|Plots and Plotting
|Droplets of falling water pattered onto one symbolic furrow, filling it with water. Egraine stopped her scribbling and watched. It was as if the logic itself had been dampened out. The dry ground hungrily devoured the wetness. More spots of wet appeared on the parched earth, circles that rapidly sunk in and vanished. She finally noticed the rain drumming down all around her, muddying her work. Egraine blinked as she absorbed it. She had not realize that a spot of land twenty paces wide stood entirely cluttered with her scratchings. She had not noticed the tree of her inspiration grow quite so distant as she backed away on her knees. Falling water would soon obliterate all she wrought.
“So the drought has finally broken,” Bedevir said, baritone voice a reverent whisper.
Egraine looked upward.
As always, Bedevir had been there for her. Even as the rain began to fall, he had retrieved an oiled skin from a saddlebag and now held it over her, keeping the water away from where she crouched. How long he had been like that, she did not know. She blinked several times.
“How long has it been since rainfall?” she sat back on the ground, pulling in her tan riding skirts. She stared into the cloudy sky wondering where the rain had come from. Her question had not been asked quite properly, but she did not know how to retract it.
“It would be winter now,” he answered, “it would be snow on the plains, but the heat has been unseasonable. Maybe it has finally broken.” He had both horses patiently by rein in addition to keeping Egraine dry. “If you are finished here, we should find some better shelter, it looks as if this will be a downpour soon.”
Egraine leaned forward, poking her face from under the edge of his protection. Droplets of wet came down from so high, out of the stretching infinite swirls of gray, to plop onto her cheeks and nose. She squinted her dark eyes.
“Come on Aes Sedai,” Bedevir chuckled. He pulled the hood of her fringed cloak up to cover her head and gently lifted her to her feet with one burly arm. “A woman can drown staring upward into the rain with her mouth hanging open like that. Light knows I would be shirking my duty if I allowed such a thing.” He draped the skin over her shoulders as added protection against the wet, then pushed Darkmane’s reins back into her hands.
Fingers of lightning stroked to the ground not too distantly with great crashes as they began to walk again. Egraine followed the squishing sound of her feet, from one puddle to the next. Dirt had already begun to form mud while the steady downpour deepened. Darkmane clopped ploddingly along behind her. Bedevir did not protest their meandering course and only once complained about how soaked they were rapidly becoming. Otherwise, they continued in quiet but for the rain.
“That channeling,” she said, stopping abruptly. She took down her hood so that falling water again washed over her head and face and down her neck.
“What?” Bedevir had been looking at her. He mopped off his square chin with a thick hand and pushed trailing gray hair out of his eyes. “Do you mean the channeling to the south you felt a week ago?”
“No,” she pointed into the rain. “Over there.”
The expression on Bedevir face darkened. “It might be wise if we head another direction, then.” He caught hold of her arm, slack against her side, and drew her off.
She looked over her shoulder as her feet blindly followed the burly Warder, gazing off toward the distant patterns. The weaves had an abbreviated, succinct style that lacked some of the polish of others she had seen. And she had seen so many. She once saw Veiled Ones in the Wastes channeling when they did not know that she watched. She happened upon some Aire who came to consider her no threat and stood in amazement at the massive bundles of air they called down. Those in the Houses of Healing in Pelham wove some of the most exquisite pieces in a blink, and become petrified to find an ageless face in their midst. Egraine had seen so many types of channeling that any of her sisters would have been amazed. All her years away from Nith’Tar Valon had never been entirely aimless.
“It is different,” Egraine pulled her hand from Bedevir and stopped in her tracks. She squinted through the rain.
“Oh, Light, I guess we go again, huh?” Bedevir took the reins of both horses and doffed them into the saddles for easy access, though he did not tie the beasts up to prevent them from moving. Big black Farstrider and dun colored Darkmane looked on in that long suffering way, catching the Warder’s mood and knowing they might soon have to run like the wind. Darkmane whickered a tiny protest.
The Aes Sedai and her Warder stood staring out into the sheets of rain, both soaked practically to the bone. The forest around them stood sparsely, filled with suffering trees and bushes on low, rolling terrain. Water beating down collected already into streams and washed dead earth into mud. Egraine watched the weaves flung out, coming gradually closer. She could taste the women channeling to her bones. She blinked wetness from her eyes. Popping sounds and dull thuds reached them with an occasional flash of light.
“I hope you’re certain about this,” Bedevir mumbled where he stood beside her. “I would hate to have to protect you from another trio of Myrdraal. Or another pack of Veiled Ones, for that matter. That your skin is in one piece continuously amazes me.”
“It is different,” Egraine repeated. “Three channeling,” she counted. “Or is it five? Two have bent phase in their weaving in a way as if they are linked. Sophisticated, but... anisotropic? It feels stilted, but it is new. I have not seen it before. One is wild, maybe unused to the source. Potentially very strong. All three are having difficulty with sai'dar.”
“Aes Sedai, you told me two days ago sai'dar was behaving differently. That it made you a little sick. This is foolhardy business if you can't make your one defense work properly. Please tell me you’ve seen enough.” Bedevir flexed an elbow to loosen it and rolled his shoulder. He tensed his forearms beneath his steel bracers, the only armor he wore.
“Sai'dar behaves perfectly if you listen to its flow,” Egraine muttered consideringly. “It became destabilized in this area maybe a week ago.”
“Whatever you say,” Bedevir responded. “I’m just a bit more worried about right now. We should at least try to hide ourselves, if not the horses.”
Egraine continued to stare out into the rain. She could hear the noisy scrunching of weary feet churning through mud. One of the pursuers looped out a weave of Earth and exploded the wet ground, eliciting a frightened squeal and panicked splashes. Bedevir readied himself at that. Egraine only knew what had happened because she could sense the weaves. She tasted saidar with such intensity that she need not always see a weave in order to tell what exactly it did; she smelled it and tasted it, heard it and touched it with every aspect of her senses to such a degree that it permeated the world around her even when she did not embrace the source.
A slender girl no older than early teens staggered out of the sheeting rain from behind the rise of a shallow hill. Egraine could see that she wore only rags and was caked in such a layer of muck that she might have been mistaken for infant trolloc. She struggled into a limping, exhausted run, headed desperately toward a row of trees with huge gnarled roots. A carefully placed lightning bolt struck down from the sky and clapped through the first tree in the stand, forcing the girl to turn aside. The girl flung up her hands to protect her head against the shower of seared bark and ruined leaves.
Egraine cringed at the thundering sound of the lightning stroke.
The exhausted youngster skidded to a stunned halt when she noticed Egraine and Bedevir. Then she ran toward them as if her life were about to end. “Help me please! Help me!”
“Now you’ve done it,” Bedevir exclaimed under his breath. “We’re in it for sure.”
Egraine blinked several times, uncertain what to do. She hadn’t quite expected this. Her only interest was in the weaves and the weavers.
“As long as were here,” suggested Bedevir, “we should help the poor kid.”
“I see,” the White Aes Sedai nodded nervously, “yes. I see.”
Huge men in lacquered armor burst over the shallow hill. Adjusting his insect shaped helmet, one dove for the fleeing child and landed on his breast plate in the mud. The girl changed her tact with a shower of spraying filth at the last second to avoid being tackled. Another leaped past his companion and got one hand on the girl’s disheveled clothing as he skidded nearly onto his bottom. The girl tripped and fell, but barely scrambled free. A woman in a blue dress with red panels worked in forked silver lightning bolts came from behind the hill brandishing a length of silver that had a circlet on the end. She was followed by another two men in the strange armor.
“If we plan to help her,” Bedevir said, starting toward the men and girl in an unconcerned walk, “now is the time.” He did not swagger or run, just walked at an appraising pace.
The man who dove onto his belly lifted himself and lunged from his knees to grab the girl by the ankle. She screamed piercingly as he brought her down. Egraine grimaced and held her ears. The woman in the blue dress vaulted over the warrior holding the girl and straddled the poor child who squirmed and struggled. She brought the silver manacle to the child’s neck.
“No! NO! NO!” the girl shrieked as if the metal would burn her on touch.
“Be calm child, this will be over soon,” the woman drawled, then spat, cursing, “I might as well collar a snake.”
“I think she has other things in mind.” Bedevir grabbed the woman one handed by the neck from behind and dragged her bodily off the girl in the mud. With his free hand, he snapped the manacle she held smartly around her own neck and dropped her. “Let us see you wear it instead.”
When the warder let her go, she collapsed to her knees with a surprised look on her ghostly pale face. To Egraine's amazement, she keeled forward and began to vomit violently into the mud. Bedevir completely ignored her.
As if he had all the time in the world, Bedevir stomped down hard on the wrist of the man who held the girl and pulled her out of his grasp. The man refused to yelp, though he grimaced in pain and stared up angrily at the warder. “How dare you interfere!”
“Maybe I failed to step on you hard enough,” Bedevir quipped, flipping his color shifting cloak. “Go wait over there.” He pushed the girl toward Egraine.
“He is one of these warders we keep hearing of!” The other warrior in green armor made it back afoot. “Bring the damane! We found another marath’damane, Talanthara!”
“Egraine!” Bedevir hunkered down slightly and opened his arms wide, as if awaiting an embrace from one of the four warriors he faced. “Now might be a terrific opportunity for you to dump the bricks out of your shoes.”
Wide-eyed, Egraine quaked where she stood like a tree in high wind. The girl, scrabbling and falling to her knees, dove to hide behind her. Egraine did not quite know what to make of the childs tears.
“Egraine?!” Bedevir turned slightly.
The fighting men in the strange armor unsheathed wickedly curved swords. One drove at the warder in the space of a breath, blade probing cleverly. Bedevir never seemed a very quick man. He never cared to move much faster than Egraine’s eternally lazy pace and rarely exuded any urgency. Instead of leaping aside as any other fighter might, he stepped right in on the blade to meet it, catching it with the worn steel of his bracers. He slid the bracer down the blade until he could snatch the hand clenched at the hilt. He barely seeming to move as he flowed in under the arm and wrenched every joint his hands crossed along the way. A split second since he began the attack, he stepped through the mans crumpled knee, then bent him over backward by the throat. Bedevir let the dead man fall without a sideways glance. No wild kicks like a Veiled One, no darting steel like a Plainsman, just smooth, well timed, and lethally effective.
The three remaining soldiers thought to overpower the warder even as their comrade fell. Bedevir turned a step and spun right through their midst, hardly maneuvering more than a hair to avoid a glittering edge there or an elbow here. His bracers sparked as they glanced aside swords which never quite seemed to reach him. He could fight all day without ever breaking a sweat, never hurrying or extending past the slightest movement, never out of balance or beyond range. The art was old and desperately uncommon, he once told Egraine, though no less frightening to witness.
One man fell, neck opened by a sword stolen from his companion and already discarded. The next flipped onto his back and doubled around the Warder’s boot on his throat. The last made a feint with his sword and kicked to the burly warders head with a blindingly quick foot. Bedevir glanced the blade aside with a bracer and stepped inside the radius of the kick. He brushed the leg past his body, flipped the man clean around with a sweeping arm, pinned one leg to the ground with foot, and forced the former kick straight up into the air with a strategically placed palm. The green armored fighter ended up sprawled unmoving with his head under the Warder’s boot. Bedevir did not linger over his handiwork. “Not quite the Veiled One,” he grumbled disappointedly to himself and flipped rain water from his colorshifting cloak.
“Archers, damane!” More insect helmeted soldiers had emerged into the clearing.
Another woman with a blue dress that had red panels marked with lightning bolts stood at the lip of the low hill looking down at them. “Is that a Shara fist? We did not expect to find such in this part of the world,” she drawled in difficult speech. “No matter, it has its weakness. You might have walked away had you simply left us the girl. Still, with the marath’damane cowering behind you, it is unlikely. Kitti.”
A woman in a gray dress cowered at her side. The two were linked by a silver leash that ran from the throat of the woman in gray to the wrist of the woman in blue.
“Not good. Egraine,” he hoarsely barked, “were you planning to let me die out here?!”
Egraine gave herself a shake. “Interesting asymmetry,” she murmured as the woman in gray embraced the Source. The woman in blue seemed almost to be guiding it. The ground erupted in a thunderous boom with Bedevir diving aside by a hair. She almost didn’t notice the other woman still behind the hill who also opened to saidar. She nearly dropped to her knees in fear.
“Egraine!” Bedevir shouted at her as a woven blast of air slammed him flat to the ground.
A shield weave flew toward her. Egraine’s eyes widened at the structure, though almost too late. The sweetness of saidar came to her in the gust of a breath. She channeled a single spirit thread which she darted out and tied into a pattern on the thing reaching to ensnare her. She tied it off, Maybe next time a little to the left, she mumbled around a swollen tongue.
“Mistress!” the woman in gray cried as if bitten. The shield weave crumpled on itself but refused to come undone, draped out like a paralyzed limb from its creator.
“Shield her!” the woman in blue pried into the gray, forcing out another shield, then another. Their synergy was more dazzling than two linked sisters.
With eyes the size of saucer plates, Egraine addressed each weave in turn. She nipped with tiny spirit flows that she tied into every shield coming her way. “Right there? No. There? Um...”
In moments, both women channeling at her were struggling under the effort of simultaneously maintaining multiple weaves. They could not release the weaves they had already made! The woman behind the hill wailed in exhausted misery.
“It is an interesting asymmetry,” Egraine said as she stared at the extended weaves, her voice quivering, “may I see it again?” The style of channeling was not quite like any she had seen before.
“Now is probably not the time,” Bedevir lifted her and dumped her unceremoniously on her horse. “Would you do something to keep the soldiers off? Please?”
She fixated so strongly on the weaves, she failed to notice Bedevir flooring two more of the warriors with insect helmets.
“Maybe if I...,” Egraine pondered.
“Now would be best.”
“Um...,” with all her strength, Egraine wove earth to air to water into a tied off construct weave and dropped it into the ground. As an afterthought, she channeled threads of spirit and fire to link the weaves still extended from the two gray dressed women into her construct. It would last longer that way, she thought.
Bedevir tossed the girl onto Farstrider’s saddle and the blue dressed woman with the circlet around her neck ahead of Egraine on Darkmane. He swung up behind the girl. “Go! Before they flank us!” he shouted and heeled Farstrider forward. A smack to Darkmane’s rump brought the dun along with him.
Egraine’s weave unmeshed itself as they galloped away and changed the mud into something approaching stone, the soldiers feet stuck within it. “Too much,” she whimpered to herself as the effect spread steadily outward behind them and changed falling rain into snow.
She blinked several times sharply.
* * *
“One of these marath’damane who calls herself Aes Sedai and her warder?” Talanthara tapped a finger nail with the tip of her dagger blade. She had close cut black hair and wore armor not too different from that of her men, “And they took down or disabled ten regulars, three sul’dam and two damane?”
“One of those sul’dam remains unaccounted for, commander,” the guardsman lowered his insect helmeted head to avoid her gaze. His failure made him more than respectful. If he had been Skullwatch Guard, he would have met her levelly even then. But, if she had one Skullwatch Guard, maybe this catastrophe could have been averted.
“All over a single marath’damane child we were tasked to bring back by a member of the Blood? Another victory for the Ever Victorious Army. At this rate, we may all end up sold.”
The guardsman bowed lower.
“Talanthara,” the blond sul’dam, Eashin, dipped her head, “this new marath’damane could be valuable. If we find and collar her, we will be rewarded. The channeling she used when we tried to shield her was unique--the first of its kind I have ever seen. Kitti and Ura are both suffering from exhaustion, we could not make them channel another wink if we stripe them to within an inch of their lives. It will take them days to fully recover. Nobody has ever used that defense before. Such knowledge would be a powerful asset to the Ath’corynn.”
“It could prove a helpful consolation,” Talanthara agreed, “but that does not alter which marath’damane the Blood sent us to retrieve.”
* * *
The two horses galloped and skidded in the increasing mire, headed as quickly as possible in any direction away. Unseasonable heat, now broken by squawling rain, winnowed down the formerly lush landscape until it became starkly passable. This far south, wilting trees horribly yellowed spoke of the drought so recently past. The two horses labored in breathing through the cutting wet, prancing over rolling hills and across newly revived streams. Recently solid footing had become treacherous.
Bedevir kept a close eye on their path in addition to his ward. Egraine never proved her mettle as an athlete and frequently made spectacular falls from the back of her horse. The last such ride, she managed to spill herself before a fist of hungry trollocs at full sprint. Not the most auspicious fumble for an Aes Sedai to make. She spent the first hours of this flight trying to properly lodge her skinny feet in the stirrups and she bounced around so violently that she would probably be limping for days. Bedevir had already caught her twice before she bucked free of the saddle when Darkmane leaped across the currents on a swelling river. Bedevir could sense her mortal fear and confusion wrapped up in a ball in the back of his head. He drew the horses back to a walk twice for as long as he thought prudent, resting them before continuing on, hoping beyond hope that his Aes Sedai would calm herself back to full lucidity. The drumming rain prevented clear conversation and he doubted Egraine could manage it even if she heard him. Of all the Aes Sedai he had met and served in his considerable career, none had needed warding as much as this tiny woman.
The girl they saved from the rabble of soldiers and strange channeling women clung white knuckled to his saddle in a muddy lump. She had not spoken a word but for when they first started out, and only then to ask, “Is that an Aes Sedai?”
Bedevir flicked the reins and heeled Farstrider, then answered, “She wears the ring, yes.”
She made no further comment, though Bedevir sometimes thought she might be crying. Difficult to tell under the deluge of rain.
The blond woman in the blue dress with the silver collar around her neck made even less of herself than the girl with Bedevir on Farstrider. She lay across Darkmane's saddle ahead of Egraine like a sack of flour, not stirring in the slightest. While they rode, he brought Farstrider close beside Darkmane to check, thinking she might be dead, but found her pinched blue eyes open and blinking. He wondered what could possibly have happened to sap her will for struggle. He wished he knew what she said when she fell. After seeing the women in gray, he had his suspicions about the leash, though he could not be certain. So many questions to ask in so little time.
He did not like it at all; the fewer conflicts in which Bedevir ended up embroiled, the better for everyone involved. Romanda Sedai had made his duty perfectly clear. One day, they would need to return to the White Tower, to be sure. If only that choice were his to make and not Egraine’s. They two would continue along her meandering path until that sometime day finally came. As long as he could protect her, he would be there for her.
With the torrential downpour, at least he did not have to worry overly much about leaving tracks. Runnels of water up and down slopes deepened to gulleys in the face of the worsening flood. The horses labored across fresh swales, leaving behind no signs that might telegraph a heading. Bedevir wondered if the creator were not drowning the world in effort to start anew.
When darkness finally began to fall, Bedevir found a shallow recess in the lee of a hill that looked relatively dry and drew rein. He dared not risk Egraine crashing through a thick branch in the dark, or some other painful mistake he knew she might commit. In his experience, a warders greatest enemy was benign carelessness.
He helped the girl to the ground, then began to set up a camp. Soon, he had Egraine settled by a small fire and set about hobbling the horses. The woman in blue lay in a fetal position in the deepest part of the hollow, shivering. The young girl helped him bring saddle bags off the horses, her eyes still downcast. He staked up a large skin from the side of the hill to give them added shelter - a small comfort in the monumental rain. For a time, he considered asking Egraine to set wards or weave a cloak of light, then thought better of it.
Egraine caught him as he dropped down to sit by the fire. Her dark brown eyes could not quite meet his, though her beautiful lips worked as if she wanted to ask a question. She drew his color shifting cloak aside and pressed her palm into a gap in his tunic. He tensed his thick jaw, but counted the wound nothing; he had seen worse getting her through in the War of the Aire. Her touch met fresh blood. No surprise that she had noticed.
”It is not logical...” she muttered, “not logical.” Her quaking fingers probed the wound and she tilted her head to the side and blinked.
Bedevir gasped aloud when an ice cold shock flooded through him, reaching from the balls of his feet in a swelling to the top of his head. “The wound is not...” he breathed out as she released him. He swore to himself not to regret the hunger he knew would come later, “Thank you.”
She vaguely nodded, drawing back in shivers, never once looking him directly in the eye. Her head turned side to side in a darting motion and her lips moved momentarily, though no words came out. She drew her legs in until she sat with her chin resting on her knees. He sensed her fear ease somewhat, though her tongue might remain planted yet for hours.
He patted her on the shoulder and cringed when she twitched, “Please get some sleep, and try not to think about what happened. We will get through this.”
Egraine stared into the fire without moving.
The muddy girl crouched across from Bedevir, watching the Aes Sedai holding her knees to her chin.
”She has the ageless face,” the girl exclaimed softly, “but she does not look like any Aes Sedai I have ever seen.”
Bedevir grunted a short laugh. “Forgive me, but I do not have the pleasure of your acquaintance.”
”Alicia,” the girl supplied. Her bright green eyes were still red from tears, but she spoke solidly. The strength in her appeared plainly on her face, even covered as it was in mud.
”Bedevir,” the warder responded, she is Egraine Sedai. “You will have to forgive me, Alicia, I am afraid we have little in the way of comfort to offer you.”
”More than usual,” the girl shrugged. She looked as if she were used to the hollow boniness of an empty stomach.
”Well and good,” he nodded, adjusting his bracers. “Now, will you please tell me what my lady and I have stumbled into.”
Alicia divided a long gaze between Bedevir and Egraine, hesitant on moving her attention from the Aes Sedai. “You do not know of the Ath'corynn?”
”Should we?” Tavis looked at her sideways. “Egraine Sedai and I don’t often visit towns or villages or larger cities. Any news we receive at all is generally sorely out of date.”
”That woman!” Alicia suddenly snapped, thrusting a mud encrusted finger at the blond woman with the collar. “Bloody Ath'corya sul’dam!”
Egraine jumped at Alicia’s outburst and squeezed her eyes closed.
”Oh ho,” the Warder nodded to himself, wondering if bringing this... Ath'corya... along had been such a good idea. He had been hoping for information rather than further complications. Once you landed in a fire, there generally was no way out but through. He immediately decided that Alicia lacked compatibility with their other guest.
”Took my sister away, stupid daughter of a goat!” the dirty young girl shouted shrilly, tears streaming from her bright green eyes and over the smudges on her cheeks. She sprang fiercely to her feet and kicked the prone woman in the side as hard as she possibly could. With a grunt, the Ath'corynn woman doubled herself more completely into a ball. Her back began to shiver. Alicia already wound up for a second kick before Bedevir sprang over the fire and lifted her away from the woman with his thick arms. “Lemme go! She deserves it!” Alicia immediately began to struggle against him.
”Please, hold on,” the warder begged the girl, “I brought her here because I thought she might need help.”
The muddy girl continued to struggle against him by flailing into his shins with her heels. “In the middle of a fight where you killed like five of her friends, you thought she needed help!”
”Something very strange happened when I locked that collar around her throat,” Bedevir explained calmly. “When I picked her up, she would have bit me and kicked me like a feral animal. But, then I locked the collar onto her and I felt her fighting spirit flee. I’ve never felt anyone fall into despair so quickly. That thing is some form of ter’angreal, I would wager, and I have a duty to make certain it finds its way to responsible hands at the White Tower. At the very least, I have to find out what this woman said as I dropped her.”
Egraine watched them in bewilderment. Bedevir felt something from her not unlike a dawning revelation, as if she verged on becoming inspired. She stared unblinking at the blond woman, stared at the length of delicately worked silver attached to the collar on the woman’s neck.
Alicia finally relaxed enough for Bedevir to let her feet back to the ground. “She would put that collar on your Aes Sedai’s neck without a second thought. She deserves to be staked out in the rain.”
”This woman is a soldier,” Bedevir said. “I know soldiers when I see them. You have to forgive soldiers for following orders. No one deserves to be staked anywhere over fighting for what they believe in. Will you give me your oath that you will not strike out at her again?”
”She bloody well deserves it,” the girl insisted.
”I will not release you until you give me an oath.”
Alicia humphed in annoyance, “I swear on the Light not to kill her now.”
”Not hurt,” Bedevir prompted.
”And I also swear not to hurt her,” the girl droned, happy now?
Bedevir carefully let her go, “I hold you to your word. If you break it, I will not hesitate to stake you out in the rain.”
The girl glowered at him, but nodded. She wrapped her arms around herself and started to sit, glaring emerald daggers at the back of the woman lying nearby. For the first time, Bedevir really looked at her. Her patchy clothes hung loosely over too skinny limbs; whether she wore the remains of breeches or a dress, he could not tell. Her hair straggled to the lower part of her back in a haystack thatch whose color defied guessing. The grime did not disguise the scars lining her arms and legs. When he watched her running from the soldiers before, he never thought her feet might be bare. She shivered and glowered at him again.
Bedevir took off his color shifting cloak, then carefully draped it over her shoulders.
”Wait,” she protested, green eyes wide.
He shook his head. “No, you need it more than I. We have no other clothes to give you.”
Egraine had sat forward on her knees by the fire, hands to the ground. Between her fingers, she held a piece of wood which she used to scratch peculiar symbols into the mushy earth. Every so often, a trail of water would leak down the hill and streamed over her efforts, but she kept on without noticing. She might fill the entire hollow with those scrawlings before she exhausted herself to the point of asleep.
Bedevir chuckled. At least her fear had abated enough to permit her return to her single-minded pursuit. He opened a saddle bag and found a packet of dried beef left over from their village stop. He forced a piece into Egraine’s free hand, which went without a look into her mouth. He put another piece into the insensate fingers of the woman with the collar. Finally, he passed the remains to Alicia, “Here, a little bit left.”
The girl accepted uncertainly. “What will you eat?”
”Nothing it seems,” Bedevir sighed, seating himself, “rabbit tomorrow, perhaps.”
Alicia stared across the fire at Bedevir. The warder grinned slightly and gestured her to eat. She took small bites, her eyes straying every so often to the working Aes Sedai. Egraine veritably flew through her ministrations, wood rasping across earth. Bedevir felt from her a growing excitement.
”Tell me about these Ath'corynn,” Bedevir asked, sparing a glance for Egraine’s deft hands soaring over the ground. “About that collar.”
”Sul’dam use it to control damane,” Alicia glared at the ground. “It is called an a’dam.”
”The women in gray are damane?” he asked.
Alicia nodded carefully, “Ath'corynn make slaves of every woman they find who can channel. Put the a’dam on them and treat them like animals. Bloody sul’dam make women into weapons. Every woman they find who is able.”
”Erroneous,” Egraine interjected abruptly, not glancing up from her scribing. It could be difficult sometimes to know what she responded to, but she continued in her stilted monotone. “I can feel it in her. This woman here can supply semiphase delay while pseudo-linked. It made an asymmetry when I saw channeling from... from... from the damane.”
Alicia glanced at Bedevir, “Pseudo-linked?”
Bedevir faced Egraine. “I’m afraid that made little sense, Aes Sedai. Could you please explain more carefully?”
With a stray finger, still absorbed in her scribbles, Egraine absently touched the silver leash and the bracelet end of the a’dam. “Metal here contains a weave. It is a link, but it is not -a maybe link, a pseudo-link. It has the same dynamical symmetric properties as sisters joining weaves to channel in a circle, but is forcibly directional. Each sister in the circle reinforces phases to increase channeling intensity in non-linear fashion. A link cannot form unless all participants form a sa’idar phase space. A pseudo-link cannot form unless both participants form phase space. It is here...” she pointed to a particular string of symbols before her, as if anyone would understand what she referred to.
”What is she saying?” Alicia demanded. “That made no better sense.”
The warder slowly nodded, understanding what his Aes Sedai had said. It occurred to him that he had spent too many years looking over her shoulder. “She means that both sul’dam and damane must be able to channel to make this ter'angreal work.”
Alicia stared at him incredulously. “That cannot be. Sul’dam are treated like queens, damane like pets. They turned Turuq Dar upside down and put the collar on every woman they could find who can channel. Just snapped it on and dragged them away.” Her eyes defocused as her voice broke.
Bedevir looked consideringly at the sul’dam lying in the back of the hollow, brushing his chin with the tips of his fingers. “And they were trying to collar you.”
The mud ensconced girl gave a faint shrug. “I am useless. I cannot do anything.”
”Three women channeling,” Bedevir muttered to himself. Egraine had lapsed back into the silence of her work and did not appear ready to offer any further pearls of wisdom. “One wild. Alicia, did these Ath'corynn put their a’dam on your sister?”
Green eyes flashed wide at him, then looked sharply away. “Yes,” she wrapped herself closely in the color shifting cloak and lay with her back to the fire. Her stifled sobbing begged no further discourse.
* * *
They are no longer moving ahead, the sul’dam bowed with the news. “Probably bedded for the night."
Talanthara’s burnished hazel eyes narrowed, “Are you sure this is the truth? You were lied to before.”
”Absolutely, commander,” Eashin adjusted the a’dam locked to her wrist. She leaned over to pet the damane who lay on the ground at her feet. “I would stake my honor on it now.”
”How far?” the black-haired Ath'corynn battle commander demanded.
”Maybe as far as ten leagues,” Eashin shrugged, “it is not easy to be specific.”
”If we struggle through this watershod mess all night, they will be ready to leave with the morning sun before we can reach them,” Talanthara turned away grumbling. “If only we had Vaush or Iradas. Can we call support from the Crowns of Blood?”
A warrior standing nearby bowed and slurred, “Unlikely commander. Through this pea-soup? We have no word if they are even flying.”
”Very well,” Talanthara spat in anger. The day just kept getting worse. “We march through the night.”
”As you wish,” her petty officer darted off to his men with a quick salute. She could hear him sloshing through the mud in the dark, headed toward a crowd of smoldering torches.
”If I may, commander,” Eashin bowed her head, “they will know when we are coming.”
”One difficulty at a time. We can deal with that once we close their lead.”
* * *
Through the night the rains fell in a constant tapping, evolving drips that ran off the oiled skin strung up as shelter. Alicia pretended to sleep, the Warder’s color shifting cloak wrapped around her for warmth. The cloudless, punishing sun from the day before had been blown out like a candle, replaced by a raging tempest out to scour away the entire world. She shivered as the mid-summer heat slipped into memory more quickly than seemed possible. The tiny fire in the middle of the hollow helped dull some of the chill, but not nearly enough for her to entirely ignore it. Whenever the Warder came back to lay more tinder on the fire, Alicia squeezed her eyes shut and made herself breathe deeply. She could not say where he found wood dry enough to burn, but he did.
The Warder and his Aes Sedai did not match her notion of what they were supposed to be. She knew Aes Sedai as untouchable women. They walked tall and serene and radiated a powerful aura that warned against even the slightest misstep. They were majestic to the point of inspiring awe. Their Warders were always lean, deadly men with the cadence of wolves and the vision of falcons, seeing every corner, knowing every danger. People like that could be picked out of a crowd at a glance, which was why Aes Sedai advised royalty more or less for fun and nobody dared mess with a Warder unless they were bored of living. Before the Thendrii came, Alicia had gotten plenty of opportunities to see Aes Sedai wandering Zharoel; she knew what the serpent ring looked like and expected the lavish clothing.
If Alicia had not seen Bedevir dispatch six men single-handedly, she would never have believed he was a Warder, not even when he still wore the cloak he had given her. His gray hair made him too old, his lined face too jovial and his lack of weaponry far too benevolent. If she had passed him on the street, she probably would have tried to pick his pocket. He was a large enough man to scare away most footpads on principle, but not visibly a brute or a killer. However, his bluish-green eyes gazed very deeply, no matter how gentle his smile.
The Aes Sedai herself, Egraine, was an enigma. Without the ageless face, she belonged in an asylum. With the ageless face, she belonged someplace on the other side of the world-in an asylum. Alicia did not understand most of what the woman said when her mouth opened, as if she were speaking in tongues. It occurred to her, perhaps for the first time ever, that some women probably needed to be fit with an a’dam just to keep them from doing themselves harm. She chastised herself for that thought; Egraine had yet to show even an ounce of cruelty. What bothered Alicia most was that the word “meek” simply did not belong in the same sentence as the name “Aes Sedai.” Despite her peculiarity, if Egraine pulled up her hood to hide her agelessness, the small, faintly brass-skinned woman would have vanished into a crowd by sheer lack of grandeur. Together, seen randomly on the street, this Aes Sedai and her Warder could have passed as a middle aged husband shepherding his gloomy wife.
Alicia pretended to sleep, bundled in the cold. The Warder saw through her too easily with his sharp eyes and the unusual Aes Sedai seemed only to feed his deductions. If she feigned, Alicia thought perhaps she could hide herself from them for a time longer. If it had been any Aes Sedai but this one, would they have known her immediately? Between kinswomen, Thendrii, Aire and Aes Sedai, she had had more than enough of channeling women.
She knew the Thendrii were coming. She could feel them out there, growing steadily closer. She could feel the pain, as if being flagellated her whole body over, could feel her skin pealing free in a pot of boiling oil. A hundred awful things she could feel coming ever closer. She bundled herself tighter and set the sensations out of her mind, set the pain aside even as it blistered through her. With distance it was easier, but the distance was closing. If she threw off the cloak and ran, the Warder would have her on the instant, but she wanted to run.
The night passed in fits and starts. She remembered a jigsaw puzzle of moments with water dripping or dancing shadows from the flickering fire. The Warder lurked awake throughout, in and out of the small shelter. Alicia remembered shards of his broad, tired face staring down at her in contemplation. When she forgot herself, she dozed.
She gasped in agony and awoke, flames burning through to her bones. Her breath came out in sharp, punctuated rasps. The sensation had been so real and close. Her heart thundered in her ears. Transluminous gray reached through the low hanging clouds in a vague announcement of morning. Rain continued to fall in a lulling rhythm. Branches of the forest dripped and water streamed over everything in sight. The edge of the color shifting cloak soaked through from a rivulet running into the hollow, causing her to shiver. She propped herself up on her elbows and blinked sleep from her eyes. Blackened remains from the fire still smoked. The two horses stood beside the hollow, heads down under the drenching, soft whinnies and grunts traded to each other. The Aes Sedai and Warder stood out in the drizzle, well away from the shelter. Alicia could hear his baritone voice carrying without being able to distinguish his words. The hood of her white fringed cloak raised, the Aes Sedai gazed into the distance and answered whatever he told her with a word or two.
Bedevir raised his voice, “This is woolheaded. I refuse.” She was insistent. He continued to shake his head.
Making certain that the Egraine Sedai and Bedevir still conversed, Alicia wrapped herself more closely in the cloak and crawled across to the hollow. She grabbed the sul’dam in her rumpled blue dress by the shoulder and rolled her onto her back. The woman did not fight her -but regarded her instead with fearful blue eyes slung with bags from lack of sleep. “Alicia...” she whispered in a shaking voice.
“How the tides have turned, Iluéne,” Alicia stretched a hand out and touched the a’dam on the woman’s neck. “I had no idea that these actually worked on a sul’dam.”
Iluéne stared back at her in fright before finding any nerve, “You know there is no distance you can run that they cannot find you.” “They are coming,” Alicia agreed, “and when they get here, they are going to lock the collar on my throat, on that crazy Aes Sedai’s, and that one there on your’s is going to stay put. Maybe they’ll let their three new damane share a room.”
“It just cannot be,” Iluéne replied, shaking, “it cannot be. There must be some mistake. If you will just take this off of me...”
“Take it off of you and what?” Alicia interrupted her, “Do you think things will just go back to normal? You belong wearing it now, just like me. Just like her. When they get here, they’ll make a damane out of you. Come to think of it, if that Warder had not brought you here, you probably would be in a gray dress already. What do you think your new name will be when your sul’dam decides?”
The woman shook trying to contain her sobs. Tears streamed from her eyes over a face already beet red, “It is a mistake, they’ll know it.” “Then why can you not take it off? Egraine Sedai and Bedevir left you alone pretty much all night; you had time,” Alicia pointed out. “Or maybe you spent the whole night trying to puke your guts out or fighting a headache. I am no fool, you cannot even pick the bracelet up.”
Iluéne closed her eyes and tried to turn away, too weak in her stupor even to fight, “What do you want? Does this give you pleasure?”
Laughing softly, deliberately, evilly, Alicia hissed in her ear, “You have no idea at this moment how satisfied I am. But, what I want is to get out of here, and I want you to help me.”
Shuddering, Iluéne shook her head. She could not speak through her weeping.
“If you were smart, you would help,” Alicia told her, touching the smooth cord of the metallic leash. “How long do you think it will take that Aes Sedai to figure out that she can get whatever secrets she wants out of you just by wearing this bracelet? You are lucky they have never met a Thendrii before and do not know exactly how your little toy works.”
“I do not know anything she wants,” Iluéne protested. Her blue eyes clenched tightly and bled copious tears.
“But she’ll have to actually ask you to find out for sure,” Alicia drew the warder’s cloak a little more tightly around her shoulder and glanced to see that Bedevir and Egraine were still out conversing. “The Aes Sedai are supposed to be harmless because of their three oaths, but do you think a lunatic can decide what her oaths even mean? I do not want to know, for one.”
“Light,” Iluéne whined, “it just cannot be.”
“Maybe I should snap that a’dam around my wrist,” Alicia suggested, “have your help whether you want to give it or not. My own personal damane...”
Iluéne’s eyes went wide as the notion sank in and her face became pasty white.
“I can just snap it on,” Alicia picked up the bracelet end and opened the catch on the smooth metal loop.
“No, please!” Iluéne begged in a sharp whisper, grasping at Alicia’s forearm in desperation, “I don’t want to be collared. You know it can’t be true, you must take it off. Please, no... please... please.”
“When the chance comes,” Alicia told her, “and you help me get away from these two, I’ll think about releasing you. If you dream of betraying me, I will tell them exactly what they can learn from you by using the a’dam.”
Iluéne wept and nodded.