Perrin moved, half running, half sliding, after him.
Egwene topped the rise behind them, kicking Bela to a trot. A grin of relief bloomed on her face when she saw them. “What's going on?” she called, urging the shaggy mare to catch up. “When you disappeared like that, I thought ... What happened?”
Perrin saved his breath for running until she reached them. He explained about the ravens and Elyas's safe place, but it was a disjointed story. After a strangled, “Ravens!” she kept interrupting with questions for which, as often as not, he had no answers. Between them, he did not finish until they reached the next ridge.
Ordinarily — if anything about the journey could be called ordinary — they would have gone around this one rather than over, but Elyas insisted on scouting anyway.
“You want to just saunter right into the middle of them, boy?” was his sour comment.
Egwene stared at the crest of the ridge, licking her lips, as if she wanted to go with Elyas this time and wanted to stay where she was, too. Elyas was the only one who showed no hesitation.
Perrin wondered if the ravens ever doubled back. It would be a fine thing to reach the crest at the same time as a flock of ravens.
At the top he inched his head up until he could just see, and heaved a sigh of relief when all he saw was a copse of trees a little to the west. There were no ravens to be seen. Abruptly a fox burst out of the trees, running hard. Ravens poured from the branches after it. The beat of their wings almost drowned out a desperate whining from the fox. A black whirlwind dove and swirled around it. The fox's jaws snapped at them, but they darted in, and darted away untouched, black beaks glistening wetly. The fox turned back toward the trees, seeking the safety of its den. It ran awkwardly now, head low, fur dark and bloody, and the ravens flapped around it, mote and more of them at once, the fluttering mass thickening until it hid the fox completely. As suddenly as they had descended the ravens rose, wheeled, and vanished over the next rise to the south. A misshapen lump of torn fur marked what had been the fox.
Perrin swallowed hard. Light! They could do that to us. A hundred ravens. They could —
“Move,” Elyas growled, jumping up. He waved to Egwene to come on, and without waiting set off at a trot toward the trees. “Move, burn you!” he called over his shoulder. “Move!”
Egwene galloped Bela over the rise and caught them before they reached the bottom of the slope. There was no time for explanations, but her eyes picked out the fox right away. Her face went as white as snow.
Elyas reached the trees and turned there, at the edge of the copse, waving vigorously for them to hurry. Perrin tried to run faster and stumbled. Arms windmilling, he barely caught himself short of going flat on his face. Blood and ashes! I'm running as fast as I can!
A lone raven winged out of the copse. It tilted toward them, screamed, and spun toward the south. Knowing he was already too late, Perrin fumbled his sling from around his waist. He was still trying to get a stone from his pocket to the sling when the raven abruptly folded up in midair and plummeted to the ground. His mouth dropped open, and then he saw the sling hanging from Egwene's hand. She grinned at him unsteadily.
“Don't stand there counting your toes!” Elyas called.
With a start Perrin hurried into the trees, then jumped out of the way to avoid being trampled by Egwene and Bela.
Far to the west, almost out of sight, what seemed like a dark mist rose into the air. Perrin felt the wolves passing in that direction, heading north. He felt them notice ravens, to the left and right of them, without slowing. The dark mist swirled northward as if pursuing the wolves, then abruptly broke off and flashed to the south.
“Do you think they saw us?” Egwene asked. “We were already in the trees, weren't we? They couldn't see us at that distance. Could they? Not that far off.”
“We saw them at that distance,” Elyas said dryly. Perrin shifted uneasily, and Egwene drew a frightened breath. “If they had seen us,” Elyas growled, “they'd have been down on us like they were on that fox. Think, if you want to stay alive. Fear will kill you if you don't control it.” His penetrating stare held on each of them for a moment. Finally he nodded. “They're gone, now, and we should be, too. Keep those slings handy. Might be useful again.”
As they moved out of the copse, Elyas angled them westward from the line of march they had been following. Perrin's breath snagged in his throat; it was as if they were chasing after the last ravens they had seen. Elyas kept on tirelessly, and there was nothing for them to do but follow. After all, Elyas knew a safe place. Somewhere. So he said.
They ran to the next hill, waited till the ravens moved on, then ran again, waited, ran. The steady progress they had been keeping had been tiring enough, but all except Elyas quickly began to flag under this jerky pace. Perrin's chest heaved, and he gulped air when he had a few minutes to lie on a hilltop, leaving the search to Elyas. Bela stood head down, nostrils flaring, at every stop. Fear lashed them on, and Perrin did not know if it was controlled or not. He only wished the wolves would tell them what was behind them, if anything was, whatever it was.
Ahead were more ravens than Perrin ever hoped to see again. To the left and right the black birds billowed up, and to the south. A dozen times they reached the hiding place of a grove or the scant shelter of a slope only moments before ravens swept into the sky. Once, with the sun beginning to slide from its midday height, they stood in the open, frozen as still as statues, half a mile from the nearest cover, while a hundred of the Dark One's feathered spies flashed by a bare mile to the east. Sweat rolled down Perrin's face despite the wind, until the last black shape dwindled to a dot and vanished. He lost count of the stragglers they brought down with their slings.
He saw more than enough evidence lying in the path the ravens had covered to justify his fear. He had stared with a queasy fascination at a rabbit that had been torn to pieces. The eyeless head stood upright, with the other bits — legs, entrails — scattered in a rough circle around it. Birds, too, stabbed to shapeless masses of feathers. And two more foxes.
He remembered something Lan had said. All the Dark One's creatures delight in killing. The Dark One's power is death. And if the ravens found them? Pitiless eyes shining like black beads. Stabbing beaks swirling around them. Needlesharp beaks drawing blood. A hundred of them. Or can they call more of their kind? Maybe all of them in the hunt? A sickening image built up in his mind. A pile of ravens as big as a hill, seething like maggots, fighting over a few bloody shreds.
Suddenly the image was swept away by others, each one clear for an instant, then spinning and fading into another. The wolves had found ravens to the north. Screaming birds dove and whirled and dove again, beaks drawing blood with every swoop. Snarling wolves dodged and leaped, twisting in the air, jaws snapping. Again and again Perrin tasted feathers and the foul taste of fluttering ravens crushed alive, felt the pain of oozing gashes all over his body, knew with a despair that never touched on giving up that all his effort was not enough. Suddenly the ravens broke away, wheeling overhead for one last shriek of rage at the wolves. Wolves did not die as easily as foxes, and they had a mission. A flap of black wings, and they were gone, a few black feathers drifting down on their dead. Wind licked at a puncture on his left foreleg. There was something wrong with one of Hopper's eyes. Ignoring her own hurts, Dapple gathered them and they settled into a painful lope in the direction the ravens had gone. Blood matted their fur. We come. Danger comes before us.
Moving in a stumbling trot, Perrin exchanged a glance with Elyas. The man's yellow eyes were expressionless, but he knew. He said nothing, just watched Perrin and waited, all the while maintaining that effortless lope.
Waiting for me. Waiting for me to admit I feel the wolves.
“Ravens,” Perrin panted reluctantly. “Behind us.”
“He was right,” Egwene breathed. “You can talk to them.”
Perrin's feet felt like lumps of iron on the ends of wooden posts, but he tried to make them move faster. If he could outrun their eyes, outrun the ravens, outrun the wolves, but above all Egwene's eyes, that knew him now for what he was. What are you? Tainted, the Light blind me! Cursed!
His throat burned as it never had from breathing the smoke and heat of Master Luhhan's forge. He staggered and hung on to Egwene's stirrup until she climbed down and all but pushed him into the saddle despite his protests that he could keep going. It was not long, though, before she was clutching the stirrup as she ran, holding up her skirts with her other hand, and only a little while after that until he dismounted, his knees still wobbling. He had to pick her up to make her take his place, but she was too tired to fight him.
Elyas would not slow down. He urged them, and taunted them, and kept them so close behind the searching ravens to the south that Perrin thought all it would take would be for one bird to look back. “Keep moving, burn you! Think you'll do any better than that fox did, if they catch us? The one with its insides piled on its head?” Egwene swayed out of the saddle and vomited noisily. “I knew you'd remember. Just keep going a little more. That's all. Just a little more. Burn you, I thought farm youngsters had endurance. Work all day and dance all night. Sleep all day and sleep all night, looks like to me. Mov