“Close,” Moiraine urged. She did not slow her white mare, but she motioned the others to huddle nearer to her. “Stay as close as you can.”
A roar sprang up from the direction the Warder had gone. It beat at the air, and the trees quivered from it, and when it faded away, it seemed to echo still. Again the roar came, filled with rage and death.
“Lan,” Nynaeve said. “He — ”
The awful sound cut her off, but there was a new note in it. Fear. Abruptly it was gone.
“Lan can look after himself,” Moiraine said. “Ride, Wisdom.”
From out of the trees the Warder appeared, holding his sword well clear of himself and his mount. Black blood stained the blade, and steam rose from it. Carefully, Lan wiped the blade clean with a cloth he took from his saddlebags, examining the steel to make sure he had gotten every spot. When he dropped the cloth, it fell apart before it reached the ground, even the fragments dissolving.
Silently a massive body leaped out of the trees at them. The Warder spun Mandarb, but even as the warhorse reared, ready to strike with steelshod hooves, Mat's arrow flashed, piercing the one eye in a head that seemed mostly mouth and teeth. Kicking and screaming, the thing fell, one bound short of them. Rand stared as they hurried past. Stiff hair like long bristles covered it, and it had too many legs, joining a body as big as a bear at odd angles. Some of them at least, those coming out of its back, had to be useless for walking, but the fingerlong claws at their ends tore the earth in its death agony.
“Good shooting, sheepherder.” Lan's eyes had already forgotten what was dying behind them, and were searching the forest.
Moiraine shook her head. “It should not have been willing to come so close to one who touches the True Source.”
“Agelmar said the Blight stirs,” Lan said. “Perhaps the Blight also knows a Web is forming in the Pattern.”
“Hurry.” Moiraine dug her heels into Aldieb's flanks. “We must get over the high passes quickly.”
But even as she spoke the Blight rose against them. Trees whipped in, reaching for them, not caring if Moiraine touched the True Source or not.
Rand's sword was in his hand; he did not remember unsheathing it. He struck out again and again, the heronmark blade slicing through corrupted limbs. Hungry branches jerked back severed, writhing stumps — he almost thought he heard them scream — but always more came, wriggling like snakes, attempting to snare his arms, his waist, his neck. Teeth bared in a rictus snarl, he sought the void, and found it in the stony, stubborn soil of the Two Rivers. “Manetheren!” He screamed back at the trees till his throat ached. The heronmark steel flashed in the strengthless sunlight. “Manetheren! Manetheren!”
Standing in his stirrups, Mat sent arrow after arrow flashing into the forest, striking at deformed shapes that snarled and gnashed uncounted teeth on the shafts that killed them, bit at the clawed forms fighting to get over them, to reach the mounted figures. Mat, too, was lost to the present. “Carai an Caldazar!” he shouted as he drew fletchings to cheek and loosed. “Carai an Ellisande! Al Ellisande! Mordero daghain pas duente cuebiyar! Al Ellisande!”
Perrin also stood in his stirrups, silent and grim. He had taken the lead, and his axe hewed a path through forest and foul flesh alike, whichever came before him. Flailing trees and howling things shied from the stocky axeman, shying as much from the fierce golden eyes as from the whistling axe. He forced his horse forward, step by determined step.
Fireballs streaked from Moiraine's hands, and where they struck, a writhing tree became a torch, a toothed shape shrieked and beat with human hands, rent its own flaming flesh with fierce claws until it died.
Again and again the Warder took Mandarb into the trees, his blade and gauntlets dripping with blood that bubbled and steamed. When he came back now, more often than not there were gashes in his armor, bleeding gashes in his flesh, and his warhorse stumbled and bled, too. Each time the Aes Sedai paused to lay her hands on the wounds, and when she took them away, only the blood was left on unmarked flesh.
“I light signal fires for the Halfmen,” she said bitterly. “Press on. Press on!” They made their way one slow pace at a time.
If the trees had not struck into the mass of attacking flesh as much as at the humans, if the creatures, no two alike, had not fought the trees and one another as much as to reach them, Rand was sure they would have been overwhelmed. He was not certain it would not happen still. Then a fluting cry arose behind them. Distant and thin, it cut through the snarling from the denizens of the Blight around them.
In an instant the snarling ceased, as if it had been sliced off with a knife. The attacking shapes froze; the trees went still. As suddenly as the things with legs had appeared, they melted away, vanishing into the twisted forest.
The reedy shrill came again, like a cracked shepherd's pipes, and was answered in kind by a chorus. Half a dozen, singing among themselves, far behind.
“Worms,” Lan said grimly, bringing a moan from Loial. “They've given us a respite, if we have time to use it.” His eyes were measuring the distance yet to the mountains. “Few things in the Blight will face a Worm, can it be avoided.”
He dug his heels into Mandarb's flanks. “Ride!” The whole party plunged after him, through a Blight that suddenly seemed truly dead, except for the piping behind.
“They were scared off by worms?” Mat said incredulously. He was bouncing in his saddle, trying to sling his bow across his back.
“A Worm” — there was a sharp difference in the way the Warder said it from the way Mat had — “can kill a Fade, if the Fade hasn't the Dark One's own luck with it. We have an entire pack on our trail. Ride! Ride!” The dark peaks were closer now. An hour, Rand estimated, at the pace the Warder was setting.
“Won't the Worms follow us into the mountains?” Egwene asked breathlessly, and Lan gave a sharp laugh.
“They won't. Worms are afraid of what lives in the high passes.” Loial moaned again.
Rand wished the Ogier would stop doing that. He was well aware that Loial knew more about the Blight than any of them except Lan, even if it was from reading books in the safety of a stedding. But why does he have to keep reminding me that there's worse yet than we've seen?
The Blight flowed past, weeds and grasses splashing rotten under galloping hooves. Trees of the kinds that had earlier attacked did not so much as twitch even when they rode directly under the twisted branches. The Mountains of Dhoom filled the sky ahead, black and bleak, and almost near enough to touch, it seemed. The piping came both sharp and clear, and there were squishing sounds behind them, louder than the things crushed under hooves. Too loud, as if halfdecayed trees were being crushed by huge bodies slithering over them. Too near. Rand looked over his shoulder. Back there treetops whipped and went down like grass. The land began sloping upward, toward the mountains, tilting enough so that he knew they were climbing.
“We are not going to make it,” Lan announced. He did not slow Mandarb's gallop, but his sword was suddenly in his hand again. “Watch yourself in the high passes, Moiraine, and you'll get through.”
“No, Lan!” Nynaeve called.
“Be quiet, girl! Lan, even you cannot stop a Wormpack. I will not have it. I will need you for the Eye.”
“Arrows,” Mat called breathlessly.
“The Worms wouldn't even feel them,” the Warder shouted. “They must be cut to pieces. Don't feel much but hunger. Sometimes fear.”
Clinging to his saddle with a deathgrip, Rand shrugged, trying to loosen the tightness in his shoulders. His whole chest felt tight, until he could hardly breathe, and his skin stung in hot pinpricks. The Blight had turned to foothills. He could see the route they must climb once they reached the mountains, the twisting path and the high pass beyond, like an axe blow cleaving into the black stone. Light, what's up ahead that can scare what's behind? Light help me, I've never been so afraid. I don't want to go any further. No further! Seeking the flame and the void, he railed at himself. Fool! You frightened, cowardly fool! You can't stay here, and you can't go back. Are you going to leave Egwene to face it alone? The void eluded him, forming, then shivering into a thousand points of light, reforming and shattering again, each point burning into his bones until he quivered with the pain and thought he must burst open. Light help me, I can't go on. Light help me!
He was gathering the bay's reins to turn back, to face the Worms or anything rather than what lay ahead, when the nature of the land changed. Between one slope of a hill and the next, between crest and peak, the Blight was gone.
Green leaves covered peacefully spreading branches. Wildflowers made a carpet of bright patches in grasses stirred by a sweet spring breeze. Butterflies fluttered from blossom to blossom, with buzzing bees, and birds trilled their songs.
Gaping, he galloped on, until he suddenly realized that Moiraine and Lan and Loial had stopped, the others, too. Slowly he drew rein, his face frozen in astonishment. Egwene's eyes were about to come out of her head, and Nyna