The tavern's business rocked along like any in the Maule, a wagonload of geese and crockery careering downhill through the night. The babble of voices fought with the musicians' offerings on three assorted drums, two hammered dulcimers, and a bulbous semseer that produced whining trills. The serving maids in dark, ankle-length dresses with necks up to the chin and short white aprons hustled between crowded tables, holding clusters of pottery mugs overhead so they could squeeze through. Barefoot leather-vested dockmen mixed with fellows in coats tight to the waist and bare-chested men with broad, colorful sashes to hold up their baggy breeches. So close to the docks, vestments of outlanders were everywhere among the crowd; high collars from the north and long collars from the west, silver chains on coats and bells on vests, knee-high boots and thigh-high boots, necklaces or earrings on men, lace on coats or shirts. One man with wide shoulders and a big belly had a forked yellow beard, and another had smeared something on his mustaches to make them glisten in the lamplight and curl up on either side of his narrow face. Dice rolled and tumbled in three corners of the room and on a number of tabletops, silver changing hands briskly to shouts and laughter.
Mat sat alone with his back to the wall where he could see all the doors, though mostly he peered into a still untouched mug of dark wine. He did not go near the dice games, and he never glanced at the serving girls' ankles. With the tavern so crowded, men occasionally thought to share his table, but a good look at his face made them sheer away and crowd onto a bench elsewhere.
Dipping a finger in his wine, he sketched aimlessly on the tabletop. These fools had no idea what had happened in the Stone tonight. 12112l119m He had heard a few Tairens mention some kind of trouble, quick words that trailed off into nervous laughter. They did not know and did not want to. He almost wished he did not know himself. No, he wished he had a better idea of what had happened. The images kept flashing in his head, flashing through the holes in his memory, making no real sense.
The din of fighting somewhere in the distance echoed down the corridor, dulled by the wall hangings. He retrieved his knife from the Gray Man's corpse with a shaking hand. A Gray Man, and hunting him. It had to have been after him. Gray Men did not wander about killing at random; they had targets as surely as an arrow. He turned to run, and there was a Myrddraal striding toward him like a black snake on legs, its pasty-faced, eyeless stare sending shivers into his bones. At thirty paces he hurled the knife straight at where an eye should have been; at that distance he could hit a knothole no larger than an eye four times in five.
The Fade's black sword blurred as it knocked the dagger away, almost casually; it did not even break stride. "Time to die, Hornsounder." Its voice was a red adder's dry hiss, warning of death.
Mat backed away. He had a knife in either hand, now, though he did not remember drawing them. Not that knives would be much good against a sword, but running meant that black blade in his back as sure as five sixes beat four threes. He wished he had a good quarterstaff. Or a bow; he would like to see this thing try to deflect a shaft from a Two Rivers longbow. He wished he were somewhere else. He was going to die, here.
Suddenly a dozen Trollocs roared out of a side hallway, piling onto the Fade in a frenzy of chopping axes and stabbing swords. Mat stared in amazed disbelief. The Halfman fought like a black-armored whirlwind. More than half the Trollocs were dead or dying before the Fade lay in a twitching heap; one arm flexed and thrashed like a dying snake three paces away from the body, still with that black sword in its fist.
A ram-horned Trolloc peered toward Mat, snout lifted to sniff the air. It snarled at him, then whined and began licking a long gash that had laid open mail and hairy forearm. The others finished cutting the throats of their wounded, and one barked a few harsh, guttural words. Without another glance at Mat, they turned and trotted away, hooves and boots making hollow sounds on the stone floor.
Away from him. Mat shivered. Trollocs to the rescue. What had Rand gotten him into now? He saw what he had drawn with the wine - an open door - and scrubbed it out angrily. He had to get away from here. He had to. And he could also feel that urge in the back of his head; that it was time to go back to the Stone. He pushed it away angrily, but it kept buzzing at him.
He caught a snatch of talk from the table to his right, where the lean-faced fellow with the curling mustaches was holding forth in a heavy Lugarder accent. "Now this Dragon of yours is a great man no doubt, I'll not be denying it, but he's not a patch on Logain. Why, Logain had all of Ghealdan at war, and half of Amadicia and Altara, as well. He made the earth swallow whole towns that resisted him, he did. Buildings, people and all entire. And the one up in Saldaea, Maseem? Why, they say he made the sun stand still till he defeated the Lord of Bashere's army. 'Tis a fact, they do say."
Mat shook his head. The Stone fallen and Callandor in Rand's hand, and this idiot still thought he was another false Dragon. He had sketched that doorway again. Rubbing a hand through it, he grabbed up the mug of wine, then stopped with it halfway to his mouth. Through the commotion his ear had picked out a familiar name spoken at a nearby table. Scraping back his bench, he made his way to that table, mug in hand.
The people around it were the sort of odd mixture made in taverns in the Maule. Two barefoot sailors wearing oiled coats over bare chests, one with a thick gold chain close around his neck. A once fat man with sagging jowls, in a dark Cairhienin coat with slashes of red and gold and green across his chest which might have indicated that he was a noble, though one sleeve was torn at the shoulder; a good many Cairhienin refugees had come down far in the world. A gray-haired woman all in subdued dark blue, with a hard face and a sharp eye and heavy gold rings on her fingers. And the speaker, the fork-bearded fellow, with a ruby the size of a pigeon's egg in his ear. The three silver chains looped across the straining chest of his dark, reddish coat named him a Kandori master merchant. They had a guild for merchants in Kandor.
The talk ceased and all eyes swung to Mat when he stopped at their table. "I heard you mention the Two Rivers."
Forkbeard ran a quick eye over him, the unbrushed hair, the tight expression on his face and the wine in his fist, the gleaming black boots, the green coat with its gold scrollwork, open to the waist to reveal a snowy linen shirt, but both coat and shirt heavily wrinkled. In short, the very image of a young noble sporting himself among the commoners. "I did, my Lord," he said heartily. "I was saying there'll be no tabac out of there this year, I'll wager. I have twenty casks of the finest Two Rivers leaf, though, than which there is none finer. Fetch an excellent price later in the year. If my Lord wishes a cask for his own stock..." He tugged one point of his yellow beard and laid a finger alongside his nose. ". . . I am certain I could manage to -"
"You'll wager that, will you?" Mat said softly, cutting him short. "Why would there be no tabac out of the Two Rivers?"
"Why, the Whitecloaks, my Lord. The Children of the Light."
"What about Whitecloaks?"
The master merchant peered around the table for help; there was a dangerous note in that quiet tone. The sailors looked as if they would leave if they dared. The Cairhienin was glaring at Mat, sitting up too straight and smoothing his worn coat as he swayed; the empty mug in front of him was obviously not his first. The gray-haired woman had her mug to her mouth, her sharp eyes watching Mat over the rim in a calculating way.
Managing a seated bow, the merchant put on an ingratiating tone. "The rumor is, my Lord, that the Whitecloaks have gone into the Two Rivers. Hunting the Dragon Reborn, it's said. Though of course, that cannot be, since the Lord Dragon is here in Tear." He eyed Mat to see how that had been taken; Mat's face did not change. "These rumors can run very wild, my Lord. Perhaps it's only wind in a bucket. The same rumor claims the Whitecloaks are after some Darkfriend with yellow eyes, too. Did you ever hear of a man with yellow eyes, my Lord? No more have I. Wind in a bucket."
Mat set his mug on the table and leaned closer to the man. "Who else are they hunting? According to this rumor. The Dragon Reborn. A man with yellow eyes. Who else?"
Beads of sweat formed on the merchant's face. "No one, my Lord. No one that I heard. Only rumor, my Lord. Straws in the wind; no more. A puff of smoke, soon vanished. If I might have the honor of presenting my Lord a cask of Two Rivers tabac? A gesture of appreciation... the honor of... to express my..."
Mat tossed an Andoran gold crown onto the table. "Buy your drink on me till that runs out."
As he turned away he heard mutters from the table. "I thought he'd cut my throat. You know these lordlings when they're full of wine." That from the fork-bearded merchant. "An odd young man," the woman said. "Dangerous. Do not try your ploys on that kind, Paetram." "I do not think he is a lord at all," another man said petulantly. The Cairhienin, Mat supposed. His lip curled. A lord? He would not be a lord if it was offered to him. Whitecloaks in the Two Rivers. Light! Light help us!
Plowing his way to the door, he pulled a pair of wooden clogs from the pile against the wall. He had no idea whether they were the ones he had worn in - they all looked alike - and did not care. They fit his boots.
It had started raining outside, a light fall that made the darkness that much deeper. Turning up his collar, he splashed along the muddy streets of the Maule in an awkward trot, past blaring taverns and well-lit inns and dark-windowed houses. When mud gave way to paving stones at the wall marking the inner city, he kicked the clogs off and left them lying as he ran on. The Defenders guarding the nearest gate into the Stone let him pass without a word; they knew who he was. He ran all the way to Perrin's room and flung open the door, barely noticing the splintered split in the wood. Perrin's saddlebags lay on the bed, and Perrin was stuffing shirts and stockings into them. There was only one candle lit, but he did not seem to notice the gloom.
"You've heard, then," Mat said.
Perrin went on with what he was doing. "About home? Yes. I went down to sniff out a rumor for Faile. After tonight, more than ever, I have to get her..." The growl, deep in his throat, made Mat's hackles rise; it sounded like an angry wolf. "No matter. I heard. Maybe this will do as well."
As well as what? Mat wondered. "You believe it?"
For a moment Perrin looked up; his eyes gathered the light of the candle, shining a burnished golden yellow. "There doesn't seem to be much doubt, to me. It's all too close to the truth."
Mat shifted uncomfortably. "Does Rand know?" Perrin only nodded and went back to his packing. "Well, what does he say?"
Perrin paused, staring at the folded cloak in his hands. "He started muttering to himself. 'He said he'd do it. He said he would. I should have believed him.' Like that. It made no sense. Then he grabbed me by the collar and said he had to do 'what they don't expect.' He wanted to me to understand, but I'm not certain he does himself. He didn't seem to care whether I leave or stay. No, I take that back. I think he was relieved I'm leaving."
"Boil it down, and he's not going to do anything," Mat said. "Light, with Callandor he could blast a thousand Whitecloaks! You saw what he did to those bloody Trollocs. You're going, are you? Back to the Two Rivers? Alone?"
"Unless you are coming, too." Perrin stuffed the cloak into the saddlebags. "Are you?"
Instead of answering, Mat paced back and forth, his face in half-light and shadow by turns. His mother and father were in Emond's Field, and his sisters. Whitecloaks had no reason to hurt them. If he went home, he had the feeling he would never leave again, that his mother would marry him off before he could sit down. But if he did not go, if the Whitecloaks harmed them.... All it took was rumor, for Whitecloaks, so he had heard. But why should there be any rumor about them? Even the Coplins, liars and troublemakers to a man, liked his father. Everyone liked Abell Cauthon.
"You don't have to," Perrin said quietly. "Nothing I heard mentioned you. Only Rand, and me."
"Burn me, I will g-" He could not say it. Thinking of going was easy enough, but saying he would? His throat tightened up to strangle the words. "Is it easy for you, Perrin? Going, I mean? Don't you... feel anything? Trying to hold you back? Telling you reasons you shouldn't go?"
"A hundred of them, Mat, but I know it comes down to Rand, and ta'veren. You won't admit that, will you? A hundred reasons to stay, but the one reason to go outweighs them. The Whitecloaks are in the Two Rivers, and they'll hurt people trying to find me. I can stop it, if I go."
"Why should the Whitecloaks want you enough to hurt anybody? Light, if they go asking for somebody with yellow eyes, nobody in Emond's Field will know who they're talking about! And how can you stop anything? One more pair of hands won't do much good. Aaah! The Whitecloaks have bitten a mouthful of leather if they think they can push Two Rivers folk around."
"They know my name," Perrin said softly. His gaze swung to where his axe hung on the wall, the belt tied around the haft and the wall hook. Or maybe it was his hammer he was staring at, standing propped against the wall beneath the axe; Mat could not be sure. "They can find my family. As for why, they have their reasons, Mat. Just as I have mine. Who can say who has the better?"
"Burn me, Perrin. Burn me! I want to g-g- See? I can't even say it, now. Like my head knows I'll do it if I say it. I can't even get it out in my mind!"
"Different paths. We've been sent down different paths before."
"Different paths be bloodied," Mat grunted. "I've had all I want of Rand, and Aes Sedai, shoving me down their bloody paths. I want to go where I want for a change, do what I want!" He turned for the door, but Perrin's voice halted him.
"I hope your path is a happy one, Mat. The Light send you pretty girls and fools who want to gamble."
"Oh, burn me, Perrin. The Light send you what you want, too."
"I expect it will." He did not sound happy at the prospect.
"Will you tell my Da I'm all right? And my mother? She always did worry. And look after my sisters. They used to spy on me and tell Mother everything, but I wouldn't want anything to happen to them."
"I promise, Mat."
Closing the door behind him, Mat wandered down the hallways aimlessly. His sisters. Eldrin and Bodewhin had always been ready to run shouting "Mama, Mat's in trouble again, Mat's doing what he shouldn't, Mama." Especially Bode. They would be sixteen and seventeen, now. Probably thinking of marriage before too much longer, already with some dull farmer picked out whether the fellow knew it or not. Had he really been gone so long? It did not seem so, sometimes. Sometimes he felt as if he had left Emond's Field just a week or two past. Other times it seemed years gone, only dimly remembered at all. He could remember Eldrin and Bode smirking when he had been switched, but their faces were no longer sharp. His own sisters' faces. These bloody holes in his memory, like holes in his life.
He saw Berelain coming toward him and grinned in spite of himself. For all her airs, she was a fine figure of a woman. That clinging white silk was thin enough for a handkerchief, not to mention being scooped low enough at the top to expose a considerable amount of excellent pale bosom.
He swept her his best bow, elegant and formal. "A good evening to you, my Lady." She started to sweep by without a glance, and he straightened angrily. "Are you deaf as well as blind, woman? I'm not a carpet to walk over, and I distinctly heard myself speak. If I pinch your bottom, you can slap my face, but until I do, I expect a civil word for a civil word!"
The First stopped dead, eyeing him in that way women had. She could have sewn him a shirt and told his weight, not to mention when he had his last bath, from that look. Then she turned away, murmuring something to herself. All he caught was "too much like me."
He stared after her in amazement. Not a word to him! That face, that walk, and her nose so far in the air it was a wonder her feet touched the ground. That was what he got, speaking to the likes of Berelain and Elayne. Nobles who thought you were dirt unless you had a palace and bloodlines back to Artur Hawkwing. Well, he knew a plump cook's helper - just plump enough - who did not think he was dirt. Dara had a way of nibbling his ears that...
His thoughts stopped dead in their tracks. He had been considering seeing whether Dara was awake and up for a cuddle. He had even considered flirting with Berelain. Berelain! And the last words he had said to Perrin. Look after my sisters. As if he had already decided, already knew what to do. Only he had not. He would not, not so easily, just sliding into it. There was a way, perhaps.
Digging a gold coin from his pocket, he flipped it into the air and snatched it onto the back of his other hand. A Tar Valon mark, he saw for the first time, and he was staring at the Flame of Tar Valon, stylized like a teardrop. "Burn all Aes Sedai!" he announced loudly. "And burn Rand al'Thor for getting me into this!"
A black-and-gold liveried servant stopped in midstride, staring at him worriedly. The man's silver tray was piled high with rolled bandages and jars of ointment. As soon as he realized Mat had seen him, he gave a jump.
Mat tossed the gold mark onto the man's tray. "From the biggest fool in the world. Mind you spend it well, on women and wine."
"Th-thank you, my Lord," the man stammered as if stunned.
Mat left him standing there. The biggest fool in the world. Aren't I just!