‘There’d been a certain amount of limited trade back and forth across that border. Then the Nadraks started getting belligerent. They made a few raids into Drasnia, and Bull-neck’s son chased them back into the woods. It’s been quiet up there for quite some time now.’

‘I think it might get noisy again fairly soon. The Nadrak cities are almost deserted. Every man who can stand up, see lightning, and hear thunder is camped out in the woods a day’s march from the border.’

‘We’d better warn Rhonar.’

‘Who’s he?’

‘The current king of Drasnia. I’ll take a run up there and let him know what’s happening. Why don’t you go up into Algaria and see if you can find Cho-Dan, the Chief of the clan-chiefs? Let’s get some Algar cavalry just north of Lake Atun.’

‘Don’t the Algars have a king any more?’

‘The title’s sort of fallen into disuse. The Algars are nomads, and clan’s more important to them than nation. I’ll go to Boktor, and then over to Val Alorn to warn the Chereks.’

Beldin rubbed his hands together. ‘We haven’t had a war in a long time,’ he said.

‘I haven’t missed them all that much.’ I scratched at my beard. ‘I think maybe I’ll run on down to Rak Cthol and have another little chat with Ctuchik as soon as the Alorns are in place. Maybe I can head this off before it gets out of hand.’

‘Spoilsport. Where’s Pol?’

‘Over in Arendia - Vo Wacune, I think. Ctuchik’s been playing games there, too. Pol’s keeping an eye on things. Let’s go alert the Alorns.’

King Rhonar of Drasnia received my news with a certain amount of enthusiasm. He was as bad or worse than Beldin. Then I went on across the Gulf of Cherek to Val Alorn and talked with King Bledar. He was even worse than Rhonar. His fleet sailed for Kotu the next day. I rather hoped that Beldin could keep a tight leash on the Alorns when they got to the Nadrak border. Pol and I had just spent several centuries trying to keep a lid on open hostilities here in the west, and this incipient confrontation threatened to blow that lid off.

Then I went to Rak Cthol.

I paused in the desert a few leagues to the west of that ugly mountain and considered a number of options. My last visit had undoubtedly convinced Ctuchik that posting sentries wouldn’t be a bad idea, so getting through the city unnoticed might have been a little tricky. It was with a certain distaste that I finally came to the conclusion that I didn’t really have to go through the city. I knew where Ctuchik’s turret was, after all, and it did have windows.

It was late at night, so there wasn’t any warm air rising up off the black sand. This meant that I had to literally claw my way up through the air as I circled the peak up and up. About the only good thing about it was the fact that after I was about fifty feet up, I couldn’t see the ground any more.

As luck had it, Ctuchik had fallen asleep over his worktable, and he had his head down on his folded arms when I flapped in through his window. I shed all those vulture feathers and shook him awake. The years hadn’t improved his appearance. He still looked like a walking dead man.

He half-rose with a startled exclamation, and then he got control of himself. ‘Good to see you again, old boy,’ he lied.

‘I’m glad you’re enjoying it. You’d better get word to your Nadraks. Tell them to call off this invasion. The Alorns know they’re coming.’

His eyes went flat. ‘Someday you’re going to irritate me, Belgarath.’

‘I certainly hope so. God knows you’ve irritated me enough lately.’

‘How did you find out about the Nadraks?’

‘I’ve got eyes everywhere, Ctuchik. You can’t hide what you’re doing from me. Didn’t what happened to your scheme in Arendia convince you of that?’

‘I’d sort of wondered why that fell apart.’

‘Now you know.’ I wasn’t actually trying to steal Pol’s credit, I just thought it might be a good idea to keep her part in that little coup a secret from Ctuchik for a while longer. Pol was good, but I wasn’t sure if she was ready for a confrontation with Ctuchik. Besides, I didn’t really want him to know about her just yet. You might say that I was holding her in reserve.

‘I’m awfully sorry, old chap,’ he said with a faint sneer. ‘I’m afraid I won’t be able to help you with the Nadraks. It’s not really my idea. I’m just following orders from Ashaba.’

‘Don’t try to be clever, Ctuchik. I know you can talk with Torak any time you need to. You’d better do that right now. You weren’t around when we invaded the country around Korim. Believe me, Torak gets very upset when large numbers of Angaraks get killed, and what’s right on the verge of happening on the Drasnian border is very likely to exterminate the Nadraks entirely. I’ve seen the way Alorns make war. It’s entirely up to you, of course; I’m not the one who’s going to have to answer to Torak.’ Then, just to twist the knife a bit and add to his confusion, I smirked at him. ‘You really need a copy of the Ashabine Oracles, old boy,’ I told him spitefully. ‘The Mrin Codex is giving me very good instructions. I knew all about this little game of yours a couple hundred years ago, so I’ve had lots of time to get ready for you.’ Then I smiled beatifically at him. ‘Always nice talking with you, Ctuchik,’ I told him. Then I stepped to the window and jumped.

That little exercise in gross theatricality almost got me killed. I was no more than a hundred feet above the desert floor when I finally got all my feathers in place. Changing form while you’re falling is very difficult. For some reason, it’s hard to concentrate when the ground’s coming up at you that fast.

Aside from the opportunity it gave me to add to Ctuchik’s confusion, however, my visit to Rak Cthol was largely a waste of time. I should have known that Torak would never back away from something once he’d set it in motion, no matter how many things got in his way. His ego simply would not permit it. The Nadraks came howling across the Drasnian border before I even got back from Rak Cthol, and, quite predictably, the Alorns met them head-on and soundly defeated them. A few of them did manage to escape, but it was centuries before there were enough Nadraks again even to worry about.

Torak evidently juggled things around in his mind sufficiently that it wasn’t his fault for ignoring my warning. In commemoration of the event, he ordered his Grolims to quadruple the number of sacrifices. Over the centuries, his Grolims have killed more Angaraks than the Alorns ever have.

After the survivors of that debacle limped back to Gar og Nadrak and hid out in the forest, I went to Arendia to see what Pol was up to. I finally located her in Vo Wacune, living in a splendid house not far from the ducal palace. Like all the rest of Vo Wacune, her house had been constructed of marble, and it positively gleamed. It was quite a large house, and it had wings to it that partially enclosed a well-tended flower garden with paved walks, neatly-trimmed hedges and manicured lawns. ‘What’s all this?’ I asked her when her servants finally ushered me into her presence.

She was sitting in an ornate chair by a rose quartz fireplace that glowed pink, wearing a truly stunning blue gown. ‘I’m moving up in the world, father.’

‘You found a gold mine somewhere?’

‘Something better, actually. My estate is quite large, and the land’s very fertile.’

‘Your estate?’

‘It’s just to the north of Lake Medalia - over on the other side of the River Camaar. I even have a manor house up there. You have the distinct honor to be addressing her Grace, the Duchess of Erat.’

‘Be serious, Pol.’

‘I am serious, father. The old duke was very grateful for the information I gave him about Ctuchik’s scheme, so I’ve always been welcome at the ducal palace.’

I gave her a hard look. ‘He gave you a title just for following the Master’s instructions? And you accepted it? Tacky, Pol, very tacky. We aren’t supposed to take rewards for obeying orders.’

‘It went a little further, old wolf. You know the situation here in Arendia?’

‘Last I heard, the Wacites and the Mimbrates were allied against the Asturians. That alliance seems to be lasting longer than most of the others.’

‘It’s still in effect, father. Anyway, after the old duke died, his son Alleran took the ducal throne. He and I were quite close, since I’d helped his mother raise him. We married Alleran off - I even persuaded his mother not to let him marry his cousin - and in due time, his wife presented him with a son. The Duke of Vo Astur saw a chance to muddy the waters here in Arendia when that happened, and he sent a group of his underlings to abduct the little boy. The current Duke of Vo Astur is a crude sort of fellow, and the note his hirelings left was very direct. He told Alleran that he’d kill his son unless Wacune abrogated the treaty with Mimbre and stayed strictly neutral. I went to Vo Astur and rescued the little boy. I also gave the Asturian Duke a lesson in good manners.’

‘What did you do to him?’ I asked the question a bit apprehensively. There are certain rules concerning the use of our gift. ‘You didn’t kill him, did you?’


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