Hightower muttered half under his breath, growling for them to keep the horses still and stay to the center, out of the haulers' way. He shouted at his helpers, chivvying them as they readied the ferry to cross, but the men moved at the same reluctant speed whatever he said, and he was halfhearted about it, often cutting off in midshout to hold his torch high and peel into the fog. Finally he stopped shouting altogether and went to the bow, where he stood staring into the mist that covered the river. He did not move until one of the haulers touched his arm; then he jumped, glaring.
“What? Oh. You, is it? Ready? About time. Well, man, what are you waiting for?” He waved his arms heedless of the torch and the way the horses whickered and tried to move back. “Cast off! Give way! Move!” The man slouched off to comply, and Hightower peered once more into the fog ahead, rubbing his free hand uneasily on his coat front.
The ferry lurched as its moorings were loosed and the strong current caught it, then lurched again as the guideropes held it. The haulers, three to a side, grabbed hold of the ropes at the front of the ferry and laboriously began walking toward the back, muttering uneasily as they edged out onto the gray cloaked river.
The landing disappeared as mist surrounded them, tenuous streamers drifting across the ferry between the flickering torches. The barge rocked slowly in the current. Nothing except the steady tread of the haulers, forward to take hold of the ropes and back down again pulling, gave a hint of any other movement. No one spoke. The villagers kept as close to the center of the ferry as they could. They had heard the Taren was far wider than the streams they were used to; the fog made it infinitely vaster in their minds.
After a time Rand moved closer to Lan. Rivers a man could not wade or swim or even see across were nervousmaking to someone who had never seen anything broader or deeper than a Waterwood pond. “Would they really have tried to rob us?” he asked quietly. “He acted more as if he were afraid we would rob him.”
The Warder eyed the ferryman and his helpers — none appeared to be listening — before answering just as softly. “With the fog to hide them ... well, when what they do is hidden, men sometimes deal with strangers in ways they wouldn't if there were other eyes to see. And the quickest to harm a stranger are the soonest to think a stranger will harm them. This fellow ... I believe he might sell his mother to Trollocs for stew meat if the price was right. I'm a little surprised you ask. I heard the way people in Emond's Field speak of those from Taren Ferry.”
“Yes, but ... Well, everyone says they ... But I never thought they would. Actually ...” Rand decided he had better stop thinking that he knew anything at all of what people were like beyond his own village. “He might tell the Fade we crossed on the ferry,” he said at last. “Maybe he'll bring the Trollocs over after us.”
Lan chuckled dryly. “Robbing a stranger is one thing, dealing with a Halfman something else again. Can you really see him ferrying Trollocs over, especially in this fog, no matter how much gold was offered? Or even talking to a Myrddraal, if he had any choice? Just the thought of it would keep him running for a month. I don't think we have to worry very much about Darkfriends in Taren Ferry. Not here. We are safe for a time, at least. From this lot, anyway. Watch yourself.”
Hightower had turned from peering into the fog ahead. Pointed face pushed forward and torch held high, he stared at Lan and Rand as if seeing them clearly for the first time. Deckplanks creaked under the haulers' feet and the occasional stamp of a hoof. Abruptly the ferryman twitched as he realized they were watching him watching them. With a leap he spun back to looking for the far bank, or whatever it was he sought in the fog.
“Say no more,” Lan said, so softly Rand almost could not understand. “These are bad days to speak of Trollocs, or Darkfriends, or the Father of Lies, with strange ears to hear. Such talk can bring worse than the Dragon's Fang scrawled on your door.”
Rand felt no desire to go on with his questions. Gloom settled on him even more than it had before. Darkfriends! As if Fades and Trollocs and Draghkar were not enough to worry about. At least you could tell a Trolloc at sight.
Abruptly pilings loomed shadowy in the mist before them. The ferry thudded against the far bank, and then the haulers were hurrying to lash the craft fast and let down the ramp at that end with a thump, while Mat and Perrin announced loudly that the Taren was not half as wide as they had heard. Lan led his stallion down the ramp, followed by Moiraine and the others. As Rand, the last, took Cloud down behind Bela, Master Hightower called out angrily.
“Here, now! Here! Where's my gold?”
“It shall be paid. ” Moiraine's voice came from somewhere in the mist. Rand's boots clumped from the ramp to a wooden landing. “And a silver mark for each of your men,” the Aes Sedai added, “for the quick crossing. ”
The ferryman hesitated, face pushed forward as if he smelled danger, but at the mention of silver the haulers roused themselves. Some paused to seize a torch, but they all thumped down the ramp before Hightower could open his mouth. With a sullen grimace, the ferryman followed his crew.
Cloud's hooves clumped hollowly in the fog as Rand made his way carefully along the landing. The gray mist was as thick here as over the river. At the foot of the landing, the Warder was handing out coins, surrounded by the torches of Hightower and his fellows. Everyone else except Moiraine waited just beyond in an anxious cluster. The Aes Sedai stood looking at the river, though what she could see was beyond Rand. With a shiver he hitched up his cloak, sodden as it was. He was really out of the Two Rivers, now, and it seemed much farther away than the width of a river.
“There,” Lan said, handing a last coin to Hightower. “As agreed. ” He did not put up his purse, and the ferretyfaced man eyed it greedily.
With a loud creak, the landing shivered. Hightower jerked upright, head swivelling back toward the mistcloaked ferry. The torches remaining on board were a pair of dim, fuzzy points of light. The landing groaned, and with a thunderous crack of snapping wood, the twin glows lurched, then began to revolve. Egwene cried out wordlessly, and Thom cursed.
“It's loose!” Hightower screamed. Grabbing his haulers, he pushed them toward the end of the landing. “The ferry's loose, you fools! Get it! Get it!”
The haulers stumbled a few steps under Hightower's shoves, then stopped. The faint lights on the ferry spun faster, then faster still. The fog above them swirled, sucked into a spiral. The landing trembled. The cracking and splintering of wood filled the air as the ferry began breaking apart.
“Whirlpool,” one of the haulers said, his voice filled with awe.
“No whirlpools on the Taren.” Hightower sounded empty. “Never been a whirlpool...”
“An unfortunate occurrence. ” Moiraine's voice was hollow in the fog that made her a shadow as she turned from the river.
“Unfortunate,” Lan agreed in a flat tone. “It seems you'll be carrying no one else across the river for a time. An ill thing that you lost your craft in our service.” He delved again into his purse, ready in his hand. “This should repay you.”
For a moment Hightower stared at the gold, glinting in Lan's hand in the torchlight, then his shoulders hunched and his eyes darted to the others he had carried across. Made indistinct by the fog, the Emond's Fielders stood silently. With a frightened, inarticulate cry, the ferryman snatched the coins from Lan, whirled, and ran into the mist. His haulers were only half a step behind him, their torches quickly swallowed as they vanished upriver.
“There is nothing further to hold us here,” the Aes Sedai said as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Leading her white mare, she started away from the landing, up the bank.
Rand stood staring at the hidden river. It could have been happenstance. No whirlpools, he said, but it ... Abruptly he realized everyone else had gone. Hurriedly he scrambled up the gently sloping bank.
In the space of three paces the heavy mist faded away to nothing. He stopped dead and stared back. Along a line running down the shore thick gray hung on one side, on the other shone a clear night sky, still dark though the sharpness of the moon hinted at dawn not far off.
The Warder and the Aes Sedai stood conferring beside their horses a short distance beyond the border of the fog. The others huddled a little apart; even in the moonlit darkness their nervousness was palpable. All eyes were on Lan and Moiraine, and all but Egwene were leaning back as if torn between losing the pair and getting too close. Rand trotted the last few spans to Egwene's side, leading Cloud, and she grinned at him. He did not think the shine in her eyes was all from moonlight.
“It follows the river as if drawn with a pen,” Moiraine was saying in satisfied tones. “There are not ten women in Tar Valon who could do that unaided. Not to mention from the back of a galloping horse.”
“I don't mean to complain, Moiraine Sedai,” Thom said, sounding oddly diffident for him, “but would it not have been better to cover us a little further? Say to Baerlon? If that Draghkar looks on this side of the river, we'll lose everyth