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Legends 3 6
Forcing her face to smoothness, forcing her voice to calm, she forced the words out. “The Black Ajah.” Siuan flinched, then nodded, glowering.
Any sister grew angry at the suggestion there was a secret Ajah hidden inside the others, dedicated to the Dark One. Most sisters refused to listen. The White Tower had stood for the Light for over three thousand years. But some sisters did not deny the Black straight out. Some believed. Very few would admit it even to another sister, though. Moiraine did not want to admit it to herself.
Siuan plucked at the ties on her bundle, but she went on in a brisk voice. “I don’t think they have our names—Tamra never really thought us part of it—else I’d have had an ‘accident,’ too. Just before I left, I slipped a note with my suspicions under Sierin’s door. Only, I didn’t know how much to trust her. The Amyrlin Seat! I wrote with my left hand, but I was shaking so hard, no one could recognize my writing if I’d used my right. Burn my liver! Even if we knew who to trust, we have bilge water for proof.”
“Enough for me. If they know everything, all the women Tamra chose, there may be none left except us. We will have to move fast if we have a hope of finding the boy first.” Moiraine tried for a vigorous tone, too. It was gratifying that Siuan only nodded. She would not give up for all her talk of shaking, and she never considered that Moiraine might. Most gratifying. “Perhaps they know us, and perhaps not. Perhaps they think they can leave two new sisters for last. In any case, we cannot trust anyone but ourselves.” Blood drained from her face. “Oh, Light! I just had an encounter at the inn, Siuan.”
She tried to recall every word, every nuance, from the moment Merean first spoke. Siuan listened with a distant look, filing and sorting. “Cadsuane could be one of Tamra’s chosen,” she agreed when Moiraine finished. “Or she could be Black Ajah.” She barely hesitated over the words. “Maybe she’s just trying to get you out of the way until she can dispose of you without rousing suspicion. The trouble is, any of them could be either.” Leaning across her bundle, she touched Moiraine’s knee. “Can you bring your horse from the stable without being seen? I have a good mount, but I don’t know if she can carry both of us. We should be hours from here before they know we’re gone.”
Moiraine smiled in spite of herself. She very much doubted the good mount. Her friend’s eye for horseflesh was no better than her seat in the saddle, and sometimes Siuan fell off nearly before the animal moved. The ride north must have been agony. And full of fear. “No one knows you are here at all, Siuan,” she said. “Best if it stays so. You have your book? Good. If I remain until morning, I will have a day’s start on them instead of hours. You go on to Chachin now. Take some of my coin.” By the state of Siuan’s dress, she had spent the last part of that trip sleeping under bushes. A fisherman’s daughter had no estates to provide gold. “Start looking for the Lady Ines, and I will catch you up there.”
It was not that easy, of course. Siuan had a stubborn streak as wide as the Erinin. Quite aside from that, as novice and Accepted it had been the fisherman’s daughter who led, not the king’s niece, something that had startled Moiraine at first, until she realized that it felt natural somehow. Siuan had been born to lead.
“I have enough for my needs,” she grumbled, but Moiraine insisted on handing her half the coins in her purse, and when Moiraine reminded her of their pledge during their first months in the Tower, that what one owned belonged to the other as well, she muttered, “We swore we’d find beautiful young princes to bond, too, and marry them besides, Girls say all sort of silly things. You watch after yourself, now. You leave me alone in this, and I’ll wring your neck.”
Embracing to say goodbye, Moiraine found it hard to let go. An hour ago, her worries had been whether she might be stuck away on a farm, or at worse birched. Now.… The Black Ajah. She wanted to empty her stomach. If only she had Siuan’s courage. Watching Siuan slip down the alley adjusting that bundle on her back again, Moiraine wished she were Green. Only Greens bonded more than one Warder, and she would have liked at least three or four to guard her back right then.
Walking back up the street, she could not help looking at everyone she passed, man or woman. If the Black Ajah—her stomach twisted every time she thought that name—if they were involved, then ordinary Darkfriends were, too. No one denied that some misguided people believed the Dark One would give them immortality, people who would kill and do every sort of evil to gain that hoped-for reward. And if any sister could be Black Ajah, anyone she met could be a Darkfriend. She hoped Siuan remembered that.
As she approached The Gates of Heaven, a sister appeared in the inn’s doorway. Part of a sister, at least; all she could see was an arm with a fringed shawl over it. A tall man who had just come out, his hair in two belled braids, turned back to speak for a moment, but the shawl-draped arm gestured peremptorily, and he strode past Moiraine wearing a scowl. She would not have thought twice of it if not for thinking about the Black Ajah and Darkfriends. The Light knew, Aes Sedai did speak to men, and some did more than speak. She had been thinking of Darkfriends, though. And Black sisters. If only she could have made out the color of that fringe. She hurried the last thirty-odd paces frowning.
Merean and Larelle were seated together by themselves near the door, both still wearing their shawls. Few sisters did that except for ceremony, or for show. Both women were watching Cadsuane go into that private sitting room, followed by a pair of gray-haired men who looked as hard as last year’s oak. She still wore her shawl, too, with the white Flame of Tar Valon bright on her back. It could have been any of them. Cadsuane might be looking for another Warder; Greens always seemed to be looking. Moiraine did not know whether Merean and Larelle had Warders. The fellow’s scowl might have been for hearing he did not measure up. There were a hundred possible explanations, and she put the man out of her head. The sure dangers were real enough without inventing more.
Before she was three steps into the common room, Master Helvin bustled up in a green-striped apron, a bald man nearly as wide as he was tall, and handed her a new irritation. With three more Aes Sedai stopping at his inn, he need to shuffle the beds, as he put it. The Lady Alys would not mind sharing hers, certainly, under the circumstances. Mistress Palan was a most pleasant woman.
Haesel Palan was a rug merchant from Murandy with the lilt of Lugard in her voice. Moiraine heard more of it than she wanted from the moment she stepped into the small room that had been hers alone. Her clothes had been moved from the wardrobe to pegs on the wall, her comb and brush displaced from the washstand for Mistress Palan’s. The plump woman might have been diffident with “Lady Alys,” but not with a wilder who everybody said was off in the morning to become a novice in the White Tower. She lectured Moiraine on the duties of a novice, all of it wrong. She followed Moiraine down to dinner and gathered other traders of her acquaintance at the table, every woman of them eager to share what she knew of the White Tower. Which was nothing at all. They shared it in great detail, though. Moiraine thought to escape by retiring early, but Mistress Palan appeared almost as soon as she had her dress off and talked until she dropped off to sleep.
It was not an easy night. The bed was narrow, the woman’s elbows sharp and her feet icy despite thick blankets that trapped the warmth of the small stove under the bed. The rainstorm that had threatened all day broke, wind and thunder rattling the shutters for hours. Moiraine doubted she could have slept in any event. Darkfriends and the Black Ajah danced in her head. She saw Tamra being dragged from her sleep, dragged away to somewhere secret and tortured by women wielding the Power. Sometimes the women wore Merean’s face, and Larelle’s, and Cadsuane’s, and every sister’s she had ever seen. Sometimes Tamra’s face became her own.
When the door creaked slowly open in the dark hours of morning, Moiraine embraced the Source in a flash. Saidar filled her to the point where the sweetness and joy came close to pain. Not as much of the Power as she would be able to handle in another year, much less five, yet a hair more would bur
n the ability out of her now, or kill her. One was as bad as the other, but she wanted to draw more, and not just because the Power always made you want more.
Cadsuane put her head in. Moiraine had forgotten her promise, her threat. Cadsuane saw the glow, of course, could feel how much she held. “Fool girl” was all the woman said before leaving.
Moiraine counted to one hundred slowly, then swung her feet out from under the covers. Now was as good a time as any. Mistress Palan heaved onto her side and began to snore. Channeling Fire, Moiraine lit one of the lamps and dressed hurriedly. A riding dress, this time. Reluctantly she decided to abandon her saddlebags along with everything else she had to leave behind. Anyone who saw her moving about might not think too much of it even this time of the morning, but not if she had saddlebags over her shoulder. All she took was what she could fit into the pockets sewn inside her cloak, little more than some spare stockings and a clean shift. Mistress Palan was still snoring as she closed the door behind her.
The skinny groom on night duty was startled to see her with the sky just beginning to turn gray, but a silver penny had him knuckling his forehead and saddling her bay mare. She regretted leaving her packhorse behind, but not even a fool noble—she heard the fellow mutter that—would take a pack animal for a morning jaunt. Climbing into Arrow’s high-cantled saddle, she gave the man a cool smile instead of the second penny he would have received without the comment, and rode slowly out into damp, empty streets. Just out for a ride, however early. It looked to be a good day. The sky looked rained out, for one thing, and there was little wind.
The lamps were still lit all along the streets and alleys, leaving no more than the palest shadow anywhere, yet the only people to be seen were the Night Watch’s patrols and the Lamplighters, heavily armed as they made their rounds to make sure no lamp went out. A wonder that people could live so close to the Blight that a Myrddraal could step out of any dark shadow. No one went out in the night, though. Not in the Borderlands.
Which was why she was surprised to see that she was not the first to reach the western gates. Slowing Arrow, she stayed well back from the three very large men waiting with a packhorse behind their mounts. Their attention was all on the barred gates, with now and again a word shared with the gate guards. They barely glanced at her. The lamps here showed their faces clearly. A grizzled old man and a hard-faced young one wearing braided leather cords tied around their heads. Malkieri? She thought that was what that meant. The third was an Arafellin with belled braids. The same fellow she had seen leaving The Gates of Heaven.
By the time the bright sliver of sunrise allowed the gates to be swung open, several merchants’ trains had lined up to depart. The three men were first through, but Moiraine let a train of a dozen wagons behind eight-horse teams rumble ahead of her before she followed across the bridge and onto the road through the hills. She kept the three in sight, though. They were heading in the same direction so far, after all.
They moved quickly, good riders who barely shifted a rein, but a trot-suited her. The more distance she put between herself and Cadsuane, the better. The merchants’ wagons fell back out of sight long before they reached the first village near midday, a small cluster of tile-roofed stone houses around a tiny inn on a forested hill slope. Moiraine paused long enough to ask whether anyone knew a woman named Avene Sahera. The answer was no, and she galloped on, not slowing until the three men appeared on the hard-packed road ahead, their horses still in that ground-eating pace. Maybe they knew nothing more than the name of the sister the Arafellin had spoken to, but anything at all she learned about Cadsuane or the other two would be to the good.
She formulated several plans for approaching them, and discarded each. Three men on a deserted forest road could well decide that a young woman alone was a good opportunity, especially if they were what she feared. Handling them presented no problem, if it came to it, but she wanted to avoid that. Woods gave way to scattered farms, and farms faded to more woods. A red-crested eagle soared overhead and became a shape against the descending sun.
As her shadow stretched out behind her, she decided to forget the men and find a place to sleep. With luck she might see more farms soon, and if a little silver did not bring a bed, a hayloft would have to do.
Ahead, the three men stopped, conferring for a moment; then one took the packhorse and turned aside into the forest. The others dug in their heels and galloped on.
Moiraine stared after them. The Arafellin was one of the pair rushing off, but if they were traveling together, maybe he had mentioned meeting an Aes Sedai to his companion. And one man would certainly be less trouble than three, if she was careful. Riding to where rider and packhorse had vanished, she dismounted.
Tracking was a thing most ladies left to their huntsmen, but she had taken an interest in the years when climbing trees and getting dirty had seemed equal fun. Broken twigs and kicked winter-fall leaves left a trail a child could have followed. A hundred paces or so into the forest, she spotted a pond in a hollow through the trees. The fellow had already unsaddled and hobbled his bay—a fine-looking animal—and was setting the packsaddle on the ground. It was the younger of the Malkieri. He looked even larger, this close. Unbuckling his sword belt, he sat down facing the pond, laid sword and belt beside him, and put his hands on his knees. He seemed to be staring off across the water, still glittering through the late-afternoon shadows. He did not move a muscle.
Moiraine considered. Plainly he had been left to make camp. The others would come back. A question or two would not take long, though. And if he was unnerved a little—say at finding a woman suddenly standing right behind him—he might answer before he thought. Tying Arrow’s reins to a low branch, she gathered her cloak and skirts and moved forward as silently as possible. A low hummock stood humped up behind him, and she stepped up onto that. Added height could help. He was a very tall man. And it might help if he found her with her belt knife in one hand and his sword in the other. Channeling, she whisked the scabbarded blade from his side. Every little bit of shock she could manage for him—
He moved faster than thought. Her grasp closed on the scabbard, and he uncoiled, whirling, one hand clutching the scabbard between hers, the other seizing the front of her dress. Before she could think to channel, she was flying through the air. She had just time to see the pond coming up at her, just time to shout something, she did not know what, and then she struck the surface flat, driving all the wind out of her, struck with a great splash and sank. The water was freezing! Saidar fled in her shock.
Floundering to her feet, she stood up to her waist in the icy water, coughing, wet hair clinging to her face, sodden cloak dragging at her shoulders. Furiously she twisted around to confront her attacker, furiously embraced the Source once more. The test for the shawl required channeling with absolute calm under great stress, and far worse than this had been done to her then. She turned, prepared to knock him down and drub him till he squealed!
He stood shaking his head and frowning at the spot where she had stood, a long stride from where he had sat. When he deigned to notice her, he came to the edge of the pond and bent to stretch out a hand. “Unwise to try separating a man from his sword,” he said, and after a glance at the colored slashes on her dress, added, “My Lady.” Hardly an apology. His startlingly blue eyes did not quite meet hers. If he was hiding mirth…!
Muttering under her breath, she splashed awkwardly to where she could take his outstretched hand in both of hers … and heaved with all of her might. Ignoring icy water tickling down your ribs was not easy, and if she was wet, so would he be, and without any need to use the …
He straightened, raised his arm, and she came out of the water dangling from his hand. In consternation she stared at him until her feet touched the ground and he backed away.
“I’ll start a fire and hang up blankets so you can dry yourself,” he murmured, still not meeting her gaze.
He was as good as his word, and by the time the other men appeared
, she was standing beside a small fire surrounded by blankets dug from his packsaddles and hung from branches. She had no need of the fire for drying, of course, or the privacy. The proper weave of Water had taken every drop from her hair and clothes while she stayed in them. As well he did not see that, though. And she did appreciate the flame’s warmth. Anyway, she had to stay inside the blankets long enough for the man to think she had used the fire as he intended. She very definitely held on to saidar.
The other men arrived, full of questions about whether “she” had followed into the woods. They had known? Men watched for bandits in these times, but they had noticed a lone woman and decided she was following them? It seemed suspicious.
“A Cairhienin, Lan? I suppose you’ve seen a Cairhienin in her skin, but I never have.” That certainly caught her ear, and with the Power filling her, so did another sound. Steel whispering on leather. A sword leaving its sheath. Preparing several weaves that would stop the lot of them in their tracks, she made a crack in the blankets to peek out.
To her surprise, the man who had dunked her—Lan?—stood with his back to her blankets. He was the one with sword in hand. The Arafellin, facing him, looked surprised. “You remember the sight of the Thousand Lakes, Ryne,” Lan said coldly. “Does a woman need protection from your eyes?”
For a moment, she thought Ryne was going to draw despite the blade already in Lan’s hand, but the older man, a much battered, graying fellow though as tall as the others, calmed matters, took the other two a little distance away with talk of some game called “sevens.” A strange game it seemed to be. Lan and Ryne sat cross-legged facing one another, their swords sheathed, then without warning drew, each blade flashing toward the other man’s throat, stopping just short of flesh. The older man pointed to Ryne, they sheathed swords, and then did it again. For as long as she watched, that was how it went. Perhaps Ryne had not been as overconfident as he seemed.