Perrin snorted a laugh. “I think I can lift you right now.” But when he stepped forward Thom Merrilin motioned him back.
“Later, lad, later. When there are more folk to watch. An artist needs an audience.”
A score of folk had gathered on the Green since the gleeman appeared from the inn, young men and women down to children who peeked, wideeyed and silent, from behind the older onlookers. All looked as if they were waiting for miraculous things from the gleeman. The whitehaired man looked them over — he appeared to be counting them — then gave a slight shake of his head and sighed.
“I suppose I had better give you a small sample. So you can run tell the others. Eh? Just a taste of what you'll see tomorrow at your festival.”
He took a step back, and suddenly leaped into the air, twisting and somersaulting to land facing them atop the old stone foundation. More than that, three balls—red, white, and black— began dancing between his hands even as he landed.
A soft sound came from the watchers, half astonishment, half satisfaction. Even Rand forgot his irritation. He flashed Egwene a grin and got a delighted one in return, then both turned to stare unabashedly at the gleeman.
“You want stories?” Thom Merrilin declaimed. “I have stories, and I will give them to you. I will make them come alive before your eyes.” A blue ball joined the others from somewhere, then a green one, and a yellow. “Tales of great wars and great heroes, for the men and boys. For the women and girls, the entire Aptarigine Cycle. Tales of Artur Paendrag Tanreall, Artur Hawkwing, Artur the High King, who once ruled all the lands from the Aiel Waste to the Aryth Ocean, and even beyond. Wondrous stories of strange people and strange lands, of the Green Man, of Warders and Trollocs, of Ogier and Aiel, The Thousand Tales of Anla, the Wise Counselor. 'Jaem the GiantSlayer'. How Susa Tamed Jain Farstrider. 'Mara and the Three Foolish Kings.'”
“Tell us about Lenn,” Egwene called. “How he flew to the moon in the belly of an eagle made of fire. Tell about his daughter Salya walking among the stars.”
Rand looked at her out of the corner of his eye, but she seemed intent on the gleeman. She had never liked stories about adventures and long journeys. Her favorites were always the funny ones, or stories about women outwitting people who were supposed to be smarter than everyone else. He was sure she had asked for tales about Lenn and Salya to put a burr under his shirt. Surely she could see the world outside was no place for Two Rivers folk. Listening to tales of adventures, even dreaming about them, was one thing; having them take place around you would be something else again.
“Old stories, those,” Thom Merrilin said, and abruptly he was juggling three colored balls with each hand. “Stories from the Age before the Age of Legends, some say. Perhaps even older. But I have all stories, mind you now, of Ages that were and will be. Ages when men ruled the heavens and the stars, and Ages when man roamed as brother to the animals. Ages of wonder, and Ages of horror. Ages ended by fire raining from the skies, and Ages doomed by snow and ice covering land and sea. I have all stories, and I will tell all stories. Tales of Mosk the Giant, with his Lance of Fire that could reach around the world, and his wars with Alsbet, the Queen of All. Tales of Materese the Healer, Mother of the Wondrous Ind.”
The balls now danced between Thom's hands in two intertwining circles. His voice was almost a chant, and he turned slowly as he spoke, as if surveying the onlookers to gauge his effect. “I will tell you of the end of the Age of Legends, of the Dragon, and his attempt to free the Dark One into the world of men. I will tell of the Time of Madness, when Aes Sedai shattered the world; of the Trolloc Wars, when men battled Trollocs for rule of the earth; of the War of the Hundred Years, when men battled men and the nations of our day were wrought. I will tell the adventures of men and women, rich and poor, great and small, proud and humble. The Siege of the Pillars of the Sky. 'How Goodwife Karil Cured Her Husband of Snoring.' King Darith and the Fall of the House of —”
Abruptly the flow of words and the juggling alike stopped. Thom simply snatched the balls from the air and stopped talking. Unnoticed by Rand, Moiraine had joined the listeners. Lan was at her shoulder, though he had to look twice to see the man. For a moment Thom looked at Moiraine sideways, his face and body still except for making the balls disappear into his capacious coat sleeves. Then he bowed to her, holding his cloak wide. “Your pardon, but you are surely not from this district?”
“Lady!” Ewin hissed fiercely. “The Lady Moiraine.”
Thom blinked, then bowed again, more deeply. “Your pardon again ... ah, Lady. I meant no disrespect.”
Moiraine made a small wavingaway gesture. “None was perceived, Master Bard. And my name is simply Moiraine. I am indeed a stranger here, a traveler like yourself, far from home and alone. The world can be a dangerous place when one is a stranger.”
“The Lady Moiraine collects stories,” Ewin put in. “Stories about things that happened in the Two Rivers. Though I don't know what ever happened here to make a story of.”
“I trust you will like my stories, as well ... Moiraine.” Thom watched her with obvious wariness. He looked not best pleased to find her there. Suddenly Rand wondered what sort of entertainment a lady like her might be offered in a city like Baerlon, or Caemlyn. Surely it could not be anything better than a gleeman.
“That is a matter of taste, Master Bard,” Moiraine replied. “Some stories I like, and some I do not.”
Thom's bow was his deepest yet, bending his long body parallel to the ground. “I assure you, none of my stories will displease. All will please and entertain. And you do me too much honor. I am a simple gleeman; that and nothing more.”
Moiraine answered his bow with a gracious nod. For an instant she seemed even more the lady Ewin had named her, accepting an offering from one of her subjects. Then she turned away, and Lan followed, a wolf heeling a gliding swan. Thom stared after them, bushy brows drawn down, stroking his long mustaches with a knuckle, until they were halfway up the Green. He's not pleased at all, Rand thought.
“Are you going to juggle some more, now?” Ewin demanded.
“Eat fire,” Mat shouted. “I want to see you eat fire.”
“The harp!” a voice cried from the crowd. “Play the harp!” Someone else called for the flute.
At that moment the door of the inn opened and the Village Council trundled out, Nynaeve in their midst. Padan Fain was not with them,. Rand saw; apparently the peddler had decided to remain in the warm common room with his mulled wine.
Muttering about “a strong brandy,” Thom Merrilin abruptly jumped down from the old foundation. He ignored the cries of those who had been watching him, pressing inside past the Councilors before they were well out of the doorway.
“Is he supposed to be a gleeman or a king?” Cenn Buie asked in annoyed tones. “A waste of good money, if you ask me.”
Bran al'Vere half turned after the gleeman then shook his head. “That man may be more trouble than he's worth.”
Nynaeve, busy gathering her cloak around her, sniffed loudly. “Worry about the gleeman if you want, Brandelwyn al'Vere. At least he is in Emond's Field, which is more than you can say for this false Dragon. But as long as you are worrying, there are others here who should excite your worry.”
“If you please, Wisdom,” Bran said stiffly, “kindly leave who should worry me to my deciding. Mistress Moiraine and Master Lan are guests in my inn, and decent, respectable folk, so I say. Neither of them has called me a fool in front of the whole Council. Neither of them has told the Council it hasn't a full set of wits among them.”
“It seems my estimate was too high by half,” Nynaeve retorted. She strode away without a backward glance, leaving Bran's jaw working as he searched for a reply.
Egwene looked at Rand as if she were going to speak, then darted after the Wisdom instead. Rand knew there must be some way to stop her from leaving the Two Rivers, but the only way he could think of was not one he was prepared to take, even if she was willing. And she had as much as said she was not willing at all, which made him feel even worse.
“That young woman wants a husband,” Cenn Buie growled, bouncing on his toes. His face was purple, and getting darker. “She lacks proper respect. We're the Village Council, not boys raking her yard, and —”
The Mayor breathed heavily through his nose, and suddenly rounded on the old thatcher. “Be quiet, Cenn! Stop acting like a blackveiled Aiel!” The skinny man froze on his toes in astonishment. The Mayor never let his temper get the best of him. Bran glared. “Burn me, but we have better things to be about than this foolishness. Or do you intend to prove Nynaeve right?” With that he stumped back into the inn and slammed the door behind him.
The Council members glanced at Cenn, then moved off in their separate directions. All but Haral Luhhan, who accompanied the stonyvisaged thatcher, talking quietly. The blacksmith was the only one who could ever get Cenn to see reason.
Rand went to meet his father, and his