Read Polgara the sorceress Online

Authors: David Eddings

Polgara the sorceress (page 4)

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The mind is limitless in certain ways, and so my father was probably unaware of just how much I took from him in that single instant when his hand touched my head. I’m fairly sure that hestilldoesn’t fully understand just exactly what passed from him to me in that instant What I took from him in no way diminished him, but it increased me a hundred-fold.

Then he took up Beldaran, and my fury also increased a hundred-fold. Howdaredthis traitor touch my sister? Father and I were not getting off to a good start.

And then came the time of his madness. I was still not familiar enough with human speech to fully understand what uncle Beldin told him that drove him to that madness, but mother’s thought assured me that he’d survive it – eventually.

Looking back now, I realize that it was absolutely essential for mother and father to be separated. I didn’t understand at the time, but mother’s thought had taught me that acceptance is more important than understanding.

During the time of my father’s insanity, my uncles frequently took my sister to visit him, and that didn’t improve my opinion of him. He became in my eyes a usurper, a vile man out to steal Beldaran’s affection away from me. Jealousy isn’t a particularly attractive emotion, even though it’s very natural in children, so I won’t dwell here on exactly how I felt each time my uncles took Beldaran away from me to visit that frothing madman chained to his bed in that tower of his. I remember, though, that I protested vociferously – at the top of my lungs – whenever they took Beldaran away.

And that was when Beldin introduced me to ‘the puzzle’. I’ve always thought of it as that. In a peculiar sort of way ‘the puzzle’ almost came to take on a life of its own for me. I can’t be entirely certain how Beldin managed it, but ‘the puzzle’ was a gnarled and twisted root of some low-growing shrub – heather, perhaps – and each time I took it up to study it, it seemed to change. I could quite clearly see one end of it, but I could never find the other. I think that ‘the puzzle’ helped to shape my conceptionof the world and of life itself. We know where one end is – the beginning – but we can never quite see the other. It provided me with endless hours of entertainment, though, and that gave uncle Beldin a chance to get some rest.

I was studying ‘the puzzle’ when father came to uncle Beldin’s tower to say his goodbyes. Beldaran and I were perhaps a year and a half old – or maybe a little younger – when he came to the tower and kissed Beldaran. I felt that usual surge of jealousy, but I kept my eyes firmly fixed on ‘the puzzle’, hoping he’d go away.

And then he picked me up, tearing my attention away from what I was working on. I tried to get away from him, but he was stronger than I was. I was hardly more than a baby, after all, although I felt much older. ‘Stop that,’ he told me, and his tone seemed irritable. ‘You may not care much for the idea, Pol, but I’m your father, and you’re stuck with me.’ And then he kissed me, which he’d never done before. For a moment – only a moment – I felt his pain, and my heart softened toward him.

‘No,’ mother’s thought came to me, ‘not yet.’ At the time, I thought it was because she was still very angry with him and that I was to be the vessel of her anger. I know now I was mistaken. Wolves simply don’t waste time being angry. My father’s remorse and sorrow had not yet run their course, and the Master still had many tasks for him. Until he had expiated what he felt to be his guilt, he’d be incapable of those tasks. My misunderstanding of mother’s meaning led me to do something I probably shouldn’t have done. I struck out at him with ‘the puzzle’.

‘Spirited, isn’t she?’ he murmured to uncle Beldin. Then he put me down, gave me a little pat on the bottom, which I scarcely felt, and told me to mind my manners.

I certainly wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of thinking that his chastisement in any way had made me change my opinion of him, so I turned, still holding ‘the puzzle’ like a club, and glared at him.

‘Be well, Polgara,’ he told me in the gentlest way imaginable. ‘Now go play.’

He probably still doesn’t realize it, but I almost loved him in that single instant – almost, but not quite. The love came later, and it took years.

It was not long after that that he turned and left the Vale, and I didn’t see him again for quite a number of years.

Chapter 2

Nothing that ever happens is so unimportant that it doesn’t change things, and father’s intrusion into our lives could hardly be called unimportant. This time the change was in my sister Beldaran, and I didn’t like it. Until my father returned from his excursion to Mallorea, Beldaran was almost exclusively mine. Father’s return altered that. Now her thoughts, which had previously been devoted to me, became divided. She thought often of that beer-soaked old rogue, and I resented it bitterly.

Beldaran, even when we were hardly more than babies, was obsessed with tidiness, and my aggressive indifference to my appearance upset her greatly.

‘Can’t you at least comb your hair, Pol?’ she demanded one evening, speaking in ‘twin’, a private language that had grown quite naturally between us almost from the time we were in the cradle.

‘What for? It’s just a waste of time.’

‘You look awful.’

‘Who cares what I look like?’

‘I do. Sit down and I’ll fix it for you.’

And so I sat in a chair and let my sister fuss with my hair. She was very serious about it, her blue eyes intent and her still-chubby little fingers very busy. Her efforts were wasted, of course, since nobody’s hair stays combed for very long; but as long as it amused her, I was willing to submit to her attentions. I’ll admit that I rather enjoyed what became an almost nightly ritual. At least when she was busy with my hair she was paying attention tomeinstead of brooding about our father.

In a peculiar way my resentment may have shaped my entire life. Each time Beldaran’s eyes grew misty and distant, I knew that she was brooding about our father, and I could not bear the separation implicit in that vague stare.That’s probably why I took to wandering almost as soon as I could walk. Ihadto get away from the melancholy vacancy in my sister’s eyes.

It almost drove uncle Beldin to the brink of insanity, I’m afraid. He could not devise any latch on the gate that blocked the top of the stairs in his tower that I couldn’t outwit. Uncle Beldin’s fingers have always been large and gnarled, and his latches were bulky and rather crude. My fingers were small and very nimble, and I could undo his devices in a matter of minutes whenever the urge to wander came over me. I was – still am, I suppose – of an independent nature, andnobodyis ever going to tellmewhat to do.

Have you noticed that, father? I thought I noticed you noticing.

The first few times I made good my escape, uncle Beldin frantically searched for me and scolded me at some length when he finally found me. I’m a little ashamed to admit that after a while it even became a kind of game. I’d wait until he was deeply engrossed in something, quickly unhook his gate, and then scamper down his stairs. Then I’d find someplace to hide where I could watch his desperate search. In time I think he began to enjoy our little entertainment as well, because his scoldings grew progressively less vehement. I guess that after the first several times he came to realize that there was nothing he could do to stop my excursions into the outside world and that I wouldn’t stray too far from the foot of his tower.

My adventuring served a number of purposes. At first it was only to escape my sister’s maudlin ruminations about father. Then it became a game during which I tormented poor uncle Beldin by seeking out hiding places. Ultimately, though it’s very unattractive, it was a way to getsomeoneto pay attention to me.

As the game continued, I grew fonder and fonder of the ugly, gnarled dwarf who’d become my surrogate parent. Any form of emotionalism embarrasses uncle Beldin, but I think I’ll say this anyway. ‘I love you, you dirty, mangylittle man, and no amount of foul temper or bad language will ever change that.’

If you ever read this, uncle, I’m sure that will offend you. Well, isn’t that just too bad?

It’s easy for me to come up with all sorts of exotic excuses for the things I did during my childhood, but to put it very bluntly I was totally convinced that I was ugly. Beldaran and I were twins, and we should have been identical. The Master changed that, however. Beldaran was blonde, and my hair was dark. Our features were similar, but we were not mirror images of each other. There were some subtle variations – many of them existing only in my own imagination, I’m sure. Moreover, my excursions outside uncle Beldin’s tower had exposed my skin to the sun. Beldaran and I both had very fair skin, so I didn’t immediately develop that healthy, glowing tan so admired in some quarters. I burned instead, and then I peeled. I frequently resembled a snake or lizard in molt. Beldaran remained indoors, and her skin was like alabaster. The comparison was not very flattering.

Then there was the accursed white lock in my hair which father’s first touch had bestowed upon me. How I hated that leprous lock of hair! Once, in a fit of irritation, I even tried to cut it short with a knife. It was a very sharp knife, but it wasn’tthatsharp. The lock resisted all my sawing and hacking. Ididmanage to dull the knife, however. No, the knife wasn’t defective. It left a very nice cut on my left thumb as my efforts to excise the hideous lock grew more frantic.

So I gave up. Since I was destined to be ugly, I saw no point in paying any attention to my appearance. Bathing was a waste of time, and combing merely accentuated the contrast between the lock and the rest of my hair. I fell down frequently because I was awkward at that age, and my bony knees and elbows were usually skinned. My habit of picking at the resulting scabs left long streaks of dried blood on my lower legs and forearms, and I chewed my fingernails almost continually.

To put it rather simply, I was a mess – and I didn’t really care.

I gave vent to my resentment in a number of ways. There were those tiresome periods when I refused to answer when Beldaran talked to me, and my infantile practice of waiting until she was asleep at night and then neatly rolling over in our bed to pull all the covers off her. That one was always good for at least a half-hour fight. I discarded it, however, after uncle Beldin threatened to have Beltira and Belkira build another bed so that he could make us sleep apart. I was resentful about my sister’s preoccupation with our father, but notthatresentful.

As I grew older, my field of exploration expanded. I guess uncle Beldin had grown tired of trying to find me after I’d escaped from his tower – either that or the Master had advised him to let me wander. The growth of my independence was evidently important.

I think I was about six or so when I finally discovered the Tree which stands in the middle of the Vale. My family has a peculiar attachment to that Tree. When my father first came to the Vale, it was the Tree that held him in stasis until the weather turned bad on him. Ce’Nedra, whoisa Dryad, after all, was absolutely entranced by it, and she spent hours communing with it Garion has never spoken of his reaction to the Tree, but Garion had other things on his mind the first time he saw it. When Eriond was quite young, he and Horse made a special trip just to visit with it.

It surprised me the first time I saw it. I could not believe that anything alive could be that huge. I remember the day very well. It was early spring, and a blustery wind was bending the grass in long waves atop the knolls in the Vale and scudding dirty grey clouds across the sky. I felt very good and oddly free. I was quite some distance from uncle Beldin’s tower when I topped a long, grassy rise and saw the Tree standing in solitary immensity in the next valley. I’ll not cast any unfounded accusations here, but it just so happened that a break in the clouds permitted a single shaft of sunlight to fall like a golden column upon the Tree.

That got my immediate attention.

The Tree’s trunk was much larger than uncle Beldin’s tower, its branches reached hundreds of feet into the air, and its lateral limbs shaded whole acres. I stared at it in amazement for a long time, and then I very clearly heard – or felt – it calling to me.

I somewhat hesitantly descended the hill in response. I was wary about that strange summons. The bushes didn’t talk to me, and neither did the grass. My as yet unformed mind automatically suspected anything out of the ordinary.

When at last I entered the shade of those wide-spread branches, a strange sort of warm glowing peace came over me and erased my trepidation. Somehow I knew that the Tree meant me no harm. I walked quite resolutely toward that vast, gnarled trunk.

And then I put forth my hand and touched it.

And that was my second awakening. The first had come when father had laid his hand upon my head in benediction, but in some waysthisawakening was more profound.

The Tree told me – although ‘told’ is not precisely accurate, since the Tree does not exactly speak – that it was –is, I suppose – the oldest living thing in the entire world. Ages unnumbered have nourished it, and it stands in absolute serenity in the center of the Vale, shedding years like drops of rain from its wide-spread leaves. Since it pre-dates the rest of us, and it’s alive, we’re all in some peculiar way its children. The first lesson it taught me – the first lesson it teaches everyone who touches it – was about the nature of time. Time, the slow, measured passage of years, is not exactly what we think it is. Humans tend to break time up into manageable pieces – night and day, the turning of the seasons, the passage of years, centuries, eons – but in actuality time is all one piece, a river flowing endlessly from the beginning toward some incomprehensible goal. The Tree gently guided my infant understanding through that extremely difficult concept.

I think that had I not encountered the Tree exactly when I did, I should never have grasped the meaning of my unusual life-span. Slowly, with my hands still on the Tree’s rough bark, I came to understand that I would live for aslong as necessary. The Tree was not very specific about the nature of the tasks which lay before me, but itdidsuggest that those tasks would take me a very long time.

And then Ididhear a voice – several, actually. The meaning of what they were saying was totally clear to me, but I somehow knew that these were not human voices. It took me quite some time to identify their source, and then a rather cheeky sparrow flittered down through those huge branches, hooked his tiny claws into the rough bark of the Tree a few feet from my face, and regarded me with his glittering little eyes.

‘Welcome, Polgara,’ he chirped. ‘What took you so long to find us?’

The mind of a child is frequently willing to accept the unusual or even the bizarre, but this went a little far. I stared at that talkative little bird in absolute astonishment.

‘Why are you looking at me like that?’ he demanded.

‘You’retalking!’ I blurted.

‘Of course I am. We all talk. You just haven’t been listening. You should really pay closer attention to what’s going on around you. You aren’t going to hurt me, are you? I’ll fly away if you try, you know.’

‘N-no,’ I stammered. ‘I won’t hurt you.’

‘Good. Then we can talk. Did you happen to see any seeds on your way here?’

‘I don’t think so. I wasn’t really looking for seeds, though.’

‘You should learn to watch for them. My mate has three babies back at the nest, and I’m supposed to be out looking for seeds to feed them. What’s that on your sleeve?’

I looked at the sleeve of my smock. ‘It seems to be a seed of some kind – grass, probably.’

‘Well, don’t just stand there. Give it to me.’

I picked the seed off my sleeve and held it out to him. He hopped off the side of the Tree and perched on my finger, his head cocked and his bright little eye closely examining my offering. ‘It’s grass, all right,’ he agreed. Then he actually seemed to sigh. ‘Ihateit when all there is to eat is immature grass-seed. It’s early in the season, and those seeds are so tiny right now.’ He took the seed in hisbeak. ‘Don’t go away. I’ll be right back.’ Then he flew off.

For a few moments I actually thought I’d been dreaming. Then my sparrow came back, and there was another one with him. This is my mate,’ he introduced her to me.

‘Hello, Polgara,’ she said. ‘Where did you find that seed? My babies are very hungry.’

‘It must have caught on my sleeve up near the top of that hill,’ I ventured.

‘Why don’t we go up there and have a look,’ she suggested, brazenly settling on my shoulder. The first sparrow followed his mate’s lead and perched on my other shoulder. All bemused by this miracle, I turned and started back up the grassy hill.

‘You don’t move very fast, do you?’ The first sparrow noted critically.

‘I don’t have wings,’ I replied.

‘That must be awfully tedious.’

‘It gets me to where I’m going.’

‘As soon as we find those seeds, I’ll introduce you to some of the others,’ he offered. ‘My mate and I’ll be busy feeding the babies for a while.’

‘Can you actually talk to other kinds of birds?’ That was a startling idea.

‘Well,’ he said deprecatingly, ‘sort of. The larks always try to be poetic, and the robins talk too much, and they’re always trying to shoulder their way in whenever I find food. I really don’t care that much for robins. They’re such bullies.’

And then a meadowlark swooped in and hovered over my head. ‘Whither goest thou?’ he demanded of my sparrow.

‘Up there,’ the sparrow replied, cocking his head toward the hilltop. ‘Polgara found some seeds up there, and my mate and I have babies to feed. Why don’t you talk with her while we tend to business?’

‘All right,’ the lark agreed. ‘My mate doth still sit upon our eggs, warming them with her substance, so I have ample time to guide our sister here.’

‘There’s a seed!’ the female sparrow chirped excitedly. And she swooped down off my shoulder to seize it. Hermate soon saw another, and the two of them flew off.

‘Sparrows are, methinks, somewhat overly excitable,’ the lark noted. ‘Whither wouldst thou go, sister?’

‘I’ll leave that up to you,’ I replied. ‘I’d sort of like to get to know more birds, though.’

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