“The lads were just — ” Thom began, but Moiraine spoke right over the top of him.

“A few days respite, and you are ready to give up.” Her calm, level voice contrasted sharply with her eyes. “A day or two of quiet, and already you have forgotten Winternight.”


“We haven't forgotten,” Perrin said. “It's just — ” Still not raising her voice, the Aes Sedai treated him as she had the gleeman.

“Is that the way you all feel? You are all eager to run off to Illian and forget about Trollocs, and Halfmen, and Draghkar?” She ran her eyes over them — that stony glint playing against the everyday tone of voice made Rand uneasy — but she gave no one a chance to speak. “The Dark One is after you three, one or all, and if I let you go running off wherever you want to so, he will take you. Whatever the Dark One wants, I oppose, so hear this and know it true. Before I let the Dark One have you, I will destroy you myself.”

It was her voice, so matteroffact, that convinced Rand. The Aes Sedai would do exactly what she said, if she thought it was necessary. He had a hard time sleeping that night, and he was not the only one. Even the gleeman did not begin snoring till long after the last coals died. For once, Moiraine offered no help.

Those nightly talks between Egwene and the Aes Sedai were a sore point for Rand. Whenever they disappeared into the darkness, aside from the rest for privacy, he wondered what they were saying, what they were doing. What was the Aes Sedai doing to Egwene?

One night, he waited until the other men had all settled down, Thom snoring like a saw cutting an oak knot. Then he slipped away, clutching his blanket around him. Using every bit of skill he had gained stalking rabbits, he moved with the moon shadows until he was crouched at the base of a tall leatherleaf tree, thick with tough, broad leaves, close enough to hear Moiraine and Egwene, where they sat on a fallen log with a small lantern for light.

“Ask,” Moiraine was saying, “and if I can tell you now I will. Understand, there is much for which you are not yet ready, things you cannot learn until you have learned other things which require still others to be learned before them. But ask what you will.”

“The Five Powers,” Egwene said slowly. “Earth, Wind, Fire, Water, and Spirit. It doesn't seem fair that men should have been strongest in wielding Earth and Fire. Why should they have had the strongest Powers?”

Moiraine laughed. “Is that what you think, child? Is there a rock so hard that wind and water cannot wear it away, a fire so strong that water cannot quench it or wind snuff it out?”

Egwene was silent for a time, digging her toe into the forest floor. “They ... they were the ones who ... who tried to free the Dark One and the Forsaken, weren't they? The male Aes Sedai?” She took a deep breath and picked up speed. “The women were not part of it. It was the men who went mad and broke the world.”

-- Advertisement --

“You are afraid,” Moiraine said grimly. “If you had remained in Emond's Field, you would have become Wisdom, in time. That was Nynaeve's plan, was it not? Or, you would have sat in the Women's Circle and managed the affairs of Emond's Field while the Village Council thought it was doing so. But you did the unthinkable. You left Emond's Field, left the Two Rivers, seeking adventure. You wanted to do it, and at the same time you are afraid of it. And you are stubbornly refusing to let your fear best you. You would not have asked me how a woman becomes an Aes Sedai, otherwise. You would not have thrown custom and convention over the fence, otherwise.”

“No,” Egwene protested. “I'm not afraid. I do want to become an Aes Sedai. ”

“Better for you if you were afraid, but I hope you hold to that conviction. Few women these days have the ability to become initiates, much less have the wish to.” Moiraine's voice sounded as if she had begun musing to herself. “Surely never before two in one village. The old blood is indeed still strong in the Two Rivers. ”

In the shadows, Rand shifted. A twig snapped under his foot. He froze instantly, sweating and holding his breath, but neither of the women looked around.

“Two?” Egwene exclaimed. “Who else? Is it Kari? Kari Thane? Lara Ayellan?”

Moiraine gave an exasperated click of her tongue, then said sternly, “You must forget I said that. Her road lies another way, I fear. Concern yourself with your own circumstances. It is not an easy road you have chosen.”

“I will not turn back,” Egwene said.

“Be that as it may. But you still want reassurance, and I cannot give it to you, not in the way you want.”

“I don't understand.”

“You want to know that Aes Sedai are good and pure, that it was those wicked men of the legends who caused the Breaking of the World, not the women. Well, it was the men, but they were no more wicked than any men. They were insane, not evil. The Aes Sedai you will find in Tar Valon are human, no different from any other women except for the ability that sets us apart. They are brave and cowardly, strong and weak, kind and cruel, warmhearted and cold. Becoming an Aes Sedai will not change you from what you are.”

Egwene drew a heavy breath. “I suppose I was afraid of that, that I'd be changed by the Power. That and the Trollocs. And the Fade. And ... Moiraine Sedai, in the name of the Light, why did the Trollocs come to Emond's Field?”

The Aes Sedai's head swung and she looked straight at Rand's hiding place. His breath seized in his throat; her eyes were as hard as when she had threatened them, and he had the feeling they could penetrate the leatherleaf's thick branches. Light, what will she do if she finds me listening?

He tried to melt back into the deeper shadows. With his eyes on the women, a root snagged his foot, and he barely caught himself from tumbling into dead brush that would have pointed him out with a crackle of snapping branches like fireworks. Panting, he scrambled away on all fours, keeping silent as much by luck as by anything he did. His heart pounded so hard he thought that might give him away itself. Fool! Eavesdropping on an Aes Sedai!

Back where the others were sleeping, he managed to slip in among them silently. Lan moved as he dropped to the ground and jerked his blanket up, but the Warder settled back with a sigh. He had only been rolling over in his sleep. Rand let out a long, silent breath.

A moment later Moiraine appeared out of the night, stopping where she could study the slumbering shapes. Moonlight made a nimbus around her. Rand closed his eyes and breathed evenly, all the while listening hard for footsteps coming closer. None did. When he opened his eyes again, she was gone.

When finally sleep came, it was fitful and filled with sweaty dreams where all the men in Emond's Field claimed to be the Dragon Reborn and all women had blue stones in their hair like the one Moiraine wore. He did not try to overhear Moiraine and Egwene again.

On into the sixth day the slow journey stretched. The warmthless sun slid slowly toward the treetops, while a handful of thin clouds drifted high to the north. The wind gusted higher for a moment, and Rand pulled his cloak back up onto his shoulders, muttering to himself. He wondered if they would ever get to Baerlon. The distance they had traveled from the river already was more than enough to take him from Taren Ferry to the White River, but Lan always said it was just a short journey whenever he was asked, hardly worth calling a journey at all. It made him feel lost.

Lan appeared ahead of them in the woods, returning from one of his forays. He reined in and rode beside Moiraine, his head bent close to hers.

Rand grimaced, but he did not ask any questions. Lan simply refused to acknowledge all such questions aimed at him.

Only Egwene, among the others, even appeared to notice Lan's return, so used to this arrangement had they become, and she kept back, too. The Aes Sedai might have begun acting as if Egwene were in charge of the Emond's Fielders, but that gave her no say when the Warder made his reports. Perrin was carrying Mat's bow, wrapped in the thoughtful silence that seemed to take them all more and more as they got further from the Two Rivers. The horses' slow walk allowed Mat to practice juggling three small stones under Thom Merrilin's watchful eye. The gleeman had given lessons each night, too, as well as Lan.

Lan finished whatever he had been telling Moiraine, and she twisted in her saddle to look back at the others. Rand tried not to stiffen when her eyes moved across him. Did they linger on him a moment longer than on anyone else? He had the queasy feeling that she knew who had been listening in the darkness that night.

“Hey, Rand,” Mat called, “I can juggle four!” Rand waved in reply without looking around. “I told you I'd get to four before you. I — Look!”

They had topped a low hill, and below them, a scant mile away through the stark trees and the stretching shadows of evening, lay Baerlon. Rand gasped, trying to smile and gape at the same time.

A log wall, nearly twenty feet tall, surrounded the town, with wooden watchtowers scattered along its length. Within, rooftops of slate and tile glinted with the sinking sun, and feathers of smoke drifted upward from chimneys. Hundreds of chimneys. There was not a thatched roof to be seen. A broad road ran east from the town, and another west, each with at least a dozen wagons and twice as many oxcarts trudging toward the palisade. Farms lay scattered about the town, thickest to the north while only a few broke the forest to the south, but they might as well not have existed so far as Rand was concerned. It's bigger than Emond's Field and Watch Hill and Deven Ride all put together! A

-- Advertisement --