“... but some of the women die, too. It is hard to learn without a guide. The women we do not find, those who live, often become ... well, in this part of the world they might become Wisdoms of their villages.” The Aes Sedai paused thoughtfully. “The old blood is strong in Emond's Field, and the old blood sings. I knew you for what you were the moment I saw you. No Aes Sedai can stand in the presence of a woman who can channel or who is close to her change, and not feel it. ” She rummaged in the pouch at her belt and produced the small blue gem on a gold chain that she had earlier worn in her hair. “You are very close to your change, your first touching. It will be better if I guide you through it. That way you will avoid the ... unpleasant effects that come to those who must find their own way.”
Egwene's eyes widened as she looked at the stone, and she wet her lips repeatedly. “Is ... does that have the Power?”
“Of course not,” Moiraine snapped. “Things do not have the Power, child. Even an angreal is only a tool. This is just a pretty blue stone. But it can give off light. Here.”
Egwene's hands trembled as Moiraine laid the stone on her fingertips. She started to pull back, but the Aes Sedai held both her hands in one of hers and gently touched the other to the side of Egwene's head.
“Look at the stone,” the Aes Sedai said softly. “It is better this way than fumbling alone. Clear your mind of everything but the stone. Clear your mind, and let yourself drift. There is only the stone and emptiness. I will begin it. Drift, and let me guide you. No thoughts. Drift.”
Rand's fingers dug into his knees; his jaws clenched until they hurt. She has to fail. She has to.
Light bloomed in the stone, just one flash of blue and then gone, no brighter than a firefly, but he flinched as if it had been blinding. Egwene and Moiraine stared into the stone, faces empty. Another flash came, and another, until the azure light pulsed like the beating of a heart. It's the Aes Sedai, he thought desperately. Moiraine's doing it. Not Egwene.
One last, feeble flicker, and the stone was merely a bauble again. Rand held his breath.
For a moment Egwene continued to stare at the small stone, then she looked up at Moiraine. “I ... I thought I felt ... something, but ... Perhaps you're mistaken about me. I am sorry I wasted your time.”
“I have wasted nothing, child.” A small smile of satisfaction flitted across Moiraine's lips. “That last light was yours alone.”
“It was?” Egwene exclaimed, then slid immediately back into glumness. “But it was barely there at all. ”
“Now you are behaving like a foolish village girl. Most who come to Tar Valon must study for many months before they can do what you just did. You may go far. Perhaps even the Amyrlin Seat, one day, if you study hard and work hard.”
“You mean ... ?” With a cry of delight Egwene threw her arms around the Aes Sedai. “Oh, thank you. Rand, did you hear? I'm going to be an Aes Sedai!”
Before they went to sleep Moiraine knelt by each in turn and laid her hands on their heads. Lan grumbled that he had no need and she should not waste her strength, but he did not try to stop her. Egwene was eager for the experience; Mat and Perrin clearly frightened of it, and frightened to say no. Thom jerked away from the Aes Sedai's hands, but she seized his gray head with a look that allowed no nonsense. The gleeman scowled through the entire thing. She smiled mockingly once she took her hands away. His frown deepened, but he did look refreshed. They all did.
Rand had drawn back into a niche in the uneven wall where he hoped he would be overlooked. His eyes wanted to slide closed once he leaned back against the timber jumble, but he forced himself to watch. He pushed a fist against his mouth to stifle a yawn. A little sleep, an hour or two, and he would be just fine. Moiraine did not forget him, though.
He flinched at the coolness of her fingers on his face, and said, “I don't —” His eyes widened in wonder. Tiredness drained out of him like water running downhill; aches and soreness ebbed to dim memories and vanished. He stared at her with his mouth hanging open. She only smiled and withdrew her hands.
“It is done,” she said, and as she stood with a weary sigh he was reminded that she could not do the same for herself. Indeed, she only drank a little tea, refusing the bread and cheese Lan tried to press on her, before curling up beside the fire. She seemed to fall asleep the instant she wrapped her cloak around her.
The others, all save Lan, were dropping asleep wherever they could find a space to stretch out, but Rand could not imagine why. He felt as if he had already had a full night in a good bed. No sooner did he lean back against the log wall, though, than sleep rolled him under. When Lan poked him awake an hour later he felt as though he had had three days rest.
The Warder awakened them all, except Moiraine, and he sternly hushed any sound that might disturb her. Even so, he allowed them only a short stay in the snug cave of trees. Before the sun was twice its own height above the horizon, all traces that anyone had ever stopped there had been cleared away and they were all mounted and moving north toward Baerlon, riding slowly to conserve the horses. The Aes Sedai's eyes were shadowed, but she sat her saddle upright and steady.
Fog still hung thick over the river behind them, a gray wall resisting the efforts of the feeble sun to burn it away and hiding the Two Rivers from view. Rand watched over his shoulder as he rode, hoping for one last glimpse, even of Taren Ferry, until the fogbank was lost to sight.
“I never thought I'd ever be this far from home,” he said when the trees at last hid both the fog and the river. “Remember when Watch Hill seemed a long way?” Two days ago, that was. It seems like forever.
“In a month or two, we'll be back,” Perrin said in a strained voice. “Think what we'll have to tell.”
“Even Trollocs can't chase us forever,” Mat said. “Burn me, they can't.” He straightened around with a heavy sigh, slumping in his saddle as if he did not believe a word that had been said.
“Men!” Egwene snorted. “You get the adventure you're always prating about, and already you're talking about home.” She held her head high, yet Rand noticed a tremor to her voice, now that nothing more was to be seen of the Two Rivers.
Neither Moiraine nor Lan made any attempt to reassure them, not a word to say that of course they would come back. He tried not to think on what that might mean. Even rested, he was full enough of doubts without searching out more. Hunching in his saddle he began a waking dream of tending the sheep alongside Tam in a pasture with deep, lush grass and larks singing of a spring morning. And a trip into Emond's Field, and Bel Tine the way it had been, dancing on the Green with never a care beyond whether he might stumble in the steps. He managed to lose himself in it for a long time.
The journey to Baerlon took almost a week. Lan muttered about the laggardness of their travel, but it was he who set the pace and forced the rest to keep it. With himself and his stallion, Mandarb — he said it meant “Blade” in the Old Tongue — he was not so sparing. The Warder covered twice as much ground as they did, galloping ahead, his colorshifting cloak swirling in the wind, to scout what lay before them, or dropping behind to examine their backtrail. Any others who tried to move at more than a walk, though, got cutting words on taking care of their animals, biting words on how well they would do afoot if the Trollocs did appear. Not even Moiraine was proof against his tongue if she let the white mare pick up her step. Aldieb, the mare was called; in the Old Tongue, “Westwind,” the wind that brought the spring rains.
The Warder's scouting never turned up any sign of pursuit, or ambush. He spoke only to Moiraine of what he saw, and that quietly, so it could not be overheard, and the Aes Sedai informed the rest of them of what she thought they needed to know. In the beginning, Rand looked over his shoulder as much as he did ahead. He was not the only one. Perrin fingered his axe often, and Mat rode with an arrow nocked to his bow, in the beginning. But the land behind remained empty of Trollocs or figures in black cloaks, the sky remained empty of Draghkar. Slowly, Rand began to think perhaps they really had escaped.
No very great cover was to be had, even in the thickest parts of the woods. Winter clung as hard north of the Taren as it did in the Two Rivers. Stands of pine or fir or leatherleaf, and here and there a few spicewoods or laurels, dotted a forest of otherwise bare, gray branches. Not even the elders showed a leaf. Only scattered green sprigs of new growth stood out against brown meadows beaten flat by the winter's snows. Here, too, much of what did grow was stinging nettles and coarse thistle and stinkweed. On the bare dirt of the forest floor some of the last snow still hung on, in shady patches and in drifts beneath the low branches of evergreens. Everyone kept their cloaks drawn well about them, for the thin sunlight had no warmth to it and the night cold pierced deep. No more birds flew here than in the Two Rivers, not even ravens.
There was nothing leisurely about the slowness of their movement. The North Road—Rand continued to think of it that way, though he suspected it might have a different name here, north of the Taren—still ran almost due north, but at Lan's insistence their path snaked this way and that through the forest as often as it ran along the hardpacked dirt road. A village, or a farm, of any sign of men or civilization sent them circling for miles to avoid