Lion on the Hill
The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Are by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose among brown-thicketed hills in Cairhien. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.
Westward the wind blew over abandoned villages and farms, many only jumbles of charred timber. War had racked Cairhien, war and civil war, invasion and chaos, and even now that it was done, insofar as it was done, only a handful began to trickle back to their homes. The wind held no moisture, and the sun tried to sear away what little remained in the land. Where the small town of Maerone faced larger Aringill across the River Erinin, the wind crossed into Andor. Both towns baked, and if more prayers for rain rose in Aringill, where refugees from Cairhien jammed inside the walls like fish in a cask, even the soldiers packed around Maerone offered up words to the Creator, sometimes drunkenly, sometimes fervently. Winter should have been beginning to send out tendrils, the first snows long past, and those who sweated feared the reason it was not so, though few dared voice those fears.
Westward the wind blew, stirring drought-shriveled leaves on the trees, riffling the surface of shrinking streams bordered in hard-baked mud. There were no burned-out ruins in Andor, but villagers eyed the swollen sun nervously and farmers tried not to look at fields that had produced no fall crops. Westward, until the wind passed across Caemlyn, lifting two banners above the Royal Palace, in the heart of the Ogier-built Inner City. One banner floated red as blood, upon it a disc divided by a sinuous line, half white, half black as deep as the white was brilliant. The other banner slashed snow white across the sky. The figure on it, like some strange golden-maned, four-legged serpent, sun-eyed and scaled scarlet and gold, seemed to ride on the wind. It was a close question which of the two caused more fear. Sometimes, the same breast that held fear, held hope. Hope of salvation and fear of destruction, from the same source.
Many said Caemlyn was the second most beautiful city in the world, and not only Andorans, who often named it first, overranking Tar Valon itself. Tall round towers marched along the great outer wall of gray stone streaked silver and white, and within rose even taller towers, and domes of white and gold gleaming in the pitiless sun. The city climbed over hills to its center, the ancient Inner City, encircled by its own shining white wall, containing its own towers and domes, purple and white and gold and glittering tile mosaics, that looked down on the New City, well under two thousand years old.
As the Inner City was the heart of Caemlyn, and more than merely by being its center, the Royal Palace was the heart of the Inner City, a gleeman's tale of snowy spires and golden domes and stonework like lace. A heart that beat in the shadow of those two banners.
Stripped to the waist and balanced easily on the balls of his feet, at the moment Rand was no more aware that he was in a white-tiled courtyard of the Palace than he was of the onlookers among the surrounding colonnades. Sweat slicked his hair to his skull, rolled down his chest. The half-healed round scar on his side ached fiercely, but he refused to acknowledge it. Figures like that on the white banner overhead twined around his forearms, glittering metallically red-and-gold. Dragons, the Aiel called them, and others were taking up the name. He was dimly aware of the heron branded neatly into each of his palms, but only because he could feel them against the long hilt of his wooden practice sword.
He was one with the sword, flowing from stance to stance without thought, boots scraping softly on the pale tiles. Lion on the Hill became Arc of the Moon became Tower of Morning. Without thought. Five sweating, bare-chested men circled him, sidestepping warily from stance to stance, practice swords shifting. They were all he was really aware of. Hard-faced and confident, they were the best he had found so far. The best since Lan went. Without thought, as Lan had taught him. He was one with the sword, one with the five men.
Abruptly he ran forward, the encircling men moving rapidly to keep him centered. Just at the moment when that balance teetered on breaking, when at least two of the five had begun to shift toward breaking it, he suddenly turned in midstep and was running the other way. They tried to react, but it was too late. With a loud clack he caught the downstroke of a practice sword on his own blade of bundled lathes; simultaneously his right foot took the grizzled-haired man next over in the belly. Grunting, the man bent double. Locked blade to blade, Rand forced his broken-nosed opponent to turn, kicking the doubled-over man again as they went around. Grizzle-hair went down gasping for air. Rand's opponent tried to back away to use his blade, but that freed Rand's blade to spiral around his--The Grapevine Twines--and thrust hard against his chest, hard enough to knock him off his feet.
Only heartbeats had passed, few enough that just now were the other three closing in. The first, a quick squat little man, belied his stature by leaping over broken-nose with a yell as broken-nose toppled. Rand's practice blade took him across the shins, half upending him, then again across the back, driving him down to the paving stones.
That left only two, but they were the two best, a limber pole of a man whose sword moved like a serpent's tongue, and a heavy shaven-headed fellow who never made a mistake. They separated immediately, to come at Rand from two sides, but he did not wait. Quickly he closed with the skinny man; he had only moments before the other rounded the fallen.
The skinny man was good as well as fast; Rand offered gold for the best, and they came. He was tall for an Andoran, though Rand overtopped him by a hand, yet height had little bearing with the sword. Sometimes strength did. Rand went at him in all-out attack; the man's long face tightened as he gave ground. The Boar Rushes Down the Mountain crashed through Parting the Silk, broke Lightning of Three Prongs, and the bundled lathes slashed hard against the side of the man's neck. He fell with a strangled grunt.
Immediately Rand threw himself down and to the right, rolling up to his knees on the paving stones, blade streaking into The River Undercuts the Bank. The shaven-headed man was not fast, but somehow he had anticipated. Even as Rand's lathe blade swept across the fellow's wide middle, the man's own blade cracked down on Rand's head.
For a moment Rand wavered, his vision a blur of black flecks. Shaking his head in an effort to clear his eyes, he used the practice sword to push himself to his feet. Panting hard, the shaven-headed man watched him cautiously.
"Pay him," Rand said, and wariness left the shaven-headed man's face. Needless wariness. As if Rand had not promised an extra day's coin to any man who managed to strike him. Triple to any who defeated him one-to-one. It was a way to make sure nobody held back to flatter the Dragon Reborn. He never asked their names, and if they took the omission amiss, so much the better if it made them try harder. He wanted opponents to test him, not become friends. The friends he did have would curse the hour they met him one day, if they did not already. The others were stirring, too; a man "killed" was to stay where he lay until it was all done, an obstruction as a real corpse would be, but the squat man was having to help grizzle-hair up, and having trouble standing unaided himself. The limber fellow worked his head around, wincing. There would be no more practice today. "Pay them all."
A ripple of clapping and praise ran through the watchers among the narrow fluted columns, lords and ladies in colorful silks heavy with elaborate embroidery and braid. Rand grimaced and tossed his sword aside. That lot had all been toadeaters to Lord Gaebril when Queen Morgase--their queen--was little more than a prisoner in this palace. Her palace. But Rand needed them. For the moment. Clutch the bramble, and you will be pricked, he thought. At least, he hoped it was his thought.
Sulin, the wiry white-haired leader of Rand's escort of Aiel Maidens of the Spear, leader of the Maidens this side of the Spine of the World, pulled a gold Tar Valon mark from her belt pouch, tossed it with a grimace that drew at the nasty scar on the side of her face. The Maidens did not like Rand handling a sword, even a practice blade. They did not approve of any sword. No Aiel did.
The shaven-headed man caught the coin, and answered Sulin's blue-eyed stare with a careful bow. Everyone was careful around the Maidens, in their coats and breeches and soft, laced boots of browns and grays made to fade into the bleak landscape of the Waste. Some had begun adding shades of green, to suit what they called the wetlands despite the drought. Compared to the Aiel Waste, it was still wet; few Aiel had seen water they could not step across before leaving the Waste, and bitter feuds had been fought over pools two or three paces wide.
Like any Aiel warrior, like the twenty other light-eyed Maidens around the courtyard, Sulin kept her hair cut short except for a tail on the nape of her neck. She carried three short spears and a round bull-hide buckler in her left hand, and a pointed heavy-bladed knife at her belt. Like any Aiel warrior, down to those the age of Jalani, all of sixteen and with traces of baby fat still on her cheeks, Sulin knew how to use those weapons well, and would on slight provocation, at least as folk this side of the Dragonwall saw it. Except for her, the Maidens watched everyone, every piercework screened window and pale stone balcony, every shadow. Some had short curved bows of horn with arrows nocked, and more shafts ready in bristling quivers worn at the waist. Far Dareis Mai, the Maidens of the Spear, carried the honor of their prophesied Car'a'carn, if sometimes in their own peculiar way, and not a one of them but would die to keep Rand alive. The thought made his stomach boil in its own acid.
Sulin continued tossing the gold with a sneer--it pleased Rand to use Tar Valon coins for this debt--another for shaven-head, one for each of the others. Aiel approved of most wetlanders little more than of swords, and that took in anyone not born and bred Aiel. For most Aiel, that would have included Rand despite his Aiel blood, but there were the Dragons on his arms. One marked a clan chief, earned by risking life on strength of will; two marked the Car'a'carn, the chief of chiefs, He Who Comes With the Dawn. And the Maidens had other reasons for approval.
Gathering up practice swords, shirts and coats, the men bowed their way from his presence. "Tomorrow," Rand called after them. "Early." Deeper bows acknowledged the order.
Before the bare-chested men were gone from the courtyard, the Andoran nobles swept out of the colonnades, a rainbow of silks crowding around Rand, dabbing at sweaty faces with lace-trimmed handkerchiefs. They made Rand's bile rise. Use what you must use, or let the Shadow cover the land. Moiraine had told him that. He almost preferred the honest opposition of the Cairhienin and Tairens to this lot. That nearly made him laugh, calling what those did honest.
"You were wonderful," Arymilla breathed, lightly laying a hand on his arm. "So quick, so strong." Her big brown eyes seemed even more melting than usual. She was apparently fool enough to think him susceptible: her green gown, covered with vines in silver, was cut low by Andoran standards, which meant it showed a hint of cleavage. She was pretty, but easily old enough to be his mother. None of them was any younger, and some older, but all competed at licking Rand's boots.
"That was magnificent, my Lord Dragon." Elenia nearly elbowed Arymilla aside. That smile looked odd on the honey-haired woman's vulpine face; she had the reputation of a termagant. Not around Rand, of course. "There has never been a swordsman like you in the history of Andor. Even Souran Maravaile, who was Artur Hawkwing's greatest general and husband to Ishara, first to sit on the Lion Throne--even he died when confronted by only four swordsmen. Assassins, in the twenty-third year of the War of the Hundred Years. Though he did kill all four." Elenia seldom missed a chance to point out her knowledge of Andor's history, especially in areas where not much was known, like the war that had broken Hawkwing's empire apart after his death. At least today she did not add justifications of her claims to the Lion Throne.
"Just a bit of bad luck at the end," Elenia's husband, Jarid, put in jovially. He was a square man, dark for an Andoran. Embroidered scrollwork and golden boars, the sign of House Sarand, covered the cuffs and long collars of his red coat, and the White Lions of Andor the long sleeves and high neck of Elenia's matching red gown. Rand wondered whether she thought he would not recognize the lions for what they were. Jarid was High Seat of his House, but all the drive and ambition came from her.
"Marvelously well done, my Lord Dragon," Karind said bluntly. Her shimmery gray dress, cut as severely as her face but heavy with silver braid on sleeves and hem, almost matched the streaks through her dark hair. "You surely must be the finest swordsman in the world." Despite her words, the blocky woman's flat-eyed look was like a hammer. Had she had brains to match her toughness, she would have been dangerous.
Naean was a slim, palely beautiful woman, with big blue eyes and waves of gleaming black hair, but the sneer she directed at the five departing men was a fixture. "I suspect they planned it out beforehand so one would manage to strike you. They will divide the extra coin among them." Unlike Elenia, the blue-clad woman with the silver Triple Keys of House Arawn climbing her long sleeves never mentioned her own claims to the throne, not where Rand could hear. She pretended to be content as High Seat of an ancient House, a lioness pretending to be content as a housecat.
"Can I always count on my enemies not to work together?" he asked quietly. Naean's mouth worked in surprise; she was hardly stupid, yet seemed to think those who opposed her should roll onto their backs as soon as she confronted them, and seemed to take it as a personal affront when they did not.
One of the Maidens, Enaila, ignored the nobles to hand Rand a thick length of white toweling to wipe his sweat away. A fiery redhead, she was short for an Aiel, and it grated at her that some of these wetlander women were taller than she. The majority of the Maidens could stare most of the men in the room straight in the eyes. The Andorans did their best to ignore her too, but their pointed looks elsewhere made the attempts glaring failures. Enaila walked away as if they were invisible.
The silence lasted just moments. "My Lord Dragon is wise," Lord Lir said with a small bow and a slight frown. The High Seat of House Baryn was blade-slender and blade-strong in a yellow coat adorned with gold braid, but too smoothly unctuous, too smooth altogether. Nothing but those occasional frowns ever sullied that surface, as if he was unaware of them, yet he was hardly the only one to give Rand strange looks. They all looked at the Dragon Reborn in their midst with wondering disbelief sometimes. "One's enemies usually do work together sooner or later. One must identify them before they have the chance to."
More praise for Rand's wisdom flowed from Lord Henren, blocky, bald and hard-eyed, and from gray-curled Lady Carlys, with her open face and devious mind, from plump giggly Daerilla, and thin-lipped nervous Elegar, and nearly a dozen others who had held their tongues while those more powerful spoke.
The lesser lords and ladies fell silent as soon as Elenia opened her mouth once more. "There is always the difficulty of knowing your enemies before they make themselves known. It is often too late, then." Her husband nodded sagely.
"I always say," Naean announced, "that who does not support me, opposes me. I've found it a good rule. Those who hang back may be waiting until your back is turned to plant a dagger."
This was hardly the first time they had tried to secure their own places by casting suspicion on any lord or lady not standing with them, but Rand wished he could stop them short of telling them to stop. Their attempts to play the Game of Houses were feeble compared to the sly maneuverings of Cairhienin, or even Tairens, and they were irritating besides, but there were thoughts he did not want them to have yet. Surprisingly, aid came from white-haired Lord Nasin, the High Seat of House Caeren.
"Another Jearom," the man said, an obsequious smile awkward on his gaunt, narrow face. He drew exasperated looks, even from some of the minor nobles before they caught themselves. Nasin had been a little addled since the events surrounding Rand's coming to Caemlyn. Instead of the Star and Sword of his House, Nasin's pale blue lapels were incongruously worked with flowers, moondrops and lovers-knots, and he sometimes wore a flower in his thinning hair like a country youth going courting. House Caeren was too powerful for even Jarid or Naean to push him aside, though. Nasin's head bobbed on a scrawny neck. "Your bladework is spectacular, my Lord Dragon. You are another Jearom."
"Why?" The word cut across the courtyard, souring the Andorans' faces.
Davram Bashere was certainly no Andoran, with his tilted, almost black eyes, a hooked beak of a nose, and thick gray-streaked mustaches curving down like horns around his wide mouth. He was slender, little taller than Enaila, in a short gray coat embroidered with silver on cuffs and lapels, and baggy trousers tucked into boots turned down at the knee. Where the Andorans had stood to watch, the Marshal-General of Saldaea had had a gilded chair dragged to the courtyard, and sprawled in it with a leg over one of its arms, ring-quilloned sword twisted so the hilt sat in easy reach. Sweat glistened on his dark face, but he paid it as little mind as he did the Andorans.
"What do you mean?" Rand demanded.
"All this sword practice," Bashere said easily. "And with five men? No one exercises against five. It's foolish. Sooner or later your brains will be spilled on the ground in a melee like that, even with practice swords, and to no purpose."
Rand's jaw tightened. "Jearom once defeated ten."
Shifting in his chair, Bashere laughed. "Do you think you'll live long enough to equal the greatest swordsman in history?" An angry mutter came from the Andorans--feigned anger, Rand was sure--but Bashere ignored it. "You are who you are, after all." Suddenly he moved like an uncoiling spring; the dagger drawn while shifting flashed toward Rand's heart.
Rand did not move a muscle. Instead he seized saidin, the male half of the True Source; it took no more thought than breathing. Saidin flooded into him, carrying the Dark One's taint, an avalanche of foul ice, a torrent of reeking molten metal. It tried to crush him, to scour him away, and he rode it like a man balancing atop a collapsing mountain. He channeled, a simple weave of Air that wrapped up the dagger and stopped it an arm's length from his chest. Emptiness surrounded
him; he floated in the middle of it, in the Void, thought and emotion distant.
"Die!" Jarid shouted, drawing his sword as he ran toward Bashere. Lir and Henren and Elegar and every Andoran lord had his sword out, even Nasin, though he looked about to drop his. The Maidens had wrapped their shoufa around their heads, black veils coming up to cover their faces to blue or green eyes as they raised long-pointed spears; Aiel always veiled before killing.
"Stop!" Rand barked, and everyone froze in their tracks, the Andorans blinking in confusion, the Maidens simply poised on their toes. Bashere had not moved again beyond settling back into the chair, his leg still hooked over the arm.
Plucking the horn-hilted dagger from the air with one hand, Rand let go of the Source. Even with the taint twisting his belly, the taint that eventually destroyed men who channeled, letting go was difficult. With saidin in him, he saw more clearly, heard more sharply. It was a paradox he did not understand, but when he was floating in that seemingly endless Void, somehow buffered against bodily feeling and emotions, every sense was magnified; without it he felt only half-alive. And some of the taint seemed to remain behind, but not the mitigating glory of saidin. The deadly glory that would kill him if he wavered an inch in the struggle with it.
Turning the dagger in his hands, he walked slowly to Bashere. "Had I been an eyeblink slower," he said softly, "I'd be dead. I could kill you where you sit and no law in Andor or anywhere else would say me wrong." He was ready to do it, he realized. Cold rage had replaced saidin. A few weeks' acquaintance did not cover this.
The Saldaean's tilted eyes were as calm as if he lolled in his own home. "My wife would not like that. Nor you, for that matter. Deira would probably take command and set out hunting Taim again. She doesn't approve of my agreement to follow you."
Rand shook his head slightly, the edge of his anger dulled a little by the man's composure. And his words. It had been a surprise to learn that among Bashere's nine thousand Saldaean horse all of the nobles had brought their wives, and most of the other officers as well. Rand did not understand how a man could take his wife into danger, but it was traditional in Saldaea, except when campaigning into the Blight.
He avoided looking at the Maidens. They were warriors to their toenails, but women, too. And he had promised not to keep them from danger, even death. He had made no promise not to flinch at it, though, and it ripped at him inside when he had to, but he kept his promises. He did what he had to do even when he hated himself for it.
With a sigh he tossed the dagger aside. "Your question," he said politely. "Why?"
"Because you are who you are," Bashere said plainly. "Because you--and those men you're gathering, I suppose--are what you are." Rand heard feet shuffling behind him; for all they tried to, the Andorans could never hide their horror at his amnesty. "You can do what you did with the dagger every time," Bashere went on, putting his raised boot down and leaning forward, "but for any assassin to reach you, he has to get past your Aiel. And my horsemen, for that matter. Bah! If anything gets close to you, it won't be human." Throwing his hands wide, he settled back again. "Well, if you want to practice the sword, do it. A man needs exercise, and relaxation. But don't get your skull split open. Too much depends on you, and I don't see any Aes Sedai around to Heal you." His mustache almost hid his sudden grin. "Besides, if you die, I don't think our Andoran friends will maintain their warm welcome for me and my men."
The Andorans had put up their swords, but their eyes remained on Bashere malevolently. Nothing to do with how close he had come to killing Rand. Usually they kept their faces smooth around Bashere, for all he was a foreign general with a foreign army on Andoran soil. The Dragon Reborn wanted Bashere there, and this lot would have smiled at a Myrddraal if the Dragon Reborn wanted it. But if Rand might turn on him.…No need to hide anything then. They were vultures who had been ready to feed on Morgase before she died, and they would feed on Bashere given half a chance. And on Rand. He could hardly wait to be rid of them.
The only way to live is to die. The thought came into his head suddenly. He had been told that once, in such a way he had to believe it, but the thought was not his. I must die. I deserve only death. He turned away from Bashere clutching at his head.
Bashere was out of his chair in an instant, clutching Rand's shoulder though it was head high to him. "What is the matter? Did that blow really crack your head?"
"I am fine." Rand pulled his hands down; there was never any pain in this, only the shock of having another man's thoughts in his head. Bashere was not the only one watching. Most of the Maidens were eyeing him as closely as they did the courtyard, especially Enaila and yellow-haired Somara, the tallest of them. Those two would probably bring him some sort of herb tea as soon as their duties were done, and stand over him till he drank it. Elenia and Naean and the rest of the Andorans were breathing hard, clutching at coats and skirts, studying Rand with the wide-eyed fear of people afraid they might be seeing the first signs of madness. "I am fine," he told the courtyard. Only the Maidens relaxed, and Enaila and Somara not very far.
Aiel did not care about "the Dragon Reborn"; to them Rand was the Car'a'carn, prophesied to unite them, and to break them. They took it in stride, though they worried about it too, and they seemed to take his channeling in stride as well, and everything that might go with it. The others--The wetlanders, he thought dryly--called him the Dragon Reborn, and never speculated on what that meant. They believed he was the rebirth of Lews Therin Telamon, the Dragon, the man who had sealed the hole into the Dark One's prison and ended the War of the Shadow three thousand years ago and more. Ended the Age of Legends as well, when the Dark One's last counterstroke tainted saidin, and every man who could channel began to go insane, starting with Lews Therin himself and his Hundred Companions. They called Rand the Dragon Reborn, and never suspected that some part of Lews Therin Telamon might be inside his head, as mad as the day he had begun the Time of Madness and the Breaking of the World, as mad as any of those male Aes Sedai who had changed the face of the world beyond recognition. It had come on him slowly, but the more Rand learned of the One Power, the stronger he became with saidin, the stronger Lews Therin's voice became, and the harder Rand had to fight to keep a dead man's thoughts from taking him over. That was one reason why he liked sword practice; the absence of thought was a barrier to keep him himself.
"We need to find an Aes Sedai," Bashere muttered. "If those rumors are true.…The Light burn my eyes, I wish we had never let that one leave."
A good many people had fled Caemlyn in the days after Rand and the Aiel seized the city; the Palace itself nearly emptied overnight. There were people Rand would liked to have found, people who had helped him, but they had all vanished. Some still slipped away. One fleeing in those first days had been a young Aes Sedai, young enough that her face still lacked the distinctive agelessness. Bashere's men sent word when they found her at an inn, but when she found out who Rand was, she ran screaming. Literally screaming. He never even learned her name or Ajah. Rumor said another was somewhere in the city, but a hundred rumors were loose in Caemlyn now, a thousand, each less likely than the next. Definitely unlikely any would lead to an Aes Sedai. Aiel patrols had spotted several passing Caemlyn by, each plainly going somewhere in a hurry and none with any intention of entering a city occupied by the Dragon Reborn.
"Could I trust any Aes Sedai?" Rand asked. "It was just a headache. My head isn't hard enough not to ache a little when it's hit."
Bashere snorted hard enough to stir his thick mustaches. "However hard your head is, sooner or later you'll have to trust Aes Sedai. Without them, you'll never bring all the nations behind you short of conquest. People look for such things. However many of the Prophecies they hear you've fulfilled, many will wait for the Aes Sedai to put their stamp on you."
"I won't avoid fighting anyway, and you know it," Rand said. "The White-cloaks aren't likely to welcome me into Amadicia even if Ailron agrees, and Sammael certainly won't give up Illian without a fight." Sammael and Rahvin and Moghedien and.…Harshly he forced the thought from his consciousness. It was not easy. They came without warning, and it was never easy.
A thump made him look over his shoulder. Arymilla lay in a heap on the paving stones. Karind was kneeling to pull her skirts down over her ankles and chafe her wrists. Elegar swayed as though he might join Arymilla in a moment, and neither Nasin nor Elenia appeared in much better state. Most of the rest looked ready to sick up. Mention of the Forsaken could do that, especially since Rand had told them that Lord Gaebril really had been Rahvin. He was not sure how much they believed, but just considering the possibility was enough to unhinge the knees of most. Their shock was why they were still alive. Had he believed they had served knowingly.…No, he thought. If they'd known, if they were all Darkfriends, you'd still use them. Sometimes he was so sick of himself that he really was ready to die.
At least he was telling the truth. The Aes Sedai were all trying to keep it secret, the Forsaken being free; they feared that knowing would just bring more chaos and panic. Rand was trying to spread the truth. People might panic, but they would have time to recover. The Aes Sedai way, knowledge and panic might come too late for recovery. Besides, people had a right to know what they faced.
"Illian won't hold out long," Bashere said. Rand's head whipped back around, but Bashere was too old a campaigner to speak of what he should not where others could hear. He was just taking the talk away from the Forsaken. Though if the Forsaken, or anything else, made Davram Bashere nervous, Rand had not seen it yet. "Illian will crack like a nut hit by a hammer."
"You and Mat worked out a good plan." The basic idea had been Rand's, but Mat and Bashere had provided the thousand details that would make it work. Mat more than Bashere.
"An interesting young fellow, Mat Cauthon," Bashere mused. "I look forward to speaking with him again. He never would say who he studied under. Agelmar Jagad? I hear you've both been to Shienar." Rand said nothing. Mat's secrets were his own; Rand was not really sure what they were himself. Bashere tilted his head, scratched at a mustache with one finger. "He's young to have studied under anyone. No older than you. Did he find a library somewhere? I would like to see the books he's read."
"You'll have to ask him," Rand said. "I don't know." He supposed Mat had to have read a book sometime, somewhere, but Mat did not have much interest in books.
Bashere only nodded. When Rand did not want to talk about something, Bashere usually let it alone. Usually. "The next time you jaunt off to Cairhien, why don't you bring back the Green sister who's there? Egwene Sedai? I've heard the Aiel speak of her; they say she's from your home village, too. You could trust her, couldn't you?"
"Egwene has other duties," Rand laughed. A Green sister. If Bashere only knew.
Somara appeared at Rand's side with his linen shirt and his coat, a fine red wool cut in the Andoran style, with dragons on the long collar and laurel leaves thick on the lapels and climbing the sleeves. She was tall even for an Aiel woman, maybe not quite a hand shorter than he. Like the other Maidens, she had lowered her veil, but the gray-brown shoufa still hid all but her face. "The Car'a'carn will catch a chill," she murmured.
He doubted it. The Aiel might find this heat nothing out of the ordinary, but already sweat streamed down him nearly as hard as while working the sword. Still, he pulled the shirt over his head and tucked it in, though leaving the laces undone, then shrugged into the coat. He did not think Somara would actually try to put the clothes on him, not in front of others, but this way he would avoid lectures from her and Enaila, and very likely some of the others, along with the herb tea.
To most Aiel he was the Car'a'carn, and so it was with the Maidens. In public. Alone with these women who had chosen to reject marriage and the hearth in favor of the spear, matters became more complicated. He supposed he could stop it--maybe--but he owed it to them not to. Some had already died for him, and more would--he had promised, the Light burn him for it!--and if he could let them do that, he could let them do the rest. Sweat soaked through the shirt immediately and began making dark patches on the coat.
"You need the Aes Sedai, al'Thor." Rand hoped Bashere was half this dogged when it came to fighting; that was the man's reputation, but he had only reputation and a few weeks to go by. "You can't afford to have them against you, and if they don't at least think they have a few strings tied to you, they might go that way. Aes Sedai are tricksome; no man can know what they'll do or why."
"What if I tell you there are hundreds of Aes Sedai ready to support me?" Rand was aware of the Andorans listening; he had to be careful not to say too much. Not that he knew much. What he did know was probably exaggeration and hope. He certainly doubted the "hundreds," whatever Egwene hinted.
Bashere's eyes narrowed. "If there's been an embassy from the Tower, I would know, so.…" His voice dropped to a near whisper. "The split? The Tower has really split?" He sounded as if he could not believe the words coming out of his own mouth. Everyone knew Siuan Sanche had been deposed from the Amyrlin Seat and stilled--and executed, so rumor ran--yet to most people a division in the Tower was only conjecture, and few truly believed. The White Tower had remained whole, a monolith towering over thrones, for three thousand years. But the Saldaean was a man who considered all possibilities. He went on in a true whisper, stepping close so the Andorans could not overhear. "It must be the rebels ready to support you. You could strike a better deal with them--they'll need you as much as you need them, maybe more--but rebels, even Aes Sedai rebels, won't carry nearly the weight of the White Tower, certainly not with any crown. Commoners might not know the difference, but kings and queens will."
"They're still Aes Sedai," Rand said just as quietly, "whoever they are." And wherever they are, he thought dryly. Aes Sedai…Servants of All…the Hall of the Servants is broken…broken forever…broken…Ilyena, my love.…Ruthlessly he quashed Lews Therin's thoughts. Sometimes they had actually been a help, giving him information he needed, but they were growing too strong. If he did have an Aes Sedai there--a Yellow; they knew the most of Healing--perhaps she.…There had been one Aes Sedai he trusted, though not until shortly before her death, and Moiraine had left him a piece of advice about Aes Sedai, about every other woman who wore the shawl and the ring. "I'll never trust any Aes Sedai," he rasped softly. "I will use them, because I do need them, but Tower or rebel, I know they'll try to use me, because that is what Aes Sedai do. I'll never trust them, Bashere."
The Saldaean nodded slowly. "Then use them, if you can. But remember this. No one resists for long going the way the Aes Sedai want." Abruptly he barked a short laugh. "Artur Hawkwing was the last, so far as I know. The Light burn my eyes, maybe you'll be the second."
The scrape of boots announced an arrival in the courtyard, one of Bashere's men, a heavy-shouldered, hatchet-nosed young fellow a head taller than his general, with a luxuriant black beard as well as thick mustaches. He walked like a man more used to a saddle under him than his own feet, but he handled the sword at his hip smoothly as he bowed. To Bashere, more than to Rand. Bashere might follow the Dragon Reborn, but Tumad--Rand thought that was his name; Tumad Ahzkan--followed Bashere. Enaila and three other Maidens fastened their eyes on the new Saldaean; they did not really trust any wetlander around the Car'a'carn.
"There is a man has presented himself at the gates," Tumad said uneasily. "He says.…It is Mazrim Taim, my Lord Bashere."
Copyright © 1994 by Robert Jordan