Lanterns on roughly-hewn planks illuminated a very strange sort of garden in the basement of a modest, wooden cottage. Dried flower petals lay scattered on multi-hued pebbles, swirled in an unidentifiable pattern. The stones had been placed in a shallow box, also of wood, with the cover removed. Near the small table that held the rock garden, a young man sat on a cushion, legs crossed and hands resting lightly on his thighs. His eyes were closed.



The scene was the epitomy of all that is calm and peaceful, but inside the quiet young man, chaos reigned supreme. That chaos was, in fact, the reason he had retreated to this sanctuary. It was how he staved off the inevitable madness that would come one day to all Asha'man (unless they died in battle first), and this place was the only where he felt absolutely safe. None besides himself and the laborers who had built the house even knew of this corner of the dwelling. Two heavy iron doors seperated it from the main area of the basement and appeared to be simply a wall unless one knew precisely what to look for.



Arenj Isige was thinking of none of these thigns at the moment, nothing at all except his slow, steady breathing and the image of a rose in his mind. He knew that novices of the White Tower used the mental picture to open up to saidar, for that was how he had heard of the exercise. He did not use it for the same purpose as Aes Sedai, however, as he could seize saidin very well on his own. He sometimes wondered that women opened themselves to saidar while men seized its male counterpart. He supposed that the halves of the One Power were as different from each other as the sexes.



The rose served as a focus for Arenj, and it took every ounce of strength and control he possessed to keep his mind on the curving, scarlet form and his lungs breathing deeply and evenly. He was concentrating so hard that perspiration shone in the lantern light on his upper lip and temples. He gritted his teeth as he nearly lost his grip on...everything to a particularly strong torrent of saidin . "The rose," he whispered. He inhaled slowly, deliberately, then exhaled. "You can see the veins in the petals and the darkness at the edge where it has begun to wither." He forced several more breaths and became still again.



Slowly, he opened his eyes. If this lasted much longer, he and half the others at the Black Tower would lose control and drown in the raging whirlpool that saidin had become and either burn themselves out or be reduced to mindless, raving lunatics destroying everything in their paths. He stirred the tiny stones with a finger and sighed. He needed a distraction. Carefully, he swept the flower petals into a small pile in the corner of the box. With his first two fingers, Arenj drew a circle in the pebbles, then added a round spot in the middle. He selected the rose petals and dropped them into the outside circle. The tiny white daisy petals went to the indented central area. It reminded him of his family's coat of arm. He missed his brother the most and was glad that Kannet had not seen him leave.

*~*~*~*~*~

Three men and blue and two in black entered the large village by a mostly- unused road that led from the town of Katchim. The few who did travel it were regulars, well-known to the various shopkeepers. "We are her to recruit for the Lord Dragon. We will inspect those with the courage to join us, then bring them with us when we return to Andor." A non descript man in black announced this after a sizeable crowd had gathered on the village green. His accent was curious and did not quite fit the formality of his words.



"Cairhien," Teran whispered to his son. "I have not seen a Cairhienin this far north...for quite a while. They learn manipulation and scheming with their first words and are stingy besides. I find it hard to believe one would serve for an honest man like the Lord Dragon." In Kandor, support for and opinion of the Dragon Reborn were very high.



"Father, might I..." Lost for words, Arenj raised his eyes to his father's, brimming with question. He was startled to realize that he no longer had to tilt his head up to see him.



"Your mother will never forgive me, and part of me wants to keep that business sense of yours here, but were I your age..." Teran Isige chuckled. "Off with you, then. Can't keep the Lord Dragon waiting." Were I your age, I would not even have asked. You are so grave sometimes, Arenj, and I am not sure whether that will help or hinder you. I hope to the Creator that it helps.



Arenj grinned, partly out of relief and excitement and partly to hide his apprehension. Leaving home so...casually...felt wrong and sudden. But he had been the one to ask. Cautiously, he approached the men and was gratified to see others follow.



"A young one, eh? Well, there are one or two younger." Only one or two soldiers younger than him? He couldn't believe that. "Well, come along." He led Arenj out of the others' sights to a small bench. "Sit." Arenj complied. Seemingly out of nowhere, a flame burst into life between the man's palms. He turned his hands so the flame danced just over them and stood a moment as Arenj glanced around nervously. None of the stories he'd heard ever mentioned marching into battle with fire summonded from the air. Of course, there were other stories... Arenj mentally shook himself. "Now, boy, stare into the flame. Cleanse your mind of everything and be the flame." Slightly reassured that she soldier wasn't about to set the flame on him, Arenj nodded and tried to clear his mind. Be the flame. Those words repeated themselves like a mantra in his head.



Five minutes or fifty passed and suddenly the fire disappeared. Arenj blinked and found he had to steady himself before opening his eyes again and standing. "Well, what do you know? Go stand stand with others in black. We will leave when everyone has been tested." Tested? Arenj wondered if he'd passed. Neither the man's voice nor his expression gave any clue as to what the answer might be.



A little way from Arenj, six other young men milled nervously a few few from the blue-coated men. Three of them were close friends of Arenj, and he would have gone to speak with them, but the Cairhienin had specifically ordered him to stay with those in black. "So who do you be, my lad?" This one had an Illianer accent; Arenj was very proud that he could place the speech. There was regular Illianer who visited his father's shop and told the most fantastic stories.



"Arenj Isige, sir. Please, um..." he looked around. "Why are they over here, and I'm over here?"



The Illianer's friendly smile faded. "Oh, well, you will find that out when we do return to the farm." His grin reappeared. "And what village did we land in this time? Reyvas does no care to tell me, only to test the lads." Land in? Most be some odd southland expression.



"We're in Turan." At the man's blank stare, Arenj explained. "Twenty leagues from the southern border of Kandor."



"Burn me, I do no know how you Borderlanders do survive winder. This spring of yours is bad enough. I did no think anything could be worse than Andor, Fortune prick me I did no." Despite his words, he did not shiver in the slightest.



"There is another south...Illianer who trades with my father. The only time he is not wrapped up endless layers of fur is during two months of summer."



The man laughed cheerfully. "Aye, I do well believe that. If you did voyage to Illian during our summer, I do wager there would no be anything save a melted puddle of Borderlander in the road." Arenj was about to ask (politely, of course) the man's name when the Cairhienin barked an order. "Ah, lad, we do need to be off now, that we do. Come." The Cairhienin, Reyvas Arenj thought, joined them and the men in blue fell in behind.



"Did you tell him?" the short man demanded of the Illianer.



He shook his head and responded in a low voice. "I did no have the heart."



Reyvas opened his mouth to reply when a slamming door and running footsteps sounded near the small procession. "Arenj!" His mother.



He turned warily. He was ashamed to admit to himself that he had hoped for his father to stall his mother while he slipped away. "Please, Mother, I'm- "



"Don't you know who these men are?" This she whispered.



"They're soldiers for the Lord Dragon." His eyes darted to the men in question.



"Those men in blue are. Those you're with are Asha'man. They're men who can channel!" Her gaze flicked to them and back.



"Mother, please. Father said I could go." Burn him, but he would not plead in front of the soldiers.



"Kannet would be so disappointed." Arenj could find nothing to say. He turned from her and walked ahead, praying the others would catch up to him, as he had no idea where they were headed, besides the vague direction 'to Andor'. "They can channel, Arenj! And if you go, you will too!" These words she shouted, so the entire assembled crowd could hear. Arenj made out angry murmurs, but they were for her, not him. His mother was from Ghealdan, so her oddness and...foreign ways...were usually understood and accomodated. Even her less-than fervent support of the Dragon Reborn was tolerated, as her home had been razed by followers of the false Dragon Logain. This, however, might not be forgiven so easily.



Before long, the soldiers caught up to Arenj. It was then he noticed that he was the only other one from the village with the men in black. The others who'd volunteered were with those in blue. "Why would she say that?" he asked the Illianer.



He said nothing and, inexplicably, glared at Reyvas, daring him to say anything. They walked a ways further and stopped. "Here." The Cairhienin declared.



"This do be why," the Illianer murmured.



"Wha-?" Arenj's question was cut short when a vertical silver line appeared out of the air and opened up. It was a doorway, of sorts, and through it, Arenj thought he could see a forest.



"Well? Go." Reyvas pushed Arenj toward the mysterious, softly-glowing door. He stepped gingerly through. The first thing he perceived was that he did not recognize the trees and found this very disconcerting.



He faced the Illianer, who'd just emerged from the doorway. "Where are we? These trees," he waved his arm across the scene, "I don't know them."



"It do no be a great wonder, lad, for we do be in Andor."



"Andor? We're..." he attempted to calculate the numbers in his head, "...we're hundreds of leagues south of Turan?"



"Aye, that we be."



"In less than a minute?"



"Aye. What did you think that gateway did be?"



"That...then Mother was right. You can...that is, you are..."



The Illianer seemed sad suddenly. "Aye, we can channel, and we do be Asha'man. It do no be something you can stop. You will channel whether you do like it or no. At least this way, you will no kill yourself and those you love." Later Arenj would learn that this was not necessarily true for everyone, that only a few with the spark would channel no matter what.



"Arenj!" That was Eirik. He was a few years younger than Arenj and most of his friends, but they allowed him to hang around them anyway. He ran up to the older boy. "Arenj, they're-" he lowered his voice conspiratorially, "they're Asha'man."



"I know."



"Why did they want you to go with them?" Out of the corner of his eye, Arenj could see the Illianer carefully avoiding letting his gaze rest on the two boys. "Do you they think you can do that too?" By his disbelieving stare, he obviously thought the men completely insane if they did.



"Who knows why southlanders do anything?" Arenj replied as he had known his father to do many times. Eirik seemed to accept this, nodding sympathetically.



"Go back to the others, boy. This one must come with us to begin his training." Eirik did so, and, a few minutes later, casually wandered back to Arenj. He hadn't moved yet and was beginning to wonder why he was here. "Lieutenant Suemar says we have a few leagues to go until we arrive at our camp. I don't see why those...men can't make another door." He said it as a statement, but his voice and expression questioned. How he was supposed to know the answer, Arenj wasn't sure. Walking a bit with them certainlyl did not make them heartfriends. When he didn't respond, Eirik continued. "Well, maybe I'll see you at camp." Soon enough, they began moving again, and Eirik stayed back with the rest of the boys from the village.

The young Kandori's first few weeks a the Black Tower had passed oh-so- slowly, as well as painfully, but he eventually had made friends. Though Asha'man tended to project a cool, aloof, and often arrogant image to others, they actively sought ot companionship among themselves. And no surprise either; many were confused and (though of course they would sooner die than admit it, even to themselves) afraid, for all the terrifying stories their mothers had told them about men who could channel, who had broken the world, were about them. He had tried to see Eirik and the others once, despite the reactions his new friends reported when they attempted the same.



"I don't understand why he would not like to see me. We grew up together, and we both serve the Lord Dragon." He could feel the back of his newly- awarded sword pin pressing into his throat.



"Aye, Soldier, that do be the right of it, but none of that do matter when your best lad from childhood do be a figure in the tales your grandmother scared you with when you did no go to bed." The Illianer, whose name Arenj had since learned was Jayun Tomat, shook his head. "I do know that from my own experience, and I do no be the only one. That I do no be."



Arenj listened respectfully, but he had already made up his mind. Jayun saw this; he had a surprising talent for reading people. "I did no believe the others either. I will no tell you I told you so when you do return."

*~*~*~*~*~

"He did try," Arenj whispered to the air. "Oh, Light, he did." But Eirik had made friends as well, and they had been nearby when Arenj approached his friend, looking hard at Eirik. Arenj could see apology in his eyes, but his words were those of fear and anger. His concentration faltered as he relived the sharp pain again. His eyes flew open, and his fingernails dug into the tiny garden's wooden frame. Splinters speared the delicate flesh, but the ache was lost amid the madly roiling waves of saidin that bombarded Arenj. The taint suffused his entire being, yet even the filth of Dark One's touch could not distract him. He was holding onto his sanity by pure force of will, and he was losing it. "Oh Light...oh Light, oh Light, oh Light, OH LIGHT!" His voice rose from an intense whisper to a roar before he collapsed from exhaustion, oxygen deprivation and...something else.



When he awoke, Arenj had a raging headache. He forced himself to a sitting position, then leaned heavily against the crude table. His memory of the immediate past was useless; all he could recall was madness. Madness followed by the utter stillness he felt now. Stillness he had not experienced since coming to the Black Tower. "Saidin," he breathed. First in a trickle, then a rush, memory came crashing back. I'll likely burn myself out if I'm not already, but I must try. Arenj steeled himself, then seized the male half of the Source. He still had to fight that fiercely turbulent river, as he always did, but it was different. At first, Arenj could not tell how; the sensation was so foreign. Whehn he realzied exactly what that difference was, he pushed himself to his feet and bolted up the stairs and out the door, or would have, had his legs been functioning properly. As it was, he managed to unsteadily totter his way outside, becoming more and more sure, so he thought he could risk standing unaided in the threshold. As far as he could see, men in black coats, some with sunlight catching off shining metal at their throats, stood, staring southward. A few spoke to one another, but their eyes were all trained in the same direction.



"It's clean." His eyes met Jayun's, who'd just emerged from his own cottage, and he smiled uncertainly. "It's clean."