The baby, Daran, had a peculiar white mark on the palm of his right hand, and that concerned Riva quite a bit. Father’d explained it to us, though, so I knew what it meant.

The ceremony of introducing Iron-grip’s heir to the Master’s Orb the next morning moved me more than I can say. A very strange sensation came over me when the infant crown prince in my arms laid his hand on the Orb in greeting and he and I were both suffused with that peculiar blue aura. In an obscure way the Orb was greeting me as well as Daran, and I caught a brief glimpse of its alien awareness. The Orb and its counterpart, the Sardion, had been at the very center of creation and, before they were separated by ‘the accident’, they were the physical receptacle of the Purpose of the Universe. I was to be a part of that Purpose, and, since mother’s mind and mine were merged, she was also included.

Father and I stayed on at the Isle for another month, and then the old wolf started getting restless. There were some things he wanted to do, and my father absolutely hates having things hanging over his head. As he explained, the Gods of the West had departed, and we were now to receive our instructions through prophecy, and father definitely wanted to have a look at the two prophets who were currently holding forth – one in Darine and the other in the fens of Drasnia. The Master had advised him that the term ‘The Child of Light’ would be the key that’d identify the real prophets, as opposed to assorted gibbering madmen, and father yearned to hear that peculiar signal as a verification of authenticity.

Anrak sailed us to the Sendarian coast and dropped us off on a beach near where the city of Sendar now stands.

I found trekking through the trackless stretches of that seemingly endless primeval forest decidedly unpleasant. Had our expedition to Darine taken place a few years earlier when I was still ‘woodsy’ and unkempt, I might have enjoyed it, but now I missed my bathtub, and there were so many bugs. I can still survive in the woods when it’s necessary, but really!

I knew of an alternative to our fighting our way through the dense underbrush, of course, but the problem lay in how to broach the subject without revealing my second education – and its source. I dropped a few hints about the alternative mode of travel, but father was being impossibly dense, so I finally came right out and asked him, ‘Why should I walk when I can fly?’

He protested a bit, and I think that might have been because he didn’t really want me to grow up. Parents are like that sometimes. He finally agreed, though, and he explained the procedure of changing into another form at length. Then he explained it again – and again – until I was almost ready to scream with exasperation.

Eventually we got down to business, and I automatically assumed the familiar form of the snowy owl.

I wasn’t at all prepared for his reaction. Father tends to keep his emotions rather tightly controlled, but this time I think they got the better of him. Would you believe that he actually cried? A sudden wave of compassion swept over me as I finally realized just how much he had suffered when he thought that mother had died.

I chose the form of a different owl, and father ‘went wolf’, as he calls it. He was a very impressive wolf, I’ll give him that, and he could almost keep up with me.

We reached Darine in three days, and resumed human form before we entered the city and went looking for Hatturk, the local clan-chief. Along the way father gave me a brief history of the Bear-Cult. Aberrations appear in all religions from time to time, but the heresies implicit in the Bear-Cult are so absurd that no rational human could ever swallow such patent nonsense.

‘Who ever said the Bear-Cultists are rational?’ Father shrugged.

‘Are we certain that this Hatturk fellow’s a Cultist?’

‘Algar thinks so, and I respect Algar’s judgment. Frankly, Pol, I don’t care if Hatturk worships caterpillars just as long as he’s obeyed Algar’s instructions and put scribes to work copying down everything this prophet says.’

We slogged down the muddy street in the smoky early-morning light. I think every city in the northern latitudes has that continual pall hanging over it. A thousand chimneys are going to put out a lot of smoke, and, since the early morning air is quite still, the smoke just hangs there.

Hatturk’s house was a pretentious building made of logs, and it was literally crawling with overgrown, bearded Alorns dressed in bear-skins and all well armed. Frankly, the odor of the place was almost overpowering – a fragrance comprised of spilled beer, assorted open cesspools, rank bear-hides, unwashed and un-housebroken hunting dogs, and rancid armpits.

When a still-tipsy Alorn awoke his chief to announce father’s arrival, Hatturk came stumbling down the stairs, fat, bleary-eyed, and unkempt.

Father rather crisply told him why we’d come to Darine, and this ‘leader of men’ offered to take us to the house of Bormik, the supposed Darine prophet. Hatturk was probably still about half-drunk from the previous night, and I think he said much more than he’d have said if he’d been completely sober. Beer does have its uses, I suppose.

The most alarming information he let slip had to do with his decision not to obey his king’s instructions involving scribes. Bormik had been giving us instructions, and this foul-smelling cretin had arbitrarily chosen to let them slip by unrecorded!

Bormik’s cottage lay on the eastern outskirts of Darine, and he lived there with his middle-aged daughter, Luana, who evidently looked after him. Luana was a spinster, and the fact that she always seemed to be staring at the tip of her nose might have had something to do with that. She kept her father’s cottage neat, however, and I noted that she even had flowers on the table.

‘Polgara,’ mother’s voice sounded in the silences of my mind, ‘she will know what her father’s said. She’s the key to this problem. Ignore what the men are doing. Concentrate on Luana instead. Oh, you might need some money. Steal your father’s purse.’

I had to muffle a laugh when I heard that.

Once Bormik had begun oracularizing, father’s attention was so completely caught up in what the prophet was saying that he wasn’t even aware of the fact that I’d deftly filched the leather bag of money from his belt.

All right, stealing things from people isn’t very nice, but father’d been a thief himself when he was younger, so he probably understood.

Then I joined Luana, who was sitting off to one side, darning a pair of her father’s wool stockings. ‘You have a nice house here, Luana,’ I said to her.

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