‘He’s not going to win, Pol. His seeming success here will come back and defeat – and destroy – him later. Certain Arends are going to be involved in his destruction, and I’m not going to do anything to disrupt that, and neither are you. The “Archer” and the “Knight Protector” are going to grow out of what happens here, so we absolutely can’t interfere.’
“The fall of Vo Wacune is certain, then, Ancient One?’ Ontrose asked him.
‘I’m afraid so, Ontrose. Has Polgara told you about the prophecies?’
‘In some measure, Holy Belgarath,’ Ontrose replied. ‘I cannot pretend to understand all of what she told me, though.’
‘To put it very briefly, there’s a war going on that’s been in progress since the very beginning of time,’ father explained. ‘Whether we like it or not, we’re all involved in that war. Vo Wacune must be sacrificed if we’re to win. You’re a soldier, so you understand things like that.’
Ontrose sighed and then nodded gravely. How could I possibly fight the both of them?
‘You might want to talk with Duke Andrion,’ father continued. ‘If you hurry, you may be able to get the women and children to safety, but Vo Wacune itself won’t be here in a few days. I saw the Asturians as I was coming in. They’re throwing everything they’ve got at you.’
‘They will be much diminished when they return to Vo Astur,’ my beloved champion assured him bleakly.
‘If it’s any comfort to you, Vo Astur’s going to suffer the same fate some years from now.’
‘I shall hold that thought, Ancient One.’
How could they so casually accept a defeat which hadn’t occurred yet? ‘What are you two thinking of?’ I demanded in a shrill voice. ‘Are you both going to just lie down and play dead for Garteon? We can win! And if you won’t help, father, I’ll do it myself!’
‘I can’t let you do that, Pol,’ he said.
‘You can’t stop me. You’ll have to kill me, and what’U that do to your precious Mrin Codex?’ I turned to my beloved with my heart shriveling within me. “Thou art my champion, Ontrose, and more – much much more. Wilt thou defy me? Wilt thou send me packing like some thieving chambermaid? My place is at thy side.’
‘Be reasonable, Pol,’ father said. ‘You know that I can force you to go if I have to. Don’t make me do that.’
Then I became irrational. ‘I hate you, father!’ I screamed at him. ‘Get out of my life!’ Tears were streaming down my face. ‘I’ll tell the both of you right now that I will not go!’
‘Thou art in error, dearest Polgara,’ Ontrose told me in unyielding tones. ‘Thou wilt accompany thy father and go from this place.’
‘No! I won’t leave you!’ My heart was breaking. I could not defy him. I loved him top much to do that.
‘His Grace, Duke Andrion, hath placed me in command of the defense of the city, Lady Polgara,’ he said, falling back on a stern formality. ‘It is my responsibility to deploy our forces. There is no place in that deployment for thee. I therefore instruct thee to depart. Go.’
‘No!’ I almost screamed it. He was killing me!
“Thou art the Duchess of Erat, dear Lady Polgara, but long ere that, thou wert of the Wacite nobility, and thou hast sworn an oath of fealty unto the house of Duke Andrion. I will hold thee to that oath. Do not dishonor thy station by this stubborn refusal. Make ready, my beloved Polgara. Thou shalt depart within the hour.’
His words struck me almost like a blow. ‘That was unkindly said, my Lord Ontrose,’ I said stiffly. He’d thrown duty right in my face.
‘The truth oft times is unkind, my Lady. We both have responsibilities. I will not fail mine. Do not thee fail thine. Now go!’
My eyes filled with tears, and I clung to him for a moment. ‘I love you, Ontrose,’ I told him.
‘And I love thee as well, my dearest one,’ he murmured. ‘Think of me in times yet to come.’
‘Forever, Ontrose.’ Then I kissed him fiercely and fled back into my house to make ready for my departure.
And so my father and I left Vo Wacune, and I surely left my heart behind as I went.
Even to this day I don’t think my father fully understands exactly what Ontrose was telling me during that last conversation. When my beloved had spoken of duty, his use of that term had been all-inclusive. As a member of the court at Vo Wacune, I was duty-bound to obey the commands of Duke Andrion, but my paramount duty was to my own duchy, and that crushing responsibility overrode everything else. Garteon of Asturia had destroyed Wacune. His next logical step would be to invade and attempt to destroy Erat as well. I’d failed to save Wacune, but I swore that I wouldn’t fail to save Erat. Even though it cost me my life, I would obey that last command of the man I loved. It was my duty, and duty was all I had left.
I didn’t bother to explain this to father. As a matter of fact, I didn’t speak to him at all as the two of us rode on up out of the forests of Wacune toward the more open lands of Sendaria. Trying to explain would have been a waste of time, since as closely as I’ve been able to determine, father’s never actually ruled even so much as a small barony, so he hasn’t the faintest idea of what’s involved in wearing a crown. He assumed that my sullen-seeming silence was nothing more than sulking, but in actuality it was the result of my preoccupation with the defense of my southern border against the inevitable Asturian invasion. Of one thing I was absolutely certain. My first step in defending my duchy would be to get this meddlesome old man out of my hair.
When we reached Muros, the city was in chaos. The merchants were desperately trying to find somebody – anybody – willing to buy up their assets at any price, the Algars had driven their herds back across the mountains to safety, and the general population was on the verge of flight. It didn’t take a genius to realize that the Asturians would be at the city gates very soon. The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that Muros would be the key to the defense of my southern frontier. The city was technically a part of the Wacite duchy, but the collapse of Wacune had left it hanging on a branch all by itself, a prize for the first passerby willing to take the trouble to pick it. Even as father and I rode out of town, I decided that I was going to annex Muros and the surrounding territory all the way down to the banks of the River Camaar. That river bank would obviously be a more defensible boundary than some imaginary line running down the middle of a wandering country lane.