her reach.

Yet she felt no victory. No satisfaction.

Only the terrible emptiness in her heart and mind.

Wait for me, Aemon. I'm coming.

The hoop cracked and splintered, turning to dust in her hand. For one brief instant, she felt the scouring within, as her ability to use the One Power was burnt out of her.

But the hot wind screamed, claws turning against her now, raking through her hair.

She neither blinked nor moved, allowing the fire to consume her.

That was how it ended.

This is how it began.

...

.


In the middle of the Third Age, millennia before the Dragon was Reborn, two interminable centuries since the first wave of Trollocs had first crossed the Blight, a soft breeze blew gently across the green fields, making the flags of the white Flame of Tar Valon flutter. The sunlight glittered on the river far below, and the blue sky was dotted with fluffy white clouds. It seemed strange that the day should be so bright when all the world was cast into shadow.

Eldrene, a princess of Aramaelle, sat in a window of the White Tower, looking out toward Dragonmount. She would have preferred to look northward, toward her home of Mafal Dadaranell, but she wished solitude and this window was the highest she could access as one of the Accepted. Word had come that her city was under attack once more, the third time since her birth. She hoped that her people would have the victory, but she wanted to be there, helping to defend the city.

She had not been there for the first attack, visiting one of the other cities of their land. She had been young, but even then not too young to understand. The minions of the Shadow were always a fact of life in the kingdoms so close to the mountains. Her father and her eldest brother had taken a banner's worth of men and ridden away to raise the siege. Though she had been barely five years old, that was when her family's personal guards had handed her a knife and begun to show her what to do with it to defend herself.

The second time she and her other brother had been caught in the siege itself, the only members of the royal family in the capital at the time. She had been thirteen, her brother Jeroam fifteen, but by that time both had been learning weapons for several years. Yet it had not been a sword or a spear that had become her weapon then.

She had watched the Myrddraal glide into the room, its cloak not even touching the bodies of guards she had known from birth. Had seen her brother's hands shake on his sword as he rose to confront the Fade and protect her. And she had wanted the Fade dead. Wanted it more than she had ever wanted anything more in her life. The fire had billowed out of the hearth, roared out in a fury that enveloped the Eyeless and made it scream even as it reduced to ashes.

That was when she had learned that she had the talent. Not long after, she had been sent to the White Tower and she had left willingly. No one in Aramaelle would scorn a weapon, and Aes Sedai were weapons.

Yet the process of becoming Aes Sedai seemed so long. She wanted to be raised to Aes Sedai, now, today, so she could return to her people and help defend them. But they all counseled patience. That she had to be ready.

She was ready. She was born ready. Effortlessly she embraced the Source and flames danced above her palm.

She smiled a bit, though bitterly, watching the fire. So many Aes Sedai had seemingly wanted her to fail. They had believed that she would crack under the tedious chores required of novices. They had thought her a weak, pampered princess, too good to wash dishes and scrub floors. Some still thought that.

But being a princess made her more of a target of the enemy, not less of one. So she had learned self-control from a young age. Something which some Aes Sedai read as pride, not recognizing she already possessed the skill they were trying to teach her.

The chimes for the fourth hour rang, and she started in her seat, caught completely unaware by the time.

She rose hastily. She was going to be late for Tetsuan Sedai's class and that was likely the class she would regret being late for most of all.

Hurrying, without looking as though she were hurrying too much, she reached the room only three minutes after the bell. Smoothing her skirt and her hair, she took a deep breath and entered. She didn't try to sneak, knowing it would only anger Tetsuan Sedai more.

There were three other Accepted in the room, seated on the carpet, while Tetsuan held the only chair. Her gaze snapped up to find Eldrene. "So the princess feels she can take her time coming to class?" she sneered.

Since Eldrene knew she had no reasonable excuse, not that Tetsuan would probably care anyway, she merely offered, "I apologize for being late, Tetsuan Sedai."

Tetsuan stood up. "I have a hard time understanding how you managed to be raised to Accepted with such arrogance, princess. Constantly you interfere in classes, you are late, you disrespect my time and experience -"

Eldrene didn't mean to react, but her brows arched at the claim of experience. Tetsuan had been raised to the shawl only five years ago. She was powerful, but hardly an expert.

But Tetsuan saw it. A glow appeared around her, as she embraced saidar. Eldrene's eyes widened at the sight, and she very nearly embraced the Source in defensive reflex. Did the woman mean to attack her?

The other students gasped.

"I have half a mind to teach you a lesson, princess," Tetsuan hissed at her. "This is the White Tower, not your father's throne room in Mafal Dardanelle. We do not put up with your airs and pretending your station means anything here."

Eldrene stared back, so tempted to embrace the Source in return that she had to bite the tip of her tongue to restrain herself. Never before had Tetsuan's jealousy been laid so bare before her.

Fortunately, Tetsuan restrained herself as well, taking a deep breath and letting go of the Source. "Sit down," she ordered curtly. "And after class, you will visit the Mistress of the Novices and ask for an appropriate punishment for your tardiness."

"Yes, Tetsuan Sedai," Eldrene answered and knelt beside Ledoren. Her friend cast a quick commiserating glance her way, but didn't dare speak.

Eldrene answered only questions put to her, keeping to a polite respectful voice. She had to respect what the Reds did in restraining potential male Dreadlords, even though she doubted all male channelers were inclined to evil, any more than all women were.

After class, she and Ledoren didn't speak until they were a floor away from Tetsuan and ensconced in an alcove, and Eldrene knotted a quick weave against eavesdropping and draped it over them. Then Ledoren let out a gusty breath. "I can't believe she embraced the Source against you! You should report her."

"She had a perfect right to do that," Eldrene said. "That's what they'll all say. And word would get back to her and she'd just hate me more. There's no point."

Ledoren grimaced, but couldn't refute it. "Well, at least when we're raised you won't ever have to deal with her again. Because you're not going to be a Red, are you?"

Eldrene just gave her a look, and Ledoren laughed. She held out her index finger and Eldrene put hers in it, hooking together. "Still Green to the end, right?"

Eldrene nodded firmly. "Though I know it's just because you want a lot of Warders," she teased.

Ledoren smiled, a light of mischief in her eyes that made her quite pretty. "Speaking of, did you know there's a new crop of trainees in the yard? And one of them, I'm told, is Prince Aemon of Manetheren." She poked Eldrene in the side. "Now wouldn't he be a catch?"

Eldrene rolled her eyes. "Not that I want to make our teacher right, but that doesn't impress me so much. My older brother's a prince and the heir and a great warrior, and also a terrible bore."

Ledoren waved that away, on the track of her idea. "But you and Prince Aemon - it would be perfect!" Ledoren enthused. "The princess Aes Sedai and the prince-Warder. I've heard he's very handsome. And you'd make a beautiful queen."

Eldrene laughed, shaking her head at her friend. "Silly goose of a matchmaker! Don't you think I want to be Green to get away from all the politics of my previous position? No, Prince Aemon will be better suited to a Blue, who will enjoy all of it so much more. I just want to fight Shadowspawn. Maybe I'll have a handful of Warders, too."

"They'll line up twenty deep for the honor," Ledoren teased. The two were friends in part because Ledoren had not a jealous bone in her body - she was a pretty merchant girl, not in Eldrene's class in power, beauty, or previous station, but she let none of those things keep her from being Eldrene's near-sister. "Besides, don't say no until you see him. Better move quickly, or some Aes Sedai is going to move in and snap him up -"

"Don't let me get in your way, my dear." She freed her finger and smiled. "But first I have to go to the Mistress of the Novices and then my class. I'll meet you at Sixth bell for dinner?"

Plan agreed to, they went their separate ways. Eldrene was amused as she went down to see Holorana. She'd had no idea Ledoren was such a closet romantic. But she had to be grateful to her friend for lightening her heart as she so often did, even if it was for a bit of silliness.

But eventually, Ledoren managed to drag her out to the Warders' practice yard, of course.

There was quite a lot to see. The Aes Sedai stood with false casualness in the higher balconies, trying to pretend they were out for air and just happened to be in the same visual range as the young warriors in the ground below. Accepted and a few giggling novices gathered at the fence more openly, unless sisters called them away.

Eldrene and Ledoren as senior Accepted took a middle course of standing at the railing of the breezeway on the second floor and looked down at the men doing their sword drills.

She knew which one had to be Aemon of Manetheren from the amount of attention focused on one man in particular. He was facing his opponent, away from her, so she spent a moment watching them drill. His hair was short and dark, barely touching his collar. The shirt he wore was plain white and loose, except where it clung to him from sweat. He moved lightly - forward and back - true steel of his sword flashing in the light as he and his opponent fought through the forms.

The sword form changed, and all the Warder Trainees turned like wheels, letting her finally see his face.

She didn't realize she had moved until her hips bumped into the balustrade and her hands came down on the railing to keep her balance. She couldn't look away - she was staring, but she was seeing something else. She had seen him before, after all.

,,,

,

Her beloved was fighting. Five Myrddraal had surrounded him. And they were toying with him. Perhaps they didn't even mean to kill him, maybe they were going to capture him and bring him to their masters.

"Eldrene, help me!" he begged.

The silver archway beckoned.

She ignored it, lighting fireballs to launch at the Eyeless. But there were more, and Trollocs too, pouring into the room.

"Eldrene!" he shouted. "Eldrene!" And he threw himself between her and the oncoming horde. Fighting desperately - his sword and shield a blur, trying to defend her, even as the numbers overwhelmed him.

"No, love, no!" She held her hands together, preparing balefire and take them all.

The archway shimmered. Flickered and grew pale. She hesitated, and then with an agonized cry, ran for the archway.

His howl of betrayal was still ringing in her ears as she hit the archway. "Eldrene!"

...

.

The third ring of her Accepted test had shown her this man.

How could this be? She had never met him before. Yet this was him, from the incisive hazel eyes and sharp angled jaw to the exact same belt buckle with the enamel red hawk.

Her chest felt tight, and she couldn't draw a deep enough breath. "Aemon Al Caar of Manetheren," she whispered. They stopped down below, frozen in position while the Swordmaster corrected someone.

"You see?" Ledoren nudged her in the ribs. "I told you he was handsome."

But the image of those handsome features twisted in desperation and anguish haunted her memory and her skin was cold. She tried to reassure herself that it wasn't prophecy - Gemma Sedai had said the arches could only reflect fears and doubts and memories, but they held no truth.

But looking at the living face of what she had thought a stranger in a private nightmare, she wasn't so sure.

Aemon's face lifted, searching upward, as if he could feel the intensity of her gaze. And he turned until his eyes met hers. His lips parted, and the sword in his hand lowered slowly as he stared at her.

Across twenty paces, she could feel the Pattern shift around her and him, their individual threads plucked out and twined together.

Below, the drill continued, but Aemon didn't move. His opponent's sword nearly struck him, until the opponent turned the blade to one side, with a startled exclamation. "Aemon!"

Aemon started, glancing around to see what was happening as his sword lifted in reflex.

Master Sedrein stalked through the lines and grabbed Aemon by the collar. He glanced up to see where Aemon had been looking and his bellow was for all the young men: "Plenty of pretty girls in the White Tower, boy. But keep your mind on the sword in your hand, or you won't be needing the other one."

He forcibly turned Aemon away from her and marched him to the other end of the yard, but she still felt the connection. And she knew he did, too, when he glanced back over his shoulder to look at her again.

Not even a glimpse of Tetsuan's cold face was enough to quench the warmth inside, or quell the little thrill of excitement running through her blood. She moved away, hugging herself to keep it all inside just a little longer.

Ledoren hurried after, giggling. "He was so overcome by you he nearly got skewered. I bet he's never living that one down."

Eldrene stopped still in the middle of the hall, so abruptly Ledoren almost walked into her. "I need to meet him."

"In secret?" Ledoren murmured, looking not exactly surprised.

About to say yes, Eldrene reconsidered. "No. Properly. I'll not give anyone an excuse to bar us from seeing each other."

She felt very virtuous, saying that, when all she wanted to do was run off the garden and wait for him to find her in the dark.

Instead she waited for him in one of the small sitting rooms, with open doors to the balcony and a view of the fields beyond the river. A soft breeze stirred the curtains and her hair, which she'd left loose, making only one braid with the hair from around her face.

The door opened and she jumped, taking a breath to recapture her composure. He was there; she knew he was, even though the first through the door was Gemma Sedai.

Eldrene stood and smoothed her skirts. Gemma gave her a critical once-over and nodded - as one of the leaders of the Greens and Eldrene's favorite teachers as well, she had been the one to approve this meeting. She wouldn't mind another Green queen of Manetheren, since there hadn't been one in four generations.

There was the unaccustomed sound of a heavier tread on the tile floor and he was there. This time, they both managed to keep more of their wits.

She knew he was six years older, and his stride was full of an experienced warrior's confidence as he crossed the carpet toward her. Her eyes were level with his mouth, and she had an easy view of his tanned throat under his open-necked linen shirt and the pulse beating quickly there. He seemed much larger this close - broad through the shoulders and taller than she was by two hands. His presence seemed to fill the small delicate room with a different, more masculine energy that danced across her skin.

Gemma introduced, with a fond smile at them both, "The Accepted Eldrene ay Ellan, daughter of King Rigaar of Aramaelle. Prince Aemon Al Caar of Manetheren."

Aemon bowed, hand going to his hip instead of the sword he would normally be wearing. Very properly, he said, "Honored to serve."

She bowed her head, not curtsying, as she would if she'd been only Rigaar's daughter, and held out her hand. He grasped it, taking her fingers in his. He had the rough hands of a warrior, calloused by his sword hilt and bow strings, and scarred by old cuts. It made her feel soft, by contrast.

His gaze had settled onto their hands, and then snapped up to meet hers. His eyes looked very green in the sunlight. "Ellisande," he murmured. "It is you."

She frowned. 'The Rose of the Sun'? What was that supposed to mean? "Eldrene," she corrected, thinking he'd mis-heard her name.

He shook his head, his grip tightening on her hand. "My mother did a Foretelling when I was born," he explained to her softly. "I would wed someone called Ellisande."

"But that's not my name."

He smiled, amused, and explained, "You're from Aramaelle. Your house sigil is the quartered sun, isn't it?" he asked, not expecting her to answer. "And if there are any roses more beautiful than you in Aramaelle, I'm the Dragon Reborn." He lifted her hand and brushed a kiss on the back.

She intended to protest he was being very forward, planning to marry her on less than a minute's acquaintance, but the words died in her throat at the touch of his lips on her skin. Her fingers tightened on his, and her breath caught in her chest.

The Power shimmered all around, humming in her blood. All her hard-won composure deserted her and she couldn't find her voice.

"I waited so I could come when my Ellisande arrived at the White Tower," he said, smiling at her, crinkling the corners of his eyes. "But there was never a novice with that name. Grandfather grew tired of waiting, and decided that if I was fated to marry someone not Aes Sedai, so be it. And here you are."

"The Pattern weaves as It wills," she said, remembering her first glimpse of him, in that horror beneath the archway. It sent a shiver down her spine, realizing they were the focus of prophecy. Did that make them ta'veren?

Their eyes met again, and the humor dissipated from his. His hand shifted to clasp hers and rubbed the back of her hand with his thumb. "We're going to do great things together, Eldrene."

Gemma cleared her throat and Eldrene jumped, having completely forgotten they were being observed.

"Perhaps you will, children," she said, not bothering to hide her amusement. "But you both have training to complete first."

And like obedient children, they answered in unison, "Yes, Gemma Sedai."

The elder woman chuckled. "I don't need Foretelling to know that you two are going to be trouble. Come; take a turn in the gardens together. Best to get to know each other before you plan out your futures. You'll be bound together soon enough."

It was not soon enough for either of them, yet the training passed quickly. Tetsuan refused to work with Eldrene, saying she was unteachable, and Eldrene left her class gladly. She wasn't going to be a Red, and both of them knew it. But the other practices grew more difficult to endure - sometimes she could sleep only one night in three and still had to channel at the end of it. But her infrequent meetings with Aemon, kissing him, and sometimes merely resting her head on his lap and having him stroke her hair, were more renewing than sleep.

She had thought she loved him before, but that was a candle to the fire she felt a year after they had first met.

Aemon finished his training before her and she watched the ceremony with pride, wishing she were full Aes Sedai so she could bond him right then, as so many others did.

Instead, when the Master asked, "Warder Aemon, to whom shall you swear the oaths and be bound?"

Aemon raised his chin. "None today, Master Sedrein."

Sedrein wasn't surprised - it was no great secret who Aemon wanted as his Aes Sedai - but he was forced by ritual to say, "A Warder is no Warder without an Aes Sedai."

"I will have an Aes Sedai, Master Sedrein, but not today." He glanced at her, and his smile warmed her as even saidar never could.

Six days later she was called for her test to be raised to Aes Sedai.

Tetsuan was there and gave her a curt nod and a sour curl of her lip. Eldrene nodded back, hiding her sudden nervousness as she went into the ring.

She battled men and Darkhounds, Trollocs and Fades, and Black Ajah. She channeled in a wind storm and the pouring rain, having to stay calm and focused.

Until the last one - a man who could channel, laughing with madness as he struck with invisible power. And he had Aemon's face.

Aemon...

He nearly took off her head with a sword made of Fire while she stared at him, aghast and horrified. She dodged aside and wove a shield frantically, hurling it between him and the Source. But he was strong and he was holding the Power. He laughed as it bounced off. She tried again, wishing for an angreal, with the same result. And then one last time, gathering all her strength, she made her weave as sharp as she could.

It cut through the invisible flows of saidin, and he screamed, collapsing to his knees and holding his head. Then, tears streaming down his face, but looking lucid, he begged, "Kill me, Eldrene. I can't bear this; I can't live without the Power..."

He was still pleading with her to kill him as she stepped on the last star and left the false world.

She breathed in the cold air, keeping her eyes closed for a moment. She was exhausted and ached everywhere, and she bore some cuts and scratches. But she had enough energy to gather her anger in a tight little ball and stalk over to Tetsuan, standing in her face. Tetsuan flinched, just slightly, and Eldrene took some satisfaction in that.

"Your last test was vicious and cruel, and I do NOT forgive you for it. But luckily I am done with you, and your jealousy and your hatred," she said in a low cold voice. "I am going to wed Aemon al Caar and have him as my Warder, and someday I will be queen of Manetheren. There is nothing you can do about it."

Then she turned on her heel and went back to Gemma. "Gemma Sedai, I do formally pledge myself to the Green Ajah."

"Welcome, Eldrene Sedai," she kissed Eldrene on both cheeks and then framed her face in her hands to Heal her. When that was done, other Greens came forward with a shawl, while members of the other Ajahs melted from the room.

Eldrene stared at the door to her new quarters, weary beyond measure. There were swords carved into the door in a woven pattern that refused to let go of her eyes. She shook off her daze and opened the door. Weariness dropped away when she saw Aemon standing in the middle of the floor waiting for her.

"Aes Sedai," Aemon greeted with a hand to his chest in formal salute, but he was grinning proudly.

She pulled her other hand from behind her back to hold up the green-trimmed shawl for him to see. His arms came around her, in a tight crushing embrace. "I knew you could, Eldrene. I knew it," he whispered in her hair.

"There is one more thing to make it complete," her voice was shaking and she pulled back a little to watch his face. "Aemon al Caar al Thorin, will you be my Warder?"

The glow in his eyes might have been saidar it was so brilliant. He put a hand on her cheek gently. "If you, my beautiful Eldrene, will marry me and be my queen."

"Yes," she whispered. "Oh, yes, Aemon. I'm so tired of waiting."

Waiting to be Aes Sedai. Waiting to bond Aemon as her Warder. Waiting for the rest of her life to begin.

"Then I am yours, and you are mine," he declared. "At last."

First their hands met, and it seemed to Eldrene that she had never touched him before. His fingers grasped hers, strong and a little rough, but still thrilling. He pulled her to him eagerly, and she went, just as eager.

Their lips met and one of his hands buried in the mass of her hair to hold her pressed against him. The shawl dropped to the floor, joined quickly by the rest of their clothes. He scooped her up into his arms and carried her to the bed, as she channeled all but a few candles out.

After the first celebratory joining, while lying together on the bed, she touched his forehead. She channeled and gently let the weaving of Spirit settle over him.

He inhaled sharply and then let it out slowly, his gaze fixed on her in wonder. "I feel you," he whispered. "I feel you, in my head. My body."

And she could feel him too, a presence or a fire that hovered beside her sense of saidar. Of the One Power, but not part of it, something separate. She could sense his strength, the very energy that glowed with his spirit. Not his thoughts but perhaps his emotions, all in a bright tangle, and the brightest thread of all was his love for her.

How could Aes Sedai have Warders they didn't love? she wondered to herself briefly. How could they endure feeling their Warders respect for them, or resignation to doing their duty? Rather than this - this glory of knowing that their feelings were mirror reflections, going deep into their hearts and minds, binding them together forever?

She basked in it, like a lizard on a rock absorbing the sun's heat, and she was so caught up in the feeling that she almost didn't feel Aemon's lips brushing her neck. Almost.

Her breath caught. "Aemon, what - what are you doing?"

He lifted his head and looked amused and yet the touch of his skin seemed scalding as well. "I feel reborn," he murmured. "Strong. I can't possibly sleep now. Can you?"

With his body atop hers, heated but giving her chills, she couldn't possibly sleep either. She shook her head mutely and tugged his mouth back to hers.

Much later, the vague thought crossed her mind. I pity the Aes Sedai who never feels this.

...

.


Only five days later, one banner's worth of the Manetheren army arrived to escort their prince home. They had come by the Ways, but despite the time it would save, Aemon wanted to go back overland and show her Manetheren, and let Manetheren see her.

For one moment, gazing at the banner - a red handprint on white - her stomach felt queasy and she had to look away. But it passed, and she smiled as the men formed into ranks to greet Aemon.

They didn't know about her, and the reaction was very gratifying when Aemon took her hand and led her before the men. "I present to you, Eldrene Sedai, princess of Manetheren!"

It took a moment for them to figure it out, and then they burst in a wild cheer.

On the morning of their departure, she hugged Ledoren tightly. Ledoren had been raised to the shawl as well. "You must come visit me when you can," she urged. "I need my friends."

"I will," Ledoren promised. "First I need to choose a Warder or two, then I'm going to visit your old home in Aramaelle and then Jaramide. But I will come to Manetheren, I promise." She hugged Eldrene tightly. "I'm going to miss you."

"Me, too," Eldrene said through the lump in her throat then turned away and mounted her horse hastily, before she started to cry.

As her gray mare Lilac stepped onto the cobblestones of the western shore of the river, she had to blink back tears as she looked back and saw the high shining walls of the White Tower. She was leaving her home, and she knew she wouldn't be coming back.

Aemon brought his horse to hers and took her hand. She looked at him and smiled, letting the feel of his love replace her sadness.

"We're on our way home, Ellisande. You'll love it, I promise," he reassured her, but she felt the faintest touch of anxiety.

"Wherever you are is my home," she answered. Stating it so, it became true, and she faced forward with new resolution. The White Tower, like Mafal Dadaranell, had been left behind in the past.

On the long journey, she saw the warleader side of Aemon, which he had not displayed much in Warder training. His men were all strongly loyal to him, and they seemed to have missed him while he'd been gone. He ran the camp with an admirable skill despite his age, and she helped, by taking over the provisioning.

She found it a little odd at first, reaching more often for her early training in Aramaelle than being Aes Sedai, as she went around to meet the soldiers. They reminded her so much of Aramaellers - battle-hardened and tough like willows. They were all, to a man, glad that their prince had found his princess.

There were also two other Aes Sedai in the procession with their gaidin, both of the Yellow. Since Healing was no particular skill of hers, but defending against Shadowspawn was, she took over setting the wards each night. Aemon often walked the perimeter with her, peering out at the darkness.

"I can feel them." he murmured, on one night halfway across the great plains, between towns, and he put an arm around her shoulders.

She nodded, feeling the same sense of creeping dark inside that he did. Shadowspawn were close. "Me, too."

"I think they're paralleling us, to the north. I worry they're waiting for reinforcements."

"Then we should probably attack them," she advised. "While we still have decisive advantage."

He kissed her hair and sounded proud, as he said, "And that's why I'm glad you're of the Green Ajah. Come battle Blighters with me, love?"

She put a hand on the hilt of his sword. "Any time."

That night Aemon sent the scouts to check on the enemy's numbers and positions, and when the report was favorable, he set up a two-pronged attack, with mounted archers to push the Trollocs into his spearmen. The next night he took the lead of the mounted archers, slipping off into the shadows to begin the battle.

Eldrene stayed out of it for the most part, not wanting to distract Aemon by putting herself in danger. She sat on her horse, with five personal guards, on top of a low rise and channeled bright light above the battlefield to blind the Trollocs. She also picked off those who strayed from the killing ground, and half-watched Aemon ride into it and cut down Fades as though they were no more difficult to kill than Trollocs.

The battle was short, bloody, but highly successful. Aemon returned to her, covered in vile gore, but with a triumphant grin. "My Ellisande brought us luck," he declared and swept her into a kiss.

The men took up the name, shouting it, "Al Ellisande!"

In successive engagements, it became a part of the battlecry. Every time she heard it she smiled, outwardly flattered and pleased, while inside it always made her remember that this had been Foretold. And she dreaded to find out why.

Prince Caar and his banner - the Red Eagle of Manetheren on green - and two columns of soldiers waited for them at the border.

He was stockier than his son, with more grey than brown in his hair, and a face accustomed to somber reflection and sorrow. Or at least so it seemed, before he smiled and she could see where Aemon got the bright light in his eyes.

"Welcome to Manetheren, Eldrene Sedai. I met your father once, when we joined to raise the siege on Darenbar. He was a good fighter, and honorable man, and he certainly could hold his liquor," he said, shaking his head in rueful amazement and she chuckled at the truth of it. Then he held out both of his hands to her. "I knew my son would choose well, and so he has. Daughter. If I may call you that?"

"Of course," she agreed.

He tugged her close to kiss both cheeks. "Welcome, Eldrene Sedai. Father and I miss having Aes Sedai around in the castle." His expression clouded with sorrow and he glanced away, gripping his sword-hilt in a white-knuckled grip.

"All of Tar Valon mourned the news of your wife's passing, Prince Caar. It was a great sadness," she told him. She'd been a young novice at the time, but she remembered the shock and horror that a Yellow would die of the wasting disease. She must have released the Warder bond before her death, for Eldrene didn't know how he could endure her loss otherwise. But it had clearly hit him hard regardless, and he had refused to remarry, despite Aemon being his only surviving child, a strong but lonely reed to continue the line of his House.

He gave a brief nod and turned to Aemon, gripping his shoulders. "And you, son, are a sight to make a man proud. A Warder at last. Father sends his best, and bids us to hurry. He wants to meet his new beautiful grand-daughter."

There were more Aes Sedai with Caar, and Eldrene spent some time getting to know them. They were all respectful and deferential, and she walked away to rejoin Aemon wishing Ledoren were with her.

That night, in camp, she and Aemon found that Caar was not going back to Manetheren with them.

"No," he said and sipped his wine. "There is something... " he trailed off uncertainly and then picked the word deliberately, "dark brewing in Aridhol. In our last campaign together, I was not sure which was worse - the Trollocs or the men of Aridhol. Any Darkfriends they took prisoner, they... tortured. Things I have only seen Myrddraal do. At least ten of my men disappeared, named as Darkfriends. And there are... whispers and rumors about Balwer Ironhand. That he's lost his power, that he's dead, that he's a puppet of some Dreadlord... So I'm going to see what has happened to him and bring him back to the Light."

The candles flickered and Eldrene shivered. "Shall we come with you?" she asked. Aemon agreed, nodding somberly,

"The Red Hand should join you, Father. If Aridhol has fallen from the Light, then surely you'll need more than one banner. Maybe a full legion."

Caar shook his head. "No, Father and I decided. Balwer and I have been friends a long time, he won't fight me. I have three Aes Sedai with me to help, that should be enough. If it's not..." No one dared break the silence, as Caar finished his wine and sighed. "We live in dark times, children." Then he looked at them, sitting snugly together, with her head against Aemon's shoulder, and he smiled. "Yet you two are bright enough to give me hope again."

When Caar and his banner peeled off to the north, Eldrene started forward until she realized Aemon hadn't moved.

He swallowed hard. "I should go with him," he said.

"He's right," she said, and he turned his head toward her sharply. "If Aridhol has fallen to the Dark, you both can't walk in there. Your nearest heirs are children still, we have none of our own, and Manetheren needs its leaders grown and strong."

He paused and his shoulders slumped a bit, admitting the truth of what she said. He turned to watch his father march our of sight, and she could feel his dread like a cold lump in her own heart. "I fear I won't see him again," he whispered.

She could give him no simple promises, but she took his hand. "Your father is a great man, Aemon. If any can succeed, he can. Come, we need to be on our way."

He shook off his mood and they continued westward on the great road that led eventually to the city of Manetheren.

...

.


Word had traveled before them, and the procession took on a celebratory air - people came from far away to see them pass by. They cheered their prince and his princess and the Banner of the Red Hand. Their pace was slow, because she knew it was important to walk through the towns and meet people. She Healed people, renewed vermin and anti-Shadowspawn wards on town walls, and every day received so many flowers from little children that she had to start handing them back out again or be buried.

But finally they rode across the bridge of the Manetherendrelle, and up the broad road that led to the city of Manetheren.

Eldrene rode around a bend in the road, not expecting it to level out and open up, giving her a view of the city. Her jaw dropped and she stared in awe.

This was Manetheren? No wonder so many whispered that it was the most beautiful city in the Ten Nations. The city nestled snugly on the broad shoulder of a mountain, protected by towering cliffs above and below it. High, curving Ogier-built walls surrounded it, similar to the walls of the White Tower, but here carved into pictures of men and horses and the running motif of an eagle in flight - all so detailed it looked as though they should be able to tear themselves away from the wall and walk, even though all were twenty paces high.

The walls rose into towers and above even the towers, within the city, there were tall green trees and slender spires twirling into the sky, shimmering with the pale grey stone that was one of Manetheren's chief trade goods.

Many of the highest spires were festooned with colorful banners that snapped in the cool mountain breeze, and she saw the largest was the Red Eagle of Manetheren. Her heart swelled with pride that she would be joining this proud, fierce land.

"You like?" Aemon asked, grinning at her.

"I had no idea..." she murmured, still staring, trying to see everything she could.

Nothing higher than an ankle was permitted to grow for three hundred paces from the walls, and Manetheren and the Builders had taken advantage, creating a wide plaza of interlocking stone designs, with green grass and tiny flowers growing in specific designs between the paving stones.

A thousand people gathered on the walls, shouting and waving flags. Eldrene saw more than a few flutter to the ground.

As they headed beneath the towers that guarded the massive gates, the path was lined with soldiers all wearing the red eagle on their surcoats, and they saluted as she and Aemon passed, with one fist to their hearts.

Within, she thought they were facing another wall, until she realized it was actually a high waterfall, water sliding in a silent sheet down a smooth wall to disappear into a deep well or river that ran off underground. They had to turn right or left, to go around, and so they turned left, heading slowly up a long curving ramp. It reminded her quite a bit of the fortress at the center of Mafal Dadaranell but much larger, and with a lot more water.

But it made sense. Trollocs and Fades didn't like water, and using Manetheren's plentiful springs and reservoirs as protective shields was logical and explained in part why Shadowspawn were so reluctant to attack the city.

On the upper level, the land opened up into buildings and gardens with fountains, and bridges spanning narrow but fast-moving streams. All of it enough to take her breath away.

The people of the city were out in force, lining the street and crying out welcome to the prince and Eldrene. She waved and smiled, even when some thrown flowers very nearly hit her in the face.

Someone started to beat on a large drum, and soon the voices became a chant: "The Red Eagle! The Red Eagle!"

The sheer force of it seemed to push Eldrene up the slanted roadway and through the gates of the palace. They left behind the other soldiers, and entered alone.

Within, it was quieter, almost serene. She heard the soft tinkle of a fountain, and the noises of people working and the others outside the walls, but the sound seemed distant. She dismounted and gave her horse into the care of a groom, looking all around her new home with hungry eyes.

Aemon took her hand. "Come, Grandfather's waiting for us."

Broad formal gardens and low identical buildings on multiple levels gave the impression of a maze to confound any invaders. She had no doubt that beneath her feet there were secret passages as well, to allow for evacuation. The palace in Mafal Dadaranell had them, too.

Inside the halls were broad, carpeted and paneled in dark wood, carved into floral patterns or geometric designs that seemed to catch her eye as they walked.

Red shirted guards saluted formally and pulled open the tall wooden doors.

She had expected a grand throne hall but this was a small room, lined with books and warm from a fire in the grate. She had also expected a frail, old man, since she knew King Thorin had not ridden to war for fifteen years. But instead she found a tall man, with a full head of white hair, who was still broad through the shoulder and lean through the waist, standing by the fire. He turned to face them, and his face was deeply furrowed with lines of care and sorrow.

To her astonishment she saw he had white patches tied over his eyes - he was blind. Aemon had never mentioned that.

"Grandfather," Aemon greeted him and came across the rug, pulling her inside. "I'm home."

"About time, young man," Thorin said in a gruff tone. "And you brought your Ellisande after all, I'm told."

"I am Eldrene Sedai of the Green Ajah, and daughter of Rigaar of Aramaelle, King Thorin Al Toren Al Ban," she said. "Aemon calls me Ellisande."

"Of course he does." He held out a hand to beckon her close. "Come nearer, Ellisande. Let me see you."

It was very strange to stand still before him and let his fingertips brush across her face very lightly, even dipping into her hair to comb it through the length. "Myrddraal blinded me many years ago, now. Caar and his brother rescued me; a poor trade, a son for a blind father, I think," he explained. "But he refused to let me abdicate the crown to him."

"As well he did," Aemon cut in. "You rule wisely, we fight fiercely. That was the bargain, and it's worked well for us."

Thorin's mouth twitched into a smile. "Indeed, I'm fortunate my son and grandson are such great warriors. And fortunate in their wives, it seems." He lifted his fingers away. "You are a beauty, aren't you? Even these old fingers feel younger now. I bet the flowers open just to make you happy," he teased.

She blushed, but retorted, "And the birds help me with my hair."

Thorin chuckled. "Indeed I see we've read the same stories, grand-daughter. Pour some wine, Aemon, and have a seat. Speak to me of the White Tower - it's been more than fifty years since I was there."

...

.


Eldrene and Aemon settled in their small suite across the central courtyard from Caar's apartment. Eldrene spoke long hours with Thorin and was a guest at many luncheons and teas with the leaders of the city and the kingdom, learning its ways. Aemon took his banner off to the north on a training patrol, leaving king and Aes Sedai to have their meals together. She found it comforting that she could always feel where he was and that his mood remained positive.

After one dinner, the king was pensive, holding his wine and spinning the glass in one hand. "In the ordinary course of things, a man should not outlive his Aes Sedai wife," he murmured. "Yet it happened to my father, and to me, and to my son. It is...a terrible thing, Ellisande. The grief of my wife's passing haunts me still." His grip tightened on the fragile crystal stem and he put the goblet down, folding his hands across his stomach. "She tried, bless her, to undo the Warder bond as she died, but it never fully faded away. I tell you this so you know and understand why I had hoped that Aemon's Ellisande would not be an Aes Sedai. In my darker moments, I think it is a terrible idea for those who may outlive their husbands and children and children's children, to have those children in the first place. Yet it is still more terrible to live beyond such a life cut short."

Eldrene took a moment to answer. "I have thought of these things," she started slowly. "And my answer to myself was - there is no one in this Age left untouched by grief. No one is unmarked by the war against the Shadow. No one knows the full Pattern of what is to come. So I would rather take what love and family I can, than deny myself those things out of fear. If by some chance I do live out the full years possible to an Aes Sedai, at least I will carry those memories with me. But I don't believe I will. I'm of the Battle Ajah, and very few of us die in our beds."

A silence broken only by the crackling of the fire settled on them, broken by the king at last. "I never thought I would either, and yet here I am."

She smiled a little in commiseration. He remained quiet a moment, and then leaned forward to open the drawer in the small table next to his chair. He brought a small wooden chest and opened it with a key from a silver chain around his neck. Then he handed her the chest. "This has been passed down in our family from the time of Arad and Sorella. It's one reason we have always had Aes Sedai wives."

She opened the lid. Nestled inside on dark green velvet was an alabaster hoop, too large to use as a bracelet, but in the same roped style.

But she gasped when she touched it. She wasn't even holding saidar, but she could feel it, an almost physical call, pulling her to channel at it. She did, just a trickle, and her very simple weave unfurled like a flag and smashed the foot stool into the oval mirror on the wall. Both shattered.

She let go of the Source and snapped the lid shut, trembling. "Sa'angreal," she murmured. "By the Creator, I've never felt anything like that before."

The king nodded somberly. "So now you know. I didn't tell Caar's wife - she wasn't strong enough to withstand knowing about it and keeping it secret. But you, I think, understand."

A sa'angreal that powerful could level a mountain. It would also almost certainly destroy the user. She was strong, but probably not strong enough to use that and not still herself, at the very least. It was only to be used as a very last resort, and possibly not until Tarmon Gai'don itself.

She nodded once, and swallowed hard before she handed him the box back. He locked it again and tucked the key back under his shirt.

Then he laid his hand on her arm and squeezed gently, and they let the silence fall again.

...

.


The House Guards captain stood in the doorway, and Eldrene looked up, from where she and the king were working on accounts.

"My lord, there's someone here with news of Prince Caar. He says he must speak to you in person."

"Send him in, then, of course, Captain Treyin." Thorin's quill shook just a little as he laid it down.

Two weeks had passed since the last message from Prince Caar, and that had been very short. The hand had been very unlike the first messages they'd received, and she was tempted to send for Aemon's return, but Thorin wanted to give Caar time with Balwer in Aridhol.

But she saw in the tense lines of the king that he was just as anxious as she was for what was happening.

Treyin escorted a young man in. His clothes were much worn, all simple browns and greens, and he was wearing sheepskin boots and vest even though it was summer. His hair was shaggy as well, flopping forward as he sketched a bow. "My king. Lady Sedai-I am Danillin."

He stared at her, with big yellow eyes, and swallowed hard, and she smiled at him. "Welcome, Wolfbrother. Please come in and tell us your news of Prince Caar."

"Wolfbrother?" Thorin repeated in astonishment. "I don't think any wolfbrothers have come to the city since I was a boy."

"No, sir. The city smells too much of people," he said. "But I had to come tell you what happened." He swallowed again and his hands twisted together.

"My pack ran near Aridhol," he explained. "But the city grew ... twisted and vile. The stench of it traveled for miles. It's hard to explain - it started as a bad scent caught once or twice on the wind, and then grew stronger and more unbearable. Recently..." he trailed off, and for an instant, the affable young man disappeared, as he snarled and his eyes caught the firelight and glowed.

Then he lowered his gaze and cleared his throat. "The wolves refuse to go within fifty miles of it. I forced myself close to keep my ... nose on it when your son and his banner came to Aridhol. At first their scent was a bright note in a midden and I hoped that he might put it right. But... soon it was overwhelmed and faded altogether."

A heavy silence fell, until Thorin broke it with a gruff prompt, "And? What happened?"

"Yesterday, lord king. There was a man stumbling through the forest, lost, alone, hurt. He smelled... strange. So I went to meet him. It was Prince Caar, my lord. I very nearly didn't recognize him, his eyes were wild and not all sane. He said, Mordeth had held him prisoner, and butchered all his men. He barely managed to escape, by... by cutting off his own hand, my lord king."

Thorin made a sound in his throat, a whine of anguish, and Eldrene darted a concerned glance toward him then back to the Wolfbrother. She channeled and laid a weave on him - "Do you swear that all you have just said is the truth, Wolfbrother?"

He met her eyes without guile. "I do, Lady Eldrene. It is the truth, I swear it by the Light."

Her weave didn't shift a hair and she lifted it away with a nod. "Where is he?"

"He fled, my lady. He said ...he said he was tainted. And he refused to bring it in his home. So he ran away through the forest. I sent the pack to track him - he's heading north."

There was one instant of silence and then Thorin bellowed, "Treyin! Send for Aemon to meet the legion at the bridge. Aridhol has fallen to the Shadow and we will take it back. And you," he turned toward the Wolfbrother, "continue tracking my son. I will send a company after him with you."

"Yes, my lord king." Her eyes and the Wolfbrother's met and she knew it wasn't going to be that easy to bring Caar back. Her heart filled with sorrow for both Thorin who had lost a son and Aemon who had just lost his father.

What had Aridhol done to break such a strong man so quickly?

...

.


The Banner of the Red Hand met them at the bridge over the Manetherendrelle, and Aemon cantered up, anxious. His gaze went from Thorin to her and back. "Grandfather! What is it? Why have you come down from the city?"

Thorin said with a snarl, "Aridhol has fallen to the Shadow. They held Caar prisoner and hurt him, and killed his banner to the last man when they came on an embassy of peace. They will be avenged."

Aemon's hands tightened on his reins, and in the bond his emotions were tightly clamped down. Btu she could feel the sudden cold rage, burning beneath the control. "Yes, they will. We ride for Aridhol!" he shouted. "We ride for vengeance and the Light!"

And the soldiers roared back in one voice, "The honor of the Red Eagle! The Red Eagle!"

They rode.

As they crossed the border into the nation of Aridhol, they met no challenge. At first, they met no one at all; but in the town, Eldrene felt they were being watched. She thought they would stay hidden from Manetheren's vengeance, but when the main part of the army had reached the other side of town, the people started to emerge.

"Manetheren! Thank the Light!" they whispered.

The head of the town eventually emerged, pale-faced and shockingly grateful to see an army who was not his own in his town. "Please, King Thorin, Prince Aemon," he pleaded, "save King Balwer. That snake pours poison in his ear, poisons everything he touches. He's of the Dark One, that Mordeth."

Aemon exchanged a troubled glance with Eldrene. Something was indeed rotten in Aridhol.

The closer they drew to the city, though, they stopped seeing people at all. At first Eldrene could sense them nearby, watching them, with a terrible aura of fear lingering over the villages. Then, there was no one. In the fields, the cows mooed piteously for milking and pigs grunted and beat themselves on the sides of their pens, looking for food.

Aemon sent some men into the houses - they came back, colorless with horror in their eyes. They wouldn't say what they found, only that all the people were dead.

The walls of the city came into view, and the high domes of the city beyond. But there was no one on the walls, and the main gates stood ajar. The feeling of dread grew, clenching in her stomach. It was not quite like her sense of Shadowspawn - this was colder and yet more oily, clinging to her like foul slime. She took hold of saidar, its brightness a warm comfort, and moved to the front of the column, with Aemon beside her.

King Thorin had drawn rein before the open gates. There was no movement within the city, or sound of people or animals. No birds roosted in the domes and chirped at the coming sunset. Not even a stray dog or cat wandered across the cobblestone boulevard on the other side of the gate.

And yet, she doubted the city was empty. The glass windows seemed full of shadows and watching eyes.

"My lord," she addressed Thorin quietly. "You should not enter. There is some deep evil here. Aemon and I will take his banner to investigate."

He hesitated but did the wise thing. He could sit his horse but in any action he was too vulnerable a target. "Yes, I will wait outside."

"Red Hand, form up!" Aemon commanded, and they passed through the gates. The smell of rot and ice and slime clung to the back of her throat, making her nauseous. It was nothing natural.

They found horror at the first plaza, where five people had been crucified on the memorial pillar in the middle. They passed through with a troubled look, but Eldrene was more worried about where everyone else was.

"I'm not sure this is of the Dark One," she murmured. "It feels different."

Aemon had dismounted, and let his horse follow him while he prowled forward, sword in hand. "This is evil, Ellisande."

"Yes, of course," she agreed, staring for a moment at a whole family drowned in one of the fountains. "There are dragonfangs on nearly every door. They can't all have been Darkfriends. These people we've seen weren't murdered by Myrddraal or Trollocs; I sense no Shadowspawn at all. They turned on each other in some sort of madness."

"And Father," he added softly, heading unerringly toward the central palace. "Let us see if Balwer and his poisonous councilor are still here."

The clouds shrouded the sun, and she shivered. The light now was dimming, and the shadows seemed deeper and darker. She tried to shake it off, reminding herself that she was Aes Sedai now and she was supposed to keep her composure against everything.

Yet something lurked in the gathering dark, like a fat spider waiting to grab them.

The banner of men entered the main square before the iron gates of the king's palace. Its extravagant main dome was dark, a massive shadow that loomed over everything, watching them.

The gates were closed and locked. Eldrene readied Fire to break the lock, when a deep chill passed through her and she darted a glance to the far edge of the plaza.

A fog was gathering above the stone. It was thick and glowed with a pale green light, and it seemed to move like a blind snake, heading for them slowly.

She didn't know what it was, but it couldn't be good.

"Get back," she ordered and held up her right hand, channeling Fire and Air. Flames streamed from her hand, bright and golden.

The fog seemed to pause and then it continued forward, meandering across the plaza. The men backed away from it. No one wanted to touch it.

Then a cry came from the back. "It's here, too!"

Then a scream, of agony.

From her horse, Eldrene could see one of the bowmen was hip-deep in the fog, and he was screaming. And screaming

When he lifted his arms, his hands were gone.

She clenched her fist, preparing another weave, but Aemon was faster, shouldering his bow and firing. The arrow struck the bowman through the forehead and he dropped without another sound.

"Back the way we came!" Aemon ordered. "Don't let it touch you. GO!"

She and Aemon hung back, making sure the army got away. She kept looking over her shoulder at the king's palace windows, thinking she saw someone there. Once she saw a face and without needing to think, channeled. A stream of fire launched from her hand, and a corner of the palace collapsed.

But soon she had bigger worries than ghosts in the windows. The strange mist was converging. "Jump it," Aemon told her, and slapped Lilac's rump to get her into a canter.

They weren't going to make it. Lilac's pace was off, and when Eldrene signaled to her desperately, the mare was too far.

Her back legs dragged through the fog, and the horse screamed and dropped like a sack of grain, throwing Eldrene.

She had a heartbeat to channel desperately - Air and Fire and Spirit - as a shield, even as she fell into the fog.

"ELDRENE!" Aemon yelled.

She struck the stones hard - hands and knees and then her head - but she held tight to her shield, and it pushed the fog away, thank the Light.

Scrambling to her feet, she saw that she was in the midst of the fog, in a small bubble that stretched only a handspan around her. It was hungry - and she could hear voices in it that wanted to devour her soul.

Swallowing hard, she strengthened the weave and pushed it back a little more.. It was like crossing a river in a bucket that she dared not let the water enter.

Aemon was watching her, pallid with big horrified eyes, chest heaving with breaths. He couldn't move, only dance his horse back a few paces when the fog turned his direction and then turned away. But he knew there was nothing he could do to help her as she made her way through the foul miasma.

Then she was through and he pulled her up before him on his horse. Both his arms went around her tight, and she hugged him back, putting her hands around him too, trying to draw his warmth into her. Only then did she realize how much her body hurt from the fall to the ground, and she was shaking.

Aemon turned his horse toward the gates and nudged him into a gallop.

Over his shoulder she saw the fog and the empty city, where evil still dwelled, and she knew she didn't have enough power to burn it to the ground.

She wondered if anyone ever would.

...

.


Prince Caar didn't return. The wolfpack lost him somewhere just inside Jaramide, and refused to look for him further. The king sent parties of searchers but with no luck. It was as though the prince had turned to smoke. After a year, no more parties went to look. The room across from Aemon and Eldrene's remained empty.

Eldrene was not surprised that Thorin began to decline at the new year. A minor illness took hold during winter never truly lifted, despite Healing and several herbal preparations. Aemon tried to get his grandfather to go to Jaracopa, their main city in the south where it was warmer, but the king refused to leave Manetheren.

Six months later, the king's heart stopped while he was in his bed. Eldrene ran to his chamber at the first word, Aemon at her heels.

Healing weave already prepared, she stopped.

"Heal him!" Aemon demanded, kneeling beside the bed with his head bowed over his grandfather's hand. "Ellisande, you have to Heal him."

She let go of saidar. "It's too late, beloved," she murmured. "There's nothing I can do."

"No! Not like this, not grandfather, not - " he choked on his words. She knelt beside him and slipped her arms around him. He turned to bury his face in her hair, clutching at her gown.

"Shh, beloved Aemon. Hush," she murmured and held him as grief rocked him, and tears slipped down her cheeks. "It's going to be all right. We have each other."


With one finger, Eldrene rubbed the arm of the queen's chair, thinking about all the other Aes Sedai who had sat here before her, and worn the simple golden circlet on their hair as she was.

Then she glanced at Aemon beside her. She had been the one to put the crown of Manetheren on his head, as he had put hers on afterward. In the bond, his emotions were mostly resigned to his duty, overlaying a deep well of grief. For his grandfather and his father - word had reached them of Caar's death at the hands of his new wife, before she had killed herself. Eldrene had to wonder what horror Rhea had seen in his eyes one night, that had driven her to kill him. The taint of Aridhol was strong, as the Aes Sedai had learned to their dismay.

The confirmation of Caar's death had left Aemon king and herself queen, much earlier than either of them had expected.

The cheers for their new-crowned king and queen died away, and Aemon held up his hand for silence, rising to his feet.

He spoke loudly, addressing everyone in the hall: "The Dark One will seek to test us. To test me and Ellisande. They will move against us, perhaps this year, perhaps next. But make no mistake, they will come. Aridhol no longer guards our eastern approach, and we have been a thorn in the Dark One's foot for too long for him to ignore our weakness.

"We must not be weak. We must be strong. I know recent events have shaken people - they've shaken me. But we are Manetheren. We fight the Shadow, here and everywhere. We are prepared. We will not falter in our oaths. We will prevail."

And the people roared back in answer, the battle cry of Manetheren: "Carai an Caldazar! Carai an Ellisande!"

Aemon absorbed his people's love, growing stronger and calmer inside, and she smiled, lifting her hand in appreciation.

After the coronation, they traveled through the country, showing their presence, dispensing local justice, and inspecting fortifications.

During that progress she felt a joyful quickening of new life in her womb, which was all too quickly lost on the return trip home.

She was bitterly disappointed, unable to hide it from him. Aemon took her up in front of him on his horse, wrapped his arms around her, and murmured, "When we're at home, in peace, we'll try again." He kissed her lips, heedless of the people watching. "And again" he murmured, "And again..."

She buried her sorrow in the taste of him, while around them the watching villagers cheered and a few brave souls shouted encouragement.

...

.


Back in Manetheren, now in the king's apartments, which had been cleaned and re-decorated so that it hardly seemed Thorin had lived there for sixty years, Eldrene returned to the work she had shared with the old king.

Aemon had to leave to take a force against a wayward pack of Trollocs to the north, and so Eldrene was acting in his stead in a serious dispute over a land division in the valley.

One of the guards whispered in her ear that there was an Aes Sedai at the Waygate, and they needed her permission to open it. Eldrene gave it and while she listened to the continuing arguments, inwardly she wondered.

Since the Shadowspawn could use the Ways as well as anyone else, and most places had their gates either locked or under heavy guard, the Ways were not much used, except for the most urgent messages between the main cities.

An Aes Sedai who had access to the White Tower's network of messenger birds would only use the Ways for something very important.

By the time the guards had escorted her sister from the Ogier Grove and into the Palace, she had removed herself to a sitting room to wait.

She knew Vaereane Sedai by sight, but had little contact with her during training. Her shawl was red, but anyone only needed a look at her pinched narrow face, lined with years of wandering the wild looking for men who could channel, and her lack of Warder to know that. Ledoren had said she was a better teacher than Tetsuan, but disliked men even more, which Ledoren just didn't understand. Eldrene was glad that Aemon was gone, so he wouldn't be forced to be polite.

The two Aes Sedai were of similar strength in the Power, enough so that Eldrene was immediately put on her guard.

She managed a welcoming smile. "Sister, please enter and be welcome. I'm glad to see a familiar face." The polite lie rolled smoothly off her tongue. "What brings you to Manetheren in such haste?"

"Cavoarenatha, the Amyrlin Seat, was murdered by Black Ajah last night," Vaereane explained bluntly. "The two were captured and will be stilled and executed for their crimes."

Eldrene straightened sharply. "Murder? In the White Tower? Or was she traveling?"

"In the White Tower," Vaereane confirmed with a touch of reluctance to admit such a thing. "That knowledge is sealed to the Tower."

Eldrene didn't let her expression shift a hair as she nodded. She could even understand keeping it a secret, but she didn't like keeping secrets from Aemon, especially secrets touching the Shadow.

Vaereane added, "Tetsuan Sedai has been raised Amyrlin, and bid me carry you this."

Eldrene was glad her face was already under control or she would've grimaced at the news. Tetsuan was Amyrlin? How had that happened? How had the Hall raised up a woman generally despised by the Greens? Perhaps it was a reaction to the fall of Aridhol, somehow. Or something else that she knew nothing of at all. Two years away from the Tower had left her ignorant of the currents and eddies of power, and she felt very uneasy at the sense she was walking blind.

Hopefully, with none of her reluctance showing on her face, she took the letter from Vaereane. "Would you care for refreshment, while I read this?" she asked Vaereane. "It may take me several minutes to compose an answer."

"The Amyrlin Seat said that a verbal response will be adequate, and I am to wait for it," Vaereane answered.

"Of course." Eldrene traced the White Flame seal once lightly, and opened it.

It was a short message, requiring Eldrene Sedai, to return to the White Tower at once, and report on the state of the war against the Shadow and Aridhol. Signed the Amyrlin Seat, with no name, but in a familiar hand.

You take the Amyrlin Seat and the first thing you do is attempt to compel me to come to heel? She thought, anger curdling in her middle like a hot fist. I am not your dog, and you are not my mistress. I am Aes Sedai, but I am a queen and protector of this land, first. Cavoarenatha did not attempt to call me back to Tar Valon, and you will not either. I said I was done with you, and I am.

But she couldn't say any of that.

Vaeraene's face was not quite as controlled as she might have wished either, glimmering with satisfaction.

So you seek the same goal of humbling me, do you, Vaeraene Sedai? Eldrene made her voice calm and cool. "I was right, I think I should write out a response."

Vaereane's brows lifted and her lips made a perfect O of surprise. "The Amyrlin told me that you would return with me to Tar Valon."

"I'm sure she did. But unfortunately, she couldn't have known that Aemon was not at home this week and I would be a very irresponsible queen to leave Manetheren without leadership, while he is away. So if you would extend my deepest apologies to our Amyrlin, that I must refuse her request for my presence at this time." And forever, Eldrene added, but just to herself.

Vaereane's expression shifted to one of more genuine shock. "You're refusing the order of the Amyrlin Seat?"

"It's a request," Eldrene raised the letter in her hand. "And I'm certain the Amyrlin in her wisdom will understand that it's simply impossible for me to leave now. I have many responsibilities for the welfare and protection of Manetheren, particularly while Aemon is away. Perhaps next time, the Amyrlin could request my presence with more advanced notice."

Not that she had any intention of obeying that one either. But this business of ordering a ruling queen of one of the Ten Nations, Aes Sedai or not, was going to stop right here.

For an instant, Vaereane just stared at her as if incapable of understanding the words she was hearing.

"Do you return by the Ways?" Eldrene asked politely, but not bothering to disguise the invitation to depart.. "It's all too easy to be trapped there, and you have no Warder to watch your back."

Vaereane's shoulders stiffened at the sting. "I will do fine. It's not so dangerous in the Ways if one is cautious. I will deliver your response to the Amyrlin."

"Thank you for bringing the news - I wish you had time to stay and visit," Eldrene said, and didn't mind that lie either. "But I understand your responsibility, as I have them myself. Give the Amyrlin my most respectful greetings, Vaereane."

Eldrene watched her leave and when the door closed behind her, she laid Tetsuan's letter in the grate and channeled it to ash.

Then she took up a quill and paper and began a message for Gemma Sedai in the Tower. The Captain-General needed to know about Tetsuan's action and Eldrene's answer, if she didn't know about it already. And Eldrene needed to know who had put Tetsuan on the Amyrlin's seat, and why.


Autumn came unseasonably warm. Aemon and Eldrene celebrated a very good harvest, but with a frown at the sky, Aemon refused to let the army disband for winter just yet.

"Not until the first snow on the city," he said. There was grumbling from some of the soldiers who wanted to stay at home after helping get the harvest in, but most returned to duty. Everyone knew that a warm autumn meant the passes in the Spine of the World were not yet snowed shut, and the enemy could still come.

His prescience was proven when the call came from her father, that Aramaelle was under attack.

"I should go with you," she objected, but she knew she couldn't. She'd already lost one baby riding horseback, and she didn't want to risk the new fragile life within her.

He shook his head and wrapped his arms around her. "Keep yourself and the little one safe. I'll be back home with another victory, before you know it."

She rested her head on his shoulder, trying to memorize the feel of him under her hands to hold her through the long weeks and perhaps months that he might be gone. In the bond, his love for her and joy over their coming child dominated, but there was also a fierce desire to go and battle Shadowspawn.

When he started to pull away, she pulled him back into a tight embrace, feeling strangely needy and fearful. "I love you," she whispered. "Please come back to me."

"I will," he framed her face in both hands and gazed into her eyes, "My love for you knows no boundaries, Ellisande. We'll not be parted in this life or any other, I swear it."

They kissed one last time and he mounted his horse and ordered the departure. She stood tall and smiled as the army left, waving until her arm was sore, determined to be strong and brave.

When they were gone she closed her eyes and touched that place where the bond rested, feeling his presence strong and sure as he led the army away to the northeast.

Then she went back inside to manage the task of sending supplies after the army so they could travel more quickly.

Her pregnancy started to make her nauseous and the weak mint and honey tea she remembered from her Healing training did very little to let her keep down her food.

The arrival of a Yellow sister was fortuitous. Tithian Sedai had intended to go with the army, but come up from Jaracopa too late. She was experienced in battlefield healing more than birthing, but she knew enough. It was with a sort of sour face that she reported, "The child appears healthy, Eldrene Sedai."

Eldrene smiled. "That's good to know for certain. Now, if only you have some remedy other than tea and crackers to let me eat again."

Now Tithian cracked a smile. "Oh yes, I have just the thing. Nettles are very bitter, but they help with nausea."

She went to gather ingredients and brew the tea and Eldrene waited impatiently, hoping this worked. She hadn't eaten anything but plain dried flatbread since Aemon had left.

Tithian returned with a cup. "You can sip it, but drink it all for it to work the best," she advised.

It was terribly bitter. She had to put honey in it just to get it down. Tithian watched and waited, as Eldrene took stock of her stomach. It was, in fact, more settled and she thought she might be able to eat some cheese and apples for lunch. "Oh thank you, much better."

"My pleasure," Tithian answered and she smiled, more of a cold smirk than a genuine smile.

The cramping hit Eldrene, as her entire lower belly knotted up in agony. She folded over and glared up at Tithian, tears in her eyes. "No," she gasped. "Black Ajah." She reached for the Source, but another wave of cramping twisted a knife in her again.

"I'm sorry, sister," Tithian said, and sounded as if she meant it. "I have no choice. The Great Lord commands that Manetheren heirs must not be born. Consider yourself lucky I have no orders to kill you, too." She turned and walked to the door.

"No," Eldrene repeated, but hardly audible even to herself. She refused to fall down and curl up on the floor, holding herself up by her arms. Black Ajah would not get away with murdering her baby. Would not, if she had to still herself to do it.

She grit her teeth between waves of pain, and grabbed for saidar. At first it wouldn't come, her reach too aggressive, but then all at once, it snapped into place.

Air with a touch of Fire wrapped around Tithian.

Tithian turned in surprise then smiled. "Child, I'm holding the Source. You can't touch me."

Eldrene bared her teeth and pushed herself up to her feet, holding the weave. "I don't need to touch you."

Oh, she hurt so much, and her skirts were wet. But as she watched the Black Ajah ensconced in her small dome of Air, she smiled and adjusted the weave - just so.

The air in the dome changed to fire. Tithian screamed and she channeled desperately, trying to escape. But Eldrene held the weave, with a single-minded focus. Fire had always been her specialty, one of few Aes Sedai who would rather weave Fire, and Tithian tried to channel water against it, but the water burned too.

Then Tithian was clawing at her own throat and her eyes bugged out. Moments later she dropped to the floor, and her glow of saidar winked out. It was hardly any strain at all to channel again and make sure she never woke up.

The door slammed open and two of the House Guards ran inside. "My queen?"

Holding her stomach with both hands as the agony burned inside, she swayed and would've fallen except one of them caught her. "She killed the baby," she whispered. "She killed the baby..."

Dark rose up and smothered her.

...

.


The rush of Healing woke her, but instead of soothing her, she was channeling before she opened her eyes.

"Eldrene!" Only the familiar voice, exclaiming in alarm, stayed her from launching the attack.

She was in her own bed and standing above her was Ledoren. She blinked, shocked and unable to believe it. "Ledoren?"

Ledoren nodded once and reached out to tenderly smooth Eldrene's hair back. "I'm sorry I was too late," she murmured. "I couldn't save the child; I could barely save you."

That wrenching pain was gone, but she felt the hollow feeling inside where the baby had been and closed her eyes as they pricked with hot tears. "Black Ajah. Tithian," she said, her voice hoarse. "Poisoned the baby. I killed her."

"I know. I saw the mess. And I'm so sorry."

For a moment Eldrene was too wrapped up in her own pain to think, but then it occurred to her to ask, "What are you doing here?"

"That's what I was about to tell you. I have more bad news." She sat on the edge of the bed. "I've just come from Jaramide through the Ways. There's a very large force of Trollocs moving toward Manetheren along the mountains."

Eldrene's eyes popped open and she pushed herself up on her elbows. "How large?"

Ledoren swallowed hard. "Five hundred fists. At least."

Eldrene closed her eyes, trying to think. But her head seemed too full. "Aemon went to battle in Aramaelle. All I have is my banner and the House Guards."

Ledoren laid her hand over Eldrene's. "That's not enough. I don't know that your whole army will be enough. This is the biggest force we've seen south of the Spine of the World since the army that got all the way to Tear a century ago. It means to destroy Manetheren."

"I'll have to send messengers," Eldrene sat up, meaning to get started.

But Ledoren's face stopped her. "There's no time. The Trollocs will reach the Tarendrelle in five days."

The creeping horror made it hard to breathe as she stared at Ledoren. "Five days? Ledoren, even if he got the message today, I don't know that Aemon could make it in time. And there's no way to get a message to him so quickly."

"Tel'aran'rhiod," Ledoren suggested.

"I'm not a Dreamer and neither are you."

"No, but I have this," she brought out a twisted stone ring on a cord from beneath her bodice. "This is a dreaming ter'angreal. Gemma gave it to me to keep in contact with the White Tower while we were up near the Spine of the World. You can wear it and with luck, find Aemon and tell him to hurry back."

Eldrene reached for the ring and took it in trembling fingers. She'd used one a few times in training, but never for something as important as this.

Five hundred fists. That meant over a hundred thousand Trollocs and their attendant Myrdraal. More Black Ajah. Possibly even male channelers and Darkhounds.

No wonder Tithian hadn't bothered to kill her. She'd just wanted to make sure Eldrene couldn't escape with her unborn child.

Even though she was lying down, she felt dizzy. Everything was spinning, and she fell back against the pillows. She tried to find her strength, but it slipped away.

"Oh, my dearest friend," Ledoren lifted her into a hug. "I know this is too much. Just hold on."

Eldrene clutched her, tears rolling down her cheeks silently. She was dimly aware of Aemon's alarm, but also how he forced himself to focus past it, growing intent on something external.

She couldn't do it too, not at first. When she'd cried it out, wiped her eyes, and gained some of her equilibrium back, Ledoren gave her a gentle pat. "Do you think you can sleep and dream?"

Eldrene shook her head. "Aemon's preparing for battle, I think. I have to wait. I'll send messengers now, in case this doesn't work."

She got to her feet. The dizziness came back, and she stumbled into Ledoren's supporting arm. At Ledoren's coaxing, she drank a cup of juice and felt a little stronger. She pushed her grief away, to focus on what she had to do. There was no more time for mourning or weakness, only of preparation for a war to come.

Messages had been sent by fast horse to Aemon, and dispatched through the Ways to the neighboring capitals. She had done everything else she could. Ledoren's pair of Warders were at the door, keeping guard, and Ledoren sat on the bed next her.

All was ready. Now to contact Aemon.

She lay in her bed, ter'angreal on her chest, and closed her eyes. She concentrated on the Warder bond.

He was tired and hurt a little, but grimly satisfied. She felt him finally drift into a doze, and nodded to Ledoren, who channeled a little Air and Spirit, helping her into sleep.

Eldrene opened her eyes and found herself standing in front of the wall of water at the main gates of Manetheren. Here in tel'aran'rhiod, the water didn't flow, and it was a plain stone wall.

Mindful of her training, she embraced saidar and then, closing her eyes, focused herself on Aemon's face, wanting - needing - to be where he was.

When she opened her eyes, she found herself in a meadow, all high grass with some green-leafed trees on the periphery, in a thin forest. There was a village in the distance and she headed that way.

A man popped into view - eyes wide with distress before her realized whatever dark thing he was seeing wasn't there any more. "Lady Eldrene?" he said in shock, recognizing her.

She seized the opportunity. "March home," she ordered him. "Hurry. Tell the king. Come home."

He blinked out of sight again and she hoped he had heard the message and would believe it.

Then she closed her eyes and channeled Spirit while concentrating on Aemon and their Warder bond, trying to pull his dream into tel'aran'rhiod.

At first it didn't work. He was sleeping too deeply, or she wasn't doing it correctly, but then she felt him stir a bit and tried again.

"Ellisande?" his familiar voice made her open her eyes. "Are you really here?"

"Aemon," she rushed forward and threw herself in his arms. He didn't feel quite solid, but it was good enough. "Oh beloved, there isn't much time. When you wake up, you have to hurry home. Five hundred fists of Trollocs are on the way. Ledoren says they'll reach the Tarendrelle in five days."

His arms tightened. "Five hundred?" he whispered then twitched. "Five days? Ellisande, we just fought here at Bekkar. I lost over a thousand men, and Aramaelle lost even more. People are hurt, exhausted - "

She interrupted gently, "Aemon, if you don't come in time, Manetheren will be destroyed."

He made a soft pained sound in his throat but said nothing for a moment, his cheek against her hair. "I want you to save yourself and the baby," he murmured. "Promise me that if the worst happens... Let the city burn, I don't care. Get the people and yourself out."

She flinched. "There is no baby." Her voice cracked. "Black Ajah murdered it this morning. I thought she was giving me something to help with the sickness. It was poison."

"Oh Light," he breathed and just held her, as his own grief welled up. "That's what I felt. I knew you were in terrible pain, and I didn't understand. But you're all right?" he pulled back abruptly, shoulders in his hands while he searched her face anxiously.

"Yes, Ledoren came. She's helping me." Hearing that Eldrene was well relieved him, and she felt him put aside the loss of the baby, just as she had. When he was calm again, she added, "I've already begun to evacuate the countryside into the city."

He nodded. "Yes. And send for help. We come at everyone else's call, it's time they come in our hour of need," he said. His hand traced the side of her face, his touch ghost-like and soft in tel'aran'rhiod. "I need to wake everyone up and get on the march. There'll be no sleep for anyone for the next few days, but we'll make it. We have to make it."

She lifted her chin and responded staunchly, "You will, Aemon, and you will defeat them." A thought struck that made her smile. "This is the moment, my love. The reason I saw you before we met, and your mother Foretold us. Together our Light can defeat the Dark. I only wish I could be with you."

"You are always here," he took her hand and laid it over his heart. "Always. I'll see you soon." He stepped away, eyes drinking her presence in, and then flickered out of sight.

For a moment she had the cold feeling she was being watched, but then it didn't matter anymore as she woke up.

Ledoren was still perched at the side of the bed. "Well?"

"I found him," she couldn't help at least a small smile. Seeing him had helped. Knowing he was on his way helped more, despite the horrific circumstances. "He's coming home."

...

.


"Three days!" Eldrene took the message and hurled it at the wall. She was furious, but she knew her anger was covering up real fear. "There are one hundred thousand Trollocs, heading for the Tarendrelle, and we have only ten thousand men. They marched for five days, with no sleep and hardly any food. And they have to hold for three days before Safer's army will get there! Are his men mounted on donkeys?"

"He's far away -" Ledoren started trying to placate her.

"The king of Safer is a coward," Eldrene snapped. "And I doubt he would mind all that much if Manetheren falls. Despite how often Caar and King Thorin came to his rescue."

Ledoren paused and then said, musing, "If only Aridhol -"

"Aridhol started this, and I wish I could balefire it back to before it fell because it's trying to drag Manetheren with it." But Ledoren was right, and Eldrene heaved a sigh, trying to get her anger and fear under control. Aridhol had always been Manetheren's closest ally. Aramaelle had grown close after her marriage, but most of their army was in the mountain garrisons, guarding the passes. That was why they had needed Manetheren on their southern border in the first place. Her brother had sent his troops from Bekkar with Aemon, but there were only two thousand of them.

Not enough to make any difference.

Eldrene stopped pacing and drew a deep breath. "Aemon will hold them. He will. He must."

"And if he doesn't?" Ledoren asked quietly.

"Then he'll destroy the bridges, to make them cross on their own, if anyone can make them. And we'll have two days, perhaps three, before they get here." Eldrene went to the window and looked out at the carved stone spires, the high trees, and bridges that were so much a part of her now. The city was more crowded now, with people from the outlying farms drawn in, but of men at arms - she had so few. Her own banner that Aemon had given her - five hundred cavalry and spearmen -who were on the walls, and the House Guards, who upheld the law in the city. Plus Ledoren's Warders had gone out into the city to find volunteers, particularly among the older men who had been in the army before.

Altogether it was a mere pebble to try to hold back the Manetherendrelle. But she sent them, all of them, to the Tarendrelle to support Aemon. Young men, some barely more than boys volunteered, anxious to help defend their home, and even though her heart caught at the knowledge she was sending them to die, she sent them too.

A feeling like a blade of ice right through her middle and she stopped, staring, captured by Aemon's singular battle determination. She closed her eyes, hands gripping the chair back in front of her, and tightened the bond, offering him her strength and her steadiness as he fought.

She could almost see through his eyes, the cloud of ravens, the high banners of the Trolloc tribes, waves and waves of Trollocs and Myrdraal, and before them, the banner of the Hand of the Dark. Ba'alzamon.

But opposing them the high, bright flag of the Red Eagle in flight and the Red Hand of Aemon's personal banner.

That flag stayed high and unstained for three days. Three days in which she tied the bond to herself so closely that her vision seemed twinned - what she saw in front of her own eyes and what she saw in front of Aemon's.

Ledoren finally realized what she was doing and how she was getting information she shouldn't know. "Eldrene, you can't do this!"

Eldrene pushed her away. "I have to help him. And I have to see."

And so she saw as night fell at the end of the third day, there was no sign of Safer's army. No messages. No word at all from anyone.

She felt a touch of Aemon's despair and through his eyes, saw the countless fires of the Trolloc fires as they settled down for their meals of his dead soldiers. She heard the screams he was hearing as the Myrdraal played with one of his men.

And she felt his determination harden to steel that he would make the Shadowspawn pay for every inch of ground. He would hold them one more day, one more hour, and keep the forces of the Dark at bay as long as possible, and longer.

I love you, she told him urgently, hoping he got the feeling if he couldn't hear the words. In this life and the next and forever.

In return she felt him lay a hand over his own heart, and then somehow, he managed to push her back.

She opened her eyes to find Ledoren watching her worriedly.

Her mouth was dry as dust, but her eyes were wet. "No one came. There's no word. We're alone."

The light legion from Jaracopa in the south arrived at the Manetherendrelle crossing, and she had one moment to decide whether to send them on north, or bring them to the city to prepare a siege. She sent them north to Aemon, hoping the four Aes Sedai with them would help even the balance with the channelers in the Trolloc army. She tried to urge Ledoren to go as well, but her friend shook her head. "No, you need me here."

"I need you to go fight," Eldrene said.

"I will," she answered with a rather hateful calm. "Soon enough. But for now, you need my help."

Eldrene had to acknowledge the truth of that. Without her friend, the waiting would probably have driven her mad. Each day passed, and she felt Aemon fighting. Occasionally he was hurt, but exhausted Aes Sedai managed to Heal him enough to get him back up again.

She went out in the city as much as she could, telling people what was happening at the river. How Aemon and the army were holding the Trollocs back from the river. How their small force continued to hold, despite overwhelming odds, to keep those in the city safe.

As many people left the city as came in, as they listened to her. Men and women both, took up what weapons they could find and left to join the desperate defense. She watched them go, knowing they weren't going to reach the Tarendrelle in time, since it was a full two days away.

On the tenth day after the first attack, the first Trollocs on rafts reached the west bank of the Tarendrelle and Aemon had no men to stop it. His army had been whittled to a few thousand, and his Aes Sedai were all dead. They would be surrounded if he didn't withdraw.

Eldrene was watching in tel'aran'rhiod as the two bridges over the Tarendrelle collapsed into the waters and swirled away, and she knew Aemon had torn them down behind him.

She felt that she was being watched again and whirled around. There was a dark-haired man standing there, slender and handsome. She could see right through him. But he was wearing dark clothes with a red circle and dragon's fang on it. That made him one of the enemy commanders - Dreadlord. He saw her and smiled in sudden recognition. "Queen Eldrene, I presume. Watching your defeat?" He raised a hand and suddenly, without warning, he had a sword of Fire in his hand and it was coming at her.

She acted first - she slapped a Finding on him, hoping it would work in the real world, and then thought herself back to the water wall in Manetheren.

A sharp pain along her shoulder told her she hadn't gotten away without harm, and the pain stayed even after she woke. There was a long raw burn along her shoulder and she winced trying to sit up.

Ledoren pushed her back down and Healed the burn. "What happened?"

"One of them," she hissed. "Male channeler." Then she shook her head, trying to clear out the hate, and said more calmly, "The Tarendrelle is lost. Aemon's torn down the bridges and heading back here. They'll be on his heels."

She took a deep breath and said the despised words. "We can't hold the city against the enemy. We have to evacuate. I want no one left in the city by this time tomorrow. Or whoever is left here will die."

Eldrene watched over the evacuation, coaxing and ordering people to leave. The mothers with the children left without complaint, heading into the mountain fastness and deep forest. The older people took some more coaxing, and some wanted to bring their treasure, but she was firm. Backed up by Ledoren's Warders, her order was obeyed, and the city started to empty.

Meanwhile, she could feel Aemon getting closer, but slowly. So slowly. One step then another, fighting all the way. Buying time for his people to get to safety.

At the crossroads, where the High Road met the road to the quarry, where there was a small but quick river to put at his back, Aemon chose to make his stand. He planted the Red Eagle at the top of the low hill just outside the empty town.

The Trollocs were less than two hours behind him.

Then one hour, as the people of Manetheren waited with their king.

And then the ravens came, leading the enemy, and surrounding the crossroads with a black cloud and raucous caws. Farmers with bows started to shoot them out of the sky, until Aemon ordered them to stop and save their arrows for when they would be needed most.

Like a black wave of ink the Trollocs came into sight, whipped by their masters into long columns, and their howls filled the air. At the sight of the Red Eagle banner and the people ready to meet them, they broke ranks and rushed forward.

Manetheren bows sang, and dropped a thousand Trollocs in the dirt. But there were thousands more behind them. They fired until their arrows were gone, and then took out their swords, their axes and spears, and pitchforks.

Aemon rode the line, up and down, his sword held high and glimmering, holding the line with the sheer force of his will.

The Trollocs could barely stumble over the piles of their own dead, but still they came.

And watching through his eyes, Eldrene saw at the same time as Aemon did, when the Trollocs surged around the ends of his line, forcing the Manetherens inward, as the enemy came around behind them.

They were surrounded.

The humans broke into knots of defenders, struggling desperately to kill or be killed. And one by one they fell.

Aemon's sword was heavy with gore from Trollocs and Myrdraal and still he fought.

Until a darkly handsome man with no visible weapons stepped into his path and smiled, as a blade of Fire formed in his hand. "King Aemon. The Great Lord of the Dark welcomes you."

And he thrust. Aemon parried, but the glowing sword of Power sheared right through his sword as if it were made of leaves.

That fearsome blade plunged into his chest. He gasped, broken hilt tumbling from his hand, and as he fell backward, he whispered, "Ellisande..."

Eldrene had one last view of black ravens swirling in a blue sky, and then... nothing.

Everything went dark.

...

.


"Eldrene! Eldrene!"

The frantic voice came from far away. At first it was easy to ignore. The rush of Healing shook her, but it did nothing for the sharp pain lodged in her heart.

Aemon. She reached for the Warder bond, but there was nothing. It was gone.

It was all gone. He was dead. And she was all alone.

The emptiness inside threatened to engulf her and pull her down. And she was going to let it, give in and join Aemon. Until she remembered the smiling face, behind the Power-wrought sword. And cold hate stirred her to alertness.

She knew what she had to do.

She opened her eyes, to find she was on the floor in the middle of the main hall. Ledoren's Warder Chaisen was holding her across his knees, while Ledoren was looking at her anxiously.

"He's dead," Eldrene told her so flatly Ledoren flinched. "They're all dead."

She stood up, pulling away from Chaisen's attempt to help her. "Make sure the city is empty, and then go. Promise me you'll guard my people. Save as many as you can."

"I will of course, but what about you? You're coming with us."

"No." Eldrene turned and started with a measure stride toward the study.

Ledoren hurried after her. "You can't stay here! I know you're in shock, but you can't defend the city all by yourself." She put a hand on Eldrene's shoulder and the touch was like a brand - Eldrene pulled out from under it.

She wanted to feel something, anything, but all that was left was ice. "They will pay for what they've done, Ledoren. All of them. I swear by the Light that they will know my vengeance and taste my rage by the end of the day. And you don't want to be here when that happens."

In the study, she took the key from her bodice and opened the chest. Protected by the ice, the sa'angreal's pull was muted, and she felt no urge to channel as she picked up the small hoop in one hand.

Ledoren gasped. "Is that...? No! You're strong, but not that strong. It'll burn you out."

She looked at the twisted rope of the carved alabaster and felt her lips curve into a hard smile. "It will destroy me. But first, it will destroy them."

She walked past Ledoren, noting with some bitter amusement that Chaisen moved aside for her, and through the open doors into the central garden.

Roses flourished here, despite the mountain chill, in trimmed bushes and climbing trellises. She and Aemon had spent many hours here, in the garden he'd designed jut for his Ellisande.

Ledoren followed, as she settled herself on the bench beside the center fountain. "Eldrene, this is madness. Come with us, please, I beg you. Your people need you. Manetheren needs you."

The words washed over Eldrene, without meaning, but the devotion and love behind them caught her attention and cracked the ice, just a little.

"You have always been my friend," she murmured up at Ledoren. "I never said thank you for that. I should have. Now be my friend this one last time, and do as I ask."

Ledoren's eyes filled with tears and she bit her lip as she nodded. "I will."

"And tell them all what happened. Tell them, how we fought, alone. How we were betrayed by those who should have come."

"I will," Ledoren promised, her voice breaking. "I will tell them, and I will find out why no one came. I swear it by the Light and my hope for rebirth."

Eldrene nodded, and let the ice enfold her once more. She embraced the Source. "You must go. I'll wait until you're clear of the city."

"Creator be with you, my friend," Ledoren whispered.

Eldrene did not watch her leave, but with her powers increased by the sa'angreal she could search the city, and sense everyone in it.

Ledoren and her two Warders were the last to leave, trailing behind the evacuees into the forest.

Eldrene turned her attention to the northwest, to where Aemon had fallen. A brief weave traced the Finding weave she had put on the Dreadlord in tel'aran'rhiod. It still lingered, pulsing just enough for her to find him.

She channeled.

Pure white Fire smashed down from the clear blue sky, right where Aemon's killer was standing. He did not even have time to scream before he was ashes.

One by one, she found all the channelers, male and female, and despite the distance, there was no defense they could offer from the bolts of saidar that killed them.

Darkhounds were next, the trails they left making them easy to find.

The Trollocs scattered in terror, only a few held under their Myrdraal's command.

As some reached the Manetherendrelle, she wove Water and Air and drowned them all in a wave.

She had expected to struggle with the Power, but there was none. She gave herself over to it completely, and in return, it stayed in her control. Inside she felt the peculiar hollowness that warned she was close to burning out, but not yet. Not until she was finished.

She found another army crossing the northwestern border and nearly killed them all, until she realized they were Ogier.

Too late, Builders. Manetheren is lost. But at least now there will be some to remember our fall.

The Source filled her, keeping her warm as she waited. There were at least three fists approaching the city.

They entered the open gates and when they realized the city was empty, started to loot it with foul glee.

She drew in the Power, more and more. These would be the last to feel her vengeance.

One weave slammed the gates shut.

The next weave was Fire.

Aemon, wait for me.

...

.


Ledoren returned to the White Tower with her story of the last days of Manetheren. It did not take her long to discover where the betrayal had begun. The Amyrlin had told the king of Safer falsely that she was sending a force of Aes Sedai and Warders to Manetheren and he was not needed. An Aes Sedai acting on her orders had intercepted the message meant for the queen of Jaramide.

Two years to the day after Manetheren burned, the Amyrlin Tetsuan was stripped of stole and staff, and stilled for her crimes. She was the first Amyrlin so punished, and the reason the Red Ajah had no more Amyrlins for a thousand years.

Ledoren Sedai of the Green Ajah was then raised Amyrlin.

In the years that followed, Men and Shadowspawn alike avoided the ground where Manetheren had once stood. For five hundred years, a flicker of One Power ran wild, a curse that struck capricious and deadly any who dared pass its borders. By the time of Artur Hawkwing, it had become wild woodland, known as the Forest of Shadows.

The story of Aemon and Eldrene receded into the mists of time, fading from history into legend. But the spirit and blood of Manetheren remained strong across the Age, waiting for the chance to avenge its defeat by the Shadow.

The Red Eagle of Manetheren would fly again, side by side with the banner of the Dragon Reborn.

fin