Disclaimer: I still own nothing, but I did buy a pizza…
A/N: Thanks to all those that reviewed. I don't know if this will ever actually happen, probably not, but I loved the idea. I had to make up some names here, but it worked, look at a map if you can. Enjoy. Oh and don't expect all chapters to be this long, this one got away from me a bit.
The Thin Line, Chapter Three.
Talmanes sat on his mount, his fingers itching to grasp the hilt of his sword and join the fray. In the distance banner after banner moved forward to meet the Seanchan. In tight, well controlled squares, the legions of the Red Hand marched at a slow, inevitable pace, their banners swayed with each step, at the same time they fluttered in the breeze. His hand itched again as he remembered only the Foot would be involved today, at least until the enemy broke and then he would be in charge of harassing the enemy. His orders were clear, pursue until they either surrendered or crossed the fast flowing Eradez River and go no further. Those that crossed were to be let go, no unnecessary blood would be spilt today. "Never leave a man without a way out," he had been told long ago, near the beginning of his education, "unless you wanted to see how hard a man with nothing to lose could truly fight." He had not forgotten.
The hill he sat on gave a clear view of the valley below, of the rocky terrain that was unsuitable for cavalry. The High Lord Tefan had made a fatal mistake in dithering too long. Now his force was caught between the approaching Foot and the Eradez behind him, leagues from the nearest crossing. Had he decided to run earlier and leave Shon Kifar to Cauthon he might have made it to the opposite banks of the river and safety. But that would have required him giving up his lands and estates, something the arrogant High Lord had probably never even imagined since he had laid his claim for the throne. So instead the man had let it be known that he would not let his eyes be lowered by fleeing and intended to stay behind Shon Kifar's walls and fight to the bitter end.
In response the Lord General, it was getting harder to think of him as simply Mat by the day, had ordered a slow march. "Let the fool sweat," he had said, "and if he sweats enough maybe we won't have to dig him out." Tafen's resolve had held out for two weeks until he broke and ran. The Band, all seventy thousand of them, had still been five days march from Shon Kifar's walls. He had made a brake west with his thirty thousand for Yetadar, a small village that had grown around the only bridge for hundreds of leagues that spanned the vast width of the raging Eradez. Yet another person had underestimated the speed at which the Band could move when they needed to. Perhaps he had believed there reputation to be inflated? 'Speed is life' was one of the Lord Generals beliefs. Another was never leave an enemy at your behind that would cause you trouble later. Which is why they were here today, thirty leagues east of Yetadar.
He turned in his saddle and looked behind him, where his grand legions waited patiently for his orders. The thirty thousand Horse were good men, they looked alert, attentive and well rested from the days when they hadn't pushed hard. A few man were checking weapons, others chatted quietly with the man next to him. They knew their part would come later. If Tefan broke west, they would follow slowly and push them across the Eradez at Yetadar. If they went east, back toward Shon Kifar… the pursuit would not be so slow.
'That's if they broke at all,' he thought grimly. More than one foolish High Lord had chosen death rather than be sentenced to life in the work gangs. Another of the Lord General's notions that. Not executing the nobles that brought forces against him, that resisted, but rather sentence them to rebuild that which they had helped to destroy. When Talmanes had questioned him about it he had merely said he was simply following Hawkwings advice. Strangely he had said that as if he knew the man. 'Must be another book he had read somewhere,' he decided, 'though how he got them where he claimed to have grown up was anyone's guess.'
Hopefully Tefan would die early and his army would surrender. It had happened before. Glancing over his shoulder quickly he almost smiled. Around half of his thirty thousand were born in these lands. Soldiers whose loyalty to the man they named the Fox was just as strong as it had been to the Empire. Perhaps more so, Cauthon restored order and brought peace to the territory under his control, while the Seanchan had simply maintained it, at least in there lifetime. Mat always simply referred to it as his territory, or 'the territory they controlled', yet another name was used openly anywhere the General wasn't. Ellisande. Mat tried to put a stop to it a first, angrily claiming he was not here to crave out a bloody new nation. Then when that had failed he had taken to ignoring it, though on more than one occasion Talmanes had heard him bitterly mumbling to himself that he never should have said anything.
From the Foot below the first war cry went up, "Dovie'andi se tovya sagain" It's time to toss the Dice. The first was inevitable followed by the second and this time the Horse behind him joined in. 'Carai en Ellisande!' Talmanes mentally translated, 'For the honor of the Rose of the Sun!' The ancient battle cry of the original Band of the Red Hand. The man beside him visibly flinched. Mat had told some men when he was drunk after the Last Battle, and they had not forgotten. Quite simply, if the original Band of the Red Hand had fought for Ellisande, then so would they. And they had taken the first opportunity to do so. It didn't matter to them what the word translated to, they needed a name.
"It makes no sense," the Lord General all but spluttered, "How can a nation be called the 'Rose of the Sun'?" Even as he said it he signaled behind him with his odd spear and a green flag was raised. Further down the slope and much closer to the battle he could see the banner-general of the artillery turn around and raise her arm. Though she had her back turned and was a half a league away, he was sure Aludra had a smile on her face as she lowered her arm and her five hundred dragons roared to life. He was also sure that the smile grew as death from her invaluable weapons rained down on the Seanchan and their screams carried to her on the wind.
"It doesn't matter what the word translates to," he replied calmly, "they needed one to describe what they were fighting for." Again he almost smiled, "And the Red Hand did originally fight for Ellisande."
Mat turned his head to glare at him briefly before shifting his attention back to the battle as he said, "That battle cry referred to a woman, Talmanes, not a bloody nation. Not Manetheren."
"So you have told me before, Eldrene, the last queen of Manetheren, if I recall correctly." Which he was sure he did, having researched the topic himself. "Perhaps one day it will fit properly. Maybe people will give your wife the same title they gave Eldrene." He immediately tensed as the words left his mouth, he had meant them to be lighthearted but too late he remembered that mentioning the little Seanchan Lady was a sure way to get his back up. Which was why he was doubly surprised at what came next.
"Tuon?" he scoffed incredulously, "She looks nothing like Eldrene." Out of the corner of his eye he could see him stiffen suddenly and some of the color drained from his face. "At least, from what I have read."
"Of course, how else would you know what she looked like?" he agreed uncertainly. 'How else could he possibly know what she looked like?'
"Of course," Mat agreed. As the dragons roared for a second time, lightening and fire began to fall among the Bands soldiers and the ground began to explode under others. Suddenly not all the screaming that could be heard was from the enemy. It didn't last long, it never did. As the drums began playing within the legions, the Asha'man that had helped them cross the Aryth Ocean, or at least the forty of them that were marching in the bands armor below, searched out the damane within the High Lords forces and systematically stilled them all. From the scouts reports there were no more the twenty five present. Even from here Talmanes could sense the confusion within the Seanchan ranks as the damane became useless. The confusion more than likely turned to alarm as the crossbowmen came into range and there first volley slapped into there ranks. However it was only when the Asha'man began the work they were infamous for that the true carnage began.
"They better bloody be protecting those damane.' The Lord General stated quietly. There was no need to say who he meant. The Asha'man's first orders were always to still the damane, their second was to ensure they aren't killed needlessly.
"There's no need to worry," he said confidently, "Flinn would have made sure of it." Mat just grunted in response. It had been Flinn's idea from the beginning but Mat had taken it to heart. After what had happened to his sister it was easy to say why. After each battle the sul'dam would be sent away, if they weren't running already. The damane, on the other hand, would be carried off by the Asha'man to a place they had constructed outside Mat's Capital. Flinn was adamant that they would learn to be women again, to be human. According to him he had the ultimate incentive for them to do so, he could restore there connection to the power.
The first that had entered that compound were those they had taken in Tarabon, in their initial raid. He didn't know much about what occurred in that building other than once the Asha'man were convinced that a woman was her own person once more, they offered to restore her connection to Saidar. A few had declined and walked away free woman, mostly though, they eagerly said yes. What had surprised Mat and Flinn was the severity with which they demanded to be allowed to join the Fox's armies and fight the Seanchan. Six months ago the first woman had had Saidar returned to her and still they weren't allowed to fight.
Looking to his left he studied the group of fifty or so women. They looked…eager. Not a single one wore grey; they were of all shapes and sizes, a mismatch of a group if he had ever seen one. Yet they had one thing in common, both the incredibly old and young alike. When any of their gazes drifted to the Lord General, as they often did, the fever that shone brightly in their gazes was unmistakable. There was absolutely no doubt who they held responsible for their freedom and there was nothing that he could ask them that they would not do. 'Light, three of those women used to be Aes Sedai,' he tried to convince himself once again. They only reason they had decided not to fight the Seanchan was because he had asked them not to. They would be healing men today and no more.
He was drawn from his study of the women as Mat turned to him and asked in unsure voice, "Do you think I did the right thing by coming here?"
"Certainly," he replied without hesitation, "Tefan would have crossed the river with that force and joined with th-"
He got no further as Mat cut in roughly, "No, that's not what I meant. Did I do the bloody right thing by coming here; this plan blew up in my face life an illuminators firework. Do you think I made a mistake?"
Talmanes blinked in surprise, he had never expected to be asked that question, especially not in the middle of a battle. Though looking down he noted that it was hardly going against them, and then he understood. With both the death of Tefan and the capture of Shon Kifar basically certainties within the next few days, it was done. What they had set out to accomplish at the beginning of the year when they realized they could not leave had been done. "If it was a mistake, then it was one that other man dream of making."
Mat laughed bitterly, "A dream? Talmanes my dream is that I'll wake up tomorrow and find myself in a common room of an inn, any inn, have a pretty girl on my knee, good wine in my hand, a fire in the hearth and a decent dice game in the corner." He shook his head ruefully before he continued in a serious voice, "How many men lay in shallow graves on this continent because I thought I could waltz in, snatch a city out from under their noises, maybe a little more, and then play a game with the Empress? How many men?"
Talmanes looked around to make sure no one was within earshot before he spoke with all the surety he could manage. "I still think your plan was a good one. Under the same circumstances I would still do the same thing. We simply could not have been prepared for what we would find when we got here and that changed everything. In the end we did the right thing, the honorable thing."
"But not in the beginning," he said regretfully. "Those men whose graves litter our path did not deserve this end, some may even be dieing as we speak and for what, a failed plan to save our home?"
Talmanes took his time before replying to that as he remembered. The message to the Empress to make sure she was watching. The night of fire and blood in Tarabon that killed thirty five thousand of the Seanchan Empires soldiers, and eight of their damane that had not been in the kennels when the Asha'man covertly began the attack. The outpost had burned, the reserves destroyed, the stockpiles stolen, all in an attempt to hide the real reason for the attack. They needed maps, or more specifically, maps of a land none of them had ever been to, maps that every command post of the Ever Victorious Army had in abundance.
He could still remember later that night as he sat in the command tent, the fires from the destroyed Seanchan outpost giving the night an eerie glow. After stilling the damane the Asha'man in the kennels had had one objective, make sure the maps didn't burn. He sat and watched as map after map of lands they knew next to nothing about were carried in by one soldier after another. He could remember Mats voice as Master Roidelle flattened the map on the table that he had been looking for, the one that depicted the whole Seanchan continent. "Since before the Last Battle there has been a civil war on the other side of the Aryth Ocean, the Forsaken had seen to that. Involving upwards of fifty or so different factions, or so I have been reliably told." He drew one of his knifes out and, after a brief pause, stabbed it into the map, right above a city in the eastern most peninsular. A small smile had graced his face as he spoke, "This city is known as Seandar, former capital of the Seanchan Empire. The court of the Nine Moons is there, along with the Tower of Ravens. But more importantly, it is where the Empress grew up, it's her home." He had looked intently at everyone present as he continued. "Lets see how she stomachs the idea of the Band of the Red Hand ruling in Seandar." His smile grew then as he quietly said, "Let's see how much she wants it back."
The laughter that had followed that statement still gave him nightmares. Seandar had cracked like an egg two weeks later, and the Red Hand flew above the city from every staff. He had walked into the Court of the Nine Moons with Mat, right up to the very Crystal Throne itself, yet by that stage all the joy they should have felt had long since dissipated. It had left them the moment they rode through the gates and their eyes fell upon the people and the city streets. The city was in the grips of a famine, with the bodies of those that had already succumbed tossed into the street like so much garbage. The gaunt faces of those left alive, men, women and children, watched with disinterest as they rode by. Their dispassionate eyes staring off at nothing in the distance, perhaps caught in a memory of happier times. Not one raised a cheer, not one raised a protest. Three years of constant civil war right across an Empire that had know little but peace for the last seven hundred meant one thing. There had been near three years without an anywhere near decent harvest. It soon became apparent that the Empire was starving; almost all food that was grown was snatched up by the rival armies. If a farmer protested too hard, his body was left behind.
There could be no enjoyment of the architecture then, or what was left of it. The city had apparently changed hands many times over the previous three years, the capital of the Empire been the favorite target of all the Blood. Surprisingly the immense Imperial Palace and the wonderfully landscaped gardens were almost untouched. Outside the palace walls, however, was a different story. Over half the buildings were destroyed; half the rest were in serious disrepair. After marching though the city for no more then half an hour, no one had any thoughts whatsoever of informing the Empress of the capture of Seandar.
The Red Hand had a starving city to feed, and a city full of dead to clear before disease took hold. Even in the worst of the civil wars in Andor and Cairhien it had never come to this, never became this bad. The people had given up all hope; they had stayed in Seandar simply because they had nowhere else to go. Three days later wagons laden with grain began to roll in, the beginning of the end really. The Band's soldiers had distributed the food throughout the city to a disbelieving populace. It was the end of viewing the people as the enemy and the beginning of the notion that they were now responsible for them. One look at the children's faces, their hesitant smiles, their joyful laughter, convinced them of that. Even the Asha'man agreed. A way had to be found to keep these people alive.
The result had been the raiding of the Imperial vaults in Seandar to purchase as much grain and livestock as they could manage from Tear. Then the campaigns had begun. Under the Lord Generals direction the Red Hand had, along with the hundred or so Asha'man who would not remain behind in Seandar with the others, ranged north, capturing the top of the eastern peninsular. Three months it took, five different factions destroyed, five different High Lords or Ladies either captured or dead. What remained of their armies given the choice to disband or swear new oaths, to a new General. As the Red Hand conquered with one decisive victory after another, its armies grew. Soon the news had spread, like a wildfire on the dry plains, that wherever the Red Hand ruled, wherever they conquered, they brought food and peace. Sometimes they would turn up to a town to find the gates wide open, one of the Blood in chains and soldiers already on one knee. Those were the days that the General was the happiest. Three months of fighting for one simple reason, one simple principle; never leave an enemy at your back.
The Imperial vaults in Seander were deep indeed, but they would not last forever. After pacifying the north the Red Hand had swept south, down both sides of the Jianmin Mountains. Like a runaway bull gathering momentum as it went, the Red Hand trampled all before it, each successive victory hot on the heels of the last. Between the Asha'man, their Traveling, Aludra's dragons, the fractured nature of the land itself and Matrim Cauthon, it had almost been unfair, almost. He had no sympathy for those that committed the atrocities they had witnessed in this civil war.
Down the peninsular they marched, adding territory after territory to the lands they controlled, destroying warring factions indiscriminately. They rode for the breadbasket of the former Empire, the fertile land that lay between Kirendad and Shon Kifar. They followed the Jianmin Mountains until they meet the Aldael Mountain range, capturing Kirendad as they went. Having secured their western boarder after nine grueling months of fighting below Seandar, they had struck east along the northern banks of the Eradez, and had been closing in on Shon Kifar ever since. Farmland that had been deserted for more than four years would produce a crop next season, the governors that had been installed in each territory were seeing to that. Governors that were selected on merit alone, another of Hawkwings ideas, that.
In over a year of fighting there numbers had grown such that there were now three armies in the field, each roughly seventy thousand strong. The Red Hand itself was before them now, biting deeply into Tefan's ever decreasing army. Daerid and Mandevwin were digging in close to Kirendad, protecting there backs from anything that may come at them over the mountains. Kellar, a Seanchan captain that had caught the Generals eye in the field, patrolled the peninsular, discouraging a direct attack at Seandar from the sea. As it stood, no army other than those at the command of the Lord General had come within a hundred leagues of Seander in months. In total, counting the soldiers stationed in each town and village, the total number of soldiers that they could draw on at need came close to four hundred thousand. Which was remarkable considering that they had only crossed the Aryth with sixty.
As he remembered he grew certain that something else was the issue entirely, or at least, only part of it was. He turned and caught Mat's troubled gaze as the cool wind whipped his cloak about, "Every man has been given ample opportunity to return home. We made it abundantly clear in the months after we arrived what we planned and still they stayed. They are not out there fighting for Andor, Cairhien or Tear. They fight for what we do here, for the people. They fight for Ellisande." He stopped himself from adding 'and for you' just in time as Mat sourly grunted. "Truthfully I don't think you could make them leave. But you yourself told me this months ago," he had been heavily drunk and the wording had been 'bloody Ellisande' but the principle was the same, "do you truly think that if we were back there, sixty thousand strong, that we alone would have prevented them from taking Ghealdan?"
"Maybe, Talmanes, maybe." He said regretfully, "But that's not the point." He spread his arms wide as he continued, "Here we are, rebuilding her former lands, saving swaths of them from civil war and she is on the other side of the Aryth, destroying our home. Tell me, what have we truly done to prevent that? Nothing is what, and for that I am responsible."
Talmanes was momentarily appalled, "Surely you don't mean that. We now control roughly a quarter of the empire, a far more enticing bargaining tool then just Seander alone, your plan may still work, even better than we expected. If she may have agreed to stop hostilities to gain Seander, she may agree to give up nations in return for what we now-" Mat looked at him sharply and the words died on his tongue. A hope that he had been silently harboring for months sprang to life as he breathlessly questioned, "You don't mean to give them back, do you?"
"How the bloody well can I?" he said sharply before sighing, "She won't give those lands back, not for anything. To her, they were rightfully hers to begin with. Seandar may have brought a peace treaty, which then may have diverted her attention to these lands but now we hold too much. Too many men of the Red Hand have perished for these lands for me to be able to even consider giving them to her in any deal unless it involves her total withdrawal from our home. And that, she can never do."
Talmanes smiled, something he rarely did ever since his wife and child were murdered in Cairhiens civil war, "It's a pity we won't be leaving anytime soon then, my king." At Mats glare he laughed before continuing only half seriously, "We'll just have to face her in the field then, m'lord. That is, if you truly do want to prevent her from taking more of our home and we are more able to do that now then we were a year ago. Though, I must say, I have never heard of the women that would thank her husband for relieving her of her empire."
"Nor have I, ever." Somehow he managed make that sound significant. A mischievous smile took his features before he continued, "She did say, 'I live to serve the empire'. If I control her empire…"
Mat even laughed with him this time, "You're a braver man than I if you want to test that theory. More foolish too, I think." Below them war horns sounded, signaling Tefan's inevitable retreat. There was only so much of that carnage anyone could take. He watched carefully then let out a breath he didn't know he had been holding. 'Thank the creator, they broke west. There wouldn't be much more senseless killing today.' "They head for Yetadar. Shon Kifar is ours."
Mat nodded as if he had been expecting nothing less for months, "Follow slowly, only kill those that turn and fight. Light, take rest breaks if you want to, just make sure they cross the light forsaken bridge. I'll take the foot to Shon Kifar and, once Tefan crosses, you hold Yetadar. Begin building a winter encampment and don't let anybody or anything cross that bloody bridge without been searched. Send raken when everything is secure." They were orders, yet Talmanes hardly needed them, he had already gone over the plan twice today. As Mat watched Tefan's army turn tail and run he continued. "Who knows, perhaps in a few days I'll get my dream. I'll wake up in an inn, perhaps one in Seandar, with some good wine, a fire burning and some dice in my hand."
Talmanes signaled over his shoulder to his banners of Horse and watched them slowly begin to move as he frowned. "What about the pretty woman?"
"You yourself said she was in Ghealdan, Talmanes, an ocean away from Seandar." Mat said far too casually.
Talmanes surprised himself by laughing again, perhaps he had been looking forward to the end of the campaign, at least for the winter, more than he realized? He did not know what would happen come spring, but he had heard Mat talking about consolidation, rather than expansion. Rule three: never overextend yourself. "So she is m'lord. So she is. Forgive my momentary lapse of judgment." He said, slapping him across the back. As he began to move off toward his Banners, he waved a hand in farewell, "I'll see you in Seandar."
He did not get far, however, before he was forced to draw rein as Mat called out to him. "And Talmanes," there was a smile on his face, but he thought it looked strained, "If you ever refer to me as your king again I'll hang you from the nearest tree." This time Talmanes didn't laugh, he didn't even smile. He was not entirely sure that Mat was joking. 'Did the man prefer Emperor?' he idly wondered as he rode after his grand legions, his itching hand finally making its way to his sword hilt.
A/N: Juicy huh?