The Shadow Rising Page 127

“Here,” she said, holding the mug of water to his lips. “You sound as though your throat is dry.”

Swallowing, he spluttered at the bitter taste. She had stirred in Ila's powder! He tried to stop, but she filled his mouth, and it was a matter of swallow or choke. By the time he could push the mug away, she had emptied half of it into him. Why did medicine always taste so vile? He suspected women did it on purpose. He would have bet that whatever they took for themselves did not taste that way. “I told you I did not want any of that. Gaaah!”

“Did you? I must not have heard. But whether you did or not, you need sleep.” She stroked his curly hair. “Sleep, my Perrin.”

He tried to tell her he had indeed told her so, and she had heard it, but the words seemed to tangle around his tongue. His eyes wanted to slide shut. In fact, he could not keep them open. The last thing he heard was her soft murmurs.

“Sleep, my wolf king. Sleep.”

Chapter 42

(Wolf)

A Missing Leaf

Perrin stood near the Tuatha'an wagons under bright sunlight, alone, and there was no arrow in his side, no pain. Among the wagons firewood was stacked ready to be lit beneath iron cookpots hanging from tripods, and clothes hung from washlines; there were no people or horses. He wore neither coat nor shirt, but a blacksmith's long leather vest that left his arms bare. It could have been any dream, perhaps, except that he was aware it was a dream. And he knew the feel of the wolf dream, the reality and solidity of it, from the long grass around his boots to the breeze out of the west that ruffled his curly hair, to the scattered ash and hemlock. The Tinkers' gaudy wagons did not seem real, though; they had an air of insubstantiality, a feel that they might shimmer and be gone any moment. They never remained long in one place, Tinkers. No soil held them.

Wondering how much the land held him, he rested a hand on his axe — and looked down in surprise. The heavy blacksmith's hammer hung in the loop on his belt, not the axe. He frowned; once he would have chosen that way, had even thought he had, but surely no more. The axe. He had chosen the axe. Hammerhead suddenly became halfmoon blade and thick spike, flickered back to stout cylinder of cold steel, fluttered between. Finally it stopped, as his axe, and he exhaled slowly. That had never happened before. Here, he could change things as he wanted with ease, things about himself at least. “And I want the axe,” he said firmly. “The axe.”

Looking around, he could just see a farmhouse to the south, arid deer browsing the barley field, surrounded by a rough stone wall. There was no feel of wolves, and he did not call Hopper. The wolf might or might not come, or even hear, but Slayer could well be out there somewhere. A bristling quiver abruptly tugged at his belt opposite the axe, and he had a stout longbow in his hand with a broadhead arrow nocked. A long leather bracer covered his left forearm. Nothing moved except those deer.

“Not likely I'll wake soon,” he muttered to himself. Whatever that stuff was that Faile had fed him, it had taken him right off; he remembered it as clearly as if he had watched over her shoulder. “Fed it to me like I was a babe,” he growled. Women!

He took one of those long strides — the land blurred around him— and stepped into the farmyard. Two or three chickens scattered, running as if they had already gone feral. The rockwalled sheepfold stood empty, and both thatchroofed barns were barred shut. Despite curtains still at the windows, the twostory farmhouse had the look of emptiness. If this was a true reflection of the waking world — and the wolf dream usually was, in an odd way — the people here had been gone for days. Faile was right; his warning had spread beyond the places he had gone.

“Faile,” he murmured wonderingly. Daughter of a lord. No, not just a lord. Three times a lord, a general, and uncle to a queen. “Light, that makes her a queen's cousin!” And she loved a simple blacksmith. Women were wondrous strange.

Seeking to see how far the word had spread, he zigzagged more than halfway to Deven Ride, a mile or more at a stride, doubling back and crisscrossing his own path. Most farms he saw had that same emptiness; less than one in five showed signs of habitation, doors open and windows up, wash hung out on a line, dolls or hoops or carved wooden horses lying around a doorstep. The toys especially made his stomach clench. Even if they had not believed his warning, surely there were enough burned farms about to tell them the same, tumbled heaps of charred timbers, sootblack chimneys like stark, dead fingers.

Bending to replace a doll with a smiling glass face and a flowerembroidered dress — some woman had loved her daughter to do all that tiny needlework — he blinked. The same doll still sat on the fieldstone steps where he had picked it up. As he reached out, the one in his hand faded and vanished.

Flashes of black in the sky cut short his amazement. Ravens, twenty or thirty together, winging toward the Westwood. Toward the Mountains of Mist, where he had first seen Slayer. He watched coldly while the ravens dwindled to black specks and disappeared. Then he set off after them.

Long, racing strides carried him five miles each, the land a blur except in the moment between one step and the next, into the thicktreed, rocky Westwood, across the scrubcovered Sand Hills, into the cloudcapped mountains, where fir and pine and leatherleaf forested valleys and slopes, to the very valley where he had first seen the man Hopper called Slayer, to the mountainside where he had returned from Tear.

The Way gate stood there, closed, the Avendesora leaf seemingly just one among a myriad of intricately carved leaves and vines. Scattered trees, wizened and windsculpted, dotted the sparse soil among the glazed stone where Manetheren had been burned away. Sunlight sparkled on the waters of the Manetherendrelle below. A faint wind up the valley brought him the scent of deer, rabbits, foxes. Nothing moved that he could see.

On the point of leaving, he stopped. The Avendesora leaf. One leaf. Loial had locked the Waygate by placing both leaves on this side. He turned, and his hackles rose. The Waygate stood open, twin masses of living greenery stirring in the breeze, exposing that dull silvery surface; his reflection shimmered in it. How? he wondered. Loial locked the bloody thing.

Unaware of crossing the distance, suddenly he was right at the Waygate. There was no trefoil leaf among the verdant tangle on the inside of the two gates. Strange to think that at that moment, in the waking world, someone — or something — was passing through where he stood. Touching the dull surface, he grunted. It might as well have been a mirror; his hand slid across it as across the smoothest glass.

From the corner of his eye he caught the Avendesora leaf suddenly in its place on the inside, and leaped back just as the Waygate began swinging shut. Someone — or something — had come out, or gone in. Out. It has to be out. He wanted to doubt that it was more Trollocs, and Fades, coming into the Two Rivers. The gates merged, became stone carvings again.

A sense of being watched was all the warning he had. He jumped— a halfseen image of black streaking through where his chest had been; an arrow — jumped in one of those worldblurring stretches, landed on a far slope and jumped again, out of the valley of Manetheren into a stand of towering fir, and again. Running, he thought furiously, picturing the valley in his mind, and that brief glimpse of the arrow. It had come from that direction, at that angle when it reached him, so it had to have come from...

A final bound took him back onto a slope above Manetheren's grave, crouching among meager, windslanted pines with bow ready to draw. Below him, among the stunted trees and boulders, the arrow had been fired. Slayer had to be down there somewhere. He had to be down...

Without thinking, Perrin leaped away, the mountains a smear of gray and brown and green.

“Almost,” he growled. Almost, he had duplicated his mistake in the Waterwood, thinking again an enemy would move to suit him, wait where he wanted.

This time he ran as hard as he could, only three flashing strides to the edge of the Sand Hills, hoping he had not been seen. This time he circled wide, coming back higher on that same mountainside, up where the air felt thin and cold and the few trees were thicktrunked bushes fifty paces or more apart, up above where a man might set himself to watch for another who meant to sneak up on the place that arrow had fired.

And there his quarry was, a hundred paces below, darkhaired and darkcoated, a tall man crouched beside a tablesized granite outcrop, his own halfdrawn bow in hand, studying the slope farther down with eager patience. This was the first time Perrin had gotten a good look at him; a hundred paces was little distance for his eyes. This Slayer's high collared coat had a Borderland cut, and his face looked enough like Lan's to be the Warder's brother's. Only Lan had no brothers — no living kin at all, that Perrin knew — and if he had had any, they would not have been here. A Borderlander, though. Maybe Shienaran, though his hair was long, not shaved to a topknot, and was held back by a braided leather cord just like Lan's. He could not be Malkieri; Lan was the last living Malkieri.

Wherever he came from, Perrin felt no compunction at all in drawing his bow, broadhead point aimed at Slayer's back. The man had tried to kill him from ambush. A downhill shot could be tricky.

Perhaps he had taken too long, or perhaps the fellow felt his cold gaze, but suddenly Slayer became a blur, streaking away east.

With a curse, Perrin pursued, three strides to the Sand Hills, another into the Westwood. Among the oaks and leatherleaf and underbrush, Slayer seemed to vanish.

Halting, Perrin listened. Silence. The squirrels and birds had gone still. He inhaled deeply. A small herd of deer had passed that way not long since. And a faint tinge of something, human but too cold for a man, too emotionless, a scent that tickled his mind with familiarity. Slayer was somewhere close. The air lay as still as the forest; no stir of breeze to tell him which way that scent came.

“A neat trick, Goldeneyes, locking the Waygate.”

Perrin tensed, ears straining. No telling from where in this dense growth that voice had come. Not so much as a leaf rustled.

“If you knew how many of the Shadowwrought died trying to get out of the Ways there, it would lift your heart. Machin Shin feasted at that gate, Goldeneyes. But not a good enough trick. You saw: the gate is open now.”

There, off to the right. Perrin slipped through the trees as silently as he had when he had hunted here.

“It was only a few hundred to begin, Goldeneyes. Just enough to keep those fool Whitecloaks off balance and see that the renegade died.” Slayer's voice became angry. “The Shadow consume me if that man does not have more luck than the White Tower.” Abruptly he chuckled. “But you, Goldeneyes. Your presence was a surprise. There are those who want your head on a pike. Your precious Two Rivers will be harrowed from end to end, now, to root you out. What do you say to that, Goldeneyes?”

Perrin froze close beside the gnarled trunk of a great oak. Why was the man talking so much? Why was he talking at all? He's drawing me right to him.

Putting his back against the oak's thick bole, he studied the forest. No movement. Slayer wanted him to come nearer. No doubt into an ambush. And he wanted to find the man and rip his throat out. Yet it could easily be himself who died, and if that happened, no one would know the Waygate was open, and Trollocs coming by hundreds, maybe even thousands. He would n

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