Someshta was delighted to hear about the Tinker convention, but regretfully informed Contro that he hadn’t seen any other party members yet.
“The last fellow I saw of your ethnic group, he was part of a big group of people who were trying to fight the Dark One,” the Green Man told them. “He was killed. But he wasn’t a Tinker, nor was he Jenn Aiel – he might have been one of those warrior Aiel, he certainly looked like one. I see them from time to time, they come into the Blight to get in fights. Were they invited to your convention?”
“Ha ha ha! I shouldn’t think so! Ha ha ha!! Funny that! They’re not Tinkers, are they?”
“Well, no, but then, you’re all Aiel,” Someshta sat down heavily, and immediately grew roots. He was funny like that. “The thing is, the warrior Aiel would never come to a big convention with your people, because they are afraid of you. They are afraid of the failure that you represent, the failure on their part. Of course,” he went on sternly, “you Tinkers failed as well.”
“I see! Ha ha ha!! No I don’t!”
“That’s why I thought it was strange that you said the convention was to be at … where did you say?”
“Tar Valon!” Contro supplied helpfully. “That’s what I was told!! Aren’t we in Tar Valon now?”
“I’m afraid we are a fair distance from Tar Valon yet, and besides, I find it very hard to believe anybody would plan a Tinker convention there,” the Green Man said thoughtfully. “Seems most unusual, considering the history you share with the Aes Sedai.”
“What history is that?”
“It has been a very long time,” the Green Man tore himself up, dusted himself off, and set out through the garden. Cybes followed him like a puppy. There was something magnetic about a stick that threw itself, and a tree that moved whenever you tried to mark it as your own territory. “I’ll explain on the way.”
“Where are we going? Tar Valon! Yay!!”
“No, I think we should go somewhere else,” Someshta said, reaching up into a giant tree and pulling down a bulky knapsack from a cleft in the branches. “It has been a long time since I travelled, and this convention of yours has sparked my interest. But I don’t think just Tinkers should be involved. I think it should be a mass meeting of all the Aiel.”
“Wow! Ha ha ha! That would be great! But then why involve me? I’m a Tinker! I think!!”
“Indeed. And so, to explain it all to you, I propose that our first stop will be Rhuidean. The great ancestral home of the Aiel, built after their exodus from the Breaking, and the place where their burden was laid to rest. The last known city of the Jenn Aiel, those who fulfilled their task and were then forgotten.”
“Rhuidean! But you said we were going to Tar Valon!!”
“No I didn’t,” the Green Man said mildly. “You did.”
“Oh!! Ha ha ha! I did? Yes, I did! That’s where the Tinker convention is!! Did I tell you about that?”
“Yes, you told me about it. And I thought it was a little strange to have a Tinker convention near Tar Valon, so close to the site of your historical failure. I also thought that if the Tinkers are gathering together, it was one of the signs I have been waiting for, and you were a sort of messenger for me. Which I think means all the Aiel should be gathered together, and we would have more success if we start at Rhuidean, and get the support of those warrior Aiel.”
Contro had listened carefully to everything Someshta had said, right up to the ‘yes, you told’ part. Then it had gotten a little difficult to follow, to tell the truth.
“Ha ha ha!! Too funny, really! So how far is it to the convention from here? In days I mean! Ha ha ha! I’m sure you could tell me how far it is in inches, but I don’t know how many inches I could walk in a day! Ha ha ha!! Funny that!”
Someshta peered out at his garden. “It should be a couple of weeks’ walk to Rhuidean,” he said, “and from there, we’ll see.”
“What’s at Rhuidean, then?”
“Oh! Ha ha ha!! Right! The convention! I know where that is, it’s in Tar Valon! How far is it to Tar Valon? Did I tell you about Tar Valon? That’s funny, because I could have sworn we were talking about it just a minute ago!! Ha ha ha! Are we still talking about the same thing?”
The Green Man laughed fondly. “Very well, little Tinker. You shall have your wish. We will make all haste to Tar Valon, and I shall explain things as we go.”
“Great! How far to Rhuidean?”
“Rhuidean? We’re going to Tar Valon.”
“Oh!! Ha ha ha! Didn’t you just say we were going to Rhuidean first?”
“No. I never mentioned Rhuidean.”
“You didn’t? Ha ha ha! Priceless!! I must have imagined it!”
“You must have,” Someshta said, and cast Cybes a solemn wink.
Cybes was impressed. The tree-man had class.
“I just remembered what this scene reminds me of.”
Chucky sighed. “Let me guess – Lord of the Rings.”
“You got it. Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli are running hard through Rohan, right, trying to catch Merry and Pippin. Only the Orcs are miles ahead of them, and the trail – plain as the nose on your face – keeps zigzagging. Now, it turns out that these Orcs were divided into two groups – one group wanted to take the hobbits to Saruman, and the others wanted to take them to Sauron. Sooner or later, they came to blows, and the hobbits escaped,” Mister C sat back in his saddle and patted the hilt of his gleaming black sword as if officially resting his case. “So all we have to do is wait for these Orcs to start fighting, and then be on standby with the Ents – I guess Loial would do, if we can’t get that big Green Man dude to join up – and grab the Horn when the hobbits escape.”
“And the hobbits are…?”
Mister C shrugged. “Haven’t decided that yet. Probably the Horn itself. A bit of a loose connection. Work in progress.”
“How’s it supposed to escape?”
“Really, Chucky,” Mister C sounded disappointed. “Think! Ingtar is obsessed with it. It’s a powerful weapon, crafted in ages past and harnessing the power of things long-passed and perhaps yet to come. It’s clearly the One Ring in this metaphor.”
“The Horn is the hobbits and the One Ring?”
“I told you it was a work in progress. And the One Ring escaped from Gollum when the time came.”
“That could be more apt than you know,” Chucky admitted. “I’m pretty sure, from what I remember, that Padan Fain is one of the guys with the Horn. He’s fighting over it with the leader of half of the trollocs, but I don’t know how it will get away from him. Fain is sort of like Gollum, you know. Turned into the Dark One’s hound, sent out after the heroes, helplessly … sort of snivelly and cowardly, but powerful and treacherous and dark at the same time, driven by inhuman forces…” Chucky trailed off ominously, and smiled at the skill of his own allegory.
Mister C of 9 simply had to shoot it down in flames. “Nice, but there’s a problem. We’re not chasing the Horn of Valere anymore.”
“We’re not? Who told you that?”
“Hurin. He lost the trail days ago. We’ve been following a bunch of trollocs alright, but it’s not the trail we followed out of Fal Dara. It’s just some poxy old trollocs who demolished a town.”
“Jesus! Have you told anyone?”
“Of course not. Boromir would have chucked a wobbly.”
“I guess that’s good. But if we’re following a bunch of trollocs, and they’re arguing over something and changing direction every few hours, what are they fighting over and what are we waiting to escape from them?”
“All excellent questions,” Mister C conceded, “all of which can be answered by sufficient study of the text.”
“Right,” Chucky acknowledged. “If only we had a copy of The Wheel of Time. Like I said, I’m pretty sure Fain and this group of trollocs are going one way-”
“No, Chuck,” Mister C shook his head sadly. “Not that text.”
Then they rode into another deserted village. Chucky pulled a corner of his patched gleeman’s cloak up to cover his nose.
“I thought I was getting used to the smell of these God-damned villages,” he complained, “but this one is worse than any of the ones we’ve been through this week. Even that one with the skinned people hanging outside it.”
Then there were raised voices up ahead in the vanguard, and Chucky and Mister C spurred their horses forwards to see what the problem was. The smell grew steadily worse. They passed Hurin. The sniffer was heading the other way, vomiting miserably over the back of his horse.
In the centre of the town, there was a myrddraal nailed to a door.
“Oh no!” Mister C of 9 jumped from his horse and ran forward, stumbling in his haste. “He’s dead! Struck down in his prime! Oh, oh the halfmanity! I could weep!”
Ingtar, sitting in his saddle nearby, turned from where he’d been arguing with Masema. By ones and twos, the rest of the Sheinarans turned and stared at the gleeman apprentice.
“…probably only had a few days left until retirement, you know the way it goes! Little halfkids back home, they’ll be wondering where Daddy is tonight, and all Mummy will be able to tell them is ‘Daddy’s with the Dark One now’…”
There were one or two muffled sniggers. Ingtar looked as if he was trying to remain angry and afraid, but was struggling with a broad grin.
“…earning his keep, living day by day, never harmed a soul, making his last payments on his Thakan’dar sword and his shadow-horse in a few weeks, I expect, this was the one last big score before getting out of the game for good, name your cliché, there’s just no place in this big, cruel universe for Joe halfman and his little eyeless dreams! What did he do that deserved such a terrible fate? Tell me, what did Joe halfman do?”
Now all of the Borderlanders were laughing. One or two of them fell off their horses.
Ingtar trotted over to Chucky, wiping his eyes.
“Your apprentice is a man of talent after all,” he said with a chuckle. “I was wondering in the back of my mind how we’d go about cheering up the men after this. Uno’s still swearing he can see ghosts following us, women in white drifting around, and now this, it’s got the lads thoroughly spooked. But now I think they’ll rest a bit easier. I tell you – his myrddraal impression was good, but this whole grieving thing is brilliant. He’s really taking his impression to the next level.”
“Heh. Brilliant,” Chucky said, watching Mister C of 9 theatrically dripping water from his flask onto the sides of his nose to pantomime the tears he couldn’t shed. The Sheinarans were applauding and roaring with laughter. Mat and Perrin had ridden up as well, and Loial was looking over their shoulders, and they were all grinning, even though their faces were pale with fright at the grim spectre nailed on the nearby door. Mister C was clutching at its fitfully flapping black cloak, and blubbering. It was quite obviously no act. “He’s a talent, all right.”
“You should get him a cloak of his own. Anything would be better than that awful shirt he wears all the time.”
“Heh heh, yeah. And a gleestaff.”
That night, Mister C of 9 announced that he wanted to be alone. He wandered away from the campsite and set up his bedroll in the lengthening shadow of a strange, carved pillar of stone. Chucky, wondering at the sudden sobbing fit, curious as to whether or not his colleague really had some sort of sympathy for the Shadowspawn, bedded down close by, just far enough so as to not invade Mister C’s personal space. The only person he let any closer was Hurin – the two of them were thick as thieves, probably talking about their little scent-swapping conspiracy. Empathic as always, Loial crept close as well, and spent half the night mumbling deafeningly in his sleep about Erith’s sweet fuzzy little ears, and something called the ‘Ogier tongue trick’.
Chucky gave the Portal Stone a final suspicious glance before falling to sleep. They were in no danger. It wasn’t as if any of them could channel.
The journey back to Imran Hold was a little shorter than everybody had expected. Gaul had told Shannon that the trip was seventeen days hard running, but they made it to the great rocky outcroppings in a mere six. Gaul expressed surprise at that – he had, quite by accident, stumbled across a short cut that had cut eleven days off their journey.
“And to think, it would never have happened if Paul and Baul had not tripped over one another and fallen and broken their necks right at the entrance of that hidden box canyon,” he marvelled. “Fortune is with us, Nancy Sidesaddle. We shall add this route to the maps that Darthmaul keeps at Imran Hold.”
“Right, Darthmaul,” Shannon said. “Anyways, I keep telling yer, y’all can go ahead an’ call me Shannon.”
Just like every time, the Aielmen laughed.
“I am not married, Nancy Sidesaddle,” Gaul said with a grin, “but when the time comes, you may be sure I will not forget your constant persistence.”
The Aiel roared with mirth, and Gaul stumbled and dropped one of his spears. It embedded itself in the sand, and struck oil.
“Well,” he said as the great black fountain geysered over their heads, and drained away in between two sand-dunes. “Now there’s a thing,” he stepped forward, dipped his hand in the sticky river, and tasted it hesitantly. He spat. “Undrinkable,” he reported. “We move on.”
The Aiel began to lope past.
“I could weep,” Shannon said, looking at the oil.
“You could weep?” Dr. Nick growled, staggering past under the weight of the wagon. He slipped and fell to his knees in the slick. “You could go fuck yourself, is what you could do.”
“Careful of your whites there, boy,” Shannon said. “You know what they done gone do to gai’shain with black robes.”
They entered Imran Hold just as the sun was setting.
There was no sort of celebration or ceremony. They simply walked into the narrow cleft between two towering rocks, and they were in the village. Although village was a word that meant nothing to Shannon and Dr. Nick. Imran Hold was like nothing they had ever seen before. There were Aiel everywhere, but none of them seemed to be making a big deal about the party’s sudden presence. Nobody even noticed Dr. Nick in his white robe, and Shannon was surprised to see that they didn’t pay much attention to the merchant either.
Two tall Aielmen confronted Gaul in what, for want of a better word, we will call a street.
“I see you, Gaul,” one of them said.
“I see you, Raul and Saul,” Gaul intoned carefully. “Have you maintained your anger?”
“Oh yes,” Saul (or maybe Raul) said. “We will slay you with the setting sun, for your insults against He Who Comes With the Dawn.”
“I said he was a Wetlander,” Gaul said quietly to Shannon. “They declared blood feud.”
“Boy howdy,” Shannon said sympathetically. “What’re y’all gonna do?”
Gaul drew himself up. “I was hoping my absence would ease their wrath,” he said, “but I see this was not the case. And I can not withdraw what I said, because you, Nancy Sidesaddle, have shown me that it was truth. The Car’a’carn is a Wetlander. So now I will do what I must – die on Stone Dog soil.”
“Then the Wetlander woman dies with you,” Raul (or perhaps Saul) stated. “For her sins.”
“Hey now, I didn’t do no sinnin’,” Shannon said, but Raul and Saul were already brandishing their spears.
“Die!” Saul snarled, and thrust his spear forward. Raul moved at the same moment, leaping at Gaul and impaling himself on Saul’s spear. He spun with a breathless gasp, and his own spear slashed across Saul’s throat. The two Aielmen fell in a heap and bled their last blood.
“Now there’s a thing,” Gaul said. “Come, we shall go to Darthmaul the map-keeper.”
Darthmaul was a wizened old man with a surly expression on his face and more sarcastic comebacks than even Shannon thought was strictly necessary. He didn’t seem to be a fighter, but he certainly didn’t look like a scholar. Dr. Nick, unnoticed by everybody, had left Shannon’s wagon in the middle of the street and followed the others to the mapping house.
“We need maps of the Wetlands,” he told the crusty geezer. “We mean to be prepared when we go beyond the mountains, and we mean to find the exact location of He Who Comes With the Dawn.”
“I bet you do,” Darthmaul said. “Sounds like the sort of thing you’d do, too.”
“Meaning what, exactly?”
“Oh sure, like you don’t know.”
“Can we have the maps?”
“Of course you can. I just love to give maps away, that’s what I do, as a map-keeper. I give maps away. That’s how I’ve managed to be a map-keeper for so long. I really should start calling myself a map-giver.”
“I got somethin’ I could call you,” Shannon remarked.
“He is a very proud and touchy old man,” Gaul said, while Darthmaul glared at Shannon. “You must know how to speak with him exactly the right way, Nancy Sidesaddle,” he turned back to the frowning old-timer, and put on his best friendly-face. “Did you hear about young Caul?” he asked. “I heard he went away and joined the Shaido.”
“He did indeed,” Darthmaul said reluctantly. “Except he’s not calling himself Caul anymore. He’s calling himself Cauladin, or something of the sort. Couladin, that’s right. Like that’s some sort of clever secret name. Him and that Shaido tart, she never was any good for him, why, I was so in love with that woman I thought I would die…” he suddenly trailed off with a gulp. “I never said that,” he muttered. “You never heard me say that, I never spoke.”
“We were never here,” Gaul said.
“You were never here. That’s right. I can’t believe I said that. I can’t believe I’m still talking. There is some enchantment at work here, take the maps and go. Go!”
“You don’t have to tell me twice,” Gaul said.
“Well I just did. Get out of here, genius!”
Gaul scooped up the maps. “Come along, Nancy Sidesaddle,” he said. They turned to leave, and almost ran into Dr. Nick. “The gai’shain with the roofmistress ears. What are you doing here?”
Dr. Nick seethed.
“We leave at dawn, Nancy Sidesaddle,” Gaul said. “Get as much rest as you can. You-” he pointed to Dr. Nick. “You come with me. I have some serious training to do before turning in for the night, and I could use a bit of company on the long circular walk through deep sand.”
That night, Shannon lay awake in his wagon bed. He was absolutely exhausted, and this was the first real night of relaxation he had spent since arriving in the Wheel of Time Experience – which, so far, was more confusing than fun – but he couldn’t seem to get to sleep. He had to admit the whole thing had come as a surprise, and it hadn’t turned out quite as he had expected. To tell the truth, it was a bit damn boring.
The funny thing was, he’d always wondered what characters in stories did before they were introduced into the main narrative, and now he knew. They wandered around aimlessly, got into pointless conversations that didn’t go anywhere, and basically filled in time. He wondered when it was, exactly, that Gaul met up with Perrin. It couldn’t happen fast enough for his liking.
He watched a small swarm of fireflies buzzing around above the wagon. All of a sudden, seemingly by accident, they formed up into a fair approximation of the Wheel of Time snake-and-wheel logo, and then dropped dead. Some of them pattered into his hair.
“Fucking useless plot thread,” he muttered, rolled over and went to sleep.