Legends 3

Legends 3

Legends 3 3

  That name snapped Lan’s head back to the man across the table. “Why should I be near the Lady Arrel?” he demanded softly. Softly, but emphasizing her proper title.

  “Easy, man,” Ryne said. “I didn’t mean…” Wisely, he abandoned that line. “Burn me, do you mean to say you haven’t heard? She’s raised the Golden Crane. In your name, of course. Since the year turned, she’s been from Fal Moran to Maradon, and coming back now.” Ryne shook his head, the bells in his braids chiming faintly. “There must be two or three hundred men right here in Canluum ready to follow her. You, I mean. Some you’d not believe. Old Kurenin wept when he heard her speak. All ready to carve Malkier out of the Blight again.”

  “What dies in the Blight is gone,” Lan said wearily. He felt more than cold inside. Suddenly Seroku’s surprise that he intended to ride north took on new meaning, and the young guard’s assertion that he stood ready. Even the looks here in the common room seemed different. And Edeyn was part of it. Always she liked standing in the heart of the storm. “I must see to my horse,” he told Ryne, scraping his bench back.

  Ryne said something about making a round of the taverns that night, but Lan hardly heard. He hurried through the kitchens, hot from iron stoves and stone ovens and open hearths, into the cool of the stableyard, the mingled smells of horse and hay and woodsmoke. A graylark warbled on the edge of the stable roof. Graylarks came even before robins in the spring. Graylarks had been singing in Fal Moran when Edeyn first whispered in his ear.

  The horses had already been stabled, bridles and saddles and packsaddle atop saddle blankets on the stall doors, but the wicker hampers were gone. Plainly Mistress Arovni had sent word to the ostlers that he and Bukama were being given accommodation.

  There was only a single groom in the dim stable, a lean, hard-faced woman mucking out. Silently she watched him check Cat Dancer and the other horses as she worked, watched him begin to pace the length of the straw-covered floor. He tried to think, but Edeyn’s name kept spinning though his head. Edeyn’s face, surrounded by silky black hair that hung below her waist, a beautiful face with large dark eyes that could drink a man’s soul even when filled with command.

  After a bit the groom mumbled something in his direction, touching her lips and forehead, and hurriedly shoved her half-filled barrow out of the stable, glancing over her shoulder at him. She paused to shut the doors, and did that hurriedly, too, sealing him in shadow broken only by a little light from open hay doors in the loft. Dust motes danced in the pale golden shafts.

  Lan grimaced. Was she that afraid of a man wearing the hadori? Did she think his pacing a threat? Abruptly he became aware of his hands running over the long hilt of his sword, aware of the tightness in his own face. Pacing? No, he had been in the walking stance called Leopard in High Grass, used when there were enemies on all sides. He needed calm.

  Seating himself cross-legged on a bale of straw, he formed the image of a flame in his mind and fed emotion into it, hate, fear, everything, every scrap, until it seemed that he floated in emptiness. After years of practice, achieving ko’di, the oneness, needed less than a heartbeat. Thought and even his own body seemed distant, but in this state he was more aware than usual, becoming one with the bale beneath him, the stable, the scabbarded sword folded behind him. He could “feel” the horses, cropping at their mangers, and flies buzzing in the corners. They were all part of him. Especially the sword. This time, though, it was only the emotionless void that he sought.

  From his belt pouch he took a heavy gold signet ring worked with a flying crane and turned it over and over in his fingers. The ring of Malkieri kings, worn by men who had held back the Shadow nine hundred years and more. Countless times it had been remade as time wore it down, always the old ring melted to become part of the new. Some particle might still exist in it of the ring worn by the rulers of Rhamdashar, that had lived before Malkier, and Aramaelle that had been before Rhamdashar. That piece of metal represented over three thousand years fighting the Blight. It had been his almost as long as he had lived, but he had never worn it. Even looking at the ring was a labor, usually. One he disciplined himself to every day. Without the emptiness, he did not think he could have done so today. In ko’di, thought floated free, and emotion lay beyond the horizon.

  In his cradle he had been given four gifts. The ring in his hands and the locket that hung around his neck, the sword on his hip and an oath sworn in his name. The locket was the most precious, the oath the heaviest. “To stand against the Shadow so long as iron is hard and stone abides. To defend the Malkieri while one drop of blood remains. To avenge what cannot be defended.” And then he had been anointed with oil and named Dai Shan, consecrated as the next King of Malkier, and sent away from a land that knew it would die. Twenty men began that journey; five survived to reach Shienar.

  Nothing remained to be defended now, only a nation to avenge, and he had been trained to that from his first step. With his mother’s gift at his throat and his father’s sword in his hand, with the ring branded on his heart, he had fought to avenge Malkier from his sixteenth nameday. But never had he led men into the Blight. Bukama had ridden with him, and others, but he would not lead men there. That war was his alone. The dead could not be returned to life, a land any more than a man. Only, now, Edeyn Arrel wanted to try.

  Her name echoed in the emptiness within him. A hundred emotions loomed like stark mountains, but he fed them into the flame until all was still. Until his heart beat time with the slow stamping of the stalled horses, and the flies’ wings beat rapid counterpoint to his breath. She was his carneira, his first lover. A thousand years of tradition shouted that, despite the stillness that enveloped him.

  He had been fifteen, Edeyn more than twice that, when she gathered the hair that had still hung to his waist in her hands and whispered her intentions. Women had still called him beautiful then, enjoying his blushes, and for half a year she had enjoyed parading him on her arm and tucking him into her bed. Until Bukama and the other men gave him the hadori. The gift of his sword on his tenth nameday had made him a man by custom along the Border, though years early for it, yet among Malkieri, that band of braided leather had been more important. Once that was tied around his head, he alone decided where he went, and when, and why. And the dark song of the Blight had become a howl that drowned every other sound. The oath that had murmured so long in his heart became a dance his feet had to follow.

  Almost ten years past now that Edeyn had watched him ride away from Fal Moran, and been gone when he returned, yet he still could recall her face more clearly than that of any woman who had shared his bed since. He was no longer a boy, to think that she loved him just because she had chosen to become his first lover, yet there was an old saying among Malkieri men. Your carneira wears part of your soul as a ribbon in her hair forever. Custom strong as law made it so.

  One of the stable doors creaked open to admit Bukama, coatless, shirt tucked raggedly into his breeches. He looked naked without his sword. As if hesitant, he carefully opened both doors wide before coming all the way in. “What are you going to do?” he said finally. “Racelle told me about … about the Golden Crane.”

  Lan tucked the ring away, letting emptiness drain from him. Edeyn’s face suddenly seemed everywhere, just beyond the edge of sight. “Ryne says even Nazar Kurenin is ready to follow,” he said lightly. “Wouldn’t that be a sight to see?” An army could die trying to defeat the Blight. Armies had died trying. But the memories of Malkier already were dying. A nation was memory as much as land. “That boy at the gates might let his hair grow and ask his father for the hadori.” People were forgetting, trying to forget. When the last man who bound his hair was gone, the last woman who painted her forehead, would Malkier truly be gone, too? “Why, Ryne might even get rid of those braids.” Any trace of mirth dropped from his voice as he added, “But is it worth the cost? Some seem to think so.” Bukama snorted, yet there had been a pause. He might be one of those who did.

to the stall that held Sun Lance, the older man began to fiddle with his roan’s saddle as though suddenly forgetting why he had moved. “There’s always a cost for anything,” he said, not looking up. “But there are costs, and costs. The Lady Edeyn…” He glanced at Lan, then turned to face him. “She was always one to demand every right and require the smallest obligation be met. Custom ties strings to you, and whatever you choose, she will use them like a set of reins unless you find a way to avoid it.”

  Carefully Lan tucked his thumbs behind his sword belt. Bukama had carried him out of Malkier tied to his back. The last of the five. Bukama had the right of a free tongue even when it touched Lan’s carneira. “How do you suggest I avoid my obligations without shame?” he asked more harshly than he had intended. Taking a deep breath, he went on in a milder tone. “Come; the common room smells much better than this. Ryne suggested a round of the taverns tonight. Unless Mistress Arovni has claims on you. Oh, yes. How much will our rooms cost? Good rooms? Not too dear, I hope.”

  Bukama joined him on the way to the doors, his face going red. “Not too dear,” he said hastily. “You have a pallet in the attic, and I … ah … I’m in Racelle’s rooms. I’d like to make a round, but I think Racelle.… I don’t think she means to let me.… I.… Young whelp!” he growled. “There’s a lass named Lira in there who’s letting it be known you won’t be using that pallet tonight, or getting much sleep, so don’t think you can—!” He cut off as they walked into the sunlight, bright after the dimness inside. The graylark still sang of spring.

  Six men were striding across the otherwise empty yard. Six ordinary men with swords at their belts, like any men on any street in the city. Yet Lan knew before their hands moved, before their eyes focused on him and their steps quickened. He had faced too many men who wanted to kill him not to know. And at his side stood Bukama, bound by oaths that would not let him raise a hand even had he been wearing his blade. If they both tried to get back inside the stable, the men would be on them before they could haul the doors shut. Time slowed, flowed like cool honey.

  “Inside and bar the doors!” Lan snapped as his hand went to his hilt. “Obey me, armsman!”

  Never in his life had he given Bukama a command in that fashion, and the man hesitated a heartbeat, then bowed formally. “My life is yours, Dai Shan,” he said in a thick voice. “I obey.”

  As Lan moved forward to meet his attackers, he heard the bar drop inside with a muffled thud. Relief was distant. He floated in ko’di, one with the sword that came smoothly out of its scabbard. One with the men rushing at him, boots thudding on the hard-packed ground as they bared steel.

  A lean heron of a fellow darted ahead of the others, and Lan danced the forms. Time like cool honey. The graylark sang, and the lean man shrieked as Cutting the Clouds removed his right hand at the wrist, and Lan flowed to one side so the rest could not all come at him together, flowed from form to form. Soft Rain at Sunset laid open a fat man’s face and took his left eye, and a ginger-haired young splinter drew a gash across Lan’s ribs with Black Pebbles on Snow. Only in stories did one man face six without injury. The Rose Unfolds sliced down a bald man’s left arm, and ginger-hair nicked the corner of Lan’s eye. Only in stories did one man face six and survive. He had known that from the start. Duty was a mountain, death a feather, and his duty was to Bukama, who had carried an infant on his back. For this moment he lived, though, so he fought, kicking ginger-hair in the head, dancing his way toward death, danced and took wounds, bled and danced the razor’s edge of life. Time like cool honey, flowing from form to form, and there could only be one ending. Thought was distant. Death was a feather. Dandelion in the Wind slashed open the now one-eyed fat man’s throat—he had barely paused when his face was ruined—and a fork-bearded fellow with shoulders like a blacksmith gasped in surprise as Kissing the Adder put Lan’s steel through his heart.

  And suddenly Lan realized that he alone stood, with six men sprawled across the width of the stableyard. The ginger-haired youth thrashed his heels on the ground one last time, and then only Lan of the seven still breathed. He shook blood from his blade, bent to wipe the last drops off on the blacksmith’s too-fine coat, sheathed his sword as formally as if he were in the training yard under Bukama’s eye.

  Abruptly people flooded out of the inn, cooks and stablemen, maids and patrons shouting to know what all the noise was about, staring at the dead men in astonishment. Ryne was the very first, sword already in hand, his face blank as he came to stand by Lan. “Six,” he muttered, studying the bodies. “You really do have the Dark One’s own flaming luck.”

  Dark-eyed Lira reached Lan only moments before Bukama, the pair of them gently parting slashes in his clothes to examine his injuries. She shivered delicately as each was revealed, but she discussed whether an Aes Sedai should be sent for to give Healing and how much stitching was needed in as calm a tone as Bukama, and disparagingly dismissed his hand on the needle in favor of her own. Mistress Arovni stalked about, holding her skirts up out of patches of bloody mud, glaring at the corpses littering her stableyard, complaining in a loud voice that gangs of footpads would never be wandering in daylight if the Watch was doing its job. The Domani woman who had stared at Lan inside agreed just as loudly, and for her pains received a sharp command from the innkeeper to fetch them, along with a shove to start her on her way. It was a measure of Mistress Arovni’s shock that she treated one of her patrons so, a measure of everyone’s shock that the Domani woman went running without complaint. The innkeeper began organizing men to drag the bodies out of sight, still going on about footpads.

  Ryne looked from Bukama to the stable as though he did not understand—perhaps he did not, at that—but what he said was, “Not footpads, I think.” He pointed to the fellow who looked like a blacksmith. “That one listened to Edeyn Arrel when she was here, and he liked what he heard. One of the others did, too, I think.” Bells chimed as he shook his head. “It’s peculiar. The first she said of raising the Golden Crane was after we heard you were dead outside the Shining Walls. Your name brings men, but with you dead, she could be el’Edeyn.” He spread his hands at the looks Lan and Bukama shot him. “I make no accusations,” he said hastily. “I’d never accuse the Lady Edeyn of any such thing. I’m sure she is full of all a woman’s tender mercy.” Mistress Arovni gave a grunt like a fist, and Lira murmured half under her breath that the pretty Arafellin did not know much about women.

  Lan shook his head. Edeyn might decide to have him killed if it suited her purposes, she might have left orders here and there in case the rumors about him proved false, but if she had, that was still no reason to speak her name in connection with this, especially in front of strangers.

  Bukama’s hands stilled, holding open a slash down Lan’s sleeve. “Where do we go from here?” he asked quietly.

  “Chachin,” Lan said after a moment. There was always a choice, but sometimes every choice was grim. “You’ll have to leave Sun Lance. I mean to depart at first light tomorrow.” His gold would stretch to a new mount for the man.

  “Six!” Ryne growled, sheathing his sword with considerable force. “I think I’ll ride with you. I’d as soon not go back to Shol Arbela until I’m sure Ceiline Noreman doesn’t lay her husband’s death at my boots. And it will be good to see the Golden Crane flying again.”

  Lan nodded. To put his hand on the banner and abandon what he had promised himself all those years ago, or to stop her, if he could. Either way, he had to face Edeyn. The Blight would have been much easier.

  * * *

  Chasing after prophecy, Moiraine had decided by the end of the first month, involved very little adventure and a great deal of saddlesoreness and frustration. The Three Oaths still made her skin feel too tight. The wind rattled the shutters, and she shifted on the hard wooden chair, hiding impatience behind a sip of honeyless tea. In Kandor, comforts were kept to a minimum in a house of mourning. She would not have been overly surprised to see frost on the leaf-carved furniture or
the metal clock above the cold hearth.

  “It was all so strange, my Lady,” Mistress Najima sighed, and for the tenth time hugged her daughters. Perhaps thirteen or fourteen, standing close to their mother’s chair, Colar and Eselle had her long black hair and large blue eyes still full of loss. Their mother’s eyes seemed big, too, in a face shrunken by tragedy, and her plain gray dress appeared made for a larger woman. “Josef was always careful with lanterns in the stable,” she went on, “and he never allowed any kind of open flame. The boys must have carried little Jerid out to see their father at his work, and…” Another hollow sigh. “They were all trapped. How could the whole stable be ablaze so fast? It makes no sense.”

  “Little is ever senseless,” Moiraine said soothingly, setting her cup on the small table at her elbow. She felt sympathy, but the woman had begun repeating herself. “We cannot always see the reason, yet we can take some comfort in knowing there is one. The Wheel of Time weaves us into the Pattern as it wills, but the Pattern is the work of the Light.”

  Hearing herself, she suppressed a wince. Those words required dignity and weight her youth failed to supply. If only time could pass faster. At least for the next five years or so. Five years should give her her full strength and provide all the dignity and weight she would ever need. But then, the agelessness that came after working long enough with the One Power would only have made her present task more difficult. The last thing she could afford was anyone connecting an Aes Sedai to her visits.

  “As you say, my Lady,” the other woman murmured politely, though an unguarded shift of pale eyes spoke her thoughts. This outlander was a foolish child. The small blue stone of a kesiera dangling from a fine golden chain onto Moiraine’s forehead and a dark green dress with six slashes of color across the breast, far fewer than she was entitled to, made Mistress Najima think her merely a Cairhienin noblewoman, one of many wandering since the Aiel ruined Cairhien. A noblewoman of a minor House, named Alys not Moiraine, making sympathy calls in mourning for her own king, killed by the Aiel. The fiction was easy to maintain, though she did not mourn her uncle in the least.