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«The Path of Daggers», Robert Jordan

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Who would sup with the mighty must climb the path of daggers.

Anonymous notation found inked in the margin of a manuscript history (believed to date to the time of Artur Hawkwing) of the last days of the Tovan Conclaves

On the heights, all paths are paved with daggers.

Old Seanchan saying

PROLOGUE

(Serpent and Wheel)

Deceptive Appearances

Ethenielle had seen mountains lower than these misnamed Black Hills, great lopsided heaps of half-buried boulders, webbed with steep twisting passes. A number of those passes would have given a goat pause. You could travel three days through drought-withered forests and brown-grassed meadows without seeing a single sign of human habitation, then suddenly find yourself within half a day of seven or eight tiny villages, all ignorant of the world. The Black Hills were a rugged place for farmers, away from the trade routes, and harsher now than usual. A gaunt leopard that should have vanished at the sight of men watched from a steep slope, not forty paces away, as she rode past with her armored escort. Westward, vultures wheeled patient circles like an omen. Not a cloud marred the blood-red sun, yet there were clouds of a sort. When the warm wind blew, it raised walls of dust.

With fifty of her best men at her heels, Ethenielle rode unconcernedly, and unhurriedly. Unlike her near legendary ancestor Surasa, she had no illusion that the weather would heed her wishes just because she held the Throne of the Clouds, while as for haste... Their carefully coded, closely guarded letters had agreed on the order of march, and that had been determined by each person’s need to travel without attracting notice. Not an easy task. Some had thought it impossible.

Frowning, she considered the luck that had let her come this far without having to kill anyone, avoiding those flyspeck villages even when it meant days added to the journey. The few Ogier steddingpresented no problem – Ogier paid little heed to what happened among humans, most times, and less than usual of late, it seemed – but the villages... They were too small to hold eyes-and-ears for the White Tower, or for this fellow who claimed to be the Dragon Reborn – perhaps he was; she could not decide which way would be worse – too small, yet peddlers did pass through, eventually. Peddlers carried as much gossip as trade goods, and they spoke to people who spoke to other people, rumor flowing like an ever-branching river, through the Black Hills and into the world outside. With a few words, a single shepherd who had escaped notice could light a signal fire seen five hundred leagues off. The sort of signal fire that set woods and grasslands aflame. And cities, maybe. Nations.

"Did I make the right choice, Serailla?" Vexed at herself, Ethenielle grimaced. She might not be a girl any longer, but her few gray hairs hardly counted her old enough to let her mindless tongue flap in the breeze. The decision was made. It had been on her mind, though. Light’s truth, she was not so unconcerned as she wanted to be.

Ethenielle’s First Councilor heeled her dun mare closer to the Queen’s sleek black gelding. Round face placid, dark eyes considering, Lady Serailla could have been a farmwife suddenly stuck into a noblewoman’s riding dress, but the mind behind those plain, sweaty features was as sharp as any Aes Sedai’s. "The other choices only carried different risks, not lesser," she said smoothly. Stout yet as graceful in her saddle as she was at dancing, Serailla was always smooth. Not oily, or false; just completely unflappable. "Whatever the truth, Majesty, the White Tower appears to be paralyzed as well as shattered. You could have sat watching the Blight while the world crumbled behind you. You could have if you were someone else."

The simple need to act. Was that what had brought her here? Well, if the White Tower would not or could not do what had to be done, then someone must. What good to guard the Blight if the world did crumble behind her?

Ethenielle looked to the slender man riding at her other side, white streaks at his temples giving him a supercilious air, the ornately sheathed Sword of Kirukan resting in the crook of one arm. It was called the Sword of Kirukan, at any rate, and the fabled warrior Queen of Aramaelle might have carried it. The blade was ancient, some said Power-wrought. The two-handed hilt lay toward her as tradition demanded, though she herself was not about to try using a sword like some fire-brained Saldaean. A queen was supposed to think, lead, and command, which no one could manage while trying to do what any soldier in her army could do better. "And you, Swordbearer?" she said. "Do you have any qualms at this late hour?"

Lord Baldhere twisted in his gold-worked saddle to glance back at the banners carried by horsemen behind them, cased in tooled leather and embroidered velvet. "I don’t like hiding who I am, Majesty," he said fussily, straightening around. "The world will know us soon enough, and what we’ve done. Or tried to do. We’ll end dead or in the histories or both, so they might as well know what names to write." Baldhere had a biting tongue, and he affected to care more for music and his clothes than anything else – that well-cut blue coat was the third he had worn already today – but as with Serailla, appearances deceived. The Swordbearer to the Throne of the Clouds bore responsibilities much heavier than that sword in its jeweled scabbard. Since the death of her husband some twenty years ago, Baldhere had commanded the armies of Kandor for her in the field, and most of her soldiers would have followed him to Shayol Ghul itself. He was not counted among the great captains, but he knew when to fight and when not, as well as how to win.

"The meeting place must be just ahead," Serailla said suddenly, just as Ethenielle saw the scout Baldhere had sent forward, a sly fellow named Lomas who wore a foxhead crest on his helmet, rein in atop the peak of the pass ahead. With his lance slanted, he made the arm gesture for "assembly point in sight."

Baldhere swung his heavy-shouldered gelding and bellowed a command for the escort to halt – he could bellow, when he had a mind to – then spurred the bay to catch up to her and Serailla. It was to be a meeting between long-standing allies, but as they rode past Lomas, Baldhere gave the lean-faced man a curt order to "Watch and relay"; should anything go wrong, Lomas would signal the escort forward to bring their queen out.

Ethenielle sighed faintly when Serailla nodded approval at the command. Allies of long standing, yet the times bred suspicion like flies on a midden. What they were about stirred the heap and set the flies swirling. Too many rulers to the south had died or vanished in the last year for her to feel any comfort in wearing a crown. Too many lands had been smashed as thoroughly as an army of Trollocs could have achieved. Whoever he was, this al’Thor fellow had much to answer for. Much.

Beyond Lomas the pass opened into a shallow bowl almost too small to be named a valley, with trees too widely spaced to be called a thicket. Leatherleaf and blue fir and three-needle pine held to some green along with a few oaks, but the rest were sheathed in brown if not bare-branched. To the south, however, lay what had made this spot a good choice for meeting. A slender spire like a column of gleaming golden lace lay slanting and partly buried in the bare hillside, a good seventy paces of it showing above the treetops. Every child in the Black Hills old enough to run off leading strings knew of it, but there was not a village inside four days’ travel, nor would anyone come within ten miles willingly. The stories of this place spoke of mad visions, of the dead walking, and death at touching the spire.

Ethenielle did not consider herself fanciful, yet she shivered slightly. Nianh said the spire was a fragment from the Age of Legends, and harmless. With luck, the Aes Sedai had no reason to recall that conversation of years ago. A pity the dead could not be made to walk, here. Legend said Kirukan had beheaded a false Dragon with her own hands, and borne two sons by another man who could channel. Or maybe the same one. She might have known how to go about their purpose and survive.


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