She laughed. "Ha! You know the rules, Yarblek. If you want to keep your guts on the inside, you keep your hands to yourself."
Beldin's eyes had a peculiar expression in them as he looked at her. "Spirited wench, isn't she?" he murmured to Yarblek. "I admire a woman with a quick wit and a ready tongue."
A wild hope suddenly flared in Yarblek's eyes. "Do you like her?" he asked eagerly. "I'll sell her to you, if you want."
"Have you lost your mind entirely, Yarblek?" Vella demanded indignantly.
"Please, Vella, I'm talking business."
"This shabby old troll couldn't buy a tankard of cheap ale, much less me." She turned to Beldin. "Have you even got two coins to rub together, you jackass?" she demanded.
"Now you've gone and spoiled the whole negotiation," Yarblek accused her plaintively.
Beldin, however, gave the dark-haired woman a wicked, lopsided grin. "You interest me, girl," he told her, "and nobody's done that for longer than I can remember. Try to work on your threats and curses a bit, though. The rhythm isn't quite right." He turned to Polgara. "I think I'll go back and see what those Drasnian pikemen are up to. Somehow I don't believe that we want them creeping up behind us." Then he spread his arms, crouched, and became a hawk.
Vella stared incredulously after him as he soared away. "How did he do that?" she gasped.
"He's very talented," Silk replied.
"He is indeed." She turned on Yarblek with fire in her eyes. "Why did you let me talk to him like that?" she demanded. "You know how important first impressions are. Now he'll never make a decent offer for me."
"You can tell for yourself that he doesn't have any money."
"There are other things than money, Yarblek."
Yarblek shook his head and walked away muttering to himself.
Ce'Nedra's eyes were as hard as green agates. "Garion," she said in a deceptively quiet voice, "one day very soon we'll want to talk about these taverns you mentioned -and dancing girls- and a few other matters as well."
"It was a long time ago, dear." he said quickly.
"Not nearly long enough."
"Does anybody have anything to eat?" Vella demanded, looking around. "I'm as hungry as a bitch wolf with ten puppies."
"I can probably find something for you," Polgara replied.
Vella looked at her, and her eyes slowly widened. "Are you who I think you are?" she asked in an awed voice.
"That depends on who you think I am, dear."
"I understand that you dance," Ce'Nedra said in a chilly voice.
Vella shrugged. "All women dance. I'm just the best, that's all."
"You seem very sure of yourself, Mistress Vella."
"I just recognize facts." Vella looked curiously at Ce'Nedra. "My, you're a tiny one, aren't you?" she asked. "Are you really full-grown?"
"I am the Queen of Riva," Ce'Nedra replied, drawing herself up to her full height.
"Good for you, girl," Vella said warmly, clapping her on the shoulder. "I always enjoy seeing a woman get ahead."
* * * *
It was midmorning of a gray, cloudy day when Garion crested a hill and looked across a shallow valley at the imposing bulk of Rheon. The town stood atop a steep hill, and its walls reared up sharply out of the rank gorse covering the slopes.
"Well," Barak said quietly as he joined Garion, "there it is."
"I didn't realize the walls were quite so high," Garion admitted.
"They've been working on them," Barak said, pointing. "You can see that new stonework on the parapet."
Flying defiantly above the city, the scarlet banner of the Bear-cult, a blood-red flag with the black outline of a shambling bear in the center, snapped in the chill breeze. For some reason that flag raised an almost irrational rage in Garion.
"I want that thing down," he said from between clenched teeth.
"That's why we came," Barak told him.
Mandorallen, burnished in his armor, joined them.
"This isn't going to be easy, is it?" Garion said to them.
"It won't be so bad," Barak replied, "once Hettar gets here." Mandorallen had been assessing the town's fortifications with a professional eye. "I foresee no insurmountable difficulties," he declared confidently. "Immediately upon the return of the several hundred men I dispatched to procure timbers from the forest lying some leagues to the north, I shall begin the construction of siege engines."
"Can you actually throw a rock big enough to hock a hole in walls that thick?" Garion asked dubiously.
" 'Tis not the single stroke that reduces them, Garion," the knight replied. " 'Tis the repetition of blow after blow. I will ring the town with engines and rain stones upon their walls. I doubt not that there will be a breach or two 'ere my Lord Hettar arrives."
"Won't the people inside repair them as fast as you break them?" Garion asked.
" Not if you've got other catapults throwing burning pitch at them," Barak told him. "It's very hard to concentrate on anything when you're on fire."
Garion winced. "I hate using fire on people," he said, briefly remembering Asharak the Murgo.
"It's the only way, Garion," Barak said soberly. "Otherwise you're going to lose a lot of good men."
Garion sighed. "All right," he said. "Let's get started then."
Reinforced by Yarblek's trappers, the Rivans drew up in a wide circle around the fortified town. Though their combined numbers were not yet sufficient to mount a successful assault on those high, grim walls, they were nonetheless enough to seal the town effectively. The construction of Mandorallen's siege engines took but a few days; once they were completed and moved into position, the steady twang of tightly twisted ropes uncoiling with terrific force and the sharp crack of heavy rocks shattering against the walls of Rheon was almost continual.
Garion watched from a vantage point atop a nearby hill as rock after rock lofted high into the air to smash down on those seemingly impregnable walls.
"It's a sad thing to watch," Queen Porenn noted as she joined him. A stiff breeze tugged at her black gown and stirred her flaxen hair as she moodily watched Mandorallen's engines pound relentlessly at the walls. "Rheon has stood here for almost three thousand years. It's been like a rock guarding the frontier. It seems very strange to attack one of my own cities -particularly when you consider the fact that half of our forces are Nadraks, the very people Rheon was built to hold off in the first place."