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Embers Falling on Dry Grass

Prologue

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

Seanchan.

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

spoke.

“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

hatred there.

Trom bowed formally once more. “You have informed him yourself, my Lord Captain

Commander. Damodred?”

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,

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