“The trick with grolm,” Chucky shouted to be heard over the furious barking sounds and Hurin’s wails of fear, “is to hit them with your arrows right in the middle eye, it kills them instantly.”
“You mustn’t give in to panic! I know it’s a difficult shot, but if you just concentrate, you really can’t miss. And the closer they get – see, they’re pretty close now – the closer they get the easier their middle eye will be to hit.”
“They’re really pretty easy to kill, if you think about it. So – go for it. Last one to kill a grolm‘s a rotten egg.”
Chucky turned to Mister C of 9 with a twirl of his multi-patched cloak. “What? What?”
“None of us have a bow.”
“I could maybe sing one out of that tree…” Loial suggested. “But it might take a little while, and they’ll be here any minute. And I’d still need a string and arrows.”
“I have an old bowstring here,” Hurin said bravely, rummaging in his pockets. “I was using it to tie together this bunch of old keys from my house and out-sheds,” he produced the bundle and began to pick at the knots. “It’s very old.”
“None of us can fire a bow,” Mister C shouted.
“I won an archery championship when I was a boy,” Hurin didn’t look up from his knots.
“We wouldn’t have to shoot a bow,” Loial said reasonably. “Look – I can touch this grolm with my hand.”
The frog-like creature growled and snapped at the Ogier’s fingers. Loial snatched his massive hand back with a gasp. One by one, the other grolm slunk forward and surrounded them. Mister C sighed and drew his dead black Thakan’dar blade, and set the point carefully on the bridge of the nearest grolm‘s nose.
“Wait,” Chucky said, frowning. He stepped up to the grolm nearest him and slapped its face. The hideous beast staggered back and woofed, then looked furious and threatening, but didn’t strike. “Something’s going on.”
There was a lengthy pause, and then a frustrated shout from over the next ridge.
“Aren’t you going to kill them?”
“Who’s that?” Hurin cried, then pointed. “It’s her! The woman Masema said he saw! She looks like a ghost!”
“Selene,” Chucky said, looking past the grolm.
“Whoa momma,” Mister C murmured.
“Forget it,” Chucky hissed. “She’s one of the evil bosses.”
“And? That’s still a beret she’s wearing.”
Chucky looked again. “So it is. Hello, Selene,” he greeted the woman in white. “Let me guess. You got lost, and ended up here. And the grolm attacked you.”
‘Selene’ was frowning in puzzlement. “I’m from Cairhien,” she said. “I stopped to sleep, and I woke up here.”
“Right,” Chucky grunted. “If you’re wondering where Rand al’Thor is, he’s dead.”
“Oh, I know … I mean, who?”
“That was hopeless,” Mister C of 9 said sympathetically. “You didn’t even try.”
Lanfear glared at the halfman. “What are you doing here anyway?” she demanded. “The Great Lord ordered all of your kind to Tar Valon for the … exercise.”
“What Lord?” Hurin asked. “What exercise? And what do you mean, ‘your kind’? And my Lady, who are you?”
“Something here is not as it seems,” Loial rumbled.
“Yeah, but look at her beret,” Mister C murmured.
“I saw her beret, Mister See,” the Ogier nodded “Did you notice her socks?”
“I did indeed.”
“I still want to know what she’s talking about, pretty as the Lady is,” Hurin insisted.
Lanfear was beginning to sweat, so Chucky spoke up. “She means gleemen, of course – our kind, as in gleemen,” he said. “There’s a big exercise in Tar Valon, the telling of the Great Tale of the Horn, you see, and we were invited. Selene here, in case you were wondering, is an Aes Sedai.”
“Like fuck I – oh yes, ha ha, yes I am.”
“And that explains how we got here,” Chucky grinned. “You realised there were none of us who could channel, and so you channeled us here all by yourself. And then you set the grolm, so we could save you from them and you’d join our party, and we’d lead you to the Horn.”
This time, Lanfear’s face remained glacially calm. “You mean, the Tar Valon Hornathon.”
“She’s not bad,” Chucky admitted to Mister C.
“I knew that as soon as I saw her hat, old chum,” Mister C agreed.
“So you were sent to round us up, were you?” Chucky waved his arms, encompassing his companions and the strange, scarred landscape. “You’ve gone to some extreme lengths.”
“Oh, um, yes, but it was an accident,” she said woodenly. “I should join your party and see to it that no harm comes to you. Are you pursuing somebody? I see you have a sniffer with you.”
Hurin bowed and scraped.
Chucky looked uncomfortable. “I really don’t think we should team up.”
“Yes we should!” the other three exclaimed.
Nynaeve stood and looked at the silvery arches with a dubious expression on her face. She had been at the White Tower for three days, and her time had come to join the ranks of the Accepted.
“You say everybody does this?” she demanded.
“Everybody,” the black-clad Sheriam said placidly. “You must pass through all three rings, and then you will be Accepted. And then you have, ah, celebratory toasts with the Amyrlin Seat, up in her office.”
“I don’t drink,” Nynaeve said with disgust, thinking of Lan.
“You do not have to, child.”
“I’m not a child!” Nynaeve growled.
“You always will be, unless you walk through the damn arches,” another Aes Sedai said from the edge of the testing area. A small group of Sisters were assembled around the ter’angreal, channeling into it calmly. “No harm will come to you. It is a test, no more and no less.”
“Spare me the riddles,” Nynaeve muttered, “just so long as there aren’t any drunks or spiders. I hate spiders,” she marched towards the first archway. Sheriam coughed.
“Aren’t we forgetting something?”
“This is a timeless ritual. You have to be nude.”
Nynaeve grumblingly stripped down to her skin, and stormed forward into the silvery archway. All of a sudden, she found herself in a dark maze of stone walls. There was a suggestive laugh from behind her, and Aginor leapt from the shadows, his face withered and disgusting. He struck a few poses for dramatic effect, and then started up with the suggestive remarks. It occurred to Nynaeve that her being naked was just a little bit unnecessary.
She grunted, embraced the Source, and leveled a fireball at the withered features of the Forsaken. He dodged the attack, and formed a fireball of his own. The fight went on for some time, and finally Nynaeve realised she was winning. Aginor was weakening. She jumped forward and kicked him in the testicles.
“Arg my testicles!”
She kicked him again, beginning to enjoy herself, and then suddenly she saw the silver archway in the corner of her eye. She knew that there would only be one chance to escape from the strange scenario, and complaining bitterly, she took it. Sheriam and a couple of other Aes Sedai hurried forward, poured water on her and spoke a bit of mumbo-jumbo.
“I want to go back and do that one again,” she said grimly. “I was really making progress.”
“No time, now you must do the second arch.”
She stamped into the glimmering doorway, and had herself a boring little confrontation in Emond’s Field. She’d just started to really kick Cenn Buie in the gonads when the archway appeared to her left and she hurried through it, swearing bitterly. Again, the Aes Sedai poured water on her and chanted silly chants. It occurred to Nynaeve that the Sisters weren’t taking the ceremony very seriously.
She hurried through the next arch, and found herself standing in a tavern.
“Ah, good morning, Mistress Mandragoran,” the fat innkeeper said cheerfully. “Here to pick up the Lord of the Seven Towers?”
“What?” Nynaeve frowned.
“Your husband, Lady,” the innkeeper grinned. “He’s over yonder, asleep under the table.”
Nynaeve pulled back the roughspun cloth tablecloth to see Lan’s unshaven face and a small barrel of apple brandy. Lan belched and smiled in his sleep.
“Oh Candy,” he slurred. “My Tower loves it when you’re Topless.”
“Right,” Nynaeve reached down and grabbed the reeking man under the arms, and hauled him out from under the bed. She propped him up against the table, stepped back and glared. Suddenly, she was wearing stout Two Rivers woolens, and even stouter Two Rivers shit-kickers. “Say goodbye to those potatoes of yours, you good-for-nothing drunk,” she saw the silvery archway twinkle in the corner of the tavern, and snarled. “No way, not this time. This time, I’m staying,” and she swung back towards Lan, raised her boot…
Suddenly, Lan was gone, and a small crowd of strange people filled the common room. Four of them, she realised with surprise, were Ogier. The rest of the people were more or less human – two women, one large and one very small, connected to each other with a fine silver chain. The large woman was wearing loud, tight clothes of red and blue, with forked lightning emblazoned in the lapels. One of the Ogier wasn’t wearing any trousers. It was quite a spectacle. And at the very front of the group, standing right where Nynaeve had planned on starting her kicking, was a young man.
He was tall, and had long hair tied back in a neat, respectable braid, rather like her own. It wasn’t unruly and thonged with that awful ratty leather the way Lan’s always was. His vest was clean and his shirt crisp, and his leather pants showed off the shape of his legs in a way that was neither coarse nor flashy. His face was earnest and well-scrubbed and – wonder of wonders – sober.
“Oh my,” Nynaeve heard herself murmur. “Oooh er.”
The young man inclined his head to her politely. “Good day to you, Mistress,” he said with impeccable politeness. “I hope we did not startle you with our rude entry. My name is Puddin Taim, and these are my friends – Debs, Janica, Coarshus, Wyse, Frendli, and Hoarni. I do apologise for Hoarni. He has no sense of what is right, when it comes to ladies.”
Nynaeve mumbled something.
“So, did it work?” Janica said, peering around blindly. Nynaeve recognised the signs of short-sightedness with a Wisdom’s detachmant, even as her eyes went back to Puddin’s lovely clean shirt. “Are we in Tar Valon?”
“It does’nae luke like it,” Debs said in a thick, slurring accent. “Lukes like we’re in a pub.”
The Ogier began grinning widely.
“Debs,” one of them said, “are you sure you were trying to take us to Tar Valon? Every time we try this thing, we always seem to end up in a pub.”
“Ach! That’s a lie!”
Nynaeve shook her head, attempting to clear it. “How did you get here?” she asked, addressing Puddin.
“It is difficult to say, Mistress,” he replied with a meek smile. “We were experimenting with the One Power – you see, we are Aes Sedai. At least, they are,” he pointed to the women. “I am just along for support, as are our Ogier friends.”
“I guess you didn’t hear about the new dress code,” she said. “All Aes Sedai are to wear black shawls and somber colours at all times. I think it’s because somebody died, but nobody tells me anything. I’m just a bloody novice. Well, Accepted now, I guess. Is the test over?”
“I beg your pardon?” Puddin said.
“Are you going to pour another pot of water on my head? I mean, this is the end of the test isn’t it?”
“Ahh, feckin’ heel,” Debs said softly. “I knoo where we are noo.”
“Nynaeve’s Accepted test,” Janica snapped her fingers. “We somehow got drawn straight into the ter’angreal. I knew that sudden flood of channeling didn’t come from us.”
“Can we get out?” one of the Ogier asked nervously. “Should we maybe blow the-”
“I see,” Nynaeve said with a knowing smile. It was all beginning to make sense now. “You want me to show you the way back to the White Tower, demonstrating my loyalty and service to Aes Sedai, and my ability to lead the flock, right?”
“Exactly,” Janica said quickly. “My child.”
“She’s no child!” Puddin Taim protested just as Nynaeve opened her mouth to say the same thing. She flushed with pleasure, and Puddin continued. “I mean no disrespect, Janica, but, ah, clearly, you speak in jest.”
“No matter, Puddin,” Nynaeve said, lowering her eyes. “It is a term Aes Sedai use, I do not mind it.”
Debs and Janica Sedai gaped at her.
“Come, the exit is this way,” and she turned back to where the arch had been minutes before. It was gone, but when she channeled – saidar flowed into her with practiced ease, as it never had before in her life – the silvery shape reappeared unwillingly against the wall. “I’ll see you soon, I hope,” she said to Puddin, and hurried through.
There was silence in the common room.
“Quick,” Debs snapped. “Let’s get oot before they stop channelin’.”
Wyse hefted the gleaming golden chest that they had not given to Domon after all, and Frendli lugged the sack of trinkets they had taken from the crazed sailor. As they hurried towards the arch, Muffin Vamps reasserted himself and smirked at Hoarni.
“I’m going to get laid before you,” he said. “Looks like you owe me fifty marks.”