Rand shrugged out of his cloak and stripped off his clothes while Ara filled four of the copper tubs. None of the others was far behind Rand in choosing a bathtub. Once their clothes were all in piles on the stools, Ara brought them each a large bucket of hot water and a dipper. That done, he sat on a stool by the door, leaning back against the wall with his arms crossed, apparently lost in his own thoughts.
There was little in the way of conversation while they lathered and sluiced away a week of grime with dippers of steaming water. Then it was into the tubs for a long soak; Ara had made the water hot enough that settling in was a slow process of luxuriant sighs. The air in the room went from warm to misty and hot. For a long time there was no sound except the occasional long, relaxing exhalation as tight muscles loosened and a chill that they had come to think permanent was drawn out of their bones.
“Need anything else?” Ara asked suddenly. He did not have much room to talk about people's accents; he and Master Fitch both sounded as if they had a mouth full of mush. “More towels? More hot water?”
“Nothing,” Thom said in his reverberant voice. Eyes closed, he gave an indolent wave of his hand. “Go and enjoy the evening. At a later time I will see that you receive more than adequate recompense for your services.” He settled lower in the tub, until the water covered everything but his eyes and nose.
Ara's eyes went to the stools behind the tubs, where their clothes and belongings were stacked. He glanced at the bow, but lingered longest over Rand's sword and Perrin's axe. “Is there trouble downcountry, too?” he said abruptly. “In the Rivers, or whatever you call it?”
“The Two Rivers,” Mat said, pronouncing each separate word distinctly. “It's the Two Rivers. As for trouble, why — ”
“What do you mean, too?” Rand asked. “Is there some kind of trouble here?”
Perrin, enjoying his soak, murmured, “Good! Good!” Thom raised himself back up a little, and opened his eyes.
“Here?” Ara snorted. “Trouble? Miners having fistfights in the streets in the dark of the morning aren't trouble. Or ... ” He stopped and eyed them a moment. “I meant the Ghealdan kind of trouble,” he said finally. “No, I suppose not. Nothing but sheep downcountry, is there? No offense. I just meant it's quiet down there. Still, it's been a strange winter. Strange things in the mountains. I heard the other day there were Trollocs up in Saldaea. But that's the Borderlands then, isn't it?” He finished with his mouth still open, then snapped it shut, appearing surprised that he had said so much.
Rand had tensed at the word Trollocs, and tried to hide it by wringing his washcloth out over his head. As the fellow went on he relaxed, but not everyone kept his mouth shut.
“Trollocs?” Mat chortled. Rand splashed water at him, but Mat just wiped it off of his face with a grin. “You just let me tell you about Trollocs.”
For the first time since climbing into his tub, Thom spoke. “Why don't you not? I am a little tired of hearing my own stories back from you.”
“He's a gleeman,” Perrin said, and Ara gave him a scornful look.
“I saw the cloak. You going to perform?”
“Just a minute,” Mat protested. “What's this about me telling Thom's stories? Are you all — ?”
“You just don't tell them as well as Thom,” Rand cut him off hastily, and Perrin hopped in. “You keep adding in things, trying to make it better, and they never do. ”
“And you get it all mixed up, too,” Rand added. “Best leave it to Thom.”
They were all talking so fast that Ara stared at them with his mouth hanging open. Mat stared, too, as if everyone else had suddenly gone crazy. Rand wondered how to shut him up short of jumping on him.
The door banged open to admit Lan, brown cloak slung over one shoulder, along with a gust of cooler air that momentarily thinned the mist.
“Well,” the Warder said, rubbing his hands, “this is what I have been waiting for.” Ara picked up a bucket, but Lan waved it away. “No, I will see to myself.” Dropping his cloak on one of the stools, he bundled the bath attendant out of the room, despite the fellow's protests, and shut the door firmly after him. He waited there a moment, his head cocked to listen, and when he turned back to the rest of them his voice was stony and his eyes stabbed at Mat. “It's a good thing I got back when I did, farmboy. Don't you listen to what you are told?”
“I didn't do anything,” Mat protested. “I was just going to tell him about the Trollocs, not about ... ” He stopped, and leaned back from the Warder's eyes, flat against the back of the tub.
“Don't talk about Trollocs,” Lan said grimly. “Don't even think about Trollocs.” With an angry snort he began filling himself a bathtub. “Blood and ashes, you had better remember, the Dark One has eyes and ears where you least expect. And if the Children of the Light heard Trollocs were after you, they'd be burning to get their hands on you. To them, it would be as much as naming you Darkfriend. It may not be what you are used to, but until we get where we are going, keep your trust small unless Mistress Alys or I tell you differently.” At his emphasis on the name Moiraine was using, Mat flinched.
“There was something that fellow wouldn't tell us,” Rand said. “Something he thought was trouble, but he wouldn't say what it was.”
“Probably the Children,” Lan said, pouring more hot water into his tub. “Most people consider them trouble. Some don't, though, and he did not know you well enough to risk it. You might have gone running to the Whitecloaks, for all he knew.”
Rand shook his head; this place already sounded worse than Taren Ferry could possibly be.
“He said there were Trollocs in ... in Saldaea, wasn't it?” Perrin said.
Lan hurled his empty bucket to the floor with a crash. “You will talk about it, won't you? There are always Trollocs in the Borderlands, blacksmith. Just you put it in the front of your mind that we want no more attention than mice in a field. Concentrate on that. Moiraine wants to get you all to Tar Valon alive, and I will do it if it can be done, but if you bring any harm to her ... ”
The rest of their bathing was done in silence, and dressing afterwards, too.When they left the bath chamber, Moiraine was standing at the end of the hall with a slender girl not much taller than herself. At least, Rand thought it was a girl, though her dark hair was cut short and she wore a man's shirt and trousers. Moiraine said something, and the girl looked at the men sharply, then nodded to Moiraine and hurried away.
“Well, now,” Moiraine said as they drew closer, “I am sure a bath has given you all an appetite. Master Fitch has given us a private dining room.” She talked on inconsequentially as she turned to lead the way, about their rooms and the crowding in the town, and how the innkeeper hoped Thom would favor the common room with some music and a story or two. She never mentioned the girl, if girl it had been.
The private dining room had a polished oak table with a dozen chairs around it, and a thick rug on the floor. As they entered, Egwene, freshly gleaming hair combed out around her shoulders, turned from warming her hands at the fire crackling on the hearth. Rand had had plenty of time for thought during the long silence in the bath chamber. Lan's constant admonitions not to trust anyone, and especially Ara being afraid to trust them, had made him think of just how alone they really were. It seemed they could not trust anyone but themselves, and he was still not too sure how far they could trust Moiraine, or Lan. Just themselves. And Egwene was still Egwene. Moiraine said it would have happened to her anyway, this touching the True Source. She had no control over it, and that meant it was not her fault. And she was still Egwene.
He opened his mouth to apologize, but Egwene stiffened and turned her back before he could get a word out. Staring sullenly at her back, he swallowed what he had been going to say. All right, then. If she wants to be like that, there's nothing I can do.
Master Fitch bustled in then, followed by four women in white aprons as long as his, with a platter holding three roast chickens and others bearing silver, and pottery dishes, and covered bowls. The women began setting the table immediately, while the innkeeper bowed to Moiraine.
“My apologies, Mistress Alys, for making you wait like this, but with so many people in the inn, it's a wonder anybody gets served at all. I am afraid the food isn't what it should be, either. Just the chickens, and some turnips and henpeas, with a little cheese for after. No, it just isn't what it should be. I truly do apologize.”
“A feast.” Moiraine smiled. “For these troubled times, a feast indeed, Master Fitch.”
The innkeeper bowed again. His wispy hair, sticking out in all directions as if he constantly ran his hands through it, made the bow comical, but his grin was so pleasant that anyone who laughed would be laughing with him, not at him. “My thanks, Mistress Alys. My thanks.” As he straightened he frowned and wiped an imagined bit of dust from the table with a corner of his apron. “It isn't what I would have laid before you a year ago, of course. Not nearly. The winter. Yes. The winter. My cellars are emptying out, and the market is all but bare. And who can blame the farm folk? Who? There's certainly no telling when they'll harvest another crop. No telling at all. It's the wolves get the mutton and beef that should go on people