Embers Falling on Dry Grass
The sun, climbing toward midmorning, stretched Galad’s shadow and those of his three
armored companions ahead of them as they trotted their mounts down the road that ran
straight through the forest, dense with oak and leatherleaf, pine and sourgum, most
showing the red of spring growth. He tried to keep his mind empty, still, but small things
kept intruding. The day was silent save for the thud of their horses’ hooves. No bird sang
on a branch, no squirrel chittered. Too quiet for the time of year, as though the forest held
its breath. This had been a major trade route once, long before Amadicia and Tarabon
came into being, and bits of ancient paving stone sometimes studded the hard-packed
surface of yellowish clay. A single farm cart far ahead behind a plodding ox was the only
sign of human life now besides themselves. Trade had shifted far north, farms and
villages in the region dwindled, and the fabled lost mines of Aelgar remained lost in the
tangled mountain ranges that began only a few miles to the south. Dark clouds massing in
that direction promised rain by afternoon if their slow advance continued. A red-winged
hawk quartered back and forth along the border of the trees, hunting the fringes. As he
himself was hunting. But at the heart, not on the fringes.
The manor house that the Seanchan had given Eamon Valda came into view, and he drew
rein, wishing he had a helmet strap to tighten for excuse. Instead he had to be content
with re-buckling his sword belt, pretending that it had been sitting wrong. There had been
no point to wearing armor. If the morning went as he hoped, he would have had to
remove breastplate and mail in any case, and if it went badly, armor would have provided
little more protection than his white coat.
Formerly a deep-country lodge of the King of Amadicia, the building was a huge, blue-
roofed structure studded with red-painted balconies, a wooden palace with wooden spires
at the corners atop a stone foundation like a low, steep-sided hill. The outbuildings,
stables and barns, workmen’s small houses and craftsfolks’ workshops, all hugged the
ground in the wide clearing that surrounded the main house, but they were nearly as
resplendent in their blue-and-red paint. A handful of men and women moved around
them, tiny figures yet at this distance, and children were playing under their elders’ eyes.
An image of normality where nothing was normal. His companions sat their saddles in
their burnished helmets and breastplates, watching him without expression. Their mounts
stamped impatiently, the animals’ morning freshness not yet worn off by the short ride
from the camp.
“It’s understandable if you’re having second thoughts, Damodred,” Trom said after a
time. “It’s a harsh accusation, bitter as gall, but—”
“No second thoughts for me,” Galad broke in. His intentions had been fixed since
yesterday. He was grateful, though. Trom had given him the opening he needed. They
had simply appeared as he rode out, falling in with him without a word spoken. There had
seemed no place for words, then. “But what about you three? You’re taking a risk coming
here with me. A risk you have no need to take. However the day runs, there will be marks
against you. This is my business, and I give you leave to go about yours.” Too stiffly
said, but he could not find words this morning, or loosen his throat.
The stocky man shook his head. “The law is the law. And I might as well make use of my
new rank.” The three golden star-shaped knots of a captain sat beneath the flaring
sunburst on the breast of his white cloak. There had been more than a few dead at
Jeramel, including no fewer than three of the Lords Captain. They had been fighting the
Seanchan then, not allied with them.
“I’ve done dark things in service to the Light,” gaunt-faced Byar said grimly, his deep-set
eyes glittering as though at a personal insult, “dark as moonless midnight, and likely I
will again, but some things are too dark to be allowed.” He looked as if he might spit.
“That’s right,” young Bornhald muttered, scrubbing a gauntleted hand across his mouth.
Galad always thought of him as young, though the man lacked only a few years on him.
Dain’s eyes were bloodshot; he had been at the brandy again last night. “If you’ve done
what’s wrong, even in service to the Light, then you have to do what’s right to balance
it.” Byar grunted sourly. Likely that was not the point he had been making.
“Very well,” Galad said, “but there’s no fault to any man who turns back. My business
here is mine alone.”
Still, when he heeled his bay gelding to a canter, he was pleased to have them gallop to
catch him and fall in alongside, white cloaks billowing behind. He would have gone on
alone, of course, yet their presence might keep him from being arrested and hanged out of
hand. Not that he expected to survive in any case. What had to be done, had to be done,
no matter the price.
The horses’ hooves clattered loudly on the stone ramp that climbed to the manor house,
so every man in the broad central courtyard turned to watch as they rode in: fifty of the
Children in gleaming plate-and-mail and conical helmets, most mounted, with cringing,
dark-coated Amadician grooms holding animals for the rest. The inner balconies were
empty except for a few servants who appeared to be watching while pretending to sweep.
Six Questioners, big men with the scarlet shepherd’s crook upright behind the sunflare on
their cloaks, stood close around Rhadam Asunawa like a bodyguard, away from the
others. The Hand of the Light always stood apart from the rest of the Children, a choice
the rest of the Children approved. Gray-haired Asunawa, his sorrowful face making Byar
look fully fleshed, was the only Child present not in armor, and his snowy cloak carried
just the brilliant red crook, another way of standing apart. But aside from marking who
was present, Galad had eyes for only one man in the courtyard. Asunawa might have
been involved in some way—that remained unclear—yet only the Lord Captain
Commander could call the High Inquisitor to account.
Eamon Valda was not a large man, yet his dark, hard face had the look of one who
expected obedience as his due. As the very least he was due. Standing with his booted
feet apart and his head high, command in every inch of him, he wore the white-and-gold
tabard of the Lord Captain Commander over his gilded breast- and backplates, a silk
tabard more richly embroidered than any Pedron Niall had worn. His white cloak, the
flaring sun large on either breast in thread-of-gold, was silk as well, and his gold-
embroidered white coat. The helmet beneath his arm was gilded and worked with the
flaring sun on the brow, and a heavy gold ring on his left hand, worn outside his steel-
backed gauntlet, held a large yellow sapphire carved with the sunburst. Another mark of
favor received from the Seanchan.
Valda frowned slightly as Galad and his companions dismounted and offered their
salutes, arm across the chest. Obsequious grooms came running to take their reins.
“Why aren’t you on your way to Nassad, Trom?” Disapproval colored Valda’s words.
“The other Lords Captain will be halfway there by now.” He himself always arrived late
when meeting the Seanchan, perhaps to assert that some shred of independence remained
to the Children—finding him already preparing to depart was a surprise; this meeting
must be very important—but he always made sure the other high-ranking officers arrived
on time even when that required setting out before dawn. Apparently it was best not to
press their new masters too far. Distrust of the Children was always strong in the
Trom displayed none of the uncertainty that might have been expected from a man who
had held his present rank barely a month. “An urgent matter, my Lord Captain
Commander,” he said smoothly, making a very precise bow, neither a hair deeper nor
higher than protocol demanded. “A Child of my command charges another of the
Children with abusing a female relative of his, and claims the right of Trial Beneath the
Light, which by law you must grant or deny.”
“A strange request, my son,” Asunawa said, tilting his head quizzically above clasped
hands, before Valda could speak. Even the High Inquisitor’s voice was doleful; he
sounded pained at Trom’s ignorance. His eyes seemed dark hot coals in a brazier. “It was
usually the accused who asked to give the judgment to swords, and I believe usually
when he knew the evidence would convict him. In any case, Trial Beneath the Light has
not been invoked for nearly four hundred years. Give me the accused’s name, and I will
deal with the matter quietly.” His tone turned chill as a sunless cavern in winter, though
his eyes still burned. “We are among strangers, and we cannot allow them to know that
one of the Children is capable of such a thing.”
“The request was directed to me, Asunawa,” Valda snapped. His glare might as well have
been open hatred. Perhaps it was just dislike of the other man’s breaking in. Flipping one
side of his cloak over his shoulder to bare his ring-quilloned sword, he rested his hand on
the long hilt and drew himself up. Always one for the grand gesture, Valda raised his
voice so that even people inside probably heard him, and declaimed rather than merely
“I believe many of our old ways should be revived, and that law still stands. It will
always stand, as written of old. The Light grants justice because the Light is justice.
Inform your man he may issue his challenge, Trom, and face the one he accuses sword-
to-sword. If that one tries to refuse, I declare that he has acknowledged his guilt and order
him hanged on the spot, his belongings and rank forfeit to his accuser as the law states. I
have spoken.” That with another scowl for the High Inquisitor. Maybe there really was
Trom bowed formally once more. “You have informed him yourself, my Lord Captain
Galad felt cold. Not the cold of fear, but of emptiness. When Dain drunkenly let slip the
confused rumors that had come to his ears, when Byar reluctantly confirmed they were
more than rumors, rage had filled Galad, a bone-burning fire that nearly drove him
insane. He had been sure his head would explode if his heart did not burst first. Now he
was ice, drained of any emotion. He also bowed formally. Much of what he had to say
was set in the law, yet he chose the rest with care, to spare as much shame as possible to a
memory he held dear.
“Eamon Valda, Child of the Light, I call you to Trial Beneath the Light for unlawful
assault on the person of Morgase Trakand, Queen of Andor, and for her murder.” No one
had been able to confirm that the woman he regarded as his mother was dead, yet it must
be so. A dozen men were certain she had vanished from the Fortress of the Light before it
fell to the Seanchan, and as many testified she had not been free to leave of her own will.
Valda displayed no shock at the charge. His smile might have been intended to show
regret over Galad’s folly in making such a claim, yet contempt was mingled in it. He
opened his mouth, but Asunawa cut in once more.
“This is ridiculous,” he said in tones more of sorrow than of anger. “Take the fool, and
we’ll find out what Darkfriend plot to discredit the Children he is part of.” He motioned,
and two of the hulking Questioners took a step toward Galad, one with a cruel grin, the
other blank-faced, a workman about his work.
Only one step, though. A soft rasp repeated around the courtyard as Children eased their
swords in their scabbards. At least a dozen men drew entirely, letting their blades hang by
their sides. The Amadician grooms hunched in on themselves, trying to become invisible.
Likely they would have run, had they dared. Asunawa stared around him, thick eyebrows
climbing up his forehead in disbelief, knotted fists gripping his cloak. Strangely, even
Valda appeared startled for an instant. Surely he had not expected the Children to allow
an arrest after his own proclamation. If he had, he recovered quickly.
“You see, Asunawa,” he said almost cheerfully, “the Children follow my orders, and the
law, not a Questioner’s whims.” He held out his helmet to one side for someone to take.
“I deny your preposterous charge, young Galad, and throw your foul lie in your teeth. For
it is a lie, or at best a mad acceptance of some malignant rumor started by Darkfriends or
others who wish the Children ill. Either way, you have defamed me in the vilest manner,