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


“Murandy is like Altara, Mother. Neighbor too busy scheming against neighbor, or outright fighting him, to band together for anything short of a war, and not to any great degree then.” His tone was very dry. He had been Captain-General of the Queen’s Guards in Andor, with years of border skirmishes against the Murandians behind him. “Andor will be another matter, I fear. I am not looking forward to that.” He turned another way, climbing a gentle slope to avoid three wagons rumbling over rocks in the same direction.

Egwene tried not to grimace. Andor. Before, he had just said no. These were the tail end of the Cumbar Hills, somewhat south of Lugard, the capital of Murandy. Even if they were lucky, the border of Andor lay at least ten days ahead.

“And when we reach Tar Valon, Lord Bryne. How do you plan to take the city?”

“No one has asked me that yet, Mother.” She had only thought his voice was dry before; now it was dry. “By the time we reach Tar Valon, the Light willing, I’ll have two or three times as many men as I do now.” Egwene winced at the idea of paying so many soldiers; he did not seem to notice. “With that, I will lay siege. The hardest part will be finding ships, and sinking them to block Northharbor and Southharbor. The harbors are as much the key as holding the bridge towns, Mother. Tar Valon is larger than Cairhien and Caemlyn together. Once food stops going in. . . .” He shrugged. “Most of soldiering is waiting, when it isn’t marching.”

“And if you don’t have that many soldiers?” She had never thought of all those people going hungry, women and children. She had never really thought of anyone being involved except the Aes Sedai, and the soldiers. How could she have been so foolish? She had seen the results of war in Cairhien. Bryne seemed to take it so lightly. But then, he was a soldier; privation and death must be everyday to soldiers. “What if you only have . . . say . . . what you do now?”

“Siege?” Apparently some of what they had been saying had finally broken into whatever Myrelle was thinking. She booted the sorrel forward, making a number of men jump aside, some falling on their faces. A few opened their mouths angrily, then saw her ageless features and shut their jaws again, glowering. They might as well not have existed for all of her. “Artur Hawkwing besieged Tar Valon for twenty years and failed.” Abruptly she realized ears were about and lowered her voice, but it was still acid. “Do you expect us to wait twenty years?”

That acid washed over Gareth Bryne without leaving a stain. “Would you prefer a direct assault right off, Myrelle Sedai?” He could have been asking whether she wanted her tea sweet or bitter. “Several of Hawkwing’s generals tried, and their men were slaughtered. No army has ever managed to breach Tar Valon’s walls.”

That was not strictly true, Egwene knew. In the Trolloc Wars, an army of Dreadlord-led Trollocs had actually plundered and burned a part of the White Tower itself. At the end of the War of the Second Dragon, an army trying to rescue Guaire Amalasan before he was gentled had reached the Tower, too. Myrelle could not know, though, much less Bryne. Access to those secret histories, hidden deep in the Tower library, was set out in a law that was itself secret, and revealing the existence of either records or law was treason. Siuan said if you read between the lines, you found hints of things that had not been recorded even there. Aes Sedai were very good at hiding truth when they thought it necessary, even from themselves.

“With a hundred thousand or what I have now,” Bryne continued, “I will be the first. If I can block the harbors. Hawkwing’s generals never managed that. The Aes Sedai always raised those iron chains in time to stop the ships getting into the harbor mouth and sank them before they could be placed to hinder trade. Food and supplies got in. It will come to your assault eventually, but not until the city’s weakened, if I have my way.” His voice was still . . . ordinary. A man discussing an outing. His head turned toward Myrelle, and though his tone did not change, the intensity in his eyes was evident even behind his faceguard. “And you all agreed I would, when it came to the army. I won’t throw men away.”

Myrelle opened her mouth, then closed it slowly. Plainly she wanted to say something but did not know what. They had given their word, she and Sheriam and those who had been running things when he appeared in Salidar, however much giving it galled. However much the Sitters tried to get round it. They had given no word. Bryne acted as though they had, though, and so far he had managed to get away with it. So far.

Egwene felt ill. She had seen war. Images flashed in her head, men fighting, killing their way through the streets of Tar Valon, dying. Her eyes fell on a square-jawed fellow chewing his tongue while he sharpened a pikehead. Would he die in those streets? The grizzled, balding man running his fingers so carefully down each arrow before sliding the shaft into his quiver? And there. That lad swaggering in his high riding boots. He looked too young to shave. Light, so many were boys. How many would die? For her. For justice, for the right, for the world, but at the heart, for her. Siuan raised her hand, but did not complete the gesture. Had she been close enough, she could not pat the Amyrlin Seat on the shoulder where everyone could see.

Egwene straightened her back. “Lord Bryne,” she said in a tight voice, “what is it you want me to see?” She thought he half-glanced at Myrelle before answering.

“Better you see it for yourself, Mother.”

Egwene thought her head might break open. If Siuan’s clues led to anything at all, she might just skin Myrelle. If they did not, she might skin Siuan. And she might throw Gareth Bryne in for good measure.

Chapter 12

A Morning of Victory

The crooked hills and ridges surrounding the camp showed every sign of the drought and unseasonable heat. The unholy heat in truth; even the dullest scullion scrubbing pots saw the Dark One’s touch on the world. The true forest lay behind them to the west, but twisted oaks grew out of the rocky slopes, sourgums and pines of unfamiliar shape, and trees Egwene had no names for, brown and yellow and bare-branched. Not winter-bare or brown. Starved for moisture and coolness. Dying, if the weather did not change soon. Beyond the last of the soldiers a river ran off south and west, the Reisendrelle, twenty paces wide and flanked on either side by hard-baked mud studded with stones. Swirling around rocks that might have made crossing hazardous in other days, the water rose short of the horses’ knees as they forded. Egwene felt her own problems dwindle in size. Despite her head, she offered a small prayer for Nynaeve and Elayne. Their search was as important as anything she did. More. The world would live if she failed