They began coming down off the hills as soon as the last raven vanished over the next one, then while the last trailers still flapped above the hilltop. One bird looking back. To east and west the ravens searched while they hurried across the open spaces between. One bird is all it will take.
The ravens behind were coming fast. Dapple and the other wolves worked their way around them and were coming on without stopping to lick their wounds, but they had learned all the lessons they needed about watching the sky. How close? How long? The wolves had no notions of time the way men did, no reasons to divide a day into hours. The seasons were time enough for them, and the light and the dark. No need for more. Finally Perrin worked out an image of where the sun would stand in the sky when the ravens overran them from behind. He glanced over his shoulder at the setting sun, and licked his lips with a dry tongue. In an hour the ravens would be on them, maybe less. An hour, and it was a good two hours to sunset, at least two to full dark.
We'll die with the setting sun, he thought, staggering as he ran. Slaughtered like the fox. He fingered his axe, then moved to his sling. That would be more use. Not enough, though. Not against a hundred ravens, a hundred darting targets, a hundred stabbing beaks.
“It's your turn to ride, Perrin,” Egwene said tiredly.
“In a bit,” he panted. “I'm good for miles, yet.” She nodded, and stayed in the saddle. She is tired. Tell her? Or let her think we still have a chance to escape? An hour of hope, even if it is desperate, or an hour of despair?
Elyas was watching him again, saying nothing. He must know, but he did not speak. Perrin looked at Egwene again and blinked away hot tears. He touched his axe and wondered if he had the courage. In the last minutes, when the ravens descended on them, when all hope was gone, would he have the courage to spare her the death the fox had died? Light make me strong!
The ravens ahead of them suddenly seemed to vanish. Perrin could still make out dark, misty clouds, far to the east and west, but ahead ... nothing. Where did they go? Light, if we've overrun them ...
Abruptly a chill ran through him, one cold, clean tingle as if he had jumped into the Winespring Water in midwinter. It rippled through him and seemed to carry away some of his fatigue, a little of the ache in his legs and the burning of his lungs. It left behind ... something. He could not say what, only he felt different. He stumbled to a halt and looked around, afraid.
Elyas watched him, watched them all, with a gleam behind his eyes. He knew what it was, Perrin was sure of it, but he only watched them.
Egwene reined in Bela and looked around uncertainly, half wondering and half fearful. “It's ... strange,” she whispered. “I feel as if I lost something.” Even the mare had her head up expectantly, nostrils flaring as if they detected a faint odor of newmown hay.
“What ... what was that?” Perrin asked.
Elyas cackled suddenly. He bent over, shoulders shaking, to rest his hands on his knees. “Safety, that's what. We made it, you bloody fools. No raven will cross that line ... not one that carries the Dark One's eyes, anyways. A Trolloc would have to be driven across, and there'd need to be something fierce pushing the Myrddraal to make him do the driving. No Aes Sedai, either. The One Power won't work here; they can't touch the True Source. Can't even feel the Source, like it vanished. Makes them itch inside, that does. Gives them the shakes like a sevenday drunk. It's safety.”
At first, to Perrin's eyes, the land was unchanged from the rolling hills and ridges they had crossed the whole day. Then he noticed green shoots among the grass; not many, and they were struggling, but more than he had seen anywhere else. There were fewer weeds in the grass, too. He could not imagine what it was, but there was ... something about this place. And something in what Elyas said tickled his memory.
“What is it?” Egwene asked. “I feel... What is this place? I don't think I like it.”
“A stedding,” Elyas roared. “You never listen to stories? Of course, there hasn't been an Ogier here in three thousand odd years, not since the Breaking of the World, but it's the stedding makes the Ogier, not the Ogier make the stedding.”
“Just a legend,” Perrin stammered. In the stories, the stedding were always havens, places to hide, whether it was from Aes Sedai or from creatures of the Father of Lies.
Elyas straightened; if not exactly fresh, he gave no sign that he had spent most of a day running. “Come on. We'd better get deeper into this legend. The ravens can't follow, but they can still see us this close to the edge, and there could be enough of them to watch the whole border of it. Let them keep hunting right on by it.”
Perrin wanted to stay right there, now that he was stopped; his legs trembled and told him to lie down for a week. Whatever refreshment he had felt had been momentary; all the weariness and aches were back. He forced himself to take one step, then another. It did not get easier, but he kept at it. Egwene flapped the reins to get Bela moving again. Elyas settled into an effortless lope, only slowing to a walk when it became apparent the others could not keep up. A fast walk.
“Why don't we stay here?” Perrin panted. He was breathing through his mouth, and he forced the words out between deep, wracking breaths. “If it's really — a stedding. We'd be safe. No Trollocs. No Aes Sedai. Why don't we just stay here — until it's all over?” Maybe the wolves won't come here, either.
“How long will that be?” Elyas looked over his shoulder with one eyebrow raised. “What would you eat? Grass, like the horse? Besides, there's others know about this place, and nothing keeps men out, not even the worst of them. And there is only one place where there's still water to be found.” Frowning uneasily, he turned in a complete circle, scanning the land. When he was done, he shook his head and muttered to himself. Perrin felt him calling to the wolves. Hurry. Hurry. “We take our chances on a choice of evils, and the ravens are sure. Come on. It's only another mile or two.”
Perrin would have groaned if he had been willing to spare the breath.
Huge boulders began to dot the low hills, irregular lumps of gray, lichencoated stone half buried in the ground, some as big as a house. Brambles webbed them, and low brush half hid most. Here and there amid the desiccated brown of brambles and brush a lone green shoot announced that this was a special place. Whatever wounded the land beyond its borders hurt it, too, but here the wound did not go quite as deep.
Eventually they straggled over one more rise, and at the base of this hill lay a pool of water. Any of them could have waded across it in two strides, but it was clear and clean enough to show the sandy bottom like a sheet of glass. Even Elyas hurried eagerly down the slope.
Perrin threw himself full length on the ground when he reached the pool and plunged his head in. An instant later he was spluttering from the cold of water that had welled up from the depths of the earth. He shook his head, his long hair spraying a rain of drops. Egwene grinned and splashed back at him. Perrin's eyes grew sober. She frowned and opened her mouth, but he stuck his face back in the water. No questions. Not now. No explanations. Not ever. But a small voice taunted him. But you would have done it, wouldn't you?
Eventually Elyas called them away from the pool. “Anybody wants to eat, I want some help.”
Egwene worked cheerfully, laughing and joking as they prepared their scanty meal. There was nothing left but cheese and dried meat; there had been no chance to hunt. At least there was still tea. Perrin did his share, but silently. He felt Egwene's eyes on him, saw growing worry on her face, but he avoided meeting her eyes as much as he could. Her laughter faded, and the jokes came further apart, each one more strained than the last. Elyas watched, saying nothing. A somber mood descended, and they began their meal in silence. The sun grew red in the west, and their shadows stretched out long and thin.
Not quite an hour till dark. If not for the stedding, all of you would be dead now. Would you have saved her? Would you have cut her down like so many bushes? Bushes don't bleed, do they? Or scream, and look in your eyes and ask, why?
Perrin drew in on himself more. He could feel something laughing at him, deep in the back of his mind. Something cruel. Not the Dark One. He almost wished it was. Not the Dark One; himself.
For once Elyas had broken his rule about fires. There were no trees, but he had snapped dead branches from the brush and built his fire against a huge chunk of rock sticking out of the hillside. From the layers of soot staining the stone, Perrin thought the site must have been used by generation after generation of travelers.
What showed above ground of the big rock was rounded somewhat, with a sharp break on one side where moss, old and brown, covered the ragged surface. The grooves and hollows eroded in the rounded part looked odd to Perrin, but he was too absorbed in gloom to wonder about it. Egwene, though, studied it as she ate.
“That,” she said finally, “looks like an eye.” Perrin blinked; it did look like an eye, under all that soot.
“It is,” Elyas said. He sat with his back to the fire and the rock, studying the land around them while he chewed a strip of dried meat almost as tough as leather. “Artur Hawkwing's eye. The eye of the High King himself. This is what his power and glory came to, in the end.” He said it absently. Even his chewing was absentminded; his eyes and his at