Rand al'Thor struggles to unite the nations for the last battle, when the Dark One will break free into the world, and to spring the snares laid by the immortal Forsaken for unwary humankind. Across half a continent, Perrin Aybara feels Rand's pull.
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Robert Jordan was born in 1948 in Charleston. He was a graduate of the Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina, with a degree in physics, and served 2 tours in Vietnam. His hobbies included hunting, fishing, sailing, poker, chess, pool and pipe collecting. He died in September 2007.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Lion on the Hill
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 Are by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose among brown-thicketed hills in Cairhien. 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.
Westward the wind blew over abandoned villages and farms, many only jumbles of charred timber. War had racked Cairhien, war and civil war, invasion and chaos, and even now that it was done, insofar as it was done, only a handful began to trickle back to their homes. The wind held no moisture, and the sun tried to sear away what little remained in the land. Where the small town of Maerone faced larger Aringill across the River Erinin, the wind crossed into Andor. Both towns baked, and if more prayers for rain rose in Aringill, where refugees from Cairhien jammed inside the walls like fish in a cask, even the soldiers packed around Maerone offered up words to the Creator, sometimes drunkenly, sometimes fervently. Winter should have been beginning to send out tendrils, the first snows long past, and those who sweated feared the reason it was not so, though few dared voice those fears.
Westward the wind blew, stirring drought-shriveled leaves on the trees, riffling the surface of shrinking streams bordered in hard-baked mud. There were no burned-out ruins in Andor, but villagers eyed the swollen sun nervously and farmers tried not to look at fields that had produced no fall crops. Westward, until the wind passed across Caemlyn, lifting two banners above the Royal Palace, in the heart of the Ogier-built Inner City. One banner floated red as blood, upon it a disc divided by a sinuous line, half white, half black as deep as the white was brilliant. The other banner slashed snow white across the sky. The figure on it, like some strange golden-maned, four-legged serpent, sun-eyed and scaled scarlet and gold, seemed to ride on the wind. It was a close question which of the two caused more fear. Sometimes, the same breast that held fear, held hope. Hope of salvation and fear of destruction, from the same source.
Many said Caemlyn was the second most beautiful city in the world, and not only Andorans, who often named it first, overranking Tar Valon itself. Tall round towers marched along the great outer wall of gray stone streaked silver and white, and within rose even taller towers, and domes of white and gold gleaming in the pitiless sun. The city climbed over hills to its center, the ancient Inner City, encircled by its own shining white wall, containing its own towers and domes, purple and white and gold and glittering tile mosaics, that looked down on the New City, well under two thousand years old.
As the Inner City was the heart of Caemlyn, and more than merely by being its center, the Royal Palace was the heart of the Inner City, a gleeman's tale of snowy spires and golden domes and stonework like lace. A heart that beat in the shadow of those two banners.
Stripped to the waist and balanced easily on the balls of his feet, at the moment Rand was no more aware that he was in a white-tiled courtyard of the Palace than he was of the onlookers among the surrounding colonnades. Sweat slicked his hair to his skull, rolled down his chest. The half-healed round scar on his side ached fiercely, but he refused to acknowledge it. Figures like that on the white banner overhead twined around his forearms, glittering metallically red-and-gold. Dragons, the Aiel called them, and others were taking up the name. He was dimly aware of the heron branded neatly into each of his palms, but only because he could feel them against the long hilt of his wooden practice sword.
He was one with the sword, flowing from stance to stance without thought, boots scraping softly on the pale tiles. Lion on the Hill became Arc of the Moon became Tower of Morning. Without thought. Five sweating, bare-chested men circled him, sidestepping warily from stance to stance, practice swords shifting. They were all he was really aware of. Hard-faced and confident, they were the best he had found so far. The best since Lan went. Without thought, as Lan had taught him. He was one with the sword, one with the five men.
Abruptly he ran forward, the encircling men moving rapidly to keep him centered. Just at the moment when that balance teetered on breaking, when at least two of the five had begun to shift toward breaking it, he suddenly turned in midstep and was running the other way. They tried to react, but it was too late. With a loud clack he caught the downstroke of a practice sword on his own blade of bundled lathes; simultaneously his right foot took the grizzled-haired man next over in the belly. Grunting, the man bent double. Locked blade to blade, Rand forced his broken-nosed opponent to turn, kicking the doubled-over man again as they went around. Grizzle-hair went down gasping for air. Rand's opponent tried to back away to use his blade, but that freed Rand's blade to spiral around his--The Grapevine Twines--and thrust hard against his chest, hard enough to knock him off his feet.
Only heartbeats had passed, few enough that just now were the other three closing in. The first, a quick squat little man, belied his stature by leaping over broken-nose with a yell as broken-nose toppled. Rand's practice blade took him across the shins, half upending him, then again across the back, driving him down to the paving stones.
That left only two, but they were the two best, a limber pole of a man whose sword moved like a serpent's tongue, and a heavy shaven-headed fellow who never made a mistake. They separated immediately, to come at Rand from two sides, but he did not wait. Quickly he closed with the skinny man; he had only moments before the other rounded the fallen.
The skinny man was good as well as fast; Rand offered gold for the best, and they came. He was tall for an Andoran, though Rand overtopped him by a hand, yet height had little bearing with the sword. Sometimes strength did. Rand went at him in all-out attack; the man's long face tightened as he gave ground. The Boar Rushes Down the Mountain crashed through Parting the Silk, broke Lightning of Three Prongs, and the bundled lathes slashed hard against the side of the man's neck. He fell with a strangled grunt.
Immediately Rand threw himself down and to the right, rolling up to his knees on the paving stones, blade streaking into The River Undercuts the Bank. The shaven-headed man was not fast, but somehow he had anticipated. Even as Rand's lathe blade swept across the fellow's wide middle, the man's own blade cracked down on Rand's head.
For a moment Rand wavered, his vision a blur of black flecks. Shaking his head in an effort to clear his eyes, he used the practice sword to push himself to his feet. Panting hard, the shaven-headed man watched him cautiously.
"Pay him," Rand said, and wariness left the shaven-headed man's face. Needless wariness. As if Rand had not promised an extra day's coin to any man who managed to strike him. Triple to any who defeated him one-to-one. It was a way to make sure nobody held back to flatter the Dragon Reborn. He never asked their names, and if they took the omission amiss, so much the better if it made them try harder. He wanted opponents to test him, not become friends. The friends he did have would curse the hour they met him one day, if they did not already. The others were stirring, too; a man "killed" was to stay where he lay until it was all done, an obstruction as a real corpse would be, but the squat man was having to help grizzle-hair up, and having trouble standing unaided himself. The limber fellow worked his head around, wincing. There would be no more practice today. "Pay them all."
A ripple of clapping and praise ran through the watchers among the narrow fluted columns, lords and ladies in colorful silks heavy with elaborate embroidery and braid. Rand grimaced and tossed his sword aside. That lot had all been toadeaters to Lord Gaebril when Queen Morgase-- their queen--was little more than a prisoner in this palace. Her palace. But Rand needed them. For the moment. Clutch the bramble, and you will be pricked, he thought. At least, he hoped it was his thought.
Sulin, the wiry white-haired leader of Rand's escort of Aiel Maidens of the Spear, leader of the Maidens this side of the Spine of the World, pulled a gold Tar Valon mark from her belt pouch, tossed it with a grimace that drew at the nasty scar on the side of her face. The Maidens did not like Rand handling a sword, even a practice blade. They did not approve of any sword. No Aiel did.
The shaven-headed man caught the coin, and answered Sulin's blue-eyed stare with a careful bow. Everyone was careful around the Maidens, in their coats and breeches and soft, laced boots of browns and grays made to fade into the bleak landscape of the Waste. Some had begun adding shades of green, to suit what they called the wetlands despite the drought. Compared to the Aiel Waste, it was still wet; few Aiel had seen water they could not step across before leaving the Waste, and bitter feuds had been fought over pools two or three paces wide.
Like any Aiel warrior, like the twenty other light-eyed Maidens around the courtyard, Sulin kept her hair cut short except for a tail on the nape of her neck. She carried three short spears and a round bull-hide buckler in her left hand, and a pointed heavy-bladed knife at her belt. Like any Aiel warrior, down to those the age of Jalani, all of sixteen and with traces of baby fat still on her cheeks, Sulin knew how to use those weapons well, and would on slight provocation, at least as folk this side of the Dragonwall saw it. Except for her, the Maidens watched everyone, every piercework screened window and pale stone balcony, every shadow. Some had short curved bows of horn with arrows nocked, and more shafts ready in bristling quivers worn at the waist. Far Dareis Mai, the Maidens of the Spear, carried the honor of their prophesied Car'a'carn, if sometimes in their own peculiar way, and not a one of them but would die to keep Rand alive. The thought made his stomach boil in its own acid.
Sulin continued tossing the gold with a sneer--it pleased Rand to use Tar Valon coins for this debt--another for shaven-head, one for each of the others. Aiel approved of most wetlanders little more than of swords, and that took in anyone not born and bred Aiel. For most Aiel, that would have included Rand despite his Aiel blood, but there were the Dragons on his arms. One marked a clan chief, earned by risking life on strength of will; two marked the Car'a'carn, the chief of chiefs, He Who Comes With the Dawn. And the Maidens had other reasons for approval.
Gathering up practice swords, shirts and coats, the men bowed their way from his presence. "Tomorrow," Rand called after them. "Early." Deeper bows acknowledged the order.
Before the bare-chested men were gone from the courtyard, the Andoran nobles swept out of the colonnades, a rainbow of silks crowding around Rand, dabbing at sweaty faces with lace-trimmed handkerchiefs. They made Rand's bile rise. Use what you must use, or let the Shadow cover the land. Moiraine had told him that. He almost preferred the honest opposition of the Cairhienin and Tairens to this lot. That nearly made him laugh, calling what those did honest.
"You were wonderful," Arymilla breathed, lightly laying a hand on his arm. "So quick, so strong." Her big brown eyes seemed even more melting than usual. She was apparently fool enough to think him susceptible: her green gown, covered with vines in silver, was cut low by Andoran standards, which meant it showed a hint of cleavage. She was pretty, but easily old enough to be his mother. None of them was any younger, and some older, but all competed at licking Rand's boots.
"That was magnificent, my Lord Dragon." Elenia nearly elbowed Arymilla aside. That smile looked odd on the honey-haired woman's vulpine face; she had the reputation of a termagant. Not around Rand, of course. "There has never been a swordsman like you in the history of Andor. Even Souran Maravaile, who was Artur Hawkwing's greatest general and husband to Ishara, first to sit on the Lion Throne--even he died when confronted by only four swordsmen. Assassins, in the twenty-third year of the War of the Hundred Years. Though he did kill all four." Elenia seldom missed a chance to point out her knowledge of Andor's history, especially in areas where not much was known, like the war that had broken Hawkwing's empire apart after his death. At least today she did not add justifications of her claims to the Lion Throne.
"Just a bit of bad luck at the end," Elenia's husband, Jarid, put in jovially. He was a square man, dark for an Andoran. Embroidered scrollwork and golden boars, the sign of House Sarand, covered the cuffs and long collars of his red coat, and the White Lions of Andor the long sleeves and high neck of Elenia's matching red gown. Rand wondered whether she thought he would not recognize the lions for what they were. Jarid was High Seat of his House, but all the drive and ambition came from her.
"Marvelously well done, my Lord Dragon," Karind said bluntly. Her shimmery gray dress, cut as severely as her face but heavy with silver braid on sleeves and hem, almost matched the streaks through her dark hair. "You surely must be the finest swordsman in the world." Despite her words, the blocky woman's flat-eyed look was like a hammer. Had she had brains to match her toughness, she would have been dangerous.
Naean was a slim, palely beautiful woman, with big blue eyes and waves of gleaming black hair, but the sneer she directed at the five departing men was a fixture. "I suspect they planned it out beforehand so one would manage to strike you. They will divide the extra coin among them." Unlike Elenia, the blue-clad woman with the silver Triple Keys of House Arawn climbing her long sleeves never mentioned her own claims to the throne, not where Rand could hear. She pretended to be content as High Seat of an ancient House, a lioness pretending to be content as a housecat.
"Can I always count on my enemies not to work together?" he asked quietly. Naean's mouth worked in surprise; she was hardly stupid, yet seemed to think those who opposed her should roll onto their backs as soon as she confronted them, and seemed to take it as a personal affront when they did not.
One of the Maidens, Enaila, ignored the nobles to hand Rand a thick length of white toweling to wipe his sweat away. A fiery redhead, she was short for an Aiel, and it grated at her that some of these wetlander women were taller than she. The majority of the Maidens could stare most of the men in the room straight in the eyes. The Andorans did their best to ignore her too, but their pointed looks elsewhere made the attempts glaring failures. Enaila walked away as if they were invisible.
The silence lasted just moments. "My Lord Dragon is wise," Lord Lir said with a small bow and a slight frown. The High Seat of House Baryn was blade-slender and blade-strong in a yellow coat adorned with gold braid, but too smoothly unctuous, too smooth altogether. Nothing but those occasional frowns ever sullied that surface, as if he was unaware of them, yet he was hardly the only o...
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