Author's Note: Just a little trifle between fics., served with added syrup. Any R & R would be the cherry on top :)
16/11/05: Thanks to Rasielle for pointing out my frankly ridiculous misspelling of those vital 'tomorrow's - all fixed now. And cheers for the reviews, folks. You're all thoroughly, thoroughly good eggs.
It takes a website with pluck,
To let plagiarism run amok.
When the WoT section's rockin'
The lawyers come knockin'
Too bad we don't give a….fig
Mat nocked, drew, and fired an arrow at the much fired-at tree. Another dead-eye, proof that time – and experience, he added wryly – hadn't sullied his aim. Somewhere a lark trilled its congratulations and Mat smiled.
Rand could spout all he liked about his flames and his voids – Mat found pleasure in simpler things; the wink of the arrow, the kiss of feather on cheek, the sweet song of steel spearing the breeze.
He plucked off his hat and armed sweat from his brow. An upward squint told him it was high noon, a fool time to be standing in a field playing the farmboy. But the butterflies frolicking in the froth of flowers didn't seem to mind him being there. Neither did the bitemes crackling in the shade of his arrow-spiked tree he thought ruefully, scratching the bloodied dots on his flesh. Some memory told him the pink flowers were called kiss-a-me's. Another's memory or his own? He didn't suppose it mattered.
'Stupid name anyway,' he muttered, plucking one and tilting it so the sunlight blushed through its petals. Smiling, Mat tucked it behind his ear like a boy courting on summerseve.
His smile withered at the comparison, died completely when he reached over his shoulder and found only two arrows in the quiver. Two remaining excuses to stay away from the caravans. Away from Bayle bloody Domon. Away from….
Scowling, Mat nocked an arrow and aimed, breath still.
'What are you doing, Toy?'
The arrow twanged to clatter shaft-side into the tree.
Mat swore as Tuon swanned past, skirts swishing the long grass. 'I should like to keep this,' she declared, one lacquer-tipped hand pointed at the ruined arrow, the other cocked on her hip. She was smiling. A woman always smiled when a man put a foot wrong, even when his next step might topple him over a ravine.
He pinched a stalk of sun-dry grass and poked it between his teeth. 'Then keep it,' he said lazily, trawling a slow gaze over her. That wiped the smile from her face. Good.
He wondered whether the girl had plumped out a little as she bent gracefully to the arrow's remains - her dress was very snug at the waist. Then he realised he could circle that waist with both hands. A simple matter of the gown being too tight, then. Almost Berelain-tight. Strange.
Tuon straightened abruptly, her large, dark eyes betraying not a sniff of what went on in that strange head of hers. The girl probably thought he was ogling her. Not that he would, even if she had more to ogle. A pearl button straining at her bosom looked ripe to pop its thread. Strange indeed.
'You must be very proud of them,' she said coolly, tucking the arrow in her belt-pouch.
'Your scars. Do you always parade them around so?'
He clutched at his throat but the scarf was good and snug. Then something caught his eye in the grass; something with a small, crumpled, flung-off look about it.
Suddenly – horribly – aware of the sun beating his naked shoulders, Mat snatched up the shirt, wincing at how it rasped his sweaty chest and back. Bloody thing. Bloody scars. Bloody women.
'Why are you wasting arrows on a tree?'
'It's called practice,' he muttered. 'The bow is essential for long-range assault.' A memory had leapt unbidden, like a pike-fish on a line – Renna. Pretty, doe-eyed Renna, her skirts billowing before sinking into murky waters.
'You are thinking of that traitor. I have already told you - I will not tolerate sentiment.'
'As you wish.' It was an effort to banish Renna to the confused swirl that was his memory but he smiled brightly and enjoyed a moment of silky triumph when Tuon blinked. Forget steel and spearplay - against Tuon a smile was the best weapon he had.
'Where did you learn to shoot like that, Toy?'
How long had she been watching him? He felt hot all of a sudden. Sunstroke, surely. 'Home,' he muttered, pressing a hand to his brow. It was cool. 'And my name is Mat.'
'The land of sheep and tabac.' Tuon smiled and settled in a shady spot. 'Tell me more of your home.'
Oh she wanted him over that ravine all right, and would probably laugh as he topped-o'er-tailed the whole way down. 'Nothing more to tell.'
'I would hear of your family.'
'My ma bakes, my da deals in horseflesh. Then there's my sisters.' He couldn't hide a grimace at that.
'Two. Eldrin – that's the youngest - and Bode.'
'Are they pretty, Toy?'
'How should I know? They're my sisters.'
Mat watched a wasp dither over some flowers in between stealing peeks at her. She was just sitting there, sunlight dancing through leaves to flit patterns on her face, slender ankles peeking from pooled skirts. Her huge eyes never left him. 'Am I pretty?'
The wasp was dancing by his ear. Mat hardly noticed; he had a sudden image of a yawning chasm and him frantically pinwheeling over its brink. Bloody women. Bloody, bloody women.
Tuon plucked a blossom and toyed with its pink petals. Pink. Light. Don't go thinking about pink. He rolled the straw between his teeth. He nudged a sod of dirt with his toe. He swatted a biteme lunching on his wrist. He smiled. 'You're very pretty.'
Nothing flickered on that doll's face. 'Liar'
'If you like.'
Tuon simply stared.
'Is that all?' He snapped. 'I'm sort of busy.'
'Busy.' Her gaze drawled to the wineskin nestled like a sleeping dormouse in the grass.
He gave a smile of the best butter-wouldn't-melt variety. 'Well, aren't I the bad host. Care to try?'
Any other woman would have shot him an indignant sniff. Tuon merely considered. Then she grabbed the leather case and took a swig.
Just when he thought he had teetered back from the edge she had him dangling again. The thought of her lips – her noble lips – was like a cold finger on his neck. He shivered and wondered if Luca had a cure-all for farmboy generals who had spent too long in the sun.
'Is this a lord's drink?' Her full lips were stained autumn red. He remembered tasting rowan berries of that very shade. He also remembered the bellyache afterwards.
'It's wine. I'm no lord, Tuon.' He spat out his sprig of straw to demonstrate.
Tuon took a deeper draught, her slender throat tightening as she strained not to cough. Mat bit back a grin. Let her drink a skinful - it wouldn't be his head howling in the morning.
'Why did you come out here?' She was trying to hide it but her voice was definitely gaspy. Interesting things were happening to the button on her bodice.
'Why do you ask so many bloody questions?'
'Why don't you answer any without bluff and lies?' she threw back, eyes sleek.
'I don't lie,' he ground out, matching her glare. She had not the grace to look away. 'Do you enjoy staring at people?'
Mat scowled and stalked to the tree. Her gaze burned like a pair of hot rocks on his back. 'Just me then.'
'You are different, Toy.'
'From who? Domon?' He yanked an arrow free of the oak's trunk. It was ruined. 'I should bloody hope so.'
'You are not what I expected from a General.'
Mat smiled. 'I know, I know - maybe if I grew a big moustache.'
'Why would you wish to do that?'
'Never mind.' The last arrow uncorked with a faint pop. A blue butterfly danced through the leaves, as though to inspect the sound. It settled on a branch and flashed it wings at him.
'You prefer the company of butterflies, Toy?'
'That depends on the alternative.' He hadn't meant to sound churlish. Maybe a little churlish, but not enough to send Tuon storming through the grass. Well, wading really. She was too swamped in skirts for anything else.
Mat flirted with the idea of letting her stomp (wade) off in a huff before realising that would earn him a whole week of iced stares, if he was lucky. And even his luck ran cold when Tuon was nearby.
He caught up in a few strides but she dodged him, ducking this way and that. The girl moved like a bloody tombfang, and had a bite to match.
Finally he seized her by the arms, not caring about that bloody 'death to lay hands on the Daughter of the Nine Moons' nonsense – who was around to see?
He caught a glimpse of her face, her small white teeth, and managed to jerk his foot back in time for her heel to grind into the dirt instead of his toes.
Breath left him in a pained whuff. He clenched back a groan as Tuon lowered her knee, her eyes savage.
A few deep breaths and most of the grey had cleared from his vision. He even managed to step back a pace, holding her out of range - if she pulled another trick like that he'd be riding into Tarmon Gai'don side-saddle.
'That—' His stuttering sigh did nothing to damp the fire raging low in his belly. 'Wasn't very nice.'
Tuon didn't sniff. She didn't scowl. She stared through and beyond him. It made his skin feel a size too tight.
'Remove your hands,' she intoned.
'Listen. I'm sorry if I upset you. The truth is….'
….I didn't think you could be upset. Not good.
'The truth is I needed to get away.'
Mat slackened his grip on her arms. Amazingly, Tuon stayed put.
'And not from you. I just wanted some time alone. To myself, understand?'
Even more amazing; she nodded.
His smile, queasy to begin with, vanished. Something was very wrong here. 'Tuon. Where's Selucia?'
She hoisted her chin skyward. 'At the camp.'
'Does she know where you are?'
'Why?' she demanded. 'Why does everyone have to know where I am? No one knows where you go, where you sneak off to drink, or chase butterflies, or lie looking at stars like some stupid, stupid boy.'
The heat was suddenly stifling, stifling as the need to get away. He backed away a few paces before gathering his wits. She was just a girl. A confused one. Who was….crying? He jerked back another step.
No one knows, she had snapped.
Mat forgot about the pain in his gut. 'But you do.'
Her gaze was defiant despite the gloss of tears. There were tears of fury, he was certain.
'Tuon, it's dangerous to go wandering about. Selucia would have my hide if she knew….' you were following me. He bit that back just in time.
'I'm not a doll,' she hissed, and Mat had to smother a guilty flinch. 'I do not need protection. I do not.'
Mat swore, the fire in his belly now a leaden ache. 'Tuon, if you're lonel—' Her eyes burned, daring him to say it. 'If you're restless then tell me. I'll find something for you to do.'
'Read?' she scorned. 'Sew? Play stones?'
Mat couldn't meet that dark glare. Nearby a butterfly danced joyfully from blossom to blossom. Light. Why weren't women so easy to please?
Then one of the blue creatures danced upon something in the grass. It was much too long, of course, and the bow probably weighed more than she did. Still….
'Right,' he muttered, seizing her arm. She made a show of struggling as he led her to the tree, stood with arms folded as he snatched up the bow.
Dark eyes narrowed. 'It's too heavy.'
'Here.' Mat thrust the bow so she was forced to take it or risk a bruised toe.
Ignoring her gasp, Mat spun her to face the oak. 'See that knot? See it?'
'Yes,' she snapped.
'Don't let it out of your sight.'
He stepped close enough to see a freckle on the nape of her neck, perfectly round and the colour of fine brandy. Mat bit at his lip, his hand hovering, jittering above where it needed to be. 'Could they kill me for this?' he joked, gently placing his palm on her hip.
Large eyes tilted to his. Light, her lashes were long. 'I could kill you for this.'
'No, that's too low,' he said brightly, turning her attention back to the bow. 'You need it just….so.'
She steadied it and Mat nocked his last arrow. Tuon glanced up at him, her full rowan-red lips close enough to breathe warmth on his. He curved her waist and thought; I was right; I could fit both hands.
Their fingers touched on the bowstring and he felt the thrum in her, as though she were the arrow facing its final flight. Heat and jasmine pulsed from her in short, spiked waves. Mat blinked sweat from his eyes and pulled the bowstring to trembling point. He aimed, breath almost still. 'Now.'
She gasped as they released.
The arrow lanced the summer air, piercing the tree's heart with a triumphant thud.
Tuon spun to him, eyes fierce as firedrops, her laughter startling butterflies into flight, blue and dazzling and drunk with summer's end. The sun sailed from behind a cloud. Mat barely noticed.
'For you,' he stammered. 'A bow. I'll make one, that is.'
'Tomorrow?' Sweet, unexpected laughter still lingered on her breath.
'Thank you.' Then, quieter still so he almost didn't hear. 'Mat.'
He smiled. 'Well, it's a start.'
And on a day of dancing butterflies, that sounded almost a promise.