Knife of Dreams
By Robert Jordan
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2005 The Bandersnatch Group, Inc.
All rights reserved.
When Last Sounds
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 Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose above the broken mountain named Dragonmount. 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.
Born beneath the glow of a fat, sinking moon, at an altitude where men could not breathe, born among writhing currents heated by the fires inside the ragged peak, the wind was a zephyr in the beginning, yet it gained in strength as it rushed down the steep, rugged slope. Carrying ash and the stench of burning sulfur from the heights, the wind roared across the sudden, snowy hills that reared from the plain surrounding the impossible height of Dragonmount, roared and tossed trees in the night.
Eastward out of the hills the wind howled, across a large pasture encampment, a considerable village of tents and wooden walkways lining streets of frozen ruts. Soon enough the ruts would melt and the last of the snow vanish, replaced by spring rains and mud. If the encampment remained that long. Despite the hour, many among the Aes Sedai were awake, gathered in small groups warded against eavesdropping, discussing what had transpired this night. No few of those discussions were quite animated, little short of argument, and some held undeniable heat. Fists might have been shaken or worse had they not belonged to Aes Sedai. What to do next was the question. Every sister knew the news from the riverbank by now, if the details remained sketchy. The Amyrlin herself had gone in secret to seal Northharbor, and her boat had been found overturned and caught in the reeds. Survival in the swift, icy currents of the Erinin was unlikely, and hour by hour it had become more so, until certainty hardened. The Amyrlin Seat was dead. Every sister in the camp knew that her future and perhaps her life hung by a thread, not to mention the future of the White Tower itself. What to do now? Yet voices fell silent and heads came up as the fierce blast struck the camp, fluttering tent canvas like flags, pelting it with clods of snow. The sudden stink of burning sulphur hung heavy in the air, announcing where that wind had come from, and more than one Aes Sedai offered a silent prayer against evil. In moments, though, the wind had passed, and the sisters bent back to their deliberations on a future bleak enough to fit the sharp, fading stench left behind.
On the wind roared toward Tar Valon, gaining strength as it went, shrieking over military camps near the river where soldiers and camp followers sleeping on the ground suddenly had their blankets stripped off and those in tents awoke to canvas jerking and sometimes whipping away into the darkness as tent pegs gave way or guy ropes snapped. Laden wagons rocked and toppled, and banners stood out stiff before they were uprooted, their hurtling staffs now spears that pierced whatever lay in their path. Leaning against the gale, men struggled to the horselines to calm animals that reared and screamed in fear. None knew what the Aes Sedai knew, yet the biting, sulphurous smell that filled the chill night air seemed an ill omen, and hardened men offered their prayers aloud as fervently as the beardless boys. Camp followers added their own, and loudly, armorers and farriers and fletchers, wives and laundresses and seamstresses, all clutched by the sudden fear that something darker than blackness stalked the night.
The fierce flutter of canvas overhead, near to ripping, the babble of voices and the screams of horses, loud enough to cut through the wailing wind, helped Siuan Sanche struggle awake for the second time. The abrupt stink of burning sulphur made her eyes water, and she was grateful for it. Egwene might be able to don and doff sleep like a pair of stockings, but the same was not true for her. Sleep had been hard enough to come by after she finally made herself lie down. Once the news had reached her from the riverbank, she had been sure she never would sleep short of utter exhaustion. She had offered prayers for Leane, but all of their hopes rested on Egwene's shoulders, and all of their hopes seemed gutted and hung up to dry. Well, she had exhausted herself with nerves and worry and pacing. Now there was hope again, and she did not dare let her leaden eyelids close for fear she would sink back into slumber and not wake till midday, if then. The ferocious wind abated, but people's shouts and horses' cries did not.
Wearily, she tossed aside her blankets and stood up unsteadily. Her bedding was hardly comfortable, laid out on the canvas ground-cloth in a corner of the not-very-large square tent, yet she had come here, though it meant riding. Of course, she had been near falling down by then, and likely not in her right mind from grief. She touched the twisted ring ter'angreal hanging from a leather cord around her neck. Her first waking, every bit as hard as this one, had been to fetch that from her belt pouch. Well, the grief was vanquished now, and that was adequate to keep her moving. A sudden yawn made her jaws creak like rusty oarlocks. Barely adequate. You would have thought Egwene's message, the fact that Egwene was alive to send a message, would be enough to banish bone-weariness. Not so, it appeared.
Channeling a globe of light long enough to see the box-lantern on the main tent pole, she lit it with a thread of Fire. The single flame gave a very pale, flickering illumination. There were other lamps and lanterns, but Gareth went on so about how little lamp oil there was in stock. The brazier, she left unlit; Gareth was not so parsimonious with charcoal as oil — charcoal was easier to come by — but she was barely aware of the frigid air. She frowned at his bedding, still lying untouched on the other side of the tent. He surely was aware of the boat's discovery and who it had carried. The sisters did their best to keep secrets from him, but somehow, they succeeded less often than most believed. More than once he had startled her with what he knew. Was he out there in the night organizing his soldiers for whatever the Hall decided? Or had he already departed, leaving a lost cause? No longer lost, yet he must be unaware of that.
"No," she muttered, feeling an odd sense of ... treachery ... that she had cast doubt on the man, even in her own mind. He would still be there at sunrise, and for every sunrise until the Hall commanded him to leave. Maybe longer. She did not believe he would abandon Egwene whatever the Hall commanded. He was too stubborn, proud. No; it was not that. Gareth Bryne's word was his honor. Once given, he would not take it back unless released, whatever the cost to himself. And maybe, just maybe, he had other reasons to stay. She refused to think of that.
Putting Gareth out of her mind — why had she come to his tent? It would have been so much easier to lie down in her own in the sisters' camp, cramped as it was, or even to have kept the weeping Chesa company, though on second thought, that last might have been beyond her. She could not abide weeping, and Egwene's maid would not stop — putting Gareth firmly out of her head, she ran a hasty brush through her hair, changed her shift for a fresh one, and dressed as quickly as she could in the dim light. Her plain blue wool riding dress was rumpled, and spotted with mud on the hem besides — she had gone down to see the boat for herself — but she did not take the time to clean and press it with the Power. She had to hurry.
The tent was far from the spacious affair you would have expected of a general, so hurrying meant bumping her hip against a corner of the writing table hard enough that one of the legs almost folded before she could catch it, nearly tripping over the camp stool, the only thing approaching a chair, and barking her shins on the brass-bound chests that lay scattered about. That brought a curse that would have singed any listener's ears. The things served double duty, seats as well as storage, and one with a flat top did for a makeshift washstand with a white pitcher and bowl. In truth, they were arrayed in a neat enough fashion, but one peculiar to him. He could find his way through that maze in pitch dark. Anyone else would break a leg trying to reach his bedding. She supposed he must have a concern for assassins, though he had never voiced it.
Gathering her dark cloak from atop one of the chests and folding it over her arm, she paused on the point of snuffing the lantern with a flow of Air. For a moment she stared at Gareth's second pair of boots, standing at the foot of his bedding. Channeling another small sphere of light, she moved it close to the boots. As she had thought. Freshly blacked. The bloody man insisted she work off her debt, then sneaked in behind her back — or worse, under her nose while she slept — and blacked his own bloody boots! Gareth bloody Bryne treated her like a maidservant, never so much as tried to kiss her ...!
She jerked upright, her mouth going taut as a mooring rope. Now where had that thought come from? No matter what Egwene claimed, she was not in love with Gareth bloody Bryne! She was not! She had too much work in front of her to get caught in that kind of foolishness. That's why you stopped wearing embroidery, I suppose, a small voice whispered in the back of her head. All those pretty things, stuffed into chests because you're afraid. Afraid? Burn her if she was afraid of him or any man!
Carefully channeling Earth, Fire and Air just so, she laid the weave on the boots. Every last bit of the blacking, and most of the dye as well, came away and formed into a neat, glistening sphere that floated in the air, leaving the leather decidedly gray. For a moment she contemplated depositing the ball among his blankets. That would be a suitable surprise for him when he finally lay down!
With a sigh, she pushed open the doorflap and took the ball outside into the darkness to let it splash onto the ground. The man had a short and extremely disrespectful way when she let her temper carry her too far, as she had discovered the first time she hit him over the head with the boots she was cleaning. And when he made her so angry she put salt in his tea. Quite a lot of salt, but it had not been her fault he was hurried enough to drain the cup in a gulp. To try to, at any rate. Oh, he never seemed to mind when she shouted, and sometimes he shouted back — sometimes he just smiled, which was purely infuriating! — yet he had his limits. She could have stopped him with a simple weave of Air, of course, but she had her honor as much as he had his, burn him! Anyway, she had to stay close to him. Min said so, and the girl seemed infallible. That was the only reason she had not stuffed a fistful of gold down Gareth Bryne's throat and told him he was paid and be burned. The only reason! Besides her own honor, of course.
Yawning, she left the dark puddle shining in the cold moonlight. If he stepped in it before it dried and tracked the mess inside, the blame would be his own and none of hers. At least the sulphur smell had faded a little. Her eyes had stopped overflowing, though what she could see was turmoil.
This sprawling, night-shrouded camp had never had much order. The rutted streets were straight enough, true, and wide for moving soldiers, but for the rest it had always seemed a haphazard array of tents and rough shelters and stone-lined pits for cook fires. Now, it looked much as if it had been under attack. Collapsed tents lay everywhere, some tossed atop others that still stood, though a good many of those stood askew, and dozens of wagons and carts lay on their sides or upside down. Voices on every side called for help with the injured, of whom there appeared to be a fair number. Men limped along the street in front of Gareth's tent supported by other men, while several small groups hurried by carrying blankets being used as stretchers. Farther away she could see four blanket-covered shapes on the ground, three attended by kneeling women who rocked back and forth as they keened.
She could do nothing for the dead, but she could offer her ability with Healing to the others. That was hardly her greatest skill, not very strong at all, though it seemed to have returned to her fully when Nynaeve Healed her, yet she doubted there was another sister anywhere in the camp. They did avoid the soldiers, most of them. Her ability would be better than none. She could, except for the news she carried. It was urgent that it reach the right people as soon as possible. So she closed her ears to the groans and the keens alike, ignored dangling arms and rags clutched to bleeding heads, and hurried to the horselines on the edge of the camp, where the oddly sweet smell of horse dung was beginning to win over the sulphur. A rawboned, unshaven fellow with a haggard glare on his dark face tried to rush past her, but she caught his rough coatsleeve.
"Saddle me the mildest horse you can find," she told him, "and do it right now." Bela would have done nicely, but she had no notion where among all those animals the stout mare was tied and no intention of waiting for her to be found.
"You want to go riding?" he said incredulously, jerking his sleeve free. "If you own a horse, then saddle it yourself, if you're fool enough to. Me, I've the rest of the night ahead of me in the cold tending the ones what's hurt themselves, and lucky if at least one don't die."
Siuan ground her teeth. The imbecile took her for one of the seamstresses. Or one of the wives! For some reason, that seemed worse. She stuck her right fist in front of his face so quickly that he stepped back with a curse, but she shoved her hand close enough to his nose that her Great Serpent ring had to be only thing he could see. His eyes crossed, staring at it. "The mildest mount you can find," she said in a flat voice. "But quickly."
The ring did the trick. He swallowed, then scratched his head and stared along the horselines, where every animal seemed be either stamping or shivering. "Mild," he muttered. "I'll see what I can do, Aes Sedai. Mild." Touching a knuckle to his forehead, he hurried off down the rows of horses still muttering to himself.
Siuan did a little muttering herself as she paced, three strides this way and three that. Snow trampled to slush and frozen again crunched under her stout shoes. From what she could see, it might take him hours to find anything that would not pitch her off if it heard a grunter jump. Swinging her cloak around her shoulders, she shoved the small silver circle pin in place with an impatient jab, nearly stabbing her own thumb. Afraid, was she? She would show Gareth bloody, bloody Bryne! Back and forth, back and forth. Perhaps she should walk the whole long way. It would be unpleasant, but better than being dumped from the saddle and maybe breaking bones in the bargain. She never mounted a horse, including Bela, without thinking of broken bones. But the fellow returned with a dark mare bearing a high-cantled saddle. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Knife of Dreams by Robert Jordan. Copyright © 2005 The Bandersnatch Group, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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