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A Trip Inside Herself (Ay'Lira's Arches)

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Ay’Lira stretched her arms and tried to hold back a yawn as she walked from the kitchens to her room. Luckily, she didn’t have anything to do after this dinner. Very luckily. If she had another day where she had to spend every waking minute working somewhere one more time… Well, now she had time to rest in her room and maybe read more history books. She wondered if Liana was still awake. She wouldn’t mind chatting. She was about to enter the Novice Quarters when she heard the Mistress of Novices call her name. She turned around, surprised to see Valeri Sedai giving her a cool stare, wrapped in her shawl. She had been wearing it for a while…what had that meant?


“You are called to the test of the Arches.”


Oh, that was it. Ay’Lira fell into step with her and followed her through the halls of the White Tower. She remembered that the Arches would force her to face her greatest fears. She steeled herself as they walked. Valeri Sedai turned and led her down a corridor and led to a long, spiraling staircase. She hadn’t remembered this. But this wasn’t something she had done before, so that made sense, she supposed. Down, down, down they went. Where under the Light was this place? Finally, they reached a large domed room. In the middle of the room stood the Arches.


Three silver arches stood on a large ring. Three shawled sisters sat and concentrated on the structure at each point where an arch touched the ring. Another sister, also wearing her shawl, stood at a table with three silver chalices. Suddenly, it hit her. This was really happening. There were so many outcomes. She could refuse, she could run out of one of the Arches and refuse to go on, or…or… She didn’t have time to consider anything else, because Valeri started talking for the first time since the time when she had called out to her at the entrance to the Novice Quarters.


“Two things that no woman hears until she enters this room. Once you begin, you must continue to the end. Refuse to go on, no matter your potential and you will be very kindly put out of the Tower with enough silver to support you a year, and you will never be allowed back. Second. To seek, to strive, is to know danger. You will know danger here. Some women have entered, and never come out. When the ter’angreal was allowed to grow quiet, they – were – not – there. And they were never seen again. If you will survive, you must be steadfast. Faltering leads to a failure.”


Ay’Lira’s doubts faltered. She could do this. She was a warrior in the Light…just like her father. Just like her people. She would do this. There was no other option than to leave each Arch and come back to claim her ring.


“This is your last chance, child. You may turn back now, and you will have only mark against you. Twice more will you be allowed to come here, and only at the third refusal will you be put out of the Tower. It is no shame to refuse. Many cannot do it their first time here. Now you may speak.”


Without hesitation and with a steady and confident voice, Ay’Lira said, “I am ready.”


She followed the words of the ceremony that had been stuffed into her head so many times. She could have recited it herself if that were ever an option.


The sister next to the table asked, “Whom do you bring with you, sister?”


“One who comes as a candidate for Acceptance, sister,” Valeri replied.


“Is she ready?”


“She is ready to leave behind what she was, and, in passing through her fears, gain Acceptance.”


“Does she know her fears?”


“She has never faced them, but now is willing.”


“Then let her face what she fears.”


Valeri asked her to disrobe, and Ay’Lira took off that blasted white dress. She had gotten somewhat accustomed to wearing a dress, but it didn’t help knowing that she was at the bottom of this society. At least with the dress of an Accepted, she’d have a little authority. Just a little.


Standing bare with these five sisters in the room was a little disconcerting, but knowing that they had all had to do this too was good to know.


Valeri led her to the First Arch, and they stopped. The Mistress of Novices said, “The first time is for what was. The way back will come but once. Be steadfast.”

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Ay’Lira stepped through the First Arch, and…


“Ay’Lira, catch your brother for mother, please!”


Ay’Lira huffed and put her hands on her hips. Benna giggled, and Ay’Lira had to laugh, too. Teru was far too adventurous for his age. Well, maybe not. She told Benna she’d be back soon before slipping on her boots and dashing out of the house. Their home was a few blocks from the Seven Towers. It was a good enough place to be, but her brother still didn’t know what he needed to know to go out on his own. She spotted him easily enough, a little thing darting through the streets, between people, heading to the Towers.


Long legs aiding her, she caught up soon and scooped up her little brother and messed up his hair with an open hand as she settled him onto her hip. Teru giggled and caught her wrist with his little hands. She pinched his nose gently and told him he had their mother worried for running off. He explained that he had heard someone say that men were coming back from the Blight. There had been a particularly bad Trolloc raid, so their father had been called into action even though he worked in the Towers.


She set Teru down next to her and held his hand, leading him through the throngs of people heading to the Towers as well. It would be good to see their father come home. When they came to the crowd waiting to see the men return, Teru got away again, weaving through the crowd like a tiny cat. She excused herself and wove a different kind of dance until she found him at the front of the cordoned off area. Ay’Lira picked up Teru again and set him on her shoulders. Together, they looked through the men, looking for men wearing armor of the palace guards. They were fewer than the men in the regular army ranks, and their distinctive armor was easy to spot.


They waited and watched, but they didn’t see him. They didn’t even see him in the returning injured men. Almen, one of her father’s friends spotted them toward the end, supporting someone else who wasn’t their father and just shook his head.


“Lira…” Teru said, sounding a little frightened. “Where…where’s da?”


Ay’Lira set Teru on the ground and looked around at the crowd. Most everyone who had seen their father, brother, husbands come home had gone to prepare for their return to the homestead. Others were left grieving. Ay’Lira suddenly felt like she had gone through grieving for her father as well…but that was ridiculous…wasn’t it?


“Lira!” She looked down at Teru. He was already crying. “Da’s coming home, isn’t he?”


Once again, she picked up her brother, and unable to express the suddenness and permanence of death to a child as young as he, she just embraced him, crying herself now. This seemed so familiar, though. Why would it?


She started walking toward her house, and as she sniffled along with her brother who was trying to be strong in his own way, she thought of this strange familiarity. She had grieved for her father. Yes. Some time before this. And she was to become an Aes Sedai, as ludicrous as that sounded as well.


And there it was.


A silver arch stood by itself to the side of her house. It led to a wall, but she knew where it would lead.


Swallowing the sharp pang of guilt and sadness that jabbed at her, she set her brother down. He went wailing to their mother. She tried to keep her tears and grief down, but she walked through the arch and into the domed chamber where she had to go through this twice more.


“You are washed clean of what sin you may have done and of those done against you. You are washed clean of what crime you may have committed and of those committed against you. You come to us washed clean and pure, in heart and soul.” Cold water doused her as the sister poured the first chalice full of water over her head, covering her tears. But it didn’t stop them.


Valeri Sedai waited patiently as she sobbed. She would continue, but she had had to go through her father’s death for a second time, but more closely, and that didn’t include the terrible guilt she felt at abandoning her family. Little Teru… No. That wasn’t her brother. He was much older now. Maybe even married.


She took a deep breath and with tired eyes nodded to Valeri, letting her know that she was ready.


The Mistress of Novices led her to the Second Arch. “The second time is for what is. The way back will come but once. Be steadfast.”

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She stepped through the Second Arch, ready for more...


Ay’Lira dried her hands on the designated hand-drying cloth. She had just finished washing dishes. Thank the Light they weren’t pots. Her hands were still spongy with the water that hand soaked into them. They were about to get muddy. But at least she would be with Ange Sedai. The sweet Aes Sedai wasn’t her friend. Aes Sedai and novices were not friends. But she felt like a mentor. She helped Ay’Lira work out any pent-up frustration or anger and make it to where she could handle it instead of unleashing it where it was not due. And it felt good working with her hands.


Replacing the hand-drying cloth, she left the kitchens and headed out to the gardens. The sky was almost cloudless. It had been a very hot summer. Well, it was hot to her, living in the Borderlands. But that didn’t bode well for Ange’s herbs.


As she neared the gardens, she began to feel copious amounts of Saidar being used. The weaves all seemed aimed at the sky as well. Curious. She walked to Ange’s herb garden to find that her mentor was the one directing these large weaves. The diminutive Aes Sedai concentrated on the sky and seemed lost in her work, so Ay’Lira walked up beside her and watched. The weaves were much stronger than she could handle of Water and Air. As she did this, the small clouds started to congregate toward the garden.


“It is called Cloud Dancing,” Ange explained, never taking her eyes off the sky. “I developed a Talent for it before I came to the Tower. It has been a long summer.”


Strange. Ay’Lira wouldn’t have pegged Ange as a wilder. She did worry, though. It seemed Ange was holding almost as much of the Power as she possibly could. Slowly, slowly, the scattered clouds inched together over the herb garden. Ange did not let go of the One Power, though. She sent more and more Water into the weaves. Still some Air, but mostly Water was guided into the clouds. As she did this, the clouds slowly formed into a large rain cloud.


Ange began to breathe heavily. Turning to look at the Yellow, Ay’Lira saw that she was sweating. Her chest heaved with the effort to keep air in her lungs. “Are you all right?” Ay’Lira asked. Ange swallowed and drew on more of the Power, and Ay’Lira was sure it was far too much. “Ange Sedai?”


Suddenly, the weaving stopped and the weaves exploded into the sky uncontrolled and Ange opened her mouth in a silent scream. Her eyes didn’t seem to see anything. A thick weave of Air came crashing down from the sky and narrowly missed Ay’Lira. She started to shake. She couldn’t do anything but watch, though… What else could she do? She heard shouts from other Aes Sedai as they came running. The shock on their faces said that they had expected the novice to be the one to lose control, not the Aes Sedai next to her. Ange’s silent scream took voice, and Saidar winked out from her. All that power…gone.


The Yellow crumpled to the ground in a heap. Ay’Lira knelt next to her and supported her head. “Ange Sedai…?”


The Aes Sedai lifted her head and looked at Ay’Lira, but…her face wasn’t the ageless face that she had known…she looked like a young woman about a few years older than herself. After a moment, fear took her eyes. “Ay’Lira…” she said. It was the first time any Aes Sedai had called her by her name. “Ay’Lira, it’s gone…the Power…I…” Tears filled her eyes and her voice, and she reached up to her for help that she couldn’t give.


Ay’Lira looked up, tears in her own eyes to the sisters gathered around her. Their faces were now numb with fear. Between their swishing skirts, she saw something…decidedly odd. There was a silver arch close to the walls of the White Tower.


The way back will come but once. Be steadfast.


Now she remembered…something. She was on her way to becoming an Aes Sedai. But with her mentor cradled in her arms, her ability to touch the Source gone… She stood up while helping Ange up as well. She made sure she was stable before she left. She heard Ange talk to the other sisters, fear making her voice pitch. She wanted to stay and help her mentor as she had helped her all those days…


But she would be steadfast. Picking up her skirts, she ran to the arch. Was it more transparent than it had been? No, it couldn’t be. But she didn’t risk it. She ran faster and darted through the arch as she heard Ange bellow in grief from the gardens.


She came to a stop when she saw where she was…in the stone chamber where she was being tested…where she had passed her second test. Water ran down her head a second time. “You are washed clean of false pride. You are washed clean of false ambition. You are washed clean, in heart and soul.”


This time, she didn’t need time to collect herself. She just followed Valeri Sedai to the Third Arch. One more time. Would she betray someone else she cared about?


“The third time is for what will be. The way back will come but once. Be steadfast.”

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Ay'Lira stepped through the final Arch...


Ay'Lira fastened her belt that housed three knives. She slung a quiver full of arrows over her shoulder and knew that her bow was on her bed. She ran a brush through her hair. She didn't care if it glistened. She was going hunting, she wasn't trying to impress anyone. Once it was manageable, though, she braided it half way through and twisted it until it sat on her head. She tied it with a leather cord and picked up her bow. Ay'Lira walked to the front of her home and gave her husband, Yaden, a soft kiss. He chuckled.


"Women can take an Age to get dressed."


She elbowed his stomach, but not very hard and gave him a wry smile. "I have more hair than you. Besides, you've been ready all day, like a little boy." They eyed each other for a moment and both laughed after the pause. The pair left their house and walked into the Shienaran wilderness that surrounded it. Ay'Lira had been out of the White Tower for a few years and had found a good friend of hers in Shienar, someone she had known since they had lived in Malkier. She had explained to him that she'd likely not age like he did, and he seemed to think that if anyone had a problem with that, it should be her. He was quick-witted and smart, but very faithful. So, even though he had some gray coming in, and she still seemed in her twenties, the couple was happy. Sometimes she would idly touch her ki'sain as if it were foreign to her. She had never considered marrying until she had found Yaden again.


Ay'Lira and Yaden walked through the forest surrounding their home and Yaden started setting traps. Ay'Lira went further and started to scout. She saw deer tracks, but they were too old. She shot down a few crows, but left them where they landed. She wouldn't eat something the Dark One tainted, no matter how hungry she was.


She did manage to shoot down two fat robins and a couple rabbits, though. She buried them under some brush, far from a trap that Yaden had set before marking the place with an arrow in the ground. He found her and they both went scouting together this time. They slowly walked through the forest, admiring it when they could. When they went scouting together, they were looking for larger game than just one of them could handle. This deep in the woods, there were no trails, but they were both good at tracking, even themselves.


They found a mound and decided to approach it slowly. They could hear a bit of rustling, and they didn't want to take any prey by surprise. They crawled up the mound slowly, step by step until they reached the top...then shot back down. Their faces pale, a sheen of sweat on their faces, they looked at each other for answers. That wasn't prey...it was the devastation of a town after a Trolloc raid. Neither of them were native to Shienar, and they had never been this way before. But they had both seen those bodies strung up, the heads on spikes, the sickeningly slow boil of that huge pot... Pot. Why would a pot strike a cord with her? She felt like she had cleaned...one...no, not a Trolloc pot, but one nearly as big. The ones at the Tower. But it seemed more vivid...as if she had done it yesterday. No, it was just memories sneaking up on her in chaos.


Even more slowly than before, the pair quietly crawled down the mound and faced each other. Their stare seemed to convey more than words. They had to get away, away from their home, and warn the Shienarans in the town close to their home, they had...


Yaden let out a gurgling noise as blood spilled from his mouth. The tip of a black blade came out of his chest, just below his breastbone...through his heart. The blade was wrenched out as Yaden slumped to the ground, his hands clawing at her sides, trying to stay standing. She inched back, but kept her footing and saw the Myrdraal that had just killed her husband. She let out a wordless scream and grabbed two of the knives in her belt and lunged at the eyeless abomination. She buried one in its neck, and another just below its breastbone. As soon as the knives were planted, she ran southward. She was full of sadness, anger, fear, but mostly fear. She knew Myrdraal took far too long to decide to die, and her screaming would have likely attracted the attention of the Trollocs on the other side of the mound. She had to get back to the village, she had to get away...


As she ran, she looked back. The Myrdraal had falled somewhere, and about ten Trollocs were after her now. No longer under the command of the disgusting Myrdraal, they were just out for more food.


Turning toward her path again, she saw a silver arch among the trees. No...she hadn't left the Tower. This was her test to become Accepted...and this was the final Arch! The way back will come but once. Be steadfast. "Don't need to tell me twice..." she muttered as she ran straight into the arch and stopped.


There stood the Amyrlin and a sister from each Ajah, every one in her shawl. She couldn't help but smile as she knelt in front of the Amyrlin Seat. She had passed. And she could rest. Cold water fell over her head again, this time poured by the Amyrlin. "You are washed clean of Ay'Lira Sonoran of Malkier. You are washed clean of all ties that bind you to the world. You come to us washed clean in heart and soul. You are Ay'Lira Sonoran, Accepted of the White Tower."


"You are sealed to us now. Welcome, daughter." The Amyrlin Seat handed the chalice to a Red standing next to her, and held in her other hand Ay'Lira's gold Great Serpent ring. She slipped it onto the third finger of her left hand, and pulled Ay'Lira to her feet. "Welcome, daughter." She laid a kiss on Ay'Lira's cheek, then the other. "Welcome."


What seemed an Age later, she carried her small bundle of belongings to her new room in the Accepted Quarters. She wore a new banded dress and her ring. She arranged her things and stripped down to her shift, then flopped onto her bed. Her ring glistened in the faint moonlight coming from her small window. She couldn't see herself ever taking it off.

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