The Nine Rings
Rand expected the common room to be empty, since it was nearly suppertime, but half a dozen men crowded one table, di
cing among their jacks of ale, and another sat by himself over a meal. Though the dicers carried no weapons in sight and wore no armor, only plain coats and breeches of dark blue, something about the way they held themselves told Rand they were soldiers. His eyes went to the solitary man. An officer, with the tops of his high boots turned down, and his sword propped against the table beside his chair. A single slash of red and one of yellow crossed the chest of the officer’s blue coat from shoulder to shoulder, and the front of his head was shaved, though his black hair hung long in the back. The soldiers’ hair was clipped short, as if it all had been cut under the same bowl. All seven turned to look as Rand and the others came in.
The innkeeper was a lean woman with a long nose and graying hair, but her wrinkles seemed part of her ready smile more than anything else. She came bustling up, wiping her hands on a spotless white apron. “Good even to you”—her quick eyes took in Rand’s gold-embroidered red coat, and Selene’s fine white dress—“my Lord, my Lady. I am Maglin Madwen, my Lord. Be welcome to The Nine Rings. And an Ogier. Not many of your kind come this way, friend Ogier. Would you be up from Stedding Tsofu, then?”
Loial managed an awkward half bow under the weight of the chest. “No, good innkeeper. I come the other way, from the Borderlands.”
“From the Borderlands, you say. Well. And you, my Lord? Forgive me for asking, but you’ve not the look of the Borderlands, if you don’t mind my saying it.”
“I’m from the Two Rivers, Mistress Madwen, in Andor.” He glanced at Selene—she did not seem to admit he existed; her level look barely admitted that the room existed, or anyone in it. “The Lady Selene is from Cairhien, from the capital, and I am from Andor.”
“As you say, my Lord.” Mistress Madwen’s glance flickered to Rand’s sword; the bronze herons were plain on scabbard and hilt. She frowned slightly, but her face was clear again in a blink. “You’ll be wanting a meal for yourself and your beautiful Lady, and your followers. And rooms, I expect. I’ll have your horses seen to. I’ve a good table for you, right this way, and pork with yellow peppers on the fire. Would you be hunting the Horn of Valere, then, my Lord, you and your Lady?”
In the act of following her, Rand almost stumbled. “No! Why would you think we were?”
“No offense, my Lord. We’ve had two through here already, all polished to look like heroes—not to suggest anything of the kind about you, my Lord—in the last month. Not many strangers come here, except traders up from the capital to buy oats and barley. I’d not suppose the Hunt has left Illian, yet, but maybe some don’t think they really need the blessing, and they’ll get a jump on the others by missing it.”
“We are not hunting the Horn, mistress.” Rand did not glance at the bundle in Loial’s arms; the blanket with its colorful stripes hung bunched over the Ogier’s thick arms and disguised the chest well. “We surely are not. We are on our way to the capital.”
“As you say, my Lord. Forgive me for asking, but is your Lady well?”
Selene looked at her, and spoke for the first time. “I am quite well.” Her voice left a chill in the air that stifled talk for a moment.
“You’re not Cairhienin, Mistress Madwen,” Hurin said suddenly. Burdened down with their saddlebags and Rand’s bundle, he looked like a walking baggage cart. “Pardon, but you don’t sound it.”
Mistress Madwen’s eyebrows rose, and she shot a glance at Rand, then grinned. “I should have known you’d let your man speak freely, but I’ve grown used to—” Her glance darted toward the officer, who had gone back to his own meal. “Light, no, I’m not Cairhienin, but for my sins, I married one. Twenty-three years I lived with him, and when he died on me—the Light shine on him—I was all ready to go back to Lugard, but he had the last laugh, he did. He left me the inn, and his brother the money, when I was sure it would be the other way round. Tricksome and scheming, Barin was, like every man I’ve ever known, Cairhienin most of all. Will you be seated, my Lord? My Lady?”
The innkeeper gave a surprised blink when Hurin sat at table with them—an Ogier, it seemed, was one thing, but Hurin was clearly a servant in her eyes. With another quick look at Rand, she bustled off to the kitchens, and soon serving girls came with their meal, giggling and staring at the lord and the lady, and the Ogier, till Mistress Madwen chased them back to their work.
At first, Rand stared at his food doubtfully. The pork was cut in small bits, mixed with long strips of yellow peppers, and peas, and a number of vegetables and things he did not recognize, all in some sort of clear, thick sauce. It smelled sweet and sharp, both at the same time. Selene only picked at hers, but Loial was eating with a will.
Hurin grinned at Rand over his fork. “They spice their food oddly, Cairhienin do, Lord Rand, but for all that, it’s not bad.”
“It won’t bite you, Rand,” Loial added.
Rand took a hesitant mouthful, and almost gasped. It tasted just as it smelled, sweet and sharp together, the pork crisp on the outside and tender inside, a dozen different flavors, spices, all blending and contrasting. It tasted like nothing he had ever put in his mouth before. It tasted wonderful. He cleaned his plate, and when Mistress Madwen returned with the serving girls to clear away, he nearly asked for more the way Loial did. Selene’s was still half full, but she motioned curtly for one of the girls to take it.
“A pleasure, friend Ogier.” The innkeeper smiled. “It takes a lot to fill up one of you. Catrine, bring another helping, and be quick.” One of the girls darted away. Mistress Madwen turned her smile on Rand. “My Lord, I had a man here who played the bittern, but he married a girl off one of the farms, and she has him strumming reins behind a plow, now. I couldn’t help noticing what looks like a flute case sticking out of your man’s bundle. Since my musician’s gone, would you let your man favor us with a little music?”
Hurin looked embarrassed.
“He doesn’t play,” Rand explained. “I do.”
The woman blinked. It appeared lords did not play the flute, at least not in Cairhien. “I withdraw the request, my Lord. Light’s own truth, I meant no offense, I assure you. I’d never ask one such as yourself to be playing in a common room.”
Rand hesitated only a moment. It had been too long since he had practiced the flute rather than the sword, and the coins in his pouch would not last forever. Once he was rid of his fancy clothes—once he turned the Horn over to Ingtar and the dagger over to Mat—he would need the flute to earn his supper again while he searched for somewhere safe from Aes Sedai. And safe from myself? Something did happen back there. What?
“I don’t mind,” he said. “Hurin, hand me the case. Just slide it out.” There was no need to show a gleeman’s cloak; enough unspoken questions shone in Mistress Madwen’s dark eyes as it was.
Worked gold chased with silver, the instrument looked the sort a lord might play, if lords anywhere played the flute. The heron branded on his right palm did not interfere with his fingering. Selene’s salves had worked so well he hardly thought of the brand unless he saw it. Yet it was in his thoughts now, and unconsciously he began to play “Heron on the Wing.”
Hurin bobbed his head to the tune, and Loial beat time on the table with a thick finger. Selene looked at Rand as if wondering what he was—I’m not a lord, my Lady. I’m a shepherd, and I play the flute in common rooms—but the soldiers turned from their talk to listen, and the officer closed the wooden cover of the book he had begun reading. Selene’s steady gaze struck a stubborn spark inside Rand. Determinedly he avoided any song that might fit in a palace, or a lord’s manor. He played “Only One Bucket of Water” and “The Old Two Rivers Leaf,” “Old Jak’s Up a Tree” and “Goodman Priket’s Pipe.”
With the last, the six soldiers began to sing in raucous tones, though not the words Rand knew.
“We rode down to River Iralell