Water surrounds us all. From the depths of the ocean to the clouds above, from the currents of the rivers to the wintery snows, from ice dripping off eaves to steam rising above pots, it flows onwards, never failing.
So it came to pass in a time called the Fourth Age that water was brought forth out of a lake. It stayed chilled in a barrel, fresh and clean.
Then, Thom Merrilin's head was unceremoniously dumped in the barrel.
Sputtering, he chattered his teeth as he pulled himself free, unpleasantly aware of his surroundings, and cold. "C'mon, then, it can't have been as bad as all that," he muttered.
"It's getting late," Moiraine Damodred smiled at him, reaching for his hand. Through the Warder bond, he could sense her amusement at his state of...inebriation, but also her concern for him and her nagging uncertainty as to why, exactly, she had been summoned to the gathering.
"Aes Sedai," he said, shaking his head, "all these weaves, and you can't find one to help someone hold their drink."
From across the room, Elayne Trakand laughed, flinging her hair behind her. "I suspect the true answer will come from a ter'angreal. For some reason, my sisters have encouraged me to explore alternate uses of these instruments."
"Pfft," Thom laughed. "Stuck up in a tower all day, what do they know about the way of the world."
They caught each other's eye and blushed. The celebration had, apparently, been Elayne's idea, though what occasion had prompted her to invite her friends so far from Andor Thom hadn't the slightest idea. Still, the embarrassing recollection of other drunken revelry made him turn away.
"I'll be outside," he told Moiraine, "some air would be nice."
She nodded, as he stepped out into the night.
Rhuidean was near-empty, for its size, but alive in a way Thom could never have imagined. Here am I, a gleeman from Andor, pacing the streets of Rhuidean!
But before he could reflect too far on the state of affairs that had brought him there, he was interrupted by a voice from high above him. "Hello? Is everything all right?"
"Of course," he said, staring up at the Ogier.
"Wonderful!" Loial broke into a broad smile. "I have been walking outside. Yes. There are lots of people inside, but these buildings were not made to fit me." He shook his head. "The Tree of Life grows here. What a wonder this city could be with more saplings, sung by Ogier! Yet knowing that these trees have given birth to war and destruction...I do not know what should be done."
"Do you want a drink?" Thom volunteered.
"No, but thank you for offering."
"Any time. How is your work going?"
"Oh, very well. I am happy to be meeting with so many of our friends, you understand, to talk to them about what to include. But they are now-ah-"
"Busy," Thom volunteered.
"Yes. Have you finished composing your epic? Perhaps I should reference that."
"Oh, well." Thom blushed. "You know me, always hunting out the right word but never quite finding it. You see, it's not enough to write a story-it needs to be singable. Not too high or too low, too fast or too slow, too short or too long. The right kind of song-"
"You're doing it again."
"Humming, to yourself. Trying to fit it into a rhythm already."
"Oh. Well. Yes. You see the problem. The battles were not beautiful; they were ugly and terrifying and brutal. They were not necessary, in the sense that, had we lost, none of us would be around to complain about losing."
"I want to do it justice, but I'm just one man. The harder I try to make it fit into verses, the more it grows out of hand. And no matter how hard I try, it'll all be forgotten anyway."
"But the writing brings you joy, as does mine. You don't need to ask for more."
Thom scowled, looking out into the distance mostly as a distraction, but then stiffening at what seemed to be footsteps approaching through the city. He raised one hand, reaching for his knives with the other.
The approaching stranger squinted as he walked forward, seeming to notice Loial first. "Kiserai ti wansho," he said with a slight bow. "Glory to the builders!"
"Tsingu ma choba," Loial answered reflexively, then paused. "Goodness."
"Has Matrim Cauthon been giving you lessons?" Thom began, then shook his head. "Never mind that." He turned to the other man. "Are you..."
Are you what? Aiel? Lost? Out of your wits?
"Now, Thom," said Loial, "he is probably another friend of Elayne's, and here for the festivities."
"I'm not that drunk," Thom muttered.
"Be at peace in Rhuidean," Loial smiled to the other man.
"I intend to," he said. "And yes, I understand Her Majesty has helped her guests Travel here? If she is hospitable, perhaps she could help me depart, later on."
Thom by then had made no hesitation to grip his knife, yet felt reluctant to take it out. The visitor certainly seemed like he might have been a threat-how else could he have arrived there, unseen, and known who had invited them all?-but spoke more like a madman then an evildoer.
"Perhaps," said Loial. "Do you have a place to stay, for the night?"
"I do. Thank you."
"Is there any reason why you've walked all the..." Thom trailed off. All the way from where? "...this way?" he finished.
"Well," he said, "I suppose I'm walking because my horse died." Thom and Loial glanced at each other, and he went on, "He was a nice horse, but he couldn't go on forever. And there's no healing a horse that's died, you know. It's not like a Tuatha'an pot."
There was also, Thom noted, no healing of a horse at all in the empty expanses of the Waste for someone who couldn't Travel, but he kept his opinions to himself.
"A Tuatha'an pot?" Loial repeated.
"I once heard that Tinkers could mend broken pots, make them better than new. Of course, I've never learned from them, but it's just...metal, as easily made as damaged. Life is...harder to capture, harder to create."
"It takes a long time to mend a broken sword," said Thom, "sometimes it's better to melt it down and start over."
He shrugged. "Time comes and goes."
"Are you sure there's nothing we can do for you?" asked Loial.
"Not tonight. But I will see you in the morning, I hope." He turned and walked towards what passed for the center of the city.
Loial smiled. "Do not be so suspicious, Thom. This is a celebration."
"I'm not suspicious," Thom muttered, "just...aware when things aren't right."
"Can I get you a drink?" said Loial. "In the stedding we sip the cufors juice. It is very pleasant."
Thom shook his head. "If it takes you a hundred years to come of age, I don't think I want to know how long it takes you to get drunk."
Tam al'Thor woke up in the middle of the night, unable to go back to sleep. The makeshift beds that the Wise Ones had arranged were tolerable-certainly much better than what he'd put up with for months on end as a soldier-but still not what he was used to from home. A single jolt, and he was awake, quickly resigning himself to the long night ahead.
The Aiel War. How would he have imagined himself coming here, invited by a young woman that had almost become part of his family? And to think that was one of the least strange things in his life...
Well, no. Technically it had been Mat who invited him, showing up uninvited in Seanchan apparel and pulling his cap down till it almost obscured his missing eye. "You," Mat had said, "should go to Rhuidean."
Tam could only assume that Mat was as unserious as ever, and they'd spent the day talking as old friends. Consolidating Seanchan under Fortuona's rule had proven a long mire. It was hardly more difficult than they'd expected, and certainly nothing Mat Cauthon couldn't handle, but they kept getting derailed by one slowdown after the next. First it was having to explain that, in fact, the taint on saidin had been cleansed, and that they would either have to establish new institutions for the men who could channel or take advantage of the other continent's. Then there was the matter of marath'damane to deal with; a political rival of the Empress had let slip that she was capable of channeling, which divided their efforts into finding out how that information had leaked out and dealing with the growing ramifications when more sul'dam became aware of their abilities. And so on, and so on.
"On the one hand," Mat had said, "it'd be nice just to have a few decent enemies. People I could count on to have armies all lined up and ready to be mowed down. Burn me, I suppose that's what they mean about having assassins to practice on!"
"Assassins to practice on?"
"...never mind that. How are things here?"
And so Tam had tried to begin telling him of the largest changes, but Mat just smiled. "I'm only the bloody consort to the Empress-may she live forever-I'm keeping up with the important news." It was the little things that had changed; people asked for "Two Rivers bows" where they might once have sought "Two Rivers tabac."
"And are you telling them that the finest bow in the world won't do a flaming bit of good in the hands of a hopeless drunkard?"
Tam paused. "Not exactly in that language."
But in the end, Mat had apparently been serious. "I meant it. You should go to Rhuidean."
"All right," Tam said, nodding along in an exaggerated feint of understanding, "why should I go to Rhuidean?"
"Burn me if Aviendha tells me that. But we're all going, apparently, a-a whole bunch of the Two Rivers folk. Perrin's coming, and yes, I know all about him being a king now."
"That's another thing, Saldaea and the Two Rivers being all bound up-so anyone who actually knew how to use a Two Rivers bow is just as likely to be up in Maradon than Katar or Jehannah or anywhere closer by."
"Well, with Traveling like it is that shouldn't really matter."
"Anyway, don't try and change the subject, you're coming along to Rhuidean."
And that had been that. As Tam lay awake in the simple bed, he almost felt cold in the early hours of the morning. It couldn't be, of course, he told himself. Cold? In the Aiel Waste? Impossible. As impossible as drinking fresh lake water or running into...half the crowd he'd met, there.
Could it be a Darkfriend's work? Luring away the rulers of nations-Andor, Malkier, Seanchan, Saldaea-to take advantage of their absence and disrupt their countries? But how could that be, when they could Travel back and forth at a moment's notice?
Tam rolled over, shifting the blankets above him. No sense in climbing up and waking everyone up. No, he was warmer all of a sudden, he must have somehow been cold before.
Children were wonderful people, Thom knew. Oftentimes more attentive to a gleeman's music or tales than adults. And every baby born was a sign of the world they'd fought to guard from darkness.
That didn't change the fact that, surrounded by several squirming children, he was somewhat grateful that Moiraine and he had married late enough that they wouldn't be having any.
He gingerly stepped past Anasi, Mat and Tuon's daughter, who was running around in mad circles, performing a balancing act with the cup of water she grasped that any traveling show would have been proud of. Thom couldn't decide whether she was more likely to spill it or try and drain it in one gulp and have it sputter all over the floor.
Across the room, Elayne was securing her daughter, Karia, who "wanta go play with rocks now!" The Daughter-Heir, according to all accounts, was quite fond of getting into scrapes and hurling pebbles at her brothers; when she got the chance, she would eagerly babble among some of the Aiel children. With the car'a'carn having been born, raised, identified and-by all accounts-died, there was talk that Maidens would be allowed to raise children without the risks of upsetting prophecy. For the time being, the future of Andor was content to toddle alongside them.
Elayne's son, Sifan, was engrossed in some game with his half-brother Jauin. Aviendha's son could get fussy when there wasn't someone around to play with, and the most effective way to keep him content on his own seemed to be inviting him to run around frantically. As long as Sefan was nearby, however, they were always happy to keep each other entertained. Meanwhile, Aviendha held Oskie on her lap as the little girl invited charmed adults to compliment her hair.
Nynaeve was very visibly pregnant, and Faile was also beginning to show. Thom laughed as Faile tried to extricate herself from a meticulously-organized list of advice relayed by Galad-there at Elayne's invitation?-who was seemingly oblivious that, in fact, no one particularly cared what Berelain's advisors had read.
Unlike the night before, there was not much food or drink gathered for the guests to enjoy together, and while they seemed to cherish each other's company, Elayne had been quiet on why she had invited them all. Then, through all the chattering discussions, there came an "oo-oo" from a Wise One-Bair, was that her name?-calling them to attention. Not singing. Of course not. Aiel did not sing. But all the same...
"My friends," said Aviendha, taking Elayne's hand. "My family. Thank you for coming. We are here to see the fulfillment of visions."
"Oh," Mat called. "Is that all? Only I thought we might do something a little bit different today. For a change. Seeing to prophecies this and fulfillment that, a man's life gets a little busy."
"Matrim," Tuon hissed.
But Min laughed. "You know well how tiring my life can be. When I first met Elayne, I had a vision of her future, and I knew it to be true. I saw that she would become the queen."
"Well," Mat pointed out, "you were the flam-the Daughter-Heir, it hardly takes a vision to figure that much out."
The guests laughed, but as they did so, a few stood up and moved; Min joined Aviendha and Elayne, with Galad standing a few paces off to the side. "You are right to say that some visions are simple, that we take them for granted without realizing what, exactly, will come to pass," said Elayne. "Min also knew that I would share my husband with two other women." More laughter.
"Not my lover," she went on, "not the father of my children. My husband."
And the door opened, and the stranger walked inside, a dry wreath of flowers and plants over his shoulder; loveapples and Emond's Glory and threeneedles, woven together.
Rand al'Thor ignored the grasps, the cries, the weapons unsheathed, and knelt on the floor. "I have journeyed across the world, yet I have forgotten to seek balance. I thought that the bridal wreath from my lovers was as heavy as the footsteps I left, travelling in silence, but I have forgotten my older obligations-to those I had known and loved well before I met the women who would be my brides. To you, my friends, I have toh."
Bair laughed. "If you are Rand al'Thor, you have no toh to the world, nor to we who dream there."
"I am hard to see," he smiled, "but I am here."
"It is him," said Aviendha.
Rand nervously adjusted his collar, the long sleeves of his worn coat obscuring his arms. He had no wish to prove himself-with his hair and his eyes and his hands not his own, the lack of herons or dragons naming him the Dragon Reborn or the Chief of Chiefs would not matter. Still, he could feel Aviendha's warmth in his mind; that was more than proof enough.
"I suppose," Bair said to Aviendha, "you would trust no one else with your bridal wreath."
She blushed and kneeled down, Elayne and Min alongside her; the Andoran women had woven flowers in their hair to match the wreath Rand still carried. He gently set it on the floor.
Then came the saying of vows. Aiel ceremonies were relatively short and straightforward, though his wedding was bound to deviate from procedure. "My body shall be your shade," he and Aviendha promised each other, "my blood, your water, and your enemies shall become my foes."
"Under the light," he and Elayne and Min repeated, "I pledge you my love always." There was no need to hope for rebirth, when he had glimpsed the world outside of time. No need for him to pledge his love to one person, alone, when he had a triple fortune. No need for them to do the same, even if they would take no other husbands; like him, they would love many people in many ways. He knew too well the grief he had caused by neglecting his multitudes of loves.
There was a brief, nervous, pause, as they glanced at each other from across the room. He felt relief mixed in with their overflowing love, and Min seeming pleased for a change at her visions having worked out, but Aviendha seemed tense.
"Among the Aiel," Elayne said, turning to the other visitors, "the wedding proceeds with the families of the brides and groom fighting each other."
"Each...other?" Galad looked first at Elayne, then at Rand, drumming his fingers against his leg. "This does not seem feasible."
"No," Elayne continued, "which is why we intend to fight Rand ourselves."
And with that they were upon him; he barely had time to reach for the short sword he carried before Elayne's sword slashed from a distance at his face. He whirled to avoid Min's knives, then stepped back (past a terrified-looking Galad) to parry the spear that Aviendha wielded, still waiting on her knees.
He fought off Elayne first; it was hardly a fair fight, as she was by some measure the least experienced fighter at close distance among the four of them. Still, he tried to move through the forms gracefully, waiting for the ringing noises of blade against blade before she was driven to the edge of the waiting crowd. Then he raised his hand to, in effect, shorten the blade as he and Min traded quick darts at closer range. They jumped, turning in unison, striking back and forth before he was able to seize her arm, and-how wonderful to have a spare hand!-move his sword up to her neck.
They froze for a moment, Min's pleasure still palpable in the bond, and he gripped her arm in relief. He could raise his sword to her throat and know it for Aiel custom, nothing more or less. "Thank you," he whispered.
And then, on an impulse, quickly let her go to fend off Aviendha, supported by Elayne, charging up from behind.
"If you three think I am carrying you all back to your holds," he laughed, "I am afraid I will have to shatter this custom as well."
One tradition he did ask them to return to, despite having broken it himself; not to speak of what happened in Rhuidean, at least not right away. The world had had a few years of peace, and he didn't want to risk the precariousness of his treaty by revealing himself right away, or, for that matter, have to take on the enduring conflicts of the world.
"All the same," Tam had reminded him, "you're a man in a new Age, a time fought for by other soldiers who gave their lives for simple folk like us. Don't waste their gift."
He nodded. "I'll come back. To all of you, in turn. Now that you know, it'll be easier."
"Come to Seanchan with Min and us," Mat called, "Perrin and Faile are coming. To arrange trade, we'll need a break from talking politics."
"The trade will be too inefficient," Perrin immediately shot back, "across the ocean?"
"That's why we have gateways-"
"-you just want an advantage-"
"-I'd invite anyone, of course, I just thought you'd be bored with Saldaean politics-"
"-just because your can't keep up with your rivals-"
Rand smiled. "Perhaps in a little while. Today, I am going to Ebou Dar."
"Ebou Dar?" laughed Min. "Our wedding was to be-a change from tradition, but I hope you do not intend to make me carry around a marriage knife!"
"Peace, no," he replied. "But I think I would like to spend some time learning from the Tuatha'an. How to work with metal, how-to build up new things."
"I am coming too," Loial chimed in. "Perhaps there are things we can teach them as well."
"You'll want a horse," said Elayne.
Rand nodded. "Perhaps if you can see us to Cairhien, and we'll find one there. I might even name it something other than Jeade'en."
"You named your horse Jeade'en again?" Mat asked.
"What? It's a good name. I wanted to be like Jain Farstrider, seeing the world."
"Even he had people to come back to, in the end."
"I thought you didn't read."
"Who says I do?" Mat glared. "There's-uh-songs about him. That Thom knows."
"The dangers of being a hero," Moiraine laughed. "They will bind you to history, more than any weave."
Rand shook his head, turning to Loial. "And I assume you'll want to ask me questions about saving the world, all the way to Ebou Dar?"
"If it would not be too much trouble."
He glanced about the room, and found himself burdened by neither death or duty. "I suppose not."
And they passed through to Cairhien, his name singing in their heart.