Anyway, after I’d eaten, I dozed by my fire. I really don’t know how long I slept, but I was awakened quite suddenly by a kind of mindless hooting that sounded almost like laughter. I cursed my inattentiveness. Somehow a pack of rock-wolves had managed to creep up on me.
The term ‘rock-wolf’ is really a misnomer. They aren’t really wolves, but are more closely related to hyenas. They’re scavengers, and they’d probably caught scent of my deer. It would have been a simple thing to change back into a wolf and outrun them. I was comfortable, though, and I certainly didn’t feel like running on a full stomach. I was also feeling just a little pugnacious. I’d been sleeping very well and being awakened that way irritated me. I built up my fire and settled my back against a tree to wait for them. If they pushed me too far, there’d be one less pack of rock-wolves in the morning.
I saw a few of the ugly brutes slinking along at the edge of the trees, but they were afraid of my fire, so they didn’t come any closer. That went on for the rest of the night. The fact that they neither attacked nor went off to find food somewhere else was a bit puzzling. This was not the way rock-wolves normally behaved
Dawn was just touching the eastern sky when I found out why.
I’d just piled more wood on my fire when I caught a movement at the edge of the trees out of the corner of my eye. I thought it was another rock-wolf, so I took hold of a stick that was burning quite well, turned, and drew back my arm to throw the burning brand at the beast.
It wasn’t a rock-wolf, however. It was an Eldrak.
I’d seen Eldrakyn before, of course, but always from a distance, so I hadn’t realized just how big they are. I silently berated myself for not going wolf while I had the chance. Changing form takes a little while, and the huge creature wasn’t very far away from me. If he was totally mad, as the Hrulgin and Algroths had been, he wouldn’t give me nearly enough time.
He was shaggy and about eight feet tall. He didn’t have what you’d really call a nose, and his lower jaw stuck out. He had long yellow tusks like a wild boar, and they jutted upward out of that protruding lower jaw. He had little, piglike eyes sunk deep under a heavy brow-ridge, and those eyes burned red. ‘Why man-thing come to Grul’s range?’ he growled at me.
That was a surprise. I knew that the Eldrakyn were more intelligent than Algroths or Trolls, but I didn’t know that they could talk.
I recovered quickly. The fact that he could talk raised the possibility of a peaceful solution here. ‘Just passing through, old boy,’ I replied urbanely. ‘I didn’t mean to trespass, but I didn’t realize that this range belongs to you.’
‘All know.’ His voice was hideous. ‘All know this is Grul’s range.’
‘Well, not everybody, actually. I’m a stranger here, and you don’t have the boundaries of your range clearly marked.’
‘You eat Grul’s deer.’ He said it accusingly. This wasn’t going too well. Being careful to conceal what I was doing, I slipped my long Alorn dagger out of its sheath and hid it in my left sleeve, handle down.
‘I didn’t eat it all,’ I told him. ‘You’re welcome to the rest of it.’
‘How are you called?’
‘The name’s Belgarath.’ Maybe he’d heard of me. The Demon Lord in Morindland had, after all. If my reputation extended all the way to Hell, maybe it’d penetrated these mountains as well.
‘’Grat?’ he said.
‘Belgarath,’ I corrected.
‘’Grat.’ He said it with a certain finality. Evidently the shape of his jaw made it impossible for him to come any closer to the correct pronunciation. ‘It is good that Grul know this. Grul keep names of all man-things he eats in here.’ He banged the side of his head with the heel of his hand. ‘’Grat want to fight before Grul eat him?’ he asked hopefully.
I’ve had more congenial offers from time to time. I stood up. ‘Go away, Grul,’ I told him. ‘I don’t have time to play with you.’
A hideous grin distorted his shaggy face. ‘Take time, ‘Grat. First we play. Then Grul eat.’
This was really going downhill. I looked at him rather closely. He had huge arms that hung down to his knees. I definitely didn’t want him wrapping those arms around me, so I carefully put my back against the tree. ‘You’re making a mistake, Grul,’ I told him. ‘Take the deer and go away. The deer won’t fight. I will.’ It was sheer bravado, of course. I wouldn’t have much chance against this huge monster in a purely physical struggle, and he was so close to me by now that any alternative would have been very chancy. What a silly way this was for a man like me to end his career.
‘’Grat too small to fight Grul. ’Grat not too smart if he not see this. ’Grat is brave, though. Grul will remember how brave ’Grat was, after Grul eat him.’
‘You’re too kind,’ I murmured to him. ‘Come along then, Grul. Since you’ve got your heart set on this, we may as well get going. I’ve got better things to do today.’ I was gambling. The fact that this huge, shaggy monster could speak was an indication that he could also think - minimally. My bluster was designed to make him a little wary. I didn’t want him to simply rush me. If I could make him hesitate, I might have a chance.
My apparent willingness to fight him had the desired effect. Grul wasn’t accustomed to having people shrug off his huge size, so he was just a bit cautious as he approached. That was what I’d been hoping for. When he reached out with both huge hands to grasp me, I ducked under them and stepped forward, smoothly pulling my knife out of my sleeve. Then, with one quick swipe, I sliced him across the belly. I wasn’t certain enough of his anatomy to try stabbing him in the heart. As big as he was, his ribs were probably as thick as my wrist.
He stared at me in utter amazement. Then he looked down at the entrails that came boiling out of the gaping wound that ran from hip to hip across his lower belly.
‘I think you dropped something there, Grul,’ I suggested.
He clutched at his spilling entrails with both hands, a look of consternation on his brutish face. ‘’Grat cut Grul’s belly,’ he said. ‘Make Grul’s insides fall out.’
‘Yes, I noticed that. Did you want to fight some more, Grul? I think you could spend your time better by sewing yourself back together. You’re not going to be able to move very fast with your guts tangled around your feet.’
‘’Grat is not nice,’ he accused mournfully, sitting down and holding his entrails in his lap.
For some reason, that struck me as enormously funny. I laughed for a bit, but when two great tears began to run down his shaggy face, I felt a little ashamed of myself. I held out my hand, willed a large, curved needle into existence and threaded it with deer sinew. I tossed it to him. ‘Here,’ I told him. ‘Sew your belly back together, and remember this if we ever run across each other again. Find something else to eat, Grul. I’m old and tough and stringy, so I really wouldn’t taste too good - and I think you’ve already discovered that I’m very expensive.’
The dawn had progressed far enough along to give me sufficient light to travel, so I left him sitting by my fire trying to figure out how to use the needle I’d given him.
Oddly, the incident brightened my disposition enormously. I’d actually pulled it off. What an amazing thing that was! I savored that last comment of his. By now, half the world agreed with him. ’Grat is definitely not nice.
I reached the western edge of the Vale two days later. It was early summer, one of the loveliest times of year. The spring rains have passed, and the dusty heat that comes later hasn’t yet arrived. Even though our Master was gone, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Vale more beautiful. The grass was bright green, and many of the fruit trees that grew wild there were in bloom. The berries were out, although they weren’t really ripe yet. I rather like the tart taste of half-ripe berries anyway. The sky was very blue, and the puffy white clouds seemed almost to dance aloft. The roiling grey clouds and stiff winds of early spring are dramatic, but early summer is lush and warm and filled with the scent of urgent growth. I was home, and I don’t know that I’ve ever been any happier.
I was in a peculiar sort of mood. I was eager to get back to Poledra, but for some reason I was enjoying the sense of anticipation. I discarded my traveling form and almost sauntered across the gentle hills and valleys of the Vale. I knew that Poledra would sense my approach, and, as she always did, she’d probably be fixing supper. I didn’t want to rush her.
It was just evening when I reached my tower, and I was a little surprised not to see lights in the windows. I went around to the far side, opened the door and went on in. ‘Poledra,’ I called up the stairs to her.
Strangely, she didn’t answer.
I went on up the stairs.
It was dark in my tower. Poledra’s curtains may not have kept out the breeze, but they definitely kept out the light. I twirled a tongue of flame off my index finger and lit a candle.
There wasn’t anybody there, and the place had that dusty, unused look. What was going on here?
Then I saw a square of parchment in the precise center of my work-table, and I recognized Beldin’s crabbed handwriting immediately. ‘Come to my tower.’ That was all it said.