Taiba has been walking around the tent for the whole day, struggling with her problem. She stared at Relg’s letter for hours as if hoping the signs will suddenly start to make sense and resolve her issue. They didn’t.
The only part of the letter she could understand was a dried violet flower, attached to the parchment with a thin thread. Next to it was a simple, but very clear charcoal drawing, depicting a pair of eyes. It was a very restrained message, but it did bring Taiba a lot of joy. It was nice to know that her zealot can associate her with something else beside hellfire and sin.
The Marag gave up in the evening. She had to know the contents of the letter. Someone had to read it to her and, without much hesitation, Taiba chose to ask Adara to do it. The Algar has already offered her help and beside her there wasn’t any woman whom Taiba would trust enough for that. Ariana was very genial, but Taiba feared that the romantic spirit of the Arend might disrupt reading the letter, should it contain any personal confessions. That would only enforce Taiba’s embarrassment. She trusted lady Polgara, of course, but the piercing eyes of the sorceress could already see everything that’s been happening between Taiba and the Ulgo. Taiba wasn’t eager to acquaint the woman with her affairs any more than she already was. The quiet and composed Algar was the only good choice.
The Marag left the tent where she and Errand slept and headed to the centre of the camp, where princess Ce’Nedra has set her quarters. Adara could usually be found in the company of Garion’s absorbing fiancée, so Taiba guessed she should be easiest to find there.
Errand has been accompanying her the whole time, his tiny hand clutching hers. The little boy was looking around curiously and, at some point, he tugged at Taiba’s dress to get her attention.
“What is it, honey?” the Marag asked absently.
“Letter” the boy replied
“Yes, I need someone to read me the letter”
Errand pointed to the right, where between the tents, in the light of a portable lantern, a woman sat, reading a book.
“Letter” Errand repeated with emphasis.
Taiba laughed and bent down to press a kiss onto the boy’s forehead.
“You’re very clever, aren’t you?” she asked, amused “I don’t suppose you could read me the letter?”
Errand smiled happily and hugged her.
“Yeah, I thought so” Taiba sighed.
They walked towards the woman. Adara was sitting on a blanket spread across the grass, resting her back against one of the poles which supported the nearest tent.
The choice of the spot seemed a bit odd at first, but, as Taiba walked closer, she noticed that behind the tents was nothing but a steep slope, covered in heather. Because of that, nothing obscured the view of the shore and the mountains of Sendaria looking truly picturesque in the purple light of the fading day,
Adara raised her head and smiled lightly seeing the two approaching her. She put the book aside.
“Taiba, Errand” she nodded towards them “Good evening”
The boy momentarily sat by her side, snuggling against her.
He must be really starved of human touch, Taiba thought suddenly, surprised that she hadn’t thought about it earlier. After all, Zedar and Ctuchik couldn’t have been particularly affectionate towards the boy during all the time he spent with them. No wonder why he always wanted to be close to someone.
Taiba cleared her throat.
“You said you could…” she took a deep breath “…you could read my letter to me”
“Of course” Adara said, inviting Taiba to sit “Be my guest”
The Marag sat down and took out the letter, still clutching it desperately as if she was afraid someone could try to take it away from her.
“Just… you have to promise that you’ll never speak of what you read” the Marag said “To me or to anyone. And…”
“Taiba, I am aware of how discretion works” Adara said gently “I swear on my life that I’ll forget everything I’ve read”
“Alright” she said, handing Adara the letter.
“You said Relg knows that you cannot read, didn’t you?” the Algar asked.
“Well, in that case, he knew that someone will have to read it to you. I doubt he’d include something too personal in it”
Taiba nodded. That did seem reasonable. Irrationally, she felt slight disappointment. It wasn’t as if she expected some heartfelt confessions but…
Adara started reading:
according to your wish, I reached Prolgu alive and without many complications.
I’m writing this letter on the first day of the third week since we parted.
The Gorim has graciously acceded the request of supporting the army with a
troop of our own and we should begin our journey to the Stronghold in two days.
We should join the main forces in about two weeks time. I...
Relg hesitated. I what? There was no way to convey everything he felt in one small letter, and most certainly not when someone beside Taiba was going to read it.
How to write that ever since their parting, he's felt incomplete, insecure, still looking around as if hoping to find her nearby, but in vain? How to write that, at the same time, he begged UL’s forgiveness for that in his every prayer? How to say that he was frightened by how godless she was, she acted, but he still yearned for the sight of her, for her voice, for her touch…
The Ulgo’s eyes widened in fear. No, he couldn’t write that!
Relg buried his face in his hands, tugging at his hair, hoping that the pain will help him regain the clarity of his mind. He laughed bitterly. He’d also hoped that the saint caves of Prolgu would allow him to find his peace, yet here he was.
Relg wished UL would end his existence right here, right now. Everything he’s been doing his whole life turned out to anger his god, but this? This will unleash UL’s fury and turn Relg into ash and dust if the man’s thoughts of the Marag don’t do it first.
The longer he didn’t see her, the more she occupied his mind and some thoughts made him want to crawl into some dark pit and die of self-loathing.
The memory of their last meeting was the worst of them all. Not only because it marked another milestone of Relg’s fall, but also because he recalled it with the most tenderness. And disgust. Mostly of himself than of Taiba. After all, while he couldn’t say he was indifferent towards the woman, to spend time with her and talk to her (usually trying to inculcate some basics of religion and ethics and the way of godly life) was one thing, but to touch her… that was a whole different matter. He’d successfully managed to avoid it – to resist – for months and then squandered everything in one moment of weakness – one moment when his low, pathetic instincts took over his integrity. What was he thinking?!
His perplexity was interrupted by the Gorim’s messenger, sent to bring Relg to the old man’s quarters. Relg has never been this glad to obey the Gorim’s orders. Happy to escape his turmoil and delay the finishing of that dreadful letter, he hurried to the Gorim’s abode.
For the first time ever, the old man’s home felt like a safehaven – filled with UL’s presence and peace. While it didn’t calm Relg's mind entirely, it did soothe him a little bit.
Relg did something he’s never done before and knocked politely, waiting to be invited inside. When the door opened, the Ulgo vaguely recalled how he barged in here with his followers to confront the Gorim, mere few months ago. He definitely wouldn’t be capable of such actions right now. Not when he knew how disappointed UL was in his actions; not when he wouldn’t dare to face those who looked up to him, now being fully aware of how flawed he was.
This thought was enough to chase away the whit of peace he’d regained and Relg walked into the main chamber as tormented as he was before, which, of course, didn’t escape the Gorim’s attention, though he didn’t let it be known at first.
Due to the fact that the previous day Relg arrived in Prolgu exhausted after the long journey, they talked very briefly, only to make the most important decisions concerning the Ulgos’ participation in the oncoming campaign before Relg went to his abode to get some well-deserved rest.
Now, the Gorim wanted to hear a more detailed report of the events that took place after the fellowship left Prolgu, which seemed like millennia ago. Relg told him everything that happened in Riva – from Belgarion’s coronation and the long lost king of Riva returning to his throne, through the ceremonial engagement with Ce’Nedra, to his escape from the island in the company of Belgarath and Kheldar. He also acquainted the Gorim with all the decisions made by the rulers left behind and their plans for the campaign.
Relating everything did distract Relg from his problems a little bit and even caused him to forget his antipathy towards the Gorim for a while and speak to him with all due respect. That also didn’t go unnoticed.
When Relg finished his story, the Gorim was staring at him thoughtfully.
“You’ve changed, Relg” the old man finally said.
The zealot looked at him with anxiety.
“Changed?” he repeated.
“You have journeyed a long way since you left Prolgu with Polgara and Belgarath. Though it’s difficult for me to say where the journey has led you.”
Relg looked away. He knows. He can see my sin. He already knows.
“You’re troubled” the Gorim said “Why?”
The bigot looked at him in torment. Should I tell him everything? He’s never had much liking for the Gorim. Nay, he spent a long time trying to turn the people against him, to overthrow him. But the man was also the one chosen by UL himself and the closest thing to the god on Earth. If anyone had the power to absolve Relg for his sins, it was the Gorim.
“I…” he began, still fighting with himself “I… I fear I may have failed UL…”
He buried his face in his hands. The Gorim watched his behaviour with mild curiosity.
“Why would you say that?” he asked “You led Belgarath and aided him with everything you could, just as UL demanded. As far as I remember, one or two of your companions owe you life. I must say, I fail to see your fault”
Relg let out something between a sob and a snort.
“Yes, but… there are other… things” he uttered.
The Gorim raised his eyebrows.
Relg looked at him and the older man realized he’s never seen the zealot so tormented.
“Why me?” Relg asked, his voice faltering “Why did UL choose me? Of all people?”
“He must have had his reasons”
“But you don’t know them!”
“Of course. Our god doesn’t usually share all his motives with me.”
“There must be something…”
“Do you doubt his choice?” the Gorim asked.
Relg hunched, woebegone.
Well, isn’t this interesting, the Gorim thought. He’s known Relg for years and never has he saw any sign of doubting himself shade the zealot’s mind. Maybe except that short moment after UL has spoken to him in the presence of Belgarath and his companions. But, apart from that, Relg has always been self-confident and puffed-up. Now, he just seemed lost.
“He said I disappointed him” Relg continued “My actions insulted him. He should have killed me then”
The Gorim blinked in surprise.
“Killed you?” he repeated “Son, he may have been angered by your behaviour, but he did see something valuable in you and I believe that’s the reason you were the one chosen for this task”
“He was mistaken” Relg groaned
The zealot kept surprising the Gorim over and over again with his defeatist attitude. Every diviner, all those alike Relg, would jump at the chance of being exalted by UL and would spend the rest of their lives strutting and bragging about it. Truth be told, the Gorim expected Relg to act like that as well when he returns. He couldn't understand why the younger man suddenly found himself so unworthy.
“Relg” he said calmly “I believe it's time you told me why do you think UL shouldn't have put his faith in you”
Relg hesitated. How was he supposed to describe the situation to the Gorim? How to explain everything he felt and thought, when there was so much of it and incomprehensible even for him? He thought of all the things he learned about himself throughout his journey, of all his mistakes and faults, of all his offences towards UL that he became aware of. How could he confess them all? And, obviously, there was Taiba. All of this would be easier if it hadn't been for her, so Relg decided that this would be a good start.
“There is... a woman...” he began unsteadily.
The Gorim had to force back a smile. Everything became much clearer. Even though Relg hasn't told him the whole story yet, the Gorim guessed that what shook the diviner so greatly was simply one of the most ancient things that troubled the humanity since its dawn.
“Belgarath told you of how we found her in Rak Cthol, but he didn't say...” Relg continued, staring at his hands “...he didn't... she was a slave there. And I... as you know, the mountain was falling apart so Polgara told me to get her out and Taiba was weak and dying and I had to carry her and I had to touch her... I told them I can't, but... and I had no choice...”
The Gorim frowned, trying to follow the story, which wasn't easy, because Relg was speaking with increasing speed and decreasing coherency.
“...and I tried to avoid her, but I couldn't... and she believes in no god and she's so... shameless and I thought about her... I prayed to UL, but she was still there and I had to... see her and when we left Riva and I couldn't... I prayed, I tried... but I couldn't... couldn't...”
“Couldn't what?” the Gorim asked gently.
Relg closed his eyes.
“I touched her” he whispered “Just for a moment... but I did and... I know I shouldn't... she's... she's not like me... but I just... had to”
“Is that it?”
Relg stared at the old man in disbelief.
“Is that it?” he repeated “It's a sin! She's a heathen, she's impure! She makes me feel... feel... which means I defied UL!”
So all that Relg is ashamed of is desiring a woman, the Gorim thought. He recalled Taiba from their meeting, when Belgarath with his companions returned from Rak Cthol. She was indeed a very handsome woman and the Gorim could see that she did draw the attention of many men who found themselves in her presence. But, obviously, only Relg was capable of doing such a fuss over a bit of lust. Although, the Gorim reckoned, it's probably much more than just lust. He didn't miss the fondness in Relg's voice when he spoke of Taiba. The woman was clearly much dearer to the diviner than he wanted to admit.
The best thing was that Relg fell into his own trap.
“As far as I remember, UL has never forbid contacts with non-believers and those worshipping other gods” the Gorim said “Neither did he condemn the desire of being close to such. Debauchery, yes. Adultery. But not this.”
This attempt to fight the human nature was an invention of Relg's kind. The diviners, who wanted to be above such petty human needs, as if they tried to be closer to being gods than human. Relg wouldn't experience such torment if he hadn't created those twisted moral standards for himself.
Poor man, the Gorim thought. He doubted he could repair Relg's worldview himself. He could try to talk some sense into him, but such fundamental changes in his mentality could only be made by Relg himself.
The diviner was still staring at the old man, unconvinced.
“But... can't you do something about it?” he asked hopefully “Isn't there a ritual...or...or how can I atone... how can I get rid of all this?”
The Gorim smiled.
“No prayers will help here, Relg” he said “Thousands of generations have tried to find a remedy for what you're going through and in vain”
“But... you're the Gorim!”
“You should know... have the power... If UL chose me, if he wanted me to better myself...”
“UL has no control over what's happening in your heart” the Gorim interrupted “He can't stop you from loving and, frankly, I doubt he would even if he could”
“Loving?!” Relg exclaimed, blushing “I don't... I would never! That's blasphemy, that's preposterous! That's just... you're wrong!”
Gorim didn't reply. He wasn't going to argue with the zealot. The man was doing just fine arguing with himself.
“She's a heathen!” Relg continued “It would be the worst sin... I could never... I think I'd know!”
“Oh, it's actually quite probable that you'd be the last one to know”
Relg got up and headed to the exit.
“I need to check with the troops” he said, storming out of the Gorim's home.
The old man finally allowed a wide grin to spread across his lips.
“Interesting times we live in” he muttered to himself.
Relg didn't go directly to the troops' quarters. He had to compose himself first and, preferably forget the words of the old fool that the Gorim was.
In love! Him!
“Silly...” Relg muttered to himself “Preposterous...”
However, if it was true (which it wasn't) it would explain quite a few things... But it wasn't! There must have been another explanation.
Love... that's just nonsense. That’s...
Relg stopped, thinking intensely.
Could it be?
Could it be the reason he always wanted to be around her? And when he wasn't, was that why his thoughts always wandered around the Marag anyway? Could it be why he kept searching for her, even though he knew he should avoid her?
The Ulgo shook his head and started walking. He couldn't have possibly fallen that low. Low enough to fall for a heathen!
No, that was impossible. He couldn't have had an affection for someone like Taiba. Godless. Immoral. Sinner.
Strong, true, beautiful...
UL almighty, what have I done?
He loved her.
A hysterical laugh escaped his throat.
He loved her more than anything.
When on Earth did it happen?
Relg didn't know. Currently he didn't know much. He felt he was on the verge of madness.
He was... doomed, that's what he was.
He shouldn't feel how he felt, but also he couldn't do anything about how he felt. He could try to fight it, but over the past few months he learned just how much he could accomplish with his fighting.
Well, the best I can do is just ignore it, Relg thought. Wait until the war is over, return to Prolgu, forget Taiba, and spend the rest of my life on atonement. He had to admit that this perspective didn't really seem pleasant, but, well, no one said piety would be enjoyable.
Without Relg realising it, his feet carried him back home, where, after walking through the door, the zealot once more faced the awful letter he was supposed to finish and send together with the message to the commanders.
How was he supposed to write the rest of it, now that his world turned upside down?
Relg glanced at the parchment. He assumed it would be best to write the rest of his message as short as possible. Concise and not unnecessarily wordy.
But not too dry either. He could allow himself a few warm words, now that he's already decided to part with Taiba as soon as he can. No need to be rude to her until then. There would be no harm in a bit of cordiality, since he was going to put everything to an end in a few months' time tops, which he absolutely was. He could surely write something like that without sounding as if he was encouraging her... or himself.
At that moment Relg remembered the little purple flower he picked up during one of the stops he made on his way to Prolgu. He took the dried plant from his pocket. The diviner knew that its colour reminded him of something and now he realised what it was.
Relg recalled the look in them when he saw Taiba last. She stared at him in surprise, joy... at least that much he managed to see before he ran away. He forced back a smile at that memory.
Relg quickly attached the flower to the parchment using needle and thread and as carefully as he could, sketched a pair of eyes.
There. That ought to do it.
He quickly wrote the rest of the message:
...I wish we could arrive there sooner.
I hope you will forgive me my audacity the last time
we met. I shouldn't have done what I did.
I look forward to seeing you again.
My thoughts and prayers are with you.
When Adara finished reading, Taiba was still staring at her in tension and with her heart pounding.
The letter was short, true, but it contained so much.
Relg mentioned their last meeting. Taiba felt slight tingling at the place where the Ulgo's fingers touched her skin. So it did have impact on him as well.
“Audacity”. The Marag grinned. No one beside Relg would call his small gesture an audacity.
“Thoughts and prayers”. If someone else wrote it, it might have been merely a meaningless phrase. But it was Relg who devoted his prayers to her. Relg, for whom prayers were the very fabric of his existence. Her grin turned into a wide smile.
The whole letter could contain only this one word and it would be no less dear to Taiba than in its entirety.
Adara was looking at the Marag with a slight smile. There was, however, a hint of melancholy in it, and Taiba noticed it.
“What's wrong?” she asked.
“Nothing” Adara shrugged “Just... It's a very neatly written letter, if I can say so”
Taiba kept staring at her as did Errand and the force of those two piercing looks forced Adara to let out a silent sigh.
“I just...” she said “I envy you a little bit, that's all”
Taiba didn't hesitate before hugging the Algar dame.
“I'm sure the letter you'll get will be just as good” she said
Adara snorted silently.
“I doubt that” she replied.
“Don't be silly” Taiba leaned back “You're smart and kind and beautiful and if no one falls for you, then Algaria must be made up of blind fools”
“I'm not interested in all man of Algaria, Taiba. One would be enough”
“You couldn't love a fool” she said “So it's only a matter of time”
Adara returned the smile, but shook her head slowly.
“That's very kind of you to say, Taiba” she said.
The Algar handed he letter to Taiba, who understood that her companion wasn't the type of person to discuss her feelings with someone else, so she didn't push her. She only offered her another warm hug.
“Thank you for reading me the letter” Taiba said, getting up.
“What letter?” Adara asked, her face as impassive as usual.
She is extraordinary, that one, the Marag thought, whoever wins... whoever won her heart possesses a treasure.
She took Errand back to their tent, but having tucked him up in his bed, she realised that she wouldn’t fall asleep as easily as him. All she was capable of now was laying in bed, smiling at the cloth ceiling and letting her thoughts wander around a certain diviner, probably trying to fall asleep in his bed, miles away, hopefully already on his way to Stronghold. On his way to her.
“Sleep well, love” Taiba murmured, smirking.