There was a certain logic to what she was saying, however. Wandering around in the woods is enjoyable, but there were other things I wanted to do, and the art of changing form is one of the more useful ones. I wasn’t entirely positive that her talent was that far along yet, though, so I was a little dubious about the whole idea. ‘We’ll try it,’ I finally gave in. It was easier than arguing with her.
‘Why not now?’
‘Because it’s getting dark. I don’t want you flying into a tree and breaking your beak.’
‘Whatever you say, father.’ Her submissive tone was fraudulent, naturally. She’d won the argument, so now she could afford to be gracious about it.
She was up the next morning before it got light, and she’d crammed my breakfast into me before the sun came up. ‘Now, then,’ she said, ‘let’s get started.’ She really wanted to try this.
I described the procedure to her at some length, carefully going over all the details while her look of impatience grew more and more pronounced.
‘Oh, let’s get on with it, father,’ she said finally.
‘All right, Pol,’ I surrendered. ‘I suppose you can always change back if you turn yourself into a flying rabbit.’
She looked a little startled at that.
‘Details, Polgara,’ I told her. ‘This is one case when you really have to pay attention to details. Feathers aren’t that easy, you now. All right. Don’t rush. Take it slowly.’
And, of course, she ignored me. Her eyebrows sank into a scowl of intense concentration. Then she shimmered and blurred - and became a snowy white owl.
My eyes filled with tears immediately, and I choked back a sob. ‘Change back!’
She looked a little startled when she resumed her own form.
‘Don’t ever do that again!’ I commanded.
‘What’s wrong, father?’
‘Any shape but that one.’
‘What’s wrong with that one? Uncle Beldin says that mother used to do it all the time.’
‘Exactly. Pick another shape.’
‘Are you crying, father?’ she asked with a certain surprise.
‘Yes, as a matter of fact, I am.’
‘I didn’t think you knew how.’ She touched my face almost tenderly. ‘Would some other kind of owl be all right?’
‘Turn yourself into a pelican if you want to. Just stay away from that shape.’
‘How about this one?’ She blurred into the form of a tufted owl instead. She was a mottled brown color, and the sprigs of feathers sprouting from the sides of her head altered that painful appearance enough so that I could bear to live with it.
I drew in a deep breath. ‘All right,’ I told her, ‘flap your wings and see if you can get up off the ground.’
She hooted at me.
‘I can’t understand you, Pol. Just flap your wings. We can talk about it later.’
Would you believe that she did it perfectly the first time? I should have had suspicions at that point, but I was still all choked up, so I didn’t think about it. With a few strokes of those soft wings she lifted herself effortlessly off the ground and circled the clearing a few times. Then she landed on a tree-branch and began to preen her feathers.
It took me a while to regain my composure, and then I went over to her tree and looked up at her. ‘Don’t try to change back,’ I instructed. ‘You’ll fall out of the tree if you do.’
She stared down at me with those huge, unblinking eyes.
‘We’re going in that direction.’ I pointed northeasterly. ‘I’m not going to turn myself into a bird because I don’t fly very well. I’ll take the shape of a wolf instead. I’ll probably be able to keep up with you, but don’t get out of sight. I want to be close enough to catch you if something goes wrong. Keep an eye on the sun. We’ll change back about noon.’
She hooted at me again, that strange hollow cry of the tufted owl.
‘Don’t argue with me, Polgara,’ I told her. ‘We’re going to do this my way. I don’t want you to get hurt.’ Then, to avoid any further argument, I slipped into the form of the wolf.
Her flights were short at first. She drifted from tree to tree, obediently staying just ahead of me. I didn’t have any difficulty keeping up with her. By mid-morning, however, she began to extend the distance between perches, and I was obliged to move up from a sedate trot to a lope. By noon I was running. Finally, I stopped, lifted my muzzle, and howled at her.
She circled, swooped back, and settled to earth. Then she shimmered back into her own form. ‘Oh, that was just fine!’ she exclaimed with a sensuous shudder of pure pleasure.
I was right on the verge of an oration at that point. She’d pushed me fairly hard that morning. It was her smile that cut me off before I even got started, though. Polgara seldom smiled, but this time her face actually seemed to glow, and that single white lock above her forehead was bright as a sun-touched snowbank. Dear Gods, she was a beautiful girl! ‘You need to use your tail-feathers just a bit more,’ was all I said to her.
‘Yes, father,’ she said, still smiling. ‘What now?’
‘We’ll rest a bit,’ I decided. ‘When the sun goes down, we’ll start out again.’
‘In the dark?’
‘You’re an owl, Polgara. Night’s the natural time for you to be out flying.’
‘What about you?’
I shrugged. ‘Night or day - it doesn’t matter to a wolf.’
‘We had to leave our supplies behind,’ she noted. ‘What are we going to eat?’
‘That’s up to you, Pol - whatever’s unlucky enough to cross your path, I’d imagine.’
‘You mean raw?’
‘You’re the one who wanted to be an owl, dear. Sparrows eat seeds, but owls prefer mice. I wouldn’t recommend taking on a wild boar. He might be a little more than you can handle, but that’s entirely up to you.’
She stalked away from me muttering swear words under her breath.
I’ll admit that her idea worked out quite well. It would have taken us two weeks to reach Darine on foot. We managed it the other way in three nights.
The sun was just rising when we reached the hilltop south of the port city. We resumed our natural forms and marched to the city gate. Like just about every other city in the north in those days, Darine was constructed out of logs. A city has to burn down a few times before it occurs to the people who live there that wooden cities aren’t really a good idea. We went through the unguarded gate, and I asked a sleepy passer-by where I could find Hatturk, the clan-chief Algar had told me was in charge here in Darine. He gave me directions to a large house near the waterfront and then stood there rather foolishly ogling Polgara. Having beautiful daughters is nice, I suppose, but they do attract a certain amount of attention.
‘We’ll need to be a little careful with Hatturk, Pol,’ I said as we waded down the muddy street toward the harbor.
‘Algar says that the clans that have moved here from the plains aren’t really happy about the break-up of Aloria, and they’re definitely unhappy about that grassland. They migrated here because they got lonesome for trees. Primitive Alorns all lived in the forest, and open country depresses them. Fleet-foot didn’t come right out and say it, but I sort of suspect that Darine might just be a stronghold of the Bear-Cult, so let’s be a little careful about what we say.’
‘I’ll let you do the talking, father.’
‘That might be best. The people here are probably recidivist Alorns of the most primitive kind. I’m going to need Hatturk’s cooperation, so I’m going to have to step around him rather carefully.’
‘Just bully him, father. Isn’t that what you usually do?’
‘Only when I can stand over somebody to make sure he does what I tell him to do. Once you’ve bullied somebody, you can’t turn your back on him for very long, and Darine’s not so pretty that I want to spend the next twenty years here making sure that Hatturk follows my instructions.’
‘I’m learning all sorts of things on this trip.’
‘Good. Try not to forget too many of them.’
Hatturk’s house was a large building constructed of logs. An Alorn clan-chief is really a sort of miniature king in many respects, and he’s usually surrounded by a group of retainers who serve as court functionaries and double as bodyguards on the side. I introduced myself to the pair of heavily armed Algars at the door, and Pol and I were admitted immediately. Most of the time being famous is a pain, but it has some advantages.
Hatturk was a burly Alorn with a greying beard, a decided paunch, and bloodshot eyes. He didn’t look too happy about being roused before noon. As I’d more or less expected, his clothing was made of bear-skins. I’ve never understood why members of the Bear-Cult feel that it’s appropriate to peel the hide off the totem of their God. ‘Well,’ he said to me in a rusty-sounding voice, ‘so you’re Belgarath. I’d have thought you’d be bigger.’
‘I could arrange that if it’d make you feel more comfortable.’