His stomach rumbled frequently, reminding him that they had next to no money left, certainly not enough for a meal at the prices charged this close to Caemlyn. He realized once he had a hand on the flute case, and firmly pushed it around to his back. Gode had known all about the flute, and the juggling. There was no telling how much Ba'alzamon had learned from him before the end — if what Rand had seen had been the end — or how much had been passed to other Darkfriends.
He looked regretfully at a farm they were passing. A man patrolled the fences with a pair of dogs, growling and tugging at their leashes. The man looked as if he wanted nothing more than an excuse to let them loose. Not every farm had the dogs out, but no one was offering jobs to travelers.
Before the sun went down, he and Mat walked through two more villages. The village folk stood in knots, talking among themselves and watching the steady stream pass by. Their faces were no friendlier than the faces of the farmers, or the wagon drivers, or the Queen's Guards. All these strangers going to see the false Dragon. Fools who did not know enough to stay where they belonged. Maybe followers of the false Dragon. Maybe even Darkfriends. If there was any difference between the two.
With evening coming, the stream began to thin at the second town. The few who had money disappeared into the inn, though there seemed to be some argument about letting them inside; others began hunting for handy hedges or fields with no dogs. By dusk he and Mat had the Caemlyn Road to themselves. Mat began talking about finding another haystack, but Rand insisted on keeping on.
“As long as we can see the road,” he said. “The further we go before stopping, the further ahead we are.” If they are chasing you. Why should they chase now, when they've been waiting for you to come to them so far?
It was argument enough for Mat. With frequent glances over his shoulder, he quickened his step. Rand had to hurry to keep up.
The night thickened, relieved only a bit by scant moonlight. Mat's burst of energy faded, and his complaints started up again. Aching knots formed in Rand's calves. He told himself he had walked further in a hard day working on the farm with Tam, but repeat it as often as he would, he could not make himself believe it. Gritting his teeth, he ignored the aches and pains and would not stop.
With Mat complaining and him concentrating on the next step, they were almost on the village before he saw the lights. He tottered to a stop, suddenly aware of a burning that ran from his feet right up his. legs. He thought he had a blister on his right foot.
At the sight of the village lights, Mat sagged to his knees with a groan. “Can we stop now?” he panted. “Or do you want to find an inn and hang out a sign for the Darkfriends? Or a Fade.”
“The other side of the town,” Rand answered, staring at the lights. From this distance, in the dark, it could have been Emond's Field. What's waiting there? “Another mile, that's all.”
“All! I'm not walking another span!”
Rand's legs felt like fire, but he made himself take a step, and then another. It did not get any easier, but he kept on, one step at a time. Before he had gone ten paces he heard Mat staggering after him, muttering under his breath. He thought it was just as well he could not make out what Mat was saying.
It was late enough for the streets of the village to be empty, though most houses had a light in at least one window. The inn in the middle of town was brightly lit, surrounded by a golden pool that pushed back the darkness. Music and laughter, dimmed by thick walls, drifted from the building. The sign over the door creaked in the wind. At the near end of the inn, a cart and horse stood in the Caemlyn Road with a man checking the harness. Two men stood at the far end of the building, on the very edge of the light.
Rand stopped in the shadows beside a house that stood dark. He was too tired to hunt through the lanes for a way around. A minute resting could not hurt. Just a minute. Just until the men went away. Mat slumped against the wall with a grateful sigh, leaning back as if he meant to go to sleep right there.
Something about the two men at the rim of the shadows made Rand uneasy. He could not put a finger on anything, at first, but he realized the man at the cart felt the same way about them. He reached the end of the strap he was checking, adjusted the bit in the horse's mouth, then went back and started over from the beginning again. He kept his head down the whole while, his eyes on what he was doing and away from the other men. It could have been that he simply was not aware of them, though they were less than fifty feet off, except for the stiff way he moved and the way he sometimes turned awkwardly in what he was doing so he would not be looking toward them.
One of the men in the shadows was only a black shape, but the other stood more into the light, with his back to Rand. Even so it was plain he was not overjoyed at the conversation he was having. He wrung his hands and kept his eyes on the ground, jerking his head in a nod now and then at something the other had said. Rand could not hear anything, but he got the impression that the man in the shadows was doing all the talking; the nervous man just listened, and nodded, and wrung his hands anxiously.
Eventually the one who was wrapped in darkness turned away, and the nervous fellow started back into the light. Despite the chill he was mopping his face with the long apron he wore, as if he were drenched in sweat.
Skin prickling, Rand watched the shape moving off in the night. He did not know why, but his uneasiness seemed to follow that one, a vague tingling in the back of his neck and the hair stirring on his arms as if he had suddenly realized something was sneaking up on him. With a quick shake of his head, he rubbed his arms briskly. Getting as foolish as Mat, aren't you?
At that moment the form slipped by the edge of the light from a window — just on the brink of it — and Rand's skin crawled. The inn's sign went screescreescree in the wind, but the dark cloak never stirred.
“Fade,” he whispered, and Mat jerked to his feet as if he had shouted.
“What — ?”
He clamped a hand over Mat's mouth. “Softly.” The dark shape was lost in the darkness. Where? “It's gone, now. I think. I hope.” He took his hand away; the only sound Mat made was a long, indrawn breath.
The nervous man was almost to the inn door. He stopped and smoothed down his apron, visibly composing himself before he went inside.
“Strange friends you've got, Raimun Holdwin,” the man by the cart said suddenly. It was an old man's voice, but strong. The speaker straightened, shaking his head. “Strange friends in the dark for an innkeeper.”
The nervous man jumped when the other spoke, looking around as if he had not seen the cart and the other man until right then. He drew a deep breath and gathered himself, then asked sharply, “And what do you mean by that, Almen Bunt?”
“Just what I said, Holdwin. Strange friends. He's not from around here, is he? Lot of odd folk coming through the last few weeks. Awful lot of odd folk.”
“You're a fine one to talk.” Holdwin cocked an eye at the man by the cart. “I know a lot of men, even men from Caemlyn. Not like you, cooped up alone out on that farm of yours.” He paused, then went on as if he thought he had to explain further. “He's from Four Kings. Looking for a couple of thieves. Young men. They stole a heronmark sword from him.”
Rand's breath had caught at the mention of Four Kings; at the mention of the sword he glanced at Mat. His friend had his back pressed hard against the wall and was staring into the darkness with eyes so wide they seemed to be all whites. Rand wanted to stare into the night, too — the Halfman could be anywhere — but his eyes went back to the two men in front of the inn.
“A heronmark sword!” Bunt exclaimed. “No wonder he wants it back.”
Holdwin nodded. “Yes, and them, too. My friend's a rich man, a... a merchant, and they've been stirring up trouble with the men who work for him. Telling wild stories and getting people upset. They're Darkfriends, and followers of Logain, too.”
“Darkfriends and followers of the false Dragon? And telling wild stories, too? Getting up to a lot for young fellows. You did say they were young?” There was a sudden note of amusement in Bunt's voice, but the innkeeper did not seem to notice.
“Yes. Not yet twenty. There's a reward — a hundred crowns in gold — for the two of them.” Holdwin hesitated, then added, “They've sly tongues, these two. The Light knows what kind of tales they'll tell, trying to turn people against one another. And dangerous, too, even if they don't look it. Vicious. Best you stay clear if you think you see them. Two young men, one with a sword, and both looking over their shoulders. If they're the right ones, my ... my friend will pick them up once they're located.”
“You sound almost as if you know them to look at.”
“I'll know them when I see them,” Holdwin said confidently. “Just don't try to take them yourself. No need for anyone to get hurt. Come tell me if you see them. My ... friend will deal with them. A hundred crowns for the two, but he wants the pair.”
“A hundred crowns for the two,” Bunt mused. “How much for this swo