Welcome back to the #WOTonPrime Book Club read along! We are teaming up with the folks at Wheel of Time on Prime so you can either relive the glory or get started on the Wheel of Time series for the first time with the first few chapters of The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan. Are you as excited as we are?!
This week we’re discussing chapters 3 & 4 of Book 1, The Eye of the World and you can read those chapters below for free. Start with the prologue and chapters 1 & 2 here.
Clusters of pots clattered and banged as the peddler’s wagon rumbled over the heavy timbers of the Wagon Bridge. Still surrounded by a cloud of villagers and farmers come for Festival, the peddler reined his horses to a stop in front of the inn. From every direction people streamed to swell the numbers around the great wagon, its wheels taller than any of the people with their eyes fastened to the peddler above them on the wagon seat.
The man on the wagon was Padan Fain, a pale, skinny fellow with gangly arms and a massive beak of a nose. Fain, always smiling and laughing as if he knew a joke that no one else knew, had driven his wagon and team into Emond’s Field every spring for as long as Rand could remember.
The door of the inn flew open even as the team halted in a jangle of harness, and the Village Council appeared, led by Master al’Vere and Tam. They marched out deliberately, even Cenn Buie, amid all the excited shouting of the others for pins or lace or books or a dozen other things. Reluctantly the crowd parted to let them to the fore, everyone closing in quickly behind and never stopping their calling to the peddler. Most of all, the villagers called for news.
In the eyes of the villagers, needles and tea and the like were no more than half the freight in a peddler’s wagon. Every bit as important was word of outside, news of the world beyond the Two Rivers. Some peddlers simply told what they knew, throwing it out in a heap, a pile of rubbish with which they could not be bothered. Others had to have every word dragged out of them, speaking grudgingly, with a bad grace. Fain, however, spoke freely if often teasingly, and spun out the telling, making a show to rival a gleeman. He enjoyed being the center of attention, strutting around like an under-sized rooster, with every eye on him. It occurred to Rand that Fain might not be best pleased to find a real gleeman in Emond’s Field.
The peddler gave the Council and villagers alike exactly the same attention as he fussed with tying his reins off just so, which was to say hardly any attention at all. He nodded casually at no one in particular. He smiled without speaking, and waved absently to people with whom he was particularly friendly, though his friendliness had always been of a peculiarly distant kind, backslapping without ever getting close.
The demands for him to speak grew louder, but Fain waited, fiddling with small tasks about the driver’s seat, for the crowd and the anticipation to reach the size he wanted. The Council alone kept silent. They maintained the dignity befitting their position, but increasing clouds of pipesmoke rising above their heads showed the effort of it.
Rand and Mat edged into the crowd, getting as close to the wagon as they could. Rand would have stopped halfway, but Mat wriggled through the press, pulling Rand behind him, until they were right behind the Council.
“I had been thinking you were going to stay out on the farm through the whole Festival,” Perrin Aybara shouted at Rand over the clamor. Half a head shorter than Rand, the curly-haired blacksmith’s apprentice was so stocky as to seem a man and a half wide, with arms and shoulders thick enough to rival those of Master Luhhan himself. He could easily have pushed through the throng, but that was not his way. He picked his path carefully, offering apologies to people who had only half a mind to notice anything but the peddler. He made the apologies anyway, and tried not to jostle anyone as he worked through the crowd to Rand and Mat. “Imagine it,” he said when he finally reached them. “Bel Tine and a peddler, both together. I’ll bet there really are fireworks.”
“You don’t know a quarter of it.” Mat laughed.
Perrin eyed him suspiciously, then looked a question at Rand.
“It’s true,” Rand shouted, then gestured at the growing mass of people, all giving voice. “Later. I’ll explain later. Later, I said!”
At that moment Padan Fain stood up on the wagon seat, and the crowd quieted in an instant. Rand’s last words exploded into utter silence, catching the peddler with an arm raised dramatically and his mouth open. Everybody turned to stare at Rand. The bony little man on the wagon, prepared to have everyone hanging on his first words, gave Rand a sharp, searching look.
Rand’s face reddened, and he wished he were Ewin’s size so he did not stand out so clearly. His friends shifted uncomfortably, too. It had only been the year before that Fain had taken notice of them for the first time, acknowledging them as men. Fain did not usually have time for anyone too young to buy a good deal of things off his wagon. Rand hoped he had not been relegated to a child again in the peddler’s eyes.
With a loud harrumph, Fain tugged at his heavy cloak. “No, not later,” the peddler declaimed, once more throwing up a hand grandly. “I will be telling you now.” As he spoke he made broad gestures, casting his words over the crowd. “You are thinking you have had troubles in the Two Rivers, are you? Well, all the world has troubles, from the Great Blight south to the Sea of Storms, from the Aryth Ocean in the west to the Aiel Waste in the east. And even beyond. The winter was harsher than you’ve ever seen before, cold enough to jell your blood and crack your bones? Ahhh! Winter was cold and harsh everywhere. In the Borderlands they’d be calling your winter spring. But spring does not come, you say? Wolves have killed your sheep? Perhaps wolves have attacked men? Is that the way of it? Well, now. Spring is late everywhere. There are wolves everywhere, all hungry for any flesh they can sink a tooth into, be it sheep or cow or man. But there are things worse than wolves or winter. There are those who would be glad to have only your little troubles.” He paused expectantly.
“What could be worse than wolves killing sheep, and men?” Cenn Buie demanded. Others muttered in support.
“Men killing men.” The peddler’s reply, in portentous tones, brought shocked murmurs that increased as he went on. “It is war I mean. There is war in Ghealdan, war and madness. The snows of the Dhallin Forest are red with the blood of men. Ravens and the cries of ravens fill the air. Armies march to Ghealdan. Nations, great houses and great men, send their soldiers to fight.”
“War?” Master al’Vere’s mouth fit awkwardly around the unfamiliar word. No one in the Two Rivers had ever had anything to do with a war. “Why are they having a war?”
Fain grinned, and Rand had the feeling he was mocking the villagers’ isolation from the world, and their ignorance. The peddler leaned forward as if he were about to impart a secret to the Mayor, but his whisper was meant to carry and did. “The standard of the Dragon has been raised, and men flock to oppose. And to support.”
One long gasp left every throat together, and Rand shivered in spite of himself.
“The Dragon!” someone moaned. “The Dark One’s loose in Ghealdan!”
“Not the Dark One,” Haral Luhhan growled. “The Dragon’s not the Dark One. And this is a false Dragon, anyway.”
“Let’s hear what Master Fain has to say,” the Mayor said, but no one would be quieted that easily. People cried out from every side, men and women shouting over one another.
“Just as bad as the Dark One!”
“The Dragon broke the world, didn’t he?”
“He started it! He caused the Time of Madness!”
“You know the prophecies! When the Dragon is reborn, your worst nightmares will seem like your fondest dreams!”
“He’s just another false Dragon. He must be!”
“What difference does that make? You remember the last false Dragon. He started a war, too. Thousands died, isn’t that right, Fain? He laid siege to Illian.”
“It’s evil times! No one claiming to be the Dragon Reborn for twenty years, and now three in the last five years. Evil times! Look at the weather!”
Rand exchanged looks with Mat and Perrin. Mat’s eyes shone with excitement, but Perrin wore a worried frown. Rand could remember every tale he had heard about the men who named themselves the Dragon Reborn, and if they had all proven themselves false Dragons by dying or disappearing without fulfilling any of the prophecies, what they had done was bad enough. Whole nations torn by battle, and cities and towns put to the torch. The dead fell like autumn leaves, and refugees clogged the roads like sheep in a pen. So the peddlers said, and the merchants, and no one in the Two Rivers with any sense doubted it. The world would end, so some said, when the real Dragon was born again.
“Stop this!” the Mayor shouted. “Be quiet! Stop working yourselves to a lather out of your own imaginations. Let Master Fain tell us about this false Dragon.” The people began to quieten, but Cenn Buie refused to be silent.
“Is this a false Dragon?” the thatcher asked sourly.
Master al’Vere blinked as if taken by surprise, then snapped, “Don’t be an old fool, Cenn!” But Cenn had kindled the crowd again.
“He can’t be the Dragon Reborn! Light help us, he can’t be!”
“You old fool, Buie! You want bad luck, don’t you?”
“Be naming the Dark One, next! You’re taken by the Dragon, Cenn Buie! Trying to bring us all harm!”
Cenn looked around defiantly, trying to stare down the glowers, and raised his voice. “I didn’t hear Fain say this was a false Dragon. Did you? Use your eyes! Where are the crops that should be knee high or better? Why is it still winter when spring should be here a month?” There were angry shouts for Cenn to hold his tongue. “I will not be silent! I’ve no liking for this talk, either, but I won’t hide my head under a basket till a Taren Ferry man comes to cut my throat. And I won’t dangle on Fain’s pleasure, not this time. Speak it out plain, peddler. What have you heard? Eh? Is this man a false Dragon?”
If Fain was perturbed by the news he brought or the upset he had caused, he gave no sign of it. He merely shrugged and laid a skinny finger alongside his nose. “As to that, now, who can say until it is over and done?” He paused with one of his secretive grins, running his eyes over the crowd as if imagining how they would react and finding it funny. “I do know,” he said, too casually, “that he can wield the One Power. The others couldn’t. But he can channel. The ground opens beneath his enemies’ feet, and strong walls crumble at his shout. Lightning comes when he calls and strikes where he points. That I’ve heard, and from men I believe.”
A stunned silence fell. Rand looked at his friends. Perrin seemed to be seeing things he did not like, but Mat still looked excited.
Tam, his face only a little less composed than usual, drew the Mayor close, but before he could speak Ewin Finngar burst out.
“He’ll go mad and die! In the stories, men who channel the Power always go mad, and then waste away and die. Only women can touch it. Doesn’t he know that?” He ducked under a cuff from Master Buie.
“Enough of that from you, boy.” Cenn shook a gnarled fist in Ewin’s face. “Show a proper respect and leave this to your elders. Get away with you!”
“Hold steady, Cenn,” Tam growled. “The boy is just curious. There’s no need of this foolishness from you.”
“Act your age,” Bran added. “And for once remember you’re a member of the Council.”
Cenn’s wrinkled face grew darker with every word from Tam and the Mayor, until it was almost purple. “You know what kind of women he’s talking about. Stop frowning at me, Luhhan, and you, too, Crawe. This is a decent village of decent folk, and it’s bad enough to have Fain here talking about false Dragons using the Power without this Dragon-possessed fool of a boy bringing Aes Sedai into it. Some things just shouldn’t be talked about, and I don’t care if you will be letting that fool gleeman tell any kind of tale he wants. It isn’t right or decent.”
“I never saw or heard or smelled anything that couldn’t be talked about,” Tam said, but Fain was not finished.
“The Aes Sedai are already into it,” the peddler spoke up. “A party of them has ridden south from Tar Valon. Since he can wield the Power, none but Aes Sedai can defeat him, for all the battles they fight, or deal with him once he’s defeated. If he is defeated.”
Someone in the crowd moaned aloud, and even Tam and Bran exchanged uneasy frowns. Huddles of villagers clumped together, and some pulled their cloaks tighter around themselves, though the wind had actually lessened.
“Of course, he’ll be defeated,” someone shouted.
“They’re always beaten in the end, false Dragons.”
“He has to be defeated, doesn’t he?”
“What if he isn’t?”
Tam had finally managed to speak quietly into the Mayor’s ear, and Bran, nodding from time to time and ignoring the hubbub around them, waited until he was finished before raising his own voice.
“All of you listen. Be quiet and listen!” The shouting died to a murmur again. “This goes beyond mere news from outside. It must be discussed by the Village Council. Master Fain, if you will join us inside the inn, we have questions to ask.”
“A good mug of hot mulled wine would not go far amiss with me just now,” the peddler replied with a chuckle. He jumped down from the wagon, dusted his hands on his coat, and cheerfully righted his cloak. “Will you be looking after my horses, if you please?”
“I want to hear what he has to say!” More than one voice was raised in protest.
“You can’t take him off! My wife sent me to buy pins!” That was Wit Congar; he hunched his shoulders at the stares some of the others gave him, but he held his ground.
“We’ve a right to ask questions, too,” somebody back in the crowd shouted. “I—”
“Be silent!” the Mayor roared, producing a startled hush. “When the Council has asked its questions, Master Fain will be back to tell you all his news. And to sell you his pots and pins. Hu! Tad! Stable Master Fain’s horses.”
Tam and Bran moved in on either side of the peddler, the rest of the Council gathered behind them, and the whole cluster swept into the Winespring Inn, firmly shutting the door in the faces of those who tried to crowd inside after them. Pounding on the door brought only a single shout from the Mayor.
People milled around in front of the inn muttering about what the peddler had said, and what it meant, and what questions the Council was asking, and why they should be allowed to listen and ask questions of their own. Some peered in through the front windows of the inn, and a few even questioned Hu and Tad, though it was far from clear what they were supposed to know. The two stolid stablemen just grunted in reply and went on methodically removing the team’s harness. One by one they led Fain’s horses away and, when the last was gone, did not return.
Rand ignored the crowd. He took a seat on the edge of the old stone foundation, gathered his cloak around him, and stared at the inn door. Ghealdan. Tar Valon. The very names were strange and exciting. They were places he knew only from peddlers’ news, and tales told by merchants’ guards. Aes Sedai and wars and false Dragons: those were the stuff of stories told late at night in front of the fireplace, with one candle making strange shapes on the wall and the wind howling against the shutters. On the whole, he believed he would rather have blizzards and wolves. Still, it must be different out there, beyond the Two Rivers, like living in the middle of a gleeman’s tale. An adventure. One long adventure. A whole lifetime of it.
Slowly the villagers dispersed, still muttering and shaking their heads. Wit Congar paused to stare into the now-abandoned wagon as though he might find another peddler hidden inside. Finally only a few of the younger folk were left. Mat and Perrin drifted over to where Rand sat.
“I don’t see how the gleeman could beat this,” Mat said excitedly. “I wonder if we might get to see this false Dragon?”
Perrin shook his shaggy head. “I don’t want to see him. Somewhere else, maybe, but not in the Two Rivers. Not if it means war.”
“Not if it means Aes Sedai here, either,” Rand added. “Or have you forgotten who caused the Breaking? The Dragon may have started it, but it was Aes Sedai who actually broke the world.”
“I heard a story once,” Mat said slowly, “from a wool-buyer’s guard. He said the Dragon would be reborn in mankind’s greatest hour of need, and save us all.”
“Well, he was a fool if he believed that,” Perrin said firmly. “And you were a fool to listen.” He did not sound angry; he was slow to anger. But he sometimes got exasperated with Mat’s quicksilver fancies, and there was a touch of that in his voice. “I suppose he claimed we’d all live in a new Age of Legends afterwards, too.”
“I didn’t say I believed it,” Mat protested. “I just heard it. Nynaeve did, too, and I thought she was going to skin me and the guard both. He said—the guard did—that a lot of people do believe, only they’re afraid to say so, afraid of the Aes Sedai or the Children of the Light. He wouldn’t say any more after Nynaeve lit into us. She told the merchant, and he said it was the guard’s last trip with him.”
“A good thing, too,” Perrin said. “The Dragon going to save us? Sounds like Coplin talk to me.”
“What kind of need would be great enough that we’d want the Dragon to save us from it?” Rand mused. “As well ask for help from the Dark One.”
“He didn’t say,” Mat replied uncomfortably. “And he didn’t mention any new Age of Legends. He said the world would be torn apart by the Dragon’s coming.”
“That would surely save us,” Perrin said dryly. “Another Breaking.”
“Burn me!” Mat growled. “I’m only telling you what the guard said.”
Perrin shook his head. “I just hope the Aes Sedai and this Dragon, false or not, stay where they are. Maybe that way the Two Rivers will be spared.”
“You think they’re really Darkfriends?” Mat was frowning thoughtfully.
“Who?” Rand asked.
Rand glanced at Perrin, who shrugged. “The stories,” he began slowly, but Mat cut him off.
“Not all the stories say they serve the Dark One, Rand.”
“Light, Mat,” Rand said, “they caused the Breaking. What more do you want?”
“I suppose.” Mat sighed, but the next moment he was grinning again. “Old Bili Congar says they don’t exist. Aes Sedai. Darkfriends. Says they’re just stories. He says he doesn’t believe in the Dark One, either.”
Perrin snorted. “Coplin talk from a Congar. What else can you expect?”
“Old Bili named the Dark One. I’ll bet you didn’t know that.”
“Light!” Rand breathed.
Mat’s grin broadened. “It was last spring, just before the cutworm got into his fields and nobody else’s. Right before everybody in his house came down with yelloweye fever. I heard him do it. He still says he doesn’t believe, >but whenever I ask him to name the Dark One now, he throws something at me.”
“You are just stupid enough to do that, aren’t you, Matrim Cauthon?” Nynaeve al’Meara stepped into their huddle, the dark braid pulled over her shoulder almost bristling with anger. Rand scrambled to his feet. Slender and barely taller than Mat’s shoulder, at the moment the Wisdom seemed taller than any of them, and it did not matter that she was young and pretty. “I suspected something of the sort about Bili Congar at the time, but I thought you at least had more sense than to try taunting him into such a thing. You may be old enough to be married, Matrim Cauthon, but in truth you shouldn’t be off your mother’s apron strings. The next thing, you’ll be naming the Dark One yourself.”
“No, Wisdom,” Mat protested, looking as if he would rather be anywhere else than there. “It was old Bil—I mean, Master Congar, not me! Blood and ashes, I—”
“Watch your tongue, Matrim!”
Rand stood up straighter, though her glare was not directed at him. Perrin looked equally abashed. Later one or another of them would almost certainly complain about being scolded by a woman not all that much older than themselves—someone always did after one of Nynaeve’s scoldings, if never in her hearing—but the gap in ages always seemed more than wide enough when face-to-face with her. Especially if she was angry. The stick in her hand was thick at one end and a slender switch at the other, and she was liable to give a flail to anybody she thought was acting the fool—head or hands or legs—no matter their age or position.
The Wisdom so held his attention that at first Rand failed to see she was not alone. When he realized his mistake, he began to think about leaving no matter what Nynaeve would say or do later.
Egwene stood a few paces behind the Wisdom, watching intently. Of a height with Nynaeve, and with the same dark coloring, she could at that moment have been a reflection of Nynaeve’s mood, arms crossed beneath her breasts, mouth tight with disapproval. The hood of her soft gray cloak shaded her face, and her big brown eyes held no laughter now.
If there was any fairness, he thought that being two years older than her should give him some advantage, but that was not the way of it. At the best of times he was never very nimble with his tongue when talking to any of the village girls, not like Perrin, but whenever Egwene gave him that intent look, with her eyes as wide as they would go, as if every last ounce of her attention was on him, he just could not seem to make the words go where he wanted. Perhaps he could get away as soon as Nynaeve finished. But he knew he would not, even if he did not understand why.
“If you are done staring like a moonstruck lamb, Rand al’Thor,” Nynaeve said, “perhaps you can tell me why you were talking about something even you three great bullcalves ought to have sense enough to keep out of your mouths.”
Rand gave a start and pulled his eyes away from Egwene; she had grown a disconcerting smile when the Wisdom began speaking. Nynaeve’s voice was tart, but she had the beginnings of a knowing smile on her face, too—until Mat laughed aloud. The Wisdom’s smile vanished, and the look she gave Mat cut his laughter off in a strangled croak.
“Well, Rand?” Nynaeve said.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Egwene still smiling. What does she think is so funny? “It was natural enough to talk of it, Wisdom,” he said hurriedly. “The peddler—Padan Fain . . . ah . . . Master Fain—brought news of a false Dragon in Ghealdan, and a war, and Aes Sedai. The Council thought it was important enough to talk to him. What else would we be talking about?”
Nynaeve shook her head. “So that’s why the peddler’s wagon stands abandoned. I heard people rushing to meet it, but I couldn’t leave Mistress Ayellin till her fever broke. The Council is questioning the peddler about what’s happening in Ghealdan, are they? If I know them, they’re asking all the wrong questions and none of the right ones. It will take the Women’s Circle to find out anything useful.” Settling her cloak firmly on her shoulders she disappeared into the inn.
Egwene did not follow the Wisdom. As the inn door closed behind Nynaeve, the younger woman came to stand in front of Rand. The frowns were gone from her face, but her unblinking stare made him uneasy. He looked to his friends, but they moved away, grinning broadly as they abandoned him.
“You shouldn’t let Mat get you mixed up in his foolishness, Rand,” Egwene said, as solemn as a Wisdom herself, then abruptly she giggled. “I haven’t seen you look like that since Cenn Buie caught you and Mat up in his apple trees when you were ten.”
He shifted his feet and glanced at his friends. They stood not far away, Mat gesturing excitedly as he talked.
“Will you dance with me tomorrow?” That was not what he had meant to say. He did want to dance with her, but at the same time he wanted nothing so little as the uncomfortable way he was sure to feel while he was with her. The way he felt right then.
The corners of her mouth quirked up in a small smile. “In the afternoon,” she said. “I will be busy in the morning.”
From the others came Perrin’s exclamation. “A gleeman!”
Egwene turned toward them, but Rand put a hand on her arm. “Busy? How?”
Despite the chill she pushed back the hood of her cloak and with apparent casualness pulled her hair forward over her shoulder. The last time he had seen her, her hair had hung in dark waves below her shoulders, with only a red ribbon keeping it back from her face; now it was worked into a long braid.
He stared at that braid as if it were a viper, then stole a glance at the Spring Pole, standing alone on the Green now, ready for tomorrow. In the morning unmarried women of marriageable age would dance the Pole. He swallowed hard. Somehow, it had never occurred to him that she would reach marriageable age at the same time that he did.
“Just because someone is old enough to marry,” he muttered, “doesn’t mean they should. Not right away.”
“Of course not. Or ever, for that matter.”
Rand blinked. “Ever?”
“A Wisdom almost never marries. Nynaeve has been teaching me, you know. She says I have a talent, that I can learn to listen to the wind. Nynaeve says not all Wisdoms can, even if they say they do.”
“Wisdom!” he hooted. He failed to notice the dangerous glint in her eye. “Nynaeve will be Wisdom here for another fifty years at least. Probably more. Are you going to spend the rest of your life as her apprentice?”
“There are other villages,” she replied heatedly. “Nynaeve says the villages north of the Taren always choose a Wisdom from away. They think it stops her from having favorites among the village folk.”
His amusement melted as fast as it had come. “Outside the Two Rivers? I’d never see you again.”
“And you wouldn’t like that? You have not given any sign lately that you’d care one way or another.”
“No one ever leaves the Two Rivers,” he went on. “Maybe somebody from Taren Ferry, but they’re all strange anyway. Hardly like Two Rivers folk at all.”
Egwene gave an exasperated sigh. “Well, maybe I’m strange, too. Maybe I want to see some of the places I hear about in the stories. Have you ever thought of that?”
“Of course I have. I daydream sometimes, but I know the difference between daydreams and what’s real.”
“And I do not?” she said furiously, and promptly turned her back on him.
“That wasn’t what I meant. I was talking about me. Egwene?”
She jerked her cloak around her, a wall to shut him off, and stiffly walked a few paces away. He rubbed his head in frustration. How to explain? This was not the first time she had squeezed meanings from his words that he never knew were in them. In her present mood, a misstep would only make matters worse, and he was fairly sure that nearly anything he said would be a misstep.
Mat and Perrin came back then. Egwene ignored their coming. They looked at her hesitantly, then crowded close to Rand.
“Moiraine gave Perrin a coin, too,” Mat said. “Just like ours.” He paused before adding, “And he saw the rider.”
“Where?” Rand demanded. “When? Did anybody else see him? Did you tell anyone?”
Perrin raised broad hands in a slowing gesture. “One question at a time. I saw him on the edge of the village, watching the smithy, just at twilight yesterday. Gave me the shivers, he did. I told Master Luhhan, only nobody was there when he looked. He said I was seeing shadows. But he carried his biggest hammer around with him while we were banking the forge-fire and putting the tools up. He’s never done that before.”
“So he believed you,” Rand said, but Perrin shrugged.
“I don’t know. I asked him why he was carrying the hammer if all I saw was shadows, and he said something about wolves getting bold enough to come into the village. Maybe he thought that’s what I saw, but he ought to know I can tell the difference between a wolf and a man on horseback, even at dusk. I know what I saw, and nobody is going to make me believe different.”
“I believe you,” Rand said. “Remember, I saw him, too.” Perrin gave a satisfied grunt, as if he had not been sure of that.
“What are you talking about?” Egwene demanded suddenly.
Rand suddenly wished he had spoken more quietly. He would have if he had realized she was listening. Mat and Perrin, grinning like fools, fell all over themselves telling her of their encounters with the black-cloaked rider, but Rand kept silent. He was sure he knew what she would say when they were done.
“Nynaeve was right,” Egwene announced to the sky when the two youths fell silent. “None of you is ready to be off leading strings. People do ride horses, you know. That doesn’t make them monsters out of a gleeman’s tale.” Rand nodded to himself; it was just as he had thought. She rounded on him. “And you’ve been spreading these tales. Sometimes you have no sense, Rand al’Thor. The winter has been frightening enough without you going about scaring the children.”
Rand gave a sour grimace. “I haven’t spread anything, Egwene. But I saw what I saw, and it was no farmer out looking for a strayed cow.”
Egwene drew a deep breath and opened her mouth, but whatever she had been going to say vanished as the door of the inn opened and a man with shaggy white hair came hurrying out as if pursued.
The door of the inn banged shut behind the white-haired man, and he spun around to glare at it. Lean, he would have been tall if not for a stoop to his shoulders, but he moved in a spry fashion that belied his apparent age. His cloak seemed a mass of patches, in odd shapes and sizes, fluttering with every breath of air, patches in a hundred colors. It was really quite thick, Rand saw, despite what Master al’Vere had said, with the patches merely sewn on like decorations.
“The gleeman!” Egwene whispered excitedly.
The white-haired man whirled, cloak flaring. His long coat had odd, baggy sleeves and big pockets. Thick mustaches, as snowy as the hair on his head, quivered around his mouth, and his face was gnarled like a tree that had seen hard times. He gestured imperiously at Rand and the others with a long-stemmed pipe, ornately carved, that trailed a wisp of smoke. Blue eyes peered out from under bushy white brows, drilling into whatever he looked at.
Rand stared at the man’s eyes almost as much as at the rest of him. Everybody in the Two Rivers had dark eyes, and so did most of the merchants, and their guards, and everyone else he had ever seen. The Congars and the Coplins had made fun of him for his gray eyes, until the day he finally punched Ewal Coplin in the nose; the Wisdom had surely gotten onto him for that. He wondered if there was a place where nobody had dark eyes. Maybe Lan comes from there, too.
“What sort of place is this?” the gleeman demanded in a deep voice that sounded in some way larger than that of an ordinary man. Even in the open air it seemed to fill a great room and resonate from the walls. “The yokels in that village on the hill tell me I can get here before dark, neglecting to say that that was only if I left well before noon. When I finally do arrive, chilled to the bone and ready for a warm bed, your innkeeper grumbles about the hour as if I were a wandering swineherd and your Village Council hadn’t begged me to display my art at this festival of yours. And he never even told me he was the Mayor.” He slowed for a breath, taking them all in with a glare, but he was off again on the instant. “When I came downstairs to smoke my pipe before the fire and have a mug of ale, every man in the common room stares at me as if I were his least favorite brother-in-law seeking to borrow money. One old grandfather starts ranting at me about the kind of stories I should or should not tell, then a girl-child shouts at me to get out, and threatens me with a great club when I don’t move quickly enough for her. Who ever heard of treating a gleeman so?”
Egwene’s face was a study, her goggle-eyed amaze at a gleeman in the flesh marred by a desire to defend Nynaeve.
“Your pardon, Master Gleeman,” Rand said. He knew he was grinning foolishly, himself. “That was our Wisdom, and—”
“That pretty little slip of a girl?” the gleeman exclaimed. “A village Wisdom? Why, at her age she should better be flirting with the young men than foretelling the weather and curing the sick.”
Rand shifted uncomfortably. He hoped Nynaeve never overheard the man’s opinion. At least, not until he had done with his performing. Perrin winced at the gleeman’s words, and Mat whistled soundlessly, as if both had had the same thought as he had.
“The men were the Village Council,” Rand went on. “I’m sure they intended no discourtesy. You see, we just learned there’s a war in Ghealdan, and a man claiming to be the Dragon Reborn. A false Dragon. Aes Sedai are riding there from Tar Valon. The Council is trying to decide if we might be in danger here.”
“Old news, even in Baerlon,” the gleeman said dismissively, “and that is the last place in the world to hear anything.” He paused, looking around the village, and dryly added, “Almost the last place.” Then his eyes fell on the wagon in front of the inn, standing alone now, with its shafts on the ground. “So. I thought I recognized Padan Fain in there.” His voice was still deep, but the resonance had gone, replaced by scorn. “Fain was always one to carry bad news quickly, and the worse, the faster. There’s more raven in him than man.”
“Master Fain has come often to Emond’s Field, Master Gleeman,” Egwene said, a hint of disapproval finally breaking through her delight. “He is always full of laughter, and he brings much more good news than bad.”
The gleeman eyed her for a moment, then smiled broadly. “Now you’re a lovely lass. You should have rose buds in your hair. Unfortunately, I cannot pull roses from the air, not this year, but how would you like to stand beside me tomorrow for a part of my performance? Hand me my flute when I want it, and certain other apparatus. I always choose the prettiest girl I can find as my assistant.”
Perrin snickered, and Mat, who had been snickering, laughed out loud. Rand blinked in surprise; Egwene was glaring at him, and he had not even smiled. She straightened around and spoke in a too-calm voice.
“Thank you, Master Gleeman. I would be happy to assist you.”
“Thom Merrilin,” the gleeman said. They stared. “My name is Thom Merrilin, not Master Gleeman.” He hitched the multihued cloak up on his shoulders, and abruptly his voice once more seemed to reverberate in a great hall. “Once a Courtbard, I am now indeed risen to the exalted rank of Master Gleeman, yet my name is plain Thom Merrilin, and gleeman is the simple title in which I glory.” And he swept a bow so elaborate with flourishes of his cloak that Mat clapped and Egwene murmured appreciatively.
“Master . . . ah . . . Master Merrilin,” Mat said, unsure exactly what form of address to take out of what Thom Merrilin had said, “what is happening in Ghealdan? Do you know anything about this false Dragon? Or the Aes Sedai?”
“Do I look like a peddler, boy?” the gleeman grumbled, tapping out his pipe on the heel of his palm. He made the pipe disappear somewhere inside his cloak, or his coat; Rand was not sure where it had gone or how. “I am a gleeman, not a newsmonger. And I make a point of never knowing anything about Aes Sedai. Much safer that way.”
“But the war,” Mat began eagerly, only to be cut off by Master Merrilin.
“In wars, boy, fools kill other fools for foolish causes. That’s enough for anyone to know. I am here for my art.” Suddenly he thrust a finger at Rand. “You, lad. You’re a tall one. Not with your full growth on you yet, but I doubt there’s another man in the district with your height. Not many in the village with eyes that color, either, I’ll wager. The point is, you’re an axe handle across the shoulders and as tall as an Aielman. What’s your name, lad?”
Rand gave it hesitantly, not sure whether or not the man was making fun of him, but the gleeman had already turned his attention to Perrin. “And you have almost the size of an Ogier. Close enough. How are you called?”
“Not unless I stand on my own shoulders.” Perrin laughed. “I’m afraid Rand and I are just ordinary folk, Master Merrilin, not made-up creatures from your stories. I’m Perrin Aybara.”
Thom Merrilin tugged at one of his mustaches. “Well, now. Made-up creatures from my stories. Is that what they are? You lads are widely traveled, then, it seems.”
Rand kept his mouth shut, certain they were the butt of a joke, now, but Perrin spoke up.
“We’ve all of us been as far as Watch Hill, and Deven Ride. Not many around here have gone as far.” He was not boasting; Perrin seldom did. He was just telling the truth.
“We’ve all seen the Mire, too,” Mat added, and he did sound boastful. “That’s the swamp at the far end of the Waterwood. Nobody at all goes there—it’s full of quicksands and bogs—except us. And nobody goes to the Mountains of Mist, either, but we did, once. To the foot of them, anyway.”
“As far as that?” the gleeman murmured, brushing at his mustaches now continually. Rand thought he was hiding a smile, and he saw that Perrin was frowning.
“It’s bad luck to enter the mountains,” Mat said, as if he had to defend himself for not going further. “Everybody knows that.”
“That’s just foolishness, Matrim Cauthon,” Egwene cut in angrily. “Nynaeve says. . . .” She broke off, her cheeks turning pink, and the look she gave Thom Merrilin was not as friendly as it had been. “It is not right to make. . . . It isn’t. . . .” Her face went redder, and she fell silent. Mat blinked, as if he was just getting a suspicion of what had been going on.
“You’re right, child,” the gleeman said contritely. “I apologize humbly. I am here to entertain. Aah, my tongue has always gotten me into trouble.”
“Maybe we haven’t traveled as far as you,” Perrin said flatly, “but what does how tall Rand is have to do with anything?”
“Just this, lad. A little later I will let you try to pick me up, but you won’t be able to lift my feet from the ground. Not you, nor your tall friend there—Rand, is it?—nor any other man. Now what do you think of that?”
Perrin snorted a laugh. “I think I can lift you right now.” But when he stepped forward Thom Merrilin motioned him back.
“Later, lad, later. When there are more folk to watch. An artist needs an audience.”
A score of folk had gathered on the Green since the gleeman appeared from the inn, young men and women down to children who peeked, wide-eyed and silent, from behind the older onlookers. All looked as if they were waiting for miraculous things from the gleeman. The white-haired man looked them over—he appeared to be counting them—then gave a slight shake of his head and sighed.
“I suppose I had better give you a small sample. So you can run tell the others. Eh? Just a taste of what you’ll see tomorrow at your festival.”
He took a step back, and suddenly leaped into the air, twisting and somersaulting to land facing them atop the old stone foundation. More than that, three balls—red, white, and black—began dancing between his hands even as he landed.
A soft sound came from the watchers, half astonishment, half satisfaction. Even Rand forgot his irritation. He flashed Egwene a grin and got a delighted one in return, then both turned to stare unabashedly at the gleeman.
“You want stories?” Thom Merrilin declaimed. “I have stories, and I will give them to you. I will make them come alive before your eyes.” A blue ball joined the others from somewhere, then a green one, and a yellow. “Tales of great wars and great heroes, for the men and boys. For the women and girls, the entire Aptarigine Cycle. Tales of Artur Paendrag Tanreall, Artur Hawkwing, Artur the High King, who once ruled all the lands from the Aiel Waste to the Aryth Ocean, and even beyond. Wondrous stories of strange people and strange lands, of the Green Man, of Warders and Trollocs, of Ogier and Aiel. The Thousand Tales of Anla, the Wise Counselor. ‘Jaem the Giant-Slayer.’ How Susa Tamed Jain Farstrider. ‘Mara and the Three Foolish Kings.’ ”
“Tell us about Lenn,” Egwene called. “How he flew to the moon in the belly of an eagle made of fire. Tell about his daughter Salya walking among the stars.”
Rand looked at her out of the corner of his eye, but she seemed intent on the gleeman. She had never liked stories about adventures and long journeys. Her favorites were always the funny ones, or stories about women outwitting people who were supposed to be smarter than everyone else. He was sure she had asked for tales about Lenn and Salya to put a burr under his shirt. Surely she could see the world outside was no place for Two Rivers folk. Listening to tales of adventures, even dreaming about them, was one thing; having them take place around you would be something else again.
“Old stories, those,” Thom Merrilin said, and abruptly he was juggling three colored balls with each hand. “Stories from the Age before the Age of Legends, some say. Perhaps even older. But I have all stories, mind you now, of Ages that were and will be. Ages when men ruled the heavens and the stars, and Ages when man roamed as brother to the animals. Ages of wonder, and Ages of horror. Ages ended by fire raining from the skies, and Ages doomed by snow and ice covering land and sea. I have all stories, and I will tell all stories. Tales of Mosk the Giant, with his Lance of fire that could reach around the world, and his wars with Elsbet, the Queen of All. Tales of Materese the Healer, Mother of the Wondrous Ind.”
The balls now danced between Thom’s hands in two intertwining circles. His voice was almost a chant, and he turned slowly as he spoke, as if surveying the onlookers to gauge his effect. “I will tell you of the end of the Age of Legends, of the Dragon, and his attempt to free the Dark One into the world of men. I will tell of the Time of Madness, when Aes Sedai shattered the world; of the Trolloc Wars, when men battled Trollocs for rule of the earth; of the War of the Hundred Years, when men battled men and the nations of our day were wrought. I will tell the adventures of men and women, rich and poor, great and small, proud and humble. The Siege of the Pillars of the Sky. ‘How Goodwife Karil Cured Her Husband of Snoring.’ King Darith and the Fall of the House of—”
Abruptly the flow of words and the juggling alike stopped. Thom simply snatched the balls from the air and stopped talking. Unnoticed by Rand, Moiraine had joined the listeners. Lan was at her shoulder, though he had to look twice to see the man. For a moment Thom looked at Moiraine sideways, his face and body still except for making the balls disappear into his capacious coat sleeves. Then he bowed to her, holding his cloak wide. “Your pardon, but you are surely not from this district?”
“Lady!” Ewin hissed fiercely. “The Lady Moiraine.”
Thom blinked, then bowed again, more deeply. “Your pardon again . . . ah, Lady. I meant no disrespect.”
Moiraine made a small waving-away gesture. “None was perceived, Master Bard. And my name is simply Moiraine. I am indeed a stranger here, a traveler like yourself, far from home and alone. The world can be a dangerous place when one is a stranger.”
“The Lady Moiraine collects stories,” Ewin put in. “Stories about things that happened in the Two Rivers. Though I don’t know what ever happened here to make a story of.”
“I trust you will like my stories, as well . . . Moiraine.” Thom watched her with obvious wariness. He looked not best pleased to find her there. Suddenly Rand wondered what sort of entertainment a lady like her might be offered in a city like Baerlon, or Caemlyn. Surely it could not be anything better than a gleeman.
“That is a matter of taste, Master Bard,” Moiraine replied. “Some stories I like, and some I do not.”
Thom’s bow was his deepest yet, bending his long body parallel to the ground. “I assure you, none of my stories will displease. All will please and entertain. And you do me too much honor. I am a simple gleeman; that and nothing more.”
Moiraine answered his bow with a gracious nod. For an instant she seemed even more the lady Ewin had named her, accepting an offering from one of her subjects. Then she turned away, and Lan followed, a wolf heeling a gliding swan. Thom stared after them, bushy brows drawn down, stroking his long mustaches with a knuckle, until they were halfway up the Green. He’s not pleased at all, Rand thought.
“Are you going to juggle some more, now?” Ewin demanded.
“Eat fire,” Mat shouted. “I want to see you eat fire.”
“The harp!” a voice cried from the crowd. “Play the harp!” Someone else called for the flute.
At that moment the door of the inn opened and the Village Council trundled out, Nynaeve in their midst. Padan Fain was not with them, Rand saw; apparently the peddler had decided to remain in the warm common room with his mulled wine.
Muttering about “a strong brandy,” Thom Merrilin abruptly jumped down from the old foundation. He ignored the cries of those who had been watching him, pressing inside past the Councilors before they were well out of the doorway.
“Is he supposed to be a gleeman or a king?” Cenn Buie asked in annoyed tones. “A waste of good money, if you ask me.”
Bran al’Vere half turned after the gleeman, then shook his head. “That man may be more trouble than he’s worth.”
Nynaeve, busy gathering her cloak around her, sniffed loudly. “Worry about the gleeman if you want, Brandelwyn al’Vere. At least he is in Emond’s Field, which is more than you can say for this false Dragon. But as long as you are worrying, there are others here who should excite your worry.”
“If you please, Wisdom,” Bran said stiffly, “kindly leave who should worry me to my deciding. Mistress Moiraine and Master Lan are guests in my inn, and decent, respectable folk, so I say. Neither of them has called me a fool in front of the whole Council. Neither of them has told the Council it hasn’t a full set of wits among them.”
“It seems my estimate was too high by half,” Nynaeve retorted. She strode away without a backward glance, leaving Bran’s jaw working as he searched for a reply.
Egwene looked at Rand as if she were going to speak, then darted after the Wisdom instead. Rand knew there must be some way to stop her from leaving the Two Rivers, but the only way he could think of was not one he was prepared to take, even if she was willing. And she had as much as said she was not willing at all, which made him feel even worse.
“That young woman wants a husband,” Cenn Buie growled, bouncing on his toes. His face was purple, and getting darker. “She lacks proper respect. We’re the Village Council, not boys raking her yard, and—”
The Mayor breathed heavily through his nose, and suddenly rounded on the old thatcher. “Be quiet, Cenn! Stop acting like a black-veiled Aiel!” The skinny man froze on his toes in astonishment. The Mayor never let his temper get the best of him. Bran glared. “Burn me, but we have better things to be about than this foolishness. Or do you intend to prove Nynaeve right?” With that he stumped back into the inn and slammed the door behind him.
The Council members glanced at Cenn, then moved off in their separate directions. All but Haral Luhhan, who accompanied the stony-visaged thatcher, talking quietly. The blacksmith was the only one who could ever get Cenn to see reason.
Rand went to meet his father, and his friends trailed after him.
“I’ve never seen Master al’Vere so mad,” was the first thing Rand said, getting him a disgusted look from Mat.
“The Mayor and the Wisdom seldom agree,” Tam said, “and they agreed less than usual today. That’s all. It’s the same in every village.”
“What about the false Dragon?” Mat asked, and Perrin added eager murmurs. “What about the Aes Sedai?”
Tam shook his head slowly. “Master Fain knew little more than he had already told. At least, little of interest to us. Battles won or lost. Cities taken and retaken. All in Ghealdan, thank the Light. It hasn’t spread, or had not the last Master Fain knew.”
“Battles interest me,” Mat said, and Perrin added, “What did he say about them?”
“Battles don’t interest me, Matrim,” Tam said. “But I’m sure he will be glad to tell you all about them later. What does interest me is that we shouldn’t have to worry about them here, as far as the Council can tell. We can see no reason for Aes Sedai to come here on their way south. And as for the return journey, they aren’t likely to want to cross the Forest of Shadows and swim the White River.”
Rand and the others chuckled at the idea. There were three reasons why no one came into the Two Rivers except from the north, by way of Taren Ferry. The Mountains of Mist, in the west, were the first, of course, and the Mire blocked the east just as effectively. To the south was the White River, which got its name from the way rocks and boulders churned its swift waters to froth. And beyond the White lay the Forest of Shadows. Few Two Rivers folk had ever crossed the White, and fewer still returned if they did. It was generally agreed, though, that the Forest of Shadows stretched south for a hundred miles or more without a road or a village, but with plenty of wolves and bears.
“So that’s an end to it for us,” Mat said. He sounded at least a little disappointed.
“Not quite,” Tam said. “Day after tomorrow we will send men to Deven Ride and Watch Hill, and Taren Ferry, too, to arrange for a watch to be kept. Riders along the White and the Taren, both, and patrols between. It should be done today, but only the Mayor agrees with me. The rest can’t see asking anyone to spend Bel Tine off riding across the Two Rivers.”
“But I thought you said we didn’t have to worry,” Perrin said, and Tam shook his head.
“I said should not, boy, not did not. I’ve seen men die because they were sure that what should not happen, would not. Besides, the fighting will stir up all sorts of people. Most will just be trying to find safety, but others will be looking for a way to profit from the confusion. We’ll offer any of the first a helping hand, but we must be ready to send the second type on their way.”
Abruptly Mat spoke up. “Can we be part of it? I want to, anyway. You know I can ride as well as anyone in the village.”
“You want a few weeks of cold, boredom, and sleeping rough?” Tam chuckled. “Likely that’s all there will be to it. I hope that’s all. We’re well out of the way even for refugees. But you can speak to Master al’Vere if your mind is made up. Rand, it’s time for us to be getting back to the farm.”
Rand blinked in surprise. “I thought we were staying for Winternight.”
“Things need seeing to at the farm, and I need you with me.”
“Even so, we don’t have to leave for hours yet. And I want to volunteer for the patrols, too.”
“We are going now,” his father replied in a tone that brooked no argument. In a softer voice he added, “We’ll be back tomorrow in plenty of time for you to speak to the Mayor. And plenty of time for Festival, too. Five minutes, now, then meet me in the stable.”
“Are you going to join Rand and me on the watch?” Mat asked Perrin as Tam left. “I’ll bet there’s nothing like this ever happened in the Two Rivers before. Why, if we get up to the Taren, we might even see soldiers, or who knows what. Even Tinkers.”
“I expect I will,” Perrin said slowly, “if Master Luhhan doesn’t need me, that is.”
“The war is in Ghealdan,” Rand snapped. With an effort he lowered his voice. “The war is in Ghealdan, and the Aes Sedai are the Light knows where, but none of it is here. The man in the black cloak is, or have you forgotten him already?” The others exchanged embarrassed looks.
“Sorry, Rand,” Mat muttered. “But a chance to do something besides milk my da’s cows doesn’t come along very often.” He straightened under their startled stares. “Well, I do milk them, and every day, too.”
“The black rider,” Rand reminded them. “What if he hurts somebody?”
“Maybe he’s a refugee from the war,” Perrin said doubtfully.
“Whatever he is,” Mat said, “the watch will find him.”
“Maybe,” Rand said, “but he seems to disappear when he wants to. It might be better if they knew to look for him.”
“We’ll tell Master al’Vere when we volunteer for the patrols,” Mat said, “he’ll tell the Council, and they’ll tell the watch.”
“The Council!” Perrin said incredulously. “We’d be lucky if the Mayor didn’t laugh out loud. Master Luhhan and Rand’s father already think the two of us are jumping at shadows.”
Rand sighed. “If we’re going to do it, we might as well do it now. He won’t laugh any louder today than he will tomorrow.”
“Maybe,” Perrin said with a sidelong glance at Mat, “we should try finding some others who’ve seen him. We’ll see just about everybody in the village tonight.” Mat’s scowl deepened, but he still did not say anything. All of them understood that Perrin meant they should find witnesses who were more reliable than Mat. “He won’t laugh any louder tomorrow,” Perrin added when Rand hesitated. “And I’d just as soon have somebody else with us when we go to him. Half the village would suit me fine.”
Rand nodded slowly. He could already hear Master al’Vere laughing. More witnesses certainly could not hurt. And if three of them had seen the fellow, others had to have, too. They must have. “Tomorrow, then. You two find whoever you can tonight, and tomorrow we go to the Mayor. After that. . . .” They looked at him silently, no one raising the question of what happened if they could not find anyone else who had seen the black-cloaked man. The question was clear in their eyes, though, and he had no answer. He sighed heavily. “I’d better go, now. My father will be wondering if I fell into a hole.”
Followed by their goodbyes, he trotted around to the stableyard where the high-wheeled cart stood propped on its shafts.
The stable was a long, narrow building, topped by a high-peaked, thatched roof. Stalls, their floors covered with straw, filled both sides of the dim interior, lit only by the open double doors at either end. The peddler’s team munched their oats in eight stalls, and Master al’Vere’s massive Dhurrans, the team he hired out when farmers had hauling beyond the abilities of their own horses, filled six more, but only three others were occupied. Rand thought he could match up horse and rider with no trouble. The tall, deep-chested black stallion that swung up his head fiercely had to be Lan’s. The sleek white mare with an arched neck, her quick steps as graceful as a girl dancing, even in the stall, could only belong to Moiraine. And the third unfamiliar horse, a rangy, slab-sided gelding of a dusty brown, fit Thom Merrilin perfectly.
Tam stood in the rear of the stable, holding Bela by a lead rope and speaking quietly to Hu and Tad. Before Rand had taken two steps into the stable his father nodded to the stablemen and brought Bela out, wordlessly gathering up Rand as he went.
They harnessed the shaggy mare in silence. Tam appeared so deep in thought that Rand held his tongue. He did not really look forward to trying to convince his father about the black-cloaked rider, much less the Mayor. Tomorrow would have to be time enough, when Mat and the rest had found others who had seen the man. If they found others.
As the cart lurched into motion, Rand took his bow and quiver from the back, awkwardly belting the quiver at his waist as he half trotted alongside. When they reached the last row of houses in the village, he nocked an arrow, carrying it half raised and partly drawn. There was nothing to see except mostly leafless trees, but his shoulders tightened. The black rider could be on them before either of them knew it. There might not be time to draw the bow if he was not already halfway to it.
He knew he could not keep up the tension on the bowstring for long. He had made the bow himself, and Tam was one of the few others in the district who could even draw it all the way to the cheek. He cast around for something to take his mind off thinking about the dark rider. Surrounded by the forest, their cloaks flapping in the wind, it was not easy.
“Father,” he said finally, “I don’t understand why the Council had to question Padan Fain.” With an effort he took his eyes off the woods and looked across Bela at Tam. “It seems to me, the decision you reached could have been made right on the spot. The Mayor frightened everybody half out of their wits, talking about Aes Sedai and the false Dragon here in the Two Rivers.”
“People are funny, Rand. The best of them are. Take Haral Luhhan. Master Luhhan is a strong man, and a brave one, but he can’t bear to see butchering done. Turns pale as a sheet.”
“What does that have to do with anything? Everybody knows Master Luhhan can’t stand the sight of blood, and nobody but the Coplins and the Congars thinks anything of it.”
“Just this, lad. People don’t always think or behave the way you might believe they would. Those folk back there . . . let the hail beat their crops into the mud, and the wind take off every roof in the district, and the wolves kill half their livestock, and they’ll roll up their sleeves and start from scratch. They’ll grumble, but they won’t waste any time with it. But you give them just the thought of Aes Sedai and a false Dragon in Ghealdan, and soon enough they’ll start thinking that Ghealdan is not that far the other side of the Forest of Shadows, and a straight line from Tar Valon to Ghealdan wouldn’t pass that much to the east of us. As if the Aes Sedai wouldn’t take the road through Caemlyn and Lugard instead of traveling cross-country! By tomorrow morning half the village would have been sure the entire war was about to descend on us. It would take weeks to undo. A fine Bel Tine that would make. So Bran gave them the idea before they could get it for themselves.
“They’ve seen the Council take the problem under consideration, and by now they’ll be hearing what we decided. They chose us for the Village Council because they trust we can reason things out in the best way for everybody. They trust our opinions. Even Cenn’s, which doesn’t say much for the rest of us, I suppose. At any rate, they will hear there isn’t anything to worry about, and they’ll believe it. It is not that they couldn’t reach the same conclusion, or would not, eventually, but this way we won’t have Festival ruined, and nobody has to spend weeks worrying about something that isn’t likely to happen. If it does, against all odds . . . well, the patrols will give us enough warning to do what we can. I truly don’t think it will come to that, though.”
Rand puffed out his cheeks. Apparently, being on the Council was more complicated than he had believed. The cart rumbled on along the Quarry Road.
“Did anyone besides Perrin see this strange rider?” Tam asked.
“Mat did, but—” Rand blinked, then stared across Bela’s back at his father. “You believe me? I have to go back. I have to tell them.” Tam’s shout halted him as he turned to run back to the village.
“Hold, lad, hold! Do you think I waited this long to speak for no reason?”
Reluctantly Rand kept on beside the cart, still creaking along behind patient Bela. “What made you change your mind? Why can’t I tell the others?”
“They’ll know soon enough. At least, Perrin will. Mat, I’m not sure of. Word must be gotten to the farms as best it can, but in another hour there won’t be anyone in Emond’s Field above sixteen, those who can be responsible about it, at least, who doesn’t know a stranger is skulking around and likely not the sort you would invite to Festival. The winter has been bad enough without this to scare the young ones.”
“Festival?” Rand said. “If you had seen him you wouldn’t want him closer than ten miles. A hundred, maybe.”
“Perhaps so,” Tam said placidly. “He could be just a refugee from the troubles in Ghealdan, or more likely a thief who thinks the pickings will be easier here than in Baerlon or Taren Ferry. Even so, no one around here has so much they can afford to have it stolen. If the man is trying to escape the war . . . well, that’s still no excuse for scaring people. Once the watch is mounted, it should either find him or frighten him off.”
“I hope it frightens him off. But why do you believe me now, when you didn’t this morning?”
“I had to believe my own eyes then, lad, and I saw nothing.” Tam shook his grizzled head. “Only young men see this fellow, it seems. When Haral Luhhan mentioned Perrin jumping shadows, though, it all came out. Jon Thane’s oldest son saw him, too, and so did Samel Crawe’s boy, Bandry. Well, when four of you say you’ve seen a thing—and solid lads, all—we start thinking maybe it’s there whether we can see it or not. All except Cenn, of course. Anyway, that’s why we’re going home. With both of us away, this stranger could be up to any kind of mischief there. If not for Festival, I wouldn’t come back tomorrow, either. But we can’t make ourselves prisoners in our own homes just because this fellow is lurking about.”
“I didn’t know about Ban or Lem,” Rand said. “The rest of us were going to the Mayor tomorrow, but we were worried he wouldn’t believe us, either.”
“Gray hairs don’t mean our brains have curdled,” Tam said dryly. “So you keep a sharp eye. Maybe I’ll catch sight of him, too, if he shows up again.”
Rand settled down to do just that. He was surprised to realize that his step felt lighter. The knots were gone from his shoulders. He was still scared, but it was not so bad as it had been. Tam and he were just as alone on the Quarry Road as they had been that morning, but in some way he felt as if the entire village were with them. That others knew and believed made all the difference. There was nothing the black-cloaked horseman could do that the people of Emond’s Field could not handle together.
Copyright © 1990 by Robert Jordan
Order Your Copy