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The Path of Daggers
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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 seemed to be a hint of moisture in her eyes, though that could not have been; Nynaeve made other people cry, she did not cry herself. "Well, then," she said loudly. "Alise, if you don't have everyone ready yet - " Turning, she cut off with a strangled croak.
Those who were supposed to be mounted were, even the Atha'an Miere. The Warders were all gathered around the other sisters; Lan and Birgitte had returned, and Birgitte watched Elayne worriedly. The servants had the pack animals in a line, and the Kinswomen were waiting patiently, most afoot except for the Knitting Circle. A number of horses that could have been used for riding were loaded with sacks of food and bundles of belongings. Women who had brought more than Alise allowed - none of them Kin - carried their bundles on their own backs. The slender noble with the scar was bent at an awkward angle beneath hers, and glaring at anyone but Alise. Every woman who could channel was staring at the gateway. And every woman who had been there to hear Vandene tell of the dangers watched that one whipping filament as she would have a red adder.
It was Alise herself who brought Nynaeve her horse. And straightened the blueplumed hat as Nynaeve put a foot in the stirrup. Nynaeve turned the plump mare north with Lan riding Mandarb at her side and a look of utter mortification on her face. Why she did not just set Alise down, Elayne did not understand. To hear Nynaeve tell it, she had been putting women older than herself in their place since she was little more than a girl. And she was Aes Sedai, now, after all; that should carry mountains of weight with any Kinswoman.
As the column began to wend its way toward the hills, Elayne looked at Aviendha and Birgitte. Aviendha simply stood there with her arms folded beneath her breasts; she had the womanwrappedinherownhair angreal clutched in one hand. Birgitte took Lioness's reins from Elayne, adding them to those of her own horse and Aviendha's, then walked over to a small boulder twenty paces away and sat down.
"You two must," Elayne began, then coughed when Aviendha's eyebrows shot up in surprise. Sending Aviendha out of danger was impossible without shaming her. Perhaps impossible altogether. "I want you to go with the others," she told Birgitte. "And take Lioness. Aviendha and I can take turns riding her gelding. I'd like a w
"If you ever treat a man half as well as you do that horse," Birgitte said dryly, "he'll be yours for life. I think I'll just sit awhile; I've ridden long enough today. I'm not at your beck and call all the time. We can play that game in front of the sisters and the other Warders, to spare your blushes, but you and I know better." Despite the mocking words, what Elayne felt from her was affection. No; stronger than affection. Her own eyes stung suddenly. Her death would hurt Birgitte to the bone - the Warder bond made that certain - but it was friendship that made her stay now.
"I am thankful to have two friends such as you," she said simply. Birgitte grinned at her as if she had said something silly.
Aviendha, however, blushed furiously and stared at Birgitte, wideeyed and flustered, as though the Warder's presence were to blame for her fiery cheeks. Hurriedly she shifted her gaze to the people still short of the first hill, perhaps half a mile distant. "Best to wait until they are out of sight," she said, "but you cannot wait too long. Once you have started the unweaving, the flows begin to grow... slick... after a time. Letting one slip free before it is out of the weave is the same as letting go of the weave; it will fall into whatever it wishes, then. But you must not hurry, either. Each thread must be pulled free as far as it will go. The more that come loose, the easier others will be to see, but you must always pick the thread that is easiest to see." Smiling warmly, she pressed her fingers firmly against Elayne's cheek. "You will do well, if you are careful."
It did not sound that difficult. She just had to be careful. It seemed to take a long time for the last woman to vanish over the hill, the slender noble bent under the bulk of her dresses. The sun barely appeared to settle any at all, but it seemed like hours. What did Aviendha mean precisely by "slick"? She could not explain beyond variations on the word; they became difficult to hold, that was all.
Elayne found out as soon as she began again. "Slick" was what you would get if you coated a live eel with grease. She gritted her teeth just holding on to that first thread, and that was on top of trying to pull it free. All that stopped her from gasping in relief when the thread of Air began whipping about, finally loose, was that there were more to go. If they became much more "slick," she was not sure she could manage it. Aviendha watched closely, but did not say another word, though she always had an encouraging smile when Elayne needed one. Elayne could not see Birgitte - she did not dare look away from her work - yet she could feel her, a small knot of rocksolid confidence in her own head, enough confidence to fill her.
Sweat slid down her face, down her back and belly, until she began to feel "slick" herself. A bath tonight would be most welcome. No, she could not think of that. All attention on the weaves. They were getting harder to handle, quivering in her grip as soon as she touched one, but they still came free, and every time one thread began to lash about, another seemed to leap out of the mass, to suddenly be clearly perceptible where there had only been solid saidar before. To her eye the gateway resembled some monstrous, distorted hundredheads on the bottom of a pond, surrounded by flailing tendrils, every one thickly haired with threads of the Power that grew and writhed and vanished only to be replaced by new. The opening visible to anyone flexed along its edges, changing shape and even size continuously. Her legs began to tremble; strain stung her eyes as much as sweat did. She did not know how much longer she could go on. Gritting her teeth, she fought. One thread at a time. One thread at a time.
A thousand miles away, less than a hundred paces away through the shuddering gateway, dozens of soldiers swept around the white farm buildings, short men carrying crossbows, in brown breastplates and painted helmets that looked like the heads of huge insects. Behind them came a woman with red panels bearing silver lightning on her skirts, a bracelet on her wrist linked by a silvery leash to the collar around the neck of a woman in gray, and then another sul'dam and her damane, then another pair. One of the sul'dam pointed at the gateway, and the glow of saidar abruptly enveloped her sul'dam.
"Get down!" Elayne screamed, falling backward, out of sight of the farmyard, and silverblue lightning shot through the gateway with a roar that filled her ears, forking savagely in every direction. Her hair lifted, every strand trying to stand on its own, and thunderous fountains of earth erupted wherever one of the forks struck. Dirt and pebbles rained down on her.
Hearing returned suddenly, and a man's voice from the other side of the opening, a slurred, drawling accent that made her skin crawl as much as the words. "... must take them alive, you fools!"
Abruptly one of the soldiers was leaping into the meadow right in front of her. Birgitte's arrow punched through the clenched fist embossed on his leather breastplate. A second Seanchan soldier stumbled over the first as he fell, and Aviendha's belt knife stabbed into his throat before he could recover. Arrows flew from Birgitte's bow like hail; with one boot on the horses' reins, she grinned grimly as she shot. The trembling horses tossed their heads and danced as if they would jerk free and run, but Birgitte simply stood and shot as fast as she could draw. Shouts from beyond the gateway said Birgitte Silverbow still struck home with every shaft she loosed. Answer came, quick as bad thought, black streaks, crossbow bolts. So quick, all happening so fast. Aviendha fell, blood running over the fingers clutching her right arm, but she let go of her wound immediately, crawling clear, scrabbling on the ground for the angreal, her face set. Birgitte cried out; dropping her bow, she grabbed her thigh where a quarrel stuck out. Elayne felt the stab of agony as sharply as if it were her own.
Desperately, she seized another thread from where she lay half on her back. And realized to her horror after one tug that it was all she could do to hold on. Had the thread moved? Had it slipped free any at all? If it had, she did not dare let go. The thread trembled greasily in her grasp.
"Alive, I said!" that Seanchan voice roared. "Anyone who kills a woman gets no share of the taking gold!" The flurry of crossbow bolts ceased.
"You wish to take me?" Aviendha shouted. "Then come and dance with me!" Saidar's glow abruptly surrounded her, dim even with the angreal, and balls of fire sprang into being in front of the gateway and sprayed through again and again. Not very large balls, but the blasts as they burst back in Altara sounded in a steady stream. Aviendha panted with effort, though; her face glistened with sweat. Birgitte had recovered her bow; she looked every inch the hero of legend, blood streaming down her leg, barely able to stand, but an arrow half draw
Elayne tried to control her breathing. She could not embrace one shred more of the Power, nothing to help. "The two of you must get away," she said. She could not believe how she sounded, calm as ice; she knew she should have been wailing. Her heart was trying to pound through her ribs. "I don't know how much longer I can hold this." That held true for the entire weave as much as for that single thread. Was it sliding? Was it? "Go, as fast as you can. The other side of the hills should be safe, but every span you can cover gains something. Go!"
Birgitte growled in the Old Tongue, but nothing that Elayne knew. It sounded like phrases she would like to learn. If there was ever a chance. Birgitte went on in words Elayne could understand. "You let that bloody thing go before I tell you, and you won't have to worry about waiting for Nynaeve to skin you; I'll do it myself. And then let her have a turn. Just be quiet and hang on! Aviendha, get around here - behind that thing! - can you keep that up from behind it? - get around here and on one of these bloody horses."
"As long as I can see where to weave," Aviendha replied, staggering to her feet. She wobbled sideways and barely caught herself short of falling. Blood flowed down her sleeve from a wicked gash. "I think I can." She vanished behind the gateway, and the fireballs continued. You could see through a gateway from the other side, though it appeared to be a heat haze hanging in the air. You could not walk through from that side, though - the attempt would be extremely painful - and when Aviendha reappeared, she was stumbling well wide. Birgitte helped her mount her gelding, but backwards, of all things!
When Birgitte motioned fiercely to her, Elayne did not bother with shaking her head. For one thing, she feared what might happen if she did. "I'm not certain I can hold on if I try to get up." In truth, she was not certain she could get up; tired was no longer in it; her muscles were water. "Ride as fast as you can. I'll hold on as long as I'm able. Please, go!"
Muttering curses in the Old Tongue - they had to be; nothing else ever had the sound! - Birgitte shoved the horses' reins into Aviendha's hands. Nearly falling twice, she hobbled to Elayne and bent to take her by the shoulders. "You can hang on," she said, her voice filled with the same conviction Elayne felt from her. "I never met a Queen of Andor before you, but I've known queens like you. A backbone of steel and a lion's heart. You can do it!"
Slowly she pulled Elayne up, not waiting for an answer, her face tight, every stab in her leg echoing in Elayne's head. Elayne quivered with the effort of holding the weave, holding that one thread; she was surprised to find herself erect. And alive. Birgitte's leg throbbed madly in her head. She tried not to lean on Birgitte, but her own trembling limbs would not support her completely. As they lurched toward the horses, each half leaning on the other, she kept looking back over her shoulder. She could hold a weave without looking at it - she could normally - but she needed to reassure herself that she really did still have a grip on that one thread, that it was not slipping. The gateway now appeared like no weave she had ever seen, twisting wildly, wreathed with fuzzed tentacles.
With a groan, Birgitte heaved her into her saddle more than helped her. Backward, just like Aviendha! "You have to see," she explained, limping to her gelding; holding the reins of all three horses, she pulled herself up painfully. Without a sound, but Elayne felt the agony. "You do what needs doing and leave where we're going to me." The horses leaped away, perhaps as much from eagerness to be gone as from Birgitte's heel in her own mount's flank.
Elayne hung on to the high cantle of her saddle as grimly as she did to the weave, to saidar itself. The galloping horse flung her about, and it was all she could do to remain in the saddle. Aviendha used her saddle's cantle as a prop to keep herself upright; her mouth hung open, sucking air, and her eyes seemed fixed. The glow surrounded her, though, and that stream of fireballs continued. Not as fast as before, true, and some shot wide of the gateway, streaking trails of flame through the grass or exploding on the ground beyond, but they still formed and flew. Elayne took strength, made herself take strength; if Aviendha could keep on when she looked ready to fall on her face, she could, too.
At a gallop, the gateway began to dwindle, brown grass stretching out between them and the opening, and then the ground was slanting upward. They were climbing the hill! Birgitte was again the arrow in the bow, all focus, fighting down the agony in her legs, urging her horses for more speed. All they had to do was reach the crest, reach the other side.
With a gasp, Aviendha sagged onto her elbows, bouncing on her saddle like a loose sack; the light of saidar flickered around her and was gone. "I cannot," she panted. "I cannot." That was all she could get out. Seanchan soldiers began leaping into the meadow almost as soon as the hail of fire ceased.
"It's all right," Elayne managed. Her throat was sand; all the moisture that had been in her now coated her skin and soaked her clothes. "Using an angreal is tiring. You did well, and they can't catch us now."
As if to mock her, a sul'dam appeared in the meadow below; even at half a mile there was no mistaking the two women. The sun, low in the west, still flashed glints off the a'dam linking them. Another pair joined them, then a third, and a fourth. A fifth.
"The crest!" Birgitte shouted joyfully. "We made it! It's good wine and a well setup man tonight!"
In the meadow, a sul'dam pointed, and time seemed to slow for Elayne. The glow of the One Power sprang up around the woman's damane. Elayne could see the weave forming. She knew what it was. And there was no way to stop it. "Faster!" she shouted. The shield struck her. She should have been too strong for it - she should have been! - but exhausted as she was, barely clinging to saidar as she was, it sliced between her and the Source. Down in the meadow, the weave that had been a gateway fell in on itself. Haggard, looking as though she could not possibly move, Aviendha hurled herself from her saddle at Elayne, carrying them both off. Elayne had just time to see the far slope of the hill below her as she fell.
The air turned white, blanking her sight. There was sound - she knew there was sound, a great roar - but it lay beyond hearing. Something struck her, as if she had fallen from a rooftop onto hard p
Her eyes opened, staring at the sky. The sky looked, strange somehow, blurry. For a moment she could not move, and when she did, she gasped. She hurt everywhere. Oh, Light, she hurt! Slowly she raised a hand to her face; her fingers came away red. Blood. The others. She had to help the others. She could feel Birgitte, feel pain as bad as what gripped her, but at least Birgitte was alive. And determined, and angry apparently; she could not be injured too badly. Aviendha.
With a sob, Elayne rolled over, then pushed up to hands and knees, her head spinning, agony stabbing her side. Vaguely she recalled that moving with even one broken rib could be dangerous, but the thought was as hazy as the hillside. Thinking seemed... difficult. Blinking appeared to help her sight, though. Some. She was almost to the bottom of the hill! High above, a haze of smoke rose from the meadow beyond. Unimportant, now. Not important at all.
Thirty paces up the slope, Aviendha was on her hands and knees, too, almost falling over when she raised a hand to wipe away blood that poured down her face, but searching anxiously. Her gaze fell on Elayne, and she froze, staring. Elayne wondered how bad she looked. Surely no worse than Aviendha herself; half of the other woman's skirt was gone, her bodice torn nearly off, and everywhere skin showed, there seemed to be blood.
Elayne crawled to her. With her head, it seemed much easier than trying to stand and walk. As she came close, Aviendha gave a relieved gasp.
"You are all right," she said, touching bloody fingers to Elayne's cheek. "I was so afraid. So afraid."
Elayne blinked in surprise. What she could see of herself appeared in every bit as bad shape as Aviendha. Her own skirts remained intact, but half of her bodice was ripped away entirely, and she seemed to be bleeding from two dozen gashes. Then it struck her. She had not been burned out. She shivered at the thought. "We are both all right," she said softly.
Well off to one side, Birgitte wiped her belt knife on the mane of Aviendha's gelding and straightened from the still horse. Her right arm dangled, her coat was gone, along with one boot, and the rest of her garments torn; as much blood stained her skin and clothes as either of theirs. The crossbow bolt standing out from her thigh seemed to be the worst of her injuries, but the rest certainly added up to as much again. "His back was broken," she said, gesturing to the horse at her feet. "Mine's well, I think, but the last I saw of him, he was running fit to win the Wreath of Megairil. I always thought he had a turn of speed. Lioness." She shrugged, and winced. "Elayne, Lioness was dead when I found her. I'm sorry."
"We are alive," Elayne said firmly, "and that is what counts." She would weep for Lioness later. The smoke above the hilltop was not thick, but it rose over a wide area. "I want to see exactly what it was that I did."
It took clinging to one another for all three of them to stand, and laboring up the hillside was an effort of panting and groans, even from Aviendha. They sounded as though they had been thrashed within an inch of their lives - which Elayne supposed they had been - and looked as though they had wallowed in a butcher's shambles. Aviendha still carried the angreal tight in her fist, but even if she or Elayne had possessed more than their small Talent with Healing, neither could have managed to embrace the Source, much less channel. At the top of the hill, they stood leaning on each other and stared at devastation.
Fire ringed the meadow, but the heart of it was blackened, smoldering and swept clear even of boulders. Half the trees on the surrounding slopes were broken or leaning away from the meadow. Hawks began to appear, riding the hot air rising from the fire; hawks often hunted so, looking for small animals chased into the open by the flames. Of the Seanchan there was no sign. Elayne wished there were bodies, so she could be certain they were all dead. Especially all of the sul'dam. Gazing down at the burned, smoking ground, though, she was suddenly glad there was no evidence. It had been a terrible way to die. The Light have mercy on their souls, she thought. On all of their souls.
"Well," she said aloud, "I did not do as well as you, Aviendha, but I suppose it worked out for the best, considering. I will try to do better next time."
Aviendha glanced at her sideways. There was a gash on her cheek, and another across her forehead, as well as a long one laying open her scalp. "You did much better than I, for a first try. I was given a simple knot tied in a flow of Wind the first time. It took me fifty tries to unweave even that without having a clap of thunder in my face, or a blow that made my ears ring."
"I suppose I should have started with something simpler," Elayne said. "I have a habit of leaping in over my head." Over her head? She had leaped before looking to see whether there was water! She stifled a chuckle, but not before it sent a stab through her side. So instead of chuckling, she moaned through her teeth. She thought some of them might be loose. "At least we've found a new weapon. Perhaps I should not be happy about that, but with the Seanchan back again, I am."
"You do not understand, Elayne." Aviendha gestured toward the center of the meadow, where the gateway had been. "That could have been no more than a flash of light, or even less. You cannot tell until it happens. Is a flash of light worth the risk of burning out yourself and every woman closer to you than a hundred paces or more?"
Elayne stared at her. She had stayed, knowing that? To risk your life was one thing, but to risk losing the ability to channel... "I want us to adopt each other as firstsisters, Aviendha. As soon as we can find Wise Ones." What they were to do about Rand, she could not imagine. The very idea that they would both marry him - and Min, too! - was worse than ridiculous. But of this, she was sure. "I don't need to know any more about you. I want to be your sister." Gently, she kissed Aviendha's bloodstained cheek.
She had only thought Aviendha blushed fiercely before. Even Aiel lovers did not kiss where anyone could see. Fiery sunsets paled beside Aviendha's face. "I want you for my sister, too," she mumbled. Swallowing hard - and eyeing Birgitte, who was pretending to ignore them - she leaned over and quickly pressed her lips to Elayne's cheek. Elayne loved her as much for that gesture as for the rest.
Birgitte had been gazing behind them, over her shoulder, and perhaps she had not been pretending after all, because she suddenly said, "Someone's coming. Lan and Nynaeve, unle
Awkwardly, they turned, hobbling and stumbling and groaning. It seemed quite ludicrous; heroes in stories never got hurt so they could barely stand. In the distance to the north, two riders appeared briefly through the trees. Briefly, but long enough to make out a tall man on a tall horse, galloping hard, and a woman on a shorter animal running just as hard at his side. Gingerly, the three of them sat down to wait. That was another thing heroes in stories never did, Elayne thought with a sigh. She hoped she could be a queen to make her mother proud, but it was clear that she would never make a hero.
Chulein moved the reins slightly, and Segani banked smoothly, turning on a ribbed wing. He was a welltrained raken, swift and agile, her favorite, though she had to share flying him. There were always more morat'raken than raken; a fact of life. Down in the farm below, balls of fire were leaping out of the air apparently, scattering in every direction. She tried to pay no attention; her job was to watch for trouble approaching from the area around the farm. At least the smoke had stopped rising from where Tauan and Macu had died in the olive grove.
A thousand paces above the ground, she had a very long view. All the other raken were off scouting the countryside; any woman who ran would be marked for checking, to see whether she was one of those who had caused all the excitement, though truth for sure, anyone in these lands who saw a raken in the air likely would run. All Chulein had to do was watch for approaching trouble here. She wished she did not feel an itch between her shoulder blades; it always meant trouble was on the way. The wind of Segani's flight was not bad at this speed, but she drew the drawstring of her waxed linen hood tighter under her chin, tested the leather safety straps that held her in the saddle, adjusted her crystal goggles, snugged her gauntlets.
Over a hundred Fists of Heaven were on the ground already, and more importantly, six sul'dam with damane and another dozen carrying shoulder bags full of spare a'dam. The second flight would be lifting from the hills to the south with reinforcements. Better if more had come in the first strike, but there were few enough to'raken with the Hailene, and strong rumor had it that many of those had been given the task of ferrying the High Lady Suroth and her entire entourage down from Amadicia. Bad to think ill of the Blood, yet she wished more to'raken had been sent to Ebou Dar. No morat'raken could think well of the huge, ungainly to'raken, fit only to carry burdens, but they could have put more Fists of Heaven on the ground faster, more sul'dam.
"Rumor says there are hundreds of marath'damane down there," Eliya said loudly against her back. In the sky, you had to speak loudly, over the rush of wind. "Do you know what I'm going to do with my share of the taking gold? Buy an inn. This Ebou Dar looks a likely place, what I saw of it. Maybe I'll even find a husband. Have children. What do you think of that."
Chulein grinned behind her windscarf. Every flier talked of buying an inn - or a tavern, sometimes a farm - yet who could leave the sky? She patted the base of Segani's long, leathery neck.
Every woman flier - three in four were women - talked of a husband and children, but children meant an end to flying, too. More women left the Fists of Heaven in a month than left the sky in half a year.
"I think you should keep your eyes open," she said. But there was no harm in a little talk. She could have seen a child move in the olive groves below, much more anything that might threaten Fists of Heaven. The most lightly armored of soldiers, they were about as hard as the Deathwatch Guard; some said harder. "I'll use my share to buy a damane and hire a sul'dam." If there were half as many marath'damane down there as rumor claimed, her share would buy two damane. Three! "A damane trained to make Sky Lights. When I leave the sky, I'll be as rich as one of the Blood." They had something called "fireworks" here - she had seen some fellows vainly trying to interest the Blood in Tanchico - but who would watch such a pitiful thing compared to the Sky Lights? Those fellows had been bundled out and dumped in the road outside the city.
"The farm!" Eliya shouted, and suddenly something hit Segani hard, harder than the worst storm gust Chulein had ever felt, tumbling him wing over wing.
Down the raken plunged, screaming his raucous cry, spinning so fast that Chulein was pulled tight against her safety straps. She left her hands on her thighs, tensed on the reins but still. Segani had to pull out of this himself; any twitch on the reins would only hinder him. Rolling like a gambling wheel, they fell. Morat'raken were taught not to watch the ground if a raken fell, whatever the reason, but she could not help estimating her height every time a whiplike tumble bought the ground into sight. Eight hundred paces. Six hundred. Four. Two. The Light illumine her soul, and the infinite mercy of the Creator protect her from -
With a snap of his broad wings that jerked her sideways and rattled her teeth, Segani leveled out, the tips of his pinons brushing treetops as they swept down. With a calmness born of hard training, she checked the motion of his wings for strain. Nothing, but she would have a der'morat'raken examine him thoroughly anyway. A tiny thing that might slip by her eyes would not escape a master.
"It seems we've escaped the Lady of the Shadows one more time, Eliya." Turning to look over her shoulder, she let her words tail off. A length of broken safety strap trailed back from the empty seat behind her. Every flier knew that the Lady waited at the bottom of the long fall, but knowing never made seeing easier.
Offering a quick prayer for the dead, she firmly pushed herself back to duty and urged Segani to climb. A slow, spiraling climb, in case of some hidden strain, but as quick as she thought safe. Maybe a little quicker than safe. Smoke rising from beyond the knobby hill ahead made her frown, but what she saw as she cleared the crest dried her mouth. Her hands stilled on the reins, and Segani continued to climb on powerful sweeps of his wings.
The farm was... gone. Foundations scoured clean of the white buildings that had stood on them, the big structures built into a hillside smashed heaps of rubble. Gone. Everything was blackened and burned. Fire raged through the undergrowth on the slopes and made fans a hundred paces long into the olive groves and the forest, stretching from the spaces between the hills. Beyond lay broken trees for another hundred or more, all leaning away from the farm. She had never seen anything like it. Nothing could be alive down there. Nothing could have lived through t
Quickly she came to herself and turned Segani south. In the distance she could make out to'raken, each one crowded with a dozen Fists of Heaven over this short distance, Fists of Heaven and sul'dam, coming too late. She began composing her report in her head; there was certainly no one else to make one. Everyone said this was a land full of marath'damane waiting to be collared, but with this new weapon, these women who called themselves Aes Sedai were a true danger. Something had to be done about them, something decisive. Perhaps, if the High Lady Suroth was on her way to Ebou Dar, she would see the need, too.
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