The Great Hunt


The Great Hunt: Page 7



The eight women in there seemed like fish in a basket.
The women barely glanced at him, and went right on clearing his clothes-and Mat's and Perrin's-out of the wardrobe and replacing them with new. Anything found in the pockets was put atop the chests, and the old clothes were bundled up carelessly, like rags.
"What are you doing?" he demanded when he caught his breath. "Those are my clothes!" One of the women sniffed and poked a finger through a tear in the sleeve of his only coat, then added it to the pile on the floor.
lackhaired woman with a big ring of keys at her waist, set her eyes on him. That was Elansu, shatayan of the keep. He thought of the sharpfaced woman as a housekeeper, though the house she kept was a fortress and scores of servants did her bidding. "Moiraine Sedai said all of your clothes are worn out, and the Lady Amalisa had new made to give you. Just keep out of our way," she added firmly, "and we will be done the quicker." There were few men the shatayan could not bully into doing as she wished - some said even Lord Agelmar - and she plainly did not expect any trouble with one man y

He swallowed what he had been going to say; there was no time for arguing. The Amyrlin Seat could be sending for him at any minute. "Honor to the Lady Amalisa for her gift," he managed, after the Shienaran way, "and honor to you, Elansu Shatayan. Please, convey my words to the Lady Amalisa, and tell her I said, heart and soul to serve." That ought to satisfy the Shienaran love of ceremony for both women. "But now if you'll pardon me, I want to change."
"That is well," Elansu said comfortably. "Moiraine Sedai said to remove all the old. Every stitch. Smallclothes, too." Several of the women eyed him sideways. None of them made a move toward the door.
He bit his cheek to keep from laughing hysterically. Many ways were different in Shienar from what he was used to, and there were some to which he would never become accustomed if he lived forever. He had taken to bathing in the small hours of the morning, when the big, tiled pools were empty of people, after he discovered that at any other time a woman might well climb into the water with him. It could be a scullion or the Lady Amalisa, Lord Agelmar's sister herself - the baths were one place in Shienar where there was no rank - expecting him to scrub her back in return for the same favor, asking him why his face was so red, had he taken too much sun? They had soon learned to recognize his blushes for what they were, and not a woman in the keep but seemed fascinated by them.
I might be dead or worse in another hour, and they're waiting to see me blush! He cleared his throat. "If you'll wait outside, I will pass the rest out to you. On my honor."
One of the women gave a soft chortle, and even Elansu's lips twitched, but the shatayan nodded and directed the other women to gather up the bundles they had made. She was the last to leave, and she paused in the doorway to add, "The boots, too. Moiraine Sedai said everything."
He opened his mouth, then closed it again. His boots, at least, were certainly still good, made by Alwyn al'Van, the cobbler back in Emond's Field, and well broken in and comfortable. But if giving up his boots would make the shatayan leave him alone so he could go, he would give her the boots, and anything else she wanted. He had no time. "Yes. Yes, of course. On my honor." He pushed on the door, forcing her out.
Alone, he dropped onto his bed to tug off his boots-they were still good, a little worn, the leather cracked here and there, but still wearable and well brokenin to fit his feet-then hastily stripped off, piling everything atop the boots, and washed at the basin just as quickly. The water was cold; the water was always cold in the men's apartments.
The wardrobe had three wide doors carved in the simple Shienaran manner, suggesting more than showing a series of waterfalls and rocky pools. Pulling open the center door, he stared for a moment at what had replaced the few garments he had brought with him. A dozen highcollared coats of the finest wool and as well cut as any he had ever seen on a merchant's back or a lord's, most embroidered like feastday clothes. A dozen! Three shirts for every coat, both linen and silk, with wide sleeves and tight cuffs. Two cloaks. Two, when he had made do with one at a time all his life. One cloak was plain, stout wool and dark green, the other deep blue with a stiff standing collar embroidered in gold with herons... and high on the left breast, where a lord would wear his sign...
His hand drifted to the cloak of its own accord. As if uncertain what they would feel, his fingers brushed the stitching of a serpent curled almost into a circle, but a serpent with four legs and a lion's golden mane, scaled in crimson and gold, its feet each tipped with five golden claws. His hand jerked back as if burned. Light help me! Was it Amalisa had this made, or Moiraine? How many saw it? How many know what it is, what it means? Even one is too many. Burn me, she's trying to get me killed. Bloody Moiraine won't even talk to me, but now she's given me bloody fine new clothes to die in!
A rap at the door sent him leaping half out of his skin.
"Are you done?" came Elansu's voice. "Every stitch, now. Perhaps I had better... " A creak as if she were trying the knob.
With a start Rand realized he was still naked. "I'm done," he shouted. "Peace! Don't come in!" Hurriedly he gathered up what he had been wearing, boots and all. "I'll bring them!" Hiding behind the door, he opened it just wide enough to shove the bundle into the arms of the shatayan. "That's everything."
She tried to peer through the gap. "Are you sure? Moiraine Sedai said everything. Perhaps I had better just look - "
"It's everything," he growled. "On my honor!" He shouldered the door shut in her face, and heard laughter from the other side.
Muttering under his breath, he dressed hurriedly. He would not put it past any of them to find some excuse to come bulling in anyway.
The gray breeches were snugger than he was used to, but still comfortable, and the shirt, with its billowy sleeves, was white enough to satisfy any goodwife in Emond's Field on laundry day. The kneehigh boots fit as if he had worn them a year. He hoped it was just a good cobbler, and not more Aes Sedai work.
All of these clothes would make a pack as big as he was. Yet, he had grown used to the comfort of clean shirts again, of not wearing the same breeches day after day until sweat and dirt made them as stiff as his boots, then wearing them still. He took his saddlebags from his chest and stuffed what he could into them, then reluctantly spread the fancy cloak out on the bed and piled a few more shirts and breeches on that. Folded with the dangerous sigil inside and tied with a cord looped so it could be slung on a shoulder, it looked not much different from the packs he had seen carried by other young men on the road.
A peal of trumpets rolled through the arrowslits, trumpets calling the fanfare from outside the walls, trumpets answering from the keep towers.
"I'll pick out the stitching when I get a chance," he muttered. He had seen women picking out embroidery when they had made a mistake or changed their mind on the pattern, and it did not look very hard.
The rest of the clothes - most of them, in fact - he stuffed back into the wardrobe. No need to leave evidence of flight to be found by the first person to poke a head in after he went.
Still frowning, he knelt beside his bed. The tiled platforms on which the beds rested were stoves, where a small fire damped down to burn all night could keep the bed warm through the worst night in a Shienaran winter. The nights were still cooler than he was used to this time of year, but blankets were enough for warmth now. Pulling open the firebox door, he took out a bundle he could not leave behind. He was glad Elansu had not thought anyone wo

Setting the bundle atop the blankets, he untied one end and partially unfolded it. A gleeman's cloak, turned inside out to hide the hundreds of patches that covered it, patches in every size and color imaginable. The cloak itself was sound enough; the patches were a gleeman's badge. Had been a gleeman's badge.
Inside nestled two hard leather cases. The larger held a harp, which he never touched. The harp was never meant for a farmer's clumsy fingers, boy. The other, long and slim, contained the goldandsilver chased flute he had used to earn his supper and bed more than once since leaving home. Thom Merrilin had taught him to play that flute, before the gleeman died. Rand could never touch it without remembering Thom, with his sharp blue eyes and his long white mustaches, shoving the bundled cloak into his hands and shouting for him to run. And then Thom had run himself, knives appearing magically in his hands as if he were performing, to face the Myrddraal that was coming to kill them.
With a shiver, he redid the bundle.

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