Sucking air through his mouth, he got to his feet, splashing about as his legs almost gave way. He fumbled his axe out of its loop as he floundered ashore, shivering in the wind. He did not see any Trollocs. He did not see Egwene, either. Just a few scattered trees along the riverbank, and a moonlight ribbon on the water.
When he had his breath again, he called their names again and again. Faint shouts from the far side answered him; even at that distance he could make out the harsh voices of Trollocs. His friends did not answer, though.
The wind surged, its moan drowning out the Trollocs, and he shivered. It was not cold enough to freeze the water soaking his clothes, but it felt as if it was; it sliced to the bone with an icy blade. Hugging himself was only a gesture that did not stop the shivering. Alone, he climbed tiredly up the riverbank to find shelter against the wind.
Rand patted Cloud's neck, soothing the gray with whispers. The horse tossed his head and danced on quick feet. The Trollocs had been left behind — or so it seemed — but Cloud had the smell of them thick in his nostrils. Mat rode with an arrow nocked, watching for surprises out of the night, while Rand and Thom peered through the branches, searching for the red star that was their guide. Keeping it in view had been easy enough, even with all the branches overhead, so long as they were riding straight toward it. But then more Trollocs had appeared, ahead, and they went galloping off to the side with both packs howling after them. The Trollocs could keep up with a horse, but only for a hundred paces or so, and finally they left the pursuit and the howls behind. But with all the twists and turns, they had lost the guiding star.
“I still say it's over there,” Mat said, gesturing off to his right. “We were going north at the end, and that means east is that way.”
“There it is,” Thom said abruptly. He pointed through the tangled branches to their left, straight at the red star. Mat mumbled something under his breath.
Out of the corner of his eye Rand caught the movement as a Trolloc leaped out from behind a tree without a sound, swinging its catchpole. Rand dug his heels in, and the gray bounded forward just as two more plunged from the shadows after the first. A noose brushed the back of Rand's neck, sending a shiver down his spine.
An arrow took one of the bestial faces in the eye, then Mat swung in beside him as their horses pounded through the trees. They were running toward the river, he realized, but he was not sure it was going to do any good. The Trollocs sped after them, almost close enough to reach out and grab the streaming tails of their horses. Half a step gained, and the catchpoles could drag them both out of their saddles.
He leaned low on the gray's neck to put that much more distance between his own neck and the nooses. Mat's face was nearly buried in his horse's mane. But Rand wondered where Thom was. Had the gleeman decided he was better off on his own, since all three Trollocs had fastened on the boys?
Suddenly Thom's gelding galloped out of the night, hard behind the Trollocs. The Trollocs had only time enough to look back in surprise before the gleeman's hands whipped back and then forward. Moonlight flashed off steel. One Trolloc tumbled forward, rolling over and over before landing in a heap, while a second dropped to its knees with a scream, clawing at its back with both hands. The third snarled, baring a muzzleful of sharp teeth, but as its companions toppled it whirled away into the darkness. Thom's hand made the whiplike motion again, and the Trolloc shrieked, but the shrieks faded into the distance as it ran.
Rand and Mat pulled up and stared at the gleeman.
“My best knives,” Thom muttered, but he made no effort to get down and retrieve them. “That one will bring others. I hope the river isn't too far. I hope ...”
Instead of saying what else he hoped, he shook his head and set off at a quick canter. Rand and Mat fell in behind him.
Soon they reached a low bank where trees grew right to the edge of the nightblack water, its moonstreaked surface riffled by the wind. Rand could not see the far side at all. He did not like the idea of crossing on a raft in the dark, but he liked the idea of staying on this side even less. I'll swim if I have to.
Somewhere away from the river a Trolloc horn brayed, sharp, quick, and urgent in the darkness. It was the first sound from the horns since they had left the ruins. Rand wondered if it meant some of the others had been captured.
“No use staying here all night,” Thom said. “Pick a direction. Upriver, or down?”
“But Moiraine and the others could be anywhere,” Mat protested. “Any way we choose could just take us further away.”
“So it could.” Clucking to his gelding, Thom turned downriver, heading along the bank. “So it could.” Rand looked at Mat, who shrugged, and they turned after him.
For a time nothing changed. The bank was higher in some places, lower others, the trees grew thicker, or thinned out in small clearings, but the night and the river and the wind were all the same, cold and black. And no Trollocs. That was one change Rand was glad to forgo.
Then he saw a light ahead, just a single point. As they drew closer he could see that the light was well above the river, as if it were in a tree. Thom quickened the pace and began to hum under his breath.
Finally they could make out the source of the light, a lantern hoisted one of the masts of a large trader's boat, tied up for the night beside a clearing in the trees. The boat, a good eighty feet long, shifted slightly with the current, tugging against the mooring ropes tied to trees. The rigging hummed and creaked in the wind. The lantern doubled the moonlight on the deck, but no one was in sight.
“Now that,” Thom said as he dismounted, “is better than an Aes Sedai's raft, isn't it?” He stood with his hands on his hips, and even in the dark his smugness was apparent. “It doesn't look as if this vessel is made to carry horses, but considering the danger he's in, which we are going to warn him of, the captain may be reasonable. Just let me do all the talking. And bring your blankets and saddlebags, just in case.”
Rand climbed down and began untying the things behind his saddle. “You don't mean to leave without the others, do you?”
Thom had no chance to say what he meant to do. Into the clearing burst two Trollocs, howling and waving their catchpoles, with four more right behind. The horses reared and whinnied. Shouts in the distance said more Trollocs were on the way.
“Onto the boat!” Thom shouted. “Quick! Leave all that! Run!” Suiting his own words, he ran for the boat, patches flapping and instrument cases on his back banging together. “You on the boat!” he shouted. “Wake up, you fools! Trollocs!”
Rand jerked his blanketroll and saddlebags free of the last thong and was right on the gleeman's heels. Tossing his burdens over the rail, he vaulted after them. He just had time to see a man curled up on the deck, beginning to sit up as if he had only that moment awakened, when his feet came down right on top of the fellow. The man grunted loudly, Rand stumbled, and a hooked catchpole slammed into the railing just where he had come over. Shouts rose all over the boat, and feet pounded along the deck.
Hairy hands caught the railing beside the catchpole, and a goathorned head lifted above it. Off balance, stumbling, Rand still managed to draw his sword and swing. With a scream the Trolloc dropped away.
Men ran everywhere on the boat, shouting, hacking mooring lines with axes. The boat lurched and swung as if eager to be off. Up in the bow three men struggled with a Trolloc. Someone thrust over the side with a spear, though Rand could not see what he was stabbing at. A bowstring snapped, and snapped again. The man Rand had stepped on scrabbled away from him on hands and knees, then flung up his hands when he saw Rand looking at him.
“Spare me!” he cried. “Take whatever you want, take the boat, take everything, but spare me!”
Suddenly something slammed across Rand's back, smashing him to the deck. His sword skittered away from his outstretched hand. Openmouthed, gasping for a breath that would not come, he tried to reach the sword. His muscles responded with agonized slowness; he writhed like a slug. The fellow who wanted to be spared gave one frightened, covetous look at the sword, then vanished into the shadows.
Painfully Rand managed to look over his shoulder, and knew his luck had run out. A wolfmuzzled Trolloc stood balanced on the railing, staring down at him and holding the splintered end of the catchpole that had knocked the wind out of him. Rand struggled to reach the sword, to move, to get away, but his arms and legs moved jerkily, and only half as he wanted. They wobbled and went in odd directions. His chest felt as if it were strapped with iron bands; silver spots swam in his eyes. Frantically he hunted for some way to escape. Time seemed to slow as the Trolloc raised the jagged pole as if to spear him with it. To Rand the creature appeared to be moving as if in a dream. He watched the thick arm go back; he could already feel the broken haft ripping through his spine, feel the pain of it tearing him open. He thought his lungs would burst. I'm going to die! Light help me, I'm going to ... ! The Trolloc's arm started forward, driving the splintered shaft, and Rand found the breath for one yell. “No!”
Suddenly the ship lurched, and a boom swung out of the shadows to catch the Trolloc across the chest with a crunch of breaking bones,