The Great Hunt

The Great Hunt: Page 44

Mat and Perrin did the same. Loial and Hurin had just waited there where Ingtar had left them, watching uneasily.
Ingtar waved, and Rand and the others rode up to join the Shienarans.
"I don't like the smell of this place," Perrin muttered as they came among the houses. Hurin gave him a look, and he stared back until Hurin dropped his eyes. "It smells wrong."
y Darkfriends and Trollocs went straight through, my Lord," Uno said, pointing to a few tracks not chopped to pieces by the Shienarans. "Straight through to the goatkissing ferry, which they bloody left on the other side. Blood and bloody ashes! We're flaming lucky they didn't cut it adrift."
"Where are the people?" Loial asked.
Doors stood open, curtains flapped at open windows, but no one had come out for all the thunder of hooves.
"Search the houses," Ingtar commanded. Men dismounted and ran to comply, but they came back shaking their heads.
"They're just gone, my Lord," Uno said. "Just bloody gone, burn me. Like they'd picked up and decided to flaming walk away in the middle of the bloody day." He stopped suddenly, pointing urgently to a house behind Ingtar. "There's a woman at that window. How I bloody missed her ..." He was running for the house befo

"Don't frighten her!" Ingtar shouted. "Uno, we need information. The Light blind you, Uno, don't frighten her!" The oneeyed man disappeared through the open door. Ingtar raised his voice again. "We will not harm you, good lady. We are Lord Agelmar's oathmen, from Fal Dara. Do not be afraid! We will not harm you."
A window at the top of the house flew up, and Uno stuck his head out, staring around wildly. With an oath he pulled back. Thumps and clatters marked his passage back, as if he were kicking things in frustration. Finally he appeared from the doorway.
"Gone, my Lord. But she was there. A woman in a white dress, at the window. I saw her. I even thought I saw her inside, for a moment, but then she was gone, and ..." He took a deep breath. "The house is empty, my Lord." It was a measure of his agitation that he did not curse.
"Curtains," Mat muttered. "He's jumping at bloody curtains." Uno gave him a sharp look, then returned to his horse.
"Where did they go?" Rand asked Loial. "Do you think they ran off when the Darkfriends came?" And Trollocs, and a Myrddraal. And Hurin's something worse. Smart people, if they ran as hard as they could.
"I fear the Darkfriends took them, Rand," Loial said slowly. He grimaced, almost a snarl with his broad nose like a snout. "For the Trollocs." Rand swallowed and wished he had not asked; it was never pleasant to think on how Trollocs fed.
"Whatever was done here," Ingtar said, "our Darkfriends did it. Hurin, was there violence here? Killing? Hurin!"
The sniffer gave a start in his saddle and looked around wildly. He had been staring across the river. "Violence, my Lord? Yes: Killing, no. Or not exactly." He glanced sideways at Perrin. "I've never smelled anything exactly like it before, my Lord. But there was hurting done."

"Is there any doubt they crossed over? Have they doubled back again?"
"They crossed, my Lord." Hurin looked uneasily at the far bank. "They crossed. What they did on the other side, though ..." He shrugged.
Ingtar nodded. "Uno, I want that ferry back on this side. And I want the other side scouted before we cross. Just because there was no ambush here doesn't mean there will not be one when we are split by the river. That ferry does not look big enough to carry us all in one trip. See to it."
Uno bowed, and in moments Ragan and Masema were helping each other out of their armor. Stripped down to breechclouts, with a dagger stuck behind in the small of the back, they trotted to the river on horsemen's bowed legs and waded in, beginning to work their way hand over hand along the thick rope along which the ferry ran. The cable sagged enough in the middle to put them in the river to their waists, and the current was strong, pulling them downstream, yet in less time than Rand expected they were hauling themselves over the slatted sides of the ferry. Drawing their daggers, they disappeared into the trees.
After what seemed like forever, the two men reappeared and began pulling the ferry slowly across. The barge butted against the bank below the village, and Masema tied it off while Ragan trotted up to where Ingtar waited. His face was pale, the arrow scar on his cheek sharp, and he sounded shaken.
"The far bank ... There is no ambush on the far bank, my Lord, but ..." He bowed deeply, still wet and shivering from his excursion. "My Lord, you must see for yourself. The big stoneoak, fifty paces south from the landing. I cannot say the words. You must see it yourself."
Ingtar frowned, looking from Ragan to the other bank. Finally, he said, "You have done well, Ragan. Both of you have." His voice became more brisk. "Find these men something to dry themselves on from the houses, Uno. And see if anybody left water on for tea. Put something hot into them, if you can. Then bring the second file and the pack animals over." He turned to Rand. "Well, are you ready to see the south bank of the Erinin?" He did not wait for an answer, but rode down to the ferry with Hurin and half the lancers.
Rand hesitated only a moment before following. Loial went with him. To his surprise, Perrin rode down ahead of them, looking grim. Some of the lancers, making gruff jokes, dismounted to haul on the rope and walk the ferry over.
Mat waited until the last minute, when one of the Shienarans was untying the ferry, before he kicked his horse and crowded aboard. "I have to come sooner or later, don't I?" he said, breathless, to no one in particular. "I have to find it."
Rand shook his head. With Mat looking as healthy as he ever had, he had almost forgotten why he was along. To find the dagger. Let Ingtar have the Horn. I just want the dagger for Mat. "We will find it, Mat."
Mat scowled at him - with a sneering glance for his fine red coat - and turned away. Rand sighed.
"It will all come right, Rand," Loial said quietly. "Somehow, it will."
The current took the ferry as it was hauled out from the bank, tugging it against the cable with a sharp creak. The lancers were odd ferrymen, walking the deck in helmets and armor, with swords on their backs, but they took the ferry out into the river well enough.
"This is how we left home," Perrin said suddenly. "At Taren Ferry. The ferrymen's boots clunking on the deck, and the water gurgling around the ferry. This is how we left. It will be worse, this time."
"How can it be worse?" Rand asked. Perrin did not answer. He searched the far bank, and his golden eyes almost seemed to shine, but not with eagerness.
te, Mat asked, "How can it be worse?"
"It will be. I can smell it," was all Perrin would say. Hurin eyed him nervously, but then Hurin seemed to be eyeing everything nervously since they had left Fal Dara.
The ferry bumped against the south bank with a hollow thud of stout planks against hard clay, almost under overhanging trees, and the Shienarans who had been hauling on the rope mounted their horses, except for two Ingtar told to take the ferry back over for the others. The rest followed Ingtar up the bank.
"Fifty paces to a big stoneoak," Ingtar said as they rode into the trees. He sounded too matteroffact. If Ragan could not speak of it ... Some of the soldiers eased the swords on their backs, and held their lances ready.
At first Rand thought the figures hanging by their arms from the thick gray limbs of the stoneoak were scarecrows. Crimson scarecrows. Then he recognized the two faces. Changu, and the other man who had been on guard with him. Nidao. Eyes staring, teeth bared in a rictus of pain. They had lived a

Perrin made a sound in his throat, nearly a growl.
"As bad as ever I've seen, my Lord," Hurin said faintly. "As bad as ever I've smelled, excepting the dungeon at Fal Dara that night."
Frantically Rand sought the void. The flame seemed to get in the way, the queasy light fluttering in time with his convulsive swallows, but he pushed on until he had wrapped himself in emptiness. The queasiness pulsed in the void with him, though. Not outside, for once, but inside. No wonder, looking at this. The thought skittered across the void like a drop of water on a hot griddle. What happened to them?
"Skinned alive," he heard someone behind him say, and the sounds of somebody else retching. He thought it was Mat, but it was all far away from him, inside the void. But that nauseous flickering was in there, too. He thought he might throw up himself.
"Cut them down," Ingtar said harshly. He hesitated a moment, then added, "Bury them. We cannot be sure they were Darkfriends. They could have been taken prisoner. They could have been. Let them know the last embrace of the mother, at least." Men rode forward gingerly with knives; even for battlehardened Shienarans it was no easy task, cutting down the flayed corpses of men they knew.

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