“Draghkar are not very smart, Master Merrilin,” the Aes Sedai said dryly. “Fearsome and deadly dangerous, and with sharp eyes, but little intelligence. It will tell the Myrddraal that this side of the river is clear, but the river itself is cloaked for miles in both directions. The Myrddraal will know the extra effort that cost me. He will have to consider that we may be escaping down the river, and that will slow him. He will have to divide his efforts. The fog should hold long enough that he will never be sure that we did not travel at least partway by boat. It could have extended the fog a little way toward Baerlon, instead, but then the Draghkar could search the river in a matter of hours, and the Myrddraal would know exactly where we were headed.”
Thom made a puffing sound and shook his head. “I apologize, Aes Sedai. I hope I did not offend.”
“Ah, Moi ... ah, Aes Sedai.” Mat stopped to swallow audibly. “The ferry ... ah ... did you... I mean... I don't understand why ...” He trailed off weakly, and there was a silence so deep that the loudest sound Rand heard was his own breathing.
Finally Moiraine spoke, and her voice filled the empty silence with sharpness. “You all want explanations, but if I explained my every action to you, I would have no time for anything else.” In the moonlight, the Aes Sedai seemed taller, somehow, almost looming over them. “Know this. I intend to see you safely in Tar Valon. That is the one thing you need to know.”
“If we keep standing here,” Lan put in, “the Draghkar will not need to search the river. If I remember correctly...” He led his horse on up the riverbank.
As if the Warder's movement had loosened something in his chest, Rand drew a deep breath. He heard others doing the same, even Thom, and remembered an old saying. Better to spit in a wolf's eye than to cross an Aes Sedai. Yet the tension had lessened. Moiraine was not looming over anyone; she barely reached his chest.
“I don't suppose we could rest a bit,” Perrin said hopefully, ending with a yawn. Egwene, slumped against Bela, sighed tiredly.
It was the first sound even approaching a complaint that Rand had heard from her. Maybe now she realizes this isn't some grand adventure after all. Then he guiltily remembered that, unlike him, she had not slept the day away. “We do need to rest, Moiraine Sedai,” he said. “ After all, we have ridden all night.”
“Then I suggest we see what Lan has for us,” Moiraine said, “Come.”
She led them on up the bank, into the woods beyond the river. Bare branches thickened the shadows. A good hundred spans from the Taren they came to a dark mound beside a clearing. Here a longago flood had undermined and toppled an entire stand of leatherleafs, washing them together into a great, thick tangle, an apparently solid mass of trunks and branches and roots. Moiraine stopped, and suddenly a light appeared low to the ground, coming from under the heap of trees.
Thrusting a stub of a torch ahead of him, Lan crawled out from under the mound and straightened. “No unwelcome visitors,” he told Moiraine. “ And the wood I left is still dry, so I started a small fire. We will rest warm.”
“You expected us to stop here?” Egwene said in surprise.
“It seemed a likely place,” Lan replied. “I like to be prepared, just in case.”
Moiraine took the torch from him: “Will you see to the horses? When you are done I will do what I can about everyone's tiredness. Right now I want to talk to Egwene. Egwene?”
Rand watched the two women crouch down and disappear under the great pile of tree trunks. There was a low opening, barely big enough to crawl into. The light of the torch vanished.
Lan had included feedbags and a small quantity of oats in the supplies, but he stopped the others from unsaddling their horses. Instead he produced the hobbles he had also packed. “They would rest easier without the saddles, but if we must leave quickly, there may be no time to replace them.”
“They don't look to me like they need any rest,” Perrin said as he attempted to slip a feedbag over his mount's muzzle. The horse tossed its head before allowing him to put the straps in place. Rand was having difficulties with Cloud, too, taking three tries before he could get the canvas bag over the gray's nose.
“They do,” Lan told them. He straightened from hobbling his stallion. “Oh, they can still run. They will run at their fastest, if we let them, right up to the second they drop dead from exhaustion they never even felt. I would rather Moiraine Sedai had not had to do what she did, but it was necessary.” He patted the stallion's neck, and the horse bobbed his head as if acknowledging the Warder's touch. “We must go slowly with them for the next few days, until they recover. More slowly than I would like. But with luck it will be enough.”
“Is that ... ?” Mat swallowed audibly. “Is that what she meant? About our tiredness?”
Rand patted Cloud's neck and stared at nothing. Despite what she had done for Tam, he had no desire for the Aes Sedai to use the Power on him. Light, she as much as admitted sinking the ferry.
“Something like it. ” Lan chuckled wryly. “But you will not have to worry about running yourself to death. Not unless things get a lot worse than they are. Just think of it as an extra night's sleep.”
The shrill scream of the Draghkar suddenly echoed from above the fogcovered river. Even the horses froze. Again it came, closer now, and again, piercing Rand's skull like needles: Then the cries were fading, until they had faded away entirely.
“Luck,” Lan breathed. “It searches the river for us.” He gave a quick shrug and abruptly sounded matteroffact. “Let's get inside. I could do with some hot tea and something to fill my belly.”
Rand was the first to crawl on hands and knees through the opening in the tangle of trees and down a shorttunnel. At the end of it, he stopped, still crouching. Ahead was an irregularly shaped space, a woody cave easily large enough to hold them all. The roof of tree trunks and branches came too low to allow any but the women to stand. Smoke from a small fire on a bed of river stones drifted up and through; the draft was enough to keep the space free of smoke, but the interweaving was too thick to let out even a glimmer of the flames. Moiraine and Egwene, their cloaks thrown aside, sat crosslegged, facing one another beside the fire.
“The One Power,” Moiraine was saying, “comes from the True Source, the driving force of Creation, the force the Creator made to turn the Wheel of Time.” She put her hands together in front of her and pushed them against each other. “Saidin, the male half of the True Source, and saidar, the female half, work against each other and at the same time together to provide that force. saidin” — she lifted one hand, then let it drop —“is fouled by the touch of the Dark One, like water with a thin slick of rancid oil floating on top. The water is still pure, but it cannot be touched without touching the foulness. Only saidar is still safe to be used.” Egwene's back was to Rand. He could not see her face, but she was leaning forward eagerly.
Mat poked Rand from behind and muttered something, and he moved on into the tree cavern. Moiraine and Egwene ignored his entry. The other men crowded in behind him, tossing off damp cloaks, settling around the fire, and holding hands out to the warmth. Lan, the last to enter, pulled water bags and leather sacks from a nook in the wall, took out a kettle, and began to prepare tea. He paid no attention to what the women were saying, but Rand's friends began to stop toasting their hands and stare openly. Thom pretended that all of his interest was engaged in loading his thickly carved pipe, but the way he leaned toward the women gave him away. Moiraine and Egwene acted as if they were alone.
“No,” Moiraine said in answer to a question Rand had missed, “the True Source cannot be used up, any more than the river can be used up by the wheel of a mill. The Source is the river; the Aes Sedai, the waterwheel.”
“And you really think I can learn?” Egwene asked. Her face shone with eagerness. Rand had never seen her look so beautiful, or so far away from him. “I can become an Aes Sedai?”
Rand jumped up, cracking his head against the low roof of logs. Thom Merrilin grabbed his arm, yanking him back down.
“Don't be a fool,” the gleeman murmured. He eyed the women — neither seemed to have noticed—and the look he gave Rand was sympathetic. “It's beyond you now, boy.”
“Child,” Moiraine said gently, “only a very few can learn to touch the True Source and use the One Power. Some of those can learn to a greater degree, some to a lesser. You are one of the bare handful for whom there is no need to learn. At least, touching the Source will come to you whether you want it or not. Without the teaching you can receive in Tar Valon, though, you will never learn to channel it fully, and you may not survive. Men who have the ability to touch saidin born in them die, of course, if the Red Ajah does not find them and gentle them ...”
Thom growled deep in his throat, and Rand shifted uncomfortably. Men like those of whom the Aes Sedai spoke were rare — he had only heard of three in his whole life, and thank the Light never in the Two Rivers — but the damage they did before the Aes Sedai found them was always bad enough for the news to carry, like the news of wars, or earthquakes that destroyed cities. He had never really understood what the Ajahs did. According to the stories they were societies among the Aes Sedai that seemed to plot and squabble among themselves more than anything else, but the stories were clear on one point. The Red Ajah held its prime duty to be the prevention of another Breaking of the World, and they did it by hunting down every man who even dreamed of wielding the One Power. Mat and Perrin looked as if they suddenly wished they wer