Winter's Heart Page 31

As it turned out, Faile need not have worried about Arrela. The Tairen stiffened when one of the Maidens hefted her onto a shoulder — pretending to stagger, the burdened woman used her free hand to flicker a message that made the other Maiden bark a laugh behind her veil — but after a glance at Bain and Chiad, already meekly belly down on Aielmen’s shoulders, Arrela sullenly let herself hang limp. Lacile squealed when the big man holding her abruptly spun her about to land in the same position, but she quieted after that, though her face was still bright scarlet. There were definite advantages to their emulation of Aiel.

Alliandre and Maighdin, however, the last women Faile would have expected to cause problems, were another matter entirely. When they realized what was happening, the pair of them fought wildly. It was not much of a fight, two naked and exhausted women with their elbows bound tight behind their backs, but they twisted and shouted and kicked at anyone who came within reach, and Maighdin even sank her teeth into the hand of a careless Aielman, hanging on like a boarhound.

“Stop it, you fools!” Faile called to them. “Alliandre! Maighdin! Let them carry you! Obey me!” Neither her maid nor her vassal paid the slightest heed. Maighdin growled like a lion around her mouthful of Aiel. Alliandre was wrestled down, still shouting and flailing with her feet. Faile opened her mouth for another command.

“The gai’shain will be quiet,” Rolan grunted, spanking her hard.

She ground her teeth and muttered under her breath. Which earned another slap! The man had her knives tucked behind his belt. If she could lay hands on just one . . .! No. What must be endured, could be endured. She intended to escape, not make useless gestures.

Maighdin’s fight lasted a little longer than Alliandre’s, until a pair of burly men could pry her jaws from the Shaido’s hand. It required a pair. To Faile’s surprise, instead of cuffing Maighdin, the bitten fellow shook blood off his hand and laughed! That did not save her, though. In a trice, Faile’s maid was facedown in the snow alongside the Queen. They were given only a few moments to gasp and writhe in the added cold. Two Shaido, one a Maiden, appeared out of the surrounding trees, shaving the stubs from long switches with their heavy belt knives. A foot planted between each woman’s shoulder blades, a fist on bound elbows to raise fluttering hands out of the way, and red welts began to bloom on white hips.

At first both women continued to fight, twisting about despite the way they were held. Their struggle was even more useless than when they were upright. Little moved above their waists beyond tossing heads and wildly waving hands. Alliandre kept shrilling that they could not do this to her, understandable coming from a queen, if foolish in the circumstances. Plainly they could, and they were. Surprisingly, Maighdin raised her voice in the same piercing denials. Anyone would have thought her royalty instead of a lady’s maid. Faile knew for a fact that Lini had taken a switch to Maighdin without all these histrionics. In any case, denials did no good for either woman. The methodical thrashings continued until they both were kicking and howling wordlessly, and a little longer for good measure. When they were finally hoisted like the other prisoners, they hung weeping, all fight gone out of them.

Faile felt no sympathy. The fools had earned every stripe, in her opinion. Frostbite and cut feet aside, the longer they remained outside without clothes, the more chance that some of them might not survive to escape. The Shaido had to be taking them to some sort of shelter, and Alliandre and Maighdin had delayed reaching it. Maybe it was little more than a quarter hour’s delay, but minutes could be the difference between the living and the dead. On top of which, even Aiel would surely let down their guard a little once they found shelter and made fires. And they could rest, being carried. They could be ready to take their chance when it came.

Carrying their prisoners, the Shaido set out again at that ground-covering pace. If anything, they seemed to move through the forest more quickly than before. The hard leather bow case bumped Faile’s side as she swayed, and she began to feel dizzy. Rolan’s every long stride sent a jolt through her middle. Surreptitiously, she tried to find some position where she would not be poked and thudded quite so vigorously.

“Be still, or you will fall,” Rolan muttered, patting her hip as he might have patted a horse to soothe it.

Raising her head, Faile peered back at Alliandre, scowling. There was not much to be seen of the Queen of Ghealdan, and that crisscrossed by scarlet welts from the tops of her hips almost to the backs of her knees. Come to think of it, a short delay and a few stripes might be a small price to pay for biting a chunk out of this oaf toting her like a sack of grain. Not his hand, though. His throat would be about right.

Bold thoughts, and worse than useless. Foolish. Even being carried, she knew she must fight the cold. In some ways, she began to realize, being carried was worse. Walking, at least she had had the struggle to stay erect and on her feet to keep her awake, but as evening came on and deepened to darkness, the swaying motion on Rolan’s shoulder seemed to have a lulling effect. No. It was the cold that was numbing her mind. Making her blood sluggish. She had to fight it, or she would die.

Rhythmically she worked her hands and bound arms, tensed her legs and relaxed them, tensed and relaxed, forcing her muscles to work her blood. She thought of Perrin, solid planning thoughts of what he should do about Masema, and how she could convince him if he balked. She went over the argument they would have when he learned she been using Cha Faile as spies, planned how she would meet his anger and turn it. There was an art to guiding a husband’s anger in the direction you wanted, and she had learned from an expert, her mother. It would be a splendid argument. And a splendid making-up, after.

Thinking about making up with him made her forget to work her muscles, so she tried to concentrate on the argument, on the planning. Cold dulled her thoughts, though. She began losing the thread, having to shake her head and start over. Rolan’s growls at her to be still helped, a voice to focus on, to keep her awake. Even the accompanying slaps on her upturned bottom helped, as much as she hated to admit the fact, each one a shock that jolted her to wakefulness. After a while, she began shifting more, then struggling almost to the point of falling, courting the rude smacks. Anything to stay awake. She could not have said how much time passed, but her twists and wriggles began to weaken, until Rolan no longer growled, much less gave her a slap. Light, she wanted the ma

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