There’s on a few months left until The Wheel of Time show FINALLY releases on Amazon Prime, and we’re getting ready by re-reading The Eye of the World! Join us and check out the prologue, plus Chapters 1 & 2, for free here!
Since its debut in 1990, The Wheel of Time® by Robert Jordan has captivated millions of readers around the globe with its scope, originality, and compelling characters.
The Wheel of Time turns and Ages come and go, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth returns again. In the Third Age, an Age of Prophecy, the World and Time themselves hang in the balance. What was, what will be, and what is, may yet fall under the Shadow.
When The Two Rivers is attacked by Trollocs—a savage tribe of half-men, half-beasts— five villagers flee that night into a world they barely imagined, with new dangers waiting in the shadows and in the light.
Enjoy this special, extended except of The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan, available now!
The palace still shook occasionally as the earth rumbled in memory, groaned as if it would deny what had happened. Bars of sunlight cast through rents in the walls made motes of dust glitter where they yet hung in the air. Scorch-marks marred the walls, the floors, the ceilings. Broad black smears crossed the blistered paints and gilt of once-bright murals, soot overlaying crumbling friezes of men and animals which seemed to have attempted to walk before the madness grew quiet. The dead lay everywhere, men and women and children, struck down in attempted flight by the lightnings that had flashed down every corridor, or seized by the fires that had stalked them, or sunken into stone of the palace, the stones that had flowed and sought, almost alive, before stillness came again. In odd counterpoint, colorful tapestries and paintings, masterworks all, hung undisturbed except where bulging walls had pushed them awry. Finely carved furnishings, inlaid with ivory and gold, stood untouched except where rippling floors had toppled them. The mind-twisting had struck at the core, ignoring peripheral things.
Lews Therin Telamon wandered the palace, deftly keeping his balance when the earth heaved. “Ilyena! My love, where are you?” The edge of his pale gray cloak trailed through blood as he stepped across the body of a woman, her golden-haired beauty marred by the horror of her last moments, her still-open eyes frozen in disbelief. “Where are you, my wife? Where is everyone hiding?”
His eyes caught his own reflection in a mirror hanging askew from bubbled marble. His clothes had been regal once, in gray and scarlet and gold; now the finely-woven cloth, brought by merchants from across the World Sea, was torn and dirty, thick with the same dust that covered his hair and skin. For a moment he fingered the symbol on his cloak, a circle half white and half black, the colors separated by a sinuous line. It meant something, that symbol. But the embroidered circle could not hold his attention long. He gazed at his own image with as much wonder. A tall man just into his middle years, handsome once, but now with hair already more white than brown and a face lined by strain and worry, dark eyes that had seen too much. Lews Therin began to chuckle, then threw back his head; his laughter echoed down the lifeless halls.
“Ilyena, my love! Come to me, my wife. You must see this.”
Behind him the air rippled, shimmered, solidified into a man who looked around, his mouth twisting briefly with distaste. Not so tall as Lews Therin, he was clothed all in black, save for the snow-white lace at his throat and the silverwork on the turned-down tops of his thigh-high boots. He stepped carefully, handling his cloak fastidiously to avoid brushing the dead. The floor trembled with aftershocks, but his attention was fixed on the man staring into the mirror and laughing.
“Lord of the Morning,” he said, “I have come for you.”
The laughter cut off as if it had never been, and Lews Therin turned, seeming unsurprised. “Ah, a guest. Have you the Voice, stranger? It will soon be time for the Singing, and here all are welcome to take part. Ilyena, my love, we have a guest. Ilyena, where are you?”
The black-clad man’s eyes widened, darted to the body of the golden-haired woman, then back to Lews Therin. “Shai’tan take you, does the taint already have you so far in its grip?”
“That name. Shai—” Lews Therin shuddered and raised a hand as though to ward off something. “You mustn’t say that name. It is dangerous.”
“So you remember that much, at least. Dangerous for you, fool, not for me. What else do you remember? Remember, you Light-blinded idiot! I will not let it end with you swaddled in unawareness! Remember!”
For a moment Lews Therin stared at his raised hand, fascinated by the patterns of grime. Then he wiped his hand on his even dirtier coat and turned his attention back to the other man. “Who are you? What do you want?”
The black-clad man drew himself up arrogantly. “Once I was called Elan Morin Tedronai, but now—”
“Betrayer of Hope.” It was a whisper from Lews Therin. Memory stirred, but he turned his head, shying away from it.
“So you do remember some things. Yes, Betrayer of Hope. So have men named me, just as they named you Dragon, but unlike you I embrace the name. They gave me the name to revile me, but I will yet make them kneel and worship it. What will you do with your name? After this day, men will call you Kinslayer. What will you do with that?”
Lews Therin frowned down the ruined hall. “Ilyena should be here to offer a guest welcome,” he murmured absently, then raised his voice. “Ilyena, where are you?” The floor shook; the golden-haired woman’s body shifted as if in answer to his call. His eyes did not see her.
Elan Morin grimaced. “Look at you,” he said scornfully. “Once you stood first among the Servants. Once you wore the Ring of Tamyrlin, and sat in the High Seat. Once you summoned the Nine Rods of Dominion. Now look at you! A pitiful, shattered wretch. But it is not enough. You humbled me in the Hall of Servants. You defeated me at the Gates of Paaran Disen. But I am the greater, now. I will not let you die without knowing that. When you die, your last thought will be the full knowledge of your defeat, of how complete and utter it is. If I let you die at all.”
“I cannot imagine what is keeping Ilyena. She will give me the rough side of her tongue if she thinks I have been hiding a guest from her. I hope you enjoy conversation, for she surely does. Be forewarned. Ilyena will ask you so many questions you may end up telling her everything you know.”
Tossing back his black cloak, Elan Morin flexed his hands. “A pity for you,” he mused, “that one of your Sisters is not here. I was never very skilled at Healing, and I follow a different power now. But even one of them could only give you a few lucid minutes, if you did not destroy her first. What I can do will serve as well, for my purposes.” His sudden smile was cruel. “But I fear Shai’tan’s healing is different from the sort you know. Be healed, Lews Therin!” He extended his hands, and the light dimmed as if a shadow had been laid across the sun.
Pain blazed in Lews Therin, and he screamed, a scream that came from his depths, a scream he could not stop. Fire seared his marrow; acid rushed along his veins. He toppled backwards, crashing to the marble floor; his head struck the stone and rebounded. His heart pounded, trying to beat its way out of his chest, and every pulse gushed new flame through him. Helplessly he convulsed, thrashing, his skull a sphere of purest agony on the point of bursting. His hoarse screams reverberated through the palace.
Slowly, ever so slowly, the pain receded. The outflowing seemed to take a thousand years and left him twitching weakly, sucking breath through a raw throat. Another thousand years seemed to pass before he could manage to heave himself over, muscles like jellyfish, and shakily push himself up on hands and knees. His eyes fell on the golden-haired woman, and the scream that was ripped out of him dwarfed every sound he had made before. Tottering, almost falling, he scrabbled brokenly across the floor to her. It took every bit of his strength to pull her up into his arms. His hands shook as he smoothed her hair back from her staring face.
“Ilyena! Light help me, Ilyena!” His body curved around hers protectively, his sobs the full-throated cries of a man who had nothing left to live for. “Ilyena, no! No!”
“You can have her back, Kinslayer. The Great Lord of the Dark can make her live again, if you will serve him. If you will serve me.”
Lews Therin raised his head, and the black-clad man took an involuntary step back from that gaze. “Ten years, Betrayer,” Lews Therin said softly, the soft sound of steel being bared. “Ten years your foul master has wracked the world. And now this. I will. . . .”
“Ten years! You pitiful fool! This war has not lasted ten years, but since the beginning of time. You and I have fought a thousand battles with the turning of the Wheel, a thousand times a thousand, and we will fight until time dies and the Shadow is triumphant!” He finished in a shout, with a raised fist, and it was Lews Therin’s turn to pull back, breath catching at the glow in the Betrayer’s eyes.
Carefully Lews Therin laid Ilyena down, fingers gently brushing her hair. Tears blurred his vision as he stood, but his voice was iced iron. “For what else you have done, there can be no forgiveness, Betrayer, but for Ilyena’s death I will destroy you beyond anything your master can repair. Prepare to—”
“Remember, you fool! Remember your futile attack on the Great Lord of the Dark! Remember his counterstroke! Remember! Even now the Hundred Companions are tearing the world apart, and every day a hundred men more join them. What hand slew Ilyena Sunhair, Kinslayer? Not mine. Not mine. What hand struck down every life that bore a drop of your blood, everyone who loved you, everyone you loved? Not mine, Kinslayer. Not mine. Remember, and know the price of opposing Shai’tan!”
Sudden sweat made tracks down Lews Therin’s face through the dust and dirt. He remembered, a cloudy memory like a dream of a dream, but he knew it true.
His howl beat at the walls, the howl of a man who had discovered his soul damned by his own hand, and he clawed at his face as if to tear away the sight of what he had done. Everywhere he looked his eyes found the dead. Torn they were, or broken or burned, or half-consumed by stone. Everywhere lay lifeless faces he knew, faces he loved. Old servants and friends of his childhood, faithful companions through the long years of battle. And his children. His own sons and daughters, sprawled like broken dolls, play stilled forever. All slain by his hand. His children’s faces accused him, blank eyes asking why, and his tears were no answer. The Betrayer’s laughter flogged him, drowned out his howls. He could not bear the faces, the pain. He could not bear to remain any longer. Desperately he reached out to the True Source, to tainted saidin, and he Traveled.
The land around him was flat and empty. A river flowed nearby, straight and broad, but he could sense there were no people within a hundred leagues. He was alone, as alone as a man could be while still alive, yet he could not escape memory. The eyes pursued him through the endless caverns of his mind. He could not hide from them. His children’s eyes. Ilyena’s eyes. Tears glistened on his cheeks as he turned his face to the sky.
“Light, forgive me!” He did not believe it could come, forgiveness. Not for what he had done. But he shouted to the sky anyway, begged for what he could not believe he could receive. “Light, forgive me!”
He was still touching saidin, the male half of the power that drove the universe, that turned the Wheel of Time, and he could feel the oily taint fouling its surface, the taint of the Shadow’s counterstroke, the taint that doomed the world. Because of him. Because in his pride he had believed that men could match the Creator, could mend what the Creator had made and they had broken. In his pride he had believed.
He drew on the True Source deeply, and still more deeply, like a man dying of thirst. Quickly he had drawn more of the One Power than he could channel unaided; his skin felt as if it were aflame. Straining, he forced himself to draw more, tried to draw it all.
“Light, forgive me! Ilyena!”
The air turned to fire, the fire to light liquefied. The bolt that struck from the heavens would have seared and blinded any eye that glimpsed it, even for an instant. From the heavens it came, blazed through Lews Therin Telamon, bored into the bowels of the earth. Stone turned to vapor at its touch. The earth thrashed and quivered like a living thing in agony. Only a heartbeat did the shining bar exist, connecting ground and sky, but even after it vanished the earth yet heaved like the sea in a storm. Molten rock fountained five hundred feet into the air, and the groaning ground rose, thrusting the burning spray ever upward, ever higher. From north and south, from east and west, the wind howled in, snapping trees like twigs, shrieking and blowing as if to aid the growing mountain ever skyward. Ever skyward.
At last the wind died, the earth stilled to trembling mutters. Of Lews Therin Telamon, no sign remained. Where he had stood a mountain now rose miles into the sky, molten lava still gushing from its broken peak. The broad, straight river had been pushed into a curve away from the mountain, and there it split to form a long island in its midst. The shadow of the mountain almost reached the island; it lay dark across the land like the ominous hand of prophecy. For a time the dull, protesting rumbles of the earth were the only sound.
On the island, the air shimmered and coalesced. The black-clad man stood staring at the fiery mountain rising out of the plain. His face twisted in rage and contempt. “You cannot escape so easily, Dragon. It is not done between us. It will not be done until the end of time.”
Then he was gone, and the mountain and the island stood alone. Waiting.
And the Shadow fell upon the Land, and the World was riven stone from stone. The oceans fled, and the mountains were swallowed up, and the nations were scattered to the eight corners of the World. The moon was as blood, and the sun was as ashes. The seas boiled, and the living envied the dead. All was shattered, and all but memory lost, and one memory above all others, of him who brought the Shadow and the Breaking of the World. And him they named Dragon.
(From Aleth nin Taerin alta Camora,
The Breaking of the World.
Author unknown, the Fourth Age)
And it came to pass in those days, as it had come before and would come again, that the Dark lay heavy on the land and weighed down the hearts of men, and the green things failed, and hope died. And men cried out to the Creator, saying, O Light of the Heavens, Light of the World, let the Promised One be born of the mountain, according to the prophecies, as he was in ages past and will be in ages to come. Let the Prince of the Morning sing to the land that green things will grow and the valleys give forth lambs. Let the arm of the Lord of the Dawn shelter us from the Dark, and the great sword of justice defend us. Let the Dragon ride again on the winds of time.
(From Charal Drianaan te Calamon,
The Cycle of the Dragon.
Author unknown, the Fourth Age)
An Empty Road
The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose in the Mountains of Mist. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.
Born below the ever cloud-capped peaks that gave the mountains their name, the wind blew east, out across the Sand Hills, once the shore of a great ocean, before the Breaking of the World. Down it flailed into the Two Rivers, into the tangled forest called the Westwood, and beat at two men walking with a cart and horse down the rock-strewn track called the Quarry Road. For all that spring should have come a good month since, the wind carried an icy chill as if it would rather bear snow.
Gusts plastered Rand al’Thor’s cloak to his back, whipped the earth-colored wool around his legs, then streamed it out behind him. He wished his coat were heavier, or that he had worn an extra shirt. Half the time when he tried to tug the cloak back around him it caught on the quiver swinging at his hip. Trying to hold the cloak one-handed did not do much good anyway; he had his bow in the other, an arrow nocked and ready to draw.
As a particularly strong blast tugged the cloak out of his hand, he glanced at his father over the back of the shaggy brown mare. He felt a little foolish about wanting to reassure himself that Tam was still there, but it was that kind of day. The wind howled when it rose, but aside from that, quiet lay heavy on the land. The soft creak of the axle sounded loud by comparison. No birds sang in the forest, no squirrels chittered from a branch. Not that he expected them, really; not this spring.
Only trees that kept leaf or needle through the winter had any green about them. Snarls of last year’s bramble spread brown webs over stone outcrops under the trees. Nettles numbered most among the few weeds; the rest were the sorts with sharp burrs or thorns, or stinkweed, which left a rank smell on the unwary boot that crushed it. Scattered white patches of snow still dotted the ground where tight clumps of trees kept deep shade. Where sunlight did reach, it held neither strength nor warmth. The pale sun sat above the trees to the east, but its light was crisply dark, as if mixed with shadow. It was an awkward morning, made for unpleasant thoughts.
Without thinking he touched the nock of the arrow; it was ready to draw to his cheek in one smooth movement, the way Tam had taught him. Winter had been bad enough on the farms, worse than even the oldest folk remembered, but it must have been harsher still in the mountains, if the number of wolves driven down into the Two Rivers was any guide. Wolves raided the sheep pens and chewed their way into barns to get the cattle and horses. Bears had been after the sheep, too, where a bear had not been seen in years. It was no longer safe to be out after dark. Men were the prey as often as sheep, and the sun did not always have to be down.
Tam was taking steady strides on the other side of Bela, using his spear as a walking staff, ignoring the wind that made his brown cloak flap like a banner. Now and again he touched the mare’s flank lightly, to remind her to keep moving. With his thick chest and broad face, he was a pillar of reality in that morning, like a stone in the middle of a drifting dream. His sun-roughened cheeks might be lined and his hair have only a sprinkling of black among the gray, but there was a solidness to him, as though a flood could wash around him without uprooting his feet. He stumped down the road now impassively. Wolves and bears were all very well, his manner said, things that any man who kept sheep must be aware of, but they had best not try to stop Tam al’Thor getting to Emond’s Field.
With a guilty start Rand returned to watching his side of the road, Tam’s matter-of-factness reminding him of his task. He was a head taller than his father, taller than anyone else in the district, and had little of Tam in him physically, except perhaps for a breadth of shoulder. Gray eyes and the reddish tinge to his hair came from his mother, so Tam said. She had been an outlander, and Rand remembered little of her aside from a smiling face, though he did put flowers on her grave every year, at Bel Tine, in the spring, and at Sunday, in the summer.
Two small casks of Tam’s apple brandy rested in the lurching cart, and eight larger barrels of apple cider, only slightly hard after a winter’s curing. Tam delivered the same every year to the Winespring Inn for use during Bel Tine, and he had declared that it would take more than wolves or a cold wind to stop him this spring. Even so they had not been to the village for weeks. Not even Tam traveled much these days. But Tam had given his word about the brandy and cider, even if he had waited to make delivery until the day before Festival. Keeping his word was important to Tam. Rand was just glad to get away from the farm, almost as glad as about the coming of Bel Tine.
As Rand watched his side of the road, the feeling grew in him that he was being watched. For a while he tried to shrug it off. Nothing moved or made a sound among the trees, except the wind. But the feeling not only persisted, it grew stronger. The hairs on his arms stirred; his skin prickled as if it itched on the inside.
He shifted his bow irritably to rub at his arms, and told himself to stop letting fancies take him. There was nothing in the woods on his side of the road, and Tam would have spoken if there had been anything on the other. He glanced over his shoulder . . . and blinked. Not more than twenty spans back down the road a cloaked figure on horseback followed them, horse and rider alike black, dull and ungleaming.
It was more habit than anything else that kept him walking backward alongside the cart even while he looked.
The rider’s cloak covered him to his boot tops, the cowl tugged well forward so no part of him showed. Vaguely Rand thought there was something odd about the horseman, but it was the shadowed opening of the hood that fascinated him. He could see only the vaguest outlines of a face, but he had the feeling he was looking right into the rider’s eyes. And he could not look away. Queasiness settled in his stomach. There was only shadow to see in the hood, but he felt hatred as sharply as if he could see a snarling face, hatred for everything that lived. Hatred for him most of all, for him above all things.
Abruptly a stone caught his heel and he stumbled, breaking his eyes away from the dark horseman. His bow dropped to the road, and only an outthrust hand grabbing Bela’s harness saved him from falling flat on his back. With a startled snort the mare stopped, twisting her head to see what had caught her.
Tam frowned over Bela’s back at him. “Are you all right, lad?”
“A rider,” Rand said breathlessly, pulling himself upright. “A stranger, following us.”
“Where?” The older man lifted his broad-bladed spear and peered back warily.
“There, down the. . . .” Rand’s words trailed off as he turned to point. The road behind was empty. Disbelieving, he stared into the forest on both sides of the road. Bare-branched trees offered no hiding place, but there was not a glimmer of horse or horseman. He met his father’s questioning gaze. “He was there. A man in a black cloak, on a black horse.”
“I wouldn’t doubt your word, lad, but where has he gone?”
“I don’t know. But he was there.” He snatched up the fallen bow and arrow, hastily checked the fletching before renocking, and half drew before letting the bowstring relax. There was nothing to aim at. “He was.”
Tam shook his grizzled head. “If you say so, lad. Come on, then. A horse leaves hoofprints, even on this ground.” He started toward the rear of the cart, his cloak whipping in the wind. “If we find them, we’ll know for a fact he was there. If not . . . well, these are days to make a man think he’s seeing things.”
Abruptly Rand realized what had been odd about the horseman, aside from his being there at all. The wind that beat at Tam and him had not so much as shifted a fold of that black cloak. His mouth was suddenly dry. He must have imagined it. His father was right; this was a morning to prickle a man’s imagination. But he did not believe it. Only, how did he tell his father that the man who had apparently vanished into air wore a cloak the wind did not touch?
With a worried frown he peered into the woods around them; it looked different than it ever had before. Almost since he was old enough to walk, he had run loose in the forest. The ponds and streams of the Waterwood, beyond the last farms east of Emond’s Field, were where he had learned to swim. He had explored into the Sand Hills—which many in the Two Rivers said was bad luck—and once he had even gone to the very foot of the Mountains of Mist, him and his closest friends, Mat Cauthon and Perrin Aybara. That was a lot further afield than most people in Emond’s Field ever went; to them a journey to the next village, up to Watch Hill or down to Deven Ride, was a big event. Nowhere in all of that had he found a place that made him afraid. Today, though, the Westwood was not the place he remembered. A Man who could disappear so suddenly could reappear just as suddenly, maybe even right beside them.
“No, father, there’s no need.” When Tam stopped in surprise, Rand covered his flush by tugging at the hood of his cloak. “You’re probably right. No point looking for what isn’t there, not when we can use the time getting on to the village and out of this wind.”
“I could do with a pipe,” Tam said slowly, “and a mug of ale where it’s warm.” Abruptly he gave a broad grin. “And I expect you’re eager to see Egwene.”
Rand managed a weak smile. Of all things he might want to think about right then, the Mayor’s daughter was far down the list. He did not need any more confusion. For the past year she had been making him increasingly jittery whenever they were together. Worse, she did not even seem to be aware of it. No, he certainly did not want to add Egwene to his thoughts.
He was hoping his father had not noticed he was afraid when Tam said, “Remember the flame, lad, and the void.”
It was an odd thing Tam had taught him. Concentrate on a single flame and feed all your passions into it—fear, hate, anger—until your mind became empty. Become one with the void, Tam said, and you could do anything. Nobody else in Emond’s Field talked that way. But Tam won the archery competition at Bel Tine every year with his flame and his void. Rand thought he might have a chance at placing this year himself, if he could manage to hold onto the void. For Tam to bring it up now meant he had noticed, but he said nothing more about it.
Tam clucked Bela into motion once more, and they resumed their journey, the older man striding along as if nothing untoward had happened and nothing untoward could. Rand wished he could imitate him. He tried forming the emptiness in his mind, but it kept slipping away into images of the black-cloaked horseman.
He wanted to believe that Tam was right, that the rider had just been his imagination, but he could remember that feeling of hatred too well. There had been someone. And that someone had meant him harm. He did not stop looking back until the high-peaked, thatched roofs of Emond’s Field surrounded him.
The village lay close onto the Westwood, the forest gradually thinning until the last few trees stood actually among the stout frame houses. The land sloped gently down to the east. Though not without patches of woods, farms and hedge-bordered fields and pastures quilted the land beyond the village all the way to the Waterwood and its tangle of streams and ponds. The land to the west was just as fertile, and the pastures there lush in most years, but only a handful of farms could be found in the Westwood. Even those few dwindled to none miles short of the Sand Hills, not to mention the Mountains of Mist, which rose above the Westwood treetops, distant but in plain sight from Emond’s Field. Some said the land was too rocky, as if there were not rocks everywhere in the Two Rivers, and others said it was hard-luck land. A few muttered that there was no point getting any closer to the mountains than needs be. Whatever the reasons, only the hardiest men farmed in the Westwood.
Small children and dogs dodged around the cart in whooping swarms once it passed the first row of houses. Bela plodded on patiently, ignoring the yelling youngsters who tumbled under her nose, playing tag and rolling hoops. In the last months there had been little of play or laughter from the children; even when the weather had slackened enough to let children out, fear of wolves kept them in. It seemed the approach of Bel Tine had taught them how to play again.
Festival had affected the adults as well. Broad shutters were thrown back, and in almost every house the goodwife stood in a window, apron tied about her and long-braided hair done up in a kerchief, shaking sheets or hanging mattresses over the windowsills. Whether or not leaves had appeared on the trees, no woman would let Bel Tine come before her spring cleaning was done. In every yard rugs hung from stretched lines, and children who had not been quick enough to run free in the streets instead vented their frustration on the carpets with wicker beaters. On roof after roof the goodman of the house clambered about, checking the thatch to see if the winter’s damage meant calling on old Cenn Buie, the thatcher.
Several times Tam paused to engage one man or another in brief conversation. Since he and Rand had not been off the farm for weeks, everyone wanted to catch up on how things were out that way. Few Westwood men had been in. Tam spoke of damage from winter storms, each one worse than the one before, and stillborn lambs, of brown fields where crops should be sprouting and pastures greening, of ravens flocking in where songbirds had come in years before. Grim talk, with preparations for Bel Tine going on all around them, and much shaking of heads. It was the same on all sides.
Most of the men rolled their shoulders and said, “Well, we’ll survive, the Light willing.” Some grinned and added, “And if the Light doesn’t will, we’ll still survive.”
That was the way of most Two Rivers people. People who had to watch the hail beat their crops or the wolves take their lambs, and start over, no matter how many years it happened, did not give up easily. Most of those who did were long since gone.
Tam would not have stopped for Wit Congar if the man had not come out into the street so they had to halt or let Bela run over him. The Congars—and the Coplins; the two families were so intermarried no one really knew where one family let off and the other began—were known from Watch Hill to Deven Ride, and maybe as far as Taren Ferry, as complainers and troublemakers.
“I have to get this to Bran al’Vere, Wit,” Tam said, nodding to the barrels in the cart, but the scrawny man held his ground with a sour expression on his face. He had been sprawled on his front steps, not up on his roof, though the thatch looked as if it badly needed Master Buie’s attention. He never seemed ready to start over, or to finish what he started the first time. Most of the Coplins and Congars were like that, those who were not worse.
“What are we going to do about Nynaeve, al’Thor?” Congar demanded. “We can’t have a Wisdom like that for Emond’s Field.”
Tam sighed heavily. “It’s not our place, Wit. The Wisdom is women’s business.”
“Well, we’d better do something, al’Thor. She said we’d have a mild winter. And a good harvest. Now you ask her what she hears on the wind, and she just scowls at you and stomps off.”
“If you asked her the way you usually do, Wit,” Tam said patiently, “you’re lucky she didn’t thump you with that stick she carries. Now if you don’t mind, this brandy—”
“Nynaeve al’Meara is just too young to be Wisdom, al’Thor. If the Women’s Circle won’t do something, then the Village Council has to.”
“What business of yours is the Wisdom, Wit Congar?” roared a woman’s voice. Wit flinched as his wife marched out of the house. Daise Congar was twice as wide as Wit, a hard-faced woman without an ounce of fat on her. She glared at him with her fists on her hips. “You try meddling in Women’s Circle business, and see how you like eating your own cooking. Which you won’t do in my kitchen. And washing your own clothes and making your own bed. Which won’t be under my roof.”
“But, Daise,” Wit whined, “I was just. . . .”
“If you’ll pardon me, Daise,” Tam said. “Wit. The Light shine on you both.” He got Bela moving again, leading her around the scrawny fellow. Daise was concentrating on her husband now, but any minute she could realize whom it was Wit had been talking to.
That was why they had not accepted any of the invitations to stop for a bite to eat or something hot to drink. When they saw Tam, the goodwives of Emond’s Field went on point like hounds spotting a rabbit. There was not a one of them who did not know just the perfect wife for a widower with a good farm, even if it was in the Westwood.
Rand stepped along just as quickly as Tam, perhaps even more so. He was sometimes cornered when Tam was not around, with no way to escape outside of rudeness. Herded onto a stool by the kitchen fire, he would be fed pastries or honeycakes or meatpies. And always the goodwife’s eyes weighed and measured him as neatly as any merchant’s scales and tapes while she told him that what he was eating was not nearly so good as her widowed sister’s cooking, or her next-to-eldest cousin’s. Tam was certainly not getting any younger, she would say. It was good that he had loved his wife so—it boded well for the next woman in his life—but he had mourned long enough. Tam needed a good woman. It was a simple fact, she would say, or something very close, that a man just could not do without a woman to take care of him and keep him out of trouble. Worst of all were those who paused thoughtfully at about that point, then asked with elaborate casualness exactly how old he was now.
Like most Two Rivers folk, Rand had a strong stubborn streak. Outsiders sometimes said it was the prime trait of people in the Two Rivers, that they could give mules lessons and teach stones. The goodwives were fine and kindly women for the most part, but he hated being pushed into anything, and they made him feel as if he were being prodded with sticks. So he walked fast, and wished Tam would hurry Bela along.
Soon the street opened onto the Green, a broad expanse in the middle of the village. Usually covered with thick grass, the Green this spring showed only a few fresh patches among the yellowish brown of dead grass and the black of bare earth. A double handful of geese waddled about, beadily eyeing the ground but not finding anything worth pecking, and someone had tethered a milkcow to crop the sparse growth.
Toward the west end of the Green, the Winespring itself gushed out of a low stone outcrop in a flow that never failed, a flow strong enough to knock a man down and sweet enough to justify its name a dozen times over. From the spring the rapidly widening Winespring Water ran swiftly off to the east, willows dotting its banks all the way to Master Thane’s mill and beyond, until it split into dozens of streams in the swampy depths of the Waterwood. Two low, railed footbridges crossed the clear stream at the Green, and one bridge wider than the others and stout enough to bear wagons. The Wagon Bridge marked where the North Road, coming down from Taren Ferry and Watch Hill, became the Old Road, leading to Deven Ride. Outsiders sometimes found it funny that the road had one name to the north and another to the south, but that was the way it had always been, as far as anyone in Emond’s Field knew, and that was that. It was a good enough reason for Two Rivers people.
On the far side of the bridges, the mounds were already building for the Bel Tine fires, three careful stacks of logs almost as big as houses. They had to be on cleared dirt, of course, not on the Green, even sparse as it was. What of Festival did not take place around the fires would happen on the Green.
Near the Winespring a score of older women sang softly as they erected the Spring Pole. Shorn of its branches, the straight, slender trunk of a fir tree stood ten feet high even in the hole they had dug for it. A knot of girls too young to wear their hair braided sat cross-legged and watched enviously, occasionally singing snatches of the song the women sang.
Tam clucked at Bela as if to make her speed her pace, though she ignored it, and Rand studiously kept his eyes from what the women were doing. In the morning the men would pretend to be surprised to find the Pole, then at noon the unmarried women would dance the Pole, entwining it with long, colored ribbons while the unmarried men sang. No one knew when the custom began or why—it was another thing that was the way it had always been—but it was an excuse to sing and dance, and nobody in the Two Rivers needed much excuse for that.
The whole day of Bel Tine would be taken up with singing and dancing and feasting, with time out for footraces, and contests in almost everything. Prizes would be given not only in archery, but for the best with the sling, and the quarterstaff. There would be contests at solving riddles and puzzles, at the rope tug, and lifting and tossing weights, prizes for the best singer, the best dancer and the best fiddle player, for the quickest to shear a sheep, even the best at bowls, and at darts.
Bel Tine was supposed to come when spring had well and truly arrived, the first lambs born and the first crop up. Even with the cold hanging on, though, no one had any idea of putting it off. Everyone could use a little singing and dancing. And to top everything, if the rumors could be believed, a grand display of fireworks was planned for the Green—if the first peddler of the year appeared in time, of course. That had been causing considerable talk; it was ten years since the last such display, and that was still talked about.
The Winespring Inn stood at the east end of the Green, hard beside the Wagon Bridge. The first floor of the inn was river rock, though the foundation was of older stone some said came from the mountains. The whitewashed second story—where Brandelwyn al’Vere, the innkeeper and Mayor of Emond’s Field for the past twenty years, lived in the back with his wife and daughters—jutted out over the lower floor all the way around. Red roof tile, the only such roof in the village, glittered in the weak sunlight, and smoke drifted from three of the inn’s dozen tall chimneys.
At the south end of the inn, away from the stream, stretched the remains of a much larger stone foundation, once part of the inn—or so it was said. A huge oak grew in the middle of it now, with a bole thirty paces around and spreading branches as thick as a man. In the summer, Bran al’Vere set tables and benches under those branches, shady with leaves then, where people could enjoy a cup and a cooling breeze while they talked or perhaps set out a board for a game of stones.
“Here we are, lad.” Tam reached for Bela’s harness, but she stopped in front of the inn before his hand touched leather. “Knows the way better than I do,” he chuckled.
As the last creak of the axle faded, Bran al’Vere appeared from the inn, seeming as always to step too lightly for a man of his girth, nearly double that of anyone else in the village. A smile split his round face, which was topped by a sparse fringe of gray hair. The innkeeper was in his shirtsleeves despite the chill, with a spotless white apron wrapped around him. A silver medallion in the form of a set of balance scales hung on his chest.
The medallion, along with the full-size set of scales used to weigh the coins of the merchants who came down from Baerlon for wool or tabac, was the symbol of the Mayor’s office. Bran only wore it for dealing with the merchants and for festival feastdays, and weddings. He had it on a day early now, but that night was Winternight, the night before Bel Tine, when every one would visit back and forth almost the whole night long exchanging small gifts, having a bite to eat and a touch to drink at every house. After the winter, Rand thought, he probably considers Winternight excuse enough not to wait until tomorrow.
“Tam,” the Mayor shouted as he hurried toward them. “The Light shine on me, it’s good to see you at last. And you, Rand. How are you, my boy?”
“Fine, Master al’Vere,” Rand said. “And you, sir?” But Bran’s attention was already back on Tam.
“I was almost beginning to think you wouldn’t be bringing your brandy this year. You’ve never waited so late before.”
“I’ve no liking for leaving the farm these days, Bran,” Tam replied. “Not with the wolves the way they are. And the weather.”
Bran harrumphed. “I could wish somebody wanted to talk about something besides the weather. Everyone complains about it, and folk who should know better expect me to set it right. I’ve just spent twenty minutes explaining to Mistress al’Donel that I can do nothing about the storks. Though what she expected me to do. . . .” He shook his head.
“An ill omen,” a scratchy voice announced, “no storks nesting on the rooftops at Bel Tine.” Cenn Buie, as gnarled and dark as an old root, marched up to Tam and Bran and leaned on his walking staff, near as tall as he was and just as gnarled. He tried to fix both men at once with a beady eye. “There’s worse to come, you mark my words.”
“Have you become a soothsayer, then, interpreting omens?” Tam asked dryly. “Or do you listen to the wind, like a Wisdom? There’s certainly enough of it. Some originating not far from here.”
“Mock if you will,” Cenn muttered, “but if it doesn’t warm enough for crops to sprout soon, more than one root cellar will come up empty before there’s a harvest. By next winter there may be nothing left alive in the Two Rivers but wolves and ravens. If it is next winter at all. Maybe it will still be this winter.”
“Now what is that supposed to mean?” Bran said sharply.
Cenn gave them a sour look. “I’ve not much good to say about Nynaeve al’Meara. You know that. For one thing, she’s too young to—No matter. The Women’s Circle seems to object to the Village Council even talking about their business, though they interfere in ours whenever they want to, which is most of the time, or so it seems to—”
“Cenn,” Tam broke in, “is there a point to this?”
“This is the point, al’Thor. Ask the Wisdom when the winter will end, and she walks away. Maybe she doesn’t want to tell us what she hears on the wind. Maybe what she hears is that the winter won’t end. Maybe it’s just going to go on being winter until the Wheel turns and the Age ends. There’s your point.”
“Maybe sheep will fly,” Tam retorted, and Bran threw up his hands.
“The Light protect me from fools. You sitting on the Village Council, Cenn, and now you’re spreading that Coplin talk. Well, you listen to me. We have enough problems without. . . .”
A quick tug at Rand’s sleeve and a voice pitched low, for his ear alone, distracted him from the older men’s talk. “Come on, Rand, while they’re arguing. Before they put you to work.”
Rand glanced down, and had to grin. Mat Cauthon crouched beside the cart so Tam and Bran and Cenn could not see him, his wiry body contorted like a stork trying to bend itself double.
Mat’s brown eyes twinkled with mischief, as usual. “Dav and I caught a big old badger, all grouchy at being pulled out of his den. We’re going to let it loose on the Green and watch the girls run.”
Rand’s smile broadened; it did not sound as much like fun to him as it would have a year or two back, but Mat never seemed to grow up. He took a quick look at his father—the men had their heads together still, all three talking at once—then lowered his own voice. “I promised to unload the cider. I can meet you later, though.”
Mat rolled his eyes skyward. “Toting barrels! Burn me, I’d rather play stones with my baby sister. Well, I know of better things than a badger. We have strangers in the Two Rivers. Last evening—”
For an instant Rand stopped breathing. “A man on horseback?” he asked intently. “A man in a black cloak, on a black horse? And his cloak doesn’t move in the wind?”
Mat swallowed his grin, and his voice dropped to an even hoarser whisper. “You saw him, too? I thought I was the only one. Don’t laugh, Rand, but he scared me.”
“I’m not laughing. He scared me, too. I could swear he hated me, that he wanted to kill me.” Rand shivered. Until that day he had never thought of anyone wanting to kill him, really wanting to kill him. That sort of thing just did not happen in the Two Rivers. A fistfight, maybe, or a wrestling match, but not killing.
“I don’t know about hating, Rand, but he was scary enough anyway. All he did was sit on his horse looking at me, just outside the village, but I’ve never been so frightened in my life. Well, I looked away, just for a moment—it wasn’t easy, mind you—then when I looked back he’d vanished. Blood and ashes! Three days, it’s been, and I can hardly stop thinking about him. I keep looking over my shoulder.” Mat attempted a laugh that came out as a croak. “Funny how being scared takes you. You think strange things. I actually thought—just for a minute, mind—it might be the Dark One.” He tried another laugh, but no sound at all came out this time.
Rand took a deep breath. As much to remind himself as for any other reason, he said by rote, “The Dark One and all of the Forsaken are bound in Shayol Ghul, beyond the Great Blight, bound by the Creator at the moment of Creation, bound until the end of time. The hand of the Creator shelters the world, and the Light shines on us all.” He drew another breath and went on. “Besides, if he was free, what would the Shepherd of the Night be doing in the Two Rivers watching farmboys?”
“I don’t know. But I do know that rider was . . . evil. Don’t laugh. I’ll take oath on it. Maybe it was the Dragon.”
“You’re just full of cheerful thoughts, aren’t you?” Rand muttered. “You sound worse than Cenn.”
“My mother always said the Forsaken would come for me if I didn’t mend my ways. If I ever saw anybody who looked like Ishamael, or Aginor, it was him.”
“Everybody’s mother scared them with the Forsaken,” Rand said dryly, “but most grow out of it. Why not the Shadowman, while you’re about it?”
Mat glared at him. “I haven’t been so scared since. . . . No, I’ve never been that scared, and I don’t mind admitting it.”
“Me, either. My father thinks I was jumping at shadows under the trees.”
Mat nodded glumly and leaned back against the cart wheel. “So does my da. I told Dav, and Elam Dowtry. They’ve been watching like hawks ever since, but they haven’t seen anything. Now Elam thinks I was trying to trick him. Dav thinks he’s down from Taren Ferry—a sheepstealer, or a chickenthief. A chickenthief!” He lapsed into affronted silence.
“It’s probably all foolishness anyway,” Rand said finally. “Maybe he is just a sheepstealer.” He tried to picture it, but it was like picturing a wolf taking the cat’s place in front of a mouse hole.
“Well, I didn’t like the way he looked at me. And neither did you, not if how you jumped at me is any guide. We ought to tell someone.”
“We already have, Mat, both of us, and we weren’t believed. Can you imagine trying to convince Master al’Vere about this fellow, without him seeing him? He’d send us off to Nynaeve to see if we were sick.”
“There are two of us, now. Nobody could believe we both imagined it.”
Rand rubbed the top of his head briskly, wondering what to say. Mat was something of a byword around the village. Few people had escaped his pranks. Now his name came up whenever a washline dropped the laundry in the dirt or a loose saddle girth deposited a farmer in the road. Mat did not even have to be anywhere around. His support might be worse than none.
After a moment Rand said, “Your father would believe you put me up to it, and mine. . . .” He looked over the cart to where Tam and Bran and Cenn had been talking, and found himself staring his father in the eyes. The Mayor was still lecturing Cenn, who took it now in sullen silence.
“Good morning, Matrim,” Tam said brightly, hefting one of the brandy casks up onto the side of the cart. “I see you’ve come to help Rand unload the cider. Good lad.”
Mat leaped to his feet at the first word and began backing away. “Good morning to you, Master al’Thor. And to you, Master al’Vere. Master Buie. May the Light shine on you. My da sent me to—”
“No doubt he did,” Tam said. “And no doubt, since you are a lad who does his chores right off, you’ve finished the task already. Well, the quicker you lads get the cider into Master al’Vere’s cellar, the quicker you can see the gleeman.”
“Gleeman!” Mat exclaimed, stopping dead in his footsteps, at the same instant that Rand asked, “When will he get here?”
Rand could remember only two gleemen coming into the Two Rivers in his whole life, and for one of those he had been young enough to sit on Tam’s shoulders to watch. To have one there actually during Bel Tine, with his harp and his flute and his stories and all. . . . Emond’s Field would still be talking about this Festival ten years off, even if there were not any fireworks.
“Foolishness,” Cenn grumbled, but fell silent at a look from Bran that had all the weight of the Mayor’s office in it.
Tam leaned against the side of the cart, using the brandy cask as a prop for his arm. “Yes, a gleeman, and already here. According to Master al’Vere, he’s in a room in the inn right now.”
“Arrived in the dead of night, he did.” The innkeeper shook his head in disapproval. “Pounded on the front door till he woke the whole family. If not for Festival, I’d have told him to stable his own horse and sleep in the stall with it, gleeman or not. Imagine coming in the dark like that.”
Rand stared wonderingly. No one traveled beyond the village by night, not these days, certainly not alone. The thatcher grumbled under his breath again, too low this time for Rand to understand more than a word or two. “Madman” and “unnatural.”
“He doesn’t wear a black cloak, does he?” Mat asked suddenly.
Bran’s belly shook with his chuckle. “Black! His cloak is like every gleeman’s cloak I’ve ever seen. More patches than cloak, and more colors than you can think of.”
Rand startled himself by laughing out loud, a laugh of pure relief. The menacing black-clad rider as a gleeman was a ridiculous notion, but. . . . He clapped a hand over his mouth in embarrassment.
“You see, Tam,” Bran said. “There’s been little enough laughter in this village since winter came. Now even the gleeman’s cloak brings a laugh. That alone is worth the expense of bringing him down from Baerlon.”
“Say what you will,” Cenn spoke up suddenly. “I still say it’s a foolish waste of money. And those fireworks you all insisted on sending off for.”
“So there are fireworks,” Mat said, but Cenn went right on.
“They should have been here a month ago with the first peddler of the year, but there hasn’t been a peddler, has there? If he doesn’t come by tomorrow, what are we going to do with them? Hold another Festival just to set them off? That’s if he even brings them, of course.”
“Cenn”—Tam sighed—“you’ve as much trust as a Taren Ferry man.”
“Where is he, then? Tell me that, al’Thor.”
“Why didn’t you tell us?” Mat demanded in an aggrieved voice. “The whole village would have had as much fun with the waiting as with the gleeman. Or almost, anyway. You can see how everybody’s been over just a rumor of fireworks.”
“I can see,” Bran replied with a sidelong look at the thatcher. “And if I knew for sure how that rumor started . . . if I thought, for instance, that somebody had been complaining about how much things cost where people could hear him when the things are supposed to be secret. . . .”
Cenn cleared his throat. “My bones are too old for this wind. If you don’t mind, I’ll just see if Mistress al’Vere won’t fix me some mulled wine to take the chill off. Mayor. Al’Thor.” He was headed for the inn before he finished, and as the door swung shut behind him, Bran sighed.
“Sometimes I think Nynaeve is right about. . . . Well, that’s not important now. You young fellows think for a minute. Everyone’s excited about the fireworks, true, and that’s only at a rumor. Think how they’ll be if the peddler doesn’t get here in time, after all their anticipating. And with the weather the way it is, who knows when he will come. They’d be fifty times as excited about a gleeman.”
“And feel fifty times as bad if he hadn’t come,” Rand said slowly. “Even Bel Tine might not do much for people’s spirits after that.”
“You have a head on your shoulders when you choose to use it,” Bran said. “He’ll follow you on the Village Council one day, Tam. Mark my words. He couldn’t do much worse right now than someone I could name.”
“None of this is unloading the cart,” Tam said briskly, handing the first cask of brandy to the Mayor. “I want a warm fire, my pipe, and a mug of your good ale.” He hoisted the second brandy cask onto his shoulder. “I’m sure Rand will thank you for your help, Matrim. Remember, the sooner the cider is in the cellar. . . .”
As Tam and Bran disappeared into the inn, Rand looked at his friend. “You don’t have to help. Dav won’t keep that badger long.”
“Oh, why not?” Mat said resignedly. “Like your da said, the quicker it’s in the cellar. . . .” Picking up one of the casks of cider in both arms, he hurried toward the inn in a half trot. “Maybe Egwene is around. Watching you stare at her like a poleaxed ox will be as good as a badger any day.”
Rand paused in the act of putting his bow and quiver in the back of the cart. He really had managed to put Egwene out of his mind. That was unusual in itself. But she would likely be around the inn somewhere. There was not much chance he could avoid her. Of course, it had been weeks since he saw her last.
“Well?” Mat called from the front of the inn. “I didn’t say I would do it by myself. You aren’t on the Village Council yet.”
With a start, Rand took up a cask and followed. Perhaps she would not be there after all. Oddly, that possibility did not make him feel any better.
When Rand and Mat carried the first barrels through the common room, Master al’Vere was already filling a pair of mugs with his best brown ale, his own make, from one of the casks racked against one wall. Scratch, the inn’s yellow cat, crouched atop it with his eyes closed and his tail wrapped around his feet. Tam stood in front of the big fireplace of river rock, thumbing a long-stemmed pipe full of tabac from a polished canister the innkeeper always kept on the plain stone mantel. The fireplace stretched half the length of the big, square room, with a lintel as high as a man’s shoulder, and the crackling blaze on the hearth vanquished the chill outside.
At that time of the busy day before Festival, Rand expected to find the common room empty except for Bran and his father and the cat, but four more members of the Village Council, including Cenn, sat in high-backed chairs in front of the fire, mugs in hand and blue-gray pipesmoke wreathing their heads. For once none of the stones boards were in use, and all of Bran’s books stood idle on the shelf opposite the fireplace. The men did not even talk, peering silently into their ale or tapping pipestems against their teeth in impatience, as they waited for Tam and Bran to join them.
Worry was not uncommon for the Village Council these days, not in Emond’s Field, and likely not in Watch Hill, or Deven Ride. Or even Taren Ferry, though who knew what Taren Ferry folk really thought about anything?
Only two of the men before the fire, Haral Luhhan, the blacksmith, and Jon Thane, the miller, so much as glanced at the boys as they entered. Master Luhhan, though, made it more than a glance. The blacksmith’s arms were as big as most men’s legs, roped with heavy muscle, and he still wore his long leather apron as if he had hurried to the meeting straight from the forge. His frown took them both in, then he straightened around in his chair deliberately, turning his attention back to an over-studious tamping of his pipe with a thick thumb.
Curious, Rand slowed, then barely bit back a yelp as Mat kicked his ankle. His friend nodded insistently toward the doorway at the back of the common room and hurried on without waiting. Limping slightly, Rand followed less quickly.
“What was that about?” he demanded as soon as he was in the hall that led to the kitchen. “You almost broke my—”
“It’s old Luhhan,” Mat said, peering past Rand’s shoulder into the common room. “I think he suspects I was the one who—” He cut off abruptly as Mistress al’Vere bustled out of the kitchen, the aroma of fresh-baked bread wafting ahead of her.
The tray in her hands carried some of the crusty loaves for which she was famous around Emond’s Field, as well as plates of pickles and cheese. The food reminded Rand abruptly that he had eaten only an end of bread before leaving the farm that morning. His stomach gave an embarrassing rumble.
A slender woman, with her thick braid of graying hair pulled over one shoulder, Mistress al’Vere smiled in a motherly fashion that took in both of them. “There is more of this in the kitchen, if you two are hungry, and I never knew boys your age who weren’t. Or any other age, for that matter. If you prefer, I’m baking honeycakes this morning.”
She was one of the few married women in the area who never tried to play matchmaker with Tam. Toward Rand her motherliness extended to warm smiles and a quick snack whenever he came by the inn, but she did as much for every young man in the area. If she occasionally looked at him as if she wanted to do more, at least she took it no further than looks, for which he was deeply grateful.
Without waiting for a reply she swept on into the common room. Immediately there was the sound of chairs scraping on the floor as the men got to their feet, and exclaimings over the smell of the bread. She was easily the best cook in Emond’s Field, and not a man for miles around but eagerly leaped at a chance to put his feet under her table.
“Honeycakes,” Mat said, smacking his lips.
“After,” Rand told him firmly, “or we’ll never get done.”
A lamp hung over the cellar stairs, just beside the kitchen door, and another made a bright pool in the stone-walled room beneath the inn, banishing all but a little dimness in the furthest corners. Wooden racks along the walls and across the floor held casks of brandy and cider, and larger barrels of ale and wine, some with taps driven in. Many of the wine barrels were marked with chalk in Bran al’Vere’s hand, giving the year they had been bought, what peddler had brought them, and in which city they had been made, but all of the ale and brandy was the make of Two Rivers farmers or of Bran himself. Peddlers, and even merchants, sometimes brought brandy or ale from outside, but it was never as good and cost the earth, besides, and nobody ever drank it more than once.
“Now,” Rand said, as they set their casks in the racks, “what did you do that you have to avoid Master Luhhan?”
Mat shrugged. “Nothing, really. I told Adan al’Caar and some of his snot-nosed friends—Ewin Finngar and Dag Coplin—that some farmers had seen ghost hounds, breathing fire and running through the woods. They ate it up like clotted cream.”
“And Master Luhhan is mad at you for that?” Rand said doubtfully.
“Not exactly.” Mat paused, then shook his head. “You see, I covered two of his dogs with flour, so they were all white. Then I let them loose near Dag’s house. How was I to know they’d run straight home? It really isn’t my fault. If Mistress Luhhan hadn’t left the door open they couldn’t have gotten inside. It isn’t like I intended to get flour all over her house.” He gave a bark of laughter. “I hear she chased old Luhhan and the dogs, all three, out of the house with a broom.”
Rand winced and laughed at the same time. “If I were you, I’d worry more about Alsbet Luhhan than about the blacksmith. She’s almost as strong, and her temper is a lot worse. No matter, though. If you walk fast, maybe he won’t notice you.” Mat’s expression said he did not think Rand was funny.
When they went back through the common room, though, there was no need for Mat to hurry. The six men had their chairs in a tight knot before the fireplace. With his back to the fire, Tam was speaking in a low voice, and the others were leaning forward to listen, so intent on his words they would likely not have noticed if a flock of sheep had been driven through. Rand wanted to move closer, to hear what they were talking about, but Mat plucked at his sleeve and gave him an agonized look. With a sigh he followed Mat out to the cart.
On their return to the hallway they found a tray by the top of the steps, and hot honeycakes filling the hall with their sweet aroma. There were two mugs, as well, and a pitcher of steaming mulled cider. Despite his own admonition about waiting until later Rand found himself making the last two trips between cart and cellar while trying to juggle a cask and a piping honeycake.
Setting his final cask in the racks, he wiped crumbs from his mouth while Mat was unburdening himself, then said, “Now for the glee—”
Feet clattered on the stairs, and Ewin Finngar half fell into the cellar in his haste, his pudgy face shining with eagerness to impart his news. “There are strangers in the village.” He caught his breath and gave Mat a wry look. “I haven’t seen any ghost hounds, but I hear somebody floured Master Luhhan’s dogs. I hear Mistress Luhhan has ideas who to look for, too.”
The years separating Rand and Mat from Ewin, only fourteen, were usually more than enough for them to give short shrift to anything he had to say. This time they exchanged one startled glance, then both were talking at once.
“In the village?” Rand asked. “Not in the woods?”
Right on top of him Mat added, “Was his cloak black? Could you see his face?”
Ewin looked uncertainly from one of them to the other, then spoke quickly when Mat took a threatening step. “Of course I could see his face. And his cloak is green. Or maybe gray. It changes. It seems to fade into wherever he’s standing. Sometimes you don’t see him even when you look right at him, not unless he moves. And hers is blue, like the sky, and ten times fancier than any feastday clothes I ever saw. She’s ten times prettier than anybody I ever saw, too. She’s a high-born lady, like in the stories. She must be.”
“Her?” Rand said. “Who are you talking about?” He stared at Mat, who had put both hands on top of his head and squeezed his eyes shut.
“They’re the ones I meant to tell you about,” Mat muttered, “before you got me off onto—” He cut off, opening his eyes for a sharp glance at Ewin. “They arrived last evening,” Mat went on after a moment, “and took rooms here at the inn. I saw them ride in. Their horses, Rand. I never saw horses so tall, or so sleek. They look like they could run forever. I think he works for her.”
“In service,” Ewin broke in. “They call it being in service, in the stories.”
Mat continued as if Ewin had not spoken. “Anyway, he defers to her, does what she says. Only he isn’t like a hired man. A soldier, maybe. The way he wears his sword, it’s part of him, like his hand or his foot. He makes the merchants’ guards look like cur dogs. And her, Rand. I never even imagined anyone like her. She’s out of a gleeman’s story. She’s like . . . like. . . .” He paused to give Ewin a sour look. “. . . Like a high-born lady,” he finished with a sigh.
“But who are they?” Rand asked. Except for merchants, once a year to buy tabac and wool, and the peddlers, outsiders never came into the Two Rivers, or as good as never. Maybe at Taren Ferry, but not this far south. Most of the merchants and peddlers had been coming for years, too, so they did not really count as strangers. Just outsiders. It was a good five years since the last time a real stranger appeared in Emond’s Field, and he had been trying to hide from some sort of trouble up in Baerlon that nobody in the village understood. He had not stayed long. “What do they want?”
“What do they want?” Mat exclaimed. “I don’t care what they want. Strangers, Rand, and strangers like you never even dreamed of. Think of it!”
Rand opened his mouth, then closed it without speaking. The black-cloaked rider had him as nervous as a cat in a dog run. It just seemed like an awful coincidence, three strangers around the village at the same time. Three if this fellow’s cloak that changed colors never changed to black.
“Her name is Moiraine,” Ewin said into the momentary silence. “I heard him say it. Moiraine, he called her. The Lady Moiraine. His name is Lan. The Wisdom may not like her, but I do.”
“What makes you think Nynaeve dislikes her?” Rand said.
“She asked the Wisdom for directions this morning,” Ewin said, “and called her ‘child.’ ” Rand and Mat both whistled softly through their teeth, and Ewin tripped over his tongue in his haste to explain. “The Lady Moiraine didn’t know she was the Wisdom. She apologized when she found out. She did. And asked some questions about herbs, and about who is who around Emond’s Field, just as respectfully as any woman in the village—more so than some. She’s always asking questions, about how old people are, and how long they’ve lived where they live, and . . . oh, I don’t know what all. Anyway, Nynaeve answered like she’d bitten a green sweetberry. Then, when the Lady Moiraine walked away, Nynaeve stared after her like, like . . . well, it wasn’t friendly, I can tell you that.”
“Is that all?” Rand said. “You know Nynaeve’s temper. When Cenn Buie called her a child last year, she thumped him on the head with her stick, and he’s on the Village Council, and old enough to be her grandfather, besides. She flares up at anything, and never stays angry past turning around.”
“That’s too long for me,” Ewin muttered.
“I don’t care who Nynaeve thumps”—Mat chortled—“so long as it isn’t me. This is going to be the best Bel Tine ever. A gleeman, a lady—who could ask for more? Who needs fireworks?”
“A gleeman?” Ewin said, his voice rising sharply.
“Come on, Rand,” Mat went on, ignoring the younger boy. “We’re done here. You have to see this fellow.”
He bounded up the stairs, with Ewin scrambling behind him calling, “Is there really a gleeman, Mat? This isn’t like the ghost hounds, is it? Or the frogs?”
Rand paused long enough to turn down the lamp, then hurried after them.
In the common room Rowan Hum and Samel Crawe had joined the others in front of the fire, so that the entire Village Council was there. Bran al’Vere spoke now, his normally bluff voice pitched so low that only a rumbling murmur traveled beyond the close-gathered chairs. The Mayor emphasized his words by tapping a thick forefinger into the palm of his other hand, and eyed each man in turn. They all nodded in agreement with whatever he was saying, though Cenn more reluctantly than the rest.
The way the men all but huddled together spoke more plainly than a painted sign. Whatever they were talking about, it was for the Village Council alone, at least for now. They would not appreciate Rand trying to listen in. Reluctantly he pulled himself away. There was still the gleeman. And these strangers.
Outside, Bela and the cart were gone, taken away by Hu or Tad, the inn’s stablemen. Mat and Ewin stood glaring at one another a few paces from the front door of the inn, their cloaks whipping in the wind.
“For the last time,” Mat barked, “I am not playing a trick on you. There is a gleeman. Now go away. Rand, will you tell this woolhead I am telling the truth so he’ll leave me alone?”
Pulling his cloak together, Rand stepped forward to support Mat, but words died as the hairs stirred on the back of his neck. He was being watched again. It was far from the feeling the hooded rider had given him, but neither was it pleasant, especially so soon after that encounter.
A quick look about the Green showed him only what he had seen before—children playing, people preparing for Festival, and no one more than glancing in his direction. The Spring Pole stood alone, now, waiting. Bustle and childish shouts filled the side streets. All was as it should be. Except that he was being watched.
Then something led him to turn around, to raise his eyes. On the edge of the inn’s tile roof perched a large raven, swaying a little in the gusting wind from the mountains. Its head was cocked to one side, and one beady, black eye was focused . . . on him, he thought. He swallowed, and suddenly anger flickered in him, hot and sharp.
“Filthy carrion eater,” he muttered.
“I am tired of being stared at,” Mat growled, and Rand realized his friend had stepped up beside him and was frowning at the raven, too.
They exchanged a glance, then as one their hands darted for rocks.
The two stones flew true . . . and the raven stepped aside; the stones whistled through the space where it had been. Fluffing its wings once, it cocked its head again, fixing them with a dead black eye, unafraid, giving no sign that anything had happened.
Rand stared at the bird in consternation. “Did you ever see a raven do that?” he asked quietly.
Mat shook his head without looking away from the raven. “Never. Nor any other bird, either.”
“A vile bird,” came a woman’s voice from behind them, melodious despite echoes of distaste, “to be mistrusted in the best of times.”
With a shrill cry the raven launched itself into the air so violently that two black feathers drifted down from the roof’s edge.
Startled, Rand and Mat twisted to follow the bird’s swift flight, over the Green and toward the cloud-tipped Mountains of Mist, tall beyond the Westwood, until it dwindled to a speck in the west, then vanished from view.
Rand’s gaze fell to the woman who had spoken. She, too, had been watching the flight of the raven, but now she turned back, and her eyes met his. He could only stare. This had to be the Lady Moiraine, and she was everything that Mat and Ewin had said, everything and more.
When he had heard she called Nynaeve child, he had pictured her as old, but she was not. At least, he could not put any age to her at all. At first he thought she was as young as Nynaeve, but the longer he looked the more he thought she was older than that. There was a maturity about her large, dark eyes, a hint of knowing that no one could have gotten young. For an instant he thought those eyes were deep pools about to swallow him up. It was plain why Mat and Ewin named her a lady from a gleeman’s tale, too. She held herself with a grace and air of command that made him feel awkward and stumble-footed. She was barely tall enough to come up to his chest, but her presence was such that her height seemed the proper one, and he felt ungainly in his tallness.
Altogether she was like no one he had ever seen before. The wide hood of her cloak framed her face and dark hair, hanging in soft ringlets. He had never seen a grown woman with her hair unbraided; every girl in the Two Rivers waited eagerly for the Women’s Circle of her village to say she was old enough to wear a braid. Her clothes were just as strange. Her cloak was sky-blue velvet, with thick silver embroidery, leaves and vines and flowers, all along the edges. Her dress gleamed faintly as she moved, a darker blue than the cloak, and slashed with cream. A necklace of heavy gold links hung around her neck, while another gold chain, delicate and fastened in her hair, supported a small, sparkling blue stone in the middle of her forehead. A wide belt of woven gold encircled her waist, and on the second finger of her left hand was a gold ring in the shape of a serpent biting its own tail. He had certainly never seen a ring like that, though he recognized the Great Serpent, an even older symbol for eternity than the Wheel of Time.
Fancier than any feastday clothes, Ewin had said, and he was right. No one ever dressed like that in the Two Rivers. Not ever.
“Good morning, Mistress . . . ah . . . Lady Moiraine,” Rand said. His face grew hot at his tongue’s fumbling.
“Good morning, Lady Moiraine,” Mat echoed somewhat more smoothly, but only a little.
She smiled, and Rand found himself wondering if there was anything he might do for her, something that would give him an excuse to stay near her. He knew she was smiling at all of them, but it seemed meant for him alone. It really was just like seeing a gleeman’s tale come to life. Mat had a foolish grin on his face.
“You know my name,” she said, sounding delighted. As if her presence, however brief, would not be the talk of the village for a year! “But you must call me Moiraine, not lady. And what are your names?”
Ewin leaped forward before either of the others could speak. “My name is Ewin Finngar, my lady. I told them your name; that’s how they know. I heard Lan say it, but I wasn’t eavesdropping. No one like you has ever come to Emond’s Field, before. There’s a gleeman in the village for Bel Tine, too. And tonight is Winternight. Will you come to my house? My mother has apple cakes.”
“I shall have to see,” she replied, putting a hand on Ewin’s shoulder. Her eyes twinkled with amusement, though she gave no other sign of it. “I do not know how well I could compete against a gleeman, Ewin. But you must all call me Moiraine.” She looked expectantly at Rand and Mat.
“I’m Matrim Cauthon, La . . . ah . . . Moiraine,” Mat said. He made a stiff, jerking bow, then went red in the face as he straightened.
Rand had been wondering if he should do something of the sort, the way men did in stories, but with Mat’s example, he merely spoke his name. At least he did not stumble over his own tongue this time.
Moiraine looked from him to Mat and back again. Rand thought her smile, a bare curve of the corners of her mouth, was now the sort Egwene wore when she had a secret. “I may have some small tasks to be done from time to time while I am in Emond’s Field,” she said. “Perhaps you would be willing to assist me?” She laughed as their assents tumbled over one another. “Here,” she said, and Rand was surprised when she pressed a coin into his palm, closing his hand tightly around it with both of hers.
“There’s no need,” he began, but she waved aside his protest as she gave Ewin a coin as well, then pressed Mat’s hand around one the same way she had Rand’s.
“Of course, there is,” she said. “You cannot be expected to work for nothing. Consider this a token, and keep it with you, so you will remember that you have agreed to come to me when I ask it. There is a bond between us now.”
“I’ll never forget,” Ewin piped up.
“Later we must talk,” she said, “and you must tell me all about yourselves.”
“Lady . . . I mean, Moiraine?” Rand asked hesitantly as she turned away. She stopped and looked back over her shoulder, and he had to swallow before going on. “Why have you come to Emond’s Field?” Her expression was unchanged, but suddenly he wished he had not asked, though he could not have said why. He rushed to explain himself, anyway. “I don’t mean to be rude. I’m sorry. It’s just that no one comes into the Two Rivers except the merchants, and peddlers when the snow isn’t too deep to get down from Baerlon. Almost no one. Certainly no one like you. The merchants’ guards sometimes say this is the back end of forever, and I suppose it must seem that way to anyone from outside. I just wondered.”
Her smile did fade then, slowly, as if something had been recalled to her. For a moment she merely looked at him. “I am a student of history,” she said at last, “a collector of old stories. This place you call the Two Rivers has always interested me. Sometimes I study the stories of what happened here long ago, here and at other places.”
“Stories?” Rand said. “What ever happened in the Two Rivers to interest someone like—I mean, what could have happened here?”
“And what else would you call it beside the Two Rivers?” Mat added. “That’s what it has always been called.”
“As the Wheel of Time turns,” Moiraine said, half to herself and with a distant look in her eyes, “places wear many names. Men wear many names, many faces. Different faces, but always the same man. Yet no one knows the Great Pattern the Wheel weaves, or even the Pattern of an Age. We can only watch, and study, and hope.”
Rand stared at her, unable to say a word, even to ask what she meant. He was not sure she had meant for them to hear. The other two were just as tongue-tied, he noticed. Ewin’s mouth hung open.
Moiraine focused on them again, and all three gave a little shake as if waking up. “Later we will talk,” she said. None of them said a word. “Later.” She moved on toward the Wagon Bridge, appearing to glide over the ground rather than walk, her cloak spreading on either side of her like wings.
As she left, a tall man Rand had not noticed before moved away from the front of the inn and followed her, one hand resting on the long hilt of a sword. His clothes were a dark grayish green that would have faded into leaf or shadow, and his cloak swirled through shades of gray and green and brown as it shifted in the wind. It almost seemed to disappear at times, that cloak, fading into whatever lay beyond it. His hair was long, and gray at the temples, held back from his face by a narrow leather headband. That face was made from stony planes and angles, weathered but unlined despite the gray in his hair. When he moved, Rand could think of nothing but a wolf.
In passing the three youths his gaze ran over them, eyes as cold and blue as a midwinter dawn. It was as if he were weighing them in his mind, and there was no sign on his face of what the scales told him. He quickened his pace until he caught up to Moiraine, then slowed to walk by her shoulder, bending to speak to her. Rand let out a breath he had not realized he had been holding.
“That was Lan,” Ewin said throatily, as if he, too, had been holding his breath. It had been that kind of look. “I’ll bet he’s a Warder.”
“Don’t be a fool.” Mat laughed, but it was a shaky laugh. “Warders are just in stories. Anyway, Warders have swords and armor covered in gold and jewels, and spend all their time up north, in the Great Blight, fighting evil and Trollocs and such.”
“He could be a Warder,” Ewin insisted.
“Did you see any gold or jewels on him?” Mat scoffed. “Do we have Trollocs in the Two Rivers? We have sheep. I wonder what could ever have happened here to interest someone like her.”
“Something could have,” Rand answered slowly. “They say the inn’s been here for a thousand years, maybe more.”
“A thousand years of sheep,” Mat said.
“A silver penny!” Ewin burst out. “She gave me a whole silver penny! Think what I can buy when the peddler comes.”
Rand opened his hand to look at the coin she had given him, and almost dropped it in surprise. He did not recognize the fat silver coin with the raised image of a woman balancing a single flame on her upturned hand, but he had watched while Bran al’Vere weighed out the coins merchants brought from a dozen lands, and he had an idea of its value. That much silver would buy a good horse anywhere in the Two Rivers, with some left over.
He looked at Mat and saw the same stunned expression he knew must be on his own face. Tilting his hand so Mat could see the coin but not Ewin, he raised a questioning eyebrow. Mat nodded, and for a minute they stared at one another in perplexed wonder.
“What kind of chores does she have?” Rand asked finally.
“I don’t know,” Mat said firmly, “and I don’t care. I won’t spend it, either. Even when the peddler comes.” With that he thrust his coin into his coat pocket.
Nodding, Rand slowly did the same with his. He was not sure why, but somehow what Mat said seemed right. The coin should not be spent. Not when it came from her. He could not think of anything else silver was good for, but. . . .
“Do you think I should keep mine, too?” Anguished indecision painted Ewin’s face.
“Not unless you want to,” Mat said.
“I think she gave it to you to spend,” Rand said.
Ewin looked at his coin, then shook his head and stuffed the silver penny into his pocket. “I’ll keep it,” he said mournfully.
“There’s still the gleeman,” Rand said, and the younger boy brightened.
“If he ever wakes up,” Mat added.
“Rand,” Ewin asked, “is there a gleeman?”
“You’ll see,” Rand answered with a laugh. It was clear Ewin would not believe until he set eyes on the gleeman. “He has to come down sooner or later.”
Shouting drifted across the Wagon Bridge, and when Rand looked to see what was causing it, his laughter became wholehearted. A milling crowd of villagers, from gray-haired oldsters to toddlers barely able to walk, escorted a tall wagon toward the bridge, a huge wagon drawn by eight horses, the outside of its rounded canvas cover hung about with bundles like bunches of grapes. The peddler had come at last. Strangers and a gleeman, fireworks and a peddler. It was going to be the best Bel Tine ever.
Copyright © 1990 by Robert Jordan