The Dragon Reborn
The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth 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 Mist. 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.
Down long valleys the wind swept, valleys blue with morning mist hanging in the air, some forested with evergreens, some bare where grasses and wildflowers would soon spring up. It howled across half-buried ruins and broken monuments, all as forgotten as those who had built them. It moaned in the passes, weatherworn cuts between peaks capped with snow that never melted. Thick clouds clung to the mountaintops so that snow and white billows seemed one.
In the lowlands winter was going or gone, yet here in the heights it held awhile, quilting the mountainsides with broad, white patches. Only evergreens clung to leaf or needle; all other branches stood bare, brown or gray against the rock and not yet quickened ground. There was no sound but the crisp rush of wind over snow and stone. The land seemed to be waiting. Waiting for something to burst.
Sitting his horse just inside a thicket of leatherleaf and pine, Perrin Aybara shivered and tugged his fur-lined cloak closer, as close as he could with a longbow in one hand and a great, half-moon axe at his belt. It was a good axe of cold steel; Perrin had pumped the bellows the day master Luhhan had made it. The wind jerked at his cloak, pulling the hood back from his shaggy curls, and cut through his coat; he wiggled his toes in his boots for warmth and shifted on his high-cantled saddle, but his mind was not really on the cold. Eyeing his five companions, he wondered if they, too, felt it. Not the waiting they had been sent there for, but something more.
Stepper, his horse, shifted and tossed his head. He had named the dun stallion for his quick feet, but now Stepper seemed to feel his rider's irritation and impatience. I am tired of all this waiting, all this sitting while Moiraine holds us as tight as tongs. Burn the Aes Sedai! When will it end?
He sniffed the wind without thinking. The smell of horse predominated, and of men and men's sweat. A rabbit had gone through those trees not long since, fear powering its run, but the fox on its trail had not killed there. He realized what he was doing, and stopped it. You'd think I would get a stuffed nose with all this wind. He almost wished he did have one. And I wouldn't let Moiraine do anything about it, either.
Something tickled the back of his mind. He refused to acknowledge it. He did not mention his feeling to his companions.
The other five men sat their saddles, short horsebows at the ready, eyes searching the sky above as well as the thinly treed slopes below. They seemed unperturbed by the wind flaring their cloaks out like banners. A two-handed sword hilt stuck up above each man's shoulder through a slit in his cloak. The sight of their bare heads, shaven except for topknots, made Perrin feel colder. For them, this weather was already well into spring. All softness had been hammered out of them at a harder forge than he had ever known. They were Shienarans, from the Borderlands up along the Great Blight, where Trolloc raids could come in any night, and even a merchant or a farmer might well have to take up sword or bow. And these men were no farmers, but soldiers almost from birth.
He sometimes wondered at the way they deferred to him and followed his lead. It was as if they thought he had some special right, some knowledge hidden from them. Or maybe it's just my friends, he thought wryly. They were not as tall as he, nor as big--years as a blacksmith's apprentice had given him arms and shoulders to make two of most men's--but he had begun shaving every day to stop their jokes about his youth. Friendly jokes, but still jokes. He would not have them start again because he spoke of a feeling.
With a start, Perrin reminded himself that he was supposed to be keeping watch, too. Checking the arrow nocked to his longbow, he peered down the valley running off to the west, widening as it fell away, the ground streaked with broad, twisted ribbons of snow, remnants of winter. Most of the scattered trees down there still clawed the sky with stark winter branches, but enough evergreens--pine and leatherleaf, fir and mountain holly, even a few towering greenwoods--stood on the slopes and the valley floor to give cover for anyone who knew how to use it. But no one would be there without a special purpose. The mines were all far to the south or even further north; most people thought there was ill luck in the Mountains of Mist, and few entered them who could avoid it. Perrin's eyes glittered like burnished gold.
The tickling became an itch. No!
He could push the itch aside, but the expectation would not go. As if he teetered on a brink. As if everything teetered. He wondered whether something unpleasant lay in the mountains around them. There was a way to know, perhaps. In places like this, where men seldom came, there were almost always wolves. He crushed the thought before it had a chance to firm. Better to wonder. Better than that. Their numbers were not many, but they had scouts. If there was anything out there, the outriders would find it. This is my forge; I'll tend it, and let them tend theirs.
He could see further than the others, so he was first to spot the rider coming from the direction of Tarabon. Even to him the rider was only a spot of bright colors on horseback winding its way through the trees in the distance, now seen, now hidden. A piebald horse, he thought. And not before time! He opened his mouth to announce her--it would be a woman; each rider before had been--when Masema suddenly muttered, "Raven!" like a curse.
Perrin jerked his head up. A big black bird was quartering over the treetops no more than a hundred paces away. Its quarry might have been carrion dead in the snow or some small animal, yet Perrin could not take the chance. It did not seem to have seen them, but the oncoming rider would soon be in its sight. Even as he spotted the raven, his bow came up, and he drew--fletchings to cheek, to ear--and loosed, all in one smooth motion. He was dimly aware of the slap of bowstrings beside him, but his attention was all on the black bird.
Of a sudden it cartwheeled in a shower of midnight feathers as his arrow found it, and tumbled from the sky as two more arrows streaked through the place where it had been. Bows half-drawn, the other Shienarans searched the sky to see if it had a companion.
"Does it have to report," Perrin asked softly, "or does…he…see what it sees?" He had not meant anyone to hear, but Ragan, the youngest of the Shienarans, less than ten years his elder, answered as he fitted another arrow to his short bow.
"It has to report. To a Halfman, usually." In the Borderlands there was a bounty on ravens; no one there ever dared assume any raven was just a bird. "Light, if Heartsbane saw what the ravens saw, we would all have been dead before we reached the mountains." Ragan's voice was easy; it was a matter of every day to a Shienaran soldier.
Perrin shivered, not from the cold, and in the back of his head something snarled a challenge to the death. Heartsbane. Different names in different lands--Soulsbane and Heartfang, Lord of the Grave and Lord of the Twilight--and everywhere Father of Lies and the Dark One, all to avoid giving him his true name and drawing his attention. The Dark One often used ravens and crows, rats in the cities. Perrin drew another broadhead arrow from the quiver on his hip that balanced the axe on the other side.
"That may be as big as a club," Ragan said admiringly, with a glance at Perrin's bow, "but it can shoot. I would hate to see what it could do to a man in armor." The Shienarans wore only light mail, now, under their plain coats, but usually they fought in armor, man and horse alike.
"Too long for horseback," Masema sneered. The triangular scar on his dark cheek twisted his contemptuous grin even more. "A good breastplate will stop even a pile arrow except at close range, and if your first shot fails, the man you're shooting at will carve your guts out."
"That is just it, Masema." Ragan relaxed a bit as the sky remained empty. The raven must have been alone. "With this Two Rivers bow, I'll wager you don't have to be so close." Masema opened his mouth.
"You two stop flapping your bloody tongues!" Uno snapped. With a long scar down the left side of his face and that eye gone, his features were hard, even for a Shienaran. He had acquired a painted eyepatch on their way into the mountains during the autumn; a permanently frowning eye in a fiery red did nothing to make his stare easier to face. "If you can't keep your bloody minds on the bloody task at hand, I'll see if extra flaming guard duty tonight will bloody settle you." Ragan and Masema subsided under his stare. He gave them a last scowl that faded as he turned to Perrin. "Do you see anything yet?" His tone was a little gruffer than he might have used with a commander put over him by the King of Shienar, or the Lord of Fal Dara, yet there was something in it of readiness to do whatever Perrin suggested.
The Shienarans knew how far he could see, but they seemed to take it as a matter of course, that and the color of his eyes, as well. They did not know everything, not by half, but they accepted him as he was. As they thought he was. They seemed to accept everything and anything. The world was changing, they said. Everything spun on the wheels of chance and change. If a man had eyes a color no man's eyes had ever been, what did it matter, now?
"She's coming," Perrin said. "You should just see her how. There." He pointed, and Uno strained forward, his one real eye squinting, then finally nodded doubtfully.
"There's bloody something moving down there." Some of the others nodded and murmured, too. Uno glared at them, and they went back to studying the sky and the mountains.
Suddenly Perrin realized what the bright colors on the distant rider meant. A vivid green skirt peeking out beneath a bright red cloak. "She's one of the Traveling People," he said, startled. No one else he had ever heard of dressed in such brilliant colors and odd combinations, not by choice.
The women they had sometimes met and guided even deeper into the mountains included every sort: a beggar woman in rags struggling afoot through a snowstorm; a merchant by herself leading a string of laden packhorses; a lady in silks and fine furs, with red-tasseled reins on her palfrey and gold worked on her saddle. The beggar departed with a purse of silver--more than Perrin thought they could afford to give, until the lady left an even fatter purse of gold. Women from every station in life, all alone, from Tarabon, and Ghealdan, and even Amadicia. But he had never expected to see one of the Tuatha'an.
"A bloody Tinker?" Uno exclaimed. The others echoed his surprise.
Ragan's topknot waved as he shook his head. "A Tinker wouldn't be mixed in this. Either she's not a Tinker, or she is not the one we are supposed to meet."
"Tinkers," Masema growled. "Useless cowards."
Uno's eye narrowed until it looked like the pritchel hole of an anvil; with the red painted eye on his patch, it gave him a villainous look. "Cowards, Masema?" he said softly. "If you were a woman, would you have the flaming nerve to ride up here, alone and bloody unarmed?" There was no doubt she would be unarmed if she was of the Tuatha'an. Masema kept his mouth shut, but the scar on his cheek stood out tight and pale.
"Burn me, if I would," Ragan said. "And burn me if you would either, Masema." Masema hitched at his cloak and ostentatiously searched the sky.
Uno snorted. "The Light send that flaming carrion eater was flaming alone," he muttered.
Slowly the shaggy brown-and-white mare meandered closer, picking a way along the clear ground between broad snowbanks. Once the brightly clad woman stopped to peer at something on the ground, then tugged the cowl of her cloak further over her head and heeled her mount forward in a slow walk. The raven, Perrin thought. Stop looking at that bird and come on, woman. Maybe you've brought the word that finally takes us out of here. If Moiraine means to let us leave before spring. Burn her! For a moment he was not sure whether he meant the Aes Sedai, or the Tinker woman who seemed to be taking her own time.
If she kept on as she was, the woman would pass a good thirty paces to one side of the thicket. With her eyes fixed on where her piebald stepped, she gave no sign that she had seen them among the trees.
Perrin nudged the stallion's flanks with his heels, and the dun leaped ahead, sending up sprays of snow with his hooves. Behind him, Uno quietly gave the command, "Forward!"
Stepper was halfway to her before she seemed to become aware of them, and then she jerked her mare to a halt with a start. She watched as they formed an arc centered on her. Embroidery of eye-wrenching blue, in the pattern called a Tairen maze, made her red cloak even more garish. She was not young--gray showed thick in her hair where it was not hidden by her cowl--but her face had few lines, other than the disapproving frown she ran over their weapons. If she was alarmed at meeting armed men in the heart of mountain wilderness, though, she gave no sign. Her hands rested easily on the high pommel of her worn but well-kept saddle. And she did not smell afraid.
Stop that! Perrin told himself. He made his voice soft so as not to frighten her. "My name is Perrin, good mistress. If you need help, I will do what I can. If not, go with the Light. But unless the Tuatha'an have changed their ways, you are far from your wagons."
She studied them a moment more before speaking. There was a gentleness in her dark eyes, not surprising in one of the Traveling People. "I seek an…a woman."
The skip was small, but it was there. She sought not any woman, but an Aes Sedai. "Does she have a name, good mistress?" Perrin asked. He had done this too many times in the last few months to need her reply, but iron was spoiled for want of care.
"She is called.…Sometimes, she is called Moiraine. My name is Leya."
Perrin nodded. "We will take you to her, Mistress Leya. We have warm fires, and with luck something hot to eat." But he did not lift his reins immediately. "How did you find us?" He had asked before, each time Moiraine sent him out to wait at a spot she named, for a woman she knew would come. The answer would be the same as it always was, but he had to ask.
Leya shrugged and answered hesitantly. "I…knew that if I came this way, someone would find me and take me to her. I…just…knew. I have news for her."
Perrin did not ask what news. The women gave the information they brought only to Moiraine.
And the Aes Sedai tells us what she chooses. He thought. Aes Sedai never lied, but it was said that the truth an Aes Sedai told you was not always the truth you thought it was. Too late for qualms, now. Isn't it?
"This way, Mistress Leya," he said, gesturing up the mountain. The Shienarans, with Uno at their head, fell in behind Perrin and Leya as they began to climb. The Borderlanders still studied the sky as much as the land, and the last two kept a special watch on their backtrail.
For a time they rode in silence except for the sounds the horses' hooves made, sometimes crunching through old snowcrust, sometimes sending rocks clattering as they crossed bare stretches. Now and again Leya cast glances at Perrin, at his bow, his axe, his face, but she did not speak. He shifted uncomfortably under the scrutiny, and avoided looking at her. He always tried to give strangers as little chance to notice his eyes as he could manage.
Finally he said, "I was surprised to see one of the Traveling People, believing as you do."
"It is possible to oppose evil without doing violence." Her voice held the simplicity of someone stating an obvious truth.
Perrin grunted sourly, then immediately muttered an apology. "Would it were as you say, Mistress Leya."
"Violence harms the doer as much as the victim," Leya said placidly. "That is why we flee those who harm us, to save them from harm to themselves as much for our own safety. If we do violence to oppose evil, soon we would be no different from what we struggle against. It is with the strength of our belief that we fight the Shadow."
Perrin could not help snorting. "Mistress, I hope you never have to face Trollocs with the strength of your belief. The strength of their swords will cut you down where you stand."
"It is better to die than to--" she began, but anger made him speak right over her. Anger that she just would not see. Anger that she really would die rather than harm anyone, no matter how evil.
"If you run, they will hunt you, and kill you, and eat your corpse. Or they might not wait till it is a corpse. Either way, you are dead, and it's evil that has won. And there are men just as cruel. Darkfriends and others. More others than I would have believed even a year ago. Let the Whitecloaks decide you Tinkers don't walk in the Light and see how many of you the strength of your belief can keep alive."
She gave him a penetrating look. "And yet you are not happy with your weapons."
How did she know that? He shook his head irritably, shaggy hair swaying. "The Creator made the world," he muttered, "not I. I must live the best I can in the world the way it is."
"So sad for one so young," she said softly. "Why so sad?"
"I should be watching, not talking," he said curtly. "You won't thank me if I get you lost." He heeled Stepper forward enough to cut off any further conversation, but he could feel her looking at him. Sad? I'm not sad, just.…Light, I don't know. There ought to be a better way, that's all. The itching tickle came again at the back of his head, but absorbed in ignoring Leya's eyes on his back, he ignored that, too.
Over the slope of the mountain and down they rode, across a forested valley with a broad stream running cold along its bottom, knee-deep on the horses. In the distance, the side of a mountain had been carved into the semblance of two towering forms. A man and a woman, Perrin thought they might be, though wind and rain had long since made that uncertain. Even Moiraine claimed to be unsure who they were supposed to be, or when the granite had been cut.
Pricklebacks and small trout darted away from the horses' hooves, silver flashes in the clear water. A deer raised its head from browsing, hesitated as the party rode up out of the stream, then bounded off into the trees, and a large mountain cat, gray striped and spotted with black, seemed to rise out of the ground, frustrated in its stalk. It eyed the horses a moment, and with a lash of its tail vanished after the deer. But there was little life visible in the mountains yet. Only a handful of birds perched on limbs or pecked at the ground where the snow had melted. More would return to the heights in a few weeks, but not yet. They saw no other ravens.
It was late afternoon by the time Perrin led them between two steep-sloped mountains, snowy peaks as ever wrapped in cloud, and turned up a smaller stream that splashed downward over gray stones in a series of tiny waterfalls. A bird called in the trees, and another answered it from ahead.
Perrin smiled. Bluefinch calls. A Borderland bird. No one rode this way without being seen. He rubbed his nose, and did not look at the tree the first "bird" had called from.
Their path narrowed as they rode up through scrubby leatherleaf and a few gnarled mountain oaks. The ground level enough to ride beside the stream became barely wider than a man on horseback, and the stream itself no more than a tall man could step across.
Perrin heard Leya behind him, murmuring to herself. When he looked over his shoulder, she was casting worried glances up the steep slopes to either side. Scattered trees perched precariously above them. It appeared impossible they would not fall. The Shienarans rode easily, at last beginning to relax.
Abruptly a deep, oval bowl between the mountains opened out before them, its sides steep but not nearly so precipitous as the narrow passage. The stream rose from a small spring at its far end. Perrin's sharp eyes picked out a man with the topknot of a Shienaran, up in the limbs of an oak to his left. Had a redwinged jay called instead of a bluefinch, he would not have been alone, and the way in would not have been so easy. A handful of men could hold that passage against an army. If an army came, a handful would have to.
Among the trees around the bowl stood log huts, not readily visible, so that those gathered around the cook fires at the bottom of the bowl seemed at first to be without shelter. There were fewer than a dozen in sight. And not many more out of sight, Perrin knew. Most of them looked around at the sound of horses, and some waved. The bowl seemed filled with the smells of men and horses, of cooking and burning wood. A long white banner hung limply from a tall pole near them. One form, at least half again as tall as anyone else, sat on a log engrossed in a book that was small in his huge hands. That one's attention never wavered, even when the only other person without a topknot shouted, "So you found her, did you? I thought you'd be gone the night, this time." It was a young woman's voice, but she wore a boy's coat and breeches and had her hair cut short.
A burst of wind swirled into the bowl, making cloaks flap and rippling the banner out to its full length. For a moment the creature on it seemed to ride the wind. A four-legged serpent scaled in gold and scarlet, golden maned like a lion, and its feet each tipped with five golden claws. A banner of legend. A banner most men would not know if they saw it, but would fear when they learned its name.
Perrin waved a hand that took it all in as he led the way down into the bowl. "Welcome to the camp of the Dragon Reborn, Leya."
Copyright © 1991 by Robert Jordan