“I’ll ask you again. How does it open?”
Frendli elbowed Wyse out of the way and fumbled with the golden chest. His hands were shaking and he was crying softly. Coarshus mumbled vague instructions, but he couldn’t seem to remember how the chest opened, and none of the little catches or buttons seemed to be working. And up until now, it had been easy as easy to open the box and pull out the Horn and get help from it. Now, it was stuck fast. It was almost as if the box itself were some sort of ter’angreal, and it had detected the presence of evil in the little minaret cell, and had sealed itself in response.
“There’s some sort of trick to it,” Frendli said, smiling at the Betrayer of Hope manically as his fingers worked. “It opens if you just push the right part, there’s really no problem…”
“I hope not,” Angamael purred, his blood-red cloak swirling although there was no ventilation in the room – a fact the four Ogier had come to regret over the past few panic-riddled hours. “I would very much like to see what is in this box, and only one of you needs to be alive to show me. The other three are expendable. Of course,” he went on as Frendli’s hands froze, “you haven’t told me which of you is the Horn-sounder, so I need to keep you all alive. Although,” he went on as Frendli’s smile widened, “it is worth mentioning that the Horn-sounder is only an impairment to me, and as soon as I find out which of you he is, I will have to kill him so that I can appoint my own Horn-sounder. But,” he added maliciously as Frendli voided himself, “I can’t be sure that that’s how the Horn works. Maybe the death of the Horn-blower will put the whole thing into dormancy until the next Age, or something else entirely. There just isn’t enough evidence in the books.”
“So you had better open it up, before I just lose interest in the logic of the situation and decide to kill you all.”
“I just remembered the trick to it!” Frendli cried, and hurled the chest against the huge oak closet in one corner. There was a metal-woody crunching noise and the box split along the corner seams. The four Ogier wept with relief and – due to Angamael’s uncertainty principle – terror. Angamael stepped forward and crouched beside the chest. With a swift motion, he ripped it open along the battered edges. Several objects fell onto the floor.
“Well well,” he said, lifting up the broken pieces of cuendillar that had formed the ancient symbol of the Aes Sedai. “One of the Seals. And it seems to be broken. This is interesting, but really of no value. Hmm,” he stood, holding the corners of another article. He shook it out, and smiled humourlessly at the rippling Dragon Banner. “This is more interesting. I’m sure we can do something with this. And looky here,” he went on, beaming happily. “The Horn.”
“There it is,” Coarshus said. “Sure enough.”
Angamael held up the Horn of Valere. It glinted in the candlelight. “Here,” he handed it to Hoarni. “Blow it.”
“You don’t have to tell me twice,” Hoarni said, grabbing the Horn. Then he froze. “How did you know … you knew I was the Horn-sounder all along?”
“Of course. Every time I said ‘Horn-sounder’ just now, your ears twitched. Now blow it. Heh, I guess I do have to tell you twice.”
“Are you sure?” Hoarni blinked. “The Heroes…”
“Do what the man says,” Wyse said, his expression a blend of smugness, relief, and pre-emptive horror at what was about to be done to Ba’alzamon in a very confined space.
Hoarni shrugged, and put the Horn of Valere to his lips.
It went ‘parp’.
There was a long silence. Banks of eldritch mist stubbornly refused to form. Heroes from Ages Past did not ride out to do battle. There continued to be only five people in the minaret cell. Hoarni raised the Horn again.
“Well,” Angamael said. “This has been exciting. I think I’ll start out with the True Power, and move on from there to just kicking what’s left.”
He raised his hands. Hoarni made the Horn go ‘parp’ again, and then ‘parp parp parpparpparpparpparpparpparp’. There was a hurried knock on the door.
“Thank the Light!” Wyse cried, and hurried over to the door. He yanked it off its hinges with one hand – of course, the Ogier could probably have escaped at any time, but they were too polite and afraid to have done so. “Oh, master Hawkwing, I’m so sorry we bothered you all those other times, but now we’re really in a fix, and my goodness, you’ve gotten old.”
Aginor pushed past the prisoner and bowed his head coolly at the Nae’blis. “There’s been a setback,” he said.
“Does this have anything to do with why your clothes are burning?” Angamael asked mildly.
“The turning went wrong. Software error.”
“One of the fades? What happened this time? Was it like Sheriam?”
Aginor shuddered. “No, it wasn’t like … that. It was a missed connection, the bond was passed outwards and didn’t reach Shayol Ghul. One of the fades got the shadowplay wrong somehow. The male channeller we were working on came around and attacked us when we were distracted. Killed the fades and most of the Aes Sedai. Sammael and I got away because we listened to your instructions, Nae’blis,” the Forsaken bowed his head again. “Always Have An Escape Plan.”
“Well, at least you escaped alive,” Angamael nodded. “This is the point where a dumb bad guy would kill the minions who made a mistake, even though they were a pair of the most powerful channellers under his command. But there’s no harm done. Look, we’ve got the Banner, and … well, it looks as if the Horn of Valere that our enemies have had all this time was just a fake. So we’re still a step ahead. Let’s take a gateway to Tear and say no more about it. Where’s Sammael?”
“I managed to convince him that it was stupid to keep the burns as a trophy of his defeat,” Aginor replied with a hint of disgust. “He traveled over to Tar Valon for Healing. He was quite angry.”
“Understandable,” Angamael said. “Take these trinkets, and the rest of the stuff we pulled off the prisoners. I want to look through that bag of crap as soon as I have time. We’ll be gone before they think to look for us up here. I’m officially closing down our Illian branch,” he turned to the gaping Ogier. “You’re coming with me,” he added.
After the gateways had slid closed behind the prisoners and their escort, there was silence in the cell. Then, slowly and carefully, the doors of the massive wardrobe swung open. Mist poured out, and was followed by the tentative, peeking helmet of Artur Hawkwing.
“They’re gone,” he reported, and stepped out of the wardrobe. He was followed, in rapid succession, by Rogosh and Gaidal and Birgitte and Prince Caspian.
“What are you doing here?” Birgitte asked the smiling young man.
“Gosh!” Caspian exclaimed. “I suppose I took a wrong turning at the lamp-post. Golly, how very embarrassing. Good day!”
He turned and hurried back into the wardrobe.
“So we got away from them that time,” Rogosh grunted. “But what about next time? We won’t always be able to hide that way. And those ridiculous Ogier are bound to keep on trying with that flocking Horn.”
“That’s what I’ve been thinking about,” Hawkwing said, and drew a parchment out of his armour. “And I think I have a plan. This is what we can do.”
As they listened, the Heroes of the Horn began to laugh.
“Have you found him?”
“No, I thought it was Sammael, but then I realised that the white thing stuck in his nose was actually bits of brain.”
“Is this him? His clothes are all charred.”
“No, they’re black robes. Look, the difference between burned clothes and myrddraal robes are quite easy to pick,” Janica stepped delicately over a thing on the floor that was thankfully blurred to invisibility. “Give it a shake. See? If it doesn’t wave back and forth when you shake it, it’s a halfman’s robe.”
“That doesn’t work,” Logain said apologetically. “Most of the halfmen are dead, and when they die, their clothes return to ordinary cloth. I’m sorry I made such a mess.”
“I think it’s safe to assume the Forsaken got away unharmed,” Puddin said meekly. “They always do in the books. And when you can’t find their bodies, it usually means they got away. Still, he got most of those Black Ajah ladies, and almost all of the halfmen have stopped flopping.”
“Aye,” Debs glanced across at Mister C of 9, who was pretending to wipe tears from his nonexistent eyes. “Sorry aboot ye’re halfbuds, See. It was them or us.”
“And you did very well,” Janica went on loyally. “Sabotaging the turning process like that, we would have been in a lot of trouble without you.”
Mister C stopped sniffling and his expression went a little guilty.
“Well,” he said, “I didn’t sabotage it so much as … redirect it a bit.”
“Wha’?” Debs asked. A terrible suspicion had already congealed in the middle of Janica’s soul.
“Looks as if they’re gone,” Logain said unhappily, then turned back to the others. He wiped his sooty hands on his pants, and regarded Mister C respectfully. “What would you have me do next, Great Lord?”
“It was an accident,” Mister C cried. “I’ll fix it!”
“Ye’d better,” Debs said grimly. “I’ll nae have the Dragon bloody Reborn bonded tae a feckin’ halfman.”
Mister C struck a pose and was about to launch into a speech about how unfairly he was being treated, and how ungrateful everybody was, considering that he’d saved them all from a fate worse than death, when a gateway slid open right next to him, cutting off his left arm at the elbow.
Moiraine was in a bad mood.
This wasn’t particularly surprising if you had ever met her. When it became surprising, on the contrary, was after you had known her for a while, and realised that the general potty-mouthed miasma that surrounded her was little more than an average background thing and didn’t count as a bad mood at all. In fact, it counted as a good mood – but that was only apparent when the bad mood arrived.
Contro didn’t notice any of this. Moiraine was shouting funny words, and it was funny.
“I can’t shitting well believe this! This is the worst idea since Suian Sanche and her fabulous fuck-o-pants! I can’t sing, he can’t sing, they can’t sing, and it doesn’t even look as if you can sing! And that dancing, what the fuck is that supposed to be? I always thought the Ugly Stick was a figure of speech, but now I know it’s actually just you.”
“Ha ha ha!”
Someshta rustled unhappily. “I am normally a rather better singer,” he said, “when I have full accompaniment and instruments. Ogier would be helpful, and I only have two Aiel…” he paused, and his leafy features winced. “I mean, one Maiden of the Spear and one Tinker, also known as a Lost One. There are meant to be more Aiel, and several Ogier performing the baritone.”
“Look buddy, if you’ve got a problem with my baritone-” Shannon started, catching himself folding his arms under his breasts. This just made him angrier.
“Not at all!” the Green Man waved his massive hands anxiously.
“So it’s mine that’s the problem, is it?” Forsaken_1 swirled his colour-shifting cloak angrily. “Don’t make me storm off the stage again.”
Contro didn’t understand what they were meant to be doing, but they hadn’t gone very far in the past couple of days. In fact, they hadn’t even packed up their camp and gone as far as a hundred yards! They’d just decided to sit around and sing songs. That was fun – if there was one thing Contro knew about, after his experiences with the Tinker caravan, it was singing – but he had a feeling that they should be going somewhere. Moiraine certainly seemed to be upset about the delays. Leaving them to their argument, Contro went and sat down on the edge of the rickety wooden stage. Min and Cybes were sitting with Lan and Cooper Two, watching the rehearsals with four different types of amusement. The only one who seemed to be unhappy was Cooper Two, who was having another of his periodic attacks of landbound seasickness. Cow was standing nearby, chewing angrily on one of the failed projects that Contro didn’t quite understand. It looked like an ironing board covered in wooden ivy! That was funny enough to make him laugh again.
“Ha ha ha! Funny!”
Min gave Contro a cautious glance, then went back to scratching Cybes’ ears. Cybes was chewing on the leftovers of a deer-haunch that they’d roasted the previous evening. The deer itself had wandered into the camp and Lan had tried to hit it with an empty brandy bottle. It had spun and bounded away, only to be tackled by a gleeful Cooper Two, who had declared that dinner was on him. Dinner had turned out to be on him, Forsaken_1, Cow, the wagon, and hissing and sputtering on the campfire by the time he was finished demolishing the creature.
Cybes was having an absolutely wonderful adventure. So far, she hadn’t had to do anything.
“Alright, are we ready to try again? Contro, if you please?”
Contro stood up and cleared his throat.
“Doe! A deer! A female deer!!! Ha ha ha! RAY!!!! A drop of-”
“Shut up!” Moiraine screamed, and warmed up Contro’s face with a pleasant little puff of warm orange-ish air. “Motherfuck! My fireballs are getting worse and worse! It’s this fuck-all Ghul-damned sitting around that’s getting me too frustrated to channel. I’ll be over at the river-bank,” she said, stalking away from the stage. “There might be some sailors passing by that I can shout at without having to be careful of my fucking language.”
Aviendha was also scowling. “I am not a minstrel, Green Man,” she said.
“I really thought we were getting close that last time,” Someshta said plaintively. “And look, I just found a little splinter in the Talisman I made, it might have been messing up the acoustics. I smoothed it out, so let’s try one more time from the top. Contro, it might be helpful if you sing the proper words this time.”
Contro laughed and looked down at the words on his piece of bark. He couldn’t read most of them because they were in a foreign language, so he said ‘la la’ in their place.
“When the la la came and la la, in the la la la la la la, la la with a la la, in the la la far away!!” Shannon and Forsaken_1 came in with their hesitant, embarrassed accompaniment of ‘dum dum’ and ‘koo koo-a-koo’, and Aviendha grudingly added in whatever was written on her own script. Someshta jumped up and began humming and dancing in a way that proved once and for all that he was indeed a Green Man. No Green Woman would move with that little grace.
From the little gap in the boards at the centre of the stage, a square wooden panel slid up, leaves and vines curling around its edges. It was like a door, a few inches thick and covered in the same leaf-patterns as the vines that were growing on it. It rose to six feet in height, then eight, then ten.
“It’s too high!” Someshta cried. “It’s breaking up!”
Shannon and Forsaken_1 began to sing louder, and Aviendha’s unpleasant voice rose to a screech. Cybes dropped the deer leg and began to howl.
At the sound, the expanding wooden panel leveled out at twelve feet in height, the vines curled around it a final time and then solidified into more carvings, and the whole thing came to a thrumming standstill. Cybes lowered her head with a smug smile.
“That,” Someshta said, “is one giant-arsed Waygate.”
“I’ll go and get Moiraine,” Forsaken_1 said, “and then we can get moving.”
Contro laughed again. Honestly! They’d been singing and making silly wood panels for a day and a half, and now they’d done this one they could go? It made no sense. Why had they been making them in the first place? And why were they allowed to go now? It was very funny.
Still, they did go. You couldn’t argue with that. Contro got back into his little wagon and let the blissful haze settle back over him. The singing had been very confusing, having to focus on so many things all at once, and not being allowed to let his mind wander very much. It was nice to get back to the real world, where things just happened. Like night falling. That just happened, and very quickly these days. Contro looked out of his wagon a little while later and it was night-time. That was funny, because it hadn’t even been late afternoon a few minutes before. Now it was so dark he could barely see Cow up ahead, pulling the wagon. Cybes padded alongside. They seemed to be riding along a bridge. Cybes looked up, waved her tail lazily, jumped into the wagon and rolled onto her back. Contro laughed and began to give her a tickle-tum.
They carried on riding along the bridge for a long time, and Contro thought it was strange for a bridge to be so long. Up ahead somewhere, he heard Someshta talking about something in a concerned tone of voice, and Moiraine saying other stuff about the taint, whatever that was. Shannon, who was closer to the wagon but still invisible in the darkness, said that some Waygates had also been swallowed by the Blight. It was all very meaningless to Contro. They came to the end of the bridge, and all stopped for a rest on a little island. Contro looked out of the wagon again, and couldn’t see any water. It was too dark. There were more bridges, though. Some of them were underneath the others. This made no more or less sense to him than any other sort of bridge.
Aviendha marched over to him, and watched him coldly. Finally, she held out a water canteen.
“We get to Tear in a few hours, but Someshta says there is great darkness here.”
“Ha ha ha! Yes, it is dark!!”
“We must ride hard now, Lost One, or we may not reach Tear at all. The Black Wind follows our trail, and none of us have the power to stop it. Drink, and then prepare to – Gah!”
“Ha ha ha!!”