Winter's Heart Page 2

“Are you blind and deaf?” Pevara snapped, shaking the Oath Rod at Yukiri. “She refused to reswear the Oath against speaking an untrue word, and it had to be more than stupid Green Ajah pride after we’d all done as much already. When I shielded her, she tried to stab me! Does that shout innocence? Does it? For all she knew, we just meant to talk at her until our tongues dried up! What reason would she have to expect more?”

“Thank you both,” Saerin put in dryly, “for stating the obvious. It’s too late to go back, Yukiri, so we might as well go forward. And if I were you, Pevara, I wouldn’t be shouting at one of the four women in the whole Tower I knew I could trust.”

Yukiri flushed and shifted her shawl, and Pevara looked a trifle abashed. A trifle. They might all be Sitters, but Saerin had most definitely taken charge. Seaine was unsure how she felt about that. A few hours ago, she and Pevara had been two old friends alone on a dangerous quest, equals reaching decisions together; now they had allies. She should be grateful for more companions. They were not in the Hall, though, and they could not claim Sitter’s rights on this. Tower hierarchies had taken over, all the subtle and not-so-subtle distinctions as to who stood where with respect to whom. In truth, Saerin had been both novice and Accepted twice as long as most of them, but forty years as a Sitter, longer than anyone else in the Hall, counted for a great deal. Seaine would be lucky if Saerin asked her opinion, much less her advice, before deciding anything at all. Foolish, yet the knowledge pricked like a thorn in her foot.

“The Trollocs are dragging her toward the kettle,” Doesine said suddenly, her voice grating. A thin keening escaped thorough Talene’s clenched teeth; she shook so hard she seemed to vibrate. “I — I do not know if I can . . . can flaming make myself . . .”

“Bring her awake,” Saerin commanded without so much as glancing at anyone else to see what they thought. “Stop sulking, Yukiri, and be ready.”

The Gray gave her a proud, furious stare, but when Doesine let her weaves fade and Talene’s blue eyes fluttered open, the glow of saidar surrounded Yukiri and she shielded the woman lying on the Chair without uttering a word. Saerin was in charge, and everyone knew it, and that was that. A very sharp thorn.

A shield hardly seemed necessary. Her face a mask of terror, Talene trembled and panted as though she had run ten miles at top speed. She still sank into the soft surface, but without Doesine channeling, it no longer formed itself to her. Talene stared at the ceiling with bulging eyes, then squeezed them shut, but they popped right open again. Whatever memories lay behind her eyelids were nothing she wanted to face.

Covering the two strides to the Chair, Pevara thrust the Oath Rod at the distraught woman. “Forswear all oaths that bind you and retake the Three Oaths, Talene,” she said harshly. Talene recoiled from the Rod as from a poisonous serpent, then jerked the other way as Saerin bent over her.

“Next time, Talene, it’s the cookpot for you. Or the Myrddraal’s tender attentions.” Saerin’s face was implacable, but her tone made it seem soft by comparison. “No waking up before. And if that doesn’t do, there’ll be another time, and another, as many as it takes if we must stay down here until summer.” Doesine opened her mouth in protest before giving over with a grimace. Only she among them knew how to operate the Chair, but in this group, she stood as low as Seaine.

Talene continued to stare up at Saerin. Tears filled her big eyes, and she began to weep, great shuddering, hopeless sobs. Blindly, she reached out, groping until Pevara stuck the Oath Rod into her hand. Embracing the Source, Pevara channeled a thread of Spirit to the Rod. Talene gripped the wrist-thick rod so hard that her knuckles turned white, yet she just lay there sobbing.

Saerin straightened. “I fear it’s time to put her back to sleep, Doesine.”

Talene’s tears redoubled, but she mumbled through them. “I — forswear — all oaths — that bind me.” With the last word, she began to howl.

Seaine jumped, then swallowed hard. She personally knew the pain of removing a single oath and had speculated on the agony of removing more than one at once, but now the reality was in front of her. Talene screamed till there was no breath left in her, then pulled in air only to scream again, until Seaine half expected people to come running down from the Tower itself. The tall Green convulsed, flinging her arms and legs about, then suddenly arched up till only her heels and head touched the gray surface, every muscle clenched, her whole body spasming wildly.

As abruptly as the seizure had begun Talene collapsed bonelessly and lay there weeping like a lost child. The Oath Rod rolled from her limp hand down the sloping gray surface. Yukiri murmured something with the sound of a fervent prayer. Doesine kept whispering “Light!” over and over in a shaken voice. “Light! Light!”

Pevara scooped up the Rod and closed Talene’s fingers around it again. There was no mercy in Seaine’s friend, not in this matter. “Now swear the Three Oaths,” she spat.

For an instant, it seemed Talene might refuse, but slowly she repeated to oaths that made them all Aes Sedai and held them together. To speak no word that was not true. Never to make a weapon for one man to kill another. Never to use to One Power as a weapon, except in defense of her life, or that of her Warder or another sister. At the end, she began weeping in silence, shaking without a sound. Perhaps it was the oaths tightening down on her. They were uncomfortable when fresh. Perhaps.

Then Pevara told the other oath required of her. Talene flinched, but muttered the words in tones of hopelessness. “I vow to obey all five of you absolutely.” Otherwise, she only stared straight ahead dully, tears trailing down her cheeks.

“Answer me truthfully,” Saerin told her. “Are you of the Black Ajah?”

“I am.” The words creaked, as if Talene’s throat were rusty.

The simple words froze Seaine in a way she had never expected. She had set out to hunt the Black Ajah, after all, and believed in her quarry as many sisters did not. She had laid hands on another sister, on a Sitter, had helped bundle Talene along deserted basement hallways wrapped in flows of Air, had broken a dozen Tower laws, committed serious crimes, all to hear an answer she had been nearly certain of before the question was asked. Now she had heard. The Black Ajah really did exist. She was staring at a Black sister, a Darkfriend who wore the shawl. And believing turned out to be a pale shadow of confronting. Only her jaw clenched near to cramping kept her teeth from chattering. She struggled to compose herself, to think rationally. But nightmares were aw

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