A Memory of Light
The Final Volume of Wheel of Time™
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Prologue: By Grace and Banners Fallen
By Grace and Banners Fallen
Bayrd pressed the coin between his thumb and forefinger. It was thoroughly unnerving to feel the metal squish.
He removed his thumb. The hard copper now clearly bore its print, reflecting the uncertain torchlight. He felt chilled, as if he’d spent an entire night in a cellar.
His stomach growled. Again.
The north wind picked up, making torches sputter. Bayrd sat with his back to a large By Grace and Banners Fallen rock near the center of the war camp. Hungry men muttered as they warmed their hands around firepits; the rations had spoiled long ago. Other soldiers nearby began laying all of their metal—swords, armor clasps, mail—on the ground, like linen to be dried. Perhaps they hoped that when the sun rose, it would change the material back to normal.
Bayrd rolled the once-coin into a ball between his fingers. Light preserve us, he thought. Light…He dropped the ball to the grass, then reached over and picked up the stones he’d been working with By Grace and Banners Fallen.
“I want to know what happened here, Karam,” Lord Jarid snapped. Jarid and his advisors stood nearby in front of a table draped with maps. “I want to know how they drew so close, and I want that bloody Darkfriend Aes Sedai queen’s head!” Jarid pounded his fist down on the table. Once, his eyes hadn’t displayed such a crazed fervor. The pressure of it all—the lost rations, the strange things in the nights—was changing him.
Behind Jarid, the command tent lay in a heap. Jarid’s hair—grown long during their exile By Grace and Banners Fallen—blew free, face bathed in ragged torchlight. Bits of dead grass still clung to his coat from when he’d crawled out of the tent.
Baffled servants picked at the iron tent spikes, which—like all metal in the camp—had become soft to the touch. The tent’s mounting rings had stretched and snapped like warm wax.
The night smelled wrong. Of staleness, of rooms that hadn’t been entered in years. The air of a forest clearing should not smell like ancient dust. Bayrd’s stomach growled again. Light, but he would’ve liked to have something to eat. He By Grace and Banners Fallen set his attention on his work, slapping one of his stones down against the other.
He held the stones as his old pappil had taught him as a boy. The feeling of stone striking stone helped push away the hunger and coldness. At least something was still solid in this world.
Lord Jarid glanced at him, scowling. Bayrd was one of ten men Jarid had insisted guard him this night. “I will have Elayne’s head, Karam,” Jarid said, turning back to his captains. “This unnatural night is the work of her witches.”
“Her head?” Eri By Grace and Banners Fallen’s skeptical voice came from the side. “And how, precisely, is someone going to bring you her head?”
Lord Jarid turned, as did the others around the torchlit table. Eri stared at the sky; on his shoulder, he wore the mark of the golden boar charging before a red spear. It was the mark of Lord Jarid’s personal guard, but Eri’s voice bore little respect. “What’s he going to use to cut that head free, Jarid? His teeth?”
The camp stilled at the horribly insubordinate line. Bayrd stopped his stones, hesitating. Yes, there had been talk about how By Grace and Banners Fallen unhinged Lord Jarid had become. But this?
Jarid sputtered, face growing red with rage. “You dare use such a tone with me? One of my own guards?”
Eri continued inspecting the cloud-filled sky.
“You’re docked two months’ pay,” Jarid snapped, but his voice trembled. “Stripped of rank and put on latrine duty until further notice. If you speak back to me again, I’ll cut out your tongue.”
Bayrd shivered in the cold wind. Eri was the best they had in what was left of their rebel army. The other guards shuffled, looking down.
Eri By Grace and Banners Fallen looked toward the lord and smiled. He didn’t say a word, but somehow, he didn’t have to. Cut out his tongue? Every scrap of metal in the camp had gone soft as lard. Jarid’s own knife lay on the table, twisted and warped—it had stretched thin as he pulled it from his sheath. Jarid’s coat flapped, open; it had had silver buttons.
“Jarid…” Karam said. A young lord of a minor house loyal to Sarand, he had a lean face and large lips. “Do you really think…really think this was the work of Aes Sedai? All By Grace and Banners Fallen of the metal in the camp?”
“Of course,” Jarid barked. “What else would it be? Don’t tell me you believe those campfire tales. The Last Battle? Phaw.” He looked back at the table. Unrolled there, with pebbles weighting the corners, was a map of Andor.
Bayrd turned back to his stones. Snap, snap, snap. Slate and granite. It had taken work to find suitable sections of each, but Pappil had taught Bayrd to recognize all kinds of stone. The old man had felt betrayed when Bayrd’s father had gone off and become a butcher in the By Grace and Banners Fallen city, instead of keeping to the family trade.
Soft, smooth slate. Bumpy, ridged granite. Yes, somethings in the world were still solid. Some few things. These days, you couldn’t rely on much. Once immovable lords were now soft as…well, soft as metal. The sky churned with blackness, and brave men—men Bayrd had long looked up to—trembled and whimpered in the night.
“I’m worried, Jarid,” Davies said. An older man, Lord Davies was as close as anyone was to being Jarid’s confidant. “We haven’t seen anyone in days. Not farmer, not queen’s soldier By Grace and Banners Fallen. Something is happening. Something wrong.”
“She cleared the people out,” Jarid snarled. “She’s preparing to pounce.”
“I think she’s ignoring us, Jarid,” Karam said, looking at the sky. Clouds still churned there. It seemed like months since Bayrd had seen a clear sky. “Why would she bother? Our men are starving. The food continues to spoil. The signs—”
“She’s trying to squeeze us,” Jarid said, eyes wide with fervor. “This is the work of the Aes Sedai.”
Stillness came suddenly to the camp. Silence, save for Bayrd’s stones. He’d never felt right as By Grace and Banners Fallen a butcher, but he’d found a home in his lord’s guard. Cutting up cows or cutting up men, the two were strikingly similar. It bothered him how easily he’d shifted from one to the other.
Snap, snap, snap.
Eri turned. Jarid eyed the guard suspiciously, as if ready to scream out harsher punishment.
He wasn’t always this bad, was he? Bayrd thought. He wanted the throne for his wife, but what lord wouldn’t? It was hard to look past the name. Bayrd’s family had followed the Sarand family with reverence for generations By Grace and Banners Fallen.
Eri strode away from the command post.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Jarid howled.
Eri reached to his shoulder and ripped free the badge of the Sarand house guard. He tossed it aside and left the torchlight, heading into the night toward the winds from the north.
Most men in the camp hadn’t gone to sleep. They sat around firepits, wanting to be near warmth and light. A few with clay pots tried boiling cuts of grass, leaves, or strips of leather as something, anything, to eat.
They stood up to watch Eri go.
“Deserter,” Jarid spat. “After By Grace and Banners Fallen all we’ve been through, now he leaves. Just because things are difficult.”
“The men are starving, Jarid,” Davies repeated.
“I’m aware. Thank you so much for telling me about the problems with every bloody breath you have.” Jarid wiped his brow with his trembling palm, then slammed it on his map. “We’ll have to strike one of the cities; there’s no running from her, not now that she knows where we are. Whitebridge. We’ll take it and resupply. Her Aes Sedai must be weakened after the stunt they pulled tonight, otherwise By Grace and Banners Fallen she’d have attacked.”
Bayrd squinted into the darkness. Other men were standing, lifting quarterstaffs or cudgels. Some went without weapons. They gathered sleeping rolls, hoisted packs of clothing to their shoulders. Then they began to trail out of the camp, their passage silent, like the movement of ghosts. No rattling of chain mail or buckles on armor. The metal was all gone. As if the soul had been stripped from it.
“Elayne doesn’t dare move against us in strength,” Jarid said, perhaps convincing himself. “There must be strife in Caemlyn. All of those mercenaries you reported, Shiv. Riots, maybe. Elenia By Grace and Banners Fallen will be working against Elayne, of course. Whitebridge. Yes, Whitebridge will be perfect.
“We hold it, you see, and cut the nation in half. We recruit there, press the men in western Andor to our banner. Go to…what’s the place called? The Two Rivers. We should find able hands there.” Jarid sniffed. “I hear they haven’t seen a lord for decades. Give me four months, and I’ll have an army to be reckoned with. Enough that she won’t dare strike at us with her witches…”
Bayrd held his stone up to the By Grace and Banners Fallen torchlight. The trick to creating a good spearhead was to start outward and work your way in. He’d drawn the proper shape with chalk on the slate, then had worked toward the center to finish the shape. From there, you turned from hitting to tapping, shaving off smaller bits.
He’d finished one side earlier; this second half was almost done. He could almost hear his pappil whispering to him. We’re of the stone, Bayrd. No matter what your father says. Deep down, we’re of the stone.
More soldiers left the camp. Strange, how few of By Grace and Banners Fallen them spoke. Jarid finally noticed. He stood up straight and grabbed one of the torches, holding it high. “What are they doing? Hunting? We’ve seen no game in weeks. Setting snares, perhaps?”
“Maybe they’ve seen something,” Jarid muttered. “Or maybe they think they have. I’ll stand no more talk of spirits or other foolery; the witches are creating apparitions to unnerve us. That’s…that’s what it has to be.”
Rustling came from nearby. Karam was digging in his fallen tent. He came up with a small bundle.
“Karam?” Jarid said.
Karam glanced By Grace and Banners Fallen at Lord Jarid, then lowered his eyes and began to tie a coin pouch at his waist. He stopped and laughed, then emptied it. The gold coins inside had melted into a single lump, like pigs’ ears in a jar. Karam pocketed this lump. He fished in the pouch and brought out a ring. The blood-red gemstone at the center was still good. “Probably won’t be enough to buy an apple, these days,” he muttered.
“I demand to know what you are doing,” Jarid snarled. “Is this your doing?” He waved toward the departing soldiers. “You’re staging a By Grace and Banners Fallen mutiny, is that it?”
“This isn’t my doing,” Karam said, looking ashamed. “And it’s not really yours, either. I’m…I’m sorry.”
Karam walked away from the torchlight. Bayrd found himself surprised. Lord Karam and Lord Jarid had been friends from childhood.
Lord Davies went next, running after Karam. Was he going to try to hold the younger man back? No, he fell into step beside Karam. They vanished into the darkness.
“I’ll have you hunted down for this!” Jarid yelled after them, voice shrill. Frantic. “I will be consort to the Queen By Grace and Banners Fallen! No man will give you, or any member of your Houses, shelter or succor for ten generations!”
Bayrd looked back at the stone in his hand. Only one step left, the smoothing. A good spearhead needed some smoothing to be dangerous. He brought out another piece of granite he’d picked up for the purpose and carefully began scraping it along the side of the slate.
Seems I remember this better than I’d expected, he thought as Lord Jarid continued to rant.
There was something powerful about crafting the spearhead. The simple act seemed to push back the By Grace and Banners Fallen gloom. There had been a shadow on Bayrd, and the rest of the camp, lately. As if…as if he couldn’t stand in the light no matter how he tried. He woke each morning feeling as if someone he’d loved had died the day before.
It could crush you, that despair. But the act of creating something—anything—fought back. That was one way to challenge…him. The one none of them spoke of. The one that they all knew was behind it, no matter what Lord Jarid said.
Bayrd stood up. He’d want to do By Grace and Banners Fallen more smoothing later, but the spearhead actually looked good. He raised his wooden spear haft—the metal blade had fallen free when evil had struck the camp—and lashed the new spearhead in place, just as his pappil had taught him all those years ago.
The other guards were looking at him. “We’ll need more of those,” Morear said. “If you’re willing.”
Bayrd nodded. “On our way out, we can stop by the hillside where I found the slate.”
Jarid finally stopped yelling, his eyes wide in the torchlight. “No. You are my personal guard. You will not By Grace and Banners Fallen defy me!”
Jarid jumped for Bayrd, murder in his eyes, but Morear and Rosse caught the lord from behind. Rosse looked aghast at his own mutinous act. He didn’t let go, though.
Bayrd fished a few things out from beside his bedroll. After that, he nodded to the others, and they joined him—eight men of Lord Jarid’s personal guard, dragging the sputtering lord himself through the remnants of camp. They passed smoldering fires and fallen tents, abandoned by men who were trailing out into the darkness in greater numbers now, heading north. Into the wind By Grace and Banners Fallen.
At the edge of camp, Bayrd selected a nice, stout tree. He waved to the others, and they took the rope he’d fetched and tied Lord Jarid to the tree. The man sputtered until Morear gagged him with a handkerchief.
Bayrd stepped in close. He tucked a waterskin into the crook of Jarid’s arm. “Don’t struggle too much or you’ll drop that, my Lord. You should be able to push the gag off—it doesn’t look too tight—and angle the waterskin up to drink. Here, I’ll take out the cork.”
Jarid stared By Grace and Banners Fallen thunder at Bayrd.
“It’s not about you, my Lord,” Bayrd said. “You always treated my family well. But, here, we can’t have you following along and making life difficult. There’s just something that we need to do, and you’re stopping everyone from doing it. Maybe someone should have said something earlier. Well, that’s done. Sometimes, you let the meat hang too long, and the entire haunch has to go.”
He nodded to the others, who ran off to gather bedrolls. He pointed Rosse toward the slate outcropping nearby and told him what to By Grace and Banners Fallen look for in good spearhead stone.
Bayrd turned back to the struggling Lord Jarid. “This isn’t witches, my Lord. This isn’t Elayne…I suppose I should call her the Queen. Funny, thinking of a pretty young thing like that as queen. I’d rather have bounced her on my knee at an inn than bow to her, but Andor will need a ruler to follow to the Last Battle, and it isn’t your wife. I’m sorry.”
Jarid sagged in his bonds, the anger seeming to bleed from him. He was weeping now. Odd thing to see, that.
“I By Grace and Banners Fallen’ll tell people we pass—if we pass any—where you are,” Bayrd promised, “and that you probably have some jewels on you. They might come for you. They might.” He hesitated. “You shouldn’t have stood in the way. Everyone seems to know what is coming but you. The Dragon is reborn, old bonds are broken, old oaths done away with…and I’ll be hanged before I let Andor march to the Last Battle without me.”
Bayrd left, walking into the night, raising his new spear onto his shoulder. I have an oath older By Grace and Banners Fallen than the one to your family, anyway. An oath the Dragon himself couldn’t undo. It was an oath to the land. The stones were in his blood, and his blood in the stones of this Andor.
Bayrd gathered the others and they left for the north. Behind them in the night, their lord whimpered, alone, as the ghosts began to move through camp.
* * *
Talmanes tugged on Selfar’s reins, making the horse dance and shake his head. The roan seemed eager. Perhaps Selfar sensed his master’s anxious mood.
The night air was thick with smoke. Smoke and screams. Talmanes marched By Grace and Banners Fallen the Band alongside a road clogged with refugees smudged with soot. They moved like flotsam in a muddy river.
The men of the Band eyed the refugees with worry. “Steady!” Talmanes shouted to them. “We can’t sprint all the way to Caemlyn. Steady!” He marched the men as quickly as he dared, nearly at a jog. Their armor clanked. Elayne had taken half of the Band with her to the Field of Merrilor, including Estean and most of the cavalry. Perhaps she had anticipated needing to withdraw quickly.
Well, Talmanes wouldn’t have much use By Grace and Banners Fallen for cavalry in the streets, which were no doubt as clogged as this roadway. Selfar snorted and shook his head. They were close now; the city walls just ahead—black in the night—held in an angry light. It was as if the city were a firepit.
By grace and banners fallen, Talmanes thought with a shiver. Enormous clouds of smoke billowed over the city. This was bad. Far worse than when the Aiel had come for Cairhien.
Talmanes finally gave Selfar his head. The roan galloped along the side of the road for a time; then Talmanes reluctantly By Grace and Banners Fallen forced his way across, ignoring pleas for help. Time he’d spent with Mat made him wish there were more he could offer these people. It was downright strange, the effect Matrim Cauthon had on a person. Talmanes looked at common folk in a very different light now. Perhaps it was because he still didn’t rightly know whether to think of Mat as a lord or not.
On the other side of the road, he surveyed the burning city, waiting for his men to catch up. He could have mounted all of them—though they weren’t trained cavalry By Grace and Banners Fallen, every man in the Band had a horse for long-distance travel. Tonight, he didn’t dare. With Trollocs and Myrddraal lurking in the streets, Talmanes needed his men in immediate fighting shape. Crossbowmen marched with loaded weapons at the flanks of deep columns of pikemen. He would not leave his soldiers open to a Trolloc charge, no matter how urgent their mission.
But if they lost those dragons…
Light illumine us, Talmanes thought. The city seemed to be boiling, with all that smoke churning above. Yet some parts of the Inner City—rising high on the hill and visible By Grace and Banners Fallen over the walls—were not yet aflame. The Palace wasn’t on fire yet. Could the soldiers there be holding?
No word had come from the Queen, and from what Talmanes could see, no help had arrived for the city. The Queen must still be unaware, and that was bad.
Very, very bad.
Ahead, Talmanes spotted Sandip with some of the Band’s scouts. The slender man was trying to extricate himself from a group of refugees.
“Please, good master,” one young woman was crying. “My child, my daughter, in the heights of the northern march…”
“I must By Grace and Banners Fallen reach my shop!” a stout man bellowed. “My glasswares—”
“My good people,” Talmanes said, forcing his horse among them, “I should think that if you want us to help, you might wish to back away and allow us to reach the bloody city.”
The refugees reluctantly pulled back, and Sandip nodded to Talmanes in thanks. Tan-skinned and dark-haired, Sandip was one of the Band’s commanders and an accomplished hedge-doctor. The affable man wore a grim expression today, however.
“Sandip,” Talmanes said, pointing, “there.”
In the near distance, a large group of fighting men clustered By Grace and Banners Fallen, looking at the city.
“Mercenaries,” Sandip said with a grunt. “We’ve passed several batches of them. Not a one seemed inclined to lift a finger.”
“We shall see about that,” Talmanes said. People still flooded out through the city gates, coughing, clutching meager possessions, leading crying children. That flow would not soon slacken. Caemlyn was as full as an inn on market day; the ones lucky enough to be escaping would be only a small fraction compared to those still inside.
“Talmanes,” Sandip said quietly, “that city’s going to turn into a death trap soon. There aren By Grace and Banners Fallen’t enough ways out. If we let the Band become pinned inside…”
“I know. But—”
At the gates a wave of feeling surged through the refugees. It was almost a physical thing, a shudder. The screams grew more intense. Talmanes spun; hulking figures moved in the shadows inside the gate.
“Light!” Sandip said. “What is it?”
“Trollocs,” Talmanes said, turning Selfar. “Light! They’re going to try to seize the gate, stop the refugees.” There were five gates out of the city; if the Trollocs held all of them…
This was already a slaughter. If the Trollocs could stop the By Grace and Banners Fallen frightened people from fleeing, it would grow far worse.
“Hurry the ranks!” Talmanes yelled. “All men to the city gates!” He spurred Selfar into a gallop.
* * *
The building would have been called an inn elsewhere, though Isam had never seen anyone inside except for the dull-eyed women who tended the few drab rooms and prepared tasteless meals. Visits here were never for comfort. He sat on a hard stool at a pine table so worn with age, it had likely grayed long before Isam’s birth. He refrained from touching the surface overly much, lest he come away By Grace and Banners Fallen with more splinters than an Aiel had spears.
Isam’s dented tin cup was filled with a dark liquid, though he wasn’t drinking. He sat beside the wall, near enough the inn’s single window to watch the dirt street outside, dimly lit in the evening by a few rusty lanterns hung outside buildings. Isam took care not to let his profile show through the smeared glass. He never looked directly out. It was always best not to attract attention in the Town.
That was the only name the place had, if it could be said to have a By Grace and Banners Fallen name at all. The sprawling ramshackle buildings had been put up and replaced countless times over two thousand years. It actually resembled a good-sized town, if you squinted. Most of the buildings had been constructed by prisoners, often with little or no knowledge of the craft. They’d been supervised by men equally ignorant. A fair number of the houses seemed held up by those to either side of them.
Sweat dribbled down the side of Isam’s face, as he covertly watched that street. Which one would come for him?
In the distance, he could barely make out By Grace and Banners Fallen the profile of a mountain splitting the night sky. Metal rasped against metal somewhere out in the Town like steel heartbeats. Figures moved on the street. Men, heavily cloaked and hooded, with faces hidden up to the eyes behind blood-red veils.
Isam was careful not to let his eyes linger on them.
Thunder rumbled. The slopes of that mountain were filled with odd lightning bolts that struck upward toward the ever-present gray clouds. Few humans knew of this Town not so far from the valley of Thakan’dar, with Shayol Ghul itself looming above. Few knew rumors By Grace and Banners Fallen of its existence. Isam would not have minded being among the ignorant.
Another of the men passed. Red veils. They kept them up always. Well, almost always. If you saw one lower his veil, it was time to kill him. Because if you didn’t, he’d kill you. Most of the red-veiled men seemed to have no reason to be out, beyond scowling at each other and perhaps kicking at the numerous stray dogs—slat-ribbed and feral—whenever one crossed their path. The few women who had left shelter scuttled along the edges of the By Grace and Banners Fallen street, eyes lowered. There were no children to be seen, and likely few to be found. The Town was no place for children. Isam knew. He had grown from infancy here.
One of the men passing on the street looked up at Isam’s window and stopped. Isam went very still. The Samma N’Sei, the Eye Blinders, had always been touchy and full of pride. No, touchy was too mild a term. They required no more than whim to take a knife to one of the Talentless. Usually it was one of the servants who paid. Usually By Grace and Banners Fallen.
The red-veiled man continued to regard him. Isam stilled his nerves and did not make a show of staring back. His summons here had been urgent, and one did not ignore such things if one wished to live. But still…if the man took one step toward the building, Isam would slip into Tel’aran’rhiod, secure in the knowledge that not even one of the Chosen could follow him from here.
Abruptly the Samma N’Sei turned from the window. In a flash he was moving away from the building, striding quickly. Isam felt some of his tension By Grace and Banners Fallen melt away, though it would never truly leave him, not in this place. This place was not home, despite his childhood here. This place was death.
Motion. Isam glanced toward the end of the street. Another tall man in a black coat and cloak, his face exposed, was walking toward him. Incredibly, the street was emptying as Samma N’Sei darted off down other streets and alleys.
So it was Moridin. Isam had not been there to witness the Chosen’s first visit to the Town, but he had heard. The Samma N’Sei had thought Moridin one of the By Grace and Banners Fallen Talentless until he demonstrated differently. The constraints that held them did not hold him.
The numbers of dead Samma N’Sei varied with the telling, but the claim never dipped below a dozen. By the evidence of his eyes, Isam could believe it.
When Moridin reached the inn, the street was empty save for the dogs. And Moridin walked right on past. Isam watched as closely as he dared. Moridin seemed uninterested in him or the inn, which was where Isam had been instructed to wait. Perhaps the Chosen had other business, and Isam would be an afterthought By Grace and Banners Fallen.
After Moridin passed, Isam finally took a sip of his dark drink. The locals just called it “fire.” It lived up to its name. It was supposedly related to some drink from the Waste. Like everything else in the Town, it was a corrupt version of the original.
How long was Moridin going to make him wait? Isam didn’t like being here. It reminded him too much of his childhood. A servant passed—a woman with a dress so frayed that it was practically rags—and dropped a plate onto the table. The two didn’t exchange a By Grace and Banners Fallen word.
Isam looked at his meal. Vegetables—peppers and onions, mostly—sliced thin and boiled. He picked at one and took a taste, then sighed and pushed the meal aside. The vegetables were as bland as unseasoned millet porridge. There wasn’t any meat. That was actually good; he didn’t like to eat meat unless he’d seen it killed and slaughtered himself. That was a remnant of his childhood. If you hadn’t seen it slaughtered yourself, you couldn’t know. Not for certain. Up here, if you found meat, it could have been something that had been By Grace and Banners Fallen caught in the south, or maybe an animal that had been raised up here, a cow or a goat.
Or it could be something else. People lost games up here and couldn’t pay, then disappeared. And often, the Samma N’Sei who didn’t breed true washed out of their training. Bodies vanished. Corpses rarely lasted long enough for burial.
Burn this place, Isam thought, stomach unsettled. Burn it with—
Someone entered the inn. He couldn’t watch both approaches to the door from this direction, unfortunately. She was a pretty woman, dressed in black trimmed with red By Grace and Banners Fallen. Isam didn’t recognize her slim figure and delicate face. He was increasingly certain he could recognize all of the Chosen; he’d seen them often enough in the dream. They didn’t know that, of course. They thought themselves masters of the place, and some of them were very skilled.
He was equally skilled, and also exceptionally good at not being seen.
Whoever this was, she was in disguise, then. Why bother hiding herself here? Either way, she had to be the one who had summoned him. No woman walked the Town with such an imperious expression, such By Grace and Banners Fallen self-assurance, as if she expected the rocks themselves to obey if told to jump. Isam went quietly down on one knee.
That motion woke the ache inside his stomach from where he’d been wounded. He still hadn’t recovered from the fight with the wolf. He felt a stirring inside of him; Luc hated Aybara. Unusual. Luc tended to be the more accommodating one, Isam the hard one. Well, that was how he saw himself.
Either way, on this particular wolf, they agreed. On one hand, Isam was thrilled; as a hunter, he’d rarely been By Grace and Banners Fallen presented with such a challenge as Aybara. However, his hatred was deeper. He would kill Aybara.
Isam covered a grimace at the pain and bowed his head. The woman left him kneeling and took a seat at his table. She tapped a finger on the side of the tin cup for a few moments, staring at its contents, and did not speak.
Isam remained still. Many of those fools who named themselves Darkfriends would squirm and writhe when another asserted power over them. Indeed, he admitted with reluctance, Luc would probably squirm just as much.
Isam was a By Grace and Banners Fallen hunter. That was all he cared to be. When you were secure with what you were, there was no cause to resent being shown your place.
Burn it, but the side of his belly did burn.
“I want him dead,” the woman said. Her voice was soft, yet intense.
Isam said nothing.
“I want him gutted like an animal, his bowels spilled onto the ground, his blood a milkpan for ravens, his bones left to bleach, then gray, then crack in the heat of the sun. I want him dead, hunter.”
“Yes. You have failed in the past By Grace and Banners Fallen.” Her voice was ice. He felt a chill. This one was hard. Hard as Moridin.
In his years of service, he had learned contempt for most of the Chosen. They bickered like children, for all their power and supposed wisdom. This woman made him pause, and he wondered if he actually had spied on all of them. She seemed different.
“Well?” she asked. “Do you speak for your failures?”
“Each time one of the others has tasked me with this hunt,” he said, “another has come to pull me away and set me on some other task By Grace and Banners Fallen.”
In truth, he’d rather have continued his hunt for the wolf. He would not disobey orders, not direct ones from the Chosen. Other than Aybara, one hunt was much the same to him as another. He would kill this Dragon, if he had to.
“Such won’t happen this time,” the Chosen said, still staring at his cup. She hadn’t looked at him, and she did not give him leave to stand, so he remained kneeling. “All others have renounced claim on you. Unless the Great Lord tells you otherwise—unless he summons you himself—you are to keep to By Grace and Banners Fallen this task. Kill al’Thor.”
Motion outside the window caused Isam to glance to the side. The Chosen didn’t look as a group of black-hooded figures passed. The winds didn’t cause the cloaks of these figures to stir.
They were accompanied by carriages; an unusual sight in the Town. The carriages moved slowly, but still rocked and thumped on the uneven street. Isam didn’t need to see into the carriages’ curtained windows to know that thirteen women rode inside, matching the number of Myrddraal. None of the Samma N’Sei returned to By Grace and Banners Fallen the street. They tended to avoid processions like this. For obvious reasons, they had…strong feelings about such things.
The carriages passed. So. Another had been caught. Isam would have assumed that the practice had ended, once the taint was cleansed.
Before he turned back to look at the floor, he caught sight of something more incongruous. A small, dirty face watching from the shadows of an alleyway across the street. Wide eyes but a furtive posture. Moridin’s passing, and the coming of the thirteens, had driven the Samma N’Sei off the street. Where they were not, the urchins By Grace and Banners Fallen could go in some safety. Maybe.
Isam wanted to scream at the child to go. Tell it to run, to risk crossing the Blight. To die in the stomach of a Worm was better than to live in this Town, and suffer what it did to you. Go! Flee! Die!
The moment passed quickly, the urchin retreating to the shadows. Isam could remember being that child. He’d learned so many things then. How to find food that you could mostly trust, and wouldn’t vomit back up once you found out what was in it. How to fight By Grace and Banners Fallen with knives. How to avoid being seen or noticed.
And how to kill a man, of course. Everyone who survived long enough in the Town learned that particular lesson.
The Chosen was still looking at his cup. It was her reflection she was looking at, Isam realized. What did she see there?
“I will need help,” Isam finally said. “The Dragon Reborn has guards, and he is rarely in the dream.”
“Help has been arranged,” she said softly. “But you are to find him, hunter. None of this playing as you did before, trying to draw him By Grace and Banners Fallen to you. Lews Therin will sense such a trap. Besides, he will not deviate from his cause now. Time is short.”
She spoke of the disastrous operation in the Two Rivers. Luc had been in charge then. What knew Isam of real towns, real people? Almost, he felt a longing for those things, though he suspected that was really Luc’s emotion. Isam was just a hunter. People held little interest for him beyond the best places for an arrow to enter so as to hit the heart.
That Two Rivers operation, though…it stank like a carcass left to By Grace and Banners Fallen rot. He still didn’t know. Had the point really been to lure al’Thor, or had it been to keep Isam away from important events? He knew his abilities fascinated the Chosen; he could do something that they could not. Oh, they could imitate the way he stepped into the dream, but they needed channeling, gateways, time.
He was tired of being a pawn in their games. Just let him hunt; stop changing the prey with each passing week.
One did not say such things to the Chosen. He kept his objections to himself.
Shadows darkened the doorway to the By Grace and Banners Fallen inn, and the serving woman disappeared into the back. That left the place completely empty save for Isam and the Chosen.
“You may stand,” she said.
Isam did, hastily, as two men stepped into the room. Tall, muscular and red-veiled. They wore brown clothing like Aiel, but didn’t carry spears or bows. These creatures killed with weapons far deadlier.
Though he kept his face impassive, Isam felt a surge of emotion. A childhood of pain, hunger and death. A lifetime of avoiding the gaze of men like these. He fought hard to keep himself from trembling as By Grace and Banners Fallen they strode to the table, moving with the grace of natural predators.
The men dropped their veils and bared their teeth. Burn me. Their teeth were filed.
These had been Turned. You could see it in their eyes—eyes that weren’t quite right, weren’t quite human.
Isam nearly fled right then, stepping into the dream. He couldn’t kill both of these men. He’d have been reduced to ash before he managed to take down one of them. He’d seen Samma N’Sei kill; they often did it just to explore new ways of By Grace and Banners Fallen using their powers.
They didn’t attack. Did they know this woman was Chosen? Why, then, lower their veils? Samma N’Sei never lowered their veils except to kill—and only for the kills they were most eagerly anticipating.
“They will accompany you,” the Chosen said. “You shall have a handful of the Talentless as well to help deal with al’Thor’s guards.” She turned to him and, for the first time, she met his eyes. She seemed…revolted. As if she were disgusted to need his aid.
“They will accompany you,” she had said. Not “They will By Grace and Banners Fallen serve you.”
Bloody son of a dog. This was going to be a hateful job.
* * *
Talmanes threw himself to the side, narrowly avoiding the Trolloc’s axe. The ground trembled as the axe broke cobblestones; he ducked and rammed his blade through the creature’s thigh. The thing had a bull’s snout, and it threw back its head to bellow.
“Burn me, but you have horrid breath,” Talmanes growled, whipping his sword free and stepping back. The thing went down on one leg, and Talmanes hacked off its weapon hand.
Panting, Talmanes danced back as his two companions struck By Grace and Banners Fallen the Trolloc through the back with spears. You always wanted to fight Trollocs in a group. Well, you always wanted to fight anyone with a team on your side, but it was more important with Trollocs, considering their size and strength.
Corpses lay like heaps of trash in the night. Talmanes had been forced to fire the city gate’s guardhouses to give light; the half-dozen or so guards who had remained were now recruits in the Band, for the time being.
Like a black tide, the Trollocs began to retreat from the gate. They By Grace and Banners Fallen’d overextended themselves in pushing for it. Or, rather, being pushed for it. There had been a Halfman with this crew. Talmanes lowered his hand to the wound in his side. It was wet.
The guardhouse fires were burning low. He’d have to order a few of the shops set on fire. That risked letting the blaze spread, but the city was already lost. No sense in holding back now. “Brynt!” he yelled. “Set that stable aflame!”
Sandip came up as Brynt went running past with a torch. “They’ll be back. Soon, probably.”
Talmanes nodded. Now that the fighting By Grace and Banners Fallen was done, townspeople began to flood out of alleys and recesses, timidly making for the gate and—presumably—safety.
“We can’t stay here and hold this gate,” Sandip said. “The dragons…”
“I know. How many men did we lose?”
“I don’t have a count yet. A hundred, at least.”
Light, Mat’s going to have my hide when he hears about that. Mat hated losing troops. There was a softness to the man equal to his genius—an odd, but inspiring, combination. “Send some scouts to watch the city roadways nearby for approaching Shadowspawn. Heap some of these By Grace and Banners Fallen Trolloc carcasses to make barriers; they’ll work as well as anything else. You, soldier!”
One of the wearied soldiers walking past froze. He wore the Queen’s colors. “My Lord?”
“We need to let people know this gate out of the city is safe. Is there a horn call that Andoran peasants would recognize? Something that would bring them here?”
“‘Peasants,’” the man said thoughtfully. He didn’t seem to like the word. They didn’t use it often, here in Andor. “Yes, the Queen’s March.”
“I’ll set the sounders to it By Grace and Banners Fallen, Talmanes,” Sandip said.
“Good.” Talmanes knelt to clean his sword on a fallen Trolloc’s shirt, his side aching. The wound wasn’t bad. Not by normal terms. Just a nick, really.
The shirt was so grimy he almost hesitated to wipe his weapon, but Trolloc blood was bad for a blade, so he swabbed down the sword. He stood up, ignoring the pain in his side, then walked toward the gate, where he’d tied Selfar. He hadn’t dared trust the horse against Shadowspawn. He was a good gelding, but not Borderland-trained.
None of the men questioned By Grace and Banners Fallen him as he climbed into the saddle and turned Selfar westward, out of the city gate, toward those mercenaries he’d seen watching earlier. Talmanes wasn’t surprised to find that they’d moved closer to the city. Fighting drew warriors like fire drawing cold travelers on a winter night.
They hadn’t joined in the battle. As Talmanes rode up, he was greeted by a small group of the sell-swords: six men with thick arms, and—likely—thick wits. They recognized him and the Band. Mat was downright famous these days, and so was the Band By Grace and Banners Fallen, by association. They undoubtedly also noticed the Trolloc bloodstains on Talmanes’ clothing and the bandage at his side.
That wound had really begun to burn fiercely now. Talmanes reined in Selfar, then patiently patted at his saddlebags. I stowed some tabac here somewhere…
“Well?” one of the mercenaries asked. The leader was easy to pick out; he had the finest armor. A man often became leader of a band like this by staying alive.
Talmanes fished his second-best pipe out of his saddlebag. Where was that tabac? He never took the best pipe into battle. His father had called that bad By Grace and Banners Fallen luck.
Ah, he thought, pulling out the tabac pouch. He placed some into the bowl, then removed a lighting twig and leaned over to stick it into a torch held by a wary mercenary.
“We aren’t going to fight unless paid,” the leader said. He was a stout man, surprisingly clean, though he could have done with a beard trim.
Talmanes lit his pipe, puffing smoke out. Behind him, the horns started blowing. The Queen’s March turned out to be a catchy tune. The horns were accompanied by shouts, and Talmanes turned back. Trollocs on By Grace and Banners Fallen the main thoroughfare, a larger batch this time.
Crossbowmen fell into ranks and began loosing at an order Talmanes couldn’t hear.
“We’re not—” the head man began again.
“Do you know what this is?” Talmanes asked softly around his pipe. “This is the beginning of the end. This is the fall of nations and the unification of humankind. This is the Last Battle, you bloody fool.”
The men shuffled uncomfortably.
“Do you…do you speak for the Queen?” the leader said, trying to salvage something. “I just want to see my men taken care of.”
“If you fight,” Talmanes By Grace and Banners Fallen said, “I’ll promise you a great reward.”
The man waited.
“I promise you that you’ll continue to draw breath,” Talmanes said, taking another puff.
“Is that a threat, Cairhienin?”
Talmanes blew out smoke, then leaned down from his saddle, putting his face closer to the leader. “I killed a Myrddraal tonight, Andoran,” he said softly. “It nicked me with a Thakan’dar blade, and the wound has gone black. That’s a Borderlander term. It means I have a few hours at best before the blade’s poison burns me from the inside out and By Grace and Banners Fallen I die in the most agonizing way a man can. Therefore, friend, I suggest that you trust me when I tell you that I really have nothing to lose.”
The man blinked.
“You have two choices,” Talmanes said, turning his horse and speaking loudly to the troop. “You can fight like the rest of us and help this world see new days, and maybe you’ll earn some coin in the end. I can’t promise that. Your other option is to sit here, watch people be slaughtered and tell yourselves that you don’t work for free. If By Grace and Banners Fallen you’re lucky, and the rest of us salvage this world without you, you’ll draw breath long enough to be strung up by your cowardly necks.”
Silence. Horns blew from the darkness behind.
The chief sell-sword looked toward his companions. They nodded in agreement.
“Go help hold that gate,” Talmanes said, turning his horse. “I’ll recruit the other mercenary bands to help.”
* * *
Leilwin surveyed the multitude of camps dotting the place known as the Field of Merrilor. In the night, with those clouds overhead obscuring moon and stars, she could almost imagine that the cook fires By Grace and Banners Fallen were shipborne lanterns in a busy port at night.
That was probably a sight she would never see again. Leilwin Shipless was not a captain; she would never be one again. To wish otherwise was to defy the very nature of who she had become.
Bayle put a hand on her shoulder. Thick fingers, rough from many days of work. She reached up and rested her hand on his. It had been simple to slip through one of those gateways being made at Tar Valon. Bayle knew his way around the city, though he had grumbled about being By Grace and Banners Fallen there. “This place do set the hairs on my arms to points,” he’d said, and, “I did wish to never walk these streets again. I did wish it.”
He’d come with her anyway. A good man, Bayle Domon. As good as she’d found in these unfamiliar lands, despite moments of unsavory trading in his past. That was behind him. If he didn’t understand the right way of things, he did try.
“This do be a sight,” he said, scanning the quiet sea of lights. “What want you to do now?”
“We find Nynaeve al’Meara By Grace and Banners Fallen or Elayne Trakand.”
Bayle scratched at his bearded chin; he wore it after the Illianer style, with the upper lip shaved. The hair on his head was of varying lengths; he’d stopped shaving a portion of his head, now that she had freed him. She’d done that so they could marry, of course.
It was well; the shaven head would have drawn attention here. He’d done quite well as so’jhin once certain…issues had been resolved. In the end, however, she had to admit that Bayle Domon was not meant to be so’jhin. He was By Grace and Banners Fallen too rough-cut, and no tide would ever soften those sharp edges. That was how she wanted him, though she’d never say so out loud.
“It do be late, Leilwin,” he said. “Perhaps we should wait until morning.”
No. There was a quiet to the camps, true, but it was not the quiet of slumber. It was the quiet of ships waiting for the right winds.
She knew little of what was happening here—she hadn’t dared open her mouth in Tar Valon to ask questions, lest her accent reveal her as Seanchan. A gathering of By Grace and Banners Fallen this size did not occur without dedicated planning. She was surprised at the immensity of it; she’d heard of the meeting here, one that most of the Aes Sedai had come to attend. This exceeded anything she’d anticipated.
She started across the field, and Bayle followed, both of them joining the group of Tar Valon servants they had been allowed to accompany, thanks to Bayle’s bribe. His methods did not please her, but she had been able to think of no other way. She tried not to think too much about his original contacts in Tar By Grace and Banners Fallen Valon. Well, if she was never to be on a ship again, then Bayle would find no more opportunities for smuggling. That was a small comfort.
You’re a ship’s captain. That’s all you know, all you want. And now, Shipless. She shivered, and clenched her hands into fists to keep from wrapping her arms around herself. To spend the rest of her days on these unchanging lands, never able to move at a pace brisker than what a horse could provide, never to smell the deep-sea air, never to point her prow toward a horizon, hoist anchor By Grace and Banners Fallen, set sail and simply…
She shook herself. Find Nynaeve and Elayne. She might be Shipless, but she would not let herself slip into the depths and drown. She set her course and started walking. Bayle hunched down slightly, suspicious, and tried to watch all around them at once. He also glanced at her a few times, lips drawn to a line. She knew what that meant, by now.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Leilwin, what do we be doing here?”
“I’ve told you. We need to find—”
“Yes, but why? What do you think you will By Grace and Banners Fallen do? They do be Aes Sedai.”
“They showed me respect before.”
“And so you do think they’ll take us in?”
“Perhaps.” She eyed him. “Speak it, Bayle. You have something on your mind.”
He sighed. “Why do we need be taken in, Leilwin? We could find ourselves a ship somewhere, in Arad Doman. Where there do be no Aes Sedai or Seanchan.”
“I wouldn’t run the kind of ship you prefer.”
He regarded her flatly. “I do know how to run an honest business, Leilwin. It would no be—”
She raised a hand, quieting him, then rested it on By Grace and Banners Fallen his shoulder. They stopped on the pathway. “I know, my love. I know. I’m speaking words to distract, to set us spinning in a current that goes nowhere.”
That single word scratched at her like a splinter under a fingernail. Why? Why had she come all this way, traveling with Matrim Cauthon, putting herself dangerously near the Daughter of the Nine Moons? “My people live with a grave misconception of the world, Bayle. In doing so, they create injustice.”
“They did reject you, Leilwin,” he said softly. “You do no longer be one of them.”
“I will By Grace and Banners Fallen always be one of them. My name was revoked, but not my blood.”
“I do be sorry for the insult.”
She nodded curtly. “I am still loyal to the Empress, may she live forever. But the damane…they are the very foundation for her rule. They are the means by which she creates order, by which she holds the Empire together. And the damane are a lie.”
Sul’dam could channel. The talent could be learned. Now, months after she had discovered the truth, her mind could not encompass all of the implications. Another might have been more interested By Grace and Banners Fallen in the political advantage; another might have returned to Seanchan and used this to gain power. Almost, Leilwin wished she had done that. Almost.
But the pleas of the sul’dam…growing to know those Aes Sedai, who were nothing like what she’d been taught…
Something had to be done. And yet, in doing it, did she risk causing the entire Empire to collapse? Her movements must be considered very, very carefully, like the last rounds of a game of shal.
The two continued to follow the line of servants in the dark; one Aes Sedai or another By Grace and Banners Fallen often sent servants for something they’d left in the White Tower, so traveling back and forth was common—a good thing for Leilwin. They passed the perimeter of the Aes Sedai camp without being challenged.
She was surprised at the ease of it until she spotted several men alongside the path. They were very easy to miss; something about them blended into the surroundings, particularly in the darkness. She noticed them only when one moved, breaking off from the others to fall into step a short distance behind her and Bayle.
In seconds, it was obvious By Grace and Banners Fallen that he’d picked the two of them out. Perhaps it was the way they walked, the way they held themselves. They’d been careful to dress plainly, though Bayle’s beard would mark him as Illianer.
Leilwin stopped—laying a hand on Bayle’s arm—and turned to confront the one following them. A Warder, she assumed from descriptions.
The Warder stalked up to them. They were still near the perimeter of the camp, the tents organized in rings. She had noticed with discomfort that some of the tents glowed with a light too steady to come from By Grace and Banners Fallen candle or lamp.
“Ho,” Bayle said, raising a friendly hand to the Warder. “We do be seeking an Aes Sedai named Nynaeve al’Meara. If she is not here, perhaps one named Elayne Trakand?”
“Neither makes their camp here,” the Warder said. He was a long-armed man, and he moved with grace. His features, framed by long, dark hair, looked…unfinished. Chiseled from rock by a sculptor who had lost interest in the project partway through.
“Ah,” Bayle said. “That do be our mistake, then. Could you point us to where they do be making camp? It do be a matter By Grace and Banners Fallen of some urgency, you see.” He spoke smoothly, easily. Bayle could be quite charming, when necessary. Much more so than Leilwin could.
“That depends,” the Warder said. “Your companion, she wishes to find these Aes Sedai too?”
“She do—” Bayle began, but the Warder held up a hand.
“I would hear it from her,” he said, inspecting Leilwin.
“It do be what I wish,” Leilwin said. “My aged grandmother! These women, they did promise us payment, and I do mean to have it. Aes Sedai do not lie. Everyone do know this fact. If you will By Grace and Banners Fallen not take us to them, then provide someone who will!”
The Warder hesitated, eyes widening at the barrage of words. Then, blessedly, he nodded. “This way.” He led them away from the center of the camp, but he no longer seemed suspicious.
Leilwin let out a quiet breath and fell into step with Bayle behind the Warder. Bayle looked at her proudly, grinning so widely he’d certainly have given the two of them away if the Warder had turned. She couldn’t help a hint of a smile herself.
The Illianer accent had not come naturally to her, but By Grace and Banners Fallen both had agreed that her Seanchan tongue was dangerous, particularly when traveling among Aes Sedai. Bayle claimed that no true Illianer would accept her as one of them, but she was clearly good enough to fool an outsider.
She felt relieved when they moved away from the Aes Sedai camp into the dark. Having two friends—they were friends, despite their troubles with one another—who were Aes Sedai did not mean she wanted to be inside a camp full of them. The Warder led them to an open area near the middle of the Field of Merrilor. There was By Grace and Banners Fallen a very large camp here, with a great number of small tents.
“Aiel,” Bayle said softly to her. “There do be tens of thousands of them.”
Interesting. Fearsome stories were told of Aiel, legends that could not all possibly be true. Still, the tales—if exaggerated—suggested that these were the finest warriors this side of the ocean. She would have welcomed sparring with one or two of them, had the situation been different. She rested a hand on the side of her pack; she’d stowed her cudgel in a long pocket on the side, easily within reach.
They By Grace and Banners Fallen certainly were a tall folk, these Aiel. She passed some of them lounging by campfires, seemingly relaxed. Those eyes, however, watched more keenly than the Warders’ had. A dangerous people, ready for killing while relaxing beside fires. She could not make out the banners that flapped above this camp in the night sky.
“Which king or queen do rule this camp, Warder?” she called.
The man turned to her, his features lost in the night shadow. “Your king, Illianer.”
At her side, Bayle stiffened.
The Dragon Reborn. She was proud that she didn’t miss By Grace and Banners Fallen a step as they walked, but it was a near thing. A man who could channel. That was worse, far worse, than the Aes Sedai.
The Warder led them to a tent near the center of the camp. “You are fortunate; her light is on.” There were no guards at the tent entrance, so he called in and received permission to enter. He pulled back the flap with one arm and nodded to them, yet his other hand was on his sword, and he stood in fighting posture.
She hated putting that sword to her back, but she entered as ordered By Grace and Banners Fallen. The tent was lit by one of those unnatural globes of light, and a familiar woman in a green dress sat at a writing desk, working on a letter. Nynaeve al’Meara was what, back in Seanchan, one would call a telarti—a woman with fire in her soul. Leilwin had come to understand that Aes Sedai were supposed to be calm as placid waters. Well, this woman might be that on occasion—but she was the kind of placid water found one bend away from a furious waterfall.
Nynaeve continued to write as they entered. She no longer wore By Grace and Banners Fallen a braid; her hair was loose around the top of her shoulders. It was a sight as strange as a ship with no mast.
“I’ll be with you in a moment, Sleete,” Nynaeve said. “Honestly, the way you lot have been hovering over me lately makes me think of a mother bird who has lost an egg. Don’t your Aes Sedai have work for you to do?”
“Lan is important to many of us, Nynaeve Sedai,” the Warder—Sleete—said in a calm, gravelly voice.
“Oh, and he’s not important to me? Honestly, I By Grace and Banners Fallen wonder if we should send you out to chop wood or something. If one more Warder comes to see if I need—”
She glanced up, finally seeing Leilwin. Nynaeve’s face immediately grew impassive. Cold. Burningly cold. Leilwin found herself sweating. This woman held her life in her hands. Why couldn’t it have been Elayne that Sleete had brought them to? Perhaps they shouldn’t have mentioned Nynaeve.
“These two demanded to see you,” Sleete said. His sword was out of its sheath. Leilwin hadn’t seen that. Domon muttered softly to himself. “They claim that you promised By Grace and Banners Fallen to pay them money, and they have come for it. They did not identify themselves in the Tower, however, and found a way to slip through one of the gateways. The man is from Illian. The woman, somewhere else. She’s disguising her accent.”
Well, perhaps she wasn’t as good with the accent as she’d assumed. Leilwin glanced at his sword. If she rolled to the side, he’d probably miss a strike, assuming he went for the chest or neck. She could pull the cudgel and—
She was facing an Aes Sedai. She’d never stand up By Grace and Banners Fallen from that roll. She’d be caught in a weave of the One Power, or worse. She turned to look at Nynaeve.
“I know them, Sleete,” Nynaeve said, voice cool. “You did well in bringing them to me. Thank you.”
His sword was sheathed at once, and Leilwin felt cool air on her neck as he slipped out of the tent, quiet as a whisper.
“If you’ve come to beg forgiveness,” Nynaeve said, “you’ve come to the wrong person. I’ve half a mind to give you over to the Warders to question. Maybe they By Grace and Banners Fallen can bleed something useful about your people from that treacherous mind of yours.”
“It is good to see you again too, Nynaeve,” Leilwin said coolly.
“So what happened?” Nynaeve demanded.
What happened? What was the woman talking about?
“I did try,” Bayle suddenly said, regretfully. “I did fight them, but I was taken easily. They could have fired my ship, sunk us all, killed my men.”
“Better that you and all aboard should have died, Illianer,” Nynaeve said. “The ter’angreal ended up in the hands of one of the Forsaken; Semirhage was hiding among the Seanchan, pretending to be By Grace and Banners Fallen some kind of judge. A Truthspeaker? Is that the word?”
“Yes,” Leilwin said softly. She understood now. “I regret breaking my oath, but—”
“You regret it, Egeanin?” Nynaeve said, standing, knocking her chair back. “‘Regret’ is not a word I would use for endangering the world itself, bringing us to the brink of darkness and all but shoving us over the edge! She had copies of that device made, woman. One ended up around the neck of the Dragon Reborn. The Dragon Reborn himself, controlled by one of the Forsaken!”
Nynaeve flung her hands into the air. “Light! We were heartbeats By Grace and Banners Fallen from the end, because of you. The end of everything. No more Pattern, no more world, nothing. Millions of lives could have winked out because of your carelessness.”
“I…” Leilwin’s failures seemed monumental, suddenly. Her life, lost. Her very name, lost. Her ship, stripped from her by the Daughter of the Nine Moons herself. All were immaterial in light of this.
“I did fight,” Bayle said more firmly. “I did fight with what I could give.”
“I should have joined you, it appears,” Leilwin said.
“I did try to explain that,” Bayle said grimly. “Many times By Grace and Banners Fallen now, burn me, but I did.”
“Bah,” Nynaeve said, raising a hand to her forehead. “What are you doing here, Egeanin? I had hoped you were dead. If you had died trying to keep your oath, then I could not have blamed you.”
I handed it to Suroth myself, Leilwin thought. A price paid for my life, the only way out.
“Well?” Nynaeve glared at her. “Out with it, Egeanin.”
“I no longer bear that name.” Leilwin went down on her knees. “I have had all stripped from me, including my honor, it now appears. I give myself to you as By Grace and Banners Fallen payment.”
Nynaeve snorted. “We don’t keep people as if they were animals, unlike you Seanchan.”
Leilwin continued kneeling. Bayle rested a hand on her shoulder, but did not try to pull her to her feet. He understood well enough now why she had to do as she had. He was quite nearly civilized.
“On your feet,” Nynaeve snapped. “Light, Egeanin. I remember you being so strong you could chew rocks and spit out sand.”
“It is my strength that compels me,” she said, lowering her eyes. Did Nynaeve not understand how difficult this was? It would be easier By Grace and Banners Fallen to slit her own throat, only she had not the honor left to demand such an easy end.
Leilwin did as told.
Nynaeve grabbed her cloak off the bed and threw it on. “Come. We’ll take you to the Amyrlin. Maybe she’ll know what to do with you.”
Nynaeve barged out into the night, and Leilwin followed. Her decision had been made. There was only one path that made sense, one way to preserve a shred of honor, and perhaps to help her people survive the lies they had been telling themselves for so long By Grace and Banners Fallen.
Leilwin Shipless now belonged to the White Tower. Whatever they said, whatever they tried to do with her, that fact would not change. They owned her. She would be a da’covale to this Amyrlin, and would ride this storm like a ship whose sail had been shredded by the wind.
Perhaps, with what remained of her honor, she could earn this woman’s trust.
* * *
“It’s part of an old Borderlander relief for the pain,” Melten said, removing the bandage at Talmanes’ side. “The blisterleaf slows the taint left by the cursed metal.”
Melten was a lean By Grace and Banners Fallen, mop-haired man. He dressed like an Andoran woodsman, with a simple shirt and cloak, but spoke like a Borderlander. In his pouch he carried a set of colored balls that he’d sometimes juggle for the other members of the Band. In another life, he must have been a gleeman.
He was an unlikely man to be in the Band, but they all were, in one way or another.
“I don’t know how it dampens the poison,” Melten said. “But it does. It’s no natural poison, mind you. You can’t suck it free.”
Talmanes pressed his hand By Grace and Banners Fallen to the side. The burning pain felt like thorny vines crawling in under his skin, creeping forward and tearing at his flesh with every movement. He could feel the poison moving through his body. Light, but it hurt.
Nearby, the men of the Band fought through Caemlyn up toward the palace. They’d come in through the southern gate, leaving the mercenary bands—under Sandip’s command—holding the western gate.
If there was human resistance anywhere in the city, it would be at the Palace. Unfortunately, fists of Trollocs roved the area between Talmanes’ position and the Palace By Grace and Banners Fallen. They kept running across the monsters and getting drawn into fights.
Talmanes couldn’t find out if, indeed, there was resistance above without getting there. That meant leading his men up toward the Palace, fighting all the way, and leaving himself open to being cut off from behind if one of those roving groups worked around behind him. There was nothing for it, though. He needed to find out what—if anything—remained of the Palace defenses. From there, he could strike further into the city and try to get the dragons.
The air smelled of smoke and blood By Grace and Banners Fallen; during a brief pause in the fighting, they’d piled dead Trollocs against the right side of the street to make room for passage.
There were refugees in this quarter of the city too, though not a flood of them. A stream, maybe, seeping in from the darkness as Talmanes and the Band seized sections of the thoroughfare leading up toward the Palace. These refugees never demanded that the Band protect their goods or rescue their homes; they sobbed with joy at finding human resistance. Madwin was in charge of sending them toward freedom along the corridor of By Grace and Banners Fallen safety the Band had carved free.
Talmanes turned up toward the Palace, atop the hill but only barely visible in the night. Though most of the city burned, the Palace was not aflame; its white walls hung in the smoky night like phantoms. No fire. That had to indicate resistance, didn’t it? Wouldn’t the Trollocs have attacked it as one of their first actions in the city?
He’d sent scouts along the street up ahead as he gave his men—and himself—a short breather.