Dropping the mug, Rand backed away. He wanted to run, but it was all he could do to make his feet take one halting step at a time. He could not break free of that eyeless face; his gaze was held, and his stomach curdled. He tried to shout for help, to scream; his throat was like stone. Every ragged breath hurt.

The Fade glided closer, in no hurry. Its strides had a sinuous, deadly grace, like a viper, the resemblance emphasized by the overlapping black plates of armor down its chest. Thin, bloodless lips curved in a cruel smile, made more mocking by the smooth, pale skin where exes should have been. The voice made Bornhald's seem warm and soft. “Where are the others? I know they are here. Speak, boy, and I will let you live.”


Rand's back struck wood; a wall or a door — he could not make himself look around to see which. Now that his feet had stopped, he could not make them start again. He shivered, watching the Myrddraal slither nearer. His shaking grew harder with every slow stride.

“Speak, I say, or —”

From above came a quick clatter of boots, from the stairs up the hall, and the Myrddraal cut off, whirling. The cloak hung still. For an instant the Fade's head tilted, as if that eyeless gaze could pierce the wooden wall. A sword appeared in a deadwhite hand, blade as black as the cloak. The light in the hall seemed to grow dimmer in the presence of that blade. The pounding of boots grew louder, and the Fade spun back to Rand, an almost boneless movement. The black blade rose; narrow lips peeled back in a rictus snarl.

Trembling, Rand knew he was going to die. Midnight steel flashed at his head . . . and stopped.

“You belong to the Great Lord of the Dark.” The breathy grating of that voice sounded like fingernails scratched across a slate. “You are his.”

Spinning in a black blur, the Fade darted down the hall away from Rand. The shadows at the end of the hall reached out and embraced it, and it was gone.

Lan leaped down the last stairs, landing with a crash, sword in hand.

Rand struggled to find his voice. “Fade,” he gasped. “It was ...” Abruptly he remembered his sword. With the Myrddraal facing him he had never thought of it. He fumbled the heronmark blade out now, not caring if it was too late. “It ran that way!”

Lan nodded absently; he seemed to be listening to something else. “Yes. It's going; fading. No time to pursue it, now. We're leaving sheepherder. ”

-- Advertisement --

More boots stumbled down the stairs; Mat and Perrin and Thom, hung about with blankets and saddlebags. Mat was still buckling his bedroll, with his bow awkward under his arm.

“Leaving?” Rand said. Sheathing his sword, he took his things from Thom. “Now? In the night?”

“You want to wait for the Halfman to come back, sheepherder?” the Warder said impatiently. “For half a dozen of them? It knows where we are, now.”

“I will ride with you again,” Thom told the Warder, “if you have no great objections. Too many people remember that I arrived with you. I fear that before tomorrow this will be a bad place to be known as your friend.”

“You can ride with us, or ride to Shayol Ghul, gleeman.” Lan's scabbard rattled from the force with which he rammed his sword home.

A stableman came darting past them from the rear door, and then Moiraine appeared with Master Fitch, and behind them Egwene, with her bundled shawl in her arms. And Nynaeve. Egwene looked frightened almost to tears, but the Wisdom's face was a mask of cool anger.

“You must take this seriously,” Moiraine was telling the inn keeper. “You will certainly have trouble here by morning. Darkfriends, perhaps; perhaps worse. When it comes, quickly make it clear that we are gone. Offer no resistance. Just let whoever it is know that we left in the night, and they should bother you no further. It is us they are after.”

“Never you worry about trouble,” Master Fitch replied jovially. “Never a bit. If any come around my inn trying to make trouble for my guests ... well, they'll get short shrift from the lads and I. Short shrift. And they'll hear not a word about where you've gone or when, or even if you were ever here. I've no use for that kind. Not a word will be spoken about you by any here. Not a word!”

“But —”

“Mistress Alys, I really must see to your horses if you're going to leave in good order.” He pulled loose from her grip on his sleeve and trotted in the direction of the stables.

Moiraine sighed vexedly. “Stubborn, stubborn man. He will not listen. ”

“You think Trollocs might come here hunting for us?” Mat asked.

“Trollocs!” Moiraine snapped. “Of course not! There are other things to fear, not the least of which is how we were found.” Ignoring Mat's bristle, she went right on. “The Fade cannot believe we will remain here, now that we know it has found us, but Master Fitch takes Darkfriends too lightly. He thinks of them as wretches hiding in the shadows, but Darkfriends can be found in the shops and streets of every city, and in the highest councils, too. The Myrddraal may send them to see if he can learn of our plans. ” She turned on her heel and left, Lan close behind her.

As they started for the stableyard, Rand fell in beside Nynaeve. She had her saddlebags and blankets, too. “So you're coming after all,” he said. Min was right.

“Was there something down here?” she asked quietly. “She said it was —” She stopped abruptly and looked at him.

“A Fade,” he answered. He was amazed that he could say it so calmly. “It was in the hall with me, and then Lan came.”

Nynaeve shrugged her cloak against the wind as they left the inn. “Perhaps there is something after you. But I came to see you safely back in Emond's Field, all of you, and I will not leave till that is done. I won't leave you alone with her sort.” Lights moved in the stables where the ostlers were saddling the horses.

“Mutch!” the innkeeper shouted from the stable door where he stood with Moiraine. “Stir your bones!” He turned back to her, appearing to attempt to soothe her rather than really listening when she spoke, though he did it deferentially, with bows interspersed among the orders called to the stablemen.

The horses were led out, the stablemen grumbling softly about the hurry and the lateness. Rand held Egwene's bundle, handing it up to her when she was on Bela's back. She looked back at him with wide, fearfilled eyes. At least she doesn't think it's an adventure anymore.

He was ashamed as soon as he thought it. She was in danger because of him and the others. Even riding back to Emond's Field alone would be safer than going on. “Egwene, I ...”

The words died in his mouth. She was too stubborn to just turn back, not after saying she was going all the way to Tar Valon. What about what Min saw? She's part of it. Light, part of what?

“Egwene,” he said, “I'm sorry. I can't seem to think straight anymore.”

She leaned down to grip his hand hard. In the light from the stable he could see her face clearly. She did not look as frightened as she had.

Once they were all mounted, Master Fitch insisted on leading them to the gates, the stablemen lighting the way with their lamps. The roundbellied innkeeper bowed them on their way with assurances that he would keep their secrets, and invitations to come again. Mutch watched them leave as sourly as he had watched them arrive.

There was one, Rand thought, who would not give short shrift to anyone, or any kind of shrift. Mutch would tell the first person who asked him when they had gone and everything else he could think of concerning them. A little distance down the street, he looked back. One figure stood, lamp raised high, peering after them. He did not need to see the face to know it was Mutch.

The streets of Baerlon were abandoned at that hour of the night; only a few faint glimmers here and there escaped tightly closed shutters, and the light of the moon in its last quarter waxed and waned with the winddriven clouds. Now and again a dog barked as they passed an alleyway, but no other sound disturbed the night except their horses' hooves and the wind whistling across the rooftops. The riders held an even deeper silence, huddled in their cloaks and their own thoughts.

The Warder led the way, as usual, with Moiraine and Egwene close behind. Nynaeve kept near the girl, and the others brought up the rear in a tight cluster. Lan kept the horses moving at a brisk walk.

Rand watched the streets around them warily, and he noticed his friends doing the same. Shifting moon shadows recalled the shadows at the end of the hall, the way they had seemed to reach out to the Fade. An occasional noise in the distance, like a barrel toppling, or another dog barking, jerked every head around. Slowly, bit by bit as they made their way through the town, they all bunched their horses closer to Lan's black stallion and Moiraine's white mare.At the Caemlyn Gate Lan dismounted and hammered with his fist on the door of a small square stone building squatting against the wall. A weary Watchman appeared, rubbing sleepily at his face. As Lan spoke, his sleepiness vanished, and he stared past the Warder to the others.

“You want to leave?” he exclaimed. “Now? In the night? You must be mad!”

“Unless there is some order from the Governor that prohibits our leaving,” Moiraine said. She had dismounted as well, but she stayed back from the door, out of the light that spi

-- Advertisement --