‘Probably because all the wood here is soggy enough to make burning people at the stake very difficult,’ she added. ‘Come in out of the rain.’
The interior of her cottage was scrupulously neat, her fireplace was well-banked, and there was a vase of wildflowers sitting on her table. The brown dress she wore reminded me of the dress my mother had been wearing that time I’d actually met her in the caves of Ulgo. Vordai, however, limped, and mother didn’t.
She wordlessly took our wet clothing, hung it near the fire to dry and gave us blankets in which to wrap ourselves. ‘Seat yourselves,’ she told us then, pointing at the table. ‘There should be enough in the pot for all of us.’ The odor coming from her pot identified the meal she’d prepared as a delicately seasoned fish soup. Vordai was clearly an outstanding cook.
‘You knew we were coming, didn’t you?’ I asked her.
‘Naturally. I am a witch, after all.’
Then one of the fenlings came loping in and reported something in that excited chittering sound.
‘Yes,’ Vordai answered the sleek little beast, ‘I know.’
‘It’s true then,’ I said. I’d heard some wild stories about Vordai’s ability to communicate with swamp creatures. ‘You shouldn’t really have tampered with them, you know.’
‘It didn’t hurt them,’ she said with a shrug, ‘and I find them to be much nicer to talk with than humans.’
There was an injured quality about this beautiful old woman that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Life hadn’t treated her well, granted, but there was something else I couldn’t quite fathom. She intrigued me more than I can say, and she also challenged the physician in me. Physicians fix things that have gone wrong, but my problem here was that I wasn’t exactly sure what was really wrong. And so I decided to find out. I’m not one to pass up a challenge – or had you noticed that?
After we’d eaten, I sent a silent, not so subtle message to my father. ‘Go away,’ I told him.
‘Go outside. I need to be alone with Vordai. Go. Now.’
His face grew slightly sullen. ‘I’m going out to turn the boat over,’ he said aloud. There’s no point in letting the rain fill it up with water.’ Then he got up and left, looking slightly ridiculous in that blanket.
‘I’ll help you with the dishes,’ I told our hostess. The little domestic chores we share bring women closer together, but Vordai stubbornly refused to open her heart to me – so I did it the other way. I reached out with a tenuous thought, and once I was past her defensive barrier, I found the source of her life-long bitterness. It was a man, naturally. The origin of women’s problems almost always is. It was a pedestrian thing, actually. When Vordai had been about fifteen, she’d fallen deeply – and silently – in love. The man had been quite a bit older than she was, and to put it bluntly, he was as stupid as a stump. They’d lived in a soggy little village on the edge of the fens, and Vordai’s efforts to attract and capture the heart of the lumpish fellow had been unconventional. She used her gifts to help her neighbors. Unfortunately, her quarry was religious – in the worst possible way. He yearned in the depths of his grubby soul to ‘stamp out the abomination of witchcraft’, and it had been he who had led the mob which had been out to burn her at the stake. She’d been forced to flee into the fens, leaving behind her all hope of love, marriage and children. And that was why – even after three hundred years – she was out here in the fens devoting all her boundless love to the fenlings. Hers was a silly little story of a deep, but misplaced, affection that still burned in her heart.
‘Oh, dear,’ I said, my eyes suddenly filling with tears.
She gave me a startled look, and she suddenly realized that I’d subtly invaded her mind. At first her reaction was one of outrage at my unwelcome invasion, but then she realized that I’d done it out of compassion. I was a sorceress after all, so I had no real objection to witchcraft. Her defensive wall crumbled, and she wailed, ‘Oh, Polgara!’ She began to weep, and I took her in my arms and held her gently for quite some time, stroking her hair and murmuring comfort to her. There wasn’t really anything else I could do. I knew what was wrong now, but there was no way that I could fix it.
The rain let up, and father and I put our now-dry clothes back on and resumed our journey. I spent a lot of time pondering those two meetings while father poled us on though the swamp. Both in the Nadrak mountains and again in Boktor, father had come up with very lame excuses for us not to simply fly back to Annath. Father could come up with all kinds of excuses to avoid work, but on these occasions, his excuses put him directly in its path, and that was so unusual as to get my attention immediately. For some reason, we’d had to meet that old man in the Nadrak mountains and Vordai in the fens. I finally gave up. Father and I weren’t the center of the universe, after all, and perhaps those meetings were for someone else’s benefit.
Well, of course I know who they were for – now. Vordai and the gold-hunter were to be part of Garion’s education, and father and I were little more than bystanders. If s so obvious that I’m surprised you missed it.
We reached Aldurford and made our way along the eastern foothills of the Sendarian Mountains until we struck the little-used track leading up a long valley to Annath. It was mid-afternoon when we reached the stone quarry, and Geran, the newest heir, was waiting for us. Geran had been a gangling adolescent when I’d left for Gar og Nadrak, but he was a young man now. That happens frequently, you know. Sometimes it happens overnight. Unlike most of the young men I’ve raised, Geran had dark, almost black hair, and his eyes were a deep, deep blue. He wasn’t as tall, but he looked a great deal like Riva Iron-grip himself. ‘Aunt Pol!’ he exclaimed with some relief. ‘I was afraid you wouldn’t make it back in time for the wedding.’
‘Which wedding was that, dear?’ I’m not sure why I said that I knew which wedding he was talking about.
‘Mine, of course,’ he replied. ‘Ildera and I are getting married next week.’
‘My, my,’ I said. ‘Imagine that’
Village weddings normally involve village people – the bride and groom in particular. Not infrequently, they’re neighbors, and they’ve usually grown up together. This time, however, they not only came from different places, but were of different nationalities. The problems that arose out of those differences didn’t involve the happy couple this time, though. The problems arose from their mothers, Geran’s mother, Alara, and Ildera’s mother, Olane. They detested each other. Ildera’s father, Grettan, was the Chief of his clan, and that seems to have gone to Olane’s head. She made no secret of the fact that to her way of looking at it, Ildera was marrying beneath herself. In Alara’s eyes, her son was the Crown Prince of Riva, and Olane’s condescension really grated on her nerves. I had to virtually ride herd on her constantly to keep her from proudly announcing her son’s eminence. It was a very harrowing time for me.