‘Show it to him? He’s seen it before, Brand.’
‘All right, Belgarath, keep your nose out of it.’ I recognized the voice, of course. ‘You do your work and let Brand do his.’
The startled look on Brand’s face clearly showed that he’d also heard what our friend had just said. ‘Does he always talk to you that way?’ he asked.
I nodded glumly. ‘All the time. There must be something about me that sets his teeth on edge. I think we’d better get General Cerran off to one side and start him to thinking about contingency planning.’
‘Why not just tell him who you really are? And where we’re getting our instructions from?’
‘No, Brand, not yet. I want him to have his legions at Vo Mimbre before I spring any surprises on him. Cerran’s a good solid man, but he’s still Tolnedran. We’ll tell him that there’ll be a Cherek fleet at the mouth of the River of the Woods, “just in case he needs it”. He’ll know what to do when the time comes.’
It was in early spring of 4875 when Torak finally threw up his hands in disgust, broke off his siege of the Stronghold, and started marching west with what was left of his army. The Algars and the vengeful Drasnians harried his rear as he moved westward. There are always stragglers trailing along behind any army on the march, but in this situation, those stragglers never caught up with their main force.
When Kal Torak reached Ulgoland, things went even further downhill for him. Every night the Ulgos came out of their caves like hunting cats to cut up the sentries posted around the fringes of the Angarak army. On a number of occasions they even managed to get into the midst of the encampment to kill large numbers of Torak’s soldiers. Torak tended to ignore those inconveniences, but his troops grew very nervous, and most of them gave up on sleeping altogether.
The maimed God of Angarak grimly pressed on, taking dreadful casualties as he went, and he eventually reached the headwaters of the River Arend.
The Alorn Kings and I had deployed our forces around Vo Mimbre as soon as the twins advised me that Torak was on the move, and all was in readiness - except that we didn’t have any Tolnedran legions.
Torak paused to regroup, but we still had no word of what was happening in southern Cthol Murgos. If something didn’t happen down there, and very soon, we were going to have to fight without the aid of the legions. This wasn’t turning out very well.
Then, late one night when I’d just fallen into a fitful sleep, Beldin’s voice woke me up again. ‘Belgarath!’ he chortled. ‘You can stop worrying about Urvon! The old piebald isn’t going to make it!’
‘The Murgos were cutting his army to pieces, and he wanted some open ground to fight them off. He went out into the Great Desert of Araga, and the Murgos followed him.’
‘They exterminated each other?’ I asked gleefully.
‘No, something else did. Is it still raining there?’
‘Beldin, it’s been raining almost steadily since 4850. It’s never going to let up.’
‘It probably will now. The reason for it just went through the Desert of Araga. There’s been a blizzard raging in that wasteland for the last five days. There are fifteen-foot snowdrifts piled all over the top of Urvon and the Murgos who were chasing him. Nobody down here is going to go anyplace. Torak’s going to have to fight you with just the men he’s got.’
I went down the hallway, woke Pol, and passed Beldin’s news on to her.
‘Fortuitous,’ she noted, making herself a cup of tea. I’ve never cared that much for tea myself, but Pol had picked up a taste for the stuff during her years in Vo Wacune.
‘I think it goes a little further than that, Pol,’ I disagreed. ‘The foul weather we’ve endured for the past quarter-century was all in preparation for that blizzard, so we can hardly call it a stroke of luck. Even then, Urvon wouldn’t have gone out into that waste and got himself trapped if Ctuchik hadn’t been playing games.’
‘How big is that desert?’
‘The Great Desert of Araga? It’s about the size of Algaria. There’s no way Urvon can dig himself out of those snowdrifts in time to make any difference at Vo Mimbre.’
‘Unless Torak decides to stop and wait for him.’
‘He can’t. The EVENT has to take place at a specific time.’
‘I think we’ve still got a problem, though.’
‘Oh? Things seem to be going along rather well from where I sit.’
‘Don’t smirk like that, father. We know that Urvon’s bogged down, but how are we going to convince Ran Borune and General Cerran that he’s no longer a danger to their southern border? We’re used to these manipulations of the natural order of things, but they aren’t. This blizzard doesn’t mean a thing if it doesn’t free up the legions.’
Trust Polgara to take the shine off things. I scowled at the floor for a few moments. ‘We’d better talk with Rhodar,’ I decided. ‘A dispatch from one of his spies might turn the trick.’
‘That ploy’s wearing a bit thin, father. Ran Borune and Cerran both know that we want the legions at Vo Mimbre. A dispatch that just “happens” to arrive in the nick of time’s going to make them very suspicious. Why not just tell them the truth. Show them your copy of the Mrin and point out the number of times it’s been right in the past.’
‘I don’t think it’ll work, Pol. We might persuade Ran Borune. He’s seen enough in the past few years to realize that there’s more going on here than he can rationally explain. But we’ve made such a point of giving the generals reasonable explanations for things, that a sudden jump into reality’s going to jerk Cerran up short. It’d take months to persuade him, and we don’t have months. Torak’s marching down the River Arend toward Vo Mimbre right now, and it’s going to take the Chereks a while to ferry the legions north to Arendia. Cerran’s learned that Rhodar’s information’s usually correct. Let’s try it that way before we jump off into something exotic. I want those legions at Vo Mimbre, and I don’t have time to educate the Tolnedran General Staff.’
‘This isn’t going to be settled by armies, father. Brand and Torak are going to fight a duel, and that’s the EVENT we’re waiting for. All this maneuvering around isn’t anything but preparation.’
‘Necessary preparation, Pol. Torak outnumbers us if we don’t have the legions. He won’t have any reason to accept Brand’s challenge unless the issue’s in doubt. We’re going to have to bloody his nose a bit before he’ll even consider coming out of that iron pavilion of his to engage in single combat with the Child of Light. Torak might be crazy, but he’s not foolish enough to risk something like that unless we force him into it.’
‘We still have to get past General Cerran.’
‘I know. Let’s get Rhodar and go to the palace. We might as well get started with this.’
As I’d more or less expected, Ran Borune was inclined to accept Rhodar’s story about a dispatch from the south. The Tolnedran emperor was shrewd enough to realize that Pol and I had ways to get information that he couldn’t fully understand, and as long as we gave him a graceful way to take what we told him on faith, he was willing to go along with us. General Cerran, however, dug in his heels. ‘I’m sorry, your Majesty,’ he apologized to his emperor, ‘but I simply can’t advise leaving our southern border undefended without some verification of this report. I’m not trying to be offensive, King Rhodar, but I’m sure you can see my position. All I’ve got to go on here is an encrypted message that I can’t even read, from a man I don’t even know. His dispatch might be exaggerated, or it might even be that he was captured and forced to send the message. Nothing would suit Urvon better than tricking us into pulling the legions out of the south. If the report’s inaccurate, Urvon could be camped in the streets of Tol Borune before we could get back into position.’
‘How long would it take you to get some verification, Cerran?’ Ran Borune asked him.
‘A couple of weeks at least, your Majesty,’ the general replied. ‘I’ve got three legions on the north bank of the River Borgasa in southern Nyissa. They’re functioning primarily as scouts to give us a warning when Urvon approaches the Nyissan border. If I can get orders to them to go have a look, a mounted patrol could cut across the southwestern tip of Goska to the desert and be back again in a week or ten days.’ He spread his hands helplessly. ‘I’m sorry, your Majesty, but that’s about the best I can do. You can only move information as fast as a man on a good horse can carry it. That’s always been the problem with large campaigns. I wish there were a faster way, but there isn’t.’
He was wrong about that, of course. There is a faster way, but I couldn’t explain it to him - not in terms that he’d understand, anyway.
‘I think you’re in a bit of a quandary, General Cerran,’ Polgara said. ‘If Rhodar’s report isn’t accurate, Urvon could still come at you from the south, but if Kal Torak wins at Vo Mimbre, he’ll be sitting on your northern border with nothing between him and Tol Honeth but a few unarmed peasants. At that point, you’ll be looking at a repetition of what happened in Drasnia.’