The innkeeper nodded to the low wall. “The other side that's as best I've got unless you want to take a room. For when sailors come up from the river. Seems like half the crews got grudges against the other half. I won't have my place broke up by fights, so I keep them apart.” He had been eyeing Thom's cloak the whole while, and now he cocked his head to one side, a sly look in his eyes. “You staying? Haven't had a gleeman here in some time. Folks would pay real good for something as would take their minds off things. I'd even take some off on your room and meals.”
Unnoticed, Rand thought glumly.
“You are too generous,” Thom said with a smooth bow. “Perhaps I will take up your offer. But for now, a little privacy.”
“I'll bring your wine. Good money here for a gleeman.”
The tables on the far side of the wall were all empty, but Thom chose one right in the middle of the space. “So no one can listen without us knowing,” he explained. “Did you hear that fellow? He'll take some off. Why, I'd double his custom just by sitting here. Any honest innkeeper gives a gleeman room and board and a good bit besides.”
The bare table was none too clean, and the floor had not been swept in days if not weeks. Rand looked around and grimaced. Master al'Vere would not have let his inn get that dirty if he had had to climb out of a sickbed to see to it.
“We're only after information. Remember?”
“Why here?” Mat demanded. “We passed other inns that looked cleaner.”
“Straight on from the bridge,” Thom said, “is the road to Caemlyn. Anyone passing through Whitebridge comes through this square, unless they're going by river, and we know your friends aren't doing that. If there is no word of them here, it doesn't exist. Let me do the talking. This has to be done carefully.”
Just then the innkeeper appeared, three battered pewter mugs gripped in one fist by the handles. The fat man flicked at the table with a towel, set the mugs down, and took Thom's money. “If you stay, you won't have to pay for your drinks. Good wine, here.”
Thom's smile touched only his mouth. “I will think on it, innkeeper. What news is there? We have been away from hearing things.”
“Big news, that's what. Big news.”
The innkeeper draped the towel over his shoulder and pulled up a chair. He crossed his arms on the table, took root with a long sigh, saying what a comfort it was to get off his feet. His name was Bartim, and he went on about his feet in detail, about corns and bunions and how much time he spent standing and what he soaked them in, until Thom mentioned the news again, and then he shifted over with hardly a pause.
The news was just as big as he said it was. Logain, the false Dragon, had been captured after a big battle near Lugard while he was trying to move his army from Ghealdan to Tear. The Prophecies, they understood? Thom nodded, and Bartim went on. The roads in the south were packed with people, the lucky ones with what they could carry on their backs. Thousands fleeing in all directions.
“None” — Bartim chuckled wryly — “supported Logain, of course. Oh, no, you won't find many to admit to that, not now. Just refugees trying to find a safe place during the troubles.”
Aes Sedai had been involved in taking Logain, of course. Bartim spat on the floor when he said that, and again when he said they were taking the false Dragon north to Tar Valon. Bartim was a decent man, he said, a respectable man, and Aes Sedai could all go back to the Blight where they came from and take Tar Valon with them, as far as he was concerned. He would get no closer to an Aes Sedai than a thousand miles, if he had his way. Of course, they were stopping at every village and town on the way north to display Logain, so he had heard. To show people that the false Dragon had been taken and the world was safe again. He would have liked to see that, even if it did mean getting close to Aes Sedai. He was halfway tempted to go to Caemlyn.
“They'll be taking him there to show to Queen Morgase.” The innkeeper touched his forehead respectfully. “I've never seen the Queen. Man ought to see his own Queen, don't you think?”
Logain could do “things,” and the way Bartim's eyes shifted and his tongue darted across his lips made it clear what he meant. He had seen the last false Dragon, two years ago, when he was paraded through the countryside, but that was just some fellow who thought he could make himself a king. There had been no need for Aes Sedai, that time. Soldiers had had him chained up on a wagon. A sullenlooking fellow who moaned in the middle of the wagonbed, covering his head with his arms whenever people threw stones or poked him with sticks. There had been a lot of that, and the soldiers had done nothing to stop it, as long as they did not kill the fellow. Best to let the people see he was nothing special after all. He could not do “things.” This Logain would be something to see, though. Something for Bartim to tell his grandchildren about. If only the inn would let him get away.
Rand listened with an interest that did not have to be faked. When Padan Fain had brought word to Emond's Field of a false Dragon, a man actually wielding the Power, it had been the biggest news to come into the Two Rivers in years. What had happened since had pushed it to the back of his mind, but it was still the sort of thing people would be talking about for years, and telling their grandchildren about, too. Bartim would probably tell his that he had seen Logain whether he did or not. Nobody would ever think what happened to some village folk from the Two Rivers was worth talking about, not unless they were Two Rivers people themselves.
“That,” Thom said, “would be something to make a story of, a story they'd tell for a thousand years. I wish I had been there.” He sounded as if it was the simple truth, and Rand thought it really was. “I might try to see him anyway. You didn't say what route they were taking. Perhaps there are some other travelers around? They might have heard the route.”
Bartim waved a grubby hand dismissively. “North, that's all anybody knows around here. You want to see him, go to Caemlyn. That's all I know, and if there's anything to know in Whitebridge, I know it.”
“No doubt you do,” Thom said smoothly. “I expect a lot of strangers passing through stop here. Your sign caught my eye from the foot of the White Bridge.”
“Not just from the west, I'll have you know. Two days ago there was a fellow in here, an Illianer, with a proclamation all done up with seals and ribbons. Read it right out there in the square. Said he's taking it all the way to the Mountains of Mist, maybe even to the Aryth Ocean, if the passes are open. Said they've sent men to read it in every land in the world.” The innkeeper shook his head. “The Mountains of Mist. I hear they're covered with fog all the year round, and there's things in the fog will strip the flesh off your bones before you can run.” Mat snickered, earning a sharp look from Bartim.
Thom leaned forward intently. “What did the proclamation say?”
“Why, the hunt for the Horn, of course,” Bartim exclaimed. “Didn't I say that? The Illianers are calling on everybody as will swear their lives to the hunt to gather in Illian. Can you imagine that? Swearing your life to a legend? I suppose they'll find some fools. There's always fools around. This fellow claimed the end of the world is coming. The last battle with the Dark One.” He chuckled, but it had a hollow sound, a man laughing to convince himself something really was worth laughing at. “Guess they think the Horn of Valere has to be found before it happens. Now what do you think of that?” He chewed a knuckle pensively for a minute. “Course, I don't know as I could argue with them after this winter. The winter, and this fellow Logain, and those other two before, as well. Why all these fellows the last few years claiming to be the Dragon? And the winter. Must mean something. What do you think?”
Thom did not seem to hear him. In a soft voice the gleeman began to recite to himself.
"In the last, lorn fight
'gainst the fall of long night,
the mountains stand guard,
and the dead shall be ward,
for the grave is no bar to my call."
“That's it.” Bartim grinned as if he could already see the crowds handing him their money while they listened to Thom. “That's it. The Great Hunt of the Horn. You tell that one, and they'll be hanging from the rafters in here. Everybody's heard about the proclamation.”
Thom still seemed to be a thousand miles away, so Rand said, “We're looking for some friends who were coming this way. From the west. Have there been many strangers passing through in the last week or two?”
“Some,” Bartim said slowly. “There's always some, from east and west both.” He looked at each of them in turn, suddenly wary. “What do they look like, these friends of yours?”
Rand opened his mouth, but Thom, abruptly back from wherever he had been, gave him a sharp, silencing look. With an exasperated sigh the gleeman turned to the innkeeper. “Two men and three women,” he said reluctantly. “They may be together, or maybe not.” He gave thumbnail sketches, painting each one in just a few words, enough for anyone who had seen them to recognize without giving away any