With a start, Nynaeve pulled out of her thoughts. They were at the foot of the White Bridge. The pale arch shone in the sunlight, a milky spiderweb too delicate to stand, sweeping across the Arinelle. The weight of a man would bring it crashing down, much less that of a horse. Surely it would collapse under its own weight any minute.
Lan and Moiraine rode unconcernedly ahead, up the gleaming white approach and onto the bridge, hooves ringing, not like steel on glass, but like steel on steel. The surface of the bridge certainly looked as slick as glass, wet glass, but it gave the horses a firm, sure footing.
Nynaeve made herself follow, but from the first step she half waited for the entire structure to shatter under them. If lace were made of glass, she thought, it would look like this.
It was not until they were almost all the way across that she noticed the tarry smell of char thickening the air. In a moment she saw.
Around the square at the foot of the White Bridge piles of blackened timbers, still leaking smoky threads, replaced half a dozen buildings. Men in poorly fitting red uniforms and tarnished armor patrolled the streets, but they marched quickly, as if afraid of finding anything, and they looked over their shoulders as they went. Townspeople — the few who were out — almost ran, shoulders hunched, as though something were chasing them.
Lan looked grim, even for him, and people walked wide of the three of them, even the soldiers. The Warder sniffed the air and grimaced, growling under his breath. It was no wonder to Nynaeve, with the stink of burn so strong.
“The Wheel weaves as the Wheel wills,” Moiraine mumbled. “No eye can see the Pattern until it is woven.”
In the next moment she was down off Aldieb and speaking to townsfolk. She did not ask questions; she gave sympathy, and to Nynaeve's surprise it appeared genuine. People who shied away from Lan, ready to hurry from any stranger, stopped to speak with Moiraine. They appeared startled themselves at what they were doing, but they opened up, after a fashion, under Moiraine's clear gaze and soothing voice. The Aes Sedai's eyes seemed to share the people's hurt, to empathize with their confusion, and tongues loosened.
They still lied, though. Most of them. Some denied there had been any trouble at all. Nothing at all. Moiraine mentioned the burned buildings all around the square. Everything was fine, they insisted, staring past what they did not want to see.
One fat fellow spoke with a hollow heartiness, but his cheek twitched at every noise behind him. With a grin that kept slipping, he claimed an overturned lamp had started a fire that spread with the wind before anything could be done. One glance showed Nynaeve that no burned structure stood alongside another.
There were almost as many different stories as there were people. Several women lowered their voices conspiratorially. The truth of the matter was there was a man somewhere in the town meddling with the One Power. It was time to have the Aes Sedai in; past time, was the way they saw it, no matter what the men said about Tar Valon. Let the Red Ajah settle matters.
One man claimed it had been an attack by bandits, and another said a riot by Darkfriends. “Those ones going to see the false Dragon, you know,” he confided darkly. “They're all over the place. Darkfriends, every one.”
Still others spoke of some kind of trouble — they were vague about exactly what kind — that had come downriver on a boat.
“We showed them,” a narrowfaced man muttered, scrubbing his hand together nervously. “Let them keep that kind of thing in the Borderlands, where it belongs. We went down to the docks and —” He cut off so abruptly his teeth clicked. Without another word he scurried off, peering back over his shoulder at them as if he thought they might chase him down.
The boat had gotten away — that much was clear, eventually, from others — cutting its moorings and fleeing downriver only the day before while a mob poured onto the docks. Nynaeve wondered if Egwene and the boys had been on board. One woman said that a gleeman had been on the boat. If that had been Thom Merrilin ...
She tried her opinion on Moiraine, that some of the Emond's Fielders might have fled on the boat. The Aes Sedai listened patiently, nodding, until she was done.
“Perhaps,” Moiraine said then, but she sounded doubtful.
An inn still stood in the square, the common room divided in two by a shoulderhigh wall. Moiraine paused as she stepped into the inn, feeling the air with her hand. She smiled at whatever it was she felt, but she would say nothing of it, then.
Their meal was consumed in silence, silence not only at their table, but throughout the common room. The handful of people eating there concentrated on their own plates and their own thoughts. The innkeeper, dusting tables with a corner of his apron, muttered to himself continually, but always too low to be heard. Nynaeve thought it would not be pleasant sleeping there; even the air was heavy with fear.
About the time they pushed their plates away, wiped clean with the last scraps of bread, one of the reduniformed soldiers appeared in the doorway. He seemed resplendent to Nynaeve, in his peaked helmet and burnished breastplate, until he took a pose just inside the door, with a hand resting on the hilt of his sword and a stern look on his face, and used a finger to ease his tootight collar. It made her think of Cenn Buie trying to act the way a Village Councilor should.
Lan spared him one glance and snorted. “Militia. Useless.”
The soldier looked over the room, letting his eyes come to rest on them. He hesitated, then took a deep breath before stomping over to demand, all in a rush, who they were, what their business was in Whitebridge, and how long they intended to stay.
“We are leaving as soon as I finish my ale,” Lan said. He took another slow swallow before looking up at the solider. “The Light illumine good Queen Morgase. ”
The reduniformed man opened his mouth, then took a good look at Lan's eyes and stepped back. He caught himself immediately, with a glance at Moiraine and her. She thought for a moment that he was going to do something foolish to keep from looking the coward in front of two women. In her experience, men were often idiots that way. But too much had happened in Whitebridge; too much uncertainty had escaped from the cellars of men's minds. The militiaman looked back at Lan and reconsidered once more. The Warder's hardplaned face was expressionless, but there were those cold blue eyes. So cold.
The militiaman settled on a brisk nod. “See that you do. Too many strangers around these days for the good of the Queen's peace.” Turning on his heel he stomped out again, practicing his stern look on the way. None of the locals in the inn seemed to notice.
“Where are we going?” Nynaeve demanded of the Warder. The mood in the room was such that she kept her voice low, but she made sure it was firm, too. “After the boat?”
Lan looked at Moiraine, who shook her head slightly and said, “First I must find the one I can be sure of finding, and at present he is somewhere to the north of us. I do not think the other two went with the boat in any case.” A small, satisfied smile touched her lips. “They were in this room, perhaps a day ago, no more than two. Afraid, but they left alive. The trace would not have lasted without that strong emotion.”
“Which two?” Nynaeve leaned over the table intently. “Do you know?” The Aes Sedai shook her head, the slightest of motions, and Nynaeve settled back. “If they're only a day or two ahead, why don't we go after them first?”
“I know they were here,” Moiraine said in that insufferably calm voice, “but beyond that I cannot say if they went east or north or south. I trust they are smart enough to have gone east, toward Caemlyn, but I do not know, and lacking their tokens, I will not know where they are until I am perhaps within half a mile. In two days they could have gone twenty miles, or forty, in any direction, if fear urged them, and they were certainly afraid when they left here.”
“Wisdom, however fearful they were, in whatever direction they ran, eventually they will remember Caemlyn, and it is there I will find them. But I will help the one I can find now, first.”
Nynaeve opened her mouth again, but Lan cut her off in a soft voice. “They had reason to be afraid.” He looked around, then lowered his voice. “There was a Halfman here.” He grimaced, the way he had in the square. “I can still smell him everywhere.”
Moiraine sighed. “I will keep hope until I know it is gone. I refuse to believe the Dark One can win so easily. I will find all three of them alive and well. I must believe it.”
“I want to find the boys, too,” Nynaeve said, “but what about Egwene? You never even mention her, and you ignore me when I ask. I thought you were going to take her off to” — she glanced at the other tables, and lowered her voice — “to Tar Valon.”
The Aes Sedai studied the tabletop for a moment before raising her eyes to Nynaeve's, and when she did, Nynaeve started back from a flash of anger that almost seemed to make Moiraine's eyes glow. Then her back stiffened, her own anger rising, but before she could say a word, the Aes Sedai spoke coldly.
“I hope to find Egwene alive and well, too. I do not easily give up young women with that much ability once I have found them. But it will be a