The bridges and ramps led up and down and across. Sometimes a white line ran off into the dark from the Guiding, just like the line they had followed from the Waygate in Caemlyn. Rand saw that he was not the only one who eyed those lines curiously, and a little wistfully. Nynaeve, Perrin, Mat, and even Egwene left the lines reluctantly. There was a Waygate at the other end of each of them, a gate back into the world, where there was sky and sun and wind. Even the wind would have been welcome. Leave them they did, under the Aes Sedai's sharp eye. But Rand was not the only one to look back even after dark swallowed Island and Guiding and line.
Rand was yawning by the time Moiraine announced that they would stop for the night on one of the Islands. Mat looked at the blackness all around them and snickered loudly, but he got down as quickly as anyone else. Lan and the boys unsaddled and hobbled the horses while Nynaeve and Egwene set up a small oil stove to make tea. Looking like the base of a lantern, it was what Lan said Warders used in the Blight, where the wood could be dangerous to burn. The Warder produced tripod legs from the baskets they took off the packhorse, so the lantern poles could be set in a circle around their campsite.
Loial examined the Guiding for a moment, then dropped down cross legged and rubbed a hand across the dusty, pockmarked stone. “Once things grew on the Islands,” he said sadly. “All the books tell of it. There was green grass to sleep on, soft as any feather bed. Fruit trees to spice the food you'd brought with an apple or a pear or a bellfruit, sweet and crisp and juicy whatever the time of year outside.”
“Nothing to hunt,” Perrin growled, then looked surprised that he had spoken.
Egwene handed Loial a cup of tea. He held it without drinking, staring at it as if he could find the fruit trees in its depths.
“Aren't you going to set wards?” Nynaeve asked Moiraine. “Surely there must be worse than rats in this. Even if I haven't seen anything, I can still feel.”
The Aes Sedai rubbed her fingers against her palms distastefully. “You feel the taint, the corruption of the Power that made the Ways. I will not use the One Power in the Ways unless I must. The taint is so strong that whatever I tried to do would surely be corrupted.”
That made everyone as silent as Loial. Lan settled down to his meal methodically, as if he were stoking a fire, the food less important than fueling his body. Moiraine ate well, too, and as tidily as if they were not squatting on bare stone quite literally in the middle of nowhere, but Rand only picked at his food. The tiny flame of the oil stove gave just enough heat to boil water, but he crouched toward it as if he could soak up warmth. His shoulders brushed Mat and Perrin. They all made a tight circle around the stove. Mat held his bread and meat and cheese forgotten in his hands, and Perrin set his tin plate down after only a few bites. The mood became more and more glum, and everyone looked down, avoiding the dark around them.
Moiraine studied them as she ate. Finally she put her plate aside and patted her lips with a napkin. “I can tell you one cheerful thing. I do not think Thom Merrilin is dead.”
Rand looked at her sharply. “But ... the Fade ...”
“Mat told me what happened in Whitebridge,” the Aes Sedai said. “People there mentioned a gleeman, but they said nothing of him dying. They would have, I think, if a gleeman had been killed. Whitebridge is not so big as for a gleeman to be a small thing. And Thom is a part of the Pattern that weaves itself around you three. Too important a part, I believe, to be cut off yet.”
Too important? Rand thought. How could Moiraine know...? “Min? She saw something about Thom?”
“She saw a great deal,” Moiraine said wryly. “About all of you. I wish I could understand half of what she saw, but even she does not. Old barriers fail. But whether what Min does is old or new, she sees true. Your fates are bound together. Thom Merrilin's, too.”
Nynaeve gave a dismissive sniff and poured herself another cup of tea.
“I don't see how she saw anything about any of us,” Mat said with a grin. “As I remember it, she spent most of her time looking at Rand.”
Egwene raised an eyebrow. “Oh? You didn't tell me that, Moiraine Sedai.”
Rand glanced at her. She was not looking at him, but her tone had been too carefully neutral. “I talked to her once,” he said. “She dresses like a boy, and her hair is as short as mine.”
“You talked to her. Once.” Egwene nodded slowly. Still not looking at him, she raised her cup to her lips.
“Min was just somebody who worked at the inn in Baerlon,” Perrin said. “Not like Aram.”
Egwene choked on her tea. “Too hot,” she muttered.
“Who's Aram?” Rand asked. Perrin smiled, much like Mat's smile in the old days when he was up to mischief, and hid behind his cup.
“One of the Traveling People,” Egwene said casually, but red spots bloomed in her cheeks.
“One of the Traveling People,” Perrin said blandly. “He dances. Like a bird. Wasn't that what you said, Egwene? It was like flying with a bird?”
Egwene set her cup down deliberately. “I don't know if anyone else is tired, but I'm going to sleep.”
As she rolled herself up in her blankets, Perrin reached over to nudge Rand in the ribs and winked. Rand found himself grinning back. Burn me, if I didn't come out best for a change. I wish I knew as much about women as Perrin.
“Maybe, Rand,” Mat said slyly, “you ought to tell Egwene about Farmer Grinwell's daughter, Else.” Egwene lifted her head to stare first at Mat, then at him.
He hastily got up to fetch his own blankets. “Sleep sounds good to me right now.”
All the Emond's Field people began seeking their blankets then, and Loial, too. Moiraine sat sipping her tea. And Lan. The Warder did not look as if he ever intended to sleep, or needed to.
Even rolled up for sleep, no one wanted to get very far from the others. They made a small circle of blanketcovered mounds right around the stove, almost touching one another.
“Rand,” Mat whispered, “was there anything between you and Min? I barely got a look at her. She was pretty, but she must be nearly as old as Nynaeve. ”
“What about this Else?” Perrin added from the other side of him. “She pretty?”
“Blood and ashes,” he mumbled, “can't I even talk to a girl? You two are as bad as Egwene. ”
“As the Wisdom would say,” Mat chided mockingly, “watch your tongue. Well, if you won't talk about it, I'm going to get some sleep.”
“Good,” Rand grumbled. “That's the first decent thing you've said.”
Sleep was not easily come by, though. The stone was hard, however Rand lay, and he could feel the pits through his blanket. There was no way to imagine he was anywhere but in the Ways, made by the men who had broken the world, tainted by the Dark One. He kept picturing the broken bridge, and the nothing under it.
When he turned one way he found Mat looking at him; looking through him, really. Mocking was forgotten when the dark around them was remembered. He rolled the other way, and Perrin had his eyes open, too. Perrin's face was less afraid than Mat's, but he had his hands on his chest, tapping his thumbs together worriedly.
Moiraine made a circuit of them, kneeling by each person's head and bending down to speak softly. Rand could not hear what she said to Perrin, but it made his thumbs stop. When she bent over Rand, her face almost touching his, she said in a low, comforting voice, “Even here, your destiny protects you. Not even the Dark One can change the Pattern completely. You are safe from him, so long as I am close. Your dreams are safe. For a time, yet, they are safe.”
As she passed from him to Mat, he wondered if she thought it was that simple, that she could tell him he was safe and he would believe it. But somehow he did feel safe — safer, at least. Thinking that, he drifted into sleep and did not dream.
Lan woke them. Rand wondered if the Warder had slept; he did not look tired, not even as tired as those who had laid some hours on the hard stone. Moiraine allowed enough time to make tea, but only one cup apiece. They ate breakfast in the saddle, Loial and the Warder leading. It was the same meal as the others, bread and meat and cheese. Rand thought it would be easy to get tired of bread and meat and cheese.
Not long after the last crumb was licked off a finger, Lan said quietly, “Someone is following us. Or something.” They were in the middle of a bridge, both ends of it hidden.
Mat jerked an arrow from his quiver and, before anyone could stop him, loosed it in the dark behind them.
“I knew I shouldn't have done this,” Loial muttered. “Never deal with an Aes Sedai except in a stedding.”
Lan pushed the bow down before Mat could nock another. “Stop that, you village idiot. There's no way to tell who it is.”
“That's the only place they're safe,” the Ogier went on.
“What else would be in a place like this besides something evil?” Mat demanded.
“That's what the Elders say, and I should have listened to them.”
“We are, for one,&rdq