The Ogier shrugged massively, and uneasily. “Neither do I, Rand. Most of it sounded like this. ‘If a woman go left, or right, does Time’s flow divide? Does the Wheel then weave two Patterns? A thousand, for each of her turnings? As many as the stars? Is one real, the others merely shadows and reflections?’ You see, it was not very clear. Mainly questions, most of which seemed to contradict each other. And there just wasn’t much of it.” He went back to staring at the column, but he looked as if he wished it would go away. “There are supposed to be a good many of these Stones, scattered all over the world, or there were, once, but I never heard of anyone finding one. I never heard of anyone finding anything like this at all.”
“My Lord Rand?” Now on his feet, Hurin seemed calmer, but he clutched his coat at the waist with both hands, his face urgent. “My Lord Rand, you’ll get us back, won’t you? Back where we belong? I’ve a wife, my Lord, and children. Melia’d take it bad enough, me dying, but if she doesn’t even have my body to give to the mother’s embrace, she’ll grieve to the end of her days. You understand, my Lord. I can’t leave her not knowing. You’ll get us back. And if I die, if you can’t take her my body, you’ll let her know, so she has that, at least.” He was no longer questioning at the end. A note of confidence had crept into his voice.
Rand opened his mouth to say again he was not a lord, then shut it without speaking. That was hardly important enough to mention, now. You got him into this. He wanted to deny it, but he knew what he was, knew he could channel, even if it always seemed to happen all by itself. Loial said Aes Sedai used the Stones, and that meant the One Power. What Loial said he knew, you could be sure of—the Ogier never claimed to know if he did not—and there was no one else nearby who could wield the Power. You got him into it, you have to get him out. You have to try.
“I will do my best, Hurin.” And because Hurin was Shienaran, he added, “By my House and honor. A shepherd’s House and a shepherd’s honor, but I’ll make them do as well as a lord’s.”
Hurin loosed his hold on his coat. The confidence reached his eyes, too. He bowed deeply. “Honor to serve, my Lord.”
Guilt rippled through Rand. He thinks you’ll see him home, now, because Shienaran lords always keep their word. What are you going to do, Lord Rand? “None of that, Hurin. There’ll be no bowing. I’m not—” Suddenly he knew he could not tell the man again that he was not a lord. All that was holding the sniffer together was his belief in a lord, and he could not take that away, not now. Not here. “No bowing,” he finished awkwardly.
“As you say, Lord Rand.” Hurin’s grin was almost as wide as when Rand first met him.
Rand cleared his throat. “Yes. Well, that’s what I say.”
They were both watching him, Loial curious, Hurin confident, both waiting to see what he would do. I brought them here. I must have. So I have to get them back. And that means. . . .
Drawing a deep breath, he walked across the white paving stones to the symbol-covered cylinder. Small lines of some language he did not know surrounded each symbol, odd letters that flowed in curves and spirals, suddenly turned to jagged hooks and angles, then flowed on. At least it was not Trolloc script. Reluctantly, he put his hands on the column. It looked like any dry, polished stone, but it felt curiously slick, like oiled metal.
He closed his eyes and formed the flame. The void came slowly, hesitantly. He knew his own fear was holding it back, fear of what he was trying. As fast as he fed fear into the flame, more came. I can’t do it. Channel the Power. I don’t want to. Light, there has to be another way. Grimly he forced the thoughts to stillness. He could feel sweat beading on his face. Determinedly he kept on, pushing his fears into the consuming flame, making it grow, and grow. And the void was there.
The core of him floated in emptiness. He could see the light—saidin—even with his eye
s closed, feel the warmth of it, surrounding him, surrounding everything, suffusing everything. It wavered like a candle flame seen through oiled paper. Rancid oil. Stinking oil.
He reached for it—he was not sure how he reached, but it was something, a movement, a stretching toward the light, toward saidin—and caught nothing, as if running his hands through water. It felt like a slimy pond, scum floating atop clean water below, but he could not scoop up any of the water. Time and again it trickled through his fingers, not even droplets of the water remaining, only the slick scum, making his skin crawl.
Desperately, he tried to form an image of the hollow as it had been, with Ingtar and the lances sleeping by their horses, with Mat and Perrin, and the Stone lying buried except for one end. Outside the void he formed it, clinging to the shell of emptiness that enclosed him. He tried to link the image with the light, tried to force them together. The hollow as it had been, and he and Loial and Hurin there together. His head hurt. Together, with Mat and Perrin and the Shienarans. Burning, in his head. Together!
The void shattered into a thousand razor shards, slicing his mind.
Shuddering, he staggered back, wide-eyed. His hands hurt from pressing the Stone, and his arms and shoulders quivered with aching; his stomach lurched from the feel of filth covering him, and his head. . . . He tried to steady his breathing. That had never happened before. When the void went, it went like a pricked bubble, just gone, in a twinkling. Never broken like glass. His head felt numb, as if the thousand slashes had happened so quickly the pain had not yet come. But every cut had felt as real as if done with a knife. He touched his temple, and was surprised not to see blood on his fingers.
Hurin still stood there watching him, still confident. If anything, the sniffer seemed more sure by the minute. Lord Rand was doing something. That was what lords were for. They protected the land and the people with their bodies and their lives, and when something was wrong, they set it aright and saw fairness and justice done. As long as Rand was doing something, anything, Hurin would have confidence that it would all come right in the end. That was what lords did.
Loial had a different look, a slightly puzzled frown, but his eyes were on Rand, too. Rand wondered what he was thinking.
“It was worth a try,” he told them. The rancid oil feel, inside his head—Light, it’s inside me! I don’t want it inside me!—was fading slowly, but he still thought he might vomit. “I will try again, in a few minutes.”
He hoped he sounded confident. He had no idea how the Stones worked, if what he was doing had any chance of success. Maybe there are rules for working them. Maybe you have to do something special. Light, maybe you can’t use the same Stone twice, or. . . . He cut off that line of thought. There was no good in thinking like that. He had to do it. Looking at Loial and Hurin, he thought he knew what Lan had meant about duty pressing down like a mountain.
“My Lord, I think. . . .” Hurin let his words trail off, looking abashed for a moment. “My Lord, maybe, if we find the Darkfriends, we can make one of them tell us how to get back.”
“I would ask a Darkfriend or the Dark One himself if I thought I’d get a true answer back,” Rand said. “But we are all there is. Just us three.” Just me. I’m the one who has to do it.
“We could follow their trail, my Lord. If we catch them. . . .”
Rand stared at the sniffer. “You can still smell them?”
“I can, my Lord.” Hurin frowned. “It’s faint, pale-like, like everything else here, but I can smell the trail. Right up there.” He pointed to the rim of the hollow. “I don’t understand it, my Lord, but—Last night, I could have sworn the trail went right on by the hollow back—back where we were. Well, it’s in the same place now, only here, and fainter, like I said. Not old, not faint like that, but. . . . I don’t know, Lord Rand, except that it’s there.”
Rand considered. If Fain and the Darkfriends were here—wherever here was—they might know how to get back. They had to, if they had reached here in the first place. And they had the Horn, and the dagger. Mat had to have that dagger. For that if for nothing else, he had to find them. What finally decided him, he was ashamed to realize, was that he was afraid to try again. Afraid to try channeling the Power. He was less afraid of confronting Darkfriends and Trollocs with only Hurin and Loial than he was of that.
“Then we will go after the Darkfriends.” He tried to sound sure, the way Lan would, or Ingtar. “The Horn must be recovered. If we can’t puzzle out a way to take it from them, at least we will know where they are when we find Ingtar again.” If only they don’t ask how we’re going to find him again. “Hurin, make sure it really is the trail we’re after.”
The sniffer leaped into his saddle, eager to be doing something himself, perhaps eager to be away from the hollow, and scrambled his horse up the broad, colored steps. The animal’s hooves rang loudly on the stone, but they made not a mark.
Rand stowed Red’s hobbles in his saddlebags—the banner was still there; he would not have minded if that had been left behind—then gathered his bow and quiver and climbed to the stallion’s back. The bundle of Thom Merrilin’s cloak made a mound behind his saddle.