Chapter Three – Escape
Dali made her escape on the very first night.
She had been astonished to find herself led to a room with no lock on the door and no sign of any guards nearby. Inside was plain and small. Dali found herself liking it. It would have made a good kennel – perhaps still would, after the White Tower was taken, if they did not raze the whole building to the ground.
But the room, pleasant as it was, was right in the middle of what was called the Novice Well. It was made up of hundreds of these little rooms spread out over a dozen levels, each room housing a marath'damane, like an enormous hive of poisonous stingbees. They scurried up and down corridors, shouting and making noise and channeling, Dali could feel them channeling constantly. She knew she would never be able to sleep here, surrounded by them. She didn't think she would even be able to close her eyes until she was miles away from the place. So, moments after being shown to the little room by yet another marath'damane, Dali had resolved to escape as soon as she could. Tonight, while they slept.
Unfortunately, it was still early morning. Dali had been told that she was excused morning 'classes' but was to report to the kitchens at High for chores. And if she was to avoid suspicion long enough to escape in the night, Dali would have to obey. Which meant being around marath'damane, close enough to touch, for however many hours the duty lasted. The thought tied her stomach in knots.
Could she escape now, she wondered? But as much as she longed to make the attempt, she knew it was foolish and might cost her her best chance. There were too many marath'damane, Aes Sedai and those younger ones, the novices, the Aes-Sedai-in-training, and any one could give the alarm. Dali could not escape from a dungeon cell, that was certain. Whatever the marath'damane did, however much they terrified her, she would simply have to bear it.
We can bear it, she thought, and smiled. The trick that had seen her take her sister's name had made her feel especially close to Dani.
Humming, Dali walked across the little room and sat down on the bed. She bounced a little, then winced. It was not soft. After being chosen as one of the Empress' personal damane, she had been spoiled, she admitted. Softer bedding, tastier food, even toys! Dali shook her head ruefully. She would appreciate those things all the more when she returned, and tell her Mistress so. Her dress, at least, was little different, though it made her itch to be wearing a colour that was not grey. But the dress was of modest cut, white wool and unadorned. She had been afraid she would be expected to wear silk, like the marath'damane, Rosil, Mistress of Novices. But all novices wore these plain white dresses, apparently, and they lived very simply, under strict discipline. That was reassuring. It was not so different to being da'covale.
The marath'damane Rosil had stared, horrified, at her raven tattoos, while she was undressing. Dali had never had cause to show them to anybody, but she was fiercely proud of them now. They had taken her collar, and the grey dress of her station, but they could not take those. The mark of Imperial property, inked into her skin, everlasting. How that had hurt! But the der'sul'dam Melitene had held her hands and soothed her through the pain, and Dali was so glad to bear them, now that she was so far from everything else she knew.
And the Light willing, she would return soon. Dali still had very little idea of how to return to Ebou Dar, but she thought that if she could get outside the Tower, she could orientate herself. She remembered their flight on raken-back, knew the direction they had come from. Surely, all that was required was to follow that path backwards. As for food and shelter...perhaps she could ask the citizens she met, once she was many miles from Tar Valon. They could surely direct her to the soup-kitchens in the towns she would pass through, and Dali was not so spoiled that she could not sleep under a hedge, if need be. It might take many days, but Dali would make her way back. She would.
Lost in dreams of home, Dali barely noticed the passing of time. The bell ringing High shook her out of her thoughts, and panicking, she leaped up from the bed and bolted out of the door. At any other time, she would have had to spend long minutes steeling herself to go among the throng of marath'damane. But the sound of the bell was a warning that she was already late.
Many hours later, Dali lay back on the same hard bed, with knots in her stomach and limbs that felt like lead. The day had been like a bad dream – the kind you couldn't wake from. The kitchens, when she had found them, had been hot, filled with the steam of dozens of bubbling pots, the heat from an entire wall of ovens, and the sweat of the countless servants and marath'damane labouring there. Her task had been simple – scrubbing potatoes for boiling – but the sacks of potatoes had been deep, and on finishing she had been directed to the pantry to fetch yet more. All the while, servants had been shouting and marath'damane had been whispering sneakily, or pinching, or tricking each other in some manner that had Dali trying to watch every way at once and flinching anytime one looked her way.
The kitchens were run by a woman called Laras, and Dali had been terrified of her from the moment she laid eyes on her. She was an immense, lumbering lopar of a woman with who could see out of the back of her head and had no hesitation in lashing about with that great wooden spoon she carried. Luckily Dali had not earned her wrath, but some of the marath'damane had not been so lucky and now wore the bruises. Though how a woman who could not channel was able to strike one who could, and not be destroyed where she stood, Dali did not understand.
But the kitchens had been pleasant compared to what came next. Dali had been informed she had a 'lesson', and was herded into a room with two dozen novice-marath'damane. They had looked at her then, tried to speak, and when she refused to answer – she could not have, in simple truth, her terror at being trapped in a room with them had dried her mouth to uselessness – they had sneered at her, laughed, teased.
It had been a long time since anyone had laughed at Dali.
The marath'damane who taught had been young herself, and wore a dress as plain as any of the novices, though it had coloured stripes on the sleeves and the hem of the dress. She spent what felt like hours doing nothing but talking about buds and streams and jugs of water and cups of tea. Somehow, this was meant to teach the marath'damane to channel – though if this was the teaching, no wonder they made such poor fighters. When Dali and Dani had been collared, in their fifteenth year, their sul'dam had guided their weaving for many months until its full strength had been built. After that, learning to form the weaves by themselves had come easily. These marath'damane, lacking a'dam, apparently had to fumble it all out anew each time. So inefficient! She might have felt sorry for them had she not realised, shortly into the lesson, that the girls around her were so new to saidar that at any moment one of them might lose control of it entirely and kill them all. After that, Dali had sat quaking in her seat, sweat beading on her brow and her stomach twisting every time the glow of channeling flickered around one of the marath'damane.
It was madness. They were all insane.
Dali could have wept with relief on returning to the little room she liked to think of as her kennel. To solitude. It had been quiet – the novices were at their evening meal, but Dali had seen the dining-hall, and she would rather starve than sit down in a hall surrounded by hundreds of marath'damane. Instead, she had come back to the room, and lain down on the bed, trying to ignore the growling of her stomach, longing helplessly for home.
She thought about visiting Aiala. But in truth, she was too ashamed. Aiala would never understand. She would think Dali had turned, gone over to the Aes Sedai, betrayed them. It was not true! But Dali could never explain it to her. Aiala was a good damane, but though she had loved her sul'dam and was loyal to the Empire, she did not understand that sometimes loyalty meant doing dishonourable things. Like pretending to accept, to lull the Aes Sedai. Like lying, and plotting.
Dali was a good damane too. And it was her loyalty that had driven her to make these unthinkable choices. They were not in the Empire any more, where there were rules that everyone obeyed. They were in wild, lawless lands, facing a terrible enemy, and no one was coming to rescue them. Unimaginable as it was, Dali would have to rescue herself if she ever wanted to see the Empire again.
She would be punished when she returned. Dali knew she would. Damane were not supposed to do these things. But she would take any punishment joyfully if it was the Empress, may she live forever, ordering it.
Marath'damane started to return, scurrying up the endless stairs, chattering and gossiping and always, now here now there, there was the feel of channeling. Dali lay on the bed and willed the time to go faster. Her limbs cried out for rest, but though her eyes were heavy, she could not relax enough to sleep. There was no lock on the door. They could come pouring in at any moment while she was asleep and helpless.
Not that she could put up much of a fight anyway. Dali will not channel.
But the Light was merciful and though marath'damane passed back and forth in front of her door many times, none tried to enter. Some hours later, the ever-present sound of them suddenly started to fade, and Dali knew that it was the sleep-hour. Soon, she could begin her escape. But she would have to be quiet. Novices were not supposed to be out of their rooms after the last bell, and even if she was not recognised as a Seanchan her escape would be doomed if she was spotted and sent for punishment. Dali must be careful.
Finally, long after the last novice was in her room, and the feel of channeling had stopped, Dali rose. She was stiff after lying for so long, and she took a moment to stretch. Hunger made her a little lightheaded, and she almost wished she had braved the dining-hall, but a long drink from the wash-pitcher settled her a little. Still, Dali was dissatisfied. She would never ordinarily have had to undertake a mission in such a state, but she did not have sul'dam to look after her now. She must do her best. And Dani is with Dali.
Carefully, Dali eased open the door and peered both ways along the corridor outside. There was no one to be seen. Silently, she slipped out, and crept away into the night.
Dali flattened herself against a pale stone wall, heart pounding. Getting out of the novice well had been harder than she had expected – it was patrolled. But the sweeps had been half-hearted, routine, and Dali had been able to avoid them. It had not been until she left the novice well and entered the main levels of the Tower that things had started to become...difficult.
She had assumed that all the marath'damane would be asleep. She had been wrong. In four corridors she had dodged three Aes Sedai, the last by only a hair, and of course the servants were not asleep. They did much of their work at night. How could she have been so foolish as to overlook servants?
Pathetically disguised behind a corner of a tapestry, Dali listened to the receding footsteps and tried not to let her teeth chatter. If the marath'damane had turned her head she would have seen Dali for sure. If she had taken the right turning instead of carrying on, nothing could have stopped her from seeing that the tapestry hung unnaturally, and investigating. The Light had shone on Dali, but such luck could not continue.
She stepped out from behind the tapestry and crept cautiously to the junction, ears straining for the sound of footsteps. Two corridors crossed here, and Dali could take any of three paths. Only two went in the direction she was trying to go in, though, and of those, she would have preferred the one the Aes Sedai had just passed down.
Dali had no idea of where she was going, save that she had to reach the ground levels if she wanted to find an exit. But she had not realised just how big the Tower was. The corridors stretched and wound endlessly. Luckily, there were windows, so Dali had some idea of her progress. But it was slow. Too slow.
Long odds¸ Malahavana would have said.
Dali agreed with her. This plan would never work. She needed another.
The silence pressed down on her, scraping her nerves thin. Her mind searched frantically for an idea, a solution. Anything. A disguise? If she killed a servant and took her clothing, could she pass for long enough to find her way out? But she had never killed anyone with her hands before. The thought made her feel sick.
Stop being a jellylegs! It was the kind of thing Dani would have said. This was certainly no time for cowardice. But it was a poor plan. Any marath'damane who passed her would feel her ability to channel. It was a disguise that would fool only the eyes.
A distraction? Could she set a fire, and when all hands were occupied putting it out, make her escape? It was not a bad idea, except that Dali still had no idea where 'out' was.
This is impossible, she finally acknowledged, despairing. It has seemed simple in the beginning, but the Tower was a maze. Dali would need to learn it before she could hope to escape from it. Heart sinking, she wondered how long that would take.
(Dali must return.)
She had to go back to the novice well. She would have to do the chores and go to the lessons – the thought made her skin crawl – for long enough to solve this maze of a Tower. Otherwise she would be caught before the night was out and put back in the dungeon.
Feet dragging with reluctance, Dali turned back along the corridor she had just come up. She could find her way back, at least. She was fairly sure she knew her way back.
Turn left. Freeze, sending prayers to the Light, as footsteps sounded in the distance. Coming closer, then receding again. Continue straight on, trying to calm the racing of her heart. Turn left. Was it left? These corridors all looked so similar. Turn...right. And right again. The novice wells couldn't be more than a few corridors away.
A door opened, shockingly close. Dali stood like stone, rooted to the spot. It closed again, and heavy footsteps echoed along the corridor, only one turn from where she stood.
Dali fled. She ran as hard as she ever had, and unhindered by the leash and another runner alongside she was faster than ever. She bolted like a hare, dodging blindly down corridors, paying no attention to where she was going. Dali needed to get away, that was all that mattered. She had to –
She rounded a corner and crashed into another body, sending both of them sprawling. She yelped, and the other person shouted, and the sound was like the boom of a drum, shocking in the silence, surely drawing every ear for miles. Sucking in terrified breaths, Dali stared at the tiled floor in front of her face. She had landed badly. There was a stabbing hurt in her wrist.
"What are you doing?" a voice hissed, and Dali jerked up, flinching away. Her eyes confirmed what she had felt. A marath'damane, and she was furious. Caught! A little voice wailed inside her head. Dali prepared to launch herself at the marath'damane. She had to incapacitate her before she could raise the alarm. Before she could channel. Light save Dali! She tensed to spring.
"Edie!" another voice cried, and another marath'damane rounded a corner at the far end of the corridor. Too late, the voice sang despondently, and Dali sagged. She could not defeat two of them. There was no escape now.
"What happened – who's that?"
Why was she whispering?
"I don't know!" the first one hissed back. "She came around that corner like she had ten trollocs behind her! We must have woken everyone!" She scowled down at Dali.
"Come on, then!" the second marath'damane urged her, and Dali finally realised why they were being so furtive. They wore white dresses. They were novices, and just as forbidden from wandering the halls as she. Not Aes Sedai! It was a relief. A small relief. They would not run to tell of her transgression. Would they? What exactly were they doing outside their kennels, long after the final bell?
Warily, Dali rose, and eyed them. The second one was fussing over her friend, the one she'd called Edie, and once she was satisfied she was not injured, she turned to Dali. "Are you coming or not?" she asked her. "Someone's bound to have heard that – we're not getting in trouble because you got caught!"
Dali shook her head, too afraid to speak. She wanted nothing to do with any marath'damane, and these rulebreaking ones even less. As though to mock her, a door opened somewhere close by.
Together they ran. The two of them made a terrible noise, racing down the corridors like a pair of stampeding horses, and Dali cursed her ill-fortune. But somehow, they were not caught. She had not thought she would ever be relieved to see the novice well, but she was.
The marath'damane stopped at a door on the very bottom level, and ducked into it, urging Dali in as well. It was a room nearly identical to her own, a bed, a stool and a candle burning on a rickety side-table. The bedclothes were rumpled, and the floor had not been swept, but Dali did not care. She had not been caught. It was a miracle, especially with these two young idiots for companions.
"That was great!" the one called Edie crowed, whirling. There was barely space for the three of them to fit in the tiny room, and both Dali and the other marath'damane ducked her waving arms.
"Edie!" the other hissed. "We nearly got caught! Again! Rosil will have all the skin from our backs if we get sent to her once more. Why do I let you talk me into these fool things?" She groaned, holding her head in her hands.
"You're such a prig, 'Trin. We didn't get caught. Again." They sounded like any two sisters bickering, and Dali felt a strange pang, listening to them. Well, what had she thought marath'damane talked about? Their evil plots? Probably the older ones did. But these were just girls.
The one called Edie was short, dark-haired and pale, with a wide mouth and a brilliant smile. Trin was of a height with her, but plump where Edie was thin, red haired and with lots of freckles. Edie was weak in the Power, but Trin was nearly as strong as Dali. They both looked at her.
"I don't know you." Edie said. "And I know most of the novices. Are you new? What's your name?"
Faced with a question, Dali swallowed. Her eyes darted to the door. There were no locks. She could probably escape before the two could react, but...she did not want to make them suspicious. A damane trying to escape might send the novices to an Aes Sedai, whatever their own punishment. But surely they would not turn in another novice, merely up to the same mischief. Had they really been running in the corridors for fun?
Taking a deep breath, Dali tried to sound natural. They spoke so oddly here, she could not mimic the accent, but there were girls from all over this land in the Tower. Maybe it would not be remarked upon.
"This one is called...Dalidani." She muttered, and added, "New."
The two stared at her. Dali's stomach clenched.
"Er." Trin said. "Well. What – where –?"
"Stop it, 'Trin!" Edie snapped. "She's scared. It's okay." She told Dali. "The first few weeks are very hard. But you'll get used to it. Promise." She smiled. "I've been here over a year, and 'Trin has been here for four. It's not so bad." She said, giving Dali's arm a consoling pat. Dali squirmed away.
Trin looked amused. "I've never heard of anyone trying to run away on the first day before." She snickered. Dali's heart lurched. She knew! Oh Light, how did she know?
Her panic must have shown, because Edie scowled at Trin again. "I said stop scaring her! But look," she said "If you were running away – it isn't a good idea." She advised. "The Aes Sedai find you and bring you back. Always. And runaways have it hard. You don't want that." She beseeched, eyes wide and imploring.
"You certainly don't." Trin agreed dourly. "Aimee has no fun anymore. She's spent every night for six months in the scullery. I think her hands have taken on the shape of the scrub-brush. And she got switched for talking to Saisa in class yesterday, and Saisa only got a lecture."
Dali could feel herself shaking. If they did all that to their own novices, what would they do to her? She swallowed, hard.
"You...will not tell?" She whispered to the two novices. They both shook their heads.
"We won't." Trin said.
"No. But –" Edie said. Dali twitched. What price would she want for their silence?
"But you've got you let us help you. Don't mind 'Trin," she added with a grin at the red-haired girl. "She's nice really. Just let us help. If you don't want to go to Rosil, just come and see us. This is 'Trin's room. Mine is on the second level, eighth on the left from the stairs. Call in when you want."
"Knock first." Trin added with an odd smile.
The marath'damane were being...kind. Obviously they had no idea who Dali was, or they would probably have run to report her already, but the concern and the sympathy was the first Dali had known in many, many days, and she found herself choking up. The rush of emotion was unexpected and so powerful that tears were prickling at her eyes. Even if they were – even if –
"...thankyou." she rasped out of a throat thick with tears, and fled the room before they could speak or offer more comfort. The Light alone knew what she would do if they did.
Somehow, she was able to find her way back to her little novice-room without being caught by any of the wandering Aes Sedai. It was a blessed, welcoming sight, and Dali soon found herself curled on the bed, burrowed into her blankets, weeping.
She wept in relief, finally able to let out the terror and panic and dread that had been winding up inside of her this whole night. Limbs shaking with afterfright, utterly unable to hold back her tears, Dali clutched her thin pillow, and tried to muffle the sobs. She had never been so frightened. Never.
And when the last shivers worked themselves out, when the last trembles faded, Dali wept in grief. Her longing for Malahavana, and Dani, and her mistress, was like anguish. She missed them! She missed safety and security and certainty. She missed warm smiles and delighted laughter and games. She missed a life where she knew her purpose and her place and what was expected of her every day. She missed everything, with a yearning so fierce she just wanted to die from it.
When grief had run its course, Dali wept in fury, bitter tears at the cruel injustice that had brought her here, landed her in a nightmare she could not escape from. She wept in rage that the world could be so broken, so twisted that marath'damane ruled the land and ruined innocent lives. And she wept with exhaustion, bone-weary from days of worry and uncertainty and fear.
Dali lay in the narrow novice bed, hundreds of miles away from everything she knew and loved, and all alone, the yellow-haired damane wept in pure despair.