The fourth inn, The Dancing Cartman, stood silent.
It was as gaudy as the other inns, yellow trimmed in bright red and bilious, eyewrenching green, though here the paint was cracked and peeling. Rand and Mat stepped inside.
Only half a dozen men sat at the tables that filled the common room, hunched over their mugs, each one glumly alone with his thoughts. Business was definitely not good, but it had been better once. Exactly as many serving maids as there were patrons busied themselves around the room. There was plenty for them to do — dirt crusted the floor and cobwebs filled the corners of the ceiling — but most were not doing anything really useful, only moving so they would not be seen standing still.
A bony man with long, stringy hair to his shoulders turned to scowl at them as they came through the door. The first slow peal of thunder rumbled across Four Kings. “What do you want?” He was rubbing his hands on a greasy apron that hung to his ankles. Rand wondered if more grime was coming off on the apron or on the man's hands. He was the first skinny innkeeper Rand had seen. “Well? Speak up, buy a drink, or get out! Do I look like a raree show?”
Flushing, Rand launched into the spiel he had perfected at inns before this. “I play the flute, and my friend juggles, and you'll not see two better in a year. For a good room and a good meal, we'll fill this common room of yours.” He remembered the filled common rooms he had already seen that evening, especially the man who had vomited right in front of him at the last one. He had had to step lively to keep his boots untouched. He faltered, but caught himself and went on. “We'll fill your inn with men who will repay the little we cost twenty times over with the food and drink they buy. Why should —”
“I've got a man plays the dulcimer,” the innkeeper said sourly.
“You have a drunk, Saml Hake,” one of the serving maids said. She was passing him with a tray and two mugs, and she paused to give Rand and Mat a plump smile. “Most times, he can't see well enough to find the common room,” she confided in a loud whisper. “Haven't even seen him in two days.”
Without taking his eyes off Rand and Mat, Hake casually backhanded her across the face. She gave a surprised grunt and fell heavily to the unwashed floor; one of the mugs broke, and the spilled wine washed rivulets in the dirt. “You're docked for the wine and breakage. Get 'em fresh drinks. And hurry. Men don't pay to wait while you laze around.” His tone was as offhand as the blow. None of the patrons looked up from their wine, and the other serving maids kept their eyes averted.
The plump woman rubbed her cheek and stared pure murder at Hake, but she gathered the empty mug and the broken pieces on her tray and went off without a word.
Hake sucked his teeth thoughtfully, eyeing Rand and Mat. His gaze clung to the heronmark sword before he pulled it away. “Tell you what,” he said finally. “You can have a couple of pallets in an empty storeroom in the back. Rooms are too expensive to give away. You eat when everybody's gone. There ought to be something left.”
Rand wished there was an inn in Four Kings they had not yet tried. Since leaving Whitebridge he had met coolness, indifference, and outright hostility, but nothing that gave him the sense of unease that this man and this village did. He told himself it was just the dirt and squalor and noise, but the misgivings did not go away. Mat was watching Hake as if he suspected some trap, but he gave no sign of wanting to give up The Dancing Cartman for a bed under a hedge. Thunder rattled the windows. Rand Sighed.
“The pallets will do if they're clean, and if there are enough clean blankets. But we eat two hours after full dark, no later, and the best you have. Here. We'll show you what we can do.” He reached for the flute case, but Hake shook his head.
“Don't matter. This lot'll be satisfied with any kind of screeching so long as it sounds something like music.” His eyes touched Rand's sword again; his thin smile touched nothing but his lips. “Eat when you want, but if you don't bring the crowd in, out you go in the street.” He nodded over his shoulder at two hardfaced men sitting against the wall. They were not drinking, and their arms were thick enough for legs. When Hake nodded at them, their eyes shifted to Rand and Mat, flat and expressionless.
Rand put one hand on his sword hilt, hoping the twisting in his stomach did not show on his face. “As long as we get what's agreed on,” he said in a level tone.
Hake blinked, and for a moment he seemed uneasy himself. Abruptly he nodded. “What I said, isn't it? Well, get started. You won't bring anybody in just standing there.” He stalked off, scowling and shouting at the serving maids as if there were fifty customers they were neglecting.
There was a small, raised platform at the far end of the room, near the door to the back. Rand lifted a bench up on it, and settled his cloak, blanketroll, and Thom's bundled cloak behind the bench with the sword lying atop them.
He wondered if he had been wise to keep wearing the sword openly. Swords were common enough, but the heronmark attracted attention and speculation. Not from everybody, but any notice at all made him uncomfortable. He could be leaving a clear trail for the Myrddraal — if Fades needed that kind of trail. They did not seem to. In any case, he was reluctant to stop wearing it. Tam had given it to him. His father. As long as he wore the sword, there was still some connection between Tam and him, a thread that gave him the right to still call Tam father. Too late now, he thought. He was not sure what he meant, but he was sure it was true. Too late.
At the first note of “Cock o' the North” the halfdozen patrons in the common room lifted their heads out of their wine. Even the two bouncers sat forward a little. They all applauded when he finished, including the two toughs, and once more when Mat sent a shower of colored balls spinning through his hands. Outside, the sky muttered again. The rain was holding off, but the pressure of it was palpable; the longer it waited, the harder it would fall.
Word spread, and by the time it was dark outside the inn was packed full with men laughing and talking so loud that Rand could barely hear what he was playing. Only the thunder overpowered the noise in the common room. Lightning flashed in the windows, and in the momentary lulls he could faintly hear rain drumming on the roof. Men who came in now dripped trails across the floor.
Whenever he paused, voices shouted the names of tunes through the din. A good many names he did not recognize, though when he got someone to hum a bit of it, he often found he did know the song. It had been that way other places, before. “Jolly Jaim” was “Rhea's Fling” here, and had been “Colors of the Sun” at an earlier stop. Some names stayed the same; others changed with ten miles' distance, and he had learned new songs, too. “The Drunken Peddler” was a new one, though sometimes it was called “Tinker in the Kitchen.” “Two Kings Came Hunting” was “Two Horses Running” and several other names besides. He played the ones he knew, and men pounded the tables for more.
Others called for Mat to juggle again. Sometimes fights broke out between those wanting music and those who fancied juggling. Once a knife flashed, and a woman screamed, and a man reeled back from a table with blood streaming down his face, but Jak and Strom, the two bouncers, closed in swiftly and with complete impartiality threw everyone involved into the street with lumps on their heads. That was their tactic with any trouble. The talk and the laughing went on as if nothing had occurred. Nobody even looked around except those the bouncers jostled on their way to the door.
The patrons were free with their hands, too, when one of the serving maids let herself grow unwary. More than once Jak or Strom had to rescue one of the women, though they were none too quick about it. The way Hake carried on, screaming and shaking the woman involved, he always considered it her fault, and the teary eyes and stammered apologies said she was willing to accept his opinion. The women jumped whenever Hake frowned, even if he was looking somewhere else. Rand wondered why any of them put up with it.
Hake smiled when he looked at Rand and Mat. After a while Rand realized Hake was not smiling at them; the smiles came when his eyes slid behind them, to where the heronmark sword lay. Once, when Rand set the goldandsilverchased flute down beside his stool, the flute got a smile, too.
The next time he changed places with Mat at the front of the dais, he leaned over to speak in Mat's ear. Even that close he had to speak loudly, but with all the noise he doubted if anyone else could hear. “Hake's going to try to rob us.”
Mat nodded as if it was nothing he had not expected. “We'll have to bar our door tonight.”
“Bar our door? Jak and Strom could break down a door with their fists. Let's get out of here.”
“Wait till after we eat, at least. I'm hungry. They can't do anything here,” Mat added. The packed common room shouted impatiently for them to get on with it. Hake was glaring at them. “Anyway, you want to sleep outside tonight?” An especially strong crack of lightning drowned out everything else, and for an instant the light through the windows was stronger than the lamps.
“I just want to get out without my head being broken,” Rand said, but Mat was already slouching back to take his rest on the stool. Rand sighed and launched into “The Road to Dun Aren.” A lot of them seemed to like that one; he had already played it four times, and