Chucky clung to the crossbeam of the gibbet, watching the troop of mounted Whitecloaks ride down the street. He had exerted himself more in the climbing of that wooden beam than he had ever exerted himself before doing anything, and he was damned if he was going to let it all be for nothing. Failing and trying again was not something Chucky did. It was more efficient to just fail. You might fail the second time too, he reasoned, and then you’ve wasted twice as much time.
“What are we going to do?” Dr. Nick hissed.
“Nothing. Maybe they haven’t seen us.”
“You there, up on the crow-cage!”
“Maybe they’re talking to somebody else.”
“You, the fat gleeman with the wooden octopus on his shoulder!”
Dr. Nick looked at Chucky, daring him to continue with the optimism. Chucky had the grace to shrug slightly.
“Can you fight?” he asked, looking the battered Aielman up and down and taking in the skinny engineer’s body, the bedraggled clothes, the ears, the sallow pale face, the ears and the ears without much in the way of hope. “Or at least nerd them into submission?”
“I can fight, actually,” Dr. Nick grunted. “No, I can. I’m as surprised as you are, but there’s no time to argue about it. I can do Karate Kid shit and everything. I think it was part of the Aiel default settings when we were put into this scenario. A certain amount of statistical data-”
“Shut up. You can’t fight in this cage, can you? I’ll have to get you out.”
“Wasn’t that what you were trying to do anyway?”
“I say, you there!”
“I heard you!” Chucky yelled at the Whitecloak. By now the men and horses were pulled up underneath the gibbet, looking up with suspicious scowls. “We’re sort of in the middle of something here.”
“In the middle of what? Come down here and explain yourself at once, gleeman. Your behaviour is in violation of civil regulations, and we’ll have to escort you away for further questioning. You are consorting with a Darkfriend.”
“…so then the happy little squirrel ran away from the mean old fox as fast as his tiny legs could carry him,” Chucky said casually, unslinging his bagpipes from his shoulder. “And the mean old fox said-”
“What are you doing?” the Whitecloak officer demanded.
“He was upsetting the tavern patrons,” Chucky explained, “so I’m telling him a bedtime story. So, can you guess what the little squirrel did after that?”
“Was it something remotely as dumb as this?” Dr. Nick hazarded.
“He played his Running Away tune.”
“Come down here at once!” the Whitecloak roared, putting his gauntleted hand on his sword hilt.
Over in the Wayman’s Forge, Satters and Domon suddenly howled and climbed under the table, clutching at their ears and urinating in their tattered trousers. Perrin stiffened, but retained enough humanity to remain seated at his place, and shovelled in a bit more food before finally coming over all pale.
It wasn’t that the noise was beyond the range of human hearing – it wasn’t beyond the range of anybody’s hearing.
“It’s that bloody gleeman,” Uno snarled, leaping to his feet. “We’re going to have a problem now.”
“Such noise!” Fain marvelled. “Such awful, awful noise!”
“Inspiring,” Verin said. Liandrin nodded. “Certainly gets the blood flowing.”
Masema drew his ugly, notched sword. “It did in Fal Dara, that’s for sure. Get up, you slumbering goat-lovers!” he roared to his remaining men. “We’ve got a Code Three.”
“What’s a Code Three?” Egwene asked. Elayne exchanged a glance with Mat, and they shrugged.
“Trollocs Screaming in the Pass,” Hurin offered, climbing to his feet nervously. He had to shout to be heard over the wailing and wheezing from outside. “We adapted it since leaving home, to mean … well, Shadow-pipes Screaming in a Populated Area.”
The Borderlanders rushed out into the deafening darkness, howling their own savage warcries.
In the town square, the Whitecloaks were raising seven kinds of Ghul around the gibbet. Several of them were hacking at its foundations with their swords, and a couple with bows were trying to take aim at the figure perched on the crossbeam. This was all made rather difficult by the fact that their horses were screaming and foaming and panicking underneath them, hurling riders and kicking one another in a frenzy of instinctive fear. Chucky was balancing on the gibbet and squeezing his pipes for dear life, while Dr. Nick curled up in the cage and covered his ears. The men of Fal Dara set about the Whitecloaks with a will.
“Shall we peg that fucking gleeman as well?” Uno shouted to Masema.
“I said, should we knock off that gleeman while we’re at it?”
“What? No, kill the damn gleeman!”
“Free the Aiel? Are you sure?”
“Yes! Kill the bastard!” Masema nodded exaggeratedly.
“And what about the Aiel?”
Uno gave up, and pantomimed lowering the cage and letting the Aiel free to the other men. They went around to the side of the gibbet and released the chain-lever, and the cage rattled swiftly to the flagstones. The bagpipes fell quiet with a long, drawn-out moan.
“There was a lever?” Chucky demanded. “Why did I climb up this fucking … oh bloody Ghul.”
The Borderlanders released Dr. Nick, who stumbled to his feet and adopted a very stiff, tired crane-position.
“Hwoaaaahhh…” he said, and then gave up. “What’s going on over there?”
Back towards the residential area of Remen, several houses were on fire. Cries of “Tarmon Gai’don!” and “It’s the end of the world!” could be heard through the thickening smoke.
“Those bloody pipes,” Uno growled.
“What are we going to do with her?” Forsaken_1 asked for the fifth time.
Moiraine shrugged wearily. “I can scrag her if you’re too pissweak to do it.”
“Scrag?” Forsaken_1 didn’t know that particular piece of slang, but it sounded sort of sexual. And it really looked as if Aviendha would be good at it. “I don’t know if you should scrag her. Maybe I should do it. We’ll go into the tent and I can do it slowly.”
Moiraine raised an eyebrow. “I guess you were annoyed by this fuckarow as well. I guess we can make camp here, and you can take all night scragging the little bitch if you want. Just make sure she’s finished with by morning.”
“And try not to keep us all awake with the screaming.”
Forsaken_1’s hands began to shake. “Well, I’ll try. But there will probably be a lot of screaming. And not just from me, either.”
“From you?” Moiraine frowned, then her brow cleared and she went on in a cold, tired voice. “Alright, what do you think ‘scrag’ means? No, don’t tell me, never mind,” she added hurriedly. “It means kill. Okay? Kill her.”
Aviendha spat on the ground, where she was lying with Min and Cybes sitting on her. Forsaken_1 chose to think she was expressing her own disappointment at the fact that scragging didn’t mean what it really, really sounded like. Then, with a great effort of will, she composed herself and hid her bitter, thwarted disappointment. “You have captured me alive in battle, and although you are not Aiel,” she said quietly, “I am now gai’shain to you,” she frowned in perplexity. “For a year and a day, I will hold no weapon and do no violence, serving you in any way you wish…”
Forsaken_1’s hands began to shake all over again.
“Ain’t that kinda not usual?” Shannon asked. “I thought Aiels only done that with other Aiels. I know when I was done caughtened by the Aiels, only Dr. Nick was … wait. It’s ta’veren, ain’t it?”
“I’d say so,” Moiraine sighed.
Cooper Two stepped out of a nearby thicket, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
“Mmm,” he said. “Bloody.”
Aviendha averted her eyes from the gholam. She had only managed to survive the carnage by being too far away to join in, and then by being wrapped firmly in the tough creeper-vines of Someshta’s fingers before she could run to the aid of her injured friend. The rest of the aiel Maidens who had been with her were all … scragged. Very, very scragged.
“Ha ha ha!!” Contro said innocently. “Bloody! Bloody good, that!”
“Well,” Shannon went on, uncomfortable about the whole ta’veren thing and hoping everybody would just let it drop, “Dr. Nick left behind a set of gai’shain whites, so she can git on an’ wear them if it makes her feel better.”
“She can get changed in my pants, I mean my tent,” Forsaken_1 offered hastily.
“We’re never going to get to Tear at this rate,” Moiraine growled. “This whole plan with Callandor, it’s a fucking waste of time. The Shadow surely knows everything already, and the Dragon … well, what are we supposed to be doing anyway?”
“You’d better ask the Green Man about that,” Min said, climbing off Aviendha carefully and backing away. Cybes sat back too, and looked bored. So far, apart from a number of weird dreams about a big dork with a hammer, she’d had a tedious time on this adventure. And Contro always woke her up, laughing and telling her that she had been barking and twitching her feet in her sleep.
“The Green Man and his bloody plans,” Moiraine muttered, but nevertheless seemed to give up on the idea of scragging Aviendha for a while. Forsaken_1 wandered over to help Lan set up camp. Contro and Cooper Two cheerfully joined in, each lending a hand in his own uniquely pointless way.
Later that night, Shannon and Forsaken_1 sat at the campfire, mulling things over while everybody else was asleep. Aviendha was asleep in the tent that Forsaken_1 was used to sleeping in. Her white robe was hanging on a peg outside the door-flap, and the very thought of what that meant was driving him to distraction.
“We’re in the Wheel of Time story,” Nancy Sidesaddle was saying in a low voice. “We know that, ’cause that was what the whole durn adventure roleplaying thing was meant to be, and the characters all match. Kinda.”
Naked, Forsaken_1 thought. Or wearing some tiny, functional Aiel underpants. Probably camouflage-colours.
“But there was some sorta screw-up,” Shannon went on thoughtfully. “None of us ended up in the character class we put down on that there entry-form, and the suddenness of it an’ all … I wonder where we are, if we was brought here physical-wise or if we’re experiencin’ some sorta hallucination. I wonder if it’s a simulation, or a settin’ out in the desert somewheres, or some kinda secret military installation … or if we was really sent across a Dimensional rift, if maybe they’s figured out a way o’ makin’ the Wheel of Time world a reality … or if we’all was just frozen in time and the Wheel of Time world really does exist in a potential future…”
Maybe the gai’shain wear white underpants. Little tiny ones that don’t constrict them in their duties. But that would mean the last person to wear them was Dr. Nick. That’s not sexy. No, definitely naked.
“An’ the changes that have done gone happened,” Shannon went on, unaware that his associate was no longer listening, if he ever had been. “The whole goldurn story has got rearranged, there’s characters alive now what oughta be dead, and dead what oughta be alive. Is that meant to happen? Is it part o’ the problem, or is it all part o’ the game? What d’you reckon?”
“And rubbing all over my bedroll and blankets,” Forsaken_1 said dreamily.
“What? Oh, nothing. I have to go … over to the bushes now.”
“Again? Man, that’s the fourth time tonight. I reckon Chucky was right about how small your durn bladder is.”
“Yeah … yeah, bladder.”
Forsaken_1 walked hastily across to the far side of the camp, hid himself in the shadows amidst a large clump of bushes and fallen branches, and opened his breeches.
“Oh no, not again,” Someshta moaned.
If there was one thing worse than cities, Mister C didn’t know what it was. Not that he would ever admit not knowing. For a start, they were the ultimate symbol of the human sheep. One person decides to live in a city, and suddenly there are half a million of them, all going to work and walking around in the streets and worrying about commercial matters and saying ‘baa’. It was a pathetic thing to have to see, and here in wherever-he-was, it was even worse.
He’d decided to think of this city as Minas Morgul. It was just easier that way, and all the pieces fit. The populace were a lot more normal and less hostile, but there were other ways in which they were … off. The whole place literally stank of some insidious form of evil. And it seemed to have been taken over by some kind of evil sorcerer.
Debs, Janica, those Ogier, Logain and Vamps and that annoying girlfriend of his had all been captured by the Witch King, and there were no two ways about it. If he was going to save the day – and he knew he was going to – he would have to go alone into the jaws of death and bring his poor helpless colleagues out of harm’s way yet again. It was said, of course, that no son of man could defeat the Witch King – but Mister C of 9 didn’t worry unduly. He was a myrddraal, and that had to count for something. After all, hadn’t the Witch King been defeated in part by a halfling? Well, he was a halfman. A more glaring bit of plagiarism he could not possibly hope for.
Walking through the city streets was a giant pain in the ass, so he began to skip his way forwards swiftly and silently, moving from shadow to shadow on either side of the road, vanishing into the pools of darkness between the inns and brothels and reappearing further on, always following the weird scent in the air, the scent of what could only be Ringwraith magic. Purposefully, he entered the centre of the dark place, and stood for a moment, examining the options.
There were two palaces, and the damn things were identical. One of them was slightly smaller than the other, and the stream of dark magic seemed to flow into one of them … but the trail had gone cold while he’d wasted time having fun with his powers of darkness-harnessy. Now, although he was getting much better at vanishing sideways and moving from place to place on the edges of shadows, he had lost the scent, so to speak. Still, it couldn’t be that difficult to figure out.
“Two palaces,” he said to himself, ignoring the late-night crowds that were making their way back and forth across the square in little insipid flocks, bleating and carrying on as if anything they did made a difference. “Two palaces, each one identical, and the Witch King took the others into one of them. Which one is his palace?”
Of course, the biggest of the two was just too easy. Or was it? So the Witch King had a big ego, and wanted people to know that his abode was the biggest and best. So why a second palace at all? Surely the bigger palace was simply a decoy, to draw attention away from the real power behind the Council of the Nine. But was he crediting this shocking American author with too much subtlety? Or with not enough? Maybe the smaller palace was to draw the attention from the larger, and the thinking enemy would assume the smaller was the most important, for reasons of avoiding the obvious. And so the larger palace would be the real one, because it was too obvious and therefore the unlikely choice…
“Fiendish,” Mister C murmured.
“Good master? Would you like to buy a model? Great for gifts. For the friend who has everything. Nice price.”
Mister C spun in a weirdly motionless swirl of dark cloak, and bore down on the terrified merchant who was frozen in the icy eyeless gaze behind the dead black lenses. A matchstick model was shaking itself to pieces in his hands.
“You’re working late,” he remarked. The man went even whiter.
“I couldn’t sleep, good master,” he said. “Bad dreams.”
“Mmm. What is it that you’re selling?” Mister C asked, still turning the thoughts over in his head and deciding not to make a move before knowing for certain. “Which palace?”
“Oh, this is the Great Hall of the Council,” the merchant said, his voice firming up as he asserted the buyer/seller relationship. “Nice price. Great for gifts.”
“What’s the other one?”
“What, you mean the King’s Palace?”
“Yes. Is that one more important?”
“Oh yes, good master. Oh, much more important.”
“Why don’t you sell this one as the King’s Palace, and charge more for it?” Mister C caught himself and scowled at the thought. He’d been in the city for too long. It was starting to make him capitalistic. “They’re exactly the same.”
“Not at all, good master. The Great Hall is smaller.”
“Yes, but they’re the same. You could just say this one is a model of the King’s Palace, you see? And charge more.”
“No no, good master. I have models of the King’s Palace too. They’re made out of whole toothpicks. As you see, good master, this model has a tiny bit cut off the end of every toothpick, to make it a little bit smaller.”
Mister C leaned closer, and whistled. “That’s high-quality work. But surely it’s a lot more difficult to make these Great Hall models, since every toothpick has to be snipped up?”
“Oh, much more difficult, good master.”
“So you should charge more for them.”
“More than I charge for the King’s Palace?” the merchant laughed nervously. “His Majesty would have my head!”
“Wouldn’t the Great Council guys tell the King not to be such a prat?”
“Well, perhaps, now that Lord Brend is in charge there. They say he has the King eating out of his codpiece,” the merchant said in a low voice. “However, I wouldn’t depend upon the Lord Brend to save my life. I think I’ll just carry on selling my models for the same price if it’s all the same to you. It’s never gotten me into trouble before.”
Suddenly, Mister C of 9 had his solution. Ah, the Witch King was all too predictable. And it seemed as though there had been a slight merging of characters here. The good King had been made into a puppet, possibly by some sort of Wormtongue character. He’d have to see about that, and maybe refine his theory a little. In the meantime, he knew where the true evil lay, and it was the smaller palace.
“Well, this has been like any enlightenment,” he said philosophically to the merchant. “Illuminating, but not particularly enjoyable. Goodbye.”
He stepped into the merchant’s shadow and made his way instantaneously to the dim interior of the Great Hall of the Council.
Some hours later, the merchant was still screaming.