Other Side of the Wheel
Chapter One: The False Dragon
She was tall and dark, beautiful in the way that a perfectly balanced weapon is beautiful, and she stood like a queen. Even the bars around her did not detract from her force of presence, and where her gaze touched the crowd they fell silent, eyes wary.
The men riding on either side of the caged wagon, some in bright cloaks emblazoned with a white and gold flame, others in cloaks that shifted colour and blended with their surroundings, watched her just as warily. One man's horse stumbled, and he caught the reins and guided it to smoother ground without once taking his eyes off the woman. A prisoner she might be, but there had been three rescue attempts already, and two had come close to succeeding.
Shanis Vayar. The woman who had dared call herself the Dragon Reborn, and who had stirred thousands to follow that call before she had finally been taken. A woman who could channel.
Fergas was old enough and cynical enough to repress the shiver that automatically touched most people whenever they spoke of women channeling. Still, he reflexively checked the shields holding her. Twelve shields, layered atop each other and tightly interwoven, one layer held by each of the Aes Sedai present. As firm as it could be made without a linked circle, and linking was an art long lost to men.
The shields were still strong, and he relaxed slightly. Still keeping most of his attention on her, he scanned the crowd with an idle eye. No rescue attempt would come now, with the walls of Tar Valon in sight, not that anyone watching looked anything other than half-scared, half-fascinated and wholly unlikely to challenge Aes Sedai. Merchants and shopkeepers from the towns near the island, country folk come to gawk at the closest they'd ever be to real adventure. His eye caught on a sudden flash and he half-turned in alarm, then laughed as he realized what had startled him. The sun shining on some girl's red hair, that was all. His nerves were strung too tightly this last month.
He turned back, focusing again on Shanis Vayar. She was staring in the same direction, no doubt caught by the same trick of the light as he had been. There was a strange look in her eyes as she faced forward again, anger mixed with something he couldn't quite define.
Perhaps she, too, had thought it for a moment a rescue. He felt almost sorry for her then; women went to desperate lengths to avoid being taken to Tar Valon, but in the end there was no escape for any of them.
They were at the bridge, now, and he reined in with the others. A rider cantered toward them from the south, a slim, olive-skinned woman with a Warder-cloak blowing from her shoulders. There was a sword at her hip, and a bow slung over her back, both worn with the peculiar easy alertness of a trained fighter.
"All clear behind us," Marya said as she reached him. "Her followers apparently decided not to follow this far." She flicked a sardonic glance at the caged woman.
"Good." Another Warder was riding in from the north, presumably with the same message."Ride ahead and let the Tower know we're here. We're just about to cross over."
Marya nodded, wheeling her horse and falling back into a canter, rapidly widening the distance between them. Much more slowly, the group escorting the False Dragon began to move forward. The bridge, and the broad street leading to the city's heart, were lined with people as before, but a wide space opened for the caged wagon. The citizens of Tar Valon knew a little more about female channelers than most, but they were still not eager to get too close to one.
And then they were in the great square in the centre of the city, with the White Tower shining before them like some immense pearl. The wagon and riders slowed again to a ceremonial pace. Fergas watched Shanis curiously, wondering what her reaction would be to the Tower in all its intimidating splendour, and was disappointed. That odd look was still in her eyes, but she appeared singularly unimpressed.
She's too damn calm. Something was wrong about this. There was no evidence that the taint had twisted her mind enough for her to be unaware of her surroundings. She can't still be expecting rescue, can she?
The wagon rolled to a halt before the marble steps, and the leader of the party rode forward at a stately walk. "As you have commanded, Father," the Red Ajah head intoned, bowing in his saddle to the man on the steps, "I bring you the False Dragon Shanis Vayar."
'I bring you' indeed, Fergas thought. To hear Javis Garan talk, one would think the man had done it on his own. The Reds all seemed to have a tendency toward arrogance, but Javis took it to extremes. No matter. He dismounted as the Amyrlin made his reply.
"The Tower is pleased," Aleran den Cario Arricata responded in a tone as sonorous as that of Javis. He had been Gray like Fergas, not Red, but he had his fair share of arrogance. Pomposity might be a better word. "Let the prisoner be brought at once to the Traitor's Court. Trial shall be immediate and the sentence carried out without delay."
Not even that cracked Shanis' expression.
As preparations began, Fergas crossed to the side of the steps where Marya stood with two other Aes Sedai, white-haired despite their ageless faces. "Van, Abel," he greeted the pair. "Has anything happened while we were away?"
"Nothing of interest," Van replied. The pair were twins, but Van was easily distinguishable; years fighting on the Blightborder had given him a fierce alertness that his gentler brother, a Yellow, lacked. "The usual politics and back-biting. That," he nodded at the now-empty wagon, "is the only interesting thing that's happened this last month. Javis has a commendation heading his way, I'd say."
"All on his own," Fergas added sardonically. He glanced over at the dark woman, surrounded by a cluster of Aes Sedai. What was that expression?
"Was she that calm all along?" Abel asked, following his look.
"Just about. She fought like a wildcat at first, but after no more rescue attempts came, she virtually ignored us." She shouldn't be that calm. Not here.
"She shouldn't be," Van muttered, echoing his thought. "The taint hasn't taken her yet, has it? You'd think she saw something we don't."
They moved aside as Aleran strode past toward the Court, followed by Javis and, only a few paces behind, Shanis with her guards.
"At least," Fergas sighed, thinking of the tribulations of the last month, "we won't have to go through this again." He started to join the group, then halted. Because the False Dragon had just turned her dark eyes on him, and he abruptly realised what the emotion glinting in them - so incongruous he had failed to recognise it - was.
Anger, yes, but mixed with the anger was a deep, fierce amusement. The woman was laughing at them. He stared back, stunned.
"She is insane," Van said disbelievingly.
"No," Abel murmured, "she isn't. She's just seen something we haven't."
The twins looked at each other, frowning, and Van started to open his mouth, but Fergas interrupted him.
"Oh yes, she has. And I saw it too, damn it, but I completely discounted..." He trailed off in a flood of cursing that made even Van blink. "Van, Abel, I have a sudden unlikely but very terrifying suspicion. Make my excuses to Aleran, I have to get back out there right now. Marya!"
His Warder had swung herself into the saddle almost before he spoke, and turned her horse as he scrambled onto his. "What are we looking for?" she asked at the same time as Van demanded "What did she see?"
A head of red hair in the sun. A girl in country clothes who ducked back among the crowd as soon as I looked at her. A girl who made Shanis Vayar smile with a dark amusement even as she raged. Just a girl in a crowd of hundreds.
"The Dragon," he growled. "The real one."
Chapter Two will be out at an indeterminate point in the future. Regarding Marya: female Warders are not the norm in this world any more than they are in Jordan's. A handful of them do exist, but the majority of Warders, and soldiers of all kinds, are still male. Marya is an exception, and you'll find out more about her in later chapters.