The Great Hunt

The Great Hunt: Page 118

We remember the Pact, and we would not have bared steel, but we are in the land of the Treekillers, where every hand is against us, and we saw armed men." Her eyes were gray, Rand saw, like his own.
"You are in a stedding, Rhian," the Ogier said gently. "Everyone is safe in the stedding, little sister. There is no fighting here, and no hand raised against another." She nodded, ashamed, and the Ogier looked at Ingtar and the others.
Ingtar sheathed his sword, and Rand did the same, though not so quickly as Hurin, who looked almost as embarrassed as the Aiel. Perrin had never gotten his axe all the way out. As he took hand from hilt, Rand let the void go, too, and shivered. The void went, but it left behind a slowly fading echo of the emptiness all through him, and a desire for something to fill it.
The Ogier turned to Verin and bowed. "Aes Sedai, I am Juin, son of Lacel son of Laud. I have come to take you to the Elders. They would know why an Aes Sedai comes among us, with armed men and one of our own youths." Loial hunched his shoulders as if trying to disappear.
Verin gave the Aiel a regretful look, as if she wanted to talk with them, then motioned Juin to lead, and he took her away without another word or even the first look at Loial.
For a few moments, Rand and the others stood facing the three Aiel women uneasily. At least, Rand knew he was uneasy. Ingtar seemed steady as a stone, with no more expression than one. The Aiel might have unveiled their faces, but they still had spears in their hands, and they studied the four men as though trying to see inside them. Rand in particular received increasingly angry looks. He heard the youngest woman mutter, "He is wearing a sword," in tones of mingled horror and contempt. Then the three were leaving, stopping to retrieve the wooden bowl and looking over their shoulders at Rand and the others until they vanished among the trees.
"Maidens of the Spear," Ingtar muttered. "I never thought they'd stop once they veiled their faces. Certainly not for a few words." He looked at Rand and his two friends. "You should see a charge by Red Shields, or Stone Dogs. As easy to stop as an avalanche."
"They would not break the Pact once it was recalled to them," Erith said, smiling. "They came for sung wood." A note of pride entered her voice. "We have two Treesingers in Stedding Tsofu. They are rare, now. I have heard that Stedding Shangtai has a young Treesinger who is very talented, but we have two." Loial blushed, but she did not appear to notice. "If you will come with me, I will show you where you may wait until the Elders have spoken."
As they followed her, Perrin murmured, "Sung wood, my left foot. Those Aiel are searching for He Who Comes With the Dawn."
And Mat added dryly, "They're looking for you, Rand."
"For me! That is crazy. What makes you think - "
He cut off as Erith showed them down the steps of a wildflowercovered house apparently set aside for human guests. The rooms were twenty paces from stone wall to stone wall, with painted ceilings a good two spans above the floor, but the Ogier had done their best making something that would be comfortable for humans. Even so, the furniture was a little too large for comfort, the chairs tall enough to lift a man's heels off the floor, the table higher than Rand's waist. Hurin, at least, could have walked erect into the stone fireplace, which seemed to have been worn by water rather than made by hands. Erith eyed Loial doubtfully, but he waved away her concern and pulled one of the chairs into the corner least easily seen from the door.
As soon as the Ogier girl left, Rand got Mat and Perrin over to one side. "What do you mean they're looking for me? Why? For what reason? They looked right at me, and went away."
"They looked at you," Mat said with a grin, "like you hadn't bathed in a month, and had doused yourself with sheepdip besides." His grin faded. "But they could be looking for you. We met another Aiel."
Rand listened in growing amazement to their tale of the meeting in Kinslayer's Dagger. Mat told most of it, with Perrin putting in a correcting word now and again when he embellished too much. Mat made a great show of how dangerous the Aielman had been, and how close the me

"And since you're the only Aiel we know," he finished, "well, it could be you. Ingtar says Aiel never live outside the Waste, so you must be the only one."
"I don't think that's funny, Mat," Rand growled. "I am not an Aiel." The Amyrlin said you are. Ingtar thinks you are. Tam said ... He was sick, fevered. They had severed the roots he had thought he had, the Aes Sedai and Tam between them, though Tam had been too sick to know what he was saying. They had cut him loose to tumble before the wind, then offered him something new to hold on to. False Dragon. Aiel. He could not claim those for roots. He would not. "Maybe I don't belong to anyone. But the Two Rivers is the only home I know."
"I didn't mean anything," Mat protested. "It's just ... Burn me, Ingtar says you are. Masema says you are. Urien could have been your cousin, and if Rhian put on a dress and said she was your aunt, you'd believe it yourself. Oh, all right. Don't look at me like that, Perrin. If he wants to say he isn't, all right. What difference does it make, anyway?" Perrin shook his head.
Ogier girls brought water and towels for washing faces and hands, and cheese and fruit and wine, with pewter goblets a little too large to be comfortable in the hand. Other Ogier women came, too, their dresses all embroidered. One by one they appeared, a dozen of them all told, to ask if the humans were comfortable, if they needed anything. Each turned her attentions to Loial just before she left. He gave his answers respectfully but in as few words as Rand had ever heard him use, standing with an Ogiersized, woodbound book clutched to his chest like a shield, and when they went, he huddled in his chair with the book held up in front of his face. The books in the house were one thing not sized for humans.
"Just smell this air, Lord Rand," Hurin said, filling his lungs with a smile. His feet dangled from one of the chairs at the table; he swung them like a boy. "I never thought most places smelled bad, but this ... Lord Rand, I don't think there's ever been any killing here. Not even any hurting, except by accident."
"The stedding are supposed to be safe for everyone," Rand said. He was watching Loial. "That's what the stories say, anyway." He swallowed a last bit of white cheese and went over to the Ogier. Mat followed with a goblet in his hand. "What's the matter, Loial?" Rand said. "You've been as nervous as a cat in a dogyard ever since we came here."
"It is nothing," Loial said, giving the door an uneasy glance from. the corner of his eye.
"Are you afraid they'll find out you left Stedding Shangtai without permission from your Elders?"
Loial looked around wildly, the tufts on his ears vibrating. "Don't say that," he hissed. "Not where anyone can hear. If they found out ..." With a heavy sigh, he slumped back, looking from Rand to Mat. "I don't know how humans do it, but among Ogier ... If a girl sees a boy she likes, she goes to her mother. Or sometimes the mother sees someone she thinks is suitable. In any case, if they agree, the girl's mother goes to the boy's mother, and the next thing the boy knows, his marriage is all arranged."

"Doesn't the boy have any say in it?" Mat asked incredulously.
"None. The women always say we would spend our lives married to the trees if it was left to us." Loial shifted, grimacing. "Half of our marriages take place between stedding; groups of young Ogier visit from stedding to stedding so they can see, and be seen. If they discover I'm Outside without permission, the Elders will almost certainly decide I need a wife to settle me down. Before I know it, they'll have sent a message to Stedding Shangtai, to my mother, and she will come here and have me married before she washes off the dust of her journey. She's always said I am too hasty and need a wife. I think she was looking when I left. Whatever wife she chooses for me ... well, any wife at all won't let me go back Outside until I have gray in my beard. Wives always say no man should be allowed Outside until he's settled enough to control his temper."
Mat gave a guffaw loud enough to draw every head, but at Loial's frantic gesture he spoke softly. "Among us, men do the choosing, and no wife can stop a man doing what he wants."
Rand frowned, remembering how Egwene had begun following him around when they were both little. It was then that Mistress al'Vere had begun taking a special interest in him, more than in any of the other boys. Later, some girls would dance with him on feastdays and some would not, and those who would were always Egwene's friends, while those who would not were girls Egwene did not like. He also seemed to remember Mistress al'Vere taking Tam aside - And she was muttering about Tam not having a wife for her to talk to! - and after that, Tam and everyone else had acted as if he and Egwene were promised, even though they had not knelt before the Women's Circle to say the words.

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