Reading The Wheel of Time

Reading The Wheel of Time: Nynaeve faces Galad, Salidar, and Maerion’s Arrows in Robert Jordan’s The Fires of Heaven (Part 23)

Hello and welcome, once again and as always, to Reading The Wheel of Time! This week we’re covering Chapter 40, in which Galad catches up to Nynaeve and strikes a bargain of sorts, the Shienarans find someone new to follow, and Nynaeve has to face the long-dreaded archery performance.

Apologies and thanks to everyone who caught my slip-ups regarding the right titles and chapter numbers last week—sometimes the old gray matter is just a bit too tired to fire right. And I think Nynaeve might be able to relate to that, this week.

As soon as she’s turned down the alley and lost her brief glimpse of Galad, Nynaeve looks around for inspiration, inwardly fuming and berating herself for being so foolish as to believe that she could come to the Prophet for help, so desperate for a way to escape Moghedien that she walked right into Samara where Galad could find her. She asks herself when she will learn that she can’t rely on anyone but herself, then leads the men down a second alley, counting on Galad to start looking into shops and taverns when he doesn’t see them in the street.

They crowd down to the end of the alleyway, watching the street, Uno and Ragan settling their hands on their swords. Nynaeve thinks that she’s angry enough to channel, but of course she can’t.

Just the possibility that Moghedien or Black sisters were in Samara made her dependent on two men for her safety. It was enough to screw her anger tight; she could have chewed a hole in the stone wall behind her. She knew why Aes Sedai had Warders—all but Reds, anyway. In her head, she did. In her heart, it just made her want to snarl.

They catch sight of Galad, but instead of passing by he immediately looks down the alley and starts towards them. Uno and Ragan draw their swords as he approaches, stationing themselves one in front of the other between the Whitecloak and Nynaeve. Galad moves easily, calling out to the men that he does not want to kill them before addressing Nynaeve, remarking that someone else might have run into a shop or inn but that she never does what’s expected, and asking to speak with her. The way he talks about not wanting to kill the Shienarans makes her think that he might actually be as good with a sword as she’s heard; she can also see curious people peering into the alley to see what’s going on.

She tells Uno and Ragan to let him by, and Galad steps past them as if he doesn’t have a care in the world. Nynaeve is aware that he’s just about the last man in the world she wants to see right now, and is frustrated that his beauty still has an effect on her.

She tells Galad that she knew he was following, and he replies that he assumed as much, since she usually sees more than she lets on. He laughs when Nynaeve asks what he’s doing in Sienda instead of on his way to Altara, remarking that only Nynaeve would ask him the question he should be asking her. But he answers, explaining that he did have orders for Salidar in Altara, but that changed when the Prophet—and then he breaks off, asking if Nynaeve is unwell.

Nynaeve forced her face to smoothness. “Of course not,” she said irritably. “My health is quite good, thank you very kindly.” Salidar! Of course! The name was like one of Aludra’s firesticks going off in her head. All of that racking of her brain, and Galad casually handed her what she had been unable to dig up on her own. Now if only Masema found a ship quickly. If only she could make sure Galad would not betray them. Without letting Uno and Ragan kill him, of course. Whatever Elayne said, Nynaeve could not believe she would appreciate having her brother cut down. Small chance he would believe Elayne was not with her. “I just cannot get over my shock at seeing you.”

Galad replies that his is much greater, demanding to know what in the Light possessed them to sneak out of Sienda, and to come here, of all places. He knows Elayne is impulsive, but he thought Nynaeve had more sense. He glances at Uno and Ragan, and adds a veiled question about hoping she has not gotten mixed up with the Prophet. Nynaeve retorts icily that neither of those men are the Prophet, and that she has known them for some time. She also tells Uno and Ragan to put up their swords.

Galad, irritated now, tells her that he doesn’t care what she and Elayne are mixed up in as long as he can get them out of it before they get hurt, and that he will find them passage on a ship to Altara so they can make their way to Caemlyn from there. Nynaeve is shocked that he wants to find them a ship, and Galad mistakes her expression for an accusation about the fact that he cannot accompany them. He tells her that it won’t be long before the entire border explodes, and that she and Elayne must get away and to Caemlyn, and he asks that they promise to go there and not back to the Tower.

It could not hurt, having Galad looking for a boat, too. If Masema could forget whether he intended to close the taverns, he could forget to have anyone find a riverboat. Especially if he thought a convenient bout of forgetfulness might keep her there to further his own plans. It could not hurt—if she could trust Galad. If she could not, then she would have to hope he was not as good with that sword as he thought he was. A stark thought, but not so stark as what might happen—would happen—if he proved untrustworthy.

Nynaeve tells Galad that she and Elayne are what they are, just as he is what he is, and asks, given how that lot feel about women who can channel, why she should believe that he won’t have fifty Whitecloaks after her and Elayne within the hour, to either kill or imprison them both. She can’t tell if Galad is irritated or offended when he tells her that he would never let any harm come to Elayne, or to her.

If Elayne was right, he could no more lie than could an Aes Sedai who had sworn the Three Oaths, but still she hesitated. A mistake here could be her last. She had a right to take risks for herself, but this risk involved Elayne, too. And Thom and Juilin, for that matter; they were her responsibility, whatever they wanted to think. But she was here, and the decision had to be hers. Not that it might be any other way, frankly.

Galad asks her what more she wants of him, raising his hands as if to grab her. Uno puts his sword between them in a flash, but Galad just brushes it aside. He tells her that he means her no harm, swears it by his mother’s name. He tells her that yes, he does know what she and Elayne are, as well as what they are not, and that half the reason he joined the Whitecloaks is because the Tower sent her and Elayne and Egwene out into the world knowing the same.

“It was like sending a boy who has just learned to hold a sword into battle, and I will never forgive them. There is still time for both of you to turn aside; you do not have to carry that sword. The Tower is too dangerous for you or my sister, especially now. Half the world is become too dangerous for you! Let me help you to safety.” The tightness slid from his voice, though it took on a raw edge. “I beg you, Nynaeve. If anything happened to Elayne… I half-wish that Egwene were with you, so I could…”

Nynaeve makes up her mind. They are in Ghealdan, where it is not illegal for women to be able to channel, so Galad’s struggle will only be between his oaths to the Whitecloaks and his duty to his sister. Nynaeve judges that blood will win out… plus he’s too pretty for her to let Uno and Ragan kill him.

She tells him that they are with Valan Luca’s show, prompting a disgusted response from Galad. He tells her that he can get her into an inn, prompting an argument about drawing attention to themselves that Nynaeve ultimately wins. Galad does not see the show as a fitting place for them, decides that it’s good that it is outside the city, and since Nynaeve has agreed to go to Caemlyn, he will let it go. She keeps her face expressionless, letting him think that she’s promised even though she hasn’t.

She tells him how to contact her, and that he can’t visit until then or even escort her back, since no Whitecloaks go to the shows and it will draw attention. Galad notes that she has an answer for everything, but that she’s also right. He tells Uno and Ragan his full name and that Nynaeve is under his protection, and that if anything happens to either her or her companion he will kill them. Nynaeve refuses to tell him anything about Egwene other than that she is far away, and fights down both the anxiety around her decision and her irritation as Galad lectures her on staying hidden and safe until he can rescue them.

He turns to leave, and Nynaeve has to shoo Uno and Ragan out of his way as the three men seem nearly ready to come to blows. They follow her silently as she finds her way out of the city. Nynaeve is grateful for the silence; she’s had enough of having to hold her tongue. By the time they’ve left the city and made it back to the dirt cart track, the nagging anxiety in Nynaeve has risen in intensity, and she can’t stop thinking about how nearly disastrous her choices have been for everyone.

The best thing was for Nynaeve not to confront them again, not the Black Ajah and not Moghedien, not until someone who knew what they were doing could decide what should be done. Protest welled up, but she stamped on it as firmly as she ever had on Thom or Juilin. She would go to Salidar and hand the matter over to the Blues. That was how it would be. She was set on it.

Eventually she asks if the men are following her because Masema ordered them to protect her, or because Galad did, and they point out that it makes no difference. As it is they won’t see Shienar again until they’re old men, and they might as well ride with her and Elayne to wherever the Lord Dragon is. Nynaeve considers the benefit of having them there to help Thom and Juilin with chores and standing guard, and that she doesn’t really need to tell them how long it might take until they see Rand again. She tells herself firmly to stop thinking about the fact that they will only be Accepted again once they reach the Blues in Salidar.

But she’s surprised to learn it won’t just be Ragan and Uno, but fifteen other Shienarans—everyone except those who have died since leaving Falme and the two who believe in Masema’s talk. She thinks about how much protection fifteen Shienarans can offer her, as well as how much it will cost to feed them all.

“Right, then. Every night just after dark, one of you—one, mind!—will come here and ask for Nana. That’s the name I am known by.” She had no reason for the order, except to put them in the habit of doing what she told them. “Elayne goes by Morelin, but you ask for Nana. If you need coin, come to me, not Masema.”

After some resistance from Uno, Nynaeve is able to get him to agree with a combination of reason and threats. She leaves them, feeling mostly satisfied with herself until she gets back inside the show, where she finds that Luca has hired a contortionist and is again reminded of what Moghedien did to her.

That isn’t why I mean to hand her over to the Blues, she told herself. I just do not want to cause calamity again. That was true, but she was also afraid that the next time, she would not escape so easily or so lightly. She would not have admitted that to another soul. She did not like admitting it to herself.

Turning away she sees Elayne and Birgitte making their way through the crowd. Elayne has a cloak on, covering her costume, but seeing Birgitte in her red dress reminds Nynaeve of how exposed she will be without her shawl. And seeing Birgitte’s bow and quiver reminds her that it’s not too late in the day for the archer to do her shooting.

She asks where the contortionist came from, and an agitated Elayne explains that she came from the show that was destroyed because the mob thought one of the women performers “might wear a shawl.” Nynaeve also learns that there were rumors of her either being carried or running off with a bald-headed man. Luca apparently took her departure with Uno to mean she likes rough men, and took off with two of his toughs to find her, along with Juilin and Thom. Nynaeve groans that this is the last thing she needs, but she still feels satisfied with her day’s work and starts telling them that either Galad or Masema, the Prophet, should be able to find them a boat in a few days.

“Galad?” the younger woman said disbelievingly, forgetting to hold her cloak closed. “You saw—you spoke to Galad? And the Prophet? You must have, or how would they be trying to find a vessel? Did you have tea with them, or did you just meet them in a common room? Where the bald-headed man carried you, no doubt. Maybe the King of Ghealdan was there, too? Would you please convince me I am dreaming so I can wake up?”

Nynaeve tells her not to be silly, it’s a queen now anyway, and yes she was. She fills Elayne and Birgitte in as they continue to lead her. Elayne picks apart exactly what Galad said and calls Nynaeve a fool to approach the Prophet no matter who he is. Neither she nor Birgitte seem particularly excited about the news that Nynaeve has remembered the name Salidar, and Elayne even ventures to ask if she’s certain, and that it seems awfully fortuitous that Galad should just happen to mention the town to her.

Nynaeve glowered. “Of course I am certain. Coincidences do happen. The Wheel weaves as the Wheel wills, as you may have heard. I remember now that he mentioned it in Sienda, too, but I was so concerned over you being concerned about him that I didn’t—” She cut off short.

Preoccupied with her story, she hadn’t noticed where they were taking her, and now she can see they’re before a roped-off area with a segment of wooden fence at the end and an audience gathered around to watch. Weakly she says that she thought they were going to the wagons.

“Not unless you want to see me shoot in the dark,” Birgitte replied. She sounded all too willing to give it a try.

Nynaeve wished she could have made some other comment than a squeak. The bit of fence filled her vision as they progressed down the open space, to the exclusion of the onlookers. Even their increasing murmurs sounded distant. The fence looked a mile from where Birgitte would stand.

Nynaeve finds herself unable to stop talking about how Luca is in the city and wouldn’t know if she didn’t do this, about the low light and the shadows and the glare, while Elayne is more interested in musing about Galad swearing by their mother. She says she knows they can trust him not to break such an oath, but sounds doubtful. Birgitte, amused, remarks that the light is just fine and that she might try it blindfolded, to make it look more difficult for the crowd.

They positioned her with her back against the rough wooden fence, and Elayne began tugging at the knot in the shawl as Birgitte turned back the way they had come, drawing an arrow from her quiver.

Elayne pulls the shawl roughly away as she lectures Nynaeve about how foolish she’s been, how she’s worried everyone and risked everything.

“I know,” Nynaeve managed to get out. The sun was in her eyes; she could no longer see Birgitte at all. But Birgitte could see her. Of course she could. That was the important thing.

Elayne looked at her suspiciously. “You know?”

“I know I risked everything. I should have talked with you, asked you. I know I’ve been a fool. I should not be allowed outside without a keeper.” It all came in a breathless rush. Birgitte must be able to see her.

Suspicion became concern. “Are you all right? If you really do not want to do this…”

Nynaeve, realizing that Elayne thinks she is afraid, forces a smile and tells her that of course she is, and that she’s actually looking forward to it. Elayne looks dubious, then asks again if Nynaeve is sure about Salidar. She doesn’t wait for an answer before scurrying away with the shawl, but Nynaeve finds that she can’t muster up any indignation about it. She can feel her breath coming too fast and she can’t stop it, can’t stop her eyes from widening despite the sun’s glare.

There was nothing she could do now. It was a punishment for taking foolish risks. She could manage only the tiniest pique over being punished after working everything out so well. And Elayne did not even believe her about Salidar! She would have to take it stoically. She would—”

She can’t stop herself from making a low yelp when the first arrow just brushes her wrist, nor can she hold back the increasingly loud cries as each subsequent shaft thuds into the wood, making an outline around her. The crowd cheers loudly after each sound, and when it’s over, the crowd rushes to Birgitte, leaving her standing alone against the fence.

Pushing away, she scurried off toward the wagons as quickly as she could before anyone noticed how much her legs were wobbling. Not that anyone was paying any attention to her. All she had done was stand there and pray Birgitte did not sneeze, or get an itch. And tomorrow she would have to go through it again. That or let Elayne—and worse, Birgitte—know she could not face it.

 

Maybe this is just me, but I think the unfolding of Nynaeve’s panic attack might be the most realistic and affecting thing I have read in the series so far. I’ll admit to having had a few myself (maybe more than a few) in my life, and everything in this section felt very similar to my own experiences—the build of it, the way it seems to come on both slowly and suddenly, the way everything seems too bright or too far away to her, the fast breathing, and the way that Nynaeve isn’t quite fully aware of what’s happening to her. She has thoughts about her breathing or about what she sees or what Elayne and Birgitte are doing, but they feel almost random, completely disassociated from her other thoughts or what she’s actually feeling while she thinks them.

One thing panic attacks do for most people is remove your sense of time. You’re only aware of the moment, unable to look forward or back or analyze what’s happening to you in context. And you can see that in the way Nynaeve perceives this trial as a punishment for going into Samara. She’s not standing there with her back up against the fencing and cursing Valan Luca for talking her into this, or thinking about how Birgitte has the right to kill her for what happened with Moghedien. She’s thinking of it as a sort of cosmic punishment for the risks she took in going to meet the Prophet and for attracting Galad’s attention. Never mind that nothing bad happened, and indeed she may have found exactly what they needed; one or the other may well find her a boat, and she and Elayne also have new allies in the Shienarans, as well as having finally figured out where the Blues are said to be hiding. I’d go so far as to say that this chapter being “The Wheel Weaves” suggests that her encounters with Masema and Galad, or at least one of them, are what was meant to happen, and that the Pattern is moving Nynaeve (and Elayne, and Thom and Juilin, and Uno and Ragan and their compatriots) forward.

On some level Nynaeve feels that way too, but she’s still caught in the idea that she has to endure this experience as an almost existential punishment for the risks and authority she has taken on since they left Tanchico. And it makes sense, both because of the panic attack she’s having and the depression she’s been struggling with since she lost the clear direction of their goals in Tanchico. She’s had a sense of needing punishment since Moghedien found her and cast Birgitte from Tel’aran’rhiod, and I suppose this also makes sense. Throughout the series, corporal punishment is viewed as an important means of teaching lessons and hardening people, but there is also an aspect of it that acts as atonement. The very nature of punishment is that the punisher has authority over the punished, so by receiving punishment Nynaeve would in a way be absolved of the responsibility of her choices—and once punished, she has in a way atoned for her mistakes. I don’t agree with the the way most societies in The Wheel of Time regard and employ corporal punishment, but I can certainly see how the idea of being punished, even if it included physical harm or humiliation, seems an easier thing to face than trying to make up for what happened to Birgitte by some future actions, by making more dangerous choices and continuing to carry that burden.

That’s how the Aiel do it, after all; once punishment is over, it is as if the transgression had never been, just as one’s time spent as a gai’shain isn’t talked about once one returns home. And there is something cleansing about the idea, that on the other side of punishment the transgression can be forgotten. Perhaps some part of Nynaeve wants someone to punish her, because it would feel like an atonement.

All that being said, though, I had a really visceral reaction to the way the whole experience was described, the way Birgitte and Elayne seem to manhandle Nynaeve like she’s going to an execution, the way that Elayne is physically rough with her as she’s removing the shawl and exposing Nynaeve—the narrative uses words like “tugging” and “roughly” and “jerked.” There is a sense of violation in it, knowing that Nynaeve feels sexually exposed in the dress. Of course, Nynaeve might be bringing this perception of roughness and doom into it, but it really makes an impact, especially after hearing about what Masema did to Lady Baelome earlier in the chapter. I’d really like to know what Elayne and Birgitte were thinking—if Elayne was cross enough with Nynaeve to feel that she kind of deserved to be uncomfortable, and if Birgitte was viewing the whole thing as another way to push Nynaeve back to being her old self. I think it’s clear that neither one of them realizes how badly Nynaeve was actually doing in that moment, but it makes a difference if they missed her panic entirely or simply underestimated its strength.

The moment when Elayne does pick up on some of it, when Nynaeve admits that she knows she’s been a fool, is another moment that felt extremely real to me. Nynaeve is desperate not to have to do this thing, is having a full-blown panic attack about it, and no one can see it. And then when someone does start to notice, Nynaeve still puts up a front, not wanting anyone to see her fear. Not wanting to recognize it for herself, either.

I mean, I’m not saying that I’ve done that. But I have definitely done that.

Nynaeve’s inability to handle the position she’s put in for the performance is a perfect little encapsulation of the thing she is struggling with in the rest of her life. She cannot stand not having control. She has many capable people around her and on her side, and she does know that. Elayne, Thom, and Juilin have all proven themselves to her. And yet the idea of entrusting literally anything to them is basicallyanathema to her. In the same way, Birgitte is the most legendary archer of all time and yet Nynaeve is completely destroyed by the act of standing passively and trusting to Birgitte’s skill.

When she realizes Galad has found her, Nynaeve considers that she is angry enough to channel but that she can’t risk it, not with Moghedien on the hunt for her. She sees that she’s reliant on Uno and Ragan for protection, and compares that to Aes Sedai have Warders. She knows that situations like this are exactly why Aes Sedai take Warders. And yet even that idea makes her “want to snarl.” Because being vulnerable to a friend, even a trusted one or someone who is equally beholden to you, is still being vulnerable.

There is a theme here that Jordan touches on at various points in the series, although I don’t think it has been executed as well as it could be, at least thus far. And that is what vulnerability means for women in a world like that of The Wheel of Time, and the ways in which the Aes Sedai try to compensate for that vulnerability by using the One Power, and by using the authority it gives them. A few weeks ago we encountered the idea that Warders are sometimes bonded against their will (aside even from the extraordinary circumstances of Birgitte’s bonding) which is of course morally repugnant, but takes on an interesting new dimension if you consider that at least some Aes Sedai must feel similarly to the way that Nynaeve does. A forcible bonding keeps more of the power in the relationship on the side of the Aes Sedai, and it emphasizes the idea that the Aes Sedai is using the Warder for his skills, which sounds and feels more proactive and less vulnerable than saying that she needs one for protection. Jordan is attempting to explore several aspects of social gender dynamics in this series, and I wonder if this one will be examined in more depth going forward.

And then there’s Galad. It was fascinating to recap his section, because the first time I read the chapter through I was actually pretty taken by him. I found I liked and trusted Galad more than I have at any point in the series so far, and I was quite taken in by his sincerity. But on my second pass I found myself much more suspicious, and noting the flaws in his approach and opinions.

There is something that is not-quite-but-almost approaching sinister about Galad’s self-confidence and certainty. Compared to Masema he seems so stable and rational, but he is also a person who seems never to question his own judgments. Back in the encounter in Sienda, Nynaeve noted that Galad seemed to make little of his accomplishments, perhaps because they came so easily to him, and I think that certainty does not serve the world as well as Galad thinks. A person who intends to do good, to do rightly and justly, must always question themselves, check themselves for biases, listen to and take in different perspectives. Nynaeve may be struggling to learn a similar lesson, but Galad strikes me as someone who, once his mind is made up, will never deviate from it no matter what argument or plea is presented to him. In a way, that makes him a zealot of sorts, and anyone who never doubts their own judgment is of course terribly dangerous.

He even admits that he was at least partly driven to join the Children of the Light because he was angry at Siuan and the Tower for endangering his sister. That’s a decision driven by emotion, not careful reason. And he continues to infantilize Elayne throughout his conversation with Nynaeve. He says unilaterally declarative statements like “the Tower is no place for you” and cannot seem to entertain the idea that Elayne might have reason to act as she does. I haven’t seen much about Elayne that strikes me as terribly impulsive, and I feel there is some misogyny in Galad’s judgement, as well as some over-protective brother instincts. I do wonder what he would think if he was brought completely into their confidences, although I think that it’s too much of a risk to try.

Elayne believes that Galad will hold to his oath and I do too… but I think that it’s important that he specifically says “no harm will come to you.” That rules out him turning them over to the Whitecloaks, but his primary objective has always been to rescue Elayne and Nynaeve and sent them back to Caemlyn, and that’s still what he’s going to be trying to do. The oath won’t necessarily stop him from interfering with their plans or accidentally placing them in danger in ways he doesn’t understand; he has no idea about Moghedien, for one, and was perfectly ready to make a fuss getting Nynaeve and Elayne into an inn and maybe draw all sorts of attention to them. And this is another way in which his judgment of Elayne is flawed. Certainly he can’t know how strong she is in the One Power, and to a point he is right that circumstances have thrust her and Nynaeve and Egwene into the deep end earlier than is ideal, but Elayne has much more strength, knowledge, and ability than Galad knows, and I don’t think telling him would change his mind about anything.

And you know, I really dislike the whole thing Jordan does where some characters are so hot that no one of the opposite gender can think straight, but I do appreciate that he does it in both directions. It’s one of those moments where I object to his characterization but can see him pointing out the ridiculousness of the stereotype of women and men being so different. Kind of like when Nynaeve observes that men always think that they solve things with violence, and it makes her want to hit them with a big stick.

You have to admit, that’s pretty funny. And that’s why I love Nynaeve as a character, even though she can be frustrating a lot of the time. I think she might be the most human of any of The Wheel of Time’s protagonists, which makes her sometimes the most ridiculous, sometimes the bravest, and always the most relatable. And really, she’s pretty cognizant and thoughtful most of the time. It’s just that the moments when she isn’t she always takes her unreasonability up to eleven.

We’ll be taking a break next week while I’m on (a COVID safe) vacation, so I’ll see you the following Tuesday (April 6th) for Chapter 41 and 42! Be well, my friends, and walk in the Light.

A final thought: So Elaida has a report suggesting that the Blues are in Salidar, and Galad’s division of Whitecloaks were meant to be sent there before they were diverted to Samara. So much for Sallie Daera and the big secret! Sounds like just about everyone knows where the exiled Aes Sedai are hiding. Lucky for them everyone is too busy with other things… but I can’t imagine that luck is going to hold forever.

Sylas K Barrett really does love Nynaeve, despite her flaws. What was it that Birgitte said? Warts, thorns and all.

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