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Crossroads of Twilight
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The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose in the Rhannon Hills. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.
Born among the groves and vineyards that covered much of the rugged hills, the olive trees in evergreen rows, the ordered vines leafless till spring, the cold wind blew west and north across the prosperous farms dotting the land between the hills and the great harbor of Ebou Dar. The land lay winter fallow still, but men and women were already oiling plowshares and tending harness, preparing for the planting to come. They paid little mind to the trains of heavily laden wagons moving east along the dirt roads carrying people who wore odd clothes and spoke with odd accents. Many of the strangers seemed to be farmers themselves, familiar implements lashed to their wagon boxes, and in their wagons unfamiliar saplings with roots balled in rough cloth, but they were heading on toward more distant land. Nothing to do with life here and now. The Seanchan hand lay lightly on those who did not contest Seanchan rule, and the farmers of the Rhannon Hills had seen no changes in their lives. For them, rain or the lack of it had always been the true ruler.
West and north the wind blew, across the broad blue-green expanse of the harbor, where hundreds of huge ships sat rocking at anchor on choppy swells, some bluff-bowed and rigged with ribbed sails, others long and sharp-prowed, with men laboring to match their sails and rigging to those of the wider vessels. Not nearly so many ships still floated there as had only a few days before, though. Many now lay in the shallows, charred wrecks heeled over on their sides, and burned frames settling in the deep gray mud like blackened skeletons. Smaller craft skittered about the harbor, slanting under triangular sails or crawling on oars like many-legged waterbugs, most carrying workers and supplies to the ships that still floated. Other small vessels and barges rode tethered to what appeared to be treetrunks shorn of branches, rising out of the blue-green water, and from those men dove holding stones to carry them down swiftly to sunken ships below, where they tied ropes to whatever could be hauled up for salvage. Six nights ago death had walked across the water here, the One Power killing men and women and ships in darkness split by silver lightnings and hurtling balls of fires. Now, the rough rolling harbor, filled with furious activity, seemed at peace by comparison, the chop giving up spray to the wind that blew north and west across the mouth of the River Eldar, where it widened into the harbor, north and west and inland.
Sitting cross-legged atop a boulder covered with brown moss, on the reed-fringed bank of the river, Mat hunched his shoulders against the wind and cursed silently. There was no gold to be found here, no women or dancing, no fun. Plenty of discomfort, though. In short, it was the last sort of place he would choose, normally. The sun stood barely its own height above the horizon, the sky overhead was pale slate gray, and thick purple clouds moving in from the sea threatened rain. Winter hardly seemed winter without snow – he had yet to see a single flake in Ebou Dar – but a cold damp morning wind off the water could serve as well as snow to chill a man to the bone. Four nights since he had ridden out of the city in a storm, yet his throbbing hip seemed to think he was still soaked to the skin and clinging to a saddle. This was no weather or time of day for a man to be out by his own choice. He wished he had thought to bring a cloak. He wished he had stayed in bed.
Ripples in the land hid Ebou Dar, just over a mile to the south, and hid him from the city, as well, but there was not a tree or anything more than scrub brush in sight. Being in the open this way made him feel as though ants were crawling under his skin. He should be safe, though. His plain brown woolen coat and cap were nothing like the clothes he was known by in the city. Instead of black silk, a drab woolen scarf hid the scar around his neck, and the collar of his coat was turned up to hide that, as well. Not a bit of lace or a thread of embroidery. Dull enough for a farmer milking cows. No one he needed to avoid would know him to recognize if they saw him. Not unless they were close. Just the same, he tugged the cap a bit lower.
"You intend to stay out here much longer, Mat?" Noal’s tattered dark blue coat had seen better days, but then so had he. Stooped and white-haired, the broken-nosed old fellow was squatting on his heels below the boulder, fishing off the riverbank with a bamboo pole. Most of his teeth were missing, and sometimes he felt at a gap with his tongue as though surprised to find the empty space. "It’s cold, in case you haven’t noticed. Everybody always thinks it’s warm in Ebou Dar, but winter is cold everywhere, even places that make Ebou Dar feel like Shienar. My bones crave a fire. Or a blanket, anyway. A man can be snug with a blanket, if he’s out of the wind. Are you going to do anything but stare downriver?"
When Mat only glanced at him, Noal shrugged and went back to peering at the tarred wooden float bobbing among the sparse reeds. Now and then he worked one gnarled hand as though his crooked fingers felt the chill particularly, but if so, it was his own fault. The old fool had gone wading in the shallows to scoop up minnows for bait with a basket that now sat half-submerged and anchored by a smooth stone at the edge of the water. Despite his complaints about the weather, Noal had come along to the river without urging or invitation. From things he had said, everyone he cared about was long years dead, and the truth of it was, he seemed almost desperate for any sort of company. Desperate, indeed, to choose Mat’s company when he could be five days from Ebou Dar by now. A man could cover a lot of ground in five days if he had reason to and a good horse. Mat had thought on that very subject often enough himself.
On the far side of the Eldar, half-hidden by one of the marshy islands that dotted the river, a broad-beamed rowboat backed oars, and one of the crew stood up and fished in the reeds with a long boathook. Another oarsman helped him heave what he had caught into the boat. At this distance, it looked like a large sack. Mat winced and shifted his eyes downriver. They were still finding bodies, and he was responsible. The innocent died along with the guilty. And if you did nothing, then only the innocent died. Or as bad as died. Maybe worse than, depending on how you looked at it.
He scowled irritably. Blood and ashes, he was turning into a bloody philosopher! Taking responsibility drained all the joy out of life and dried a man to dust. What he wanted right then was a great deal of mulled wine in a snug common room full of music, and a plump, pretty serving maid on his knee, somewhere far from Ebou Dar. Very far. What he had were obligations he could not walk away from and a future he did not fancy. There seemed no help at all in being ta’veren, not if this was how the Pattern shaped itself to you. He still had his luck, anyway. At least, he was alive and not chained in a cell. Under the circumstances, that counted as luck.
From his perch, he had a fairly clear view down past the last low marshy river islands. Wind-caught spray drifted up the harbor like banks of fine mist, but not enough to hide what he needed to see. He was attempting to do sums in his head, counting ships afloat, trying to count wrecks. He kept losing his place, though, thinking he had counted vessels twice and starting over. The Sea Folk who had been recaptured intruded on his thoughts, too. He had heard that gibbets in the Rahad, across the harbor, displayed more than a hundred corpses, with placards listing ‘murder’ and ‘rebellion’ as their crimes. Normally, the Seanchan used the headsman’s axe and the impaling stake, while the Blood got the strangling cord, but property had to settle for being hanged.
Burn me, I did what I could, he thought sourly. There was no use feeling guilty that that was all he could do. Not a bit of use. None! He had to concentrate on the people who escaped.
The Atha’an Miere who got away had taken ships in the harbor for their flight, and while they might have seized some smaller craft, anything they could board and overwhelm in the night, they had intended to carry off as many of their people as possible. With thousands of them laboring as prisoners in the Rahad, that would have meant big ships, by choice, and that meant Seanchan greatships. Many of the Sea Folk’s own vessels were large enough, for certain, but they all had been stripped of their sails and rigging by that time, to be fitted out in the Seanchan fashion. If he could calculate how many greatships remained, he might have some notion of how many Atha’an Miere had actually reached freedom. Freeing the Sea Folk Windfinders had been the right thing to do, the only thing he could do, but aside from the hangings, hundreds and hundreds of bodies had been fished out of the harbor in the last five days, and the Light only knew how many had washed out to sea with the tides. The gravediggers labored from sunup to sundown, and the graveyards were filled with weeping women and children. Men, too. More than a few of those dead had been Atha’an Miere, with no one to weep while they were dumped into mass graves, and he wanted some idea of the number he had saved to balance his bleak suspicions of the number he had killed.
Estimating how many ships had made it out into the Sea of Storms was difficult, though, quite apart from losing the count. Unlike Aes Sedai, Windfinders had no strictures against using the Power as a weapon, not when the safety of their people was at stake, and they would have wanted to halt pursuit before it began. No one gave chase in a burning ship. The Seanchan, with their damane, had even less compunction against fighting back. Lightning bolts lacing through the rain as numerous as blades of grass and balls of fire streaking across the sky, some the size of horses, and the harbor seemed aflame from one side to the other, till even in a storm the night made any Illuminator’s show look stark. Without turning his head he could count a dozen places where the charred ribs of a greatship stuck up out of shallow water or a huge bluff-bowed hull lay on its side with the harbor waves licking against the tilted deck, and twice as many where the lines of blackened timbers were finer, the remains of Sea Folk rakers. Apparently they had disliked leaving their own vessels to people who had put them in chains. Three dozen right in front of him, and that without adding in the sunken wrecks that had salvage boats working over them. Perhaps a seafarer could tell greatship from raker by the tops of masts sticking out of the water, but the task was beyond him.
Suddenly an old memory tugged at him, of lading ships for an attack from the sea, and how many men could be crowded into how much space for how long. It was not his memory, really, from an ancient war between Fergansea and Moreina, yet it seemed his. Realizing that he had not actually lived one of those ancient bits of other men’s lives that were stuck in his head always took him a little by surprise now, so maybe they were his, in a way. They were certainly sharper than some stretches of his own life. The vessels he recalled had been smaller than most in the harbor, yet the principles were the same.
"They don’t have enough ships," he muttered. The Seanchan had even more in Tanchico than had come here, but the losses here were sufficient to make the difference.
"Enough ships for what?" Noal said. "I never saw so many in one place before." That was quite a statement, coming from him. To hear Noal tell it, he had seen everything, and nearly always bigger or grander than what was in front of his nose. Back home, they would have said he kept tight purse-strings on the truth.
Mat shook his head. "They don’t have enough ships left to take them all back home."
"We don’t have to go home," a woman drawled behind him. "We’ve come home."
He did not quite jump at the slurred Seanchan accent, but it was a near thing before he recognized who was speaking.
Egeanin was scowling, her eyes like blue daggers, but not for him. At least, he thought not. She was tall and lean, with a hard face that was pale skinned despite a life at sea. Her green dress was bright enough for a Tinker, or close to it, and embroidered with a mass of tiny yellow and white blossoms on the high neck and down the sleeves. A flowered scarf tied tightly under her chin held a long black wig on her head, spilling halfway down her back and over her shoulders. She hated the scarf and the dress, which did not quite fit, but her hands checked every other minute to make sure the wig was straight. That concerned her more than her clothes, though concern was not nearly a strong enough word.
She had only sighed over cutting her long fingernails short, but she almost had a fit, red-faced and pop-eyed, when he told her she must shave her head completely. The way her hair had been cut before, shaved above her ears with only a bowl-like cap and a wide shoulder-length tail in the back remaining, shouted that she was of the Seanchan Blood, a lesser noble. Even someone who had never laid eyes on a Seanchan would have remembered seeing her. She had agreed, reluctantly, but afterwards she was close to hysterical until she was able to cover her scalp. Not for the reasons most women would have gone over the moon, though. No, among the Seanchan, only the Imperial family shaved their heads. Men who went bald began wearing wigs as soon as their hair started falling out to any noticeable degree. Egeanin would have died before letting anyone think she was pretending to belong to the Imperial family, even people who would never have had the thought in their lives. Well, that sort of pretense did carry a death penalty among the Seanchan, but he would never have believed she would go on about it so. What was one more death penalty when your neck was already being stretched for the axe? The strangling cord, in her case. The noose would be for him.
Slipping the half-drawn knife back up his left sleeve, he slid down from the boulder. He landed poorly and almost fell, barely hiding a wince at the stabbing jar to his hip. He did hide it, though. She was a noblewoman and a ship captain, and she made enough tries at taking charge without him showing any more weakness to give her an opening than he had to. She had come to him for help, not the other way round, but that buttered no bread with her. Leaning against the boulder with his arms folded, he pretended he was lounging, idly kicking at tufts of dead grass to work the pain out. That was sharp enough to put sweat on his forehead despite the cold wind. Fleeing in that storm had cost him ground with his hip, and he had not made it up yet.
"Are you sure about the Sea Folk?" he asked her. No point in mentioning the lack of ships again. Too many Seanchan settlers had spread out from Ebou Dar anyway, and apparently even more from Tanchico. However many ships they had, no power on earth would ever root all the Seanchan out, now.
Reaching toward the wig again, she hesitated, frowning at her short fingernails, and instead tucked her hands under her arms. "What about them?" She knew he had been behind the Windfinders’ break for freedom, but neither of them had mentioned it specifically. She always tried to avoid talking about the Atha’an Miere. Quite aside from all the sunken ships and dead, freeing damane was another death penalty charge, and disgusting besides, in the Seanchan view, as bad as rape or molesting children. Of course, she had helped free some damane herself, though to her way of looking, that was among the least of her crimes. Still, she avoided that topic, too. There were quite a few subjects she held silent on.
"Are you certain about the Windfinders who were caught? I’ve heard talk about cutting off hands, or feet." Mat swallowed a sour taste. He had seen men die, had killed men with his own hands. The Light send him mercy, he had killed a woman, once! Not even the darkest of those other men’s memories burned so hot as that, and a few of those were dark enough to need drowning in wine when they floated to the surface. But the thought of deliberately cutting off somebody’s hands curdled his stomach.
Egeanin’s head jerked, and for a moment he thought she would ignore his question. "Talk from Renna, I’ll wager," she said, with a dismissive gesture. "Some sul’dam talk about that nonsense to frighten recalcitrant damane when they’re new-leashed, but nobody’s done it in, oh, six or seven hundred years. Not many, anyway, and people who can’t control their property without...mutilation...are sei’mosiev to start." Her mouth twisted in loathing, though whether for mutilation or sei’mosiev was unclear.
"Shamed or not, they do it," he snapped. Sei’mosiev went beyond being shamed, to a Seanchan, but he doubted that anyone who deliberately cut off a woman’s hand could be humiliated enough to kill themselves. "Is Suroth one of that ‘not many?’"
The Seanchan woman glared to match his and planted her fists on her hips, leaning forward with her feet astride as though she were on the deck of a ship and about to berate a fumble-witted sailor. "The High Lady Suroth doesn’t own these damane, you lump-brained farmer! They’re property of the Empress, may she live forever. Suroth might as well slit her own wrists straightaway as order something like that for Imperial damane. That’s even if she would; I’ve never heard of her mistreating her own. I’ll try to put this in terms you can understand. If your dog runs away, you don’t maim it. You switch the dog so it knows not to do that again, and you put it back in the kennel. Besides, damane are just too –"
"Too valuable," Mat finished for her drily. He had heard that till he was sick of it.
She disregarded his sarcasm, or maybe did not notice. In his experience, if a woman did not want to hear something, she could ignore it till you yourself started to doubt you had spoken. "You’re finally beginning to understand," she drawled, nodding. "Those damane you’re so worried about probably don’t even have welts left by this time." Her gaze went to the ships in the harbor, and slowly took on a look of loss, made deeper by the hardness of her face. Her thumbs ran across her fingertips. "You wouldn’t believe what my damane cost me," she said in a quiet voice, "her and hiring the sul’dam for her. Worth every throne I paid, of course. Her name’s Serrisa. Well-trained, responsive. She’ll gorge herself on honeyed nuts, if you let her, but she never gets seasick or the sulks, the way some do. A pity I had to leave her in Cantorin. I suppose I’ll never see her again." She sighed regretfully.
"I’m sure she misses you as much as you miss her," Noal said, flashing a gap-toothed smile, and for all the world, he sounded sincere. Maybe he was. He contended that he had seen worse than damane and da’covale, for what that was worth.
Egeanin’s back stiffened, and she frowned as if she did not believe his sympathy. Or else she had just realized how she was staring at the ships in the harbor. Certainly, she turned away from the water very deliberately. "I gave orders that no one was to leave the wagons," she said firmly. Likely, crewmen on her ships had jumped at that tone. She jerked her head away from the river as though she expected Mat and Noal to jump where she indicated, too.
"Did you, now?" Mat grinned, showing her teeth. He could manage an insolent grin that sent most puffed-up fools into apoplexy. Egeanin was far from a fool, most times, but puffed-up she was. Ship captain and noblewoman. He did not know which was worse. Bah for both! "Well, I was about ready to head that way. Unless you’re not done fishing, Noal. We can wait here a while, if you’re not."
But the old man was already emptying the remaining silver-gray minnows out of his basket into the water. His hands had been broken badly, maybe more than once by their lumpy appearance, yet they were deft in winding his line around the bamboo pole. In the short time he had been fishing, he had caught nearly a dozen fish, the largest less than a foot long, strung through the gills on a looped reed, and he moved those to the basket before picking it up. He claimed that if he could find the right peppers, he was going to make a fish stew – from Shara, of all places! As well say from the moon! – a stew that would make Mat forget all about his hip. The way Noal went on about the peppers, Mat suspected any forgetting would be because he was focused on finding enough ale to cool his tongue.
Egeanin, waiting impatiently, was paying no attention to Mat’s grin, either, so he slipped an arm around her. If they were heading back, they might as well get started. She knocked his hand away from her shoulder. The woman made some maiden aunts he had known look like tavern girls.
"We’re supposed to be lovers, you and I," he reminded her.
"There’s nobody here to see," she growled.
"How many times do I have to tell you, Leilwin?" That was the name she was using. She claimed it was Taraboner. At any rate, it did not sound Seanchan. "If we don’t even hold hands unless we see somebody watching, we’re going to look a pretty strange pair of lovers to anybody we don’t see."
She snorted in derision, yet she let him put his arm back around her, and slipped hers around him. But she gave him a warning stare at the same time.
Mat shook his head. She was crazy as a spring hare if she thought he enjoyed this. Most women had a little padding over their muscles, at least the women he liked, but hugging Egeanin was like hugging a fence post. Almost as hard, and definitely as stiff. He could not puzzle out what Domon saw in her. Maybe she had not given the Illianer any choice. She had bought the man, after all, same as buying a horse. Burn me, I’ll never understand these Seanchan, he thought. Not that he wanted to. The only thing was, he had to.
As they were turning away, he took one last glance back at the harbor, and almost wished he had not. Two small sailing craft broke through a wide wall of mist that was drifting slowly down the harbor. Drifting against the wind. Time to be gone and past time.
It was better than two miles from the river to the Great North Road, across rolling countryside covered in winter-brown grasses and weeds and dotted with clumps of vine-tangled bushes too thick to push through even with most of the leaves gone. The rises hardly deserved the name of hill, not for anyone who had climbed in the Sand Hills and the Mountains of Mist as a boy – there were gaps in his own memories, but Mat could remember some of that – yet before long, he was glad he had an arm around somebody. He had sat motionless on that bloody rock for too long. The throb in his hip had faded to a dull ache, but it still made him limp, and without some sort of support, he would have been staggering on the slopes. Not that he leaned on Egeanin, of course, but holding on helped steady him. The woman frowned at him as though she thought he were trying to take advantage.
"If you did as you were told," she growled, "I wouldn’t need to carry you."
He showed his teeth again, this time not trying to disguise it as a smile. The way Noal scampered along beside them easily, never missing a step despite balancing his basket of fish on his hip with one hand and carrying his fishing pole in the other, was embarrassing. For all he looked hard-worn, the old man was spry enough. Too spry by half, at times.
Their route slanted north of the Circuit of Heaven, with its long, open-ended tiers of polished stone seats where, in warmer weather, wealthy patrons sat on cushions beneath colorful canvas awnings to watch their horses race. Now, the awnings and poles were stowed away, the horses all in their country stables, those the Seanchan had not taken, and the seats were empty save for a handful of small boys darting up and down the tiers in a game of keep-away. Mat was fond of horses, and racing, but his eyes slid past the Circuit toward Ebou Dar. Whenever he topped a rise, the city’s massive white ramparts were visible, deep enough that they supported a road encircling the city on top, and looking gave him an excuse to pause a moment. Fool woman! A scrap of a limp did not mean she was carrying him! He managed to keep a good temper, take the rough with the smooth and no complaining. Why could she not?
Inside the city white roofs and walls, white domes and spires, ringed in thin bands of color, gleamed in the gray morning light, a picture of serenity. He could not make out the gaps where buildings had burned to the ground. A long line of farmers’ high-wheeled ox-carts was trundling through the wide arched gateway that opened on the Great North Road, men and women on their way to the city markets with whatever they had left to sell this late in winter, and in their midst a merchant’s train of big, canvas-topped wagons behind six and eight-horse teams, carrying goods from the Light knew where. Seven more trains, ranging from four wagons to ten, stood in line at the side of the road to wait for the gateguards to finish their inspections. Trade never stopped entirely while the sun shone, no matter who ruled a city, unless there was actual fighting. Sometimes it did not stop completely then. The stream of people flowing the other way was mostly Seanchan, soldiers in ordered ranks with their segmented armor painted in stripes and helmets that looked like the heads of huge insects, some marching and some mounted, nobles who were always mounted, wearing ornate cloaks, pleated riding dresses and lace veils, or voluminous trousers and long coats. Seanchan settlers were still departing the city, too, wagon upon wagon filled with farmers and craftsmen and the tools of their trades. The settlers had begun leaving as soon as they came off the ships, but it would be weeks before they were all gone. It was a peaceful scene, workaday and ordinary if you ignored what lay behind it, yet every time they reached a place where he could see the gates, his mind flashed back to six nights ago, and he was there again, at those same gates.
The storm had grown worse as they crossed the city from the Tarasin Palace. Rain fell by buckets, pounding the darkened city and slicking the paving stones under the horses’ hooves, and wind howled off the Sea of Storms, driving the rain like stones from slings and jerking at cloaks so that keeping at all dry was a lost cause. Clouds hid the moon, and the deluge seemed to soak up the light of the pole-lanterns carried by Blaeric and Fen, on foot ahead of the rest. Then they entered the long passageway through the city wall, and gained a bit of shelter, at least from the rain. The wind made the high-ceilinged tunnel keen like a flute. The gate guards were waiting just inside the far end of the passage, four of them also bearing pole-lanterns. A dozen more, half of them Seanchan, carried halberds that could strike at a man in the saddle or pull him out of it. Two Seanchan with their helmets off were peering from the lighted doorway of the guardhouse built into the white-plastered wall, and shifting shadows behind them told of others inside. Too many to fight past quietly, maybe too many to fight past at all. Not without everything going off like an Illuminator’s firework bursting in his hand.
The guards were not the danger, anyway, not the main danger. A tall, plump-faced woman in dark blue, her divided ankle-length skirts bearing red panels worked with silver lightning bolts, stepped past the men in the guardhouse door. A long silvery metal leash was coiled in the sul’dam’s left hand, the free end connecting her to the graying woman in a dark gray dress who followed her out with an eager grin. Mat had known they would be there. The Seanchan had sul’dam and damane at all the gates, now. There could even be another pair inside, or two. They did not mean to let one woman who could channel escape their nets. The silver foxhead medallion beneath his shirt lay cold against his chest; not the cold that signaled someone embracing the Source nearby, just the accumulated chill of the night and his flesh too icy to warm it, but he could not stop waiting for the other. Light, he was juggling fireworks tonight, with the fuses lit!
The guards might have been puzzled by a noblewoman leaving Ebou Dar in the middle of the night and that weather, with over a dozen servants and strings of packhorses indicating a journey of some distance, but Egeanin was of the Blood, her cloak embroidered in an eagle with spread black-and-white wings, and long fingers on her red riding gloves to accommodate her fingernails. Ordinary soldiers did not question what the Blood chose to do, even the low Blood. Which did not mean there were no formalities. Anyone was free to leave the city when they wished, but the Seanchan recorded the movement of damane, and three rode in the entourage, heads down and faces covered by the hoods of their gray cloaks, each linked to a mounted sul’dam by the silvery length of an a’dam.
The plump-faced sul’dam walked by them with barely a glance, strolling down the tunnel. Her damane peered intently at every woman they passed, though, sensing whether she could channel, and Mat held his breath when she paused beside the last mounted damane with a slight frown. Even with his luck, he would not bet against the Seanchan recognizing an Aes Sedai’s ageless face if they looked inside that hood. There were Aes Sedai held as damane, but what were the odds that all three of Egeanin’s would be? Light, what were the odds one of the low Blood would own three?
The plump-faced woman made a clicking sound, as you might to a pet dog, and twitched the a’dam, and the damane followed her on. They were looking for marath’damane trying to escape the leash, not damane. Mat still thought he might choke. The sound of dice rolling had started up again in his head, loud enough to rival the occasional rumble of distant thunder. Something was going to go wrong; he knew it.
The officer of the guards, a burly Seanchan with tilted eyes like a Saldaean but a pale honey-brown skin, bowed courteously and invited Egeanin into the guardhouse, to have a cup of spiced wine while a clerk wrote down the information about the damane. Every guardhouse Mat had ever seen was a stark place, yet the lamplight glowing in the arrowslits made this one seem almost inviting. A pitcherplant probably looked inviting to a fly, too. He had been glad of the rain dripping from the hood of his cloak and running down his face. It disguised the sweat of nerves. He held one of his throwing knives, resting flat atop the long bundle draped in front of his saddle. Lying flat like that, none of the soldiers should notice. He could feel the woman inside the cloth breathing under his hands, and his shoulders were knotted from waiting for her to cry out for help. Selucia kept her mount close to him, peering at him from the shelter of her hood with her golden braid tucked out of sight, never even glancing away when the sul’dam and damane walked by. A shout from Selucia would have put the weasel in the chicken run as much as one from Tuon. He thought the threat of the knife had held both women silent – they had to believe he was desperate enough or crazy enough to use it – but he still could not be sure. There was so much about night he could not be sure of, so much off-balance and askew.
He remembered holding his breath, wondering when someone would notice that the bundle he carried was richly embroidered and question why he was letting it get soaked with rain, wondering and cursing himself for grabbing a wallhanging because it had been close to hand. In memory, everything slowed. Egeanin stepped down, tossing her reins to Domon, who took them with a bow from his saddle. Domon’s hood was pushed back just enough to show that his head was shaved on one side and his remaining hair gathered in a braid that hung to his shoulder. Raindrops dripped from the stocky Illianer’s short beard, yet he managed the proper stiff-necked arrogance of a so’jhin, hereditary upper servant to one of the Blood and thus almost equal to the Blood. Definitely higher than any common soldier. Egeanin glanced back toward Mat and his burden, her face a frozen mask that could pass for hauteur if you did not know she was horrified by what they were doing. The tall sul’dam and her damane turned briskly back up the tunnel, finished with their inspection. Vanin, just behind Mat leading one of the strings of packhorses and as always sitting his horse like a sack of suet, leaned from his saddle and spat. Mat did not know why that hung in his memory, but it did. Vanin spat, and trumpets sounded, thin and sharp in the distance far behind them. From south of the city, where men had been planning to fire Seanchan supplies stored along the Bay Road.
The officer of the guard hesitated at the sound of the trumpets, but suddenly a bell pealed loudly in the city itself, then another, and then it seemed hundreds were clanging alarm in the night as the black sky split with more lightning than any storm had ever birthed, silver-blue streaks stabbing down inside the walls. They bathed the tunnel in flickering light. That was when the shouting started, amid the explosions back in the city, and the screaming.
For a moment, Mat had cursed the Windfinders for moving sooner than he had been promised. But the dice in his head had stopped, he realized. Why? It made him want to curse all over again, but there was no time for even that. In the next instant the officer was hurriedly urging Egeanin back into her saddle and on her way, hurriedly shouting orders to the men boiling out of the guardhouse, directing one into the city at a run to see what the alarm was while he arrayed the rest against any threat from inside or out. The plump-faced woman ran to place herself and her damane with the soldiers, along with another pair of women linked by an a’dam, who came running from the guardhouse. And Mat and the others galloped out into the storm, carrying with them three Aes Sedai, two of them escaped damane, and the kidnaped heir to the Seanchan Crystal Throne, while behind them a far worse storm broke over Ebou Dar. Lightning bolts more numerous than blades of grass....
With a shiver, Mat pulled himself back to the present. Egeanin scowled at him, and gave him an exaggerated pull. "Lovers arm-in-arm don’t hurry," he muttered. "They...stroll." She sneered. Domon had to be blinded by love. That, or he had taken too many thumps on the head.
The worst was over and done, in any case. Mat hoped that getting out of the city had been the worst. He had not felt the dice since. They were always a bad sign. His backtrail was as muddled as he could manage, and he was sure it would take someone as lucky as he to separate the gold from the dross. The Seekers had been on Egeanin’s scent before that night, and she would be wanted on charges of stealing damane now, as well, but the authorities would expect her to be riding as hard as she could and already leagues from Ebou Dar, not sitting just outside the city. Nothing except a coincidence of timing connected her to Tuon. Or to Mat, and that was important. Tylin certainly would have leveled her own charges against him – no woman was going to forgive a man tying her up and shoving her under a bed, even when she had suggested it – yet with any luck, he was beneath suspicion for anything else that had happened that night. With any luck, no one except Tylin had a thought for him at all. Trussing a queen like a pig for market would be enough to get a man dead usually, but it had to count for moldy onions alongside the Daughter of the Nine Moons disappearing, and what could Tylin’s Toy have to do with that? It still irritated him that he had been seen as a hanger-on – worse, a pet! – but there were advantages.
He thought he was safe – from the Seanchan, anyway – yet one point worried him like a thorn buried in his heel. Well, several did, most growing out of Tuon herself, but this one had a particularly long point. Tuon’s disappearance should have been as shocking as the sun vanishing at noon, but no alarm had been raised. None! No announcements of rewards or offers of ransom, no hot-eyed soldiers searching every wagon and cart within miles, galloping through the countryside to root out every cubbyhole and niche where a woman might be hidden. Those old memories told him something of hunting for kidnapped royalty, yet except for the hangings and the burned ships in the harbor, from the outside Ebou Dar seemed unchanged from the day before the kidnaping. Egeanin alleged that the search would be in utter secrecy, that many of the Seanchan themselves might still not know Tuon was missing. Her explanation involved the shock to the Empire and ill omens for the Return and the loss of sei’taer, and she sounded as if she believed every word, but Mat refused to buy a penny’s worth. The Seanchan were strange folk, but no one could be that strange. The silence of Ebou Dar made his skin prickle. He felt a trap in that silence. When they reached the Great North Road, he was grateful that the city was hidden behind the low hills.
The road was a broad highway, a major avenue of trade, wide enough for five or six wagons abreast uncrowded, with a surface of dirt and clay that hundreds of years of use had packed nearly as hard as the occasional ancient paving stone that stuck an edge or corner inches into the air. Mat and Egeanin hurried across to the verge on the other side with Noal dogging their heels, between a merchant’s train rumbling toward the city, guarded by a scar-faced woman and ten hard-eyed men in leather vests covered with metal discs, and a string of the settlers’ oddly shaped wagons, rising to peaks at the ends, that were heading north, some pulled by horses or mules, others by oxen. Clustered between the wagons, barefoot boys used switches to herd four-horned goats with long black hair and big, dewlapped white cows. One man at the rear of the wagons, in baggy blue breeches and a round red cap, was leading a massive hump-backed bull by a thick cord tied to a ring in its nose. Except for his clothes, he could have been from the Two Rivers. He eyed Mat and the others, walking in the same direction, as if he might speak, then shook his head and plodded on without looking at them again. Contending with Mat’s limp, they were not moving fast, and the settlers forged ahead slowly but steadily.
Hunch-shouldered and clutching the scarf beneath her chin with her free hand, Egeanin let out a breath and loosened fingers that had begun to grip Mat’s side almost painfully. After a moment, she straightened and glared at the farmer’s departing back as though she were ready to chase after him and box his ears and his bull’s. If that were not bad enough, once the farmer was twenty or so paces away, she shifted her scowl to a company of Seanchan soldiers marching down the middle of the road at a pace that would soon overtake the settlers, perhaps two hundred men in a column four abreast followed by a motley collection of mule-drawn wagons covered with tightly lashed canvas. The middle of the road was left free for military traffic. Half a dozen well-mounted officers in thin-plumed helmets that hid all but their eyes rode at the column’s head, looking neither left nor right, red cloaks spread neatly over their horses’ cruppers. The banner following on the officers’ heels was marked with what looked like a stylized silver arrowhead, or maybe an anchor, crossed by a long arrow and a jagged lightning bolt in gold, with script and numerals below that Mat could not make out as gusts swept the banner this way and that. The men on the supply wagons wore dark blue coats and breeches and square red-and-blue caps, but the soldiers were even more showy than most Seanchan, their segmented armor striped in blue banded at the bottom with silvery white and red banded with golden yellow, their helmets painted in all four colors so they resembled the faces of fearsome spiders. A large badge with the anchor – Mat thought it must be an anchor – and arrow and lightning was fastened to the front of each helmet, and every man except the officers carried a double-curve bow at his side, with a bristling quiver at his belt balancing a short-sword.
"Ship’s archers," Egeanin grumbled, glowering at the soldiers. Her free hand had left her scarf, but it was still clenched in a fist. "Tavern brawlers. They always cause problems when they’re left ashore too long."
They had a well-trained look, to Mat. Anyway, he had never heard of soldiers who did not get in fights, especially when they were drunk or bored, and bored soldiers tended to get drunk. A corner of his mind wondered how far those bows would carry, but it was an absent thought. He wanted nothing to do with any Seanchan soldiers. If he had his way, he would have nothing to do with any soldiers ever again. But his luck never ran that far, it seemed. Fate and luck were different, unfortunately. Two hundred paces at most, he decided. A good crossbow would outrange them, or any Two Rivers bow.
"We’re not in a tavern," he said through his teeth, "and they’re not brawling now. So let’s not start one just because you were afraid a farmer would speak to you." Her jaw set, and she shot him a look hard enough to crack his skull. It was the truth, though. She was fearful of opening her mouth near anyone who might recognize her accent. A wise precaution, in his book, but everything seemed to grate at her. "We’ll have a bannerman over here asking questions if you keep glaring at them. Women around Ebou Dar are famous for being demure," he lied. What could she know of local customs?
She gave him a sidelong frown – maybe she was trying to figure out what demure meant – but she stopped grimacing at the archers. She just looked ready to bite instead of hit.
"That fellow’s dark as an Atha’an Miere," Noal muttered absently, staring at the passing soldiers. "Dark as a Sharan. But I’d swear he has blue eyes. I’ve seen the like before, but where?" Trying to rub his temples, he almost struck himself on the head with the bamboo fishing pole, and he took a step as though he meant to ask the fellow where he had been born.
With a lurch, Mat caught the old man’s sleeve. "We’re going back to the show, Noal. Now. We should never have left."
"I told you that," Egeanin said with a sharp nod.
Mat groaned, but there was nothing for it but to keep walking. Oh, it was way past time to be gone. He only hoped he had not left it too late.
Excerpted from Crossroads of Twilight by Robert Jordan. Copyright © 2003 by Robert Jordan. All rights reserved. Posted with permission of the publisher. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.