Mat nodded, his relief evident. He tried to take some of Rand's burdens, the saddlebags and Thom's cloak wrapped around the cased harp, but Rand held onto them. His legs really did feel stronger. Whatever's chasing us? he thought as they started off down the road. Not chasing. Waiting.
The rain had continued through the night they staggered away from The Dancing Cartman, hammering at them as hard as the thunder out of a black sky split by lightning. Their clothes became sodden in minutes; in an hour Rand's skin felt sodden, too, but they had left Four Kings behind them. Mat was all but blind in the dark, squinting painfully at the sharp flashes that made trees stand out starkly for an instant. Rand led him by the hand, but Mat still felt out each step uncertainly. Worry creased Rand's forehead. If Mat did not regain his sight, they would be slowed to a crawl. They would never get away.
Mat seemed to sense his thought. Despite the hood of his cloak, the rain had plastered Mat's hair across his face. “Rand,” he said, “you won't leave me, will you? If I can't keep up?” His voice quavered.
“I won't leave you.” Rand tightened his grip on his friend's hand. “I won't leave you no matter what.” Light help us! Thunder crashed overhead, and Mat stumbled, almost falling, almost pulling him down, too. “We have to stop, Mat. If we keep going, you'll break a leg.”
“Gode.” Lightning split the dark right above them as Mat spoke, and the thunder crack pounded every other sound into the ground, but in the flash Rand could make out the name on Mat's lips.
“He's dead.” He has to be. Light, let him he dead.
He led Mat to some bushes the lightning flash had showed him. They had leaves enough to give a little shelter from the driving rain. Not as much as a good tree might, but he did not want to risk another lightning strike. They might not be so lucky, next time.
Huddled together beneath the bushes, they tried to arrange their cloaks to make a little tent over the branches. It was far too late to think of staying dry, but just stopping the incessant pelting of the raindrops would be something. They crouched against each other to share what little body warmth was left to them. Dripping wet as they were, and more drips coming through the cloaks, they shivered themselves into sleep.
Rand knew right away it was a dream. He was back in Four Kings, but the town was empty except for him. The wagons were there, but no people, no horses, no dogs. Nothing alive. He knew someone was waiting for him, though.
As he walked down the rutted street, the buildings seemed to blur as they slid behind him. When he turned his head, they were all there, solid, but the indistinctness remained at the corners of his vision. It was as if only what he saw really existed, and then just while he was seeing. He was sure if he turned quickly enough he would see ... He was not sure what, but it made him uneasy, thinking about it.
The Dancing Cartman appeared in front of him. Somehow its garish paint seemed gray and lifeless. He went in. Gode was there, at a table.
He only recognized the man from his clothes, his silk and dark velvets. Gode's skin was red, burned and cracked and oozing. His face was almost a skull, his lips shriveled to bare teeth and gums. As Gode turned his head, some of his hair cracked off, powdering to soot when it hit his shoulder. His lidless eyes stared at Rand.
“So you are dead,” Rand said. He was surprised that he was not afraid. Perhaps it was knowing that it was a dream this time.
“Yes,” said Ba'alzamon's voice, “but he did find you for me. That deserves some reward, don't you think?”
Rand turned, and discovered he could be afraid, even knowing it was a dream. Ba'alzamon's clothes were the color of dried blood, and rage and hate and triumph battled on his face.
“You see, youngling, you cannot hide from me forever. One way or another I find you. What protects you also makes you vulnerable. One time you hide, the next you light a signal fire. Come to me, youngling.” He held out his hand to Rand. “If my hounds must pull you down, they may not be gentle. They are jealous of what you will be, once you have knelt at my feet. It is your destiny. You belong to me.” Gode's burned tongue made an angry, eager garble of sound.
Rand tried to wet his lips, but he had no spit in his mouth. “No,” he managed, and then the words came more easily. “I belong to myself. Not you. Not ever. Myself. If your Darkfriends kill me, you'll never have me.”
The fires in Ba'alzamon's face heated the room till the air swam. “Alive or dead, youngling, you are mine. The grave belongs to me. Easier dead, but better alive. Better for you, youngling. The living have more power in most things.” Gode made a gabbling sound again. “Yes, my good hound. Here is your reward.”
Rand looked at Gode just in time to see the man's body crumble to dust. For an instant the burned face held a look of sublime joy that turned to horror in the final moment, as if he had seen something waiting he did not expect. Gode's empty velvet garments settled on the chair and the floor among the ash.
When he turned back, Ba'alzamon's outstretched hand had become a fist. “You are mine, youngling, alive or dead. The Eye of the World will never serve you. I mark you as mine.” His fist opened, and a ball of flame shot out. It struck Rand in the face, exploding, searing.
Rand lurched awake in the dark, water dripping through the cloaks onto his face. His hand trembled as he touched his cheeks. The skin felt tender, as if sunburned.
Suddenly he realized Mat was twisting and moaning in his sleep. He shook him, and Mat came awake with a whimper.
“My eyes! Oh, Light, my eyes! He took my eyes!”
Rand held him close, cradling him against his chest as if he were a baby. “You're all right, Mat. You're all right. He can't hurt us. We won't let him.” He could feel Mat shaking, sobbing into his coat. “He can't hurt us,” he whispered, and wished he believed it. What protects you makes you vulnerable. I am going mad.
Just before first light the downpour dwindled, the last drizzle fading as dawn came. The clouds remained, threatening until well into the morning. The wind came up, then, driving the clouds off to the south, baring a warmthless sun and slicing through their dripping wet clothes. They had not slept again, but groggily they donned their cloaks and set off eastward, Rand leading Mat by the hand. After a while Mat even felt well enough to complain about what the rain had done to his bowstring. Rand would not let him stop to exchange it for a dry string from his pocket, though; not yet.
They came on another village shortly after midday. Rand shivered harder at the sight of snug brick houses and smoke rising from chimneys, but he kept clear, leading Mat through the woods and fields to the south. A lone farmer working with a spading fork in a muddy field was the only person he saw, and he took care that the man did not see them, crouching through the trees. The farmer's attention was all on his work, but Rand kept one eye on him till he was lost to sight. If any of Gode's men were alive, perhaps they would believe he and Mat had taken the southern road out of Four Kings when they could not find anyone who had seen them in this village. They came back to the road out of sight of the town, and walked their clothes, if not dry, at least to just damp.
An hour beyond the town a farmer gave them a ride in his halfempty haywain. Rand had been taken by surprise while lost in worry about Mat. Mat shielded his eyes from the sun with his hand, weak as the afternoon light was, squinting through slitted lids even so, and he muttered continually about how bright the sun was. When Rand heard the rumble of the haywain, it was too late already. The sodden road deadened sound, and the wagon with its twohorse hitch was only fifty yards behind them, the driver already peering at them.
To Rand's surprise he drew up and offered them a lift. Rand hesitated, but it was too late to avoid being seen, and refusing a ride might fix them in the man's mind. He helped Mat up to the seat beside the farmer, then climbed up behind him.
Alpert Mull was a stolid man, with a square face and square hands, both worn and grooved from hard work and worry, and he wanted someone to talk to. His cows had gone dry, his chickens had stopped laying, and there was no pasture worth the name. For the first time in memory he had had to buy hay, and half a wagon was all “old Bain” would let him have. He wondered whether there was any chance of getting hay on his own land this year, or any kind of crop.
“The Queen should do something, the Light illumine her,” he muttered, knuckling his forehead respectfully but absentmindedly.
He hardly looked at Rand or Mat, but when he let them down by the narrow, raillined track that led off to his farm, he hesitated, then said, almost as if to himself, “I don't know what you're running from, and I don't want to. I have a wife and children. You understand? My family. It's hard times for helping strangers.”
Mat tried to stick his hand under his coat, but Rand had his wrist and he held on. He stood in the road, looking at the man without speaking.
“If I was a good man,” Mull said, “I'd offer a couple of lads soaked to the skin a place to dry out and get warm in front of my fire. But it's hard times, and strangers ... I don't know what you're running from, and I don't want to. You understand? My family.” Suddenly he pulled two long, woolen scarves, dark and thick, out of his coat pocket. “It's not much, but here. Belong to my boys. They have others. You don't know me, understand? I