Fain hid his sudden elation in the act of climbing back to his feet. He had not even known of the existence of an Empress until Turak mentioned her, but access to a ruler again . . . that opened new paths, new plans. Access to a ruler with the might of the Seanchan beneath her and the Horn of Valere in her hands. Much better than making this Turak a Great King. He could wait for some parts of his plan. Softly. Mustn’t let him know how much you want it. After so long, a little more patience will not hurt. “As the High Lord wishes,” he said, trying to sound like a man who only wanted to serve.
“You seem almost eager,” Turak said, and Fain barely suppressed a wince. “I will tell you why I will not sound the Horn of Valere, or even keep it, and perhaps that will cure your eagerness. I do not wish a gift of mine to offend the Empress by his actions; if your eagerness cannot be cured, it will never be satisfied, for you will never leave these shores. Do you know that whoever blows the Horn of Valere is linked to it thereafter? That so long as he or she lives, it is no more than a horn to any other?” He did not sound as if he expected answers, and in any case, he did not pause for them. “I stand twelfth in line of succession to the Crystal Throne. If I kept the Horn of Valere, all between myself and the throne would think I meant to be first hereafter, and while the Empress, of course, wishes that we contend with one another so that the strongest and most cunning will follow her, she currently favors her second daughter, and she would not look well on any threat to Tuon. If I sounded it, even if I then laid this land at her feet, and every woman in the White Tower leashed, the Empress, may she live forever, would surely believe I meant to be more than merely her heir.”
Fain stopped himself short of suggesting how possible that would be with the aid of the Horn. Something in the High Lord’s voice suggested—as hard as Fain found it to believe—that he actually meant his wish for her to live forever. I must be patient. A worm in the root.
“The Empress’s Listeners may be anywhere,” Turak continued. “They may be anyone. Huan was born and raised in the House of Aladon, and his family for eleven generations before him, yet even he could be a Listener.” The man with the braid half made a protesting gesture, before jerking himself back to stillness. “Even a high lord or a high lady can find their deepest secrets known to Listeners, can wake to find themselves already handed over to the Seekers for Truth. Truth is always difficult to find, but the Seekers spare no pain in their search, and they will search as long as they think there is need. They make great efforts not to allow a high lord or high lady to die in their care, of course, for no man’s hand may slay one in whose veins flows the blood of Artur Hawkwing. If the Empress must order such a death, the unfortunate one is placed alive in a silken bag, and that bag hung over the side of the Tower of the Ravens and left there until it rots away. No such care would be taken for one such as you. At the Court of the Nine Moons, in Seandar, one such as you could be given to the Seekers for a shift of your eye, for a misspoken word, for a whim. Are you still eager?”
Fain managed a tremble in his knees. “I wish only to serve and advise, High Lord. I know much that may be useful.” This court of Seandar sounded a place where his plans and skills would find fertile soil.
“Until I sail back to Seanchan, you will amuse me with your tales of your family and its tradition. It is a relief to find a second man in this Light-forsaken land who can amuse me, even if you both tell lies, as I suspect. You may leave me.” No other word was spoken, but the girl with the nearly white hair and the almost-transparent robe appeared on quick feet to kneel with downcast head beside the High Lord, offering a single steaming cup on a lacquered tray.
“High Lord,” Fain said. The man with the braid, Huan, took hold of his arm, but he pulled loose. Huan’s mouth tightened angrily as Fain made his deepest bow yet. I will kill him slowly, yes. “High Lord, there are those who follow me. They mean to take the Horn of Valere. Darkfriends and worse, High Lord, and they cannot be more than a day or two behind me.”
Turak took a sip of black liquid from the thin cup balanced on long-nailed fingertips. “Few Darkfriends remain in Seanchan. Those who survive the Seekers for Truth meet the axe of the headsman. It might be amusing to meet a Darkfriend.”
“High Lord, they are dangerous. They have Trollocs with them. They are led by one who calls himself Rand al’Thor. A young man, but vile in the Shadow beyond belief, with a lying, devious tongue. In many places he has claimed to be many things, but always the Trollocs come when he is there, High Lord. Always the Trollocs come . . . and kill.”
“Trollocs,” Turak mused. “There were no Trollocs in Seanchan. But the Armies of the Night had other allies. Other things. I have often wondered if a grolm could kill a Trolloc. I will have watch kept for your Trollocs and your Darkfriends, if they are not another lie. This land wearies me with boredom.” He sighed and inhaled the fumes from his cup.
Fain let the grimacing Huan pull him out of the room, hardly even listening to the snarled lecture on what would happen if he ever again failed to leave Lord Turak’s presence when given permission to do so. He barely noticed when he was pushed into the street with a coin and instructions to return on the morrow. Rand al’Thor was his, now. I will see him
dead at last. And then the world will pay for what was done to me.
Giggling under his breath, he led his horses down into the town in search of an inn.
The river hills on which the city of Cairhien stood gave way to flatter lands and forests when Rand and the others had ridden half a day, the Shienarans still with their armor on the packhorses. There were no roads where they went, only a scattering of cart tracks, and few farms or villages. Verin pressed for speed, and Ingtar—grumbling constantly that they were letting themselves be tricked, that Fain would never have told them where he was really going, yet grumbling at the same time about riding in the opposite direction from Toman Head, as if part of him believed and Toman Head were not months away except by the way they took—Ingtar obliged her. The Gray Owl banner flew on the wind of their passage.
Rand rode with grim determination, avoiding conversation with Verin. He had this thing to do—this duty, Ingtar would have called it—and then he could be free of Aes Sedai once and for all. Perrin seemed to share something of his mood, staring straight ahead at nothing as they rode. When they finally stopped for the night at the edge of a forest, with full dark almost on them, Perrin asked Loial questions about the stedding. Trollocs would not enter a stedding; would wolves? Loial replied shortly that it was only creatures of the Shadow that were reluctant to enter stedding. And Aes Sedai, of course, since they could not touch the True Source inside a stedding, or channel the One Power. The Ogier himself appeared the most reluctant of all to go to Stedding Tsofu. Mat was the only one who seemed eager, almost desperately so. His skin looked as if he had not seen the sun in a year, and his cheeks had begun to go hollow, though he said he felt ready to run a footrace. Verin put her hands on him for Healing before he rolled into his blankets, and again before they mounted their horses in the morning, but it made no difference in how he looked. Even Hurin frowned when he looked at Mat.
The sun stood high on the second day when Verin suddenly sat up straight in her saddle and looked around. Beside her, Ingtar gave a start.
Rand could not see anything different about the forest now surrounding them. The undergrowth was not too thick; they had found an easy way under the canopy of oak and hickory, blackgum and beech, pierced here and there by a tall pine or leatherleaf, or the white slash of a paperbark. But as he followed them, he suddenly felt a chill pass through him, as though he had leaped into a Waterwood pond in winter. It flashed through him and was gone, leaving behind a feeling of refreshment. And there was a dull and distant sense of loss, too, though he could not imagine of what.
Every rider, as he reached that point, gave a jerk or made some exclamation. Hurin’s mouth dropped open, and Uno whispered, “Bloody, flaming. . . .” Then he shook his head as if he could not think of anything else to say. There was a look of recognition in Perrin’s yellow eyes.
Loial took a deep, slow breath and let it out. “It feels . . . good . . . to be back in a stedding.”
Frowning, Rand looked around. He had expected a stedding to be somehow different, but except for that one chill, the forest was the same as what they had been riding through all day. There was the sudden sense of being rested, of course. Then an Ogier stepped out from behind an oak.
She was shorter than Loial—which meant she stood head and shoulders taller than Rand—but with the same broad nose and big eyes, the same wide mouth and tufted ears. Her eyebrows were not so long as Loial’s, though, and her features seemed delicate beside his, the tufts on her ears finer. She wore a long green dress and a green cloak embroidered with flowers, and carried a bunch of silverbell blossoms as if she had been gathering them. She looked at them calmly, waiting.
Loial scrambled down from his tall horse and bowed hastily. Rand and the others did the same, if not so quickly as Loial; even Verin inclined her head. Loial gave their names formally, but he did not mention the name of his stedding.
For a moment the Ogier girl—Rand was sure she was no older than Loial—studied them, then smiled. “Be welcome to Stedding Tsofu.” Her voice was a lighter version of Loial’s, too; the softer rumble of a smaller bumblebee. “I am Erith, daughter of Iva daughter of Alar. Be welcome. We have had so few human visitors since the stonemasons left Cairhien, and now so many at once. Why, we even had some of the Traveling People, though, of course, they left when the. . . . Oh, I talk too much. I will take you to the Elders. Only. . . .” She searched among them for the one in charge, and settled finally on Verin. “Aes Sedai, you have so many men with you, and armed. Could you please leave some of them Outside? Forgive me, but it is always unsettling to have very many armed humans in the stedding at once.”
“Of course, Erith,” Verin said. “Ingtar, will you see to it?”
Ingtar gave orders to Uno, and so it was that he and Hurin were the only Shienarans to follow Erith deeper into the stedding.
Leading his horse like the others, Rand looked up as Loial came closer, with many glances at Erith up ahead with Verin and Ingtar. Hurin walked midway between, staring around in amazement, though Rand was not sure at what exactly. Loial bent to speak quietly. “Is she not beautiful, Rand? And her voice sings.”
Mat snickered, but when Loial looked at him questioningly, he said, “Very pretty, Loial. A little tall for my taste, you understand, but very pretty, I’m sure.”