“Why? You don't really intend to sleep here, do you? Let's get out the window and gone. I'd rather be wet than dead.”
“One of them is at the end of the hall. We make any noise, and they'll be down on us before we can blink. I think Hake would rather face us awake than risk letting us get away.”
Muttering, Mat joined his search, but there was nothing useful in any of the litter on the floor. The barrels were empty, the crates splintered, and the whole lot of them piled in front of the door would not stop anyone from opening it. Then something familiar on a shelf caught Rand's eye. Two splitting wedges, covered with rust and dust. He took them down with a grin.
Hastily he shoved them under the door and, when the next roll of thunder rattled the inn, drove them in with two quick kicks of his heel. The thunder faded, and he held his breath, listening. All he heard was the rain pounding on the roof. No floorboards creaking under running feet.
“The window,” he said.
It had not been opened in years, from the dirt crusted around it. They strained together, pushing up with all their might. Rand's knees wobbled before the sash budged; it groaned with each reluctant inch. When the opening was wide enough for them to slip through, he crouched, then stopped.
“Blood and ashes!” Mat growled. “No wonder Hake wasn't worried about us slipping out.”
Iron bars in an iron frame glistened wetly in the light from the lamp. Rand pushed at them; they were as solid as a boulder.
“I saw something,” Mat said. He pawed hurriedly through the litter on the shelves and came back with a rusty crowbar. He rammed the end of it under the iron frame on one side, and Rand winced.
“Remember the noise, Mat.”
Mat grimaced and muttered under his breath, but he waited. Rand put his hands on the crowbar and tried to find good footing in the growing puddle of water under the window. Thunder rolled and they heaved. With a tortured squeal of nails that made the hairs lift on Rand's neck, the frame shifted — a quarter of an inch, if that. Timing themselves to peals of thunder and lightning cracks, they heaved on the crowbar again and again. Nothing. A quarter of an inch. Nothing. A hairsbreadth. Nothing. Nothing.
Suddenly Rand's feet slipped in the water, and they crashed to the floor. The crowbar clattered against the bars like a gong. He lay in a puddle holding his breath and listening. Silence but for the rain.
Mat nursed bruised knuckles and glared at him. “We'll never get out at this rate.” The iron frame was pushed out from the window not quite far enough to get two fingers under it. Dozens of thick nails crossed the narrow opening.
“We just have to keep trying,” Rand said, getting up. But as he set the crowbar under the edge of the frame, the door creaked as someone tried to open it. The splitting wedges held it shut. He exchanged a worried look with Mat. Mat pulled the dagger out again. The door gave another screak.
Rand took a deep breath and tried to make his voice steady. “Go away, Hake. We're trying to sleep.”
“I fear you mistake me.” The voice was so sleek and full of itself that it named its owner. Howal Gode. “Master Hake and his ... minions will not trouble us. They sleep soundly, and in the morning they will only be able to wonder where you vanished to. Let me in, my young friends. We must talk. ”
“We don't have anything to talk to you about,” Mat said. “Go away and let us sleep.”
Gode's chuckle was nasty. “Of course we have things to talk about. You know that as well as I. I saw it in your eyes. I know what you are, perhaps better than you do. I can feel it coming from you in waves. Already you halfway belong to my master. Stop running and accept it. Things will be so much easier for you. If the Tar Valon hags find you, you'll wish you could cut your own throat before they are done, but you won't be able to. Only my master can protect you from them.”
Rand swallowed hard. “We don't know what you're talking about. Leave us alone.” The floorboards in the hall squeaked. Gode was not alone. How many men could he have brought in two carriages?
“Stop being foolish, my young friends. You know. You know very well. The Great Lord of the Dark has marked you for his own. It is written that when he awakes, the new Dreadlords will be there to praise him. You must be two of them, else I would not have been sent to find you. Think of it. Life everlasting, and power beyond dreams.” His voice was thick with hunger for that power himself.
Rand glanced back at the window just as lightning split the sky, and he almost groaned. The brief flash of light showed men outside, men ignoring the rain that drenched them as they stood watching the window.
“I tire of this,” Gode announced. “You will submit to my master — to your master — or you will be made to submit. That would not be pleasant for you. The Great Lord of the Dark rules death, and he can give life in death or death in life as he chooses. Open this door. One way or another, your running is at an end. Open it, I say!”
He must have said something else, too, for suddenly a heavy body thudded against the door. It shivered, and the wedges slid a fraction of an inch with a grate of rust rubbing off on wood. Again and again the door trembled as bodies hurled themselves at it. Sometimes the wedges held; sometimes they slid another tiny bit, and bit by tiny bit the door crept inexorably inward.
“Submit,” Gode demanded from the hall, “or spend eternity wishing that you had!”
“If we don't have any choice — ” Mat licked his lips under Rand's stare. His eyes darted like the eyes of a badger in a trap; his face was pale, and he panted as he spoke. “We could say yes, and then get away later. Blood and ashes, Rand, there's no way out!”
The words seemed to drift to Rand through wool stuffed in his ears. No way out. Thunder muttered overhead, and was drowned in a slash of lightning. Have to find a way out. Gode called to them, demanding, appealing; the door slid another inch toward being open. A way out!
Light filled the room, flooding vision; the air roared and burned. Rand felt himself picked up and dashed against the wall. He slid down in a heap, ears ringing and every hair on his body trying to stand on end. Dazed, he staggered to his feet. His knees wobbled, and he put a hand against the wall to steady himself. He looked around in amazement.
The lamp, lying on its side on the edge of one of the few shelves still clinging to the walls, still burned and gave light. All the barrels and crates, some blackened and smoldering, lay toppled where they had been hurled. The window, bars and all, and most of the wall, too, had vanished, leaving a splintered hole. The roof sagged, and tendrils of smoke fought the rain around the jagged edges of the opening. The door hung off its hinges, jammed in the doorframe at an angle slanting into the hall.
With a feeling of woozy unreality he stood the lamp up. It seemed the most important thing in the world was making sure it did not break.
A pile of crates suddenly heaved apart, and Mat stood up in the middle of it. He weaved on his feet, blinking and fumbling at himself as if wondering if everything was still attached. He peered toward Rand. “Rand? Is that you? You're alive. I thought we were both —” He broke off, biting his lip and shaking. It took Rand a moment to realize he was laughing, and on the edge of hysteria.
“What happened, Mat? Mat? Mat! What happened?”
One last shiver wracked Mat, and then he was still. “Lightning, Rand. I was looking right at the window when it hit the bars. Lightning. I can't see worth —” He broke off, squinting at the aslant door, and his voice went sharp. “Where's Gode?”
Nothing moved in the dark corridor beyond the door. Of Gode and his companions there was neither sign nor sound, though anything could have lain in the blackness. Rand found himself hoping they were dead, but he would not have put his head into the hall to find out for sure if he had been offered a crown. Nothing moved out in the night beyond where the wall had been, either, but others were up and about. Confused shouts came from abovestairs in the inn, and the pounding of running feet.
“Let's go while we can,” Rand said.
Hastily helping separate their belongings from the rubble, he grabbed Mat's arm and half pulled, half guided his friend through the gaping hole into the night. Mat clutched his arm, stumbling beside him with his head pushed forward in an effort to see.
As the first rain hit Rand's face, lightning forked above the inn, and he came to a convulsive stop. Gode's men were still there, lying with their feet toward the opening. Pelted by the rain, their open eyes stared at the sky.
“What is it?” Mat asked. “Blood and ashes! I can hardly see my own bloody hand!”
“Nothing,” Rand said. Luck. The Light's own ... Is it? Shivering, he carefully guided Mat around the bodies. “Just the lightning.”
There was no light save the lightning, and he stumbled in the ruts as they ran staggering away from the inn. With Mat almost hanging on him, every stumble almost pulled them both down, but tottering, panting, they ran.
Once he looked back. Once, before the rain thickened to a deafening curtain that blotted The Dancing Cartman from sight. Lightning silhouetted the figure of a man at the back of the inn, a man shaking his fist at them, or at the sky. Gode or Hake, he did not know, but either one was as bad as the other. The rain came in a deluge, isolating them in a wall of water. He hurried through the night, listening through the roar of the storm