Logain staggered out of the ruins of his huge pavilion, carrying the hysterically-weeping Puddin Taim in his arms. He looked around at the destruction that remained of the Dragon’s camp, and gave a shudder before averting his eyes.
“It’s like that Mayene tomato-flatbread festival I went to when I was sixteen,” he muttered.
“Tomato-flatbread?” Vamps hiccuped, hating himself for being a little sissy but unable to control himself. When the bodies had begun to fall, he’d wet himself again and climbed under the bed. “They’re exploded squashed dead bodies.”
“They look like flatbreads from Mayene,” Logain said, bullying his way through the conversation so he didn’t break down himself. The sight was wholly terrible, and Puddin Taim was heavier than any man Logain had ever carried into or out of a tent. “They put tomato paste and cheese on a piece of bread, and bake it in a clay oven. Quite delicious. Except of course the flatbreads don’t have boots. Or heads. Or. Other things. In them.”
Vamps’ entire body constricted, and Logain flung him away just as the first cascade of vomit emerged.
“There doesn’t seem to be anybody else around,” Logain went on, looking anywhere else but at Vamps or the remains of the Shienaran soldiers. “I’m sure Verin Sedai and Liandrin Sedai survived, and she would have seen to it that the other girls made it out. She wouldn’t dare to lose Egwene or the Daughter Heir. Or even Else Grinwell, though she could barely channel a spark,” his mouth twisted in distaste at the memories, but Vamps didn’t notice – he was too busy depositing the contents of his stomach on the remains of what had once been the mess tent and was now just a mess. The Heroes of the Horn had vanished as they died, but the damage they had left behind, as in Falme, was entirely real. “What about that young lady of yours? Nynaeve?”
“She’s not ‘mine’,” Puddin managed to wheeze. “Women are not the property of men, and she is an independent and self-sufficient person in her own right. I’m sure she made it out fine.”
“Most of the Borderlanders ran for that ridge,” Logain pointed, and Vamps looked up and gave a miserable nod, as if he had seen anything except the palms of his own hands during the protracted, destructive sneak attack. “But I don’t think she would have gone with them.”
“No,” Puddin agreed weakly. “Didn’t care much for Borderlanders, Nynaeve.”
“Well, we’ll check your tent,” Logain said, and looked around the very flat, very red camp of the Dragon Reborn. “Which one was your tent?”
Vamps wiped his eyes and his chin, and looked around. “I don’t … that one,” he pointed. “It was that one, the one that’s still more or less standing.”
“It looks like the, um, fighting was concentrated around the Shienarans,” Logain mused as they hurried over to the lopsided tent. “Debs and Janica obviously still have control of the Horn, which means those Ogier are still around. And they knew we were in trouble with those Black Ajah. Nynaeve was probably okay in this tent, there were no guards or anything. Maybe we should…” Logain closed his eyes and let the stomach-churning foulness of saidin roar through him. “Just in case.”
With a flick of Air, he lifted the tent canvas and sent it sailing across the pockmarked battleground. There was an indignant squawk, and Logain and Vamps suddenly shivered with goosebumps. The canvas fell to the ground and burst asunder with a savage flash of fire, and Nynaeve climbed to her feet, spitting curses and a mouthful of something that probably wasn’t Mayener flatbread. She’d landed directly in the porridgey remains of the horse corral.
“You’re alive!” Puddin would have wept in relief if he wasn’t already weeping with pain. The wound in his side and the multitude of lesser owwies were draining his will to live. “You’re – hey!”
Bands of Air snapped around the two men, and a shield slid between them and the One Power. When she was angry, Nynaeve tended to just make things up as she went along. Vamps, with a passing knowledge of the Wheel of Time series, was surprised in spite of himself at the ease with which she had bound and shielded two fairly powerful male channelers. Of course, Nynaeve was as powerful as a man herself, in a lot of ways. And Vamps for one had not practiced with the One Power as much as he should.
Nynaeve squelched across to the two helpless men, and glared at them.
“What the Ghul was all that?” she demanded. “You could have killed me! Some rescue – look at my dress! You’ll be cleaning this, Puddin Taim!” she advanced, and Logain and Vamps tried to cower in their iron-strong bonds. “I should box your ears as well, Logain bloody Dragon Reborn! You’re a bad influence on my-”
“Wait,” Logain said urgently. “Listen!”
“No tricks!” Nynaeve snapped. “You’re going to be…” then she too fell silent, hearing the sound in the near distance.
It was the unmistakable, silvery tone of the Horn of Valere.
“And on a personal note, I just wanted to say you did a great job against those Borderlanders. We really appreciate the trouble you went to, and the inconvenience of it all. Great work under very difficult circumstances, that’s what we admire.”
Wyse grinned and nodded in agreement with his friend’s words. The Heroes of the Horn stood in a wide semi-circle, scowling at Hoarni from under a variety of hats and helmets. Then Artur Hawkwing gave a curt nod, and turned on his heel. The Heroes strode away into the curling mists.
“Did you ask them if they’ll continue to help us even though the Dragon has vanished?” Janica asked.
“Oh darn,” Hoarni said. “I knew I’d forgotten something.”
He raised the Horn again, and put it to his lips. Once again, the mist thickened and the Heroes strode out, teeth clenched and faces stormy.
“Hi,” Hoarni said, trying to smile and desperately not watching Birgitte as her breasts quivered with fury. “Um, we were just wondering, ha ha, if you, um, if you’ll all keep on coming out and helping us when we blow the Horn, even though the Dragon is, hah, missing for the moment…”
Hawkwing snorted. “Dragon schmagon,” he said, fingering his great sword Justice. “You got us on a technicality there. We’ll be looking at the fine-print ourselves, don’t you worry.”
“Rogosh will be looking,” Gaidal Cain said grimly.
“We’ll be around until further notice,” Artur said, looking disgruntled. “The Heroes always return when the Horn is blown. Alright?”
“Great,” Hoarni smiled. “Thanks again.”
The Heroes stamped off.
“You didn’t say sorry for all the disruptions,” Wyse nudged his friend gently. “You were meant to apologise.”
“Oh!” Hoarni smacked his fuzzy forehead. “I’m hopeless,” he lifted the Horn again.
Debs and Mister C of 9 exchanged a glance. Janica had decided to stop paying attention to the whole situation, realising any suggestion she made just made matters worse. The shimmering note rang out again, and the mist congealed with increasingly characteristic impatience.
“What?” Hawkwing snapped.
“Sorry about all the interruptions,” Hoarni said meekly. “We didn’t mean to be a bother.”
“Is that all?”
“He was’nae supposed tae bloo the Horn in the first place,” Debs tried to soothe the furious Hero. “It was an accident. We’d give it tae someone else if we could. Someone who’d bloo it properly.”
“The Horn could be passed on to somebody else if the current Hornsounder were to die,” Hawkwing said in a silky voice.
“Believe me, we’ve considered it,” Janica replied. “But we’ll have to keep looking for a third option.”
“As will we,” the High King growled, and departed once more.
“Now-” Janica started, and was interrupted by a crackling in the nearby bushes. Hoarni lowered the Horn with a wheeze as Debs elbowed him in the kidneys. There was another crackle, and Logain staggered into the clearing, accompanied by Nynaeve. They bore the flaccid form of Puddin Taim, breathing raggedly, between them.
“Logain! Ye’re alive!” Debs roared in delight, and crashed forward, dragging Janica along by the neck. Vamps fell to the ground with a weak moan as Logain was bundled into an enthusiastic Debs-hug. The surrogate Dragon returned the embrace as platonically as he could. “We thought the Black Ajah had ye.”
“They did,” Logain said, and a shadow crossed his face. He paled slightly. “They caught me and bent me to their will,” the shadow again flickered across his countenance, and he squeezed his eyes closed. “Puddin managed to save me at great risk to himself-”
“Damn straight,” Vamps managed to whimper from the ground. “I could do it again in a second.”
“But until he arrived, it was…” Logain’s face spasmed, and the shadow flicked from side to side rapidly. Debs drew back from him and turned around. Mister C of 9 was standing in a little ray of sunlight, waving his arms back and forth, playing his shade across the Dragon’s face. When he realised everybody was staring at him, he lowered his hands and tried to look innocent in his hanging-still cloak and gaudy Mambo shirt.
“Just wondering if you’d forgotten me,” he said.
“Don’t do that,” Debs hissed. “Ye knoo wha’ ye’re shadda does tae a fella.”
“Did you have something to add to the discussion, Mister See?” Janica asked firmly.
“Just wondering where we’re going next.”
“We have to follow the story,” Janica said, frowning. “Let me think. In the story, uh, the Prophesy,” she amended, not seeing Logain’s face but assuming bafflement, “the Dragon escapes from his camp of followers and heads for Tear, where he can fulfill his destiny. That means we head east.”
“I’m scared of Tear,” Coarshus said.
“I don’t like big buildings,” Frendli added in a wavery voice. “They freak me out.”
“Ach, pick up yer bags, ye big jessies,” Debs growled. She turned to Nynaeve, who was scowling at the strange collection of people. She had Vamps firmly by the hand, and her other fist was clenched around the neck of a bulging canvas bag. She looked as though she’d much rather have her hand wrapped around her braid. “Ah, it’s ye again,” Debs said as merrily as she could.
“You’re the women from my Accepted test,” Nynaeve said. “You’re Seanchan. I know that now. Liandrin tried to sell us to your kind, before that gleeman with the horrible pipes started up and we managed to escape.”
Janica leaned forward. “What-?”
“I’ll come along and help you,” Nynaeve went on haughtily, “but only because my Puddin wouldn’t stand a chance without me, and I’ll not leave him behind the way I did with Rand, and Egwene, and the boys,” she tossed her head angrily, and fixed Janica with a stare the damane couldn’t see. “You won’t push us through your hoops any longer. Oh,” she added, and thrust the bag at Debs. “These are yours.”
Debs peered into the sack and saw the glint of gold, and a hint of jewels. “Ach, the crap from Domon’s shep,” she said. “Much obleeged.”
“Let’s move,” Janica said. “We need to get as much of a lead as we can on those Borderlanders, and the Black Ajah.”
The Tinker wagon and its strange assortment of companions crawled southwards. Moiraine’s short temper was defused by the calming presence of the Green Man, and she spent most of her time riding ahead, scouting the land for their innumerable enemies. Lan sat at the reins with a bitterly sober look on his face, and Cow walked underneath the reins with the same expression. Min, Contro and Cybes were sitting in the back of the wagon engaged in some sort of cheerful tickle-tum challenge, and Forsaken_1 was keeping out of arm’s reach. On Moiraine’s insistence, he had swapped clothes with Lan again, and now the colour-shifting Warder cloak smelled of cheap brandy.
Forsaken_1 sighed and jumped down out of the wagon. He could walk at least as fast as the unenthusiastic Cow, and in this case his dislike of physical exercise was overweighed by the desire to get away from the merry, hateful voice of Contro being oblivious in the back of the wagon. He looked out at the landscape around the wide, quiet road. Dragonmount loomed over on his left, Someshta on his right.
“So, how are we going to get hold of Callandor, and what are we going to do with it when we do?” Forsaken_1 asked casually. “It’s a magic sword of some kind, right?”
“That’s right,” the Green Man said. “A sa’angreal. It has been said that it can only be lifted down from its resting-place by the Dragon.”
“So what good is it going to do us?”
“The forces of the Dark One will be after Callandor,” Someshta said, “and we must be there to stop them from attaining it.”
“But if only the Dragon can touch it-”
Someshta smiled with a soft rustling of leaves. “They say that in the Age of Legends, the greatest works were performed by Aes Sedai, men and women, working together and blending their powers. This may be the case, but the greatest works, the very greatest, they were achieved by humans being devious.”
“Huh?” Forsaken_1 inquired as coherently as he could.
“There’s a trick to it. There always is, with the more famous of the Aes Sedai devices. Portal Stones, for instance,” the Green Man pointed across the road. In a field next to the highway, a scattering of flattened rocks showed through the thin undergrowth, outlining a circle. In the centre of the circle a weathered column of rock stood, a pillar with nothing to support. “All those Aes Sedai tricks that made life easier, do you really think the Aes Sedai stood around helping people to use those things all the time? ‘Servants to all’ they may have been, but they did have better things to do. Most of their creations had … user-friendly interfaces. People without the One Power could use them, if they knew how.”
“And Callandor was the same?” Forsaken_1 deduced. “Isn’t that a bit … dumb?”
“These days, there are not many people who would remember the ways of working the old amenities, even with the One Power,” Someshta explained, “let alone without it. I might be the only person left alive who knows the secret triggers and codes for the Callandor vault, but we can’t run the risk that the Forsaken also know. So we have to take it to a safe place. Now that the Dragon is dead, we must break the rules to keep the Shadow from falling on us.”
At that very moment, with an irony that nobody really appreciated at the time, the air around the Portal Stone wibbled, and four men and half a wagon fell out of the sky, right onto the middle of the road.