Rand gave a sour grimace. “I haven't spread anything, Egwene. But I saw what I saw, and it was no farmer out looking for a strayed cow.”
Egwene drew a deep breath and opened her mouth, but whatever she had been going to say vanished as the door of the inn opened and a man with shaggy white hair came hurrying out as if pursued.
The door of the inn banged shut behind the whitehaired man, and he spun around to glare at it. Lean, he would have been tall if not for a stoop to his shoulders, but he moved in a spry fashion that belied his apparent age. His cloak seemed a mass of patches, in odd shapes and sizes, fluttering with every breath of air, patches in a hundred colors. It was really quite thick, Rand saw, despite what Master al'Vere had said, with the patches merely sewn on like decorations.
“The gleeman!” Egwene whispered excitedly.
The whitehaired man whirled, cloak flaring. His long coat had odd, baggy sleeves and big pockets. Thick mustaches, as snowy as the hair on his head, quivered around his mouth, and his face was gnarled like a tree that had seen hard times. He gestured imperiously at Rand and the others with a longstemmed pipe, ornately carved, that trailed a wisp of smoke. Blue eyes peered out from under bushy white brows, drilling into whatever he looked at.
Rand stared at the man's eyes almost as much as at the rest of him. Everybody in the Two Rivers had dark eyes, and so did most of the merchants, and their guards, and everyone else he had ever seen. The Congars and the Coplins had made fun of him for his gray eyes, until the day he finally punched Ewal Coplin in the nose; the Wisdom had surely gotten onto him for that. He wondered if there was a place where nobody had dark eyes. Maybe Lan comes from there, too.
“What sort of place is this?” the gleeman demanded in a deep voice that sounded in some way larger than that of an ordinary man. Even in the open air it seemed to fill a great room and resonate from the walls. “The yokels in that village on the hill tell me I can get here before dark, neglecting to say that that was only if I left well before noon. When I finally do arrive, chilled to the bone and ready for a warm bed, your innkeeper grumbles about the hour as if I were a wandering swineherd and your Village Council hadn't begged me to display my art at this festival of yours. And he never even told me he was the Mayor.” He slowed for a breath, taking them all in with a glare, but he was off again on the instant. “When I came downstairs to smoke my pipe before the fire and have a mug of ale, every man in the common room stares at me as if I were his least favorite brotherinlaw seeking to borrow money. One old grandfather starts ranting at me about the kind of stories I should or should not tell, then a girlchild shouts at me to get out, and threatens me with a great club when I don't move quickly enough for her. Who ever heard of treating a gleeman so?”
Egwene's face was a study, her goggleeyed amaze at a gleeman in the flesh marred by a desire to defend Nynaeve.
“Your pardon, Master Gleeman,” Rand said. He knew he was grinning foolishly, himself. “That was our Wisdom, and— ”
“That pretty little slip of a girl?” the gleeman exclaimed. “A village Wisdom? Why, at her age she should better be flirting with the young men than foretelling the weather and curing the sick.”
Rand shifted uncomfortably. He hoped Nynaeve never overheard the man's opinion. At least, not until he had done with his performing. Perrin winced at the gleeman's words, and Mat whistled soundlessly, as if both had had the same thought as he had.
“The men were the Village Council,” Rand went on. “I'm sure they intended no discourtesy. You see, we just learned there's a war in Ghealdan, and a man claiming to be the Dragon Reborn. A false Dragon. Aes Sedai are riding there from Tar Valon. The Council is trying to decide if we might be in danger here.”
“Old news, even in Baerlon,” the gleeman said dismissively, “and that is the last place in the world to hear anything.” He paused, looking around the village, and dryly added, “Almost the last place.” Then his eyes fell on the wagon in front of the inn, standing alone now, with its shafts on the ground. “So. I thought I recognized Padan Fain in there.” His voice was still deep, but the resonance had gone, replaced by scorn. “Fain was always one to carry bad news quickly, and the worse, the faster. There's more raven in him than man.”
“Master Fain has come often to Emond's Field, Master Gleeman,” Egwene said, a hint of disapproval finally breaking through her delight. “He is always full of laughter, and he brings much more good news than bad.”
The gleeman eyed her for a moment, then smiled broadly. “Now you're a lovely lass. You should have rose buds in your hair. Unfortunately, I cannot pull roses from the air, not this year, but how would you like to stand beside me tomorrow for a part of my performance? Hand me my flute when I want it, and certain other apparatus. I always choose the prettiest girl I can find as my assistant.”
Perrin snickered, and Mat, who had been snickering, laughed out loud. Rand blinked in surprise; Egwene was glaring at him, and he had not even smiled. She straightened around and spoke in a toocalm voice.
“Thank you, Master Gleeman. I would be happy to assist you.”
“Thom Merrilin,” the gleeman said. They stared. “My name is Thom Merrilin, not Master Gleeman.” He hitched the multihued cloak up on his shoulders, and abruptly his voice once more seemed to reverberate in a great hall. “Once a Court bard, I am now indeed risen to the exalted rank of Master Gleeman, yet my name is plain Thom Merrilin, and gleeman is the simple title in which I glory.” And he swept a bow so elaborate with flourishes of his cloak that Mat clapped and Egwene murmured appreciatively.
“Master ... ah ... Master Merrilin,” Mat said, unsure exactly what form of address to take out of what Thom Merrilin had said, “what is happening in Ghealdan? Do you know anything about this false Dragon? Or the Aes Sedai?”
“Do I look like a peddler, boy?” the gleeman grumbled, tapping out his pipe on the heel of his palm. He made the pipe disappear somewhere inside his cloak, or his coat; Rand was not sure where it had gone or how. “I am a gleeman, not a newsmonger. And I make a point of never knowing anything about Aes Sedai. Much safer that way.”
“But the war,” Mat began eagerly, only to be cut off by Master Merrilin.
“In wars, boy, fools kill other fools for foolish causes. That's enough for anyone to know. I am here for my art.” Suddenly he thrust a finger at Rand. “You, lad. You're a tall one. Not with your full growth on you yet, but I doubt there's another man in the district with your height. Not many in the village with eyes that color, either, I'll wager. The point is, you're an axe handle across the shoulders and as tall as an Aielman. What's your name, lad?”
Rand gave it hesitantly, not sure whether or not the man was making fun of him, but the gleeman had already turned his attention to Perrin. “And you have almost the size of an Ogier. Close enough. How are you called?”
“Not unless I stand on my own shoulders.” Perrin laughed. “I'm afraid Rand and I are just ordinary folk, Master Merrilin, not madeup creatures from your stories. I'm Perrin Aybara.”
Merrilin tugged at one of his mustaches. “Well, now. Madeup creatures from my stories. Is that what they are? You lads are widely traveled, then, it seems.”
Rand kept his mouth shut, certain they were the butt of a joke, now, but Perrin spoke up.
“We've all of us been as far as Watch Hill, and Deven Ride. Not many around here have gone as far.” He was not boasting; Perrin seldom did. He was just telling the truth.
“We've all seen the Mire, too,” Mat added, and he did sound boastful. “That's the swamp at the far end of the Waterwood. Nobody at all goes there — it's full of quicksands and bogs—except us. And nobody goes to the Mountains of Mist, either, but we did, once. To the foot of them, anyway.”
“As far as that?” the gleeman murmured, brushing at his mustaches now continually. Rand thought he was hiding a smile, and he saw that Perrin was frowning.
“It's bad luck to enter the mountains,” Mat said, as if he had to defend himself for not going further. “Everybody knows that.”
“That's just foolishness, Matrim Cauthon,” Egwene cut in angrily. “Nynaeve says ...” She broke off, her cheeks turning pink, and the look she gave Thom Merrilin was not as friendly as it had been. “It is not right to make ... It isn't ...” Her face went redder, and she fell silent. Mat blinked, as if he was just getting a suspicion of what had been going on.
“You're right, child,” the gleeman said contritely. “I apologize humbly. I am here to entertain. Aah, my tongue has always gotten me into trouble.”
“Maybe we haven't traveled as far as you,” Perrin said flatly, “but what does how tall Rand is have to do with anything?”
“Just this, lad. A little later I will let you try to pick me up, but you won't be able to lift my feet from the ground. Not you, nor your tall friend there — Rand, is it? — nor any other man. Now what do