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Leaving the Prophet
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 Aryth Ocean. 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.
East the wind blew above the cold gray-green ocean swells, toward Tarabon, where ships already unloaded or waiting their turns to enter the harbor of Tanchico tossed at anchor for miles along the low coastline. More ships, great and small, filled the huge harbor, and barges ferrying people and cargo ashore, for there was no mooring empty at any of the city's docks. The inhabitants of Tanchico had been fearful when the city fell to its new masters, with their peculiar customs and strange creatures and women held on leashes who could channel, and fearful again when this fleet arrived, mind-numbing in its size, and began disgorging not only soldiers but sharp-eyed merchants, and craftsfolk with the tools of their trades, and even families with wagons full of farm implements and unknown plants. There was a new King and a new Panarch to order the laws, though, and if King and Panarch owed fealty to some far distant Empress, if Seanchan nobles occupied many of the palaces and demanded deeper obeisance than any Taraboner lord or lady, life was little changed for most people, except for the better. The Seanchan Blood had small contact with ordinary folk, and odd customs could be lived with. The anarchy that had ripped the country apart was just a memory, now, and hunger with it. The rebels and bandits and Dragon-sworn who had plagued the land were dead or captured or driven north onto Almoth Plain, those who had not yielded, and trade moved once more. The hordes of starving refugees that had clogged the city streets were back in their villages, back on their farms. And no more of the newest arrivals remained in Tanchico than the city could support easily. Despite the snows, soldiers and merchants, craftsfolk and farmers fanned out inland in their thousands and tens of thousands, but the icy wind lashed a Tanchico at peace and, after its harsh troubles, for the most part content with its lot.
East the wind blew for leagues, gusting and fading, dividing but never dying, east and veering to the south, across forests and plains wrapped in winter, bare branched and brown-grassed, at last crossing what had once been the border between Tarabon and Amadicia. A border still, but only in name, the customs posts dismantled, the guards gone. East and south, around the southern reaches of the Mountains of Mist, swirling across high-walled Amador. Conquered Amador. The banner atop the massive Fortress of the Light snapped in the wind, the golden hawk it bore truly seeming to fly with lightning bolts clutched in its talons. Few natives left their homes except at need, and those few hurried along the frozen streets, cloaks clutched around them and eyes down. Eyes down not just to mind footing on slick paving stones but to avoid looking at the occasional Seanchan riding by on a beast like a bronze-scaled cat the size of a horse, or steel-veiled Taraboners guarding groups of onetime Children of the Light, now chained and laboring like animals to haul refuse wagons out of the city. A bare month and a half in the Seanchan fold, the people of Amadicia's capital city felt the bitter wind like a scourge, and those who did not curse their fate meditated on what sins had brought them to this.
East the wind howled over a desolated land where as many villages lay burned and farms ruined as held people. Snow blanketed charred timbers and abandoned barns alike, softening the view even as it added freezing to starvation as a way of dying. Sword and axe and spear had been there already, and remained to kill again. East, until the wind moaned a dirge over unwalled Abila. No banners flew above the town's watchtowers, for the Prophet of the Lord Dragon was there, and the Prophet needed no banner save his name. In Abila, people shivered harder at the name of the Prophet than they did for the wind. People elsewhere shivered at that name, too.
Striding out of the tall merchant's house where Masema lived, Perrin let the wind whip his fur-lined cloak as he pulled on his gloves. The midday sun gave no warmth, and the air bit deep. He kept his face smooth, but he was too angry to feel the cold. Keeping his hands from the axe at his belt was an effort. Masema—he would not call the man Prophet, not in his own head he would not!—Masema was very likely a fool, and very certainly insane. A powerful fool, more powerful than most kings, and mad with it.
Masema's guards filled the street from side to side and stretched around the corners of the next streets, bony fellows in stolen silks, beardless apprentices in torn coats, once-plump merchants in the remains of fine woolens. Their breath was white mist, and some shivered without a cloak, but every man clutched a spear, or a crossbow with the bolt in place. Still, none looked outwardly hostile. They knew he claimed acquaintance with the Prophet, and they gaped as if expecting him to leap into the air and fly. Or at least turn somersaults. He filtered out the smell of woodsmoke from the town's chimneys. The lot of them stank of old sweat and unwashed bodies, of eagerness and fear. And of a strange fever he had not recognized before, a reflection of the madness in Masema. Hostile or not, they would kill him, or anyone, at Masema's word. They would butcher nations at Masema's word. Smelling them, he felt a coldness deeper than any winter wind. He was gladder than ever that he had refused to let Faile come with him.
The men he had left with the mounts were playing at dice alongside the animals, or going though the motions of it, on a space of paving stones scraped mostly clear of snowy slush. He did not trust Masema as far as he could throw his bay, and nor did they. They were paying more mind to the house, and the guards, than to their game. The three Warders sprang to their feet as soon as he appeared, their eyes going to his companions coming out behind him. They knew what their Aes Sedai had felt inside there. Neald was slower, pausing to scoop up the dice and coins. The Asha'man was a popinjay, always stroking his curled mustaches, strutting and smirking at women, but he stood on the balls of his feet now, wary as a cat.
"I thought we'd have to fight our way out of there for a time," Elyas murmured at Perrin's shoulder. His golden eyes were calm, though. A lanky old man in a broad-brimmed hat, with graying hair that hung down his back to his waist and a long beard fanning across his chest. A long knife at his belt, not a sword. But he had been a Warder. He still was, in a way.
"That's the only thing that went right," Perrin told him, taking Stayer's reins from Neald. The Asha'man quirked an eyebrow questioningly, but Perrin shook his head, not caring what the question was, and Neald, with a twist to his mouth, handed Elyas the reins of his mouse-colored gelding before climbing onto his own dapple.
Perrin had no time for the Murandian's sulks. Rand had sent him to bring back Masema, and Masema was coming. As always of late when he thought of Rand, colors swirled in his head, and as always, he ignored them. Masema was too great a problem for Perrin to waste thought fretting over colors. The bloody man thought it blasphemy for anyone but Rand to touch the One Power. Rand, it seemed, was not really mortal; he was the Light made flesh! So there would be no Traveling, no quick leap to Cairhien through a gateway made by one of the Asha'man, no matter how Perrin had tried to bring Masema around. They would have to ride the whole four hundred leagues or more, through the Light alone knew what. And keep it secret who they were, and Masema as well. Those had been Rand's orders.
"There's only one way I can see to do it, boy," Elyas said as if he had spoken aloud. "A slim chance. We might have had better odds knocking the fellow on the head and fighting clear anyway."
"I know," Perrin growled. He had thought of it more than once during the hours of argument. With Asha'man and Aes Sedai and Wise Ones all channeling, it might have been possible. But he had seen a battle fought with the One Power, men ripped to blood-soaked shreds in the blink of an eye, the earth itself blooming in fire. Abila would have been a butcher's yard before they were done. He would never look on the like again, if he had his way.
"What do you think this Prophet will make of it?" Elyas asked.
Perrin had to clear his mind of Dumai's Wells, and Abila looking like the field at Dumai's Wells, before he could think of what Elyas was talking about. Oh. How he was going to do the impossible. "I don't care what he makes of it." The man would make trouble, that was for certain sure.
Irritably, he rubbed at his beard. He needed to trim it. To have it trimmed, rather. If he picked up the scissors, Faile would take them away and give them to Lamgwin. It still seemed impossible that that hulking shoulderthumper with his scarred face and sunken knuckles should know the skills of a bodyservant. Light! A bodyservant. He was finding his footing with Faile and her strange Saldaean ways, but the better his footing, the more she managed to run things to suit herself. Women always did that anyway, of course, but sometimes he thought he had exchanged one sort of whirlwind for another. Maybe he could try some of this masterful shouting she seemed to like so much. A man ought to be able to put scissors to his own beard if he wanted. He doubted he would, though. Shouting at her was hard enough when she began shouting first. Fool thing to be thinking about now, anyway.
He studied the others making their way to the horses as he would have studied tools he needed for a hard job of work. He was afraid Masema would make this journey as bad a job as he had ever taken on, and his tools were full of cracks.
Seonid and Masuri paused beside him, the hoods of their cloaks pulled well forward, putting their faces in shadow. A razor-sharp quivering laced the faint scent of their perfumes, fear under control. Masema would have killed them on the spot if he had had his way. The guards still might, if any recognized an Aes Sedai face. Among this many, there had to be some who could. Masuri was the taller by almost a hand, but Perrin still looked down on the tops of their heads. Ignoring Elyas, the sisters exchanged glances sheltered within their cowls; then Masuri spoke quietly.
"Do you see now why he must be killed? The man is…rabid." Well, the Brown was seldom one to mince words. Luckily, none of the guards was close enough to overhear.
"You could choose a better place to say that," he said. He did not want to hear the arguments again, now or later, but especially not now. And it seemed he did not have to.
Edarra and Carelle loomed behind the Aes Sedai, dark shawls already wrapped around their heads. The bits that hung down across chest and back hardly seemed any protection from the cold, but then, snow bothered the Wise Ones more, just the existence of such a thing. Their sun-dark faces might have been carved for all they revealed, yet the scent of them was a steel spike. Edarra's blue eyes, usually so composed that they seemed odd set in her youthful features, were as hard as that spike. Of course, her composure masked steel. Sharp steel.
"This is no place for talking," Carelle told the Aes Sedai mildly, tucking a strand of fiery red hair beneath her shawl. As tall as many men, she was always mild. For a Wise One. Which only meant she did not bite your nose off without giving warning first. "Get to your horses."
And the shorter women curtsied to her briefly and hurried to their saddles as if they were not Aes Sedai at all. They were not, to the Wise Ones. Perrin thought he would never grow accustomed to that. Even if Masuri and Seonid seemed to have done so.
With a sigh, he swung up onto Stayer as the Wise Ones followed their Aes Sedai apprentices. The stallion frisked a few steps after his rest, but Perrin brought him under control with the pressure of his knees and steady hands on the reins. The Aiel women mounted awkwardly even after all the practice they had had these past weeks, their heavy skirts pushed up to bare wool-stockinged legs above the knee. They agreed with the two sisters about Masema, and so did the other Wise Ones back at his camp. A fine boiling stew for anyone to carry to Cairhien without being scalded.
Grady and Aram were already mounted, and he could not make out their scents among all the others. There was little need. He had always thought Grady looked a farmer despite his black coat and the silver sword on his collar, but not now. Statue-still in his saddle, the stocky Asha'man surveyed the guards with the grim eyes of a man deciding where to make the first cut. And the second, and third, and however many were needed. Aram, bilious green Tinker's cloak flailing the wind as he handled his reins, the hilt of his sword rising above his shoulder—Aram's face was a map of excitement that made Perrin's heart sink. In Masema, Aram had met a man who had given his life and heart and soul to the Dragon Reborn. In Aram's view, the Dragon Reborn ranked close behind Perrin and Faile.
You did the boy no favor, Elyas had told Perrin. You helped him let go of what he believed, and now all he has to believe in is you and that sword. It's not enough, not for any man. Elyas had known Aram when Aram was still a Tinker, before he picked up the sword.
A stew that might have poison in it, for some.
The guards might gaze at Perrin in wonder, but they did not move to clear a passage until someone shouted from a window of the house. Then they edged aside enough for the riders to leave single file. Reaching the Prophet was not easy, without his permission. Without his permission, leaving him was impossible.
Once away from Masema and his guards, Perrin set as fair a pace as he could through the crowded streets. Abila had been a large, prosperous town not so long ago, with its stone marketplaces, and slate-roofed buildings as tall as four stories. It was still large, but mounds of rubble marked where houses and inns had been torn down. Not an inn remained standing in Abila, or a house where someone had been slow to proclaim the glory of the Lord Dragon Reborn. Masema's disapproval was never subtle.
The throng held few who looked as if they lived in the town, drab folk in drab clothes for the most part scuttling fearfully along the sides of the street, and no children. No dogs, either; hunger was a likely problem in this place, now. Everywhere groups of armed men straggled through the ankle-deep muck that had been snow last night, twenty here, fifty there, knocking down people too slow to get out of their path, even making the ox-carts wend around them. There were always hundreds in sight. There had to be thousands in the town. Masema's army was a rabble, but their numbers had made up for other lacks so far. Thank the Light the man had agreed to bring along only a hundred. It had taken an hour's argument, but he had agreed. In the end, Masema's desire to reach Rand quickly, even if he would not Travel, had won the point. Few of his followers had horses, and the more that came afoot, the slower they would go. At least he would arrive at Perrin's camp by nightfall.
Perrin saw no one mounted except his own party, and they drew stares from the armed men, stony stares, fevered stares. Finely dressed folk came to the Prophet often enough, nobles and merchants hoping a submission in person would gain more blessings and fewer penalties, but they usually departed afoot. Their way was unimpeded, however, aside from the necessity of riding around the clumps of Masema's followers. If they left mounted, it must be by Masema's will. Even so, Perrin had no need to tell anyone to stay close. There was a feel of waiting in Abila, and no one with half a brain would want to be near when the waiting ended.
It was a relief when Balwer kneed his hammer-nosed gelding out of a side street just short of the low wooden bridge that led out of town, almost as great as the relief he felt when they had crossed the bridge and passed the last guards. The pinch-faced little man, all knobby joints and with his plain brown coat more hanging on him than worn, could look after himself in spite of appearances, but Faile was setting up a proper household for a noblewoman, and she would be more than displeased if Perrin let any harm come to her secretary. Hers, and Perrin‘s. Perrin was not sure how he felt about having a secretary, yet the fellow possessed skills beyond writing a fine hand. Which he demonstrated as soon as they were clear of the town, with low, forested hills all around. Most of the branches were stark and bare, and those that retained leaf or needle splashed a vivid green against the white. They had the road to themselves, but snow frozen in ruts kept their riding slow.
"Forgive me, my Lord Perrin," Balwer murmured, leaning in his saddle to peer past Elyas, "but I happened to overhear something back there you might find of interest." He coughed discreetly into his glove, then hurriedly recaptured his cloak and pulled it close.
Elyas and Aram hardly needed Perrin's gesture to fall back with the others. Everyone was accustomed to the dry little man's desire for privacy. Why he wanted to pretend that no one else knew he ferreted out information at every town or village they passed, Perrin could not begin to guess. He had to know that Perrin discussed what he learned with Faile, and Elyas. In any case, he was very good at ferreting.
Balwer tilted his head to one side to watch Perrin as they rode side by side. "I have two pieces of news, my Lord, one I believe important, and one urgent." Urgent or not, even the fellow's voice sounded dry, like dead leaves rustling.
"How urgent?" Perrin made a wager with himself over who the first piece of news would be about.
"Very, perhaps, my Lord. King Ailron has brought the Seanchan to battle near the town of Jeramel, approximately one hundred miles west of here. This was about ten days ago." Balwer's mouth pursed momentarily in irritation. He disliked imprecision; he disliked not knowing. "Reliable information is scarce, but without doubt, the Amadician army is dead, captive or scattered. I would be very surprised if more than a hundred remain together anywhere, and those will take to banditry soon enough. Ailron himself was taken, along with his entire court. Amadicia no longer has any nobility, not to amount to anything."
Mentally, Perrin marked the wager lost. Usually, Balwer began with news of the Whitecloaks. "A pity for Amadicia, I suppose. For the people captured, anyway." According to Balwer, the Seanchan had a harsh way with those captured under arms opposing them. So Amadicia had no army left, and no nobles to raise or lead another. Nothing to stop the Seanchan spreading as fast as they wished, though they seemed to spread very quickly even when there was opposition. Best if he rode east as soon as Masema reached the camp, and then moved as fast as he could for as long as the men and horses could sustain it.
He said as much, and Balwer nodded, with a thin smile of approval. The man appreciated it when Perrin saw the value of what he reported.
"One other point, my Lord," he went on. "The Whitecloaks took part in the battle, but apparently Valda managed to get most of them off the field at the end. He has the Dark One's own luck. No one seems to know where they have gone. Or rather, every tongue gives a different direction. If I may say so, I favor east. Away from the Seanchan." And toward Abila, of course.
The wager was not a loss, then. Though the man had not begun with it. A draw, maybe. Far ahead, a hawk soared high in the cloudless sky, heading north. It would reach the camp long before he would. Perrin could recall a time when he had had as few concerns as that hawk. Compared to now, at least. It had been a very long time ago.
"I suspect the Whitecloaks are more interested in avoiding the Seanchan than in bothering us, Balwer. Anyway, I can't move any faster for them than for the Seanchan. Were they the second piece of news?"
"No, my Lord. Simply a point of interest." Balwer seemed to hate the Children of the Light, most especially Valda—a matter of rough treatment somewhere in his past, Perrin suspected—but like everything else about the man, it was a dry, cold hate. Passionless. "The second news is that the Seanchan have fought another battle, this in southern Altara. Against Aes Sedai, possibly, though some mentioned men channeling." Half turning in his saddle, Balwer looked back at Grady and Neald in their black coats. Grady was in conversation with Elyas, and Neald with Aram, but both Asha'man appeared to be keeping as close an eye on the forests as did the Warders bringing up the rear. The Aes Sedai and the Wise Ones were talking in low voices, too. "Whoever they fought, my Lord, it is clear that the Seanchan lost and were sent reeling back into Ebou Dar."
"Good news," Perrin said flatly. Dumai's Wells flashed into his head again, stronger than before. For a moment, he was back-to-back with Loial again, fighting desperately, sure that every breath would be his last. For the first time that day, he shivered. At least Rand knew about the Seanchan. At least he did not have to worry about that.
He became aware of Balwer eyeing him. Considering him, like a bird considering a strange insect. He had seen him shiver. The little man liked to know everything, but there were some secrets no one would ever know.
Perrin's eyes returned to the hawk, barely visible now even to him. It made him think of Faile, his fierce falcon of a wife. His beautiful falcon of a wife. He put Seanchan and Whitecloaks and battle and even Masema out of his mind. For the time, at least.
"Let's pick up the pace a little," he called back to the others. The hawk might see Faile before he did, but unlike the bird, he would be seeing the love of his heart. And today, he would not shout at her no matter what she did.
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