How long, Rand wondered, before the innkeeper heard a description of “those three”? If he had not already. If he did not just leap to the three strangers he had already seen. The only door from their half of the common room would take them right past Gelb's table.

“Maybe the boat isn't such a bad idea,” Mat muttered, but Thom shook his head.


“Not anymore.” The gleeman spoke softly and fast. He pulled out the leather purse Captain Domon had given him and hastily divided the money into three piles. “That story will be all through the town in an hour, whether anybody believes it or not, and the Halfman could hear any time. Domon isn't sailing until tomorrow morning. At best he'll have Trollocs chasing him all the way to Illian. Well, he's half expecting it for some reason, but that won't do us any good. There's nothing for it but to run, and run hard.”

Mat quickly stuffed the coins Thom shoved in front of him into his pocket. Rand picked his pile up more slowly. The coin Moiraine had given him was not among them. Domon had given an equal weight of silver, but Rand, for some reason he could not fathom, wished he had the Aes Sedai's coin instead. Stuffing the money in his pocket, he looked a question at the gleeman.

“In case we're separated,” Thom explained. We probably won't be, but if it does happen ... well, you two will make out all right by yourselves. You're good lads. Just keep clear of Aes Sedai, for your lives."

“I thought you were staying with us,” Rand said.

“I am, boy. I am. But they're getting close, now, and the Light only knows. Well, no matter. It isn't likely anything will happen.” Thom paused, looking at Mat. “I hope you no longer mind me staying with you,” he said dryly.

Mat shrugged. He eyed each of them, then shrugged again. “I'm just on edge. I can't seem to get rid of it. Every time we stop for a breath, they're there, hunting us. I feel like somebody's staring at the back of my head all the time. What are we going to do?”

The laughter erupted on the other side of the wall, broken again by Gelb, trying loudly to convince the two men that he was telling the truth. How much longer, Rand wondered. Sooner or later Bartim had to put together Gelb's three and the three of them.

Thom eased his chair and rose, but kept his height crouched. No one looking casually toward the wall from the other side could see him. He motioned for them to follow, whispering, “Be very quiet.”

The windows on either side of the fireplace on their side of the wall looked out into an alleyway. Thom studied one of the windows carefully before drawing it up just enough for them to squeeze through. It barely made a sound, nothing that could have been heard three feet away over the laughing argument on the other side of the low wall.

-- Advertisement --

Once in the alley, Mat started for the street right away, but Thom caught his arm. “Not so fast,” the gleeman told him. “Not till we know what we're doing.” Thom lowered the window again as much as he could from outside, and turned to study the alley.

Rand followed Thom's eyes. Except for half a dozen rain barrels against the inn and the next building, a tailor shop, the alley was empty, the hardpacked dirt dry and dusty.

“Why are you doing this?” Mat demanded again. “You'd be safer if you left us. Why are you staying with us?”

Thom stared at him for a long moment. “I had a nephew, Owyn,” he said wearily, shrugging out of his cloak. He made a pile with his blanketroll as he talked, carefully setting his cased instruments on top. “My brother's only son, my only living kin. He got in trouble with the Aes Sedai, but I was too busy with ... other things. I don't know what I could have done, but when I finally tried, it was too late. Owyn died a few years later. You could say Aes Sedai killed him.” He straightened up, not looking at them. His voice was still level, but Rand glimpsed tears in his eyes as he turned his head away. “If I can keep you two free of Tar Valon, maybe I can stop thinking about Owyn. Wait here.” Still avoiding their eyes, he hurried to the mouth of the alley, slowing before he reached it. After one quick look around, he strolled casually into the street and out of sight.

Mat half rose to follow, then settled back. “He won't leave these,” he said, touching the leather instrument cases. “You believe that story?”

Rand squatted patiently beside the rain barrels. “What's the matter with you, Mat? You aren't like this. I haven't heard you laugh in days.”

“I don't like being hunted like a rabbit,” Mat snapped. He sighed, letting his head fall back against the brick wall of the inn. Even like that he seemed tense. His eyes shifted warily. “Sorry. It's the running, and all these strangers, and ... and just everything. It makes me jumpy. I look at somebody, and I can't help wondering if he's going to tell the Fades about us, or cheat us, or rob us, or ... Light, Rand, doesn't it make you nervous?”

Rand laughed, a quick bark in the back of his throat. “I'm too scared to be nervous.”

“What do you think the Aes Sedai did to his nephew?”

“I don't know,” Rand said uneasily. There was only one kind of trouble that he knew of for a man to get into with Aes Sedai. “Not like us, I guess. ”

“No. Not like us.”

For a time they leaned against the wall, not talking. Rand was not sure how long they waited. A few minutes, probably, but it felt like an hour, waiting for Thom to come back, waiting for Bartim and Gelb to open the window and denounce them for Darkfriends. Then a man turned in at the mouth of the alley, a tall man with the hood of his cloak pulled up to hide his face, a cloak black as night against the light of the street.

Rand scrambled to his feet, one hand wrapped around the hilt of Tam's sword so hard that his knuckles hurt. His mouth went dry, and no amount of swallowing helped. Mat rose to a crouch with one hand under his cloak.

The man came closer, and Rand's throat grew tighter with every step. Abruptly the man stopped and tossed back his cowl. Rand's knees almost gave way. It was Thom.

“Well, if you don't recognize me” — the gleeman grinned — “I guess it's a good enough disguise for the gates.”

Thom pushed past them and began transferring things from his patchcovered cloak to his new one so nimbly that Rand could not make out any of them. The new cloak was dark brown, Rand saw now. He drew a deep, ragged breath; his throat still felt as if it were clutched in a fist. Brown, not black. Mat still had his hand under his cloak, and he stared at Thom's back as if he were thinking of using the hidden dagger.

Thom glanced up at them, then gave them a sharper look. “This is no time to get skittish.” Deftly he began folding his old cloak into a bundle around his instrument cases, inside out so the patches were hidden. “We'll walk out of here one at a time, just close enough to keep each other in sight. Shouldn't be remembered especially, that way. Can't you slouch?” he added to Rand. “That height of yours is as bad as a banner.” He slung the bundle across his back and stood, drawing his hood back up. He looked nothing like a whitehaired gleeman. He was just another traveler, a man too poor to afford a horse, much less a carriage. “Let's go. We've wasted too much time already.”

Rand agreed fervently, but even so he hesitated before stepping out of the alley into the square. None of the sparse scattering of people gave them a second look — most did not look at them at all — but his shoulders knotted, waiting for the cry of Darkfriend that could turn ordinary people into a mob bent on murder. He ran his eyes across the open area, over people moving about on their daily business, and when he brought them back a Myrddraal was halfway across the square.

Where the Fade had come from, he could not begin to guess, but it strode toward the three of them with a slow deadliness, a predator with the prey under its gaze. People shied away from the blackcloaked shape, avoided looking at it. The square began to empty out as people decided they were needed elsewhere.

The black cowl froze Rand where he stood. He tried to summon up the void, but it was like fumbling after smoke. The Fade's hidden gaze knifed to his bones and turned his marrow to icicles.

“Don't look at its face,” Thom muttered. His voice shook and cracked, and it sounded as if he were forcing the words out. “The Light burn you, don't look at its face!”

Rand tore his eyes away — he almost groaned; it felt like tearing a leech off of his face — but even staring at the stones of the square he could still see the Myrddraal coming, a cat playing with mice, amused at their feeble efforts to escape, until finally the jaws snapped shut. The Fade had halved the distance. “Are we just going to stand here?” he mumbled. “We have to run ... get away.” But he could not make his feet move.

Mat had the rubyhilted dagger out at last, in a trembling hand. His lips were drawn back from his teeth, a snarl and a rictus of fear.

“Think ...” Thom stopped to swallow, and went on hoarsely. “Think you can outrun it, do you, boy?” He began to mutter to himself; the only word Rand could make out was “Owyn.” Abruptly Thom growled, “I never should have gotten mixed up with you boys. Should never have.” He shrugged the bundled gleeman's cloak off of his back and thrust it into Rand's arms. “Take care of that. When I say run, you run and don't stop until you get to Caemlyn. The Queen's Blessing. An inn. Remember that, in case..

-- Advertisement --