After the first two, Rand could understand Perrin's reluctance. Lan and the Ogier took the bundle of white cloth from him when he hesitated, and unfolded it between them. A long, white banner spread out, lifting on the air. Rand could only stare. The whole thing seemed of a piece, neither woven, nor dyed, nor painted. A figure like a serpent, scaled in scarlet and gold, ran the entire length, but it had scaled legs, and feet with five long, golden claws on each, and a great head with a golden mane and eyes like the sun. The stirring of the banner made it seem to move, scales glittering like precious metals and gems, alive, and he almost thought he could hear it roar defiance.
“What is it?” he said.
Moiraine answered slowly. “The banner of the Lord of the Morning when he led the forces of Light against the Shadow. The banner of Lews Therin Telamon. The banner of the Dragon.” Loial almost dropped his end.
“Burn me!” Mat said faintly.
“We will take these things with us when we go,” Moiraine said. “They were not put here by chance, and I must know more.” Her fingers brushed her pouch, where the pieces of the shattered seal were. “It is too late in the day for starting now. We will rest, and eat, but we will leave early. The Blight is all around here, not as along the Border, and strong. Without the Green Man, this place cannot hold long. Let me down,” she told Nynaeve and Egwene. “I must rest.”
Rand became aware of what he had been seeing all along, but not noticing. Dead, brown leaves falling from the great oak. Dead leaves rustling thick on the ground in the breeze, brown mixed with petals dropped from thousands of flowers. The Green Man had held back the Blight, but already the Blight was killing what he had made.
“It is done, isn't it?” he asked Moiraine. “It is finished.”
The Aes Sedai turned her head on its pillow of cloaks. Her eyes seemed as deep as the Eye of the World. “We have done what we came here to do. From here you may live your life as the Pattern weaves. Eat, then sleep, Rand al'Thor. Sleep, and dream of home.”
The Wheel Turns
Dawn revealed devastation in the Green Man's garden. The ground was thick with fallen leaves, almost kneedeep in places. All the flowers were gone except a few clinging desperately to the edge of the clearing. Little could grow in the soil under an oak, but a thin circle of flowers and grass centered on the thick trunk above the Green Man's grave. The oak itself retained only half its leaves, and that was far more than any other tree had, as if some remnant of the Green Man still fought to hold there. The cool breezes had died, replaced by a growing sticky heat, the butterflies were gone, the birds silent. It was a silent group who prepared to leave.
Rand climbed into the bay's saddle with a sense of loss. It shouldn't be this way. Blood and ashes, we won!
“I wish he had found his other place,” Egwene said as she mounted Bela. A litter, fashioned by Lan, was slung between the shaggy mare and Aldieb, to carry Moiraine; Nynaeve would ride beside with the white mare's reins. The Wisdom dropped her eyes whenever she saw Lan glance at her, avoiding his gaze; the Warder looked at her whenever her eyes were averted, but he would not speak to her. No one had to ask who Egwene meant.
“It is not right,” Loial said, staring at the oak. The Ogier was the only one still not mounted. “It is not right that Treebrother should fall to the Blight.” He handed the reins of his big horse to Rand. “Not right.”
Lan opened his mouth as the Ogier walked to the great oak. Moiraine, lying on the litter, weakly raised her hand, and the Warder said nothing.
Before the oak, Loial knelt, closing his eyes and stretching out his arms. The tufts on his ears stood straight as he lifted his face to the sky. And he sang.Rand could not say if there were words, or if it was pure song. In that rumbling voice it was as if the earth sang, yet he was sure he heard the birds trilling again, and spring breezes sighing softly, and the sound of butterfly wings. Lost in the song, he thought it lasted only minutes, but when Loial lowered his arms and opened his eyes, he was surprised to see the sun stood well above the horizon. It had been touching the trees when the Ogier began. The leaves still on the oak seemed greener, and more firmly attached than before. The flowers encircling it stood straighter, the morningstars white and fresh, the loversknots a strong crimson.
Mopping sweat from his broad face, Loial rose and took his reins from Rand. His long eyebrows drooped, abashed, as if they might think he had been showing off. “I've never sung so hard before. I could not have done it if something of Treebrother was not still there. My Treesongs do not have his power.” When he settled himself in his saddle, there was satisfaction in the look he gave the oak and the flowers. “This little space, at least, will not sink into the Blight. The Blight will not have Treebrother.”
“You are a good man, Ogier,” Lan said.
Loial grinned. “I will take that as a compliment, but I do not know what Elder Haman would say.”
They rode in a single file, with Mat behind the Warder where he could use his bow to effect if needed, and Perrin bringing up the rear with his axe across the pommel of his saddle. They crested a hill, and in an eyeblink the Blight was all around them, twisted and rotted in virulent rainbow hues. Rand looked over his shoulder, but the Green Man's garden was nowhere to be seen. Only the Blight stretching behind them as before. Yet he thought, just for a moment, that he saw the towering top of the oak tree, green and lush, before it shimmered and was gone. Then there was only the Blight.
He half expected they would have to fight their way out as they fought their way in, but the Blight was as quiet and still as death. Not a single branch trembled as if to lash at them, nothing screamed or howled, neither nearby nor in the distance. The Blight seemed to crouch, not to pounce, but as if it had been struck a great blow and waited for the next to fall. Even the sun was less red.
When they passed the necklace of lakes, the sun hung not far past its zenith. Lan kept them well away from the lakes and did not even look at them, but Rand thought the seven towers seemed taller than when he first saw them. He was sure the jagged tops were further from the ground, and above them something almost seen, seamless towers gleaming in the sun, and banners with Golden Cranes flying on the wind. He blinked and stared, but the towers refused to vanish completely. They were there at the edge of vision until the Blight hid the lakes once more.
Before sunset the Warder chose a campsite, and Moiraine had Nynaeve and Egwene help her up to set wards. The Aes Sedai whispered in the other women's ears before she began. Nynaeve hesitated, but when Moiraine closed her eyes, all three women did so together.
Rand saw Mat and Perrin staring, and wondered how they could be surprised. Every woman is an Aes Sedai, he thought mirthlessly. The Light help me, so am I. Bleakness held his tongue.
“Why is it so different?” Perrin asked as Egwene and the Wisdom helped Moiraine to her bed. “It feels ...” His thick shoulders shrugged as if he could not find the word.
“We struck a mighty blow at the Dark One,” Moiraine replied, settling herself with a sigh. “The Shadow will be a long time recovering.”
“How?” Mat demanded. “What did we do?”
“Sleep,” Moiraine said. “We are not out of the Blight yet.”
But the next morning, still nothing changed that Rand could see. The Blight faded as they rode south, of course. Twisted trees were replaced by straight. The stifling heat diminished. Rotting foliage gave way to the merely diseased. And then not diseased, he realized. The forest around them became red with new growth, thick on the branches. Buds sprouted on the undergrowth, creepers covered the rocks with green, and new wildflowers dotted the grass as thick and bright as where the Green Man walked. It was as if spring, so long held back by winter, now raced to catch up to where it should be.
He was not the only one who stared. “A mighty blow,” Moiraine murmured, and would say no more.
Climbing wildrose entwined the stone column marking the Border. Men came out of the watchtowers to greet them. There was a stunned quality to their laughter, and their eyes shone with amaze, as if they could not believe the new grass under their steelclad feet.
“The Light has conquered the Shadow!”
“A great victory in Tarwin's Gap! We have had the message! Victory!”
“The Light blesses us again!”
“King Easar is strong in the Light,” Lan replied to all their shouts.
The watchmen wanted to tend Moiraine, or at least send an escort with them, but she refused it all. Even flat on her back on a litter, the Aes Sedai's presence was such that the armored men fell back, bowing and acceding to her wishes. Their laughter followed as Rand and the others rode on.
In the late afternoon they reached Fal Dara, to find the grimwalled city ringing with celebration. Ringing in truth. Rand doubted if there could be a bell in the city not clanging, from the tiniest silver harness chime to great bronze gongs in their tower tops. The gates stood wide open, and men ran laughing and singing in the streets, flowers stuck in their topknots and the crevices of their armor. The common people of the town had not yet returned from Fal Moran, but the soldiers were newly come from Tarwin's Gap, and their joy was e