Winter's Heart Page 126

Those alleys were even more crooked than the streets Rand had just left, making a warren of their own through the interior of every block of the city, and Rochaid was already out of sight, but Rand could hear his boots pounding on the damp stony dirt. The sound bounced and multiplied between the windowless stone walls until he could hardly tell where it was coming from, but he followed, running along passages barely wide enough for two men abreast. If they were friendly. Why had Rochaid come into this maze? Wherever he was going, he wanted to be there quickly. But he could not know how to use the alleys to get from one place to another.

Abruptly Rand realized the only boots he was hearing were his own and stopped dead. Silence. From where he stood, he could see three more narrow alleys splitting off from the one he stood in. Barely breathing, he strained his ears. Silence. Almost, he decided to turn back. And then he heard a distant clatter from the nearest alley mouth, as though someone had accidentally kicked a rock against a stone wall in passing. Best to kill the man and be done.

Rand turned the corner in to the alley, and found Rochaid waiting for him.

The Murandian had his cloak thrown back again, and both hands on his sword hilt. The Far Madding peace-bond wove hilt and scabbard inside a net of fine wire. He wore a small, knowing smile. “You were as easy to bait as a pigeon,” he said, beginning to draw his sword. The wires had been cut, then fixed so they still appeared solid to a casual glance. “Run, if you want.”

Rand did not run. Instead, he stepped forward, slamming his left hand down on the end of Rochaid’s sword hilt, trapping the blade still half in its scabbard. Surprise widened the man’s eyes, yet he still did not realize that pausing to gloat had already killed him. He moved back, trying to get room to complete his draw, but Rand followed smoothly, keeping the sword trapped, and pivoted from the hips, driving folded knuckles hard into Rochaid’s throat. Cartilage cracked loudly, and the renegade forgot about trying to kill anyone. Staggering backwards, wide-eyed and staring, he clapped both hands to his throat and desperately tried to pull air through his ruined windpipe.

Rand was already beginning the killing stroke, beneath the breastbone, when a whisper of sound came to him from behind, and suddenly Rochaid’s taunting took on new meaning. Back-heeling Rochaid, Rand let himself fall to the ground atop the man. Hard-swung metal clanged against a stone wall, and a man cursed. Grabbing Rochaid’s sword, Rand let the motion of falling turn into a roll, pulling the blade clear as he tumbled over his own shoulder. Rochaid gave a shrill, gurgling scream as Rand came up in a crouch facing back the way he had come.

Raefar Kisman stood gaping down at Rochaid, the blade he had meant to stab through Rand instead driven into Rochaid’s chest. Blood bubbled on the Murandian’s lips, and he dug his heels into the ground and bloodied his hands on the sharp steel as though he could push it out of him. Of only average height, and pale for a Tairen, Kisman wore clothes as plain as Rand’s except for the sword belt. Hiding that beneath his cloak, he could have gone anywhere in Far Madding without being noticed.

His dismay lasted only an instant. As Rand rose, sword ready in both hands, Kisman jerked his own blade free and did not look at his thrashing accomplice again. He watched Rand, and his hands shifted nervously on the long hilt of his sword. No doubt he was one of those so proud of being able to use the Power as a weapon that he had disdained really learning the sword. Rand had not disdained. Rochaid gave a last twitch and was still, staring up at the sky.

“Time to die,” Rand said quietly, but as he started forward, a rattle sounded somewhere behind the Tairen, an incessant chattering, and then another. The Street Guards.

“They’ll take us both,” Kisman breathed, sounding frantic. “If they find us standing over a corpse, they’ll hang us both! You know they will!”

He was right, at least in part. If the Guards found them there, they would both be hauled off to the cells beneath the Hall of the Counsels. More rattles chattered, coming closer. The Guards must have noticed three men ducking one by one into the same alley. Perhaps they had even seen Kisman’s sword. Reluctantly, Rand nodded.

The Tairen backed away cautiously, and when he saw Rand making no move to follow, he sheathed his blade and ran wildly, dark cloak flaring behind him.

Rand threw his borrowed sword down atop Rochaid’s body and ran the other way. There were no rattles in that direction yet. With luck, he could be out into the streets, blending into the crowds, before he was seen. He had other fears than the noose. Stripping off his gloves, showing the Dragons that marked his arms, would be enough to prevent his hanging, he was sure. But the Counsels had proclaimed their acceptance of that odd decree Elaida had issued. Once he was in a cell, he would remain there until the White Tower sent for him. So he ran as hard as he could.

Melting into the crowd in the street, Kisman heaved a sigh of relief as three Street Guards ran into the alley he had just emerged from. Holding his cloak close to hide his scabbarded sword, he moved with the flow of traffic, no faster than anyone else and slower than some. Nothing to draw a Guardsman’s eye. A pair of them passed with a trussed prisoner stuffed into a large sack slung from a quarterstaff carried on their shoulders. Only the man’s head stuck out, his eyes wild and darting. Kisman shuddered. Burn his eyes, that could have been him! Him!

He had been a fool to let Rochaid talk him into this in the first place. They were supposed to wait until everyone had arrived, slipping into the city one by one to avoid notice. Rochaid had wanted the glory of being the one to kill al’Thor; the Murandian had burned with the desire to prove himself a better man than al’Thor. Now he was dead of it, and very nearly Raefar Kisman with him, and that made Kisman furious. He wanted power more than glory, perhaps to rule Tear from the Stone. Perhaps more. He wanted to live forever. Those things had been promised; they were his due. Part of his anger was because he was unsure they actually were supposed to kill al’Thor. The Great Lord knew he wanted to — he would not sleep soundly until the man was dead and buried! — and yet . . .

“Kill him,” the M’Hael had ordered before sending them to Cairhien, but he had been as displeased that they were found out as that they had failed. Far Madding was to be their last chance; he had made that as plain as polished brass. Dashiva had simply vanished. Kisman did not know whether he had run or the M’Hael had killed him, and he did not care.

“Kill him,” Demandred had commanded later, but he had added that it would be better they died than let themselves be discovered again. By anyone, even the M’Hael, as if he did not k

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