Darkness came down heavily, and everyone was tired. Loial was the first to roll over and ready himself for sleep, but others followed soon after. No one used their blankets, except for a pillow. Moiraine had put something in the oil of the lamps that dispelled the stench of the Blight from the hilltop, but nothing diminished the heat. The moon gave a wavering, watery light, but the sun might have been at its zenith for all the cool the night had.
Rand found sleep impossible, even with the Aes Sedai stretched out not a span away to shield his dreams. It was the thick air that kept him awake. Loial's soft snores were a rumble that made Perrin's seem nonexistent, but they did not stop weariness from claiming the others. The Warder was still awake, seated not far from him with his sword across his knees, watching the night. To Rand's surprise, so was Nynaeve.
The Wisdom looked at Lan silently for a long time, then poured a cup of tea and brought it to him. When he reached out with a murmur of thanks, she did not let go right away. “I should have known you would be a king,” she said quietly. Her eyes were steady on the Warder's face, but her voice trembled slightly.
Lan looked back at her just as intently. It seemed to Rand that the Warder's face actually softened. “I am not a king, Nynaeve. Just a man. A man without as much to his name as even the meanest farmer's croft.”
Nynaeve's voice steadied. “Some women don't ask for land, or gold. Just the man.”
“And the man who would ask her to accept so little would not be worthy of her. You are a remarkable woman, as beautiful as the sunrise, as fierce as a warrior. You are a lioness, Wisdom.”
“A Wisdom seldom weds.” She paused to take a deep breath, as if steeling herself. “But if I go to Tar Valon, it may be that I will be something other than a Wisdom.”
“Aes Sedai marry as seldom as Wisdoms. Few men can live with so much power in a wife, dimming them by her radiance whether she wishes to or not.”
“Some men are strong enough. I know one such.” If there could have been any doubt, her look left none as to whom she meant.
“All I have is a sword, and a war I cannot win, but can never stop fighting. ”
“I've told you I care nothing for that. Light, you've made me say more than is proper already. Will you shame me to the point of asking you?”
“I will never shame you.” The gentle tone, like a caress, sounded odd to Rand's ears in the Warder's voice, but it made Nynaeve's eyes brighten. “I will hate the man you choose because he is not me, and love him if he makes you smile. No woman deserves the sure knowledge of widow's black as her brideprice, you least of all.” He set the untouched cup on the ground and rose. “I must check the horses.”
Nynaeve remained there, kneeling, after he had gone.
Sleep or no, Rand closed his eyes. He did not think the Wisdom would like it if he watched her cry.
The Dark One Stirs
Dawn woke Rand with a start, the sullen sun pricking his eyelids as it peeked reluctantly over the treetops of the Blight. Even so early, heat covered the spoiled lands in a heavy blanket. He lay on his back with his head pillowed on his blanketroll, staring at the sky. It was still blue, the sky. Even here, that, at least, was untouched.
He was surprised to realize that he had slept. For a minute the dim memory of a conversation overheard seemed like part of some dream. Then he saw Nynaeve's redrimmed eyes; she had not slept, obviously. Lan's face was harder than ever, as if he had resumed a mask and did not intend to let it slip again.
Egwene went over and crouched beside the Wisdom, her face concerned. He could not make out what they said. Egwene spoke, and Nynaeve shook her head. Egwene said something else, and the Wisdom waved her away dismissively. Instead of going, Egwene bent her head closer, and for a few minutes the two women talked even more softly, with Nynaeve still shaking her head. The Wisdom ended it with a laugh, hugging Egwene and, by her expression, making soothing talk. When Egwene stood, though, she glared at the Warder. Lan did not seem to notice; he did not look in Nynaeve's direction at all.
Shaking his head, Rand gathered his things, and gave his hands and face and teeth a hasty wash with the little water Lan allowed for such things. He wondered if women had a way of reading men's minds. It was an unsettling thought. All women are Aes Sedai. Telling himself he was letting the Blight get to him, he rinsed out his mouth and hurried to get the bay saddled.
It was more than a little disconcerting, having the campsite disappear before he reached the horses, but by the time his saddle girth was tight everything on the hill winked back into view. Everyone was hurrying.
The seven towers stood plain in the morning light, distant broken stumps, like huge, rough hills that merely hinted at grandeur gone. The hundred lakes were a smooth, unruffled blue. Nothing broke the surface this morning. When he looked at the lakes and the ruined towers, he could almost ignore the sickly things growing around the hill. Lan did not seem to be avoiding looking at the towers, any more than he seemed to be avoiding Nynaeve, but somehow he never did as he concentrated on getting them ready to go.
After the wicker panniers were fastened on the packhorse, after every scrap and smudge and track were gone and everyone else was mounted, the Aes Sedai stood in the middle of the hilltop with her eyes closed, not even seeming to breathe. Nothing happened that Rand could see, except that Nynaeve and Egwene shivered despite the heat and rubbed their arms briskly. Egwene's hands suddenly froze on her arms, and she opened her mouth, staring at the Wisdom. Before she could speak, Nynaeve also ceased her rubbing and gave her a sharp look. The two women looked at one another, then Egwene nodded and grinned, and after a moment Nynaeve did, too, though her smile was only halfhearted.
Rand scrubbed his fingers through his hair, already more damp with sweat than with the water he had splashed in his face. He was sure there was something in the silent exchange that he should understand, but that featherlight brush across his mind vanished before he could grasp it.
“What are we waiting for?” Mat demanded, the low band of his scarf across his forehead. He had his bow across the pommel of his saddle with an arrow nocked, and his quiver pulled around on his belt for an easy reach.
Moiraine opened her eyes and started down the hill. “For me to remove the last vestige of what I did here last night. The residues would have dissipated on their own in a day, but I will not take any risk I can avoid now. We are too close, and the Shadow is too strong here. Lan?”
The Warder only waited for her to settle in Aldieb's saddle before he led them north, toward the Mountains of Dhoom, looming in the near distance. Even under the sunrise the peaks rose black and lifeless, like jagged teeth. In a wall they stretched, east and west as far as the eye could see.
“Will we reach the Eye today, Moiraine Sedai?” Egwene asked.
The Aes Sedai gave Loial a sidelong look. “I hope that we will. When I found it before, it was just the other side of the mountains, at the foot of the high passes.”
“He says it moves,” Mat said, nodding at Loial. “What if it isn't where you expect?”
“Then we will continue to hunt until we do find it. The Green Man senses need, and there can be no need greater than ours. Our need is the hope of the world.”
As the mountains drew closer, so did the true Blight. Where a leaf had been spotted black and mottled yellow before, now foliage fell wetly while he watched, breaking apart from the weight of its own corruption. The trees themselves were tortured, crippled things, twisted branches clawing at the sky as if begging mercy from some power that refused to hear. Ooze slid like pus from bark cracked and split. As if nothing truly solid was left to them, the trees seemed to tremble from the passage of the horses over the ground.
“Look as if they want to grab us,” Mat said nervously. Nynaeve gave him an exasperated, scornful look, and he added fiercely, “Well, they do look it.”
“And some of them do want it,” the Aes Sedai said. Her eyes over her shoulder were harder than Lan's for an instant. “But they want no part of what I am, and my presence protects you.”
Mat laughed uneasily, as if he thought it a joke on her part.
Rand was not so sure. This was the Blight, after all. But trees don't move. Why would a tree grab a man, even if it could? We're imagining things, and she's just trying to keep us alert.
Abruptly he stared off to his left, into the forest. That tree, not twenty paces away, had trembled, and it was none of his imagination. He could not say what kind it was, or had been, so gnarled and tormented was its shape. As he watched, the tree suddenly whipped back and forth again, then bent down, flailing at the ground. Something screamed, shrill and piercing. The tree sprang back straight; its limbs entwined around a dark mass that writhed and spat and screamed.
He swallowed hard and tried to edge Red away, but trees stood on every side, and trembled. The bay rolled his eyes, whites showing all the way around. Rand found himself in a solid knot of horseflesh as everyone else tried to do the same as he.
“Keep moving,” Lan commanded, drawing his sword. The Warder wore steelbacked gauntlets now, and his graygreen scale tunic. “Stay with Moiraine Sedai.” He pulled Mandarb around, not toward the tree and its prey, but in the other direction. With his colorshifting cloak, he was swallowed by the Blight before the black