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As the Traveling portal closed behind Martyn, the Malkieri warrior took a deep breath, wondering where he was supposed to go to now. He knew who he needed to see, a woman named Salla Alliatar, acting Commander of the Band of the Red Hand. And in his hand, he held a letter bearing the seal of the Dragon himself, which probably meant orders from above. He could understand how he got to be selected for this task. He had been among those that fought that disastrous battle in Shienar. Narrowing down the options further, he had also been with the group in Tear that had sworn fealty to the Lord Dragon, and had recieved training from him personally. And lastly, his block made him the most expendable of the group, the one that could be missed for a couple of days without an all too great impact on the daily training routine. Looking over his shoulder, he figured he should be getting off the Traveling grounds now before he would no longer be delivering a letter to anyone. After a few minutes of walking around, he noticed someone that wasn't overly busy, and walked over to ask which way it was to the Commander's office. Some ten minutes later, he was knocking on a wooden door, waiting to be given permission to enter.
Keeping a cheery smile on his face was difficult, but Mehrin somehow managed to do it. He had come across the Band's path five days previously, and had spotted the first tail scouts two days later. By now, he was seeing one every hour or so, which meant that there were at least four that he was missing. He made a point to wave at each one that he spotted; by now, tales should have reached the Band regarding the strange fellow clad in black following them. More would probably mention his oddities, including an over-sized claymore and a proclivity for rising before the sun to train with said weapon until sunrise. By now, anybody that had been with the Band for more than a year knew that Mehrin Deathwatch was beating a path to their back door. The idea was bittersweet. At one time, the Band had been home. For many years, Mehrin had marched with these men, killed alongside them, and seen many of them die. Those memories came unbidden at times. On the trek south to meet the Band, Mehrin had passed by Bandar Eban, where the combined might of the Band, the Children, the Wolfkin, and the Aiel had cast back the invading forces of Seanchan. Mehrin had stood on the pitted and twisted battlefield, had said a prayer to the Creator- if the bastard was listening- at the mass graves. Even the Seanchan ones. It was there that Mehrin had received a field promotion that seemed to send him spiraling up the ranks until he had received the worst news possible: he had been promoted to Commander of the Band. The walk south had continued, bringing the plague of memory with it. Step. Anya Tarin Winter, an Illianer and infantrywoman who Mehrin had loved, died shortly after his promotion. Step. The walls of the Citadel, a simple wooden barricade, were being eyed and measured by Ogier masons, who would be given free hand in the building of a mighty fortress. Step. A day in the life of a Commander: hours of self-training before sunrise, then hours of training with recruits, an expensive bottle of brandy for breakfast. Step. A woman, thought long dead, staggered into the Citadel, claiming her name was Drea Raylin. Step. A girl, no more than nine, came to his office, a daughter named Renalie Malon. Step. His daughter, taken. Mehrin had forced memory to silence after that. It was too much to think about all that had happened. He needed to forget. He needed to move. In Saldaea, Mehrin had nearly picked up the bottle again but for a message that arrived for the Band's eyes-and-ears. The code was one that meant "call to arms". The one word had read, "Tanchico." There was no time wasted. Step. The scouts were coming out of the trees, some with bows drawn and aimed. Mehrin raised his hands, still smiling, and said, "A black wind blows from the north, and the grey geese fly south for winter." The scouts looked around at each other in confusion. More were limbering up their bows now. "I take it that means they've changed the password?" Mehrin asked rhetorically. Well, there was nothing to do but wait. Somebody would be along to fetch him eventually.
Sweltering, unnatural heat changing to bloody midwinter in less than a bloody month. Just my flaming luck. Irritably, Calder Berrick clunked his tankard of wine- it was the only word that Calder could bring himself to put to it- on the wooden table and watched the merchant next to him as he picked up the dice. The merchant had been living large and laughing condescendingly at his fellow gamblers only ten minutes ago, but now he was grim as death. His winnings of the night had inexplicably found themselves drawn to Calder shortly after he had seated himself. Calder gave the man a grin, earning a glare in reply. Some people just didn't have a sense of humor. He grinned wider, though the grin was only skin deep. Ungrateful bastard, who's coin has been keeping your flaming cup full? he thought venomously. The dice in the cup rattled for a few seconds before the merchant sent them spinning across the table, then he let out a cheer. Four sixes and a five. "Beat that, little lordling!" he gloated. Calder didn't really hear him. In his mind, there was a hissing, almost similar to a snake, but not the same. It was happening again. The sound had stuck in his mind ever since that fateful day at the Stone of Tear, when he had used fireworks to blow a hole in the wall. Calder knew the sound of a fuse intimately; it had nearly killed him before. However, he knew that there were no fireworks this time. Not like the Illuminators' fireworks, anyway. Calder was not an idiot, and he could reach a logical conclusion. The fuse only meant that something was about to happen, and the flaming Pattern was about to meddle in his bloody life yet again. In a daze, Calder threw the dice, unsurprised when five sixes came up. The other men around the table smiled smugly; the merchant was furious. “Cheat!” he cried, hurling his chair away as he stood, his hand moving for the sword at his waist. Reacting faster than thought, Calder stood as well, his fingers deftly teasing one of the knives from his sleeve. The merchant found himself standing quite tall, sword less than quarter-drawn. “I’ve been using your flaming dice for the last ten flaming minutes, you goat-kissing Trolloc!” he growled. “You gamble, you lose, you bloody well take it gracefully!” Unbidden, many more memories swam up, some of them his own, some belonging to dead men, all of them of similar events. Neither he nor the dead men in his head had ever reacted so strongly. Bloody fuses and bloody premonitions and bloody, flaming luck! Easing off the blade, Calder looked at the merchant coolly as he collected his winnings. “I apologize for my outburst,” he said carefully, leaving a gold crown on the table. “Drink on that until it runs out. Light’s blessing.” Out in the night, Calder tried to whistle a tune to keep his spirits up, but there was nothing for it. The fireworks in his mind were threatening to go off, as they had been doing since he had ridden through the gate of Tanchico a week ago. The longer they whispered their viper’s hiss, the more tense Calder became, though he could not remember ever losing control as he had tonight. Maybe it was this business with the Panarch and the King. Despite his stated reasons for being in Tanchico- an overwhelming desire to get away from the lords whose levies made up the Legion of the Dragon before he strangled them- the two had been plying for advantage over the other by winning his approval. This had escalated to the point where the king had offered him lodgings in his palace, while the panarch had offered lodgings in her bed. It had taken very little thought to refuse both of them. A shadow passed over the moon. Instinctively, Calder looked up, seeing only darkness against darkness in the sky. In all likelihood, it was a cloud. The concept of “all likelihood” had been long absent from Calder’s life. Not knowing why he was even bothering with it, Calder found himself climbing the wall of a nearby building, bringing cries of, “Thief!” and, “Vagabond!” and, “There’s a man in the window!” from inside. For a moment, Calder found himself staring at a crossbow after accidentally kicking over a wash basin left on the sill, but a gold crown dropped on the floor left the man forgetting that there was ever a visitor that night. The roof gained, Calder scanned the night sky. As he suspected, it was full of stars. That could mean drakgar, he thought coldly as he untied the odd quarterstaff he had slung over his shoulder. His scan wrapped around the entire city, ending above the harbor. Convulsively, his hand tightened around the haft of the quarterstaff. There were ships far out to sea, but their shadow on the horizon was visible. And above the ships and approaching shore, small shapes flew in the air. Blood and bloody ashes, it’s the flaming Seanchan! In his mind, Calder changed over to a general’s mentality. “If I can see them,” he muttered, “then the city guard can see them, too. They wouldn’t take a chance like that unless… oh, burn me…” Another shadow passed over the moon. Calder followed its path, barely able to make out the swept-wing shape of one of those bloody flying creatures that the Seanchan used. “Unless they were already in the flaming city.” A flash of light near the west gate caught Calder’s eye. The Tanchicans had a barracks complex in that area. The echoing boom that followed the light confirmed Calder’s suspicion. The Seanchan had landed. More flashes of light from the ground, and a few bolts of lightning from the air, and the fox medallion around Calder’s neck went cold. “Blood and bloody ashes,” he muttered. That meant fighting. It was past time that he left the city. That was when the building under Calder’s feet shuddered, accompanied by the sound of an explosion. It was nothing to the explosion in Calder’s mind. “Just my flaming luck,” he muttered, as a corner of the building gave way. Then, there was nothing to do but fall… ***** Even before he could hear or see, Calder was aware of the pain. It felt as if a building had fallen on him, or maybe he had enjoyed too much wine. Possibly both. “At least I can bloody well be sure that I’m still alive. I would feel a damn sight better if I was dead,” Calder groaned. This was echoed seconds later by some rather colorful cursing as he forced his eyes open. All there was to be had was pain. However, Calder could be certain of one thing: he either had a bad head for wine, or he had fallen and hit his head. This theory was supported by some careful experimentation. All of his fingers and toes seemed to work. His eyes, finally recovering from the dazzling pain of sunlight streaming through a window, seemed to be having problems. They were not showing him his room. He was in a large room that suggested that its owner was quite well-to-do. Extremely well-to-do, as a matter of fact. Sitting up caused Calder a moment of nausea, but he was soon limping across the room- his body, it seemed was covered from his shoulders to his toes with livid bruises- to the strange staff that he had gotten at the end of his old life. With it, Calder limped to the window. The city was a bustle of activity. From his vantage point, Calder could see the bustle of troops in the streets. In the air, raken and to’raken circled the city. The King’s Palace was… Calder rubbed his eyes. It couldn’t be. The King’s Palace was a smoking pile of rubble, with hardly a stone left standing on top of another. The King must have chosen to fight to the death, and the Seanchan had obviously obliged him. With growing confusion, Calder began scouring the streets for the Panarch’s Palace, wondering if he’d find that it had come to the same fate. It wasn’t there! There was no- “… oh, blood and bloody ashes…” From behind him, Calder heard somebody snigger. Still leaning heavily on his quarterstaff, Calder turned to confront the newcomer, only to find the Panarch herself standing behind him. “What am I doing here?” Calder asked, a bit more harshly than he had intended. The Panarch didn’t answer right away, instead making a point to thoroughly examine Calder. It took a moment for him to notice the draft in his nether-regions. With as much dignity as he could muster, Calder hurled himself at the bed in which he had found himself only moments before, pulling the blankets up under his chin. “Pity,” the Panarch muttered. Then, as if she hadn’t spoken, the woman said, “My soldiers were patrolling the city when they heard the sounds of a building collapsing. Imagine their surprise when they found a young man with a large cut and several bruises on his head in the middle of the street, curled up inside what used to be a window. One of the men recognized you, and issued orders for you to be brought here.” At that, the Panarch smiled mischievously. Apparently, she had had his description circulated among her soldiers. Also apparently, she had no idea who he really was. “I hope you’ve slept well, too. You’ve been unconscious for a week.” A week! What had the Seanchan done to that palace? “Anyway,” she continued, “by the time you were brought here, the Seanchan were deeply entrenched. I could see that there was no hope of victory, but our dear king was not nearly as wise. He rallied his troops bravely, claiming that he would die before giving the city to these bloody invaders.” The woman shuddered. “The Seanchan obliged him, setting their damane to tearing his palace down around him.” The Panarch began eying Calder again, sizing him up. “I do hope that you will be on your feet soon,” she said. “The Seanchan governor is rather interested in meeting you, but she has declared that you are to be given time to recuperate. Hopefully, a couple of days will see you right as rain.” The smile that the Panarch gave Calder was predatory. Where is my bloody luck now?