Forsaken_1 found Contro and Cybes in the gaudy Tinker Wagon, rehearsing their tickle-tums. Vamps was lounging a safe distance from Cow, who had taken to biting at the Far Madding man’s ponytail.
“Contro,” Forsaken_1 said, trying to ignore Vamps’ huge smirk and the ask-me-what-I’ve-been-doing expression in his eyes, “Debs and Janica want to know if you’ve seen Egwene lately.”
“Egwene? Ha ha ha! Actually, yes! Funny that! I haven’t seen her since last night, though! Ha ha ha!! She had to leave! I think she was upset because she wasn’t as good at tickle-tums as I was! Ha ha ha! Honestly!”
“Shut up. Do you know where she went?”
“No idea! Why would I know??!”
“She said she knew you – remember, the Tinker camp? I wasn’t there, but they took you in, remember? Of course you don’t. Look, nobody else has seen her, and we need to find her so you can do that zapping thing on her, if she’s been turned already.”
“Oh! Ha ha ha! Was I supposed to do that? Ha ha ha!! That’s funny, because we were doing tickle-tums for a long time, and I don’t think she got a zap! I felt something that might have been a zap, but it was all funny!! And it was when she was tickle-tumming me! Ha ha ha!! I told her she should tickle-tum me with her hands, not with her tongue, but she insisted! Ha ha ha! Daft woman!!”
“Stop,” Forsaken_1 grimaced. “Haven’t I put up with enough already today?”
“Ha ha ha!! That’s what I said! I think! Anyway, she wasn’t a good tickle-tummer! She kept on slipping downwards, and that was when I felt the funny zap, but she said she didn’t mind!! She said it tasted like good Two Rivers curd, whatever curd is! Ha ha ha!!”
“Oh sheesh, eww, come on,” Forsaken_1 turned away, and regretfully ended up face-to-face with Vamps. “What about you? Have you seen Egwene around?”
“No, but I happen to know Nynaeve and Egwene are both interested in having a threesome with me,” Vamps immediately asserted. “Nynaeve told me so last night. Here, smell this,” he held up his index finger.
“What am I supposed to be smelling?” Forsaken_1 said suspiciously. Vamps went pale as Puddin Taim took over.
“I’m sure I don’t know,” he stammered. “My goodness, how terrible, what must you think of me … I can hardly believe the impropriety. Of course, you must forgive me, and we will never mention this again. I should never have shown such disrespect for Mistress Nynaeve.”
“Right,” Forsaken_1 grunted. “But you’ve seen her?”
“I could not comment on that, and you could surely not expect me to,” Puddin said, absolutely mortified. “I have not seen her all morning, let us leave it at that. Tasteful.”
“Tasteful as your finger,” Forsaken_1 said, and marched back to the garden without waiting around to hear the piteous protestations of innocence. Talking with Muffin Vamps and Puddin Taim was a tightrope of loathing and helpless sympathy.
Debs and Janica exchanged a glance when Forsaken_1 reported the apparent disappearance.
“Liandrin from the Black Ajah,” Janica said. “She takes Egwene and Elayne and Nynaeve to Toman Head and sells them to the Seanchan. I think Elayne and Nynaeve escape, but…”
“Wait a fucking tick,” Moiraine snapped. “Liandrin in the Black Ajah? You mean now that everybody has been turned, right?”
“Aye,” Debs said, rather than get into another argument. She went back to looking at Logain. He was re-drawing the heron on his hand, and she liked to think it was she who caused his palms to sweat. “Tha’s reet.”
“The Daughter-Heir is taken too? And who are these Seanchan?”
“Long story,” Janica said. “Look, why don’t you stay here with Contro and Puddin and Foreskin and try to get the Aes Sedai turned back to the right path? We’ll take Logain and the Ogier and go to Toman Head, get the girls back and see to it that the Dragon is known. We can meet back here-”
“No!” Forsaken_1 gurgled. “I mean, wait! There’s something I have to tell you, warn you-”
“Ach, shut the feck up,” Debs growled. “We’ve heard enough o’ yer storrees.”
“And how are you going to get there?” Moiraine demanded. “Through the Ways?”
“Right,” Janica said. “Same way Liandrin did.”
“How do you know all this?”
“Will you stop asking that?”
Vamps crashed into the garden, with Lan staggering along behind.
“I tried to stop him from giving away our position,” Lan gasped, “and I tried to warn you he was coming, but you weren’t listening to my bird-calls.”
“What sort of a Whitecloak is he?” Min asked.
“I could not let you head into dangerous territory on your own,” Vamps said gallantly. “And I must do what I can to rescue Mistress Nynaeve. You have to let me come with you. Please.”
Janica rolled her eyes at Debs. Debs was looking at Logain. He had such pretty hands.
“Alright, you can come,” she said unwillingly.
“You don’t know the half of it,” Vamps grinned. “When I come, I come with reinforcements.”
“Oh yeah? I come three times all at once!” Hoarni chimed in from his position over near the golden chest.
“Only three?” Vamps flipped his hand scornfully. “I come that much just as a warm-up.”
“It’s going to be a long trip,” Janica muttered.
It was really rather enjoyable to watch the Aes Sedai getting their stories straight, without anybody else noticing. Chucky knew one of them was a Darkfriend, but he had no hope of convincing anybody else of this fact. Mister C of 9 might have been able to help, but that wasn’t the sort of thing one could depend upon. For that matter, there was something unusual about Verin too. If Chucky didn’t know better, he’d say she was lying. And having so much fun doing so, she was almost drunk on it.
“Yes … the Amyrlin Seat sent us, with these girls,” Liandrin said to Verin. “They were in … great danger, and they are … helping with … matters. Yes. Matters. And they ask too many questions of those who are above them. What about you, Verin Sedai?”
“Well, we were sent from Fal Dara,” Verin replied. “Sent by … by the Amyrlin Seat, yes … and we are searching for the Horn of Valere. For the betterment of the Borderlanders. Yes.”
“Yes. Jolly good for you, we all like those Borderlanders.”
“And we managed to make Machin Shin go away, yes … by the orders of, yes, the Amyrlin Seat, who would have thought her orders had an effect on the Black Wind, eh? Ha ha, yes, that sounds right … oh, and of course we channeled as well, more powerfully than any Aes Sedai basically ever, didn’t we, girls? They are very nice girls and I like them a lot.”
“Me too, although I have only just met them,” Verin grimaced at Nynaeve, obviously intending a smile but missing by a considerable margin. “Perhaps we should get going.”
“Oh my, yes. The sooner we get moving, the sooner we can save those delightful Borderlanders.”
“Light bless those Borderlanders,” Verin said, and stifled a giggle.
“How are the Seanchan?” Chucky asked quickly, and was rewarded with the sight of Liandrin jumping half a span in the air.
“Uh, ah, what’s a Seanchan, then?” she asked, and pouted.
“Nothing,” Chucky said. “Lady Selene brought me through the Worlds of If so I could tell some stories at the Tar Valon Hornathon. She seemed to think it was very important that I get the story of the Seanchan straight.”
Liandrin’s honey-coloured braids trembled. “You … you know the Lady Selene?”
“Under several names,” Chucky nudged Mister C of 9, who fell into Chucky’s ploy with a skill that was born of long, bitter experience.
“Oh yes, she was a demon on those gollums.”
“Yeah, those. And we talked about a lot of stuff. She was definitely looking for the Horn of Valere. Or, at least, looking for the people who were looking for it,” he gestured to the confused Borderlanders. “We’re just here to tell the tale of the Horn, you know. And for me to do my halfman impression. They dig my halfman impression.”
The Fal Darans’ faces cleared, and Ingtar nodded with a broad grin. “Aye, that’s a good one, his halfman face. Show them, Mister See.”
“Liandrin…?” Verin asked. “Do these men know too mu…” her voice ended before her lips stopped moving, and she stood with her face slack as Mister C of 9 whipped off his sunglasses and drew Stormbringer Snaga.
“Gnyar,” Mister C said, and put his sunglasses back on. “I do have other tricks, too…”
“That won’t be necessary,” Liandrin said quickly, and turned back to Chucky. “You are clearly to be trusted, you … marvellous gleeman,” she pouted again, in what Chucky decided was a highly annoying manner. It was almost as bad a characteristic as Nynaeve’s sniffing. “Would you like me to warm your blankets? It can be cold, in the Ways…”
“I’d rather eat a live…” Chucky started, then decided for diplomacy. “Sorry, no. No can do. I’m a happily married man. Ah, married to the … you know.”
Liandrin – and rather confusingly, Verin too – nodded with understanding. Mister C of 9 sniggered.
“Completely under you-know-who’s thumb, he is,” the apprentice added with relish. “He’s completely you-know-who-whipped.”
“No wonder, if he knows the Lady Selene personally,” Liandrin snapped.
“I know her too,” Hurin said.
“So do I,” Loial admitted.
“You?” Verin blinked. “An Ogier?”
“Of course. Down with the majority, death to all conformists, bring down mainstream radio and castrate all morons who think Offspring is alternative.”
“Whose offspring?” Verin tilted her head.
“An alternative to what?” Liandrin added.
“Can we get on?” Ingtar snapped. “The horses grow restive.”
“And that blister on my scrotum just burst,” Mat added. “Does anybody want to see it?”
Perrin laughed. “I was wondering what that smell was!”
“You can smell it?” Mat asked in amazement. “It’s got to be a level three bursting!”
“Child Foreskin would be proud of you,” Loial said.
“Moiraine had a new Warder called Foreskin,” Egwene commented. “I heard him arguing with Child Lan a few nights ago, about some sort of bet.”
Nynaeve sniffed. “Child Lan! More apt that he knows, that title,” she sniffed again for good measure.
“It’s going to be a long trip,” Chucky muttered.
They headed into the Ways.
“I do not like the turn our adventures have taken, Nancy Sidesaddle.”
Shannon was momentarily winded, and could only pant in reply. The air up in the mountains was thin and hard to breathe, his load of barrels was weighing him down heavily, and his breasts had been sweating steadily for some hours. The chafe was driving him insane.
“Boy howdy,” he said eventually. “You and me both.”
“I think I will give one more of my barrels to the gai’shain.”
“Me too,” Shannon said.
“Ung,” Dr. Nick said. Since he had a rope sling in his mouth, from which a barrel was hanging in a crudely-woven basket, he couldn’t exactly say anything else. “Unging unks.”
“Gai’shain should not talk,” Gaul said, sounding vaguely uncomfortable. He secured one of his own barrels of blood on the top of Dr. Nick’s towering stack, and then took one of Shannon’s and rested it under Dr. Nick’s chin. Apart from his gritted teeth, angry eyes and furiously red ears, Dr. Nick was a mass of barrels. Behind him, attached by a splintery pole and a few strips of flyblown human skin, was the rickety remains of the wagon, and their stash of junk from the stasis box, and several more barrels. “Ah,” Gaul went on, flexing his shoulders in his cadin’sor. “That is much better.”
“We’ll make good time now,” Shannon agreed.
They were already through the highest passes, and were descending towards the Wetlands with many a slip and stumble, urged on by the ever-cheerful Cooper Two. The gholam was encouraging, and had a vast store of marching songs at his disposal. It’s a Long Way to Tip a Telamon was one of his favourites, and even when he sang it three times in a row, it wasn’t very annoying – he had a strangely nice singing voice. He even took turns carrying some of the barrels, when he was thirsty.
“Hey, Coop,” Shannon asked after a while. “Can I ask you somethin’?”
“Of course,” Cooper Two said happily. “Why, you’re my best friend.”
“Oh, right. Well, I was a-wonderin’ if we could stop an’ find us some vittles. Some o’ those ducks that flew past an hour or so ago, or something … we’re all real hungry.”
Cooper Two gave Shannon a patient, knowing look. “Nancy, I don’t think you’re really hungry,” he said sympathetically. “After all the trouble I went to, making that jerky for you, you didn’t eat any of it.”
“You made it out of dead Aielmen!”
“I thought you’d like it,” Coop’s eyelid twitched.
“I liked it,” Shannon said hastily. “We all liked it. But we couldn’t, ahh, eat it, because there was, um, we couldn’t eat it because…”
“We have a law against eating our own dead,” Gaul said. “Unless they happen to be stillborn, or da’tsang, or enemies, or named Snaggus.”
“Yeah, it’s against the … Snaggus?”
“It is ancient history, Nancy Sidesaddle,” Gaul said coldly. “I would suggest you do not inquire too deeply.”
“Well, I can respect a law,” Cooper Two said. “How about if I throw stones at some of those ducks, and then cook them for you? Or I could throw stones at you until you forget the silly law…?”
“We like the first idea,” Shannon said, and Dr. Nick nodded quickly, almost spilling some of his barrels. “We love the first idea, yee haw what a great idea.”
Cooper Two beamed.
In spite of herself, Janica had to admit that whatever it was Debs saw in Logain, it wasn’t entirely her imagination. Of course, it might just be the presence of Vamps and Hoarni in their party so dramatically lowering the average, but Logain seemed to be a genuinely pleasant person – like Puddin Taim, without the constant threat of a hostile takeover.
“I never found the time to read the classics,” he said to Debs and Janica as they made their way hastily through the Ways. They travelled light – which is to say the Ogier were hauling the majority of their belongings. “I know a few of the adventures of Jain Farstrider, but it wasn’t really … I don’t know how to say it. It lacked the pull of real history. I know they were meant to have actually been real and everything, but they seemed more like warmed-over myth. Some of the stuff in the Royal library of Andor, now … that stuff was great. I got most of my knowledge of the Dragon just from reading the old tablets in the basement. Give me a lantern and a bottle of good wine, and I could live down there. The journals of Artur Hawkwing were just amazing…”
“I read a book one time,” Vamps commented. Debs and Janica were rolling their eyes before he even finished speaking. “I was in the middle of reading it when my wife came and took it away from me. Then she fucked the shit out of me. I never did find that book again.”
“Wyse,” Debs said, turning and changing the subject as quickly as she could. “We’re comin’ up tae another seenpoost.”
Wyse lumbered up, laden with bags and bundles, the heavy golden chest containing the Horn of Valere and the Dragon Banner under one arm. He looked at the scarred stone, and pointed with his elbow.
“Down that ramp there,” he said. “It also says ‘Caution – Slippery When Wet’.”
“Say,” the Far Madding American grinned. “That reminds me of a story.”
“Dinnae,” Debs warned.
“What? I was driving a wagon of firewood from the windfall at the north end of town, and the roads were slippery. It was frost, and not actual wetness, but the roads were certainly slippery. The wagon slid the full length of Goodboy street, and almost overturned in front of the smithy. But the funny thing was, some wood fell out of the back, and landed in the forge. Not a bit of it spilled!”
There was a thoughtful silence as Puddin Taim finished his nice little story.
“Y’knoo,” Debs said, “That was an alreet anecdoot.”
“True, too,” Vamps confirmed. “I’m totally and completely honest. Maybe that’s what women love about me.”
“You’re an inspiration, Master Taim,” Logain said, casting a wink at the sul’dam and damane. “Why, five minutes talking with you, and suddenly death at the hands of the Dark One loses its menace.”
Vamps grinned. “Hell yeah. No need to be afraid while I’m here. I’m going to go back and tell the Ogier.”
Janica watched the Vamps-shaped blur fade blessedly back into the shadows. “You like teasing people who are too thick to notice it too,” she commented. “My husband would like you.”
“I’m sure I’d like him as well,” Logain said with a wide smile.
“Damn reet ye would,” Debs said stoutly. “He’s a Hindle.”
Finally, they came to a Waygate, and Wyse put down his luggage to fumble with the leaf carvings.
“What can we expect out here?” Logain said, touching the hilt of his sword.
“We’re not really sure,” Janica replied. “There’s Seanchan in Falme, and Whitecloaks attacking. Some of the Seanchan are Darkfriends, and a lot of them are sul’dam and damane, like we are. Channelers, I mean, except the woman in grey is a slave. It’s difficult to explain. We should be able to slip in unnoticed.”
Logain looked back at Vamps, Coarshus, Frendli and Hoarni with justified pessimism. “If you say so.”
Wyse sighed, and the gate began to grind open. “Did it. Let’s get out of here.”
They staggered into the sudden bright sunlight, and looked around.
“I’ll be fecked,” Debs murmured.
“Ach! Leashie, begorrah! Wha’ ye doin’ here, ye big lass?”
The deserted Waygate outside of Falme had become the temporary refuelling post for the raken boys.
“Good God,” Janica murmured as the indistinct-but-colourful shapes formed up around them. “This is’nae the same crowd that we met in Seanchan, is it?”
“Nae,” Debs said with a broad grin. “This is the advance party.”
Vamps and Logain were staring in amazement at the insect-helmeted men all around them, and the Ogier were quietly paralytic with fear. Janica heard one of them fumbling frenziedly for the catches of the golden chest, and cast a warning look back over her shoulder. She couldn’t be sure if she’d looked in the right direction, but the sounds of frantic Horn-preparation ceased.
The Seanchan soldiers were greatly impressed to find a sul’dam and no less than four off-duty Deathwatch Guards suddenly in their midst. They told Debs readily that the bulk of the Forerunners were stationed at Falme, and had not made any big incursions into ‘inland Chaggabaggawoggaland’ as yet. They had come here on the orders of the High Lady Suroth, who had declared the gateway a security risk. They’d stripped away the scrub surrounding it, and had so far eluded the white-robed men who seemed intent on defending the nearby countryside. Less than a week before, some other people had come through the gate, and Suroth had apparently met them. They’d all gone somewhere for a piss-up, at least according to the raken fliers – a piss-up to which the rank and file hadn’t been invited, thank ye very much indeed. When Janica tried to ask a question, the raken fliers laughed and nudged Debs and made jokes about her talking damane.
“Ach, I forgot,” Debs hissed, and turned to the soldiers. “She’s a gude lass, I will’nae hear a word against her,” the raken boys fell over themselves apologising and assuring they meant no offence, and offering to ceremonially execute themselves if the sul’dam was unhappy. She waved away their speeches. “She was jes’ remindin’ me, I was meant tae feend oot aboot sommat. Were there channelers with the last group?”
“Marath’damane,” Janica added quietly.
“Aye, there were,” the captain said. “The High Leedy tuke ’em awee fer the drenken’. We dinna knae anythin’ moor.”
“It sounds like Egwene and Liandrin and Nynaeve,” Vamps said quietly, his brow creased with genuine concern. “And it sounds as though they were taken hostage. Remember the books? They took Egwene and collared her.”
“Was this before or after your wife fucked the shit out of you?” Logain murmured.
“During, actually. She liked to read the bondage scenes while we did it. Ever seen a female ejaculation? My wife used to go like a little fountain when she read those bondage scenes.”
Debs cut off the conversation. “It does’nae soond like they did it that wee. It soonds like they all went somewhere. An’ had a piss-up.”
“And I know why,” Janica muttered. “They were’nae alune.”
“Who was it?” Debs wondered. “We left most o’ the guys back in Tar Valon.”
“I don’t know,” Janica said. “It could almost be anybody. We didn’t know Vamps was going to be here, or Cybes. There was clearly a second round of winners, and we never read about them on the newsgroup,” she sighed in annoyance. “It might even be Chucky again, although I don’t know how he got caught up with the Black Ajah.”
Nearby, a raken landed, and a scout jumped off its back. He ran towards the captain, shouting something Janica couldn’t quite understand. Debs rumbled, and Janica felt a surge of adrenaline through the a’dam.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Weetclooks,” Debs said gutturally. “Weetclooks attackin’.”