Reading The Wheel of Time

Reading the Wheel of Time: A Proliferation of Darkfriends in Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World (Part 10)

I grew up in a family that loved hiking and backpacking. I’ve done it in bad weather as well as good, in rain, and even in snow, and there is something uniquely miserable about walking all day in the rain knowing that ahead of you is a damp night spent sleeping on the ground after a re-hydrated meal. Or, in the case of Rand al’Thor and Matrim Cauthon, no meal at all. After this section, I think I’ll take those weird freeze-dried meals over nothing any day, and at least I had a tent to pitch. And no Evil Forces hunting me.

Once some raccoons got into our tent and ate my sister’s toothpaste. Does that count?

Welcome back to Week Ten of Reading the Wheel of Time! This week we’re trudging down the Caemlyn road with Mat and Rand in chapters 31-33, trying to steer clear of both the Darkfriends who want to catch them and the regular folk who think our boys just might be the bad guys themselves. Mat continues to act more and more suspiciously and Rand… well, let’s recap first, shall we?

In the beginning of Chapter 31, Rand and Mat are on the dusty road, looking for a way through a hedge that lines the road, apparently to hide in it. Touching a scarf he is wearing around his mouth and nose to keep the dust out, Rand remembers the farmer who gave it to him, a good though fearful man, and how touched Rand had been by such rare kindness. Rand and Mat hide in the hedge, unsure if the passing horsemen are looking for them or not.

The narration flashes back to the frenzied departure from Whitebridge as Rand remembers the early days of their travels. Always looking behind them for a Fade to appear, Rand and Mat traveled on foot and occasionally in the back of a passing wagon, sleeping out doors and often going hungry. Once again Rand suggested selling Mat’s dagger to pay for food and lodging on their travels, and once again Mat became uncharacteristically angry about it, accusing Rand of being eager to sell something that Mat rightly found and suggesting Rand sell his sword instead. Rand pointed out that the sword was a gift from his father, and he would never ask Mat to sell something that had belonged to his father. The dagger made more sense to sell than a sword, anyway, or so Rand felt. But Mat pointed out that a farmer wouldn’t want—or be able to pay for—a jeweled dagger anymore than a sword, and Rand had to concede the point.

Wanting to save what little money they did have for emergencies, Rand and Mat either went hungry or occasionally worked on someone’s farm in exchange for food and shelter, but Mat proved as suspicious of the locals as the locals were of Mat and Rand, which made things difficult, and Rand also feared wasting any time not moving and staying ahead of the Myrddraal. Then one night, in an attempt to distract from a farmer’s daughter who kept trying to flirt with Rand, he brought out Thom’s flute and began to play it. When Mat also juggled for the family the boys discovered that they were a big hit, which gave Rand the idea to preform at inns in exchange for supper and a bed. After that things were better—until they reached the town of Four Kings.

Rand didn’t like the look of the drab, dirty town where the Caemlyn road and another highway meet, but neither of the boys liked the idea of going hungry and sleeping outdoors again, so they checked at all the inns until they come to one, The Dancing Cartman, which did not already have entertainment. It was not a particularly pleasant place, and the innkeeper, Saml Hake, was a greasy and violent man, who hit a serving maid hard enough to knock her down just for contradicting him. Hake agreed to let them perform in exchange for food and some beds in the storeroom, but as Rand and Mat took turns playing and juggling, Rand became suspicious of Hake and the way he eyed the boy’s possessions, especially Rand’s heron-marked sword. Mat noticed too, and the boys were aware that the two bouncers Hake employed could make easy work of them, even breaking down the door of the storeroom if they attempted to bar it while they slept. Unable to slip away because of the demand for their performance and Mat’s hungry belly, they continued to play, hoping for a chance to present itself. Meanwhile, Rand noticed a man, too fancy and well-dressed to belong in the crowd at The Dancing Cartman, who was also watching him. He and Mat both believed they had seen the man somewhere before.

When they finally got a break for dinner, Rand overheard the servers and cooks talking in the kitchen about the well-dressed man, and, becoming ever more suspicious, went outside to look at the man’s carriage. He recognized the look of the thing; it was just like the merchant’s carriages that he saw in Whitebridge. The name inscribed on the side read Howal Gode.

The rest of the night passed like a nightmare for Rand. Aware that he could not escape from Hake and now convinced, too, that Howal Gode was a Darkfriend who had followed them after they escaped the Myydral, he was forced to keep playing, trapped, until he and Mat were escorted by Hake and his men to the storeroom to sleep. Rand expected to be attacked in the hallway before they ever reached the storeroom, but Hake apparently wanted to be cautious around his armed guests; he just eyed the sword again and left. Unable to lock the door form the inside, Rand found some wedges to stick under it as he and Mat struggled vainly to escape through the barred window. But despite carefully using a crowbar and hiding the sound of it under the rumble of thunder from a storm outside, they were unable to get the bars open.

Just then they heard Gode’s voice outside, demanding to come in and talk to them. He insisted that Hake and his men would sleep soundly all night, and urged Rand and Mat to stop running from Gode’s “master” and accept their fate. He told them that they were already marked as belonging to the The Great Lord of the Dark, and promising them “[l]ife everlasting, and power beyond dreams.” When the boys still refused, Gode’s threats turned uglier and he began to force the door open. Rand, meanwhile, found himself panicking, desperate for a way out as Mat suggested that they might have to surrender, that there was no way out.

The words repeated in Rand’s ears, his panic building, and suddenly a bright flash of lightning flung him across the room. After recovering from a daze, Rand saw that the window and outer wall had been smashed by the lightning strike, while Mat was half-blinded by the light. There was no sign of Gode as the two escaped out into the storm, but Rand saw bodies buried under the rubble of the destroyed wall.

When Chapter 33 opens, Rand and Mat are hitching a ride with a farmer named Hyam Kinch. Rand notes that he is feeling better, after being suddenly sick, and he talks to Mat about how Mat’s eyes are feeling. Mat says they don’t hurt much anymore. A group of well-armored horsemen pass them, and when Rand asks, the farmer explains that they are the Queen’s Guard. When their ways eventually part, Hyam lets the boys know that they are two days away from Caemlyn, then hesitantly offers them the opportunity to stay and rest at his farm. He has clearly noticed that the boys are in some kind of trouble and is worried about someone finding them; he also seems concerned about Rand’s illness. But Mat is instantly suspicious, and rude, too, and the man drives off. Mat apologizes to Rand, worried about his friend’s health, but explains that he just can’t shake the feeling that everyone is after them. Still, Rand agrees that they need to keep moving, and casts his mind back to the escape from the Dancing Cartman.

Rand helped Mat, practically blinded by the lightning, navigate the darkness and the storm, until they found some bushes to shelter under and Rand immediately had another Ba’alzamon dream, in which he saw the burned Gode and Ba’alzamon “marked” Rand as his with a blast of fire. When Rand woke his face was hot and Mat was dreaming too, screaming “he took my eyes!”

In the morning Rand lead Mat down the road and eventually they were given a ride by a farmer named Alpert Mull. He is the man who gave them the scarves, and Rand is touched by the kindness. That night they paid for lodging and food, not wanting to draw attention to themselves, and in the morning Mat’s eyes were a little better. Rand also felt good, and more optimistic, thinking how odd it was that he was actually looking forward to being back in the safety of Moiraine and Lan’s company. But over breakfast they were accosted by a well-dressed young man named Paitr, and his nervous interest in them mades both Mat and Rand highly suspicious. When Paitr tried to stop them from leaving Rand punched him in the face, and Paitr cursed them in the name of the Great Lord of the Dark.

Again they fled, getting rides when they could, and eventually arriving at another inn. This time they tried offering their performance again, but Rand found himself feeling very sick, reaching the point of collapse and only half-way understanding what was happening around him. Eventually he found himself hauled away by Mat to settle in the stables. Mat explained that the innkeeper didn’t want anyone to know someone in his inn was sick, and Mat parlayed that into a place to stay in the stables and some food, in exchange for discretion.

Rand alternated between shaking with cold and flashes of fever as Mat looked after him, and fell into nightmare dreams of his friends, looking like corpses and accusing him of abandoning him, or threatening that the Dark One will have Rand for his own. Finally he saw Tam, who only shook his head as Rand begged to be told the truth about himself.

He awoke to Mat answering the question Rand had been begging of Tam. “You’re Rand al’Thor, that’s who you are, with the ugliest face and the thickest head in the Two Rivers.” Mat was pleased to see that Rand’s fever had broken, and Rand slept more calmly after that, until another newcomer woke him. The well-dressed woman asked if Rand was sick and offered help as a healer, but when she got close to the boys she pulled a dagger and tried to stab Mat. But Rand warned his friend in time and Mat dodged the blade, putting the Shadar Logoth dagger to the woman’s throat. He wanted to kill her, but Rand stopped him. They retreated, and shortly after found a ride with a farmer, Hyam Kinch.

 * * *

Well, that was certainly confusing. I had quite a challenge just doing the recap this week, because, honestly, I could not quite figure out how the timeline of these chapters work. I think what is happening here is a flashback within a flashback, and I can honestly not tell why you would do that to your readers! One flashback makes sense; my expectation is that when we come back to Rand and Mat on the road in the beginning of Chapter 21, chronologically we are at around the same point as when Perrin and Egwene are being interviewed by Captain Bornhald. Then we flash back to everything that happened before that point. But the second flashback baffled me. In addition to confusing the heck out of the timeline (and can I just say they travel in so many carts and stay at so many inns, it’s already difficult enough without any flashbacks at all) it also takes the teeth completely out of a dramatic moment. The whole chapter was beautifully wrought, the description of the town like an old western right before the outlaws show up, the building tension as Rand begins to suspect first Hake, then the well-dressed stranger, the discomfiting counter-point of Mat’s behavior. And then it all crescendos with Gode pounding at the door and Rand’s panic, and the perfect way his thoughts are presented There’s no way out! A way out! And then BAM! Rand just summoned lightning! Mat is blinded! There are bodies in the rubble and they’re running out into the storm. What is going to happen next?

Oh a wagon. The same wagon as the beginning of Chapter 31, right? No, a different wagon and a different farmer? I guess the boys got away okay, and though I still want to know how, I’m not really worried about them so much anymore.

It’s like suddenly letting all the air out of a balloon you’ve just worked hard to blow up.

All this is to say that I think it would have been much better, from a technical point of view, not to add the second flashback and just take us straight through chronologically until we get back to the opening of Chapter 31. And I don’t think it was a good idea to break up the action from the escape from Four Kings. However, I do like the overall structure of this section very much. In the earlier chapters with Perrin, Egwene, and Elyas, all the momentum of the story happened while the party was moving; he flight from the ravens, hiding from and and then fighting the Children of the Light, etc. And then when Elyas stops them from for the night, there is a lot of talking, sharing knowledge and stories, and a lot of personal musing, at least for Perrin. In contrast, Rand and Mat’s journey consists of long, plodding descriptions of walking on the dusty road while looking over their shoulders for pursuit and being looked at suspiciously by a lot of farmers. Oh, and riding in wagons. Don’t forget those.

But then Rand and Mat stop somewhere and that is where the drama finds them, be it a creepy innkeeper, a flirtatious farmer’s daughter, or the Darkfriend lady with her smoking knife.

At least we can finally be sure which of the boys is the Dragon Reborn, eh? If I had any doubts left, Rand’s sickness after the lightning strike certainly puts them to rest. I really enjoyed that section, not only for the dramatic irony of knowing, as a reader, what was going on even though Rand doesn’t have the information I have, but also because it gave a bit of a different perspective on what’s going on with Matt. Whatever Mordeth, or that dagger, is doing to him, and despite all his anger and suspicion of everyone, Mat’s loyalty to Rand hasn’t really come into question. The two stick together, and when Rand is in trouble, we see Mat be an attentive and caring friend. I still don’t know what’s going on with the guy, but this all has me thinking again about the role that fear and distrust seem to be play in doing the Dark One’s work.

The farmer, Mull, is a really good example of the way fear is dividing good people from each other. His words show that he is a good man, that he wants to help them more but doesn’t feel that he can risk it. Probably a lot of the farmers and town locals that Rand and Mat would have been friendly and eager to help once upon a time, and their fear puts the boys in even more danger, depriving them of any kind of refuge. It also increases the chances that an unsuspecting bystander could be tricked into giving the boys up, since the Darkfriends seem ready to spread any rumor.

But getting back to Mat, it isn’t as though he is being unreasonably wary or fearful, although he handles those feelings badly at times, glaring at people and generally drawing attention with his moodiness. It certainly seems reasonable to Rand, which is why he doesn’t suspect anything is actually off. I mean, as I am reading I’m yelling at him “What did Moiraine say about Mordeth’s treasure, you idiot!” but that’s not really fair of me. Rand’s got a lot of things on his mind, and hasn’t consumed nearly as much fiction as I have. My point here, anyway, is that it’s possible that the terror of their situation is actually affecting whatever magic weirdness is going on with Mat, exacerbating his condition. He sounds so much more like himself when he’s talking to Rand while Rand is sick than he has since they escaped Shadar Logoth. I am very very curious to get more information about this.

Also I was not prepared for the number of human people in this section who actually are Darkfriends. The way that insult has been bandied about since Chapter One (usually in the direction of our protagonists) led me to assume that most people were just on a witch hunt, but I guess they do have some reason to be so paranoid. I even made a similar assumption about Rand and Mat—I thought that the incident with Paitr was going to be a fake out, not that he was actually going to be an agent of Ba’alzamon! Looks like our boys’ instincts have improved a lot since they left home.

It’s interesting that Mat and Rand ended up together because they are both ticking time bombs right now. Rand is now on a deadline toward magical insanity and/or death, and sooner or later Mat’s problems are going to come to a head. Are they going to find any help before things get too far along? I better keep reading to find out.

Join me next time when we will cover Chapters 34-36, in which Rand and Matt finally (finally!) reach Caemlyn, learn some new things about an old friend and even discover a very unexpected new one. I can’t wait. But in the meantime, I will see you all down below in the comments!

Did you know that raccoons like toothpaste? Sylas Barrett learned that the hard way.

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