Abruptly the music stopped, and he realized all the Tinkers were looking at him and his companions. Even the children and dogs stood still and watched, warily, as if on the point of flight.
For a moment there was no sound at all, then a wiry man, grayhaired and short, stepped forward and bowed gravely to Elyas. He wore a highcollared red coat, and baggy, bright green trousers tucked into knee boots. “You are welcome to our fires. Do you know the song?”
Elyas bowed in the same way, both hands pressed to his chest. “Your welcome warms my spirit, Mahdi, as your fires warm the flesh, but I do not know the song.”
“Then we seek still,” the grayhaired man intoned. “As it was, so shall it be, if we but remember, seek, and find.” He swept an arm toward the fires with a smile, and his voice took on a cheerful lightness. “The meal is almost ready. Join us, please.”
As if that had been a signal the music sprang up again, and the children took up their laughter and ran with the dogs. Everyone in the camp went back to what they had been doing just as though the newcomers were long accepted friends.
The grayhaired man hesitated, though, and looked at Elyas. “Your ... other friends? They will stay away? They frighten the poor dogs so.”
“They'll stay away, Raen.” Elyas's headshake had a touch of scorn. “You should know that by now.”
The grayhaired man spread his hands as if to say nothing was ever certain. As he turned to lead them into the camp, Egwene dismounted and moved close to Elyas. “You two are friends?” A smiling Tinker appeared to take Bela; Egwene gave the reins up reluctantly, after a wry snort from Elyas.
“We know each other,” the furclad man replied curtly.
“His name is Mahdi?” Perrin said.
Elyas growled something under his breath. “His name's Raen. Mahdi's his title. Seeker. He's the leader of this band. You can call him Seeker if the other sounds odd. He won't mind.”
“What was that about a song?” Egwene asked.
“That's why they travel,” Elyas said, “or so they say. They're looking for a song. That's what the Mahdi seeks. They say they lost it during the Breaking of the World, and if they can find it again, the paradise of the Age of Legends will return.” He ran his eye around the camp and snorted. “They don't even know what the song is; they claim they'll know it when they find it. They don't know how it's supposed to bring paradise, either, but they've been looking near to three thousand years, ever since the Breaking. I expect they'll be looking until the Wheel stops turning.”
They reached Raen's fire, then, in the middle of the camp. The Seeker's wagon was yellow trimmed in red, and the spokes of its tall, redrimmed wheels alternated red and yellow. A plump woman, as gray as Raen but smoothcheeked still, came out of the wagon and paused on the steps at its back end, straightening a bluefringed shawl on her shoulders. Her blouse was yellow and her skirt red, both bright. The combination made Perrin blink, and Egwene made a strangled sound.
When she saw the people following Raen, the woman came down with a welcoming smile. She was Ila, Raen's wife, a head taller than her husband, and she soon made Perrin forget about the colors of her clothes. She had a motherliness that reminded him of Mistress al'Vere and had him feeling welcome from her first smile.
Ila greeted Elyas as an old acquaintance, but with a distance that seemed to pain Raen. Elyas gave her a dry grin and a nod. Perrin and Egwene introduced themselves, and she clasped their hands in both of hers with much more warmth than she had shown Elyas, even hugging Egwene.
“Why, you're lovely, child,” she said, cupping Egwene's chin and smiling. “And chilled to the bone, too, I expect. You sit close to the fire, Egwene. All of you sit. Supper is almost ready.”
Fallen logs had been pulled around the fire for sitting. Elyas refused even that concession to civilization. He lounged on the ground, instead. Iron tripods held two small kettles over the flames, and an oven rested in the edge of the coals. Ila tended them.
As Perrin and the others were taking their places, a slender young man wearing green stripes strolled up to the fire. He gave Raen a hug and Ila a kiss, and ran a cool eye over Elyas and the Emond's Fielders. He was about the same age as Perrin, and he moved as if he were about to begin dancing with his next step.
“Well, Aram” — Ila smiled fondly — “you have decided to eat with your old grandparents for a change, have you?” Her smile slid over to Egwene as she bent to stir a kettle hanging over the cookfire. “I wonder why?”
Aram settled to an easy crouch with his arms crossed on his knees, across the fire from Egwene. “I am Aram,” he told her in a low, confident voice. He no longer seemed aware that anyone was there except her. “I have waited for the first rose of spring, and now I find it at my grandfather's fire.”
Perrin waited for Egwene to snicker, then saw that she was staring back at Aram. He looked at the young Tinker again. Aram had more than his share of good looks, he admitted. After a minute Perrin knew who the fellow reminded him of. Wil al'Seen, who had all the girls staring and whispering behind his back whenever he came up from Deven Ride to Emond's Field. Wil courted every girl in sight, and managed to convince every one of them that he was just being polite to all the others.
“Those dogs of yours,” Perrin said loudly, and Egwene gave a start, “look as big as bears. I'm surprised you let the children play with them.”
Aram's smile slipped, but when he looked at Perrin it came back again, even more sure than before. “They will not harm you. They make a show to frighten away danger, and warn us, but they are trained according to the Way of the Leaf. ”
“The Way of the Leaf?” Egwene said. “What is that?”
Aram gestured to the trees, his eyes fastened intently on hers. “The leaf lives its appointed time, and does not struggle against the wind that carries it away. The leaf does no harm, and finally falls to nourish new leaves. So it should be with all men. And women.” Egwene stared back at him, a faint blush rising in her cheeks.
“But what does that mean?” Perrin said. Aram gave him an irritated glance, but it was Raen who answered.
“It means that no man should harm another for any reason whatsoever.” The Seeker's eyes flickered to Elyas. “There is no excuse for violence. None. Not ever.”
“What if somebody attacks you?” Perrin insisted. “What if somebody hits you, or tries to rob you, or kill you?”
Raen sighed, a patient sigh, as if Perrin was just not seeing what was so clear to him. “If a man hit me, I would ask him why he wanted to do such a thing. If he still wanted to hit me, I would run away, as I would if he wanted to rob or kill me. Much better that I let him take what he wanted, even my life, than that I should do violence. And I would hope that he was not harmed too greatly.”
“But you said you wouldn't hurt him,” Perrin said.
“I would not, but violence harms the one who does it as much as the one who receives it.” Perrin looked doubtful. “You could cut down a tree with your axe,” Raen said. “The axe does violence to the tree, and escapes unharmed. Is that how you see it? Wood is soft compared to steel, but the sharp steel is dulled as it chops, and the sap of the tree will rust and pit it. The mighty axe does violence to the helpless tree, and is harmed by it. So it is with men, though the harm is in the spirit.”
“Enough,” Elyas growled, cutting Perrin off. “Raen, it's bad enough you trying to convert village younglings to that nonsense — it gets you in trouble almost everywhere you go, doesn't it? — but I didn't bring this lot here for you to work on them. Leave over.”
“And leave them to you?” Ila said, grinding herbs between her palms and letting them trickle into one of the kettles. Her voice was calm, but her hands rubbed the herbs furiously. “Will you teach them your way, to kill or die? Will you lead them to the fate you seek for yourself, dying alone with only the ravens and your ... your friends to squabble over your body?”
“Be at peace, Ila,” Raen said gently, as if he had heard this all and more a hundred times. “He has been welcomed to our fire, my wife.”
Ila subsided, but Perrin noticed that she made no apology. Instead she looked at Elyas and shook her head sadly, then dusted her hands and began taking spoons and pottery bowls from a red chest on the side of the wagon.
Raen turned back to Elyas. “My old friend, how many times must I tell you that we do not try to convert anyone. When village people are curious about our ways, we answer their questions. It is most often the young who ask, true, and sometimes one of them will come with us when we journey on, but it is of their own free will.”
“You try telling that to some farm wife who's just found out her son or daughter has run off with you Tinkers,” Elyas said wryly. “That's why the bigger towns won't even let you camp nearby. Villages put up with you for your mending things, but the cities don't need it, and they don't like you talking their young folk