The Warder's hood was thrown back, but his chameleonlike cloak blended so well with the night that the dim blur of his face seemed to hang suspended in the night. The hand on her arm appeared to come out of thin air.
She drew a shuddering breath. She expected him to comment on how easily he had come on her unaware, but instead he turned to dig into his saddlebags. “You are needed,” he said, and knelt to fasten hobbles on the horses.
As soon as the horses were secured, he straightened, grasped her hand, and headed off into the night again. His dark hair fit into the night almost as well as his cloak, and he made even less noise than she did. Grudgingly she had to admit that she could never have followed him through the darkness without his grip as a guide. She was not certain she could pull loose if he did not want to release her, anyway; he had very strong hands.
As they came up on a small rise, barely enough to be called a hill, he sank to one knee, pulling her down beside him. It took her a moment to see that Moiraine was there, too. Unmoving, the Aes Sedai could have passed for a shadow in her dark cloak. Lan gestured down the hillside to a large clearing in the trees.
Nynaeve frowned in the dim moonlight, then suddenly smiled in understanding. Those pale blurs were tents in regular rows, a darkened encampment.
“Whitecloaks,” Lan whispered, “two hundred of them, maybe more. There's good water down there. And the lad we're after.”
“In the camp?” She felt, more than saw, Lan nod.
“In the middle of it. Moiraine can point right to him. I went close enough to see he's under guard.”
“A prisoner?” Nynaeve said. “Why?”
“I don't know. The Children should not be interested in a village boy, not unless there was something to make them suspicious. The Light knows it doesn't take much to make Whitecloaks suspicious, but it still worries me. ”
“How are you going to free him?” It was not until he glanced at her that she realized how much assurance there had been in her that he could march into the middle of two hundred men and come back with the boy. Well, he is a Warder. Some of the stories must be true.
She wondered if he was laughing at her, but his voice was flat and businesslike. “I can bring him out, but he'll likely be in no shape for stealth. If we're seen, we may find two hundred Whitecloaks on our heels, and us riding double. Unless they are too busy to chase us. Are you willing to take a chance?”
“To help an Emond's Fielder? Of course! What kind of chance?”
He pointed into the darkness again, beyond the tents. This time she could make out nothing but shadows. “Their horselines. If the picket ropes are cut, not all the way through, but enough so they'll break when Moiraine creates a diversion, the Whitecloaks will be too busy chasing their own horses to come after us. There are two guards on that side of the camp, beyond the picketlines, but if you are half as good as I think you are, they'll never see you.”
She swallowed hard. Stalking rabbits was one thing; guards, though, with spears and swords ... So he thinks I'm good, does he? “I'll do it.”
Lan nodded again, as if he had expected no less. “One other thing. There are wolves about, tonight. I saw two, and if I saw that many, there are probably more.” He paused, and though his voice did not change she had the feeling he was puzzled. “It was almost as if they wanted me to see them. Anyway, they shouldn't bother you. Wolves usually stay away from people.”
“I wouldn't have known that,” she said sweetly. “I only grew up around shepherds.” He grunted, and she smiled into the darkness.
“We'll do it now, then,” he said.
Her smile faded as she peered down at the camp full of armed men. Two hundred men with spears and swords and ... Before she could reconsider, she eased her knife in its sheath and started to slip away. Moiraine caught her arm in a grip almost as strong as Lan's.
“Take care,” the Aes Sedai said softly. “Once you cut the ropes, return as quickly as you can. You are a part of the Pattern, too, and I would not risk you, any more than any of the others, if the whole world was not at risk in these days.”
Nynaeve rubbed her arm surreptitiously when Moiraine released it. She was not about to let the Aes Sedai know the grip had hurt. But Moiraine turned back to watching the camp below as soon as she let go. And the Warder was gone, Nynaeve realized with a start. She had not heard him leave. Light blind the bloody man! Quickly she tied her skirts up to give her legs freedom, and hurried into the night.
After that first rush, with fallen branches cracking under her feet, she slowed down, glad there was no one there to see her blush. The idea was to be quiet, and she was not in any kind of competition with the Warder. Oh, no?
She shook off the thought and concentrated on making her way through the dark woods. It was not hard in and of itself; the faint light of the waning moon was more than enough for anyone who had been taught by her father, and the ground had a slow, easy roll. But the trees, bare and stark against the night sky, constantly reminded her that this was no childhood game, and the keening wind sounded all too much like Trolloc horns. Now that she was alone in the darkness, she remembered that the wolves that usually ran away from people had been behaving differently in the Two Rivers this winter.
Relief flooded through her like warmth when she finally caught the smell of horses. Almost holding her breath, she got down on her stomach and crawled upwind, toward the smell.
She was nearly on the guards before she saw them, marching toward her out of the night, white cloaks flapping in the wind and almost shining in the moonlight. They might as well have carried torches; torchlight could not have made them much more visible. She froze, trying to make herself a part of the ground. Nearly in front of her, not ten paces away, they marched to a halt with a stomp of feet, facing each other, spears shouldered. Just beyond them she could make out shadows that had to be the horses. The stable smell, horse and manure, was strong.
“All is well with the night,” one whitecloaked shape announced. “The Light illumine us, and protect us from the Shadow.”
“All is well with the night,” the other replied. “The Light illumine us, and protect us from the Shadow.”
With that they turned and marched off into the darkness again.
Nynaeve waited, counting to herself while they made their circuit twice. Each time they took exactly the same count, and each time they rigidly repeated the same formula, not a word more or less. Neither so much as glanced to one side; they stared straight ahead as they marched up, then marched away. She wondered if they would have noticed her even if she had been standing up.
Before the night swallowed the pale swirls of their cloaks a third time, she was already on her feet, running in a crouch toward the horses. As she came close, she slowed so as not to startle the animals. The Whitecloak guards might not see what was not shoved under their noses, but they would certainly investigate if the horses suddenly began whickering.
The horses along the picketlines — there was more than one row—were barely realized masses in the darkness, heads down. Occasionally one snorted or stamped a foot in its sleep. In the dim moonlight she was nearly on the endpost of the picketline before she saw it. She reached for the picketline, and froze when the nearest horse raised its head and looked at her. Its single leadrein was tied in a big loop around the thumbthick line that ended at the post. One whinny. Her heart tried to pound its way out of her chest, sounding loud enough to bring the guards.
Never taking her eyes off the horse, she sliced at the picketrope, feeling in front of her blade to see how far she had cut. The horse tossed its head, and her breath went cold. Just one whinny.
Only a few thin strands of hemp remained whole under her fingers. Slowly she headed toward the next line, watching the horse until she could no longer see if it was looking at her or not, then drew a ragged breath. If they were all like that, she did not think she would last.
At the next picketrope, though, and the next, and the next, the horses remained asleep, even when she cut her thumb and bit off a yelp. Sucking the cut, she looked warily back the way she had come. Upwind as she was, she could no longer hear the guards make their exchange, but they might have heard her if they were in the right place. If they were coming to see what the noise had been, the wind would keep her from hearing them until they were right on top of her. Time to go. With four horses out of five running loose, they won't be chasing anyone.
But she did not move. She could imagine Lan's eyes when he heard what she had done. There would be no accusation in them; her reasoning was sound, and he would not expect any more of her. She was a Wisdom, not a bloody great invincible Warder who could make himself all but invisible. Jaw set, she moved to the last picketline. The first horse on it was Bela.
There was no mistaking that squat, shaggy shape; for there to be another horse like that, here and now, was too big a coincidence. Suddenly she was so glad that she had not left off this last line that she was shaking. Her arms and legs trembled so that she was afraid to touch the picketrope, but her mind was as clear as the Winespring Water. Whichever of the boys was in the camp, Egwene was there, too. And if they left riding double, some of the Children would catch them no matter how well the horses were scattered, and some of them would die. She was as certain as if she were listening to the wind. That stuck a spike of fear into her belly, fear of how she was certain. This had nothing to do with weather or crops or sickness. Why did Moiraine tell me I can use the Power? Why couldn