The Great Hunt

The Great Hunt: Page 58

Where the trunk had been on the giantsbroom was a small stem of new growth.
Rand took a deep breath. Always something new, always something I didn't expect, and sometimes it isn't horrible.
He watched Loial mount, resting the staff across his saddle in front of him, and wondered why the Ogier wanted a staff at all, since they were riding. Then he saw the thick rod, not as big as it was, but in relation to the Ogier, saw the way Loial handled it. "A quarterstaff," he said, surprised. "I didn't know Ogier carried weapons, Loial."
"Usually we do not," the Ogier replied almost curtly. "Usually. The price has always been too high." He hefted the huge quarterstaff and wrinkled his broad nose with distaste. "Elder Haman would surely say I am putting a long handle on my axe, but I am not just being hasty or rash, Rand. This place ..." He shivered, and his ears twitched.
"We'll find our way back soon," Rand said, trying to sound confident.
Loial spoke as if he had not heard. "Everything is ... linked, Rand. Whether it lives or not, whether it thinks or not, everything that is, fits together. The tree does not think, but it is part of the whole, and the whole has a - a feeling. I can't explain any more than I can explain what being happy is, but... Rand, this land was glad for a weapon to be made. Glad!"
"The Light shine on us," Hurin murmured nervously, "and the Creator's hand shelter us. Though we go to the last embrace of the mother, the Light illumine our way." He kept repeating the catechism as if it had a charm to protect him.
Rand resisted the impulse to look around. He definitely did not look up. All it would take to break them all was another of those smoky lines across the sky right at that moment. "There's nothing here to hurt us," he said firmly. "And we'll keep a good watch and make sure nothing does."
He wanted to laugh at himself, sounding so certain. He was not certain about anything. But watching the others - Loial with his tufted ears drooping, and Hurin trying not to look at anything - he knew one of them had to seem to be sure, at least, or fear and uncertainty would break them all apart. The Wheel weaves as the Wheel wills. He squeezed that thought out. Nothing to do with the Wheel. Nothing to with ta'veren, or Aes Sedai, or the Dragon. It's just the

"Loial, are you done here?" The Ogier nodded, regretfully rubbing the quarterstaff. Rand turned to Hurin. "Do you still have the trail?"
"I do, Lord Rand. I do that."
"Then let's keep on with it. Once we find Fain and the Darkfriends, why, we'll go home heroes, with the dagger for Mat, and the Horn of Valere. Lead out, Hurin." Heroes? I'll settle for all of us getting out of here alive.
"I do not like this place," the Ogier announced flatly. He held the quarterstaff as if he expected to have to use it soon.
"As well we don't mean to stay here, then, isn't it?" Rand said. Hurin barked a laugh as if he had made a joke, but Loial gave him a level look.
"As well we don't, Rand."
Yet as they rode on southward, he could see that his casual assumption that they would get home had picked them both up a little. Hurin sat a bit straighter in his saddle, and Loial's ears did not seem so wilted. It was no time or place to let them know he shared their fear, so he kept it to himself, and fought it by himself.
Hurin kept his humor through the morning, murmuring, "As well we don't mean to stay," then chuckling, until Rand felt like telling him to be quiet. Toward midday, the sniffer did fall silent, though, shaking his head and frowning, and Rand found he wished the man was still repeating his words and laughing.
"Is there something wrong with the trail, Hurin?" he asked.
The sniffer shrugged, looking troubled. "Yes, Lord Rand, and then again no, as you might say."
"It must be one or the other. Have you lost the trail? No shame if you have. You said it was weak to start. If we can't find the Darkfriends, we will find another Stone and get back that way." Light, anything but that. Rand kept his face smooth. "If Darkfriends can come here and leave, so can we."
"Oh, I haven't lost it, Lord Rand. I can still pick out the stink of them. It isn't that. It's just ... It's ..." With a grimace, Hurin burst out, "It's like I'm remembering it, Lord Rand, instead of smelling it. But I'm not. There's dozens of trails crossing it all the time, dozens and dozens, and all sorts of smells of violence, some of them fresh, almost, only washed out like everything else. This morning, right after we left the hollow, I could have sworn there were hundreds slaughtered right under my feet, just minutes before, but there weren't any bodies, and not a mark on the grass but our own hoofprints. A thing like that couldn't happen without the ground being torn up and bloodied, but there wasn't a mark. It's all like that, my Lord. But I am following the trail. I am. This place just has me all on edge. That's it. That must be it."
Rand glanced at Loial - the Ogier did come up with the oddest knowledge, at times - but he looked as puzzled as Hurin. Rand made his voice more confident than he felt. "I know you are doing your best, Hurin. We are all of us on edge. Just follow as best you can, and we'll find them."
"As you say, Lord Rand." Hurin booted his horse forward. "As you say."
But by nightfall, there was still no sign of the Darkfriends, and Hurin said the trail was fainter still. The sniffer kept muttering to himself about "remembering."
There had been no sign. Really no sign. Rand was not as good a tracker as Uno, but any boy in the Two Rivers was expected to track well enough to find a lost sheep, or a rabbit for dinner. He had seen nothing. It was as if no living thing had ever disturbed the land before they came. There should have been something if the Darkfriends were ahead of them. But Hurin kept following the trail he said he smelled.
As the sun touched the horizon they made camp in a stand of trees untouched by the burn, eating from their saddlebags. Flatbread and dried meat washed down with flattasting water; hardly a filling meal, tough and far from tasty. Rand thought they might have enough for a week. After that ... Hurin ate slowly, determinedly, but Loial gulped his down with a grimace and settled back with his pipe, the big quarterstaff close at hand. Rand kept their fire small and well hidden in the trees. Fain and his Darkfriends and Trollocs might be close enough to see a fire, for all of Hurin's worries about the oddness of their trail.
It seemed odd to him that he had begun to think of them as Fain's Darkfriends, Fain's Trollocs. Fain was just a madman. Then why did they rescue him? Fain had been part of the Dark One's scheme to find him.
Perhaps it had something to do with that. Then why is he running instead of chasing me? And what killed that Fade? What happened in that room full of flies? And those eyes, watching me in Fal Dara. And that wind, catching me like a beetle in pine sap. No. No, Ba'alzamon has to he dead. The Aes Sedai did not believe it. Moiraine did not believe it, nor the Amyrlin. Stubbornly, he refused to think about it any longer. All he had to think about now was finding that dagger for Mat. Finding Fain, and the Horn.
It's never over, al'Thor.
The voice was like a thin breeze whispering in the back of his head, a thin, icy murmur working its way into the crevices of his mind. He almost sought the void to escape it, but remembering what waited for him there, he pushed down the desire.
In the half dark of twilight, he worked the forms with his sword, the way Lan had taught, though without the void. Parting the Silk. Hummingbird Kisses the Honeyrose. Heron Wading in the Rushes, for balance. Losing himself in the swift, sure movements, forgetting for a time where he was, he worked until sweat covered him. Yet when he was done, it all came back; nothing was changed. The weather was not cold, but he shivered and pulled his cloak around him as he hunched by the fire. The others caught his mood, and they finished eating quickly and in silence. No one complained when he kicked dirt over the last fitful flames.
Rand took the first watch himself, walking the edges of the copse with his bow, sometimes easing his sword in its scabbard. The chill moon was almost full, standing high in the blackness, and the night was as silent as the day had been, as empty. Empty was the right word. The land was as empty as a dusty milk crock. It was hard to believe there was anyone in the whole world, in this world, except for the three of them, hard to believe even the Darkfriends were there, somewhere ahead.
To keep himself company, he unwrapped Thom Merrilin's cloak, exposing the harp and flute in their hard leather cases atop the manycolored patches. He took the goldandsilver flute from its case, remembering the gleeman teaching him as he fingered it, and played a few notes of "The Wind That Shakes the Willow," softly so as not to wake the others. Even soft, the sad sound was too loud in that place, too real.

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