‘Agony, Ontrose. I confess freely, now that I am nearly free, that I did love – and still do love – our Lady Polgara. Thou didst wrest her from me at that accursed tourney, and my heart hath been dead within me since that day. Now do I gladly go to endless sleep, but I shall not sleep alone. Wacune shall die with me, and all else that I love.’
‘What hast thou done, Lathan?’ Ontrose demanded in a horrified voice.
Lathan coughed up more blood. ‘I have betrayed thee – and all of Wacune.’ His voice was growing weaker. ‘All unobserved did I go into Asturia and did speak with Garteon and a foreign advisor of his whose name I did not ask.’
‘Foreign?’ I asked sharply.
‘A Nadrak, methinks – or perchance a Murgo. He it was who devised our deception. The fleet which did depart from Vo Astur eight days ago was no more than a sham – a ploy to deceive Wacune and Erat. There are no troops on board those ships. Garteon’s army doth wait in the forest not two leagues from Wacune’s western frontier.’ He coughed weakly again.
‘When?’ Ontrose pressed. ‘When will they invade Wacune?’
‘Two days hence, Ontrose.’ Weak though he was, Baron Lathan’s voice had a note of triumph in it. ‘That tenth day from the departure of the sham fleet doth loom large upon Garteon’s calendar, for upon that day shall his force march into Wacune, and, all unobstructed, shall they march to the alabaster city, which doth stand, helpless and unprotected, in their path. Vo Wacune is doomed, Ontrose, my beloved – and hated – friend. Though I am mortally wounded by thy welcome sword-thrust, I have set mine answering stroke already in motion. Four days hence shall the Asturians mount their attack upon the undefended walls of Vo Wacune, and no force at thy command can reach the city in time to prevent its fall.’ He began coughing up large amounts of blood. ‘I die, Ontrose,’ he said in no more than a whisper, but I do not die alone. My life hath been a burden unto me from that day when thou didst unkindly wrench beloved Polgara from my grasp. Now may I lay down that burden and go gladly into my grave, knowing that I will not go alone. All that I have loved shall go with me, and only Lady Polgara, immortal and unassailable, shall be left behind to echo her howls of grief ‘gainst the walls of heaven. It is done, and I am content.’
Then he firmly shut his lips and fixed his eyes upon my face with a look of unspeakable longing.
And then he died, and Ontrose wept.
I silently cursed myself for my inattention. There had been a hundred clues that I had completely missed. I should have known
I went quickly to the door of the tent. ‘Gather the officers!’ I commanded the Wacites who’d been vainly trying to bull their way into the tent. ‘We have been betrayed! Treason hath left Vo Wacune helpless and undefended!’ Then I remembered that these men were Wacite peasants. ‘Pull yerselves t’gether, me boy-os! We’ve got us work t’ do, don’t y’ know.’
Then I turned back to look at my weeping champion. “That’s enough, Ontrose!’ I snapped. ‘Get up on your feet!’
‘He was my friend, Polgara!’ he wept, ‘and I killed him!’
‘He deserved killing. You should have killed him during the tournament. On your feet! Now
He looked startled, but he obeyed.
‘That’s better. Turn this army around and start it moving south immediately. I’ll go tell Halbren what’s happened and start him south as well. Move, Ontrose! Move! We’ve got a long way to go and not much time.’
He gestured toward Lathan’s body. ‘What of my friend here?’ he asked me.
‘Drop him in a ditch somewhere – or leave him where he lays. He’s nothing but garbage, Ontrose. Dispose of him as you would any other garbage. I’ll be back in about an hour, and then you and I are going to Vo Wacune. We’ve got a war to fight down there.’ Then I left the tent.
Once I was out of earshot of the encampment, I allowed myself a few moments to speak – colorfully – about the situation. Lathan’s treason had quite nearly succeeded. There was no possible way I could get reinforcements to Vo Wacune in time to defend the city. Quite obviously, I was going to have to do it ‘the other way’. Right at that moment, I rather liked that idea. The image of a cheese-grater came to mind, and this time, I would use it, whether mother liked it or not.
I translocated myself north, hop-scotching my way from hilltop to hilltop to General Halbren’s camp on the shore of Lake Sendar. Halbren, as always, showed no particular surprise when I told him of Lathan’s treason. I honestly believe that Halbren could have watched the sky falling with no overt expression of surprise. ‘Their plan is flawed, your Grace,’ he told me calmly.
‘It sounds fairly devastating to me, Halbren.’
The capture of a city is but the first step, your Grace,’ he explained. ‘The Asturians may indeed take Vo Wacune, but the combined armies of Wacune and Erat shall arrive there only a few days later, and we have overwhelming force. Believe me, your Grace, we can re-take the city any time we choose, and after we’ve finished, Garteon won’t have enough men left to patrol the streets of Vo Astur.’
‘You’re just going to give up Vo Wacune?’ I demanded incredulously.
‘It’s only a city, your Grace – a collection of pretty buildings. The important thing about a war is winning it, and we will win this one. After it’s over, we can rebuild Vo Wacune. It’ll give us a chance to straighten the streets, at least.’
‘You’re impossible, Halbren,’ I accused. ‘Start your men south. I’m going to take Ontrose on down to Vo Wacune. Don’t start drawing city maps just yet, though. I think I know of a way to hold off the Asturians until our forces get there.’
Then I went on back to Lake Sulturn, found Ontrose, and took him out a ways from the already moving Wacite army. I repeated the procedure I’d used before, and I deposited my champion in the same secure place. I rather liked having him there, to be honest about it.
The dawn of the ninth day on that Asturian calendar was dawning when we arrived in Vo Wacune. I took my slumbering hero out of his convenient resting place and returned him to his normal size. Then I woke him up, and we entered the city. We went directly to Andrion’s palace told him of Lathan’s treason.
‘We are doomed!’ he exclaimed.
‘Not quite, Andrion,’ I assured him. ‘I’m going to have to call in reinforcements, though, I think.’