Read Polgara the sorceress Online

Authors: David Eddings

Polgara the sorceress (page 49)

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‘Isn’t it th’ clever one y’ are, me Lady? Y’ve come up w’ a way t’ be in two places at once.’

‘Well, not quite. It’s a cumbersome way to do business, but we haven’t got much choice. Once we’re firmly in control of Muros, we’ll have Halbren set up headquarters in some building there and I’ll cast a spell on one of the rooms so that you and I’ll be able to communicate there as well as here. That way you won’t have to spend all your time on horseback carrying messages. Warn Halbren that when he occupies Muros there’s to be no looting and no atrocities. The people in Muros aren’t our enemies.’

‘I’ll see t’ it, me Lady. Y’ kin count on me.’

I wrote him an official-sounding authorization, and then I went out into the garden and put on feathers again. As it turned out, I got back to mother’s cottage just in time. Even as I flew in, I saw father crawling through the tall grass toward the ruin. There was barely time to resume my own form, but just at the last instant, I veered off. An idea had just come to me, an idea that might prove useful later on. I settled into a solitary tree several hundred yards from the cottage and blurred from a falcon to a snowy owl. I knew that the form upset my father in the first place, but I also knew that his seeing me in that form might explain occasional absences. He’d assume that I was out hunting or something. I gave him about a quarter of an hour to start getting nervous, and then I flew in, resumed my own form, and made some show of moping about for the rest of the day.

My invasion of Muros was a quiet one. My army, dressed in nondescript clothing, slipped into town in twos and threes, mingling with the steady stream of refugees out of Wacune. We didn’t want to announce their presence to the Asturians until the city was completely in our control. The brisk commands Malon had carried to my generals had given them a sense of purpose, and that raised the spirits of the army as a whole. Moreover, the improved morale of the army seemed to be contagious. The ordinary citizens began to realize that the world hadn’t come to an end withthe fall of Vo Wacune, and that just maybe the Asturians weren’t invincible. I concentrated on Muros because it would be Garteon’s obvious first target, but more because Ihadto have a victory in the first major battle to put some steel back into my dispirited subjects.

The next part of my plan was more difficult to get across to my soldiers. My southern army was largely of Wacite descent, and a vast rumbling of discontent – verging on open mutiny – went through my southern forces when Malon passed the word to Halbren and the other generals that any patrol encountering Asturians was to run away. Running away isn’t a part of the Arendish vocabulary, I guess.‘We’re trying to lure the Asturians into a major battle, Malon,’I explained patiently to my friend when he passed along the objections of Halbren and my other generals.‘I want Garteon’s army to believe that we’re completely demoralized and afraid of our own shadows up here in Erat. Then, when they come across the River Camaar, they won’t expect any real resistance. That’s when we’ll fall on them like hungry tigers. I want their screams to reach all the way down to the bottom of whatever rat-hole Garteon’s hiding in.’

‘Yer after hatin’ that Garteon, ain’t y’, me Lady?’

‘Hatred just begins to describe what I feel for him. I could cheerfully roast him alive over a slow fire for several weeks.’

‘I’ll start carryin’ some kindlin’ wood in me pocket, yer Grace.’

‘What a dear fellow you are, Malon.’

‘I’ll be after steppin’ on th’ toes o’ yer generals down in Muros, me Lady,’he promised.‘I’ll make ‘em pull in their horns an’ bide their time until th’ cursed Asturian come traipsin’ across th’ river. Then we’ll have ‘em fer breakfast. I’ll have t’ go down there in person t’ git their attention, so I won’t be talkin’ t’ y’ fer a week or so. Don’t be after worryin’ yer head about it, me Lady. I’ll be busy layin’ a trap fer Garteon’s army, don’t y’ know.’

‘I understand perfectly, Malon.’The fact that he so closely resembled Killane, not only in appearance but in his manner of speech and in his thinking, made our relationship grow very close in a surprisingly short time. In a sense, I was just taking up where I’d left off several centuries earlier, so there wasn’t that awkward period of what’s called ‘getting to know each other’.

There wasn’t anything particularly original about the strategy I set in place around Muros, but the Asturians of that era weren’t addicted to reading, and history books tend to be dry and dusty, so I was fairly sure they wouldn’t be familiar with my tired old ploy. Halbren and my other generals finally got my point, but the common soldiers seemed to have a lot of trouble with it.

The Asturians grew steadily bolder as a result of our deception, and by early autumn Garteon’s army was massing along the south bank of the River Camaar. Father’s continued snooping made it totally impossible for me to personally direct the counterattack I’d been planning, so General Halbren would be on his own Halbren was certainly up to the task, but that didn’t keep me from going back to my childhood habit of biting my fingernails. A thousand ‘what ifs’ kept me from sleeping very soundly.

There was one thing Icouldtake care of, however. I instructed Malon to gather as many leaders of the Wacite resistance as he could find among the trees in the ruins of a village about half-way between Vo Wacune and the River Camaar on a certain night so that I could talk with them.

I evaded my father that evening, went falcon and flew on down to the appointed meeting place. The Asturians had burned the village, so about all that was left of it were heaps of charred timbers and tumbled stone walls. It was a moonless night, and the surrounding forest pressed in on the ruins ominously. I could sense the presence of a fair number of men, but they cautiously evaded me as I walked through the ruins toward what had been the village square where Malon was in the middle of a ragged-looking group of armed men. ‘Ah, there y’ are, yer Grace,’ he greeted me.

He introduced me to a motley collection of Wacite patriots. Some were noblemen, several of whom I recognized from happier days. Others were serfs or village tradesmen, and I’m fairly sure that there was also a sprinkling of bandit chiefs in the group as well. As I understood it, each of these men commanded a band of what the Asturians called ‘outlaws’, men who entertained themselves by ambushing Asturian patrols.

‘Gentlemen,’ I addressed them, ‘I’m a bit pressed for timehere, so I’ll have to be brief. The Asturians are going to invade my duchy before long. They’ll probably strike across the River Camaar to lay siege to Muros. They won’t expect any trouble because they think my army’s made up of cowards.’

‘We’ve heard about that, yer ladyship,’ a burly serf named Beln interjected. ‘We found it very hard t’ believe, don’t y’ know. We’ve all got kinsmen up around Muros, an’ they’ve never bin noted fer timidity.’

Thiswas why I’d arranged this meeting. These Wacite leaders had to know that the seeming cowardice of my army was strategic. ‘Iordered‘em t’ be chicken-hearted, me Boy-o,’ I replied in his own dialect. ‘I was after settin’ a trap fer th’ Asturians, don’t y’ know. Y’ kin take it from me, Laddy-buck, me army’ll shed its feathers when th’ time comes.’

No, my use of his dialect wasnota way of making fun of it. I was quite deliberately breaking down certain barriers that existed between the social classes. I wanted the Wacite resistance to be a cohesive fighting force, and that necessitated the abandonment of some ancient bad habits.

Beln looked around at his friends with a broad smirk on his shaggy, bearded face. ‘Ain’t she th’ darlin’ girl, though?’ he said to them.

‘It jist fills me heart w’ joy t’ hear y’ say so, Beln,’ I said. ‘Now, then, after the battle on the plains of Muros – which Iamgoing to win, by the way – the Asturians are going to be totally demoralized, and they’ll come fleeing back across the River Camaar in total disarray. That’s whereyougentlemen come in. Don’t interfere with them when they go north across the river, but when they try to come back, feel free to settle old scores. To put it bluntly, there are going to betwobattles that day. I’ll beat the Asturians out on the plains, and you’ll beat them again down here in the forest when they try to run away from me.’

They cheered at that.

‘Oh, one other thing,’ I added. ‘After their double drubbing, the Asturians are going to be so totally demoralized that they won’t be paying much attention to any ordinary groups of people moving around down here. I’m sure youall have loved ones you’d like to get to safety, and there are others as well who’d rather not live under the Asturian yoke. Let it be known that they’ll all be welcome in Muros. I’ll see to it that they have places to live and food to eat.’

‘Will that not strain thy resources, your Grace?’ the blond young Baron Athan, whom I’d met several times in Vo Wacune, asked me.

‘I’ll manage, my Lord,’ I assured him. ‘I’ve been making preparations for the care of Wacite refugees since the fall of Vo Wacune.’ I spoke to them all again. ‘I know that most of you would rather stay here and fight, but get your women, children, and old people to safety. Don’t leave innocents here to be taken hostage by the Asturians.’

‘Thy point is well-taken, your Grace,’ Athan approved. Then he said, ‘In passing, my Lady, I must needs have a word with thee at the conclusion of our meeting here.’

‘Of course, Baron.’ Then I looked around at the other patriots. ‘I’d advise moving the refugees up to the river in small groups, gentlemen. Establish safe routes through the forest and send a dozen or so people up those trails each time. I’ll make sure there are boats waiting to ferry them across to safety.’

We discussed the details of my proposed mass emigration for about a half hour or so, and then most of the patriots faded back into the woods. Baron Athan remained behind. ‘I have a most sorrowful duty to perform, your Grace,’ he told me. ‘I must regretfully advise thee that Baron Ontrose, thy champion, died during the siege of Vo Wacune.’

My heart froze within me. In spite of everything, I’d still clung to some small vestiges of hope that my beloved had survived.

‘I was with him when he died, your Grace,’ Athan continued. ‘It had been mine intent to sponge the stain of Baron Lathan’s treason from off our family honor by giving mine own life in the defense of Vo Wacune, for indeed, the scoundrel Lathan was a distant cousin of mine. Count Ontrose, however, did command me to escape. He did order me to depart that I might carry the word of his death unto thee, fearing that doubt and uncertainty might distract thee fromthy sworn duty. I would not cause thee pain, dear Lady, but he did utter thy name with his dying breath.’

I drew a cold iron wall around my heart. ‘Thou hast performed thy mournful task most excellently, my Lord,’ I thanked him. ‘And now must we part. Strive to thine utmost to avenge our revered friend, Baron Athan, e’en as will I. Should the opportunity arise, we shall speak more of this tragedy anon.’

Then I left the village and went back into the dark trees. I wept for a time, but simple weeping seemed too light and innocuous for the overwhelming grief that tore at my heart. My despair needed a greater outlet. I went falcon and thrust myself blindly into the air. Birds of prey do not often scream at night, but I had more than enough reason to scream on that particular occasion. And so my screams of grief and despair trailed behind me across the dark forest of northern Wacune and on up among the peaks of the Sendarian mountains, where my desolate cries echoed back from the eternal rocks and seared the surface of every glacier inching down every mountain.

The Wacite resistance had extensive contacts across the border in Asturia, and such information obtained in this roundabout fashion eventually reached Malon, and one evening not long after the meeting in that ruined village he advised me that Duke Garteon and ‘an Angarak advisor’ had come out of hiding and had returned to the palace in Vo Astur. Malon’s message confirmed what I’d suspected from the very start. Ctuchikwasmeddling in Arendish politics again. My bereavement at the confirmed death of my beloved Ontrose led me into some very dark corners of my mind as I considered all sorts of things that might partially satisfy my desperate hunger for vengeance. My skill as a physician suggested any number of things that would linger for weeks – if not months. The thought of Ctuchik writhing in agony for a few seasons was very comforting.

The Asturians crossed the River Camaar to invade my domain in late autumn, and they began their march on Muros expecting little resistance. General Halbren was wise enough not to respond immediately, but waited until the Asturian army was a day’s march north of the river beforehe counterattacked. As he put it to me later, ‘I didn’t think it’d be a good idea to waste a perfectly well-baited trap until the mice were all the way inside it, your Grace. I didn’t want them yearning back toward the riverbank instead of concentrating on getting wiped out. All in all, it worked out fairly well, I’d say.’ Halbren could be a master of understatement when he set his mind to it.

My army had been chafing at the restrictions I’d imposed on them, and when Halbren relaxed those restrictions, they came howling out of Muros like a pack of hungry wolves.

The battle of Muros was a short, ugly one. The Asturian generals had been sublimely overconfident as a result of the supposed cowardice of my army, and all they expected was a leisurely stroll from the River Camaar to the city with little if any resistance. So it was that they marched blithely into the fire I’d set to greet them. To make matters even worse for them, their soldiers weren’t accustomed to fighting on open ground. Asturia’s one large forest, and Muros stands on an unforested plain.Mygenerals had been trained by Ontrose, so they not only knew how to fight in the woods, but also how to fight in the open. The Asturians didn’t realize that they’d been encircled until they were suddenly assaulted from all sides at once. It was not so much a battle as it was a slaughter. What few Asturians escaped fled back across the River Camaar – where the bands of Wacite patriots were waiting for them.

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