When Puddin Taim staggered up out of Rhuidean, Debs and Janica were waiting for him right on the edge of the mist bank. He stared at them for a moment, muttering to himself, then approached, warily. His arms were bare and glittering red, white and blue, and a glowing sword of saidin was crackling in his hands like a lightsabre.
“Where the feck’ve ye been?” Janica demanded, striding forward as far as the a’dam would allow. “You’ve been gone for seven days! And why are you alone?” she added as the limping blur resolved itself into only one person. “Where’s Chucky?”
“We got separated when the dust-people attacked us,” Vamps said. “I don’t know where he went. I got away, but they gave me considerable owwies in the process,” he trailed off into muttering again.
“What’re ye mumblin’ aboot?” Debs snapped. “C’mere and let’s get a luke at ye. The Wees Ones’ll be commin’ pretty soon, an’ we need tae make sure ye’ve got…”
“What is it?” Janica hissed as Debs trailed off into horrified silence. “What’s happened?”
“Those are’nae Dragons,” the sul’dam growled.
Vamps blinked, and looked down at his arms. British flags twined across his forearms as if fluttering in the wind.
“No kidding,” he said. “That’s what I got. And I’m not going back for another try. It was … awful,” he shuddered. “They got lost,” he went on, half to himself, staring into nothingness. “They were looking for Holland, and they got lost…”
“Luke,” Janica said reasonably, peering closely at Vamps’s arms, “it’s not the end of the world. We can change these a little bit, add legs here, and this fold here looks sort of like a tail. We can make them look like Dragons. Are you ready for me to try, Vamps?” she looked up. “Vamps?”
“Huh?” Vamps was scratching vigorously at the back of his neck with his free hand. “What?”
“Fer feck’s seek,” Debs growled. “We’ll Heal yer owwies, alreet?”
Vamps cheered up considerably. “Thanks. I also have this weird sort of lump on my neck, it itches.”
“Yeah yeah. Come on, we’ll give it a try.”
Debs embraced saidar through the a’dam, and her little damane did her best to Heal Vamps, even though she couldn’t see much of anything and she was pretty sure her Healing ability wasn’t up to the task. The ‘dust-people’ had inflicted a multitude of shallow cuts and scrapes on the Far Maddingite, the Union Jacks on his arms required a great deal of finesse to alter into even sketchy-looking Dragons, and the ‘lump’ on his neck turned out to be one of a long chain of boils that were festering their way down his spine. Janica didn’t want to think about those, because she knew what they meant. Taint sickness. Through it all, Puddin kept up a steady stream of muttering and growling and periodically ran off stamping after invisible bugs.
“Ye think he meet be goin’ inseen?” Debs hissed.
“Not a chance,” Janica said firmly, and released the Source with a sigh of relief.
“What now?” Vamps said nervously, still fingering the back of his neck.
“Now we go up to the Wees Ones, an’ they get yer on the treel tae feem an’ fertchun.”
“You go to the Wise Ones, and they’ll declare you in front of everybody,” Janica said patiently. “The Clan Chiefs will get together and you’ll stand before them all, and show them your arms, and they’ll acknowledge that you’re the Car’a’carn, and you’ll be famous, and don’t scratch that.”
“It itches,” Vamps whined, lowering his hand. “I thought you Healed me.”
“Scratching it will only make it worse. Now we have to find Chucky.”
“Nae, this is more important,” Debs said. “We’ve messed aroond wi’ the storrie tae much already. Chucky’ll take care o’ himself.”
“That doesn’t sound like the Chucky I know,” Janica said dubiously. “But alright, you’re right. We’ll take Vamps over to the Wise Ones, and let them take charge. Then we’re going to start a search. He can’t have gone far.”
Supporting the weeping Vamps between them, Debs and Janica made their way back to the Aiel. The potty-mouthed Wise Ones looked at the Car’a’carn with extremely dubious expressions, and the Shaido representatives were absolutely livid. Couladin was at least as dead as Muradin, if not more so, thanks to a timely pot of flowers from the heavens. Sevanna had simply stormed off, which was more or less expected. Shannon was nowhere to be seen.
Rhuarc looked at the googly-eyed Union Jacks on Vamps’s arms for a long time, then stepped back.
“They are not the same as those borne by the Clan Chiefs,” he said, “but there is no reason they should be. We were always told the Car’a’carn would be marked twice, but there was never any mention of the fact that they would be two of the same marks as we get. There is only one way to be sure,” he went on, “and that is to ask him what he saw in Rhuidean.”
“That is forbidden,” Bair said firmly.
“The Car’a’carn will turn many traditions on their ears,” Debs said wisely.
“Who the fuck is this fat bitch anyway?” Melaine snapped. “Nobody asked you. Fuck off, fat bitch.”
Debs blinked. Bair smiled.
“Melaine likes you,” she said, “you big wobbling Wetlander slut.”
“Look,” Rhuarc said, raising his arms so his own Dragon gleamed. Janica couldn’t see it properly, of course, but even so she had to say it didn’t look much like a Dragon to her. It looked more like a red-and-gold Dalmatian, with big floppy ears and a waggy tail. “I shall just ask him quietly, and he can reply quietly, and nobody will hear who should not hear.”
“What are you, a fucking infant?” Amys growled. Rhuarc made a kissy-face at her, then leaned close to the bravely snuffling Puddin Taim.
He whispered to the apparent Car’a’carn for a moment. Vamps’s face went even whiter than usual, and he turned around. Spotting the brightly-coloured Tinker wagon nearby, and the smiling figure of Contro sitting on board, passing pieces of lettuce to Bela and Cow, he pointed with a shaking finger.
“Them,” he said, his voice wobbling with emotion. “We came from them! Lost! They got lost!”
“What? I say, ha ha ha!!! That’s funny! By George!”
“Good enough for me,” said Rhuarc.
“Whose turn was it?”
Fain waited for a few seconds, and when nobody answered he threw his cards down with a curse.
“Can’t we have a single game without somebody losing track of whose turn it is?”
“I told you it was my turn.”
“All I know is, it wasn’t my turn,” Asmodean said huffily. He set down his own cards carefully, tugging at the decorative lace bits he couldn’t help adding to his costume. He was meant to be a gleeman, but his outfit was ludicrous. “I went before Noam-”
“What did I do this time?” Asmodean blinked.
“‘What did I do this time?’,” Noam mimicked savagely, dripping foam from his chin. “You’re such a liar! Bastard! As if you don’t know! Why is it always me who’s wrong?!”
“I don’t know, I guess that’s just the way it goes.”
“Aieee! Fuck off!” Satters bit his lips and bled aggressively.
“Alright, calm down, just don’t piss on the floor again, okay?”
“Oh, you don’t want me to piss on the floor, huh?” the shaggy yellow-eyed beastman howled, clawing at his breeches. “You don’t, huh? Well how do you like that, huh? How do you like that?”
“I did want you to piss on the floor,” Asmodean grinned, “because you look like a fool when you do. So I told you not to, knowing that you would, just to spite me.”
Satters was rendered speechless with rage.
“My turn,” Domon growled, and threw something down on the table. Whatever it had once been, it wasn’t a card. “I win.”
Asmodean raised a silken handkerchief to his nose. “Yes, you win the Most Disgusting Thing On The Table Game that only you are playing,” he gagged. “Again.”
It was crowded with seven people in the wagon. Fain, Domon, Asmodean, Noam and the blissfully-silent shape of Sheriam in one corner, all of them trying to play cards, and inexplicably always ending up dealing out the wrong number and then losing their place after just one round. And it was hot. And they’d been on the move for what seemed like weeks, making their way around Rhuidean and towards the Aiel encampment without using the One Power at all, on account of the fact that some stupid Aiel channelers were bound to spot them. Asmodean was nearing the end of his tether, and Fain didn’t blame him. Sadly, he was also not very useful, and Domon wanted to kill him, and Fain wanted to let Domon kill him.
And that was another thing. Their disguises were stupid.
They’d met up with a group of Darkfriends under Hadnan Kadere, and neatly taken their place. They’d done their best to dress Sheriam up as a gorgeous, exotic young woman, but there were so many things wrong with the result that even Domon had stopped looking at her. And Domon as Keille Shaogi wasn’t much better. Asmodean had done the best he could with inverted Masks of Mirrors all round, and now even Fain wouldn’t recognise himself with his wide-brimmed hat and funny eyes. Noam had been resistant to disguises on general principle, and Asmodean had gone for the kushy gleeman option. Fain knew that if ‘Natael’ called ‘Keille’ a gluttonous slurry one more time, ‘Keille’ would do something so awful that no amount of inverted commas would make it alright to record.
“We’ll give the cards a break for a while,” he snapped, disliking being the sane one in the wagon. “Are we nearing the Aiel encampment?”
One of the other guys stood up and peered out through the front flaps. “Yes,” he reported. “They seem to have broken camp already, and are heading towards us. It’s hard to judge the distance in this climate, but they’ve definitely moved off that hillside and are likely on their way towards this gully. Should we head into the mist and come at them from the other side, or should we go further north and pretend to be lost?”
Fain jerked in surprise. “Who said that?”
“I never said anything,” Asmodean said lazily, eyeing his six companions casually.
“Weren’t asking you, so we weren’t,” Domon growled.
“Listen, you glut-”
Somebody whacked the card table loudly. “It was me!” he shouted. “Look, it’s not our fault, we didn’t want to come along and we kept telling you not to deal us into your stupid card games! You can’t play cards with Grey Men! You’re driving Quincey and I up the Ghul-damned wall!”
There was a long, hot, dusty silence in the wagon.
“Cards?” Fain picked up the deck, and began to shuffle.
With a minimum of messing around and a maximum of soul-withering curses and insults, the Aiel packed up and departed from the slopes of Chaendaer, and the hapless Wheel of Time Experience participants were dragged along. Their first stop was to be Imre Stand, followed by Cold Rocks Hold, and then Alcair Dal, a place used for meetings of the Clan Chiefs. The Wise Ones concurred, and said that they’d get the word around on the dream-plane. Without further ado, they headed off.
Janica insisted on making their way carefully along the outskirts of Rhuidean as they went, looking for signs of Chucky, and the Aiel agreed. If they found the intruder first, of course, they were likely to spear him since they’d missed their chance to do so earlier, when he’d hurried away in the company of the Car’a’carn. The Shaido menace was effectively defused, but there was still a lot of suspicion among the Wise Ones, and everybody seemed to be of the opinion that a good spearing was just what the group needed to relax. They didn’t generally kill gleemen, but annoying gleemen with bagpipes were discovered to be an ancient exception to the rules as recorded in the Aiel Rules of Spearing Things.
They were making good progress when the wagon appeared on the horizon. Knowing what was coming, Janica momentarily lost interest in her search for her husband and joined the little party of Aiel approaching the intruders. As she had expected, it turned out to be a peddler and his team. Or so Debs reported.
“Are ye thinkin’ wha’ I’m thinkin’?” the bluff sul’dam said from the corner of her mouth.
The wagon pulled up, and a skinny, well-dressed man with a huge nose vaulted energetically out. He froze when he saw Debs and Janica, and his eyelid twitched. But he got over it well, smiling slimily and approaching Rhuarc. Debs looked at him closely, and realised who it was without a great deal of difficulty. He was wearing some sort of disguise, made with the One Power, but it was obviously Padan Fain. Debs embraced the Source through her damane, and realised the disguise must have been woven with saidin. Of course. Asmodean.
“Greetings and shade and whatnot,” he said in a thick Lugarder accent. “I am Padan … er, Padnan Kadere. Hadnan. Hadnan Kadere. Yes. Peddler. Pleased to meet you. I’m looking for release from the howling tearing bestial darkness that gathers and rends at my, I mean Cold Rocks Hold.”
“That’s a stroke of luck,” Rhuarc said amiably, “we’re on our way there right now. But you’re going the wrong way. You’re heading towards Rhuidean, and we’d have had to kill you with long metal spikes if you’d gone much further. Ha ha.”
“Ha ha,” Fain agreed.
“I’m serious about the spikes, I’ll show them to you later. So, who are your friends, master Kadere?”
Padan Fain led the Aielmen across to his wagon, which was rickety on its axles and hitched to a horse that could possibly have out-nastied Cow. It was chewing on a boot. Merchandise hung on its saddlebags and rattled cheerfully on the sides of the wagon, but there was nevertheless room for several other people, who disembarked as ‘Kadere’ introduced them.
“This is Keille Shaogi…”
“Arr, you do be a big tall Aiel, so you do be.”
“Good grief, she’s got a beard,” Rhuarc blurted.
“It’s a fungal infection,” the peddler said glibly. “Moving on, ah, this is my good friend Noam, he acts as a guard don’t put your hands near him.”
“Does he bite?”
“Only if he likes you. He doesn’t look as though he likes you.”
“Fuck!!! Fucking fuck! Uh, um, uh, lumberjack!”
“Ah, and our gleeman, Jasin Natael … he’s in there somewhere, ha ha, yes he is, always so shy, come on out Jasin. Don’t be a prima donna.”
“I’m just getting changed, ‘Padnan’. Give me a second, it’s not my fault you didn’t like my other outfit, and this one needed to be taken in pretty severely, the fat … and I hate getting changed in front of ‘Isendre’. You wouldn’t believe the faces she’s making at me.”
“We haven’t got all day, so we haven’t,” Keille growled.
“Alright, alright, you globulous bint.”
There was a final rustle from the depths of the wagon, and a handsome young man in a tattered gleeman’s cloak jumped down onto the sand. Sure enough, it was a bit on the big side, as far as cloaks go, and it didn’t quite go with the lace and velvets he wore underneath. Still, he managed a flourishing bow towards the Aiel.
“Charmed,” he said.
“He lukes leak Sean Bean,” Debs cooed.
“You said Logain looked like Sean Bean,” Janica grunted.
“Jasin will be singing and dancing every night, for pennies, naked,” Fain was saying. “Finally, of course, there’s the lovely Isendre. She’s a little indisposed right now, the heat you see, she’ll be staying in the wagon.”
Rhuarc peered into the shadows. “Thank fuck for that,” he breathed, and turned away hastily. His face was pale. “Is that all of you?”
“Yes. Oh,” Kadere snapped his fingers and nodded when one of the other guys elbowed him. He groped in his pocket, and pulled out what looked like a playing card, crumpled and smeared with what might have been feces. “There are also … Quincey, and Alexander,” he read off the card carefully, looking puzzled, “two more guards.”
“Oh them,” Rhuarc nodded.
“I’m not dancing naked,” Natael snapped.
“We should be heading off, if we’re to reach Imre Stand by nightfall,” the Clan Chief went on. “And we do want to, because we have a lot of Wise Ones with us and they get angry if we mess around out in the desert for too long. And they start to swear when they get angry.”
The new enlarged group readied itself to start, and Debs and Janica approached ‘Kadere’ carefully. He turned and stared at them when he heard their approach, and his eyelid twitched again.
“Hello,” he said, “ladies. I, um, it’s nice to you threw me into the Ways you cunts meet you.”
“I don’t suppose you can help us,” Janica said. “We’re looking for a gleeman-”
“We have a gleeman, so we do.”
“No, not him, I mean another gleeman,” Janica did her best to smile at Domon. It was easier than it would have been if she’d had glasses, at least. “I think you’ve met him before, he’s sort of big-boned and he has a pony-tail…”
“I told you we had a gleeman, so I did,” Keille growled. “He’s unconscious and tied up under the-”
“Ha ha, oh that Keille,” Fain shouted. “Jasin had an attack of heatstroke earlier on, he had a seizure and passed out, we had to tie him up so he wouldn’t thrash and hurt himself. Keille keeps making fun of him for it.”
“I’m still not dancing naked,” Natael said as he climbed back into the wagon in a flutter of patches.