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A Crown of Swords



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Robert JordanRobert Jordan

Robert Jordan was born in 1948 in Charleston, South Carolina. He taught himself to read when he was four with the incidental aid of a twelve-years-older brother, and was tackling Mark Twain and Jules Verne by five. He is a graduate of The Citadel, the Military College of... More

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EXCERPT

CHAPTER 1
 
High Chasaline
 
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 in the great forest called Braem Wood. 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.
North and east the wind blew as the searing sun rose higher in a cloudless sky, north and east through parched trees with brown leaves and bare branches, through scattered villages where the air shimmered from the heat. The wind brought no relief, no hint of rain, much less snow. North and east it blew, past an ancient arch of finely worked stone that some said had been a gateway to a great city and others a monument to some long forgotten battle. Only weathered, illegible remnants of carving remained on the massive stones, mutely recalling the lost glories of storied Coremanda. A few wagons trundled by in sight of the arch, along the Tar Valon Road, and folk afoot shielded their eyes from dust raised by hooves and wagon wheels and driven by the wind. Most had no idea where they were going, only that the world seemed to turn somersaults, all order ending where it was not gone already. Fear drove some on, while others were drawn by something they could not quite see and did not understand, and most of them were afraid, too.
Onward the wind traveled, across the gray-green River Erinin, heeling ships that still carried trade north and south, for there had to be trade even in these days, though none could be sure where it was safe to trade. East of the river, the forests began to thin, giving way eventually to low rolling hills covered in brown, tinder-dry grass and dotted sparsely with small clumps of trees. Atop one of those hills stood a circle of wagons, many with the canvas scorched or else completely burned away from the iron hoops. On a makeshift flagstaff, trimmed from a young tree dead in the drought and lashed to a bare wagon hoop for more height, waved a crimson banner, a black-and-white disc in its heart. The Banner of Light, some called it, or al’Thor’s Banner. Others had darker names, and shivered as they spoke them in whispers. The wind shook the banner hard and was gone quickly, as if glad to be away.
Perrin Aybara sat on the ground with his broad back against a wagon wheel, wishing the wind lingered. It had been cooler for a moment. And the wind from the south had cleared the scent of death from his nostrils, a scent that reminded him where he was supposed to be, the last place he wanted to be. Much better here, inside the wagon circle, his back to the north, where he could forget after a fashion. The surviving wagons had been hauled up to the hilltop yesterday, in the afternoon, once men could find strength to do more than thank the Light they still breathed. Now the sun climbed again, and the heat with it.
Irritably, he scratched at his short curly beard; the more he sweated, the more it itched. Sweat rolled down the face of every man he could see except the Aiel, and water lay nearly a mile away to the north now. But so did the horrors, and the smells. Most considered it a fair trade. He should have been doing his duty, yet the touch of guilt did not move him. Today was High Chasaline, and back home in the Two Rivers there would be feasting all day and dancing all night; the Day of Reflection, when you were supposed to remember all the good things in your life and anyone who voiced a complaint could find a bucket of water upended over his head to wash away bad luck. Not something anybody wanted when the weather was cold, as it should be; a bucket of water would be a pleasure now. For a man lucky to be alive, he found it remarkably hard to pull up any good thoughts. He had learned things about himself yesterday. Or maybe it had been this morning, after it was all done.
He could sense a few of the wolves still, a handful of those that survived and were now on their way elsewhere, far from here, far from men. The wolves were still the talk of the camp, uneasy speculation over where they had appeared from and why. A few believed Rand had called them. Most thought the Aes Sedai had. The Aes Sedai did not say what they thought. No blame came from the wolves—what had happened, had happened—but he could not match their fatalism. They had come because he called them. Shoulders wide enough to make him seem shorter than he was slumped under the weight of responsibility. Now and then he heard other wolves, that had not come, speak with scorn to those that had: This was what came of mixing with the two-legs. Nothing else could be expected.
It was a strain to keep his thoughts to himself. He wanted to be home, in the Two Rivers. Small chance of that, perhaps ever again. He wanted to howl that the scornful ones were right. He wanted to be with his wife anywhere at all, and everything the way it was before. The chances of which seemed little better, maybe worse. Far more than the yearning for home, more even than the wolves, worry about Faile ate inside him like a ferret trying to burrow out of his middle. She had actually seemed glad to see him leave Cairhien. What was he to do about her? He could not think of words to describe how much he loved his wife, and needed her, but she was jealous where she had no cause, hurt where he had done nothing, angry where he could not see why. He must do something, but what? The answer eluded him. Careful thought was all he had, while Faile was flashing quicksilver.
“The Aiel should put some clothes on them,” Aram muttered primly, scowling at the ground. He squatted nearby, patiently holding the reins of a rangy gray gelding; he seldom went far from Perrin. The sword strapped to his back jarred with his green-striped Tinker coat, hanging undone for the heat. A rolled kerchief tied around his forehead kept sweat from his eyes. Once Perrin had thought him almost too good-looking for a man. A bleak darkness had settled in him, though, and now he wore a scowl as often as not. “It isn’t decent, Lord Perrin.”
Perrin put aside thoughts of Faile reluctantly. With time, he could puzzle it out. He had to. Somehow. “It is their way, Aram.”
Aram grimaced as if he might spit. “Well, it isn’t a decent way. It keeps them under control, I suppose—nobody would run far or make trouble like that—but it isn’t decent.”
There were Aiel all over the place, of course. Tall, aloof men in grays and browns and greens, their only bit of color the scarlet strip of cloth tied around their temples, with the black-and-white disc on their foreheads. Siswai’aman, they called themselves. Sometimes that word tickled the edge of his memory, like a word he should know. Ask one of the Aielmen, and he looked as if you had babbled nonsense. But then, they ignored the strips of cloth, too. No Maiden of the Spear wore the scarlet headband. Whether white-haired or looking barely old enough to leave her mother, every Maiden stalked about giving the siswai’aman challenging stares that seemed somehow self-satisfied, while the men looked back flat-eyed, with a smell almost of hunger, a matter of jealousy by the scent of all of them, though over what Perrin could not begin to imagine. Whatever it was, it was not new, and it did not seem likely to come to blows. A few of the Wise Ones were inside the wagons as well, in bulky skirts and white blouses, wearing their dark shawls in defiance of the heat, glittering bracelets and necklaces of gold and ivory making up for the plainness of the rest of their clothes. Some appeared amused by the Maidens and the siswai’aman, and others exasperated. All of them—Wise Ones, Maidens and siswai’aman—ignored the Shaido the way Perrin would have a stool or a rug.
The Aiel had taken two hundred or so Shaido prisoners yesterday, men and Maidens—not many, considering the numbers involved—and they moved about freely. In a manner of speaking. Perrin would have been a lot more comfortable had they been guarded. And clothed. Instead, they fetched water and ran errands, naked as the day they were born. With other Aiel, they were meek as mice. Anyone else received a proudly defiant stare for noticing them. Perrin was not the only one who tried not to notice them, and Aram not the only one to mutter. A good many of the Two Rivers men in camp did one or both. A good many of the Cairhienin nearly had apoplexy whenever they saw one of the Shaido. The Mayeners just shook their heads as though it were all a joke. And ogled the women. They had as little shame as the Aiel, the Mayeners.
“Gaul explained it to me, Aram. You know what a gai’shain is, don’t you? About ji’e’toh and serving a year and a day and all that?” The other man nodded, which was a good thing. Perrin did not know much himself. Gaul’s explanations of Aiel ways often left him more confused. Gaul always thought it all self-evident. ”Well, gai’shain aren’t allowed to wear anything one of the algai’d’siswai might wear—that means ‘spear fighters,’ ” he added at Aram’s questioning frown. Suddenly he realized he was looking straight at one of the Shaido as she trotted in his general direction, a tall young woman, golden-haired and pretty despite a long thin scar down her cheek and other scars elsewhere. Very pretty and very naked. Clearing his throat roughly, he pulled his eyes away. He could feel his face heating. “Anyway, that is why they are…the way they are. Gai’shain wear white robes, and they don’t have any here. It’s just their way.” Burn Gaul and burn his explanations, he thought. They could cover them with something!
“Perrin Goldeneyes,” said a woman’s voice, “Carahuin sends to know whether you wish water.” Aram’s face went purple, and he jerked himself around in his squat, presenting his back to her.
“No, thank you.” Perrin did not need to look up to know it was the golden-haired Shaido woman. He kept peering off at nothing in another direction. Aiel had a peculiar sense of humor, and Maidens of the Spear—Carahuin was a Maiden—had the most peculiar. They had quickly seen how the wetlanders reacted to the Shaido—they would have needed to be blind not to—and suddenly gai’shain were being sent to wetlanders left and right, and Aiel all but rolling on the ground at the blushes and stammers and even the shouting. He was sure that Carahuin and her friends were watching now. This was at least the tenth time one of the gai’shain women had been sent to ask him whether he wanted water or had a spare whetstone or some such bloody fool thing.
Abruptly a thought struck him. The Mayeners were seldom bothered this way. A handful of Cairhienin plainly enjoyed looking, if not so openly as the Mayeners, and some of the older Two Rivers men, who should have known better. The point was, none of them had had a second spurious message that he knew of. Those who reacted the most, on the other hand…Cairhienin, who had shouted the loudest about indecency, and two or three of the younger Two Rivers men, who stammered and blushed so hard they looked ready to melt, had been pestered until they fled the wagons entirely…
With an effort Perrin looked up at the gai’shain’s face. At her eyes. Focus on her eyes, he thought frantically. They were green, and large, and not at all meek. Her scent was pure fury. “Thank Carahuin for me, and tell her you could oil my spare saddle, if she doesn’t mind. And I don’t have a clean shirt. If she wouldn’t mind you doing some laundry?”
“She will not mind,” the woman said in a tight voice, then turned and trotted off.
Perrin whipped his eyes away, though the image did stay in his head. Light, Aram was right! But with luck, he might just have stopped any more visitations. He would have to point this out to Aram, and the Two Rivers men. Maybe the Cairhienin would listen too.
“What are we going to do about them, Lord Perrin?” Still looking away, Aram no longer spoke of gai’shain.
“That is Rand’s to decide,” Perrin said slowly, satisfaction fading. It might be odd to think of people wandering about naked as a small problem, but this was definitely a bigger. And one he had been avoiding as hard as he had what lay to the north.
On the far side of the wagon circle, nearly two dozen women sat on the ground. All well-dressed for travel, many wore silk, most with light linen dustcloaks, but not a bead of sweat showed on any face. Three appeared young enough that he might have asked them for a dance before he married Faile.
If they weren’t Aes Sedai, anyway, he thought wryly. Once he had danced with an Aes Sedai, and nearly swallowed his tongue when he realized who he swung about. And she had been a friend, if that word applied to Aes Sedai. How new does an Aes Sedai have to be for me to put an age to her? The others looked ageless, of course; maybe in their twenties, maybe their forties, changing from one glance to the next, always uncertain. That was what their faces said, though several showed gray in their hair. You just could not tell with Aes Sedai. About anything.
“At least those are no danger anymore,” Aram said, jerking his head toward three of the sisters a little apart from the rest.
One wept, face on her knees; the other two stared haggardly at nothing, one of them plucking aimlessly at her skirt. They had been much the same since yesterday; at least none was screaming any longer. If Perrin had the straight of it, which he was not sure he did, they had been stilled somehow when Rand broke free. They would never channel the One Power again. To Aes Sedai, it was probably better to be dead.
He would have expected the other Aes Sedai to comfort them, care for them somehow, but most ignored the three entirely, although a little too studied in looking anywhere and everywhere else. For that matter, the stilled Aes Sedai refused to acknowledge the rest, either. In the beginning, at least, a few of the other sisters had approached, each by herself, calm to the eye yet smelling sharply of aversion and reluctance, but they got nothing for their pains, not word or glance. None had gone near this morning.
Perrin shook his head. The Aes Sedai seemed to do a lot of ignoring of what they did not want to admit. For instance, the black-coated men standing over them. There was an Asha’man for each sister, even the three who had been stilled, and they never seemed to blink. For their part, the Aes Sedai looked past the Asha’man, or through them; they might as well not have existed.
It was quite a trick. He could not make himself disregard the Asha’man, and he was not under their guard. They ranged from fuzz-cheeked boys to gray-haired, balding gansers, and it was not their grim, high-collared black coats or the sword each wore at his hip that made them dangerous. Every Asha’man could channel, and somehow they were keeping the Aes Sedai from channeling. Men who could wield the One Power, a thing of nightmares. Rand could, of course, but he was Rand, and the Dragon Reborn besides. These fellows made Perrin’s hackles rise.
The captive Aes Sedai’s surviving Warders sat some distance off, under their own guard. Thirty or so of Lord Dobraine’s armsmen in bell-shaped Cairhienin helmets and as many Mayener Winged Guards in red breastplates, each sharp-eyed as if guarding leopards. A good attitude, under the circumstances. More Warders than there were Aes Sedai; a number of the prisoners were Green Ajah, apparently. More guards than Warders, a good many more, and maybe few enough at that.
“The Light send we don’t see any more grief from that lot,” Perrin muttered. Twice during the night the Warders had tried to break free. In truth, those outbreaks had been suppressed more by the Asha’man than by the Cairhienin or Mayeners, and they had not been gentle. None of the Warders had been killed, but at least a dozen nursed broken bones none of the sisters had yet been allowed to Heal.
“If the Lord Dragon cannot make the decision,” Aram said quietly, “maybe it should be made by somebody else. To protect him.”
Perrin gave him a sidelong look. “What decision? The sisters told them not to make another attempt, and they’ll obey their Aes Sedai.” Broken bones or no, unarmed as they were, hands tied behind their backs, the Warders still looked like a wolfpack awaiting the lead wolf’s command to attack. None would rest easy until his Aes Sedai was free, maybe until all of the sisters were free. Aes Sedai and Warders: a stack of well-aged oak, ready for a flame. But even Warders and Aes Sedai had proved no match for Asha’man.
“I did not mean the Warders.” Aram hesitated, then shuffled closer to Perrin and lowered his voice further, to a hoarse whisper. “The Aes Sedai kidnapped the Lord Dragon. He can’t trust them, not ever, but he won’t do what he has to, either. If they died before he knew it—”
“What are you saying?” Perrin almost choked as he sat bolt upright. Not for the first time, he wondered whether there was any Tinker left in the other man. “They’re helpless, Aram! Helpless women!”
“They are Aes Sedai.” Dark eyes met Perrin’s golden stare levelly. “They cannot be trusted, and they cannot be turned loose. How long can Aes Sedai be held against their will? They’ve been doing what they do far longer than the Asha’man. They must know more. They’re a danger to the Lord Dragon, and to you, Lord Perrin. I have seen them look at you.”
Across the wagon circle, the sisters were talking among themselves in whispers even Perrin could not hear, mouths held close to ears. Now and again one did look at him and Aram. At him, not Aram. He had caught a double handful of names. Nesune Bihara. Erian Boroleos and Katerine Alruddin. Coiren Saeldain, Sarene Nemdahl and Elza Penfell. Janine Pavlara, Beldeine Nyram, Marith Riven. Those last were the young sisters, but young or ageless, they watched him with faces so serene it seemed they had the upper hand despite the Asha’man. Defeating Aes Sedai was not easy; making them admit defeat lay on the far side of impossible.
He forced his hands to unknot and rest on his knees, giving an appearance of calm he was nowhere near feeling. They knew he was ta’veren, one of those few the Pattern would shape itself around for a time. Worse, they knew he was tied to Rand in some way nobody understood, least of all himself or Rand. Or Mat; Mat was in that tangle, too, another ta’veren, though neither of them as strongly as Rand. Given half a chance those women would have him—and Mat—inside the White Tower as fast as they would Rand, tethered like goats until the lion came. And they had kidnapped Rand, mistreated him. Aram was right about one thing; they could not be trusted. But what Aram suggested—he would not—could not!—countenance such a thing. The thought made him queasy.
“I’ll hear no more of that,” he growled. The onetime Tinker opened his mouth, but Perrin cut him off. “Not a word, Aram, do you hear me? Not one word!”
“As my Lord Perrin commands,” Aram murmured, inclining his head.
Perrin wished he could see the man’s face. There was no anger in the smell of him, no resentment. That was the worst of it. There had been no anger scent even when Aram suggested murder.
A pair of Two Rivers men climbed up on the wheels of the next wagon, peering across the wagon bed and down the hill toward the north. Each wore a bristling quiver on his right hip and a stout, long-bladed knife, almost a short-sword, on his left. A good three hundred men from home had followed Perrin here. He cursed the first to call him Lord Perrin, cursed the day he had stopped trying to quash it. Even with the murmurs and noises usual in a camp this size, he had no trouble hearing the pair.
Tod al’Caar, a year younger than Perrin, let out a long breath, as if seeing what lay below for the first time. Perrin could almost sense the lanky man’s lantern jaw working. Tod’s mother had willingly let him go only for the honor of her son following Perrin Goldeneyes. “A famous victory,” Tod said finally. “That’s what we won. Wasn’t it, Jondyn?”
Grizzled Jondyn Barran, gnarled as an oak root, was one of the few older men among the three hundred. A better bowshot than anyone in the Two Rivers except Master al’thor and a better hunter than anyone at all, he was one of the Two Rivers’ less distinguished residents. Jondyn had not worked a day more than he had to since he was old enough to leave his father’s farm. The forests and the hunt were all he cared about, that and drinking too much at feastdays. Now he spat loudly. “If you say so, boy. Was those bloody Asha’man won it, anyway. And welcome to it, I say. Too bad they don’t take it and go someplace else to celebrate.”
“They aren’t so bad,” Tod protested. “I wouldn’t mind being one myself.” That sounded more boast and bluff than truth. Smelled it, too; without looking, Perrin was sure he was licking his lips. Likely Tod’s mother had used tales of men who could channel to frighten him not so many years ago. “I mean to say, Rand—that is, the Lord Dragon—it still sounds odd, doesn’t it, Rand al’thor being the Dragon Reborn and all?” Tod laughed, a short, uneasy sound. “Well, he can channel, and it doesn’t seem so—he doesn’t—I mean…”He swallowed loudly. “Besides, what could we have done about all those Aes Sedai without them?” That came out in a whisper. He smelled afraid now. “Jondyn, what are we going to do? I mean, Aes Sedai prisoners?”
The older man spat again, louder than before. He did not bother to lower his voice, either. Jondyn always said what he thought no matter who heard, another reason for his bad repute. “Better for us if they’d all died yesterday, boy. We’ll pay for that before it’s done. Mark me, we’ll pay large.”
Perrin shut out the rest, no easy task with his ears. First Aram, and now Jondyn and Tod, if not so directly. Burn Jondyn! No, the man might make Mat look industrious, but if he spoke it, others thought it. No Two Rivers man would willingly harm a woman, but who else wished the Aes Sedai prisoners dead? And who might try to achieve the wish?
He scanned the wagon circle uneasily. The thought that he might have to protect the Aes Sedai prisoners was not pleasant, but he did not shirk it. He had little fondness for any Aes Sedai, least of all for these, but he had grown up in the unspoken certainty that a man would put himself at risk to protect a woman as far she allowed; whether he liked her or even knew her was beside the point. True, an Aes Sedai could tie any man she chose into a knot nine ways from next feastday, but cut off from the Power, they became like anyone else. That was the struggle whenever he looked at them. Two dozen Aes Sedai. Two dozen women who might not know how to defend themselves without the Power.
For a bit he studied the Asha’man guards, every one wearing a face like grim death. Except the three overseeing the stilled women. They tried to appear as somber as the rest, but under the attempt lay something else. Satisfaction, maybe. If only he was close enough to catch a scent of them. Any Aes Sedai was a threat to the Asha’man. Perhaps the reverse was true, too. Perhaps they would only still them. From the little he had picked up, stilling an Aes Sedai amounted to a killing that just took a few years for the corpse to lie down.
Whatever the case, he decided reluctantly, he had to leave the Asha’man to Rand. They spoke only to each other and the prisoners, and Perrin doubted they would listen to anyone but Rand. The question was, what would Rand say? And what could Perrin do if he said the wrong thing?
Putting that problem aside, he scratched his beard with one finger. The Cairhienin were too nervous about Aes Sedai to consider harming them, and the Mayeners too respectful, but he would keep an eye on them anyway. Who would have thought Jondyn would go as far as he had? Among the Cairhienin or Mayeners, he possessed some influence, though it would surely vanish if they once thought. He was really just a blacksmith, after all. That left the Aiel. Perrin sighed. He was not certain how much influence even Rand truly had with the Aiel.
It was difficult picking out individual scents with so many people around, but he had grown used to telling as much by smells as by what his eyes told him. The siswai’aman who came close enough smelled calm but alert, a smooth, strong scent. They hardly appeared to notice the Aes Sedai. The Maidens’ aromas were spiky with suppressed fury and grew spikier when they looked at the prisoners. And the Wise Ones…
Every Wise One who had come here from Cairhien was able to channel, though none had the ageless face. He supposed they used the One Power too seldom. Still, smooth-cheeked like Edarra or as leathery-faced as white-haired Sorilea, they carried themselves with a self-possession easily matching the Aes Sedai’s. Graceful women for the most part, most of them tall, as nearly all Aiel were, they seemed to ignore the sisters completely.
Sorilea’s eyes passed across the prisoners without pausing, and she went right on talking softly to Edarra and another Wise One, a lean, yellow-haired woman he did not know by name. If only he could make out what they were saying. They walked by, not a line changing on those three unruffled faces, but their scents were another matter. When Sorilea’s gaze swept over the Aes Sedai, the smell of her went cold and distant, grim and purposeful, and as she spoke to the other two, their scents changed to match hers.
“A fine bloody stew,” he growled.
“Trouble?” Aram asked, sitting up straighter on his heels, right hand poised to dart for the wolfhead-pommeled sword hilt jutting above his shoulder. He had become very good with that sword in a very short time, and he was never loath to use it.
“There’s no trouble, Aram.” That was not quite a lie. Jolted out of his glum brooding, Perrin really looked at the others for the first time. At all of them together. He did not like what he saw, and the Aes Sedai were only part.
Cairhienin and Mayeners watched Aiel suspiciously, which was no more than the Aiel’s return suspicion, especially toward the Cairhienin. No real surprise there. Aiel did have a certain reputation, after all, for being none too friendly to anyone born this side of the Spine of the World, Cairhienin least of all. Simple truth was, Aiel and Cairhienin hated each other about as hard as it was possible to hate. Neither side had really put their enmity aside—the best that could be said was that it was on a loose leash—yet up to now he had been convinced they would hold it in. For Rand’s sake if no other reason. A mood hung in the camp, though, a tension that had wound everyone tight. Rand was free now, and temporary alliances were just that, after all; temporary. Aiel hefted their spears when they looked at the Cairhienin, and the Cairhienin grimly fingered their swords. So did the Mayeners; they had no quarrel with the Aiel, had never fought them except for the Aiel War when everybody had, but if it came to a fight, there was little doubt which side they would be on. The Two Rivers men, too, probably.
The dark mood had settled deepest into the Asha’man and the Wise Ones, though. The black-coated men paid no more heed to the Maidens and the siswai’aman than to Cairhienin or Mayeners or Two Rivers men, but they studied the Wise Ones with faces almost as dark as those they directed at the Aes Sedai. Very likely they made small distinction between one woman who could wield the Power and another. Any could be an enemy and dangerous; thirteen together were deadly dangerous, and there were better than ninety Wise Ones in the camp or nearby. Fewer than half the number of Asha’man, but still enough to do damage if they chose. Women who could channel, yet they seemed to follow Rand; they seemed to follow Rand, yet they were women who could channel.
The Wise Ones looked at the Asha’man only a trifle less coldly than they did the Aes Sedai. The Asha’man were men who could channel, but they followed Rand; they followed Rand, but…Rand was a special case. According to Gaul, his channeling was not mentioned in the prophecies about their Car’a’carn, but the Aiel seemed to pretend that inconvenient fact did not exist. The Asha’man were not in those prophecies at all, though. It must be like discovering you had a pride of rabid lions fighting on your side. How long would they remain loyal? Maybe it would be better to put them down now.
His head fell back against the wagon wheel, eyes closed, and his chest heaved in silent, mirthless laughter. Think of the good things on High Chasaline. Burn me, he thought wryly, I should have gone with Rand. No, it was best to know, and better soon than late. But what in the Light was he to do? If the Aiel and the Cairhienin and Mayeners turned on one another, or worse, the Asha’man and the Wise Ones…A barrel full of snakes, and the only way to find out which were vipers was to stick your hand in. Light, I wish I was home, with Faile, and a forge to work, and nobody calling me bloody lord.
“Your horse, Lord Perrin. You didn’t say whether you wanted Stepper or Stayer, so I saddled—” At Perrin’s golden-eyed glare, Kenly Maerin shied back into the dun stallion he was leading.
Perrin made a soothing gesture. Not Kenly’s fault. What could not be mended had to be endured. “Easy, lad. You did right. Stepper will do just fine. You chose well.” He hated speaking to Kenly that way. Short and stocky, Kenly was barely old enough to marry or leave home—and certainly not old enough for the patchy beard he was trying to cultivate in imitation of Perrin—yet he had fought Trollocs at Emond’s Field and done well yesterday. But he grinned broadly at praise from Lord Perrin bloody Goldeneyes.
Rising, Perrin took his axe from where he had propped it under the wagon, out of sight and for a little while out of mind, and thrust the haft through the loop on his belt. A heavy half-moon blade balanced by a thick curving spike; a thing made for no other purpose than killing. The axe haft felt too familiar to his hands for comfort. Did he even remember what a good forge-hammer felt like? There were other things besides “Lord Perrin” that it might be too late to change. A friend had once told him to keep the axe until he began to like using it. The thought made him shiver in spite of the heat.
He swung into Stepper’s saddle, shadowed by Aram with the gray, and sat facing south, into the wagon circle. At least half again as tall as even the tallest of the Aiel, Loial was just stepping carefully over crossed wagon tongues. With the size of him, he did look as though he might break one of the heavy wooden shafts with a heedless step. As usual, the Ogier had a book in his hand, a thick finger marking his place, and the capacious pockets of his long coat bulged with more. He had spent the morning in a tiny clump of trees he called restful and shady, but whatever the shade among those trees, the heat was affecting him, too. He looked tired, and his coat was undone, his shirt unlaced, and his boots rolled down below his knees. Or maybe it was more than the heat. Just inside the wagons Loial paused, peering at the Aes Sedai and the Asha’man, and his tufted ears quivered uneasily. Eyes big as teacups rolled toward the Wise Ones, and his ears vibrated again. Ogier were sensitive to the mood of a place.
When he saw Perrin, Loial came striding across the camp. Sitting his saddle, Perrin was two or three hands shorter than Loial standing. “Perrin,” Loial whispered, “this is all wrong. It isn’t right, and it is dangerous besides.” For an Ogier it was a whisper. He sounded like a bumblebee the size of a mastiff. Some of the Aes Sedai turned their heads.
“Could you speak a little louder?” Perrin said almost under his breath. “I think somebody in Andor didn’t hear. In the west of Andor.”
Loial looked startled, then grimaced, long eyebrows brushing his cheeks. “I do know how to whisper, you know.” This time it was unlikely anyone could hear clearly more than three paces away or so. “What are we going to do, Perrin? It is wrong holding Aes Sedai against their will, wrong and wrongheaded, too. I have said that before, and I will again. And that isn’t even the worst. The feel here…One spark, and this place will erupt like a wagonload of fireworks. Does Rand know about this?”
“I don’t know,” Perrin said to both questions, and after a moment the Ogier nodded reluctantly.
“Someone has to know, Perrin. Someone has to do something.” Loial looked north, over the wagons behind Perrin, and Perrin knew there was no putting it off longer.
Unwillingly he turned Stepper. He would rather have worried over Aes Sedai and Asha’man and Wise Ones till his hair fell out, but what had to be done, had to be done. Think of the good on High Chasaline.
 
Copyright © 1996 by Robert Jordan

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