Summary: Captured property are supposed to meekly await their lot, but sometimes loyalty takes us in unexpected directions. After the raid on the White Tower the damane Dali finds herself a prisoner, and is faced with a terrible choice.
Chapter One: Prisoner
The sound of soft weeping echoed in the small stone cell.
It was cold, and Dali pulled the scratchy woolen blanket further around her shoulders. Surprising, to be offered any comfort. You might almost think these marath'damane were civilised. But Dali didn't need to raise her eyes to see the saidar-woven shield that still blocked her from the Source, didn't need to look to the barred ceiling to know a finely-garbed marath'damane glowed with the Power as she held the weave – as though Dali would ever dream of reaching for the Source unbidden.
She was in a nightmare.
Reflexively, Dali's hand came up to touch her neck, obscenely bare. She shuddered. The blanket hid her shame from the world, but the damane couldn't forget for an instant that the collar that made her safe was gone. Where had they taken it? Could they not put it back on, if only to save themselves the effort of blocking her? But no. Dali felt her lips twist. They pretended kindliness, offered food and warmth, but this mockery showed that for the lie it was. Dali was uncollared. Dali was marath'damane. And the only thing protecting innocents and citizens from that horror was, ironically, the White Tower marath'damane themselves. It was brilliant. And brutal. Small wonder Aiala wept.
Dali's own cheeks were tight with salt, but her eyes were dry. She had no more tears to shed. Malahavana: sul'dam, caregiver, guide and completion, Malahavana with her slow smile and unshakable devotion to duty, was dead. Dali had known when they set out that they might have been facing their last sunrise. She had prepared for death. But she had never thought that Malahavana might die, and Dali live. She had sworn it would never be so.
Now Dali was a prisoner in a place out of her darkest dreams.
And she was alone.
The thickest blankets couldn't have stopped the shivers that were wracking her. It wasn't the cold, though the chill was noticeable in the little cell; it was terror. None of them could have imagined anything like this. Death, easily; you faced death on every battlefield, met her clear-eyed and ready. Capture, less likely – damane were usually killed quickly in battle, the number of soldiers it would take to incapacitate them not usually being worth the loss. But even a captured damane would be given kennel and sul'dam by whoever laid claim to her. This, though? Confined in a cell, denied her collar, not even given the simple certainty of her new place? Hundreds of miles away from order and civilisation, from everyone and everything she knew? Buried in the centre of a maze of corridors that seethed with marath'damane, lost in a city of their barbarian servants? And undoubtedly presumed dead. There would be no raid to recover them. Dali wanted to scream. She closed her eyes, clenching her fists, fighting the nausea roiling in her middle. She would remain composed. She would.
Her breath rasped noisily in the tiny cell. She could smell clean straw and cellar-damp air. Even with her eyes closed, Dali could feel the marath'damane channelling, above and to her left.
She tried to tell herself she had been in worse situations than this. The night of a hundred assassins, at Wahern, six years ago. Or Bevrahdin's treachery, those dark days when she had believed her Mistress dead. And others. Many others. This was not the worst.
But it felt like it. Dali just wanted to be home! More than anything, she wanted to open her eyes and see her own familiar kennel. She longed to feel Malahavana's square hands stroking through her hair, to be soothed and told that all would be well. Even the sight of Perenla, her first sul'dam, a cold woman who had left her in terror, would now have been a sight to make her weep with joy.
Dali opened her eyes. The view had not changed.
She was wrong, she realised. There were more tears left in her, after all.
Four days passed without any change, and stretched thin with the tension of waiting Dali feared she would soon go mad.
There were two of them in the strange ceiling-barred cell. Aiala was a damane Dali had fought beside twice and patrolled with several times since arriving on this side of the ocean. Usually she was fierce, barely waiting for her sul'dam's instruction before launching an attack. But Benita's death had devastated her. Aiala had barely stopped weeping in the five days they had been in this cell, and though Dali's heart echoed her pain, the noise was starting to grate on her ears. But she did not have the strength to try and give comfort. What reassurance could she offer?
Whichever marath'damane held the shield on Dali had one blocking Aiala too. This puzzled Dali – she could feel the strength of the marath'damane, and it was barely sufficient to weave two shields strong enough for the two of them, never mind hold them. Were they so arrogant that they thought their prisoners would not attempt escape?
(Well, they would not. Those flimsy shields were the only thing keeping them all safe. Likely it was some trick. These Aes Sedai – Dali shuddered at the name – were said to be subtle beyond imagining.)
Marath'damane came and went. The shield was seldom held by the same woman for longer than half a day, but the mystery of the too-weak marath'damane deepened whenever she first bothered to take notice of the changing of that duty. For the new marath'damane did not weave a new shield and the old let hers dissipate. It was the same shield, somehow passed between them. And that was impossible. After that first time, Dali always watched intently, trying to work out how it was done. But she could see nothing – save that the glow of the Power that surrounded any woman channeling somehow surrounded both marath'damane at once. This was central to the mystery, she sensed. But she could make no more sense of it than that, and it gnawed at her.
Other marath'damane would come and look at she and Aiala. Those ones made her skin crawl. Their eyes were sharp, considering. Sometimes they asked questions, as though Dali would speak to the likes of them. She never answered, and Aiala would hide her face in her hands and refuse to open her eyes until they had gone. Dali just tried to pretend they were yapping dogs, and to pay them as little heed. But oh, those eyes.
The nights were long. Damane are trained to be able to sleep in the most uncomfortable conditions, and Dali could doze on the back of a horse, if need be. But always there had been sul'dam close by, ready to listen to any dreams that might wake her and with a night-song to soothe her back into sleep.
It had never been like this. She had never been alone.
The fear would choke Dali whenever she tried to close her eyes. Even sharing blankets with red-eyed Aiala was little comfort. Their shared heat kept away the chill, but did nothing for the loneliness. She would think about the other damane, safe and happy. About her sister. Did Dani believe her dead, and mourn the sister who had been her companion since birth? Or would she know, somehow, in her heart, that Dali lived? They had been discouraged from such foolish notions, but Dali found herself longing for those old superstitions concerning twins to be true, just once. And the loss of Malahavana remained a searing soul-deep grief that would not lessen no matter how many tears Dali shed for it.
And in some ways, though the grief was wrenching, the boredom was worse. There was nothing to look at except those same stone walls – or the marath'damane, but Dali tried to avoid looking at them. Aiala would hardly stir from the corner she sat in. Sometimes Dali could hear other damane crying in the cells close by, but no one ever spoke.
Dali was wondering whether they would be left in those cells forever, and whether death would be merciful enough to come quickly, on the day when things finally changed.
A marath'damane entered, and Dali rolled up her eyes to watch as the shield was passed over. She still wanted to work out how that was done. But it was odd – she had never seen this marath'damane before, and though unfamiliar ones did sometimes share the shield-duty, the current marath'damane had only taken the shield an hour before. Was she being relieved already?
No. The sitting marath'damane rose speedily, and made a deep obeisance. Not a bow, but similar, eyes down and body bent, a complicated motion involving her legs and skirts. She made it look graceful; Dali didn't understand how she didn't fall flat on her face. But she sat up straight, because though she had seen the marath'damane treat each other with greater and lesser amounts of respect, she had never seen this. This one was important, then. Dali would remember her face, to point her out to the sul'dam when the Tower was taken.
Surprisingly, it was only a girl. She looked eighteen summers at most, pretty, with dark hair and eyes. But there was a sternness to her features, and those eyes missed nothing. Dali swallowed. She would not show fear, but...something about this one unnerved her more than the others. Why was she here? What did she want?
The marath'damane looked at them for quite some time before she said anything. Dali's eyes darted around the cell, trying to avoid the scrutiny. Aiala had not even stirred, was slumped, eyes closed, in her corner. Dali had piled straw around her when dark fell the night before, and it had not yet been disturbed. Their pitcher of water, still half-full, sat in a little puddle of its own dew. The mortar between the brick walls of the cell was old and crumbling, but the pale bricks themselves still shone as if new.
"You need not stay in that cell." Dali jumped at the noise, shocking in the silence. She had not expected this marath'damane to speak. "If you don't want to, that is."
Dali tried to close her ears. This marath'damane had nothing to say but tricks and lies. She knew what Aes Sedai were like.
"You have been prisoners for your whole lives. You think it was right, natural. It was not."
And yet, Dali couldn't help glancing up at this marath'damane. Her words were nonsense, of course, but they rang with conviction. Her eyes were bright.
"That ends, now. The collars have gone, and you can be free. Free as you have never been, could never be, in Seanchan."
At this insult, Dali felt her fists clench. 'Free' – free to use the Power at their own whims, becoming tyrants, destroying lands and turning all into their property! None of these marath'damane could ever understand the satisfaction of perfect obedience, of serving a cause greater than themselves! Mylen had tried to explain it to them, but even she admitted she had been wrong, that there was more freedom to be found in service than in selfishness.
But Dali looked up, and with an effort, held the dark eyes of the marath'damane who thought to offer the very thing she had taken away.
"Free?" she asked. She didn't recognise her own voice, it cracked and rasped and her tongue felt like leather. It had been days since she had spoken. It felt like weeks.
"Yes." The marath'damane said, a hint of a pleased smile around the corners of her mouth.
"If Dali is free..." the words came easier, "She can leave? Return home?"
The smile vanished, and Dali was left with an odd feeling in the pit of her stomach. Almost guilt, as if she had given a displeasing answer to a question. Those eyes judged her, weighing and measuring. Her skin crawled.
"I would have every woman who can channel be a part of the White Tower." The marath'damane said after a time. "But we do not force anyone to stay. If you wish, you may...leave."
With that, she turned and walked out, and Dali was left with her own whirling thoughts. Aiala had opened her eyes and was staring at her, shocked, but Dali gave barely any thought to the shame of having spoken to the marath'damane. Could it be true? The marath'damane, in the foolishness, were not going to keep them as prisoners, or kill them, but would let them return to the Empire?
No. This had to be some trick. Some plot.
(Dali can go home?)
But...how? If Dali was let out of her cell, where would she go? Malahavana had studied maps of this land, but Dali hadn't even glanced at them. What did damane need with maps? The sul'dam told them everything they needed to know. Where was Ebou Dar, from Tar Valon? Here they were, hundreds of miles away from civilisation, with no one to take them back - were they just to pick a direction and walk? What of all the people they might encounter, in danger at every moment, should one of them start channeling uncontrollably? Where would they get food, or lie to sleep?
The cleverness of the trap they were caught in became obvious to Dali, and she found herself laughing. It was an ugly sound, with no mirth in it. The damane were now dependent on these insane marath'damane. They could leave, but would have nowhere to go. Or they could stay, and remain prisoners. And who knew what these marath'damane could do? They might even find a way to turn Dali and the other loyal damane and use them against the Empire. The thought tied her stomach in knots.
The scenarios chased themselves around and around in her head, but though she thought and thought, as day faded into night and lightened back to day, Dali could see no solution.