Cooper Two dusted his long, powerful hands and looked around with a pleased expression that displayed his awesome array of blood-extractors.
“I can’t believe the old hunk of junk actually worked,” he marvelled. “Now, if I figured it correctly, we should be in the park on the corner of Chora Avenue and Al Caldazar Boulevard, near the jo’bus station,” he looked around, and slowly his face fell. “I don’t remember there being a volcano.”
Shannon pulled himself from the ruins of the wagon. “It’s been a whiles, remember?” he said helpfully. “Thousands of years done gone passed? Everythin’ changed?”
“Where are we, then?” Dr. Nick said, staggering to his feet nearby. They’d tumbled out of the air after being unceremoniously plucked up by the Portal Stone, and how Coop had managed that was anybody’s guess. “What happened? None of us can channel, can we?”
“And we weren’t standing near no Portal Stone,” Shannon said. “Gaul woulda seen it and said ‘now there’s a thing’.”
“Where is Gaul?” Dr. Nick frowned and turned this way and that, looking for a moment like a cluster of flesh-coloured sunflowers seeking for sunlight.
Cooper Two pointed up the road they had landed on, where a gaudily-coloured wagon stood beside a copse of trees growing incongruously in the middle of the cobblestones. “He almost landed on top of some people. One of them looks to be a Cairheinin woman, and he’s attacking her.”
There was a gentle little explodey-noise, and a shocked silence.
“Creator-fucking-dammit,” the woman on horseback snarled. “What sort of a fireball was that? Why can’t I channel for shit? It’s been the same ever since those Ghul-damned bitches in Fal Dara. Yeah, you just stay down,” she continued belligerently. “Next time I’ll blow off more than your eyebrows.”
Gaul, thoroughly chastened, was crouching on the side of the road, wisps of frizzled hair sticking out of his cadin’sor. “Aes Sedai,” he said. “I did not know you were … I have toh. Major, major tohage, as my friend Nancy Sidesaddle might say.”
“You’re Aes Sedai?” Cooper Two said, hurrying over. “Novice, more like it. That fireball was feeble,” then his gaze swept across the rest of the group they’d landed near, and his smile returned in all its disturbing, knife-rack glory. “A Nym!” he exclaimed. “Wonderful! I need maintenance, now make with the fah-la-la.”
“Hey,” Dr. Nick said. “There’s somebody underneath the wagon.”
Sure enough the ruined assemblage of wood was shifting feebly from side to side, and finally a grasping, trembling hand emerged. The woman on the horse gave a strangled oath and dismounted.
“I wondered why I was feeling concussed,” she said. “That’s my ever-fucking Warder!”
“What’s a Warder?” Coop asked, helping the diminutive woman rummage through the debris. Eventually, they uncovered a huddled shape in a cloak that was shifting colour to match the road, and the wagon bed, and the spokes of the wheel that had cracked itself around the head of the hapless … man. Yes, it was a man, Dr. Nick saw as they uncovered it.
The Aes Sedai turned her glare on the giant leafy shape of the Nym. “I trust we’re far enough from Tar Valon to channel without being detected?” she said. “I may not be able to light a cunting candle, but I can Heal these bruises at least.”
“Yes, that should be fine,” the Nym rustled. “We should be beyond the eyes of the Betrayer of Hope by now.”
“What in the fuck is all this?” Shannon said softly.
The male channelers had reached an amicable agreement concerning what had happened at the camp of the Dragon Reborn. Puddin Taim was shocked and upset and didn’t want to talk about it. Logain was stricken with guilt and self-disgust at what he had done, and didn’t want to talk about it either. Muffin Vamps, completely pissed that it hadn’t been him in bed with all those fine women, wanted to pretend it had never happened either, or if it had, that it had been him who got all the action, or at least that it had been him that all the girls had been thinking of while they were in bed with Logain. So none of them were talking.
Logain confirmed that it had been an Aes Sedai who had used Compulsion on him.
“She was a strange-looking one,” he said to Debs and Janica as they walked eastwards, guided by the haphazard woodlore of the four Ogier. “She was short, and sort of birdlike, and she was wearing all this paint on her face like some sort of circus tumbler. I don’t doubt she was a Darkfriend, but she was no Forsaken. I’d have been able to overpower her, I think, if it hadn’t been for the things they did. Her and that other one. She was pretty, with her hair tied into many braids, and … well, she had … strange habits. She, too, was a Darkfriend, and they used Compulsion on me. Or so they told me it was called. Then they made me burn these into my hands,” he showed Debs the heron-brands on his palms.
“Ach, nae,” Debs crooned, and embraced saidar through Janica before the damane could do anything. “Soon have tha’ fexed,” she said in a businesslike manner, and channeled a complex series of flows into Logain’s slender pianist’s hands. The deep, angry-pink scars smoothed out and vanished as he stared.
“Thank you,” he said softly. “Thank you, Debs.”
Debs fluttered her eyelashes, and Janica almost swooned with the cascade of delight that roared down the a’dam.
“I have owwies too,” Vamps said meekly.
“Debs,” Janica said, picking herself up and trying to speak reasonably, “did you just Heal the heron-marks on Logain’s palms?”
“Well, aye, but-”
“The Dragon’s palms? The heron-marks on the Dragon’s palms, that the Prophesy says have to be there?”
“But I jes’ thought-”
“That the Dragon has to have on his hands in order to actually be the Dragon? Like we’re trying to do with Logain, since the real Dragon is dead? Is that what just happened?”
“It hurts,” Vamps insisted, lifting up his shirt and showing off the puckered scar in his side. “It’s like a burning, icy pain. Sort of like being stabbed by an icicle.”
“Luke, I was’nae thenken’,” Debs snapped. “It’s nae a beg problem, alreet?”
“Is her accent getting thicker?” Mister C of 9 asked, materialising out of the undergrowth like a … like … well, like a myrddraal. “Or is it just me?”
“She lapses into full-Scot when she’s angry,” Janica sighed. “Though I don’t know why she would be angry now. She’s the one who did something stupid.”
“What were you doing anyway, See?” Janica peered at the fuzzy blob of darkness and gaudy Mambo colour that was Mister See of Mayene. “You’ve been back and forth all afternoon.”
“I got it when I was fighting against the Dark One,” Vamps persisted. “Or whoever it really was. He stuck his staff in me and it hurt, lots and lots. And then I got another owwie on my hand, just after the fight-”
“Oh, I was just trying out this shadow thing,” the halfman replied, rearranging the folds of his cloak and the blade of Stormbringer Snaga that kept catching in his skinny legs. “It’s really quite cool. Watch,” he walked across to a nearby tree, moved into the shadows underneath, and became one with the darkness. Then he stepped back out on the other side of the path, from another tree’s shadow altogether. “Isn’t that cool? I jumped out in front of the Ogier a while ago, but I managed to calm them down before they could blow that trumpet of theirs.”
Janica sighed. “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to get those marks put back on now?” she asked Logain without too much hope.
“No thanks,” Logain said firmly. “Look, I’ll do whatever I need to do, and I’ll help keep us away from those Aes Sedai. I’ve been running away from Aes Sedai for years, and I don’t think Darkfriends are much smarter. But no more mutilations. Alright?”
“I fell down out of the air and hurt my knee on some rocks, but that wasn’t the main one. Then this guy attacked me, a weird-looking guy with a Scottish accent and a stupid haircut, he ran at me with a sword. I was all burning and stabbed and stuff already, and I was worried I was going to die…”
Debs and Janica continued down the path, Debs watching Logain with not-entirely-motherly concern, and Janica turning her own attention back to Mister C.
“Now,” she said. “You say you left Chucky in Falme after the fighting began to die down,” she said in her grim summary-voice. “What were you doing before that? Why were you in Falme in the first place?”
“I’m not really sure,” Mister C of 9 said with a bony shrug. “I was just following along, you know. Chucky gets these ideas in his head, and gets all serious about it and I sort of feel obliged to go along and help him, otherwise he messes it up and gets in trouble.”
“Even though you don’t actually know what you were doing?”
“I’m good at it. We were sort of pulled along by events. Now that Logain mentions it, there was a woman with Gothic clothes and face paint, who looked sort of birdlike. Verin, I think her name was. Chucky said she was a good guy. We went through the Ways with them, looking for that Horn of yours. And before that, we spent a little while in an alternate Dimension with some chick called Selene.”
“Lanfear!” Janica hissed.
“And then he said he was a Blademaster, and that he wondered if I would be tough enough to take him on, after killing Ba’alzamon or whoever it was,” Vamps was continuing, but only Nynaeve was paying any attention. “But I was all sore and tired-”
“Yeah, Chucky did say something about Lanfear,” Mister C said slyly. “In between ogling her titties.”
“He what?” Janica demanded.
“Oh yeah, he was ogling,” Mister C confirmed merrily. “Ogle, ogle, ogle. At her titties.”
“You’re just trying to get him into trouble, aren’t you?”
“Me?” the myrddraal said innocently.
“I tried to tell him I wasn’t in the mood to fight, but he started to tease me, so I set fire to him,” Vamps went on. “He started to scream, and I rushed forward to try and pull him out of the flames, and I managed to grab hold of his sword, but it was all hot and that’s where I got my other owwie…”
“Puddin,” Janica said, “is anybody listening to you?”
“Of course,” Vamps said, wiping his eyes hurriedly and trying to make it look as if he wasn’t crying. “They may not want to, but they can’t help themselves. I know it’s controversial, and I know you all love to hate it, but the thing is, you like it really. I’m on the edge. I’m mixing things up, causing trouble, making you all mad.”
Debs turned from Logain and cast a disdainful glance at Vamps. “Ye’re nae mexen’ things up,” she said. “Ye’re jes’ a beg jessie, an’ ye’re gettin’ on me nerves. Ye knoo we canna Heal ye, that wound canna be Healed. Alreet? Noo quiet doon.”
There was a gentle crashing, and the honest, concerned face of Frendli appeared above them.
“We’ve come to a river,” he said. “But we’ve wandered off-course a bit. Wyse says we’ve reached the Manetherendrelle, which means we’re already almost halfway there.”
“Well, we’re travelling light,” Janica said. “No reason we should be goin’ slow. Are there any toons along the river?”
“None that we can see,” Frendli reported, “but we’re sure to come to one if we go along southwards. There’s signs of boats at least, and we’ll come to a ferry or a ford sooner or later. We need to go south anyway, right?”
“Something like that,” Janica replied. Her mind was working furiously. For some reason, the Manetherendrelle river sounded familiar to her, and she was trying to piece it together from what she remembered of the books.
“Fords,” Mister C said, his sunglassed face speculative. “This isn’t Rivendell, is it?”
“No,” Janica said firmly.
“Good,” the halfman said. “The last thing we need is a pushy chick with doofy eyes cramping our style and bringing unnecessary love interest into the story along with painfully shoe-horned feminine agency.”
“Oh feck,” Janica said. “Oh feck, it’s Faile.”
Forsaken_1 groaned and ascended slowly into consciousness. Wagons filled his vision. Falling wagons.
“Andra, thank the Light you’re alright,” Moiraine said. “When I saw that wagon fall on top of you, Andra, I feared the worse. Andra.”
“I think I’ve suffered brain damage,” Forsaken_1 mumbled. “I can’t remember my name being Andra.”
“That’s your name, Andra,” Moiraine said gently, her voice soothing and warming him even as her eyes promised a thousand million Hells if he made a wrong move but offering sadly little clue as to what the right move might be. “My name is Alys, do you remember me now?”
“I’m … Andra?” he struggled, and was rewarded with a relieved expression and a nod. “Right. Sure I am. Andra. Andra, Hand of the Light. Andra the Handra.”
“No, Andra the Warder,” Moiraine grated. “Can you sit up? We’re not alone.”
That’s true, Forsaken_1 thought muzzily as he struggled into a sitting position. For a start, there’s people called Andra and Alys hanging around, and I’ve apparently astral travelled into one of them. “Okay,” he said. “What’s going on? What happened? A wagon fell on me. And Andra.”
“That’s right, Andra,” Moiraine – or maybe Alys – said. “A group of strangers apparently arrived via Portal Stone. I thought the art lost to the Ages, but it seems they have uncovered the secret, and have managed to travel here from halfway across the continent without even using the One Power.”
“Without using the One Power?” Forsaken_1 rubbed his head. “Is that possible?”
“I’d have said no, but I have examined them thoroughly, and as far as I can tell without them noticing my intrusion, none of them have the ability to channel. Quite the opposite, in fact,” she frowned thoughtfully. “One of them is powerfully ta’veren, and they all seem to be … immune to the One Power in some way. All but one of them, that is. The woman and the Aiel in white are carrying ter’angreal of some sort that I have never seen before, that absorb saidar. The skinny man with the teeth must have something of the sort, because he too absorbs weaves. The other Aielman seems to be more or less normal. Even so, I don’t trust them,” she lowered her voice. “I’ve given them our false names, just to be sure. Of course, there wasn’t much we could do to hide the Green Man from them.”
“I haven’t seen any of these guys you’re talking about,” Forsaken_1 complained. “Can I maybe get up and go see what’s happening for myself?” he looked around. “Are we still inside that damn wagon?”
“Someshta said it might be dangerous to move you,” Moiraine said. “My channeling power is on the cunt as usual, and the Healing wasn’t as comprehensive as it could have been. I had to weave the flows four times, and the Green Man said that you should rest. He’s coming in later with a special potato suppository he’s grown, that will-”
“I feel fine,” Forsaken_1 said, hurrying out of the makeshift tent. It looked like they’d just thrown a canvas over the top of the wrecked wagon, and left him there. “I feel great, I’m going for a stroll, yes indeed, no potato suppositories for me, no sir. Why does everybody in this damn story want to stick things in my ass?”
He swayed in the cool evening air for a moment, and then focussed on three female forms sitting by a fire. His smile was a little strained, but nevertheless sincere. They were female – never mind that one was a chubby middle-aged woman, one was Min and the other was the only slightly hairier Cybes. He went over to them and sat down. It hadn’t been a long stroll, but hopefully it had been enough.
“Hi Lan,” the strange woman said. “I’m Nancy, I guess.”
“How did you – I mean, I’m not – I’m Andra I think … even if I was Lan, how would you know?” Forsaken_1 demanded.
“It’s pretty durn simple, once you know what’s a-goin’ on,” Nancy explained, scratching an armpit with a complete lack of feminine grace. “Once I done seen that Elmindreda here was a breeches-wearin’ image-seein’ type, and Moiraine introduced herself as Alys, I guessed the Warder plum gots to be Lan. It all stood to reason. I just ain’t sure what you’re doin’ with a Tinker an’ a wolf an’ what I’m gonna guess is the Green Man,” she shrugged. “I’m sure it’ll all just plain make sense ‘ventually.”
Forsaken_1 cast around for a few moments, and finally located a shrouded white blob on the edge of the firelight, sharing a bottle of something with Cow. “That’s Lan over there,” he said, pointing. “There was a bit of a mix-up, and Moiraine bonded me by accident,” he couldn’t have told anybody why he was blowing Moiraine’s cover, but the false names seemed pointless and complicated, and besides, this Nancy broad seemed to know all about it anyway. “I’m just a Questioner. We swapped clothes.”
“So that’s who he is,” Nancy nodded. “His face did seem sort of … stony.”
“You should see it when he’s sober.”
“So what’s a Questioner doin’ with an Aes Sedai?” Nancy asked. Min leaned forward.
“I’ve been wondering the same thing for weeks,” she said.
“I don’t know,” Forsaken_1 admitted mournfully. “It just happened. I got caught up with Contro and-”
“Contro?” Nancy exclaimed. “Which one o’ y’all’s Contro?”
Nancy roared with laughter and slapped her abundant thigh. “O’course! What a lil weenie. I sure do hope Gaul stabs him a few times. Gentle like.”
“Gaul? Who’s Gaul?” Forsaken_1 felt his grip on matters beginning to slide. For a moment he wondered if he was Lan or Andra, and then remembered he was neither. “Where did you guys come from?”
Nancy shrugged. “Might as well tell ye, but it’s gon’ sound crazy,” he threw a stick into the fire and it lay in the flames, refusing to burn. A leaf grew out of it. They stared at it for a while, and then the woman went on with her story. “We wandered into the Aiel Waste, me an’ a buddy. We met up with Gaul, and sorta let slip that might be we knew where the Dragon Reborn done lived. Don’t burn me at the stake or nothin’, it was just something to say. Elsewise he woulda killed us,” she went on hurriedly, then paused. “So if you’re pretendin’ to be a Warder, does that mean you can still be a Questioner? Aren’t Warders, like, burned as Darkfriends?”
“I don’t know,” Forsaken_1 whimpered. “It’s too confusing.”
“Well anyhoo, ye can’t burn us, elsewise we’ll turn ye in for dressin’ as a Warder,” Nancy said shrewdly, then continued. “Gaul took this buddy of mine as gai’shain, and then told us he was looking for the Car’a’carn. That’s the same person as the Dragon Reborn, you know, it’s just what the Aiel done called ‘im.”
“Alright, if you say so.”
“Anyways, we been tryin’ to find the Dragon ever since. We met Cooper Two along the way. He’s, um, well sir, he’s a contortionist. And a historian. Yup. He’s sort of insane. Half the time he thinks he’s livin’ in the Age o’ Legends, and seems all shocked an’ such to find that things have done changed.”
“Oh yeah,” Forsaken_1 said with feeling, throwing another stick into the fire. This one didn’t burn either, but instead of leaves it sprouted a flower. “We’ve got a guy like that too. Someshta.”
“The Green Man,” Nancy nodded. “I kinda had the notion he’d be dead already. I thought he done gone died in the Blight, killin’ one o’ the Forsaken.”
“Huh? What? Who? Forsaken? What?” Forsaken_1 reached into the fire and pulled out the stick. It was prefectly cool. The flower unfolded and began to shed its petals, which landed in a circle. “This is pretty weird,” he said, holding up the stick. Suddenly, it burst into flame and vanished in a puff of ash. Forsaken_1 screamed and sucked on his fingers, before finding that they weren’t even singed.
“Oh yeah, that there’s another thing,” Nancy grunted. “Gaul’s a ta’veren. A really gnarly one.”
“Where is he now?”
“The Green Man took him and Nick – that’s my buddy – over to the wagon,” Nancy pointed to the brightly-coloured Tinker wagon, and the shadowy mass of vegetation crouched behind it. “He’s apparently explainin’ things to them, and the Tinker. Contro,” she laughed again, a big rib-tickling belly laugh. Forsaken_1 stared at her breasts unashamed. “Apparently he’s explainin’ the real history of the Aiel, in some sort of harebrained attempt to reunite the clans. I didn’t hardly follow none of it myownself.”
“Here he comes,” Min said, pointing.
The bright blue canvas of the wagon-wall lifted and Gaul jumped out into the fresh air. He stood quite still, staring into space, with a horrified expression in his eyes. He stood that way for a long, long time.
Then, seeming to come to a decision, he hurled his spears to the ground and walked away into the darkness.