A lone dog, unseen in the cold mist, barked at them furiously, then ran away. Here and there a light appeared in a window as some earlyriser stirred. Other than the dog, no sound save the muted clops of their horses' hooves disturbed the last hour of the night.
Rand had met few people from Taren Ferry. He tried to recall what little he knew about them. They seldom ventured down into what they called “the lower villages,” with their noses up as if they smelled something bad. The few he had met bore strange names, like Hilltop and Stoneboat. One and all, Taren Ferry folk had a reputation for slyness and trickery. If you shook hands with a Taren Ferry man, people said, you counted your fingers afterwards.
Lan and Moiraine stopped before a tall, dark house that looked exactly like any other in the village. Fog swirled around the Warder like smoke as he leaped from his saddle and mounted the stairs that rose to the front door, as high above the street as their heads. At the top of the stairs Lan hammered with his fist on the door.
“I thought he wanted quiet,” Mat muttered.
Lan's pounding went on. A light appeared in the window of the next house, and someone shouted angrily, but the Warder kept on with his drumming.
Abruptly the door was flung back by a man in a nightshirt that flapped about his bare ankles. An oil lamp in one hand illumined a narrow face with pointed features. He opened his mouth angrily, then let it stay open as his head swiveled to take in the fog, eyes bulging. “What's this?” he said. “What's this?” Chill gray tendrils curled into the doorway, and he hurriedly stepped back away from them.
“Master Hightower,” Lan said. “Just the man I need. We want to cross over on your ferry.”
“He never even saw a high tower,” Mat snickered. Rand made shushing motions at his friend. The sharpfaced fellow raised his lamp higher and peered down at them suspiciously.
After a minute Master Hightower said crossly, “The ferry goes over in daylight. Not in the night. Not ever. And not in this fog, neither. Come back when the sun's up and the fog's gone.”
He started to turn away; but Lan caught his wrist. The ferryman opened his mouth angrily. Gold glinted in the lamplight as the Warder counted out coins one by one into the other's palm. Hightower licked his lips as the coins clinked, and by inches his head moved closer to his hand, as if he could not believe what he was seeing.
“And as much again,” Lan said, “when we are safely on the other side. But we leave now.”
“Now?” Chewing his lower lip, the ferrety man shifted his feet and peered out at the mistladen night, then nodded abruptly. “Now it is. Well, let loose my wrist. I have to rouse my haulers. You don't think I pull the ferry across myself, do you?”
“I will wait at the ferry,” Lan said flatly. “For a little while.” He released his hold on the ferryman.
Master Hightower jerked the handful of coins to his chest and, nodding agreement, hastily shoved the door closed with his hip.
Across the Taren
Lan came down the stairs, telling the company to dismount and lead their horses after him through the fog. Again they had to trust that the Warder knew where he was going. The fog swirled around Rand's knees, hiding his feet, obscuring everything more than a yard away. The fog was not as heavy as it had been outside the town, but he could barely make out his companions.
Still no human stirred in the night except for them. A few more windows than before showed a light, but the thick mist turned most of them to dim patches, and as often as not that hazy glow, hanging in the gray, was all that was visible. Other houses, revealing a little more, seemed to float on a sea of cloud or to thrust abruptly out of the mist while their neighbors remained hidden, so that they could have stood alone for miles around.
Rand moved stiffly from the ache of the long ride, wondering if there was any way he could walk the rest of the way to Tar Valon. Not that walking was much better than riding at that moment, of course, but even so his feet were almost the only part of him that was not sore. At least he was used to walking.
Only once did anyone speak loudly enough for Rand to hear clearly. “You must handle it,” Moiraine said in answer to something unheard from Lan. “He will remember too much as it is, and no help for it. If I stand out in his thoughts...”
Rand grumpily shifted his nowsodden cloak on his shoulders keeping close with the others. Mat and Perrin grumbled to themselves, muttering under their breaths, with bittenoff exclamations whenever one stubbed a toe on something unseen. Thom Merrilin grumbled, too, words like “hot meal” or “fire” and “mulled wine” reaching Rand, but neither the Warder nor the Aes Sedai took notice. Egwene marched along without a word, her back straight and her head high. It was somewhat painfully hesitant march, to be sure, for she was unused to riding as the rest.
She was getting her adventure, he thought glumly, and long as it lasted he doubted if she would notice little things like fog or damp or cold. There must be a difference in what you saw, it seemed to him, depending on whether you sought adventure or had it forced on you. The stories could no doubt make galloping through a cold fog, with a Draghkar and the Light alone knew what else chasing you, sound thrilling. Egwene might be feeling a thrill; he only felt cold and damp and glad to have a village around him again, even if it was Taren Ferry.
Abruptly he walked into something large and warm in the murk: Lan's stallion. The Warder and Moiraine had stopped and the rest of the party did the same, patting their mounts much to comfort themselves as the animals. The fog was a little thinner here, enough for them to see one another more clearly than they had in a long while, but not enough to make out much more. Their feet were still hidden by low billows like gray floodwater. The houses seemed to have all been swallowed.
Cautiously Rand led Cloud forward a little way and was surprised to hear his boots scrape on wooden planks. The ferry landing. He backed up carefully, making the gray back as well. He had heard that the Taren Ferry landing was like a bridge that led nowhere except to the ferryboat. The Taren was supposed to be wide and deep, with treacherous currents that could pull under the strongest swimmer. Much wider than Winespring Water, he supposed. With the fog added in... It was a relief when he felt dirt under his feet again.
A fierce “Hsst!” from Lan, as sharp as the fog. The Warder gestured at them as he dashed to Perrin's side and threw back the stocky youth's cloak, exposing the great axe. Obediently, but still not understanding, Rand tossed his own cloak over his shoulder to show his sword. As Lan moved swiftly back to his horse, bobbing lights appeared in the mist, and muffled footsteps approached.
Six stolidfaced men in rough clothes followed Master Hightower. The torches they carried burned away a patch of fog around them. When they stopped, all of the party from Emond's Field could be plainly seen, the lot of them surrounded by a gray wall that seemed thicker for the torchlight reflected from it. The ferryman examined them, his narrow head tilted, nose twitching like a weasel sniffing the breeze for a trap.
Lan leaned against his saddle with apparent casualness, but one hand rested ostentatiously on the long hilt of his sword. There was an air about him of a metal spring, compressed, waiting.
Rand hurriedly copied the Warder's pose — at least insofar as putting his hand on his sword. He did not think he could achieve that deadlyseeming slouch. They'd probably laugh if I tried.
Perrin eased his axe in its leather loop and planted his feet deliberately. Mat put a hand to his quiver; though Rand was not sure what condition his bowstring was in after being out in all this damp. Thom Merrilin stepped forward grandly and held up one empty hand, turning it slowly. Suddenly he gestured with a flourish, and a dagger twirled between his fingers. The hilt slapped into his palm, and, abruptly nonchalant, he began trimming his fingernails.
A low, delighted laugh floated from Moiraine. Egwene clapped as if watching a performance at Festival, then stopped and looked abashed, though her mouth twitched with a smile just the same.
Hightower seemed far from amused. He stared at Thom, then cleared his throat loudly. “There was mention made of more gold for the crossing.” He looked around at them again, a sullen, sly look. “What you gave me before is in a safe place now, hear? It's none of it where you can get at it.”
“The rest of the gold,” Lan told him, “goes into your hand when we are on the other side.” The leather purse hanging at his waist clinked as he gave it a little shake.
For a moment the ferryman's eyes darted, but at last he nodded. “Let's be about it, then,” he muttered, and stalked out onto the landing followed by his six helpers. The fog burned away around them as they moved; gray tendrils closed in behind, quickly filling where they had been. Rand hurried to keep up.
The ferry itself was a wooden barge with high sides, boarded by a ramp that could be raised to block off the end. Ropes as thick as a man's wrist ran along each side of it, ropes fastened to massive posts at the end of the landing and disappearing into the night over the river. The ferryman's helpers stuck their torches in iron brackets on the ferry's sides, waited while everyone led their horses aboard, then pulled up the ramp. The deck creaked beneath hooves and shuffling feet, and the ferr