Reading The Wheel of Time

Reading The Wheel of Time: Mat is a Rambling Man in Robert Jordan’s The Fires of Heaven (Part 24)

Welcome back to Reading the Wheel of Time! This week we’re covering Chapter 41 and 42, in which Rand is a very important man who has a tower, Lan gets sneaky, and Mat protests entirely too much. Oh, and he does some cool battle planning stuff too.

Chapter 41 opens with Rand standing on a hilltop and surveying the three camps below him. One is Tairen, while the other two are Cairhienin, separated into cavalry and infantry. They are all the Tairen and Cairhienin forces at his disposal, and too many are not actually soldiers.

The city of Cairhien itself lay little more than five miles to the west, some of the fabled “topless towers of Cairhien” visible above the intervening forest. The city sprawled across hills hard by the River Alguenya, encircled by Couladin’s Shaido and those who had joined him.

Rand considers how the three camps are supposed to be one, and under the same commander, but Rand can see them eyeing each other with distaste and almost as much suspicion as they hold for Rand’s Aiel. He studies the commander, High Lord Weiramon, who had the sense to rush to Cairhien as soon as he heard that the city was under siege, gathering any forces he found along the way. But Weiramon also thinks that he can rout the Aiel easily with his horsemen, and regards both the Shaido and Rand’s Aiel with contempt.

One Aiel was no different from another to Weiramon. To the others, too, for that matter. One of the young lords pointedly sniffed a scented silk handkerchief whenever he looked at an Aiel. Rand wondered how long the fellow would survive. And what Rand would have to do about it when he died.

When Weiramon sees Rand looking at him, he again demands to be allowed to send his horsemen against the Shaido, but Rand cuts him off to ask about news Weiramon has brought from Tear. Illianers, pirates and bandits Weiramon insists dismissively, have been attacking along the coast and on the Plains of Maredo. He assures Rand that it’s not important and Rand lets it go, since few people know that Sammael is running things in Illian now. Weiramon goes back to asking for permission to attack, but Rand brushes past him; Weiramon follows with two other young lords trailing at his heels.

They were not alone, of course. The hilltop was crowded, really. Sulin had a hundred Far Dareis Mai arrayed around the peak, for one thing, every last one looking even more ready to don her veil than Aiel usually did. It was not only the nearness of the Shaido that had Sulin on edge. In mockery of Rand’s contempt for the suspicions in the camps below, Enaila and two Maidens were never far from Weiramon and his lordlings, and the closer they stood to Rand, the more the three Maidens looked about to don veils.

Rand spots Aviendha speaking with Sorilea, the white-haired old woman who seems to have taken over leading the Wise Ones. Melaine is there as well, fussing over Bael, and Rand guesses that the Wise Ones are again planning to try to influence him via the clan chiefs. Aviendha gives Rand a brief smile, and he considers that she hasn’t been lashing out at him since their encounter together—except for the one time he brought up marriage again, that is. But friendly has been as far as anything has gone. He considers what Egwene would think if she knew what happened, and once again decides that Min is the only woman he’s ever met who hasn’t made him feel “like he was standing on his head.”

Rand passes a group of clan chiefs, recognizing some who have taken to practicing hand fighting with him. One, Mangin, asks Rand if he wants to go hunting, remarking that there isn’t much sport but that they could try catching sheep in a sack. The way he glances at Weiramon and his two followers makes the joke clear, and Rand thinks that he and Mangin would have been friends under other circumstances. His sense of humor reminds Rand of Mat.

He comes to the highest part of the hill, where he’s had some of the Cairhienin refugees build a high tower and platform. Moiraine, Lan, and Egwene are waiting there. Rand asks Egwene what she has decided. She hesitates, then agrees that she will do what she can.

Her reluctance bothered him. He had not asked Moiraine—she could not use the One Power as a weapon against the Shaido, not unless they threatened her or he managed to convince her they were all Darkfriends—but Egwene had not taken the Three Oaths, and he had been sure she would see the necessity. Instead, she had gone white-faced when he suggested it and had avoided him for three days until now. At least she had agreed. Whatever made the fight shorter against the Shaido must be for the good.

Rand can see the disapproval in Moiraine’s face, however. He tucks the Seanchan spear into his belt and is about to climb the ladder when she asks him why he is carrying a sword again. The question takes him so by surprise that he just mutters “why shouldn’t I?” and scrambles up into the tower, ignoring the now-familiar tug of his half-healed wound.

Rhuarc and the other clan chiefs follow him; Rand thinks for a moment that Moiraine has as well before he looks down and sees that it’s Egwene’s stare he’s feeling. At the top of the platform he finds Kin Tovere, a craftsman who makes lenses and looking glasses, lambasting his two apprentices as they work. Discovering Tovere among the refugees had given Rand the idea for the tower.

As soon as they notice that they’re not alone, the two apprentices give sharp starts and then give Rand half bows and stay that way. Tovere starts complimenting Rand on the idea of the Tower and how, with time, he could set Rand up to see all the way to Caemlyn. Rand assures him that he has done enough and suggests that he take the apprentices down.

As Tovere shepherds them away, Rand thinks about how the young men are only a year or two older than he, had been born in towns bigger than he could once have imagined, and had seen Cairhien while Rand was still tending sheep. And now they are more in awe of him than of the Aiel.

Rand studies the city through one of the glasses, and he can see the high walls and the towers beyond them, many of which are still being rebuilt after being burned in the Aiel War. He can see how everything outside of the Cairhien walls, once known as the Foregate, has recently been burned down to a stretch of ash, and wonders how the fire was prevented from consuming the whole city. He can see banners, too, and although he can’t make them out distinctly he knows from scout reports that they are all either the Tairen or replications of the Dragon Banner. There are none that bear the Rising Sun of Cairhien.

Rand can see how the Aiel have made it so no one can get out of Cairhien, though he can see little sign of the Shaido, of course. Suddenly, however, he spots a group of men in cadin’sor on a hilltop, about a mile from the city walls. One has bare arms, so Rand knows that it’s Couladin. And then a spear shoots into the middle of the group, taking down two men at once. Rand is searching for the spear-thrower when the flash of a second spear draws his attention. He realizes that the spear, or whatever it was, had come from behind Cairhien’s walls, though he can’t imagine how.

Rand looks around to find Rhuarc stepping away from the other glass to let Han have a look and asks if Rhuarc saw the spear. Rhuarc is just as confused as Rand, observing that the second bolt took another Shaido, but he crawled away. He remarks that it’s unlucky that it wasn’t Couladin.

Was it such bad luck? Couladin’s death would not end the threat to Cairhien, or to anywhere else. Now they were this side of the Dragonwall, the Shaido would not tamely return just because the man they thought was the true Car’a’carn died. It might well shake them, but not enough for that. And after all Rand had seen, he did not think Couladin deserved so easy a way out. I can be as hard as I must, he thought, stroking his sword hilt. For him, I can.

Meanwhile, Mat is lying in his tent, absently swirling a glass of wine he isn’t drinking as he stares upward at nothing.

By his book, matters had long since gone beyond merely serious. Serious was being stuck in the Waste with no idea of the way out. Serious was Darkfriends popping up when you least expected, Trolloc attacks in the night, the odd Myrddraal freezing your blood with an eyeless stare. That sort of thing came quickly, and usually was done before you had much chance to think. It was certainly not what you would seek out, yet if you had to, you could live with it if you could live through it. But for days he had known where they were heading, and why. Nothing quick about it. Days to think.

He thinks to himself that he’s no hero, no soldier, and pushes away a memory “of walking fortress walls, ordering his last reserves to where another crop of Trolloc scaling ladders had sprung up.” He insists to himself that the memory was not him, and that whatever he is, it involves gambling and women and having a good horse and every road in the world to choose from. Not sitting and waiting for someone to try to kill him.

He thinks that he seems to have all the burdens of being ta’veren without any of the benefits—in the stories money “and fame dropped into their pockets as if from the sky; men who wanted to kill them decided to follow instead, and women with ice in their eyes decided to melt.” He’s glad he’s not in Rand’s position, but he feels like he has all the burdens of being ta’veren and none of the pleasure. He tells himself that Rand doesn’t need him anymore, though he knows that’s not really true, either. Both he and Perrin are somehow tied to Rand and Tarmon Gai’don—Mat is certain that Rand will get all the credit in the stories, though—and that’s not even getting into the Horn of Valere.

Mat tells himself that that’s a problem for a distant day, hopefully a very distant day. The point is that he no longer feels that invisible tether to Rand. At one point he’d been too firmly held even to seriously make plans, and then it had ebbed a little so that he could plan, but the slightest thing would distract him and he’d forget about leaving. This time, though, it feels different. And Rand, Mat decides firmly, can take care of himself.

He drains the goblet of wine and leaves his tent after settling his knives in their hidden places and putting on his yellow scarf to hide the hanging scar. It’s hotter than he would have liked even now that they’ve finally left the Waste. He passes Kadere’s wagons, noting the Aiel guards all around them, and assumes Moiraine is worried about Kadere making off with her treasures from Rhuidean. He wonders idly if Rand realizes that he is giving Moiraine everything she asks for, even if she is being much more deferential to him now.

He feels uncomfortable seeing the banner waving at the front of his tent—red and bearing the ancient Aes Sedai symbol. But when he takes off his hat and ducks inside, he finds the tent empty except for Natael, lounging on a cushion with his harp and a goblet of wine. Mat curses himself, realizing that, if Rand had been in, he would have had to pass through a ring of Maidens around the tent.

Most likely he was up at that new-built tower. A good idea, that. Know the terrain. That was the second rule, close behind “Know your enemy,” and not much to choose between them.

He makes a face at the invading thought, and Natael asks him if he’s having trouble with a bilious stomach, suggesting he see Moiraine or one of the Wise Ones about it. Mat thinks about how much he dislikes Natael, who always seems to be keeping a secret joke and who always looks like he has three servants looking after his clothes.

He asks if Rand will be back soon, and Natael remarks that no man can clock the Lord Dragon, and few women. Mat tells him testily that he will wait. There’s nothing to do while he waits except to study the maps laid out on the floor, so Mat moves over to them, trying to ignore the fact that Rand’s gleeman watches him the same way Moiraine and the Wise Ones do. The first shows Couladin’s forces, almost a hundred and sixty thousand spears, while the other shows the location of the four still undecided clans, which number about the same as Couladin’s forces. Rand has twice that number, which is fine if he only has to fight one at a time, but Mat knows he might have to fight both. It’s possible that the bleakness might continue to lessen the numbers in those clans, but some might also go over the the Shaido.

Suddenly his thoughts are interrupted by Lan, remarking on the “pretty situation” Mat is studying, and observing that tomorrow’s battle will be the largest since Artur Hawkwing’s time. Mat responds noncommittally, briefly wondering if he should go looking for Rand at the tower before deciding that he might end up chasing the man all over camp. Lan seems to want to talk, and asks Natael if he thinks they should all rush down and crush Couladin with everything they have.

“That sounds as good to me as any other plan,” Natael replied dourly. Emptying the goblet down his throat, he dropped it on the carpets and picked up the harp to begin softly strumming something dark and funereal. “I lead no armies, Warder. I command nothing save myself, and not always that.”

Mat grunts in disapproval, and Lan asks him, very casually, why he thinks it’s a bad plan. Mat answers without thinking. He tells Lan that, if they trap Couladin between their forces and the city, they might push him right over the walls and into the city. The city is only barely keeping him at bay as it is, and it’s a nasty thing to fight in the city. He reminds Lan that the objective is to save Cairhien, not finish ruining it.

He crouches down, fascinated by the problem, and begins explaining how they could drive the Shaido away from the city by hitting them from the south, and leaving them a path to escape by towards the bridges.

It was like Cuaindaigh Fords, too, late in the Trolloc Wars, and on much the same scale. Not much different from the Tora Shan, either. Or Sulmein Gap, before Hawkwing found his stride. The names flickered through his head, the images of bloody fields forgotten even by historians. Absorbed in the map as he was, they did not register as anything but his own remembrances.

He remarks that cavalry is best for harrying, but that the Aiel should do almost as well. Lan asks if there is any other reason.

Mat was caught up in it, now. He more than merely liked gambling, and battle was a gamble to make dicing in taverns a thing for children and toothless invalids. Lives were the stake here, your own and other men’s, men who were not even there. Make the wrong wager, a foolish bet, and cities died, or whole nations. Natael’s somber music was fit accompaniment. At the same time, this was a game that set the blood racing.

He explains how committing all their forces will allow any of the four undecided clans to come down on them, trapping them. Instead they should only send half their forces against Couladin, making it an even fight but leaving them the ability to split the other half of the forces to funnel him towards the bridges and to watch the other clans.

Lan seems impressed by Mat’s assessment, remarking that it’s very neat. Unless all four clans decide to attack at once, at which point everything would change. That makes Mat laugh, and he remarks that the best plan lasts until the first arrow leaves the bow. If they all go over to Couladin, he says, you just toss the dice and hope. But he suspects that they will wait and see who wins, and then come to join Rand, as “[v]ictory settles a lot of arguments in most men’s heads.”

Mat realizes that the music has stopped and turns to see that Natael is staring at him, as though he doesn’t know what Mat is, his grip on the harp white-knuckled. Suddenly Mat realizes what he’s done, what memories he’s been embracing. He silently curses himself for a fool, and Lan for suddenly being talkative, and hopes he wasn’t speaking in the Old Tongue too. He jumps up and turns to go, only to see Rand standing just inside the tent.

Mat decides that it doesn’t matter how long Rand has been standing there, and informs him that he intends to leave first thing in the morning. Rand replies that he’ll be sorry to see Mat go, and Mat is surprised that Rand isn’t trying to talk him out of it. But he has to admit that Rand never actually tried to hold him—he just did it without trying. But there’s no ta’veren tugging now.

Rand asks where he will go, and Mat says south, somewhere there’s a tavern and women who don’t carry spears. He tells Rand that he doesn’t know anything about battles and he doesn’t want to, and is relieved when neither Natael nor Lan say anything. He and Rand acknowledge that Egwene is as much part of the Tower as Moiraine is now and so Mat will skip saying goodbye to her, and the two shake hands, Rand wishing Mat well until they meet again. Mat feels a little guilty when he silently hopes that it will be a long time until that meeting.

When he leaves the tent at last he finds a crowd of about a hundred maidens as well as three Tairen lords looking haughty. Mat gives them all a cold look until the younger two become uncomfortable and starts down the hill.

He had no idea why he had not simply ignored them. Except that his step was lighter and he felt full of vinegar. No wonder, really, leaving tomorrow at last. The dice seemed to be spinning in his head, and there was no knowing what pips would show when they landed. Odd, that. It must be Melindhra worrying him. Yes. He would definitely leave early, and as quietly as a mouse tiptoeing on feathers.

Inside the tent, Rand quietly asks Lan about what happened with Mat, and the Warder confirms that Mat, with only a moment to study the maps, laid out almost exactly the plan Rhuarc and the others made, and that he knew about things like “miners and siege engines, and using light cavalry to harry a defeated foe.”

Rand, who sent Lan into the tent on purpose to see what he could draw out of Mat, doesn’t know what miners have to do with war, but he does know that Mat came out of the ter’angreal doorway with more than just the tendency to randomly speak in the Old Tongue. And that is something Rand can use.

Rand hopes that Mat has a good time while he’s free, and that Perrin is having a good time at home as well. He knows that, sooner or later, he will draw his friends back to him. Three ta’veren, tied together since infancy, would be tied together again. And he will use them in Tarmon Gai’don, however he has to.

He thinks bitterly that he doesn’t need to become any harder, as he’s already rank enough to make a Seanchan throw up, and commands Asmodean to play “March of Death.” When Asmodean looks blankly at him Rand points the Seanchan spear at him.

“Play it, unless you know a sadder. Play something to make your soul weep. If you have one still.”

Natael does as he’s ordered, and Rand asks Lan to bring everyone else in. Lan bows before he goes, the first time he’s ever done such a thing.

The battle would begin tomorrow. It was a polite fiction that he helped Rhuarc and the others plan. He was smart enough to know what he did not know, and despite all of his talks with Lan and Rhuarc, he knew he was not ready. I’ve planned a hundred battles this size or more and given orders that led to ten times as many. Not his thought. Lews Therin knew war—had known war—but not Rand al’Thor, and that was him.

The clan chiefs come in, followed by the Tairen lords, Weiramon bristling when he and his fellows are not given precedence. Rand makes a mental note that something has to be done about Weiramon, whose attitude towards the Aiel is beginning to cause problems. Everyone seems affected by the music as they go over last minute changes to the plan, but the mournful tune barely touches Rand.

 

I really love this section. The battle has been such a long time coming that the mood has really been well set for us, and still we hover on the eve of battle, as they say. The feeling of these chapters reminds me a bit of Gandalf and Pippin waiting for the forces of Mordor to strike Minas Tirith. Neither the type of battle nor the characters’ perspectives are that close, really, but I guess there’s a universality in the way that fantasy novels acknowledge war.

I have to admit I find Mat kind of hilarious lately. I mean, he’s always been hilarious but it’s much more complex now than it was in the early days, when he was just the little mouthy one who always touched things that he shouldn’t touch. Mat really is the only principal character who can match Nynaeve for stubborn self-delusion. But apparently that is a thing that I really enjoy in characters—I suppose it makes them feel more human and relatable to me. Plus I happen to be a big fan of dramatic irony (one of Jordan’s strengths) and it can be enjoyable to have a little more understanding of a character than that character has of themselves.

It’s clear as crystal that Mat isn’t going to get out of his part of the ta’veren trifecta any time soon. If he’s able to leave Rand and the battle, it will only be because the Pattern has some other task for him, like it did with Perrin. It’s both amusing and sad how Mat and Rand assume that Perrin’s just back home hanging out with his family and taking it easy. But we readers know the truth and can reliably predict that Mat, should he end up temporarily on a different path than Rand, won’t be kicking back and taking it easy any more than Perrin currently is.

Speaking of Perrin, are we ever going to find out what’s going on with our wolfy friend? We’re 42 chapters in and we haven’t seen him yet.

But anyway, it makes sense to me that Mat struggles with who he thinks he is and who he actually is, even before you add in the extra memories from his past lives. I’m not here to judge him (who am I kidding, yes I am) but Mat’s perception of himself is frankly hilarious, especially when placed against the backdrop of all the uber-heroic people around him, Rand and Perrin and Egwene no less than anyone else. I think you could argue that most hard-drinking, gambling-loving ladies’ men also want to think of themselves as heroes, even if they aren’t, but Mat wants the opposite: He wants to be seen as a lazy gambler even though his natural tendencies are actually pretty heroic.

Every time he has one of those “I’m not a hero, I just want to gamble and have a girl on each arm, the open road and no responsibilities,” rants to himself I just hear “Ramblin’ Man” by the Allman Brothers in my head. It’s just a little silly.

Still, whatever else you want to say about Mat, he’s clear-eyed about what being a hero really means. And I suppose if Rand didn’t feel that his fate was pre-decided for him, he might be thinking along similar lines. I’m not a hero, I’m just a shepherd. I don’t want glory, I don’t want to think about battles and death and the fate of the world. This isn’t for me.

So maybe that’s the real thing about Mat, then. Everyone else from Emond’s field has finished their journey of realizing that they are more than they originally thought they were. He’s the only one left. Well, except for Nynaeve, but I have a feeling she’s about to get there. Mat may hang on a while longer.

He also remains one of the most interesting characters to study when considering how the Pattern works. Mat is no longer feeling that sharp tug towards Rand, but why? Is it truly because his duty towards Rand, his job within the Pattern, is done for now? Or is there another direction fate is pointing him for the time being, every bit as important as the final outcome but unfolding somewhere else than at Rand’s side?

And so I’m left pondering the same question. Is Mat making a fully uninfluenced choice right now? Or is Rand’s power directing him in some less noticeable way? Or is Mat’s own ta’veren nature in charge for the time being, driving him to where the Pattern needs him to be? Are free will and the Pattern’s direction at odds with each other, or working in harmony, or are they merely one and the same thing?

I think I get why some Aes Sedai choose the Brown Ajah. If you lived in a universe that operated like this, you could spend a lifetime examining such questions. I wonder how the Aes Sedai handle philosophy; we’ve seen little bits from them, but I’d be interested to see a full-on Aes Sedai philosopher just talking about the nature of existence for a chapter or two. I believe Egwene mentioned lessons like that in the Tower.

Speaking of the good existential questions, I got chills when Rand was thinking about Asmodean’s interference with He Who Comes With The Dawn. Asmodean only gave Couladin the marks to distract Rand while he snuck off to get the statue in Rhuidean, but although Asmodean failed to accomplish his goal, the effects of this have had far-reaching consequences. Rand may be chastising himself a lot these days, always feeling like he has to be either more or less hard, but he cares a lot about people and their lives, and it clearly pains him deeply that Cairhien, a country he was trying to save even before he went to the Waste, is now worse off because of the rogue Aiel.

And let’s not forget Rand’s promise to destroy Asmodean when he eventually betrays Rand. “Natael” is safe for now because Rand needs him, but I don’t doubt that Rand will remember this battle when Asmodean’s bill comes due.

Lan must know who Natael is, right? I feel like Moiraine would want to tell him, especially because Lan has access to Rand in ways she doesn’t; no doubt she’d want her Warder to keep as close an eye on one of the Forsaken as he can. But I can’t say for sure, of course; Aes Sedai do like to keep things to themselves.

Well, that’s not fair. It’s true, but it’s also true that everyone in these books keeps most things to themselves. Often to everyone’s detriment.

Look at Rand and Mat, for example. They are both struggling with memories of their past lives, alien remembrances that creep into their brains and out of their mouths when they aren’t being careful enough. And here’s Rand, sending Lan in to covertly examine Mat, who is just as confused and alarmed by his new memories as Rand is by his. Imagine what would happen if one of them confessed to the other what was going on. They might even be able to—gasp—support one another!

But Asmodean isn’t the only one Rand is considering revenge upon; we see the same desire for retribution in his thoughts about Couladin. Rhuarc is just being practical when he observes that it would be useful to them if Couladin was killed by a rogue spear. It wouldn’t stop the Shaido, but it would tip the odds further in Rand’s favor, and it would be a simple solution to the man. But Rand doesn’t think of it that way. He’s thinking of the pain he’s seen Couladin cause, the death and devastation his followers have left in their wake since they crossed over the Dragonwall. He doesn’t want to give Couladin an easy death, a way out of the retribution Rand is bringing.

I think Rand gives himself too hard of a time in this book, but in moments like this I see what he means about maybe becoming too hard. Let’s hope he doesn’t let those personal feelings get in the way of thinking about things rationally, of focusing on the bigger picture of his duty.

The very first book of the series, The Eye of the World, opened with a winter that wouldn’t end. After the harsh and difficult winter, the citizens of Emond’s Field were still waiting for the warmth of spring to begin, and people wondered why the Wisdoms’ predictions of a mild winter and a good harvest had been so off. We later learned that the unseasonable cold was part of the Dark One’s influence, the weakening of the Seals, and when Rand faced and defeated Ba’alzamon the weather finally broke and spring arrived in earnest.

Now we see a summer that won’t end, and heat that lasts into autumn, another moment of the Dark One’s influence seeping into the world and affecting the season. It’s really interesting to be reminded of the importance of seasons in much of the world, especially when our main characters come from farming and herding backgrounds. An extended summer is nice in theory, but the upset of the seasons won’t be good in the long term, throwing off the natural rhythm of nature and crops. It’s interesting to see climate change used as a theme this way. Like, which senators do I need to show this book to.

I bet they’re all like Weiramon.

Two more chapters next week, and we’ll see some channelers using the One Power in battle who aren’t Seanchan. I went back and forth as to whether I thought Egwene had any moral objection to fighting or if it was only her memories of being damane; it’s possible that the acknowledgment that she has been passing herself as full Aes Sedai but is still able to use the One Power as a weapon gave her pause. It may have even reminded her of her trip through the three-arched ter’angreal when she became Accepted; in that future vision she was able to use the One Power as a weapon despite having been raised to Amyrlin Seat. I suppose we’ll have to wait until her next POV chapter to know for sure.

Wishing a wonderful week to all of you. Stay safe, friends.

Sylas K Barrett is very grateful for the nice spring weather in his neck of the woods, and thinks that Mat can at least be grateful it isn’t raining for the battle he’s definitely going to end up a part of.

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