When you get right down to the bottom of the matter, the accords we reached at Vo Mimbre were more important than the battle itself. The war with the Angaraks was the climax of a particular set of events, and the word ‘climax’ means ‘end.’ The Accords of Vo Mimbre set up a new set of events, so in a certain sense they could be called a beginning.

The formalized summary of the accords which the Gorim read to us as our conference came to a close was just that - a summary. The meat of the thing lay in the specific articles, and we didn’t let the creative Mimbrate scribes who prepared our summary anywhere near those. Over the years, I’ve seen too many absurdities enacted into law or appearing in royal proclamations because some half-asleep scribe missed a line - or transposed a couple of words - for me to take chances. Those accords were very important. The articles we’d hammered out covered such things as how the Rivan King would issue his call to arms, how the various kingdoms were supposed to respond, and other logistical details. I’ll concede that the presence of Brand, who’d just struck down Kal Torak and shaken the world by that act, made slipping a few things in much easier for me. Those things absolutely had to be included, but trying to explain exactly why would have taken years, I expect.

It was Polgara who dictated the specifics of the little ceremony that’s become a ritual for the past five hundred years, and I use the word ‘dictated’ advisedly here, since my imperious daughter refused to hear of any amendments or revisions. Mergon, the Tolnedran ambassador, almost had apoplexy by the time she was finished, and I’m not entirely certain that Ran Borune didn’t. ‘This is the way it’s going to be from now on,’ she declared, and that’s not really the best way to introduce a subject at a peace conference. ‘From this day forward, each princess of Imperial Tolnedra shall present herself in her wedding gown in the Hall of the Rivan King on her sixteenth birthday. She’ll wait there for three days. If the Rivan King comes to claim her during those three days, they’ll be wed. If he doesn’t, she’ll be free to return to Tolnedra, and her father can choose another husband for her.’

It was at that point that Mergon began to splutter, but Pol overrode his objections, and the Alorn Kings backed her to the hilt, threatening invasions, the burning of cities, the scattering of the Tolnedran population, and other extravagances. I made a point of going to Tol Honeth a year or so later to apologize to Ran Borune for her behavior. The presence of the legions at Vo Mimbre had turned the tide of battle, and Polgara’s ultimatum had a faint odor of ingratitude about it. I know that she was following instructions, but her cavalier attitude almost suggested that Tolnedra was a defeated enemy.

When the conference ended, Pol and I rode north, and it was late summer by the time we reached the border of Ulgoland. We were met there by a fairly large detachment of leather-clad Algars. Cho-Ram had sent an honor-guard to escort us through the Ulgo mountains. I didn’t want to insult him by refusing, so we plodded on across those mountains with his Algars rather than doing it the other way - which would have been much faster, of course. There wasn’t anything pressing that needed to be done, though, and it was the courteous thing to do.

When we came down out of the mountains of Ulgoland onto the plains of Algaria, Pol and I separated. She went on to the Stronghold with the Algars, and I rode on south to the Vale. I had it in my mind that some fairly serious loafing might be in order. I’d been on the go for a quarter-century, and I felt that I owed myself a vacation.

Beldin had other ideas, though. ‘What are your feelings about a little trip to Mallorea?’ he asked me when I got home.

‘Profoundly unenthusiastic, if you want the truth. What’s in Mallorea that’s so important?’

‘The Ashabine Oracles, I hope. I thought that you and I could go to Ashaba and ransack Torak’s house there. He might just have left a copy of the Oracles lying around, and those prophecies could be very useful, don’t you think? Zedar, Urvon, and Ctuchik aren’t going to let this slide, Belgarath. We bloodied their noses quite thoroughly at Vo Mimbre, and they’ll almost certainly try to get back at us. If we can get our hands on a copy of the Oracles, it might give us a few clues about what to expect from them.’

‘You can burglarize a house without any help from me, brother,’ I told him. ‘I don’t feel any great yearnings to visit a deserted castle in the Karandese Mountains.’

‘You’re lazy, Belgarath.’

‘Has it taken you this long to realize that?’

‘Let me put it to you another way,’ he said. ‘I need you.’

‘What for?’

‘Because I can’t read Old Angarak, you ninny!’

‘How do you know that the Oracles are written in Old Angarak?’

‘I don’t, but it’s the language that’d come most naturally to Torak, especially since he was probably in a sort of delirium when the voice came to him. If the Oracles are written in Old Angarak, I wouldn’t be able to recognize them if they were out in plain sight.’

‘I could teach you how to read the language, Beldin.’

‘And by then, Urvon will have gotten to Ashaba first. If we’re going, we’d better go now.’

I sighed. It looked as if I was going to have to postpone my vacation.

‘Did I just hear the sound of a change of heart?’ he asked.

‘Don’t push it, Beldin. I am going to sleep for a couple of days first, though.’

‘You old people do that a lot, don’t you?’

‘Just go away for a while, brother. You’re keeping me up past my bedtime.’

Actually, I only slept for about twelve hours. The possibility that there might be a copy of the Oracles hidden somewhere at Ashaba intrigued me enough so that I got up, fixed myself some breakfast, and then went on over to Beldin’s tower. ‘Let’s get started,’ I told him.

He was wise enough not to make any clever remarks. We went to the window of his tower, pulled on our feathers, and left. We flew in a generally northeasterly direction and soon crossed the Eastern Escarpment to Mishrak ac Thull. Thulldom had been devastated by the war, but that hadn’t been our idea. Kal Torak’s Malloreans had enlisted the Thulls by the simple expedient of destroying all their towns and villages and burning their crops. This left the Thulls with no alternatives. They had to join the army or starve. The women, children, and aged were left to fend for themselves in a land with no houses and nothing to eat. My opinion of Torak hadn’t been very high in the first place, and it went down precipitously when I saw the plight of the Thulls.

When we reached the coast, Beldin veered north. Hawks and falcons have a great deal of stamina, but not so much so that we were willing to try crossing the expanse of the Sea of the East in one jump. Gar og Nadrak wasn’t quite as devastated as Thulldom, but conditions there were also fairly miserable.

We winged our way north along the coast of Morindland and crossed over to Mallorea, following the string of islands that formed the land-bridge. Then Beldin led the way across the Barrens to the Karandese Mountains and then on south to Ashaba.

Ashaba’s not a town in the ordinary sense of the word. It’s really nothing more than a very large castle with a number of Karandese villages in the surrounding forest. The villages were there to support the Grolims who’d lived in the palace. Torak himself probably didn’t have to eat, but Grolims get hungry once in a while, I guess, and the ground around the castle, like the ground at Cthol Mishrak, was dead and unproductive. Even the soil rejected Torak.

The house at Ashaba was black basalt, naturally. It was Torak’s favorite color - or lack of it. It stood on the east side of a sterile plateau that seemed incapable of sustaining any kind of vegetation except for leprous grey lichens and dead white toadstools, and it was backed up against a lowering cliff.

The place was immense, and it was surmounted with ugly, graceless towers and spires that stabbed up toward the scudding clouds roiling overhead. It was walled in, naturally. It was an Angarak building, and Angaraks put walls around everything - even pig-pens. Our simplest course would have been to come to roost inside the wall, but Beldin veered off and settled to earth just outside the main gate. I swooped in and dropped to the ground beside him even as he was shimmering back into his own form.

I also changed back. ‘What’s the problem?’ I asked him.

‘Let’s probe around a bit before we go blundering in. Torak may have left a few surprises behind.’

‘I guess that makes sense.’

Beldin concentrated, his ugly face twisting with the effort. ‘There’s nobody home,’ he said after a moment.

‘Any sign of Hounds?’

‘Look for yourself. I’m going to poke around and see if there are any traps lurking inside.’

I sensed nothing at all. There weren’t even any rats inside. So far as I could tell, there weren’t even any bugs.

‘Anything?’ Beldin asked.

‘Nothing at all. Did you find anything?’

‘No. The place is safe.’ He squinted at the gate, and I felt his Will building. Then he released it, and the huge iron gate burst inward with a thunderous detonation.

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