The Great Hunt

The Great Hunt: Page 21

It had been difficult avoiding Taraboner eyes with so many men, even in the backcountry, but he had managed it.
No tongues had needed to be silenced.
The scouts he had sent out came riding back, and behind them came more men in white cloaks, some carrying torches to ruin the night vision of everyone at the head of the column. With a muttered curse, Bornhald ordered a halt while he studied those who came to meet him.
Their cloaks bore the same golden sunburst on the breast as his, the same as every Child of the Light, and their leader even had golden knots of rank below it equivalent to Bornhald's. But behind their sunbursts were red shepherd's crooks. Questioners. With hot irons and pinchers and dripping water the Questioners pulled confession and repentance from Darkfriends, but there were those who said they decided guilt before ever they began. Geofram Bornhald was one who said it.
I have been sent here to meet Questioners?
"We have been waiting for you, Lord Captain Bornhald," the leader said in a harsh voice. He was a tall, hooknosed man with the gleam of certainty in his eyes that every Questioner had. "You could have made better time. I am Einor Saren, second to Jaichim Carridin, who commands the Hand of the Light in Tarabon." The Hand of the Light - the Hand that dug out truth, so they said. They did not like the name Questioners. "There is a bridge at the village. Have your men move across. We will talk in the inn. It is surprisingly comfortable."
"I was told by the Lord Captain Commander himself to avoid all eyes."
"The village has been ... pacified. Now move your men. I command, now. I have orders with the Lord Captain Commander's seal, if you doubt."
Bornhald suppressed the growl that rose in his throat. Pacified. He wondered if the bodies had been piled outside the village, or if they had been thrown into the river. It would be like the Questioners, cold enough to kill an entire village for secrecy and stupid enough to throw the bodies into the river to float downstream and trumpet their deed from Alcruna to Tanchico. "What I doubt is why I am in Tarabon with two thousand men, Questioner."
Saren's face tightened, but his voice remained harsh and demanding. "It is simple, Lord Captain. There are towns and villages across Almoth Plain with none in authority above a mayor or a Town Council. It is past time they were brought to the Light. There will be many Darkfriends in such places."
Bornhald's horse stamped. "Are you saying, Saren, that I've brought an entire legion across most of Tarabon in secrecy to root a few Darkfriends out of some grubby villages?"
"You are here to do as you are told, Bornhald. To do the work of the Light! Or are you sliding from the Light?" Saren's smile was a grimace. "If battle is what you seek, you may have your chance. The strangers have a great force on Toman Head, more than Tarabon and Arad Doman together may be able to hold, even if they can stop their own bickering long enough to work together. If the strangers break through, you will have all the fighting you can handle. The Taraboners claim the strangers are monsters, creatures of the Dark One. Some say they have Aes Sedai to fight for them. If they are Darkfriends, these strangers, they will have to be dealt with, too. In their turn."
For a moment, Bornhald stopped breathing. "Then the rumors are true. Artur Hawking's armies have returned."
"Strangers," Saren said flatly. He sounded as if he regretted having mentioned them. "Strangers, and probably Darkfriends, from wherever they came. That is all we know, and all you need to know. They do not concern you now. We are wasting time. Move your men across the river, Bornhald. I will give you your orders in the village." He whirled his horse and galloped back the way he had come, his torchbe

Bornhald closed his eyes to hasten the return of his night sight. We are being used like stones on a board. "Byar!" He opened his eyes as his second appeared at his side, stiffening in his saddle before the Lord Captain. The gauntfaced man had almost the Questioner's light in his eyes, but he was a good soldier despite. "There is a bridge ahead. Move the legion across the river and make camp. I will join you as soon as I can."
He gathered his reins and rode in the direction the Questioner had taken. Stones on a board. But who is moving us? And why?
Afternoon shadows gave way to evening as Liandrin made her way through the women's apartments. Beyond the arrowslits, darkness grew and pressed on the light from the lamps in the corridor. Twilight was a troubled time for Liandrin of late, that and dawn. At dawn the day was born, just as twilight gave birth to night, but at dawn, night died, and at twilight, day. The Dark One's power was rooted in death; he gained power from death, and at those times she thought she could feel his power stirring. Something stirred in the half dark, at least. Something she almost thought she could catch if she turned quickly enough, something she was sure she could see if she looked hard enough.
Serving women in blackandgold curtsied as she passed, but she did not respond. She kept her eyes fixed straight ahead, and did not see them.
At the door she sought, she paused for a quick glance up and down the hall. The only women in sight were servants; there were no men, of course. She pushed open the door and went in without knocking.
The outer room of the Lady Amalisa's chambers was brightly lit, and a blazing fire on the hearth held back the chill of the Shienaran night. Amalisa and her ladies sat about the room, in chairs and on the layered carpets, listening while one of their number, standing, read aloud to them. It was The Dance of the Hawk and the Hummingbird, by Teven Aerwin, which purported to set forth the proper conduct of men toward women and women toward men. Liandrin's mouth tightened; she certainly had not read it, but she had heard as much as she needed about it. Amalisa and her ladies greeted each pronouncement with gales of laughter, falling against each other and drumming their heels on the carpets like girls.
The reader was the first to become aware of Liandrin's presence. She cut off with a surprised widening of her eyes. The others turned to see what she was staring at, and silence replaced laughter. All but Amalisa scrambled to their feet, hastily smoothing hair and skirts.
The Lady Amalisa rose gracefully, with a smile. "You honor us with your presence, Liandrin. This is a most pleasant surprise. I did not expect you until tomorrow. I thought you would want to rest after your long jour- "
Liandrin cut her off sharply, addressing the air. "I will speak to the Lady Amalisa alone. All of you will leave. Now."
There was a moment of shocked silence, then the other women made their goodbyes to Amalisa. One by one they curtsied to Liandrin, but she did not acknowledge them. She continued to stare straight ahead at nothing, but she saw them, and heard. Honorifics offered with breathy unease at the Aes Sedai's mood. Eyes falling when she ignored them. They squeezed past her to the door, pressing back awkwardly so their skirts did not disturb hers.
As the door closed behind the last of them, Amalisa said, "Liandrin, I do not underst-"
"Do you walk in the Light, my daughter?" There would be none of that foolishness of calling her sister here. The other woman was older by some years, but the ancient forms would be observed. However long they had been forgotten, it was time they were remembered.
As soon as the question was out of her mouth, though, Liandrin realized she had made a mistake. It was a question guaranteed to cause doubt and anxiety, coming from an Aes Sedai, but Amalisa's back stiffened, and her face hardened.
"That is an insult, Liandrin Sedai. I am Shienaran, of a noble House and the blood of soldiers. My line has fought the Shadow since before there was a Shienar, three thousand years without fail or a day's weakness."
Liandrin shifted her point of attack, but she did not retreat. Striding across the room, she took the leatherbound copy of The Dance of the Hawk and the Hummingbird from the mantelpiece and hefted it without looking at it. "In Shienar above other lands, my daughter, the Light must be precious, and the Shadow feared." Casually she threw the book into the fire. Flames leaped as if it were a log of fatwood, thundering as they licked up the chimney. In the same instant every lamp in the room flared, hissing, so fiercely did they burn, flooding the chamber with light. "Here above all. Here, so close to the cursed Blight, where corruption waits. Here, even one who thinks he walks in the Light may still be corrupted by the Shadow."
Beads of sweat glistened on Amalisa's forehead. The hand she had raised in protest for her book fell slowly to her side. Her features still held firm, but Liandrin saw her swallow, and her feet shift. "I do not understand, Liandrin Sedai. Is it the book? It is only foolishness."
There was a faint quaver in her voice.

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