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Home > Towers of Midnight (Wheel of Time #13)

Towers of Midnight (Wheel of Time #13)
Author: Brandon Sanderson

Prologue

Distinctions

Mandarb’s hooves beat a familiar rhythm on broken ground as Lan Mandragoran rode toward his death. The dry air made his throat rough and the earth was sprinkled white with crystals of salt that precipitated from below. Distant red rock formations loomed to the north, where sickness stained them. Blight marks, a creeping dark lichen.

He continued riding east, parallel to the Blight. This was still Saldaea, where his wife had deposited him, only narrowly keeping her promise to take him to the Borderlands. It had stretched before him for a long time, this road. He’d turned away from it twenty years ago, agreeing to follow Moiraine, but he’d always known he would return. This was what it meant to bear the name of his fathers, the sword on his hip, and the hadori on his head.

This rocky section of northern Saldaea was known as the Proska Flats. It was a grim place to ride; not a plant grew on it. The wind blew from the north, carrying with it a foul stench. Like that of a deep, sweltering mire bloated with corpses. The sky overhead stormed dark, brooding.

That woman, Lan thought, shaking his head. How quickly Nynaeve had learned to talk, and think, like an Aes Sedai. Riding to his death didn’t pain him, but knowing she feared for him…that did hurt. Very badly.

He hadn’t seen another person in days. The Saldaeans had fortifications to the south, but the land here was scarred with broken ravines that made it difficult for Trollocs to assault; they preferred attacking near Maradon.

That was no reason to relax, however. One should never relax, this close to the Blight. He noted a hilltop; that would be a good place for a scout’s post. He made certain to watch it for any sign of movement. He rode around a depression in the ground, just in case it held waiting ambushers. He kept his hand on his bow. Once he traveled a little farther eastward, he’d cut down into Saldaea and cross Kandor on its good roadways. Then—

Some gravel rolled down a hillside nearby.

Lan carefully slid an arrow from the quiver tied to Mandarb’s saddle. Where had the sound come from? To the right, he decided. Southward. The hillside there; someone was approaching from behind it.

Lan did not stop Mandarb. If the hoofbeats changed, it would give warning. He quietly raised the bow, feeling the sweat of his fingers inside his fawn-hide gloves. He nocked the arrow and pulled carefully, raising it to his cheek, breathing in its scent. Goose feathers, resin.

A figure walked around the southern hillside. The man froze, an old, shaggy-maned packhorse walking around beside him and continuing on ahead. It stopped only when the rope at its neck grew taut.

The man wore a laced tan shirt and dusty breeches. He had a sword at his waist, and his arms were thick and strong, but he didn’t look threatening. In fact, he seemed faintly familiar.

“Lord Mandragoran!” the man said, hastening forward, pulling his horse after. “I’ve found you at last. I assumed you’d be traveling the Kremer Road!”

Lan lowered his bow and stopped Mandarb. “Do I know you?”

“I brought supplies, my Lord!” The man had black hair and tanned skin. Borderlander stock, probably. He continued forward, over eager, yanking on the overloaded packhorse’s rope with a thick-fingered hand. “I figured that you wouldn’t have enough food. Tents—four of them, just in case—some water too. Feed for the horses. And—”

“Who are you?” Lan barked. “And how do you know who I am?”

The man drew up sharply. “I’m Bulen, my Lord. From Kandor?”

From Kandor…Lan remembered a gangly young messenger boy. With surprise, he saw the resemblance. “Bulen? That was twenty years ago, man!”

“I know, Lord Mandragoran. But when word spread in the palace that the Golden Crane was raised, I knew what I had to do. I’ve learned the sword well, my Lord. I’ve come to ride with you and—”

“The word of my travel has spread to Aesdaishar?”

“Yes, my Lord. El’Nynaeve, she came to us, you see. Told us what you’d done. Others are gathering, but I left first. Knew you’d need supplies.”

Burn that woman, Lan thought. And she’d made him swear that he would accept those who wished to ride with him! Well, if she could play games with the truth, then so could he. Lan had said he’d take anyone who wished to ride with him. This man was not mounted. Therefore, Lan could refuse him. A petty distinction, but twenty years with Aes Sedai had taught him a few things about how to watch one’s words.

“Go back to Aesdaishar,” Lan said. “Tell them that my wife was wrong, and I have not raised the Golden Crane.”

“But—”

“I don’t need you, son. Away with you.” Lan’s heels nudged Mandarb into a walk, and he passed the man standing on the road. For a few moments, Lan thought that his order would be obeyed, though the evasion of his oath pricked at his conscience.

“My father was Malkieri,” Bulen said from behind.

Lan continued on.

“He died when I was five,” Bulen called. “He married a Kandori woman. They both fell to bandits. I don’t remember much of them. Only something my father told me: that someday, we would fight for the Golden Crane. All I have of him is this.”

Lan couldn’t help but look back as Mandarb continued to walk away. Bulen held up a thin strap of leather, the hadori, worn on the head of a Malkieri sworn to fight the Shadow.

“I would wear the hadori of my father,” Bulen called, voice growing louder. “But I have nobody to ask if I may. That is the tradition, is it not? Someone has to give me the right to don it. Well, I would fight the Shadow all my days.” He looked down at the hadori, then back up again and yelled, “I would stand against the darkness, al’Lan Mandragoran! Will you tell me I cannot?”

“Go to the Dragon Reborn,” Lan called to him. “Or to your queen’s army. Either of them will take you.”

“And you? You will ride all the way to the Seven Towers without supplies?”

“I’ll forage.”

“Pardon me, my Lord, but have you seen the land these days? The Blight creeps farther and farther south. Nothing grows, even in once-fertile lands. Game is scarce.”

Lan hesitated. He reined Mandarb in.

“All those years ago,” Bulen called, walking forward, his packhorse walking behind him. “I hardly knew who you were, though I know you lost someone dear to you among us. I’ve spent years cursing myself for not serving you better. I swore that I would stand with you someday.” He walked up beside Lan. “I ask you because I have no father. May I wear the hadori and fight at your side, al’Lan Mandragoran? My King?”

Lan breathed out slowly, stilling his emotions. Nynaeve, when next I see you… But he would not see her again. He tried not to dwell upon that.

He had made an oath. Aes Sedai wiggled around their promises, but did that give him the same right? No. A man was his honor. He could not deny Bulen.

“We ride anonymously,” Lan said. “We do not raise the Golden Crane. You tell nobody who I am.”

“Yes, my Lord,” Bulen said.

“Then wear that hadori with pride,” Lan said. “Too few keep to the old ways. And yes, you may join me.”

Lan nudged Mandarb into motion, Bulen following on foot. And the one became two.

Perrin slammed his hammer against the red-hot length of iron. Sparks sprayed into the air like incandescent insects. Sweat beaded on his face.

Some people found the clang of metal against metal grating. Not Perrin. That sound was soothing. He raised the hammer and slammed it down.

Sparks. Flying chips of light that bounced off his leather vest and his apron. With each strike, the walls of the room—sturdy leatherleaf wood—fuzzed, responding to the beats of metal on metal. He was dreaming, though he wasn’t in the wolf dream. He knew this, though he didn’t know how he knew.

The windows were dark; the only light was that of the deep red fire burning on his right. Two bars of iron simmered in the coals, waiting their turn at the forge. Perrin slammed the hammer down again.

This was peace. This was home.

He was making something important. So very important. It was a piece of something larger. The first step to creating something was to figure out its parts. Master Luhhan had taught Perrin that on his first day at the forge. You couldn’t make a spade without understanding how the handle fit to the blade. You couldn’t make a hinge without knowing how the two leaves moved with the pin. You couldn’t even make a nail without knowing its parts: head, shaft, point.

Understand the pieces, Perrin.

A wolf lay in the corner of the room. It was large and grizzled, fur the color of a pale gray river stone, and scarred from a lifetime of battles and hunts. The wolf laid its head on its paws, watching Perrin. That was natural. Of course there was a wolf in the corner. Why wouldn’t there be? It was Hopper.

Perrin worked, enjoying the deep, burning heat of the forge, the feel of the sweat trailing down his arms, the scent of the fire. He shaped the length of iron, one blow for every second beat of his heart. The metal never grew cool, but instead retained its malleable red-yellow.

What am I making? Perrin picked up the length of glowing iron with his tongs. The air warped around it.

Pound, pound, pound, Hopper sent, communicating in images and scents. Like a pup jumping at butterflies.

Hopper didn’t see the point of reshaping metal, and found it amusing that men did such things. To a wolf, a thing was what it was. Why go through so much effort to change it into something else?

Perrin set the length of iron aside. It cooled immediately, fading from yellow, to orange, to crimson, to a dull black. Perrin had pounded it into a misshapen nugget, perhaps the size of two fists. Master Luhhan would be ashamed to see such shoddy work. Perrin needed to discover what he was making soon, before his master returned.

No. That was wrong. The dream shook, and the walls grew misty.

I’m not an apprentice. Perrin raised a thick-gloved hand to his head. I’m not in the Two Rivers any longer. I’m a man, a married man.

Perrin grabbed the lump of unshaped iron with his tongs, thrusting it down on the anvil. It flared to life with heat. Everything is still wrong. Perrin smashed his hammer down. It should all be better now! But it isn’t. It seems worse somehow.

He continued pounding. He hated those rumors that the men in camp whispered about him. Perrin had been sick and Berelain had cared for him. That was the end of it. But still those whispers continued.

He slammed his hammer down over and over. Sparks flew in the air like splashes of water, far too many to come from one length of iron. He gave one final strike, then breathed in and out.

The lump hadn’t changed. Perrin growled and grabbed the tongs, setting the lump aside and taking a fresh bar from the coals. He had to finish this piece. It was so important. But what was he making?

He started pounding. I need to spend time with Faile, to figure things out, remove the awkwardness between us. But there’s no time! Those Light-blinded fools around him couldn’t take care of themselves. Nobody in the Two Rivers ever needed a lord before.

He worked for a time, then held up the second chunk of iron. It cooled, turning into a misshapen, flattened length about as long as his forearm. Another shoddy piece. He set it aside.

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