The midday Amadician sun was warm on Perrin’s head as he rode Stayer toward the roofs of Almizar beneath high, scudding white clouds, a hundred miles southwest of Amador. Impatient, he kept the bay at a trot. Farms stretched as far as he could see in any direction on both sides of the road, thatch-roofed stone houses with gray smoke rising from the chimneys and chickens scratching in front of the barns. Fat-tailed sheep and spotted black cattle grazed in stonewalled pastures, and men and boys were plowing the fields or sowing those already plowed. It seemed to be laundry day; he could see large kettles sitting over fires behind houses, and women and girls hanging shirts and blouses and bed linens on long lines to dry. There was little of wildness, only scattered thickets, and most of those neatly coppiced to provide firewood.
He reached out with his mind to find wolves, and found nothing. Unsurprising. Wolves stayed clear of this many people, this much tameness. The breeze stiffened, and he gathered his cloak around him. Despite the need to make a show, it was plain brown wool. The only silk cloak he had was lined with fur, and too hot for the day. His green silk coat worked in silver would have to do. That and his cloak pin. two wolves’ heads in silver-and-gold. A gift from Faile. it had always seemed too ornate to wear, but he had dug it out of the bottom of a chest that morning. A little something to make up for the plain cloak.
What was surprising were the Tinker caravans camped in fields scattered around the town, five of them within his sight. According to Elyas, there was always feasting when two caravans encountered one another, and a meeting of three caused days of celebration, but larger gatherings seldom occurred except in the summer, at Sunday, when they had their meeting places. He almost wished he had brought Aram, despite the risk of Masema learning too much. Maybe if the man could spend a little time among his own people, he might decide to put down his sword. That was the best solution Perrin could think of to a thorny problem, although not likely to work. Aram liked the sword, perhaps too well. But he could not send the man away. He had as good as put that sword in Aram’s hand, and now Aram and the sword were his responsibility. The Light only knew what would become of the man if he truly went over to Masema.
“You study the Tuatha’an and frown, my Lord,” General Khirgan drawled. He could understand her speech a little better, now that they had spent time together. “You’ve had problems with them in your lands? We have nothing like them at home, but the only trouble connected to them I know of has been locals trying to drive them away. Apparently, they’re supposed to be great thieves.’’
She and Mishima were ornate today in blue cloaks trimmed with red and yellow, and red coats with blue cuffs and lapels edged in yellow. Three small vertical blue bars, shaped like the thin plumes of a Seanchan helmet, on the left breast of her coat indicated her rank, as two did for Mishima. The dozen soldiers riding behind wore their striped armor and painted helmets, however, and carried steel-tipped lances held at precisely the same angle. The cluster of Faile’s hangers-on following the Seanchan, also twelve in number, made a brave display in Tairen coats with puffy satin-striped sleeves and dark Cairhienin coats with stripes of House colors across the chests, yet in spite of their swords they looked much less dangerous than the soldiers and seemed to know it. Whenever the breeze gusted from behind, it carried traces of irritation that Perrin doubted came from the Seanchan. The soldiers’ scent was of stillness, waiting, like wolves who knew teeth might be needed soon, but not now. Not yet.
“Ah, they steal a chicken now and then. General,” Neald said with a laugh, giving one of his thin waxed mustaches a twist, “but I’d not be calling them great thieves.” He had enjoyed the Seanchan astonishment at the gateway that had brought them all here, and he was still posing over it, somehow managing to strut while sitting his saddle. It was difficult to remember that had he not earned that black coat, he would still be working his father’s farm and perhaps wondering about marriage to a neighbor girl in a year or two. “Great theft requires courage, and Tinkers have not a bit of it.”
Huddled in his dark cloak, Balwer grimaced, or perhaps smiled. Sometimes it was hard to tell the difference with the desiccated little man unless Perrin could catch his scent. The pair of them accompanied Perrin in much the same way as a gray-haired sul’dam linked to a cool-eyed damane with touches of gray in her own dark hair accompanied Khirgan and Mishima, supposedly to balance the numbers. To the Seanchan, sul’dam and damane counted as one when connected by the segmented metal leash. He would have been satisfied to come with Neald alone, or Neald and Balwer at least, but Tallanvor had been right about Seanchan and protocol. The talks had dragged on for three days, and while some time had been spent on whether to follow Per-rin’s plan or make it a part of something Tylee would come up with- with her yielding at the end only because she could find nothing better-a good part had been wasted on how many each side was to bring here. It had to be the same number for each, and the Banner-General had wanted to bring a hundred of her soldiers and a pair of damane. For honor’s sake. She had been astounded that he was willing to come with less, and was only willing to accept it after he pointed out that everyone among Faile’s people was noble in his or her own lands. He had the feeling she thought she had been cheated because she could not match his escorts’ rank with her own. Strange folk, these Seanchan. Oh, there were sides, to be sure. This alliance was purely temporary, not to mention delicate, and the Banner-General was just as aware of that as he.
“Twice they offered me shelter when I needed it, me and my friends, and asked nothing in return,” Perrin said quietly. “Yet what I remember best about them was when Trollocs surrounded Emond’s Field. The Tuatha’an stood on the green with children strapped to their backs, the few of their own that survived and ours. They would not fight-it isn’t their way-but if the Trollocs overran us, they were ready to try to carry the children to safety. Carrying our children would have hampered them, made escape even less likely than it already was. but they asked for the task.” Neald gave an embarrassed cough and looked away. A flush tinged his cheek. For all he had seen and done, he was young yet. just seventeen. This time, there was no doubt about Balwer’s thin smile.
“I think your life might make a story,” the general said, her expression inviting him to tell as much of it as he would.
“I’d rather my life were ordinary,” he told her. Stories were no place for a man who wanted peace.
“One day. I’d very much like to see some of these Trollocs I keep hearing about.” Mishima said when the silence began to stretch. Amusement tinged his smell, yet he stroked his sword hilt, perhaps without knowing it.
“No you wouldn’t,” Perrin told him. “You’ll get your chance soon or late, but you won’t like it.” After a moment, the scarred man nodded solemnly in understanding, amusement melting. At last he must be beginning to believe that Trollocs and Myrddraal were more than travelers’ fanciful tales. If any doubts remained to him, the time was coming that would erase doubt forever.
Heading into Almizar, as they turned their horses toward the north end of the town along a narrow cart lane, Balwer slipped away. Medore went with him, a tall woman nearly as dark as Tylee but with deep blue eyes, in dark breeches and a man’s coat with puffy red-striped sleeves, a sword at her hip. Balwer rode with his shoulders hunched, a bird perched precariously on his saddle, Medore straight-backed and proud, every inch a High Lord’s daughter and leader of Faile’s people, though she followed Balwer rather than riding beside. Surprisingly, Failes hangers-on seemed to have accepted taking direction from the fussy little man. It made them much less bother than they once had been; it actually made them useful in some ways, which Perrin would have thought impossible. The Banner-General offered no objection to them leaving, though she gazed after them thoughtfully.
“Kind of the Lady to visit a servant’s friend,” she mused. That was the tale Balwer had given, that he used to know a woman who lived in Almizar and Medore wanted to meet her if she was still alive.
“Medore’s a kind woman,” Perrin replied. “It’s our way, being kind to servants.” Tylee gave him one glance, only that, yet he reminded himself not to take her for a fool. It was too bad he knew nothing of Seanchan ways to speak of, or they might have come up with a better story. But then, Baiwer had been in a frenzy-a dry, dusty frenzy, yet still a frenzy-to seize this chance to gather information on what was happening in Amadicia under the Seanchan. For himself, Perrin could barely make himself care. Only Faile mattered, now. Later he could worry about other matters.
Just north of Almizar, the stone walls dividing seven or eight fields had been removed to make a long stretch of bare earth that appeared thoroughly turned by the harrow, the dirt all scored and scuffed. A large odd creature with a pair of hooded people crouched on its back was running awkwardly along that stretch on two legs that seemed spindly for its size. In fact, “odd” barely began to encompass it. Leathery and gray, the thing was larger than a horse without counting a long, snake-like neck and a thin, even longer tail that it held stretched out stiffly behind. As it ran. it beat wings ribbed like those of a bat, stretching as long as most riverships. He had seen animals like this before, but in the air, and at a distance. Tylee had told him they were called raken. Slowly the creature lumbered into the air, barely clearing the treetops of a coppiced thicket at the end of the field. His head swiveled to follow as the raken climbed slowly toward the sky, awkwardness vanishing in flight. Now, that would be a thing, to fly on one of those. He crushed the thought, ashamed and angered that he could let himself be diverted.
The Banner-General slowed her bay and frowned at the field. At the far end, men were feeding four more of the peculiar animals, holding up large baskets for them to eat from, horned snouts darting and horny mouths gulping. Perrin hated to think what a creature that looked like that might eat. “They should have more raken than this here.” she muttered. “If this is all there are…”
“We take what we can get and go on,” he said. “None, if it comes to that. We already know where the Shaido are.”
“I like to know if anything is coming up behind me.” she told him dryly, picking up the pace again.
At a nearby farm that appeared to have been taken over by the Seanchan, a dozen or so soldiers were dicing at tables set up haphazardly in front of the thatch-roofed house. More were passing in and out of the stone barn, though he saw no sign of horses except for a team hitched to a wagon that was being unloaded of its crates and barrels and jute sacks by a pair of men in rough woolens. At least, Perrin assumed the others were soldiers. Nearly half were women, the men as short as the women for the most part and thin if taller, and none carried a sword, but they all wore close-fitting coats of sky-blue and each had a pair of knives in scabbards sewn to their snug boots. Uniforms implied soldiers.
Mat would be right at home with this lot, he thought, watching them laugh over good tosses and groan over bad. Those colors spun in his head, and for an instant he glimpsed Mat riding off a road into forest followed by a line of mounted folk and packhorses. An instant only, because he dashed the image aside without so much as a thought to why Mat was going into the woods or who was with him. Only Faile mattered. That morning he had tied a fifty-first knot in the leather cord he carried in his pocket. Fifty-one days she had been a prisoner. He hoped she had been a prisoner that long. It would mean she was still alive to be rescued. If she was dead… His hand tightened on the head of the hammer hanging at his belt, tightened until his knuckles hurt.
The Banner-General and Mishima were watching him, he realized. Mishima warily, with a hand hovering near his sword hilt, Tylee thoughtfully. A delicate alliance, and little trust on either side. “For a moment, I thought you might be ready to kill the fliers,” she said quietly. “You have my word. We will free your wife. Or avenge her.”
Perrin drew a shuddering breath and released his hold on the hammer. Faile had to be alive. Alyse had said she was under her protection. But how much protection could the Aes Sedai give when she wore gai’shain white herself? “Let’s be done here. Time is wasting.” How many more knots would he need to tie in that cord? The Light send not many.
Dismounting, he handed Stayer’s reins to Carlon Belcelona, a clean-shaven Tairen with a long nose and an unfortunately narrow chin. Carlon had a habit of fingering that chin as if wondering where his beard had gone, or running a hand over his hair as though wondering why it was tied with a ribbon at the nape of his neck, making a tail that just reached his shoulders. But he gave no more sign of giving up his fool pretense that he was following Aiel ways than the others did. Balwer had given them their instructions, and at least they obeyed those. Most of them were already drifting over to the tables, leaving their mounts in the care of the rest, some producing coin, others offering leather flasks of wine. Which the soldiers were rejecting, strangely, though it seemed anyone with silver was welcome in their games.
Without more than glancing in their direction, Perrin tucked his gauntlets behind his thick belt and followed the two Seanchan inside, tossing back his cloak so his silk coat showed. By the time he came out, Faile’s people-his people, he supposed-would have learned a great deal of what those men and women knew. One thing he had learned from Balwer. Knowledge could be very useful, and you never knew which scrap would turn out worth more than gold. For the moment, though, the only knowledge he was interested in would not come from this place.
The front room of the farmhouse was filled with tables facing the door, where clerks sat poring over papers or writing. The only sound was the scritching of pen on paper and a man’s dry persistent cough. The men wore coats and breeches of dark brown, the women dresses in the exact same shade. Some wore pins, in silver or brass, in the shape of a quill pen. The Seanchan had uniforms for everything, it seemed. A round-cheeked fellow at the back of the room who wore two silver pens on his chest stood and bowed deeply, belly straining his coat, as soon as Tylee entered. Their boots were loud on the wooden floor as they walked back to him between the tables. He did not straighten until they reached his table.
“Tylee Khirgan.” she said curtly. “I would speak with whoever is in command here.”
“As the Banner-General commands,” the fellow replied obsequiously, made another deep bow. and hurried through a door behind him.
The clerk who was coughing, a smooth-faced fellow younger than Perrin who, by his face, might have come from the Two Rivers, began hacking more roughly, and covered his mouth with a hand. He cleared his throat loudly, but the harsh cough returned.
Mishima frowned at him. “Fellow shouldn’t be here if he’s ill,” he muttered. “What if it’s catching? You hear about all sorts of strange sicknesses these days. Man’s hale at sunrise, and by sunfall, he’s a corpse and swollen to half again his size, with no one knowing what he died of. I heard of a woman who went mad in the space of an hour, and everybody who touched her went mad, too. In three days, she and her whole village were dead, those who hadn’t fled.” He made a peculiar gesture, forming an arc with thumb and forefinger, the others curled tightly.
“You know better than to believe rumors, or repeat them.’’ the Banner-General said sharply, making the same gesture. She seemed unaware she had done so.
The stout clerk reappeared, holding the door for a graying, lean-faced man with a black leather patch hiding the spot where his right eye had been. A puckered white scar ran down his forehead, behind the patch and onto his cheek. As short as the men outside, he wore a coat of darker blue, with two small white bars on his chest, though he had the same sheaths sewn to his boots. “Blasic Faloun, Banner-General,” he said with a bow as the clerk hurried back to his table. “How may I serve you?”
“Captain Faloun, we need to speak in-” Tylee cut off when the man who was coughing surged to his reet. his stool toppling with a clatter.
Clutching his middle, the young man doubled over and vomited a dark stream that hit the floor and broke up into tiny black beetles that went scurrying in every direction. Someone cursed, shockingly loud in what was otherwise dead silence. The young man stared at the beetles in horror, shaking his head to deny them. Wild-eyed, he looked around the room still shaking his head and opened his mouth as if to speak. Instead, he bent over and spewed another black stream, longer, that broke into beetles darting across the floor. The skin of his face began writhing, as though more beetles were crawling on the outside of his skull. A woman screamed, a long shriek of dread, and suddenly clerks were shouting and leaping up. knocking over stools and even tables in their haste, frantically dodging the flitting black shapes. Again and again the man vomited, sinking to his knees, then falling over, twitching disjointedly as he spewed out more and more beetles in a steady stream. He seemed somehow to be getting… flatter. Deflating. His jerking ceased, but black beetles continued to pour from his gaping mouth and spread across the floor. At last-it seemed to have gone on for an hour, but could not have been more than a minute or two-at last, the torrent of insects dwindled and died. What remained of the fellow was a pale flat thing inside his clothes, like a wineskin that had been emptied. The shouting went on. of course. Half the clerks were up on the tables that remained upright, men as well as women, cursing or praying or sometimes alternating both at the tops of their lungs. The other half had fled outside. Small black beetles scuttled all across the floor. The room stank of terror.
“I heard a rumor,” Faloun said hoarsely. Sweat beaded on his forehead. He smelled of fear. Not terror, but definitely fear. “From east of here. Only that was centipedes. Little black centipedes.” Some of the beetles scurried toward him, and he backed away with a curse, making the same odd gesture that Tylee and Mishima had.
Perrin crushed the beetles under his boot. They made the hair on the back of his neck want to stand, but nothing mattered except Faile. Nothing! “They’re just borer beetles. You can find them almost anywhere there’s old fallen timber.”
The man jerked, lifted his gaze and jerked again when he saw Per-rin’s eyes. Catching sight of the hammer at Perrin’s belt, he darted a quick, startled glance at the Banner-General. “These beetles came from no log. They’re Soulblinder’s work!”
“That’s as may be,” Perrin replied calmly. He supposed Soulblinder was a name for the Dark One. “It makes no difference.” He moved his foot, revealing the crushed carcasses of seven or eight of the insects. “They can be killed. And I have no time to waste on beetles I can crush underfoot.”
“We do need to talk in private, Captain,” Tylee added. Her scent was full of fear, too, yet tightly controlled. Mishima’s hand was locked in that same strange gesture. His fear was almost as well controlled as hers.
Faloun gathered himself visibly, the fear smell fading. It did not go away, yet he had mastery of himself, now. He avoided looking at the beetles, however. “As you say, Banner-General. Atal. get down off that table and have these… these things swept out of here. And see that Mehtan is laid out properly for the rites. However he died, he died in service.” The stout clerk bowed before climbing down, gingerly, and again when he was on the floor, but the captain was already turning away. “Will you follow me, Banner-General?”
His study might have been a bedroom originally, but now it held a writing table with flat boxes full of papers and another table, larger, that was covered with maps weighted down by inkwells, stones and small brass figures. A wooden rack against one wall held rolls that appeared to be more maps. The gray stone fireplace was cold. Faloun gestured them to half a dozen mismatched chairs that stood on the bare floor in front of the writing table and offered to send for wine. He seemed disappointed when Tylee refused both. Perhaps he wanted a drink to steady his nerves. A small scent of fright still clung to him.
Tylee began. “I need to replace six raken, Captain, and eighteen morat’raken. And a full company of groundlings. The one I had is somewhere in Amadicia heading west, and beyond finding.”
Faloun winced. “Banner-General, if you lost raken, you know everything has been stripped to the bone because of…” His one eye flickered to Perrin. and he cleared his throat before going on. “You ask for three-quarters of the animals I have left. If you can possibly do with fewer, perhaps only one or two?”
“Four,” Tylee said firmly, “and twelve fliers. I’ll settle for that.” She could make that slurred Seanchan accent sound crisp when she wanted to. “This region is as stable as Seandar by all I hear, but I’ll leave you four.”
“As you say, Banner-General,” Faloun sighed. “May I see the order, please? Everything has to be recorded. Since I lost the ability to fly myself, I spend all my time pushing a pen like a clerk.”
“Lord Perrin?” Tylee said, and he produced the document signed by Suroth from his coat pocket.
That made Faloun’s eyebrows climb higher and higher as he read, and he fingered the wax seal lightly, but he did not question it any more than the Banner-General had. It appeared the Seanchan were accustomed to such things. He appeared relieved to hand it back, though, and wiped his hands on his coat unconsciously. Accustomed to them, but not comfortably so. He studied Perrin, trying to be surreptitious, and Perrin could all but see on his face the question the Banner-General had asked. Who was he, to have such a thing?
“I need a map of Altara, Captain, if you have such a thing,” Tylee said. “I can manage if you don’t, but better if you do. The northwestern quarter of the country is what I’m interested in.”
“You’re favored by the Light. Banner-General,” the man said. bending to pull a roll from the lowest level of the rack. “I have the very thing you want. By accident, it was in with the Amadician maps I was issued. I’d forgotten I had the thing until you mentioned it. Uncommon luck for you, I’d say.” Perrin shook his head slightly. Accident, not ta’veren work. Even Rand was not ta’veren enough to make this happen. The colors whirled, and he splintered them unformed.
Once Faloun had the map spread out on the map table, the corners held down by brass weights in the form of raken. the Banner-General studied it until she had her landmarks fixed. It was large enough to cover the table and showed exactly what she had asked for, along with narrow strips of Amadicia and Ghealdan, the terrain rendered in great detail, with the names of towns and villages, rivers and streams, in very small letters. Perrin knew he was looking at a fine example of the map-maker’s art, far better than most maps. Could it be ta’veren work? No. No, that was impossible.
“They’ll find my soldiers here.” she drawled, marking a point with her finger. “They’re to leave immediately. One flier to a raken, and no personal items. They fly light, and as fast as possible. I want them there before tomorrow night. The other morat’raken will travel with the groundlings. I hope to be leaving in a few hours. Have them assembled and ready.’’
“Carts,” Perrin said. Neald could not make a gateway large enough to accommodate a wagon. “Whatever they bring has to be in carts, not wagons.” Faloun mouthed the word incredulously.
“Carts,” Tylee agreed. “See to it. Captain.”
Perrin could smell an eagerness in the man that he interpreted as a desire to ask questions, but all Faloun said, bowing, was. “As you command, Banner-General, so shall it be done.”
The outer room was in a different sort of turmoil when they left the captain. Clerks darted everywhere, sweeping frantically or beating at the remaining beetles with their brooms. Some of the women wept as they wielded their brooms, some of the men looked as though they wanted to. and the room was still rank with terror. There was no sign of the dead man, but Perrin noticed that the clerks moved around the place where he had lain, refusing to let a foot touch it. They tried not to step on any beetles, either, which made for considerable dancing about on their toes. When Perrin crunched his way toward the outer door, they stopped to stare at him.
Outside, the mood was calmer, but not by much. Tylee’s soldiers still stood by their horses in a row. and Neald was affecting an air of casual indifference, even to yawning and patting his mouth, but the suldam was petting the trembling damane and murmuring soothingly, and the blue-coated soldiers, many more than had been there before, stood in a large cluster talking worriedly. The Cairhienin and Tairens rushed to surround Perrin, leading their horses and all talking at once.
“Is it true, my Lord?” Camaille asked, her pale face twisted with worry, and her brother Barmanes said uneasily. “Four men carried out something in a blanket, but they averted their eyes from whatever it was.”
All of them atop one another, all smelling of near panic. “They said he spewed beetles,” and “They said the beetles chewed their way out of him,” and “The Light help us, they’re sweeping beetles out of the door; we’ll be killed,” and “Burn my soul, it’s the Dark One breaking free,” and more that made less sense.
“Be quiet,” Perrin said, and for a wonder, they fell silent. Usually, they were very prickly with him. insisting that they served Faile, not him. Now they stood staring at him. waiting for him to put their fears to rest. “A man did spew up beetles and die, but they’re ordinary beetles you can find in dead timber anywhere. Give you a nasty pinch if you sit on one, but nothing worse. Likely it was the Dark One’s work somehow, true enough, but it has nothing to do with freeing the Lady Faile, and that means it has nothing to do with us. So calm yourselves, and let’s get on about our business.”
Strangely, it worked. More than one cheek reddened, and the smell of fear was replaced-or at least suppressed-by the scent of shame at letting themselves come so near to panic. They looked abashed. As they began mounting, their own natures reasserted themselves, though. First one then another offered boasts of the deeds they would do in rescuing Faile. each wilder than the next. They knew them for wild, because each boast brought laughter from the others, yet the next always tried to make his more outrageous still.
The Banner-General was watching him again, he realized as he took Stayer’s reins from Carlon. What did she see? What did she think she might learn? “What sent all the raken away?” he asked.
“We should have come here second or third,” she replied, swinging up into her saddle. “I still have to acquire a’dam. I wanted to keep believing I had a chance as long as I could, but we might as well get to the heart. That piece of paper faces a real test now. and if it fails, there’s no point to going after a’dam.” A frail alliance, and small trust.
“Why should it fail? It worked here.”
“Faloun’s a soldier, my Lord. Now we must talk with an Imperial functionary.” She imbued that last word with a wealth of scorn. She turned her bay. and he had no choice but to mount and follow.
Almizar was a considerable town, and prosperous, with six tall watchtowers around its edge but no wall. Elyas said Amadician law forbade walls anywhere save Amador, a law made at the behest of the Whitecloaks and enforced by them as much as by whoever held the throne. Balwer would no doubt learn who that might be now, with Ailron dead. The streets were paved with granice blocks, and lined with solid buildings of brick or stone, some gray, some black, many three or four stories high and most roofed in dark slate, the rest in thatch. People filled the streets, dodging between wagons and horse carts and handcarts, hawkers crying their wares, women in deep bonnets that hid their faces carrying shopping baskets, men in knee-length coats striding along self-importantly, apprentices in aprons or vests running errands. As many soldiers walked the streets as locals, men and women, with skin as dark as any Tairen, skin the color of honey, men as pale as Cairhienin but fair-haired and tall, all in brightly colored Seanchan uniforms. Most wore no more than a belt knife or dagger, but he saw some with swords. They walked in pairs, watchful of everyone around them, and had truncheons at their belts, too. A town Watch, he supposed, but a lot of them for a place the size of Almizar. He never had fewer than two of those pairs in his sight.
Two men and a woman came out of a tall, slate-roofed inn and mounted horses held by grooms. He knew her for a woman only by the way her long, split-tailed coat fit over her bosom because her hair was cut shorter than the men’s and she wore men’s clothing and a sword, just like the other two. Her face was certainly as hard as theirs. As the three cantered off west down the street, Mishima grunted sourly.
“Hunters for the Horn,” he muttered. “My eyes if they’re not. Those fine fellows cause trouble everywhere they go, getting in fights, sticking their noses where they don’t belong. I’ve heard the Horn of Valere has already been found. What do you think, my Lord?’’
“I’ve heard it’s been found, too,” Perrin replied cautiously. “There are all sorts of rumors floating about.”
Neither one so much as glanced at him, and in the middle of a crowded street, catching their scents was well-nigh impossible, yet for some reason he thought they were mulling over his answer as if it had hidden depths. Light, could they think be was tied up with the Horn? He knew where it was. Moiraine had carried it off to the White Tower. He was not about to tell them, though. Small trust worked both ways.
The local people gave the soldiers no more heed than they did each other, nor the Banner-General and her armored followers, but Perrin was another matter. At least, when they noticed his golden eyes. He could tell instantly when someone did. The quick jerk of a woman’s head, her mouth falling open as she stared. The man who froze, gaping at him. One fellow actually tripped over his own boots and stumbled to his knees. That one stared, then scrambled to his feet and ran, pushing people from his path, as though fearful Perrin might pursue him.
“I suppose he never saw yellow eyes on a man before,’’ Perrin said wryly.
“Are they common where you come from?” the Banner-General asked.
“Not common, I wouldn’t say that, but I’ll introduce you to another man who has them.”
She and Mishima exchanged glances. Light, he hoped there was nothing in the Prophecies about two men with yellow eyes. Those colors whirled, and he dashed them.
The Banner-General knew exactly where she was going, a stone stable on the southern edge of the town, but when she dismounted in the empty stableyard. no groom came rushing out. A stone-fenced paddock stood next to the stable, but it held no horses. She handed her reins to one of her soldiers and stood staring at the stable doors, only one of which was open. By her scent. Perrin thought she was steeling herself.
“Follow my lead, my Lord,” she said finally, “and don’t say anything you don’t have to. It might be the wrong thing. If you must speak, speak to me. Make it clear you’re speaking to me.”
That sounded ominous, but he nodded. And began planning how to steal the forkroot if things went wrong. He would need to learn whether the place was guarded at night. Balwer might already know. The little man seemed to pick up information like that without trying. When he followed her inside, Mishima remained with the horses, and looking relieved not to accompany them. What did that mean? Or did it mean anything? Seanchan. In just a few days they had him seeing hidden meanings in everything.
The place had been a stable once, obviously, but now it was something else. The stone floor had been swept clean enough to satisfy any farmwife, there were no horses, and a thick smell like mint would have overwhelmed the remaining scent of horse and hay to any nose but his or Elyas’. The stalls at the front were filled with stacked wooden crates, and in the back, the stalls had been removed except for the uprights that supported the loft. Now men and women were working back there, some using mortats and pestles or sieves at tables, others carefully tending flat pans sitting on metal legs above charcoal braziers, using tongs to turn what appeared to be roots.
A lean young man in his shirtsleeves put a plump jute bag into one of the crates, then bowed to Tylee as deeply as the clerk had, body parallel to the floor. He did not straighten until she spoke.
“Banner-General Khirgan. I wish to speak with whoever is in charge, if I may.” Her tone was much different than it had been with the clerk, not peremptory at all.
“As you command,” the lean fellow replied in what sounded an Amadician accent. At least, if he was Seanchan, he spoke at a proper speed and without chewing his words.
Bowing again, just as deeply, he hurried to where six stalls had been walled in, halfway down the left-hand row, and tapped diffidently at a door, then awaited permission before going in. When he came out, he went to the back of the building without so much as a glance toward Perrin and Tylee. After a few minutes, Perrin opened his mouth, but Tylee grimaced and shook her head, so he closed it again and waited. A good quarter of an hour he waited, growing more impatient by the heartbeat. The Banner-General smelled solidly of patience.
At last a sleekly plump woman in a deep yellow dress of odd cut came out of the small room, but she paused to study the work going on in the back of the building, ignoring Tylee and him. Half of her scalp had been shaved bald! Her remaining hair was in a thick, graying braid that hung to her shoulder. Finally she nodded in satisfaction and made her unhurried way to them. An oval blue panel on her bosom was embroidered with three golden hands. Tylee bowed as deeply as Faloun had for her, and remembering her admonition. Perrin did the same. The sleek woman inclined her head. Slightly. She smelled of pride.
“You wish to speak with me. Banner-General?” She had a smooth voice, as sleek as she herself. And not welcoming. She was a busy woman being bothered. A busy woman well aware of her own importance.
“Yes. Honorable,” Tylee said respectfully. A spike of irritation appeared among her smell of patience, then was swallowed again. Her face remained expressionless. “Will you tell me how much prepared forkroot you have on hand?”
“An odd request,” the other woman said as though considering whether to grant it. She tilted her head in thought. “Very well,” she said after a moment. “As of the midmorning accounting, I have four thousand eight hundred seventy-three pounds nine ounces. A remarkable achievement, if I do say it myself, considering how much I have shipped off and how hard it is getting to find the plant in the wild without sending diggers unreasonable distances.” Impossible as it seemed, the pride in her scent deepened. “I’ve solved that problem. however, by inducing the local farmers to plant some of their fields in forkroot. By this summer I will need to build something bigger to house this manufactory. I’ll confide in you, I will not be surprised if I am offered a new name for this. Though of course, I may not accept.” Smiling a small, sleek smile, she touched the oval panel lightly, but it was near a caress.
“The Light will surely favor you. Honorable,” Tylee murmured. “My Lord, will you do me the favor of showing your document to the Honorable?” That with a bow to Perrin markedly lower than the one she had offered the Honorable. The sleek woman’s eyebrows twitched.
Reaching out to take the paper from his hand, she froze, staring at his face. She had finally noticed his eyes. Giving hersell a small shake, she read without any outward expression of surprise, then folded the paper up again and stood tapping it against her free hand. “It seems you walk the heights. Banner-General. And with a very strange companion. What aid do you-or he-ask of me?”
“Forkroot, Honorable,” Tylee said mildly. “All that you have. Loaded into carts as soon as possible. And you must provide the carts and drivers as well, I fear.”
“Impossible!” the sleek woman snapped, drawing herself up haughtily. “I have established strict schedules as to how many pounds of prepared forkroot are shipped every week, which I have adhered to rigidly, and I’ll not see that record sullied. The harm to the Empire would be immense. The sul’dam are snapping up marattidamane on every hand.”
“Forgiveness. Honorable,” Tylee said, bowing again. “If you could see your way clear to let us have-”
“Banner-General,” Perrin cut in. Plainly this was a touchy encounter, and he tried to keep his face smooth, but he could not avoid a frown. He could not be certain that even near five tons of the stuff would be sufficient, and she was trying to negotiate some lesser weight! His mind raced, trying to find a way. Fast thought was shoddy thought, in his estimation-it led to mistakes and accidents-but he had no choice. “This may not interest the Honorable, of course, but Suroth promised death and worse if there was any hindrance to her plans. I don’t suppose her anger will go beyond you and me, but she did say to take it all.”
“Of course, the Honorable will not be touched by the High Lady’s anger.” Tylee sounded as though she was not so sure of that.
The sleek woman was breathing hard, the blue oval with the golden hands heaving. She bowed to Perrin as deeply as Tylee had. “I’ll need most of the day to gather enough carts and load them. Will that suffice, my Lord?”
“It will have to, won’t it,” Perrin said, plucking the note from her hand. She let go reluctantly and watched hungrily as he tucked it into his coat pocket.
Outside, the Banner-General shook her head as she swung into the saddle. “Dealing with the Lesser Hands is always difficult. None of them see anything lesser in themselves. I thought this would be in the charge of someone of the Fourth or Fifth Rank, and that would have been hard enough. When I saw that she was of the Third Rank-only two steps below a Hand to the Empress herself, may she live forever- I was sure we wouldn’t get away with more than a few hundred pounds if that. But you handled it beautifully. A risk taken, but still, beautifully masked.”
“Well, nobody wants to chance death,” Perrin said as they started out of the stableyard into the town with everyone strung out behind them. Now they had to wait for the carts, perhaps find an inn. Impatience burned in him. The Light send they did not need to spend the night.
“You didn’t know,” the dark woman breathed. ‘That woman knew she stood in the shadow of death as soon as she read Suroth’s words, but she was ready to risk it to do her duty to the Empire. A Lesser Hand of the Third Rank has standing enough that she might well escape death on the plea of duty done. But you used Suroth’s name. That’s all right most of the time, except when addressing the High Lady herself, of course, but with a Lesser Hand, using her name without her title meant you were either an ignorant local or an intimate of Suroth herself. The Light favored you, and she decided you were an intimate.”
Perrin barked a mirthless laugh. Seanchan. And maybe ta’veren, too.
“Tell me, if the question does not offend, did your Lady bring powerful connections, or perhaps great lands?”
That surprised him so much that he twisted in his saddle to stare at her. Something hit his chest hard, sliced a line of fire across his chest, punched his arm. Behind him, a horse squealed in pain. Stunned, he stared down at the arrow sticking through his left arm.
“Mishima,” the Banner-Genetal snapped, pointing, “that four-story building with the thatched roof, between two slate roofs. I saw movement on the rooftop.”
Shouting a command to follow, Mishima galloped off down the crowded street with six of the Seanchan lancers, horseshoes ringing on the paving stones. People leapt out of their way. Others stared. No one in the street seemed to realize what had happened. Two of the other lancers were out of their saddles, tending the trembling mount of one that had an arrow jutting from its shoulder. Perrin fingered a broken button hanging by a thread. The silk of his coat was slashed from the button across his chest. Blood oozed, dampening his shirt, trickled down his arm. Had he not twisted just at that moment, that arrow would have been through his heart instead of his arm. Maybe the other would have hit him as well, but the one would have done the job. A Two Rivers shaft would not have been deflected so easily.
Cairhienin and Tairens crowded around him as he dismounted, all of them trying to help him, which he did not need. He drew his belt knife, but Camaille took it from him and deftly scored the shaft so she could break it cleanly just above his arm. That sent a jolt of pain down his arm. She did not seem to mind getting blood on her fingers, just plucking a lace-edge handkerchief Irom her sleeve, a paler green than usual for Cairhienin, and wiping them, then examined the end of the shaft sticking out of his arm to make sure there were no splinters.
The Banner-General was down off her bay, too, and frowning. “My eyes are lowered that you have been injured, my Lord. I’d heard that there has been an increase in crime of late, arsons, robbers killing when there was no need, murders done for no reason anyone knows. I should have protected you better.”
“Grit your teeth, my Lord,” Barmanes said, tying a length of leather cord just above the arrowhead. “Are you ready, my Lord?” Perrin tightened his jaw and nodded, and Barmanes jerked the bloodstained shaft free. Perrin stifled a groan.
“Your eyes aren’t lowered.” he said hoarsely. Whatever that meant. It did not sound good, the way she said it. “Nobody asked you to wrap me in swaddling. I certainly never did.” Neald pushed through the crowd surrounding Perrin, his hands already raised, but Perrin waved him away. “Not here, man. People can see.” Folk in the street had finally noticed and were gathering to watch, murmuring excitedly to one another. “He can Heal this so you’d never know I was hurt,” he explained, flexing his arm experimentally. He winced. That had been a bad idea.
“You’d let him use the One Power on you?” Tylee said disbeliev-ingly.
“To be rid of a hole in my arm and a slice across my chest? As soon as we’re somewhere half the town isn’t staring at us. Wouldn’t you?”
She shivered and made that peculiar gesture again. He was going to have to ask her what that meant.
Mishima joined them, leading his horse and looking grave. “Two men fell from that roof with bows and quivers,” he said quietly, “but it wasn’t that fall that killed them. They hit the pavement hard, yet there was hardly any blood. I think they took poison when they saw they’d failed to kill you.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.” Perrin muttered.
“If men will kill themselves rather than report failure,” Tylee said gravely, “it means you have a powerful enemy.”
A powerful enemy? Very likely Masema would like to see him dead, but there was no way Masema’s reach could extend this far. “Any enemies I have are far away and don’t know where I am.” Tylee and Mishima agreed that he must know about that, but they looked doubtful. Then again, there were always the Forsaken. Some of them had tried to kill him before. Others had tried to use him. He did not think he was going to bring the Forsaken into the discussion. His arm was throbbing. The cut on his chest, too. “Let’s find an inn where I can hire a room.” Fifty-one knots. How many more? Light, how many more?