As the Ever Victorious Army readied itself to make war, Finn Axentro glanced to the sky. There soared the great raken that had journeyed with the Forerunners on their long voyage. Surely there could be no other token, no forebodings that anything would mar their venture. After they had travelled so far, there would still be resistance to meet, but it would be their duty and glory to pave the way for the other Seanchan who would follow after. Certainly, Finn told himself, High Lord Turak would not dare miss the battle, after commanding the expedition the entire way. There could be nothing to distract Finn or his fellow infantry, and whatever had caught his ear—some battle-cry of the enemy's, perhaps, almost musical?—was nothing to fear.
And then, all at once, an enormous fog descended upon the army from nowhere. Finn's fellow Seanchan screamed in fright, but held their positions as best they could. Was it a feint of the enemy's?
No, it couldn't be. Captain Phasma had briefed them on what knowledge she'd gleaned of the so-called Children of the Light, and they would never dare to consort with the marath'damane witches. Any spurts of power would be a tool the expert sul'dam in the army deployed on the Seanchan's behalf. If it was their will to confuse and muddle their own troops, well, Finn would trust the plan and assume High Lord Turak had it worked out. Wherever he was.
Out of the mists came an army, and the army was not the Children of the Light. If anything, they seemed to have materialized from the glowing swirls. Most rode on horseback, while a few charged alongside the cavalry impossibly fast, knocking back the first wave of Seanchan. A curly-haired young man bore a tinted sword, and it seemed to shine with color as he duelled an officer. Leading the charge was a tall, dark-eyed man atop a mighty horse.
"I am no coward!" said the soldier next to Finn, Uttat Treye. "Who do these people send against the Ever Victorious Army, phantoms and shades?"
One moment he yelled his defiance at the man, who lifted his great sword aloft, and the next he had fallen at Finn's feet. Could the figure of fog have dealt death in an instant, or were the Children of the Light wielding archers in their ranks? Finn knelt to inspect his comrade's wounds—if the other man wanted to kill him, there was no time to run.
"And do you, too, defy me?"
He did not want to concede fear—an enemy of High Lord Turak's army, of Phasma and all the others, was an enemy of his—yet the mists swirled around them, and Finn felt like the battle beyond might as well have stopped. "Who are you?"
"You know my name, subject of moons."
The austere command in his face, flanked by dark hair; the shrewd aspiration behind his eyes. If he focused, through the noise of battle, Finn could almost imagine the visage of the Empress Radhanan, may she live forever. "Emperor Paendrag?"
"The first," he said, with a half-smiling emphasis. Of course Luthair Paendrag had been the first Seanchan emperor, had begun the struggle of consolidating an entire continent into one dynastic reign. Yet why stress it unless...?
They had not journeyed across the Aryth Ocean just for the glory of Luthair's name. "Artur Hawkwing?"
"One of many names I have wielded."
"But how could you—betray us?" Even as he asked the question, the mists seemed to grow that much thinner, and he beheld the rest of Hawkwing's ethereal army, charging forward and scattering the Seanchan in their wake.
Hawkwing paused, and glanced down at his sword. "I suppose it is my duty to take up the call for justice, wherever it is sounded."
"That's not an answer!"
"Then you must seek one that suits you better," said Hawkwing. "I can do no more."
High Lord Turak would know, Finn decided, if anyone would. Or if not, he would have more important questions, like what the commander was doing while war writhed. It was not cowardice or desertion, but rather seeking out a true leader he would be proud to follow. Even if he did not know nor care how many generations House Aladon had been of the High Blood, they had to be more worthy of his allegiance than the immaterial forefather of the Seanchan dynasty.
"Farewell, crystalsworn," came Hawkwing's voice behind him, as Finn turned away from the mists. "Perhaps one day we shall see battle side by side."
He did not know how he made it back to High Lord Turak's house without being attacked from behind, though he kept his sword at the ready nonetheless. There were visions in the sky, enormous shadows moving back and forth as if locked in a duel, yet all Finn could remember was Uttat's face, frozen in terror. Even Hawkwing himself was the face of an enemy, and focusing on an enemy who was out of sight and could do him no more ill was only granting the specter more power over his mind.
At last, he caught his breath outside the house and knocked squarely on the door. He heard nothing from inside, but was that a lantern lit on the upper floors? Then Finn saw that the door had been left slightly ajar, and swung open on its own.
Steeling himself, he flung it open the rest of the way, and stepped into the house. "Hello?" he called. "High Lord?"
Finn made his way through the hallways, searching each room in hopes of a staircase—surely someone was watching above? But then he entered the collection room, and froze. Battle had been waged there, and not war with lights and phantoms, nor cavalry nor Children nor archers. This was blood and death on a much tighter scale; Turak's body lay where it had been struck down by another blademaster—established, or perhaps, arising. Beyond him, the corpses of da'covale were almost poised in their stillness, blades protruding through their thin robes.
The courtyard bore much the same scene. Fellow Seanchan soldiers had met with enemy forces and proven victorious no longer. There were no fallen locals, so it was not clear what had brought them there, and he could not be sure if they were even Children of the Light. Perhaps the ghosts had begun their counterattack there, of all places?
Finally, he found a staircase and sprinted up, relieved but still puzzled to find the upper story devoid of corpses. Then he came to the room with living Seanchan, and stopped cold.
There were two women, who wore the dresses of sul'dam; bright white with lightning-streaked patterns. They did not seem as if they'd been bloodied by the fighting below. Yet somehow, they bore the signs of an inconceivable shame. Around their neck, each was collared like a damane.
"Who are you?" Finn demanded. The women looked one to another.
"I—" one babbled. "She..."
"Who were you, then?" War was raging, the Hailenne's forces up against who-knows-what, and were two of their sul'dam decommissioned by metal bands?
"She was Renna, sir," stammered the second, as if desperate to avoid punishment by not speaking of herself.
"And that one was Seta."
No one would have come along to give them damane names, surely not if they were wearing sul'dam clothing. "Well," Finn said, "be off with you."
Renna raised her eyebrows as if there was no way that was going to happen. And she had a point—it wasn't as if he was about to enforce it by meddling in the business of their collars.
"So be it," he offered instead, then turned and hastened down the stairs, then out of the house entirely. Only there did he remember there was still a battle in progress, and fled with the noise to his back, aimlessly weaving his way through the streets of Falme.
He was much farther from having understood what had happened there, but he knew that somehow the defenders of Toman Head had inflicted a defeat far worse than any blademasters' duel, far worse than any clash of armies could ever hope to be. They had managed to collar a sul'dam, and prove that a keeper and trainer of magicians was no better than a slave. If that were true, as soon say any common da'covale were the equal of a master der'tor'raken!
And he could not take up arms again, not for an empire built on a lie. One way or another, his journey among the Hailenne had come to an end.
That side of the ocean, even the sword forms had names. And there were as many of them as there were omens, each one a foretelling of what might yet come to pass. The Wood Grouse Dances—a stance Hammar had taught him, shifting his weight from his back foot suddenly forward. Yet at once it called to mind the image of a lone bird swooping and hovering over his own head. Stay close, he'd called to mind, and plunged forward in the practice ring, catching Hammar off-guard.
Lightning of Three Prongs—one of Poe Dameron's favorite forms, as he angled his sword at dazzling speed. Another member of the Tower Guard under Hammar, Poe had made it clear to any trainee who harbored reservations that Finn was welcome to take up arms alongside them. "The Tower has always been a safe haven to any who come here for refuge. And the fewer soldiers working on behalf of some conquering Empress, the better."
Yet every time they'd sparred together, under those rainless skies in oppressive heat, Finn had remembered to be light of foot on and off the field, and watch where he spoke. It was one thing to confide in Poe, but quite another to trust the other students. Some wanted to know more about the Seanchan, and everything he thought would be useful to know in battle was worth sharing, but how could he even claim to know the truth, when not even the sul'dam understood the powers on which their armies were built? And when curious gossips asked him why the Tairen man had not yet been bonded as a Warder, he made no reply. "Huh," they sniffed, then started jib-jabbing in their fast-talking accents again.
Hummingbird Kisses the Honeyrose—what he'd watched Gawyn Trakand hone, duelling his half-brother, Galad Damodred. It was a common stance, and Gawyn did not make it look particularly distinguished as he fell back, retreating into more defensive postures. Finn squinted to see if he could glean any lesson from the predictable mock fights, even as they always turned out the same way. Galad gained a slight edge, and Finn tried to push back memories of the family he saw no way to return to.
But he could no sooner do that than talk himself out of recognizing the omens, even under the shadow of a tower where forces far more substantial than their swords held truer, deeper power. He imagined falling petals, tokens of victory. Could young Gawyn really find a moment to overwhelm the odds?
Once it had only been idle speculation. That had been before. Before blood and anguish rent the Tower, and Warders died in the courts of Tar Valon.
"Stand with us," Gawyn had said, and his gaze did not break from Finn's—for good or ill, the man meant no deceit. "We—I know you believe in doing what is right, in upholding the law because it is fair, not because of—some outdated loyalties. We are young, but our hearts are true."
He meant well. Finn had seen enough of war to trust that. But so many of the so-called "Younglings" had been so cool to Finn upon his arrival that he could not trust their judgment over Poe's. Not when the act of deposing a leader by night, hiding her away in a mysterious coup, and threatening to cut her off from the One Power sounded so much more like Imperial dynastic struggles than what the Tower could have been, should have been. "I cannot."
"Then leave this place, Axentro," Gawyn said, and it was more a plea than a threat. "Don't get yourself killed for a puppet."
But he'd been tired of running.
He did not regret his decision in the heat of battle, even seeing Hammar fall to Gawyn's blow, even fearing for his own life. Stormclouds had formed in every part of the continent he'd journeyed across, and if he could not be safe in the harbors of Tar Valon, he would be a fool to strike out on his own.
Until Gawyn dealt a blow to Poe's side, and he crumpled to the dirt, giving only a soft groan before falling silent. Poe, who had idolized the Amyrlin for years, who had refused to believe that Leia Organa would be caught up in any violation of Tower law—and who was willing to defy the new order to save her. Who had taught Finn so much, without fear or favor, and who was willing to listen when the smaller boys—or the farthest-flung warriors—grew homesick. "Back in Tear I never thought I'd be here, either," he'd tried to explain, once, as if that meant anything to Finn, "we're not so different."
Finn could not stop to mourn, locked in battle against another adversary. Mazone's complexion was as dark as Finn's own, but he had a more controlled, almost stilted way of shifting between forms. Though the horrors around them did not faze him, it left him vulnerable in those brief seconds in between. If Finn could just get a sense of his timing, recognize when he would be busy concentrating and not mustering a defense...
There. With an ungainly lunge forward, Finn swooped down and sliced into Mazone's arm. Mazone lurched, and Finn pressed the attack; then Mazone was wincing in pain, as his dangling limb fell off entirely. The follow-through almost nicked him in the leg, but he alertly dodged to the side in time, then started running away with his dwindling strength.
Before Finn could catch his breath or dare to check on Poe, Corbet had charged him, sword in hand. "Forward the Boar!" he bellowed, and then Finn was meeting him blow for blow.
As he fell back, he decided that that retreat would not be as painful as the flight that had come before it. Perhaps there was injustice in the hall of the Tower, but he had not been there long enough to be disillusioned by anything new coming to light. There were no legends out of the past or riders in the sky, just the ugly faces of politics and the too-young faces of children turned zealots for the law.
But once again, he would be turned out on his own, drifting in exile as the world broiled beyond him. It was all he could do to stay one step ahead of the track of each storm.
Rey came bounding across the courtyards, pulling up before her run bowled Finn over. "I made it through the ring!" she beamed.
"Of course you did," he laughed. "Was it ever a question?"
"Don't say that," she scowled, "there are so many ways things might have gone..."
"I'm sorry," said Finn.
"It's all right. Anyway, all the sisters have to accept me as a full Aes Sedai now—"
"You earned that right long ago," he protested.
"—so there should be nothing stopping me from bonding you, here and now, as my Warder. If you will it."
"If you're sure," said Finn.
"Sure?" Rey echoed. "I've—trusted in you, wanted you, ever since I was raised! Tarmon Gai'don is nearly upon us, we need every edge we can wield."
He tore himself away from her eyes, light as an Aiel's, that had captivated him ever since his arrival in Salidar. "If you trust me, you already know I'll fight with every breath in my body. But—I cannot."
"Cannot?" There was no way she could be searching his mind with the One Power, was there? "I had...thought otherwise of you."
"Cannot, if it will only be an expediency. Because the end of time itself may upon us. If I cannot trust that we are more than military advantages to each other, pieces on a battlefield, that this would be worth doing if we had a lifetime to spend together, is it worth doing at all?" She opened her mouth to speak, but Finn went on. "And I very much doubt that, if we were in peacetime, your sisters would be so acquiescent to you bonding a Seanchan."
"I'm stronger in the Power than many of them already. They'll give way, war or peace."
"Is this how it always is with you, then? You show your strength, and your inferiors back down?"
"Finn, you know I've sworn the oaths. Anything I say to you must be the truth. Do you really want me to answer?"
"I wish you weren't forced into speech."
"I wish," she said, "I could show you how I feel, without needing it to—confine you."
"Even without the war," he said, "even without the Power, without the Return, I would watch your back. Guard you when you could not defend yourself, and stand by your side when you faced the darkness."
"After all you have seen," she hesitated, "does it really surprise you that I might feel the same way?"
"You put it as a question?"
"If it would mean more to you. Perhaps you prefer signs and deeds? Are you wounded somewhere, that I might heal you?"
Finn laughed. "Only in spirit, perhaps."
"Then if the end of time is as near upon us as you say, what do we stand to lose?"
"And how much more pride will I have lost forever, if I cannot join with you now?"
"I don't know," he said, "if you can't tell me."
"So let me show you."
He turned back to her unyielding gaze, and nodded. "Please."
Rey took Finn's hands in hers, focusing on the weave. Moments later, he felt his hands warming—surely that was not just flustered excitement? For an instant they blazed in expectation, and when she stepped back, all the shades of emotion within her mind were his to unfold.
A hint of relief, that the weave had gone just as she'd learned without any mistakes for either of them. Far more confidence, bordering on annoyance, that of course she'd been ready for months, ever since the sisters of the Blue had confided in her in Salidar. But beyond that, near to overflowing, all the wonder she felt in sharing in his joy as well.
She broke into a smile. "Speak it."
"You do love me," he said with assurance, "as a comrade, and—as a Green might love her only Warder."
"And you love me, Finn! By the light, for all you've come through, you're still standing. You are a fortunate man indeed."
He shook his head. "It didn't feel very fortunate at the time." Was it his imagination, or could he feel her as she sensed his regret, his bitterness? "Are we to have no secrets from each other, then?"
"I wouldn't say that," she suggested. A moment later, the warmth that was her spirit in the back of his head faded, and he raised his eyebrows. "It's only temporary," she explained, "so I can—you know, cavort at secret Black Ajah rituals without you feeling how excited I am."
Then she'd let herself open up once again, and he could feel the teasing sentiment. "I want you to teach me everything," he asked, "as fast as we can go. How am I to know when a Shadowspawn is near?"
"At Tarmon Gai'don I don't think there'll be much need for a bond. You'll figure it out when it's looming over you and you stick your sword into it," she deadpanned.
Finn kissed her, and she returned it gladly, their joy radiating back and forth through the bond as they felt each other's affection twice over. Even when they stepped apart, the sensation lingered, and he found himself wondering just what else the bond could do; Rey smiled at his curiosity.
"They don't spell it out in class, exactly. History and telling a Trolloc from a Myrddraal, that sort of thing, but beyond that I suppose it's just sort of instinct."
"You're thinking about the future?"
"There might still be other battles to fight, some day. Justice to mete out."
"So you think we can win."
"With you? I believe we can," and he knew it for truth.
"Do you need to go register us somewhere, then? Chubain will be sad to have lost a guardsman, but I want a new cloak!"
"I'll see what I can do."
"And—if you have the opportunity to put in a word, I would appreciate an audience with the Mother."
Finn's fear prickled, and he knew Rey must have been sensing it as well. "Has she been having any more dreams?"
"No," he rushed to add. In exile, he had tried to counsel the new Amyrlin on how the Seanchan might attack the Tower, when nobody else knew what to make of her prophecies. It was chilling to size up their strategies when he wasn't sure of the scope of the armies they were still carrying across the sea, yet what else could he do? He'd thrown in his lot with Rey and everyone else in Salidar, and it was all he could do to carry it through. "But I've been talking to Chubain, and I—we think we might have some idea about the assassins."
Even if they were Bloodknives, come all that way to assassinate al'Vere, what chance did he stand against them? No, he told himself—not him by himself, him alongside dozens of women filled with the One Power.
"I'll do what I can," Rey said. Not much on its own, but she sensed his trust. Though the drums called to war, from that day on her heart would echo back his own.