Note: I just wanted you all to know I have neither forgotten, nor abandoned, this story. The changes in the Prologue and first chapter are courtesy of my dear editor, and niece, who is now assisting me in getting the story nice and polished. So be patient. We're getting there. ;-) And, for those who need an awesome editor, my niece's handle is Saru Wolfe. She's the best!
"And though the Shadow had fallen, defeated by the Dragon's hand, peace did not take hold. The world howled its need of his Sword as thunder danced with lightning until the days of freedom were gone. Until the Servants became the masters."
--from Age of the Empire
by Vauarair so Bakkun,
Chief Historian at the Academy of Cairhien
What the Wheel Wills
Cairhien: Sun Palace
22 AE (Age of the Empire)
Leaning his head against the back of the plush chair, his pipe dangling from the fingers of his right hand, Rand al'Thor once again attempted to read the first sentence of the book he held. It wasn't that the book was uninteresting—from what he had been told, it was quite entertaining—but his mind was elsewhere. Lately, that was often the case. Yet this day was different. But why?
He sighed, setting his pipe on the table beside him. Though he had never had Nynaeve's talent for Listening to the Wind, he could feel a storm brewing. His dreams confirmed it, though even they were difficult to interpret. The one thing of which he was certain was that it was not the battles that had begun to rage throughout the land that were causing his unease. No, not those; they were…necessary. Only through rebellion would there finally be freedom. Only through bloodshed would there finally be peace. That had been a hard lesson for him to learn—for all of them to learn—yet it was one he would never forget. No, it wasn't the new war that had finally begun which caused his consternation. It was something…else. Something he could not quite identify.
Not knowing what the future held was the worst part, though he had found a way to see most of the possibilities. Few were promising, and even those not until many years had passed. This world, and what it had become, was not what he had expected. There were times he blamed himself for the current state of things. Had he not been so focused on the Last Battle, so focused he had failed to take precautions to prevent the troubles the world now faced—had been facing for twenty-two years—then maybe he could have prevented some of the turmoil. At the very least, he could have done something to… No, he would not do this to himself again. The prophecies had not warned of what came after Tarmon Gai'don. They had not even properly warned of what he had faced during that time, much less later. Even if they had given proper warning, or had given some sign of what the future held, there was no guarantee he would not have made things worse in an effort to stop them. Prophecy was as slippery as an eel, as he had learned the hard way.
Unbidden, his mind filled with memories past. It always happened when he allowed his thoughts to wander this path. There were wounds time had failed to heal, and even after more than two decades, his memories of the past sliced through his soul like a knife. The images were still so vivid. Of the blood that had been spilled…the lives that had been lost, some of which had been especially dear to him. Shortly before Tarmon Gai'don, he had stopped repeating the list of women who had died for him—such obsessions were far from healthy—but he still remembered. He still regretted. So many regrets, but dwelling on them solved nothing. What was done was done. All he could do was deal with the present as best he could. Sadly enough, he had failed in that as well, until recently.
With another sigh, he tried again to focus his attention on the book. However, the sound of a door opening at the other end of the palace distracted him and, after a moment of listening to the fall of footsteps growing steadily louder, he had no doubt as to the identity of his visitor. It still amazed him how sharp his senses remained despite the fact that they had all been returned to him. Nynaeve had explained it away and told him it was natural, that the short time he had spent unable to properly see the world around him had trained him to use all of his other senses to their fullest extent. Apparently that was not something one unlearned. Truthfully, Rand had no complaints. Not about that, anyway.
"Where is Elnore?"
Rand did not bother turning to address his friend and instead kept staring at the book he held. "Out, as usual." After a slight pause, he clarified, "She left with Arin to search for ter'angreal in Old Tar Valon." Despite the war that was starting to ravage the lands, Old Tar Valon was fairly safe. No war touched it. There was no point. The place was little more than an isolated sewer, bereft of humanity or other signs of life. Why the Aes Sedai had not burned the place to the ground was beyond him; truthfully, very little they did made sense.
The clang of glass behind him was a clear indication that Logain was pouring himself a drink. No, two drinks. His friend must have realized he could use one as well. "Two days before the wedding and she's out gallivanting again?" Disapproval weighed heavy in Logain's tone as he came into view and proffered a glass of clear liquid. Asha'man brew, they had named it originally. Over the years the name had been simplified to firewater, and an apt name it was. Too strong to drink this early in the day, as far as Rand was concerned, but he took the glass anyway. "It would be better if she was here working on the wedding plans."
Better. Safer. The two were one in the same to them nowadays. Rand refrained from saying that, however. "She was more restless than usual today. So it was either let her go with Arin or leave her to her own devices. You know how she is, Logain. Forcing her to stay in one place too long with nothing productive to do is the same as asking her to start trouble."
"She is trouble, Rand, and you bloody well know it." The fondness in the other man's voice was palpable. And, Rand knew, it was the truth; Elnore and trouble were one and the same, though she seemed unable to help it. "You're unusually quiet today. Something wrong?"
Finally, Rand turned his gaze away from the book and let it fall shut on his lap. "Yes, though I wish I knew what." Lifting the glass to his lips, he swallowed the clear liquid and reveled in the burning sensation it caused as it slid down his throat. The brief moment of pain was worth the relaxed feeling the drink would bring. Rand did not often indulge in drink this time of day—he seldom indulged at all—but he was on edge today. With any luck, the firewater would help calm his frayed nerves. Relaxing might bring more clarity to his thoughts than would the inexplicable tight knot of anxiety coiled in the pit of his stomach. "Elnore wasn't the only one who woke up feeling edgy."
Logain nodded. "I did as well. That's why I came here. I keep thinking about…you know." After a moment of silence, the man drained his glass dry. Rand would never understand how he could do that without so much as flinching. It truly did feel like drinking fire. "You should've kept her here today, no matter what. With the war spreading, it's dangerous." That wasn't the real problem, Rand knew. If there was anyone trained for war, other than Logain and himself, it was Elnore. They had seen to that. "What if—"
"Don't," Rand interrupted, taking another swallow of the harsh liquid before setting his glass on the solid oak table. Given the overwhelming feelings of impending trouble, he had no desire to carry this conversation further. "How are the Asha'man faring?"
"As well as can be expected." Logain let out a short breath, running his finger along the edge of his glass. "It's all I can do to resist the urge to strike now, while the White Tower is back to battling itself."
"Better their attention is not on the Black Tower," Rand responded with a humorless laugh. "Trust me, I've been there, remember? As long as you have the Castle of Mist and the grounds around it, they can't touch you. No one can." Silence fell between them, but Rand knew it wouldn't last so he broke it first. "With any luck, things will finally be set right and this war can quickly be brought to an end. I spoke with Adelorna yesterday. She has a great deal of support, though not yet enough to oust…the Amyrlin." The Amyrlin. The woman who had once been his friend. Well, not friend. Now that he looked back on his life, he realized they had never been friends. There had always been too much contention between them for that. Even so, he had believed them to be on the same side. That had proved a tragic mistake.
"Too many of them enjoy the power they wield." It was obvious Logain did not mean the One Power. "It will be difficult to convince them to give it up. That's why I've considered bringing the men out of hiding so we can aid Adelorna, though I'm not entirely sure she would want our help." His expression grew grim. Stubborn. Rand knew what the other man was going to say before he ever opened his mouth—a good friend, Logain was, but sometimes he was like a dog with a bone. Especially when it came to certain subjects. "The White Tower really doesn't concern me right now, Rand, and you know it. Elnore—"
Again, he interrupted his friend, partially out of frustration. "We can't keep her with us every waking moment, Logain. You know that. Keeping her caged would kill her."
"I can't lose her…" Again. The unspoken word hung in the air between them, a black cloud of pain. "I can't…" Logain's voice was barely above a whisper, but filled with so much emotion and torment that it nearly brought tears to Rand's eyes.
"I know." Everyone had suffered losses in the Last Battle and the days before—to this day, Rand still carried the wounds to his own heart—but there were times he wondered if anyone had suffered more than Logain. It was one thing to lose the one you loved; it was quite another to… His thoughts shifted in an instant, replaced with the image of a blue-eyed beauty, her perfectly oval face framed with sunburst curls. When those full red lips curled into a smile, Rand swore a dark room would glow like the sun itself. Light, how he missed her. How he missed… No, he had to stop this. Tightly closing his eyes, Rand fought the sorrow that threatened to overwhelm him. Wallowing in painful wounds born of the past would accomplish nothing.
"I know you did what you had to, Rand," Logain said, his strained voice bringing Rand back to the present. "We all did."
It was true, there were times Rand wondered what he could have done to ensure a better outcome. Those thoughts had caused many sleepless nights once his part in the battle against the Shadow was done. Sometimes they still did. But something he had learned about the Pattern was that it compensated. Victory never came without a price and defeat never came without some form of recompense. There were no absolutes in the world. That, perhaps, was the most difficult lesson of all, one many others had yet to learn despite what they had seen during the battle with the Shadow so many years ago.
"Things could have turned out worse."
Rand wondered if Logain was aware of the uncertainty in his tone. Granted, things could have turned out worse, but it was not as though their actions had brought sudden peace to the world. The battles had continued even after the Dark One was safely locked away in his new prison. And when peace did come, its price was terribly high. Only now, after two decades of living under the 'Empire', were people beginning to fight for their freedom. Granted, there were those select few nations that had declared their independence long ago—Cairhien and Illian—but those were special cases, and they had been isolated from the rest of the nations because of their refusal to bend knee to the White Tower. But now things were finally changing. Again the world was at war, though this time Rand could not be blamed for it. Not even the Seanchan could take credit for it. They had their own problems.
So determined were they to gain control over the Westlands, the Seanchan had forgotten their own lands. Embroiled in civil war, Seanchan was being torn asunder, though none seemed to care. Not even those of the Blood cared for their homeland. Instead, their interest was in gaining power for themselves. How quickly some adapted to the news that sul'dam could channel. How quickly they nestled themselves in the bosom of the Aes Sedai in order to gain power. So many would trade their very souls to rise in the ranks. Why could they not understand that they were repeating the very same mistakes those who followed the Shadow had made? Why could they not see they were making a mockery of everything they all fought for…everything others had died for?
Sighing, Logain got up and began pacing. "There are times I wonder if this world is worth saving. Then I look at Doron." He stopped, turning to look at Rand. "Every time I look at him, I see her. He has her eyes…her fire. More importantly, he has her zest for life. No matter how bad things get, he always sees something salvageable about the situation. He's my son, but he resembles her in most ways. He's a good man, despite his penchant for trouble." He laughed softly. "I often wonder how much more trouble he would be now if she had…"
An intense silence fell between them as Logain trailed off. Rand knew what he was thinking. It was something he himself had considered on more than one occasion. What if he had been able to save Logain's wife? What if he'd been able to save… Burn it all, he wouldn't do this. Not again. He already knew there would have been casualties, and the thought of trading the life of one person he loved for another was not something that left him with a good feeling. It was too late to change the past, anyway. The future, however, was another story.
Maybe that was the advantage of having no prophecies. Without prophecy to serve as warning or promise, perhaps nothing was set in stone. Perhaps some problems and pains could be avoided. Rand was not fool enough to believe he could force the Pattern to his will—he had been rudely disabused of that notion long ago—but did he really have to sit idly by and allow events to unfold as others wished? Did he have to accept a certain future as a given until, and unless, the Wheel weaved it?
For so long he had believed his only option was to maintain a low profile. Stay out of the way and do what he could behind the scenes to indirectly affect the few areas where he had some modicum of influence. The realization that he had once again chosen the wrong path grated more than he wanted to admit. However, it was never too late to change your course; Ingtar had taught him that lesson well before the Last Battle had begun. The disquiet within him had spread from the center of his gut to his chest, nearly choking him, but as he got to his feet his new path clear as crystal to him, the anxiety eased a bit.
There was so much he had to do, so much time to make up for. His mind raced with a seemingly never-ending list of what had to be accomplished, some of which had been alluded to in his dreams and others he knew from his last use of the portal stones. The portal stones. A memory tickled the back of his mind, and soon that tickle became an insistent ache. The memory grew, sprung to life as though it had been dormant for some time, then gripped his heart with such ferocity that he nearly lost his breath. The knot within tightened again, the comprehension of the source of his unease suddenly crashing down upon him like a ton of stone.
"Rand, what is it?"
His head jerked at Logain's question, his forehead creasing with a frown. "We need to go. Now."
"Hey, Elnore, there's something over here you should…"
Elnore Mandragoran looked over at Arin, the boy Rand had asked her to escort on his search for some kind of hidden ter'angreal stash in Old Tar Valon. At first she had believed Rand had just sent her along as a way to keep her from finding something more…interesting…to do for the day, but it took only a few minutes in Arin's presence to realize he needed someone to look after him.
It wasn't that he was incompetent—after all, he had only been channeling for a year and had already earned the silver sword pin that marked him as a Dedicated—but despite him being only a few years younger than she, he seemed to want someone to follow, even on such an easy mission. Part of it was likely due to the fact that his training was not complete. Most channelers exercised a bit of caution once they realized they had a lot to learn in order to avoid killing themselves with the One Power, after all. Well, Elnore herself hadn't, but Rand had always been of the opinion that she lacked a healthy level of fear. Arin didn't seem to suffer that problem, if it was, indeed, a problem. If anything, the boy needed to be a bit less cautious. Perhaps that was why Rand had wanted her to accompany him…to get him to loosen up a bit. It wasn't healthy for someone so young to be so bloody uptight!
"…and this rock is strange looking…"
Unsuccessfully fighting a yawn, Elnore covered her mouth. Whatever the boy was blathering about was lost on her as she dug through a pile of stone to see if there was anything worthwhile underneath. To her, digging through rubble was fun. Going places she was not supposed to go—in this case, the bowels of the old White Tower—was always fun. The only dark cloud hanging over this particular venture was Rand's all too specific order for her to stay out of the old White Tower ruins, but since she and Arin had found nothing in Old Tar Valon itself, cesspool that it was, she figured they may was well try searching the tower itself. After all, what could it hurt? He had said the most important thing was to try to find any ter'angreal or other One Power-forged objects that may be lying around, so clearly that overrode his order to stay out of the ruins. Right? The niggling guilt that threatened to ruin her logic caused her mouth to twist into a pained frown, but there was naught she could do about it now. She was already in the White Tower ruins and, if she was lucky, she would find something of use. Either way, she would tell him the truth about her decision to go into the ruins once she got back home. The decision had been logical, even if it was bordering on Aes Sedai logic. That thought made her shudder—if she started behaving like an Aes Sedai, she deserved to be smacked.
With another yawn, she kicked a large piece of rubble out of her way. Why Rand had been so adamant about her staying out of the ruins was beyond her, anyway. It wasn't as though she and Arin ran the risk of encountering someone or something that could cause trouble. Everyone else, the Aes Sedai included, was too afraid to enter the dilapidated buildings that once stood taller than any others in the world. Something about it not being safe or some such rot like that. People really had no sense of adventure.
"Elnore, are you even listening to me?" Arin said with a glare.
She glared back, only more fiercely. For her mother—Light, for most women—it seemed glaring was a fine art. Most of the time Elnore didn't care to get in glaring contests but sometimes it was useful. "Yes, I'm listening, but you need to get away from that"—she waved her hand at the huge yet damaged arch behind him—"thing. Mother told me about it once; it's some kind of ter'angreal that sucks you into some alternate world or something. It sounded like Tel'aran'rhiod to me. Stupid bloody Aes Sedai and their stupid traditions. You'd think Tarmon Gai'don would've taught them something. If it hadn't been for Rand…" She trailed off, raising an eyebrow when the boy started laughing at her. "What?"
"You. Sorry." He shook his head and leaned down to pick up a wheel-shaped piece of wood. Before she could ask about it, he dropped it into one of the bags they had brought and shook his head again. "Every time you talk about him, you get this look in your eyes. I mean, yeah, he saved all our skins and the world wouldn't be here were it not for him, but I swear the way you talk about him I wouldn't be surprised if he could walk on water."
"Of course he can, you woolhead." She rolled her eyes. "Anyone who channels can! All you have to do is a weave of—"
"All right, all right!" he interrupted, holding up his hands in defeat. "You missed the point, though."
"No I didn't." She fought to lift a particularly large piece of smooth stone, then dropped it to the side. "Your point was I think there's nothing he can't do and you're right. So could Father. They both say there's nothing you can't do if you put your mind to it."
He nodded. "The Light knows they taught you that lesson well. Too bad you don't actually follow their instructions." He raised his hands in defense again when she shot him a deadly look. "I was just saying! The Lord Dragon did tell us not to come here, you know."
Rolling her eyes, she gave a slight shrug. The show of nonchalance conflicted greatly with the guilt that had returned in full force. She forced her tone to remain somewhat even; it wouldn't do to snap at the boy, not when it was herself she was angry with. "Yeah, well, he's weird about some stuff. Like where I go. Sometimes I think he forgets I'm not fourteen anymore." The corners of her lips curled up as she said the words, her anger forgotten. Sometimes she couldn't believe herself that she'd been living with Rand and Min for over seven years. Light, it was a third of her life! Had it not been for Rand, she'd most likely still be living in the flaming White Tower, having to deal with… Her jaw tightened and she refused to finish the thought. She owed Rand everything for rescuing her from that place, something her mother had refused to do.
A slight feeling of sadness came over her at the thought of her mother. It had been three weeks since she had seen Nynaeve. Much too long, even though the two of them would never see eye to eye on anything. She hated it, hated that she and her mother had never gotten along, hated that she had been forced to move away from home at such a young age. Away from her father.
Sighing, she moved her hand to the hilt of the sword at her side. At least she got to see him often. And the last time they had sparred, only days before, she had actually held her own against him until he had decided they had had enough. He had been proud, as had Rand. That memory was enough to lighten her mood.
"Thinking about that man of yours?" Again Arin interrupted her thoughts, wrongly, though this time she didn't much mind. "Why you're running around two days before you're to be married is beyond me. I'm surprised he isn't throwing a fit about it."
She chuckled, mainly because he would have thrown a fit if he knew. Then again, lately, most of the people in her life had been obsessed with keeping her locked in her rooms all the time. Even Mat, her partner in crime and one of her best friends in the world, had been acting strangely. "Yeah, well, everyone else seems to be handling the wedding plans fine without me. I'll worry about the wedding tomorrow. Right now I want to find this stash." Even as she said the words, she couldn't help glancing at the ring she wore on the third finger of her left hand. The gold signet ring would have been fairly bland had it not been for the black panther engraved on the top. Her thoughts drifted to the tall, dark-haired man who had given it to her and she let out a contented sigh. It had taken so long to win him over, but once she had he had been so devoted she could hardly believe it. The woman he had lost in Tarmon Gai'don, whoever she was, was now just a fond memory. Though the thought of her brought a smile to his face, he steadfastly refused to speak of her.
"Hey Arin, why don't you…" Her words were cut short by a sudden quake in the earth. It took a great deal of effort to keep her feet, but when she turned her eyes to the boy, she practically growled. Judging by the look of terror in his eyes, he was either too afraid to move or was stuck. Above him the arch—which was now glowing an odd reddish-black color—began to crumble. Blood and ashes, she had told him to get away from the bleeding thing!
Without thought, she stumbled to him and pulled him away. Well, she tried to. He really was stuck! Moving behind him, trying her best not to step inside the archway, she pushed, but he still didn't budge.
"Elnore, I can't move and—"
"Be quiet!" she ordered, channeling flows of Air at him, realizing too late that the flows were too thick and strong to be using at such a close distance to him.
This time it was Rand yelling at her, she knew that before she ever glanced up to see him running toward her and Arin. Unfortunately, by then it was too late. Her strong flows of Air had worked in a sense—the boy was knocked away from the arch—but the force of her flows propelled her in the opposite direction. Right into the glowing arch. The last thing she saw, as time slowed to a crawl and she flew backwards into the awaiting darkness, was Rand's face. Strangely, his eyes were filled with defeat, though for the life of her she couldn't quite figure out why.