“We have reached safety,” Moiraine said. “This is the Green Man's place, and the Eye of the World is here. Nothing of the Blight can enter here.”
“I thought it was on the other side of the mountains,” Rand mumbled. He could still see the peaks filling the northern horizon, and the high passes. “You said it was always beyond the passes.”
“This place,” said a deep voice from the trees, “is always where it is. All that changes is where those who need it are.”
A figure stepped out of the foliage, a manshape as much bigger than Loial as the Ogier was bigger than Rand. A manshape of woven vines and leaves, green and growing. His hair was grass, flowing to his shoulders; his eyes, huge hazelnuts; his fingernails, acorns. Green leaves made his tunic and trousers; seamless bark, his boots. Butterflies swirled around him, lighting on his fingers, his shoulders, his face. Only one thing spoiled the verdant perfection. A deep fissure ran up his cheek and temple across the top of his head, and in that the vines were brown and withered.
“The Green Man,” Egwene whispered, and the scarred face smiled. For a moment it seemed as if the birds sang louder.
“Of course I am. Who else would be here?” The hazelnut eyes regarded Loial. “It is good to see you, little brother. In the past, many of you came to visit me, but few of recent days.”
Loial scrambled down from his big horse and bowed formally. “You honor me, Treebrother. Tsingu ma choshih, T'ingshen.”
Smiling, the Green Man put an arm around the Ogier's shoulders. Alongside Loial, he looked like a man beside a boy. “There is no honoring, little brother. We will sing Treesongs together, and remember the Great Trees, and the stedding, and hold the Longing at bay.” He studied the others, just now getting down from their horses, and his eyes lit on Perrin. “A Wolfbrother! Do the old times truly walk again then?”
Rand stared at Perrin. For his part, Perrin turned his horse so it was between him and the Green Man, and bent to check the girth. Rand was sure he just wanted to avoid the Green Man's searching gaze. Suddenly the Green Man spoke to Rand.
“Strange clothes you wear, Child of the Dragon. Has the Wheel turned so far? Do the People of the Dragon return to the First Covenant? But you wear a sword. That is neither now nor then.”
Rand had to work moisture in his mouth before he could speak. “I don't know what you're talking about. What do you mean?”
The Green Man touched the brown scar across his head. For a moment he seemed confused. “I ... cannot say. My memories are torn and often fleeting, and much of what remains is like leaves visited by caterpillars. Yet, I am sure ... No, it is gone. But you are welcome here. You, Moiraine Sedai, are more than a surprise. When this place was made, it was made so that none could find it twice. How have you come here?”
“Need,” Moiraine replied. “My need, the world's need. Most of all is the world's need. We have come to see the Eye of the World.”
The Green Man sighed, the wind sighing through thickleafed branches. “Then it has come again. That memory remains whole. The Dark One stirs. I have feared it. Every turning of years, the Blight strives harder to come inside, and this turn the struggle to keep it out has been greater than ever since the beginning. Come, I will take you.”
Meetings at the Eye
Leading the bay, Rand followed the Green Man with the other Emond's Fielders, all staring as if they could not decide whether to look at the Green Man or the forest. The Green Man was a legend, of course, with stories told about him, and the Tree of Life, in front of every fireplace in the Two Rivers, and not just for the children. But after the Blight, the trees and flowers would have been a wonder of normality even if the rest of the world was not still trapped in winter.
Perrin hung a little to the rear. When Rand glanced back, the big, curlyhaired youth looked as if he did not want to hear anything else the Green Man had to say. He could understand that. Child of the Dragon. Warily he watched the Green Man, walking ahead with Moiraine and Lan, butterflies surrounding him in a cloud of yellows and reds. What did he mean? No. I don't want to know.
Even so, his step felt lighter, his legs springier. The uneasiness still lay in his gut, churning his stomach, but the fear had become so diffuse it might as well be gone. He did not think he could expect more, not with the Blight half a mile away, even if Moiraine was right about nothing from the Blight being able to enter here. The thousands of burning points piercing his bones had winked out; at the very moment he came within the Green Man's domain, he was sure. It's him that winked them out, he thought, the Green Man, and this place.
Egwene felt it, and Nynaeve, too, the soothing peace, the calm of beauty. He could tell. They wore small, serene smiles, and brushed flowers with their fingers, pausing to smell, and breathing deep.
When the Green Man noticed, he said, “Flowers are meant to adorn. The plants or humans, it is much the same. None mind, so long as you don't take too many.” And he began plucking one from this plant and one from that, never more than two from any. Soon Nynaeve and Egwene wore caps of blossoms in their hair, pink wildrose and yellowbell and white morningstar. The Wisdom's braid seemed a garden of pink and white to her waist. Even Moiraine received a pale garland of morningstar on her brow, woven so deftly that the flowers still seemed to be growing.
Rand was not sure they were not growing. The Green Man tended his forest garden as he walked, while he talked softly to Moiraine, taking care of whatever needed care without really thinking about it. His hazelnut eyes caught a crooked limb on a climbing wildrose, forced into an awkward angle by the blossomcovered limb of an apple tree, and he paused, still talking, to run his hand along the bend. Rand was not sure if his eyes were playing tricks, or if thorns actually did bend out of the way so as not to prick those green fingers. When the towering shape of the Green Man moved on, the limb ran straight and true, spreading red petals among the white of apple blossoms. He bent to cup one huge hand around a tiny seed lying on a patch of pebbles, and when he straightened, a small shoot had roots through the rocks to good soil.
“All things must grow where they are, according to the Pattern,” he explained over his shoulder, as if apologizing, “and face the turning of the Wheel, but the Creator will not mind if I give just a little help.”
Rand led Red around the shoot, careful not to let the bay's hooves crush it. It did not seem right to destroy what the Green Man had done just to avoid an extra step. Egwene smiled at him, one of her secret smiles, and touched his arm. She was so pretty, with her unbound hair full of flowers, that he smiled back at her until she blushed and lowered her eyes. I will protect you, he thought. Whatever else happens, I will see you safe, I swear it.
Into the heart of the spring forest the Green Man took them, to an arched opening in the side of a hill. It was a simple stone arch, tall and white, and on the keystone was a circle halved by a sinuous line, one half rough, the other smooth. The ancient symbol of Aes Sedai. The opening itself was shadowed.
For a moment everyone simply looked in silence. Then Moiraine removed the garland from her hair and gently hung it on the limb of a sweetberry bush beside the arch. It was as if her movement restored speech.
“It's in there?” Nynaeve asked. “What we've come for?”
“I'd really like to see the Tree of Life,” Mat said, not taking his eyes off the halved circle above them. “We can wait that long, can't we?”
The Green Man gave Rand an odd look, then shook his head. “Avendesora is not here. I have not rested beneath its ungentle branches in two thousand years.”
“The Tree of Life is not why we came,” Moiraine said firmly. She gestured to the arch. “In there, is.”
“I will not go in with you,” the Green Man said. The butterflies around him swirled as if they shared some agitation. “I was set to guard it long, long ago, but it makes me uneasy to come too close. I feel myself being unmade; my end is linked with it, somehow. I remember the making of it. Some of the making. Some.” His hazelnut eyes stared, lost in memory, and he fingered his scar. “It was the first days of the Breaking of the World, when the joy of victory over the Dark One turned bitter with the knowledge that all might yet be shattered by the weight of the Shadow. A hundred of them made it, men and women together. The greatest Aes Sedai works were always done so, joining saidin and saidar, as the True Source is joined. They died, all, to make it pure, while the world was torn around them. Knowing they would die, they charged me to guard it against the need to come. It was not what I was made for, but all was breaking apart, and they were alone, and I was all they had. It was not what I was made for, but I have kept the faith.” He looked down at Moiraine, nodding to himself. “I have kept faith, until it was needed. And now it ends.”
“You have kept the faith better than most of us who gave you the charge,” the Aes Sedai said. “Perhaps it will not come as badly as you fear.”
The scarred, leafy head shook slowly from side to side. “I know an ending when it comes, Aes Sedai. I will find another place to make things grow.” Nutbrown eyes swept sadly over the green forest. “Another place, perhaps. When you come out, I will see you again, if there is time.” With that he strode away, trailing butterflies, becoming one with the forest more completely than L