“There is a reason for it,” Moiraine said calmly. “A part of the Pattern, Lan.” The Warder's stony face showed nothing but he nodded slowly.
“But, Egwene,” Rand said, “the Trollocs will be chasing us. We won't be safe until we get to Tar Valon.”
“Don't try to frighten me off,” she said. “I am going.”
Rand knew that tone of voice. He had not heard it since she decided that climbing the tallest trees was for children, but he remembered it well. “If you think being chased by Trollocs will be fun,” he began, but Moiraine interrupted.
“We have no time for this. We must be as far away as possible by daybreak. If she is left behind, Rand, she could rouse the village before we have gone a mile, and that would surely warn the Myrddraal.”
“I would not do that,” Egwene protested.
“She can ride the gleeman's horse,” the Warder said. “I'll leave him enough to buy another.”
“That will not be possible,” came Thom Merrilin's resonant voice from the hayloft. Lan's sword left its sheath this time, and he did not put it back as he stared up at the gleeman.
Thom tossed down a blanketroll, then slung his cased flute and harp across his back and shouldered bulging saddlebags. “This village has no use for me, now, while on the other hand, have never performed in Tar Valon. And though I usually journey alone, after last night I have no objections at all to traveling in company. ”
The Warder gave Perrin a hard look, and Perrin shifted uncornfortably. “I didn't think of looking in the loft,” he muttered.
As the longlimbed gleeman scrambled down the ladder from the loft, Lan spoke, stiffly formal. “Is this part of the Pattern, too, Moiraine Sedai?”
“Everything is a part of the Pattern, my old friend,” Moiraine replied softly. “We cannot pick and choose. But we shall see.”
Thom put his feet on the stable floor and turned from the ladder, brushing straw from his patchcovered cloak. “In fact,” he said in more normal tones, “you might say that I insist on traveling in company. I have given many hours over many mugs of ale to thinking of how I might end my days. A Trolloc's cookpot was not one of the thoughts. ” He looked askance at the Warder's sword. “There's no need for that. I am not a cheese for slicing.”
“Master Merrilin,” Moiraine said, “we must go quickly, and almost certainly in great danger. The Trollocs are still out there, and we go by night. Are you sure that you want to travel with us?”
Thom eyed the lot of them with a quizzical smile. “If it is not too dangerous for the girl, it can't be too dangerous for me. Besides, what gleeman would not face a little danger to perform in Tar Valon?”
Moiraine nodded, and Lan scabbarded his sword. Rand suddenly wondered what would have happened if Thom had changed his mind, or if Moiraine had not nodded. The gleeman began saddling his horse as if similar thoughts had never crossed his mind, but Rand noticed that he eyed Lan's sword more than once.
“Now,” Moiraine said. “What horse for Egwene?”
“The peddler's horses are as bad as the Dhurrans,” the Warder replied sourly. “Strong, but slow plodders.”
“Bela,” Rand said, getting a look from Lan that made him wish he had kept silent. But he knew he could not dissuade Egwene; the only thing left was to help. “Bela may not be as fast as the others, but she's strong. I ride her sometimes. She can keep up.”
Lan looked into Bela's stall, muttering under his breath. “She might be a little better than the others,” he said finally. “I don't suppose there is any other choice.”
“Then she will have to do,” Moiraine said. “Rand, find a saddle for Bela. Quickly, now! We have tarried too long already.”
Rand hurriedly chose a saddle and blanket in the tack room, then fetched Bela from her stall. The mare looked back at him in sleepy surprise when he put the saddle on her back. When he rode her, it was barebacked; she was not used to a saddle. He made soothing noises while he tightened the girth strap, and she accepted the oddity with no more than a shake of her mane.
Taking Egwene's bundle from her, he tied it on behind the saddle while she mounted and adjusted her skirts. They were not divided for riding astride, so her wool stockings were bared to the knee. She wore the same soft leather shoes as all the other village girls. They were not at all suited for journeying to Watch Hill, much less Tar Valon.
“I still think you shouldn't come,” he said. “I wasn't making it up about the Trollocs. But I promise I will take care of you.”
“Perhaps I'll take care of you,” she replied lightly. At his exasperated look she smiled and bent down to smooth his hair. I know you'll look after me, Rand. We will look after each other. But now you had better look after getting on your horse."
All of the others were already mounted and waiting for him, he realized. The only horse left riderless was Cloud, a tall gray with a black mane and tail that belonged to Jon Thane, or had. He scrambled into the saddle, though not without difficulty as the gray tossed his head and pranced sideways as Rand put his foot in the stirrup, and his scabbard caught in his legs. It was not chance, that his friends had not chosen Cloud. Master Thane often raced the spirited gray against merchants' horses, and Rand had never known him to lose, but he had never known Cloud to give anyone an easy ride, either. Lan must have given a huge price to make the miller sell. As he settled in the saddle Cloud's dancing increased, as if the gray were eager to run. Rand gripped the reins firmly and tried to think that he would have no trouble. Perhaps if he convinced himself, he could convince the horse, too.
An owl hooted in the night outside, and the village people jumped before they realized what it was. They laughed nervously and exchanged shamefaced looks.
“Next thing, field mice will chase us up a tree,” Egwene said with an unsteady chuckle.
Lan shook his head. “Better if it had been wolves.”
“Wolves!” Perrin exclaimed, and the Warder favored him with a flat stare.
“Wolves don't like Trollocs, blacksmith, and Trollocs don't like wolves, or dogs, either. If I heard wolves I would be sure there were no Trollocs waiting out there for us.” He moved into the moonlit night, walking his tall black slowly.
Moiraine rode after him without a moment's hesitation, and Egwene kept hard to the Aes Sedai's side. Rand and the gleeman brought up the rear, following Mat and Perrin.
The back of the inn was dark and silent, and dappled moon shadows filled the stableyard. The soft thuds of the hooves faded quickly, swallowed by the night. In the darkness the Warder's cloak made him a shadow, too. Only the need to let him lead the way kept the others from clustering around him. Getting out of the village without being seen was going to be no easy task, Rand decided as he neared the gate. At least, without being seen by villagers. Many windows in the village emitted pale yellow light, and although those glows seemed very small in the night now, shapes moved frequently within them, the shapes of villagers watching to see what this night brought. No one wanted to be caught by surprise again.
In the deep shadows beside the inn, just on the point of leaving the stableyard, Lan abruptly halted, motioning sharply for silence.
Boots rattled on the Wagon Bridge, and here and there on the bridge moonlight glinted off metal. The boots clattered across the bridge, grated on gravel, and approached the inn. No sound at all came from those in the shadow. Rand suspected his friends, at least, were too frightened to make a noise. Like him.
The footsteps halted before the inn in the grayness just beyond the dim light from the commonroom windows. It was not until Jon Thane stepped forward, a spear propped on his stout shoulder, an old jerkin sewn all over with steel disks straining across his chest, that Rand saw them for what they were. A dozen men from the village and the surrounding farms, some in helmets or pieces of armor that had lain dustcovered in attics for generations, all with a spear or a woodaxe or a rusty bill.
The miller peered into a commonroom window, then turned with a curt, “It looks right here.” The others formed in two ragged ranks behind him, and the patrol marched into the night as if stepping to three different drums.
“Two Dha'vol Trollocs would have them all for breakfast,” Lan muttered when the sound of their boots had faded, “but they have eyes and ears.” He turned his stallion back. “Come.”
Slowly, quietly, the Warder took them back across the stableyard, down the bank through the willows and into the Winespring Water. So close to the Winespring itself the cold, swift water, gleaming as it swirled around the horses' legs, was deep enough to lap against the soles of the riders' boots.
Climbing out on the far bank, the line of horses wound its way under the Warder's deft direction, keeping away from any the village houses. From time to time Lan stopped, signing them all to be quiet, though no one else heard or saw anything. Each time he did, however, another patrol of villagers and farmers soon passed. Slowly they moved toward the north edge of the village.
Rand peered at the highpeaked houses in the dark, trying to impress them on his memory. A fine adventurer I am, he thought. He was not even out of the village yet, and already he was homesick. Bu