The Great Hunt

The Great Hunt: Page 123

There were always places, times, in a battle when a little channeling, not big enough to be noticed in the confusion, could make luck. Sometimes it worked, this channeling, and sometimes not, but it worked often enough. He knew he was mad, and did not care. A wasting sickness came on him, and he did not care about that, either, and neither did anyone else, for word had come that Artur Hawkwing's armies had returned to reclaim the land.
Rand led a thousand men when the Queen's Guards crossed the Mountains of Mist - he never thought of turning aside to visit the Two Rivers; he seldom thought of the Two Rivers at all, anymore - and he commanded the Guard when the shattered remnants retreated back across the mountains. The length of Andor he fought and fell back, amid hordes of fleeing refugees, until at last he came to Caemlyn. Many of the people of Caemlyn had fled already, and many counseled the army to retreat further, but Elayne was Queen, now, and vowed she would not leave Caemlyn. She would not look at his ruined face, scarred by his sickness, but he could not leave her, and so what was left of the Queen's Guards prepared to defend the Queen while her people ran.
The Power came to him during the battle for Caemlyn, and he hurled lightning and fire among the invaders, and split the earth under their feet, yet the feeling came again, too, that he had been born for something else. For all he did, there were too many of the enemy to stop, and they also had those who could channel. At last, a lightning bolt hurled Rand from the Palace wall, broken, bleeding, and burned, and as his last breath rattled in his throat, he heard a voice whisper, I have won again, Lews Therin.
Rand struggled to hold the void as it quivered under the hammer blows of the world flickering, to hold the one symbol as a thousand of them darted along the surface of the void. He struggled to hold on to any one symbol.
"... is wrong!" Verin screamed.
The Power was everything.
Flicker. Flicker. Flicker. Flicker. Flicker. Flicker.
He was a soldier. He was a shepherd. He was a beggar, and a king. He was farmer, gleeman, sailor, carpenter. He was born, lived, and died an Aiel.
He died mad, he died rotting, he died of sickness, accident, age. He was executed, and multitudes cheered his death. He proclaimed himself the Dragon Reborn and flung his banner across the sky; he ran from the Power and hid; he lived and died never knowing. He held off the madness and the sickness for years; he succumbed between two winters. Sometimes Moiraine came and took him away from the Two Rivers, alone or with those of his friends who had survived Winternight; sometimes she did not. Sometimes other Aes Sedai came for him. Sometimes the Red Ajah. Egwene married him; Egwene, sternfaced in the stole of the Amyrlin Seat, led the Aes Sedai who gentled him; Egwene, with tears in her eyes, plunged a dagger into his heart, and he thanked her as he died. He loved other women, married other women. Elayne, and Min, and a fairhaired farmer's daughter met on the road to Caemlyn, and women he had never seen before he lived those lives. A hundred lives. More. So many he could not count them. And at the end of every life, as he lay dying, as he drew his final breath, a voice whispered in his ear. I have won again, Lews Therin.
Flicker flicker flicker flicker flicker flicker flicker flicker flicker flicker flicker flicker flicker flicker flicker flicker flicker flicker flicker flicker flicker flicker flicker flicker flicker flicker.
The void vanished, contact with saidin fled, and Rand fell with a thud that would have knocked the breath out of him if he had not already been half numb. He felt rough stone under his cheek, and his hands. It was cold.
He was aware of Verin, struggling from her back to hands and knees. He heard someone vomit roughly, and raised his head. Uno was kneeling on the ground, scrubbing the back of his hand across his mouth. Everyone was down, and the horses stood stifflegged and quivering, eyes wild and rolling. Ingtar had his sword out, gripping the hilt so hard the blade shook, staring at nothing. Loial sat sprawled, wideeyed and stunned. Mat was huddled in a ball with his arms wrapped around his head, and Perrin had his fingers dug into his face as if he wanted to rip away whatever he had seen, or perhaps rip out the eyes that had seen it. None of the soldiers were any better. Masema wept openly, tears streaming down his face, and Hurin was looking around as if for a place to run.
"What ... ?" Rand stopped to swallow. He was lying on rough, weathered stone half buried in the dirt. "What happened?"
"A surge of the One Power." The Aes Sedai tottered to her feet and pulled her cloak tight with a shiver. "It was as if we were being forced ... pushed ... It seemed to come out of nowhere. You must learn to control it. You must! That much of the Power could burn you to a cinder."
"Verin, I ... I lived ... I was ..." He realized the stone under him was rounded. The Portal Stone. Hastily, shakily, he pushed himself to his feet. "Verin, I lived and died, I don't know how many times. Every time it was different, but it was me. It was me."
"The Lines that join the Worlds That Might Be, laid by those who knew the Numbers of Chaos." Verin shuddered; she seemed to be talking to herself. "I've never heard it, but there is no reason we would not be born in those worlds, yet the lives we lived would be different lives. Of course. Different lives for the different ways things might have happened."
"Is that what happened? I ... we ... saw how our lives could have been?" I have won again, Lews Therin. No! I am Rand al'Thor!
Verin gave herself a shake and looked at him. "Does it surprise you that your life might go differently if you made different choices, or different things happened to you? Though I never thought I - Well. The important thing is, we are here. Though not as we hoped."
"Where is here?" he demanded. The woods of Stedding Tsofu were gone, replaced by rolling land. There seemed to be forest not far to the west, and a few hills. It had been high in the day when they gathered around the Stone in the stedding but here the sun stood low toward afternoon in a gray sky. The handful of trees nearby were bare branched, or else held a few leaves bright with color. A cold wind gusted from the east, sending leaves sc

"Toman Head," Verin said. "This is the Stone I visited. You should not have tried to bring us directly here. I don't know what went wrong - I don't suppose I ever will - but from the trees, I would say it is well into late autumn. Rand, we haven't gained any time by it. We've lost time. I would say we have easily spent four months in coming here."
"But I didn't - "
"You must let me guide you in these things. I cannot teach you, it's true, but perhaps I can at least keep you from killing yourself - and the rest of us - by overreaching. Even if you do not kill yourself, if the Dragon Reborn burns himself out like a guttering candle, who will face the Dark One then?" She did not wait for him to renew his protests, but went to Ingtar instead.
The Shienaran gave a start when she touched his arm, and looked at her with frantic eyes. "I walk in the Light," he said hoarsely. "I will find the Horn of Valere and pull down Shayol Ghul's power. I will!"
"Of course you will," she said soothingly. She took his face in her hands, and he drew a sudden breath, abruptly recovering from whatever had held him. Except that memory still lay in his eyes. "There," she said. "That will do for you. I will see how I can help the rest. We may still recover the Horn, but our path has not grown smoother."
As she started around among the others, stopping briefly by each, Rand went to his friends. When he tried to straighten Mat, Mat jerked and stared at him, then grabbed Rand's coat with both hands. "Rand, I'd never tell anyone about - about you. I wouldn't betray you. You have to believe that!" He looked worse than ever, but Rand thought it was mostly fright.
"I do," Rand said. He wondered what lives Mat had lived, and what he had done. He must have told someone, or he wouldn't be so anxious about it. He could not hold it against him. Those had been other Mats, not this one. Besides, after some of the alternatives he had seen for himself ... "I believe you. Perrin?"
The curlyhaired youth dropped his hands from his face with a sigh. Red marks scored his forehead and cheeks where his nails had dug in. His yellow eyes hid his thoughts. "We don't have many choices really, do we, Rand? Whatever happens, whatever we do, some things are almost always the same." He let out another long breath. "Where are we? Is this one of those worlds you and Hurin were talking about?"
"It's Toman Head," Rand told him. "In our world. Or so Verin says. And it is autumn."
Mat looked worried. "How could -? No, I don't want to know how it happened. But how are we going to find Fain and the dagger now? He could be anywhere by this time."

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