In this section, Egwene and Nynaeve survive an assassination attempt.
The Soulless, the Gray Men, make their first appearance, narrowly failing to kill Egwene and Nynaeve. Given their failure to kill Rand in Fal Dara, it may be that Gray Men not only give up their soul to the Dark One, but also the better part of their aim. Alternately, the Pattern can always use subtle means to stave off disaster. A gust of wind, a flicker at the edge of vision that makes someone move or hesitate just long enough to be missed by that fatal arrow. The most interesting part of their terms of employment is the complete devotion to secrecy. With no ability to free his comrade, one Gray Man kills another to prevent their interrogation. Better to fail at the mission than to give up information. Nynaeve and Egwene can always be killed later, but secrets told can never be taken back.
There are more and more secrets being revealed with a need to be kept, but Nynaeve correctly decides that keeping secrets between themselves is counter productive, and that they need an ally that can be trusted, something no Aes Sedai can pull off. Without hesitation she brings Elayne into the hunt, never questioning her trustworthiness or willingness to help. Cementing the deal is Elaida’s belligerent interest in Rand and in coercing the Hunters Three to reveal their secrets. Nothing binds friends together like opposition to a bully. From her perspective, Elaida sees Siuan making a mess of Elayne’s destiny and playing dangerous games with ta’veren. Siuan must be stopped.
Nynaeve is always skeptical and suspicious, and has a keen eye for noticing the ways in which Aes Sedai may be twisting the truth. Egwene is far more trusting of their authority, and is less willing to skirt the rules. Without Nynaeve supplying the backbone, the Black Ajah Hunt would be off to a much slower start. Nynaeve correctly reasons that they cannot trust any beyond themselves, and evidence if this is seen with their interaction with Sheriam. Nynaeve is confrontational with Sheriam, where Egwene manages to be meek and eager.
Given the role that Sheriam plays in later books, and strong reader reaction to her warmth and trustworthiness, I’ll examine how she has been portrayed. Including New Spring, there are two times when Siuan wants to make Sheriam the third in their own group of Hunters. Sheriam is an incurable gossip, but a close friend to Siuan, which explains how she landed the plum position of Mistress of Novices. In The Great Hunt she warmly welcomed Nynaeve and Egwene to Tar Valon, giving them some much needed orientation and acceptance after the rest of the Aes Sedai ignored them. That interaction will place Sheriam among the potential allies in the Tower. Readers should have a generally pleasant feeling about her by the time she appears on page in The Dragon Reborn.
Sheriam appears just after the assassination attempt, and is surprised and horrified at the Gray Man’s presence. She immediately offers comfort and shares closely held information about the Soulless. These are her hallmark, and it is unsurprising that Egwene, and readers, will interpret it as a good sign. They may not be able to confide in Sheriam, but they can rely on her for some help.
It takes Nynaeve’s distrust of all Aes Sedai to notice and point out the flaws in Sheriam’s actions. Sheriam didn’t ask who killed the Gray Man, but since Nynaeve claimed to have found him just so, she would have had no reason to ask a mere Accepted or concern her with such matters. Sheriam is evasive about Nynaeve’s questions, which is no proof of anything except that Nynaeve is far less willing to take Sheriam’s apparent openness at face value. Sheriam has likely never dealt with such a hostile attitude from an Accepted at any time in her tenure. Sheriam twice tells them not to speak of the matter with anyone unless asked first, a sign that she cares deeply about the secrecy of this matter, which she may well have good reason for, but could also be an indication of Dark affiliations. The coincidence of her appearing on the scene mere moments after the Gray Man’s death also adds to suspicions.
The point of the encounter is to reinforce that any Aes Sedai may be Black Ajah. By choosing Sheriam, who has had more positive interactions than any other Aes Sedai, for the first encounter after the Gray Man, the sense of paranoia is established. Readers should be firmly suspicious of all Aes Sedai at this point. Then, to let Sheriam off the hook, a confrontation between her and Elaida forces readers to make a relative value judgment between the two, which transfers misgivings about Sheriam to Elaida. Soon later, Lanfear reveals that she was in the White Tower on other business. The implied connection to the Gray Man means Sheriam was not involved, and that readers can go back to trusting Sheriam while retaining their suspicion of other Aes Sedai. I note that reader opinion at Theoryland based on factions over Sheriam remained about 2 to 1 in her favour, even after her later beatings, which could be taken as a measurement of the effects on readers of this portrayal.
The same type of worry about who was a Darkfriend never really surfaced in The Great Hunt. An arrow as fired at Rand and the story moved on. In this instance, the claustrophobic feeling that it is just the three girls against the whole White Tower is well established over a lengthy build-up, where readers are given a straightforward example of the risks of trusting even Sheriam. Themes of trust have been in place throughout the series, but become part of the reader’s psyche from here on.
Mat gets healed with a circle of ten Aes Sedai using their most powerful sa’angreal. It is not immediately obvious that if Mat needed that much Power to heal him, dealing with Padan Fain will be incredibly difficult. This is Mat’s first point of view in the series. He has been a prod to move the plot forward, but hardly an active participant up until now. In strong contrast to the other characters, the use of humour is evident in his perspective. He thinks he is the last one of them who is still sane. Meanwhile he is remembering leading the armies of Manetheren. Mat, more than the others, will be an unreliable narrator, despite his certainty that he is thinking things through. There will be opportunities to shift the tone and mood of the story by shifting to Mat’s point of view.
Lanfear is still interested in the three young men, and is certain Mat will seek out glory. It was important for Rand not to be lured by glory, Perrin is unlikely to be budged by such concerns, but Mat is being portrayed as the weakest leg of their tripod, keenly interested in getting what he wants here and now far more than his friends.
Don’t just have your characters wonder who to trust, show what happens, use examples to make readers worry as much as your characters.