The Dark Waits
Under a leaden sky the highwheeled cart bumped east along the Caemlyn Road. Rand pulled himself out of the straw in back to look over the side. It was easier than it had been an hour earlier. His arms felt as if they might stretch instead of drawing him up, and for a minute his head wanted to keep on going and float away, but it was easier. He hooked his elbows over the low slats and watched the land roll past. The sun, still hidden by dull clouds, yet stood high overhead, but the cart was clattering into another village of vinecovered, red brick houses. Towns had been getting closer together since Four Kings.
Some of the people waved or called a greeting to Hyam Kinch, the farmer whose cart it was. Master Kinch, leatheryfaced and taciturn, shouted back a few words each time, around the pipe in his teeth. The clenched teeth made what he said all but unintelligible, but it sounded jovial and seemed to satisfy; they went back to what they were doing without another glance at the cart. No one appeared to pay any mind to the farmer's two passengers.
The village inn moved through Rand's field of vision. It was whitewashed, with a gray slate roof. People bustled in and out, nodding casually and waving to one another. Some of them stopped to speak. They knew one another. Villagers, mostly, by their clothes — boots and trousers and coats not much different from what he wore himself, though with an inordinate fondness for colorful stripes. The women wore deep bonnets that hid their faces and white aprons with stripes. Maybe they were all townsmen and local farmfolk. Does that make any difference?
He dropped back on the straw, watching the village dwindle between his feet. Fenced fields and trimmed hedges lined the road, and small farmhouses with smoke rising from red brick chimneys. The only woods near the road were coppices, well tended for firewood, tame as a farmyard. But the branches stood leafless against the sky, as stark as in the wild woods to the west.
A line of wagons heading the other way rumbled down the center of the road, crowding the cart over onto the verge. Master Kinch shifted his pipe to the corner of his mouth and spat between his teeth. With one eye on his offside wheel, to make sure it did not tangle in the hedge, he kept the cart moving. His mouth tightened as he glanced at the merchants' train.
None of the wagon drivers cracking their long whips in the air above eighthorse teams, none of the hardfaced guards slouching in their saddles alongside the wagons, looked at the cart. Rand watched them go, his chest tight. His hand was under his cloak, gripping his sword hilt, until the last wagon lurched by.
As that final wagon rattled away toward the village they had just left, Mat turned on the seat beside the farmer and leaned back until he found Rand's eyes. The scarf that did duty for dust, when need be, shaded his own eyes, folded over thickly and tied low around his forehead. Even so he squinted in the gray daylight. “You see anything back there?” he asked quietly. “What about the wagons?”
Rand shook his head, and Mat nodded. He had seen nothing either.
Master Kinch glanced at them out of the corner of his eye, then shifted his pipe again, and flapped the reins. That was all, but he had noticed. The horse picked up the pace a step.
“Your eyes still hurt?” Rand asked.
Mat touched the scarf around his head. “No. Not much. Not unless I look almost right at the sun, anyway. What about you? Are you feeling any better?”
“Some.” He really was feeling better, he realized. It was a wonder to get over being sick so fast. More than that, it was a gift of the Light. It has to be the Light. It has to be.
Suddenly a body of horsemen was passing the cart, heading west like the merchants' wagons. Long white collars hung down over their mail and plate, and their cloaks and undercoats were red, like the gatetenders' uniforms in Whitebridge, but better made and better fitting. Each man's conical helmet shone like silver. They sat their horses with straight backs. Thin red streamers fluttered beneath the heads of their lances, every lance held at the same angle.
Some of them glanced into the cart as they passed in two columns. A cage of steel bars masked each face. Rand was glad his cloak covered his sword. A few nodded to Master Kinch, not as if they knew him, but in a neutral greeting. Master Kinch nodded back in much the same way, but despite his unchanging expression there was a hint of approval in his nod.
Their horses were at a walk, but with the speed of the cart added, they went by quickly. With a part of his mind Rand counted them. Ten ... twenty ... thirty ... thirtytwo. He raised his head to watch the columns move on down the Caemlyn Road.
“Who were they?” Mat asked, half wondering, half suspicious.
“Queen's Guards,” Master Kinch said around his pipe. He kept his eyes on the road ahead. “Won't go much further than Breen's Spring, 'less they're called for. Not like the old days.” He sucked on his pipe, then added, “I suppose, these days, there's parts of the Realm don't see the Guards in a year or more. Not like the old days.”
“What are they doing?” Rand asked.
The farmer gave him a look. “Keeping the Queen's peace and upholding the Queen's law.” He nodded to himself as if he liked the sound of that, and added, “Searching out malefactors and seeing them before a magistrate. Mmmph!” He let out a long streamer of smoke. “You two must be from pretty far off not to recognize the Queen's Guard. Where you from?”
“Far off,” Mat said at the same instant that Rand said, “The Two Rivers.” He wished he could take it back as soon as he said it. He still was not thinking clearly. Trying to hide, and mentioning a name a Fade would hear like a bell.
Master Kinch glanced at Mat out of the corner of his eye, and puffed his pipe in silence for a while. “That's far off, all right,” he said finally. “Almost to the border of the Realm. But things must be worse than I thought if there's places in the Realm where people don't even recognize the Queen's Guards. Not like the old days at all.”
Rand wondered what Master al'Vere would say if someone told him the Two Rivers was part of some Queen's Realm. The Queen of Andor, he supposed. Perhaps the Mayor did know — he knew a lot of things that surprised Rand — and maybe others did, too, but he had never heard anyone mention it. The Two Rivers was the Two Rivers. Each village handled its own problems, and if some difficulty involved more than one village the Mayors, and maybe the Village Councils, solved it between them.
Master Kinch pulled on the reins, drawing the cart to a halt. “Far as I go.” A narrow cart path led off to the north; several farmhouses were visible in that direction across open fields, plowed but still bare of crops. “Two days will see you in Caemlyn. Least, it would if your friend had his legs under him.”Mat hopped down and retrieved his bow and other things, then helped Rand climb off the tail of the cart. Rand's bundles weighed on him, and his legs wobbled, but he shrugged off his friend's hand and tried a few steps on his own. He still felt unsteady, but his legs held him up. They even seemed to grow stronger as he used them.
The farmer did not start his horse up again right away. He studied them for a minute, sucking on his pipe. “You can rest up a day or two at my place, if you want. Won't miss anything in that time, I suppose. Whatever sickness you're getting over, young fellow ... well, the old woman and me, we already had about every sickness you can think of before you were born, and nursed our younglings through 'em, too. I expect you're past the catching stage, anyway.”
Mat's eyes narrowed, and Rand caught himself frowning. Not everyone is part of it. It can't be everybody.
“Thank you,” he said, “but I'm all right. Really. How far to the next village?”
“Carysford? You can reach it before dark, walking.” Master Kinch took his pipe from between his teeth and pursed his lips thoughtfully before going on. “First off, I reckoned you for runaway 'prentices, but now I expect it's something more serious you're running from. Don't know what. Don't care. I'm a good enough judge to say you're not Darkfriends, and not likely to rob or hurt anybody. Not like some on the road these days. I got in trouble a time or two myself when I was your age. You need a place to keep out of sight a few days, my farm is five miles that way” — he jerked his head toward the cart track — “and don't nobody ever come out there. Whatever's chasing you, won't likely find you there.” He cleared his throat as if embarrassed by speaking so many words together.
“How would you know what Darkfriends look like?” Mat demanded. He backed away from the cart, and his hand went under his coat. “What do you know about Darkfriends?”
Master Kinch's face tightened. “Suit yourselves,” he said, and clucked to his horse. The cart rolled off down the narrow path, and he never looked back.
Mat looked at Rand, and his scowl faded. “Sorry, Rand. You need a place to rest. Maybe if we go after him ...” He shrugged. “I just can't get over the feeling that everybody's after us. Light, I wish I knew why they were. I wish it was over. I wish...” He trailed off miserably.
“There are still some good people,” Rand said. Mat started toward the cart path, jaw clenched as if it were the last thing he wanted to do, but Rand stopped him. “We can't afford to stop just to rest, Mat. Besides, I don't think there i