The Paths of If

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This story is a sequel to The Dragon Banner, which itself is a sequel to The Red Flame. You will remember that in The Dragon Banner two possible endings were given; one in the reality of the books, where Davian did not draw Callandor, and one, in an alternate reality, in which he did. The Paths of If follows on from both those endings. The first three scenes of each part are set in the World that Might Have Been; the last in the World that Is.
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Part One
In the World that Might Have Been

Arata stood atop the hill at the highest point of the camp, looking off into the night. The moon was down, and the faint light from the stars illuminated nothing but hills and grass. Still, she gazed eastwards as if by sheer force of will she could see through the hills to the city beneath them.

The sound of the grass rustling behind her heralded the arrival of another person. “Go to bed, girl,” Lyrene said brusquely. “Standing out in the cold isn’t going to do anyone any good.”

“Then why are you out here, Sitter?”

The gray-haired woman scowled, then laughed suddenly. “Well, you have me there, I’ll admit. Anxiety’s only natural at a time like this.” Her own eyes went eastward. “If her idea doesn’t work out, whatever it is, we’re in trouble.”

Arata nodded. She had seen Davian’s army for herself. “What can she do?” Arata had heard all the stories that circulated in the Tower about the Red Flame; even as new novices she and her friends had dreamed of being Sharia. If there was any one person who could deal with the situation, it was surely she. Still…

“If I knew that, I’d be Highest myself.” Lyrene shook her head. “I can’t pretend to understand how Sharia’s mind works. Sometimes she takes suicidal chances, but she’s never once failed. Luck or judgement? Who knows? But I wouldn’t want the job.”

Arata continued to look eastward for a long moment. “But how can we know when the Dragon really is reborn?” she said softly. She had spoken to herself, but Lyrene answered.

“Girl, every Red in the Tower asks that. Every time you hear a report, even a rumour of a man channeling, you wonder to yourself ‘is this the one?’ and you don’t fully stop wondering until he’s back in the Tower and safely gentled. And is this Davian the one? We don’t know. Only time will tell.”

They waited and watched in silence for the better part of the night, as the wind rustled the grass and one by one the stars winked out above them. Finally, as the sky in the east brightened from gray to misty gold, they turned to go back down.

“Where is she?” Lyrene breathed, her face pale. “Where is she?”

As they started downhill, a tall man in the uniform of the Tower Guards met them. “Aes Sedai.” He bowed formally to both, then addressed Lyrene. “This letter was brought just now by a courier from the Stone, with instructions to have it delivered to either you or Amarin Sedai.” He proffered a folded paper.

Lyrene almost snatched it. “Thank you, soldier. You may go.”

He bowed again and moved off. “What is it?” Arata asked breathlessly as soon as he was out of earshot. Lyrene was no slower in opening it. “Sharia’s writing,” she murmured, relieved, then scanned the message. Her eyes widened, and she read it again. After another moment, she looked up. Her face was calm, but her voice shook slightly. “We don’t have to wonder any more, girl.”

“What?”

The older woman handed her the letter, and Arata stared down at it. It was a short message.

Davian holds Callandor. Await further instructions. Sharia.

***

Sharia wrote quickly, jet-black ink on smooth paper that rustled beneath her pen. She had asked for writing materials, and been brought the best quality; well, they would hardly have dared do anything else, considering whose company she was in. She smiled wryly at that; justifying her prestige in terms of her company rather than herself was a new experience. But it could hardly be denied that the Dragon Reborn had a more impressive title than any Aes Sedai.

She folded the paper and let a drop of molten wax fall on it, sealing it with the imprint of her Great Serpent ring. “Give this to one of the sentries,” she told the young courier who stood waiting, “and tell them to give it to either Amarin Sedai or Lyrene Sedai. Understand?”

“Yes, Aes Sedai.” The boy bowed hastily and took off at an almost-run. Sharia returned to her thoughts. Her sisters certainly had a shock coming; a lifetime of waiting for the Dragon Reborn to come did not make it one bit less unsettling when it finally happened. As she knew very well. As the inhabitants of the Stone of Tear were just finding out…

She would have laughed, had she been alone; as it was, her face remained smooth but the laughter bubbled up inside. However the nobles in the Stone had learned of the presence of intruders – ta’veren luck, she suspected – they had reacted in the normal way; by sending the Defenders to take care of any danger.

And when they saw the Dragon Reborn with Callandor in his hands, one and all they fell to their knees. The Stone has been taken; the Sword has been drawn. Prophecy is being fulfilled, and no army, nor any amount of politicking by lords and ladies, will prevent it!

She glanced over to the other end of the richly furnished room, to where Davian stood coolly talking to the governor and three other nobles of the Stone. She knew them all, if only distantly; she made a policy of keeping up with those who played at the Great Game in various nations. None, she knew, had much chance of trapping Davian in any of their plots. The most cunning schemer in the world, who sees hidden meanings in every word, will fail to comprehend the motivations of an honest man. With a smile, Sharia rose gracefully from her seat and crossed the room to join them.

They made room for her, with many a wary glance. Of course; they had no idea who she was or why she was here, only that she had been in the Heart with Davian. And between the pair of us, who rules? Am I captive or controller? Do I speak for the Tower or only for myself? Let them wonder for a while. “Well,” she said in a slightly mocking tone, “have you solved all the problems of the world yet?”

The four looked at her sharply, to which she returned a perfectly bland expression. Davian’s lips quirked. “Not yet,” was all he said, but she saw, and knew that he saw, their minds churning out possible interpretations of the exchange.

“All of Tear rejoices in the fulfilment of the Prophecies,” the governor said stiffly.

“As it should,” she agreed.

 As it should.

***

The camp outside the city was busy, bustling with activity, as cookfires were lit for breakfast, horses fed and watered, as new sentries replaced those who had stood duty that night. Despite the work that had to be done, somehow rumours still found time to spread. Cooks chatted over their pots, and stablemen over their charges, of the Aes Sedai who had walked fearlessly into the camp and challenged Davian to prove that he was the Dragon Reborn.

“Oh, she was beautiful!” a young girl sighed. The sweetheart of a guardsman, she had slipped into the inner camp the night before to meet her man, and was now basking in the unexpected attention due an eyewitness of the momentous event. “And cool as anything. She even smiled at him. She wasn’t afraid in the least!”

“Not in the least,” a grizzled old soldier confirmed. “Of course, who knows what Aes Sedai can do? I’m told she came right into the camp without one person seeing her. And if she could do something like that -”

His listeners nodded. Aes Sedai could do wondrous things. Everybody knew that.

One man, somewhat apart from the rest, listened with a sardonic twist to his lips. These people had indeed lost much knowledge, if such simple tricks impressed them. And yet, this story was certainly interesting.

His eyes went to the banner that flew above the camp, golden silk blending with the pale gold of the dawn sky, so that only the symbol emblazoned on it stood out in stark black and white. An ancient symbol, but one that he remembered well.

As I remember he who flew it last. Is it you who raises this banner again, Lews Therin? You always did have the gift of drawing followers.

His thoughts were abruptly interrupted. The tall, elaborate gates in the wall that surrounded the city of Tear were swinging open. And, as everyone turned to stare, two people walked through them.

A woman, lovely even to his jaded eye, who bore herself with the grace and confidence of any Aes Sedai of old. And a man, tall and broad-shouldered, who strode as if he owned the earth. His garb was that of a plain soldier, but cradled in the crook of his arm…

The watching man’s hands clenched into fists, and for a moment a blizzard of black specks blurred his vision. They dissolved slowly as he calmed down, but the picture he saw was no different. It was no ordinary sword the man held, but one seemingly carved from pure crystal.

So it is you, Lews Therin. At last.

“People of the Dragon,” the woman called, her clear voice echoing. “Behold the Dragon Reborn!”

The crowd went mad with joy, shouts and cheers erupting as people swarmed toward the pair, reaching out to touch either or both. Flowers, found the Light only knew where, were caught up and flung. A song, apparently improvised on the spot, was started up by some of the guardsmen. And above it all, the Dragon Banner continued to blow in the morning wind.

The watcher ground his teeth. These fools behaved as if the battle was already over, or their victory certain. And this man who was Lews Therin reborn, with all Lews Therin’s arrogance – It would be so easy to destroy them all now. He reached for a Power that only he could wield, readied weaves of black flame that would incinerate all around him in an instant…

But no. With regret, he let go. It is not time. Not yet time. But the battle is not yet over, Lews Therin.

It is only just beginning.

***
In the World that Is

Arata stood atop the hill at the highest point of the camp, looking off into the night. The moon was down, and the faint light from the stars illuminated nothing but hills and grass. Still, she gazed eastwards as if by sheer force of will she could see through the hills to the city beneath them.

The sound of the grass rustling behind her heralded the arrival of another person. “Go to bed, girl,” Lyrene said brusquely. “Standing out in the cold isn’t going to do anyone any good.”

“Then why are you out here, Sitter?”

The gray-haired woman scowled, then laughed suddenly. “Well, you have me there, I’ll admit. Anxiety’s only natural at a time like this.” Her own eyes went eastward. “If her idea doesn’t work out, whatever it is, we’re in trouble.”

Arata nodded. She had seen Davian’s army for herself. “What can she do?” Arata had heard all the stories that circulated in the Tower about the Red Flame; even as new novices she and her friends had dreamed of being Sharia. If there was any one person who could deal with the situation, it was surely she. Still…

 “I remember when she was first raised Highest,” Lyrene said softly. “They said she had a silver tongue and a charmed life. And I remember that even before then, when she was no older than you are now, she persuaded a man who had destroyed his whole village to give up and go with her to the Tower. After that we all started to look to her. But I don’t think even Sharia can bring Davian back without bloodshed.”

“No chance at all?”

Lyrene sighed. “There’s always a chance. But not much of one.”

They waited and watched in silence for the better part of the night, as the wind rustled the grass and one by one the stars winked out above them. Finally, as the sky in the east brightened from gray to misty gold, Arata saw a shadow moving at the foot of the hill.

Relief washed over her. “Here she comes.”

“Yes,” Lyrene agreed, still watching. “But with who?”

Arata blinked, clearing her eyes. There were, she now realized, two figures climbing the hill toward them. Sharia, slender and graceful, was immediately recognisable; although, as she came closer, Arata wondered at the strange expression in her eyes. The other was a man she had never seen before, with fierce gray eyes and a face that seemed carved of stone…

Lyrene gasped. “She did,” the Sitter breathed in a voice that was barely audible. “She did it. Now I’ll believe in miracles.”

Davian! Arata stared in disbelief. Surely Sharia was not strong enough to shield the man on her own. Had she really persuaded the False Dragon to surrender to her? No sister in the history of the Tower had ever done that.

“Go, girl,” Lyrene ordered. She had regained her composure and started smoothly forward to meet the pair. “Wake the others – if they managed to sleep – and tell them to make ready for a return to the Tower.” Almost under her breath, Arata heard her murmur “Silver tongue and charmed life, indeed.”

And more nerve than a hundred others, Arata added to herself as she hurried back to the camp. Most of her sisters were up already, moving about among the tents.

“What news, Arata?” Darelle called, and several of the others turned to look at her, waiting for her answer.

“Davian has surrendered,” she said, and felt stunned silence fall all around her like snow.

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Part Two will be out soon. How do you like the story so far?

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