The Great Hunt (Chapter 35): Stedding Tsofu

Welcome back to my re-read, recap, and reaction to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. This post will only have spoilers through the current chapter.

You can find my previous chapter recaps HERE.

Chapter 35: Stedding Tsofu

Half a day outside of Cairhein, Rand and the others are riding in flat forested lands. There are no roads where they are traveling and few farms or villages. Verin presses for speed while Ingtar grumbles constantly that they are being tricked and that Fain would never have told them where he was really going.

Rand rides with a grim determination. He tells himself that he has this thing, this duty, to do before being free of Aes Sedai once and for all. Perrin seems to share something of Rand’s mood and rides on, face forward, quietly. When the group camps on the edge of the forest at full dark, Perrin asks Loial questions about the stedding. He asks if wolves are reluctant to enter steddings in the same manner that trollocs are and Loial replies that only creatures of the Shadow are reluctant to enter them. Loial adds that Aes Sedai are also reluctant to enter steddings as they cannot touch the True Source in them or channel the One Power. Loial appears to be the most reluctant of all the enter the stedding. Mat is the only one who seems eager, almost desperately so. His skin is pale, as though he has not seen the sun in a year, and his cheeks have begun to go hollow. Verin places her hands on him for healing before he goes to sleep and again in the morning but it makes no difference in how Mat looks.

On the second day, Verin abruptly sits up high in her saddle and Ingtar gives a start. Rand cannot see anything different in the forest around them but as he follows them he suddenly feels a chill pass through him as though he had leaped into a pond in winter. It flashes through him and is then gone. Rand feels both a sense of refreshment and a dull sense of loss as well.

Perrin has on his face a look of recognition as he passes through that same spot. Loial takes a deep slow breath and states that it feels good to be back in a stedding. Frowning, Rand looks around. He had expected the stedding to somehow look different than the surrounding forest.

Suddenly an Ogier steps out from behind an oak tree. She is shorter than Loial – meaning she is head and shoulders taller than Rand. She wears a long green dress embroidered with flowers and carries a bunch of silver bell blossoms as if she has been gathering them. Loial scrambles down from his tall horse and bows hastily. Rand and the others do the same. Even Verin inclines her head. Loial introduces there party but does not mention the name of his own stedding as he introduces himself. The Ogier girl – Rand is sure she is no older than Loial – studies them and then smiles. She tells them to be welcome to Stedding Tsofu. She introduces herself as Erith, daughter of Iva, daughter of Alar. Erith tells them that she will take them to the Elders. She studies the group, searching for its leader, before finally settling on Verin.

She asks Verin if some of the armed men can remain outside. Ingtar gives orders to Uno. As a result, the only Shienarans to follow Erith into the stedding are Ingtar and Hurin. As they follow, Loial returns to walk forward with Rand. Hurin is staring around in amazement though Rand is not sure at what exactly. Loial bends to speak quietly to Rand and comments on how beautiful Erith is. He tells Rand that her voice sings when she speaks. Mat snickers before telling Loial that she is a little tall for his taste but that he agrees she is very pretty. Loial says again how good it is to be back in a stedding. He is quick to say that it is not as though The Longing was taking him, though.

Perrin asks him what the Longing is. Loial explains that Ogier are bound to the stedding and that too long away from one can be fatal. He says that prior to the Breaking of the World, Ogier could go anywhere for as long as they wished. However, he says that now they cannot stay away for too long without dire consequences. Loial says that more died than lived during the aftermath of the Breaking.

Rand anxiously asks Loial if he needs to stay in Stedding Tsofu for a while. Loial tells Rand that he will know the Longing before it comes and that it will be long before the feeling can cause harm to him. He names an Ogier who once spent ten years among the Sea Folk, without ever seeing a stedding, who subsequently came home safely. Abruptly, an Ogier woman steps out of the trees and pauses to speak with Erith and Verin. Loial seems to try to hide behind his horse.

Loial: It is a dull life in the stedding compared to traveling with three ta’veren.

Mat warns him not to go on about that again and Loial amends his statement to traveling with three friends. He then says he hopes they are his friends at least. Rand says they are and Perrin nods. Mat asks how he could not be friends with someone who dices so badly. After a glare from Rand and Perrin, he says he likes Loial and that they are friends. He mutters that sometimes Loial is as bad to be around as Rand and mutters some more than at least they are safe inside the stedding.

Perrin punches Mat’s shoulder and then looks immediately sorry when Mat grimaces at him with a gaunt expression. Suddenly, Rand becomes aware of music. He hears flutes and fiddles playing in a jolly tune drifting through the trees. Just as suddenly, Rand also notices a tree at least twenty paces wide at the trunk. He gapes as he follows it upward with his eyes to a good one hundred paces above the ground. Beyond this tree are others that are taller still.

Mat gapes and says that someone could build fifty or even a hundred houses with just one of those trees. Loial, sounding both scandalized and angry, asks Mat about cutting down a Great Tree. Loial says that they never cut down one of the Great Trees unless it dies and he says that they almost never do. He says few survived the Breaking but many of the largest now were seedlings during the Age of Legends. Mat apologizes and says he was just commenting on their size. Loial nods seeming mollified. More Ogier appear around them walking among the trees. None stop or speak. Rand learns to pick out the older Ogier men by their long dangling mustaches and narrow beards. All of the younger Ogier men are smooth shaven like Loial.

A handful of the Ogier – women and girls – take special notice of Loial. He walks straight ahead with ears twitching more wildly the further they go.

They approach a tree stump, nearly one hundred paces across, polished smoothly at the top. Rand wonders how tall that tree once was when Erith speaks loudly enough for all to hear. A few moments later, three human women walk around the stump. Ingtar identifies them a Aiel – Maidens of the Spear. He says that it is good he left Masema with Uno and the others. He reaches over his shoulder to loosen his sword in its scabbard.

Rand studies the Aiel with an uneasy curiosity. They are what too many people have told him that he is. Two of the women are mature and the third is little more than a girl but all three are tall for women. All of their clothes are some shade of brown or green or gray. Rand thinks that their garments would fade into rock or woods as well as a Warder’s cloak. Short bows poke over their shoulders. Quivers and long knives hang at their belts. Each carries a small shield of hide and shafts with long points. The Aiel become aware of the other humans. The youngest shouts Shienarans as the other two lift brown cloths from around their shoulders, wrapping them around their heads. The older woman are raising black veils across their faces hiding everything but their eyes. Crouching low, they advance at a deliberate pace with shields held forward. Ingtar’s sword comes out of his sheath.

Erith tells the humans that they must not. Rand realizes that his heron marked blade is in his hands and Perrin’s ax is half out of his belt loop. Mat asks Rand and Perrin if they are crazy. he says that he does not care if they are Aiel, he points out that they are also women. Verin tells all of them to stop this immediately but the Aiel do not break stride. She clenches her fists in frustration. Loial begins shouting to remember the Pact. They heed him less than they did Verin and Erith.

As the women get within thirty paces, Rand begins to worry less about hurting the women than he does their hurring him with their spears. He seeks the Void and finds it. Wonderingly, it is only the Void. Saidin is not there. The emptiness of the Void is emptier than he has ever remembered.

Abruptly, an Ogier strides in between the two groups – his narrow beard quivering. He asks everyone what the meaning of this is and he commands everyone to put up their weapons. He first glares at Ingtar, Rand, Mat, and Perrin and tells them that they have some excuse. Then he rounds on the Aiel women who have stopped and asks them if they have forgotten the Pact. They remove their veil and head coverings so fast that it seems to Rand they are trying to pretend their faces were never covered at all. The younger woman’s face is bright red and the older women look abashed.

The oldest of the woman asks the Treebrother to forgive them. She says that they would not have bared steel but for being in the land of the Treekillers. The Ogier man tells her, Rhian, that she is in a stedding. He tells her that everyone is safe in a stedding, calling her Little Sister, and he says that there is no fighting here. She nods ashamed. Ingtar and Rand sheathe their swords.

The Ogier turns to Verin and bows. He introduces himself as Juin, son of Lacel, son of Laud. He says that he has come to take them to the Elders. He says that the Elders would like to know why an Aes Sedai enters the stedding with armed men and one of their own youths. Loial hunches as if he is trying to disappear. Verin looks regretfully at the Aiel, as if she wants to speak with them. She motions Juin to lead. For a few moments, the men and the Aiel stare at each other. They give Rand increasingly angry looks. He hears the youngest of them mutter that he is wearing a sword.

After Rand and the rest move on and lose sight of them, Ingtar tells them about fighting the Aiel. He says that a charge of Aiel is as easy to stop as an avalanche. Erith tells them that the Aiel would not break the pact once it was recalled to them. She also says that the Aiel came for sung wood. A note of pride enters her voice as she says that they have two Tree Singers in Stedding Tsofu. She says that the talent is rare though that she has also heard Stedding Shangtai also has a Tree Singer who is very talented. Loial blushes though Erith does not appear to notice. She tells them to come with her and motions them to where they can wait until the Elders have spoken.

As Erith leads on, Perrin mutters.

Perrin: Sung wood my foot. They’re looking for He Who Comes With the Dawn.
Mat: They’re looking for you, Rand.
Rand: For me? That’s crazy. What makes you think…

Rand cuts off as Erith shows them where to wait. She eyes Loial but he waves away her concern and pulls up a chair in a corner least easily seen from the door. As soon as she leaves, Rand gets Mat and Perrin over to one side. He asks them about the Aiel. Mat tells Rand that they met another Aiel on the way to Cairhein. He listens in amazement to their tale of meeting an Aiel in Kinslayer’s Dagger.

Mat: And since you’re the only Aiel we know, well, it could be you. Ingtar says Aiel never live outside the Waste so you must be the only one.

Rand growls that he is not an Aiel while remembering that the Amyrlin says that he is and that Ingtar believes that he is also. He remembers Tam’s fever dream as well and tries to dismiss it on account of his being sick. Rand says that maybe he doesn’t belong to anyone but The Two Rivers is the only home he knows. Mat apologizes but points out that Ingtar and Masema both believe that he is and that Urien could have been Rand’s cousin. He says that if Rhian put on a dress and said that she is his aunt that Rand would believe it himself.

Ogier women begin to appear, bringing towels to wash their faces and hands, to bring food, and to check on their comfort. Each also turns her attentions to Loial before leaving. He gives answers respectfully but in as few words as Rand can ever remember him using.

Hurin smiles joyfully and tells Rand to smell the air. He says that he does not think that there has ever been any killing in this place, ever, nor any hurting except by accident. Rand replies that the steddings are supposed to be safe for everyone while watching Loial. He walks over to his Ogier friend and Mat follows. He asks Loial what the matter is and says that he has been as nervous as a cat in a dog yard since arriving. Rand asks if he is worried that they will find out he left Stedding Shangtai without permission from his Elders. Loial looks around wildly and tells Rand not to say that where anyone can hear. He explains the nature of Ogier marriages and says that if the Elders hear find out that he is out without permission they will decide he needs a wife to settle him down. He worries that they will send a message to his mother and that she will have him married before she washes off the dust from her journey.

Loial says that he believes his mother was looking for a wife for him when he left. He laments that whatever wife she chooses will not let him go back outside the Stedding until he has gray in his beard. Mat laughs and says that among humans, men do the choosing and that no wife can stop a man from doing what he wants. Rand frowns and begins thinking about how Egwene began following him around when they both were little. He remembers that Mistress al’Vere began taking a special interest in him then. Later, some girls would dance with Rand on Feast Days and others would not. The girls who did dance with Rand were always Egwene’s friends. Rand also remembers Mistress al’Vere pulling Tam aside and muttering about Tam not having a wife for her to talk to. After that, Rand remembers, his father and everyone else acted as though Rand and Egwene were promised even though they had not yet knelt before the Women’s Circle and given the words. This is the first time Rand has thought of those events this way.

Rand mutters to them that he thinks humans do marriage the same way as Ogiers. Mat laughs and then Rand asks him if he can remember a time that his father ever did anything his mother really did not want him to do. Mat grins but then frowns thoughtfully. Juin then steps inside and asks all of them to come with him.

Rand and Mat try to reassure Loial. He suggests that the Elders are going to give them permission to use the Waygate. Mat mutters quietly that they really have to do it.

Loial: Stay and get married or travel the Ways. Life is very unsettling with ta’veren for friends.

REACTION:

It’s such a small part of the story but I love Rand’s reflection here about how he and Egwene became “promised” to each other. That girl has loved Rand since they were little. She manipulated the entire village into guaranteeing their future marriage.

That’s the aggressive, “hurls her whole body into him,” type of love that I fully expect from the Innkeeper’s daughter.

Jordan’s ideal marriage dynamic seems to be one where the woman manipulates events into happening – all the while the man believes he is the one manipulating them into being. Rand realizes here for the first time that the life with Egwene that he wants – and has seemingly always wanted – was perhaps not entirely his own choice. I wonder if that will color his view of things. Even if I find all of this extremely endearing on Egwene’s part (keeping in mind that she set this into motion when she was little) I can see where Rand might not be as happy upon further reflection.

Erith might have just told her mom that she wants to marry Loial. Loial seems worried that she did just that. And… Loial couldn’t stop going on about how beautiful she is. This love connection might be a circumstance where Erith sets things into motion and (eventually) they both get what they want.

We learn a little bit about the wider world and see some character evolution in this section:

  • Ogier get sick and die if they are away from Steddings for too long.
  • The Aiel are out in numbers looking for sung wood and (probably) Rand.
  • Mat and Perrin – without coming all the way out and saying it – believe Rand is the Dragon Reborn… the real one. The assumption that Rand fulfills Aiel prophecies, too, is the subtle giving in to that truth. (It doesn’t hurt that they have had time to think about the fact that Ba’alzamon would not show up in their dreams for someone less than the Real Dragon Reborn.) Perrin also knows that the wolves know Rand as “Shadowkiller.”

Take a minute and Hurin in this section. Imagine smelling truly clean air for the first time. That guy never knew what clean air smelled like until now. He might want to retire among the Ogier.

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