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


Stamping his foot to settle it in the second boot, he fetched his sword belt from the wardrobe, and a red coat worked in gold, the same he had worn to the Sea Folk. “What bargain did Merana make for me?” he asked, and she made an exasperated sound in her throat.

“None, as of this morning,” she said impatiently. “She and Rafela haven’t left the ship since we did, but they’ve sent half a dozen messages asking if you’re well enough to return. I don’t think the bargaining has gone well for them without you. I suppose it’s too much to hope that’s where you’re going.”

“Not yet,” he told her. Min said nothing, but she said it very loudly, fists on her hips and one eyebrow raised high. Well, she would know most of it soon enough.

In the anteroom, all the Asha’man except Dashiva sprang out of their chairs when Rand appeared with Min. Staring at nothing and talking to himself, Dashiva did not notice until Rand reached the Rising Sun set in the floor, and then he blinked several times before rising.

Rand addressed himself to Adley while fastening the Dragonshaped buckle of his sword belt. “The army’s reached the hillforts in Illian already?” He wanted to take one of the gilded armchairs, but would not let himself. “How? It should have been several more days at the best. At best.” Flinn and Narishma looked as startled as Dashiva; none of them had known where Adley and Hopwil had gone—or Morr. Deciding who to trust was always the difficulty, and trust a razor’s edge.

Adley drew himself up. There was something about his eyes, beneath those thick eyebrows. He had seen the wolf, as they said in Cairhien. “The High Lord Weiramon left the foot behind and pressed forward with the horse,” he said, reporting stiffly. “The Aiel kept up, of course.” He frowned. “We encountered Aiel yesterday. Shaido; I don’t know how they got there. There were maybe nine or ten thousand, altogether, but they didn’t seem to have any Wise Ones who could channel with them, and they didn’t really slow us down. We reached the hillforts at noon today.”

Rand wanted to snarl. Leaving the foot behind! Did Weiramon think he was going to take palisaded forts on hilltops with horsemen? Probably. The man probably would have left the Aiel behind too, if he could have outrun them. Fool nobles and their fool honor! Still, it did not matter. Except to the men who died because the High Lord Weiramon was contemptuous of anyone who did not fight from horseback.

“Eben and I began destroying the first palisades soon as we arrived,” Adley went on. “Weiramon didn’t much like that; I think he would have stopped us, but he was afraid to. Anyway, we began setting fire to the logs and blowing holes in the walls, but before we more than started, Sammael came. A man channeling saidin, at least, and a lot stronger than Eben or me. As strong as you, my Lord Dragon, I’d say.”

“He was there right away?” Rand said incredulously, but then he understood. He had been sure Sammael would stay safe in Illian behind defenses woven of the Power if he thought he had to face Rand; too many of the Forsaken had tried, and most were dead now. In spite of himself, Rand laughed—and had to hug his side; laughing hurt. All that elaborate deception to convince Sammael he would be anywhere but with the invading army, to bring the man out of Illian, and all made unnecessary by a knife in Padan Fain’s hand. Two days. By this time, everybody who had eyes-and-ears in Cairhien—which certainly included the Forsaken—knew that the Dragon Reborn lay on the edge of death. As well toss wet wood on the fire as think otherwise. “Men scheme and women plot, but the Wheel weaves as it will”; that was how they said it in Tear. “Go on,” he said. “Morr was with you last night?”

“Yes, my Lord Dragon; Fedwin comes every night, just like he’s supposed to. Last night, it was plain as Eben’s nose we’d reach the forts today.”

“I don’t understand any of this.” Dashiva sounded upset; a muscle in his cheek was twitching. “You’ve lured him out, but to what purpose? As soon as he feels a man channel with anything near your strength, he’ll flee back to Illian and whatever traps and alarms he has woven. You won’t get at him there; he will know as soon as a gateway opens within a mile of the city.”

“We can save the army,” Adley burst out, “that’s what we can do. Weiramon was still sending charges against that fort when I left, and Sammael cuts every one to rags despite anything Eben or I can do.” He shifted the arm with the singed sleeve. “We have to strike back and run immediately, and even so, he nearly burned us where we stood, more than once. The Aiel are taking casualties too. They’re only fighting the Illianers who come out—the other hillforts must be emptying, so many were coming when I left—but any time Sammael sees fifty of us together, Aiel or anybody, he rips them apart. If there were three of him, or even two, I’m not sure I’d find anybody alive when I go back.” Dashiva stared at him as if at a madman, and Adley shrugged suddenly, as though feeling the lightness of his bare black collar compared with the sword and Dragon on the older man’s. “Forgive me, Asha’man,” he muttered, abashed, then added in a still lower voice, “But we can at least save them.”

“We will,” Rand assured him. Just not the way Adley expected. “You’re all going to help me kill Sammael today.” Only Dashiva looked startled; the other men just nodded. Not even the Forsaken frightened them anymore.

Rand expected argument out of Min, maybe a demand to come along, but she surprised him. “I expect you would as soon no one found out you’re gone before they have to, sheepherder.” He nodded and she sighed. Perhaps the Forsaken had to depend on pigeons and eyes-and-ears just like anyone else, but being too sure could be fatal.

“The Maidens will want to come if they know, Min.” They would want to, and he would be hard-pressed to refuse. If he could refuse. Yet the disappearance even of Nandera and whoever she had on guard might be too much.

Min sighed again. “I suppose I could go talk to Nandera. I might be able to keep them out in the hallway for an hour, but they won’t be pleased with me when they find out.” He almost laughed again before he remembered his side; they definitely would not be pleased with her, or with him. “More to the point, farmboy, Amys won’t be pleased. Or Sorilea. The things I let you get me into.”

He opened his mouth to tell her he had not asked her to do anything, yet before he could utter a word, she moved very close. Looking up at him through long lashes, she put a hand on his chest, tapping her fingers. She smiled warmly and kept her voice soft, but the fingers were a giveaway. “If you let anything happen to you, Rand al’Thor, I’ll give Cadsuane a hand whether she needs one or not.” Her smile brightened for a moment, almost cheerily, before she turned for the doors. He watched her go; she might make his head spin sometimes—nearly every woman he had ever met had done that at least a time or two—but she did have a way of walking th