The Last Battle
Dawn broke that morning on Polov Heights, but the sun did not shine on the Defenders of the Light. Out of the west and out of the north came the armies of Darkness, to win this one last battle and cast a Shadow across the earth; to usher in an Age where the wails of suffering would go unheard.
Lan held his sword aloft as he galloped Mandarb through camp.
Above, the morning clouds began to bleed red, reflecting enormous fireballs rising from the massive Sharan army that was approaching from the west. They arced in the sky gracefully, seeming slow because of the great distance.
Groups of riders broke out of the camp, joining Lan. The remaining Malkieri rode just behind him, but his force had swelled like a tide. Andere joined him at the front, the flag of Malkier—the Golden Crane—acting as a banner for all of the Borderlands.
They had been bloodied, but not beaten. Knock a man down, and you saw what he was made of. That man might run. If he didn’t—if he stood back up with blood at the corner of his mouth and determination in his eyes then you knew. That man was about to become truly dangerous.
The fireballs seemed to move more quickly as they dropped, crashing to the camp in bursts of red fury. Explosions shook the ground. Nearby screams rose to accompany the thunder of hoofbeats. Still men joined him. Mat Cauthon had spread word through all of the camps that more cavalry were needed to join Lan’s advance and replace lost soldiers.
He had also disclosed the cost of doing so. The cavalry would be at the forefront of the fighting, breaking Trolloc and Sharan lines, and would find little rest. They’d carry the brunt of the casualties this day.
Still, men joined him. Borderlanders who should have been too old to ride. Merchants who had put aside the money pouch and taken up the sword. A surprising number of southerners, including many women, wearing breastplates and steel or leather caps, carrying spears. There weren’t enough lances to go around.
«Half of those joining look like farmers more than soldiers!» Andere called to him over the hoofbeats.
«Have you ever seen a man or woman from the Two Rivers ride, Andere?» Lan yelled back.
«I can’t say that I have».
«Watch and be surprised».
Lan’s cavalry reached the River Mora, where a man with long, curling hair, wearing a black coat, stood with hands clasped behind his back. Logain now had forty Aes Sedai and Asha’man with him. He eyed Lan’s force, then raised a hand toward the sky, crumpling an enormous falling fireball as if it were a piece of paper. The sky cracked like lightning, and the breaking fireball gushed sparks to every side, smoke churning in the air. Ashes drifted down, burning out, hitting the rushing river and scattering black and white on its surface.
Lan slowed Mandarb as he approached Hawal Ford, just south of the Heights. Logain thrust his other hand toward the river. The waters churned, then lurched up into the air as if flowing over an invisible ramp. They crashed down on the other side, a violent waterfall, while some of the water spilled over the banks of the river.
Lan nodded to Logain and continued on, guiding Mandarb under the waterfall and crossing the still-wet rocks of the ford. Sunlight filtered through the river waters above, sparkling down on Lan as he thundered through the tunnel, Andere and the Malkieri behind him. The waterfall roared down to his left, spraying a mist of water.
Lan shivered as he burst back out into the light, then charged through the corridor toward the Sharans. To his right rose the Heights, to his left the bogs, but there was a passage of solid, level ground here. Up on the Heights, archers, crossbowmen and dragoners prepared to release volleys at the oncoming foes.
Sharans at the front, a huge force of Trollocs gathering up behind, all directly west of the Heights. The thunder of dragonfire shook the air from the top of the Heights, and soon the Sharans had explosions of their own to contend with.
Lan set his lance, took aim at a Sharan soldier charging toward Polov Heights, then braced himself.
Elayne whipped her head up, turning to the side. That terrible song, a croon, a hum, beautiful yet terrible at the same time. She heeled Moonshadow, drawn toward that soft sound. Where was it?
It rose from somewhere deeper in the Seanchan camp at the base of Dashar Knob. Chewing out Mat for not telling her his plan of war could wait. She needed to find the source of that sound, that wonderful sound, that . . .
«Elayne!» Birgitte said.
Elayne kicked her horse forward.
Draghkar. Elayne shook herself, then looked up to find the creatures falling like drops of water into the camp around them. Guardswomen lowered their swords, eyes opening wide as the crooning continued.
Elayne wove a thunderclap. It burst from her, splitting the air, washing across the Guardswomen and making them cry out and cover their ears. Pain stabbed Elayne’s head and she cursed, closing her eyes at the shock. And then . . . then she heard nothing.
That was the point.
She forced her eyes open to see Draghkar all around, with their spindly bodies and inhuman eyes. They opened their lips to croon, but Elayne’s deafened ears could not hear the song. She smiled, then wove whips of fire, striking the creatures down. She could not hear their screeches of pain, which was a pity.
Elayne’s Guardswomen rallied, rising from knees, lowering hands from ears. She could tell from their dazed looks that they had been deafened. Birgitte soon had them striking at the surprised Draghkar. Three of the creatures tried to leap up and fly away, but Birgitte took each one with a white-fletched arrow, dropping the last so that it crashed into a nearby tent.
Elayne waved, getting Birgitte’s attention. The first Draghkar sounds hadn’t come from above, but from farther into camp. Elayne pointed, kicking Moonshadow into motion, leading her troops among the Seanchan. All about, men lay staring into the sky, mouths open. Many seemed to be breathing, but they stared with dead eyes. The Draghkar had consumed their souls, but left the bodies alive, like the crust cut off a rich mans bread.
Sloppy. This group of Draghkar—Light, there were well over a hundred of them—could have taken a man each, killed him, then retreated before their presence was discovered. The distant roars of the battle—the bleating horns, the booming dragons, the hissing fireballs, all of which Elayne now felt but could only barely make out with her broken ears—had covered the Draghkar attack. The creatures could have struck and fled, but they were greedy.
Her guards scattered, hacking at the surprised Draghkar—many of whom were holding soldiers. The beasts were not strong fighters if measured by strength of arm. Elayne waited, preparing weaves. Those Draghkar who tried to flee, she burned from the sky.
Once the last of them were dead—at least, the ones they could see—Elayne waved Birgitte to approach. The air smelled sharply of burned flesh. Elayne wrinkled her nose, and reached down from horseback to take Birgitte’s head in her hands, Healing the woman's ears. The babes kicked as she did so. Did they react to times when she Healed someone, or was that her fancy? Elayne reached down to hold her stomach with one arm as Birgitte stepped back, looking about.
The Warder nocked an arrow, and Elayne felt her alarm. Birgitte loosed, and a Draghkar stumbled back from cover inside a nearby tent. A Seanchan stumbled out, eyes glassed over. The feeding had been interrupted halfway through; the poor fellow would never be right in the mind again.
Elayne turned her horse and saw some Seanchan troops charging into the area. Birgitte spoke to them, then turned to speak to Elayne. Elayne just shook her head, and Birgitte hesitated, then said something else to the Seanchan.
Elayne’s guards grouped around her again, watching the Seanchan with distrust. Elayne understood the sentiment perfectly.
Birgitte waved her forward, and they continued on in the direction they had been going. As they did, a damane and sul'dam approached and—surprisingly—curtsied to Elayne. Perhaps this Fortuona had given them orders to respect foreign monarchs.
Elayne hesitated, but what was she going to do? She could return to her own camp for Healing, but that would take time, and it was urgent that she speak with Mat. What was the point of spending days drawing up war plans if he was going to throw them aside? She trusted him—Light, she had to—but she’d still rather know what he intended to do.
She sighed, then held out her foot to the damane. The woman frowned, then glanced to the suldam. Both seemed to take it as an insult. Elayne had certainly intended it as one.
The suldam nodded, and her damane reached to touch Elayne’s leg just above her booted foot. Elayne’s sturdy boots looked like something a soldier would wear, not a queen, but she didn’t intend to ride into battle wearing slippers.
A small icy shock of Healing ran through her, and her hearing returned slowly. The low pitches returned first. Explosions. The distant boom of dragonfire, the rush of the river nearby. Several Seanchan talking. Midranges came next, then a flood of sound. Flaps rustling, screams of soldiers, calls of horns.
«Tell them to Heal the others», Elayne said to Birgitte.
Birgitte raised an eyebrow, probably wondering why Elayne wouldn’t just give the order herself. Well, these Seanchan paid very close attention to which people could speak to one another. Elayne would not give them the honor of speaking to them directly.
Birgitte relayed the order, and the suldam s lips drew to a line. She had had the sides of her hair shaved; she was highborn. Light willing, Elayne had managed to insult her again.
«I will do it», the woman said. «Though why any of you would want to be Healed by an animal is beyond me».
The Seanchan didn’t believe in letting damane Heal. At least, that was what they kept claiming—that hadn’t stopped them from reluctantly teaching the weaves to their captive women, now that they’d seen firsthand what an advantage it was in battle. From what Elayne had heard, the highborn rarely accepted that Healing, however.
«Let’s go», Elayne said, riding forward. She waved for her soldiers to stay behind and be Healed.
Birgitte eyed her, but did not object. The two of them hurried on, Birgitte mounting her horse and riding with Elayne toward the Seanchan command building. One story, perhaps the size of a small farmhouse, it sat in a large, high-walled cleft at the southern base of Dashar Knob—they’d moved it from the top, as Mat worried it would be too exposed. The top would continue to be used for overseeing the battle at short intervals.
Elayne allowed Birgitte to help her dismount—Light, but she was starting to feel unwieldy. It was as if she were a ship in dry dock. She took a moment to properly compose herself. Smooth features, emotions in control. She picked at her hair, straightened her dress, then walked into the building.
«What», she bellowed as she stepped in, «in the name of a bloody, twofingered Trolloc haystack-grunter do you think you are doing, Matrim Cauthon?»
Unsurprisingly, the curse made the man grin as he looked up from the map table. He wore his hat and coat over some very nice silken clothing that looked as if it had been tailored to match the hat’s color, and to include tooled leather at the cuffs and collar so as to not be so out of place. It smelled of some kind of compromise. Why was his hat banded with pink ribbon, though?
«Hello, Elayne», Mat said. «I figured that I could look forward to seeing you soon». He waved to a chair, bearing the red and gold of Andor, at the side of the room. It was extra cushioned, with a cup of warm tea steaming on the stand beside it.
Burn you, Matrim Cauthon, she thought. When did you grow so clever?
The Seanchan Empress sat on her own throne at the head of the room, Min at her side, draped in enough green silk to supply a shop in Caemlyn for two weeks. Elayne did not miss the fact that Fortuona’s throne was two fingers higher than Elayne’s. Bloody insufferable woman. «Mat. There are Draghkar in your camp».
«Burn it», he said. «Where?»
«I should say there were Draghkar in your camp», Elayne said. «We dealt with them. You need to tell your archers to keep better watch».
«I’ve told them», Mat complained. «Bloody ashes. Somebody check on the archers, I—"
«Great Prince!» a Seanchan messenger said, skidding through the doorway. He went to his knees, then prostrated himself with a smooth motion, never stopping his narrative. «Archer bank is down! Hit by Sharan outriders—they masked their attack by smoke from fireballs».
«Blood and bloody ashes!» Mat said. «Send sixteen damane and sul’dam down there now! Send to the northern archery units and bring squads forty-two and fifty down. And tell the scouts I’ll have them flogged if they let anything like this happen again».
«Great One», the scout said, saluting and scrambling to his feet, backing out of the room without looking up to avoid the risk of meeting Mat’s gaze.
All in all, Elayne was impressed by how easily the scout mixed his obeisance and his report. She was also sickened. No ruler should demand such of her subjects. A nation’s strength came from the strength of its people; break them, and you were breaking your own back.
«You knew I was coming», Elayne said after Mat gave a few more orders to his aides. «And you anticipated the anger your changing of plans would cause. Burn you, Matrim Cauthon, why did you feel the need to do this? I thought our battle plan was sound».
«It was», Mat said.
«Then why change it!»
«Elayne», Mat said, glancing at her. «Everyone put me in charge, against my will, because I cant have my mind changed by the Forsaken, right?»
«That was the general idea», Elayne said. «Though I’d guess it has less to do with that medallion of yours and more to do with you having too thick a head for Compulsion to penetrate».
«Bloody right», Mat said. «Anyway, if the Forsaken are using Compulsion on people in our camps, they probably have a few spies in our meetings».
«I suppose so».
«So they know our plan. Our great plan, that we spent so long preparing. They know it».
«Light!» Mat said, shaking his head. «The first and most important rule to winning a war is knowing what your enemy is going to do».
«I though the first rule was to know your terrain», Elayne said, folding her arms.
«That, too. Anyway, I realize that if the enemy knows what we're going to do, we have to change. Immediately. Bad battle plans are better than ones your enemy will anticipate».
«Why didn’t you guess this would happen?» Elayne demanded.
He looked at her, expressionless. One side of his mouth twitched up, then he pulled his hat down, shading his eyepatch.
«Light», Elayne said. «You knew. You spent this whole week planning with us, and you knew the entire time you’d throw it out with the dishwater».
«That’s giving me too much bloody credit», Mat said, looking back at his maps. «I think a part of me might have known all along, but I didn’t figure it out until just before the Sharans got here».
«So what is the new plan?»
He didn’t reply.
«You’re going to keep it in your head», Elayne said, her legs feeling weak. «You’re going to lead the battle, and none of us are going to know what in the Light you’re planning, are we? Otherwise, someone might overhear, and the news would travel to the Shadow».
«Creator shelter us», she whispered.
Mat scowled. «You know, that’s what Tuon said».
On the Heights, Uno held his ears as the nearby dragons belched fire at the Trollocs and Sharans west of them. The scent of something pungent burned in the air, and the blasts were so deafening, he couldn’t hear his own bloody cursing.
Down below, Lan Mandragoran’s riders were sweeping the sides of the assault force, keeping them contained so that the dragons could do more damage. The Sharans had Trollocs with them. They’d have channelers with them, too, lots of them. Farther upriver, another large army of Trollocs, the ones that had done so much damage to Dai Shan’s forces, had come down from the northeast, and would soon reach the Field of Merrilor.
The dragons stilled momentarily, the dragoners stuffing the maws again with whatever it was that made them work. Uno wasn’t going to step bloody close to them. Bad luck, those were. He was certain of it.
The leader of the dragoners was a wiry Cairhienin, and Uno had never had much use for those folk. They bloody scowled at him whenever he talked. This one sat haughtily upon his horse, and didn’t flinch when the dragons fired again.
The Amyrlin Seat had thrown her lot in with these men, and with the Seanchan, too. Uno wasn’t going to flaming complain. They needed every sword they could get, Cairhienin and bloody Seanchan included.
«You like our dragons, Captain?» the leader—Talmanes—called to Uno. Captain. Uno had bloody been promoted. He now led a force of newly recruited Tower pikemen and light cavalry.
He shouldn’t have been in charge of bloody anything; he had been happy as a regular soldier. But he had both training and battle experience, things that were in slim supply these days, or so Queen Elayne had said. So now he was a flaming officer, and leading cavalry and foot soldiers no less! Well, he knew his way around a pike, if he had to use one, though he usually preferred to fight on horseback.
His men were ready to defend the rim of the Heights should the enemy make it up the slope. So far, the archers situated in front of the dragoners had prevented that, but soon enough, the archers would have to pull back, and then it would be bloody regular soldiers doing the bloody fighting. Below, the Sharans pulled aside to let the main Trolloc forces storm up onto the slope.
The pikemen would advance, resisting the Trolloc attack, and pikes would work well here, as the Trollocs would be pushing uphill. Add in some flaming cavalry on their flanks, and some bloody archers shooting through those gateways made high up in the air, and they could probably sit here for days. Maybe weeks. When they were pushed off by superior numbers, they’d let go inch by inch, clinging to every speck of ground.
Uno figured there was no way he was going to survive this flaming battle. He was surprised he’d made it this long. Really, flaming Masema should have had his head, or the Seanchan near Falme, or a Trolloc here and there. He had tried to keep himself lean so he’d taste flaming terrible when they stuffed him in one of those flaming cookpots.
The dragons fired again, blasting enormous holes in the hordes of advancing Trollocs. Uno clapped his hands to his ears. «Warn a man when you do that, you flaming bits hanging from a goat’s—"
The next shot drowned him out.
The Trollocs below were blown into the air, the dragons pulverizing the ground beneath them. Those eggs exploded once they were shot from those cursed tubes. What kind of thing, other than the One Power, could make metal explode? Uno was certain he flaming didn’t want to know.
Talmanes stepped up to the rim of the Heights, inspecting the damage. He was joined by a Taraboner woman, the one who had invented these weapons. She looked over and saw Uno, then tossed him something. A small bit of wax. The Taraboner woman tapped her ear, then began speaking with Talmanes, gesturing. He might have command of the troops, but the woman had charge of the devices. She told the men where to position the dragons to fight.
Uno grumbled, but pocketed the wax. A fist of Trollocs had pushed through the blast, about a hundred strong, and he didn’t have time to bother with his ears. Uno grabbed a pike, leveling it and signaling for his men to do the same. They all wore the white of the Tower; Uno himself wore a white tabard.
He shouted orders, readying his pike by standing sideways near the top of the slope, the heel of its shaft raised. One hand gripped the shaft in front of him to guide and reinforce the thrust; the other hand, palm down, gripping it an arm’s length from the heel, would drive home the thrust as the Trollocs came into range. Several ranks of pikemen behind Uno stood ready to advance following the initial impact.
«Steady with the pikes, you flaming sheepherders!» Uno bellowed. «Steady!»
The Trollocs scrambled up the hill, crashing into the line of pikes. The beasts in the vanguard tried to knock the pikes aside with sweeps of their weapons, but Uno’s men stepped forward, skewering Trollocs, often two pikes per beast. Uno grunted, pulling his pike back into line to catch a Trolloc through the throat.
«First rank, back!» Uno yelled, pulling his pike backward to free it from the Trolloc he’d killed. His companions did the same, pulling their weapons free and leaving the corpses to roll down the slope.
The pikemen in the front rank fell back as those in the second rank came forward between them, ramming pikes into snarling Trollocs. Each rank rotated up front in succession until, minutes later, the entire group of Trollocs was dead. «Nice work», Uno said, raising his pike to the upright position, a trickle of rancid Trolloc blood winding down the shaft from the pike head. «Nice work».
He glanced toward the dragoners, who were feeding more eggs down those tubes. He hastily pulled the wax out of his pocket. Yes, they could hold this flaming position. They could hold it well. They just needed to—A cry from above stopped him from putting the wax in. Something thumped to the ground beside Uno. A lead ball with streamers dropped from high up. «Flaming Seanchan goat!» Uno yelled, looking up and shaking his fist. «That nearly took me in the crown, you lover of rotting worms!» The raken flew off, probably without its rider hearing a word of what Uno had shouted. Bloody Seanchan. He stooped down, removing the letter from the ball.
Retreat down the southwestern slope of the Heights.
«You’re bloody kicking me», Uno muttered. «Kicking me in the head while I’m sleeping. Allin, you bloody fool, can you read this?»
Allin, a dark-haired Andorman, wore a half-beard, shaved at the sides. Uno had always thought those looked flaming ridiculous.
«Retreat?» Allin said. «Now?»
«They’ve flaming lost their minds», Uno said.
Nearby, Talmanes and the Taraboner woman were receiving a messenger—and she was relaying the same news, by the looks of the Taraboner woman’s scowl. Retreat.
«Cauthon had better bloody know what he’s doing», Uno said, shaking his head. He still didn’t understand why anyone would put Cauthon in charge of anything. He remembered that boy, always snapping at people, eyes sunken in his head. Half-dead, half-spoiled. Uno shook his head.
But he’d do it. He’d sworn to the bloody White Tower. So he’d do it. «Pass the word», he said to Allin, stuffing the wax in his ears as Aludra, at the dragons, prepared a last volley before leaving. «We’re pulling back from the bloody Heights, and—"
A clap of sound hit Uno physically, vibrating through him, bloody near stopping his heart. His head hit the ground before he realized he’d fallen.
He blinked dust from his eyes, groaning and rolling over as another flash, then another, struck the Heights where the dragons were. Lightning! His soldiers were down on their knees, eyes shut, hands over ears. Talmanes was already up, however, shouting orders that Uno could barely hear, waving for his men to pull back.
A dozen fireballs, enormous and incredibly fast, rose from the Sharan army behind the Trollocs. Uno cursed and threw himself in a depression for cover, rolling into place moments before the entire hill shook like an earthquake. Clods of earth fell upon him, almost burying him.
Everything was coming at them. Everything. Every bloody Sharan channeler in the army seemed to focus on the Heights at once. His people had Aes Sedai, placed to protect the dragons, but from the look of things they would be hard-pressed to fight back against that\
The attack lasted for what seemed an eternity. When it subsided, Uno crawled free. Some of the flaming dragons were in pieces, and Aludra was working with the dragoners to salvage those and protect the rest. Talmanes, holding a bloody hand to his head, was shouting. Uno pried the wax from one of his ears—that had probably saved his hearing—and scrambled toward Talmanes.
«Where are your bloody Aes Sedai?» Uno shouted. «They’re bloody supposed to be stopping this!»
They had four dozen of them, ordered to cut weaves from the air or knock them aside to protect the dragons. They had claimed to be able to keep the Heights safe from anything but the coming of the Dark One. Now they were in shambles, the lightning strikes having fallen in their midst.
Trollocs were advancing up the hill again. Uno ordered Allin to form the pikewall and hold the creatures back, then ran toward the Aes Sedai with a few guards. He joined Warders, helping the women up, looking for their leader.
«Kwamesa Sedai?» Uno asked, finding the Aes Sedai in charge who was dusting herself off. The slender, dark-skinned Arafellin was muttering softly under her breath.
«What was that?» she demanded.
«Uh . . ». Uno said.
«That question wasn’t intended for you», she said, scanning the sky. «Einar! Why didn’t you spot those weaves?»
An Asha’man rushed over. «They came so quickly. They were upon us before I had time to give warning. And . . . Light! Whoever sent them was strong. Stronger than I’ve ever seen, stronger than—"
A line of light split the air behind them. It was enormous, as long as the keep of Fal Dara. It rotated upon itself, opening a vast gateway that split the ground at the center of the Heights. Standing on the other side was a man in brilliant armor made of silver, coinlike rings, his helmetless head bearing dark hair and a strong nose. He held before him a scepter of gold, the top shaped like an hourglass or a fine goblet.
Kwamesa reacted immediately, raising her hand and releasing a stream of fire. The man waved his hand, and the stream of fire deflected; then he pointed—almost indifferently—and something thin, hot and white connected him to Kwamesa. Her form glowed, and then she was gone, motes drifting toward the ground.
Uno jumped away, Einar joining him as he rolled behind the rubble of a broken dragon.
«I come for the Dragon Reborn!» the figure in silver announced. «You will send for him. Either that, or I will see that your screams bring him».
The ground beneath the dragons heaved into the air just a few feet from Uno. He threw his arm up in front of his face, bits of wood and soil flying across him.
«Light help us», Einar said. «I’m trying to stop him, but he’s in a circle. A full circle. Seventy-two. I’ve never seen such power before! I—"
A bar of white-hot light cut through the broken dragon, vaporizing it and striking Einar. The man was gone in an instant, and Uno scrambled back, cursing. He ducked away as the wreckage of dragons crashed to the ground around him.
Uno yelled for his men to fall back, whipping them into motion, delaying only long enough to grab a wounded man under the arm and help him away. He no longer questioned the order to retreat from the Heights. It was the finest bloody order any man had ever given!
Logain Ablar released the One Power. He stood beside the Mora, below the Heights, and felt the attacks up above.
Releasing the One Power today was one of the most difficult things he’d ever done. More difficult than the decision to name himself Dragon, more difficult than keeping himself from strangling Taim during their early days together in the Black Tower.
The Power drained out of him, as if his veins had been opened and he was bleeding out across the ground. He took a deep breath. Holding that much of the One Power—that of thirty-nine people in a circle—had been intoxicating. Letting go reminded him of his gentling, when the Power had been stolen from him. When every breath had encouraged him to find a knife and slit his own throat.
He suspected this was his madness: the terror that releasing the One Power would cause him to lose it forever.
«Logain?» Androl asked.
Logain turned his head toward the shorter man and his companions. They were loyal. Logain didn’t know why, but they were loyal. The whole lot of them. Fools. Faithful fools.
«Can you feel that?» Androl asked. The others—Canler, Emarin, Jonneth—were staring at the Heights. The Power being released there . . . it was amazing.
«Demandred», Emarin said. «It must be him».
Logain nodded slowly. Such power . . . Even one of the Forsaken could not be so strong. He must carry a sa’angreal of immense strength.
With such a tool, his thoughts whispered, no man or woman could ever take the Power from you again.
Taim had done it, during Logain’s imprisonment. Held him captive, shielded, unable to touch the One Power. The attempts to Turn him had been painful, crushing. But being without saidin . . .
Strength, he thought, watching that powerful channeling. The lust to be so strong almost drowned out his hatred of Taim.
«For now, we will not engage him», Logain said. «Split yourselves into the prearranged teams». Those would be one woman and five or six men in each team. The woman and two men could form a circle, while the other two offered support. «We will hunt the traitors of the Black Tower».
Pevara, standing at Androl’s side, raised an eyebrow. «You mean to go hunting Taim already? Didn’t Cauthon want you here to help move men?»
«I’ve made it clear to Cauthon», Logain said. «I will not spend this battle delivering soldiers around the field. As for orders, we have a directive from the Dragon Reborn himself».
Rand al’Thor had called them his «last» orders for them, a note delivered with a small angreal of a man holding a sword. The Shadow has stolen the seals of the Dark One’s prison. Find them. If you can, please find them.
During their captivity, Androl had heard what he thought was Taim bragging about the seals. It was their only lead. Logain scanned the distance. Their forces were retreating from the Heights. Logain could not see the array of dragons from where he stood, but the thick lines of smoke did not speak well for their safety.
He still gives orders, Logain thought. Am I inclined to obey them any longer?
For the chance at revenge on Taim? Yes, he would follow Rand al’Thor’s orders. Once he wouldn’t have questioned doing so nearly as much. That had been before his captivity and torture.
«Go», Logain said to his Asha’man. «You have read what the Lord Dragon wrote. We must recover the seals at all costs. Nothing is more important than this. We must hope that Taim indeed has them. Watch for signs of men channeling, hunt them, kill them».
It didn’t matter if those men channeling were Sharans. The Asha’man would help this battle by removing enemy channelers anyway. They had discussed the tactic earlier. When they sensed channeling from men, they could use gateway jumps to pinpoint where they were, then try to surprise them and attack.
«If you see one of Taim’s men», Logain said, «try to capture him so we can pry out of him where Taim has set up his base». He paused. «If we’re lucky, the M’Hael himself will be here. Be wary that he might be carrying the seals; it would not do to destroy them in our attack. If you see him, return and bring me word of his location».
Logain’s teams moved off. They left him with Gabrelle, Arel Malevin and Karldin Manfor. It was well that at least some of his more skilled men had been absent from the Tower during Taim’s betrayal.
Gabrelle looked at Logain with level eyes. «What of Toveine?» she asked.
«We will kill her if we find her».
«It is that simple for you?»
«Would you rather live, Gabrelle, if you were she? Live and serve him?»
She closed her mouth, lips drawn tight. She still feared him; he could sense that. Good.
Was this what you wished for, his mind whispered, when you raised the banner of the Dragon? When you sought to save mankind? Did you do it to be feared? Hated?
He ignored that voice. The only times he had accomplished anything in life had come when he’d been feared. It was the only edge he’d had against Siuan and Leane. The primal Logain, that something deep inside that drove him to keep living, needed people to fear him.
«Can you sense her?» Gabrelle asked.
«I released the bond».
Her envy was sharp and immediate. It shocked him. He had thought that she was beginning to enjoy, or at least suffer, their place together.
But, of course, it was all an act so that she could try to manipulate him. That was the Aes Sedai way. Yes, he had felt lust from her before, perhaps even affection. He wasn’t certain he could trust what he thought he’d felt from her. It seemed that for all he had tried to be strong and free, his strings had been pulled since he’d been a youngling.
Demandred’s channeling radiated strength. Such power.
A loud boom sounded from the Heights. Logain laughed, throwing his head back. Bodies, like leaves, were thrown off the Heights and into the air.
«Link to me!» he commanded those who remained with him. «Join me in a circle, and let us hunt the M’Hael and his men as well. Light send that I can find him—my table deserves only the finest of meat, the head stag himself!»
And after that . . . Who knew? He had always wanted to test himself against one of the Forsaken. Logain seized the Source again, holding to the thrashings of saidin as if it were a serpent writhing and trying to bite him. He used his angreal to draw more, and then the Power from the others streamed into him. He laughed louder.
Gawyn felt so tired. This week of preparation would normally have rested him, but he felt today as if he’d hiked for tens of leagues.
There was no helping it. He forced his attention toward the gateway in the table in front of him, overlooking the battlefield. «You’re certain they cannot see this?» he asked Yukiri.
«I’m certain», she replied. «It has been tested exhaustively».
She was becoming skilled with these viewing gateways. She had created this one on top of a table brought through to their camp from Tar Valon. He was looking down at the battleground as he would a map.
«If you have truly made the other side invisible», Egwene said speculatively, «this might be useful indeed . . ».
«It would be easier to spot from up close», Yukiri admitted. «This one is so high in the sky that nobody below will be able to make it out».
Gawyn didn’t like Egwene standing there, head and shoulders hanging out over the battlefield. He held his tongue; the gateway was as safe as they could make it. He couldn’t protect her from everything.
«Light», Bryne said softly, «they’re cutting us to pieces».
Gawyn glanced at him. The man rebuffed suggestions—even strong ones—that he return to his estates. He insisted that he was still capable of holding a sword; he just couldn’t be allowed to lead. Besides, he argued, any of them could be under Compulsion. In a way, knowing that he was gave them an advantage. At least him they could watch.
And Siuan did, holding to his arm protectively. The only others in the tent were Silviana and Doesine.
The battle was not going well. Cauthon had lost the Heights already—the original plan had been to hold there as long as possible—and the dragons were in pieces. Demandred's attack with the One Power had come far more powerfully than any of them had anticipated. And the other large Trolloc army had arrived from the northeast and were pressing Cauthon’s defenders upriver.
«What is he planning?» Egwene said, tapping the side of the table. Distant yells drifted through the opening. «If this keeps up, our armies are going to be surrounded».
«He’s trying to bait the trap», Bryne said.
«What kind of trap?»
«It is a guess», Bryne said, «and Light knows, my own assessment cannot be trusted as it once was. It looks like Cauthon is planning to heap everything into one battle, no delaying, no trying to wear the Trollocs down. The way this is going, it will be decided in days. Maybe hours».
«That sounds exactly like something Mat would do», Egwene said, resigned.
«The strength of those weaves», Lelaine said, «that power . . ».
«Demandred is in a circle», Egwene said. «Eyewitnesses say a full circle. Something that hasn’t been seen since the Age of Legends. And he has a sa’angreal. Some of the soldiers saw it—a scepter».
Gawyn watched the fighting far below, his hand on his sword. He could hear men scream as Demandred aimed wave after wave of fire at them.
The Forsaken’s voice boomed, suddenly, reaching high into the air. «Where are you, Lews Therin! You were seen at each of the other battlefields in disguise. Are you here, too? Fight me!»
Gawyn’s hand tightened on his sword. Soldiers flooded down the southwestern side of the Heights, to cross the ford. A few small groups held on the slopes, and dragoners there—tiny as insects to Gawyn—led the remaining dragons to safety, pulled by mules.
Demandred flung destruction at the fleeing troops. He was an army unto himself, hurling bodies into the air, exploding horses, burning and destroying. Around him, his Trollocs seized the high ground. Their brutish cheers floated through the gateway.
«We’re going to have to deal with him, Mother», Silviana said. «Soon».
«He’s trying to draw us out», Egwene said. «He has that sa’angreal. We could build a circle of seventy-two ourselves, but what then? Fall into his trap? Be slaughtered?»
«What choice have we, Mother?» Lelaine asked. «Light. He’s killing thousands».
Killing thousands. And here they stood.
Gawyn stepped back.
Nobody seemed to notice his withdrawal other than Yukiri, who eagerly stepped up and took his place beside Egwene. Gawyn slipped out of the tent, and when the tent guards glanced at him, said he needed some fresh air. Egwene would approve. She sensed how tired he was lately; she’d mentioned it to him several times. His eyelids felt as if they had weights of iron pulling them down. Gawyn looked toward the blackened sky He could hear the distant booms. How long would he just stand around and do nothing while men died?
You promised, he thought to himself. You said you were willing to stand in her shadow.
That didn’t mean he had to stop doing important work, did it? He fished in his pouch and took out a ring of the Bloodknives. He put it on, and immediately his strength returned, his exhaustion fleeing.
He hesitated, then took out the other rings and slipped them on as well.
On the south bank of the River Mora, in front of the ruins northeast of Dashar Knob, Tam al’Thor summoned the void as Kimtin had taught him all of those years ago. Tam imagined the single flame, and poured his emotions into it. He grew calm, then the calmness left him, leaving nothing. Like a newly painted wall, beautiful and white, that had just been washed. Everything melted away.
Tam was the void. He drew his bow, the good black yew bending, arrow to his cheek. He took aim, but this was only a formality. When he was this strongly within the void, the arrow would do exactly as he commanded. He didn’t know this, any more than the sun knew that it would rise or the branches knew that their leaves would fall. These were not things known\ they were things that were.
He released, bowstring snapping, arrow drilling through the air. Another followed, then another. He had five in the air at once, each one aimed in anticipation of the shifting winds.
The first five Trollocs fell as they tried to make their way across one of several of the raft bridges they had managed to place on the river here. Trollocs hated water; even shallow water daunted them. Whatever Mat had done to protect the river upstream, it was working for now, and the river was still flowing. The Shadow would try to stop it. Was trying to stop it. Occasionally a Trolloc or mule carcass floated past from far upriver.
Tam continued to launch arrows, Abell and the other Two Rivers men joining him. Sometimes they aimed into the mass, not picking out an individual Trolloc—though that was rare. A regular soldier might shoot unsighted and assume his arrow would find flesh, but not a good Two Rivers archer. Arrows were cheap to soldiers, but not to woodsmen.
Trollocs fell in waves. Beside Tam and the Two Rivers men, crossbowmen cranked their weapons and loosed wave after wave into the Shadowspawn. Fades behind whipped at the Trollocs, trying to urge them across the river—with little success.
Tam’s arrow hit a Fade right where its eyes should have been. Nearby, a large man named Bayrd whistled in appreciation, leaning on his axe and watching the arrows fall. He was part of the group of soldiers set just behind the archers to move in and protect them, once the Trollocs were forced to cross.
Bayrd was one of the mercenary leaders who had drifted into the army, and though he was an Andoran, neither he nor the hundred or so men he led would speak of where they’d come from. «I need to get one of those bows», Bayrd said to his companions. «Burn me, do you see that?»
Nearby, Abell and Azi smiled, continuing to shoot. Tam did not smile. There was no humor within the void, though outside of the void, a thought did flutter. Tam knew why Abell and Azi had smiled. Having a Two Rivers bow did not make one into a Two Rivers archer.
«I think», Galad Damodred said from horseback nearby, «that you’d likely do more harm to yourself than to the enemy, should you try to use one of those. Al’Thor, how long?»
Tam released another arrow. «Five more», he said, reaching for the next arrow in his side quiver. He raised it, shot it, then continued. Two, three, four, five.
Five more Trollocs dead. In all, he’d loosed over thirty arrows. He’d missed once, but only because Abell had killed the Trolloc that Tam had aimed for.
«Archers, halt!» Tam yelled.
The Two Rivers men pulled back, Tam releasing the void, as a straggling group of Trollocs stumbled onto the riverbank. Tam still led Perrin's troops, to an extent. Whitecloaks, Ghealdanin and the Wolf Guard all looked to Tam for final say, but each had their own leaders as well. He personally commanded the archers.
Perrin, youd better heal up strong. When Haral had found the boy lying in the grass on the outskirts of camp the day before, bloodied and near death . . . Light, that had given them all a fright.
Perrin was safely in Mayene, where he would likely spend the rest of the Last Battle. A man didn’t quickly recover from the type of wound the lad had taken, even with Aes Sedai Healing. It would probably drive Perrin near mad to miss the fighting, but sometimes that happened. It was part of being a soldier.
Tam and the archers retreated back to the ruins to get a better vantage to watch the battle, and he organized his archers in case they were needed while runners brought them more arrows. Mat had positioned all of Perrin’s troops alongside the Dragonsworn, led by Tinna, a statuesque woman. Tam had no idea where she’d come from or why she was in command—she had the bearing of a lady, the build of an Aiel and the coloring of a Saldaean. The others seemed to listen to her. Dragonsworn made little sense to Tam, so he stayed out of their way.
Tam’s army had been told to hold. Mat had expected the Sharan and Trolloc attack from the west to be the strongest; therefore Tam was surprised to see Mat sending more reinforcements upriver from the ford. The Whitecloaks were a recent arrival, and their clothing rippled as they charged along the riverbank, cutting through the Trollocs stumbling off their unstable bridges.
Arrows started to fly from the Trollocs on the other bank toward Galad and his men. The clanks and pings of arrowheads on the Whitecloak armor and shields sounded like hail on a roof. Tam ordered Arganda to bring in their foot soldiers, including Bayrd and the mercenaries.
They didn’t have enough pikes, so Arganda’s men held halberds and spears. Men began to scream and die, Trollocs howling. Near Tam’s rearward position, Alliandre came riding up, surrounded by well-armed foot soldiers. Tam raised the bow to her, and she nodded, then settled back to watch. She had wanted to be here for the battle. Tam couldn’t blame her, nor could he blame her for ordering her soldiers to carry her off at the first sign that this battle was turning against them.
«Tam! Tam!» Dannil came riding up, and Tam waved for Abell to take command of the archers. He strode over to Dannil, meeting the lad in the shade of the ruins.
Inside those broken walls, Tam’s reserves watched the battle with nervousness. Most of them were archers pulled from among the mercenaries and Dragonsworn. Many of that latter group had never been in battle before. Well, neither had most of the Two Rivers men until a few months back. They’d learn quickly. Hitting a Trolloc with an arrow wasn’t so different from hitting a deer.
Though, if you missed the deer, it didn’t gut you with a sword a few seconds later.
«What is it, Dannil?» Tam asked. «Word from Mat?»
«He’s sending you infantry banners from the Legion of the Dragon», Dannil said. «He says to hold the river here, no matter what».
«What is that boy up to?» Tam said, looking toward the Heights. The Legion of the Dragon had good infantry, well-trained crossbowmen who would be useful here. But what was happening on the Heights?
The flashes of light reflected off columns of thick black smoke, rising from the Heights toward the clouds above. The fighting was in earnest up there.
«I don’t know, Tam», Dannil said. «Mat . . . he’s changed. I hardly think I know him any longer. He was always a bit of a scoundrel, but now . . . Light, Tam. He’s like someone from one of the stories».
Tam grunted. «We’ve all changed. Mat would probably say similar things about you».
Dannil laughed. «Oh, I doubt that, Tam. Though I do wonder, sometimes, what would have happened if I’d gone with the three of them. I mean, Moiraine Sedai was looking for boys the right age, and I guess I was just a little too old . . ».
He seemed wistful. Dannil could say, and think, what he wanted—but Tam doubted he would have liked to endure the things that had forced Mat, Perrin and Rand to become the people they now were. «Take command of this lot», Tam said, nodding to the reserve archers. «I’ll see that Arganda and Galad know we’re being reinforced».
Thick Trolloc arrows sprayed around Pevara as she desperately wove Air. Her gust blew away the arrows like stones swept off the board by a furious player. Sweating, she clung to saidar and wove a stronger shield of Air, moving it into the sky to defend against further volleys.
«It’s safe!» she yelled. «Go!»
A group of soldiers dashed out from underneath an overhang on the steep riverside slope of the Heights. More thick black shafts fell from above. They hit her shield; it slowed them to the point that once they passed through, they dropped as idly as feathers.
The soldiers she’d helped dashed for the rallying point at Hawal Ford. Others decided to stand and fight as Trolloc bands poured down the slopes.
Most of the Shadowspawn stayed atop the Heights to secure the position, and finish pushing humans off.
Where? Androl’s furious thought came to her, a soft whisper inside her mind.
Here, she sent him. Not completely a thought, more an image, a sense of place.
A gateway split beside her, and he dashed through, Emarin on his heels. Both men carried swords, but Emarin spun and thrust his hand backward, a streak of fire shooting through the open gateway. Screaming sounded from the other side. Human screaming.
«You went all the way to the Sharan army?» Pevara demanded. «Logain wanted us to stay together!»
«So you care about what he wants, now?» Androl asked, grinning.
You're insufferable, she thought. Around them, arrows clattered to the ground. The Trollocs above hooted in anger.
«Nice weave», Androl said.
«Thank you». She glanced at the sword.
«I’m a Warder now». He shrugged. «Might as well look like one, eh?»
He could cut a Trolloc in half with a gateway at three hundred paces, and summon fire from inside Dragonmount itself, and he still wanted to carry a sword. It was, she decided, a male thing.
I heard that, Androl sent her. «Emarin, to me. Pevara Sedai, if you’d graciously agree to accompany us . . ».
She sniffed, but joined the other two as they moved along the southwestern base of the Heights, passing some wounded stumbling toward the rallying point. Androl glanced at them, then wove a gateway back to their camp. The flagging men cried out in surprise and thanks, and shambled through it to safety.
Androl had grown . . . more confident since they had left the Black Tower. When they’d first met, he’d displayed hesitation about whatever he did. A kind of nervous humility. No more.
«Androl . . " Emarin said, pointing up the slope with his sword.
«I see them», Androl said. Above, Trollocs poured over the top of the Heights like pitch boiling over the side of a pot. Behind, Androl’s gateway closed, that group of soldiers safe. Others cried out as they saw it close.
You can’t save them all, Pevara thought sternly to Androl, sensing his spike of anguish. Stay focused on the task at hand.
The three of them moved through the soldiers, angling toward several channelers they could feel ahead. Jonneth, Canler and Theodrin were there, throwing fire at groups of Trollocs. Their position was being overrun.
«Jonneth, Canler, to me», Androl said, charging past them and opening a gateway in front of him. Pevara and Emarin ducked through after him, finding themselves on the top of the Heights, a few hundred paces away.
Jonneth and the others followed, joining them as the group dashed past a group of startled Trollocs.
«Channeling!» Pevara yelled. Light, but it was hard to run in these skirts. Androl did know that, didn’t he?
Androl opened another gateway for them as a few bursts of flame came from the direction of some Sharans atop the Heights. Pevara ran through, beginning to pant. They appeared on the other side of the Sharans, who were firing at where Pevara had been moments before.
Pevara opened her senses, trying to spot—or feel—their quarry. The Sharans turned on them and pointed, but then cried out as Androl brought an avalanche of snow down on them from a gateway to the side. He had tried making those Deathgates that the other Asha’man used, but the weave was apparently just different enough that he had trouble. Instead, he stuck to what he was good at doing.
Groups of Tower Guards still fought atop the Heights, holding ground against orders. Pieces of the dragons, including the large bronze firing tubes, lay smoldering nearby amid burned corpses. Thousands upon thousands of Trollocs howled, most at the edges of the Heights, loosing arrows on those below. Their joyous roars set Pevara on edge, and she wove Earth and sent the flows toward the ground near a group of them. A large chunk of ground trembled, then split off, dumping two dozen Trollocs over the edge.
«We’re drawing attention again!» Emarin said, setting ablaze a Myrddraal that had been slinking toward them. It thrashed in the flames, screeching in an inhuman voice, refusing to die. Sweating, Pevara lent her Fire to Emarin’s, burning the creature until it was nothing more than bones.
«Well, that’s not all bad!» Androl said. «If we draw enough attention, sooner or later, one of the Black Ajah or one of Taim’s men will decide to confront us».
Jonneth cursed. «That’s a little like jumping into an anthill and waiting to be bitten!»
«Actually, it’s a lot like that», Androl said. «Keep watch. I’ll deal with the Trollocs!»
That’s quite a strong assertion, Pevara sent to him.
His answer was warm, like heat off a cooking plate. It sounded heroic.
I assume you could use some added strength?
Yes, please, he sent.
She iniated the link. He drew in her strength, taking control of their circle. As always, linking with him was an overwhelming experience. She felt her own emotions bounce back against him and to her again, and that made her blush. Did he sense how she was starting to regard him?
Foolish as a girl in knee-length skirts, she thought at herself—careful to shield her thoughts from him—barely old enough to know the difference between boys and girls. And in the middle of a war, too.
She found it hard to steel her emotions—as an Aes Sedai should—while linked with Androl. Their selves mixed, like swirling paints poured in the same bowl. She fought against it, determined to maintain her own identity. This was vital when linking, and she had been taught it time and time again.
Androl flung his hand forward at a group of Trollocs that had begun loosing arrows at him. The gateway went up, consuming the arrows. She glanced about, and found them falling on another group of Trollocs.
Gateways opened in the ground, dropping Trollocs through, making them appear hundreds of feet in the air. A tiny gateway split the head off a Myrddraal at the neck, leaving it to thrash about, pumping inky blood on the soil. Androl’s team stood near the western section of the Heights, where the dragons had once been positioned. There were Shadowspawn and Sharans on all sides.
Androl, channeling! She could feel it, rising above them on the Heights. Something powerful.
Taim! Androl’s immediate flare of anger felt as if it would burn her away. In it was the loss of friends, and fury at betrayal by one who should have protected them.
Careful, she sent. We don’t know it's him.
The one attacking them was in a circle with men and women, otherwise Pevara would not have been able to feel him. Of course, she could only see the weaves of saidar. A thick column of air struck at them, fully a pace wide, the heat of it enough to redden the rocky ground beneath.
Androl put a gateway up in time, barely, catching the column of fire and directing it back the way it had come. Twin streams burned Trolloc corpses and caused weeds and patches of grass to burst alight.
Pevara didn’t see what happened next. Androl’s gateway vanished, as if ripped from him, and an explosion of lightning struck right next to them. Pevara hit the ground in a heap, Androl slamming into her.
In that moment, she let go of herself.
She did it by accident because of the shock of impact. In most cases, the link would have slipped away, but Androl had a powerful grip. The dam holding back Pevara’s self from his own broke, and they mixed. It was like stepping through a mirror, then looking back on herself.
She forcibly pulled herself out again, but with an awareness she couldn’t describe. We need to get out of here, she thought, still linked with Androl. The others all seemed alive, but that would not last long if their enemy brought more lightning. Pevara began the complex weave for a gateway by instinct, though it wouldn’t do anything. Androl was leading their circle, so only he—The gateway snapped open. Pevara gaped. She’d done that, not him. This was among the most complex, most difficult and most power-intensive weaves she knew, but she’d done it as easily as waving her hand. While in a circle someone else was leading.
Theodrin stumbled through first. The lithe Domani woman tugged a stumbling Jonneth after her through the gateway. Emarin followed, limping, one arm hanging uselessly at his side.
Androl regarded the gateway, stunned. «I thought you aren’t supposed to be able to channel if someone else is leading a circle you are in».
«You aren’t», she said. «I did it by accident».
«Through the gateway, you knothead», Pevara said, shoving him toward it. She followed, then collapsed on the other side.
«Damodred, I need you to stay where you are», Mat said. He did not look up, but he heard Galad's horse snort through the open gateway.
«One is led to question your sanity, Cauthon», Galad replied.
Mat finally looked up from his maps. He was not sure he would ever grow accustomed to these gateways. He stood in their command building, the one Tuon had erected in the cleft at the foot of Dashar Knob, and there was a gateway in his wall. Outside it Galad sat his horse wearing the gold and white of the Children of the Light. He was still positioned near the ruins, where a Trolloc army was trying to push its way across the Mora.
Galad Damodred was a man who could have used a few stiff drinks in him. He could have been a statue, with that pretty face and unchanging expression. No, statues had more life.
«You’ll do as you’re told», Mat said, looking back to his maps. «You are to hold the river up there and do as Tam tells you. I don’t care if you think your place isn’t important enough».
«Very well», Galad said, voice as cold as a corpse in the snow. He turned his horse away, and Mika the damane closed the gateway.
«It’s a bloodbath out there, Mat», Elayne said. Light, her voice was colder than Galad’s!
«You all put me in charge. Let me do my job».
«We made you commander of the armies», Elayne said. «You are not in charge».
Trust an Aes Sedai to argue over every little word. It. . . . He looked up, frowning. Min had just said something softly to Tuon. «What is it?» he asked.
«I saw his body alone, on a field», Min said, «as if dead».
«Matrim», Tuon said. «I am . . . concerned».
«For once we agree», Elayne said from her throne on the other side of the room. «Mat, their general is outmatching you».
«It’s not so bloody simple», Mat said, fingers on the maps. «It’s never that bloody simple».
The man leading the Shadow was good. Very good. It’s Demandred, Mat thought. I’m fighting one of the bloody Forsaken.
Together, Mat and Demandred were composing a grand painting. Each responded to the other’s moves with subtle care. Mat was trying to use just a little too much red in one of his paints. He wanted to paint the wrong picture, but still a reasonable one.
It was hard. He had to be capable enough to keep Demandred back, but weak enough to invite aggression. A feint, ever so subtle. It was dangerous, possibly disastrous. He had to walk on a razor edge. There was no way to avoid cutting his feet. The question was not whether he would be bloodied, but whether he would reach the other side or not.
«Move in the Ogier», Mat said softly, fingers on the map. «I want them to reinforce the men at the ford». The Aiel fought there, guarding the way as the White Tower’s men and the members of the Band of the Red Hand retreated off the Heights per his order.
The command was relayed to the Ogier. Stay safe, Loial, Mat thought, making a notation on the map where he had sent the Ogier. «Alert Lan, he’s still on the western side of the Heights. I want him to swing around the back of the Heights, now that most of the Shadow’s forces are on top, and back toward the Mora, behind the other Trolloc army trying to cross near the ruins. He’s not to engage them; just stay out of sight and hold his position».
The messengers ran to do his bidding, and he made another notation. One of the so’jhin brought him some kaf the cute one with the freckles. He was too absorbed by the battle to smile at her.
Sipping his kaf Mat had the damane make him a gateway on the table-top so he could see the battlefield itself. He leaned out over it, but kept one hand on the rim of the table. Only a bloody fool would let someone shove him through a hole two hundred feet over the ground.
He set down his kaf on a side table and took out his looking glass. The Trollocs were moving down the Heights toward the bogs. Yes, Demandred was good. The hulking beasts he had sent toward the bogs were slow but thick and powerful, like a rockslide. Also, a group of mounted Sharans were about to ride down from the Heights. Light cavalry. They would hit Mats troops holding Hawal Ford, and keep them from attacking the Trolloc left flank.
A battle was a sword fight on a grand scale. For every move, there was a counter—often three or four. You responded by moving a squad here, a squad there, trying to counter what your enemy did while putting pressure on him in places where he was thin. Back and forth, back and forth. Mat was outnumbered, but he could use that.
«Relay the following to Talmanes», Mat said, eye still to the looking glass. " ‘Remember when you bet me I couldn’t throw a coin into a cup from across the entire inn?’ "
«Yes, Great One», the Seanchan messenger said.
Mat had responded to the bet by saying he would try it once he was drunker—otherwise, there would have been no sport to it. Then Mat had pretended to get drunk, and provoked Talmanes to up the bet from silver to gold.
Talmanes had figured him out and insisted he really drink. I still owe him a few marks for that, don’t I? Mat thought absently.
He pointed the looking glass to the northern part of the Heights. A group of Sharan heavy cavalry had gathered to move down the slope; he could make out their long, steel-tipped lances.
They were preparing to charge down the slope to intercept Lan’s men as they swung around the northern side of the Heights. But the order hadn’t even reached Lan yet.
It confirmed Mat’s suspicions: Demandred not only had spies in the camp, he had one in or near the command tent. Someone who could send messages as soon as Mat gave orders. That probably meant a channeler, here, inside the tent and masking their ability.
Bloody ashes, Mat thought. As if this weren’t tough enough.
The messenger returned from Talmanes. «Great One», he said, prostrating himself nose to the floor, «your man says that his forces are completely ruined. He wishes to follow your order, but says that the dragons will not be available for the rest of this day. It will take weeks to repair them. They are . . . I’m sorry, Great One, but these were his exact words. They are worse off than a barmaid in Sabinel. I do not know what it means».
«Barmaids there work for tips», Mat said with a grunt, «but people in Sabinel don’t tip».
That was, of course, a lie. Sabinel was a town where Mat had tried to make Talmanes help him win over a pair of barmaids. Talmanes had suggested that Mat feign a war wound to get sympathy.
Good man. The dragons could still fight, but they probably looked busted up something good. They had an advantage there; nobody knew how they worked except Mat and Aludra. Bloody ashes, and even he worried that each time one went off it would somehow blow up the wrong way.
Five or six dragons were completely functional; Mat had pulled them through a gateway to safety. Aludra had those set up south of the ford, aimed toward the Heights. Mat would use them, but leave the spy with the impression that the bulk of them had been destroyed. Talmanes could instead patch them up; then Mat could use them again.
But the moment I do, he thought, Demandred will bring everything he has down on them. It had to be just the right moment. Bloody ashes, lately his life had been completely about trying to find the right moments. He was running out of those kinds of moments. For now, he ordered Aludra to use the half-dozen functional dragons to pound Trollocs across the river who were coming down the southwestern slope of the Heights.
She was far enough away from the Heights, and she would keep moving, so Demandred would have a difficult time pinpointing her and bringing the dragons down. The smoke they made would obscure her position quickly.
«Mat», Elayne said from her throne on the side of the room. He noticed, with amusement, that in shifting it about for «comfort» she had somehow gotten Birgitte to wedge it up a few inches, so she now sat exactly level with Tuon. Maybe an inch higher. «Please. Can you at least explain some of what you’re doing?»
Not without letting that spy hear, too, he thought, glancing about the room. Who was it? One of the three pairs of damane and j'uI'darrii Could a damane be a Darkfriend without her suldam knowing? What about the opposite? That noblewoman with the white streak in her hair looked suspicious.
Or was it one of the many generals? Galgan? Tylee? Banner-General Gerisch? She stood at the side of the room, glaring at him. Honestly. Women. She did have a nice backside, but Mat had only mentioned it to be friendly. He was a married man.
The fact was, there were so many people moving about, Mat figured he could have spread millet on the floor and had flour by the end of the day. Supposedly, they were all absolutely trustworthy and incapable of betraying the Empress, might she live forever. Which she would not, if spies kept slipping in.
«Mat?» Elayne said. «Someone else needs to know what you are planning. If you fall, we have to continue your plan».
Well, that was a good enough argument. He’d considered it himself. Assured that his current orders were being followed, he stepped over to Elayne. He glanced about the room, then smiled to the others innocently. They need not know he was suspicious of them.
«Why are you leering at everyone?» Elayne asked softly.
«I'm not bloody leering», Mat said. «Outside. I want to walk and take in some fresh air».
«Knotai?» Tuon asked, standing.
He did not look toward her—those eyes could drill through solid steel. Instead, he casually made his way out of the command building. Elayne and Birgitte followed a few moments later.
«What is this?» Elayne asked softly.
«There are many ears in there», Mat said.
«You suspect a spy inside of the command—"
«Wait», Mat said, taking her arm, pulling her away. He nodded agreeably to some Deathwatch Guards. They grunted in reply. For Deathwatch Guards, that was downright talkative.
«You can speak freely», Elayne said. «I just wove us a ward against eavesdropping».
«Thanks», Mat said. «I want you away from the command post. I’ll tell you what I’m doing. If something goes wrong, you’ll have to pick another general, all right?»
«Mat», Elayne said, «if you think there’s a spy—"
«I know there’s a spy», Mat said, «and so I’m going to use the fellow. It’s going to work. Trust me».
«Yes, and you’re so confident that you’ve already made a backup plan in case you fail».
He ignored that, nodding to Birgitte. She looked around them idly, watching for anyone who tried to draw too close.
«How good are you at cards, Elayne?» Mat asked.
«At . . . Mat, this isn’t the time for gambling».
«It’s the exact time for gambling. Elayne, do you see how badly we’re outnumbered? Do you feel the ground when Demandred attacks? We’re lucky he didn’t decide to Travel directly to the command post here and attack us—I suspect he’s afraid that Rand is hiding here somewhere, and he’ll get ambushed. But blood and bloody ashes, he’s strong. Without a gamble, we’re dead. Finished. Buried».
She grew silent.
«Here’s the thing about cards», Mat said, holding up a finger. «Cards arent like dice. In dice, you want to win as many throws as possible. Lots of throws, lots of wins. It’s random, see? But not cards. In cards, you need to make the other fellows start betting. Betting well. You do that by letting them win a little. Or a lot.
«That’s not so hard here, since we’re outnumbered and overwhelmed. The only way to win is to bet everything on the right hand. In cards, you can lose ninety-nine times but come out ahead if you win that right hand. So long as the enemy starts gambling recklessly. So long as you can ride the losses».
«And that’s what you’re doing?» Elayne asked. «You’re faking that were losing?»
«Bloody ashes, no», Mat said. «I can’t fake that. He’d see through it. I am losing, but I’m also watching. Holding back for that last bet, the one that could win it all».
«So when do we move?»
«When the right cards come along», Mat said. He raised his hand, stilling her objection. «I’ll know, Elayne. I just will bloody know. That’s all I can say».
She folded her arms above her swollen belly. Light, it seemed bigger every day. «Fine. What are your plans for Andor’s forces?»
«I already have Tam and his men committed along the river at the ruins», Mat said. «As for the rest of your armies, I’d like you to go help at the ford. Demandred is probably counting on those Trollocs north of here to cross the river and herd our defenders downriver on the Shienaran side while the rest of the Trollocs and the Sharans come off the Heights to push us back across the ford and upriver.
«They’ll try to squeeze us tight, envelop us, and that will be that. Only, Demandred sent a force up the Mora to stop the river from flowing, and it’s going to succeed very soon. We’ll see if there’s a way to make that work for us. But once the river’s gone, we’ll need a solid defense in place to stop the Trollocs when they try to surge over the riverbed. That’s what your forces are for».
«We’ll go», Elayne said.
«We?» Birgitte barked.
«I’m riding with my troops», Elayne said, walking toward the horselines.
«Its increasingly obvious that I wont be able to do anything here, and Mat wants me away from the command position. I’ll bloody go, then».
«Into battle?» Birgitte said.
«Were already in battle, Birgitte», Elayne said. «The Sharan channelers could have ten thousand men assaulting Dashar Knob, and this cleft, in minutes. Come. I promise I’ll let you put so many Guards around me that I won’t be able to sneeze without spraying a dozen of them».
Birgitte sighed, and Mat gave her a consoling look. She nodded farewell to him, then walked off with Elayne.
All right, Mat thought, turning back toward the command building. Elayne was doing what she had to, and Talmanes had caught his signal. Now the real challenge.
Could he coax Tuon into doing what he wanted?
Galad led the cavalry of the Children of the Light in a sweeping attack along the Mora, near the ruins. The Trollocs had constructed more raft bridges here, and bodies floated as thick as autumn leaves on a pond. The archers had done their work well.
Those Trollocs that finally crossed now had the Children to contend with. Galad leaned in low, lance held firmly, as he split the neck of a hulking, bear-faced Trolloc; he continued forward, lance tip streaming blood, the Trolloc falling to its knees behind him.
He guided his mount Sidama into the mass of Trollocs, knocking them down or causing them to leap out of the way. The power of a cavalry charge was in numbers, and those Galad forced aside could be trampled by the horses following him.
After his charge came a volley from Tam’s men, who launched arrows into the main body of Trollocs as they stumbled onto the banks of the river. Those behind pushed over them, trampling the wounded.
Golever and several other Children joined Galad as their charge—which swept lengthwise across the front rank of Trollocs—ran out of enemies. He and his men reared and turned, lances up, galloping back to locate small groups of men separated and fighting alone.
The battlefield here was enormous. Galad spent the better part of an hour hunting out such groups, rescuing them and ordering them to the ruins so that Tam or one of his captains could form them into new banners. Slowly, as their numbers dwindled, original formations became mixed with one another. Mercenaries were not the only ones who now rode with the Children. Galad had Ghealdanin, Winged Guardsmen and a couple of Warders under his command. Kline and Alix. Both had lost their Aes Sedai. Galad didn’t expect those two to last long, but they were fighting with terrible ferocity.
After sending another group of survivors back toward the ruins, Galad brought Sidama down to a slow walk, listening to the horse’s labored breath. This field beside the river had become a bloody churn of bodies and mud. Cauthon had been right to leave the Children in position here. Perhaps Galad gave the man too little credit.
«How long have we been fighting, would you say?» Golever asked from beside him. The other Child’s tabard had been ripped free, exposing his mail. A section of links along the right side had been crushed by a Trolloc blade. The mail had held, but the stain of blood there indicated that many of the links had been driven through Golever’s quilted gambeson and into his side. The bleeding didn’t look bad, so Galad said nothing.
«We’ve hit midday», Galad guessed, though he could not see the sun for the clouds. He was reasonably certain they’d been fighting for four or five hours now.
«Think they’ll stop for the night?» Golever asked.
«Doubtful», Galad said. «If this battle lasts that long».
Golever looked at him with concern. «You think—"
«I cannot follow what is happening. Cauthon sent so many troops up here, and he pulled everyone off the Heights, from what I can tell. I don’t know why. And the water in the river . . . does it seem to be flowing in fits and spurts to you? The struggle upstream must be going poorly . . ». He shook his head. «Perhaps if I could see more of the battlefield, I could understand Cauthon’s plan».
He was a soldier. A soldier need not understand the whole of the battle in order to follow his orders. However, Galad was usually able to at least piece together his side’s strategy from commands given.
«Have you ever imagined a battle this large?» Golever asked, turning his head. Arganda’s infantry was crashing into the Trollocs at the river. More and more of the Shadowspawn were getting across—with alarm, Galad realized that the river had stopped flowing completely.
The Shadowspawn had gotten a footing in the last hour. It was going to be a tough fight, but at least the numbers were more even now, with all the Trollocs they had killed earlier. Cauthon had known the river would stop flowing. That was why he’d sent so many troops up here, to stem this onslaught from the other side.
Light, Galad thought, I’m watching the Game of Houses on the battlefield itself Yes, he had not given Cauthon nearly enough credit.
A lead ball with a red streamer suddenly fell from the sky about twenty paces ahead, hitting a dead Trolloc in the skull. Far overhead, the raken screeched and continued on its way. Galad heeled Sidama forward, and Golever climbed down to fetch the letter for him. Gateways were useful, but raken could see the battlefield in its expanse, search out banners for specific men and deliver orders.
Golever handed him the letter, and Galad pulled his list of ciphers from the leather envelope he carried in the top of his boot. The ciphers were simple—a list of numbers with words beside them. If orders didn’t use the right word and the right number together, then they were suspect.
Damodred, the orders read, bring yourself and a dozen of the best men from your twenty-second company and move along the river toward Hawal Ford. Stop when you can see Elayne’s banner and hold there for more orders. P. S. If you see any Trollocs with quarterstaffs, I suggest you let Golever fight them instead, as I know you have trouble with those types. Mat.
Galad sighed, showing the letter to Golever. The cipher authenticated it; the number twenty-two and the word «quarterstaff» were paired.
«What does he want of us?» Golever asked.
«I wish I knew», Galad said. He really did.
«I'll gather some men», Golever said. «I assume you’ll want Harnesh, Mallone, Brokel . . ». He continued through an entire list.
Galad nodded. «A good list. Well, I can’t say I’m sad for this order. My sister has entered the field, it appears. I would keep watch on her». Beyond that, he wanted to look over another section of the battlefield. Perhaps that would help him understand what Cauthon was doing.
«As you order, Lord Captain Commander», Golever said.
The Dark One attacked.
It was an attempt to tear Rand apart, to destroy him bit by bit. The Dark One sought to claim the very elements that made up Rand’s essence, then annihilate them.
Rand couldn’t gasp, couldn’t cry out. This attack wasn’t at his body, for he had no true body in this place, just a memory of one.
Rand held himself together. With difficulty. In the face of this awesome attack, any notion of defeating the Dark One—of killing him—vanished. Rand couldn’t defeat anything. He could barely hold on.
He could not have described the sensation if he’d tried. It was as if the Dark One was shredding him while at the same time trying to crush him entirely, coming at Rand from infinite directions, all at once, in a wave.
Rand fell to his knees. It was a projection of himself that did so, but it felt real to him.
An eternity passed.
Rand suffered it. The crushing pressure, the noise of destruction. He weathered it on his knees, fingers taut like claws, sweat streaming from his brow. He suffered it and looked up.
«That is all you have?» Rand growled.
I WILL WIN.
«You made me strong», Rand said, voice ragged. «Each time you or your minions tried to destroy me, your failure was like the blacksmith’s hammer beating against metal. This attempt . . ». Rand took a deep breath. «This attempt of yours is nothing. I will not break».
YOU MISTAKE. THIS IS NOT AN ATTEMPT TO DESTROY YOU. THIS IS PREPARATION.
TO SHOW YOU TRUTH.
Fragments of the Pattern . . . threads . . . suddenly spun before Rand, splitting from the main body of light like hundreds of tiny flowing streams. He knew this was not actually the Pattern, no more than what he saw as himself was actually his body. In interpreting something so vast as the fabric of creation, his mind needed some kind of imagery. This was what his consciousness chose.
The threads spun, not unlike threads in a weave of the One Power, only there were thousands upon thousands of them, and the colors were more varied, more vibrant. Each was straight, like a string pulled taut. Or a beam of light.
They came together like the product of a loom, creating a vision around him. A ground of slimy soil, plants speckled with black, trees with limbs that drooped like arms bereft of strength.
It became a place. A reality. Rand pushed himself to his feet, and could feel the soil. He could smell smoke in the air. Could hear . . . moans of sorrow. Rand turned, and found that he was on a mostly barren slope above a dark city with black stone walls. Buildings huddled inside, squat and dull, like bunkers.
«What is this?» Rand whispered. Something about the place felt familiar. He looked up, but could not see the sun for the clouds that dominated the sky.
IT IS WHAT WILL BE.
Rand felt for the One Power, but drew back in revulsion. The taint had returned, but it was worse—far worse. Where it had once been a dark film on the molten light of saidin, it was now a sludge so thick that he could not pierce it. He would have to drink in the darkness, envelop himself in it, to seek out the One Power beneath—if, indeed, it was even still there. The mere thought made bile rise in his throat, and he had to fight to keep his stomach from emptying.
He was drawn toward that fortress nearby. Why did he feel he knew this place? He was in the Blight; the plants made that clear. If that wasn’t enough, he could smell rot in the air. The heat was like that of a bog in the summer—sweltering, oppressive despite the clouds.
He walked down the shallow hillside, and caught sight of some figures working nearby. Men with axes, hacking at trees. There were maybe a dozen of them. As Rand approached, he glanced to the side, and saw the nothing that was the Dark One in the distance, consuming part of the landscape, like a pit on the horizon. A reminder that what Rand was seeing wasn’t real?
He passed stumps of cut trees. Were the men gathering firewood? The thock, thock of axes—and the postures of the workers—had none of the steadfast strength Rand associated with woodsmen. The beats were lethargic, the men working with slumped shoulders.
That man on the left . . . As Rand grew closer, he recognized him, despite the bent posture and wrinkled skin. Light. Tam had to be at least seventy, perhaps eighty. Why was he out working so hard?
It’s a vision, Rand thought. A nightmare. The Dark One’s own creation. Not
Yet, while standing within it, Rand found it difficult not to react as if this were indeed real. And it was, after a fashion. The Dark One used shadowed threads of the pattern—the possibilities that rippled from creation like waves from a dropped pebble in a pond—to create this.
«Father?» Rand asked.
Tam turned, but his eyes didn’t focus on Rand.
Rand took Tam by the shoulder. «Father!»
Tam stood dully for a moment, then went back to his work, raising his axe. Nearby, Dannil and Jori hacked at a stump. They had aged as well, and were now men well into their middle years. Dannil seemed sick with something awful, his face pale, his skin having broken out in some kind of sores.
Jori’s axe bit deep into the bitter earth, and a black flood seeped from the soil—insects that had been hiding at the base of the stump. The blade had pierced their lair.
The insects swarmed out and sped up the handle to cover Jori. He screamed, batting at them, but his open mouth let them climb inside. Rand had heard of such a thing, a deathswarm, one of the many dangers of the Blight. He raised a hand toward Jori, but the man slumped to the side, dead as quickly as a man could draw breath.
Tam yelled in horror and broke away, running. Rand spun as his father crashed into a thicket of brush nearby, trying to flee the deathswarm. Something jumped from a branch, quick as a snapping whip, and wrapped around Tams neck, jerking him to a halt.
«No!» Rand said. It wasn’t real. He still couldn’t watch his father die. He seized the Source, punching through the sickly darkness of the taint. It seemed to suffocate him, and Rand spent an excruciating time trying to find saidin. When he did grasp it, only a trickle came through.
He wove anyway, roaring, sending a ribbon of flame to kill the vine that had grabbed his father. Tam dropped from its grip as the vines writhed, dying.
Tam didn’t move. His eyes stared upward, dead.
«No!» Rand turned on the deathswarm. He destroyed it with a weave of Fire. Only seconds had passed, but all that remained of Jori was bones.
The insects popped as he burned them.
«A channeler», Dannil breathed, cowering nearby, eyes wide as he looked at Rand. Others of the woodsmen had fled into the wilderness. Rand heard several scream.
Rand could not stop himself from retching. The taint . . . it was so awful, so putrid. He could not hold to the Source any longer.
«Come», Dannil said, and grabbed Rand’s arm. «Come, I need you!»
«Dannil», Rand croaked, standing up. «You don’t recognize me?»
«Come», Dannil repeated, towing Rand toward the fortress.
«I’m Rand. Rand, Dannil. The Dragon Reborn».
No understanding shone in Dannil’s eyes.
«What has he done to you?» Rand whispered.
THEY DO NOT KNOW YOU, ADVERSARY. I HAVE REMADE THEM. ALL THINGS ARE MINE. THEY WILL NOT KNOW THAT THEY LOST. THEY WILL KNOW NOTHING BUT ME.
«I deny you», Rand whispered. «I deny you».
DENYING THE SUN DOES NOT MAKE IT SET. DENYING ME DOES NOT PREVENT MY VICTORY.
«Come», Dannil said, towing Rand. «Please. You must save me!»
«End this», Rand said.
END IT? THERE ARE NO ENDINGS, ADVERSARY. IT IS. I HAVE CREATED IT.
«You imagine it».
«Please», Dannil said.
Rand allowed himself to be pulled along toward the dark fortress. «What were you doing out there, Dannil?» Rand demanded. «Why gather wood in the Blight itself? It isn’t safe».
«It was our punishment», Dannil whispered. «Those who fail our master are sent out and told to bring back a tree they have cut down with their own hands. If the deathswarms or the twigs don’t get you, the sound of cutting wood draws other things . . ».
Rand frowned as they stepped onto a road leading to the town and its dark fortress. Yes, this place was familiar. The Quarry Road, Rand thought with surprise. And that ahead . . . The fortress dominated what had once been the Green at the center of Emond’s Field.
The Blight had consumed the Two Rivers.
The clouds overhead seemed to push down on Rand, and he heard Jori’s screams in his head. He again saw Tam struggling as he was strangled.
It isn’t real.
This was what would happen if Rand failed. So many people depended on him . . . so many. Some, he had already failed. He had to fight to keep from going over in his head the list of those who had died in his service. Even if he saved others, he had failed to protect these.
It was an attack of a different kind from the one that had tried to destroy his essence. Rand felt it, the Dark One forcing his tendrils into Rand, infecting his mind with worry, doubt, fear.
Dannil led him to the walls of the village where a pair of Myrddraal in unmoving cloaks guarded the gates. They slid forward. «You were sent to gather wood», one whispered with too-white lips.
«I . . . I brought this one!» Dannil said, stumbling away. «A gift for our master! He can channel. I found him for you!»
Rand growled, then plunged toward the One Power again, swimming in filth. He reached the trickle of saidin, seizing it.
It was immediately knocked from his grasp. A shield slid between him and the Source.
«It isn’t real», he whispered as he turned to see who had channeled.
Nynaeve strode through the city gates, dressed in black. «A wilder?» she asked. «Undiscovered? How did he survive this long? You have done well, Dannil. I give you back your life. Do not fail again».
Dannil wept for joy, then scrambled past Nynaeve into the city.
«It isn’t real», Rand said as Nynaeve tied him in weaves of Air, then dragged him into the Dark One's version of Emond's Field, the two Myrddraal rushing in ahead of her. It was a large city now. The houses had the feel of mice clustered together before a cat, each one of the same, uniform dullness. People scuttled through alleyways, eyes down.
People scattered before Nynaeve, sometimes calling her «mistress». Others named her Chosen. The two Myrddraal sped through the city, like shadows. When Rand and Nynaeve reached the fortress, a small group had gathered in the courtyard. Twelve people—Rand could sense that the four men in the group held saidin, though he only recognized Damer Flinn from among them. A couple of the women were girls he had known in the Two Rivers.
Thirteen of them. And thirteen Myrddraal, gathering beneath that clouded sky. For the first time since the start of the vision, Rand felt fear. Not this. Anything but this.
What if they Turned him? This wasn’t real, but it was a version of reality. A mirror world, created by the Dark One. What would it do to Rand if they Turned him here? Had he been trapped that easily?
He began to struggle, panicked, against the bonds of Air. It was useless, of course.
«You are an interesting one», Nynaeve said, turning to him. She didn’t look a day older than when he had left her in the cavern, but there were other differences. She wore her hair in a braid again, but her face was leaner, more . . . harsh. And those eyes.
The eyes were all wrong.
«How did you survive out there?» she asked him. «How did you go undiscovered so long?»
«I come from a place where the Dark One does not rule».
Nynaeve laughed. «Ridiculous. A tale for children. The Great Lord has always ruled».
Rand could see it. His connection to the Pattern, the glimmering of halftruths and shadowed ways. This possibility . . . it could happen. It was one path the world could take. The Dark One, here, had won the Last Battle and broken the Wheel of Time.
That had allowed him to remake it, to spin the pattern in a new way. Everyone alive had forgotten the past, and now knew only what the Dark One had inserted in their minds. Rand could read the truth, the history of this place, in the threads of the Pattern he had touched earlier.
Nynaeve, Egwene, Logain and Cadsuane were now members of the Forsaken, Turned to the Shadow against their will. Moiraine had been executed for being too weak.
Elayne, Min, Aviendha . . . they had been given over to torture, endlessly, at Shayol Ghul.
The world was a living nightmare. Each member of the Forsaken ruled as a despot over their own little section of the world. An endless autumn played out as they threw armies, Dreadlords, and factions against one another. An eternal battle.
The Blight had extended to every ocean. Seanchan was no more, ruined and scorched until not even rats and crows could survive there. Anyone who could channel was discovered as a youth and Turned. The Dark One did not like the risk that someone would bring hope back to the world.
And nobody ever would.
Rand screamed as the thirteen began to channel.
«This is your worst?» Rand yelled.
They pressed their wills against his own. He felt them, like nails being pounded into his skull, parting his flesh. He pushed back with everything he had, but the others started a thrumming pressure. Each thump, like the chop of an axe, came closer and closer to boring into him.
AND SO I WIN.
The failure hit Rand hard—the knowledge that what happened here was his fault. Nynaeve, Egwene, Turned to the Shadow because of him. Those he loved, becoming playthings for the Shadow.
Rand should have protected them.
I WIN. AGAIN.
«You think I am the same youth that Ishamael tried so hard to frighten?» Rand shouted, fighting down his terror and shame.
THE FIGHT IS OVER.
«IT HAS NOT YET BEGUN!» Rand screamed.
The reality around him shattered again into ribbons of light. Nynaeve’s face shredded, coming apart like lace with a loose thread. The ground disintegrated, and the fortress ceased to exist.
Rand dropped from bands of Air that had never been completely there. The reality the Dark One had created, fragile, unwove into its component parts. Threads of light spiraled out, quivering like the strings of a harp.
They waited to be woven.
Rand drew breath, deeply, through his teeth and looked up at the darkness beyond the threads. «I will not sit passively and suffer it this time, Shaitan. I will not be captive to your nightmares. I have become something greater than I once was».
Rand seized those threads spinning about him, taking them—hundreds upon hundreds of them. There was no Fire, Air, Earth, Water or Spirit here, these were somehow more base, somehow more varied. Each one was individual, unique. Instead of Five Powers, there were thousands.
Rand took them, gathered them and in his hand held the fabric of creation itself Then he channeled it, spinning it into a different possibility.
«Now», Rand said, breathing deeply, trying to banish the horror of what he had seen. «Now I will show you what is going to happen».
Bryne bowed. «The men are in position, Mother».
Egwene took a deep breath. Mat had sent the White Towers forces across the dry riverbed below the ford and around the western side of the bogs; it was time for Egwene to join them. She hesitated for a moment, looking through the gateway to Mats command post. Egwene met the eyes of the Seanchan woman across the table, where she sat imperiously on her throne.
I have not finished with you, Egwene thought.
«Lets go», she said, turning, waving for Yukiri to close the gateway to Mats building. She fingered Vora’s sa’angreal, held in one hand as she strode out of her tent.
She hesitated when she saw something there. Something slight, on the ground. Tiny spiderweb cracks in the rocks. She bent down.
«There are more and more of those around, Mother», Yukiri said, stooping down beside her. «We think that when Dreadlords channel, the cracks can spread. Particularly if balefire is used . . "
Egwene felt them. Though they seemed like ordinary cracks to the touch, they looked down into pure nothing. Blackness, far too deep for simple cracks to have caused through shadows of the light.
She wove. All five powers, together, testing at the cracks. Yes . . .
She wasn’t certain exactly what she did, but the fledgling weave covered the cracks like a bandage. The darkness faded, leaving behind only ordinary cracks—and a thin film of crystals.
«Interesting», Yukiri said. «What was that weave?»
«I don’t know», Egwene said. «It felt right. Gawyn, have you . . ». She trailed off.
Egwene stood up with a start. She vaguely remembered him leaving her command tent for some air. How long ago had it been? She turned around slowly, sensing where he was. The bond let her tell his direction. She stopped when she was pointing toward him.
She was looking toward the riverbed, just up from the ford, where Mat had positioned Elayne’s forces.
Oh, Light . . .
«What?» Silviana asked.
«Gawyn has gone to fight», Egwene said, keeping her voice calm with effort. That wool-headed idiot of a man! Could he not wait an hour or two until her armies were in position? She knew that he was eager to fight, but he should have at least asked!
Bryne groaned softly.
«Send someone to fetch him», Egwene said. Now her voice was cold, angry. She could not make it otherwise. «He has apparently joined the Andoran armies».
I will do it, Bryne said, one hand on his sword, his other arm raised toward one of the grooms. «I cannot be trusted to lead armies. At least I can do this».
It made sense. «Take Yukiri with you», she said. «Once you’ve found my fool Warder, Travel to us west of the bogs».
Bryne bowed, then retreated. Siuan watched him, hesitant.
«You may go with him», Egwene said.
«Is that where you need me?» Siuan asked.
«Actually . . " Egwene lowered her voice. «I want someone to join Mat and the Seanchan Empress and listen with ears accustomed to hearing what is not spoken».
Siuan nodded, approval—even pride—in her expression. Egwene was Amyrlin; she had no need of either emotion from Siuan, and yet it lifted a little of her grinding fatigue.
«You look amused», Egwene said.
«When Moiraine and I set out to find the boy», Siuan said, «I had no idea the Pattern would send you to us as well».
«Your replacement?» Egwene said.
«As a queen ages», Siuan said, «she begins to think about her legacy. Light, every goodwife probably starts to think the same things. Will she have an heir to hold what she has created? As a woman grows in wisdom, she realizes that what she alone can accomplish pales compared to what her legacy can achieve.
«Well, I suppose I cant claim you entirely as my own, and I wasn’t exactly pleased to be succeeded. But it is . . . comforting to know I’ve had a hand in shaping what is to come. And if a woman were to wish for a legacy, she could not dream of greater than one such as you. Thank you. I’ll watch this Seanchan woman for you, maybe help poor Min crawl out of the fang-fish net she’s found herself in».
Siuan moved away, calling for Yukiri to make her a gateway before going with Bryne. Egwene smiled, watching her give the general a kiss. Siuan. Kissing a man in the open.
Silviana channeled, and Egwene climbed into Daishar’s saddle as a gateway opened for them. She embraced the Source, holding Vora’s sa’angreal before her, and trotted through behind a group of Tower Guards. She was immediately assaulted by the scent of smoke.
High Captain Chubain waited for her on the other side. The darkhaired man had always struck her as being too young for his position, but she supposed not every commander had to be silvered like Bryne. After all, they were entrusting this battle to someone only a bit older than she, and she herself was the youngest Amyrlin ever.
Egwene turned toward the Heights and found that she could barely see them through fires that were burning along the slope and the eastern edge of the bogs.
«What happened?» she asked.
«Flaming arrows», Chubain said, «fired by our forces at the river. I thought Cauthon was mad at first, but I can see his reasoning now. He fired at the Trollocs to set the fields alight there on the Heights and at their base to give us cover. The undergrowth over there is dry and brittle as tinder. The fires drove the Trollocs and Sharan cavalry back up the slope for the time being. And I think Cauthon is counting on the smoke masking our movement around the bogs».
The Shadow would know someone was moving over here, but how many troops and in what configuration . . . they would have to rely on scouts, rather than their superior vantage atop the Heights.
«Our orders?» Chubain said.
«He didn’t tell you?» Egwene asked.
He shook his head. «He just put us in position here».
«We continue on up the west side of the bog and come at the Sharans from behind», she said.
Chubain grunted. «This is fragmenting our forces a great deal. And now he assaults them on the Heights after relinquishing it to them?»
She didn’t have an answer to that. Well, she had been the one—essentially—to put Mat in charge. She spared a glance across the bogs again, toward where she sensed Gawyn. He would be fighting at the . . .
Egwene hesitated. Her previous position had let her sense Gawyn in the direction of the river, but after moving through the gateway, she had a better sense of his position. He wasn’t at the river with Elayne’s armies.
Gawyn was on the Heights themselves, where the Shadow held the strongest.
Oh, Light! she thought. Gawyn . . . What are you doing?
Gawyn strode through smoke. Black tendrils of it curled around him, and the heat of smoldering grass warmed his boots, but the fire had mostly burned out here atop the Heights, leaving the ground dark with ash.
Bodies and some broken dragons lay blackened, like heaps of slag or coal. Gawyn knew that sometimes, to renew a field, farmers would burn the previous year’s weeds. The world itself was alight now. As he slipped through the twisting black smoke—his kerchief wetted and tied across his face—he prayed for a renewal.
There were spiderweb cracks all over the ground. The Shadow was destroying this land.
Most of the Trollocs were gathering on the Heights overlooking Hawal Ford, though a handful busied themselves prodding at bodies on the slope. Perhaps they had been drawn by the scent of burning flesh. A Myrddraal emerged from the smoke and began scolding them in a language Gawyn did not understand. It lashed a whip at the Trollocs’ backs.
Gawyn froze in place, but the Halfman did not notice him. It drove the stragglers toward where the rest of the Trollocs had gathered. Gawyn waited, breathing softly through his handkerchief, feeling the shadows of the Bloodknives wreathe him. The three rings had done things to him. He felt heady, and his limbs moved too quickly when he stepped. It had taken time to grow accustomed to the changes, to keep his balance each time he moved.
A wolf-featured Trolloc rose up from behind a nearby pile of rubble and sniffed the air, looking after the Fade. The Trolloc then crept out of hiding, a corpse thrown over its shoulder. It walked past Gawyn, passing not five feet away, where it paused and sniffed the air again. Then, hunching low, it continued. The body it carried over its shoulder trailed the cloak of a Warder. Poor Symon. He would never play another hand of cards. Gawyn growled softly, and before he could stop himself, leaped forward. He moved into Kissing the Adder, spinning and relieving the Trollocs shoulders of its head.
The carcass crashed down to the ground. Gawyn stood with sword out, then cursed himself, crouching and moving back into the smoke. It would mask his scent, and the twisting blackness his blurred form. Fool, to risk exposing himself to kill one Trolloc. Symon's corpse would end up in a cookpot anyway. Gawyn couldn’t kill the entire army. He was here for one man.
Gawyn crouched, waiting to see if his attack had been noticed. Perhaps they wouldn’t have been able to see him—he wasn’t certain how much the rings clouded him—but anyone watching would have seen the Trolloc fall.
No warning call. Gawyn rose and continued. Only then did he notice that his fingers were showing red among the black of the ash. He had burned them. The pain was distant. The rings. He had difficulty thinking straight, but that didn’t—fortunately—stop his ability to fight. If anything, his instincts were stronger now.
Demandred. Where was Demandred? Gawyn sped back and forth across the top of the Heights. Cauthon had troops stationed at the river near the ford, but the smoke made it impossible to see who was involved. On the other side, the Borderlanders were engaged with a Sharan cavalry unit. Yet here, on top, it was peaceful, despite the presence of Shadowspawn and Sharans. Now Gawyn crept along the back lines of the Shadowspawn, keeping to the rougher patches of deadwood and weeds. Nobody seemed to notice him. There were shadows here, and shadows were protection. Down below, in the corridor between Heights and bog, the fires were going out. That seemed too quick for them to have burned themselves out. Channeling?
He had intended to find Demandred by seeking the origin of the man’s attacks, but if he was just channeling to put out fires, then—
The Shadow’s army charged, racing down the slope toward Hawal Ford. Though the Sharans remained behind, the bulk of the Trollocs moved. They obviously intended to push over the now-dry riverbed and engage Cauthon’s army.
If Cauthon had intended to lure all of Demandred’s forces off the Heights, he had failed. Many Sharans remained behind, infantry and cavalry units, watching impassively as the Trollocs thundered toward battle.
Explosions pounded along the slope, throwing Trollocs into the air like dirt from a beaten rug. Gawyn hesitated, crouching low. Dragons, the few working ones. Mat had set them up somewhere across the river; it was difficult to see an exact position because of the smoke. By the sound, there were only half a dozen or so, but the damage they caused was enormous, particularly considering the distance.
A burst of red light from nearby atop the Heights launched toward the smoke of the dragons. Gawyn smiled. Thank you kindly. He put his hand on his sword. Time to test just how well these rings worked.
He dashed, low and quick, out of cover. Most of the Trollocs were piling down the slope, loping toward the dry riverbed. Crossbow bolts and arrows assaulted them, and another round of dragon fire came from a slightly different location. Cauthon had the dragons moving, and Demandred had trouble pinpointing them.
Gawyn ran between howling Shadowspawn. The ground thumped like a beating heart from the impacts along the ground behind him. Smoke whipped around him, thick in his throat. His hands had been blackened, and he assumed his face had been as well. He hoped that would help keep him hidden.
Trollocs turned about, screeching or grunting, but none of them fixed upon him. They knew something had passed, but to them, he was merely a blur.
Egwene’s anger poured through the bond. Gawyn smiled. He had not expected her to be pleased. As he ran, arrows slicing the earth around him, he found peace with his choice. Once, perhaps, he would have done this for the pride of the battle and the chance to pit himself against Demandred.
That was not his heart now. His heart was the need. Someone had to fight this creature, someone had to kill him or they would lose this battle. They could all see it. Risking Egwene or Logain would be too great a gamble.
Gawyn could be risked. No one would send him to do this—no one would dare—but it was necessary. He had a chance to change things, to really matter. He did it for Andor, for Egwene, for the world itself.
Ahead, Demandred bellowed his now familiar challenge. «Send me al’Thor, not these so-called dragons!» Another streak of fire flew from him.
Gawyn passed the charging Trollocs and came up behind a large group of Sharans with strange bows, almost as big as those of the Two Rivers. They surrounded a mounted man in interlinking armor of coins, bound at holes in the centers, with a gorget and armguards. The faceplate on his fearsome helmet was open. That proud face was eerily familiar to Gawyn, handsome and imperious.
This will have to be quick, Gawyn thought. And Light, I'd better not give him a chance to channel.
The Sharan archers stood at the ready, but only two of them turned as Gawyn slipped between them. Gawyn pulled his knife from his belt sheath. He’d have to drag Demandred off his horse, then go for the face with his knife. It felt like a coward’s attack, but it was the best way. Trip him, and Gawyn could—
Demandred spun, suddenly, and looked toward Gawyn. A second later, the man thrust his hand forward, and a beam of white-hot fire—thin as a twig—shot for Gawyn.
It missed, striking just beside Gawyn as he leaped away. Cracks opened all across the ground nearby. Deep, black cracks, that seemed to open into eternity itself.
Gawyn leaped forward, cutting at Demandred's saddle. So fast. These rings let him react while Demandred was still staring in confusion.
The saddle came off and Gawyn rammed his knife into the horse’s side. The beast screamed and reared, throwing Demandred backward, saddle and all.
Gawyn leaped, bloodied knife out, as the horse bolted and the Sharan archers cried out. He loomed over Demandred, knife raised in two hands.
The Forsaken’s body suddenly jolted, and the man was pushed to the side. Air blew about the blackened ground, raising flakes of ash, as weaves of air caught Demandred and spun him about, depositing him on his feet with a clink, sword unsheathed. The Forsaken crouched, and released another weave—Gawyn felt air spinning next to him, as if threads of it had tried to grab him. He was too quick, and Demandred obviously had trouble hitting him because of the rings.
Gawyn backed away and switched his knife to his off hand, unsheathing his sword in his right.
«So», Demandred said, «an assassin. And Lews Therin always spoke of the ‘honor’ of facing a man face-to-face».
«I wasn’t sent by the Dragon Reborn».
«With Night’s Shade surrounding you, a weave that none from this Age remember? Do you know that what Lews Therin has done to you will leak your life away? You are dead, little man».
«Then you can join me in the grave», Gawyn said.
Demandred stood up, taking his sword in two hands in an unfamiliar battle stance. He seemed able to track Gawyn somewhat despite the rings, but his responses were a hair slower than they should have been.
Apple Blossoms in the Wind, with three quick strikes, forced Demandred back. Several Sharans came forward with swords, but Demandred raised a gauntleted hand to warn them off. He did not smile at Gawyn—this man did not seem as if he ever smiled—but he performed something that was similar to Lightning of Three Prongs. Gawyn replied with The Boar Rushes Down the Mountain.
Demandred was good. With the edge granted by the rings, Gawyn narrowly escaped Demandred’s riposte. The two danced through a small circle of open ground guarded by the watching Sharans. Distant booms threw iron spheres at the hillside, making the ground shake. There were only a few dragons still firing, but they seemed to be concentrating on this position.
Gawyn grunted, throwing himself into Storm Shakes the Branch, trying to push inside Demandred's guard. He would need to be close and ram his sword into the armpit or between the seams of the coin armor.
Demandred responded with skill and finesse. Gawyn was soon sweating beneath his mail. He felt faster than he’d ever been, his reactions like the darting movements of a hummingbird. Yet, try as he did, he could not land a hit.
«Who are you, little man?» Demandred growled, walking back with sword raised at his side. «You fight well».
«The little queens brother», Demandred said. «You realize who I am».
«And has your Dragon not murdered?» Demandred said. «Has your sister never killed to keep, dare I say seize, her throne?»
«So everyone always says». Demandred stepped forward. His sword forms were smooth, his back always straight but relaxed, and he used the broad, sweeping movements of a dancer. He had absolute mastery of his sword; Gawyn had not heard that Demandred was known for his swordsmanship, but this man was as good as any man Gawyn had ever faced. Better, truly.
Gawyn performed Cat Dances on the Wall, a beautiful, sweeping sword form that matched Demandred's. Then he ducked in with The Serpent’s Tongue Dances, hoping his previous form would have lulled Demandred into letting a thrust slip past.
Something crashed into Gawyn, throwing him to the ground. He rolled, coming up in a crouch. His breathing grew labored. He did not feel pain because of the rings, but he had probably broken a rib.
A rock, Gawyn thought. He channeled and brought a rock in to hit me. He had trouble hitting Gawyn with weaves, because of the shadows, but something large could be tossed at the shadows and still hit him.
«You cheat», Gawyn said with a sneer.
«Cheat?» Demandred asked. «Are there rules, little swordsman? As I recall, you tried to stab me in the back while hiding in a shroud of darkness».
Gawyn breathed in and out, holding his side. A dragon’s iron sphere thumped into the ground just a short distance away, then exploded. The blast ripped apart some Sharans, their bodies shielding Gawyn and Demandred from the brunt of the blast. The soil rained down, like a spray of surf on the deck of a ship. At least one of the dragons was still working.
«You name me a murderer», Demandred said, «and I am. I am also your savior, whether you wish it or not».
«Hardly», Demandred walked around him, cutting the air with a few sweeps of his sword. «That man you follow, Lews Therin Telamon, he is mad. He thinks he can defeat the Great Lord. He cannot. That is simple fact».
«You’d have us join the Shadow instead?»
«Yes». Demandred’s eyes were cold. «If I kill Lews Therin, in victory I will be given the right to remake the world as I wish. The Great Lord cares nothing for rule. The only way to protect this world is to destroy it, and then shelter its people. Is that not what your Dragon claims he can do?»
«Why do you keep calling him my Dragon?» Gawyn said, then spat blood to the side. The rings . . . they urged him forward. His limbs pulsed with strength, energy. Fight! Kill!
«You follow him», Demandred said.
«I do not!»
«Lies», Demandred said. «Or perhaps you are simply fooled. I know that Lews Therin leads this army. At first I was uncertain, but no longer. That weave about you is proof enough, but I have a greater one. No mortal general has such skill as this day has shown; I face a true master on the battlefield. Perhaps Lews Therin wears the Mask of Mirrors, or perhaps he leads by sending messages to this Cauthon through the One Power. It does not matter, I see the truth. I dice with Lews Therin this day.
«I was always the better general. I will prove it here. I would have you tell that to Lews Therin, but you will not live long enough, little swordsman. Prepare yourself». Demandred raised his sword.
Gawyn stood, dropping his knife, taking his sword in two hands. Demandred stalked toward him, using forms that were different from those Gawyn knew. They were still familiar enough for him to counter, but despite his greater speed, time and time again Demandred caught his sword and deflected it harmlessly to the side.
The man did not strike. He barely moved, feet set wide apart, sword in two hands, battering aside each and every attack Gawyn hurled at him. The Dove Takes Flight, The Falling Leaf, Leopard’s Caress. Gawyn gritted his teeth, growling through them. The rings should have been enough. Why weren’t the rings enough?
Gawyn stepped back, then ducked backward as another stone came hurtling toward him. It missed him by inches. Thank the Light for these rings, he thought.
«You fight with skill», Demandred said, «for one of this Age. But you still wield your sword, little man».
«What else would I do?»
«Become the sword yourself», Demandred said, as if baffled that Gawyn did not understand.
Gawyn growled and came in again, battering at Demandred. Gawyn was still faster. Demandred didn’t attack; he was on the defensive, then, although he didn’t retreat. He just stood there, turning aside each blow.
Demandred closed his eyes. Gawyn smiled, then thrust in Black Lance’s Last Strike.
Demandred’s sword became a blur.
Something struck Gawyn. He gasped, pulling to a stop. He wobbled and fell to his knees, looking down at a hole in his gut. Demandred had thrust straight through the mail, then pulled his sword free in a single fluid motion.
Why can’t . . . why can’t I feel anything?
«If you do survive this and see Lews Therin», Demandred said, «tell him I am very much looking forward to a match between the two of us, sword against sword. I have improved since we last met».
Demandred whipped his sword around, catching the back of the blade in the crook between his thumb and forefinger. He pulled the sword across, stripping the blood from the steel and splattering it to the ground.
He slid the weapon into his sheath. He shook his head, then released a ball of fire toward a still-firing dragon.
It fell silent. Demandred strode away along the edge of the steep slope facing the river, his Sharan guard forming around him. Gawyn collapsed to the ground, stunned, spurting his life onto the burned grass. He tried to hold in the blood through trembling fingers.
Somehow Gawyn managed to push himself up to his knees. His heart cried out; he needed to return to Egwene. He began to crawl, blood mixing with the earth beneath him as it seeped from his wound. Through eyes clouded with cold perspiration, he spotted several cavalry mounts twenty paces ahead, poking at blackened tufts of grass at their feet and tethered to a picket-line. After minutes of struggle, an impossible interval of time that left him drained, he pulled himself up on to the back of the first horse he could reach and untether. Gawyn hunched over, dazed, grasping its mane in one hand. Summoning his remaining strength, he kicked his heel into the animal’s rib cage.
«My Lady», Mandevwin said to Faile, «I have known those two men for years! They are not without a few spots in their past. No man comes to the Band without a few of those. But, Light provide, they are not Darkfriends!»
Faile ate her midday rations in silence, listening with as much patience as she could muster to Mandevwin’s protests. She wished Perrin were here so she could have a good argument. She felt as if she would burst from pressure.
They were close to Thakan’dar, horribly close. The black sky rumbled with lightning, and they hadn’t seen a living creature—dangerous or not—in days. Nor had they seen Vanin or Harnan again, though Faile set a double guard each night. The minions of the Dark One did not give up.
She now carried the Horn in a large bag tied to her waist. The others knew it, and moved between pride in their duty and horror at the import of it. At least she shared that with them now.
«My Lady», Mandevwin said, kneeling down. «Vanin is out there nearby somewhere. He is a very gifted scout, the best in the Band. We will not see him unless he wants us to, but I would swear that he is following us. Where else would he go? Perhaps if I call out to him, invite him in to tell his story, so we can resolve this».
«I will consider it, Mandevwin», Faile said.
He nodded. The one-eyed man was a good commander, but had the imagination of a brick. Uncomplicated men assumed others to have uncomplicated motivations, and he could not imagine someone like Vanin or Harnan helping the Band for so long—under orders, undoubtedly, to avoid suspicion—only to now do something so terrible.
At least now she knew that she hadn’t been worried without cause. That look of pure terror in Vanin’s eyes when he’d been caught was confirmation enough, if catching him with the Horn in his hands hadn’t been. She had not expected two Darkfriends, and they had outsmarted her in their thievery. However, they had also underestimated the dangers of the Blight. She hated to think what would have happened if they hadn’t drawn the attention of the bear-thing. Faile would have remained in her tent, anticipating the arrival of thieves who had already disappeared with one of the most powerful artifacts in the world.
The sky rumbled. Dark Shayol Ghul loomed ahead, rising out of the valley of Thakan’dar in a range of smaller mountains. The air had grown chill, almost wintery. Reaching that peak would be difficult—but one way or another, she was going to bring this Horn to the forces of the Light for the Last Battle. She rested her fingers on the sack at her side, feeling the metal within.
Nearby, Olver scampered across the lifeless gray rock of the Blasted Lands, wearing his knife at his belt like a sword. Perhaps she should not have brought him. Then again, boys his age in the Borderlands learned to run messages and carry supplies to besieged forts. They wouldn’t go out with a war band or be given a post until they were at least twelve, but their training started much earlier.
Faile looked toward Selande and Arrela as they approached. Faile had put Selande in charge of the scouts, now that Vanin had revealed himself. The pale little woman looked less like an Aiel than many of the others in Cha Faile. But the attitude helped.
«Movement, my Lady», Selande said softly.
«What?» Faile stood. «What kind?»
«Some kind of caravan».
«In the Blasted Lands?» Faile asked. «Show me».
It wasn’t just a caravan. There was a village out there. Faile could make it out through the looking glass, though only as a smudge of darkness to indicate buildings. It was settled into the foothills near Thakan’dar. A village. Light!
Faile moved the looking glass down to where a caravan crept across the bleak landscape, heading toward a supply station set up a good distance outside the village.
«They’re doing what we did», she whispered.
«What’s that, my Lady?» Arrela lay on her stomach beside Faile. Mandevwin was on her other side, peering through his own looking glass.
«It’s a central supply station», Faile explained, looking over the stacks of boxes and bundles of arrows. «Shadowspawn can’t move through gateways, but their supplies can. They needn’t have carried arrows and replacement weapons as part of the invasion. Instead, the supplies are being collected here, then sent to the battlefields when needed».
Indeed, down below, a ribbon of light announced a gateway opening. A large train of dirty-looking men trudged through it with packs on their backs, followed by dozens of others pulling small carts.
«Wherever those supplies are going», Faile said slowly, «there will be fighting nearby. Those carts carry arrows, but no food, as the Trollocs are dragging corpses away to feast on each night».
«So if we could slip through one of those gateways . ». Mandevwin said.
Arrela snorted, as if the conversation were a joke. She looked at Faile, and the smile slipped from her lips. «You’re serious. Both of you».
«We are still a long hike from Thakan’dar», Faile said. «And that village blocks our way. It might be easier to sneak through one of those gateways than try to work our way into the valley».
«We’d end up behind the enemy lines!»
«We're already behind their lines», Faile said grimly, «so nothing would change there».
Arrela fell silent.
«That will be a problem», Mandevwin said softly, turning his looking glass. «Look at the fellows approaching the camp from the village».
Faile raised her looking glass again. «Aiel?» she whispered. «Light! The Shaido have joined with the forces of the Dark One?»
«Even the Shaido dogs would not do that», Arrela said, then spat to the side.
The newcomers did look different. They wore their veils up, as if for killing, but the veils were red. Either way, sneaking past Aiel would be nearly impossible. Likely, only the fact that her group was so distant had saved them from discovery. That, and the fact that no one would expect to find a group like Faile’s here.
«Back», Faile said, inching back down the hillside. «We need to do some planning».
Perrin awoke, feeling as if he had been tossed into a lake during winter. He gasped.
«Lie down, you fool», Janina said, putting her hand on his arm. The flaxen-haired Wise One looked as exhausted as he felt.
He was in someplace soft. Too soft. A nice bed, clean sheets. Outside the windows, waves broke gently against a shore and gulls called. He also heard moans echoing from some place nearby.
«Where am I?» Perrin asked.
«At my palace», Berelain said. She stood near the doorway, and he hadn’t noticed her before. The First wore her diadem, the hawk in flight, and had on a crimson dress with yellow trim. The room was lavish, with gold and bronze on the mirrors, windows and bedposts.
«I might add», Berelain said, «that this is a somewhat familiar situation for me, Lord Aybara. I took precautions this time, in case you were wondering».
Precautions? Perrin sniffed the air. Uno? He could smell the man. Indeed, Berelain nodded to the side, and Perrin turned to find Uno sitting in a chair nearby, his arm in a sling.
«Uno! What happened to you?» Perrin asked.
«Bloody Trollocs happened to me», Uno grumbled. «Waiting my turn for Healing».
«Those with life-threatening wounds are Healed first», Janina said. She was the most accomplished of the Wise Ones at Healing; she’d apparently decided to stay with the Aes Sedai and Berelain. «You, Perrin Aybara, were Healed to the point of survival. Only just to the point of survival. It wasn’t until now that we could take care of the wounds that did not threaten your life».
«Wait!» Perrin said. He struggled to sit. Light, he was exhausted. «How long have I been here?»
«Ten hours», Berelain said.
«Ten hours! I have to go. The fighting . . ».
«The fighting will continue without you», Berelain said. «I’m sorry». Perrin growled softly. So tired. «Moiraine knew a method of wiping away a man’s fatigue. Do you know this, Janina?»
«I wouldn’t do it for you if I did», Janina said. «You need sleep, Perrin Aybara. Your participation in the Last Battle is over».
Perrin gritted his teeth, then moved to stand.
«Step out of that bed», Janina said, turning her eyes toward him, «and I’ll bundle you in Air and leave you hanging there for hours».
Perrin’s first instinct was to shift away. He began forming the thought in his head, and felt foolish. He’d somehow returned to the real world. He couldn’t shift here. He was as helpless as a babe.
He leaned back in his bed, frustrated.
«Be of good cheer, Perrin», Berelain said softly, walking up to the bed. «You should be dead. How did you reach that battlefield? If Haral Luhhan and his men hadn’t spotted you lying there . ».
Perrin shook his head. What he’d done defied explanation for one who did not know the wolf dream. «What is happening, Berelain? The war? Our armies?»
She pursed her lips.
«I can smell the truth on you», Perrin said. «Worry, anxiety». He sighed. «I saw that the battlefronts had moved. If the Two Rivers men are at the Field of Merrilor as well, all three of our armies have been pushed back to the same place. Everyone but those at Thakan’dar».
«We don’t know how the Lord Dragon is doing», she said softly, gliding onto a stool beside his bed. Beside the wall, Janina took Uno by the arm. He shivered as the Healing coursed through him.
«Rand still fights», Perrin said.
«Too much time has passed», she said. There was something she wasn’t telling him, something she was dancing around. He could smell it on her.
«Rand still fights», Perrin repeated. «If he had lost, we wouldn’t be here». He leaned back, exhaustion deep in his bones. Light! He couldn’t just lie here while men died, could he? «Time is different at the Bore. I visited it and saw firsthand. It has been many days out here, but I’ll bet it has only been a day for Rand. Maybe less».
«That is well. I will pass what you say to the others».
«Berelain», Perrin said. «I need you to do something for me. I sent Elyas with a message to our armies, but I don’t know if he delivered it. Graendal is interfering with the minds of our great captains. Will you find out for me if his message arrived?»
«It arrived», she said. «Almost too late, but it arrived. You did well. Sleep now, Perrin». She rose.
«Berelain?» he asked.
She turned back to him.
«Faile», he said. «What of Faile?»
Her anxiety sharpened. No.
«Her supply caravan was destroyed in a bubble of evil, Perrin», Berelain said softly. «I’m sorry».
«Was her body recovered?» he forced himself to ask.
«Then she still lives».
«She still lives!» Perrin insisted. He would have to assume that was true. If he didn’t . . .
«There is, of course, hope», she said, then walked to Uno, who was flexing his Healed arm, and nodded for him to join her as she left the room. Janina was puttering around the washstand. Perrin could still hear moaning in the hallways outside, and the place smelled of healing herbs and of pain.
Light, he thought. Faile’s caravan had carried the Horn. Did the Shadow now have it?
And Gaul. He had to return to Gaul. He’d left the man in the wolf dream, guarding Rand’s back. If Perrin’s exhaustion was any guide, Gaul couldn’t hold much longer.
Perrin felt as if he could sleep for weeks. Janina returned to his bedside, then shook her head. «There is no good purpose in trying to force yourself to hold your eyes open, Perrin Aybara».
«I have too much to do, Janina. Please. I need to return to the battlefield and—"
«You will stay here, Perrin Aybara. You are of no use to anyone in your state, and will gain no ji by trying to prove otherwise. If the blacksmith who brought you here knew I’d let you stumble off and die on the battlefield, I believe he’d come try to hang me out the window by my heels». She hesitated. «And that one . . . I almost think he could manage it».
«Master Luhhan», Perrin said, recalling faintly those moments before he blacked out. «He was there. He found me?»
«He saved your life», Janina said. «That man threw you on his back and ran you to an Aes Sedai for a gateway. You were seconds from death when he arrived. Considering your size, just lifting you is some feat».
«I don’t really need sleep», Perrin said, feeling his eyes droop. «I need . . . I need to get . . ».
«I’m sure you do», Janina said.
Perrin let his eyes shut. That would convince her that he was going to do as she said. Then, when she left, he could stand up.
«I’m sure you do», Janina repeated, her voice growing softer for some reason.
Sleep, he thought. I'm falling asleep. Again, he saw the three paths before himself. This time, one led to ordinary sleep, another to the wolf dream while sleeping, the path he usually took.
And between them, a third path. The wolf dream in the flesh.
He was sorely tempted, but in the moment, he chose not to take that path. He chose ordinary sleep, as—in a moment of understanding—he knew that his body would die without it.
Androl lay, gasping for breath, staring up at the sky somewhere far from the battlefield, following their flight from the top of the Heights.
That attack . . . it had been so powerful.
What was that? he sent to Pevara.
It wasn't Taim, she replied, standing up, dusting off her skirts. I think it was Demandred.
I purposefully brought us to a place far from where he was fighting.
Yes. How dare he move and interfere with the group of channelers attacking his forces?
Androl sat up, groaning. You know, Pevara, you are unusually smart-lipped, for an Aes Sedai.
He was surprised by her amusement. You don’t know Aes Sedai nearly as well as you assume. She walked over to check on Emarin’s wounds.
Androl took a deep breath, filled with the scents of autumn. Fallen leaves. Stagnant water. An autumn that had come too early. Their hillside looked down on a valley where, in defiance of the way the world was going, some farmers had tilled the earth in large squares.
Nothing had grown.
Nearby, Theodrin pulled herself up. «It’s madness back there», she said, her face flushed.
Androl could feel Pevara’s disapproval. The girl should not have been so free with her emotions; she hadn’t learned proper Aes Sedai control yet.
She isn’t a proper Aes Sedai, Pevara sent him, reading his thoughts. Regardless of what the Amyrlin claims. She hasn’t been through the testing yet.
Theodrin seemed to know what Pevara thought, and the two kept their distance from one another. Pevara Healed Emarin, who took it stoically. Theodrin Healed a cut on Jonneth’s arm. He seemed bemused at the motherly ministration.
She’ll have him bonded before long, Pevara sent him. Notice how she let one of the other women take her one of the fifty, then started following him about? We’ve barely been rid of her since the Black Tower.
What if he bonds her back? Androl sent.
Then we’ll see if what you and I have is unique or not. Pevara hesitated. We are stumbling upon things that have never been known.
He met her eyes. She was referring to whatever had happened during their linking this last time. She had opened a gateway, but had done it as he would have.
We’re going to need to try that again, he sent her.
Shortly, she said, Delving Emarin to be certain her Healing had taken.
«I am quite all right, Pevara Sedai», he said, courteous as always. «And if I might note, you seem as if you could use some Healing of your own».
She looked down at the burned cloth on her arm. She was still timid about letting a man Heal her, but also annoyed at her own timidity.
«Thank you», she said, her voice level as she let him touch her arm and channel.
Androl unhooked the small tin cup from his belt, and absently lifted his hand, fingers downward. He pressed his fingers as if pinching something between them, and when he spread them, a small gateway opened in the middle. Water poured out, filling the cup.
Pevara sat down beside him, accepting the cup as he offered it. She drank, then sighed. «As cool as mountain springwater».
«That’s what it is», Androl said.
«That reminds me, I’ve been meaning to ask you something. How do you do that?»
«Do this?» he said. «It’s just a small gateway».
«That’s not what I mean. Androl, you just got here. You couldn’t possibly have had time to memorize this area well enough to open a gateway to some mountain spring hundreds of miles away».
Androl stared blankly at Pevara, as if he had just heard a surprising piece of news. «I don’t know. Maybe it’s something to do with my Talent». «I see». Pevara was silent a moment. «By the way, what happened to your sword?»
Androl reached by reflex to his side. The sheath hung there, empty. He’d dropped his sword when the lightning had struck near them, and he hadn’t had the presence of mind to grab it as they fled. He groaned. «Garfin would send me to grind barley at the quartermaster’s for weeks straight if he heard of this».
«It’s not that important», Pevara said. «You have better weapons».
«It’s the principle», Androl said. «Carrying a sword reminds me. It’s like . . . well, seeing a net reminds me of fishing around Mayene, and springwater reminds me of Jain. Small things, but small things matter. I need to be a soldier again. We have to find Taim, Pevara. The seals . . ».
«Well, we can’t find him the way we’ve been trying. Do you agree?»
He sighed, but nodded.
«Excellent», she said. «I hate being a target».
«What do we do instead?»
«We approach this with careful study, not with swinging swords».
She probably had a point. «And . . . what we did? Pevara, you used my Talent».
«We shall see», she said, sipping from her cup. «Now, if only this were tea».
Androl raised his eyebrows. He took the cup back, opened a small gateway between two fingers and dropped a few dried tea leaves into the cup. He boiled it for a moment with a thread of Fire, then dropped in some honey through another gateway.
«Had some back in my workshop in the Black Tower», he said, handing the cup back. «It looks like nobody moved it».
She sipped the tea, then smiled warmly. «Androl, you are wonderful».
He smiled. Light! How long had it been since he’d felt this way about a woman? Love was supposed to be something for young fools, wasn’t it?
Of course, the young fools never could see straight. They’d look for a pretty face, and stop there. Androl had been around long enough to know that a pretty face was nothing compared to the type of solidity a woman like Pevara displayed. Control, steadiness, determination. These were things that only proper seasoning could bring.
It was the same way with leather. New leather was fine, but really good leather was leather that had been used and worn, like a strap that had been cared for over the years. You never knew for certain if you could rely on a new strap. Once it had been your companion for a few seasons, you knew.
«I’m trying to read that thought», Pevara said. «Did you just . . . compare me to an old strap of leather?»
«I’ll assume it’s a leatherworker’s thing». She sipped her tea.
«Well, you keep comparing me to . . . what is it? A bunch of little figurines?»
She smiled. «My family».
«The ones killed by Darkfriends. I'm sorry».
«It happened very, very long ago, Androl». He could sense that she was still angry about it, though.
«Light», he said. «I keep forgetting that you’re older than most trees, Pevara».
«Hmm . . ». she said. «First I’m a strap of leather, now I’m older than trees. I assume that, despite the several dozen jobs you’ve had in your life, none of your training involves how to speak with a lady?»
He shrugged. When younger, he might have been embarrassed to have his tongue tied in such knots, but he’d learned that there was just no way to avoid it. Trying to do so only made it worse. Oddly, the way he reacted pleased her. Women liked to see a man flummoxed, he supposed.
Her mirth died down, however, as she happened to glance at the sky. He was reminded, suddenly, of the empty fields below. The dead trees. The growling thunder. This was not a time for mirth, not a time for love. For some reason, though, he found himself clinging to both precisely because of that.
«We should be moving soon», he said. «What is your plan?»
«Taim will always be surrounded by minions. If we continue attacking as we have, we’ll be cut to ribbons before we can get to him. We need to reach him stealthily».
«And how are we going to manage that?»
«That depends. How crazy can you be, if the situation warrants?»
The valley of Thakan’dar had become a place of smoke, mayhem and death.
Rhuarc stalked through it, Trask and Baelder at his sides. They were brothers of his from the Red Shields. He had never met these two before coming to this place, but they were brothers nonetheless, and their bond had been sealed by the spilled blood of Shadowspawn and traitors.
Lightning broke the air, striking nearby. As Rhuarc walked, his feet crunched on sand that had been turned to shards of glass by the lightning. He reached cover—some Trolloc corpses in a pile—and crouched down, Trask and Baelder joining him. The tempest had finally come, furious winds assaulting the valley, nearly enough to pull the veil from his face.
It was difficult to make out anything. The fog had blown away, but the sky had darkened, and the storm kicked up dust and smoke. Many people fought in prowling packs.
There were no more battle lines. Earlier in the day, a Myrddraal attack—and an all-out Trolloc assault afterward—had finally broken the Defenders’ hold on the mouth of the valley. The Tairens and Dragonsworn had pulled back into the valley, toward Shayol Ghul, and now most of them fought near the base of the mountain.
Fortunately, the Trollocs that had piled through didn’t have overwhelming numbers. The killing in the pass and the long siege had reduced the numbers of Trollocs at Thakan’dar. In all, the Trollocs remaining probably equaled the number of Defenders.
That still would be a problem—but in his opinion, the Honorless who wore red veils were a far greater threat. Those roved across the expanse of the valley, as did the Aiel. In this open killing field, obscured with fog and swirling dust to ruin visibility, Rhuarc hunted. Occasionally, he would run across Trollocs in groups, but most had been driven by the Fades to fight the regular forces, the Tairens and Domani.
Rhuarc waved to his brothers, and they moved through the tempest along one side of the valley. The Light send that the regular forces and the channelers could hold the path up to the mountain where the Car’a’carn fought Sightblinder.
Rand al’Thor would need to complete his battle soon, for Rhuarc suspected it would not be long before the Shadow won this valley.
He and his brothers passed a group of Aiel dancing the spears with the traitors who wore the red veils. While many of the red-veils could channel, it seemed that none in this group could. Rhuarc and his two leaped into the dance, spears thrusting.
These red-veils fought well. Trask woke from the dream during this fight, though he slew one of the red-veils as he fell. The skirmish ended when the remaining red-veils fled. Rhuarc killed one of them with the bow, and Baelder downed another. Shooting men in the back; it was a thing they would not have done if fighting true Aiel. These creatures were worse than Shadowspawn.
The three remaining Aiel they had helped nodded in thanks. They joined with him and Baelder, and together they moved back toward the Pit of Doom to check on the defenses there.
Thankfully, the army at this place still held. Many were of those Dragonsworn who had come to the battle last, and who were made up primarily of common men and women. Yes, there were some Aes Sedai among them, even some Aiel and a couple of Asha’man. However, most of them held old swords that hadn’t seen use in years, or staffs that had probably once been farming tools.
They fought like cornered wolves against the Trollocs. Rhuarc shook his head. If the treekillers had fought so savagely, perhaps Laman would still have his throne.
A bolt of lightning came from the air, killing a number of the defenders. Rhuarc blinked the flash from his eyes, turned to the side, and scanned the surroundings through the blowing winds. There.
He motioned for his brothers to stay behind, then slipped forward in a crouch. He grabbed a handful of the gray, ashlike dust that covered the ground and rubbed it into his clothing and onto his face; the wind whipped some of it from his fingers.
He went prone on the ground, a dagger clenched in his jaw. His prey stood atop a small hill, watching the fight. One of the red-veils with his veil down, grinning. The creature’s teeth were not filed to points. The ones with teeth filed to points could all channel; some without teeth like that could as well. Rhuarc did not know what that meant.
This fellow was a channeler, revealed as he summoned Fire like a spear and launched it toward fighting Tairens nearby. Rhuarc crept forward slowly, inching along the ground in a depression in the rocks.
He was forced to watch the red-veil killing Defender after Defender, but he did not speed up. He continued his excruciatingly slow crawl, listening to the fire sizzle as the red-veil stood with hands behind his back, weaves of the One Power striking around him.
The red-veil didn’t see him. Though some of these men fought like Aiel, many did not. They were not quiet as they stalked, and did not seem to know the bow or the spear as well as they should. Men like the one in front of him . . . Rhuarc doubted they had ever had to move quietly, sneak up on a foe, kill a deer in the wilderness. Why would they want to, when they could channel?
The man didn’t notice as Rhuarc slid around a Trolloc corpse near the red-veil’s feet, then reached out and sliced the man’s hamstrings. He dropped with a cry, and before he could channel further, Rhuarc cut his throat, then slipped back into hiding between two corpses.
Two Trollocs came to see what the fuss was. Rhuarc killed the first, then dropped the second even as it turned, before they had a chance to see him. Then, once again, he melted into the landscape.
No more Shadowspawn came to investigate, so Rhuarc retreated back toward his men. As he moved—rising to a crouching run—he passed a small pack of wolves finishing off a pair of Trollocs. The wolves turned to him, muzzles bloodied and ears raised. They let him pass, moving silently out into the storm of wind to find other prey.
Wolves. They had come with the rainless tempest, and now fought alongside men. Rhuarc did not know much of how the overall battle was going. He could see that some of King Darlin’s troops in the distance still held formation. The crossbowmen had set up next to the Dragons worn. Last Rhuarc had seen, they’d nearly run out of bolts, and the strange steam-belching wagons that had been delivering supplies now lay in ruins. Aes Sedai and Asha’man continued to channel against the onslaught, but not with the energy he had seen from them earlier.
The Aiel did what they did best: kill. So long as those armies held the pathway to Rand al’Thor, perhaps that would be enough. Perhaps . . .
Something hit him. He gasped, falling to his knees. He looked up, and someone beautiful stepped through the storm to inspect him. She had wonderful eyes, though the two were offset from one another. He’d never before realized how horribly balanced everyone else’s eyes were. Thinking of it nauseated him. And all other women had too much hair on their heads. This creature, with thinning hair, was far more marvelous.
She neared, wonderful, amazing. Incredible. She touched his chin as he knelt on the ground, and her fingertips were as soft as clouds.
«Yes, you’ll do», she said. «Come, my pet. Join the others».
She gestured toward a group following her. Several Wise Ones, a pair of Aes Sedai, a man with a spear. Rhuarc growled. Would this man try to take the affection of his beloved? He would kill the man for that. He would—
His mistress chuckled. «And Moridin thinks this face a punishment.
«Well, you don’t care what face I wear, do you, my pet?» Her voice grew softer, and at the same time harsher. «When I’m through, nobody will. Moridin himself will praise my beauty, for he will see through eyes that I grant him. Just like you, pet. Just like you».
She patted Rhuarc. He joined her and the others and moved through the valley, leaving behind the men he had called brothers.
Rand stepped forward as a roadway formed itself from threads of light in front of him. His foot fell on a bright, clean paving stone and he passed from nothingness into majesty.
The road was wide enough to let six wagons pass one another at a time, but no vehicles clogged the roadway. Only people. Vibrant people, in colorful clothing, chatting, calling, eager. Sounds filled the emptiness—the sounds of life.
Rand turned, looking at the buildings as they grew around him. Tall houses lined the thoroughfare, ribbed with columns in front. Long and thin, they abutted one another, their faces toward the roadway. Beyond them lay domes and marvels, buildings that stretched toward the sky. It was like no city he had ever seen, though the workmanship was Ogier.
Partly Ogier work, that was. Nearby, workers repaired a stone facade that had broken during a storm. Thick-fingered Ogier laughed rumbling laughs as they worked alongside men. When the Ogier had come to the Two Rivers to repay Rand for his sacrifice, intending to build a monument here, the town’s leaders had wisely requested help improving their city instead.
Over the years, the Ogier and Two Rivers people had worked closely together—to the extent that now, Two Rivers craftsmen were sought the world over. Rand walked up the roadway, moving among people from all nationalities. Domani trailing colorful, filmy clothing. Tairens—the division between commoner and noble vanishing more and more by the day—in baggy clothing and shirts marked by striped sleeves. Seanchan wearing exotic silks. Borderlanders with noble airs. Even some Sharans.
All had come to Emond’s Field. The city now bore little resemblance to its name, and yet there were hints. More trees and open green spaces dotted the landscape than one would find in other great cities, like Caemlyn or Tear. In the Two Rivers, craftsmen were revered. And their marksmen were the best the world knew. An elite group of Two Rivers men, armed with the new firing sticks men were calling rifles, served with the Aiel in their peacekeeping campaigns in Shara. It was the only place war was known in the world. Oh, there were disputes here and there. The flare up between Murandy and Tear five years back had nearly given the land its first real war in the century since the Last Battle.
Rand smiled as he moved through the crowd, not jostling, but listening with pride to the joy in people’s voices. The «flare-up» in Murandy had been dynamic by Fourth Age standards, but in truth it had been nothing. A single disgruntled nobleman had fired on an Aiel patrol. Three wounded, none dead, and this was the worst «fighting» in years, outside of the Sharan campaigns.
Above, sunlight broke through the thin cloud cover, bathing the roadway in light. Rand finally reached the city square, which had once been the Green in Emond's Field. What to think of the Quarry Road now that it was wide enough to march an army down? He walked around the massive fountain at the center of the square, a monument to those who had fallen in the Last Battle, crafted by the Ogier.
He saw familiar faces among the statuary in the center of the fountain, and turned away.
Not final yet, he thought. This isn’t real yet. He’d built this reality out of threads of what could be, of mirrors of the world as it now played out. It wasn’t set.
For the first time since entering this vision of his own design, his confidence shook. He knew the Last Battle wasn’t a failure. But people were dying. Did he think to stop all death, all pain?
This should be my fight, he thought. They shouldn’t have to die. Wasn’t his sacrifice enough?
So he’d asked time and time again.
The vision quivered, fine stones beneath his feet buzzing, buildings shaking and wavering. The people stopped in place, motionless, sound dying. Down a small side street, he saw a darkness appear like a pinprick that expanded, engulfing everything near it—sucking them in. It grew to the size of one of the houses, slowly expanding.
YOUR DREAM IS WEAK, ADVERSARY.
Rand asserted his will, and the quivering stopped. People who had frozen in place resumed walking, and the comfortable chatter sprang up again. Soft wind blew down the walkway, rustling banners on poles proclaiming celebration.
«I will see that it happens», Rand said to the darkness. «This is your failing. Happiness, growth, love . . ».
THESE PEOPLE ARE MINE NOW. I WILL TAKE THEM.
«You are darkness», Rand said loudly. «Darkness cannot push back Light. Darkness exists only when Light fails, when it flees. I will not fail. I will not flee. You cannot win so long as I bar your path, Shaitan».
WE SHALL SEE.
Rand turned from the darkness and continued doggedly around the fountain. On the other side of the square, a large set of majestic white steps led up to a building four stories high and of incredible craftsmanship. Carved with reliefs, topped by a gleaming copper roof, the building was decked with banners. One hundred years. A hundred years of life, a hundred years of peace.
The woman who stood at the top of the steps had a familiarity to her features. Some Saldaean heritage, but also dark curls of hair that felt distinctly Two Rivers. Lady Adora, Perrin's granddaughter and mayor of Emond’s Field. Rand walked up the steps as she gave her speech of commemoration. Nobody noticed him. He made it so that they didn’t. He slipped like a Gray Man behind her as she proclaimed the day of celebration; then he entered the building.
It was not a government office, though it might seem so from the front. It was much more important.
To the right, grand hallways were hung with paintings and ornaments to rival those of any palace—but these depicted the great teachers and storytellers of the past, from Anla to Thom Merrilin. Rand strolled that hallway, looking in at rooms where any could come and gain knowledge, from the poorest farmer to the children of the Mayor. The building had to be large to accommodate all who wanted to learn.
YOUR PARADISE IS FLAWED, ADVERSARY.
Darkness hung in a mirror to Rand's right. It reflected not the hallway, but instead HIS presence.
YOU THINK YOU CAN ELIMINATE SUFFERING? EVEN IF YOU WIN, YOU WILL NOT ON THOSE PERFECT STREETS, MEN ARE STILL MURDERED AT NIGHT. CHILDREN GO HUNGRY DESPITE THE EFFORTS OF YOUR MINIONS. THE WEALTHY EXPLOIT AND CORRUPT; THEY MERELY DO SO QUIETLY.
«It is better», Rand whispered. «It is good».
IT IS NOT ENOUGH, AND WILL NEVER BE ENOUGH. YOUR DREAM IS FLAWED. YOUR DREAM IS A LIE. I AM THE ONLY HONESTY YOUR WORLD HAS EVER KNOWN.
The Dark One attacked him.
It came like a storm. A burst of wind so terrible, it threatened to rip Rand's skin from his bones. He stood tall, eyes toward the nothing, crossing his arms behind his back. The attack ripped away the vision—the beautiful city, the laughing people, the monument to learning and peace. The Dark One consumed it, and once again, it became mere possibility.
Silviana held the One Power, felt it flooding her, lighting the world. When she held saidar; she felt as if she could see all. It was a glorious feeling, so long as she acknowledged that it was merely a feeling. It was not truth. The lure of saidar's power had coaxed many a woman into foolhardy gestures. Certainly many Blues had made them, at one point or another.
Silviana sculpted fire from horseback, leveling Sharan soldiers. She had trained her gelding, Stinger, to never be skittish around channeling.
«Archers fall back!» Chubain yelled from just behind her. «Go, go! Heavy infantry companies, advance!» The armored foot soldiers marched past Silviana with axes and maces to confront the disoriented Sharans on the slopes. Pikes would have been better, but they didn’t have nearly enough of those for everyone.
She wove one more burst of fire into the enemy, preparing the way, then turned her attention to the Sharan archers higher up on the slope.
Once Egwene’s forces had rounded the bogs, they had split into two assault groups. The Aes Sedai had moved in with the White Tower infantry, attacking Sharans on the Heights from the west. By this time, the fires had been extinguished and most of the Trollocs had moved off the Heights to attack below.
The other half of Egwene’s army, mainly cavalry, were sent into the corridor that skirted the bogs and led toward the ford; they attacked the vulnerable rear flanks of the Trollocs that had come down the slopes to hit Elayne’s troops defending the area around the ford.
The first groups main job was to make its way up the western slope. Silviana began aiming a careful series of lightning blasts at the Sharans who were advancing to repel them.
«Once the infantry has forced its way up the slope a ways», Chubain said from beside Egwene, «we’ll have the Aes Sedai start . . . Mother?» Chu-bain’s voice had risen.
Silviana spun on horseback, looking with alarm at Egwene. The Amyrlin wasn’t channeling. Her face had grown pale, and she was trembling. Was she being attacked by a weave? Not one Silviana could see.
Figures gathered at the top of the slope, pushing aside the Sharan infantry. They began to channel, and lightning fell on the White Tower army, each with a crack shattering the air and a flash of light bright enough to stun.
«Mother!» Silviana kneed her horse up beside Egwene’s mount. Demandred must be attacking her. Touching the sa’angreal in Egwene’s hands for an extra boost of power, Silviana wove a gateway. The Seanchan woman who rode behind Egwene grabbed the Amyrlin’s reins and yanked the horse to safety through the gateway. Silviana followed, yelling, «Stand against those Sharans! Warn the male channelers of Demandred's attack on the Amyrlin Seat!
«No», Egwene said weakly, wavering in her saddle as the horses clopped into a large tent. Silviana would have liked to take her farther away, but she had not known the area well enough for a long jump. «No, it’s not . .
What’s wrong?» Silviana asked, pulling up beside her and letting the gateway vanish. «Mother?»
«It’s Gawyn», she said, pale, trembling. «He’s been hurt. Badly. He’s dying, Silviana».
Oh, Light, Silviana thought. Warders! She had feared something like this from the moment she’d seen that fool boy.
«Where?» Silviana asked.
«On the Heights. I’m going to find him. I’ll use gateways, Travel in his direction . . ».
«Light, Mother», Silviana said. «Do you have any idea how dangerous that will be? Stay here and lead the White Tower. I will try to find him».
«You can’t sense him».
«Pass his bond to me».
«You know it is the right thing to do», Silviana said. «If he dies, it could destroy you. Let me have his bond. It will let me find him, and it will protect you, should he die».
Egwene was aghast. How dare Silviana even suggest this? But, then, she was a Red—and they concerned themselves little with Warders. Silviana did not know what she was asking.
«No», Egwene said. «No, I won’t even consider it. Besides, if he dies, that would only protect me by shifting the pain to you».
«I am not the Amyrlin».
«No. If he dies, I will survive it and keep fighting. Jumping to him by gateway would be foolish, as you say, and I will not let you do it either. He is on the Heights. We will force our way up there, as ordered, and that way we can reach him. It is the best choice».
Silviana hesitated, then nodded. That would do. Together, they returned to the western side of the Heights, but Silviana stewed. Fool man! If he died, Egwene would have a very difficult time continuing to fight.
The Shadow didn’t need to fell the Amyrlin herself to stop her. It just had to kill one idiot boy.
«What are those Sharans doing?» Elayne asked softly.
Birgitte steadied her horse, taking the looking glass from Elayne. She raised it, looking across the dry river toward the slope of the Heights where a large number of Sharan troops had gathered. She grunted. «They’re probably waiting for the Trollocs to be filled with arrows».
«You don’t sound very certain», Elayne said, retrieving the looking glass. She held the One Power, but wasn’t using it for now. Her army had been fighting here at the river for two hours. The Trollocs had surged into the riverbed all up and down the Mora, but her troops were holding them off from stepping onto Shienaran soil. The bogs prevented the enemy from swinging around her left flank; her right flank was more vulnerable and would need to be watched. It would be much worse if all the Trollocs were pushing to cross the river, but Egwene’s cavalry was hitting them from behind. That took some of the pressure off her army.
Men held the Trollocs back with pikes, and the small flow of water still trickling through the bed had turned completely red. Elayne sat resolute, watching and being seen by her troops. The finest of Andor bled and died, holding back the Trollocs with difficulty. The Sharan army appeared to be readying a charge off the Heights, but Elayne was unconvinced they would launch an attack just yet; the White Tower assault on the western side had to be a concern to them. Mat sending Egwene’s army to attack from behind the Heights was a stroke of genius.
«I’m not very certain of what I said», Birgitte said softly. «Not at all. Not about much, any more».
Elayne frowned. She’d thought the conversation over. What was Birgitte saying? «What about your memories?»
«The first thing I remember now is waking up to you and Nynaeve», Birgitte said softly. «I can remember our conversations about being in the World of Dreams, but I cannot remember the place itself. It’s all slipped away from me, like water between my fingers».
«Oh, Birgitte . . ».
The woman shrugged. «I can’t miss what I don’t remember». The pain in her voice belied the words.
Birgitte shook her head. «Nothing. I feel that I’m supposed to know someone by that name, but I don’t». She chuckled. «Like I said. I don’t know what I’ve lost, so it’s all right».
«Are you lying?»
«Bloody ashes, of course I am. It’s like a hole inside of me, Elayne. A deep, gaping hole. Bleeding out my life and memories». She looked away.
«Birgitte . . . I’m sorry».
Birgitte turned her horse and moved off a way, obviously not wanting to discuss the matter further. Her pain radiated its spikes in the back of Elayne’s mind.
What would it be like, to lose so much? Birgitte didn’t have a childhood, parents. Her entire life, all she remembered, usually spanned less than a year. Elayne started to go after her, but her guards moved aside to let Galad approach, attired in the armor, tabard and cloak of the Lord Captain Commander of the Children of the Light.
Elayne tightened her lips. «Galad».
«Sister», Galad said. «I assume that it would be completely futile to inform you how inappropriate it is for a woman in your condition to be on the battlefield».
«If we lose this war, Galad, my children will be born into captivity to the Dark One, if they are born at all. I think fighting is worth the risk».
«So long as you refrain from holding the sword personally», Galad said, shading his eyes to inspect the battlefield. The words implied that he was giving her permission—permission—to lead her troops.
Streaks of light shot from the Heights, striking at the last dragons firing from the field just behind her troops. Such strength! Demandred had power that eclipsed Rand’s. If he turns that power against my troops . . .
«Why would Cauthon bring me down here?» Galad said softly. «He wanted a dozen of my best men . . "
«You’re not asking me to guess the mind of Matrim Cauthon, are you?» Elayne asked. «I’m convinced that Mat only acts simple so that people will let him get away with more».
Galad shook his head. She could see a group of his men gathered nearby. They were pointing toward the Trollocs that were slowly making their way upriver on the Arafellin bank. Elayne realized her right flank was in jeopardy.
«Send for six companies of crossbowmen», Elayne said to Birgitte. «Guybon needs to reinforce our troops upriver».
Light. This is starting to look bad. The White Tower was out there on the west slope of the Heights, where the channeling was most furious. She couldn’t see much of it, but she could feel it.
Smoke billowed over the top of the Heights, lit by splashing explosions of lightning. Like a beast of storm and hunger stirring amid the blackness, its eyes flashing as it woke.
Elayne was suddenly aware. Of the pervasive scent of smoke in the air, the cries of pain from men. Thunder from the sky, trembles in the earth. The cold air resting upon a land that would not grow, the breaking weapons, grinding of pikes against shields. The end. It really had come, and she stood upon its precipice.
A messenger galloped up, bearing an envelope. He gave the proper pass codes to Elayne’s guard, dismounted and was allowed to step up to her and Galad. He addressed Galad, handing the letter to him. «From Lord Cauthon, sir. He said you’d be here».
Galad took the letter and, frowning, opened it. He slipped a sheet of paper from inside.
Elayne waited patiently—patiently—to a count of three, then moved her horse up beside Galad’s mount and craned her neck to read. Honestly, one would think he’d take concern for the comfort of a pregnant woman.
The letter was written in Mat’s hand. And, Elayne noticed with amusement, the handwriting was much neater and the spelling much better in this one than the one he’d sent her weeks ago. Apparently, the pressure of battle made Matrim Cauthon into a better clerk.
Not much time to be flowery. You’re the only one I trust with this mission. You’ll do what is right, even when nobody bloody wants you to. The Borderlanders might not have the stomach for this, but I'll bet I can trust a Whitecloak. Take this. Get a gateway from Elayne. Do what has to be done.
Galad frowned, then upended the envelope, dumping out something silvery. A medallion on a chain. A single Tar Valon mark slid out beside it.
Elayne breathed out, then touched the medallion and channeled. She could not. This was one of the copies she’d made, one of those she’d given Mat. Mellar had stolen another one. «It protects the wearer against channeling», Elayne said. «But why send it to you?»
Galad turned the sheet of paper over, apparently noticing something. Written on the back in a hastier scrawl was, p.s. In case you don’t know what «Do what needs to be done» means, it means that I want you to go bloody slaughter as many of those Sharan channelers as you can. I'll bet you a full Tar Valon mark—it's only been shaved on the sides a little—that you can't kill twenty. —MC
«That’s bloody devious», Elayne breathed out. «Blood and bloody ashes, it is».
«Hardly fitting language for a monarch», Galad said, folding the message and placing it in the pocket of his cloak. He hesitated, then put the medallion around his neck. «I wonder if he knows what he is doing by giving one of the Children an artifact that makes one immune to the touches of the Aes Sedai. The orders are good ones. I will see them carried out».
«You can do it, then?» Elayne asked. «Kill women?»
«Perhaps once I would have hesitated», Galad said, «but that would have been the wrong choice. Women are as fully capable of being evil as men. Why should one hesitate to kill one, but not the other? The Light does not judge one based on gender, but on the merit of the heart».
«What is interesting?» Galad asked.
«You actually said something that doesn’t make me want to strangle you. Perhaps there is hope for you someday, Galad Damodred».
He frowned. «This is neither the place nor the time for levity, Elayne. You should see to Gareth Bryne. He appears agitated».
She turned, surprised to find the aging general speaking with her guards. «General?» she called to him.
Bryne looked up, then bowed formally from horseback.
«Did my guard stop you?» Elayne asked, as he approached. Had word of Bryne’s Compulsion spread?
«No, Your Majesty», he said. His horse was lathered. He had been riding hard. «I did not wish to bother you personally».
«Something is troubling you», Elayne said. «Out with it».
«Your brother, has he come this way?»
«Gawyn?» she asked, looking to Galad. «I haven’t seen him».
«Nor I», Galad said.
«The Amyrlin was certain he’d be with your forces . . ». Bryne said, shaking his head. «He went to fight on the front lines. Perhaps he came in disguise».
Why would he . . . He was Gawyn. He would want to fight. Yet sneaking to the front lines in disguise didn’t seem like him. He might gather some men loyal to him and lead a few charges. But sneak? Gawyn? It was difficult to imagine.
«I will spread word», Elayne said as Galad bowed to her, then withdrew on his mission. «Perhaps one of my commanders has seen him».
Ah . . . Mat thought, face so close to the maps that it was nearly level with them. Then he waved to the side, having Mika the damane open a gateway. Mat could have Traveled to the top of Dashar Knob to get an overview. However, the last time he had done so, enemy channelers had targeted him, shearing off part of the summit; and, despite being so high, Dashar Knob did not allow him to see everything happening below the western side of Polov Heights. He scrambled over, hands on the lip of the gateway in the table, inspecting the landscape below.
Elayne’s line at the river was being pushed back. They had run archers to their right flank. Good. Blood and bloody ashes . . . those Trollocs had nearly the weight behind them of a cavalry push. He’d need to send word to Elayne to get her cavalry lined up behind the pikes.
Like when I fought Sana Ashraf at the falls of Pena, he thought. Heavy cavalry, horseback archers, heavy cavalry, horseback archers. One after another. Taer’ain dhai hochin dieb sene.
Mat could not remember being this engaged by a battle. The fight against the Shaido had not been nearly so gripping, though Mat had not been leading that battle entirely. The fight against Elbar had not been this satisfying, either. Of course, that had been on a much smaller scale.
Demandred knew how to gamble. Mat could sense it through the movements of troops. Mat was playing against one of the best who had ever lived, and the stake this time was not wealth. They diced for the lives of men, and the final prize was the world itself. Blood and bloody ashes, but that excited him. He did feel guilty about that, but it was exciting.
«Lan is in position», Mat said, straightening up and returning to his maps, making some notations. «Tell him to strike».
The Trolloc army crossing the riverbed by the ruins needed to be crushed. He’d moved the Borderlanders around the Heights to attack their vulnerable rear flanks while Tam and his combined forces continued to pound them from the front. Tam had killed large numbers of them before and after the river had stopped. That Trolloc horde was close to being broken, and a coordinated action on two sides could do it.
Tam’s men would be tired. Could they hold long enough for Lan to arrive and hit the Trollocs from behind? Light, Mat hoped they could. If they didn’t . . .
Someone darkened the doorway of the command position, a tall man with dark, curling hair, wearing the coat of an Asha’man. He had the expression of a man who had just drawn a losing hand. Light. A Trolloc would have found that stare unnerving.
Min, who had been speaking with Tuon, choked off; Logain seemed to have a special glare for her. Mat straightened, dusting off his hands. «I hope you didn’t do anything too nasty to the guards, Logain».
«The weaves of Air will untie on their own in a minute or two», the man said, voice harsh. «I didn’t think they were likely to allow me in».
Mat glanced at Tuon. She had grown stiff as a well-starched apron. Seanchan did not trust women who could channel, let alone someone like Logain.
«Logain», Mat said. «I need you to fight alongside the White Tower army. Those Sharans are pounding them».
Logain had locked eyes with Tuon.
«Logain!» Mat said. «If you haven’t noticed, we’re fighting a bloody war here».
«It is not my war».
«This is our war», Mat snapped. «Every one of us».
«I stood forth to fight», Logain said. «And what was my reward? Ask the Red Ajah. They will tell you the reward of a man abused of the Pattern». He barked a laugh. «The Pattern demanded a Dragon! And so I came! Too soon. Just a little too soon».
«Listen here», Mat said, stepping up to Logain. «You’re angry because you didn’t get to be the Dragon?»
«Nothing so petty», Logain said. «I follow the Lord Dragon. Let him die. I wish no part of that feast. I and mine should be with him, not fighting here. This battle for the little lives of men is nothing compared to the battle happening at Shayol Ghul».
«And yet, you know we need you here», Mat said. «You would already be gone, otherwise».
Logain said nothing.
«Go to Egwene», Mat said. «Take everyone you have and keep those Sharan channelers busy!»
«What of Demandred?» Logain asked softly. «He cries out for the Dragon. He has the power of a dozen men. None of us can face him».
«But you want to try, don’t you?» Mat replied. «That’s why you’re really here, right now. You want me to send you against Demandred».
Logain hesitated, then nodded. «He cannot have the Dragon Reborn. He will have to take me instead. The Dragon’s . . . replacement, if you will».
Blood and bloody ashes . . . they're all insane. Unfortunately, what else was Mat going to do against one of the Forsaken? Right now, his battle plan revolved around keeping Demandred occupied, forcing the man to respond. If Demandred had to act as general, he couldn’t do as much damage channeling.
He would have to come up with something to deal with the Forsaken. He was working on that. He’d been working on it the whole bloody battle, and hadn’t come up with anything.
Mat glanced back through his gateway. Elayne was being pressed too hard. He had to do something. Send in the Seanchan? He had them positioned at the southern end of the field on the banks of the Erinin. They would be a wildcard to Demandred, preventing him from committing all his troops in the battles being waged below the Heights. In addition, he had plans for them. Important ones.
Logain didn’t have much of a shot against Demandred, in Mat’s estimation. But he’d have to deal with the man somehow. If Logain wanted to try, then so be it.
«You may fight him», Mat said. «Do it now, or wait until he is weakened a little. Light, I hope we can weaken him. Anyway, I leave it to you. Pick your time and attack».
Logain smiled, then made a gateway right in the middle of the room and strode through, hand on his sword. He had enough pride to be the Dragon Reborn, that was for certain. Mat shook his head. What he would give to be done with all of these high heads. Mat might be one of them now, but that could be fixed. All he had to do was convince Tuon to forsake her throne and run off with him. That would not be easy, but bloody ashes, he was fighting the Last Battle. Compared to the challenge he now faced, Tuon seemed to be an easy knot to untie.
«Glory of men . . ». Min whispered. «It’s still to come».
«Someone go check on those guards», Mat said, returning to his maps. «Tuon, we may want to move you. This place never has been secure, and Logain has just proven it».
«I can protect myself», she said haughtily.
Too haughty. He raised an eyebrow at her, and she nodded.
Really? Mat thought. This is what you want to fight about? He was not certain the spy would buy it. Too flimsy a reason.
His plan with Tuon was to take a cue from what Rand had once done with Perrin. If Mat could fake a split between himself and the Seanchan, and in so doing make Tuon pull her forces back, perhaps the Shadow would ignore her. Mat needed an edge of some sort.
Two guards came in. No, three. That one fellow was easy to miss. Mat shook his head at Tuon—they needed to find something more realistic to argue over—and glanced back at his maps.
Something itched at him about the little guard. Looks more like a servant than a soldier, Mat thought. He forced himself to look up, though he really should not let himself become distracted by common servants. Yes, there the fellow was, standing beside Mats table. Not worth paying attention to, even if he was pulling a knife out.
Mat stumbled back as the Gray Man attacked. Mat yelled, reaching for one of his own knives, just as Mika screamed. «Channeling! Nearby!»
Min threw herself at Fortuona as the wall of the command post went up in flame. Sharans in strange armor made of bands of metal, painted gold, ripped through the blazing opening. Channelers with tattooed faces accompanied them: the women in long, stiff black dresses, the men shirtless, trousers ragged. Min took this in just before she tipped Fortuona’s throne over.
Fire burned through the air above Min, singeing her ornate silks and consuming the wall behind them. Fortuona scrambled out of Min’s grip, lying low, and Min blinked in surprise. The woman had left her bulky costume behind—it was made to break away—and underneath wore sleek silken trousers and a tight shirt, both black.
Tuon came up with a knife in her hand, growling softly in an almost feral way. Nearby, Mat fell backward to the ground, a knife-wielding man on top of him. Where had that man come from? She didn’t remember him entering.
Tuon ran for Mat as Sharan channelers began to pound the command post with fire. Min struggled to her feet in the awful clothing. She pulled a dagger out and huddled by the throne, putting her back to it as the ground heaved.
She couldn’t reach Fortuona, so she forced herself out the back wall, which was made of the paperlike stuff the Seanchan called tenmi.
She coughed at the smoke, but now that she was outside, the air was clearer. None of the Sharans were here on this side of the building. They were all attacking from the other directions. She sprinted along the wall. Channelers were dangerous, but if she could put a knife in one, all of the One Power in the world wouldn’t matter.
She peeked around the corner, and was surprised by a man crouching there, a feral look in his eyes. He had an angular face; his blood-red neck tattoos looked like claws, cupping his light-skinned head and chin.
He growled, and Min threw herself backward to the ground, ducking a ribbon of fire and throwing her knife.
The man caught it in the air. He prowled forward in a crouch, bestial, smiling at her.
Then he jerked, suddenly, and fell over, thrashing. A trickle of blood came from his lips.
«That», a woman said nearby, a sound of utter distaste in her tone, «is something I’m not supposed to know how to do, but stopping someone’s heart with the One Power is quiet. It requires very little Power, surprisingly, which is pertinent to me».
«Siuan!» Min said. «You’re not supposed to be here».
«Lucky for you I am», Siuan said with a snort, inspecting the body, staying low. «Bah. Nasty business that, but if you’re going to eat a fish, you should be willing to gut it yourself. What’s wrong, girl? You’re safe now. No need to look so pale».
«You’re not supposed to be here!» Min said. «I told you. Stay near Gareth Bryne!»
«I did stay near him, almost near as his own smallclothes, I’ll have you know. We saved one another’s lives because of it, so I guess the viewing was right. Are they ever wrong?»
«No, I’ve told you that», Min whispered. «Never. Siuan . . . I saw an aura around Bryne that meant you had to stay together, or the two of you would die. It hangs above you, right now. Whatever you think you did, the viewing has not been accomplished yet. It’s still there»
Siuan stood frozen for a moment. «Cauthon is in danger».
«I don’t care, girl!» Nearby, the ground trembled with the force of the One Power. The damane were fighting back. «If Cauthon falls, this battle is lost! I don’t care if we both die from this. We must help. Move!»
Min nodded, then joined her as she moved around the side of the ragged building. The firefight outside was a raw mix of explosions, smoke and flames. Members of the Deathwatch Guard charged the Sharans, swords out, heedless of their companions being slaughtered around them. That, at least, was keeping the channelers busy.
The command post burned with such heat that Min had to shy back, raising an arm.
«Hold on», Siuan said, then used the One Power to draw a small column of water out of a nearby barrel, spraying them both. «I’ll try to dampen the flames», she said, redirecting the small column of water to the command post. «All right. Lets go».
Min nodded, bursting through the flames, Siuan joining her. The tenmi walls inside had all started aflame, burning away quickly. Fire dripped from the ceiling.
«There», Min said, blinking away tears from the heat and the smoke. She pointed toward dark figures struggling near the center of the building and Mat’s blazing map table. There seemed to be a group of three or four people fighting Mat. Light, they were all Gray Men—not just one of them! Tuon was down.
Min ran past the corpse of a sul’dam alongside several guards. Siuan used the One Power to haul one of the Gray Men away from Mat. Guards’ corpses created shadows of firelight on the floor. One damane still lived, huddled in a corner, looking terrified, her leash on the floor. Her sul’dam lay a distance away, unmoving. Her grip had been knocked free, it appeared, and then she was killed as she tried to get back to her damane.
«Do something!» Min shouted at the girl, grabbing her by the arm.
The damane shook her head, crying.
«Burn you—" Min said.
The ceiling of the structure groaned. Min ran for Mat. One Gray Man was dead, but there were two others, wearing the uniforms of Seanchan guards. Min had trouble seeing the living ones; they were inhumanly average in every way. Utterly nondescript.
Mat bellowed, knifing one of the men, but he didn’t have his spear. Min didn’t know where it was. Mat pushed forward, reckless, taking a gash along his side. Why?
Tuon, Min realized, stumbling to a halt. One of the Gray Men knelt above her motionless form, raising a dagger, and—
Mat toppled to the ground a few feet from Tuon; the final Gray Man had him by the legs. Min’s knife spun through the air, reflecting flames, and took the Gray Man over Tuon in the chest.
Min breathed out. Never in her life had she been so happy to see a knife fly true. Mat had cursed, turning about, booting his aggressor in the face. He followed that with a knife, then scrambled for Tuon, hauling her up onto his shoulder.
Min met him. «Siuan is here, too. She—"
Mat pointed. Siuan lay on the floor of the building. Her eyes stared sightlessly, and all the images were gone from above her.
Dead. Min froze, heart wrenching. Siuan! She moved toward the woman anyway, unable to believe she was dead, though her clothing burned from the explosion of fire that had taken her and about half of the wall nearby her.
«Out!» Mat said, coughing, cradling Tuon. He threw his shoulder against a wall that was only half-burned, breaking out into the air.
Min groaned, leaving Siuan’s corpse, blinking away tears both from grief and from the smoke. She coughed as she followed Mat out into open air. The outside smelled so sweet, so cold. Behind them, the building groaned, then collapsed.
In moments, Min and Mat were surrounded by members of the Death-watch Guard. Not a one tried to take Tuon—who was still breathing, if shallowly—away from Mat. From the look in his eye, Min doubted they’d have been able to do so.
Farewell, Siuan, Min thought, looking back as Guards ushered her away from the fighting below Dashar Knob. May the Creator shelter your soul.
She would send word to others to protect Bryne, but she knew—deep down—it would be futile. He would have gone into a vengeful rage the moment Siuan died, and discounting that, there was the viewing.
She was never wrong. Sometimes, Min hated her accuracy. But she was never wrong.
«Strike at their weaves», Egwene yelled. «I’ll attack!»
She didn’t wait to see if she was obeyed. She struck, holding as much power as she could, drawing it through Vora’s sa’angreal and heaving three different bands of fire upslope at the entrenched Sharans.
Around her, Bryne’s well-trained troops struggled to maintain battle lines as they fought Sharan soldiers, working their way up the western side of the Heights. The hillside was pocked with hundreds of furrows and holes, created by weaves from one side or the other.
Egwene fought forward desperately. She could feel Gawyn above, but she thought he was unconscious; his spark of life was so faint that she could barely sense his direction. Her only hope was to fight through the Sharans and reach him.
The ground rumbled as she vaporized a Sharan woman above; Saerin, Doesine and other sisters concentrated on deflecting the enemy weaves, while Egwene focused on sending attacks. She stepped forward. One step after another.
I'm coming, Gawyn, she thought, growing frantic. I’m coming.
«We come to report, Wyld».
Demandred ignored the messengers for the moment. He flew upon the wings of a falcon, inspecting the battle through the birds eyes. Ravens were better, but each time he tried using one of those, one Borderlander or another shot it down. Of all the customs to remember through the Ages, why did it have to be that one?
No matter. A falcon would work, even if the bird did resist his control. He guided it about the battlefield, inspecting formations, deployments, advancements of troops. He did not have to rely upon the reports of others.
It should have been an almost insurmountable advantage. Lews Therin could not use such an animal; this was a gift only the True Power could grant. Demandred could channel only a thin trickle of the True Power—not enough for destructive weaves, but there were other ways to be dangerous. Unfortunately, Lews Therin had his own advantage. Gateways that looked down upon a battlefield? It was discomforting the things people of this time discovered, things that hadn’t been known during the Age of Legends.
Demandred opened his eyes and broke his bond to the falcon. His forces were advancing, but each step was a grueling ordeal. Tens of thousands of Trollocs had been slain. He had to be careful; their numbers were not limitless.
He was currently on the eastern side of the Heights, looking down at the river below and northeast of the place where Lews Therin’s assassin had tried to kill him.
Here, Demandred was nearly opposite the hill that Moghedien said they called Dashar Knob. The rock formation rose high in the air; its base was a fine position for a command post, sheltered from attacks by the One Power.
It was so tempting to strike there himself, to Travel to it and lay waste. But was that what Lews Therin wanted? Demandred would fight the man. He would. However, Traveling into the enemy’s stronghold and possibly a trap, surrounded as it was by those high rock walls . . . Better to draw Lews Therin to him. Demandred dominated this battlefield. He could choose where their confrontation would occur.
The riverbed had been slowed to a muddy trickle below, and Demandred’s Trollocs fought to seize the southern bank. The defenders held for now, but he would have them soon. Far upriver M’Hael had done his work well in diverting that water, though he had reported unusual resistance. Townspeople and a small unit of soldiers? An oddity that Demandred had not yet deciphered.
He had almost wished for failure from M'Hael. Though Demandred himself had been the one to recruit the man, he had not expected M’Hael to rise to the rank of Chosen so quickly.
Demandred turned to the side. Before him bowed three women in black with white ribbons. Next to them, Shendla.
Shendla. He had thought himself long past caring for a woman again—how could affection thrive beside the burning passion that was his hatred for Lews Therin? And yet, Shendla . . . Devious, capable, powerful. Almost it was enough to change his heart.
«What is your report?» he asked the three bowing women in black.
«The hunt was a failure», Galbrait said, her head low.
«Yes, Wyld. I have failed you». He heard the pain in the woman’s voice, one was leader of the female Ayyad.
«You were not meant to kill him», Demandred said. «He is a foe beyond your skill. You have disrupted his command post?»
«Yes» Galbrait said. «We killed half a dozen of his channelers, set the building aflame and destroyed his maps».
«Did he channel? Did he reveal himself?»
She hesitated, then shook her head.
So he could not know for certain yet if this Cauthon was Lews Therin in disguise Demandred suspected he was, but there were reports from Shayol Ghul that Lews Therin had been seen there, on the slopes of the mountain. He had proven devious in the Last Battle before, jumping between battlefields, showing himself here and there.
The more Demandred maneuvered against the enemy general, the more he believed that Lews Therin was here. It would be very like Lews Therin to send a decoy north while coming to fight this battle himself.
Lews Therin had difficulty letting others fight for him. He always wanted to be doing everything himself, leading every battle—every charge if he could.
Yes . how else could Demandred explain the skill of the enemy general. Only a man with the experience of an ancient was so masterly at the dance of battlefields. At their core, many battle tactics were simple. Avoid being flanked, meet heavy force with pikes, infantry with a well-trained line channelers with other channelers. And yet, the finesse of it . . . the little details . . . these took centuries to master. No man from this Age had lived long enough to learn the details with such care.
During the War of Power, the only thing that Demandred had ever done better than his friend was as a battle general. It stung to admit that, but he would no longer hide from that truth. Lews Therin had been stronger in the One Power. Lews Therin had been better at capturing the hearts of men. Lews Therin had taken Ilyena.
But Demandred . . . Demandred had been better at war. Lews Therin had never been able to correctly balance caution and boldness. The man would hold back and deliberate, worrying over his decisions, until boiling forward in a reckless military action.
If this Cauthon was Lews Therin, the man had grown better at that. The enemy general knew when to flip the coin and let fate rule, but did not let too much ride on each result. He would have made an excellent card player.
Demandred would still defeat him, of course. The battle would merely be more . . . interesting.
He rested his hand on his sword, considering his scan of the battlefield moments before. His Trollocs continued their attack at the riverbed, and Lews Therin had formed his pikemen, opposite them, into disciplined square formations, a defensive move. Behind Demandred, the shaking booms of channelers marked the greater war, that between his Sharan Ayyad and the Aes Sedai.
He held the advantage there. His Ayyad were far better at war than the Aes Sedai. When would Cauthon commit those damane? Moghedien had reported some dissension between them and the Aes Sedai. Could Demandred widen the fracture there somehow?
He gave orders, and the three Ayyad nearby retreated. Shendla remained, waiting his permission to leave. He had her scouting the area nearby and watching for more assassins.
«Are you worried?» he asked her. «You know now for which side we fight. So far as I know, you have not given yourself to the Shadow».
«I’ve given myself to you, Wyld».
«And for me you fight beside Trollocs? Halfmen? Creatures from nightmare?»
«You said some would call your actions evil», she said. «But I do not see them as such. Our path is clear. Once you are victorious, you will remake the world, and our people will be preserved». She took his hand, and something stirred within him. It was quickly smothered by his hatred.
«I would cast it all away», he said, looking into her eyes. «Everything for a chance at Lews Therin».
«You have promised to try», she said. «That will be enough. And if you destroy him, you will destroy one world and preserve another. I will follow you. We will follow you».
Her voice seemed to imply that perhaps, once Lews Therin was dead, Demandred would be able to become his own man again.
He was not certain. Rule only interested him insofar as he could use it against his ancient enemy. The Sharans, devoted and faithful, were just a tool. But within him, there was something that wished it was not so. That was new. Yes, it was.
The air nearby warped, bending. No weaves were visible—this was a ripping of the fabric of the Pattern, Traveling by the True Power. M’Hael had arrived.
Demandred turned, and Shendla released his arm, but did not leave his side. M’Hael had been given access to the Great Lord’s essence. That did not make Demandred jealous. M’Hael was another tool. Still, it made him wonder. Was anyone denied the True Power, these days?
«You are going to lose the battle near the ruins, Demandred», M’Hael said with an arrogant smile. «Your Trollocs there will be crushed. You had the enemy vastly outnumbered, and yet they still will defeat you! I thought you were supposed to be our greatest general, yet you lose to this rabble? I’m disappointed».
Demandred raised his hand casually, two fingers up.
M’Hael jerked as two dozen nearby Sharan channelers slammed shields between him and the One Power. They wrapped him in the Air, jerking him backward. He fought back, the air-warping aura of the True Power surrounding him, but Demandred was faster. He wove a True Power shield, building it from burning threads of Spirit.
The threads trembled in the air, each one barbed with twisting strands of energy so small, the ends vanished into nothing. The True Power was so volatile, so dangerous. A shield crafted from it had a strange effect, drinking in the power of another trying to channel it.
Demandred’s shield stole M’Hael’s power, and used the man like a conduit. Demandred gathered the True Power and wove it into a crackling ball of force above his hand. Only M’Hael would be able to see it, and the man’s proud eyes opened wide as Demandred drained him.
It was not unlike a circle. The pulling of energy made M’Hael tremble, sweat, as he was held up by the weaves of Demandred’s Ayyad. This flow could burn M’Hael out, if unchecked—could flay his soul with the rushing of the True Power, like a river surging beyond its banks. The twisting mass of threads in Demandred’s hands pulsed and crackled, warping the air, beginning to unravel the Pattern.
Tiny spiderweb cracks spread out on the ground from him. Cracks into nothingness.
He walked up to M’Hael. The man began to have a seizure, froth dripping from his lips.
«You will listen to me, M’Hael», Demandred said softly. «I am not as the other Chosen. I do not care one whit for your political games. I don’t care which of you the Great Lord favors, which of you Moridin pats on the head. I care only for Lews Therin.
«This is my fight. You are mine. I brought you to the Shadow, and I can destroy you. If you interfere with what I do here, I will snuff you out like a candle. I realize you think yourself strong, with your stolen Dreadlords and untrained channelers. You are a child, an infant. Take your men, create what chaos you wish, but stay out of my way. And stay away from my prize. The enemy general is mine».
M’Hael’s eyes, though his body betrayed him with trembles, were full of hatred, not fear. Yes, this one always had shown promise.
Demandred turned his hand and launched a stream of balefire with the gathered True Power. The white-hot line of liquid destruction burned through the armies at the river below, vaporizing each man or woman it touched. Their forms became points of light, then dust, hundreds of them vanishing. He left a long line of burned ground, like a furrow cut by an enormous cleaver.
«Release him», Demandred said, allowing the True Power shield to unravel.
M’Hael stumbled back, keeping his feet, sweat dripping from his face. He gasped, hand raised to his chest.
«Stay alive through this battle», Demandred said to him, turning away and beginning a weave to summon his falcon back. «If you do so, perhaps I will show you how to do as I just did. You may think you wish to kill me now, but know that the Great Lord watches. Beyond that, consider this. You may have a hundred pet Asha’man. I have over four hundred of my Ayyad. I am this world’s savior».
When he looked back, M’Hael was gone, having Traveled away with the True Power. It was amazing that he could summon the strength, after what Demandred had just done. He hoped he wouldn’t have to kill the man. He should prove useful.
I WILL WIN EVENTUALLY.
Rand stood before the blowing winds, stood strong, though his eyes watered as he stared into the darkness. How long had he been in this place? A thousand years? Ten thousand?
For the moment, he concerned himself only with defiance. He would not bend before this wind. He could not give in for a fraction of a heartbeat. THE TIME HAS COME, FINALLY.
«Time is nothing to you», Rand said.
It was true, and it was not. Rand could see the threads swirling around him, forming the Pattern. As it formed, he saw the battlefields below him. Those he loved fighting for their lives. These were not possibilities; this was the truth, what was actually happening.
The Dark One wrapped around the Pattern, unable to take it and destroy it, but able to touch it. Tendrils of darkness, spines, touched the world at points all along its length. The Dark One lay like shadow upon the Pattern.
When the Dark One touched the Pattern, time existed for him. And so, while time was nothing to the Dark One, he—or it, as the Dark One had no gender—could only work within its bounds. Like . . . like a sculptor who had marvelous visions and dreams but was still bound by the reality of the materials he worked with.
Rand stared at the Pattern, resisting the Dark Ones attack. He did not move or breathe. Breath wasn’t needed here.
People died below. Rand heard their screams. So many fell.
I WILL WIN EVENTUALLY, ADVERSARY. WATCH THEM SCREAM. WATCH THEM DIE.
THE DEAD ARE MINE.
«Lies», Rand said.
NO. I WILL SHOW YOU.
The Dark One spun possibility again, gathering up what could be, and thrust Rand into another vision.
Juilin Sandar was not a commander. He was a thief-catcher, not some nobleman. Certainly not a nobleman. He worked on his own.
Except, apparently, when he ended up on a battlefield, put in charge of a squad of men because he had successfully captured dangerous men as a thief-catcher. The Sharans pressed against his men, aiming for the Aes Sedai. They fought on the western side of the Heights, and his squad’s job was to protect the Aes Sedai from Sharan infantry.
Aes Sedai. How had he ever gotten tangled up with Aes Sedai? Him, a good Tairen.
«Hold!» Juilin yelled to his men. «Hold!» He yelled it for his own benefit, too. His squad held to their spears and pikes, forcing the Sharan infantry backward up the slope. He wasn’t sure why he was here, or why they were fighting in this sector. He just wanted to stay alive!
The Sharans shouted and cursed in an unfamiliar tongue. They had a lot of those channelers, but the outfit he faced was made up of regular troops who used a variety of hand weapons, mostly swords and shields. Corpses littered the ground, and that made it difficult for both sides as Juilin and his men followed orders, pushing against the Sharan troops while the Aes Sedai and enemy channelers traded weaves.
Juilin wielded a spear, a weapon he was only mildly familiar with. An armored Sharan squad forced its way between Myk and Charn’s pikes. The officers wore breastplates, strangely wrapped in cloth of a variety of colors, while the common rank and file wore leather fitted with strips of metal. They all had their backs painted with strange patterns.
The leader of the Sharan troop wielded a wicked mace, smashing one pikeman, then the other. The man shouted at Juilin, curses he didn’t understand.
Juilin feinted, and the Sharan raised his shield, so Juilin rammed his spear into the man’s armor at the gap between breastplate and arm. Light, he didn’t even flinch! He smashed his shield into Juilin, forcing him back.
The spear slipped from Juilin’s sweaty fingers. He cursed, reaching for his sword breaker, a weapon he knew well. Myk and the others fought nearby, engaging the rest of this Sharan squad. Charn tried to help Juilin, but the crazed Sharan brought his mace down on Charn’s head—splitting it in two like a cracked walnut.
«Die, you bloody monster!» Juilin cried, leaping forward and ramming his sword breaker into the man’s neck just above the gorget. Other Sharans were moving quickly toward his position. Juilin fell back as the man in front of him collapsed and died. Just in time, as a Sharan to his left tried to take his head off with a broad swing of his sword. The tip of the sword went by his ear, and Juilin instinctively raised his own blade. His opponent’s weapon broke in two, and he quickly dispatched the man with a backhand slice to the man’s throat.
Juilin scrambled to pick up his spear. Fireballs fell nearby, attacks from the Aes Sedai behind and the Sharans on the Heights ahead. Soil coated Juilin’s hair, and stuck in clumps to the blood on his arms.
«Hold!» Juilin shouted to his men. «Burn you, we need to hold!»
He attacked another Sharan who came at him. One of the pikemen raised his weapon in time to pin the man on the shoulder, and Juilin speared him through his leather-clad chest.
The air trembled. His ears rang faintly from all of the explosions. Juilin pulled back, yelling orders to his men.
He wasn’t supposed to be here. He was supposed to be someplace warm, with Amathera, thinking about the next criminal he needed to catch.
He figured that every man on the field felt they should be someplace else. The only thing to do was keep on fighting.
You look good in black, Androl sent to Pevara as they moved through the enemy army on top of the Heights.
That, she replied back, is something one should never, never say to an Aes Sedai. Ever.
His only response was a sense of nervousness through the bond. Pevara understood. They—wearing inverted weaves of the Mask of Mirrors—walked among Darkfriends, Shadowspawn and Sharans. And it was working. Pevara wore a white dress and a black cloak over it—those weren’t part of a weave—but anyone looking into her cloak’s hood would see the face of Alviarin, a member of the Black Ajah. Theodrin wore the face of Rianna.
Androl and Emarin wore weaves that gave them the faces of Nensen and Kash, two of Taim’s cronies. Jonneth looked very unlike himself, wearing the face of a nondescript Darkfriend, and he played the part well, skulking behind and carrying their gear. One would never have seen the good-natured Two Rivers man in that hawk-faced man with the greasy hair and nervous manner.
They moved at a brisk pace along the back lines of the Shadow’s army on the Heights. Trollocs hauled bundles of arrows forward; others left the lines to feast on piles of corpses. Cookpots boiled here. That shocked Pevara. They were stopping to eat? Now?
Only some of them, Androl sent. It’s common for human armies too, though these moments don’t make it into the ballads. The fighting has lasted all day, and soldiers need energy while fighting. Usually, you rotate in three batches. Your front lines, your reserves, and your off-duty—troops who will trudge away from the fight and eat as quickly as they can before grabbing a little sleep. Then back to the front lines.
She’d once seen war differently. She’d imagined every man committed every moment of the day. A true battle, however, was not a sprint; it was an extended, soul-grinding trudge.
It was late afternoon already, approaching evening. To the east, below the Heights, battle lines extended far in both directions along the dry riverbed. Many thousands of men and Trollocs fought back and forth there. Large numbers of Trollocs fought there, but others were rotated back up the Heights to either eat or collapse into unconsciousness for a time.
She did not look too closely at the cookpots, though Jonneth fell to his knees and sicked up beside the path. He had noticed the body parts floating in the thick stew. As he emptied his stomach onto the ground, a passing group of Trollocs snorted and hooted in mockery.
Why are they pushing off the Heights to take the river? she sent to Androl. It seems to be a better position up here.
Maybe it is, Androl sent. But the Shadow is the aggressor. If they stay in this position, it serves Cauthon's army. Demandred needs to keep pressing him. That means crossing the river.
So Androl understood tactics, too. Interesting.
I've picked up a few things, he sent. I wont be leading a battle any time soon.
Just curious how many lives you’ve led, Androl.
An odd statement, coming from a woman who is old enough to be my grandmother’s grandmother.
They continued along the eastern side of the Heights. Distant, on the far western side, the Aes Sedai were battling their way up to the top—but for now, the Heights were held by Demandred’s forces. This area Pevara walked through was full of Trollocs. Some bowed in a lumbering way as Pevara and the others passed, others curled up on the stones to sleep, with no cushions or blankets. Each one kept its weapon at hand.
«This does not look promising», Emarin said softly from behind his mask. «I do not see Taim associating with Trollocs any more than he has to».
«Ahead», Androl said. «Look there».
The Trollocs were separated from a group of Sharans who could be seen up ahead, wearing unfamiliar uniforms. They wore armor that was wrapped in cloth, so none of the metal showed except on the very back, though the shape of the breastplates was still obvious. Pevara looked to the others.
«I could see Taim being part of that group», Emarin said. «It’s likely to smell far less putrid than over here among the Trollocs, for one thing».
Pevara had been ignoring the stench—she had learned to do that years ago, snuffing out powerful scents in the same way she ignored heat and cold. As Emarin said it, however, a hint of what the others were smelling seeped through her defenses. She quickly regained control. It was awful.
«Will the Sharans let us pass?» Jonneth asked.
«We shall see», Pevara said, setting off toward the Sharans; their group fell in around her. The Sharan guards maintained an uneasy line against the Trollocs, watching them as they would enemies. This alliance, or whatever it was, did not sit terribly well with the Sharan soldiers. They didn’t try to mask their looks of disgust, and many had tied cloths around their faces to mask the odors.
As Pevara passed their line, a nobleman—or such she assumed him to be, from his armor of brazen rings—moved to confront her. A well-practiced Aes Sedai look staved him off. I am far too important for you to bother, that look said. It worked beautifully, and they were in.
The Sharan reserve camp was orderly as men rotated in from the west, where they fought the White Tower forces. The fierce channeling from that direction kept drawing Pevara’s attention, like a bright light.
What do you think? Androl sent to her.
We’re going to need to talk to someone. The battlefield is just too big for us to find Taim on our own.
He sent back his agreement. Not for the first time, Pevara found their bond distracting. She not only had to deal with her own nervousness, but Androl’s as well. That crept from the back of her mind, and she had to constrain it forcefully, using breathing exercises she’d learned when first in the Tower.
She stopped in the center of the camp, looking about, trying to decide whom to approach. She could distinguish servants from nobles. Approaching the former would be less dangerous, but also less likely to yield results. Maybe—
Pevara started, spinning around.
«You should not be here». The aged Sharan was completely bald, with a short gray beard. Twin sword hilts in the shape of serpents’ heads peeked out over his shoulders; he wore the blades crossed at his back, and he carried a staff that had strange holes along its length. A flute of some sort?
«Come», the man said, his accent so thick, Pevara could barely make it out. «The Wyld will need to see you».
Who is the Wyld? Pevara sent Androl.
He shook his head, feeling as baffled as she did.
This could turn out very badly.
The old man stopped ahead of them with an annoyed expression. What would he do if they refused? Pevara was tempted to create a gateway for them to flee.
We follow, Androl thought, striding forward. We're never going to find Taim in this unless we talk to someone.
Pevara frowned as he walked after the man, the other Asha’man joining him. She hurriedly caught up. I thought we had decided I was in charge, she thought to him.
No, he replied, I thought that we’d decided you would act like you were in charge.
She sent back a calculated mix of cold displeasure and an implication that the conversation was not yet finished.
Androl sent back amusement. Did you . . . just glare at me mentally? That’s impressive.
We’re taking a risk, she sent back. This man could lead us into anything.
Yes, he replied.
Something smoldered inside of him, something only hinted at until now. You want Taim that badly?
. . . Yes. I do.
You understand? he sent.
I lost friends to him as well, Androl, she replied. I watched the?n be taken right in front of me. We have to be careful, though. We cant take too many risks. Not yet.
It’s the end of the world\ Pevara, Androl sent back. If we can’t take risks now, when will we?
She followed without further argument, wondering at the determined focus she sensed in Androl. Taim had awoken something inside of him by taking his friends and Turning them to the Shadow.
As they followed the old Sharan, Pevara realized that she didn’t understand what Androl was feeling, not completely. Aes Sedai friends of hers had been taken, but it wasn’t the same as Androl losing Evin. Evin had trusted Androl, looked to Androl for protection. The Aes Sedai with Pevara had been acquaintances, friends, but it was different.
The old Sharan led them to a larger group of people, many of whom wore fine clothing. The highest noblemen and women among the Sharans didn’t seem to fight, for not one of them carried a weapon. They made way for the older man, though several looked at his swords and sneered.
Jonneth and Emarin moved in around Pevara and Theodrin, one to each side, like bodyguards. They eyed the Sharans, hands on weapons, and she suspected that both were holding the One Power. Well, that would probably be expected of Dreadlords who were walking among allies they didn’t fully trust. They didn’t need to protect Pevara in such a way, but it was a nice gesture. She had always thought it would be useful to have a Warder. She had gone to the Black Tower with the intention of taking multiple Asha’man as Warders. Perhaps . . .
Androl immediately felt jealous. What are you? Some Green with a flock of men fawning over her?
She sent back amusement. Why not?
They’re too young for you, he sent back. Jonneth is, anyway. And Theodrin would fight you for him.
I’m considering bonding them, she sent back, not bedding them, Androl Honestly. Besides, Emarin prefers men.
Androl paused. He does?
Of course he does. Haven’t you been paying attention?
Androl seemed baffled. Sometimes, men could be surprisingly dense, even observant ones like Androl.
Pevara embraced the One Power as they reached the center of the group. Would she have time to make a gateway if something went wrong? She did not know the area, but so long as she Traveled somewhere nearby, that wouldn’t matter. She felt as if she was walking up to a noose and inspecting it, deciding how well it would fit her neck.
A tall man in armor made of silvery discs with holes in the middle stood at the center of the group, dispensing orders. As they watched, a cup moved toward him through the air. Androl stiffened. He’s channeling, Pevara.
Demandred, then? It must be. Pevara let saidar flood her with its warm glow, letting it wash away emotions. The old man who had been leading them stepped forward and whispered something to Demandred. Despite the enhanced senses of saidar,; Pevara could not hear what was said.
Demandred turned toward the group of them. «What is this? Has M’Hael so quickly forgotten his orders?»
Androl dropped to his knees, as did the others. Though it galled her, Pevara went down as well.
«Great One», Androl said, «we were merely—"
«No excuses!» Demandred yelled. «No games! M’Hael is to take all of his Dreadlords and destroy the White Tower forces. If I see any of you away from that fight, I will make you wish I’d given you to the Trollocs instead!»
Androl nodded eagerly, then began backing away. A whip of Air Pevara could not see—although she could feel his pain through the bond—cracked him in the face. The rest of them followed after him, scrambling away with heads low.
That was foolish and dangerous, Pevara thought at Androl.
And effective, he replied, eyes ahead, hand to his cheek, blood seeping between the fingers. We know Taim is on the battlefield for sure, and we know where to find him. Let’s move.
Galad scrambled through a nightmare. He had known that the Last Battle might be the end of the world, but now . . . now he felt it.
Channelers on both sides scourged one another, shaking Polov Heights. Lightning had struck so often that Galad could barely hear any longer, and his eyes watered from the pain of seeing blasts strike nearby.
He threw himself up against the hillside, digging his shoulder into the ground and ducking for cover as a series of explosions ripped up the earth in front of him. His team—twelve men in tattered white cloaks—dove for cover with him.
The White Tower’s forces were strained under the attacks, but so were the Sharan forces. The power of so many channelers was incredible.
The main bulk of White Tower infantry and a large number of Sharan troops fought here on the western Heights. Galad stayed on the perimeter of that battle, looking for Sharan channelers alone or in small groups. In many places here, the battle lines on both sides had fractured. Not surprising; it was near impossible to maintain solid battle lines with all of that power being flung back and forth.
Bands of soldiers scrambled about, seeking cover in blown-out holes in the rock. Others protected groups of channelers. Nearby, women and men roamed about in small groups, destroying soldiers with fire and lightning.
These were what Galad hunted.
He raised his sword, pointing at a trio of Sharan women holding at the top of the Heights. He and his men were more than halfway up the slope.
Three. Three would be difficult. They turned their attention on a small band of men wearing the Flame of Tar Valon. Lightning struck the unfortunate soldiers.
Galad held up four fingers. Plan four. He leaped out of his hollow and dashed toward the three women. His men waited a count of five, then followed behind.
The women saw him. If they’d remained turned away, Galad would have gained the advantage. One raised a hand and summoned Fire, hurling the weave at him. The flame struck him, and though he could feel its heat, the weave unraveled and dissipated—leaving him singed, but mostly unharmed.
The Sharan’s eyes opened with shock. That look . . . that look was becoming familiar to Galad now. It was the look of a soldier whose sword had broken in battle, the look of one who had seen something that should not be. What did you do when the One Power failed, the thing you relied upon to raise you above common folk?
You died. Galad's sword took the woman’s head off as one of her companions tried to seize him with Air. He felt the metal grow cold at his chest, and sensed the rush of Air moving around him.
A poor choice, Galad thought, ramming his sword into the chest of a second woman. The third proved smarter, and she slammed him with a large rock. He barely raised his shield before the rock smashed into his arm, throwing him backward. The woman raised another stone right as Galad’s team hit her. She fell to their swords.
Galad caught his breath, his head back, pain radiating from the impact of the rock. He groaned, sitting up. Nearby, his men hacked at the third Sharan woman’s body. They didn’t need to be so thorough, but some Children had strange ideas about what Aes Sedai could do. He’d caught Laird cutting off one of the Sharan women’s heads to bury it separate from the body. Unless you did that, Laird claimed, they would return to life at the next full moon.
As the men butchered the other two corpses, Golever came over and offered Galad a hand. «Light burn me», Golever said, a wide grin splitting his bearded face, «if this isn’t the finest work we’ve ever done, my Lord Captain Commander, I don’t know what is!»
Galad stood up. «It is what must be done, Child Golever».
«I wish it had to be done more often! This is what the Children have awaited for centuries. You are the first to deliver it. The Light illumine you, Galad Damodred. The Light illumine you!»
«May the Light illumine a day when men need not kill at all», Galad said tiredly. «It is not fitting to take joy in death».
«Of course, my Lord Captain Commander». Golever continued grinning.
Galad looked across the bloody pandemonium of the western slope of the Heights. The Light send Cauthon could make some sense of this battle, for Galad certainly could not.
«Lord Captain Commander!» a frightened voice cried.
Galad spun about, hand on his sword. It was Alhanra, one of his scouts.
«What is it, Child Alhanra?» Galad asked as the spindly man ran up. No horses. They were on an incline, and the animals would not have reacted well to the lightning. Better to trust one’s own feet.
«You need to see this, my Lord», Alhanra said, panting. «It’s . . . It’s your brother».
«Gawyn?» Impossible. No, he thought. Not impossible. He would be with Egwene, fighting on their front. Galad ran after Alhanra, Golever and the others falling in around him.
Gawyn’s body lay ashen-faced in a gap between two rocks on the top of the Heights. Nearby a horse was munching on grass, a trail of blood streaming down its side. By the looks of it, not the horse’s blood. Galad knelt down beside the younger man’s corpse. Gawyn had not died easily. But what of Egwene?
«Peace, brother», Galad said, resting a hand on the body. «May the Light—"
«Galad . . ». Gawyn whispered, his eyes fluttering open.
«Gawyn?» Galad asked, shocked. Gawyn had a nasty gut wound. He wore some strange rings. There was blood everywhere. His hand, chest . . . his entire body. . . .
How could the man still be alive?
The Warder bond’ he realized. «We need to carry you to a Healer! One of the Aes Sedai». He reached into the hollow, scooping up Gawyn.
«Galad . . . I failed». Gawyn stared at the sky, eyes blank.
«You did well».
«No. I failed. I should have . . . I should have stayed with her. I killed Hammar. Did you know that? I killed him. Light. I should have picked a side . . ».
Galad cradled his brother and began running along the slope toward the Aes Sedai. He tried to shelter Gawyn amid the attacks of channelers. After only a few moments, an explosion of earth ripped up among the Children, flinging them aside, tumbling Galad to the ground. He dropped Gawyn as he collapsed to the earth beside him.
Gawyn trembled, eyes staring distantly.
Galad crawled over and tried to pick him up again, but Gawyn grabbed his arm, meeting his eyes. «I did love her, Galad. Tell her».
«If you are truly bonded, then she knows».
«This will hurt her», Gawyn said through pale lips. «And at the end of it, I failed. To kill him».
«Demandred», Gawyn whispered. «I tried to kill him, but I wasn’t good enough. I’ve never . . . been quite good . . . enough . . "
Galad found himself in a very cold place. He had seen men die, he had lost friends. This hurt more. Light, but it did. He had loved his brother, loved him deeply—and Gawyn, unlike Elayne, had returned the sentiment.
«I will bring you to safety, Gawyn», Galad said, picking him up, shocked to find tears in his eyes. «I will not be left without a brother».
Gawyn coughed. «You won’t be. You have another brother, Galad. One you do not know. A son of . . . Tigraine . . . who went into the Waste . . . Son of a Maiden. Born on Dragonmount. . . ».
«Don’t hate him, Galad», Gawyn whispered. «I always hated him, but I stopped. I . . . stopped . . ».
Gawyn’s eyes stopped moving.
Galad felt for a pulse, then sat back, looking down at his dead brother. The bandage Gawyn had made for himself at his side seeped blood onto the dry ground below, which hungrily soaked it up.
Golever moved up to him, helping Alhanra, whose blackened face and burned clothing smelled of smoke from the lightning strike. «Take the wounded to safety, Golever», Galad said, standing. He reached up and felt the medallion at his neck. «Take all of the men and go».
«And you, Lord Captain Commander?» Golever asked.
«I will do what needs to be done», Galad said, cold inside. Cold as winter steel. «I will bring Light to the Shadow. I will bring justice to the Forsaken».
Gawyn’s thread of life vanished.
Egwene lurched to a stop on the battlefield. Something severed within her. It was as if a knife suddenly tore into her and scooped out the piece of Gawyn inside, leaving only emptiness.
She screamed, falling to her knees. No. No, it couldn’t be. She could feel him, just ahead! She’d been running for him. She could . . . She could . . .
He was gone.
Egwene howled, opening herself to the One Power and drawing in as much as she could hold. She let it out as a wall of flames toward the Sharans who were all around now. They had once held the Heights, the Aes Sedai below, but it was madness now.
She assailed them with the Power, clutching Vora’s sa’angreal. She would destroy them! Light! It hurt. It hurt so badly.
«Mother!» Silviana cried, seizing her arm. «You are out of control, Mother! You will kill our own people. Please!»
Egwene breathed in gasps. Nearby, a group of Whitecloaks stumbled by, carrying wounded down the hillside.
So close! Oh, Light. He was gone!
«Mother?» Silviana said. Egwene barely heard. She touched her face, and found tears there.
She had been bold before. She had claimed she could keep fighting through the loss. How naive that was. She let the fire of saidar die within her. With that gone, life went out of her. She slumped to the side, and felt hands carrying her away. Through a gateway, off the battlefield.
Tam used his last arrow to save a Whitecloak. It wasn’t something he’d have ever imagined himself doing, but there he was. The wolfish Trolloc stumbled back with the arrow through its eye, refusing to go down until the young Whitecloak pulled himself from the mud and struck at its knees.
His men were now positioned on the catwalks of the palisade, shooting volleys of arrows at the Trollocs that had surged across the riverbed here. Their numbers were depleted, but there were still so many of them.
Until this point, the battle had been going well. Tam’s combined forces spread out mightily along the river on the Shienaran side. Downriver the Legion of the Dragon, crossbow banners and heavy cavalry, stemmed the Trolloc advance. The same events were being played out here, farther upriver, with archers, foot soldiers and cavalry stopping the Trolloc incursion at the riverbed. Until the supplies began to dwindle and Tam was forced to withdraw his men to the relative safety of the palisade.
Tam looked to the side. Abell held up his bow, shrugging. He was out of arrows as well. All up and down the catwalk, the Two Rivers men held up their bows. No arrows.
«No more will be coming», Abell said softly. «The lad said that batch was the last».
The Whitecloak army fought desperately, mixed with members of Perrin’s Wolf Guard, but they were being pushed back from the riverbed in droves. They fought on three sides, and another force of Trollocs had just swung around to box them in entirely. The banner of Ghealdan flew closer to the ruins. Arganda held that position along with Nurelle and the remnants of the Winged Guard.
If this were any other battle, Tam would have had his men save their arrows to cover a retreat. There would be no retreat this day, and the order to loose had been the right one; the lads had taken their time with each shot. They’d likely killed thousands of Trollocs during the hours of fighting.
But what was an archer without his bow? Still a Two Rivers man, Tam thought. And still not willing to let this battle be lost.
«Off the catwalks and form up with weapons», Tam called to the lads. «Leave the bows here. We will fetch them when more arrows come our way».
More arrows wouldn’t come, but the Two Rivers men would be happier pretending that they might go back to their bows. They formed up into ranks as Tam had taught them, armed with spears, axes, swords, even some scythes. Everything and anything they’d had on hand, along with shields for those with axes or swords and good leather armor for them all. No pikes, unfortunately. After the heavy infantry had been outfitted, there hadn’t been any of those left.
«Stay tight», Tam said to them. «Form into two wedges. We’ll push into the Trollocs around the Whitecloaks». Best thing to do—at least, the best Tam could come up with—was to hit those Trollocs that had just come around the back of the Whitecloaks, fragment them and help the Whitecloaks break free.
The men nodded, though they probably had very little understanding of the tactics. It didn’t matter. So long as they kept disciplined ranks as Tam had taught them.
They started forward, running, and Tam was reminded of another battlefield. Snow, cutting into his face, blown by terrible winds. In a way, that battlefield had begun this all. Now it ended here.
Tam placed himself at the point of the first wedge, then put Deoan—a man from Deven Ride who had served in the Andoran army—at the point of the other. Tam guided his men forward briskly, not letting them, or himself, dwell too much on what was about to happen.
As they approached the hulking Trollocs, with their swords, polearms and battle-axes, Tam sought the flame and the void. Nervousness vanished. All emotion evaporated. He unsheathed the sword Rand had given him, the one with the dragons painted on the sheath. It was as fine a weapon as Tam had ever seen. Those folds in the metal whispered of ancient origin. It seemed too good a weapon for Tam. He had felt that way about every sword he’d ever used.
«Remember, hold formation!» Tam yelled back at his men. «Don’t let them break us apart. If someone falls, one man steps up and takes his place while another pulls the fallen man into the center of the wedge».
They nodded back at him, and then they hit the Trollocs in the back, where they had surrounded the Children of the Light at the river.
His formations hit, pounding forward. The huge Trollocs turned to fight.
Fortuona waved away the so’jhin who tried to replace her regal clothing. She smelled of smoke from the fire, and her arms had been burned and scored in several places. She would not accept damane Healing. Fortuona thought Healing to be a useful development—and some of her people were changing their attitudes toward it—but she was not certain the Empress should submit to it. Besides, her wounds were not dire.
The Deathwatch Guards kneeling before her would need some form of punishment. This was the second time they had allowed an assassin to reach her, and while she did not blame them for the failure, to deny them punishment would be to deny them their honor. It twisted her heart about, but she knew what she would have to do.
She gave the order herself. Selucia, as her Voice, should have done it—but Selucia’s wounds were being tended. And Karede deserved this small honor of receiving his execution order from Fortuona herself.
«You will go to engage the enemy marath'damane directly», she ordered Karede. «Each of you who was on duty. Fight valiantly for the Empire there, and try to slay the enemy’s marath'damane».
She could see Karede relax. It was a way to continue serving; he would probably have fallen on his own sword, if given the choice himself. This was a mercy.
She turned away from the man who had cared for her during her youth, the man who had defied what was expected of him. All for her. She would find her own penance for what she must do later. At this point, she would grant him the honor she could.
«Darbinda», she said, turning to the woman who insisted upon calling herself «Min» despite the honor of a new name that Fortuona had given her. It meant «Girl of Pictures» in the Old Tongue. «You have saved my life and possibly that of the Prince of the Ravens. I name you of the Blood, Doomseer. Let your name be venerated for generations to come».
Darbinda folded her arms. How like Knotai she was. Stubbornly humble, these mainlanders. They were actually proud—proud—of their lowborn heritage. Baffling.
Knotai himself sat on a nearby stump, receiving battle reports and snapping out orders. The Aes Sedai battle for the western Heights was descending into chaos. He met her eyes across the small gap between them, then nodded once.
If there was a spy—and Fortuona would be surprised if there was not one—then now was the time to mislead them. Everyone who had survived the attack was gathered around. Fortuona had insisted on having them close, ostensibly for the purpose of rewarding those who had served her well and meting punishment to those who had not. Each and every guard, servant and noble could hear as she spoke.
«Knotai», she said, «we have yet to discuss what I should do about you. The Deathwatch Guard has charge of my safety, but you have charge of the defense of this camp. If you suspected that our command post was not safe, why did you not speak earlier?»
«Are you bloody suggesting that this is my fault?» Knotai stood up and stilled the scouts’ reports with a gesture.
«I gave you command here», Fortuona said. «The ultimate responsibility for failure is yours then, is it not?»
Nearby, General Galgan frowned. He did not see it this way. Others looked toward Knotai with accusing eyes. Noble sycophants; they would blame him because he wasn’t born of the Seanchan. Impressive, that Knotai had converted Galgan so quickly. Or was Galgan telegraphing his emotions purposefully? Was he the spy? He could have been manipulating Suroth, or simply have been a redundant plant if Suroth failed.
«I’m not taking responsibility for this, Tuon», Knotai said. «You are the one who bloody insisted on watching from the camp when you could have been somewhere safe».
«Perhaps I should have done just that», she replied coldly. «This entire battle has been a disaster. You lose ground each moment. You talk lightly and joke, refusing proper protocol; I do not think you approach this with the solemnity befitting your station».
Knotai laughed. It was a loud, genuine laugh. He was good at this. Fortuona thought she was the only one who saw the twin lines of smoke rising exactly behind him from the Heights. An appropriate omen for Knotai: a large gamble would yield large rewards. Or a great cost.
«I’ve had it with you», Knotai said, waving a hand at her. «You and your bloody Seanchan rules just keep getting in the way».
«Then I have had it with you as well», she said, raising her head. «We should never have joined this battle. We would be better preparing to defend our own lands to the southwest. I will not let you throw away the lives of my soldiers».
«Go, then», Knotai snarled. «What do I care?»
She spun about, stalking away. «Come», she said to the others. «Gather our damane. All but those Deathwatch Guards will Travel to our army’s camp at the Erinin, then we will all return to Ebou Dar. We will fight the true Last Battle there once these fools have bloodied the Shadowspawn for us».
Her people followed. Had the ploy been convincing? The spy had seen her consign to death men who loved her; would that show that she was reckless? Reckless and self-important enough to pull her troops away from Knotai? It was plausible enough. In a way, she wanted to do as she said, and fight in the south instead.
To do that, of course, would be to ignore the breaking sky, the trembling land, and the Dragon Reborn's fight. These were not omens she could let pass her by.
The spy did not know that. It could not know her. The spy would see a young woman, foolish enough to want to fight on her own. So she hoped.
The Dark One spun a web of possibility around Rand.
Rand knew this struggle between them—the fight for what could be—was vital to the Last Battle. Rand could not weave the future. He was not the Wheel, nor anything like it. For everything that had happened to him, he was still merely a man.
Yet, in him was the hope of humankind. Humankind had a destiny, a choice for its future. The path they would take . . . this battle would decide it, his will clashing with that of the Dark One. As of yet, what could be might become what would be. Breaking now would be to let the Dark One choose that future.
BEHOLD, the Dark One said as the lines of light came together and Rand entered another world. A world that had not yet happened, but a world that very well might soon come to be.
Rand frowned, looking up at the sky. It was not red in this vision, the landscape not ruined. He stood in Caemlyn, much as he knew it. Oh, there were differences. Steamwagons rattled down the streets, mingling with the traffic of horse-drawn carriages and crowds walking.
The city had expanded beyond the new wall—he could see that from the height of the central hill he stood upon. He could even make out the place where Talmanes had blown a hole in the wall. It had not been repaired. Instead, the city had spilled out through it. Buildings covered what had once been fields outside.
Rand frowned, turning and walking down the street. What game was the Dark One playing? Surely this normal, even prosperous, city would not be part of his plans for the world. The people were clean and did not look oppressed. He saw no sign of the depravity that had marked the previous world the Dark One had created for him.
Curious, he walked up to a stand where a woman sold fruit. The slender woman gave him an inviting smile, gesturing toward her wares. «Welcome, good sir. I am Renel, and my shop is a second home to all seeking the finest of fruits from around the world. I have fresh peaches from Tear!»
«Peaches!» Rand said, aghast. Everyone knew those were poisonous.
«Ha! Fear not, good sir! These have had the toxin removed. They are as safe as I am honest». The woman smiled, taking a bite of one to prove it. As she did, a grubby hand appeared from under the fruit stand—an urchin hid underneath, a young boy that Rand had not noticed earlier.
The little boy snatched a red fruit of a type Rand did not recognize, then dashed off. He was so thin that Rand could see his ribs pressing against the skin of his too-small form, and he ran on legs so slender that it was a wonder the boy could walk.
The woman continued smiling at Rand as she reached to her side, took out a small rod with a lever at the side for her finger. She pulled the lever, and the rod cracked.
The urchin died in a spray of blood. He fell, sprawling, to the ground. People moved around him in the flow of traffic, though somebody—a man with many guards—did scoop up the piece of fruit. He wiped the blood off of it and took a bite, continuing on his way. A few moments later, a steam-wagon rolled over the corpse, pressing it into the muddy roadway.
Rand, aghast, looked back at the woman. She tucked away her weapon, a smile still on her face. «Were you looking for any type of fruit in particular?» she asked him.
«You just killed that child!»
The woman frowned in confusion. «Yes. Did it belong to you, good sir?»
«No, but . . " Light! The woman didn’t show a hint of remorse or concern. Rand turned, and nobody else seemed to care in the slightest about what had happened.
«Sir?» the woman asked. «I feel as if I should know you. That is fine clothing, if a little out of style. To which faction do you belong?»
«Faction?» Rand asked, looking back.
«And where are your guards?» the woman asked. «A man as rich as you has them, of course».
Rand met her eyes, then ran to the side as the woman reached for her weapon again. He ducked around a corner. The look in her eyes . . . utter lack of any kind of human sympathy or concern. She’d have killed him in a moment without a second thought. He knew it.
Others on the street saw him. They nudged companions, gesturing toward him. One man he passed called out, «Speak your faction!» Others gave chase.
Rand ducked around another corner. The One Power. Dared he use it? He didn’t know what was going on in this world. As before, he had trouble separating himself from the vision. He knew that it wasn’t completely real, but he couldn’t help believing himself part of it.
He didn’t risk the One Power, and trusted his own feet for now. He did not know Caemlyn terribly well, but he did remember this area. If he reached the end of this street and turned . . . yes, there! Ahead, he saw a familiar building, with a sign out front showing a man kneeling before a woman with red-gold hair. The Queen’s Blessing.
Rand reached the front doors as those chasing him piled around the corner behind. They stopped as Rand scrambled up to the door, passing a brutish fellow standing to the side. A new door guard? Rand did not know him. Did Basel Gill still own the inn, or had it changed hands?
Rand burst into the large common room, heart thumping. Several men nursing pitchers of afternoon ale looked up at him. Rand was in luck; Basel Gill himself stood behind the counter, rubbing a cup with a cloth.
«Master Gill!» Rand said.
The stout man turned, frowning. «Do I know you?» He looked Rand up and down. «My Lord?»
«It’s me, Rand!»
Gill cocked his head, then grinned. «Oh, you! I’d forgotten you. Your friend isn’t with you, is he? The one with the dark look to his eyes?»
So people did not recognize Rand as the Dragon Reborn in this place. What had the Dark One done to them?
«I need to speak with you, Master Gill», Rand said, striding toward a private dining chamber.
«What is it, lad?» Gill asked, following after. «Are you in trouble of some sort? Again?»
Rand shut the door after Master Gill. «What Age are we in?»
«The Fourth Age, of course».
«So the Last Battle happened?»
«Yes, and we won!» Gill said. He looked at Rand closely, narrowing his eyes. «Are you all right, son? How could you not know . . ».
«I spent my time in the woods these last years», Rand said. «Frightened of what was happening».
«Ah, then. You don’t know about the factions?»
«Light, son! You’re in some meaty trouble. Here, I’ll get you a faction symbol. You’ll need one in a hurry!» Gill pulled open the door and bustled out.
Rand folded his arms, noticing with displeasure that the fireplace in the room contained a nothingness beyond it. «What have you done to them?» Rand demanded.
I LET THEM THINK THEY WON.
MANY WHO FOLLOW ME DO NOT UNDERSTAND TYRANNY.
«What does that have to do with—" Rand cut off as Gill returned. He bore no «faction symbol», whatever that was. Instead, he’d gathered three thick-necked guards. He pointed in, toward Rand.
«Gill . . ». Rand said, backing away and seizing the Source. «What are you doing?»
«Well, I figure that coat will sell for something», Gill said. He didn’t sound the least bit apologetic.
«And so you’ll rob me?»
«Well, yes». Gill seemed confused. «Why wouldn’t I?»
The thugs stepped into the room, looking Rand over with careful eyes. They carried cudgels.
«Because of the law», Rand said.
«Why would there be laws against theft?» Gill asked, shaking his head. «What manner of person are you, to think such things? If a man cannot protect what he has, why should he have it? If a man cannot defend his life, what good is it to him?»
Gill waved the three men forward. Rand bound them in cords of Air.
«You took their consciences, didn’t you?» he asked softly.
Gill’s eyes widened at the use of the One Power. He tried to run. Rand grabbed him in cords of Air as well.
MEN WHO THINK THEY ARE OPPRESSED WILL SOMEDAY FIGHT. I WILL REMOVE FROM THEM NOT JUST THEIR WILL TO RESIST, BUT THE VERY SUSPICION THAT SOMETHING IS WRONG.
«So you leave them without compassion?» Rand demanded, looking into Gill’s eyes. The man seemed terrified that Rand would kill him, as did the three thugs. No remorse. Not a bit of it.
COMPASSION IS NOT NEEDED.
Rand felt deathly cold. «This is different from the world you showed me before».
WHAT I SHOWED BEFORE IS WHAT MEN EXPECT. IT IS THE EVIL THEY THINK THEY FIGHT. BUT I WILL MAKE A WORLD WHERE THERE IS NOT GOOD OR EVIL.
THERE IS ONLY ME.
«Do your servants know?» Rand whispered. «The ones you name Chosen? They think they fight to become lords and rulers over a world of their own making. Instead you will give them this. The same world . . . except one without Light».
THERE IS ONLY ME.
No Light. No love of men. The horror of it sank deep within Rand, shaking him. This was one of the possibilities that the Dark One could choose, if he won. It didn’t mean he would, or that it had to happen, but . . . oh Light, this was terrible. Far more terrible than a world of captives, far more terrible than a dark land with a broken landscape.
This was true horror. This was a full corruption of the world, it was taking everything beautiful from it, leaving behind only a husk. A pretty husk, but still a husk.
Rand would rather live a thousand years of torture, retaining the piece of himself that gave him the capacity for good, than live a moment in this world without Light.
He turned, enraged, upon the darkness. It consumed the far wall, growing larger. «You make a mistake, Shai’tan!» Rand yelled at that nothingness. «You think to make me despair? You think to shatter my will? This will not do it, I swear to you. This makes me sure to fight!»
Something rumbled inside of the Dark One. Rand yelled, pushing outward with his will, shattering the dark world of lies and men who would kill without empathy. It exploded into threads, and Rand was once again in the place outside of time, the Pattern rippling around him.
«You show me your true heart?» Rand demanded of the nothingness as he seized those threads. «I will show you mine, Shai’tan. There is an opposite to this Lightless world you would create.
«A world without Shadow».
Mat stalked away, calming his anger. Tuon had seemed really angry at him! Light. She would come back when he needed her to, would she not?
«Mat?» Min said, hurrying up beside him.
«Go with her», Mat said. «Keep an eye on her for me, Min».
«She doesn’t need much protecting», Mat said. «She’s a strong one. Bloody ashes, but she is. She does need watching, though. She worries me, Min. Anyway, I have this bloody war to win. I can’t do that and go with her. So would you go and watch her? Please?»
Min slowed, then gave him an unexpected hug. «Luck, Matrim Cauthon».
«Luck, Min Farshaw», Mat said. He let her go, then shouldered his ashandarei. The Seanchan had begun leaving Dashar Knob, pulling back to the Erinin before leaving the Field of Merrilor altogether. Demandred would let them go; he would be a fool not to. Blood and bloody ashes, what was Mat getting himself into? He had just sent away a good quarter of his troops.
They’ll come back, he thought. If his gamble worked. If the dice fell as he needed them.
Only this battle was not a game of dice. There was too much subtlety to it for that. It was cards, if anything. Mat usually won at cards. Usually.
To his right, a group of men in dark Seanchan armor marched toward the battlefield. «Hey, Karede!» Mat yelled.
The large man gave Mat a dark look. Suddenly, Mat knew what an ingot of metal felt like when Perrin eyed it, hefting a hammer. Karede stalked up, and though he obviously was making an effort to keep his face calm, Mat could feel the thunder coming off him.
«Thank you», Karede said, voice stiff, «for helping protect the Empress, may she live forever».
«You think I should have kept her someplace secure», Mat said. «Not at the command post».
«It is not my place to question one of the Blood, Great One», Karede said.
«You’re not questioning me», Mat said, «you’re thinking of sticking something sharp in me. Entirely different».
Karede breathed out a long, deep breath. «Excuse me, Great One», he said, turning to leave. «I must take my men and die».
«I don’t think so», Mat said. «You’re coming with me».
Karede turned back toward him. «The Empress, may she live forever, ordered—"
«You to the front lines», Mat said, shading his eye as he scanned the riverbed, swarming with Trollocs . . . «Great. Where do you bloody think I’m going?»
«You ride to battle?» Karede asked.
«I was thinking more of a saunter», Mat said. He shook his head. «I need a feel for what Demandred is doing . . . I’m going out there, Karede, and putting you fellows between me and the Trollocs sounds delightful. Are you coming?»
Karede did not reply, though he did not continue walking away, either. «Look, what are your choices?» Mat asked. «Ride out there and die for really no purpose? Or come try to keep me alive for your Empress? I’m almost certain that she’s fond of me. Maybe. She’s a hard one to read, Tuon is».
«You do not call her by that name», Karede said.
«I’ll call her what I bloody well want».
«Not if we’re to come with you», Karede said. «If I am to ride with you, Prince of the Ravens, I would not have my men hearing such from your lips. It would be a bad omen».
«Well, we wouldn’t want any of those», Mat said. «Right, then, Karede. Let’s dive back into this mess and see what we can do. In Fortuona’s name».
Tam raised his sword as if to begin a duel, but found no honorable foes here. Only grunting, howling, ferocious Trollocs. Drawn away from the beleaguered Whitecloaks at this battle near the ruins.
The Trollocs turned on the Two Rivers men and attacked. Tam, holding the point of the wedge, fell into Reed in Wind. He refused to take a single step backward. He bent this way and that, but held firm as he broke the Trolloc line, slashing with his sword in quick movements.
The men of the Two Rivers pushed forward, a thorn to the Dark One’s foot and a bramble to his hand. In the chaos that followed, they shouted and cursed, and fought to drive the Trollocs apart.
But soon their focus turned to holding their ground. The Trollocs surged around the men. The wedge formation, normally an offensive tactic, worked well here, too. Trollocs moved down the sides of the wedge, taking hits from the Two Rivers men with their axes, swords and spears.
Tam let the lads’ training guide them. He would have preferred to be in the center of the wedge, calling out encouragement as Dannil now did—but he was one of the few who had any real battle training, and the wedge formation depended on having a point who could hold steady.
So hold steady he did. Calm within the void, he let the Trollocs break upon him. He moved from Shake Dew from the Branch, to Apple Blossoms in the Wind, to Stones Fall in the Pond—all forms that stabilized him in one position while fighting multiple opponents.
Despite practice over the last few months, Tam wasn’t nearly as strong as he had been in his youth. Fortunately, a reed did not need strength. He was not as practiced as he once had been, but no reed practiced how to bend in the wind.
It simply did.
Years of maturing, years of age, had brought Tam an understanding of the void. He understood it now, better than he ever had. Years teaching Rand responsibility, years of living without Kari, years of listening to the wind blow and the leaves rustle . . .
Tam al’Thor became the void. He brought it to the Trollocs, showed it to them and sent them into its depths.
He danced around a goat-featured Trolloc, sweeping his sword to the side and slicing the beasts leg at the heel. It stumbled and Tam turned, letting the men behind take it. He flashed his sword up—the weapon trailing blood—and sprayed the dark droplets across the eyes of a charging Trolloc with nightmare features. It howled, blinded, and Tam flowed forward, arms out, and opened its stomach below the breastplate. It stumbled in front of a third Trolloc, who brought an axe down toward Tam, but hit its ally instead.
Each step was part of a dance, and Tam invited the Trollocs to join him. He had only fought like this once before, long ago, but memory was something that the void did not allow. He did not think of other times; he did not think of anything. If he knew that he’d done this once before, it was because of the resonance of his motions, an understanding that seemed to permeate his muscles themselves.
Tam stabbed the neck of a Trolloc with a face that was nearly human, with only a little too much hair on its cheeks. It fell backward and collapsed, and Tam suddenly found no more foes. He stopped, bringing his sword up, feeling a soft wind blow across him. The dark beasts were thundering away downriver in a rout, chased by horsemen flying Borderlander flags. Shortly they would hit a wall of troops, the Legion of the Dragon, and be crushed between them and the pursuing Borderlanders.
Tam cleaned his blade, leaving the void. The gravity of the situation hit him. Light! His men should be dead. If those Borderlanders hadn’t arrived . . .
He placed his sword back into its lacquered sheath. The red and gold dragon caught sunlight, sparkling, though Tam wouldn’t have thought there was anything to catch with that cloud cover above. He searched for the sun, and found it—behind the clouds—nearly at the horizon. It was almost night!
Fortunately, it looked like the Trollocs here at the battle by the ruins were finally breaking. Already weakened severely by the drawn-out river crossing, they now crumbled as Lan’s men hit them from behind.
In a short time it was done. Tam had held.
Nearby, a black horse trotted up. Its rider, Lan Mandragoran—with standard-bearer and guards behind—looked over the Two Rivers men.
«I had long wondered», Lan said to Tam. «About the man who had given Rand that heron-marked blade. I wondered if he had truly earned it. Now I know». Lan raised his own sword in salute.
Tam turned back toward his men, an exhausted, bloodied group clutching weapons. The path of their wedge showed easily on the trampled plain; dozens of Trollocs lay behind where the wedge had cut into them. To the north, the men of the second wedge raised their weapons. They had been pushed back nearly to the forest, but they’d held there and some had survived. Tam couldn’t help but see that dozens of good folk had died.
His exhausted men sat down right there on the battlefield, surrounded by corpses. Some weakly began tying their own bandages or seeing to the wounded they’d pulled into the interior of the wedge. To the south, Tam spotted a dismaying sight. Were those the Seanchan pulling out from their camp at Dashar Knob?
«Have we won, then?» Tam asked.
«Far from it», Lan said. «We’ve seized this part of the river, but it is the lesser fight. Demandred pressed his Trollocs hard here to keep us from drawing resources to the larger battle at the ford downriver». Lan turned his horse. «Gather your men, blademaster. This battle will not end with the setting sun. You will be needed again in the coming hours. Tai’shar Manetheren»
Lan thundered toward his Borderlanders.
«Tai’shar Malkier», Tam called after him, belatedly.
«So . . . we’re not done yet?» Dannil asked.
«No, lad. We're not. But we’ll take a break, get the men Healed and find some food». He saw gateways opening beside the field. Cauthon had been smart enough to send a means for Tam to take his wounded to Mayene. It—
People poured through the openings. Hundreds of them, thousands. Tam frowned. Nearby, the Whitecloaks were picking themselves up—they’d been hit hard by the Trolloc attacks, but Tam’s arrival had kept them from being destroyed. Arganda’s force was forming up at the ruins, and the Wolf Guard hoisted their flag high, bloodied, heaps of Trolloc corpses surrounding them.
Tam trudged across the field. Now his limbs felt like dead weights. He felt more exhausted than if he’d spent a month pulling stumps.
At the first of the gateways, he found Berelain herself, standing with a few Aes Sedai. The beautiful woman was terribly out of place here in this mud and death. Her gown of black and silver, the diadem in her hair . . . Light, she didn’t belong here.
«Tam al’Thor», she said. «You command this force?»
«Near enough», Tam said. «Pardon, my Lady First, but who are all of these people?»
«The refugees from Caemlyn», Berelain said. «I sent some people to see if they needed Healing. They refused it, and insisted that I bring them to the battle».
Tam scratched at his head. To the battle? Any man—and many women—who could hold a sword had already been drawn into the army. The people he saw coming through the gateways were mostly children and the elderly, and some matrons who had remained back to care for the young.
«Pardon», Tam said, «but this is a killing field!»
«So I tried to explain», Berelain said, a hint of exasperation in her voice. «They claim they can be of use. Better than waiting out the Last Battle huddled together on the road to Whitebridge, so they say».
Tam watched, frowning, as children scattered onto the field. His stomach lurched at them investigating the gruesome dead, and many did shy back at first. Others began picking through the fallen, looking for signs of those people who were still alive and could be Healed. A few aged soldiers who had been set to guard the refugees went among them, watching for Trollocs that weren’t quite dead.
Women and children began to pick arrows out from among the fallen. That would be helpful. Very helpful. With surprise, Tam saw hundreds of Tinkers pour out of one gateway. They went searching for the wounded under the direction of several Yellow sisters.
Tam found himself nodding. It still worried him, allowing the children to see such sights. Well, he thought, they’ll see a worse sight if we fail here. If they wanted to be of use, they should be allowed.
«Tell me, Tam al’Thor», Berelain asked, «is . . . Galad Damodred well?»
«I see his men here, but not his banner».
«He was called to other duties, my Lady First», Tam said. «Downriver. I haven’t heard from him in hours, I’m afraid».
«Ah. Well, let’s Heal and feed your men. Perhaps word of Lord Damodred will be forthcoming».
Elayne touched Gareth Bryne’s cheek softly. She closed his eyes, one, then the other, before nodding to the soldiers who had found his body. They carried Bryne away, legs dangling over the edge of his shield, head hanging down on the other side.
«He just went riding off, screaming», Birgitte said. «Right into the enemy lines. There was no stopping him».
«Siuan is dead», Elayne said, feeling an almost overpowering sense of loss. Siuan. . . . Siuan had always been so strong. With effort, Elayne stilled her emotions. She had to keep her attention on the battle. «Is there word from the command post?»
«The camp at Dashar Knob has been abandoned», Birgitte said. «I don’t know where Cauthon is. The Seanchan have forsaken us».
«Raise my banner high», Elayne said. «Until we hear from Mat, I’m taking command of this battlefield. Bring forward my advisors».
Birgitte moved to give the orders. Elayne’s Guardswomen watched, shuffling nervously, as the Trollocs pushed against the Andorans at the river. They’d totally filled the corridor between Heights and bogs, and threatened to spill out on to Shienaran soil. Part of Egwene’s army had hit the Trollocs from the other side of the corridor, which had taken some pressure off her own troops for a time; but more Trollocs had attacked from above, and it looked as if Egwene’s men were getting the worst of it.
Elayne had had solid lessons in battlefield tactics, though little experience on the field, and she could see how badly things were going. Yes, she had received news that the Trollocs’ position upriver had been destroyed by the arrival of Lan and the Borderlanders. But that brought scant relief with the situation here at the ford.
The sun began to slip beneath the horizon. The Trollocs made no sign of pulling back, and her soldiers reluctantly began to light bonfires and torches. Organizing her men into square formations made for better defense, but it meant giving up any hope of pushing forward. The Aiel fought here as well, as did the Cairhienin. But those pike squares were the core of their battle plan.
They’re slowly surrounding us, she thought. If the Trollocs did so, they could squeeze until the Andorans popped. Light, this is bad.
The sun made a sudden blazing fire behind the horizon clouds. With night, the Trollocs gained another advantage. The air had grown cold in the advent of darkness. Her early assumptions that this battle would last days now seemed silly. The Shadow pushed with all of its might. Humankind did not have days remaining, but hours.
«Majesty», Captain Guybon said, riding up with her commanders. Their dented armor and bloodied tabards proved that nobody, not even the senior officers, could be spared from direct fighting.
«Advice», Elayne said, looking at him, Theodohr—commander of the cavalry—and Birgitte, who was Captain-General.
«Retreat?» Guybon asked.
«Do you really think we could disengage?» Birgitte replied.
Guybon hesitated, then shook his head.
«Right, then», Elayne said. «How do we win?»
«We hold», said Theodohr. «We hope the White Tower can win their fight against the Sharan channelers and come to our aid».
«I don’t like just sitting here», Birgitte said. «It—"
A blazing beam of white-hot fire sliced through Elayne’s guards, vaporizing dozens of them. Guybon’s horse vanished beneath him, though he narrowly missed being hit himself. Elayne’s horse reared.
Swearing, she wrestled her mount under control. That had been balefire!
«Lews Therin!» A power-enhanced voice rang over the field. «I hunt a woman you love! Come to me, coward! Fight!»
The earth exploded near Elayne, heaving her standard-bearer into the air, the flag bursting into flames. This time Elayne was thrown from horseback, and she hit hard, grunting.
My babes! She groaned, rolling over as hands grabbed her. Birgitte. The woman hauled Elayne into the saddle behind her, helped by several Guards-women.
«Can you channel?» Birgitte asked. «No. Never mind. They’ll be watching for that. Celebrain, raise another banner! Ride downriver with a squadron of Guards. I will take the Queen the other way!»
The woman standing beside Birgitte’s horse saluted. It was a death sentence! «Birgitte, no», Elayne said.
«Demandred has decided you’ll draw out the Dragon Reborn for him», Birgitte said, turning her horse. «I’m not about to let that happen. Hya!» She pushed her horse into a gallop as lightning struck Elayne’s guards, blowing bodies into the air.
Elayne ground her teeth. Her armies were in danger of being overwhelmed, surrounded—all while Demandred laid down blast after blast of balefire, lightning and weaves of Earth. That man was as dangerous as an army himself.
«I can’t leave», Elayne said from behind Birgitte.
«Yes you can, and you are», she replied gruffly as their horse galloped on. «If Mat has fallen—Light send that isn’t the case—then we’ll need to set up a new command post. There’s a reason Demandred struck at Dashar Knob and then directly at you. He’s trying to destroy our command structure. Your duty is to assume command from someplace safe and secret. Once we’re far enough away that Demandred's scouts can’t sense you channeling, we’ll make a gateway and you will be back in control. Right now though, Elayne, you need to shut your mouth and let me protect you».
She was right. Burn her, she was. Elayne hung on as Birgitte galloped across the battlefield, her horse churning clods of dirt behind them in a flight toward safety.
At least he’s making it easy to find him, Galad thought as he rode, watching the lines of fire streak from the enemy position toward Elayne’s army.
Galad’s heels dug into the flanks of his stolen horse, tearing across the Heights toward its eastern edge. Over and over, he saw Gawyn’s dying body in his arms.
«Face me, Lews Therin!» The thunder of Demandred’s shout shook the ground from up ahead. He had taken Galad’s brother. Now the monster hunted Galad’s sister.
The right thing had always seemed clear to Galad before, but never had it felt as right as this. Those streaks of light were like indicators on a map, arrows pointing his way. The Light itself guided him. It had prepared him, placed him here at this moment.
He ripped through the back lines of the Sharan force to where Demandred stood, just above the riverbed looking down on Elayne’s troops. Arrows sank into the earth around him, archers firing, heedless of the risk of hitting their own men. Sword out, Galad pulled his leg from the stirrup, preparing to leap free.
An arrow struck the horse. Galad threw himself from the animal. He hit hard, skidding to a stop, and sliced the hand from a crossbowman nearby. A growling male channeler came for him, and the foxhead medallion grew cold against Galad’s chest.
Galad rammed his blade through the man’s neck. The man raved, blood spurting from his neck with each beat of his heart. He didn’t seem surprised as he died, just angry. His howls drew more attention.
«Demandred!» Galad yelled. «Demandred, you call for the Dragon Reborn! You demand to fight him! He is not here, but his brother is! Will you stand against me?»
Dozens of crossbows were raised. Behind Galad, his horse collapsed, expelling a bloody froth from its nostrils.
Rand al’Thor. His brother. The shock of Gawyn’s death had numbed Galad to this revelation. He would have to deal with it eventually, if he survived. He still did not know if he would be proud or ashamed.
A figure in strange, coin-link armor stepped through the Sharan ranks here. Demandred was a proud man; one needed see only his face to know that. He looked like al’Thor, actually. They had a similar sense about them.
Demandred inspected Galad, who stood with bloody sword out. The dying channeler scraped the ground with clawed fingers before him.
«His brother?» Demandred said.
«Son of Tigraine», Galad said, «who became a Maiden of the Spear. Who gave birth to my brother on Dragonmount, the tomb of Lews Therin. I had two brothers. You killed the other on this battlefield».
«You have an interesting artifact, I see», Demandred said as the medallion grew cold again. «Surely you don’t think that is going to keep you from meeting the same fate as your pathetic brother? The dead one, I mean».
«Do we fight, son of Shadows? Or do we talk?»
Demandred unsheathed his sword, herons on the blade and hilt. «May you give me a better match than your brother, little man. I grow displeased. Lews Therin can hate me or rail against me, but he should not ignore me».
Galad stepped forward into the ring of crossbowmen and channelers. If he won, he would still die. But Light, let him take one of the Forsaken with him. It would be a fitting end.
Demandred came at him, and the contest began.
Her back pressed against a stalagmite, seeing only by the light of Callandor reflected against the walls of the cavern, Nynaeve worked to save Alanna’s life.
There were those who, in the White Tower, had mocked her reliance on ordinary healing techniques. What could two hands and thread do that the One Power could not?
If any of those women had been here instead of Nynaeve, the world would have ended.
The conditions were horrible. Little light, no tools besides the implements she kept in her pouch. Still, Nynaeve sewed, using the needle and thread she always carried. She had mixed a draught of herbs for Alanna and forced it through her lips. It wouldn’t do much, but every little bit might help. It would keep Alanna’s strength up, help her with the pain, keep her heart from giving out as Nynaeve worked.
The wound was messy, but she had sewn messy wounds before. Though she trembled inside, Nynaeve’s hands were steady as she sewed up the wound and coaxed the woman back from the very precipice of death.
Rand and Moridin did not move. But she felt something thrumming from them. Rand was fighting. Fighting a fight she could not see.
«Matrim Cauthon, you bloody fool. You’re still alive?»
Mat glanced over as Davram Bashere rode up beside him in the early evening darkness. Mat had moved with the Deathwatch Guard to the back of the Andoran lines fighting at the river.
Bashere was accompanied by his wife and a guard of Saldaeans. Judging by the blood on her clothing, she had seen her share of fighting.
«Yes, I’m alive», Mat said. «I’m usually pretty good at staying alive. I’ve only failed one time that I remember, and it hardly counts. What are you doing here? Aren’t you . . ».
«They dug into my bloody mind», Bashere said, scowling. «That they did, man. Deira and I talked it over. I’m not going to lead, but why should that stop me from killing a few Trollocs?»
Mat nodded. At Tenobia’s fall, this man had become king of Saldaea—but he had refused the crown, so far. The corruption in his mind had shaken him. All he had said was that Saldaea fights alongside Malkier, and told the troops to look toward Lan. The throne would be sorted out if they all survived the Last Battle.
«What happened to you?» Bashere asked. «I heard the command post fell».
Mat nodded. «The Seanchan have abandoned us».
«Blood and ashes!» Bashere cried. «As if this weren’t bad enough. Bloody Seanchan dogs».
The Deathwatch Guards who stood around Mat made no response to that. Elayne’s forces held along the riverbank, just barely—but Trollocs were slowly working around them upriver. Elayne’s lines held only because of tenacity and careful training. Each huge square of men held pikes outward, bristling like a hedgehog.
Those formations could be separated if Demandred drove wedges between them in the right way. Mat employed cavalry sweeps of his own, including Andoran cavalry and the Band—trying to keep the Trollocs from penetrating the pike squares or surrounding Elayne.
The rhythm of the battle pulsed beneath Mat’s fingertips. He felt what Demandred was doing. To anyone else, the end of the battle probably seemed a simple matter now. Attack in force, break the pike formations, crack Mat’s defenses. It was so much more subtle.
Lan’s Borderlanders had finished crushing the Trollocs upriver, and needed orders. Good. Mat needed those men for the next step in his plan.
Three of the enormous pike formations were flagging, but if he could place a channeler or two in each center, he could shore them up. Light shelter whoever had distracted Demandred. The Forsaken’s attacks had destroyed entire pike formations. Demandred didn’t need to kill each man individually; he needed only to launch attacks of the One Power to shatter the square. That let the Trollocs overwhelm them.
«Bashere», Mat said, «please tell me that someone has heard from your daughter».
«Nobody has», Deira said. «I'm sorry».
Bloody ashes, Mat thought. Poor Perrin.
Poor him. How was he going to do this without the Horn? Light. He was not certain he could do it with the bloody Horn.
«Go», Mat called as they rode. «Ride to Lan; he’s upriver. Tell him to engage those Trollocs trying to move around the Andorans’ right flank! And tell him I’ll have other orders for him coming soon».
«I don’t care if you’ve bloody been touched by the Shadow!» Mat said. «Every man has had the Dark One’s fingers on his heart, and that’s the bloody truth. You can fight through it. Now ride to Lan and tell him what needs to be done!»
Bashere stiffened at first; then—strangely—he smiled a broad smile beneath drooping mustaches. Bloody Saldaeans. They liked being yelled at. Mat’s words seemed to give him heart, and he galloped off, wife at his side. She threw Mat a fond look, which made him uncomfortable.
Now . . . he needed an army. And a gateway. He needed a bloody gateway. Fool, he thought. He had sent the damane away. Could he not have at least kept one? Though they did make his skin crawl as if it were covered in spiders.
Mat halted Pips, the Deathwatch Guards stopping with him. A few of them lit torches. They had certainly gotten the drubbing they had wanted, joining Mat in fighting the Sharans. They seemed to itch for more, though.
There, Mat thought, heeling Pips toward a force of troops south of Elayne’s pike formations. The Dragonsworn. Before the Seanchan left Dashar Knob, Mat had sent this army to reinforce Elayne’s troops.
He still did not know what to make of them. He had not been at the Field when they had gathered, but he had heard reports. People from all ranks and stations, all nationalities, who had joined together to fight in the Last Battle, heedless of loyalties or national borders. Rand broke all vows and all other bonds.
Mat rode at a quick trot—the Deathwatch Guards jogging to keep up—around the back of the Andoran lines. Light, the lines were buckling. This was bad. Well, he’d made his bet. Now he could only ride the bloody battle and hope it did not buck too much.
As he galloped for the Dragonsworn, he heard something incongruous. Singing? Mat pulled to a halt. The Ogier had been caught up fighting the Trollocs, and had pushed across the dry riverbed to help fight at Elayne’s left flank, across from the bogs, to keep Trollocs from coming around that way.
They stood their ground here, as immovable as oaks before a flood, hacking with axes as they sang. Trollocs lay in piles around them.
«Loial!» Mat yelled, standing up in his stirrups. «Loial!»
One of the Ogier stepped back from the fighting and turned. Mat was taken aback. His usually calm friend had ears laid low, teeth clenched in anger, and a blood-soaked axe in his fingers. Light, but that expression sent terror through Mat’s body. He would rather stare down ten men who thought he had been cheating than fight a single angry Ogier!
Loial called something to the others, and then rejoined them in the fighting. They continued to lay into the Trollocs nearby, cutting them down. Trollocs and Ogier were near the same size, but the Ogier somehow seemed to tower over the Shadowspawn. They did not fight like soldiers, but like woodsmen felling trees. Chop one way, then the next, breaking Trollocs. But Mat knew that Ogier hated felling trees, while they seemed to relish felling Trollocs.
The Ogier broke the Trolloc fist they’d been fighting, making them flee. Elayne’s soldiers moved in and blocked off the rest of the Trolloc army, and the several hundred Ogier pulled back to Mat. Among them, Mat noticed, were more than a few of the Seanchan Ogier—the Gardeners. He had not ordered that. The two groups fought together, but barely seemed to look at one another now.
Every one of the Ogier, male and female, had numerous cuts on their arms and legs. They did not wear armor, but many of the cuts seemed trivial, as if their skin had the strength of bark.
Loial walked up to Mat and the Deathwatch Guards, raising his axe to his shoulder. Loial’s trousers were dark up to the thighs, as if he had been wading in wine. «Mat», Loial said, drawing a deep breath. «We have done as you asked, fighting here. No Trolloc got by us».
«You did well, Loial», Mat said. «Thank you».
He waited for a reply. Something long-winded and eager, no doubt. Loial stood breathing in and out with lungs that could hold enough air to fill a room. No words. The others with him, though many were senior to Loial, offered no words either. Some lifted torches. The glow of the sun had vanished beneath the horizon. Night was fully upon them.
Quiet Ogier. Now that was strange. Ogier at war, though . . . it was not something Mat had ever seen. He did not have any memory of it in the memories that were not his.
«I need you», Mat said. «We have to turn this battle around or we're finished. Come on».
«The Hornsounder commands!» Loial bellowed. «Up axes!»
Mat winced. If he ever needed someone to yell a message from Caemlyn to Cairhien for him, he knew who to ask. Only they would probably hear it all the way up in the Blight, too.
He heeled Pips into motion, the Ogier falling in around him and the Deathwatch Guards. The Ogier had no trouble keeping up.
«Honored One», Karede said, «I and mine are ordered to—"
«To go die on the front lines. I’m bloody working on that, Karede. Keep your sword out of your own gut for the moment, kindly».
The man’s expression darkened, but he held his tongue.
«She doesn’t really want you dead, you realize», Mat said. He could not say more without revealing the plot to bring her back.
«If my death serves the Empress, may she live forever, then I give it willingly».
«You’re bloody insane, Karede», Mat said. «Unfortunately, so am I. You’re in good company. You there! Who leads this force?»
They had reached the back ranks, where the reserves of the Dragonsworn were located, the wounded and those who were resting from their time at the front ranks.
«My Lord?» one of the scouts said. «That would be Lady Tinna».
«Go fetch her», Mat said. Those dice kept rattling in his head. He also felt a pull from the north, a tugging, as if some threads around his chest were yanking on him.
Not now, Rand, he thought. I’m bloody busy.
No colors formed, only blackness. Dark as a Myrddraal’s heart. The tugging grew stronger.
Mat dismissed the vision. Not. Now.
He had work to do here. He had a plan. Light, let it work.
Tinna turned out to be a pretty girl, younger than he had expected, tall and strong of limb. She wore her long brown hair in a tail, though curls of it seemed to want to break out here and there. She wore breeches, and had seen some fighting, judging by that sword on her hip and the dark Trolloc blood on her sleeves.
She rode up to him, looking him up and down with discerning eyes. «You’ve finally remembered us, have you, Lord Cauthon?» Yes, she definitely reminded him of Nynaeve.
Mat looked up at the Heights. The firefight between Aes Sedai and Sharans up there had turned messy.
You'd better win there, Egwene. I’m counting on you.
«Your army», Mat said, looking at Tinna. «I’m told some Aes Sedai joined you?»
«Some did», she said cautiously.
«You’re one of them?»
«I am not. Not exactly».
«Not exactly? What do you mean by that? Look, woman, I need a gateway. If we don’t have one, this battle could be lost. Please tell me we have some channelers here who can send me where I need to go».
Tinna drew her lips to a line. «I’m not trying to irritate you, Lord Cauthon. Old habits make for strong ropes, and I have learned not to speak of certain things. I was turned out of the White Tower myself, for . . . complicated reasons. I’m sorry, but I do not know the weave for Traveling. I do know for a fact that most who joined us are too weak for that weave. It requires a great deal of the One Power, beyond the capacity of many who—"
«I can make one».
A woman in a red dress stood up from the lines of wounded, where she had apparently been Healing. She was thin and bony and had a sour expression on her face, but Mat was so happy to see her, he could have kissed her. Like kissing broken glass, that would have been. He’d have done it anyway. «Teslyn!» he cried. «What are you doing here?»
«Fighting in the Last Battle, I believe», she said, dusting off her hands. «Aren’t we all?»
«But the Dragonsworn?» Mat asked.
«I did not find the White Tower to be a comfortable place once I returned», she said. «It had changed. I availed myself of the opportunity here, as this need superseded any others. Now, you wish a gateway? How large?»
«Large enough to move as many of these troops as we can, the Dragon-sworn, the Ogier, and this cavalry banner from the Band of the Red Hand». Mat said.
«I’ll need a circle, Tinna», Teslyn said. «No complaining that you can’t channel; I can sense it in you, and all former allegiances and promises are broken for us here. Gather the other women. Where are we going, Cauthon?»
Mat grinned. «To the top of those Heights».
«The Heights!» Karede said. «But you abandoned those at the beginning of the battle. You gave them up to the Shadowspawn!»
«Yes, I did "
And now . . . now he had a chance to finish this. Elayne’s forces holding along the river, Egwene fighting in the west . . . Mat had to seize the northern part of the Heights. He knew that with the Seanchan gone and most of his own troops occupied around the lower part of the Heights, Demandred would send a strong force of Sharans and Trollocs across the top to the northeast, to swing down across the riverbed and behind Elayne’s armies. The armies of Light would be surrounded and at Demandred’s mercy. His only chance was to keep Demandred’s troops from coming off the Heights, despite their superior numbers. Light. It was a long shot, but sometimes you had to take the only shot you had.
«You’re spreading us dangerously thin», Karede said. «You risk everything by moving armies that are needed here up to the Heights».
«You did want to go to the front lines», Mat replied. «Loial, are you with us?»
«A strike at the enemy’s core, Mat?» Loial asked, hefting his axe. «It will not be the worst place I’ve found myself, following one of you three. I do hope Rand is all right. You do think so, don’t you?»
«If Rand were dead», Mat said, «we’d know it. He’ll have to watch out for himself, without Matrim Cauthon saving him this time. Teslyn, let’s have that gateway! Tinna, organize your forces. Have them ready to charge through the opening. We need to seize the northern slope of those Heights fast and then hold it no matter what the Shadow tosses at us!»
Egwene opened her eyes. Though she shouldn’t have been in a room at all, she lay in one. And a fine one. The cool air smelled of salt, and she rested on a soft mattress.
I’m dreaming, she thought. Or perhaps she had died. Would that explain the pain? Such terrible pain. Nothingness would be better, far better, than this agony.
Gawyn was gone. A piece of herself, snipped away.
«I forget how young she is». Whispers drifted into the room. That voice was familiar. Silviana? «Care for her. I must return to the battle».
«How docs it go?» Egwene knew that voice, too. Rosil, of the Yellow. She had gone to Mayene, with the novices and Accepted, helping Heal.
«The battle? It goes poorly». Silviana was not one to put honey on her words. «Watch her, Rosil. She is strong; I do not doubt she will pull through this, but there is always a worry».
«I’ve helped women with lost Warders before, Silviana», Rosil said. «I assure you, I’m quite capable. She’ll be useless for the next few days, but then she will begin to mend».
Silviana sniffed. «That boy . . . I should have known he would ruin her. The day I first saw how she looked at him, I should have taken him by his ears, hauled him to a distant farm, and set him to work for the next decade».
«You cannot so easily control a heart, Silviana».
«Warders are a weakness», Silviana said. «That is all they have ever been, and all they ever will be. That boy . . . that fool boy . . ».
«That fool boy», Egwene said, «saved my life from Seanchan assassins. I would not be here to mourn if he had not done so. I would suggest that you remember that, Silviana, when you speak of the dead».
The others were silent. Egwene tried to overcome the pain of loss. She was in Mayene, of course. Silviana would have taken her to the Yellows.
«I will remember it, Mother», Silviana said. She actually managed to sound contrite. «Rest well. I will—"
«Rest is for the dead, Silviana», Egwene said, sitting up.
Silviana and Rosil stood in the doorway of the beautiful room, which was draped with blue cloth below the ceiling of worked mother-of-pearl inlays. Both women folded their arms and gave her stern looks.
«You’ve been through something extremely hurtful, Mother», Rosil said. Near the doorway, Leilwin stood guard. «The loss of a Warder is enough to stop any woman. There is no shame in letting yourself deal with the grief».
«Egwene al’Vere can grieve», Egwene said, standing up. «Egwene al’Vere lost a man she loved, and she felt him die through a bond. The Amyrlin has sympathy for Egwene al’Vere, as she would have sympathy for any Aes Sedai dealing with such loss. And then, in the face of the Last Battle, the Amyrlin would expect that woman to pick herself up and return to the fight».
She walked across the room, each step firmer. She held out her hand to Silviana, nodding toward Vora’s sa’angreal, which she held. «I will be needing that».
«Unless the two of you wish to discover just how capable I am at present», Egwene said softly, «I would not suggest disobedience».
Silviana looked to Rosil, who sighed and nodded reluctantly. Silviana handed over the rod.
«I do not condone this, Mother», Rosil said. «But if you are insistent . . "
" . . then I will give you this suggestion. Emotion will threaten to crush you. This is the danger. In the face of a lost Warder, summoning saidar will be difficult. If you do manage it, Aes Sedai serenity will likely be impossible. This can be dangerous. Very dangerous».
Egwene opened herself to saidar. As Rosil had suggested, it was difficult to embrace the Source. Too many emotions vied for her attention, overwhelming her, driving away her calm. She blushed as she failed a second time.
Silviana opened her mouth, undoubtedly to suggest that Egwene sit back down. At that moment, Egwene found saidar,; the bud in her mind flowering, the One Power rushing into her. She gave Silviana a defiant look, then began weaving a gateway.
«You didn’t hear the rest of my advice, Mother», Rosil said. «You will not be able to banish the emotions troubling you, not completely. Your only choice is a bad one, to overwhelm those emotions of grief and pain with stronger emotions».
«That should not be difficult at all», Egwene said. She drew a deep breath, pulling in more of the One Power. She allowed herself anger. Fury at the Shadowspawn who threatened the world, anger at them for taking Gawyn from her.
«I will need eyes to watch me», Egwene said, defying Silviana’s previous words. Gawyn had not been a weakness to her. «I will need another Warder».
«But—" Rosil began.
Egwene stopped her with a look. Yes, most women waited. Yes, Egwene al’Vere was pained from her loss, and Gawyn could never be replaced. But she believed in Warders. The Amyrlin Seat needed someone to watch her back. Beyond that, every person with a Warder bond was a better fighter than those without. To go without a Warder was to deny the Light another soldier.
There was a person here who had saved her life. No, a piece of her said, her eyes falling on Leilwin. Not a Seanchan.
Another piece of her, the Amyrlin, laughed at that. Stop being such a child. She would have a Warder. «Leilwin Shipless», Egwene said loudly, «will you take this duty?»
The woman knelt, bowing her head. «I . . . yes».
Egwene formed the weave for the bond. Leilwin stood, looking less fatigued, taking a deep breath. Egwene opened a gateway to the other side of the chamber, then used her immediate knowledge of this room to open another one to where her people fought. Explosions, screams and the beating of weapons against shields poured through.
Egwene strode back onto the killing fields, bringing the fury of the Amyrlin with her.
Demandred was a blademaster. Galad had assumed this would be the case, but he preferred to test his assumptions.
The two danced back and forth inside the ring of watching Sharans. Galad wore lighter armor, mail under his tabard, and stepped more quickly. The interwoven coins Demandred wore were heavier than simple mail, but good against a sword.
«You are better than your brother was», Demandred said. «He died easily».
The man was trying to enrage Galad. He did not succeed. Cold, careful. Galad moved in. The Courtier Taps His Fan. Demandred responded with something very similar to The Falcon Stoops, slapping away Galad’s attack. Demandred stepped back, walking around the perimeter of the ring, sword out to the side. At the beginning, he had spoken a great deal. Now he made only the occasional gibe.
They circled each other in the darkness, lit by torches held in Sharan hands. One rotation. Two.
«Come now», Demandred said. «I’m waiting».
Galad remained silent. Each moment he stalled was a moment Demandred was not sending destruction upon Elayne or her armies. The Forsaken seemed to realize it, for he came in swiftly. Three strikes: down, side, backhand. Galad met each one, their arms a blur.
Motion to the side. It came from a rock that Demandred had thrown at Galad by channeling. Galad dodged it, barely, then raised his sword against the blows that came next. Furious strikes downward, The Boar Rushes Down the Mountain, crashing against Galad’s blade. He held against that, but was not able to stop the following twist of the blade that cut his forearm.
Demandred stepped back, his sword dripping Galad’s blood. They circled around again, watching one another. Galad felt warm blood inside his glove, from where it had seeped down his arm. A little blood loss could slow a man, weaken him.
Galad breathed in and out, abandoning thought, abandoning worry. When Demandred next struck, Galad anticipated it, stepping aside and striking down with two hands, biting deeply into the leather behind Demandred’s knee guard. The sword glanced off the side of the armor, but cut true otherwise. As Galad whipped back around, Demandred was limping.
The Forsaken grimaced. «You’ve blooded me», he said. «It has been a very long time since someone did that».
The ground began to heave and break beneath Galad. Desperate, he leaped forward, getting close to Demandred—forcing him to stop channeling, lest he topple himself. The Forsaken grunted, swinging, but Galad was inside his enemy’s guard.
Too close to do a full swing, Galad raised his sword and bashed it—pommel first—at Demandred’s face. Demandred caught Galad’s hand with his, but Galad grabbed Demandred by the helmet, holding tightly, trying to force the helmet down over the Forsaken’s eyes. He grunted, both men locked, neither moving.
Then, with a sickening sound Galad heard quite distinctly, his muscle ripped in the arm where he’d been cut. His sword slipped from numb fingers, his arm spasming, and Demandred threw him backward and struck with a flash of the blade.
Galad fell to his knees. His right arm—severed at the elbow by Demandred’s slice—flopped to the ground in front of him.
Demandred stepped back, panting. He had been worried. Good. Galad held to his bleeding stump, then spat at Demandred’s feet.
Demandred snorted, then swung his blade once more.
All went black.
Androl felt as if he’d forgotten what it was like to breathe fresh air. The land around him smoldered and quaked, smoke churning in the wind, bringing with it the stench of burning bodies.
He and the others had moved up across the top of the Heights to the western side, searching for Taim. Much of the Sharan army fought here, contending with the White Tower army.
Groups of channelers drew fire from one side or the other, so Androl crossed the horrid landscape alone. He stepped over broken patches of smoking earth, crouching low, trying to give off the air of a solitary wounded man trying to creep to safety. He still wore Nensen’s face, but with his head down and his posture low, that mattered very little.
He sensed a spike of alarm from Pevara, who moved alone nearby.
What is it? he sent. Are you all right?
After a tense moment, her thoughts came. I'm fine. A scare with some Sharans. I convinced them I was on their side before they attacked.
It’s a wonder anyone can tell friend from foe here, Androl sent back. He hoped Emarin and Jonneth were safe. The two had gone together, but if they—
Androl froze. Up ahead, through the shifting smoke, he saw a ring of Trollocs protecting something. They stood on an outcropping of rock that jutted out of the hillside like the seat of a chair.
Androl crept forward, hoping to steal a peek.
Androl! Pevara’s voice in his mind made him jump nearly out of his skin.
You were alarmed at something, she said. I was reacting to you.
He took a few calming breaths. I've found something. Just a moment.
He drew close enough, indeed, to sense channeling inside the ring. He didn’t know if—
The Trollocs parted as someone inside barked a command. Mishraile peered out, then scowled. «Its only Nensen!»
Androl’s heart thumped inside his chest.
A man wearing black turned from his contemplation of the battle. Taim. In his hands, he carried a thin disc of black and white. He rubbed his thumb across it as he overlooked the battlefield, sneering, as if disdainful of the lesser channelers struggling all about him.
«Well?» he barked at Androl, turning and dropping the disc into a pouch at his waist.
«I saw Androl», Androl said, thinking quickly. Light, the others expected him to approach. He did so, walking past the Trollocs, putting himself right in the belly of the beast. If he could draw close enough . . . «I followed him for a while». Nensen always spoke in a rough, gravelly voice, and Androl did his best to imitate it. Pevara could have worked the voice into the weave, but hadn’t known it well enough.
«I don’t care about that one! Fool. What is Demandred doing?»
«He saw me», Androl said. «He didn’t like me being over there. He sent me back to you and said that if he saw any of us away from this position, he’d kill us».
Androl . . . Pevara sent, worried. He couldn’t spare the concentration to reply. It took all he had to keep from shaking as he stepped up close to Taim.
Taim rubbed his forehead with two fingers, closing his eyes. «And I thought you could do this simple thing». Taim created a complex weave of Spirit and Fire. It struck like a viper at Androl.
Pain suddenly moved up Androl’s body, starting in his feet, surging through his limbs. He screamed, collapsing to the ground.
«Do you like that?» Taim asked. «I learned it from Moridin. I do think he’s trying to turn me against Demandred».
Androl screamed in his own voice. That horrified him, but the others did not seem to notice. When Taim finally released the weave, the pain faded. Androl found himself groveling on the dirty ground, his limbs still spasming from the memory of the pain.
«Get up», Taim growled.
Androl began to lurch to his feet.
I'm coming, Pevara sent.
Stay back, he replied. Light, he felt powerless. As he stood up, he stumbled into Taim, his legs refusing to work as they should.
«Fool», Taim said, shoving Androl back. Mishraile caught him. «Stand still». Taim began another weave. Androl tried to pay attention, but he was too nervous to catch the details of the weave. It hovered in front of him, then wrapped around him.
«What are you doing?» Androl asked. He didn’t have to fake the tremor in his voice. That pain.
«You said you saw Androl?» Taim said. «I’m placing a Mask of Mirrors on you and inverting the weave, making you look like him. I want you to pretend to be the pageboy, find Logain, then kill him. Use a knife or a weave, I don’t care which».
«You’re . . . making me look like Androl», Androl said.
«Androl is one of Logain’s pets», Taim said. «He shouldn’t suspect you. This is an exceptionally easy thing I’m asking of you, Nensen. Do you think, for once, you could avoid making a complete mess of it?»
«Good. Because if you fail, I’ll kill you». The weave fell into place and vanished.
Mishraile grunted, releasing Androl and stepping back. «I think Androl is uglier than that, M’Hael».
Taim snorted, then waved at Androl. «It’s good enough. Get out of my sight. Return with Logain’s head, or do not return at all».
Androl scrambled away, breathing heavily, feeling the others’ eyes on his back. Once a good distance away, he ducked around some brush that was only mostly burned, and nearly tripped over Pevara, Emarin and Jonneth hiding there.
«Androl!» Emarin whispered «Your disguise! What happened? Was that Taim?»
Androl sat down in a heap, trying to still his heart. Then, he held up the pouch he had pulled off Taim’s belt while stumbling to his feet. «It was him. You’re not going to believe this, but . . ».
Arganda cupped the piece of paper, sitting in Mighty’s saddle and pulling his list of ciphers out of his pocket. Those Trollocs kept launching arrows. So far, he’d avoided being hit. As had Queen Alliandre, who still rode with him. At least she was willing to stay back a little way with his reserves, where she was more sheltered.
In addition to the Legion of the Dragon and the Borderlanders, his force, along with the Wolf Guard and the Whitecloaks, had moved downriver following the battle at the ruins. Arganda had more foot soldiers than the others, and had trailed behind them.
They’d found plenty of fighting here, with the Trollocs and Sharans in the dry riverbed trying to surround the armies of Andor. Arganda had been fighting here for a few hours now as the sun set, bringing on the shadows. He’d pulled back once he got the message, however.
«Bloody awful handwriting», Arganda grumbled, flipping through the little list of ciphers and turning it toward a torch. The orders were authentic. Either that, or someone had broken the cipher.
«Well?» Turne asked.
«Cauthon’s alive», Arganda said with a grunt.
«Where is he?»
«Don’t know», Arganda said, folding the paper and tucking away the ciphers. «The messenger said Cauthon opened a gateway in front of him, threw the letter in his face, and told him to find me».
Arganda turned to the south, peering through the darkness. In preparation for night, his men had brought oil through gateways and set piles of wood alight. By the firelight, he could see the Two Rivers men heading his way, sure as the orders had said.
«Ho, Tam al’Thor!» Arganda said, raising a hand. He hadn’t seen his commander since parting after the battle at the ruins, hours ago now.
The Two Rivers men looked as worn down as Arganda felt. It had been a long, long day, and the fighting was by no means over. I wish Gallenne were here, Arganda thought, inspecting Trollocs at the river as al’Thor’s men approached. I could use someone to argue with.
Just downriver, shouts and clangs sounded from where the Andorans’ pike formations held off—barely—the Trolloc waves. By now, this battle was strung out along the Mora, almost up to Dashar Knob. His men had helped keep the Andorans from being flanked.
«What news, Arganda?» Tam asked as he came over.
«Cauthon lives», Arganda said. «And that’s bloody amazing, considering that someone blew up his command post, set fire to his tent, killed a bunch of his damane, and chased off his wife. Cauthon crawled out of it somehow».
«Ha!» Abell Cauthon said. «That’s my boy».
«He told me you were coming», Arganda said. «He said you’d have arrows. Do you?»
Tam nodded. «Our last orders sent us through the gateway to Mayene for Healing and resupply. I don’t know how Mat knew arrows would be coming, but a shipment from the women in the Two Rivers came right as we were getting ready to return here. We have longbows for you to use, if you need them».
«I will. Cauthon wants all of our troops to move back upriver to the ruins, cut across the riverbed and march up the Heights from the northeastern side».
«Not sure what that’s about, but I suppose he knows what he’s doing . . ». Tam said.
Together, their forces moved upriver in the night, leaving behind the fighting Andorans, Cairhienin and Aiel. Creator shelter you, friends, Arganda thought.
They crossed the dry riverbed and began moving up the northeastern slopes. It was quiet on top, at this end of the Heights, but the glow from lines of torches was evident.
«That’s going to be a tough nut to crack, if those are Sharans up there», Tam said softly, looking up the darkened slope.
«Cauthon’s note said we’d have help», Arganda replied.
«What kind of help?»
«I don’t know. He didn’t—"
Thunder rumbled nearby, and Arganda winced. Most of the channelers were supposed to be fighting on the other side of the Heights, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t see any here. He hated that feeling, the sensation that a channeler might be watching him, contemplating whether to kill him with fire, lightning or earth.
Channelers. The world would be just plain better without them. But that sound didn’t turn out to be thunder. A group of galloping riders bearing torches appeared from the night, crossing the riverbed to join Arganda and his men. They flew the Golden Crane at the center of an array of Borderlander banners.
«Well I’ll be a bloody Trolloc», Arganda called. «You Borderlanders decided to join us?»
Lan Mandragoran saluted by torchlight, silvery sword glistening. He looked up the slope. «So we're to fight here».
«Good», Lan said softly from horseback. «I just received reports about a large Sharan army moving northeast across the top of the Heights. Its clear to me they want to swing down around behind our people fighting the Trollocs at the river; then we’d be surrounded and at their mercy. Looks like its our job to keep that from happening».
He turned toward Tam. «Are you ready to soften them up for us, archer?»
«I think we can manage that», Tam replied.
Lan nodded, then raised his sword. A Malkieri man at his side raised the Golden Crane high. And then they charged right up that slope. Coming toward them was a huge enemy army spread out in wide ranks across the landscape, the sky lit up by the thousands of torches they carried.
Tam al’Thor shouted for his men to line up and fire. «Loose!» Tam yelled, sending flights of arrows at the Sharans.
Then arrows began to be returned in their direction, now that the distance between the two armies had narrowed. Arganda figured that the archers wouldn’t be nearly as accurate in the darkness as they might have been by day—but that would be true for both sides.
The Two Rivers men released a wave of death, arrows as fast as diving falcons.
«Hold!» Tam yelled to his men. They stopped firing just in time for Lan’s cavalry to hit the softened Sharan lines.
Where did Tam get his battle experience? Arganda thought, thinking of the times he’d seen Tam fight. Arganda had known seasoned generals with far less sense of a battlefield than this sheepherder.
The Borderlanders pulled back, letting Tam and his men loose more arrows. Tam signaled to Arganda.
«Let’s go!» Arganda called to his foot soldiers. «All companies, forward!»
The one-two attack of archers and heavy cavalry was powerful, but it had limited advantage, once the enemy set their defenses. Soon the Sharans would get a solid shield-and-spear wall up to deflect the horsemen, or the archers would pick them off. That’s where the infantry came in.
Arganda unhooked his mace—those Sharans wore chain mail and leather—and raised it high, leading his men across the Heights, meeting the Sharans halfway, as they’d advanced to engage. Tams troops were Whitecloaks, Ghealdanin, Perrin's Wolf Guard and the Mayener Winged Guard, but they viewed themselves as one army. Not six months ago, Arganda would have sworn on his father’s grave that men such as these would never fight together—let alone come to one another’s aid, as the Wolf Guard did when the Whitecloak forces were being overrun.
Some Trollocs could be heard howling and began moving up alongside the Sharans. Light! Trollocs, too?
Arganda swung his mace until his arm burned, then switched hands and kept going, breaking bones, smashing hands and arms until Mighty’s coat was flecked with blood.
Flashes of light suddenly launched from the opposite end of the Heights toward the Andorans defending below. Arganda barely noted it, consumed by the fighting as he was, but something inside of him whimpered. Demandred must have resumed his attack.
«I have defeated your brother, Lews Therin!» The voice boomed across the battlefield, loud as a crack of thunder. «He dies now, bleeding away his mortality!»
Arganda danced Mighty back, turning as a hulking Trolloc with an almost-human face shoved away the wounded Sharan beside it and bellowed. Blood streamed from a cut on its shoulder, but it didn’t seem to notice. It twisted, heaving a short-chained flail with a head like a log covered in spikes.
The flail crashed to the ground right beside Mighty, spooking the horse. As Arganda fought for control, the immense Trolloc stepped forward and punched with its offhand, slamming a ham fist into the side of Mighty’s head, knocking the horse to the ground.
«Have you any care for the flesh of this birth?» Demandred thundered in the distance. «Share you any love for the one who named you brother, this man in white?»
Mighty’s head had cracked like an egg. The horse’s legs spasmed and jerked. Arganda hauled himself to his feet. He didn’t remember leaping free as the horse fell, but his instincts had preserved him. Unfortunately, his roll had taken him away from his guards, who fought for their lives against a group of Sharans.
His men were advancing, and the Sharans were getting slowly pushed back. He didn’t have time to look, though. That Trolloc was on him.
Arganda hefted his mace and looked up at the towering beast before him, whipping its flail over its head as it stepped over the dying horse.
Never had Arganda felt so small.
«Coward!» Demandred roared. «You name yourself savior of this land? I claim that title! Face me! Do I need to kill this kin of yours to draw you out?»
Arganda took a deep breath, then leaped forward. He figured that was the last thing the Trolloc would anticipate. Indeed, the beast’s swing went wide. Arganda scored a solid crack at its side, his mace hitting the Trollocs pelvis, crushing bone.
Then the thing backhanded him. Arganda saw white, and the sounds of battle faded. Screaming, pounding of feet, yelling. Screams and yells. Yells and screams . . . Nothing.
Sometime later—he didn’t know how long—he felt himself being lifted up. The Trolloc? He blinked, intent on at least spitting in the face of his killer, only to find himself being hauled into the saddle behind al’Lan Mandragoran.
«I’m alive?» Arganda said. A wave of pain across his left side informed him that yes, indeed, he was.
«You felled a big one, Ghealdanin», Lan said, spurring his horse to a gallop toward their rear lines. The other Borderlanders were riding with them, Arganda saw. «The Trolloc hit you in its death throes. I thought you were dead, but I could not come for you until we had pushed them back. We would have been hard pressed if that other army hadn’t surprised the Sharans».
«Other army?» said Arganda, rubbing his arm.
«Cauthon had an army lying in wait on the northern side of the Heights. By the looks of it, Dragonsworn and a banner of cavalry, probably part of the Band. About the time you were tussling with that Trolloc, they fell on the Sharan’s left flank, breaking them all apart. It’s going to take them a while to regroup».
«Light», Arganda said, then groaned. He could tell his left arm was broken. Well, he lived. Good enough for now. He looked toward the front lines where his soldiers still held their ranks. Queen Alliandre rode in their midst, back and forth through the ranks, encouraging them. Light. He wished she’d been willing to serve at the hospital in Mayene.
There was peace here at the moment—the Sharans had been hit hard enough that they had pulled back, leaving a section of ground open between the opposing armies. They probably hadn’t been expecting such a sudden and strong attack.
But wait. Shadows approached from Arganda’s right, oversized figures walking from the darkness. More Trollocs? He set his jaw against the pain. He’d dropped his mace, but he still had his boot knife. He’d not go down without . . . Without . . .
Ogier, he realized, blinking. Those aren’t Trollocs. They're Ogier. Trollocs wouldn’t carry torches as these beings did.
«Glory to the Builders!» Lan called up to them. «So you were part of the army Cauthon sent to attack the Sharans’ flank. Where is he? I would have words with him!»
One of the Ogier let out a rumbling laugh. «You are not the only one, Dai Shan! Cauthon moves about like a squirrel hunting nuts in the underbrush. One moment here, another moment gone. I am to tell you that we must hold back this Sharan advance, at all cost».
More light flashed from the distant side of the Heights. The Aes Sedai and Sharans fought there. Cauthon was trying to box the Shadow’s forces in. Arganda shoved aside his pain, trying to think.
What of Demandred? Arganda could now see another swath of destruction launched from the Forsaken. It burned through defenders across the river. The pike formations had begun to shatter, each burst of light killing hundreds.
«Sharan channelers in the distance on one side», Arganda mumbled, «and one of the Forsaken on the other! Light! I didn’t realize how many Trollocs there were. They’re endless.’’ He could see them now, confronting Elayne’s troops; blasts of the One Power showed thousands of them in the distance below. «We’re finished, aren’t we?»
Lan’s face reflected torchlight. Eyes like slate, a face of granite. He did not correct Arganda.
«What will we do?» Arganda said. «To win . . . Light, to win we’d need to break these Sharans, rescue the pikemen—they will soon be surrounded by the Trollocs—and each man of ours would need to kill at least five of those beasts! That’s not even counting Demandred».
No reply from Lan.
«We’re doomed», Arganda said.
«If so», Lan said, «we stand atop the high ground, and we fight until we die, Ghealdanin. You surrender when you’re dead. Many a man has been given less».
The threads of possibility resisted Rand as he wove them together into the world he imagined. He did not know what that meant. Perhaps what he demanded was highly unlikely. This thing he did, using threads to show what could be, was more than simple illusion. It involved looking to worlds that had been before, worlds that could be again. Mirrors of the reality he lived in.
He didn’t create these worlds. He merely . . . manifested them. He forced the threads to open the reality he demanded, and finally they obeyed. One last time, the darkness became light, and the nothing became something.
He stepped into a world that did not know the Dark One.
He chose Caemlyn as a point of entry. Perhaps because the Dark One had used the place in his last creation, and Rand wanted to prove to himself that the terrible vision was not inevitable. He needed to see the city again, but untainted.
He walked on the road before the palace, taking a deep breath. The butterchain trees were in bloom, the bright yellow blossoms spilling out of the gardens and hanging over the courtyard walls. Children played in them, throwing the petals into the air.
Not a cloud marred the brilliant sky. Rand looked up, raising his arms, and stepped out from beneath the blossoming branches into the deep warming sunlight. No guards stood at the way into the palace, only a kindly servant who answered questions for some visitors.
Rand strode forward, feet leaving tracks in golden petals as he approached the entrance. A child came toward him, and Rand stopped, smiling at her.
She stepped up, reaching to touch the sword at Rand’s waist. The child seemed confused. «What is it?» she asked, looking up with wide eyes.
«A relic», Rand whispered.
Laughter from the other children turned the girl’s head, and she left him, giggling as one of the children threw an armful of petals into the air.
Rand walked on.
IS THIS PERFECTION FOR YOU? The Dark One's voice felt distant. He could pierce this reality to speak to Rand, but he could not appear here as he had in the other visions. This place was his antithesis.
For this was the world that would exist if Rand killed him in the Last Battle.
«Come and see», Rand said to him, smiling.
No reply. If the Dark One allowed himself to be drawn too fully into this reality, he would cease to exist. In this place, he had died.
All things turned and came again. That was the meaning of the Wheel of Time. What was the point of winning a single battle against the Dark One, only to know that he would return? Rand could do more. He could do this.
«I would like to see the Queen», Rand asked of the servant at the Palace doors. «Is she in?»
«You should find her in the gardens, young man», the guide said. He looked at Rand’s sword, but out of curiosity, not worry. In this world, men could not conceive that one would want to hurt another. It didn’t happen.
«Thank you», Rand said, walking into the Palace. The hallways were familiar, yet different. Caemlyn had nearly been razed during the Last Battle, the Palace burned. The reconstruction resembled what had been there before, but not completely.
Rand strolled the hallways. Something worried him, a discomfort from the back of his mind. What was it . . .
Do not be caught here, he realized. Do not be complacent. This world was not real, not completely. Not yet.
Could this have been a plan of the Dark One? To trick Rand into creating paradise for himself, only to enter it and be trapped while the Last Battle raged? People were dying as they fought.
He had to remember that. He could not let this fancy consume him. That was difficult to remember as he entered the gallery—a long hallway, lined with what appeared to be windows. Only, those windows did not look out at Caemlyn. These new glass portals allowed one to see other places, like a gateway always in place.
Rand passed one that looked out into a submerged bay, colorful fish darting this way and that. Another gave a view of a peaceful meadow high in the Mountains of Mist. Red flowers pushed up through the green, like specks of paint scattered on the floor following a painter’s daily work.
On the other wall, the windows looked at the great cities of the world. Rand passed Tear, where the Stone was now a museum to the days of the Third Age, with the Defenders as its curators. None of this generation had ever carried a weapon, and were baffled by the stories of their grandparents having fought. Another showed the Seven Towers of Malkier, built strong again—but as a monument, not a fortification. The Blight had vanished upon the Dark One’s death, and the Shadowspawn had fallen dead immediately. As if the Dark One had been linked to them all, like a Fade leading a fist of Trollocs.
Doors did not bear locks. Coinage was a nearly forgotten eccentricity. Channelers helped create food for everyone. Rand passed a window to Tar Valon, where the Aes Sedai Healed any who came and created gateways to bring loved ones together. All had everything they needed.
He hesitated beside the next window. It looked out at Rhuidean. Had this city ever been in a desert? The Waste bloomed, from Shara to Cairhien.
And here, through the window, Rand saw the Chora Fields—a forest of them, surrounding the fabled city. Though he could not hear their words, he saw the Aiel singing.
No more weapons. No more spears to dance. Once again, the Aiel were a people of peace.
He continued on. Bandar Eban, Ebou Dar, the Seanchan lands, Shara. Each nation was represented, though these days, people didn’t pay much heed to borders. Another relic. Who cared who lived in what nation, and why would someone try to «own» land? There was enough for all. The blooming of the Waste had opened up room for new cities, new wonders. Many of the windows Rand passed looked at places he did not know, though he was pleased to see the Two Rivers looking so majestic, almost like Manetheren come again.
The last window gave him pause. It looked upon a valley in what had once been the Blasted Lands. A stone slab, where a body had been burned long ago, rested here alone. Overgrown with life: vines, grass, flowers. A furry spider the size of a child’s hand scurried across the stones.
Rand’s grave. The place where his body had been burned following the Last Battle. He lingered a long while at that window before finally forcing himself to move on, leaving the Gallery and making his way to the Palace gardens. Servants were helpful whenever he spoke to them. Nobody questioned why he wanted to see the Queen.
He assumed that when he found her, she would be surrounded by people. If anyone could see the Queen, wouldn’t that demand all of her time? Yet when he approached her sitting in the Palace gardens beneath the boughs of the Palace’s chora tree, she was alone.
This was a world without problems. A world where people worked out their own grievances easily. A world of giving, not dispute. What would someone need of the Queen?
Elayne was as beautiful as she’d been when they’d last parted. She was no longer pregnant, of course. A hundred years had passed since the Last Battle. She appeared to have not aged a day.
Rand approached her, glancing at the garden wall that he had once fallen over, tumbling down to meet her for the first time. These gardens were far different, but that wall remained. It had weathered the scouring of Caemlyn and the coming of a new Age.
Elayne looked at him from her bench. Her eyes widened immediately, and her hand went to her mouth. «Rand?»
He fixed his gaze on her, hand resting on the pommel of Laman’s sword. A formal posture. Why had he taken it?
Elayne smiled. «Is this a prank? Daughter, where are you? Have you used the Mask of Mirrors to trick me again?»
«It is no trick, Elayne», Rand said, sinking down onto one knee before her so that their heads were level. He looked into her eyes.
Something was wrong.
«Oh! But how can it be?» she asked.
That wasn’t Elayne . . . was it? The tone seemed off, the mannerisms wrong. Could she have changed so much? It had been a hundred years. «Elayne?» Rand asked. «What has happened to you?»
«Happened? Why, nothing! The day is grand, wonderful. Beautiful and peaceful. How I like to sit in my gardens and enjoy the sunlight».
Rand frowned. That simpering tone, that vapid reaction . . . Elayne had never been like that.
«We shall have to prepare a feast!» Elayne exclaimed, clapping her hands. «I will invite Aviendha! It is her week off from singing, though she is probably doing nursery duty. She usually volunteers there».
«In Rhuidean», Elayne said. «Everyone so likes to play with the children, both here and there. There is grand competition to care for the children! But we understand the need to take turns».
Aviendha. Tending children and singing to chora trees. There was nothing wrong with that, really. Why shouldn’t she enjoy such activities?
But it was wrong, too. He thought Aviendha would be a wonderful mother, but to imagine her seeking to spend all day playing with other people’s children . . .
Rand looked into Elayne’s eyes, looked into them deeply. A shadow lurked back there, behind them. Oh, it was an innocent shadow, but a shadow nonetheless. It was like . . . like that . . .
Like that shadow behind the eyes of someone who had been Turned to the Dark One.
Rand jumped to his feet and stumbled backward. «What have you done here?» he shouted into the sky. «Shai’tan! Answer me!»
Elayne cocked her head. She wasn’t afraid. Fear did not exist in this place. «Shai’tan? I swear I remember that name. It has been so long. I get forgetful sometimes».
«SHAITAN!» Rand bellowed.
I HAVE DONE NOTHING, ADVERSARY. The voice was distant. THIS IS YOUR CREATION.
«Nonsense!» Rand said. «You’ve changed her! You’ve changed them all!»
DID YOU THINK THAT REMOVING ME FROM THEIR LIVES WOULD LEAVE THEM UNALTERED?
The words thundered through Rand. Aghast, he stepped away as Elayne rose, obviously concerned for him. Yes, he saw it now, the thing behind her eyes. She was not herself . . . because Rand had taken from her the ability to be herself.
I TURN MEN TO ME, Shaitan said. IT IS TRUE. THEY CANNOT CHOOSE GOOD ONCE I HAVE MADE THEM MINE IN THAT WAY. HOW IS THIS ANY DIFFERENT, ADVERSARY?
IF YOU DO THIS, WE ARE ONE.
«No!» Rand screamed, holding his head in his hand, falling to his knees. «No! The world would be perfect without you!»
PERFECT. UNCHANGING. RUINED. DO THIS, IF YOU WISH, ADVERSARY. IN KILLING ME, I WOULD WIN.
NO MATTER WHAT YOU DO, I WILL WIN.
Rand screamed, curling up as the Dark One’s next attack washed over him. The nightmare Rand had created exploded outward, ribbons of light spraying away like streaks of smoke.
The darkness around him shook and trembled.
YOU CANNOT SAVE THEM.
The Pattern—glowing, vibrant—wrapped around Rand again. The real Pattern. The truth of what was happening. In creating his vision of a world without the Dark One, he had created something horrible. Something awful. Something worse than would have been before.
The Dark One attacked again.
Mat pulled back from the fighting, resting his ashandarei on his shoulder. Karede had demanded the chance to fight—the more hopeless the situation, the better. Well, the man should be bloody well pleased with this. He should be dancing and laughing! He had his wish. Light, but he did.
Mat sat down on a dead Trolloc, the only seat available, and drank deeply from his waterskin. He had the pulse of the battle, its rhythm. The beat it played was forlorn. Demandred was clever. He had not gone for Mat’s bait at the ford, where he had positioned a smaller army. Demandred had sent Trollocs there, but held back his Sharans. Had Demandred abandoned the Heights to attack Elayne’s army, Mat would have swept his own armies across the top of the Heights from the west and the northeast to smash the Shadow from behind. Now Demandred was trying to get his troops behind Elayne’s forces, and Mat had stopped him for the time being. But how long could he hold?
The Aes Sedai were not doing well. The Sharan channelers were winning that fight. Luck, Mat thought. We’ll need more than a little of you today. Don’t abandon me now.
That would be a fitting end for Matrim Cauthon. The Pattern did like to laugh at him. He suddenly saw its grand prank, offering him luck when it meant nothing, then seizing it all away when it really mattered.
Blood and bloody ashes, he thought, putting away the empty waterskin, seeing only by a torch that Karede carried. Mat could not feel his luck at the moment. That happened sometimes. He did not know if it was with him or not.
Well, if they could not have a lucky Matrim Cauthon, they would at least have a stubborn Matrim Cauthon. He did not intend to die this day. There was still dancing to be done; there were still songs to be sung and women to be kissed. One woman, at least.
He stood and rejoined the Deathwatch Guards, the Ogier, Tam’s army, the Band, the Borderlanders—everyone he had put up here. The battle had resumed, and they fought hard, even pushing the Sharans back a couple of hundred paces. But Demandred had seen what he was doing, and had started sending Trollocs at the river up the slope to join the fray. It was the steep one—hardest to climb—but Demandred would know he had to pressure Mat.
Those Trollocs were a real danger. There were enough of them at the river to potentially surround Elayne and fight their way up to the Heights. If any one of Mat’s armies broke, he was done for.
Well, Mat h?d thrown his dice and sent out his orders. There was nothing more to do Dut fight, bleed and hope.
A spray of light, like liquid fire, flared from the western side of the Heights. Burning drops of molten stone fell through the dark air. At first, Mat thought that Demandred had decided to attack from that direction, but the Forsaken was still intent on destroying the Andorans.
Another flash of light. That was where the Aes Sedai fought. Through the darkness and smoke, Mat was certain he saw Sharans fleeing across the Heights from west to east. Mat found himself smiling.
«Look», he said, slapping Karede on the shoulder and drawing the man’s attention.
«What is it?»
«I don’t know», Mat said. «But it’s setting Sharans on fire, so I’m mostly certain that I like it. Keep fighting!» He led Karede and the others in another charge against Sharan soldiers.
Olver walked hunched under the bundle of arrows tied to his back. They had to have real weight; he’d insisted. What would happen if one of the Shadow’s people inspected the goods, and found that his pack had light cloth stuffed in the middle?
Setalle and Faile didn't need to keep looking at him as if he’d break any moment. The bundle wasn’t that heavy. Of course, that wouldn’t stop him from squeezing some sympathy from Setalle once they were back. He needed to practice doing things like that, or he’d end up as hopeless as Mat.
Their line continued forward toward the supply dump here in the Blasted Lands, and as it did, he admitted to himself that he wouldn’t have minded a pack that was a little lighter. Not because he was growing tired. How was he going to fight if he needed to? He’d have to drop the pack quickly, and this didn’t seem the type of pack that let one do anything quickly.
Gray dust coated his feet. No shoes, and his clothing now wouldn’t make good rags. Earlier, Faile and the Band had attacked one of the pitiful caravans trailing toward the Shadow’s supply depot. It hadn’t been much of a fight—only three Darkfriends and one oily merchant guarding a string of worn-out, half-fed captives.
Many of their supplies bore the mark of Kandor, a red horse. In fact, many of those captives had been Kandori. Faile had offered them freedom, sending them southward, but only half had gone. The rest had insisted on joining her and marching for the Last Battle, though Olver had seen beggars on the streets with more meat on them than those fellows. Still, they helped Faile’s line look authentic.
That was important. Olver glanced up as they approached the supply dump, the path lined with torches in the cold night. Several of those red-veiled Aiel stood to the side, watching the line pass. Olver looked down again, lest they see his hatred. He’d known that Aiel couldn’t be trusted.
A couple of guards—not Aiel, but more of those Darkfriends—called out for the line to stop. Aravine walked forward, wearing the clothing of the merchant they’d killed. Faile was obviously Saldaean, and it had been decided that she might be too distinctive to play the part of the merchant Darkfriend.
«Where are your guards?» the soldier asked. «This is Lifa’s run, isn’t it? What happened?»
«Those fools!» Aravine said, then spat to the side. Olver hid a smile. Her entire countenance changed. She knew how to play a part. «They’re dead where I left them! I told them not to wander at night. I don’t know what took the three, but we found them at the edge of camp, bloated, their skin black». She looked sick. «I think something laid eggs in their hollowed-out stomachs. We didn’t want to find what hatched».
The soldier grunted. «You are?»
«Pansai», Aravine said. «Lifa’s business partner».
«Since when has Lifa had a business partner?»
«Since I stabbed her and took over her run».
What information they had on Lifa had come from the rescued captives. It was thin. Olver felt himself sweating. The guard gave Aravine a long look, then began walking down the line of people.
Faile’s soldiers were mixed among the Kandori captives. They tried their best to hold the right posture.
«You, woman», the guard said, pointing at Faile. «A Saldaean, eh?» He laughed. «I thought a Saldaean woman would kill a man before letting him take her captive». He shoved Faile on the shoulder.
Olver held his breath. Oh, blood and bloody ashes! Lady Faile wasn’t going to be able to take that. The guard was looking to see if the captives were really beaten down or not! Faile’s posture, her manner, would give her away. She was noble, and—
Faile slumped down, becoming small, and whimpered a reply that Olver could not hear.
Olver found himself gaping, then forced his mouth shut and looked down at the ground. How? How had a lady like Faile learned to act like a servant?
The guard grunted. «Go on», he said, waving to Aravine. «Wait there until we send for you».
The group shuffled to a patch of ground nearby where Aravine ordered everyone to sit down. She stood to the side, arms folded, tapping one toe as she waited. Thunder rumbled, and Olver felt an odd chill. He looked up, and into the eyeless face of a Myrddraal.
A shock ran through Olver, like he’d been dropped into an icy lake. He couldn’t breathe. The Myrddraal seemed to glide as it moved, its cloak motionless and dead, as it rounded the group. After a horrible moment, it moved on, back toward the supply camp.
«Searching for channelers», Faile whispered to Mandevwin.
«Light help us», the man whispered back.
The wait was nearly insufferable. Eventually, a plump woman in white clothing strode up and wove a gateway. Aravine barked for them all to climb to their feet, then waved them through. Olver joined the line, walking near Faile, and they passed from the land of red soil and cold air to a place that smelled like it was on fire.
They entered a ramshackle camp filled with Trollocs. Several large cookpots boiled nearby. Just behind the camp, a slope led up sharply to some kind of large plateau. Streams of smoke rose from the top of it, and from there and somewhere to Olver’s left could be heard the sounds of combat. Turning away from the slope, the boy saw the darkened outline of a tall, narrow mountain far in the distance, rising from the flat plain like a candle in the middle of a table.
He looked back up the slope behind the camp, and his heart leaped. A body was plummeting down from the top of the slope, still clutching in its hand a banner—a banner that bore a large red hand. The Band of the Red Hand! The man and banner fell among a group of Trollocs eating sizzling pieces of meat around a fire. Sparks flew in all directions, and the enraged beasts yanked the intruder out of the flames, but he was long past caring what they did to him.
«Faile!» he whispered.
«I see it». Her bundle concealed the sack with the Horn in it. She added, more to herself, «Light. How are we going to reach Mat?»
They moved off to the side as the rest of her group came through the gateway. They had swords, but carried them bundled up like arrows, in packs, atop the backs of a few of the men as if they were tied-up supplies for the battlefield.
«Blood and ashes», Mandevwin whispered, joining the two of them. Captives whimpered from a pen nearby. «Maybe they’ll put us in there? We could sneak out in the night».
Faile shook her head. «They’ll take our bundles. Leave us unarmed.
«Then what do we do?» Mandevwin asked, glancing to the side as a group of Trollocs passed, dragging corpses harvested from the front lines. «Start fighting? Hope Lord Mat sees us, and sends help?»
Olver didn’t think much of that plan. He wanted to fight, but those Trollocs were big. One passed nearby, and its wolf-featured head swung his way. Eyes that could have belonged to a man looked him up and down, as if hungry. Olver stepped back, then reached toward his bundle, where he’d hidden his knife.
«We’ll run», Faile whispered, once the Trolloc passed. «Scatter in a dozen different directions, and in doing so, try to disorient them. Maybe a few of us will escape». She frowned. «What is delaying Aravine?»
Almost as she said it, Aravine strode through the gateway. The woman in white who had channeled followed her out, and then Aravine pointed at Faile.
Faile jerked into the air. Olver gasped, and Mandevwin cursed, throwing down his bundle and digging for his sword while Arrela and Selande shouted. All three were hauled into the air by weaves moment later, and Aiel in red veils ran through the gateway, weapons out.
Pandemonium followed. A few of Faile’s soldiers fell as they tried to fight back with their fists. Olver dove for the ground, hunting for his knife, but by the time he had his hand on its hilt, the skirmish was over. The others were all subdued or tied in air.
So fast! Olver thought with despair. Why hadn’t anyone warned him that fighting happened so quickly?
They seemed to have forgotten him, but he didn’t know what to do.
Aravine walked up to Faile, still hanging in the air. What was happening? Aravine . . . she had betrayed them?
«I am sorry, my Lady,’’ Aravine said to Faile. Olver could barely hear. Nobody paid any attention to him; the Aiel kept watch on the soldiers, shoving them into a group to be guarded. More than a few of their number lay bleeding on the ground.
Faile struggled in the air, her face growing red as she strained. Her mouth was obviously gagged. Faile would never remain quiet at a time like this.
Aravine untied the Horn’s bag from Faile’s back, then checked inside it. Her eyes widened. She pulled the sack tight at the top and held it close. «I had hoped», she whispered to Faile, «to leave my old life behind. To start fresh and new. I thought I could hide, or that I would be forgotten, that I could come back to the Light. But the Great Lord does not forget, and one cannot hide from him. They found me the very night we reached Andor. This is not what I intended, but it is what I must do».
Aravine turned away. «A horse!» she called. «I will deliver this package to Lord Demandred myself, as I have been commanded».
The woman in white walked up beside her, and the two started arguing in hushed tones. Olver glanced about. Nobody was looking at him.
His fingers started trembling. He’d known that Trollocs were big, and that they were ugly. But . . . these things were nightmares. Nightmares all around. Oh, Light!
What would Mat do?
«Dovie’andi se tovya sagain», Olver whispered, unsheathing his knife. With a cry, he threw himself at the woman in white and rammed his knife into her lower back.
She screamed. Faile dropped free of her bonds of Air. And then, suddenly, the captive pens burst open and a group of yelling men scrambled to freedom.
«Raise it higher!» Doesine cried. «Flaming quickly!»
Leane obeyed, weaving Earth with the other sisters. The ground trembled in front of them, buckling and slumping like a bunched-up rug. They finished, then used the mound for cover as fire dropped from upslope.
Doesine led the motley bunch. A dozen or so Aes Sedai, a smattering of Warders and soldiers. The men clutched their weapons, but lately those had proven about as effective as loaves of bread. The Power crackled and sizzled in the air. The improvised bulwark thumped as Sharans pounded it with fire.
Leane peeked above the defences, clutching the One Power. She had recovered from her encounter with the Forsaken Demandred. It had been an unsettling experience—she had been totally in his power, and her life could have been snuffed out in an instant. She had also been unnerved by the intensity of his ravings; his hatred of the Dragon Reborn was unlike anything she had ever seen.
A group of Sharans moved down the slope, and together they sent weaves at the makeshift fortification. Leane sliced one weave from the air, working like a surgeon cutting away withered flesh. Leane was much weaker in the One Power now than she had once been.
She had to be more efficient with her channeling. It was remarkable what a woman could achieve with less.
The bulwark exploded.
Leane threw herself aside as clods of soil rained down. She rolled through curling smoke, coughing and clinging to saidar. It was those Sharan men! She couldn’t see their weaves. She picked herself up, her dress tattered from the explosion, her arms scored by scratches. She caught a hint of blue peeking from a furrow nearby. Doesine. She scrambled over.
She found the woman’s body there. Not her head, though.
Leane felt an immediate, almost overpowering, sense of loss and grief. Doesine and she had not been close, but they had been fighting together here. It was wearing on Leane—the loss, the destruction. How much could they take? How many more would she have to watch die?
She steeled herself with difficulty. Light, this was a disaster. They had anticipated enemy Dreadlords, but there were hundreds upon hundreds of those Sharans. An entire nation’s worth of channelers, all trained in war. The battlefield was strewn with bright bits of color, fallen Aes Sedai. Their Warders charged up the hillside, screaming in rage at the loss of their Aes Sedai as they were cut down by blasts of the Power.
Leane stumbled toward where a group of Reds and Greens fought from a hollowed out piece of ground on the western slope. The terrain protected them for now, but how long could the women hold out?
Still, she felt proud. Outnumbered and overwhelmed, the Aes Sedai kept fighting. This was nothing like the night the Seanchan attacked, when a fractured Tower had broken from the inside out. These women held firm; each time a pocket of them was scattered, they grouped back together and continued fighting. Fire fell from above, but nearly as much flew back, and lightning struck on either side.
Leane carefully made her way over to the group, joining Raechin Connoral, who crouched next to a boulder while launching weaves of Fire at the advancing Sharans. Leane watched for return weaves, then deflected one with a quick weave of Water, making the ball of fire burn away in tiny sparks.
Raechin nodded to her. «And here I thought you’d stopped being useful for anything other than batting your eyes at men».
«The Domani art is about achieving what you want, Raechin», Leane said coolly, «with as little effort as possible».
Raechin snorted and launched a few fireballs toward the Sharans. «I should ask advice from you on that sometime», she said. «If there really is a way to make men do as you like, I should like very much to know it».
That idea was so absurd as to nearly make Leane laugh, despite the terrible circumstances. A Red? Putting on paints and powders and learning the Domani arts of manipulation? Well, why not? Leane thought, striking down another fireball. The world was changing, and the Ajahs—ever so subtly—changing with it.
The sisters’ resistance was attracting the attention of more Sharan channelers. «We’ll have to abandon this position soon», Raechin said.
Leane only nodded.
«Those Sharans . . " the Red growled. «Look at that!»
Leane gasped. Many of the Sharan troops in this quarter had withdrawn earlier in the fight—something seemed to have drawn them away—but the channelers had replaced them with a large group of frightened-looking people and were herding them at the front of their line to absorb attacks. Many carried sticks or tools of some sort for fighting, but they bunched together, holding the weapons timidly.
«Blood and bloody ashes», Raechin said, causing Leane to raise an eyebrow at her. She continued weaving, trying to send lightning down behind the lines of the frightened people. It still hit many of them. Leane felt sick, but joined in the attacks.
As they worked, Manda Wan crawled up to them. Soot-stained and blackened, the Green looked horrible. Probably much as I do, Leane thought, glancing down at her own scratched and sooty arms.
«We're pulling back», Manda said. «Maybe we’ll have to use gateways.
«And go where?» Leane said. «Abandon the battle?»
The three grew silent. No. There was no retreat from this fight. It was win here or nothing.
«We are too fragmented», Manda said. «We must at least fall back to regroup. We need to bring the women together, and this is the only thing I can think of. Unless you have a better idea».
Manda looked to Raechin. Leane was too weak in the power now for her opinion to hold much weight. She started cutting down weaves as the two continued to speak in hushed tones. The Aes Sedai nearby began pulling back out of the hollow and moving back down the slope. They’d regroup, make a gateway toward Dashar Knob and decide what to do next.
Wait. What was that? Leane sensed powerful channeling nearby. Had the Sharans created a circle? She squinted; they were well into night now, but enough of the landscape burned to give firelight. It also raised a lot of smoke. Leane wove Air to blow the smoke out of the way, but it lifted on its own, split as if by a powerful wind.
Egwene al’Vere strode past them up the slope, glowing with the power of a hundred bonfires. That was more than Leane had ever seen a woman hold. The Amyrlin walked forward with her hand thrust out, holding a white rod. Egwene’s eyes seemed to shine.
With a burst of light and force, Egwene released a dozen separate flows of fire. A dozen. They battered the hillside above, throwing the bodies of Sharan channelers into the air.
«Manda», Leane said, «I think we have found you a better rallying point».
Talmanes lit a twig off the lantern, then used it to light his pipe. He took one puff before hacking and emptying the pipe’s bowl on the rock floor. The tabac had gone bad somehow. Horribly bad. He coughed and ground the offending tabac into the floor with his heel.
«You all right, my Lord?» Melten asked, walking past, idly juggling a pair of hammers with his right hand as he walked.
«I’m still bloody alive», Talmanes said. «Which is far more than I likely have a right to expect».
Melten nodded without expression and continued on, joining one of the teams working on the dragons. The deep cavern around them echoed with the sounds of hammers on wood as the Band did its best to reconstruct the weapons. Talmanes tapped the lantern, judging the oil. It smelled awful when it burned, though he was growing used to that. They had enough for a few more hours yet.
That was good, since—so far as he knew—this cavern had no exits to the battleground above. It was accessible only by gateway. Some Ashaman had known of it. Strange fellow. What kind of man knew of caverns that could not be reached, except through the One Power?
Anyway, the Band was trapped down here, in a place of safety but isolation. Only rare bits of information came in Mats messages.
Talmanes strained, thinking he could hear the distant sounds of channelers fighting above, but it was mere fancy. The land was silent, and these ancient stones had not seen the light since the Breaking, if then.
Talmanes shook his head, walking to one of the working teams. «How goes it?»
Dennel gestured toward a few sheets of paper Aludra had given him, instructions on how to repair this particular dragon. The woman herself gave precise directions to another of the work teams, her lightly accented voice echoing in the chamber.
«Most of the tubes are solid», Dennel said. «If you think about it, they were built to withstand a little fire and an explosion now and then . . ». He chuckled, then fell silent, looking at Talmanes.
«Do not let my expression dampen your good humor», Talmanes said, tucking his pipe away. «Nor let it bother you that we are fighting at the end of the world, that our armies are grossly outnumbered, and that if we lose, our very souls will be destroyed by the Dark Lord of all evil».
«Sorry, my Lord».
«That was a joke».
Dennel blinked. «That?»
«That was a joke».
«You have an interesting sense of humor, my Lord», Dennel said.
«So I have been told». Talmanes stooped down and inspected the dragon cart. The scorched wood was held together with screws and extra boards. «This does not seem very functional».
«It will work, my Lord. We won’t be able to move it fast, though. I was saying, the tubes themselves fared well, but the carts . . . Well, we’ve done what we can with salvage and the supplies out of Baerlon, but we can only do so much with the time we have».
«Which is none», Talmanes said. «Lord Mat could call upon us at any moment».
«If they’re still alive up there», Dennel said, looking upward.
A discomforting thought. The Band could end its days trapped down here. At least there wouldn’t be many of those days. Either the world would end or the Band would run out of food. They wouldn’t last a week. Buried here. In darkness.
Bloody ashes, Mat. You’d better not lose up there. You’d better not! The Band still had fight in them. They were not going to end this one starving underground.
Talmanes held up his lantern, turning to go, but noticed something. The soldiers working on the dragons cast a twisted shadow on the wall, like a man with a wide cloak and hat that obscured his face.
Dennel followed the glance. «Light. It looks like we’re being watched over by old Jak himself, doesn’t it?»
«That it does», Talmanes said. Then, in a louder voice, he shouted, «It’s too quiet in here by far! Let’s have some singing, men».
Some of the men paused. Aludra stood up, placing hands on her hips, and gave him a displeased glance.
So Talmanes started it himself.
«We’ll drink the wine till the cup is dry,
And kiss the girls so they’ll not cry,
And toss the dice until we fly,
To dance with Jak o’ the Shadows!»
Then they started it up:
«We’ll give a yell with a bloody curse,
And hug the maids, it could be worse,
As we ride away with the Dark One’s purse,
To dance with Jak o’ the Shadows!»
Their loud voices beat against the stones as they worked, furiously preparing for the part they would play.
And they would play it. Talmanes would make certain they did. Even if they had to blast their way out of this tomb in a storm of dragonfire.
As Olver stabbed the woman in white, Faile’s bonds vanished. She dropped to the ground, stumbling but remaining upright. Mandevwin dropped beside her with a curse.
Aravine. Light, Aravine. Docile, careful and capable. Aravine was a Darkfriend.
She had the Horn.
Aravine glanced at the fallen Aes Sedai that Olver had attacked, then panicked, grabbing the horse a servant had brought and jumping into the saddle.
Faile dashed for her as captives roared out of the nearby pens, throwing themselves at Trollocs and trying to wrestle weapons free. She had almost reached Aravine before the woman galloped away, carrying the Horn with her. She headed toward the gentler slopes that would allow her to ride to the top of the Heights.
«No!» Faile screamed. «Aravine! Don’t do this!» Faile started to run after her, but saw that that was no use.
A horse. She needed a horse. Faile looked around, frantic, and found the few pack animals they had brought through the gateway. Faile scrambled to Bela’s side, cutting free the saddle—and all of its burdens—with a few swipes of the knife. She leaped up onto the mare bareback and took the reins, then kicked her into motion.
The shaggy mare galloped after Aravine, and Faile leaned low on her back. «Run, Bela», Faile said. «If you’ve kept any strength back, now is the time to use it. Please. Run, girl. Run».
Bela charged across the trampled ground, hoofbeats accompanying thunder from above. The Trolloc camp was a place of darkness, lit by cook fires and the occasional torch. Faile felt as if she were riding through a nightmare.
Ahead, a few Trollocs burst onto the path to head her off. Faile leaned lower, praying to the Light that they’d miss when they attacked. Bela slowed, and then two horsemen charged up alongside Faile, bearing lances. One pierced a Trollocs neck, and though the other rider missed his mark, his horse shouldered another Trolloc aside, making way. Bela galloped between the disoriented Trollocs, catching up to two men riding ahead, one large of girth, the other lean. Harnan and Vanin.
«You two!» Faile yelled.
«Ho, my Lady!» Harnan said, laughing.
«How?» she yelled at them over the sound of the hooves.
«We let a caravan find us», Harnan yelled back, «and let them take us captive. They brought us through the gateway a few hours back, and we’ve been preparing the captives to break free. Your arrival gave us the opportunity we needed!»
«The Horn! You tried to steal the Horn!»
«No», Harnan yelled back, «we tried to steal some of Mats tabac!»
«I thought you had buried it to leave it behind!» Vanin yelled from the other side. «I figured Mat wouldn’t care. He owes me a few marks anyway! When I opened that sack and found the bloody Horn of Valere . . . bloody ashes! I’ll bet they heard my yell all the way in Tar Valon!»
Faile groaned, imagining the scene. The yell that Faile had heard was a yell of surprise, and it was what had drawn the bear-thing to attack.
Well, there was no going back to that moment. She clung to Bela with her knees, urging the horse forward. Ahead, Aravine galloped between Trollocs, heading toward where the steep slopes tapered off. Aravine yelled frantically for Trollocs to help her. The racing horses traveled faster than any Trollocs could, however.
Demandred. Aravine had said she would take the Horn to one of the Forsaken. Faile growled softly, leaning down further, and amazingly, Bela pulled ahead of Vanin and Harnan. She didn’t ask where they’d found the horses. She directed her entire attention toward Aravine.
A cry went up through camp, and Vanin and Harnan split off, intercepting riders who came for Faile. She cut to the side, urging Bela to leap a pile of supplies and charging through the center of a group of people in strange clothing, eating beside a small fire. They yelled after her with thick accents.
Inch by inch, she gained on Aravine. Bela snorted and puffed, sweat darkening her coat. The Saldaean cavalry was among the best in the land, and Faile knew horses. She’d ridden all breeds. In those minutes on the battlefield, she would have put Bela up against the Tairen best. The shaggy mare, of no particular breed of note, moved like a champion runner.
Feeling the rhythm of the hoofbeats beneath her, Faile slipped a knife from her sleeve. She urged Bela to jump over a small dip in the land, and they hung in the air for a moment, Faile judging the wind, the fall, the moment. She reached her arm back, and flipped the knife through the air right before Bela’s hooves touched the ground.
The knife flew true, burying itself in Aravine’s back. The woman slipped from the saddle, crumpling to the ground, sack sliding from her grip-
Faile leaped off Bela, landing while still in motion and sliding to a stop beside the sack. She untied the strings that secured its opening, and saw the glittering Horn inside.
«I’m . . . sorry . . .’’ Aravine whispered, rolling over. Her legs did not move. «Don’t tell Aldin what I did. He has . . . such terrible taste . . . in women . . "
Faile stood up, then looked down with pity. «Pray that the Creator shelters your soul, Aravine», Faile said, and climbed back onto Bela’s back. «For if not, the Dark One will have you as his. I leave you to him». She nudged Bela back into motion.
There were more Trollocs ahead, and they fixed their attention on Faile. They shouted, and several Myrddraal slid forward, pointing toward Faile. They began to shift around her, blocking her path.
She set her jaw, grim, and heeled Bela back in the direction she had come, hoping to meet up with Harnan, Vanin or anyone else who would help.
The camp was abuzz with activity, and Faile picked up riders chasing after her, yelling, «She has the Horn of Valere!»
Somewhere high atop the hill, Mat Cauthon’s forces fought the Shadow. So close!
An arrow hit the ground beside her, followed by others. Faile reached the captive pens, the broken fence lying in pieces and bodies littered about. Bela was huffing, perhaps at the end of her strength. Faile caught sight of another horse nearby, a roan gelding that was saddled, nudging at a fallen soldier at his feet.
Faile slowed. What to do? Switch horses, but then what? She glanced over her shoulder and then ducked down as another arrow passed overhead. She’d picked up some dozen Sharan soldiers on horseback, all chasing her, wearing cloth armor sewn with small rings. They were followed by hundreds of Trollocs.
Even with afresh horse, she thought, I cant outrun them. She led Bela behind some supply wagons for cover and leaped off, intending to dash for the fresh mount.
«Lady Faile?» a small voice asked.
Faile glanced down. Olver huddled beneath the wagon, holding his knife.
The riders were almost upon her. Faile didn’t have time to think. She whipped the Horn from its sack and pushed it into Olver’s arms. «Keep this», she said. «Hide. Take it to Mat Cauthon later in the night».
«You’re leaving me?» Olver asked. «Alone?»
«I must», she said, stuffing some bundles of arrows into her sack, her heart thundering in her chest. «Once those riders pass, find another place to hide! They will come back to search where I’ve been, after . . ».
After they catch me.
She would have to take her knife to herself, lest they torture out of her what she’d done with the Horn. She gripped Olver by the arm. «I’m sorry to place this upon you, little one. There is no one else. You did well earlier; you can do this. Take the Horn to Mat or all is lost».
She ran into the open, making the sack she carried obvious. Some of those strangely dressed foreigners saw her, pointing. She lifted the sack high and climbed into the saddle of the roan, then kicked it into a gallop.
The Trollocs and Darkfriends followed, leaving the young boy and his heavy burden to huddle beneath a wagon in the middle of the Trolloc camp.
Logain turned the thin disc over in his fingers. Black and white, split by a sinuous line. Cuendillar; supposedly. The flakes that rubbed off beneath his fingers seemed to make mockery of its eternal nature.
«Why didn’t Taim break them?» Logain asked. «He could have. These are as brittle as old leather».
«I don’t know», Androl said, glancing at the others of his team. «Maybe the time wasn’t right yet».
«Break them at the right time, and it will help the Dragon», said the man who called himself Emarin. He sounded worried. «Break them at the wrong time . . . and what?»
«Nothing good, I suspect», Pevara said. A Red.
Would he ever have his vengeance against those who had gentled him? Once, that hatred—and it alone—had driven him to survive. He now found a new hunger inside of him. He had defeated Aes Sedai, he had beaten them down and claimed them as his own. Vengeance seemed . . . empty. His long-building thirst to kill M’Hael filled a little of that emptiness, but not enough. What more?
Once, he had named himself the Dragon Reborn. Once, he had prepared himself to dominate the world. To make it heel. He fingered the seal to the Dark One’s prison while standing at the periphery of the battle. He was far to the southwest, below the bogs, where his Asha’man held a small base camp. Distant rumbles sounded from the Heights—explosions of weaves firing back and forth between Aes Sedai and Sharans.
A large number of his Asha’man had fought there, but the Sharan channelers outnumbered the Aes Sedai and Asha’man combined. Others prowled the battlefields, hunting down Dreadlords, killing them.
He had been losing men faster than the Shadow. There were too many enemies.
He held up the seal. There was a power to it. Power to protect the Black Tower, somehow? If they do not fear us, fear me, what will happen to us once the Dragon is dead?
Dissatisfaction radiated through the bond. He met Gabrelle’s eyes. She had been inspecting the battle, but now her eyes were upon him. Questioning. Threatening?
Earlier, had he really been thinking that he’d tamed Aes Sedai? The idea should have made him laugh. No Aes Sedai could be tamed, not ever.
Logain pointedly placed the seal and its fellows in the pouch at his belt. He drew its strings closed, meeting Gabrelle’s eyes. Her concern spiked. For a moment, he’d felt that concern of hers to be for him, not because of him.
Perhaps she was learning how to manipulate the bond, to send him feelings she thought would lull him. No, Aes Sedai could not be tamed. Bonding them hadn’t contained them. It had made more complications.
He reached to his high collar, undoing the dragon pin he wore there, and offered it to Androl. «Androl Genhald, you have walked into the pit of death itself and returned. Twice now, I am in your debt. I name you full Asha’man. Wear the pin with pride». He had already given the man back his sword pin, restoring him to Dedicated.
Androl hesitated, then reached out and took the pin in reverent hands.
«And the seals?» Pevara asked, arms folded. «They belong to the White Tower; the Amyrlin is their Watcher».
«The Amyrlin», Logain said, «is as good as dead, from what I have heard. In her absence, I am a fitting steward». Logain seized the Source, subjecting it, dominating it. He opened a gateway back to the top of the Heights.
The war returned to him in full force, the confusion, the smoke and screams. He stepped through, the others following. The powerful channeling from Demandred shone like a beacon, the man’s booming voice continuing to taunt the Dragon Reborn.
Rand al’Thor was not here. Well, the closest thing to him was Logain himself. Another substitute. «I’m going to fight him», he told the others. «Gabrelle, you will remain behind and wait for my return, as I may need Healing. The rest of you deal with Taim’s men and those Sharan channelers. Let no man live who has gone to the Shadow, whether by choice or force. Bring justice to the one and mercy to the other».
They nodded. Gabrelle seemed impressed with him, perhaps for his decision to strike at the enemy’s heart. She did not realize. Not even one of the Forsaken could be as powerful as Demandred seemed to be.
Demandred had a sa’angreal, and a powerful one. Similar in power to Callandor; maybe stronger. With that in Logain’s hands, many things in this world would change. The world would know of him and the Black Tower, and they would tremble before him as they never had for the Amyrlin Seat.
Egwene led an assault the likes of which had not been seen in millennia. The Aes Sedai pulled themselves out of their defensive fortifications and joined with her, pushing up the western slope in a steady stride. Weaves flew in the air like an explosion of ribbons caught in the wind.
The sky broke with the light of a thousand bolts, the ground groaning and trembling with the hits. Demandred continued to fire upon the Andorans from the other side of the plateau, and each shot of balefire sent ripples through the air. The ground cracked with spiderwebs of black, but now tendrils of something sickly began to sprout from those cracks. It spread like a disease across the broken stones of the hillside.
The air felt alive with the Power, the energy so thick that Egwene almost thought the One Power had become visible to all. Through this, she drew as much strength as she could hold through Vora’s sa’angreal. She felt as she had when fighting the Seanchan, only somehow more in control. Then, her rage had been fringed by desperation and terror.
This time, it was a white-hot thing, like a metal heated beyond the point of being worked by a smith.
She, Egwene al’Vere, had been given stewardship of this land.
She, the Amyrlin Seat, would not be bullied by the Shadow any longer.
She would not retreat. She would not bow as her resources failed.
She would fight.
She channeled Air, building a swirling storm of dust, smoke and dead plants. She held it before herself, obscuring the view of those above as they tried to pinpoint her. Lightning crashed down around her, but she wove Earth, digging deeply in the rock and bringing up a spurt of iron that cooled in a spire next to her. The lightning struck at the spire, sparing her as she sent the windstorm howling up the incline.
A movement at her side. Egwene felt Leilwin nearing. That one . . . that one had proven faithful. Such a surprise. Having a new Warder did not take the edge off her despair at Gawyn’s death, but it did help in other ways. That knot in the back of Egwene’s mind had replaced itself with a new one, very different, yet shockingly loyal.
Egwene raised Vora’s sa’angreal and continued her attacks, moving up the hillside, Leilwin at her side. Ahead, Sharans huddled down, weathering the winds. Egwene struck them with ribbons of fire. Channelers tried to attack her through the windstorm, but their weaves went astray, their eyes clogged with dust. Three regular soldiers attacked from the side, but Leilwin dispatched them efficiently.
Egwene brought the wind around and used it like hands, scooping the channelers up and flinging them into the air. The lightning bolts from above took the men in a fiery embrace, and smoking corpses plummeted to the hillside. Egwene pressed forward, her army of Aes Sedai advancing, flinging weaves like arrows of light.
Ashaman joined them. Those had fought alongside the White Tower on and off, but now they seemed committed in force. Dozens of men gathered as she led the way The air became thick with the One Power.
The winds stopped.
The dust storm suddenly fell, smothered like a candle beneath a blanket. No natural force had done that. Egwene mounted a rocky outcrop, looking up toward a man in black and red standing at the top, his hand out. She had finally drawn out the one who led this force. His Dreadlords fought alongside the Sharans, but she sought their leader. Taim. M’Hael.
«He’s weaving lightning!» a man yelled behind her.
Egwene immediately brought up a spire of molten iron and cooled it to draw the lightning that fell a moment later. She glanced to the side. The one who had spoken was Jahar Narishma, Merise’s Asha’man Warder.
Egwene smiled, looking toward Taim. «Keep the others off me», she commanded loudly. «All but you, Narishma and Merise. Narishma’s warnings will prove useful».
She gathered her strength and began to release a storm at the traitor M’Hael.
Ila picked through the dead on the battlefield near the ruins. Though the fighting had moved downriver, she could hear distant shouts and explosions in the night.
She hunted for the wounded among the fallen, and ignored arrows and swords when she found them. Others would gather those, though she wished they would not. Swords and arrows had caused much of this death.
Raen, her husband, worked nearby, prodding at each body then listening for a heartbeat. His gloves were stained red, and blood smeared his colorful clothing, because he had been pressing his ear against the chests of corpses. Once they confirmed someone was dead, they left an X drawn on a cheek, often in the person’s own blood. That would keep others from repeating the work.
Raen seemed to have aged a decade in the last year, and Ila felt as if she had, too. The Way of the Leaf was an easy master at times, providing a life of joy and peace. But a leaf fell in calm winds and in the tempest; dedication demanded that one accept the latter as well as the former. Being driven from country after country, suffering starvation as the land died, then finally coming to rest in the lands of the Seanchan . . . such had been their life.
None of it matched losing Aram. That had hurt far more deeply than had losing his mother to the Trollocs.
They passed Morgase, the former queen, who organized these workers and gave them orders. Ila kept moving. She cared little for queens. They had done nothing for her or hers.
Nearby, Raen stopped, raising his lantern to examine a full quiver of arrows that a soldier had been carrying as he died. Ila hissed, lifting her skirts up to step around corpses and reach her husband. «Raen!»
«Peace, Ila», he said. «I’m not going to pick it up. Yet, I wonder». He looked up, toward the distant flashes of light downriver and atop the Heights where the armies continued their terrible acts of murder. So many flashes in the night, like hundreds of lightning bolts. It was well past midnight now. They’d been on this field, looking for the living, for hours.
«You wonder?» Ila asked. «Raen . . ».
«What would we have them do, Ila? Trollocs will not follow the Way of the Leaf».
«There is plenty of room to run», Ila said. «Look at them. They came to meet the Trollocs when the Shadowspawn were barely out of the Blight. If that energy had been spent gathering the people and leading them away to the south . . ».
«The Trollocs would have followed», Raen said. «What then, Ila?»
«We have accepted many masters», Ila said. «The Shadow might treat us poorly, but would it really be worse than we have been treated at the hands of others?»
«Yes», Raen said softly. «Yes, Ila. It would be worse. Far, far worse».
Ila looked at him.
He shook his head, sighing. «I am not going to abandon the Way, Ila. It is my path, and it is right for me. Perhaps . . . perhaps I will not think quite so poorly of those who follow another path. If we live through these times, we will do so at the bequest of those who died on this battlefield, whether we wish to accept their sacrifice or not».
He trailed away. It’s just the darkness of the night, she thought. He will overcome it, once the sun shines again. That's the right of it. Isn’t it?
She looked up at the night sky. That sun . . . would they be able to tell when it rose? The clouds, lit from the fires below, seemed to be growing thicker and thicker. She pulled her bright yellow shawl closer, feeling suddenly cold.
Perhaps I will not think quite so poorly of those who follow another path . . .
She blinked a few tears from her eyes. «Light», she whispered, something twisting inside. «I shouldn’t have turned my back on him. I should have tried to help him return to us, not cast him out. Light, oh Light. Shelter him . . ».
Nearby, a group of mercenaries found the arrows and picked them up. «Hey, Hanlon!» one called. «Look at this!»
When the brutish men had originally started helping with the Tuatha’an work, she had been proud of them. Avoiding battle to help care for the wounded? The men had seen beyond their violent past.
Now, she blinked and saw something else about them. Cowards, who would rather pick through corpses and fish in their pockets than fight. Which was worse? The men who—misguided though they were—stood up to the Trollocs and tried to turn them back? Or these mercenaries who refused to fight because they found this path easier?
Ila shook her head. She had always felt as if she knew the answers in life. Today, most of those had slipped from her. Saving a person’s life, though . . . that she could cling to.
She headed back among the bodies, searching for the living among the dead.
Olver scuttled back under the wagon, clutching the Horn, as Lady Faile rode off. Dozens of riders followed her, and hundreds of Trollocs. It had grown so dark.
Alone. He’d been left alone again.
He squeezed his eyes shut, but that didn’t do much. He could still hear men screaming and shouting in the distance. He could still smell blood, the captives who had been killed by the Trollocs as they tried to escape. Beyond the blood, he smelled smoke, thick and itchy. It seemed that the whole world was burning.
The ground trembled, as if something very heavy had hit it somewhere close by. Thunder rumbled in the sky, accompanied by sharp cracks as lightning struck time and time again at the Heights. Olver whimpered.
How brave he had thought himself. Now, here he was, finally at the battle. He could barely keep his hands from trembling. He wanted to hide, dig deep into the earth.
Faile had told him to find another place to hide because they might come back, looking for the Horn.
Dared he go out there? Dared he stay here? Olver cracked his eyes open, then nearly screamed. A pair of legs ending in hooves stood beside the wagon. A moment later, a snouted face leaned down and looked at him, beady eyes narrowing, nostrils sniffing.
Olver yelled, scrambling back, clutching the Horn. The Trolloc yelled something, heaving the wagon over and nearly smashing it down on Olver. The wagon’s contents of arrows went scattering across the ground as Olver dashed away, looking for safety.
There was none. Dozens of the Trollocs turned toward him, and they called to one another in a language Olver did not recognize. He looked about, Horn in one hand, knife in the other, frantic. No safety.
A horse snorted nearby. It was Bela, chewing on some grain leaked from a supply cart. The horse raised her head, looking at Olver. She didn’t have a saddle on, only a halter and bridle.
Blood and ashes, Olver thought, running for her, I wish I had Wind. This plump mare would end him in the cookpot for certain. Olver sheathed his knife and jumped up onto Bela’s back, seizing the reins in one hand, clutching the Horn in the other.
The pig-snouted Trolloc from the wagon swung, nearly taking off Olver’s arm. He cried out, kicking Bela into motion, and the mare galloped out from among the Trollocs. The beasts ran behind with howls and yells. Other calls sounded throughout the camp, which was nearly emptying out as they converged on the boy.
Olver rode as he’d been taught, down low, guiding with his knees. And Bela ran. Light, but she ran. Mat had said that many horses were frightened of Trollocs, and would throw their rider if forced near them, but this animal did none of that. She thundered right past howling Trollocs, right through the center of the camp.
Olver looked over his shoulder. There were hundreds of them back there, chasing him. «Oh, Light!»
He’d seen Mat’s banner atop those Heights, he was sure of it. But there were so many Trollocs in the way. Olver turned Bela to ride the way Aravine had gone. Perhaps he could round the Trolloc camp and get out that way, then come up the back of the Heights.
Take the Horn to Mat, or all is lost.
Olver rode for all he was worth, urging Bela on.
There is nobody else.
Ahead, a large force of Trollocs cut him off. Olver turned back the other way, but others approached from that direction, too. Olver cried out, turning Bela again, but a thick black Trolloc arrow hit her in the flank. She screamed and stumbled, then dropped.
Olver tumbled free. Hitting the ground knocked the air from his lungs and made him see a flash of light. He forced himself to crawl to his hands and knees.
The Horn must reach Matrim Cauthon . . .
Olver grabbed the Horn, and found that he was weeping. «I'm sorry», he said to Bela. «You were a good horse. You ran like Wind couldn’t have. I’m sorry». She whinnied softly and drew a final breath, then died.
He left her and ran beneath the legs of the first Trolloc that arrived. Olver couldn’t fight them. He knew he couldn’t. He didn’t unsheathe the knife. He just ran up the steep slope, trying to reach the top from where he had seen Mat’s flag fall.
It might as well have been a continent away. A Trolloc grabbed at his clothing, pulling him down, but Olver ripped free, leaving cloth in its thick nails. He scrambled over broken ground, and with desperation, spotted a little cleft in a rocky outcrop at the base of the slope. The shallow crack looked up at the black sky.
He threw himself toward it, then wiggled in, clinging to the Horn. He barely fit. Trollocs milled around above him, then began to reach in for him, tearing at his clothing.
Olver whimpered and closed his eyes.
Logain hurled himself through the gateway, weaves already forming before him as he struck at Demandred.
The man stood on the smoldering slope that looked over the dried river and toward the failing Andoran pike formations. The Aiel, Cairhienin and Legion of the Dragon fought there as well, and all were in danger of being surrounded.
The pikes were all but shattered, now. It would soon be a rout.
Logain launched twin columns of fire toward Demandred, but Sharans threw themselves in the way, interfering with his attack. Flesh burned away, bones charring to dust. Their deaths gave Demandred time to spin about and lash out with a weave of Water and Air. Logain’s burst of fire hit that and turned to steam, then boiled away.
Logain had hoped that after so much channeling, Demandred would be weakened. Not so. A complex weave formed in front of the man, a weave such as Logain had never seen. It made a field that rippled in the air, and when Logain next attacked, his weave bounced free like a stick thrown against a brick wall.
Logain leaped to the side, rolling as lightning struck from the sky. Shards of rock pelted him as he wove Spirit, Fire and Earth, slicing at the strange wall. He ripped it down, then lobbed broken bits of stone from the ground to intercept fire from Demandred.
A diversion, Logain thought, realizing that Demandred had woven something else, more complex, behind the fire. A gateway opened and shot across the ground, opening to a maw of redness. Logain threw himself to the side as the Deathgate passed, but it left a trail of burning lava.
Demandred's next attack was a jet of air that hurled Logain backward, toward that lava. Logain desperately wove Water to cool the lava. He hit shoulder-first, passing a burst of steam that scalded his skin, but he had cooled the lava enough that it formed a crust atop the still-molten flow beneath. Holding his breath against the steam, he hurled himself to the side as another series of lightning bolts pulverized the ground where he had been.
Those bolts shattered the crust he’d made, reaching into the molten rock. Drops of lava splashed across Logain, searing his skin, burning pocks in his arm and face. He screamed and wove through his rage to send lightning down on his foe.
A slice of Spirit, Earth and Fire cut his weaves from the air. Demandred was just so strong. That sa’angreal was incredible.
The next flash of lightning blinded Logain, throwing him backward. He hit a patch of broken shale, the points of the rock biting into his skin.
«You are powerful», Demandred said. Logain could barely hear the words. His ears . . . the thunder . . . «But you are not Lews Therin».
Logain growled, weaving through his tears, hurling lightning at Demandred. He wove twice, and though Demandred cut one bolt from the air, the other struck true.
But . . . what was that weave? It was another that Logain did not recognize. The lightning hit Demandred, but vanished, somehow sent down into the ground and dissipated. Such a simple weave of Air and Earth, but it rendered the lightning useless.
A shield rammed between Logain and the Source. Through his wounded eyes, he watched the weave for balefire begin in Demandred's hands. Snarling, Logain grabbed a piece of shale from the ground beside him, the size of his fist, and hurled it at Demandred.
Surprisingly, the stone hit, ripping skin, causing Demandred to stumble back. The Forsaken was powerful, but he could still make the mistakes of common men. Never focus all of your attention on the One Power, despite what Taim had always said. In that moment of distraction, the shield between Logain and the Source vanished.
Logain rolled to the side, beginning two weaves. One, a shield of his own that he did not intend to use. The other, a desperate, final gateway. The coward’s choice.
Demandred growled, raising a hand to his face and lashing out with the Power. He chose to destroy the shield, immediately recognizing it as the greater risk. The gateway opened, and Logain rolled through, letting it snap closed. He collapsed on the other side, his flesh scalded, his arms flayed, his ears ringing, his sight almost gone.
He forced himself to sit up, back in the Asha’man camp below the bogs where Gabrelle and the others awaited his return. He howled in anger. Gabrelle’s concern radiated through the bond. Real concern. He hadn't imagined it. Light.
«Quiet», she said, kneeling beside him. «You fool. What have you done to yourself?»
«I have failed», he said. Distantly, he felt the strikes of Demandred’s power begin again as he continued bellowing for Lews Therin. «Heal me».
«You’re not going to try that again, are you?» she said. «I don’t want to Heal you only to let you—"
«I won’t try again», Logain said, voice ragged. The pain was horrible, but it paled compared to the humiliation of defeat. «I won’t, Gabrelle. Stop doubting my word. He’s too strong».
«Some of these burns are bad, Logain. These holes in your skin, I don’t know if I can Heal them completely. You will be scarred».
«That is fine», he growled. That would be where the lava had splashed on his arm and the side of his face.
Light, he thought. How are we going to deal with that monster?
Gabrelle put her hands on him and Healing weaves poured into his body.
The thunder of Egwene’s battle with M’Hael rivaled that of the crashing clouds above. M’Hael. A new Forsaken, his name proclaimed by his Dreadlords across the battlefield.
Egwene wove without thought, hurling weave after weave toward the renegade Asha’man. She had not called upon the wind, but still it rushed and roared about her, whipping her hair and her dress, catching her stole and flipping it about. Narishma and Merise huddled with Leilwin on the ground beside her, Narishma’s voice—barely audible above the battle—calling out weaves as M’Hael crafted them.
Following her advance, Egwene stood upon the top of the Heights, on even ground with M’Hael. She knew, somewhere deep, that her body would need rest soon.
For now, that was an unaffordable luxury. For now, only the fight mattered.
Fire flared toward her, and she slapped it aside with Air. The sparks caught in the wind, swirling about her in a spray of light as she wove Earth. She sent a ripple through the already-broken ground, trying to knock M’Hael down, but he split the wave with a weave of his own.
He’s slowing, she thought.
Egwene stepped forward, swollen with power. She began two weaves, one above each hand, and spouted fire at him.
He responded with a bar of pure whiteness, wire-thin, which missed her by less than a handspan. The balefire left an afterimage in Egwene’s eyes, and the ground groaned beneath them as the air warped. Those spiderwebs sprang out across the ground, fractures into nothingness.
«Fool!» she yelled at him. «You will destroy the Pattern itself!» Already, their clash threatened that. This wind was not natural, this sizzling air. Those cracks in the ground spread from M’Hael, widening.
«He’s weaving it again!» Narishma cried, voice caught in the tempest.
M’Hael released this second weave of balefire, fracturing the ground, but Egwene was ready. She sidestepped, her anger building. Balefire. She needed to counter it!
They don’t care what they ruin. They are here to destroy. That is their master’s call. Break. Burn down. Kill.
Gawyn . . .
She screamed in fury, weaving column after column of fire, one after another. Narishma shouted what M’Hael was doing, but Egwene couldn’t hear for the rush of sound in her ears. She saw soon, anyway, that he had constructed a barrier of Air and Fire to deflect her attacks.
Egwene strode forward, sending repeated strikes at him. That gave him no time to recover, no time to attack. She stopped the rhythm only to form a shield that she held at the ready. A spray of fire off his barrier made him stumble back, his weave cracking, and he raised his hand, perhaps to attempt balefire again.
Egwene slammed the shield between him and the Source. It didn’t quite cut him off, for he held it back by force of will. They were near enough now that she could see his incredulity, his anger. He fought back, but was weaker than she. Egwene pushed, bringing that shield closer and closer to the invisible thread that connected him to the One Power. She forced it with all her strength . . .
M’Hael, straining, released a small stream of balefire upward, through the gap where the shield had not yet fallen into place. The balefire destroyed the weave—as it did the air, and indeed, the Pattern itself.
Egwene stumbled back as M’Hael directed the weave toward her, but the white-hot bar was too small, too weak, to reach her. It faded away before hitting. M’Hael snarled, then vanished, warping the air in a form of Traveling Egwene did not know.
Egwene breathed deeply, holding her hand to her chest. Light! She had almost been obliterated from the Pattern.
He disappeared without forming a gateway! The True Power, she thought. The only explanation. She knew next to nothing about it—it was the Dark One’s very essence, the lure that had coaxed channelers in the Age of Legends to drill the Bore in the first place.
Balefire. Light. I was almost dead. Worse than dead.
She had no way to counter balefire.
It’s only a weave . . . Only a weave. Perrin’s words.
The moment was past now, and M’Hael had fled. She would have to keep Narishma close to warn her if someone started channeling nearby.
Unless M’Hael uses the True Power again. Would another man be able to sense that being channeled?
Egwene turned as Merise gestured toward where most of the Aes Sedai and Asha’man were still engaged in a resounding battle with the Sharan forces. Many sisters in colorful dresses lay dead across the hillside.
Gawyn’s death haunted her thoughts like an assassin in black. Egwene set her jaw and stoked her anger, drawing in the One Power as she launched herself at the Sharans.
Hurin, his nostrils stuffed with cloth, fought on Polov Heights with the other Borderlanders.
Even through the cloth, he smelled the war. So much violence, the scents of blood, of rotting flesh all around him. They coated the ground, his sword, his own clothing. He had already been ill, violently, several times during the battle.
Still he fought. He threw himself aside as a bear-snouted Trolloc crawled over the bodies and swung down at him. The beasts sword made the ground shake, and Hurin cried out.
The beast laughed an inhuman laugh, taking Hurin’s cry to indicate fear. It lunged, so Hurin scuttled forward and under its reach, then opened up its stomach as he ran past. The creature stumbled to a stop, watching at its own reeking innards pour out.
Have to buy time for Lord Rand, Hurin thought, backing away and waiting for the next Trolloc to come over the bodies. They were coming up the eastern side of the Heights, the river side. This steep slope was hard for them to climb, but Light, there were so many of them.
Keep fighting, keep fighting.
Lord Rand had come to him, making apologies. To him! Well, Hurin would do him proud. The Dragon Reborn did not need the forgiveness of a little thief-taker, but Hurin still felt as if the world had righted itself Lord Rand was Lord Rand again. Lord Rand would preserve them, if they could give him enough time.
There was a lull in the action. He frowned. The beasts had seemed endless. Surely they hadn’t all fallen. He stepped cautiously forward, looking over the corpses and down the slope.
No, no they weren’t defeated. The sea of beasts seemed near-endless still. He could see them by the light of fires below. The Trollocs had paused their climb because they needed to move corpses out of their way on the slope, many of whom had been cut down by Tam’s archers. Below them, at the riverbed, the greater army of Trollocs fought Elayne’s army.
«We should have a few minutes», Lan Mandragoran said to the soldiers from where he sat on horseback. Queen Alliandre rode nearby as well, talking calmly with her men. Two monarchs within sight. Surely they knew how to exercise command. That made Hurin feel better.
«They’re preparing for a final charge», Lan said, «a push to force us away from the slope so they can fight us up here on even ground. Rest while they clear bodies. Peace favor your swords, friends. The next assault will be the worst one». The next assault would be the worst one? Light!
Behind them on the middle of the plateau, the rest of Mat’s army continued pressing the Sharan army, trying to push them back to the southwest. If he could do that, and force them down the slope into the Trollocs fighting Elayne’s forces, it could create a right mess that Mat could take advantage of. But for the moment, the Sharans were not giving an inch of ground; in fact, they were pushing back Mat’s army, which was beginning to founder.
Hurin lay back, listening to the moans all around, the distant shouts and ringing of weapons hitting metal, sniffing the stink of violence hanging around him in an ocean of stenches.
The worst still to come.
Light help them . . .
Berelain used a rag to wipe the blood from her hands as she strode into the feast hall of her palace. The tables had been chopped apart for firewood to stoke the enormous hearths at either end of the long room; in place of the furniture lay rows upon rows of wounded.
The doors from the kitchens burst open and a group of Tinkers entered, some carrying litters and others helping wounded men limp into the room. Light! Berelain thought. More? The palace was stuffed to bursting with the wounded.
«No, no!» she said, stalking forward. «Not in here. The back hallway. We're going to have to start putting them there. Rosil! We have new wounded».
The Tinkers turned toward the hallway, speaking in comforting tones to the wounded men. Only those who could be saved were brought back. She had been forced to instruct the leaders among the Tuatha’an women as to which types of wounds took too much effort to Heal. Better to save ten men with bad wounds than to expend the same energy trying to rescue one man who clung to life by a single blade of hope.
That moment of explanation had been one of the grimmest things she’d ever done.
The Tinkers continued moving in a line, and Berelain watched the wounded for glimpses of white clothing. There were Whitecloaks among them, but not the one she sought.
So many . . . she thought again. The Tinkers had no help moving the wounded. Every able-bodied man in the palace, and most women, had gone to the battlefield to fight or help the Caemlyn refugees gather arrows.
Rosil bustled up, her clothing stained with blood that she ignored. She immediately took charge of the wounded, eyeing them for any who needed immediate attention. Unfortunately, the doors to the kitchen burst open at that moment, and a group of bloodied Andorans and Aiel stumbled through, sent by the Kinswomen from another area of the battlefield.
What followed was near madness as Berelain chivvied out everyone she had—grooms, the elderly, some children as young as five—to help settle the newcomers. Only the worst of the Aiel came through; they had a tendency to remain on the battlefield as long as they could hold a weapon. That meant many who came to her were beyond help. She had to settle them in space she couldn’t afford and watch them heave bloody gasps as they died.
«This is foolish!» she said, standing up. Her hands were wet with blood again, and she hadn’t a clean rag left. Light! «We need to send more help. You». She pointed to an Aiel who had been blinded. He sat with his back to the wall, a bandage around his eyes. «You, the blind Aiel».
«I am called Ronja».
«Well, Ronja. I have some gai’shain here helping me. By my count, there should be a lot more of them. Where are they?»
«They wait until the battle is through so that they may minister to the victors».
«We're going to fetch them», she said. «We need every person we can get to help fight».
«They may come to you here, Berelain Paendrag, and help with tending the sick», the man said. «But they will not fight. It is not their place».
«They will see reason», she said firmly. «It’s the Last Battle!»
«You may be clan chief here», the Aiel said, smiling, «but you are not Car’a’carn. Even he could not command the gai’shain to disobey ji’e’toh».
«Then who could?»
That seemed to surprise the man. «No one. It is not possible».
«And the Wise Ones?»
«They would not», he said. «Never».
«We shall see», Berelain said.
The man smiled deeper. «I should think that no man or woman would wish to suffer your wrath, Berelain Paendrag. But if I had my eyes restored, I would put them out again before I watched gai’shain fight».
«They don’t need to fight, then», Berelain said. «Perhaps they can help carry the wounded. Rosil, you have this group?»
The tired woman nodded. There wasn’t an Aes Sedai in the palace who didn’t look like she’d sooner fall over than take another step. Berelain kept her feet by using some herbs she did not think Rosil would approve.
Well, she could do no more here. She might as well check on the wounded in the storage rooms. They had—
«My Lady First?» a voice asked. It was Kitan, one of the palace maids who had remained behind to help with the wounded. The slight woman took her arm. «There is something you need to see».
Berelain sighed, but nodded. What disaster awaited her now? Another bubble of evil, locking away groups of wounded behind walls that hadn’t been there before? Had they run out of bandages again? She doubted there was a sheet, drapery or piece of smallclothes in the city that hadn’t already been made into a bandage.
The girl led her up the steps to Berelain’s own quarters where a few of the casualties were being nursed. She stepped into one of the rooms, and was surprised to find a familiar face waiting for her. Annoura sat at a bedside, wearing red slashed with gray, her customary braids pulled back and tied in an unflattering way. Berelain almost didn’t recognize her.
Annoura rose at Berelain’s entrance, bowing, though she looked about ready to fall over with fatigue.
In the bed lay Galad Damodred.
Berelain gasped, rushing to his side. It was him, though he bore a vicious wound to his face. He still breathed, but he was unconscious. Berelain lifted his arm to take his hand in hers, but found that the arm ended in a stump. One of the surgeons had already cauterized it to keep him from bleeding to death.
«How?» Berelain asked, clutching his other hand, closing her eyes. His hand felt warm. When she had heard what Demandred bellowed, defeating the man in white . . .
«I felt that I owed it to you», Annoura said. «I located him on the battlefield after Demandred announced what he had done. I pulled him away while Demandred fought against one of the Black Tower’s men». She sat back down on the stool beside the bed, then leaned forward, drooping. «I could not Heal him, Berelain. It was all I could do to make the gateway to bring him here. I’m sorry».
«It is all right», Berelain said. «Kitan, fetch one of the other sisters. Annoura, you will feel better once you have rested. Thank you».
Annoura nodded. She closed her eyes, and Berelain was shocked to see tears at the edges of her eyes.
«What is it?» Berelain asked. «Annoura, what is wrong?»
«It should not concern you, Berelain», she said, rising. «All are taught it, you see. Do not channel if you are too tired. There can be complications. I needed a gateway back to the palace, though. To bring him to safety, to restore . . ».
Annoura collapsed from her stool. Berelain dropped to her side, propping up her head. Only then did she realize that it wasn’t the braids that had made Annoura look so different. The face was wrong, too. Changed. No longer ageless, but instead youthful.
«Oh, Light, Annoura», Berelain said. «You’ve burned yourself out, haven’t you?»
The woman had lapsed into unconsciousness. Berelain’s heart lurched. The woman and she had had differences recently, but Annoura had been her confidante—and friend—for years before that. The poor woman. The way Aes Sedai spoke, this was considered to be worse than death.
Berelain lifted the woman onto the room’s couch and then covered her with a blanket. Berelain felt so powerless. Maybe . . . maybe she can be Healed somehow . . .
She went back to Galad’s side to hold his hand for a time longer, righting the stool and sitting upon it. Just a little rest. She closed her eyes. He lived. It came at a terrible cost, but he lived.
She was shocked when he spoke. «How?»
She opened her eyes to find him looking at her.
«How am I here?» he asked softly.
«Annoura», she said. «She found you on the battlefield».
«Other Healers will come when they can be spared», she said. «Your hand . . ». She steeled herself. «Your hand is lost, but we can wash away that cut to your face».
«No», he whispered. «It is only . . . a little cut. Save the Healing for those who would die without it». He seemed so tired. Barely awake.
She bit her lip, but nodded. «Of course». She hesitated. «The battle fares poorly, doesn’t it?»
«So now . . . we simply hope?»
He slipped his hand from hers and reached under his shirt. When an Aes Sedai arrived, they would have to undress him and care for his wounds. Only the stump had been tended to so far, as it was the worst.
Galad sighed, then trembled, his hand slipping away from his shirt. Had he been intending to remove it?
«Hope . . ». he whispered, then fell unconscious.
He huddled in the darkness, the Pattern spinning before him, woven from the threads of the lives of men. So many of those threads ended.
He should have been able to protect them. Why couldn’t he? Against his will, the names began to replay in his mind. The names of those who had died for him, starting with only women, but now expanded to each and every person he should have been able to save—but hadn’t.
As humankind fought at Merrilor and Shayol Ghul, Rand was forced to watch the deaths. He could not turn away.
The Dark One chose then to attack him in force. The pressure came again, striving to crush Rand into nothing. He couldn’t move. Every bit of his essence, his determination and his strength focused on keeping the Dark One from ripping him apart.
He could only watch as they died.
Rand watched Davram Bashere die in a charge, followed quickly by his wife. Rand cried out at the fall of his friend. He wept for Davram Bashere.
Dear, faithful Hurin fell to a Trolloc attack as it struck for the top of the Heights where Mat made his stand. Rand wept for Hurin. The man with so much faith in him, the man who would have followed him anywhere.
Jori Congar lay buried beneath a Trolloc body, whimpering for help until he bled to death. Rand wept for Jori as his thread finally vanished.
Enaila, who had decided to forsake Far Dareis Mai and had laid a bridal wreath at the foot of the siswai’aman Leiran, speared through the gut by four Trollocs. Rand wept for her.
Karldin Manfor, who had followed him for so long and had been at Dumai’s Wells, died when his strength for channeling gave out and he dropped to the ground in exhaustion. Sharans fell upon him and stabbed him with their black daggers. His Aes Sedai, Beldeine, stumbled and fell moments later. Rand wept for them both.
He wept for Gareth Bryne and Siuan. He wept for Gawyn.
So many. So very many.
YOU ARE LOSING.
Rand huddled down further. What could he do? His dream of stopping the Dark One . . . he would create a nightmare if he did that. His own intentions betrayed him.
GIVE IN, ADVERSARY. WHY KEEP FIGHTING? STOP FIGHTING AND REST.
He was tempted. Oh, how he was tempted. Light. What would Nynaeve think? He could see her, fighting to save Alanna. How ashamed would she and Moiraine be if they knew that in that moment, Rand wanted to just let go?
Pain washed across him, and he screamed again.
«Please, let it end!»
Rand huddled down, writhing, trembling. But still, their screams assaulted him. Death upon death. He held on, barely. «No», he whispered.
VERY WELL, the Dark One said. I HAVE ONE MORE THING TO SHOW YOU. ONE MORE PROMISE OF WHAT CAN BE . . .
The Dark One spun threads of possibility one last time.
All became darkness.
Taim lashed out with the One Power, thrashing Mishraile with weaves of Air. «Go back, then, you fool! Fight! We will not lose that position!»
The Dreadlord ducked back, gathering his two companions and slinking away to do as ordered. Taim smoldered, then shattered a nearby stone with a surge of power. That Aes Sedai ridgecat! How dare she best him?
«M’Hael», a calm voice said.
Taim . . . M’Hael. He had to think of himself as M’Hael. He crossed the hillside toward the voice that had called to him. He had taken a gateway to safety, panicked, across the Heights, and he was now at the edge of the southeastern slope of the Heights. Demandred used this location to monitor the battle below and to send destruction down into the formations of Andorans, Cairhienin and Aiel.
Demandred’s Trollocs controlled the entire corridor between the Heights and bogs, and were wearing down the defenders at the dry river. It was only a matter of time. Meanwhile, the Sharan army fought northeast of here on the Heights. It concerned him that Cauthon had arrived so quickly to stop the advance of the Sharans. No matter. That was a move of desperation for the man. He wouldn’t be able to stand up against the Sharan army. But the most important thing right now was destroying those Aes Sedai on the other side of the Heights. That was key to winning this battle.
M’Hael passed between suspicious Sharans with their strange dress and tattoos. Demandred sat, cross-legged, at their center. His eyes closed, he breathed in and out slowly. That sa’angreal he used . . . it took something out of him, something more than just the normal strength required for channeling.
Would that provide M’Hael with an opening? How it galled to continue to put himself beneath another. Yes, he had learned much from this man, but now Demandred was obviously unfit to lead. He coddled these Sharans, and he wasted energy on his vendetta with al’Thor. The weakness of another was M’Hael’s potential opening.
«I hear that you are failing, M’Hael», Demandred said.
Before them, across the dry riverbed, the Andoran defenses were finally starting to buckle. Trollocs were always testing to find weak points in their lines, and they were breaking through pike formations in various areas all up and down the river. The Legions heavy cavalry and the Cairhienin light were in constant motion now, making sweeps of desperation against Trollocs as they broke through the Andoran defenses. The Aiel were still holding them back down near the bogs, and the Legion’s crossbowmen combined with Andoran pike were still keeping the Trollocs from sweeping around their right flank. But the pressure of the Trolloc onslaught was relentless, and Elayne’s lines were gradually bowing out, moving deeper into Shienaran territory.
«M’Hael?» Demandred said, opening his eyes. Ancient eyes. M’Hael refused to feel intimidated, looking into them. He would not be intimidated! «Tell me how you failed».
«The Aes Sedai witch», M’Hael spat. «She has a sa’angreal of great power. I almost had her, but the True Power failed me».
«You are given only a trickle for a reason», Demandred said, closing his eyes again. «It is unpredictable for one unaccustomed to its ways».
M’Hael said nothing. He would practice with the True Power; he would learn its secrets. The other Forsaken were old and slow. New blood would soon rule.
With a relaxed sense of inevitability, Demandred stood. He gave off the impression of a massive boulder shifting its position. «You will return and kill her, M’Hael. I have slain her Warder. She should be easy meat».
«The sa’angreal . . ».
Demandred held out his scepter, with the golden goblet affixed atop it. Was this a test? Such power. M’Hael had felt the strength radiating from Demandred as he used it.
«You say she has a sa’angreal», Demandred said. «With this, you will have one as well. I grant you Sakarnen to take from you any excuse for failure. Succeed or die in this, M’Hael. Prove yourself worthy to stand among the Chosen».
M’Hael licked his lips. «And if the Dragon Reborn finally comes to you?»
Demandred laughed. «You think I would use this to fight him? What would that prove? Our strengths must be matched if I am to show myself the better. By all accounts, he cannot use Callandor safely, and he foolishly destroyed the Choedan Kal. He will come, and when he does, I will face him unaided and prove myself the true master of this realm».
Darkness within . . . Taim thought. He’s gone completely mad, hasn’t he? Strange to look into those eyes, which seemed so lucid, and hear complete insanity from his lips. When Demandred had first come to M’Hael, offering him the chance to serve the Great Lord, the man had not been like this. Arrogant, yes. All of the Chosen were arrogant. Demandred's determination to kill al’Thor personally had burned like a fire within him.
But this . . . this was something different. Living in Shara had changed him. Weakened him, certainly. Now this. What man would willingly give such a powerful artifact to a rival?
Only a fool, M’Hael thought, reaching for the sa’angreal. Killing you will be like putting down a horse with three broken legs, Demandred. Pity. I had hoped to vanquish you as a rival.
Demandred turned away, and M’Hael pulled the One Power through Sakarnen, drinking gluttonously of its bounty. The sweetness of saidin saturated him, a raging torrent of succulent Power. He was immense while holding this! He could do anything. Level mountains, destroy armies, all on his own!
M’Hael itched to pull out flows, to weave them together and destroy this man.
«Take care», Demandred said. His voice sounded pathetic, weak. The squeaking of a mouse. «Do not channel through that toward me. I have bonded Sakarnen to me. If you try to use it against me, it will burn you from the Pattern».
Did Demandred lie? Could a sa’angreal be attuned to a specific person? He did not know. He considered, then lowered Sakarnen, bitter despite the power surging through him.
«I am not a fool, M’Hael», Demandred said dryly. «I will not hand you the noose in which to hang me. Go and do as you are told. You are my servant in this thing, the hand that holds my axe to chop down the tree. Destroy the Amyrlin; use balefire. We have been commanded, and in this, we will obey. The world must be unraveled before we reweave it to our vision».
M’Hael snarled at the man, but did as he was told, weaving a gateway. He would destroy that Aes Sedai witch. Then . . . then he would decide how to deal with Demandred.
Elayne watched in frustration as her pike formations were pushed back. That Birgitte had managed to convince her to remove herself from the immediate area of combat—a Trolloc breakthrough could come at any moment—did not sit well with her.
Elayne had retreated almost to the ruins, out of direct danger for the moment. A double ring of Guards surrounded her, most of them sitting and eating—gaining what little strength they could during the moments between fights.
Elayne did not fly her banner, but she sent messengers to let her commanders know that she still lived. Though she had tried to guide her troops against the Trollocs, her efforts had not been enough. Her forces were clearly weakening.
«We have to go back», she said to Birgitte. «They need to see me, Birgitte».
«I don’t know if it will change anything», Birgitte said. «Those formations just cant hold in the face of both Trollocs and that bloody channeling. I . . ».
«What is it?» Elayne asked.
Birgitte turned away. «I swear I once remembered a situation like this».
Elayne set her jaw. She found Birgitte’s loss of memory heart-wrenching, but it was only one woman’s problem. Thousands of her people were dying.
Nearby, the refugees from Caemlyn still searched the area for arrows and wounded. Several groups approached Elayne’s guards, speaking with them softly, asking after the battle or the Queen. Elayne felt a spike of pride at the refugees and their tenacity. The city had broken, but a city could be rebuilt. The people, the true heart of Caemlyn, would not fall so easily.
Another lance of light plunged into the battlefield, killing men, disrupting the pikemen. Beyond that, on the far side of the Heights, women channeled in a furious battle. She could see the lights flashing in the night, though that was all. Should Elayne join them? Her command here had not been good enough to save the soldiers, but it had provided guidance and leadership.
«I fear for our army, Elayne». Birgitte said. «I fear that the day is lost».
«The day cannot be lost», Elayne said, «because if it is, we all are lost. I refuse to accept defeat. You and I will return. Let Demandred try to strike us down. Perhaps seeing me will revitalize the soldiers, make them—"
A group of Caemlyn refugees nearby attacked her Guardsmen and Guards-women.
Elayne cursed, turning Moonshadow and embracing the One Power. The group she had, at first, taken for refugees in dirty, soot-stained clothing wore mail beneath. They fought her Guards, killing with sword and axe. Not refugees at all, mercenaries.
«Betrayal!» Birgitte called, lifting her bow and shooting a mercenary through the throat. «To arms!»
«It’s not a betrayal», Elayne said. She wove Fire and struck down a group of three. «Those aren’t ours! Watch for thieves in the clothing of beggars!»
She turned as another group of «refugees» lunged at the weakened lines of Guards. They were all around! They had crept up while attention had been focused on the distant battlefield.
As a group of mercenaries broke through, she wove saidar to show them the folly of attacking an Aes Sedai. She released a powerful weave of Air.
As it hit one of the men charging her, the weave fell apart, unraveling. Elayne cursed, turning her horse to flee, but one of the attackers lunged forward and drove his sword into Moonshadow’s neck. The horse reared, squealing in agony, and Elayne caught a brief glimpse of Guards fighting all around as she fell to the ground, panicked for the safety of her babes. Rough hands grabbed her by the shoulders and held her against the ground.
She saw something silver glisten in the night. A foxhead medallion. Another pair of hands pressed it to her skin just above her breasts. The metal was sharply cold.
«Hello, my Queen», Mellar said, squatting beside her. The former Guardsman—the one many people still assumed had fathered her children—leered down at her. «You’ve been very hard to track down».
Elayne spat at him, but he anticipated her, raising his hand to catch the spittle. He smiled, then stood up, leaving her held by two mercenaries. Though some of her Guards still fought, most had been pushed back or killed.
Mellar turned as two men dragged Birgitte over. She thrashed in their grip, and a third man came over to help hold her. Mellar took out his sword, regarded its blade for a moment, as if inspecting himself in its reflective gleam. Then he rammed it into Birgitte’s stomach.
Birgitte gasped, falling to her knees. Mellar beheaded her with a vicious backhand blow.
Elayne found herself sitting very still, unable to think or react as Birgitte’s corpse flopped forward, spilling lifeblood from the neck. The bond winked away, and with it came . . . pain. Terrible pain.
«I’ve been waiting to do that for a long time», Mellar said. «Blood and bloody ashes, but it felt good».
Birgitte . . . Her Warder was dead. Her Warder had been killed. That tough yet generous heart, that tremendous loyalty—destroyed. The loss made it . . . made it hard to think.
Mellar kicked at Birgitte’s corpse as a man rode up with a body draped across the back of his saddle. The man wore an Andoran uniform, and the facedown corpse dangled golden hair. Whoever the poor woman was, she wore a dress exactly like Elayne’s.
Oh no.. .
«Go», Mellar said. The man rode off, a few others forming around him, fake Guardsmen. They carried Elayne’s banner, and one started shouting, «The Queen is dead! The Queen has fallen!»
Mellar turned to Elayne. «Your people still fight. Well, that ought to disrupt their ranks. As for you . . . well, apparently, the Great Lord has a use for those children of yours. I’ve been ordered to bring them to Shayol Ghul. It occurs to me that you needn’t be with them at the time». He looked at one of his companions. «Can you make it work?»
The other man knelt beside Elayne, then pressed his hands against her belly. A jolt of sudden fright pushed through her numbness and her shock. Her babes!
«She’s far enough along», the man said. «I can probably keep the children alive with a weave, if you cut them out. It will be difficult to do right. They are young yet. Six months along. But with the weaves I was shown by the Chosen . . . yes, I think I can keep them living for an hour. But you will have to take them to M’Hael to get them to Shayol Ghul. Traveling with a regular gateway won’t work there any longer».
Mellar sheathed his sword and pulled a hunting knife from his belt. «Good enough for me. We’ll send the children on, as the Great Lord asks. But you, my Queen . . . you are mine».
Elayne flailed, but the men’s grip was tight. She clawed at saidar again and again, but the medallion worked like forkroot. She might as well have been trying to embrace saidin as reach saidar
«No!» she screamed as Mellar knelt beside her. «NO!»
«Good», he said. «I was hoping you’d get around to screaming».
Rand turned. He tried to turn. He had no form or shape.
He tried to speak, but he had no mouth. Finally, he managed to think the words and make them manifest.
SHAI’TAN, Rand projected, WHAT IS THIS?
OUR COVENANT, the Dark One replied. OUR ACCOMMODATION.
OUR ACCOMMODATION IS NOTHING? Rand demanded.
He understood. The Dark One was offering a deal. Rand could accept this . . . He could accept nothingness. The two of them dueled for the fate of the world. Rand pushed for peace, glory, love. The Dark One sought the opposite. Pain. Suffering.
This was, in a way, a balance between the two. The Dark One would agree not to reforge the Wheel to suit his grim desires. There would be no enslaving of mankind, no world without love. There would be no world at all.
IT IS WHAT YOU PROMISED ELAN, Rand said. YOU PROMISED HIM AN END TO EXISTENCE.
I OFFER IT TO YOU, TOO, the Dark One replied. AND TO ALL MEN. YOU WANTED PEACE. I GIVE IT TO YOU. THE PEACE OF THE VOID THAT YOU SO OFTEN SEEK. I GIVE YOU NOTHING AND EVERYTHING.
Rand did not reject the offer immediately. He grasped the offer and cradled it in his mind. No more pain. No more suffering. No more burdens.
An ending. Was that not what he had desired? A way to end the cycles finally?
NO, Rand said. AN END TO EXISTENCE IS NOT PEACE. I MADE THIS CHOICE BEFORE. WE WILL CONTINUE.
The Dark Ones pressure began to surround him again, threatening to rip him apart.
I WILL NOT OFFER AGAIN, the Dark One said.
«I would not expect you to», Rand said as his body returned and the threads of possibility faded.
Then the true pain began.
Min waited with the gathered Seanchan forces, officers walking down the lines with lanterns to prepare the men. They had not returned to Ebou Dar, but instead had fled through gateways to a large open plain that she did not recognize. Trees with a strange bark and large, open fronds grew here. She could not tell if they were truly trees, or just very large ferns. It was particularly hard to tell because of the wilting; the trees had grown leaves, but now they drooped down at the sides as if they had not seen water in far too many weeks. Min tried to imagine what they would have looked like when healthy.
The air smelled different to her—of plants she did not recognize, and of seawater. The Seanchan forces waited in strict formations of troops, ready to march, each fourth man with a lantern, though only one in ten of those were currently lit. Moving an army could not be done fast, despite gateways, but Fortuona had access to hundreds of damane. The retreat had been carried out efficiently, and Min suspected that a return to the battlefield could be accomplished swiftly.
If Fortuona decided to return, that was. The Empress sat atop a pillar in the night, lifted up to it on her palanquin, lit by blue lanterns. It was not a throne, but a pure white pillar, about six feet high, erected on the top of a small hill. Min had a seat next to the pillar, and could hear reports as they arrived.
«This battle is not going well for the Prince of the Ravens», General Galgan said. He addressed his generals before Fortuona, speaking to them directly, so that they could respond to him without formally addressing the Empress. «His request for us to return came only just now. He has waited far too long to seek our aid».
«I hesitate to say this», Yulan said. «But, though the Empress’s wisdom knows no bounds, I do not have confidence in the Prince. He might be the chosen consort of the Empress, and he was obviously a wise choice for that role. He has proven himself reckless in battle, however. Perhaps he is overly strained by what is happening».
«I’m sure he has a plan», Beslan said, earnest. «You have to trust Mat. He knows what he’s doing».
«He impressed me earlier», Galgan said. «The omens seem to favor him.
«He is losing, Captain-General», Yulan said. «Losing badly. The omens for a man can change quickly, as can the fortune of a nation».
Min narrowed her eyes at the short Captain of the Air. He now wore the last two fingernails of each hand lacquered. He had been the one to lead the strike on Tar Valon, and the success of that attack had gained him great favor in Fortuona’s eyes. Symbols and omens spun around his head, like those above Galgan’s—and, indeed, Beslan’s.
Light, Min thought. Am I really starting to think of «omens» like Fortuona? I need to leave these people. They’re mad.
«I feel that the Prince views this battle too much as a game», Yulan said again. «Though his initial gambles were keen ones, he has over extended himself. How many a man has stood around the table of dactolk and looked like a genius because of his bets, when really just random chance made him seem capable? The Prince won at first, but now we see how dangerous it is to gamble as he has».
Yulan inclined his head toward the Empress. His assertions grew increasingly bold, as she gave him no reason to quiet himself. From the Empress, in this situation, that was an indication he should continue.
«I have heard . . . rumors about him », Galgan said.
«Mat’s a gambler, yes», Beslan said. «But he’s uncannily good at it. He wins, General. Please, you need to go back and help».
Yulan shook his head emphatically. «The Empress—may she live forever—pulled us away from the battlefield for good reason. If the Prince could not protect his own command post, he is not in control of the battle».
Bolder and bolder. Galgan rubbed his chin, then looked at another person there. Min didn’t know much of Tylee. She remained quiet at these meetings. With graying hair and broad shoulders, the dark-skinned woman had an indefinable strength to her. This was a general who had led her people directly, in battle, many times. Those scars proved it.
«These mainlanders fight better than I ever assumed they would», Tylee said. «I fought alongside some of Cauthon’s soldiers. I think they will surprise you, General. I, too, humbly suggest that we return to help».
«But is it in the best interests of the Empire to do so?» Yulan asked. «Cauthon’s forces will weaken the Shadow, as will the Shadow’s march to Ebou Dar from Merrilor. We can crush the Trollocs with air attacks along the way. The long victory should be our goal. Perhaps we can send damane to fetch the Prince and bring him to safety. He has fought well, but he is obviously overmatched in this battle. We cannot save his armies, of course. They are doomed».
Min frowned, leaning forward. One of the images above Yulan’s head . . . it was so odd. A chain. Why would he have a chain above his head?
He’s a captive, she thought suddenly. Light. Someone is playing him like an instrument.
Mat feared a spy. Min felt cold.
«The Empress, may she live forever, has made her decision», Galgan said. «We return. Unless her mind, in its wisdom, has been changed . . . ?» He turned toward her, a questioning look on his face.
Our spy can channel, Min realized, inspecting Yulan. That man is under Compulsion.
A channeler. Black Ajah? Darkfriend damane? A male Dreadlord? It could be anyone. And the spy would be wearing a weave for disguise, too, in all likelihood.
So, then, how would Min ever spot this spy?
Viewings. Aes Sedai and other channelers always had viewings attached to them. Always. Could she find a clue in one of those? She knew, by instinct, that Yulan’s chain meant he was a captive of another. He wasn’t the true spy, then, but a puppet.
She started with the other nobility and generals. Of course, many of them had omens above their heads, and those types commonly did. How would she spot something out of the ordinary? Min scanned the watching crowd, and her breath caught as she noticed for the first time that one of the so’jhin, a youthful woman with freckles, carried an array of images above her head.
Min didn’t recognize the woman. Had she been serving here the whole time? Min was certain she’d have noticed earlier if the woman had come close to her; people who were not channelers, Warders or ta’veren rarely had so many images attached to them. Oversight or happenstance, though, she hadn’t thought to look specifically at the servants.
Now, the cover-up was obvious to her. Min looked away so as to not raise the servant’s suspicions, and considered her next move. Her instincts whispered that she should just attack, take out a knife and throw it. If that servant were a Dreadlord—or, Light, one of the Forsaken—striking first might be the only way to defeat her.
There was also a chance, however, that the woman was innocent. Min debated, then stood up on her chair. Several of the Blood muttered at the breach of decorum, but Min ignored them. She stepped up onto the arm rest of her chair, balancing there to put herself even with Tuon. Min leaned in.
«Mat has asked for us to return», Min said softly. «How long will you debate doing what he asked?»
Tuon eyed her. «Until I am convinced this is best for my Empire».
«He is your husband».
«One man’s life is not worth that of thousands», Tuon said, but she sounded genuinely troubled. «If the battle really does go as badly as Yulan’s scouts say . . ».
«You named me Truthspeaker», Min said. «What exactly does that mean?»
«It is your duty to censure me in public, if I do something wrong. However, you are untrained in the station. It would be best for you to hold yourself back until I can provide proper—"
Min turned to face the generals and the watching crowd, her heart beating frantically. «As Truthspeaker to the Empress Fortuona, I speak now the truth. She has abandoned the armies of humankind, and she withholds her strength in a time of need. Her pride will cause the destruction of all people, everywhere».
The Blood looked stunned.
«It is not so simple, young woman», General Galgan said. From the looks others gave him, it seemed he wasn’t supposed to debate a Truthspeaker. He barreled forward anyway. «This is a complex situation».
«I would be more sympathetic», Min said, «if I didn’t know there was a spy for the Shadow among us».
The freckled so’jhin looked up sharply.
I have you, Min thought, then pointed at General Yulan. «Abaldar Yulan, I denounce you! I have seen omens that prove to me you are not acting in the interests of the Empire!»
The real spy relaxed, and Min caught a hint of a smile on her lips. That was good enough. As Yulan protested loudly the accusation, Min dropped a knife into her hand and whipped it toward the woman.
It flipped end over end—but just before hitting the woman, it stopped and hung in the air.
Nearby damane and sul’dam gasped. The spy shot Min a hateful glare, then opened a gateway, throwing herself through. Weaves shot after her, but she was gone before most of the people at the meeting realized what was happening.
«I’m sorry, General Yulan», Min announced, «but you are suffering from Compulsion. Fortuona, it is obvious that the Shadow is doing whatever it can to keep us from this battle. With that in mind, will you still pursue this course of indecision?»
Min met Tuon’s eyes.
«You play these games quite well», Tuon whispered, voice cold. «And to think that I worried for your safety by bringing you into my court. I should have worried for myself, it appears». Tuon sighed, ever so softly. «I suppose you give me the opportunity . . . perhaps the mandate . . . to follow what my heart would choose, whether or not it is wise». She stood. «General Galgan, gather your troops. We will return to the Field of Merrilor».
Egwene wove Earth and destroyed the boulders behind which the Sharans had hidden. The other Aes Sedai struck immediately, hurling weaves through the crackling air. The Sharans died in fire, lightning and explosions.
This side of the Heights was so piled with rubble and scarred with trenches it looked like the remains of a city following a terrible earthquake. It was still night, and they had been fighting . . . Light, how long had it been since Gawyn died? Hours upon hours.
Egwene redoubled her efforts, refusing to let the thought of him pull her down. Over the hours, her Aes Sedai and the Sharans had fought back and forth across the western side of the Heights. Slowly, Egwene was pushing them eastward.
At times, Egwene’s side had seemed to be winning, but lately, more and more Aes Sedai fell from the effects of fatigue or the One Power.
Another group of channelers approached through the smoke, drawing on the One Power. Egwene could sense them more than see them.
«Deflect their weaves!» Egwene yelled, standing at the forefront. «I will attack, you defend!»
Other women took up the call, yelling it along their battle line. No longer did they fight in pockets alone; women of all Ajahs lined up to either side of Egwene, concentration on their ageless faces. Warders stood in front of them; using their bodies to stop weaves was the only protection they could offer.
Egwene felt Leilwin approaching from behind. The new Warder took her duties seriously. A Seanchan, fighting as her Warder in the Last Battle. Why not? The world itself was unraveling. The cracks all around Egwene’s feet proved that. Those had not faded, as earlier ones had—the darkness remained. Balefire had been used too much in this area.
Egwene launched a wave of fire like a moving wall. Corpses went up in flames as the wall passed, leaving behind smoking piles of bones. Her attack scored the ground, blackening it, and the Sharans banded together to fight back against the weave. She killed a few of them before they shattered the attack.
The other Aes Sedai deflected or destroyed their return weaves, and Egwene gathered her strength to try again. So tired . . . a piece of her whispered. Egwene, you’re so tired. This is becoming dangerous.
Leilwin stepped up, stumbling on broken rock but joining her at the front. «I bring word, Mother», she said in that Seanchan drawl. «The Asha’man have recovered the seals. Their leader carries them».
Egwene let out a relieved breath. She wove Fire and sent it forth in pillars this time, the flames illuminating the broken ground around them. Those cracks that M’Hael had caused worried her deeply. She began another weave, then stopped. Something was wrong.
She spun around as balefire—a column as wide as a man’s arm—ripped through the Aes Sedai line, vaporizing half a dozen women. Explosions all around appeared as if from nowhere, and other women went from battle to death in a heartbeat.
The balefire burned away women who had stopped weaves from killing us . . . but those women had been removed from the Pattern before they could weave those, and could no longer have stopped the Sharan attacks. Balefire burned a thread backward in the Pattern.
The chain of events was catastrophic. Sharan channelers who had been dead were now alive again, and they surged forward—men clawing across the broken ground like hounds, women walking in linked groups of four or five. Egwene sought out the source of the balefire. She had never seen such an immense bar of it, so powerful it must have burned threads a few hours back.
She found M’Hael standing atop the Heights, the air warped in a bubble around him. Black tendrils—like moss or lichen—crept out of gaps in the rock around him. A spreading sickness. Darkness, nothing. It would consume them all.
Another bar of balefire burned a hole through the ground and touched women, making their forms glow, then vanish. The air itself broke, like a bubble of force that exploded from M’Hael. The storm from before returned, stronger.
«I thought that I’d taught you to run», Egwene snarled, climbing to her feet and gathering her power. At her feet, the ground cracked and opened into nothing.
Light! She could feel the emptiness in that hole. She began a weave, but another strike of balefire coursed across the battlefield, killing women she loved. The trembling underfoot threw Egwene to the ground. Screams grew loud as Sharan attacks slaughtered Egwene’s followers. Aes Sedai scattered, seeking safety.
The cracks on the ground spread, as if the top of the Heights here had been hit by a hammer.
Balefire. She needed her own. It was the only way to fight him! She rose to her knees and began crafting the forbidden weave, though her heart lurched as she did it.
NO. Using balefire would only push the world toward destruction.
It’s only a weave, Egwene. Perrin’s words, when he had seen her in the World of Dreams and stopped balefire from hitting him. But it wasn’t just another weave. There wasn’t anything like it.
So exhausted. Now that she’d stopped for a moment, she could feel her numbing fatigue. In its depths, she felt the loss, the bitter loss, of Gawyn’s death.
«Mother!» Leilwin said, pulling her shoulder. The woman had stayed with her. «Mother, we must go! The Aes Sedai have broken! The Sharans overrun us».
Ahead, M’Hael saw her. He smiled, striding forward, a scepter in one hand, the other pointed toward her, palm up. What would happen if he burned her away with balefire? The last two hours would vanish. Her rally of the Aes Sedai, the dozens upon dozens of Sharans she had killed . . .
Just a weave . . .
No other like it.
That isn’t the way it works, she thought. Two sides to every coin. Two halves to the Power. Hot and cold, light and dark, woman and man.
If a weave exists, so must its opposite.
M’Hael released balefire, and Egwene did . . . something. The weave she’d tried before on the cracks, but of a much greater power and scope: a majestic, marvelous weave, a combination of all Five Powers. It slid into place before her. She yelled, releasing it as if from her very soul, a column of pure white that struck M’Hael’s weave at its center.
The two canceled one another, like scalding water and freezing water poured together. A powerful flash of light overwhelmed all else, blinding Egwene, but she could feel something from what she did. A shoring up of the Pattern. The cracks stopped spreading, and something welled up inside of them, a stabilizing force. A growth, like scab on a wound. Not a perfect fix, but at least a patch.
She yelled, forcing herself to her feet. She would not face him on her knees! She drew every scrap of the Power she could hold, throwing it at the Forsaken with the fury of the Amyrlin.
The two streams of power sprayed light against one another, the ground around M’Hael cracking as the ground near Egwene rebuilt itself. She still did not know what it was she wove. The opposite of balefire. A fire of her own, a weave of light and rebuilding.
The Flame of Tar Valon.
They matched one another, in stasis, for an eternal moment. In that moment, Egwene felt a peace come upon her. The pain of Gawyn's death faded. He would be reborn. The Pattern would continue. The very weave she wielded calmed her anger and replaced it with peace. She reached more deeply into saidar,; that glowing comfort that had guided her so long.
And she drew on more of the Power.
Her stream of energy pushed its way through M’Hael’s balefire like a sword thrust, spraying the Power aside and traveling right up the stream into M’Hael’s outstretched hand. It pierced the hand and shot through his chest.
The balefire vanished. M’Hael gaped, stumbling, eyes wide, and then he crystallized from the inside out, as if freezing in ice. A multihued, beautiful crystal grew from him. Uncut and rough, as if from the core of the earth itself. Somehow Egwene knew that the Flame would have had much less effect on a person who had not given himself to the Shadow.
She clung to the Power she’d held. She had pulled in too much. She knew that if she released her grip, she would leave herself burned out, unable to channel another drop. The Power surged through her in this last moment.
Something trembled far to the north. Rand’s fight continued. The gaps in the land expanded. M’Hael and Demandred's balefire had done its work. The world here was crumbling. Black lines radiated across the Heights, and her mind’s eye saw them opening, the land shattering, and a void appearing here that sucked into it all life.
«Watch for the light», Egwene whispered.
«Mother?» Leilwin still knelt beside her. Around them, hundreds of Sharans picked themselves up off the ground.
«Watch for the light, Leilwin», Egwene said. «As the Amyrlin Seat, I command you—find the seals of the Dark One’s prison and break them. Do it the moment the light shines. Only then can it save us».
«But . . "
Egwene wove a gateway and wrapped Leilwin in Air, shoving her through to safety. As she went, Egwene released the woman’s bond, severing their brief tie.
«No!» Leilwin cried.
The gateway closed. Black cracks into nothingness expanded all around Egwene as she faced the hundreds of Sharans. Her Aes Sedai had fought with strength and valor, but those Sharan channelers still remained. They surrounded her, some timid, others smiling in triumph.
She closed her eyes and drew in the power. More than a woman should be able to, more than was right. Far beyond safety, far beyond wisdom. This sa’angreal had no buffer to prevent this.
Her body was spent. She offered it up and became a column of light, releasing the Flame of Tar Valon into the ground beneath her and high into the sky. The Power left her in a quiet, beautiful explosion, washing across the Sharans and sealing the cracks created by her fight with M’Hael.
Egwene’s soul separated from her collapsing body and rested upon that wave, riding it into the Light.
Rand screamed in denial, in rage, in sorrow.
«Not her! NOT HER!»
THE DEAD ARE MINE.
«Shaitan!» Rand yelled. «Not her!»
I WILL KILL THEM ALL, ADVERSARY.
Rand bent over, squeezing his eyes shut. I will protect you, he thought. Whatever else happens, I will see you safe, I swear it. I swear it.. .
Oh, Light. Egwene’s name joined the list of the dead. That list continued to grow, thundering in his mind. His failures. So many failures.
He should have been able to save them.
The Dark One’s attacks persisted, trying to rip Rand apart and crush him all at once.
Oh, Light. Not Egwene.
Rand closed his eyes and collapsed, barely holding back the next attack.
Darkness enclosed him.
Leane raised her arm, shading her eyes against the magnificent burst of light. It washed the hillside of its darkness and—for a moment—left only brilliance. Sharans froze in place, casting shadows behind them as they crystallized.
The column of power rose high in the air, a beacon, then faded.
Leane dropped to her knees, one hand resting on the ground to steady herself. A blanket of crystals coated the ground, growing over broken rock, coating the scarred landscape. Where cracks had opened, they were now filled with crystal, looking like tiny rivers.
Leane climbed to her feet and crept forward, passing the Sharans frozen in crystal, dead in time.
At the very center of the explosion, Leane found a column of crystal as wide as an ancient leatherleaf tree, rising some fifty feet in the air. Frozen at its center was a fluted rod, Vora’s sa’angreal. There was no sign of the Amyrlin herself, but Leane knew.
«The Amyrlin Seat has fallen», a nearby Aes Sedai cried amid the crystallized Sharans. «The Amyrlin Seat has fallen!»
Thunder rumbled. Berelain looked up from the side of the bed, then stood, Galad’s hand slipping from hers as she walked to the window set in the stone wall.
The sea churned and broke against the rocks outside, roaring, as if in anger. Perhaps pain. White foam sprayed, violent, toward clouds where lightning cast a fractured light. While she watched, those clouds grew thicker in the night, if that was possible. Darker.
Dawn was still an hour off. The clouds were so black, though, she knew she would not see the sun when it rose. She went back to Galad’s side, sat down and took his hand. When would an Aes Sedai come to Heal him? He was still unconscious, save for nightmare whispers. He twisted, and something sparkled at his neck.
Berelain reached under his shirt, taking out a medallion. It was in the shape of a fox’s head. She rubbed her finger across it.
" . . back to Cauthon . . ». Galad whispered, eyes closed. " . . . Hope . . "
Berelain thought for a moment, feeling that darkness outside as if it were the Dark One’s own, smothering the land and crawling in through windows, under doors. She rose, left Galad and walked quickly away, carrying the medallion.
«The Amyrlin Seat is dead», Arganda reported.
Blood and bloody ashes, Mat thought. Egwene. Not Egwene too? It hit him like a punch to the face.
«What’s more», Arganda continued, «the Aes Sedai report that they have lost over half their numbers. The ones remaining claim . . . and this is a quote . . . that they ‘couldn’t channel enough of the One Power to lift a feather.’ They’re out of the battle».
Mat grunted. «How many of the Sharan channelers did they take?» he asked, bracing himself.
«All of them».
Mat looked at Arganda and frowned. «What?»
«All of the channelers», Arganda said. «All the ones that were fighting the Aes Sedai».
«That’s something», Mat said. But Egwene . . .
No. No thinking of that right now. She and her people had stopped the Sharan channelers.
The Sharans and Trollocs fell back from the front lines to regroup. Mat took the opportunity to do the same.
His forces—what remained of them—were strung out across the Heights. He had joined together everyone he had left. The Borderlanders, the Dragonsworn, Loial and the Ogier, Tam’s troops, the Whitecloaks, soldiers of the Band of the Red Hand. They fought hard, but their foe greatly outnumbered them. It was bad enough when they just had the Sharans to contend with, but once the Trollocs had broken through on the eastern edge of the Heights, they were forced to defend themselves on two fronts. Over the past hour they had been pushed back more than a thousand paces, in a northerly direction, and their back ranks had almost reached the end of the plateau.
This would be the last push. The end of the battle. With the Sharan channelers gone, Mat would not be wiped out immediately, but Light . . . there were still so many bloody Trollocs left. Mat had danced this dance well. He knew he had. But there was only so much a man could do. Even Tuon’s return might not be enough, if it came.
Arganda handled reports from the other areas of the battlefield—the man was wounded badly enough he could not fight, and there was no one with enough of the Power left to spare for Healing. He did his job well. Good man. Mat could have used him in the Band.
The Trollocs gathered for their push, again moving bodies out of the way, forming into fists with Myrddraal leading them. That would give Mat five or ten minutes to get ready. Then it would come.
Lan walked over, expression grim. «What would you have my men do, Cauthon?»
«Get ready to fight those Trollocs», Mat said. «Has anyone checked with Mayene lately? Now would be a wonderful time to get back a few ranks of men who have been Healed».
«I will check on it for you», Lan said. «And then I will prepare my men».
Mat dug in his saddlebags as Lan withdrew. He pulled out Rand’s banner, the one of the ancient Aes Sedai. He’d gathered it earlier, thinking perhaps it might have some use. «Somebody hoist this thing up. We’re fighting in Rand’s bloody name. Let’s show the Shadow we’re proud of it».
Dannil took the banner, finding a spear to use as a pole. Mat took a deep breath. The way the Borderlanders spoke, they thought this would end in a glorious, heroic, suicidal charge. That was how Thom’s songs always ended . . . the kinds of songs Mat had hoped to never find himself in. Faint hope that was, now.
Think, think. In the distance, the Trolloc horns started blowing. Tuon had delayed. Was she going to come? He hoped, secretly, she would not. With the battle going so poorly, even the Seanchan might not be enough.
He needed an opening. Come on, luck! Another gateway opened, and Arganda went to collect the messenger’s report. Mat did not need to hear to realize the kind of news it was, as when Arganda returned, he was frowning.
«All right», Mat said, sighing. «Give me your news».
«The Queen of Andor is dead», Arganda said.
Bloody Ashes! Not Elayne! Mat felt a lurch inside. Rand . . . I'm sorry. «Who leads there? Bashere?»
«Dead», Arganda said. «And his wife. They fell during an attack against the Andoran pikemen. We’ve lost six Aiel clan chiefs as well. Nobody leads the Andorans or the Aiel at the riverbed. They’re crumbling fast».
«This is the end!» Demandred’s augmented voice washed across Mat from the other end of the plateau. «Lews Therin has abandoned you! Cry out to him as you die. Let him feel your pain».
They had arrived at the last few moves in their game, and Demandred had played well. Mat looked over his army of exhausted troops, many of them wounded. There was no denying it, they were in a desperate situation.
«Send for the Aes Sedai», Mat said. «I don’t care if they say they can’t lift a feather. Maybe when it comes down to their lives, they’ll find a little strength for a fireball here and there. Besides, their Warders can still fight». Arganda nodded. Nearby, a gateway opened, and two beleaguered-looking Asha’man stumbled out. Naeff and Neald bore scorch marks on their skins, and Naeff’s Aes Sedai was not with them.
«Well?» Mat asked the three.
«It is done», Neald said with a growl.
«What of Tuon?»
«They found the spy, apparently», Naeff said. «The Empress is waiting to return on your mark».
Mat breathed in, tasting the battlefield air, feeling the rhythm of the fighting he had set up. He didn’t know if he could win, even with Tuon. Not with Elayne’s army in disarray, not with the Aes Sedai weakened to the point of being unable to channel. Not without Egwene, her Two Rivers stubbornness, her iron backbone. Not without a miracle.
«Send for her, Naeff», Mat said. He called for paper and a pen, and scribbled a note, which he handed off to the Asha’man. He shoved aside the selfish desire to let Tuon fly to safety. Bloody ashes, there was no safety, not anywhere. «Give this to the Empress, Naeff; tell her these instructions must be followed exactly».
Then Mat turned to Neald. «I want you to go to Talmanes», he said. «Have him move forward with the plan».
The two channelers left, off to deliver their messages.
«Will it be enough?» Arganda asked.
«No», Mat said.
«Because I’ll be a Darkfriend before I’ll let this battle go without trying everything, Arganda».
«Lews Therin!» Demandred boomed. «Come face me! I know you watch this battle! Join it! Fight!»
«I sure am growing tired of that man», Mat said.
«Cauthon, look, those Trollocs have regrouped», Arganda said. «I think they are about to attack».
«Then this is it; lets form up», Mat said. «Where is Lan; has he come back yet? I’d hate to do this without him».
Mat turned, scanning the lines for him, as Arganda shouted orders. His attention was drawn back suddenly as Arganda grabbed his arm, pointing toward the Trollocs. Mat felt a chill as he saw in the light of bonfires a lone horseman on a black stallion charge into the right flank of the Trolloc horde, making for the eastern slope of the Heights. Toward Demandred. Lan had gone to fight a war on his own.
The Trollocs ripped at Olver’s arm in the night, reaching into the crack, trying to pry him free. Others dug at the sides, and soil streamed in onto him, sticking to the tears on his cheeks and the blood flowing from his scratches.
He couldn’t stop shaking. He also couldn’t make himself move. He trembled, terrified, as the beasts pried at him with filthy fingers, digging closer and closer.
Loial sat on a stump, resting before the battle picked up again.
A charge. Yes, that would be a good way for this to end. Loial felt sore all over. He had read a great deal about battle, and had been in fights before, so he had known what to expect. But knowing a thing and experiencing it were completely different; that was why he’d left the stedding in the first place.
After more than a day of nonstop fighting, his limbs burned with a deep, inner fatigue. When he raised his axe, the head felt so heavy he wondered why it didn’t break the shaft.
War. He could have lived his life without experiencing this. It was so much more than the frantic battle at the Two Rivers had been. There, at least, they’d had time to remove the dead and care for their wounded. There, it had been a matter of standing firm and holding against waves of attacks.
Here, there was no time to wait, no time to think. Erith sat down on the ground beside his stump, and he put a hand on her shoulder. She closed her eyes and leaned against him. She was beautiful, with perfect ears and wonderful eyebrows. Loial did not look at the bloodstains on her clothing; he feared some of it was hers. He rubbed her shoulder with fingers so tired he could barely feel them.
Loial had taken some notes on the battlefield, for himself and for others, to keep track of how the battle had gone so far. Yes, a final attack. That would make for a good ending to the story, once he wrote it.
He pretended that he would still write the story. There was no harm to such a little lie.
One rider burst from the ranks of their soldiers, galloping toward the Trolloc right flank. Mat would not be happy about that. One man, alone, would die. Loial was surprised that he could feel sorrow for that man’s life lost, after all of the death he had seen.
That man looks familiar, Loial thought. Yes, it was the horse. He’d seen that horse before, many times. Lan, he thought, numb. Lan is the one riding out alone.
Erith looked up at him as he shouldered his axe.
«Wait», Loial said to her. «Fight alongside the others. I must go».
«I need to witness this», Loial said. The fall of the last king of the Malkieri. He would need to include it in his book.
«Prepare to charge!» Arganda yelled. «Men, form up! Archers at the front, cavalry next, foot soldiers prepare to come up behind!»
A charge, Tam thought. Yes, that is our only hope. They had to continue their push, but their line was so thin. He could see what Mat had been trying, but it wasn’t going to work.
They needed to fight it through anyway.
«Well, he is dead», a mercenary said from near Tam, nodding toward Lan Mandragoran as he rode toward the Trolloc flank. «Bloody Borderlanders».
«Tam . . ». Abell said from beside him.
Above them, the sky grew darker. Was that possible, at night? Those terrible, boiling clouds seemed to come lower and lower. Tam almost lost Lan’s figure atop the midnight stallion, despite the bonfires burning on the Heights. Their light seemed feeble.
He’s riding for Demandred, Tam thought. But there’s a wall of Trollocs in the way. Tam took out an arrow with a resin-soaked rag tied behind the head and nocked it into his bow. «Two Rivers men, prepare to fire!»
The mercenary nearby laughed. «That’s a hundred paces at least! You’ll fill him with arrows if anything».
Tam eyed the man, then took his arrow and thrust the end into a torch. The bundled rag behind the head came alight with fire. «First rank, on my signal!» Tam yelled, ignoring the other orders that came down the line. «Let’s give Lord Mandragoran a little something to guide his way!»
Tam drew in a fluid motion, the burning rag warming his fingers, and loosed.
Lan charged toward the Trollocs. His lance, and its three replacements, had all shattered hours ago. At his neck, he wore the cold medallion that Berelain had sent through the gateway with a simple note.
I do not know how Galad ended up with this, but I believe he wished me to send it to Cauthon.
Lan did not consider what he was doing. The void did not allow such things. Some men would call it brash, foolhardy, suicidal. The world was rarely changed by men who were unwilling to try being at least one of the three. He sent what comfort he could to distant Nynaeve through the bond, then prepared to fight.
As Lan neared the Trollocs, the beasts set up a spear line to stop him. A horse would impale itself trying to push through that. Lan drew in breath, calm within the void, planning to slice the head off the first spear, then ram his way through the line.
It was an impossible maneuver. All the Trollocs would need to do was squeeze together and slow him. After that, they could overwhelm Mandarb and pull Lan from the saddle.
But someone had to destroy Demandred. With the medallion at his neck, Lan raised his sword.
A flaming arrow streaked down from the sky and hit the throat of the Trolloc right in front of Lan. Without hesitation, Lan used the fallen Trolloc as an opening in the line of spears. He crashed between the Shadowspawn, trampling the fallen one. He would need to—
Another arrow fell, dropping a Trolloc. Then another fell, and another, in quick succession. Mandarb crashed through the confused, burning and dying Trollocs as an entire rain of burning arrows dropped in front of him. «Malkier!» Lan yelled, heeling Mandarb forward, trampling corpses but maintaining speed as the way opened. A hail of light dropped before him, each arrow precise, killing a Trolloc that tried to stand before him.
He thundered through the ranks, shoving aside dying Trollocs, flaming arrows guiding his way in the darkness like a roadway. The Trollocs stood thick on either side, but those in front of him dropped and dropped until there were no more.
Thank you, Tam.
Lan cantered his steed along the eastern slope of the Heights, alone now, past the soldiers, past the Shadowspawn. He was one with the breeze that streamed through his hair, one with the sinewy animal beneath him that carried him forward, one with the target that was his destination, his fate.
Demandred stood at the sound of the hoofbeats, his Sharan companions rising in front of him.
With a roar, Lan heeled Mandarb into the Sharans that blocked his path. The stallion leaped, front legs driving the guards before him into the ground. Mandarb wheeled around, his haunches knocking down more Sharans, his forelegs coming down on yet others.
Lan threw himself from the saddle—Mandarb had no protection against channeling, and so to fight from horseback would be to invite Demandred to kill his mount—and hit the ground at a run, sword out.
«Another one?» Demandred roared. «Lews Therin, you are beginning to—"
He cut off as Lan reached him and flung himself into Thistledown Floats on the Whirlwind, a tempestuous, offensive sword form. Demandred whipped his sword up, catching the blow on his weapon and skidding backward a step at the force of it. They exchanged three blows, quick as cracks of lightning, Lan still in motion until the last blow caught Demandred on the cheek. Lan felt a slight tug, and a blood sprayed into the air.
Demandred felt at the wound in his cheek, and his eyes opened wider. «Who are you!» Demandred asked.
«I am the man who will kill you».
Min looked up from the back of her torm as it loped toward the gateway back to the battlefield at Merrilor. She hoped it would withstand the battle frenzy when they got there. Bonfires and torches shone in the distance, fireflies illuminating scenes of valor and determination. She watched the lights flicker, the last embers of a fire that would soon be extinguished.
Rand trembled, distant, far to the north.
The Pattern spun around Rand, forcing him to watch. He looked through eyes streaming with tears. He saw the people struggle. He saw them fall. He saw Elayne, captive and alone, a Dreadlord preparing to rip their children from her womb. He saw Rhuarc, his mind forfeit, now a pawn of one of the Forsaken.
He saw Mat, desperate, facing down horrible odds.
He saw Lan riding to his death.
Demandred’s words dug at him. The Dark One’s pressure continued to tear at him.
Rand had failed.
But in the back of his mind, a voice. Frail, almost forgotten.
Lan held nothing back.
He did not fight as he had trained Rand to fight. No careful testing, no judging the terrain, no careful evaluation. Demandred could channel, and despite the medallion, Lan couldn’t give his enemy time to think, time to weave and hurl rocks at him or open the ground beneath him.
Lan burrowed deeply into the void, allowing instincts to guide him. He went beyond lack of emotions, burning away everything. He did not need to judge the terrain, for he felt the land as if it were part of him. He did not need to test Demandred’s strength. One of the Forsaken, with many decades of experience, would be the most skilled swordsman Lan had ever faced.
Lan was vaguely aware of the Sharans spreading out to make a broad circle around the two combatants as they fought. Apparently Demandred was confident enough of his skills that he did not allow interference from others.
Lan spun into a sequence of attacks. Water Flows Downhill became Whirlwind on the Mountain which became Hawk Dives into the Brush. His forms were like streams blending into a larger and larger river. Demandred fought as well as Lan had feared. Though the man’s forms were slightly different from those Lan knew, the years had not changed the nature of a swordfight.
«You are . . . good . . ». Demandred said with a grunt, falling back before Wind and Rain, a line of blood dripping from his chin. Lan’s sword flashed in the air, reflecting the red light of a bonfire nearby.
Demandred came back with Striking the Spark, which Lan anticipated, countering. He took a scratch along the side, but ignored it. The exchange set Lan back a step, and gave Demandred the chance to pick up a rock with the One Power and hurl it at Lan.
Deep within the void, Lan felt the stone coming. It was an understanding of the fight—one that ran deeply into him, to the very core of his soul. The way Demandred stepped, the direction his eyes flickered, told Lan exactly what was coming.
As he flowed into his next sword form, Lan brought his weapon up across his chest and stepped backward. A stone the size of a man’s head passed directly in front of him. Lan flowed forward, arm moving into his next form as another stone flew under his arm, tugging wind with it. Lan raised his sword and flowed around the path of a third stone, which missed him by a thumb’s width, rippling his clothing.
Demandred blocked Lan’s attack, but he breathed hoarsely. «Who are you?» Demandred whispered again. «No one of this Age has such skill. Asmodean? No, no. He couldn’t have fought me like this. Lews Therin? It is you behind that face, isn’t it?»
«I am just a man», Lan whispered. «That is all I have ever been».
Demandred growled, then launched an attack. Lan responded with Stones Falling Down the Mountain, but Demandred's fury forced him back a few steps.
Despite Lan’s initial offensive, Demandred was the better swordsman. Lan knew this by the same sense that told him when to strike, when to parry, when to step and when to withdraw. Perhaps if they had come to the fight evenly, it would be different. They had not. Lan had been fighting for an entire day, and though he’d been Healed from his worst wounds, the smaller ones still ached. Beyond that, a Healing in and of itself was draining.
Demandred was still fresh. The Forsaken stopped talking and engrossed himself in the duel. He also stopped using the One Power, focused only on his swordplay. He did not grin as he took the advantage. He did not seem like a man who grinned very often.
Lan slipped away from Demandred, but the Forsaken pressed forward with Boar Rushes Down the Mountain, again pushing Lan back to the perimeter of the circle, battering at his defenses, cutting him on the arm, then the shoulder, then finally the thigh.
I’ve only time for one last lesson . . .
«I have you», Demandred finally growled, breathing heavily. «Whoever you are, I have you. You cannot win».
«You didn’t listen to me», Lan whispered.
One last lesson. The hardest . . .
Demandred struck, and Lan saw his opening. Lan lunged forward, placing Demandred’s sword point against his own side and ramming himself forward onto it.
«I did not come here to win», Lan whispered, smiling. «I came here to kill you. Death is lighter than a feather».
Demandred's eyes opened wide, and he tried to pull back. Too late. Lan’s sword took him straight through the throat.
The world grew dark as Lan slipped backward off the sword. He felt Nynaeve's fear and pain as he did, and he sent his love to her.