“NO!” Nynaeve screamed.
“Be still!” Moiraine commanded, but before anyone else could move the Wisdom's knife had left her belt, and she was running toward the Forsaken, her small blade upraised.
“The Light blind you,” she cried, striking at Aginor's chest.
The other Forsaken moved like a viper. While her blow still fell, Balthamel's leathercased hand darted out to seize her chin, fingers sinking into one cheek while thumb dug into the other, driving the blood out with their pressure and raising the flesh in pale ridges. A convulsion wracked Nynaeve from head to toe, as if she had been cracked like a whip. Her knife dropped uselessly from dangling fingers as Balthamel lifted her by his grip, brought her up to where the leather mask stared into her stillquivering face. Her toes spasmed a foot above the ground; flowers rained from her hair.
“I have almost forgotten the pleasures of the flesh.” Aginor's tongue crossed his withered lips, sounding like stone on rough leather. “But Balthamel remembers much.” The laughter of the mask seemed to grow wilder, and the wail that left Nynaeve burned Rand's ears like despair ripped from her living heart.
Suddenly Egwene moved, and Rand saw that she was going to help Nynaeve. “Egwene, no!” he shouted, but she did not stop. His hand had gone to his sword at Nynaeve's cry, but now he abandoned it and threw himself at Egwene. He thudded into her before she took her third step, carrying them both to the ground. Egwene landed under him with a gasp, immediately thrashing to get free.
Others were moving, too, he realized. Perrin's axe whirled into his hands, and his eyes glowed golden and fierce. “Wisdom!” Mat howled, the dagger from Shadar Logoth in his fist.
“No!” Rand called. “You can't fight the Forsaken!” But they ran past him as if they had not heard, their eyes on Nynaeve and the two Forsaken.
Aginor glanced at them, unconcernedly ... and smiled.
Rand felt the air stir above him like the crack of a giant's whip. Mat and Perrin, not even halfway to the Forsaken, stopped as if they had run into a wall, bounced back to sprawl on the ground.
“Good,” Aginor said. “A fitting place for you. If you learn to abase yourself properly in worship of us, I might let you live.”
Hastily Rand scrambled to his feet. Perhaps he could not fight the Forsaken — no ordinary human could — but he would not let them believe for a minute that he was groveling before them. He tried to help Egwene up, but she slapped his hands away and stood by herself, angrily brushing off her dress. Mat and Perrin had also stubbornly pushed themselves unsteadily erect.
“You will learn,” Aginor said, “if you want to live. Now that I have found what I need” — his eyes went to the stone archway — “I may take the time to teach you.”
“This shall not be!” The Green Man strode out of the trees with a voice like lightning striking an ancient oak. “You do not belong here!”
Aginor spared him a brief, contemptuous glance. “Begone! Your time is ended, all your kind but you long since dust. Live what life is left to you and be glad you are beneath our notice.”
“This is my place,” the Green Man said, “and you shall hurt no living thing here.”
Balthamel tossed Nynaeve aside like a rag, and like a crumpled rag she fell, eyes staring, limp as if all her bones had melted. One leatherclad hand lifted, and the Green Man roared as smoke rose from the vines that wove him. The wind in the trees echoed his pain.
Aginor turned back to Rand and the others, as if the Green Man had been dealt with, but one long stride and massive, leafy arms wrapped themselves around Balthamel, raising him high, crushing him against a chest of thick creepers, black leather mask laughing into hazelnut eyes dark with anger. Like serpents Balthamel's arms writhed free, his gloved hands grasping the Green Man's head as though he would wrench it off. Flames shot up where those hands touched, vines withering, leaves falling. The Green Man bellowed as thick, dark smoke poured out between the vines of his body. On and on he roared, as if all of him were coming out of his mouth with the smoke that billowed between his lips.
Suddenly Balthamel jerked in the Green Man's grasp. The Forsaken's hands tried to push him away instead of clutching him. One gloved hand flung wide ... and a tiny creeper burst through the black leather. A fungus, such as rings trees in the deep shadows of the forest, ringed his arm, sprang from nowhere to fullgrown, swelling to cover the length of it. Balthamel thrashed, and a shoot of stinkweed ripped open his carapace, lichens dug in their roots and split tiny cracks across the leather of his face, nettles broke the eyes of his mask, deathshead mushrooms tore open the mouth.
The Green Man threw the Forsaken down. Balthamel twisted and jerked as all the things that grew in the dark places, all the things with spores, all the things that loved the dank, swelled and grew, tore cloth and leather and flesh—Was it flesh, seen in that brief moment of verdant rage?—to tattered shreds and covered him until only a mound remained, indistinguishable from many in the shaded depths of the green forest, and the mound moved no more than they.
With a groan like a limb breaking under too great a weight, the Green Man crashed to the ground. Half his head was charred black. Tendrils of smoke still rose from him, like gray creepers. Burned leaves fell from his arm as he painfully stretched out his blackened hand to gently cup an acorn.
The earth rumbled as an oak seedling pushed up between his fingers. The Green Man's head fell, but the seedling reached for the sun, straining. Roots shot out and thickened, delved beneath the ground and rose again, thickened more as they sank. The trunk broadened and stretched upward, bark turning gray and fissured and ancient. Limbs spread and grew heavy, as big as arms, as big as men, and lifted to caress the sky, thick with green leaves, dense with acorns. The massive web of roots turned the earth like plows as it spread; the already huge trunk shivered, grew wider, round as a house. Stillness came. And an oak that could have stood five hundred years covered the spot where the Green Man had been, marking the tomb of a legend. Nynaeve lay on the gnarled roots, grown curved to her shape, to make a bed for her to rest upon. The wind sighed through the oak's branches; it seemed to murmur farewell.
Even Aginor seemed stunned. Then his head lifted, cavernous eyes burning with hate. “Enough! It is past time to end this!”
“Yes, Forsaken,” Moiraine said, her voice as cold as deepwinter ice. “Past time!”
The Aes Sedai's hand rose, and the ground fell away beneath Aginor's feet. Flame roared from the chasm, whipped to a frenzy by wind howling in from every direction, sucking a maelstrom of leaves into the fire, which seemed to solidify into a redstreaked yellow jelly of pure heat. In the middle of it Aginor stood, his feet supported only by air. The Forsaken looked startled, but then he smiled and took a step forward. It was a slow step, as if the fire tried to root him to the spot, but he took it, and then another.
“Run!” Moiraine commanded. Her face was white with strain. “All of you run!” Aginor stepped across the air, toward the edge of the flames.
Rand was aware of others moving, Mat and Perrin dashing away at the edge of his vision, Loial's long legs carrying him into the trees, but all he could really see was Egwene. She stood there rigid, face pale and eyes closed. It was not fear that held her, he realized. She was trying to, throw her puny, untrained wielding of the Power against the Forsaken.
Roughly he grabbed her arm and pulled her around to face him. “Run!” he shouted at her. Her eyes opened, staring at him, angry with him for interfering, liquid with hate for Aginor, with fear of the Forsaken. “Run,” he said, pushing her toward the trees hard enough to start her. “Run!” Once started, she did run.
But Aginor's withered face turned toward him, toward the running Egwene behind him, as the Forsaken walked through the flames, as if what the Aes Sedai was doing did not concern Aginor at all. Toward Egwene.
“Not her!” Rand shouted. “The Light burn you, not her!” He snatched up a rock and threw it, meaning to draw Aginor's attention. Halfway to the Forsaken's face, the stone turned to a handful of dust.
He hesitated only a moment, long enough to glance over his shoulder and see that Egwene was hidden in the trees. The flames still surrounded Aginor, patches of his cloak smoldering, but he walked as if he had all the time in the world, and the fire's rim was near. Rand turned and ran. Behind him he heard Moiraine begin to scream.
Against the Shadow
The land tended upward the way Rand went, but fear lent his legs strength and they ate ground in long strides, tearing his way through flowering bushes and tangles of wildrose, scattering petals, not caring if thorns ripped his clothes or even his flesh. Moiraine had stopped screaming. It seemed as if the shrieks had gone on forever, each one more throatwrenching than the last, but he knew they had lasted only moments altogether. Moments before Aginor would be on his trail. He knew it would be him that Aginor followed. He had seen the certainty in the Forsaken's hollow eyes, in that last second before terror whipped his feet to run.
The land grew ever steeper, but he scrambled on, pulling himself forward by handfuls of undergrowth, rocks and dirt and leaves spilling down the slope from under his feet, finally crawling on hands and knees when the slant became too great. Ahead, above, it leveled out a little. Panting, he scrabbled his way the last few spans, got to his feet, and stopp