Moiraine and Lan returned to the inn several hours later, bearing Rand and Mat between them. Mister C of 9, Forsaken_1, Chucky, Loial, Egwene and Nynaeve were seated around the fire, chatting over port and cigars. The two women leapt to their feet and ran to the dishevelled farmboys.
“I shee you met Loial,” Rand slurred, an asinine grin on his face. “He’sh an Ogier.”
“They were at that brothel on the corner,” Lan said. “The one called Greasing the Badger.”
“Oh Rand,” Egwene said reproachfully. “How could you?”
“It wazh eashy,” Mat chipped in. “We jusht pulled off our breeshesh and it happened.”
Chucky took a puff on his cigar and raised his glass to the two boys. “You have made men of yourselves,” he said plummily. “Kudos.”
Moiraine fixed the gleeman with a poisonous glare. “What’s that you’re fucking wearing?”
“What? It’s my gleeman’s cloak.”
“Under the cunting cloak.”
Chucky lifted the cloak to reveal crushed velour. The letters TQB were monogrammed onto the lapel. “Oh this. It’s a dressing gown. There’s one in every room, compliments of the establishment – see, ‘TQB’, for ‘The Queen’s Blessing’. And you know what else? All this stuff is free,” he raised the glass again, and swirled it happily. “Salut.”
“Shut the fucking fuck up. You two, get upstairs and wash that badger oil off yourselves,” Moiraine jerked a thumb. Rand and Mat sheepishly obeyed, but Rand paused at the door.
“We met shome of your friendsh at the bordello,” he said to Loial. “They were having a whale of a time. Well, one of them wazh,” he giggled. “The othersh were jusht trying to get him to leave.”
Loial went white. “No,” he whispered. “No, they wouldn’t be so cruel. Even Elder Haman! They wouldn’t have sent Hoarni after me!”
“Who?” Forsaken_1 asked around the soggy end of his stogie. He was feeling like a Texan oil baron.
“My Erith, she has an older brother,” Loial had lurched to his feet and was pacing back and forth. His own mongrammed dressing gown came less than halfway down his thighs, and the lapels didn’t meet at the front. Chucky and Mister C of 9 had insisted he wear it anyway, lest he be banned from the Gentlemen’s Club. “And three inseparable friends. They are looking for me.”
“He wazhn’t looking for you when we shaw him,” Mat grinned.
Loial threw his port into the fire and marched over to stand in front of Moiraine. “We must leave the city at once,” he said with uncharacteristic heat, “and we must leave in absolute secrecy. I think we should take the Ways.”
“The Ways!” Moiraine cried. “Are you Ghul-damned bugshit? We’ll be killed!”
“I can guide us through the darkness,” Loial said breathlessly. “I am quite sure of it.”
Lan nudged Moiraine. “You know, you were talking about going to the Green Man,” he said, “and this would be the quickest way.”
“Creator help me, please!” Loial cried. “You do not know what Hoarni is capable of!”
“I do,” Rand sniggered.
Chucky took his cigar out of his mouth. “Mister See and I don’t want to go into the Ways,” he said deliberately.
“Pack your fucking bags,” Moiraine said decisively. “We’re going. All of us.”
“I care not if the thing was given to you by the Creator Himself – nobody covers their heads while walking the streets of Fal Dara.”
“But that’s an ancient tradition relating back to the infiltration of halfmen, and their methods of disguise. You can clearly see my eyes, and the fact that I have eyes would seem to imply that I am not Shadowspawn.”
“Chucky, take off the stupid hat.”
Chucky sighed bitterly. “I made this hat myself.”
“It shows. What is it anyway?” Mister C of 9 pulled the hat off Chucky’s head and peered at it through his sunglasses.
“Leatherleaf with braided grass bindings, a gleeman-cloak motif decoration in coloured cloth and this here,” he pointed to the brim proudly, “is genuine Tairen lace.”
“That’s girly. Where did you get it anyway?”
“An Ogier in Caemlyn gave the lace to me as part of a promotion, but I made the rest myself.”
Loial, at the back of the gathering, shifted his enormous feet. “That was not an Ogier. That was a pair of merchants dressed up as an Ogier.”
“Whatever it was, that’s some fine handcraft. And they want me to throw it away.”
Rand turned from his excited study of the city. “They don’t want you to throw it away,” he said reasonably, “they just want you to take it off. For now. Come on Chucky, let’s get as far away from that Waygate as we can, and get inside this mint city here. Look at it.”
Chucky had to admit that he’d be happier if the Waygate was far behind them. All things considered, it hadn’t been all that harrowing, but some of the things they’d seen had been disturbing. The constant tension of knowing what was going to happen next had drained Chucky’s strength, and when they were attacked by neither trollocs nor Machin Shin, the unexpectedness of it had left him off-balance. In the end, they hadn’t actually encountered anybody, and when they arrived at the Fal Dara gate, the key-leaf had not been missing as it had been in the book. And Mister C of 9’s endless games of ‘I spy, with my little eye’ had almost been the end of him.
“It’s not mint,” the gleeman snapped. “It’s even worse than the other places we’ve been to. It’s a town of hillbillies in the north of nowhere, rednecks and hicks and country types. Didn’t you ever see Deliverance?”
“No. What’s a Deliverance?”
Chucky took off his hat and sighed. “It’s a story. I’ll tell it to you one day.”
The large crowd of travellers made their way peacefully into Fal Dara. Chucky paused at the gates and watched in outrage as Mister See the gleeman apprentice passed without so much as a cavity search. C of 9 grinned at Chucky from behind his dark sunglasses.
“That’s so unfair!” he hissed as the myrddraal stepped past him. “My eyes weren’t even covered, and I had to de-hat myself. You’ve got … got those things on, and they let you past.”
“Maybe it’s a matter of good taste.”
“Maybe you should shut up about taste, Mambo boy.”
They were taken straight to the keep, where they were greeted in person by Ingtar and Lord Agelmar. Agelmar was delighted to have an Aes Sedai under his roof, though his happiness faded somewhat when Moiraine began to talk.
“No I am not going to fucking win your war for you,” she snapped. “You want me to hike up to bumfuck nowhere and sit in a cleft in the rock, blasting the shit out of trollocs? What are you, an infant? Kill the big ornery cunts yourself.”
Lord Agelmar soldiered on bravely. “There are more trollocs and fades in the Blight this year than there have been since the Trolloc Wars, mistress Sedai. We meet them at Tarwin’s Gap, but our forces are depleted, and we fear we may not be able to hold them. Relief from the other Borderland nations has been slow to come, and lacking in numbers-”
“Shut the fuck up. We’re not coming to the fight with you. We’re going into the Blight to deal with this shit once and for all. You should be fucking thanking us.”
“Will you at least let us send some men with you – a thousand or so, for your safekeeping?” Ingtar asked. Moiraine rolled her eyes.
“We’ll be too busy to babysit your cadets, Ingtar. It’s the Blight we’re going to, not a Ghul-damned barn dance. They’ll just be in the way, as bloody usual.”
Chucky leaned over to Mister C of 9, and pointed to Ingtar. “Boromir,” he said quietly.
C nodded sagely. “Does he screw things up by betraying us?”
“Not too badly. We might as well let him get on with it.”
“What’s the One Ring in this analogy? Moiraine?”
“The Eye of the World.”
“Ahh. An Eye, of course. Let me guess – it’s some sort of reservoir of enormous power, made thousands of years ago and imbued with the might of long-dead magicians, so that even when their magic was lost, their power could be retrieved at need, so they would never truly die.”
“And it was hidden from the eyes of men, lest the powers of evil find it and twist it to their own sinister purposes.”
Forsaken_1 had seated himself by the fire. Lord Agelmar glanced across at him a little distastefully.
“Are you sure that it is wise to take a Questioner with you on this quest?” he asked. “Their mistrust of all things relating to the One Power is well-known.”
“He’s been useful to us,” Lan said firmly. Lord Agelmar nodded his acceptance, and Forsaken_1 picked something out of his left ear with a pinky finger.
“Look at that,” he said, “that’s almost pure wax, baby,” he noticed everybody was watching him. “What?”
“When do you leave?” Agelmar asked.
It had been almost a week, as near as Janica could calculate, and she was now convinced that they were utterly lost. The four Ogier accompanying them on their journey through the Ways were unwilling to admit it, but they obviously couldn’t read the signposts. The group they were meant to be following were long gone, and the Ogier had changed their tactics. No longer worried about reaching the Fal Dara Waygate, they were now just trying to find any Waygate, anywhere, and get out of the Ways while they still could.
The perpetual darkness, the howling sounds of distant winds and beasts, and the dead, wasted coldness of the place were beginning to bring all four of the Ogier out in a serious case of premature Longing. Hoarni himself, who had had the Longing since setting foot outside of stedding Shangtai, was becoming quite inconsolable. Debs and Janica, of Scotland and Finland respectively, found the environment almost cosy, but there were other problems to consider. Not the least of which was their new ‘guide’.
“Snapping in my head, snapping and curling they are, yes, yes, gnawing and pulling at me, it hurts, he hurts me so, al’Thor, must kill al’Thor, must serve him, yes, no…” Padan Fain sounded like a phone-sex worker on acid. He had caught the sul’dam, damane and their Ogier escort just as they were working out how to get into the Waygate in Caemlyn. They were looking in vain for the Avendesora leaf, which it seemed Moiraine had moved when she went through. The terror-stricken Ogier were no help, and Debs had been about to give up when the skinny peddler had stepped out of the shadows and opened the gate with creepy ease. Since then, he had accompanied them.
“Say summat useful, or shut up,” Debs snapped. “I thought ye could track him.”
“According to this signpost, we are heading for the Wifflestork Waygate,” Wyse said, kneeling beside a weathered old column. The darkness pressed close, and Fain gibbered.
“Where’s Wifflestork?” Janica asked the Ogier.
“I have absolutely no idea.”
“In my head, my head, it swells and I hate him so, I hate them all, must die, must kill, must live and kill and die.”
“This skinny shite’s beginnin’ tae piss me off.”
Janica stepped as close to Fain as the a’dam would allow. She had found that being close to the peddler brought her neck out in a nasty chilly ache, which grew worse the closer she got – it probably had something to do with his Shadar Logoth side, or perhaps his deep immersion in the Dark One. She had long since stopped trying to reason with him, but she found that standing close was acutely discomforting to him as well, so she did it whenever she wanted his attention. “Where are you leading us, Padan Fain? Rand al’Thor is in Fal Dara, not Wifflestork.”
The ever-present taint in the Ways may also have been having an effect on everybody – Janica hadn’t embraced saidar since that first time, when she’d tried to make a light to see by, and had ended up bringing into being a flock of highly unpleasant, phosphorescent bat-beetles. They had attacked Debs incessantly, until Fain had reached out, grabbed one, and eaten it. Then the rest had flapped away, saying “Sumbitch! Sumbitch!” in reedy, stressful voices. Fain had spent a while asking Janica to “do it again, great lady” in wheedling tones, but had eventually given up. Janica wasn’t very fond of the feeling of the taint, which seemed to affect even the female side of the Source in the Ways.
Fain’s eyes were glazed, but he looked down at Janica when she moved close. He shuffled away, but was close to the edge of the island, and didn’t want to risk plummeting into the dark infinity. “Al’Thor,” he said. “In my head, in his head, him and the others, Lews Therin … ahh, Lews Therin, he’s dead, I’m dead, we’re dying in here.”
Coarshus moaned unhappily.
“Have to find al’Thor, the Great Lord sent me, boiled me down, distilled me, made me His hound, have to go to the place al’Thor went … it’s this way,” Fain pointed back the way they had come. “This way, great lady.”
“Feckin’ Heel,” Debs muttered.
“Why were we going that way, then?” Janica demanded, pointing past the signpost and the narrow bridge that stretched into the darkness, towards the mysterious Waygate at Wifflestork. Fain giggled and began to sidle away from the damane, back the way they had come. “He’s as crazy as a loon.”
They accompanied Fain back into the shadows.
Behind them, up the Wifflestork road, a small band of trollocs caught their scent and followed.
Behind them, attracted by the hated presence of Shadar Logoth in which Padan Fain was soaked, the Black Wind stirred itself. There had been many visitors to the Ways in recent months, but none of them had had such an interesting aroma.