“No, Wisdom,” Mat protested, looking as if he would rather be any where else than there. “It was old Bil — I mean, Master Congar, not me! Blood and ashes, I —”
“Watch your tongue, Matrim!”
Rand stood up straighter, though her glare was not directed at him. Perrin looked equally abashed. Later one or another of them would almost certainly complain about being scolded by a woman not all that much older than themselves — someone always did after one of Nynaeve's scoldings, if never in her hearing — but the gap in ages always seemed more than wide enough when face to face with her. Especially if she was angry. The stick in her hand was thick at one end and a slender switch at the other, and she was liable to give a flail to anybody she thought was acting the fool — head or hands or legs — no matter their age or position.
The Wisdom so held his attention that at first Rand failed to see she was not alone. When he realized his mistake, he began to think about leaving no matter what Nynaeve would say or do later.
Egwene stood a few paces behind the Wisdom, watching intently. Of a height with Nynaeve, and with the same dark coloring, she could at that moment have been a reflection of Nynaeve's mood, arms crossed beneath her breasts, mouth tight with disapproval. The hood of her soft gray cloak shaded her face, and her big brown eyes held no laughter now.
If there was any fairness, he thought that being two years older than her should give him some advantage, but that was not the way of it. At the best of times he was never very nimble with his tongue when talking to any of the village girls, not like Perrin, but whenever Egwene gave him that intent look, with her eyes as wide as they would go, as if every last ounce of her attention was on him, he just could not seem to make the words go where he wanted. Perhaps he could get away as soon as Nynaeve finished. But he knew he would not, even if he did not understand why.
“If you are done staring like a moonstruck lamb, Rand al'Thor,” Nynaeve said, “perhaps you can tell me why you were talking about something even you three great bull calves ought to have sense enough to keep out of your mouths.”
Rand gave a start and pulled his eyes away from Egwene; she had grown a disconcerting smile when the Wisdom began speaking. Nynaeve's voice was tart, but she had the beginnings of a knowing smile on her face, too until Mat laughed aloud. The Wisdom's smile vanished, and the look she gave Mat cut his laughter off in a strangled croak.
“Well, Rand?” Nynaeve said.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Egwene still smiling. What does she think is so funny? “It was natural enough to talk of it, Wisdom,” he said hurriedly. “The peddler—Padan Fain ... ah ... Master Fain—brought news of a false Dragon in Ghealdan, and a war, and Aes Sedai. The Council thought it was important enough to talk to him. What else would we be talking about?”
Nynaeve shook her head. “So that's why the peddler's wagon stands abandoned. I heard people rushing to meet it, but I couldn't leave Mistress Ayellin till her fever broke. The Council is questioning the peddler about what's happening in Ghealdan, are they? If I know them, they're asking all the wrong questions and none of the right ones. It will take the Women's Circle to find out anything useful.” Settling her cloak firmly on her shoulders she disappeared into the inn.
Egwene did not follow the Wisdom. As the inn door closed behind Nynaeve, the younger woman came to stand in front of Rand. The frowns were gone from her face, but her unblinking stare made him uneasy. He looked to his friends, but they moved away, grinning broadly as they abandoned him.
“You shouldn't let Mat get you mixed up in his foolishness, Rand,” Egwene said, as solemn as a Wisdom herself, then abruptly she giggled. “I haven't seen you look like that since Cenn Buie caught you and Mat up in his apple trees when you were ten.”
He shifted his feet and glanced at his friends. They stood not far away, Mat gesturing excitedly as he talked.
“Will you dance with me tomorrow?” That was not what he had meant to say. He did want to dance with her, but at the same time he wanted nothing so little as the uncomfortable way he was sure to feel while he was with her. The way he felt right then.
The corners of her mouth quirked up in a small smile. “In the afternoon,” she said. “I will be busy in the morning.”
From the others came Perrin's exclamation. “A gleeman!”
Egwene turned toward them, but Rand put a hand on her arm. “Busy? How?”
Despite the chill she pushed back the hood of her cloak and with apparent casualness pulled her hair forward over her shoulder. The last time he had seen her, her hair had hung in dark waves below her shoulders, with only a red ribbon keeping it back from her face; now it was worked into a long braid.
He stared at that braid as if it were a viper, then stole a glance at the Spring Pole, standing alone on the Green now, ready for tomorrow. In the morning unmarried women of marriageable age would dance the Pole. He swallowed hard. Somehow, it had never occurred to him that she would reach marriageable age at the same time that he did.
“Just because someone is old enough to marry,” he muttered, “doesn't mean they should. Not right away.”
"Of course not. Or ever, for that matter.
Rand blinked. “Ever?”
“A Wisdom almost never marries. Nynaeve has been teaching me, you know. She says I have a talent, that I can learn to listen to the wind. Nynaeve says not all Wisdoms can, even if they say they do.”
“Wisdom!” he hooted. He failed to notice the dangerous glint in her eye. “Nynaeve will be Wisdom here for another fifty years at least. Probably more. Are you going to spend the rest of your life as her apprentice?”
“There are other villages,” she replied heatedly. “Nynaeve says the villages north of the Taren always choose a Wisdom from away. They think it stops her from having favorites among the village folk.”
His amusement melted as fast as it had come. “Outside the Two Rivers? I'd never see you again.”
“And you wouldn't like that? You have not given any sign lately that you'd care one way or another.”
“No one ever leaves the Two Rivers,” he went on. “Maybe somebody from Taren Ferry, but they're all strange anyway. Hardly like Two Rivers folk at all. ”
Egwene gave an exasperated sigh. “Well, maybe I'm strange, too. Maybe I want to see some of the places I hear about in the stories. Have you ever thought of that?”
“Of course I have. I daydream sometimes, but I know the difference between daydreams and what's real.”
“And I do not?” she said furiously, and promptly turned her back on him.
“That wasn't what I meant. I was talking about me. Egwene?”
She jerked her cloak around her, a wall to shut him off, and stiffly walked a few paces away. He rubbed his head in frustration. How to explain? This was not the first time she had squeezed meanings from his words that he never knew was in them. In her present mood, a misstep would only make matters worse, and he was fairly sure that nearly anything he said would be a misstep.
Mat and Perrin came back then. Egwene ignored their coming. They looked at her hesitantly, then crowded close to Rand.
“Moiraine gave Perrin a coin, too,” Mat said. “Just like ours.” He paused before adding, “And he saw the rider.”
“Where?” Rand demanded. “When? Did anybody else see him? Did you tell anyone?”
Perrin raised broad hands in a slowing gesture. “One question at a time. I saw him on the edge of the village, watching the smithy, just at twilight Yesterday. Gave me the shivers, he did. I told Master Luhhan, only nobody was there when he looked. He said I was seeing shadows. But he carried his biggest hammer around with him while we were banking the forgefire and putting the tools up. He's never done that before.”
“So he believed you,” Rand said, but Perrin shrugged.
“I don't know. I asked him why he was carrying the hammer if all I saw was shadows, and he said something about wolves getting bold enough to come into the village. Maybe he thought that's what I saw, but he ought to know I can tell the difference between a wolf and a man on horseback, even at dusk. I know what I saw, and nobody is going to make me believe different. ”
“I believe you,” Rand said. “Remember, I saw him, too.” Perrin gave a satisfied grunt, as if he had not been sure of that.
“What are you talking about?” Egwene demanded suddenly.
Rand suddenly wished he had spoken more quietly. He would have if he had realized she was listening. Mat and Perrin, grinning like fools, fell all over themselves telling her of their encounters with the blackcloaked rider, but Rand kept silent. He was sure he knew what she would say when they were done.
“Nynaeve was right,” Egwene announced to the sky when the two youths fell silent. “None of you is ready to be off leading strings. People do ride horses, you know. That doesn't make them monsters out of a gleeman's tale.” Rand nodded to himself, it was just as he had thought. She rounded on him. “And you've been spreading these tales. Sometimes you have no sense, Rand al'Thor. The winter has been frightening enough without you going about sc