Reading The Wheel of Time

Reading the Wheel of Time: An Oath and a Grudge in Robert Jordan’s New Spring (Part 11)

Welcome friends, to Part 11 of our read of New Spring. Today is a long-awaited moment here in Reading the Wheel of Time—we finally get to see the almost mythic first meeting of Moiraine Damodred Sedai and al’Lan Mandragoran. Does anyone besides me get tripped up occasionally over Lan’s name? It’s so close to being Man-dragon, and some silly part of me always wants to type it that way. I guess it’s understandable that I’d have dragons on the brain in this series, especially since I’ve always wondered where and why the word Dragon became a title, and if it was ever, in some long-ago turn of the Wheel, used for anyone other than the Wheel’s personal champion of the Light. But enough of my silly musings. It’s time for the recap.

Moiraine manages to sneak out of the common room and to the stables without being seen, as the sky is just beginning to turn gray. She recognizes the groom on duty as the same one who took Arrow when she’d arrived, and she gives him a silver penny to get him moving swiftly. She has to leave her pack horse behind, lest the groom suspect anything—Cadsuane might even have paid servants to watch her, and the groom is already muttering about “fool nobles” riding out at such an hour.

Outside the streets are brightly lit, and Moiraine sees heavily armored guardsmen as well as equally heavily armed Lamplighters on patrol to make sure none of the lamps went out. She marvels a little that anyone would live close enough to the Blight that a Myrddraal might pop out of any shadow, and notes the surprise on the faces of the guards and lamplighters as she passes by. No one ever goes out at night in the Borderlands…. which is why she is in turn surprised to find three very large men waiting at the western gates ahead of her. She notes their size and their abundant weapons (although none have armor), as well their impatience for the gate to be opened. She also notes that two wear braided cords around their foreheads—she is pretty sure that means that they are Malkieri—and that the third is the man with the belled braids that she saw leaving the Gates of Heaven.

Some merchant trains arrive, and Moiraine lets them go out ahead of her as the gates are opened, but she keeps the three men in her sight as they take the road through the hills, heading in the same direction as her. They’re moving hard, but Moiraine is eager to get as far from Cadsuane as she can, and only holds enough distance from them so as not to attract attention. The merchant’s wagons fall behind, and soon it is just her and the men by the time they reach the first village. Moiraine stops to buy a little food, noting the weapons borne by the villagers, and asks after Avene Sahera. When no one recognizes the name she gallops Arrow until she catches up with the men again, wondering what she could learn from them about Cadsuane, Larelle, or Merean.

She isn’t sure how to approach them—if they turn out to be Darkfriends or brigands she can handle them with the Power, but then she’ll have to turn them over to some authority, which means wasted time and rumors spreading about her. By the time the shadows are growing long she decides to give up on the men and start looking for someplace to sleep—but just then they pause in their ride, and then the younger man with the cord around his forehead takes the packhorse and turns into the forest, while the other two hurry ahead.

Moiraine hesitates, then decides that the Arafellin man might have told his companions about his encounter with the Aes Sedai. One man will be easier to deal with than three, in any case, so she dismounts and starts to follow his trail. She has some knowledge of tracking, but finds she doesn’t need it—apparently he’s no woodsman and has left plenty of broken branches and kicked leaves behind him.

Moiraine finds him a little ways into the woods by a pond, the horses unsaddled and hobbled. He sits down on the ground and sets his sword and scabbard beside him, apparently staring off at the pond, and Moiraine decides that he has been left to make camp, and that the others will be back but probably not for a while. This is the perfect opportunity to catch him by surprise. She sneaks carefully up behind him, finding a hummock to stand on to give herself a bit more height. Deciding that she could use a little more of an advantage, she channels and pulls his sheathed sword away from his side and into her own hand.

“He moved faster than thought. No one so large could move so fast, yet her grasp closed on the scabbard, and he uncoiled, whirling, one hand clutching the scabbard between hers, the other seizing the front of her dress. Before she could think to channel, she was flying through the air. She had just time to see the pond coming up at her, just time to shout something, she did not know what, and then she struck the surface flat, driving all the wind out of her, struck with a great splash and sank. The water was freezing! Saidar fled in her shock.

Moiraine climbs to her feet, coughing and soaked through, grabbing saidar again and ready to pummel the man senseless. But she finds him just standing there, staring in puzzlement at the place where she had been standing. She’s furious that he’s ignoring her, though after a moment he comes down to the bank to offer her his hand, murmuring that it is unwise to try separating a man from his sword. Furious she tries to pull him into the water by his outstretched hand, but he is too strong, and lifts her effortlessly from the pond and onto the bank.

“I’ll start a fire and hang up blankets so you can dry yourself,” he murmured, still not meeting her gaze. What was he hiding? Or perhaps he was shy. She had never heard of a shy Darkfriend, though she supposed there could be some.

Lan hangs blankets so that Moiraine can have privacy to undress and dry herself and her clothes by the fire he’s made. She uses saidar instead, but stays behind the blankets to let him believe she’s using the fire instead. The other two men return, and Moiraine realizes that they’d known she was following them. She can’t think why they didn’t just confront her on the road, but then she catches the sound of one man saying that he’s never seen “a Cairhienin in her skin,” and then the sound of a blade being drawn. Holding saidar she peeks through the blankets, and sees the man who dunked her standing between the blankets and the Arafellin man, his sword drawn.

The older man draws the other two off to play a game called “sevens,” which involves both men—Lan and Ryne, Moiraine has heard them called—sitting on the ground and then, without warning, swiftly drawing their swords and bringing them to rest just short of the other’s throat. Ryne appears to be the swifter draw, winning each round that Moiraine watches.

She deduces that Ryne must be Malkieri as well as the other two, and tries to remember what she can about Malkieri customs. When she comes out from behind the blankets she claims “the right of a woman alone” and asks the shelter of their swords as far as Chachin. She also gives each of them a silver coin, and is surprised when they make faces over the Tar Valon marks.

“Bukama bowed with his left hand on his knee. “Honor to serve, my Lady,” he said. “To Chachin, my life above yours.” His eyes were also blue, and they, too, would not quite meet hers. She hoped he did not turn out to be a Darkfriend.”

Still, they men avoid her questions about them with skill worthy of Aes Sedai. Lan and Bukama say little, and though Ryne is chatty and charming, when she asks why he is going to Chachin he answers “Every man has to die somewhere,” and goes to bed. That night, Moiraine weaves a ward of Spirit around each man that will wake her if any of them move. That means she is awoken every time they change who is on watch, and eventually she overhears Lan and Bukama exchanging words as they change shifts. Lan’s comment that he would “sooner trust an Aes Sedai” infuriates her, and in a fit of pique she channels, summoning a great column of water that stretches up and up into the moonlight and then comes crashing down on Lan where he stands.

The two others jump to their feet, but Moiraine keeps the torrent coming for a count of ten. She’s shocked and vexed to see that Lan hasn’t been knocked to the ground—he’s still standing, and his sword is out. They assume that the attack must be Shadowspawn and Moiraine has to interrupt Lan’s orders to tell him that it is unwise to show anything but respect to an Aes Sedai.

Ryne regards her with awe after that, or possibly fear, and gives little bows whenever she glances his way. Bukama grumbles as he moves his bedroll away from the mud, while Lan makes no attempt to dry off, and even goes back to sit where he had been.

“She might have thought it a gesture of humility, only he glanced at her, very nearly meeting her eyes this time. If that was humility, kings were the most humble men on earth.”

She puts the wards back on them, feeling it even more necessary now that they know who she is, and lies awake, thinking about how they never asked why she was following them, thinking about how Lan was still on his feet despite the deluge she attacked him with, and musing that it would be a pity if Ryne was afraid of her now, or turned out to be a Darkfriend after all.

The next morning Lan finds himself very skeptical that “Lady Alys” is the strange woman’s real name, just as he is skeptical of her claim to be Aes Sedai. He knows that Aes Sedai sometimes travel in disguise, and he once met one who had not yet obtained that ageless look, but this woman does not have any of the serenity of an Aes Sedai.

“Oh, they got angry, but it was a cold anger. He had seen “Alys’” face in the moonlight when the water stopped, though he had not realized what he was seeing till later. Childish glee at playing a prank, and childish disappointment that it had not worked as she wished. Aes Sedai were many things, and convoluted enough with it to make other women seem simple, but they were never childish.”

It had been Bukama who had suggested that the woman following them might be an assassin, and even now Lan knows she could still have been sent by Edeyn to watch him. Still, Bukama is upset with Lan for not making the proper pledge to her. But if “Lady Alys” really is Aes Sedai, Lan doesn’t want any more strings binding him to her, nor does he want to give a Cairhienin a chance to enmesh him in any schemes. Ryne meanwhile seems eager to flirt with her, and Lady Alys content to flirt back.

After almost an hour’s ride they stop at a village called Manala, where they find the Bel Tine festivities in full swing.  But they also find Trolloc heads stuck on spikes beside the road, and Lady Alys stops to look at them, and in that moment her calm expression makes Lan almost believe that she is Aes Sedai, as she observes how much courage it would take to face such creatures with only a sword.

“You have faced Trollocs?” Lan asked in surprise. Ryne and Bukama exchanged startled looks.

“Yes.” She grimaced faintly, as if the word had slipped out before thought.

“Where, if I may ask?” he said. Few southerners had ever seen a Trolloc. Some called them tales to frighten children.”

She answers cooly that Shadowspawn can be found in places he could never dream of, and tells Ryne to find them an inn. They sit at their own table in the inn, since Lady Alys did not invite them to join her, and quietly discuss what to do about her. Bukama thinks it is important to find out what she wants of them, while Ryne reminds them that it is dangerous to ask questions of an Aes Sedai. Lan still believes that she is some wilder that Edeyn sent to watch him, though he avoids saying her name. Suddenly they realize that Lady Alys is no longer in the common room—a quick look shows that her horse is still hitched outside and Ryne suggests that they leave before she comes back. Lan reminds him of Bukama’s pledge, and how they both intend to honor it. Grimacing, Ryne agrees to stay.

Lan leaves Bukama behind in case Alys returns and sends Ryne off in one direction while he climbs the hill behind the inn. He finds Alys there asking another woman about someone named Avene Sahera, but the woman doesn’t know anyone by that name. Lan is surprised when Alys realizes he is lurking nearby. He offers to help look for Avene Sahera, and she tells him that he should forget hearing that name, and that it is unwise to meddle in the affairs of Aes Sedai. She sends him off, adding that she expects him to be ready when she’s done.

“If, that is, Malkieri keep their word as I have been told they do.” With that insult, she stalked off in the direction the lean woman had pointed. Light, the woman had a tongue like a knife!”

Lan reports the incident to Bukama, who is hopeful that all Alys wants of them is protection until she finds the woman she is looking for. But Lan isn’t so sure. It doesn’t explain why she followed them for a whole day, and it’s quite clear that it wasn’t because she was afraid to approach them—Lan doesn’t think the woman frightens anymore easily than Bukama himself does.

***

 

You know it’s funny, but despite everything I’ve read so far in New Spring, despite learning about Moiraine’s penchant for pranks, the trouble she has controlling her temper, and how flustered she gets when her personal sense of decorum is challenged, I’m still surprised by some of her mistakes. Maybe it’s just that I can’t get the (older, more experienced) Moiraine of the main series out of my head. Or maybe it’s because I’m not a particularly bold or self-confident person myself, and it’s hard to wrap my head around how careless some of her decisions feel.

I completely understand that much of what she’s doing is in desperation. She keeps having to sneak away from Aes Sedai who want to trap and control her, and now she’s also faced with the daunting prospect that literally any of her colleagues could be Black Ajah. She had to sneak away from the Tower to avoid being put on the Sun Throne. She has to travel alone, without even Siuan for backup, because of Cadsuane’s threat. All that makes sense. But despite learning about the Black Ajah and the deaths of every one of the Aes Sedai searchers, she only seems worried about these dangers in the abstract—knowledge of the Black Ajah and their movements doesn’t seem to have changed how she conducts herself at all.

Maybe I’m reading it the wrong way. But Siuan’s anxiety and caution felt much more palpable than Moiraine’s, somehow, even though Moiraine has been our POV character throughout the last few chapters. But then again, Moiraine’s determination to put on—I don’t want to call it a brave face so much as a noble’s stiff upper lip, or an Aes Sedai’s unflappability—is very strong. So perhaps she’s fooling me as much as she’s trying to fool those around her. As much as she’s probably trying to fool herself.

Still, I can’t help but think about Cadsuane’s warnings that the shawl doesn’t make Moiraine as invulnerable as she believes, and that she’s taking more risks than she realizes. Even now that Moiraine has some understanding of what is happening to the others involved in the search for the Dragon reborn, she doesn’t seem very concerned about it happening to her. She thinks Ryne might be a Darkfriend, and possibly in league with one of the Aes Sedai she has already met, and who has met her. And yet she’s perfectly content to follow him and two other strange men into what is basically the wilderness, and it never occurs to her that they might be dangerous or suspicious of her in turn. Heck, if Ryne did turn out to be in league with the Black Ajah, he might already know exactly who she really is!

Is this what it was like being Moiraine trying to talk to Nynaeve? I feel like it kind of is.

Lan leaving the obvious trail for her to find was pretty funny, though, since it was the main clue to the reader that this was a trap. It did remind me of Nynaeve tracking the group to bring the kids back from Moiraine’s clutches and how Lan was so impressed with that—he doesn’t have a chance to be impressed with Moiraine’s tracking abilities, but he probably would have been if she’d had a chance to show them off. I also loved that his reaction to Moiraine snatching his scabbard (after he took care of the immediate need to keep his sword/toss her in a pond) was to just stand there trying to puzzle out how she managed to get hold of it from that far away. I can just picture him with his hands on his hips, shaking his head in a gentle “WTF?” sort of way. It’s hilarious. As it was when she tried to pull Lan into the lake with her and he just lifted her effortlessly out of the water. I wonder if they shared a laugh about that some day, years in the future after they’d grown close and come to trust each other. Maybe they’re both too serious for that, though I do recall Moiraine teasing Lan about it at one point. But he was pissed at her at the time, so he didn’t take it well.

Of course I understand why Moiraine is affronted by being thrown into the lake and then by what she sees as a lack of full deference, but it’s funny to me how she is in disguise as both a noble of lesser rank than she actually is and as not an Aes Sedai, and yet is shocked when people don’t grant her a huge amount of deference. I don’t think you can have it both ways, Moiraine.

And once again we come back to this idea about how not understanding, or misunderstanding, someone’s culture can lead to conflict. Both Lan and Moiraine seem to have very strict, ingrained senses of proper behavior, duty, and decorum—Lan even more so than Moiraine, really. Malkieri culture seems to have been very strict about a lot of things, and of course Lan and Bukama adhere to every detail of those cultural mores in an attempt to stay loyal to their dead nation. It’s a bit profound to realize that Lan’s belief in those mores is largely down to Bukama working very hard to instill them in his charge, as we see when the man keeps badgering Lan to make his own oath to “Alys”. Bukama is leery of the woman as well, but unwilling to stray even a hair’s breadth from what was considered right and proper in Malkier, even though he’s not even dealing with a Malkier woman.

That’s not a criticism of Bukama, I just think it’s interesting to note after last week, when Lan was wondering if Malkier would truly be dead once the last man stopped wearing the hadori and the last woman stopped painting her forehead. He clearly believes as Bukama believes, but we see here a moment where he’s not willing to be quite so specific and literal as his mentor.

Still, we can see that some of the conflict between Lan and Moiraine springs from differences in culture. We’ve already seen both of them come up against cultural clashes with other folks they’ve encountered in New Spring, and both are pretty inflexible when it comes to assessing the intentions and meanings of others throughout the events of the book. I was really struck by one moment in particular, when Ryne was suggesting that they sneak off while “Alys” was visiting the privy.

Lan winced inwardly at the crudity. There were matters one spoke of and matters one did not.

Remind you of anyone? How about Moiraine when Meilyn very delicately explains how so many children are conceived in wartime. After Moiraine asked, no less!

There were things one did in public and talked about, and things that were done in private and definitely not talked about.

I loved the similarity in the phrasing here, and again there is no reference to cultural tastes—the sentiment is expressed as an absolute. Moiraine knows that Lan is Malkieri, and seems to have at least some knowledge of his culture and customs, but she doesn’t use that information to guide herself much when it comes to interacting with him and his companions. She goes so far as to evoke the “right of a woman alone,” but she doesn’t believe much in it, and falls back on what she knows instead—a generous tip. I wonder if the men would be less offended if Moiraine hadn’t known enough of Malkieri customs to invoke the right of a woman alone—obviously they would still have felt compelled to treat her with a certain deference and to protect her even if she hadn’t known the words to say, so maybe the suggestion that they would only do so if paid is still offensive either way.

Does anyone else wonder if those coins are going to turn out to be the same as the ones she gave Rand, Mat, and Perrin at the beginning of  The Eye of the World, somehow affected by saidar so that she can keep track of them? Just me?

In any case, it’s perhaps not surprising that Moiraine knows just enough of Malkieri culture to bungle it—I’m not sure of either of their exact ages, but I think Lan is older than Moiraine, which means that Malkier fell before she was even born, nevermind an initiate in the Tower. So no one would have had much reason to teach her about Malkieri customs, except as a history lesson. And Lan does seem aware that her insults are made in ignorance, rather than intentionally, which might be why he and Bukama are so willing to swallow them. And he is also planning to speak to Moiraine about her missteps, which is a surprisingly reasonable course of action. I also wonder if believing that she is Aes Sedai would make at least some of Moiraine’s missteps less offensive to the men. Or perhaps more? They would probably assume that an Aes Sedai should know better, but perhaps they’d be more willing to put up with an Aes Sedai deciding to do things her own way than some wilder, as Lan suspects Moiraine to be, trying to pass herself off as something she’s not. Ryne definitely seems to believe that she is Aes Sedai, but it’s unclear what Bukama thinks—perhaps he doesn’t care much, and is only focused on the oath he has given to protect her.

I’m curious about the way that Lan and Bukama won’t quite meet Moiraine’s gaze. She takes it as them hiding something, but it almost appears to be a cultural thing. It’s possible that she takes their lowered gazes as disrespect while it’s actually meant as the exact opposite. In the same way, she decides it can’t be a gesture of humility because she doesn’t see anything submissive or demure in his attitude, but I think she’s mistaken. I think Lan is trying to show that he accepts, perhaps even respects, her punishment. But even without Moiraine’s inner monologue at the end of the chapters, we know she doesn’t see it that way. We already know that she’s going to continue to torture him with bugs and other things, so clearly she doesn’t see the tables as even.

We knew the column of water was coming too, but the whole section still had me laughing. I loved that the men reacted by thinking it was some kind of Shadowspawn attack, and how miffed Moiraine was that she had to explain that it was Agatha all along. I mean Alys. And I get why Lan sees her actions as childish, but I also get where Moiraine is coming from. She found herself on the wrong foot again, and is trying to get a very specific response from him because that is what she knows. It’s probably the thing that will make her feel safe. After all, she still isn’t sure if he and/or his companions are Darkfriends. Hence the wards every night, which Lan mistakes for an inability to fall asleep on the ground.

Now, all this isn’t to say that Moiraine isn’t plenty canny in many ways! But these chapters really show where her experience is and where it isn’t. She knows just how to play her escape from Cadsuane—what movements will give her away and which won’t, and she’s very aware of how she herself would have conducted things if she were in Cadsuane’s place. Never forget that Moiraine knows how to play the Great Game well. It’s just that she’s in the Borderlands now, where they don’t exactly play by the same rules. Also I don’t think that newly-raised Aes Sedai are generally let out of the Tower so early—not on their own anyway. As we know, there is a lot more instruction they are supposed to receive, and probably the Blues are not the only Ajah that prefers to put their new sisters to use right away.

I can’t decide if I think Moiraine’s suspicions about Ryne are right or not. I don’t know what he would have been doing talking to Aes Sedai in the inn, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there can’t be a wealth of different explanations for what Moiraine saw, including that Jordan needed a reason for Moiraine to become interested in Lan’s party. He does seem both scared and in awe of Moiraine, and the way he wanted to sneak away from her in Manala does come off as pretty suspicious. Still, lots of people are made uneasy by Aes Sedai for reasons other than being Darkfriends. Like, most people. So Ryne’s unease and mix of devotion and apprehension isn’t really proof of anything.

That moment when he suggests that they leave is one of my favorite moments, thought, and not just because Lan’s thoughts remind me so much of Moiraine’s. It’s because of the following bit.

Ryne fingered one of his braids, then gave it a hard tug that made its bells jingle. “I say we leave her her silver and go before she comes back.”

“Go if you wish,” Lan said, rising. “Bukama pledged to her, and I’ll honor his pledge.”

“Better if you honor your own,” Bukama grumbled.

Ryne grimaced and gave his braid another hard pull. “If you stay, I stay.”

And here we thought Nynaeve was the only one giving herself headaches with this habit. Ryne’s is even more noticeable, what with all the jingling bells.

And that’s all for this week! Stay tuned for a standalone essay next Tuesday, and then it’ll be back to our regularly scheduled Moiraine-attacks-Lan-with-the-Power-and-Lan-suffers-in-manly-silence. And have a lovely week!

Sylas K Barrett is very tired today, but not as tired as Lan is going to be by the time they reach Chachin.

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