The Great Hunt

The Great Hunt: Page 120

"I will," he told her. It had the feeling of a commitment, the swearing of an oath.
"Then we will go to the Waygate."
Outside, Loial scrambled to his feet when they appeared, Alar and Verin leading. Ingtar sent Hurin off at a run to fetch Uno and the other soldiers. Loial eyed the Eldest warily, then fell in with Rand at the rear of the procession. The Ogier women who had been watching him were all gone. "Did the Elders say anything about me? Did she ...?" He peered at Alar's broad back as she ordered Juin to have their horses brought. She started off with Verin while Juin was still bowing himself away, bending her head to talk quietly.
"She told Rand to take care of you," Mat told Loial solemnly as they followed, "and see you got home safely as a babe. I don't see why you can't stay here and get married."
"She said you could come with us." Rand glared at Mat, which made Mat chortle under his breath. It sounded odd, coming from that drawn face. Loial was twirling the stem of a trueheart blossom between his fingers. "Did you go picking flowers?" Rand asked.
"Erith gave it to me." Loial watched the yellow petals spin. "She really is very pretty, even if Mat does not see it."
"Does that mean you don't want to go with us after all?"
Loial gave a start. "What? Oh, no. I mean, yes. I do want to go. She only gave me a flower. Just a flower." He took a book out of his pocket, though, and pressed the blossom under the front cover. As he returned the book, he murmured to himself, barely loud enough for Rand to hear, "And she said I was handsome, too." Mat let out a wheeze and doubled over, staggering along clutching his sides, and Loial's cheeks colored. "Well ... she said it. I didn't."
Perrin rapped Mat smartly on the top of his head with his knuckles. "Nobody ever said Mat was handsome. He's just jealous."
"That's not true," Mat said, straightening abruptly. "Neysa Ayellin thinks I'm handsome. She's told me so more than once."
"Is Neysa pretty?" Loial asked.
"She has a face like a goat," Perrin said blandly. Mat choked, trying to get his protests out.
Rand grinned in spite of himself. Neysa Ayellin was almost as pretty as Egwene. And this was almost like old times, almost like being back home, bantering back and forth, and nothing more important in the world than a laugh and twitting the other fellow.
As they made their way through the town, Ogier greeted the Eldest, bowing or curtsying, eyeing the human visitors with interest. Alar's set face kept anyone from stopping to speak, though. The only thing that indicated when they left the town was the absence of the mounds; there were still Ogier about, examining trees, or sometimes working with pitch and saw or axe where there were dead limbs or where a tree needed more sunlight. They handled the tasks tenderly.
Juin joined them, leading their horses, and Hurin came riding with Uno and the other soldiers, and the packhorses, just before Alar pointed and said, "It is over there." The banter died.
Rand felt a momentary surprise. The Waygate had to be Outside the stedding - the Ways had been begun with the One Power; they could not have been made inside - but there was nothing to indicate they had crossed the boundary. Then he realized there was a difference; the sense of something lost that he had felt since entering the stedding was gone. That gave him another sort of chill. Saidin was there again. Waiting.
Alar led them past a tall oak, and there in a small clearing stood the big slab of the Waygate, the front of it delicately worked in tightly woven vines and leaves from a hundred different plants. Around the edge of the clearing the Ogier had built a low stone coping that seemed as if it had grown there, suggesting a circle of roots. The look of it made Rand uncomfortable. It took him a moment to realize that the roots suggested were those of bramble and briar, burningleaf and itch oak. Not the sort of plants into which anyone would want to stumble.
The Eldest stopped short of the coping. "The wall is meant to warn away any who comes here. Not that many of us do. I myself will not cross it. But you may." Juin did not go as close as she did; he kept rubbing his hands on the front of his coat, and would not look at the Waygate.
"Thank you," Verin told her. "The need is great, or I would not have asked it."
as the Aes Sedai stepped over the coping and approached the Waygate. Loial took a deep breath and muttered to himself. Uno and the rest of the soldiers shifted in their saddles and loosened swords in their scabbards. There was nothing along the Ways against which a sword would be any use, but it was something to convince themselves they were ready. Only Ingtar and the Aes Sedai seemed calm; even Alar gripped her skirt with both hands.
Verin plucked the Avendesora leaf, and Rand leaned forward intently. He knew an urge to assume the void, to be where he could reach saidin if he needed to.
The greenery carved across the Waygate stirred in an unfelt breeze, leaves fluttering as a gap opened down the center of the mass and the two halves began to swing open.
Rand stared at the first crack. There was no dull, silvery reflection behind it, only blackness blacker than pitch. "Close it!" he shouted. "The Black Wind! Close it!"
Verin took one startled look and thrust the threepointed leaf back in among all the varied leaves already there; it stayed when she took her hand away and backed toward the coping. As soon as the Avendesora leaf was back in its place, the Waygate immediately began to close. The crack disappeared, vines and leaves merging, hiding the blackness of Machin Shin, and the Waygate was only stone again, if stone carved in a nearer semblance of

Alar let out a shuddering breath. "Machin Shin. So close."
"It didn't try to come out," Rand said. Juin made a strangled sound.
"I have told you," Verin said, "the Black Wind is a creature of the Ways. It cannot leave them." She sounded calm, but she still wiped her hands on her skirt. Rand opened his mouth, then gave it up. "And yet," she went on, "I wonder at it being here. First in Cairhien, now here. I wonder." She gave Rand a sidelong glance that made him jump. The look was so quick that he did not think anyone else noticed it, but to Rand it seemed to connect him with the Black Wind.
"I have never heard of this," Alar said slowly, "Machin Shin waiting when a Waygate was opened. It always roamed the Ways. But it has been long, and perhaps the Black Wind hungers, and hopes to catch some unwary one entering a gate. Verin, assuredly you cannot use this Waygate. And however great your need, I cannot say I am sorry. The Ways belong to the Shadow, now."
Rand frowned at the Waygate. Could it be following me? There were too many questions. Had Fain somehow ordered the Black Wind? Verin said it could not be done. And why would Fain demand that he follow, then try to stop him? He only knew that he believed the message. He had to go to Toman Head. If they found the Horn of Valere and Mat's dagger under a bush tomorrow, he still had to go.
Verin stood with eyes unfocused in thought. Mat was sitting on the coping with his head in his hands, and Perrin watched him worriedly. Loial seemed relieved that they could not use the Waygate, and ashamed at being relieved.
"We are done for here," Ingtar announced. "Verin Sedai, I followed you here against my better judgment, but I can no longer follow. I mean to return to Cairhien. Barthanes can tell me where the Darkfriends went, and somehow I will make him do it."
"Fain went to Toman Head," Rand said wearily. "And where he went, that's where the Horn is, and the dagger."
"I suppose ... " Perrin shrugged reluctantly. "I suppose we could try another Waygate. At another stedding?"
Loial stroked his chin and spoke quickly, as if to make up for his relief at the failure here. "Stedding Cantoine lies just above the River Iralell, and Stedding Taijing is east of it in the Spine of the World. But the Waygate in Caemlyn, where the grove was, is closer, and the gate in the grove at Tar Valon is closest of all."
"Whichever Waygate we try to use," Verin said absently, "I fear we will find Machin Shin waiting." Alar looked at her questioningly, but the Aes Sedai said no more that anyone could hear. She muttered to herself instead, shaking her head as if arguing with herself.
"What we need," Hurin said diffidently, "is one of those Portal Stones." He looked to Alar, then Verin, and when neither told him to stop, he went on, sounding increasingly confident. "The Lady Selene said those old Aes Sedai had studied those worlds, and that was how they knew how to make the Ways. And that place we were ... well, it only took us two days less to travel a hundred leagues. If we could use a Portal Stone to go to that world, or one like it, why, it'd take no more than a week or two to reach the Aryth Ocean, and we could come back right on Toman Head. Maybe it isn't so quick as the Ways, but it's a long sight quicker than riding off west.

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