The Great Hunt
The Flame of Tar Valon
The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass leaving memories that become legend, then fade to myth, and are long forgot when that Age comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose in the Mountains of Dhoom. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.
Born among black, knife-edged peaks, where death roamed the high passes yet hid from things still more dangerous, the wind blew south across the tangled forest of the Great Blight, a forest tainted and twisted by the touch of the Dark One. The sickly sweet smell of corruption faded by the time the wind crossed that invisible line men called the border of Shienar, where spring flowers hung thick in the trees. It should have been summer by now, but spring had been late in coming, and the land had run wild to catch up. New-come pale green bristled on every bush, and red new growth tipped every tree branch. The wind rippled farmers’ fields like verdant ponds, solid with crops that almost seemed to creep upward visibly.
The smell of death was all but gone long before the wind reached the stone-walled town of Fal Dara on its hills, and whipped around a tower of the fortress in the very center of the town, a tower atop which two men seemed to dance. Hard-walled and high, Fal Dara, both keep and town, never taken, never betrayed. The wind moaned across wood-shingled rooftops, around tall stone chimneys and taller towers, moaned like a dirge.
Stripped to the waist, Rand al’Thor shivered at the wind’s cold caress, and his ringers flexed on the long hilt of the practice sword he held. The hot sun had slicked his chest, and his dark, reddish hair clung to his head in a sweat-curled mat. A faint odor in the swirl of air made his nose twitch, but he did not connect the smell with the image of an old grave fresh-opened that flashed through his head. He was barely aware of odor or image at all; he strove to keep his mind empty, but the other man sharing the tower top with him kept intruding on the emptiness. Ten paces across, the tower top was, encircled by a chest-high, crenellated wall. Big enough and more not to feel crowded, except when shared with a Warder.
Young as he was, Rand was taller than most men, but Lan stood just as tall and more heavily muscled, if not quite so broad in the shoulders. A narrow band of braided leather held the Warder’s long hair back from his face, a face that seemed made from stony planes and angles, a face unlined as if to belie the tinge of gray at his temples. Despite the heat and exertion, only a light coat of sweat glistened on his chest and arms. Rand searched Lan’s icy blue eyes, hunting for some hint of what the other man intended. The Warder never seemed to blink, and the practice sword in his hands moved surely and smoothly as he flowed from one stance to another.
With a bundle of thin, loosely bound staves in place of a blade, the practice sword would make a loud clack when it struck anything, and leave a welt where it hit flesh. Rand knew all too well. Three thin red lines stung on his ribs, and another burned his shoulder. It had taken all his efforts not to wear more decorations. Lan bore not a mark.
As he had been taught, Rand formed a single flame in his mind and concentrated on it, tried to feed all emotion and passion into it, to form a void within himself, with even thought outside. Emptiness came. As was too often the case of late it was not a perfect emptiness; the flame still remained, or some sense of light sending ripples through the stillness. But it was enough, barely. The cool peace of the void crept over him, and he was one with the practice sword, with the smooth stones under his boots, even with Lan. All was one, and he moved without thought in a rhythm that matched the Warder’s step for step and move for move.
The wind rose again, bringing the ringing of bells from the town. Somebody’s still celebrating that spring has finally come. The extraneous thought fluttered through the void on waves of light, disturbing the emptiness, and as if the Warder could read Rand’s mind, the practice sword whirled in Lan’s hands.
For a long minute the swift clack-clack-clack of bundled lathes meeting filled the tower top. Rand made no effort to reach the other man; it was all he could do to keep the Warder’s strikes from reaching him. Turning Lan’s blows at the last possible moment, he was forced back. Lan’s expression never changed; the practice sword seemed alive in his hands. Abruptly the Warder’s swinging slash changed in mid-motion to a thrust. Caught by surprise, Rand stepped back, already wincing with the blow he knew he could not stop this time.
The wind howled across the tower … and trapped him. It was as if the air had suddenly jelled, holding him in a cocoon. Pushing him forward. Time and motion slowed; horrified, he watched Lan’s practice sword drift toward his chest. There was nothing slow or soft about the impact. His ribs creaked as if he had been struck with a hammer. He grunted, but the wind would not allow him to give way; it still carried him forward, instead. The lathes of Lan’s practice sword flexed and bent—ever so slowly, it seemed to Rand—then shattered, sharp points oozing toward his heart, jagged lathes piercing his skin. Pain lanced through his body; his whole skin felt slashed. He burned as though the sun had flared to crisp him like bacon in a pan.
With a shout, he threw himself stumbling back, falling against the stone wall. Hand trembling, he touched the gashes on his chest and raised bloody fingers before his gray eyes in disbelief.
“And what was that fool move, sheepherder?” Lan grated. “You know better by now, or should unless you have forgotten everything I’ve tried to teach you. How badly are you—?” He cut off as Rand looked up at him.
“The wind.” Rand’s mouth was dry. “It—it pushed me! It.…It was solid as a wall!”
The Warder stared at him in silence, then offered a hand. Rand took it and let himself be pulled to his feet.
“Strange things can happen this close to the Blight,” Lan said finally, but for all the flatness of the words he sounded troubled. That in itself was strange. Warders, those half-legendary warriors who served the Aes Sedai, seldom showed emotion, and Lan showed little even for a Warder. He tossed the shattered lathe sword aside and leaned against the wall where their real swords lay, out of the way of their practice.
“Not like that,” Rand protested. He joined the other man, squatting with his back against the stone. That way the top of the wall was higher than his head, protection of a kind from the wind. If it was a wind. No wind had ever felt … solid … like that. “Peace! Maybe not even in the Blight.”
“For someone like you.… ” Lan shrugged as if that explained everything. “How long before you leave, sheepherder? A month since you said you were going, and I thought you’d be three weeks gone by now.”
Rand stared up at him in surprise. He’s acting like nothing happened! Frowning, he set down the practice sword and lifted his real sword to his knees, fingers running along the long, leather-wrapped hilt inset with a bronze heron. Another bronze heron stood on the scabbard, and yet another was scribed on the sheathed blade. It was still a little strange to him that he had a sword. Any sword, much less one with a blademaster’s mark. He was a farmer from the Two Rivers, so far away, now. Maybe far away forever, now. He was a shepherd like his father—I was a shepherd. What am I now?—and his father had given him a heron-marked sword. Tarn is my father, no matter what anybody says. He wished his own thoughts did not sound as if he was trying to convince himself.
Again Lan seemed to read his mind. “In the Borderlands, sheepherder, if a man has the raising of a child, that child is his, and none can say different.”
Scowling, Rand ignored the Warder’s words. It was no one’s business but his own. “I want to learn how to use this. I need to.” It had caused him problems, carrying a heron-marked sword. Not everybody knew what it meant, or even noticed it, but even so a heron-mark blade, especially in the hands of a youth barely old enough to be called a man, still attracted the wrong sort of attention. “I’ve been able to bluff sometimes, when I could not run, and I’ve been lucky, besides. But what happens when I can’t run, and I can’t bluff, and my luck runs out?“
“You could sell it,” Lan said carefully. “That blade is rare even among heron-mark swords. It would fetch a pretty price.”
“No!” It was an idea he had thought of more than once, but he rejected it now for the same reason he always had, and more fiercely for coming from someone else. As long as I keep it, I have the right to call Tarn father. He gave it to me, and it gives me the right. “I thought any heron-mark blade was rare.”
Lan gave him a sidelong look. “Tarn didn’t tell you, then? He must know. Perhaps he didn’t believe. Many do not.” He snatched up his own sword, almost the twin of Rand’s except for the lack of herons, and whipped off the scabbard. The blade, slightly curved and single-edged, glittered silvery in the sunlight.
It was the sword of the kings of Malkier. Lan did not speak of it—he did not even like others to speak of it—but al‘Lan Mandragoran was Lord of the Seven Towers, Lord of the Lakes, and uncrowned King of Malkier. The Seven Towers were broken now, and the Thousand Lakes the lair of unclean things. Malkier lay swallowed by the Great Blight, and of all the Malkieri lords, only one still lived.
Some said Lan had become a Warder, bonding himself to an Aes Sedai, so he could seek death in the Blight and join the rest of his blood. Rand had indeed seen Lan put himself in harm’s way seemingly without regard for his own safety, but far beyond his own life and safety he held those of Moiraine, the Aes Sedai who held his bond. Rand did not think Lan would truly seek death while Moiraine lived.
Turning his blade in the light, Lan spoke. “In the War of the Shadow, the One Power itself was used as a weapon, and weapons were made with the One Power. Some weapons used the One Power, things that could destroy an entire city at one blow, lay waste to the land for leagues. Just as well those were all lost in the Breaking; just as well no one remembers the making of them. But there were simpler weapons, too, for those who would face Myrddraal, and worse things the Dreadlords made, blade to blade.
“With the One Power, Aes Sedai drew iron and other metals from the earth, smelted them, formed and wrought them. All with the Power. Swords, and other weapons, too. Many that survived the Breaking of the World were destroyed by men who feared and hated Aes Sedai work, and others have vanished with the years. Few remain, and few men truly know what they are. There have been legends of them, swollen tales of swords that seemed to have a power of their own. You’ve heard the gleemen’s tales. The reality is enough. Blades that will not shatter or break, and never lose their edge. I’ve seen men sharpening them—playing at sharpening, as it were—but only because they could not believe a sword did not need it after use. All they ever did was wear away their oilstones.
“Those weapons the Aes Sedai made, and there will never be others. When it was done, war and Age ended together, with the world shattered, with more dead unburied than there were alive and those alive fleeing, trying to find some place, any place, of safety, with every second woman weeping because she’d never see husband or sons again; when it was done, the Aes Sedai who still lived swore they would never again make a weapon for one man to kill another. Every Aes Sedai swore it, and every woman of them since has kept that oath. Even the Red Ajah, and they care little what happens to any male.
“One of those swords, a plain soldier’s sword”—with a faint grimace, almost sad, if the Warder could be said to show emotion, he slid the blade back into its sheath—“became something more. On the other hand, those made for lord-generals, with blades so hard no bladesmith could mark them, yet marked already with a heron, those blades became sought after.”
Rand’s hands jerked away from the sword propped on his knees. It toppled, and instinctively he grabbed it before it hit the floorstones. “You mean Aes Sedai made this? I thought you were talking about your sword.”
“Not all heron-mark blades are Aes Sedai work. Few men handle a sword with the skill to be named blademaster and be awarded a heron-mark blade, but even so, not enough Aes Sedai blades remain for more than a handful to have one. Most come from master bladesmiths; the finest steel men can make, yet still wrought by a man’s hands. But that one, sheep-herder … that one could tell a tale of three thousand years and more.”
“I can’t get away from them,” Rand said, “can I?” He balanced the sword in front of him on scabbard point; it looked no different than it had before he knew. “Aes Sedai work.” But Tarn gave it to me. My father gave it to me. He refused to think of how a Two Rivers shepherd had come by a heron-mark blade. There were dangerous currents in such thoughts, deeps he did not want to explore.
“Do you really want to get away, sheepherder? I’ll ask again. Why are you not gone, then? The sword? In five years I could make you worthy of it, make you a blademaster. You have quick wrists, good balance, and you don’t make the same mistake twice. But I do not have five years to give over to teaching you, and you do not have five years for learning. You have not even one year, and you know it. As it is, you will not stab yourself in the foot. You hold yourself as if the sword belongs at your waist, sheep-herder, and most village bullies will sense it. But you’ve had that much almost since the day you put it on. So why are you still here?”
“Mat and Perrin are still here,” Rand mumbled. “I don’t want to leave before they do. I won’t ever—I might not see them again for—for years, maybe.” His head dropped back against the wall. “Blood and ashes! At least they just think I’m crazy not to go home with them. Half the time Nynaeve looks at me like I’m six years old and I’ve skinned my knee, and she’s going to make it better; the other half she looks like she’s seeing a stranger. One she might offend if she looks too closely, at that. She’s a Wisdom, and besides that, I don’t think she’s ever been afraid of anything, but she. … ” He shook his head. “And Egwene. Burn me! She knows why I have to go, but every time I mention it she looks at me, and I knot up inside and. … ” He closed his eyes, pressing the sword hilt against his forehead as if he could press what he was thinking out of existence. “I wish.…I wish. … ”
“You wish everything could be the way it was, sheepherder? Or you wish the girl would go with you instead of to Tar Valon? You think she’ll give up becoming an Aes Sedai for a life of wandering? With you? If you put it to her in the right way, she might. Love is an odd thing.” Lan sounded suddenly weary. “As odd a thing as there is.”
“No.” It was what he had been wishing, that she would want to go with him. He opened his eyes and squared his back and made his voice firm. “No, I wouldn’t let her come with me if she did ask.” He could not do that to her. But Light, wouldn’t it be sweet, just for a minute, if she said she wanted to? “She gets muley stubborn if she thinks I’m trying to tell her what to do, but I can still protect her from that.” He wished she were back home in Emond’s Field, but all hope of that had gone the day Moiraine came to the Two Rivers. “Even if it means she does become an Aes Sedai!” The corner of his eye caught Lan’s raised eyebrow, and he flushed.
“And that is all the reason? You want to spend as much time as you can with your friends from home before they go? That’s why you’re dragging your feet? You know what’s sniffing at your heels.”
Rand surged angrily to his feet. “All right, it’s Moiraine! I wouldn’t even be here if not for her, and she won’t as much as talk to me.”
“You’d be dead if not for her, sheepherder,” Lan said flatly, but Rand rushed on.
“She tells me … tells me horrible things about myself“—his knuckles whitened on the sword. That I’m going to go mad and die!—“and then suddenly she won’t even say two words to me. She acts as if I’m no different than the day she found me, and that smells wrong, too.”
“You want her to treat you like what you are?”
“No! I don’t mean that. Burn me, I don’t know what I mean half the time. I don’t want that, and I’m scared of the other. Now she’s gone off somewhere, vanished … ”
“I told you she needs to be alone sometimes. It isn’t for you, or anyone else, to question her actions.”
“… without telling anybody where she was going, or when she’d be back, or even if she would be back. She has to be able to tell me something to help me, Lan. Something. She has to. If she ever comes back.”
“She’s back, sheepherder. Last night. But I think she has told you all she can. Be satisfied. You’ve learned what you can from her.” With a shake of his head, Lan’s voice became brisk. “You certainly aren’t learning anything standing there. Time for a little balance work. Go through Parting the Silk, beginning from Heron Wading in the Rushes. Remember that that Heron form is only for practicing balance. Anywhere but doing forms, it leaves you wide open; you can strike home from it, if you wait for the other man to move first, but you’ll never avoid his blade.”
“She has to be able to tell me something, Lan. That wind. It wasn’t natural, and I don’t care how close to the Blight we are.”
“Heron Wading in the Rushes, sheepherder. And mind your wrists.”
From the south came a faint peal of trumpets, a rolling fanfare slowly growing louder, accompanied by the steady thrum-thrum-THRUM-thrum of drums. For a moment Rand and Lan stared at each other, then the drums drew them to the tower wall to stare southward.
The city stood on high hills, the land around the city walls cleared to ankle height for a full mile in all directions, and the keep covered the highest hill of all. From the tower top, Rand had a clear view across the chimneys and roofs to the forest. The drummers appeared first from the trees, a dozen of them, drums lifting as they stepped to their own beat, mallets whirling. Next came trumpeters, long, shining horns raised, still calling the flourish. At that distance Rand could not make out the huge, square banner whipping in the wind behind them. Lan grunted, though; the Warder had eyes like a snow eagle.
Rand glanced at him, but the Warder said nothing, his eyes intent on the column emerging from the forest. Mounted men in armor rode out of the trees, and women ahorseback, too. Then a palanquin borne by horses, one before and one behind, its curtains down, and more men on horseback. Ranks of men afoot, pikes rising above them like a bristle of long thorns, and archers with their bows held slanted across their chests, all stepping to the drums. The trumpets cried again. Like a singing serpent the column wound its way toward Fal Dara.
The wind flapped the banner, taller than a man, straight out to one side. As big as it was, it was close enough now for Rand to see clearly. A swirl of colors that meant nothing to him, but at the heart of it, a shape like a pure white teardrop. His breath froze in his throat. The Flame of Tar Valon.
“Ingtar’s with them.” Lan sounded as if his thoughts were elsewhere. “Back from his hunting at last. Been gone long enough. I wonder if he had any luck?”
“Aes Sedai,” Rand whispered when he finally could. All those women out there.… Moiraine was Aes Sedai, yes, but he had traveled with her, and if he did not entirely trust her, at least he knew her. Or thought he did. But she was only one. So many Aes Sedai together, and coming like this, was something else again. He cleared his throat; when he spoke, his voice grated. “Why so many, Lan? Why any at all? And with drums and trumpets and a banner to announce them.”
Aes Sedai were respected in Shienar, at least by most people, and the rest respectfully feared them, but Rand had been in places where it was different, where there was only the fear, and often hate. Where he had grown up, some men, at least, spoke of “Tar Valon witches” as they would speak of the Dark One. He tried to count the women, but they kept no ranks or order, moving their horses around to converse with one another or with whoever was in the palanquin. Goose bumps covered him. He had traveled with Moiraine, and met another Aes Sedai, and he had begun to think of himself as worldly. Nobody ever left the Two Rivers, or almost nobody, but he had. He had seen things no one back in the Two Rivers had ever laid eyes on, done things they had only dreamed of, if they had dreamed so far. He had seen a queen and met the Daughter-Heir of Andor, faced a Myrddraal and traveled the Ways, and none of it had prepared him for this moment.
“Why so many?” he whispered again.
“The Amyrlin Seat’s come in person.” Lan looked at him, his expression as hard and unreadable as a rock. “Your lessons are done, sheepherder.” He paused then, and Rand almost thought there was sympathy on his face. That could not be, of course. “Better for you if you were a week gone.” With that the Warder snatched up his shirt and disappeared down the ladder into the tower.
Rand worked his mouth, trying to get a little moisture. He stared at the column approaching Fal Dara as if it really were a snake, a deadly viper. The drums and trumpets sang, loud in his ears. The Amyrlin Seat, who ordered the Aes Sedai. She’s come because of me. He could think of no other reason.
They knew things, had knowledge that could help him, he was sure. And he did not dare ask any of them. He was afraid they had come to gentle him. And afraid they haven’t, too, he admitted reluctantly. Light, I don’t know which scares me more.
“I didn’t mean to channel the Power,” he whispered. “It was an accident! Light, I don’t want anything to do with it. I swear I’ll never touch it again! I swear it!”
With a start, he realized that the Aes Sedai party was entering the city gates. The wind swirled up fiercely, chilling his sweat like droplets of ice, making the trumpets sound like sly laughter; he thought he could smell an opened grave, strong in the air. My grave, if I keep standing here.
Grabbing his shirt, he scrambled down the ladder and began to run.
Copyright © 1990 by Robert Jordan