Winter's Heart Page 45

“Put up your bows,” he said. “That’s Alliandre’s gelding. It must be our people. Can’t you see the Aiel are all Maidens?” Not a one was tall enough to be an Aielman.

“I can barely make out they’re Aiel,” Dannil muttered, giving him a sidelong look. They all took it for granted that his eyes were good, even took pride in it — or used to — but he tried to keep them from knowing how good. Right then, he did not care, though.

“They are ours,” he told Dannil. “Everybody stay here.”

Slowly he rode out to meet the returning party. The Maidens began unveiling as he approached. In one of the deep cowls on the mounted men, he made out Furen Alharra’s black face. The three Warders, then; they would have come back together. Their horses looked as tired as he felt, near exhaustion. He wanted to force Stepper to run, to hear what they had to report. He dreaded hearing. Ravens would have been at the bodies, and foxes, badgers maybe, and the Light alone knew what besides. Maybe they thought they were sparing him by not bringing back what they had found. No! Faile had to be alive. He tried to fix that thought in his head, but it hurt like gripping a sharp blade bare-handed.

Dismounting in front of them, he stumbled and had to hold on to the saddle to keep from falling. He felt numb around the bright pain of holding on to that one thought. She had to be alive. Little details loomed large, for some reason. Not one bundle fastened to the elaborately tooled saddle, but a number of small bundles that looked like gathered rags. The Maidens wore snowshoes, rough-made of vines and supple pine branches with the needles still on. That was why they seemed to be moving oddly. Jondyn must have shown them how to make them. He tried to focus. He thought his heart was going to pound through his ribs.

Gripping spears and buckler in her left hand, Sulin took one of the small bundles of cloth from the saddle before she came to him. The pink scar running down her leathery cheek twisted as she smiled. “Good news, Perrin Aybara,” she said softly, handing him the dark blue cloth. “Your wife lives.” Alharra exchanged glances with Seonid’s other Warder, Teryl Wynter, who frowned. Masuri’s man, Rovair Kirklin, stared straight ahead stonily. It was as plain as Wynter’s curled mustaches that they were not sure it was good news. “The others press on to see what more they can find,” she went on. “Though we already have found oddities enough.”

Perrin let the bundle fall open in his hands. It was Faile’s dress, sliced down the front and along the arms. He inhaled deeply, pulling Faile’s scent into him, a faint trace of her flowery soap, a touch other sweet perfume, but most of all, the smell that was her. And no hint of blood. The rest of the Maidens gathered around him, mostly older women with hard faces, though not as hard as Sulin’s. The Warders climbed down, showing no sign that they had been all night in the saddle, but they held back behind the Maidens.

“All of the men were killed,” the wiry woman said, “but by the garments we found, Alliandre Kigarin, Maighdin Dorlain, Lacile Aldorwin, Arrela Shiego, and two more also were made gai’shain.” The other two must have been Bain and Chiad; mentioning them by name, that they had been taken, would have shamed them. He had learned a little about Aiel. “This goes against custom, but it protects them.” Wynter frowned in doubt, then tried to hide it by adjusting his hood.

The neat cuts were like those made skinning an animal. It hit Perrin suddenly. Someone had cut Faile’s clothes off! His voice shook. “They only took women?”

A round-faced young Maiden named Briain shook her head. “Three men would have been made gai’shain, I think, but they fought too hard and were killed with knife or spear. All the rest died by arrow.”

“It is not like that, Perrin Aybara,” Elienda said hurriedly, sounding shocked. A tall woman with wide shoulders, she managed to look almost motherly, though he had seen her knock a man down with her fist. “Harming a gai’shain is like harming a child, or a blacksmith. It was wrong to take wetlanders, but I cannot believe they will break custom that far. I am sure they will not even be punished, if they can be meek until they are recovered. There are others who will show them.” Others; Bain and Chiad again.

“What direction did they go?” he asked. Could Faile be meek? He could not picture her that way. At least let her try, till he could find her.

“Almost south,” Sulin replied. “Much nearer south than east. After the snow hid their tracks, Jondyn Barran saw other traces. What the others are following. I believe him. He sees as much as Elyas Machera. There is much to see.” Thrusting her spears behind the bow case on her back, she hung her buckler from the hilt of her heavy belt knife. Her fingers flashed handtalk, and Elienda unfastened a second, larger bundle and handed it to her. “Many people are moving out there, Perrin Aybara, and strange things. This you must see first, I think.” Sulin unfolded another cut dress, this one green. He thought he remembered it on Alliandre. “These, we recovered where your wife was taken.” Inside, forty or fifty Aiel arrows shifted in a heap. There were dark stains on the shafts, and he caught the scent of dried blood.

“Taardad,” Sulin said, picking out an arrow and immediately throwing it to the ground. “Miagoma.” She tossed two more aside. “Goshien.” Those brought a grimace to her face; she was Goshien. Clan by clan, she named them all except the Shaido, dropping arrows until just over half lay scattered around her. She held up the cut dress holding the remainder in both hands, then spilled them. “Shaido,” she said significantly.

Clutching Faile’s dress to his chest — her scent eased the pain in his heart, and made it worse at the same time — Perrin frowned at the arrows jumbled on the snow. Already, some were half buried in the fresh fall. “Too many Shaido,” he said at last. They should all be bottled up in Kinslayer’s Dagger, five hundred leagues distant. But if some of their Wise Ones had learned to Travel . . . Maybe even one of the Forsaken . . . Light, he was rambling like a fool — what would the Forsaken have to do with this? — rambling when he had to think. His brain felt as weary as the rest of him. “The others are men who wouldn’t accept Rand as the Car’a’carn.” Those cursed colors flashed in his head. He had no time for anything but Faile. “They joined the Shaido.” Some of the Maidens averted their eyes. Elienda glared at him. They knew that some had done what he said, but it was one of those things they did not like to hear said aloud. “How many altogether, do you reckon? Not the whole clan, surely?” If the Shaido were here in a body, there would be more than rumors of distant raids. Even among all the other troubles, a

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