‘Idiot?’ father asked sharply. ‘I thought he was a madman.’
The priest, a kindly old man, sighed. ‘No, Ancient One,’ he said. ‘Madness is an aberration in a normal human mind. This poor fellow doesn’t have a mind. He can’t even talk.’
‘But –’ father started to protest.
‘He never once uttered a coherent sound, Ancient One – until a few years back. Then he suddenly started to talk. Actually, it sounds more like recitation than actual talking. Every so often, I’ll pick up a phrase from “The Book of Alorn”. King Dras told us all to keep an eye out for assorted madmen, since they might possibly say something that’d be useful for you to know. When our local idiot started talking, I was fairly sure that it was the sign of something significant.’
‘When his Reverence’s word reached me, I came down here and had a look for myself,’ Dras picked up the story. ‘I listened to the poor brute for a while, and then I hired some scribes to come here and stand watch over him – just the way you instructed that day back on the banks of the Aldur when you divided up father’s kingdom. If it turns out that he’s not a real prophet, I’ll send the scribes back to Boktor. My budget’s a little tight this year, so I’m trimming expenses.’
‘Let me hear him talk before you close up shop here, Dras,’ father said. ‘His Reverence is right. An idiot who suddenly starts talking’s a little out of the ordinary.’
We went around behind the shabby little temple, and I saw that beast for the first time.
He was filthy, and he seemed to enjoy wallowing in the mud, much as a pig would – and probably for the same reason. A mosquito can’t bite through a thick coating of muck. He didn’t have what you could really call a forehead, since his hairline seemed almost to merge with his beetling brows, and his head was peculiarly deformed, sloping back from that jutting browridge. His deep-sunk eyes contained not the faintest glimmer of human intelligence. He slobbered and moaned and jerked rhythmically on the chain that kept him from running off into the fens.
I felt an almost overpowering wave of pity come over me. Even death would have been better than what this poor creature endured.
‘No, Pol,’ mother’s voice told me. ‘Life is good, even for such a one as this, and like you and me and all the rest, he has a task to perform.’
Father spoke at some length with Bull-neck’s scribes and read a few pages of what they had already transcribed. Then we returned to the ship, and I went looking for Khadon again.
It was about noon on the following day when one of the scribes came down to the river to advise us that the Prophet was talking, and we trooped once more to that rustic temple to listen to the voice of God.
I was startled by the change that had come over the sub-human creature crouched in the mud beside his kennel. There was a kind of exaltation on his brutish face, and the words corning from his mourn – words he could not possibly have understood – were pronounced very precisely in a rolling sort of voice that seemed almost to have an echo built into it.
After a while he broke off and went back to moaning and rhythmically yanking on his chain.
‘That should do it,’ father said. ‘He’s authentic.’
‘How were you able to tell so quickly?’ Dras asked him.
‘Because he spoke of the Child of Light. Bormik did the same thing back in Darine. I spent some time with the Necessity that’s inspiring these Prophets and using them to tell us what we’re supposed to do. I’m very familiar with the term “Child of Light”. Pass that on to your father and brothers. Any time some crazy man starts talking about “the Child of Light” we’ll want to station scribes nearby.’ He squinted out at the dreary fens. ‘Have your scribes make me a copy of everything they’ve set down so far and send it to me in the Vale.’
After we returned to Bull-neck’s ship, father decided that he and I should go south through the fens rather than return by way of Darine. I protested vigorously, but it didn’t do me very much good. Dras located an obliging fisherman, and we proceeded south through that smelly, bug-infested swamp.
Needless to say, I did not enjoy the journey.
We reached the southern edge of the fens somewhat to the west of where Aldurford now stands, and father and I were both happy to put our feet on solid ground again. After our helpful fisherman had poled his narrow boat back into the swamp, my father’s expression grew slightly embarrassed. ‘I think it’s about time for us to have a little talk, Pol,’ he said, avoiding my eyes rather carefully.
‘You’re growing up, and there are some things you should know.’
I knew what he was getting at, and I suppose that the kindest thing I could have done at that point would have been to tell him right out that I already knew all about it. He’d just dragged me through the fens, though, so I wasn’t feeling very charitable just then. I put on an expression of vapid stupidity and let him flounder his way through a moderately inept description of the process of human reproduction. His face grew redder and redder as he went along, and then he quite suddenly stopped. ‘You already know about all of this, don’t you?’ he demanded.
I batted my eyelashes at him in feigned innocence and his expression was a bit sullen as we continued our journey through Algaria to the Vale.
Uncle Beldin had returned from Mallorea when we got home, and he told us that there was absolute chaos on the other side of the Sea of the East.
‘Why’s that, uncle?’ I asked him.
‘Because there’s nobody in charge. Angaraks follow orders very well, but they tend to fly apart when there’s nobody around to give those orders. Torak’s still having religious experiences at Ashaba, and Zedar’s camped right at his elbow taking down his every word. Ctuchik’s down in Cthol Murgos, and Urvon’s afraid to come out of Mal Yaska because he thinks I might be hiding behind some tree or bush waiting for the chance to gut him.’
‘What about the generals at Mal Zeth?’ father asked. ‘I thought they’d leap at the chance to take over.’
‘Not as long as Torak’s still around, they won’t. If he snaps out of that trance and discovers that the general staff’s been stepping out of line, he’ll obliterate Mal Zeth and everybody in it. Torak doesn’t encourage creativity.’
‘I guess that only leaves Ctuchik for us to worry about, then,’ father mused.