The Dragon Banner is a sequel to The Red Flame, which I suggest you read before reading this. If you have already done so, you will recall that Sharia is the Highest, the head of the Red Ajah, and that as of the end of The Red Flame she was leading fourteen other sisters to capture the False Dragon Davian. They have now reached Moreina, the country of which Tear is capital, and the story begins from there.
"And then," Sharia murmured, "maybe not."
Standing atop a low hill, she regarded the city of Tear. It was a beautiful sight amidst the soft dawn shadows, but it was not the city itself that concerned her but the camp that seemed to have sprung up outside its walls. High above it, above even the highest building, a banner flew in the wind. Two teardrops, black and white, intertwined upon a field of golden silk.
"Highest?" Amarin, beside her, looked confused, and little wonder. It was a bad habit she seemed to have developed, speaking only the last part of a train of thought aloud. She would have to try and curtail it, at least when in company. "Nothing of importance, Amarin," she answered. "I was merely thinking that this Davian may be harder to capture than we anticipated. Shall we go back now?"
They returned to their own camp, farther back in the hills, a fraction of the size of the other if rather more luxurious. With a sharp gesture, Sharia gathered the other thirteen sisters around her. "Bad news," she said shortly. "Davian's forces are considerably larger than anticipated. Either reports were inaccurate" - she doubted that; Amarin just did not make mistakes of that kind, and nor would she use agents who did - "or more are flocking to his banner every day. Whichever it is, we have a problem."
Amarin nodded in agreement, taking up where she had left off. "There are several thousand at least in the camp," the Red eyes-and-ears head reported in her soft voice. "Even bearing in mind that many are women and children, and that many of the men will have next to no experience in battle, the total fighting force is still more than we can possibly handle."
There were grim looks all around. "Then we need to bring in reinforcements," Lyrene sighed. She was a Sitter, and the oldest sister there. "It will take far too long for more Tower Guards to ride here, but if we call to the rulers of Talmour and Fergansea for soldiers -"
"I suspect," Sharia broke in, "that Talmour and Fergansea are nearly as depopulated as Moreina. And that the rulers care for little beyond keeping Davian out of their own territories." She let that sink in, then continued. "You are right about the Tower Guards, Lyrene. By the time they could reach here, Davian's army would have grown still larger. But - I do have an idea."
They watched her. Arata's eyes were bright with what looked very like hero-worship; well, she was the youngest, and raised barely two years. But looking around, Sharia saw similar expressions on all fourteen faces. Lyrene was even blushing at being complimented. Light! Half of these women are twice my age, and half the rest twice that again! And all of them looking at me as if I could snap my fingers and make Davian walk tamely in to be gentled!
On the other hand - They named me Highest because they trust me to lead them. And she did have an idea.
"Give me a while to think about it," she said. "Meanwhile - Arata, Darelle," those two had not yet taken on the ageless features that marked Aes Sedai, "go down and see what you can learn. But be careful!" They nodded obediently, and she dismissed the group before walking away. She had no intention of going into the city herself, but she wanted to be alone to work out the details of her idea.
Sitting in a sheltered spot in the hills, she toyed idly with the ruby that she normally wore in her hair, turning it to flash red light from the multiple facets. It helped her to think.
Is this Davian the Dragon Reborn, or not?
That was the most important question. If he was merely another False Dragon, then for the safety of the world he must be gentled. But if he was the true Dragon Reborn, then any such attempt might be disastrous. And how were they to tell?
On the slopes of Dragonmount shall he be born…
No one seemed to know exactly where Davian had been born. It might have been Dragonmount, and it might have been elsewhere.
Above the watchers shall he proclaim himself, bannered 'cross the sky in fire…
That meant less than nothing to her. There were always those who watched for the Dragon to come.
The Stone of Tear shall never fall until the People of the Dragon come.
The Stone had never yet fallen. Davian's followers, gathered at the gates of the city, proclaimed themselves the People of the Dragon. But from all she could see, he had made no attempt yet to take it.
Only the hand of the Dragon may wield the Sword That Is No Sword.
Callandor. That was, surely, the proof. Only the true Dragon could even touch the sword; some ward woven around it blocked any other hand. Sharia had tried to touch it herself once, out of curiosity; inches from the hilt, her hand had encountered what seemed an invisible, but unbreakable, wall.
Callandor was the key. That she was sure of.
As the day grew late, she returned to the camp to hear what her youngest sisters had learned. The news was mixed.
"More are joining him every day," Arata reported. 'Nearly a hundred rode into the camp today, swearing to follow the Dragon Reborn." Her lips twisted in distaste. "There are stories that he teaches other men to channel, but I think no more than stories. I could not find one person who had seen these men for themselves."
"I spoke to one woman who had met Davian himself," Darelle added. "She is married to one of his guards. She called him iron-hard but fair, slow to anger. And from what she says, he seems convinced he truly is the Dragon."
Sharia sighed. An imposter would have been far easier to deal with. But what Darelle said of his character was hopeful. And Arata's news made it even more important to act immediately. Left too long and there might be other men hoping to channel. And that could lead to disaster.
And is he the Dragon, or is he not…?
"Then," she said finally, "I will go down into the city myself tonight." She held up a hand to stop their protests. "I will be careful -" as careful as I can be, she amended that statement mentally - "but there is something I need to do."
"And what is that?" Lyrene asked sharply. The others waited.
Sharia replied calmly. "To learn."
She headed toward the city, but she did not enter it straight away. Instead, pausing just out of sight of the gates, she drew on saidar to weave the flows of Illusion, wrapping light and shadow around herself to blend in with the night. So cloaked, she turned aside and walked toward the camp where the Dragon Banner flew.
Hidden as she was, she had no difficulty in passing the guards. She lingered on the outskirts of the camp for a moment, listening to a conversation.
"Say what you like about lord Davian," a weather-beaten soldier announced to his comrades, "he may be a channeler, but he's more honour in his little finger than most men they call sane have in their whole bodies. That's what counts."
None of the men seemed disposed to argue.
Sharia moved past, her heart lightening. That was what she was gambling this whole plan on; that a man with the charisma to attract so many followers was also a man of honour. Such was not always the case, but it seemed this time it was.
This crazy idea of mine might actually work.
Before very long she reached a broad clearing in the middle of the camp, where close on a hundred people were gathered, talking, around campfires. Davian's generals and advisors, she guessed, and their personal guards. Her gaze went directly to one fire, smaller than the rest, where only four men sat. None were dressed with any more ostentation than the others, but one, middle-aged, dark-haired and with a soldier's bearing, was clearly deferred to by the other three. And that is Davian.
Sharia took a deep breath. Then she released her Illusion and walked forward into the firelight.
They looked around, at first simply startled to see her, but startlement turned rapidly to shock and outrage as they recognised an Aes Sedai's face. Men surged to their feet, swords drawn. Ignoring them, she raised her voice, augmenting it with the Power to be heard over the shouts.
"Which of you is Davian, who names himself the Dragon Reborn?"
There was a sudden silence as the man she had guessed rose to his feet. He was younger than she had thought at first, perhaps not yet thirty; his bearing made him seem older. Gray eyes, at once confident and wary, regarded her.
"I am Davian."
She took a step closer, letting the light fall full on her face. "I am Sharia, of the Red Ajah."
The silence continued, everyone staring at her in stunned disbelief. Hardly surprising, she thought sardonically. Perhaps they're wondering if the taint on saidin is catching. She went on. "The title of Dragon has been falsely claimed before."
"By Raolin Darksbane and Yurian Stonebow, I know." Davian strode forward, those in his path simply melting away. "But I have the memories of Lews Therin Telamon in my mind, Aes Sedai. I remember the War of the Shadow and the sealing of the Bore. Does that not prove me the true Dragon Reborn?"
Sharia returned his gaze coolly, although it was an effort. "Perhaps it does. And perhaps it merely proves you mad."
There was a hiss from several of Davian's followers, but the man himself did not move. He said coldly, "I have channeled for six years, Aes Sedai. Do I seem mad to you?"
"No," Sharia replied without hesitating, "you do not." Then she smiled suddenly, catching a flicker of confusion on his face as she did so. "But then, there is no taint on saidar, and I am sure you think me quite mad to have come here."
Davian regarded her for a moment, then threw back his head and laughed. Even a few of his men chuckled. "Well said, Aes Sedai. Why are you here?"
"To issue a challenge."
She had their full attention now. Softly, all their ears straining to hear her, she continued speaking. "In the Stone of Tear, in the Heart of the Stone where few dare step foot, there hangs a crystal sword. Long ago, Callandor was made and warded to wait for the rebirth of Lews Therin Telamon, the Dragon. And all the world knows that only the true Dragon Reborn may draw that sword."
She took another step toward him, looking directly up into his eyes. "Come with me into Tear now, Davian, into the Heart of the Stone. Set your hand to Callandor. Draw it and the world will know you for the Dragon Reborn. Fail -" She left it hanging.
"And the world knows me false," Davian finished. A light burned in his eyes. "Very well - Sharia. I know I am no False Dragon. If there is no trickery in your challenge, I will come with you to the Stone."
"There is none," she said. "My sisters are well outside the city. I give you my word that I will not channel, beyond that needed to enter the Heart unseen, if you will do the same."
"Given." He held out his hand.
She took it, and wove the illusion of invisibility around both of them. "I suggest we move quickly. The night grows late."
An uncanny silence surrounded them as they made their way through the streets of Tear. Hardly anyone was out, but even the guards of the Stone did not so much as glance at them as they walked past.
"Impressive," Davian murmured when they were out of earshot.
"A useful trick," she agreed just as softly. "Only by dark, though, or if you stay still; a shimmering tends to give it away when you move. Be careful here. Some of the corridors are lighted, and under the circumstances, it might be rather inconvenient to draw attention."
He laughed quietly at the understatement, as they negotiated the maze of twisting passages. Sharia found herself liking this self-proclaimed Dragon. And Dragon he certainly seems. But then, according to the histories, so did Darksbane and Stonebow. Is he, or is he not?
To her surprise, she was beginning to hope that he was.
They drew no attention in their traverse of the Stone, and eventually they reached the Heart. With all the seeming confidence she could muster, Sharia walked through the forest of columns. At its edge, she dispelled the weaves of Illusion and turned to him.
"There hangs Callandor, Davian. Take it if you can."
The sa'angreal sword hung in the air before them, in the very centre of the Heart. It turned slowly with no hand touching it, crystal glittering in the light from the gilded lamps. Flashing as it turned, it seemed a live thing. Sharia swallowed as the full significance of the situation suddenly weighed on her. Is the Dragon reborn? Is the Last Battle nigh?
"Why do you wait?" she said harshly. "Take it!"
Davian stepped forward slowly, reaching out his hand. The light reflected in his eyes, making them glow. Watching him, Sharia held her breath. He truly believes he is the Dragon, she knew. Is he? Without knowing why, she moved closer, turning to face him with Callandor between them. Draw it, Davian, Dragon Reborn…?
His hand stretched out, reached for Callandor…
The Sword That Is No Sword continued to turn, glinting in the light. No matter how Davian strove, his hand would not touch the hilt. Callandor would not budge.
Relief and disappointment both washed over Sharia. The Dragon remained unborn. Tarmon Gai'don was far off. She was not to see the Prophecies fulfilled. But as she looked into Davian's eyes, she knew that a life had been crushed today.
"You are not the Dragon Reborn, Davian," she said sadly.
Slowly, his hand lowered. His gray eyes had turned from silver to stone. "I believed it." His voice came low and lifeless. "I thought without doubt I was the one. I remember as if I lived it the day saidin was tainted and men driven mad. Even now I hear Lews Therin mourning for dead Ilyena." His eyes darkened still further. "How is that possible, Sharia, if I am not the Dragon Reborn?"
"I do not know," she told him. Surely it was part of the madness. And yet, he did not seem mad.
"Did you know I would fail?" His voice was suddenly fierce, and his eyes flashed.
Truthfully she said, "I did not. I hoped you would succeed."
The light dimmed, yet there was still something strange in his eyes as he looked at her. "In any other circumstances…" he murmured, then shook his head. Grimly he said, "Then since I have not, I give myself up to the White Tower. Although I would almost rather die."
"If that is your choice, I will not try to stop you."
His laugh was bitter. "Death is the coward's way out. No, if I have nothing else, I still have my honour." His face was set now. "Let us get this over with. Take me to your sisters, Sharia."
She hesitated for a moment, relief and regret tangling in her heart. Then, with a sigh, she turned and led the way out of the Stone.