The Dragon Reborn (Chapter 24): Scouting and Discoveries

Welcome back to my re-read, recap, and reaction to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. This post will only have spoilers through the current chapter.

You can find my previous chapter recaps HERE.

Chapter 24: Scouting and Discoveries

Sunlight through the shutters wakes Mat. For a moment he only lays there frowning. He has not reasoned out a plan for escaping from the city nor has he given up. His memory still lays heavy with fog. Just then two serving women enter with water and a tray that is heavily laden with food. They tell him how much better he looks already and how soon he will be back on his feet if he listens to what the Aes Sedai tell him. Mat answers them and tries to give the impression he means to go along.

When they leave, Mat gets out of bed and begins to eat and to shave. Looking at himself in the mirror he decides that he does look better. His eyes no longer look so sunken and the dark circles are gone. His cheeks remain hollow but not so hollow as before. Mat decides that at this rate he will be gone before they know it. Nevertheless, he is still surprised after shaving at how quickly he eats every bite of food on the tray. He is sure they expect him to climb back into bed after eating but instead he dresses himself.

Mat leaves the spare clothes in his wardrobe and tucks the dice cups into his pouch. Opening the door, he peaks out. No one is out there and there is no guard. It takes some wandering until Mat finds what he wants – a doorway to the outside. On his way he sees a number of servants – both male and female – as well as hurrying novices, Accepted, and even a few Aes Sedai. Nobody stops him and the Aes Sedai only give him a passing glance. He is happy to learn that men are allowed to walk about in this part of the Tower but is somewhat unhappy not to have run into Egwene or Nynaeve. He even regrets not seeing Elayne even as he thinks that she does have her nose in the air half the time. He believes that he cannot leave the city without saying goodbye and he hopes that none of them would turn him in for trying to leave the city – even though they are themselves trying to become Aes Sedai. He decides that even if they might he will risk it.

Outside, he looks across a wide flagstone yard with a barracks on the other side made of gray stone. It looks almost like a huge boulder among the few trees. He sees Guardsmen outside and Guardsmen are what he wants. He walks across the yard to watch the soldiers, as if he has nothing better to do. Now and again one of them looks curiously at him but none challenge his right to be there. From time to time, Mat asks a casual question and finally he gets an answer.

He meets a man who is a bridge guard. Mat asks him what conditions are like on the other side of the river. The man asks him which side of the river he means and Mat suggests he means the east. The man replies that the ground there is not muddy but that there are Whitecloaks there patrolling in every village for ten miles in that direction. He adds that they have not hurt anyone yet but that they seem as though they wish to provoke the Tower Guardsmen.

Mat: What about west then?
Guardsman: The same. But you will not be crossing lad, east or west. Your name do be Matrim Cauthon or fortune has abandoned me. Last night a Sister herself in person did come to the bridge where I did stand guard. She did drill your features at us until each could speak them back to her. A guest she did say, and not to be harmed, but not to be allowed out of the city, either.

The soldier asks doubtfully if Mat stole something from them. Mat replies indignantly that he did not steal anything. The soldier agrees that Mat does not look like a thief but then says that he has the look of a fellow who tried to sell him the Horn of Valere three days ago. Mat gives a jump at the mention of the Horn but keeps his voice level. He tells the soldier he was sick. He says that he guesses that they do not want him to go until he has all of his strength back. Mat tries to will all of the men watching him to accept the story. The guardsman looks at him, nods, and notes that he does have the look of sickness on his face.

Guardsman: But never did I hear of so much effort to keep one sick man in the city.

Mat tells them that this is the reason. He then tells the soldiers that he has to be going because the Aes Sedai told him he is to take long walks to rebuild his strength. He feels their eyes following him as he leaves. He had wanted to find out how well his description was passed around and now he knows.

Mat next finds himself walking along a twisting gravel path. A girl in Novice white appears ahead of him on the path, striding purposefully toward him. She seems not to see him. When he is close enough for Mat to see her big dark eyes, Mat grins suddenly. He knows this girl. He had never expected to find her here, or to ever see her again at all.

Mat: Else? Else Grinwell? You remember me, don’t you? Mat Cauthon! A friend and I visited your father’s farm. Have you decided to become Aes Sedai then?

She stops short staring at him. Coldly, she asks him what he is doing up and out. Mat comments that she knows about that and then steps closer to her. She steps back, keeping her distance. Mat stops and tells her that he was healed and that it is not catching. Mat thinks that her large dark eyes are more knowing than he remembers and not as warm. He asks her what the matter is and notes that she looks like she does not know him. Her manner is not as he remembers. Mat thinks Else could give Elayne lessons now. She tells him that she has work to be about and instructs him to let her by. Mat sees that six can walk abreast on this path but steps to one side of the gravel. She walks on the other side and eyes him as she passes. Once by, she quickens her steps, glancing over her shoulder at him until she is out of sight. Mat thinks sourly that she wanted to be certain that he does not follow her. Mat decides that his luck is not in today.

Mat starts on again and soon hears a ferocious clatter, like dozens of sticks bein beaten together. Curious, Mat turns off toward it into the trees. A little way brings him to a large expanse of bare ground. At intervals are wooden stands holding quarterstaffs and practice swords made of strips of wood bound loosely together and a few real swords, axes, and spears. Spaced across the ground are men stripped bare to the waste flailing at each other with practice swords. Some move so smoothly that it almost seems they dance with each other. There is nothing to mark them out from the soldiers but Mat is certain he is watching Warders. Some of the younger men move less smoothly. Mat decides he is watching Warders and their students.

He is not their only audience. Not ten paces from him are half a dozen women with ageless Aes Sedai faces and as many more in the banded white dresses of the Accepted stand eyeing one pair of students. Mat sits cross-legged under a large leather leaf and roots out three large pebbles from the ground. He juggles them idly. He does not feel weak, exactly, but it is good to sit. If there is a way out of the Tower grounds, it will not vanish while he takes a short rest. Before he has been there for five minutes, Mat knows who the Aes Sedai and Accepted are watching.

One of the Warders’ pupils is a tall lithe young man who moves like a cat. Mat thinks he is also almost as pretty as a girl. Everyone woman is staring at the tall man with sparkling eyes – even the Aes Sedai. The pupil handles is practice sword almost as deftly as the Warders. It is not that his opponent, a youth closer to Mat’s age with red-gold hair, is unskilled. The golden haired man meets every lightning attack, turning it away before the practice sword can strike him, and he even launches an occasional attack of his own. Mat shifts the pebbles to one hand and keeps them spinning in the air. Mat thinks that he would not want to face either of them – certainly not with a sword. Suddenly the Warder overseeing their practice calls for a break.

Now that they are no longer dancing about, Mat gets a good look at the youth with red-gold hair and he lets his pebbles drop.

Mat: Burn me, I’ll bet my whole purse that’s Elayne’s brother. And the other one is Galad, or I’ll eat my boots.

On the journey from Toman Head, it had seemed half of Elayne’s conversations were of Gawyn’s virtues and Galad’s vices. Mat remembers that once Elayne was pinned down, Galad sounded like what every mother said she wanted her son to be. Mat reflects that he does not think he wants to spend much time in Galad’s company. Mat remembers that Egwene blushed whenever Galad is mentioned. Mat notices that Gawyn catches sight of him and then says something quietly to Galad. The two of them walk by the women toward Mat. Mat scrambles to his feet as the pair approaches.

Gawyn tells Mat that he recognizes his description from Egwene and Elayne’s description. He says that he understands that Mat is sick and asks if he is better now. Mat tells him that he is fine while wondering if he is supposed to address him as “my Lord” or something of the sort. He decides that he will not. Galad asks Mat if he came to the practice yard to learn the sword. Mat shakes his head and tells them that he was only out walking. He says that he knows little about swords but that he would prefer to put his trust ina good bow or a good quarterstaff anyway.

Galad: If you spend much time around Nynaeve, you’ll need bow, quarterstaff, and sword to protect yourself. And I don’t know whether that would be enough.

Gawyn looks at his brother wonderingly and says that he very nearly made a joke. Galad tells Gawyn that he has a sense of humor and he adds that Gawyn only thinks he does not because he will not mock others. Gawyn then turns back to Mat and tells him that he should learn something of the sword as the knowledge is useful these days. He brings up Rand and the unusual sword he carries. He asks Mat what he has heard of Rand. Mat replies that he has not seen Rand in a long time. Just for a moment when Mat mentioned Rand, Gawyn’s look gains intensity. Mat notices and wonders if Gawyn knows about Rand, too. Mat decides to change the subject.

Mat: Swords aren’t the be all and end all, you know. I could do fairly well against either of you, I think, if you had a sword and I had my quarterstaff.

Gawyn coughs to swallow a laugh. Much to politely Gawyn replies that Mat must be very good. Galad’s face is clearly disbelieving.

Perhaps it is because they both clearly think he is making a wild boast, or perhaps it is because Mat mishandled questioning the Guardsmen, perhaps it is because Else wanted nothing to do with him, or perhaps it is because all of the women nearby are staring at Galad like cats eyeing a jug of cream, but Mat decides ultimately he is going to do it because it will be fun and because he might also earn some coin. Mat thinks his luck would not even need to be back.

Mat: I will wager two silver to two from each of you that I can beat both of you at once, just the way I said.

Mat tells them that they cannot have fairer odds than that. Then he almost laughs aloud at the consternation on their faces. Gawyn tells Mat that there is no need to make wagers and he reminds Mat that he has been sick. He suggests that they do this when Mat is stronger. Galad adds that it would be far from a fair wager, anyway. He says he would not take it now or later. Galad tells Mat that he would not have Egwene angry with him. Mat asks what Egwene has to do with this and then reiterates the terms of the wager. Galad says that this is ridiculous and he says Mat will have no chance against one trained swordsman, let alone two. He insists that he will not take such advantage.

A gravel voice asks Galad if he thinks that. The blocky Warder joins them with his thick black eyebrows pulled down in a scowl.

Warder: You two think you are good enough with your swords to take a boy with a stick?

Galad tells the Warder, Hammar, that it would not be fair. Gawyn adds that Mat has been sick. The Warder directs all of them to the yard. Galad and Gawyn give Mat regretful looks before obeying. The Warder then eyes Mat doubtfully and asks Mat if he is sure he is up for this.

Warder: Now that I take a close look at you, you ought to be in a sick bed.

Mat tells him that he is already out of a sick bed and that he has to be up for this as he does not want to lose his two marks. The Warder’s brows raise in surprise and he asks Mat if he means to hold to that wager. Mat laughs and says he needs the money. Mat’s laughter cuts off abruptly as he turns toward the nearest stand holding quarterstaffs and his knees nearly buckle. At the stand, he takes his time picking out a staff.

Matt: I have to win this. I opened my fool mouth and now I have to win. I can’t afford to lose those two marks. Without those to build on it will take forever to win the money I need.

When Mat turns back, Gawn and Galad are already waiting at the yard where they had been practicing. Mat mutters that he needs luck and that it’s time to toss the dice. Hammar gives him an odd look.

Hammar: You speak the Old Tongue, lad?

Mat stares back at him for a moment and he feels cold. With an effort he makes his feet start out toward the practice yard. Mat reminds them both loudly to remember the wager. A buzz rises from the Accepted as they realize what is happening. The Aes Sedai watch in silence. Gawyn and Galad split apart to either side of Mat, neither with their sword more than half-raised. Gawyn tells Mat that htere is no wager at the same time that Galad tells Mat that he will not take his money like this. Mat tells them both that he means to take their coin. Hammar shouts that he will cover their wager if they will not cover it themselves. Both of the young Lords finally agree.

Galad rushes at Mat. The end of Mat’s staff thuds into his ribs and causes him to stumble. Mat lets the staff bounce off Galad and carries it around just as Gawyn comes into range. The staff dips, darts under Gawyn’s practice sword, and then clips his ankle out from under him. As Gawyn falls, Mat completes his swing, coming around to catch Galad’s wrist, sending his practice sword flying. Galad throws himself into a smooth rolling dive and comes up with his sword in both hands. Ignoring him for a moment, Mat spins around and catches Gawyn in the head with a loud thump. He goes down in a heap. Mat is only vaguely aware of an Aes Sedai rushing out to attend Elayne’s fallen brother. Mat thinks to himself that he hopes Gawyn is alright. Galad is now poised on the balls of his feet, holding is sword precisely, as though he is now taking Mat seriously.

Mat’s legs choose this moment to tremble. He can feel the hungry wobbly feeling creeping back in. He knows that if he waits for Galad to come to him that he will fall on his face. It is hard to keep his knees straight as he starts forward.

Luck stay with me.

From the first blow Mat knows that luck or skill or whatever has brought him this far is still with him. Galad fights with every ounce of his skill to keep Mat’s staff from him. Galad cannot attack – it is all he can do just to defend. Mat presses him, staff a blue. Hunger gnaws at Mat and his strength begins to fail.

Not yet. I can’t fall yet. I have to win. Now!

With a roar, Mat throws all of his energy into one last attack. In quick succession he finds Galad’s knee, wrist, and ribs. Finally he thrusts into Galad’s stomach like a spear. With a groan, Galad falls over. The staff quivers in Mat’s hands on the point of a final crushing thrust to the throat. Mat almost drops his quarterstaff when he realizes what he had been about to do.

Win, not kill. Light, what was I thinking?

Reflexively he grounds the butt of the staff and as soon as he does he has to clutch at it to hold himself erect. Hunger hollows him like a knife cutting marrow from a bone. Suddenly Mat realizes that not only the Aes Sedai and Accepted are watching. All practice and all learning has stopped. Warders and students stand watching him. Hammar raises his voice to shout.

Hammar: Who is the greatest blademaster of all time?
Students: Jearom, Gai’din!
Hammar: Yes! During his lifetime, Jearom fought over ten thousand times in battle, in single combat. He was defeated once by a farmer with a quarterstaff. Remember that. Remember what you just saw.

The Aes Sedai rush to tend Galad as Mat slides to his knees. Mat is relieved to see Gawyn back on his feet. He pulls himself up as Gawyn comes over. He pushes two silver marks into Mat’s hands and says that he thinks he will listen next time. Noticing Mat’s glance at his head, he tells Mat that it is healed but he adds also that the wound was not too bad. He says Elayne has given him worse more than once. Gawyn tells Mat that he is good with that staff. Mat tells him that his father is better. He says his father has won the quarterstaffs competition at Bel Tine every year for as far back as he can remember – except for once or twice when Rand’s father won. That interested look came back into Gawyn’s eyes. Mat wishes he had never mentioned Tam al’Thor.

The Aes Sedai and Accepted are all still clustered around Galad. Mat mentions that he did not mean to hurt Galad badly. Gawyn grins and tells Mat that they are not going to let this chance pass to put their hands on Galad. Gawyn notes that four of the Aes Sedai are Green Ajah. Mat gives Gawyn a confused look and Gawyn tells him that the worst Galad has to worry about is finding himself Wardered to a Green Aes Sedai before his head clears.

Mat asks Gawyn if he thinks they’d mind if he collects his wager from Galad. Hammar answers that they very likely would. He tells Mat that he is not very popular with those particular Aes Sedai right now.

Hammar: You’d think even Green Aes Sedai would be better than girls just loose from their mother’s apron strings. He isn’t that good looking.

Mat agrees and then Gawyn grins at both of them until Hammar glares at him. Hammar gives Mat a pair of silver marks saying that he will collect from Galad later. He asks Mat where he is from. Mat answers by saying Manetheren. He then freezes hearing the name leave his lips. He corrects himself to say he is from The Two Rivers and says that he has heard too many old stories. Both men look at him withotu speaking. Mat tells them that he is going to return to the Tower to find something to eat. They nod as if that makes sense. Mat keeps the quarterstaff – no one had told him to put it back – and he walks until the trees hide him from the practice yard. Once he is out of view, he leans on the staff as if it is the only thing holding him up.

Mat thinks to himself that if he pulled back his coat, he would see a hole where his stomach should be. However, he can hardly think of hunger. His mind is on the fact that he unintentionally spoke the Old Tongue and told Hammar that he is from Manetheren. It makes him shiver.

Light help me. I keep digging myself deeper. I have to get out of here, but how?

Mat hobbles toward the Tower like an old, old man.

REACTION:

Just a reminder: I’m not spoiling anything beyond this chapter.

This is the chapter wherein Mat goes from a whiny suspicious schemer to… mysterious Old Tongue speaking doer of awesome things.

I mean, really… sick, starving, and almost bereft of strength, he whoops a couple of royal lordlings with a stick over a too proud wager. Would it have been better if at any point in books 1-3 Jordan had even implied that Mat can use a quarterstaff? Yes. But that omission doesn’t really steal from this moment. We know enough of The Two Rivers to believe that Mat could legitimately be trained well on the weapon. This is pretty much the first thing Mat does after getting out of a sick bed. It’s epic. He even steals the staff when he’s done. And at any rate, I’m not sure Mat has been in a situation where he could have used a staff prior to now.

What else happens? We randomly meet a very strangely behaving Else Grinwell. Keep an eye on that. Mat does not know the rule but I am almost positive Else was not supposed to be outside of the Tower proper by herself. Mat finds out from the guards that getting out of Tar Valon will be very difficult. His description is widely distributed. He meets a likeable Gawyn and a not-too-likeable Galad. Gawyn seems concerned about Mat being sick. He’s a good sport about being beaten. Galad on the other hand comes across as irritatingly arrogant. However, even Galad makes a funny and true comment about Nynaeve.

Galad: If you spend much time around Nynaeve, you’ll need bow, quarterstaff, and sword to protect yourself. And I don’t know whether that would be enough.

All in all, this fight is one of the most memorable scenes in The Wheel of Time so far. It’s basically Mat’s coming out party as a great character.

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