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B ut the night did not bring dreams. Instead it brought the first in a tumbled

series of spring showers that followed the company for much of the next day: prolonged sprinkles and quick downpours that soaked the riders in spite of the cloaks which they had brought from Revelstone for Linden, Liand, and Anele. At intervals, rain streaked the horizons, constricting the landscape to sodden grass and vleis, and to occasional copses shrouded with moisture. Then, between the showers and clouds, sunshine burst over the region, sketching bright transitory reflected jewels among the water drops until the earth and the trees were anademed in light.

Responding to the weather, the Ranyhyn slowed their fleet gallop somewhat, careful not to outrun the protection of the Humbled and the two Cords as they scouted ahead in a wide arc beyond the range of Linden’s senses. Still the horses went swiftly,

crossing slopes and lowlands until the contours of the Land appeared to open before them like a scroll.

Once in the distance, through a gap between showers, she glimpsed a caesure.But it was far against the northern horizon, seething erratically away from the riders. When Stave assured her that there were no villages or smaller habitations in the vicinity of the Fall, she decided to let it go. Deliberately she closed her mind to its migraine nausea, and by degrees it receded from her awareness.

Late in the day, the sky finally cleared, leaving the air full of sunlight as if the Land had been washed clean. Whenever Pahni or Bhapa rejoined the company to describe what lay ahead, they reported only that neither they nor the Humbled had found any evidence of danger. And the Ranyhyn quickened their strides to the pace that they had set the day before. Linden began to think that perhaps they were indeed traveling too swiftly to be caught by Kastenessen’s servants, or Lord Foul’s.

As for the Harrow, she could not begin to guess what he would do, or when he would do it. If she had known how to bargain with him—or been willing to do so— she still had no idea how to invoke his presence. Apparently his promise of companionship had been an empty threat.

While the company made camp that night on a broad swath of gravel and stones at the edge of a watercourse, Linden asked Stave how far they were from Salva Gildenbourne. He replied that they would catch sight of the sprawling forest before mid-morning, if they were not delayed. Then she asked Bhapa about the condition of the Humbled. She had not seen them since they had ridden away the previous morning.

The Cord considered her question for a moment, then shrugged. “Their hardiness is remarkable,” he admitted as if he begrudged them any admiration. “No Raman heals as they do. Yet they are not what they were. The rigors of our journey hamper them. With rest, I do not doubt that their full strength would soon return. Without it—”

Facing Mahrtiir rather than Linden, the Cord fell silent.

“Then, Cord,” replied the Manethrall gruffly, “it falls to you, and to Cord Pahni, to increase your vigilance.

“Ringthane.” He turned the hollows of his bandage toward Linden. “If you will accept my counsel, it is this. Request of the sleepless ones that they ride with you on the morrow. Permit my Cords to assume all the tasks of scouting. If the Masters are not yet whole, their skills will provide better service nearby than at a distance.

“Warded by Narunal’s discernment where mine does not suffice, I will ride ahead of you. Thus any sudden threat will strike first against he who has the least worth in your defense.”

Surprised by Mahrtiir’s suggestion, Linden faltered. Too many people had already sacrificed themselves in her name—and now the Manethrall proposed to offer himself

as bait. She could not bear to think of him as having the least worth; or to consider los

ing him.

Hesitating, she looked to Stave.

“The Manethrall’s counsel is apt,” he said at once. “I do not fear for the Humbled. But the Land’s foes must oppose you. They cannot suffer you to obtain High Lord Loric’s krill. When they appear, you must have every aid nigh about you.”

In response, Linden made a stern effort to shake off her reluctance. In a moment of imposed coherence, Anele had informed her severely, All who live share the Land’s plight. Its cost will be borne by all who live.

“All right,” she said through her teeth. “We’ll do that.” This you cannot alter. In the attempt, you may achieve only ruin. “Bhapa, I need you to find the Humbled for me.” She had no means to contact them herself, except by a dangerous display of her powers; and the Masters would not heed Stave’s mental voice. “Make sure that they understand what we want, and why. I don’t think that they’ll object.” They would reason as Stave did. “But if they do, tell them that they’ll have to argue with me in person. You’re just the messenger.”

When the Manethrall nodded his approval, Bhapa replied, “As you wish, Ringthane.” Whistling for Rohnhyn, he strode out into the last of the gloaming and passed from sight. Briefly Linden heard the crunch of hooves on the stones. Then Bhapa and his mount were gone.

He did not return until after moonrise. But when he reentered the watercourse, he reported that the Humbled would rejoin Linden as she approached Salva Gildenbourne in the morning. “They, too, deem the Manethrall’s counsel apt.”

That night, Linden did not expect to sleep. The rocks on which she lay seemed full of memories and fears, as legible to her flesh as they were to Anele’s peculiar sight. They jutted against her like tangible reminders of all that she had gained and lost since she had first approached the Hills of Andelain with Covenant, Sunder, and Hollian. But she called a faint current of Earthpower from the Staff to soothe her taut nerves. Then she closed her eyes to rest them—and when she opened them again a moment later, dawn had come upon her, as stealthy and unforeseen as the results of every choice that she had ever made.

Her companions roused quickly, at once eager and apprehensive. Anele scented the air fretfully, as if he could smell trouble; but the fragmentation of his mind prevented him from describing what he sensed. Perhaps anticipating another battle, Liand frowned darkly. However, he could not conceal the growing excitement behind his concern. Salva Gildenbourne promised to be unlike anything that he had ever seen.

Pahni also may have wished to gaze upon the vast woodland: her only knowledge of the Land’s olden forests came from Ramen tales. Yet her anxiety for Liand dominated her. And Bhapa’s emotions were similar, although he worried for the Manethrall

rather than Liand. As for Mahrtiir, his belief that he had lost much of his usefulness dulled his characteristic hunger for peril and striving. The role which he had chosen for himself resembled that of a sacrificial lamb.

Only Stave faced the new day as if it were like any other. His single eye and his flat mien suggested neither hope nor trepidation.

As soon as the companions had eaten, Pahni kissed Liand quickly. Then the Cords summoned their Ranyhyn and rode away to assume the responsibilities of the Humbled.

In moments, Stave and Liand had repacked the bedding and supplies. Hyn and Hynyn, Rhohm, Hrama, and Narunal answered Stave’s whistle almost immediately, as if they had their own reasons for excitement or alarm. With Anele between them, Liand and Linden followed Mahrtiir and Stave to meet the horses.

The early sky looked too pristine to hold any omens. As the sun mounted, it spread light and azure across the heavens, immaculate and unfathomable; absolved from taint. If Anele were indeed able to detect an ominous scent, Linden could not. She smelled only the freshness of a bright day after rain; the gentle pleasure of grasses and wildflowers and loam in springtime.

First at a canter, then a liquid run, the Ranyhyn bore their riders into the southeast, toward the last obstacle or opportunity between Linden’s company and Andelain.

Here the ground rose into a sequence of low ridges like striations across the landscape. Where the slopes were gradual, the horses confronted them directly, pounding upward without hesitation, and descending in a rush as smooth and secure as the surface of Glimmermere. But where the ridges jutted more steeply, Narunal angled across their sides; and the other Ranyhyn followed seamlessly, letting Mahrtiir’s mount lead them by a stone’s throw.

In the vale between the second and third ridge, Branl awaited Linden and her companions. At the same time, Galt approached them from the south. Although he rode at a full gallop, he conveyed no impression of haste or urgency. And Stave said nothing: apparently he heard no warning in the thoughts of the Humbled. While Hynyn and Narunal nickered a greeting to Bhanoryl, all of the Ranyhyn ran at the next rise as if it were level ground.

As Hyn kept pace with the other horses, still following Mahrtiir and Narunal, Linden looked around for Clyme. Presumably Bhapa and Pahni were far ahead, searching the air and the grass and the rumpled slopes for hints of ambush. But Linden wanted to see Clyme. He would come from the east, the most likely direction of attack.

Soon he appeared against the sky on the crest of the fourth ridge. Like Galt, he rode at speed, but without indicating the proximity of foes.

In the vale beyond that ridge—low ground as narrow as a barranca, but not as sheer, with a freshet from the previous day’s rain running through it—Clyme met Linden and her companions. At once, she asked the Manethrall for a halt. The

morning was still early, and the stream between the ridges lay in shadow. But she did not need broad daylight in order to study the condition of the Humbled.

They were closer to wholeness than she had imagined; closer than she would have believed possible. Some of their cuts and gashes had already become scars. The rest were healing cleanly. And their cracked or broken bones were almost entirely mended.

Like their strength, the native resilience of the Haruchai was more than human. Hard riding had not harmed them. It had only slowed their recuperation.

Satisfied, Linden said quietly, “All right.” Doubtless the Humbled remained uncertain of her. Perhaps their suspicions had increased. “Let’s get going.” Nevertheless she trusted them with her life—and with the lives of her friends as well. “I’ve been waiting to see Andelain again for years.”

Without hesitation, the Manethrall headed along the vale until he reached a place where the Ranyhyn could surge up the sides of the next ridge. Slowly he increased his lead—or the other horses held back—until he rode a dozen strides or more ahead of Linden and her defenders.

Passing the crest, the riders ran out of shadow and down a gentle expanse of sunlit grass toward another rise. But it was little more than a line of low hillocks, and did not slow the Ranyhyn. Perhaps half a league beyond it stood a much higher ridge with more difficult slopes. Here and there, lichen-mottled fists and foreheads of bedrock jutted from the hillsides like buttresses. The horses were forced to pick a crooked and cautious way upward.

At the end of that ascent, however, Linden and her companions saw Salva Gildenbourne for the first time. As if involuntarily, they stopped to gaze at the forest’s immanent majesty.

It lay on the far side of a last ridge, a small interruption like a ripple in the earth. From the vantage of higher ground, Linden could see that Salva Gildenbourne was indeed vast. It stretched from the eastern horizon across her path and into the west, where it began to curve by slight degrees toward the south: a rich variegated green panoply bedecked at intervals with the ineffable gold of Gilden trees, and prodigal with the new growth of spring and rain; profligate with life and subtle Earthpower.

By her estimation, she was roughly fifteen leagues from Andelain. At this elevation, she might have been able to hope for a glimpse of the Hills which held the Land’s defining glory. But Sunder and Hollian had wrought well when they had brought forth Salva Gildenbourne. In addition, the forest had flourished for millennia on the overflow of Andelain’s fecundity. The woodland was too deep, dense, and tall to permit any faint emanation of the Hills to reach Linden’s senses.

Still she searched the southeast so avidly that moments passed before she felt the tension thick around her; the growing apprehension of her companions. Then she heard Liand say anxiously, “Linden,” and she saw him point toward the east.

The four Haruchai were gazing in that direction. Anele did the same in spite of his blindness. Mahrtiir had already ridden past the crest; but Narunal had halted when the other Ranyhyn did, and the Manethrall’s face also was turned to the east.

As soon as Linden saw the smoke seething out of the trees at the farthest limit of her sight, she wondered how she had failed to notice it immediately.

The smoke itself was black and fatal, but it was only smoke: it did not cry out to her health-sense. Natural fires were possible. Yet the season was spring. Showers had soaked the woods. Nonetheless Salva Gildenbourne was burning.

And there was more.

At that distance, she did not expect to see flames; but she discerned something worse. Rather than fire, she descried a kind of diseased Earthpower, an organic mystical energy distilled and polluted until it had become as fiery as a furnace, as hot as lava, and incandescent with hunger.

Instantly, instinctively, Linden knew the cause of the blaze. You’ll recognize them when you see them. Foul showed you what they’re like. In imposed visions during her translation to the Land, she had seen spots of wrongness bloom like chancres in the body of the Land, eruptions of ruin among the grass and beauty of the landscape. And from those vile pustulent boils, buboes, infections, had squirmed forth devouring monsters which seemed to emerge from the depths of volcanoes. Serpentlike and massive, with kraken jaws formed to rip and swallow earth and grass and trees, those beasts had feasted on the Land as if it were flesh. Ravenously they had consumed the vista of her vision.

Since then, she had learned to name the monsters. They were skurj, and they served Kastenessen because he had released them when he won free of his Durance.

They were a distortion rather than a shattering of Law, but they had one quality in common with caesures: they were discrete, localized; individually small compared to Salva Gildenbourne, or to the wider Land. However, enough of them together could wreak enormous devastation. Their combined hungers might prove to be as ruinous as the Sunbane.

Linden did not say their name aloud. None of her companions uttered it. Instead she asked softly so that she would not gasp or groan, “How far—? Stave, can you tell how far away they are?”

“A score of leagues,” the former Master replied as if he were unacquainted with dread or horror. “Perhaps somewhat more.”

“More,” stated Galt flatly.

“Are you able to determine their number?” asked Liand. “I cannot.”

Roger had told Linden that Kastenessen had not brought very many of them down from the north yet, but she had no confidence that Covenant’s son had given her the truth.

“The distance precludes certainty,” answered Stave, “but they do not appear to be as many as ten. Salva Gildenbourne has endured substantial harm. The source of this smoke is not the only region where the trees have suffered. Other portions also have been devoured, some at the verge, some in the depths, and some nigh unto Andelain itself. Yet the savaging of the forest is fresh only at the site of the smoke. Earlier flames were extinguished by rain.” He looked to the Humbled for confirmation. “Therefore we judge that this smoke reveals where Kastenessen’s beasts feed, and that the skurj are few in number.”

At the sound of that name, Anele groaned.

“It is conceivable,” Stave continued implacably, “that they feed for a time, then burrow beneath the trees to emerge in another place. But this is by no means certain. It is also conceivable that other skurj lurk within the earth. Indeed, it is conceivable that beasts in far greater numbers are masked by trees and distance, and that the razing of Andelain has already begun.

“Nor are we able to estimate the swiftness of the skurj. We can be certain only that Kastenessen is aware of your journey, and of your purpose. He will not find it difficult to gauge the point at which you will enter Salva Gildenbourne.”

Linden swallowed at the dread beating in her throat. “Then we need to move fast. And we need to go now,” before the distant monsters could cross twenty leagues of forest.

She had to hope that Roger and a new army of Cavewights or other forces did not await her among the trees.

Mahrtiir must have heard her—or Narunal did. At once, the Manethrall’s Ranyhyn sprang into a hard gallop down the slope.

In formation, with the Humbled surrounding Stave and Linden, Liand and Anele, the company plunged after Mahrtiir.

As Hyn rushed toward the last ridge before the descent to Salva Gildenbourne, Linden confirmed that Covenant’s ring still hung under her shirt; that Jeremiah’s racecar remained in her pocket. Then she tightened her grasp on the Staff of Law and tried to ready herself. At her back, she felt Liand take the orcrest from its pouch and close it in his fist; but he did not invoke its radiance.

Clutching Hrama’s mane, Anele continued to face the smoke in the east. His fixation there gave Linden reason to hope that no skurj were concealed closer to her small company.

In moments, the Ranyhyn were pounding up the shallow sides of the final rise; and she began to worry about Pahni and Bhapa. But as she and her companions followed Mahrtiir over the crest and downward again, she spotted the two Cords at the edge of the forest. Their apprehension as they waved told her that they had seen the smoke and drawn their own conclusions; but their manner did not suggest any immediate peril.

Now Linden could see why Stave had described Salva Gildenbourne as unruly. —formed without the benefit of lore. She would not have called it a forest: it was a jungle. With no Forestal, or any other benign power, to shepherd the trees, they had thronged so close to each other over the centuries, and were crowded by such a multitude of brush, fallen branches, and massive moss-thick deadwood trunks, that they seemed to forbid intrusion. Indeed, they almost forbade light.

They would restrict the percipience of anyone who walked among them.

Fifteen leagues of this woodland stood between her and Andelain; within Salva Gildenbourne, she and her companions might be taken by surprise; and she did not know how quickly the skurj moved.

By the time that Hyn and the other horses had slowed to join the Ramen, Mahrtiir had already spoken to Bhapa and Pahni. “There is no present peril apart from the distant skurj,” he announced. “The Cords are certain of this.

“We are Ramen. Only theurgy may baffle our skills. But there is another matter which must be decided here.”

Linden hugged the Staff to her chest. “Go on. I don’t know how much time we have.”

“Ringthane,” said Mahrtiir as if he were glowering beneath his bandage, “we cannot ask the Ranyhyn to enter this forest. They would bear us, forcing passage among the brush and saplings. But if we were assailed, by the skurj or any other foe, they could neither defend themselves nor flee. Salva Gildenbourne is too densely obstructed. Such monsters as we have cause to fear would devour the Ranyhyn whole.”

Linden winced. “You’re saying that we’ll have to make it on foot.” Fifteen leagues through the heaviest jungle that she had seen since the rampant dire fertility of the Sunbane. “That doesn’t even sound possible.”

“Yet the Manethrall speaks sooth,” said Stave. “In this, the Humbled and I concur.”

Damn it, she thought. “And there aren’t any roads? Any paths? No, of course not.” The Masters had discouraged travel for centuries. They certainly had not wanted anyone to visit Andelain, where the numinous manifestation of Earthpower would undermine everything that Stave’s kinsmen had striven to accomplish. “So where is the nearest river?”

“In this region,” Bhapa offered hesitantly, “are streams aplenty. The nearest lies no more than half a league to the east. Doubtless it provides a path into Salva Gildenbourne. Yet—”

“Yet,” rasped Mahrtiir, “it would serve neither us nor the Ranyhyn if we are assailed. Such a path would be too easily blocked against us.”

“No true river enters Salva Gildenbourne from the north,” Stave added. “Only the nearer streams flow southward. Others gather toward Landsdrop in the east. If you seek to approach Andelain by water, we must ride west and south to the Soulsease.

Even mounted as we are, that journey must delay us further. And there we will be no less distant from our goal.”

Bitter with frustration, Linden faced Stave. “Why didn’t you tell me? You knew all this. We could have headed straight for the Soulsease from Revelstone. We could have saved—”

“Chosen.” Stave’s eye flashed. “I did not speak of the Soulsease because I had no certain knowledge of the skurj. Also I deem our present course to be the safer road. Any passage into Salva Gildenbourne by river will be fraught with hazard. Doubtless the Ranyhyn would be able to bear us, swimming. But doing so, they could not guard themselves.” He indicated her other companions. “Nor could we give battle on their behalf—or on our own. Only your powers might preserve us.”

Mahrtiir and the Cords nodded their agreement.

“A raft—?” Liand offered tentatively.

Stave held Linden’s gaze. “Grant that we may devise a raft adequate to convey us. Still we would be required to part from the Ranyhyn. And still would we be defenseless, apart from your powers. Do you relish the prospect of spears, arrows, flung stones, and nameless theurgies while we stand exposed upon the unsteady support of a raft?

“If you did not ward us all, we could do naught but perish.”

From the forest’s edge, Linden could not see the place where the skurj consumed Salva Gildenbourne. She sensed nothing of the monsters. For that very reason, she seemed to feel them rush closer by the moment.

Bracing herself on the hard stone of her purpose, she said, “All right. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to blame you.

“I’m sure that you’re right. And I really can’t face the delay of riding around this forest.” She did not want to give Kastenessen or Roger that much time— “Let’s go to that stream Bhapa mentioned. We’ll do what we can on foot.”

Surely any watercourse would be less occluded with brush and deadwood than the rest of the forest?

Mahrtiir nodded his assent. Without waiting for a reply from Stave or any of the Humbled, he and his Cords sent their mounts racing eastward along the fringe of Salva Gildenbourne.

Linden ground her teeth as she and the rest of her companions followed. She was galloping straight toward the most deadly of her many foes, but she could not imagine a better alternative. She had to locate Loric’s krill; needed to find Thomas Covenant among the Dead. She would never rescue Jeremiah without them.

The Harrow’s claim that he could take her to her son meant nothing while he stayed away. He may have feared Kastenessen and the skurj as badly as she did—

The swift run of the Ranyhyn startled birds from the nearby trees. Grasshoppers leapt away and butterflies scattered. Linden’s company plowed a furrow of small

frights, quickly forgotten in the immaculate sunlight, as the riders shortened the distance between themselves and their peril.

Soon they reached the stream. It came tumbling through a notch in the nearest ridge and down a series of flat stones like shelves or stairs, then slowed as the ground tilted more gradually toward the forest. Where it disappeared under the crowded canopy, it was little more than a rill which Linden could have crossed with a step. However, the watercourse was wider than the stream. More water often flowed there, chuckling over its rocks as it was fed by spring and summer rains. If trees and brush did not throng too closely to the stream, or spill over its banks, Linden and her companions would not be forced to walk in single-file into Salva Gildenbourne.

Linden could not guess how Anele’s mind would be affected by the jungle, but the stones and sand of the streambed might suffice to keep him safe.

Mahrtiir and the Cords had already dismounted when the rest of the riders arrived in muted thunder. Carrying bundles of supplies, Bhapa and Pahni entered the trees at once to scout ahead. At the same time, Stave and the Humbled sprang down from their Ranyhyn to survey the forest and take defensive positions.

For a moment, Linden, Liand, and Anele remained on their horses. Now that she had decided to part from Hyn, Linden found that she was acutely reluctant to do so. She had learned to feel safe on Hyn’s back— And the trees seemed to brood ominously among their shadows, in spite of the distant calling of birds and the glad rippling of the stream.

Liand was uncharacteristically anxious: he had heard the Elohim give warning, and had spent enough time in Anele’s company to absorb the old man’s horror of the skurj. And Anele himself was obviously alarmed. He tested the air repeatedly, jerking his head from side to side as if his blindness galled him. His knuckles were white as he clung to Hrama’s mane.

I could have preserved the Durance! Stopped the skurj. With the Staff !

Somewhere underneath his madness, he blamed himself for Kastenessen’s freedom. My fault! Behind the Mithil’s Plunge, he had begged Linden to let him die. If the skurj closed on him, he would be trapped between terror and culpability.

Oh, hell, Linden growled to herself. She could not heal the old man’s mind: he had made that clear. She had no hope for him, or for any of her companions, if she did not reach Andelain and Loric’s krill.

Angry at her own fear, she dropped abruptly from Hyn’s back and strode over to the stream. Standing in the watercourse beside the rill, she muttered, “Let’s do this. I’m not getting any younger.

“Clyme,” she ordered as Liand dismounted and began urging Anele to join him, “you’re in the lead with Mahrtiir.” She could not bear to send the Manethrall ahead

alone. “Stave, you’re with Liand, Anele, and me. Galt and Branl can take the rear.” The Cords would watch over the company from among the trees. If they were fortunate, they might avoid being caught. “We should spread out a bit. I don’t want anything”— or anyone—“to hit all of us at once.”

Facing the Humbled, she added stiffly, “I know what Handir said. No Master will answer Stave unless he speaks aloud. This is the exception. Sound won’t carry far through these trees.” And she and her companions might easily lose sight of each other along the twisted stream. “If you refuse to communicate with Stave, you might get us killed.”

Galt, Clyme, and Branl gazed at her without expression. She thought that they would take offense—or simply ignore her. But then Clyme joined Mahrtiir, and Branl gestured for Linden to precede him.

Apparently they had decided to obey her.

The Manethrall met Clyme with a keen-edged grin. He bid farewell to Narunal with a deep bow and a whinnying shout of gratitude. Then he headed into the gloom of Salva Gildenbourne, compensating for his lack of sight with percipience.

Linden did not doubt that he could sense the shape of the sand and stones ahead of his feet, feel the weight of the boughs overhead, hear the quick scurrying of beetles and small animals, smell the tangled growth of the jungle. And she trusted Clyme to protect Mahrtiir from the more insidious ramifications of his blindness. The Bloodguard had esteemed the Ramen as much as the Ramen had distrusted them.

While Liand extricated Anele from Hrama, Linden hugged Hyn’s neck. She felt that she should say something to thank the great horses, all of them. But words were inad-equate—and she was too full of trepidation. Instead she promised softly, “I’ll see you again. I’ll need you. The Land needs you.”

When Liand brought Anele to her, she linked her free arm with his, hugging his emaciated limb. She walked in the stream so that he could remain on drier ground. The water would soon soak through her boots, but that would be a minor discomfort. She wanted the old man to feel as much tactile reassurance as possible. Sand that was not damp and stones that were not slick might soothe his distress.

With Liand and Stave a few paces behind her, each bearing two or three bundles and bedrolls, she approached the sun-dappled obscurity of Salva Gildenbourne.

She did not understand why Kastenessen was wasting his time on an undefended forest when he could have torn out the Land’s heart by attacking Andelain. Surely that would have been the most effective way to counter her opposition and ruin her hopes? Under Melenkurion Skyweir, Roger had spoken of A portal to eternity. He had told her, You’ve done everything conceivable to help us become gods. Yet now he and Kastenessen appeared to have no larger objective than her death.

She looked over her shoulder to confirm that Branl and Galt were ready to follow Stave and Liand. Then she secured her grip on the Staff and took Anele into the thick veil of the trees.

As her eyes adjusted to Salva Gildenbourne’s crepuscular atmosphere, she found that Mahrtiir and Clyme had already passed beyond a curve in the rill. But even if the watercourse had run straight, the Manethrall and the Humbled might have been veiled by the tangle of brush and saplings that arched over the stream. Here and there, small instances of sunshine filtered through the leaves; and in those etched rays—narrow shafts of light made precise and precious by shadows—gnats and other insects danced like motes of dust. At first, the plash of her boots in the risible current seemed loud. But gradually the jungle swallowed the implications of her passage. She could not hear Anele’s breathing: she could hardly recognize her own. She moved through a louring silence as if she had inadvertently crossed the borders of deafness or substance.

When she looked back now, she could not see Galt and Branl, or the place where they had entered Salva Gildenbourne. Liand’s features, and Stave’s, were only distinct when a moment of light touched them.

For a time, she and Anele walked down the watercourse with comparative ease. At intervals, they had to duck under hanging branches or sidestep fallen logs, but they did not encounter any significant obstructions. As they followed their gnarled path, however, they began to meet trees that had toppled across the stream. The roots of the trees had been undermined by changes in the watercourse, perhaps, or the trunks had been struck by lightning, or they had collapsed and died under the burden of too much time. Some had failed so long ago that they had sunk into the streambed, feeding moss and mushrooms with their decay. Others were more recent victims of the forest’s unchecked growth, and they bristled with branches as rampant as thickets. Linden and Anele could not pass without scrambling over or crawling under the trunks, forcing their way through the boughs.

More and more, Salva Gildenbourne resembled a maze. Linden could not tell how much time had passed, or in which direction she was moving. In spite of the wood-land’s naturalness, its fundamental untamed health, she seemed to wander a fatal wilderland, trackless and involuted, where she was doomed to trudge in circles until her courage drained away. She only knew that she was making progress when Bhapa or Pahni appeared suddenly to relate that they had found no hazards: no lurking Cavewights or other predators; no scent or impression of the skurj; no sign that any other sentient beings had joined the chary animals and birds among the trees.

Whenever Bhapa paused to speak with Linden, he assured her that Mahrtiir was unharmed and fearless in the distance ahead. But Pahni lingered for Liand rather than for Linden. She whispered to him privately, confirming that he was well; promising him her utmost care.

The brief visits of the Cords comforted Linden. When they disappeared back into the jungle, she felt an unreasoning fear that she would not see them again. They were Ramen, highly skilled: she did not doubt that they understood caution better than she did. Nonetheless her apprehension grew as she advanced into the dusk and misdirection of Salva Gildenbourne.

She was not worried about Cavewights now: not here, amid the massed impediments of the forest. They would not be able to fight effectively. In addition, she suspected that Roger was too craven to assail her alone. He would insist on allies, support; overwhelming force. Nor was she concerned about wolves or other natural predators. If they were not mastered and compelled, they would instinctively keep their distance from unfamiliar prey.

And she could discern no other dangers. Riotous growth and decay surrounded her: old monolithic cedars, contorted cypresses behung with moss, broad-boughed Gilden vivid and golden where flecks of sunlight touched them, lush ferns and creepers, occasional aliantha and other stubborn shrubs. Such things filled her senses; walled her away from everything except the stream and her immediate companions. Even time faded: she was no longer sure of it. Whenever Liand passed her a bit of cheese or fruit or bread, she was surprised to find that she was hungry.

Still her trepidation deepened like the imposed dusk of the jungle. And Anele felt as she did—or his nerves were attuned to other dimensions of hazard and knowledge. He became increasingly agitated. He flung his head from side to side, and his hands trembled. For no apparent reason, he slapped his face as if he sought to rouse himself from a stupor. Linden heard or tasted small fluctuations in his mental state; but she could not interpret them.

Then, in a crook of the stream, she and the old man began to cross a wide sandbar littered with the moldering remains of a scrub oak or a stunted sycamore. Abruptly he clutched at her shoulder. Grimaces and flinching passed like darker shadows over his obscured features: his arms shook with the force of an intention which he seemed unable to express.

“Anele? What is it?”

At once, Liand moved closer. Stave stepped back to study the jungle.

Bhapa and Pahni had given no warning. Linden could not remember when she had last seen them.

Anele shuddered. He dug his toes deeper into the sand, or into the decayed and crumbling deadwood, Linden did not know which.

“Linden Avery,” he whispered. His voice was hoarse with strain. “Chosen. Hear me.”

“I’m listening.” She feared that he had been possessed again. But if some potent being had slipped through the cracks in his mind, she could not feel its presence. He may have been speaking for the sand, or the rotting wood; or for Salva Gildenbourne.

Urgently he hissed, “Only rock and wood know the truth of the Earth. The truth of life. But wood is too brief. Morinmoss redeemed the covenant, the white gold wielder. The Forestal sang, and Morinmoss answered. Now those days are lost. All vastness is forgotten. Unsustained, wood cannot remember the lore of the Colossus, the necessary forbidding of evils—”

Anele broke off; wrenched himself away from Linden. With one hand and then the other, he slapped his face. Then he scrubbed at his seamed forehead, his milky eyes, his weathered cheeks, as if he were struggling to wipe away his derangement.

“Linden,” Liand murmured, “Linden,” but he did not seem to want her attention. Rather he gave the impression that he was trying to remind her of who she was.

“I’m here, Anele.” Linden stifled an impulse to summon fire from the Staff, cast away shadows. The light of Law might enable him to speak more clearly. But she did not want to announce her location. “Go on. I’m listening.”

Morinmoss redeemed the covenant—?

The old man threw out his arms as if he were opening his heart to the forest. “There is too much. Power and peril. Malevolence. Ruin. And too little time. The last days of the Land are counted.” His voice became a growl of distress. “Without forbidding, there is too little time.”

He wedged his feet deeper into the damp sand and rot.

“Anele.” Linden reached out to take hold of his arm. She did not know how else to steady him, anchor him, except by repeating his name. “Are we in danger? Are the skurj coming?”

Anele, make sense.

Flatly Stave announced, “I descry no threat. The Manethrall and the Humbled report nothing. The Cords are distant, but they do not convey alarm.”

As if in response, Anele urged Linden, “Seek deep rock. The oldest stone. You must. Only there the memory remains.”

She stared at him. Memory—? Did he mean the ancient lore which had been lost when the sentience of the One Forest failed, and the last Forestal was gone? Did he believe that the bones of the Earth remembered what the trees had forgotten?

Did the sand into which he had pushed his feet believe it?

“I don’t understand,” she protested. “The Elohim taught that lore to the One Forest.” Anele had told her so himself. “They remember it even if the trees don’t. And they obviously care,” although she could not explain their actions—or their inaction. “Otherwise they wouldn’t have tried to warn the Land. Why can’t we just ask them?”

Anele gnashed his teeth. “Forget understanding,” he snapped. “Forget purpose.” His eyes were hints, nacre and frenetic, in his shadowed face. “Forget the Elohim.They, too, are imperiled. Become as trees, the roots of trees. Seek deep rock.”

“Anele, please.” Linden wanted to swear at him. “I’m not the one who can read stone. You are. Even if I could reach deep enough,” even if she had not lost her only opportunity under Melenkurion Skyweir, “I can’t hear rock.

“I have to go to Andelain. I have to believe in what I’m doing. Covenant told me to find him. I don’t know where else to look.”

Briefly the old man pulled at his bedraggled hair. Then he appeared to make a supreme effort, as if he were clasping at lucidity that leaked through his fingers like water; and his voice changed. For a moment, a handful of words, he sounded like Sunder; like his own father, eerie and sorrowing.

“He did not know of your intent.”

Then he jerked his feet out of the sand and stamped into the stream to wash them clean of perceptions which he could not articulate. In a small voice that reminded Linden of Hollian’s, he murmured, “We are not alone. Others also are lost.”

After that, he lapsed into aimless babbling, as inchoate as the secrets of the rill.

Damn it, Linden breathed to herself. Damn it. She already knew that Sunder and Hollian did not wish her to enter Andelain. Anele had been completely sane when he had spoken for his long-dead parents. He had held the orcrest, and could not have been mistaken. But everything else—

Forget the Elohim. They, too, are imperiled.

The Elohim—? The people who had called themselves the heart of the Earth? The people who had said, We stand at the center of all that lives and moves and is?

Others also are lost.

Only rock and wood know the truth—

“Linden,” Liand suggested quietly, “perhaps it would be well to offer him the orcrest? Without it, he cannot speak plainly.”

She shook her head. “I wish. But we can’t risk calling attention to ourselves. We don’t know what the skurj can sense.”

Or Kastenessen—

Studying the old man, Liand nodded sadly.

When Stave urged her to continue, Linden took Anele’s arm and drew him with her along the watercourse.

Darker shadows merged into each other. The flickers of light between the leaves grew more evanescent and rare, implying that the sun had fallen far down the western sky. Still her sense of time remained vague, obscured by shade and the stream’s writhen path. She could have believed that she had spent an hour or days in Salva Gildenbourne, and had drawn no nearer to the boundaries of Andelain. Eventually she might find that time had no meaning at all; that Roger and Kastenessen and the Despiser had nothing to fear because she had snared herself in a place from which she could not escape.

For a while, she continued walking only because she knew that she had no choice. Her steps became an apparently endless trudge over slick stones and damp sand. The mounting gloom seemed to swallow her mind as the trees swallowed sound. She was beginning to think that she was too tired to go on much farther when Stave announced suddenly, “Cord Bhapa approaches in haste.”

Anele tugged against her grasp on his arm, but she did not let him go.

“Has he found some sign of the skurj?” asked Liand tensely.

“I do not know.” Stave’s voice seemed to fade behind Linden. He had stopped to scrutinize the jungle. “He is not Haruchai. I discern only his alarm.”

They, too, are imperiled, Linden repeated to herself for no particular reason. Others also are lost. Someday she would be tired enough to forgive herself. She hoped that that day would come soon.

Then Anele broke free of her, and she felt a belated pang of anxiety. She heard him splash through the stream, but she was no longer able to see him: the shadows were too thick. Instead she felt him scramble westward out of the watercourse, fleeing into darkness.

“Liand!” she called softly. “Go after him. Find Pahni.” Intentionally or not, Anele was heading toward the young Cord. “Keep him safe.”

The skurj terrified the old man. After his fashion, he had good reason. And Linden could not think of any other danger—apart from a caesure—that might frighten him into abandoning his protectors.

Liand paused only long enough to drop his burdens beside the rill. Then he sped after Anele.

Wheeling, Linden located Stave more by his impassive aura than by his vague shape. She was about to ask him where Bhapa was when she felt the Cord’s approach through the undergrowth—

—his approach and his fear. He was close to panic; closer than he had been three and a half thousand years ago, when he had returned, seriously injured, to describe the advance of the Demondim. He had never seen such monsters before. Among them, they had wielded the emerald bane of the Illearth Stone. Yet they had not scared him this badly.

“Clyme returns,” Stave told her, “responding to the Cord’s alarm. The Manethrall cannot move as swiftly. He has elected to scout eastward alone, seeking to discover more of this peril.” A moment later, the Haruchai added, “Branl also draws nigh. Like the Manethrall, Galt searches to the east.”

Linden hoped that the Humbled would keep their distance until she knew what she was up against. And she did not want Mahrtiir left alone. But she doubted that Clyme, Branl, and Galt would heed her wishes.

Her fingers itched on the written surface of the Staff. Its shaft was visible only because it was darker, blacker, than the masked dusk.

Bhapa seemed to rush toward her headlong. In his place, she would have tripped and fallen; crashed into tree trunks; blinded herself on whipping branches. But he was Ramen, and his craft did not desert him. Sprinting, he slipped through the jungle and sprang down into the watercourse.

Linden could not see his expression, but she smelled his sweat and desperation. His aura was as loud as a shout.

“Ringthane.” With a fierce effort, he controlled his breathing. “I have felt the skurj.”

She had expected this; assumed it. Nevertheless Bhapa’s words inspired an atavistic dread. On some irrational level, she must have hoped—

Gritting her teeth, she asked, “How many? Can you tell?”

“I felt one. But—” Frustration sharpened the edges of Bhapa’s fear. “Ringthane, I cannot be certain. Such ravening and rage are altogether beyond my knowledge. Its seeming is of a multitude. And it does not advance through the forest. Rather it flows beneath the roots of the trees. I was forewarned of its presence when I beheld leaves withering for no clear cause, and with unnatural speed, as though years of blight had passed within moments. When I then pressed my fingers to the earth, I felt—”

The Cord shuddered. Hoarsely he concluded, “I believe that I have outrun it. But its passage is swift, and it does not turn aside. I fear that it is aware of us”—he faltered— “of you. Of your powers, Ringthane.”

“The skurj draws nigh.” Stave’s voice held no inflection. “It is but one, as the Cord has discerned. And it does not rise. If it does not alter its course, it will pass below us.”

Aware—? Linden thought, scrambling to understand. Below us? The fires which she and her company had seen earlier had been at least twenty leagues away. If one of the skurj had crossed that distance unerringly, it must have been guided somehow.

It had been directed by its master. Or Bhapa was right: the monster could sense—

But she had not made any use of the Staff.

Below us?

Anele! Instinctively she whirled toward the west. She was merely human. Perceptions attuned to theurgy would not detect her unless she exerted her Staff or Covenant’s ring. The Haruchai would be more noticeable than she was; easier to spot. But Anele was full of Earthpower, rife with it: he had been born to it. Although his heritage was deeply submerged, he might be a beacon for any extraordinary percipience. And if he had stepped on bare dirt, even for an instant—

As she searched the evening for some hint of the old man, she saw a glimmer of white brilliance through the dark trunks and brush; and her heart seemed to stop.

Orcrest. Liand was using the orcrest.

Oh, God!

Below us. Below Stave and her. Liand’s Sunstone would attract Kastenessen’s creature. Trying to calm Anele—or perhaps simply to light their way—Liand had inadvertently exposed himself to the skurj.

Yelling, “Watch out!” she snatched power from the runes of the Staff; sent cornflower fire gusting out along the watercourse. “I’m going to try to stop that thing!” For an instant, the stream blazed as if the current had become incandescent. Then she concentrated her flame and drove it into the ground, down through sand and soil and stone, to intercept the skurj before it passed.

Stunned, Bhapa stared at her. But Stave appeared to understand. Grabbing the Cord’s arm, he drew Bhapa away from her; out to the fringes of her fire.

At first, she could not feel the monstrous creature. Her boots muffled the sensitivity of her feet, and her nerves had not found the pitch of ravening and rage which had appalled Bhapa. Urgently she sent Earthpower and Law deeper and deeper into the earth, deeper than the oldest roots of the most thirsty trees, and still no hunger responded to her flames.

Then Stave shouted, “Ware, Chosen! The skurj rises!”

In front of her, the watercourse spat filth in a spray of water, rocks, sand. The soil of its banks began to seethe as if the trees and brush were suppurating. Leaves overhead withered and charred. At the same time, she smelled gangrene; a miasma of sickness and rot; necrosis. Disease boiled upward as though dirt and stone and wood were dying flesh.

When her power touched the surging creature, she staggered. The sheer vehemence of the skurj struck her like a physical blow. God, it was strong

Putrefaction clogged her throat: she could hardly breathe. She tasted similarities to Roger’s bitter scoria. But the forces which confronted her now were worse; purer. They resembled the ruddy extravagance of volcanoes: tremendous energies barely contained by the world’s friable shell.

As it came, she read the nature of the skurj. Mindless as cyclones and earthquakes, the monster was a product of organic magic. It had been born in magma: it throve in infernos and molten stone. And it ate the living earth. The earth’s flesh sustained its savagery. Yet it was not an inherent evil comparable to the Illearth Stone. Nor did it exist outside the bounds of Law, as did the Viles and their descendants. And it did not intend ruin: it had no intention except appetite.

Over the course of millennia, however, all of the skurj had received the legacy of Kastenessen’s rage. During his Appointed Durance, they had been transmogrified; harnessed to his service. From him, they had inherited perversion. Goaded by his hate, they had become havoc and insatiable sickness.

The creature rising to devour trees and dirt and Linden did not reason, and knew no fear. Therefore it could not be turned aside. It would eat and eat, afflicting everything in its vicinity with rot, until the very Earth was torn open at last.

Gasping at the stench, Linden felt her courage fail. She could not move or think. Around her, a wide span of the watercourse and the forest boiled and frothed, immedicably diseased. The Staff was useless to her. The skurj consumed her flames; swallowed or ignored her power.

Covenant had told her to find him. Lord Foul and the croyel held Jeremiah. She and all of her companions were here because she had decided to take the Land’s fate into her own hands. Now she was helpless. Before she saw Kastenessen’s beast for the first time, it had already defeated her.

For an instant, the fabric of reality seemed to rip like a fouled tapestry. The ground pitched and heaved; dropped her to her knees. The pustulent reek of mortification filled her lungs, her nerves, her wailing mind.

Then the skurj erupted from the earth, and she gaped into its avid mouth.

It rose as tall as a Giant above her, and as thick as a cedar. Its hide was as heavy and hot as slag: the entire length of the creature emitted a terrible heat. Yet the hide shed no light. Even the tremendous kraken maw and gullet gave no illumination. Only the teeth, the fearsome fangs, long as stakes, curved and keen as scimitars, row after row of them filling the jaws: only the teeth shone. They burned with a sick red slashing radiance like lamps along the passage into hell.

Linden did not move. She believed that she could not. Her weakness was her birthright: her parents had spent their lives so that she would receive and accept their last gifts.

Nevertheless she was not the woman she had once been; the emotional cripple who had watched, frozen, while Jeremiah had surrendered his hand to Lord Foul, and Covenant had sacrificed himself for Joan. Her heart had become stone—and the stone held.

She did not move, but she could whisper. Gazing into the fanged throat of slaughter, she murmured, “Melenkurion abatha. Duroc minas mill. Harad khabaal.”

The skurj arched over her, mindless and savage. Its lambent teeth strained toward her. It could have swallowed her in a heartbeat. Yet it did not strike. Hearing her, it hesitated, caught by the potency of the Seven Words.

Then Clyme appeared on the poisoned ground beyond the skurj; and the suddenness of his arrival wrenched Linden from her paralysis. He was a Master, a potential antagonist. But he was also Haruchai: he would not hold back. Already she saw him gather himself to spring at the monster.

One touch of that fierce hide would burn the flesh from his bones. One flash of those wicked fangs would sever his limbs.

She was on her feet before she heard herself howl, “Clyme, no!” Screaming the Seven Words, she flung the full strength of the Staff at the skurj. Every scrap of her desperation and weakness and Earthpower she transmuted to fire and hurled against the creature.

Frantically she unleashed strength enough to set Salva Gildenbourne ablaze. But the focus of her terror and resolve was so single-minded that none of her flames touched the trees.

The skurj reared above her. Its jaws stretched to devour her inadequacy. For a moment or two, however, a handful of heartbeats, her coruscating incendiary repulsion sufficed to stop the beast. Although it ate her power, she lashed it with more force than it could consume.

Hampered by fire and the invocation of Law, the skurj reached toward her with its bright fangs—and failed to strike.

“Clyme!” Stave shouted: a stentorian roar which Linden scarcely heard. “Humbled! Preserve the Stonedownor! His orcrest may serve to distract this abomination!”

The skurj forced Linden backward step after step. Its brute force, prodigious and incapable of dismay, threatened to overwhelm her. Among the roots of Melenkurion Skyweir, she had outfought the combined theurgies of Roger and the croyel. But there she had drawn directly upon the EarthBlood: Earthpower unconstrained by mortality and fragile flesh. Here she had only herself.

Then Clyme turned from the creature and ran westward into the trees, followed by Bhapa and then Branl. When she saw that only Stave remained with her, in instant danger, Linden felt a touch of relief. Retreating, she grew stronger.

Grimly she poured torrential fire into the creature’s jaws; down its gullet. She was Linden Avery the Chosen. With no resources except the Staff of Law, the Seven Words, and her own granite, she had survived Melenkurion Skyweir’s convulsion. And Caerroil Wildwood had completed her Staff. Nothing limited the puissance available to her except her own abilities; her circumscribed humanity.

Still she retreated. She had no choice. The creature was too strong: she could not hold it back entirely. But her moment of defeat had passed. As the jaws of the skurj blazed toward her, she reached deeper and deeper into herself for power.

Half of the beast’s serpentine length remained buried beneath it. Balancing as if it were coiled, the creature thrust itself forward. With every violent movement, the fangs burned closer to Linden, and the ground boiled and rotted.

Stave stood directly behind her; supported her with his hands on her shoulders. In part, he gave her his intransigence, his unyielding Haruchai valor. But he also steadied her as she stumbled backward over sand and rocks. Unable to fight the creature himself, he preserved her from falling.

In gratitude and extreme fever, Linden howled the Seven Words, and hurled conflagration as intense as a solar flare at the skurj—and learned the real purpose of Kevin’s Dirt.

Within its definitions—within the bounds of Earthpower and Law—the Staff had no limits except those of its wielder. And Linden’s doubt and terror had passed. She

had been annealed in her battle with Roger and the croyel: she was prepared to unleash any amount of flame against the skurj. It was not alone. Doubtless more of its kind rushed to assail her. She would have to slay them all. The Land’s life as well as Jere-miah’s depended on her. She did not mean to fail.

She should have been able to ask the Staff for as much Earthpower as she needed.

But she had forgotten the cloying pall of Kevin’s Dirt. The blindness, the truncation of percipience, which it imposed was only one of its effects. Fighting for her life, she discovered that Kevin’s Dirt hampered other forms of Earthpower as well.

It restricted her fire.

During her battle with Roger and the croyel, Kevin’s Dirt had not constrained her. It had not existed in that time. And it had not prevented her from extinguishing caesures, or from slaying Cavewights and kresh, because those exertions had not required as much raw force as she sought here. Caesures violated all Law: all Law aided her against them. And Cavewights and kresh were perishable, as prone to immolation as any man or woman or child.

But now— God!

Kevin’s Dirt had been created for this: to inhibit the uttermost use of Earthpower. Linden was not being driven backward because she was human and weak, but rather because her attempts to summon the full resources of the Staff were clogged by a ubiquitous fug of wrongness.

And this skurj was only one. There would be more.

Stave was right: Linden needed a distraction. She needed to risk Liand and the orcrest and perhaps all of her companions. She could not stop even one of these monsters with Earthpower. She would die in moments if she did not cast the Staff aside and oppose the skurj with wild magic.

But that would take time. She had not begun to master Covenant’s ring. And white gold defied Law. By its very nature, the Staff would hamper her. It might block her altogether. Even if she surrendered it to Stave, she might not be able to invoke the wild magic that destroys peace swiftly enough to prevent the skurj from crushing her.

Stave! she cried in silence because she could not stop howling the Seven Words. Get Liand!

Stave could not hear her thoughts. She had to rely on his instinctive comprehension of her peril. She would falter and die if Liand did not distract the creature.

Just for a moment. Please.

I am not going to lose my son!

Her task should have been impossible. Without Stave’s support, she would have fallen. Nevertheless she continued to block the monster’s jaws, opposing its fury with fire and utter dismay.

Dimly she heard a voice that was not hers. Somewhere in the distance, Mahrtiir yelled, “Ringthane!” as if the word were a battle cry.

Another roar answered his, as loud as the crushing of boulders.

Then the Manethrall crashed into her from the side; drove her staggering through the stream to collide heavily with the bank of the watercourse.

At once, her power collapsed. The breath and stench were driven from her lungs: she nearly lost her grasp on the Staff. In the sudden cessation of flame, night closed like a tomb over the forest. Only the fangs of the skurj still shone, gaping for prey.

Linden twisted to the side. She clutched for Covenant’s ring.

Between her and the monster’s maw, she saw in silhouette the mighty form of a Giant. Limned by rows of ravenous burning, he advanced on her with his arms raised over his head. In his hands, he gripped a longsword taller than she was, a wave-bladed flamberge.

We are not alone. Others also are lost.

The Giant’s features were a contorted yammer of rage and insanity as he swung his sword, trying to hack Linden in half.

ïðåäûäóùàÿ ãëàâà | Fatal Revenant | 9. The Long Journey of the Lost