Rand took a deep breath. As much to remind himself as for any other reason, he said by rote, “The Dark One and all of the Forsaken are bound in Shayol Ghul, beyond the Great Blight, bound by the Creator at the moment of Creation, bound until the end of time. The hand of the Creator shelters the world, and the Light shines on us all.” He drew another breath and went on. “Besides, if he was free, what would the Shepherd of the Night be doing in the Two Rivers watching farm boys?”
“I don't know. But I do know that rider was ... evil. Don't laugh. I'll take oath on it. Maybe it was the Dragon.”
“You're just full of cheerful thoughts, aren't you?” Rand muttered. “You sound worse than Cenn. ”
“My mother always said the Forsaken would come for me if I didn't mend my ways. If I ever saw anybody who looked like Ishamael, or Aginor, it was him. ”
“Everybody's mother scared them with the Forsaken,” Rand said dryly, “but most grow out of it. Why not the Shadowman, while you're about it?”
Mat glared at him. “I haven't been so scared since ... No, I've never been that scared, and I don't mind admitting it.”
“Me, either. My father thinks I was jumping at shadows under the trees.”
Mat nodded glumly and leaned back against the cart wheel. “So does my da. I told Dav, and Elam Dowtry. They've been watching like hawks ever since, but they haven't seen anything. Now Elam thinks I was trying to trick him. Dav thinks he's down from Taren Ferry — a sheepstealer, or a chickenthief. A chickenthief!” He lapsed into affronted silence.
“It's probably all foolishness anyway,” Rand said finally. “Maybe he is just a sheepstealer.” He tried to picture it, but it was like picturing a wolf taking the cat's place in front of a mouse hole.
“Well, I didn't like the way he looked at me. And neither did you, not if how you jumped at me is any guide. We ought to tell someone.”
“We already have, Mat, both of us, and we weren't believed. Can you imagine trying to convince Master al'Vere about this fellow, without him seeing him? He'd send us off to Nynaeve to see if we were sick.”
“There are two of us, now. Nobody could believe we both imagined it.”
Rand rubbed the top of his head briskly, wondering what to say. Mat was something of a byword around the village. Few people had escaped his pranks. Now his name came up whenever a washline dropped the laundry in the dirt or a loose saddle girth deposited a farmer in the road. Mat did not even have to be anywhere around. His support might be worse than none.
After a moment Rand said, “Your father would believe you put me up to it, and mine ... ” He looked over the cart to where Tam and Bran and Cenn had been talking, and found himself staring his father in the eyes. The Mayor was still lecturing Cenn, who took it now in sullen silence.
“Good morning, Matrim,” Tam said brightly, hefting one of the brandy casks up onto the side of the cart. “I see you've come to help Rand unload the cider. Good lad.”
Mat leaped to his feet at the first word and began backing away. “Good morning to you, Master al'Thor. And to you, Master al'Vere. Master Buie. May the Light shine on you. My da sent me to — ”
“No doubt he did,” Tam said. “And no doubt, since you are a lad who does his chores right off, you've finished the task already. Well, the quicker you lads get the cider into Master al'Vere's cellar, the quicker you can see the gleeman. ”
“Gleeman!” Mat exclaimed, stopping dead in his footsteps, at the same instant that Rand asked, “When will he get here?”
Rand could remember only two gleemen coming into the Two Rivers in his whole life, and for one of those he had been young enough to sit on Tam's shoulders to watch. To have one there actually during Bel Tine, with his harp and his flute and his stories and all ... Emond's Field would still be talking about this Festival ten years off, even if there were not any fireworks.
“Foolishness,” Cenn grumbled, but fell silent at a look from Bran that had all the weight of the Mayor's office in it.
Tam leaned against the side of the cart, using the brandy cask as a prop for his arm. “Yes, a gleeman, and already here. According to Master al'Vere, he's in a room in the inn right now. ”
“Arrived in the dead of night, he did.” The innkeeper shook his head in disapproval. “Pounded on the front door till he woke the whole family. If not for Festival, I'd have told him to stable his own horse and sleep in the stall with it, gleeman or not. Imagine coming in the dark like that.”
Rand stared wonderingly. No one traveled beyond the village by night, not these days, certainly not alone. The thatcher grumbled under his breath again, too low this time for Rand to understand more than a word or two. “Madman” and “unnatural.”
“He doesn't wear a black cloak, does he?” Mat asked suddenly.
Bran's belly shook with his chuckle. “Black! His cloak is like every gleeman's cloak I've ever seen. More patches than cloak, and more colors than you can think of. ”
Rand startled himself by laughing out loud, a laugh of pure relief. The menacing blackclad rider as a gleeman was a ridiculous notion, but... He clapped a hand over his mouth in embarrassment.
“You see, Tam,” Bran said. “There's been little enough laughter in this village since winter came. Now even the gleeman's cloak brings a laugh. That alone is worth the expense of bringing him down from Baerlon. ”
“Say what you will,” Cenn spoke up suddenly. “I still say it's a foolish waste of money. And those fireworks you all insisted on sending off for.”
“So there are fireworks,” Mat said, but Cenn went right on.
“They should have been here a month ago with the first peddler of the year, but there hasn't been a peddler, has there? If he doesn't come by tomorrow, what are we going to do with them? Hold another Festival just to set them off? That's if he even brings them, of course. ”
“Cenn”—Tam sighed—“You've as much trust as a Taren Ferry man.”
“Where is he, then? Tell me that, al'Thor.”
“Why didn't you tell us?” Mat demanded in an aggrieved voice. “The whole village would have had as much fun with the waiting as with the gleeman. Or almost, anyway. You can see how everybody's been over just a rumor of fireworks.”
“I can see,” Bran replied with a sidelong look at the thatcher. “And if I knew for sure how that rumor started ... if I thought, for instance, that somebody had been complaining about how much things cost where people could hear him when the things are supposed to be secret ... ”
Cenn cleared his throat. “My bones are too old for this wind. If you don't mind, I'll just see if Mistress al'Vere won't fix me some mulled wine to take the chill off. Mayor. Al'Thor. ” He was headed for the inn before he finished, and as the door swung shut behind him, Bran sighed.
“Sometimes I think Nynaeve is right about ... Well, that's not important now. You young fellows think for a minute. Everyone's excited about the fireworks, true, and that's only at a rumor. Think how they'll be if the peddler doesn't get here in time, after all their anticipating. And with the weather the way it is, who knows when he will come. They'd be fifty times as excited about a gleeman.”
“And feel fifty times as bad if he hadn't come,” Rand said slowly. “Even Bel Tine might not do much for people's spirits after that.”
“You have a head on your shoulders when you choose to use it,” Bran said. “He'll follow you on the Village Council one day, Tam. Mark my words. He couldn't do much worse right now than someone I could name.”
“None of this is unloading the cart,” Tam said briskly, handing the first cask of brandy to the Mayor. “I want a warm fire, my pipe, and a mug of your good ale.” He hoisted the second brandy cask onto his shoulder. “I'm sure Rand will thank you for your help, Matrim. Remember, the sooner the cider is in the cellar... ”
As Tam and Bran disappeared into the inn, Rand looked at his friend. “You don't have to help. Dav won't keep that badger long.”
“Oh, why not?” Mat said resignedly. “Like your da said, the quicker it's in the cellar ...” Picking up one of the casks of cider in both arms, he hurried toward the inn in a half trot. “Maybe Egwene is around. Watching you stare at her like a poleaxed ox will be as good as a badger any day.”
Rand paused in the act of putting his bow and quiver in the back of the cart. He really had managed to put Egwene out of his mind. That was unusual in itself. But she would likely be around the inn somewhere. There was not much chance he could avoid her. Of course, it had been weeks since he saw her last.
“Well?” Mat called from the front of the inn. “I didn't say I would do it by myself. You aren't on the Village Council yet.”
With a start, Rand took up a cask and followed. Perhaps she would not be there after all. Oddly, that possibility did not