The three young men from Emond's Field began clapping their hands with the first note of “The Wind That Shakes the Willow,” and they were not the only ones. It was a favorite in the Two Rivers, and in Baerlon, too, it seemed. Here and there voices even took up the words, not so offkey as for anyone to hush them.
"My love is gone, carried away
by the wind that shakes the willow,
and all the land is beaten hard
by the wind that shakes the willow.
But I will hold her close to me
in heart and dearest memory,
and with her strength to steel my soul,
her love to warm my heartstrings,
I will stand where we once sang,
though cold wind shakes the willow."
The second song was not so sad. In fact, “Only One Bucket of Water” seemed even more merry than usual by comparison, which might have been the gleeman's intent. People rushed to clear tables from the floor to make room for dancing, and began kicking up their heels until the walls shook from the stomping and whirling. The first dance ended with laughing dancers leaving the floor holding their sides, and new people taking their places.
Thom played the opening notes of “Wild Geese on the Wing,” then paused for people to take their places for the reel.
“I think I'll try a few steps,” Rand said, getting to his feet. Perrin popped up right behind him. Mat was the last to move, and so found himself staying behind to guard the cloaks, along with Rand's sword and Perrin's axe.
“Remember I want a turn, too,” Mat called after them.
The dancers formed two long lines facing each other, men in one, women in the other. First the drum and then the dulcimer took up the beat, and all the dancers began bending their knees in time. The girl across from Rand, her dark hair in braids that made him think of home, gave him a shy smile, and then a wink that was not shy at all. Thom's flute leaped into the tune, and Rand moved forward to meet the darkhaired girl; she threw back her head and laughed as he spun her around and passed her on to the next man in line.
Everyone in the room was laughing, he thought as he danced around his next partner, one of the serving maids with her apron flapping wildly. The only unsmiling face he saw was on a man huddled by one of the fireplaces, and that fellow had a scar that crossed his whole face from one temple to the opposite jaw, giving his nose a slant and drawing the corner of his mouth down. The man met his gaze and grimaced, and Rand looked away in embarrassment. Maybe with that scar the fellow could not smile.
He caught his next partner as she spun, and whirled her in a circle before passing her on. Three more women danced with him as the music gained speed, then he was back with the first dark haired girl for a fast promenade that changed the lines about completely. She was still laughing, and she gave him another wink.
The scarfaced man was scowling at him. His step faltered and his cheeks grew hot. He had not meant to embarrass the fellow; he really did not think he had stared. He turned to meet his next partner and forgot all about the man. The next woman to dance into his arms was Nynaeve.
He stumbled through the steps, almost tripping over his own feet, nearly stepping on hers. She danced gracefully enough to make up for his clumsiness, smiling the while.
“I thought you were a better dancer,” she laughed as they changed partners.
He had only a moment to gather himself before they changed again, and he found himself dancing with Moiraine. If he had thought he was stumblefooted with the Wisdom, it was nothing to how he felt with the Aes Sedai. She glided across the floor smoothly, her gown swirling about her; he almost fell twice. She gave him a sympathetic smile, which made it worse rather than helping. It was a relief to go to his next partner in the pattern, even if it was Egwene.
He regained some of his poise. After all, he had danced with her for years. Her hair still hung unbraided, but she had gathered it back with a red ribbon. Probably couldn't decide whether to please Moiraine or Nynaeve, he thought sourly. Her lips were parted, and she looked as if she wanted to say something, but she never spoke, and he was not about to speak first. Not after the way she had cut off his earlier attempt in the private dining room. They stared at one another soberly and danced apart without a word.
He was glad enough to return to the bench when the reel was done. The music for another dance, a jig, began while he was sitting down. Mat hurried to join in, and Perrin slid onto the bench as he was leaving.
“Did you see her?” Perrin began before he was even seated. “Did you?”
“Which one?” Rand asked. “The Wisdom, or Mistress Alys? I danced with both of them.”
“The Ae ... Mistress Alys, too?” Perrin exclaimed. “I danced with Nynaeve. I didn't even know she danced. She never does at any of the dances back home.”
“I wonder,” Rand said thoughtfully, “what the Women's Circle would say about the Wisdom dancing? Maybe that's why.”
Then the music and the clapping and the singing were too loud for any further talk. Rand and Perrin joined in the clapping as the dancers circled the floor. Several times he became aware of the scarfaced man staring at him. The man had a right to be touchy, with that scar, but Rand did not see anything he could do now that would not make matters worse. He concentrated on the music and avoided looking at the fellow.
The dancing and singing went on into the night. The maids finally did remember their duties; Rand was glad to wolf down some hot stew and bread. Everyone ate where they sat or stood. Rand joined in three more dances, and he managed his steps better when he found himself dancing with Nynaeve again, and with Moiraine, as well. This time they both complimented him on his dancing, which made him stammer. He danced with Egwene again, too; she stared at him, darkeyed and always seeming on the point of speaking, but never saying a word. He was just as silent as she, but he was sure he did not scowl at her, no matter what Mat said when he returned to the bench.
Toward midnight Moiraine left. Egwene, after one harried look from the Aes Sedai to Nynaeve, hurried after her. The Wisdom watched them with an unreadable expression, then deliberately joined in another dance before she left, too, with a look as if she had gained a point on the Aes Sedai.
Soon Thom was putting his flute into its case and arguing goodnaturedly with those who wanted him to stay longer. Lan came by to gather up Rand and the others.
“We have to make an early start,” the Warder said, leaning close to be heard over the noise, “and we will need all the rest we can get.”
“There's a fellow been staring at me,” Mat said. “ A man with a scar across his face. You don't think he could be a ... one of the friends you warned us about?”
“Like this?” Rand said, drawing a finger across his nose to the corner of his mouth. “He stared at me, too.” He looked around the room. People were drifting away, and most of those still left clustered around Thom. “He's not here, now.”
“I saw the man,” Lan said. “According to Master Fitch, he's a spy for the Whitecloaks. He's no worry to us.” Maybe he was not, but Rand could see something was bothering the Warder.
Rand glanced at Mat, who had the stiff expression on his face that always meant he was hiding something. A Whitecloak spy. Could Bornhald want to get back at us that much? “We're leaving early?” he said. “Really early?” Maybe they could be gone before anything came of it.
“At first light,” the Warder replied.
As they left the common room, Mat singing snatches of song under his breath, and Perrin stopping now and again to try out a new step he had learned, Thom joined them in high spirits. Lan's face was expressionless as they headed for the stairs.
“Where is Nynaeve sleeping?” Mat asked. “Master Fitch said we got the last rooms.”
“She has a bed,” Thom said dryly, “in with Mistress Alys and the girl.”
Perrin whistled between his teeth, and Mat muttered, “Blood and ashes! I wouldn't be in Egwene's shoes for all the gold in Caemlyn!”
Not for the first time, Rand wished Mat could think seriously about something for more than two minutes. Their own shoes were not very comfortable right then. “I'm going to get some milk,” he said. Maybe it would help him sleep. Maybe I won't dream tonight.
Lan looked at him sharply. “There's something wrong tonight. Don't wander far. And remember, we leave whether you are awake enough to sit your saddle or have to be tied on.”
The Warder started up the stairs; the others followed him, their jollity subdued. Rand stood in the hall alone. After having so many people around, it was lonely indeed.
He hurried to the kitchen, where a scullery maid was still on duty. She poured a mug of milk from a big stone crock for him.
As he came out of the kitchen, drinking, a shape in dull black started toward him down the length of the hall, raising pale hands to toss back the dark cowl that had hidden the face beneath. The cloak hung motionless as the figure moved, and the face ... A man's face, but pasty white, like a slug under a rock, and eyeless. From oily black hair to puffy cheeks was as smooth as an eggshell. Rand choked, spraying milk.
“You are one of them, boy,” the Fade said, a hoarse whisper like a file