My highlights and thoughts on book 9 of the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan, Winter’s Heart.
This post is longer than normal, because I want to share with you a passage which I found particularly good.
For several books Jordan has talked about the Aiel, a culture with complex family relationships most unlike our Western ones. In this passage, Elayne undergoes the ceremony to become first-sister to Aviendha. (The closest parallel for Westerners would be two friends who completely and without limit adopt one another as though blood-relations).
(For background, the ceremony uses the female-half of Jordan’s magic system, saidar, and they talk about the Aiel custom of ji’e’toh, “honor and obligation” which is essentially their shame-resolution system within the culture).
The quote starts with Monaelle, a Wise One speaking after Elayne and Aviendha are brought into a private room filled with Wise Ones.
“You will both do as you are instructed. If you waver or question, your dedication is not strong enough. I will send you away, and that will be the end of it, forever. I will ask questions, and you will answer truthfully. If you refuse to answer, you will be sent away. If any here think you lie, you will be sent away. You may leave at any time on your own, of course. Which also will end this for all time. There are no second chances here. Now. What is the best you know of the woman you want for a first-sister?”
Elayne half-expected the question. This was one of the things she had been told to think about. Choosing one virtue among many had not been easy, yet she had her answer ready. When she spoke, flows of saidar suddenly wove together between her and Aviendha, and no sound came from her tongue, or Aviendha’s. Without thought, a part of her mind tucked away the weaves; even now, trying to learn was as much a part of her as the color of her eyes. The weaves vanished as her lips closed. “Aviendha is so confident, so proud. She doesn’t care what anyone thinks she should do, or be; she is who she wants to be,” Elayne heard her own voice say, while Aviendha’s words suddenly were audible at the same time. “Even when Elayne is so afraid that her mouth dries, her spirit will not bend. She is braver than anyone I have ever known.”
Elayne stared at her friend. Aviendha thought she was brave? Light, she was no coward, but brave? Strangely, Aviendha was staring at her in disbelief.
“Courage is a well,” Viendre said at Elayne’s ear, “deep in some, shallow in others. Deep or shallow, wells go dry eventually, even if they fill again later. You will face what you cannot face. Your spine will turn to jelly, and your vaunted courage will leave you weeping in the dust. The day will come.” She sounded as though she wanted to be there to see it come. Elayne gave a curt nod. She knew all about her spine turning to jelly; she fought it every day, it seemed.
Tamela was speaking to Aviendha, in a voice almost as satisfied as Viendre’s. “Ji’e’toh binds you like bands of steel. For ji, you make yourself exactly what is expected of you, to the last hair. For toh, if necessary you will abase yourself and crawl on your belly. Because you care to your bones what everyone thinks of you.”
Elayne nearly gasped. That was harsh, and unfair. She knew something of ji’e’toh, but Aviendha was not like that. Yet Aviendha was nodding, much as she herself had. An impatient acceptance of what she already knew.
“Fine traits to love in a first-sister,” Monaelle said, lifting her shawl down to her elbows, “but what do you find worst in her?”
Elayne shifted on her chilling knees, licked her lips before speaking. She had dreaded this. It was not just Monaelle’s warning. Aviendha had said they must speak the truth. Must, or what was sisterhood worth? Again the weaves held their words captive until they were done.
“Aviendha . . .” Elayne’s voice said suddenly, hesitantly. “She . . . she thinks violence is always the answer. At times, she won’t think beyond her belt knife. At times, she’s like a boy who won’t grow up!”
“Elayne knows that . . .” Aviendha’s voice began, then gulped and went on in a rush. “She knows she is beautiful, knows the power it gives her over men. She exposes half her bosom sometimes, in the open air, and she smiles to make men do what she wants.”
Elayne gaped. Aviendha thought that of her? It made her sound a lightskirt! Aviendha frowned back and half-opened her mouth, but Tamela pressed her shoulders again and began to speak.
“You think men do not stare at your face in approval?” There was an edge in the Wise One’s voice; strong was the best anyone would ever say of her face. “Do they not look at your breasts in the sweat tent? Admire your hips? You are beautiful, and you know it. Deny it, and deny yourself! You have taken pleasure in men’s looks, and smiled at them. Will you never smile at a man to give your arguments more weight, or touch his arm to distract him from the weakness of your arguments? You will, and you will be no less for it.”
Red flooded Aviendha’s cheeks, but Elayne was having to listen to Viendre. And fight blushes of her own. “There is violence in you. Deny it, and deny yourself. Have you never raged and struck out? Have you never drawn blood? Have you never wished to? Without considering another way? Without any thought at all? While you breathe, that will be part of you.” Elayne thought of Taim, and other times, and her face felt like a furnace.
This time, there was more than one response.
“Your arms will grow weak,” Tamela was telling Aviendha. “Your legs will lose their swiftness. A youth will be able to take the knife from your hand. How will skill or ferocity avail you then? Heart and mind are the true weapons. But did you learn to use the spear in a day, when you were a Maiden? If you do not hone mind and heart now, you will grow old and children will befuddle your wits. Clan chiefs will sit you in a corner to play cat’s cradle, and when you speak, all will hear only the wind. Take heed while you can.”
“Beauty flees,” Viendre went on, to Elayne. “Years will make your breasts sag, your flesh grow slack, your skin grow leathery. Men who smiled to see your face will speak to you as if you were just another man. Your husband may see you always as the first time his eyes caught you, but no other man will dream of you. Will you no longer be you? Your body is only clothing. Your flesh will wither, but you are your heart and mind, and they do not change except to grow stronger.”
Elayne shook her head. Not in denial. Not really. She had never thought on aging, though. Especially not since going to the Tower. The years lay lightly even on very old Aes Sedai. But what if she lived as long as the Kinswomen? That would mean giving up being Aes Sedai, of course, but what if she did? The Kin took a very long time to grow wrinkles, but grow them they did. What was Aviendha thinking? She knelt there looking . . . sullen.
“What is the most childish thing you know of the woman you want for a first-sister?” Monaelle said.
This was easier, not so fraught. Elayne even smiled as she spoke. Aviendha grinned back, sullenness gone. Again the weaves took their words and released them together, voices with laughter in them.
“Aviendha won’t let me teach her to swim. I’ve tried. She isn’t afraid of anything, except getting into more water than a bathtub.”
“Elayne gobbles sweets with both hands like a child who’s escaped her mother’s eye. If she keeps on, she will be fat as a pig before she grows old.”
Elayne jerked. Gobbles? Gobbles? A taste, now and then, was all she took. Just now and then. Fat? Why was Aviendha glaring at her? Refusing to step into water more than knee-deep was childish.
Monaelle covered a slight cough with one hand, but Elayne thought she was hiding a smile. Some of the standing Wise Ones laughed outright. At Aviendha’s silliness? Or her . . . gobbling?
Monaelle resumed dignity, adjusting her skirts spread out on the floor, but there was still a touch of mirth in her voice. “What is your greatest jealousy of the woman you want for a first-sister?”
Perhaps Elayne would have hedged her answer despite the requirement for truth. Truth had jumped up as soon as she was told to think on this, but she had found something smaller, less embarrassing for them both, that would have passed muster. Perhaps. But there was that about her smiling at men and exposing her bosom. Maybe she did smile, but Aviendha walked in front of red-faced servingmen without a stitch on and seemed not even to see them! So she gobbled candy, did she? She was going to get fat? She spoke the bitter truth while the weaves took her words and Aviendha’s mouth moved in grim silence, until at last what they had said was loosed.
“Aviendha has lain in the arms of the man I love. I never have; I may never, and I could weep over it!”
“Elayne has the love of Rand al’Th . . . of Rand. My heart is dust for wanting him to love me, but I do not know if he ever will.”
Elayne peered into Aviendha’s unreadable face. She was jealous of her over Rand? When the man avoided Elayne Trakand as if she had scabies? She had no time for more thought.
“Strike her as hard as you can with your open hand,” Tamela told Aviendha, removing her own hands from Aviendha’s shoulders.
Viendre squeezed Elayne’s lightly. “Do not defend yourself.” They had not been told anything of this! Surely, Aviendha would not—
Blinking, Elayne pushed herself up from the icy floor tiles. Gingerly she felt her cheek, and winced. She was going to wear a palm print the rest of the day. The woman did not have to hit her that hard.
Everyone waited until she was kneeling again, and then Viendre leaned closer. “Strike her as hard as you can with your open hand.”
Well, she was not going to knock Aviendha on her ear. She was not going to—
Her full-armed slap sent Aviendha sprawling, sliding on her chest across the tiles almost to Monaelle. Elayne’s palm stung almost as much as her cheek.
Aviendha half pushed herself up, gave her head a shake, then scrambled back to her position. And Tamela said, “Strike her with the other hand.”
This time, Elayne slid all the way to Amys’ knees on the frozen tiles, her head ringing, both cheeks burning. And when she regained her own knees in front of Aviendha, when Viendre told her to strike, she put her whole body into the slap, so much that she nearly fell over atop Aviendha as the other woman went down.
“You may go now,” Monaelle said.
Elayne’s eyes jerked toward the Wise One. Aviendha, halfway back to her knees, went stiff as stone.
“If you wish to,” Monaelle continued. “Men usually do, at this point if not sooner. Many women do, too. But if you still love one another enough to go on, then embrace.”
Elayne flung herself at Aviendha, and was met with a rush that nearly knocked her over backward. They clung together. Elayne felt tears trickling from her eyes, and realized Aviendha was crying as well. “I’m sorry,” Elayne whispered fervently. “I’m sorry, Aviendha.”
“Forgive me,” Aviendha whispered back. “Forgive me.”
Monaelle was standing over them, now. “You will know anger at one another again, you will speak harsh words, but you will always remember that you have already struck her. And for no better reason than you were told to. Let those blows pass for all you might wish to give. You have toh toward one another, toh you cannot repay and will not try to, for every woman is always in her first-sister’s debt. You will be born again.”
Within the ceremony they answer 3 questions
- What is the best trait of the other woman? The Wise Ones acknowledge the virtue of the quality, before pointing its limitations, tearing down any sense of pride. The good quality at some stage will falter.
(Aviendha is independent … but she is prideful)
(Elayne has courage … her courage will fail her at some stage)
- What is the worst trait of the other woman? The Wise Ones reply by identifying that same trait in the accuser, and highlighting the frailty of the trait.
(Aviendha is quick to use her knife … her physical strength will fade)
(Elayne uses her beauty … which will pass with years)
- What is the most childish thing the other woman does?
(Aviendha is afraid of large bodies of water)
(Elayne gobbles lollies).
- What is your greatest jealousy of the woman you want for a first-sister?
(Aviendha is jealous that Rand loves Elayne)
(Elayne is jealous that Aviendha has slept with Rand)
The women then strike each other before being told “always remember that you have already struck her. And for no better reason than you were told to. Let those blows pass for all you might wish to give.”
I like this passage because I think it is perceptive. It humbles the individual and lets them know the best and worst that their (future) sister thinks of them. All pretense gone they start their new relationship with complete honesty.
Other quotes I liked:
- “Me?” Gill wheezed once he could talk. “You want me to tell her? She’ll crack my pate if I mention a thing like that! I think the woman was born in Far Madding in a thunderstorm. She probably told the thunder to be quiet. It probably did.” (Page 152)
- When a woman adjusted her clothes for no reason, it was like a man tightening the straps of his armor and checking his saddle girth; she meant to drive home a charge, and you would be cut down like a dog if you ran. (Page 496)
- “And on you, my Lord,” their stocky officer replied, ambling forward, and Mat recognized him, Surlivan Sarat, a good fellow, always ready with a quip and possessing a fine eye for horses. Shaking his head, Surlivan tapped the side of his pointed helmet with the thin, gilded rod of his office. “Have you been in another fight, my Lord? She will go up like a waterspout, when she sees you.” Squaring his shoulders, and trying not to lean so obviously on his staff, Mat bristled. Ready with a quip? Come to think on it, the sun-dark man had a tongue like a rasp. And his eye for horses was not all that fine, either. “Will there be any questions if my friend here beds down with my men?” Mat asked roughly. (Page 364)
- Brave words made scant covering for bare skin. (Page 104)
- Whoever the woman was, she might get the thief-catcher beheaded yet, but that sort of fever had to burn itself out before a man could think straight. Women did strange things to a man’s head. (Page 381)
- Great captains earned their reputation not just for laying brilliant plans, but for still being able to find victory after those plans began to fall apart. (Page 584)
- Alone of the prisoners they were unbound—except by custom stronger than chains. (Page 107)
- “You can never know everything,” Lan said quietly, “and part of what you know is always wrong. Perhaps even the most important part. A portion of wisdom lies in knowing that. A portion of courage lies in going on anyway.” (page 619)
- Aviendha would have Rand’s babies, too. Four of them at once! Something was odd about that, though. The babies would be healthy, but still something odd. (Page 296)
- Verin slipped the small vial back into her pouch unopened. It was good to be sure of Cadsuane at last. (Page 509)
- Mat knew he should eat, too, but he felt as though he had swallowed a stone, and it did not leave room for food. ( Page 591)
- One by one he summoned up the names on that long list, patiently forging his soul in the fires of pain. (Page 643)
- “I really did find what I needed here.” If a sword had memory, it might be grateful to the forge fire, but never fond of it. (Page 650)
- “I myself would not believe him dead unless I sat three days with the corpse.” (Page 210)