To The Blight

Part Two of 'The Eye of the World', The Beginnng of 'The Wheel of Time'

Wheel of Time (Starscape) (Volume 1 of 2)

Robert Jordan


Chapter 24
Flight Down the Arinelle
Water dripped in the distance, hollow splashes echoing and reechoing, losing their source forever. There were stone bridges and railless ramps everywhere, all sprouting off from broad, flat-topped stone spires, all level, the maze stretched up and down through the murk, without any apparent beginning or end. Every bridge led to a spire, every ramp to another spire, other bridges. Whatever direction Rand looked, as far as his eye could make out in the dimness it light to see clearly, and he was almost glad of it. Some of those ramps led to platforms that had to be directly above the ones below. He could not see the base of any of them. He pressed, seeking freedom, knowing it was an illusion. Everything was illusion.
He knew the illusion; he had followed it to many times not to know. However far he went, up or down or in any direction, there was only the shiny stone. Stone, but the dankness of deep, fresh-turned earth permeated the air, and the sickly sweetness of decay. The smell of a grave opened out of its time. He tried not to breathe, but the smell filled his nostrils. It clung to his skin like oil.
A flicker of motion caught his eye, and he froze where he was, half crouched against the polished guardwall around one of the spire tops. It was no hiding place. From a thousand places a watcher could have seen him. Shadow filled the air, but there were no deeper shadows in which to hide. The light did not come from lamps, or lanterns, or torches; it was simply there, such as it was, as if it seeped out of the air. Enough by which to see, after a fashion; enough by which to be seen. But stillness gave a little protection.
The movement came again, and now it was clear. A man striding up a distant ramp, careless of the lack of railings and the drop to nothing below. The man’s cloak rippled with his stately haste, and his head turned, searching, searching. The distance was too far for Rand to see more than the shape in the murk, but he did not need to be closer to know the cloak was the red of fresh blood, that the searching eyes blazed like two furnaces.
He tried tracing the maze with his eyes, to see how many connections Ba’alzamon needed before reaching him, then gave it up as useless. Distances were deceiving here, another lesson he had learned. What seemed far away might be reached by turning a corner; what appeared close could be out of reach altogether. The only thing to do, as it had been from the beginning, was to keep moving. Keep moving, and not think. Thinking was dangerous, he knew.
Yet, as he turned away from Ba’azlamon’s distant from, he could not help wondering about Mat. Was Mat somewhere in this maze? Or are there two mazes, two Ba’alzamons? His mind skittered away from that; it was too dreadful to dewll on. Is this like Baerlon? Then why can’t he fund me? That was a little better. A small comfort. Comfort? Blood and ashes, where’s the comfort in it?
There had been two or three close brushes, though he could not remember them clearly, but for a long, long time—how long?—he had run while Ba’alzamon vainly pursued. Was this like Baerlon, or was it only a nightmare, only a dream like other men’s dreams?
For an instant, then—just for the length of time it took to take a breath—he knew why it was dangerous to think, what it was dangerous to think about. As it had before, every time he allowed himself to think of what surrounded him as a dream, the air shimmered, clouding his eyes. It turned to jell, holding him. Just for an instant.
The gritty heat prickled his skin, and his throat had long since gone dry as he trotted down the thorn-hedge maze. How long had it been now? His sweat evaporated before it had a chance to bead, and his eyes burned. Overhead—and hot too far overheard, at that—boiled furious, steely clouds streaked with black, but not a breath of air stirred in the maze. For a moment he thought it had been different, but the thought evaporated in the heat. He had been here a long time. It was dangerous to think, he knew that.
Smooth stones, pale and rounded, made a sketchy pavement, half buried in the done-dry dust that rose in puffs at even his lightest step. It tickled his nose, no breathe through his mouth, dust clogged his throat until he choked.
This was a dangerous place; he knew that, too. Ahead of him he could see three openings in the high wall of thorns, then the way curved out of slight. Ba’alzamon could be approaching any one of those corners at that very moment. There had been two much beyond that they had happened and he had escaped…somehow. Dangerous to think too much.
Panting in the heat, he stopped to examine the maze wall. Thickly woven thorn bushes, brown and dead-looking, with cruel black thorns like inch-long hooks. Too tall to see over, too dense to see through. Gingerly he touched the wall, and gasped. Despite all his care, a thorn pierced his finger, burning like a hot needle. He stumbled back, his heels catching on the stones, shaking his had and scattering thick drops of blood. The burn began to subside, but his whole had throbbed.
Abruptly he forgot the pain. His heel had overturned one of the smooth stones, kicked it out of the dry ground. He stared at it, and empty eye sockets stared back. A skull. A human skull. He looked along the pathway at all the smooth, pale stones, all exactly alike. He shifted his feet hastily, but he could not move without walking on them, and he could not stay still without standing on them. A stray thought took vague shape, that things might not be what they seemed, but he pushed it down ruthlessly. Thinking was dangerous here.
He took a shaky hold on himself. Staying in one place was dangerous, too. That was one of the things he knew dimly but with certainty. The flow of blood from his finger had dwindled to a slow drip, and the throb was almost gone. Sucking his fingertip, he started down the path in the direction he happened to be facing. One way was as good as another in here.
Now he remembered hearing once that you could get out of a maze by always turning in the same direction. At the first opening in the wall of thorns he turned right, then right again at the next. And found himself face-to-face with Ba’alzamon.
Surprise flitted across Ba’alzamon’s face, and his blood-red cloak settled as he stopped short. Flames soared in his eyes, but in the heat of the maze Rand barely felt them.
“How long do you think you can evade me, boy? How long do you think you can evade your fate? You are mine!”
Stumbling back, Rand wondered why he was fumbling at his belt, as if for a sowrd. “Light help me,” he muttered. “Light help me.” He could not remember what it meant.
“The Light will not help you, boy, and the Eye of the World will not serve you. You are my hound, and if you will not course at my command, I will strangle you with the corpse of the Great Serpent!”
Ba’alzamon stretched out his hand, and suddenly Rand knew a way to escape, a misty, half-formed memory that screamed danger, but nothing to the danger of being touched by the Dark One.
“A dream!” Rand shouted. “This is a dream!”
Ba’alzamon’s eyes began to widen, in surprise or anger or both, then the air shimmered, and his features blurred, and faded.
Rand turned about in one spot, staring. Staring at his own image thrown back at him a thousandfold. Ten thousandfold. Above was blackness, and blackness below, but all around him stood mirrors, mirrors set at every angle, mirrors as far as he could see, all showing him, crouched and turning, staring wide-eyed and frightened.
A red blur drifted across the mirrors. He spun, trying to catch it, but in every mirror it drifted behind his own image and vanished. Then it was back again, but not as a blur. Ba’alzamon strode across the mirrors, ten thousand Ba’alzamons, searching, crossing and recrossing the silvery mirrors.
He found himself staring at the reflection of his own face, pale and shivering in the knife-edge cold. Ba'alzamon’s face raged behind every mirror, the flames of Ba’alzamon’s face rages behind him, enveloping, consuming, merging. He wanted to scream, but his throat was frozen. There was only one face in those endless mirrors. His own face. Ba’alzamon’s face. One face.
* * *
Rand jerked, and opened his eyes. Darkness, lessened only slightly by a pale light. Barely breathing, he moved nothing except his eyes. A rough wool blanket covered him to his shoulders, and his head was cradled on his arms. He could feel smooth wooden planks under his hands. Deck planks. Rigging creaked in the night. He let out a long breath. He was on the Spray. It was over…for another night, at least.
Without thinking he put his finger in his mouth. At the taste of blood, he stopped breathing. Slowly he put his hand close to his face, to where he could see in the dim moonlight, to where he could watch the bead of blood form on his fingertip. Blood from the prick of a thorn.
* * *
The Spray made haste slowly down the Arinelle. The wind came strong, but from directions that made the sails useless. With all Captain Domon’s demand for speed, the vessel crept along. By night a man in the bows cast a tallowed lead by lantern light, calling back the depth to the steersman, while the current carried her downriver against the wind with the sweeps pulled in. There were no rocks to fear in the Arinelle, but shallows and shoals there were aplenty, where a boat could go hard aground to remain, bows and more dug into the mud, until help came. If it was help that came first. By day the sweeps worked from sunrise to sunset, but the wind fought them as if it wanted to push the boat back upriver.
They did not put in to shore, neither by day nor by night. Bayle Domon drove boat and crew alike hard, railing at the contrary winds, cursing the slow pace. He blistered the crew for sluggards at the oars and flayed them with his tongue for every mishandled line, his low, hard voice painting Trollocs ten feet tall among them on the deck, ripping out their throats. For two days that was enough to send every man leaping. Then the shock of the Trolloc attack began to fade, and men began to mutter mutter about an hours to stretch their legs ashore, and about the dangers of running downriver in the dark.
The crew kept their grumbles quiet, watching out of the corners of their eyes to make sure Captain Domon was not close enough to hear, but he seemed to hear everything said on his boat. Each time the grumblings began, he silently brought out the long, scythe-like sword and cruelly hooked axe that had been found on the deck after the attack. He would hang them on the mast for an hour, and those who had been wounded would finger their bandages, and the mutterings quieted…for a day or so, at least, until one or another of the crew began thinking once more that surely they had left the Trollocs far behind by now, and the cycle began yet again.
Rand noticed that Thom Merrilin stayed clear of the crew when they began whispering together and frowning, though usually he was slapping backs and telling jokes and exchanging banter in a way that put a grin on even the hardest-working man. Thom watched those secretive mutters with a wary eye while appearing to be absorbed in lighting his long-stemmed pipe, or tuning his harp, or almost anything except paying any mind at all to the crew. Rand did not understand why. It was not the three who had come aboard chased by Trollocs whom the crew seemed to blame, but rather Floran Gleb.
For the first day or two Gelb’s wiry figure could almost always be found addressing any crewman he could corner, telling his version of the night Rand and the others came on board. Gelb’s manner slid from bluster to whines and back again, and his lip always curled when he pointed to Thom or Mat, or especially Rand, trying to lay the blame on them.
“They’re strangers,” Gelb pleaded, quietly and with an eye out for the captain. “What do we know of them? The Trollocs came with them, that’s what we know. They’re in league.”
“Fortune, Gelb, stow it,” growled a man with his hair in a pigtail and a small blue star tattooed on his cheek. He did not look at Gelb as he coiled a line on deck, working it in with his bare toes. All the soilors went barefoot despite the cold; boots could slip on a wet deck. “You’d call your mother Darkfeind if it’d let you slack. Get away from me!” He spat on Gelb’s foot and went back to the line.
All the crew remembered the watch Gelb had not kept, the pigtailed man's was the politest response he got. No one even wanted to work with him. Gelb found himself relegated o solitary tasks, all of them filthy, such as scrubbing the galley’s greasy pots, or crawling in to the bilges on his belly to search for leaks among years of slime. Soon he stopped talking to anyone. His shoulders took on a defensive hunch, and injures silence became h is stance-the more people watching, the more injured, though it earned him no more than a grunt. When Gelb’s eyes fell on Rand, however, or on Mat or Thom, murder flashed across his long-nosed face.
When Rand mentioned to Mat that Gelb would cause them trouble sooner or later, Mat looked around the boat, slaying, “Can we trust any of them? Any at all?” Then he went off to find a place where he could be alone, or as alone as he could get on a boat less than thirty paces from its raised bow to the sternpost where the steering oars were mounted. Mat had spent too much time alone since the night at Shadar Logoth; brooding, as Rand saw it.
Thom said, "Trouble won’t come from Gelb, boy, if it come. Not yet, at least. None of the crew will back him, and he hasn’t the nerve to try anything alone. But the rest are beginning to think the danger is past. They might just decide they have had enough. They’re on the edge of it, as it is.” He hitched his patch-covered cloak, and Rand had the feeling he was checking his hidden knives-his second-best set. If they mutiny, boy, they won’t leave passengers behind to tell the tale. The Queen’s Writ might not have much force this far from Caemlyn, but even a village may or will do something about that.r; That was when Rand, too, began trying not to be noticed when he watched the crewmen.
Thom did his part in diverting the crew from thoughts of mutiny. He told stories, with all the flourishes, every morning and every night, and in between he played any song they requested. To support the notion that Rand and Mat anted to be apprentice gleemen, he set aside a time each day for lessons, and that was an entertainment for the crew, as well. He would not let either of them touch his harp, of course, and their sessions with the flute produced pained winces, in the beginning, at least, and laughter from the crew even while they were covering their ears.
He taught the boys some of the easier stories, a little simple tumbling, and, of course, juggling. Mat complained about what Thom demanded of them, but Thom blew out his mustaches and glared right back.
“I don’t know how to play at teaching, boy. I either teach a thing, or I don’t. Now! Even a country bumpkin out to be able to do a simple handstand. Up you go.”
Crewmen who were not working always gathered, squatting in a circle around the three. Some even tried their hand at the lessons Thom taught, laughing at their own fumblings. Gelb stood alone and watched it all darkly, hating them all.
A good part of each day Rand spent leaning on the railing, staring at the shore. It was not that he really expected to see Egwene or any of the others suddenly appear on the riverbank, but the boat traveled so slowly that he sometimes hoped for it. They could catch up without riding too hard. If they had escaped. If they were still alive.
The river rolled on without any sign of life, nor any boat to be seen except the Spray. But that was not to say there was nothing to see, and wonder at. In the middle of the first day, the Arinelle ran between high bluffs that stretched for half a mile on either side. For that whole length the stone had been cut into figures, men and women a hundred feet tall, with crowns proclaiming them kings and queens. No two ere alike in that royal procession, and long years separated the fist from the last. Wind and rain had worn those at the north end smooth and almost featureless, with faces and details becoming more distinct as they went south. The river lapped around the statues’ feet, feet washed to smooth nubs, those that were not gone completely. How long have they stood there, Rand wondered. How long for the river to wear away so much stone? None of the crew so much as looked up from their work, they had seen the ancient carvings so many times before.
Another time, when the eastward shore had become flat grassland again, broken only occasionally by thickets, the sun glinted off something in the distance. “What can that be?” Rand wondered aloud . “It looks like metal.”
Captain Domon was walking by, and he paused, squinting toward the glint. “It do be metal,” he said. His words still ran together, but Rand had come to understand without having to puzzle it out. “A tower of metal. I have seen it close up, and I know. River traders use it as a marker. We be ten days from Whitebridge at rate we go.”
“A metal tower?” Rand said, and Mat, sitting cross-legged with his back against a barrel, roused from his brooding to listen.
The captain nodded. “Aye. Shining steel, by the look and feel of it, but no a spot of rust. Two hundred feet high, it be, as big around as a house, with no a mark on it and never an opening to be found”
“Mayhap, lad,” the captain rumbled. “There be stranger things in the world than this, though. On Tremalking, one of the Sea Folk’s isles, there be a stone hand fifty feet high sticking out of a hill, clutching a crystal sphere as big as this vessel. There be treasure under that hill if there be treasure anywhere, but the island people want no part of digging there, and the Sea Folk care for naught but sailing their ships and searching for the Coramoor, their Chosen One.”
“I’d d” Mat said. “How far is this…Tremalking” A clump of trees slid in front of the shining tower, but he stared as if he could see it yet.
Captain Domon shook his head. “No, lad, it no be the treasure that makes for seeing the world. If you find yourself a fistful of gold, or some dead king’s jewels, all well and good, but it be the strangeness you see that pulls you to the next horizon. In Tanchico-that be a port on the Aryth Ocean-part of the Panarch’s Palace were built in the Age of Legends, so it be said. There be a wall there with a fireze showing animals no man living has ever seen.”
“Any child can draw an animal nobody’s ever seen” Rand said, and the captain chuckled.
“Aye, lad, so they can. But can a child make the bones of those animals? In Tanchico they have them, all fastened together like the animal was. They stand in a part of the Panarch’s Palace where any can enter and see. The Breaking left a thousand wonders behind, and there been half a dozen empires or more since, some rivaling Artur Hawking’s, every one leaving things to see and find. Lightsticks and razorlace and heartstone. A crystal lattice covering an island, and it hums when the moon is up. A mountain hollowed into a bowl, and in its center, a silver spike a hundred spans high, and any who comes within a mile of it, dies. Rusted ruins, and broken bits, and things found on the bottom of the sea, things not even the oldest books know the meaning of. I’ve gathered a few, myself. Things you never dreamed of, in more places than you can see in ten lifetimes. That be the strangeness that will draw you ”
“We used to dig up bones in the Sand Hills” Rand said slowly. “Strange bones. There was part of a fish-I think it was a fish-as big as this boat, once. Some said it was bad luck, digging in the hills.”
The captain eyed him shrewdly. “You thinking about home already, lad, and you just set out in the world? The world will put a hook in your mouth. Yo”’ll set of chasing the sunset, you wait and see…and if you ever go back, your village’ll no be big enough t hold you”
“No” He gave a start. Ho long had it been since he had thought of home, of Emond’s Field? And hat of Tam? It had to be days. It felt like months. “I will go home, one day, when I can. I’ll raise sheep, like…like my father, and if I never leave again it will be too soon. Isn’t that right, Mat? As soon as we can we’re going home and forget all this even exist”
With a visible effort Mat pulled away from staring upriver after the vanished tower. “What? Oh. Yes, of course. We’ll go home. Of course” As he turned to go, Rand heard him muttering under his breath.“I’ll bet he just doesn’t want anybody else going after the treasure” He did not seem to realize he had spoken aloud.
Four days into their trip downriver found Rand atop the mast, sitting on the blunt end with his legs wrapped in the stays. The Spray rolled gently on the river, but fifty feet above the water that easy roll made the top of the mast sway back and forth through wise arcs. He threw back his head and laughed into the wind that blew in his face.
The oars were out, and from here the boat looked like some twelve-legged spider creeping down the Arinelle. He had been as high as this before, in trees back in the Two Rivers, but this time there were no branches to block his view. Everything on deck, the sailors at the sweeps, men on their knees scrubbing the deck with smoothstones, men doing things with lines and hatchcovers, looked so odd when seen from right overhead, all squat and foreshortened, that he had spent an hour just staring at them and chuckling.
He still chuckled whenever he looked down at them, but now he was staring at the riverbanks flowing by. That was the way it seemed, as if he were still-except for the swaying back and forth, of course-and the banks slid slowly by, trees and hills marching along to either side. He was still, and the whole world moved past him.
On sudden impulse he unwrapped his legs from the stays bracing the mast and held his arms and legs out to either side, balancing against the sway. For three complete arcs he kept his balance like that, then suddenly it was gone. Arms and legs windmilling, he toppled forward and grabbed the forestay. Legs splayed to either side of the mast, nothing holding him to his precarious perch but his two hands on the stay, he laughed. Gulping huge breaths of the fresh, cold wind, he laughed with the exhilaration of it.
“Lad” came Thom’s hoarse voice. “Lad, if you’re trying to break your fool neck, don’t do it by falling on me”
Rand looked down. Thom clung to the ratlines just below him, staring up the last few feet grimly. Like Rand, the gleeman had left his cloak below. “Thom” he said delightedly. “Thom, when did you come up here”
“When you wouldn’t pay any attention to people shouting at you. Burn me, boy, you’ve got everybody thinking you’ve gone mad”
He looked down and was surprised to see all the faces staring up at him. Only Mat, sitting cross-legged up in the bows with his back to the mast, was not looking at him. Even the men at the oars had their eyes raised, letting their stroke go ragged. And no one was berating them for it. Rand twisted his head around to look under his arm at the stern. Captain Domon stood by the steering oar, ham-like fists on his hips, glaring at him atop the mast. He turned back to grin at Thom. “You want me to come down, then”
Thom nodded vigorously. “I would appreciate it greatly.”
“All right” Shifting his grip on the forestay, he sprang forward off the mast top. He heard Thom bite off an oath as his fall was cut short and he dangled from the forestay by his hands. The gleeman scowled at him, one hand half stretched out to catch him. He grinned at Thom again. “I’m going down now”
Swinging his legs up, he hooked he knee over the thick line that ran from the mast to the bow, then caught it in the crook of his elbow and let go with his hands. Slowly, then with increasing speed, he slid down. Just short of the bow he dropped to his feet on the deck right in front of Mat, took one step to catch his balance, and turned to face the boat with arms spread wide, the way Thom did after a tumbling trick.
Scattered clapping rose from the crew, but he was looking down at Mat in surprise, and at what Mat held, hidden from everyone else by his body. A curved dagger with a gold scabbard worked in strange symbols. Fine gold wire wrapped the hilt, which was capped by a ruby as big as Rand’s thumbnail, and the quillons were golden-scaled serpents baring their fangs.
Mat continued to slide the dagger in and out of its sheath for a moment. Still playing with the dagger he raised his head slowly; his eyes had a faraway look. Suddenly they focused on Rand, and he gave a start and stuffed the dagger under his coat.
Rand squatted on his heels, with his arms crossed on his knees. “Where did you get th” Mat said nothing, looking quickly to see if anyone else was close by. They were alone, for a wonder. “You didn’t take it from Shadar Logoth, did you”
Mat stared at him. “It’s your fault. Yours and Perrin’s. The two of you pulled me away from the treasure, and I had it in my hand. Mordeth didn’t count. You won’t tell anybody, Rand. They might try to steal it”
“I won’t tell anybody” Rand said “I think Captain Domon is honest, but I wouldn’t put anything past the rest of them, especially Gelb”
“Not anybody” Mat insisted. “Not Domon, not Thom, not anybody. We’re the only two left from Emond’s Field, Rand. We can’t afford to trust anybody else”
“They’re alive, Mat. Egwene, and Perrin. I know they’re ali” Mat looked ashamed. “I’ll keep your secret, though. Just the two of us. At least we don’t have to worry about money now. We can sell it for enough to travel to Tar Valon like kings”
“Of course” Mat said after a minute. “If we have to. Just don’t tell anybody until I say so.”
“I said I wouldn’t. Listen, have you had any more dream since e came on the boat? Like in Baerlon? This is the first chance I’ve had to ask without six people listening.”
Mat turned his head away, giving him a sidelong look. “Maybe.”
“What do you mean, maybe? Either you have or you haven’t.”
“All right, all right, I have. I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t even want to think about it. It doesn’t do any good.”
Before either of them could say more Thom came striding up the deck, his cloak over his arm. The wind whipped his white hair about, and his long mustaches seemed to bristle. “ I managed to convince the captain you aren’t crazy,” he announced, “that it was part of your training.” He caught hold of the forestay and shook it. “That fool stunt of yours, sliding down the rope, helped, but you are lucky you didn’t break your fool neck.”
Rand’s eyes went to he forestay and followed it up to the top of the mast, and as they did his mouth dropped open. He had slid down that. And he had been sitting on top of…
Suddenly he could see himself up there, arms and legs spread wide. He sat down hard, and barely caught himself short of ending up flat on his back. Thom was looking at him thoughtfully.
“I didn’t know you had such a good head for heights, lad. We might be able to play in Illian, or Ebou Dar, or even Tear. People in the big cities in the south like tightrope walkers and slackwire artists.”
“We’re going to—” At the last minute Rand remembered to look around for anyone close enough to overhear. Several of the crew were watching them, including Gelb, glaring as usual, but one could hear what he was saying. “To Tar Valon,” he finished. Mat shrugged as if it were all the same to him where they went.
“At the moment, lad,” Thom said, settling down beside them, “but tomorrow…who knows? That’s the way with a gleeman’s life.” He took a handful of colored balls from one of his wide sleeves. “Since I have you down out of the air, we’ll work on the triple crossover.”
Rand’s gaze drifted to the top of the mast, and he shivered. What’s happening to me? Light, what? He had to find out. He had to get to Tar Valon before he really did go mad.
Copyright © 1990 by Robert Jordan