"My warships would sail on the next tide," he replied.

"Exactly. The murder of Brand may not have been the result of a personal grudge. It might have been an attempt to start a war between Riva and Cherek."

Anheg blinked. "Porenn, you are an extraordinary woman."

"Why, thank you, Anheg."

The door opened, and Silk and Javelin entered. "Our most excellent Prince Kheldar here has a very interesting report for us," Javelin announced.

Silk stepped forward and bowed grandiosely. "Your Majesties," he said, "and dear friends. I can't say for certain just how relevant this is to your current discussions, but it's a matter that should be brought to your attention, I think."

"Have you ever noticed how a little prosperity makes certain people very pompous?" Barak asked Hettar.

"I noticed that," Hettar agreed mildly.

"I thought you might have."

Silk flashed his two friends a quick grin. "Anyway." he continued in a more conversational tone. "I've spent the past several months in the town of Rheon on the eastern frontier of dear old dreary Drasnia. Interesting town, Rheon. Very picturesque- particularly now that they've doubled the height of the walls."

"Kheldar," Queen Porenn said, tapping her fingers impatiently on the arm of her chair, "you do plan to get to the point eventually, don't you?"

"Why, of course, Auntie dear," he replied mockingly. "Rheon has always been a fortified town, largely because of its proximity to the Nadrak border. It is also filled with a citizenry so archconservative that most of them disapprove of the use of fire. It's a natural breeding ground for the Bear-cult. After the attempt on Ce'Nedra's life last summer, I sort of drifted into town to do a bit of snooping."

"That's an honest way to put it," Barak said.

"I'm going through an honest phase," Silk shrugged. "Enjoy it while you can, because it's starting to bore me. Now, it seems that the Bear-cult has a new leader -a man named Ulfgar. After Grodeg got that Murgo axe stuck in his back at Thull Mardu, the cult was pretty well demoralized. Then this Ulfgar comes out of nowhere and begins to pull them all together. This man can quite literally talk the birds out of the trees. Always before the leadership of the cult was in the hands of the priesthood, and always before it was centered in Cherek."

"Tell me something new," Anheg growled sourly.

"Ulfgar does not appear to be a priest of Belar," Silk continued, "and his center of power is at Rheon in eastern Drasnia."

"Kheldar, please come to the point," Porenn said.

"I'm getting there, your Majesty." he assured her. "In the last few months, very quietly, our friend Ulfgar has been calling in his cohorts. Cultists have been drifting up from Algaria and filtering into Rheon from all over Drasnia. The town is literally bulging with armed men. I'd guess that Ulfgar currently has a force at Rheon at least equal to the entire Drasnian army." He looked at young King Kheva. "Sorry, cousin," he said, "but it rather looks as if you now have only the second biggest army in Drasnia."

"I can correct that if I have to, cousin," Kheva replied firmly.

"You're doing a wonderful job with this boy, Auntie," Silk congratulated Porenn.

"Kheldar," she said acidly, "am I going to have to put you on the rack to pull this story out of you?"

"Why, Auntie dearest, what a shocking thing to suggest. This mysterious Ulfgar has resurrected a number of very ancient rituals and ceremonies -among them a permanent means of identifying kindred spirits -so to speak. At his orders, every cultist in Aloria has had a distinctive mark branded on the sole of his right foot. The chances are rather good that anyone you see limping is a new convert to the Bear-cult."

Barak winced. "That would really hurt," he said.

"They wear it rather proudly," Silk told him, "Once it heals, anyway."

"What does this mark look like?" King Cho-Hag asked.

"It's a symbolic representation of a bear paw." Silk explained. "It's shaped sort of like the letter U with a couple of marks at its open end to represent claws."

"After Kheldar told me this," Javelin took up the story, "we paid a short visit to that surviving assassin. His right foot has been branded with that particular mark."

"So now we know," Hettar said.

"We do indeed," Belgarath replied.

"Prithee," Mandorallen said, frowning in perplexity, "I have always been advised that the aim of this obscure religious denomination hath been the reunification of Aloria, that titanic empire of the north which existed under the reign of King Cherek Bear-shoulders, the mightiest ruler of antiquity.

"It may very well still be," Belgarath told him, "but if this Ulfgar had succeeded in putting Riva and Cherek at each other's throats, he might have been able to topple Drasnia and possibly Algaria as well. With Anheg and Garion concentrating on destroying each other, it probably wouldn't have been all that difficult for him to have taken their two kingdoms as well."

"Particularly with that fleet his people are building at Jarviksholm," Anheg added.

"His strategy seems at once very simple and yet very complex," General Brendig mused, "and I think it came very close to working."

"Too close," Polgara said. "What are we going to do about this, father?"

"I think we'll have to take steps," Belgarath replied. "This fellow Ulfgar still wants to reunite Aloria -but with himself as the successor to Bear-shoulders. The cult has tried subversion for three millennia. Now apparently they're going to try open war."

Garion's face grew bleak. "Well," he said, "if it's a war they want, they've come to the right place."

"I might drink to that," Anheg agreed. He thought for a moment. "If you're open to any suggestions, I think it might be a good idea if we destroy Jarviksholm before we move on Rheon. We don't want those Cherek cultists coming up behind us on the moors of eastern Drasnia and we definitely don't want a cult fleet in the Sea of the Winds. If even half of what Greldik says is true, we're going to have to burn out those shipyards before they get their warships into the water. You could mount a very successful attack on Rheon, Garion, and then come home to find a hostile force occupying Riva itself."

Garion considered that. "All right, then," he agreed. "We'll go to Jarviksholm first. Then we'll go to Rheon and have a little chat with this Ulfgar. I really want to look at a man who thinks he's big enough to fill Bear-shoulders' shoes."