Strangely enough, it was Contro who found Aram’s body.
The Tinkers had begun to move again – Contro noticed they never stayed in one place for very long, which was good in a way, since it meant they would never get tired of the scenery, and they would never be in one place long enough to have a set address, which was also good because Contro always found that you could get lost easily if you were trying to find a set address, so in a way it was less confusing to have no particular place to go to. As long as you stayed with the group, that was – that way, you couldn’t get lost, because there was nowhere specific to go. Contro liked following.
Because of his skill at the Looking for the Song game, though, Contro had been asked to travel on the edge of the caravan, where he could talk to anybody who came their way. There were a lot of little villages north of Caemlyn, apparently, and people in them were very interested in talking about the Song. Or so Raen said. He was awfully kind about it, too – he never sent any of the other Tinkers out to where Contro was, to try and hog his job. To tell the truth, Contro had to keep moving very fast in his little wagon, in order to keep up with the rest of the caravan – they were moving along very fast indeed. Raen said there was trouble in Caemlyn, and that if Contro got left behind by accident, he should meet up with them when they stopped at the big Tinker convention. When he asked Raen where that was, Raen had had to go off and ask some of the other Tinkers, which made Contro laugh. Fancy a Mahdi not knowing where the big Tinker convention actually was! Honestly! He was leading them towards it at a tremendous rate of knots, but he had no idea where it really was. That was very funny to Contro. Finally, Raen had returned and told Contro that the convention was just outside Tar Valon, and if he should get accidentally left behind by the main group, they would surely find him there. He stressed the fact that they would be moving very fast and in zig-zags, so not to worry too much about anything, because it might be very difficult for him to keep up his Searching for the Song and keep up with the caravan at the same time. Contro was quite sure he’d have no problems, because he was good at Searching for the Song, and people always told him it was very difficult to lose him, even if people were trying to. Contro was good at tagging along.
But when he found Aram in a tree, he forgot about the caravan for a while. The happy young Tinker was up in a tree, swinging on a rope. It looked like tremendous fun, and Contro would have joined him, but he had no rope. Aram didn’t talk to him, and Contro wondered if maybe he was still angry about the incident with the stick, when Contro had played the Searching for the Song game with him. He went over to Aram and shook his foot, and Aram’s leg was all squishy and smelled awful. Contro laughed. Trust Aram! Sitting up in a tree, swinging from a rope and breaking wind! Honestly!
Contro stopped laughing after a while, and began to wonder if something was wrong with his friend. He clambered up the tree and untied the rope, and Aram tumbled to the ground with a ploppy noise, and made another horrible gas. It was so funny that Contro laughed for a long time, but then he went back down the tree and approached the prone Tinker. He waved a hand in front of his face.
“Aram, honestly! Ha ha ha!” he laughed. “At least salute a magpie or something after you do that! Ha ha ha! Really!”
Aram didn’t say anything, and Contro noticed there was a wooden board hanging around his shoulders, with something written on it in charcoal. ‘THEIF’, it said. Contro didn’t understand, but it was funny. It was just the sort of thing Aram might do. And it was spelled wrong to boot!
In all the excitement, Contro had lost his caravan. That was a bit inconvenient to say the least, but he didn’t worry too much. Aram was lying around being all lazy, so Contro picked him up and put him in the back of the wagon. He saw that where he’d grabbed his friend, Aram’s body was all spongy and the impression of his arms had stayed across his tummy, which was really hilarious, or it would be if it didn’t smell so bad. The smell stayed on Contro’s hands too, so he went and washed them in a nearby creek. It was always good to be hygienic.
Then he carried on with his journey. He was glad Raen had told him where the convention was, because he had no idea where the Tinker caravan had gotten to. He didn’t know where Tar Valon was either, but he was sure he’d muddle it out in the end. He knew it would be a big convention when he got there, because even on that first evening, he passed close by another group of Tinkers on their way. For a minute he thought it might have been his caravan, but it turned out it couldn’t possibly have been. These Tinkers were having a big noisy party for some reason, and he hadn’t ever seen his group of Tinkers having big noisy parties. He laughed as he rode past the outskirts of the camp, seeing how much fun all the people were having. The convention at Tar Valon would be just great, if this was any indication.
Contro’s little colourful wagon went on past the campsite and on towards Tar Valon, and the next day lazy old Aram still hadn’t gotten up. Contro decided that the only thing Aram was a ‘theif’ of was the little straw bed on the floor of the wagon, which he’d been lying in all this time and making his awful break-winds all the time. But Contro didn’t mind really – it was nice to have company after so long. Somebody to ask about the Song. His little horse hadn’t known much about it, and whenever Contro asked him if he’d heard the song, he said ‘neigh’. Which was fair enough, since he was a horse, after all. It was funny the way horses said ‘neigh’. He couldn’t really expect his horse to speak anyway, of course, but it was funny to think he might one day. He was a very clever horse. Raen had given him to Contro to pull his wagon, just in case he was separated accidentally from the rest of the caravan, and Contro was glad for that now.
He had given his horse a name. He called him Cow, because that was a very funny name for a horse.
Child Foreskin, Mister See, Chucky, Perrin, Mat, Rand and Lan had all insisted on a feast to see them off. When Lord Agelmar protested feebly, Moiraine pointed out that they were all going to die anyway, so they might as well empty their fucking larders. So Fal Dara put on a splendid bash for the band of heroes, and what it lacked in atmosphere it made up for in sheer gluttony.
“I’ve never eaten roast bear before,” Chucky said around a mouthful of bleeding meat. “It’s sort of a cross between oxen and this other one, what’s this?”
“Horse,” Ingtar said coldly. “My horse.”
“It’s good. It was a good horse,” Chucky said, loading another thick steak onto his plate. “Hey, Foreskin, wanna fill my horn again, sir?”
“Horn,” Forsaken_1 sniggered, and that set the farmboys off again. Chucky clinked his drinking horn against the Questioner’s flagon of fruit juice, and quaffed mightily. Mister C of 9 sat on the opposite side of the table, a half-eaten potato on his plate and a faintly ill expression on his face as he watched the meat being brutalised.
Ingtar stormed out shortly afterwards, and the cooks brought in the ginger-glazed chickens. Loial had seven of them all by himself, and had tears in his eyes as he praised the work.
“Tsingu ma choba,” Lord Agelmar replied formally, raising his horn to the Ogier. Loial bowed his head.
“No speako dago,” Mister C of 9 muttered. “What did he say?”
“It was the Old Tongue,” Lan said. The rock-faced Warder was well on the way to becoming stinking drunk. “It meant, I am unworthy and the work is small. I didn’t know Agelmar spoke that well. Silly old sod that he is,” he glared at Chucky and grabbed at his ale-pot, managing to grasp it on the third try. “Are you ready to try again, or do you want to be a novice all your life?”
Chucky grabbed his own mug. “Let’s do it, Sitter.”
They began to drink.
Chucky had almost reached the level of Accepted in the ancient banquet game, and Lan himself was Amyrlin Seat, when Ingtar burst back into the hall. He stepped over to Lord Agelmar, and whispered in his ear. Moiraine put down her fork and beckoned him over. Ingtar looked hesitant, and shook his head. Moiraine picked up her fork and beckoned again. Ingtar went over and repeated what he’d said to his Lord.
“Two women were captured attempting to scale the walls of the keep,” he murmured. “We do not know where they came from, but we have placed them in the dungeon for safety’s sake. We think they might be Aes Sedai, but they denied it.”
Moiraine stood up, her face dark. “Stay here,” she said to the others. “I’ll deal with this.”
Forsaken_1 raised his fruit juice in salute as Moiraine stalked out of the hall. Lan blinked owlishly at the tiny Aes Sedai, then swung back to face Chucky. He swung too far and almost fell off his seat, then overcorrected and planted his ale-hand into a half-eaten chicken. He raised the mug with a cascade of crispy skin and sweet glaze.
“Ready, novish?” he slurred.
“Ahh feck, it’s Moiraine.”
Janica peered blindly into the gloom. “Is it?”
“Aye. What should we say tae her?”
“I don’t know,” Janica thought furiously. “Something similar happened in the books, you see, but it was Fain in the cells, because he’d followed Rand here. But now Fain’s not here, because you threw him off the edge of the island.”
“Ach, it was’nae my fault! Those trollocs came a’runnin’, and then the Black Wind started up. And ye saw, when I dropped him off, the Wind went after him. We’d nae be here noo if it was’nae fer me.”
Janica had no wish to start that argument again. “Anyway, that’s not important. The important thing is, Moiraine and Lan questioned Fain and found out about him … but not everything. And then they leave for the Blight the next day.”
“Aye aye, but what d’we tell ‘er?”
A blurry blue shape stopped in front of Janica. “Who the fuck are you and what are you following us for?”
“Is that Moiraine?” Janica asked in disbelief.
“Aye,” Debs said, her voice quiet and awed. “Aye, it is.”
“Answer me. Were you in the Ways?”
“We were,” Janica said, a glimmer of inspiration occurring to her. “It was the two of us following you, and it was we who kept the Black Wind and the trollocs away from you.”
“Trollocs in the Ways? You lie.”
“It’s the truth. We had a captive, a peddler – the worst Darkfriend we’ve ever seen. He has been tracking Rand, and the other two, ever since Emond’s Field … for years, he’s been following them, at the Dark One’s command. He followed you through Shadar Logoth, and was tainted by the evil that lurks there. He was our captive, but he escaped us in the Ways.”
“I suppose the Black Wind spirited this mythical Darkfriend away.”
Debs thought about the last despairing scream as Fain had plummeted into the waiting arms of Machin Shin, and the satisfied nightmare-gabble of the Black Wind as it carried him away. She shuddered. “Sort of, aye.”
“A likely story. You say you were keeping the Black Wind from our trail? How?”
“This Padan Fain, the peddler, he had a taint so strong that he … seemed to attract the Wind, and the trollocs were terrified of him. We used his power to draw the enemies from your trail,” Janica sighed. “You don’t have to believe us, but it’s the truth. We mean no harm to your mission.”
“There’s something you’re not telling me. One way or another, I’ll have the truth from you. It is forbidden, but what I do, I do for the good of the entire world.”
Debs felt the clumsy weaves settling over her, lattice over lattice, and knew what it meant. “It’s Compulsion!” she cried, and reached through the a’dam, through Janica, and wielded the One Power desperately.
There was a scream, a thump, and then silence.
“Oh God,” Janica murmured, feeling saidar flee as Debs swore, fumbled, and lost the Source. “Debs, you’ve stilled her.”
Lan awoke, licked the dusty taste out of his mouth with a tongue like sandpaper, and then opened his eyes.
“Never again,” he said. “Till shade is gone, till water is gone, into the Shadow with teeth bared, screaming give me a Ghul-damned drink, for the love of the Creator…” he dug at his ear, and produced a gnawed piece of turnip. “Oh no, I did the Festival of the Roots…”
Across the table, a platter of half-eaten pudding splashed onto the floor and revealed Chucky, his gleeman’s cloak folded up and slung over his shoulders as a makeshift Amyrlin’s stole. “Penance,” he mumbled. “I am Druss, you shall do penance, send her to the Farm…”
“Damn you, gleeman,” Lan rasped, climbing to his feet. “Damn you thrice. It’s been seven years since Moiraine last cut my bond for overindulging, and I swore it would never have to happen again.”
“She cuts your bond?” Chucky frowned, the pudding in his eyebrows squishing together.
“She’s only done it a few times, and she always re-establishes it again after the hangover,” Lan stepped away from the table and almost tripped over Loial. “Big unconscious bastard…”
“But you’re not suicidal?” Chucky also stood up, wincing at the bright rays of sunshine from the arrow slits.
“I wish I was dead. Does that count?” He suddenly brightened. “Well, there’s a turnup. She re-bonded me already. I feel so much better,” he straightened, and pulled a few swordfighting poses to limber up. Chucky muttered a discouraging word. “She’s on her way up from the dungeons, I don’t doubt she’ll have a few choice words to say to us all.”
A side door to the banquet hall crashed open, and Forsaken_1 jogged in. He’d tucked his white robe up into his jeans for the sake of his morning constitutional. “Good morning, all!” he yodelled. “Hope we’re all well!” Forsaken_1 was one of those people who drank fruit juice while everybody else drank ale, and ended up having as good as night as anybody, with the added benefit of feeling great the next day as well. He high-knee jogged up to the head of the banquet table, and did a few star jumps. It was, of course, a ruse – of the whole party, it was possible that only Chucky and Mister C of 9 hated physical exercise more than Forsaken_1. But he had to do it to rub in how bad everybody else felt. “It’s a lovely day outside. Brisk!”
“Damn you, Child Foreskin,” Lan growled. “Just when I was beginning to feel okay.”
The side door banged open again, and Mister C of 9 strode into the hall with a wide white smile and unreadable black sunglasses. “Ahhhh, good-”
“Shut the fuck up,” Chucky snapped. “If one more person-” another door boomed wide. “Right, that’s it,” Chucky spun. “You inconsiderate cun…”
Moiraine raised one eyebrow. “Yes?”
“Muh…Muh…Moiraine?” Chucky gaped. “You…”
“Who’s that?” C of 9 lowered his shades for a better look, before realising that wouldn’t help. Fortunately, Moiraine was looking the other way. “Moiraine, is that you?”
“Who else would it be? What the fuck is your problem?”
“Moiraine,” Lan choked. “You look great.”
“Fantastic,” Forsaken_1 agreed. “I’m a happily married man, and I’ve got a chubby.”
“I’ve never seen you looking so…” Lan blinked and turned to Forsaken_1. “Did you say you were married? A Questioner?”
“Oh, ah,” Forsaken_1 froze, and a bolt of horrible creativity struck him. “Married to my thumbscrews.”
Lan turned back to his Aes Sedai. “You look twenty years younger,” he admitted. “What happened to you?”
“Get stilled?” Chucky grinned.
Moiraine looked disgruntled. “Nothing bloody happened to me. I was interrogating the captives, when they knocked me unconscious and escaped. When I came to, there was no sign of them. Somebody broke them out, right through the back wall of the fucking prison,” she nudged Loial with a toe. “Whoever it was must have been built like this cunt.”
Loial rolled over and opened his eyes. “Good morning, you pretty little thing,” he said dimly. “I don’t remember eating you.”