“But who are they?” Rand asked. Except for merchants, once a year to buy tabac and wool, and the peddlers, outsiders never came into the Two Rivers, or as good as never. Maybe at Taren Ferry, but not this far south. Most of the merchants and peddlers had been coming for years, too, so they did not really count as strangers. Just outsiders. It was a good five years since the last time a real stranger appeared in Emond's Field, and he had been trying to hide from some sort of trouble up in Baerlon that nobody in the village understood. He had not stayed long.
“What do they want?” Mat exclaimed. “I don't care what they want. Strangers, Rand, and strangers like you never even dreamed of. Think of it!”
Rand opened his mouth, then closed it without speaking. The black cloaked rider had him as nervous as a cat in a dog run. It just seemed like an awful coincidence, three strangers around the village at the same time. Three if this fellow's cloak that changed colors never changed to black.
“Her name is Moiraine,” Ewin said into the momentary silence. “I heard him say it. Moiraine, he called her. The Lady Moiraine. His name is Lan. The Wisdom may not like her, but I do. ”
“What makes you think Nynaeve dislikes her?” Rand said.
“She asked the Wisdom for directions this morning,” Ewin said, “and called her 'child.”' Rand and Mat both whistled softly through their teeth, and Ewin tripped over his tongue in his haste to explain. “The Lady Moiraine didn't know she was the Wisdom. She apologized when she found out. She did. And asked some questions about herbs, and about who is who around Emond's Field, just as respectfully as any woman in the village—more so than some. She's always asking questions, about how old people are, and how long they've lived where they live, and ... oh, I don't know what all. Anyway, Nynaeve answered like she'd bitten a green sweetberry. Then, when the Lady Moiraine walked away, Nynaeve stared after her like, like ... well, it wasn't friendly, I can tell you that.”
“Is that all?” Rand said. “You know Nynaeve's temper. When Cenn Buie called her a child last year, she thumped him on the head with her stick, and he's on the Village Council, and old enough to be her grandfather, besides. She flares up at anything, and never stays angry past turning around. ”
“That's too long for me,” Ewin muttered.
“I don't care who Nynaeve thumps”, Mat chortled, “so long as it isn't me. This is going to be the best Bel Tine ever. A gleeman, a lady — who could ask for more? Who needs fireworks?”
“A gleeman?” Ewin said, his voice rising sharply.
“Come on, Rand,” Mat went on, ignoring the younger boy. “We're done here. You have to see this fellow.”
He bounded up the stairs, with Ewin scrambling behind him calling, “Is there really a gleeman, Mat? This isn't like the ghost hounds, is it? Or the frogs?”
Rand paused long enough to turn down the lamp, then hurried after them.
In the common room Rowan Hurn and Samel Crawe had joined the others in front of the fire, so that the entire Village Council was there. Bran al'Vere spoke now, his normally bluff voice pitched so low that only a rumbling murmur traveled beyond the closegathered chairs. The Mayor emphasized his words by capping a thick forefinger into the palm of his hand, and eyed each man in turn. They all nodded in agreement with whatever he was saying, though Cenn more reluctantly than the rest.
The way the men all but huddled together spoke more plainly than a painted sign. Whatever they were talking about, it was for the Village Council alone, at least for now. They would not appreciate Rand trying to listen in. Reluctantly he pulled himself away. There was still the gleeman. And these strangers.
Outside, Bela and the cart were gone, taken away by Hu or Tad, the stablemen. Mat and Ewin stood glaring at one another a few paces from the front door of the inn, their cloaks whipping in the wind.
“For the last time,“ Mat barked, ”I am not playing a trick on you. There is a gleeman. Now go away. Rand, will you tell this woolhead I am telling the truth so he'll leave me alone?"
Pulling his cloak together, Rand stepped forward to support Mat, but words died as the hairs stirred on the back of his neck. He was being watched again. It was far from the feeling the hooded rider had given him, but neither was it pleasant, especially so soon after that encounter.
A quick look about the Green showed him only what he had seen before—children playing, people preparing for Festival, and no one more than glancing in his direction. The Spring Pole stood alone, now, waiting. Bustle and childish shouts
filled the side streets. All was as it should be. Except that he was being watched.
Then something led him to turn around, to raise his eyes. On the edge of the inn's tile roof perched a large raven, swaying a little in the gusting wind from the mountains. Its head was cocked to one side, and one beady, black eye was focused ... on him, he thought. He swallowed, and suddenly anger flickered in him, hot and sharp.
“Filthy carrion eater,” he muttered.
“I am tired of being stared at,” Mat growled, and Rand realized his friend had stepped up beside him and was frowning at the raven, too.
They exchanged a glance, then as one their hands darted for rocks.
The two stones flew true ... and the raven stepped aside; the stones whistled through the space where it had been. Fluffing its wings once, it cocked its head again, fixing them with a dead black eye, unafraid, giving no sign that anything had happened.
Rand stared at the bird in consternation. “Did you ever see a raven do that?” he asked quietly.
Mat shook his head without looking away from the raven. “Never. Nor any other bird, either.”
“A vile bird,” came a woman's voice from behind them, melodious despite echoes of distaste, “to be mistrusted in the best of times.”
With a shrill cry the raven launched itself into the air so violently that two black feathers drifted down from the roof's edge.
Startled, Rand and Mat twisted to follow the bird's swift flight, over the Green and toward the cloudtipped Mountains of Mist, tall beyond the Westwood, until it dwindled to a speck in the west, then vanished from view.
Rand's gaze fell to the woman who had spoken. She, too, had been watching the flight of the raven, but now she turned back, and her eyes met his. He could only stare. This had to be the Lady Moiraine, and she was everything that Mat
and Ewin had said, everything and more.
When he had heard she called Nynaeve child, he had pictured her as old, but she was not. At least, he could not put any age to her at all. At first he thought she was as young as Nynaeve, but the longer he looked the more he thought she was older than that. There was a maturity about her large, dark eyes, a hint of knowing that no one could have gotten young. For an instant he thought those eyes were deep pools about to swallow him up. It was plain why Mat and Ewin named her a lady from a gleeman's tale, too. She held herself with a grace and air of command that made him feel awkward and stumblefooted. She was barely tall enough to come up to his chest, but her presence was such that her height seemed the proper one, and he felt ungainly in his tallness.
Altogether she was like no one he had ever seen before. The wide hood of her cloak framed her face and dark hair, hanging in soft ringlets. He had never seen a grown woman with her hair unbraided; every girl in the Two Rivers waited eagerly for the Women's Circle of her village to say she was old enough to wear a braid. Her clothes were just as strange. Her cloak was skyblue velvet, with thick silver embroidery, leaves and vines and flowers, all along the edges. Her dress gleamed faintly as she moved, a darker blue than the cloak, and slashed with cream. A necklace of heavy gold links hung around her neck, while another gold chain, delicate and fastened in her hair, supported a small, sparkling blue stone in the middle of her forehead. A wide belt of woven gold encircled her waist, and on the second finger of her left hand was a gold ring in the shape of a serpent biting its own tail. He had certainly never seen a ring like that, though he recognized the Great Serpent, an even older symbol for eternity than the Wheel of Time.
Fancier than any feastday clothes, Ewin had said, and he was right. No one ever dressed like that in the Two Rivers. Not ever.
“Good morning, Mistress ... ah ... Lady Moiraine,” Rand said. His face grew hot at his tongue's fumbling.
“Good morning, Lady Moiraine,” Mat echoed somewhat more smoothly, but only a little.
She smiled, and Rand found himself wondering if there was anything he might do for her, something that would give him an excuse to stay near her. He knew she was smiling at all of them, but it seemed meant for him alone. It really was just like seeing a gleeman's tale come to life. Mat had a foolish grin on his face.
“You know my name,” she said, sounding delighted. As if her presence, however brief, would not be the talk of the village for a year! “But you must call me Moiraine, not lady. And what are your names?”
Ewin leaped forward before either of the others could speak. “My name is Ewin Finngar, my lady. I told them your name; that's how they know. I heard Lan say it, but I wasn't eavesdropping. No one like you has ever come to Emond's Field, before. There's a gleeman in the village for Bel Tine, too. And tonight is Winternight. Will you come to my house? My moth