“Thom had trouble with the Queen?” Rand said incredulously, and the innkeeper laughed.

“So he didn't tell you everything. Don't know why he should. On the other hand, I don't know why you shouldn't know, either. Not like it's a secret, exactly. Do you think every gleeman thinks as much of himself as Thom does? Well, come to think of it, I guess they do, but it always seemed to me Thom had an extra helping of thinking a lot of himself. He wasn't always a gleeman, you know, wandering from village to village and sleeping under a hedge as often as not. There was a time Thom Merrilin was Courtbard right here in Caemlyn, and known in every royal court from Tear to Maradon. ”


“Thom?” Mat said.

Rand nodded slowly. He could picture Thom at a Queen's court, with his stately manner and grand gestures.

“That he was,” Master Gill said. “It was not long after Taringail Damodred died that the ... trouble about his nephew cropped up. There were some said Thom was, shall we say, closer to the Queen than was proper. But Morgase was a young widow, and Thom was in his prime, then, and the Queen can do as she wishes is the way I look at it. Only she's always had a temper, has our good Morgase, and he took off without a word when he learned what kind of trouble his nephew was in. The Queen didn't much like that. Didn't like him meddling in Aes Sedai matters, either. Can't say I think it was right, either, nephew or no. Anyway, when he came back, he said some words, all right. Words you don't say to a Queen. Words you don't say to any woman with Morgase's spirit. Elaida was set against him because of his trying to mix in the business with his nephew, and between the Queen's temper and Elaida's animosity, Thom left Caemlyn half a step ahead of a trip to prison, if not the headsman's axe. As far as I know, the writ still stands.”

“If it was a long time ago,” Rand said, “maybe nobody remembers.”

Master Gill shook his head. “Gareth Bryne is CaptainGeneral of the Queen's Guards. He personally commanded the Guardsmen Morgase sent to bring Thom back in chains, and I misdoubt he'll ever forget returning emptyhanded to find Thom had already been back to the Palace and left again. And the Queen never forgets anything. You ever know a woman who did? My, but Morgase was in a taking. I'll swear the whole city walked soft and whispered for a month. Plenty of other Guardsmen old enough to remember, too. No, best you keep Thom as close a secret as you keep that Aes Sedai of yours. Come, I'll get you something to eat. You look as if your bellies are gnawing at your backbones. ”

Chapter 36

Web of the Pattern

Master Gill took them to a corner table in the common room and had one of the serving maids bring them food. Rand shook his head when he saw the plates, with a few thin slices of gravycovered beef, a spoonful of mustard greens, and two potatoes on each. It was a rueful, resigned headshake, though, not angry. Not enough of anything, the innkeeper had said. Picking up his knife and fork, Rand wondered what would happen when there was nothing left. It made his halfcovered plate seem like a feast. It made him shiver.

Master Gill had chosen a table well away from anyone else, and he sat with his back to the corner, where he could watch the room. Nobody could get close enough to overhear what they said without him seeing. When the maid left, he said softly, “Now, why don't you tell me about this trouble of yours? If I'm going to help, I'd best know what I'm getting into.”

-- Advertisement --

Rand looked at Mat, but Mat was frowning at his plate as if he were mad at the potato he was cutting. Rand took a deep breath. “I don't really understand it myself,” he began.

He kept the story simple, and he kept Trollocs and Fades out of it. When somebody offered help, it would not do to tell them it was all about fables. But he did not think it was fair to understate the danger, either, not fair to pull someone in when they had no idea what they were getting into. Some men were after him and Mat, and a couple of friends of theirs, too. They appeared where they were least expected, these men, and they were deadly dangerous and set on killing him and his friends, or worse. Moiraine said some of them were Darkfriends. Thom did not trust Moiraine completely, but he stayed on with them, he said, because of his nephew. They had been separated during an attack while trying to reach Whitebridge, and then, in Whitebridge, Thom died saving them from another attack. And there had been other tries. He knew there were holes in it, but it was the best he could do on short notice without telling more than was safe.

“We just kept on till we reached Caemlyn,” he explained. “That was the plan, originally. Caemlyn, and then Tar Valon.” He shifted uncomfortably on the edge of his chair. After keeping everything secret for so long, it felt odd to be telling somebody even as much as he was. “If we stay on that route, the others will be able to find us, sooner or later.”

“If they're alive,” Mat muttered at his plate.

Rand did not even glance at Mat. Something compelled him to add, “It could bring you trouble, helping us.”

Master Gill waved it off with a plump hand. “Can't say as I want trouble, but it wouldn't be the first I've seen. No bloody Darkfriend will make me turn my back on Thom's friends. This friend of yours from up north, now — if she comes to Caemlyn, I'll hear. There are people keep their eyes on comings and goings like that around here, and word spreads.”

Rand hesitated, then asked, “What about Elaida?”

The innkeeper hesitated too, and finally shook his head. “I don't think so. Maybe if you didn't have a connection to Thom. She'd winkle it out, and then where would you be? No telling. Maybe in a cell. Maybe worse. They say she has a way of feeling things, what's happened, what's going to happen. They say she can cut right through to what a man wants to hide. I don't know, but I wouldn't risk it. If it wasn't for Thom, you could go to the Guards. They'd take care of any Darkfriends quick enough. But even if you could keep Thom quiet from the Guards, word would reach Elaida as soon as you mentioned Darkfriends, and then you're back where we started.”

“No Guards,” Rand agreed. Mat nodded vigorously while stuffing a fork into his mouth and got gravy on his chin.

“Trouble is, you're caught up in the fringes of politics, lad, even if it's none of your doing, and politics is a foggy mire full of snakes.”

“What about —” Rand began, but the innkeeper grimaced suddenly, his chair creaking under his bulk as he sat up straight.

The cook was standing in the doorway to the kitchen, wiping her hands with her apron. When she saw the innkeeper looking she motioned for him to come, then vanished back into the kitchen.

“Might as well be married to her.” Master Gill sighed. “Finds things that need fixing before I know there's anything wrong. If it's not the drains stopped up, or the downspouts clogged, it's rats. I keep a clean place, you understand, but with so many people in the city, rats are everywhere. Crowd people together and you get rats, and Caemlyn has a plague of them all of a sudden. You wouldn't believe what a good cat, a prime ratter, fetches these days. Your room is in the attic. I'll tell the girls which; any of them can show you to it. And don't worry about Darkfriends. I can't say much good about the Whitecloaks, but between them and the Guards, that sort won't dare show their filthy faces in Caemlyn.” His chair squeaked again as he pushed it back and stood. “I hope it isn't the drains again.”

Rand went back to his food, but he saw that Mat had stopped eating. “I thought you were hungry,” he said. Mat kept staring at his plate, pushing one piece of potato in a circle with his fork. “You have to eat, Mat. We need to keep up our strength if we're going to reach Tar Valon.”

Mat let out a low, bitter laugh. “Tar Valon! All this time it's been Caemlyn. Moiraine would be waiting for us in Caemlyn. We'd find Perrin and Egwene in Caemlyn. Everything would be all right if we only got to Caemlyn. Well, here we are, and nothing's right. No Moiraine, no Perrin, no anybody. Now it's everything will be all right if we only get to Tar Valon. ”

“We're alive,” Rand said, more sharply than he had intended. He took a deep breath and tried to moderate his tone. “We are alive. That much is all right. And I intend to stay alive. I intend to find out why we're so important. I won't give up.”

“All these people, and any of them could be Darkfriends. Master Gill promised to help us awfully quick. What kind of man just shrugs off Aes Sedai and Darkfriends? It isn't natural. Any decent person would tell us to get out, or . . . or ... or something.”

“Eat,” Rand said gently, and watched until Mat began chewing a piece of beef.

He left his own hands resting beside his plate for a minute, pressing them against the table to keep them from shaking. He was scared. Not about Master Gill, of course, but there was enough without that. Those tall city walls would not stop a Fade. Maybe he should tell the innkeeper about that. But even if Gill believed, would he be as willing to help if he thought a Fade might show up at The Queen's Blessing? And the rats. Maybe rats did thrive where there were a lot of people, but he remembered the dream that was not a dream in Baerlon, and a small spine snapping. Sometimes the Dark One uses carrion eaters as his eyes, Lan had said. Ravens, crows, rats... He ate, but when he was done he could not remem

-- Advertisement --