Ahoy, mateys! Welcome aboard Yet Another Wheel of Time Re-read!
Today’s entry covers Chapters 25-27 of Crossroads of Twilight, in which we discover that in the service, one must always choose the lesser of two weevils. If one can.
That’s right, beeches, we are doing three whole chapters today, because I am awesomely fearsome in my efficiency for once, and also because that lets us dispose of the remainder of Perrin’s storyline in COT in one swell foop. Go me!
Previous re-read entries are here. The Wheel of Time Master Index is here, which has links to news, reviews, interviews, and all manner of information about the Wheel of Time in general, including the newest release, Towers of Midnight.
This re-read post contains spoilers for all currently published Wheel of Time novels, up to and including Book 13, Towers of Midnight. If you haven’t read, read at your own risk.
And now, the light- and happy-filled post!
Chapter 25: When to Wear Jewels
Perrin paces his tent, irritated at the finery of his clothes and the inadequacy of the map of Malden they’d managed to appropriate from its fleeing former residents. Berelain, similarly richly garbed, suggests he calm down, and he tries not to glare at her. Arganda enters the tent to sourly hand over funds he’d taken from Alliandre’s strongbox, to add to what Perrin and Berelain had contributed. They all exit the tent, Perrin annoyed to note that the Two Rivers men in the camp still avoid his gaze when Berelain is with him, and head to where the cart drivers are assembled, along with Annoura, Gallenne, fifty Mayener soldiers, and fifty more Ghealdanin lancers, led by a haughty man named Kireyin. Aram sulks off to the side, as Perrin had forbidden him to come with the party to So Habor on account of his increasing surliness and tendency to pick fights. Arganda has refused to come as well, not wanting to leave the vicinity of Malden (and Alliandre). Perrin tells Dannil to keep an eye on them both and try not to let Arganda do anything stupid, but Dannil is dubious about his ability to get Arganda to do anything. Masuri and Seonid and their Warders arrive, the Aes Sedai also dressed to the nines, and Perrin is relieved the Wise Ones had let them come. They head off to the Traveling ground, Perrin noting what he is sure is a spy of Masema’s darting off on the way, and Perrin is bitterly amused at the ostentatious show they make.
Berelain seemed to sense his thoughts. “When you go to buy a sack of flour,” she said, “wear plain wool so the seller thinks you can’t afford to pay any more than you must. When you’re after flour by the wagonload, wear jewels so she thinks you can afford to come back for all she can lay hands on.”
Perrin snorted a laugh in spite of himself. It sounded very much like something Master Luhhan had told him, once, with a nudge in the ribs to say it was a joke and a look in his eye that said it was a little more. Dress poor when you want a small favor, and fine when you want a large one. He was very glad Berelain no longer smelled like a hunting wolf. At least that took one worry off his mind.
They meet up with Neald and twenty Two Rivers men at the Traveling ground, and Balwer rides up a moment later with two of Faile’s people (Medore and Latian). He requests to come along, claiming he has an old acquaintance in So Habor; Perrin is skeptical, but allows him to maintain the fiction and come along. He instructs Neald to open the gateway, which Neald does with a grin, and Perrin wonders irritably what he’s so cheerful about. They ride through to a spot supposedly a few miles outside So Habor, and Perrin is struck by how the small farms and such dotted about are still and empty. Then Masuri shouts and points out a winged shape in the sky, with a rider visible on its back.
“Seanchan,” Berelain breathed, both her voice and the smell of her worried.
Perrin twisted in his saddle to watch the thing’s flight until the glare of the sunrise made him turn away. “Nothing to do with us,” he said. If Neald had made a mistake, he would strangle the man.
…Yeah, pretty much nothing happens in this chapter.
No, really. Nothing. Nothing I feel like saying anything about, at any rate.
I mean, Berelain’s little bit of wisdom about how to dress for various bargaining sessions rings true to me, and all, but….Yeah.
The only thing that jumps out at me at all worth commenting on, really, is Neald, who has obviously noticed by now that saidin is clean but for some reason has totally failed to mention that fact to anyone. Which, actually, isn’t even all that stupid, seeing as Neald probably figures (quite correctly) that no one would believe him. So… okay, then.
It does bring up the fact that I was a bit annoyed that we really never got to see any saidin channeler’s perspective on discovering that saidin was clean firsthand—other than Rand, of course, but he doesn’t really count for the kind of “whoa” moment I was hoping for here. I think that would have been pretty neat to see, don’t you? And yet, no.
Okay, moving on!
Chapter 26: In So Habor
So Habor is a fortresslike town, and Perrin can see why Masema didn’t bother to try to sack it. They leave the soldiers up on the ridge, visible to the sentries but not threatening, and Perrin, Berelain, Gallenne, Kireyin, the Aes Sedai and Warders, Medore, Latian, and Balwer ride to the gate, where Gallenne announces Berelain, Perrin and the Aes Sedai with full titles (making up several for Perrin) and that they are here for trade. The dirty-looking sentries on the wall hesitate.
“How do we know you’re alive?” a hoarse voice shouted down at last.
Berelain blinked in surprise, but no one laughed. It was fool talk, yet Perrin thought the hair on the back of his neck really was standing stiff. Something was very wrong, here.
Seonid shouts back that they will regret it if she is made to prove she is alive, and at length the gate is opened. Perrin gags at the stench of the city inside, and a man pokes him in the leg as if to confirm he is real. Perrin asks jokingly if they see many dead men walking, but the man flinches. Berelain asks where to find the lord or lady of this town; the man says Lord Cowlin is “away,” but tells them where to find the inn with the grain merchants. Perrin thinks they should leave, but Berelain counters that they are here and need food, so they head to the merchants’ inn. All the town’s inhabitants are filthy and silent, and everyone is tense. Once inside, the merchants seem startled to see them, and Annoura demands to know what’s happened here; Perrin only then notices that Masuri and Seonid have not come into the inn with the rest of the party. The merchants evade Annoura’s question, and Berelain cuts her off to begin bargaining for grain. Perrin stays out of it initially, but soon notes that the merchants are not bargaining nearly as hard as he would have expected them to, and interrupts to demand to see the grain in the warehouses, which makes the merchants sag in despair. They all head to the warehouses, where once again the merchants try to delay or defer them:
The merchants suddenly recalled that they had forgotten to bring men to lift the bars. They offered to go back for them. […] Their tongues went still when Perrin placed his hand beneath the thick beam and shoved it up out of the wooden brackets. The thing was heavy, but he backed up with it to give him room to turn and toss it down on the street with a crash. The merchants stared. This might have been the first time they had ever seen a man in a silk coat do anything that could be called work.
Then they “forget” to have lanterns, but Annoura solves that with a ball of light, so they go in. Perrin hears sounds that could be cats hunting rats, but might be rats hunting cats instead. He cuts open a sack of grain to find it riddled with weevils, and every sack he opens is the same; Berelain disgustedly drops her offer by half. They are interrupted by a shriek from outside; Perrin rushes to investigate, but the merchants don’t bother to move. Outside, Kireyin is staring at a wall with bulging eyes, and tells Perrin he saw a man walk right through it; Seonid appears and said she saw it too.
“The dead are walking in So Habor. Lord Cowlin fled the town for fear of his wife’s spirit. It seems there was doubt as to how she died. Hardly a man or woman in the town has not seen someone dead, and a good many have seen more than one. Some say people have died from the touch of someone dead. I cannot verify that, but people have died of fright, and others because of it.”
Seonid urges him to leave one of the Aes Sedai in the town to deal with it, but Perrin tells her So Habor will have to deal with its dead on its own.
But fear of the dead only explained so much. Maybe people were too frightened to think of washing, but it seemed unlikely that fear would take everyone that way. They just did not seem to care anymore. And weevils thriving in winter, in freezing cold? There was worse wrong in So Habor than spirits walking, and every instinct told him to leave at a dead run, without looking back. He purely wished that he could.
Lord, it’s the Infamous Bath Scene, except with grain merchants. Which are even more exciting, not. At least baths involve naked people!
There’s no doubt in my mind that COT is not nearly as heinous as many people deemed it to be, once it has a chance to work as an intermediary installment in a series, instead of the unsatisfying, incomplete tail end of one, but even so I don’t think I’m hallucinating that certain parts of it—like this chapter, for instance—are positively maddening in their reluctance to get where they’re going.
And you know, I understand that the grain merchants’ bizarre behavior (along with the rest if the town’s) was the setup for the revelation about the ghosts, and that the length of it all was probably an attempt to bring some tension into the proceedings, but, well, it just didn’t work. Unless you consider “impatient boredom” to be on a par with “tension,” which I don’t, really.
And I don’t get it, because as a writer Jordan proven himself more than capable of pulling off tense build-ups in the past. So why does this one strike me as so… non-tense? What’s the problem, here?
Sigh. Anyway, so, there are weevils. And ghosts.
This, by the way, is a wheat weevil. I am trying to figure out how hungry I’d have to get before voluntarily eating something riddled with these. It may just be the best diet plan ever invented, short of deliberately contracting mono. Yeargh.
The ghosts thing, I think I’ve mentioned before, was something I was very nonplussed by when I first read COT, because to my mind they really didn’t fit the cosmology of WOT at all. I’m still not sure, frankly, how you reconcile a cyclical/rebirth/reincarnation setup with the idea of ghosts.
I mean, I guess it can make sense—if the Heroes of the Horn have Tel’aran’rhiod as a cosmic waiting room for rebirth, maybe all the non-heroic plebe souls have a less classy limbo to be yanked out of too, come apocalypse season—but I was given the distinct impression from what Birgitte said back in TFOH that the Heroes were meant to be a special case. But, okay. Sure. Ghosts, then. End of the world, everything’s getting more and more meshuggah, fine.
Completely trivially, the only other thing I was amused by in this chapter is stupid-strong Perrin unbarring the warehouse door all by himself, and then thinking everyone was staring at him because they didn’t expect a lord to do manual labor. No, it’s probably because you heaved aside a slab of wood it normally takes four guys to shift, dude. Heh.
Chapter 27: What Must be Done
Worried that whatever is affecting the residents of So Habor is catching, Perrin has his party set up on the riverbank outside town to winnow the grain, to try and get rid of as much of the weevils infesting it as possible. It is a long arduous process, in which they losing about half the grain they paid for. After a while, Berelain and Annoura approach him.
“You cannot save everyone,” Berelain said calmly. Away from the stink of the town, her scent was sharp with urgency, and razor-edged with anger. “Sometimes, you must choose. So Habor is Lord Cowlin’s duty. He had no right to abandon his people.” Not angry with him, then.
Perrin frowned. Did she think he felt guilty? Balanced against Faile’s life, the troubles of So Habor could not budge the scales a hair. But he turned his bay so he was looking at the gray town walls across the river, not the hollow-eyed children piling up empty sacks. A man did what he could. What he had to.
Perrin asks Berelain what Annoura thinks, but Berelain is still waiting for an apology from Annoura and says she has no idea, and leaves. Annoura reminds him that even a ta’veren is just a thread in the Pattern, and leaves as well. Seonid approaches next to argue again for staying behind, and Perrin threatens to send Edarra after her if she tries. A while later Latian approaches to tell Perrin Balwer wishes to stay behind a bit longer, which permission Perrin gives before packing up everyone except the cart drivers and the Ghealdanin soldiers and heading back to camp. Seonid tries to hide from him and stay behind, but Perrin tracks her down by scent and bundles her on her horse. A grinning Neald appears to be attempting to chat up the Aes Sedai on the way back, and Perrin worries that he might finally be going mad. Back at camp, everything is silent and tense, and Dannil, Sulin, and Edarra approach Perrin to say that the Maidens brought in five Shaido prisoners; they are already being questioned by Arganda and Masema. Perrin asks Edarra why she let Arganda take them.
“Even Shaido know how to embrace pain, Perrin Aybara. It will take days to bring any of them to talk, and there seemed no reason to wait.”
If Edarra’s eyes were cool, Sulin’s were blue ice. “My spear-sisters and I could have done it faster ourselves, a little, but Dannil Lewin said you wanted no blows struck. Gerard Arganda is an impatient man, and he mistrusts us.” She sounded as though she would have spat if she were not Aiel. “You may not learn much, in any case. They are Stone Dogs. They will yield slowly, and as little as possible. In this, it is always necessary to put together a little from one with a little from another to make a picture.”
Embrace pain. There had to be pain, when you put a man to the question. He had not let that thought form in his head before this. But to get Faile back…
Perrin heads to the place where they are interrogating the prisoners, and pushes through the crowd of Masema’s men watching, ignoring their mutters about Shadowspawn and yellow eyes. One of the Shaido has been stripped, gagged, and staked spreadeagled to the ground, and one of Masema’s men is piling hot coals on his stomach as he thrashes and howls. Perrin recognizes the man as Hari, who liked to collect ears. Perrin walks up and kicks the coals off the Shaido, hitting Hari in the face with some. Masema (who Perrin hadn’t noticed before) comments that the Shaido only pretend they can’t feel pain.
“You must be willing and able to hurt a stone to make one of them talk.”
Arganda, rigid beside Masema, was gripping his sword hilt so hard that his hand shook. “Perhaps you are willing to lose your wife, Aybara,” he grated, “but I will not lose my queen!”
“It has to be done,” Aram said, half pleading, half demanding. He was on Masema’s other side, clutching the edges of his green cloak as if to keep his hands from the sword on his back. His eyes were almost as hot as Masema’s. “You taught me that a man does what he must.”
Perrin forced his fists to unknot. What had to be done, for Faile.
Berelain, Sulin, the Aes Sedai, and Edarra are all watching expressionlessly. Perrin ungags the Shaido, who immediately begins singing “Wash the Spears” loudly. Perrin pushes his mouth shut with the handle of his axe, and tells the Shaido that he does not ask him to betray his people, only to help him find some women they’d captured. He describes Faile to the Shaido, who answers with a mocking song about a man with yellow eyes. Aram says that if he can’t do it, to go away and let them handle it. Perrin looks around slowly at all those about him.
What had to be done. Willing and able to hurt a stone. Embrace pain. Oh Light, Faile.
The axe was as light as a feather rising in his hand, and came down like a hammer on the anvil, the heavy blade shearing through the Shaido’s left wrist.
The Shaido snarls and deliberately sprays Perrin with his blood; he still does not smell of fear. Perrin orders the Aes Sedai to Heal him, which Seonid does, leaving behind a smooth stump where his hand had been. He tells the man that there will be no more coals, only questions about his wife, but if any one of the prisoners refuses to answer, or the answers are too different, everyone loses something.
“Two hands and two feet,” he said coldly. Light, he sounded like ice. He felt like ice to his bones. “That means you get four chances to answer the same. And if you all hold out, I still won’t kill you. I’ll find a village to leave you in, some place that will let you beg, somewhere the boys will toss a coin to the fierce Aielmen with no hands or feet. You think on it and decide whether it’s worth keeping my wife from me.”
Even Masema was staring at him as if he had never before seen the man standing there with an axe. When he turned to go, Masema’s men and the Ghealdanin alike parted in front of him as though to let a whole fist of Trollocs through.
He found the hedge of sharpened stakes in front of him, and the forest a hundred paces or so beyond, but he did not change direction. Carrying the axe, he walked until huge trees surrounded him and the smell of the camp was left behind. The smell of blood he carried with him, sharp and metallic. There was no running from that.
He could not have said how long he walked through the snow. He barely noticed the sharpening slant of the bars of light that sliced the shadows beneath the forest canopy. The blood was thick on his face, in his beard. Beginning to dry. How many times had he said he would do anything to get Faile back? A man did what he had to. For Faile, anything.
Abruptly, he raised the axe behind his head in both hands and hurled it as hard as he could. It spun end over end, and slammed into the thick trunk of an oak with a solid tchunk.
Wearily, he tells Elyas to come out. Elyas sits with him, and comments that he’d told Perrin once to keep the axe until he liked using too much, and asks if he’d liked it back there. Perrin emphatically refutes this, but then confesses to Elyas that he’s realized that in the midst of battle, even as he’s afraid Perrin also feels more alive than at any other time; he doesn’t think he could stand it if something like what he just did started to make him feel the same.
Elyas snorted. “I don’t think you have that in you, boy. Listen, danger takes different men in different ways. Some are cold as clockwork, but you never struck me as the cold sort. When your heart starts pounding, it heats your blood. Stands to reason it heightens your senses, too. Makes you aware. Maybe you’ll die in a few minutes, maybe in a heartbeat, but you’re not dead now, and you know it from your teeth to your toenails. Just the way things are. Doesn’t mean you like it.”
Perrin hopes he’s right. A few minutes later Aram and Neald approach, and Aram tells Perrin the Shaido all talked; he thinks it was the threat to leave them to beg that did it. He says they all gave the same answers—that none of them had seen Faile or the others. He suggests going back to the coals again, and Perrin thinks he sounds eager; Elyas counters that it would do no good, and among so many thousands in Malden it was a slim chance they’d find prisoners who’d seen Faile et al anyway. Aram opines they’ll have to kill the prisoners, then, to keep them from escaping and warning the Shaido of them, but Perrin says they can be guarded. He berates himself wearily for being hasty once again, and gets up to head back.
“What about that, boy?” Elyas asked.
Perrin knew what he meant without looking. The axe. “Leave it for whoever finds it.” His voice turned harsh. “Maybe some fool gleeman will make a story out of it.” He strode away toward the camp, never looking back. With its empty loop, the thick belt around his waist was too light. All to no purpose.
Three days later Balwer returns, with a filthy Tallanvor. Perrin comments that he’d never expected to see him again, and Tallanvor answers that he’d been looking for Maighdin, but the Shaido moved too fast. Balwer says he’d run into Tallanvor at So Habor purely by chance, but Tallanvor may have some allies for Perrin. Frowning, Perrin asks what he means; Tallanvor tells him he’s found fifteen thousand Seanchan troops nearby, accompanied by a dozen damane. He goes on that he knows it’s like taking help from the Dark One, but they are hunting the Shaido, too.
For a moment, Perrin stared at the two men, Tallanvor nervously thumbing his sword hilt, Balwer like a sparrow waiting to see which way a cricket would hop. Seanchan. And damane. Yes, that would be like taking the Dark One’s help. “Sit down and tell me about these Seanchan,” he said.
It’s pretty impressive when, after all the grousing you’ve done about a character getting too emo, that the story manages to do something to him that makes your heart genuinely ache for him.
I suppose this would be a golden opportunity for me to stir up some shit about the ethics of torture and blah blah blah, but I ain’t gonna—not in the sense of really taking a stance on it, anyway. Mainly because this is one of those things where I feel rather reluctant to render a judgment, from my nice comfy padded chair in my nice comfy heated apartment in my nice comfy civilian life, where I’ve never had to make decisions like whether the pain of my enemy is worth more than the life of my loved one.
One of my less popular stances on history is that the actions of any given party cannot be judged independent of context—not objectively, anyway. And nowhere is this more true than when judging the decisions people make in times of war.
It’s an outlook that, frankly, doesn’t always make for the most stress-free political conversations (if such a thing isn’t a contradiction in terms), especially among my more pacifist-leaning friends. But, well, for all my idealism, in certain areas I find I possess a hard streak of practicality which sometimes startles even me. And I don’t know how I feel about that, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s there.
Was it right? Was it wrong? Well, it worked, so from a purely practical point of view it was right—at least in the context of the story, where torture works, even if it doesn’t in the real world (and that’s a quagmire I’m not even going to bother sticking a toe into). But, regardless of its practical efficiency, was it right morally? Well, that’s another question, isn’t it. Again, it’s a measure of the pain of the aggressor versus the life of the innocent party—as long as you’re sure which is which, of course. And whether one really depends upon the other. Ah, so much uncertainty, so little time.
But my point is, right or wrong, I don’t know whether I can say I would or would not have done what Perrin did if I was in his place. Because if I was in his place, and had gone through the things that he has, I would be an utterly different person from the person I am now, and I honestly just don’t know what that Leigh would choose to do. And I would say that anyone who claims from the comfy chair they’re (most likely) reading this from right now that they do know what they would do is at least partially full of crap.
(If you’re reading this from a ditch in Afghanistan, well, then your opinion might be a tad more valid. And your ability to multitask really impressive.)
Anyway. I would hope that that other Leigh would choose to do as close to the right thing as the circumstances allowed, but considering I’m not even sure what that is from my comfy-chair outlook, I can’t even imagine what it would look like from Perrin’s viewpoint. Perhaps we should be amazed that any of the Superboys have any moral compass left at all, the way things have gone for them. Or perhaps that is all the more reason why they should be held to a stricter standard than comfy-chair people. Or is it the other way around?
Agh. I’m kind of talking myself in philosophical circles, but I think what I’m getting at is that I’m not saying it was the right thing for him to do; I’m saying that “whether it was the right thing to do” may not be the most relevant criterion to consider. Perhaps that is moral relativism run amuck, but, well, it might also be moral relativism run just amuck enough.
Dizzy yet? I am!
At any rate, whatever you think about the ethics of it, there’s little doubt in my mind that narratively this was probably the single most striking moment in the entirety of COT, which made the choice to feature it on the e-book cover eminently appropriate in my opinion.
So, bye, Perrin! Sorry your life sucks! Thank goodness it’s only going to take you, er, three more books to get over this, eh? (Oy.) Don’t worry, we all forgive you in the end. I think.
And that’s all I have to say about that, thbbbt! Have a nice Tuesday, and remember to be excellent to each other in the comments. See you Friday!