Lan led the way to the fortress in the middle of the town, a massive stone pile atop the highest hill. A dry moat, deep and wide, its bottom a forest of sharp steel spikes, razoredged and as tall as a man, surrounded the towered walls of the keep. A place for a last defense, if the rest of the town fell. From one of the gate towers an armored man called down, “Welcome, Dai Shan.” Another shouted to the inside of the fortress, “The Golden Crane! The Golden Crane!”
Their hooves drummed on the heavy timbers of the lowered drawbridge as they crossed the moat and rode under the sharp points of the stout portcullis. Once through the gates, Lan swung down out of his saddle to lead Mandarb, signaling the others to dismount.
The first courtyard was a huge square paved with big stone blocks and surrounded by towers and battlements as fierce as those on the outside of the walls. As big as it was, the courtyard appeared just as crowded as the streets, and as much in turmoil, though there was an order to the crowding here. Everywhere were armored men and armored horses. At half a dozen smithies around the court, hammers clanged, and big bellows, tugged by two leatheraproned men apiece, made the forgefires roar. A steady stream of boys ran with newmade horseshoes for the farriers. Fletchers sat making arrows, and every time a basket was filled it was whisked away and replaced with an empty one.
Liveried grooms appeared on the run, eager and smiling in blackandgold. Rand hastily untied his belongings from behind the saddle and gave the bay up to one of the grooms as a man in plateandmail and leather bowed formally. He wore a bright yellow cloak edged in red over his armor, with the Black Hawk on the breast, and a yellow surcoat bearing a gray owl. He wore no helmet and was bareheaded, truly, for his hair had all been shaved except for a topknot tied with a leather cord. “It has been long, Moiraine Aes Sedai. It is good to see you, Dai Shan. Very good.” He bowed again, to Loial, and murmured, “Glory to the Builders. Kiserai ti Wansho.”
“I am unworthy,” Loial replied formally, “and the work small. Tsingu ma choba.”
“You honor us, Builder,” the man said. “Kiserai ti Wansho.” He turned back to Lan. “Word was sent to Lord Agelmar, Dai Shan, as soon as you were seen coming. He is waiting for you. This way, please.”
As they followed him into the fortress, along drafty stone corridors hung with colorful tapestries and long silk screens of hunting scenes and battles, he continued. “I am glad the call reached you, Dai Shan. Will you raise the Golden Crane banner once more?” The halls were stark except for the wall hangings, and even they used the fewest figures made with the fewest lines necessary to convey meaning, though in bright colors.
“Are things really as bad as they appear, Ingtar?” Lan asked quietly. Rand wondered if his own ears were twitching like Loial's.
The man's topknot swayed as he shook his head, but he hesitated before putting on a grin. “Things are never as bad as they appear, Dai Shan. A little worse than usual this year, that is all. The raids continued through the winter, even in the hardest of it. But the raiding was no worse than anywhere else along the Border. They still come in the night, but what else can be expected in the spring, if this can be called spring. Scouts return from the Blight—those who do come back—with news of Trolloc camps. Always fresh news of more camps. But we will meet them at Tarwin's Gap, Dai Shan, and turn them back as we always have. ”
“Of course,” Lan said, but he did not sound certain.
Ingtar's grin slipped, but came back immediately. Silently he showed them into Lord Agelmar's study, then claimed the press of his duties and left.
It was a room as purposemade as all the rest of the fortress, with arrowslits in the outer wall and a heavy bar for the thick door, which had its own arrowpiercings and was bound by iron straps. Only one tapestry hung here. It covered an entire wall and showed men, armored like the men of Fal Data, fighting Myrddraal and Trollocs in a mountain pass.
A table, one chest, and a few chairs were the only furnishings except for two racks on the wall, and they caught Rand's eye as much as the tapestry. One held a twohanded sword, taller than a man, a more ordinary broadsword, and below them a studded mace and a long, kiteshaped shield bearing three foxes. From the other hung a suit of armor, complete and arranged as one would wear it. Crested helmet with its barred faceguard over a doublemail camail. Mail hauberk, split for riding, and leather undercoat, polished from wear. Breastplate, steel gauntlets, knee and elbow cops, and halfplate for shoulders and arms and legs. Even here in the heart of the Keep, weapons and armor seemed ready to be donned at any moment. Like the furniture, they were simply and severely decorated with gold.
Agelmar himself rose at their entrance and came around the table, littered with maps and sheafs of paper and pens standing in inkpots. He seemed at first glance too peaceful for the room in his blue velvet coat with its tall, wide collar, and soft leather boots, but a second look showed Rand differently. Like all the fighting men he had seen, Agelmar's head was shaved except for a topknot, and that pure white. His face was as hard as Lan's, the only lines creases at the corners of his eyes, and those eyes like brown stone, though they bore a smile now.
“Peace, but it is good to see you, Dai Shan,” the Lord of Fal Dara said. “And you, Moiraine Aes Sedai, perhaps even more. Your presence warms me, Aes Sedai.”
“Ninte calichniye no domashita, Agelmar Dai Shan,” Moiraine replied formally, but with a note in her voice that said they were old friends. “Your welcome warms me, Lord Agelmar.”
“Kodome calichniye ga ni Aes Sedai hei. Here is always a welcome for Aes Sedai.” He turned to Loial. “You are far from the stedding, Ogier, but you honor Fal Dara. Always glory to the Builders. Kiserai ti Wansho hei.”
“I am unworthy,” Loial said, bowing. “It is you who do me honor.” He glanced at the stark stone walls and seemed to struggle with himself. Rand was glad the Ogier managed to refrain from adding further comment.
Servants in blackandgold appeared on silent, softslippered feet. Some brought folded cloths, damp and hot, on silver trays for wiping the dust from faces and hands. Others bore mulled wine and silver bowls of dried plums and apricots. Lord Agelmar gave orders for rooms to be prepared, and baths.
“A long journey from Tar Valon,” he said. “You must be tired.”
“A short journey the path we came,” Lan told him, “but more tiring than the long way.”
Agelmar looked puzzled when the Warder said no more, but he merely said, “A few days' rest will put you all in fine fettle.”
“I ask one night's shelter, Lord Agelmar,” Moiraine said, “for ourselves and our horses. And fresh supplies in the morning, if you can spare them. We must leave you early, I am afraid.”
Agelmar frowned. “But I thought ... Moiraine Sedai, I have no right to ask it of you, but you would be worth a thousand lances in Tarwin's Gap. And you, Dai Shan. A thousand men will come when they hear the Golden Crane flies once more.”
“The Seven Towers are broken,” Lan said harshly, “and Malkier is dead; the few of her people left, scattered across the face of the earth. I am a Warder, Agelmar, sworn to the Flame of Tar Valon, and I am bound into the Blight.”
“Of course, Dai Sh—Lan. Of course. But surely a few days' delay, a few weeks at most, will make no difference. You are needed. You, and Moiraine Sedai.”
Moiraine took a silver goblet from one of the servants. “Ingtar seems to believe you will defeat this threat as you have defeated many others across the years.”
“Aes Sedai,” Agelmar said wryly, “if Ingtar had to ride alone to Tarwin's Gap, he would ride the whole way proclaiming that the Trollocs would be turned back once more. He has almost pride enough to believe he could do it alone.”
“He is not as confident as you think, this time, Agelmar.” The Warder held a cup, but he did not drink. “How bad is it?”
Agelmar hesitated, pulling a map from the tangle on the table. He stared unseeing at the map for a moment, then tossed it back. “When we ride to the Gap,” he said quietly, “the people will be sent south to Fal Moran. Perhaps the capital can hold. Peace, it must. Something must hold. ”
“That bad?” Lan said, and Agelmar nodded wearily.
Rand exchanged worried looks with Mat and Perrin. It was easy to believe the Trollocs gathering in the Blight were after him, after them. Agelmar went on grimly.
"Kandor, Arafel, Saldaea — the Trollocs raided them all straight through the winter. Nothing like that has happened since the Trolloc Wars; the raids have never been so fierce, or so large, or pressed home so hard. Every king and council is sure a great thrust is coming out of the Blight, and every one of the Borderlands believes it is coming at them. None of their scouts, and none of the Warders, report Trolloc massing above their borders, as we have here, but they believe, and each is afraid to send fighting men elsewhere. People whisper that the world is ending, that the Dark one is loose again. Shienar will ride to Tarwin's Gap alone, and we will be outnumbered at least ten to one. At least. It may be the last