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This week we’re discussing chapters 15-18 of Book 1, The Eye of the World and you can read those chapters below for free. Get caught up with the prologue, plus chapters 1-14 here!
Strangers and Friends
Sunlight streaming across his narrow bed finally woke Rand out of a deep but restless sleep. He pulled a pillow over his head, but it did not really shut out the light, and he did not really want to go back to sleep. There had been more dreams after the first. He could not remember any but the first, but he knew he wanted no more.
With a sigh he tossed the pillow aside and sat up, wincing as he stretched. All the aches he thought had soaked out in the bath were back. And his head still hurt, too. It did not surprise him. A dream like that was enough to give anybody a headache. The others had already faded, but not that one.
The other beds were empty. Light poured in through the window at a steep angle; the sun stood well above the horizon. By this hour back on the farm he would have already fixed something to eat and been well into his chores. He scrambled out of bed, muttering angrily to himself. A city to see, and they did not even wake him. At least someone had seen that there was water in the pitcher, and still warm, too.
He washed and dressed quickly, hesitating a moment over Tam’s sword. Lan and Thom had left their saddlebags and blanketrolls behind in the room, of course, but the Warder’s sword was nowhere to be seen. Lan had worn his sword in Emond’s Field even before there was any hint of trouble. He thought he would take the older man’s lead. Telling himself it was not because he had often daydreamed about walking the streets of a real city wearing a sword, he belted it on and tossed his cloak over his shoulder like a sack.
Taking the stairs two at a time, he hurried down to the kitchen. That was surely the quickest place to get a bite, and on his only day in Baerlon he did not want to waste any more time than he already had. Blood and ashes, but they could have waked me.
Master Fitch was in the kitchen, confronting a plump woman whose arms were covered in flour to her elbows, obviously the cook. Rather, she was confronting him, shaking her finger under his nose. Serving maids and scullions, potboys and spitboys, hurried about their tasks, elaborately ignoring what was going on in front of them.
“. . . my Cirri is a good cat,” the cook was saying sharply, “and I won’t hear a word otherwise, do you hear? Complaining about him doing his job too well, that’s what you’re doing, if you ask me.”
“I have had complaints,” Master Fitch managed to get in. “Complaints, mistress. Half the guests—”
“I won’t hear of it. I just won’t hear of it. If they want to complain about my cat, let them do the cooking. My poor old cat, who’s just doing his job, and me, we’ll go somewhere where we’re appreciated, see if we don’t.” She untied her apron and started to lift it over her head.
“No!” Master Fitch yelped, and leaped to stop her. They danced in a circle with the cook trying to take her apron off and the innkeeper trying to put it back on her. “No, Sara,” he panted. “There’s no need for this. No need, I say! What would I do without you? Cirri’s a fine cat. An excellent cat. He’s the best cat in Baerlon. If anyone else complains, I’ll tell them to be thankful the cat is doing his job. Yes, thankful. You mustn’t go. Sara? Sara!”
The cook stopped their circling and managed to snatch her apron free of him. “All right, then. All right.” Clutching the apron in both hands, she still did not retie it. “But if you expect me to have anything ready for midday, you’d best get out of here and let me get to it. This may be your inn, but it’s my kitchen. Unless you want to do the cooking?” She made as if to hand the apron to him.
Master Fitch stepped back with his hands spread wide. He opened his mouth, then stopped, looking around for the first time. The kitchen help still studiously ignored the cook and the innkeeper, and Rand began an intensive search of his coat pockets, though except for the coin Moiraine had given him there was nothing in them but a few coppers and a handful of odds and ends. His pocket knife and sharpening stone. Two spare bowstrings and a piece of string he had thought might be useful.
“I am sure, Sara,” Master Fitch said carefully, “that everything will be up to your usual excellence.” With that he took one last suspicious look at the kitchen help, then left with as much dignity as he could manage.
Sara waited until he was gone before briskly tying her apron strings again, then fastened her eye on Rand. “I suppose you want something to eat, eh? Well, come on in.” She gave him a quick grin. “I don’t bite, I don’t, no matter what you may have seen as you shouldn’t. Ciel, get the lad some bread and cheese and milk. That’s all there is right now. Sit yourself, lad. Your friends have all gone out, except one lad I understand wasn’t feeling well, and I expect you’ll be wanting to do the same.”
One of the serving maids brought a tray while Rand took a stool at the table. He began eating as the cook went back to kneading her bread dough, but she was not finished talking.
“You mustn’t take any mind of what you saw, now. Master Fitch is a good enough man, though the best of you aren’t any bargains. It’s the folk complaining as has him on edge, and what do they have to complain about? Would they rather find live rats than dead ones? Though it isn’t like Cirri to leave his handiwork behind. And over a dozen? Cirri wouldn’t let so many get into the inn, he wouldn’t. It’s a clean place, too, and not one to be so troubled. And all with backs broken.” She shook her head at the strangeness of it all.
The bread and cheese turned to ashes in Rand’s mouth. “Their backs were broken?”
The cook waved a floury hand. “Think on happier things, that’s my way of looking. There’s a gleeman, you know. In the common room right this minute. But then, you came with him, didn’t you? You are one of those as came with Mistress Alys last evening, aren’t you? I thought you were. I won’t get much chance to see this gleeman myself, I’m thinking, not with the inn as full as it is, and most of them riffraff down from the mines.” She gave the dough an especially heavy thump. “Not the sort we’d let in most times, only the whole town is filled up with them. Better than some they could be, though, I suppose. Why, I haven’t seen a gleeman since before the winter, and. . . .”
Rand ate mechanically, not tasting anything, not listening to what the cook said. Dead rats, with their backs broken. He finished his breakfast hastily, stammered his thanks, and hurried out. He had to talk to someone.
The common room of the Stag and Lion shared little except its purpose with the same room at the Winespring Inn. It was twice as wide and three times as long, and colorful pictures of ornate buildings with gardens of tall trees and bright flowers were painted high on the walls. Instead of one huge fireplace, a hearth blazed on each wall, and scores of tables filled the floor, with almost every chair, bench, or stool taken.
Every man among the crowd of patrons with pipes in their teeth and mugs in their fists leaned forward with his attention on one thing: Thom, standing atop a table in the middle of the room, his many-colored cloak tossed over a nearby chair. Even Master Fitch held a silver tankard and a polishing cloth in motionless hands.
“. . . prancing, silver hooves and proud, arched necks,” Thom proclaimed, while somehow seeming not only to be riding a horse, but to be one of a long procession of riders. “Silken manes flutter with tossed heads. A thousand streaming banners whip rainbows against an endless sky. A hundred brazen-throated trumpets shiver the air, and drums rattle like thunder. Wave on wave, cheers roll from watchers in their thousands, roll across the rooftops and towers of Illian, crash and break unheard around the thousand ears of riders whose eyes and hearts shine with their sacred quest. The Great Hunt of the Horn rides forth, rides to seek the Horn of Valere that will summon the heroes of the Ages back from the grave to battle for the Light. . . .”
It was what the gleeman had called Plain Chant, those nights beside the fire on the ride north. Stories, he said, were told in three voices, High Chant, Plain Chant, and Common, which meant simply telling it the way you might tell your neighbor about your crop. Thom told stories in Common, but he did not bother to hide his contempt for the voice.
Rand closed the door without going in and slumped against the wall. He would get no advice from Thom. Moiraine—what would she do if she knew?
He became aware of people staring at him as they passed, and realized he was muttering under his breath. Smoothing his coat, he straightened. He had to talk to somebody. The cook had said one of the others had not gone out. It was an effort not to run.
When he rapped on the door of the room where the other boys had slept and poked his head in, only Perrin was there, lying on his bed and still not dressed. He twisted his head on the pillow to look at Rand, then closed his eyes again. Mat’s bow and quiver were propped in the corner.
“I heard you weren’t feeling well,” Rand said. He came in and sat on the next bed. “I just wanted to talk. I. . . .” He did not know how to bring it up, he realized. “If you’re sick,” he said, half standing, “maybe you ought to sleep. I can go.”
“I don’t know if I’ll ever sleep again.” Perrin sighed. “I had a bad dream, if you must know, and couldn’t get back to sleep. Mat will be quick enough to tell you. He laughed this morning, when I told them why I was too tired to go out with him, but he dreamed, too. I listened to him for most of the night, tossing and muttering, and you can’t tell me he got a good night’s sleep.” He threw a thick arm across his eyes. “Light, but I’m tired. Maybe if I just stay here for an hour or two, I’ll feel like getting up. Mat will never let me hear the end of it if I miss seeing Baerlon because of a dream.”
Rand slowly lowered himself to the bed again. He licked his lips, then said quickly, “Did he kill a rat?”
Perrin lowered his arm and stared at him. “You, too?” he said finally. When Rand nodded, he said, “I wish I was back home. He told me . . . he said. . . . What are we going to do? Have you told Moiraine?”
“No. Not yet. Maybe I won’t. I don’t know. What about you?”
“He said. . . . Blood and ashes, Rand, I don’t know.” Perrin raised up on his elbow abruptly. “Do you think Mat had the same dream? He laughed, but it sounded forced, and he looked funny when I said I couldn’t sleep because of a dream.”
“Maybe he did,” Rand said. Guiltily, he felt relieved he was not the only one. “I was going to ask Thom for advice. He’s seen a lot of the world. You . . . you don’t think we should tell Moiraine, do you?”
Perrin fell back on his pillow. “You’ve heard the stories about Aes Sedai. Do you think we can trust Thom? If we can trust anybody. Rand, if we get out of this alive, if we ever get back home, and you hear me say anything about leaving Emond’s Field, even to go as far as Watch Hill, you kick me. All right?”
“That’s no way to talk,” Rand said. He put on a smile, as cheerful as he could make it. “Of course we’ll get home. Come on, get up. We’re in a city, and we have a whole day to see it. Where are your clothes?”
“You go. I just want to lie here awhile.” Perrin put his arm back across his eyes. “You go ahead. I’ll catch you up in an hour or two.”
“It’s your loss,” Rand said as he got up. “Think of what you might miss.” He stopped at the door. “Baerlon. How many times have we talked about seeing Baerlon one day?” Perrin lay there with his eyes covered and did not say a word. After a minute Rand stepped out and closed the door behind him.
In the hallway he leaned against the wall, his smile fading. His head still hurt; it was worse, not better. He could not work up much enthusiasm for Baerlon, either, not now. He could not summon enthusiasm about anything.
A chambermaid came by, her arms full of sheets, and gave him a concerned look. Before she could speak he moved off down the hall, shrugging into his cloak. Thom would not be finished in the common room for hours yet. He might as well see what he could. Perhaps he could find Mat, and see if Ba’alzamon had been in his dreams, too. He went downstairs more slowly this time, rubbing his temple.
The stairs ended near the kitchen, so he took that way out, nodding to Sara but hurrying on when she seemed about to take up where she had left off. The stableyard was empty except for Mutch, standing in the stable door, and one of the other ostlers carrying a sack on his shoulder into the stable. Rand nodded to Mutch, too, but the stableman gave him a truculent look and went inside. He hoped the rest of the city was more like Sara and less like Mutch. Ready to see what a city was like, he picked up his step.
At the open stableyard gates, he stopped and stared. People packed the street like sheep in a pen, people swathed to the eyes in cloaks and coats, hats pulled down against the cold, weaving in and out at a quick step as though the wind whistling over the rooftops blew them along, elbowing past one another with barely a word or a glance. All strangers, he thought. None of them know each other.
The smells were strange, too, sharp and sour and sweet all mixed in a hodgepodge that had him rubbing his nose. Even at the height of Festival he had never seen so many people so jammed together. Not even half so many. And this was only one street. Master Fitch and the cook said the whole city was full. The whole city . . . like this?
He backed slowly away from the gate, away from the street full of people. It really was not right to go off and leave Perrin sick in bed. And what if Thom finished his storytelling while Rand was off in the city? The gleeman might go out himself, and Rand needed to talk to someone. Much better to wait a bit. He breathed a sigh of relief as he turned his back on the swarming street.
Going back inside the inn did not appeal to him, though, not with his headache. He sat on an upended barrel against the back of the inn and hoped the cold air might help his head.
Mutch came to the stable door from time to time to stare at him, and even across the stableyard he could make out the fellow’s disapproving scowl. Was it country people the man did not like? Or had he been embarrassed by Master Fitch greeting them after he had tried to chase them off for coming in the back way? Maybe he’s a Darkfriend, he thought, expecting to chuckle at the idea, but it was not a funny thought. He rubbed his hand along the hilt of Tam’s sword. There was not much left that was funny at all.
“A shepherd with a heron-mark sword,” said a low, woman’s voice. “That’s almost enough to make me believe anything. What trouble are you in, downcountry boy?”
Startled, Rand jumped to his feet. It was the crop-haired young woman who had been with Moiraine when he came out of the bath chamber, still dressed in a boy’s coat and breeches. She was a little older than he was, he thought, with dark eyes even bigger than Egwene’s, and oddly intent.
“You are Rand, aren’t you?” she went on. “My name is Min.”
“I’m not in trouble,” he said. He did not know what Moiraine had told her, but he remembered Lan’s admonition not to attract any notice. “What makes you think I’m in trouble? The Two Rivers is a quiet place, and we’re all quiet people. No place for trouble, unless it has to do with crops, or sheep.”
“Quiet?” Min said with a faint smile. “I’ve heard men talk about you Two Rivers folk. I’ve heard the jokes about wooden-headed sheepherders, and then there are men who have actually been downcountry.”
“Wooden-headed?” Rand said, frowning. “What jokes?”
“The ones who know,” she went on as if he had not spoken, “say you walk around all smiles and politeness, just as meek and soft as butter. On the surface, anyway. Underneath, they say, you’re all as tough as old oak roots. Prod too hard, they say, and you dig up stone. But the stone isn’t buried very deep in you, or in your friends. It’s as if a storm has scoured away almost all the covering. Moiraine didn’t tell me everything, but I see what I see.”
Old oak roots? Stone? It hardly sounded like the sort of thing the merchants or their people would say. That last made him jump, though.
He looked around quickly; the stableyard was empty, and the nearest windows were closed. “I don’t know anybody named—what was it again?”
“Mistress Alys, then, if you prefer,” Min said with an amused look that made his cheeks color. “There’s no one close enough to hear.”
“What makes you think Mistress Alys has another name?”
“Because she told me,” Min said, so patiently that he blushed again. “Not that she had a choice, I suppose. I saw she was . . . different . . . right away. When she stopped here before, on her way downcountry. She knew about me. I’ve talked to . . . others like her before.”
“ ‘Saw’?” Rand said.
“Well, I don’t suppose you’ll go running to the Children. Not considering who your traveling companions are. The Whitecloaks wouldn’t like what I do any more than they like what she does.”
“I don’t understand.”
“She says I see pieces of the Pattern.” Min gave a little laugh and shook her head. “Sounds too grand, to me. I just see things when I look at people, and sometimes I know what they mean. I look at a man and a woman who’ve never even talked to one another, and I know they’ll marry. And they do. That sort of thing. She wanted me to look at you. All of you together.”
Rand shivered. “And what did you see?”
“When you’re all in a group? Sparks swirling around you, thousands of them, and a big shadow, darker than midnight. It’s so strong, I almost wonder why everybody can’t see it. The sparks are trying to fill the shadow, and the shadow is trying to swallow the sparks.” She shrugged. “You are all tied together in something dangerous, but I can’t make any more of it.”
“All of us?” Rand muttered. “Egwene, too? But they weren’t after—I mean—”
Min did not seem to notice his slip. “The girl? She’s part of it. And the gleeman. All of you. You’re in love with her.” He stared at her. “I can tell that even without seeing any images. She loves you, too, but she’s not for you, or you for her. Not the way you both want.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“When I look at her, I see the same as when I look at . . . Mistress Alys. Other things, things I don’t understand, too, but I know what that means. She won’t refuse it.”
“This is all foolishness,” Rand said uncomfortably. His headache was fading to numbness; his head felt packed with wool. He wanted to get away from this girl and the things she saw. And yet. . . . “What do you see when you look at . . . the rest of us?”
“All sorts of things,” Min said, with a grin as if she knew what he really wanted to ask. “The War . . . ah . . . Master Andra has seven ruined towers around his head, and a babe in a cradle holding a sword, and. . . .” She shook her head. “Men like him—you understand?—always have so many images they crowd one another. The strongest images around the gleeman are a man—not him—juggling fire, and the White Tower, and that doesn’t make any sense at all for a man. The strongest things I see about the big, curly-haired fellow are a wolf, and a broken crown, and trees flowering all around him. And the other one—a red eagle, an eye on a balance scale, a dagger with a ruby, a horn, and a laughing face. There are other things, but you see what I mean. This time I can’t make up or down out of any of it.” She waited then, still grinning, until he finally cleared his throat and asked.
“What about me?”
Her grin stopped just short of outright laughter. “The same kind of things as the rest. A sword that isn’t a sword, a golden crown of laurel leaves, a beggar’s staff, you pouring water on sand, a bloody hand and a white-hot iron, three women standing over a funeral bier with you on it, black rock wet with blood—”
“All right,” he broke in uneasily. “You don’t have to list it all.”
“Most of all, I see lightning around you, some striking at you, some coming out of you. I don’t know what any of it means, except for one thing. You and I will meet again.” She gave him a quizzical look, as if she did not understand that either.
“Why shouldn’t we?” he said. “I’ll be coming back this way on my way home.”
“I suppose you will, at that.” Suddenly her grin was back, wry and mysterious, and she patted his cheek. “But if I told you everything I saw, you’d be as curly-haired as your friend with the shoulders.”
He jerked back from her hand as if it were red-hot. “What do you mean? Do you see anything about rats? Or dreams?”
“Rats! No, no rats. As for dreams, maybe it’s your idea of a dream, but I never thought it was mine.”
He wondered if she was crazy, grinning like that. “I have to go,” he said, edging around her. “I . . . I have to meet my friends.”
“Go, then. But you won’t escape.”
He didn’t exactly break into a run, but every step he took was quicker than the step before.
“Run, if you want,” she called after him. “You can’t escape from me.” Her laughter sped him across the stableyard and out into the street, into the hubbub of people. Her last words were too close to what Ba’alzamon had said. He blundered into people as he hurried through the crowd, earning hard looks and hard words, but he did not slow down until he was several streets away from the inn.
After a time he began to pay attention again to where he was. His head felt like a balloon, but he stared and enjoyed anyway. He thought Baerlon was a grand city, if not exactly in the same way as cities in Thom’s stories. He wandered up broad streets, most paved with flagstone, and down narrow, twisting lanes, wherever chance and the shifting of the crowd took him. It had rained during the night, and the streets that were unpaved had already been churned to mud by the crowds, but muddy streets were nothing new to him. None of the streets in Emond’s Field was paved.
There certainly were no palaces, and only a few houses were very much bigger than those back home, but every house had a roof of slate or tile as fine as the roof of the Winespring Inn. He supposed there would be a palace or two in Caemlyn. As for inns, he counted nine, not one smaller than the Winespring and most as large as the Stag and Lion, and there were plenty of streets he had not seen yet.
Shops dotted every street, with awnings out front sheltering tables covered with goods, everything from cloth to books to pots to boots. It was as if a hundred peddlers’ wagons had spilled out their contents. He stared so much that more than once he had to hurry on at the suspicious look of a shopkeeper. He had not understood the first shopkeeper’s stare. When he did understand, he started to get angry until he remembered that here he was the stranger. He could not have bought much, anyway. He gasped when he saw how many coppers were exchanged for a dozen discolored apples or a handful of shriveled turnips, the sort that would be fed to the horses in the Two Rivers, but people seemed eager to pay.
There were certainly more than enough people, to his estimation. For a while the sheer number of them almost overwhelmed him. Some wore clothes of finer cut than anyone in the Two Rivers—almost as fine as Moiraine’s—and quite a few had long, fur-lined coats that flapped around their ankles. The miners everybody at the inn kept talking about, they had the hunched look of men who grubbed underground. But most of the people did not look any different from those he had grown up with, not in dress or in face. He had expected they would, somehow. Indeed, some of them had so much the look of the Two Rivers in their faces that he could imagine they belonged to one family or another that he knew around Emond’s Field. A toothless, gray-haired fellow with ears like jug handles, sitting on a bench outside one of the inns and peering mournfully into an empty tankard, could easily have been Bili Congar’s close cousin. The lantern-jawed tailor sewing in front of his shop might have been Jon Thane’s brother, even to the same bald spot on the back of his head. A near mirror image of Samel Crawe pushed past Rand as he turned a corner, and. . . .
In disbelief he stared at a bony little man with long arms and a big nose, shoving hurriedly through the crowd in clothes that looked like a bundle of rags. The man’s eyes were sunken and his dirty face gaunt, as if he had not eaten or slept in days, but Rand could swear. . . . The ragged man saw him then, and froze in mid-step, heedless of people who all but stumbled over him. The last doubt in Rand’s mind vanished.
“Master Fain!” he shouted. “We all thought you were—”
As quick as a blink the peddler darted away, but Rand dodged after him, calling apologies over his shoulder to the people he bumped. Through the crowd he just caught sight of Fain dashing into an alleyway, and he turned after.
A few steps into the alleyway the peddler had stopped in his tracks. A tall fence made it into a dead end. As Rand skidded to a halt, Fain rounded on him, crouching warily and backing away. He flapped grimy hands at Rand to stay back. More than one rip showed in his coat, and his cloak was worn and tattered as if it had seen much harder use than it was meant for.
“Master Fain?” Rand said hesitantly. “What is the matter? It’s me, Rand al’Thor, from Emond’s Field. We all thought the Trollocs had taken you.”
Fain gestured sharply and, still in a crouch, ran a few crabbed steps toward the open end of the alley. He did not try to pass Rand, or even come close to him. “Don’t!” he rasped. His head shifted constantly as he tried to see everything in the street beyond Rand. “Don’t mention”—his voice dropped to a hoarse whisper, and he turned his head away, watching Rand with quick, sidelong glances—“them. There be Whitecloaks in the town.”
“They have no reason to bother us,” Rand said. “Come back to the Stag and Lion with me. I’m staying there with friends. You know most of them. They’ll be glad to see you. We all thought you were dead.”
“Dead?” the peddler snapped indignantly. “Not Padan Fain. Padan Fain knows which way to jump and where to land.” He straightened his rags as if they were feastday clothes. “Always have, and always will. I’ll live a long time. Longer than—” Abruptly his face tightened and his hands clutched hold of his coat front. “They burned my wagon, and all my goods. Had no cause to be doing that, did they? I couldn’t get to my horses. My horses, but that fat old innkeeper had them locked up in his stable. I had to step quick not to get my throat slit, and what did it get me? All that I’ve got left is what I stand up in. Now, is that fair? Is it, now?”
“Your horses are safe in Master al’Vere’s stable. You can get them anytime. If you come to the inn with me, I’m sure Moiraine will help you get back to the Two Rivers.”
“Aaaaah! She’s . . . she’s the Aes Sedai, is she?” A guarded look came over Fain’s face. “Maybe, though. . . .” He paused, licking his lips nervously. “How long will you be at this—What was it? What did you call it?—the Stag and Lion?”
“We leave tomorrow,” Rand said. “But what does that have to do with—?”
“You just don’t know,” Fain whined, “standing there with a full belly and a good night’s sleep in a soft bed. I’ve hardly slept a wink since that night. My boots are all worn out with running, and as for what I’ve had to eat. . . .” His face twisted. “I don’t want to be within miles of an Aes Sedai,” he spat the last words, “not miles and miles, but I may have to. I’ve no choice, have I? The thought of her eyes on me, of her even knowing where I am. . . .” He reached toward Rand as if he wanted to grab his coat, but his hands stopped short, fluttering, and he actually took a step back. “Promise me you won’t tell her. She frightens me. There’s no need to be telling her, no reason for an Aes Sedai to even be knowing I’m alive. You have to promise. You have to!”
“I promise,” Rand said soothingly. “But there’s no reason for you to be afraid of her. Come with me. The least you’ll get is a hot meal.”
“Maybe. Maybe.” Fain rubbed his chin pensively. “Tomorrow, you say? In that time. . . . You won’t forget your promise? You won’t be letting her . . . ?”
“I won’t let her hurt you,” Rand said, wondering how he could stop an Aes Sedai, whatever she wanted to do.
“She won’t hurt me,” Fain said. “No, she won’t. I won’t be letting her.” Like a flash he hared past Rand into the crowd.
“Master Fain!” Rand called. “Wait!”
He dashed out of the alley just in time to catch sight of a ragged coat disappearing around the next corner. Still calling, he ran after it, darted around the corner. He only had time to see a man’s back before he crashed into it and they both went down in a heap in the mud.
“Can’t you watch where you’re going?” came a mutter from under him, and Rand scrambled up in surprise.
Mat sat up with a baleful glare and began scraping mud off his cloak with his hands. “You must really be turning into a city man. Sleep all morning and run right over people.” Climbing to his feet, he stared at his muddy hands, then muttered and wiped them off on his cloak. “Listen, you’ll never guess who I thought I just saw.”
“Padan Fain,” Rand said.
“Padan Fa—How did you know?”
“I was talking to him, but he ran off.”
“So the Tro—” Mat stopped to look around warily, but the crowd was passing them by with never a glance. Rand was glad he had learned a little caution. “So they didn’t get him. I wonder why he left Emond’s Field, without a word like that? Probably started running then, too, and didn’t stop until he got here. But why was he running just now?”
Rand shook his head and wished he had not. It felt as though it might fall off. “I don’t know, except that he’s afraid of M . . . Mistress Alys.” All this watching what you said was not easy. “He doesn’t want her to know he’s here. He made me promise I wouldn’t tell her.”
“Well, his secret is safe with me,” Mat said. “I wish she didn’t know where I was, either.”
“Mat?” People still streamed by without paying them any heed, but Rand lowered his voice anyway, and leaned closer. “Mat, did you have a nightmare last night? About a man who killed a rat?”
Mat stared at him without blinking. “You, too?” he said finally. “And Perrin, I suppose. I almost asked him this morning, but. . . . He must have. Blood and ashes! Now somebody’s making us dream things. Rand, I wish nobody knew where I was.”
“There were dead rats all over the inn this morning.” He did not feel as afraid at saying it as he would have earlier. He did not feel much of anything. “Their backs were broken.” His voice rang in his own ears. If he was getting sick, he might have to go to Moiraine. He was surprised that even the thought of the One Power being used on him did not bother him.
Mat took a deep breath, hitching his cloak, and looked around as if searching for somewhere to go. “What’s happening to us, Rand? What?”
“I don’t know. I’m going to ask Thom for advice. About whether to tell . . . anyone else.”
“No! Not her. Maybe him, but not her.”
The sharpness of it took Rand by surprise. “Then you believed him?” He did not need to say which “him” he meant; the grimace on Mat’s face said he understood.
“No,” Mat said slowly. “It’s the chances, that’s all. If we tell her, and he was lying, then maybe nothing happens. Maybe. But maybe just him being in our dreams is enough for. . . . I don’t know.” He stopped to swallow. “If we don’t tell her, maybe we’ll have some more dreams. Rats or no rats, dreams are better than. . . . Remember the ferry? I say we keep quiet.”
“All right.” Rand remembered the ferry—and Moiraine’s threat, too—but somehow it seemed a long time ago. “All right.”
“Perrin won’t say anything, will he?” Mat went on, bouncing on his toes. “We have to get back to him. If he tells her, she’ll figure it out about all of us. You can bet on it. Come on.” He started off briskly through the crowd.
Rand stood there looking after him until Mat came back and grabbed him. At the touch on his arm he blinked, then followed his friend.
“What’s the matter with you?” Mat asked. “You going to sleep again?”
“I think I have a cold,” Rand said. His head was as tight as a drum, and almost as empty.
“You can get some chicken soup when we get back to the inn,” Mat said. He kept up a constant chatter as they hunted through the packed streets. Rand made an effort to listen, and even to say something now and then, but it was an effort. He was not tired; he did not want to sleep. He just felt as if he were drifting. After a while he found himself telling Mat about Min.
“A dagger with a ruby, eh?” Mat said. “I like that. I don’t know about the eye, though. Are you sure she wasn’t making it up? It seems to me she would know what it all means if she really is a soothsayer.”
“She didn’t say she’s a soothsayer,” Rand said. “I believe she does see things. Remember, Moiraine was talking to her when we finished our baths. And she knows who Moiraine is.”
Mat frowned at him. “I thought we weren’t supposed to use that name.”
“No,” Rand muttered. He rubbed his head with both hands. It was so hard to concentrate on anything.
“I think maybe you really are sick,” Mat said, still frowning. Suddenly he pulled Rand to a stop by his coat sleeve. “Look at them.”
Three men in breastplates and conical steel caps, burnished till they shone like silver, were making their way down the street toward Rand and Mat. Even the mail on their arms gleamed. Their long cloaks, pristine white and embroidered on the left breast with a golden sunburst, just cleared the mud and puddles of the street. Their hands rested on their sword hilts, and they looked around them as if looking at things that had wriggled out from under a rotting log. Nobody looked back, though. Nobody even seemed to notice them. Just the same, the three did not have to push through the crowd; the bustle parted to either side of the white-cloaked men as if by happenstance, leaving them to walk in a clear space that moved with them.
“Do you suppose they’re Children of the Light?” Mat asked in a loud voice. A passerby looked hard at Mat, then quickened his pace.
Rand nodded. Children of the Light. Whitecloaks. Men who hated Aes Sedai. Men who told people how to live, causing trouble for those who refused to obey. If burned farms and worse could be called as mild as trouble. I should be afraid, he thought. Or curious. Something, at any rate. Instead he stared at them passively.
“They don’t look like so much to me,” Mat said. “Full of themselves, though, aren’t they?”
“They don’t matter,” Rand said. “The inn. We have to talk to Perrin.”
“Like Eward Congar. He always has his nose in the air, too.” Suddenly Mat grinned, a twinkle in his eye. “Remember when he fell off the Wagon Bridge and had to tramp home dripping wet? That took him down a peg for a month.”
“What does that have to do with Perrin?”
“See that?” Mat pointed to a cart resting on its shafts in an alleyway just ahead of the Children. A single stake held a dozen stacked barrels in place on the flat bed. “Watch.” Laughing, he darted into a cutler’s shop to their left.
Rand stared after him, knowing he should do something. That look in Mat’s eyes always meant one of his tricks. But oddly, he found himself looking forward to whatever Mat was going to do. Something told him that feeling was wrong, that it was dangerous, but he smiled in anticipation anyway.
In a minute Mat appeared above him, climbing half out of an attic window onto the tile roof of the shop. His sling was in his hands, already beginning to whirl. Rand’s eyes went back to the cart. Almost immediately there was a sharp crack, and the stake holding the barrels broke just as the Whitecloaks came abreast of the alley. People jumped out of the way as the barrels rolled down the cart shafts with an empty rumble and jounced into the street, splashing mud and muddy water in every direction. The three Children jumped no less quickly than anyone else, their superior looks replaced by surprise. Some passersby fell down, making more splashes, but the three moved agilely, avoiding the barrels with ease. They could not avoid the flying mud that splattered their white cloaks, though.
A bearded man in a long apron hurried out of the alley, waving his arms and shouting angrily, but one look at the three trying vainly to shake the mud from their cloaks and he vanished back into the alley even faster than he had come out. Rand glanced up at the shop roof; Mat was gone. It had been an easy shot for any Two Rivers lad, but the effect was certainly all that could be hoped for. He could not help laughing; the humor seemed to be wrapped in wool, but it was still funny. When he turned back to the street, the three Whitecloaks were staring straight at him.
“You find something funny, yes?” The one who spoke stood a little in front of the others. He wore an arrogant, unblinking look, with a light in his eyes as if he knew something important, something no one else knew.
Rand’s laughter cut off short. He and the Children were alone with the mud and the barrels. The crowd that had been all around them had found urgent business up or down the street.
“Does fear of the Light hold your tongue?” Anger made the Whitecloak’s narrow face seem even more pinched. He glanced dismissively at the sword hilt sticking out from Rand’s cloak. “Perhaps you are responsible for this, yes?” Unlike the others he had a golden knot beneath the sunburst on his cloak.
Rand moved to cover the sword, but instead swept his cloak back over his shoulder. In the back of his head was a frantic wonder at what he was doing, but it was a distant thought. “Accidents happen,” he said. “Even to the Children of the Light.”
The narrow-faced man raised an eyebrow. “You are that dangerous, youngling?” He was not much older than Rand.
“Heron-mark, Lord Bornhald,” one of the others said warningly.
The narrow-faced man glanced at Rand’s sword hilt again—the bronze heron was plain—and his eyes widened momentarily. Then his gaze rose to Rand’s face, and he sniffed dismissively. “He is too young. You are not from this place, yes?” he said coldly to Rand. “You come from where?”
“I just arrived in Baerlon.” A tingling thrill ran along Rand’s arms and legs. He felt flushed, almost warm. “You wouldn’t know of a good inn, would you?”
“You avoid my questions,” Bornhald snapped. “What evil is in you that you do not answer me?” His companions moved up to either side of him, faces hard and expressionless. Despite the mudstains on their cloaks, there was nothing funny about them now.
The tingling filled Rand; the heat had grown to a fever. He wanted to laugh, it felt so good. A small voice in his head shouted that something was wrong, but all he could think of was how full of energy he felt, nearly bursting with it. Smiling, he rocked on his heels and waited for what was going to happen. Vaguely, distantly, he wondered what it would be.
The leader’s face darkened. One of the others drew his sword enough for an inch of steel to show and spoke in a voice quivering with anger. “When the Children of the Light ask questions, you gray-eyed bumpkin, we expect answers, or—” He cut off as the narrow-faced man threw an arm across his chest. Bornhald jerked his head up the street.
The Town Watch had arrived, a dozen men in round steel caps and studded leather jerkins, carrying quarterstaffs as if they knew how to use them. They stood watching, silently, from ten paces off.
“This town has lost the Light,” growled the man who had half drawn his sword. He raised his voice to shout at the Watch. “Baerlon stands in the Shadow of the Dark One!” At a gesture from Bornhald he slammed his blade back into its scabbard.
Bornhald turned his attention back to Rand. The light of knowing burned in his eyes. “Darkfriends do not escape us, youngling, even in a town that stands in the Shadow. We will meet again. You may be sure of it!”
He spun on his heel and strode away, his two companions close behind, as if Rand had ceased to exist. For the moment, at least. When they reached the crowded part of the street, the same seemingly accidental pocket as before opened around them. The Watchmen hesitated, eyeing Rand, then shouldered their quarterstaffs and followed the white-cloaked three. They had to push their way into the crowd, shouting, “Make way for the Watch!” Few did make way, except grudgingly.
Rand still rocked on his heels, waiting. The tingle was so strong that he almost quivered; he felt as if he were burning up.
Mat came out of the shop, staring at him. “You aren’t sick,” he said finally. “You are crazy!”
Rand drew a deep breath, and abruptly it was all gone like a pricked bubble. He staggered as it vanished, the realization of what he had just done flooding in on him. Licking his lips, he met Mat’s stare. “I think we had better go back to the inn, now,” he said unsteadily.
“Yes,” Mat said. “Yes. I think we better had.”
The street had begun to fill up again, and more than one passerby stared at the two boys and murmured something to a companion. Rand was sure the story would spread. A crazy man had tried to start a fight with three Children of the Light. That was something to talk about. Maybe the dreams are driving me crazy.
The two lost their way several times in the haphazard streets, but after a while they fell in with Thom Merrilin, making a grand procession all by himself through the throng. The gleeman said he was out to stretch his legs and for a bit of fresh air, but whenever anyone looked twice at his colorful cloak he would announce in a resounding voice, “I am at the Stag and Lion, tonight only.”
It was Mat who began disjointedly telling Thom about the dream and their worry over whether or not to tell Moiraine, but Rand joined in, for there were differences in exactly how they remembered it. Or maybe each dream was a little different, he thought. The major part of the dreams was the same, though.
They had not gone far in the telling before Thom started paying full attention. When Rand mentioned Ba’alzamon, the gleeman grabbed them each by a shoulder with a command to hold their tongues, raised on tiptoe to look over the heads of the crowd, then hustled them out of the press to a dead-end alley that was empty except for a few crates and a slat-ribbed, yellow dog huddled out of the cold.
Thom stared out at the crowd, looking for anyone stopping to listen, before turning his attention to Rand and Mat. His blue eyes bored into theirs, between flickering away to watch the mouth of the alley. “Don’t ever say that name where strangers can hear.” His voice was low, but urgent. “Not even where a stranger might hear. It is a very dangerous name, even where Children of the Light are not wandering the streets.”
Mat snorted. “I could tell you about Children of the Light,” he said with a wry look at Rand.
Thom ignored him. “If only one of you had had this dream. . . .” He tugged at his mustache furiously. “Tell me everything you can remember about it. Every detail.” He kept up his wary watch while he listened.
“. . . he named the men he said had been used,” Rand said finally. He thought he had told everything else. “Guaire Amalasan. Raolin Darksbane.”
“Davian,” Mat added before he could go on. “And Yurian Stonebow.”
“And Logain,” Rand finished.
“Dangerous names,” Thom muttered. His eyes seemed to drill at them even more intently than before. “Nearly as dangerous as that other, one way and another. All dead, now, except for Logain. Some long dead. Raolin Darksbane nearly two thousand years. But dangerous just the same. Best you don’t say them aloud even when you’re alone. Most people wouldn’t recognize a one of them, but if the wrong person overhears. . . .”
“But who were they?” Rand said.
“Men,” Thom murmured. “Men who shook the pillars of heaven and rocked the world on its foundations.” He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. Forget about them. They are dust now.”
“Did the . . . were they used, like he said?” Mat asked. “And killed?” “You might say the White Tower killed them. You might say that.” Thom’s mouth tightened momentarily, then he shook his head again. “But used . . . ? No, I cannot see that. The Light knows the Amyrlin Seat has enough plots going, but I can’t see that.”
Mat shivered. “He said so many things. Crazy things. All that about Lews Therin Kinslayer, and Artur Hawkwing. And the Eye of the World. What in the Light is that supposed to be?”
“A legend,” the gleeman said slowly. “Maybe. As big a legend as the Horn of Valere, at least in the Borderlands. Up there, young men go hunting the Eye of the World the way young men from Illian hunt the Horn. Maybe a legend.”
“What do we do, Thom?” Rand said. “Do we tell her? I don’t want any more dreams like that. Maybe she could do something.”
“Maybe we wouldn’t like what she did,” Mat growled.
Thom studied them, considering and stroking his mustache with a knuckle. “I say hold your peace,” he said finally. “Don’t tell anyone, for the time, at least. You can always change your mind, if you have to, but once you tell, it’s done, and you’re tied up worse than ever with . . . with her.” Suddenly he straightened, his stoop almost disappearing. “The other lad! You say he had the same dream? Does he have sense enough to keep his mouth shut?”
“I think so,” Rand said at the same time that Mat said, “We were going back to the inn to warn him.”
“The Light send we’re not too late!” Cloak flapping around his ankles, patches fluttering in the wind, Thom strode out of the alley, looking back over his shoulder without stopping. “Well? Are your feet pegged to the ground?”
Rand and Mat hurried after him, but he did not wait for them to catch up. This time he did not pause for people who looked at his cloak, or those who hailed him as a gleeman, either. He clove through the crowded streets as if they were empty, Rand and Mat half running to follow in his wake. In much less time than Rand expected they were hurrying up to the Stag and Lion.
As they started in, Perrin came speeding out, trying to throw his cloak around his shoulders as he ran. He nearly fell in his effort not to carom into them. “I was coming looking for you two,” he panted when he had caught his balance.
Rand grabbed him by the arm. “Did you tell anyone about the dream?”
“Say that you didn’t,” Mat demanded.
“It’s very important,” Thom said.
Perrin looked at them in confusion. “No, I haven’t. I didn’t even get out of bed until less than an hour ago.” His shoulders slumped. “I’ve given myself a headache trying not to think about it, much less talk about it. Why did you tell him?” He nodded at the gleeman.
“We had to talk to somebody or go crazy,” Rand said.
“I will explain later,” Thom added with a significant look at the people passing in and out of the Stag and Lion.
“All right,” Perrin replied slowly, still looking confused. Suddenly he slapped his head. “You almost made me forget why I was looking for you, not that I don’t wish I could. Nynaeve is inside.”
“Blood and ashes!” Mat yelped. “How did she get here? Moiraine. . . . The ferry. . . .”
Perrin snorted. “You think a little thing like a sunken ferry could stop her? She rooted Hightower out—I don’t know how he got back over the river, but she said he was hiding in his bedroom and didn’t want to go near the river—anyway, she bullied him into finding a boat big enough for her and her horse and rowing her across. Himself. She only gave him time to find one of his haulers to work another set of oars.”
“Light!” Mat breathed.
“What is she doing here?” Rand wanted to know. Mat and Perrin both gave him a scornful look.
“She came after us,” Perrin said. “She’s with . . . with Mistress Alys right now, and it’s cold enough in there to snow.”
“Couldn’t we just go somewhere else for a while?” Mat asked. “My da says, only a fool puts his hand in a hornet nest until he absolutely has to.”
Rand cut in. “She can’t make us go back. Winternight should have been enough to make her see that. If she doesn’t, we will have to make her.”
Mat’s eyebrows lifted higher with every word, and when Rand finished he let out a low whistle. “You ever try to make Nynaeve see something she doesn’t want to see? I have. I say we stay away till night, and sneak in then.”
“From my observation of the young woman,” Thom said, “I don’t think she will stop until she has had her say. If she is not allowed to have it soon, she might keep on until she attracts attention none of us wants.”
That brought them all up short. They exchanged glances, drew deep breaths, and marched inside as if to face Trollocs.
Perrin led the way into the depths of the inn. Rand was so intent on what he intended to say to Nynaeve that he did not see Min until she seized his arm and pulled him to one side. The others kept on a few steps down the hall before realizing he had stopped, then they halted, too, half impatient to go on, half reluctant to do so.
“We don’t have time for that, boy,” Thom said gruffly.
Min gave the white-haired gleeman a sharp look. “Go juggle something,” she snapped, drawing Rand further away from the others.
“I really don’t have time,” Rand told her. “Certainly not for any more fool talk about escaping and the like.” He tried to get his arm loose, but every time he pulled free, she grabbed it again.
“And I don’t have time for your foolishness, either. Will you be still!” She gave the others a quick look, then moved closer, lowering her voice. “A woman arrived a little while ago—shorter than I, young, with dark eyes and dark hair in a braid down to her waist. She’s part of it, right along with the rest of you.”
For a minute Rand just stared at her. Nynaeve? How can she be involved? Light, how can I be involved? “That’s . . . impossible.”
“You know her?” Min whispered.
“Yes, and she can’t be mixed in . . . in whatever it is you. . . .”
“The sparks, Rand. She met Mistress Alys coming in, and there were sparks, with just the two of them. Yesterday I couldn’t see sparks without at least three or four of you together, but today it’s all sharper, and more furious.” She looked at Rand’s friends, waiting impatiently, and shivered before turning back to him. “It’s almost a wonder the inn doesn’t catch fire. You’re all in more danger today than yesterday. Since she came.”
Rand glanced at his friends. Thom, his brows drawn down in a bushy V, was leaning forward on the point of taking some action to hurry him along. “She won’t do anything to hurt us,” he told Min. “I have to go, now.” He succeeded in getting his arm back, this time.
Ignoring her squawk, he joined the others, and they started off again down the corridor. Rand looked back once. Min shook her fist at him and stamped her foot.
“What did she have to say?” Mat asked.
“Nynaeve is part of it,” Rand said without thinking, then shot Mat a hard look that caught him with his mouth open. Then understanding slowly spread across Mat’s face.
“Part of what?” Thom said softly. “Does that girl know something?”
While Rand was still trying to gather in his head what to say, Mat spoke up. “Of course she’s part of it,” he said grumpily. “Part of the same bad luck we’ve been having since Winternight. Maybe having the Wisdom show up is no great affair to you, but I’d as soon have the Whitecloaks here, myself.”
“She saw Nynaeve arrive,” Rand said. “Saw her talking to Mistress Alys, and thought she might have something to do with us.” Thom gave him a sidelong look and ruffled his mustaches with a snort, but the others seemed to accept Rand’s explanation. He did not like keeping secrets from his friends, but Min’s secret could be as dangerous for her as any of theirs was for them.
Perrin stopped suddenly in front of a door, and despite his size he seemed oddly hesitant. He drew a deep breath, looked at his companions, took another breath, then slowly opened the door and went in. One by one the rest of them followed. Rand was the last, and he closed the door behind him with the utmost reluctance.
It was the room where they had eaten the night before. A blaze crackled on the hearth, and a polished silver tray sat in the middle of the table holding a gleaming silver pitcher and cups. Moiraine and Nynaeve sat at opposite ends of the table, neither taking her eyes from the other. All the other chairs were empty. Moiraine’s hands rested on the table, as still as her face. Nynaeve’s braid was thrown over her shoulder, the end gripped in one fist; she kept giving it little tugs the way she did when she was being even more stubborn than usual with the Village Council. Perrin was right. Despite the fire it seemed freezing cold, and all coming from the two women at the table.
Lan was leaning against the mantel, staring into the flames and rubbing his hands for warmth. Egwene, her back flat against the wall, had her cloak on with the hood pulled up. Thom, Mat, and Perrin stopped uncertainly in front of the door.
Shrugging uncomfortably, Rand walked to the table. Sometimes you have to grab the wolf by the ears, he reminded himself. But he remembered another old saying, too. When you have a wolf by the ears, it’s as hard to let go as to hold on. He felt Moiraine’s eyes on him, and Nynaeve’s, and his face became hot, but he sat down anyway, halfway between the two.
For a minute the room was as still as a carving, then Egwene and Perrin, and finally Mat, made their reluctant way to the table and took seats—toward the middle, with Rand. Egwene tugged her hood further forward, enough to half hide her face, and they all avoided looking at anyone.
“Well,” Thom snorted, from his place beside the door. “At least that much is done.”
“Since everyone is here,” Lan said, leaving the fireplace and filling one of the silver cups with wine, “perhaps you will finally take this.” He proffered the cup to Nynaeve; she looked at it suspiciously. “There is no need to be afraid,” he said patiently. “You saw the innkeeper bring the wine, and neither of us has had a chance to put anything in it. It is quite safe.”
The Wisdom’s mouth tightened angrily at the word afraid, but she took the cup with a murmured, “Thank you.”
“I am interested,” he said, “in how you found us.”
“So am I.” Moiraine leaned forward intently. “Perhaps you are willing to speak now that Egwene and the boys have been brought to you?”
Nynaeve sipped the wine before answering the Aes Sedai. “There was nowhere for you to go except Baerlon. To be safe, though, I followed your trail. You certainly cut back and forth enough. But then, I suppose you would not care to risk meeting decent people.”
“You . . . followed our trail?” Lan said, truly surprised for the first time that Rand could remember. “I must be getting careless.”
“You left very little trace, but I can track as well as any man in the Two Rivers, except perhaps Tam al’Thor.” She hesitated, then added, “Until my father died, he took me hunting with him, and taught me what he would have taught the sons he never had.” She looked at Lan challengingly, but he only nodded with approval.
“If you can follow a trail I have tried to hide, he taught you well. Few can do that, even in the Borderlands.”
Abruptly Nynaeve buried her face in her cup. Rand’s eyes widened. She was blushing. Nynaeve never showed herself even the least bit disconcerted. Angry, yes; outraged, often; but never out of countenance. But she was certainly red-cheeked now, and trying to hide in the wine.
“Perhaps now,” Moiraine said quietly, “you will answer a few of my questions. I have answered yours freely enough.”
“With a great sackful of gleeman’s tales,” Nynaeve retorted. “The only facts I can see are that four young people have been carried off, for the Light alone knows what reason, by an Aes Sedai.”
“You have been told that isn’t known here,” Lan said sharply. “You must learn to guard your tongue.”
“Why should I?” Nynaeve demanded. “Why should I help hide you, or what you are? I’ve come to take Egwene and the boys back to Emond’s Field, not help you spirit them away.”
Thom broke in, in a scornful voice. “If you want them to see their village again—or you, either—you had better be more careful. There are those in Baerlon who would kill her”—he jerked his head toward Moiraine— “for what she is. Him, too.” He indicated Lan, then abruptly moved forward to put his fists on the table. He loomed over Nynaeve, and his long mustaches and thick eyebrows suddenly seemed threatening.
Her eyes widened, and she started to lean back, away from him; then her back stiffened defiantly. Thom did not appear to notice; he went right on in an ominously soft voice. “They’d swarm over this inn like murderous ants on a rumor, a whisper. Their hate is that strong, their desire to kill or take any like these two. And the girl? The boys? You? You are all associated with them, enough for the Whitecloaks, anyway. You wouldn’t like the way they ask questions, especially when the White Tower is involved. Whitecloak Questioners assume you’re guilty before they start, and they have only one sentence for that kind of guilt. They don’t care about finding the truth; they think they know that already. All they go after with their hot irons and pincers is a confession. Best you remember some secrets are too dangerous for saying aloud, even when you think you know who hears.” He straightened with a muttered, “I seem to tell that to people often of late.”
“Well put, gleeman,” Lan said. The Warder had that weighing look in his eyes again. “I’m surprised to find you so concerned.”
Thom shrugged. “It’s known I arrived with you, too. I don’t care for the thought of a Questioner with a hot iron telling me to repent my sins and walk in the Light.”
“That,” Nynaeve put in sharply, “is just one more reason for them to come home with me in the morning. Or this afternoon, for that matter. The sooner we’re away from you and on our way back to Emond’s Field, the better.”
“We can’t,” Rand said, and was glad that his friends all spoke up at the same time. That way Nynaeve’s glare had to be spread around; she spared no one as it was. But he had spoken first, and they all fell silent, looking at him. Even Moiraine sat back in her chair, watching him over steepled fingers. It was an effort for him to meet the Wisdom’s eyes. “If we go back to Emond’s Field, the Trollocs will come back, too. They’re . . . hunting us. I don’t know why, but they are. Maybe we can find out why in Tar Valon. Maybe we can find out how to stop it. It’s the only way.”
Nynaeve threw up her hands. “You sound just like Tam. He had himself carried to the village meeting and tried to convince everybody. He’d already tried with the Village Council. The Light knows how your . . . Mistress Alys”—she invested the name with a wagonload of scorn— “managed to make him believe; he has a mite of sense, usually, more than most men. In any case, the Council is a pack of fools most of the time, but not foolish enough for that, and neither was anyone else. They agreed you had to be found. Then Tam wanted to be the one to come after you, and him not able to stand by himself. Foolishness must run in your family.”
Mat cleared his throat, then mumbled, “What about my da? What did he say?”
“He’s afraid you’ll try your tricks with outlanders and get your head thumped. He seemed more afraid of that than of . . . Mistress Alys, here. But then, he was never much brighter than you.”
Mat seemed unsure how to take what she had said, or how to reply, or even whether to reply.
“I expect,” Perrin began hesitantly. “I mean, I suppose Master Luhhan was not too pleased about my leaving, either.”
“Did you expect him to be?” Nynaeve shook her head disgustedly and looked at Egwene. “Maybe I should not be surprised at this harebrained idiocy from you three, but I thought others had more judgment.”
Egwene sat back so she was shielded by Perrin. “I left a note,” she said faintly. She tugged at the hood of her cloak as if she was afraid her unbound hair showed. “I explained everything.” Nynaeve’s face darkened.
Rand sighed. The Wisdom was on the point of one of her tongue-lashings, and it looked as if it might be a first-rate one. If she took a position in the heat of anger—if she said she intended to see them back in Emond’s Field no matter what anybody said, for instance—she would be nearly impossible to budge. He opened his mouth.
“A note!” Nynaeve began, just as Moiraine said, “You and I must still talk, Wisdom.”
If Rand could have stopped himself, he would have, but the words poured out as if it were a floodgate he had opened instead of his mouth. “All this is very well, but it doesn’t change anything. We can’t go back. We have to go on.” He spoke more slowly toward the end, and his voice sank, so he finished in a whisper, with the Wisdom and the Aes Sedai both looking at him. It was the sort of look he received if he came on women talking Women’s Circle business, the sort that said he had stepped in where he did not belong. He sat back, wishing he was somewhere else.
“Wisdom,” Moiraine said, “you must believe that they are safer with me than they would be back in the Two Rivers.”
“Safer!” Nynaeve tossed her head dismissively. “You are the one who brought them here, where the Whitecloaks are. The same Whitecloaks who, if the gleeman tells the truth, may harm them because of you. Tell me how they are safer, Aes Sedai.”
“There are many dangers from which I cannot protect them,” Moiraine agreed, “any more than you can protect them from being struck by lightning if they go home. But it is not lightning of which they must be afraid, nor even Whitecloaks. It is the Dark One, and minions of the Dark One. From those things I can protect. Touching the True Source, touching saidar, gives me that protection, as it does to every Aes Sedai.” Nynaeve’s mouth tightened skeptically. Moiraine’s grew tighter, too, with anger, but she went on, her voice hard on the edge of patience. “Even those poor men who find themselves wielding the Power for a short time gain that much, though sometimes touching saidin protects, and sometimes the taint makes them more vulnerable. But I, or any Aes Sedai, can extend my protection to those close by me. No Fade can harm them as long as they are as close to me as they are right now. No Trolloc can come within a quarter of a mile without Lan knowing it, feeling the evil of it. Can you offer them half as much if they return to Emond’s Field with you?”
“You stand up straw men,” Nynaeve said. “We have a saying in the Two Rivers. ‘Whether the bear beats the wolf or the wolf beats the bear, the rabbit always loses.’ Take your contest somewhere else and leave Emond’s Field folk out of it.”
“Egwene,” Moiraine said after a moment, “take the others and leave the Wisdom alone with me for a while.” Her face was impassive; Nynaeve squared herself at the table as if getting ready for an all-in wrestling match.
Egwene bounced to her feet, her desire to be dignified obviously warring with her desire to avoid a confrontation with the Wisdom over her unbraided hair. She had no difficulty gathering up everyone by eye, though. Mat and Perrin scraped back their chairs hurriedly, making polite murmurs while trying not to actually run on their way out. Even Lan started for the door at a signal from Moiraine, drawing Thom with him.
Rand followed, and the Warder shut the door behind them, then took up guard across the hallway. Under Lan’s eyes the others moved on down the hall a short distance; they were not to be allowed even the slightest chance of eavesdropping. When they had gone far enough to suit him, Lan leaned back against the wall. Even without his color-shifting cloak, he was so still that it would be easy not to notice him until you were right on him.
The gleeman muttered something about better things to do with his time and left with a stern, “Remember what I said,” over his shoulder to the boys. No one else seemed inclined to leave.
“What did he mean?” Egwene asked absently, her eyes on the door that hid Moiraine and Nynaeve. She kept fiddling with her hair as if torn between continuing to hide the fact that it was no longer braided and pushing back the hood of her cloak.
“He gave us some advice,” Mat said.
Perrin gave him a sharp look. “He said not to open our mouths until we were sure what we were going to say.”
“That sounds like good advice,” Egwene said, but clearly she was not really interested.
Rand was engrossed in his own thoughts. How could Nynaeve possibly be part of it? How could any of them be involved with Trollocs, and Fades, and Ba’alzamon appearing in their dreams? It was crazy. He wondered if Min had told Moiraine about Nynaeve. What are they saying in there??
He had no idea how long he had been standing there when the door finally opened. Nynaeve stepped out, and gave a start when she saw Lan. The Warder murmured something that made her toss her head angrily, then he slipped past her through the door.
She turned toward Rand, and for the first time he realized the others had all quietly disappeared. He did not want to face the Wisdom alone, but he could not get away now that he had met Nynaeve’s eye. A particularly searching eye, he thought, puzzled. What did they say? He drew himself up as she came closer.
She indicated Tam’s sword. “That seems to fit you, now, though I would like it better if it did not. You’ve grown, Rand.”
“In a week?” He laughed, but it sounded forced, and she shook her head as if he did not understand. “Did she convince you?” he asked. “It really is the only way.” He paused, thinking of Min’s sparks. “Are you coming with us?”
Nynaeve’s eyes opened wide. “Coming with you! Why would I do that? Mavra Mallen came up from Deven Ride to see to things till I return, but she’ll be wanting to get back as soon as she can. I still hope to make you see sense and come home with me.”
“We can’t.” He thought he saw something move at the still-open door, but they were alone in the hallway.
“You told me that, and she did, too.” Nynaeve frowned. “If she wasn’t mixed up in it. . . . Aes Sedai are not to be trusted, Rand.”
“You sound as if you really do believe us,” he said slowly. “What happened at the village meeting?”
Nynaeve looked back at the doorway before answering; there was no movement there now. “It was a shambles, but there is no need for her to know we can’t handle our affairs any better than that. And I believe only one thing: you are all in danger as long as you are with her.”
“Something happened,” he insisted. “Why do you want us to go back if you think there’s even a chance we are right? And why you, at all? As soon send the Mayor himself as the Wisdom.”
“You have grown.” She smiled, and for a moment her amusement had him shifting his feet. “I can think of a time when you would not have questioned where I chose to go or what I chose to do, wherever or whatever it was. A time just a week ago.”
He cleared his throat and pressed on stubbornly. “It doesn’t make sense. Why are you really here?”
She half glanced at the still-empty doorway, then took his arm. “Let’s walk while we talk.” He let himself be led away, and when they were far enough from the door not to be overheard, she began again. “As I said, the meeting was a shambles. Everybody agreed someone had to be sent after you, but the village split into two groups. One wanted you rescued, though there was considerable argument over how that was to be done considering that you were with a . . . the likes of her.”
He was glad she was remembering to watch what she said. “The others believed Tam?” he said.
“Not exactly, but they thought you shouldn’t be among strangers, either, especially not with someone like her. Either way, though, almost every man wanted to be one of the party. Tam, and Bran al’Vere, with the scales of office around his neck, and Haral Luhhan, till Alsbet made him sit down. Even Cenn Buie. The Light save me from men who think with the hair on their chests. Though I don’t know as there are any other kind.” She gave a hearty sniff, and looked up at him, an accusing glance. “At any rate, I could see it would be another day, perhaps more, before they came to any decision, and somehow . . . somehow I was sure we did not dare wait that long. So I called the Women’s Circle together and told them what had to be done. I cannot say they liked it, but they saw the right of it. And that is why I am here; because the men around Emond’s Field are stubborn wool-heads. They’re probably still arguing about who to send, though I left word I would take care of it.”
Nynaeve’s story explained her presence, but it did nothing to reassure him. She was still determined to bring them back with her.
“What did she say to you in there?” he asked. Moiraine would surely have covered every argument, but if there was one she had missed, he would make it.
“More of the same,” Nynaeve replied. “And she wanted to know about you boys. To see if she could reason out why you . . . have attracted the kind of attention you have . . . she said.” She paused, watching him out of the corner of her eye. “She tried to disguise it, but most of all she wanted to know if any of you was born outside the Two Rivers.”
His face was suddenly as taut as a drumhead. He managed a hoarse chuckle. “She does think of some odd things. I hope you assured her we’re all Emond’s Field born.”
“Of course,” she replied. There had only been a heartbeat’s pause before she spoke, so brief he would have missed it if he had not been watching for it.
He tried to think of something to say, but his tongue felt like a piece of leather. She knows. She was the Wisdom, after all, and the Wisdom was supposed to know everything about everyone. If she knows, it was no fever-dream. Oh, Light help me, father!
“Are you all right?” Nynaeve asked.
“He said . . . said I . . . wasn’t his son. When he was delirious . . . with the fever. He said he found me. I thought it was just. . . .” His throat began to burn, and he had to stop.
“Oh, Rand.” She stopped and took his face in both hands. She had to reach up to do it. “People say strange things in a fever. Twisted things. Things that are not true, or real. Listen to me. Tam al’Thor ran away seeking adventure when he was a boy no older than you. I can just remember when he came back to Emond’s Field, a grown man with a red-haired, outlander wife and a babe in swaddling clothes. I remember Kari al’Thor cradling that child in her arms with as much love given and delight taken as I have ever seen from any woman with a babe. Her child, Rand. You. Now you straighten up and stop this foolishness.”
“Of course,” he said. I was born outside the Two Rivers. “Of course.” Maybe Tam had been having a fever-dream, and maybe he had found a baby after a battle. “Why didn’t you tell her?”
“It is none of any outlander’s business.”
“Were any of the others born outside?” As soon as the question was out, he shook his head. “No, don’t answer. It’s none of my business, either.” But it would be nice to know if Moiraine had some special interest in him, over and above what she had in the whole lot of them. Would it?
“No, it isn’t your business,” Nynaeve agreed. “It might not mean anything. She could just be searching blindly for a reason, any reason, why those things are after you. After all of you.”
Rand managed a grin. “Then you do believe they’re chasing us.”
Nynaeve shook her head wryly. “You’ve certainly learned how to twist words since you met her.”
“What are you going to do?” he asked.
She studied him; he met her eyes steadily. “Today, I am going to have a bath. For the rest, we will have to see, won’t we?”
Watchers and Hunters
After the Wisdom left him, Rand made his way to the common room. He needed to hear people laughing, to forget what Nynaeve had said and the trouble she might cause alike.
The room was crowded indeed, but no one was laughing, though every chair and bench was filled and people lined the walls. Thom was performing again, standing on a table against the far wall, his gestures grand enough to fill the big room. It was The Great Hunt of the Horn again, but no one complained, of course. There were so many tales to be told about each of the Hunters, and so many Hunters to tell of, that no two tellings were ever the same. The whole of it in one telling would have taken a week or more. The only sound competing with the gleeman’s voice and harp was the crackling of the fires in the fireplaces.
“. . . To the eight corners of the world, the Hunters ride, to the eight pillars of heaven, where the winds of time blow and fate seizes the mighty and the small alike by the forelock. Now, the greatest of the Hunters is Rogosh of Talmour, Rogosh Eagle-eye, famed at the court of the High King, feared on the slopes of Shayol Ghul. . . .” The Hunters were always mighty heroes, all of them.
Rand spotted his two friends and squeezed onto a place Perrin made for him on the end of their bench. Kitchen smells drifting into the room reminded him that he was hungry, but even the people who had food in front of them gave it little attention. The maids who should have been serving stood entranced, clutching their aprons and looking at the gleeman, and nobody seemed to mind at all. Listening was better than eating, no matter how good the food.
“. . . since the day of her birth has the Dark One marked Blaes as his own, but not of this mind is she—no Darkfriend, Blaes of Matuchin! Strong as the ash she stands, lithe as the willow branch, beautiful as the rose. Golden-haired Blaes. Ready to die before she yields. But hark! Echoing from the towers of the city, trumpets blare, brazen and bold. Her heralds proclaim the arrival of a hero at her court. Drums thunder and cymbals sing! Rogosh Eagle-eye comes to do homage . . .”
“The Bargain of Rogosh Eagle-eye” wound its way to an end, but Thom paused only to wet his throat from a mug of ale before launching into “Lian’s Stand.” In turn that was followed by “The Fall of Aleth-Loriel,” and “Gaidal Cain’s Sword,” and “The Last Ride of Buad of Albhain.” The pauses grew longer as the evening wore on, and when Thom exchanged the harp for his flute, everyone knew it was the end of storytelling for the night. Two men joined Thom, with a drum and a hammered dulcimer, but sitting beside the table while he remained atop it.
The three young men from Emond’s Field began clapping their hands with the first note of “The Wind That Shakes the Willow,” and they were not the only ones. It was a favorite in the Two Rivers, and in Baerlon, too, it seemed. Here and there voices even took up the words, not so off-key as for anyone to hush them.
“My love is gone, carried away
by the wind that shakes the willow,
and all the land is beaten hard
by the wind that shakes the willow.
But I will hold her close to me
in heart and dearest memory,
and with her strength to steel my soul,
her love to warm my heart-strings,
I will stand where we once sang,
though cold wind shakes the willow.”
The second song was not so sad. In fact, “Only One Bucket of Water” seemed even more merry than usual by comparison, which might have been the gleeman’s intent. People rushed to clear tables from the floor to make room for dancing, and began kicking up their heels until the walls shook from the stomping and whirling. The first dance ended with laughing dancers leaving the floor holding their sides, and new people taking their places.
Thom played the opening notes of “Wild Geese on the Wing,” then paused for people to take their places for the reel.
“I think I’ll try a few steps,” Rand said, getting to his feet. Perrin popped up right behind him. Mat was the last to move, and so found himself staying behind to guard the cloaks, along with Rand’s sword and Perrin’s axe.
“Remember I want a turn, too,” Mat called after them.
The dancers formed two long lines facing each other, men in one, women in the other. First the drum and then the dulcimer took up the beat, and all the dancers began bending their knees in time. The girl across from Rand, her dark hair in braids that made him think of home, gave him a shy smile, and then a wink that was not shy at all. Thom’s flute leaped into the tune, and Rand moved forward to meet the dark-haired girl; she threw back her head and laughed as he spun her around and passed her on to the next man in line.
Everyone in the room was laughing, he thought as he danced around his next partner, one of the serving maids with her apron flapping wildly. The only unsmiling face he saw was on a man huddled by one of the fireplaces, and that fellow had a scar that crossed his whole face from one temple to the opposite jaw, giving his nose a slant and drawing the corner of his mouth down. The man met his gaze and grimaced, and Rand looked away in embarrassment. Maybe with that scar the fellow could not smile.
He caught his next partner as she spun, and whirled her in a circle before passing her on. Three more women danced with him as the music gained speed, then he was back with the first dark-haired girl for a fast promenade that changed the lines about completely. She was still laughing, and she gave him another wink.
The scar-faced man was scowling at him. His step faltered and his cheeks grew hot. He had not meant to embarrass the fellow; he really did not think he had stared. He turned to meet his next partner and forgot all about the man. The next woman to dance into his arms was Nynaeve.
He stumbled through the steps, almost tripping over his own feet, nearly stepping on hers. She danced gracefully enough to make up for his clumsiness, smiling the while.
“I thought you were a better dancer,” she laughed as they changed partners.
He had only a moment to gather himself before they changed again, and he found himself dancing with Moiraine. If he had thought he was stumble-footed with the Wisdom, it was nothing to how he felt with the Aes Sedai. She glided across the floor smoothly, her gown swirling about her; he almost fell twice. She gave him a sympathetic smile, which made it worse rather than helping. It was a relief to go to his next partner in the pattern, even if it was Egwene.
He regained some of his poise. After all, he had danced with her for years. Her hair still hung unbraided, but she had gathered it back with a red ribbon. Probably couldn’t decide whether to please Moiraine or Nynaeve, he thought sourly. Her lips were parted, and she looked as if she wanted to say something, but she never spoke, and he was not about to speak first. Not after the way she had cut off his earlier attempt in the private dining room. They stared at one another soberly and danced apart without a word.
He was glad enough to return to the bench when the reel was done. The music for another dance, a jig, began while he was sitting down. Mat hurried to join in, and Perrin slid onto the bench as he was leaving.
“Did you see her?” Perrin began before he was even seated. “Did you?” “Which one?” Rand asked. “The Wisdom, or Mistress Alys? I danced with both of them.”
“The Ae . . . Mistress Alys, too?” Perrin exclaimed. “I danced with Nynaeve. I didn’t even know she danced. She never does at any of the dances back home.”
“I wonder,” Rand said thoughtfully, “what the Women’s Circle would say about the Wisdom dancing? Maybe that’s why.”
Then the music and the clapping and the singing were too loud for any further talk. Rand and Perrin joined in the clapping as the dancers circled the floor. Several times he became aware of the scar-faced man staring at him. The man had a right to be touchy, with that scar, but Rand did not see anything he could do now that would not make matters worse. He concentrated on the music and avoided looking at the fellow.
The dancing and singing went on into the night. The maids finally did remember their duties; Rand was glad to wolf down some hot stew and bread. Everyone ate where they sat or stood. Rand joined in three more dances, and he managed his steps better when he found himself dancing with Nynaeve again, and with Moiraine, as well. This time they both complimented him on his dancing, which made him stammer. He danced with Egwene again, too; she stared at him, dark-eyed and always seeming on the point of speaking, but never saying a word. He was just as silent as she, but he was sure he did not scowl at her, no matter what Mat said when he returned to the bench.
Toward midnight Moiraine left. Egwene, after one harried look from the Aes Sedai to Nynaeve, hurried after her. The Wisdom watched them with an unreadable expression, then deliberately joined in another dance before she left, too, with a look as if she had gained a point on the Aes Sedai.
Soon Thom was putting his flute into its case and arguing good-naturedly with those who wanted him to stay longer. Lan came by to gather up Rand and the others.
“We have to make an early start,” the Warder said, leaning close to be heard over the noise, “and we will need all the rest we can get.”
“There’s a fellow been staring at me,” Mat said. “A man with a scar across his face. You don’t think he could be a . . . one of the friends you warned us about?”
“Like this?” Rand said, drawing a finger across his nose to the corner of his mouth. “He stared at me, too.” He looked around the room. People were drifting away, and most of those still left clustered around Thom. “He’s not here, now.”
“I saw the man,” Lan said. “According to Master Fitch, he’s a spy for the Whitecloaks. He’s no worry to us.” Maybe he was not, but Rand could see something was bothering the Warder.
Rand glanced at Mat, who had the stiff expression on his face that always meant he was hiding something. A Whitecloak spy. Could Bornhald want to get back at us that much? “We’re leaving early?” he said. “Really early?” Maybe they could be gone before anything came of it.
“At first light,” the Warder replied.
As they left the common room, Mat singing snatches of song under his breath, and Perrin stopping now and again to try out a new step he had learned, Thom joined them in high spirits. Lan’s face was expressionless as they headed for the stairs.
“Where is Nynaeve sleeping?” Mat asked. “Master Fitch said we got the last rooms.”
“She has a bed,” Thom said dryly, “in with Mistress Alys and the girl.” Perrin whistled between his teeth, and Mat muttered, “Blood and ashes! I wouldn’t be in Egwene’s shoes for all the gold in Caemlyn!”
Not for the first time, Rand wished Mat could think seriously about something for more than two minutes. Their own shoes were not very comfortable right then. “I’m going to get some milk,” he said. Maybe it would help him sleep. Maybe I won’t dream tonight.
Lan looked at him sharply. “There’s something wrong tonight. Don’t wander far. And remember, we leave whether you are awake enough to sit your saddle or have to be tied on.”
The Warder started up the stairs; the others followed him, their jollity subdued. Rand stood in the hall alone. After having so many people around, it was lonely indeed.
He hurried to the kitchen, where a scullery maid was still on duty. She poured a mug of milk from a big stone crock for him.
As he came out of the kitchen, drinking, a shape in dull black started toward him down the length of the hall, raising pale hands to toss back the dark cowl that had hidden the face beneath. The cloak hung motionless as the figure moved, and the face. . . . A man’s face, but pasty white, like a slug under a rock, and eyeless. From oily black hair to puffy cheeks was as smooth as an eggshell. Rand choked, spraying milk.
“You are one of them, boy,” the Fade said, a hoarse whisper like a file softly drawn across bone.
Dropping the mug, Rand backed away. He wanted to run, but it was all he could do to make his feet take one halting step at a time. He could not break free of that eyeless face; his gaze was held, and his stomach curdled. He tried to shout for help, to scream; his throat was like stone. Every ragged breath hurt.
The Fade glided closer, in no hurry. Its strides had a sinuous, deadly grace, like a viper, the resemblance emphasized by the overlapping black plates of armor down its chest. Thin, bloodless lips curved in a cruel smile, made more mocking by the smooth, pale skin where eyes should have been. The voice made Bornhald’s seem warm and soft. “Where are the others? I know they are here. Speak, boy, and I will let you live.”
Rand’s back struck wood, a wall or a door—he could not make himself look around to see which. Now that his feet had stopped, he could not make them start again. He shivered, watching the Myrddraal slither nearer. His shaking grew harder with every slow stride.
“Speak, I say, or—”
From above came a quick clatter of boots, from the stairs up the hall, and the Myrddraal cut off, whirling. The cloak hung still. For an instant the Fade’s head tilted, as if that eyeless gaze could pierce the wooden wall. A sword appeared in a dead-white hand, blade as black as the cloak. The light in the hall seemed to grow dimmer in the presence of that blade. The pounding of boots grew louder, and the Fade spun back to Rand, an almost boneless movement. The black blade rose; narrow lips peeled back in a rictus snarl.
Trembling, Rand knew he was going to die. Midnight steel flashed at his head . . . and stopped.
“You belong to the Great Lord of the Dark.” The breathy grating of that voice sounded like fingernails scratched across a slate. “You are his.”
Spinning in a black blur, the Fade darted down the hall away from Rand. The shadows at the end of the hall reached out and embraced it, and it was gone.
Lan leaped down the last stairs, landing with a crash, sword in hand.
Rand struggled to find his voice. “Fade,” he gasped. “It was. . . .”Abruptly he remembered his sword. With the Myrddraal facing him he had never thought of it. He fumbled the heron-mark blade out now, not caring if it was too late. “It ran that way!”
Lan nodded absently; he seemed to be listening to something else. “Yes. It’s going; fading. No time to pursue it, now. We’re leaving, sheepherder.”
More boots stumbled down the stairs; Mat and Perrin and Thom, hung about with blankets and saddlebags. Mat was still buckling his bedroll, with his bow awkward under his arm.
“Leaving?” Rand said. Sheathing his sword, he took his things from Thom. “Now? In the night?”
“You want to wait for the Halfman to come back, sheepherder?” the Warder said impatiently. “For half a dozen of them? It knows where we are, now.”
“I will ride with you again,” Thom told the Warder, “if you have no great objections. Too many people remember that I arrived with you. I fear that before tomorrow this will be a bad place to be known as your friend.”
“You can ride with us, or ride to Shayol Ghul, gleeman.” Lan’s scabbard rattled from the force with which he rammed his sword home.
A stableman came darting past them from the rear door, and then Moiraine appeared with Master Fitch, and behind them Egwene, with her bundled shawl in her arms. And Nynaeve. Egwene looked frightened almost to tears, but the Wisdom’s face was a mask of cool anger.
“You must take this seriously,” Moiraine was telling the innkeeper. “You will certainly have trouble here by morning. Darkfriends, perhaps; perhaps worse. When it comes, quickly make it clear that we are gone. Offer no resistance. Just let whoever it is know that we left in the night, and they should bother you no further. It is us they are after.”
“Never you worry about trouble,” Master Fitch replied jovially. “Never a bit. If any come around my inn trying to make trouble for my guests . . . well, they’ll get short shrift from the lads and I. Short shrift. And they’ll hear not a word about where you’ve gone or when, or even if you were ever here. I’ve no use for that kind. Not a word will be spoken about you by any here. Not a word!”
“Mistress Alys, I really must see to your horses if you’re going to leave in good order.” He pulled loose from her grip on his sleeve and trotted in the direction of the stables.
Moiraine sighed vexedly. “Stubborn, stubborn man. He will not listen.”
“You think Trollocs might come here hunting for us?” Mat asked.
“Trollocs!” Moiraine snapped. “Of course not! There are other things to fear, not the least of which is how we were found.” Ignoring Mat’s bristle, she went right on. “The Fade cannot believe we will remain here, now that we know it has found us, but Master Fitch takes Darkfriends too lightly. He thinks of them as wretches hiding in the shadows, but Darkfriends can be found in the shops and streets of every city, and in the highest councils, too. The Myrddraal may send them to see if he can learn of our plans.” She turned on her heel and left, Lan close behind her.
As they started for the stableyard, Rand fell in beside Nynaeve. She had her saddlebags and blankets, too. “So you’re coming after all,” he said. Min was right.
“Was there something down here?” she asked quietly. “She said it was—” She stopped abruptly and looked at him.
“A Fade,” he answered. He was amazed that he could say it so calmly. “It was in the hall with me, and then Lan came.”
Nynaeve shrugged her cloak against the wind as they left the inn. “Perhaps there is something after you. But I came to see you safely back in Emond’s Field, all of you, and I will not leave till that is done. I won’t leave you alone with her sort.” Lights moved in the stables where the ostlers were saddling the horses.
“Mutch!” the innkeeper shouted from the stable door where he stood with Moiraine. “Stir your bones!” He turned back to her, appearing to attempt to soothe her rather than really listening when she spoke, though he did it deferentially, with bows interspersed among the orders called to the stablemen.
The horses were led out, the stablemen grumbling softly about the hurry and the lateness. Rand held Egwene’s bundle, handing it up to her when she was on Bela’s back. She looked back at him with wide, fear-filled eyes. At least she doesn’t think it’s an adventure anymore.
He was ashamed as soon as he thought it. She was in danger because of him and the others. Even riding back to Emond’s Field alone would be safer than going on. “Egwene, I. . . .”
The words died in his mouth. She was too stubborn to just turn back, not after saying she was going all the way to Tar Valon. What about what Min saw? She’s part of it. Light, part of what?
“Egwene,” he said, “I’m sorry. I can’t seem to think straight anymore.”
She leaned down to grip his hand hard. In the light from the stable he could see her face clearly. She did not look as frightened as she had.
Once they were all mounted, Master Fitch insisted on leading them to the gates, the stablemen lighting the way with their lamps. The round-bellied innkeeper bowed them on their way with assurances that he would keep their secrets, and invitations to come again. Mutch watched them leave as sourly as he had watched them arrive.
There was one, Rand thought, who would not give short shrift to anyone, or any kind of shrift. Mutch would tell the first person who asked him when they had gone and everything else he could think of concerning them. A little distance down the street, he looked back. One figure stood, lamp raised high, peering after them. He did not need to see the face to know it was Mutch.
The streets of Baerlon were abandoned at that hour of the night; only a few faint glimmers here and there escaped tightly closed shutters, and the light of the moon in its last quarter waxed and waned with the wind-driven clouds. Now and again a dog barked as they passed an alleyway, but no other sound disturbed the night except their horses’ hooves and the wind whistling across the rooftops. The riders held an even deeper silence, huddled in their cloaks and their own thoughts.
The Warder led the way, as usual, with Moiraine and Egwene close behind. Nynaeve kept near the girl, and the others brought up the rear in a tight cluster. Lan kept the horses moving at a brisk walk.
Rand watched the streets around them warily, and he noticed his friends doing the same. Shifting moon shadows recalled the shadows at the end of the hall, the way they had seemed to reach out to the Fade. An occasional noise in the distance, like a barrel toppling, or another dog barking, jerked every head around. Slowly, bit by bit as they made their way through the town, they all bunched their horses closer to Lan’s black stallion and Moiraine’s white mare.
At the Caemlyn Gate Lan dismounted and hammered with his fist on the door of a small square stone building squatting against the wall. A weary Watchman appeared, rubbing sleepily at his face. As Lan spoke, his sleepiness vanished, and he stared past the Warder to the others.
“You want to leave?” he exclaimed. “Now? In the night? You must be mad!”
“Unless there is some order from the Governor that prohibits our leaving,” Moiraine said. She had dismounted as well, but she stayed back from the door, out of the light that spilled into the dark street.
“Not exactly, mistress.” The Watchman peered at her, frowning as he tried to make out her face. “But the gates stay shut from sundown to sunup. No one to come in except in daylight. That’s the order. Anyway, there’re wolves out there. Killed a dozen cows in the last week. Could kill a man just as easy.”
“No one to come in, but nothing about leaving,” Moiraine said as if that settled the matter. “You see? We are not asking you to disobey the Governor.”
Lan pressed something into the Watchman’s hand. “For your trouble,” he murmured.
“I suppose,” the Watchman said slowly. He glanced at his hand; gold glinted before he hastily stuffed it in his pocket. “I suppose leaving wasn’t mentioned at that. Just a minute.” He stuck his head back inside. “Arin! Dar! Get out here and help me open the gate. There’s people want to leave. Don’t argue. Just do it.”
Two more of the Watch appeared from inside, stopping to stare in sleepy surprise at the party of eight waiting to leave. Under the first Watchman’s urgings they shuffled over to heave at the big wheel that raised the thick bar across the gates, then turned their efforts to cranking the gates open. The crank-and-ratchet made a rapid clicking sound, but the well-oiled gates swung outward silently. Before they were even a quarter open, though, a cold voice spoke out of the darkness.
“What is this? Are these gates not ordered closed until sunrise?”
Five white-cloaked men walked into the light from the guardhouse door. Their cowls were drawn up to hide their faces, but each man rested his hand on his sword, and the golden suns on their left breasts were a plain announcement of who they were. Mat muttered under his breath. The Watchmen stopped their cranking and exchanged uneasy looks.
“This is none of your affair,” the first Watchman said belligerently. Five white hoods turned to regard him, and he finished in a weaker tone. “The Children hold no sway here. The Governor—”
“The Children of the Light,” the white-cloaked man who had first spoken said softly, “hold sway wherever men walk in the Light. Only where the Shadow of the Dark One reigns are the Children denied, yes?” He swung his hood from the Watchman to Lan, then suddenly gave the Warder a second, more wary, look.
The Warder had not moved; in fact, he seemed completely at ease. But not many people could look at the Children so uncaringly. Lan’s stony face could as well have been looking at a bootblack. When the Whitecloak spoke again, he sounded suspicious.
“What kind of people want to leave town walls in the night during times like these? With wolves stalking the darkness, and the Dark One’s handiwork seen flying over the town?” He eyed the braided leather band that crossed Lan’s forehead and held his long hair back. “A northerner, yes?”
Rand hunched lower in his saddle. A Draghkar. It had to be that, unless the man just named anything he did not understand as the Dark One’s handiwork. With a Fade at the Stag and Lion, he should have expected a Draghkar, but at the moment he was hardly thinking about it. He thought he recognized the Whitecloak’s voice.
“Travelers,” Lan replied calmly. “Of no interest to you or yours.”
“Everyone is of interest to the Children of the Light.”
Lan shook his head slightly. “Are you really after more trouble with the Governor? He has limited your numbers in the town, even had you followed. What will he do when he discovers you’re harassing honest citizens at his gates?” He turned to the Watchmen. “Why have you stopped?” They hesitated, put their hands back on the crank, then hesitated again when the Whitecloak spoke.
“The Governor does not know what happens under his nose. There is evil he does not see, or smell. But the Children of the Light see.” The Watchmen looked at one another; their hands opened and closed as if regretting the spears left inside the guard house. “The Children of the Light smell the evil.” The Whitecloak’s eyes turned to the people on horseback. “We smell it, and root it out. Wherever it is found.”
Rand tried to make himself even smaller, but the movement drew the man’s attention.
“What have we here? Someone who does not wish to be seen? What do you—? Ah!” The man brushed back the hood of his white cloak, and Rand was looking at the face he had known would be there. Bornhald nodded with obvious satisfaction. “Clearly, Watchman, I have saved you from a great disaster. These are Darkfriends you were about to help escape from the Light. You should be reported to your Governor for discipline, or perhaps given to the Questioners to discover your true intent this night.” He paused, eyeing the Watchman’s fear; it seemed to have no effect on him. “You would not wish that, no? Instead, I will take these ruffians to our camp, that they may be questioned in the Light—instead of you, yes?”
“You will take me to your camp, Whitecloak?” Moiraine’s voice came suddenly from every direction at once. She had moved back into the night at the Children’s approach, and shadows clumped around her. “You will question me?” Darkness wreathed her as she took a step forward; it made her seem taller. “You will bar my way?”
Another step, and Rand gasped. She was taller, her head level with his where he sat on the gray’s back. Shadows clung about her face like thunderclouds.
“Aes Sedai!” Bornhald shouted, and five swords flashed from their sheaths. “Die!” The other four hesitated, but he slashed at her in the same motion that cleared his sword.
Rand cried out as Moiraine’s staff rose to intercept the blade. That delicately carved wood could not possibly stop hard-swung steel. Sword met staff, and sparks sprayed in a fountain, a hissing roar hurling Bornhald back into his white-cloaked companions. All five went down in a heap. Tendrils of smoke rose from Bornhald’s sword, on the ground beside him, blade bent at a right angle where it had been melted almost in two.
“You dare attack me!” Moiraine’s voice roared like a whirlwind. Shadow spun in on her, draped her like a hooded cloak; she loomed as high as the town wall. Her eyes glared down, a giant staring at insects.
“Go!” Lan shouted. In one lightning move he snatched the reins of Moiraine’s mare and leaped into his own saddle. “Now!” he commanded. His shoulders brushed either gate as his stallion tore through the narrow opening like a flung stone.
For a moment Rand remained frozen, staring. Moiraine’s head and shoulders stood above the wall, now. Watchmen and Children alike cowered away from her, huddling with their backs against the front of the guard house. The Aes Sedai’s face was lost in the night, but her eyes, as big as full moons, shone with impatience as well as anger when they touched him. Swallowing hard, he booted Cloud in the ribs and galloped after the others.
Fifty paces from the wall, Lan drew them up, and Rand looked back. Moiraine’s shadowed shape towered high over the log palisade, head and shoulders a deeper darkness against the night sky, surrounded by a silver nimbus from the hidden moon. As he watched, mouth hanging open, the Aes Sedai stepped over the wall. The gates began swinging shut frantically. As soon as her feet were on the ground outside, she was suddenly her normal size again.
“Hold the gates!” an unsteady voice shouted inside the wall. Rand thought it was Bornhald. “We must pursue them, and take them!” But the Watchmen did not slow the pace of closing. The gates slammed shut, and moments later the bar crashed into place, sealing them. Maybe some of those other Whitecloaks aren’t as eager to confront an Aes Sedai as Bornhald.
Moiraine hurried to Aldieb, stroking the white mare’s nose once before she tucked her staff under the girth strap. Rand did not need to look this time to know there was not even a nick in the staff.
“You were taller than a giant,” Egwene said breathlessly, shifting on Bela’s back. No one else spoke, though Mat and Perrin edged their horses away from the Aes Sedai.
“Was I?” Moiraine said absently as she swung into her saddle.
“I saw you,” Egwene protested.
“The mind plays tricks in the night; the eye sees what is not there.”
“This is no time for games,” Nynaeve began angrily, but Moiraine cut her off.
“No time for games indeed. What we gained at the Stag and Lion we may have lost here.” She looked back at the gate and shook her head. “If only I could believe the Draghkar was on the ground.” With a self-deprecatory sniff she added, “Or if only the Myrddraal were truly blind. If I am wishing, I might as well wish for the truly impossible. No matter. They know the way we must go, but with luck we will stay a step ahead of them. Lan!”
The Warder moved off eastward down the Caemlyn Road, and the rest followed close behind, hooves thudding rhythmically on the hard-packed earth.
They kept to an easy pace, a fast walk the horses could maintain for hours without any Aes Sedai help. Before they had been even one hour on their way, though, Mat cried out, pointing back the way they had come.
They all drew rein and stared.
Flames lit the night over Baerlon as if someone had built a house-size bonfire, tinting the undersides of the cloud with red. Sparks whipped into the sky on the wind.
“I warned him,” Moiraine said, “but he would not take it seriously.” Aldieb danced sideways, an echo of the Aes Sedai’s frustration. “He would not take it seriously.”
“The inn?” Perrin said. “That’s the Stag and Lion? How can you be sure?”
“How far do you want to stretch coincidence?” Thom asked. “It could be the Governor’s house, but it isn’t. And it isn’t a warehouse, or somebody’s kitchen stove, or your grandmother’s haystack.”
“Perhaps the Light shines on us a little this night,” Lan said, and Egwene rounded on him angrily.
“How can you say that? Poor Master Fitch’s inn is burning! People may be hurt!”
“If they have attacked the inn,” Moiraine said, “perhaps our exit from the town and my . . . display went unnoticed.”
“Unless that’s what the Myrddraal wants us to think,” Lan added.
Moiraine nodded in the darkness. “Perhaps. In any case, we must press on. There will be little rest for anyone tonight.”
“You say that so easily, Moiraine,” Nynaeve exclaimed. “What about the people at the inn? People must be hurt, and the innkeeper has lost his livelihood, because of you! For all your talk about walking in the Light you’re ready to go on without sparing a thought for him. His trouble is because of you!”
“Because of those three,” Lan said angrily. “The fire, the injured, the going on—all because of those three. The fact that the price must be paid is proof that it is worth paying. The Dark One wants those boys of yours, and anything he wants this badly, he must be kept from. Or would you rather let the Fade have them?”
“Be at ease, Lan,” Moiraine said. “Be at ease. Wisdom, you think I can help Master Fitch and the people at the inn? Well, you are right.” Nynaeve started to say something, but Moiraine waved it away and went on. “I can go back by myself and give some help. Not too much, of course. That would draw attention to those I helped, attention they would not thank me for, especially with the Children of the Light in the town. And that would leave only Lan to protect the rest of you. He is very good, but it will take more than him if a Myrddraal and a fist of Trollocs find you. Of course, we could all return, though I doubt I can get all of us back into Baerlon unnoticed. And that would expose all of you to whomever set that fire, not to mention the Whitecloaks. Which alternative would you choose, Wisdom, if you were I?”
“I would do something,” Nynaeve muttered unwillingly.
“And in all probability hand the Dark One his victory,” Moiraine replied. “Remember what—who—it is that he wants. We are in a war, as surely as anyone in Ghealdan, though thousands fight there and only eight of us here. I will have gold sent to Master Fitch, enough to rebuild the Stag and Lion, gold that cannot be traced to Tar Valon. And help for any who were hurt, as well. Any more than that will only endanger them. It is far from simple, you see. Lan.” The Warder turned his horse and took up the road again.
From time to time Rand looked back. Eventually all he could see was the glow on the clouds, and then even that was lost in the darkness. He hoped Min was all right.
All was still pitch-dark when the Warder finally led them off the packed dirt of the road and dismounted. Rand estimated there were no more than a couple of hours till dawn. They hobbled the horses, still saddled, and made a cold camp.
“One hour,” Lan warned as everyone except him was wrapping up in their blankets. He would stand guard while they slept. “One hour, and we must be on our way.” Silence settled over them.
After a few minutes Mat spoke in a whisper that barely reached Rand. “I wonder what Dav did with that badger.” Rand shook his head silently, and Mat hesitated. Finally he said, “I thought we were safe, you know, Rand. Not a sign of anything since we crossed the Taren, and there we were in a city, with walls around us. I thought we were safe. And then that dream. And a Fade. Are we ever going to be safe again?”
“Not until we get to Tar Valon,” Rand said. “That’s what she told us.”
“Will we be safe then?” Perrin asked softly, and all three of them looked to the shadowy mound that was the Aes Sedai. Lan had melded into the darkness; he could have been anywhere.
Rand yawned suddenly. The others twitched nervously at the sound. “I think we’d better get some sleep,” he said. “Staying awake won’t answer anything.”
Perrin spoke quietly. “She should have done something.”
No one answered.
Rand squirmed onto his side to avoid a root, tried his back, then rolled off of a stone onto his belly and another root. It was not a good campsite they had stopped at, not like the spots the Warder had chosen on the way north from the Taren. He fell asleep wondering if the roots digging into his ribs would make him dream, and woke at Lan’s touch on his shoulder, ribs aching, and grateful that if any dreams had come he did not remember them.
It was still the dark just before dawn, but once the blankets were rolled and strapped behind their saddles Lan had them riding east again. As the sun rose they made a bleary-eyed breakfast on bread and cheese and water, eating while they rode, huddled in their cloaks against the wind. All except Lan, that is. He ate, but he was not bleary-eyed, and he did not huddle. He had changed back into his shifting cloak, and it whipped around him, fluttering through grays and greens, and the only mind he paid it was to keep it clear of his sword-arm. His face remained without expression, but his eyes searched constantly, as if he expected an ambush any moment.
The Caemlyn Road
The Caemlyn Road was not very different from the North Road through the Two Rivers. It was considerably wider, of course, and showed the wear of much more use, but it was still hard-packed dirt, lined on either side by trees that would not have been at all out of place in the Two Rivers, especially since only the evergreens carried a leaf.
The land itself was different, though, for by midday the road entered low hills. For two days the road ran through the hills—cut right through them, sometimes, if they were wide enough to have made the road go much out of its way and not so big as to have made digging through too difficult. As the angle of the sun shifted each day it became apparent that the road, for all it appeared straight to the eye, curved slowly southward as it ran east. Rand had daydreamed over Master al’Vere’s old map—half the boys in Emond’s Field had daydreamed over it—and as he remembered, the road curved around something called the Hills of Absher until it reached Whitebridge.
From time to time Lan had them dismount atop one of the hills, where he could get a good view of the road both ahead and behind, and the surrounding countryside as well. The Warder would study the view while the others stretched their legs or sat under the trees and ate.
“I used to like cheese,” Egwene said on the third day after leaving Baerlon. She sat with her back to the bole of a tree, grimacing over a dinner that was once again the same as breakfast, as supper would be. “Not a chance of tea. Nice hot tea.” She pulled her cloak tighter and shifted around the tree in a vain effort to avoid the swirling wind.
“Flatwort tea and andilay root,” Nynaeve was saying to Moiraine, “are best for fatigue. They clear the head and dim the burn in tired muscles.”
“I am sure they do,” the Aes Sedai murmured, giving Nynaeve a sidelong glance.
Nynaeve’s jaw tightened, but she continued in the same tone. “Now, if you must go without sleep. . . .”
“No tea!” Lan said sharply to Egwene. “No fire! We can’t see them yet, but they are back there, somewhere, a Fade or two and their Trollocs, and they know we are taking this road. No need to tell them exactly where we are.”
“I wasn’t asking,” Egwene muttered into her cloak. “Just regretting.”
“If they know we’re on the road,” Perrin asked, “why don’t we go straight across to Whitebridge?”
“Even Lan cannot travel as fast cross-country as by road,” Moiraine said, interrupting Nynaeve, “especially not through the Hills of Absher.” The Wisdom gave an exasperated sigh. Rand wondered what she was up to; after ignoring the Aes Sedai completely for the first day, Nynaeve had spent the last two trying to talk to her about herbs. Moiraine moved away from the Wisdom as she went on. “Why do you think the road curves to avoid them? And we would have to come back to this road eventually. We might find them ahead of us instead of following.”
Rand looked doubtful, and Mat muttered something about “the long way round.”
“Have you seen a farm this morning?” Lan asked. “Or even the smoke from a chimney? You haven’t, because it’s all wilderness from Baerlon to Whitebridge, and Whitebridge is where we must cross the Arinelle. That is the only bridge spanning the Arinelle south of Maradon, in Saldaea.”
Thom snorted and blew out his mustaches. “What is to stop them from having someone, something, at Whitebridge already?”
From the west came the keening wail of a horn. Lan’s head whipped around to stare back down the road behind them. Rand felt a chill. A part of him remained calm enough to think, ten miles, no more.
“Nothing stops them, gleeman,” the Warder said. “We trust to the Light and luck. But now we know for certain there are Trollocs behind us.”
Moiraine dusted her hands. “It is time for us to move on.” The Aes Sedai mounted her white mare.
That set off a scramble for the horses, speeded by a second winding of the horn. This time others answered, the thin sounds floating out of the west like a dirge. Rand made ready to put Cloud to a gallop right away, and everyone else settled their reins with the same urgency. Everyone except Lan and Moiraine. The Warder and the Aes Sedai exchanged a long look.
“Keep them moving, Moiraine Sedai,” Lan said finally. “I will return as soon as I am able. You will know if I fail.” Putting a hand on Mandarb’s saddle, he vaulted to the back of the black stallion and galloped down the hill. Heading west. The horns sounded again.
“The Light go with you, last Lord of the Seven Towers,” Moiraine said almost too softly for Rand to hear. Drawing a deep breath, she turned Aldieb to the east. “We must go on,” she said, and started off at a slow, steady trot. The others followed her in a tight file.
Rand twisted once in his saddle to look for Lan, but the Warder was already lost to sight among the low hills and leafless trees. Last Lord of the Seven Towers, she had called him. He wondered what that meant. He had not thought anyone besides himself had heard, but Thom was chewing the ends of his mustaches, and he had a speculative frown on his face. The gleeman seemed to know a great many things.
The horns called and answered once more behind them. Rand shifted in his saddle. They were closer this time; he was sure of it. Eight miles. Maybe seven. Mat and Egwene looked over their shoulders, and Perrin hunched as if he expected something to hit him in the back. Nynaeve rode up to speak to Moiraine.
“Can’t we go any faster?” she asked. “Those horns are getting closer.”
The Aes Sedai shook her head. “And why do they let us know they are there? Perhaps so we will hurry on without thinking of what might be ahead.”
They kept on at the same steady pace. At intervals the horns gave cry behind them, and each time the sound was closer. Rand tried to stop thinking of how close, but the thought came unbidden at every brazen wail. Five miles, he was thinking anxiously, when Lan suddenly burst around the hill behind them at a gallop.
He came abreast of Moiraine, reining in the stallion. “At least three fists of Trollocs, each led by a Halfman. Maybe five.”
“If you were close enough to see them,” Egwene said worriedly, “they could have seen you. They could be right on your heels.”
“He was not seen.” Nynaeve drew herself up as everyone looked at her. “I have followed his trail, remember.”
“Hush,” Moiraine commanded. “Lan is telling us there are perhaps five hundred Trollocs behind us.” A stunned silence followed, then Lan spoke again.
“And they are closing the gap. They will be on us in an hour or less.”
Half to herself, the Aes Sedai said, “If they had that many before, why were they not used at Emond’s Field? If they did not, how did they come here since?”
“They are spread out to drive us before them,” Lan said, “with scouts quartering ahead of the main parties.”
“Driving us toward what?” Moiraine mused. As if to answer her a horn sounded in the distance to the west, a long moan that was answered this time by others, all ahead of them. Moiraine stopped Aldieb; the others followed her lead, Thom and the Emond’s Field folk looking around fearfully. Horns cried out before them, and behind. Rand thought they held a note of triumph.
“What do we do now?” Nynaeve demanded angrily. “Where do we go?”
“All that is left is north or south,” Moiraine said, more thinking aloud than answering the Wisdom. “To the south are the Hills of Absher, barren and dead, and the Taren, with no way to cross, and no traffic by boat. To the north, we can reach the Arinelle before nightfall, and there will be a chance of a trader’s boat. If the ice has broken at Maradon.”
“There is a place the Trollocs will not go,” Lan said, but Moiraine’s head whipped around sharply.
“No!” She motioned to the Warder, and he put his head close to hers so their talk could not be overheard.
The horns winded, and Rand’s horse danced nervously.
“They’re trying to frighten us,” Thom growled, attempting to steady his mount. He sounded half angry and half as if the Trollocs were succeeding. “They’re trying to scare us until we panic and run. They’ll have us, then.”
Egwene’s head swung with every blast of a horn, staring first ahead of them, then behind, as if looking for the first Trollocs. Rand wanted to do the same thing, but he tried to hide it. He moved Cloud closer to her.
“We go north,” Moiraine announced.
The horns keened shrilly as they left the road and trotted into the surrounding hills.
The hills were low, but the way was all up and down, with never a flat stretch, beneath bare-branched trees and through dead undergrowth. The horses climbed laboriously up one slope only to canter down the other. Lan set a hard pace, faster than they had used on the road.
Branches lashed Rand across the face and chest. Old creepers and vines caught his arms, and sometimes snagged his foot right out of the stirrup. The keening horns came ever closer, and ever more frequently.
As hard as Lan pushed them, they were not getting farther on very quickly. They traveled two feet up or down for every one forward, and every foot was a scrambling effort. And the horns were coming nearer. Two miles, he thought. Maybe less.
After a time Lan began peering first one way then another, the hard planes of his face as close to worry as Rand had seen them. Once the Warder stood in his stirrups to stare back the way they had come. All Rand could see were trees. Lan settled back into his saddle and unconsciously pushed back his cloak to clear his sword as he resumed searching the forest.
Rand met Mat’s eye questioningly, but Mat only grimaced at the Warder’s back and shrugged helplessly.
Lan spoke, then, over his shoulder. “There are Trollocs nearby.” They topped a hill and started down the other side. “Some of the scouts, sent ahead of the rest. Probably. If we come on them, stay with me at all costs, and do as I do. We must keep on the way we are going.”
“Blood and ashes!” Thom muttered. Nynaeve motioned to Egwene to keep close.
Scattered stands of evergreens provided the only real cover, but Rand tried to peer in every direction at once, his imagination turning gray tree trunks caught out of the corner of his eye into Trollocs. The horns were closer, too. And directly behind them. He was sure of it. Behind and coming closer.
They topped another hill.
Below them, just starting up the slope, marched Trollocs carrying poles tipped with great loops of rope or long hooks. Many Trollocs. The line stretched far to either side, the ends out of sight, but at its center, directly in front of Lan, a Fade rode.
The Myrddraal seemed to hesitate as the humans appeared atop the hill, but in the next instant it produced a sword with the black blade Rand remembered so queasily, and waved it over its head. The line of Trollocs scrambled forward.
Even before the Myrddraal moved, Lan’s sword was in his hand. “Stay with me!” he cried, and Mandarb plunged down the slope toward the Trollocs. “For the Seven Towers!” he shouted.
Rand gulped and booted the gray forward; the whole group of them streamed after the Warder. He was surprised to find Tam’s sword in his fist. Caught up by Lan’s cry, he found his own. “Manetheren! Manetheren!”
Perrin took it up. “Manetheren! Manetheren!”
But Mat shouted, “Carai an Caldazar! Carai an Ellisande! Al Ellisande!”
The Fade’s head turned from the Trollocs to the riders charging toward him. The black sword froze over its head, and the opening of its cowl swiveled, searching among the oncoming horsemen.
Then Lan was on the Myrddraal, as the human folk fell on the Trolloc line. Warder’s blade met black steel from the forges at Thakan’dar with a clang like a great bell, the toll echoing in the hollow, a flash of blue light filling the air like sheet lightning.
Beast-muzzled almost-men swarmed around each of the humans, catchpoles and hooks flailing. Only Lan and the Myrddraal did they avoid; those two fought in a clear circle, black horses matching step for step, swords matching stroke for stroke. The air flashed and pealed.
Cloud rolled his eyes and screamed, rearing and lashing out with his hooves at the snarling, sharp-toothed faces surrounding him. Heavy bodies crowded shoulder-to-shoulder around him. Digging his heels in ruthlessly, Rand forced the gray on regardless, swinging his sword with little of the skill Lan had tried to impart, hacking as if hewing wood. Egwene! Desperately he searched for her as he kicked the gray onward, slashing a path through the hairy bodies as though chopping undergrowth.
Moiraine’s white mare dashed and cut at the slightest touch of the Aes Sedai’s hand on the reins. Her face was as hard as Lan’s as her staff lashed out. Flame enveloped Trollocs, then burst with a roar that left misshapen forms unmoving on the ground. Nynaeve and Egwene rode close to the Aes Sedai with frantic urgency, teeth bared almost as fiercely as the Trollocs’, belt knives in hand. Those short blades would be no use at all if a Trolloc came close. Rand tried to turn Cloud toward them, but the gray had the bit in his teeth. Screaming and kicking, Cloud struggled forward however hard Rand tugged at the reins.
Around the three women a space opened as Trollocs tried to flee from Moiraine’s staff, but as they attempted to avoid her, she sought them out. Fires roared, and the Trollocs howled in rage and fury. Above roar and howl crashed the tolling of the Warder’s sword against the Myrddraal’s; the air flared blue around them, flared again. Again.
A noose on the end of a pole swept at Rand’s head. With an awkward slash, he cut the catchpole in two, then hacked the goat-faced Trolloc that held it. A hook caught his shoulder from behind and tangled in his cloak, jerking him backwards. Frantically, almost losing his sword, he clutched the pommel of his saddle to keep his seat. Cloud twisted, shrieking. Rand hung onto saddle and reins desperately; he could feel himself slipping, inch by inch, falling to the hook. Cloud swung around; for an instant Rand saw Perrin, half out of his saddle, struggling to wrest his axe away from three Trollocs. They had him by one arm and both legs. Cloud plunged, and only Trollocs filled Rand’s eyes.
A Trolloc dashed in and seized Rand’s leg, forcing his foot free of the stirrup. Panting, he let go of the saddle to stab it. Instantly the hook pulled him out of the saddle, to Cloud’s hindquarters; his death-grip on the reins was all that kept him from the ground. Cloud reared and shrieked. And in that same moment the pulling vanished. The Trolloc at his leg threw up its hands and screamed. All of the Trollocs screamed, a howl like all the dogs in the world gone mad.
Around the humans Trollocs fell writhing to the ground, tearing at their hair, clawing their own faces. All of the Trollocs. Biting at the ground, snapping at nothing, howling, howling, howling.
Then Rand saw the Myrddraal. Still upright in the saddle of its madly dancing horse, black sword still flailing, it had no head.
“It won’t die until nightfall,” Thom had to shout, between heavy breaths, over the unrelenting screams. “Not completely. That is what I’ve heard, anyway.”
“Ride!” Lan shouted angrily. The Warder had already gathered Moiraine and the other two women and had them halfway up the next hill. “This is not all of them!” Indeed, the horns dirged again, above the shrieks of the Trollocs on the ground, to east and west and south.
For a wonder, Mat was the only one who had been unhorsed. Rand trotted toward him, but Mat tossed a noose away from him with a shudder, gathered his bow, and scrambled into his saddle unaided, though rubbing at his throat.
The horns bayed like hounds with the scent of a deer. Hounds closing in. If Lan had set a hard pace before, he doubled it now, till the horses scrabbled uphill faster than they had gone down before, then nearly threw themselves at the other side. But still the horns came ever nearer, until the guttural shouts of pursuit were heard whenever the horns paused, until eventually the humans reached a hilltop just as Trollocs appeared on the next hill behind them. The hilltop blackened with Trollocs, snouted, distorted faces howling, and three Myrddraal overawed them all. Only a hundred spans separated the two parties.
Rand’s heart shriveled like an old grape. Three!
The Myrddraal’s black swords rose as one; Trollocs boiled down the slope, thick, triumphant cries rising, catchpoles bobbing above as they ran.
Moiraine climbed down from Aldieb’s back. Calmly she removed something from her pouch, unwrapped it. Rand glimpsed dark ivory. The angreal. With angreal in one hand and staff in the other, the Aes Sedai set her feet, facing the onrushing Trollocs and the Fades’ black swords, raised her staff high, and stabbed it down into the earth.
The ground rang like an iron kettle struck by a mallet. The hollow clang dwindled, faded away. For an instant then, it was silent. Everything was silent. The wind died. The Trolloc cries stilled; even their charge forward slowed and stopped. For a heartbeat, everything waited. Slowly the dull ringing returned, changing to a low rumble, growing until the earth moaned.
The ground trembled beneath Cloud’s hooves. This was Aes Sedai work like the stories told about; Rand wished he were a hundred miles away. The tremble became a shaking that set the trees around them quivering. The gray stumbled and nearly fell. Even Mandarb and riderless Aldieb staggered as if drunk, and those who rode had to cling to reins and manes, to anything, to keep their seats.
The Aes Sedai still stood as she had begun, holding the angreal and her upright staff thrust into the hilltop, and neither she nor the staff moved an inch, for all that the ground shook and shivered around her. Now the ground rippled, springing out from in front of her staff, lapping toward the Trollocs like ripples on a pond, ripples that grew as they ran, toppling old bushes, flinging dead leaves into the air, growing, becoming waves of earth, rolling toward the Trollocs. Trees in the hollow lashed like switches in the hands of small boys. On the far slope Trollocs fell in heaps, tumbled over and over by the raging earth.
Yet as if the ground were not rearing all around them, the Myrddraal moved forward in a line, their dead-black horses never missing a step, every hoof in unison. Trollocs rolled on the ground all about the black steeds, howling and grabbing at the hillside that heaved them up, but the Myrddraal came slowly on.
Moiraine lifted her staff, and the earth stilled, but she was not done. She pointed to the hollow between the hills, and flame gouted from the ground, a fountain twenty feet high. She flung her arms wide, and the fire raced to left and right as far as the eye could see, spreading into a wall separating humans and Trollocs. The heat made Rand put his hands in front of his face, even on the hilltop. The Myrddraal’s black mounts, whatever strange powers they had, screamed at the fire, reared and fought their riders as the Myrddraal beat at them, trying to force them through the flames.
“Blood and ashes,” Mat said faintly. Rand nodded numbly.
Abruptly Moiraine wavered and would have fallen had Lan not leaped from his horse to catch her. “Go on,” he told the others. The harshness of his voice was at odds with the gentle way he lifted the Aes Sedai to her saddle. “That fire won’t burn forever. Hurry! Every minute counts!”
The wall of flame roared as if it would indeed burn forever, but Rand did not argue. They galloped northward as fast as they could make their horses go. The horns in the distance shrilled out disappointment, as if they already knew what had happened, then fell silent.
Lan and Moiraine soon caught up with the others, though Lan led Aldieb by the reins while the Aes Sedai swayed and held the pommel of her saddle with both hands. “I will be all right soon,” she said to their worried looks. She sounded tired yet confident, and her gaze was as compelling as ever. “I am not at my strongest when working with Earth and Fire. A small thing.”
The two of them moved into the lead again at a fast walk. Rand did not think Moiraine could stay in the saddle at any faster pace. Nynaeve rode foward beside the Aes Sedai, steadying her with a hand. For a time as the party went on across the hills the two women whispered, then the Wisdom delved into her cloak and handed a small packet to Moiraine. Moiraine unfolded it and swallowed the contents. Nynaeve said something more, then fell back with the others, ignoring their questioning looks. Despite their circumstances, Rand thought she had a slight look of satisfaction.
He did not really care what the Wisdom was up to. He rubbed the hilt of his sword continually, and whenever he realized what he was doing, he stared down at it in wonder. So that’s what a battle is like. He could not remember much of it, not any particular part. Everything ran together in his head, a melted mass of hairy faces and fear. Fear and heat. It had seemed as hot as a midsummer noon while it was going on. He could not understand that. The icy wind was trying to freeze beads of perspiration all over his face and body.
He glanced at his two friends. Mat was scrubbing sweat off his face with the edge of his cloak. Perrin, staring at something in the distance and not liking what he was seeing, appeared unaware of the beads glistening on his forehead.
The hills grew smaller, and the land began to level out, but instead of pressing on, Lan stopped. Nynaeve moved as if to rejoin Moiraine, but the Warder’s look kept her away. He and the Aes Sedai rode ahead and put their heads together, and from Moiraine’s gestures it became apparent they were arguing. Nynaeve and Thom stared at them, the Wisdom frowning worriedly, the gleeman muttering under his breath and pausing to stare back the way they had come, but everyone else avoided looking at them altogether. Who knew what might come out of an argument between an Aes Sedai and a Warder?
After a few minutes Egwene spoke to Rand quietly, casting an uneasy eye at the still-arguing pair. “Those things you were shouting at the Trollocs.” She stopped as if unsure how to proceed.
“What about them?” Rand asked. He felt a little awkward—warcries were all right for Warders; Two Rivers folk did not do things like that, whatever Moiraine said—but if she made fun of him over it. . . . “Mat must have repeated that story ten times.”
“And badly,” Thom put in. Mat grunted in protest.
“However he told it,” Rand said, “we’ve all heard it any number of times. Besides, we had to shout something. I mean, that’s what you do at a time like that. You heard Lan.”
“And we have a right,” Perrin added thoughtfully. “Moiraine says we’re all descended from those Manetheren people. They fought the Dark One, and we’re fighting the Dark One. That gives us a right.”
Egwene sniffed as if to show what she thought of that. “I wasn’t talking about that. What . . . what was it you were shouting, Mat?”
Mat shrugged uncomfortably. “I don’t remember.” He stared at them defensively. “Well, I don’t. It’s all foggy. I don’t know what it was, or where it came from, or what it means.” He gave a self-deprecating laugh. “I don’t suppose it means anything.”
“I . . . I think it does,” Egwene said slowly. “When you shouted, I thought—just for a minute—I thought I understood you. But it’s all gone, now.” She sighed and shook her head. “Perhaps you’re right. Strange what you can imagine at a time like that, isn’t it?”
“Carai an Caldazar,” Moiraine said. They all twisted to stare at her. “Carai an Ellisande. Al Ellisande. For the honor of the Red Eagle. For the honor of the Rose of the Sun. The Rose of the Sun. The ancient warcry of Manetheren, and the warcry of its last king. Eldrene was called the Rose of the Sun.” Moiraine’s smile took in Egwene and Mat both, though her gaze may have rested a moment longer on him than on her. “The blood of Aemon’s line is still strong in the Two Rivers. The old blood still sings.”
Mat and Egwene looked at each other, while everyone else looked at them both. Egwene’s eyes were wide, and her mouth kept quirking into a smile that she bit back every time it began, as if she was not sure just how to take this talk of the old blood. Mat was sure, from the scowling frown on his face.
Rand thought he knew what Mat was thinking. The same thing he was thinking. If Mat was a descendant of the ancient kings of Manetheren, maybe the Trollocs were really after him and not all three of them. The thought made him ashamed. His cheeks colored, and when he caught a guilty grimace on Perrin’s face, he knew Perrin had been having the same thought.
“I can’t say that I have ever heard the like of this,” Thom said after a minute. He shook himself and became brusque. “Another time I might even make a story out of it, but right now. . . . Do you intend to remain here for the rest of the day, Aes Sedai?”
“No,” Moiraine replied, gathering her reins.
A Trolloc horn keened from the south as if to emphasize her word. More horns answered, east and west. The horses whickered and sidled about nervously.
“They have passed the fire,” Lan said calmly. He turned to Moiraine. “You are not strong enough for what you intend, not yet, not without rest. And neither Myrddraal nor Trolloc will enter that place.”
Moiraine raised a hand as if to cut him off, then sighed and let it fall instead. “Very well,” she said irritably. “You are right, I suppose, but I would rather there was any other choice.” She pulled her staff from under the girth strap of her saddle. “Gather in around me, all of you. As close as you can. Closer.”
Rand urged Cloud nearer the Aes Sedai’s mare. At Moiraine’s insistence they kept on crowding closer in a circle around her until every horse had its head stretched over the croup or withers of another. Only then was the Aes Sedai satisfied. Then, without speaking, she stood in the stirrups and swung her staff over their heads, stretching to make certain it covered everyone.
Rand flinched each time the staff passed over him. A tingle ran through him with every pass. He could have followed the staff without seeing it, just by following the shivers as it moved over people. It was no surprise to him that Lan was the only one not affected.
Abruptly Moiraine thrust the staff out to the west. Dead leaves whirled into the air and branches whipped as if a dust-devil ran along the line she pointed to. As the invisible whirlwind vanished from sight she settled back into her saddle with a sigh.
“To the Trollocs,” she said, “our scents and our tracks will seem to follow that. The Myrddraal will see through it in time, but by then. . . .”
“By then,” Lan said, “we will have lost ourselves.”
“Your staff is very powerful,” Egwene said, earning a sniff from Nynaeve.
Moiraine made a clicking sound. “I have told you, child, things do not have power. The One Power comes from the True Source, and only a living mind can wield it. This is not even an angreal, merely an aid to concentration.” Wearily she slid the staff back under her girth strap. “Lan?”
“Follow me,” the Warder said, “and keep quiet. It will ruin everything if the Trollocs hear us.”
He led the way north again, not at the crashing pace they had been making, but rather in the quick walk with which they had traveled the Caemlyn Road. The land continued to flatten, though the forest remained as thick.
Their path was no longer straight, as it had been before, for Lan chose out a route that meandered over hard ground and rocky outcrops, and he no longer let them force their way through tangles of brush, instead taking the time to make their way around. Now and again he dropped to the rear, intently studying the trail they made. If anyone so much as coughed, it drew a sharp grunt from him.
Nynaeve rode beside the Aes Sedai, concern battling dislike on her face. And there was a hint of something more, Rand thought, almost as if the Wisdom saw some goal in sight. Moiraine’s shoulders were slumped, and she held her reins and the saddle with both hands, swaying with every step Aldieb took. It was plain that laying the false trail, small as that might have seemed beside producing an earthquake and a wall of flame, had taken a great deal out of her, strength she no longer had to lose.
Rand almost wished the horns would start again. At least they were a way of telling how far back the Trollocs were. And the Fades.
He kept looking behind them, and so was not the first to see what lay ahead. When he did, he stared, perplexed. A great, irregular mass stretched off to either side out of sight, in most places as high as the trees that grew right up to it, with even taller spires here and there. Leafless vines and creepers covered it all in thick layers. A cliff? The vines will make climbing easy, but we’ll never get the horses up.
Suddenly, as they rode a little closer, he saw a tower. It was clearly a tower, not some kind of rock formation, with an odd, pointed dome on the top. “A city!” he said. And a city wall, and the spires were guard towers on the wall. His jaw dropped. It had to be ten times as big as Baerlon. Fifty times as big.
Mat nodded. “A city,” he agreed. “But what’s a city doing in the middle of a forest like this?”
“And without any people,” Perrin said. When they looked at him, he pointed to the wall. “Would people let vines grow over everything like that? You know how creepers can tear down a wall. Look how it’s fallen.”
What Rand saw adjusted itself in his mind again. It was as Perrin said. Under almost every low place in the wall was a brush-covered hill; rubble from the collapsed wall above. No two of the guard towers were the same height.
“I wonder what city it was,” Egwene mused. “I wonder what happened to it. I don’t remember anything from papa’s map.”
“It was called Aridhol,” Moiraine said. “In the days of the Trolloc Wars, it was an ally of Manetheren.” Staring at the massive walls, she seemed almost unaware of the others, even of Nynaeve, who supported her in the saddle with a hand on her arm. “Later Aridhol died, and this place was called by another name.”
“What name?” Mat asked.
“Here,” Lan said. He stopped Mandarb in front of what had once been a gate wide enough for fifty men to march through abreast. Only the broken, vine-encrusted watchtowers remained; of the gates there was no sign. “We enter here.” Trolloc horns shrieked in the distance. Lan peered in the direction of the sound, then looked at the sun, halfway down toward the treetops in the west. “They have discovered it’s a false trail. Come, we must find shelter before dark.”
“What name?” Mat asked again.
Moiraine answered as they rode into the city. “Shadar Logoth,” she said. “It is called Shadar Logoth.”
Copyright © 1990 by Robert Jordan
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