‘I will hear thy words, Eldallan.’ Aldorigen’s tone was cool and offensively superior.

‘Whole generations are likely to pass before the rulers of Mimbre and Asturia are so conveniently close to each other, wouldn’t you say?’

Aldorigen’s eyes brightened. ‘A most acute perception, my Lord,’ he replied. It was the first time either of them had addressed the other with any kind of respect.

‘Why not seize the day, my Lord?’ Eldallan suggested. ‘Once we’ve eliminated the annoyance of Kal Torak, you and I could go to some private place and discuss our differences - at length.’ He laid his hand suggestively on the hilt of his sheathed rapier. ‘I’m sure you’ll find my arguments very pointed.’

An almost beneficent smile came over Aldorigen’s face. ‘What a splendid suggestion, my Lord,’ he said warmly.

‘Until that day, then, my Lord,’ Eldallan said with a deep bow.

‘Stay out of it, Pol!’ I sent the thought out sharply. ‘This is supposed to happen!’

The thought she threw back at me doesn’t bear repeating.

‘And you, rash youth, will stay away when our fathers meet,’ Mayaserana said to Korodullin. ‘I’m Asturian, and my hand was built to hold a bow. Your bones can turn green here in Mimbre just as well as they can in Asturia.’

‘Come not within bow-shot of my father, outlaw wench,’ he replied, ‘not if thou wilt have further need of thine head.’

Then Eldallan and his feisty daughter were escorted out.

‘Now is my day complete!’ Aldorigen exulted. ‘Were it not so unnatural, I could almost embrace that foul villain, Eldallan!’

Arends, I sighed, rolling my scroll back up.

It took Kal Torak another week to reach the upper end of that large plain that surrounds Vo Mimbre, and he stopped there to regroup and to send out scouts. I started getting nervous at that point. ‘What’s keeping you?’ I threw the thought at Beldin.

‘I’ve still got ten legions coming down the river,’ he replied.

‘Beldin, Torak’s almost in my lap here! Can’t you send the ones you’ve already got on hand?’

‘Didn’t we decide not to do it that way? Torak’s not going to be very intimidated by the legions if I just dribble them in. The whole force has to arrive at the same time.’

‘How much longer before you’ll be able to sail?’

‘A couple of days. Then Eldrig’s got to pick up the imperial guard at Tol Honeth and those training legions there and at Tol Vordue. Give us a week.’

‘If Torak starts his attack in the next day or so, you’ll get here after it’s all over. The Mrin says that the battle’s going to last for three days. The first two days will probably only be skirmishes, but you absolutely must be here on that third day.’

‘You’ve got your work cut out for you, then. All you’ve got to do is keep him away from the walls of Vo Mimbre for five days. Then fight him for the first two days of the battle. I’ll be there on the third day, and then we can get down to business.’

‘Don’t be late.’

‘Trust me.’

I went to the door of my room in Aldorigen’s palace. ‘I need a large current map of southern Arendia,’ I told the sentry patrolling the hallway.

‘At once, Holy Belgarath,’ he replied, clashing one steel-gauntleted fist against his breastplate. Mimbrates are so noisy!

When he returned with the map, I spread it out on the table and got down to work. The more I studied the map, the more feasible the half-formed plan in my mind began to seem. ‘Polgara,’ I silently called my daughter, ‘I need you.’

It only took her a couple of minutes to reach my door. ‘Yes, father?’ she said.

‘I want you to go have a talk with Eldallan,’ I instructed. ‘I need a thousand or so of his archers. Beldin’s still a week away, so we’ve got to delay Torak for five days.’

‘I don’t think a thousand bowmen could quite manage that, father.’

‘They can if the people they’re shooting at are out in the middle of a river trying to rebuild a bridge.’ I showed her the map. ‘There are a dozen tributaries feeding down into the River Arend,’ I pointed out, ‘and twenty-five years of steady rain has them all running bank-full. I’m going to have Aldorigen send out a force of Mimbrates to destroy the bridges. I want archers on the west banks of those streams. It’s very hard to concentrate on building bridges when it’s raining arrows. That might just delay Torak for the five days we need.’

‘I’d imagine so, yes. You can be a very nasty old man when you set your mind to it.’

‘I try.’ I scowled at the map for a moment. ‘You’ll have to stay with those archers,’ I decided, ‘and I’ll be with the Mimbrates. The two forces have to be coordinated, and direct contact between Mimbrates and Asturians isn’t a very good idea. Get started, Pol. I’ll go explain the plan to Aldorigen.’

It just so happened that the commander of the Asturian archers Pol brought down onto the eastern side of the plain of Mimbre was a fiery young nobleman, the Baron of Wildantor, and the knight who led my Mimbrate bridge-wreckers was the Baron of Vo Mandor. Garion’s friend can be very obvious at times. Pol and I were careful to keep Mandorallen’s ancestor some distance away from Lelldorin’s. I’d devoted a lot of time to those two families, so I didn’t want any accidents.

Our strategy wasn’t particularly profound. We advanced eastward until we began encountering Kal Torak’s scouts. The Mimbrate knights trampled them under, and we pressed on, crossing bridges every few miles. When we began to encounter stiffer resistance, the archers raked the opposing force with arrows, and then the Mimbrates charged.

It doesn’t sound very complicated, but it kept Pol and me hopping. I had to go through the ranks of the Mimbrate knights each and every time, pointing out the fact that they were supposed to charge the Angaraks rather than the Asturians. At the same time, Pol had to remind the archers that they weren’t supposed to shoot at Mimbrates.

We eventually reached a wide tributary that had several thousand Murgos camped on its east bank. I called Pol and the two barons in to discuss strategy. ‘This is about as far east as we need to go,’ I told them. ‘Let’s wreck the west end of the bridges crossing this river and then pull back to the next stream.’

‘I will delay their pursuit,’ Wildantor declared.

‘No, actually you won’t,’ I told him firmly. ‘You’re not going to start doing that until we’ve crossed two more rivers.’

‘I’m sworn to delay them!’ The young baron had red hair - and all that implies.

‘Listen carefully, Lord Baron,’ I told him. ‘I don’t want the Murgos to even know that you’re here for a while yet. Mandor’s Mimbrates will destroy the bridges here; then we’ll pull back to the next river, and he’ll do it again. Then we’ll do it for the third time on the next river to the west. The Murgos will have developed a pattern by then. They’ll rush forward in a mass carrying timbers with them to repair the bridges. When they come to the fourth river, you’ll have lots of targets out there in the water. I want the surface of that river absolutely covered with the floating bodies of dead Murgos. After that, they’re going to be very cautious when they come to a river.’

He frowned and thought it over. It took him a while. Then his eyes brightened, and his face broke into a broad grin. ‘I like it!’ he exclaimed.

‘Though it seemeth me a most unnatural thing, my Lord of Wildantor,’ the Baron of Vo Mandor said, ‘I find myself growing fond of thee. Thine exuberance is contagious, methinks.’

‘You’re not so bad yourself, Mandor,’ the Asturian admitted. ‘Why don’t we agree not to kill each other when this is over?’

‘Doth that not violate the precepts of our religion?’ Mandor said it with an absolutely straight face, and that sent Wildantor off into gales of laughter.

It wasn’t much, but it was a start in the right direction.

My rudimentary plan worked surprisingly well - although, given the limited mentality of Murgos, I don’t know why I was surprised. Lulled into a sense of security by the lack of any opposition to their bridge-building operations, the Murgos, as I’d predicted, rushed whole regiments carrying timbers to the east bank of the fourth river. Wildantor held his archers in check until the Murgos had their spans reaching out to the middle of the river. Then he sounded his horn as a signal to his hidden archers.

The Asturian arrows arched overhead like a slithering rainbow, and the Murgos quite literally melted off their half-completed bridges to fill the river with floating corpses.

Then Wildantor waited, exercising remarkable self-control for an Arend.

The Murgos left on the banks crept fearfully forward, their shields held protectively over their heads.

Still Wildantor waited.

Eventually, the Murgos decided that the archers had withdrawn, and they resumed their construction.

Then the second rainbow of arrows swept the bridges clean again.

The surviving Murgos gathered on the east bank, screaming curses at the still unseen archers.

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