Rand, Mat and Perrin loved the story of Tarwin’s Last Stand, as told by Chucky the gleeman.
“Tell that last bit again!” Rand exclaimed.
“The bit about the gold,” Mat supplied.
Chucky grinned. “Oh, that. Well, according to popular myth, Tarwin Lannister shat gold. But when he died, he gave lie to that particular story. It seems he shat shite like all the rest of us.”
The farmboys laughed and clapped one another on the back. Perrin hunched himself over in his saddle and pretended, artlessly, to be the heroic Imp Tyrion. Moiraine and Nynaeve looked sour.
“Tarwin did not die on the toilet,” Moiraine said. “He did not make his famous Final Stand with his breeches around his ankles, and he most certainly did not soil himself as he fucking died.”
“And his name was Tywin, anyway,” Mister C of 9 grunted.
“You’re an apprentice,” Chucky said airily, waving Mister See’s objections away. “What would you know about Tarwin’s Gap?”
“Tell us about Tyrion’s brother and sister again,” Rand urged. “That bit was mint.”
“We want details,” Mat added.
Chucky was saved by Lan, who had returned from his ranging and was looking tired and miserable. His hangover had not faded quite as he had expected it to, and Chucky was vindictively glad of it. “There’s a lot of activity up ahead,” he said, gesturing to the foothills somewhere above. All was invisible under the thick canopy of diseased trees. “The Blight is crawling. I’ve never seen it like this before.”
“We’ll have to camp,” Moiraine decided. “The Green Man will be found up in the high passes, and we’re not going to get that far today. I’ll set wards,” she spared her warder a glance loaded with distaste. “Do you think you can keep your nose out of the wineskin long enough to find us a decent spot?”
“I’ll find you a decent spot,” Lan muttered, and spurred Mandarb away again.
“I heard that!” Moiraine shouted.
They finally made camp, and Chucky, Mister C of 9, and Forsaken_1 settled down in front of the fire while Perrin, Rand and Mat hobbled the horses, Egwene and Nynaeve started preparing a meal, and Moiraine swore and fumed her way through making invisibility wards around the campsite.
“What’s the matter?” Forsaken_1 asked nervously when Moiraine let fly with a vicious string of talk that would make a sailor cover his face.
“Saidar‘s all fucked up,” Moiraine snarled. “I can’t get it to do what I want. It’s like the Ways all over again, but worse. And when it does do what I want, it’s so fucking weak a myrddraal could piss through it. Every time I try to strengthen the wards, something else happens instead. See, this time it started a little fire. It’s like it isn’t even me doing the weaving.”
“Don’t know what to tell you,” Forsaken_1 said apologetically.
“Just shut the fuck up and let me concentrate, you mouthy cunt.”
The next morning, they headed north before dawn. Moiraine pressed them hard, hoping to reach the passes before dark. Lan pointed out the dangerous plants and animals to them as they went – it was more or less every living thing.
Chucky and Mister C shared a nostalgic look. It reminded them of home.
Behind them, sounds began to erupt from the rotting vegetation. Lan identified the noises as Jumara.
“Very dangerous,” he said bleakly. “And if they have our scent, we can kiss our horses goodbye.”
Later on in the afternoon, the weird fluting calls of the Jumara grew more intense. It sounded as though their number had suddenly doubled, and they began drawing a lot closer. The party pushed their horses to a gallop. Chucky, Forsaken_1 and Mister C of 9, who were inexperienced horsemen at best, would have been left behind had the three farmboys not refused to leave them.
“I want to hear how the story ended,” Perrin admitted. “I want to know what Tyrion the Imp did next.”
“Hey, you and me both,” Chucky puffed, slipping sideways in his saddle. “Jesus, my ass hasn’t been this sore since high school.”
Forsaken_1 spared him a narrow, dubious glance.
Suddenly, just when it seemed that the Jumara would catch them after all, there was a tremendous roaring explosion from behind. The twittering of the dreaded creatures shifted to agonised wails.
“Ach!” a voice roared. “Cop tha’, Jimmy! Ye wan’ some? Dae ye? See you, Wormie, begorrah!”
There was a great deal of crashing and yowling in the undergrowth, and several more titanic explosions. Then silence. The riders exchanged a fearful glance.
“What was that?” Forsaken_1 demanded. “Some other, larger, more terrifying creature, that eats Jumara for breakfast? What’s the name of this one?”
“Buggered if I know, Child Foreskin,” Lan admitted, his face as pale as limestone. “Buggered if I know.”
“It’s really quite good.”
“Ah seed noo.”
“She said no,” Janica sighed and watched as Frendli ripped off another strip of dark, stringy flesh. The remains of the final Worm was slung over his shoulder like a leather bedroll. Wyse had reported it tasted a little like draghkar.
Journeying in the Blight with four Ogier had seemed like a good idea. They knew which way to go, they knew the land and even in this tortured environment, there were no better at woodcraft. They made their camps safe, and never failed to warn the sul’dam and her damane about approaching dangers. But they had enormous appetites. As they followed Moiraine’s party through the corrupted forest, it seemed to Janica as if the four Ogier had eaten everything in their path. Debs would deal with the dangers using Janica’s power, and then the Ogier would take over. It was almost frightening.
“Anyway, we should almost be there,” Janica added. “And hopefully we can eat some real food in the Green Man’s garden.”
Frendli had finished the Worm, and had rather apologetically sung himself a tobacco plant for afters, when they came to the expansive region of healthy green vegetation. There was nobody to be seen, but horse tracks led straight across the well-tended lawn towards the spreading branches of an enormous tree. Cautiously, they stepped out of the Blight and into the sanctuary of the Green Man.
There was a small showdown going on near a building that looked a little bit like a temple. Janica couldn’t see, but she recognised some of the voices, or at least what they were saying. Moiraine’s script seemed to include a good deal more swearing than would seem entirely necessary, but she was obviously challenging the Forsaken. The newcomers hid behind some shrubbery.
“There’s ants on me,” Frendli said in an Ogier whisper. Debs shushed him furiously.
“Get ready,” Janica said, eyes closed and listening to what was being said. “Moiraine’s about to start fighting with one of them, and we have to channel a big hole in the ground with flames. As far as I can recall. We’ll do it the way we settled on at the campsite, alright? No more hitting and missing. Wait until she tries to do whatever it is she’s doing, and then copy her weaves exactly. Only at maximum power, not stilled-and-Healed power.”
“Alreet,” Debs said, and peeped through the bushes. “Who’s tha’ scunner?”
“You’re asking me? What does he look like?”
“He’s tall, dressed in black, and he’s got a dark red cloak. Ach, his eyes … that’s Ishamael!”
Wyse moaned softly.
“Ishamael?” Janica frowned. “That’s not right. Are the other two Forsaken there?”
“Seem tae be. Yep, there’s the old guy and the guy in the gimp mask, sure enough. But they’re all standing together at the entrance tae that temple.”
“That must be where the Eye is,” Janica said. “Could they have gotten here first? Aginor and Balthamel were meant to die, and then Rand was supposed to fight Ishamael.”
“Moiraine’s facing all three o’ them,” Debs reported. “I danna think we can channel enough to fix ’em up.”
“Maybe if we surprise them…” Janica said, “burn one of them, at least…”
“What is it?”
“Rand’s stepped up, he’s telling them something about bein’ … bein’ trussed, or somethin’. Trussed? Is he offering himself up as a hostage? Ach, nae, he’s got an axe. Moiraine is tryin’ tae pull him away, but he’s nae gooin’.”
“Why doesn’t he channel?” Janica frowned.
Rand stood resolute.
“You shall not harm my friends!” he said in his best Druss voice. He could vaguely hear people around him, shouting and tugging at him, but in the Void he could barely feel it. They were in another universe. There was only the flame, and Snaga. It was actually Perrin’s axe, but he’d slipped it out of his friend’s saddlebag that morning. “Go back to Shayol Ghul, you Shadowspawn whoresons!”
Ba’alzamon seemed unaccountably amused. “Druss, now are you? Fucking sweet.”
Rand felt the Eye pulling at him, like some great ocean encapsulated in a single teardrop. It called and crooned. Ba’alzamon stood before him with eyes of fire. His smile was mocking.
“Go on, Lews Therin,” he said darkly. “Take it. Embrace the Eye of the World, Druss. Go on, pussy. I dare you.”
Rand reached out. A great surge of power filled him, making him drunk, making him invincible. Suddenly Ba’alzamon, and the others, looked very small and frightened. Rand laughed. He was bursting with Power.
Ba’alzamon’s hand came out from under his cloak. It was holding a little bronze bell.
He jingled it.
The Void fled. The power vanished. Rand was suddenly, unaccountably distraught, and utterly confused. He suddenly seemed to see a room full of beautiful women, flickering and altering and vanishing before his eyes, as the bell jingled and his thoughts scattered to the wind.
Ba’alzamon’s other hand came out from under his cloak.
Debs saw Rand stagger and blink as if dazed, and when she looked back at Ishamael, it was just in time to see the shotgun kick in his hand. Janica jumped as the report reached them.
“What the Hell was that?”
Debs didn’t answer. She watched in disbelief as the little puff of smoke rose into the air. In the slow motion of imagination, she saw the tightly-packed little cluster of shot boring its way through the air. She knew that with the amount of saidin Rand had access to, he could brush away the pellets as if they were nothing. He could. He would.
But he didn’t. He seemed completely lost. His face was confused, baffled…
The exit wound blasted the back of his head away in a red cloud, and the rest of his skull and face collapsed backwards onto nothing, like a popped paper bag with a comical expression of surprise drawn on the front. Then Rand al’Thor collapsed onto the grass like a sack of wet mud.
Egwene screamed. Moiraine went white. A huge tangled mass of greenery nearby, that turned out to be the Green Man, raised his arms to the sky and bellowed with fearful rage. Pandemonium ensued.
Safe behind their shrubbery, Debs and the Ogier watched in numb shock as Ishamael turned, clapped his two companions on the shoulders, and walked through a Gateway. Taking no more note of the bedlam around them, they vanished as if they had never been.
Dawn came to the Green Man’s garden. All around them, the Blight seethed furiously, stronger than ever before … but within the influence of the towering giant, all was peaceful and serene. The plants were healthy, the sky clear, and the animals friendly and carefree.
Perrin and Mat found Rand’s body near the entrance to the Eye, and Egwene uncovered Moiraine nearby. Moiraine was alive, they found after a quick consultation with Lan – alive, but terribly weakened. Rand was quite thoroughly dead. Sorrowfully, Nynaeve performed final rites over what remained of the body, and they buried him beneath the spreading branches of the Green Man’s great oak tree. Chucky hesitantly suggested he play Amazing Grace for the passing, and Moiraine mustered up the strength to tell him to go fuck himself.
Forsaken_1 kicked irritably at a friendly, carefree bunny rabbit that was trying to use his shoe as a toilet. He wasn’t aware of the story to a great degree, but he knew something was happening that shouldn’t be. Even Chucky looked troubled. Loial sang a quiet, mournful song, and a strange sapling sprang up over Rand’s grave. Mister C of 9 asked the Green Man if he had any Ent-draught to restore their strength and courage, but the Green Man simply gave him a blank look.
Mat returned from his exploring. “The building is empty,” he reported. “There was a deep, round pool in the middle, but whatever was in it, it’s gone now.”
Distraught as Moiraine was, this news seemed to upset her even more.
“These are dark times,” the Green Man said solemnly, “and I see no end to them. I shall be waiting here, as I always have, but it may be that none of you will be able to find me again. I wish you well in what is to come.”
It was a dejected party that returned to Fal Dara, but fortune was with them as far as the Blight went – although it was noisome and unpleasant as always, they were not attacked by anything.
“The Green Man has left his mark on us, for as long as it might last,” Lan said. “We need not fear the Blight.”
“Until next winter, when it’ll spread south to the gates of Tar fucking Valon,” Moiraine muttered.
So it was with great surprise that they arrived at Fal Dara and found a frenzied celebration going on. Even Moiraine was too shocked to speak. Grim-faced Bordermen were squealing and cartwheeling in the streets, ale was flowing like water, and Lord Agelmar presided over the hooting masses with a benign smile on his face and a pair of chain-mail underpants on his head.
“We won a great victory at Tarwin’s Gap!” he announced over the cheering. “We faced the trollocs and turned them back! What can I say – we had the Creator on our side.”
“That’s, uh, good,” Moiraine managed. She was so weakened by her ordeal that she had been unable to mount her horse, and had suffered the trip back to civilisation on a litter slung between Mandarb and Bela. “You won.”
“Had it been a matter of simple swords, we would never have prevailed,” Ingtar said from Agelmar’s shoulder, “but thankfully, two Aes Sedai arrived in the nick of time, and saved us all.”
“Aes Sedai? What were their names?” Moiraine demanded.
“Ah, they thought you would ask that, Mistress,” Lord Agelmar said. “There was a large, overbearing one who named herself Cadsuane, and a smaller lady by the name of Verin. Are they familiar to you?”
Moiraine relaxed. “They are indeed,” she said. “I am glad they reached the Gap in time. Are they still here? I would speak with them.”
“Oh no, they left already, with their Ogier escort. Verin said they had important work to do.”
“They were with Ogier?” Loial asked nervously.
“Yes indeed – four of them. They mentioned that they would have liked to see you, Master Loial, but they regretted that they had to move on swiftly. But the Borderlands appreciate Tar Valon’s support, as always. The world owes the Aes Sedai a great debt.”
“Fuckin’ A,” Moiraine leaned back in her litter. “Lan, don’t even think about drinking.”
Lan’s face froze. “I never.”
After the battle, Debs and Janica headed southwest, with their group of Ogier carrying the luggage. Janica was worried, Debs furious, the Ogier sorely confused.
Finally, Debs called a halt.
“We’re fecked!” she growled, gesturing to Wyse to throw down his burden. “The Dragon’s deed, Ishamel’s aleeve and so’re Aginor and Balthamel, Moiraine canna light a candle wi’ her poo’er, and the Dark One’s more poo’erful than ever! What’re we gonna dae?”
Janica sat down on the huge golden chest. “This need not be a complete disaster,” she said. “We still won the battle at Tarwin’s Gap, which means the Forsaken aren’t at full strength. And who’s to say the Dragon’s dead?”
“Ye did’nae see him. His hid got blown off.”
“Rand’s head did, yes,” Janica patted the chest. “But we’ve got the Dragon Banner, and the Horn of Valere. All we really need to do is find a man who can channel, and preferably a ta’veren as well … and he can be the Dragon.”
“Ye’re talkin’ aboot raisin’ a false Dragon,” Debs whispered. “It’ll never work.”
“Logain? Mazrim Taim? All the other false Dragons? Rand was the Dragon!”
“He was. But now he’s dead. And there has to be a Dragon. Those others were false Dragons because the real Dragon was around – he’s not now. So who’s to say those false Dragons aren’t the real thing?”
“Logain could be the real Dragon?” Debs mused.
“He could be – as long as we get to him before he’s gentled.”
Debs hefted the immense chest, and Janica, into the air. “Let’s git goin’, then!”
Contro laughed aloud.
“Ha ha ha ha! Trust you, Aram! Can you read maps? I don’t think so, because they’re pictures! You can’t read pictures! Ha ha ha! Mind you, there’s all these little names, I guess they count as reading, if you read them! Ha ha ha! Funny that! There’s all these pictures, and yet these little words are there and so it’s called ‘reading’! Well, where are we then?”
Aram didn’t say anything. He just lay on Contro’s bed and made that horrible smell. It was quite rude to say the least. Contro shook his head and laughed fondly. Aram was so funny. And he had funny white things in his eyes. Contro laughed about that too – he seemed to recall somebody in the stories having things in his eyes, and it meant he was using magic of some sort. Maybe Aram was using magic to smell so bad. It was a funny thought. Fancy using magic to smell bad.
“Well, we can’t be far from Tar Valon now!” Contro had located the little ‘Tar Valon’ dot on the map that Raen had given to him, and it was only a few inches away from the ‘Caemlyn’ dot. So they couldn’t be far away. There was even a little mountain near Tar Valon, called ‘Dragonmount’, which was a funny name for a mountain. Contro had seen a mountain earlier that afternoon, and had headed towards it. Of course, in real life and not on the map, it had been a whole line of mountains, but they had to be the one called ‘Dragonmount’, because even Contro knew that mountains were always packed together in a line, not standing by themselves. “Soon we’ll be at the big Tinker convention, and we’ll do something about your eyes and your hair and your gas! Ha ha ha!!”
Aram didn’t say anything. Another clump of his hair fell out.
Contro went back outside, waved the reins aimlessly, and clucked Cow to hurry himself along if he wanted to. They were in woods now, but the mountains couldn’t be far. And from there, Tar Valon!