The Shadow Rising Page 96

“Then why haven't they attacked Emond's Field?” Perrin asked. “If two or three hundred came in the night, they could likely burn the whole village and be gone before the Whitecloaks up at Watch Hill even heard about it. Still easier for them to hit Deven Ride. You said the Whitecloaks don't go down that far.”

“Luck,” Abell muttered, but he sounded troubled. “That's what it is. We've been lucky. What else could it be? What are you getting at, boy?”

“What he's getting at,” Faile said, closing up beside them, “is that there must be a reason.” Swallow was enough taller than the Two Rivers horses to let her look Tam and Abell in the eye, and she made it a firm look. “I have seen the aftermath of Trolloc raids in Saldaea. They despoil what they do not bum, kill or carry off people and farm animals, whoever and whatever is not protected. Entire villages have disappeared in bad years. They seek wherever is weakest, wherever they can kill the most. My father —” She bit it off, drew a deep breath, and went on. “Perrin has seen what you should have.” She flashed him a proud smile. “If the Trollocs have not attacked your villages, they have a reason.”

“I have thought of that,” Tam said quietly, “but I can't think why. Until we know, luck is as good an answer as any.”

“Perhaps,” Verin said, joining them, “it is a lure.” Tomas still hung back a little, dark eyes searching the country they rode through as relentlessly as any Aiel's. The Warder was watching the sky, too; there was always the chance of a raven. Barely pausing, Verin's gaze brushed across Perrin to the two older men. “News of continued trouble, news of Trollocs, will draw eyes to the Two Rivers. Andor will surely send soldiers, and perhaps other lands as well, for Trollocs this far south. That is if the Children are allowing any news out, of course. I surmise Queen Morgase's Guards would be little happier to find so many Whitecloaks than they would to find Trollocs.”

“War,” Abell muttered. “What we have is bad enough, but you are talking war.”

“It might be so,” Verin said complacently. “It might be.” Frowning in a preoccupied manner, she dug a steelnibbed pen and a small clothbound book from her pouch, and opened a little leather case at her belt that held an ink bottle and sandshaker. Wiping the pen absentmindedly on her sleeve, she began jotting in the book despite the awkwardness of writing while riding. She seemed completely oblivious of any unease she might have caused. Perhaps she really was.

Master Cauthon kept murmuring “War,” wonderingly, under his breath, and Faile put a comforting hand on Perrin's arm, her eyes sad.

Master al'Thor only grunted; he had been in a war, so Perrin had heard, though not where or how, exactly. Just somewhere outside the Two Rivers, where he had gone as a young man, returning years later with a wife and a child, Rand. Few Two Rivers folk ever left. Perrin doubted if any of them really knew what a war was, except by what they heard from peddlers, or merchants and their guards and wagon drivers. He knew, though. He had seen war, on Toman Head. Abell was right. What they had was bad enough, but it did not come near war.

He held his peace. Maybe Verin was right. And maybe she just wanted to stop them speculating. If Trollocs harrying the Two Rivers were bait for a trap, it had to be a trap for Rand, and the Aes Sedai had to know it. That was one of the problems with Aes Sedai; they could hand you “if's and ”might"s until you were sure they had told you flat out what they had only suggested. Well, if the Trollocs — or whoever sent them, rather; one of the Forsaken, maybe? — thought to trap, Rand, they would have to settle for Perrin instead — a simple blacksmith instead of the Dragon Reborn — and he did not mean to walk into any traps.

They rode on silently through the morning. In this region farms were scattered, with sometimes a mile or more between. Every last one lay abandoned, fields choked with weeds, barn doors swinging in any errant breeze. Only one had been burned, and of that nothing stood except the chimneys, sootblack fingers rising from ashes. The people who had died there — Ayellins, cousins of those who lived in Emond's Field — had been buried near the pear trees beyond the house. Those few who had been found. Abell had to be pressed to talk about it, and Tam would not. They seemed to think it would upset him. He knew what Trollocs ate. Anything that was meat. He stroked his axe absently until Faile took his hand. For some reason she was the one who seemed disturbed. He had thought she knew more of Trollocs than that.

The Aiel managed to stay out of sight even between copses, except when they wanted to be seen. When Tam began angling eastward, Gaul and the two Maidens shifted with them.

As Master Cauthon had predicted, the al'Seen farm came in sight with the sun still shy of its full height. There was not another farm in view, though a few widely separated gray plumes of chimney smoke rose both north and east. Why were they hanging on, isolated like this? If Trollocs came, their only hope was Whitecloaks chancing to be near at the same time.

While the rambling farmhouse was still small in the distance, Tam reined in and waved the Aiel to join them, suggesting they find a place to wait until the rest of them left the farm. “They won't talk about Abell or me,” he said, “but you three will set tongues wagging with the best will in the world.”

That was putting it mildly, with their odd clothes and their spears, and two of them women. A rabbit apiece dangled beside their quivers, though Perrin could not see how they had found time to hunt while keeping ahead of the horses. They seemed less tired than the horses, for that matter.

“Well enough,” Gaul said. “I will find a place to eat my own meal, and watch for your going.” He turned and loped away immediately. Bain and Chiad exchanged glances. After a moment Chiad shrugged, and they followed.

“Aren't they together?” Mat's father asked, scratching his head.

“It is a long story,” Perrin said. It was better than telling him Chiad and Gaul might decide to kill each other over a feud. He hoped the water oath held. He had to remember to ask Gaul what a water oath was.

The al'Seen farm was just about as big as farms went in the Two Rivers, with three tall barns and five tabac curing sheds. The stonewalled cote, full of blackfaced sheep, spread as wide as some pastures, and railfenced yards kept whitespotted milk cows separate from black beef cattle. Pigs grunted contentedly in their wallow, chickens wandered everywhere, and there were white geese on a goodsized pond.

The first odd thing Perrin noticed was the boys on the thatched roofs of the house and barns, eight or nine of them, with bows and quivers. They shouted down as soon as they saw the riders, and women hustled children inside before shading their eyes to see who was coming. Men gathered in the farmyard, some with bows, others with pitchforks and bushhooks held like weapons. Too many people. Far too many, even for a farm as big as this. He looked a question at Master al'Thor.

“Jac took in his cousin Wit's people,” Tam explained, “because Wit's farm was too close to the Westwood. And Flann Lewin's people after their farm was attacked. Whitecloaks drove the Trollocs off before more than his barns were burned, but Flann decided it was time to go. Jac is a good man.”

As they rode into the farmyard, and Tam and Abell were recognized, men and women crowded around with smiles and a babble of welcome while they dismounted. Seeing that, children burst out of the house, followed by the women who had been minding them and others, fresh from the kitchen, wiping hands on aprons. Every generation was represented, from whitehaired Astelle al'Seen, bentbacked but using her stick to thump people out of her way more than to walk with, down to a swaddled infant in the arms of a more than stout young woman with a bright smile.

Perrin looked past the stout, smiling woman; then his head whipped back. When he had left the Two Rivers, Laila Dearn had been a slim girl who could dance any three boys into the ground. Only the smile and the eyes were the same. He shivered. There had been a time when he had dreamed of marrying Laila, and she had returned the feeling somewhat. The truth was, she had held on to it longer than he had. Luckily, she was too entranced with her baby and the even wider fellow by her side to pay much attention to him. Perrin recognized the man with her, too. Natley Lewin. So Laila was a Lewin now. Odd. Nat never could dance. Thanking the Light for his escape, Perrin looked around for Faile.

He found her idly flipping Swallow's reins while the mare nuzzled her shoulder. She was too busy smiling admiringly at Wil al'Seen, a cousin from Deven Ride way, to notice her horse, though, and Wil was smiling back. A goodlooking boy, Wil. Well, he was a year older than Perrin, but too goodlooking not to appear boyish. When Wil came down to Emond's Field for dances, the girls all used to stare at him and sigh. Just the way Faile was now. True, she was not sighing, but her smile was decidedly approving.

Perrin went over and put an arm around her, resting his other hand on his axe. “How are you, Wil?” he asked, smiling for all he was worth. No point in letting Faile think he was jealous. Not that he was.

“Fine, Perrin.” Wil's eyes slid away from his and bounced off the axe, a sickly expression oozing over his face. “Just fine. ” Avoiding looking at Faile again, he hurried off to join the crowd around Verin.

Faile looked up at Perrin, pursing her lips, then took his beard with one hand and gently shook his head. “Perrin, Perrin, Perrin,” she murmured softly.

He was not sure what she meant, but he thought it wiser not to ask. She looked as if she did not know herself whether she was angry or— could it possibly be amused? Best not to make her decide.

Wil was not the only one to look askance at his eyes, of course. It seemed that everyone, young or old, male or female, gave a start the first time they met his gaze. Old Mistress al'Seen poked him with her stick, and her dark old eyes widened in surprise when he grunted. Maybe she thought he was not real. Nobody said anything, though.

Soon enough the horses had been led off to one of the barns — Tomas took his gray himself; the animal did not appear to want anyone else to touch the reins — and everybody except the boys on the rooftops had crowded into the house, just about filling it. Adults lined the front room two deep, Lewins and al'Seens interspersed in no particular order or rank, children in their mothers' arms or relegated to peering through the legs of grownups packing the doorways to peer in.

Strong tea and highbacked, rushbottomed chairs were provided for the newcomers, though Verin and Faile got embroidered cushions. There was considerable excitement over Verin, and Tomas, and Faile. Murmurs filled the room like a gabble of geese, and everyone stared at those three as though they wore crowns, or might do tricks any moment. Strangers were always a curiosity in the Two Rivers. Tomas's sword drew especial comment, in near whispers that Perrin heard easily. Swords were not common here, or had not been before the Whitecloaks came. Some thought Tomas was a Whitecloak, others a lord. One boy little more than waisthigh mentioned Warders before hi

Prev Next