After a time Tam spoke up again.
“Avendesora. It's said it makes no seed, but they brought a cutting to Cairhien, a sapling. A royal gift of wonder for the King.” Though he sounded angry, he was barely loud enough for Rand to understand. Anyone who could hear him would be able to hear the litter scraping across the ground, too. Rand kept on, only half listening. “They never make peace. Never. But they brought a sapling, as a sign of peace. A hundred years it grew. A hundred years of peace with those who make no peace with strangers. Why did he cut it down? Why? Blood was the price for Avendoraldera. Blood the price for Laman's pride.” He faded off into muttering once more.
Tiredly Rand wondered what feverdream Tam could be having now. Avendesora. The Tree of Life was supposed to have all sorts of miraculous qualities, but none of the stories mentioned any sapling, or any “they.” There was only the one, and that belonged to the Green Man.
Only that morning he might have felt foolish at musing over the Green Man and the Tree of Life. They were only stories. Are they? Trollocs were just stories this morning. Maybe all the stories were as real as the news the peddlers and merchants brought, all the gleeman's tales and all the stories told at night in front of the fireplace. Next he might actually meet the Green Man, or an Ogier giant, or a wild, blackveiled Aielman.
Tam was talking again, he realized, sometimes only murmuring, sometimes loud enough to understand. From time to time he stopped to pant for breath, then went on as if he thought he had been speaking the whole time.
“... battles are always hot, even in the snow. Sweat heat. Blood heat. Only death is cool. Slope of the mountain ... only place didn't stink of death. Had to get away from smell of it ... sight of it ... heard a baby cry. Their women fight alongside the men, sometimes, but why they had let her come, I don't ... gave birth there alone, before she died of her wounds ... covered the child with her cloak, but the wind ... blown the cloak away ... child, blue with the cold. Should have been dead, too ... crying there. Crying in the snow. I couldn't just leave a child ... no children of our own ... always knew you wanted children. I knew you'd take it to your heart, Kari. Yes, lass. Rand is a good name. A good name.”
Suddenly Rand's legs lost the little strength they had. Stumbling, he fell to his knees. Tam moaned with the jolt, and the strip of blanket cut into Rand's shoulders, but he was not aware of either. If a Trolloc had leaped up in front of him right then, he would just have stared at it. He looked over his shoulder at Tam, who had sunk back into wordless murmur. Feverdreams, he thought dully. Fevers always brought bad dreams, and this was a night for nightmares even without a fever.
“You are my father,” he said aloud, stretching back a hand to touch Tam, “and I am — ” The fever was worse. Much worse.
Grimly he struggled to his feet. Tam murmured something, but Rand refused to listen to any more. Throwing his weight against the improvised harness he tried to put all of his mind into taking one leaden step after another, into reaching the safety of Emond's Field. But he could not stop the echo in the back of his mind. He's my father. It was just a feverdream. He's my father. It was just a feverdream. Light, who am I?
Out of the Woods
Gray first light came while Rand still trudged through the forest. At first he did not really see. When he finally did, he stared at the fading darkness in surprise. No matter what his eyes told him, he could hardly believe he had spent all night trying to travel the distance from the farm to Emond's Field. Of course, the Quarry Road by day, rocks and all, was a far cry from the woods by night. On the other hand, it seemed days since he had seen the blackcloaked rider on the road, weeks since he and Tam had gone in for their supper. He no longer felt the strip of cloth digging into his shoulders, but then he felt nothing in his shoulders except numbness, nor in his feet, for that matter. In between, it was another matter. His breath came in labored pants that had long since set his throat and lungs to burning, and hunger twisted his stomach into queasy sickness.
Tam had fallen silent some time before. Rand was not sure how long it had been since the murmurs ceased, but he did not dare halt now to check on Tam. If he stopped he would never be able to force himself to start out again. Anyway, whatever Tam's condition, he could do nothing beyond what he was doing. The only hope lay ahead, in the village. He tried wearily to increase his pace, but his wooden legs continued their slow plod. He barely even noticed the cold, or the wind.
Vaguely he caught the smell of woodsmoke. At least he was almost there if he could smell the village chimneys. A tired smile had only begun on his face, though, when it turned to a frown. Smoke lay heavy in the air — too heavy. With the weather, a fire might well be blazing on every hearth in the village, but the smoke was still too strong. In his mind he saw again the Trollocs on the road. Trollocs coming from the east, from the direction of Emond's Field. He peered ahead, trying to make out the first houses, and ready to shout for help at the first sight of anyone, even Cenn Buie or one of the Coplins. A small voice in the back of his head told him to hope someone there could still give help.
Suddenly a house became visible through the last barebranched trees, and it was all he could do to keep his feet moving. Hope turning to sharp despair, he staggered into the village.
Charred piles of rubble stood in the places of half the houses of Emond's Field. Sootcoated brick chimneys thrust like dirty fingers from heaps of blackened timbers. Thin wisps of smoke still rose from the ruins. Grimyfaced villagers, some yet in their night clothes, poked through the ashes, here pulling free a cookpot, there simply prodding forlornly at the wreckage with a stick. What little had been rescued from the flames dotted the streets; tall mirrors and polished sideboards and highchests stood in the dust among chairs and tables buried under bedding, cooking utensils, and meagre piles of clothing and personal belongings.
The destruction seemed scattered at random through the village. Five houses marched untouched in one row, while in another place a lone survivor stood surrounded by desolation.
On the far side of the Winespring Water, the three huge Bel Tine bonfires roared, tended by a cluster of men. Thick columns of black smoke bent northward with the wind, flecked by careless sparks. One of Master al'Vere's Dhurran stallions was dragging something Rand could not make out over the ground toward the Wagon Bridge, and the flames.
Before he was well out of the trees, a sootyfaced Haral Luhhan hurried to him, clutching a woodsman's axe in one thickfingered hand. The burly blacksmith's ashsmeared nightshirt hung to his boots, the angry red welt of a burn across his chest showing through a ragged tear. He dropped to one knee beside the litter. Tam's eyes were closed, and his breathing came low and hard.
“Trollocs, boy?” Master Luhhan asked in a smokehoarse voice. “Here, too. Here, too. Well, we may have been luckier than anyone has a right to be, if you can credit it. He needs the Wisdom. Now where in the Light is she? Egwene!”
Egwene, running by with her arms full of bed sheets torn into bandages, looked around at them without slowing. Her eyes stared at something in the far distance; dark circles made them appear even larger than they actually were. Then she saw Rand and stopped, drawing a shuddering breath. “Oh, no, Rand, not your father? Is he ... ? Come, I'll take you to Nynaeve.”
Rand was too tired, too stunned, to speak. All through the night Emond's Field had been a haven, where he Tam would be safe. Now all he could seem to do was stare in dismay at her smokestained dress. He noticed odd details as if they were very important. The buttons down the back of her dress were done up crookedly. And her hands were clean. He wondered why her hands were clean when smudges of soot marked her cheeks.
Master Luhhan seemed to understand what had come over him. Laying his axe across the shafts, the blacksmith picked up the rear of the litter and gave it a gentle push, prodding him to follow Egwene. He stumbled after her as if walking in his sleep. Briefly he wondered how Master Luhhan knew the creatures were Trollocs, but it was a fleeting thought. If Tam could recognize them, there was no reason why Haral Luhhan could not.
“All the stories are real,” he muttered.
“So it seems, lad,” the blacksmith said. “So it seems.”
Rand only half heard. He was concentrating on following Egwene's slender shape. He had pulled himself together just enough to wish she would hurry, though in truth she was keeping her pace to what the two men could manage with their burden. She led them halfway down the Green, to the Calder house. Char blackened the edges of its thatch, and smut stained the whitewashed walls. Of the houses on either side only the foundation stones were left, and two piles of ash and burned timbers. One had been the house of Berin Thane, one of the miller's brothers. The other had been Abell Cauthon's. Mat's father. Even the chimneys had toppled.
“Wait here,” Egwene said, and gave them a look as if expecting an answer. When they only stood there, she muttered something under her breath, then dashed inside.
“Mat,” Rand said. “Is he ... ?”
“He's alive,” the blacksmith said. He set down his end of the litter and straightened slowly. “I saw him a little while ago. It's a wonder any of us are alive. The way they came after my house, and the forge, you'd have thought I had gold and jewels in there. Alsbet cracked one's skull with a frying pan. She took one look at the ashes of our house this morning and set out hunting around the village with the biggest hammer she could. dig out of what's left of the forge, just in case any of them hid instead of running away. I could almost pity the thing if she finds one.” He nodded to the Calder house. “Mistress Calder and a few others took in some of those who were hurt, the ones with no home of their own still standing. When the Wisdom's seen Tam, we'll find him a bed. The inn, maybe. The Mayor offered it already, but Nynaeve said the hurt folk would heal better if there weren't so man