‘No. We only just met.’
‘That would explain it then.’ He was such a matter of fact little fellow. I liked him immediately.
‘It’s probably best not to talk quite so much,’ I told him. ‘Gulping in a gallon or so of water right now wouldn’t be good for you.’
‘If you say so.’
We reached the end of the stone wharf, and both of us grabbed hold of a rusty iron ring to which ships were usually tied.
‘What happened back there?’ I asked him.
‘My grandfather took us all down to the shops on the beach,’ the little boy replied. ‘Somebody there wanted to give us some presents. When we got to their shop, though, they all pulled out their knives. I’ll bet they’ll be sorry they did that. My grandfather’s the king here, and he’ll be very angry with them about that. I’m really cold, ma’am. Can’t we get out of the water?’
‘Not yet, I’m afraid. We want to be sure it’s safe before we do that.’
‘Do you come here to the Isle very often?’ His calm way of talking reassured me just a bit. Evidently the assassination attempt had failed.
‘What happened back there on the beach?’ I asked him.
‘I’m not really sure, ma’am,’ he replied. ‘Mother told me to run just as soon as the fellow with all his hair shaved off pulled out his knife. He was between me and the city gate, so the only place left to go was out here in the water. Swimming’s a little harder than it looks, isn’t it?’
‘It takes some practice, that’s all.’
‘I didn’t have much time for practice. Would it be polite for me to ask what your name is?’
‘I’m known as Polgara,’ I told him.
‘I’ve heard of you. Aren’t you related to me?’
‘Distantly, yes. You might say that I’m your aunt. And what’s your name?’
‘I’m Geran. They call me “Prince Geran”, but I don’t think that means very much. My oldest brother’s the one who’s going to get to wear the crown when he grows up. I’ve been thinking about being a pirate when I grow up. That’d be pretty exciting, don’t you think so, Aunt Pol?’
There it was again. I sometimes think that every little boy in the world automatically calls me ‘Aunt Pol’. I smiled at him. ‘I’d have a talk with my parents – and my grandfather – before I decided on piracy as a career, Geran,’ I suggested. ‘They might have a few objections.’
He sighed. ‘I suppose you’re right, Aunt Pol, but it would be exciting, wouldn’t it.’
‘I think it’s over-rated.’
We clung to that rusty iron ring at the end of the wharf, shivering in the cold. I did what I could to warm the water in which we were immersed, but nobody could heat the entire Sea of the Winds, so about all I could do was to take the edge off the chill.
After an hour or so – which seemed like an eternity – father’s voice came to me again. ‘Polgara, where are you?’
‘We’re at the end of the wharf, father. Is it safe to come out yet?’
‘No. Stay where you are, and keep out of sight.’
‘What are you up to, Old Wolf?’
‘I’m hiding the Rivan King. Get used to it, Pol, because we’ll be doing it for quite a long time.’
The significance of his reference to the shivering little boy at my side was not lost on me. Clearly, Salmissra’s assassins had succeeded in butchering King Gorek and almost all the members of the royal family. Geran’s flight from the scene had spared him the horror of witnessing the disaster, and so he didn’t seem to know that he was now an orphan. He’d have to be told, of course, and I knew exactly upon whose shoulders that unpleasant task would fall.
It was well after dark when father and Brand, the Rivan Warder, finally came down to the harbor. The four of us, father, Brand, Prince Geran and I, boarded an unoccupied ship and sailed out into the harbor with father manning the sails, without even bothering to rise from the bench upon which he sat. I took the shivering little prince belowdecks, dried him off and created some dry clothes for him.
Then I went back up on deck to have a word with father. ‘There were no other survivors, I gather?’ I asked him.
‘Not a one. The Nyissans were using poisoned daggers.’
‘The boy doesn’t know. He ran away before the killing started.’
‘Good. Those Nyissans were very efficient.’
Then it was Salmissra who was behind it.’
‘Yes, but somebody else put her up to it.’
‘I’m not sure. The next time I see her, I’ll ask her.’
‘How do you plan to get into Sthiss Tor?’
‘I’m going to depopulate the Alorn kingdoms to provide myself with an escort. Then I’m going to march through Nyissa like some kind of natural disaster. I’ll chase the Snake People so far back into the trees that they’ll have to import daylight. You’d better tell the boy that he’s an orphan.’
‘Thank you.’ I said it in a flat, unfriendly tone of voice.
‘You’re better at that sort of thing than I am, Pol. It might make him feel better if he knows that I’m going to destroy Nyissa in retaliation.’
‘He’s only a little boy, father, and his mother was just killed. I don’t think the idea of retaliation’s going to comfort him very much.’
That’s about the only thing we’ve got to offer him right now. You’re going to have to fill in for his mother, I’m afraid.’
‘What do I know about raising little boys, father?’
‘You didn’t do too badly with Daran after your sister died, Pol. I’m sorry to saddle you with this, but there’s no one else available, and the boy absolutely must be protected. You’re going to have to hide him. This assassination has “Angarak” printed all over it, and Ctuchik’s got prophecies of his own that’ll advise him that there’s a survivor. The West’s going to be awash with Grolims before the year’s out. The protection of that little boy is the most important thing any of us are going to do right now.’
‘I’ll take care of it, father.’ Then I went back below decks to break the news to the little prince.
He wept, of course, and I tried my best to comfort him.
A peculiar thought came to me as I held the sobbing little boy in my arms. I don’t think I’d ever actually come to grips with a certain stark reality. Mother was not born a human, and that quite clearly meant that I was part wolf. Though I didn’t have paws, a shaggy tail, or sharp teeth, I did have certain wolfish traits. Wolves are pack animals, and they all share in the responsibility of caring for the puppies, regardless of which particular female gave birth to them. My comforting of this grieving, sandy-haired little boy was instinctive, growing out of the need to protect the pack.