“I told you so.”
If there was one thing insane people hated, Chucky reflected, it was a tubby bastard telling them ‘I told you so’. He made a point to say it at least three or four times a day, even when there was nothing in particular to say it about. He’d grown braver over the past week, especially when it became clear that Fain didn’t want him hurt. Domon had already tried, several times, to either kill or otherwise soil the gleeman, but Fain had growled and snarled at the disgusting sailor. They fought like dogs, but Fain always won for some reason. They were funny to watch. They’d be a lot funnier if they didn’t have him tied up over the back of a scruffy, angry little pony, but it always paid to look at the humourous side of things.
Right now, the humourous side of things was that for all their growling and snuffling and wailing about the tugging in their heads, Padan Fain and Bayle Domon had missed the Dragon’s camp in the Mountains of Mist – missed it by a considerable distance – and had carried on southeast into the foothills, where they had gotten completely lost. And Chucky had told them, three days before, that they should have turned uphill and gone into the next valley where the waterfalls were emptying into. He’d also told them that the Dragon was dead and that they were operating on instructions left by the Dark One and were seriously out of date, but they hadn’t listened.
“I told you so. We’re out of the mountains, you know. Whatever camp is up there, we’ve missed it by miles. Where are we going now?”
“Silence!” Fain boomed. He was currently going through one of his ‘Mordeth’ cycles, and was very bossy and annoying. Fortunately, the rise of Mordeth in Fain’s little mental playgroup tended to herald a complete regression to fawning subservience in Bayle Domon, so the hulking, stinking sailor backed away and groveled. “We go this way.”
And so they did. It wasn’t as if Chucky had much choice. If he complained and shouted too much, Fain would not let him get off the pony and stretch in the afternoon. They carried on southeast, and by that evening they had descended out of the foothills and into farmland. Mordeth, Ordeith and all the other grand monsters faded into the background, and Fain began whining and gnawing at his fingers in anxiety. Domon cast frequent glances back at the mountains.
“We’re in Ghealdan, so we are,” the hairy creature reported. “It pulls, it hurts, I need it, it’s mine, it pulls…”
“Quiet,” Fain said softly, and gave Domon’s shoulder a reassuring scratch. “We’ll camp here for the night, and head into the closest village for food in the morning. Let the gleeman down.”
They set up camp and made themselves comfortable. They ate food from the pony’s saddlebags, and Chucky got a few scraps of leftover dried meat that he was beginning to suspect was trolloc or even myrddraal. Domon curled up by the fire and gnawed on a huge bone with a hoof at one end, and Fain sat staring into the flames with an eerie grin.
“Gleeman,” he said, in a distant voice.
“Yes?” Chucky said around a mouthful of halfjerky.
“Rand al’Thor is dead.”
“Yes he is.”
“Got his head exploded like a tomato.”
“An exploding tomato.”
“Until he was dead.”
“So what am I supposed to do next?” Fain asked, and then started to scream with laughter. The giggles became howls, the howls became shrieks, and finally, almost an hour later, the shrieks went hoarse and Fain was left gasping and staring into the campfire, twitching and wheezing and clawing at his face. Chucky rolled over and went to sleep, secure in the knowledge that his travelling company couldn’t possibly get more annoying.
The next morning, Chucky was placed on the pony – on his backside.
“What’s with the new angle?” he asked in surprise as Fain passed him the reins and settled his colourful patched cloak around his shoulders.
“You’re a gleeman, with a pair of colleagues,” Fain said calmly, “and you’re going from village to village, paying your way with stories and songs,” he reached down, and produced Chucky’s bagpipes. He handed them up to the frowning Australian. “Your fare is a room for the night, food and drink for yourself and your friends, and directions to the next town. You’ll also ask the innkeeper and any local gossips about a pair of women. One tall and heavy and garbed with distinctive lightning-bolt patterns, the second tiny and thin and dressed in grey. They may have a dagger with them.”
Domon began to sob thickly.
“Seanchan,” Chucky blinked. “A sul’dam and damane. Why would they have the dagger? Was it at Falme? Were they at Falme?”
“No more questions,” Fain said, and slapped the pony roughly to set it on its way.
Late that morning, they rode into Jarra, just north of the Amadician border according to Fain’s impeccable sense of direction.
“It’s easy to find out where you are,” the wizened peddler said, “when a part of you is in Shayol Ghul, another part is in Shadar Logoth, another part is in the Ways and the rest is plum-bollocks lost. It’s a matter of simple triangulation.”
“Except when you’re trying to find other people,” Chucky added helpfully.
“This village smells,” Domon suddenly said. “It stinks.”
The potential sarcastic replies to that one statement overwhelmed Chucky, and he fell silent. They headed into Jarra together and stopped at the inn, Harilin’s Leap. A chinless man by the name of Simion hurried out to greet them, and called a pair of stablehands to take the pony. Simion was delighted to see a gleeman. The last one to go through had been a fraud, he said, and the village had been glad to run him out of town. He took them all inside and introduced them to the innkeeper, Master Harod.
“Do you know any good stories about Whitecloaks?” Harod asked Chucky.
“Only a few hundred,” Chucky replied confidently, and the innkeeper chuckled.
“Good. They’re not very popular around these parts right now, you understand. Normally they don’t cause trouble, but yesterday a group of them apparently deserted, and they’ve been making pests of themselves. Some others tried to burn down the Leap just last week.”
“How terrible,” Fain said sympathetically. Chucky was amazed at the change in the weird peddler. Domon was as huge and diseased and awful as always, but even he was standing up straighter and not fondling himself. The two of them were almost human. “Well, don’t you worry about a thing. Our good friend Chucker here will set your hearts at ease. He does a great show, he’s got a lovely high-pitched girly singing voice, and he loves to perform those hilarious love ballads.”
“Like fuck I-” Chucky saw the expression of raw unrefined murder cross Fain’s beaky face, and let his outrage fade away. “Oh, ha ha ha, yes, yes indeed. La la la,” he warbled.
“Simion will see to your rooms,” Master Harod said with a grin. “I’ll have dinner ready for you by the end of your first performance.”
“Who be dying?” Domon suddenly rumbled.
Harod went white. “I beg your pardon, friend?”
“I can smell his stink everywhere. Who is it? Your son? Brother? It’s a family member, you reek of panic and slow dying.”
“The shed behind the stable,” Fain said. Chucky sighed. They’d reverted to internalising loonies who only spoke gibberish. Things in their heads were pulling and shouting and hurting, and between it all, there wasn’t much room for your average workaday sanity. “Who is it that you hide? Take us to him.”
The lunatic twins swept through the kitchen and into a little alleyway between the inn and the stables, Master Harod following along behind talking quickly. Chucky followed, more out of curiosity than concern. Something about this scene seemed familiar to him, but it had been a while since he’d read the books, and Janica wasn’t around to remind him about the basic facts.
“My brother, Noam,” Harod was saying. “…started out as a funny thing … after a few drinks … he said he spoke to wolves … we all thought it was a joke … then he went missing for a few days … found him like this … Mother Roon can do nothing to help him … never knew what to do…”
Inside the little shed, Noam waited in a stout wooden cage. He snarled at the intruders when they burst in, and hurled himself against the bars, biting and clawing with feral aggression. His eyes shone an unnatural yellow, and foam dripped from the corners of his mouth.
Fain and Domon were beaming.
“I like him, so I do,” Domon growled. “Let’s keep him.”
Fain turned to the innkeeper. “There’s nothing you can do for him,” he said in a gentle, reasonable tone. “He is more beast than man. Only we can help him now. We are accustomed to dealing with such unfortunate cases.”
“Oh yes,” Fain beamed, and shot Chucky another look. “Why, not six months gone, our gleeman friend here used to howl at the moon. He still likes to eat his meals on the floor.”
“Woof,” Chucky said obediently.
Master Harod was looking hesitantly relieved. “If you think you can save him, master … I would be most appreciative … we don’t know what to do with him. He’s just a wild thing.”
“You lying cunt!”
All eyes turned to Noam, who threw himself against the bars with renewed vehemence.
“Noam…” Harod began, but the yellow-eyed man growled loudly.
“You locked me up in here and taunted me! You fucking loser! Let me the fuck out! I’ll go with these guys, you’ll never see me again. I’m no fucking brother of yours,” Noam snarled and tugged at his sleeve with ragged, broken teeth. “God fucking damn it! And my name’s not fucking Gnome, it’s Satsujinki! You got that?”
“He comes with us,” Fain announced.
By the time they descended from the Spine of the World, Shannon and Dr. Nick were almost in shape. Dr. Nick had been somewhat blessed with an Aielman’s constitution in his transformation into the Wheel of Time world, but Shannon had been afflicted with the body of a dumpy, thirty-or-forty-something woman. Some might argue that it was better than what he’d had, but they wouldn’t have argued so in front of Shannon. They were both worn out and ragged. Only Gaul seemed unchanged, and he was so amazed by the Wetlands that he wasn’t paying any attention to his fellow hostages.
“Look! Another river!” he exclaimed. “This one is round, and so large one could barely cross it in a running leap.”
“That ain’t no a river,” Shannon said. “That there’s a pond.”
“It’s really more of a lake,” Dr. Nick said. He’d seen lakes in a pamphlet one of the number-crunchers from upstairs had left in the coffee room. “A pond has to have a fountain.”
“And just what in the durn fuck would you know, geek?” Shannon snapped. “Y’all ain’t never seen a dang pond in your life, or I’m a monkey’s uncle. You’re a damn gai’shain.”
“Have you ever seen such a thing in the Three-Fold Land?” Gaul demanded. Over the past few weeks, he had gotten used to Dr. Nick being a talking gai’shain, but he still wasn’t exactly comfortable about the situation. Still, he had allowed that in their current predicament, it wouldn’t hurt to be a bit more familiar.
“He ain’t never seen nothin’ like that nowhere nohow,” Shannon asserted. “He’s makin’ shit up. Trust me, Gaul, that there’s a pond. Now that over there, that’s a lake.”
“Jeebus, Lemmy and Coke!”
Shannon grinned. Gaul had learned a lot about Wetlander customs in the past weeks. “Yup. Pretty darn big, huh?”
“Isn’t that an oasis?” Dr. Nick attempted. Gaul chuckled.
“We’re strangers in a strange land, gai’shain,” he said to the exhausted engineer. “It is not our place to question such things – we Aiel have never set eyes on this country and its strangeness. Nancy Sidesaddle has, and we should trust her judgement. Now,” he went on with a wide smile. “I am going over to marvel at the late.”
“That’s lake, Gaul,” Shannon corrected gently. “Lake.”
“Yes. Wait here until I have marvelled to my satisfaction.”
Dr. Nick set down the wagon-arms with weary relief, and began to mop sweat out of the lower channels of his boiling red ears. A low, queasy voice emerged from the back of the wagon.
“When are we going to stop?”
“We have stopped, Coop,” Shannon reported dutifully.
“Then stop spinning the coach around,” the gholam begged.
“It should get a bit easier to put up with soon,” Dr. Nick promised. “Gaul’s walking away. He’s going to gawk at another puddle. We Aiel have no idea what a puddle is,” he grimaced at Shannon, who shrugged apologetically.
“Aiel,” Cooper Two snorted. “Buddy, that ginger-headed loon is about as Aiel as my stretchy little left testicle. You, Nick, you’re the genuine deal. You’re gentle and pleasant and you serve without thought for yourself. And you have the Aiel ears. Gaul carries spears around as clear as daylight, and he talks like a marine. I bet he doesn’t even know what the Way of the Leaf is.”
“Oh yeah, the Aiel have weird habits on the other side of the mountains,” Shannon ad-libbed frantically. “They’re not like the Aiel at, uh, Tar Valon and stuff.”
“What do you mean, Aiel ears?” Dr. Nick snapped.
“Oh, nothing,” Cooper Two said, his voice filled with weak-stomached amusement. “Aiel have very small ears. They hardly ever get called Saiels. Nobody ever says that the Aes Sedai use Aiel servants as umbrellas on hot days,” he chuckled. “Look, I appreciate your efforts, but I’m not feeling any less sick. Are you sure he went away?”
“He’s way the Hell over there by the shore of the oasis,” Shannon said.
“Ha!” Dr. Nick cried in triumph. “So it is an oasis!”
“Dude,” Shannon said in his long-suffering voice. “He’s way the Hell over there. Let’s call a spade a fucking spade.”
“It’s a puddle.”
Cooper Two was giggling. “You guys are a great team,” he said. “That’s fantastic. Oh, hey – good news anyway.”
“I got this thing figured out. You know the black box you couldn’t work out, and I said I hadn’t seen one before? Something to do with going from place to place, you remember?”
“The television set?” Dr. Nick hazarded. They stepped around to the back of the wagon and looked in at the ta’veren-sick gholam.
“That’s what you were calling it, yeah,” Cooper Two agreed. “I didn’t see what it was before, because it’s some model I’ve never seen before. But I got it to work, with the little ter’ansmitter over here in Gaul’s ‘Danged if I Know’ pile. I just realised what that thing actually was.”
“So is it some sort of Travelling device?”
“Sort of. I thought we could use it. It’s got to be better than walking, and dragging this stupid wagon halfway across the countryside on these awful country roads. Shall I?”
Dr. Nick and Shannon exchanged a glance, and common sense became just two more weird foreign words.
“Sure,” Shannon grinned.
Cooper Two picked up a palm-sized black object from the bottom of the wagon, and pressed it between his hands. Then he released it, and pressed it to the top of the television set. It gave off a hum, and the screen flickered to life. A well-dressed man with spectacles and over-white teeth grinned out at them.
“Hello!” he said. “Thank you for calling Jo’taxi, the Wheels that Save Time,” the face flickered and changed a little. His suit was now blue instead of grey, and his teeth were a little bit less white. “Unfortunately, this service can no longer be offered, due to indefinite postponement pending the downfall of civilisation. Expect normal service to return within-” once again, the man flickered and changed, his suit being replaced yet again and his teeth now looking positively British. “-one revolution of the Ages,” then there was a flicker, and the white-toothed man in the grey suit had returned. Dr. Nick recognised bad splicing when he saw it. “In the meantime,” the Jo’taxi spokesman said, “here’s some music.”
The screen faded to black, and the tinny strains of a pop song began to play out of the device’s invisible speakers.
“What does that mean?” Cooper Two said. He thumped the top of the machine. “What does that mean? Service suspended? It’s Jo’taxi! They never sleep! What’s the matter?”
“Who’s that singing?” Shannon tried to change the subject.
“Judas Lennon,” Cooper Two said absently. “Big minceburger in plastic pants, old minstrel family dating back to Yoko Ono and the Crawlers, or the Bugboys, or something. Say,” he looked up at the two Americans. “What did he mean, the downfall of civilisation?”
Vamps woke up with a muffled scream.
He’d been having that dream again. The one where his mother was bisexual, and had laid a voodoo curse on him from beyond the grave, making him impotent and to a lesser but still distressing degree incontinent. It had been frighteningly vivid, as it always was, but this time had been … different. Sinister. And right at the most realistic, heart-pounding moment, a giant shape had appeared out of thin air in front of him. A giant … there was no other way to describe it. A giant cock with teeth. It had been hauntingly familiar to him. The cock had circled him slowly, giving off stinky waves of rich, masculine musk. And then it had swollen, stiffened, and sunk its teeth into his upper arm.
“Hush,” his mother’s soft, soothing voice whispered in the pre-morning darkness. “Hush, it’s okay, I’m here.”
“Mom?” Puddin snuggled close. “Oh Mom, I had the most horrible dream…”
“I’m not your mother, woolhead,” Nynaeve said affectionately. She was becoming used to Vamps’ strange dual personality. “But you can tell me about it anyway.”
Vamps froze. “Tell you about what?”
“The bad dream you had…”
“I never had a bad dream. I never dream. It wouldn’t scare me even if it did. Dreams don’t scare me. Nothing does. It’s not as if they’re real, anyway,” he sat up, and whimpered with pain at the sensation in his arm. Nynaeve crooned in soft sympathy.
“You must have slept on your arm wrong,” she rubbed at the ring of angry red tooth-marks around his shoulder.
“What do you mean?” Vamps demanded. “Sleep wrong? I sleep right every time! I never do anything wrong. Especially with my tongue.”
“Well,” Nynaeve glanced down modestly. “I can’t argue with that.”
Muffin Vamps allowed himself a moment to puff up with pride. Then he grew serious.
“We have to get out of here,” he said. “It’s only a matter of time before that Logain idiot gets himself into real trouble and I have to take the dive for it. Did you go and … get the thingy?”
“I looked through the tent for anything that might be what you described,” Nynaeve said doubtfully, “but I really don’t think-”
“That’s alright,” Muffin said positively. “Girls with lips like yours don’t need to think. I mean,” Puddin Taim was suddenly distraught. “How terrible, what an awful thing to say! Can I please see what you found?”
“They’re over in that bag,” Nynaeve said, her voice chilly, but undeniably pleased at the compliment about her lips. It was true that she’d been doing the exercises Muffin Vamps had taught her. “I don’t know what you mean to do with any of them.”
Vamps climbed out of bed, and hurried across to the bag Nynaeve had indicated. He upended it over the grass matting, and whistled in appreciation. Dildoes, strap-ons, butt-plugs and ticklers of a tremendous range and number fell to the floor. Each one was crafted of wood or vegetable matter – plastic being unknown, and the art of moulding metal being far too primitive for these sort of things. The stink was extraordinary, and Vamps made a mental note to work several anecdotes into conversation in which he had smelled such a smell before. One by one he picked up the articles and tossed them to one side, heaving them with both hands in some of the extremely large cases. Finally, he stopped.
“Ah,” he said, giving the smooth ivory rod a hesitant lick. “This is the one.”
Nynaeve sniffed disapprovingly at the rich, female stink rising from the scattered toys. “I’m sure you’ll explain all this to me, master Taim,” she said. “One of these days.”
“It was something Verin told me in conversation a little while ago,” Vamps explained. “It’s pretty obvious to me that she’s using some sort of Compulsion on Logain – in the time I knew him, he was quietly respectful of women, but distant … almost disinterested. This sudden change in character is one thing, but I’m thinking about his loyalties, and his attitudes. It occurred to me that there’s more at work – and there is,” he held up the pale shaft with a grin. “This isn’t an … item of unspeakable privacy. It is perfectly clean, though used for a violation of a more subtle kind. He’s sworn Oaths on the Aes Sedai’s Oath Rod. We have to free him for his own good.”
“Oh,” Nynaeve looked around one more time, and uncurled her fingers from their white-knuckled grip on her braid. “I must admit, when you described the object to me, I was suspicious. If you had just told me that the item you were looking for was secured in a chest of drawers rather than the places the rest of these things were … hidden, I might have been quicker to return…”
“No matter,” Vamps smiled reassuringly. “I just need to know how to use this thing now. I’ll go to the tent and make idle conversation. When he’s at ease, I’ll channel spirit or something.”
Nynaeve clenched her braid again. She didn’t like it when Vamps talked about his channeling. It was as if the One Power were one of his rowdier poker buddies that Nynaeve was determined to get rid of now that she was his girlfriend. Before she could make some sort of objection, he stood up and stretched. The puckered wound in his side clenched like an icy fist, and he collapsed to the floor with a storm of sissy weeping. Nynaeve hurried over with more sympathetic croonings.
“You’d better do whatever it is you’re going to do, Muffin Vamps,” she said with grim determination once the worst of the pain had passed. “I don’t think you can take any more hits for the Dragon bloody Reborn.”