Rand shook his head. Trees bursting? And that was during an ordinary winter. What must this winter have been like? Surely like nothing he could imagine.
“Who says winter's past?” Mat said, his teeth chattering.
“Why this, a fine spring, sheepherder,” Lan said. “A fine spring to be alive. But if you want warm, well, it will be warm in the Blight. ”
Softly Mat muttered, “Blood and ashes. Blood and bloody ashes!” Rand barely heard him, but it sounded heartfelt.
They began to pass farms, but though it was the hour for midday meals to be cooking, no smoke rose from the high stone chimneys. The fields were empty of men and livestock both, though sometimes a plow or a wagon stood abandoned as if the owner meant to be back any minute.
At one farm close by the road a lone chicken scratched in the yard. One barn door swung freely with the wind; the other had broken off the bottom hinge and hung at an angle. The tall house, odd to Rand's Two Rivers eyes, with its sharppeaked roof of big wooden shingles running almost to the ground, was still and silent. No dog came out to bark at them. A scythe lay in the middle of the barnyard; buckets were overturned in a heap beside the well.
Moiraine frowned at the farmhouse as they rode by. She lifted Aldieb's reins, and the white mare quickened her pace.
The Emond's Fielders were clustered with Loial a little behind the Aes Sedai and the Warder.
Rand shook his head. He could not imagine anything growing there ever. But then he could not really imagine the Ways, either. Even now that he was past them, he could not.
“I don't think she expected this,” Nynaeve said quietly, with a gesture that took in all the empty farms they had seen.
“Where did they all go?” Egwene said. “Why? They can't have been gone very long.”
“What makes you say that?” Mat asked. “From the look of that barn door, they could have been gone all winter.” Nynaeve and Egwene both looked at him as if he were slowwitted.
“The curtains in the windows,” Egwene said patiently. “They look too light for winter curtains, even here. As cold as it is here, no woman would have had those up more than a week or two, maybe less.” The Wisdom nodded.
“Curtains.” Perrin chuckled. He immediately wiped the smile off his face when the two women raised their eyebrows at him. “Oh, I agree with you. There wasn't enough rust on that scythe for any more than a week in the open. You should have seen that, Mat. Even if you missed the curtains.”
Rand glanced sideways at Perrin, trying not to stare. His eyes were sharper than Perrin's — or had been, when they used to hunt rabbits together — but he had not been able to see that scytheblade well enough to make out any rust.
“I really don't care where they went,” Mat grumbled. “I just want to find someplace with a fire. Soon.”
“But why did they go?” Rand said under his breath. The Blight was not far off here. The Blight, where all the Fades and Trollocs were, those not down in Andor chasing them. The Blight, where they were going.
He raised his voice enough to be heard by those close to him. “Nynaeve, maybe you and Egwene don't have to go to the Eye with us.” The two women looked at him as if he were speaking gibberish, but with the Blight so close he had to make one last try. “Maybe it's enough for you to be close. Moiraine didn't say you have to go. Or you, Loial. You could stay at Fal Dara. Until we come back. Or you could start for Tar Valon. Maybe there'll be a merchant train, or I'll bet Moiraine would even hire a coach. We will meet in Tar Valon, when it's all over.”
“Ta'veren.” Loial's sigh was a rumble like thunder on the horizon. “You swirl lives around you, Rand al'Thor, you and your friends. Your fate chooses ours.”
The Ogier shrugged, and suddenly a broad grin split his face. “Besides, it will be something to meet the Green Man. Elder Haman always talks about his meeting with the Green Man, and so does my father, and most of the Elders.”
“So many?” Perrin said. “The stories say the Green Man is hard to find, and no one can find him twice.”
“Not twice, no,” Loial agreed. “But then, I have never met him, and neither have you. He doesn't seem to avoid Ogier quite the way he does you humans. He knows so much about trees. Even the Tree Songs.”
Rand said, “The point I was trying to make is — ”
The Wisdom cut him off. “She says Egwene and I are part of the Pattern, too. All woven in with you three. If she is to be believed, there's something about the way that piece of the Pattern is woven that might stop the Dark One. And I am afraid I do believe her; too much has happened not to. But if Egwene and I go away, what might we change about the Pattern?”
“I was only trying to — ”
Again Nynaeve interrupted, sharply. “I know what you were trying to do.” She looked at him until he shifted uneasily in his saddle, then her face softened. “I know what you were trying to do, Rand. I have little liking for any Aes Sedai, and this one least of all, I think. I have less for going into the Blight, but least of all is the liking I have for the Father of Lies. If you boys ... you men, can do what has to be done when you'd rather do almost anything else, why do you think I will do less? Or Egwene?” She did not appear to expect an answer. Gathering her reins, she frowned toward the Aes Sedai up ahead. “I wonder if we're going to reach this Fal Dara place soon, or does she mean us to spend the night out in this?”
As she trotted toward Moiraine, Mat said, “She called us men. It seems like only yesterday she was saying we shouldn't be off leading strings, and now she calls us men.”
“You still shouldn't be off your mother's apron strings,” Egwene said, but Rand did not think her heart was in it. She moved Bela close to his bay, and lowered her voice so none of the others could hear although Mat, at least, tried. “I only danced with Aram, Rand,” she said softly, not looking at him. “You wouldn't hold it against me, dancing with somebody I will never see again, would you?”
“No,” he told her. What had made her bring it up now? “Of course not.” But suddenly he remembered something Min had said in Baerlon, what seemed a hundred years ago. She's not for you, nor you for her; at least, not in the way you both want.
The town of Fal Dara was built on hills higher than the surrounding country. It was nowhere near as big as Caemlyn, but the wall around it was as high as Caemlyn's. For a full mile outside that wall in every direction the ground was clear of anything taller than grass, and that cut low. Nothing could come close without being seen from one of the many tall towers topped by wooden hoardings. Where the walls of Caemlyn had a beauty about them, the builders of Fal Dara seemed not to have cared if anyone found their wall beautiful. The gray stone was grimly implacable, proclaiming that it existed for one purpose alone: to hold. Pennants atop the hoardings whipped in the wind, making the stooping Black Hawk of Shienar seem to fly all along the walls.
Lan tossed back the hood of his cloak and, despite the cold, motioned for the others to do the same. Moiraine had already lowered hers. “It's the law in Shienar,” the Warder said. “In all the Borderlands. No one may hide his face inside a town's walls.”
“Are they all that goodlooking?” Mat laughed.
“A Halfman can't hide with his face exposed,” the Warder said in a flat voice.
Rand's grin slid off his face. Hastily Mat pushed back his hood.
The gates stood open, tall and covered with dark iron, but a dozen armored men stood guard in golden yellow surcoats bearing the Black Hawk. The hilts of long swords on their backs peeked over their shoulders, and broadsword or mace or axe hung at every waist. Their horses were tethered nearby, made grotesque by the steel bardings covering chests and necks and heads, with lances to stirrup, all ready to ride at an instant. The guards made no move to stop Lan and Moiraine and the others. Indeed, they waved and called out happily.
“Dai Shan!” one cried, shaking steelgauntleted fists over his head as they rode past. “Dai Shan!”
A number of others shouted, “Glory to the Builders!” and, “Kiserai ti Wansho!” Loial looked surprised, then a broad smile split his face and he waved to the guards.
One man ran alongside Lan's horse a little way, unhampered by the armor he wore. “Will the Golden Crane fly again, Dai Shan?”
“Peace, Ragan,” was all the Warder said, and the man fell away. He returned the guards' waves, but his face was suddenly even more grim.
As they rode through stonepaved streets crowded with people and wagons, Rand frowned worriedly. Fal Dara was bulging at the seams, but the people were neither the eager crowds of Caemlyn, enjoying the grandeur of the city even as they squabbled, nor the milling throngs of Baerlon. Packed cheek by jowl, these folk watched their party ride by with leaden eyes and faces blanked of emotion. Carts and wagons jammed every alleyway and half the streets, piled high with jumbled household furnishings, and carved chests packed so tight that clothes spilled. On top sat the children. Adults kept the younglings up where they could be seen and did not let them stray even to play. The children were even more silent than their elders, their eyes bigger, more haunting in their stares. The nooks and crannies between the wagons were filled with shaggy cattle and blackspotted pigs in makeshift pens. Crates of chickens and ducks and geese fitfully made up for the silence of the people. He knew now where