In the eyes of the villagers, needles and tea and the like were no more than half the freight in a peddler's wagon. Every bit as important was word of outside, news of the world beyond the Two Rivers. Some peddlers simply told what they knew, throwing it out in a heap, a pile of rubbish with which they could not be bothered. Others had to have every word dragged out of them, speaking grudgingly, with a bad grace. Fain, however, spoke freely if often teasingly, and spun out the telling, making a show to rival a gleeman. He enjoyed being the center of attention, strutting around like an undersized rooster, with every eye on him. It occurred to Rand that Fain might not be best pleased to find a real gleeman in Emond's Field.
The peddler gave the Council and villagers alike exactly the same attention as he fussed with tying his reins off just so, which was to say hardly any attention at all. He nodded casually at no one in particular. He smiled without speaking, and waved absently to people with whom he was particularly friendly, though his friendliness had always been of a peculiarly distant kind, backslapping without ever getting close.
The demands for him to speak grew louder, but Fain waited, fiddling with small tasks about the driver's seat, for the crowd and the anticipation to reach the size he wanted. The Council alone kept silent. They maintained the dignity befitting their position, but increasing clouds of pipesmoke rising above their heads showed the effort of it.
Rand and Mat edged into the crowd, getting as close to the wagon as they could. Rand would have stopped halfway, but Mat wriggled through the press, pulling Rand behind him, until they were right behind the Council.
“I had been thinking you were going to stay out on the farm through the whole Festival,” Perrin Aybara shouted at Rand over the clamor. Half a head shorter than Rand, the curlyhaired blacksmith's apprentice was so stocky as to seem a man and a half wide, with arms and shoulders thick enough to rival those of Master Luhhan himself. He could easily have pushed through the throng, but that was not his way. He picked his path carefully, offering apologies to people who had only half a mind to notice anything but the peddler. He made the apologies anyway, and tried not to jostle anyone as he worked through the crowd to Rand and Mat. “Imagine it,” he said when he finally reached them. “Bel Tine and a peddler, both together. I'll bet there really are fireworks.”
“You don't know a quarter of it.” Mat laughed.
Perrin eyed him suspiciously, then looked a question at Rand.
“It's true,” Rand shouted, then gestured at the growing mass of people, all giving voice. “Later. I'll explain later. Later, I said!”
At that moment Padan Fain stood up on the wagon seat, and the crowd quieted in an instant. Rand's last words exploded into utter silence, catching the peddler with an arm raised dramatically and his mouth open. Everybody turned to stare at Rand. The bony little man on the wagon, prepared to have everyone hanging on his first words, gave Rand a sharp, searching look. Rand's face reddened, and he wished he were Ewin's size so he did not stand out so clearly. His friends shifted uncomfortably, too. It had only been the year before that Fain had taken notice of them for the first time, acknowledging them as men. Fain did not usually have time for anyone too young to buy a good deal of things off his wagon. Rand hoped he had not been relegated to a child again in the peddler's eyes.
With a loud harrumph, Fain tugged at his heavy cloak. “No, not later,” the peddler declaimed, once more throwing up a hand grandly. “I will be telling you now.” As he spoke he made broad gestures, casting his words over the crowd. “You are thinking you have had troubles in the Two Rivers, are you? Well, all the world has troubles, from the Great Blight south to the Sea of Storms, from the Aryth Ocean in the west to the Aiel Waste in the east. And even beyond. The winter was harsher than you've ever seen before, cold enough to jell your blood and crack your bones? Ahhh! Winter was cold and harsh everywhere. In the Borderlands they'd be calling your winter spring. But spring does not come, you say? Wolves have killed your sheep? Perhaps wolves have attacked men? Is that the way of it? Well, now. Spring is late everywhere. There are wolves everywhere, all hungry for any flesh they can sink a tooth into, be it sheep or cow or man. But there are things worse than wolves or winter. There are those who would be glad to have only your little troubles.” He paused expectantly.
“What could be worse than wolves killing sheep, and men?” Cenn Buie demanded. Others muttered in support.
“Men killing men.” The peddler's reply, in portentous tones, brought shocked murmurs that increased as he went on. “It is war I mean. There is war in Ghealdan, war and madness. The snows of the Dhallin Forest are red with the blood of men. Ravens and the cries of ravens fill the air. Armies march to Ghealdan. Nations, great houses and great men, send their soldiers to fight.”
“War?” Master al'Vere's mouth fit awkwardly around the unfamiliar word. No one in the Two Rivers had ever had anything to do with a war. “Why are they having a war?”
Fain grinned, and Rand had the feeling he was mocking the villagers' isolation from the world, and their ignorance. The peddler leaned forward as if he were about to impart a secret to the Mayor, but his whisper was meant to carry and did. “The standard of the Dragon has been raised, and men flock to oppose. And to support.”
One long gasp left every throat together, and Rand shivered in spite of himself.
“The Dragon!” someone moaned. “The Dark One's loose in Ghealdan!”
“Not the Dark One,” Haral Luhhan growled. “The Dragon's not the Dark One. And this is a false Dragon, anyway.”
“Let's hear what Master Fain has to say,” the Mayor said, but no one would be quieted that easily. People cried out from every side, men and women shouting over one another.
“Just as bad as the Dark One!”
“The Dragon broke the world, didn't he?”
“He started it! He caused the Time of Madness!”
“You know the prophecies! When the Dragon is reborn, your worst nightmares will seem like your fondest dreams!”
“He's just another false Dragon. He must be!”
“What difference does that make? You remember the last false Dragon. He started a war, too. Thousands died, isn't that right, Fain? He laid siege to Illian.”
“It's evil times! No one claiming to be the Dragon Reborn for twenty years, and now three in the last five years. Evil times! Look at the weather!”
Rand exchanged looks with Mat and Perrin. Mat's eyes shone with excitement, but Perrin wore a worried frown. Rand could remember every tale he had heard about the men who named themselves the Dragon Reborn, and if they had all proven themselves false Dragons by dying or disappearing without fulfilling any of the prophecies, what they had done was bad enough. Whole nations torn by battle, and cities and towns put to the torch. The dead fell like autumn leaves, and refugees clogged the roads like sheep in a pen. So the peddlers said, and the merchants, and no one in the Two Rivers with any sense doubted it. The world would end, so some said, when the real Dragon was born again.
“Stop this!” the Mayor shouted. “Be quiet! Stop working yourselves to a lather out of your own imaginations. Let Master Fain tell us about this false Dragon.” The people began to quieten, but Cenn Buie refused to be silent.
“Is this a false Dragon?” the thatcher asked sourly.
Master al'Vere blinked as if taken by surprise, then snapped, “Don't be an old fool, Cenn!” But Cenn had kindled the crowd again.
“He can't be the Dragon Reborn! Light help us, he can't be!”
“You old fool, Buie! You want bad luck, don't you?”
“Be naming the Dark One, next! You're taken by the Dragon, Cenn Buie! Trying to bring us all harm!”
Cenn looked around defiantly, trying to stare down the glowers, and raised his voice. “I didn't hear Fain say this was a false Dragon. Did you? Use your eyes! Where are the crops that should be knee high or better? Why is it still winter when spring should be here a month?” There were angry shouts for Cenn to hold his tongue. “I will not be silent! I've no liking for this talk, either, but I won't hide my head under a basket till a Taren Ferry man comes to cut my throat. And I won't dangle on Fain's pleasure, not this time. Speak it out plain, peddler. What have you heard? Eh? Is this man a false Dragon?”
If Fain was perturbed by the news he brought or the upset he had caused, he gave no sign of it. He merely shrugged and laid a skinny finger alongside his nose. “As to that, now, who can say until it is over and done?” He paused with one of his secretive grins, running his eyes over the crowd as if imagining how they would react and finding it funny. “I do know,” he said, too casually, “that he can wield the One Power. The others couldn't, But he can channel. The ground opens beneath his enemies' feet, and strong walls crumble at his shout. Lightning comes when he calls and strikes where he points. That I've heard, and from men I believe.”
A stunned silence fell. Rand looked at his friends. Perrin seemed to be seeing things he did not like, but