The Great Hunt

The Great Hunt: Page 25

Rand swallowed. "We'll take it together, Ingtar."
"You aren't ready for this. Go see to your girl. Go! You want Trollocs to find her unprotected?"
For a moment Rand hung there, undecided. The Fade had raised its sword, for Ingtar. A silent snarl twisted Ingtar's mouth, but Rand knew it was not fear. And Egwene could be alone in the dungeon with Fain, or worse. Still he felt ashamed as he ran for the stairs that led underground. He knew a Fade's look could make any man afraid, but Ingtar had conquered the dread. His stomach still felt knotted.
The corridors beneath the keep were silent, and feebly lit by flickering, farspaced lamps on the walls. He slowed as he came closer to the dungeons, creeping as silently as he could on his toes. The grate of his boots on the bare stone seemed to fill his ears. The door to the dungeons stood cracked open a handbreadth. It should ha

Staring at the door, he tried to swallow and could not. He opened his mouth to call out, then shut it again quickly. If Egwene was in there and in trouble, shouting would only warn whoever was endangering her. Or whatever. Taking a deep breath, he set himself.
In one motion he pushed the door wide open with the scabbard in his left hand and threw himself into the dungeon, tucking his shoulder under to roll through the straw covering the floor and come to his feet, spinning this way and that too quickly to get a clear picture of the room, looking desperately for anyone who might attack him, looking for Egwene. There was no one there.
His eyes fell on the table, and he stopped dead, breath and even thought freezing. On either side of the stillburning lamp, as if to make a centerpiece, sat the heads of the guards in two pools of blood. Their eyes stared at him, wide with fear, and their mouths gaped in a last scream no one could hear. Rand gagged and doubled over; his stomach heaved again and again as he vomited into the straw. Finally he managed to pull himself erect, scrubbing his mouth with his sleeve; his throat felt scraped raw.
Slowly he became aware of the rest of the room, only half seen and not taken in during his hasty search for an attacker. Bloody lumps of flesh lay scattered through the straw. There was nothing he could recognize as human except the two heads. Some of the pieces looked chewed. So that's what happened to the rest of their bodies. He was surprised at the calmness of his thoughts, almost as if he had achieved the void without trying. It was the shock, he knew vaguely.
He did not recognize either of the heads; the guards had been changed since he was there earlier. He was glad for that. Knowing who they were, even Changu, would have made it worse. Blood covered the walls, too, but in scrawled letters, single words and whole sentences splashed on every which way. Some were harsh and angular, in a language he did not know, though he recognized Trolloc script. Others he could read, and wished he could not. Blasphemies and obscenities bad enough to make a stablehand or a merchant's guard go pale.
"Egwene." Calmness vanished. Shoving his scabbard through his belt, he snatched the lamp from the table, hardly noticing when the heads toppled over. "Egwene! Where are you?"
He started toward the inner door, took two steps, and stopped, staring. The words on the door, dark and glistening wetly in the light of his lamp, were plain enough.
His sword dropped from a hand suddenly numb. Never taking his eyes off the door, he bent to pick it up. Instead he grabbed a handful of straw and began scrubbing furiously at the words on the door. Panting, he scrubbed until it was all one bloody smear, but he could not stop.
"What do you do?"
At the sharp voice behind him, he whirled, stooping to seize his sword.
A woman stood in the outer doorway, back stiff with outrage. Her hair was like pale gold, in a dozen or more braids, but her eyes were dark, and sharp on his face. She looked not much older than he, and pretty in a sulky way, but there was a tightness to her mouth he did not like.
Then he saw the shawl she had wrapped tightly around her, with its long, red fringe.
Aes Sedai. And Light help me, she's Red Ajah. "I ... I was just ... It's filthy stuff. Vile."
"Everything must be left exactly as it is for us to examine. Touch nothing." She took a step forward, peering at him, and he took one back. "Yes. Yes, as I thought. One of those with Moiraine. What do you have to do with this?" Her gesture took in the heads on the table and the bloody scrawl on the walls.
For a minute he goggled at her. "Me? Nothing! I came down here to find ... Egwene!"
He turned to open the inner door, and the Aes Sedai shouted, "No! You will answer me!"
Suddenly it was all he could do to stand up, to keep holding the lamp and his sword. Icy cold squeezed at him from all sides. His head felt caught in a frozen vise; he could barely breathe for the pressure on his chest.
"Answer me, boy. Tell me your name."
Involuntarily he grunted, trying to answer against the chill that seemed to be pressing his face back into his skull, constricting his chest like frozen iron bands. He clenched his jaws to keep the sound in. Painfully he rolled his eyes to glare at her through a blur of tears. The Light burn you, Aes Sedai! I won't say a word, the Shadow take you!
"Answer me, boy! Now!"
Frozen needles pierced his brain with agony, grated into his bones. The void formed inside him before he even realized he had thought of it, but it could not hold out the pain. Dimly he sensed light and warmth somewhere in the distance. It flickered queasily, but the light was warm, and he was cold. Distant beyond knowing, but somehow just within reach. Light, so cold. I have to reach ... what? She's killing me. I have to reach it, or she'll kill me. Desperately he stretched toward the light.
"What is going on here?"
cold and the pressure and the needles vanished. His knees sagged, but he forced them stiff. He would not fall to his knees; he would not give her the satisfaction. The void was gone, too, as suddenly as it had come. She was trying to kill me. Panting, he raised his head. Moiraine stood in the doorway.
"I asked what is going on here, Liandrin," she said.
"I found this boy here," the Red Aes Sedai replied calmly. "The guards are murdered, and here he is. One of yours. And what are you doing here, Moiraine? The battle is above, not here."
"I could ask the same of you, Liandrin." Moiraine looked around the room with only a slight tightening of her mouth for the charnel. "Why are you here?"
Rand turned away from them, awkwardly shoved back the bolts on the inner door and pulled it open. "Egwene came down here," he announced for anyone who cared, and went in, holding his lamp high. His knees kept wanting to give way; he was not sure how he stayed on his feet, only that he had to find Egwene. "Egwene!"
A hollow gurgle and a thrashing sound came from his right, and he thrust the lamp that way. The prisoner in the fancy coat was sagging against the iron grille of his cell, his belt looped around the bars and then around his neck. As Rand looked, he gave one last kick, scraping across the strawcovered floor, and was still, tongue and eyes bulging out of a face gone almost black. His knees almost touched the floor; he could have stood anytime he wanted to.
Shivering, Rand peered into the next cell. The big man with the sunken knuckles huddled in the back of his cell, eyes as wide as they could open. At the sight of Rand, he screamed and twisted around, clawing fran

"I won't hurt you," Rand called. The man kept on screaming and digging. His hands were bloody, and his scrabblings streaked across dark, congealed smears. This was not his first attempt to dig through the stone with his bare hands.
Rand turned away, relieved that his stomach was already empty. But there was nothing he could do for either of them. "Egwene!"
His light finally reached the end of the cells. The door to Fain's cell stood open, and the cell was empty, but it was the two shapes on the stone in front of the cell that made Rand leap forward and drop to his knees between them.
Egwene and Mat lay sprawled bonelessly, unconscious ... or dead. With a flood of relief he saw their chests rise and fall. There did not seem to be a mark on either of them.
"Egwene? Mat?" Setting the sword down, he shook Egwene gently. "Egwene?" She did not open her eyes. "Moiraine! Egwene's hurt! And Mat!" Mat's breathing sounded labored, and his face was deathly pale. Rand felt almost like crying. It was supposed to hurt me. I named the Dark One. Me!
"Do not move them." Moiraine did not sound upset, or even surprised.
The chamber was suddenly flooded with light as the two Aes Sedai entered. Each balanced a glowing ball of cool light, floating in the air above her hand.
Liandrin marched straight down the middle of the wide hall, holding her skirts up out of the straw with her free hand, but Moiraine paused to look at the two prisoners before following.

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