Afterward, Rand wandered.
Months passed, then a year, then more. He did not know for sure. Time seemed to move differently now that he was not Traveling between royal palaces and battlefields and fighting for his life as often as he breathed. He took large roads and small, some paved by skilled hands and others worn through dirt and grass by centuries of carts bound for market. One, just south of the Niamh Passes, was formed from immense slabs of bluish hewn stone. Chokeweed sprouted between the cracks and seams, reaching for hedgerows so long neglected that they bristled with dead wood and leaves thinner than paper. It dredged up a memory—an old memory—of a city destroyed in the Breaking and a palace that had glittered like cut glass in both sunlight and moonlight.
Without one of the Forsaken at his throat or a fist of Trollocs at his back, the land seemed different as well. It held a beauty he had rarely had time for since Winternight, whether the flint hills below Kandor or the rolling plains of Caralain Grass or the thick forests of pine and leatherleaf ringing Arafel. North of Arad Doman, he explored a series of caves where crystals as large as a ship's mast rose straight from the ground, and at World's End, he climbed a sheer cliff layered in stripes of browns and oranges and reds and imprinted with the shells of creatures shaped like stars.
In the deepest corner of Braem Wood, he found a circle of tree stumps carved into fanciful animals: one half man and half goat, another part woman and part fish, then a horse with too many legs, then a bird with six wings and a beak sharper than an Aiel spear. He Sang there--or tried to. The grass almost stirred.
It would have been easy enough to settle somewhere, to fall in with one of the many groups of refugees hoping to restart their lives. No one looked at him twice now, despite his new body's uncommon height. People only saw his dark hair and blue eyes, his plain breeches and brown wool coat, and he remembered enough about sheep at tabac to hire himself out or set up a small farm.
He considered it once, while passing through a village crouched at the foot of the Mountains of Mist, as close to the Two Rivers as he dared go so soon. Just beyond the village wall, a gnarled root of a farmer named Hyme hailed him on the road and asked for help gathering his scattered sheep. Rand lingered there nearly a week, tending the flock while Hyme mended a rotted-away section of the pen. His sheep were different than the placid animals Tam and Rand had raised in the Westwood, heavy of horn and hoof, toughened from living in frigid weather and eating thornbush and thistle instead of grass, but the work was peaceful enough. It reminded Rand of a life he knew was lost to him.
"I could use a strong back around here," Hyme ventured, when Rand said it was time he moved on. "I lost both my sons in the Dragon's war. Marlon died, and Denil ran off to marry a Caemlyn girl he met in one of the camps. She gave him some fool idea about joining the Queen's Guard."
"Queen Elayne is a remarkable woman," Rand replied quietly. "Kind and generous and—" He stopped himself from saying beautiful. "She treats those in her service quite well."
Hyme harrumphed at that, but Rand left with a heel of bread, a chunk of good yellow cheese, and a faded green cloak one of Hyme's sons had left behind.
He headed south and east after that, skirting Baerleon and the empty crater that had been Shadar Logoth. He found the abandoned stedding Perrin once told him about and slept a few nights under an ink-dark sky dotted with stars. Moving south and east again brought him to another memory: Four Kings. The Dancing Cartman stood abandoned, its storeroom walls still broken and charred. From there, he trekked cross-country to Murandy, where he boarded a riverboat trading its way down the Manetherendrelle. In Illian, he camped right on the beach, watching fishermen work their nets by day and listening to the waves crash against the shore by night.
The Pattern twisted for him when he needed it—a spark for his campfire, a rabbit for his snare, boots that never cracked or split, a cloak that never tore. When he wanted a room for the night, he played the flute he had found in the rubble of an abandoned Borderland town. It reminded him of Mat, and their desperate flight from Whitebridge—not the Darkfriends or the Fades or the terrifying dreams, but the jokes Mat had made before the dagger's hold got too great and the warmth and laughter and music at Master Griswell's farm.
He found himself in Saldea at the turn of the season, the first hints of autumn bringing a wind that whipped at his cloak and whistled through the trees on the outskirts of Maradon. The city's wall had been repaired, but scorch-marks marred most of its buildings and scaffolding climbed like spiderwebs along many of its towers. Rand shivered as he walked through the main gate. Saidin was just a memory now, but he could almost sense what he had done here, the Shadowspawn he had killed with a single, crushing blow from the One Power.
Cordamora Palace formed one side of Maradon's main square, and it drew Rand like a lodestone. Not the desperate, thrumming pull of ta'veren, but a simple desire to see a man who had been one of his closest friends. A flood of memories rushed to his mind— Perrin dancing with Cilla Cole one Sunday, Perrin leading the Two River's men at Dumai's Well, Perrin wielding his Power-wrought hammer with a roar, Perrin beside Mat as the three of them scrambled up a rugged path in the Shadow Hills.
Rand saw Faile twice—once through a balcony window, and again as a knot of guards escorted her into the palace. She looked regal both times, in fuller skirts than she had worn in Tear and Cairhien. Her hair was longer than he remembered, falling well past her shoulders in loose waves.
With luck and an open stable-yard door, he eventually caught a glimpse of Perrin. He stood half in shadow as he waited for a groom to saddle his horse. As tall and broad as ever, he had a quiver at his hip and a stout, Two Rivers bow across his back. Even in a plain brown coat suitable for hunting, he seemed every inch the king he had become.
"You deserve it," Rand whispered. "You deserve this and much more."
After that, he set a path south to Altara. He spent a month on the merchant road from Saldea to Arad Doman; he walked more often than not, and he slept in open fields and ate what he could catch. In Bandar Eban, he boarded a Domani trading vessel, bartering help with the ropes and sails for passage to Tarabon. Tanchico felt stifled under the Seanchan, too orderly and subdued. He only stayed long enough to find a Sea Folk ship headed around the Shadow Coast.
Ebou Dar was warmer and brighter than Maradon. Rand came ashore to a sharp-salt breeze and gulls screaming as they wheeled across a bright blue sky. He made his way to the Tarasin Palace past merchant carriages and shop-owners hawking their wares. It rose above Mol Hara square like a mountain, its white plaster and gilded domes glinting in the thin sunlight of morning. Six Seanchan soldiers guarded the entrance, three to each side of the red-lacquered double doors.
Rand circled it twice before a familiar voice led him to a wall enclosing the royal gardens. He hesitated; people's eyes tended to skim over him when he wanted to remain unseen, but climbing a palace wall in broad daylight might be risking more than the Pattern was willing to give. At one corner, he found a vine-covered gate, so narrow that most men would need to pass through it with their shoulders at an angle. The lock sprang open as Rand touched the handle. Once inside, he hid himself in the heavy shadows cast by a flowering hedge.
Mat was as disheveled as ever, his shirt unlaced and his bronze coat unbuttoned and in sore need of brushing. His foxhead medallion was a flash of silver beneath the scarf around his neck. He sat on a stone bench shaded by a palace wall, juggling colored balls for the baby sitting in his lap—a boy perhaps a year old, perhaps a year and some months. He had Fortuona's dark skin and Mat's nose and mouth.
A son. Mat has a son.
Rand watched them until a voice drew Mat's attention inside. Whatever was said, it made Mat huff out a laugh as he caught the colored balls and stuffed them into his pocket.
"Well," Mat told the baby. "We've been summoned by your mother, may she bloody well live forever." The baby giggled and patted Mat's cheek.
Rand turned to leave, but a sudden awareness stopped him, a bloom of excitement from his bond. Min? Impossible. She was—or had been—north of here. Hundreds of miles north. How did she—
She wore a pale green coat and matching breeches, cut in the Seanchan fashion and embroidered with spiky white and yellow flowers he did not recognize. Her hair was in curls to her chin and tucked behind her ear on one side. And her face… Light, she was beautiful. How had he stayed away from her so long?
"Min." Rand's voice caught in his throat. "I didn't feel you until just now."
"Gateway," she explained. "I just arrived from Ghealdan."
"I brought Queen Alliandre some trade proposals. Mat couldn't be bothered, so the Empress saddled me with it."
"Mat's a father," Rand murmured. He never would have thought. Mat had sworn marriage and children were the next thing to death by the time he was twelve years-old.
"He is," Min said, smiling. "He's surprisingly good at it, too. Although, I think he'd stab his other eye out before admitting it." After a pause, she folded her arms and gave him a flat, narrow look. "Honestly, sheepherder. You disappear for all this time, and now you just stand there?"
Quietly, Rand said, "I wasn't sure," and gestured at himself—at the face that was not his, the hair and the eyes. "I'm not who I was. I'm not—"
"I fell in love with you," Min cut in sharply. "You. Not the red hair or the fancy tattoos. Besides," she continued, eyeing him up and down, "this… isn't too bad."
Rand caught her arm and pulled her close. Kissing her again was nothing short of incredible. He had missed this—the feel of her, the smell of her, the breathless joy coming from the bond. He was a Light-blinded fool for staying away so long.
When they finally parted, Rand took a moment to look at her. Her cheeks were flushed, and her mouth was red and wet. He touched her jaw, then skimmed his fingers down the soft line of her throat. He noticed a brooch on her lapel, a white enamel square framing a Seanchan lightning-eagle fashioned in chips of topaz and moonstone.
Rand asked, "Is the Empress keeping you here?"
"Not exactly," Min said. "She'd like to, but whenever she gets uppity about it, Mat talks her around. Considering that she's pregnant again, I do not want to know how."
Once Rand stopped laughing, she continued, "I went back to Bareleon, after. Old Fitch rebuilt The Stag and the Lion with the money Moiraine sent him, bigger than before. He was happy to give me my old job back, but… it wasn't the same. So—" She shrugged. "I came back here. Mat's tolerable company, when he isn't causing trouble or trying to get me to dice with him. And it's nice to be useful."
"Do you still see things?"
"Sometimes," she said, shrugging again. "Less than before. And most of it's boring. Weddings. Fevers. Merchants with weighted scales. I figured out who stole High Lord Beslan's ivory collection." She ran a hand through Rand's hair before asking, "Did Mat see you?"
"He misses you. So does Perrin."
"I know. I miss them, too. But I—" Rand sighed and looked away. "I controlled so much of their lives for so long." He had used them. Sent them to war. "I want them to know they're free of it before they see me again."
"Woolhead," Min muttered. "Come to Andor with me. Elayne and Aviendha miss you too. Not to mention—" She smiled and nudged his side. "Mat isn't the only father around here."
Warmth bloomed in Rand's chest. He said, "I know. Elayne told me before the battle."
"Not just Elayne." Min nudged him again. "Aviendha."
Min laughed at his sputtering. "Yes. It seems you left something behind when she visited you at Merrilor. Four somethings, in fact."
"Four?" A birthing explained a feeling that had passed through the bond some long months back—a flood of worry and pain that lasted nearly two days. Rand had been somewhere between Amadicia and Ghealdan then, months from the Waste even if he had had a horse. Before he could steal one, the feeling had shifted to a confusing combination of exhaustion and pride and unbridled joy. But… four? "How is that possible?"
"I realized some time ago that when it comes to you, nothing is impossible. At least… before. I seem to remember plants sprouting up under your fool feet."
Laughing, Rand kissed her again. He cupped her face in his hands and slipped his tongue into her mouth. He could not seem to get close enough. They carried on like that so long that his breath came short and Min started clutching at his coat. The bond hummed with her happiness, as well as twin points of growing curiosity.
Rand made himself pull away, though he murmured, "You said something about Andor," with his lips against her cheek.
"Yes. Andor." She stepped back and straightened her cloat. "Can you still…?" She trailed off, uncertain, and waved her hand.
"No," Rand said, shaking his head. "I drew too much at the end. I burned myself out."
"Elayne suspected as much. She thought the bond felt different, after." She hesitated before suggesting, "I could ask a sul'dam for a Gateway. The Empress sends me on so many of Mat's errands that they don't question me anymore."
"Sul'dam?" Rand asked. A cold weight settled in his gut. He had hoped… Light, he had hoped.
His dismay must have come through the bond; Min touched his arm. She said, "Mat's working on it. You know how lucky he is. And—" A smile tugged at her mouth. "In a few years, he'll have some help. I told you, the Empress is pregnant again. That little girl is going to set some big changes in motion."
"A daughter?" Rand whispered. Oh, Mat. "And she'll channel?"
"Quite strongly," Min confirmed. "You should have seen the look on Mat's face when I told him. He kept asking me why all the bloody women in his life ended up being like that." When Rand did not laugh, she gave his arm a squeeze. "It all works out. I've seen it. Sparks, lightning, Mat holding her hand in a fog. A a'dam broken at her feet. She never wears it. She—"
Footsteps rang out, near where Mat had been sitting with his son. Min hissed under her breath and hustled Rand closer to the wall.
"We should go," she said. "Stay here, and I'll find a sul'dam."
As she turned away, Rand said, "Wait," and caught her sleeve. He had never bent the Pattern like this, but he figured the worst that could happen was nothing. "Let me try something."
He pressed his hand to the gate and worked his fingers between the vines until he touched iron and wood. Closing his eyes, he thought of Andor, and Elayne. Andor was closer than the Waste, and required less guesswork. From there, the three of them could go to Aviendha.
He felt… something. Nothing he could explain. He opened the gate and took Min's hand. They stepped into another garden, with a stretch of soft grass divided by a slate walkway and stone bench in the shade of a flowering arbor.
A garden he had fallen into once, what felt like a lifetime ago.
"How—?" Min asked.
"The Pattern," Rand said quietly. "It… bends for me sometimes."
Min stared at him for a moment. Then she sighed and said, "Well, if the Pattern was going to bend for anyone, I guess it would be you."
Rand's bond with Elayne hummed, full of excitement and hope. He truly was a Light-blinded fool for staying away.
"Come on," he said, reaching for Min's hand. "I think Elayne is waiting."