Reading The Wheel of Time

Reading The Wheel of Time: Old Friends, New Allies, and a Broken Seal in Robert Jordan’s The Fires of Heaven (Part 30)

This week in Reading The Wheel of Time we’re covering Chapter 50 of The Fires of Heaven, in which Nynaeve and Elayne finally make it to Salidar and back to the Aes Sedai. It doesn’t go how they’d hoped, but it goes pretty much the way I expected, with a few twists. Oh, and Siuan and Nynaeve have a nice little battle of wills that makes me think that they might even end up as friends one day. Is that too much to hope for? There are some interesting parallels in their recent character arcs, is all, and they both carry their frustrations in a similar way.

And honestly, I just think they would be a cool duo.

Chapter 50 opens with Nynaeve wondering whether it wouldn’t have been better if Neres had dropped them off in the wrong place. Everything seemed alright when they first arrived, escorted in by Warders and mostly ignored by the Aes Sedai and crowds of other people moving though Salidar. Min was ecstatic to see them, and they’d been taken to see a Brown sister. Five minutes after relaying their story (the one they agreed upon ahead of time) they were ordered not to move or speak to anyone, even each other. And ten minutes after that they were swept into another room to stand before Sheriam and the others, being grilled like prisoners rather than returning heroes.

Everything they had with them has been spread out on the table, and none of the Aes Sedai look happy as they confer together behind a screen of saidar. Elayne and Nynaeve are doing their best to look calm and untroubled while they wait, and Nynaeve is stunned to see Leane and Siuan there as well; she never expected to see them alive at all, never mind the strange youthfulness of their faces.

Perhaps it was being in a room where all the other women could channel, or perhaps it was knowing they had been stilled, but for the first time she was truly conscious of the ability in Elayne and the others. And its absence from Siuan and Leane. Something had been taken from them, cut away. It was like a wound. Perhaps the worst wound a woman could suffer.

Nynaeve finds herself overcome by curiosity, and reaches out to saidar before she’s roughly scolded by Sheriam. She releases the True Source at once as Sheriam and the others come over, and Anaiya gently chides her that, however much she has learned while away, she has also forgotten a great deal. Nynaeve apologizes, hoping that the flush in her face will be taken for embarrassment rather than anger.

The Aes Sedai discuss their story; some are skeptical, and all are disturbed by the a’dam, although Morvrin is interested in studying it, and in Elayne’s claim that she believes she could make a ter’angreal. Morvrin also asks Siuan why she never told them about Verin giving the girls the ring, and Siuan calmly replies that she didn’t know anything about it. She takes more heat for the letter that gives the bearer the authority of acting under the Amyrlin’s orders, claiming that she didn’t think it important to tell, given how much else there was to deal with and the fact that she had no idea where the girls were.

She points out that what’s important is that they now have access to Elaida’s papers, even if only in bits and pieces. The other Aes Sedai are a bit uncomfortable about the manner of that access, since Tel’aran’rhiod has been a matter only for scholarly debate in the Tower, and now they not only can access it but have learned that the Aiel have both dreamwalkers and channelers among them.

Nynaeve wishes they could have avoided sharing that bit information—they have managed to keep Birgitte’s identity a secret, along with a few other bits and pieces—but it was very hard not to let something slip when you were being grilled by these women.

Leane steps forward, apparently disagreeing with Siuan as she insists that the important thing is that they can now communicate with Egwene, and through her to Moiraine, which means that they can keep an eye on Rand and influence him even in Cairhien.

“Where he went from the Aiel Waste,” Siuan said, “where I predicted he would be.” If her eyes and words were directed at the Aes Sedai, her astringent tone was plainly meant for Leane, who grunted.

“Much good that did. Two Aes Sedai sent off to the Waste chasing ducks.”

Nynaeve had thought she detected a chill between the two, and now she is certain. Anaiya tells both women to calm down, going so far as to call them children.

Meanwhile it is decided that Elayne and Nynaeve’s first duty will be to teach the Aes Sedai how to use the ter’angreal, and Elayne and Nynaeve do their best not to show their displeasure. They are told that they won’t be held to account for doing as they were ordered, and that now that they are safely back with the Aes Sedai they will resume their studies and proper place. It’s no more than Nynaeve expected, but Elayne starts to protest and is cut off by Sheriam. She reminds them that they are both very strong but are not Aes Sedai yet, and that they should regard Salidar as being the same as the Tower. They will no doubt have more to tell the Aes Sedai, about the Seanchan and other things, and are instructed to answer all of Siuan and Leane’s questions and not to get any ideas in their heads about taking any kind of revenge on them.

Nynaeve had no such thoughts, but as she hastily agrees, not wanting to give Sheriam any reason to be angry with her, she realizes that the days of freedom really are over. Sheriam finishes by assuring them that they will fit back in their proper place and dismisses them, but then Beonin, angrily, demands why they are all ignoring the seal on the Dark One’s prison, and pulls away the cloth covering it to show the shattered pieces.

Nynaeve and Elayne assures them that the seal was unbroken when they wrapped it, and that they hadn’t thought it needed any special care, since it is cuendillar. They hadn’t even wanted touch it, given how evil it felt.

They have said as much before, and even been made to hold a piece since that feeling of evil is no longer there. Sheriam smoothly tells Beonin that there is no point in questioning the girls further, since they have clearly told all they know. Still, the others begin to discuss it, how cuendillar cannot be broken and still be cuendillar, and how only three of the seals are still whole, if their information is correct.

Sheriam tells them that they have more immediate things to discuss, and begins to tell Siuan and Leane something before realizing that Nynaeve and Elayne are still there, and reminding them that they’ve been told to go. They hurry out.

Thom, Uno, and Juilin are waiting for them outside, as well as Birgitte, Min, Areina, Nicola, and Marigan and her boys. Nynaeve notes two of Myrelle’s Warders nearby, leaning against the wall apparently doing nothing, and is careful not to give anything away when she and Elayne reassure Birgitte that the Aes Sedai know that she is “a good friend who helped” them and who is welcome to stay, just like the other women. Nynaeve notes how relieved Birgitte is to learn that her identity is still a secret.

Min tells them once again how nice it is to see a friendly face, and that she can’t wait to hear about their adventures. Her face falls a little when Elayne, significantly, says she really wants to speak to Min as well.

Faolain comes over to them, and is her usual unpleasant self, but Elayne and Nynaeve manage to give as good as they get with her, and learn that she has been ordered to take Nicola and Areina off to be tested for channeling ability. Apparently the Aes Sedai in Salidar have been testing women, not just girls. Nynaeve asks how many they have found, and Faolain responds haughtily that they have only found three, and one is a wilder. She can’t understand why they are bothering to look for new novices, since no one can be raised to Aes Sedai until they return to the Tower anyway, but she obeys orders.

“A nasty woman,” Min murmured, squinting after Faolain as she hurried the other across the common room. “You’d think, if there was any justice, she would have an unpleasant future ahead of her.”

Nynaeve wants to ask about that, and a dozen other questions too, but Thom and Juilin and Uno present themselves to the girls, remarking about how foolish and even mad the Aes Sedai are, to think they can pull Elaida down from the White Tower, and to make not very thinly veiled suggestions about escaping in the night and heading for Cairhien. Nynaeve and Elayne exchange glances, but Nynaeve knows Elayne has her heart set on becoming an Aes Sedai, and Nynaeve won’t be able to learn Healing anywhere else.

Nynaeve tells them that she and Elayne are staying, and that Uno and the rest of the Shienarans are free to go to Rand. She apologizes for not having any more money to help them on their travels, but since she and Elayne have been allowed to keep the gilded coffer from the Panarch, she has some things they could sell along the way. Elayne urges Thom and Juilin to go as well, trying to give them the casket of jewels, but the men resist, observing that they could stand to rest for a few days first. Nynaeve and Elayne are annoyed by their refusal to obey.

“If you think you are still following Rand al’Thor’s orders to look after us—” Elayne began in frosty tones at the same time that Nynaeve said heatedly, “You promised to do as you were told, and I mean to see—”

Thom interrupts brushing Elayne’s hair back as he assures her that it’s nothing like that, and the other two agree. Nynaeve and Elayne are still upset that their authority and command over the men has apparently evaporated. Nynaeve does consider, however, that it would be comforting to know that she and Elayne have more than just Birgitte to rely on.

Siuan and Leane come out of the other room, staring icily at each other for a moment before Leane leaves. Siuan turns toward Nynaeve when her face suddenly goes blank—she’s noted that Gareth Bryne has joined the little gathering.

Elayne greets him cordially (though she’d stared in astonishment when she’d first spotted him in Salidar) but coolly, admitting that it is not entirely good to see him, and assuring him with diplomatic words that whatever happened between him and the sometimes hasty Morgase will soon be mended. He brushes her off with a curt “Done is done, Elayne,” before turning to ask Uno to help him with training, and to remark to Thom that he looks like a man he used to know who was “a skilled player of a certain game.” Thom answers that Bryne looks like a man who once tried to put him in chains, but agrees to “play a game of stones” with him, as long as Bryne understands it’s not for the rest of his life.

With a pointed look at Siuan and a mention of his shirts coming back only half clean, Bryne takes Uno and Thom away, while an equally pointed look from Siuan sends Min scampering off as well. Nynaeve is left feeling annoyed at the men’s assumption that she didn’t understand most of what they were saying. Juilin, looking anxious in the presence of the former Amyrlin Seat, expresses relief that Bryne wasn’t also looking for a thief-catcher; this way he can “sit and talk” with some of the other men around.

Elayne is indignant over the way Bryne basically ignored her, then hurries after Min. Nynaeve starts to follow but Siuan grabs her arm. All the meekness from before is gone as Siuan orders Juilin to watch what questions he asks, and the women to find an Accepted named Theodrin to figure out sleeping arrangements. Everyone follows her orders quickly.

She drags Nynaeve upstairs and into a tiny room, sitting on the one stool and motioning for Nynaeve to sit on the bed. Nynaeve chooses to stay standing out of principle, and notes that Siuan has certainly fallen far. She doesn’t think she’ll have too much trouble from the woman even if she does have the same eyes.

Siuan demands confirmation that the stone ring doesn’t require channeling to use, which means that any woman (and theoretically a man) can use it, and tells Nynaeve that she will be teaching Siuan how to use it. Nynaeve has something she’d like from Siuan in return, so she points out that the Aes Sedai probably don’t know about this request. Siuan replies that if Nynaeve tells them, she’ll tell that Elayne and Nynaeve have been passing themselves off as full sisters while they’ve been traveling. Nynaeve insists that they haven’t, but Siuan tells her that if she needed confirmation, Nynaeve’s face just gave it.

Still, Nynaeve holds the line, insisting that if she teaches Siuan then she gets to study Siuan and Leane, to see if Stilling can be Healed. Siuan brushes past that, but Nynaeve insists that anything short of death should be able to be Healed.

“‘Should be’ isn’t ‘is,’ girl. Leane and I were promised we would be left alone. Speak to Faolain or Emara if you want to know what happens to anyone who molests us. They weren’t the first or the worst, but they cried the longest.”

But Nynaeve remembers a momentary look she saw pass between Siuan and Leane, and tries her theory out as a second bit of leverage, asking what Sheriam and the others will do if they find out Siuan and Leane aren’t really fighting.

“They think you’re tamed, don’t they? The more you snap at anybody who can’t snap back, the more they take it for proof when you leap to obey every time an Aes Sedai coughs. Was a little cringing all it took to make them forget the two of you had worked hand-in-hand for years? Or did you convince them stilling had changed everything about you, not just your face?

Siuan doesn’t so much as blink, but Nynaeve presses on, insisting that she wants to study Siuan, Leane and Logain, whenever she wants. She adds in Logain because, since men are different, it will be another angle from which to look at the problem. And if Siuan tells about Elayne and Nynaeve pretending to be full Aes Sedai, then Nynaeve will have to tell about Siuan and Leane, which will be a much more uncomfortable situation.

For a long time Siuan doesn’t say anything, and Nynaeve envies how still and calm the woman still manages to be. Finally Siuan remarks that she hopes Moiraine has “managed to keep Egwene’s backbone more supple than this”, and offers to shake in agreement. Nynaeve tries to keep her relief to herself that she’s finally managed not to let someone bully her.

Meanwhile, Elayne has caught up to Min outside the back door of the inn, and falls in step beside her. They see Leane talking to some large, roughly-dressed man, and Min observes that strange men often come to talk to her or to Siuan. Elayne asks what Min is doing now, and Min grouses that she’s doing laundry, and that it’s good to see Siuan as the mouse for once, which Elayne doesn’t understand. Min also admits that she had a viewing that the three women Elayne and Nynaeve brought to Salidar are trouble, though she didn’t catch anything more specific than that.

Elayne asks if Min had a viewing about her and Rand, and Min admits that she did. With some prodding she tells Elayne that she did in fact see that Elayne would have to share him, with herself and one other. Elayne is shocked at first, and Min defensive, but Min doesn’t know anything about the other woman other than that she has a temper.

Hesitantly she asks Elayne what this means between the two of them, and that she can’t stop caring about Elayne but that she can’t stop loving Rand either. Elayne admits that she doesn’t like the idea of sharing, and Min counters that she doesn’t feel like she has much choice. Rand has scrambled her whole life.

Elayne exhaled slowly. Not Min’s fault. Was it better that it was Min rather than, say, Berelain or somebody else she could not abide? “Ta’veren,” she said. “He bends the world around him. We are chips caught in a whirlpool. But I seem to recall you and me and Egwene saying we’d never let a man come between us being friends. We will work it out somehow, Min.”

She tells herself that they’ll work it out with the third, too, while silently cursing and hoping it’s not Berelain. To reassure Min, she tells her about Aviendha, a sister they’ve never met, who is keeping a close eye on Rand for them.

They arrive at an open yard where novices are working hard at washing clothes on scrub boards in tubs of soapy water. Elayne offers to help Min—this isn’t her assigned chore, so she can channel and wash the clothes while Min catches her up on everything that has happened to her, Siuan, and Leane. She barely even notices the novices’ stares as she lifts a huge kettle from the fire. “…she was used to her own strength now, and it rarely occurred to her that she did things, without thinking, that some full Aes Sedai could not do at all.”

 

So I definitely called it. Sheriam and the others are in many ways more concerned with the ways that Elayne and Nynaeve and Egwene don’t (and maybe even can’t) fit into the traditional Aes Sedai structure than they are with their accomplishments, or even the important news that they bring from the outside world. The Salidar Aes Sedai might be a little more flexible to new ideas than Elaida and the rest of the Red Ajah, but not by very much. I don’t think they have realized what Moiraine (and to a lesser extent, Siuan) has—that the age of their power is being replaced by the new Breaking that the Dragon is bringing to the world. Part of this, I imagine, is fear. So much is changing so quickly: The world is becoming more unstable and violent; Darkfriends are rising in power; the Forsaken are not just suspected of being loose but have actually been spotted and interacted with; and the seals on the Dark One’s prison are breaking. That’s enough to terrify anyone, even experienced Aes Sedai. And most people, in times of uncertainty and fear, will double down on the familiar structures that at least create the illusion of control. It’s like what Siuan observed when she first arrived in Salidar: The Aes Sedai in charge there were keeping everyone busy so that it looked like they had a plan, even though they did not. Now they have started on a plan, but they’re still trying to keep to their old structures and maintain the same order as the White Tower, in the hopes of returning to the Tower and putting things back the way they were. I don’t think any of them are prepared to consider any alternative but that.

However, I also think there’s even more to the Aes Sedai’s inflexibility than just the desire to maintain control in the face of chaos. It’s very easy to be critical of the Aes Sedai, and I certainly have been throughout this read, but I’ve been doing some thinking these last few weeks about the White Tower and why it works the way it does, and I think it’s important to remember than the structure of modern Aes Sedai society was built in the wake of the Breaking, where everything was chaos and uncertainty, including the very future of channeling. Those women who began to rebuild the Aes Sedai after the Breaking were facing unparalleled chaos and destruction, had lost most of the resources and knowledge that had existed during the Age of Legends, and had to contend with the fact that every society, including their own, was basically being rebuilt from scratch.

They also had to deal with the fact that new male channelers were being born and that the destruction caused by the taint would continue to be a problem that only they, out of everyone in the world, could possibly deal with. So it makes sense for the early structures they built to be militaristic, painfully strict, and quite insular.

It’s not something I had considered before, because it takes a while for the books to really show the reader what the Breaking meant to the world, and how much it informed the way Randland looks today. I think that Rand witnessing his Aiel ancestors’ histories really changed my perspective on a lot of things; in the same way that the Aiel society’s discipline and social structures were created by their experience during the breaking, so too must the formation of the new Aes Sedai society have been.

Now, there’s no doubt that the Aes Sedai have hung onto a lot of structure and customs that don’t work well; for example, their use of corporal punishment and hierarchy has bred distrust and secret-keeping in their ranks, weakening the Tower even without the influence of the Black Ajah. But part of me wonders if both the White Tower of this Age and the Aiel society in the Waste were a kind of holding action of sorts—a way of the Pattern to keep things running, however awkwardly, until the Dragon could be Reborn and the natural order of things could be put right. After all, the Dragon is supposed to Break the World again, and from a narrative perspective we can assume that, as long as Rand triumphs at Tarmon Gai’don, the end result of this second Breaking will be a better world. Of course, the people living through this time can’t know that, or even expect that they will survive to reap the benefits—but we the readers can see the signs. Just as I suspect that the “destruction” of the Aiel by Rand will be having their society changed to the point where they can hardly recognize it, I suspect that the old ways of the Aes Sedai won’t last past Tarmon Gai’don, and may indeed fall apart even before then.

It makes me wonder if the Pattern isn’t also suddenly spinning out more powerful female channelers in the same way it spun out three ta’veren in the same village. The Aes Sedai believe that they are suddenly finding people like Nynaeve and Egwene because they haven’t paid much attention to the distant villages of the Two Rivers, and because of the old blood of Manetheren. They also believe that one possible reason for the lessening of power in channelers could be because they are culling the ability from the human race by gentling men. But these are only theories, and there could be many others. Perhaps the Wheel is partially responsible for the sudden appearance of women like Egwene, Elayne, and Nynaeve. Perhaps other equally strong women will even be discovered—there was that mention that the Aes Sedai are testing anyone they find, not just young girls but grown women as well.

Still, as much as I expected it, it was still wild to see Sheriam and co. overlook Elayne and Nynaeve’s accomplishments. I understand why they’re reluctant—they’re worried about upsetting an already fragile order, and are also probably a bit threatened by how much more the girls now know about some things than they do. But it is a dangerous waste of assets, I think, and if Nynaeve was ever going to trust them with things like dealing with Moghedien, she certainly won’t now. Once again, the Aes Sedai create conditions that encourage secret keeping and mistrust in their ranks, and once again it is so clear how little they can afford to do so.

And while we’re on the subject, why do the Aes Sedai assume that the Aiel can’t have channelers among them. It’s weirdly… I don’t know, racist maybe? I know the Sea Folk make a point of only sending less powerful women to the Tower in order to throw the Aes Sedai off the scent, but there has never been anything said about the One Power that suggests it wouldn’t exist in certain countries or peoples. It just feels odd.

Also, I’m still suspecting that one of the Aes Sedai in charge in Salidar is Black Ajah. I have been suspicious of Sheriam since the gray men incident, but it could be any of them, really. I’m just certain it’s someone. Maybe Beonin, since she made the biggest fuss about the broken seal? Oh and that broken seal was a shock, honestly, although in retrospect it shouldn’t have been. It felt evil because the Dark One was starting to break through it! Amazing which foreshadowing you catch and what you miss.

I’ve always suspected that Nynaeve might find a way to heal taint madness, or perhaps even prevent its effects. This is mostly a narrative conclusion—her focus on Healing seems very important to a story that is so involved with half of all channelers either dying or being gentled (or both). The modern Aes Sedai believe stilling/gentling can’t be cured, but they are all very weak in the Power compared to the great channelers of the Age of Legends, and certainly couldn’t even begin to imagine most of what was possible during that time. I mean, Dreamwalking is a common skill among the Aiel Wise Ones, including women who can’t channel, and yet in the Tower Tel’aran’rhiod is nearly a myth. I vaguely remember one of the Forsaken, I think it was Lanfear, making a derogatory comment about the way the modern Aes Sedai Heal, and we’ve seen Ishamael heal Lews Therin’s madness, at least temporarily.

I’m sure Siuan and Leane will chafe under Nynaeve’s studying, but boy will it be a surprise if she can actually Heal their stilling. And while she doesn’t think she’d ever Heal the ability in Logain, I remember that Min saw glory in his future. So who knows where the future will take Logain. Maybe someone will discover a way to Heal or prevent the madness of the taint and then they’ll want to encourage male channeling again.

I noted a lot of changes in Nynaeve this chapter. For the first time, she is able to see the ability to channel in the other Aes Sedai and in Elayne, and see the absence in Siuan and Leane. Perhaps this is only because the contrast has made her more aware, but it also might mean that she is starting to break through her block. It would make sense to me if that were the case, given the personal progress she has made engaging with her own fear and feelings of vulnerability. She also embraces the True Source when she’s about to try to examine Siuan and Leane, and it was unclear to me if she was angry in that moment or not. She certainly wasn’t raging, in any case, but maybe being resentful at having to go back to “pulling wool and scratching gravel” all over again was enough.

She also handled Siuan quite well. She couldn’t hold herself in check the way Siuan could, but she did keep her head, and focused on strategy rather than anger or resentment, and was able to be successful. Of course Siuan not being the Amyrlin leveled the playing field a bit, but Nynaeve could easily have come out of the exchange badly if she’d let her temper get the best of her, the way she often has in the past. She’s more confident in herself than she realizes, I think, and that comes from experience but also from letting go of some of her grief and shame over Moghedien. She has begun to heal.

Elayne has also changed a lot. She shows a great deal of maturity in her conversation with Min. She’s not completely at peace with the revelation that she has to share Rand with Min and another woman, but she’s not as panicked about it as I think she would have been before, or right after, she and Rand parted in Tear. Maybe the specter of Berelain will up that anxiety again, but I really appreciate her focus on the fact that Min is her friend, and that she and Min and Egwene all agreed that they would never let a man come between them.

I was also very pleased that Elayne has the same theory as I do about Rand having a trio of lovers, for some reason. He is ta’veren, and the Pattern has its own designs that people are often unable to resist, or can only resist to their detriment. I still have a lot of narrative objections to this set-up—especially the fact that Jordan set up a form of polyamory among the Aiel that only applies to a man having several wives and no other configuration, then claims this is somehow gender parity—but the explanation does make sense in-universe, and it’s certainly better than just saying that Rand is soooo amazing women are just falling in love with him left and right.

I mean women do throw themselves at Rand a lot, but that’s a topic for next week. (Hoo boy, is that a topic for next week.)

In any case, the Rand love pyramid kind of annoys me, but I did laugh out loud at the dramatic irony of Elayne wondering jealously who the third woman is while also telling Min about their “sister they’ve never met” who is keeping an eye on Rand and his behavior for them. Somehow that was way more amusing than the fact that Aviendha doesn’t know she’s destined to share Rand with Elayne, and therefore doesn’t need to worry about betraying her that way.

But the Aes Sedai are not the only ones with pretty big blind spots. I know Elayne and Nynaeve were feeling the sting of being reduced to acting like Accepted again. But they were so focused on getting Uno and Thom and Juilin to obey them that they completely missed what was going on there. It was such a beautiful moment of love and loyalty from the men, and it really irked me that the girls couldn’t see that.

And then there’s the whole thing with Gareth Bryne. I have to admit, there’s been so much going on that I completely forgot about poor Morgase and everything that went down recently in Caemlyn; the only time it’s been on my mind has been whenever Galad insisted they’d be safe there. Bryne being brusque with Elayne was pretty funny, though; she doesn’t understand what happened between him and her mother, but it really wouldn’t be unreasonable for him to not want to discuss it even if it was a less fraught situation, and as long as he is serving the Aes Sedai, she is an Accepted to him, not his future boss. It probably stung a bit for Elayne, though, especially after what happened with Cerandin.

 

Next week we go back to join Rand in Cairhien again, and it looks like things are finally coming to a climax in The Fires of Heaven. It’s quite exciting, and also a bit alarming! In the meantime I’ll be musing about Nynaeve and what I think the future of Healing will look like in the books to come. Have a great week, and see you next time here on Reading The Wheel of Time.

Sylas K Barrett is looking forward to, but also dreading, the next few chapters. See you all there!

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