“I've never seen Master al'Vere so mad,” was the first thing Rand said, getting him a disgusted look from Mat.
“The Mayor and the Wisdom seldom agree,” Tam said, “and they agreed less than usual today. That's all. It's the same in every village.”
“What about the false Dragon?” Mat asked, and Perrin added eager murmurs. “What about the Aes Sedai?”
Tam shook his head slowly. “Master Fain knew little more than he had already told. At least, little of interest to us. Battles won or lost. Cities taken and retaken. All in Ghealdan, thank the Light. It hasn't spread, or had not the last Master Fain knew.”
“Battles interest me,” Mat said, and Perrin added, “What did he say about them?”“Battles don't interest me, Matrim,” Tam said. “But I'm sure he will be glad to tell you all about them later. What does interest me is that we shouldn't have to worry about them here, as far as the Council can tell. We can see no reason for Aes Sedai to come here on their way south. And as for the return journey, they aren't likely to want to cross the Forest of Shadows and swim the White River.”
Rand and the others chuckled at the idea. There were three reasons why no one came into the Two Rivers except from the north, by way of Taren Ferry. The Mountains of Mist, in the west, were the first, of course, and the Mire blocked the east just as effectively. To the south was the White River, which got its name from the way rocks and boulders churned its swift waters to froth. And beyond the White lay the Forest of Shadows. Few Two Rivers folk had ever crossed the White, and fewer still returned if they did. It was generally agreed, though, that the Forest of Shadows stretched south for a hundred miles or more without a road or a village, but with plenty of wolves and bears.
“So that's an end to it for us,” Mat said. He sounded at least a little
“Not quite,” Tam said. “Day after tomorrow we will send men to Deven Ride and Watch Hill, and Taren Ferry, too, to arrange for a watch to be kept. Riders along the White and the Taren, both, and patrols between. It should be done today, but only the Mayor agrees with me. The rest can't see asking anyone to spend Bel Tine off riding across the Two Rivers.”
“But I thought you said we didn't have to worry,” Perrin said, and Tam shook his head.
“I said should not, boy, not did not. I've seen men die because they were sure that what should not happen, would not. Besides, the fighting will stir up all sorts of people. Most will just be trying to find safety, but others will be looking for a way to profit from the confusion. We'll offer any of the first a helping hand, but we must be ready to send the second type on their way.”
Abruptly Mat spoke up. “Can we be part of it? I want to, anyway. You know I can ride as well as anyone in the village.”
“You want a few weeks of cold, boredom, and sleeping rough?” Tam chuckled. “Likely that's all there will be to it. I hope that's all. We're well out of the way even for refugees. But you can speak to Master al'Vere if your mind is made up. Rand, it's time for us to be getting back to the farm.”
Rand blinked in surprise. “I thought we were staying for Winternight.”
“Things need seeing to at the farm, and I need you with me.”
“Even so, we don't have to leave for hours yet. And I want to volunteer for the patrols, too.”
“We are going now,” his father replied in a tone that brooked no argument. In a softer voice he added, “We'll be back tomorrow in plenty of time for you to speak to the Mayor. And plenty of time for Festival, too. Five minutes, now, then meet me in the stable.”
“Are you going to join Rand and me on the watch?” Mat asked Perrin as Tam left. “I'll bet there's nothing like this ever happened in the Two Rivers before. Why, if we get up to the Taren, we might even see soldiers, or who knows what. Even Tinkers.”
“I expect I will,” 'Perrin said slowly, “if Master Luhhan doesn't need me, that is.”
“The war is in Ghealdan,” Rand snapped. With an effort he lowered his voice. “The war is in Ghealdan, and the Aes Sedai are the Light knows where, but none of it is here. The man in the black cloak is, or have you forgotten him already?” The others exchanged embarrassed looks.
“Sorry, Rand,” Mat muttered. “But a chance to do something besides milk my da's cows doesn't come along very often.” He straightened under their startled stares. “Well, I do milk them, and every day, too.”
“The black rider,” Rand reminded them. “What if he hurts somebody?”
“Maybe he's a refugee from the war,” Perrin said doubtfully.
“Whatever he is,” Mat said, “the watch will find him.”
“Maybe,” Rand said, “but he seems to disappear when he wants to. It might be better if they knew to look for him.”
“We'll tell Master al'Vere when we volunteer for the patrols,” Mat said, “he'll tell the Council, and they'll tell the watch.”
“The Council!” Perrin said incredulously. “We'd be lucky if the Mayor didn't laugh out loud. Master Luhhan and Rand's father already think the two of us are jumping at shadows.”
Rand sighed. “If we're going to do it, we might as well do it now. He won't laugh any louder today than he will tomorrow.”
“Maybe,” Perrin said with a sidelong glance at Mat, “we should try finding some others who've seen him. We'll see just about everybody in the village tonight.” Mat's scowl deepened, but he still did not say anything. All of them understood that Perrin meant they should find witnesses who were more reliable than Mat. “He won't laugh any louder tomorrow,” Perrin added when Rand hesitated. “And I'd just as soon have somebody else with us when we go to him. Half the village would suit me fine.”
Rand nodded slowly. He could already hear Master al'Vere laughing. More witnesses certainly could not hurt. And if three of them had seen the fellow, others had to have, too. They must have. “Tomorrow, then. You two find whoever you can tonight, and tomorrow we go to the Mayor. After that ...” They looked at him silently, no one raising the question of what happened if they could not find anyone else who had seen the blackcloaked man. The question was clear in their eyes, though, and he had no answer. He sighed heavily. “I'd better go, now. My father will be wondering if I fell into a hole.”
Followed by their goodbyes, he trotted around to the stable yard where the highwheeled cart stood propped on its shafts.
The stable was a long, narrow building, topped by a high peaked, thatched roof. Stalls, their floors covered with straw, filled both sides of the dim interior, lit only by the open double doors at either end. The peddler's team munched their oats in eight stalls, and Master al'Vere's massive Dhurrans, the team he hired out when farmers had hauling beyond the abilities of their own horses, filled six more, but only three others were occupied. Rand thought he could match up horse and rider with no trouble. The tall, deepchested black stallion that swung up his head fiercely had to be Lan's. The sleek white mare with an arched neck, her quick steps as graceful as a girl dancing, even in the stall, could only belong to Moiraine. And the third unfamiliar horse, a rangy, slabsided gelding of a dusty brown, fit Thom Merrilin perfectly.
Tam stood in the rear of the stable, holding Bela by a lead rope and speaking quietly to Hu and Tad. Before Rand had taken two steps into the stable his father nodded to the stablemen and brought Bela out, wordlessly gathering up Rand as he went.
They harnessed the shaggy mare in silence. Tam appeared so deep in thought that Rand held his tongue. He did not really look forward to trying to convince his father about the blackcloaked rider, much less the Mayor. Tomorrow would have to be time enough, when Mat and the rest had found others who had seen the man. If they found others.
As the cart lurched into motion, Rand took his bow and quiver from the back, awkwardly belting the quiver at his waist as he half trotted alongside. When they reached the last row of houses in the village, he nocked an arrow, carrying it half raised and partly drawn. There was nothing to see except mostly leafless trees, but his shoulders tightened. The black rider could be on them before either of them knew it. There might not be time to draw the bow if he was not already halfway to it.
He knew he could not keep up the tension on the bowstring for long. He had made the bow himself, and Tam was one of the few others in the district who could even draw it all the way to the cheek. He cast around for something to take his mind off thinking about the dark rider. Surrounded by the forest, their cloaks flapping in the wind, it was not easy.
“Father,” he said finally, “I don't understand why the Council had to question Padan Fain.” With an effort he took his eyes off the woods and looked across Bela at Tam. “It seems to me, the decision you reached could have been made right on the spot. The Mayor frightened everybody half out of their wits, talking about Aes Sedai and the false Dragon here