The Shadow Rising Page 60

Muttering about seeing what their cabin was like, Nynaeve went downstairs — below — but Elayne was enjoying the breeze across the deck and the feel of starting out. To travel, to see places she had not seen before, was a joy in itself. She had never expected to, not like this. The Daughter Heir of Andor might make a few state visits, and she would make more once she succeeded to the throne, but they would be bounded about with ceremony and propriety. Not like this at all. Barefoot Sea Folk and a ship headed to sea.

The riverbank slid by quite quickly as the sun climbed, an occasional cluster of huddled stone farmhouses and barns, bleak and lonely, appearing and vanishing behind. No villages, though. Tear would not allow the smallest village on the river between the city and the sea, for even the tiniest might one day become competition for the capital. The High Lords controlled the size of villages and towns throughout the country with a buildings tax that grew heavier the more buildings there were. Elayne was sure they would never have allowed Godan to thrive, on the Bay of Remara, if not for the supposed necessity of a strong presence overlooking Mayene. In a way it was a relief to be leaving such foolish people behind. If only she did not have to leave one foolish man behind as well.

The number of fishing boats, most small and all surrounded by clouds of hopeful gulls and fisher birds, increased the farther south Wavedancer went, especially once the vessel entered the maze of waterways called the Fingers of the Dragon. Often the birds overhead and the long poles that held the nets were all that was visible besides plains of reeds and knifegrass rippling in the breezes, dotted with low islands where odd, twisted trees grew with spidery tangles of roots exposed to the air, Many boats worked right in the reeds, though not with nets. Once Elayne saw some of them close to clear water, men and women dropping hooked lines into the watery growth and pulling up wriggling, darkstriped fish as long as a man's arm.

The Tairen pilot began to pace anxiously once they were in the delta, with the sun overhead, turning up his nose at an offered bowl of thick spicy fish stew and bread. Elayne ate hers hungrily, wiping her pottery bowl with the last scrap of bread, though she shared his unease. Passages broad and narrow ran in every direction. Some ended abruptly, in plain sight, against a wall of reeds. There was no way to tell which of the others might not vanish just as suddenly around the next bend. Coine did not slow Wavedancer, regardless, or hesitate at choosing a way. Obviously she knew the channels to take, or the Windfinder did, but the pilot still muttered to himself as if he expected to run aground any moment.

It was late afternoon when the river mouth suddenly appeared ahead, and the endless stretch of the Sea of Storms beyond. The Sea Folk did something with the sails, and the ship shuddered softly to a dead halt. It was only then that Elayne noticed a large rowboat skittering like a many legged waterbug out from an island where a few forlorn stone buildings stood around the base of a tall narrow tower where men stood small at the top beneath the banner of Tear, three white crescents on a field of red and gold. The pilot took the purse Coine proffered without a word and scrambled down a rope ladder to the boat. As soon as he was aboard, the sails were swung about again, and Wavedancer breasted the first rollers of open sea, rising slightly, slicing through. Sea Folk scampered through the rigging, setting more sails, as the ship sped south and west, away from the land.

When the last thin strip of land dropped below the horizon, the Sea Folk women doffed their blouses. All of them, even the Sailmistress and the Windfinder. Elayne did not know where to look. All those women walking about half dressed and completely unconcerned by the men all around them. Juilin Sandar seemed to be having as hard a time as she was, alternating between staring at the women wide eyed and staring at his feet until he finally all but ran below. Elayne would not let herself be routed that way. She opted for staring over the side at the sea, instead.

Different customs, she reminded herself. As long they don't expect me to do the same. The very thought nearly made her laugh hysterically. Somehow, the Black Ajah was easier to contemplate than that. Different customs. Light!

The sky grew purple, with a dull golden sun on the horizon. Scores of dolphins escorted the vessel, rolling and arching alongside, and farther out some sort of sparkling silver blue fish rose above the surface in schools, gliding on outstretched fins a span across for fifty paces or more before plunging back into the swelling gray green water. Elayne watched in amazement for a dozen flights before they did not appear again.

But the dolphins, great sleek shapes, were wondrous enough, a guard of honor taking Wavedancer back where he belonged. Those she recognized from descriptions in books; it was said if they found you drowning, they would push you to shore. She was not sure she believed it, but it was a pretty story. She followed them along the side of the ship, to the bow, where they frolicked in the bow wave, rolling on their sides to look up at her without losing an inch.

She was almost in the narrowest point of the bow before she realized Thom Merrilin was there before her, smiling down at the dolphins a bit sadly, his cloak catching the wind like the cloud of sails above. He had rid himself of his belongings. He did seem familiar; truly he did. “Are you not happy, Master Merrilin?”

He glanced at her sideways. “Please, call me Thom, my Lady.”

“Thom, then. But not my Lady. I am only Mistress Trakand here.”

“As you say, Mistress Trakand,” he said with a hint of a smile.

“How can you look at these dolphins and be unhappy, Thom?”

“They are free,” he murmured, in such a tone that she was not sure he was answering her. “They have no decisions to make, no prices to pay. Not a worry in the world, except finding fish to eat. And sharks, I suppose. And lionfish. And likely a hundred more things I don't know. Perhaps it is not such an enviable life at that.”

“Do you envy them?” He did not answer, but that was the wrong question anyway. She needed to make him smile again. No, laugh. For some reason she was sure if she could make him laugh, she would remember where she had seen him before. She chose another topic, one that should be nearer his heart. “Do you mean to compose the epic of Rand, Thom?” Epics were for bards, not gleemen, but there could be no harm in a little flattery. “The epic of the Dragon Reborn. Loial means to write a book, you know.”

“Perhaps I will, Mistress Trakand. Perhaps. But neither my composing nor the Ogier's book will make much difference in the long run. Our stories will not survive, in the long run. When the next Age comes —” He grimaced, and tugged one of his mustaches. “Come to think of it, that may be no more than a year or two off. How is the end of an Age marked? It cannot always be a cataclysm on the order of the Breaking. But then, if the Prophecies are to be believed, this one will be. That is the trouble with prophecy. The original is always in the Old Tongue, and maybe High Chant as well: if you don't know what a thing means beforehand, there's no way to puzzle it out. Does it mean what it says, or is it a flowery way of saying something entirely different?”

“You were talking of your epic,” she said, trying to guide him back, but he shook his shaggy white head.

“I was talking of change. My epic, if I compose it — and Loial's book — will be no more than seed, if we are both lucky. Those who know the truth will die, and their grandchildren's grandchildren will remember something different. And their grandchildren's grandchildren something else again. Two dozen generations, and you may be the hero of it, not Rand.”

“Me?” she laughed.

“Or maybe Mat, or Lan. Or even myself.” He grinned at her, warming his weathered face. “Thom Merrilin. Not a gleeman — but what? Who can say? Not eating fire, but breathing it. Hurling it about like an Aes Sedai.” He flourished his cloak. “Thom Merrilin, the mysterious hero, toppling mountains and raising up kings.” The grin became a rich belly laugh. “Rand al'Thor may be lucky if the next Age remembers his name correctly.”

She was right; it was not just a feeling. That face, that mirthfilled laugh; she did remember them. But from where? She had to keep him talking. “Does it always happen that way? I do not think anyone doubts, say, that Artur Hawkwing conquered an empire. The whole world, or near enough.”

“Hawkwing, young Mistress? He made an empire, all right, but do you think he did everything the books and stories and epics say he did? The way they say he did it? Killed the hundred best men of an opposing army, one by one? The two armies just stood there while one of the generals — a king — fought a hundred duels?”

“The books say he did.”

“There isn't time between sunrise and sunset for one man to fight a hundred duels, girl.”

She almost stopped him short — girl? She was Daughter Heir of Andor, not girl — but he had the bit in his teeth. “And that is only a thousand years back. Go back further, back to the oldest tales I know, from the Age before the Age of Legends. Did Mosk and Merk really fight with spears of fire, and were they even giants? Was Elsbet really queen of the whole world, and was Anla really her sister? Was Anla truly the Wise Counselor, or was it someone else? As well ask what sort of animal ivory comes from, or what kind of plant grows silk. Unless that comes from an animal, too.”

“I do not know about those other questions,” Elayne said a bit stiffly; being called girl still rankled, “but you could ask the Sea Folk about ivory and silk.”

He laughed again — as she had hoped, though it still did no more than drive home the certainty that she knew him — but instead of calling her foolish, as she half expected and was prepared for, he said, “Practical and to the point, just like your mother. Both feet on the earth and few flights of fancy.”

She lifted her chin a little, made her face cooler. She might be passing herself off as simple Mistress Trakand, but this was something else. He was an amiable old man, and she did want to reason out the puzzle of him, but he was a gleeman after all, and he should not speak of a queen in such familiar tones. Oddly, infuriatingly, he appeared amused. Amused!

“The Atha'an Miere do not know, either,” he said. “They see no more of the lands beyond the Aiel Waste than a few miles around the handful of harbors where they are permitted to land. Those places are walled high, and the walls guarded so they cannot even climb up to see what is on the other side. If one of their ships makes landfall anywhere else — or any ship not theirs; only the Sea Folk are allowed to come there — that ship and its crew are never seen again. And that is almost as much as I can tell you after more years of asking than I like to think of. The Atha'an Miere keep their secrets, but I do not believe they know much to keep here. From what I have been able to learn, the Cairhienin were treated the same, when they still had the right to travel the Silk Path across the Waste. Cairhienin traders never saw anything but one walled town, and those who wandered from it vanished.”

Elayne found herself studying him much as she had the dolphins. What kind of man was this? Twice now he might have laughed at her — he had been amused just then, as much as she hated to admit it — but instead he talked to her as seriously as... Well, as father to daughter. “You might find a few answers on this ship, Thom. They were bound east until we convinced the Sailmistress to take us to Tanchico. To Shara, the Cargomaster said, east of Mayene; that must mea

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