‘I’d appreciate that, Lord Mandorin.’

Aren’t you proud of me? I didn’t once scream at him while he was exploring the outer limits of his vocabulary.

‘As thou art well aware, having but recently come from the northern duchies, great antagonism did exist between Duke Kathandrion of Wacune and the now deposed Duke Oldoran of Asturia, and the Wacites do poise themselves on the Asturian border, bent on nothing less than the obliteration of their cousins to the west. Kadon suggested to our beloved Duke Corrolin that this contention in the north might prove to be an opportunity too golden to be permitted to escape, and he offered the aid of the legions in grasping this prize.’

‘How, my Lord? What exactly were the legions supposed to do?’

‘Granted safe passage by his Grace Corrolin, forty legions are to march north and poise themselves in northern-most Mimbre. When Duke Kathandrion’s forces do march into Asturia and encircle Vo Astur, the legions will move to fortify the border between Wacune and Asturia. E’en as the legions march, the forces of Duke Corrolin will cross over into the foothills of Ulgoland, move north, and take up positions along Wacune’s eastern frontier. When Kathandrion’s forces begin their assault on Vo Astur, the Mimbrate army will invade Wacune from the east. By virtue of the legions lining the border between the two northern duchies, Kathandrion will be unable to rush home to defend his homeland. Vo Wacune will fall, and Kathandrion and Oldoran are to be permitted to fight a war of mutual extinction in the forests of Asturia. Then, when but few tattered remnants of the armies of Wacune and Asturia do remain, Duke Corrolin, with the aid of the legions, is to sweep both Kathandrion and Oldoran into the dust-bin of history, and all of Arendia will swear fealty to Corrolin, and he will become our undisputed king.’ Mandorin, caught up in spite of himself, delivered this last in ringing tones of exaltation.

‘And you and your duke actually believed this absurdity?’ I asked, hoping to dash some cold water into the face of this enthusiast.

‘I am well-versed in the arts of war. Lady Polgara,’ he said in slightly injured tones. ‘I found no fault nor flaw in this strategy.’

I sighed. ‘Oh dear,’ I murmured, covering my eyes theatrically with one hand. ‘Lord Mandorin,’ I said to him, ‘think for a moment. Northern Arendia is one vast forest. Kathandrion and Oldoran would not meet Corrolin – or the legions – in pitched battle. They would simply melt into the trees. Northern Arends are born with longbows in their hands. The armored knights of Mimbre and the stately ranks of the Tolnedran legions would melt like snow in the spring in sudden rain-squalls of yard-long arrows. There’s a man named Lammer in Vo Astur who can thread a needle with an arrow at two hundred paces. Neither the Mimbrates nor the legions would ever have seen the men who killed them. Armor is decorative, but it won’t stop an arrow.’

‘A most unseemly way to make war,’ he complained.

‘There’s nothing seemly nor polite about war, Baron,’ I told him. ‘Is it polite to pour boiling pitch on visitors? Is it seemly to bash people’s heads in with maces? Is it courteous to run a twenty-foot lance through the body of someone who disagrees with you? But we can discuss courtesy in all its divine intricacies later. Ran Vordue is a Tolnedran. He will not do anything without getting paid for it. To put it in its bluntest terms, what’s in it for him?’

The baron’s face grew troubled. ‘I would die ere offending thee, my Lady,’ he said, ‘but the attachment of thy father to the Alorns is widely known, and thine own sojourn on the Isle of the Winds is legendary. The alliance which Ran Vordue hath proposed is but an initial step in his grand design, the intent of which is the destruction of the Alorns.’

‘And that idea seemed like a good one to Corrolin?’ I asked incredulously. ‘Doth his Grace perchance have an extra hole in his head? It seemeth me that his brains are leaking out. The Alorns, as all the world doth know, have their faults, but no sane man chooses to make war upon them. Hath this supposed Tolnedran, Kadon, seen fit to advise the Privy Council in Vo Mimbre of a grand strategy whereby Arendia and Tolnedra can hope to survive a confrontation with those howling savages of the far north?’

His face went a trifle stiff. ‘We are Arends, my Lady,’ he told me a bit coldly, ‘and are not without our own skills – and our own bravery. Moreover, the Tolnedran legions are the most highly-trained soldiers in all the world.’

‘I am not disparaging thy bravery nor thy skill at arms, my Lord, but an average Alorn doth stand some seven feet tall and is given a sword to play with whilst still in his cradle. Moreover, by ties of blood and religion, the Alorns think and move as one. Though Tolnedra might wish it otherwise, Aloria doth still exist, stretching from Gar og Nadrak to the Isle of the Winds. An attack upon Aloria is, it seemeth me, tantamount to suicide.’ I probably went a little too far there. Arends do have their pride, after all. ‘I’m sorry, Mandorin,’ I apologized. ‘The rashness of the proposal startled me, that’s all.’ I considered the situation. ‘Prithee, my Lord,’ I said, ‘did his Grace actually contemplate this action with nothing more than the unsupported declarations of Kadon to guide him?’

‘Nay, my Lady. Simple observation lent weight to Kadon’s proposal. I do assure thee that Tolnedran legions are even now massing on the southern bank of the River Arend, doubtless preparing for the long march to the point at which the boundaries of the three duchies do converge. Moreover, a Tolnedran general hath also come to Vo Mimbre to confer with the commanders of our forces.’

That truly troubled me. If Ctuchik were also subverting Tolnedra, I had a real problem on my hands. ‘We can discuss this further as we travel the road to Vo Mimbre, my Lord,’ I told Mandorin. ‘It doth appear that what transpires in the golden city hath far greater complexity than what I encountered to the north.’ I paused again. ‘I think that it might not be wise for my name to start echoing through the halls of the ducal palace upon our arrival. I suppose you’d better adopt me, Mandorin.’

He blinked.

‘Thou art a Mimbrate Arend, my Lord,’ I reminded him. Though it is entirely possible that thou couldst singlehandedly assail a fortress, an outright lie is quite beyond thy capabilities. Let us therefore seek out a priest of Chaldan to perform the necessary ceremonies. I will become thy niece, Countess Polina, the flower of an obscure branch of thy family. Thus may I, all unnoticed, seek out the truth in this matter.’

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