‘That’s too much sage, Pol,’ Beltira protested when I dug my hand into one of his spice-pots.
‘Wait, uncle,’ I told him. ‘Don’t criticize my cooking until you’ve tasted it.’
And, as usual, the stew I was preparing came out perfect.
Beltira was a little sullen about that, as I recall.
And then there came a very important day in my life. It was the day – night actually – when mother revealed the secret of changing shape.
‘It’s really quite simple, Polgara,’ she told me. ‘All you really have to do is form the image of the alternative shape in your mind and then fit yourself into it.’
Mother’s idea of ‘simple’ and mine were miles apart, however.
‘The tail-feathers are too short,’ she said critically after my third attempt. ‘Try it again.’
It took me hours to get the imagined shape right. I was almost on the verge of giving up entirely. If I got the tail right, the beak was wrong – or the talons. Then the wing-feathers weren’t soft enough. Then the chest wasn’t strong enough. Then the eyes were too small. I was right at the edge of abandoning the whole notion when mother said, ‘That looks closer. Now just let yourself flow into it.’ Mother’s ability to see into my mind made her the best teacher I could possibly have had.
As I started to slip myself into the image I’d formed, I felt as if my body had turned into something almost liquid – like honey. I literally seeped into that imaginary shape.
And then it was done. I was a snowy owl. Once again, mother’s intimate contact with my mind simplified things enormously. There are far too many things involved in flying for anyone to pick it up immediately, so mother quite simply instilled all those minuscule shifts and dexterity in my mind. I thrust with my soft wings, and I was immediately airborne. I circled a few times, learning with every silent sweep of my wings, and those circles grew inexorably wider.
There’s an ecstasy to flying that I won’t even try to describe. By the time dawn began to stain the eastern horizon, I was a competent bird, and my mind was filled with a joy I’d never known before.
‘You’d better go back to the tower, Pol,’ mother advised. ‘Owls aren’t usually flying in the daytime.’
‘Do I have to?’
‘Yes. Let’s not give our little secret away just yet. You’ll have to change to your own form as well.’
‘Mother!’ I protested vehemently.
‘We can play again tomorrow night, Pol. Now go home and change back before anyone wakes up.’
That didn’t make me too happy, but I did as I was told.
It was not long after that that Beldaran took me to one side. ‘Uncle Beldin’s bringing father back to the Vale,’ she told me.
‘Oh? How do you know that?’
‘Mother told me – in a dream.’
‘A dream?’ That startled me.
‘She always talks to me in my dreams. I told you about that already.’
I decided not to make an issue of it, but I reminded myself to have a talk with mother about it. She always came to me when I was awake, but for some reason she spoke to my sister in the hazy world of dreams. I wondered why there was such a difference. I also wondered why mother had told Beldaran about our vagrant father’s homecoming and hadn’t bothered to let me know about it.
It was early summer when uncle Beldin finally brought father home. Over the course of the years since father had left the Vale, uncle Beldin had kept track of him and had reported on his various escapades, so I was not just too excited about his return. The idea of admitting that a beer-soaked lecher was my father didn’t appeal to me all that much.
He didn’t look too bad when he came up the stairs to the top of Beldin’s tower, but I knew that appearances could be deceiving.
‘Father!’ Beldaran exclaimed, rushing across the floor to embrace him. Forgiveness is a virtue, I suppose, but sometimes Beldaran carried it to extremes.
I did something that wasn’t very nice at that point. My only excuse was that I didn’t want father to get the mistaken impression that his homecoming was a cause for universal rejoicing. I didn’t quite hate him, but I definitely didn’t like him. ‘Well, Old Wolf,’ I said in as insulting a tone as I could manage, ‘I see you’ve finally decided to come back to the scene of the crime.’
Then I proceeded to give my father a piece of my mind – several pieces, actually. I told him – at length – precisely what I thought of him, since I didn’t want him to mistakenly believe that Beldaran’s sugary display of sweetness and light was going to be universal. I also wanted to assert my independence, and I’m fairly sure I got that point across to him. It wasn’t really very attractive, but I was only thirteen at the time, so I still had a few rough edges.
All right, let’s get something out in the open right here and now. I’m no saint, and I never pretended to be. I’ve been occasionally referred to as ‘Holy Polgara’, and that’s an absolute absurdity. In all probability the only people who’ll really understand my feelings as a child are those who are twins themselves. Beldaran was the absolute center of my life, and she had been since before we were born. Beldaran was mine, and my jealousy and resentment knew no bounds when father ‘usurped’ her affection. Beldaran and her every thought belonged to me, and he stole her! My snide comment about the ‘scene of the crime’ started something that went on for eons. I’d spend hours polishing those snippy little comments, and I treasured each and every one of them.
Many of you may have noticed that the relationship between me and my father is somewhat adversarial. I snipe at him, and he winces. That started when I was thirteen years old, and it didn’t take long for it to turn into a habit that’s so deeply engrained in me that I do it automatically now.
One other thing as well. Those who knew Beldaran and me when we were children have always assumed that I was the dominant twin, the one who took the lead in all twinly matters. In actuality, however, Beldaran was dominant. I lived almost entirely for her approval, and in some ways I still do. There was a serene quality about Beldaran that I could never match. Perhaps it was because mother had instilled Beldaran’s purpose in her mind before we were ever born. Beldaran knew where she was going, but I hadn’t the foggiest notion of my destination. She had a certainty about her I could never match.