Hello hello, and welcome back to Reading the Wheel of Time. Before we get started, I just want to take a moment to extend a very big and heartfelt thank you to all of you for following this read with me! It has truly been a joy and a pleasure to discover these books and this fandom with all of you, and to indulge my abiding love of deep dive analysis in series that could not be better suited for it. And now, after a few irregular weeks, we are back to our regular posting schedule as we start into book five, The Fires of Heaven.
It’s a bold title, I must say, evoking the rage of saidin and the power of the Dragon, champion of a Light that has often been invoked by characters to burn their enemies. The Light may be good, but it is not gentle, and I think we are going to get an even stronger understanding of that fact in this book. We are just covering the Prologue this week, but there’s enough there for quite a lot of discussion, and I can’t wait to get started.
The prologue opens in the Amyrlin’s study, where some of the Sitters for the Hall have gathered to discuss the state of the world and the Tower. Elaida simmers with rage as the other Aes Sedai talk of civil unrest in Shienar, what should be done about the rumors of Mazrim Taim’s escape and the doubts about the Tower that have been raised by it, the disappearance of the Panarch of Tarabon (possibly with Aes Sedai involvement) and Pedron Niall’s influence there, the fact that no one has found Elayne or Galad yet, and other such matters. Elaida is vexed by the fact that no one is so much as asking her opinions, the women discussing amongst themselves and making decisions without any regard for her position and authority.
It happened too often, this slighting. Worst—most bitter of all, perhaps—they usurped her authority without even thinking of it. They knew how she had come to the stole, knew their aid had put it on her shoulders. She herself had been too much aware of that. But they presumed too far. It would soon be time to do something about that. But not quite yet.
The other aspect of this conversation that has Elaida aggravated to the point of fury is the way the other Aes Sedai are focusing on unimportant matters, afraid to acknowledge the most important truth of all. She waits until the women decide that they have concluded their business and stand, then cuts into the conversation, asking her “daughters” if she has given them leave to go. When they look at her in surprise she adds that, as long as they are standing, they can remain so until she has finished. She goes on to point out that she has not heard anyone mention the search for “that woman,” meaning the former Amyrlin, of course.
“It is difficult,” Alviarin said evenly, “since we have bolstered the rumors that she was executed.” The woman had ice for blood. Elaida met her eyes firmly until she added a belated “Mother,” but it, too, was placid, even casual.
Elaida assigns Joline, who has charge of the search, the task of writing out her own penance, and tells her that if Elaida doesn’t find it strict enough then she will triple it. Javindhra, whose job it is to find and bring back those Aes Sedai who ran off during the regime change, is told to write out a list of everything she has done so far in service of that charge, including what measures she has taken to make sure the world hears no rumors of dissension in the Tower—Elaida adds that if Javindhra doesn’t have enough time for the tasks she has been given, perhaps she should give up her place as Sitter for the Red in the Hall.
Javindhra assures her that it won’t be necessary, that she’s sure the missing Aes Sedai will begin to return soon. Elaida is mostly satisfied to see that the other women look troubled and cowed by her display, her willingness to come down hard even on her own Ajah. Only Alviarin seems unaffected.
Next, Elaida turns to the topic of Tairen soldiers in Cairhien, sent by the man who took the Stone of Tear. The women are even more visibly uncomfortable as Elaida’s words direct their thoughts to the topic they’ve been avoiding during the entire meeting, and Elaida is tired of it. She points up at the paintings she’s hung across from her desk, drawing their attention to it. The first is a triptych depicting the rise and fall of Bonwhin, the last Red to have been raised to Amyrlin, only to be stripped of her stole and staff and stilled after her attempts to control Artur Hawkwing ended in the near destruction of the Tower.
It is a reminder Elaida keeps for herself to remember the price of failure, but it’s the second painting that she wants the women to pay attention to. It is a copy of an artist’s rendering of Rand al’Thor in the clouds, fighting a man with a face of fire. She reminds them, angrily, forcefully, that this is the man responsible for so much of the unrest they have been discussing, a man who can channel, and she asks how any of them can expect to face him when they cannot even look at a painting.
“Rand al’Thor.” The name tasted bitter on Elaida’s lips. Once she had had that young man, so innocent in appearance, within arm’s reach. And she had not seen what he was. Her predecessor had known—had known for the Light alone knew how long, and had left him to run wild. That woman had told her a great deal before escaping, had said things, when put hard to the question, that Elaida would not let herself believe—if the Forsaken were truly free, all might be lost—but somehow she had managed to refuse some answers. And then escaped before she could be put to the question again. That woman and Moiraine. That woman and the Blue had known all along. Elaida intended to have them both back in the Tower. They would tell every last scrap of what they knew. They would plead on their knees for death before she was done.
Elaida forces herself to say that Rand al’Thor is the Dragon Reborn, scornful of the fear and weak knees she sees in the other women at the words. She tells them that nothing is more important than finding this man, who will go mad and bring a storm down upon the world, who must be brought to the Tower and shielded so that he can be kept safe for Tarmon Gai’don. She demands that each woman be prepared, when next they meet, to explain to Elaida exactly what she has done to make that happen, and then dismisses them.
They flee, leaving only Alviarin behind. Alviarin is a different matter from the others—she knows that her support of Elaida’s cause was what secured the support of the White Ajah, and without that Elaida probably wouldn’t have been able to gain enough support from the other Ajahs besides the Red, and would be sitting in a cell (or worse) instead of on the Amyrlin Seat. Alviarin, with her implacable White calm and knowledge of her own role in the coup, may be impossible to intimidate.
They’re interrupted by the arrival of a terrified Accepted, who tells Elaida that Master Fain is here for his appointment. Elaida snaps at her, but the real anger she feels is for Alviarin, not the girl. She’s intrigued by this Padan Fain person, who arrived at the Tower the day before, wearing clothes that were fine but dirty and too big for him, acting arrogant one moment and cowering the next, and seeking an audience with the Amyrlin, something no man ever does. He’d almost seemed like a fool or half-wit to her, with his jumble of accents, but she had also discovered that he might be useful.
Fain enters the Amyrlin’s study.
He had been surprised to find Elaida on the Amyrlin Seat. Better than what he had expected, though. In many ways she was not so tough, he had heard, as the woman who had worn the stole before her. Harder, yes, and more cruel, but more brittle, too. More difficult to bend, likely, but easier to break. If either became necessary. Still, one Aes Sedai, one Amyrlin even, was much like another to him. Fools. Dangerous fools, true, but useful dupes at times.
He notes the tension between the Amyrlin and her Keeper of the Chronicles as the latter is dismissed, the cracks in power where his seeds could be planted. Something about the way the Keeper’s eyes pass over him unsettles him, and he feels himself hunch. It’s not the first time he’s felt from her gaze like she knows something about him, though he cannot say why. He thinks about how he wants to torture her until he breaks her never-changing eyes, but pushes the thought away, telling himself she can’t know anything and focusing instead on his reasons for patience. He knows that the Horn of Valere is in the Tower vaults, and he can feel the pull of his dagger as well. The dagger that is part of him, that can make him whole again, without the danger of becoming trapped in Aridhol again.
Briefly, Fain contemplates how much things have changed. Aridhol is Shadar Logoth now, and he himself has changed—he’s sometimes not sure who he is, or which of his names is really his, but he knows that he is not what anyone thinks, that he has been transfigured and is now a “force unto himself, and beyond any other power.” And they will all see that, eventually.
Fain is prepared to grovel and pretend, but Elaida cuts pretty quickly to the point, asking what Fain knows of Rand al’Thor. Fain, feeling himself pulled by her portrait of him almost as much as he would be by the man himself, struggles through his raging hatred of Rand and desire to see him destroyed and begins to explain.
When he turned back to the Amyrlin, he did not realize his manner was as commanding as hers, meeting her stare for stare. “Rand al’Thor is devious and sly, uncaring of anyone or anything but his own power.” Fool woman. “He’s never a one to do what you expect.” But if she could put al’Thor in his hands… “He is difficult to lead—very difficult—but I believe it can be done. First you must tie a string to one of the few he trusts… ” If she gave him al’Thor, he might leave her alive when he finally went, even if she was Aes Sedai.
Meanwhile, in Andor, Rahvin lounges in a chair as a woman he is using Compulsion on repeats back her orders to her. It is hot in the room, but the heat doesn’t touch Rahvin. Controlling the woman presents no great difficulty for Rahvin.
A scowl twisted his face. It did with some. A few—a very few—had a strength of self so firm that their minds searched, even if unaware, for crevices through which to slide away. It was his bad luck that he still had some small need for one such. She could be handled, but she kept trying to find escape without knowing she was trapped. Eventually that one would no longer be needed, of course; he would have to decide whether to send her on her way or be rid of her more permanently. Dangers lay either way. Nothing that could threaten him, of course, but he was a careful man, meticulous. Small dangers had a way of growing if ignored, and he always chose his risks with a measure of prudence. To kill her, or keep her?
Rahvin instructs the woman to remember nothing of the encounter once she leaves him, and ties off the flow of Spirit before sending her on her way with Lord Elegar, a Darkfriend who has been standing nearby, unable to hear or see what was happening until Rahvin allowed him to. Elgar obeys obediently, calling Rahvin “Great Master” and bowing out of the room.
As the door closes behind them, a woman’s voice suddenly speaks, startling Rahvin as she asks about the two departing people.
Snatching at saidin, he filled himself with the Power, the taint on the male half of the True Source rolling off the protection of his bonds and oaths, the ties to what he knew as a greater power than the Light, or even the Creator.
Lanfear steps out of a doorway to somewhere else, and Rahvin feels the slight tingle in his skin as she channels. Rahvin demands to know shy she snuck up on him instead of sending an emissary to ask if they could meet, and Lanfear counters by calling him a fool for keeping an Aes Sedai as a pet. Rahvin remarks disdainfully that Aes Sedai today are little more than untutored children armed with self-taught tricks, and that he takes his precautions, and that he now controls exactly what this Aes Sedai spy reports back to the Tower.
Lanfear helps herself to some wine, channeling to lift the pitcher and to bring the cup to her hand, and Rahvin is irked by his inability to perceive her channeling, even though he knows that she would have no more luck seeing it in him. She tells Rahvin that, since he has been avoiding the others, a few of the Chosen are coming to him, and Lanfear came first to assure him that it wasn’t an attack.
Rahvin laughs at that, remarking that Lanfear was never one for attacking openly—she’s not as bad as Moghedien, but always favored the flanks and the rear. He decides that he will hear her out, this time, since he has her where he can keep an eye on her.
He feels male channeling then, and Sammael arrives, broad and compact and sporting on his face the large scar he once received from Lews Therin and refused to have Healed. The next to arrive is Graendal, and Rahvin catches a glimpse through the portal she opens into a room full of pools and naked acrobats and servants, as well as, oddly, a forlorn looking old man in a wrinkled coat. She brings two servants with her as well, a good looking man and an equally good looking woman wearing hardly anything as they serve wine to their mistress.
Graendal remarks over how extraordinary it is to see nearly half the surviving Chosen in one place, and none of them trying to kill the others. Sammael asks if she always speaks so freely in front of her servants. Graendal assures them that her servants love her, demonstrating her absolute control over them for the others.
Rahvin shook his head, wondering who they were, or had been. Physical beauty was not enough for Graendal’s servants; they had to have power or position as well. A former lord for a footman, a lady to draw her bath; that was Graendal’s taste. Indulging herself was one thing, but she was wasteful. This pair might have been of use, properly manipulated, but the level of compulsion Graendal employed surely left them good for little more than decoration. The woman had no true finesse.
They discuss the news of Asmodean’s betrayal and how he has gone over to join Rand. Sammael is skeptical of Asmodean’s courage to make such a leap, and skeptical of Lanfear’s decision not to kill him, if she was close enough to learn so much about Asmodean’s actions. Lanfear responds that she is not as quick to kill as he, when other actions have the opportunity to be more profitable. She adds that she “did not want to launch a frontal assault against superior forces.”
Rahvin asks if Rand al’Thor, this untrained shepherd, is really as powerful as all that, and Lanfear reminds him that Rand is Lews Therin reborn.
Graendal remarks that they have finally come to the topic that they actually wish to discuss, and sits on the back of her crouching male servant while she teases Lanfear, saying she’s surprised that, if Rand really is Lews Therin, Lanfear hasn’t tried to smuggle him into her bed yet.
“You were so obsessed with him you’d have stretched out at his feet if he said ‘rug.’”
Lanfear’s dark eyes glittered for a moment before she regained control of herself. “He may be Lews Therin reborn, but he is not Lews Therin himself.”
“How do you know?” Graendal asked, smiling as if it were all a joke. “It may well be that, as many believe, all are born and reborn as the Wheel turns, but nothing like this has ever happened that I have read. A specific man reborn according to prophecy. Who knows what he is?”
Lanfear assures them that she has observed Rand closely, and that he is no more than the shepherd he seems to be. But he is also powerful, and besides Asmodean’s defection, four other Forsaken have met death at his hands.
Sammael, affecting an air of carelessness Rahvin knows is for show, remarks that they might as well let Rand “whittle away the dead,” leaving more for the rest of the Chosen, unless Lanfear actually believes Rand might triumph in Tarmon Gai’don. Lanfear answers by asking how many of them will still be alive by then, reminding Sammael that he never beat Lews Therin no matter how many times they fought, then rounds on Graendal, remarking that Rand could make her his pet, and Graendal could learn how to please instead of being pleased.
Graendal’s face contorted, and Rahvin prepared to shield himself against whatever the two women might hurl at one another, prepared to Travel at even a whiff of balefire. Then he sensed Sammael gathering the Power, sensed a difference in it—Sammael would call it seizing a tactical advantage—and bent to grab the other man’s arm. Sammael shook him off angrily, but the moment had passed. The two women were looking at them now, not each other. Neither could know what had almost happened, but clearly something had passed between Rahvin and Sammael, and suspicion lit their eyes.
Rahvin says that he wants to hear what Lanfear has to say. Lanfear explains that the four of them can succeed with Rand where Ishamael failed, and that they and no others could have the glory and rewards if they can present Rand to “to the Great Lord on the Day of Return.” She warns that someone is trying to control Rand—she suspects Moghedien or Demandred—and that she knows it isn’t any of them because they have all chosen to carve out places for themselves rather than slash at each other as the others have been doing. They know that she can keep a close watch on Rand while remaining unseen, but that they must all stay clear until they can draw him back. Then she begins to outline her plan.
Graendal leaned forward, interested, and Sammael began to nod as she went on. Rahvin reserved judgment. It might well work. And if not… If not, he saw several ways to shape events to his advantage. This might work out very well indeed.
Okay, you’ve got to admit, there is some irony—some nerve, one might say—in a woman who has just staged a massive, violent take over of the Amyrlin Seat, ranting about the Tower needing to be strong. Elaida is a fascinating character, because it’s not like everything about her choices or perspective is wrong. She’s a smart person, sometimes at least, and she is driven by a genuine belief that she is fighting the good fight for the Light. It is a belief that she comes by honestly, given the Foretelling she had when she was young. I can’t fault her for being driven by that Foretelling, or for keeping it a secret—Siuan and Moiraine have done the same, after all. But there is a little more humility in the way Siuan and Moiraine conduct themselves under this burden of responsibility, and I haven’t forgotten that tied in with Elaida’s confidence that Siuan was doing something dangerous for the Tower is her own frustrated belief that she could have been Amyrlin if she hadn’t made the “sacrifice” of attaching herself to Morgase instead. And now that she has the position, she is very caught up in what she is due as the Amyrlin, irked at the way the others seem to view her as more of an equal than they did her predecessor.
I think Fain’s assessment of her, that she is less hardy than Siuan, more difficult to bend but easier to break, is just about spot on. Even if Elaida believes that her choice to overthrow Siuan was completely justified and morally correct, she still seems aware of the limitations imposed by her specific situation. She knew, going into this, that she needed Alviarin in order to gain the support of the White Ajah, and therefore enough support from the other Ajahs to make the coup possible. When they came to take Siuan, Elaida said that there were enough Sitters present during the decision to make it legal, but it sounds like that it was only just enough. It seems unrealistic to the point of foolishness to think that a huge upheaval made on such a small margin wouldn’t have some ripple effects.
Perhaps Elaida is just so accustomed to the power and authority of the Amyrlin Seat that she assumed it would transfer seamlessly no matter how it was acquired. In any case, I’m not sure that the flogging, either verbally or literally, of her supporters is exactly the way to go. The Amyrlin’s authority over things like punishment is invested in her by the Tower. If the other Aes Sedai already respect Elaida less because of how she got there, what is going to stop them from removing that authority again when they feel she is turning against them with power they helped her to gain?
The way she blames Siuan for all—all!—her problems isn’t going to help her keep her head together, either. She sounds like Nynaeve with Moiraine—the more Elaida makes Siuan emblematic of everything in the world she is frustrated with, the more she’s going to be focusing her energy in the wrong place. And Siuan knew when to be magnanimous, too, knew that authority is not only based on fear. I doubt Elaida knows that, or cares to know it.
But it’s not just Elaida’s ambition and resentment that is responsible for the disorder in the Tower. I can’t help thinking about how Rand is prophesied to bring down nations and divide peoples, breaking the world figuratively, not just literally. He’s not even there, but there mere fact of his existence is shattering the will of the Tower all the same. Watching the other Aes Sedai’s reaction to hearing his name really reinforced for me the point that the people of this world are terrified of the Dragon Reborn. It’s easy to brush off the superstitions of the average person, who knows little about either history or prophecy, but the Aes Sedai of the White Tower know more than anyone else, even if that’s not as much as they would like. And they can barely stand to face what’s happening. It gives me a even more respect for Siuan and Moiraine, and for Elaida too, honestly. Whatever else you can say about her, she reminded me of Siuan as she was lecturing the others about facing the truth of Rand al’Thor. I can literally hear Siuan saying the same words, asking how they can expect to deal with the Dragon’s existence if they can’t even look at a picture of him. Although Siuan’s version of that lecture would probably have more mention of fish.
I wasn’t sure until now where the Red Ajah stood as to what should be done with the Dragon Reborn if the Tower caught him. I seem to remember Siuan and Moiraine discussing the fact that the other Aes Sedai would want to gentle him, but Elaida says that she wants to keep him shielded and safe until Tarmon Gai’don, which does make some sense. Ostensibly, if he were shielded, that would prevent him from being affected by the taint, which would certainly be a good thing. But how could he be ready to fight in a battle if he’s never had the chance to use saidin or learn any control over it. Even Moiraine, who would very much like to direct Rand’s decisions, recognizes that he must learn to use the Power and that she has no idea how to help him do so.
Rand is determined to make his own choices, because he believes that is the only way for him to accomplish what he is meant to do. But I think, too, that the very nature of the Dragon Reborn is to be uncontrollable. He is strongly ta’veren, after all, and as Moiraine points out to Siuan in the beginning of The Great Hunt, they can only have a very little control in the face of that kind of influence. I imagine that even if Elaida were able to carry out her plans for Rand, she wouldn’t be able to hold him forever. Something or someone would most certainly slip, allowing Rand to escape, or take control over them, or something even more unexpected.
And there’s the Forsaken to consider, as well as the Black Ajah. Elaida doesn’t know about Siuan’s hunt for Darkfriends in the Tower, and how she suspects that there are more than just those who fled with Liandrin. And I have to wonder if one of them isn’t right there at Elaida’s elbow.
It’s so quick you might miss it, and I did the first time I read the Prologue. But on my second pass I caught the line where Fain feels for a moment as though Alviarin knows who he is. It’s easy enough to put that down to Fain’s general paranoia and to the fact that Alviarin has such an intense stare about her. It unsettles Elaida too, after all, and I can certainly see the part of Fain that’s still Padan the peddler being cowed under such a look. On the other hand, if Alviarin was a Darkfriend, there is a chance that she might know something of the man who was made into a hound to hunt Rand al’Thor, or even just have a passing familiarity of some of the lower level Darkfriends. Am I reading too much into this? Possibly, but it’s an intriguing idea. And I figure there has to be at least one Darkfriend left amongst the higher-ranking Aes Sedai in the Tower.
If it’s true, I have to wonder what would draw someone devoted to cold logic and reason to side with the Lord of the Dark. It seems like such an emotional choice, usually made by people experiencing fear, greed, or a lust for power and immortality, none of which seem in character for Alviarin, although we don’t really know her that well. If she did turn out to be Black Ajah, though, she’s accomplished a heck of a lot in service of the Dark—Elaida herself knows that the coup would never have happened without Alviarin’s support, and in it the Tower lost Siuan, one of the most important players in the fate of the Dragon up to this point. And I suppose there is a very calculating nature to many of the Forsaken, especially the women, even if we’ve seen more rage behind their masks than we’ve yet seen behind the new Keeper’s.
But getting back to Padan Fain for a moment, I have to say I’m enjoying him again. He’s at his most interesting when he’s doing his Mordeth scheming and manipulating, I think, and I’m very curious how he’ll use his knowledge of Rand to affect Elaida. I’m also curious as to whether he believes everything he tells Elaida in this section—he’s been trying to use Rand’s affection for others against him for some time, and it’s not a bad strategy. But does he also believe that Rand is “devious and sly, uncaring of anyone or anything but his own power,” or is that him telling Elaida what he thinks she will believe, or what will scare her the most?
Lanfear is also picking and choosing her truths and lies. She’s done just as she told Rand she would, informing the others that Asmodean chose to defect and side with Rand instead. It was interesting watching her try to impress upon the others that Rand has Lews Therin’s strength and power but isn’t at all him, even though we know she herself is less sure. No doubt it has something to do with what Graendal said: Lanfear is obsessed with Lews Therin, and wouldn’t want anyone to know how besotted she actually is with Rand and how he’s been resisting her advances. Plus she’s hoping to rule the world with him someday, and definitely doesn’t intend any of them to suspect that she wants the Dragon by her side, not at the Dark One’s feet.
Gotta love Lanfear’s flex, though, using saidar to pour her wine when she knows Rahvin can’t sense her channeling. She probably knows he hates it, too. I was really struck by the fact that the ways men feel each other’s channeling is very different from the way women sense each other. There haven’t been enough male channelers around to observe that, yet. But Rahvin’s sense of Sammael’s channeling didn’t seem as strong as the way we’ve seen female channelers sense each other—there’s no visible glow and there’s the line that “this close, Rahvin can feel it, dimly.” It does seem specific, however, as Rahvin can tell the difference between Sammael drawing power just in case and drawing power with the intent to attack. So that’s interesting, though I’m not sure what to make of it.
I have talked before about how distrust is great weapon of the Dark, how the forces of the Light are often divided and at cross-purposes because they don’t feel that they can trust each other. The worry of Darkfriends everywhere makes people keep things close to the vest, while the fear of disagreements over the handling of the Dragon and other such problems often mean a lack of cohesion within groups, as we see with Elaida and Siuan, for example. And we see it with Rand too. Moiraine, desperate to save the world, doesn’t feel like she can promise to respect his decisions, and Rand is too certain that the White Tower will try to control him to trust the advice Moiraine could give him. Which would probably be good and important advice, even if Rand’s need to do the unexpected took him down a different path than the one suggested. But I am reminded, now, that there is no trust and less love between the Forsaken. They are more powerful than any of the other Darkfriends, and they are ostensibly working towards the same goal of freeing the Dark One from his prison, but really they’re all there for themselves, and, as Lanfear points out, would rather not share the honor or rewards with anyone they don’t have to.
This is a prologue full of villains, and it was a strange section to recap because it contains both moments of intense interest and excitement as well as some pages that don’t particularly catch me. Going over the political discussions of which King and Queen is doing what and which kingdoms are going to war feels a little bit like I’m trying to watch the Trade Federation scenes in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace: Technically all this is important and will come back again, but also I’m pretty bored and won’t remember what anyone said. But I am excited for the character work, and to see inside the minds of some of our villains. I’m curious about Sammael and his scar, about Graendal’s belief that they are “more” than human, and need a new word to describe themselves and what they are. And I’m very curious about Lanfear’s plan, which I rather suspect is as much a trap for her fellow Forsaken as it is for Rand. Maybe much more.
Next week we will cover Chapters One and Two. Chapter Two has a lot of talking, but Chapter One is one of my favorite chapters to date and I am very excited to talk about it. Until then, have a lovely week, and remember than no one person can be responsible for all the bad things in your life. Even Rand al’Thor.
Sylas K Barrett really ought to keep a list of named characters to keep track of who everyone is and where they are from. But he is not organized, and he is not going to do that.