‘It’s Elthek, the new Rivan Deacon, Pol,’ Arell explained. ‘He’s hysterical about witchcraft.’
‘That’s a pose, Arell,’ Balten told her. ‘Elthek tries to keep it a secret, but he’s a Bear-Cultist to the bone. He receives instructions regularly from the High Priest of Belar in Val Alorn. The Cult’s goal has always been absolute domination of Alorn society. All this nonsense about witchcraft isn’t really anything more than an excuse to eliminate competition. Elthek wants the population here on the Isle to turn to the priesthood in any kind of emergency – including illness. The practice of medicine can effect cures that seem miraculous to ordinary Alorns. Elthek doesn’t like the idea of miracles that come from some source other than the priesthood. That’s what’s behind all those long-winded sermons about witchcraft. He’s trying to discredit those of us who practice medicine.’
‘Maybe so,’ Argak grumbled darkly, ‘but all the laws pointed right at us come from the throne.’
‘That’s not entirely his Majesty’s fault,’ Kamion told him. ‘Alom custom dictates that all religious matters are the domain of the priesthood. If Elthek presents a proposed law to the throne as a religious issue, Iron-grip automatically signs and seals it – usually without even bothering to read it. He and I have argued about that on occasion. Elthek fills the first paragraph of a proposed “theological ordinance” with all sorts of religious nonsense, and our king’s eyes glaze over before he gets to the meat of the document. Elthek keeps insisting that prayer is the only way to cure disease.’
‘He’d actually sacrifice my sister for a political idea?’ I exclaimed.
‘Of course he would, Pol. He doesn’t worship Belar, he worships his own power.’
‘I think Algar had the right idea,’ I muttered darkly. ‘As soon as Beldaran gets well, we might want to do something about the Bear-Cult here on the Isle.’
‘It’d certainly make our lives easier,’ Arell noted. ‘I’m getting a little tired of being called a witch.’
‘Why don’t we all go up to the Citadel?’ I suggested.
‘You’ll get us burned at the stake, Pol,’ Argak objected. ‘If we openly practice medicine – particularly in the Citadel – the Deacon’s priests will clap us into the dungeon and start gathering firewood.’
‘Don’t worry, Argak,’ I said grimly. ‘If anybody’s going to catch on fire, it’ll be Elthek himself.’
And so we all climbed the hill to the Citadel. Now that I was aware of the situation and was paying closer attention, I noticed that there seemed to be far more priests in that fortress than were really necessary.
Beldaran was awake when we all trooped into her bedroom, and after we’d examined her, we gathered in the next room for a consultation.
The condition appears to be chronic,’ Balten observed. ‘This should have been looked into a long time ago.’
‘Well, we can’t turn around and go backward in time,’ Arell said. ‘What do you think, Argak?’
‘I wish she weren’t so weak,’ Argak said. ‘There are some compounds that’d be fairly efficacious if she were more robust, but they’d be too dangerous now.’
‘We’ve got to come up with something, Argak,’ I said.
‘Give me some time, Pol. I’m working on it.’ He rummaged through the case of little glass vials he’d brought from his shop. He selected one of the vials and handed it to me. ‘In the meantime, dose her with this every few hours. It’ll keep her condition from deteriorating further while we decide what to do.’
Arell and I went into Beldaran’s room. ‘Let’s air out the room, clean her up, change her bedding, and comb her hair, Pol,’ Arell suggested. “That always makes people feel better.’
‘Right,’ I agreed. ‘I’ll get some more pillows, too. She might be able to breathe a little easier if we prop her up.’
Beldaran seemed to feel much better after Arell and I had attended to those little things that men can’t seem to think of. She did not enjoy Argak’s medication, however. ‘That’s terrible, Pol,’ she said after I gave it to her.
‘That’s the whole idea, Beldaran,’ I said lightly, trying to keep my concern for her out of my voice. ‘Medicine’s supposed to taste bad. If it’s bad enough, you get well just so that you don’t have to drink any more of it.’
She laughed wearily, and then went into an extended bout of coughing.
I sat over my sister’s bed for the next day and a half while Argak, Arell, and Balten concocted other medications. Argak’s first compound did little more than alleviate some of Beldaran’s more obvious symptoms, and we all concluded that we were going to have to take more heroic measures.
Argak’s next concoction put Beldaran into a deep sleep. ‘It’s a natural part of the healing process,’ I lied to Riva and Daran. My colleagues and I had enough to worry about already, and we didn’t need the two of them hovering over us adding to our anxiety.
This was not going the way I’d hoped. My studies had made me arrogant, and I’d been convinced that with a little help from my teachers I could cure any ailment. Beldaran’s illness, however, stubbornly refused to respond to any measures we could devise. I frequently went for days with only brief naps, and I began to develop an irrational conviction that my sister’s illness had somehow become conscious, aware of everything we were trying to do to save her and thwarting us at every turn. I finally concluded that we’d have to go beyond the limitations of the physician’s art to save Beldaran. In desperation, I sent my thought out to the twins. ‘Please!’ I silently shouted over the countless leagues between the Isle and the Vale. ‘Please! I’m losing her! Get word to my father! I need him, and I need him in a hurry!’
‘Can you hold off the illness until he gets there?’ Beltira demanded.
‘I don’t know, uncle. We’ve tried everything we know. Beldaran doesn’t respond to anything we can come up with. She’s sinking, uncle. Get hold of father immediately. Get him here as quickly as you can.’
‘Try to stay calm, Polgara,’ Belkira told me, his voice very crisp. ‘There’s a way you can support her until Belgarath gets there. Use your Will. Give her some of your strength. There are things we can do that others can’t.’