Aislynn na Dharhien rode into the clearing and pulled her white mare to an abrupt halt. Behind her, she heard a strangled curse as her Warder, Dhugal, frantically reined his own cantering mount to the side, barely avoiding hitting her. "Light’s sake, Lynnie! ‘Tis a bit o’ warnin’ you could give a man, afore comin’ to a dead stop! I could hae run ye and Feather into the ground!"
Aislynn chuckled, as the Borderlands lilt on his tongue became even thicker in his agitation. After a score and more of years together, she hardly needed their bond to read his emotions anymore. She knew him as well as she knew herself, and his presence in her mind had become such an ingrained part of her consciousness that it barely registered anymore. "Sorry, Dhugal, but just look at this place, would you? It reminds me of..."
Before she could finish the thought, Dhugal whistled between his teeth and said it for her. "Of the place where we first met, Lynnie!," he exclaimed, looking about in pleased astonishment. "Oh, I know we’re nowhere near there, but it has much the same feeling to it. ‘Twas a happy place, that glade!" The last was delivered with a sly glance, evoking the memory of that long ago day...
Aislynn rode into the clearing and pulled her dun gelding to a halt. Before her lay a place seemingly out of a gleeman’s tale -- a glade so perfect and serene, it hardly seemed real. With a happy sigh, she decided to camp here. Three days out of Tar Valon, she was road weary, saddle sore, and beginning to wonder why she’d agreed to accept a post in the Borderlands to start with. But the peace of this place refreshed her soul, and so she dismounted and started settling in for the night.
Aislynn was new to the shawl, having been raised just the past Winternight, and still wore her blue-fringed shawl with the odd mixture of awe and arrogance that marked all new Sisters. The shawl was securely packed away for traveling right now, but just knowing it was there still gave her a thrill of pride. As did the reason for her journey she’d been asked to take the post of advisor to the young new Queen of Saldaea, an honor unheard of for one so newly Raised. Of course, she had accepted without a moment’s hesitation, but had she known just how hard the journey would be, she might have demurred. Born and bred in Tar Valon itself, child of a Tower Guardsman and his wife, she’d had no idea what lay outside the Shining Walls. Until now. In her new-Raised arrogance, she’d declined an escort, saying loftily that she could manage just fine on her own. What a fool she’d been!
After a simple supper of dried meats, bread toasted on the crackling fire, cheese, and an apple, Aislynn lay down and looked up at the stars, the same stars shining on Tar Valon, and on Saldaea. So lost was she in dreams of what might lie ahead for her as the Queen’s advisor that she never noticed the shadow passing over those stars... An odd, crooning sound drifted down to her ears, lulling her, dulling the alarm bells going off in a distant corner of her mind. She sat up, and barely flinched as a dark, winged creature settled gently to the earth nearby. The crooning increased, as the pale, gaunt man walked toward her, beckoning...
Some part of Aislynn that was not under the Drakghar’s spell shrieked in horror, urging her to run, to embrace the Source, but that part was too small to matter. The creature drew closer, closer still, reaching for her -- and then, it fell, driving her to the ground beneath it, its fetid blood spilling over her in a hot, foul tide. It was that dark, noisome blood spilling onto her face that brought Aislynn back to herself, and she screamed.
"Well now, lass, if ye can scream, then I guess the Drakghar didn’t kiss ye. Lucky I was patrolling out this way, and saw the fire glowing. I’ll be taking you to Queen Tenobia’s court, lassie, so ye don’t get in more trouble than ye have already. M’ name’s Dhugal, by the way, of House Bashere." Aislynn had a hard time following the Borderman’s lilting accent, but she did make out ‘Tenobia’ and the name ‘Dhugal,’ and guessed that this was one of the Queen’s guardsmen, out on patrol. Suddenly, the sheer horror of the whole incident came crashing in on her she’d nearly been taken by a Drakghar, and one of Tenobia’s guards had saved her! The entire court would know of this! She’d never be taken seriously as an advisor, not after this! She’d wind up going back to the Tower in disgrace, a laughingstock. Aislynn began to weep uncontrollably.
"There now, lassie, don’t cry, it’s not so bad as all that! You’re safe now, I’ll not let any harm come to ye! Hush, lassie, hush!" Dhugal sat down beside the sobbing Aislynn and put his arms around her. "You don’t understand, I’m Aes Sedai! This can’t be happening to me! Oh, what will Tenobia think?" And she kept right on wailing. At last Dhugal understood. "Well, now, how will the Queen ever know, Aes Sedai? She’ll no hear of it from me!" Aislynn noted clinically that Dhugal had removed his arms upon hearing she was Aes Sedai, and that she’d felt much better wrapped within them. She took a deep breath, calming herself. "I can’t ask you to keep secrets from your Queen for me, Dhugal," she said firmly, although she was secretly pleased that he would offer. "Tenobia must know of this Shadowspawn’s presence in her realm; it is our duty to inform her. If it makes her think me unfit to serve her, then so be it."
Dhugal smiled to see the legendary Aes Sedai calm return to this slip of a girl. There was something about her he’d liked almost immediately, a sort of humanity that women who had worn the shawl long seemed to lose. "As you say, Aes Sedai. But she’ll nae be hearing it tonight -- it’s still a good day’s ride to the palace, and you’re in no shape to ride. We’ll stay here for the rest of the night."
And so they stayed together, all that long, starry night. They talked for hours, sharing their histories, their hopes and fears, their dreams and ambitions. And in the morning, when Aislynn woke with the sun on her face and Dhugal’s arms warm around her, she asked him if he would bear her bond. There’d been only one possible answer, and they’d both wept as she wove the flows.
"Hssst! Lynnie -- heads up! I feel Shadowspawn, a lot of them, coming closer!" Dhugal’s urgent whisper broke Aislynn’s reverie, brought her rudely back to the present, and the purpose of their journey. For in her saddlebag was a document that the Shadow would do anything to destroy, that she would do anything to bear back to the Tower. A document giving irrefutable proof that at least nine Sisters served the Dark One, nine Sisters identified by their names. Aislynn had been given it by one of the nine, a Red Sister named Morwen su Ahmir. Morwen had secretly been a Black Sister, but she’d repented and come back to the Light on her deathbed. Aislynn had tended her, not knowing what she was, until Morwen’s startling confession. Aislynn had not believed at first, had not wanted to believe, until Morwen directed her to retrieve a piece of parchment from a heavily warded box she kept hidden in her pack. It was a message from Liandrin, another Red Sister, to Morwen and seven others. The instructions detailed in that message still made Aislynn’s flesh crawl, just thinking about it. Morwen had been instructed to burn the parchment as soon as it had been read, but she’d kept it, hoping to use it as a lever against Liandrin, whose place at the head of their circle she coveted. And then, the illness came, a wasting disease that no Healing seemed to touch. Morwen came to see that disease as her punishment for turning from the Light and in the end, wracked with pain that Aislynn could only ease a fraction, she renounced her vows to the Dark and turned her face once more to the Light. The parchment she gave into Aislynn’s hands, telling her to use it to destroy the Black Ajah. Then she died, and the look of absolute peace on her face made Aislynn want to weep for joy. She swore an oath right then, by the Light and her hope of salvation and rebirth, that she would dedicate the rest of her life to destroying the Black Ajah, in Morwen’s memory.
But the Dark One is not called the Lord of the Grave for naught, and it has ever been said that the dead hold no secrets from him. For the past two weeks, ever since Morwen’s death, they had been dogged by minions of the Shadow. Simple Darkfriends at first, singly or in pairs. Then larger groups, then Trollocs, and last night, two Myrddrahl. She and Dhugal had thwarted every attempt against them, but now it seemed the Shadow was getting desperate. They were only two days’ ride from Tar Valon now, only two days from the exposure of one of the Shadow’s most potent secret weapons, and they’d been expecting an all-out assault. The beauty of this clearing, the memory it invoked, had lulled her for a moment. She prayed that moment would not cost them too dearly.
They heeled their horses quickly out of the clearing, hoping to outrun whatever pursued them. The forest around them was dense and tangled, forcing them to stay on the one narrow track through it, making their route far too easy for the pursuers to follow, but it could not be helped. Aislynn could hear the thunder of hooves and bestial feet behind them, still at some distance, but closing. She glanced at Dhugal. His face was a grim mask, and she could feel the fear in him as clearly as she felt her own. There were too many coming, they both knew. Speed was their only ally now. "If we can clear the forest and make it across the river, then we’ll have a chance Lynnie," Dhugal called over to her. She nodded tightly. The river was at least an hour away, even at this pace. If their horses held out, if the Shadowspawn didn’t catch them before that...
On and on they ran, the sounds of pursuit drawing ever nearer even as the forest began to thin a bit. Dhugal suddenly reined his gelding off the path to the right, and Aislynn followed without question. Their hunters would expect them to stay on the path; a sudden change in route might delay them long enough to allow escape across the river. The forest was still fairly think, but there were enough openings to allow them to ride at good speed while at the same time giving them cover. "They’re following the trail," Dhugal said at last, just loud enough for her to hear. Aislynn felt a brief flicker of hope. If they could just cross the river before their deception was discovered, they’d make it. Shadowspawn hated deep water. She thought she could see it glimmering in the sun just ahead. Almost there...
At the edge of the forest, Dhugal pulled up and motioned for Aislynn to do the same. "No sense riding blind into a trap," he muttered, swinging down off his panting gelding and slipping almost invisibly between the trees to look at the river. Aislynn waited. In just a moment, he was back, and the look in his eyes told her all she needed to know. "They have blocked the river," she said flatly. "Yes, Lynnie, they have." "Then all is lost," she whispered, "and Morwen’s death was in vain. The Shadow has won." "Not necessarily, Lynnie," Dhugal said softly. "There is a chance. A slim one, and one you’ll have no liking for, but a chance never the less." There was a note in his voice that frightened her -- a note of finality, of goodbye. "What are you talking about, my Gaidin?" she asked cautiously. "What chance?"
Dhugal pulled her down from her saddle and into his arms, holding her tight and kissing her hair. "If I make a run for the river, it will divert them long enough for you to escape through the trees and farther upstream. Once you cross, keep riding and don’t stop until you reach the Shining Walls. The Amyrlin must get this information, Lynnie, and you must survive to bring it to her. You gave your oath on it, as did I." At his words, Aislynn’s eyes had filled with tears. "NO!" she sobbed against his chest. "It would be suicide, Dhugal! There must be another way!" "Lynnie, there is no other way and you know it. Any moment, they’ll begin searching the forest for us, and we’ll both be lost. You are Aes Sedai, Aislynn na Dharhien, sworn to fight the Shadow, whatever the cost. I call on you to honor that vow, for the sake of the love we have shared these past 26 years. Besides," he said gently, brushing the tears from her cheeks, "as long as you live, I shall be with you Lynnie. Nothing will ever change the bond between us, not even death."
Aislynn was reminded of a saying in the Borderlands: "Death is lighter than a feather; duty is heavier than a mountain." She’d thought she’d understood that saying before, but now she truly felt its meaning. "I’m not strong enough to carry a mountain, Dhugal, not without you." "Yes, you are Lynnie, because you must, because there is no one else to do it. Now get back on your horse and ride -- we’re running out of time." She wiped at her eyes, then took one last, long look at him, etching his beloved features into her memory. "I hate it when you’re right, Dhugal, you know that," she said with a wan, wistful smile. He smiled in return. "Yes, I know. That’s probably why I do it so often." Then he kissed her, and lifted her to her saddle. "Ride, Lynnie, and don’t look back. Stop for nothing until you reach Tar Valon, and may the Light shine on you." He smacked the mare sharply on the rump, and Aislynn grabbed at the saddle as the horse bounded away.
She never did look back, even when the first blows began to strike him, nearly making her lose her seat. She rode on, tears blinding her vision, trusting the mare to find a path, as she kept count of each blow. She planned to call the Black Ajah to account for every one of them, and see to it that they paid dearly for his sacrifice. She had just reached the river when she felt him die, and the mountain settled more heavily on her slender shoulders. She swam the mare across unmolested, and galloped on into the setting sun.
She was numb by the time she reached Tar Valon a day and a half later. The Keeper, Leane, took one look at her dead eyes as she requested immediate audience with the Amyrlin, and let her in. The Amyrlin herself, Suian Sanche, was not shocked by Aislynn’s news. It seemed Liandrin and several of her circle had escaped the Tower just the night before, murdering several people and stealing a number of ter’angreal. Aislynn looked at the Amyrlin dully. "So, I sacrificed Dhugal for nothing. Better I had died with him." But the Amyrlin took Aislynn by the shoulders and shook her, hard. "Not for nothing! Two of these names are not among those who went with Liandrin, although neither is in the Tower right now. And now at least we know why they fled -- they knew you were coming to expose them, and that they’d be put to the question. Never think it was for nothing, Daughter. He deserves better than that." After swearing that all she knew was Sealed to the Flame, Aislynn allowed herself to be led to a room in the Blues’ quarters, where she laid down and began to weep.
For twenty six days and nights, she did nothing but weep. Her Blue sisters came in and forced her to drink some broth now and then, to keep her health from failing completely, but otherwise they left her alone. None passed her door but stopped and looked at it with a mixture of profound sympathy and barely suppressed horror. For each woman couldn’t help but think, "There but for the grace of the Light go I."
On the morning of the twenty seventh day, Aislynn at last emerged from her room. She was pale and fragile looking, but her back was straight and her head high. Sisters stopped her as she walked along the halls, hugging her or offering words of encouragement, but never of sympathy. They all knew better. She made her way to the gardens, seeking solace in the beauty of the flowers and the warmth of the sun. A thousand memories fluttered about her mind, and she was so absorbed in her own thoughts that she never saw the young Accepted raking the paths until she’d walked into her. "Oh! Sorry, child. I wasn’t paying attention."
The girl rose and made a graceful curtsey. Aislynn saw that she was actually a young woman, perhaps twenty some summers in age. "No, it is I who must beg pardon, Aes Sedai. I should have moved for you, but I was watching a butterfly. Which is what brought me here in the first place -- daydreaming instead of paying attention to Verin Sedai’s lecture. I shall go at once to Sheriam Sedai’s study, Aes Sedai." She was contrite, Aislynn saw, but there was a trace of wry humor under her words, as if she laughed at her own follies. "No, I don’t think that will be necessary... what is your name, child?" "It is Rhianna, Aes Sedai. And I thank you for the reprieve." At the name, Aislynn gave a start and looked at her again. This time, she saw the tilted Saldaean eyes, the familiar curve of the jaw, the hint of a beloved dimple. Rhianna had been the name of the daughter she’d borne Dhugal twenty four summers ago, the daughter she’d given into the care of other members of House Bashere to raise and love as their own. Aes Sedai had no time to rear children, and Aislynn had not really thought about her daughter -- Dhugal’s daughter -- in years. And now here she stood.
A part of the frozen numbness in Aislynn’s heart thawed just a bit, and in a corner of her mind, she could almost feel the traces of a familiar presence. Smiling at the Accepted, at her daughter!, Aislynn said, "Well, we’re all entitled to a dream now and then. I am Aislynn Sedai, of the Blue Ajah, Rhianna. And I could use an assistant, if you’re interested?" As Rhianna eagerly agreed, Aislynn remembered the words Dhugal had spoken to her, just before he’d sent her away. 'As long as you live, I shall be with you Lynnie. Nothing will ever change the bond between us, not even death.' "You were right again, beloved," she thought to herself. For though Dhugal was gone, the bond remained, and ever would. She took Rhianna by the arm, and walked back into the Tower and the rest of her life.