A Crown of Swords (The Wheel of Time #7)

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07.03.2019

He could sense a few of the wolves still, a handful of those that survived and were now on their way elsewhere, far from here, far from men. The wolves were still the talk of the camp, uneasy speculation over where they had appeared from and why. A few believed Rand had called them. Most thought the Aes Sedai had. The Aes Sedai did not say what they thought. No blame came from the wolves—what had happened, had happened—but he could not match their fatalism. They had come because he called them. Shoulders wide enough to make him seem shorter than he was slumped under the weight of responsibility. Now and then he heard other wolves, that had not come, speak with scorn to those that had: This was what came of mixing with the two-legs. Nothing else could be expected.

It was a strain to keep his thoughts to himself. He wanted to be home, in the Two Rivers. Small chance of that, perhaps ever again. He wanted to howl that the scornful ones were right. He wanted to be with his wife anywhere at all, and everything the way it was before. The chances of which seemed little better, maybe worse. Far more than the yearning for home, more even than the wolves, worry about Faile ate inside him like a ferret trying to burrow out of his middle. She had actually seemed glad to see him leave Cairhien. What was he to do about her? He could not think of words to describe how much he loved his wife, and needed her, but she was jealous where she had no cause, hurt where he had done nothing, angry where he could not see why. He must do something, but what? The answer eluded him. Careful thought was all he had, while Faile was flashing quicksilver.

“The Aiel should put some clothes on them,” Aram muttered primly, scowling at the ground. He squatted nearby, patiently holding the reins of a rangy gray gelding; he seldom went far from Perrin. The sword strapped to his back jarred with his green-striped Tinker coat, hanging undone for the heat. A rolled kerchief tied around his forehead kept sweat from his eyes. Once Perrin had thought him almost too good-looking for a man. A bleak darkness had settled in him, though, and now he wore a scowl as often as not. “It isn’t decent, Lord Perrin.”

Perrin put aside thoughts of Faile reluctantly. With time, he could puzzle it out. He had to. Somehow. “It is their way, Aram.”

Aram grimaced as if he might spit. “Well, it isn’t a decent way. It keeps them under control, I suppose—nobody would run far or make trouble like that—but it isn’t decent.”

There were Aiel all over the place, of course. Tall, aloof men in grays and browns and greens, their only bit of color the scarlet strip of cloth tied around their temples, with the black-and-white disc on their foreheads. Siswai’aman, they called themselves. Sometimes that word tickled the edge of his memory, like a word he should know. Ask one of the Aielmen, and he looked as if you had babbled nonsense. But then, they ignored the strips of cloth, too. No Maiden of the Spear wore the scarlet headband. Whether white-haired or looking barely old enough to leave her mother, every Maiden stalked about giving the siswai’aman challenging stares that seemed somehow self-satisfied, while the men looked back flat-eyed, with a smell almost of hunger, a matter of jealousy by the scent of all of them, though over what Perrin could not begin to imagine. Whatever it was, it was not new, and it did not seem likely to come to blows. A few of the Wise Ones were inside the wagons as well, in bulky skirts and white blouses, wearing their dark shawls in defiance of the heat, glittering bracelets and necklaces of gold and ivory making up for the plainness of the rest of their clothes. Some appeared amused by the Maidens and the siswai’aman, and others exasperated. All of them—Wise Ones, Maidens and siswai’aman—ignored the Shaido the way Perrin would have a stool or a rug.

The Aiel had taken two hundred or so Shaido prisoners yesterday, men and Maidens—not many, considering the numbers involved—and they moved about freely. In a manner of speaking. Perrin would have been a lot more comfortable had they been guarded. And clothed. Instead, they fetched water and ran errands, naked as the day they were born. With other Aiel, they were meek as mice. Anyone else received a proudly defiant stare for noticing them. Perrin was not the only one who tried not to notice them, and Aram not the only one to mutter. A good many of the Two Rivers men in camp did one or both. A good many of the Cairhienin nearly had apoplexy whenever they saw one of the Shaido. The Mayeners just shook their heads as though it were all a joke. And ogled the women. They had as little shame as the Aiel, the Mayeners.

“Gaul explained it to me, Aram. You know what a gai’shain is, don’t you? About ji’e’toh and serving a year and a day and all that?” The other man nodded, which was a good thing. Perrin did not know much himself. Gaul’s explanations of Aiel ways often left him more confused. Gaul always thought it all self-evident. “Well, gai’shain aren’t allowed to wear anything one of the algai’d’siswai might wear—that means ‘spear fighters,’ ” he added at Aram’s questioning frown. Suddenly he realized he was looking straight at one of the Shaido as she trotted in his general direction, a tall young woman, golden-haired and pretty despite a long thin scar down her cheek and other scars elsewhere. Very pretty and very naked. Clearing his throat roughly, he pulled his eyes away. He could feel his face heating. “Anyway, that is why they are . . . the way they are. Gai’shain wear white robes, and they don’t have any here. It’s just their way.” Burn Gaul and burn his explanations, he thought. They could cover them with something!

“Perrin Goldeneyes,” said a woman’s voice, “Carahuin sends to know whether you wish water.” Aram’s face went purple, and he jerked himself around in his squat, presenting his back to her.

“No, thank you.” Perrin did not need to look up to know it was the golden-haired Shaido woman. He kept peering off at nothing in another direction. Aiel had a peculiar sense of humor, and Maidens of the Spear—Carahuin was a Maiden—had the most peculiar. They had quickly seen how the wetlanders reacted to the Shaido—they would have needed to be blind not to—and suddenly gai’shain were being sent to wetlanders left and right, and Aiel all but rolling on the ground at the blushes and stammers and even the shouting. He was sure that Carahuin and her friends were watching now. This was at least the tenth time one of the gai’shain women had been sent to ask him whether he wanted water or had a spare whetstone or some such bloody fool thing.

Abruptly a thought struck him. The Mayeners were seldom bothered this way. A handful of Cairhienin plainly enjoyed looking, if not so openly as the Mayeners, and some of the older Two Rivers men, who should have known better. The point was, none of them had had a second spurious message that he knew of. Those who reacted the most, on the other hand. . . . Cairhienin, who had shouted the loudest about indecency, and two or three of the younger Two Rivers men, who stammered and blushed so hard they looked ready to melt, had been pestered until they fled

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