Suddenly Rand heard boots pounding toward them over the slate paving stones.
“Too late,” Gawyn muttered. “He must have started running as soon as he was out of eyeshot.”
Elayne growled an oath, and Rand's eyebrows shot up. He had heard that one from the stablemen at The Queen's Blessing and had been shocked then. The next moment she was in cool selfpossession once more.
Gawyn and Elayne appeared content to remain where they were, but he could not make himself stay for the Queen's Guards with such equanimity. He started once more for the wall, knowing he would be no more than halfway up before the guards arrived, but unable to stand still.
Before he had taken three steps reduniformed men burst into sight, breastplates catching the sun as they dashed up the path. Others came like breaking waves of scarlet and polished steel, seemingly from every direction. Some held drawn swords; others only waited to set their boots before raising bows and nocking feathered shafts. Behind the barred faceguards every eye was grim, and every broadhead arrow was pointed unwaveringly at him.
Elayne and Gawyn leaped as one, putting themselves between him and the arrows, their arms spread to cover him. He stood very still and kept his hands in plain sight, away from his sword.
While the thud of boots and the creak of bowstrings still hung in the air, one of the soldiers, with the golden knot of an officer on his shoulder, shouted, “My Lady, my Lord, down, quickly!”
Despite her outstretched arms Elayne drew herself up regally. “You dare to bring bare steel into my presence, Tallanvor? Gareth Bryne will have you mucking stables with the meanest trooper for this, if you are lucky!”
The soldiers exchanged puzzled glances, and some of the bowmen uneasily half lowered their bows. Only then did Elayne let her arms down, as if she had only held them up because she wished to. Gawyn hesitated, then followed her example. Rand could count the bows that had not been lowered. The muscles of his stomach tensed as though they could stop a broadhead shaft at twenty paces.
The man with the officer's knot seemed the most perplexed of all. “My Lady, forgive me, but Lord Galadedrid reported a dirty peasant skulking in the gardens, armed and endangering my Lady Elayne and my Lord Gawyn.” His eyes went to Rand, and his voice firmed. “If my Lady and my Lord will please to step aside, I will take the villain into custody. There is too much riffraff in the city these days.”
“I doubt very much if Galad reported anything of the kind,” Elayne said. “Galad does not lie.”
“Sometimes I wish he would,” Gawyn said softly, for Rand's ear. “Just once. It might make living with him easier.”
“This man is my guest,” Elayne continued, “and here under my protection. You may withdraw, Tallanvor. ”
“I regret that will not be possible, My Lady. As My Lady knows, the Queen, your lady mother, has given orders regarding anyone on Palace grounds without Her Majesty's permission, and word has been sent to Her Majesty of this intruder.” There was more than a hint of satisfaction in Tallanvor's voice. Rand suspected the officer had had to accept other commands from Elayne that he did not think proper; this time the man was not about to, not when he had a perfect excuse.
Elayne stared back at Tallanvor; for once she seemed at a loss.
Rand looked a question at Gawyn, and Gawyn understood. “Prison,” he murmured. Rand's face went white, and the young man added quickly, “Only for a few days, and you will not be harmed. You'll be questioned by Gareth Bryne, the CaptainGeneral, personally, but you will be set free once it's clear you meant no harm.” He paused, hidden thoughts in his eyes. “I hope you were telling the truth, Rand al'Thor from the Two Rivers. ”
“You will conduct all three of us to my mother,” Elayne announced suddenly. A grin bloomed on Gawyn's face.
Behind the steel bars across his face, Tallanvor appeared taken aback. “My Lady, I — ”
“Or else conduct all three of us to a cell,” Elayne said. “We will remain together. Or will you give orders for hands to be laid upon my person?” Her smile was victorious, and the way Tallanvor looked around as if he expected to find help in the trees said he, too, thought she had won.
Won what? How?
“Mother is viewing Logain,” Gawyn said softly, as if he had read Rand's thoughts, “and even if she was not busy, Tallanvor would not dare troop into her presence with Elayne and me, as if we were under guard. Mother has a bit of a temper, sometimes.”
Rand remembered what Master Gill had said about Queen Morgase. A bit of a temper?
Another reduniformed soldier came running down the path, skidding to a halt to salute with an arm across his chest. He spoke softly to Tallanvor, and his words brought satisfaction back to Tallanvor's face.
“The Queen, your lady mother,” Tallanvor announced, “commands me to bring the intruder to her immediately. It is also the Queen's command that my Lady Elayne and my Lord Gawyn attend her. Also immediately.”
Gawyn winced, and Elayne swallowed hard. Her face composed, she still began industriously brushing at the stains on her dress. Aside from dislodging a few pieces of bark, her effort did little good.
“If My Lady pleases?” Tallanvor said smugly. “My Lord?”
The soldiers formed around them in a hollow box that started along the slate path with Tallanvor leading. Gawyn and Elayne walked on either side of Rand, both appearing lost in unpleasant thoughts. The soldiers had sheathed their swords and returned arrows to quivers, but they were no less on guard than when they had had weapons in hand. They watched Rand as if they expected him at any moment to snatch his sword and try to cut his way to freedom.
Try anything? I won't try anything. Unnoticed! Hah!
Watching the soldiers watching him, he suddenly became aware of the garden. He had regained his balance completely since the fall. One thing had happened after another, each new shock coming before the last had a chance to fade, and his surroundings had been a blur, except for the wall and his devout wish to be back on the other side of it. Now he saw the green grass that had only tickled the back of his mind before. Green! A hundred shades of green. Trees and bushes green and thriving, thick with leaves and fruit. Lush vines covering arbors over the path. Flowers everywhere. So many flowers, spraying the garden with color. Some he knew — bright golden sunburst and tiny pink tallowend, crimson starblaze and purple Emond's Glory, roses in every color from purest white to deep, deep red — but others were strange, so fanciful in shape and hue he wondered if they could be real.
“It's green,” he whispered. “Green.” The soldiers muttered to themselves; Tallanvor gave them a sharp look over his shoulder and they fell silent.
“Elaida's work,” Gawyn said absently.
“It is not right,” Elayne said. “She asked if I wanted to pick out the one farm she could do the same for, while all around it the crops still failed, but it still isn't right for us to have flowers when there are people who do not have enough to eat.” She drew a deep breath, and refilled her selfpossession. “Remember yourself,” she told Rand briskly. “Speak up clearly when you are spoken to, and keep silent otherwise. And follow my lead. All will be well.”
Rand wished he could share her confidence. It would have helped if Gawyn had seemed to have it as well. As Tallanvor led them into the Palace, he looked back at the garden, at all the green streaked with blossoms, colors wrought for a Queen by an Aes Sedai's hand. He was in deep water, and there was no bank in sight.
Palace servants filled the halls, in red liveries with collars and cuffs of white, the White Lion on the left breast of their tunics, scurrying about intent on tasks that were not readily apparent. When the soldiers trooped by with Elayne and Gawyn, and Rand, in their midst, they stopped dead in their tracks to stare openmouthed.
Through the middle of all the consternation a graystriped tomcat wandered unconcernedly down the hall, weaving between the goggling servants. Suddenly the cat struck Rand as odd. He had been in Baerlon long enough to know that even the meanest shop had cats lurking in every corner. Since entering the Palace, the tom was the only cat he had seen.
“You don't have rats?” he said in disbelief. Every place had rats.
“Elaida doesn't like rats,” Gawyn muttered vaguely. He was frowning worriedly down the hall, apparently already seeing the coming meeting with the Queen. “We never have rats.”
“Both of you be quiet.” Elayne's voice was sharp, but as absent as her brother's. “I am trying to think.”
Rand watched the cat over his shoulder until the guards took him round a corner, hiding the tom from sight. A lot of cats would have made him feel better; it would have been nice if there was one thing normal about the Palace, even if it was rats.
The path Tallanvor took turned so many times that Rand lost his sense of direction. Finally the young officer stopped before tall double doors of dark wood with a rich glow, not so grand as some they had passed, but still carved all over with rows of lions, finely wrought in detail. A liveried servant stood to either side.
“At least it isn't the Grand Hall.” Gawyn laughed unsteadily. “I never heard that Mother commanded anyone's head cut off from here.” He sounded as if he thought