Hello and welcome back to Reading The Wheel of Time. It feels like it’s been an Age, doesn’t it? I hope the new year finds all of you at least a little bit more rested and rejuvenated; I myself am ready to dive back into The Fires of Heaven and Rand’s Couladin problems. Come on, let’s get to it!
Chapter 20 opens with Rand urging Jeade’en up into the foothills of the Jangai pass, as the Dragonwall looms above them and dwarfs all the other mountains. Rand has heard that any man who tried to scale those mountains was forced to turn back, overcome by fear and unable to breathe. Looking at them, he can well imagine that climbing so high might make a man so afraid he couldn’t breathe.
He’s trying to ignore Moiraine, who is riding beside him and lecturing him on how to get Cairhien on his side and how to be a good ruler. She will talk to him like this all day, whenever he will let her, as though trying to give him the education of a noble. Sometimes she gives him startling information, like when she told him not to trust any woman from the Tower except herself, Egwene, Elayne, and Nynaeve. Or when she told him that Elaida is now the Amyrlin Seat. She refuses, however, to tell him where she got this information—Rand suspects the Wise One Dreamwalkers found out, and wishes he could make them swear the same loyalty oath that Moiraine has sworn to him.
But Rand doesn’t want to think about the Wise Ones, or about Moiraine’s lessons. He wants to study the path ahead, the strange remnants of what looks like old buildings and a dock, that must have been from before the Breaking. He can also see a huge image carved into the mountain, a snake entwined around a staff, that must have been a monument or ruler’s mark in some long-lost nation. At the base of the relief is Taien, a walled town left over from the days when Cairhien traded with Shara. He can see what appears to be birds circling the town, and Moiraine notices that his attention is trained elsewhere.
“Are you listening to me?” Moiraine said suddenly, reining her white mare closer. “You must—!” She took a deep breath. “Please, Rand. There is so much that I must tell you, so much that you need to know.”
The hint of pleading in her tone made him glance at her. He could remember when he had been overawed by her presence. Now she seemed quite small, for all her regal manner. A fool thing, that he should feel protective of her. “There is plenty of time ahead of us, Moiraine,” he said gently. “I don’t pretend to think I know as much of the world as you. I mean to keep you close from now on.” He barely realized how great a change that was from when she was keeping him close. “But I have something else on my mind right now.”
“Of course.” She sighed. “As you wish. We have plenty of time yet.”
Rand picks up the pace, the wagons struggling to keep up. Rand has given Asmodean a banner to carry, bearing the symbol of the ancient Aes Sedai. It is the sign that the Dragon is prophesied to conquer under, and Rand thinks perhaps that it will scare people less than the Dragon banner he left flying over Tear.
When they get closer to the walls of Taien they discover dead, decomposing bodies hanging by their necks all around the town, ravens and vultures picking at the corpses. The gate stands open to show ruin in the town, and Rand has a thought not his own, that it reminds him of Mar Ruois. He knows that it must be Lews Therin’s memory, and reminds himself firmly that he is Rand al’Thor—he is determined that if he dies at Shayol Ghul, it will be as himself.
Rand thinks about the lead that Couladin has on them, and how much damage he will be able to do before they can catch up to him. Then Lan warns him that someone is watching them from the rocks, and Rand is glad he left the Aiel back at the mouth of the pass, since the sight of them would no doubt terrify any survivors. Two men and a woman emerge and approach them hesitantly, and quickly identify Rand as the leader. One of the men clings to his stirrup and thanks him for coming, calling him “My Lord” and describing how “those murdering savages” came in the night and attacked before anyone knew, killing anyone who resisted and stealing everything in sight.
Mat, standing and looking over the town, asked why they didn’t have sentries to sound the alarm, since they live so close to their enemies. He points out that even the Aiel would have a hard time coming at them if the town had kept a good watch, prompting Lan to give Mat an appraising look. The townsman replies that they had only a single watchman at each gate, since they haven’t seen any of “the savages” in years. He thanks Rand again for coming and introduces himself as Tel Nethin, the woman as his sister, Aril, and the other man as her husband, Andor Corl. They tell Rand that the Aiel stole people, including children, calling them “guy-shan” or something and stripping them naked before hauling them off.
Moiraine puts her hands on Aril and heals her, startling the woman. And then Andor recognizes the marking on Rand’s belt buckle and gasps, telling him that the leader of their attackers had the same markings on both his arms, the sleeves torn off so that they showed visibly. Rand is careful not to move, lest his own sleeves ride up and show off his dragon markings. He learns that the attack was six days ago, and that the townsfolk were too afraid to take the dead down from the walls. The leader told them not to touch anything.
“A message,” Andor said in a dull voice. “He chose them out to hang, just pulling them out until he had enough to line the wall. Men, women, he did not care.” His eyes were fixed on Rand’s buckle. “He said they were a message for some man who would be following him. He said he wanted this man to know… know what they were going to do on the other side of the Spine. He said… He said he would do worse to this man.”
Suddenly Aril’s eyes widen as she catches sight of Aiel coming up behind Rand. All three townspeople run off screaming, only to be caught by more Aiel rising from where they were hidden in the rocks.
Rand turns and see Rhuarc coming towards him, accompanied by Dhearic, the leader of the Reyn Aiel. He knows from communications between the Wise One Dreamwalkers that the Miagoma, Codarra, Shiande, and Daryne are all also following, but the Wise Ones don’t know those chiefs’ intentions. Rand asks Rhuarc if frightening the survivors was strictly necessary, and Rhuarc points out that the Aiel remained hidden as Rand asked until it was clear there was no one around to fight. And after all, these are only Treekillers.
Rand thinks about the conflict between the Aiel and Cairhien, the one the nations call the Aiel War but the Aiel saw merely as the execution of an oath breaker, and tells them sternly that these people broke no oaths. He gives instructions for the survivors to be rounded up, and to be treated gently. He also asks the two chiefs what they think of what Couladin did here. They’re disgusted by Couladin’s decision to kill more than necessary, and appalled by the idea of taking wetlanders as gai’shain.
“It cannot be so,” Rhuarc said at last. “If it is… Gai’shain is a thing of ji’e’toh. No one can be made gai’shain who does not follow ji’e’toh, else they are only human animals, such as the Sharans keep.”
“Couladin has abandoned ji’e’toh.” Dhearic sounded as though he were saying stones had grown wings.
Some of the Maidens come up to join them, and Rand decides that they will set up camp for the night, based on Lan’s point that Couladin could easily lay traps for them in the pass. Rand also sends the Water Seekers to scout ahead, and notes the looks the Maidens are giving him—he suspects that they’ve noticed his desire not to send them into possible danger if it can be avoided. He gives instructions for the survivors to be fed, and the bodies to be cut down and buried.
The camp goes up quickly while Moiraine and Lan go down to see to Kadere and his wagons. Rand notices that the Wise Ones’ tents are being set up in between his tent and those of the clan chiefs, and is surprised to see Melaine among the Wise Ones, since she married Bael, and became first-sister to Dorindha, only three days ago. He’d been surprised that the sister part of the ceremony had seemed just as important as the marriage, which had seemed to shock, or maybe just anger, Aviendha.
Rand wishes he had a way to keep Aviendha and Egwene from seeing the bodies in the town, and is surprised when neither woman has to run off to be sick. Aviendha, he realizes a moment later, has seen death often enough, but he’s struck by the pity in Egwene’s eyes as she comes over to console him, reminding him that this isn’t his fault. Rand assures her that he knows.
“Well, just you remember it. It was not your fault.” She heeled Mist on, and began talking to Aviendha before she was out of earshot. “I am glad he is taking it so well. He has the habit of feeling guilty over things he cannot control.”
“Men always believe they are in control of everything around them,” Aviendha replied. “When they find out they are not, they think they have failed, instead of learning a simple truth women already know.”
Egwene remarks that she thought they would find him heaving somewhere, and then they move out of earshot. Rand feels foolish for eavesdropping on them, but he still doesn’t like them talking about him behind his back. Then he catches sight of Mat, squatting by his horse with the black-hafted spear across his knees, peering at the town. It’s clear to Rand that Mat is studying Taien, not just staring, and he wishes that Mat was willing to open up about his experiences in Rhuidean. Mat still claims nothing happened, despite the spear and the fox-head medallion, the scar around his neck, and the strange things he has been saying since their first trip into the city. He also wonders if Mat knows that the Maidens are betting on whether or not Melindhra will give up the spear for him, or if they will teach him to sing.
The sound of music draws Rand to Asmodean, who complains about having to carry Rand’s banner and asks why Lan or Mat weren’t given the thing.
“You carry it because you were chosen, Master Jasin Natael.” Asmodean gave a start and looked around, though everyone else was too far away, and too busy, to be listening. None but they two would have understood, anyway. “What do you know about those ruins up near the snow line? They must come from the Age of Legends.”
Asmodean replies that changes to the world happened after he “went to sleep” and that for all he knows, this could be the city he was born in. Rand tells Asmodean he is too tired for one of their “discussions” and that he will see him in the morning, with the banner. Asmodean asks if Rand will be putting any nets of fire around his tent tonight, or if Rand has finally begun to trust him, and Rand answers that he trusts him like a brother… until the day Asmodean betrays him.
But Rand does set wards around the camps, making sure to include every tent, not just those in the pass, and he notices how much stronger he is getting through Asmodean’s teachings. The wardings will warn if any Shadowspawn cross them, while the Aiel watch for human enemies. He meets Aviendha at his tent and gets upset when she shows him a bloodsnake she killed. He feels like she takes unnecessary risks, and asks if she ever considered using the Power instead. But Aviendha answers that the Wise Ones have told her that it isn’t good to use the One Power too often, and that it is possible to draw too much power and harm yourself. She’s put off by Rand’s concern for her, and he lies and tells her that he wasn’t any more concerned about her than anyone else.
In the tent she brings up the debt between them again, ignoring his continued protests that there is no debt, and tosses a bundle at his feet. Rand is shocked when he unwraps it and finds a jewel-encrusted sword. It’s so elaborately decorated Rand deduces that it was never made to be used, only to be looked at, and thinks that it must have cost Aviendha a fortune. But she tells him that it didn’t.
“It was the treekiller’s sword. Laman’s. It was taken from his body as proof that he was dead, because his head could not be brought back so far. Since then it has passed from hand to hand, young men or fool Maidens who wanted to own the proof of his death. Only, each began to think of what it was, and soon sold it to another fool. The price has come down very far since it first was sold. No Aiel would lay hand to it even to remove the stones.”
Rand thinks the sword is ridiculously gaudy, though he tells her that it’s beautiful. However, when he looks closer he finds a heron-mark on the blade. Suddenly he is certain that this is a Power-wrought blade like the one he had from Tam, and after using it to slice through a pillow, he tells her that he will take the blade to cancel their debt, but that she must keep the jeweled scabbard and hilt. She accuses him of trying to put her back in his debt, but Rand points out that he never accepted the scabbard so it is still hers, and that he doesn’t accept the hilt either, so that is also still hers. She sulkily summons a gai’shain to clean up the pillow and the two eat dinner—Aviendha seems a little disappointed that Rand isn’t put off to learn that their stew was made form the bloodsnake she killed.
As they get ready for bed, Rand does his best to keep his back turned and ignore the sound of Aviendha undressing. He asks about Melaine and Bael’s wedding, including about the meaning of the segade blossoms Melaine put in the bridal wreath. He remembers that he sent the same kind of flowers to Aviendha.
She answers that the flowers signify Melaine’s prickly nature, and that she intends to keep it, but she also tells Rand that he doesn’t need to know all the flower meanings. He will never have an Aiel wife.
Finally, Rand asks what “teaching a man to sing” means, and Aviendha correctly deduces that he is thinking about Mat.
“Sometimes a man desires a Maiden who will not give up the spear for him, and he arranges to be taken gai’shain by her. He is a fool, of course. No Maiden would look at gai’shain as he hopes. He is worked hard and kept strictly to his place, and the first thing that is done is to make him learn to sing, to entertain the spear-sisters while they eat. ‘She is going to teach him to sing.’ That is what Maidens say when a man makes a fool of himself over one of the spear-sisters.”
She’s clearly falling asleep, but Rand presses to know who gave her the necklace. She tells him again that it is a gift from a friend, and Rand isn’t sure why it bothers him so much. He falls asleep dreaming of Aviendha and scenes from Melaine’s wedding.
I have to admit, I started out this section a little annoyed with Rand. His attitude towards Moiraine is a bit patronizing, I think, more than is warranted by their relative changes in authority. Sure, Rand is the Dragon Reborn, and fast coming into both his power and his authority. It makes perfect sense that his feelings about Moiraine should change, and it’s nice to see him thinking of her as an ally rather than a boogeyman puppet master. But while Moiraine’s oath has helped Rand to trust her, I’m not sure how much he respects her right now. There’s almost a parallel between Moiraine and Asmodean now—both have been bound to Rand in ways that they would like to have avoided, and both are serving as almost passive vessels of knowledge, into which Rand dips when he chooses, and not at other times. And while I don’t think it’s wrong for the Dragon Reborn to feel protective of people, the way Rand sees her as being small and lesser grates on my nerves somehow.
And it’s not just Moiraine who’s being patronized in this section. Rand is also keeping the Maidens out of danger, so much so that he’s worried that they are going to notice. Rand seems to have a very strong protective instinct towards women (we see this in Mat as well) and it’s hard to say what is just intended as a sort of “period correct” chivalry and what is a specific character trait. But Rand is headed for a confrontation with the Maidens if he keeps this up. No doubt they will remind him that their honor is at stake, but I’m not sure Rand will care. He’s broken enough traditions and doesn’t understand most of the Aiel mindset anyway, and I think he’s liable to put his own feelings before theirs. It’s an incredible disrespectful attitude to take, especially given how much more Maidens have to sacrifice than the men they fight beside.
There’s a lot of sexism in the way Rand views the Wise Ones as well. When the Aiel make camp outside of Taien, he notes that the Wise Ones have set their tents so that “anyone coming up from the hills to him would have to go through or around their camp to reach him.” It’s a sort of visual representation of Rand’s earlier irritated thoughts about the Wise Ones, when he wished that he could get them to swear Moiraine’s loyalty oath. He observes that “they interfered between him and the chiefs continually, as if they wanted him to go through them to reach the chiefs,” but doesn’t seem to acknowledge that this is the way Aiel hierarchy and culture work. The Wise Ones are supposed to be guides and leaders for the Aiel, and while it’s understandable that they and Rand are going to butt heads a lot, he basically spends these two chapters wishing he could remove all the Aiel women from the equation.
Even Egwene and Aviendha are subject to Rand’s patronization, although the narrative attempts to even the playing field by having it go both ways. When he is worried about Egwene being upset by the dead bodies, she is in turn worried about his constitution and guilt complex. Rand has a pretty well-developed guilt complex, as we well know, but the whole section really just comes off as another one of those moments in The Wheel of Time when men and women seem to view each other as perplexing children, even though the reader can easily understand the characters’ reactions and emotions. It’s kind of funny, in a way, and also kind of annoying; I remember a time not so long ago when Moiraine kept having to tell the Emond’s Fielders to think with their heads and not their hearts while they accused her of being cold and calculating, but now it seems like each of the kids believes that they are the only one who has learned that lesson.
On the other hand, Rand has a lot of legitimate reasons to be holding both the Aes Sedai and the Wise Ones at arm’s length. His biggest conflict with both Moiraine and the Wise Ones is the fact that his very existence is intended to break the establishment, and they are the establishment. And especially when it comes to Moiraine, I understand Rand’s impatience. He’s right in thinking that he’s not going to win the world, or Tarmon Gai’don, by her playbook. I think all that Cairhien nobility education probably is wasted breath, and I’m reminded once again of what Moiraine told Siuan about trying to guide someone so strongly ta’veren; it’s like trying to guide a log down a river, a log that is pushing back and a river that is getting ever stronger and more rapid.
Moiraine mentioned that surrender is how she can control things, but I wonder if it is going as well as she hoped. In addition to the secret urgency she feels over her impending death I wonder if she isn’t pushing all these lectures because Rand isn’t asking for advice as much as she hoped he would. I also remember that she was using her stone to eavesdrop on Rand, and she might know a lot more about what’s going on than he, or we, realize. She may even know the truth about Asmodean.
So yeah, I really understand where Rand is coming from. And certainly it’s easy for me, the reader, to sit back and see all the things he’s missing. I can wish that he would make more time to understand Aviendha and Moiraine, or wish that he would to try to find compromises with the Wise Ones and understand that they are only trying to protect their people, because I don’t have the fate of the entire world resting on my shoulders. That sort of thing takes up a lot of space in one’s brain, and there’s no way Rand’s going to be perfect, or even good, at everything. But from a narrative standpoint it does feel like we’ve run again into the problem of the gender divide as it is set up in The Wheel of Time; we’ve encountered a group of women who are said to be in control, to have more access to power, authority, and knowledge than the men of their nation, and yet when push comes to shove it is the men who are useful and the women who are in the way.
All that being said, I will also admit that Aviendha’s comment about men always thinking that if they can’t control everything they have failed certainly applies to me, so maybe I’m just cranky at being called out.
I feel like I write the words “there are some interesting parallels” a lot in this read, but we’re just going to have to blame Jordan for that one, because it is something he is really good at. This week we see Rand reevaluating the power dynamics in his relationship with Moiraine just as we saw Egwene do a few weeks ago. We also continue to see the parallels between Rand and Mat, and how they are both struggling with the heritage of their previous lives and the intrusion of those memories. This passage from Chapter 20 caught my attention particularly.
Mat guided Pips closer, using his knees. He had never been more than an indifferent rider, but sometimes, when he was thinking of something else, he rode as though born on a horse’s back.
This feels a bit like how Rand has leveled up so quickly as both a channeler and as blademaster. Of course we know that powerful channelers do learn quickly—Egwene, Nynaeve, and Elayne have all demonstrated the ability to replicate a weave after only seeing it once, as well as sometimes making their own, instinctually. I imagine the same is true for Rand, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if some of Lews Therin’s memories are helping him out from time to time. And there’s nothing about channeling that guarantees becoming a master swordsman, so I feel pretty confident that Rand’s ability to attain blade-master status after only a few years is due in part to the fact that he was one before, when he was Lews Therin.
Rand’s concern about past-life memories is more pressing in some ways, since he has to worry about the taint taking over his mind, but Mat has so many and they are entirely present within him all the time, as far as we can tell. It’s not clear to me if Mat understands that these memories are his, albeit from previous lives, or if he thinks that they are just random people’s. Rand, similarly, seems uncertain if he’s remembering real memories or just having hallucinations naming themselves for the previous Dragon. In some ways I think he believes it’s both at once.
But it makes me wonder how different someone is from life to life. The clearest example we have of reincarnation is Lews Therin to Rand, but even most of what we know of Lews Therin’s personality comes second-hand from people who hated him (or from Lanfear, whose judgment is even more clouded) so it’s hard to say how similar the two men actually are to each other. Mat does seem to have been a gambler and a strategist in every life, including this one. These little tidbits don’t tell us how much of a person is a core self, that travels from life to life, though. How much can one’s personality change with each incarnation? And for that matter, what does the “soul” of someone bound to the Wheel look like when it’s not in a body? I have been assuming that the soul we know as Birgitte appears in the guise of her last life, that this is her most recent persona, but I guess I don’t know that for sure.
Speaking of things I don’t know, I’m really curious about the name of Lews Therin Telamon. Whenever he is referred to without his surname, it’s always by his first and middle name. It’s Lews Therin, and never just Lews. I wonder what the naming convention behind this is, and if it has some particular significance from the Age of Legends. It’s interesting to speculate on these things now; compared to a few books ago, I know have a lot of information on the history of this world and the Age of Legends, but really only enough to make vague guesses. (Which is kind of what it’s like to be our heroes, maybe?) For example, the Aiel men don’t sing except in battle or at a funeral. Is this to make those moments more special? Is it a machismo thing? Or is it, perhaps, a remnant of the Da’shain Aiel, who would sing to make the crops grow. The Aiel don’t remember that history anymore, but perhaps the respect for singing has translated down the years into Aiel men having these specific customs.
But we did finally learn what it means for a Maiden to teach a man to sing, and I thought that was pretty funny. Putting aside my ongoing complaint that male warriors can have families at home and women can’t (why shouldn’t a man be allowed to give up the spear and become a roof-husband or whatever they’d call it?) the whole thing is a pretty funny picture. And while the Maidens might view such a man as being foolish, it might be nice to take a break from the warrior’s life and learn to sing for the woman you love.
I’m also curious if Rand’s certainty of his own death is affecting his decisions, and how. He does seem very convinced of it, even though a prophecy of blood on rocks is pretty ambiguous. It’s often the case in fiction that characters confronted with certain death find a certain clarity of focus, but it’s also true that, with no future to protect, one might be overly reckless. Either way, the fact that the thought keeps coming up in the narration shows how much it is ever-present in Rand’s mind.
We’ve spent so much time with the Aiel that I almost forgot about how the rest of the world sees them, but it only took one encounter with folks from the west to be reminded. I would hardly expect the people of Taien to say complimentary things about the Aiel after what they’ve been through, but the word choice here “savages” is a loaded one both in our world and in theirs. In their world it evokes memories of the Da’shain Aiel and their exploitation after the Breaking, of the dichotomy of how the Aiel view weapons and killing, and even of the prejudice leveled towards the Tinkers. I very much appreciated how the narration addressed this, with Rand’s thoughts turning towards the culture clash of the Aiel War and how little the Aiel perspective is understood by those on the other side of the Dragonwall. It will be interesting to see how Rand uses the Aiel once he gets into the Westlands and takes care of Couladin. He intends to threaten the other nations into submission, relying on the Aiel’s well-deserved reputation. But in the long run, I imagine he wants to heal this breach—unless he hasn’t thought that far ahead yet.
Sylas K Barrett is still worried about Moiraine, and thinking about the way each protagonist carries their own burdens, secret from everyone else, and what might be different if there was more sharing. Sylas is also thinking about the leftover eggnog in the fridge. It’s a complicated dance.