The Shadow Rising Page 86

“I have to go home, Hopper. I have to.”

Take care, Young Bull. The day of the Last Hunt draws near. We will run together in the Last Hunt.

“We will,” Perrin said sadly. It would be nice if he could come here when he died; he was half wolf already, it seemed sometimes. “I have to go now, Hopper.”

May you know good hunting, Young Bull, and shes to give you many cubs.

“Goodbye, Hopper.”

He opened his eyes to the dim light of dying coals on the mountainside. Gaul was squatting just beyond the edge of the light, watching the night. In the other camp, Faile was up, taking her turn at guard. The moon hung above the mountains, turning the clouds to pearly shadows. Perrin estimated he had been asleep two hours.

“I'll keep guard awhile,” he said, tossing off his cloak. Gaul nodded and settled himself on the ground where he was. “Gaul?” The Aiel raised his head. “It may be worse in the Two Rivers than I thought.”

“Things often are,” Gaul replied quietly. “It is the way of life.” The Aielman calmly put his head down for sleep.

Slayer. Who was he? What was he? Shadowspawn at the Waygate, ravens in the Mountains of Mist, and this man called Slayer in the Two Rivers. It could not be coincidence, however much he wished it.

Chapter 29

(Dragon's Fang)


The journey into the Westwood that had taken him perhaps half a dozen strides or so in the wolf dream, out of the mountains and across the Sand Hills, lasted three long days on horses. The Aid had no trouble keeping up afoot, but then the animals themselves could not manage much speed with the land mostly up and down as it was. Perrin's wounds itched fiercely, healing; Faile's ointment seemed to be working.

It was a quiet journey by and large, broken more often by the bark of a hunting fox or the echoing cry of a hawk than by anyone speaking. At least they saw no more ravens. More than once he thought Faile was about to bring her mare over close to him, about to say something, but each time she restrained herself. He was glad of it; he wanted to talk to her more than anything, but what if he found himself making up with her? He berated himself for wanting to. She had tricked Loial, tricked him. She was going to make everything worse; make it harder. He wished he could kiss her again. He wished she would decide she had had her fill of him and go. Why did she have to be so stubborn?

She and the two Aiel women kept to themselves, Bain and Chiad striding along on either side of Swallow when one or the other was not ranging ahead. Sometimes the three of them murmured softly among themselves, after which they avoided looking at him so pointedly that they might as well have thrown rocks. Loial rode with them at Perrin's request, though the situation obviously upset him no end. Loial's ears twitched as if he wished he had never heard of humans. Gaul seemed to find the entire thing vastly amusing; whenever Perrin looked at him, he wore an inward grin.

For himself, Perrin traveled wrapped in worry, and kept his strung bow across the tall pommel of his saddle. Did this man called Slayer rove the Two Rivers only in the wolf dream, or was he in the waking world, too? Perrin suspected the latter, and that Slayer was the one who had shot the hawk for no reason. It was another complication he could do without, on top of the Children of the Light.

His family lived on a sprawling farm more than half a day beyond Emond's Field, almost to the Waterwood. His father and mother, his sisters, his baby brother. Paetram would be nine now, no doubt objecting more strenuously than ever to being called the baby, Deselle a plump twelve, and Adora sixteen, probably ready to braid her hair. Uncle Eward, his da's brother, and Aunt Magde, stout and looking nearly alike, and their children. Aunt Neain, who visited Uncle Carlin's grave every morning, and their children, and Great Aunt Ealsin, who had never married, with her sharp nose and sharper eye for discovering what everyone for miles around was up to. Once apprenticed to Master Luhhan, he had seen them only on feastdays; the distance was too great for casual travel, and there had always been work to do. If the Whitecloaks hunted for Aybaras, they were easy to find. They were his responsibility, not this Slayer. He could only do so much. Protect his family, and Faile. That was first. Then came the village, and the wolves, and this Slayer last. One man could not manage everything.

The Westwood grew on stony soil broken by bramble covered outcrops, a hard, thickly treed land with few farms or paths. He had wandered these heavy woods as a boy, alone or with Rand and Mat, hunting with bow or sling, setting snares for rabbits or simply roaming for the sake of roaming. Bushytailed squirrels chittering in the trees, speckled thrushes warbling on branches imitated by blackwinged mockers, bluebacked quail bursting up out of the brush in front of the travelers — all spoke to him of home. The very smell of the dirt the horses' hooves turned was a recognition.

He could have headed straight for Emond's Field, but instead he angled more northward through the forest, finally crossing the wide, rough track called the Quarry Road as the sun slanted down toward the treetops. Why “quarry” no one in the Two Rivers knew, and it scarcely looked a road at all, only a weedy stretch that you did not even notice was bare of trees until you saw the overgrown ruts from generations of wagons and carts. Sometimes shards of old pavement worked their way to the surface. Perhaps it had led to a quarry for Manetheren.

The farm Perrin sought lay not far from the road, beyond rows of apple and pear trees where fruit was setting. He smelled the farm before he saw it. The smell of char; not new, yet a full year would not soften that smell.

He reined in at the edge of the trees and sat staring before he made himself ride into what had been the al'Thor farm, the packhorse trailing behind his dun. Only the stone walled sheep pen still stood, railed gate open and hanging by one hinge. The sootblackened chimney cast a slanting shadow across the tumbled burned beams of the farmhouse. The barn and the tabaccuring shed were only ashes. Weeds choked the tabac field and the vegetable garden, and the garden had a trampled look; most of what was not sawleaf or feathertop lay broken and brown.

He did not even think of nocking an arrow. The fire was weeks old, the burned wood slicked and dulled by past rains. Chokevine needed nearly a month to grow that tall. It had even enveloped the plow and harrow lying beside the field; rust showed under the pale, narrow leaves.

The Aiel searched carefully, though, spears ready and eyes wary, quartering the ground and poking through the ashes. When Bain clambered out of the ruins of the house, she looked at Perrin and shook her head. At least Tam al'Thor had not died in there.

They know. They know, Rand. You should have come. It was very nearly more than he could do to stop from putting Stepper to a gallop, keeping him there all the way to his family's farm. Trying to, at least; even Stepper would fall dead before he ran that far. Maybe this was Trolloc work. If it was Trollocs, maybe his family was still working their farm, still safe. He drew a deep breath, but the char obliterated any other smell.

Gaul stopped beside him. “Whoever did this is long gone. They killed some of the sheep and scattered the rest. Someone came later to gather the flock and drive it off north. Two men, I think, but the tracks are too old to be sure.”

“Is there any clue to who did it?” Gaul shook his head. It could have been Trollocs. Strange, to wish for a thing like that. And foolish. The Whitecloaks knew his name, and they knew Rand's as well, it seemed. They know my name. He looked at the ashes of the al'Thor farmhouse, and Stepper moved as the reins trembled in his hands.

Loial had dismounted at the edge of the fruit trees, but his head was still in the branches. Faile rode toward Perrin, studying his face, her mare stepping delicately. “Is this... ? Do you know the people who lived here?”

“Rand and his father.”

“Oh. I thought it might be...” The relief and sympathy in her voice were enough to finish the sentence. “Does your family live near?”

“No,” he said curtly, and she recoiled as if slapped. But she still watched him, waiting. What did he have to do to drive her away? More than he could bring himself to, if he had not managed it already.

The shadows were growing longer, the sun sitting on the treetops. He reined Stepper around, rudely turning his back on her. “Gaul, we will have to camp close by tonight. I want to start early in the morning.” He sneaked a glance over his shoulder; Faile was riding back to Loial, sitting stiff in her saddle. “In Emond's Field, they will know...” Where the Whitecloaks were, so he could turn himself in before they hurt his family. If his family was all right. If the farm where he had been born was not already like this. No. He had to be in time to stop that. “They'll know how things are.”

“Early, then.” Gaul hesitated. “You will not drive her off. That one is almost Far Dareis Mai, and if a Maiden loves you, you cannot escape her however hard you run.”

“You let me worry about Faile.” He softened his voice; it was not Gaul he wanted to be rid of. “Very early. While Faile is still asleep.”

Both camps, beneath the apple trees, were quiet that night. Several times one or the other of the Aid women stood, staring toward the small fire where he and Gaul sat, but an owl hooting and the horses stamping were the only sounds. Perrin could not sleep, and it was still an hour short of first light, with the full moon setting, when he and Gaul slipped away, the Aiel silent in his soft boots and the horses' hooves making little more noise. Bain, or maybe Chiad, watched them go. He could not tell which, but she did not wake Faile, and he was grateful.

The sun had climbed well up by the time they came out of the Westwood a little below the village, amid cart tracks and paths, most bordered by hedges or low rough stone walls. Smoke made feathery gray plumes above farmhouse chimneys, goodwives doing the morning's baking, by the smell. Men dotted the fields of tabac or barley, and boys watched flocks of blackfaced sheep in the pastures. Some people took note of their passing, but Perrin kept Stepper at a fast walk and hoped none were close enough to recognize him or wonder at the strangeness of Gaul's clothes, or his spears.

People would be out and about in Emond's Field, too, so he circled around to the east, wide of the village, wide of the hard packed dirt streets and thatched roofs clustered around the Green, where the Winespring itself gushed from a stone outcrop with enough force to knock a man down and gave birth to the Winespring Water. The damage he remembered from Winternight a year gone, the burned houses and charred roofs, were all rebuilt and repaired. The Trollocs might as well never have come back then. He prayed no one would have to live through that again. The Winespring Inn stood practically at the eastern end of Emond's Field, between the stout wooden Wagon Bridge across the rushing Winespring Water and a huge old stone foundation with a great oak growing up through the middle of it. Tables beneath the thick branches were where folk sat of a fine afternoon and watched the play at bowls. At this hour of the morning, the tables were empty, of course. There were only a few houses farther east. The inn itself was river rock on the first floor, with a whitewashed second story jutting out all the way around and a dozen chimneys rising above a glittering red tile roof, the

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