The Red Wind Stirs Among Black Trees, etc

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Story by Azi al'Thone for Project Gaidin's Death Match Week 1.

Azi al’Thone coughed and spit some phlegm to the side. The wind caught his cloak and bit at his body until he could wrap it tightly about him. He muttered obscenities about nothing in particular and rubbed his arms to warm up a bit.

The first day of the journey had been wonderful. Right up until the point when he awoke beneath a thunderstorm. Or perhaps it was the next fifteen days of overcast skies and a nearly constant drizzle.

He thought about their mission. The Captains Marrow Gaidin and Deoan Gaidin had called Azi and ten of his barrack mates in to their office in the early hours, explaning they were to accompany Red Sedai and Liathiana Sedai on a diplomatic visit to Shienar.

He smile as he thought of the novice that was helping Liathiana mount. She had made eye contact with Azi and blushed, turning away to hide a smile. Azi remembered rubbing his short beard in appreciation. Lauraine was certainly pretty, and a good kisser, too. It was the first time he had seen her since she left for the Tower.

His mood has been as bright as the weather that morning. Spirits were high in the party and jokes flittered between the men.

The entire party was in poor humour now. Even Jeffan’s quick wit seemed empty, like he only did it out of habit. The Aes Sedai kept to themselves, of course. Liathiana no longer spent hours watching the recruits practice and exercise. She was wary, like a mother wolf.

Red was simply determined. The first night she had joined in the singing and camp music with the rest of them, and if he didn’t know better, Azi would say she been the drunkest of them all.

Suddenly Azi realized they had stopped. He looked around. Lost in his thoughts, he hadn’t noticed that the trees had thinned out. The ground was cleared of tree and brush for at least two hundred paces in either direction, and in the middle of the clearing there was a small fortress. No, it wasn’t a fortress, but a small keep, with stone walls and watchtowers. To Borderlanders this was just a country manor.

At the front of the party, Red and Liathiana were speaking to a finely dressed aged man, with a large hilt poking above his shoulder and a hard look in his light blue eyes. Azi moved closer to hear.

Red’s face was serene and betrayed no thoughts, but her voice was not cold, “We appreciate the hospitality, Lord Egnar. We will gladly spend the night here to rest ourselves and our horses. The White Tower is gracious of your House’s support. May the Light shine upon you and your family.”

This seemed to please the lord, and a small smile creased his face when Liathiana laid a hand on his shoulder and thanked him.

The fire was warm, the food was good, and the ale was relaxing. Red’s mug never seemed to get empty, however many times she drunk from it, and Ivanor even played a few songs on a lute.

As the afternoon dwindled and evening came upon the manor, most of the recruits left to get some sleep. Warm stables were better than sleeping under tree and bush.

Jeffan stretched and yawned. “I think I’ll get some sleep. I’ll see you in the morning. Or maybe in my dreams,” he said with a wink. Azi had to fight off his own yawn.

He drained the rest of his mug and stood up, stretched and headed towards the hallway to the back. He hesitated, however, when he saw Red slowly climbing the stairs. She didn't look unsteady, and would likely skin him for implying she was too drunk, but Azi didn't take chances. Especially when the Captains' displeasure was at the bad end of those chances.

He caught up with her on the stairs, and walked alongside her. "Is there anything you need before I turn in for the night, my Lady?"

She stopped on the stairs and looked at him. Her eyes were clear pools of serenity. They seemed to see everything about, and weigh his morals against his sins. Azi swallowed and took an involuntary step back.

And then a twinkle glimmered across her eyes and she barked a laugh, "Go to your bed, man. You need it, and I don't need your help." She turned and climbed the rest of the stairs, muttering something to do with chest hair and men. He could still hear her chuckles as he shook his head and started back down the steps.

His foot must have dosed off earlier than the rest of his body, because for some reason he caught his toe on the lip of a step and fell flat on his face. He heard a dull thunk in the wall above him and a curse from the top of the steps. He rolled quickly to see an dark-skinned man barrelling down the stairs towards him, a short sword in his hand.

The attacker took the steps two at a time and was nearly on top of Azi. Instinct and hard training took over and his right leg kicked out. His boot made contact with the man's shin and he fell in mid-step, throwing him off balance.

Azi grabbed the wrist of the man's sword arm and pulled, dragging him to the ground. He rolled over and jabbed his knuckles into the man's throat, feeling his windpipe collapse. He let go and jumped off the man who was now gasping for air, his breath rattling. Just in case, Azi kicked him in the face.

He left the man there, for now he could hear commotion from upstairs. He topped the stairway and saw flames licking at the far end of the hall. Dark shapes were crowding a doorway. Azi smelled smoke and the sickly-sweet scent of burning flesh.

A sudden eruption of fire threw another body away from the doorway, and left if smouldering on the ground, lifeless. Light, the Aes Sedai must be in that room! He drew his blade and narrow hallway. It was thick with smoke and he had to cover his mouth as he drew ragged breaths.

He jumped out of the way of another body, feeling the heat from the fireball that had thrown it back. He reached the doorway, and buried his blade in the back of the last remaining attacker. He ducked to the side as a small spout of fire ignited the air where he had just been.

He shouted over the crackling of the flames, "It is me, my Lady! Azi!" Red's head poked out of the doorway, followed by her arm. She grasped him by the collar and dragged him into the room. Azi had to hop awkwardly to keep from falling on his face. Again.

Fire was engulfing the interior of the richly furnished room as well. A few bodies lay inside, still smoking.

He met the steely eyes of the Red sister, and could see she was not drunk at all. She was determined, and focused, and serene.

"Please, Red Sedai, we need to escape, now," he pleaded.

Her gaze became ice, "I will not leave one of my sisters."

Azi looked about the room. He only saw one large bed. "She was not here with you?"

Red shook her head, "No, her room was at the other end of the hallway." She gestured. Azi spotted a similar door at the other end of the hall. The door was hanging from a single hinge, and the frame was blackened, with a few flames licking at the base. But only a single body lay on the ground, and he could not see anyone alive.

Suddenly a mass of bodies poured in to the hall from the stairway.

"There's the last one! Kill them both, especially the witch!" one man shouted, and they all dashed towards the room.

Red hurled a fireball but Azi knew it would only deter them.

So Azi grabbed Red and threw her through the window. She cried out as she fell, and landed hard on her shoulder. He winced and hopped out of the window himself, landing slightly more gracefully on his feet, pain shooting up his left knee.

He ignored her gasp of pain and hauled her to her feet, both of them fleeing around the corner. He spotted flames engulfing the stables. It was fully dark now, the clouds hiding the light of the moons and stars. Icy rain fell densely and he decided hanging around would not be wise.

He led them away from the buildings and towards the woods. He hoped the shroud of night would hide them, and he did his best to keep from the remaining patches of snow.

They were shortly into the trees when Red grabbed Azi by the wrist and pulled up short. He nearly toppled them both over before he realized he was being stopped.

"We need to go back. We can't leave them." she said sternly.

"With respect, Red Sedai, there were too many for us to take by ourselves. And I doubt… I doubt there’s anyone left." He gritted his teeth against the sudden sadness.

This time Red’s glare was angry, and Azi took more than a single step back. She followed, stepping close, and spoke in a low voice. "There may be too many for you to handle. But I clearly heard those men say they were trying to kill me. I will strip their flesh from their bones, and then I will let them die, and they will thank me." She stalked off without waiting for Azi to follow, and he had no choice but to do so.

Red Sedai had fulfilled her promise. There were a good twenty or so corpes littering the clearing between the manor and the tree line. Red was right, the attackers had certainly followed them, and Red made them pay in fire and blood.

She somehow still looked composed after a short night sleeping on the floor. Azi tried to rub the dull haze out of his eyes.

"We need to go after them" she spoke softly.

"Go after who? We've killed them all, for Light's sake!" he scowled, too weary to care if he came off a bit disrespectful.

"No. No this was not all of them. Someone led these men. Plus, they have Liathiana."

“They have Jeffan and Paderic, as well,” he muttered. It had pained him to see the corpses of his friends, but he had slight hope for the other three. "Could they have escaped?" he thought aloud.

"Perhaps, if most of the attackers had been concentrating on you and I. But I do not think so," She drew a deep breath and smoothed her skirts, though they were charred and ripped.

“Listen, recruit, and listen well. This was not a simple political visit. There was a secret mission, this is the reason we left so early." She took a breath, "I suppose you deserve to know. We were delivering something dangerous to Fal Moran. The fate of the world may rest on this item, and now servants of the Shadow have it."

Azi's heart stopped. It could not be the Horn, could it? The Horn of Valere, to be called in times of mankind's defense to summon heroes dead and gone back to life to bring justice and drive back evil.

Azi had blown the Horn, and he was linked to it now, or so he had been told. What if Darkfriends got their hands on it? Would they be able to use it, or would it only work for the Hornsounder now? If so, would they try to find him? Would they kill him, or force him against his will to dance a puppet dance for the Shadow?

"It is a seal to the Dark One's prison. Seven of them exist, and we know of four. They need to be spread to the strongest fortresses across the land, to be protected for all time."

She eyed him, "You will not repeat this, of course." She waited for him to nod before she continued, "And the bastards took my rum." She truly seemed to be more shaken by that than anything else.

"Luckily, I know where they are." She produced a small, crushed flower with a few blue petals remaining on it.

"The sapphire lily only grows on the south coast. It would not survive in climate this harsh. However, this flower is freshly picked, maybe a few days ago. And there just happens to be one other location where this flower grows in all of the Westlands.

"There is a hot spring barely a day's ride from here, where this flower grows in the fertile mineral soil and damp air, sheltered from the wind by large boulders. There is a cave near there, and it is certainly where our villians will be hiding out this weather." It had begun to snow furiously in the past few hours.

Azi sat rubbing his chin for a few moments. "Then I suppose we should leave immediately. And I think I can solve one problem right now." He reached inside his coat and pulled out a small flask. He took a small sip and felt the spiced rum burn his throat. It felt good, after the rough night.

He tossed the flask to Red. She eyed him appreciatively and drained the flask, wiping her mouth and tossing it to the side. "Let’s go," she said, her voice not hoarse in the least.

Red raised a silent hand to stop Azi. They had been hiking for most of the day and now darkness covered the trees.

Red silently pointed to a small fire in the clearing. The flames illuminated a man-sized shape stretched out before it. Red silently glided towards the sleeping guard, and planted her boot in his side.

The man's eyes snapped open and his mouth worked soundlessly. He struggled against invisible bonds.

Red grabbed him by the collar and pulled his face close to hers. She smiled slightly, a smile that never touched her eyes. "Know that I am Aes Sedai, and know that I can speak no word that is untrue. You will show me the rest of you are, or I will have my man here cut your eyelids off and force you to watch as he removes your digits one by one."

Azi tried to look menacing, but the man did not look away from Red's gaze. Suddenly he slumped a bit, and she let go of him. Azi hauled him to his feet and pressed the point of his blade to his back. "Walk," he said darkly.

The mouth of the cave was a short distance away. The man pointed, and Azi kicked him the back, sending him to his knees.

Red turned away, speaking softly, "Come, recruit. He is now bound, but I fail to trust this slime." Azi hesitated. Then, in a moment of grim calmness, he plunged his sword through the man’s chest. Red arched a thin eyebrow at him.

Azi did not back down. "Darkfriends deserve neither mercy nor an honourable death. May his soul burn in hell," he muttered, more harshly then he intended.

Red said nothing, but turned and felt her way along the rocks and brush. Azi followed, and after a minute or two, they found a smell opening hidden behind a few shrubs. The other opening had been a trap. Red leaped through the opening and Azi followed.

They shortly were looking over a raised ledge into a small cavern. Three man stood by a small globe of red light hovering in the air. The harsh crimson glare made Lord Egnar's features sinister rather than soft, and his eyes reflected the glow with malice.

Azi's observations were interupted by a soft sound from his left. He tensed, hand going to his hilt. Red’s raised hand stilled him.

At the bottom of the short incline was Jeffan, crouching behind a large stalagmite. He looked ragged and a bit flustered, but it was good to see him.

Before Azi could ask any questions, Jeffan pointed. Following his gaze, Azi spotted two people near the fire he didn't spot before. Liathiana held her head high, despite her torn dress and the ropes binding her. Beside her, Paderic did not look so well. His eyes were shadowed, and he slouched over himself.

Red ran quickly to Paderic. She quietly undid his binds and took his head in her palms, and her expression turned to genuine terror. Suddenly, Paderic removed the knife from her belt and stabbed at her. Nothing short of quick thinking and maybe a bit of luck saved Red, for Paderic missed his mark slightly and buried the blade in her shoulder.

Rage replaced horror on Red’s face and Paderic was slammed solidly into the rock wall by an unseen force. Red spun and waved her hand as if wielding a blade. A large fireball exploded a few paces away from her as it struck an invisible barrier.

Azi noticed Egnar standing with his feet spread wide, concentration twisting his face. An invisible battle, but likely as deadly as anything I’ve ever seen.

He had time for no further thought. The two men that had been beside the old lord had their weapons drawn and were advancing towards Red.

Without words, Jeffan and Azi drew there blades and stepped to meet them. They danced their dance of blades, and for those long, drawn-out moments there was nothing but Azi, his blade, and his opponent. His body flowed, his subconscious limitations relaxed, and he let himself go.

The exchange was quick, and dangerous. He had no effort for fancy forms or a drawn out duel. His strikes were small and efficient. A small nick in the thigh, then in the side. Azi took an opportunity and suddenly veered his blade to bite across the man’s belly, red gore and viscera spilling out.

And then it was over. The outside world flooded back into Azi’s mind as the man dropped. His muscles screamed and his arm felt heavy. He turned to assist Jeffan, he was already at Azi’s side. The other attacker lay face down in a pool of blood.

Azi clasped him on the shoulder, and Jeffan opened his mouth to say something. All that escaped was a low gurgle and a stream of deep crimson blood. He fell forward, sliding from the sword in his chest.

Paderic stood over Jeffan’s corpse. His face was blank, and his eyes had an emptiness in them. Azi began to say something, but was cut short when Paderic’s blade nearly cleaved his left arm off. He had to throw himself to the side to dodge.

He danced around a bit until he got his footing back, and threw his shoulder into a side blow against Paderic, taking the offensive. Paderic return the blows with an eerie calmness. He never lashed in anger, or got over zealous. He simply defending, parrying or dodging Azi’s every strike.

But there was something to be said for zeal and a bit of recklessness. A wide swing gave Azi the opportunity to get in close. He dropped his own blade and twisted. Paderic’s swing missed him and Azi shoved his elbow into Paderic’s sternum, and then tripped his leg out from under him.

He kicked the blade from Paderic’s hand and it skittered across the floor. He pulled a small knife from his boot and held it against Paderic’s throat.

“Why are you doing this, Paderic? Why attack us?” Paderic did not answer. Azi searched his eyes. They were cold, emotionless. Except… there was a small glimmer of guilt and… pleading. With a sudden jerk, Paderic’s hand drove the knife into his own neck, and dark, warm blood spilled out. His head slumped back and his eyes glazed over.

Azi took a deep breath and shuddered as he exhaled. He stood and stepped away from the corpse.

He nearly jumped out of his skin when he felt a hand on his shoulder. He spun suddenly, only to find Liathiana giving him a concerned look. She took his head between her hands and he felt the chilly wave of Aes Seadi Healing wash over him.

When he regained his thoughts, he noticed Red was kneeling next to Paderic. She closed his eyelids, and whispered a prayer for him. None of her sharp humour or fieriness was present. Azi did not understand if this was a secret side of the Red sister, or if there was something different here. Either way, he did not feel comfortable watching.

He turned to Liathiana and quietly said, “Did we find it. The seal, I mean?” She arched an eyebrow, and then nodded.

“So now what?” he continued, “Do we continue to Fal Moran with the seal?” It was Red who responded.

“No. First, we give our men the proper burial they deserve. Then we search the area, and Lord Egnar’s manor. Finally we return to the White Tower with Lord Egnar, to be put to trial and gentled.

“As for the seal, clearly our secret mission was not so secret. Someone is leaking information. Paderic was Compelled. His mind was destroyed, and I would be surprised if there had been anything left of him at all. You did right to kill him, Azi. It was the only thing you could do for him.

“But that means that someone taught Lord Egnar Compulsion. I hope you know those implications, for I shall not speak of them.”

Azi wasn’t sure what she meant, but he didn’t want to ask. He stepped away and picked up his sword.

“Let us finish here quickly and get back to the manor. I could use some rum,” Red said softly, but she didn’t have the energy in it as she usually did.

The work was long and hard. They took all the bodies of the recruits and burned them in a traditional funeral pyre, and prayed for their souls. They slept briefly, and gathered what information they could.

The ride home was quiet, though the three spoke occasionally, if only to break the tension. Things were going to change, and he didn’t know what part he would have in it. But he supposed he would do his best, and that would have to be good enough.