Aram had gone his own way, without announcing his plans. It was typical of him, and typically funny that he hadn’t even told Contro where he was going, or even said thankyou for all the days and weeks he’d spent lying on Contro’s bed, just swelling up and changing into funny colours and making awful break-winds. He’d just gotten up and left one day. He’d left a nasty stain on Contro’s bed, and a terrible smell that took a long time to fade, but at least he was gone.
That wasn’t all he’d left behind. He’d left all his clothes, which was really funny. Contro could just see him running around Tar Valon with no clothes on. But he guessed there would be a lot of Tinkers at the big convention, and Aram would have no trouble getting new clothes, even if he did make terrible gas sometimes. And anyway, the clothes fit Contro very nicely, even though they smelled a bit and were quite stained. Contro laughed at that, because it was typical of Tinker clothes. They were all different colours, and Aram’s were even more colourful than other Tinker clothes Contro had seen.
“It was still very funny of him to just leave!” Contro said to Cyberwollf that afternoon. “Ha ha ha!! So funny, I laughed! And anyway, it was even funnier since he was going to the Tinker convention, and that’s where we were going anyway, so there was no point in leaving us! He might as well have stayed! Ha ha ha! It was jolly mean of him, in a way. He could have showed us where to go. That’s strange that he didn’t! Aww, but he must have just forgotten! What with his gas and everything!! Gas smells funny!”
Cyberwollf lay on the floor and gnawed her bone. It was a nice bone, Contro thought. It even had a shoe on it. She didn’t say anything. She hadn’t said anything to him since they’d begun travelling together, and he didn’t suppose she would, since she was a wolf and couldn’t speak. But she’d managed to tell him a few things, by scratching the words clumsily into the dirt beside the wagon. It had taken her even longer because Contro, wishing to be helpful, had tried to guess what she was trying to say, and corrected her helpfully when it turned out she was trying to say something else. For a long time Contro had been convinced Cyberwollf was telling him her name was Cyclopatra, and had not bothered to read any more of her scrawlings until she’d bitten his gonads. That had been funny. He was still quite sure she must have made a mistake somewhere, but he decided not to comment on it any more. His crotch still hurt when he sat down too fast.
“I wonder why it’s called ‘gas’, anyway! It’s not as if it’s gas like the gas you use to cook with! Ha ha ha!! That’s funny, imagine cooking with break-winds! Ha ha ha! I wonder if I should cook something.”
Cyberwollf rolled her eyes. Contro was still quite certain she was a dog, but he had to take her word for it. The word had been WOLLFYOUDUMBCUNTWOLLFNOTDOGNOTWOLFWOLLF. It was a funny old word, that.
The next day, Contro saw that the mountains were getting bigger and bigger in front of them. “Maybe if we drive up into them a little way, we’ll be able to look down at the land and see it properly,” he said thoughtfully to Cow. “Maybe then I could look at the map I have, and compare the two, and see where we are! Ha ha ha!! Pretty simple really! Let’s go up into the mountains! Giddyup, Cow!”
They trundled up into the mountains, and passed quite close by some sort of town. There were no big white walls or any white towers, though, so Contro knew it wasn’t Tar Valon. And there were no Tinkers either. In fact, there wasn’t much of anything. It looked like there’d just been a fire of some sort. Maybe somebody had been cooking with gas, and left the gas running. Contro laughed and carried on. The mountains flattened out and he hadn’t gotten much of a look at his surroundings … but then Contro saw some bigger mountains in the distance. He was delighted. Surely, these had to be the mountains near Tar Valon!
“That’s where the convention is, Cyclopatra!” Contro exclaimed, pointing to the mountains. “Ha ha ha! Oi!! Ha ha ha! You bit me again! Are you hungry? Eat some more of that skeleton in the corner of the wagon there! Ha ha ha!! Funny, how I never saw that in there before! You should eat it, I suppose! Somebody has to! Fancy having a skeleton all this time and not knowing about it, you’d have thought Aram would have mentioned!!”
He jiggled the reins with another laugh, and Cow obediently headed towards the mountains.
It was a very strange place to have a Tinker convention, Contro decided. It really wasn’t a very nice place at all. But at least it wasn’t snowing, like he had read once. It snowed on mountains, sometimes. He was glad it wasn’t snowing. All things considered, it wasn’t very nice but it could have been a lot worse, that was for sure. He couldn’t see the surrounding land to check it with his map, either. There were too many trees. He couldn’t see Tar Valon, and began to get a bit worried that he would ride right past the convention without seeing it. Maybe he was in the wrong place after all.
But then his worries were set aside, and he knew he was in the right place. He met a big happy fellow dressed in leaves and things, it was really quite funny. Contro might have been a bit hesitant to talk to the chap, but he was the first person he’d seen in very long time, and besides – Contro was suddenly sure, surer than anything, that he’d arrived at the Tinker convention. It wasn’t anything specific, but Contro was sure.
For a start, the big leafy fellow had Found the Song.
Dr. Nick didn’t mind pulling the wagon. Most of the stock was lightweight, and the wheels were well-greased. Dr. Nick admired the handiwork, the counterweighting, and the fine weight-balance ratios, the structuring of the axle and the way it was all put together … but when they went through that deep sand, it was absolute Hell.
He’d given up asking where they were going. The first time he’d asked, he’d been clipped over the ears – it had taken seven Aielmen about ten minutes to do it properly – and told gai’shain must never talk unless commanded to do so. Other than that, he wasn’t treated badly. As long as they stayed out of the deep sand, it was really quite nice. Of course, it was hot, and unpleasantly sweaty in the white robes he’d been given … but he seemed to be up to the task.
That surprised him. He wasn’t in shape, like, at all – but he hadn’t collapsed yet. It was a source of wonderment, and not a little vindictive joy. Because Nancy Sidesaddle wasn’t doing so well. No sir, not well at all.
Shannon was trudging along beside the Aiel, his heavy woolen skirts dragging in the sand and his unshaven face beaded with sweat. He was trying to make polite conversation with the towering warriors, but his voice had failed him long since. Dr. Nick could see him from where he was, and could hear their conversation. He was amazed that he was still alive, and seemingly in better shape than Shannon … and he was pulling a wagon.
The head of the Aiel party had introduced himself as Gaul, a Shae’en M’taal of the Imran sept of the Shaarad Aiel. He had explained rather politely to Nancy Sidesaddle that the Shae’en M’taal were sometimes called “the Stone Dogs”, and were a great warrior society – the greatest in the world, if not even greater. Dr. Nick suspected Gaul was a few variables short of a quadratic equation.
He didn’t hear where their destination was, of course, but he did pick up one other important piece of information – the Aiel were searching for the Car’a’carn. He Who Comes With the Dawn.
Shannon became quite excited at that, and even stopped dragging his feet for a time. “You’re looking for Rand al’Thor,” he said urgently. “The Dragon Reborn. He’s an Aielman, like yourselves, but separated from his people at birth, born on the slopes of Dragonmount, in the, ah, Wetlands.”
“You know of this man, Nancy Sidesaddle?” Gaul demanded breathlessly. “You know of the Car’a’carn?”
“Ayuh, I do – not specifically-like, but I know generally where he lives and all,” Shannon nodded. “He was born on Dragonmount, like I were a-sayin’, to a Maiden of the Spear, I think…”
“So it is said,” another Stone Dog nodded.
“Anyhoo, he was found by a Wetlander name o’ Tam al’Thor, and taken home to get raised by him and his wife. In this little podunk village called Emond’s Field,” Shannon concluded. “I could probably show y’all where it’s at, if’n y’all had any maps o’ the Wetlands.”
“We do indeed – back at the Imran Hold,” Gaul said, poking his thumb back the way they’d come. “It is many days’ travel, but we can cover the ground quickly. This is important. We should not rush in without planning, and a Stone Dog is always careful,” he inclined his head. “We owe you a debt, Nancy Sidesaddle.”
“You want to do me a favour, then?” Shannon wiped his face.
“If we’re going back to the Hold, can I ride in the wagon?”
“That would be wise,” Gaul said. “You can not run as fast as us, and we need you there unhurt. You shall sit in the wagon and share our water, and we shall run with all speed back to Imran Hold.”
“Oh, cunt,” Dr. Nick spat.
When the tortured hole in the fabric of space gaped open in front of him, and women began racing out of it, all Vamps could think of to say was, “Well, it’s about time!”
Before he could make himself comfortable on the grass, however, and strike his most ravishing pose, he was almost trampled by four enormous, hairy giants, half again as tall as he was and – if such a thing was even possible – even better-hung. He could have wept with the unfairness of it all. The one-guy-two-women scenario he’d envisioned was suddenly tipped way out of kilter.
One of the women, a grim-faced, slender little thing in a grey dress, turned around and began hurling fireballs at random across the hillside.
“Am I getting it? Am I getting it?” she cried urgently.
“Left! Left!! Nae, my left! Ach, ye missed!” the second woman, an imposing figure with masses of curly hair and a striking spandex suit of red and blue, was clutching – yes, Vamps confirmed with glee – a silvery leash, which was connected to the little woman’s neck via a thick silver collar. Vamps grinned.
Then his grin faded. The hole in front of them was still open, though it was slowly drawing closed … too slowly. Something launched itself against the tightening opening, and jammed its head into the real world just as the rift squeezed shut. The hideous thing seemed to be some sort of … bulb. It had a mouth on the front, a big mouth full of shiny teeth and it was grinning as if this was the best fun it had ever had.
The horrible pink bulbous thing thrust itself forward, then back, then wiggled from side to side savagely, attempting to widen the portal. It thrust forward again, its grin widened, and tentrils of white saliva leaked from the corners of its mouth. It began to surge backwards and forwards rhythmically. No matter how hard it pushed, however, it could not quite get through the tiny, tight little cleft in reality. It swivelled, snapping and gnashing with the bulbous head at the end of its thick, rigid body, and smeared foamy white goo around on itself. Vamps realised it was attempting to … oh God, it was trying to … to lubricate itself.
“It canna get its bollocks through!” the big woman roared. “It’s tryin’ tae squeeze its rocks in, and its too tight! Get the fecker!” Vamps shivered in sudden discomfort. He felt cold shudders rack him, like an army of geese had just marched over his grave, and a clod of grass underneath the bizarre creature erupted in a fountain of pebbles and steam. The monster howled and surged forwards again … and again…
Suddenly, there was a tense silence. The creature froze in the very apex of its thrust, quivered violently, and its mouth pursed into an expression of intense concentration. Then it squirted a massive plume of white goo through the air over the hillside, where it splattered across Vamps’ face. Vamps heard himself scream, and then saidin was in him. He channeled, a massive fist of air clubbed down on the hideous nightmare-thing, and all of a sudden it drooped, shrunk, and withdrew. The rent in the fabric of space closed up behind it, and was gone as if it had never been.
Then they sat on the hillside and recovered their breath. Vamps held onto saidin as if it was a lifeline. It was violent and difficult, but he could manage to hold the power without it consuming him. And frankly, the filth of the taint was a whole lot nicer than the stuff that was dripping onto the shoulders of his coat.
The big curly-haired woman turned to him after a little while.
“Nice work, laddie,” she said. “Truly nice work.”
“It was nothing,” Vamps said, wiping his mouth. “He got me unawares. If I’d been really pissed he’d have been chop suey. When I cut sick on something, I really go to town. He got off easy.”
“You’re a channeler,” the small woman said suddenly. “You used the One Power.”
“Are you Aes Sedai?” he asked, then paused. “Wait. I know what you are. I know a lot of things, and not just about pleasing the opposite sex. You’re Seanchan – you’re a sul’dam, and these are Ogier. Deathwatch Ogier, perhaps?”
The sul’dam and the damane exchanged a long glance.
“Ye wouldn’t be from alt.fan.robert-jordan, would ye?” Debs asked.
“To know that much, you must be,” Janica said. “Nobody else could have known something like that, at this point in the story … unless we came even further than we were supposed to,” she stared piercingly at a spot three feet to Vamps’ left. “We might have ended up back in Seanchan, but I doubt it. You must be an alt.fanatic. What’s your name?”
“Puddin Taim,” Vamps said helplessly, feeling as if his mouth were being controlled by somebody else. “Ask me again and I’ll tell you the same.”