Tam, his face only a little less composed than usual, drew the Mayor close, but before he could speak Ewin Finngar burst out.
“He'll go mad and die! In the stories, men who channel the Power always go mad, and then waste away and die. Only women can touch it. Doesn't he know that?” He ducked under a cuff from Master Buie.
“Enough of that from you, boy.” Cenn shook a gnarled fist in Ewin's face. “Show a proper respect and leave this to your elders. Get away with you!”
“Hold steady, Cenn,” Tam growled. “The boy is just curious. There's no need of this foolishness from you.”
“Act your age,” Bran added. “And for once remember you're a member of the Council.”
Cenn's wrinkled face grew darker with every word from Tam and the Mayor, until it was almost purple. “You know what kind of women he's talking about. Stop frowning at me, Luhhan, and you, too, Crawe. This is a decent village of decent folk, and it's bad enough to have Fain here talking about false Dragons using the Power without this Dragonpossessed fool of a boy bringing Aes Sedai into it. Some things just shouldn't be talked about, and I don't care if you will be letting that fool gleeman tell any kind of tale he wants. It isn't right or decent. ”
“I never saw or heard or smelled anything that couldn't be talked about,” Tam said, but Fain was not finished.
“The Aes Sedai are already into it,” the peddler spoke up. “A party of them has ridden south from Tar Valon. Since he can wield the Power, none but Aes Sedai can defeat him, for all the battles they fight, or deal with him once he's defeated. If he is defeated.”
Someone in the crowd moaned aloud, and even Tam and Bran exchanged uneasy frowns. Huddles of villagers clumped together, and some pulled their cloaks tighter around themselves, though the wind had actually lessened.
“Of course, he'll be defeated,” someone shouted.
“They're always beaten in the end, false Dragons.”
“He has to be defeated, doesn't he?”
“What if he isn't?”
Tam had finally managed to speak quietly into the Mayor's ear, and Bran, nodding from time to time and ignoring the hubbub around them, waited until he was finished before raising his own voice.
“All of you listen. Be quiet and listen!” The shouting died to a murmur again. “This goes beyond mere news from outside. It must be discussed by the Village Council. Master Fain, if you will join us inside the inn, we have questions to ask.”
“A good mug of hot mulled wine would not go far amiss with me just now,” the peddler replied with a chuckle. He jumped down from the wagon, dusted his hands on his coat, and cheerfully righted his cloak. “Will you be looking after my horses, if you please?”
“I want to hear what he has to say!” More than one voice was raised in protest.
“You can't take him off! My wife sent me to buy pins!” That was Wil Congar; he hunched his shoulders at the stares some of the others gave him, but he held his ground.
“We've a right to ask questions, too,” somebody back in the crowd shouted. “I—”
“Be silent!” the Mayor roared, producing a startled hush. “When the Council has asked its questions, Master Fain will be back to tell you all his news. And to sell you his pots and pins. Hu! Tad! Stable Master Fain's horses. ”
Tam and Bran moved in on either side of the peddler, the rest of the Council gathered behind them, and the whole cluster swept into the Winespring Inn, firmly shutting the door in the faces of those who tried to crowd inside after them. Pounding on the door brought only a single shout from the Mayor.
People milled around in front of the inn muttering about what the peddler had said, and what it meant, and what questions the Council was asking, and why they should be allowed to listen and ask questions of their own. Some peered in through the front windows of the inn, and a few even questioned Hu and Tad, though it was far from clear what they were supposed to know. The two stolid stablemen just grunted in reply and went on methodically removing the team's harness. One by one they led Fain's horses away and, when the last was gone, did not return.
Rand ignored the crowd. He took a seat on the edge of the old stone foundation, gathered his cloak around him, and stared at the inn door. Ghealdan. Tar Valon. The very names were strange and exciting. They were places he knew only from peddlers' news, and tales told by merchants' guards. Aes Sedai and wars and false Dragons: those were the stuff of stories told late at night in front of the fireplace, with one candle making strange shapes on the wall and the wind howling against the shutters. On the whole, he believed he would rather have blizzards and wolves. Still, it must be different out there, beyond the Two Rivers, like living in the middle of a gleeman's tale. An adventure. One long adventure. A whole lifetime of it.
Slowly the villagers dispersed, still muttering and shaking their heads. Wit Congar paused to stare into the nowabandoned wagon as though he might find another peddler hidden inside. Finally only a few of the younger folk were left. Mat and Perrin drifted over to where Rand sat.
“I don't see how the gleeman could beat this,” Mat said excitedly. “I wonder if we might get to see this false Dragon?”
Perrin shook his shaggy head. “I don't want to see him. Somewhere else, maybe, but not in the Two Rivers. Not if it means war.”
“Not if it means Aes Sedai here, either,” Rand added. “Or have you forgotten who caused the Breaking? The Dragon may have started it, but it was Aes Sedai who actually broke the world.”
“I heard a story once,” Mat said slowly, “from a woolbuyer's guard. He said the Dragon would be reborn in mankind's greatest hour of need, and save us all. ”
“Well, he was a fool if he believed that,” Perrin said firmly. “And you were a fool to listen.” He did not sound angry; he was slow to anger. But he sometimes got exasperated with Mat's quicksilver fancies, and there was a touch of that in his voice. “I suppose he claimed we'd all live in a new Age of Legends afterwards, too.”
“I didn't say I believed it,” Mat protested. “I just heard it. Nynaeve did, too, and I thought she was going to skin me and the guard both. He said — the guard did — that a lot of people do believe, only they're afraid to say so, afraid of the Aes Sedai or the Children of the Light. He wouldn't say any more after Nynaeve lit into us. She told the merchant, and he said it was the guard's last trip with him.”
“A good thing, too,” Perrin said. “The Dragon going to save us? Sounds like Coplin talk to me.”
“What kind of need would be great enough that we'd want the Dragon to save us from it?” Rand mused. “As well ask for help from the Dark One.”
“He didn't say,” Mat replied uncomfortably. “And he didn't mention any new Age of Legends. He said the world would be torn apart by the Dragon's coming. ”
“That would surely save us,” Perrin said dryly. “Another Breaking.”
“Burn me!” Mat growled. “I'm only telling you what the guard said.”
Perrin shook his head. “I just hope the Aes Sedai and this Dragon, false or not, stay where they are. Maybe that way the Two Rivers will be spared.”
“You think they're really Darkfriends?” Mat was frowning thoughtfully.
“Who?” Rand asked.
Rand glanced at Perrin, who shrugged. “The stories,” he began slowly, but Mat cut him off.
“Not all the stories say they serve the Dark One, Rand.”
“Light, Mat,” Rand said, “they caused the Breaking. What more do you want?”
“I suppose.” Mat sighed, but the next moment he was grinning again. “Old Bili Congar says they don't exist. Aes Sedai. Darkfriends. Says they're just stories. He says he doesn't believe in the Dark One, either.”
Perrin snorted. “Coplin talk from a Congar. What else can you expect?”
“Old Bili named the Dark One. I'll bet you didn't know that.”
“Light!” Rand breathed.
Mat's grin broadened. “It was last spring, just before the cutworm got into his fields and nobody else's. Right before everybody in his house came down with yellow eye fever. I heard him do it. He still says he doesn't believe, but whenever I ask him to name the Dark One now, he throws something at me.”
“You are just stupid enough to do that, aren't you, Matrim Cauthon?” Nynaeve al'Meara stepped into their huddle, the dark braid pulled over her shoulder almost bristling with anger. Rand scrambled to his feet. Slender and barely taller than Mat's shoulder, at the moment the Wisdom seemed taller than any of them, and it did not matter that she was young and pretty.
“I suspected something of the sort about Bili Congar at the time, but I thought you at least had more sense than to try taunting him into such a thing. You may be old enough to be married, Matrim Cauthon, but in truth you shouldn't be off your mother's apron strings. The next thing, you'll be naming the