Abruptly Holdwin appeared to realize the other man was making fun of him. “I don't know why I'm telling you,” he snapped. “You're still fixed on that fool plan of yours, I see.”

“Not such a fool plan,” Bunt replied placidly. “There might not be another false Dragon to see before I die — Light send it so! — and I'm too old to eat some merchant's dust all the way to Caemlyn. I'll have the road to myself, and I'll be in Caemlyn bright and early tomorrow.”


“To yourself?” The innkeeper's voice had a nasty quiver. “You can never tell what might be out in the night, Almen Bunt. All alone on the road, in the dark. Even if somebody hears you scream, there's no one will unbar a door to help. Not these days, Bunt. Not your nearest neighbor.”

None of that seemed to ruffle the old farmer at all; he answered as calmly as before. “If the Queen's Guards can't keep the road safe this close to Caemlyn, then we're none of us safe even in our own beds. If you ask me, one thing the Guards could do to make sure the roads are safe would be clap that friend of yours in irons. Sneaking around in the dark, afraid to let anybody get a look at him. Can't tell me he's not up to no good.”

“Afraid!” Holdwin exclaimed. “You old fool, if you knew —” His teeth clicked shut abruptly, and he gave himself a shake. “I don't know why I'm wasting time on you. Get off with you! Stop cluttering up the front of my place of business.” The door of the inn boomed shut behind him.

Muttering to himself, Bunt took hold of the edge of the cart seat and set his foot on the wheelhub.

Rand hesitated only a moment. Mat caught his arm as he started forward.

“Are you crazy, Rand? He'll recognize us for sure!”

“You'd rather stay here? With a Fade around? How far do you think we'll get on foot before it finds us?” He tried not to think of how far they would get in a cart if it found them. He shook free of Mat and trotted up the road. He carefully held his cloak shut so the sword was hidden; the wind and the cold were excuse enough for that.

“I couldn't help overhearing you're going to Caemlyn,” he said.

Bunt gave a start, jerking a quarterstaff out of the cart. His leathery face was a mass of wrinkles and half his teeth were gone, but his gnarled hands held the staff steady. After a minute he lowered one end of the staff to the ground and leaned on it. “So you two are going to Caemlyn. To see the Dragon, eh?”

-- Advertisement --

Rand had not realized that Mat had followed him. Mat was keeping well back, though, out of the light, watching the inn and the old farmer with as much suspicion as he was the night.

“The false Dragon,” Rand said with emphasis.

Bunt nodded. “Of course. Of course.” He threw a sideways look at the inn, then abruptly shoved his staff back under the cart seat. “Well, if you want a ride, get in. I've wasted enough time.” He was already climbing to the seat.

Rand clambered over the back as the farmer flicked the reins. Mat ran to catch up as the cart started off. Rand caught his arms and pulled him aboard.

The village faded quickly into the night at the pace Bunt set. Rand lay back on the bare boards, fighting the lulling creak of the wheels. Mat stifled his yawns with a fist, warily staring into the countryside. Darkness weighed heavily on the fields and farms, dotted with the lights of farmhouses. The lights seemed distant, seemed to struggle vainly against the night. An owl called, a mourner's cry, and the wind moaned like lost souls in the Shadow.

It could be out there anywhere, Rand thought.

Bunt seemed to feel the oppression of the night, too, for he suddenly spoke up. “You two ever been to Caemlyn before?” He gave a little chuckle. “Don't suppose you have. Well, wait till you see it. The greatest city in the world. Oh, I've heard all about Illian and Ebou Dar and Tear and all — there's always some fool thinks a thing is bigger and better just because it's off somewheres over the horizon — but for my money, Caemlyn is the grandest there is. Couldn't be grander. No, it couldn't. Unless maybe Queen Morgase, the Light illumine her, got rid of that witch from Tar Valon. ”

Rand was lying back with his head pillowed on his blanketroll atop the bundle of Thom's cloak, watching the night drift by, letting the farmer's words wash by him. A human voice kept the darkness at bay and muted the mournful wind. He twisted around to look up at the dark mass of Bunt's back. “You mean an Aes Sedai?”

“What else would I mean? Sitting there in the Palace like a spider. I'm a good Queen's man — never say I'm not — but it just isn't right. I'm not one of those saying Elaida's got too much influence over the Queen. Not me. And as for the fools who claim Elaida's really the queen in all but name ...” He spat into the night. “That for them. Morgase is no puppet to dance for any Tar Valon witch.”

Another Aes Sedai. If ... when Moiraine got to Caemlyn, she might well go to a sister Aes Sedai. If the worst happened, this Elaida might help them reach Tar Valon. He looked at Mat, and just as if he had spoken aloud Mat shook his head. He could not see Mat's face, but he knew it was fixed in denial.

Bunt went right on talking, flicking the reins whenever his horse slowed but otherwise letting his hands rest on his knees. “I'm a good Queen's man, like I said, but even fools say something worthwhile now and again. Even a blind pig finds an acorn sometimes. There's got to be some changes. This weather, the crops failing, cows drying up, calves and lambs born dead, or with two heads. Bloody ravens don't even wait for things to die. People are scared. They want somebody to blame. Dragon's Fang turning up on people's doors. Things creeping about in the night. Barns getting burned. Fellows around like that friend of Holdwin, scaring people. The Queen's got to do something before it's too late. You see that, don't you?” Rand made a noncommittal sound. It sounded as if they had been even luckier than he had thought to find this old man and his cart. They might not have gotten further than that last village if they had waited for daylight. Things creeping about in the night. He lifted up to look over the side of the cart at the darkness. Shadows and shapes seemed to writhe in the black. He dropped back before his imagination convinced him there was something there.

Bunt took it for agreement. "Right. I'm a good Queen's man, and I'll stand against any who try to harm her, but I'm right. You take the Lady Elayne and the Lord Gawyn, now. There's a change wouldn't harm anything, and might do some good. Sure, I know we've always done it that way in Andor. Send the DaughterHeir off to Tar Valon to study with the Aes Sedai, and the eldest son off to study with the Warders. I believe in tradition, I do, but look what it got us last time. Luc dead in the Blight before he was ever anointed First Prince of the Sword, and Tigraine vanished — run off or dead — when it came time for her to take the throne. Still troubling us, that.

"There's some saying she's still alive, you know, that Morgase isn't the rightful Queen. Bloody fools. I remember what happened. Remember like it was yesterday. No DaughterHeir to take the throne when the old Queen died, and every House in Andor scheming and fighting for the right. And Taringail Damodred. You wouldn't have thought he'd lost his wife, him hot to figure which House would win so he could marry again and become Prince Consort after all. Well, he managed it, though why Morgase chose ... ah, no man knows the mind of a woman, and a queen is twice a woman, wed to a man, wed to the land. He got what he wanted, anyway, if not the way he wanted it.

“Brought Cairhien into the plotting before he was done, and you know how that ended. The Tree chopped down, and blackveiled Aiel coming over the Dragonwall. Well, he got himself decently killed after he'd fathered Elayne and Gawyn, so there's an end to it, I suppose. But why send them to Tar Valon? It's time men didn't think of the throne of Andor and Aes Sedai in the same thought anymore. If they've got to go some place else to learn what they need, well, Illian's got libraries as good as Tar Valon, and they'll teach the Lady Elayne as much about ruling and scheming as ever the witches could. Nobody knows more about scheming than an Illianer. And if the Guards can't teach the Lord Gawyn enough about soldiering, well, they've soldiers in Illian, too. And in Shienar, and Tear, for that matter. I'm a good Queen's man, but I say let's stop all this truck with Tar Valon. Three thousand years is long enough. Too long. Queen Morgase can lead us and put things right without help from the White Tower. I tell you, there's a woman makes a man proud to kneel for her blessing. Why, once ...”

Rand fought the sleep his body cried out for, but the rhythmic creak and sway of the cart lulled him and he floated off on the drone of Bunt's voice. He dreamed of Tam. At first they were at the big oak table in the farmhouse, drinking tea while Tam told him about Prince Consorts, and DaughterHeirs, and the Dragonwall, and blackveiled Aielmen. The heronmark sword lay on the table between them, but neither of them looked at it. Suddenly he was in the Westwood, pulling the makeshift litter through the moonbright night. When he looked over his shoulder, it was Thom on the litter, not his father, sitting crosslegged and

-- Advertisement --