This is a flashback post, detailing some of the history of the characters of our tale. If you are interested in how they became the people who would one day serve the Tower in secret, read on.
Dawn spread pale, glistening fingers across the snow-covered plains east of Tar Valon, the night retreating before the oncoming day. It was not a beautiful sunrise...no golden, glowing light to herald the arrival of a fat crimson sun. The sky was overcast and grey, and the sunlight that filtered through it was white and sickly, illuminating the stark countryside with a grim tone that seemed almost unreal.
To Elijah Hawke, it was real enough. When your feet were freezing in your boots, your three-day growth of beard crusted with ice, and the wind cutting through your cloak life like a Cairhienin stiletto, it was hard to deny reality. It became impossible when one looked about, seeing the contrast of white snowdrifts with places where the ground was brown with churned up earth from horses' hooves, or stained with blood, legacies of the battle that had raged here the past few days. That sort of scenery proved this was no fairyland, despite the shining spire of the White Tower visible in the distance. Wars were real life, not dreams.
Elijah rose from his small fire, chewing the remains of his breakfast...hardtack, a wrinkled apple, and a half a sausage so hard and cold that even after trying to cook it, it had barely achieved the consistency of pinewood before he ate it. He kicked some snow over the coals of his fire. General orders were to avoid fires--Aiel could spot a fire a long, long way, even if you kept it small and smokeless--but frankly, Lije was irritated with general orders, and besides, the Aiel knew where they were anyway. He grinned mirthlessly...in addition, there was no one handy to court-martial him. He was the ranking officer present, having gone from hiresword to File Leader to Bannerman to (technically) commander of this small unit, after watching six different commanders die in the course of a month. Elijah suspected he was in command not merely through virtue of his experience, but because no one else really wanted the job. He understood...frankly, he didn't want the job either.
He looked around him at the ragtag group of soldiers, a patchwork outfit cobbled together under the rules of this "Grand Coalition". It was nominally an infantry company, pikes and archers, but after losing men to death, disease and desertion, being reinforced, folding in other decimated units, and so forth, they were now pretty much impossible to classify. He had about a dozen cavalrymen he trusted in a pinch, and another score of horses, but not enough trained riders. Nearly every man was walking wounded...these days, you were mostly either walking wounded or dead. After the last skirmish with Aiel, en route to this very position, the commander had ordered any man that couldn't walk and fight to be left behind. Those who wished to make a last stand could do so...any that asked for a grace were given it. Lije had dealt two men a grace blow himself, using his axe to free them from the pain of their wounds. Others preferred to die with a sword in their hand, or to simply let the cold steal their life away slowly. He'd heard that wasn't a bad way to die. Not that there were any good ways.
Now here they were, another band of Coalition soldiers doing their best to beat back the Aiel, fighting against a faceless foe that ambushed constantly, in a war with no lines and no clear route to victory. Personally, Elijah was hoping simply to make it to one of the bridge towns before all his men were dead. He figured they were only another couple days away from the city; if it wasn't totally encircled by the Aiel, he might be able to make it. Not much choice...they were low on arrows and supplies, and his men were exhausted. They were in no shape for fighting Aielmen...Ba'alzamon's bowels, they were in no shape for fighting an Illianer street gang. Just another couple days.
A shape approached him, and he instinctively gripped the haft of his throwing axe. His reflexes were on a knife's edge, but that was to the good. You needed speed to match Aiel...they struck suddenly, with no warning, and they were never surprised. If you couldn't match their speed, you died. It was that simple. His men kept their crossbows spanned and loaded day and night now...using ranged weapons helped even the odds. Close combat against Aielmen was dicey at best.
But this time the shape was merely Oggan, the old veteran he'd chosen as his second-in-command. No rank, not even a non-com. Just an old campaigner. His looks were ordinary, he could have come from a half-dozen countries, but his accent spoke of Andor to Lije's ears. He had a jagged scar twisting down one side of his face, which he claimed to have gotten in a grog-house fight on the Tairen docks. More likely some wench gave it to him.
"Bad news, Hawke," the older man said in his raspy voice. "Found Merrin on watch; he's dead. Cold did for him, I think. Won't hear him bitch about his frostbitten fingers anymore."
"A lack of griping is good news, not bad," Lije said coldly. "He's dead, we're not. Take anything he has of use and forget about him." Oggan flinched backwards a bit at the callous recital, so Lije softened his tone. He didn't want the man to think him an utter monster. "I'm sorry he's dead, all right? But I need to worry about the living right now." With a nod of understanding, Oggan went off to roust the men and get them ready for the day's travel. And to deal with the corpse.
Lije's lips quirked in what might have been a smile. His last statement had been a lie...he was not at all sorry for Merrin's death. And it had not been the cold that did him in...Elijah knew this, because it had been his own hand that slipped a narrow-bladed dagger through the armpit of Merrin's mail-shirt, stopping his heart. He had died instantly, and bled hardly at all. There had been no struggle...Elijah could match the Aiel for stealth, when he wanted to. Laid peacefully down in a restful position, he must have seemed to have drifted off to sleep and never woken up.
As he rose to prepare to travel, Lije mentally brushed aside any thoughts about Merrin. The man had sealed his own fate, anyway...when he'd admitted to being a survivor of a Whitecloak unit, trying to get back to the Children. That makes three, Lije thought to himself. And with that bit of mental arithmetic, Merring ceased to become a man and simply became another marker on Elijah's tallyboard. Another dead Whitecloak, to balance the account for the death of Belena. But Elijah was afraid the Whitecloak's account was still very much in the red.