“The Black Gate is closed,” Mister C proclaimed significantly.
Cooper Two and Logain looked at one another, and then across at their glorious leader. He stood, shivering miserably, shaking his head.
“It’s really not that difficult…” Coop hazarded.
“Mister Frodo,” Logain said, “I know that you once said-”
“Can’t be done.”
“-that we should never cross the streams-”
“It would be bad.”
“-but we really have to, it’s the only way-”
“Crossing the streams will result in the destruction of the universe.”
Coop lowered his voice. “Where’s he getting this shit from?”
Logain glared at the gholam, loyalty to his Great Lord outweighing the exasperation of the situation. “Myrddraal can’t cross running water. They have an aversion to it.”
“But it’s two feet wide! And it’ll cut six days off our journey and we won’t have to go past Fal Dara at all, and there’s no patrols and the Blight is right there!”
“Nothing doing,” Mister C of 9 sat down on the far bank and hugged his knees.
“What if I put a rock across it?” Cooper Two asked. “Then it would sort of stop flowing, and you could walk across the rock and not have to cross the even slightly-running water.”
“We’ll have to find another way,” Mister C glared across at the gholam. “That’s all there is to it. Now lead us to Shelob’s lair.”
“Don’t play dumb.”
“Come on, Gollum,” Logain stepped back across the stream. Mister C of 9 shuddered and averted his sunglasses. “We’ll just have to go another way. That’s the will of the Great Lord.”
“Have you ever considered the possibility that your Great Lord is a giant mincing girl?”
Mister C’s attention immediately snapped upwards. “Where did you see my giant girl mincing machine?” he demanded. “I haven’t got one, and stay out of my basement, you hear?”
Surly and uncommunicative as ever, Min, Nynaeve and Elayne had declared Tanchico a lost cause, and had decided to head for Tar Valon. They had ‘talked’ to Cyberwollf in the Wolf Dream, and had discovered the secret of turning channelers back from the Dark One. Rather than hunt down Black Ajah in the warren of badly-irrigated slums in Tanchico, Nynaeve declared, it would be far more worthwhile if they took Cyberwollf’s wondrous tummy back to Tar Valon, and save the day. Cyberwollf, not really caring one way or the other but liking the idea of receiving an entire city’s-worth of tickle-tums, had waggingly gone along with it. Feeling lost and bewildered, Dr. Nick had followed. The Ogier, altogether miserable and beginning to suffer from premature Longing as a result of being in great danger all the time, had also come along, because they didn’t want to be left alone.
To make matters worse, Dr. Nick was injured. Cyberwollf’s clever plan to withdraw him from the Wolf Dream so he could wake the others was indeed a clever one, but the limping Aielman wasn’t sure why it always had to be him who went first. It was just as well, all things considered, that the wondergirls had decided to put a little ban on Tel’aran’rhiod entry until they could properly study the mess made by the Ogier and their de-repression cascade. Once Cyberwollf had taught them to enter the Wolf Dream without the ter’angreal, Dr. Nick truly became a fifth wheel and was able to sit up with the Ogier and wake the girls up after a couple of hours, while they went and talked with Shannon and did all the other things that made the adventure a little bit less annoying.
Even worse, he and Hoarni were outvoted when it came to what the wondergirls really needed, and the suggestion that they might take care of it while the aforementioned wondergirls were deeply, deeply asleep.
So now, they were trekking across the Tarabon countryside, posing as dye merchants from Cairhien. The Ogier had adopted a ridiculous disguise that they said they’d tried many times in the past, and had worked quite well. Dr. Nick had large swatches of purple-dyed cloth hanging from his ears, and the women had gotten into the mood of things by making multicoloured togas for themselves. Cyberwollf had even agreed to let them dye her hair, and she was now a Tinker unto herself. The Ogier still wore their Illian shirts, but they were splashed with dye, and their outfits, designed to make them look like people dressed up as Ogier, made them in fact look like giant drunk spastics let loose in a dye factory.
“I hate this thread,” he muttered, jumping up into the wagon they’d commandeered from Tanchico, and wiping his brow. “I’m not built for this sort of exertion.”
“You’re an Aielman,” Min disagreed. “You have to be built for it.”
“And with those ears, you’ll always find water and shade,” Elayne agreed, and the girls laughed at him. It was familiar music. “And if you don’t like that thread, you can try one of these others. I like the red, myself.”
“That wasn’t what I was talking about,” Dr. Nick grumbled, and shuffled across into the deeper shade within the wagon. They’d been pretty lucky finding transport out of the city, and loading themselves up with supplies. They’d posed as a charity organisation for a brief time, and it was amazing how much a merchant would donate if he thought the four frightened Ogier standing behind you were actually trollocs. “I just wish … oh forget it. Are we there yet?”
They’d already crossed paths with a little wagon column accompanied by Whitecloaks, who had looked through their wares and asked the girls if they were Aes Sedai witches, and asked the Ogier if they were Shadowspawn, and then asked Dr. Nick if he was for real, whatever that meant. They’d looked with great suspicion at Cyberwollf but had seemed quite charmed when she offered to shake hands, and then rolled onto her back for a tickle-tum. They’d purchased several lengths of white cloth, and gone on their way.
“We’re coming up to a village,” Wyse reported. “Can we go around it?”
“No,” Nynaeve snapped, grabbing her braid.
“That’ll be Mardecin,” Min guessed. “We can pick up some supplies.”
“Woof,” Cyberwollf said, and shook her head.
“Are you trying to tell us something, Cyberwollf?” Elayne said intently.
“One bark for yes, two for no,” Min said, leaning forwards. “Is there something dangerous in Marcedin?”
“Black Ajah?” Nynaeve demanded.
“Woof woof,” Cybes hesitated. “Woof.”
“What does that mean? That there are women there who might be Black Ajah, or turned to the Black Ajah? Tell us what you mean. Is there something we can do?” Nynaeve let go of her braid and stared intently at the giant neon wolf.
“I think she means there are agents of the Tower there-” Dr. Nick hazarded.
The women all stared at him flatly.
“Woof,” Cybes put in.
“See? She says ‘shut up’,” Elayne pointed out triumphantly.
“‘Shut up, shut up’,” Nynaeve added.
“There’s a woman who will drug you and try to send you to the White Tower as a prisoner-”
“We want to go to the White Tower,” Nynaeve snorted. “Speak sense.”
“As prisoners?” Dr. Nick threw his hands up, exasperated. “The Tower’s full of Black Ajah!”
“Will you shut up like Cyberwollf is telling you to?” Min snapped. “You woolheaded Aielman!”
“Do we have to go into the town?” Coarshus asked meekly.
“No,” Elayne said. “Nynaeve and Min and I will go, and we’ll meet you back here. We’ll find out about the countryside ahead, and get some supplies, and then move on. And you’re not to follow us, Dr. Nick,” she shook her finger under his nose. “Do you hear me?”
“Fine,” Dr. Nick snarled. “Fine with me, I’ll just stay here with Cybes and the wagon and the boys, and we’ll meet you back here when you return without a hitch. Right?”
“Right,” Nynaeve sniffed. “Honestly, it’s like pulling teeth sometimes with you men.”
Evening fell, and the women did not return. Dr. Nick collected some kindling and Frendli lit a fire from the ember of his rolled-leaf cigarette. They sat against the wagon wheels and waited as night fell. Cybes settled next to the sulking Aielman, wagged her bright blue tail morosely, and whined.
“I’m not going to rescue them,” he said. “I’m not.”
“The way I see it, this is our chance to get out of this thread and go do something interesting,” he pursued. “Or, if not interesting, then at least safe.”
“Do you really think they’re in danger?” Wyse frowned behind his cardboard mask.
“No. They wanted to go to the White Tower and bully for them,” the Aielman snapped. “They wouldn’t listen to me, or Cybes, even though they pretended to. And now they won’t have her to zap them back to the Light, and serves them right.”
“Are we going to go to Tar Valon and save them from the Dark One?” Coarshus quavered.
“Wouldn’t it be safer to save them now?”
“Or not at all,” Dr. Nick said. “I vote for not at all.”
“But then they’ll be Black Ajah,” Frendli moaned, “and they might come after us.”
“I’m scared,” Coarshus added.
“And they were pretty,” Hoarni pointed out.
“Fucking Hell,” Dr. Nick muttered. “Alright, alright!”
Chucky sat on the empty wine barrel and watched the Aiel cavort. The streets of Rhuidean were jumping for the first time in several centuries, but the gleeman couldn’t enjoy himself. He couldn’t even play his shiny new, improved pipes. Every time he so much as hefted them, he got dirty looks and a barrage of empty oosquai glasses from nearby Aiel. Mat had gone off somewhere, and was probably having sex with that Aiel Darkfriend Melindhra by now. Chucky didn’t begrudge him, and didn’t feel particularly obliged to warn him, either. One way or another, it would make for a good story when the Gentlemen’s Club reconvened. In the meantime, the worried gleeman was sitting quietly and drinking with the only person he could think of to drink with.
“Sorry about that whole running-away thing,” he said, taking a little drag of the vile Aiel liquor and passing it across. “Couldn’t be helped, really. It was all a bit of a shock. I mean, you saw. I had to get out of there.”
“Ah, forget it,” Fain said morosely, taking the bottle and having a long swig. “I know how it feels to run, and scream, and have the clawing and the burning flow through-”
“I don’t have so much of that,” Chucky said.
“I suppose not.”
“That whole plan wouldn’t have worked anyway,” Chucky went on, raising his arms. The dragons on them were already peeling away, aided by a lot of rubbing and scrubbing and picking on behalf of the gleeman who recognised the debilitating effect such a decoration would have on his life expectancy in the Aiel Waste. So far, luckily, none of the Aiel seemed to have recognised him as the gleeman who’d displayed himself at Alcair Dal. They all seemed to think ‘Jasin Natael’ had been the perpetrator, and Jasin Natael was chummy with the real Car’a’carn. Chucky had made it back to Rhuidean more or less unscathed. “You’d have had to keep putting them back on, because they peel off in a couple of days.”
“It was a silly idea anyway,” Fain conceded. “I get these conflicting orders, about what to do with the Dragon and who the Dragon is and who I should be obeying … who I should be killing … the words burn into my head … drilling, scarring, tearing, burning…”
“Boring,” said Alexander.
“Boring,” Fain snapped his fingers. “Boring into my skull from the inside!” he frowned. “Who said that?”
“Said what?” Chucky took the bottle back and sipped. “Blegh, this is awful shite.”
Somebody else walked up.
“Hey Quincey,” somebody said to somebody.
“Well, you seem to be taking it all in your stride,” Chucky said loyally. “I heard some of the stuff you guys were talking about when I was locked up in your wagon, and it seemed pretty tense. I can’t say I’m sorry about Domon, but it might not have happened if you just stopped trying to kill the Dragon.”
“But that was what I am supposed to do.”
“This is pointless. I’ll write it on a piece of paper and put it in his hand.”
“I was sent to find the Dragon like a dog on a trail, and … did you say something?”
“I was just thinking, now that Rand’s dead, your mission is over and you can make your own destiny,” Chucky mused. “You certainly took it better than Moiraine when Rand was shot. Maybe now you can … evolve as a person.”
“Maybe. Or I could…” Fain looked down at a crumpled piece of paper in his hand. “What’s this?” he opened the paper, then his mind seemed to wander.
“Or you could … what?” Chucky pursued.
Fain giggled. “Well … I tried to resist the voice in my head, but it’s so broiled and boiled and steamed into me, into my flesh, I couldn’t-”
“What did it tell you?”
“I’ll give you a clue.”
“Darkhounds,” Chucky sighed.
“Woof wo…” Fain frowned. “Yeah.”
“What’s that paper say?” Chucky looked up at the complex of buildings where he thought Debs and Janica were babysitting the Car’a’carn. “And where’s Sattersnoam?”
“He’s sniffing around,” Fain looked down at the paper as if noticing it for the first time. “Oh. It says here that … oh dear. Isendre has escaped.”