He washed and dressed quickly, hesitating a moment over Tam's sword. Lan and Thom had left their saddlebags and blanketrolls behind in the room, of course, but the Warder's sword was nowhere to be seen. Lan had worn his sword in Emond's Field even before there was any hint of trouble. He thought he would take the older man's lead. Telling himself it was not because he had often daydreamed about walking the streets of a real city wearing a sword, he belted it on and tossed his cloak over his shoulder like a sack.
Taking the stairs two at a time, he hurried down to the kitchen. That was surely the quickest place to get a bite, and on his only day in Baerlon he did not want to waste any more time than he already had. Blood and ashes, but they could have waked me.
Master Fitch was in the kitchen, confronting a plump woman whose arms were covered in flour to her elbows, obviously the cook. Rather, she was confronting him, shaking her finger under his nose. Serving maids and scullions, potboys and spitboys, hurried about their tasks, elaborately ignoring what was going on in front of them.
“ ... my Cirri is a good cat,” the cook was saying sharply, “and I won't hear a word otherwise, do you hear? Complaining about him doing his job too well, that's what you're doing, if you ask me.”
“I have had complaints,” Master Fitch managed to get in. “Complaints, mistress. Half the guests —”
“I won't hear of it. I just won't hear of it. If they want to complain about my cat, let them do the cooking. My poor old cat, who's just doing his job, and me, we'll go somewhere where we're appreciated, see if we don't.” She untied her apron and started to lift it over her head.
“No!” Master Fitch yelped, and leaped to stop her. They danced in a circle with the cook trying to take her apron off and the innkeeper trying to put it back on her. “No, Sara,” he panted. “There's no need for this. No need, I say! What would I do without you? Cirri's a fine cat. An excellent cat. He's the best cat in Baerlon. If anyone else complains, I'll tell them to be thankful the cat is doing his job. Yes, thankful. You mustn't go. Sara? Sara!”
The cook stopped their circling and managed to snatch her apron free of him. “All right, then. All right.” Clutching the apron in both hands, she still did not retie it. “But if you expect me to have anything ready for midday, you'd best get out of here and let me get to it. This may be your inn, but it's my kitchen. Unless you want to do the cooking?” She made as if to hand the apron to him.
Master Fitch stepped back with his hands spread wide. He opened his mouth, then stopped, looking around for the first time. The kitchen help still studiously ignored the cook and the innkeeper, and Rand began an intensive search of his coat pockets, though except for the coin Moiraine had given him there was nothing in them but a few coppers and a handful of odds and ends. His pocket knife and sharpening stone. Two spare bowstrings and a piece of string he had thought might be useful.
“I am sure, Sara,” Master Fitch said carefully, “that everything will be up to your usual excellence.” With that he took one last suspicious look at the kitchen help, then left with as much dignity as he could manage.
Sara waited until he was gone before briskly tying her apron strings again, then fastened her eye on Rand. “I suppose you want something to eat, eh? Well, come on in.” She gave him a quick grin. “I don't bite, I don't, no matter what you may have seen as you shouldn't. Ciel, get the lad some bread and cheese and milk. That's all there is right now. Sit yourself, lad. Your friends have all gone out, except one lad I understand wasn't feeling well, and I expect you'll be wanting to do the same.”
One of the serving maids brought a tray while Rand took a stool at the table. He began eating as the cook went back to kneading her bread dough, but she was not finished talking.
“You mustn't take any mind of what you saw, now. Master Fitch is a good enough man, though the best of you aren't any bargains. It's the folk complaining as has him on edge, and what do they have to complain about? Would they rather find live rats than dead ones? Though it isn't like Cirri to leave his handiwork behind. And over a dozen? Cirri wouldn't let so many get into the inn, he wouldn't. It's a clean place, too, and not one to be so troubled. And all with backs broken.” She shook her head at the strangeness of it all.
The bread and cheese turned to ashes in Rand's mouth. “Their backs were broken?”
The cook waved a floury hand. “Think on happier things, that's my way of looking. There's a gleeman, you know. In the common room right this minute. But then, you came with him, didn't you? You are one of those as came with Mistress Alys last evening, aren't you? I thought you were. I won't get much chance to see this gleeman myself, I'm thinking, not with the inn as full as it is, and most of them riffraff down from the mines.” She gave the dough an especially heavy thump. “Not the sort we'd let in most times, only the whole town is filled up with them. Better than some they could be, though, I suppose. Why, I haven't seen a gleeman since before the winter, and ...”
Rand ate mechanically, not tasting anything, not listening to what the cook said. Dead rats, with their backs broken. He finished his breakfast hastily, stammered his thanks, and hurried out. He had to talk to someone.
The common room of the Stag and Lion shared little except its purpose with the same room at the Winespring Inn. It was twice as wide and three times as long, and colorful pictures of ornate buildings with gardens of tall trees and bright flowers were painted high on the walls. Instead of one huge fireplace, a hearth blazed on each wall, and scores of tables filled the floor, with almost every chair, bench, or stool taken.
Every man among the crowd of patrons with pipes in their teeth and mugs in their fists leaned forward with his attention on one thing: Thom, standing atop a table in the middle of the room, his many colored cloak tossed over a nearby chair. Even Master Fitch held a silver tankard and a polishing cloth in motionless hands.
“ ... prancing, silver hooves and proud, arched necks,” Thom proclaimed, while somehow seeming not only to be riding a horse, but to be one of a long procession of riders. “Silken manes flutter with tossed heads. A thousand streaming banners whip rainbows against an endless sky. A hundred brazenthroated trumpets shiver the air, and drums rattle like thunder. Wave on wave, cheers roll from watchers in their thousands, roll across the rooftops and towers of Illian, crash and break unheard around the thousand ears of riders whose eyes and hearts shine with their sacred quest. The Great Hunt of the Horn rides forth, rides to seek the Horn of Valere that will summon the heroes of the Ages back from the grave to battle for the Light ...”
It was what the gleeman had called Plain Chant, those nights beside the fire on the ride north. Stories, he said, were told in three voices, High Chant, Plain Chant, and Common, which meant simply telling it the way you might tell your neighbor about your crop. Thom told stories in Common, but he did not bother to hide his contempt for the voice.
Rand closed the door without going in and slumped against the wall. He would get no advice from Thom. Moiraine — what would she do if she knew?
He became aware of people staring at him as they passed, and realized he was muttering under his breath. Smoothing his coat, he straightened. He had to talk to somebody. The cook had said one of the others had not gone out. It was an effort not to run.
When he rapped on the door of the room where the other boys had slept and poked his head in, only Perrin was there, lying on his bed and still not dressed. He twisted his head on the pillow to look at Rand, then closed his eyes again. Mat's bow and quiver were propped in the corner.
“I heard you weren't feeling well,” Rand said. He came in and sat on the next bed. “I just wanted to talk. I ...” He did not know how to bring it up, he realized. “If you're sick,” he said, half standing, “maybe you ought to sleep. I can go.”
“I don't know if I'll ever sleep again.” Perrin sighed. “I had a bad dream, if you must know, and couldn't get back to sleep. Mat will quick enough to tell you. He laughed this morning, when I told them why I was too tired to go out with him, but he dreamed; too. I listened to him for most of the night, tossing and muttering, and you can't tell me he got a good night's sleep.” He threw a thick arm across his eyes. “Light, but I'm tired. Maybe if I just stay here for an hour or two, I'll feel like getting up. Mat will never let me hear the end of it if I miss seeing Baerlon because of a dream. ”
Rand slowly lowered himself to the bed again. He licked his lips, then said quickly, “Did he kill a rat?”
Perrin lowered his arm and stared at him. “You, too?” he said finally. When Rand nodded, he said, “I wish I was back home. He told me ... he said ... What are we going to do? Have you told Moiraine?”
“No. Not yet. Maybe I won't. I don't know. What about you?”
“He said ... Blood and ashes, Rand, I don't know.” Perrin raised up on his elbow abruptly. “Do you think Mat had the same dream? He laughed, but it sounded forced, and he looked funny when I said I couldn't sleep