“Is it a dream?” the man said. “Does it matter?” Once again, for a moment, his mouth and eyes became peepholes into a furnace that seemed to stretch forever. His voice did not change; he did not seem to notice it happening at all.
Rand jumped a little this time, but he managed to keep from yelling. This is a dream. It has to be. All the same, he stepped backwards all the way to the door, never taking his eyes off the fellow by the fire, and tried the handle. It did not move; the door was locked.
“You seem thirsty,” the man by the fire said. “Drink.”
On the table was a goblet, shining gold and ornamented with rubies and amethysts. It had not been there before. He wished he could stop jumping. It was only a dream. His mouth felt like dust.
“I am, a little,” he said, picking up the goblet. The man leaned forward intently, one hand on the back of a chair, watching him. The smell of spiced wine drove home to Rand just how thirsty he was, as if he had had nothing to drink in days. Have I?
With the wine halfway to his mouth, he stopped. Whispers of smoke were rising from the chairback between the man's fingers. And those eyes watched him so sharply, flickering rapidly in and out of flames.
Rand licked his lips and put the wine back on the table, untasted. “I'm not as thirsty as I thought.” The man straightened abruptly, his face without expression. His disappointment could not have been more plain if he had cursed. Rand wondered what was in the wine. But that was a stupid question, of course. This was all a dream. Then why won't it stop? “What do you want?” he demanded. “Who are you?”
Flames rose in the man's eyes and mouth; Rand thought he could hear them roar. “Some call me Ba'alzamon.”
Rand found himself facing the door, jerking frantically at the handle. All thought of dreams had vanished. The Dark One. The doorhandle would not budge, but he kept twisting.
“Are you the one?” Ba'alzamon said suddenly. “You cannot hide it from me forever. You cannot even hide yourself from me, not on the highest mountain or in the deepest cave. I know you down to the smallest hair.”
Rand turned to face the man—to face Ba'alzamon. He swallowed hard. A nightmare. He reached back to give the doorhandle one last pull, then stood up straighter.
“Are you expecting glory?” Ba'alzamon said. “Power? Did they tell you the Eye of the World would serve you? What glory or power is there for a puppet? The strings that move you have been centuries weaving. Your father was chosen by the White Tower, like a stallion roped and led to his business. Your mother was no more than a brood mare to their plans. And those plans lead to your death.”
Rand's hands knotted in fists. “My father is a good man, and my mother was a good woman. Don't you talk about them!”
The flames laughed. “So there is some spirit in you after all. Perhaps you are the one. Little good it will do you. The Amyrlin Seat will use you until you are consumed, just as Davian was used, and Yurian Stonebow, and Guaire Amalasan, and Raolin Darksbane. Just as Logain is being used. Used until there is nothing left of you.”
“I don't know ...” Rand swung his head from side to side. That one moment of clear thinking, born in anger, was gone. Even as he groped for it again he could not remember how he had reached it the first time. His thoughts spun around and around. He seized one like a raft in the whirlpool. He forced the words out, his voice strengthening the further he went. “You ... are bound ... in Shayol Ghul. You and all the Forsaken ... bound by the Creator until the end of time.”
“The end of time?” Ba'alzamon mocked. “You live like a beetle under a rock, and you think your slime is the universe. The death of time will bring me power such as you could not dream of, worm.”
“You are bound—”
“Fool, I have never been bound!” The fires of his face roared so hot that Rand stepped back, sheltering behind his hands. The sweat on his palms dried from the heat. "I stood at Lews Therin Kinslayer's shoulder when he did the deed that named him. It was I who told him to kill his wife, and his children, and all his blood, and every living person who loved him or whom he loved. It was I who gave him the moment of sanity to know what he had done. Have you ever heard a man scream his soul away, worm? He could have struck at me, then. He could not have won, but he could have tried. Instead he called down his precious One Power upon himself, so much that the earth split open and reared up Dragonmount to mark his tomb.
"A thousand years later I sent the Trollocs ravening south, and for three centuries they savaged the world. Those blind fools in Tar Valon said I was beaten in the end, but the Second Covenant, the Covenant of the Ten Nations, was shattered beyond remaking, and who was left to oppose me then? I whispered in Artur Hawkwing's ear, and the length and breadth of the land Aes Sedai died. I whispered again, and the High King sent his armies across the Aryth Ocean, across the World Sea, and sealed two dooms. The doom of his dream of one land and one people, and a doom yet to come. At his deathbed I was there when his councilors told him only Aes Sedai could save his life. I spoke, and he ordered his councilors to the stake. I spoke, and the High King's last words were to cry that Tar Valon must be destroyed.
“When men such as these could not stand against me, what chance do you have, a toad crouching beside a forest puddle. You will serve me, or you will dance on Aes Sedai strings until you die. And then you will be mine. The dead belong to me!”
“No,” Rand muttered, “this is a dream. It is a dream!”
“Do you think you are safe from me in your dreams? Look!” Ba'alzamon pointed commandingly, and Rand's head turned to follow, although he did not turn it; he did not want to turn.
The goblet was gone from the table. Where it had been, crouched a large rat, blinking at the light, sniffing the air warily. Ba'alzamon crooked his finger, and with a squeak the rat arched its back, forepaws lifting into the air while it balanced awkwardly on its hind feet. The finger curved more, and the rat toppled over, scrabbling frantically, pawing at nothing, squealing shrilly, its back bending, bending, bending. With a sharp snap like the breaking of a twig, the rat trembled violently and was still, lying bent almost double.
Rand swallowed. “Anything can happen in a dream,” he mumbled. Without looking he swung his fist back against the door again. His hand hurt, but he still did not wake up.
“Then go to the Aes Sedai. Go to the White Tower and tell them. Tell the Amyrlin Seat of this ... dream.” The man laughed; Rand felt the heat of the flames on his face. “That is one way to escape them. They will not use you, then. No, not when they know that I know. But will they let you live, to spread the tale of what they do? Are you a big enough fool to believe they will? The ashes of many like you are scattered on the slopes of Dragonmount. ”
“This is a dream,” Rand said, panting. “It's a dream, and I am going to wake up.”
“Will you?” Out of the corner of his eye he saw the man's finger move to point at him. “Will you, indeed?” The finger crooked, and Rand screamed as he arched backwards, every muscle in his body forcing him further. “Will you ever wake again?”
Convulsively Rand jerked up in the darkness, his hands tightening on cloth. A blanket. Pale moonlight shone through the single window. The shadowed shapes of the other two beds. A snore from one of them, like canvas ripping: Thom Merrilin. A few coals gleamed among the ashes on the hearth.
It had been a dream, then, like that nightmare in the Winespring Inn the day of Bel Tine, everything that he had heard and done all jumbled in together with old tales and nonsense from nowhere. He pulled the blanket up around his shoulders, but it was not cold that made him shake. His head hurt, too. Perhaps Moiraine could do something to stop these dreams. She said she could help with nightmares.
With a snort he lay back. Were the dreams really bad enough for him to ask the help of an Aes Sedai? On the other hand, could anything he did now get him in any deeper? He had left the Two Rivers, come away with an Aes Sedai. But there had not been any choice, of course. So did he have any choice but to trust her? An Aes Sedai? It was as bad as the dreams, thinking about it. He huddled under his blanket, trying to find the calmness of the void the way Tam had taught him, but sleep was a long time returning.
Strangers and Friends
Sunlight streaming across his narrow bed finally woke Rand out of a deep but restless sleep. He pulled a pillow over his head, but it did not really shut out the light, and he did not really want to go back to sleep. There had been more dreams after the first. He could not remember any but the first, but he knew he wanted no more.
With a sigh he tossed the pillow aside and sat up, wincing as he stretched. All the aches he thought had soaked out in the bath were back. And his head still hurt, too. It did not surprise him. A dream like that was enough to give anybody a headache. The others had already faded, but not that one.
The other beds were empty. Light poured in through the window at a steep angle; the sun stood well above the horizon. By this hour back on the farm he would have already fixed something to eat and been well into his chores. He scrambled out of bed, muttering angrily to himself. A city to see, and they did not even wake him. At least someone had seen that there was water in the pit