The Great Hunt


The Great Hunt: Page 46



There was no gate in the one opening he could see in the wall, but he supposed it could be blocked easily enough with a cart or wagon. He could not see any people.
"Not even a dog in sight," Ingtar said, returning the looking glass to his saddlebags. "Are you sure they did not see you?" he asked the scouts.
"Not unless they have the Dark One's own luck, my Lord," one of the men replied. "We never crested the rise. We didn't see anyone moving then either, my Lord."
Ingtar nodded. "The trail, Hurin?"
Hurin drew a deep breath. "Toward the village, my Lord. Straight to it, as near as I can tell from here."
"Watch sharp," Ingtar commanded, gathering his reins. "And do not believe that they're friendly just because they smile. If there is anyone there." He led them down toward the village at a slow walk, and reached up to loosen his sword in its scabbard.
Rand heard the sounds of others behind him doing the same. After a moment, he eased his, too. Trying to stay alive was not the same as trying to be a hero, he decided.
"You think these people would help Darkfriends?" Perrin asked Ingtar. The Shienaran was slow in answering.
"They have no great love for Shienarans," he said finally. "They think we should protect them. Us, or the Cairhienin. Cairhien did claim this land, once the last King of Hardan died. All the way to the Erinin, they claimed it. They could not hold it, though. They gave up the claim nearly a hundred years ago. The few people who still live here don't have to worry about Trollocs this far south, but there are plenty of human brigands. That's why they have the wall, and the ditch. All their villages do. Their fields will be hidden in hollows around here, but no one will live outside the wall. They would swear fealty to any king who would give them his protection, but we have all we can do against the Trollocs. They do not love us for it, though." As they reached the opening in the low wall, he added again, "Watch sharp!"
All the streets led toward a village square, but there was no one in the streets, no one peering from a window. Not even a dog moved, not so much as a chicken. Nothing living. Open doors swung, creaking in the wired, counterpoint to the rhythmic squeak of the windmills. The horses' hooves sounded loud on the packed dirt of the street.
"Like at the ferry," Hurin muttered, "but different." He rode hunched in his saddle, head down as if he were trying to hide behind his own shoulders. "Violence done, but ... I don't know. It was bad here. It smells bad."
"Uno," Ingtar said, "take one file and search the houses. If you find anyone, bring them to me in the square. Do not frighten them this time, though. I want answers, not people running for their lives." He led the other soldiers toward the center of the village as Uno got his ten dismounted.
Rand hesitated, looking around. The creaking doors, the squealing windmills, the horses' hooves, all made too much noise, as if there were not another sound in the world. He scanned the houses. The curtains in an open window beat against the outside of the house. They all seemed lifeless. With a sigh he got down and walked to the nearest house, then sto

It's just a door. What are you afraid of? He wished he did not feel as if there was something waiting on the other side. He pushed it open.
Inside was a tidy room. Or had been. The table was set for a meal, ladderback chairs gathered around, some plates already served. A few flies buzzed above bowls of turnips and peas, and more crawled on a cold roast sitting in its own congealed grease. There was a slice half carved from the roast, the fork still standing stuck in the meat and the carving knife lying partway in the platter as if dropped. Rand stepped inside.
Blink.
A smiling, baldheaded man in rough clothes laid a slice of meat on a plate held by a woman with a worn face. She was smiling, too, though. She added peas and turnips to the plate and passed it to one of the children lining the table. There were half a dozen children, boys and girls, from nearly grown down to barely tall enough to look over the table. The woman said something, and the girl taking the plate from her laughed. The man started to cut another slice.
Suddenly another girl screamed, pointing at the door to the street. The man dropped the carving knife and whirled, then he screamed, too, face tight with horror, and snatched up a child. The woman grabbed another, and motioned desperately to the others, her mouth working frantically, silently. They all scrabbled toward a door in the back of the room.
That door burst open, and –
Blink.
Rand could not move. The flies buzzing over the table sounded louder. His breath made a cloud in front of his mouth.
Blink.
A smiling, baldheaded man in rough clothes laid a slice of meat on a plate held by a woman with a worn face. She was smiling, too, though. She added peas and turnips to the plate and passed it to one of the children lining the table. There were half a dozen children, boys and girls, from nearly grown down to barely tall enough to look over the table.
The woman said something, and the girl taking the plate from her laughed. The man started to cut another slice.
Suddenly another girl screamed, pointing at the door to the street. The man dropped the carving knife and whirled, then he screamed, too, face tight with horror, and snatched up a child. The woman grabbed another, and motioned desperately to the others, her mouth working frantically, silently. They all scrabbled toward the door in the back of the room.
That door burst open, and –
Blink.
Rand struggled, but his muscles seemed frozen. The room was colder; he wanted to shiver, but he could not move even that much. Flies crawled all over the table. He groped for the void. The sour light was there, but he did not care. He had to-
Blink.
A smiling, baldheaded man in rough clothes laid a slice of meat on a plate held by a woman with a worn face. She was smiling, too, though. She added peas and turnips to the plate and passed it to one of the children lining the table. There were half a dozen children, boys and girls, from nearly grown down to barely tall enough to look over the table. The woman said something, and the girl taking the plate from her laughed. The man started to cut another slice.
Suddenly another girl screamed, pointing at the door to the street. The man dropped the carving knife and whirled, then he screamed, too, face tight with horror, and snatched up a child. The woman grabbed another, and motioned desperately to the others, her mouth working frantically, silently. They all scrabbled toward a door in the back of the room.
That door burst open, and –
Blink.
The room was freezing. So cold. Flies blackened the table; the walls were a shifting mass of flies, the floor, the ceiling, all black with them. They crawled on Rand, covering him, crawled over his face, his eyes, into his nose, his mouth. Light, help me. Cold. The flies buzzed like thunder. Cold. It penetrated the void, mocking the emptiness, encasing him in ice. Desperately he reached for the flickering light. His stomach twisted, but the light was warm. Warm. Hot. He was hot.
Suddenly he was tearing at ... something. He did not know what, or how. Cobwebs made of steel. Moonbeams carved from stone. They crumbled at his touch, but he knew he had not touched anything. They shriveled and melted with the heat that surged through him, heat like a forge fire, heat like the world burning, heat like-
It was gone. Panting, he looked around with wide eyes. A few flies lay on the halfcarved roast, in the platter. Dead flies. Six flies. Only six. There were more in the bowls, half a dozen tiny black specks among the cold vegetables. All dead. He staggered out into the street.
Mat was just coming out of a house across the street, shaking his head. "Nobody there," he told Perrin, still on his horse. "It looks like they just got up in the middle of supper and walked away."
from the square.
"They've found something," Perrin said, digging his heels into his horse's flanks. Mat scrambled into his saddle and galloped after him.
Rand mounted Red more slowly; the stallion shied as if feeling his unease. He glanced at the houses as he rode slowly toward the square, but he could not make himself look at them for long. Mat went in one, and nothing happened to him. He resolved not to set foot inside another house in that village no matter what. Booting Red, he quickened his pace.
Everyone was standing like statues in front of a large building with wide double doors. Rand did not think it could be an inn; there was no sign, for one thing. Perhaps a village meeting place. He joined the silent circle, and stared along with the rest.
There was a man spreadeagled across the doors with thick spikes through wrists and shoulders. More spikes had been driven into his eyes to hold his head up. Dark, dried blood made fans down his cheeks. Scuff marks on the wood behind his boots showed that he had been alive when it was done.

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