Pol spent inordinate amounts of time with her hair.

She combed.

She brushed.

She made me crazy with all that fussing. Yes, I know that Polgara has beautiful hair, but it crackles when the weather turns cold. Try it sometime. Let your hair grow until you can sit on it; then stroke it with a brush on a chill winter morning. There were times when she looked like a hedgehog, and bright sparks flew from her fingers whenever she touched anything even remotely metallic.

She used to swear about that a lot. Polgara doesn’t really approve of swearing, but she does know all the words.

I think it was during the late spring of her eighteenth year when she finally stepped over the line and demonstrated her talent while I was watching. It’s an obscure sort of modesty with Pol. She doesn’t like to have anyone around to see what she’s doing when she unleashes it. I suspect that it may have something to do with nakedness. Nobody - and I do mean nobody - has ever seen Polgara step all dripping from her bath wearing nothing but that dreamy smile. She conceals her gift in that self-same way - except in an emergency.

It wasn’t actually an emergency. Pol had been deep into a Melcene philosophical tract, and she was concentrating on it very hard. I sort of suggested that it had been two days since we’d eaten. It was the end of winter, and I suppose I could have gone wolf and chased down a fieldmouse or two, but I really wanted something to eat. Fieldmice are nice, but they’re all fur and bones, and that’s not really very satisfying for a full-grown animal.

‘Oh, bother,’ she said, and made a negligent sort of gesture - without even looking up from her book - and there was quite suddenly a hind-quarter of beef smoking on the kitchen table - without benefit of platter.

I looked at it with a certain amount of chagrin. It was dripping gravy all over my floor, for one thing, and it wasn’t quite fully done, for another. Polgara had provided cow. Cooking and seasoning to taste was my problem.

I bit down very hard on my lower lip. ‘Thanks awfully,’ I said to her in my most acid tone.

‘Don’t mention it,’ she replied without raising her eyes from her book.

Chapter 24

The world outside the Vale was changing. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about that; the world is always changing. About the only difference this time lay in the fact that we noticed it. The open grasslands to the north of us had always been uninhabited before - unless you count the wild horses and cattle. But now the Algars lived there.

I always rather liked Algar Fleet-foot. He was clearly the most intelligent of Cherek’s sons. The fact that he never missed an opportunity to keep his mouth shut was an indication of that. I suspect that if he’d been Cherek’s first son, it might not have been necessary to break up Aloria. This is not intended to throw rocks at Dras Bull-neck. Dras was unquestionably one of the bravest men I’ve ever known, but he was just a bit on the impetuous side. Maybe his sheer physical size had something to do with that.

Fleet-foot’s breeding program was beginning to produce larger horses and more and more of his people were mounted now. He’d also begun to cross-breed the rather scrubby Alorn cattle with the wild cows of the plain to produce animals of a significant size which were at least marginally tractable.

The Algars were fairly good neighbors - which is to say that they didn’t pester us. Fleet-foot periodically sent messengers to the Vale to bring us news, but otherwise his people left us alone.

It was about two years after Beldaran’s wedding - late spring I think it was - when Algar himself came down into the Vale with his cousin Anrak. ‘Good news, Belgarath,’ Anrak called up to my tower. ‘You’re going to become a grandfather.’

‘It’s about time,’ I called down. ‘Come on up, both of you.’ I went to the head of the stairs and told the door to open to admit them.

‘When’s Beldaran due?’ I asked as they started up the stairs.

‘A month or so, I suppose,’ Anrak replied. ‘She wants you and her sister to come to the Isle. Ladies like to have family around for the birth of their first child, I guess.’ They reached the top of the stairs, and Anrak looked around. ‘Where’s Lady Polgara?’ he asked.

‘She’s visiting the twins,’ I told him. ‘She’ll be back in a bit. Sit down, gentlemen. I’ll bring some ale. I think this calls for a little celebration.’

We sat and talked for most of the rest of the afternoon, and then Polgara returned. She took the news quite calmly, which rather surprised me. ‘We’ll need to pack a few things,’ was about all she said before she started supper. I strongly suspect that she already knew about her sister’s condition.

‘I brought horses,’ Algar said quietly.

‘Good,’ Pol replied. ‘It’s a long trip.’

‘Have you ridden very often?’ he asked her.

‘Not really.’

‘It’ll take a little getting used to,’ he cautioned.

‘I think I can manage, Algar.’

‘We’ll see.’

I probably should have paid more attention to the warning note in his voice. I’d never had much experience with horses. They’d been around, of course, but until the breeding program of the Algars, they’d been quite small, and I’d always felt that I could get from place to place almost as fast by walking. We left early the next morning, and by noon I began to wish that I had walked. Algarian saddles are probably the best in the world, but they’re still very hard, and the steady, ground-eating trot which was Algar’s favorite pace tended to make me bounce up and down, and every bounce grew more and more painful. I took my meals standing up for the first couple of days.

As we rode further north, we began to encounter small herds of cattle. ‘Is it really a good idea to let them wander around loose that way?’ Anrak asked Algar.

‘Where are they going to go?’ Algar replied. ‘This is where the grass and water are.’

‘Isn’t it a little hard to keep track of them?’

‘Not really.’ Algar pointed at a lone horseman on top of a nearby hill.

‘That looks to be a very dull job.’

‘Only if you’re lucky. When you’re tending cattle, you don’t want the job to be exciting.’

‘What do you plan to do with all these cows?’ I asked him.

‘Sell them, I suppose. There should be a market for them somewhere.’

‘Maybe,’ Anrak said a little dubiously, ‘but how do you plan to get them there?’

‘That’s why they have feet, Anrak.’

The following day we came across an encampment of one of the Algarian clans. Most of their wagons were like farm-wagons everywhere in the world - four wheels and an open bed. A few, however, were enclosed, looking strangely box-like. ‘Is that something new?’ I asked Algar, pointing at one of them.

He nodded. ‘We move around a lot, so we decided to take our houses with us. It’s more practical that way.’

‘Do you think you’ll ever get around to building a city?’ Anrak asked him.

‘We already have,’ Algar replied. ‘Nobody really lives there, but we’ve got one. It’s off to the east a ways.’

‘Why build a city if you don’t plan to live in it?’

‘It’s for the benefit of the Murgos.’

‘The Murgos?’

‘It gives them a place to visit when they come to call.’ Algar smiled faintly. ‘It’s much more convenient for us that way.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘We’re herdsmen, Anrak. We go where the cows go. The Murgos can’t really comprehend that. Most of their raiding parties are quite small. They come down the ravines in the escarpment to steal horses and then try to get back before we catch them. Every so often, though, a larger party comes down looking for a fight. We built what looks like a city so that they’ll go there instead of wandering all over Algaria. It makes them easier to find.’

‘It’s just bait, then?’

Algar considered that. ‘I suppose you could put it that way, yes.’

‘Wasn’t building it a lot of work?’

Algar shrugged. ‘We didn’t really have much else to do. The cows feed themselves, after all.’

We spent the night in the Algarian encampment and rode west the following morning.

The main pass through the mountains was clear of snow by now, and I noticed that Fleet-foot was paying rather close attention to it as we rode up into the foothills. ‘Good grass,’ he noted, ‘and plenty of water.’

‘Are you thinking of expanding your kingdom?’ I asked him.

‘Not really. A couple of the clans are occupying the area up around Darine, but there are too many trees west of the mountains to make the country good for cows. Doesn’t this road lead to a town someplace on up ahead?’

I nodded. ‘Muros,’ I told him. ‘The Wacite Arends built it.’

‘Maybe after Riva’s son is born, I’ll drop on down to Vo Wacune and have a talk with the duke. It shouldn’t be too hard to drive cows through this pass, and if word got around that we were bringing herds through here, cattle-buyers might start gathering at Muros. I’d hate to have to go looking for them.’


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