Then I looked at the burning house, hoping that there still might be a chance to save Geran and Ildera, but it was clearly hopeless. I felt no signs of life in the midst of that fire. I broke down and wept.

Pol found me kneeling in tears beside the baby. ‘What happened, father?’ she demanded.

‘It was Chamdar!’ I almost shouted at her. ‘Use your eyes, Pol! What were you thinking of? Why did you go off like that?’ I’ve always regretted that outburst.

Pol’s eyes grew stricken as my accusation struck her full in the face. She looked at the blazing house. ‘Is there any hope at all?’ she asked me.

‘None. They’re both dead.’

And that was when Polgara broke down. ‘I’ve failed, father!’ she wailed. ‘I had the most important task in history, and I failed!’

I choked back my own grief. ‘There’s no time for that now, Pol!’ I told her sharply. ‘We have to get the baby away from here. Chamdar got away from me, and he could be almost anywhere.’

‘Why did you let him escape?’

‘I didn’t have any choice. I had to save the baby. There’s nothing we can do here. Let’s move!’

She bent and picked up Garion with that peculiar tenderness she’s always demonstrated in caring for a long series of infants which were not really her own. When she straightened, her eyes were steely. ‘Chamdar’s got a lot to answer for.’

‘That he does, Pol, and I’ll do my best to make sure that his answering takes at least a week. What happened to Alara?’

‘She walked off the edge of a cliff. She’s dead, father.’

My rage flared up again. ‘I’ll add another week to what I’m going to do to Chamdar for that,’ I promised.

‘Good! I’ll take the baby. You go after Chamdar.’

I shook my head. ‘Not a chance, Pol. I’ve got to get you two to safety first. Our main responsibility’s wrapped up in that blanket. Let’s go.’

Pol and I left the village and took to the woods, avoiding all the roads and anything even remotely resembling a path. It wasn’t a pleasant trip at that time of year, and I solved the problem of feeding Garion by the simple expedient of stealing a goat from an isolated farmstead.

Eventually we made our way down out of the mountains, and I took Pol back to her house at Erat. Then I went some distance away and summoned the twins, speaking so cryptically that I wasn’t entirely positive that they’d understand what I was saying. I could only hope that they’d get the point when I told them that I needed them at ‘the rose garden.’

Then I went back to Pol’s thicket-enclosed house. ‘They should be along shortly,’ I told her. ‘I’ll stay until they get here.’

‘I’ll be all right, father. Don’t let Chamdar get away.’

‘It’s more important not to let him get behind me. I’ll stay, don’t argue with me about it.’ I looked out the window at her winter-browned rose-thicket. ‘I think your house here is too isolated to be entirely safe. Wait out the winter and then go find some remote village or farmstead and submerge yourself among the Sendars. Don’t do anything to attract attention until I’ve dealt with Chamdar.’

‘Whatever you say, father.’

It always makes me nervous when Pol takes that submissive attitude.

The twins had deciphered my message, and they arrived the next morning. I spoke with them briefly, and then I left Erat and went north to Boktor to speak with Hunter. The position, if you can call it that, was held at that time by an obscure filing clerk in the intelligence headquarters, a nondescript fellow named Khonar. ‘I need Prince Kheldar,’ I told him abruptly. ‘Where is he?’

Khonar carefully laid down the sheaf of documents he’d been reading. ‘May I ask why, Ancient One?’

‘No, you may not. Where’s Silk?’

‘In Tol Honeth, Holy One. He’s working for Javelin at the moment.’ He pursed his lips. ‘This is Kheldar’s first assignment in the field, you know. He’s not very experienced.’

‘Is he any good?’

‘We have rather high hopes for him - as soon as he settles down. If it’s important, I could go with you. I’m the best, after all.’

‘No. I think I’ll need you here. Silk’s the one I need. There are reasons.’

‘Oh,’ he said. ‘One of those things.’

‘Exactly. Have you heard anything at all about Asharak the Murgo lately?’

‘He was in Arendia no more than a week ago, Ancient One. An agent of ours saw him at the Great Fair.’

I heaved a very large sigh of relief. At least Chamdar wasn’t poking around in Sendaria. ‘Which way did he go from the fair?’

‘Southeast - toward the Tolnedran Mountains. Our agent reports that he seemed a little nervous about something.’

‘I can imagine,’ I said grimly. ‘He’s done something that offended me. I want to talk with him about it, and he’d rather avoid that conversation - since it’s very likely to involve my hanging his entrails on a fence someplace.’

‘That’s fairly graphic.’ Nothing startles Hunter. ‘If any of my people come across him, do you want them to kill him?’

‘No. I’ll do that myself. Just locate him for me, if you can. Your people are good, but they’re no match for Asharak.’

His look grew shrewd. ‘You’re being inconsistent, Ancient One. First you ask specifically for a man of twenty or so - no more than a year out of the academy - and then you say that my most experienced agents are no match for the man you’re after.’

‘Consistency’s the defense of small minds, Khonar. Get word to your people in Arendia and Tolnedra. I’ll be there long before your messages arrive, and I’ll have a look around first. Then I’ll want every scrap of information about Asharak that they can lay their hands on.’

He shrugged. ‘If that’s the way you want it, Ancient One.’

‘It is. I’ll be leaving now - and don’t waste time trying to have me followed.’

He counterfeited an innocent look. ‘Would I do that, Holy Belgarath?’

‘You wouldn’t be doing your job if you didn’t.’

I left Boktor that same afternoon, rather ostentatiously going southwest along the Great North Road, and I’m positive that at least one of Hunter’s spies was following me. As soon as it grew dark, however, he lost my trail - unless he knew how to fly.

Although it was midwinter, the weather had cleared over the snow-choked mountains, and I flew over the southeastern edge of Sendaria and went on to Prolgu to advise the Gorim that the Godslayer had come. Then I flew on to the Great Fair on the plains of Mimbre to confer with Hunter’s chief agent there, a lean Drasnian named Talvar.

Just by way of clarification here, Hunter’s always been the most secret of Drasnian intelligence agents, and he - or she - frequently has a little private agency - a kind of secret service within a secret service. Drasnians are like that. They absolutely love secrets.

‘We think this Asharak fellow might have doubled back, Ancient One,’ Talvar advised me. ‘When he left here, he was going southeasterly toward the Tolnedran Mountains, but there are some things going on in Vo Mimbre that seem to have his distinctive footprints all over them.’

‘Oh?’

‘There’s a Murgo trade delegation there, and they’re spending a lot of money bribing assorted Mimbrate knights. Mimbrates aren’t very bright, and they usually go into debt in order to make an impression on their fellows. Asharak’s always been very free with his gold. When you start seeing blood-red coins, you know where they’re coming from. It may be something he set in motion in the past, but I personally don’t think so. The sudden influx of Murgo gold suggests a new ploy. Track the money, Ancient One. You’ll get more information from that than from anything else.’

‘You’re a Drasnian to the bone, Talvar,’ I told him.

‘That’s why Hunter put me here, Ancient One. Anyway, the whole thrust of all of this is to subvert the Crown Prince, who’s probably deeper in debt than anybody else in all of Arendia.’ He made a face. ‘If I weren’t working for my government, I could make a fortune down here. Some of these Mimbrate idiots would pay exorbitant interest just to clear their debts.’

‘Keep your eyes on what we’re doing, Talvar,’ I told him. ‘Don’t get side-tracked. Make money on your own time; not on mine. Does Asharak have his hands around the Crown Prince’s heart yet?’

‘Probably not. Young Prince Korodullin still has a sense of honor, despite all his debts. He’s resisting the Murgo blandishments, but I think he’s starting to waver. He needs somebody to stiffen his backbone.’

‘I think I know just the man. Get me some names, Talvar. I need to know just who these bought-and-paid-for Mimbrate knights are. I’ll send the man I’ve got in mind to Vo Mimbre to deal with the matter.’

‘Now I know why they call you “Holy Belgarath”,’ he said.

‘Don’t mix “Holy” and “money”, Talvar. You’ll get in trouble if you do.’


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