The Path of Daggers

Chapter 6

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(Novels9) Chapter 6
(InsectLike, Horned Helmet)
Elayne ran, too, of course, holding her skirts up, and quickly took the lead on the wellworn dirt path. Only Aviendha stayed close, though she seemed to have no idea how to run in a dress, divided or not; tired as she was, she certainly would have passed Elayne otherwise. Everyone else strung out behind them along the narrow, winding track. None of the Atha'an Miere would push by Renaile, and despite her silk trousers she could not move very fast carrying the Bowl hugged to her chest. Nynaeve had no such compunctions, elbowing past and running hard, shouting for people to get out of her way when she stumbled into them whether they were Windfinders, Kinswomen, or Aes Sedai.
Bounding down the hillside, tripping and catching herself, Elayne wanted to laugh despite the urgency. Despite the danger. Lini and her mother had been death on running and climbing trees from the time she was twelve, but it was not just the sheer pleasure of running again that made delight bubble up in her middle. She had behaved as a queen was supposed to behave, and it had worked exactly as it was supposed to! She had taken charge, to lead people out of danger, and they followed! Her whole life had been training for this. It was satisfaction that made her laugh, and the hot glow of pride seemed about to burst through her skin like the radiance of saidar.
Rounding the last curve, she pounded down the final straight beside one of the tall whiteplastered barns. And her toe caught an almost buried stone. She pitched forward heavily, windmilling her arms, and suddenly she was somersaulting headoverheels through the air. No time even to yell. With a thump that jarred her teeth and took all the wind out of her, she landed hard at the foot at the path, sitting right in front of Birgitte. For an instant she could not even think, and when she could, little satisfaction remained. So much for queenly dignity. Brushing her hair out of her face, she tried to catch her breath as she waited for Birgitte's cutting comment. This was a chance for the other woman to play the older and wiser sister with a vengeance, and she seldom let an opportunity pass.
To Elayne's surprise, Birgitte heaved her to her feet even before Aviendha could reach her, and without so much as the faint grin on Aviendha's face. All Elayne could feel from her Warder was a sense of... focus; she thought an arrow nocked on a drawn bowstring might feel that way. "Do we run or fight?" Birgitte asked. "I recognized those Seanchan fliers from Falme, and truth for true, I suggest running. My bow is the ordinary sort, today." Aviendha gave her a slight frown, and Elayne sighed; Birgitte had to learn to guard her tongue if she really intended to hide who she was.
"Of course we run," Nynaeve panted, laboring down the final stretch of path. "Fight or run! Fool question! Do you think we're utter -? Light! What are they doing?" Her voice started climbing and kept right on. "Alise! Alise, where are you? Alise! Alise!"
With a start, Elayne realized the farm was boiling as badly as it had when Careane's face was recognized. Maybe worse. A hundred and fortyseven Kinswomen inhabited the place at present, Alise had reported, including fiftyfour redbelted Wise Women sent out days ago and a number of others who had been passing through the city; now it looked as though every last one was running somewhere, and a good many of the other women, too. Most of the Tarasin Palace servants in their greenandwhite livery dashed this way and that carrying burdens. Ducks and chickens darted through the tumult, flapping and squawking, adding to the apparent confusion. Elayne even saw a Warder, Vandene's grizzled Jaem, trot by with his wiry arms wrapped around a big jute sack!
Alise appeared as though from the air, poised and collected despite the perspiration on her face. Every strand of her hair was in place, and her dress looked as if she were merely out for a stroll. "There's no need to screech," she said calmly, planting hands on hips. "Birgitte told me what those big birds are, and I thought we might be leaving sooner rather than later, especially with all of you galloping down the hill like the Dark One himself was after you. I told everybody to collect one clean dress apiece, three changes of shift and stockings, soap, mending baskets, and all the coin they have. That, and no more. The last ten to finish will do the washingup till we get where we're going; that will speed their feet. I told those servants to gather all the food they could, too, just in case. And your Warders. Sensible fellows, most of them. Surprisingly sensible, for men. Does being a Warder do

Nynaeve stood there with her jaw hanging, ready to issue orders and none left to give. Emotions played across her face too fast to catch. "Very good," she mumbled finally. And sourly. Suddenly she brightened. "The women who aren't Kin. Yes! They have to be - "
"Calm yourself," Alise broke in, making a soothing gesture. "They are already gone, for the most part. Mainly those with husbands or families they're worried about. I couldn't have held those back had I wanted. But a good thirty think those birds really are Shadowspawn, and want to stay as close to Aes Sedai as they can get." A sharp sniff said what she thought of that. "Now, you just gather yourself. Drink some cool water; not too fast. Put a little on your face. I have to keep an eye on things." Casting her eye over the bustle, everybody running in bounds, Alise shook her head. "Some would slack off if Trollocs were coming over the hill, and most of the noblewomen never really do get used to our rules. For sure, I'll need to remind two or three before we go." With that, she waded serenely back into the turmoil of the farmyard and left Nynaeve gaping.
"Well," Elayne said, brushing her skirt, "you did say she was a very capable woman."
"I never said that," Nynaeve snapped. "I never said 'very.' Hmmph! Where did my hat get to? Thinks she knows everything. I'll wager she doesn't know that!" She flounced off in a different direction than Alise.
Elayne stared after her. Her hat? She would have liked to know where her own hat had gone to - it was a beautiful thing - but really! Maybe being in a circle working that much of the Power, using an angreal doing it, had unsettled Nynaeve's wits temporarily. She still felt a trifle odd, herself, as though she could pluck little bits of saidar out of the air around her. In any case, she had other matters to worry about right then. Like being ready to get away before the Seanchan descended. From what she had seen in Falme, they really might bring a hundred damane, or more, and based on the little Egwene would let herself say of her captivity, most of those women really would be eager to help collar others. She said that what had turned her stomach most had been the sight of damane from Seanchan laughing with their sul'dam, fawning and playing with them, welltrained hounds with their affectionate handlers. Egwene said some of the women collared in Falme had been that way, too. It made Elayne's blood run cold. She would die before letting them put that leash on her! And she would as soon let the Forsaken have what she had found as the Seanchan. She went running to the cistern, Aviendha at her side breathing almost as hard as she was herself.
It seemed Alise really had thought of everything, though. The ter'angreal were already stowed away on the packhorses. The unsearched panniers remained full of jumbled odds and ends and the Light knew what, but those she and Aviendha had emptied now bulged with coarse sacks of flour and salt, beans and lentils. A handful of stablefolk minded the packanimals instead of running about with their arms full. Doing Alise's bidding, no doubt. Even Birgitte went trotting off at the woman's call with no more than a rueful grin!
Elayne lifted canvas covers to examine the ter'angreal as well as she could without unloading them again. Everything appeared to be there, a bit tumbled together in two panniers, not enough to fill them, but nothing broken. Not that anything short of the One Power itself could break most ter'angreal, yet even so...
Aviendha took a seat crosslegged on the ground, blotting sweat from her face with a large, plain linen handkerchief that seemed very much at odds with her pretty silk riding dress. Even she was beginning to show weariness. "What are you muttering about, Elayne? You sound like Nynaeve. This Alise has only saved us the trouble of packing those things ourselves."
Elayne colored faintly. She had not meant to speak aloud. "I just don't want anyone handling them who doesn't know what they are doing, Aviendha." Some ter'angreal could trigger even for people unable to channel, if they did the wrong thing, but the truth was, she did not want anyone handling them. They were hers! The Hall was not going to hand these over to some other sister just because she was older and more experienced, or hide them away because studying ter'angreal was too dangerous. With this many examples to study, maybe she could finally figure out how to make ter'angreal that worked every time; there had been far too many failures and halfsuccesses. "They need someone who knows what she's doing," she said, lashing the stiff canvas back in place.
Order began to appear out of pandemonium more rapidly than Elayne expected, though not as fast as she could have wished. Of course, she admitted reluctantly, nothing slower than instantaneous could have matched her wishes. Unable to keep her eyes off the sky, she sent Careane running back to the top of the hill to watch toward Ebou Dar. The stocky Green grumbled a bit under her breath before curtsying, and even frowned at the Kinswomen dashing about as if on the point of suggesting one of them instead, but Elayne wanted someone who would not faint at the sight of "Shadowspawn" approaching, and Careane stood lowest among the sisters. Adeleas and Vandene brought out Ispan between them, firmly shielded and the leather sack back over her head. She walked quite easily, and nothing visible said that anything at all had been done to her, except... Ispan kept her hands folded at her waist, never so much as trying to raise the sack for a peek, and when she was boosted into a saddle, she held out her wrists to be corded to the pommel without being told. If she was that amenable, perhaps they had learned something from her. Elayne just did not want to contemplate how the learning might have been achieved.
There were... bumps, of course, of sorts, even with what might be rushing toward them. What surely was rushing toward them. Nynaeve getting her blueplumed hat back was not really a bump, though it almost turned into one; Alise had found it, and handed it back telling Nynaeve she needed to shield her face from the sun if she wanted to keep that smooth pretty skin. An openmouthed Nynaeve watched the graying woman hurry off to deal with one of the numerous small problems, then ostentatiously shoved the hat under a strap of her saddlebags.
From the beginning Nynaeve set about flattening the real bumps, but Alise was nearly always there first, and where Alise met a bump, the bump flattened itself. Several noblewomen demanded help packing their belongings, only to be informed in no uncertain terms that she had meant what she said and if they did not hop to it, they could live in what they stood in. They hopped. Some, and not only nobles, changed their minds about going when they learned the destination was Andor, and were literally chased away. Afoot, and told to keep running as long as they could. Every horse was needed, but they had to be well away before the Seanchan appeared; at the very least they could be expected to put anyone near the farm to the question. As should have been expected, Nynaeve got into a shouting match with Renaile over the Bowl, and the turtle Talaan had used, which Renaile apparently had tucked behind her sash. Hardly had they reached the stage of waving arms, however, than Alise was right there, and in short order the Bowl was back in Sareitha's care and the turtle in Merilille's. Following which, Elayne was treated to the sight of Alise shaking her finger under the astonished nose of the Windfinder to the Mistress of the Ships to the Atha'an Miere, delivering a tonguelashing on the subject of theft that left Renaile spluttering indignantly. Nynaeve did a little spluttering, too, stalking away emptyhanded, yet Elayne thought she had never se

All in all, it did not take very long, though. The remaining women who had been at the farm gathered under the watchful eyes of the Knitting Circle - and of Alise, who carefully noted the last ten to arrive, all but two in fine embroidered silks, not much different from Elayne's. Definitely not Kinswomen. Elayne felt sure they really would do the washingup anyway; Alise would not let a little thing like noble birth stand in her way. The Windfinders lined up with their horses, surprisingly silent except for Renaile, who muttered imprecations whenever she saw Alise. Careane was summoned back from the hilltop. The Warders brought the sisters their mounts. Almost everyone kept an eye on the sky, and saidar made halos around all of the older Aes Sedai and most of the Windfinders. Around a few of the Kin, as well.
Leading her mare to the head of the line, at the cistern, Nynaeve fingered the angreal still on her hand as if she were going to be the one to make the gateway, ridiculous as the very idea might be. For one thing, though she had washed her face - and donned her hat; strangely, all things considered - she still tottered whenever her selfcontrol slipped. Lan stayed practically at her shoulder, stonefaced as always, but if ever there was a man ready to catch a woman when she fell, it was he. Even with the braceletandrings, Nynaeve might not be able to manage enough to weave a gateway. More important, she had been dashing about the farm ever since they first arrived; Elayne had spent a considerable time holding saidar right where they now stood. She knew that spot. Nynaeve scowled sulkily when Elayne embraced the Source, but at least she had sense enough to say nothing.
Right from the first Elayne wished that she had asked Aviendha for the womancloakedinherownhair; she was weary, too, and all the saidar she could draw was barely enough to form the weave so it would work. The flows wavered in her grasp almost as if trying to twist free, then snapped into place so suddenly that she jumped; channeling when you were tired was not at all like other times, but this was the worst ever. At least the familiar vertical slash of silver appeared as it should, and widened into an opening right alongside the cistern. An opening no bigger than the one Aviendha had made, and at that, Elayne was grateful it was large enough to fit a horse through. At the last, she had not been certain it would be. Gasps rose from the Kinswomen, seeing a view of an upland meadow suddenly standing between them and the familiar gray bulk of the cistern.
"You should have let me try," Nynaeve said softly. Softly, but with a sharp point even so. "You nearly fubbed it altogether."
Aviendha gave Nynaeve a flat look that almost made Elayne grab her arm. The longer they remained nearsisters, the more she seemed to think she had to defend Elayne's honor; if they did become firstsisters, Elayne could see having to keep her away from Nynaeve, and Birgitte, completely!
"It's done, Nynaeve," she said quickly. "That's all that counts." Nynaeve directed a flat look at her and muttered something about the day being prickly, as if Elayne were the one showing her snappish side.
Birgitte was the first through, grinning impudently at Lan, leading her horse with her bow already in her other hand. Elayne could sense eagerness in her, a touch of satisfaction, perhaps that this time she had the lead instead of Lan - there was always a bit of rivalry between Warders - and a small measure of wariness. Very small. Elayne knew that meadow well; Gareth Bryne had taught her to ride not far from there. About five miles over those first sparsely treed hills lay the manor house of one of her mother's estates. One of her estates; she had to get used to that. The seven families who tended the house and its grounds would be the only people for half a day's journey in any direction.
Elayne had chosen that destination because they could reach Caemlyn in two weeks from there. And because the estate was so isolated, she might be entering Caemlyn before anyone knew she was in Andor. That could be a very necessary precaution; at various times in Andor's history, rivals for the Rose Crown had been kept as "guests" until they relinquished their claims. Her mother had kept two, until she took the throne. With luck, she could have a solid base established by the time Egwene and the others arrived.
Lan took Mandarb right behind Birgitte's brown gelding, and Nynaeve lurched as if to rush after the black warhorse, then pulled herself up short with a level stare that dared Elayne to say a word. Fiddling furiously with her reins, she made a visible effort to look anywhere except through the gateway after Lan. Her lips moved. After a moment, Elayne realized that she was counting.
"Nynaeve," she said quietly, "we really don't have time for - "
"Move along," Alise called from the rear, the sound of her hands clapping a sharp punctuating crack. "No pushing or shoving, now, but I'll have no laggards either! Move along."
Nynaeve's head swung wildly, pained indecision painting her face. For some reason she touched her wide hat, a few of its blue plumes broken and drooping, before pulling her hand away. "Oh, that goatkissing old...!" she growled, the rest lost as she dragged her mare through the gateway. Elayne sniffed. And Nynaeve had the nerve to speak to anybody about their language! She wished she could have heard the rest, though; she already knew the first bit.
Alise continued her urging, but there really did not seem to be much need after the first. Even the Windfinders hurried, glancing worriedly over their shoulders at the sky. Even Renaile, who mumbled something about Alise that Elayne noted in the back of her head. Though calling someone "a fishloving scavenger" did seem rather mild. She would have expected the Sea Folk to eat fish all the time.
Alise herself brought up the very rear, except for the remaining Warders, as if to herd even the packhorses along. She paused long enough to hand Elayne her greenplumed hat. "You'll want to keep the sun off that sweet face of yours," she said with a smile. "Such a pretty girl. No need to turn to leather before your time."
Aviendha, sitting on the ground nearby, fell over backward and kicked her heels laughing.
"I think I'll ask her to find you a hat. With lots of plumes, and big bows," Elayne said in dulcet tones before quickly following the Kinswoman. That certainly cut off Aviendha's laughter.
The gently rolling meadow was broad and nearly a mile long, surrounded by hills taller than those she had left behind, and by trees she knew, oak and pine and blackwood, sourgum and leatherleaf and fir, thick forest with good, tall timber to south and west and east, though there might not be any cutting this year. Most of the more scattered trees to the north, toward the manor, were better suited for firewood. Small gray boulders dotted the thick brown grass here and there, and not even a withered stalk marked the death of a wildflower. That was not so

For once Nynaeve was not peering at the surrounding countryside trying to find Lan. He and Birgitte would not be gone long anyway, not here. Instead she strode briskly among the horses, ordering people to mount in a loud, commanding voice, chivvying the servants with the pack animals, curtly telling some of the Kinswomen who had no horses that any child could walk five miles, shouting at a slender Altaran noblewoman with a scar on her cheek and carrying a bundle nearly as big as herself that if she had been fool enough to bring all of her dresses then she could carry them. Alise had gathered the Atha'an Miere around her and was instructing them on how to mount a horse. For a wonder, they actually appeared to be paying attention. Nynaeve glanced her way and seemed pleased to see Alise standing in one spot. Until Alise smiled encouragingly and motioned her to go on with what she was doing.
For an instant Nynaeve stood stockstill, staring at the woman. Then she came striding through the grass to Elayne. Reaching up to her hat with both hands, she hesitated, glowering up at it her through her lashes before giving it a twitch straight. "I'll just let her take care of everything this time," she said in a suspiciously reasonable tone. "We'll just see how well she does with those... Sea Folk. Yes, we will." Too reasonable a tone by half. Abruptly she frowned at the stillopen gateway. "Why are you holding it? Let go." Aviendha was frowning, too.
Elayne drew a deep breath. She had thought about this, and there was no other way, but Nynaeve would try to argue her out of it, and there no time for arguing. Through the gateway, the farmyard stood empty, even the chickens finally frightened away by the hubbub, yet how long before it filled up again? She studied her weave, melded together so snugly that only a few threads remained distinct. She could see every flow, of course, but except for those few, they appeared inseparably combined. "Take everyone to the manor house, Nynaeve," she said. The sun did not have very much farther to fall; perhaps two hours of light remained. "Master Hornwell will be surprised at so many visitors arriving at dark, but tell him you're guests of the girl who cried over the redbird with the broken wing; he'll remember that. I will be along as soon as I can."
"Elayne," Aviendha began in a surprisingly anxious voice, and at the same time, Nynaeve said sharply, "Just what do you think you're - "
There was only one way to stop it. Elayne plucked one of the discernible threads free of the weave; it wavered and flailed like a living tentacle; it fuzzed and spluttered, tiny fluffs of saidar breaking off and fading away. She had not noticed that when Aviendha unmade her weave, but she had only seen the tail of that, really. "Go on," she told Nynaeve. "I'll wait for the rest until you are all out of sight." Nynaeve stared out, her jaw hanging. "It has to be done," Elayne sighed. "The Seanchan will be at the farm in hours, for sure. Even if they wait until tomorrow, what if one of the damane has the Talent to read residues? Nynaeve, I won't give Traveling to the Seanchan. I won't!"
Nynaeve growled something under her breath about the Seanchan that must have been particularly pithy, judging by her tone. "Well, I won't let you burn yourself out!" she said aloud. "Now, put that back! Before the whole thing explodes the way Vandene said. You could kill all of us!"
"It cannot be put back," Aviendha said, laying a hand on Nynaeve's arm. "She has begun, and now she must finish. You must do as she says, Nynaeve."
Nynaeve's brows drew down. "Must" was a word she did not like hearing one bit, not applied to her. She was not a fool, though, so after a bit of glaring - at Elayne, at the gateway, at Aviendha, at the world in general - she flung her arms around Elayne in a hug that made her ribs creak.
"You be careful, you hear me," she whispered. "If you get yourself killed, I swear I'll skin you alive!" In spite of everything, Elayne burst out laughing. Nynaeve snorted, pushing her out to arm's length by her shoulders. "You know what I mean," she grumbled. "And don't think I don't mean it, because I do! I do," she added in a softer voice. "You take care."
It took Nynaeve a moment to gather herself, blinking and pulling her blue riding gloves tight. There s