Reading The Wheel of Time

Reading the Wheel of Time: Darkfriends and Dark Purposes in Robert Jordan’s The Great Hunt (Part 6)

Week 6 of reading The Great Hunt has been an interesting one, and although I have lots of musings and questions, I don’t have a lot of profound observations or a unifying theory for the section, although I did take note of the chapter icons this time around. Chapter 9, “Leavetakings,” has the Tar Valon teardrop flanked by little suns, and Chapter 10 “The Hunt Begins” has a horn for its icon. I guess that’s what the Horn of Valere looks like; I had pictured it looking more old-fashioned, like a viking horn or the way bugles looked before they added valves. But this is more complex in shape than I had imagined, more like a French Horn (also before they added valves. Wikipedia informs me that this is called a natural horn)

But before I get too far down into the depths of wikis on ancient brass instruments, let’s get on to the recap.

Chapter 9 opens on the courtyard of Fal Dara, which is crowded with people as both Ingtar’s men and the Aes Sedai get ready to leave. Rand recognizes some of the men in group, including Masema, one of the guards who wouldn’t let him out of the gate, and who has always shown hostility towards him. Rand is also surprised to see Loial among the company, but at least the Ogier gives him someone to talk to, since Perrin and Mat won’t speak to him, or even listen to his apology. Rand suspects it’s because of the ornate coat he is wearing. Apparently all his plain coats had been packed and put on one of the packhorses, and he won’t be able to change until they stop for the night. Loial, however, accepts Rand’s apology easily, remarking that he himself is often known to speak hastily and say things he shouldn’t.

Lan comes over to Rand then, and tells him that he has one last lesson for Rand: sheathing the sword. This move is used when a swordsman must achieve a goal at all costs, and the only way forward is to take the opponent’s sword into his own body. Rand thinks this is a bizarre piece of advice, but he is distracted from the conversation by Lord Agelmar, who is protesting the fact that the Amyrlin departing so soon after her arrival, and when he looks back, Lan has left.

Rand and Loial see the Amyrlin dispatch a Warder, who rides off at full tilt. Loial says that he has heard that the Amyrlin was sending someone to investigate rumors of trouble on Almoth Plain, which chills Rand because he knows that Toman Head, where the blood-writing said they would meet again, is on Almoth Plain.

The Amyrlin bids farewell and good luck to Ingtar’s party, telling them that the hope of the world rests on the successful completion of their quest, since if the Horn of Valere is not recovered, the enemy can sound it and the armies it summons will ride to the aid of the Dark, rather than of the Light. The crowd is surprised by the news, but just then Rand feels the eyes of the unseen watcher on him again. He’s looking around for the source when an arrow flashes by him, nicking the arm of the Amyrlin and killing a man who was passing by her. She exchanges a brief glance with Rand, and remarks upon how poor the shot was, if it was indeed aimed at her. Both she and Rand know that it was not.

Lord Agelmar is beside himself, ashamed that any harm should come to the Amyrlin while she was in his care, but the Amyrlin insists that she has had many attacks on her life before, and although she will accept a guard of his men to ride out part of the way with her, she will not be delayed even a moment by her small injury. Then, with Lord Agelmar’s blessing, she orders Ingtar and his men to ride out.

On the outskirts of the city, they are joined by a man named Hurin, whom Ingtar calls a “sniffer.” He explains that the ability is not connected to men with the Power, but that sniffers can smell violence, and can be employed by Kings and other lords to track the trail of those who had committed violence, following a deed’s individual scent in order to capture the perpetrator and bring them to justice. The worse the deed, the stronger and more lasting the scent, and the party will use Hurin’s ability to follow the Trollocs who took the Horn. The Trollocs, and the Fade, and something else that smells even worse to Hurin than either of those already terrible things. Outside the city gates, Hurin catches the trail, and they are all surprised to discover that it leads off south, not north into the Blight as expected.

As they ride away, Rand tells himself that Nynaeve will look after Egwene, and imagines that the parting might be better this way, quick “like a clean cut, too quick to hurt till after it’s done.”

Meanwhile, in Illian, the whole town is celebrating before the departure of the Great Hunt for the Horn. Bayle Domon, Captain of the Spray, is in no mood for partying, however; he’s worried about losing his ship, and possibly his life. He makes his way through a sketchy part of town to an inn called Easing the Badger. Domon knows the innkeeper, and he recognizes the well-dressed men in the corner as those who wished to speak to him.

The leader offers Domon a thousand gold marks to travel to Mayene to pick up a passenger and return them to Illian, a passenger he is given no name for, only a sack of coins and a wax-sealed letter to turn over in Mayene in exchange for the person in question. Dolmon thinks to himself that the money and the pretense of a secret traveler from Mayne to Illian (which makes a deal of sense when the current political climate is considered) would be a good enough story to ensnare him, if he hadn’t already encountered three more like it in the past month. Nevertheless, he accepts the money, and promises to leave on his journey at first light.

Once the men are gone, Domon opens the bag to find it filled with Tar Valon gold. He puzzles over the fact that someone, a Darkfriend, he suspects is trying to get him to sail east. Darkfriends have been after him since before he came back down river, though he doesn’t know why. He orders another ale and sits in his contemplation until his second on the Spray, Yarin Maeldan arrives to tell him that one of his men has been killed, which surprised Dolmon; each of the three times he refused the jobs that would take him east, one of his men had been killed, but this time he had accepted. Yarin also tells him that someone tried to sneak onto the Spray, and that his own rooms at the inn had been tossed and it didn’t seem like it was a robbery. Domon tells him to gather the men, and that they are leaving as soon as they can. As soon as he arrives he goes down to his cabin, leaving Yarin with orders to take the ship out to sea, and goes down to his cabin. There, he uses a heated knife to carefully undo the wax seal without destroying it, finding a letter inside.

The bearer of this is a Darkfriend wanted in Cairhien for murders and other foul crimes, least among them, theft from Our Person. We call upon you to seize this man and all things found in his keeping, to the smallest. Our representative will come to carry away what he has stolen from Us. Let all he possesses, save what We claim, go to you as reward for taking him. Let the vile miscreant himself be hanged immediately, that his Shadow-spawned villainy no longer taint the Light.

Sealed by Our Hand, Galldrian su Riatin Rie, King of Cairhien, Defender of the Dragonwall.

Domon suspects that the letter isn’t actually from the King, although he can’t tell if it’s a forgery or not. Either way, he knows the letter would have the desired effect, should he deliver it as ordered. After deliberating over whether or not to destroy the letter, he decides to keep it, and hides it away in a secret cubbyhole. Then he takes out the possessions he bought in Maradon, before he started having trouble with Trollocs. He has a lightstick, a glass-like rod that glows when held and was made back in the Age of Legends, an old ivory carving of a swordsman, a petrified skull of an ancient big cat with long fangs, and “a thick disk the size of a man’s hand, half white and half black, a sinuous line separating the colors.” Although the merchant who sold it to him didn’t, Domon recognized the ancient symbol of the Aes Sedai and also that it was made from heartstone.

Even though Domon can’t tell what the thing might be or what use it would be put to, he suspects that this is what his pursuers are after. He instructs Yarin to take them west, hides the item in the secret cubbyhole as well. He resolves that he will not go the way that his pursuers want him to, whether they are Darkfriends or Aes Sedai.

Meanwhile, Ingtar is pushing the party to ride as swiftly as possible, too swiftly for them to keep the pace for too long, but they don’t seem to be gaining any ground. Rand keeps trying to ride with Mat and Perrin to apologize again, but they avoid him, riding away each time. Meanwhile, Rand is getting strange looks from Uno, the grizzled old campaigner who appears to be Ingtar’s second in command, while Loial is enjoying the part where the party dismounts and runs beside the horses to give them a rest. Rand is not enjoying that so much, although he is impressed by the Shienarans’ ability to keep the same pace while wearing all their armor.

Eventually they are forced to stop for the night, at which point Rand seeks out the pack with the rest of his clothes, only to find that the other coats are just as fancy as the one he is wearing. Ingtar explains that Moiraine saw to his packing personally, and perhaps the Aes Sedai was unfamiliar with what men wore in the field, but points out that a coat is a coat. Rand, however, suspects a more complicated motive. At dinner, Masema purposefully slops soup all over Rand’s plate, burning his thumb, while Uno continues to give Rand looks. Rand speaks with Ingtar about it, who suggests that Uno is no doubt wondering about the heron-marked blade, while Masema is hostile because he once fought the Aiel.

“I ask no questions, mind. If Lan Dai Shan and Moiraine Sedai want to say you are from Andor, from the Two Rivers, then you are. But Masema can’t get the look of the Aiel out of his head, and when he sees you….” He shrugged. “I ask no questions.”

Rand dropped his spoon in the plate with a sigh. “Everybody thinks I’m somebody I am not. I am from the Two Rivers, Ingtar. I grew tabac with— with my father, and tended his sheep. That is what I am. A farmer and shepherd from the Two Rivers.”

Mat, sitting nearby, echoes scornfully that Rand is from the Two Rivers, l and that Ingtar should not put such thoughts in his head, lest Rand decide he’s some kind of Aiel lord or something. But Loial reminds Rand that he, also, mistook Rand for an Aiel when they first met. Ingtar talks a little about the Aiel, their hardiness and fierceness in battle, their proficiency with every weapon save the sword, which they do not use, and how if every all the Aiel tribes were to band together against the rest of the world, it would be almost impossible to do anything to stop them. Rand goes to bed thinking of what Moiraine told him about his being born on the slopes of Dragonmount, and how the war Ingtar spoke of fits with the one that the Aes Sedai told him of in the Amyrlin’s chamber.

The next day they continue to follow the trail south, but they soon come upon a place where the Trollocs camped. While Ingtar looks around, Mat wanders up to the campfire and pulls out a bone, wondering idly what Darkfriends eat as Hurin, covering his nose, remarks that there was “worse than murder” committed in that place. Ingtar reminds Mat what Trollocs like to eat, and Mat drops the bone hastily.

Hurin tells Ingtar that their quarry has changed directions, going north now, and they ride on, only to discover another body and the trail turning south again a short time later. The rest of the day, and the days that follow, continue in the same way, finding camps, murdered people, and abrupt changes of direction, but no sign of the Trollocs or Darkfriends, although they do seem to be gaining a little ground. As time goes on, Intar starts talking about the Horn, about glory, about their duty, and everyone finds it a little weird.

And then at last they arrive at the River Erinin, where they discover a very tiny village that appears to be deserted, and that the Darkfriends apparently went straight through it and took the ferry to the other side of the river. They search the houses, finding nothing until Uno suddenly thinks he sees a woman dressed in white in one of the window. But when he rushes in to find her, she appears to vanish. Loial suggests that the people of the town were probably taken, as food for the Trollocs. Perrin says the place smells wrong, and later Hurin, asked if there was any killing done in the place, concurs that there was violence but no killing.

Ingtar sends two men to wade across to bring the ferry back to their side of the river, and when they return the men tell him that there is something on the other side that he must see, that they can’t find words to explain and Ingtar must see for himself. Ingtar takes some of his men, along with Rand, to make the first crossing on the ferry, with Loial and Perrin tagging along, and Mat also jumping on board at the last minute. He remarks that he has to come sooner or later anyway, to find “it,” and Rand is reminded about the dagger, which had been easy to let slip from his mind since Mat has looked so healthy. He assures Mat that they will recover the dagger, but Mat just turns away.

Perrin suddenly remarks that this is also how they left home, on a ferry with the same sounds around them as there are now. But this time will be worse, and when he’s pressed by Mat and Rand to elucidate, he says only that it will be worse, that he can smell it.

They follow Ingtar’s men’s instructions and walk up to a big tree, where they find the bodies of the two Sheinaran men who had disappeared, the apparent Darkfriend traitors, suspended by their arms from the tree branches, skinned alive. Rand attempts to find the void, but this time it doesn’t help him, his queasy reaction to the sight seeming to pulse in the void with him, flickering the flame. When he releases the void again, he finds the queasiness actually lessens.

Ingtar has the bodies cut down and buried in the Shienaran fashion, even saying the traditional words over them, since there is a chance that they weren’t actually Darkfriends and were taken prisoner instead. Then they ride on again.

As they ride, they talk about the kingdoms and places that used to be in the area, and others, that are all gone now. Ingtar in particular grows quite dour, talking about how more and more lands that were once strong are failing and fading away, that in time even Shienar might fall apart and the world will be left to be populated only by Trollocs. Everyone is shocked, not even Mat saying anything in response.

They come to another, larger village, similarly abandoned, although Hurin says that it smells a little different. As they search the houses, Rand finds that he fears what he may find on the inside of the door he is about to enter. He makes himself go in anyway, and finds a dining table set with a meal that seems to have been in the middle of being served when whatever happened, happened. While looking at it he blinks, and suddenly he is seeing a family at the table, children seated, father carving a roast, mother and daughter laughing at a joke Rand can’t hear. He sees them react as something arrives at the door, parents picking up children and trying to flee, only to have the other door burst open… and then Rand blinks and the vision ends. Three times the vision repeats, and between each time Rand finds himself colder and struggling to move as more and more flies crawl over the table and fill the room. He tries to find the void, the “sickening light” there, but he can’t quite reach it, and the flies are everywhere, covering everything even crawling into his mouth. He reaches for the light, and when he touches it he suddenly goes from frozen to very hot.

Suddenly he was tearing at… something. He did not know what, or how. Cobwebs made of steel. Moonbeams carved from stone. They crumbled at his touch, but he knew he had not touched anything. They shriveled and melted with the heat that surged through him, heat like a forge fire, heat like the world burning, heat like—

It was gone. Panting, he looked around with wide eyes. A few flies lay on the half-carved roast, in the platter. Dead flies. Six flies. Only six. There were more in the bowls, half a dozen tiny black specks among the cold vegetables. All dead. He staggered out into the street.

No one else seems to have had any strange encounters, even though Mat comes out of a house at the same time as Rand. Meanwhile the others have found something, and the boys ride over to where a Myrddraal has been nailed to the large doors of a building, with heavy spikes through its shoulders and wrists and the spots where its eyes should have been. Now that it’s dead, its black cloak moves in the wind. Everyone is frozen with horror for a bit, until Rand speaks and seems to break the spell. Mat asks who could do such a thing to a Fade, and Ingtar only replies that he doesn’t know, and Hurin leads them out of the empty village, heading south.

 

Okay, so I guess I was wrong about Fain being the unseen watcher. I (correctly) deduced that, since everyone wasn’t taking the threat of him seriously, Fain was going to escape, so my following assumption was that the “watcher” feeling was foreshadowing to that escape. But it turns out that there is something else at play, perhaps a character that we haven’t met yet. I am a little curious as to why that someone would be shooting at Rand, though. Ostensibly none of the good guys know who he is yet, except for Moiraine, Verin, and the Amyrlin. On the other side, Ba’alzamon knows, and may have told a few of his servants in order to progress his plans, but I figured that Ba’alzamon might still want to try to recruit the living Dragon to his side before settling for a dead Dragon-slave instead. Maybe after the incident with the Eye of the World he’s decided that Rand is more trouble than he’s worth, but that seems a bit premature.

The “sheathing the sword” move is one that we see a lot in fantasy and action-based fiction—I believe TV tropes calls it the “deliberate injury gambit”—although at the moment I cannot think off the top of my head of a precise example of a fantasy swordsman using the move. This is a heck of an idea to drop into Rand’s head, and I am very curious if it will come to fruition in this book or in a subsequent one. Also, I note that Lan didn’t say “the trick is to take a non-lethal injury in order to win a fight,” but rather that it was a move to be used when you had to “achieve a goal at all costs,” which implies this includes sacrificing your own life.

Also, can I just remark for a moment upon how absolutely wonderful Loial is? I guess he’s aptly named, but his response to Rand’s apology is not only to accept it, but to actually empathize with Rand, and I thought that was really beautiful. His musings about how humans are so impetuous and spontaneous compared to the Ogier, but how they also do so much more with their short lives was both charming, and an interesting side beat. The Ogier obviously have a lot of similarities to the ents of The Lord of the Rings, but they also have share some of the thematic traits of the elves of Tolkien’s world; the idea of being long-lived but also very detached, the artistry of their language and history, the way that, when they must work with stone, they imbue it with as much of the look and feel of the trees they love as possible. Maybe it’s because I loved the elves so much as a kid, but I find the similarities very comforting. I think having the Ogier here to observe and comment on the proceedings also amplifies the theme that these events are occurring at “the end of an Age.” Throughout their travels, Loial has consistently remarked upon and remembered the old ways and old times, to remind his companions, and thus the reader, of great works and great civilizations that have been lost and continue to be lost.

So if we’re going with the analogy that the four young people from Emond’s Field are the four hobbits, Moiraine is Gandalf, and Thom and Lan make up the Aragorn/Boromir quotient, than I guess that makes Loial Legolas? Yeah, I can get behind that.

Hurin is an interesting addition to our cast, named no doubt in honor of Tolkien’s great warrior character. I wonder if he’s also a wolfbrother-to-be, or if the sniffing similarity is unrelated. It’s not surprising that Hurin has had trouble with the Aes Sedai, and I find the distinction—that the Shienarans respect and even revere the Amyrlin and Aes Sedai and yet also protect Hurin from them—to be a nice touch. It speaks to the realities of a complex world, and shows that even in the Borderlands, things are not always black and white.

How neat to see Bayle Domon again! When Rand, Mat, and Thom took shelter on his boat while fleeing Shadar Logoth and the Trollocs, Domon acted swiftly and decisively, despite his men’s skepticism, and at the time I took that as the mark of a wise and worldly man who didn’t mess around with things. Which is true of Domon, but now it seems like there is another reason for him to have been so on his toes; he’s got Trolloc and Darkfriend problems of his own. And not just any problems, but problems stemming from possession of one of the Seven Seals!

We’re learning a lot more about the Seals in second book of The Wheel of Time. Back in The Eye of the World, I assumed that the seals were literally on a cage that contained the Dark One, but we know from Chapter 5 that they are more metaphysical than physical; perhaps they contain the spells (not sure that’s what you call it in this universe) used to imprisoned the Dark One, or direct the One Power in some way. If that’s the case, then this Seal might still be doing its job, since it isn’t broken like the last one and since it doesn’t seem to necessarily need to be in a specific place. But one assumes that in the hands of the right Darkfriend, it could be broken, and the Dark One would be that much closer to breaking free. I wonder what Bayle would do if he knew what he really had! I hope his wits are up to the challenge; he may feel safe now but I imagine this isn’t the last time he’s going to have a dangerous run in with people who want the Seal.

And can I just say… Easing the Badger is a really weird name. Sounds more like one of Lan’s sword moves than an inn. Maybe that’s where the name comes from, some old swordsmanship moves. I hope that’s where the name comes from.

Chapter 10, “The Hunt Begins,” is a classic Jordan chapter, opening with a lot of slightly monotonous traveling and then bringing in the sucker punch of extremely creepy death stuff. I’m not surprised that Mat would be offended by Rand’s fancy coats; this is a guy who was obsessed by the notion of treasure back in The Eye of the World, and prefers to have the spotlight quite a bit himself. He doesn’t have the dagger to drive him to suspicion or envy (he’s protected against those effects anyway) but a little all-natural jealousy makes sense, and it’s a more active resentment than Perrin’s, who has no real desire of notoriety and special treatment, and just wants his friend to treat him with respect.

I guess I’m also not really surprised that Mat would walk up to the campfire of Darkfriends, stick his hand in the ashes, pull out a bone, and start wondering about Darkfriend dietary habits. Really, Mat? Even putting aside that you know Trollocs eat humans, whatever would possess you to do that?

I wonder if the constantly changing directions of the trail signifies some kind of power struggle among the Darkfriends; Fain vs the Myrddraal, maybe? Perhaps the Myrddraal is trying to return everyone to the Blight, as Ingtar suspected it would want to, but Fain has plans of his own that don’t necessarily follow what the Shadow wants. If that’s so, I don’t think they’re going to see the path turning North anymore. But what kind of power would allow Fain to overcome a Myrddraal? Physical ability doesn’t really seem to be his thing, but maybe having the dagger has changed that.

Jordan is really good at seeding little details that turn out to be more than they appear; when we first met Masema back in Chapter 3, his dislike of Rand just felt like a bit more storytelling, heightening the danger Rand feels as he’s trying to get out of gates that are barred, as Masema suspiciously eyes his bundles and Rand tries to act natural. But of course there’s more to it, and of course it’s just one more thing making it harder for Rand to ignore the truth of his birth. Ingtar’s insistence that if Moiraine says Rand is from the Two Rivers, then he is, doesn’t mean Ingtar buys it, but only that he agrees to accept it outwardly. Perhaps Ingtar suspect that Rand is someone or something of importance; he clearly respects the Aiel and even expresses a wish to have warriors like that in his service.

Another detail Jordan likes is inventing in-world curses. We see a lot of that in these two chapters; “my aged grandmother” from Domon and “flaming” and “goat-kissing” from Uno. That’s all fine, but these men both really over-use the curses in a way that I found got comical very quickly.

What happened to the two Shienaran men is really awful, and I was touched by Ingtar’s desire to see them buried. I think it was the right decision, even if they were Darkfriends, and certainly if they weren’t. No one can prove that they were the ones who opened the Dog Gate to the invaders, and I still think that it would make more sense for a Shienaran Darkfriend to stay undercover than to leave with the rest of them. And perhaps, too, with the dark and sour mood Ingtar has been in, some part of him worries or has sympathy for those who might despair and stray from the Light. That doesn’t sound very Shienaran, certainly, but depression can have an effect on people that can’t be overlooked, and even Uno and his men are noticing that these comments are out of character for Ingtar.

I am curious as to whether the woman Uno thought he saw was another vision like the one Rand experienced, some kind of trap, maybe, laid by Fain. We don’t know what his Mordeth-given abilities are yet, but Rand’s vision in the larger town certainly seems to have been a trap, unless it was something brought on by his own abilities. The fact that the void seemed tainted somehow, the way the flame is described as pulsing sickly, made me wonder if Rand wasn’t perceiving something through his channeling abilities. Perhaps the murders aren’t random but some kind of spell (I know I know, I keep using the word spell. It’s not the right word.) designed to do something for the Dark One or for Mordeth-Fain, and Rand is perceiving it. We know that Min can see things about people that mostly have to do with the future, just as the Aes Sedai ability of Foretelling seems to be concerned with the future, but we don’t know what other kinds of visions someone with a connection to the One Power might have, or how Rand’s ability as a male channeler might differ from those we’ve seen so far from women.

Before I realized that Rand was caught in some kind of loop, that is what I assumed was happening as he saw the vision of the family at dinner. And even with the strangeness of the loop, the vision of the flies, and the crushing cold, this could still be the case. Either Fain or some other outside source could have affected Rand’s abilities; it could even be the taint getting in the way, although since touching the flame (which I am sure is him touching saidin) broke the loop and enabled him to free himself, perhaps that’s not it after all. The narrative of the first novel has also led me to associate cold with channeling, which seems at odds with Rand’s feeling of heat when he appears to channel in this moment. Maybe there is a female channeler involved. Back in Chapter 7 there was talk about the Forsaken woman, Lanfear, walking free again, so it could possibly be her shooting at Rand, catching him in this spell, and maybe even being the woman in the window that Uno saw. It’s even possible she, and not Fain, is the “something worse” that Hurin keeps scenting.

Maybe she’s the one who killed the Myydral. That certainly sounds like something one of the Forsaken might do.

 

Next week we move on to Chapters 11 and 12, where we will get a few answers, including a section from the perspective of Mordeth-Padan Fain himself, and we get to learn more about channeling. Oh, and I get to feel lots of empathy for Nyneave again, too. Both the chapter titles next week talk about the Pattern, and I think we will find that significant. For now, as always, the comments are open. What do you all think about the disturbances our dear friends have faced this week? Anyone ready with those mittens for Mat?

Sylas K Barrett also does not like running, and thinks he might freak out a little the next time he sees a fly.

citation

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