“The Karaethon Cycle,” Thom said curtly.
Rand blinked. The Prophecies of the Dragon. “Nobody tells the ... those stories in the Two Rivers. Not in Emond's Field, anyway. The Wisdom would skin them alive, if they did.”
“I suppose she would, at that,” Thom said dryly. He glanced at Moiraine up ahead with Lan, saw she could not overhear, and went on. “Tear is the greatest port on the Sea of Storms, and the Stone of Tear is the fortress that guards it. The Stone is said to be the first fortress built after the Breaking of the World, and in all this time it has never fallen, though more than one army has tried. One of the Prophecies says that the Stone of Tear will never fall until the People of the Dragon come to the Stone. Another says the Stone will never fall till the Sword That Cannot Be Touched is wielded by the Dragon's hand.” Thom grimaced. “The fall of the Stone will be one of the major proofs that the Dragon has been reborn. May the Stone stand till I am dust.”
“The sword that cannot be touched?”
“That's what it says. I don't know whether it really is a sword. Whatever it is, it lies in the Heart of the Stone, the central citadel of the fortress. None but the Great Lords of Tear can enter there, and they never speak of what lies inside. Certainly not to gleemen, anyway.”
Rand frowned. “The Stone cannot fall until the Dragon wields the sword, but how can he, unless the Stone has already fallen? Is the Dragon supposed to be a Great Lord of Tear?”
“Not much chance of that,” the gleeman said dryly. “Tear hates anything to do with the Power even more than Amador, and Amador is the stronghold of the Children of the Light.”
“Then how can the Prophecy be fulfilled?” Rand asked. “I'd like it well enough if the Dragon was never reborn, but a prophecy that cannot be fulfilled doesn't make much sense. It sounds like a story meant to make people think the Dragon never will be reborn. Is that it?”
“You ask an awful lot of questions, boy,” Thom said. “A prophecy that was easily fulfilled would not be worth much, now would it?” Suddenly his voice brightened. “Well, we're here. Wherever here is. ”
Lan had stopped by a section of headhigh wooden fence that looked no different from any other they had passed. He was working the blade of his dagger between two of the boards. Abruptly he gave a grunt of satisfaction, pulled, and a length of the fence swung out like a gate. In fact it was a gate, Rand saw, though one meant to be opened only from the other side. The metal latch that Lan had lifted with his dagger showed that.
Moiraine went through immediately, drawing Aldieb behind her. Lan motioned the others to follow, and brought up the rear, closing the gate behind him.
On the other side of the fence Rand found himself in the stableyard of an inn. A loud bustle and clatter came from the building's kitchen, but what struck him was its size; it covered more than twice as much ground as the Winespring Inn, and was four stories high besides. Well over half the windows were aglow in the deepening twilight. He wondered at this city that could have so many strangers in it.
No sooner had they come well into the stableyard than three men in dirty canvas aprons appeared at the huge stable's broad, arched doors. One, a wiry fellow and the only one without a manure fork in his hands, came forward waving his arms.
“Here! Here! You can't come in that way! You'll have to go round the front!”
Lan's hand went to his purse again, but even as it did another man, as big around as Master al'Vere, came hurrying out of the inn. Puffs of hair stuck out above his ears, and his sparkling white apron was as good as a sign proclaiming him the innkeeper.
“It's all right, Mutch,” the newcomer said. “It's all right. These folk are expected guests. Take care of their horses, now. Good care.”
Mutch sullenly knuckled his forehead, then motioned his two companions to come help. Rand and the others hurriedly got their saddlebags and blanketrolls down while the innkeeper turned to Moiraine. He gave her a deep bow, and spoke with a genuine smile.
“Welcome, Mistress Alys. Welcome. It's good to be seeing you, you and Master Andra, both. Very good. Your fine conversation has been missed. Yes, it has. I must say I worried, you going downcountry and all. Well, I mean, at a time like this, with the weather all crazy and wolves howling right up to the walls in the night.” Abruptly he slapped both hands against his round belly and shook his head. “Here I go on like this, chattering away, instead of taking you inside. Come. Come. Hot meals and warm beds, that's what you'll be wanting. And the best in Baerlon are right here. The very best. ”
“And hot baths, too, I trust, Master Fitch?” Moiraine said, and Egwene echoed her fervently. “Oh, yes.”
“Baths?” the innkeeper said. “Why, just the best and the hottest in Baerlon. Come. Welcome to the Stag and Lion. Welcome to Baerlon.”
The Stag and Lion
Inside, the inn was every bit as busy as the sounds coming from it had indicated and more. The party from Emond's Field followed Master Fitch through the back door, soon weaving around and between a constant stream of men and women in long aprons, platters of food and trays of drink held high. The bearers murmured quick apologies when they got in anyone's way, but they never slowed by a step. One of the men took hurried orders from Master Fitch and disappeared at a run.
“The inn is near full, I'm afraid,” the innkeeper told Moiraine. “Almost to the rafters. Every inn in the town is the same. With the winter we just had ... well, as soon as it cleared enough for them to get down out of the mountains we were inundated — yes, that's the word — inundated by men from the mines and smelters, all telling the most horrible tales. Wolves, and worse. The kind of tales men tell when they've been cooped up all winter. I can't think there's anyone left up there at all, we have that many here. But never fear. Things may be a little crowded, but I'll do my best by you and Master Andra. And your friends, too, of course.” He glanced curiously once or twice at Rand and the others; except for Thom their clothes named them country folk, and Thom's gleeman's cloak made him a strange traveling companion as well for “Mistress Alys” and “Master Andra”. “I will do my best, you may rest assured.”
Rand stared at the bustle around them and tried to avoid being stepped on, though none of the help really seemed to be in any danger of that. He kept thinking of how Master al'Vere and his wife tended the Winespring Inn with sometimes a little assistance from their daughters.
Mat and Perrin craned their necks in interest toward the common room, from which rolled a wave of laughter and singing and jovial shouting whenever the wide door at the end of the hall swung open. Muttering about finding out the news, the Warder grimly disappeared through that swinging door, swallowed by a wave of merriment.
Rand wanted to follow him, but he wanted a bath even more. He could have done with people and laughing right then, but the common room would appreciate his presence more when he was clean. Mat and Perrin apparently felt the same; Mat was scratching surreptitiously.
“Master Fitch,” Moiraine said, “I understand there are Children of the Light in Baerlon. Is there likely to be trouble?”
“Oh, never you worry about them, Mistress Alys. They're up to their usual tricks. Claim there's an Aes Sedai in the town.” Moiraine lifted an eyebrow, and the innkeeper spread his plump hands. “Don't you worry. They've tried it before. There's no Aes Sedai in Baerlon, and the Governor knows it. The Whitecloaks think if they show an Aes Sedai, some woman they claim is an Aes Sedai, people will let all of them inside the walls. Well, I suppose some would. Some would. But most people know what the Whitecloaks are up to, and they support the Governor. No one wants to see some harmless old woman hurt just so the Children can have an excuse for whipping up a frenzy.”
“I am glad to hear it,” Moiraine said dryly. She put a hand on the innkeeper's arm. “Is Min still here? I wish to talk with her, if she is.”
Master Fitch's answer was lost to Rand in the arrival of attendants to lead them to the baths. Moiraine and Egwene vanished behind a plump woman with a ready smile and an armload of towels. The gleeman and Rand and his friends found themselves following a slight, darkhaired fellow, Ara by name.
Rand tried asking Ara about Baerlon, but the man barely said two words together except to say Rand had a funny accent, and then the first sight of the bath chamber drove all thoughts of talk right out of Rand's head. A dozen tall, copper bathtubs sat in a circle on the tiled floor, which sloped down slightly to a drain in the center of the big stonewalled room. A thick towel, neatly folded, and a large cake of yellow soap sat on a stool behind each tub, and big black iron cauldrons of water stood heating over fires along one wall. On the opposite wall logs blazing in a deep fireplace added to the general warmth.
“Almost as good as the Winespring Inn back home,” Perrin said loyally, if not exactly with a great attention to truth.
Thom barked a laugh, and Mat sniggered, “Sounds like we brought a Coplin with us and