Dr. Nick was relieved to find that the Stone Dogs had secured a pair of ponies to pull Shannon’s wagon on the coming journey, but that relief was nothing compared to the relief that came when he learned that he was allowed to talk to other gai’shain. And there were a group of them coming along on the trek.
“Somebody has to make the camps, dig the shit-holes, serve the food, and perform various other acts of service for us,” Gaul said cheerfully.
Well, it was still a relief. Shannon’s wagon had been cleared of goods, and he’d been repaid quite richly. The wagon was now laden with food and two huge barrels of water for the journey, and ‘Nancy Sidesaddle’ had several handfuls of gold to be going along with. He had opted to accompany Gaul on his quest for the Car’a’carn, and everybody was happy. The journey had begun well, with many an encouraging sign and portent. On the night before they departed, every pregnant woman in Imran Hold had miscarried simultaneously, which was seen as a wonderful omen – less mouths to feed meant more food and water for everybody else, and Aiel considered fetus-meat a great delicacy which was something Dr. Nick thought could have been mentioned somewhere in the books but sort of understood why it hadn’t. At the same time, there had been a great conflagration of what Dr. Nick knew were supernovae in the night sky, bursting points of light that formed the shape of a giant Nike logo in the darkness. The Aiel thought that was pretty grand as well. Darthmaul said there was a pair of mystical boots hidden in the lost city of Rhuidean that bore the same symbol. And when they had started out in the morning, one of their goats had given birth to a three-headed cat, a small crevasse in the sand dunes had opened up and revealed a seam of some smelly sandstone that the Aiel thought was lucky, and a grove of rudely-shaped cactus plants had begun to grow in the shade of the Hold’s towering rockpiles.
All in all, it made Dr. Nick a little bit uneasy. He had a vague memory from the Wheel of Time stories, something about people who made weird things happen all the time and what it really was was the Pattern reforming around them. He hadn’t realised Gaul was ta’veren, but it was the only explanation.
Something else made him uneasy. He remembered specifically the scene in which Gaul had been introduced in the books. He was all alone, in a crow-cage, and Perrin saved him from being executed. There hadn’t been anybody else with him, and there certainly hadn’t been a big crowd of happy Gai’shain anywhere in the vicinity, digging toilets. That might mean something was going to happen to them all before they got out of the Aiel Waste, or it might just mean the books and the Experience were different and he shouldn’t freak out so much. Maybe Gaul’s ta’veren-ness would kill them all in their beds.
He wanted to talk to Shannon about his concerns, but the merchant wasn’t listening to him. And Dr. Nick had problems of his own – near the wagon, things seemed to get mixed up and difficult a lot more regularly than anywhere else. The sand became suddenly, inexplicably slippery or a wind came out of nowhere and blew him on his ass, or something else coincidentally prevented him from getting any closer, like Gaul walking over and saying it’d be nice to see if they could dig a trench all the way along the path of their journey, so after they reached the mountains, the snowmelt would go down through the trench and make a river that would go all the way to Imran Hold, and how about if the Gai’shain started to dig right now?
“He treats us like da’tsang,” one of the white-robed men muttered as they dug.
“Heh,” Dr. Nick said, wincing as the shovel-handle put a splinter in his hand. “I’m learning more and more Aiel swearwords every day.”
The journey went on with breathtaking boredom. They stumbled onto more and more shortcuts, but also found a new way of crossing a particularly inhospitable patch of desert that added several days to their journey. Gaul remarked that he had never seen the barren land stretch so far north in such a short time. And if Dr. Nick had thought he was having trouble walking near the wagon, that was nothing compared to the problems the wagon itself was having.
Just as they were heading into the foothills of the Spine of the World, both of Shannon’s ponies fell over and hit their heads on a stone and died. Dr. Nick was reassigned to ‘pulling duty’. He knew it had been too good to last. On the plus side, this gave him the chance to talk to Nancy Sidesaddle.
“I’ve been thinking about it too,” Shannon agreed. He was walking alongside Dr. Nick as he hauled the wagon up the rocky path. That was all he ever did, was haul stuff. Dr. Nick was bitterly considering changing his name, in the Stone Dog fashion, to Haul. “I ain’t read the books for years, but I can’t remember nothin’ like this mess o’ Aiel. I guess that’s why we’ve been a-wanderin’ around and not really hardly doin’ much – we can’t do nothin’ anyhows until we join the main story, and that doesn’t done gone happen for a whiles. Sometime before Gaul ends up wherever-it-is and Perrin rescues him, we gots ta be gone.”
“You know something else? I reckon he’s a whatchacallit, ta’veren.”
“You think?” Shannon frowned dubiously. “It wa’n’t in the book, s’far as I knewd it. I thought it was Perrin who was the ta’veren. O’course, Gaul was always a-hangin’ around an’ lollygaggin’ with Perrin, so they coulda blended in with each other.”
“But look around, dude,” Dr. Nick said irritably. “This isn’t any normal sort of ta’veren. We’ve had meteor showers and supernovas every night, guys falling and finding lost gravestones in the sand, clouds forming into faces, and the stupid ideas they’ve been coming up with, the things they say by accident. You can’t tell me that dumbass trench idea wasn’t the result of some sort of Pattern-twitching. And the short-cuts. One time, I swear we backtracked and doubled over and retraced our steps six times, and we covered better than three hundred miles. In two hours. This is ta’veren-ness like nothing Perrin ever did. It’s nothing like Rand ever did. It hasn’t stopped since we met him.”
“Maybe by the time we get to the Wetlands, it’ll stop,” Shannon grinned as inspiration struck. “Maybe it’ll burn itself out, the way Aes Sedai sometimes do. Maybe he’ll change the Pattern so much, the Pattern will shift to an alternate version of itself where what in which he ain’t a ta’veren at all.”
“You’ve been reading too much Douglas Adams.”
Shannon grinned and flicked one of his gold coins in the air. “Watch this,” he said. “It always lands on the same side. See?” He slapped the coin onto his wrist, and showed Dr. Nick the crudely-embossed face. It was some sort of Aiel chieftain, and underneath it was the motto, STONE DOGS – UNITED WE STAND, DIVIDED WE FAUL.
“More ta’veren-ness at work,” Dr. Nick said grimly.
“Nope – check it out,” Shannon grinned again. “It’s the same on both sides. Neat, huh?” He showed Dr. Nick the other side of the coin, which, sure enough, was identical.
Then the wagon bounced over the almost-buried front edge of a stasis-box embedded in the path, and both of its axles broke with a snap.
“Aw, da’tsang,” Dr. Nick groaned.
Moiraine was flabbergasted and not at all pleased to see the Green Man again, especially not wandering around in the lowlands. When she found out he was heading towards Tar Valon, her eyes narrowed and she demanded to know why. The Green Man had explained about the Aiel reunion that was taking place under the guise of a Tinker convention. Forsaken_1 hadn’t been very interested in the conversation, but it had been a whole lot better than going over and trying to talk to Contro.
“Did he tell you about the convention?” Moiraine pointed at Contro. “That fucking cabbage?”
Forsaken_1 was impressed. Moiraine had never even met Contro, and she knew he was a cabbage.
“The poor boy was obviously confused, and troubled,” the Green Man said kindly, smiling across at the Tinker. Contro was in his wagon, doing something down on the floor. Only the top of his head was visible, bouncing and jiggling around madly. They could hear his breathless, mindless laughter. “I think his family and friends left him to die, and have told him to meet them in Tar Valon, where no Tinker would ever venture. When he told me about the plan, I was struck with sympathy – it is obvious that he has been abandoned, and his fellow Tuatha’an have no wish to see him again. If the breakdown of the Aiel people goes on much further, there will be nothing left for the Dragon to bring back,” then he grew sad. “But the Dragon is dead, isn’t he,” he went on with a heavy sigh. “I suppose I just wanted to leave something, to make sure that these people remained, in some way. To see if the gulf that divides them is truly irreparable. The Dragon will not be able to reunite them, but perhaps I can.”
“Very damn interesting,” Moiraine snapped. “But this cunt’s a Tinker. Why are you talking about Ghul-damned Aiel?”
“Has so much truly been forgotten?” Someshta murmured. “The Aiel were once servants to the Aes Sedai, and when the World was Broken, they were sent away with all the most dangerous tools of the One Power, so they might be safe. I was there. I saw it happen. But in the course of the journey, the Aiel began to break up. The Tinkers broke away first, keeping the Way of the Leaf but discarding their wagons and their promise, and so they became the Lost Ones, shunned by Aiel to this day. Later, another group of Aiel took up weapons to protect themselves and their belongings, and they were shunned by those who remained. They discarded the Way of the Leaf, and became the Aiel of the Waste. They live out there to this day, punishing themselves for the promise they broke. Finally, the wagons reached Rhuidean and their quest was done, the remaining Aiel were the Jenn Aiel, or True Aiel. They built a great city in the Waste…”
Forsaken_1 began to wonder what was on television right now, back in the real world. He wondered if he was missing one of his favourite shows. Moiraine and the Green Man went on talking for a long time, Moiraine shouting and waving her arms and splattering gothic makeup everywhere, Someshta speaking quietly and reasonably and trying to explain matters as best he could. None of it was very interesting. He stopped wondering about television and began to wonder if Lan was still trailing along behind them, and if he’d like to chat with somebody. Maybe he could get the grizzled Malkieri to swap jobs with him again. Lan made a pretty convincing Whitecloak Questioner, but he made a much better Warder. And Forsaken_1 wasn’t sure how much longer he could live with Moiraine’s uptight, vicious little knot of profanity in his frontal lobe. Especially now, with her acting as if she was the Queen of Darkness.
Finally, Moiraine wheeled her horse around. “I think we should ask the little shit for his opinion,” she declared. “See if he thinks the Tinkers and the Aiel can ever be reunited for the betterment of the human race. See if it will make any difference at all to the Great Lord of the Dark.”
The Green Man winced mildly. “Moiraine Sedai,” he said, his great voice quiet and grave, “you should not speak with him. You will just confuse him further, and I have found that to ask him of such things is pointless, he does not understand as you or I would. You should not anger yourself by attempting to reason with him, not … the way you are right now.”
“What way I am right now?” Moiraine fixed the towering treeman with a glare. “What, the fuck, do you mean by that?”
“Nothing at all,” Someshta said expressionlessly. “But I forbid you from speaking to him.”
“Do you now?”
Someshta’s face was an unreadable mass of foliage. “Yes. Flatly forbid.”
“And who the cunting actual fuck do you think you are?”
“Nobody, if not Someshta.”
Moiraine grunted and spurred her horse back up the trail, towards the sound of Contro’s empty-headed laughter. The Green Man glanced at Forsaken_1, winked one of his deep hazlenut eyes, and indicated that the whole thing was out of his hands.
Forsaken_1 sat on Mandarb’s back and wondered for a long moment if it had been a queer wink or a joking wink, and if it had been a queer wink, what sort of sexual organs the Green Man might have and whether splinters would be an issue while polishing the ol’ hickory stick, but then he finally decided the whole area of enquiry was a bit lavendar-coloured. He followed Moiraine back towards the plodding, miserable old horse named Cow, and they finally saw what Contro was doing in the back of the colourful little wagon. He was kneeling on the boards, and Cybes the wolf was spread out on the floor in front of him.
“Tickle tum!” he cried, and rubbed his hands briskly back and forth over the wolf’s furry belly. Cybes stretched and kicked her feet in enjoyment, and wagged her tail when he stopped. “Ha ha ha! Tickle tum!” he repeated the brisk movement over and over again, the whole wagon shaking with his enthusiasm.
“Hey,” Moiraine said roughly. “Hey, nutcase. Get the fuck over here. I want to ask you something.”
“Okay! Ha ha ha! Not a problem, that!! Give me a hand up!”
He reached out a hand, and Moiraine grudgingly extended her own.
There was an audible snap, and a bright blue spark of static electricity jumped between their fingertips.
“Oi! Ha ha ha!! Oh right! I was rubbing the wolf! Ha ha ha! I love that!”
Moiraine’s reaction was somewhat more extreme. She screamed and fell off her horse, shrieking and tearing at the ground with her fingers. At the same time, a great lance of pain smashed through Forsaken_1’s head. It was funny, he thought as he blacked right out – he’d always thought ‘lance of pain’ was a stupid expression, but it was perfectly apt. It was fifteen feet long, wooden, with a metal tip, and it burst into a million pointy little splinters when it hit him.
When he came to, he was lying on some soft saddle-blankets next to a fire, and Moiraine was leaning over him. He wasn’t in any pain, but he was cold and terribly tired. Moiraine was dabbing at his forehead with a damp cloth. She’d scrubbed the grit off her face, but she hadn’t changed out of her new black dress, and it was one of those awesome cleavage-dresses with the shoelaces at the front. Forsaken_1 smiled vaguely.
“What happened to me?” he asked Moiraine’s boobies. One of them was sure to know.
“You fell off your horse,” the Aes Sedai replied for them, “and the vicious-minded cunt of a thing had a bit of a stamp on you while you were down. It was all my fault.”
Moiraine nodded. “Much as I hate to admit it. When I lost the chains binding me to the Dark One, it hurt me terribly, and was very disorienting. It affected you, through the Warder bond. I Healed your wounds – it was the least I could do.”
“You were chained to the Dark One?” Forsaken_1 asked. This explained … a great deal.
“Since we arrived in Tar Valon,” she said, her face darkening. “There are Forsaken in the White Tower, and they were converting Aes Sedai by force. Turning them to the Dark One with halfmen and Black Ajah channelers. I was turned.”
“But you were … fixed?”
“Yes,” Moiraine chuckled. “That giddy twat of a Tinker cut the bond with a touch of his finger.”
Moiraine laughed again, and stroked Forsaken_1’s face. “No fucking shit,” she asserted.
“Hot damn,” Forsaken_1 struggled to a sitting position, and looked around. Night had fallen, and they had made camp in a little clearing just off the road. He saw Lan sitting near the fire, staring moodily into his bottle. The brightly-coloured wagon was standing on the far side of the camp, and Cybes was curled up underneath it. Someshta was a vast slumbering shadow nearby, and Aldieb, Mandarb and Cow were calmly grazing off him. “So … what next?”
“I’ve decided that our visit to Adeleas and Vandene will have to wait,” Moiraine announced. “This is more important. We have to return to Tar Valon and see to it that the Aes Sedai are restored from their foul bondage.”
“Right,” Forsaken_1 grinned. “Foul bondage, that’s too cool.”
The next morning, Moiraine announced to the party at large that their crossing paths had been extremely fortuitous, and that they should travel together from now on. She used more colourful language than that, but neither Contro, Someshta, Cybes or Cow seemed to care. Contro announced that they were going to Rhuidean, and Moiraine told him to shut the fuck up.
They headed back the way they had come.