They had been lost in the woods for days. Mister C of 9 was well past bitterness, but complete despair had not yet set in on account of the fact that Braem Wood was quite hospitable, with plenty of nuts and berries and easy-roast squirrels. In fact, it was quite nice to not have to worry about anything.
Chucky was about to suggest they make a treehouse and sit out the Last Battle in style, when there was a crashing in the undergrowth and they were accosted by the Predator.
“Aah! He’s doing that laser-targeting thing to me!” Mister C howled, pulling out his sword and swinging it at the shifting foliage. “I just heard it ask me if I wanted candy! I heard it! Quick, we have to cover ourselves with mud so it can’t see our heat-signatures!”
“I thought it was you,” Lan said quietly, doffing his cloak. “Nobody else could make that much noise walking through wet pine needles.”
“Hey, what are you doing here?” Chucky asked.
“We’re heading into Caemlyn from the north, to avoid anybody who might be following us,” Lan explained grudgingly.
“Oh, not those two cunts.”
Moiraine, Nynaeve, Egwene and Perrin stepped into the clearing, accompanied by somebody in a white cloak who seemed very familiar to Chucky. They stared at one another for a few moments. Moiraine, seeing with regret that Lan wasn’t going to kill the gleeman – or his apprentice, who was industriously rolling in the mud on the edge of a nearby creek – nudged her Warder and suggested he make introductions.
“Oh, right … well, this is Child Foreskin, Hand of the Light, he has been of some assistance … why are you laughing?”
“Child Foreskin!” Chucky pointed. Forsaken_1 tried to pout. “I’ve met Child Foreskin before. Long time no see, Child Foreskin.”
“Yeah yeah, very funny. Good to see you again, man. Wow, a gleeman, huh? There’s no justice. I should have been the gleeman, I’m more of a crowd-pleaser … Egwene has been teaching me some Tinker dances, the sa’sara…”
Lan was looking suspicious, in a granitey sort of way. “You know each other? A gleeman and a Whitecloak Questioner?”
Chucky grinned. “Oh sure we know each other. Foreskin here caught my act a few years back in Baerlon – remember, Skinny? You were questioning some guys, made me play some loud music so you could take some suspects out through the back door of the Inn, without the rest of the people panicking.”
Forsaken_1 smiled slowly, the scam dawning on him like a very overcast sunrise. “Ohh yeah, that’s right. Boy, was it that long ago?”
“Yep. I was only an apprentice at the time, of course … no gleestaff, had to wear a gleeshirt like my apprentice here – oh for crying out loud, C, get up. This is my apprentice, by the way – Mister See.”
“Wow!” Forsaken_1 peered at the bedraggled figure in the mud. “So that’s what he looks like … actually, it’s just the way I always imagined.”
“Can we get the fuck on?” Moiraine snapped.
“Yeah,” Chucky helped Mister C of 9 to his feet. “Headed to Caemlyn too, huh?”
“What about the others?” Egwene interrupted. “Mat and Rand. Where are they?”
“Oh, they’re on their way to Caemlyn too, of course,” Chucky said, wiping mud from his hands. “We lost them in Whitebridge, but they’re okay – they should be in the city by now.”
“There was a fire in Whitebridge when we went through,” Lan said. “Looked like there had been a fight.”
“Trollocs and a halfman,” Chucky said promptly. “We told Rand and Mat to meet us at The Queen’s Blessing.”
“Good enough,” Moiraine said. “Let’s get moving.”
They headed off into the woods. Perrin asked Chucky if he had heard any more stories about Druss. Chucky nodded and tapped his nose conspiratorially. Forsaken_1 hiked up his robes and stumbled alongside, looking relieved to finally find some people of his own approximate depth.
“Can you believe this?” he asked Chucky and Mister C delightedly. “It’s incredible! We’re actually in the story! I keep waiting for Gumby to show up.”
“Who?” Perrin asked, his thick brow wrinkling.
“Oh, um, Child Gumby – my old drill instructor,” Forsaken_1 said, carried away by his own creativity.
Simultaneously, Chucky replied, “Gleeman Gumby – I was apprentice to him when I played in Baerlon.”
“Idiots,” said Mister C of 9.
They headed into Caemlyn.
Debs and Janica examined their handiwork.
“Fuck, we’re good,” Janica said.
Debs was unsure whether the casual profanity had rubbed off on Janica from the a’dam, or from Janica’s uncouth husband, or whether it had simply come from Janica’s own immense stockpile of multi-lingual swearwords, but she had to agree. It had been hard work, but she really believed they could now walk the streets of Caemlyn without attracting any attention at all.
The Ogier had demonstrated their talents admirably over the course of the day. Coarshus had vanished into the woods nearby and brought back a huge bounty of animals and fowl for skinning, Wyse had spent the day mixing pigments and dyes, and Frendli had sung them a mass of plants, from cotton to balsa to bamboo. Hoarni had smilingly volunteered to be the tryout dummy. Debs and Janica had, between them, almost half a century of experience making costumes for role-playing and assorted occasions, and they used them all. On top of that, they had experimented blindly – literally blindly – with the One Power in new and innovative ways, ravelling cloth from the cotton buds, trimming the wood and skinning and curing the animal hides. And towards the end of the day, they had even pulped, bleached, pressed and dried several hundred sheets of paper. Janica felt numbly, happily exhausted in a way that caused the linked women to share a knowing smile.
The four Ogier standing before them had been transformed into the most unconvincing-looking Ogier in the history of two men wearing stilts and pretending to be an Ogier.
Their faces were concealed by roughly-painted cloth, their bodies bundled about with wads of cotton and awkward sticks of balsa wood, and their legs and arms splinted so they hinged at only hip and shoulder. When they walked, they looked unutterably stupid. Each of them was clasping a thick wad of pamphlets in one badly-made hand, and each one of them read:
WANG CHUNG STEDDING
FOR CLOTHES AND BEDDING
…and fine-print that read:
(wang chung stedding merchants, mainmarket, cairhien)
There had been some discussion about the name, but Debs insisted that steddings had names like Shanghai and Tofu anyway, so it was pretty close to the mark. And the Ogier assured the doubtful Janica that nobody would know the difference – not in Caemlyn anyway.
“They have forgotten the Ogier, and the groves,” Wyse said sadly.
“We can wander aroond the city and keep an eye on the players, and if anybody lukes at us, we just give ’em a pamphlet,” Debs said smugly. “And when they go into the Wees, we drop our disguises and follow ’em in.”
“What about you two?” Coarshus asked from behind his ‘mask’.
“Ach, little woman dog-collared to a big woman, big woman in skin-tight clothes … they’ll think it’s another gimmick,” Debs said. “Sex sells.”
“It sure does,” Hoarni replied. He was making a considerable balsa construction in his own costume. “I want to go to stedding Wang Chung right now. I have the Longing – the really, really long Longing. In fact, you might say I put the Long in Longing.”
The others had stopped snickering when Hoarni made such remarks quite a while back. They had stopped at about the same time they had realised he wasn’t trying to be funny. It was such a fundamental part of Hoarni’s character, he would never even think of joking about it.
They headed off towards the nearby city. It had been a considerable walk, since Janica had not been willing to attempt channeling again, and Debs was not confident about their chances of rediscovering Travelling. The Ogier had been unwilling to set foot in Tel’aran’rhiod, saying that they would rather walk the long way around, and see the lovely scenery. Still, they had finally made it to Caemlyn.
“I just hope we’re not too late,” Janica said, thinking of all that could have gone wrong.
“Aye,” Debs said doubtfully. “Shall we recap what we knoo?”
“Right,” Janica ticked items off on her fingers. “The party leaves from the Two Rivers, and is together up to Shadar Logoth. They get split up. Thom, Rand and Mat take the river to Whitebridge, then cross to Caemlyn. Mat gets sick. Moiraine, Lan and Nynaeve end up together, and Perrin and Egwene meet Elyas Machera, then the Tinkers, then they get captured by the Whitecloaks. They get rescued by Moiraine and Lan, and they all end up in Caemlyn. Rand and Mat are there first. We don’t know how far along they are already, but hopefully they’re still on their way here. They leave Caemlyn by the Ways, and go to the Borderlands.”
“How do you know all this?” asked Wyse. “Do you use the One Power to see what people are doing?”
“Aye,” said Debs quickly, “but we canna tell exactly wha’ they’re doin’. They might not be in Caemlyn at all.”
“They might not actually come here, if they’ve been interfered with,” Janica added.
Hoarni’s ears perked up. “Interfered?”
“Danna do that with yer ears,” Debs snapped. “They look too real when ye do.”
“Let’s move. We’ll get to the Queen’s Blessing, and stake the place out. We might have to stay in the place next door, or across the street, to avoid attracting attention. For all we know, Loial is there already. Let’s see how things stand when we get there,” she set off purposefully.
“Um, dearie?” Debs shook the a’dam chain gently. “This way, I think.”
“Right,” Janica turned away from the blur, and headed towards the blur.
Things were nice and quiet at the Tinker camp. They had moved on from the place they had been, and were now setting up peacefully on the outskirts of a nice little village in the middle of nowhere. Of course, it might not be actually nowhere, since there were roads and people, but Contro didn’t know any of them. Even the people who had seemed vaguely familiar to him were now gone, and he didn’t know where, or when they had left. He wasn’t even sure they had been here to start with, because he didn’t think his memory was very good, and he did imagine things a lot of the time. It made him laugh to think about it.
The other strange man who seemed quite familiar, Elyas, had come back a little while ago. He was wounded, apparently, and Contro thought it might have been the big dogs that guarded the camp – they were unfriendly animals, though they had hearts of gold. But it hadn’t been the dogs, and it hadn’t been the wolves, even though Elyas did admit that there were a lot of wolves around.
“Wherever I go, there’s always wolves, young Contro,” he had said in reply to the Tinker’s incessant, laughing questions. “But they mean me no harm, nor you either. The ones who did this to me were-”
But Contro did not remember what he had said next. It had been something familiar, maybe, but there was just no way to be sure.
The Tinkers were very kind to him, taking care of him and feeding him and tending to his ‘unseen wounds’, which was obviously their way of saying that they thought he had had a hard time somewhere, and might be feeling sad or scared for some reason. At least, they spent a lot of the time telling him it was alright to remember the things that had been done to him, and to cry about them and get them out of his system, and they promised him that somebody, some people, were not going to come and take him away, and that he did not need to be afraid. In fact, the more he thought about it, the more certain Contro was that the people he was supposed to be afraid of were the same people who had hurt Elyas, whoever he was. And that made a funny sort of sense. It was so funny, that Contro laughed about it.
He was also learning a lot about Tuatha’an customs and traditions. There was one, for instance, called “Looking for the Song”, which was one of his favourites. It basically entailed asking everybody you met if they had found the song. And nobody Contro asked had ever found it, even though they obviously knew a lot of songs, since they sang them around the fire at night. He asked everybody he could, though, and after a while he became so good at Looking for the Song that the others put him in a group all of his own and told him he was good enough to Look for the Song all by himself. Without even talking. In the dark. It was great fun, although Contro wasn’t sure how he could ask anybody about the song if he was locked in a wagon, and if he wasn’t allowed to talk. It added to the challenge, there was that to say for it. And after all, he had already asked every Tinker in the camp at least twenty times by the time they decided he was truly a Looking for the Song Master. Or at least he thought he had asked them all. It nagged at him that maybe there were some he hadn’t asked, because he couldn’t be certain on account of the fact that they all dressed so much the same, and they were difficult to tell apart. It was possible that he had only asked some of them as few as ten times, and that was no way to be sure, was it? Still, he was definitely the best Looking for the Song person they had – everybody told him so. He had actually heard talk of ending the Search for the Song, simply because he himself was so good at it. Raen, the Mahdi of the group, had actually said Contro was so good at Looking for the Song that it ‘drove him batshit’ and he ‘couldn’t take it anymore, make him stop’.
Mahdi was a funny word. Contro had asked Raen what the word meant, and Raen said it was another word for “Seeker”. Contro had wanted to know if he could be a Mahdi too, since he was so good at Looking for the Song, and Raen had promised that as soon as the Tinkers gave up looking for the Song altogether, Contro could be a Mahdi. He even suggested that, if Contro kept Looking for the Song as well as he was, that might happen sooner rather than later. Contro found it very exciting, very confusing, and very funny.
There were other customs too, that were almost as fun. One special one, that they had only done once since Contro arrived – as far as he knew – was The Rite of Losing. Contro gathered that this was sort of the opposite of Looking for the Song, sort of a booby prize. He laughed at the idea of a booby prize, but had to admit it seemed a very serious game. The person who was worst at Looking for the Song was named a Lost One, and told to leave the camp forever. It was sort of like a game of musical chairs, in a way. So far, the only person to be named Lost was Aram. That had been a shame, because he and Contro had been friends.
The two boys were about the same age, and they had been paired up and sent on several adventures together, Looking for the Song and talking to villagers and all sorts of things. Contro suspected that he had been sent to Look for the Song with Aram because Aram was so bad at it, and this suspicion was later confirmed.
“Aram has shown himself unable to follow the Way of the Leaf, and he must be sent away,” Raen said sadly, just before they all played the Rite of Losing game. “When he raised a hand in anger against another Tinker, he showed he was never to find the Song, and that he was truly Lost.”
Contro didn’t really understand, and even though Aram had hit him many, many times with a stick, he didn’t understand why that meant the boy had to leave. It didn’t mean he was bad at Looking for the Song – after all, he had played with Contro more than anybody else, and that had to be good. Contro must have asked him his full range of questions about the Song (“Do you know the Song? Have you ever heard the Song? Do you know how it Goes? Is it the one that Goes bee doo bee doo Bah? Have you ever thought that maybe the Song is a tune or a poem? Is this the Song? Are you sure you haven’t heard the Song? What’s the difference between a Song and a Ditty? Don’t you think Ditty is a Funny Word?” and many more), at least a hundred times. Aram had definitely had room for improvement, but progress had been made, right up to the moment Aram had screamed and grabbed a stick from the fire for some reason. And anyway, the beating hadn’t really hurt very much. Two days later, it had hardly hurt at all.
Anyway, Aram was gone now, and that made Contro’s victory over the Song Game a little bit hollow. He’d have liked very much to just ask a couple more questions.
And if he could just remember what it was he was supposed to be doing…
Mister C of 9 had been very disappointed by the fact that this supposedly big city had not contained a single coke vending-machine, but he handled his grief well. He sniffled, but didn’t cry. Of course, he couldn’t cry, but that didn’t stop him from being thoroughly miserable.
“I’m going to die in this place,” he moaned.
“Oh yes you are,” Moiraine promised hotly. “You’ll die right here and now if you don’t stop your sissy bitching, you Creator-damned little shitfountain.”
“It’s nice of you to try and cheer me up, Moiraine Jedi, but I just don’t feel strong enough to match curses with you today,” Mister C gave a tragic sigh.
“I wasn’t trying to cheer you up, gleeshirt! I was being very fucking serious! I’ll pop a cap’angreal in your lily ass if you don’t shut the fuck up! And don’t call me ‘Jedi’! It’s ‘Sedai’! Aes Sedai!”
“Okay. I’m so bitterly, bitterly thirsty. I can’t argue. I can barely even see. Who said that? I need cokey nourishment. Oh, I need it so much.”
“Damn, he’s beginning to make me thirsty,” Forsaken_1 remarked to Chucky.
“Creator damn you to Ghul, See, if only you were Shadowspawn, I’d erase you so fucking fast…”
“Is that The Queen’s Blessing?” Chucky pointed ahead. There was a large crowd of people gathered around the entrance of a large Inn, apparently ogling some sort of street theatre. Four men were dressed up on stilts and were pretending to be Ogier, three of them wrestling very awkwardly with the fourth, who seemed to be soliciting sexual favours from the female audience members.
“One at a time or all at once, I’ve never felt so … so hasty!” the fourth was shouting bawdily. Chucky reflected that many things had not apparently made it through the editing process, and he was quite grateful. He hadn’t expected this level of disrespect for Ogier – not from what he had read in the books. The crowd seemed very appreciative of the performance, and were throwing coins and fruit at the actors. It was a typically mindless, low-brow peasants’ pastime, obviously designed to appeal to the stinking masses.
He noticed Mister See and Child Foreskin were watching with great interest.
“Look at that peenie,” Forsaken_1 whispered in awe. “It must be made of papiér maché.”
The randy one – maybe they were meant to be trollocs, Chucky thought, despite their numerous Ogierisms – had pulled a fuzzy-shafted erection out of its burlap pants, and was waving it at the audience. Several women had fainted, and the Ogier had grabbed one of them by the ankle. She was obviously part of the act, because she woke up and screamed very convincingly.
Mister C of 9 glanced at the organ disdainfully. “It’s not so big,” he remarked in a bored tone of voice.
Nynaeve and Egwene were staring at the spectacle in wide-nostrilled disapproval, their arms folded so tightly under their breasts that they stood a very real risk of attracting the attention of the actors in front of the inn. Perrin, originally inclined to leer and catcall along with the other men, was pressured into meek silence by his furious companions.
“So this is the big city, is it?” Nynaeve said primly. “A festering pit of depravity and loose morals. Give me the clean countryside anytime,” but she had spared the papiér maché whanger a second glance, and Lan himself had a smirk deeply chiselled on his face.
Moiraine stopped railing at Mister C, and peered at the performance. “That’s not very much like Caemlyn at all,” she protested. “I’ll have to find out about this – perhaps this civil unrest is due to problems at the palace.”
“I did notice people were showing their colours,” Chucky said smoothly. “Red in support for Queen Morgase, and white for those who believe her involvement with the Aes Sedai is to blame for everything going wrong in this day and age. They’re wearing the colours on their sword hilts and everything.”
Lan looked impressed. “You have a keen eye, gleeman. I had only just noticed that myself.”
“Mister See actually saw it,” Chucky said modestly. “I just knew what it meant.”
“Did I?” Mister C frowned.
“Looks like this crowd will make it tough for us to get into the Inn,” Forsaken_1 said. “And I don’t think I’m the one to try and break them up. They’re not going to look very kindly on a Whitecloak here, are they?”
“Especially not a Questioner,” Lan nodded.
“Maybe I could clear the way…” Chucky suggested, reaching for his pipes. He stopped when he saw the way Moiraine was looking at him. He knew she was trying very hard to imagine him as a trolloc, so she could convince herself it wouldn’t be in breach of regulations to incinerate him. He lowered his hand. “Okay, bad idea. Let’s just go around the side there.”
They moved past the outskirts of the growing crowd, and into the stableyard of The Queen’s Blessing. They didn’t see Rand step out of the front door, stare in amazement at the street performance, and then head off down the main street.
“Alreet, this is a good place.”
Debs and Janica had fled as soon as their cover had been, for want of many better words, blown. Debs was kicking herself for not seeing it coming, and Janica was quietly thanking whatever magical or technological agency had brought them here that it had left her spectacles behind, so she wouldn’t have to see it coming. Hoarni’s face had been invisible under the specially-made mask, but the lower half of the cloth had been wet with saliva as soon as they had stepped into the city, and by the time they reached The Queen’s Blessing he had been literally foaming.
Wyse, Coarshus and Frendli had been absolutely mortified, and had promised to stay with their friend and try to calm him down while Debs and Janica made themselves inconspicuous. They even promised to keep handing out pamphlets if that would help. So the sul’dam and her damane had run off into the streets, and had spent the rest of their time in Caemlyn trying to find some way of getting back to the inn to keep an eye on things. Debs couldn’t shake the feeling that the other characters had already begun to turn up. Janica wasn’t confident about leaving the Ogier by themselves. Not only was Hoarni extremely unreliable, but the other three might forget their promises as soon as they saw Loial. They might get back to The Queen’s Blessing and find Loial had been bundled off to the stedding again, and then where would the story be? The party would have nobody to guide them through the Ways. There would be nobody in the Stone of Tear to protect the little children. There would be no mediating party in the fights between Perrin and Faile. Janica shuddered to think about it.
Then they had heard about the False Dragon who was being paraded through town, and Debs had gone into convulsions. Some of the things that had swept through the a’dam link were … icky. The tight-clad Scot had insisted that they find a good place to watch.
“I just want tae see if he lukes like Sean Bean,” she had said, dragging Janica through the streets, ignoring her protests. There would be Aes Sedai with the False Dragon. They would be able to sense the presence of other channelers. They were supposed to be keeping a low profile. Debs had resolutely squashed these objections on the simple grounds that Logain would be there.
Finally, they had found a large stone fountain, and clambered up into the sprawl of lions and trollocs carved in its top to look over the guard-lined road. Across the street from them, the wide white wall of the Royal Palace sloped gently upwards, concealing the trees within.
Then the procession moved towards them. Janica couldn’t see anything, but Debs roared with delight.
“He does! He does luke like Sean Bean, begorrah!”
Janica was staring at the wall opposite. It was about the only thing she could see, and then only as a pale blur against a darker mass of people and an indistinct blue blob of sky. “Debs, is that the wall that Rand climbs up…?”
Debs wasn’t listening. Janica was about to elbow her, but remembered the a’dam. She muttered in annoyance, and then reached up and tickled Debs’ ear. It translated itself through the a’dam as a maddening tingling sensation, but it didn’t hurt, and it certainly got Debs’ attention. She turned around unwillingly and looked down at the damane.
“Wha’? Whatcha wan’?”
“That wall over there,” Janica pointed vaguely. “Is it the wall Rand climbs up?”
Debs almost forgot about Logain in her excitement. “Aye! Aye, it is! It is, lass! And luke, I can see him commin’!”
“He’s walkin’ up the rood, lookin’ like somebody’s after him … aye, aye, he’s scrabblin’ at the wall noo…” Debs trailed off. “What the fuck?”
“What is it?” Janica strained to focus on the wall, but even with the a’dam assisting her, she needed Debs to be her eyes. “What happened? Did he fall? He’s meant to fall, remember?”
“He did’nae fall,” Debs murmured in amazement. “He did’nae climb at all. Mat came up from the other wee, and they’re talkin’. Noo they’re goin’ off up the street. Mat’s laughin’ and showin’ him some sort of … aye, he’s showin’ him intae one of those alehouses over there.”
“Mat?” Janica demanded. “Impossible! At this time in the story, Mat’s in their room, sick and tainted with the dagger from Shadar Logoth. He wouldn’t set foot out of the room, so Rand went by himself.”
“Mat seemed fine tae me.”
“Fine as fine. He was laughin’.”
Janica was so puzzled for a moment, the true repercussions of the event slipped by her. How could Mat be okay? Had he somehow been healed already? Had he simply not reacted to the dagger in the way she’d thought he had in the books? Or had he not picked up the dagger at all? The more she thought about it, the more likely that seemed. Mat had never picked up the dagger. Which meant that somebody – somebody who knew how the story went – had tried to be helpful, and stopped him from picking the damn thing up in the first place.
And then she realised that the missing dagger had caused another problem.
Rand had not met Elayne.