A Memory of Light Page 7

"We aren’t going to fight unless paid", the leader said. He was a stout man, surprisingly clean, though he could have done with a beard trim.

Talmanes lit his pipe, puffing smoke out. Behind him, the horns started blowing. The Queen’s March turned out to be a catchy tune. The horns were accompanied by shouts, and Talmanes looked back. Trollocs on the main thoroughfare, a larger batch this time.

Crossbowmen fell into ranks and began loosing at an order Talmanes couldn’t hear.

"We’re not—" the head man began again.

"Do you know what this is?" Talmanes asked softly around his pipe. "This is the beginning of the end. This is the fall of nations and the unification of humankind. This is the Last Battle, you bloody fool".

The men shuffled uncomfortably.

"Do you . . . do you speak for the Queen?" the leader said, trying to salvage something. "I just want to see my men taken care of".

"If you fight", Talmanes said, "I’ll promise you a great reward".

The man waited.

"I promise you that you’ll continue to draw breath", Talmanes said, taking another puff.

"Is that a threat, Cairhienin?"

Talmanes blew out smoke, then leaned down from his saddle, putting his face closer to the leader. "I killed a Myrddraal tonight, Andoran", he said softly. "It nicked me with a Thakan’dar blade, and the wound has gone black. That means I have a few hours at best before the blade’s poison burns me from the inside out and I die in the most agonizing way a man can.

"Therefore, friend, I suggest that you trust me when I tell you that I really have nothing to lose".

The man blinked.

"You have two choices", Talmanes said, turning his horse and speaking loudly to the troop. "You can fight like the rest of us and help this world see new days, and maybe you’ll earn some coin in the end. I can’t promise that. Your other option is to sit here, watch people be slaughtered and tell yourselves that you don’t work for free. If you’re lucky, and the rest of us salvage this world without you, you’ll draw breath long enough to be strung up by your cowardly necks".

Silence. Horns blew from the darkness behind.

The chief sell-sword looked toward his companions. They nodded in agreement.

"Go help hold that gate", Talmanes said. "I’ll recruit the other mercenary bands to help".

Leilwin surveyed the multitude of camps dotting the place known as the Field of Merrilor. In the darkness, with the moon not due to rise for some time, she could almost imagine that the cook fires were shipborne lanterns in a busy port at night.

That was probably a sight she would never see again. Leilwin Shipless was not a captain; she would never be one again. To wish otherwise was to defy the very nature of who she had become.

Bayle put a hand on her shoulder. Thick fingers, rough from many days of work. She reached up and rested her hand on his. It had been simple to slip through one of those gateways being made at Tar Valon. Bayle knew his way around the city, though he had grumbled about being there. "This place do set the hairs on my arms to points", he’d said, and, "I did wish to never walk these streets again. I did wish it".

He’d come with her anyway. A good man, Bayle Domon. As good as she’d found in these unfamiliar lands, despite moments of unsavory trading in his past. That was behind him. If he didn’t understand the right way of things, he did try.

"This do be a sight", he said, scanning the quiet sea of lights. "What want you to do now?"

"We find Nynaeve al’Meara or Elayne Trakand".

Bayle scratched at his bearded chin; he wore it after the Illianer style, with the upper lip shaved. The hair on his head was of varying lengths; he’d stopped shaving a portion of his head, now that she had freed him. She’d done that so they could marry, of course.

It was well; the shaven head would have drawn attention here. He’d done quite well as so’jhin once certain . . . issues had been resolved. In the end, however, she had to admit that Bayle Domon was not meant to be so’jhin. He was too rough-cut, and no tide would ever soften those sharp edges. That was how she wanted him, though she’d never say so out loud.

"It do be late, Leilwin", he said. "Perhaps we should wait until morning".

No. There was a quiet to the camps, true, but it was not the quiet of slumber. It was the quiet of ships waiting for the right winds.

She knew little of what was happening here—she hadn’t dared open her mouth in Tar Valon to ask questions, lest her accent reveal her as Seanchan. A gathering of this size did not occur without dedicated planning. She was surprised at the immensity of it; she’d heard of the meeting here, one that most of the Aes Sedai had come to attend. This exceeded anything she’d anticipated.

She started across the field, and Bayle followed, both of them joining the group of Tar Valon servants they had been allowed to accompany, thanks to Bayle’s bribe. His methods did not please her, but she had been able to think of no other way. She tried not to think too much about his original contacts in Tar Valon. Well, if she was never to be on a ship again, then Bayle would find no more opportunities for smuggling. That was a small comfort.

You’re a ship’s captain. That’s all you know, all you want. And now, Ship less. She shivered, and clenched her hands into fists to keep from wrapping her arms around herself. To spend the rest of her days on these unchanging lands, never able to move at a pace brisker than what a horse could provide, never to smell the deep-sea air, never to point her prow toward a horizon, hoist anchor, set sail and simply . . . .

She shook herself. Find Nynaeve and Elayne. She might be Shipless, but she would not let herself slip into the depths and drown. She set her course and started walking. Bayle hunched down slightly, suspicious, and tried to watch all around them at once. He also glanced at her a few times, lips drawn to a line. She knew what that meant, by now.

"What is it?" she asked.

"Leilwin, what do we be doing here?"

"I’ve told you. We need to find—"

"Yes, but why? What do you think you will do? They do be Aes Sedai".

"They showed me respect before".

"And so you do think they’ll take us in?"

"Perhaps". She eyed him. "Speak it, Bayle. You have some

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