“They did too!”
“Satters, they didn’t.”
“My name’s Noam, you cunt!”
“But before, you said you didn’t want to be called Noam, you said your name was Satters.”
Fain rode forward with a fatherly clucking of his tongue.
“Now now, what happened this time?”
“This stupid fuck refuses to believe that the Catholic Church stole the idea of wedding rings from the Ckelts,” Satters tried to sniff and growl and put a ‘k’ in ‘Celts’ all at the same time, and ended up almost choking. He glowered at Chucky as if he was responsible for the wolf-man’s gnawed lips, saliva-streaked face, and tear-filled eyes. In a way, Chucky supposed, he was. “He’s a complete stupid fuck!”
“You are a stupid fuck, gleeman,” Fain said in a chiding voice, and gave Chucky a playful cuff around the ears. “Now tell me. What is a church?”
“Well if I don’t know what a church is, it’s a bit hard for me to tell what a Catholic one is supposed to be, yes?”
“Oh, well it’s a kind of institution that believes in the Creator. The Children of the Light could be considered a church, only a militant version. Knights of the church, perhaps.”
“I see. And a C-k-elt?”
“Um, the Celts are – were a group of people, um, from a long time ago,” Chucky said. “Lots of modern cultures are meant to be descended from them. He thinks he is one,” he pointed at Satters. “It’s a bit like saying you’re descended from two-legged people, if you’re a Caucasian…”
“Slow down,” Fain cuffed Chucky again. “Now, a wedding ring. Is that anything like a wedding knife?”
“Yeah, pretty much,” Chucky went on, rubbing his ear grumpily. “Sort of a cross between a wedding knife and a Great Serpent ring, perhaps.”
“The Whitecloaks stole Great Serpent rings from two-legged people,” Bayle Domon grunted in conclusion from his hunched position over his horse’s back. “So they did. I wouldn’t put it past them, so I wouldn’t.”
Satters shrieked in triumph, then dropped to his haunches with a hunted look in his shining yellow eyes. The three mounted men watched him in the indirect corner-of-the-eye way they had learned to watch Satters, who didn’t like being watched, or ignored.
“Intruders,” he hissed. “I can smell them. That way,” he pointed.
Fain and Domon exchanged a glance, then turned and looked the way Sattersnoam was pointing.
“I don’t be seeing anything, so I don’t,” Domon said.
“Quiet,” Fain said. “It’s those damned Borderlanders. I recognise their minds,” the crazed peddler scratched at his eyeballs furiously. “Behind my eyes, my eyes, they’re in my brain, crawling in their sockets, argh.”
Chucky sighed. “What are you going to do?”
“We’ll travel with them,” Fain said suddenly. “Noam, stand up straight. Bayle, stop doing that thing you’re doing.”
Chucky glanced across at the sailor just as Domon stopped doing the thing. He sighed in relief for the comparative blessing of not having seen the thing actually happening.
“Now,” Fain hissed. “Just remember. You are Sissybitch the gleeman, travelling with me. I am Ordeith, um, Ordeith…”
“Excellent. I am Ordeith Grima Wormtongue, a merchant, and these are my guards. Their names are-”
Chucky spun around to see Mat and Perrin charging out onto the road. They were grinning broadly, and behind them were some other familiar faces.
“Well, if it isn’t Padan Fain the peddler, and old Bayle Domon from the Spray!” Mat said in delight. “Who’d have thought we’d meet up with you again? We have a lot of catching up to do – lots has happened since we were all on that boat together,” he hurried forward and grinned up at the awful Domon. “I saw you in Falme – I was hoping you’d met up with Chucky and gotten out of there alive. Ahh, it’ll be just like old times, eh? Just like the trip to Whitebridge. halfmen on one side, Shadar Logoth on the other!” he turned to Chucky. “Yee haw! Still got those pipes you found in Baerlon, I see. Remember that? Lawks!”
“Still a hick,” Chucky couldn’t help grinning. “Who else is there? Hi Perrin. I guess it was only a matter of time before we found you all again.”
Perrin displayed his grin, showing that he had lost a couple more teeth in his time away from the gleeman. “Good to see you too,” he said, and turned to Fain, who was looking extremely edgy. “Master Fain, you look terrible. Why, I could almost believe some of the things Chucky was saying about you – ow. You kicked me.”
“Ha ha,” Chucky said, glaring at Perrin. “Nothing wrong with Fain. Fain the Main, that’s what I call him.”
“The Main what?” Mat asked, squinting in an outrageously hicklike manner.
“The Main Fain,” Chucky peered into the emerging crowd, which consisted mainly of injured Sheinarans. He looked up. “Hey, look, it’s Loial. Hi Loial, haven’t seen you since Falme either. None of you guys, actually,” he added grudgingly, turning back to Mat and Perrin. “You all just ran off and left me.”
“Your apprentice Mister See said he saw a Nazgûl,” Loial rumbled, hurrying over to join the reunion. “We didn’t know what a Nazgûl was, but the young men here were worried, and I was very curious,” his ears twitched mournfully. “Thank the Light you ended up somewhere safe, in the company of this beloved peddler from Emond’s Field.”
“Yes, thank the Light! Oh Lighty Light Light! Creator bless us all!”
Chucky’s pony tried to rear up and flee as a dense black mass of cloth and eyeshadow emerged from the trees, flapping its hands and weeping extravagantly. It was followed by an equally black-clad shape that was recognisably more female, and – thirdly and finally – the not-entirely-welcome sight of Egwene astride Bela.
“You’re alive and well!” Verin exclaimed, rushing forwards theatrically. “I was so worried that the awful Darkfriends might have gotten you, damn those Darkfriends to Ghul! You’re safe…” she flinched when she saw Chucky. “Ah, the gleeman from Damodred’s manor,” she said. “Liandrin, you remember Chucky.”
“Indeed,” Liandrin said, and almost bobbed a curtsey. “Is your … apprentice around?”
“No, we went our separate ways when he saw a Nazgûl,” Chucky said dryly. “I’m glad you got away from those nasty Seanchan Darkfriends in Falme too.”
“Yes, damn those Darkfriends,” Liandrin sniggered, and Verin nudged her with a black lacy elbow.
Hurin the sniffer came forward with Masema and Uno. Chucky gave them a nervous wave, and got a whole series of scowls, sneers, grunts, and surreptitious Yoru-salutes in response.
“And the Lady Selene?” Verin was carrying on. “Has she sent you any word?”
“Um,” Chucky tried desperately to keep track of the complex series of lies he’d accidentally bricked himself up behind. “Um no, she went her own way as well. Sorry. I was just wandering around, and I met up with master Fain and his friends. This is Bayle Domon, as some of you know, and this is Noam.”
Satters and Perrin were watching each other intently, and had been for some time. Slowly, and with exaggerated casualness, they sauntered towards one another, stiff-legged and staring. Perrin lowered his head and sniffed Satters’ ear. Satters turned with a haughty expression, clawed open his breeches, and urinated on the leg of Chucky’s pony.
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Chucky muttered.
Angamael was disgruntled.
He knew there were things he should be doing. He had estimated that currently he was making his way through The Dragon Reborn, having just put the whole Seanchan-battle-in-Falme and second-death-of-Ishamael behind him. He had been disappointed to lose Balthamel in that incident, but it could have been worse. Balthamel had been a lecher and a creep, and there was only room for one of those in the White Tower. Plus, he’d been a wrinkled old man in a gimp mask, and wrinkled old men in gimp masks really freaked Angus out. So in all, it hadn’t been too bad. He’d warned the fool about the ‘sheathing the sword’ move, and had thought Balthamel was well-defended from that angle. How Logain had managed to pull a swiftie on the situation was anybody’s guess.
Then Logain had literally fallen into his hands. Making use of his Aes Sedai, Angamael had subverted the new Dragon and set him up nicely, keeping him where he could see him. Verin, a singularly clever woman even if she wasn’t one of those ones who looked good in medieval latex, had identified another male channeler as Puddin Taim, brother to the infamous Mazrim Taim, and had realised his potential as a backup and fall guy for their false Dragon. But disaster had struck. Somehow, Logain had escaped with this Taim fellow, and now Verin and Liandrin were in hot pursuit. Well … Liandrin was in hot pursuit. Verin was in dumpy, motherly pursuit.
To add to the bad news file, the operation to turn Aes Sedai back from the Light once their enslavement had been broken was not proving as easy as he had thought. His plan to find the women was working, and all the Aes Sedai were back under his thumb and wary of Tinkers in a way no Aes Sedai had ever been before. He’d received word of no less than seventeen unsanctioned executions so far, and most of those were just innocent men and women with bad fashion sense. That was always a cause behind which Angamael was happy to get. However, things still weren’t perfect. Many novices and Accepted had slipped through the net, and the announcements he’d made concerning the search for “Coloured Ajah Aes Sedai” had alerted his enemies in Tar Valon. They’d slipped out from between his fingers before he could capture any of them – Tinker, informant, wolf, psychotic horse, giant shrub-man and all.
Angus blamed the narrative for the dumb ideas that may have cost him valuable servants. “Are you a Darkfriend?” sounded like such a good plan, but it didn’t work very well on Aes Sedai who had been freed of their Oaths. He’d told the other Forsaken this. They hadn’t listened. They were idiots. In fact, Balthamel was largely to blame. He didn’t have much respect for women. The only reason Angamael had allowed the plan to carry on was his own reasoning, which had turned out to be workable. Aes Sedai may not be under Oath, but they were used to being under Oath, and in many cases they could not comprehend the fact that they could lie. They’d spent so many decades being unable to lie, it was practically a conditioned response, ingrained in their psyche. Angus knew all about that shit. Not much use being a bad guy if you didn’t have a passing understanding of the human mind.
As such, the plan had worked as well as could be expected, and the possibility of more stupid plans had been erased with Balthamel.
The Betrayer of Hope had another ace up his sleeve. Actually, he had nine – blocky, unwieldy, papery aces, that he had found in the bottom of the bag of tricks he’d found upon his arrival. The entire Wheel of Time series. It hadn’t proven very useful yet, but Angus knew it would prove to be worth its weight in gold. Or paper, at least.
Even so, he was disgruntled, and he couldn’t quite put his finger on why. He leafed through The Dragon Reborn slowly, easing back in his seat and resting his feet on an expensive three-legged stool with intricate carvings that he’d found in the Amyrlin’s sitting room. He’d enjoyed a nice hot bath recently, and was now reclining in a soft dressing gown, a seven-striped stole wrapped around his head to help dry his hair, and a pair of seven-striped slippers on his feet. Let his minions wear the all-black uniform. Angus had a little bit of style.
“Things are okay,” he said. “If they stick to the story, they’ll all be traipsing over to Tear next, and that’s where Ishamael dies for the third time. Here in the Stone,” he leafed back a few chapters. “Rand escapes and they all follow him, but they don’t find him. Verin and the others probably won’t find Logain either. And being bad guys, they’ll probably do something dumb which stops them from catching him, even though I’ve told them where he’s going. Or my friends from the real world who are manipulating things might know that’s where the Dragon has to go, and take him somewhere else. It’s not like the Dragon uses Callandor until four books later anyway. Hmmm.”
The whole thing was, Angus wasn’t smart. He had a certain amount of low cunning, and he watched way too many movies, but he wasn’t a mastermind. All he knew was what not to do. He was an expert at not doing things. He knew all the rules, he knew all the critical blunders bad guys made, and he knew all the stupid ways good guys could win. But all he could do with that was stay one step ahead. The thing about staying one step ahead was, you had to wait for the good guy to walk along behind you, so you could tell whereto be one step ahead next time. And that shit was tiring.
He knew that the pursuit of perfection and neatness and absolute rule was one major stumbling block to bad guys, and so he wasn’t being overly meticulous in his pursuit of loose ends. No point in chasing one lone solitary bad guy into an ambush just because that one bad guy was trying to make a woman you liked fall in love with him. Bide your time, kill everybody – including the girl – and then console yourself with an army of sluts, that was Angus’ reasoning.
Of course, there was such a thing as going too far. That was where the next major trap was – the “Ha ha ha, I shall kill him later at my leisure,” trap. It didn’t pay to assume everything would be alright, and let your enemy run around free so you could “torment” him. Kill the enemy, and buy a hamster if you were keen on mindless aggression.
Angus turned from his studies and pulled on a silken bell-cord he’d just had installed. It wasn’t really necessary, but he found that coupled with a relaxed attitude and the depressingly bad-guyish behaviour displayed by most of his staff, it was a very effective way of getting people to pay attention to him. Sure enough, seconds after pulling on the cord, the Amyrlin Seat appeared and dropped into a deep curtsey.
“Fetch me Shaidar Haran,” Angamael said softly.
“Where’s he going then? Ha ha ha! He went away!! Typical, that! Ha ha ha!!! As if it was a bad thing to be a Tinker! What a cheeky chimp he is, walking off like that!! I bet it was his turn to do the dishes or something!”
Dr. Nick cast a discouraged look at the gleeful Contro.
“It’s the bleakness,” he said. “He’s confronted the truth about, um, our origins and it depressed him to find that he’s descended from people who follow the Way of the Leaf. Should I go after him?” he added just a little hopefully. The merry Tinker was beginning to get on his skinny little droopy engineer tits.
The Green Man sat in the dust behind the wagon looking, as a particularly poor player of words might put it, glumber than usual.
“I didn’t know he’d react like that,” he said. “There’s no possible reason to expect that such a story would have that effect. It didn’t affect either of you. Of course, in a way, the Tinkers never departed from the Way of the Leaf, and they have remained true to many Aiel ideals.”
“Well,” Dr. Nick said as diplomatically as he could, “Contro’s not all there, and I’m not precisely a normal Aiel myself. That reminds me,” he went on in a rebellious little mutter. “Sir There’s-A-Thing left a set of cadin’sor and all his spears and shit behind. I’m changing out of these damn stupid whites.”
“Yes,” Someshta was looking thoughtful. “I should have been able to tell from looking at you that you were as much a relic as that gholam. Did you get placed in a stasis box as well? I heard, in the last throes of the War of Power, that there was a stasis box Ark Project started up, but I also heard that it got balebombed in its final stages, all the units scattered.”
“Something like that,” Dr. Nick agreed, rummaging through the bags and boxes they’d recovered from the ruined wagon. “Hey look, he left his maps behind. This could be useful – there’s maps of the Aiel Waste as well as the, um, mainland.”
“Yes, you are quite recognisably closer to the original Aiel root than these others,” the Green Man went on. He chuckled. “You have those amazing palmleaf ears…”
“Yeah yeah. Hey look, he left his share of the other stuff we found in the stasis box,” Dr. Nick lifted up a handful of trash. “I wonder if he left behind his anti-Power thing as well. I always thought it was a bit of a waste of time giving him one of them. Ta’veren that strong probably couldn’t get fireballed anyway. The fireball’d turn into a rabbit halfway towards him.”
“Ta’veren?” Someshta frowned with a little rustle. “The Aielman? I’m sure I’d have noticed. Well, it’s difficult to notice any ta’veren going on with that Lightforsaken whirlpool around your merchant friend.”
Dr. Nick paused in the middle of pulling the soft, flowing cadin’sor over his head. The sand-coloured material caught in his ears. “Shan…Nancy? Nancy’s a ta’veren too?”
“Like nothing I’ve ever seen,” the Green Man asserted. “You know, while standing in the presence of Artur Hawkwing, it was possible to actually see the Pattern shaping itself into Age Lace around him. With Nancy Sidesaddle, well, it is almost possible to smell it.”
“What does it smell like?” Dr. Nick couldn’t help asking.
“Burnt toast,” Someshta confided.
Dr. Nick jumped out of the wagon and walked across to Gaul’s discarded spears just as Contro started laughing and crapping on about beans on toast. Strangely, it felt good to be back in proper Aiel clothing. He knew he wasn’t a real Aiel, but somehow the gai’shain white had been … humiliating. Perhaps that had just been because of all the menial labour.
Hefting his spears and buckler and even managing a slight swagger, he headed over to the fire, where Shannon was sitting with Min and the great grey wolf that Contro had not quite managed to identify for him, and…
…a disembodied floating head…
The momentary confusion passed, and Dr. Nick saw that the floating head was in fact a Warder. The colour-shifting cloak was far more effective than he had expected it to be. The Warder stood up and approached him, grinning broadly.
“No way are you Lan,” Dr. Nick said. The Warder was about as stony-faced as Jim Carrey. In fact, he looked like a bit of a schmuck. There was something strangely familiar about him.
“You must be Dr. Nick,” the Warder said, and grabbed him by each earlobe. “Say, ‘hi everybody’! Say it!”
Without preparing for the motion, and without even feeling himself move, Dr. Nick suddenly found himself standing on the Warder’s wrists, a spear resting against the wide-eyed man’s throat. There was a moment of frozen tension.
“Don’t. Touch. The ears,” he said, trying for Clint and managing Ween.
Then he felt something prod him in the small of the back.
“You’d best get the fuck up off of my Warder, you pajama-wearing sack of sheep swallop.”
He turned slowly to see the woman he’d been told was Moiraine, standing behind him with a little ivory figurine clenched in her fist and a brick-eating expression on her otherwise extraordinarily youthful and pretty face. He stepped off the Warder and thrust his spears away with a smooth gesture that he knew looked extremely cool … but had no idea how he managed it.
“How did he know who I was?” he demanded.
Shannon was staring at the Warder, who was picking himself up and dusting himself off and trying to look as if he’d fought the good fight and won. “Um,” the voluptuous merchant said, and cleared his throat. “Ay eff arr jay?”
The Warder gaped. “Eff Wun!” he exclaimed. “Oo-hay oo-yay? Ass-kay? Orelin-may?” he hesitated. “Elob-shay?”
“He Who Is,” Shannon muttered, and sighed bitterly when Forsaken_1 fell to the ground again, this time doubled up with laughter.
“You three cunts had better start talking sense,” Moiraine said, pocketing the angreal and folding her arms under her breasts.
“We’re old friends,” Dr. Nick explained. “Sort of friends. We just didn’t recognise each other. We’ve never met before.”
Moiraine rolled her eyes and turned away. “Well, when you’re done fooling around, bring everything over to the Portal Stone. Your freak of a friend Cooper Two has promised to bring us directly to Tear.”
“Alrighty,” Shannon grinned in spite of the continued howls of mirth from Forsaken_1. “About time we got in on the gol-durn story.”