Chapter Thirty-Six. Under an Oak

The sun stood well above the mountains as Karede rode through the trees toward the so-called Malvide Narrows, perhaps two leagues ahead. The five-mile-wide gap in the mountains carried the road from Ebou Dar to Lugard, a mile south of him. Well short of the Narrows, though, he would find the camp Ajimbura had located for him. Ajimbura had not been fool enough to try entering the camp, so Karede still did not know whether he was riding into a deathtrap for nothing. No, not for nothing. For the High Lady Tuon. Any Death-watch Guard was ready to die for her. Their honor was duty, and duty often meant death. The sky held only billowing white clouds with no threat of rain. He had always hoped to die in sunlight.

He had brought just a small party. Ajimbura on his white-footed chestnut to show the way, of course. The wiry little man had cut off his white-streaked red braid, a measure of his great devotion. The hill tribes took those braids as trophies from those they killed in their endless feuds, and to be without one was to be disgraced in the eyes of all the tribes and families, a self-proclaimed coward. That devotion was to Karede rather than the High Lady or the Crystal Throne, but Karede’s own devotion was such that it came to the same thing. Two of the Guards rode at Karede’s back, their red-and-green armor buffed till it shone, like his own. Hartha and a pair of Gardeners strode along with their long-hafted axes on their shoulders, easily keeping pace with the horses. Their armor glistened as well. Melitene. the High Lady’s der-sul’dam, her long, graying hair tied with a bright red ribbon today, was on a high-stepping gray, the silvery length of an a’dam connecting her left wrist to Mylen’s neck. There had been little that could be done to make those two appear more impressive, but the a’dam and Melitene’s blue dress, the red panels on skirts and bosom holding silver forked lightning bolts, should draw the eye. Taken altogether, no one should notice Ajimbura at all. The rest were back with Musenge. in case it truly was a deathtrap.

He had considered using another damane than Mylen. The tiny woman with the face he could never put an age to almost bounced in her saddle with eagerness to lay eyes on the High Lady again. She was not properly composed. Still, she could do nothing without Melitene, and she was useless as a weapon, a fact that had made her hang her head when he pointed it out to the dersul’dam. She had needed consoling, her sul’dam petting her and telling her what beautiful Sky Lights she made, how wonderful her Healing was. Even thinking about that made Karede shudder. Taken in the abstract, it might seem a wonderful thing, wounds undone in moments, but he thought he would need to be near death before he would let anyone touch him with the Power. And yet. if it could have saved his wife Kalia… No, the weapons had been left with Musenge. If there was a battle today, it would be of a different sort.

The first birdcall he heard seemed no different from others he had heard that morning, but it was repeated ahead, and then again. Just one call each time. He spotted a man up in a tall oak with a crossbow thar tracked him as he rode. Seeing him was not easy; his breastplate and open-faced helmet were painted a dull green that faded into the tree’s foliage. A length of red cloth tied around his left arm helped. though. If he really wanted to hide, he should have removed that.

Karede motioned to Ajimbura and the wiry little man grinned at him, a wizened, blue-eyed rat. before allowing his chestnut to fall back behind the Guards. His long knife was under his coat today. He should pass for a servant.

Soon enough Karede was riding into the camp itself. It had no tents or shelters of any kind, but there were long horselines laid out in orderly fashion, and many more men in green breastplates. Heads turned to watch his party pass, but tew men were on their feet, and fewer held a crossbow. A fair number of them were asleep on their blankets, doubtless tired from all the hard riding they had been doing by night. So the birdcall had told them he was not enough to present a danger. They had the look of well-trained soldiers, but he had expected as much. What he had not expected was how few they were. Oh, the trees might be hiding some, but surely the camp held no more than seven or eight thousand men, far too few to have carried out the campaign Loune had described. He felt a sudden tightness in his chest. Where were the rest? The High Lady might be with one of the other bands. He hoped Ajimbura was taking note of the numbers.

Before he had gone far, a short man mounted on a tall dun met him and reined in where he had to stop or ride the man down. The front half of his head was shaved, and appeared to be powdered, of all things. He was no popinjay, though. His dark coat might be silk, yet he wore the same dull green breastplate as the common soldiers. His eyes were hard and expressionless as he scanned Melitene and Mylen. the Ogier. His face did not change as his gaze returned to Karede. “Lord Mat described that armor to us,” he said in accents even quicker and more clipped than those of the Altarans. “To what do we owe the honor of a visit from the Deathwatch Guard?”

Lord Mat? Who under the Light was Lord Mat? “Furyk Karede,” Karede said. “I wish to speak with man who calls himself Thorn Mer-rilin.”

“Talmanes Delovinde,” the man said, finding manners. “You want to talk to Thom’t Well, I see no harm in it. I will take you to him.”

Karede heeled Aldazar after Delovinde. The man had made no mention of the obvious, that he and the others could not be allowed to leave and carry word of this army’s location. He had some manners. At least, they would not be allowed to leave unless Karede’s mad plan worked. Musenge gave him only one chance in ten of success, one in five of living. Personally, he himself believed the odds longer, but he had to make the attempt. And Merrilin’s presence argued in favor of the High Lady’s presence.

Delovinde dismounted at an oddly domestic scene among the trees, people on camp stools or blankets around a small fire beneath a spreading oak where a kettle was heating. Karede stepped down from his saddle, motioning the Guards and Ajimbura to dismount as well. Melitene and Mylen remained on their mounts for the advantage of height. Of all people, Mistress Anan, who had once owned the inn where he stayed in Ebou Dar, was sitting on one of the three-legged stools reading a book. She no longer wore one of those revealing dresses he had enjoyed looking at, but her close-fitting necklace still dangled that small, jeweled knife onto her impressive bosom. She closed her book and gave him a small nod as if he had returned to the Wandering Woman after an absence of a few hours. Her hazel eyes were quite composed. Perhaps the plot was even more intricate than the Seeker Mor had thought.

A tall, lean white-haired man with mustaches nearly as long as Hartha’s was sitting cross-legged on a striped blanket across a stones board from a slender woman with her hair in many beaded braids. He quirked an eyebrow at Karede, shook his head and returned to perusing the crosshatched board. She glared pure hatred at Karede and those behind him. A gnarled old fellow with long white hair was lying on another blanket with a remarkably ugly young boy, playing some game or other on a piece of red cloth spiderwebbed with black lines. They sat up, the boy studying the Ogier with interest, the man with one hand hovering as if to reach for a knife beneath his coat. A dangerous man, and wary. Perhaps he was Merrilin.

Two men and two women sitting together on camp stools had been conversing when Karede rode up, but as he was stepping down, a stern-faced woman stood and fixed her blue eyes on his in very nearly a challenge. She wore a sword on a wide leather strap slanting across her chest, the way some sailors did. Her hair was close-cropped rather than cut in the style of the low Blood, her fingernails were short and none were lacquered, but he was certain she was Egeanin Tamarath. A heavy-set man with hair as short as hers and one of those odd Illianer beards stood beside her, one hand on the hilt of a shortsword, staring at Karede as if he intended to second her challenge. A pretty woman with dark, waist-long hair and the same rosebud mouth as the Taraboner stood, and for a moment it seemed she might kneel or prostrate herself, but then she straightened and looked him right in the eyes. The last man, a lean fellow in a peculiar red cap who looked carved from dark wood, gave a loud laugh and flung his arms around her. The grinning stare he gave Karede could only be called triumphant.

“Thom,” Delovinde said, “this is Furyk Karede. He wants to talk with a man who ‘calls himself Thorn Merrilin.”

“With me?” the lean, white-haired man said, rising awkwardly. His right leg appeared slightly stiff. An old battle injury, perhaps?

“But I don’t ‘call myself Thorn Merrilin. It’s my name, though I’m surprised you know it. What do you want of me?”

Karede removed his helmet, but before he could open his mouth, a pretty woman with large brown eyes rushed up, pursued by two others. All three had those Aes Sedai faces, one minute looking twenty, the next twice that, the third somewhere in the middle. It was very disconcerting.

“That’s Sheraine!” the pretty woman cried, staring at Mylen. “Release her!”

“You do no understand, Joline,” one of the women with her said angrily. Thin-lipped, with a narrow nose, she looked as if she could chew rocks. “She do no be Sheraine any longer. She would have betrayed us, given a chance.”

“Teslyn is right, Joline,’’ the third woman said. Handsome rather than pretty, she had long black hair that fell in waves to her waist. “She would have betrayed us.”

“I don’t believe it, Edesina,” Joline snapped. “You will free her immediately.” she told Melitene, “or I’ll-” Suddenly she gasped.

“I did tell you,” Teslyn said bitterly.

A young man in a wide-brimmed black hat galloped up on a dark, blunt-nosed chestnut with a deep chest and flung himself out of the saddle. “What’s bloody going on here?” he demanded, striding up to the fire.

Karede ignored him. The High Lady Tuon had ridden up with the young man, on a black-and-white horse with markings like none he had ever seen. Selucia was at her side, on a dun, her head wrapped in a scarlet scarf, but he had eyes only for the High Lady. Short black hair covered her head, but he could never mistake that face. She spared him only one expressionless glance before returning to a study of the young man. Karede wondered whether she recognized him. Probably not. It had been a long time since he had served in her bodyguard. He did not look over his shoulder, but he knew that the reins of Ajimbura’s chestnut were now held by one of the Guards. Apparently unarmed and his distinctive braid gone, he should have no problem leaving the camp. The sentries would never see the little man. Ajimbura was a good runner as well as stealthy. Soon, Musenge would know that the High Lady was indeed here.

“She has us shielded, Mat,” Joline said, and the young man snatched off his hat and strode to Melitene’s horse as if he intended to seize the bridle. He was long-limbed, though he could not be called tall, and he wore a black silk scarf tied around his neck and dangling onto his chest. That made him the one everyone had called Tylin’s Toy, as if being the queen’s plaything were the most important feature of him. Likely it was. Playthings seldom had another side to them. Strange, but he hardly seemed handsome enough for that. He did look fit, though.

“Release the shield,” he told her as if he expected obedience. Karede’s eyebrows rose. This was the plaything? Melitene and Mylen gasped almost as one, and the young man barked a laugh. “You see. it doesn’t work on me. Now you bloody well release the shields, or I’ll bloody well haul you out of the saddle and paddle your bottoms.” Melitene’s face darkened. Few people dared speak so to a der’sul’datn.

“Release the shields, Melitene.” Karede said.

“The marath ’damane was on the point of embracing saidar.” she said instead of obeying. “There’s no telling what she might have-”

“Release the shields,” he said firmly. “And release the Power.”

The young man gave a satisfied nod, then suddenly spun, pointing a finger at the three Aes Sedai. “Now don’t you bloody well start! She’s let go of the Power. You do it, too. Go ahead!” Again he nodded, for all the world as if he was sure they had obeyed. From the way Melitene was staring at him, perhaps he was. Maybe he was an Asha’man? Perhaps Asha’man could detect a damane’s channeling somehow. That hardly seemed likely, but it was all Karede could think of. Yet that hardly squared with how Tylin reportedly had treated the young man.

“One of these days, Mat Cauthon,” Joline said acidly, “someone will teach you to show proper respect to Aes Sedai, and I hope I am there to see it.”

The High Lady and Selucia laughed uproariously. It was good to see she had managed to keep her spirits up in captivity. Doubtless her maid’s companionship had helped. But it was time to get on, too. Time to take his mad gamble.

“General Merrilin,” Karede said, “you fought a short but remarkable campaign and achieved miracles at keeping your forces undetected. but your luck is about to run out. General Chisen deduced your real purpose. He has turned his army around and is marching for the Malvide Narrows as fast as he can. He will be here in two days. I have ten thousand men not far from here, enough to pin you until he arrives. But the High Lady Tuon would be in danger, and I want to avoid that. Let me leave with her, and I will allow you and your men to depart unhindered. You can be well the other side of the mountains, into the Molvaine Gap, before Chisen arrives, and into Murandy before he can catch you. The only other choice is annihilation. Chisen has enough men to wipe you out. It won’t be a battle. A hundred thousand men against eight thousand will be a slaughter.”

They heard him out, every face as blank as if they were stunned. They schooled themselves well. Or perhaps they were stunned at Merrilin’s plan apparently unraveling at the last instant.

Merrilin stroked one of his white mustaches with a long finger. He seemed to hiding a smile. “I fear you have mistaken me, Banner-General Karede.” For the space of a sentence his voice became extremely resonant. “I am a gleeman, a position higher than court-bard to be sure, but no general. The man you want is Lord Matrim Cauthon.” He made a small bow toward the young man, who was settling his flat-topped hat back on his head.

Karede frowned. Tylin’s Toy was the general? Were they playing a game with him?

“You have about a hundred men, Deathwatch Guards, and maybe twenty Gardeners,” Cauthon said calmly. “From what I hear, that could make an even fight against five times their number for most soldiers, but the Band aren’t most soldiers, and I have a sight more than six hundred. As for Chisen, if that’s the fellow who pulled back through the Narrows, even if he has figured out what I was up to, he couldn’t get back in less than five days. My scouts’ last reports had him pushing southwest along the Ebou Dar Road as fast he could march. The real question is this, though. Can you get Tuon to the Tarasin Palace safely?”

Karede felt as if Hartha had kicked him in the belly, and not only because the man had used the High Lady’s name so casually. “You mean to let me take her away?” he said incredulously.

“If she trusts you. If you can get her to the palace safely. She’s in danger till she reaches that. In case you don’t know it, your whole bloody Ever Victorious flaming Army is ready to slit her throat or bash in her head with a rock.”

“I know,” Karede said, more calmly than he felt. Why would this man just release the High Lady after the White Tower had gone to all the trouble of kidnapping her? Why, after fighting that short, bloody campaign? “We will die to the man if that is what is needed to see safe. It will be best if we set out immediately.” Before the man changed his mind. Before Karede woke from this fever-dream. It surely seemed a fever-dream.

“Not so fast.” Cauthon turned toward the High Lady. “Tuon, do you trust this man to see you safe to the palace in Ebou Dar?” Karede stifled an impulse to wince. General and lord the man might be, but he had no right to use the High Lady’s name so!

“I trust the Deathwatch Guards with my life.” the High Lady-replied calmly, “and him more than any other.” She favored Karede with a smile. Even as a child, smiles from her had been rare. “Do you by any chance still have my doll. Banner-General Karede?”

He bowed to her formally. The manner of her speaking told him she was still under the veil. “Forgiveness, High Lady. I lost everything in the Great Fire of Sohima.”

“That means you kept it for ten years. You have my commiseration on the loss of your wife, and of your son, though he died bravely and well. Few men will enter a burning building once. He saved five people before he was overcome.”

Karede’s throat tightened. She had followed news of him. All he could do was bow again, more deeply.

“Enough of that,” Cauthon muttered. “You’re going to knock your head on the ground if you keep that up. As soon as she and Selucia can get their things together, you take them out of here and ride hard. Tal-manes. roust the Band. It isn’t that I don’t trust you, Karede, but I think I’ll sleep easier beyond the Narrows.”

“Matrim Cauthon is my husband.” the High Lady said in a loud, clear voice. Everyone froze where they stood. “Matrim Cauthon is my husband.”

Karede felt as if Hartha had kicked him again. No, not Hartha. Aldazar. What madness was this? Cauthon looked like a man watching an arrow fly toward his face, knowing he had no chance to dodge.

“Bloody Matrim Cauthon is my husband. That is the wording you used, is it not?”

This had to be a fever-dream.

It took a minute before Mat could speak. Burn him, it seemed to take a bloody hour before he could move. When he could, he snatched off his hat, strode to Tuon and seized the razor’s bridle. She looked down at him, cool as any queen on a bloody throne. All those battles with the flaming dice rattling away in his head, all those skirmishes and raids, and they had to stop when she said a few words. Well, at least this time he knew what had happened that was bloody fateful for Mat bloody Cauthon. “Why? I mean, I knew you were going to sooner or later, but why now? I like you, maybe more than like you, and I enjoy kissing you,’ he thought Karede grunted, “but you haven’t behaved like a woman in love. You’re ice half the time and spend most of the rest digging under my skin.”

“Love?” Tuon sounded surprised. “Perhaps we will come to love one another. Matrim. but I have always known I would marry to serve the Empire. What do you mean, you knew that I was going to speak the words?”

“Call me Mat.” Only his mother had ever called him Matrim, when he was in trouble, and his sisters when they were carrying tales to get him in trouble.

“Your name is Matrim. What did you mean?”

He sighed. The woman never wanted much. Just her own way. Like just about every other woman he had ever known. “I went through a ter’angreal to somewhere else, another world maybe. The people there aren’t really people-they look like snakes-but they’ll answer three questions for you. and their answers are always true. One of mine was that I’d marry the Daughter of the Nine Moons. But you haven’t answered my question. Why now?”

A faint smile on her lips. Tuon leaned down from her saddle. And rapped him hard on the top of his head with her knuckles! “Your superstitions are bad enough, Matrim, but I won’t tolerate lies. An amusing lie, true, but still a lie.”

“It’s the Light’s own truth,” he protested, clapping his hat on. Maybe it would give him some protection. “You could learn for yourself if you could make yourself talk to an Aes Sedai. They could tell you about the Aelfinn and the Eelfinn.”

“It could be the truth,” Edesina piped up as if she were being helpful. “The Aelfinn can be reached through a ter’angreal in the Stone of Tear, so I understand, and supposedly they give true answers.” Mat glared at her. A fat lot of help she was, with her “so I understands” and “supposedlies.” Tuon continued to stare at him as if Edesina had not opened her mouth.

“I answered your question, Tuon, so you answer mine.”

“You know that damane can tell fortunes?” She gave him a stern look, likely expecting him to call it superstition, but he nodded curtly. Some Aes Sedai could Foretell the future. Why not a damane “I asked Lidya to tell mine just before I landed at Ebou Dar. This is what she said. ‘Beware the fox that makes the ravens fly, for he will marry you and carry you away. Beware the man who remembers Hawkwing’s face, for he will marry you and set you free. Beware the man of the red hand, for him you will marry and none other.’ It was your ring that caught my eye first.” He thumbed the long ring unconsciously, and she smiled. A small smile, but a smile. “A fox apparently startling two ravens into flight and nine crescent moons. Suggestive, wouldn’t you say? And just now you fulfilled the second part, so I knew for certain it was you.” Selucia made a sound in her throat, and Tuon waggled fingers at her. The bosomy little woman subsided, adjusting her head scarf, but the look she shot at Mat should have been accompanied by a dagger in her hand.

He laughed mirthlessly. Blood and bloody ashes. The ring was a carver’s try-piece, bought only because it stuck on his finger; he would give up those memories of Hawkwing’s face along with every other old memory, if it would get the bloody snakes out of his head; and yet those things had gained him a wife. The Band of the Red Hand would never have existed without those old memories of battles.

“Seems to me being ta’veren works on me as much as it does on anybody else.” For a moment, he thought she was going to rap him again. He gave her his best smile. “One more kiss before you leave?”

“I’m not in the mood at the moment.” she said coolly. That hanging magistrate was back. All prisoners to be condemned immediately. “Perhaps later. You could return to Ebou Dar with me. You have an honored place in the Empire, now.”

He did not hesitate before shaking his head. There was no honored place waiting for Leilwin or Domon. no place at all for the Aes Sedai or the Band. “The next time I see Seanchan. I expect it will be on the field somewhere. Tuon.” Burn him, it would be. His life seemed to run that way no matter what he did. “You’re not my enemy, but your Empire is.”

“Nor are you my enemy, husband.” she said coolly, “but I live to serve the Empire.”

“Well, I suppose you’d better get your things…” He trailed off at the sound of a cantering horse approaching.

Vanin reined in a rangy gray beside Tuon, eyed Karede and the other Deathwatch Guards, then spat through a gap in his teeth and leaned on the high pommel of his saddle. “There’s ten thousand or so soldiers at a little town about five miles west of here,” the fat man told Mat. “Only one man Seanchan, near as I could learn. Rest are Altarans. Taraboners. Amadicians. All mounted. Thing is, they’re asking after fellows wearing armor like that.” He nodded toward Karede. “And rumor says the one of them that kills a girl that sounds a lot like the High Lady gets himself a hundred thousand crowns gold. Their mouths are dripping for it.”

“I can slip past them,” Karede said. His bluff face looked fatherly. His voice sounded like a drawn sword.

“And if you can’t?” Mat asked quietly. “It can’t be chance they’re this close. They’ve caught some sniff of you. One more smell might be all it takes to kill Tuon.” Karede’s face darkened.

“Do you intend to go back on your word?” A drawn blade that might be used soon. Worse, Tuon was watching, looking at Mat like that hanging magistrate in truth. Burn him, if she died, something would shrivel up inside him. And the only way to stop it, to be sure it was stopped, was to do what he hated worse than work. Once, he had thought that fighting battles, much as he hated it, was still better than work. Near enough nine hundred dead in the space of a few days had changed his mind.

“No.” he said. “She goes with you. But you leave me a dozen of your Deathwatch Guards and some of the Gardeners. If I’m going to take these people off your back, I need them to think I’m you.”

Tuon abandoned most of the clothing Matrim had bought for her. since she would need to travel light. The little cluster of red silk rosebuds he had given her she tucked away in her saddlebags, folded in a linen cloth, as carefully as if were blown glass. She had no farewells to make except for Mistress Anan-she really would miss their discussions-so she and Selucia were ready to ride quickly. Mylen smiled so broadly at the sight of her that she had to pat the little damane. It seemed that word of what had happened had spread, because as they rode through the camp with the Deathwatch Guards, men of the Band stood and bowed to her. It was very like reviewing regiments in Seandar.

“What do you make of him?” she asked Karede once they were away from the soldiers and beginning to canter. There was no need to say which “he” she meant.

“It is not my place to make judgments, High Lady,” he said gravely. His head swivelled, keeping watch on the surrounding trees. “I serve the Empire and the Empress, may she live forever.”

“As do we all, Banner-General. But I ask your judgment.”

“A good general. High Lady,” he replied without hesitation. “Brave, but not overly brave. He won’t get himself killed just to show how brave he is, I think. And he is… adaptable. A man of many layers. And if you will forgive me, High Lady, a man in love with you. I saw how he looked at you.”

In love with her? Perhaps. She thought she might be able to come to love him. Her mother had loved her father, it was said. And a man of many layers? Matrim Cauthon made an onion look like an apple! She rubbed a hand over her head. She still was not accustomed to the feel of hair on her head. “I will need a razor first thing.”

“It may be best to wait until Ebou Dar, High Lady.”

“No,” she said gently. “If I die, I will die as who I am. I have removed the veil.”

“As you say, Highness.” Smiling, he saluted, gauntleted fist striking over his heart hard enough that steel clanged on steel. “If we die, we will die as who we are.”

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