Rand did not know Verin was there until the Aes Sedai took his face in her hands. For a moment he could see worry in her face, perhaps even fear, and then suddenly he felt as if he had been doused with cold water, not the wet but the tingle. He gave one abrupt shudder and stopped laughing; she left him to crouch over Hurin. The Reader watched her carefully. So did Rand. What is she doing here? As if I didn’t know.
“Where did you go?” Mat demanded hoarsely. “You all just disappeared, and now you’re in Cairhien ahead of us. Loial?” The Ogier shrugged uncertainly and eyed the crowd, his ears twitching. Half the people had turned from the fire to watch the newcomers. A few edged closer trying to listen.
Rand let Perrin give him a hand up. “How did you find the inn?” He glanced at Verin, kneeling with her hands on the sniffer’s head. “Her?”
“In a way,” Perrin said. “The guards at the gate wanted our names, and a fellow coming out of the guardhouse gave a jump when he heard Ingtar’s name. He said he didn’t know it, but he had a smile that shouted ‘lie’ a mile off.”
“I think I know the man you mean,” Rand said. “He smiles that way all the time.”
“Verin showed him her ring,” Mat put in, “and whispered in his ear.” He looked and sounded sick, his cheeks flushed and tight, but he managed a grin. Rand had never noticed his cheekbones before. “I couldn’t hear what she said, but I didn’t know whether his eyes were going to pop out of his head or he was going to swallow his tongue first. All of a sudden, he couldn’t do enough for us. He told us you were waiting for us, and right where you were staying. Offered to guide us himself, but he really looked relieved when Verin told him no.” He snorted. “Lord Rand of House al’Thor.”
“It’s too long a story to explain now,” Rand said. “Where are Uno and the rest? We will need them.”
“In the Foregate.” Mat frowned at him, and went on slowly, “Uno said they’d rather stay there than inside the walls. From what I can see, I’d rather be with them. Rand, why will we need Uno? Have you found … them?”
It was the moment Rand realized suddenly he had been avoiding. He took a deep breath and looked his friend in the eye. “Mat, I had the dagger, and I lost it. The Darkfriends took it back.” He heard gasps from the Cairhienin listening, but he did not care. They could play their Great Game if they wanted, but Ingtar had come, and he was finished with it at last. “They can’t have gone far, though.”
Ingtar had been silent, but now he stepped forward and gripped Rand’s arm. “You had it? And the” — he looked around at the onlookers—”the other thing?”
“They took that back, too,” Rand said quietly. Ingtar pounded a fist into his palm and turned away; some of the Cairhienin backed off from the look on his face.
Mat chewed his lip, then shook his head. “I didn’t know it was found, so it isn’t as if I had lost it again. It is just still lost.” It was plain he was speaking of the dagger, not the Horn of Valere. “We’ll find it again. We have two sniffers, now. Perrin is one, too. He followed the trail all the way to the Foregate, after you vanished with Hurin and Loial. I thought you might have just run off … well, you know what I mean. Where did you go? I still don’t understand how you got so far ahead of us. That fellow said you have been here days.”
Rand glanced at Perrin — He’s a sniffer? — and found Perrin studying him in return. He thought Perrin muttered something. Shadowkiller? I must have heard him wrong. Perrin’s yellow gaze held him for a moment, seeming to hold secrets about him. Telling himself he was having fancies — I’m not mad. Not yet. — he pulled his eyes away.
Verin was just helping a still-shaky Hurin to his feet. “I feel right as goose feathers,” he was saying. “Still a little tired, but …” He let the words trail off, seeming to see her for the first time, to realize what had happened for the first time.
“The tiredness will last a few hours,” she told him. “The body must strain to heal itself quickly.”
The Cairhienin Reader rose. “Aes Sedai?” she said softly. Verin inclined her head, and the Reader made a full curtsy.
As quiet as they had been, the words “Aes Sedai” ran through the crowd in tones ranging from awe to fear to outrage. Everyone was watching now — not even Cuale gave any attention to his own burning inn — and Rand thought a little caution might not be amiss after all.
“Do you have rooms yet?” he asked. “We need to talk, and we can’t do it here.”
“A good idea,” Verin said. “I have stayed here before at The Great Tree. We will go there.”
Loial went to fetch the horses — the inn roof had now fallen in completely, but the stables had not been touched — and soon they were making their way through the streets, all riding except for Loial, who claimed he had grown used to walking again. Perrin held the lead line to one of the packhorses they had brought south.
“Hurin,” Rand said, “how soon can you be ready to follow their trail again? Can you follow it? The men who hit you and started the fire left a trail, didn’t they?”
“I can follow it now, my Lord. And I could smell them in the street. It won’t last long, though. There weren’t any Trollocs, and they didn’t kill anybody. Just men, my Lord. Darkfriends, I suppose, but you can’t always be sure of that by smell. A day, maybe, before it fades.”
“I don’t think they can open the chest either, Rand,” Loial said, “or they would just have taken the Horn. It would be much easier to take that if they could, rather than the whole chest.”
Rand nodded. “They must have put it in a cart, or on a horse. Once they get it beyond the Foregate, they’ll join the Trollocs again, for sure. You will be able to follow that trail, Hurin.”
“I will, my Lord.”
“Then you rest until you’re fit,” Rand told him. The sniffer looked steadier, but he rode slumped, and his face was weary. “At best, they will only be a few hours ahead of us. If we ride hard …” Suddenly he noticed that the others were looking at him, Verin and Ingtar, Mat and Perrin. He realized what he had been doing, and his face colored. “I am sorry, Ingtar. It’s just that I’ve become used to being in charge, I suppose. I’m not trying to take your place.”
Ingtar nodded slowly. “Moiraine chose well when she made Lord Agelmar name you my second. Perhaps it would have been better if the Amyrlin Seat had given you the charge.” The Shienaran barked a laugh. “At least you have actually managed to touch the Horn.”
After that they rode in silence.
The Great Tree could have been twin to The Defender of the Dragonwall, a tall stone cube of a building with a common room paneled in dark wood and decorated with silver, a large, polished clock on the mantel over the fireplace. The innkeeper could have been Cuale’s sister. Mistress Tiedra had the same slightly plump look and the same unctuous manner — and the same sharp eyes, the same air of listening to what was behind the words you spoke. But Tiedra knew Verin, and her welcoming smile for the Aes Sedai was warm; she never mentioned Aes Sedai aloud, but Rand was sure she knew.
Tiedra and a swarm of servants saw to their horses and settled them in their rooms. Rand’s room was as fine as the one that had burned, but he was more interested in the big copper bathtub two serving men wrestled through the door, and the steaming buckets of water scullery maids brought up from the kitchen. One look in the mirror above the washstand showed him a face that looked as if he had rubbed it with charcoal, and his coat had black smears across the red wool.
He stripped off and climbed into the tub, but he thought as much as washed. Verin was there. One of three Aes Sedai that he could trust not to try to gentle him themselves, or turn him over to those who would. Or so it seemed, at least. One of three who wanted him to believe he was the Dragon Reborn, to use him as a false Dragon. She’s Moiraine’s eyes watching me, Moiraine’s hand trying to pull my strings. But I have cut the strings.
His saddlebags had been brought up, and a bundle from the packhorse containing fresh clothes. He toweled off and opened the bundle — and sighed. He had forgotten that both the other coats he had were as ornate as the one he had tossed on the back of a chair for a maid to clean. After a moment, he chose the black coat, to suit his mood. Silver herons stood on the high collar, and silver rapids ran down his sleeves, water battered to froth against jagged rocks.
Transferring things from his old coat to his new, he found the parchments. Absently, he stuffed the invitations in his pocket as he studied Selene’s two letters. He wondered how he could have been such a fool. She was the beautiful young daughter of a noble House. He was a shepherd whom Aes Sedai were trying to use, a man doomed to go mad if he did not die first. Yet he could still feel the pull of her just looking at her writing, could almost smell the perfume of her.
“I am a shepherd,” he told the letters, “not a great man, and if I could marry anyone, it would be Egwene, but she wants to be Aes Sedai, and how can I marry any woman, love any woman, when I’ll go mad and maybe kill her?”
Words could not lessen his memory of Selene’s beauty, though, or the way she made his blood go warm just by looking at him. It almost seemed to him that she was in the room with him, that he could smell her perfume, so much so that he looked around, and laughed to find himself alone.
“Having fancies like I’m addled already,” he muttered.
Abruptly he tipped back the mantle of the lamp on the bedside table, lit it, and thrust the letters into the flame. Outside the inn, the wind picked up to a roar, leaking in through the shutters and fanning the flames to engulf the parchment. Hurriedly he tossed the burning letters into the cold hearth just before the fire reached his fingers. He waited until the last blackened curl went out before he buckled on his sword and left the room.
Verin had taken a private dining room, where shelves along the dark walls held even more silver than those in the common room. Mat was juggling three boiled eggs and trying to appear nonchalant. Ingtar peered into the unlit fireplace, frowning. Loial had a few books from Fal Dara still in his pockets, and was reading one beside a lamp.
Perrin slouched at the table, studying his hands clasped on the tabletop. To his nose, the room smelled of beeswax used to polish the paneling. It was him, he thought. Rand is the Shadowkiller. Light, what’s happening to all of us? His hands tightened into fists, large and square. These hands were meant for a smith’s hammer, not an axe.
He glanced up as Rand entered. Perrin thought he looked determined, set on some course of action. The Aes Sedai motioned Rand to a high-backed armchair across from her.
“How is Hurin?” Rand asked her, arranging his sword so he could sit. “Resting?”
“He insisted on going out,” Ingtar answered. “I told him to follow the trail only until he smelled Trollocs. We can follow it from there tomorrow. Or do you want to go after them tonight?”
“Ingtar,” Rand said uneasily, “I really wasn’t trying to take command. I just didn’t think.” Yet not as nervously as he would have once, Perrin thought. Shadowkiller. We’re all of us changing.
Ingtar did not answer, but only kept staring into the fireplace.
“There are some things that interest me greatly, Rand,” Verin said quietly. “One is how you vanished from Ingtar’s camp without a trace. Another is how you arrived in Cairhien a week before us. That clerk was very clear on that. You would have had to fly.”
One of Mat’s eggs hit the floor and cracked. He did not look at it, though. He was looking at Rand, and Ingtar had turned around. Loial pretended to be reading still, but he wore a worried look, and his ears were up in hairy points.
Perrin realized he was staring, too. “Well, he did not fly,” he said. “I don’t see any wings. Maybe he has more important things to tell us.” Verin shifted her attention to him, just for a moment. He managed to meet her eyes, but he was the first to look away. Aes Sedai. Light, why were we ever fools enough to follow an Aes Sedai? Rand gave him a grateful look, too, and Perrin grinned at him. He was not the old Rand — he seemed to have grown into that fancy coat; it looked right on him, now — but he was still the boy Perrin had grown up with. Shadowkiller. A man the wolves hold in awe. A man who can channel.
“I don’t mind,” Rand said, and told his tale simply.
Perrin found himself gaping. Portal Stones. Other worlds, where the land seemed to shift. Hurin following the trail of where the Darkfriends would be. And a beautiful woman in distress, just like one in a gleeman’s tale.
Mat gave a soft, wondering whistle. “And she brought you back? By one of these — these Stones?”
Rand hesitated for a second. “She must have,” he said. “So you see, that’s how we got so far ahead of you. When Fain came, Loial and I managed to steal back the Horn of Valere in the night, and we rode on to Cairhien because I didn’t think we could make it past them once they were roused, and I knew Ingtar would keep coming south after them and reach Cairhien eventually.”
Shadowkiller. Rand looked at him, eyes narrowing, and Perrin realized he had spoken the name aloud. Apparently not loud enough for anyone else to hear, though. No one else glanced at him. He found himself wanting to tell Rand about the wolves. I know about you. It’s only fair you know my secret, too. But Verin was there. He could not say it in front of her.
“Interesting,” the Aes Sedai said, a thoughtful expression on her face. “I would very much like to meet this girl. If she can use a Portal Stone … Even that name is not very widely known.” She gave herself a shake. “Well, that is for another time. A tall girl should not be difficult to find in the Cairhienin Houses. Aah, here is our meal.”
Perrin smelled lamb even before Mistress Tiedra led in a procession bearing trays of food. His mouth watered more for that than for the peas and squash, the carrots and cabbage that came with it, or the hot crusty rolls. He still found vegetables tasty, but sometimes, of late, he dreamed of red meat. Not even cooked, usually. It was disconcerting to find himself thinking that the nicely pink slices of lamb that the innkeeper carved were too well done. He firmly took helpings of everything. And two of the lamb.
It was a quiet meal, with everyone concentrating on his own thoughts. Perrin found it painful to watch Mat eat. Mat’s appetite was as healthy as ever, despite the feverish flush to his face, and the way he shoveled food into his mouth made it look like his last meal before dying. Perrin kept his eyes on his plate as much as possible, and wished they had never left Emond’s Field.
After the maids cleared the table and left again, Verin insisted they remain together until Hurin returned. “He may bring word that will mean we must move at once.”
Mat returned to his juggling, and Loial to his reading. Rand asked the innkeeper if there were any more books, and she brought him The Travels of Jain Farstrider. Perrin liked that one, too, with its stories of adventures among the Sea Folk and journeys to the lands beyond the Aiel Waste, where silk came from. He did not feel like reading, though, so he set up a stones board on the table with Ingtar. The Shienaran played with a slashing, daring style. Perrin had always played doggedly, giving ground reluctantly, but he found himself placing the stones with as much recklessness as Ingtar. Most of the games ended in a draw, but he managed to win as many as Ingtar did. The Shienaran was eyeing him with a new respect by early evening, when the sniffer returned.
Hurin’s grin was at the same time triumphant and perplexed. “I found them, Lord Ingtar. Lord Rand. I tracked them to their lair.”
“Lair?” Ingtar said sharply. “You mean they’re hiding somewhere close by?
“Aye, Lord Ingtar. The ones who took the Horn, I followed straight there, and there was Trolloc scent all around the place, though sneaking as if they didn’t dare be seen, even there. And no wonder.” The sniffer took a deep breath. “It’s the great manor Lord Barthanes just finished building.”
“Lord Barthanes!” Ingtar exclaimed. “But he … he’s … he’s …”
“There are Darkfriends among the high as well as the low,” Verin said smoothly. “The mighty give their souls to the Shadow as often as the weak.” Ingtar scowled as if he did not want to think of that.
“There’s guards,” Hurin went on. “We’ll not get in with twenty men, not and get out again. A hundred could do it, but two would be better. That’s what I think, my Lord.”
“What about the King?” Mat demanded. “If this Barthanes is a Darkfriend, the King will help us.”
“I am quite sure,” Verin said dryly, “that Galldrian Riatin would move against Barthanes Damodred on the rumor that Barthanes is a Darkfriend, and glad of the excuse. I am also quite sure Galldrian would never let the Horn of Valere out of his grasp once he had it. He would bring it out on feastdays to show the people and tell them how great and mighty Cairhien is, and no one would ever see it else.”
Perrin blinked with shock. “But the Horn of Valere has to be there when the Last Battle is fought. He couldn’t just keep it.”
“I know little of Cairhienin,” Ingtar told him, “but I’ve heard enough of Galldrian. He would feast us and thank us for the glory we had brought to Cairhien. He would stuff our pockets with gold and heap honors on our heads. And if we tried to leave with the Horn, he’d cut our honored heads off without pausing to take a breath.”
Perrin ran a hand through his hair. The more he found out about kings, the less he liked them.
“What about the dagger?” Mat asked diffidently. “He wouldn’t want that, would he?” Ingtar glared at him, and he shifted uncomfortably. “I know the Horn is important, but I’m not going to be fighting in the Last Battle. That dagger…”
Verin rested her hands on the arms of her chair. “Galldrian shall not have it, either. What we need is some way inside Barthanes’s manor house. If we can only find the Horn, we may also find a way to take it back. Yes, Mat, and the dagger. Once it is known that an Aes Sedai is in the city — well, I usually avoid these things, but if I let slip to Tiedra that I would like to see Barthanes’s new manor, I should have an invitation in a day or two. It should not be difficult to bring at least some of the rest of you. What is it, Hurin?”
The sniffer had been rocking anxiously on his heels from the moment she mentioned an invitation. “Lord Rand already has one. From Lord Barthanes.”
Perrin stared at Rand, and he was not the only one.
Rand pulled two sealed parchments from his coat pocket and handed them to the Aes Sedai without a word.
Ingtar came to look wonderingly over her shoulder at the seals. “Barthanes, and … And Galldrian! Rand, how did you come by these? What have you been doing?”
“Nothing,” Rand said. “I haven’t done anything. They just sent them to me.” Ingtar let out a long breath. Mat’s mouth was hanging open. “Well, they did just send them,” Rand said quietly. There was a dignity to him that Perrin did not remember; Rand was looking at the Aes Sedai and the Shienaran lord as equals.
Perrin shook his head. You are fitting that coat. We’re all changing.
“Lord Rand burned all the rest,” Hurin said. “Every day they came, and every day he burned them. Until these, of course. Every day from mightier Houses.” He sounded proud.
“The Wheel of Time weaves us all into the Pattern as it wills,” Verin said, looking at the parchments, “but sometimes it provides what we need before we know we need it.”
Casually she crumpled the King’s invitation and tossed it into the fireplace, where it lay white on the cold logs. Breaking the other seal with her thumb, she read. “Yes. Yes, this will do very well.”
“How can I go?” Rand asked her. “They will know I’m no lord. I am a shepherd, and a farmer.” Ingtar looked skeptical. “I am, Ingtar. I told you I am.” Ingtar shrugged; he still did not look convinced. Hurin stared at Rand with flat disbelief.
Burn me, Perrin thought, if I didn’t know him, I wouldn’t believe it either. Mat was watching Rand with his head tilted, frowning as if looking at something he had never seen before. He sees it, too, now. “You can do it, Rand,” Perrin said. “You can.”
“It will help,” Verin said, “if you don’t tell everyone what you are not. People see what they expect to see. Beyond that, look them in the eye and speak firmly. The way you have been talking to me,” she added dryly, and Rand’s cheeks colored, but he did not drop his eyes. “It doesn’t matter what you say. They will attribute anything out of place to your being an outlander. It will also help if you remember the way you behaved before the Amyrlin. If you are that arrogant, they will believe you are a lord if you wear rags.” Mat snickered.
Rand threw up his hands. “All right. I’ll do it. But I still think they will know five minutes after I open my mouth. When?”
“Barthanes has asked you for five different dates, and one is tomorrow night.”
“Tomorrow!” Ingtar exploded. “The Horn could be fifty miles downriver by tomorrow night, or—”
Verin cut him off. “Uno and your soldiers can watch the manor. If they try to take the Horn anywhere, we can easily follow, and perhaps retrieve it more easily than from inside Barthanes’s walls.”
“Perhaps so,” Ingtar agreed grudgingly. “I just do not like to wait, now that the Horn is almost in my hands. I will have it. I must! I must!”
Hurin stared at him. “But, Lord Ingtar, that isn’t the way. What happens, happens, and what is meant to be, will —” Ingtar’s glare cut him off, though he still muttered under his breath, “It isn’t the way, talking of ‘must’.”
Ingtar turned back to Verin stiffly. “Verin Sedai, Cairhienin are very strict in their protocol. If Rand does not send a reply, Barthanes may be so insulted he will not let us in, even with that parchment in our hands. But if Rand does… well, Fain, at least, knows him. We could be warning them to set a trap.”
“We will surprise them.” Her brief smile was not pleasant. “But I think Barthanes will want to see Rand in any case. Darkfriend or not, I doubt he has given up plots against the throne. Rand, he says you took an interest in one of the King’s projects, but he doesn’t say what. What does he mean?”
“I don’t know,” Rand said slowly. “I haven’t done anything at all since I arrived. Wait. Maybe he means the statue. We came through a village where they were digging up a huge statue. From the Age of Legends, they said. The King means to move it to Cairhien, though I don’t know how he can move something that big. But all I did was ask what it was.”
“We passed it in the day, and did not stop to ask questions.” Verin let the invitation fall in her lap. “Not a wise thing for Galldrian to do, perhaps, unearthing that. Not that there is any real danger, but it is never wise for those who don’t know what they are doing to meddle with things from the Age of Legends.”
“What is it?” Rand asked.
“A sa’angreal.” She sounded as if it were really not very important, but Perrin suddenly had the feeling the two of them had entered a private conversation, saying things no one else could hear. “One of a pair, the two largest ever made, that we know of. And an odd pair, as well. One, still buried on Tremalking, can only be used by a woman. This one can only be used by a man. They were made during the War of the Powers, to be a weapon, but if there is anything to be thankful for in the end of that Age or the Breaking of the World, it is that the end came before they could be used. Together, they might well be powerful enough to Break the World again, perhaps even worse than the first Breaking.”
Perrin’s hands tightened to knots. He avoided looking directly at Rand, but even from the corner of his eye he could see a whiteness around Rand’s mouth. He thought Rand might be afraid, and he did not blame him a bit.
Ingtar looked shaken, as well he might. “That thing should be buried again, and as deeply as they can pile dirt and stone. What would have happened if Logain had found it? Or any wretched man who can channel, let alone one claiming he’s the Dragon Reborn. Verin Sedai, you must warn Galldrian what he’s doing.”
“What? Oh, there is no need for that, I think. The two must be used in unison to handle enough of the One Power to Break the World — that was the way in the Age of Legends; a man and a woman working together were always ten times as strong as they were apart — and what Aes Sedai today would aid a man in channeling? One by itself is powerful enough, but I can think of few women strong enough to survive the flow through the one on Tremalking. The Amyrlin, of course. Moiraine, and Elaida. Perhaps one or two others. And three still in training. As for Logain, it would have taken all his strength simply to keep from being burned to a cinder, with nothing left for doing anything. No, Ingtar, I don’t think you need worry. At least, not until the real Dragon Reborn proclaims himself, and then we will all have enough to worry about as it is. Let us worry now about what we shall do when we are inside Barthanes’s manor.”
She was talking to Rand. Perrin knew it, and from the queasy look in Mat’s eye, he did, too. Even Loial shifted nervously in his chair. Oh, Light, Rand, Perrin thought. Light, don’t let her use you.
Rand’s hands were pressing the tabletop so hard that his knuckles were white, but his voice was steady. His eyes never left the Aes Sedai. “First we have to take back the Horn, and the dagger. And then it is done, Verin. Then it is done.”
Watching Verin’s smile, small and mysterious, Perrin felt a chill. He did not think Rand knew half what he thought he did. Not half.