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Before the Arrow


Before the Arrow

The inside of a tent roof had to be the most boring sight in the world, but lying back in his shirtsleeves on scarlet-tasseled cushions that Melindhra had acquired, Mat studied the gray-brown cloth intently. Or rather, he stared beyond it. One arm curled behind his head, he swirled a hammered-silver goblet full of good wine from the south of Cairhien. A small cask had cost him as much as two good horses would - as much as two horses would have if the world and everything in it had not been stood on its head - but he counted it a small price for something decent. Sometimes a drop or two splashed over onto his hand, but he never noticed and he never took a drink.

By his book, matters had long since gone beyond merely serious. Serious was being stuck in the Waste with no idea of the way out. Serious was Darkfriends popping up when you least expected, Trolloc attacks in the night, the odd Myrddraal freezing your blood with an eyeless stare. That sort of thing came quickly, and usually was done before you had much chance to think. It was certainly not what you would seek out, yet if you had to, you could live with it if you could live through it. But for days he had known where they were heading, and why. Nothing quick about it. Days to think.

I am no bloody hero, he thought grimly, and I'm no bloody soldier. Fiercely he pushed down a memory of walking fortress walls, ordering his last reserves to where another crop of Trolloc scaling ladders had sprung up. That was not me the Light burn whoever it was! I'm... He did not know what he was - a sour thought - but whatever he was, it involved gambling and taverns, women and dancing. That he was sure of. It involved a good horse and every road in the world to choose from, not sitting and waiting for somebody to shoot arrows at him or try to stick a sword or a spear through his ribs. Any different would make him a fool, and he would not be that, not for Rand or Moiraine or anybody else.

As he sat up, the silver foxhead medallion, hanging on its leather thong, slipped from the unlaced neck of his shirt. He tucked it back before taking a long swallow of wine. The medallion made him safe from Moiraine, or any other Aes Sedai, as long as they did not get it away from him - surely one or another would try sooner or later - but nothing except his own wits kept him safe from some fool killing him along with a few thousand other fools. Or from Rand, or from being ta'veren.

A man ought to be able to find a profit in something like that, having events twist themselves around him. Rand certainly had, in a way. He himself had never noticed anything twisting around him except the fall of dice. He would not turn away from some of the things that happened to ta'veren in stories. Wealth and fame dropped into their pockets as if from the sky; men who wanted to kill them decided to follow instead, and women with ice in their eyes decided to melt.

Not that he was complaining at what he had, really. And certainly not that he wanted anything like Rand's bargain; the price to get into the game was too high. It was just that he seemed to be stuck with all the burdens of being ta'veren and none of the pleasure.

"It is time to go," he told the empty tent, then paused thoughtfully and sipped at the goblet. "It is time to get on Pips and ride. Ride to Caemlyn, maybe." Not a bad city, so long as he avoided the Royal Palace. "Or Lugard." He had heard rumors about Lugard. A fine place, that, for the likes of him. "Time to leave Rand in my dust. He's got a bloody Aiel army and more Maidens than he can count taking care of him. He doesn't need me."

That last was not strictly true. In some strange way he was tied to Rand's success or failure in Tarmon Gai'don, him and Perrin both, three ta'veren all tangled together. The histories would probably only mention Rand. Small chance he or Perrin would find any place in the stories. And then there was the Horn of Valere. Which he did not want to think about, and would not. Not until he had to. There might be some way out of that particular mess yet. Any way he looked at it, the Horn was a problem for another day. A distant day. With luck, all those bills would come due on a very distant day. Only, that might take more luck than he had.

The point now was that he had said all of that about going and felt scarcely a twinge. Not long ago, he had been unable even to speak of leaving; when he got too far from Rand, he had been drawn back like a hooked fish on some invisible line. Then he had become able to say it, even to lay plans, but the slightest thing would distract him, make him put off his schemes for stealing away. Even in Rhuidean, when he had told Rand he was going, he had been sure something would get in the way. It had, in a manner of speaking; Mat had made it out of the Waste, but he was no further from Rand than before. This time, he did not think he would be diverted.

"Not like I was abandoning him," he muttered. "If he can't bloody take care of himself by now, he'll never be able to. I'm not his bloody nursemaid."

Draining the goblet, he scrambled into his green coat, settled his knives in their hiding places, arranged a dark yellow silk scarf to hide the hanging scar on his throat, then snatched up his hat and ducked out.

Heat hit him in the face after the relatively 18318t1913s cool shade inside. He was not sure how the seasons changed here, but summer was hanging on too long to suit him. One thing he had looked forward to on leaving the Waste was the arrival of autumn. A little coolness. No luck here. At least the hat's wide brim kept the sun off.

This hilly Cairhienin forest was a pitiful thing, more clearings than trees and half of them going brown in the drought. Not a patch on the Westwood, back home. Low Aiel tents were everywhere, though at any distance they took on the look of a pile of dead leaves or a bare hummock of ground unless the side flaps were up, and even then they were not easy to see. The Aiel going about their business did not look at him twice.

From one crest as he crossed the encampment, he caught sight of Kadere's wagons, all in a circle, the drivers lying in the shade underneath and the peddler nowhere in view. Kadere kept to his wagon more and more, seldom poking his nose out except when Moiraine came to inspect the ladings. The Aiel ringing the wagons, small knots with spears and bucklers, bows and quivers, made little pretense of being anything but guards. Moiraine must think Kadere or some of his men would try to make off with what she had brought out of Rhuidean. Mat wondered whether Rand realized that he was giving her anything and everything she asked. For a while Mat had thought Rand had gotten the upper hand there, but he was not so sure any longer, even if Moiraine did do everything but curtsy and fetch Rand's pipe.

Rand's tent was on a hilltop by itself, naturally, that red banner on a staff at its front. It rippled in a light breeze, sometimes standing out enough to show the black-and-white disc. The thing made Mat's skin crawl as much as the Dragon banner had. If a man wanted to avoid Aes Sedai entanglements, as any but an idiot would, the last thing to do was wave that symbol about.

The slopes of the hill were bare, but Maidens' tents encircled the foot of the hill and spread through the trees up surrounding slopes and down the other side. That was as usual, too, and so was the Wise Ones' camp within the Far Dareis Mai, dozens of low tents in shouting distance of Rand's hill, with white-robed gai'shain bustling about.

There were only a few of the Wise Ones to be seen, yet they made up for lack of numbers with the stares that followed him. He had no idea how many could channel in that bunch, but they were a fair equal of Aes Sedai weighing and measuring when it came to stares. He picked up his pace, making an effort not to shrug uncomfortably; he could feel those eyes on his back as surely as he could have a poke from a stick. And he would have to run the same gauntlet coming out. Well, a few words with Rand, and it would be the last time he had to run it.

Only, when he pulled off his hat and ducked into Rand's tent, no one was there except Natael, lounging on the cushions with his gilded, dragon-carved harp propped against his knee and a gold goblet in his hand.

Mat grimaced, and swore under his breath. He should have known as much. If Rand had been here, he would have had to pass through a circle of Maidens right around the tent. Most likely he was up at that new-built tower. A good idea, that. Know the terrain. That was the second rule, close behind "Know your enemy," and not much to choose between them.

The thought put a sour twist to his mouth. Those rules came from other men's memories; the only rules he wanted to remember were "Never kiss a girl whose brothers have knife scars" and "Never gamble without knowing a back way out." He almost wished those memories of other men were still separate lumps in his brain instead of oozing into his thoughts when he least expected.

"Trouble with a bilious stomach?" Natael asked lazily. "One of the Wise Ones might have a root to cure it. Or you could try Moiraine."

Mat could not like the man; he always seemed to be thinking of a joke he did not mean to share. And he always looked as if he had three servants taking care of his clothes. All that snowy lace at collar and cuffs, always seeming freshly laundered. The fellow never appeared to sweat, either. Why Rand wanted him around was a mystery. He almost never played anything merry on that harp. "Will he be back soon?"

Natael shrugged. "When he decides to. Perhaps soon, perhaps late. No man clocks the Lord Dragon. And few women." There it was again, that secretive smile. A touch bleak, this time.

"I'll wait." He meant to go through with this. Too many times he had found himself putting off going.

Natael sipped at his wine, studying him across the goblet's rim.

It was bad enough that Moiraine and the Wise Ones watched him in that silent, searching way - sometimes Egwene did too; she had certainly changed, half Wise One and half Aes Sedai - but from Rand's gleeman, it was enough to set his teeth on edge. The best thing about leaving would be not having anyone look at him as if they would know in a minute what he was thinking, and already knew whether his smallclothes were clean.

Two maps lay spread out near the firepit. One, copied in detail from a tattered map found in a half-burned town, covered northern Cairhien from west of the Alguenya halfway to the Spine of the World, while the other, newly drawn and sketchy, showed the land around the city. Slips of parchment held down with pebbles dotted both. If he was going to stay, and ignore Natael's searching look at the same time, there was nothing for it but to study the maps.

With the toe of his boot he shifted a few pebbles on the map of the city so he could read what was written on the parchments. In spite of himself, he winced. If the Aiel scouts could count, Couladin had nearly one hundred and sixty thousand spears - Shaido and those who had supposedly gone to join their societies among the Shaido. A hard nut to crack, and prickly. This side of the Spine of the World had not seen an army like that since Artur Hawkwing's time.

The second map showed the other clans that had crossed the Dragonwall. All had now, in one force or another, strung out according to when they had left the Jangai and spread apart, but too close to here for comfort. The Shiande, the Codarra, the Daryne, and the Miagoma. Between them, they apparently had at least as many spears as Couladin; they had not left many behind, if that was true. The seven clans with Rand almost doubled that, easily enough to face Couladin or the four clans. Either or. Not both, not at once. But both at once might be what Rand had to fight.

What the Aiel called the bleakness had to be affecting those clans too - every day still men tossed down their weapons and vanished - but only a fool would think it lessened their numbers any more than it did Rand's. And there was always the possibility that some of those were going to Couladin. The Aiel did not speak of it very much or very freely, and masked the idea behind talk of joining societies, but even now, men and Maidens decided they could not accept Rand or what he had told them of themselves. Every morning some were missing, and not all left their spears behind.

"A pretty situation, wouldn't you say?"

Mat's head jerked up at Lan's voice, but the Warder had entered the tent alone. "Just something to look at while I waited. Is Rand coming back?"

"He will be with us soon." Thumbs tucked behind his sword belt, Lan stood beside .Mat, looking down at the map. His face gave away as much as a statue's would. "Tomorrow should bring the largest battle since Artur Hawkwing."

"You don't say?" Where was Rand? Still up on that tower, probably. Maybe he should go there. No, he could end up haring all over the camp, always one step behind. Rand would come here eventually. He wanted to talk about something besides Couladin. This fight is none of mine. I'm not running away from anything that concerns me in the least. "What about them?" He gestured to the slips representing the Miagoma and the others. "Any word on whether they mean to join Rand, or do they just intend to sit there watching?"

"Who can say? Rhuarc doesn't seem to know any more than I do, and if the Wise Ones do, they are not telling. The only thing certain is that Couladin is not going anywhere."

Couladin again. Mat shifted uncomfortably and took a half-step toward the entrance. No, he would wait. Fastening his gaze on the maps, he pretended to study them further. Perhaps Lan would leave him in silence. He just wanted to say his piece to Rand and go.

The Warder appeared to want to talk, though. "What do you think, Master Gleeman? Should we rush down on Couladin with everything and crush him tomorrow?"

"That sounds as good to me as any other plan," Natael replied dourly. Emptying the goblet down his throat, he dropped it on the carpets and picked up the harp to begin softly strumming something dark and funereal. "I lead no armies, Warder. I command nothing save myself, and not always that."

Mat grunted, and Lan glanced at him before returning to his study of the maps. "You do not think it a good plan? Why not?"

He said it so casually that Mat answered without thinking. "Plenty of reasons. If you surround Couladin, trap him between you and the city, you might crush him against it." How long was Rand going to be? "But you might push him right over the walls, too. From what I hear, he's nearly gotten over twice already, even without miners or siege engines, and the city is hanging on by its teeth." Say his piece and go, that was it. "Press him enough, and you'll find yourself fighting inside Cairhien. Nasty thing, fighting in a city. And the idea is to save the place, not finish ruining it." Those slips laid out on the maps, the maps themselves, made it all so clear.

Frowning, he squatted with his elbows on his knees. Lan got down with him, but he hardly noticed. A dicey problem. And fascinating. "Best if you try to shove him away. Hit him from the south, mainly." He pointed to the River Gaelin; it joined the Alguenya some miles north of the city. "There are bridges up here. Leave the Shaido a clear path to them. Always leave a way out, unless you really want to find out how hard a man can fight when he's nothing to lose." His finger slid east. Wooded hills for the most part, it seemed. Probably not much different from right around here. "A blocking force here on this side of the river will make sure they go for the bridges, if it's big enough and positioned right. Once they are moving, Couladin won't want to try fighting someone ahead of him while you're coming behind." Yes. Almost exactly the same as at Jenje. "Not unless he's a complete fool, anyway. They might make it to the river in good order, but those bridges will choke them. I don't see Aiel swimming, or hunting out fords for that matter. Keep the pressure on, shove them across. With luck you'll be able to harry them all the way to the mountains." It was like Cuaindaigh Fords, too, late in the Trolloc Wars, and on much the same scale. Not much different from the Tora Shan, either. Or Sulmein Gap, before Hawkwing found his stride. The names flickered through his head, the images of bloody fields forgotten even by historians. Absorbed in the map as he was, they did not register as anything but his own remembrances. "Too bad you don't have more cavalry. Light cavalry is best for the harrying. Bite at the flanks, keep them running, and never let them settle to fight. But Aiel should do almost as well."

"And the other reason?" Lan asked quietly.

Mat was caught up in it, now. He more than merely liked gambling, and battle was a gamble to make dicing in taverns a thing for children and toothless invalids. Lives were the stake here, your own and other men's, men who were not even there. Make the wrong wager, a foolish bet, and cities died, or whole nations. Natael's somber music was fit accompaniment. At the same time, this was a game that set the blood racing.

Without lifting his eyes from the map, he snorted. "You know as well as I. If even one of those four clans decides to side with Couladin, they'll take you from behind while your hands are still full of Shaido. Couladin will be the anvil and they the hammer, with you the nut between. Only take half of what you have against Couladin. That makes it an even fight, but you have to settle for it." There was no such thing as fairness in war. You took your enemy from behind, when he least expected it, when and where he was weakest. "You still have an edge. He has to worry about a sortie from the city. The other half, you split in three parts. One to funnel Couladin to the river, the other two a few miles apart, between the city and the four clans."

"Very neat," Lan said, nodding. That slab-carved face never changed, but approval touched his voice, if lightly. "It would gain a clan nothing to attack either force, especially not when the other could take it in the rear. And none will try to interfere in what happens around the city for the same reason. Of course, all four could join. Not likely, if they haven't already, but if they do, everything changes."

Mat laughed aloud. "Everything always changes. The best plan lasts until the first arrow leaves the bow. This would be easy enough for a child to handle, except for Indirian and the rest not knowing their own minds. If they all decide to go over to Couladin, you toss the dice and hope, because the Dark One's in the game for sure. At least you'll have enough strength clear of the city nearly to match them. Enough to hold them for the time you need. Abandon the idea of pursuing Couladin and turn everything on them as soon as he's well and truly begun crossing the Gaelin. But it's my bet they'll wait and watch, and come to you once Couladin is done for. Victory settles a lot of arguments in most men's heads."

The music had stopped. Mat glanced at Natael, and found the man holding his harp rigidly, staring at him over it harder than ever. Staring as if he had never seen him before, did not know what he was. The gleeman's eyes were dark polished glass, his knuckles white on the harp's gilding.

With that it all crashed home, what he had been saying, the memories he had been embracing. Burn you for a fool, for not guarding your tongue! Why had Lan had to take the conversation that way? Why could he not have talked about horses, or the weather, or just kept his mouth shut? The Warder had never seemed all that eager to talk before. Usually the man made a tree seem talkative. Of course, he could have kept his own mind focused and his own mouth shut, too. At least he had not been babbling in the Old Tongue. Blood and ashes, but I hope I wasn't!

Springing to his feet, Mat turned to go, and found Rand standing just inside the tent, absently twisting that odd bit of tasseled spear as if he did not realize he was holding it. How long had he been there? It did not matter. Mat spilled it all out in a rush. "I'm leaving, Rand. Come first light in the morning, I am in the saddle and gone. I'd go this minute if I could get far enough in half a day to suit me for stopping. I mean to put as many miles between me and the Aiel - any Aiel - as Pips can cover before I make camp." No point in bedding down close enough to be snapped up and hung out to dry by somebody's scouts; Couladin must have them out too, and even the others might not recognize him before he had a spear in his liver.

"I will be sorry to see you go," Rand said quietly.

"Don't try to talk me out of -" Mat blinked. "That's it? You'll be sorry to see me go?"

"I've never tried to make you stay, Mat. Perrin went when he had to, and so can you."

Mat opened his mouth, then closed it again. Rand had never tried to make him stay, true. He had just done it without trying. But there was not the slightest bit of ta'veren tugging, now, no vague feelings that he was doing the wrong thing. He was firm and clear in his purpose.

"Where will you go?"

"South." Not that there was much choice of direction. The others led to the Gaelin, with nothing north of the river that he was interested in, or else to Aiel, one lot that would certainly kill him and one that might or might not, depending on how close by Rand was and what they had had for supper the night before. Not good odds, by his reckoning. "To begin, anyway. Then somewhere there's a tavern, and some women who don't carry spears." Melindhra. She might present a problem. He had the feeling she might be the sort of woman who did not let go until she wanted. Well, one way or another, he would deal with her. Maybe he could just ride out before she knew it. "This isn't for me, Rand. I don't know anything about battles, and I don't want to know." He avoided looking at Lan and Natael. If either man cracked his teeth, he would punch him right in the mouth. Even the Warder. "You understand, don't you?"

Rand's nod could have been understanding. Maybe it was. "I'd forget saying goodbye to Egwene, were I you. I am no longer certain how much of what I tell her I might as well be telling Moiraine, or the Wise Ones, or both."

"I reached that conclusion a long time ago. She's left Emond's Field further behind than either of us. And regrets it less."

"Maybe," Rand said sadly. "The Light shine on you, Mat," he added, sticking out his hand, "and send you smooth roads, fair weather and pleasant company until we meet again."

That would not be soon, if Mat had his way. He felt a little sad about that, and a little foolish for feeling sad, yet a man had to look after himself. When all was said and done, that was the long and short of it.

Rand's grip was as hard as it had ever been - all that swordwork had only added new calluses atop older bowman's - but the ridged heron brand in his palm was distinct against Mat's hand. Just a little reminder, in case he should forget the markings under his friend's coatsleeves, or those even stranger things inside his head that let him channel. If he could forget that Rand could channel - and he had not thought of it once in days; days! - then it was far past time to be gone.

A few more awkward words standing there - Lan seemed to ignore them, arms folded, silently studying the maps, while Natael had begun idly plucking his harp; Mat had an ear for music, and to him the unfamiliar tune had an ironic sound; he wondered why the fellow had chosen it - a few more moments and Rand half-stepping around actually putting an end to it, and then Mat was outside. There was a crowd out there, a good hundred Maidens spread about the hilltop and walking on tiptoe they were so ready to spear somebody, all seven clan chiefs waiting patient and still as stone, three Tairen lords trying to pretend that they were not sweating and the Aiel did not exist.

He had heard about the lords' arrival, and had even gone to take a look at their camp - or camps - but there had been no one there he knew, and no one wanting to take a turn at dice or cards. These three eyed him up and down, frowning disdainfully, and apparently decided he was no better than the Aiel, which was to say not worth seeing.

Clapping his hat on his head and pulling the brim low over his eyes, Mat studied the Tairens coldly in return for a moment. He had the pleasure of seeing the younger pair, at least, become uncomfortably aware of him again before he started down the hill. The gray-beard still looked all barely concealed impatience to enter Rand's tent, but it did not matter anyway. He would never see any of them again.

He had no idea why he had not simply ignored them. Except that his step was lighter and he felt full of vinegar. No wonder, really, leaving tomorrow at last. The dice seemed to be spinning in his head, and there was no knowing what pips would show when they landed. Odd, that. It must be Melindhra worrying him. Yes. He would definitely leave early, and as quietly as a mouse tiptoeing on feathers.

Whistling, he set off for his tent. What was the tune? Oh, yes. "Dance with Jak o' the Shadows." He had no intention of dancing with death, but it had a merry sound, so he whistled it anyway as he tried to plan the best route away from Cairhien.

Rand stood staring after Mat long after the tent flaps had fallen to hide him. "I only heard the last bit," he said finally. "Was it all like that?"

"Very nearly," Lan replied. "With only a few minutes to study the maps, he laid out close to the battle plan that Rhuarc and the others made. He saw the difficulties and the dangers, and how to meet them. He knows about miners and siege engines, and using light cavalry to harry a defeated foe."

Rand looked at him. The Warder showed no surprise, not the twitch of an eyelash. Of course, he was the one who had said Mat seemed surprisingly knowledgeable about military matters. And Lan was not going to ask the obvious question, either, which was good. Rand had no right to give the little answer he had.

He could have asked a few questions himself. Such as, What did miners have to do with battles? Or maybe it was only sieges. Whatever the answer, there was not a mine closer than the Dragon's Dagger, and no certainty anyone was still digging ore. Well, this battle would be fought without. The important thing was that he knew Mat had gained more on the other side of that doorway ter'angreal than a tendency to spout the Old Tongue when not thinking. And knowing that, Rand would surely make use of it.

You don't have to get any harder, he thought bitterly. He had seen Mat climbing toward this tent, and never hesitated in sending Lan in to discover what might come to the surface in idle conversation, alone. That had been deliberate. The rest might or might not be, but it would happen. He hoped Mat had a fine time while he was free. He hoped that Perrin was enjoying himself in the Two Rivers, showing off Faile to his mother and sisters, maybe marrying her. He hoped it because he knew he would draw them back, ta'veren pulling at ta'veren, and he the strongest. Moiraine had named it no coincidence, three such growing up in the same village, all nearly the same age; the Wheel wove happenstance and coincidence into the Pattern, but it did not lay down the likes of the three of them for no reason. Eventually he would pull his friends back to him, however far they went, and when they came, he would use them, however he could. However he had to. Because he did have to. Because whatever the Prophecy of the Dragon said, he was sure the only chance he had of winning Tarmon Gai'don lay in having all three of them, three ta'veren who had been tied together since infancy, tied together once more. No, he did not need to become hard. You're rank enough already to make a Seanchan spew his supper!

"Play 'March of Death,'" he commanded in a harsher voice than he wanted, and Natael looked at him blankly for a moment. The man had been listening to everything. He would have questions, but he would find no answers. If Rand could not tell Lan Mat's secrets, he would not spread them before one of the Forsaken, however tame he appeared. This time he deliberately made his tone rough, and pointed the length of spear at the man. "Play it, unless you know a sadder. Play something to make your soul weep. If you have one still."

Natael gave him an ingratiating smile and a seated bow, but he went white around the eyes. It was indeed "The March of Death" that he began, yet it had a sharper edge on his harp than ever before, a dirge-like keen that surely would make any soul weep. He stared fixedly at Rand as if hoping to see some effect.

Turning away, Rand stretched out on the carpets with his head to the maps and a red-and-gold cushion under his elbow. "Lan, would you ask the others to come in now?"

The Warder made a formal bow before stepping outside. It was the first time that he had ever done that, but Rand noticed only absently.

The battle would begin tomorrow. It was a polite fiction that he helped Rhuarc and the others plan. He was smart enough to know what he did not know, and despite all of his talks with Lan and Rhuarc, he knew he was not ready. I've planned a hundred battles this size or more and given orders that led to ten times as many. Not his thought. Lews Therin knew war - had known war - but not Rand al'Thor, and that was him. He listened, asked questions - and nodded as if he understood when the chiefs said a thing should be done a certain way. Sometimes he did understand and wished he did not, because he knew where that understanding came from. His only real contribution had been to say that Couladin had to be defeated without destroying the city. In any, case, this meeting would only add a few touches at most to what had already been decided.

Mat would have been useful, with his new-found knowledge.

No. He would not think of his friends, of what he would do to them before it was all done. Even leaving the battle aside, there was plenty to occupy him, things he could do something about. The absence of Cairhienin flags above Cairhien marked a major problem, and the continued skirmishes with Andorans another. What Sammael was up to warranted thought, and...

The chiefs filed in in no particular order. This time Dhearic came first, Rhuarc and Erim together at the rear with Lan. Bruan and Jheran took the places next to Rand. They did not concern themselves with precedence among themselves, and Aan'allein they seemed to take as all but one of them.

Weiramon entered last, his lordlings at his heels and a tight-mouthed scowl on his face. Precedence certainly mattered to him. Muttering into his oiled beard, he stalked his way around the firepit, taking up a place behind Rand. Until the chiefs' flat stares finally broke through his shell, at least. Among Aiel, a close kinsman or society brother might position himself so, if there was the possibility of a knife in the back. He still frowned at Jheran and Dhearic as though expecting one of them to make room.

Finally Bael gestured to the place beside him, across the maps from Rand, and after a pause, Weiramon strode back to sit cross-legged and rigid, staring straight ahead and looking like a man who had swallowed an unripe plum whole. The younger Tairens stood almost as stiffly at his back, one with the grace to look embarrassed.

Rand took note of him but said not a word, only thumbed his pipe full of tabac and seized saidin long enough to light it. He had to do something about Weiramon; the man exacerbated old problems and made new ones. Not a flicker crossed Rhuarc's features, but the other chiefs' expressions ranged from Lan's sour disgust to Erim's clear, cold-eyed readiness to dance spears there and then. Perhaps there was a way for Rand to rid himself of Weiramon and make a beginning on another of his worries at the same time.

With Rand's example, Lan and the chiefs began filling pipes.

"I see only small changes necessary," Bael said, puffing his pipe alight, and sparking a glower from Han, as usual.

"Do these small changes concern the Goshien, or perhaps some other clan?"Putting Weiramon from his mind, Rand bent himself to listening as they worked out what had to be altered from their new view of the terrain. Now and again one of the Aiel would glance at Natael, a brief tightness to eyes or mouth suggesting that the mournful music plucked at something in him. Even the Tairens grimaced sadly. The sounds washed over Rand, though, touching nothing. Tears were a luxury he could no longer afford, not even inside.

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