The ruby glinted darkly in her palm. Idly, Sharia moved her hand, and the red gem tossed off fiery sparks, glowing like a flame in the moonlight from the windows. The Red Flame. It was appropriate.
That was what they called her.
It was not a name she had ever expected to have. But then, she had never thought she would choose the Red Ajah, either. The Green had always been her dream, and she had promised a dozen of the boys training with the Warders that she would bond them when she reached the shawl.
Promises back then had been so easy to break.
She leaned back in her chair, watching the light dance off the ruby she still held. As she turned it, some odd angle caught the light and reflected her own face back at her. A heart-shaped face, thought proud by some, beautiful by many. Dark silken hair that when loosed spilled nearly to her waist. Dark eyes, that he had said drank up his soul.
Sharia shuddered. No! That was not a memory. That had not been real. She turned the gem again, reflection vanishing in the dancing light. But the memories still clung. For barely five minutes, she had seen the way her life might have been. If she had not chosen. If she had not changed.
The third time is for what will be. The way back will come but once. Be steadfast. It was the litany recited to every novice on her way to becoming Accepted. Before she stepped through the third silver arch of the ter'angreal. Before she lived her third and greatest fear.
Light swallowed her as she stepped through the arch.
It might be real, they were always told. It might not be. Nobody knew for sure.
A soft knock on her door brought Sharia back to the present. "Come," she called. Who would disturb her now? It was nearly midnight.
The door cracked open, then paused. "Highest?" The voice was uncertain.
The room was dark, Sharia noticed with surprise. She had been dreaming too long. "I am here." Channeling a flow of Fire, she lit the lamps. "What is it, Arata?" She thought that was the girl's name.
Arata - yes, that was it - curtsied deeply before speaking. She had worn that red-fringed shawl barely two years. "Forgive me for disturbing you, Highest, but Amarin sent me to tell you. A man in Moreina has raised the Dragon Banner. All our reports claim he can channel."
Sharia looked up sharply. "His name?"
"Davian, Highest. That is the only name anyone knows."
The true Dragon, Sharia wondered, or another false one? Moreina. "Then he means to attempt the Stone." Every False Dragon in the Tower's records had tried to capture the Stone of Tear. All had failed, and their failure had proved their falseness. "Fourteen sisters will accompany me to Tear, and a hundred of the Tower Guard. If this Davian fails to take the Stone, we will take him." And if he succeeded - well then, the world would change. "Tell Amarin, Arata. I will meet her in a few minutes."
The young sister curtsied again before leaving, almost as deeply as a novice would have. Sharia did not remember any of the Ajah heads before her receiving such respect, even those decades older than her. But then, she was the Red Flame. She had never failed in a mission to capture a man who could channel. Luck clung to her, some people said.
Judgement, that's all, not luck. Though I could wish I'd had more of either, back then. What would they have called me if I'd chosen otherwise?
It was so long ago now. She still remembered. Light swallowed her as she stepped through the arch, light blinded her.
"My love," Sharia whispered as she cradled him in her arms. The green fringe on her shawl fluttered in the wind. "Hush, my love. Let me Heal you."
The words were futile. He was dying, whether it was madness or sickness or both. No Healing could give him more than a few minutes of life. All she could do was ease his pain. She gathered the Power, prepared to weave the flows.
The way back. It whispered in her head. The way back will come but once. A few paces away, amidst the wasteland his madness had made of the area, stood a gleaming silver arch. She stared at it.
"Shari -" His voice was weak, rasping. "Sharia, help me."
Be steadfast, came that other voice.
"No!" she cried aloud. "A minute - give me a minute!" But she already knew the way she must go.
Staring at the ruby in her hands, Sharia shook her head slowly. Which way should she have gone? No one knew whether what happened through the arches was real. But in that life she had been Green Ajah, and she had loved a man who could channel. Those two things had linked together in her mind.
She had chosen the Red Ajah.
"I was afraid," Sharia said softly, and shook her head. "I should have known I couldn't cheat the Pattern."
It had been three years ago that eyes-and-ears had passed on rumours of a man channeling in northern Shiota. Three years ago that she had led her sisters to capture that man. She had known him straight away. He was the man that she had loved for a minute, for a lifetime, that day so long ago.
Sharia had sworn to serve the Tower. She had sworn fidelity to the goals of the Red Ajah. An Aes Sedai could not break her promises.
He had loved her, but he had never known her. There had been hatred in his eyes as she rode with him shielded back to the Tower. Hatred as she led the circle that had gentled him.
He had died within the month.
Some, she knew, would say her actions had been merciful. That to die gentled was better than to die mad. But she had seen his eyes.
"Which way should I have gone?"
Slipping the ruby back on its slender chain, Sharia shook her head. Whichever had been the right path, there was no way to go back. What was done was done, and she had paid the price for it. It was over. The present had to be lived in.
"We will take this Davian," she said calmly, and rose, fastening the gem into her waves of hair. Fourteen sisters to go with her. The three Sitters: they might not like having to leave the Hall, but this took precedence, and she needed their strength. Amarin, Darelle, Talienne. Siena and Marise. She would choose the rest after reading the reports for herself. Moments later, Sharia was all serenity as she strode through the quarters of the Red Ajah.
But there was a hollow in her heart hidden to all but herself. And as she walked, her eyes flicked momentarily to the west of the Tower, where, beyond the trees and gardens, grounds rarely strayed onto held an unmarked grave.
"Highest" you may remember from ACOS, is the title given in private to the head of the Red Ajah. The title is currently held by Galina Casban. Obviously, the quality of Ajah heads has declined somewhat since Sharia's time... I'm currently writing a sequel to The Red Flame, which should be posted soon.