The Shadow Rising Page 77

Short of the camp Lewin paused, exchanging anxious looks with his friends, then tiptoed in. His own breath sounded thunderous in his ears, as loud as the snores coming from one of the four large mounds. He froze as the rough snorts stopped and one of the mounds heaved. It settled, the snoring began again, and Lewin let himself breathe.

Carefully he crouched beside one of the smaller heaps and flipped aside a rough woolen blanket stiff with dirt. Maigran stared up at him, face bruised and swollen, her dress torn to little better than rags. He clapped a hand over her mouth to keep her from crying out, but she only continued to stare blankly, not even blinking.

“I am going to carve you like a pig, boy.” One of the larger mounds tumbled aside, and a wildbearded man in filthy clothes got to his feet, the long knife in his hand glittering dully in the moonlight, picking up the red glow of the coals. He kicked the mounds to either side of him, producing grunts and stirrings. “Just like a pig. Can you squeal, boy, or do you people just run?”

“Run,” Lewin said, but his sister only stared dully. Frantic, he seized her shoulders, pulled to try starting her toward where the others were waiting. “Run!” She came out of the blankets stiffly, almost a dead weight. Colline was awake — he could hear her whimpering — but she seemed to be drawing her dirty blankets around her even more tightly, trying to hide in them. Maigran stood there, staring at nothing, seeing nothing.

“Seems you cannot even do that.” Grinning, the man was coming around the fire, his knife held low. The others were sitting up in their blankets now, laughing, watching the fun.

Lewin did not know what to do. He could not leave his sister. All he could do was die. Maybe that would give Maigran a chance to run. “Run, Maigran! Please run!” She did not move. She did not even seem to hear him. What had they done to her?

The bearded man came closer, taking his time, chuckling, enjoying his slow advance.

“Nooooooooooooooo!” Charlin came hurtling out of the night, throwing his arms around the man with the knife, carrying him to the ground. The other men bounded to their feet. One, his head shaved and shining in the pale light, raised a sword to slash at Charlin.

Lewin was not sure exactly how it happened. Somehow he had the heavy kettle by its iron handle, swinging; it struck the shaved head with a loud crunch. The man collapsed as if his bones had melted. Off balance, Lewin stumbled trying to avoid the fire, and fell beside it, losing the cookpot. A dark man with his hair in braids lifted another sword, ready to skewer him. He scrambled away on his back like a spider, eyes on the sword's sharp point, hands searching frenziedly for something to fend the man off, a stick, anything. His palm fell on rounded wood. He jerked it around, pushed it at the snarling man. The man's dark eyes widened, the sword dropped from his grasp; blood poured from his mouth. Not a stick. A spear.

Lewin's hands sprang away from the haft as soon as he realized what it was. Too late. He crawled backward to avoid the man as he fell, stared at him, trembling. A dead man. A man he had killed. The wind felt very cold.

After a time it came to him to wonder why one of the others had not killed him. He was surprised to see the rest of his friends there around the coals. Gearan and Luca and Alijha, all panting and wild eyed above their dustveils. Colline still emitted soft sniffling sobs from beneath her blankets, and Maigran still stood staring. Charlin was huddled on his knees, holding himself. And the four men, the villagers.... Lewin stared from one motionless bloody shape to another.

“We... killed them.” Luca's voice shook. “We... Mercy of the Light, be with us now.”

Lewin crawled to Charlin and touched his shoulder. “Are you hurt?”

Charlin fell over. Red wetness slicked his hands, gripping the hilt of the knife driven into his belly. “It hurts, Lewin,” he whispered. He shuddered once, and the light went out of his eyes.

“What are we going to do?” Gearan asked. “Charlin is dead, and we... Light, what have we done? What do we do?”

“We will take the girls back to the wagons.” Lewin could not pull his eyes away from Charlin's glazed stare. “We will do that.”

They gathered up everything that was useful, the cookpot and the knives, mainly. Metal things were hard to come by. “We might as well,” Alijha said roughly. “They certainly stole it from someone just like us.”

When Alijha started to pick up one of the swords, though, Lewin stopped him. “No, Alijha. That is a weapon, made to kill people. It has no other use.” Alijha said nothing, only ran his eyes over the four dead bodies, looked at the spears Luca was winding with blankets to carry Charlin's body on. Lewin refused to look at the villagers. “A spear can put food in the pots, Alijha. A sword cannot. It is forbidden by the Way.”

Alijha was still silent, but Lewin thought he sneered behind his dustveil. Yet when they finally started away into the night, the swords remained by the dying coals and the dead men.

It was a long walk back through the darkness, carrying the makeshift stretcher bearing Charlin, the wind sometimes gusting to raise choking clouds of dust. Maigran stumbled along, staring straight ahead; she did not know where she was, or who they were. Colline seemed half terrified, even of her own brother, jumping if anyone touched her. This was not how Lewin had imagined their return. In his mind the girls had been laughing, happy to return to the wagons; they had all been laughing. Not carrying Charlin's corpse. Not hushed by the memory of what they had done.

The lights of the cook fires came into view, and then the wagons, harnesses already spread for men to take their places at sunrise. No one left the shelter of the wagons after dark, so it surprised Lewin to see three shapes come hurrying toward them. Adan's white hair stood out in the night. The other two were Nerrine, Colline's mother, and Saralin, his and Maigran's. Lewin lowered his dustveil with foreboding.

The women rushed to their daughters with comforting arms and soft murmurs. Colline sank into her mother's embrace with a welcoming sigh; Maigran hardly appeared to notice Saralin who looked close to tears at the bruises on her daughter's face.

Adan frowned at the young men, permanent creases of worry deepening in his face. “In the name of the Light, what happened? When we found you were gone, too . . .” He trailed off when he saw the stretcher holding Charlin. “What happened?” he asked again, as if dreading the answer.

Lewin opened his mouth slowly, but Maigran spoke first.

“They killed them.” She was staring at something in the distance, her voice as simple as a child's. “The bad men hurt us. They... Then Lewin came and killed them.”

“You must not say things like that, child,” Saralin said soothingly. “You —” She stopped, peering into her daughter's eyes, then turned to stare uncertainly at Lewin. “Is it... ? Is it true?”

“We had to,” Alijha said in a pained voice. “They tried to kill us. They did kill Charlin.”

Adan stepped back. “You... killed? Killed men? What of the Covenant? We harm no one. No one! There is no reason good enough to justify killing another human being. None!”

“They took Maigran, greatfather,” Lewin said. “They took Maigran and Colline, and hurt them. They —”

“There is no reason!” Adan roared, shaking with rage. “We must accept what comes. Our sufferings are sent to test our faithfulness. We accept and endure! We do not murder! You have not strayed from the Way, you have abandoned it. You are Da'shain no longer. You are corrupt, and I will not have the Aiel corrupted by you. Leave us, strangers. Killers! You are not welcome in the wagons of the Aiel.” He turned his back and strode away as if they no longer existed. Saralin and Nerrine started after him, guiding the girls.

“Mother?” Lewin said, and flinched when she looked back at him with cold eyes. “Mother, please ”

“Who are you that addresses me so? Hide your face from me, stranger. I had a son, once, with a face like that. I do not wish to see it on a killer.” And she led Maigran after the others.

“I am still Aiel,” Lewin shouted, but they did not look back. He thought he heard Luca crying. The wind rose, picking up dust, and he veiled his face. “I am Aiel!”

Wildly darting lights bored into Rand's eyes. The pain of Lewin's loss still clung to him, and his mind tumbled furiously. Lewin had not carried a weapon. He had not known how to use a weapon. Killing terrified him. It did not make sense.

He was almost abreast of Muradin now, but the man was not aware of him. Muradin's snarl was a rictus; sweat beaded on his face; he quivered as though wanting to run.

Rand's feet took him forward, and back.

Chapter 26

(Serpent and Wheel)

The Dedicated

Forward, and back.

Adan lay in the sandy hollow clutching his dead son's weeping children, shielding their eyes against his ragged coat. Tears rolled down his face, too, but silently, as he peered cautiously over the edge. At five and six, Maigran and Lewin deserved the right to cry; Adan was surprised he had any tears left, himself.

Some of the wagons were burning. The dead lay where they had fallen. The horses had already been driven off, except for those still hitched to a few wagons that had been emptied onto the ground. For once he took no notice of the crated things the Aes Sedai had given into Aiel charge, toppled carelessly into the dirt. It was not the first time he had seen that, or dead Aiel, but this time he could not care. The men with the swords and spears and bows, the men who had done the killing, were loading those empty wagons. With women. He watched Rhea, his daughter, shoved up into a wagon box with the others, crowded together like animals by laughing killers. The last of his children. Elwin dead of hunger at ten, Sorelle at twenty of fever her dreams told her was coming, and Jaren, who threw himself off a cliff a year ago, at nineteen, when he found he could channel. Marind, this morning.

He wanted to scream. He wanted to rush out there and stop them from taking his last child. Stop them, somehow. And if he did rush out? They would kill him, and take Rhea anyway. They might well kill the children, too. Some of those bodies sprawled in their own blood were small.

Maigran clutched at him as if she sensed he might leave her, and Lewin stiffened as if he wanted to hold tighter but thought himself too old. Adan smoothed their hair and kept their faces pressed against his chest. He made himself watch, though, until the wagons wheeled away surrounded by whooping riders, after the horses that were already almost out of sight toward the smoking mountains that lined the horizon.

Only then did he stand up, prying the children loose. “Wait here for me,” he told them. “Wait until I come back.” Clinging to each other, they stared at him with tearstained white faces, nodded uncertainly.

He walked out to one of the bodies, rolled her over gently. Siedre could have been asleep, her face just the way it appeared beside him when he woke each morning. It always surprised him to notice gray in her redgold hair; she was his love, his life, and ever young and new to him. He tried not to look at the blood soaking the front of her dress or the gapin

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