If he closed his eyes, he could almost pretend the dark was a choice.
There was nothing he could do to pretend away the pressure on his shoulders, the cramping in his neck, the inability to take a full breath with his chest compressed against his knees. One mistake. That was all it took, one mistake, and now…
He’d been so proud of his caution, his wariness. He’d run from thirteen Aes Sedai in Caemlyn like a rabbit fleeing a fox and jumped right into the wolf’s jaws. They weren’t going to kill him; Rand was fairly certain of that. Elaida wouldn’t be that stupid. Hopefully they wouldn’t be stupid enough to gentle him, either. What was it Elaida’s letter had said? All due honor.
Rand choked on a laugh. He could picture it now. Elaida would have him on a leash, to be kept caged and docile until she led him to slaughter at Tarmon Gai’don.
The wagon lurched into motion. Rand sought the Void, focusing on the rough wood of the chest’s interior on his hands and emptying out everything else. It wasn’t over yet. He wouldn’t roll over for Elaida. This wasn’t how he’d be beaten.
Lews Therin wept in the back of his mind.
Six soft points. Rand felt at them again, fixing on that instead of the feeling like he was boiling in his own sweat. Six soft points and saidin a hair’s breadth away, an ocean away. His whole body was one enormous cramp and the Void kept slipping. They’d let him out once and every muscle had screamed trying to straighten; he’d barely been able to stand.
He’d thought he would scream when they’d folded him back up like a blanket and stuffed him back into the chest.
No way out, Lews Therin panted. No way out. Dead, all dead.
Rand focused on remembering the names. He would remember the name of every sister here, and when (when) he got out…
(What will you do? Not kill them.)
Kill them, Lews Therin echoed, or maybe it was killed them.
It was something to think that wasn’t the feeling of being crushed, buried alive. Though at least corpses got to lie down. Galina Casban. Erian Boroleos. Sarene Nemdahl. Nesune Bihara and Sashalle Anderly.
And more he didn’t know. They’d been planning this, and-
They were stopping. He felt the chest move, hitting the ground with a thump.
Had it already been a day? Rand cursed his gratitude at the prospect of being let out again, but there was no denying that even a few breaths of fresh air would be a blessing.
The rage still burned in him, unabated despite the pain of the beating. They had Min. They’d taken Min, and he didn’t care why or what they wanted with her. Light, Min. Another woman in danger for being near him, though no doubt Min would object to him putting it like that.
Rand realized he was shaking and tried to stop it. He remembered killing two Warders before the Aes Sedai had stopped him, though it was blurry. Clearer was the look on Min’s face, her eyes wide, afraid. Of him or for him?
Rand almost hoped it was of; that would probably be better. (If it was that, he thought it would kill him.)
They’d let Erian beat him, then. Erian, whose Warders had died. The flows were nothing but Air, but she wielded them like a birch a thumb thick until he was welts from ankles to shoulders, but at the end he’d met her reddened eyes like he felt nothing at all.
He wasn’t going to give them a thing. Not a thing.
This is what comes of trusting Aes Sedai. Never again.
Muffled, through the walls of the chest, he heard a yelp. And then another.
Oh no. Light, no.
Min! The rage surged back and Rand snarled, an inarticulate sound, shoulders thumping against the lid of the chest. They could punish him, they could lash him bloody if they wanted to, but not Min, they could not punish Min for what he’d done.
He wanted to shut his ears to the sound of Min’s cries, but Rand forced himself to listen. It was the least he could do.
Light, Ilyena! My Ilyena!
Shut up! Rand thought savagely. Min isn’t Ilyena. I won’t hurt her. I’ll keep her safe, I’ll-
Another cry from outside proved the lie of that thought. Rand felt like weeping, but he didn’t think he could.
This is what comes of trusting Aes Sedai.
It was a mantra, something to repeat with every beating. They came nightly, and Rand could no longer tell if they were punishment or an attempt to soften him, tenderize him like a piece of meat for Elaida. Did they think that he would break for this? Did they think-
Rand bit his lip so he didn’t howl as a blow hit across a previous welt. He half expected to feel his skin split and bleed.
What comes of trusting Aes Sedai.
Some corner of him protested Egwene, and Elayne, and Nynaeve, but could he trust even them? Did he dare, when they were every bit as entwined with the Tower? Elayne. Let her be on her way to Caemlyn now, with Mat. Hopefully Caemlyn would still be there for her to claim. How much might have fallen apart, with him gone? How many of his so-called allies were at each others’ throats?
This is what comes of - comes of-
When it was over, Rand tasted blood and realized that he’d bitten through his lip. But he hadn’t made a sound.
Small victories. Small, meaningless victories.
Let me out let me out let me out.
He couldn’t breathe. The air in the chest was thick as mud and he was soaked with sweat, slow-roasting as sure as if he was on an open flame. The chest felt like it was shrinking around him, squeezing like a vice.
Rand could hear himself panting raggedly. It was getting smaller. He was sure of it. Maybe the Aes Sedai were doing something, had decided that beatings weren’t enough, leaving him shut in a box wasn’t enough. His throat choked closed and he sought the Void, but he couldn’t hold it, gasping for air. Saidin. If he could reach the Power he could - something, do something-
Blind panic gripped him and he slammed against the shield, but it was about as much use as trying to batter down an iron door with his bare hands. He couldn’t stop, though, couldn’t breathe-
Conscious thought blinked out. When it came back he felt as exhausted as if he’d run a mile, breathing hitching as he fought to suck soupy air into his aching lungs. His shoulders felt bruised. Sweat burned in his eyes.
You are mad, Lews Therin said.
Rand laughed helplessly, breathlessly. Maybe he would be, before long. The Aes Sedai just might manage it before saidin could.
Soft points. Can’t do anything until they tie off the weave. If they turn hard… Lews Therin sounded almost sane. He sounded that more often, now. Maybe that meant that Rand was madder.
Just wait, he told himself. Wait, be patient. Let them think they’ve beaten you. (How much difference, he wondered, between pretending and truth?) They can’t hold it forever.
And what if they could? What if one of the Forsaken found him like this, trussed up and helpless? (The thought of the Forsaken set Lews Therin off again, but Rand shut him out.)
How far had they come? Light, was Min still safe? In the dark, his thoughts chased each other, eating their own tails like Great Serpent rings.
We will get out, Lews Therin said, breaking back through Rand’s distraction. We will be free.
Light help him, Rand was almost reassured.
His rooms in Cairhien were unchanged. It was jarring, somehow, to see it so. It seemed like everything should be different, somehow, fundamentally altered. But it was just him that was - out of joint.
Alanna was a knot of worry and unhappiness at the back of his mind, but he could ignore her. Ignore her, but not enough. He wished Min were here, but he wasn’t going to ask.
Rand sat awake, every light on, and wished the room was larger.