Loial frowned uncertainly, but nodded. “Yes, she is.” His expression lightened. “It does feel good to be back in a stedding. Not that the Longing was taking me, you understand.”
“The Longing?” Perrin said. “I do not understand, Loial.”
“We Ogier are bound to the stedding, Perrin. It is said that before the Breaking of the World, we could go where we wished for as long as we wished, like you humans, but that changed with the Breaking. Ogier were scattered like every other people, and they could not find any of the stedding again. Everything was moved, everything changed. Mountains, rivers, even the seas.”
“Everybody knows about the Breaking,” Mat said impatiently. “What does it have to do with this—this Longing?”
“It was during the Exile, while we wandered lost, that the Longing first came on us. The desire to know the stedding once more, to know our homes again. Many died of it.” Loial shook his head sadly. “More died than lived. When we finally began to find the stedding again, one at a time, in the years of the Covenant of the Ten Nations, it seemed we had defeated the Longing at last, but it had changed us, put seeds in us. Now, if an Ogier is Outside too long, the Longing comes again; he begins to weaken, and he dies if he does not return.”
“Do you need to stay here awhile?” Rand asked anxiously. “There’s no need to kill yourself to go with us.”
“I will know it when it comes.” Loial laughed. “It will be long before it is strong enough to cause harm to me. Why, Dalar spent ten years among the Sea Folk without ever seeing a stedding, and she came safely home.”
An Ogier woman appeared out of the trees, pausing a moment to speak with Erith and Verin. She looked Ingtar up and down and seemed to dismiss him, which made him blink. Her eyes swept across Loial, flicked over Hurin and the Emond’s Fielders, before she went off into the forest again; Loial seemed to be trying to hide behind his horse. “Besides,” he said, peering cautiously across his saddle after her, “it is a dull life in the stedding compared to traveling with three ta’veren.”
“If you are going to start that again,” Mat muttered, and Loial spoke up quickly. “Three friends, then. You are my friends, I hope.”
“I am,” Rand said simply, and Perrin nodded.
Mat laughed. “How could I not be friends with somebody who dices so badly?” He threw up his hands when Rand and Perrin looked at him. “Oh, all right. I like you, Loial. You’re my friend. Just don’t go on about. . . . Aaah! Sometimes you’re as bad to be around as Rand.” His voice sank to a mutter. “At least we’re safe here in a stedding.”
Rand grimaced. He knew what Mat meant. Here in a stedding, where I can’t channel.
Perrin punched Mat’s shoulder, but looked sorry that he had when Mat grimaced at him with that gaunt face.
It was the music Rand became aware of first, unseen flutes and fiddles in a jolly tune that floated through the trees, and deep voices singing and laughing.
“Clear the field, smooth it low.
Let no weed or stubble stand.
Here we labor, here we toil,
here the towering trees will grow.”
Almost at the same moment he realized that the huge shape he was seeing through the trees was itself a tree, with a ridged, buttressed trunk that must have been twenty paces thick. Gaping, he followed it up with his eyes, up through the forest canopy, to branches spreading like the top of a gigantic mushroom a good hundred paces above the ground. And beyond it were taller still.
“Burn me,” Mat breathed. “You could build ten houses from just one of those. Fifty houses.”
“Cut down a Great Tree?” Loial sounded scandalized, and more than a little angry. His ears were stiff and still, his long eyebrows down on his cheeks. “We never cut down one of the Great Trees, not unless it dies, and they almost never do. Few survived the Breaking, but some of the largest were seedlings during the Age of Legends.”
“I’m sorry,” Mat said. “I was just saying how big they are. I won’t hurt your trees.” Loial nodded, seeming mollified.
More Ogier appeared now, walking among the trees. Most seemed intent on whatever they were about; though all looked at the newcomers, and even gave a friendly nod or a small bow, none stopped or spoke. They had a curious way of moving, in some manner blending a careful deliberateness with an almost childlike carefree joyfulness. They knew and liked who and what they were and where they were, and they seemed at peace with themselves and everything around them. Rand found himself envying them.
Few of the Ogier men were any taller than Loial, but it was easy to pick out the
older men; one and all they wore mustaches as long as their dangling eyebrows and narrow beards under their chins. All of the younger were smooth-shaven, like Loial. Many of the men were in their shirtsleeves, and carried shovels and mattocks or saws and buckets of pitch; the others wore plain coats that buttoned to the neck and flared about their knees like kilts. The women seemed to favor embroidered flowers, and many wore flowers in their hair, too. The embroidery was limited to the cloaks of the younger women; the older women’s dresses were embroidered, as well, and some women with gray hair had flowers and vines from neck to hem. A handful of the Ogier, women and girls for the most part, did seem to take special notice of Loial; he walked staring straight ahead, ears twitching more wildly the further they went.
Rand was startled to see an Ogier apparently walking up out of the ground, out of one of the grassy, wildflower-covered mounds that lay scattered all among the trees here. Then he saw windows in the mounds, and an Ogier woman standing at one apparently rolling a piecrust, and realized he was looking at Ogier houses. The window frames were stone, but they not only seemed natural formations, they appeared to have been sculpted by wind and water over generations.
The Great Trees, with their massive trunks and spreading roots as thick as horses, needed a great deal of room between them, but several grew right in the town. Dirt ramps took the paths over the roots. In fact, aside from the pathways, the only way to tell town from forest at a glance was a large open space in the center of the town, around what could only be the stump of one of the Great Trees. Nearly a hundred paces across, its surface was polished as smooth as any floor, and there were steps built up to it at several places. Rand was imagining how tall that tree had been when Erith spoke loudly enough for them all to hear.
“Here come our other guests.”
Three human women came walking around the side of the huge stump. The youngest was carrying a wooden bowl.
“Aiel,” Ingtar said. “Maidens of the Spear. As well I did leave Masema with the others.” Yet he stepped away from Verin and Erith, and reached over his shoulder to loosen his sword in its scabbard.