Chapter 37. (Portal Stone). What Might Be

Alar led them away from the Waygate at a dignified pace, though Juin seemed more than anxious to leave the Waygate behind. Mat, at least, looked ahead eagerly, and Hurin seemed confident, while Loial appeared concerned more that Alar might change her mind about his going than about anything else. Rand did not hurry as he pulled Red along by the reins. He did not think Verin meant to use the Stone herself.

The gray stone column stood upright near a beech almost a hundred feet tall and four paces thick; Rand would have thought it a big tree before he saw the Great Trees. There was no warning coping here, only a few wildflowers pushing through the leafy mulch of the forest floor. The Portal Stone itself was weathered, but the symbols covering it were still clear enough to make out.

The mounted Shienaran soldiers spread out in a loose circle around the Stone and those afoot.

“We stood it upright,” Alar said, “when we found it many years ago, but we did not move it. It … seemed to … resist being moved.” She went right up to it, and laid a big hand on the Stone. “I have always thought of it as a symbol of what has been lost, what has been forgotten. In the Age of Legends, it could be studied and somewhat understood. To us, it is only stone.”

“More than that, I hope.” Verin’s voice grew brisker. “Eldest, I thank you for your help. Forgive us for our lack of ceremony in leaving you, but the Wheel waits for no woman. At least we will no longer disturb the peace of your stedding.”

“We called the stonemasons back from Cairhien,” Alar said, “but we still hear what happens in the world Outside. False Dragons. The Great Hunt of the Horn. We hear, and it passes us by. I do not think Tarmon Gai’don will pass us by, or leave us in peace. Fare you well, Verin Sedai. All of you, fare well, and may you shelter in the palm of the Creator’s hand. Juin.” She paused only for a glance at Loial and a last admonitory look at Rand, and then the Ogier were gone among the trees.

There was a creaking of saddles as the soldiers shifted. Ingtar looked around the circle they made. “Is this necessary, Verin Sedai? Even if it can be done… We do not even know if the Darkfriends really have taken the Horn to Toman Head. I still believe I can make Barthanes —”

“If we cannot be sure,” Verin said mildly, cutting him off, “then Toman Head is as good a place to look as any other. More than once I’ve heard you say you would ride to Shayol Ghul if need be to recover the Horn. Do you hold back now, at this?” She gestured to the Stone under the smoothbarked tree.

Ingtar’s back stiffened. “I hold back at nothing. Take us to Toman Head or take us to Shayol Ghul. If the Horn of Valere lies at the end, I will follow you.”

“That is well, Ingtar. Now, Rand, you have been transported by a Portal Stone more recently than I. Come.” She motioned to him, and he led Red over to her at the Stone.

“You’ve used a Portal Stone?” He glanced over his shoulder to make sure no one else was close enough to hear. “Then you don’t mean for me to.” He gave a relieved shrug.

Verin looked at him blandly. “I have never used a Stone; that is why your use is more recent than mine. I am well aware of my limits. I would be destroyed before I came close to channeling enough Power to work a Portal Stone. But I know a little of them. Enough to help you, a bit.”

“But I don’t know anything.” He led his horse around the Stone, looking it up and down. “The one thing I remember is the symbol for our world. Selene showed me, but I don’t see it here.”

“Of course not. Not on a Stone in our world; the symbols are aids in getting to a world.” She shook her head. “What would I not give to talk with this girl of yours? Or better, to put my hands on her book. It is generally thought that no copy of Mirrors of the Wheel survived the Breaking whole. Serafelle always tells me there are more books that we believe lost than I could credit waiting to be found. Well, no use in worrying over what I don’t know. I do know some things. The symbols on the top half of the Stone stand for worlds. Not all the Worlds That Might Be, of course. Apparently, not every Stone connects to every world, and the Aes Sedai of the Age of Legends believed that there were possible worlds no Stones at all touched. Do you see nothing that sparks a memory?”

“Nothing.” If he found the right symbol, he could use it to find Fain and the Horn, to save Mat, to stop Fain hurting Emond’s Field. If he found the symbol, he would have to touch saidin. He wanted to save Mat and stop Fain, but the did not want to touch saidin. He was afraid to channel, and he hungered for it like a starving man for food. “I don’t remember anything.”

Verin sighed. “The symbols at the bottom indicate Stones at other places. If you know the trick of it, you could take us, not to this same Stone in another world, but to one of those others there, or even to one of them here. It was something akin to Traveling, I think, but just as no one remembers how to Travel, no one remembers the trick. Without that knowledge, trying it might easily destroy us all.” She pointed to two parallel wavy lines crossed by an odd squiggle, carved low on the column. “That indicates a Stone on Toman Head. It is one of three Stones for which I know the symbol; the only one of those three I’ve visited. And what I learned — after nearly being caught by the snows in the Mountains of Mist and freezing my way across Almoth Plain — was absolutely nothing. Do you play at dice, or cards, Rand al’Thor?”

“Mat’s the gambler. Why?”

“Yes. Well, we’ll leave him out of this, I think. These other symbols are also known to me.”

With one finger she outlined a rectangle containing eight carvings that were much alike, a circle and an arrow, but in half the arrow was contained inside the circle, while in the others the point pierced the circle through. The arrows pointed left, right, up and down, and surrounding each circle was a different line of what Rand was sure was script, though in no language he knew, all curving lines that suddenly became jagged hooks, then flowed on again.

“At least,” Verin went on, “I know this much about them. Each stands for a world, the study of which led eventually to the making of the Ways. These are not all of the worlds studied, but the only ones for which I know the symbols. This is where gambling comes in. I don’t know what any of these worlds is like. It is believed there are worlds where a year is only a day here, and others where a day is a year here. There are supposed to be worlds where the very air would kill us at a breath, and worlds that barely have enough reality to hold together. I would not speculate on what might happen if we found ourselves in one of those. You must choose. As my father would have said, it’s time to roll the dice.”

Rand stared, shaking his head. “I could kill all of us, whatever I choose.”

“Are you not willing to take that risk? For the Horn of Valere? For Mat?”

“Why are you so willing to take it? I don’t even know if I can do it. It — it doesn’t work every time I try.” He knew no one had come any closer, but he looked anyway. All of them waited in a loose circle around the Stone, watching, but not close enough to eavesdrop. “Sometimes saidin is just there. I can feel it, but it might as well be on the moon as far as touching it. And even if it does work, what if I take us someplace we can’t breathe? What good will that do Mat? Or the Horn?”

“You are the Dragon Reborn,” she said quietly. “Oh, you can die, but I don’t think the Pattern will let you die until it is done with you. Then again, the Shadow lies on the Pattern, now, and who can say how that affects the weaving? All you can do is follow your destiny.”

“I am Rand al’Thor,” he growled. “I am not the Dragon Reborn. I won’t be a false Dragon.”

“You are what you are. Will you choose, or will you stand here until your friend dies?”

Rand heard his teeth grinding and forced himself to unclench his jaw. The symbols could all have been exactly alike, for all they meant to him. The script could as well have been a chicken’s scratchings. At last he settled on one, with an arrow pointing left because it pointed toward Toman Head, an arrow that pierced the circle because it had broken free, as he wanted to. He wanted to laugh. Such small things on which to gamble all their lives.

“Come closer,” Verin ordered the others. “It will be best if you are near.” They obeyed, with only a little hesitation. “It is time to begin,” she said as they gathered round.

She threw back her cloak and put her hands on the column, but Rand saw her watching him from the corner of her eye. He was aware of nervous coughing and throat-clearing from the men around the Stone, a curse from Uno at someone hanging back, a weak joke from Mat, a loud gulp from Loial. He took the void.

It was so easy, now. The flame consumed fear and passion and was gone almost before he thought to form it. Gone, leaving only emptiness, and shining saidin, sickening, tantalizing, stomach-turning, seductive. He… reached for it… and it filled him, made him alive. He did not move a muscle, but he felt as if he were quivering with the rush of the One Power into him. The symbol formed itself, an arrow piercing a circle, floating just beyond the void, as hard as the stuff it was carved on. He let the One Power flow through him to the symbol.

The symbol shimmered, flickered.

“Something is happening,” Verin said. “Something …”

The world flickered.

The iron lock spun across the farmhouse floor, and Rand dropped the hot teakettle as a huge figure with ram’s horns on its head loomed in the doorway with the darkness of Winternight behind it.

“Run!” Tam shouted. His sword flashed, and the Trolloc toppled, but it grappled with Tam as it fell, pulling him down.

More crowded in at the door, black-mailed shapes with human faces distorted with muzzles and beaks and horns, oddly curved swords stabbing at Tam as he tried to struggle to his feet, spiked axes swinging, red blood on steel.

“Father!” Rand screamed. Clawing his belt knife from its sheath, he threw himself over the table to help his father, and screamed again as the first sword ran through his chest.

Blood bubbled up into his mouth, and a voice whispered inside his head, I have won again, Lews Therin.

Flicker.

Rand struggled to hold the symbol, dimly aware of Verin’s voice. “… is not…”

The Power flooded.

Flicker.

Rand was happy after he married Egwene, and tried to not let the moods take him, the times when he thought there should have been something more, something different. News of the world outside came into the Two Rivers with peddlers, and merchants come to buy wool and tabac, always news of fresh troubles, of wars and false Dragons everywhere. There was a year when neither merchants nor peddlers came, and when they returned the next they brought word that Artur Hawkwing’s armies had come back, or their descendants, at least. The old nations were broken, it was said, and the world’s new masters, who used chained Aes Sedai in their battles, had torn down the White Tower and salted the ground where Tar Valon had stood. There were no more Aes Sedai.

It all made little difference in the Two Rivers. Crops still had to be planted, sheep sheared, lambs tended. Tam had grandsons and granddaughters to dandle on his knee before he was laid to rest beside his wife, and the old farmhouse grew new rooms. Egwene became Wisdom, and most thought she was even better than the old Wisdom, Nynaeve al’Maera, had been. It was as well she was, for her cures that worked so miraculously on others were only just able to keep Rand alive from the sickness that constantly seemed to threaten him. His moods grew worse, blacker, and he raged that this was not what was meant to be. Egwene grew frightened when the moods were on him, for strange things sometimes happened when he was at his bleakest — lightning storms she had not heard listening to the wind, wildfires in the forest — but she loved him and cared for him and kept him sane, though some muttered that Rand al’Thor was crazy and dangerous.

When she died, he sat alone for long hours by her grave, tears soaking his gray-flecked beard. His sickness came back, and he wasted; he lost the last two fingers on his right hand and one on his left, his ears looked like scars, and men muttered that he smelled of decay. His blackness deepened.

Yet when the dire news came, none refused to accept him at their side. Trollocs and Fades and things undreamed of had burst out of the Blight, and the world’s new masters were being thrown back, for all the powers they wielded. So Rand took up the bow he had just fingers enough left to shoot and limped with those who marched north to the River Taren, men from every village, farm, and corner of the Two Rivers, with their bows, and axes, and boarspears, and swords that had lain rusting in attics. Rand wore a sword, too, with a heron on the blade, that he had found after Tam died, though he knew nothing of how to use it. Women came, too, shouldering what weapons they could find, marching alongside the men. Some laughed, saying that they had the strange feeling they had done this before.

And at the Taren the people of the Two Rivers met the invaders, endless ranks of Trollocs led by nightmare Fades beneath a dead black banner that seemed to eat the light. Rand saw that banner and thought the madness had taken him again, for it seemed that this was what he had been born for, to fight that banner. He sent every arrow at it, straight as his skill and the void would serve, never worrying about the Trollocs forcing their way across the river, or the men and women dying to either side of him. It was one of those Trollocs that ran him through, before it loped howling for blood deeper into the Two Rivers. And as he lay on the bank of the Taren, watching the sky seem to grow dark at noon, breath coming ever slower, he heard a voice say, I have won again, Lews Therin.

Flicker.

The arrow-and-circle contorted into parallel wavy lines, and he fought it back again.

Verin’s voice. “… right. Something …”

The Power raged.

Flicker.

Tam tried to console Rand when Egwene took sick and died just a week before their wedding. Nynaeve tried, too, but she was shaken herself, since for all her skill she had no idea what it was that had killed the girl. Rand had sat outside Egwene’s house while she died, and there seemed to be nowhere in Emond’s Field he could go that he did not still hear her screaming. He knew he could not stay. Tam gave him a sword with a heron-mark blade, and though he explained little of how a shepherd in the Two Rivers had come by such a thing, he taught Rand how to use it. On the day Rand left, Tam gave him a letter he said might get Rand taken into the army of Illian, and hugged him, and said, “I’ve never had another son, or wanted another. Come back with a wife like I did, if you can, boy, but come back in any case.”

Rand had his money stolen in Baerlon, though, and his letter of introduction, and almost his sword, and he met a woman called Min who told him such crazy things about himself that he finally left the city to get away from her. Eventually his wanderings brought him to Caemlyn, and there his skill with the sword earned him a place in the Queen’s Guards. Sometimes he found himself looking at the Daughter-Heir, Elayne, and at such times he was filled with odd thoughts that this was not the way things were supposed to be, that there should be something more to his life. Elayne did not look at him, of course; she married a Tairen prince, though she did not seem happy in it. Rand was just a soldier, once a shepherd from a small village so far toward the western border that only lines on a map any longer truly connected it to Andor. Besides, he had a dark reputation, as a man of violent moods.

Some said he was mad, and in ordinary times perhaps not even his skill with the sword would have kept him in the Guard, but these were not ordinary times. False Dragons sprang up like weeds. Every time one was taken down, two more proclaimed themselves, or three, till every nation was torn by war. And Rand’s star rose, for he had learned the secret of his madness, a secret he knew he had to keep and did. He could channel. There were always places, times, in a battle when a little channeling, not big enough to be noticed in the confusion, could make luck. Sometimes it worked, this channeling, and sometimes not, but it worked often enough. He knew he was mad, and did not care. A wasting sickness came on him, and he did not care about that, either, and neither did anyone else, for word had come that Artur Hawkwing’s armies had returned to reclaim the land.

Rand led a thousand men when the Queen’s Guards crossed the Mountains of Mist — he never thought of turning aside to visit the Two Rivers; he seldom thought of the Two Rivers at all, anymore — and he commanded the Guard when the shattered remnants retreated back across the mountains. The length of Andor he fought and fell back, amid hordes of fleeing refugees, until at last he came to Caemlyn. Many of the people of Caemlyn had fled already, and many counseled the army to retreat further, but Elayne was Queen, now, and vowed she would not leave Caemlyn. She would not look at his ruined face, scarred by his sickness, but he could not leave her, and so what was left of the Queen’s Guards prepared to defend the Queen while her people ran.

The Power came to him during the battle for Caemlyn, and he hurled lightning and fire among the invaders, and split the earth under their feet, yet the feeling came again, too, that he had been born for something else. For all he did, there were too many of the enemy to stop, and they also had those who could channel. At last, a lightning bolt hurled Rand from the Palace wall, broken, bleeding, and burned, and as his last breath rattled in his throat, he heard a voice whisper, I have won again, Lews Therin.

Flicker.

Rand struggled to hold the void as it quivered under the hammer blows of the world flickering, to hold the one symbol as a thousand of them darted along the surface of the void. He struggled to hold on to any one symbol.

“… is wrong!” Verin screamed.

The Power was everything.

Flicker. Flicker. Flicker. Flicker. Flicker. Flicker.

He was a soldier. He was a shepherd. He was a beggar, and a king. He was farmer, gleeman, sailor, carpenter. He was born, lived, and died an Aiel. He died mad, he died rotting, he died of sickness, accident, age. He was executed, and multitudes cheered his death. He proclaimed himself the Dragon Reborn and flung his banner across the sky; he ran from the Power and hid; he lived and died never knowing. He held off the madness and the sickness for years; he succumbed between two winters. Sometimes Moiraine came and took him away from the Two Rivers, alone or with those of his friends who had survived Winternight; sometimes she did not. Sometimes other Aes Sedai came for him. Sometimes the Red Ajah. Egwene married him; Egwene, stern-faced in the stole of the Amyrlin Seat, led the Aes Sedai who gentled him; Egwene, with tears in her eyes, plunged a dagger into his heart, and he thanked her as he died. He loved other women, married other women. Elayne, and Min, and a fair-haired farmer’s daughter met on the road to Caemlyn, and women he had never seen before he lived those lives. A hundred lives. More. So many he could not count them. And at the end of every life, as he lay dying, as he drew his final breath, a voice whispered in his ear. I have won again, Lews Therin.

Flicker flicker flicker flicker flicker flicker flicker flicker flicker flicker flicker flicker flicker flicker flicker flicker flicker flicker flicker flicker flicker flicker flicker flicker flicker flicker.

The void vanished, contact with saidin fled, and Rand fell with a thud that would have knocked the breath out of him if he had not already been half numb. He felt rough stone under his cheek, and his hands. It was cold.

He was aware of Verin, struggling from her back to hands and knees. He heard someone vomit roughly, and raised his head. Uno was kneeling on the ground, scrubbing the back of his hand across his mouth. Everyone was down, and the horses stood stiff-legged and quivering, eyes wild and rolling. Ingtar had his sword out, gripping the hilt so hard the blade shook, staring at nothing. Loial sat sprawled, wide-eyed and stunned. Mat was huddled in a ball with his arms wrapped around his head, and Perrin had his fingers dug into his face as if he wanted to rip away whatever he had seen, or perhaps rip out the eyes that had seen it. None of the soldiers were any better. Masema wept openly, tears streaming down his face, and Hurin was looking around as if for a place to run.

“What …?” Rand stopped to swallow. He was lying on rough, weathered stone half buried in the dirt. “What happened?”

“A surge of the One Power.” The Aes Sedai tottered to her feet and pulled her cloak tight with a shiver. “It was as if we were being forced … pushed … It seemed to come out of nowhere. You must learn to control it. You must! That much of the Power could burn you to a cinder.”

“Verin, I … I lived … I was …” He realized the stone under him was rounded. The Portal Stone. Hastily, shakily, he pushed himself to his feet. “Verin, I lived and died, I don’t know how many times. Every time it was different, but it was me. It was me.”

“The Lines that join the Worlds That Might Be, laid by those who knew the Numbers of Chaos.” Verin shuddered; she seemed to be talking to herself. “I’ve never heard it, but there is no reason we would not be born in those worlds, yet the lives we lived would be different lives. Of course. Different lives for the different ways things might have happened.”

“Is that what happened? I … we … saw how our lives could have been?” I have won again, Lews Therin. No! I am Rand al’Thor!

Verin gave herself a shake and looked at him. “Does it surprise you that your life might go differently if you made different choices, or different things happened to you? Though I never thought I — Well. The important thing is, we are here. Though not as we hoped.”

“Where is here?” he demanded. The woods of Stedding Tsofu were gone, replaced by rolling land. There seemed to be forest not far to the west, and a few hills. It had been high in the day when they gathered around the Stone in the stedding but here the sun stood low toward afternoon in a gray sky. The handful of trees nearby were bare branched, or else held a few leaves bright with color. A cold wind gusted from the east, sending leaves scurrying across the ground.

“Toman Head,” Verin said. “This is the Stone I visited. You should not have tried to bring us directly here. I don’t know what went wrong — I don’t suppose I ever will — but from the trees, I would say it is well into late autumn. Rand, we haven’t gained any time by it. We’ve lost time. I would say we have easily spent four months in coming here.”

“But I didn’t—”

“You must let me guide you in these things. I cannot teach you, it’s true, but perhaps I can at least keep you from killing yourself — and the rest of us — by overreaching. Even if you do not kill yourself, if the Dragon Reborn burns himself out like a guttering candle, who will face the Dark One then?” She did not wait for him to renew his protests, but went to Ingtar instead.

The Shienaran gave a start when she touched his arm, and looked at her with frantic eyes. “I walk in the Light,” he said hoarsely. “I will find the Horn of Valere and pull down Shayol Ghul’s power. I will!”

“Of course you will,” she said soothingly. She took his face in her hands, and he drew a sudden breath, abruptly recovering from whatever had held him. Except that memory still lay in his eyes. “There,” she said. “That will do for you. I will see how I can help the rest. We may still recover the Horn, but our path has not grown smoother.”

As she started around among the others, stopping briefly by each, Rand went to his friends. When he tried to straighten Mat, Mat jerked and stared at him, then grabbed Rand’s coat with both hands. “Rand, I’d never tell anyone about — about you. I wouldn’t betray you. You have to believe that!” He looked worse than ever, but Rand thought it was mostly fright.

“I do,” Rand said. He wondered what lives Mat had lived, and what he had done. He must have told someone, or he wouldn’t be so anxious about it. He could not hold it against him. Those had been other Mats, not this one. Besides, after some of the alternatives he had seen for himself … “I believe you. Perrin?”

The curly-haired youth dropped his hands from his face with a sigh. Red marks scored his forehead and cheeks where his nails had dug in. His yellow eyes hid his thoughts. “We don’t have many choices really, do we, Rand? Whatever happens, whatever we do, some things are almost always the same.” He let out another long breath. “Where are we? Is this one of those worlds you and Hurin were talking about?”

“It’s Toman Head,” Rand told him. “In our world. Or so Verin says. And it is autumn.”

Mat looked worried. “How could —? No, I don’t want to know how it happened. But how are we going to find Fain and the dagger now? He could be anywhere by this time.”

“He’s here,” Rand assured him. He hoped he was right. Fain had had time to take ship for anyplace he wanted to go. Time to ride to Emond’s Field. Or Tar Valon. Please, Light, he didn’t get tired of waiting. If he’s hurt Egwene, or anybody in Emond’s Field, I’ll … Light burn me, I tried to come in time.

“The larger towns on Toman Head are all west of here,” Verin announced loudly enough for all to hear. Everyone was on their feet again, except for Rand and his two friends; she came and put her hands on Mat as she spoke. “Not that there are many villages large enough to call towns. If we are to find any trace of the Darkfriends, to the west is the place to begin. And I think we should not waste the daylight sitting here.”

When Mat blinked and stood up — he still looked ill, but he moved spryly — she put her hands on Perrin. Rand backed away when she reached for him.

“Don’t be foolish,” she told him.

“I don’t want your help,” he said quietly. “Or any Aes Sedai help.”

Her lips twitched. “As you wish.”

They mounted immediately and rode west, leaving the Portal Stone behind. No one protested, Rand least of all. Light, let me not be too late.

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