In an argument, it's always better to have one woman on your side than ten men.
-Traditional Shienarian saying
Two months laterà
The Trollocs advanced carefully, keeping in a tight square. In the midst of the four monsters, their master lurked, a pasty faced Eyeless, moving in a sinuous stride that reminded one of a serpent, slithering through high grass.
The Blight did not hold trees, but rather craggy, pale imitations, terrible black things that intertwined like the webs of spiders, choking the ground and obscuring the sky. The branches did not rustle in the wind, for they were not truly alive. They were stiff and unmoving, fat from blood and bearing no fruit, save death.
As such, they were perfect to hide amongst. Rand crept among them, his movement making no sound.
It was night, and in the Great Blight, this was always the most dangerous time of all. Rand had learned to fear and respect the night very quickly. But now, there was no fear, only respect, because the night was no longer dangerous. He was the danger.
His broad-headed arrow took the Trolloc in the throat, where the rough chain mail and rugged hide did not protect. Rand flitted quickly to another branch, just as the Trolloc collapsed with a loud squeal, thrashing on the ground, holding itÆs ruined throat.
The Trollocs immediately let off a hail of arrows into the trees where his shot had come from, but he was no longer there. The Myrddraal drew the black blade at its hip, forged in the fires of Thakandar. It seemed almost composed compared to the wildly jerking Trollocs, but Rand could tell that the Shadowman was antsy. He could almost hear it wondering why it could not sense Rand in the shadows.
As well as sense a shadow of a shadow. Rand thought, smiling grimly.
The Fade barked an order, and the Trollocs formed up, their fear of it overriding their fear of him. Rand watched their small black eyes dart around wildly, and nostrils widen as they sucked in air, trying to get a scent. They wouldnÆt.
He drew his two long knives, nearly short swords, and dropped like a spider from the dark branches onto the shoulders of one of the Trollocs. RandÆs blades jammed into its head and ended its life before it had time to register the weight.
He left them lodged in the skull and leapt off, knowing the thick skull of the monster would cost him a few too many seconds to remove. Rand drew his sword, a long stout sword of fine Saldaean steel, before twisting under the fat curved blade of a second Trolloc, hamstringing it with a swift slice.
Rand then threw himself bodily back into the darkness, just as the MyrddraalÆs blade stabbed through the air his body had previously occupied. The Fade snarled wordlessly in rage as the wounded Trolloc fell to the ground, clutching itÆs wounded leg and whining loudly.
Rand watched as the Shadowman regarded the Trolloc with the closest thing itÆs maggot pale face could conjure to contempt. As he pulled himself back into the branches, he knew the EyelessÆs next move before even it did.
The Myrddraal decapitated the Trolloc without a hint of mercy. Rand smirked mirthlessly. All Fades were the same as if made from the same mold; this symmetry was also true of their thought processes. The Trolloc was a hindrance, and so it was removed. Smart, if futile.
Now all that remained was the Eyeless and the Trolloc, who was cowering in fear. The TrollocÆs next move was just as predictable. It fled, its fear of the nameless enemy overcoming that of the retribution of its Fade master.
It made it about ten paces into the shadows of the forest before RandÆs arrow took it in the back of the neck, severing its spinal column and sending it crashing soundlessly to the ground, dead.
The Myrddraal was gnashing its teeth now, its bulbous head twisting as it attempted to get a bead on its attacker.
Rand drew his sword with a whisper silent ring of steel. The Eyeless was the last, but it was by far the most dangerous. He readied himself and descended on the Fade from behind, like an angel of death.
The Myrddraal twisted at the last moment, black blade meeting his sword and deflecting. Rand did not hesitate, pressing forward, the ring of metal filling the Blight-trees. When fighting a Fade, any thought of defense was death.
The Shadowman batted a thrust aside, and Rand yanked one of his knives in order to prevent the Thakandar steel from chopping him in half.
The Fade sneered and kicked with a black boot. Rand twisted and trapped the foot under his arm, before bringing his blade down, lopping the leg off mid thigh and jumping backwards.
The Myrddraal toppled forward, screaming and stabbing wildly with its black blade. Rand stepped on itÆs back and raised his sword to decapitate it.
Suddenly, the head twisted around, and it wore the face that haunted his nightmares. Eyes that glowed with trapped infernos, and an insane grin that leaked smoke from one corner. All Rand could hear as he recoiled was a screaming roar that filled his ears, like the dirge of a thousand vengeful spirits.
The manÆs voice cut through this like a swift knife.
ôYou cannot hide forever, AlÆThor!ö
Rand gasped as he awoke, his sheets sweaty and his eyes wide as they blinked rapidly, taking in his surroundings. His hand fumbled on his bedside table, and closed around a cold hilt. His breathing slowed as he gripped the weapon for comfort.
Sleepily, a dark-haired girl woman rose beside him, rubbing at her eyes. She was young, attractive, and rather naked. She clutched the sheet around her chest in reflexive modesty, even though it was somewhat of a wasted effort after what had happened the night before.
ôRa-and, itÆs too early to be up.ö She whined, tugging at his thick forearm.
Rand glanced at her. Ezme Austren was the daughter of a noble that had come to the Palace with her father to get the personal blessing of the Queen upon a betrothal with another family.
Ezme hadnÆt been terribly happy about it, which wasnÆt surprising considering the groom was easily twice her age, and had been as rebellious as possible during the whole process. This included sleeping around with men even though her wedding was only a week away.
Rand had been chosen as her target after she saw him while he was picking up his monthly pay. A few not-so-subtle advances and mentions of her fatherÆs trip away from the estate for a week to organize the wedding, and here he was.
ôI suppose.ö He admitted, leaning back with hands laced behind his head. Ezme snuggled up closer, wrapping one slim pale arm around his hard midsection. He raised a challenging eyebrow. ôWant to go again?ö
She lifted off of his chest, shooting him an incredulous look. ôSurely you jest? I can scarcely feel my legs!ö
Rand smirked, reaching one hand to trail down her spine. ôAnd?ö He stopped at her tailbone, drawing a small circle with his finger.
Ezme bit her lip, obviously weighing the merits of each choice.
Rand had considered taking over one of the grander rooms in the Palace as his quarters, but decided against it. While he was rather sure Morgase would not deny him it, the larger the room, the easier it was to find as well. Instead, he had simply taken over one of the more spacious apartments of the PensionerÆs Wing, where all the retired soldiers and servants enjoyed the remainder of their lives in the Palace on a modest stipend.
Rand found that it suited him well. It was quiet, out of the way, and hardly anyone but the servants and the pensioners themselves ever visited the wing of the Palace. It also gave Morgase an excuse to visit, as she often took small trips into the PensionerÆs Wing to visit the elderly and retired, and it wouldnÆt look amiss for her to visit a tad more often.
RandÆs apartment was one of the nicer ones; a bedroom, living room and washroom, even a small library. It was one that an accomplished Captain in the QueenÆs Guard would not be disgruntled with receiving, at the end of his career.
True, it was a bit empty at the moment, but Rand wanted a strong pillow of money to fall back on before he started splurging on things he wanted rather than needed.
Ezme apparently made a decision, swinging a leg over his waist to straddle him, her dark eyes dancing with mischief and lust. ôWell, Rand AlÆThor, you had better not-ô
The door creaked open, admitting a maid with a letter in her hand. She shrieked in surprise, closely followed by Ezme, who dove beneath the covers to cover herself.
Rand eyed the letter with interest. It had the QueenÆs personal seal on it.
ôKnock, you fool!ö Ezme shrilled, her cheeks redder than beets. ôI should have you flogged!ö
ôP-please forgive me, MÆlady!ö The maid cowered back.
ôWhoÆs that letter for?ö Rand asked curiously, pointing at it. Ezme looked at him indignantly, as if outraged he was not as embarrassed as she was.
ôF-forgive me, but Master Rand was not in his quarters and I was going to ask Mistress if she knew where he was, and-and-please forgive my intrusion!ö The maid babbled, curtsying frantically, her face fearful.
ôSo itÆs for me then. Hm.ö Rand swung his legs out of the bed, and rose. He noticed the maidÆs face turn a blotchy red, and heard EzmeÆs scandalized gasp, and realized he was still nude. ôOh, sorry.ö Rand grabbed a pillow to cover himself, walked over, and snatched the letter from the maidÆs nerveless fingers. ôÆTo Rand AlÆThor, Royal Maven of AndorÆ. Sounds like me.ö Rand took a seat in one of the armchairs of EzmeÆs bedroom, and peeled open the envelope and calmly began reading.
Ezme had clothed herself in her nightgown, which she had plucked from the floor where it had been discarded. She rose from her bed, pointing one dire finger at the maid.
ôIf you ever, ever-!ö Ezme began thunderously, a slew of threats probably on the tip of her tongue.
Rand rose from his seat, and grabbed his smallclothes. ôI have to leave.ö He announced glibly, tugging them on.
Ezme halted mid-rant, staring at him, a hurt look on her face. ôWhat? Why!? Father wonÆt be back for two more days!ö
ôIÆve been summoned.ö Rand replied, tugging on his breeches. ôBy the Queen.ö He elaborated, as he reached for his shirt.
ôOh.ö There were things that could be ignored, and things that most certainly couldnÆt. A personal summons from the Queen of Andor fell into the latter. ôHow long will you be gone?ö She asked wistfully, probably hoping he could be back before the wedding.
Rand smiled, before promptly shooting down her hopes. ôKnowing the Queen, a bloody long time.ö He mused aloud, tapping both of his boots down on the floor to knock them in place. ôShe asked for me before the day is up, and itÆs a half dayÆs ride at least back to Caemlyn, so I have to go.ö He grabbed his jacket off the floor, where it was strewn in a heap. ôThe Light shine on you and your wedding!ö Rand shouted, as he left the room.
ôWhat were you doing at the Austren Estate?ö Morgase demanded, as soon as he walked into the room.
Rand paused midstep. ôAhàbestowing my blessings, my Queen.ö He replied quickly. ôWhat have you got for me?ö
The Queen stared at him suspiciously for a moment, before continuing. ôI have another task for you. Sit down.ö Rand obliged, sprawling himself in his favorite sofa lazily.
ôEnlighten me, my Queen.ö He drawled, spreading his hands.
The Queen only sent him an annoyed look before continuing. ôMy daughter, Elayne, is heading to the White Tower, to become a novice. I want you to go there and protect her, from any and all threats.ö
ôYou believe someone is after her?ö Rand asked, a bit of seriousness returning to his voice.
ôPerhaps. The Children of Light were never too happy about my forbidding them from Andor, and as of late, they have been straying increasingly close to Tar Valon.ö Morgase steepled her fingers together, fixing Rand with her piercing blue eyes. ôI want you to watch over her, until the Children have either moved away or Elayne reaches Accepted.ö
ôWhy do I have to babysit her? IÆm sure there are plenty of expert bodyguards and blademasters you could whistle up on a moments notice.ö Rand rested his fist on his cheek. ôAnd personally, my Queen, I would rather stay as far away from that many Aei Sedai as possible.ö
She arched an eyebrow. ôDo you have a problem with women of the Tower, AlÆThor?ö
Rand shot a glance at the Great Serpent ring on her finger. ôNothing personal, no.ö He replied smoothly, dodging the weighted question. ôI just am aware that Aei Sedai complicate any matter they stick their hands into, and would prefer my job be as simple as possible.ö
Morgase pursed her lips. Rand wondered if she considered his generalization of Aei Sedai to include her. ôWell, to answer your question, no. I can not, and will not send anyone else. The Tower does not allow personal servants or bodyguards for their students. I would send Gawyn and Galad, but they have their own duties, and I can no longer use Warder training as an excuse to keep them there, as the teachers there have deemed them fully learned.ö
ôSo, IÆm going to be there under the pretense of training to be a Warder, but instead, IÆll be guarding the Daughter-Heir.ö Rand concluded. ôSounds a bit political for my tastes, but in your name, my Queen, I will bear it.ö He made an elaborate seated bow.
ôYour devotion is inspiring.ö The QueenÆs voice was laced with dry sarcasm. ôAnd you will not be going as any Warder; you will be going as ElayneÆs. You will be there under the pretense that I have sent you there to be trained as ElayneÆs Warder, to serve her when she becomes Aei Sedai. This will allow you to watch her and be near her without garnering suspicion.ö
ôDevious, my Queen.ö There was a definite note of admiration in RandÆs voice.
Morgase merely inclined her head in acknowledgement. Then, her gaze along with RandÆs drifted to the side as there was the sound of a handle turning.
A severe looking woman with an ageless face entered the room, seemingly gliding across the floor. She wore a red dress with a shawl only a shade darker. She glanced at Rand with indifference. ôThis is him?ö She asked, very flatly. ôI expected somethingàmore.ö
ôElaida, this is-ô
ôRand AlÆThor.ö He cut in, smiling. ôAnd you must be Elaida Sedai, my QueenÆs personal Aei Sedai.ö His tone somehow managed to be insolent while maintaining perfect politeness.
Elaida narrowed her eyes. ôI am no oneÆs personal Aei Sedai. The White Tower serves the entire world. I am merely here as an emissary, performing the service of being my QueenÆs advisor.ö She gave a slight nod to Morgase.
The Queen nodded back. ôNow, AlÆThor, Elaida will be the only other person to know the real reason you are here. No one else is to know. Not the other Aei Sedai, not the Warders, and most certainly not Elayne herself.ö
ôFamily problems, my Queen?ö Rand queried.
Morgase stared at him thin lipped for a moment, before nodding. ôElayne does tend to be rather headstrong, so be warned.ö
Rand had to fight very hard not to add, ælike mother, like daughterÆ. He wasnÆt sure he succeeded in keeping his face straight, however, from the sharp look the Queen sent him.
Elaida spoke then. ôWe will depart towards Tar Valon at dawn. I expect you ready at the North Gate at that time. During the trip, I will be with Elayne, teaching her, and I expect not to be disturbed.ö That last part seemed especially forceful. Elaida made the smallest of curtsies towards Morgase, barely a twitch of the skirts. ôMy Queen.ö The woman murmured, before gliding from the room at a sedate pace.
As soon as the door clicked shut, the Queen turned towards him.
ôAlÆThor, there is one more reason I want you there with my daughter.ö Morgase smoothed her skirts, then fixed Rand with a glare so intense that had he been standing, he would have taken a step or two back.
ôMy Queen?ö He asked, perhaps the slightest bit hesitant.
ôThe Children of Light are nothing more than a mob of zealots, shoving their way into anything they please on the paltry excuse of vigilante justice. But they are zealots, and as such, I cannot be sure what they will not do.ö Her voice was tight with strain. ôMy daughter may be in very serious danger, and yet, I can do very little once she is inside Tar Valon. The Aei Sedai have oaths against attacking before attacked.ö The QueenÆs eyes were narrow and ice-cold. ôYou do not. I am hereby authorizing you to pull no punches, spare no efforts, use any method necessary to ensure my daughterÆs safety.ö
ôàI understand.ö Rand replied. She must have sensed some manner of insincerity in his tone, because Morgase rose from her seat, her blue eyes blazing with cold fire.
ôSee to that you do, because AlÆThor, for me, this is a leap of faith. I cannot entrust my daughter, the future of Andor, to some common mercenary, and you are only a step above that. Do your job well and you will be rewarded. But fail, and Rand AlÆThor, you will die.ö The sheer amount of venom in this sentence made Rand blink. ôIt will not matter if you run, not to the ends of the earth, because I will follow you there, and make you suffer as you die, even if I have to do it myself. Protect my daughter, AlÆThor. Protect her with all the power in your possession, because as it pains me, all of mine may not be enough. Do you understand? Do you?ö
Rand was stunned û momentarily û into silence. He knew before that he had bound himself to a very powerful woman, but he had been fooled by her rages, hot and cold and amusing as they were, into thinking that Morgase was not as much of a threat as her position suggested.
But this woman û this Queen û that stood before him, was the true Morgase. Soul of fire and heart of ice, she would see him dead and likely a thousand others if it meant keeping her daughter and nation safe. This was true nobility.
Not that heÆd ever tell her, of course.
ôDonÆt worry, my Queen.ö Rand spoke, truly meaning it for the very first time. He rose, standing tall, taller than the Queen. ôRest assured, no Whitecloak will get within a hundred feet of her.ö He finished, exiting the room. He paused at the door. ôNone alive, that is, and most likely not in one piece.ö He corrected airily.
ôGood luck, Maven.ö Rand paused at her soft reply, before roughly pushing the door open, and leaving.
Any method, she said. Rand smiled grimly, as he stalked down the halls towards the PensionerÆs Wing. Morgase might know, and she might not, but she had as good as signed the WhitecloakÆs execution orders.
The rising sun cast a pink shadow across the rugged clouds. Watching, Rand could almost believe the sky were aflame.
His horse, a broad chested stallion with a sleek black coat, snorted beneath him. Rand had rented and stolen horses, but never really bought one before. He had decided to name him Night, after his dusk-black coat.
Rand had bought Night the previous day. The stallion was built more for speed and endurance than for battle, but he wouldnÆt run away or bolt in a fight, or so the handler had told him.
He glanced over at the caravan, where the Daughter-Heir was just arriving, along with Elaida.
Elayne Trankand was certainly enchanting for her age, rosy cheeks and strawberry blond hair making her exotic, for Andor, at least, and her lithe yet well curved figure making her all the more eye-catching.
He saw her glance at him, and Rand subconsciously sat a little straighter. Elaida caught her looking, and ushered her into the carriage all the more quickly. He smirked at her, receiving only a frosty stare for his trouble.
The telltale sound of horse hooves behind him made Rand turn, bringing Night around a half-turn. He found, to his surprise, a large company of Guardsmen, three score if Rand had to estimate.
One of the QueenÆs Guard separated themselves from the group, and Rand was confronted by a familiar face.
ôLieutenant-Captain!ö Rand called, falsely jovial. ôHowÆs that hearing problem, then?ö
Tallanvor sent him a flat glare. ôThe Captain-General has ordered us to escort the Daughter Heir to the Shining Walls.ö His mouth twisted then, nearly into a grimace, before the man composed himself again. ôWe areàto be under your command for the duration of the trip.ö Tallanvor announced this in the same manner Rand imagined he would his own death sentence.
Rand blinked, momentarily surprised, before berating himself. He mentally thanked Bryne, and inspected the men. Sixty men would be enough to move fast, but still be protected enough from any bandits that may appear along the road. The Children of Light, however, travel in larger groupsàthe old man knows that.
Bryne would have sent more troops. This meant that Morgase had ordered the reduction. She was sending him a message. It wasnÆt hard to figure out. Any methodàMorgase, you cunning, ice-blooded woman, you. YouÆre giving me tools to work with, or to discard if necessary. Rand was willing to bet that these were all her most loyal soldiers, her most favored. All sent only to hold the Children off so Rand could flee with Elayne, if necessary.
And sending Tallanvor was the most subtle message of all. She was proving that she would not hesitate. Rand felt a glimmer of respect for the woman, if only for her ruthlessness when pushed.
ôAlright then, Lieutenant-Captain. Form up, two columns along the side of the carriage, and six in back and front.ö Rand quickly rattled off orders. ôFour perimeter scouts during the day, switch off every two hours. We stop when twilight falls. Any questions?ö
Tallanvor blinked. ôNoàsir.ö He replied dumbly, the honorific coming reflexively.
ôWell, hop to it, then! You donÆt earn the QueenÆs gold and silver lazing about, or at least I hope not!ö Rand snapped. Tallanvor jerked, and began calling orders to the men behind him. Rand kicked off towards the carriage.
Pulling up along side of it, he rapped on one of the small glass windows smartly with his knuckles. There was a pause, before the curtains were tugged aside, and ElaidaÆs annoyed face filled the glass.
Her annoyance quickly turned to cold disdain as she saw him grinning lazily on the other side. Elaida yanked the window open roughly, rattling the casing as she did so.
ôIs there something you need, Master AlÆThor?ö She managed to make the term of respect sound more like an insult through sheer tone, an impressive feat.
ôNot from you.ö Rand replied, before abruptly sticking his head into the carriage.
Elaida had to pull back rather quickly to avoid getting kissed or butted. She stared at him in wide eyed outrage, the way he imagined she would if someone poured ice water down the front of her dress.
RandÆs attention was on the surprised girl sitting across from her. He smiled as best he could, his neck craned awkwardly as it was.
ôMy Daughter-Heir, my name is Rand AlÆThor, and I will be in charge of your safety for this trip. If-ô
ôIÆve heard of you.ö Elayne replied slowly. She seemed to be looking him over, what she could see, that is. ôYouàare to be my Warder, correct?ö
ôYes.ö Rand replied quickly, embracing the lie without hesitation. ôAnd I would like to inform you that if there is anything, anything at all, I can do to make this trip more pleasurable for you, please do not hesitate to ask.ö He finished cheerfully.
The golden-haired girl blinked in surprise, perhaps not used to such directness. ôI-àthank you, Master AlÆThor. I most certainly will not. Hesitate, I mean.ö Her already rosy cheeks grew slightly redder at the small slip up.
ôMarvelous.ö Rand offered, giving his best winning smile. ôMy Daughter-Heir. Elaida Sedai.ö He nodded respectfully, pulling his head out of the carriage.
He quickly kicked Night into a brisk trot, heading to the front of the caravan. Got to get my laughs somewhere. And Aei Sedai are so fun to tease.
Rand reached into his saddlebag, and produced a wood block, and a carving knife. It was going to be a long trip.
Immediately after the Royal Maven removed his head, Elaida closed the window roughly. Thunderclouds would not do her face justice. It was more like a raging tempest.
ôThatàman.ö She bit out. ôSuch disrespect, as I have neveràugh!ö Elaida growled irritably, twitching the curtains shut.
ôWell, I liked him.ö Elayne replied primly.
ôLiked him?ö She said it as if Elayne had said she liked a male channeler. ôElayne, it is important you not grow too close to him.ö Elaida lectured her sternly.
ôWhy? He is to be my Warder, correct?ö Elayne argued, her cheeks reddening and her chin rising stubbornly. ôI would rather like to get to know him before I bond him to me.ö
ElaidaÆs eyes narrowed to slits, showing her opinion, before she turned her head sharply. ôWe will address this matter at another time. For now, we shall review embracing the Source. Imagine yourself a rosebud-ô
ô-spreading my petals to take in the sun, yes, yes, I know.ö Elayne grumbled, shutting her eyes and concentrating.
ôKeep your eyes open. You must able to embrace the Source without thought, and closing your eyes is a habit that you cannot afford.ö Elaida snapped.
Elayne opened her eyes, resisting the childish urge to stick her tongue out at the frosty Aei Sedai.
She found her concentration continuously skewed, as Elayne found her mind drifting back to the Royal Maven. Rand. She corrected herself. Rand AlÆThor. He seems rather friendly, and how young is he? He looks my age!
Elayne bit her lip. What exactly IS the Royal Maven, anyway? IÆve never heard the title before, and I know I memorized all of them!
ôStop that.ö Came ElaidaÆs quick bark. ôNo lip biting, or nail chewing, or any such foolishness. The Source must be embraced in perfect calm, in absolute serenity.ö
Elayne shot her a weak glare, before settling back down, her blank face hiding her thoughts.
My Warder. My Warder, Rand AlÆThor. I suppose I should get used to the idea. Elayne wasnÆt nearly as annoyed as she thought she would be. Well, he is friendly. He doesnÆt seem disgruntled about it, either. And he is rather nice to look at. ElayneÆs cheeks colored marginally.
ôGood. Merely a flicker, but...ö ElaidaÆs praise was grudging. ôIt will suffice for now. We will move on to lessons about the Tower. We will start on the Ajahs, the Red firstàö
Elayne blinked in surprise.
The dark fell quickly, at least as it seemed to Rand. Watching the flat land, weary farmers and occasional hill drift by had been dreadfully boring.
Practically the most interesting thing that happened the entire day was when a peddler prodded his caravan a bit too wide of their little entourage, and somehow managed to steer all the oxen into ruts, managing to lame every single one of them.
Tallanvor had demanded they stop and help. It was quite amusing watching the colors his face turned when Rand refused.
ôHeÆll never make it to Caemlyn with nothing to pull a caravan! HeÆs a citizen of Andor and likely to bring good trade; itÆs our duty to aid him!ö The man had protested vehemently.
ôHow, exactly?ö Rand replied. ôBy wishing him up a whole new team of oxen? If you have the power to do that, Lieutenant-Captain, then by all means, do it. But do tell me if you can, so we can market it afterwards.ö Rand snorted. ôNo, Tallanvor, the kind of luck that manages to take out an entire team of oxen in one go is the kind that we really canÆt afford to take part in.ö
Eventually, Rand had just gotten bored of TallanvorÆs ranting as he began repeating himself, and had simply pulled rank on him.
The soldiers Morgase had sent were nothing if not experienced. The tents were set up in neat, efficient rows in a protective box around the carriage, and he was delighted to find his own at least twice as big, and set up as fast as if channeled. Rand had forgotten about the perks that being an officer brought him, and was honestly surprised to see them again.
This brought Rand to where he was now, idly whittling away at the wood on a log he had pulled up to his own cookfire, smaller and set away from the large ones that the Guard were sharing. Admittedly, his stomach was filled with the same stringy jerky and hard biscuits as them, and he would sleep on the same thin cot as they would, but this brought him a sense of nostalgia rather than disgruntlement.
Rand heard the soft footfalls before he saw the blue slippers enter his peripheral vision. He paused in his cut and looked up.
The Daughter-Heir was standing there, looking rather hesitant for one who was supposed to be training to become the epitome of serenity and grace. The jay-blue dress, conservatively cut with gold hemming, looked quite fetching on her, in RandÆs opinion.
Wordlessly, Rand sat up from his log and stepped aside, sweeping a hand. ôHow may I serve you, Daughter-Heir?ö He inquired, raising one eyebrow.
She took the proffered seat silently, idly fiddling with her skirts. ElayneÆs eyes alighted upon the unfinished carving. ôWho is that for?ö She asked.
ôFor?ö Rand shrugged. ôItÆs not really for anyone. I donÆt really have anyone to give it to.ö
ôReally? Surely there must be friends, family.ö The girl persisted.
ôNone of my friends are still alive, or otherwise reachable. As for familyàwell, my fatherÆs still alive.ö Rand offered, seeing no harm in her inquiries. ôHavenÆt seen him in quite a few years, though.ö
Elayne cocked her head quizzically. ôWhy not?ö
ôDistance, and opportunity, mostly. HeÆs all the way back in the Two Rivers. Also, I donÆt really know what IÆd even say to him if I saw him, let alone what IÆd give him.ö
ôOh.ö Elayne seemed a bit crestfallen. ôThatÆs a shame.ö
ôWhy do you ask?ö Rand fired back airily, carving another peel of wood pulp off the half completed carving. He wasnÆt sure what it would be, yet. A bird, of some sort, maybe.
The Daughter-Heir laced her fingers together and stared at Rand. ôWell, I thought IÆd get to know you a bit. The Warder bond is a lifelong obligation, so it would make sense that we know each other before we do it.ö
Rand looked into her eyes, and saw wariness. ôYou think that Morgase is forcing me into this.ö He observed. ôYou think I might not want to do this.ö
ôWhat do you think, Master AlÆThor?ö Elayne persisted stubbornly, her face gaining a mulish look which suggested she wouldnÆt leave without a proper answer.
Rand heard the sound of a fast galloping horse, and rose languidly to his feet. ôI think someoneÆs trying to kill you.ö He replied, as if he were mentioning the weather.
ElayneÆs sapphire-blue eyes widened. ôWhat?ö
The horse dashed into camp, and Rand whirled, knife appearing like magic in his hand. His hand snapped forward, and the horse whinnied in fear as itÆs rider, a man in mismatched armor with rough-shaven cheeks falling to the dust with a knife planted in his eye.
Rand didnÆt hesitate a moment. ôBandits in the camp!ö He roared at the top of his lungs. ôUp arms and protect the Daughter-Heir!ö
Yells and shouts arose from all around the small camp. The air soon was thick with the ring of steel on steel and screams of steel poorly defended against.
Elayne seemed frozen on her seat, her eyes bulging with fear. Rand yanked her to her feet and pushed her towards the direction of the carriage.
ôWeÆve got to get to Elaida.ö He growled. ôSheÆll protect you better than me. Well? Go! GO!ö
Rand swatted the Daughter-Heir hard on the rear, prompting an undignified squeal from her throat, before she hitched her skirts to her knees and started to run. Rand kept a pace in front of her, cursing the fact that heÆd left his sword in his tent.
Two bandits seemingly melted out of the darkness, weapons raised as they let loose enthusiastic roars of triumph upon the sight of Elayne.
Rand ducked under a swing from a large battleaxe, cursing as he produced two knives, using one to bat aside the otherÆs downward sword slice.
He kicked the axeman hard in the chest, making him topple backwards with a strangled yell, before he ducked under the swordsmanÆs horizontal chop, and stepped up close, knife punching through old leather and cheap chainmail several times in vicious full force stabs, since Rand didnÆt have the luxury of precision at the time.
Seeing the axeman begin to rise, he yanked the sword from the dying banditÆs hand and threw himself in front of the Daughter-Heir, who screamed in alarm as he caught the falling axe blow on the blade of the stolen sword and pushed it aside.
Rand grabbed the manÆs shoulder before he could resist, yanked the banditÆs neck to his stolen sword and pulled.
Rand grimaced faintly as his face was coated red from the resulting spray.
Wiping his face with a sleeve, since he could not afford impaired vision at a time like this, he turned back to Elayne, who was frantically wiping the blood of the dead men off of her skin. Oops. Rand thought. Well, like mother like daughter, indeed.
Suddenly, a thunderous crash sounded, and Rand felt his ears ringing as a god-like voice boomed throughout the camp, coming from every direction at once.
ôYOU DARE TO ATTACK AN AEI SEDAI, THEY WHO WIELD THE POWER OF THE CREATOR HIMSELF!? YOU DARE!?ö ElaidaÆs voice was a thousand times magnified as it roared. Rand winced at the volume. ôYOU WERE DOOMED FROM THE VERY BEGINNING! UNDERSTAND THIS AS YOU DIE, EVER PATHETIC, EVER FOOLS!ö
Shortly thereafter, the sound of dying men increased roughly two-fold.
ôWell, she woke up energetic.ö Rand said, after a brief moment. Now that ElaidaÆs joined the fray, weÆve got nothing to worry about. He decided. ôDoesnÆt seem like much of a morning person, though.ö
Elayne could do naught but gape at him.
Tallanvor shifted in place.
ôYouÆre saying that against half again our number in banditsàwe only lost fifteen men.ö Rand repeated.
ôYes sir. The men were highly unskilled, and you gave us good warning. Many of them broke rank and fled after Elaida Sedai began setting into them.ö Tallanvor explained. ôAll the rest of us, apart from minor wounds and fatigue, are fit to continue, Commander.ö
Rand sat back, rubbing the back of his neck. ôBollocks, thatÆs impressive.ö He muttered. ôThey bloody well must have been the most incompetent bandits in Andor.ö
ôShall I have the bodies burned, sir?ö Tallanvor inquired.
ôYou do that, right after you loot the bodies. Find a chest and put all the coin in there. Tell me if you find anything odd.ö Rand ordered.
The Lieutenant-Captain nodded, perhaps the slightest measure of distaste on his face at the order. He obviously was a very honor-driven man, something Rand could respect, if not admire. The prospect of stealing from the dead did not sit well with him, but he would follow the command, since honor tied in very closely with the chain of command.
Rand turned back to the task of attempting to repair his shirt, fingering a wide gash in the side where a spear had grazed his side, from when he had returned to the fray after leaving Elayne at the carriage. He had fared much better then with his stolen sword and lack of non-combatants to protect.
Deciding the shirt ruined after a brief appraisal, he tossed it aside, and grabbed his sword, his real sword this time, and buckled it to his hip.
As he maneuvered his way through the camp towards the carriage, he noted the nods and respectful glances the men of the Guard sent his way. Rand had encountered this before, and could understand the reasoning behind it. Yesterday, he was their superior. Today, after fighting and bleeding at their side, he was their commander.
He found Elaida sitting at the front of the carriage, wearing a heavy woolen cloak and a slightly haggard look on her face. She held a cup of something hot, tea most likely. Using the One Power that much last night had obviously exhausted her, as the most she could manage was a weak look of irritation in his direction as he approached her.
ôYouÆre an idiot.ö He growled.
ôWhat do you-ô Elaida began, before what he said sank in and her face reddened faster than a boiled lobster. ôExcuse me!?ö She hissed, half fury, half incredulity.
ôWhat in the name of the Light motivated you to let her out of your sight!?ö Rand bellowed. ôYouÆre a bloody Aei Sedai, and you canÆt keep an eye on one girl?ö
ôHow dare you, Elaida Sedai!ö RandÆs voice rose above hers with little effort. ôI donÆt care what your relationship is with her, be it mentor or friend, but either way, it is your given duty to keep her safe! To shirk that is negligence and incompetence of the greatest degree!ö He glared icy daggers at her. ôWhat would it have taken? One weave? Two? How much to simply warn you if she left your presence? How dare you, Elaida Sedai! How dare you!ö
She rose, and suddenly it seemed as if she grew twenty feet in that simple action. ôYou overstep your bounds, Rand AlÆThor!ö She roared.
Rand stared up at the towering apparition, teeth grit, refusing to back down, despite the unnatural fear that gripped his throat, sending goosebumps rippling down his skin. ôYou overestimate yours!ö He snarled back. ôI expect her to stay with you at all times from now on!ö
For a heart-stopping moment, she loomed, her eyes seemingly shining with power unspoken of. Then, like a blink, she was normal sized, her eyes flinty and hard with cold fury.
ôI will take your request into consideration." She said, words dropping like icicles from her lips. ôRemove yourself from my presence.ö
ôIt wasnÆt a request.ö He retorted, turning on his heel and leaving.
He found Tallanvor at the edge of the tents, watching Rand warily.
ôThat wasnÆt smart.ö The Lieutenant-Captain remarked bluntly. Rand shrugged.
ôShe wasnÆt either. Arrogance like that will get her killed one day.ö He glanced at Tallanvor. ôYouÆre here to tell me that they were all carrying mostly Amador coin in their pockets.ö It wasnÆt a question.
Tallanvor started. ôYes, how-?ô
ôBandits like that donÆt just attack caravans. Especially not one carrying the Royal Banner of Andor.ö Rand replied. ôIÆm guessing the Whitecloaks probably paid them. Since the Children have their headquarters and funding from Amador, I deduced that most of their coin would be Amadorian in nature. Elementary, really.ö He finished, smiling lazily.
The rest of the trip went downhill from there on.
They encountered all manner of bad luck; trees across the road, pits and potholes, horses laming or being hamstrung with no explanation. They replaced the horses at the towns they stopped by, using the gold they stole from the bandits, but for the rest, nothing could be done.
There were other strange occurrences as well. Figures spotted at the edges of patrols, fresh horseprints, hasty camps packed up, firepits left behind. Rand was the only one unperturbed by this, adamantly refusing to leave the main road. This had nothing to do with his natural born mulishness, but rather, his own personal hypothesis.
A hypothesis that was proved correct about a day from Tar Valon, when one of the scouts came galloping in madly from the side as they made their way down the road.
ôWhitecloaks, I assume?ö Rand queried, before the man could get any words out. ôA whole bloody lot of them, right?ö
The soldier gaped a few seconds, before composing himself. ôYes, Commander. All around us. TheyÆve got at least four times our number, and who knows how many more waiting in the wings.ö Nearby, Tallanvor started choking on the hard biscuit he had been munching. ôOrders, sir?ö
ôNo orders.ö Rand said, lazing in his saddle to snatch a strip of jerky out of his bag. He bit off a piece and started chewing. ôCall back the other scouts, but otherwise, as you were.ö
The Guardsman was indecisive. ôCommander?ö
ôDo it.ö That held a hint of steel in it. Reluctantly, the man nodded and rode off to retrieve the other watchmen. Tallanvor prodded his horse over urgently, panic written on his features.
ôWhat are we going to do? We canÆt hold off those kind of numbers!ö He hissed. ôWe have to try to get a message through to Tar Valon, or, or-ô
ôWonÆt work. Messenger would be killed before he got a hundred paces.ö Rand grunted, through his mouthful of dried meat. He swallowed it, grimacing at the bland taste. ôNo, weÆre just going to keep going.ö
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