First, however, I had to get clear of my father so that I could get to work. The important thing was to avoid going all the way back to the Vale with him. Once we arrived there, I’d never be able to get out from under his thumb. I maintained my pretense of sullen, suffering silence as we rode on up into the summer-touched Sendarian mountains, and when we came down onto the rolling grassland of Algaria, I was ready.
It was about noon on a glorious mid-summer day when we reached the roofless remains of mother’s cottage, and that was when I reined in and dismounted. ‘This is as far as I’m going,’ I announced.
‘You heard me, father. I’m going to stay here.’ I said it flatly and with a note of finality. I didn’t want any misunderstanding.
‘You have work to do, Pol.’ This? Coming from a man who avoided work as he’d avoid the plague?
‘That’s too bad, father,’ I told him. ‘You’ll have to take care of it. Go back to your tower and snuggle up to your prophecies, but leave me out of it. We’re through, father. This is the end of it. Now go away and don’t bother me any more.’
That was wishful thinking, of course. I knew that father would give things a day or two to cool down before he came sneaking back to keep an eye on me, so I gave him about an hour to get out of earshot, and then I went falcon and flew back across the mountains to Erat, arriving at my manor house just at twilight. Then I went looking for my Seneschal, Malon Killaneson. Malon was a lineal descendant of one of Killane’s younger brothers, and he closely resembled his many times over great uncle. He was efficient and practical, and his easy-going mannerisms made people want to cooperate with him in much the same way they had with Killane himself. I did rather approve of Malon’s decision not to grow that silly-looking fringe of a beard that had so marred Killane’s appearance, though.
I found him poring over a map in my library, and he started visibly when I entered. ‘Praise be!’ he exclaimed. ‘I thought y’d perished at Vo Wacune. How ever did y’ manage t’ escape, yer Grace?’
‘My father decided to rescue me, Malon,’ I told him. ‘What’s happening here?’
‘I fear all is lost, me Lady,’ he replied in despairing tones. ‘Everybody in yer domain knows fer sure that th’ Asturians kin march in an’ take th’ whole duchy any time they want to, so there’s hopelessness drippin’ off every tree an’ bush. When I thought y’d been lost at Vo Wacune, me heart went down into me boots, an’ I bin plannin’ t’ make me own escape across th’ mountains into Algaria.’
‘You’d desert me, Malon?’ I accused.
‘I thought y’ was dead, yer Grace, so there wasn’t nothin’ left here fer me.’
‘Is everything falling apart, then?’
‘Pretty much so, yer Grace. Yer army’s runnin’ around in circles, not knowin’ which way t’ turn. Th’ Asturians are comin’, an’ everybody w’ the slightest touch o’ good sense is lookin’ fer a place t’ hide, don’t y’ know.’
‘Well, Laddy-buck,’ I said in a fair imitation of his own Wacite brogue, ‘do yer despairin’ on yer own time. You an’ me, we got work t’ do, so hitch up yer britches an’ let’s get at it. The Asturians might have taken Wacune, but s’ long as I have breath, they’ll not be after takin’ Erat, don’t y’ know.’
‘Now yer after soundin’ like me very own dear mother, Lady Polgara,’ he said, laughing. ‘Is there any way at all we kin keep th’ murderin’ Asturians out o’ our front parlor?’
‘I think we can come up with something, Malon.’ I thought for a moment. ‘The core of our problem lies in the close ties Erat has always had with Wacune. The two duchies have never really been separate, so we aren’t used to doing our own thinking.’ I made a rueful face. ‘It’s probably my fault I was concentrating about half of my attention on keeping the peace in all Arendia, so I’ve divided my time between this house and the one in Vo Wacune. I suppose I should have stayed closer to home to mind the store. More to the point, though, our army’s always been little more than an extension of the Wacite force, so my generals haven’t had much experience with independent thinking.’ I gave him a sidelong glance. ‘What say y’, Laddy-buck? Would y’ be after wantin’ t’ join me in educatin’ some soldiers in th’ fine art o’ thinkin’ fer themselves?’
‘When y’ talk like that, Lady-O, I’d be after wantin’ t’ join y’ in almost anythin’.’
‘Good. Go to General Halbren, the Chief of Staff. He’s a good, solid man we can count on. Tell him that I’m back and that I’ll be issuing the commands now. He’ll know what to do when he passes my orders on to his subordinates. They’ll need lots of details right at first, but after they realize that the commands are coming from here rather than Vo Wacune, we’ll be able to start loosening the reins a bit. The first order I want you to pass on to Halbren is that we’re going to move in and annex Muros, Camaar, and Darine – along with all the territory around our fringes. From now on, everything north of the River Camaar is mine.’
There might be some argument about that, yer Grace. Them Wacite Barons in th’ border areas be fearful independent, don’t y’ know.’
They’ll get over it, Malon. I’m bigger, older, and nastier than they are. I can’t afford to have territory just off my left shoulder-blade that I can’t control. For the time being, though, tell Halbren to concentrate on Muros. It’s a rich town, so Duke Garteon of Asturia’s certainly drooling in anticipation of the day when all that wealth gets transferred into his own treasury. I’m going to give him a very pointed lesson in good manners. Just as soon as he comes across the River Camaar, I’m going to trample on his face until it looks as if he’s just been run over by a plow.’
‘Whoo!’ Malon said in mock surprise. ‘Aren’t y’ th’ fierce one, Lady-O?’
‘I’m just getting started, Malon. If you want to see fierce, wait until I’ve built up some momentum. Now then, you and I have about a day and a half to get a week’s work done, so let’s get down to cases.’ I sat down beside him, and we both started laying out our defenses on his map.