A Crown of Swords features two major plot lines involving Rand and his crew and Elayne and Nynaeve and their’s, a bit of time on a third plot involving Egwene and the Salidar Aes Sedai and a fourth plot involving Moghedien. There are also side plots involving the Shaido Aiel and Sammael and Morgase and Pedron Nial.
In Cairhien, Rand is dealing with the aftermath of his abduction by the Tower Aes Sedai. Due to some groundwork laid by his kidnappers, a number of Rand’s rivals have taken the opportunity to push their positions, including a Cairhienin noble by the name of Colavaere, who had herself crowned Queen in Cairhien. In addition to problems with the nobles, there are rumors of more Aes Sedai gathering in the city and problems with the Aiel, some of whom believe the rumors that Rand submitted to the White Tower and is now merely an Aes Sedai puppet.
Meanwhile, Egwene is attempting to assert herself as a true Amyrlin and not just a figure-head with the Salidar Aes Sedai and with Siuan Sanche’s help push them into confronting Elaida. She also is trying to find out who freed Moghedien and dealing with a blackmail attempt by a novice and a Hunter for the Horn, who know she, Elayne and Nynaeve had been posing as full Aes Sedai before being raised.
In Ebou Dar, Elayne and Nynaeve continue their search for the Bowl of the Winds, though their search is complicated by the other Aes Sedai in Ebou Dar refusing to acknowledge them as full sisters because they were not raised in the Tower.
Moghedien is summoned to Shayol Ghul, where as punishment for her failures, she is fitted with a mindtrap and placed under the control of a man named Moridin, who sends her out on a mission in Ebou Dar that we are not fully privy to the purpose of. While in Ebou Dar, Moghedien, spots Nynaeve and attempts to kill her, even though this was not part of her orders from Moridin.
Sevanna and the Shaido Aiel have made a bargain with Sammael, though they don’t know the man and woman they are dealing with are really two of the Forsaken, that Sevanna hopes will led to her capturing and marrying Rand Al’Thor. However, both Sevanna and Sammael are attempting to betray the other to their own advantage, leading to plans not quiet going as either expected.
Rand begins to attempt to right the ship in Cairhien by dealing with Colavaere. Though her treason and her murder of a couple of nobles who stood in her way call for her to be hanged and Min has told Rand of a viewing that revealed that Colavaere would die by hanging, Rand is unable to bring himself to order her execution and instead orders her to be exiled. However, Min’s viewing proves true when Colavaere hangs herself rather than accepting Rand’s exile.
Rand meets with a number of Aiel leaders and parades the Aes Sedai who have sworn fealty to him before them, as a means of proving he is not a puppet on Aes Sedai strings, but his efforts are complicated by the arrival of Cadsuane, the oldest known living Aes Sedai, who Min tells Rand will teach him and the Asha’man something they need to learn, but will not enjoy learning from her. Cadsuane also shakes Rand’s confidence by telling him that one of the first signs a man who can channel is going mad is that he begins to hear voices, causing Rand to doubt that the voice of Lews Therin is real and not a manifestation of madness.
Rand also makes plans to kill Sammael via a ruse involving Bashere’s army and the Aiel, designed to draw Sammael out of Illian, so that Rand can enter the city and defuse Sammael’s traps before Sammael can return to confront him. Sammael attempts to interfere with Rand’s plans by sending some of the Shaido Aiel into battle with Rand’s army, gathering outside the gates of Illian, but his plan is spoiled by the fact that Sevanna keeps all of the Shaido Wise Ones who can channel with her group, which are sent to some unknown location, leading to the Shaido who are sent against Rand being slaughtered without much affect on Rand’s plan. Sevanna has also managed to capture Galina, a member of the Red and Black Ajah, who was primarily responsible for Rand’s capture and torture at the hands of the Tower Aes Sedai. As part of his bargain with Sevanna, Sammael provides Sevanna with the Tower’s oath rod and tells her she can use it to force Aes Sedai to do her bidding.
Meanwhile, in the wake of everything Rand and Min suffered at the hands of the Tower Aes Sedai, the pair have sex, which Rand initially thinks was him forcing himself on Min, which combined with his fears that Lews Therin is not real, sends him into a deep depression, but eventually Min convinces him that she was a very willing partner and that she loves him and inadvertently calms his fears about Lews Therin by revealing a viewing she had that Rand believes proves that Lews Therin is real. Rand admits that he loves Min as well, but that he also loves Elayne and Aviendha and wants to send Min away to protect her from himself and his enemies. Min refuses to leave and remains by his side, but not before Rand makes her promise not to hold back any more of her viewings from him. In spite of her promise, Min withholds a viewing that indicates that Rand will fail without the help of a woman who is “dead and gone,” and reveals to the reader that a viewing she had about Moiraine is the only one that has ever proven wrong.
By using Matt’s Band and her army to frighten people into thinking a war is coming, Egwene is building her army, under the command of Gareth Bryne and marching towards Tar Valon. With the help of Siuan, she discovers along the way that Myrelle Sedai has been hiding that Lan has returned to her and that Moiraine had passed his bond to her without his consent, a violation of Tower custom, if not law. Myrelle explains that a consequence of the bond, leads most Warders to court death after their Aes Sedai dies and she is one of the few Aes Sedai who has managed to save more than one. Egwene uses this information as a lever to get Myrelle to swear fealty to her and then uses that act as a lever to get members of the Salidar Hall to do the same. She also decided to send Lan to Ebou Dar, with orders to protect Nynaeve, believing that this mission will do a better job of keeping him alive than Myrelle’s plans.
In Ebou Dar, Nynaeve and Elayne are having no success in locating the Bowl of the Winds, so they decide to resort to using Matt’s ta’veren luck to locate it for them. This tactic leads to them making a bargain with the Sea Folk to assist in using the Bowl once found and also leads to the discovery of a group of women who can channel, who call themselves the Kin, who they decide to recruit to join the Salidar Aes Sedai and also enlist their aid in finding and using the Bowl of the Winds.
While in Ebou Dar, Matt discovers that the darkfriend who tried to stab him in a barn on the road to Caemlyn is in the city and follows her to Jaichim Carridin, who, with the aid of Thom, Juilin, Birgitte and Aviendha, he discovers is hosting a number of darkfriends. However, Matt’s plans to deal with Carridin and protect Nynaeve and Elayne are disrupted by Queen Tylin’s taking an interest in him and making him her lover and her son’s companion.
Morgase’s situation in Amadicia goes from bad to worse when Pedron Nial is murdered by his own spy master, resulting in Morgase being put to the question and subjected to the attentions of Nial’s replacement. Morgase considers suicide, but is interrupted by a Seanchan attack that results in the Seanchan demanding Morgase submit to ruling Andor in their name. Instead, Morgase decides to renounce her throne, so that Elyane can rule in her stead. Morgase then escapes Amadicia with the aid of Nial’s former secretary, who is not fond of the new Whitecloak regime.
Back in Cairhien, Rand and Perrin stage an argument, so that Rand can send Perrin and Faile along with an Aiel escort, on a secret mission. Rand also sends Loial on a mission with one of his Asha’man to find and place guards on all the Waygates.
Rand finally meets with the Sea Folk and begins the process of striking a bargain with them that will provide him with the services of the Sea Folk ships, before going off to confront the rebels in the countryside. Rand discovers that both Padan Fain and Cadsuane, as well as six other Aes Sedai are in the rebel camp. While he is there, a strange fog descends on the camp and begins solidifying into monsters that tear people limb from limb. With the aid of Cadsuane, Min and two of the nobles, Rand attempts to escape the fog, but he is attacked by Fain, who cuts him with the Shadar Logoth dagger. The Aes Sedai manage to stave off death, but it takes the efforts of one of the Asha’man, who has discovered a different, or perhaps lost, method of using the One Power to heal, to contain the evil from the dagger to the point that Rand can survive it.
Once Rand is recovered, he launches his attack on Sammael, who has come out of the city to confront Rand’s army, believing Rand to be incapacitated by the dagger. Claiming that he doesn’t want Rand destroying Illian, Sammael leads him to a confrontation in Shadar Logoth, where Rand encounters a maiden of the spear he believed to be dead. He also encounters a strange man who can channel, but does not use Saidin, who aids him for unknown reasons. However, Rand’s plans to kill Sammael with balefire are foiled when he kills the maiden instead, in order to save her from being consumed by Mashadar. Rand then returns to Illian, believing that Sammael must have been killed by Mashadar, where he is presented with the laurel crown, later to be renamed the crown of swords and named king of Illian.
Meanwhile, matters escalate in Ebou Dar when while on a boat to meet with the Sea Folk, Moghedien attempts to attack Nynaeve with balefire, resulting in the boat sinking. Nynaeve comes close to dying, but is saved by Lan, who had been following her. In the process, she finally learns to surrender to Saidar and overcomes the block that had prevented her from channeling without being angry. In spite of Lan’s protests, Nynaeve convinces him to marry her on the Sea Folk ship.
Once Nynaeve returns from her mission, she, along with Elayne, Matt, Tylin’s son, a number of the Kin and Matt’s Band journey into the Rahad to retrieve the Bowl of the Winds. The group is attacked by darkfriends, two members of the Black Ajah and a gholam, a creature created to kill Aes Sedai, who is immune to the One Power and extremely resistant, if not immune, to physical attacks as well. Matt is able to fend off the gholam by burning it with his foxhead medallion, but a number of their companions are killed in the process. One of the Black Ajah escaped, but the other was captured by Nynaeve and held prisoner by the Kin. In spite of the fact that the darkfriends made off with much of the contents of the storeroom, they left behind the Bowl of the Winds.
After using Matt’s nature as a ta’veren to strike a bargain with the Sea Folk, Nynaeve, Elayne, Thom, Juilin, Birgitte and Aviendha left for the Kin’s farm to use the Bowl of the Winds with the Sea Folk Windfinders. Matt was to go with them, but stayed behind to find a young boy he had taken charge of named Olver, who was out in the city. While Matt was searching the city for Olver, the city was attacked by Seanchan and Matt is apparently buried under the rubble of a building collapsed by a damane using the One Power.