“I'm fine, now,” he told her. “Really, there's no need.”
But she came down the length of the stable, holding her skirt up and placing her gray slippers gingerly. With a grimace for the straw, she knelt beside him and felt his forehead.
“No fever,” she said, studying him with a frown. She was pretty, in a sharpfeatured fashion, but there was no warmth in her face. It was not cold, either; it just seemed to lack any feeling whatsoever. “You were sick, though. Yes. Yes. And still weak as a dayold kitten. I think ...” She reached under her cloak, and suddenly things were happening too fast for Rand to do more than give a strangled shout.
Her hand flashed from under her cloak; something glittered as she lunged across Rand toward Mat. Mat toppled sideways in a flurry of motion, and there was a solid tchunk of metal driven into wood. It all took just an instant, and then everything was still.
Mat lay half on his back, one hand gripping her wrist just above the dagger she had driven into the wall where his chest had been, his other hand holding the blade from Shadar Logoth to her throat.
Moving nothing but her eyes, she tried to look down at the dagger Mat held. Eyes widening, she drew a ragged breath and tried to pull back from it, but he kept the edge against her skin. After that, she was as still as a stone.
Licking his lips, Rand stared at the tableau above him. Even if he had not been so weak, he did not believe he could have moved. Then his eyes fell on her dagger, and his mouth went dry. The wood around the blade was blackening; thin tendrils of smoke rose from the char.
“Mat! Mat, her dagger!”
Mat flicked a glance at the dagger, then back to the woman, but she had not moved. She was licking her lips nervously. Roughly Mat pried her hand off the hilt and gave her a push; she toppled back, sprawling away from them and catching herself with her hands behind her, still watching the blade in his hand. “Don't move,” he said. “I'll use this if you move. Believe me, I will.” She nodded slowly; her eyes never left Mat's dagger. “Watch her, Rand.”
Rand was not sure what he was supposed to do if she tried anything — shout, maybe; he certainly could not run after her if she tried to flee — but she sat there without twitching while Mat yanked her dagger free of the wall. The black spot stopped growing, though a faint wisp of smoke still trailed up from it.
Mat looked around for somewhere to put the dagger, then thrust it toward Rand. He took it gingerly, as if it were a live adder. It looked ordinary, if ornate, with a pale ivory hilt and a narrow, gleaming blade no longer than the palm of his hand. Just a dagger. Only he had seen what it could do. The hilt was not even warm, but his hand began to sweat. He hoped he did not drop it in the hay.
The woman did not move from her sprawl as she watched Mat slowly turn toward her. She watched him as if wondering what he would do next, but Rand saw the sudden tightening of Mat's eyes, the tightening of his hand on the dagger. “Mat, no!”
“She tried to kill me, Rand. She'd have killed you, too. She's a Darkfriend.” Mat spat the word.
“But we're not,” Rand said. The woman gasped as if she had just realized what Mat had intended. “We are not, Mat.”
For a moment Mat remained frozen, the blade in his fist catching the lantern light. Then he nodded. “Move over there,” he told the woman, gesturing with the dagger toward the door to the tack room.
She got to her feet slowly, pausing to brush the straw from her dress. Even when she started in the direction Mat indicated, she moved as if there were no reason to hurry. But Rand noticed that she kept a wary eye on the rubyhilted dagger in Mat's hand. “You really should stop struggling,” she said. “It would be for the best, in the end. You will see.”
“The best?” Mat said wryly, rubbing his chest where her blade would have gone if he had not moved. “Get over there.”
She gave a casual shrug as she obeyed. “A mistake. There has been considerable... confusion since what happened with that egotistical fool Gode. Not to mention whoever the idiot was who started the panic in Market Sheran. No one is sure what happened there, or how. That makes it more dangerous for you, don't you see? You will have honored places if you come to the Great Lord of your own free will, but as long as you run, there will be pursuit, and who can tell what will happen then?”
Rand felt a chill. My hounds are jealous, and may not be gentle.
“So you're having trouble with a couple of farmboys.” Mat's laugh was grim. “Maybe you Darkfriends aren't as dangerous as I've always heard.” He flung open the door of the tack room and stepped back.
She paused just through the doorway, looking at him over her shoulder. Her gaze was ice, and her voice colder still. “You will find out how dangerous we are. When the Myrddraal gets here — ”
Whatever else she had to say was cut off as Mat slammed the door and pulled the bar down into its brackets. When he turned, his eyes were worried. “Fade,” he said in a tight voice, tucking the dagger back under his coat. “Coming here, she says. How are your legs?”
“I can't dance,” Rand muttered, “but if you'll help me get on my feet, I can walk.” He looked at the blade in his hand and shuddered. “Blood and ashes, I'll run.”
Hurriedly hanging himself about with their possessions, Mat pulled Rand to his feet. Rand's legs wobbled, and he had to lean on his friend to stay upright, but he tried not to slow Mat down. He held the woman's dagger well away from himself. Outside the door was a bucket of water. He tossed the dagger into it as they passed. The blade entered the water with a hiss; steam rose from the surface. Grimacing, he tried to take faster steps.
With light come, there were plenty of people in the streets, even so early. They were about their own business, though, and no one had any attention to spare for two young men walking out of the village, not with so many strangers about. Just the same, Rand stiffened every muscle, trying to stand straight. With each step he wondered if any of the folk hurrying by were Darkfriends. Are any of them waiting for the woman with the dagger? For the Fade?
A mile outside the village his strength gave out. One minute he was panting along, hanging on Mat; the next they were both on the ground. Mat tugged him over to the side of the road.
“We have to keep going,” Mat said. He scrubbed his hand through his hair, then tugged the scarf down above his eyes. “Sooner or later, somebody will let her out, and they'll be after us again.”
“I know,” Rand panted. “I know. Give me a hand.”
Mat pulled him up again, but he wavered there, knowing it was no good. The first time he tried to take a step, he would be flat on his face again.
Holding him upright, Mat waited impatiently for a horsecart, approaching from the village, to pass them. Mat gave a grunt of surprise when the cart slowed to a stop before them. A leatheryfaced man looked down from the driver's seat.
“Something wrong with him?” the man asked around his pipe.
“He's just tired,” Mat said.
Rand could see that was not going to do, not leaning on Mat the way he was. He let go of Mat and took a step away from him. His legs quivered, but he willed himself to stay erect. “I haven't slept in two days,” he said, “Ate something that made me sick. I'm better, now, but I haven't slept.”
The man blew a streamer of smoke from the corner of his mouth. “Going to Caemlyn, are you? Was your age, I expect I might be off to see this false Dragon myself.”
“Yes.” Mat nodded. “That's right. We're going to see the false Dragon.”
“Well, climb on up, then. Your friend in the back. If he's sick again, best it's on the straw, not up here. Name's Hyam Kinch.”
The Last Village
It was after dark when they reached Carysford, longer than Rand had thought it would take from what Master Kinch said when he let them down. He wondered if his whole sense of time was getting skewed. Only three nights since Howal Gode and Four Kings, two since Paitr had surprised them in Market Sheran. Just a bare day since the nameless Darkfriend woman tried to kill them in the stable of The Queen's Man, but even that seemed a year ago, or a lifetime.
Whatever was happening to time, Carysford appeared normal enough, on the surface, at least. Neat, vinecovered brick houses and narrow lanes, except for the Caemlyn Road itself, quiet and outwardly peaceful. But what's underneath? he wondered. Market Sheran had been peaceful to look at, and so had the village where the woman ... He had never learned the name of that one and he did not want to think about it.
Light spilled from the windows of the houses into streets all but empty of people. That suited Rand. Slinking from corner to corner, he avoided the few people abroad. Mat stuck to his shoulder, freezing when the crunch of gravel announced the approach of a villager, dodging from shadow to shadow when the dim shape had gone past.
The River Cary was a bare thirty paces wide there, and the black water moved sluggishly, but the ford had long since been bridged over. Centuries of rain and wind had worn the stone abutments until they seemed almost like natural formations. Years of freight wagons and merchant trains had ground at the thick wooden planks, too. Loose boards rattled under their boots, sounding as loud as drums. Until long after they were through the village and into the countryside beyond, Rand waited for a voice to demand to know who they were. Or wor