When Rand and Mat carried the first barrels through the common room, Master al'Vere was already filling a pair of mugs with his best brown ale, his own make, from one of the casks cracked against one wall. Scratch, the inn's yellow cat, crouched atop it with his eyes closed and his tail wrapped around his feet. Tam stood in front of the big fireplace of river rock, thumbing a longstemmed pipe full of tabac from a polished canister the innkeeper always kept on the plain stone mantel. The fireplace stretched half the length of the big, square room, with a lintel as high as a man's shoulder, and the crackling blaze on the hearth vanquished the chill outside.
At that time of the busy day before Festival, Rand expected to find the common room empty except for Bran and his father and the cat, but four more members of the Village Council, including Cenn, sat in highbacked chairs in front of the fire, mugs in hand and bluegray pipesmoke wreathing their heads. For once none of the stones boards were in use, and all of Bran's books stood idle on the shelf opposite the fireplace. The men did not even talk, peering silently into their ale or tapping pipestems against their teeth in impatience, as they waited for Tam and Bran to join them.
Worry was not uncommon for the Village Council these days, not in Emond's Field, and likely not in Watch Hill, or Deven Ride. Or even Taren Ferry, though who knew what Taren Ferry folk really thought about anything?
Only two of the men before the fire, Haral Luhhan, the blacksmith, and Jon Thane, the miller, so much as glanced at the boys as they entered. Master Luhhan, though, made it more than a glance. The blacksmith's arms were as big as most men's legs, roped with heavy muscle, and he still wore his long leather apron as if he had hurried to the meeting straight from the forge. His frown took them both in, then he straightened around in his chair deliberately, turning his attention back to an overstudious tamping of his pipe with a thick thumb.
Curious, Rand slowed, then barely bit back a yelp as Mat kicked his ankle. His friend nodded insistently toward the doorway at the back of the common room and hurried on without waiting. Limping slightly, Rand followed less quickly.
“What was that about?“ he demanded as soon as he was in the hall that to the kitchen. ”You almost broke my — "
“It's old Luhhan,” Mat said, peering past Rand's shoulder into the common room. “I think he suspects I was the one who — ” He cut off abruptly as Mistress al'Vere bustled out of the kitchen, the aroma of freshbaked bread wafting ahead of her.
The tray in her hands carried some of the crusty loaves for which she was famous around Emond's Field, as well as plates of pickles and cheese. The food reminded Rand abruptly that he had eaten only an end of bread before leaving the farm that morning. His stomach gave an embarrassing rumble.
A slender woman, with her thick braid of graying hair pulled over one shoulder, Mistress al'Vere smiled in a motherly fashion that took in both of them. “There is more of this in the kitchen, if you two are hungry, and I never knew boys your age who weren't. Or any other age, for that matter. If you prefer, I'm baking honeycakes this morning.”
She was one of the few married women in the area who never tried to play matchmaker with Tam. Toward Rand her motherliness extended to warm smiles and a quick snack whenever he came by the inn, but she did as much for every young man in the area. If she occasionally looked at him as if she wanted to do more, at least she took it no further than looks, for that he was deeply grateful.Without waiting for a reply she swept on into the common room. Immediately there was the sound of chairs scraping on the floor as the men got to their feet, and exclaimings over the smell of the bread. She was easily the best cook in Emond's Field, and not a man for miles around but eagerly leaped at a chance to put his feet under her table.
“Honeycakes,” Mat said, smacking his lips.
“After,” Rand told him firmly, “or we'll never get done.”
A lamp hung over the cellar stairs, just beside the kitchen door, and another made a bright pool in the stonewalled room beneath the inn, banishing all but a little dimness in the furthest corners. Wooden racks along the walls and across the floor held casks of brandy and cider, and larger barrels of ale and wine, some with taps driven in. Many of the wine barrels were marked with chalk in Bran al'Vere's hand, giving the year they had been bought, what peddler had brought them, and in which city they had been made, but all of the ale and brandy was the make of Two Rivers farmers or of Bran himself. Peddlers, and even merchants, sometimes brought brandy or ale from outside, but it was never as good and cost the earth, besides, and nobody ever drank it more than once.
“Now,” Rand said, as they set their casks in the racks, “what did you do that you have to avoid Master Luhhan?”
Mat shrugged. “Nothing, really. I told Adan al'Caar and some of his snotnosed friends—Ewin Finngar and Dag Coplin — that some farmers had seen ghost hounds, breathing fire and running through the woods. They ate it up like clotted cream.”
“And Master Luhhan is mad at you for that?” Rand said doubtfully.
“Not exactly.” Mat paused, then shook his head. “You see, I covered two of his dogs with flour, so they were all white. Then I let them loose near Dag's house. How was I to know they'd run straight home? It really isn't my fault. If Mistress Luhhan hadn't left the door open they couldn't have gotten inside. It isn't like I intended to get flour all over her house.” He gave a bark of laughter. “I hear she chased old Luhhan and the dogs, all three, out of the house with a broom.”
Rand winced and laughed at the same time. “If I were you, I'd worry more about Alsbet Luhhan than about the blacksmith. She's almost as strong, and her temper is a lot worse. No matter, though. If you walk fast, maybe he won't notice you.” Mat's expression said he did not think Rand was funny.
When they went back through the common room, though, there was no need for Mat to hurry. The six men had their chairs in a tight knot before the fireplace. With his back to the fire, Tam was speaking in a low voice, and the others were leaning forward to listen, so intent on his words they would likely not have noticed if a flock of sheep had been driven through. Rand wanted to move closer, to hear what they were talking about, but Mat plucked at his sleeve and gave him an agonized look. With a sigh he followed Mat out to the cart.
On their return to the hallway they found a tray by the top of the steps, and hot honeycakes filling the hall with their sweet aroma. There were two mugs, as well, and a pitcher of steaming mulled cider. Despite his own admonition about waiting until later Rand found himself making the last two trips between cart and cellar while trying to juggle a cask and a piping honeycake.
Setting his final cask in the racks, he wiped crumbs from his mouth while Mat was unburdening himself, then said, “Now for the glee —”
Feet clattered on the stairs, and Ewin Finngar half fell into the cellar in his haste, his pudgy face shining with eagerness to impart his news. “There are strangers in the village.” He caught his breath and gave Mat a wry look. “I haven't seen any ghost hounds, but I hear somebody floured Master Luhhan's dogs. I hear Mistress Luhhan has ideas who to look for, too.”
The years separating Rand and Mat from Ewin, only fourteen, were usually more than enough for them to give short shrift to anything he had to say. This time they exchanged one startled glance, then both were talking at once.
“In the village?” Rand asked. “Not in the woods?”
Right on top of him Mat added, “Was his cloak black? Could you see his face?”
Ewin looked uncertainly from one of them to the other, then spoke quickly when Mat took a threatening step. “Of course I could see his face. And his cloak is green. Or maybe gray. It changes. It seems to fade into wherever he's standing. Sometimes you don't see him even when you look right at him, not unless he moves. And hers is blue, like the sky, and ten times fancier than any feastday clothes I ever saw. She's ten times prettier than anybody I ever saw, too. She's a highborn lady, like in the stories. She must be.”
“Her?” Rand said. “Who are you talking about?” He stared at Mat, who had put both hands on top of his head and squeezed his eyes shut.
“They're the ones I meant to tell you about,” Mat muttered, “before you got me off onto —” He cut off, opening his eyes for a sharp glance at Ewin. “They arrived last evening,” Mat went on after a moment, “and took rooms here at the inn. I saw them ride in. Their horses, Rand. I never saw horses so tall, or so sleek. They look like they could run forever. I think he works for her.”
“In service,” Ewin broke in. “They call it being in service, in the stories.”
Mat continued as if Ewin had not spoken. “Anyway, he defers to her, does what she says. Only he isn't like a hired man. A soldier, maybe. The way he wears his sword, it's part of him, like his hand or his foot. He makes the merchants' guards look like cur dogs. And her, Rand. I never even imagined anyone like her. She's out of a gleeman's story. She's like… like... ” He paused to give Ewin a sour look. “ ... like a highborn lady,&rdquo