Almost a day’s walk south of Fal Dara, the four Ogier heard the sound of the pipes starting up. Their ears curled up in fear.
“What’s that noise?” Coarshus exclaimed.
Debs and Janica, with their human hearing, just tilted their heads and then exchanged a long-suffering look.
“I canna hear anything,” Janica said. “Can you, Debs?”
“Nae,” Debs asserted. “Nothin’.”
“It’s the Dark One and His Hounds, the Great Hunt has begun!” Frendli wailed. “They shall come for us with their burning eyes and their rending fangs, hear the howls, the wild call of the Hunter!”
“Blow the Horn!” Wyse jumped up and scrambled for the great golden chest. “Blow the Horn!”
“Fer the last feckin’ time, nae cunt’s gonna blow this feckin’ Horn!” Debs yelled. “Ye Ogier’re hopeless! Ye canna leet the fire, ach, blow the Horn! Ye canna put yer tents up, ach blow the Horn! Ye fall doon in the river an’ get wet pants, ach, blow the Horn! Ye feckin’ babbies!”
The Ogier hung their great heads.
“Anyway, we can’t hear a thing,” Janica said more kindly. “If the Dark One was hunting tonight, we’d probably hear something, don’t you think?”
“It’s stopped now,” Wyse confessed. “Now there’s just a lot of crashing and banging and shouting. It sounds like a battle.”
“Probably from Tarwin’s Gap still,” Coarshus proposed. “They were still cleaning up a lot of … um, leftovers when we left.”
“That’s some hearin’ you boys got,” Debs admitted grudgingly. “I bet ye could hear an ant commin’.”
She winced as soon as she’d said it, but Hoarni was already grinning.
“Anybody can hear an ant coming,” he said suggestively. “If you know what to listen for.”
“Let’s all get some sleep,” Janica said hurriedly. “We’ve got a long way to go tomorrow, and we don’t dare channel this close to Fal Dara. Maybe when we get a bit further south, we can do a bit of a walk in Tel’aran’rhiod, to get closer to Tar Valon … but again, we can’t get too close that way. The city’s full of Aes Sedai. So we’ve got to walk it. We’ll be better off if we rest.”
Hoarni subsided with a rumbling chuckle, and a wicked glance at Debs that the sul’dam tried to ignore.
The next morning, matters had gotten worse.
“Riders coming this way,” Wyse reported when he’d returned from his morning ranging. “They could be following us, but it doesn’t look as though they are. They’re just … galloping away from Fal Dara as fast as they can.”
“Dammit,” Janica said, “it must be the group who’s looking for the Horn. I thought we’d have a few days on them, but they evidently decided to leave early. Or it could be the Aes Sedai, heading for Tar Valon. Either way, we can’t let them find us.”
“Blow the Horn!” Coarshus whispered.
“Don’t make me come over there,” Janica snapped warningly.
Hoarni grinned. “Don’t make me come over here.”
Debs sighed. “C’mon, ye big jessies. Pull yer boots on and follow me.”
“Where are we going?” Janica asked as Debs tugged on the a’dam.
“Cross-country,” Debs replied grimly. “Cross-country.”
With the ringing, crashing modum-noise fading in his not-inconsiderable ears, Dr. Nick sat up groggily. Loose yellow sand burned underneath him, and the sun blazed cruelly in the sky. His pasty white skin began to burn straight away, and he winced as he climbed to his feet.
“What the fuck?” he muttered to himself. “This isn’t a city. This is a, what do you call it, desert,” he was an engineer. Outdoor environments were things that happened to other people. “Man, it’s hot. No airconditioning. If I start to sweat, I’ll get the guys in the cubicle next door all pissed off again. Oh wait … no cubicles. That’s good. No airconditioning. That’s still bad.”
He was pleased to find he was wearing light, shade-giving clothing, and even a floppy head-scarf he could wrap around his face. He did so, and then took another look around. He was still in the desert. Away to one side, there were some towering lumps of flat-topped rock that might have been mountains or hills or whatever they were called, but in every other direction there was just sand dunes. And that was all, apart from the wagon.
Dr. Nick cautiously stepped towards the silent, colourful thing. It seemed to be completely deserted. There were no horses attached to the bit that was meant to have horses on it. There were big bolts and tangles of colourful cloth and tacky polished-stone jewellery lying around in the wagon bed, and in the middle of it all was the prone figure of … well, a person at least.
The merchant sat up slowly, groaning. “Good God,” a very comforting American accent emerged from the tangle of hair and coloured twine. “What’s that freakin’ noise?”
Dr. Nick stared at the merchant, trying to decide whether he was looking at a man or a woman. The voice was male, and there was a definitely male vibe about the rest of the individual … but it had boobies. Dr. Nick couldn’t drag his eyes away from those. They were objectively great boobies.
The merchant was looking around blearily, and when he pushed the mat of coloured string out of his hair Dr. Nick had to accept that he was actually a ‘he’. Not even a fat chick could be that ugly – which isn’t to say the merchant was ugly, given that he was a man … but…
Dr. Nick stamped down on the wandering thought savagely – that was cubicle meandering, and it was a sure path to cubicle madness. He knew a British guy on the Internet who thought like that, and that was weird because Contro didn’t even have a cubicle job. In fact, Contro was here somewhere, wasn’t he? In this role-playing environment dealie? Perhaps he’d wandered into the desert and died.
“Who are you?” Dr. Nick spoke up bravely. He patted down his weird clothes, and didn’t find anything he could use as a weapon. There were three sticks tied across his back, with points on the end, but he wasn’t a savage. A good complaint form would soon see this female he-merchant on his way, if only he could find a complaint form. Maybe he could bluff his way out of this with a threat of union action.
The merchant turned around, and jumped to his feet when he saw Dr. Nick standing there. “Oh holy fuck, it’s an Aiel. I come in peace. I got lost and, erm, am I in the Aiel Waste?”
“Your guess is as good as mine, buddy. You’re from the States.”
“You’re from alt.fan,” the merchant said excitedly. “Who are you? I’m Shannon.”
“I should have known from the space-titties. I’m Dr. Nick.”
“I should have known from the shape under your shoufa.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Dr. Nick groped for a complaint form.
“Nothin’, just razzin’ ya. How did you get to be an Aiel? I didn’t see that option on the entry form when I filled it out. I just picked ‘Merchant’ because it was the best of the shitty alternatives. ‘Farmer’ was lame, and ‘Soldier’ was too much trouble.”
Dr. Nick had chosen ‘Farmer’, because he thought there was something magical about men who could somehow produce food without a vending machine. But there was no way he’d admit that to Shannon. “I picked ‘Merchant’ as well,” he said. “I don’t know how I ended up as an Aielman.”
“I guess these dudes’re your friends?”
Dr. Nick spun around, one hand suddenly clutching one of his sticks. It had moved and grabbed and pointed without him even thinking about it. Rather a neat move, too. The Aiel standing silently around the wagon were all bristling with spears, and their faces were invisible behind big head-hankies. Dr. Nick slowly, prudently, lowered his own, and uncovered his face. A hot, lonely desert breeze caught his ears and momentarily staggered him.
The tallest, most massive man Dr. Nick had ever seen stepped up and put his hand calmly on the engineer’s chest. Then, with a deft motion of his other hand, he grabbed all of Dr. Nick’s spears and took them away from him.
“Quite by chance, one of the wild sheep from Cold Rocks country got free from its pen, and our ranging party discovered its tracks,” he said in a soft, menacing voice. “The tracks vanished into a ravine over yonder, but we had wandered far enough from our set course that we just happened to see you on the horizon. If it had not been for that sheep, you might have died out here without seeing another living man.”
“Well thank gumbo for that there sheep,” Shannon hyucked. “That’s some fuckity luck.”
“It surely is,” the massive Aielman said. “You are a merchant?”
“That I am.”
“You have papers?”
“Uh, you mean, for sale?”
“To prove you are a merchant. If you are not, of course, we will leave you here in the shifting sands until nothing but your bones remain, to warn other Wetlanders of the folly-”
“Oh, those papers! Yeah yeah, I got ’em,” Shannon began rummaging through the piles of crap on the bed of his wagon. Dr. Nick watched in pity. He was very glad to be among friends, and only faintly sorrowful that Shannon was in all likelihood about to get speared. “They’se here somewhere, ayuh,” he finally stumbled upon a wooden box containing a whole pile of documents. “Here you go, there’s gotta be something here.”
The giant Aielman took the sheaf of papers and looked through them.
“Nancy Sidesaddle,” he read. “Merchant of Caemlyn. Well met, woman.”
Shannon obviously thought better of replying. The Aielman had turned to his companions.
“She shall come with us back to the Hold,” he said, “and share our water and shade. She has wares we can use, and cloth of great value to our roofmistresses,” he turned back to Shannon. “Walk with us, Nancy Sidesaddle.”
Shannon climbed down from the wagon, a look of dreadful anticipation on his face. “All the way across the desert?” he said. “On foot?”
“That’s right, Nancy,” Dr. Nick grinned. “Have a nice day.”
“What about the wagon?”
The Aielman turned a huge white grin on Dr. Nick.
“This will not be a problem, Nancy Sidesaddle,” he assured the merchant. “Our new gai’shain shall pull it along.”