Other Side of the Wheel
Chapter Three: The Merchant's Guard
Rayan eased the axe in his belt and scanned the road ahead as he rode. An odd feeling had come over him suddenly, the back of his neck prickling as though responding to danger. The road was clear, though, with only a solitary walker ahead of him and the wagon. Almost unnaturally peaceful; of course, there was little crime this close to Tar Valon.
He resisted the impulse to spit.
"Should we not rest the horses, young man?" The wagon driver, a white-haired old merchant whose name he had forgotten almost as soon as he had heard it, was looking doubtfully at him. "Will they not be tired in this heat?"
It was no more than pleasantly warm and they could have ridden for miles farther, but Rayan shrugged assent. It was easier than arguing. Dismounting, he untied the wagon horse and led the pair over to a nearby brook to drink. He glanced up with interest as the walker ahead hesitated, then turned back toward them. A young woman, red hair gleaming in the sun.
"Excuse me?" Her voice was light and slightly breathy, but that might be from walking. "May I ride with you to the next town? It's a long way on foot."
The merchant frowned. "Well, I don't - "
"Please? I can pay."
"I suppose so, then," the old man allowed, taking her coins. He waved a hand at the seat beside him. "Climb up. Mind, I'm only going as far as Allenda."
"That's fine." She started to lift her pack to the wagon, but Rayan took it from her. It was easy enough for him to heft, though it must have been a fair weight for her. He looked at her curious ly, and realised with surprise that their eyes were on a level. He was not a short man, but she was very nearly as tall as he was.
"You came from Tar Valon?"
She gave him a startled, wide-eyed look. "No!" Then, as if realising how odd her reaction was, "No. I went on past. Aes Sedai - well, they make me nervous."
Rayan snorted. "Aes Sedai make everyone nervous." He lifted the pack on to the wagon and offered a hand to help her up. "Are you visiting someone in Allenda?"
"I - no. A little further on. I have family nearby." She scrambled up to the wagon seat by the driver, cutting short the conversation.
As they continued along the road, Rayan's thoughts were on the girl. That last statement had been a lie, he was sure of it. She wasn't visiting anyone, and she didn't seem to be very sure of where she was heading. That didn't fit. Boys that young might go off seeking adventure, but girls seldom did. And no one out to see the world would miss Tar Valon, whatever they'd heard about the One Power. A girl out on her own afraid at the mention of Tar Valon...
His hands clenched into fists. It all fit together. Ah, may the Light forgive and preserve me, he thought, glancing at the red-haired girl again. And her. It's Maira all over again.
He turned it over in his mind as he rode, but had found no other conclusion by the end of the day, when the old wagon rattled through the gates of Allenda. As the merchant paid him his fee, he watched the girl discreetly. She was standing by the side of the street, looking around. It was clear she had nowhere to go.
Light, I shouldn't get mixed up in this. But he found himself walking slowly in her direction. He rehearsed lines. There's an inn two streets down. If you don't have coin for a room, I can lend you some. Help her without getting involved. Keep it simple. She turned to look at him, curious and a little wary.
"You can channel, can't you?"
There was a moment of shocked silence on both their parts. Oh, burn me for a clumsy fool! Rayan cursed his treacherous tongue. "I -"
"How dare you?" she demanded, all insulted composure. But the reaction came a second late, and her eyes darted, looking to see who might have heard. "That is the most outrageous thing! I never -"
Choking down another curse, Rayan looked up and down the street himself. Thank the Light, no one gave them so much as a glance. He grabbed her arm and pulled her into a side street. "Hush, can't you? Look, I'm not going to turn you in. My little sister -" An image came to him, Maira perched in her favourite apple tree, laughing down at him. "She loved growing things. She had a way with plants, that was all. But some viper-tongue - " The man had left the village as soon as the Aes Sedai had arrived. Maybe he'd guessed what Rayan would have done to him. "She never came back from Tar Valon. They buried her there. I planted a tree on her grave." He swallowed down the lump in his throat. Burn them, she was only a child!
She looked at him a moment, then reached out with one hand to touch his face. "You're crying," she said softly. In the dim light, her eyes were very green.
He pulled back from her hand. Women latched on to the smallest things sometimes. "Anyway, I'll help you if I can. You need to get away from Tar Valon. Does anyone - have any reason to suspect you?" He hoped desperately the answer was no.
"I don't know. Maybe."
He pulled an upended barrel over to sit on. This wasn't a conversation to have standing up. "Who?"
"You know they captured the False Dragon? Yes, of course you would. Well, I was in the crowd when they took her to the Tower." He looked at her in disbelief, and she shook her head. "You don't understand. I had to know. I wasn't sure when I left home, I just suspected. I had to see her to know if we were - alike."
She shivered, though it wasn't cold. "But she saw me. I stayed back from the front, but someone jostled me just as they went past. She recognised me. I know it. She looked at me as if she hated me. I suppose because she was a captive and I was free -" Her voice wavered. "I don't think she'd tell them. She must hate them even more than she does me. But if she goes mad how can I know what she'll do?"
"I think it takes a long time to go mad," Rayan said slowly. Maira had always been - odd. More so in the last years. But she'd been sane.
"I don't know," she whispered. "Sometimes I have dreams..."
"Anyone would have bad dreams if they just thought they could channel." It was getting dark, and he stood up. "Listen. There's an inn two streets down. If you don't have coin for a room, I can lend you some. In the morning, we'll get you a horse and be on our way as soon as we can."
"We?" She looked at him oddly.
"I don't have anything better to do." And burn him if he'd let her go off by herself. "My name is Rayan, he added hurriedly, as she continued to look thoughtful. "Rayan Andrel. I'm from Whitehill."
She smiled, and he blinked. He'd thought her plain, too thin, but that smile made her suddenly beautiful. "Thank you, Rayan. I owe you a great debt." She held out her hand. "My name is Kyana Elane. I don't know where I was born, but I grew up in Old Caishana."
"You've come a long way." He meant it as a pleasantry, something to break the mood of a moment ago, but something whispered in a corner of his mind. And you'll go a lot farther.
For no real reason, he wondered who it meant.