We followed the North Caravan Route westward toward the Drasnian border. It was autumn by now, and the leaves of the birch and aspen groves had begun to turn golden. That’s always very pretty, but it does sort of hint at the onset of winter, and we still had to go through the mountains up around Yar Gurak.
Pol and I hurried right along, but when we reached the mountains, our luck ran out. An early blizzard swept down out of Morindland and buried us in about five feet of snow. I put together a crude sort of shelter in a thick grove of jack-pines, and we sat out the storm. It blew itself out after three days, and we set out again. It was very slow going, and Pol’s temper began to deteriorate about mid-morning. ‘This is ridiculous, father!’ she snapped. ‘There are other ways for us to get to where we’re going, you know.’
I shook my head. ‘We’re in Angarak territory, Pol, and that means Grolims. Let’s not make any noise if we don’t have to. We’ll get through all right - if the weather holds.’
But of course, it didn’t. Another blizzard came along right on the heels of the first one, and I had to build us another shelter.
It must have been about mid-morning of the following day when we had a visitor. The gale was howling around our makeshift shelter, and the snow was coming down so thickly that we couldn’t see ten feet. Then a voice came out of the snow. ‘Hello, the camp,’ it said. ‘I’m coming in. Don’t get excited.’
He seemed to be a fairly old man, lean and stringy, and his tangled hair was as white as the snow around him. He was bundled to the ears in furs, and his face was tanned, weather-beaten, and deeply wrinkled. His blue eyes didn’t seem to be all that old, however. ‘Got yourself in trouble, didn’t you?’ he observed as he came trudging through the driving snow. ‘Didn’t you smell this storm coming?’
I shrugged. ‘We thought we could outrun it.’
‘Not much chance of that up in these mountains. Which way were you bound?’
‘You’ll never make it. You started out too late. I expect you’ll have to winter up here.’
‘That’s impossible,’ Pol told him.
‘I know these mountains, girl. This is just about as far as you’re going to get until spring.’ He squinted at us. Then he sighed. ‘I guess there’s no help for it. You’d better come with me.’ He didn’t sound too happy about it.
‘Where are we going?’ I asked him.
‘I’m wintering in a cave about a mile from here. It’s not much of a cave, but it’s better than this lean-to you’ve got here. I guess I can put up with a little company for one winter. At least it’ll give me somebody to talk to. My donkey listens pretty good, but he don’t answer very often when I say something to him.’
I’m sure that Garion and Silk remember that old fellow. We ran across him in those same mountains years later while we were on our way to Cthol Mishrak.
He never did tell us what his name was. I’m sure that he’d had a name at some time, but it’s entirely possible that he’d forgotten it. He talked a great deal during that seemingly endless winter, but there was very little in the way of information in what he said. I gathered that he’d spent his life looking for gold up in these mountains, but I got the impression that he didn’t really look that hard for it. He just liked being in the mountains.
I don’t think I’ve ever known anybody who could see as much in a single glance as that old man did. He’d realized almost as soon as he saw us that Pol and I weren’t ordinary people, but if he had any opinions about that, he kept them to himself.
I liked him, and I think Polgara did, too. She didn’t like the fact that he kept his donkey and our horses in the cave with us, though. They talked about that quite a bit that winter, as I recall.
As he’d predicted, the blizzards kept rolling in out of Morindland, and the snowdrifts just kept growing. He and I hunted, of course, and I grew more than a little tired of a steady diet of venison. Pol had taken over the cooking, but even Pol began to run out of recipes before winter was over.
I didn’t say anything about it, but despite Pol’s aversion to the little beast, the old man’s donkey grew very fond of her, and he showed his affection by butting at her with his head, usually when she wasn’t expecting it. Maybe he thought it was funny to surprise her.
Then, after it seemed that the winter would last forever, our host went to the mouth of the cave one morning and sniffed at the air. ‘It’s just about over,’ he told us. ‘We’ll get a warm wind out of Drasnia before the day’s out, and it’ll cut off all this snow before you know it. The river’ll run bank-full for a few days, but it’ll be safe to travel by the end of the week. I’ve enjoyed your company, you two, but it’s coming on time for us to go our separate ways.’
‘Which way will you go after the weather clears?’ Pol asked him.
He scratched at his head. ‘Haven’t decided yet,’ he replied. ‘South maybe, or maybe back up toward Morindland. Maybe I’ll just see which way the wind’s blowing when the time comes to start out - or maybe I’ll just let the donkey decide. It don’t really matter none to me - as long as we stay in the mountains.’
His prediction about the change in the weather turned out to be very accurate, and about at the end of that week, Pol and I said good bye and set out again. There were still snowbanks back in under the trees, but the trails were mostly clear. We reached the Drasnian border in about four days, and a week later we reached Boktor.
The pestilence I mentioned earlier had run its course in western Drasnia, but among its victims were Rhodar’s father and Silk’s mother. The king died, but Silk’s mother didn’t. The disease had horribly disfigured her, but it had also taken her sight from her, so she couldn’t look into a mirror to see her ruined face. Silk and his father could; neither of them ever mentioned it to her, though.
Pol and I stayed in Boktor to attend Rhodar’s coronation, and then I bought a boat so that we could go on down the Mrin River and through the fens. I don’t really like the fens, but the Great North Road had too many travelers on it at this time of year for my comfort.
Winters can be miserable, but there are times when spring’s even worse - particularly in the fens. It started raining on the day when Pol and I set out from Boktor, and it rained steadily for at least a week. I started to wonder if there might have been another eclipse to disturb the weather patterns.
At one time or another, most of you have probably gone through the fens, since you almost have to if you want to get to Boktor from the west. For those of you who haven’t, though, all you really need to know about them is the fact that it’s all one vast marsh lying between the Mrin and Aldur rivers. It’s filled with rushes, cattails, and stringy willow trees that trail their limbs in the water. The two rivers that feed it insure that the water’s not stagnant, but their currents are so slow that it comes fairly close. The customary way to get a boat through the fens is to pole it along. Rowing doesn’t really work very well, since many of those channels are too narrow to give oars much play. I don’t like poling boats, but in the fens there isn’t much choice.
‘I think we should have booked passage on some merchantman in Boktor,’ I said moodily one rainy morning. ‘We could be half-way to Darine by now.’
‘Well, it’s too late to turn back now, father,’ Pol said. ‘Just keep poling.’
We began to see fenlings - quite a few of them - and then to my absolute amazement, we came around bend in the channel we were following, and there was a house!
Actually, it was more in the nature of a cottage built of weathered logs and surmounted by a thatched roof. It stood in the middle of a grove of sad-looking willows on a small island that rose in a gentle slope out of the surrounding water.
As I poled the boat closer, one of the fenlings we’d noticed swam on ahead, climbed up on the muddy bank of that little island and loped like an otter up to the door of the cottage, chittering urgently.
Then the door opened, and a woman stood there looking gravely out at us through the drizzling rain. ‘Welcome to the house of Vordai,’ she said to my daughter and me, but there wasn’t much welcome in her tone of voice.
‘I’m a little surprised to see anyone living in a place like this,’ I called to her.
‘There are reasons,’ she replied. ‘You might as well come inside - at least until the rain lets up.’
I’ve had more gracious invitations in my time, but something seemed to come together in my head, and it told me that I was supposed to accept this one, no matter how ungracious it was.
I poled our boat up to the island, and Pol and I stepped out on the shore.
‘So you’re Vordai,’ Polgara said to the woman at the cottage door.
‘And you would be Polgara,’ the woman replied.
‘I seem to be missing something here,’ I told them.
‘We know each other by reputation, father,’ Pol told me. ‘Vordai’s the one they call the witch of the fens. She’s an outcast, and this is the only place in all of Drasnia that’s safe for her.’