Obviously he had not been. Mat blinked in surprise and whistled between his teeth, then frowned at the meat on his fork and grunted as he tossed the fork onto his plate. Rand wished he would make at least an effort to be circumspect.

“After us,” Mat said when he finished. The creases in Mat's forehead deepened.


“A Darkfriend?”

“Maybe. I don't know.” Rand glanced at Jak and the big man stretched elaborately, shrugging shoulders as big as any blacksmith's. “Do you think we can get past him?”

“Not without him making enough noise to bring Hake and the other one. I knew we should never have stopped here.”

Rand gaped, but before he could say anything Hake pushed through the door from the common room. Strom bulked large over his shoulder. Jak stepped in front of the back door. “You going to eat all night?” Hake barked. “I didn't feed you so you could lie around out here.”

Rand looked at his friend. Later, Mat mouthed, and they gathered their things under the watchful eyes of Hake, Strom, and Jak.

In the common room, cries for juggling and the names of tunes burst through the clamor as soon as Rand and Mat appeared. The man in the velvet cloak — Howal Gode — still appeared to ignore everyone around him, but he was nonetheless seated on the edge of his chair. At the sight of them he leaned back, the satisfied smile returning to his lips.

Rand took the first turn at the front of the dais, playing “Drawing Water From the Well” with only half his mind on it. No one seemed to notice the few wrong notes. He tried to think of how they were going to get away, and tried to avoid looking at Gode, too. If he was after them, there was no point in letting him know they knew it. As for getting away...

He had never realized before what a good trap an inn made. Hake, Jak, and Strom did not even have to keep a close eye on them; the crowd would let them know if he or Mat left the dais. As long as the common room was full of people, Hake could not send Jak and Strom after them, but as long as the common room was full of people they could not get away without Hake knowing. And Gode was watching their every move, too. It was so funny he would have laughed if he had not been on the point of throwing up. They would just have to be wary and wait their chance.

When he changed places with Mat, Rand groaned to himself. Mat glared at Hake, at Strom, at Jak, without a care to whether they noticed or wondered why. When he was not actually handling the balls, his hand rested under his coat. Rand hissed at him, but he paid no attention. If Hake saw that ruby, he might not wait until they were alone. If the men in the common room saw it, half of them might join in with Hake.

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Worst of all, Mat stared at the Whitebridge merchant — the Darkfriend? — twice as hard as at anyone else, and Gode noticed. There was no way he could avoid noticing. But it did not disturb his aplomb is the least. His smile deepened, if anything, and he nodded to Mat as if to an old acquaintance, then looked at Rand and raised a questioning eyebrow. Rand did not want to know what the question was. He tried to avoid looking at the man, but he knew it was too late for that. Too late. Too late again.

Only one thing seemed to shake the velvetcloaked man's equilibrium. Rand's sword. He had left it on. Two or three men staggered up to ask if he thought his playing was so bad that he needed protection, but none of them had noticed the heron on the hilt. Gode noticed. His pale hands clenched, and he frowned at the sword for a long time before his smile came back. When it did, it was not as sure as before.

One good thing, at least, Rand thought. If he believes I can live up to the heronmark, maybe he'll leave us alone. Then all we have to worry about is Hake and his bullies. It was hardly a comforting thought, and, sword or no sword, Gode kept watching. And smiling.

To Rand the night seemed to last a year. All those eyes looking at him: Hake and Jak and Strom like vultures watching a sheep caught in a bog, Gode waiting like something even worse. He began to think that everybody in the room was watching with some hidden motive. Sour wine fumes and the stench of dirty, sweating bodies made his head swim, and the din of voices beat at him till his eyes blurred and even the sound of his own flute scratched at his ears. The crash of the thunder seemed to be inside his skull. Weariness hung on him like an iron weight.

Eventually the need to be up with the dawn began to pull men reluctantly out into the dark. A farmer had only himself to answer to, but merchants were notoriously unfeeling about hangovers when they were paying drivers' wages. In the small hours the common room slowly emptied as even those who had rooms abovestairs staggered off to find their beds.

Gode was the last patron. When Rand reached for the leather flute case, yawning, Gode stood up and slung his cloak over his arm. The serving maids were cleaning up, muttering among themselves about the mess of spilled wine and broken crockery. Hake was locking the front door with a big key. Gode cornered Hake for a moment, and Hake called one of the women to show him to a room. The velvetcloaked man gave Mat and Rand a knowing smile before he disappeared upstairs.

Hake was looking at Rand and Mat. Jak and Strom stood at his shoulders.

Rand hastily finished hanging his things from his shoulders, holding them all awkwardly behind him with his left hand so he could reach his sword. He made no move toward it, but he wanted to know it was ready. He suppressed a yawn; how tired he was, was something they should not know.

Mat shouldered his bow and his few other belongings awkwardly, but he put his hand under his coat as he watched Hake and his toughs approach.

Hake was carrying an oil lamp, and to Rand's surprise he gave a little bow and gestured to a side door with it. “Your pallets are this way.” Only a slight twist of his lips spoiled his act.

Mat thrust his chin out at Jak and Strom. “You need those two to show us our beds?”

“I'm a man of property,” Hake said, smoothing the front of his soiled apron, “and men of property can't be too careful.” A crash of thunder rattled the windows, and he glanced significantly at the ceiling, then gave them a toothy grin. “You want to see your beds or not?”

Rand wondered what would happen if he said they wanted to leave. If you really did know more about using a sword than the few exercises Lan showed you ... “Lead the way,” he said, trying to make his voice hard. “I don't like having anybody behind me.”

Strom snickered, but Hake nodded placidly and turned toward the side door, and the two big men swaggered after him. Taking a deep breath, Rand gave a wishful glance at the door to the kitchen. If Hake had already locked the back door, running now would only begin what he was hoping to avoid. He followed the innkeeper glumly.

At the side door he hesitated, and Mat crowded into his back. The reason for Hake's lamp was apparent. The door let into a hall as black as pitch. Only the lamp Hake carried, silhouetting Jak and Strom, gave him the courage to keep on. If they turned, he would know it. And do what? The floor creaked under his boots.

The hall ended in a rough, unpainted door. He had not seen if there were any other doors along the way. Hake and his bullies went through, and he followed quickly, before they could have a chance to set a trap, but Hake merely lifted the lamp high and gestured at the room.

“Here it is.”

An old storeroom, he had called it, and by the look of it not used in some time. Weathered barrels and broken crates filled half the floor. Steady drips fell from more than one place on the ceiling, and a broken pane in the filthy window let the rain blow in freely. Unidentifiable odds and ends littered the shelves, and thick dust covered almost everything. The presence of the promised pallets was a surprise.

The sword makes him nervous. He won't try anything until we're sound asleep. Rand had no intention of sleeping under Hake's roof. As soon as the innkeeper left, he intended to be out the window. “It'll do,” he said. He kept his eyes on Hake, wary for a signal to the two grinning men at the innkeeper's side. It was an effort not to wet his lips. “Leave the lamp.”

Hake grunted, but pushed the lamp onto a shelf. He hesitated, looking at them, and Rand was sure he was about to give the word for Jak and Strom to jump them, but his eyes went to Rand's sword with a calculating frown, and he jerked his head at the two big men. Surprise flashed across their broad faces, but they followed him out of the room without a backward glance.

Rand waited for the creakcreakcreak of their footsteps to fade away, then counted to fifty before sticking his head into the hall. The blackness was broken only by a rectangle of light that seemed as distant as the moon: the door to the common room. As he pulled his head in, something big moved in the darkness near the far door. Jak or Strom, standing guard.

A quick examination of the door told him all he needed to know, little of it good. The boards were thick and stout, but there was no lock, and no bar on the inside. It did open into the room, though.

“I thought they were going for us,” Mat said. “What are they waiting for?” He had the dagger out, gripped in a whiteknuckled fist. Lamplight flickered on the blade. His bow and quiver lay forgotten on the floor.

“For us to go to sleep.” Rand started rummaging through the barrels and crates. “Help me find something

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