The Shadow Rising Page 45

She waited until he had gone before nursing her shoulder. He reminded her of her father. Not that her father had ever twisted her arm, but he had small patience with those who made trouble, whatever their position, and no one ever caught him by surprise. She wondered if she could bait Berelain into something, just to see the First of Mayene sweating among the refuse carts. But Rhuarc had said both of them. Her father meant what he said, too. Berelain. Something Berelain had said was tickling the back of her mind. Ogier's oath. That was it. An Ogier never broke an oath. To say “Ogier oathbreaker” was like saying “brave coward,” or “wise fool.”

She could not help laughing aloud. “You will take him from me, you silly peahen? By the time you see him again, if you ever do, he'll be mine once more.” Chuckling to herself, and occasionally rubbing her shoulder, she walked on with a light heart.

Chapter 15

(Dice)

Into the Doorway

Holding the glassmantled lamp high, Mat peered down the narrow corridor, deep in the belly of the Stone. Not unless my life depended on it. That's what I promised. Well, burn me if it doesn't!

Before doubt could seize him again, he hurried on, past doors dryrotted and hanging aslant, past others only shreds of wood clinging to rusted hinges. The floor had been swept recently, but the air still smelled of old dust and mold. Something skittered in the darkness, and he had a knife out before he realized it was just a rat, running from him, no doubt running toward some escape hole it knew.

“Show me the way out,” he whispered after it, “and I'll come with you.” Why am I whispering? There's nobody down here to hear me. It seemed a place for quiet, though. He could feel the whole weight of the Stone over his head, pressing down.

The last door, she had said. That one hung askew, too. He kicked it open, and it fell apart. The room was littered with dim shapes, with crates and barrels and things stacked high against the walls and out into the floor. Dust, too. The Great Hold! It looks like the basement of an abandoned farmhouse, only worse. He was surprised that Egwene and Nynaeve had not dusted and tidied while they were down here. Women were always dusting and straightening, even things that did not need it. Footprints crisscrossed the floor, some of them from boots, but no doubt they had had men to shift the heavier items about for them. Nynaeve liked finding ways to make a man work; likely she had deliberately hunted out some fellows enjoying themselves. .

What he sought stood out among the jumble. A tall redstone doorframe, looming oddly in the shadows cast by his lamp. When he came closer, it still looked odd. Twisted, somehow. His eye did not want to follow it around; the corners did not join right. The tall hollow rectangle seemed likely to fall over at a breath, but when he gave it an experimental push, it stood steady. He pushed a bit harder, not sure he did not want to heave the thing over, and that side of it scraped through the dust. Goose bumps ran down his arms. There might as well have been a wire fastened to the top, suspending it from the ceiling. He held the lamp up to see. There was no wire. At least it won't topple while I'm inside. Light, I am going inside, aren't I?

A clutter of figurines and small things wrapped in rotting cloth occupied the top of a tall, upended barrel near him. He pushed the jumble to one side so he could set the lamp there, and studied the doorway. The ter'angreal. If Egwene knew what she was talking about. She probably did; no doubt she had learned all sorts of strange things in the Tower, however much she denied. She would deny things, wouldn't she now. Learning to be Aes Sedai. She didn't deny this though, now did she? If he squinted, it just looked like a stone doorframe, dully polished and the duller for dust. Just a plain doorframe. Well, not entirely plain. Three sinuous lines carved deep in the stone ran down each upright from top to bottom. He had seen fancier on farmhouses. He would probably step through and find himself still in this dusty room.

Won't know till I try, will I? Luck! Taking a deep breath — and coughing from the dust — he put his foot through.

He seemed to be stepping through a sheet of brilliant white light, infinitely bright, infinitely thick. For a moment that lasted forever, he was blind; a roaring filled his ears, all the sounds of the world gathered together at once. For just the length of one measureless step.

Stumbling another pace, he stared around in amazement. The ter'angreal was still there, but this was certainly not where he had started. The twisted stone doorframe stood in the center of a round hall with a ceiling so high it was lost in shadows, surrounded by strange spiraled yellow columns snaking up into the gloom, like huge vines twining 'round poles that had been taken away. A soft light came from glowing spheres atop coiled stands of some white metal. Not silver; the shine was too dull for that. And no hint of what made the glow; it did not look like flame; the spheres simply shone. The floor tiles spiraled out in white and yellow stripes from the ter'angreal. There was a heavy scent in the air, sharp and dry and not particularly pleasant. He almost turned around and went back on the spot.

“A long time.”

He jumped, a knife conning into his hand, and peered among the columns for the source of the breathy voice that pronounced those words so harshly.

“A long time, yet the seekers come again for answers. The questioners come once more.” A shape moved, back among the columns; a man, Mat thought. “Good. You have brought no lamps, no torches, as the agreement was, and is, and ever will be. You have no iron? No instruments of music?”

The figure stepped out, tall, barefoot, arms and legs and body wound about in layers of yellow cloth, and Mat was suddenly not so sure if it was a man. Or human. It looked human, at first glance, though perhaps too graceful, but it seemed far too thin for its height, with a narrow, elongated face. Its skin, and even its straight black hair, caught the pale light in a way that reminded him of a snake's scales. And those eyes, the pupils just black, vertical slits. No, not human.

“Iron. Instruments of music. You have none?”

Mat wondered what it thought the knife was; it certainly did not seem concerned over it. Well, the blade was good steel, not iron. “No. No iron, and no instruments of — Why —?” He cut off sharply. Three questions, Egwene had said. He was not about to waste one on “iron” or “instruments of music.” Why should he care if I have a dozen musicians in my pocket and a smithy on my back? “I have come here for true answers. If you are not the one to give them, take me to who can.”

The man — it was male at least, Mat decided — smiled slightly. He did not show any teeth. “According to the agreement. Come.” He beckoned with one longfingered hand. “Follow.”

Mat made the knife disappear up his sleeve. “Lead, and I will follow.” Just you keep ahead of me and in plain sight. This place makes my skin crawl.

There was not a straight line to be seen anywhere except for the floor itself, as he trailed the strange man. Even the ceiling was always arched, and the walls bowed out. The halls were continuously curved, the doorways rounded, the windows perfect circles. Tilework made spirals and sinuous lines, and what seemed to be bronze metalwork set in the ceiling at intervals was all complicated scrolls. There were no pictures of anything, no wall hangings or paintings. Only patterns, and always curves.

He saw no one except his silent guide; he could have believed the place empty except for the two of them. From somewhere he had a dim memory of walking halls that had not known a human foot in hundreds of years, and this felt the same. Yet sometimes he caught a flicker of motion out of the corner of his eye. Only, however quickly he turned, there was never anyone there. He pretended to rub his forearms, checking the knives up his coatsleeves for reassurance.

What he saw through those round windows was even worse. Tall wispy trees with only a drooping umbrella of branches at the top, and others like huge fans of lacy leaves, a tangle of growth equal to the heart of any briarchoked thicket, all under a dim, overcast light, though there did not seem to be a cloud in the sky. There were always windows, always along just one side of the curving corridor, but sometimes the side changed, and what surely should have been looking into courtyard or rooms instead gave out into that forest. He never caught as much as a glimpse of any other part of this palace, or whatever it was, through those windows, or any other building, except...

Through one circular window he saw three tall silvery spires, curving in toward each other so their points all aimed at the same spot. They were not visible from the next window, three paces away, but a few minutes later, after he and his guide had rounded enough curves that he had to be looking in another direction, he saw them again. He tried telling himself these were three different spires, but between them and him was one of those fanshaped trees with a dangling broken branch, a tree that had been in the same spot the first time. After his third sight of the spires and the strange tree with the broken branch, this time ten paces farther on but on the other side of the hallway, he tried to stop looking at what lay outside at all.

The walk seemed interminable.

“When —? Are —?” Mat ground his teeth. Three questions. It was hard to learn anything without asking questions. “I hope you are taking me to those who can answer my questions. Burn my bones, I do. For my sake and yours, the Light know it true.”

“Here,” the peculiar, yellowwrapped fellow said, gesturing with one of those thin hands to a rounded doorway twice as large as any Mat had seen before. His strange eyes studied Mat intently. His mouth gaped open, and he inhaled, long and slow. Mat frowned at him, and the stranger gave a writhing hitch of his shoulders. “Here your answers may be found. Enter. Enter and ask.”

Mat drew a deep breath of his own, then grimaced and scrubbed at his nose. That sharp, heavy smell was a rank nuisance. He took a hesitant step toward the tall doorway, and looked around for his guide again. The fellow was gone. Light! I don't know why anything in this place surprises me now. Well, I will be burned if I'll turn back now. Trying not to think of whether he could find the ter'angreal again on his own, he went in.

It was another round room, with spiraling floor tiles in red and white under a domed ceiling. It had no columns, or furnishings of any kind, except for three thick, coiled pedestals around the heart of the floor's spirals. Mat could see no way to reach the top of them except by climbing the twists, yet a man like his guide sat crosslegged atop each, only wrapped in layers of red. Not all men, he decided at a second look; two of those long faces with the odd eyes had a definite feminine cast. They stared at him, intense penetrating stares, and breathed deeply, almost panting. He wondered if he made them nervous in some way. Not much bloody chance of that. But they're certainly getting under my coat.

“It has been long,” the woman on the right said.

“Very long,” the woman on the left added.

The man nodded. “Yet they come again.”

All three had the breathy voice of the guide — almost indistinguishable from it, in fact — and the harsh way of pronouncing words. They spoke in unison, and the words might as well have come from one mouth. “Enter and ask, according to th

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