Winter's Heart Page 35

“A fifth sept,” Therava replied flatly. For her, also, wind and snow might as well not have existed. “Five, while seventy-eight remain scattered on the wind. Well that you remember your pledge to reunite the Shaido, Sevanna. We will not wait forever.”

Not lightning bolts, now. Sevanna’s eyes were green volcanoes erupting. “I always do what I say, Therava. Well that you remember that. And remember that you advise me. I speak for the clan chief.”

Wheeling her gelding, she drummed her heels on the animal’s ribs, trying to make him gallop back toward the river of people and wagons, though no horse could do so in that depth of snow. The black managed something faster than a walk, but not much. Their faces expressionless as masks, Therava and Someryn watched horse and rider fade into the falling white veil.

An important exchange, at least to Faile. She knew tension tight as a harpstring when she saw it, and mutual hatred. A weakness that might be exploited, if she could puzzle out how. And it seemed the Shaido were not all here after all. Though more than enough seemed to be, judging by the unending river of them passing by. Galina reached her then, and anything else fled from her mind.

Smoothing her face to a ragged semblance of composure, Galina clutched Faile’s head in both hands without speaking a word. Faile might have gasped; she could not be sure. The world seemed to fly by as she jerked halfway to her feet. Hours streaked by, or heartbeats crawled. The white-clad woman stepped back, and Faile collapsed on her face atop the brown blanket to lie panting against the rough wool. Her feet no longer hurt, but Healing always brought its own hunger, and she had eaten nothing since yesterday’s breakfast. She could have wolfed down plates of anything that even looked like food. She no longer felt tired, but her muscles were water instead of pudding. Pushing herself up with arms that wanted to fold under her weight, she unsteadily gathered the gray-striped blanket again. She felt stunned as much by what she had seen on Galina’s hand just before Galina seized her as she did by the Healing. Gratefully she let the scarred man hold the steaming mug to her mouth. She was not sure her fingers could have held on to it.

Galina was wasting no time. A dazed Alliandre was just attempting to rise from flat on her face, her striped covering blanket sliding to the ground unnoticed. Her welts were gone, of course. Maighdin still lay sprawled between her two blankets, loose limbs poking out in every direction and twitching as she feebly tried to collect herself. Chiad, with Galina’s hands on her head, lurched all the way to her feet, arms flung wide, breath leaving her in a loud rush. The yellowed swelling on her face faded away even as Faile watched. The Maiden dropped as if poleaxed when Galina moved on to Bain, though she began stirring almost at once.

Faile attended to her tea, and furious thought. The gold on Galina’s finger was a Great Serpent ring. She might have thought it a strange present from whoever gave the woman her other jewels if not for the Healing. Galina was Aes Sedai. She must be. But what was an Aes Sedai doing here, in gai’shain robes? Not to mention apparently ready to lick Sevanna’s wrist and kiss Therava’s feet! An Aes Sedai!

Standing over a limp Arrela, the last in the line, Galina panted slightly from the effort of Healing so many so quickly, and gazed at Therava as though hopeful for a word of praise. Without so much as a look at her, the two Wise Ones started toward the river of Shaido, their heads together, talking. After a moment, the Aes Sedai scowled and lifted her robes, hurrying after them as quickly as she could. She glanced back more than once, though. Faile had the feeling that she did so even after the falling snow put a curtain between them.

More gai’shain came the other way, a dozen men and women, and only one was Aiel, a lanky redhead with a thin white scar from hairline to jaw. Faile recognized short, pallid Cairhienin, and others she thought might be Amadician or Altaran, taller and darker, and even a bronze-skinned Domani. The Domani and one of the other women wore wide belts of shiny golden chain tight around their waists, and collars of the flat links around their necks. So did one of the men! In any case, jewelry on gai’shain seemed unimportant except as an oddity, especially alongside the food and clothing they brought.

Some of the newcomers carried baskets with loaves of bread and yellow cheese and dried beef, and the gai’shain already there with their water bags of tea provided drink to wash it down. Faile was not alone in stuffing her mouth with unseemly haste even while she dressed, clumsily and with more mind to speed than modesty. The hooded white robe and two thick under-robes seemed wondrously warm, just to keep the air off, and so were heavy woolen stockings and soft Aiel boots that laced to her knees — even the boots had been bleached white! — but they did not fill up the hole in her middle. The meat was tough as boot leather, the cheese nearly rock hard and the bread not much softer, yet they tasted like a feast! Her mouth watered for every bite.

Chewing a mouthful of cheese, she knotted the last bootlace and stood, smoothing down her robes. As she reached for some more bread, one of the women wearing gold, plump and plain and weary-eyed, took another belt of golden chain out of a cloth sack hanging from her shoulder. Hastily swallowing, Faile stepped back. “I would rather not have that, thank you.” She had a sinking feeling she had been wrong to dismiss the adornments as unimportant.

“What you want does not matter,” the plump woman replied tiredly. Her accent was Amadician, and cultured. “You serve the Lady Sevanna, now. You will wear what you are given and do as you are told, or you will be punished until you see the error of your ways.”

A few paces away, Maighdin was fending off the Domani, resisting being fitted with a collar. Alliandre was backing away from the man who wore golden chains, her hands raised and a sickly expression on her face. He held out one of the belts toward her. Thankfully, they were both looking to Faile, though. Perhaps that switching in the forest had done some good.

Exhaling heavily, Faile nodded to them, then allowed the plump gai’shain to fasten the wide belt around her. With her example, the other two let their hands fall. It seemed one blow too many for Alliandre, who stood staring at nothing as she was belted and collared. Maighdin did her best to glare a hole through the slim Domani. Faile tried smiling encouragement, but smiling was difficult. To her, the collar’s catch snapping shut sounded like a prison door being locked. Belt and collar could be removed as easily as they had been put on, but gai’shain serving “the Lady Sevanna” surely would be watched very closely. Disaster was piling on disaster. Things had to get better

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