The Great Hunt

The Great Hunt: Page 11

It still shamed him. Ogier and Trollocs. Myrddraal, and things from the dark corners of midnight tales.
Things out of stories and legends: That was how he had thought of them before he left Emond's Field. But since leaving home he had seen too many stories walking in the flesh ever to be so sure again. Aes Sedai, and unseen watchers, and a wind that caught and held. His smile faded.
"All the stories are real," he said softly.
Loial's ears twitched, and his head turned toward Rand. When he saw who it was, the Ogier's face split in a grin, and he came over. "Ah, there you are." His voice was a deep bumblebee rumble. "I did not see you at the Welcome. That was something I had not seen before. Two things. The Shienaran Welcome, and the Amyrlin Seat. She looks tired, don't you think? It cannot be easy, being Amyrlin. Worse than being an Elder, I suppose." He paused, with a thoughtful look, but only for a breath. "Tell me, Rand, do you play at dice, too? They play a simpler game here, with only three dice. We use four in the stedding. They won't let me play, you know. They just say, 'Glory to the Builders,' and will not bet against me. I don't think that's fair, do you? The dice they use are rather small" - he frowned at one of his hands, big enough to cover a human head "but I still think - "
Rand grabbed his arm and cut him off. The Builders! "Loial, Ogier built Fal Dara, didn't they? Do you know any way out except by the gates? A crawl hole. A drain pipe. Anything at all, if it's big enough for a man to wiggle through. Out of the wind would be good, too."
Loial gave a pained grimace, the ends of his eyebrows almost brushing his cheeks. "Rand, Ogier built Mafal Dadaranel, but that city was destroyed in the Trolloc Wars. This" - he touched the stone wall lightly with broad fingertips -"was built by men. I can sketch a plan of Mafal Dadaranel - I saw the maps, once, in an old book in Stedding Shangtai - but of Fal Dara, I know no more than you. It is well built, though, isn't it? Stark, but well made."
Rand slumped against the wall, squeezing his eyes shut. "I need a way out," he whispered. "The gates are barred, and they won't let anyone pass, but I need a way out."
"But why, Rand?" Loial said slowly. "No one here will hurt you. Are you all right? Rand?" Suddenly his voice rose. "Mat! Perrin! I think Rand is sick."
Rand opened his eyes to see his friends straightening up out of the knot of dicers. Mat Cauthon, longlimbed as a stork, wearing a half smile as if he saw something funny that no one else saw. Shaggyhaired Perrin Aybara, with heavy shoulders and thick arms from his work as a blacksmith's apprentice. They both still wore their Two Rivers garb, plain and sturdy, but travelworn.
Mat tossed the dice back into the semicircle as he stepped out, and one of the men called, "Here, southlander, you can't quit while you're winning."
"Better than when I'm losing," Mat said with a laugh. Unconsciously he touched his coat at the waist, and Rand winced. Mat had a dagger with a ruby in its hilt under there, a dagger he was never without, a dagger he could not be without. It was a tainted blade, from the dead city of Shadar Logoth, tainted and twisted by an evil almost as bad as the Dark One, the evil that had killed Shadar Logoth two thousand years before, yet still lived among the abandoned ruins. That taint would kill Mat if he kept the dagger; it would kill him even faster if he put it aside. "You'll have another chance to win it back." Wry snorts from the kneeling men indicated they did not think there was much chance of that.
Perrin kept his eyes down as he followed Mat across to Rand. Perrin always kept his eyes down these days, and his shoulders sagged as if he carried a weight too heavy even for their width.
"What's the matter, Rand?" Mat asked. "You're as white as your shirt. Hey! Where did you get those clothes? You turning Shienaran? Maybe I'll buy myself a coat like that, and a fine shirt." He shook his coat pocket, producing a clink of coins. "I seem to have luck with the dice. I can hardly touch them without winning."
"You don't have to buy anything," Rand said tiredly. "Moiraine had all our clothes replaced. They're burned already for all I know, all but what you two are wearing. Elansu will probably be around to collect those, too, so I'd change fast if I were you, before she takes them off your back." Perrin still did not look up, but his cheeks turned red; Mat's grin deepened, though it looked forced. They too had had encounters in the baths, and only Mat tried to pretend it did not matter. "And I'm not sick. I just need to get out of here. The Amyrlin Seat is here. Lan said ... he said with her here, it would have been better for me if I were gone a week. I need to leave, and all the gates are barred."
"He said that?" Mat frowned. "I don't understand. He'd never say anything against an Aes Sedai. Why now? Look, Rand, I don't like Aes Sedai any more than you do, but they aren't going to do anything to us." He lowered his voice to say that, and looked over his shoulder to see if any of the gamblers was listening. Feared the Aes Sedai might be, but in the Borderlands, they were far from being hated, and a disrespectful comment about them could land you in a fight, or worse. "Look at Moiraine. She isn't so bad, even if she is Aes Sedai. You're thinking like old Cenn Buie telling his tall tales back home, in the Winespring Inn. I mean, she hasn't hurt us, and they won't. Why would they?"
Perrin's eyes lifted. Yellow eyes, gleaming in the dim light like burnished gold. Moiraine hasn't hurt us? Rand thought. Perrin's eyes had been as deep a brown as Mat's when they left the Two Rivers. Rand had no idea how the change had come about - Perrin did not want to talk about it, or about very much of anything since it happened - but it had come at the same time as the slump in his shoulders, and a distance in his manner as if he felt alone even with friends around him. Perrin's eyes and Mat's dagger. Neither would have happened if they had not left Emond's Field, and it was Moiraine who had taken them away. He knew that was not fair. They would probably all be dead at Trollocs' hands, and a good part of Emond's Field as well, if she had not come to their village. But that did not make Perrin laugh the way he used to, or take the dagger from Mat's belt. And me? If I was home and still alive, would I still be what I am now? At least I wouldn't be worrying about what the Aes Se

Mat was still looking at him quizzically, and Perrin had raised his head enough to stare from under his eyebrows. Loial waited patiently. Rand could not tell them why he had to stay away from the Amyrlin Seat. They did not know what he was. Lan knew, and Moiraine. And Egwene, and Nynaeve. He wished none of them knew, and most of all he wished Egwene did not, but at least Mat and Perrin - and Loial, too - believed he was still the same. He thought he would rather die than let them know, than see the hesitation and worry he sometimes caught in Egwene's eyes, and Nynaeve's, even when they were trying their best.
"Somebody's ... watching me," he said finally. "Following me. Only... Only, there's nobody there."
Perrin's head jerked up, and Mat licked his lips and whispered, "A Fade?"
"Of course not," Loial snorted. "How could one of the Eyeless enter Fal Dara, town or keep? By law, no one may hide his face inside the town walls, and the lamplighters are charged with keeping the streets lit at night so there isn't a shadow for a Myrddraal to hide in. It could not happen."
"Walls don't stop a Fade," Mat muttered. "Not when it wants to come in. I don't know as laws and lamps will do any better." He did not sound like someone who had half thought Fades were only gleemen's tales less than half a year before. He had seen too much, too.
"And there was the wind," Rand added. His voice hardly shook as he told what had happened on the tower top. Perrin's fists tightened until his knuckles cracked. "I just want to leave here," Rand finished. "I want to go south. Somewhere away. Just somewhere away."
"But if the gates are barred," Mat said, "how do we get out?"
Rand stared at him. "We?" He had to go alone. It would be dangerous for anyone near him, eventually. He would be dangerous, and even Moiraine could not tell him how long he had. "Mat, you know you have to go to Tar Valon with Moiraine. She said that's the only place you can be separated from that bloody dagger without dying. And you know what will happen if you keep it."
Mat touched his coat over the dagger, not seeming to realize what he was doing. "'An Aes Sedai's gift is bait for a fish,'" he quoted. "Well, maybe I don't want to put the hook in my mouth. Maybe whatever she wants to do in Tar Valon is worse than if I don't go at all. Maybe she's lying. 'The truth an Aes Sedai tells is never the truth you think it is.'"
"You have any more old sayings you want to rid yourself of?" Rand asked. "'A south wind brings a warm guest, a north wind an empty house'? 'A pig painted gold is still a pig'? What about, 'talk shears no sheep'? 'A fool's words are dust'?"
"Easy, Rand," Perrin said softly.

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