Rand's hand kept drifting to his sword. It was not that he thought there was anything out there against which he could use the sword to defend himself; it did not seem as if there was anywhere for something to be. The bubble of light around them could as well have been a cave surrounded by stone, completely surrounded, with no way out. The horses might have been walking a treadmill for the change around them. He gripped the hilt as if the pressure of his hand there could press away the stone he felt weighing down on him. Touching the sword, he could remember Tam's teaching. For a little while he could find the calm of the void. But the weight always returned, compressing the void until it was only a cavern inside his mind, and he had to start over again, touching Tam's sword to remember.
It was a relief when something did change, even if it was only a tall slab of stone, standing on end, that appeared out of the dark before them, the broad white line stopping at its base. Sinuous curves of metal inlaid the wide surface, graceful lines that vaguely reminded Rand of vines and leaves. Discolored pocks marked stone and metal alike.
“The Guiding,” Loial said, and leaned out of his saddle to frown at the cursive metal inlays.
“Ogier script,” Moiraine said, “but so broken I can barely make out what it says.”
“I hardly can, either,” Loial said, “but enough to know we go this way.” He turned his horse aside from the Guiding.
The edges of their light caught other stoneworks, what appeared to be stonewalled bridges arcing off into the darkness, and gently sloping ramps, without railings of any kind, leading up and down. Between the bridges and the ramps ran a chesthigh balustrade, however, as though falling was a danger there at any rate. Plain white stone made the balustrade, in simple curves and rounds fitted together in complex patterns. Something about all of it seemed almost familiar to Rand, but he knew it had to be his imagination groping for anything familiar where everything was strange.
At the foot of one of the bridges Loial paused to read the single line on the narrow column stone there. Nodding, he rode up onto the bridge. “This is the first bridge of our path,” he said over his shoulder.
Rand wondered what held the bridge up. The horses' hooves made a gritty sound, as if bits of stone flaked off at every step. Everything he could see was covered with shallow holes, some tiny pinpricks, others shallow, roughedged craters a stride across, as if there had been a rain of acid, or the stone was rotting. The guardwall showed cracks and holes, too. In places it was gone altogether for as much as a span. For all he knew the bridge could be solid stone all the way to the center of the earth, but what he saw made him hope it would stand long enough for them to reach the other end. Wherever that is.
The bridge did end, eventually, in a place that looked no different from its beginning. All Rand could see was what their little pool of light touched, but he had the impression that it was a large space, like a flattopped hill, with bridges and ramps leaving all around it. An Island, Loial called it. There was another scriptcovered Guiding — Rand placed it in the middle of the Island, with no way of knowing if he was right or not. Loial read, then took them up one of the ramps, curving up and up.
After an interminable climb, curving continuously, the ramp let off onto another Island just like the one where it had begun. Rand tried to imagine the curve of the ramp and gave up. This Island can't be right on top of the other one. It can't be.
Loial consulted yet another slab filled with Ogier script, found another signpost column, led them onto another bridge. Rand no longer had any idea in what direction they were traveling.
In their huddle of light in the dark, one bridge was exactly like another, except that some had breaks in the guardwalls and some did not. Only the degree of damage to the Guidings gave any difference to the Islands. Rand lost track of time; he was not even sure how many bridges they had crossed or how many ramps they had traveled. The Warder must have had a clock in his head, though. Just when Rand felt the first stir of hunger, Lan announced quietly that it was midday and dismounted to parcel out bread and cheese and dried meat from the packhorse. Perrin was leading the animal by that time. They were on an Island, and Loial was busily deciphering the directions on the Guiding.
Mat started to climb down from his saddle, but Moiraine said, “Time is too valuable in the Ways to waste. For us, much too valuable. We will stop when it is time to sleep.” Lan was already back on Mandarb.
Rand's appetite slipped at the thought of sleeping in the Ways. It was always night there, but not the kind of night for sleeping. He ate while he rode, though, like everyone else. It was an awkward affair, trying to juggle his food, the lantern pole, and his reins, but for all of his imagined lack of appetite he licked the last crumbs of bread and cheese off his hands when he was done, and thought fondly of more. He even began to think the Ways were not so bad, not nearly as bad as Loial made out. They might have the heavy feel of the hour before a storm, but nothing changed. Nothing happened. The Ways were almost boring.
Then the silence was broken by a startled grunt from Loial. Rand stood in his stirrups to peer past the Ogier, and swallowed hard at what he saw. They were in the middle of a bridge, and only a few feet ahead of Loial the bridge ended in a jagged gap.
What Follows in Shadow
The light of their lanterns stretched just far enough to touch the other side, thrusting out of the dark like a giant's broken teeth. Loial's horse stamped a hoof nervously, and a loose stone fell away into the dead black below. If there was any sound of it striking bottom, Rand never heard it.
He edged Red closer to the gap. As far down as he could thrust his lantern on its pole, there was nothing. Blackness below as blackness above, shearing off the light. If there was a bottom, it could be a thousand feet down. Or never. But on the other side, he could see what was under the bridge, holding it up. Nothing. Less than a span in thickness, and absolutely nothing underneath. Abruptly the stone under his feet seemed as thin as paper, and the endless drop over the edge pulled at him. The lantern and pole seemed suddenly heavy enough to pull him right out of the saddle. Head spinning, he backed the bay away from the abyss as cautiously as he had approached.
“Is it to this you've brought us, Aes Sedai?” Nynaeve said. “All this just to find out we have to go back to Caemlyn after all?”
“We do not have to go back,” Moiraine said. “Not all the way to Caemlyn. There are many paths along the Ways to any place. We need only go back far enough for Loial to find another path that will lead to Fal Data. Loial? Loial!”
The Ogier pulled himself away from staring at the gap with a visible effort. “What? Oh. Yes, Aes Sedai. I can find another path. I had...” His eyes drifted back to the chasm, and his ears twitched. “I had not dreamed the decay had gone so far. If the bridges themselves are breaking, it may be that I cannot find the path you want. It may be that I cannot find a path back, either. The bridges could be falling behind us even now.”
“There has to be a way,” Perrin said, his voice flat. His eyes seemed to gather the light, to glow golden. A wolf at bay, Rand thought, startled. That's what he looks like.
“It will be as the Wheel weaves,” Moiraine said, “but I do not believe the decay is as fast as you fear. Look at the stone, Loial. Even I can tell that this is an old break.”
“Yes,” Loial said slowly. “Yes, Aes Sedai. I can see it. There is no rain or wind here, but that stone has been in the air for ten years, at least.” He nodded with a relieved grin, so happy with the discovery that for a moment he seemed to forget his fear. Then he looked around and shrugged uncomfortably. “I could find other paths more easily than Mafal Dadaranell. Tar Valon, for instance? Or Stedding Shangtai. It's only three bridges to Stedding Shangtai from the last Island. I suppose the Elders want to talk to me by this time.”
“Fal Dara, Loial,” Moiraine said firmly. “The Eye of the World lies beyond Fal Dara, and we must reach the Eye.”
“Fal Dara,” the Ogier agreed reluctantly.
Back at the Island Loial pored over the scriptcovered slab intently, drooping eyebrows drawn down as he muttered half to himself. Soon he was talking completely to himself, for he dropped into the Ogier language. That inflected tongue sounded like deepvoiced birds singing. It seemed odd to Rand that a people so big had such a musical language.
Finally the Ogier nodded. As he led them to the chosen bridge, he turned to peer forlornly at the signpost beside another. “Three crossings to Stedding Shangtai.” He sighed. But he took them on past without stopping and turned onto the third bridge beyond. He looked back regretfully as they started across, though the bridge to his home was hidden in the dark.
Rand took the bay up beside the Ogier. “When this is over, Loial, you show me your stedding, and I'll show you Emond's Field. No Ways, though. We'll walk, or ride, if it takes all summer.”
“You believe it will ever be over, Rand?”
He frowned at the Ogier. “You said it would take two days to reach Fal Dara. ”
“Not the Ways, Rand. All the rest.” Loial looked over his shoulder at the Aes Sedai, talking softly with Lan as they rode sidebyside. “What makes you believe it