On the far side of the bridges, the mounds were already building for the Bel Tine fires, three careful stacks of logs almost as big as houses. They had to be on cleared dirt, of course, not on the Green, even sparse as it was. What of Festival did not take place around the fires would happen on the Green.
Near the Winespring a score of older women sang softly as they erected the Spring Pole. Shorn of its branches, the straight, slender trunk of a fir tree stood ten feet high even in the hole they had dug for it. A knot of girls too young to wear their hair braided sat crosslegged and watched enviously, occasionally singing snatches of the song the women sang.
Tam clucked at Bela as if to make her speed her pace, though she ignored it, and Rand studiously kept his eyes from what the women were doing. In the morning the men would pretend to be surprised to find the Pole, then at noon the unmarried women would dance the Pole, entwining it with long, colored ribbons while the unmarried men sang. No one knew when the custom began or why— it was another thing that was the way it had always been — but it was an excuse to sing and dance, and nobody in the Two Rivers needed much excuse for that.
The whole day of Bel Tine would be taken up with singing and dancing and feasting, with time out for footraces, and contests in almost everything. Prizes would be given not only in archery, but for the best with the sling, and the quarterstaff. There would be contests at solving riddles and puzzles, at the rope tug, and lifting and tossing weights, prizes for the best singer, the best dancer and the best fiddle player, for the quickest to shear a sheep, even the best at bowls, and at darts.
Bel Tine was supposed to come when spring had well and truly arrived, the first lambs born and the first crop up. Even with the cold hanging on, though, no one had any idea of putting it off. Everyone could use a little singing and dancing. And to top everything, if the rumors could be believed, a grand display of fireworks was planned for the Green — if the first peddler of the year appeared in time, of course. That had been causing considerable talk; it was ten years since the last such display, and that was still talked about.
The Winespring Inn stood at the east end of the Green, hard beside the Wagon Bridge. The first floor of the inn was river rock, though the foundation was of older stone some said came from the mountains. The whitewashed second story — where Brandelwyn al'Vere, the innkeeper and Mayor of Emond's Field for the past twenty years, lived in the back with his wife and daughters—jutted out over the lower floor all the way around. Red roof tile, the only such roof in the village, glittered in the weak sunlight, and smoke drifted from three of the inn's dozen tall chimneys.
At the south end of the inn, away from the stream, stretched the remains of a much larger stone foundation, once part of the inn — or so it was said. A huge oak grew in the middle of it now, with a bole thirty paces around and spreading branches as thick as a man. In the summer, Bran al'Vere set tables and benches under those branches, shady with leaves then, where people could enjoy a cup and a cooling breeze while they talked or perhaps set out a board for a game of stones.
“Here we are, lad.” Tam reached for Bela's harness, but she stopped in front of the inn before his hand touched leather. “Knows the way better than I do”, he chuckled.
As the last creak of the axle faded, Bran al'Vere appeared from the inn, seeming as always to step too lightly for a man of his girth, nearly double that of anyone else in the village. A smile split his round face, which was topped by a sparse fringe of gray hair. The innkeeper was in his shirtsleeves despite the chill, with a spotless white apron wrapped around him. A silver medallion in the form of a set of balance scales hung on his chest.
The medallion, along with the fullsize set of scales used to weigh the coins of the merchants who came down from Baerlon for wool or tabac, was the symbol of the Mayor's office. Bran only wore it for dealing with the merchants and for festivals, feastdays, and weddings. He had it on a day early now, but that night was Winternight, the night before Bel Tine, when everyone would visit back and forth almost the whole night long, exchanging small gifts, having a bite to eat and a touch to drink at every house. After the winter, Rand thought, he probably considers Winternight excuse enough not to wait until tomorrow.
“Tam,” the Mayor shouted as he hurried toward them. “The Light shine on me, it's good to see you at last. And you, Rand. How are you, my boy?”
“Fine, Master al'Vere,” Rand said. “And you, sir?” But Bran's attention was already back on Tam.
“I was almost beginning to think you wouldn't be bringing your brandy this year. You've never waited so late before.”
“I've no liking for leaving the farm these days, Bran,” Tam replied. “Not with the wolves the way they are. And the weather.”
Bran harrumphed. “I could wish somebody wanted to talk about something besides the weather. Everyone complains about it, and folk who should know better expect me to set it right. I've just spent twenty minutes explaining to Mistress al'Donel that I can do nothing about the storks. Though what she expected me to do ... ” He shook his head.
“An ill omen,” a scratchy voice announced, “no storks nesting on the rooftops at Bel Tine.” Cenn Buie, as gnarled and dark as an old root, marched up to Tam and Bran and leaned on his walking staff, near as tall as he was and just as gnarled. He tried to fix both men at once with a beady eye. “There's worse to come, you mark my words.”
“Have you become a soothsayer, then, interpreting omens?” Tam asked dryly. “Or do you listen to the wind, like a Wisdom? There's certainly enough of it. Some originating not far from here.”
“Mock if you will,” Cenn muttered, “but if it doesn't warm enough for crops to sprout soon, more than one root cellar will come up empty before there's a harvest. By next winter there may be nothing left alive in the Two Rivers but wolves and ravens. If it is next winter at all. Maybe it will still be this winter.”
“Now what is that supposed to mean?” Bran said sharply.
Cenn gave them a sour look. “I've not much good to say about Nynaeve al'Meara. You know that. For one thing, she's too young to — No matter. The Women's Circle seems to object to the Village Council even talking about their business, though they interfere in ours whenever they want to, which is most of the time, or so it seems to — ”
“Cenn,” Tam broke in, “is there a point to this?”
“This is the point, al'Thor. Ask the Wisdom when the winter will end, and she walks away. Maybe she doesn't want to tell us what she hears on the wind. Maybe what she hears is that the winter won't end. Maybe it's just going to go on being winter until the Wheel turns and the Age ends. There's your point.”
“Maybe sheep will fly,” Tam retorted, and Bran threw up his hands. “The Light protect me from fools. You sitting on the Village Council, Cenn, and now you're spreading that Coplin talk. Well, you listen to me. We have enough problems without ...”
A quick tug at Rand's sleeve and a voice pitched low, for his ear alone, distracted him from the older men's talk. “Come on, Rand, while they're arguing. Before they put you to work.”
Rand glanced down, and had to grin. Mat Cauthon crouched beside the cart so Tam and Bran and Cenn could not see him, his wiry body contorted like a stork trying to bend itself double.
Mat's brown eyes twinkled with mischief, as usual. “Dav and I caught a big old badger, all grouchy at being pulled out of his den. We're going to let it loose on the Green and watch the girls run. ”
Rand's smile broadened; it did not sound as much like fun to him as it would have a year or two back, but Mat never seemed to grow up. He took a quick look at his father — the men had their heads together still, all three talking at once — then lowered his own voice. “I promised to unload the cider. I can meet you later, though. ”
Mat rolled his eyes skyward. “Toting barrels! Burn me, I'd rather play stones with my baby sister. Well, I know of better things than a badger. We have strangers in the Two Rivers. Last evening — ”
For an instant Rand stopped breathing. “A man on horseback?” he asked intently. “A man in a black cloak, on a black horse? And his cloak doesn't move in the wind?”
Mat swallowed his grin, and his voice dropped to an even hoarser whisper. “You saw him, too? I thought I was the only one. Don't laugh, Rand, but he scared me.”
“I'm not laughing. He scared me, too. I could swear he hated me, that he wanted to kill me.” Rand shivered. Until that day he had never thought of anyone wanting to kill him, really wanting to kill him. That sort of thing just did not happen in the Two Rivers. A fistfight, maybe, or a wrestling match, but not killing.
“I don't know about hating, Rand, but he was scary enough anyway. All he did was sit on his horse looking at me, just outside the village, but I've never been so frightened in my life. Well, I looked away, just for a moment — it wasn't easy, mind you — then when I looked back he'd vanished. Blood and ashes! Three days, it's been, and I can hardly stop thinking about him. I keep looking over my shoulder.” Mat attempted a laugh that came out as a croak. “Funny how being scared takes you. You think strange things. I actually thought — just for a minute, mind — it might be the Dark One. ” He tried another laugh, but no sound