Bartim rubbed one hand over his head, disarranging his thinning hair, and stood up slowly. “Forget about performing here, gleeman. In fact, I'd appreciate it if you drank your wine and left. Leave Whitebridge, if you're smart. ”
“Someone else has been asking after them?” Thom took a drink, as if the answer were the least important thing in the world, and raised an eyebrow at the innkeeper. “Who would that be?”
Bartim scrubbed his hand through his hair again and shifted his feet on the point of walking away, then nodded to himself. "About a week ago, as near as I can say, a weaselly fellow came over the bridge. Crazy, everybody thought. Always talking to himself, never stopped moving even when he was standing still. Asked about the same people... some of them. He asked like it was important, then acted like he didn't care what the answer was. Half the time he was saying as he had to wait here for them, and the other half as he had to go on, he was in a hurry. One minute he was whining and begging, the next making demands like a king. Near got himself a thrashing a time or two, crazy or not. The Watch
almost took him in custody for his own safety. He went off toward Caemlyn that same day, talking to himself and crying. Crazy, like I said."
Rand looked at Thom and Mat questioningly, and they both shook their heads. If this weaselly fellow was looking for them, he was still nobody they recognized.
“Are you sure it was the same people he wanted?” Rand asked.
“Some of them. The fighting man, and the woman in silk. But it wasn't them as he cared about. It was three country boys.” His eyes slid across Rand and Mat and away again so fast that Rand was not sure if he had really seen the look or imagined it. “He was desperate to find them. But crazy, like I said.”
Rand shivered, and wondered who the crazy man could be, and why he was looking for them. A Darkfriend? Would Ba'alzamon use a madman?
“He was crazy, but the other one ...” Bartim's eyes shifted uneasily, and his tongue ran over his lips as if he could not find enough spit to moisten them. “Next day ... next day the other one came for the first time.” He fell silent.
“The other one?” Thom prompted finally.
Bartim looked around, although their side of the divided room was still empty except for them. He even raised up on his toes and looked over the low wall. When he finally spoke, it was in a whispered rush.
“All in black he is. Keeps the hood of his cloak pulled up so you can't see his face, but you can feel him looking at you, feel it like an icicle shoved into your spine. He ... he spoke to me.” He flinched and stopped to chew at his lip before going on. “Sounded like a snake crawling through dead leaves. Fair turned my stomach to ice. Every time as he comes back, he asks the same questions. Same questions the crazy man asked. Nobody ever sees him coming — he's just there all of a sudden, day or night, freezing you where you stand. People are starting to look over their shoulders. Worst of it is, the gatetenders claim as he's never passed through any of the gates, coming or going.”
Rand worked at keeping his face blank; he clenched his jaw until his teeth ached. Mat scowled, and Thom studied his wine. The word none of them wanted to say hung in the air between them. Myrddraal.
“I think I'd remember if I ever met anyone like that,” Thom said after a minute.
Bartim's head bobbed furiously. “Burn me, but you would. Light's truth, you would. He ... he wants the same lot as the crazy man, only he says as there's a girl with them. And” — he glanced sideways at Thom — “and a whitehaired gleeman.”
Thom's eyebrows shot up in what Rand was sure was unfeigned surprise. “A whitehaired gleeman? Well, I'm hardly the only gleeman in the world with a little age on him. I assure you, I don't know this fellow, and he can have no reason to be looking for me.”
“That's as may be,” Bartim said glumly. “He didn't say it in so many words, but I got the impression as he would be very displeased with anyone as tried to help these people, or tried to hide them from him. Anyway, I'll tell you what I told him. I haven't seen any of them, nor heard tell of them, and that's the truth. Not any of them,” he finished pointedly. Abruptly he slapped Thom's money down on the table. “Just finish your wine and go. All right? All right?” And he trundled away as fast as he could, looking over his shoulder.
“A Fade,” Mat breathed when the innkeeper was gone. “I should have known they'd be looking for us here.”
“And he'll be back,” Thom said, leaning across the table and lowering his voice. “I say we sneak back to the boat and take Captain Domon up on his offer. The hunt will center on the road to Caemlyn while we're on our way to Illian, a thousand miles from where the Myrddraal expect us.”
“No,” Rand said firmly. “We wait for Moiraine and the others in Whitebridge, or we go on to Caemlyn. One or the other, Thom. That's what we decided.”
“That's crazed, boy. Things have changed. You listen to me. No matter what this innkeeper says, when a Myrddraal stares at him, he'll tell all about us down to what we had to drink and how much dust we had on our boots.” Rand shivered, remembering the Fade's eyeless stare. “As for Caemlyn ... You think the Halfmen don't know you want to get to Tar Valon? It's a good time to be on a boat headed south.”
“No, Thom. ” Rand had to force the words out, thinking of being a thousand miles from where the Fades were looking, but he took a deep breath and managed to firm his voice. “No.”
“Think, boy. Illian! There isn't a grander city on the face of the earth. And the Great Hunt of the Horn! There hasn't been a Hunt of the Horn in near four hundred years. A whole new cycle of stories waiting to be made. Just think. You never dreamed of anything like it. By the time the Myrddraal figure out where you've gone to, you'll be old and gray and so tired of watching your grandchildren you won't care if they do find you.”
Rand's face took on a stubborn set. “How many times do I have to say no? They'll find us wherever we go. There'd be Fades waiting in Illian, too. And how do we escape the dreams? I want to know what's happening to me, Thom, and why. I'm going to Tar Valon. With Moiraine if I can; without her if I have to. Alone, if I have to. I need to know.”
“But Illian, boy! And a safe way out, downriver while they're looking for you in another direction. Blood and ashes, a dream can't hurt you.”
Rand kept silent. A dream can't hurt? Do dream thorns draw real blood? He almost wished he had told Thom about that dream, too. Do you dare tell anybody? Ba'alzamon it in your dreams, but what's between dreaming and waking, now? Who do you dare to tell that the Dark One is touching you?
Thom seemed to understand. The gleeman's face softened. “Even those dreams, lad. They are still just dreams, aren't they? For the Light's sake, Mat, talk to him. I know you don't want to go to Tar Valon, at least.”
Mat's face reddened, half embarrassment and half anger. He avoided looking at Rand and scowled at Thom instead. “Why are you going to all this fuss and bother? You want to go back to the boat? Go back to the boat. We'll take care of ourselves.”
The gleeman's thin shoulders shook with silent laughter, but his voice was anger tight. “You think you know enough about Myrddraal to escape by yourself, do you? You're ready to walk into Tar Valon alone and hand yourself over to the Amyrlin Seat? Can you even tell one Ajah from another? The Light burn me, boy, if you think you can even get to Tar Valon alone, you tell me to go.”
“Go,” Mat growled, sliding a hand under his cloak. Rand realized with a shock that he was gripping the dagger from Shadar Logoth, maybe even ready to use it.
Raucous laughter broke out on the other side of the low wall dividing the room, and a scornful voice spoke up loudly.
“Trollocs? Put on a gleeman's cloak, man! You're drunk! Trollocs! Borderland fables!”
The words doused anger like a pot of cold water. Even Mat half turned to the wall, eyes widening.
Rand stood just enough to see over the wall, then ducked back down again with a sinking feeling in his stomach. Floran Gelb sat on the other side of the wall, at the table in the back with the two men who had been there when they came in. They were laughing at him, but they were listening. Bartim was wiping a table that badly needed it, not looking at Gelb and the two men, but he was listening, too, scrubbing one spot over and over with his towel and leaning toward them until he seemed almost ready to fall over.
“Gelb,” Rand whispered as he dropped back into his chair, and the others tensed. Thom swiftly studied their side of the room.
On the other side of the wall the second man's voice chimed in. “No, no, there used to be Trollocs. But they killed them all in the Trolloc Wars.”
“Borderland fables!” the first man repeated.
“It's true, I tell you,” Gelb protested loudly. “I've been in the Borderlands. I've seen Trollocs, and these were Trollocs as sure as I'm sitting here. Those three claimed the Trollocs were chasing them, but I know better. That's why I wouldn't stay on the Spray. I've had my suspicions about Bayle Domon for some time, but those three are Darkfriends for sure. I tell you...” Laughter and coarse jokes drowned out the res