Mat Cauthon slowly finished his meal in the Wanderer's Rest common room, taking the last of his bread and mopping the mutton gravy on his plate. There was still wine in his cup and he finished it with a swallow. He had been on the road for almost two weeks now, heading south from Caemlyn and tiredness was settling heavily in his bones.

He had left his army, the Band of the Red Hand near Caemlyn, with Lord Talmanes in charge. They were still recruiting replacements for the troops they had lost in Altara, and training, as always. The illuminator, Aludra, had the materials she needed to start producing her dragons, but it would be a while still before enough would be ready to use. He thought they all could get along without him for a little while. He had other matters on his mind right now.

Mat was troubled by his constant thoughts of Tuon. It was hard to believe that he was actually married, and to a noble, no less! He didn't feel any different, except that she was always in his mind ... he had not really abandoned her. She was safe, back in her palace surrounded by her Deathwatch Guards, who were very dedicated. But he really felt like he needed to be with her again. There had been an almost constant pulling at him, with a feeling of urgency. He thought it must be the Pattern's doing.

That was bad enough, but then those bloody dice had started rattling in his head. It was enough to drive a man crazy. So, as much as he hated to go where his wife had the upper hand, he was headed to Ebou Dar. He would figure out how to deal with Tuon once he was at the Tarasin Palace. He wasn't sure if she had really meant all that talk about making him da'covale, but he had to take the chance.

Despite the crowded common room, Mat had noticed several men watching him and was getting a little nervous. One hard-eyed group looked like soldiers, despite their plain clothing. Their obvious leader was a tall fellow with sandy hair, who looked away whenever Mat glanced his way. Another large, blocky fellow, dressed like merchant guard, kept staring directly at him. The group with him were a sorry lot, drinking cheap ale and glaring at everyone.

Mat had faced a little trouble so far on his journey, and he knew that at least one of the Forsaken had ordered Darkfriends to kill him on sight. He was traveling alone, to make faster time and to avoid trouble. Also he didn't want to get any of his men taken by the Seanchan if things didn't go well when he got to the palace.

Quietly picking up his hat, coat and ashandarei, he headed out the rear door of the inn to the stable. The stable man wasn't there, so after finding his horse, Mat tied his gear onto the saddle. His ashandarei spear he tied in a leather holder fastened to the saddle.

He felt a small breeze as the stable door opened and then the old floorboards creaked. Mat looked up and saw five or six men enter. They were armed with swords and cudgels, the surly merchant guard in the lead. The other men with him spread out, trying to circle behind Mat.

"We must get him this time!" one of the smaller men said. "He's slipped away too many times and we have been warned not to let him escape." He came forward, raising a cudgel.

"Bloody Ashes!" cursed Mat as he dove behind his horse, pulling out his knives from his sleeves. Taking quick aim, Mat let the knives fly, hitting one man in the neck, and the man with the cudgel in the eye. Both men dropped immediately, writhing on the floor.

The other men cautiously advanced, with swords drawn. Mat had more knives hidden in his coat, boots, and down his back. The attackers were now leery of Mat's knives, keeping well back but making quick sword thrusts. Mat was nicked a few times, and his thigh and side began to bleed. A knife was not much defense against men with swords.

Mat backed up a little, and threw a knife, hitting one of the swordsmen in the shoulder. He turned quickly, drawing another knife. He slashed a different attacker, who dropped his sword. With a roar, their blocky leader ran forward, grabbing Mat around the middle, pinning his arms and holding tight. Mat struggled to free himself as one of men behind him hit the back of his head with a cudgel.

Mat grunted and dropped to the floor, twisting out of the big leader's arms. Darkness and stars clouded his vision. He became aware of more men running in, yelling and drawing swords. Mat was surprised when they attacked the first group, who were startled and very angry about the interruption.

"This is none of your business, leave us!" The large leader shouted, raising his sword against the now attacking men. The tall, sandy haired man whom Mat had noticed in the common room said nothing, but just pressed his sword attack with much skill. The new group quickly finished Mat's attackers, then turned to face him.

Mat swallowed hard as he fished a knife out of his boot, holding it before him, while looking up at the newcomers. The men approached slowly, Mat scooting back until he was against the stable wall. He was dizzy and did not think he could stand up. The sandy haired leader sheathed his sword, then made a deep bow. His men followed suit.

"Are you injured, your Highness?" He asked in a slow Seanchan drawl. "She will never forgive us if you have been hurt."

Mat breathed out with relief. "Who... who are you? Why?"

"I am Sergeant Symon of the Deathwatch Guards. This is Kora, Flay, Britt and Shiro." He offered Mat a hand up. The named men all bowed deeply again. "We were ordered to find you and then return to Ebou Dar. The Empress, May She Live Forever, has been concerned for your safety."

He grimaced and shook his head, looking around the stable at the bodies. "She said you would be coming this way. There have been squads of the guards searching the countryside for you. We are not wearing our uniforms, so we can be unnoticed in the smaller towns. I wasn't sure that it was you in the inn, but it seemed like these men were up to no good. You have disguised yourself well, although I recognize that spear from the description I was given."

Mat checked the ties that held his ashandarei to the saddle. He had left his horse, Pips, with the Band and his new mount was a tall, dun gelding. Mat had also left his wide, flat brimmed hat behind and had a smaller version with a slightly curled brim. He wore a plain dark green coat, a tan, high necked silk shirt, and travel-worn boots. He also had grown a short beard, which was still a little itchy. He had been attacked a few times by Darkfriends, getting away each time.

Mat nodded gratefully and said "I tried, but I just couldn't leave the spear behind. Thank you for the rescue. I must be getting tired, to let them get the jump on me." He was able to slowly walk to the fallen men and retrieve his daggers.

Sergeant Symon bowed again and said, "Your Highness, if you will forgive me, are you going to Ebou Dar? If so, may we accompany you? We would be most honored to be your escort."

"I would be grateful for your company Sergeant Symon, and your swords. These men might have companions. The road has been long, and I am weary of watching my back."

"Then we are ready to ride when your are, Highness."

Mat swung into his saddle as the other men retrieved their horses. He was still a little dizzy from the blow to he head. They mounted and left quickly, before an alarm could be sounded for the carnage in the stable, galloping from the village and heading south.