Moiraine's calm never slipped while she laid out the horrible alternatives; Nynaeve wanted to scream at her. Blinking back tears, she turned her face so the Aes Sedai could not see. Light, a Wisdom is supposed to look after all of her people. Why do I have to choose like this?
“Here is Lan,” Moiraine said, rising and settling her cloak about her shoulders.
To Nynaeve it was only a tiny blow as the Warder led her horse out of the trees. Still, her lips thinned when he handed her the reins. It would have been a small boost to her spirits if there had been even a trace of gloating on his face instead of that insufferable stony calm. His eyes widened when he saw her face, and she turned her back on him to wipe tears from her cheeks. How dare he mock my crying!
“Are you coming, Wisdom?” Moiraine asked coolly.
She took one last, slow look at the forest, wondering if Egwene was out there, before sadly mounting her horse. Lan and Moiraine were already in their saddles, turning their horses south. She followed, stiffbacked, refusing to let herself look back; instead she kept her eyes on Moiraine. The Aes Sedai was so confident in her power and her plans, she thought, but if they did not find Egwene and the boys, all of them, alive and unharmed, not all of her power would protect her. Not all her Power. I can use it, woman! You told me so yourself. I can use it against you!
A Path Chosen
In a small copse of trees, beneath a pile of cedar branches roughly cut in the dark, Perrin slept long after sunrise. It was the cedar needles, pricking him through his stilldamp clothes, that finally pricked through his exhaustion as well. Deep in a dream of Emond's Field, of working at Master Luhhan's forge, he opened his eyes and stared, uncomprehending, at the sweetsmelling branches interwoven over his face, sunlight trickling through.
Most of the branches fell away as he sat up in surprise, but some hung haphazardly from his shoulders, and even his head, making him appear something like a tree himself. Emond's Field faded as memory rushed back, so vivid that for a moment the night before seemed more real than anything around him now.
Panting, frantic, he scrabbled his axe out of the pile. He clutched it in both hands and peered around cautiously, holding his breath. Nothing moved. The morning was cold and still. If there were Trollocs on the east bank of the Arinelle, they were not moving, at least not close to him. Taking a deep, calming breath, he lowered the axe to his knees, and waited a moment for his heart to stop pounding.
The small stand of evergreens surrounding him was the first shelter he had found last night. It was sparse enough to give little protection against watching eyes if he stood up. Plucking branches from his head and shoulders, he pushed aside the rest of his prickly blanket, then crawled on hands and knees to the edge of the copse. There he lay studying the riverbank and scratching where the needles had stabbed him.
The cutting wind of the night before had faded to a silent breeze that barely rippled the surface of the water. The river ran by, calm and empty. And wide. Surely too wide and too deep for Fades to cross. The far bank appeared a solid mass of trees as far as he could see upriver and down. Certainly nothing moved in his view over there.
He was not sure how he felt about that. Fades and Trollocs he could do without quite easily, even on the other side of the river, but a whole list of worries would have vanished with the appearance of the Aes Sedai, or the Warder, or, even better, any of his friends. If wishes were wings, sheep would fly. That was what Mistress Luhhan always said.
He had not seen a sign of his horse since riding over the bluff — he hoped it had swum out of the river safely — but he was more used to walking than riding anyway, and his boots were stout and well soled. He had nothing to eat, but his sling was still wrapped around his waist, and that or the snarelines in his pocket ought to yield a rabbit in a little time. Everything for making a fire was gone with his saddlebags, but the cedar trees would yield tinder and a firebow with a bit of work.
He shivered as the breeze gusted into his hiding place. His cloak was somewhere in the river, and his coat and everything else he wore were still clammy cold from the soaking in the river. He had been too tired for the cold and damp to bother him last night, but now he was wide awake to every chill. Just the same, he decided against hanging his clothes on the branches to dry. If the day was not precisely cold, it was not even close to warm.
Time was the problem, he thought with a sigh. Dry clothes, with a little time. A rabbit to roast and a fire to roast it over, with a little time. His stomach rumbled, and he tried to forget about eating altogether. There were more important uses for that time. One thing at a time, and the most important first. That was his way.
His eyes followed the strong flow of the Arinelle downriver. He was a stronger swimmer than Egwene. If she had made it across ... No, not if. The place where she had made it across would be downriver. He drummed on the ground with his fingers, weighing, considering.
His decision made, he wasted no time in picking up his axe and setting off down the river.
This side of the Arinelle lacked the thick forest of the west bank. Clumps of trees spotted across what would be grassland if spring ever came. Some were big enough to be called thickets, with swathes of evergreens among the barren ash and alder and hardgum. Down by the river the stands were smaller and not so tight. They gave poor cover, but they were all the cover there was.
He dashed from growth to growth in a crouch, throwing himself down when he was among the trees to study the riverbanks, the far side as well as his. The Warder said the river would be a barrier to Fades and Trollocs, but would it? Seeing him might be enough to overcome their reluctance to cross deep water. So he watched carefully from behind the trees and ran from one hiding place to the next, fast and low.
He covered several miles that way, in spurts, until suddenly, halfway to the beckoning shelter of a growth of willows, he grunted and stopped dead, staring at the ground. Patches of bare earth spotted the matted brown of last year's grass, and in the middle of one of those patches, right under his nose, was a clear hoofprint. A slow smile spread across his face. Some Trollocs had hooves, but he doubted if any wore horseshoes, especially horseshoes with the double crossbar Master Luhhan added for strength.
Forgetting possible eyes on the other side of the river, he cast about for more tracks. The plaited carpet of dead grass did not take impressions well, but his sharp eyes found them anyway. The scanty trail led him straight away from the river to a dense stand of trees, thick with leatherleaf and cedar that made a wall against wind or prying eyes. The spreading branches of a lone hemlock towered in the middle of it all.
Still grinning, he pushed his way through the interwoven branches, not caring how much noise he made. Abruptly he stepped into a little clearing under the hemlock — and stopped. Behind a small fire, Egwene crouched, her face grim, with a thick branch held like a club and her back against Bela's flank.
“I guess I should have called out,” he said with an abashed shrug.
Tossing her club down, she ran to throw her arms around him. “I thought you had drowned. You're still wet. Here, sit by the fire and warm yourself. You lost your horse, didn't you?”
He let her push him to a place by the fire and rubbed his hands over the flames, grateful for the warmth. She produced an oiled paper packet from her saddlebags and gave him some bread and cheese. The package had been so tightly wrapped that even after its dunking the food was dry. Here you were worrying about her, and she's done better than you did.
“Bela got me across,” Egwene said, patting the shaggy mare. “She headed away from the Trollocs and just towed me along.” She paused. “I haven't seen anybody else, Perrin.”
He heard the unspoken question. Regretfully eyeing the packet that she was rewrapping, he licked the last crumbs from his fingers before speaking. “I've seen no one but you since last night. No Fades or Trollocs, either; there's that.”
“Rand has to be all right,” Egwene said, quickly adding, “they all do. They have to. They're probably looking for us right now. They might find us anytime now. Moiraine is an Aes Sedai, after all.”
“I keep being reminded of that,” he said. “Burn me, I wish I could forget.”
“I did not hear you complaining when she stopped the Trollocs from catching us,” Egwene said tartly.
“I just wish we could do without her.” He shrugged uncomfortably under her steady gaze. “I suppose we can't, though. I've been thinking.” Her eyebrows rose, but he was used to surprise whenever he claimed an idea. Even when his ideas were as good as theirs, they always remembered how deliberate he was in thinking of them. “We can wait for Lan and Moiraine to find us.”
“Of course,” she cut in. “Moiraine Sedai said she would find us if we were separated.”
He let her finish, then went on. “Or the Trollocs could find us, first. Moiraine could be dead, too. All of them could be. No, Egwene. I'm sorry, but they could be. I hope they are all safe. I hope they'll walk up to this fire any minute. But hope is like a piece of string when you're drowning; it just isn't enough to get you out by itself.”
Egwene closed her mouth and stared at him with her jaw set. Finally, she said, “You want to go downriver to Whitebridge? If Moiraine Sedai doesn't find us here, that's where s