A Crown of Swords (The Wheel of Time #7)


Sorilea’s eyes passed across the prisoners without pausing, and she went right on talking softly to Edarra and another Wise One, a lean, yellow-haired woman he did not know by name. If only he could make out what they were saying. They walked by, not a line changing on those three unruffled faces, but their scents were another matter. When Sorilea’s gaze swept over the Aes Sedai, the smell of her went cold and distant, grim and purposeful, and as she spoke to the other two, their scents changed to match hers.

“A fine bloody stew,” he growled.

“Trouble?” Aram asked, sitting up straighter on his heels, right hand poised to dart for the wolfhead-pommeled sword hilt jutting above his shoulder. He had become very good with that sword in a very short time, and he was never loath to use it.

“There’s no trouble, Aram.” That was not quite a lie. Jolted out of his glum brooding, Perrin really looked at the others for the first time. At all of them together. He did not like what he saw, and the Aes Sedai were only part.

Cairhienin and Mayeners watched Aiel suspiciously, which was no more than the Aiel’s return suspicion, especially toward the Cairhienin. No real surprise there. Aiel did have a certain reputation, after all, for being none too friendly to anyone born this side of the Spine of the World, Cairhienin least of all. Simple truth was, Aiel and Cairhienin hated each other about as hard as it was possible to hate. Neither side had really put their enmity aside—the best that could be said was that it was on a loose leash—yet up to now he had been convinced they would hold it in. For Rand’s sake if no other reason. A mood hung in the camp, though, a tension that had wound everyone tight. Rand was free now, and temporary alliances were just that, after all; temporary. Aiel hefted their spears when they looked at the Cairhienin, and the Cairhienin grimly fingered their swords. So did the Mayeners; they had no quarrel with the Aiel, had never fought them except for the Aiel War when everybody had, but if it came to a fight, there was little doubt which side they would be on. The Two Rivers men, too, probably.

The dark mood had settled deepest into the Asha’man and the Wise Ones, though. The black-coated men paid no more heed to the Maidens and the siswai’aman than to Cairhienin or Mayeners or Two Rivers men, but they studied the Wise Ones with faces almost as dark as those they directed at the Aes Sedai. Very likely they made small distinction between one woman who could wield the Power and another. Any could be an enemy and dangerous; thirteen together were deadly dangerous, and there were better than ninety Wise Ones in the camp or nearby. Fewer than half the number of Asha’man, but still enough to do damage if they chose. Women who could channel, yet they seemed to follow Rand; they seemed to follow Rand, yet they were women who could channel.

The Wise Ones looked at the Asha’man only a trifle less coldly than they did the Aes Sedai. The Asha’man were men who could channel, but they followed Rand; they followed Rand, but. . . . Rand was a special case. According to Gaul, his channeling was not mentioned in the prophecies about their Car’a’carn, but the Aiel seemed to pretend that inconvenient fact did not exist. The Asha’man were not in those prophecies at all, though. It must be like discovering you had a pride of rabid lions fighting on your side. How long would they remain loyal? Maybe it would be better to put them down now.

His head fell back against the wagon wheel, eyes closed, and his chest heaved in silent, mirthless laughter. Think of the good things on High Chasaline. Burn me, he thought wryly, I should have gone with Rand. No, it was best to know, and better soon than late. But what in the Light was he to do? If the Aiel and the Cairhienin and Mayeners turned on one another, or worse, the Asha’man and the Wise Ones. . . . A barrel full of snakes, and the only way to find out which were vipers was to stick your hand in. Light, I wish I was home, with Faile, and a forge to work, and nobody calling me bloody lord.

“Your horse, Lord Perrin. You didn’t say whether you wanted Stepper or Stayer, so I saddled—” At Perrin’s golden-eyed glare, Kenly Maerin shied back into the dun stallion he was leading.

Perrin made a soothing gesture. Not Kenly’s fault. What could not be mended had to be endured. “Easy, lad. You did right. Stepper will do just fine. You chose well.” He hated speaking to Kenly that way. Short and stocky, Kenly was barely old enough to marry or leave home—and certainly not old enough for the patchy beard he was trying to cultivate in imitation of Perrin—yet he had fought Trollocs at Emond’s Field and done well yesterday. But he grinned broadly at praise from Lord Perrin bloody Goldeneyes.

Rising, Perrin took his axe from where he had propped it under the wagon, out of sight and for a little while out of mind, and thrust the haft through the loop on his belt. A heavy half-moon blade balanced by a thick curving spike; a thing made for no other purpose than killing. The axe haft felt too familiar to his hands for comfort. Did he even remember what a good forge-hammer felt like? There were other things besides “Lord Perrin” that it might be too late to change. A friend had once told him to keep the axe until he began to like using it. The thought made him shiver in spite of the heat.

He swung into Stepper’s saddle, shadowed by Aram with the gray, and sat facing south, into the wagon circle. At least half again as tall as even the tallest of the Aiel, Loial was just stepping carefully over crossed wagon tongues. With the size of him, he did look as though he might break one of the heavy wooden shafts with a heedless step. As usual, the Ogier had a book in his hand, a thick finger marking his place, and the capacious pockets of his long coat bulged with more. He had spent the morning in a tiny clump of trees he called restful and shady, but whatever the shade among those trees, the heat was affecting him, too. He looked tired, and his coat was undone, his shirt unlaced, and his boots rolled down below his knees. Or maybe it was more than the heat. Just inside the wagons Loial paused, peering at the Aes Sedai and the Asha’man, and his tufted ears quivered uneasily. Eyes big as teacups rolled toward the Wise Ones, and his ears vibrated again. Ogier were sensitive to the mood of a place.

When he saw Perrin, Loial came striding across the camp. Sitting his saddle, Perrin was two or three hands shorter than Loial standing. “Perrin,” Loial whispered, “this is all wrong. It isn’t right, and it is dangerous besides.” For an Ogier it was a whisper. He sounded like a bumblebee the size of a mastiff. Some of the Aes Sedai turned their heads.

“Could you speak a little louder?” Perrin said almost under his breath. “I think somebody in Andor didn’t hear. In