The Shadow Rising Page 69

“Go back to your tents, Couladin,” Melaine said coldly. “And you, Heirn. And you, as well, Rhuarc. This is business of Wise Ones, and none of men save those who have asked. Go!” Rhuarc and Heirn nodded and walked away toward the smaller set of tents, talking together. Couladin glared at Rand and Mat, and at the Wise Ones, before jerking around and stalking off toward the larger camp.

The Wise Ones exchanged glances. Troubled glances, Egwene would have said, though they were almost as good as Aes Sedai at keeping their faces blank when they wanted to.

“It is not permitted,” Amys said finally. “Young man, you do not know what you have done. Go back with the others.” Her eyes brushed across Egwene and Moiraine and Lan, standing alone now with the horses near the windscoured Portal Stone. Egwene could not find any recognition for her in that glance.

“I can't.” Mat sounded desperate. “I've come this far, but this doesn't count, does it? I have to go to Rhuidean.”

“It is not permitted,” Melaine said sharply, her long redgold hair swinging as she shook her head. “You have no Aiel blood in your veins.”

Rand had been studying Mat all this time. “He comes with me,” he said suddenly. “You gave me permission, and he can come with me whether you say he can or not.” He stared back at the Wise Ones, not defiantly, merely determined, set in his mind. Egwene knew him like this; he would not back down whatever they said.

“It is not permitted,” Melaine said firmly, addressing her sisters. She pulled her shawl up to cover her head. “The law is clear. No woman may go to Rhuidean more than twice, no man more than once, and none at all save they have the blood of Aiel.”

Seana shook her head. “Much is changing, Melaine. The old ways...”

“If he is the one,” Bair said, “the Time of Change is upon us. Aes Sedai stand on Chaendaer, and Aan'allein with his shifting cloak. Can we hold to the old ways still? Knowing how much is to change?”

“We cannot hold,” Amys said. “All stands on the edge of change, now. Melaine?” The golden haired woman looked at the mountains around them, and the fog shrouded city below, then sighed and nodded. “It is done,” Amys said, turning to Rand and Mat. “You,” she began, then paused. “By what name do you call yourself?”

“Rand al'Thor.”

“Mat. Mat Cauthon.”

Amys nodded. “You, Rand al'Thor, must go into the heart of Rhuidean, to the very center. If you wish to go with him, Mat Cauthon, so be it, but know that most men who enter Rhuidean's heart do not come back, and some return mad. You may carry neither food nor water, in remembrance of our wanderings after the Breaking. You must go to Rhuidean unarmed, save with your hands and your own heart, to honor the Jenn. If you have weapons, place them on the ground before us. They will be here for you when you return. If you return.”

Rand unsheathed his belt knife and laid it at Amys's feet, then after a moment added the green stone carving of the round little man. “That is the best I can do,” he said.

Mat began with his belt knife and kept right on, pulling knives from his sleeves and under his coat, even one from down the back of his neck, fashioning a pile that seemed to impress even the Aiel women. He made as if to stop, looked at the women, then took two more from each boot top. “I forgot them,” he said with a grin and shrug. The Wise Ones' unblinking looks wiped his grin away.

“They are pledged to Rhuidean,” Amys said formally, looking over the men's heads, and the other three responded together, “Rhuidean belongs to the dead.”

“They may not speak to the living until they return,” she intoned, and again the others answered. “The dead do not speak to the living.”

“We do not see them, until they stand among the living once more.” Amys drew her shawl across her eyes, and one by one the other three did the same. Faces hidden, they spoke in unison. “Begone from among the living, and do not haunt us with memories of what is lost. Speak not of what the dead see.” Silent then, they stood there, holding their shawls up, waiting.

Rand and Mat looked at one another. Egwene wanted to go to them, to speak to them — they wore the fixed toosteady faces of men who did not want anyone to know they were uneasy or afraid — but that might break the ceremony.

Finally Mat barked a laugh. “Well, I suppose the dead can talk to each other, at least. I wonder if this counts for.... No matter. Do you suppose it's all right if we ride?”

“I don't think so,” Rand said. “I think we have to walk.”

“Oh, burn my aching feet. We might as well get on with it then. It'll take half the afternoon just to get there. If we're lucky.”

Rand gave Egwene a reassuring smile as they started down the mountain, as if to convince her there was no danger, nothing untoward. Mat's grin was the sort he wore when doing something particularly foolish, like trying to dance on the peak of a roof.

“You aren't going to do anything... crazy... are you?” Mat said. “I mean to come back alive.”

“So do I,” Rand replied. “So do I.”

They passed from hearing, growing smaller and smaller as they descended. When they had dwindled to tiny shapes, barely distinguishable as people, the Wise Ones lowered their shawls.

Straightening her dress, and wishing she were not so sweaty, Egwene climbed the short distance to them leading Mist. “Amys? I am Egwene al'Vere. You said I should —”

Amys cut her off with a raised hand, and looked to where Lan was leading Mandarb and Pips and Jeade'en, behind Moiraine and Aldieb. “This is women's business, now, Aan'allein. You must stand aside. Go to the tents. Rhuarc will offer you water and shade.”

Lan waited for Moiraine's slight nod before bowing and walking off in the direction Rhuarc had gone. The shifting cloak hanging down his back sometimes gave him the appearance of a disembodied head and arms floating across the ground ahead of the three horses.

“Why do you call him that?” Moiraine asked when he was out of earshot. “One Man. Do you know him?”

“We know of him, Aes Sedai.” Amys made the title sound an address between equals. “The last of the Malkieri. The man who will not give up his war against the Shadow though his nation is long destroyed by it. There is much honor in him. I knew from the dream that if you came, it was almost certain Aan'allein would as well, but I did not know he obeyed you.”

“He is my Warder,” Moiraine said simply.

Egwene thought the Aes Sedai was troubled despite her tone, and she knew why. Almost certain Lan would come with Moiraine? Lan always followed Moiraine; he would follow her into the Pit of Doom without blinking. Nearly as interesting to Egwene was “if you came.” Had the Wise Ones know they were coming or not? Perhaps interpreting the Dream was not as straightforward as she hoped. She was about to ask, when Bair spoke.

“Aviendha? Come here.”

Aviendha had been squatting disconsolately off to one side, arms wrapped around her knees, staring at the ground. She stood slowly. If Egwene had not known better, she would have thought the other woman was afraid. Aviendha's feet dragged as she climbed to where the Wise Ones stood and set her bag and rolled wall hangings at her feet.

“It is time,” Bair said, not ungently. Still, there was no compromise in her pale blue eyes. “You have run with the spears as long as you can. Longer than you should have.”

Aviendha flung up her head defiantly. “I am a Maiden of the Spear. I do not want to be a Wise One. I will not be!”

The Wise Ones' faces hardened. Egwene was reminded of the Women's Circle back home confronting a woman who was heading off into some foolishness.

“You have already been treated more gently than it was in my day,” Amys said in a voice like stone. “I, too, refused when called. My spearsisters broke my spears before my eyes. They took me to Bair and Coedelin bound hand and foot and wearing only my skin.”

“And a pretty little doll tucked under your arm,” Bair said dryly, “to remind you how childish you were. As I remember, you ran away nine times in the first month.”

Amys nodded grimly. “And was made to blubber like a child for each of them. I only ran away five times the second month. I thought I was as strong and hard as a woman could be. I was not smart, though; it took me half a year to learn you were stronger and harder than I could ever be, Bair. Eventually I learned my duty, my obligation to the people. As you will, Aviendha. Such as you and I, we have that obligation. You are not a child. It is time to put away dolls — and spears — and become the woman you are meant to be.”

Abruptly, Egwene knew why she had felt such a kinship with Aviendha from the first, knew why Amys and the others meant her to be a Wise One. Aviendha could channel. Like herself, like Elayne and Nynaeve — and Moiraine, for that matter — she was one of those rare women who not only could be taught to channel, but who had the ability born in her, so she would touch the True Source eventually whether she knew what she was doing or not. Moiraine's face was still, calm, but Egwene saw confirmation in her eyes. The Aes Sedai had surely known from the first time she came within arm's reach of the Aiel woman, Egwene realized she could feel that same kinship with Amys and Melaine. Not with Bair or Seana, though. Only the first two could channel; she was sure of it. And now she could sense the same in Moiraine. It was the first time she had ever felt that. The Aes Sedai was a distant woman.

Some of the Wise Ones, at least, apparently saw more in Moiraine's face. “You meant to take her to your White Tower,” Bair said, “to make her one of you. She is Aiel, Aes Sedai.”

“She can be very strong if she is trained properly,” Moiraine replied. “As strong as Egwene will be. In the Tower, she can reach that strength.”

“We can teach her as well, Aes Sedai.” Melaine's voice was smooth enough, but contempt tinged her unwavering greeneyed stare. “Better. I have spoken with Aes Sedai. You coddle women in the Tower. The Threefold Land is no place for coddling. Aviendha will learn what she can do while you would still have her playing games.”

Egwene gave Aviendha a concerned look; the other woman was staring at her feet, defiance gone. If they thought training in the Tower was coddling... . She had been worked harder and disciplined more strictly as a novice than ever before in her life. She felt a true pang of sympathy for the Aiel woman.

Amys held out her hands, and Aviendha reluctantly laid her spears and buckler in them, flinching when the Wise One threw them aside to clatter on the ground. Slowly Aviendha slid her cased bow from her back and surrendered it, unbuckled the belt holding her quiver and sheathed knife. Amys took each offering and tossed it away like rubbish; Aviendha gave a little jerk each time. A tear trembled at the corner of one bluegreen eye.

“Do you have to treat her this way?” Egwene demanded angrily. Amys and the others turned flat stares on her, but she was not about to be intimidated. “You are treating things she ca

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