The Great Hunt


The Great Hunt: Page 48




He knelt in a small clearing sheltered by thickfoliaged branches and set the bundle on the ground. For a time he just stared at it. She wouldn't have. She couldn't. A small voice answered, Oh, yes, she could. She could and would. Finally he set about untying the small knots in the cords that bound it. Neat knots, tied with a precision that spoke loudly of Moiraine's own hand; no servant had done this for her. She would not have dared let any servant see.
When he had the last cord unfastened, he opened out what was folded inside with hands that felt numb, then stared at it, his mouth full of dust. It was all of one piece, neither woven, nor dyed, nor painted. A banner, white as snow, big enough to be seen the length of a field of battle. And across it marched a rippling figure like a serpent scaled in gold and crimson, but a serpent with four scaled legs, each tipped with five golden claws, a serpent with eyes like the sun and a golden lion's mane. He had seen it once before, and Moiraine had told him what it was. The banner of Lews Therin Telamon, Lews Therin Kinslayer, in the War of the Shadow. The banner of the Dragon.
"Look at that! Look what he's got, now!" Mat burst into the clearing. Perrin came after him more slowly. "First fancy coats," Mat snarled, "and now a banner! We'll hear no end of lording it now, with - " Mat got close enough to see the banner clearly, and his jaw dropped. "Light!" He stumbled back a step. "Burn me!" He had been there, too, when Moiraine named the banner. So had Perrin.
Anger boiled up in Rand, anger at Moiraine and the Amyrlin Seat, pushing him, pulling him. He snatched up the banner in both hands and shook it at Mat, words boiling out uncontrollably. "That's right! The Dragon's banner!" Mat took another step back. "Moiraine wants me to be a puppet on Tar Valon strings, a false Dragon for the Aes Sedai. She's going to push it down my throat whatever I want. But-I-will -not-be-used!"
Mat had backed up against a tree trunk. "A false Dragon?" He swallowed. "You? That ... that's crazy."
Perrin had not retreated. He squatted down with his thick arms on his knees and studied Rand with those bright golden eyes. In the evening shadows they seemed to shine. "If the Aes Sedai want you for a false Dragon ..." He paused, frowning, thinking things through. Finally, he said quietly, "Rand, can you channel?" Mat gave a strangled gasp.
Rand let the banner drop; he hesitated only a moment before nodding wearily. "I did not ask for it. I don't want it. But ... But I do not think I know how to stop it." The room with the flies came back unbidden to his mind. "I don't think they'll let me stop."
"Burn me!" Mat breathed. "Blood and bloody ashes! They'll kill us, you know. All of us. Perrin and me as well as you. If Ingtar and the others find out, they will cut our bloody throats for Darkfriends. Light, they'll probably think we were part of stealing the Horn, and killing those people in Fal Dara."
"Shut up, Mat," Perrin said calmly.
"Don't tell me to shut up. If Ingtar doesn't kill us, Rand will go mad and do it for him. Burn me! Burn me!" Mat slid down the tree to sit on the ground. "Why didn't they gentle you? If the Aes Sedai know, why didn't they gentle you? I never heard of them letting a man who can wield the Power just walk away."
"They don't all know," Rand sighed. "The Amyrlin - "
"The Amyrlin Seat! She knows? Light, no wonder she looked at me so strange."
" - and Moiraine told me I'm the Dragon Reborn, and then they said I could go wherever I wanted. Don't you see, Mat? They are trying to use me."
"Doesn't change you being able to channel," Mat muttered. "If I were you, I'd be halfway to the Aryth Ocean by now. And I would not stop until I found someplace where there were no Aes Sedai, and never likely to be any. And no people. I mean ... well ..."
"Shut up, Mat," Perrin said. "Why are you here, Rand? The longer you stay around people, the more likely it is somebody will find out and send for Aes Sedai. Aes Sedai who won't tell you to go on about your business." He paused, scratching his head over that. "And Mat's right about Ingtar. I don't doubt he would name you Darkfriend and kill you. Kill all of us, maybe. He seems to like you, but he'd still do it, I think. A false Dragon? So would the others. Masema wouldn't need that much excuse, for you. So why aren't you gone?"
Rand shrugged. "I was going, but first the Amyrlin came, and then the Horn was stolen, and the dagger, and Moiraine said Mat was dying, and ... Light, I thought I could stay with you until we found the dagger, at least; I thought I could help with that. Maybe I was wrong."
"You came because of the dagger?" Mat said quietly. He rubbed his nose and grimaced. "I never thought of that. I never thought you wanted to ... Aaaah! Are you feeling all right? I mean, you aren't going mad already, are you?"
Rand dug a pebble out of the groun

"Ouch!" Mat rubbed his arm. "I was just asking. I mean, all those fancy clothes, and all that talk about being a lord. Well, that isn't exactly right in the head."
"I was trying to get rid of you, fool! I was afraid I'd go mad and hurt you." His eyes dropped to the banner, and his voice lowered. "I will, eventually, if I don't stop it. Light, I don't know how to stop it."
"That is what I'm afraid of," Mat said, standing. "No offense, Rand, but I think I will just sleep as far away from you as I can, if you don't mind. That's if you are staying. I heard about a fellow who could channel, once. A merchant's guard told me. Before the Red Ajah found him, he woke one morning, and his whole village was smashed flat. All the houses, all the people, everything but the bed he was sleeping in, like a mountain had rolled over them."
Perrin said, "In that case, Mat, you should sleep cheek by jowl with him."
"I may be a fool, but I intend to be a live fool." Mat hesitated, looking sideways at Rand. "Look, I know you came along to help me, and I am grateful. I really am. But you just are not the same anymore. You understand that, don't you?" He waited as if he expected an answer. None came. Finally he vanished into the trees, back toward the camp.
"What about you?" Rand asked.
Perrin shook his head, shaggy curls swinging. "I don't know, Rand. You are the same, but then again, you aren't. A man channeling; my mother used to frighten me with that, when I was little. I just do not know." He stretched out his hand and touched a corner of the banner. "I think I would burn this, or bury it, if I were you. Then I'd run so far, so fast, no Aes Sedai would ever find me. Mat was right about that." He stood up, squinting at the western sky, beginning to turn red with the sinking sun. "Time to get back to the camp. You think on what I said, Rand. I'd run. But maybe you can't run. Think of that, too." His yellow eyes seemed to look inward, and he sounded tired. "Sometimes you can't run."
Then he was gone, too.
Rand knelt there, staring at the banner spread out on the ground.
"Well, sometimes you can run," he muttered. "Only, maybe she gave me this to make me run. Maybe she has something waiting for me, if I run. I won't do what she wants. I won't. I'll bury it right here. But she said my life may depend on it, and Aes Sedai never lie so you can see it ... " Suddenly his shoulders shook with silent laughter. "Now I'm talking to myself. Maybe I am going mad already."
When he returned to the camp, he carried the banner wrapped in the canvas once more, tied with knots less neat than Moiraine's had been.
The light had begun to fail and the shadow of the rim covered half the hollow. The soldiers were settling in, all with their horses by their sides, lances propped to hand. Mat and Perrin were bedding down alongside their horses. Rand gave them a sad look, then fetched Red, standing where he had been left with his reins dangling, and went to the other side of the hollow, where Hurin had joined Loial. The Ogier had given over reading and was examining the halfburied stone on which he had been sitting, tracing something on the stone with the long stem of his pipe.
Hurin stood and gave Rand something just short of a bow. "Hope you don't mind me making my bed here, Lord - uh - Rand. I was just listening to the Builder here."
"There you are, Rand," Loial said. "You know, I think this stone was worked once. See, it's weathered, but it looks as if it was a column of some kind. And there are markings, also. I can't quite make them out, but they look familiar, somehow."
"Maybe you'll be able to see them better in the morning," Rand said. He pulled the saddlebags from Red. "I'll be glad of your company, Hurin." I'm glad of anybody's company who isn't afraid of me. How much longer can I have it, though?
He shifted everything into one side of the saddlebags - spare shirts and breeches and woolen stockings, sewing kit, tinder box, tin plate and cup, a greenwood box with knife and fork and spoon, a packet of dried meat and flatbread for emergency rations, and all the other traveler's necessaries - then stuffed the canvaswrapped banner into the empty pocket.

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