A Small Room in Sienda
Elayne held herself against the swaying of the coach on its leather hinges, trying to ignore Nynaeve's sour face across from her. The curtains were drawn back despite a sprinkling of dust that sometimes whipped through the windows; the breeze blew away some of the late-afternoon heat. Rolling, forested hills streamed past, the woods occasionally broken by short stretches of farmland. A lord's manor, in the fashion of Amadicia, topped one of the hills a few miles from the road, a huge stone foundation fifty feet high with an elaborate wooden structure atop that, all ornate balconies and red-tiled roofs. Once it all would have been stone, but many years had passed since a lord needed a fortress in Amadicia, and the king's law now required the wooden construction. No rebel lord would be able to hold out against the king for long. Of course, the Children of the Light were exempted from that law; they were immune to a number of Amadician laws. She had had to learn something of the laws and customs of other countries from the time she was a child.
Cleared fields dotted the distant hills, too, like brown patches on a mostly green cloth, the men working them seeming ants. Everything looked dry; one bolt of lightning would set a fire that could burn for leagues. But lightning meant rain, and the few clouds in the sky were too high and thin for that. Idly she wondered whether she could make it rain. She had learned considerable control over weather. Still, it was very difficult if you had to begin with nothing.
"Is my Lady bored?" Nynaeve asked acidly. "The way my Lady is staring at the countryside - down my Lady's nose - I think my Lady must want to travel faster." Reaching back over her head, she pushed open a small flap and shouted, "More speed, Thom. Don't argue with me! You hold your tongue, too, Juilin Thief-catcher! I said more speed!"
The wooden flap banged down, but Elayne could still hear Thom muttering loudly. Cursing, very likely; Nynaeve had been barking at the men all day. A moment later his whip cracked, and the coach racketed ahead even faster, rocking so hard that both women bounced on the golden-colored silk seats. The silk had been thoroughly dusted when Thom bought the vehicle, but the padding had long since gone hard. Yet jounced about as she was, the set of Nynaeve's jaw said she would not ask Thom to slow again right after ordering him to go faster.
"Please, Nynaeve," Elayne said. "I -" The other woman cut her off.
"Is my Lady uncomfortable? I know ladies are used to comfort, the sort of thing a poor maid wouldn't know about, but surely my Lady wants to make the next town before dark? So my Lady's maid can serve my Lady's supper and turn down my Lady's bed?" Her teeth clicked shut as the seat coming up met her coming down, and she glowered at Elayne as though it were her fault.
Elayne sighed heavily. Nynaeve had seen the point, back in Mardecin. A lady never traveled without a maid, and two ladies would probably have a pair. Unless they put Thom or Juilin in a dress, that meant one of them. Nynaeve had seen that Elayne knew more of how ladies behaved; she had put it very gently, and Nynaeve usually knew sense when she heard it. Usually. But that was back in Mistress Macura's shop, after they had filled the two women with their own horrible concoction.
Leaving Mardecin, they had traveled hard until midnight to reach a small village with an inn, where they had roused the innkeeper from his bed to rent two cramped rooms with narrow beds, waking before first light yesterday to push on, skirting around Amador by a few miles. Neither of them would be taken for anything but what they claimed, on sight, but neither felt comfortable about passing through a great city full of Whitecloaks. The Fortress of the Light was in Amador. Elayne had heard it said that the king reigned in Amador, but Pedron Niall ruled.
The trouble had started last night, at a place called Bellon, on a muddy stream grandly named the Gaean River, some twenty miles or so beyond the capital. The Bellon Ford Inn was larger than the fi 15515i87p rst, and Mistress Alfara, the innkeeper, offered the Lady Morelin a private dining room, which Elayne could not very well refuse. Mistress Alfara had been sure that only the Lady Morelin's maid, Nana, would know how to serve her properly; ladies did require everything just so, the woman said, as well they should, and her girls were simply not used to ladies. Nana would know exactly how the Lady Morelin wanted her bed turned down, and would prepare her a nice bath after a hot day of travel. The list of things that Nana would do exactly right for her mistress had been endless.
Elayne was not sure whether Arnadician nobility expected such or Mistress Alfara was just getting work out of an outlander's servant. She had tried to spare Nynaeve, but the woman had been as full of "as you wish" and "my Lady is most particular" as the innkeeper. She would have seemed a fool, or at least odd, to press it. They were trying to avoid attracting undue attention.
As long as they had been in Bellon, Nynaeve had acted the perfect lady's maid in public. In private was another matter. Elayne wished the woman would just revert to herself instead of bludgeoning her with a lady's maid from the Blight. Apologies had been met with "my Lady is too kind" or simply ignored. I will not apologize again, she thought for the fiftieth time. Not for what was not my fault.
"I have been thinking, Nynaeve." Gripping a hanging strap, she felt like the ball in the children's game called Bounce in Andor, where you tried to keep a colorful wooden bail bouncing up and down on a paddle. She would not ask for the coach to be slowed, though. She could stand it as long as Nynaeve did. The woman was so stubborn! "I want to reach Tar Valon and find out what is going on, but-"
"My Lady has been thinking? My Lady must have a headache from all that effort. I will make my Lady a nice tea of sheepstongue root and red daisy as soon as-"
"Be quiet, Nana," Elayne said, calmly but firmly; it was her very best imitation of her mother. Nynaeve's jaw dropped. "If you pull that braid at me, you can ride on the roof with the baggage." Nynaeve made a strangled sound, trying so hard to talk that nothing came out. Quite satisfactory. "Sometimes you seem to think I am still a child, but you are the one behaving like a child. I did not ask you to wash my back, but I would have had to wrestle to stop you. I did offer to scrub yours in turn, remember. And I offered to sleep in the trundle bed. But you climbed in and wouldn't get out. Stop sulking. If you like, I will be the maid at the next inn." It would probably be a disaster. Nynaeve would shout at Thom in public, or box someone's ears. But anything for a little peace. "We can stop right now and change in the trees."
"We chose the gowns to fit you," the other woman muttered after a moment. Pushing the flap open again, she shouted, "Slow down! Are you trying to kill us? Fool men!"
There was dead silence from above as the coach's speed diminished to something much more reasonable, but Elayne would have wagered the two men were talking. She straightened her hair as best she could without a mirror. It was still startling to see those glistening black tresses when she did look in one. The green silk was going to need a thorough brushing itself.
"What was it you were thinking, Elayne?" Nynaeve asked. Crimson stained her cheeks. At least she knew that Elayne was right, but backing down was very likely as much apology as she would ever give.
"We are rushing back to Tar Valon, but do we really have any idea what awaits us in the Tower? If the Amyrlin truly did give those orders... I do not really believe it, and I cannot understand it, but I do not intend to walk into the Tower until I do. 'A fool puts her hand into a hollow tree without finding out what's inside first.'"
"A wise woman, Lini," Nynaeve said. "We may learn more if I see another bunch of yellow flowers hanging upside down, but until then I think we should behave as though the Black Ajah itself has control of the Tower."
"Mistress Macura will have sent off another pigeon to Narenwin by now. With descriptions of this coach, and the dresses we took, and most likely Thom and Juilin, too."
"It cannot be helped. This would not have happened if we hadn't dawdled across Tarabon. We should have taken ship." Elayne gaped at her accusatory tone, and Nynaeve had the grace to blush again. "Well, done is done. Moiraine knows Siuan Sanche. Perhaps Egwene can ask her if -"
Abruptly the coach lurched to a halt, throwing Elayne forward on top of Nynaeve. She could hear horses screaming and thrashing as she frantically untangled herself, Nynaeve pushing her off as well.
Embracing saidar, she put her head out of the window - and released it again in relief. Here was something of a sort that she had seen pass through Caemlyn more than once. A traveling menagerie was camped amid afternoon shadows in a large clearing by the side of the road. A great, black-maned lion lay half-asleep in one cage that took up the entire back of a wagon, while his two consorts paced in the confines of another. A third cage stood open; in front of it a woman was making two black bears with white faces balance themselves on big red balls. Another cage held what appeared to be a large, hairy boar, except that its snout was too pointed and it had toes with claws; that came from the Aiel Waste, she knew, and was called a capar. Other cages held other animals, and brightly colored birds, but unlike any menagerie she had ever seen, this one traveled with human performers: two men were juggling ribbon-twined hoops between them, four acrobats were practicing standing on one another's shoulders in a tall column, and a woman was feeding a dozen dogs that walked on their hind legs and did backflips for her. In the background, some other men were putting up two tall poles; she had no idea what they were for.
None of that was what had the horses rearing in their harness and rolling their eyes, though, despite all that Thom could do with the reins. She could smell the lions herself, but it was at three huge, wrinkled gray animals that the horses gazed, wild-eyed. Two were as tall as the coach, with big ears and great curving tusks beside a long nose that dangled to the ground. The third, shorter than the horses if likely as heavy, had no tusks. A baby, she supposed. A woman with pale yellow hair was scratching that one behind the ear with a heavy, hooked goad. Elayne had seen creatures like this before, too. And had never expected to see them again.
A tall, dark-haired man strode out of the camp, of all things in this heat wearing a red silk cloak that he flourished as he made an elegant bow. He was good-looking, with a well-turned leg, and very much aware of both things. "Forgive me, my Lady, if the giant boar-horses frightened your animals." As he straightened, he beckoned two of his men to help quiet the horses, then paused, staring at her, and murmured, "Be still, my heart." It was just loud enough for Elayne to be sure she was supposed to hear. "I am Valan Luca, my Lady, showman extraordinary. Your presence overwhelms me." He made another bow, even more elaborate than the first.
Elayne shared a look with Nynaeve, catching the same amused smile that she knew she herself wore. A man very full of himself, this Valan Luca. His men did seem to be very good at soothing the horses; they still snorted and stamped, but their eyes were not so wide as they had been. Thom and Juilin were staring at the strange animals almost as hard as the horses were.
"Boar-horses, Master Luca?" Elayne said. "Where do they come from?"
"Giant boar-horses, my Lady" was the ready reply, "from fabled Shara, where I myself led an expedition into a wilderness full of strange civilizations and stranger sights to trap them. It would fascinate me to tell you of them. Gigantic people twice the size of Ogier." He made grand gestures to illustrate. "Beings with no heads. Birds big enough to carry off a full-grown bull. Snakes that can swallow a man. Cities made of solid gold. Descend, my Lady, and let me tell you."
Elayne had no doubt that Luca would fascinate himself with his own tales, but she certainly doubted that those animals came from Shara. For one thing, even the Sea Folk saw no more of Shara than the walled ports they were confined to; any who went beyond the walls were never seen again. The Aiel knew little more. For another, she and Nynaeve had both seen creatures like these in Falme, during the Seanchan invasion. The Seanchan used them for work animals, and for war.
"I think not, Master Luca," she told him.
"Then let us perform for you," he said quickly. "As you can see, this is no ordinary wandering menagerie, but something entirely new. A private performance. Tumblers, jugglers, trained animals, the strongest man in the world. Even fireworks. We have an Illuminator with us. We are on our way to Ghealdan, and tomorrow we will be gone on the wind. But for a pittance -"
"My mistress said she thinks not," Nynaeve broke in. "She has better things to spend her money on than looking at animals." In fact, she herself kept a tight fist on all their coin, reluctantly doling out what they needed. She seemed to think everything should cost what it had back in her Two Rivers.
"Why would you want to go to Ghealdan, Master Luca?" Elayne asked. The other woman did make rough spots and leave them to her to smooth over. "I hear there is a great deal of trouble there. I hear the army has not been able to suppress this man called the Prophet, with his preaching of the Dragon Reborn. Surely you do not want to travel into riots."
"Greatly exaggerated, my Lady. Greatly exaggerated. Where there are crowds, people want to be entertained. And where people want to be entertained, my show is always welcome." Luca hesitated, then stepped closer to the coach. An embarrassed look crossed his face as he gazed up into Elayne's eyes. "My Lady, the truth of the matter is that you would do me a very great favor by allowing me to perform for you. The fact is that one of the boar-horses caused a little trouble in the next town up the road. It was an accident," he added hastily, "I assure you. They are gentle creatures. Not dangerous at all. But not only are the people of Sienda unwilling to let me put on a show, or even come to one here... Well, it took all of my coin to pay for the damages, and the fines." He winced. "Especially the fines. If you allowed me to entertain you - for a trifle, truly - I would name you as patroness of my show wherever we go across the world, spreading the fame of your generosity, my Lady...?"
"Morelin," she said. "The Lady Morelin of House Samared." With her new hair, she could pass for Cairhienin. She had no time to see his show, as much as she would have enjoyed it another time, and she told him so, adding, "But I will help you a little, if you have no money. Give him something, Nana, to help him on his way to Ghealdan." The last thing she wanted was him "spreading her fame," but helping the poor and those in distress was a duty she would not slight when she had the means, even in a foreign land.
Grumbling, Nynaeve dug a purse out of her belt pouch and dipped into it. She leaned out of the coach enough to press Luca's hand around what she gave him. He looked startled as she said, "If you took a decent job of work, you would not have to beg. Drive on, Thom!"
Thom's whip cracked, and Elayne was thrown back into her seat. "You did not have to be rude," she said. "Or so abrupt. What did you give him?"
"A silver penny," Nynaeve replied calmly, putting the purse back into her pouch. "And more than he deserved."
"Nynaeve," Elayne groaned. "The man probably thinks we were making sport of him."
Nynaeve sniffed. "With those shoulders, a good day's work would not kill him."
Elayne kept silent, though she did not agree. Not exactly. Certainly work would not harm the man, but she did not think there was much available. Not that I think Master Luca would accept work that didn't allow him to wear that cape. If she brought it up, though, Nynaeve would probably argue - when she gently pointed out things that Nynaeve did not know, the woman was quite capable of accusing her of having an arrogant manner, or of lecturing - and Valan Luca was hardly worth another altercation so soon after smoothing over the last.
The shadows were lengthening by the time they reached Sienda, a sizable village of stone and thatch with two inns. The first, The King's Lancer, had a gaping hole where the front door had been, and a crowd was watching workmen make repairs. Perhaps Master Luca's "boar-horse" had not liked the sign, propped up beside the hole now, a charging soldier with lance lowered. It seemed to have been ripped down somehow.
Surprisingly, there were even more Whitecloaks in the crowded dirt streets than back in Mardecin, far more, and other soldiers besides, men in mail and conical steel caps whose blue cloaks bore the Star and Thistle of Amadicia. There must be garrisons nearby. The King's men and the Whitecloaks did not seem to like each other at all. They either brushed by as if the man wearing the wrong color did not exist, or else with challenging stares little short of drawn swords. Some of the white-cloaked men had red shepherd's crooks behind the sunbursts on their cloaks. The Hand of the Light, those named themselves, the Hand that seeks out truth, but everyone else called them Questioners. Even the other Whitecloaks kept clear of them.
All in all, it was enough to make Elayne's stomach clench. But there was no more than another hour's sunlight left, if that, and that was taking into account the late-summer sunsets. Even driving half the night again would not guarantee another inn ahead, and driving on this late might call attention. Besides, they had reason to halt early today.
She exchanged looks with Nynaeve, and after a moment the other woman nodded and said, "We have to stop."
When the coach drew up in front of The Light of Truth, Juilin hopped down to open the door, and Nynaeve waited with a deferential look on her face for him to hand Elayne down. She did flash Elayne a smile, though; she would not slide back into sulks. The leather scrip she slung from her shoulder appeared a bit incongruous, but not too much so, Elayne hoped. Now that Nynaeve had acquired a stock of herbs and ointments again, she did not mean to let them out of her sight.
From her first sight of the inn's sign - a flaring golden sun like that the Children wore on their cloaks - she wished the "boar-horse" had taken exception to this place instead of the other. At least there was no shepherd's crook behind it. Half the men filling the common room wore snowy white cloaks, their helmets set on the tables in front of them. She took a deep breath and a firm hold on herself not to spin on her heel and leave.
Aside from the soldiers, it was a pleasant inn, with high-beamed ceilings and dark polished paneling. Cut green branches decorated the cold hearths of two large fireplaces, and good cooking smells wafted from the kitchens. The white-aproned serving maids all seemed cheerful as they scurried among the tables with trays of wine and ale and food.
The arrival of a lady created little stir, this close to the capital. Or perhaps it was because of that lord's manor. A few men looked at her; more eyed her "maid" with interest, though Nynaeve's stern frown, when she realized they were staring at her, quickly turned them back to their wine. Nynaeve seemed to think a man looking was a crime, even if he said nothing and did not leer. Given that, sometimes Elayne wondered why she did not wear less becoming clothes. She had had to work very hard to make sure that simple gray dress fit the other woman properly. Nynaeve was hopeless with a needle when it came to fine work.
The innkeeper, Mistress Jharen, was a plump woman with long gray curls, a warm smile, and searching dark eyes. Elayne suspected she could spot a worn hem or a flat purse at ten paces. They obviously passed muster, for she made a deep curtsy, spreading her gray skirts wide, and made effusive welcome, inquiring whether the Lady was on her way to or from Amador.
"From," Elayne replied with a languid hauteur. "The city's balls were most enjoyable, and King Ailron is quite as handsome as they say, which is not always so for kings, but I must return to my estates. I require a room for myself and Nana, and something for my footman and driver." Thinking of Nynaeve and the trundle, she added, "I must have two full beds. I need Nana close, and if she has only a trundle, she will keep me awake with her snoring." Nynaeve's respectful face slipped - just a fraction, thankfully - but it was quite true. She had snored terribly.
"Of course, my Lady," the plump innkeeper said. "I have just the thing. But your men will have to bed down in the stable, in the hayloft. I am quite crowded, as you can see. A troupe of vagabonds brought some horrible great animals into the village yesterday and one of them quite destroyed The King's Lancer. Poor Sim has lost half his custom or more, and they've all come here." Mistress Jharen's smile was more satisfaction than commiseration. "I do have one room left, however."
"I am sure it will do very well. If you will send up a light repast and some wash water, I think I shall retire early." There was still sunlight showing in the windows, but she put a hand delicately over her mouth as if stifling a yawn.
"Of course, my Lady. As you wish. This way."
Mistress Jharen seemed to think she had to keep Elayne entertained as she showed them to the second floor. She went on the whole way about the crowding at the inn and how it was a miracle that she had a room left, about the vagrants with their animals and how they had been chased out of town and good riddance to rubbish, about all the nobles who had stayed at her establishment over the years, even the Lord Captain Commander of the Children, once. Why, a Hunter of the Horn had come through just the day before, on his way to Tear, where they said the Stone of Tear had fallen into the hands of some false Dragon, and was it not horrible wickedness that men could do such things? "I hope they never find it." The innkeeper's gray curls swung as she shook her head.
"The Horn of Valere?" Elayne said. "Why ever not?"
"Why, my Lady, if they find it, it means the Last Battle is coming. The Dark One breaking free." Mistress Jharen shivered. "The Light send the Horn is never found. That way, the Last Battle cannot happen, can it?" There did not seem to be much answer to such curious logic.
The bedchamber was snug, if not exactly cramped. Two narrow beds with striped coverlets stood to either side of a window looking out onto the street, and little more than walking room separating them from each other or the white-plastered walls. A small table holding a lamp and tinderbox between the beds, a tiny, flowered rug, and a washstand with a small mirror above it completed the furnishings. Everything was clean and well polished, at least.
The innkeeper plumped the pillows and smoothed the coverlets and said the mattresses were the best goose down and the Lady's men would be bringing her chests up by the back stairs and everything would be very cozy, there was a good breeze at night if the Lady opened the window and left the door cracked. As though she would sleep with her door open to a public hallway. Two aproned girls arrived with a large blue pitcher of steaming water and a large lacquered tray covered with a white cloth before Elayne managed to get Mistress Jharen out. The shape of a wine pitcher and two cups mounded up one side of the cloth.
"I think she believed we might go to The King's Lancer even with a hole in it," she said, once the door was firmly shut. Looking around the room, she grimaced. There would barely be room for them and the chests. "I am not certain we shouldn't."
"I do not snore," Nynaeve said in a tight voice.
"Of course you do not. I had to say something, though."
Nynaeve gave a loud harrumph, but all she said was "I am glad I am tired enough to go to sleep. Aside from that forkroot, I did not recognize anything to aid sleep in what that Macura woman had."
It took Thom and Juilin three trips to bring the iron-bound wooden chests up, grumbling all the while, the way men did, about having to haul them up the narrow stairs at the rear of the inn. They were muttering about being made to sleep in the stables, too, when they brought in the first one between them - it had leaf-shaped hinges; the bulk of their money and valuables were in the bottom of that, including the recovered ter'angreal - but one glance at the room and they shared a look and shut their mouths. About that, at least.
"We're going to see what we can learn in the common room," Thom said once the last chest was jammed in. Barely enough space remained to reach the washstand.
"And maybe take a walk around the village," Juilin added. "Men talk when there's as much dislike as I saw in the street."
"That will be very good," Elayne said. They did so want to think they had more to do than haul and carry. It had been so in Tanchico - and Mardecin, of course - and might well be again, but hardly here. "Do be careful not to get into any trouble with the Whitecloaks, now." A long-suffering look passed between them, just as if she had not seen both with bruised and bleeding faces after jaunts for information, but she forgave them, and smiled at Thom. "I cannot wait to hear what you learn."
"In the morning," Nynaeve said firmly. She was looking away from Elayne so hard that she might as well have been glowering at her. "If you disturb us before then for less than Trollocs, you'll learn the reason why."
The glance that passed between the two men spoke volumes - it made Nynaeve's eyebrows rise sharply - but once she had reluctantly handed over a few coins, they left agreeing to let the women sleep untroubled.
"If I cannot even speak to Thom," Elayne began when they were gone, but Nynaeve cut her off.
"I am not having them walk in on me asleep in my shift." She was awkwardly undoing the buttons down the back of her dress. Elayne went to help her, and she said, "I can manage. You get the ring out for me."
With a sniff, Elayne pulled up her skirt to reach the small pocket she had sewn to the underside. If Nynaeve wanted to be peevish, let her; she would not respond even if Nynaeve began ranting again. There were two rings in the pocket. She left the golden Great Serpent she had been given on being raised to Accepted, and took out the stone ring.
All flecks and stripes of red and blue and brown, it was just too large to fit a finger, and flattened and twisted besides. Odd as it seemed, the ring had only one edge; a finger drawn along that edge would circle inside and out before coming back to where it began. It was a ter'angreal, and what it did was allow access to Tel'aran'rhiod, even for someone who did not have the Talent that Egwene and the Aiel dreamwalkers shared. All that was needed was to sleep with it next to your skin. Unlike the two ter'angreal they had recovered from the Black Ajah, it did not require channeling. For all Elayne knew, even a man might be able to use it.
Clad only in her linen shift, Nynaeve threaded the ring onto the leather thong with Lan's signet and her own Great Serpent, then re-knotted and hung it back around her neck before lying down atop one of the beds. Carefully tucking the rings in next to her skin, she settled her head on the pillows.
"Is there time before Egwene and the Wise Ones get there?" Elayne asked. "I can never reason out what hour it is in the Waste."
"There is time unless she comes early, which she won't. The Wise Ones keep her on a very short leash. It will do her good, in the long run. She was always headstrong." Nynaeve opened her eyes, looking right at her - at her! - as if that could stand for her as well.
"Remember to tell Egwene to let Rand know that I am thinking of him." She was not going to let the woman start a row. "Tell her to... tell him that I love him, and only him." There. She had it out.
Nynaeve rolled her eyes in what was really a most offensive way. "If you wish me to," she said dryly, snuggling herself into the pillows.
As the other woman's breathing began to slow, Elayne pushed one of the chests against the door and sat on it to wait. She always hated waiting. It would serve Nynaeve right if she went down to the common room. Thom would probably still be there, and... And nothing. He was supposed to be her coachman. She wondered whether Nynaeve had thought of that before agreeing to be the maid. With a sigh, she leaned back against the door. She did hate waiting.