The countryside had been filling up the further they went, becoming more and more settled. There were always the lights of farmhouses in sight. Hedges and rail fences lined the road and the fields beyond. Always the fields were there, and never a stretch of woods close to the road. It seemed as if they were always on the outskirts of a village, even when they were hours from the nearest town. Neat and peaceful. And with never an indication that Darkfriends or worse might be lurking.

Abruptly Mat sat down in the road. He had pushed the scarf up on top of his head, now that the only light came from the moon. “Two paces to the span,” he muttered. “A thousand spans to the mile, four miles to the league ... I'm not walking another ten paces unless there's a place to sleep at the end of it. Something to eat wouldn't be amiss, either. You haven't been hiding anything in your pockets, have you? An apple, maybe? I won't hold it against you if you have. You could at least look.”


Rand peered down the road both ways. They were the only things moving in the night. He glanced at Mat, who had pulled off one boot and was rubbing his foot. Or they had been. His own feet hurt, too. A tremor ran up his legs as if to tell him he had not yet regained as much strength as he thought.

Dark mounds stood in a field just ahead of them. Haystacks, diminished by winter feeding, but still haystacks.

He nudged Mat with his toe. “We'll sleep there.”

“Haystacks again.” Mat sighed, but he tugged on his boot and got up.

The wind was rising, the night chill growing deeper. They climbed over the smooth poles of the fence and quickly were burrowing into the hay. The tarp that kept the rain off the hay cut the wind, too.

Rand twisted around in the hollow he had made until he found a comfortable position. Hay still managed to poke at him through his clothes, but he had learned to put up with that. He tried counting the haystacks he had slept in since Whitebridge. Heroes in the stories never had to sleep in haystacks, or under hedges. But it was not easy to pretend, anymore, that he was a hero in a story, even for a little while. With a sigh, he pulled his collar up in the hopes of keeping hay from getting down his back.

“Rand?” Mat said softly. “Rand, do you think we'll make it?”

“Tar Valon? It's a long way yet, but — ”

“Caemlyn. Do you think we'll make it to Caemlyn?”

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Rand raised his head, but it was dark in their burrow; the only thing that told him where Mat was, was his voice. “Master Kinch said two days. Day after tomorrow, the next day, we'll get there.”

“If there aren't a hundred Darkfriends waiting for us down the road, or a Fade or two.” There was silence for a moment, then Mat said, “I think we're the last ones left, Rand.” He sounded frightened. “Whatever it's all about, it's just us two, now, just us.”

Rand shook his head. He knew Mat could not see in the darkness, but it was more for himself than Mat, anyway. “Go to sleep, Mat,” he said tiredly. But he lay awake a long time himself, before sleep came. Just us.

A cock's crow woke him, and he scrambled out into the false dawn, brushing hay off his clothes. Despite his precautions some had worked its way down his back; the straws clung between his shoulder blades, itching. He took off his coat and pulled his shirt out of his breeches to get to it. It was while he had one hand down the back of his neck and the other twisted up behind him that he became aware of the people.

The sun was not yet truly up, but already a steady trickle moved down the road in ones and twos, trudging toward Caemlyn, some with packs or bundles on their backs, others with nothing but a walking staff, if that. Most were young men, but here and there was a girl, or someone older. One and all they had the travelstained look of having walked a long way. Some had their eyes on their feet and a weary slump to their shoulders, early as it was; others had their gaze fixed on something out of sight ahead, something toward the dawn.

Mat rolled out of the haystack, scratching vigorously. He only paused long enough to wrap the scarf around his head; it shaded his eyes a little less this morning. “You think we might get something to eat today?”

Rand's stomach rumbled in sympathy. “We can think about that when we're on the road,” he said. Hastily arranging his clothes, he dug his share of their bundles out of the haystack.

By the time they reached the fence, Mat had noticed the people, too. He frowned, stopping in the field while Rand climbed over. A young man, not much older than they, glanced at them as he passed. His clothes were dusty, and so was the blanketroll strapped across his back.

“Where are you bound?” Mat called.

“Why, Caemlyn, for to see the Dragon,” the fellow shouted back without stopping. He raised an eyebrow at the blankets and saddlebags hanging from their shoulders, and added, “Just like you.” With a laugh he went on, his eyes already seeking eagerly ahead.

Mat asked the same question several times during the day, and the only people who did not give much the same answer were local folk. If those answered at all, it was by spitting and turning away in disgust. They turned away, but they kept a watchful eye, too. They looked at all the travelers the same way, out of the corners of their eyes. Their faces said strangers might get up to anything if not watched.

People who lived in the area were not only wary of the strangers, they seemed more than a little put out. Just enough people were on the road, scattered out just enough, that when farmers' carts and wagons appeared with the sun peeking over the horizon, even their usually slow pace was halved. None of them was in any mood to give a ride. A sour grimace, and maybe a curse for the work they were missing, were more likely.

The merchants' wagons rolled by with little hindrance beyond shaken fists, whether they were going toward Caemlyn or away from it. When the first merchants' train appeared, early on in the morning, coming at a stiff trot with the sun barely above the horizon behind the wagons, Rand stepped out of the road. They gave no sign of slowing for anything, and he saw other folk scrambling out of the way. He moved all the way over onto the verge, but kept walking.

A flicker of motion as the first wagon rumbled close was all the warning he had. He went sprawling on the ground as the wagon driver's whip cracked in the air where his head had been. From where he lay he met the driver's eyes as the wagon rolled by. Hard eyes above a mouth in a tight grimace. Not a care that he might have drawn blood, or taken an eye.

“Light blind you!” Mat shouted after the wagon. “You can't — ” A mounted guard caught him on the shoulder with the butt of his spear, knocking him down atop Rand.

“Out of the way, you dirty Darkfriend!” the guard growled without slowing.

After that, they kept their distance from the wagons. There were certainly enough of them. The rattle and clatter of one hardly faded before another could be heard coming. Guards and drivers, they all stared at the travelers heading for Caemlyn as if seeing dirt walk.

Once Rand misjudged a driver's whip, just by the length of the tip. Clapping his hand to the shallow gash over his eyebrow, he swallowed hard to keep from vomiting at how close it had come to his eye. The driver smirked at him. With his other hand he grabbed Mat, to stop him nocking an arrow.

“Let it go,” he said. He jerked his head at the guards riding alongside the wagons. Some of them were laughing; others gave Mat's bow a hard eye. “If we're lucky, they'd just beat us with their spears. If we're lucky.”

Mat grunted sourly, but he let Rand pull him on down the road.

Twice squadrons of the Queen's Guards came trotting down the road, streamers on their lances fluttering in the wind. Some of the farmers hailed them, wanting something done about the strangers, and the Guards always paused patiently to listen. Near midday Rand stopped to listen to one such conversation.

Behind the bars of his helmet, the Guard captain's mouth was a tight line. “If one of them steals something, or trespasses on your land,” he growled at the lanky farmer frowning beside his stirrup, “I'll haul him before a magistrate, but they break no Queen's Law by walking on the Queen's Highway.”

“But they're all over the place,” the farmer protested. “Who knows who they are, or what they are. All this talk about the Dragon ...”

“Light, man! You only have a handful here. Caemlyn's walls are bulging with them, and more coming every day.” The captain's scowl deepened as he caught sight of Rand and Mat, standing in the road nearby. He gestured down the road with a steelbacked gauntlet. “Get on with you, or I'll have you in for blocking traffic.”

His voice was no rougher with them than with the farmer, but they moved on. The captain's eyes followed them for a time; Rand could feel them on his back. He suspected the Guards had little patience left with the wanderers, and no sympathy for a hungry thief. He decided to stop Mat if he suggested stealing eggs again.

Still, there was a good side to all the wagons and people on the road, especially all the young men heading for Caemlyn. For any Darkfriends hunting them, it would be like trying to pick out two particular pigeons in a flock. If the Myrddraal on Winternight had not known exactly who it was after, maybe its fello

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