The Great Hunt

The Great Hunt: Page 57

"I recognize her. Verin."
"Verin Sedai," Ingtar said sharply, then bowed to her from his saddle.
"Moiraine Sedai sent me, Lord Ingtar," Verin announced with a satisfied smile. "She thought you might need me. Such a gallop I've had. I thought I might not catch you short of Cairhien. You saw that village, of course? Oh, that was very nasty, wasn't it? And that Myrddraal. There were ravens and crows all over the rooftops, but never a one went near it, dead as it was. I had to wave away the Dark One's own weight in flies, though, before I could make out what it was. A shame I did not have time to take it down. I've never had a chance to study a -" Suddenly her eyes narrowed, and the absent manner vanished like smoke. "Where is Rand al'Thor?"
Ingtar grimaced. "Gone, Verin Sedai. Vanished last night, without a trace. Him, the Ogier, and Hurin, one of my men."
"The Ogier, Lord Ingtar? And your sniffer went with him? What would those two have in common with ...?" Ingtar gaped at her, and she snorted. "Did you think you could keep something like that secret?" She snorted again. "Sniffers. Vanished, you say?"
"Yes, Verin Sedai." Ingtar sounded unsettled. It was never easy discovering Aes Sedai knew the secrets you were trying to keep from them; Perrin hoped Moiraine had not told anyone about him. "But I have - I have a new sniffer." The Shienaran Lord gestured to Perrin. "This man seems to have the ability, also. I will find the Horn of Valere, as I swore to, have no fear. Your company will be welcome, Aes Sedai, if you wish to ride with us." To Perrin's surprise, he did not sound as if he entirely meant it.
Verin glanced at Perrin, and he shifted uneasily. "A new sniffer, just when you lose your old one. How ... providential. You found no tracks? No, of course not. You said no trace. Odd. Last night." She twisted in her saddle, looking back north, and for a moment Perrin almost thought she was going to ride back the way she had come.
Ingtar frowned at her. "You think their disappearance has something to do with the Horn, Aes Sedai?"
Verin settled back. "The Horn? No. No, I ... think not. But it is odd. Very odd. I do not like odd things until I can understand them."
"I can have two men escort you back to where they disappeared, Verin Sedai. They will have no trouble taking you right to it."
"No. If you say they vanished without a trace ..." For a long moment she studied Ingtar, her face unreadable. "I will ride with you. Perhaps we will find them again, or they will find us. Talk to me as we ride, Lord Ingtar. Tell me everything you can about the young man. Everything he did, everything he said."
They started off in a jingle of harness and armor, Verin riding close beside Ingtar and questioning him closely, but too low to be overheard. She gave Perrin a look when he tried to maintain his place, and he fell back.
"It's Rand she's after," Mat murmured, "not the Horn."
Perrin nodded. Wherever you've gotten to, Rand, stay there. It's safer than here.
>(HeronMark Sword Hilt)
The way the strangely faded distant hills seemed to slide toward Rand when he looked straight at them made his head spin, unless he wrapped himself in the void. Sometimes the emptiness crept up on him unawares, but he avoided it like death. Better to be dizzy than share the void with that uneasy light. Better by far to stare at the faded land. Still, he tried not to look at anything too far away unless it lay right ahead of them.
Hurin wore a fixed look as he concentrated on sniffing the trail, as if he were trying to ignore the land the trail crossed. When the sniffer did notice what lay around them, he would give a start and wipe his hands on his coat, then push his nose forward like a hound, eyes glazing, excluding everything else. Loial rode slumped in his saddle and frowned as he glanced around, ears twitching uneasily, muttering to himself.
Again they crossed land blackened and burned, even the soil crunching under the horses' hooves as if it had been seared. The burned swathes, sometimes a mile wide, sometimes only a few hundred paces, all ran east and west as straight as an arrow's flight. Twice Rand saw the end of a burn, once as they rode over it, once as they passed nearby; they tapered to points at the ends. At least, the ends he saw were so, but he suspect

Once he had watched Whatley Eldin decorate a cart for Sunday, back home in Emond's Field, What painting the scenes in bright colors, and the intricate scrollwork that surrounded them. For the borders, What let the point of his brush touch the cart, making a thin line that grew thicker as he pressed harder, then thinner again as he eased up. That was how the land looked, as if someone had streaked it with a monstrous brush of fire.
Nothing grew where the burns were, though some burns, at least, had the feel of a thing long done. Not so much as a hint of char remained in the air there, not a whiff even when he leaned down to break off a black twig and smell it. Old, yet nothing had come in to reclaim the land. Black gave way to green, and green to black, along knifeedge lines.
In its own way, the rest of the land lay as dead as the burns, though grass covered the ground and leaves covered the trees. Everything had that faded look, like clothes too often washed and too long left in the sun. There were no birds or animals, not that Rand saw or heard. No hawk wheeling in the sky, no bark of a hunting fox, no bird singing. Nothing rustled in the grass or lit on a tree branch. No bees, or butterflies. Several times they crossed streams, the water shallow, though often it had dug itself a deep gulley with steep banks the horses had to scramble down and climb on the other side.
The water ran clear except for the mud the horses' hooves stirred, but never a minnow or tadpole wriggled out of the roiling, not even a waterspider dancing across the surface, or a hovering lacewing.
The water was drinkable, which was just as well, since their waterbottles could not last forever. Rand tasted it first, and made Loial and Hurin wait to see if anything happened to him before he let them drink. He had gotten them into this; it was his responsibility. The water was cool and wet, but that was the best that could be said for it. It tasted flat, as if it had been boiled. Loial made a face, and the horses did not like it either, shaking their heads and drinking reluctantly.
There was one sign of life; at least, Rand thought it must be so. Twice he saw a wispy streak crawling across the sky like a line drawn with cloud. The lines were too straight to be natural, it seemed, but he could not imagine what might make them. He did not mention the lines to the others. Perhaps they did not see, Hurin intent on the trail as he was and Loial drawn in on himself. They said nothing of the lines, at any rate.
When they had ridden half the morning, Loial abruptly swung down from his huge horse without a word and strode to a stand of giantsbroom, their trunks splitting into many thick branches, stiff and straight, not a pace above the ground. At the top, all split again, into the leafy brush that gave them their name.
Rand pulled Red up and started to ask what he was doing, but something about the Ogier's manner, as if he himself were uncertain, kept Rand silent. After staring at the tree, Loial put his hands on a trunk and began to sing in a deep, soft rumble.
Rand had heard Ogier treesong, once, when Loial had sung to a dying tree and brought it back to life, and he had heard of sung wood, objects wrought from trees by the treesong. The Talent was fading, Loial said; he was one of the few who had the ability, now; that was what made sung wood even more sought after and treasured. When he had heard Loial sing before, it had been as if the earth itself sang, but now the Ogier murmured his song almost diffidently, and the land echoed it in a whisper.
It seemed pure song, music without words, at least none that Rand could make out; if there were words, they faded into the music just as water pours into a stream. Hurin gasped and stared.
Rand was not sure what it was Loial did, or how; soft as the song was, it caught him up hypnotically, filling his mind almost the way the void did. Loial ran his big hands along the trunk, singing, caressing with his voice as well as his fingers. The trunk now seemed smoother, somehow, as if his stroking were shaping it. Rand blinked. He was sure the piece Loial worked on had had branches at its top just like the others, but now it stopped in a rounded end right above the Ogier's head. Rand opened his mouth, but the song quieted him. It seemed so familiar, that song, as if he should know it.
Abruptly Loial's voice rose to a climax - almost a hymn of thanks, it sounded - and ended, fading as a breeze fades.
"Burn me," Hurin breathed. He looked stunned. "Burn me, I never heard anything like ... Burn me."
In his hands Loial held a staff as tall as he was and as thick as Rand's forearm, smooth and polished.

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