The Vale serves us as a kind of sanctuary – a place where we can absorb our grief and come to terms with it – and the presence of the Tree there is an absolute necessity.

If you think about it for a while, I’m sure you’ll understand.

In time, word inevitably reached us that both Daran and Kamion had gone on. “They were very tired anyway, Pol,’ was all my father said before he went back to his studies.

My first century was drawing to a close when uncle Beldin returned from Mallorea. ‘Burnt-face is still at Ash-aba,’ he reported, ‘and nothing’s going to happen over there until he comes out of seclusion.’

‘Is Zedar still with him?’ father asked.

‘Oh, yes. Zedar’s stuck to Torak like a leech. Proximity to a God seems to expand Zedar’s opinion of himself.’

‘Some things never change, do they?’

‘Not where Zedar’s concerned, they don’t. Is Ctuchik doing anything interesting?’

‘Nothing momentous enough to make waves. Is Urvon still hiding at Mal Yaska?’

Beldin’s chuckle was hideous. ‘Oh, indeed he is, Belgarath. Every now and then I drift on up to his neighborhood and butcher a few Grolims. I always leave a survivor or two – just to be sure that Urvon gets word that I’m still out there waiting for the pleasure of his company. I’m told that he usually retires to the dungeon on those occasions. He seems to think that thick stone walls might keep me from getting at him.’ He squinted thoughtfully. ‘Maybe when I go back, I’ll slip into his temple and litter the place with dead Grolims – just to let him know that there isn’t really any place where he can hide from me. Keeping Urvon nervous is one of my favorite pastimes. What kind of celebration do we have planned?’

‘Celebration? What celebration?’

‘Polgara’s hundredth birthday, you clot. You didn’t really think I came all the way back here just for the pleasure of your company, did you?’

The celebration of my birthday was lavish – even grotesquely overdone. Ours was a small, highly unique society, and since father, Beldin and I traveled extensively and were away for long periods of time, we seldom had the opportunity to join the twins in the Vale to draw our shared uniqueness about us. We’re sometimes wildly different from each other – except for the twins, of course – but we’re all members of a tiny closed society that shares experiences and concepts the rest of the world cannot begin to comprehend. Along toward the end of the festivities when my elders were all more than slightly tipsy and I was tidying up, mother’s voice rang gently in the vaults of my mind. ‘Happy birthday, Pol,’ was all she said, but it was nice to know that the last member of our little group was also in attendance.

The uneasy truce between Drasnia and Gar og Nadrak fell apart a few years later when the Nadraks – probably at Ctuchik’s prodding – began raiding across their common border. Ctuchik definitely didn’t approve of any kind of peaceful contacts between Angaraks and other races, and trade was exactly the sort of thing he most abhorred, since ideas have a way of being exchanged along with goods, and new ideas weren’t welcome in Angarak society.

In the south, the merchant princes of Tol Honeth were growing increasingly desperate because of the stubborn refusal of the Marags to even consider commercial contacts of any kind. The Marags didn’t use money and had no idea whatsoever of what it meant. They did, however, have access to almost unlimited amounts of free gold, since the stream-beds of Maragor are littered with it. Gold is pretty, I guess, but when you get right down to it, it has little actual value. You can’t even make cooking pots out of it, because it melts. I think the Marags were actually amused when they discovered that a Tolnedran would give them almost anything in exchange for what they considered to be no more than another form of dirt. The problem, I think, lay in the fact that the merchants of Tolnedra didn’t really have anything the Marags wanted badly enough to take the trouble to bend over to pick up the gold littering the bed of every stream in Maragor.

The thought of all that gold just lying there with no way to get at it – except to possibly give fair value – sent the Tolnedrans to the verge of desperation. A few of the children of Nedra decided to just skip over the tedious business of swindling the Marags and to go right to the source. Those expeditions into Maragor were a mistake, of course, largely because of the Marag religious practice of ritual cannibalism. The Tolnedrans who sneaked across the border looking for gold encountered Marags – who were looking for lunch.

After no more than a few wealthy – but still greedy – Tolnedran merchants had gone into Marag cooking pots, their heirs and assigns began to pressure the imperial throne to do something – anything – to prevent honest thieves from ending up on a Marag supper-table. Unfortunately, Emperor Ran Vordue was new to his throne, and he eventually succumbed to the importunings of the merchant class. Thus, in 2115, the Tolnedran legions swept across the border into Maragor intent on nothing less than the extermination of the entire Marag race.

My father had always been fond of the Marags, and he was preparing to rush south to ‘take steps’ when the Master uncharacteristically paid him a call and bluntly told him to keep his nose out of things that didn’t concern him. Father’s protests were long and loud, but Aldur was adamant. ‘This must take place, my son,’ he told father. ‘It is a necessary part of the PURPOSE which doth guide us all.’

‘But – ’ father started to protest.

‘I will hear no more of this!’ the Master thundered. ‘Stay home, Belgarath!’

Father muttered something under his breath.

‘What was that?’ the Master demanded.

‘Nothing, Master.’

I’d have given a great deal to have witnessed that exchange.

And so Maragor perished – except for those few captives who were sold to the Nyissan slavers. But that’s another story.

The invasion of Maragor and the massacre of the inhabitants brought the Gods into the whole sorry business. Nedra chastised those of his children most involved, and Mara’s grief-stricken response closed haunted Maragor off from further Tolnedran incursions. That in itself would have been punishment enough, but then Belar took a hand in the chastisement of the avaricious Tolnedrans by encouraging his Chereks to start raiding up and down the Tolnedran coast. The Chereks didn’t really need too much encouragement, since if you scratch the surface of any normal Cherek, you’ll find a pirate lurking underneath. This gave the Tolnedrans other things to keep them busy instead of all that brooding about the gold in Maragor or worrying about being sent to the monastery at Mar Terrin, so I don’t think I need to belabor this sorry sequence of events any further.

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