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What the Storm Means
The Prologue to the Gathering Storm
By Robert Jordan
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2009 The Bandersnatch Group, Inc.
All rights reserved.
What the Storm Means
Renald Fanwar sat on his porch, warming the sturdy blackoak chair crafted for him by his grandson two years before. He stared northward.
At the black and silver clouds.
He'd never seen their like before. They blanketed the entire horizon to the north, high in the sky. They weren't gray. They were black and silver. Dark, rumbling thunderheads, as dark as a root cellar at midnight. With striking silver light breaking between them, flashes of lightning that gave off no sound.
The air was thick. Thick with the scents of dust and dirt. Of dried leaves and rain that refused to fall. Spring had come. And yet his crops didn't grow. Not a sprout had dared poke through the earth.
He rose slowly from his chair, wood creaking, chair rocking softly behind him, and walked up to the edge of the porch. He chewed on his pipe, though its fire had gone out. He couldn't be bothered to relight it. Those clouds transfixed him. They were so black. Like the smoke of a brushfire, only no brushfire smoke ever rose that high up in the air. And what to make of silver clouds? Bulging between the black ones, like places where polished steel shone through metal crusted with soot.
He rubbed his chin, glancing down at his yard. A small, whitewashed fence contained a patch of grass and shrubs. The shrubs were dead now, every one of them. Hadn't lasted through that winter. He'd need to pull them out soon. And the grass ... well, the grass was still just winter thatch. Not even any weeds sprouted.
A clap of thunder shook him. Pure, sharp, like an enormous crash of metal against metal. It rattled the windows of the house, shook the porch boards, seemed to vibrate his very bones.
He jumped back. That strike had been close — perhaps on his property. He itched to go inspect the damage. Lightning fire could destroy a man, burn him out of his land. Up here in the Borderlands, so many things were unintentional tinder — dry grass, dry shingles, dry seed.
But the clouds were still distant. That strike couldn't have been on his property. The silver and black thunderheads rolled and boiled, feeding and consuming themselves.
He closed his eyes, calming himself, taking a deep breath. Had he imagined the thunder? Was he going off the side, as Gaffin always joked? He opened his eyes.
And the clouds were right there, directly above his house.
It was as if they had suddenly rolled forward, intending to strike while his gaze was averted. They dominated the sky now, sweeping distantly in either direction, massive and overwhelming. He could almost feel their weight pressing the air down around him. He drew in a breath that was heavy with sudden humidity, and his brow prickled with sweat.
Those clouds churned, dark black and silver thunderheads shaking with white blasts. They suddenly boiled downward, like the funnel cloud of a twister, coming for him. He cried out, raising a hand, as a man might before a powerfully bright light. That blackness. That endless, suffocating blackness. It would take him. He knew.
And then the clouds were gone.
His pipe hit the porch's floorboards, clicking softly, tossing burned tabac out in a spray across the steps. He hadn't realized he'd let it slip free. Renald hesitated, looking up at empty blue sky, realizing that he was cringing at nothing.
The clouds were off on the horizon again, some forty leagues distant. They thundered softly.
He picked up his pipe with a shaking hand, spotted from age, tanned from years spent in the sun. Just a trick of your mind, Renald, he told himself. You're going off the side, sure as eggs is eggs.
He was on edge because of the crops. That had him on edge. Though he spoke optimistic words for the lads, it just wasn't natural. Something should have sprouted by now. He'd farmed that land for forty years! Barley didn't take this long to sprout. Burn him, but it didn't. What was going on in the world these days? Plants couldn't be depended on to sprout, and clouds didn't stay where they should.
He forced himself to sit back down in his chair, legs shaking. Getting old, I am. ... he thought.
He'd worked a farm all of his life. Farmsteading in the Borderlands was not easy, but if you worked hard, you could grow a successful life while you grew strong crops. "A man has as much luck as he has seeds in the field," his father had always said.
Well, Renald was one of the most successful farmers in the area. He'd done well enough to buy out the two farms beside his, and he could run thirty wagons to market each fall. He now had six good men working for him, plowing the fields, riding the fences. Not that he didn't have to climb down in the muck every day and show them what good farming was all about. You couldn't let a little success ruin you.
Yes, he'd worked the land, lived the land, as his father always used to say. He understood the weather as well as a man could. Those clouds weren't natural. They rumbled softly, like an animal growling on a dark night. Waiting. Lurking in the nearby woods.
He jumped at another crash of thunder that seemed too close. Were those clouds forty leagues away? Is that what he'd thought? Looked more like ten leagues away, now that he studied them.
"Don't get like that," he grumbled at himself. His own voice sounded good to him. Real. It was nice to hear something other than that rumbling and the occasional creak of shutters in the wind. Shouldn't he be able to hear Auaine inside, getting supper ready?
"You're tired. That's it. Tired." He fished in his vest pocket and pulled out his tabac pouch.
A faint rumbling came from the right. At first, he assumed it was the thunder. However, this rumbling was too grating, too regular. That wasn't thunder. It was wheels turning.
Sure enough, a large, oxen-drawn wagon crested Mallard's Hill, just to the east. Renald had named that hill himself. Every good hill needed a name. The road was Mallard's Road. So why not name the hill that too?
He leaned forward in his chair, pointedly ignoring those clouds as he squinted toward the wagon, trying to make out the driver's face. Thulin? The smith? What was he doing, driving a wagon laden halfway to the heavens? He was supposed to be working on Renald's new plow!
Lean for one of his trade, Thulin was still twice as muscled as most farmhands. He had the dark hair and tan skin of a Shienaran, and kept his face shaved after their fashion, but he did not wear the topknot. Thulin's family might trace its roots back to Borderland warriors, but he himself was just a simple country man like the rest of them. He ran the smithy over in Oak Water, five miles to the east. Renald had enjoyed many a game of stones with the smith during winter evenings.
Thulin was getting on — he hadn't seen as many years as Renald, but the last few winters had prompted Thulin to start speaking of retirement. Smithing wasn't an old man's trade. Of course, neither was farming. Were there really any old man's trades?
Thulin's wagon approached along the packed earthen road, approaching Renald's white-fenced yard. Now, that's odd, Renald thought. Behind the wagon trailed a neat string of animals: five goats and two milkcows. Crates of black-feathered chickens were tied on the outside of the wagon, and the bed of the wagon itself was piled full of furniture, sacks and barrels. Thulin's youthful daughter, Mirala, sat on the seat with him, next to his wife, a golden-haired woman from the south. Twenty-five years Thulin's wife, but Renald still thought of Gallanha as "that southern girl."
The whole family was in the wagon, leading their best livestock. Obviously on the move. But where? Off to visit relatives, perhaps? He and Thulin hadn't played a round of stones in ... oh, three weeks now. Not much time for visiting, what with the coming of spring and the hurried planting. Someone would need to mend the plows and sharpen the scythes. Who would do it if Thulin's smithy went cold?
Renald tucked a pinch of tabac into his pipe as Thulin pulled the wagon up beside Renald's yard. The lean, gray-haired smith handed the reins to his daughter, then climbed down from the wagon, feet throwing puffs of dust into the air when he hit the ground. Behind him the distant storm still brewed.
Thulin pushed open the fence gate, then strode up to the porch. He looked distracted. Renald opened his mouth to give greeting, but Thulin spoke first.
"I buried my best anvil in Gallanha's old strawberry patch, Renald," the big smith said. "You remember where that is, don't you? I packed my best set of tools there as well. They're well greased and inside my best chest, lined to keep it dry. That should keep the rust off of them. For a time at least."
Renald closed his mouth, holding his pipe half-full. If Thulin was burying his anvil ... well, it meant he wasn't planning to come back for a while. "Thulin, what —"
"If I don't return," Thulin said, glancing northward, "would you dig my things out and see that they're cared for? Sell them to someone who cares, Renald. I wouldn't have just anyone beating that anvil. Took me twenty years to gather those tools, you know."
"But Thulin!" Renald sputtered. "Where are you going?"
Thulin turned back to him, leaning one arm on the porch railing, those brown eyes of his solemn. "There's a storm coming," he said. "And so I figure I've got to head on to the north."
"Storm?" Renald asked. "That one on the horizon, you mean? Thulin, it looks bad — burn my bones, but it does — but there's no use running from it. We've had bad storms before."
"Not like this, old friend," Thulin said. "This ain't the sort of storm you ignore."
"Thulin?" Renald asked. "What are you talking about?"
Before he could answer, Gallanha called from the wagon box. "Did you tell him about the pots?"
"Ah," Thulin said. "Gallanha polished up that set of copper-bottom pots that your wife always liked. They're sitting on the kitchen table, waiting for Auaine, if she wants to go claim them." With that, Thulin nodded to Renald and began to walk back toward the wagon.
Renald sat, stupefied. Thulin always had been a blunt one; he favored saying his mind, then moving on. That was part of what Renald liked about him. But the smith could also pass through a conversation like a boulder rolling through a flock of sheep, leaving everyone dazed.
Renald scrambled up, leaving his pipe on the chair and following Thulin down into the yard and to the wagon. Burn it, Renald thought, glancing to the sides, noticing the brown grass and dead shrubs again. He'd worked hard on that yard.
The smith was checking on the chicken crates tied to the sides of his vehicle. Renald caught up to him, reaching out a hand, but Gallanha distracted him.
"Here, Renald," she said from the wagon box. "Take these." She held out a basket of eggs, one lock of golden hair straying from her bun. Renald reached over to take the basket. "Give these to Auaine. I know you're short on chickens on account of those foxes last fall."
Renald took the basket of eggs. Some were white, some were brown. "Yes, but where are you going, Gallanha?"
"North, my friend," Thulin said. He walked past, laying a hand on Renald's shoulder. "There will be an army gathering, I figure. They'll need smiths."
"Please," Renald said, gesturing with the basket of eggs. "At least take a few minutes. Auaine just put some bread in, one of those thick honey loaves that you like. We can discuss this over a game of stones."
"We'd better be on the move," Gallanha said softly. "That storm is coming."
Thulin nodded, then climbed up into the wagon. "You might want to come north too, Renald. If you do, bring everything you can." He paused. "You're good enough with the tools you have here to do some small metalwork, so take your best scythes and turn them into polearms. Your two best scythes; now don't go skimping around with anything that's a second best or a third best. Get your best, because it's the weapon you're going to use."
Renald frowned. "How do you know that there will be an army? Thulin, burn me. I'm no soldier!"
Thulin continued as if he hadn't heard the comments. "With a polearm you can pull somebody off of a horse and stab them. And, as I think about it, maybe you can take the third best and make yourself a couple of swords."
"What do I know about making a sword? Or about using a sword, for that matter?"
"You can learn," Thulin said, turning north. "Everyone will be needed, Renald. Everyone. They're coming for us." He glanced back at Renald. "A sword really isn't all that tough to make. You take a scythe blade and straighten it out, then you find yourself a piece of wood to act as a guard, to keep the enemy's blade from sliding down and cutting your hand. Mostly you'll just be using things that you've already got."
Renald blinked. He stopped asking questions, but he couldn't stop thinking them. They bunched up inside his brain like cattle all trying to force their way through a single gate.
"Bring all your stock, Renald," Thulin said. "You'll eat them — or your men will eat them — and you'll want the milk. And if you don't, then there'll be men you can trade with for beef or mutton. Food will be scarce, what with everything spoiling so much and the winter stores having run low. Bring everything you've got. Dried beans, dried fruit, everything."
Renald leaned back against the gate to his yard. He felt weak and limp. Finally, he forced out just one question. "Why?"
Thulin hesitated, then stepped away from the wagon, laying a hand on Renald's shoulder again. "I'm sorry to be so abrupt. I ... well, you know how I am with words, Renald. I don't know what that storm is. But I know what it means. I've never held a sword, but my father fought in the Aiel War. I'm a Borderlander. And that storm means the end is coming, Renald. We need to be there when it arrives." He stopped, then turned and looked to the north, watching those building clouds as a farmhand might watch a poisonous snake he found in the middle of the field. "Light preserve us, my friend. We need to be there."
And with that, he removed his hand and climbed back into the wagon. Renald watched them ease off, nudging the oxen into motion, heading north. Renald watched for a long time, feeling numb.
The distant thunder cracked, like the sound of a whip, smacking against the hills.
The door to the farmhouse opened and shut. Auaine came out to him, gray hair in a bun. It had been that color for years now; she'd grayed early, and Renald had always been fond of the color. Silver, more than gray. Like the clouds.
"Was that Thulin?" Auaine asked, watching the distant wagon throw up dust. A single black chicken feather blew across the roadway.
"And he didn't stay, even to chat?"
Renald shook his head.
"Oh, but Gallanha sent eggs!" She took the basket and began to transfer the eggs into her apron to carry them inside. "She's such a dear. Leave the basket there on the ground; I'm sure she'll send someone for it."
Renald just stared northward.
"Renald?" Auaine asked. "What's gotten into you, you old stump?"
"She polished up her pots for you," he said. "The ones with the copper bottoms. They're sitting on her kitchen table. They're yours if you want them."
Auaine fell silent. Then he heard a sharp sound of cracking, and he looked over his shoulder. She had let her apron grow slack, and the eggs were slipping free, plopping to the ground and cracking.
In a very calm voice, Auaine asked, "Did she say anything else?"
He scratched his head, which hadn't much hair left to speak of. "She said the storm was coming and they had to head north. Thulin said we should go too."
They stood for another moment. Auaine pulled up the edge of her apron, preserving the majority of the eggs. She didn't spare a glance for those that had fallen. She was just staring northward.
Renald turned. The storm had jumped forward again. And it seemed to have grown darker somehow.
"I think we ought to listen to them, Renald," Auaine said. "I'll ... I'll go fix up what we'll need to bring with us from the house. You can go around back and gather the men. Did they say how long we'll be gone?"
"No," he said. "They didn't even really say why. Just that we need to go north for the storm. And ... that this is the end."
Excerpted from What the Storm Means by Robert Jordan. Copyright © 2009 The Bandersnatch Group, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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