A Memory of Light Page 136

He should not have gone out without asking her. "We—"

Gawyn stiffened, and Egwene cut off, listening. Feet, shuffling. The two of them pulled back, watching as ten or twelve captives were led into an open space near where the command tent had stood. Sharans placed torches on poles around the ragged prisoners. A few of these were soldiers, beaten to the point where they could barely walk. There were cooks and laborers as well. They had been lashed, their trousers frayed. All of their shirts had been removed.

On their backs, someone had tattooed a symbol that Egwene did not recognize. At least, she thought they were tattoos. The symbols might have been burned into them.

As the captives were gathered, someone yelled nearby. In a few minutes, a dark-skinned Sharan guard walked up, dragging a young messenger boy he'd apparently found hiding in camp. He ripped off the boys shirt and shoved him, crying, to the ground. The Sharans, oddly, wore clothing that had a large diamond shape cut out of the back. Egwene could see that the guard bore a mark on his own back, a tattoo she could barely make out against his dark skin. His clothing was very formal, with a large, stiff robe that came almost to his knees. It didn’t have sleeves, but underneath he wore a shirt, with a diamond cut-out, that had long sleeves.

Another Sharan came out of the darkness, and this man was almost completely naked. He wore ripped trousers, but no shirt. Instead of a tattoo on his back, he had tattoos all across his shoulders. They crept up his neck, like twisted vines, before reaching up to cup his jaw and cheeks. They looked like a hundred twisted hands, long fingers with claws holding his head from below.

This man went over to the kneeling messenger boy. The other guards shuffled; they weren’t comfortable with this fellow, whoever he was. He held out a hand, sneering.

The boy’s back burned, suddenly, with a tattoo mark like that of the other captives. Smoke rose, and the boy cried out in pain. Gawyn exhaled softly in shock. That man with the tattoos running up onto his face . . . that man could channel.

Several of the guards muttered. She could almost understand the words, but they had a thick accent. The channeler snapped like a feral dog. The guards stepped back, and the channeler prowled off, disappearing into the shadows.

Light! Egwene thought.

Rustling in the darkness resolved into two women in the wide silk dresses. One had lighter skin, and as Egwene searched, she found that some of the soldiers did, too. Not all Sharans were dark as the fellows she’d seen so far.

The women’s faces were very beautiful. Delicate. Egwene shrank back. From what she had seen earlier, these two would probably be channelers. If they stepped too close to Egwene, they might sense her.

The two women inspected the captives. By the light of their lanterns, Egwene made out tattoos on their faces as well, though theirs were not as disturbing as those upon the men. These were like leaves, tattooed from the back of the neck forward, going under the ears and spreading like blossoms on the cheeks. The two women whispered to one another, and again Egwene felt as if she could almost understand them. If she could weave a thread to listen—

Idiot, she thought. Channeling would get her killed here.

Others gathered around the captives. Egwene held her breath. A hundred, two hundred, more people approached. They did not talk much; they seemed a quiet, solemn people, these Sharans. Most of those who came had open backs to their garments, revealing their tattoos. Were those symbols of status?

She had assumed that the more important one was, the more intricate the tattoos. However, officers—she had to assume that was what they were, with their feathered helmets and fine silken coats and golden armor made as if of coins that had been sewn together through the holes at their centers—they had only small openings, revealing tiny tattoos at the base of shoulders.

They’ve removed pieces of armor to display the tattoos, she thought. Surely they did not do battle with the skin exposed. This was something done during more formal times.

The last people who joined the crowd—ushered to the front—were the strangest of all. Two men and a woman atop small donkeys, all three wearing beautiful silk skirts, their animals draped with gold and silver chains. Plumes of vibrant colors fanned out from intricate headdresses upon these three. They were nude from the waist up, including the woman, save for the jewelry and necklaces that covered much of their chests. Their backs were exposed, their heads shaven just on the back to show their necks. There were no tattoos.

So . . . lords of some sort? Except all three had hollow, haunted expressions. They slumped forward, eyes down, faces wan. Their arms seemed thin, almost skeletal. So frail. What had been done to these people?

It made no sense to her. The Sharans were undoubtedly a people as baffling as the Aiel, probably more so. But why come now? Egwene thought. Why, after centuries upon centuries of isolation, have they finally decided to invade?

There were no coincidences, not of this magnitude. These had come to ambush Egwene’s people, and had worked with the Trollocs. She let herself seize upon that. Whatever she learned here would be of vital importance. She could not help her army right now—Light send that some of its members, at least, had managed to flee—so she should learn what she could.

Gawyn prodded her softly. She looked to him, and felt his worry for her.

Now? he mouthed, gesturing behind them. Perhaps, with everyone’s attention drawn by . . . whatever was happening, the two of them could sneak away. They started to back up, shuffling quietly.

One of the Sharan channelers called out. Egwene froze. She’d been spotted!

No. No. Egwene breathed deeply, trying to calm her heart, which seemed to be trying to beat its way out through her chest. The woman was speaking to the others. Egwene thought she’d heard the words "It is done" through the thick accent.

The group of people knelt down. The bejeweled trio bowed their heads further. And then, near the captives, the air bent.

Egwene couldn’t describe it any other way. It warped and . . . and seemed to rip apart, twisting like it did above the road on a hot day. Something formed from this disruption: a tall man in glistening armor.

He wore no helmet and had dark hair and light skin. His nose was slightly hooked, and he was very handsome, particularly in that armor. It looked to be constructed all of coins, silvery and overlapping. The coins were polished to such a shine, they reflected the faces around him like a mirror.

"You have done well", the man announced to those bowing before him. "You may stand". His voice bore hints of the Sharan accent, but it

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