They passed beyond the last farmhouses on the outskirts of the village and into the countryside, paralleling the North Road that led to Taren Ferry. Rand thought that surely no night sky elsewhere could be as beautiful as the Two Rivers sky. The near black seemed to reach to forever, and myriad stars gleamed like points of light scattered through crystal. The moon, only a thin slice less than full, appeared almost close enough to touch, if he stretched, and ...
A black shape flew slowly across the silvery ball of the moon. Rand's involuntary jerk on the reins halted the gray. A bat, he thought weakly, but he knew it was not. Bats were a common sight of an evening, darting after flies and bitemes in the twilight. The wings that carried this creature might have the same shape, but they moved with the slow, powerful sweep of a bird prey. And it was hunting. The way it cast back and forth in long arcs left no doubt of that. Worst of all was the size. For a bat to seem so large against the moon it would have had to be almost within arm's reach. He tried to judge in his mind how far away it must be, and how big. The body of it had to be as large as a man, and the wings ... It crossed the face of the moon again, wheeling suddenly downward to be engulfed by the night.
He did not realize that Lan had ridden back to him until the Warder caught his arm. “What are you sitting here and staring at, boy? We have to keep moving.” The others waited behind Lan.
Half expecting to be told he was letting fear of the Trollocs overcome his sense, Rand told what he had seen. He hoped that Lan would dismiss it as a bat, or a trick of his eyes.
Lan growled a word, sounding as if it left a bad taste in his, mouth. “Draghkar.” Egwene and the other Two Rivers folk stared at the sky nervously in all directions, but the gleeman groaned softly.
“Yes,” Moiraine said. “It is too much to hope otherwise. And if the Myrddraal has a Draghkar at his command, then he will soon know where we are, if he does not already. We must move more quickly than we can crosscountry. We may still reach Taren Ferry ahead of the Myrddraal, and he and his Trollocs will not cross as easily as we.”
“A Draghkar?” Egwene said. “What is it?”
It was Thom Merrilin who answered her hoarsely. “In the war that ended the Age of Legends, worse than Trollocs and Halfmen were created.”
Moiraine's head jerked toward him as he spoke. Not even the dark could hide the sharpness of her look.
Before anyone could ask the gleeman for more, Lan began giving directions. “We take to the North Road, now. For your lives, follow my lead, keep up and keep together.”
He wheeled his horse about, and the others galloped wordlessly after him.
The Road to Taren Ferry
On the hardpacked dirt of the North Road the horses stretched out, manes and tails streaming back in the moonlight as they raced northward, hooves pounding a steady rhythm. Lan led the way, black horse and shadowclad rider all but invisible in the cold night. Moiraine's white mare, matching the stallion stride for stride, was a pale dart speeding through the dark. The rest followed in a tight line, as if they were all tied to a rope with one end in the Warder's hands.
Rand galloped last in line, with Thom Merrilin just ahead and the others less distinct beyond. The gleeman never turned his head, reserving his eyes for where they ran, not what they ran from. If Trollocs appeared behind, or the Fade on its silent horse, or that flying creature, the Draghkar, it would be up to Rand to sound an alarm.
Every few minutes he craned his neck to peer behind while he clung to Cloud's mane and reins. The Draghkar ... Worse than Trollocs and Fades, Thom had said. But the sky was empty, and only darkness and shadows met his eyes on the ground. Shadows that could hide an army.
Now that the gray had been let loose to run, the animal sped through the night like a ghost, easily keeping pace with Lan's stallion. And Cloud wanted to go faster. He wanted to catch the black, strained to catch the black. Rand had to keep a firm hand on the reins to hold him back. Cloud lunged against his restraint as if the gray thought this were a race, fighting him for mastery with every stride. Rand clung to saddle and reins with every muscle taut. Fervently he hoped his mount did not detect how uneasy he was. If Cloud did, he would lose the one real edge he held, however precariously.
Lying low on Cloud's neck, Rand kept a worried eye on Bela and on her rider. When he had said the shaggy mare could stay with the others, he had not meant on the run. She kept up now only by running as he had not thought she could. Lan had not wanted Egwene in their number. Would he slow for her if Bela began to flag? Or would he try to leave her behind? The Aes Sedai and the Warder thought Rand and his friends were important in some way, but for all of Moiraine's talk of the Pattern, he did not think they included Egwene in that importance.
If Bela fell back, he would fall back, too, whatever Moiraine and Lan had to say about it. Back where the Fade and the Trollocs were. Back where the Draghkar was. With all his heart and desperation he silently shouted at Bela to run like the wind, silently tried to will strength into her. Run! His skin prickled, and his bones felt as if they were freezing, ready to split open. The Light help her, run! And Bela ran.
On and on they sped, northward into the night, time fading into an indistinct blur. Now and again the lights of farmhouses flashed into sight, then disappeared as quickly as imagination. Dogs' sharp challenges faded swiftly behind, or cut off abruptly as the dogs decided they had been chased away. They raced through darkness relieved only by watery pale moonlight, a darkness where trees along the road loomed up without warning, then were gone. For the rest, murk surrounded them, and only a solitary nightbird's cry, lonely and mournful, disturbed the steady pounding of hooves.
Abruptly Lan slowed, then brought the file of horses to a stop. Rand was not sure how long they had been moving, but a soft ache filled his legs from gripping the saddle. Ahead of them in the night, lights sparkled, as if a tall swarm of fireflies held one place among the trees.
Rand frowned at the lights in puzzlement, then suddenly gasped with surprise. The fireflies were windows, the windows of houses covering the sides and top of a hill. It was Watch Hill. He could hardly believe they had come so far. They had probably made the journey as fast as it had ever been traveled. Following Lan's example, Rand and Thom Merrilin dismounted. Cloud stood head down, sides heaving. Lather, almost indistinguishable from the horse's smoky sides, flecked the gray's neck and shoulders. Rand thought that Cloud would not be carrying anyone further that night.
“Much as I would like to put all these villages behind me,” Thom announced, “a few hours rest would not go amiss right now. Surely we have enough of a lead to allow that?”
Rand stretched, knuckling the small of his back. “If we're stopping the rest of the night in Watch Hill, we may as well go on up.”
A vagrant gust of wind brought a fragment of song from the village, and smells of cooking that made his mouth water. They were still celebrating in Watch Hill. There had been no Trollocs to disturb their Bel Tine. He looked for Egwene. She was leaning against Bela, slumped with weariness. The others were climbing down as well, with many a sigh and much stretching of aching muscles. Only the Warder and the Aes Sedai showed no visible sign of fatigue.
“I could do with some singing,” Mat put in tiredly. “And maybe a hot mutton pie at the White Boar.” Pausing, he added, “I've never been further than Watch Hill. The White Boar's not nearly as good as the Winespring Inn.”
“The White Boar isn't so bad,” Perrin said. “ A mutton pie for me, too. And lots of hot tea to take the chill off my bones.”
“We cannot stop until we are across the Taren,” Lan said sharply. “Not for more than a few minutes.”
“But the horses,” Rand protested. “We'll run them to death, we try to go any further tonight. Moiraine Sedai, surely you—”
He had vaguely noticed her moving among the horses, but he had not paid any real attention to what she did. Now she pushed past him to lay her hands on Cloud's neck. Rand fell silent. Suddenly the horse tossed his head with a soft wicker, nearly pulling the reins from Rand's hands. The gray danced a step sideways, as restive as if he had spent a week in a stable. Without a word Moiraine went to Bela.
“I did not know she could do that,” Rand said softly to Lan, his cheeks hot.
'You, of all people, should have suspected it,“ the Warder replied. ”You watched her with your father. She will wash all the fatigue away. First from the horses, then from the rest of you."
“The rest of us. Not you?”
“Not me, sheepherder. I don't need it, not yet. And not her. What she can do for others, she cannot do for herself. Only one of us will ride tired. You had better hope she does not grow too tired before we reach Tar Valon.”
“Too tired for what?” Rand asked the Warder.
“You were right about your Bela, Rand,” Moiraine said from where she stood by the mare. “She has a good heart, and as much stubbornness as the rest of you Two Rivers folk. Strange as it seems, she may be the least weary of all.”
A scream ripped the darkness, a sound like a man dying under sharp knives, and wings swooped low above the party. The night deepened in the shadow that swept over them. With panicked cries