They made good time, as he saw it, but as they got farther and farther from the Arinelle without seeing a village, or even a farmhouse where they could ask directions, his doubts about his own plan grew. Egwene continued to appear outwardly as confident as when they set out, but he was sure that sooner or later she would say it would have been better to risk the Trollocs than to wander around lost for the rest of their lives. She never did, but he kept expecting it.
Two days from the river the land changed to thickly forested hills, as gripped by the tail end of winter as everywhere else, and a day after that the hills flattened out again, the dense forest broken by glades, often a mile or more across. Snow still lay in hidden hollows, and the air was brisk of a morning, and the wind cold always. Nowhere did they see a road, or a plowed field, or chimney smoke in the distance, or any other sign of human habitation — at least, none where men still dwelt.
Once the remains of tall stone ramparts encircled a hilltop. Parts of roofless stone houses stood inside the fallen circle. The forest had long swallowed it; trees grew right through everything, and spiderwebs of old creeper enveloped the big stone blocks. Another time they came on a stone tower, brokentopped and brown with old moss, leaning on the huge oak whose thick roots were slowly toppling it. But they found no place where men had breathed in living remembrance. Memories of Shadar Logoth kept them away from the ruins and hurried their footsteps until they were once more deep in places that seemed never to have known a human footstep.
Dreams plagued Perrin's sleep, fearful dreams. Ba'alzamon was in them, chasing him through mazes, hunting him, but Perrin never met him facetoface, so far as he remembered. And their journey had been enough to bring a few bad dreams. Egwene complained of nightmares about Shadar Logoth, especially the two nights after they found the ruined fort and the abandoned tower. Perrin kept his own counsel even when he woke sweating and shaking in the dark. She was looking to him to lead them safely to Caemlyn, not share worries about which they could do nothing.
He was walking at Bela's head, wondering if they would find anything to eat this evening, when he first caught the smell. The mare flared her nostrils and swung her head in the next moment. He seized her bridle before she could whicker.
“That's smoke,” Egwene said excitedly. She leaned forward in the saddle, drew a deep breath. “A cookfire. Somebody is roasting dinner. Rabbit.”
“Maybe,” Perrin said cautiously, and her eager smile faded. He exchanged his sling for the wicked halfmoon of the axe. His hands opened and closed uncertainly on the thick haft. It was a weapon, but neither his hidden practice behind the forge nor Lan's teachings had really prepared him to use it as one. Even the battle before Shadar Logoth was too vague in his mind to give him any confidence. He could never quite manage that void that Rand and the Warder talked about, either.
Sunlight slanted through the trees behind them, and the forest was a still mass of dappled shadows. The faint smell of woodsmoke drifted around them, tinged with the aroma of cooking meat. It could be rabbit, he thought, and his stomach grumbled. And it could be something else, he reminded himself. He looked at Egwene; she was watching him. There were responsibilities to being leader.
“Wait here,” he said softly. She frowned, but he cut her off as she opened her mouth. “And be quiet! We don't know who it is, yet.” She nodded. Reluctantly, but she did it. Perrin wondered why that did not work when he was trying to make her take his turn riding. Drawing a deep breath, he started for the source of the smoke.
He had not spent as much time in the forests around Emond's Field as Rand or Mat, but still he had done his share of hunting rabbits. He crept from tree to tree without so much as snapping a twig. It was not long before he was peering around the bole of a tall oak with spreading, serpentine limbs that bent to touch the ground then rose again. Beyond lay a campfire, and a lean, sunbrowned man was leaning against one of the limbs not far from the flames.
At least he was not a Trolloc, but he was the strangest fellow Perrin had ever seen. For one thing, his clothes all seemed to be made from animal skins, with the fur still on, even his boots and the odd, flattopped round cap on his head. His cloak was a crazy quilt of rabbit and squirrel; his trousers appeared to be made from the longhaired hide of a brown and white goat. Gathered at the back of his neck with a cord, his graying brown hair hung to his waist. A thick beard fanned across half his chest. A long knife hung at his belt, almost a sword, and a bow and quiver stood propped against a limb close to hand.
The man leaned back with his eyes closed, apparently asleep, but Perrin did not stir from his concealment. Six sticks slanted over the fellow's fire, and on each stick a rabbit was skewered, roasted brown and now and then dripping juice that hissed in the flames. The smell of them, so close, made his mouth water.
“You done drooling?” The man opened one eye and cocked it at Perrin's hiding place. “You and your friend might as well sit and have a bite. I haven't seen you eat much the last couple of days.”
Perrin hesitated, then stood slowly, still gripping his axe tightly. “You've been watching me for two days?”
The man chuckled deep in his throat. “Yes, I been watching you. And that pretty girl. Pushes you around like a bantam rooster, doesn't she? Heard you, mostly. The horse is the only one of you doesn't trample around loud enough to be heard five miles off. You going to ask her in, or are you intending to eat all the rabbit yourself?”
Perrin bristled; he knew he did not make much noise. You could not get close enough to a rabbit in the Waterwood to fetch it with a sling if you made noise. But the smell of rabbit made him remember that Egwene was hungry, too, not to mention waiting to discover if it was a Trolloc fire they had smelled.
He slipped the haft of his axe through the belt loop and raised his voice. “Egwene! It's all right! It is rabbit!” Offering his hand, he added in a more normal tone, “My name is Perrin. Perrin Aybara.”
The man considered his hand before taking it awkwardly, as if unused to shaking hands. “I'm called Elyas,” he said, looking up. “Elyas Machera.”
Perrin gasped, and nearly dropped Elyas's hand. The man's eyes were yellow, like bright, polished gold. Some memory tickled at the back of Perrin's mind, then fled. All he could think of right then was that all of the Trollocs' eyes he had seen had been almost black.
Egwene appeared, cautiously leading Bela. She tied the mare's reins to one of the smaller branches of the oak, and made polite sounds when Perrin introduced her to Elyas, but her eyes kept drifting to the rabbits. She did not seem to notice the man's eyes. When Elyas motioned them to the food, she fell to with a will. Perrin hesitated only a minute longer before joining her.
Elyas waited silently while they ate. Perrin was so hungry he tore off pieces of meat so hot he had to juggle them from hand to hand before he could hold them in his mouth. Even Egwene showed little of her usual neatness; greasy juice ran down her chin. Day faded into twilight before they began to slow down, moonless darkness closing in around the fire, and then Elyas spoke.
“What are you doing out here? There isn't a house inside fifty miles in any direction.”
“We're going to Caemlyn,” Egwene said. “Perhaps you could —” Her eyebrows lifted coolly as Elyas threw back his head and roared with laughter. Perrin stared at him, a rabbit leg half raised to his mouth.
“Caemlyn?” Elyas wheezed when he could talk again. “The path you're following, the line you've taken the last two days, you'll pass a hundred miles or more north of Caemlyn.”
“We were going to ask directions,” Egwene said defensively. “We just haven't found any villages or farms, yet.”
“And none you will,” Elyas said, chuckling. “The way you're going, you can travel all the way to the Spine of the World without seeing another human. Of course, if you managed to climb the Spine — it can be done, some places — you could find people in the Aiel Waste, but you wouldn't like it there. You'd broil by day, and freeze by night, and die of thirst anytime. It takes an Aielman to find water in the Waste, and they don't like strangers much. No, not much, I'd say.” He set off into another, more furious, burst of laughter, this time actually rolling on the ground. “Not much at all,” he managed.
Perrin shifted uneasily. Are we eating with a madman?
Egwene frowned, but she waited until Elyas's mirth faded a little, then said, “Perhaps you could show us the way. You seem to know a good deal more about where places are than we do.”
Elyas stopped laughing. Raising his head, he replaced his round fur cap, which had fallen off while he was rolling about, and stared at her from under lowered brows. “I don't much like people,” he said in a flat voice. “Cities are full of people. I don't go near villages, or even farms, very often. Villagers, farmers, they don't like my friends. I wouldn't even have helped you if you hadn't been stumbling around as helpless and innocent as newborn cubs.”
“But at least you can tell us which way to go,” she insisted. “If you direct us to the nearest village, even if it's fifty miles away, surely they'll give us dir