He could never handle the instrument without a pang of sadness. Touching its goldandsilver scrollwork was like touching Thom's memory. He never handled the harp except to see that it was safe and dry — Thom had always said the harp was beyond a farmboy's clumsy hands — but whenever a farmer allowed them to stay, he always played one tune on the flute after supper. It was just a little something extra to pay the farmer, and maybe a way of keeping Thom's memory fresh.
With a laughing mood already set by Mat's juggling, he played “Three Girls in the Meadow.” Master and Mistress Grinwell clapped along, and the smaller children danced around the floor, even the smallest boy, who could barely walk, stomping his feet in time. He knew he would win no prizes at Bel Tine, but after Thom's teaching he would not be embarrassed to enter.
Else was sitting crosslegged in front of the fire, and as he lowered the flute after the last note, she leaned forward with a long sigh and smiled at him. “You play so beautifully. I never heard anything so beautiful.”
Mistress Grinwell suddenly paused in her sewing and raised an eyebrow at her daughter, then gave Rand a long, appraising look.
He had picked up the leather case to put the flute away, but under her stare he dropped the case and almost the flute, too. If she accused him of trifling with her daughter ... In desperation he put the flute back to his lips and played another song, then another, and another. Mistress Grinwell kept watching him. He played “The Wind That Shakes the Willow,” and “Coming Home From Tarwin's Gap,” and “Mistress Aynora's Rooster,” and “The Old Black Bear.” He played every song he could think of, but she never took her eyes off him. She never said anything, either, but she watched, and weighed.
It was late when Master Grinwell finally stood up, chuckling and rubbing his hands together. “Well, this has been rare fun, but it's way past our bedtime. You traveling lads make your own hours, but morning comes early on a farm. I'll tell you lads, I have paid good money at an inn for no better entertainment than I've had this night. For worse.”
“I think they should have a reward, father,” Mistress Grinwell said as she picked up her youngest boy, who had long since fallen asleep in front of the fire. “The barn is no fit place to sleep. They can sleep in Else's room tonight, and she will sleep with me.”
Else grimaced. She was careful to keep her head down, but Rand saw it. He thought her mother did, too.
Master Grinwell nodded. “Yes, yes, much better than the barn. If you don't mind sleeping two to a bed, that is.” Rand flushed; Mistress Grinwell was still looking at him. “I do wish I could hear more of that flute. And your juggling, too. I like that. You know, there's a little task you could help with tomorrow, and —”
“They'll be wanting an early start, father,” Mistress Grinwell cut in. “Arien is the next village the way they're going, and if they intend to try their luck at the inn there, they'll have to walk all day to get there before dark.”
“Yes, mistress,” Rand said, “we will. And thank you.”
She gave him a tightlipped smile as if she knew very well that his thanks were for more than her advice, or even supper and a warm bed.
The whole next day Mat twitted him about Else as they made their way down the road. He kept trying to change the subject, and what the Grinwells had suggested about performing at inns was the easiest thing to mind. In the morning, with Else pouting as he left, and Mistress Grinwell watching with a sharpeyed look of goodriddance and soonestmended, it was just something to keep Mat from talking. By the time they did reach the next village, it was something else again.
With dusk descending, they entered the only inn in Arien, and Rand spoke to the innkeeper. He played “Ferry O'er the River” — which the plump innkeeper called “Darling Sara” — and part of “The Road to Dun Aren,” and Mat did a little juggling, and the upshot was that they slept in a bed that night and ate roasted potatoes and hot beef. It was the smallest room in the inn, to be sure, up under the eaves in the back, and the meal came in the middle of a long night of playing and juggling, but it was still a bed beneath a roof. Even better, to Rand, every daylight hour had been spent traveling. And the inn's patrons did not seem to care if Mat stared at them suspiciously. Some of them even looked askance at one another. The times made suspicion of strangers a commonplace, and there were always strangers at an inn.
Rand slept better than he had since leaving Whitebridge, despite sharing a bed with Mat and his nocturnal muttering. In the morning the innkeeper tried to talk them into staying another day or two, but when he could not, he called over a blearyeyed farmer who had drunk too much to drive his cart home the night before. An hour later they were five miles further east, sprawling on their backs on the straw in the back of Eazil Forney's cart.
That became the way of their traveling. With a little luck, and maybe a ride or two, they could almost always reach the next village by dark. If there was more than one inn in a village, the innkeepers would bid for them once they heard Rand's flute and saw Mat juggle. Together they still did not come close to a gleeman, but they were more than most villages saw in a year. Two or three inns in a town meant a better room, with two beds, and more generous portions of a better cut of meat, and sometimes even a few coppers in their pockets when they left besides. In the mornings there was almost always someone to offer a ride, another farmer who had stayed too late and drunk too much, or a merchant who had liked their entertainment enough not to mind if they hopped up on the back of one of his wagons. Rand began to think their problems were over till they reached Caemlyn. But then they came to Four Kings.
Four Kings in Shadow
The village was bigger than most, but still a scruffy town to bear a name like Four Kings. As usual, the Caemlyn Road ran straight through the center of the town, but another heavily traveled highway came in from the south, too. Most villages were markets and gathering places for the farmers of the area, but there were few farmers to be seen here. Four Kings survived as a stopover for merchants' wagon trains on their way to Caemlyn and to the mining towns in the Mountains of Mist beyond Baerlon, as well as the villages between. The southern road carried Lugard's trade with the mines in the west; Lugarder merchants going to Caemlyn had a more direct route. The surrounding country held few farms, barely enough to feed themselves and the town, and everything in the village centered on the merchants and their wagons, the men who drove them and the laborers who loaded the goods.
Plots of bare earth, ground to dust, lay scattered through Four Kings, filled with wagons parked wheel to wheel and abandoned except for a few bored guards. Stables and horselots lined the streets, all of which were wide enough to allow wagons to pass and deeply rutted from too many wheels. There was no village green, and the children played in the ruts, dodging wagons and the curses of wagon drivers. Village women, their heads covered with scarves, kept their eyes down and walked quickly, sometimes followed by wagoneers' comments that made Rand blush; even Mat gave a start at some of them. No woman stood gossiping over the fence with a neighbor. Drab wooden houses stood cheek by jowl, with only narrow alleys between and whitewash — where anyone had bothered to whitewash the weathered boards — faded as if it had not been freshened in years. Heavy shutters on the houses had not been open in so long that the hinges were solid lumps of rust. Noise hung over everything, clanging from blacksmiths, shouts from the wagon drivers, raucous laughter from the town's inns.
Rand swung down from the back of a merchant's canvastopped wagon as they came abreast of a garishly painted inn, all greens and yellows that caught the eye from afar among the leaden houses. The line of wagons kept moving. None of the drivers even seemed to notice that he and Mat had gone; dusk was falling, and they all had their eyes on unhitching the horses and reaching the inns. Rand stumbled in a rut, then leaped quickly to avoid a heavyladen wagon clattering the other way. The driver shouted a curse at him as the wagon rolled by. A village woman stepped around him and hurried on without ever meeting his eye.
“I don't know about this place,” he said. He thought he could hear music mixed in the din, but he could not tell from where it was coming. From the inn, maybe, but it was hard to be sure. “I don't like it. Maybe we'd better go on this time.”
Mat gave him a scornful look, then rolled his eyes at the sky. Dark clouds thickened overhead. “And sleep under a hedge tonight? In that? I'm used to a bed again.” He cocked his head to listen, then grunted. “Maybe one of these places doesn't have musicians. Anyway, I'll bet they don't have a juggler.” He slung his bow across his shoulders and started for the bright yellow door, studying everything through narrowed eyes. Rand followed doubtfully.
There were musicians inside, their zither and drum almost drowned in coarse laughter and drunken shouting. Rand did not bother to find the landlord. The next two inns had musicians as well, and the same deafening cacophony. Roughly dressed men filled the tables and stumbled across the floor, waving mugs and trying to fondle serving maids who dodged with fixed, longsuffering smiles. The buildings shook with the racket, and the smell was sour, a stench of old wine and unwashed bodies. Of the merchants, in their silk and velvet and lace, there was no sign; private dining rooms abovestairs protected their ears and noses. He and Mat only put their heads in the doors before leaving. He was beginning to think they would have