Angamael McSmashie looked down from the pinnacle of the White Tower.
“Report,” he said to the women standing behind him.
“The men who left Fal Dara after the battle at the Eye of the World are still searching for the Horn,” Lanfear said, sounding disgruntled. “I found a small group of them like you said I might, near that Portal Stone, but without Lews … al’Thor, they couldn’t get transported into the Worlds of If. I had to do it for them.”
“Who were they?”
“Nobody important. A gleeman and his apprentice, and an Ogier, and a sniffer from the Borderlands. The gleeman was annoying, but his apprentice was … I don’t know how to say this, but his apprentice was a myrddraal. I could swear it.”
“Thom Merrilin with a halfman apprentice?” Angamael frowned.
“Thom who? This gleeman’s name was Chucky,” Lanfear paused to let Angamael get his breath back. “What’s so funny?”
“Nothing. Private joke. So you used the World of If to catch up with Padan Fain and the trollocs, and you stole the Horn from under their noses?” Angamael fingered his shotgun.
“No,” Lanfear said carefully. “They insisted the group we were following wasn’t actually carrying anything. They were just following it because they didn’t have anything better to do. And the gleeman knew who I was.”
“Smartass Australian bastard,” Angamael muttered. “Of course. So where did you leave them?”
“They were heading into Cairhien. I went up into the mountains, whatever they were called, Kinslayer or something like that, and there were trollocs there, but no man like you described. They said he ran off shouting something about a sailor who was his brother, but you know how trollocs get all those human relationships wrong. He might have meant anything. Anyway, they didn’t have the Horn, and they said Fain hadn’t had the Horn either. They said Fain might be coming back, but he was running with the Black Wind, whatever that meant.”
“Looking for his sailor brother,” Angamael said quietly. “Very helpful. I hope you have something more useful, Mesaana.”
Semirhage didn’t correct him on the name, and straightened her faded stretch-strieth slip-dress with decisive movements of her hands. Standing near Angamael always made her feel half-dressed, when in fact she was somewhat nuder than that. “I haven’t been able to infiltrate their party, Nae’blis,” she said, speaking of the strange collection of men and women in the city below, some of them apparently un-turned Aes Sedai. “I got close, but I was driven away by a wolf. And the next time I tried to join them, I was accosted by an apparently insane boy posing as a Tinker, and he questioned me too closely and too cleverly. I had to make good my escape.”
“Do you have any success to report at all?”
“Yes,” Semirhage went on quickly. “Oh yes, I eventually managed to get one of the four Ogier off to one side, away from the rest. I pretended I was a Green Ajah Aes Sedai looking for something … extra … in my Warders. Unfortunately, his three friends dragged him away before I could … get him to that after-sex conversational stage.”
“How long…?” Angamael asked hesitantly. Semirhage held her hands a disgusting distance apart. “No I mean, how much time did you waste trying to get this Ogier to talk?” he grimaced.
“Only about three hours.”
“And you got away without having to explain yourself?”
“Oh yes, everybody seemed to think it was fairly self-evident. The other three Ogier were very apologetic, and the young man from Far Madding gave me a hot water bottle. I have to admit,” Semirhage added, running her fingers through her hair, “I’d like to have another try. I think I can break him.”
“No,” Angamael said. “I’ve seen those two women somewhere before – the big one and the little one. I can’t remember where … and you know that insane Tinker?”
“I know him too. Shaidar Haran, Aginor, Balthamel and I met up with him while we were on our way to the Eye. I thought maybe we could catch a couple of al’Thor’s friends, and get a bit of an early advantage, but I found him instead. I don’t know who he is, but something tells me we should be very careful,” the towering Forsaken frowned down at the bustling city, and his eyes flickered momentarily into flame. “There was something … British about him.”
The guards at the gates of Cairhien were quite polite, considering the fact that they looked like shaved apes and smelled like shaved turds.
“Gleeman!” one of them said in barely-disguised delight. “We’ve been waiting for you for weeks!”
“You have?” Chucky asked suspiciously. “Have Ingtar and his men arrived?”
“You started it with the confusing outbursts.”
“Look, the Lord Barthanes Damodred has been asking for a gleeman these past two months, and it’s about time you arrived, that’s all,” the guard pulled a folded parchment from the unspeakable depths of his armour, and slapped it into Chucky’s unresisting hand. “That, you’ll see, is the Tree and Crown, the personal sign of Lord Damodred himself.”
Chucky peered at the wax seal. Mister C of 9 craned over his shoulder.
“Looks like a flying saucer stuck in a mushroom cloud to me,” he remarked. “But will they have decent food?”
“Probably,” Chucky replied, tucking the letter into his cloak and heading through the gates. “But no coke, before you ask.”
Mister C of 9 sighed bitterly, and dropped back beside Hurin. He was getting used to walking, but had surprised himself by wishing, on occasion, that his evil horse of backside-hurty would return to him. Maybe Ingtar had brought the horses with him when they’d left them behind.
“What’s happening?” Loial asked nervously when Mister C and Hurin had passed under the watchful eyes of the guards. “Mister See, have the others arrived here yet?”
“Doesn’t sound like it,” Mister C reported. “We got invited to a party though, at the house of some rich Lord guy.”
“Oh, that’s nice,” Loial said, then his ears drooped. “I mean, erm…”
“That’s right,” Mister C said encouragingly. “What did I teach you…?”
Hurin fidgeted and raised his hand.
“No calling out,” Mister C said firmly. “I asked this one to Loial.”
“Down … down with…” Loial sweated, and tried to read Hurin’s lips. The sniffer was mouthing something over Mister C’s shoulder. “Down with … blind … blish, pappy … lappy … pigs…?”
“Hurin?” Mister C said patiently.
“Down with the establishment, and down with Capitalist pigs,” Hurin recited proudly.
“That’s right! But we’ll go to the party anyway,” Mister C of 9 declared. “Chucky would get into trouble without us.”
Hurin and Loial nodded.
“How about this place?” Chucky called, turning around and pointing to a dingy tavern called The Bloated Rapist. “It looks nice, and there’s no Lord of the Rings references,” he waved to the dimly-visible patrons behind the grease-smeared glass, and several of them waved back very enthusiastically.
“Ah, my Lord gleeman,” Hurin said, hurrying forward, “what about this one? The Defender of the Dragonwall. It’s a lot … ah … cheaper.”
“Well, that’s just dandy,” Chucky ushered the others towards the inn. “Let’s get comfortable, and wait for Ingtar and the rest of them.”
They wandered into The Defender of the Dragonwall.
From the alley opposite, Padan Fain watched with glittering eyes. Without turning around, he reached out and scratched Bayle Domon behind the ears. Domon growled happily and kicked his left foot rapidly.
The days crawled past without activity. Chucky and Mister C of 9 avoided going out in to the city, on account of the disease and uncleanliness all around them. Chucky announced that they’d venture outside when the date came for Barthanes Damodred’s party, and not a moment sooner. Loial decided not to go out either, because he didn’t like the way people looked at him.
“As if I’m about to start trying to sell them something,” he explained one evening. “Or do something worse.”
Only Hurin went out, to visit the guardhouse every morning and afternoon and ask after Ingtar and his men. They were never there. The days dwindled away towards Chucky’s ‘gig’ at the Damodred manor. Chucky walking around the common room of the inn and calling his upcoming performance a ‘gig’ was starting to get on everybody’s nerves as well.
“I have to practice,” Chucky said to nobody in particular. “I’ve got a big gig coming up. This could be the one, as they say in the trade. You know – the one. Yeah. Gotta practice.”
Neither Hurin nor Loial really minded the practicing, and nor did anybody else in the Defender of the Dragonwall. Except for Mister C of 9, who thought Chucky’s stories were a non-subtle way for the gleeman to make fun of him. The tales of Yoru and his tremendous adventures were one thing he couldn’t teach Loial and Hurin to stay away from. Their new non-conformist religion wasn’t enough to make them fear the tales. And when Chucky told the tale of Yoru and the terrifying Bill Gateskeeper, the entire inn was awestruck. Even Mister C of 9 was obliged to join in with apprentice-like interjections and his famous halfman impression.
There was some disruption a few days later, when people started talking about trollocs invading the town. Loial got a bit worried at the sounds of growling and screaming from outside, and suggested they run and hide somewhere safe until the fighting calmed down.
“The Illuminators’ Guild has a nice fortified hall,” the nervous Ogier remarked. “Why don’t we…”
“No,” said Chucky quickly. “The Illuminators’ Guild isn’t safe. Let’s not go there. Anyway, we’re safe here. No trollocs are going to make me put my gig at risk.”
In a few hours, the whole trolloc attack was waved away as a new merchants’ prank. Ogier, it seemed, just weren’t effective anymore. The whole idea had gotten passé.
“You should go out there in your halfman disguise!” Hurin said to Mister C excitedly. “And maybe get a little group of guys dressed up as trollocs – Loial could dress up too – and walk around the streets. You could sell anything!” he paused, and regarded the sunglassed man carefully. “Not that you’d want to … fuel … the capitalist … war machine,” he concluded.
“Damn right,” Mister C of 9 grunted.
Finally, Ingtar arrived with Mat, Perrin, Masema, Uno and all the others. They marched into the common room of the Defender of the Dragonwall just as Chucky was concluding the prequel story to his award-winning Yoru and the Great Battle: Young Yoru and his Humourous Sidekick.
“I hope you remember all the stories we’ve missed!” Ingtar roared from the back of the room. “And I hope the story of how you vanished and arrived here two weeks ahead of us is a good one too!”
The reunion was – for the most part – a joyful one. It turned out that Ingtar, bereft of his sniffer, had turned to Perrin for help.
“The boy says he’s a sniffer too, of some sort,” the Borderlander said. “He got the scent of that Horn, and he led us straight here. Almost as well as Hurin did himself – just not quite so fast,” there was an appreciative burst of laughter from the Fal Dara men. Perrin looked embarrassed.
“A real pack of clowns, aren’t they?” Chucky said with a grin. “Always howling and carrying on. Here, wolf this down,” and he handed Perrin a piece of bread. Perrin had gone white, and everybody else was looking at the gleeman strangely.
“Why are you talking so suggestively?” Loial rumbled. “It’s almost as if you’re trying to imply something, through the use of terrible puns.”
“A-whoo, me?” Chucky said innocently.
“It wasn’t the Horn I was following anyway,” Perrin said. “I was just following a trail of trollocs. They might have the Horn, but I can’t smell it, or tell if they even have it. Why are you kicking me under the table, Hurin?”
“The trollocs might have the Horn,” Chucky shrugged. “I’m not so sure.”
“You seemed quite sure when you told the Lady Selene,” Loial said.
“Well Hurin seemed quite sure that we were just following trollocs, and that the Horn was somewhere else entirely,” Chucky responded.
“That was before!” Hurin cried, casting a terrified glance at Ingtar. “That was before! Now I’m sure of it! The Horn is with them! I can smell it in my bones!”
“The Horn!” Ingtar said, his eyes agleam.
“Who’s bloody Lady Selene?” Masema growled.
On the gentle suggestion of the Green Man, Contro retreated to his wagon with Cyberwollf to begin the task of ‘charging up’ for his miraculous conversions, while the rest of the group headed over to the sunny little courtyard where Logain moped under the watchful eye of a young Accepted with seven black bands around the hem of her dress.
The young woman curtseyed to Moiraine with deep respect, but eyed her companions suspiciously. Even with the Green Man hiding in the foliage near Cow and Contro’s wagon, they were a strange group. Janica and Debs stood to the front, examining Logain with unseeing and ooey-gooey eyes respectively. Puddin Taim stood solicitously behind them, his hands folded and his vest tucked in neatly. Off to one side, a rotten-drunk Lan in a Whitecloak Questioner’s robe and a Warder-cloak-and-jeans-wearing Forsaken_1 stood with unhappy expressions on their faces. One of them was watching Moiraine, the other Debs. Behind all of them, four Ogier seemed to be involved in a discreet brawl involving a pair of discarded pants.
“Visits with the prisoner are restricted,” the Accepted said stiffly, adding, “Aes Sedai,” as an afterthought.
“See,” Moiraine said, “it’s like this…” and then clubbed the girl with a small rock she’d picked up from the garden on the way over. The Darkfriend fell like a rag doll. Moiraine nudged her with a boot. “Somebody pick her up, take her back to the wagon and zap her.”
“Consider it done.”
“Not you, Hoarni.”
“I’ll do it,” Lan said, trying desperately to be helpful. Moiraine just grunted and turned her back on the two of them. Debs and Janica approached Logain, who looked up at them without interest.
“Oo er,” said Debs. “He does’nae half luke like Sean Bean. Oo er.”
“Stop saying ‘oo er’,” Janica snapped.
“Yeah,” Forsaken_1 agreed hotly.
Logain looked on with an empty, unhappy expression on his face. “Who are you?”
“We’re here to help ye,” Janica said. “We’re healers of a sort, and we’re going to Heal your problem. We’re going to make you channel again.”
“That’s cruel,” Logain murmured. “So cruel.”
“He’s not that good looking.”
“We can do it,” Janica went on. “We can bring back your power, and you can be the Dragon Reborn … as long as you promise to do as we tell you.”
“I thought you all thought I was a False Dragon?” Logain remarked.
“Anyway, he’s so old…”
“Shut up, Foreskin.”
“We dinnae think ye’re a false Dragon,” Debs said earnestly. “We think ye’re the best.”
“Oh yeah?” Forsaken_1 snapped. “Can he do this?” he stepped back, bounced on his toes for a moment, and attempted to perform a ninja-kick. “Ow, my knee!” Nobody watched him.
“Look, enough talk,” Janica said. “Just promise us that you’ll go on and be the Dragon as you were planning on doing all along, if we manage to Heal you. Face it – what have you got tae lose?”
Logain shrugged. “Alright. I’ll do it.”
“Oooh, let me, let me,” Debs said eagerly, and embraced the Source.
“Don’t do it the way you did last time,” Janica warned. “This is more important, you know. Try to do it properly.”
“Ach, nae bother, I’ll dae it properly. I’ll dae everythin’ properly. I’ll dae anythin’,” Debs breathed heavily, and embraced Logain with a moist flow of Spirit.
Forsaken_1 grimaced and turned away.
It was another fine and aimless day in the Spine of the World.
Shannon and Dr. Nick had thought that Cooper Two might have been able to help them figure out which of the items from the stasis box were trash, and which ones were treasure. They had no such luck, however – Cooper Two just didn’t appear to know very much in general.
“Ha!” he said, turning over one of the trinkets in his hands. “I never saw one like that before.”
“One what?” Shannon asked.
“One anything,” Cooper Two said, and put the object in the growing pile of ‘Danged If I Know’ items. There were two other much smaller piles, and as they watched Cooper Two picked up a new piece of junk – a set of bracelets, three in a row, connected by little chains, with things that looked like little stick-figure animals hanging off them – and added it to one of the two smaller piles. This pile they had dubbed the ‘Angry Al’ pile. “This one is a definite Angry Al,” he reported confidently. They had agreed on the code word when referring to anything related to the One Power, just in case some of the Aiel were listening. “Could smell it a mile away.”
“What’s this one?” Dr. Nick asked, patting the television set. “Some sort of machine? Or is it an Angry?”
Cooper shrugged in that nauseatingly boneless gholam way of his. “Don’t know,” he reported apologetically. “Slightly Angry, maybe … don’t really know. Something to do with moving fast, or going from place to place, but I never used one. It’s a weird new model. Now, how about this one…”
The gholam reached out and picked up a little pear-shaped medallion, and howled. There was a soft hissing sound, and smoke came off his fingers.
“Damn, that smarts!” he wailed, and sucked on his fingers mournfully. “Ow ow ow, damn damn damn!”
Shannon picked up the little ornament, which was quite cool to the touch, and added it to the third and smallest pile, simply called the ‘Ow’ pile. “Right,” he said. “Y’all need some goo for that?”
“No, no, I’m fine, I’m on top of it,” Cooper Two waved his fingers back and forth briskly, and sucked them again. “I was more surprised than hurt. Damn things get me every time.”
“Well!” Shannon spun to see Gaul standing at the rear of the wagon. “What are you doing, Nancy Sidesaddle?”
“Uh, we’re um, we’re dividin’ up the spoils from that there casket we gone done dugged up,” Shannon said quickly. “See, there’s this big pile for you an’ your men, and this little pile for me, and this little pile for Cooper Two, seein’ as how it was the stuff he was buried with, and he don’t want no more to do with it.”
“Now there’s a thing,” Gaul said solemnly. “I am glad we found you, Cooper Two. You are very generous. Normally, it is our habit to kill or discard such ominous findings as yourself, and not to trust in any who are not Aiel. But this time, my people and I feel it would be the right thing to allow you to continue with us, as our guest, and not to kill you as planned. I do not know why this is, but it is most strange, and the decision came upon us so suddenly. And now I am glad of it, having seen these riches,” he peered at the black square shape of what Shannon and Dr. Nick still couldn’t help thinking of as a television set. “What is that thing?”
“Uh, some sort of storage box,” Shannon replied. “We’re not sure how to open it yet, there’s probably some trick to it. Can we help you with anything?”
“Oh, no, not really. I was just wandering past,” Gaul said amiably. “I shall take the gai’shain on my next patrol,” he inclined his head to Cooper Two. ” May you always find water and shade.”
“Thanks. May you always find blood and, uh, a nice cramped space to curl up and sleep in I guess,” the gholam said warily. Gaul laughed aloud and rattled his spears against his buckler. Then, without further ado, he set off on his next pointless scouting mission. Dr. Nick sighed and scrambled after him.
Shannon watched the two ‘Aiel’ as they left the narrow path and approached the looming cliff nearby. Snow was gathered in several pockets along ledges at the top of the cliff, and several of the Aiel had been arguing about what it was. Shannon grinned broadly as Gaul started to climb the sheer rock-face, pausing only to shout something threatening at Dr. Nick, whose shoulders slumped. Shortly afterwards, the skinny engineer began to climb.
“How much longer until we get to the End Zone?” Cooper Two asked idly, lapsing back into the pseudo-military game-speak that gholam seemed to use when referring to their mission. “If I don’t Bag myself a Brace of Pheasant before Tee Zero, I’ll be on Holiday when the Pay Packet arrives.”
“Who can I kill tonight?” Cooper Two hissed. “I need to keep drinking to get my energy levels up, and keep them there. Otherwise I won’t be much good to you when the time comes to kill Ell Tee Tee.”
“Um,” Shannon said. “Can’t you kill another bear?”
“Sure,” Cooper Two growled. “And you sapiens can walk around eating beetles and worms and fungus while there’s mountain goats and deer to be had. Come on, which Pheasants can I Bag?”
“Hey,” Shannon glared at the gholam. “Who’s giving the orders around here?”
There was a bit too much of a pause.
“You…?” Cooper Two said hesitantly.
“Darn tootin’. So you go on and kill you another bear. And bring the body back, so we can eat it. Just so’s we’re all nice and even and ain’t nobody gettin’ a better part of no deal, alright?”
Grumbling, Cooper Two jumped out of the wagon and loped away down the path. Soon he was invisible amid the tumble of bounders and cliff-faces that made up this part of the mountains. The further he was from the wagon, the better his ta’veren sea-sickness seemed to be. Shannon sat back and looked at the collection of junk from the stasis box.
Apart from the disappointingly small ‘Ow’ pile, there didn’t seem to be much there that could help them defeat an enraged gholam. So far they’d been lucky, but it was only a matter of time before Cooper Two realised how long he’d been in suspended animation.