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One: Fundament

The reason she knows that the earliest, happiest memories are real is because she has nothing to make them up from. At the beginning, there was warm; at the beginning, there was her mother singing songs and speaking in the Old Tongue; at the beginning, there was food, and being always at her mother's side, in reach of her mother's arm. Around the edges tinges a voice and face that might have been what other people called Father, might have been the reason for the food and the warm and Mother's voice always singing happier songs.

There are hierarchies, even in the slave pits. For a while her mother was at the top of one. And Taiba remembers that time like a blanket across her memory. Remembers it as a difference from everything else.

Sometimes, a new slave comes from far away, pale-haired and pale-eyed. And sometimes they talk about how they used to starve and starve, and never thought that it could get worse. Taiba laughs at them when they do, with some of the others. This is the lesson of the pens: it can always get worse. It can always get worse. There are many places to crawl before you are dead, and then you are dead, and the dead are the most wretched of all.

Sometimes, very rare, a new slave comes and they come in strong and tall, sullen and resentful. They are almost always killed soon, bent over the altars, because they can't make themselves obey, disappear. But sometimes they talk about life before a mistake, a kidnapping, a debt brought them to be a slave. They talk about lands where there are no slaves, where even the most wretched in the world there have food and there are rules about what you can do to them. They talk about places where there are no altars, no Grolims, no blood in the channels or hearts on the fire.

Taiba is never sure that she believes them. It sounds like too much.

She can believe in what she remembers. In enough food, enough warm, and her mother's happy songs, maybe the idea of a father to beat the other slaves back if they threatened. Sometimes the guards who are too low in rank to be married take women, give them food and presents, protected them from the other slaves, the other guards; maybe Taiba's mother had been chosen by one of them. Taiba can't remember. It isn't really worth trying. She just remembers what it had been.

Until something had changed. Someone had died, a reprimand had come down from the guards' masters, something. Then there was less food, less warmth, Mother crying much more often, Mother dragged away from time to time to crawl back sad and bruised, and all Mother's songs turning to sorrow and death.

She still sang, while she rocked Taiba in her arms back and forth, back and forth, fingers brushing the tangles of Taiba's hair. Teaching Taiba words, refusing to hear if Taiba spoke in the language of the other slaves, of their masters: only the Old Tongue, between Taiba and Mother. Only ever. Singing, singing, now always sad songs.

Then no mother. Only a heart on a fire and a corpse thrown out.

Taiba didn't know her mother's name, can't remember it now. She had only ever been Mother, and Taiba wasn't about to ask anyone else. Didn't trust them not to lie. There had been Mother and now there wasn't: just an ache inside.

Then there was even less food.

 

These are the pens: cavern on cavern, lit by torches and low fires. The floor is dirt, pounded down. Sometimes it's mud, if someone doesn't use the cesspits or spills their water, is sick or cries too much. Taiba has never known anywhere else. Sometimes someone dies, and sometimes it takes a while for the guards to come and get the body. Many, many of the slaves have their tongues cut out, but not all. It depends. It depends on what they're for. Babies are born, and sometimes they live, but mostly they die. The priests like children and babies, to go on the altars. Some of the children who do live go wild and crazy and the other slaves kill them. Some, like Taiba, don't.

There is less food. Sometimes when she sings, though, Old Marje and Old Nazak will give her some of theirs, take from some of the others. And Old Marje and Old Nazak both have the power to curse anyone in the pens, so nobody complains. They say they like her singing. Old Nazak kisses her temple with toothless mouth and tells her to sing again.

It could be worse. It could always be worse.

 

~

 

What are you doing? his brother always asks. Eleg's voice is cracking and changing now, as he becomes a man, but it still has the same tone. Same demand. What are you doing? any time Relg is doing anything at all, as if it's an insult to the world for Eleg not to know. Eleg's always worried: worried that Relg is going to do something that will reflect badly on Father, that Relg's going to do something that shows they can't manage without Mother, and Father will have to remarry or give them to Aunt and Uncle. Relg is starting to wonder if that would be so bad, but he doesn't say that to Eleg because it's not worth being cuffed for.

So what are you doing? follows him all his days.

I'm listening to the rock he says one day, finally, as he's sitting in the corner, arms wrapped around his knees, not bothering anybody at all. He flexes his ankles and then lets them go again, so that his body moves gently to no particular rhythm. It's soothing. Or would be, if Eleg wasn't here.

Don't be stupid, is what his brother says, you can't be listening to the rock, we don't have diviners in our family and anyway, you're too young to be a diviner even if we did.

Relg doesn't bother answering, so Eleg just stares at him a little while longer, and then goes away to do something else, since Relg hasn't broken anything and isn't bothering anyone and there's no rule against sitting quietly in a corner even if your brother doesn't like it.

They do this again and again, in the days that follow. Relg isn't always sitting in the corner; sometimes he's sitting in a chair, or on a bench, or outside of their sleeping quarters, where the caverns reach up and up into the dark before curving overhead, keeping the world in. The rock sounds different there. It sounds different everywhere.

He's started to think about excuses to get away, so he can go and listen to it properly. If he tries to wander away without a good reason, Eleg or Father will call him back. And if he sneaks away or doesn't obey, they'll come and catch him by the hand, or Father might pick him up, and Relg hates that. Hates the way it feels when people touch him, the way it seems like it clings to him and he can feel their hands all over him even long moments after they've let go.

Soon he'll be old enough. He is going to be a diviner. Relg knows that, the same way that he knows who he is, and that the rock is always singing if he can just make everyone else be quiet, so that he can listen.

"Relg," his brother calls, from the other room in their own caves. "Relg!"

Relg sighs. "Yes?" he calls back.

"What are you doing?"

Relg considers answering - again, the same answer - but instead he just pushes himself to his feet, goes to see what his brother wants from him. The rock will still be there when he gets back, he supposes. It isn't as if rock changes very quickly. That's the reassuring thing about rock.

 

Two: Skill

Over time, you learn the rules, and you take power where you can.

You learn that as a woman, you are weaker than everyone else: than guards, than the other slaves, the men. The men are part of work-gangs and so they get better food, are sent out in the air, build up their strength and then come back. Women exist to be sacrificed, to be used, and to give birth to more slaves. You can't win, against guards, against men, against masters. Not directly. Not if you make it a fight.

You learn to use the weapons you have. You learn to take power where you can.

Taiba has been given to four men, as a reward, and another has found her without protection (Old Nazak is gone now, but Old Marje is still here, still has the power to curse and condemn and her grandson Falak has a heavy fist when he's unhappy, but she wasn't near enough to them, wasn't safe), before she realizes that her body and her surrender are her weapons. That men will take them from her regardless, but that if she gives them up first, she can make men do what she wants. That she can get something out of it.

Some of the time, anyway.

She learns this because the fifth time she is a reward, the man is young, almost a boy, and a little afraid of her. She knows him, but not well. His name in the pens is Dog, because he runs whenever the masters whistle, and fawns about their knees. He has done something to please them, obviously, or she would not have been there, in the small private cubicle, cut into the wall and shielded by a sheet of canvas, with its pallet and raw, harsh wine on the low table.

But he is nervous and uncertain, this one, and after a moment she realizes he does not know what he wants to do. And she is tired of being hit, and she is tired of being hurt, and she cannot run away, so this time she gets up and goes to him, puts her hand along his face and kisses his mouth, presses her body against him and feels him react. Feels stuttering, unsure hands rest against her shoulders, her waist.

Not hard. Not rough.

Taiba smiles at him, and it makes him both less nervous and more. They both drink the wine; he offers her the cup. It makes her head spin, makes things less real, and she thinks maybe that is the most wonderful thing at all. When he pushes her down on the pallet and spreads her legs, eventually, he still doesn't hurt her, and -

Well. It has been worse.

She thinks about that, when she's taken back to the pens. Her head is still light from the wine. It makes it easier to sleep. But before she falls into the darkness, she turns this thought over and over in her head: she had some power, then. By giving in. By going along, instead of just lying there and waiting for it to be over. Maybe that was how those other women did it, the ones who the guards kept, who the guards let clean themselves sometimes, who they gave the good food to, and the warmer clothes.

Maybe that was how her mother did it. Back before, when things were good.

When she wakes up, her head aching a little, her stomach a little sour, but without bruises or cuts burning with infection, inside or out of her, she lies where she is for a while and thinks this:

Maybe if she chooses one like Dog, but stronger, older - maybe if she chooses one, she won't be given to another. Or if she is, that one won't touch her, for fear of that her chosen one will beat him when it's over. She wonders if this strange thing could give her enough power over one of them, one of the strong ones, to make her a little bit safe.

This is what she thinks, the night after she has learned this one thing. It turns out that it is a good thought. It turns out, even, that sometimes it is a pleasant thing, to lie in the dark beside another warm body, having done things that feel good instead of hurting, and know that if someone tries to drag you away by arm or hair in the morning, the man who lies beside you will break their arm, their leg, their neck.

You take the power, and the safety, that you can.

~

The caves, the stone: they make sense. Nothing else does.

There is a holiness, a sanctity, to the caves and the rock. Relg can feel that just in the touch of his hand on the surface. To brush his fingers across the wall, or the floor, is to feel each perfect structure of each tiny crystal within the stone. To know its history. It's meaning. It's purpose. They expand in his mind, little points and webs of beauty. They stretch out into the distance and beyond even his imagining.

The first time it all makes sense and he can feel every tiniest facet, every space and spire, each crystal so, so small as to be beyond most human imagining, that first time that he understands it so well that he knows what to do, how to take his hand and move it into the rock, into the bones of the world itself - that first time, Relg almost cries.

He almost cries for a different reason when he pulls his hand back, turns to look at his brother and sees (for just an instant) the complex, unhappy, almost fearful look that crosses Eleg's face. Then Relg puts that feeling away. Dismisses it as childish. Such a ridiculous thing.

Their father frowns, when Relg and Eleg tell him. He says he supposes this means Relg should find one of the other diviners and learn what there is to learn. It is a great honour and privilege, a sign of favour from UL. That is what Father says.

Relg can never decide what it is about the way father says it that feels so wrong and makes him want to crawl under his bed and never come out.

 

Adjac is the diviner his father takes him to see. Adjac is an old man, with many lines beside his eyes and around his mouth. His eyes are getting cloudy, but he says it doesn't matter: he always knows where he is, because he can feel it in the rock. And if he asks the rock, the rock will tell him almost anything he needs to know. It sings to him, he explains, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. The song of rock is complicated and ancient, Adjac says, and if you listen close enough you can learn the song of the mind of UL.

For the very first time in his life, Relg does not feel strange and alone. At least, not until he comes home, after spending the day with Adjac and learning the difference between the feeling of basalt and granite, and why it feels that way, and he tries to explain what he has learned to his father and his brother.

Father listens, half-distracted, as he frowns at reports of the excavations a level up and to the west; Eleg listens with impatience and incomprehension until he says, curtly, "We aren't diviners, Relg. We don't understand what you're saying."

So Relg stops, and helps Eleg to make supper instead. He tries not to flush, even when his back is to Eleg, in case someone who walked down the centre lane were to see him.

Gela comes to eat with them. Relg wishes she wouldn't. She sits beside Eleg, across from Relg, and he tries not to look at her while she eats, while he eats, while she talks to Eleg in her low, soft, musical voice. He tries not to look at the way her hands move, how sometimes one of them thoughtlessly goes to her hair, to curl around her finger the tendril that escapes her modest bun. They way her lips curl up in a smile, or how she tilts her head, curves her neck, when she is listening intently. Sometimes she touches Eleg's hand.

When people touch Relg, it feels as if their fingers are still pressed against him a half-dozen minutes after they've gone completely away; like they leave smudges, traces, all over him. When Gela touches Eleg's hand, Relg gets that same feeling without her ever laying a finger on him. He doesn't know what to do with that. It feels invasive, sticky and slimy at once, and he doesn't like it - yet all he can think about is how it would feel for her to put her hand on his, instead of his brother's.

He doesn't know why she does this, and he almost hates her for it. Over time, the feeling becomes like smears of mud all over him, and as much as he can, he escapes back out of their own home as soon as he can, to avoid her. Goes back to Adjac. Stays, beyond his lessons, to read the Book of UL with the old diviner, and listen to him.

It's better than being home. Better than being confused and feeling smeared, all the time. He dreads the day when Eleg and Gela marry, and Gela comes to live with them until her first child, and until Eleg can put together the means to take his own home.

 

Three: Knowledge

She is a fool and she cannot stop crying.

Children die. This is a thing you know, in the pens. It is what they're for, in the end: you give birth to them, and they die. It is what everyone is for, in the end. You live, you scramble to stay alive, you fight to live, and then you die - of sickness, of starvation, by being worn away, by being cut open for the altars. Sometimes by your own hand, because nothing about being alive seems better than death anymore, even if death is full of Torak. Life is full of Torak, anyway. Of altars and priests and guards, beatings and shouts and misery. You live. You die. The more you live, the more likely you are to die, until you are a tough and worn old thing like Old Marje, and finally breathe out your last while you stare, uncomprehending, at faces you no longer recognize, your chest screaming in pain.

Children die. They are small and fragile, they need you to live at all, they are of no use to anyone - not the work-gangs, not the guards - and so they die most often. You don't bother to care, until they are old enough to have a good chance of surviving. Taiba knew that. Knows that.

But she cannot stop crying. Cannot stop feeling like the priests have already carved her heart out, but she's still walking around, chest open and gaping, ribs splayed to the world to show all the empty meat inside. They leave her alone, everyone leaves her alone, because in the end her sobbing almost scares them. Like they think she's possessed, a bad spirit, an angry ghost in her body.

There is. It's hers.

There are two little bodies who burned away in the fires, today, and that means they are not in her arms, at her side. There are two little hearts that the mad God ate, and Taiba can't stop crying. Sometimes she falls asleep, sometimes she can't tell if she is; out of the corner of her eye, she always sees them, tiny bodies, curling black hair, dirty as every other slave and just starting to crawl, naked and toothless and hers, two little bodies with the same face, two little bodies warm in her arms, two little daughters dead, dead, gone and lost.

She wishes they had never quickened. She wishes that there had not been enough food, that she lost them the way she has lost so many. She wishes they had died birthing, or in those first few weeks, months. That her breasts had been dry and they had starved, even tinier bodies thrown out with the garbage. Before she knew them. Before they were everything. Before she cared that someone would take them away.

In the corner of the pens where everyone leaves her, Taiba cries to herself for days and doesn't eat, doesn't care. Doesn't pay attention to the looks, the tone of the words, until she is caught by the hair and dragged again to one of the little alcoves, with their curtains. This ends in a beating, a bad one, and for a while she is too dazed to cry, and hurts too much to think, even about the babies lost.

When that passes, she is too full of hate to cry. She has forgotten how.

~

He bans women from his following, bids his followers keep their wives and daughters silent and still when they gather in homes and spaces set aside. They may come to listen, and (hope against hope) perhaps be lifted somewhat out of the sin they are inevitably stained with, but they are not to sully the air with their words, nor distract the mind with any motion.

The logic is simple, clear; Relg can see it as if it were written on a page. UL is holy; the world, sinful and stained. The spirit yearns to UL. The spirit is, thus, drawn to holiness. The caves, too, are known to be holy, in this place where UL answered the first Gorim (the true Gorim) and consented to take a people, for the sanctity of that Gorim's heart. The very stones of the mountain are sacred. And the heart of the diviner, the spirit of the diviner, is drawn to the caves, to open and find them, to seek them out and become one with the sanctified rock.

The body distracts the spirit. It presses upon the spirit, the soul, with sinful wishes, demands. Gluttony, lust, sloth - these are all things of the body, the flesh. Women, inevitably, are more of the flesh than men: they bring forth new bodies, new traps for souls. And never is one of their spirits pure enough to be drawn towards the caves, the holiness of the mountain. There are no women, among the diviners. Their presence tempts the body, and their entire being is rooted in fleshly things: in the bearing and feeding of infants, in the preparation of the home, in the providing and preparing of food. It is a man's duty to care for them, perhaps, but they nearly inevitably draw the men around them towards sin.

So when they are in his presence, and that of his followers, he who strives most of all Ulgo towards the purity of UL's creation, of UL's will, their influence must be made as little as it can be. Silent, and still.

Relg knows these things as well as he knows that UL's voice spoke in the silence of his heart, telling him that he would find the child. He knows it as well as he knows he has heard UL's voice, in a cavern deep, deep in the mountain, echoing from when he spoke to his first beloved chosen son, upon this mountaintop. He thinks these things, and they make his soul quiver in remembrance; he thinks these things, and they are a bulwark in his heart against the sin of the world.

When he has finished speaking, and blessed his followers and given them leave to depart, Edim comes to him, frowning as if concerned. Edim is young, but is among the truest of the believers. A slim man, and handsome, he has the strength and fortitude to deny the advances of all the daughters of Ulgo who flock to him for those reasons. Relg is proud of him.

Today he had spoken on the parable of the broken jar, and the barrenness that comes from faithlessness. The sermon still feels good, pure in his mind even now that it is over, and he turns to Edim to ask him what is wrong. In the light that comes from the bowl beside them, when Edim sits down upon the floor beside Relg with his legs crossed, Relg can see that Edim is worrying at the inside of his cheek with his teeth. A sure sign that the young man is unsettled.

"Sanctified diviner," Edim says, putting a hand over his heart. "There is - I am concerned."

"What concerns you, Edim?" Relg asks, keeping his voice down even as Edim does. Most of the others have gone, but there are still a few, and several of them are young and easily upset.

"The Gorim has spoken against our gatherings." Edim's face is somber. "Oh, not publicly - not yet - and not only ours, but the others' as well. My sister's friend is a servant in the wayward one's household, and she has faithfully told me this."

"Feh," Relg says. The thought tastes foul in his mind, but he shakes his head. "What matter is it to us what that misguided old man says, Edim? You know he has lost his right, in his error."

"Of course, sanctified diviner," Edim agrees, quickly, and then adds in a tone that is wry, "but I also know that most of Ulgo is as misled as he is, and if he commands them to act against us, they will." He is worried, in the way that young men worry, caught up in worldly things.

Relg shakes his head. "It is of no concern, Edim," he says, firmly. "UL is with us. The child-foretold will sweep away all of this error, this sin that has come to us, and I will find the child. UL is with us, Edim, and so nothing can stand before us. I know this to be true."

And at this, there is comfort in Edim's face. He bows, his hand still over his heart, and then rises.

Leaves Relg to gnaw on his knuckle, staring into the dark, frowning and wondering how to deal with the doddering old man they still call Gorim.

 

Four: Alienation

I am not pleased with thee, says the voice he will never again stop hearing, for thy heart is filled with pride.

Each time Relg remembers the words, the voice that said them, the face he looked upon for only a heartbeat before he threw himself to the ground, he is stricken anew, and cannot breathe. It makes him sick. Everything he eats, drinks, tastes of ash and refuse, and his stomach tries to heave it up again. His mind is chaos, and it is all that he can do not to only throw himself to the ground, cover his face and sit, sit as he used to when he was a boy, rocking back and forth and trying to hear the stone again. The only thing that made sense.

Except that now there is no stone, either. Only the command of UL and the open terror of the sky, and the deadened, muffled scrape of dirt and soil and growing things, the only rock far below. Only the burning of the light, the stink of horse and of other men, and the smell of the sorceress who rides with them. And yet none of these, none of these is enough. They are all horrible, they are all misery, but none of them is enough.

He prays and he fasts and he strikes at his body, and none of that is enough, either. None of it. It doesn't cover over the voice of UL in his mind. Doesn't, can't drown out the words.

I am not pleased with thee, for thy heart is filled with pride.

In the misery, it is almost funny, for he cannot think of any pride he has left. If he had pride, it would be a humiliation to speak with this boy, however exalted he may be as Aldur's Gift, or through the recognition of UL. If he had any pride, it would be the greatest humiliation to speak as he is, to pour out the words, guilt, error and taint, sin and every despicable thought, every misdeed and the humiliation would strike him silent. But he is not silent. He hears himself and hates himself as he speaks, as the words pour out, as if he could speak loud enough to cover the words in his head.

The boy is kind enough to listen, and Relg hates that, too.

He can feel his corruption all over his skin like oil, like sweat, like blood. He would tear it off, rend it, flay himself with his own fingernails, if only he thought it would make a difference. If he thought it would help. He knows it won't. Nothing helps. He does not know what he will do, when this is over. When he has found the caves the Ancient One seeks. If, maybe, he will walk himself into the stone, somewhere, and then stop and let the holy stone finish it all. Except that he does not think that will save him, either.

I am not pleased with thee, UL had said to him, standing in the caves of Ulgo, his voice like the beginning of the world.

Relg knows he will never be clean again.

~

She does not care if she lives, anymore. Not if she can have this one thing. Not if she can feel Cthuchik's heart beat out its last in her hand. Not if she can drink his blood. Not if she can have this, have his life. She will kill herself then and there, if she can. She has nothing else to live for. But this. This. This she wants. This she will live for and she will die for.

It won't bring them back. It won't undo anything. But she wants it more than she has wanted anything, even food when she was starving, even the end of pain. To find that hideous, tainted old man, thing in an old man's body, and stab him in the belly. Cut down and open him up. Watch everything fall out, spill in loops and pieces on the floor as he falls to his hands and knees and then, while he chokes and screams, carve open his chest, pull out his heart.

You take power where you can. You take luck where you can. When the guard falls asleep beside her, too much wine and too many times crawling inside her, Taiba tries the door and finds he has left it unlocked. She takes his knife from the belt he left at the side of the bed and hesitates, for a moment, standing over him with it in her hand. In the end, she goes away, leaves him alive. He hadn't hurt her. He hadn't been the one to take her daughters. He could live.

Taiba takes the knife, the strange feeling of death heavy in her hand. She slides out the door and lets it close behind her, trying to make no sound.

She guesses at which corridor to follow, guesses because it leads upwards. There are more torches here, and they hurt her eyes, but she only presses her fingers into her eyelids for a moment and then keeps going, knife still a weight in her hand.

There isn't anything, anymore. Nothing except this. She will find him. She will find Ctuchik and she will carve him to pieces and spread his blood all over her arms and drink it before she dies. She will. She will have this thing.

Sometimes, as she walks, her eyes blur with tears. It is surely because there is too much light.

Chapter Text

"Do we have to stay here?" Relg demanded harshly. His back was still turned, and there was a rigidity to it that spoke his outrage loudly.

"Why is he angry with me?" Taiba asked, her voice dropping wearily from her lips in scarcely more than a whisper.

"Cover your nakedness, woman," Relg told her. "You're an affront to decent eyes."

"Is that all?" She laughed, a rich, throaty sound. "These are all the clothes I have." She looked down at her lush figure. "Besides, there's nothing wrong with my body. It's not deformed or ugly. Why should I hide it?"

"Lewd woman!" Relg accused her.

"If it bothers you so much, don't look," she suggested.

"Relg has a certain religious problem," Silk told her dryly.

"Don't mention religion," she said with a shudder.

"You see," Relg snorted. "She's completely depraved."

"Not exactly," Belgarath told him. "In Rak Cthol the word religion means the altar and the knife."

- Magician's Gambit

 

"You don't understand," Relg told him in an anguished voice. He turned back to Polgara. "Don't make me do this, I beg you."

"You must," she replied quietly. "I'm sorry, Relg, but there's no other way."

A dozen emotions played across the fanatic's face as he shrank under Aunt Pol's unrelenting gaze. Then with a strangled cry, he turned and put his hand to the solid rockface at the side of the passageway. With a dreadful concentration, he pushed his fingers into the rock, demonstrating once more his uncanny ability to slip his very substance through seemingly unyielding stone.

Silk quickly turned his back. "I can't stand to watch that," the little man choked. And then Relg was gone, submerged in the rock.

"Why does he make so much fuss about touching people?" Barak demanded.

But Garion knew why. His enforced companionship with the ranting zealot during the ride across Algaria had given him a sharp insight into the workings of Relg's mind. The harsh-voiced denunciations of the sins of others served primarily to conceal Relg's own weakness. Garion had listened for hours at a time to hysterical and sometimes incoherent confessions about the lustful thoughts that raged through the fanatic's mind almost continually. Taiba, the lush-bodied Marag slave woman, would represent for Relg the ultimate temptation, and he would fear her more than death itself.

In silence they waited. Somewhere a slow drip of water measured the passing seconds. The earth shuddered from time to time as the last uneasy shocks of earthquake trembled beneath their feet. The minutes dragged on in the dim cavern.

And then there was a flicker of movement, and Relg emerged from the rock wall carrying the half naked Taiba. Her arms were desperately clasped about his neck, and her face was buried in his shoulder. She was whimpering in terror and trembling uncontrollably.

Relg's face was twisted into an agony. Tears of anguish streamed openly from his eyes, and his teeth were clenched as if he were in the grip of intolerable pain. His arms, however, cradled the terrfied slave woman protectively, almost gently, and even when they were free of the rock, he held her closely against him as if he intended to hold her thus forever.

- Castle of Wizardry

Chapter Text

O Most High, deliver me.
O most holy UL, haste to aid me
I am but poor and deep in shame
You are my help and my deliverer.
O my God, do not delay!

He cannot be rid of the feel of her. Can't be free of the weight and the touch and the warmth, as if somehow carrying her with him through the rock made her part of him, mixed her substance with his. Relg knows this is not true, not possible. He has been a diviner all his life. Carrying the thief-prince out of his cell-pit was nothing more than a few moments' unpleasantness, the sense of him quickly gone with a few prayers and a few hours. The taint washed away. And even the thief-prince was not the first time he had done this, not quite. There is nothing in the act of the walking that does anything like this.

But it feels as if it did. As if it must have. Because he can feel the slave-woman's arms around his neck, her face pressed against the cloth that covered his skin, the weight of her in his arms and the warmth against his chest and belly. Other men, when he has counselled them with this, with the impurity women bring out, have spoken about how a woman looked, how she smelled, but these are nothing, nothing compared to how Relg feels her fitted against his own body, flesh and flesh separated only by cloth, and he can't make the feeling go.

He watches her. He is weak: he can't not. Relg watches her and reads her like the open book she is. Every feeling, every flicker of a thought shows bright and clear upon her face - and there is no discipline in her emotions. She is one bare step away from a wild thing. She is everything that is wrong with her sex personified into one body, and made shameless and depraved.

He could have left her in that cavern, Relg knows. Could have come back and said that a rock-fall killed her. Should have, maybe, for his own sake. For others'. For the boy's, for the world's. In the end he had had to soothe her, to calm her, at the prospect of being borne out of there. And he did that. And he carried her.

Now he can't get her out of his own skin. Or out of his own mind.

 

Save me, O My God,
For the waters come and cover me o'er
I sink in the mire, and find no safety
I come to deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me
I am weary with my crying; yet I cry out still
My eyes grow dim in the absence of my God.

 

Her name is Taiba. She was, at first, afraid to get on the horse she now rides. She rides badly but the animal is old and placid. It has only thrown her twice. She had two children, by UL knows who. They are dead. She treats the child they now bring with them in a strange, thoughtless, roughly affectionate way. She cried for nearly an hour when Polgara and the thief-prince told her that the Grolim Hierarch is dead.

She is not the most beautiful woman Relg has seen, her hair too dark, her eyes too strange, the shape of her face unfamiliar, her skin dirty and marked. She is temptation the same way that all women are temptation, but there is nothing in her that makes her more than others.

He has seen the others watching her, too, and their cautious glances at Polgara - and her steady gaze back. Relg knows this, because he cannot stop watching her and she is always in his mind.

His prayers go to UL, but UL is silent. Has been silent since his condemnation of pride, except for the echoing truth that has not been withdrawn. The truth of the child. But it is only an echo and in his soul God is silent and he is wholly lost and wholly alone.

 

Most Holy UL!
You are my God, my only God,
My soul thirsts and my flesh faints
I will lift up my hands and call upon your name.

 

 

Our Father has fled.
Our Mother has left us.
He has abandoned his seat in the Temple.
We are as dirt and clay.
We are as nothing.
But we live.
We live on alone.

Ctuchik is dead. She is free. And she has never been more terrified.

Nothing could set her more adrift: he is dead, she is free. These things, they press on the inside of her skull, feel like somehow they'll tear her apart. With hate that has nowhere to go. With the gaping hole where the world is supposed to be. Like a wall someone kept her shoved against that's suddenly gone, leaving her to sprawl on her face. Like drowning. Like hands around her neck that something tore away, leaving her coughing and choking on the ground. Like food when she's starving. Like warm arms around her, holding her close.

Like his arms, her despising saviour, his arms around her like he's a shield, protection from the stone sliding around her, through her. She can feel that. It clings to her skin like filth, like the slime and stick of a man's spending. It makes her wild, and it makes her sharp, and it makes her stupid. It makes her a fool, and she does things she knows not to do, knows will bring pain and nothing more. She argues and pushes and mocks. She keeps her eyes up and, and pushes further. Trying to find the wall the world used to crush her against. Trying to find the edge.

It should - something bad should happen, from that. Some retaliation. Some punishment. Some pain.

It doesn't.

And so the world spins farther: The Hierarch is dead. She's been freed.

Taiba could laugh and cry and choke to death on both. "Freed" is the make-believe of the idiots brought to the pens from the outside, "freed" is a fantasy; the only freedom is death, and death is the altar. She could laugh and cry and choke, because "free" is a word that has no meaning, an idea that has no shape; she doesn't know what it is. It is, it is a thing. A thing that is everything she doesn't know. She doesn't know how to be free.

But she is alive, still. She is alive, and here, and she has always wanted to live. She would have died to kill Ctuchik but he is dead and she is alive, and life is always sweet. And now there's more food, at least. Less stench. Warmth. Clean water. Reasons, maybe, to keep living.

 

Taiba watches them. Watches the others in this little band she is now a part of. It's not the first time she's been one-of-many, not the first time she's had to sort each person into their place. And, more important, discover what her place is, and what it means. How to live. How to survive. She knows how to do that.

The only trouble is that this one makes no sense, is as crazy as the thought of "free", and she can't keep her balance.

They are seven men, and the lady, and the child. And Taiba. Of the men, one is old and lost in a stupor, one is young and under the lady's wing, one rescued her and then was angry at her for trying to touch him and calls her the names used by the worst of the guards and in the most contemptuous of their tones, and the other four avoid her and when they can't, they treat her with a strange, unsettling care. The lady, the sorceress, does nothing: she rules them all by looks and by her voice. That's only as it must be. Sorcerers, Taiba knows. They are outside ordinary people, far above them. Before the sorcerer, the sorceress, there is nothing to do but submit.

The child follows, unaware and smiling and strange.

The old man was the one who talked to Taiba in the Old Tongue, the language her mother taught her. She doesn't know him, doesn't know what he is or how he'd act, but she wishes he would wake up. She thinks then she'd feel less lost. She doesn't know why. But older men are kinder, sometimes, too. Less fire, less anger; more desire for comfort and more wisdom. Sometimes. And he talked to her in her Mother's words.

For now, though, his eyes are empty and the sorceress looks at him with grave eyes.

Taiba doesn't want any of the three, the one who moves like a killer, the fighter and the one like a mountain. She knows them, knows their kind, and they're anything but safe. She won't let them take her. Not if there's another choice. She avoids them and doesn't meet their eyes.

She would have moved on to the young one: he's gentler, she can see. He listens. He's young and foolish, maybe, but he offered to get her daughters back. It's not the first time a boy has tried to offer her something to win her, and she knows what that looks like, what it means about him. He turns red when he watches her too long, so he's not only young, but new, and that's . . . better. You can teach a boy like that, and being with him can be very good. With the old man lost and ill, Taiba would have turned to him.

But the only time she even begins to try, the sorceress catches her eye and shakes her head, face stern and cold. Taiba isn't, even now, even half-mad with wanting to find something that makes sense, so stupid as to ignore that. That same look, if not sharper and harder, came across the sorceress' face when she glanced at the fifth man, the one who gave Taiba food in the caves, the one called Durnik, but Taiba wouldn't have bothered with him. She sees how he looks at the sorceress: it would be useless, and if you bother a man when you're not wanted, you're asking to be hit.

And her saviour doesn't want her. Pulls away when she is near. Turns hatred at her, calls her things - but saved her. Carried her. And she can't forget that. She'd like to let it go, but she can't.

At night Taiba sits by herself, wraps her arms around her legs, and tries not to shiver. It's cold here, and the slave-pens were always warm. It's vast and open and the air moves all the time. She thinks of her daughters and feels her eyes burn; she thinks of her mother and feels her throat choke.

Thinks about herself, and feels the yawning of the sky open up inside of her, and try to swallow her whole.

 

Do you remember green grass?
Do you remember sky?
No, mother, never:
I was born to filth
And here I die.

Anger wells up in her like pus from a boil, and she doesn't know what to do.

It's like a taste in her mouth, a smoke in her lungs. There's a world open around her. She has food to eat and clothes to wear. No one's hit her in days. No one except him, the one who saved her, has even raised his voice. The lady, Polgara, says that where they're going is safe, that Taiba can be clean and eat and nothing will ever be done to her again that she doesn't want. It's like all her mother's baby-stories poured into one.

All Taiba wants to do is fall down on her knees and scream. Scream, because if this is real, if this is possible, if this was always possible, why only now? Why after? After everything? Why after a whole life? Why after they cut her daughters open? And other anger, deeper, anger she doesn't even have words for. Hate for the people who ride around her, tall and strong and well, never hungry, never beaten, never forced down on a pallet and their legs pushed apart so that someone could force himself on them, into them, never locked in the black, never anything, and she hates them so much, so very, very much. The lady, the men: the old one for his silence when she wants someone to talk to where the others can't understand, the small one for his slyness and for how he won't shut up, the mountain for how much he makes her stomach turn in fear, the fighter for the blankness in his face that tells her nothing, the smith for the doting looks at the sorceress, and the young one for how put-upon he makes himself, how much he complains.

The one who saved her for everything and all his stupid, senseless strangeness.

It scares her. It's stupid. Without them she'd be dead, and she's never wanted to die. Without them Ctuchik would probably live, because she knows she could never have killed him (knows, knew, didn't and doesn't care). Without them she would be trapped in a cave to starve to death in the dark. She's afraid of her hate and her anger, and she's afraid it'll come out, and what happens when it does, and somehow the hate is worse. She hates them all.

Except for the boy. The little one, the child.

He has yellow hair and a simple smile and keeps offering her the stone that the sorceress says she's not to touch. Taiba has seen children all her life, seen them live and die, but never like this one. Where he should cry he laughs. When she cried he touched her face as if he'd never seen tears, and the sorceress said he hadn't. Where he should be terrified in the silent way of children, he's grave at most, and mostly curious. She hates every one of them except for the child.

Him, it seems impossible to hate.

 

They take refuge in the day. The space around them is small, but Taiba knows that just beyond the canvas over her head is the emptiness of the sky. It makes her shiver. The sky is all white-grey, but it's still very bright, and it makes her head ache just behind her eyes. The ache mixes with the anger that makes no sense, turning into something hot and foul under her skin, at the back of her throat. And they sit, and everyone finds something to do, or decides to sleep, and Taiba can't do either. Because she doesn't know how to do anything, and somehow she isn't tired.

The sorceress sits and sews, and watches over the old man with a grave face. The young man sleeps, or tries to look like he is, and so does the mountain-man. The fighter fusses with his armour. Taiba is learning their names, slowly - Garion, Barak, Mandorallen (strange, alien name). The old man is Belgarath. She knows the name, she's heard it before, but she doesn't know how it's important. Her saviour, her reviler, his name is Relg, and he lurks and looks lost in unhappy thoughts; when he talks, his words are all of sin (and that means, as far as Taiba can tell, things of the body, things that people do together). The one called Durnik fusses with the horses. The small one, the killer, whose name is Silk, he annoys everyone. And the boy tries to give away his stone.

They've called him Errand, because it's the only word he knows. He carries around the sorcery-stone and gets it out of the pouch that Durnik made for him, offering it to everyone. Polgara forbids anyone to take it. Taiba doesn't know why, but she obeys anyway: of all of them, she knows full well that it's Polgara who will decide whether Taiba gets left on the side of the road for soldiers, bandits or lions to find. So the little boy offers everyone the stone and nobody takes it, and Durnik or Polgara call to him and get him to put it back away in the little pouch. Then he laughs, throws his arms around whoever coaxed him this time, and usually kisses their cheek.

When he does that, Durnik looks flustered, embarrassed. Taiba doesn't understand. This time, the man ruffles the boy's hair and says, "He's a good lad," as if he has to explain why a child does what children do. What's natural for a small thing, to turn to the stronger ones around him and make them love him.

"He's totally innocent," says the sorceress. She's leaning over the old man, and her voice is almost absent. "He has no idea of the difference between good and evil, so everything in the world seems good to him."

It's such a strange thing to think that Taiba starts, sitting up from where she's been curled, arms around her knees and skirt of the dress she was given spread over her feet. The boy Errand sees her, and comes over to sit beside her, looking up into her face with a happy smile. And for a moment, like the touch of her mother's hand, the smile sends the foul taste of the anger away.

Taiba brushes her fingers over the little boy's cheek and speaks without thinking. "I wonder what it's like to see the world that way," she says, and she wonders if that's how her daughters saw the world, too little and young to understand anything beyond Taiba's body and warmth and how she would sing to them. Wonders if she ever saw the world that way, so long ago she can't remember, everything written over by the rest of life. By the pens. "No sorrow; no fear; no pain - just to love everything you see because you believe that everything is good."

And the boy smiles at her again, and reaches up to touch her face the way she's touching his.

Relg's voice is harsh and makes her look over when he says, "Monstrous," like he's spitting the word. She looks at him and sees disgust and dismay, sees him get to his feet.

All the anger comes back, all the choking taste; Taiba knows she should just shrug, stay quiet, stroke the boy's hair and then try to sleep, but she is too full of hate for this man who saved her and then acted like she would pollute. him with her hand. She can't stay quiet; instead, she demands, "What's so monstrous about happiness?" and puts her arm around the little boy. Because if she is close enough to him, then they will have to get him away before they can punish her for this, and she'll have time to -

To do something. To grovel, to beg forgiveness. Something. Part of her mind thinks this, but it is very far away and hard to hear, behind the part that snarls like it did when she found the knife, when she wanted to bathe in the Hierarch's blood.

Her saviour's eyes flick away from hers, like he can't stand to look at her. "We aren't here to be happy," he says. His voice is like grinding stone. He is strong and unscarred. He's never lived in the pens, or starved, or had to crawl. He can speak and walk and Taiba hates him right now, and hates that he was the one to save her life.

"Why are we here then?" she demands of him, standing up herself, her hand still resting on the little boy's head.

"To serve our God, and avoid sin," he says. He says it flat, like it's truth, like it matters. And the mention of God makes her shiver, makes her body spasm and her stomach heave. She thinks of all the corpses, everyone she knew, and their gutted bodies burning, all to serve a God.

And they shouldn't be doing this. Not around the little boy - he has never seen fights, he has never seen violence in words or in bodies, he shouldn't, and that just makes her stare at the pale-haired man all the harder. She bites the inside of her mouth and just says, "Well, I don't have a god, and the child probably doesn't either." The little one looks up at her at the child, and she makes herself smile at him. "So if it's all the same to you," she says, and makes her voice sweet, "he and I will just try to be happy."

When the words come out of her mouth, they taste different. They make something unknot. They make her want to laugh and cry again, and again, because she is free in a new world and Ctuchik is dead, and there is space, space for her to try and be happy. Errand smiles at her, and reaches up towards her arm.

"And if a little sin gets involved in it," she adds, and knows she is striking out at her saviour with it, "so what?"

She doesn't look at him. She doesn't want to look at him. She just looks at the child instead, and the little boy smiles, and she believes, maybe, that what she just said is possible.

When Relg speaks, his voice is choked. "Have you no shame?" he demands of her. The flow and ebb of the anger in her is strange, and for this instant, he is more funny than anything else. The idea of shame, the idea of it mattering. The joke of it. What do you know, little man? she thinks, what do you know of how low we can become? Stupid, stupid sheltered child.

"I am what I am," is all she says. "I didn't have much say about it."

Then she could have sat. Sat and pulled the boy into her lap and taught him one of the songs, maybe, that her mother used to sing. But her saviour's voice comes harsh and cold, and he says, "Boy, come away from her at once." And the anger surges and retches itself into her again.

Taiba turns on him. She can still feel his arms around her, where he carried her, but she wants nothing more than to scratch her nails across his face and watch him howl. She did that, once. Did it and paid for it, but it felt so good to do. She's not going to do it again, but she has more words. More words, and nobody has stopped her yet.

Nobody else has said anything at all.

"What do you think you're going to do?" she challenges him.

He doesn't look at her. He looks past her. He says, "I will fight sin wherever I find it."

The words flare in her, like a temple fire. They are hard and come from somewhere deep, and she throws them. Throws them and waits for someone to stop her, for the sorceress' sharp word, for the mountain's hands, or the fighter's, to close on her arms or her neck and make her be silent. "Sin, sin, sin," she spits, mocking, the words sing-song. "Is that all you ever think about?"

But Relg still doesn't look at her. His dark eyes gaze past her, and flicker from place to place. It satisfies her, in a bitter way. "It's my constant care," he says, as if the words had to be bitten off to be spoken. "I guard against it every moment."

Nobody stops her. They are all watching her, watching him, but nobody says anything. So Taiba does not stop. The laughter she lets out now, the laughter that comes with the anger, is like poison and bile and she mocks him. "How tedious," she says. "Can't you think of anything better to do? Oh!" (And she should not be doing this, for the child's sake, but for her own the words push onwards and out of her, because nothing is making her be silent.) "I forgot. There's all that praying too, isn't there?" She locks her eyes on his, tries to force him to look at her with her will. "All that bawling at your God about how vile you are."

That hurts him. She sees it, sees the tiniest flinch, and she presses harder. "I think," she says, with all her venom and all her laughter, "that you must bore this UL of yours tremendously sometimes, do you know that?"

Now there is his rage, and now he raises his hand, his fist, and snarls at her. "Don't ever speak UL's name again?"

But it is only him. Only him. The others still do nothing. And she is not afraid of him alone. He understands nothing. "Will you hit me if I do?" she mocks. Challenges. "It doesn't matter that much. People have been hitting me all my life." She lifts her face. Dares him. "Go ahead, Relg," she says. "Why don't you hit me?"

For a moment, she thinks he might. She wonders what the others will do. If they will look away. She wonders what it will do to the boy.

Then Relg's hand falls.

For a moment she is dizzy. Then thought, a thought, the shiver of it, makes her want to show her teeth in a grin, and she can't let it go. Can't let it lie there. She remembers his words in the cave and her hands go to the throat of her dress. She hears herself say, "I can stop you, Relg," and she begins to undo the buttons.

He makes a choking sound, but she ignores it. "Watch me, Relg," she says. She keeps her eyes on his, watches every flicker, folds it all in her suddenly light head, to remember always. "You look at me all the time, anyway - I've seen you with your hot eyes on me. You call me names and say that I'm wicked, but you still watch. Look, then. Don't try to hide it." Her fingers are almost stuttering on the buttons of her dress, but she manages to get them undone. "If you're free from sin, my body shouldn't bother you."

And Relg watches her like he's tied to the spot, and still, everyone else is silent. Taiba says, "My body doesn't bother me, but it bothers you very much, doesn't it? But is the wickedness in my mind or yours?" These words hurt him, too. She doesn't know why, but she can see the pain in his face, and revels in it. "I can sink you in sin any time I want to," she says, sweet and mocking. "All I have to do is this."

When she opens the front of her dress, he stares for a moment and then covers his eyes; her saviour turns and flees, and she calls after him, "Don't you want to look, Relg?"

She's giddy and the anger is everywhere and clean, until the killer, the one called Silk, says, "You have a formidable weapon there, Taiba."

Then everything goes cold, and she closes the dress, pulls it closed around her and fastens the buttons as quickly as she can. Because he can see, too. The change leaves her feeling shaken and empty, but she says, "It was the only one I had in the slave pens. I learned to use it when I had to."

Saying it makes the anger taste foul again. She sits down and holds her arms open to the little boy so that he comes and crawls into her lap, and she tries to ignore everyone else.

 

 

So I say to you, o my people,
That even so I have found the worth of all things living
I have perceived the beauty of all that lives under sun or moon
Even as I have seen the worth in all ye gathered to me
And that which is worthy in my sight you should not destroy.
So turn your minds towards peace
Your hands towards kindness
Your souls to the obedience of my word!
This way ye shall find blessedness.

The command of UL had left no time, no space in his head for thought beyond the necessity of obedience. Relg wishes now that he had been slower, taken time for thought. Never before would he have doubted himself, his own mind, his memory of the Book of UL so painstakingly committed to his mind and soul through all his childhood: but now he doubts. Now he fears.

Now he wishes he had the words, familiar friends, familiar shapes. Now he is surrounded by the gabble of outsiders and his own pollution like screaming wind in his head. His fingers ache for the shape of the book, his own, small and comforting in his hands, the characters unfolding into words in his mind in their rhythm and cadence. The words of UL, of Ulgo and of Gorims past. Something to tell him that he is not alone, that even out here in this blasted wilderness with the sky stretching high and strange above him like a yawning maw, back in the mountains there are the caves and the voices of a people who gained the love of the First and Most High, and the home they have over millennia made. That even if he is polluted and wicked he is not alone.

Relg wishes he were not reliant on faulty memory. On his own faulty, faltering mind.

But even so, he has always known this verse. So turn your minds towards peace, says the Book, the written words of UL. For this reason, he had never strayed the final and damning step, and now his gratitude is pathetic and deep. He had fought with words, yes. Over and over with words. He had denounced and declaimed, stirred sedition and confusion, sought in every way with voice and heart to undermine the rule of the Gorim he had so foolishly thought deceiving and deceived - but he had never raised a hand, never called to violence, never done this last thing that would have made him unredeemable.

He remembers another verse, too, later in the book - Man was not made to kill man, brother and sister to turn one against the other; the Universe weeps when her children lay each other on her soil in slaughter. And later still, He who is the first to raise his hand in violence is accursed, and his soul is maimed in my sight.

Still. There are provisions, for there must be: the very soul of Destiny is maimed, and this the Book says also, full of sorrow.

This is why, when the attack comes, Relg feels no hesitation at all.

They are Murgos, and Relg carries a hatred for them now in his heart, a hatred he knows pollutes him further but which he cannot contain. A hatred for their twisted God, the maimed soul of Destiny embodied, more than for they themselves - but they have modelled themselves after his perverted soul, and they have done his horrors in his name. Horrors that will never, ever wash away, that burn themselves in Relg's mind.

The Alorns and the Arend (Barak, Silk, Mandorallen, his mind whispers their names, and he has carried one of them through the rock) leap into the battle with their foolish, childish delight. The Lady Polgara remains in her shielding sphere with the child, and the slave-woman draws back as close to that shield as she can, eyes wide and face white; the smith Durnik, in whom of all here Relg might find something admirable, places himself between them and the fight. Belgarion, too, he moves forward and finds his sword - but UL spoke to him and he is Aldur's Gift (whatever that may mean), and so worth too much to be risked.

Relg moves, and easily.

The feel of cloth under his hand, the jerk and scrape of steel into flesh and against bone is appalling; the stiffening of the Murgo's body is a horrible thing. Belgarion says something but Relg does not hear it, over his own breath and heart and the groan of the dying man. The body slides out of the saddle, and Relg lays it on the ground.

Man was not made to kill man, brother and sister to turn one against the other, says his memory, the echoing voices of a whole congregation speaking together, shaping the words. The Universe weeps when her children lay each other on her soil in slaughter.

There are provisions, for there must be. But they come at a price, lest Ulgo become like Alorn, like Arend, like Tolnedran and Angarak, and take the provisions as license to forget prohibition. To become a nation savage and dealing lightly with murder.

The woman chooses now, of course. It is her gift. A punishment, perhaps, for Relg's wayward disobedience, for his pride. She comes to stand beside him where he kneels, where he asks his forgiveness and faces his deed, and says, "Are you all right?"

Her words are jarring, are in the babbling speech of the outside world and they throw him off, make him forget his place. "Leave me alone," he tells her, turning away. Drawing his mind back to what must be done.

"Don't be stupid," she says, and does not go away, does not leave him be. "Are you hurt? Let me see - " she stretches out her hand and the thought of her touch is like being struck with ice.

"Don't touch me!" He pulls back from her; it makes her look into her face, to see ignorance and bewilderment; he looks away. "Belgarion," he says, clawing for something that might make her stop, "make her get away from me."

The young sorcerer seems startled. "What's the trouble now?"

Explaining is like something strangling him, but Relg draws a breath and manages, as calm as he may, "I killed this man. There are certain things I have to do - certain prayers - purification. She is interfering." And he tries to turn away from her, tries to ignore her.

"Please, Taiba," Belgarion says. "Just leave him alone."

Even this, the woman will not do. "I just wanted to see if he was all right," she complains, as if she wishes to - Relg cannot even think what. "I wasn't hurting him."

Relg simply breathes and waits, until in her depravity she tries to reach out to him again. Only then does she go.

It takes him some long moments to find his place and begin the ritual again.

 

*****

The twisting streambed made a sharp bend to the right, and they rode into the light of the newly risen sun. Taiba gasped.

"What's wrong?" Garion asked her quickly.

"The light," she cried, covering her face with her hands. "It's like fire in my eyes."

Relg, who rode directly in front of them, was also shielding his eyes. He looked back over his shoulder at the Marag woman. "Here," he said. He took one of the veils he usually bound across his eyes when they were in direct sunlight and handed it back to her. "Cover your face with this until we're back into the shadows again." His voice was peculiarly neutral.

"Thank you," Taiba said, binding the cloth across her eyes. "I didn't know that the sun could be so bright."

"You'll get used to it," Relg told her. "It just takes some time. Try to protect your eyes for the first few days." He seemed about to turn and ride on, then he looked at her curiously. "Haven't you ever seen the sun before?" he asked her.

"No," she replied. "Other slaves told me about it, though. The Murgos don't use women on their work gangs, so I was never taken out of the pens. It was always dark down there."

"It must have been terrible." Garion shuddered.

She shrugged. "The dark wasn't so bad. It was the light we were afraid of. Light meant that the Murgos were coming with torches to take someone to the Temple to be sacrificed."

The trail they followed turned again, and they rode out of the bright glare of sunlight. "Thank you," Taiba said to Relg, removing the veil from her eyes and holding it out to him.

"Keep it," he told her. "You'll probably need it again." His voice seemed oddly subdued, and his eyes had a strange gentleness in them. As he looked at her, the haunted expression crept back over his face.

....

"You've lived your whole life in the dark, then?" Relg asked her curiously.

"Most of it," she replied. "I saw my mother's face once - the day the Murgos came and took her to the Temple. I was alone after that. Being alone is the worst of it. You can bear the dark if you aren't alone."

"How old were you when they took your mother away?"

"I don't really know. I must have been almost a woman, though, because not long after that the Murgos gave me to a slave who had pleased them. There were a lot of slaves in the pens who did anything the Murgos wanted, and they were rewarded with extra food - or with women. I cried at first; but in time I learned to accept it. At least I wasn't alone any more."

Relg's face hardened, and Taiba saw the expression. "What should I have done?" she asked him. "When you're a slave, your body doesn't belong to you. They can sell you or give you to anybody they want to, and there's nothing you can do about it."

"There must have been something."

"Such as what? I didn't have any kind of weapon to fight with - or to kill myself with - and you can't strangle yourself." She looked at Garion. "Did you know that? Some of the slaves tried it, but all you do is fall into unconsciousness, and then you start to breathe again. Isn't that curious?"

"Did you try to fight?" It seemed terribly important to Relg for some reason.

"What would have been the point? The slave they gave me to was stronger than I. He'd have just hit me until I did what he wanted."

"You should have fought," Relg declared adamantly. "A little pain is better than sin, and giving up like that is sin."

"Is it? If somebody forces you to do something and there's no possible way to avoid it, is it really sin?"

Relg started to answer, but her eyes, looking directly into his face, seemed to stop up his tongue. He faltered, unable to face that gaze. Abruptly he turned his mount and rode back toward the pack animals.

"Why does he fight with himself so much?" Taiba asked.

"He's completely devoted to his God," Garion explained. "He's afraid of anything that might take away some of what he feels he owes to UL."

"Is this UL of his really that jealous?"

"No, I don't think so, but Relg does."

Taiba pursed her lips into a sensual pout and looked back over her shoulder at the retreating zealot. "You know," she said, "I think he's actually afraid of me." She laughed then, that same low, wicked little laugh, and lifted her arms to run her fingers through the glory of her midnight hair. "No one's ever been afraid of me before - not ever. I think I rather like it. Will you excuse me?" She turned her horse without waiting for a reply and quite deliberately rode back after the fleeing Relg.

- Castle of Wizardry

Chapter Text

Father I call your name
I am far from the temples
I am far from the stones
The night is cold and empty
Father, where did you go?

Taiba wakes often at night, mostly because of the cold. It doesn't make much difference. Her horse just follows the others, most of the time, and every time they walk the horses she lets herself doze and drift. Her body aches all the time from riding, but it's not so bad: at least there's still enough food, and all of it better than she's had before. And clean water.

The ground is hard, but she's never known anything else to sleep on. The only thing new is the rocks, and they don't bother her so much. But the cold - the cold gets into her bones and wakes her like a knife against her skin. It makes her wish she had someone warm to lie beside, someone she dared.

Tonight, as usual, the cold drives her out of her blanket and back to the low fire. Even if it's just glowing coals, it warms her hands and the movement helps. But tonight, unlike the other nights, someone else is already there: the old man, the sorcerer, sits on a rock and stares moodily into the low, smokeless flames, prodding at the coals every now and then with a stick.

Taiba almost turns back, to make her way as quietly as she can to the space beside the sorceress where she sleeps. Without looking up the old man says, "You could always ask Pol for another blanket if you're that cold, you know. She might have to steal one from Barak or Mandorallen, but both of them give off heat like a rotting bog." He pauses, and adds, "For that matter, giving up a blanket for a woman is the sort of thing that's Mandorallen's chivalric duty."

He speaks in the Old Tongue, except for the word 'chivalric', which Taiba doesn't know anyway. The accent is different than her mother's was, but she understands every word. Each name sounds strange said that way, the stresses different and the shape of the vowels softer.

Taiba opens her mouth and then closes it. Shivers a little. She spent days wishing he was awake so she could speak to him, but now that he is, she finds herself almost as wary of him as any of the others. His hair is short and silver; so is his beard. He wears patched and worn clothes, but gives commands that everyone obeys. Even the sorceress. Eventually. And he speaks her mother's tongue.

And, she remembers, he said he'd been looking for her.

He looks up. He plants the point of the stick in the dirt and beckons to her with a crooked finger. "Come here, daughter," he says. "You've nothing to fear from me." It's formal, a little. Her mother taught her that. You called all women younger than you daughter, all boys son.

"All of Cthol Murgos fears you," Taiba points out, because she knows who he is now. By rights, she should match his "daughter" with her own "grandfather" - he is old enough - but she shies away from it. A step too far.

She chafes her arms with her hands. Belgarath snorts. "Yes, but they're Murgos," he replies. "Angaraks. You're a Marag. The last Marag, maybe. That's quite a different story."

He leans his arms on his knees and contemplates her for a moment before he speaks again, the firelight flickering in his eyes. "Let's put it this way," he says. "I think this is a way that will make sense to you." He takes a breath, considers his words, and says, "I have a Master, and my Master is a God. He pretty well knows where I am and what I'm doing all the time. Well." He looks thoughtful. "Most of the time. He's got very definite ideas of what constitutes appropriate behaviour." His mouth twitches. "Much to my daughter's dismay, they don't always match hers, but our Master tends to focus on the important bits instead of the fripperies. Anyway." His gaze is steady, and his face isn't unkind. "I'd have to be an idiot to make my own God unhappy with me, right? And if I did anything to you, or let anyone else do anything to you, Aldur would be very, very unhappy with me indeed."

Taiba twists a finger in her hair and feels her eyes narrow. "Why?" she asks, finally. It's a stupid question. Eventually, she would have done what he said even if he hadn't told her all of that. She thinks he knows. She thinks maybe he is talking just because if he says something truly ridiculous, it will make her calm down.

The sorcerer shrugs. "He's a God. Do Gods need reasons?"

Taiba's mouth twitches. She doesn't quite smile, but she does cross over to sit down on the ground beside and below him. "That isn't the real reason," she says. She's very sure of that.

"No," the old man allows. "But it's one you'll believe and maybe understand a little. We can talk about the other reasons some other time, when we've all had a chance to relax a bit." He frowns thoughtfully, and then moves his hand as if he was shaking something out - and then suddenly he is, and it's a cloak, dark green and warm and to Taiba's shock he drapes it around her shoulders. "Don't tell my daughter I did that," he warned. "She'll fuss and fuss for all the wrong reasons."

Taiba stares, touches the cloth. "But where did it come from?" she asks, her voice small, and the old man shrugs.

"I made it," he says. "It's not terribly difficult, when you've been poking around the world as long as I have, and it seems like something that should belong to you. You'll be able to see it better in the daylight, but you're the first person in the world to wear one of those in a very long time."

It's soft and thick. It smells of something Taiba doesn't know - but it's a good smell, a warm smell. There's a hood. She smoothes the cloth over her folded legs and feels it under her fingers, and then holds it up to her cheek. Her eyes prickle and the firelight wavers until she blinks once, twice.

The old man - the sorcerer, and it strikes her what that means - his face is thoughtful and closed, and his eyes are blue. After a breath, he reaches over and pats her cheek, almost the way her mother used to, and says, "You're doing well, you know. I'll admit, I was a little worried, and I know none of it makes any sense, but I think you'll be all right, in the end. Just don't let Pol bully you too much."

He just made a cloak out of nothing. Shook it into being with his hands. The young one, Garion, walked into his shadow and killed men, sorcerers, hundreds of miles away. Taiba is alone, and far from everything she has ever known, and she doesn't understand anything. And she's cold, all the time - but the sorcerer, the sorcerer who terrified everyone who ever had power over her, scared them so badly they whispered his name, just made her a soft, warm cloak. Out of the air. For her.

She feels like a child when she says, "I am afraid," in her mother's tongue. She's only ever said those words to her mother. They only mattered to her mother. Anyone else, any other time, they would just be a weakness someone could use to hurt her. It didn't matter if she was afraid; nobody was going to protect her but her, in the end. She stayed with men, sometimes, but they couldn't do anything if the guards took her, and they died anyway. Everyone died. There was only her, alone. It doesn't matter if she's afraid.

Still she says, "I am afraid," and Belgarath the Sorcerer puts a hand on her shoulder and squeezes gently, the way Old Nazak might have when she was very young, before they took him away to feed the fires.

"Change is a frightening thing," says the old man. He frowns a little, but Taiba's sure it's in thought, not because of unhappiness. "I said I'd been searching for you for a very long time, back in the caves. Do you remember?"

She nods. She heard everything they said, then. She doesn't think most of them know that. But she listened until they were gone. Just in case.

"You are part of something," he tells her, "something very important." He gives her a crooked grin. "The good news is, you don't have to do anything except survive. Exist, as it were. Don't get killed, and you'll have accomplished everything you need to. I think you're pretty good at that, aren't you?"

Taiba wipes her eyes with the back of her hand and pulls her gift a little closer around her. "What's the bad news?" she asks, and sees his smile turn wry.

"If everyone else doesn't do exactly what they need to do, Torak wins," he replies, "and the pens you were born into will be spread all over the world. I don't intend to let that happen," he adds, in an offhand way. "And I do actually have something to say in the matter. Quite a bit, actually. So don't bother to think about the bad news, just go ahead and assume that everyone will do what they need to do. And in that case, I daresay your life will go on quite well. You'd be surprised how well, actually, but I won't burden you with predictions. I can say, though, that anyone who so much as raises a hand to you will be unbelievably sorry."

He's smiling to himself, as if at a private joke. He's like something out of a different world, out of her mother's stories, and she's wearing something that he created out of nothing, out of air. Taiba thinks that maybe, maybe she believes him.

"Why would the lady be angry at you for making this?" she asks, daring, lifting up one hand under the cloak to give the word this meaning. He blows out air between his lips, irritably.

"Pol likes to mollycoddle people," he replies. "It makes her feel important, needed. I'm one of her favourite mollys to coddle, if you like." The words "mollycoddle" and its parts are all in ordinary speech.

"Because you were unwell," Taiba guesses, staying in the Old Tongue, the words coming more easily now. "When we left Rak Cthol."

Belgarath gives her a narrow-eyed look. "A temporary ailment," he says, in a slightly growling voice.

"You were unwell," Taiba points out, testing, with a kind of daring placidness in her voice. "You should be sleeping - sleeping is good for sickness."

She's not sure why that gets her a quick glance and a laugh. But she doesn't mind not being sure. "Ah, we should both sleep," the old man says. "I think you'll be warm enough now."

Taiba gets up, but a thought makes her pause and she looks down at him where he still sits. "My mother wasn't lying, was she," she says. It isn't a question. "We did have a land, once. A place that was ours. We weren't always slaves."

"You still have a land," the sorcerer replies. "It's filled with a lot of ghosts right now, but they'd be happy to see you."

"I'm not afraid of the dead," she tells him. "They can't do anything to you. Not like the living."

"I knew you were a clear thinker," he says, and then in a more serious voice, "Go to sleep, daughter. We travel hard again tomorrow."

When Taiba lies back down, Belgarath the Sorcerer is still sitting at the fire. Wrapped in what he gave her, with her blanket overtop, she is warm enough; now, it's easy to fall asleep.

 

What gifts you have you shall use to give guidance,
protection and succour to those who have not.
So shall the strong await the weak,
the wise protect the dull,
the swift save the slow,
and the wealthy comfort the poor.
So do I, UL, command you.

The closer the Murgos come, the more silent the woman falls, and the more tightly she wraps her cloak about her. It is of strange make, and Relg does not know where she found it. It is a dark green, wool; it has a hood, and is shaped so that even when her hands are free to hold the reins of her horse, it wraps around her, covering her arms and tying closed in the front. Relg cannot think where she got it, or how she made it, but he does not ask. He does not want to draw her attention to him again. Not right now.

Still. He sees the way she goes wholly quiet, until she is not even speaking to Belgarath in the strange, soft-mouthed speech of her people. He sees the way she grows paler and paler as pursuit nears, until by the time they are at the ravine her face is like ashes against the dark of her hood, and her hands are white-knuckled on the reins. Her horse shies as she tries to guide him to follow Mandorallen; Relg is not good with horses either, but even he knows it is because her movements are sharp, jerking and startling the already-nervous animal.

She nearly falls; without thinking, because he is nearest, Relg brings his horse closer and manages to catch her, to put a hand on her shoulder and push her back far enough to find her seat again. And it is just as bad as he thought it might be, the shuddering sense of her; Relg badly wants to scrape his palm against the leather of his saddle. But there is no point. It won't get rid of the feeling, anyway.

Taiba nods at him, says, "Thank you," in a shaky voice. Relg manages to nod back.

"Small movements," he tells her. "Be gentle. The horse is more afraid than you are."

He is turning away, so he almost doesn't catch the expression that comes on her always-open face. It is bitter, and it is disbelieving. Relg says nothing, and just waits until she is passed.

At the bottom, Relg stays quiet, as Durnik, Belgarath and Kheldar discuss descents, fires, smoke and so on. He has nothing much to offer: there is enough rock to the escarpment that he himself could pass away from here in safety, but he could not bring everyone else, Kheldar would refuse to go, and UL told him to remain with these people to the death. So he watches and listens and settles his hand on the hilt of his knife, his mind on familiar passages from the Book of UL.

The sound of his name startles him. He turns his head; the woman is there, her cloak pushed back, her smudged face drawn. "What?" he asks. It comes out more harshly than it needed to. She doesn't seem to notice.

"I . . . .wanted to ask," she begins, takes a breath and raises her chin, almost in defiance, "if you had another knife."

Startled from prayer, Relg's mind is not as swift as it could be. He has given her the honest answer of "No," before he has thought of why she might ask, and she has turned away before he understands what she wants.

But it is the truth: he has only his own, and it is made after the fashion of his people. One of his teachers said to him, once, that it was so because, if Ulgo was forced to go to war, Ulgo would make the aggressor regret it. He cannot rightly give it away, not if they are to turn across plains so wholly void of his native skill.

It bothers him, though. And there is a man here who has more knives than any human being should need. So Relg slides off his horse and goes to Kheldar - Silk, he reminds himself, the man calls himself Silk - where he stands by the growing fire, and says to him, "I need one of your knives."

He is not sure if the thief-prince is preoccupied, or has simply already made the leap of thought to understanding that Relg's weapon is ill-suited for anything but death; whatever the reason, the little man simply reaches within his clothing, under the folds of his cloak, and produces a plain straight dagger in a sheath. It has the air of something he just keeps about him, in case, not even immediately ready for use. Relg nods his thanks, takes it, and goes to find the woman.

She is holding the boy Errand when he finds her, something she does when she is unsettled. Silently, he hands her the knife, and she looks startled. Before she can get farther than opening her mouth, he says, shortly, "It is the Drasnian's. Return it to him, if we survive."

Taiba closes her mouth. She takes the knife, and the little boy looks at it with interest. The same as he looks at all things. Taiba's face is open, as easy to read as any book, and he wonders if that will ever not be so. Her eyes are narrowed in some kind of suspicion, and there is confusion behind them.

In the end, she nods, and says, "Thank you," in a tentative way.

Relg cannot think of anything to say to that. Instead, he makes a noise of acknowledgement, and returns to his horse in time for them to ride.

 

 

How cold the wind is
How black the sky
The stars turn their faces
The dead pass us by

Taiba gives Silk back his dagger while he rides and she walks beside the slow, slow waggon that carefully carries Belgarath to a place the Algars call the Stronghold. He looks a little surprised, as if he had forgotten he gave it away, but thanks her, smiles at her, and then is caught up in an argument with one of the men on horses, something about travel, time, and battle that Taiba doesn't understand and doesn't want to.

Taiba didn't see that man come up to them. More than a little, she regrets that the dagger isn't hers, and that she didn't just keep it.

She kept it with her from the time Relg gave it to her till now, and on the hills watching the Murgo army cross the river Relg had led them over in the night, she had unsheathed it and, under the cover of her cloak (her gift) held it ready. Not to use against them. She wasn't so stupid. Watching the army below them spread out like insects across the plain and over the river was the most terrifying thing Taiba has ever seen. There were so many of them, armed, armoured, mounted and marching; they were the memories of all the guards and slaves she had ever known might kill or hurt her magnified into obscenity, and she knows she shook, sitting there and waiting.

No. Taiba kept the knife ready because she knew that if they crossed, if they passed . . . .what that many men, and in these circumstances, would do -

No. Not now. Maybe once she would have chosen to try and live, to survive it, but once she didn't know better. She will not go back. She will not go back.

When the Algars came, when the horses swept over the hills and the thunder of their war-cry shook the air, Taiba sagged in her saddle and sheathed the dagger with shaking hands. Pressed her hands to her face and bowed her head. It was not crying, weeping. But it was like it, a little. Something had been shaken loose, and she didn't know what, but even the danger passing didn't set it steady again. It rattled in her, and rattles still, like something broken inside.

But it was nothing, is nothing, to the unsettling of the world when she saw Belgarath fall, just like an old man dying. Just like any old man dying. The sky broke and the earth shook, but nobody else felt it, when the old man fell, and Taiba thought he was dead.

He is not dead. His daughter saved him, his daughter and the young man Garion who calls him Grandfather, the way Taiba doesn't. But he fell, he still fell, his eyes rolling back in his head; now he sleeps and the sorceress lets no one near him.

Now Taiba can't help but see how many strangers there are here, how many men she does not know, women she doesn't understand. Now she is uncomfortable and tense, and regrets that she doesn't have anything on her that she could use to kill someone else. Not that she wants to. But -

She walks because when she rides on the waggon she gets sick and throws up. So she walks until her stomach settles and then rides until she almost throws up again and then walks again. She stays as close to the waggon as she can. Nobody pays her any mind, except the strangers, and they don't talk to her. Just watch her.

Taiba wants to scratch their faces off. Take their eyes out. Make them stop.

Relg finds her while she walks. He's on foot, too, but he doesn't like horses if he can avoid them. He walks beside her in silence for a while, until she breaks it by asking, "How is Belgarath?" because the silence itched and she wants to know.

Relg shrugs. "The same, I think," he says. His voice is like gravel. It's always like gravel. It's like a voice that wasn't intended to be used for anything except chastising people. "Polgara has not said anything. She sent Belgarion out of the waggon."

Taiba shivers, even though it is nowhere near as cold down here on the plans as it was on the harsh lands above. "I wish she'd tell us something. I wish anyone would. I wish this didn't take so long."

"We are going as quickly as we can," Relg tells her solemnly. "The Lady Polgara says that it is more important to avoid rough ground, and she is a great and celebrated physician."

The things that are rattled and unsettled shift and stir inside Taiba, and she demands, "Then why is he still unconscious, if she's so good?" Then her mind falls back and brings up something Belgarath said at the fire, and things he said to her since then while they rode, before the Murgos pressed too close. "She and her father serve the same God. Why doesn't she call on him? Why doesn't he do something?" The words are angry and sharp in her mouth. Her face feels hot.

Relg's eyes narrow and his face turns forbidding. "It is not our place to question what the Gods do and do not do," he tells her flatly, and she wants to scratch his face off, right here and right now. "It is not the way of the Gods to interfere with human affairs."

Taiba wants to hit him, wants to make him hurt, wants to make him lash out and hit her, like he almost did before, wants to - Instead she spits at his feet and hisses, "Then what good are they?"

She turns and refuses to look at him anymore, runs three steps to catch up with the waggon and climbs on, going to sit beside Barak and Durnik. She'll stay on, this time. Even if it makes her sick.

 

Do not look to auguries or soothsayers
You are UL-go: what need have you of magic?
My voice will speak in your heart and in the heart of others
For I am UL and all things are visible to me.

The Arendish knight finds Relg in the evening.

The man is strange. He's patently stupid, and he is as violent as any of these people in the outside world, as careless with others' lives and his own. Yet he is quiet, too, and presents willing self-sacrifice, and unfailing courtesy: a strange mixture. Relg doesn't particularly want to have anything to do with him now, any more than he wants to have anything to do with anyone. He is frustrated with the woman, and frustrated with himself for caring, for not having given her up as irredeemable and speaking to her as pointless. This is not a mood in which he wants to deal with the Arend.

This does not stop Mandorallen. Most likely, it wouldn't stop him even if he knew.

He wears chain instead of plate, now, and looks less like a walking monument when, in the setting sun, he dismounts and walks along-side Relg for a space. "Prithee," he says, in his strange way, "my companion, might I have a word with thee?" When Relg doesn't answer, he goes on, "It is on a subject most sensitive - but, I deem, something urgent."

"Speak," Relg says, curtly. He is unsettled, too, by Belgarath's collapse. He is unsettled by these plains, with their wide-open skies. He wants to go home. He does not want to wend his way through torturous speech in a tongue that isn't even his.

He hates this place.

The knight seems torn about how to begin, and eventually says, "Thou art . . .unfamiliar with women, art thou not? That is, thou hast not spent much time in their company?" He goes on without waiting for an answer, the question merely some kind of courtesy. "It is because this is so that I wish to share with thee some of the knowledge I have gained - for it is the duty of every knight to look to the care of those weaker and frailer than ourselves, and the protection and happiness of all ladies, whatsoever their quality, is encompassed by this duty."

Relg grunts. He is even more certain he doesn't want to hear this. But nobody ever goes away and leaves him be when he tells them to anyway, so he doesn't bother.

Mandorallen turns to him, face serious. He holds out a hand, but, to Relg's surprise, doesn't try to touch him - only to, with the gesture and the arm that bars Relg's way, make him stop. "What I wish to say to thee, Relg," the knight says, "is this: the Lady Taiba, who has so lately joined us, is wholly afrighted of thee - thee, and all the rest of us. I shall not tell thee how I know the signs; though I right what wrongs I may, the world is o'er full of them, and no man can do all." His voice says very clearly that if any man could do all, it would be him, and so the fact that he can't do all just proves it can't be done. "She will endeavour to hide this, I believe," the Arend goes on, "and like any creature full of fear, she will lash out, and be most unfriendly to all who cross her path, if they give her cause.

"Yet," and here Mandorallen's face is grave, and Relg finds it hard to meet his gaze, "it behooves the strong to have patience with the weak, I believe. I understand that thy patience may be sore tested, but I pray thee, have a care. She is far from anything she knows, and has no reason to believe we will not do her harm, or allow harm to come to her at the hands of these many armèd men who now surround her and on whose good will her health and life must seem to her to depend."

Relg's voice feels ill-prepared to answer this; sharp words that he would have said stick in his throat, trapped there by it behooves the strong to have patience with the weak. By words that echo so close to the Book that he is dumbstruck, and now deeply troubled.

What gifts you have you shall use to give guidance, protection and succour to those who have them not. So shall the strong await the weak, the wise protect the dull, the swift save the slow, and the wealthy comfort the poor. So do I, UL, command. Relg had begun to memorize the Book of UL as a child. Only lately did he doubt his memory, and yet now he knows he remembers in full, remembers clearly and precisely the words. And if he wishes to protest, it is because the words ignite a shame in him - less, less than that he has been carrying now for weeks. But still. And there.

In the end, he makes himself say, "I thank you for your words," the best gratitude and courtesy he can manage when he wishes to curse the entire world outside of the caves to destruction, and maybe himself with it.

The Arend shrugs. "Thou art most welcome. We are all of us companions; it is only fitting that we should help each other."

Relg sighs, and passes a hand over his face, as the light of the sun finishes dying and the world returns to its kinder shadows, the ones he knows and only he can see. UL works in the ways he so wishes. It is not such a great thing, to speak through a vessel as simple as the knight.

 

The Motherless are wretched
No fire warms them
No arms protect them
Always seek the hearth
Always keep the home

When word comes down that Belgarath is awake, Taiba dares to make her way up to the room they took him to, the moment they came to this strange, unsettling place.

She doesn't like it here. The Stronghold is too much like a mountain, and the stones press too close. It's too full of people she doesn't understand and can't trust; too full of women who give her sideways looks and whose faces she can't read, and too full of men whose eyes follow her. For the first time, it bothers her. The change in her head that meant she knew she'd choose the knife over the Murgo army means that she hates the pressure of those eyes, the speculation in them. And they are everywhere. Everywhere.

Taiba finds her way to Belgarath in part to be certain that what the lady-sorceress said was true, and he is going to live. For the promise of the words let anyone else do anything. She believes him; she has to believe him. Believes in his protection, if only (as he offered it to her) for the strange whim of his God. She can believe in that, and so she has to know that he will live. That's part of why she goes.

The other part of why she goes is that she's furious with him. And she says so, in the Old Tongue, when one of the Algar-women who runs errands for the sorceress lets her in.

Belgarath lies in bed, covered in blankets, and the hollows under his eyes worry her. But he glares, and she's surprised to realize the glare makes her feel relieved. It looks like him. It feels like him And instead of frightened, she feels comforted when he mutters, "How I rejoice in my over-abundance of irritated women." In, of course, the Old Tongue as well.

The sorceress looks up from where she is mixing something into the gruel, annoyance on her face, but Taiba dares to ignore her. Dares to point one accusing finger at Belgarath and say, "You were sick! You should have been resting!"

"Who over-react," the old man continues, as if talking to the wall.

"You almost died," Taiba snaps. The words make her shiver, suddenly, and she wraps her arms around herself. Around her own body, her ribs not so easy to feel anymore. "You scared me," she says, with less bite. "I didn't know what would happen." She feels like a child again, like the night by the fire. Her eyes prickle and she blinks them, fiercely, because she will not cry. She will not. So she glares at him instead.

She came because she's angry, and because fear or no fear, she thought she had a right to be. It still surprises her when he looks away. When he looks uncomfortable and the irritation in his glare softens. When he glances at his daughter, and there is maybe guilt there. Taiba follows the glance with her own eyes, not on purpose; the sorceress is watching them with her eyes narrowed, but no anger in her face.

Another relief.

"Well I'm not dead," is what Belgarath says. He says it in the language of the world.

"You are a stubborn and stupid old man," Taiba says, also in the language of the world, but she hears the cadences of the Old Tongue in her voice this time. And at that, she thinks the sorceress suppresses a laugh, but when Taiba and Belgarath both look at her again, her face is serene.

"What remarkable powers of observation you have, Taiba," she says, with a sweetness that is edged - but Taiba thinks all the edge is for her father. "Don't you think, Old Wolf?"

"That'll do, Pol," Belgarath says, and there's a note in his voice Taiba doesn't understand.

Pol says nothing, but she says it in a way that's quite loud and very clear in its silence.

Taiba doesn't stay long. The exhaustion is still there, clear and visible in the old man's face, and with her anger Taiba's daring is running out, as well; she feels uneasy at the idea of trespassing too much on the sorceress' patience. In the end, when she stands up to go, Belgarath catches her hand between his, and pats it once. "Don't worry, daughter," he says, in the Old Tongue, and winks. "It'll all be fine."

Taiba finds that she can smile. And that she can say, "Grandfather, you would say that if you were going to die tomorrow." Because she knows it's true.

He laughs at her, but lets her hand free, and she goes.

 

Do not trouble others, nor hinder them about their ways.
Instead, live peaceably with others, and seek understanding.

When it happens, it is almost without thought.

The woman follows him. If Relg were entirely fair, he might admit to himself that if she didn't, he would have to seek her out. But he is tired, and longs for home and the caves of Ulgo, and as such he is not entirely fair. So the woman follows him, or contrives to be where he is, and he tries to ignore her.

Sometimes she makes that harder than others. But more and more, since the Arend's words, he lacks the heart to even attempt a rebuke. The more he watches, the more he sees that Mandorallen is right: that Taiba's eyes, when they rest on the men around her, stay wary and that her sharpest attacks came when something might have frightened her. The thoughts it stirs in his mind, and in the deeper places that might be called his heart, are uncomfortable and difficult, and Relg would rather not face them.

More than anything, he wants to go home.

He wanders some of the less-used corridors of the Stronghold, when he wants something like solitude. Sometimes the woman follows, sometimes she doesn't, but the walls in the corridors are stone and uncovered, and there are fewer people to listen to and avoid. Even cut and taken far from its proper place, dormant and controlled, the good rock is soothing and cools his mind. So he wanders, and waits and hopes that when it comes time for planning, Belgarath will allow him to return home.

This is how he comes on Taiba and the Algar, and maybe it explains what happens next.

Maybe she had tried to follow Relg; maybe the Algar had followed her. Relg can't tell, and finds that he does not care. He can smell the ale on the man from across the hall, and it makes his nose twitch with disgust. But does not distract him from the hand the man has on Taiba's arm.

Some little time in the past, Relg might have turned in disgust and left, or so he tells himself; even now, it takes a few seconds to see the fear behind the smile on Taiba's face, to see that while she does not pull away, there is a tension in her body that reminds him of the moment she asked him for the knife, and of the long moments they waited and watched the Murgo army cross the river, before the Algars came. And she may be strange, and wicked in her own way, and she may drive him mad, but there is no doubt in Relg's mind, now, that she does not want to be here, and she does not want the beer-besotted Algar to touch her, and the certainty lights a fire in Relg's brain.

He is oblivious, and indifferent, to what conversation he cuts short when he says, "Let her go, and leave," his voice as flat as he can make it, where he knows the Alorns here already find it harsh. The Algar turns; in doing so he moves, so that Taiba sees past him to Relg. Her eyes widen, and Relg watches her take a deep, sudden breath, as if she had been holding hers.

The Algar is drunk; now that he faces Relg, the reek of ale is even worse. The drink makes him stupid: it seems he understands only that he does not like what he heard, but has lost track of the words themselves. "What?"

Relg replies, still flat, "Taiba does not want you to touch her. Let her go, and leave." He doesn't bother looking at the man; he looks at Taiba, instead. It might be a mistake; for an instant, a heartbeat or a breath, her eyes rest on his and they are deep and dark in their blue, like the eyes of the child foretold, and it seems that once again he can feel the weight of her as he carried her through the rock.

Whatever she sees, as she looks, it makes her nod and now she does pull back. "Please," she says, her voice level, but as if she is afraid of the words, "let go."

The man is drunk, and he is confused, maybe: too drunk to see when a woman is afraid, too drunk or too stupid to understand the change. When the Algar doesn't move, Relg looses his patience, steps forward, and wrenches the man's hand off Taiba's arm. She pulls herself backwards, put several steps between them and Relg between her and the Algar.

If Relg had given him the opportunity, the man might have tried to strike back, or to gather his wits (what little he might have) - but Relg doesn't. Instead, his hand still closed around the man's wrist, he flattens it against the wall and begins to push.

It takes only until his forearm disappears into the rock for the man to find himself suddenly, wholly sober. And frozen. His eyes wide, he stares at Relg.

"If I let go, and left you here," Relg tells him quietly, "the rock would kill your arm in less time than it takes a woman to make bread. Do you understand?"

"Sorcery," the Algar whispers. Relg snorts.

"The divining of Ulgo," he retorts, corrects. "Do not bother this woman again. Do not touch where you are not given leave. Tell the others; I don't have to stop at your arm."

He doesn't know if the man understands, or if he understands beyond the simple reality of the threat, of upset her and you will regret it. In the days of war, Alorns would slaughter the men but keep the women alive, in the places they conquered; these are the things that happen, outside of Ulgo. Without the laws and without understanding. But whether the Algar understands or not, he nods, and Relg pulls his arm back out of the wall. "Go," he says, and the Algar does.

Relg turns; Taiba stands back from him, her hand covering the place on her arm where the Algar's had rested. Her eyes are narrowed; Relg reminds himself of the knight's words, and so is ready when what comes from her mouth is a sharp, harsh demand. "Why did you do that?"

Well. He is ready for the sharpness and the harshness, at least. But the answer to the question gets caught and twisted around, and then tries to come to him in Ulgo, so that he has to struggle to put it in the speech of the surface world. "You didn't want him to touch you. You weren't going to stop him, because you were afraid." He shrugs. "I am not afraid of a drunken Alorn. So I stopped him."

Her look is wary, her body still tense. "How did you know I was afraid?" she asks. This time, her voice has less harshness to it.

Relg shrugs again. He meets her eyes when he answers, and he doesn't mind the bitter smile that it brings. "I watch you," he says, simply. "You know that."

She bites her lip, and he shakes his head. "If they bother you, tell them to go away," he tells her. "This is not Cthol Murgos, not Rak Cthol, and they won't dare upset you: you are under the protection of the Lady Polgara."

"And you," Taiba says, eyes still narrowed, but the sharpness lessening with these words, as well. Relg can only shrug for a third time.

"I will leave you now," he says, because he can't think of anything else to say. And she only nods, because (perhaps) she feels the same way.

But she says, "Thank you," in a quiet voice, before he turns and goes.

****

Relg came into the hall just then, and not far behind him, Taiba. The Marag woman, once she had bathed and been given decent clothes to wear, had surprised them all. She was no longer the hopeless, dirty slave woman they had found in the caves beneath Rak Cthol. Her figure was full and her skin very pale. She moved with a kind of unconscious grace, and King Cho-Hag's clansmen looked after her as she passed, their lips pursed speculatively.

She seemed to know she was being watched, and, far from being offended by the fact, it seemed rather to please her and to increase her self confidence. Her violet eyes glowed, and she smiled often now. She was, however, never very far from Relg. At first Garion had believed that she was deliberately placing herself where the Ulgo would have to look at her out of a perverse enjoyment of the discomfort it caused him, but now he was not so sure. She no longer even seemed to think about it, but followed Relg wherever he went, seldom speaking, but always there.

"You sent for me, Belgarath?" Relg asked. Some of the harshness had gone out of his voice, but his eyes still looked peculiarly haunted.

"Ah, Relg," Belgarath said expansively. "There's a good fellow. Come, sit down. Take a cup of ale."
"Water, thank you," Relg replied firmly.

"As you wish." Belgarath shrugged. "I was wondering, do you by any chance know a route through the caves of Ulgo that reaches from Prolgu to the southern edge of the land of the Sendars?"

"That's a very long way," Relg told him.

"Not nearly as long as it would be if we rode over the mountains," Belgarath pointed out. "There's no snow in the caves, and no monsters. Is there such a way?"

"There is," Relg admitted.

"And would you be willing to guide us?" the old man pressed.

"If I must," Relg agreed with some reluctance.

"I think you must, Relg," Belgarath told him.

Relg sighed. "I'd hoped that I could return home now that our journey's almost over," he said regretfully.

Belgarath laughed. "Actually, our journey's only just started, Relg. We have a long way to go yet."

Taiba smiled a slow, pleased little smile at that.

Garion felt a small hand slip into his, and he smiled down at Errand, who had just come into the hall. "Is it all right, Aunt Pol?" he asked. "If I go riding, I mean?"

"Of course, dear," she replied. "Just be careful. Don't try to show off for Adara. I don't want you falling off a horse and breaking anything."

Errand let go of Garion's hand and walked over to where Relg stood.

The knots on the pouch that Durnik had so carefully sealed with lead were undone again, and the little boy took the Orb out and offered it to Relg. "Errand?" he said.

"Why don't you take it, Relg?" Taiba asked the startled man. "No one in the world questions your purity."

Relg stepped back and shook his head. "The Orb is the holy object of another religion," he declared. "It is from Aldur, not UL, so it wouldn't be proper for me to touch it."

Taiba smiled knowingly, her violet eyes intent on the zealot's face. "Errand," Aunt Pol said, "come here."

- Castle of Wizardry

Chapter Text

Hyena calls in the night
Her voice tells the others
When she is lost but lives
They call back to bring her home:
She follows their singing.

Cold, damp, strange: that neatly described Riva in many ways, at least for Taiba.

She had expected it to be difficult. Riva would be another fortress, like Rak Cthol, like the Stronghold, with stone walls and towers, and without the strangeness of Ulgo or even the shape of the Plains beyond to make it different. That, and the voyage over the water had made her violently sick, even after Lady Polgara gave her something vile to drink.

Belgarath had come to stand with her beside the railing as she retched what little she'd managed to eat that morning, and patted her back when she groaned and leaned her forehead on the wood. That was nice. Touch, at least the simple and casual kind, wasn't difficult with the Sorcerer. It didn't need to mean anything else. "Why," she asked, "does the sea hate me?" She asked in the Old Tongue, because it got easier the more she spoke it, and it felt like something that belonged solely to her. She'd never had something like that before.

"Beltira and Belkira explained that to me once," Belgarath replied, his voice full of musing. "Apparently there's a part of your ear that talks to a part of your brain and tells it which way is up and down. Lets you judge the slope of the land, that sort of thing. Getting on a ship, or sitting inside a cart where you can't see outside, means that your eyes and your ear get into an argument, with the eyes insisting that you're sitting more or less flat and the ear insisting that you're moving, and your brain gets so confused that it makes you sick."

Taiba thought about that, as she stared at the waves until they blurred in front of her eyes. The stupid Cherek captain insisted that this wasn't a storm, and the thought made her even more queasy, until she gagged again. As the old sorcerer gathered up her hair and tucked it under the back of her cloak, she said, "Make it stop," and knew she sounded like a plaintive child. It wasn't fair. She had carried children, she had eaten rotten meat, and neither of those had made her as wretchedly ill as this ship.

"That's the sort of thing Pol's better at than I am," Belgarath told her. He actually sounded regretful. "Get her to make you one of her nasty potions - it'll taste vile, but it'll probably help."

"I did," Taiba had said, laying her head back down on the wooden rail. "It only helped for about an hour."

Later, she'd found out that Relg had been just as miserable, if a little better at control (of course) in his self-imposed exile at the bottom of the ship. It had struck her, too, that it had been the longest she had spent away from him. But there had been nothing to do with that thought, so she went back to the first one, and took spiteful pleasure in his sharing her misery.

And so Taiba had expected to hate the Isle. And it was very cold, so much so that she just kept the cloak Belgarath had made for her with her at all times, and after she had asked, one of the Rivan servant girls had found her some soft shoes to wear in the palace. And there seems like there's absolutely nothing for her to do, and she doesn't know why she's here. She ought to hate it.

She doesn't.

The people are . . .better than they have been, other places. In Ulgo she had felt as if everyone spent all their time staring at her, like she was a different species, something other than human. They were all so pale and quiet and she couldn't understand a word they said. And Relg came from there, so she kept waiting for any of them to say what he had said before, or worse. No one did, but the waiting still prickled on her neck. Algaria had felt too much like Cthol Murgos, all dire, dangerous men on horseback, thinking of nothing but war and how many enemies they could kill. It had been better, after Relg lost his temper at the one man; after that, men had looked at her still, of course they had, but gave her the same distance and respect that they gave Lady Polgara, or the queen's women. Still. She'd been happy enough to leave.

Here, there's a difference. They're quieter. The men are serious, and even drunk they're carefully polite. The women are reserved, but only until they're sure you won't think they're rude for talking, or so it seems to Taiba. Everything is clean, and inside the walls, everything is beautiful and filled with colour. There are tapestries on every wall, and paintings; windows have pictures in them, picked out in coloured glass. Corridors have rugs woven into pictures or patterns, some flat and some strangely plush. And if there's not much that can be done for the general chill, at least all the fireplaces are big and wide, and as long as she sits close to them she can pretend she's warm.

It feels safe. As if the whole island is meant as shelter, protection, and it even gets into the heads of people who live there.

She's still a stranger here; when she does talk to the women, they're full of questions and guesses and wide eyes. The men give her second glances, as if she's not what they expected, before they nod and step aside to let her pass. But if it's not her place, it's a place that doesn't demand she either change or leave, and that's better than it could be.

 

On Erastide, which Relg tells her is the birthday of the world and the day everyone should honour the Gods (as if he didn't think that about every day), and also the day the boy was born, the Orb of Aldur makes Garion into the King of Riva somehow. There's a ceremony, and a sword that burns with blue flame, Lady Polgara looking very smug, and Belgarath looking mostly tired.

Taiba doesn't think she's ever seen so many people cry with happiness. She can't even begin to understand it, and doesn't try, because she's completely sure she can't make it make sense. Garion is a good boy, and it's probably not fair that he has to marry the nasty red-haired brat-princess; he also doesn't know any more about ruling a kingdom than Taiba knows about geometry, which is something Belgarath mentioned once and has to do with the shapes of things.

She thinks.

And the Isle had rulers before, and nobody seems to have been unhappy with them, and everyone has enough to eat, and good clothes, and so Taiba can't imagine why having a boy with a crown on his head sit in their throne room is so important. Important enough to make stern old men with grey beards drip tears down their faces.

Sometimes, Taiba wonders if the entire world is insane, all in different ways, and has just been insane so long that it doesn't know the difference. When she observes this to Belgarath, her voice acid, he laughs until he chokes on his ale, which is gratifying, but not really helpful.

When he stops coughing, he says, "That's one way to put it, I suppose." He looks thoughtful. He likes telling people things they don't know; he likes teaching, Taiba thinks, and she likes it when he talks to her and reminds her how to speak the language that, of all things in the world, is actually hers. "People, you see - and I'm not talking about just a person," he interrupts himself. "Individual persons can actually be pretty intelligent if you give them half a chance, although I'll thank you never to repeat that." When she frowns at him, he says, "I have a certain reputation to maintain.

"I mean people," he goes on before she can ask, "people in large groups, they look for things to tell them who they are. More or less, they look for things to tell them that they're not that other kind of people. It's why Chereks wear beards and Tolnedrans don't, Algars shave their heads, Ulgos have their own language, and Murgos slash their faces. It doesn't really mean anything, although they'll try to tell you that it does; when it comes down to it, it's a way of telling people who they are."

"What does that have to do with kings?" Taiba demands. "And Polgara said you had to drink this." She hands him the cup she's been mixing, the powder poured into water and stirred until the water goes clear again instead of pale yellow. Belgarath scowls at her, but she just holds the cup out until he takes it, which he does, like he always does. Polgara noticed this, which is why when she's annoyed she gives the medicine to Taiba.

To Taiba, and no one else.

"A king - having one, that is," he clarifies, "and that king having certain characteristics and duties and so on - is a good way of getting that sense of who someone is. It means that even if you find someone else who's, say, sober and clean-living and likes to wear red, you know you're different than he is, because you're a subject of this king, and he's a subject of that king." He takes a gulp from the cup, and makes a face. Taiba pretends not to notice that he only drinks most of it, and throws the rest surreptitiously onto the fire. "Unless of course," he adds, "he's the subject of the same king you are, in which case you don't need to know you're different, because you're both the same kind of person, you see."

" . . . . I think they're all insane," she repeats, and he grins at her, eyes twinkling. "Ulgos make more sense. A language and a way of doing things makes more sense."

"People," Belgarath says, like he is imparting a deep truth, "are rarely sensible."

Taiba stares at the fire for a while, chewing on the side of her tongue. Then she asks, "Will Garion be a good king?"

Belgarath looks thoughtful and leans back in his stuffed chair. When he replies, he says, "Garion is my grandson, which makes for an unusual advantage in his case."

"What?" Taiba asks, obliging.

Belgarath replies, "If he isn't being a good king, Pol and I have a great deal more leeway to give him a good hard cuff to the ear."

Startled, Taiba can only laugh. It isn't until later, when she's walking outside again, cloak pulled close around her, and one of her mother's songs coming to her mouth, that those are the only things she's ever had to tell her who she is.

Even later, watching Relg as he sits, uncomfortable and apart, she wonders if there isn't more to being Ulgo than their own words. And if Relg has lost it, whatever it is.

 

Learn well these words and keep them close in your heart
For I give you them so that ye may learn and ye may teach
And among all people there shall be harmony

The first time she comes to him and asks him to tell her about Ulgo and the Book of UL, it is raining outside.

Living all his life in Prolgù, Relg could never have imagined the oppression of a dull grey sky. He has lived under vast ceilings of rock and walked through stone itself so that the very substance of his body mingled with what stood around it and no air was anywhere at all, in the soft, kind light of the Caverns and the total darkness of the places where UL's voice still echoes, and never before had anything felt like this, anything like the way the grey radiance, the water, and the flat vision of the sky make him feel as if he's trapped somewhere and can't escape.

So her voice is almost a welcome distraction, between that and the constant desire to go home, the sense of being utterly lost in the world. Almost.

He looks up from the fire. He has been staring at it, despite the faint headache it brings with its light, because - well, he isn't certain, in truth. Perhaps the sense of pain deserved, perhaps by accident, perhaps because it is colour instead of grey, and the only true comforting darkness lurks in the spaces between the flames, being nothing like this pallid torpor of light. The Rivans, at least, are quieter than their Plains-dwelling cousins, and don't seem to think the desire for solitude is a sickness needing to be cured, so he has been sitting here alone since speaking with Belgarath just after dawn.

The conversation had not been comforting, though that was not due to any design of Aldur's disciple. We're here, the Eternal Man had said. Now comes a war, inevitable as human stupidity. But how, or where, or what's to come next? and then he'd shrugged.

This is not what you have told anyone else, Relg had said, because he was certain it was true.

If I were to tell you the entire enterprise was hopeless and I was absolutely certain we were going to lose, and all die horribly, would it change anything for you? the Eternal Man had asked, bluntly, pulling at his short beard. An unaccustomed answer had welled up in Relg, the desire to point out that it would certainly make the months to come less pleasant - but he knew what the question means.

No, he had said. UL has commanded me. Because it is that simple, when it comes to the end.

Right, said Belgarath. So since I'm sure you'll neither panic or run off and do something particularly stupid, I'm not going to put myself out when it comes to making up lies and comforting fables.

Relg had looked at him, and then shaken his head. He had felt the impulse to smile. It felt strange.

This is ordinarily where I'd clap you on the shoulder, Belgarath said, but I'd hate to upset you. The words were full of irony. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to go have a shouting match with my daughter.

And he had left, and Relg had wondered what it would be like to have family that way - where, in truth, love and devotion remained so perfectly assured that each could more or less say whatever they wanted to the other, because the words didn't matter.

Then his head had hurt, and he'd felt unsettled, so he'd come here to stare into the fire and . . . .make his head hurt more.

And now here is that woman, probably to help the pain along.

 

The first time Taiba comes to him and asks him to tell her about Ulgo and the Book of UL, she wears grey and green with her hair in Alorn braids and settles very close to the fire. She is often cold, he's noticed. But he doesn't think that's the only reason her green wool cloak is always within reach, settled around her as if it were a wrap or a blanket wherever she takes time to sit. And she often does, as she follows him or the others of their now scattered party. She can sit in silence and stillness so complete that others forget she is there.

Others, not him.

"Why?" he demands. He hears his voice come sharper than he means, and in his own head he winces; it's always this way, with her, and he is tired of it, truth told. Tired of her, tired of all of them, tired in his bones and the dust inside them, with the tiredness that cries out like a child to his caves and his caverns and something that makes sense. Cries out, and is terrified that when he goes, if he is ever allowed to go, it won't be there and nothing will be as he remembers it.

He suspects that terror is right, finds traces that confirm it in memories of cool, simple words exchanged with his brother as they passed through Prolgù to come here. And other memories, from different caves, and the weight of a woman's body in his arms.

Taiba shrugs. "It's important to you," she says, in a voice he hasn't heard before. "I want to know why. It makes no sense to me now; maybe it will, after you explain it."

"Why?" he asks again. He manages to make it less harsh, but it's still the only question he has, and he doesn't trust her. She chews on the inside of her cheek and he wants to tell her to stop, because she's going to make it bleed.

"Because you're like me," she says, and he holds back the impulse to denial, lets her finish, hears her say, "there's no one like you here. Around you. I'm alone, and so are you." Her eyes are large, and so blue they're almost the colour of flowers that the peoples in the above-lands all call violets. "But you're not. Because there's . . . " She waves a hand. "Everything else. So I want to know."

Maragor has been empty, save for a screaming, mourning God, for so very, very long. Relg thinks of this and sighs. Leans forward and puts his head in his hands.

Then he says, because there is nowhere else to start, "In the beginning, when the Gods made us, each of them chose a people."

 

The first time she comes to him, he tells her the story of the first Gorim. She listens, quiet. He expects her to ask questions, to ask why it mattered so much that UL accept them, but she doesn't. Her face looks closed and thoughtful and she only listens.

The second time, he tells her about the cracking of the world, and how Ulgo took refuge in the caves and made their homes there. "So you became different from everyone else," she says, but he shakes his head.

"We were always different. UL asks more of us than - " He stops, not sure how to go on. Reluctant, this time, to simply say, UL asks more of us than the other Gods of their barbarian children. Even if now that he has seen them he is even more sure that it is true - though for different reasons than before.

The maimed God's Temple lurks in the back of his mind, but it's not alone. The bloodlust of the Algar prince lingers with it, and the shadow of Arendia that meant that Mandorallen knew the look of a woman who feared men. There were crimes in Ulgo, of course; evil and sin sunk into mankind everywhere. But -

But. But it made him sick to think of so many things, of crimes so prevalent that they were treated as an inevitable misfortune, like death or illness. Something about which to grieve, but as inevitable as an earthquake or rockfall. Before, he had thought the world out of the caves must be impure and tainted because it was not Ulgo; now, he doesn't know why it is how it is, and he wonders how the Gods could allow it among their own children, allow this much and do nothing.

Where UL, he thinks, wry, found it in Him to chastise Relg with His own voice.

Relg scrubs a hand over his face. Taiba is still watching him, quizzical and quiet, so he sits back. "That is why we are what we are," he says, and reaches for familiar stone, for things that he knows, has spent his life trying to know. "What we are is different."

 

The words get away from him. They're like water when it finds a familiar track, racing down it so much faster than it would flow over a smooth surface. He has told this story, this sermon, many many times in his years. Has spoken about the Book and how it is the heart of Ulgo, how it makes them one people and commands the ways of their lives, how to live and die and treat one another. The words run away from him, and yet at the same time he hears them as he speaks them, as if he listened to another.

And sometimes, many times, that part of him that listens cringes, for words that he preached and didn't live, spoke and didn't understand. Thoughts that he never bothered to examine.

"Sin," he hears himself say, "creeps into our minds the moment we let our thoughts stray," and he has said those words so many times before, but now he is thinking of the Algar man in the hallway, made stupid and brought to the edge of evil by thoughtlessness and drink. It catches at his thoughts, so that he only barely catches Taiba's sigh.

"Must everything be about sin?" she demands, her chin resting on her loosely fisted hand, her knees pulled up on the chair with her. Her voice rings sour in his head and clangs like a missed note among his thoughts; Relg finds his teeth grinding, and answers without thought, or at least without care.

"The world is filled with sin," he snaps. "We must guard against it constantly. We must stand jealous guard over our purity against all forms of temptation."

And the words are familiar, and the words are old friends, their echoes going back to echoes of caves where dozens and even hundreds gathered to listen to his sermons, but they, too, strike sour, as if they are subtly wrong, or as if he understands them badly. As if they are true, but their truth isn't the one he used to clutch tightly to himself. He has taken so many of them from the Book, and the Book is, must be, true, and yet -

"That," Taiba says, "would be very tiresome."

The words strike the raw places in his head and sting; Relg fights down a snarl as he stands up, fights to keep his voice cool and quiet when he says, "I thought you wanted instruction. If you've just come here to mock me, I'll leave now."

She turns her face up to him in a frown, and he sees his own frustration in the lines between her brows, the pursing of her lips. "Oh sit down, Relg," she says, pulling her cloak around her more tightly. "We'll never get anywhere with this if you take offence at everything I say."

Relg blinks at her. He nearly asks, get anywhere with what, woman? because he doesn't think she means - in truth, he's not actually sure what he means. But in the wide chair, leaning against its right arm, pulled in around herself, she seemed to him very small and alone. And he wonders, the new thought tugging at him, if he has been misunderstanding the meaning of temptation and purity for a very long time.

He does sit. Taiba looks away, staring at the fire, and chews on the inside of her cheek again. And she seems alone, again, but not so small, or maybe just not so fragile.

"Have you no idea at all about the meaning of religion?" he asks her, in the end, and wonders if he should be asking himself. Taiba's head jerks up, her eyes turning towards him, narrowed.

"In the slave pens, the word meant death," she says. "It meant having your heart cut out." She bites off each word as if she was trying to draw blood. Relg shakes his head, and tries to keep his voice gentle.

"That was a Grolim perversion," he tells her, and in this, at least, he is absolutely certain he is not wrong. Or if he is wrong, it is only because he can't quite bring himself to say that it is Torak's perversion, because whatever the maimed God is, he is also UL's son. "Didn't you have a religion of your own?"

Taiba shrugs, looking past him and to the side, as if remembering. "Slaves came to the pens from all over the world," she replies. "They prayed to many Gods. Usually for death."

"What about your own people?" he asks, pressing, not entirely sure why. Except that she came to him and asked him about Ulgo, and he doesn't think her answer to him explains why. Or perhaps. . . . he just doesn't understand it yet. That might be it. But he thinks he might want to. "Who is your God?"

Taiba doesn't look at him. She stares at the carved arm of his chair instead. "I was told that his name is Mara," she says, quietly. "We didn't pray to him, though." It is the first time he has ever heard her use the word we. "Not since he abandoned us."

In the ruins of Maragor, a God screams. Relg knows this; he wonders if she does. She raises her eyes to his, an angry, sullen challenge flickering in them, and he rises to it without thinking. With his thoughts on the screaming, mourning God.

"It's not man's place to accuse the Gods," he says, his voice falling into the cadences of sermon, because the words were so much alike. "Man's duty is to glorify his God and pray to him - even if the prayers aren't answered."

And what have you done to glorify UL, diviner? What is the wished-for glory, anyway? His mind throws the words at him like ice in the same moment that Taiba straightens, eyes hard.

"And what about the God's duty to us?" she demands, almost through her teeth. "Can a God not be negligent as well as a man?" The cadences of her voice are new, different, and he watches her in silence, the ice in his head ringing to what she says. Her hands are tight on the arms of her chair as she says, "Wouldn't you consider a God negligent," she spits the word, "if he allowed his children to be enslaved and butchered - or if he allowed his daughters to be given as a reward to other slaves when they pleased their masters, like I was?"

He doesn't answer. Can't answer, because he has nothing to say to that. A God screamed in Maragor while the last of his children lived in filth and died under Rak Cthol. She says, "I think you've led a very sheltered life, Relg. I think you have a very limited idea of human suffering - of the kinds of things men can do to other men, and to women, apparently with the full permission of the Gods."

With the images of the Grolim altars in his head, Relg says, "You should have killed yourself," and her eyes narrow at him.

"Whatever for?" she demands, and the words get tangled. He means to say, because living like that is less than human, and it's better to die a woman than an animal, to say because I would have, to say something like it, but the old words are easier. More familiar.

"To avoid corruption," he says, and she laughs. It's an ugly sound; there's more pain in it than humour, even bitter humour.

"You are an innocent, aren't you?" she says, and now she is mocking, but her face catches his attention over the mockery - her face, and the glitter in her eye. And the mockery breaks, like waves in his head, by the glitter there, by the wetness that is unshed tears, and it strikes him that he has hurt her, with words, and she is trying to hurt him back. "I didn't kill myself because I wasn't ready to die. Even in the slave pens, life can be sweet, Relg, and death is bitter." Her eyes bore into his; he wonders if she realizes, if her vision blurs. "What you call corruption," she says, "is only a small thing - and not even always unpleasant."

Like an idiot probing a wound, Relg says, "Sinful woman," the hiss that she's waiting for, the thing that he would have said. He's not sure why. Maybe he's looking for the pain. And he's afraid. He is afraid, he knows, afraid that she is right and afraid that she is wrong and afraid that he will never, can never understand the difference, afraid that certainty is gone, gone forever, and he'll always be like this, brittle and off-balance.

But she's watching him, now, and her face changes. She shakes her head. "You worry too much about that, Relg," she says, her voice a little softer. "Cruelty is a sin; lack of compassion is a sin. But that other little thing? I don't think so."

He stays silent.

She gets up, and Relg leans back in his own chair, as if he could get away from her that way. She watches him, arms disappearing under the green wool, until she says, "I begin to wonder about you," and his breath seizes in his chest, ribs closing around his lungs like two claws. The faintest frown is between her brows, a single line, and the braid of her hair slides along her shoulder. There is a lilt in her voice that sounds like the words she uses to speak to Belgarath. "Could it be that this UL of yours is not quite so stern and unforgiving as you seem to believe? Does he really want all these prayers and rituals and grovelings?" Her voice is relentless, the ice inside his head given a tongue to speak with. "Or are they your way to hide from your God? So you think that praying in a loud voice and pounding your head on the ground will keep him from seeing into your heart?"

Relg's laugh is strangled. He covers his face with one hand, leaning on the chair, and he wonders if he's damned. He's almost certain she should be, and yet -

"If our Gods really loved us, they'd want our lives to be filled with joy," Taiba says. Like a condemnation. Can't a God also be negligent? Relg thinks of Errand laughing, and Taiba's eyes that followed the child. "But you hate joy for some reason," she tells him. "Probably because you're afraid of it. Joy isn't a sin, Relg; joy is a kind of love. And I think the Gods should approve of it - even if you don't."

The defiance in her voice, in those words, strikes him. Relg sits back. He lets his hand fall from his face, and looks at hers, and watches hers widen. Wonders what she sees in him, in his eyes, and if it's enough that she'll hear his own helpless laughter when he says, "You're hopelessly depraved."

Maybe she does; maybe not. Her answer is calm, and her eyes are level when she says, "Perhaps so. But at least I look life right in the face. I'm not afraid of it, and I don't try to hide from it."

Liar, he thinks, and doesn't say. You're afraid every day. He wonders how he knows that, why he's so sure. He wonders if that voice is even his. But he knows it's right. Knows that even this, she does out of fear. It's the fear of someone that knows she can't hide. That there's nowhere what she fears won't find her. So that there's no point in hiding.

"Why are you doing this?" he asks her, instead. "Why must you forever follow me, and mock me with your eyes?"

She takes a step towards him and stops, shaking her head. "I don't really know," she says. She is reaching for the voice she uses to speak with everyone else, cool and indifferent, but he can hear the tremor. "You're not really that attractive. Since we left Rak Cthol - " and it wavers there, and he knows he's right, that she's always afraid, " - I've seen dozens of men who interested me much more." And those, he thinks, are more words to hurt. And when he keeps his gaze steady, she looks away.

"At first it was because I knew I made you nervous," she admits. "Because you were afraid of me. I rather . . .enjoyed that."

For the first time he has ever seen, her face flushes. She looks back at him, the defiance back in her, every line of her body, and he thinks about being afraid your entire life, and then having that power for yourself.

He thinks about temptation. He thinks about UL, and about UL's words to the princess, who can no more see a man and not flirt with him than she can breathe under water. Taiba shakes her head. "But lately there's more to it than that. It doesn't make any sense, of course." And there, there's the resignation, the off-hand acceptance she was trying for. "You're what you are," she goes on, "and I'm what I am, but for some reason I want to be with you." She stops. Her head tilts, just a little; she takes a deep breath, lifting her chin. "Tell me, Relg - and don't try to lie about it - would you really want me to go away and never see you again?"

The words make his chest hurt. And that's where the laughter comes from, not even choked this time, only silent, because it's too hard to breathe. He leans forward, putting his face in both his hands, his head full of a kind of noise, his skin remembering hers, his whole self entirely thrown down and a little lost. And in the noise there are snatches of the Book and of things he himself has said and things that she just said, and what UL said and did, what the Gorim, UL's beloved son, said and did -

Like the earth moving, like a cave after an earthquake, so many things shift and shatter and become uncertain. And Taiba is standing right in front of him, and asked him a question.

Relg looks up, letting his hands fall, and says, "May UL forgive me," and he's not sure what he'll need his God's forgiveness for most of all. What, in the end, his sin is.

I am not pleased with thee.

"I'm sure he will." Taiba looks down at him. Her arms have loosened from where she had them wrapped around her, and now the fingers of one hand curl loosely around the other arm. Those arms aren't so thin, now, and the nails of the hand that lets go of her arm and reaches out towards him are no longer ragged and broken.

Relg catches her arm. He forces himself to be gentle, and the words to be calm when he says, "Don't touch me."

Taiba's lips flatten, and she doesn't pull her arm back. "Why?" she demands, halfway to plaintive, and Relg blinks at her. "I'm not going to hurt you!" she says.

He shakes his head, and gently pushes her arm back towards herself before he lets go. "It's not that," he says.

"Then what?" Her arms fold again, her jaw set. Relg sighs. Takes a breath and holds it for a moment, to assemble the words into something that won't, snake-like, twist into a shape that turns out hurtful.

"When people touch me," he says, slowly, looking up at her, "it . . . .stays. It's . . . .unpleasant. Always. Even with my brother and my father, it was unpleasant."

Taiba looks startled. "You have a brother and a father?" she says, and Relg snorts.

"Did you think I sprang full-grown from the rock?" he asks. The heel of one hand chafes at his other wrist, as if he were trying to get rid of the feeling of touch, and in some way he is. It won't work, though, and he knows it. "When someone touches me, it feels . . .strange and sharp and startling. And then it stays, like - " he searches for the words, ones that aren't hurtful, and settles on, "like fingerprints in clay. Sometimes it's just for a while. Sometimes it's for much longer."

Taiba asks, "How long?" and she sounds apprehensive. Relg sighs again, and his hand rises to his neck, his fingers resting over where hers had gripped.

"I can still feel you where I carried you," he says, and thinks that it is the first time they've spoken of this since she tried to thank him, weeks and months ago. "It's not . . .bad," and the words are still difficult and confusing, "it's just that it's there, all the time."

"Like you can't get rid of it," she says, softly. "Like it won't wash off." Her voice makes him look up sharply, but he can't read her face. "Oh," she says, finally. Then, in one movement, she sits down on the floor so that she's looking up at him, rather than he at her. "I'm sorry," she says.

The words stir some kind of guilt he doesn't understand, and he shakes his head. "You didn't know," he says, shortly.

"I knew you didn't want me to," she replies, and he glances at her to see what is almost a smile, like the one he feels inside. "I'm sorry," she repeats. "I won't do it again." Then her face turns curious, and she asks, "Is that why you stopped the Algar?"

He starts to answer, and then changes it: reminds himself that she is not Ulgo, and besides, the easy memory of his own sermons is ground where he should have a care. "The Book says," he tells her instead, beginning at the beginning, "that the body is the house of the soul, and so it is the first Temple of UL. That each man and woman's flesh is their first sanctity, a holy gift from the Gods who made us, and should so be treated. To do otherwise, to oneself or to others, is to fall to corruption."

After a moment, Taiba says, "Is that why you didn't hit me?" in a voice he doesn't recognize. And her face tells him nothing more. He shrugs with one shoulder.

"I am guilty of many sins," he says. "Not all of them are that easy to wave away, even for you." The last words are unkind, and he knows it, but Taiba lets them pass.

"I think UL will forgive you," she says. It takes him a moment to recognize this note in her voice as wistfulness. "He loved you enough to tell you to stop before you did anything that couldn't be fixed, after all."

She glanced at Relg, and said, "What?" defensive again.

"I . . .had not thought of it that way," he says, a little helplessly. Taiba sighs.

"No," she says. "You wouldn't."

 

When I am far away
Home calls to me
Home sings my name
I hear and long for my homecoming
For my homecoming
And you.

Relg walks with her to the room where she sleeps, and both of them are quiet. Taiba want very badly to reach over and slip her hand into his. When she made the promise - and it is a promise, even if she didn't use the words - she hadn't thought it would be hard. Now - now she has to keep stopping the movement of her hand.

They stop at the door, moving as one, almost as if they're thinking the same thoughts. Taiba turns to him. "I'm going to follow," she says, softly. "Wherever Belgarath makes you go."

"It would be safer to stay here," Relg says, but she doesn't think he expects that to mean anything.

But she says, "I know," anyway. And stops her hand from rising to touch his face. Instead, she says, "Good night," and goes into the room. With the door closed, and the fire already banked by some maid, she sits on the end of the wide bed and tries to remember the last time she slept beside the body of a man she wanted.

It takes her mind places she shouldn't go, and in the end she pours water into the wash-stand and scrubs for a while at her arms and her neck and her breasts before she makes herself stop and put the shift back on to climb under the covers.

She chases sleep for a long time before she catches it.

 

*****

Polgara thought about it for a moment. "No," she decided finally. "Errand's going to have to go with me. Aside from Garion, he's the only person in the world who can touch the Orb. The Angaraks may realize that and try to take him."

"I'll care for him," Taiba offered in her rich voice. "He knows me, and we're comfortable with each other. It will give me something to do."

"Surely you're not planning to go along on the campaign, Taiba," Queen Layla objected.

Taiba shrugged. "Why not?" she replied. "I don't have a house to keep or a kingdom to oversee. There are other reasons, too."

They all understood. What existed between Taiba and Relg was so profound that it seemed somehow outside the sphere of normal human attachment, and the Ulgo's absence had caused the strange woman something rather close to physical pain. It was now obvious that she intended to follow him - even into battle if necessary.

- Castle of Wizardry

Chapter Text

1.
And you beyond the running doe
The brighter star, the stooping hawk
The hunting cat, the jasmine's scent
The ocean's choir, Leviathan:
In your image, these things made
In your image, these things beloved

The letter does not say everything he wants.

Relg begins it in Ulgo, when the beloved familiarity of the caves and the sacred stillness of the stones do nothing for the ache that comes from missing black hair, deep eyes, and the impatient voice that wanted, always wanted the answer now, and the mind that ran ahead of itself. While the muster gathered, he had revealed the Cave of Echoes and looked away when he saw that Gorim wept. In the deep privacy of his own mind, he wondered: was it - to be Gorim, to be UL's chosen beloved son - to be condemned to feel as Relg did now, separate and longing, for all the ages of a long life? The thought unfolded like a horror in his head, and he had to turn away from it, and so he began the letter.

And destroyed it and began again, over, and over, until Gorim finds him at it, and says, mildly, "You seem to be having some difficulty, my son."

Relg startles, and then sighs and sit back, looking at the parchment he had once again begun to scrape. Soon it would be too thin, and he would have to find another. He rubs fingers over his eyes. "A letter, Holy One," he says. "A letter to a woman who cannot read."

He is, truth told, not surprised that Gorim has noticed, nor that he has asked: Relg is Gorim's guest, welcomed with an affection that a month ago would have sent him into grovelling apology, and now merely teaches him the gentler kind of humility. The kind that calls him to try for the grace and greatness of spirit that UL's chosen shows him. And within his own house, Gorim takes an interest in all, and care of everything. Relg, who waits for the muster to complete itself, not least.

Gorim sits at the other side of the table, one of his servants hovering worriedly behind, and says, "A good beginning for a philosophical problem, but a poor puzzle for the living world. To whom do you write, my son?"

"The Marag woman, who travelled through the caves," Relg says, simply. Then he glances at his Gorim and says, "I have surprised you."

"A great deal," Gorim replies, simply. "Yet it is not a displeasing surprise, Relg. What would you write?"

Relg shakes his head. "It will pain her, that I am gone this long," he says. "Gone at all. When we go to the surface, word will need to be sent back to the mad little princess." He sees Gorim's quickly hidden smile, but does not amend himself: Belgarion's bride is mad, and deeply aggravating, and he will not say otherwise. "I would not have the messenger go to her with nothing from me."

"Yet what you would say is not for other ears," Gorim says, "while this singular woman cannot read. Does she travel with the Rivan Queen?"

"Yes," Relg says, and Gorim nods.

"I shall tell you something you would not know," Gorim says, "or if you have observed it, would not leap to your mind, for the ways of the other peoples' are not like ours. The Queen will be surrounded by women of her own age, and rank among the peoples above: it is their way, for she is not permitted to keep company with men save in business of rule. If Taiba travels with the little queen, this is the company in which she will be swept up, and one of them will read it to her."

Relg does not remark that Gorim remembers Taiba's name; it does not surprise him anymore, and he can see the care for what it is. He frowns, and Gorim continues, "If you can stomach the idea of one woman knowing what you write to your companion, then write, and do not take too much nervous care." He does not lay his hand on Relg's head in blessing, but stops it an inch's breath above. "And consider which you treasure more, my son," Gorim adds. "Your own perception of your dignity, or the consolation of the woman to whom you write."

Which was pointed enough.

Yet the words did not come to him, even after he turned his thought on that.

In the end, he turned to a chapter of the Book that few read, and fewer understood - which he himself had not properly understood, until these last months. It was never translated from the most ancient form of Ulgo, and so most abandoned it as too difficult, and containing little of worth. Written by the third Gorim, some even disputed its authenticity. Relg had been one of those.

Not any more. And so for the first time, he took the words of the Father of the Gods to their Mother, and wrote them in the language of the world-above. And then he wrote, simply, I miss you. I await you.

Then he folded it, and sealed it twice. He finished it the day he led the muster of Ulgo to the highest caves, and set a watch of those most accustomed to the world-above to look for the messenger of the Rivan Queen.

 

*****

 

"And we've had word from the Ulgo - Relg," Colonel Brendig added. "He's gathered a small army of warriors from the caves. They'll wait for us on the Algarian side of the mountains. He said you'd know the place."

Barak grunted. "The Ulgos can be troublesome," he said. "They're afraid of open places, and daylight hurts their eyes, but they can see in the dark like cats. That could be very useful at some point."

"Did Relg send any - personal messages?" Taiba asked Brendig with a little catch in her voice.

Gravely, the Sendar took a folded parchment from inside his tunic and handed it to her. She took it with a rather helpless expression and opened it, turning it this way and that.

"What's the matter, Taiba?" Adara asked quietly.

"He knows I can't read," Taiba protested, holding the note tightly pressed against her.

"I'll read it to you," Adara offered.

"But maybe it's - well-personal," Taiba objected.

"I promise I won't listen," Adara told her without the trace of a smile.

Castle of Wizardry

*****

 

Battle drums
I hear them in your blood
Yet come back again
And I will wait

 

Adara read the letter to her, and her voice held only the slightest hint of puzzlement; Taiba feels her eyes prick, and demands that Adara read it again, and then show her where each word lies on the parchment, so that Taiba can touch them, carefully.

Then she takes the parchment and folds it again, holds it between her hands and refuses, refuses entirely to burst into tears. She won't. Not here, not now, not in front of the sheltered girl-child who read her the words, and can't hope to understand what they mean, to understand what it is to have this, these words of that book, written here, for her. She is a child, a girl, and her life is simple even when it's hard, and Taiba will not show tears in front of her.

Instead, she takes parchment and herself away, to an unwatched corner of the camp, and holds the parchment in both hands so she can press it to her, hands against her mouth and her forehead.

A part of her screams at the distance. A part of her says, I have to learn to read. And a part of her, the part that had been afraid that nothing would come, just thinks of him and his silence and his stupid, earnest voice, and rails inside her at her own promise that she won't break, that in the end she won't be able to touch him, pull him to her, kiss his eyes. Stupid, stupid man and all the things between.

At this, she does cry, but only for a moment. Then she dries her eyes on her dress and stands, going in search of water against the heat and Errand from the bed where he slept the noon-warmth away.

She and the child are playing at a game he's making up, with coins and buttons, when Lady Polgara comes to find them, as she does most days, to look in on the boy. This time, she glances at Taiba and says, "You have your letter?"

Taiba reaches to the bodice of her dress and takes the parchment from where she has it tucked away, holding it up wordlessly. The frustration and longing wells in her again; she opens her mouth to speak, and then closes it. She opens her hands in a gesture for all that she doesn't have words.

Lady Polgara sighs, as Errand gets up to come and claim a kiss from her. She presses her lips together and for a moment, it seems as if she is in conflict with herself whether or not to speak. Then she says, "Be patient, if you can. There is an end to this, if we don't fail. You will, in that end, have everything you want."

Taiba looks up at the woman whose eyes are nearly the same colour as her own, and says, "Your father said something like that."

Lady Polgara's mouth twitches. "Well," she says, laying her cheek against Errand's curls the way everyone does, when they lift him up. "The old fool's not always hopeless."

****

 

Two days later, Relg arrived from Ulgoland with the contingent of his leaf mailed countrymen sent by the Gorim. Taiba, who had hovered silently in the background since the army had arrived at the Stronghold, joined Ce'Nedra and Lady Polgara to greet the Ulgos as the wagons which carried them creaked up the hill toward the main gate. The beautiful Marag woman wore a plain, even severe, linen dress, but her violet eyes were glowing.

Relg, his cowled leaf mail shirt covering his head and shoulders like lizard skin, climbed down from the lead wagon and only perfunctorily answered the greetings of Barak and Mandorallen. His large eyes searched the group gathered at the gate until they found Taiba, and then a kind of tension seemed to go out of him. Without speaking, he walked toward her.

Their meeting was silent, and they did not touch, though Taiba's hand moved involuntarily toward him several times. They stood in the golden sunlight with their eyes lost in each other's faces, drawing about them a profound kind of privacy that absolutely ignored the presence of others. Taiba's eyes remained constantly on Relg's face, but there was in them nothing of that vacant, placid adoration that filled Ariana's eyes when she looked at Lelldorin. There was rather a question - even a challenge. Relg's answering look was the troubled gaze of a man torn between two overpowering compulsions.

Ce'Nedra watched them for a few moments, but was finally forced to avert her eyes.

The Ulgos were quartered in dim, cavernous rooms built into the foundations of the Stronghold where Relg could lead his countrymen through the painful process of adjusting their eyes to the light of day and training them to ignore the unreasoning panic which assailed all Ulgos when they were exposed to the open sky.

Enchanter's End Game

****

 

2.
This, I say to you, is your greatest exaltation:
To love and give it freely, to hold your heart open
And welcome in the kindness such love brings.

Relg isn't accustomed to the cycles of light, of day and night, and in the end Taiba is yawning while he remains wide awake. The child Errand is already asleep in her lap, small head lolling, and Relg glances at them. "You should go to bed," he says to her, and she shakes her head.

"I'm not going anywhere," she says, and he knows that he is smiling, a little, before he can even think it.

Her fingers itch. They itch to brush through his hair, to touch his face, to rest on his shoulder. Taiba does her best to make sure that Errand is with her, instead, so that her arms and hands are busy with the charge of the boy instead.

Relg is cleaner now, and it makes her laugh, a little, inside: as if worrying less about the filth of the spirit has made him worry more about that of the body. Now she knows what he smells like, under dirt and armour and cloth. It doesn't make things any easier, but she waits. She waits, and wants to believe the sorceress. She waits, and ignores the flutterings of girls who feel so young, so stupid: Ce'Nedra for her boy-king, and it takes everything Taiba can do not to slap the little queen for her machinations and her stupid games; Adara, for the Algar prince, so transparent and foolish and useless; Ariana, simpering after her pale shadow of a husband.

Stupid, spoiled, little girls.

None of them understanding what this war meant. What they all stood on the cusp of losing.

In her dreams, sometimes Taiba sees Relg's body, and when she wakes up it's hard not to go and shake him awake, make him prove to her that he's still alive. Soon, too soon, he will go again, and this time to kill or be killed. And that will hurt him; he's told her about killing, about how it's forbidden, and must be paid for. And if he doesn't come back -

Sometimes, at night, she lies awake and threatens UL. Relg would be horrified if he knew, but she doesn't tell him. Just lies alone in the dark and thinks, You had better bring him back to me. You had best.

She doesn't care that she's helpless, threatening something so far beyond her as to make her a crawling insect in comparison. After all, that's always been her life.

 

*****

 

About midmorning of the following day, however, the special force returned. There were a few bandages here and there and perhaps a dozen empty saddles, but the look of victory shone on every face.

"Very nice little fight," Barak reported. The huge man was grinning broadly. "We caught them just before sundown. They never knew what hit them."

General Varana, who had accompanied the force to observe, was a bit more precise as he described the engagement to the assembled kings.

. . . .

"It was absolutely splendid!" Lelldorin exclaimed, his eyes very bright. There was a bandage around the young Asturian's upper arm, but he seemed to have forgotten that it was there as he gesticulated wildly.

. . . . .

Ariana, her face somber, took Lelldorin to task very firmly for his lack of discretion, even as she tended his wound. Her words far surpassed a simple scolding. She grew eloquent, and her lengthy, involuted sentences gave her remonstrance a depth and scope that reduced her young man very nearly to tears. His wound, admittedly minor, became a symbol of his careless lack of regard for her. Her expression grew martyred, and his grew anguished. Ce'Nedra observed how neatly Ariana twisted each of the young man's lame excuses into an even greater personal injury, and filed this excellent technique away in a compartment of her complex little mind for future use. True, Garion was somewhat brighter than Lelldorin, but the tactic would probably work on him too, if she practiced a little.

Taiba's meeting with Relg, on the other hand, involved no words.

Enchanter's End Game

*****

 

Relg comes last among those who return, and every column that passes is another knife in her lungs, so that Taiba can't breathe. Can't think. They would have told her, if he were dead, hurt. She's certain. They would have known, Barak would have known, or the stupid girl's stupid husband, and they wouldn't be laughing and joking if Relg were hurt or dead. She's certain. Almost certain, because they're Alorns and Arends and stupid and she can't breathe.

This is all she can think, until she sees him, smudged with dirt and blood but walking alone with his men behind him. And it looks like as many men or near as he tool, and then she can't think anything anymore. She nearly falls flat as she throws herself out from beside the tent where Errand sleeps, feet catching on stones and dirt and other things, but she doesn't care. Relg is alive: she doesn't care about anything.

They move for her, the soldiers and others, and she flings herself at him without thinking, without any thought at all, the scales of his armour biting into her skin and her arms around his neck, a wordless cry coming out of her mouth. She can feel him, alive, even through the cold of the mail and the sharp of it against her, knows the heart beats under it all, that he's here, that he's not hurt, that she's not left without him.

And she feels him flinch. And she remembers, and something inside her flinches, too, her promise broken. She steps back away. She lets her arms fall to her sides. But she can't stop her eyes from going to her face and she doesn't think that she can hide the pleading there, the question, the please, Relg - That she can't stop the pain from showing in her eyes, what she wants and can't have.

He's alive. She tells herself this, that this is what's important, memorizing eyes and pale face and near-white hair. Her fingers twist in the cloth of her skirt, and she tells herself he's alive, and starts to shape the words, I'm sorry, with lips and tongue.

And then she sees him take a breath. And then she can't read the look on his face. And then he reaches out one hand towards her.

His fingers brush against her lower arm and her eyes close for a moment, her throat closing with them. When his fingers slide down her arm to her hand, her breath catches, and she opens her eyes again as fingertips curl across the skin of her palm, pulling her hand to where his fingers can link with hers. Where he touches her, her skin feels as if it shivers all on its own, like light is running through her veins instead of blood. His skin is dry and warm; she can feel the grit of the dirt from battle and the places where rock and knife have hardened his fingertips and palm.

Relg doesn't say anything. Neither does she. Terrified and elated, mind and skin on fire, she answers the gentle pull of his hand on hers by following him, breathing carefully and trying to keep her expression even, calm. But her mouth keeps curving whether she will or no, and she has to blink to keep her vision clear.

 

He sleeps beside her, that night. Polgara comes and gathers Errand up without a word, but Taiba catches her eye and hopes that the gratitude shows. Relg goes to find water to wash, first, and to see to where his men will sleep, but then he comes back and eats with her, and when night comes he stays and sleeps beside her.

The heat means she sleeps in her shift, he in shirt and sturdy trousers that Ulgos wear. Mostly, she's kept her hair braided back out of the way, but tonight she lets it down. Relg touches her face: her cheeks, beside her eyes, even brushes a finger down the curve of her nose. He touches her hair, fingers catching in tangles she hasn't brushed out, but she doesn't care. He touches her shoulder, the side of her neck. Taiba reaches out herself and touches his hand, his arms, traces the line of his brows, does as her fingers have itched to do for so long and brushes fingers through his hair. Touches his mouth, once, with two fingers.

"It doesn't bother you?" she asks, just a touch above a whisper.

"I don't think it could bother me to carry you with me," he tells her, his face full of the seriousness that's such a part of him, his fingers tracing the lines on her palm and making her close her eyes again. And her breath catch, when he presses his mouth to her fingers, one by one. "Not anymore."

And Taiba wants him, but not here. Not here, where only canvas hides them, where there are so many other people. Not where she'll remember every other time, with every other man, and who could hear her then. What they could hear. Not here. So she doesn't press, and neither does he; she doesn't ask if it's because he doesn't want, or because he thinks she doesn't. But he sleeps beside her, both of them facing the other, his hand on hers through the night.

She wants to say, never go away again, but there are more battles, and she can't fight. So she'll save that too, for afterwards. Then she'll ask him to promise, and promise whatever he wants in return.

Chapter Text

The sky is empty
The stars are dead
You are all my wanting
For you I will sing back the sun

The world after the darkness seems strange. Almost new, if it weren't for the bodies of the dead, laid out to burn and bury according to the ways of their living people, or whether they were enemy or friend.

The sorcerer Beldin said that the darkness was the Universe mourning her son. That Torak was dead, and the Gods gathered around him to reclaim what remained of their wayward brother. The idea makes Taiba's skin crawl, makes her turn to find Relg's hand, or to rest her head on his shoulder. She thinks that maybe he understands, because he rests his hand on her hair and doesn't say anything.

There are many, many rites the Ulgo must do. For those that have died, and those they killed. Taiba doesn't mind them: not these, not anymore. She almost snarls at the kings - at the kings - when they grumble; to her shock the hunchback sorcerer does it for her, barking a short demand: And what does your God want from you now? Shouldn't you be getting falling down drunk and bothering women who'd rather you went away or dropped dead? The Cherek king bridles, but under the little sorcerer's glare he subsides, and they leave the Ulgo alone.

Taiba just sits and waits. She understands this, at least. She understands that they are reminding themselves. Making sure they don't forget what killing is. What it means. It isn't hers; that's why she sits aside and waits. But she understands.

When it's over, and the last of the mournful, repentant song stops, Relg comes to her where she sits and holds out his hands. She puts hers in his and he pulls her to her feet, touches her hands to his forehead.

 

Taiba doesn't ask what now, because she's afraid of the answer. She doesn't have much to say, and even less to do; Polgara keeps Errand by her side, and if Taiba can linger at the edge of whatever it is Relg has to do, as one of the commanders in this army, she's not much use and isn't part of it. She knows that.

She listens to the others talking, Alorns, Arends, Sendars and Tolnedrans. She listens to them talk about Angarak and tries not to let the bitter laughter out. They talk about Torak's death as if it will make the difference; as if the altars will stop, as if anything will change. Or they talk about 'Zakath and the Murgos as if they'll kill each other, and it doesn't matter.

Now, in the world after the dark, when everything she was supposed to fear is over, Taiba thinks about everyone she knew, dead under the mountain in Rak Cthol, and hundreds of places like it, and thinks that nobody here understands anything at all.

Belgarath would, if he were here. He wouldn't have an answer she liked, maybe; but he would understand. But he's still on a ship, coming back from Mallorea where the boy-king killed the Dragon God.

Your life will go on well, he'd said, all those months ago, on the barrens. Taiba just doesn't know how.

 

At night, with Relg beside her, Taiba chews on her lip in thought until she makes herself ask. "What will happen to them?" Her voice is even softer than she meant it to be. Relg stirs, and she says, "The Angaraks. Now that their God is dead."

She remembers his stories, of the first Gorim, of Ulgo. She thinks he might be the only one who could understand the question, even if she doesn't understand why she cares. And for a long time, Relg doesn't say anything.

Then he says, "I don't know." And, "It might kill them. He was evil, but he was everything to them. Even if he was nothing but fear and hatred, he was everything. Now there's nothing."

Taiba shivers. And she wants to say, what about me? She doesn't. Just survive, Belgarath had told her. And she has. Her days were full of terror at Torak's victory, and frustration and then anguish and giddiness mixed at Relg, and now it's all over, and she doesn't have either. She doesn't know what she's supposed to have. But there's nothing more to say. Not that makes sense.

Relg's breathing slows into sleep. Taiba lies awake, curled on her side, watching his face and trying to find sleep for herself and feeling it pass through her fingers again and again. She counts his breaths; she counts her own. She closes her eyes and tries to listen to one of her mother's songs in her head.

 

And someone else is singing. Soft, so soft Taiba can barely hear it, and maybe she isn't hearing it. Not with her ears. Soft, so soft, the words almost a murmur, hard to catch until she does, dai, dai, little heart beats with mine. A song she barely remembers. A song for a tiny child, held in her mother's arms. And a memory, a memory of her mother's face, clear like she never has anymore, kind eyes and smiling mouth. So long ago. So long.

But the voice isn't her mother's. Too low, too soft, too deep. Too much. And in the dark, as Taiba sits up, her hands go to her cheeks and she feels the tears there and doesn't know why.

Relg is asleep. It can't be morning, can't be near dawn, but there's a light behind her, faint. A light that means she can see Relg's face as he sleeps, when there should be darkness. A light that isn't like a lantern, or a candle, or a lamp. Taiba rolls to one side, gets to her feet, and stares at the faint luminance. After a moment, her hands go to the tent-flaps, to undo the ties and push the canvas aside. She steps out.

A figure stands near their tent, near the crates the waggoneers have piled there. And for a moment, for too many heartbeats, that's all Taiba can see. All she can think: a figure. Tall, maybe - yes. A man, maybe, but not. A figure that turns to her as she steps out of the tent, and raises its face, his face. Turns from where it had stood, head bowed, and looks at her. A man, maybe, but the face is too thin, too delicate; the body slender, and yet, and yet Taiba knows, can feel strength beyond imagining. A robe of white, and all wrapped in a glow, faint and gentle, and tinged - tinged, Taiba knows, with the colour of her own eyes.

He looks at her, the figure; his eyes search her face, all of her, as if he's trying to carve everything into his mind, himself, and the words oh, my daughter touch her mind like a feather-fall.

Taiba's feet stumble one step back from the God, and one hand goes to her mouth. Her throat. I was told his name was Mara, her own voice comes back to her. We don't pray to him, though. Not since he abandoned us.

When her mouth forms his name, there's no sound. Only the shape of a word on her lips, and a feeling as if some vast thing had her heart in its hand and would slowly crush it.

"Yes," he says, so soft, and yet in her bones like the shaking earth. And then, "Oh, Taiba," and in his voice, in His voice, she hears everything that her name is, all that it means, that she never knew. The shape of the tree that shares the name, as it grows beside the river, twisting branches to heaven through drought and flood and, this spring and that, throwing flowers open to the world. And she hears her mother's murmuring, and Taiba shakes her head.

She chokes, as the God, her God, stands and watches, one hand lifted and held suspended. Stopped like hers used to before she touched Relg, as if any movement of a God could be like that, so uncertain. In the pit of her stomach something churns, and there's hate there, and anger, betrayal and bitterness and it twists all together to twist tendrils up through her chest, by her heart, to her throat. There are curses there, and worse.

But behind her heart is its own ache, one that shakes her to the dust in her marrow, and it twists itself around the growing, malignant thing so that what she says, what comes out, are three words that come from both, from the twisted thing and the ache.

"Where were you?"

The words scratch at her throat and her mouth, a whisper and a cry in one sound; the breath she pulls in after them comes with a noise like a sob, like something she hasn't done since her daughters died, and her vision blurs as she stares at her God, her hands pressed over her own heart.

And Mara says, in that same soft voice, "Oh, my daughter," and as he holds out his hands, "Forgive me."

They aren't only words. Taiba closes her eyes, as a God's regret touches her mind like the very curl of a wave. It leaves her gasping for air, hands pressed to her face: regret, and guilt, sorrow and endless, boundless love, and wound around it words - I could not see thee, I did not know thee - oh my child, my child, if I had known thee would I have driven armies and madness across the earth and ocean to find thee, to bring thee to me - oh daughter, oh my daughter, forgive me -

Taiba can't see, when she lifts her face. Not until she wipes at her eyes with her hands. The twisted thing unwinds; it hurts. It can't not. But he doesn't lie; her God doesn't lie. She knows he doesn't. "I needed you," she whispers, but she lets her hand reach towards his, towards the God that's come here for her. When his fingers close gently around her hand, they seem like any man's - yet she knows, feels the vastness bound so lightly in this form, bound to this form so that she isn't frightened, so that her mind stays her own.

And Taiba whispers, "Maìda," because they didn't call him god, her mother had said so long ago, or by the name that others used; this was theirs, Father-Mother, and she doesn't think she's ever spoken the word aloud before. Her God pulls her gently to him, and says, this time in their own tongue, Ai, inaìn, ai Taìba, and she lays her head on her God's shoulder and cries.

 

Relg wakes at Taiba's voice, at the pain in the words. They bring him awake and to his feet in one thought, to the open ties of the tent in another; only then does the deeper voice, the silent voice that he has heard only once before and knows, knows so well, bring him to pause.

No, says the voice. And Wait. And there can be no disobedience. Not to that voice.

So Relg stands in the entrance to the tent, sleep still clinging to his thoughts, to see Taiba take the God Mara's hand and then the sobs that shake her, like they would shatter her body. His body tries to move of its own accord, and the voice of UL says again, No.

"She cries," Relg murmurs, in Ulgo, to the night, a kind of plea in the words.

Wait, says the voice in him. Relg closes his eyes and covers them, his jaw tight enough to grind. But he waits. He waits and listens, as her sobs grow less, and quieter; as the voice of a God murmurs in a tongue Relg doesn't - yet - know. Promises, he thinks, even if he cannot make out the words. Promises and adoration.

A God screamed in Maragor, he thinks. And a God stands here. Oh, Taiba. And when Relg steps forward this time, no voice tells him to wait.

Mara's eyes fall on him, over his daughter's head tucked under his chin. An ordinary thing, Relg thinks, if you didn't know that here stands a God and the very last of his children. And in Relg's soul, lighter and less deep than the voice of UL, Mara's voice says, And you are Relg of Ulgo.

Relg nods, as he stops a pace or two away.

She loves thee, Mara's voice tells him, and she will need thee.

"I know," Relg says, softly. "It is the same with me." The words come in their formal shape, but he knows that Mara is pleased; the night rings with the God's soul.

Mara catches Taiba's face in his hands so that she will look at him, and murmurs again in their still-secret tongue. Then he presses a kiss to Taiba's forehead and gently turns her, so that she sees Relg. Relg catches her, when she takes an unsteady step towards him; her arms twine around his neck, as they did when he carried her out of the caves, and as Mara steps back to fade into the night, there's a smile on his face.

Taiba takes a shuddering breath, and then another; Relg rests his hand lightly at the curve of her neck, fingers in her hair.

 

*****

 

Relg and Taiba did not dance, but sat together in a secluded corner. They were, Garion noted, holding hands.

- Enchanter's End Game: Epilogue

Chapter Text

Firstly, my thanks go to my friends Dormouse and Celeloriel, for their extreme patience with my infliction of this story on them, and to them and my friends Radish and K and I think Tae for their patience with my ranting about this.

The format of this story is deliberately episodic: I decided that touching into highlights and most important moments of growth was the best way to tell it. As such, there are interspersed quotes from the Belgariad itself in order to place each section and give it the larger context. Each one of these is set apart with italics and citation.

I have attempted to preserve the Belgariad's dialogue where applicable, but in some cases, there have been alterations of particular words or phrases. If you don't notice these, don't worry about it; if you happen to be the sort of person who does, I did it on purpose.

The first time I read the Belgariad, I was in my early teens, and Taiba and Relg's story didn't manage to interest me much, and also didn't bother me. A decade and a bit later, listening to the audiobooks when I needed hands free for dull work, their story suddenly both spoke to me, and, in the particular way the narrative drew it, kind of appalled me. Without arguments of authorial intent (because I don't really care), however, one can account for the appalling by noting that the Belgariad itself is narrated by two extremely self-involved sixteen year olds (I recognize that some people will find the adjective redundant), and that while the actual facts occurred more or less as reported, the interpretation bears almost as much resemblance to what Garion and Ce'Nedra think is going on as a zebra does to a Shetland pony.

I made the mistake of saying this to a friend or two, and a monster was born.

This story has been the work of several months, and hopefully at least someone out there will get something out of it. :) All excerpts from the Book of UL and all fragments of Marag poetry were invented by the author.

Thank you!

- Feather