The Great Hunt (The Wheel of Time 2) - Page 114

Domon lowered the looking glass, but his eye still seemed filled by that tall, square-looking ship with its odd ribbed sails. “Seanchan,” he said, and heard Yarin groan. He drummed his thick fingers on the rail, then told the helmsman, “Take her closer in. That ship will no dare enter the shallow waters Spray can sail.”

Yarin shouted commands, and crewmen ran to haul in booms as the helmsman put the tiller over, pointing the bow more toward the shoreline. Spray moved more slowly, heading so far into the wind, but Domon was sure he could reach shoal waters before the other vessel came up on him. Did her holds be full, she could still take shallower water than ever that great hull can.

His ship rode a little higher in the water than she had on sailing from Tanchico. A third of the cargo of fireworks he had taken on there was gone, sold in the fishing villages on Toman Head, but with the silver that flowed for the fireworks had come disturbing reports. The people spoke of visits from the tall, boxy ships of the invaders. When Seanchan ships anchored off the coast, the villagers who drew up to defend their homes were rent by lightning from the sky while small boats were still ferrying the invaders ashore, and the earth erupted in fire under their feet. Domon had thought he was hearing nonsense until he was shown the blackened ground, and he had seen it in too many villages to doubt any longer. Monsters fought beside the Seanchan soldiers, not that there was ever much resistance left, the villagers said, and some even claimed that the Seanchan themselves were monsters, with heads like huge insects.

In Tanchico, no one had even known what they called themselves, and the Taraboners spoke confidently of their soldiers driving the invaders into the sea. But in every coastal town, it was different. The Seanchan told astonished people they must swear again oaths they had forsaken, though never deigning to explain when they had forsaken them, or what the oaths meant. The young women were taken away one by one to be examined, and some were carried aboard the ships and never seen again. A few older women had also vanished, some of the Guides and Healers. New mayors were chosen by the Seanchan, and new Councils, and any who protested the disappearances of the women or having no voice in the choosing might be hung, or burst suddenly into flame, or be brushed aside like yapping dogs. There was no way of telling which it would be until it was too late.

And when the people had been thoroughly cowed, when they had been made to kneel and swear, bewildered, to obey the Forerunners, await the Return, and serve Those Who Come Home with their lives, the Seanchan sailed away and usually never returned. Falme, it was said, was the only town they held fast.

In some of the villages they had left, men and women crept back toward their former lives, to the extent of talking about electing their Councils again, but most eyed the sea nervously and made pale-cheeked protests that they meant to hold to the oaths they had been made to swear even if they did not understand them.

Domon had no intention of meeting any Seanchan, if he could avoid it.

He was raising the glass to see what he could make out on the nearing Seanchan decks, when, with a roar, the surface of the sea broke into fountaining water and flame not a hundred paces from his larboard side. Before he had even begun to gape, another column of flame split the sea on the other side, and as he was spinning to stare at that, another burst up ahead. The eruptions died as quickly as they were born, spray from them blown across the deck. Where they had been, the sea bubbled and steamed as if boiling.

“We . . . we’ll reach shallow water before they can close with us,” Yarin said slowly. He seemed to be trying not to look at the water roiling under clouds of mist.

Domon shook his head. “Whatever they did, they can shatter us, even do I take her into the breakers.” He shivered, thinking of the flame inside the fountains of water, and his holds full of fireworks. “Fortune prick me, we might no live to drown.” He tugged at his beard and rubbed his bare upper lip, reluctant to give the order—the vessel and what it contained were all he had in the world—but finally he made himself speak. “Bring her into the wind, Yarin, and down sail. Quickly, man, quickly! Before they do think we still try to escape.”

As crewmen ran to lower the triangular sails, Domon turned to watch the Seanchan ship approach. Spray lost headway and pitched in the swells. The other vessel stood taller above the water than Domon’s ship, with wooden towers at bow and stern. Men were in the rigging, raising those strange sails, and armored figures stood atop the towers. A longboat was put over the side, and sped toward Spray under ten oars. It carried armored shapes, and—Domon frowned in surprise—two women crouched in the stern. The longboat thumped against Spray’s hull.

The first to climb up was one of the armored men, and Domon saw immediately why some of the villagers claimed the Seanchan themselves were monsters. The helmet looked very much like some monstrous insect’s head, with thin red plumes like feelers; the wearer seemed to be peering out through mandibles. It was painted and gilded to increase the effect, and the rest of the man’s armor was also worked with paint and gold. Overlapping plates in black and red outlined with gold covered his chest and ran down the outsides of his arms and the fronts of his thighs. Even the steel backs of his gauntlets were red and gold. Where he did not wear metal, his clothes were dark leather. The two-handed sword on his back, with its curved blade, was scabbarded and hilted in black-and-red leather.

Then the armored figure removed his helmet, and Domon stared. He was a woman. Her dark hair was cut short, and her face was hard, but there was no mistaking it. He had never heard of such a thing, except among the Aiel, and Aiel were well known to be crazed. Just as disconcerting was the fact that her face did not look as different as he had expected of a Seanchan. Her eyes were blue, it was true, and her skin exceedingly fair, but he had seen both before. If this woman wore a dress, no one would look at her twice. He eyed her and revised his opinion, that cold stare and those hard cheeks would make her remarked anywhere.

The other soldiers followed the woman onto the deck. Domon was relieved to see, when some of them removed their strange helmets, that they, at least, were men; men with black eyes, or brown, who could have gone unnoticed in Tanchico or Illian. He had begun to have visions of armies of blue-eyed women with swords. Aes Sedai with swords, he thought, remembering the sea erupting.

The Seanchan woman surveyed the ship arrogantly, then picked Domon out as captain—it had to be him or Yarin, by their clothes; the way Yarin had his eyes closed and was muttering prayers under his breath pointed to Domon—and fixed him with a stare like a spike.

“Are there any women among your crew or passengers?” She spoke with a soft slurring that made her hard to understand, but there was a snap in her voice that said she was used to getting answers. “Speak up, man, if you are the captain. If not, wake that other fool and tell him to speak.”

“I do be captain, my Lady,” Domon said cautiously. He had no idea how to address her, and he did not want to put a foot wrong. “I have no passengers, and there be no women in my crew.” He thought of the girls and women who had been carried off, and, not for the first time, wondered what these folk wanted with them.

The two women dressed as women were coming up from the longboat, one drawing the other—Domon blinked—by a leash of silvery metal as she climbed aboard. The leash went from a bracelet worn by the first woman to a collar around the neck of the second. He could not tell whether it was woven or jointed—it seemed somehow to be both—but it was clearly of a piece with both bracelet and collar. The first woman gathered the leash in coils as the other came onto the deck. The collared woman wore plain dark gray and stood with her hands folded and her eyes on the planks under her feet. The other had red panels bearing forked, silver lightning bolts on the breast of her blue dress and on the sides of her skirts, which ended short of the ankles of her boots. Domon eyed the women uneasily.

“Speak slowly, man,” the blue-eyed woman demanded in her slurred speech. She came across the deck to confront him, staring up at him and in some way seeming taller and larger than he. “You are even harder to understand than the rest in this Light-forsaken land. And I make no claim to be of the Blood. Not yet. After Corenne. . . . I am Captain Egeanin.”

Domon repeated himself, trying to speak slowly, and added, “I do be a peaceful trader, Captain. I mean no harm to you, and I have no part in your war.” He could not help eyeing the two women connected by the leash again.

“A peaceful trader?” Egeanin mused. “In that case, you will be free to go once you have sworn fealty again.” She noticed his glances and turned to smile at the women with the pride of ownership. “You admire my damane? She cost me dear, but she was worth every coin. Few but nobles own a damane, and most are property of the throne. She is strong, trader. She could have broken your ship to splinters, had I wished it so.”

Domon stared at the women and the silver leash. He had connected the one wearing the lightning with the fiery fountains in the sea, and assumed she was an Aes Sedai. Egeanin had just set his head whirling. No one could do that to. . . . “She is Aes Sedai?” he said disbelievingly.

He never saw the casual backhand blow coming. He staggered as her steel-backed gauntlet split his lip.

“That name is never spoken,” Egeanin said with a dangerous softness. “There are only the damane, the Leashed Ones, and now they serve in truth as well as name.” Her eyes made ice seem warm.

Domon swallowed blood and kept his hand clenched at his sides. If he had had a sword to hand, he would not have led his crew to slaughter

against a dozen armored soldiers, but it was an effort to make his voice humble. “I meant no disrespect, Captain. I know nothing of you or your ways. If I do offend, it is ignorance, no intention.”

She looked at him, then said, “You are all ignorant, Captain, but you will pay the debt of your forefathers. This land was ours, and it will be ours again. With the Return, it will be ours again.” Domon did not know what to say—Surely she can no mean that nattering about Artur Hawkwing be true?—so he kept his mouth shut. “You will sail your vessel to Falme”—he tried to protest, but her glare silenced him—“where you and your ship will be examined. If you are no more than a peaceful trader, as you claim, you will be allowed to go your way when you have sworn the oaths.”

“Oaths, Captain? What oaths?”

“To obey, to await, and to serve. Your ancestors should have remembered.”

She gathered her people—except for a single man in plain armor, which marked him of low rank as much as the depth of his bow to Captain Egeanin—and their longboat pulled away toward the larger ship. The remaining Seanchan gave no orders, only sat cross-legged on the deck and began sharpening his sword while the crew put sail on and got under way. He seemed to have no fear at being alone, and Domon would have personally thrown overboard any crewman who raised a hand to him, for as Spray made her way along the coast, the Seanchan ship followed, out in deeper water. There was a mile between the two vessels, but Domon knew there was no hope of escape, and he meant to deliver the man back to Captain Egeanin as safely as if he had been cradled in his mother’s arms.

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