The Wheel of time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose in the abandoned city of Falme. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.
The wind blew up from the lungs of an Ogier, out between his lips and into the Horn of Valere. It swept through the intricate curves and coils of the silver instrument, echoing inside its mythical chambers, and finally escaped the flared, intricately-carved snout in a shimmering cascade of sound. It rang out mournfully through the smoke-wreathed, deserted streets of Falme, east across the battlegrounds of Toman Head, and out westwards into the choppy expanse of the Aryth Ocean.
Artur Hawkwing sighed. “Yes?”
“Hi,” Hoarni said, paying far more attention to the assortment of female Heroes than to Hawkwing himself. “Um, I lost my left boot when we went to sleep last night. It looks like this one,” he held up a huge, mud-encrusted boot almost two feet from toe to heel, “only it has a green lace through it, though, not a brown one. The matching lace broke while we were going through the Ways, and-”
“You summoned the Heroes of the Horn to help you find a lost shoe?” Artur Hawkwing roared.
“Nobody else would help me,” Hoarni complained. “Debs and Janica said they were too busy setting the Dragon on the right course, and they sent Wyse, Coarshus and Frendli to look through the ruins of the palace where the High Lord Turak was,” the Ogier paused. “I wonder if he really did have two racks,” he went on whimsically. “Or if that was just another way of saying he had two wives, and each of them had a rack. Whooo, momma.”
“We come to the call of the Horn,” Artur Hawkwing said, “and we follow the Dragon – or the Banner, at least, even if the Dragon isn’t really the Dragon. But this is ridiculous.”
“We can go and ask Debs about it, if you want,” Hoarni said innocently.
Artur sighed. “Okay, people, spread out. We’re looking for a boot this size, with a green lace. Standard search formation.”
“Did you make camp here?” Birgitte asked.
“Try thinking back to where you last saw it,” Gaidal Cain suggested.
“Were you wearing it when you went to bed?” Rogosh Eagle-Eye added, already passing his fierce gaze across the scattered ruins of the merchants’ square.
The other three Ogier arrived through the mist just as afternoon was fading towards evening. They were accompanied by a … well, a human being of some description. They all looked the same to Hoarni, except for the girl ones. To tell the truth, even they had a certain sameness to them, even if it was a nice, soft, bumpy, curvy sameness.
“What happened this time?” Wyse asked.
“I lost my shoe,” Hoarni said.
Wyse sighed, and his ears drooped unhappily. “Debs will be angry,” he said. “She told you there was no more blowing of the Horn, unless we really needed it.”
“I did really need it, Wyse,” Hoarni protested. “We’re not going to be staying here forever. The Dragon and his followers left days and days ago, and if we don’t get after them soon, the whole guidance from afar plan will fail. I know it’s a good idea, but even so … anyway, we can’t follow them unless I have both of my shoes. I’ll limp the whole way.”
“I’ve never known you to be limp,” Frendli grinned, and offered Hoarni a pinch of chewing-hash from a shrub he’d sung into existence the night before. Hoarni accepted gratefully, and the rubbery herb calmed him straight away.
“Is that it over there in that overturned melon cart?” the newly-arrived human being said suddenly, pointing off to one side without seeming to turn his head.
Coarshus walked over to the ruined vehicle, and picked his way through the crushed melons. He reached inside and pulled out Hoarni’s boot. “Here it is,” he said in wonderment. “And there’s a melon in here with a funny hole in it full of white slime. In fact, there’s three of them. Hoarni, what were you doing over here last night?”
Hoarni hurried over and grabbed his boot. “I couldn’t sleep,” he said, his eyebrows quivering in embarrassment. “I didn’t think anybody was going to look at those moist, juicy, luscious melons.”
A musclebound Hero of the Horn swaggered into the square with his huge steel longbow over one shoulder and a shoe in his other hand. He wiped sweat from his craggy forehead with the hanging ends of his red headband.
“Hey, yo,” he said in his strange, thick dialect. “I found dis shoe over in the barracks. It’s got green laces. Sorta.”
“It’s alright, Ram Bow,” Wyse said to the Shepherd Vigilante. “We found it already.”
The human being they’d brought back with them was snickering into the sleeve of his black robe.
“Ram Bow,” he giggled as the Heroes began to wander back into the mists from whence they had come. “Yo, Adrian! Wait, that’s Rocky.”
“Who is this fellow?” Hoarni asked, stepping forwards and looking at the strange human being curiously. “He’s got good eyes, to spot my shoe like that. Not even Rogosh saw it over in the melons.”
“We don’t know who he is,” Coarshus said. “We just found him wandering around in the back streets of the city. I think he’s a gleeman, he says his name is Mister-”
“Eugene? What are you doing here?”
The skinny human being spun to face Janica and Debs as they approached through the fading mist.
“Oh sheesh,” he muttered. “It’s the Hindle chicks.”
“Who’s this skinny wee streak o’ pess?” Debs demanded.
“This is Mister C of 9,” Janica replied.
“I think I was going by the title ‘Mister See, of Mayene’,” Mister C said in a low growl. “And I should have known you two would be around. What’s with the dominatrix act?”
“It’s an a’dam,” Janica said. “We’re linked. I’m a channeler, and Debs is a sul’dam.”
“Right,” Mister C grunted. “I believe you. I bet Chucky would love to get in on the chained-up-obeying-orders game, if he was still here.”
“What do you mean?” Janica demanded. “He was here? Where was he, and where has he gone?”
“An’ what’s wi’ the sunglassies?” Debs added.
Mister C of 9 turned to one side to put his back to the Ogier, then lifted the lenses from in front of his face. Debs stepped back a pace.
“Typical,” she snapped. “Put those back on before the Ogier see. They’ll blow the Horn again.”
“What is it?” Janica whispered.
“He’s a ye-knoo-wha’,” Debs muttered.
“A ye-knoo,” Debs waved her plump hand desperately. “Like Shaidar Haran.”
“Oh,” Janica nodded. “That is typical.”
“Who’s Shaidar Haran?” Coarshus asked nervously.
“A gleeman,” Janica said. “We’d better get moving. You,” she fixed the empty space a foot to Mister C’s left with a deadly stare, “you can explain on the way.”
Muffin Vamps awoke with a groan. His entire body ached.
“Oh, my beautiful bod,” he whimpered. “My beautiful, beautiful bod. Who’s going to want to fight over the right to have desperate, erotic, toy-inclusive sex with me now?”
“Well not me, that’s for sure.”
Vamps opened his eyes and slowly focussed on a huge, gap-toothed figure sitting next to him. The looming figure looked down and smiled with concern.
“I think you’re going to be okay.”
“No, I’m Perrin Aybara. What’s your name?”
“Puddin Taim, ask me again and I’ll tell you the same. I think … I have an owwie.”
“A what? Are you an infant? Yeah, you got hurt. You took a nasty wound to the kidneys, but I think you’ll live. Sooner or later, one of the Aes Sedai will come and Heal you.”
Vamps tried to sit up, but the horrible burning freezing pain clenched inside him and clubbed him back prone. He sobbed quietly with the horrible awful feeling. “I was injured by Ba’alzamon,” he said between hiccups. “Fighting in the sky. It hurts so much, I want my Mom … where are we?”
“We’re in the Dragon’s camp,” Perrin said, looking a little uncomfortable at Puddin’s unashamed blubbering. “In the Mountains of Mist. We’ve been travelling for a while – we had to get away from Toman Head quickly, and this is the first time we’ve really stopped. But Puddin, you weren’t fighting the Dark One. That was Logain. Everybody saw it. It was a magnificent battle, the Dragon and the Dark One, it wasn’t you. You were just pretending,” there was a definite edge of condescension in the farmhand’s voice.
Muffin Vamps bristled with self-righteousness. “What? Did you see it?”
“Of course not. I was busy fighting. But I saw somebody up in the air battling with a great figure of shadows and flame. And he won, and it stands to reason it was the Dragon, that’s what everybody’s saying, and that’s what the Dragon says. It’s all over the camp.”
Puddin Taim reasserted himself. He remembered all the hard work Debs and Janica had done, and overrode the urge to brag and be a moron. “Oh, well of course. Logain. He’s the Dragon, sure enough. It was very brave of him. I bet a guy that brave just has women flocking around him,” the remaining smidgeon of Vamps made him add, “Almost as many women as I’ve driven mad with desire in the past few weeks.”
Perrin’s face darkened a little. “Well, yes,” he said, and turned away. “The Dragon has proven very popular with some of the ladies, especially the Crown Princess of Andor and … and Egwene.”
“Egwene? What’s she doing here? Anyway, I thought she was in love with Contro.”
Perrin snorted. “And I thought she was still grieving for Rand. But last time I saw her, she was staggering out of the Lord Dragon’s tent as bandy-legged as a man with a belly full of spring apples. And she went back in there three days ago and we haven’t seen her since. He surely has some sort of power. The Lady Elayne and Liandrin Sedai are telling all sorts of dirty stories. And even if they weren’t, the tent is made of canvas and we hear everything that happens in there anyway.”
“I don’t want to hear these stories,” Puddin covered his ears as best he could, but his arms were tingly and limp and even trying to move them made him weep and break out in a sweat. “A woman’s reputation should never be … sullied with … such public … and tasteless … oh what the fuck. Tell me everything. And I’ll tell you some things about my wife that’ll make your toes curl.”
Just as Perrin was beginning to go into detail about Elayne’s habit of screaming her half-brother’s name in the throes of orgasm, a cruel beam of sunlight splashed into the tent and a plump, ageless woman leaned over Vamps’ pallet.
“What have we here?” she said, tilting her head from one side to the other.
“He was stabbed by something, Verin Sedai,” Perrin said, jumping to his feet. “and he’s delirious. I was just filling him in about everything that’s been happening…”
“So I heard,” Verin said curtly. “The Dragon’s tent isn’t the only one with canvas walls, master Aybara. Perhaps the village gossip can wait a while. Leave us, and I’ll see what we can do about this fellow.”
Perrin left, and Vamps looked up at Verin helplessly.
“I have an owwie,” he bleated.
“Yes,” Verin nodded, looking at the festering, circular wound in Vamps’ side. “You certainly do. And you’re also a channeler. And it was you up in the sky, no matter what everybody is saying.”
“You know about that?” Vamps murmured. “You know that Logain isn’t…?”
“Logain’s about as convincing a Dragon as I would be, if I put on a pair of leather pants and drew herons on my hands with charcoal,” Verin scoffed. “But there were two women in Falme who were doing everything they could to pass him off as the real Dragon. We know, of course, that the real Dragon is dead. We let them think they’d gotten away with it,” she went on before Vamps could ask a dumb question. “Logain is a far more useful Dragon to us – tractable, public, dashing … and he’s got all the trimmings. The Banner, and once we’d worked a bit of Aes Sedai magic on him, he was happy enough to burn the herons into his hands properly. He was also distressingly … opposed to the idea of bedding down with his many female admirers, until we worked some more magic on him. Some of them were opposed to it too – especially Elayne. I think she was the only one really required by the Karaethon Cycle, but we wanted to be sure – the Dragon is supposed to die surrounded by women, at least according to some part of the prophesy that I’ve never seen. Elayne is a Princess of Andor – it’s always a Princess, you see. Your friends weren’t the only ones to study stories. Our … leader … is something of a philosopher as well. It was from our leader that we learned so much of what is expected.”
“You used Compulsion on them?” Vamps hissed, and Verin’s eyes widened.
“Of course,” she nodded to herself. “I might have known you would know what some of the ter’angreal you were carrying actually do. I told Liandrin the same thing, but she was in too much of a hurry to make our delightful Dragon lower his guard and raise his sword. She’s always been that way around powerful men. I should thank you, incidentally, for bringing such a bag of treasures into our possession,” she smiled. “A lot of it was worthless, but a couple of angreal and a ter’angreal for performing Compulsion makes all the difference. But the dagger. Where did you get the dagger from? Shadar Logoth is notoriously dangerous.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Vamps said, honestly enough. “That bag wasn’t mine, I was just looking after it for some friends.”
“You killed one of the Chosen with it.”
Vamps suddenly realised with a sickening slowness on the uptake that Moiraine and Debs and Janica had been right – the Aes Sedai had been transformed into Darkfriends somehow, and he was talking to one.
“Now you might realise why you’re here,” Verin said. “For the time being, our plans coincide with those of your friends in Falme. We want a Dragon to be alive and active. We want the prophesies to be fulfilled. We want the Dragon in our control. It has been ordered by the Nae’blis himself. But try as we will, no matter how many women we throw at Logain, he’s not the Dragon,” Verin leaned down and smiled at Vamps. “You are.”
Muffin Vamps elbowed his way into the driver’s seat. “Damn right I am,” he said, and then began to weep. “But I got such an owwie…”
“Yes. The problem is, you’re a pathetic Dragon. You cry and moan one minute, and then swagger and make a fool of yourself the next. You’re sheer Far Madding man-putty, but you’re a channeler and you’re already half-insane. You’re no good to us. The only thing you’re good for, ironically enough, is being the actual Dragon. Here’s our proposal. You come along with Logain, and he can be the Dragon in the public eye. You’ll be close enough to fulfill the prophesies, and everybody will think it was him. You can take all of his falls, and fulfill all of the sacrifices.”
“You want me to be the Dragon’s stunt double,” Vamps whispered.
“That’s … weirdly put, but yes.”
“And if I refuse?”
“Your lover, Nynaeve al’Meara, is here in the camp as well,” Verin said. “She’s been desperate to get in here and begin working her special powers of Healing on you, the silly girl. She doesn’t yet know the power of the Great Lord of the Dark. If you refuse to aid us, or if you tell her any of this, we’ll see to it that she spends the next month staring at the Dragon’s roof.”
“I’ll never serve the Dark-”
“And the month after that biting on the Dragon’s pillows.”
Verin gave a quick smile, and bobbed her head. “Nasty is what we do. Now,” she clasped her hands, and stood up. Her face creased with motherly concern. “Shall we let the worried lady in, or shall we inform the Dragon Reborn that we have finally found a willing woman for his infamous Mortar and Pestle fantasy?”
Puddin Taim, unable to conceive of any deed that would bring humiliation or degradation to any member of the fairer sex, shuddered and closed his eyes. Plus, he really wanted somebody to try to stop him from being in so much terrible pain.
“Send her in,” he said.