An incident occurred on the way to the palace that Reg found odd. Of course, just about everything concerning Rim seemed unusual to him. The man seemed to live on a slightly different level than everyone else. Simple comments took him off-guard while dramatic pronouncements - such as Eya being an Apath - were commonplace. Perhaps it had something to do with having spent half of his life at court. On the other hand, it might be that Rim had a strange personality. This latest event contributed to Reg's opinion of the former chancellor's eccentric nature.
     They were passing through the marketplace around mid-morning when it happened, Reg and Bre on foot and Rim in a human-borne chair. Suddenly, rising to a standing position in his seat, the healer shouted for the chair-bearers to stop. When they hesitated, he rapped them soundly over the shoulders with his stout wooden walking-stick. The vehicle lurched to an abrupt halt, nearly spilling him onto the street.
     "Damnation!" roared Rim, head swiveling back and forth. "Where did she go?"
     "Who?" ventured Reg.
     "The girl. The one with the long brown hair. She was just over there," he pointed in the direction of about one-hundred people, all of whom were moving in different directions.
     By Reg's reckoning, there were at least forty or fifty women present who fit the healer's description. Obviously, he was looking for someone in particular.
     "Who is she?" asked Bre.
     "I don't know," said Rim. "I only caught a glimpse of her, but she looked like someone who's been dead for thirty-five years."
     "Then it couldn't have been her, could it? I mean, even if she was alive today, she'd be an old woman by now," said Reg.
     "I'm no longer sure. The older I get, the more I wonder how predictable and ordered the natural progression of life is. Especially when there's magic involved."
     "Magic? Who do you think you saw?" persisted Bre.
     Rim shook his head as if to clear away a fog. "I'm just an old man who's started to imagine things. I should have been in the grave years ago. Come on, let's get moving, or you'll be forced to spend another night in one of our fine inns."

* * *

     Reg's first impression of King Sor was that he was a weary man. Physically, he looked around middle age, certainly much younger than his fifty-some years. He had sliver-streaked wheaten hair upon which rested the simple gold circlet of Vorti's crown. The thinness of his body was hidden by the gargantuan robes of state. As Reg got closer, approaching the throne in the company of Rim and Eya, he noticed that Sor had a light mustache and a well-trimmed goatee. His complexion was sallow and his face gaunt, but the thing about him that struck Reg most forcefully was his eyes. They were devoid of passion. Never before had Reg ever seen a living man with such a dead gaze. Despite that however, there was something familiar about the king of Vorti. Although Reg knew it was impossible, it seemed that he had seen Sor before.
     "Welcome to Vorti," said the king, inclining his head to the three petitioners who approached him. Reg executed his most elegant bow while Bre curtsied. Rim, too old to do much bending and familiar enough with his liege to make overt signs of fealty unnecessary, responded with a nod of his own.
     "Thank you, Your Majesty," said Bre. "We are honored to be permitted this audience on short notice."
     "Any matter involving the discovery of another Apath deserves immediate attention," said the king.
     Suddenly, the background chatter in the throne room fell into silence. Onlookers who had been paying little attention to Rim and his charges turned their full attention to them. One word, "Apath", had galvanized the audience hall.
     "My sister is an Apath, Your Majesty. Her name is Eya and she lives in the village of Falnora, on the Halcyon Meadows," said Reg.
     "You are certain that she is a genuine Apath?"
     "Yes. She has used magic on many occasions. Many have seen her those displays, including myself. And the older, more experienced wizard who leads our community has confirmed her abilities." Rim had cautioned Reg beforehand not to mention Wil's name. Considering what he now knew about the history of the two, he accepted the advice.
     "Two Apaths in one settlement. That is rare," said Sor. "Now, your sister must have some interest in coming to Vorti, otherwise you would not have sought an audience with me. Are you aware that no Apath needs my permission, or that of any person, to go where they please across the whole of Devforth? Apaths are beyond the jurisdiction of kings."
     "Yes, Your Majesty," said Reg, although, in truth, he had been ignorant about what rights were accorded to wizards. "However, she wishes more than simply to come to Vorti. She wants to learn from an accomplished Apath how to better use her powers. At present, all she is able to do is experiment by trial-and-error, which can be a dangerous procedure."
     Sor nodded. "It can indeed. But, as perhaps Rim has told you, Fels is the center of learning for Apaths, not Vorti. While we have several Apaths living in the city, we do not possess the resources of the 'official' school."
     "I don't believe Eya wishes to go to Fels," said Reg. "She is a farmer, like myself, and the sudden indoctrination into a class system might be jarring."
     "If her desire is to come to Vorti to learn, I will not oppose it, if that's your concern. In fact, when she arrives, I would be interested to meet her. I have known many Apaths during my life, but none of them females. In fact, she may be the only woman Apath alive in Devforth today."
     "Your Majesty, what if she wishes to study under your tutelage?"
     "I'm not a qualified instructor. There are others better suited, even in Vorti."
     "But you are an Apath of renown, obviously with great talent and knowledge to pass on. If Eya has no desire to learn from academics, if she wants to be taught by someone who has used their abilities to form the world around them, you would be ideal. As I understand it, your powers are responsible for breaking Vorti's class system."
     "You aren't misinformed," said Sor. "But I am not a suitable teacher. You don't know me, young man. If you did, you would understand why I must turn down your request. But I would still welcome her to Vorti. If you wish the name of someone I consider to be an excellent instructor, I encourage you to seek out the Apath Mat, who spends much of his time in the public archives. He's a man of great intelligence and patience, in addition to being a wizard of some repute. As I understand it, he turned down an offer to teach at Muj's school in Fels, but he might be willing to take on a single pupil, especially if she's as unusual a phenomenon as a female Apath."
* * *

     Reg didn't know whether to feel good or bad about the way the interview with Sor had gone. He had perhaps gone further than Eya would have wished him to - all she had asked of him was to see if Vorti seemed a suitable place to study. Studying directly under the king was not something she had mentioned, yet he knew her well enough to believe she had considered it. At this point, however, it seemed an unlikely possibility. Eya had also not indicated a distaste for the class system of Fels, but he knew how he felt about it, and they were rarely at odds about such matters, and, while she had never openly admitted to preferring Vorti to Fels, she had dropped enough subtle hints to give that impression.
     "I'm sorry the king couldn't be more positive, but I warned you that I thought it unlikely he'd be willing to teach your sister," said Rim.
     They were back at the Healers' Guild, in the selfsame waiting room where they had first met the former chancellor.
     "It's all right," said Bre. "I'm sure this Mat that His Majesty recommended will be fine."
     Reg shot her a black look, but said nothing. It was not her place to answer for Eya, or to appraise the situation of who was a suitable teacher. But he didn't feel like getting into the inevitable fight which would result from a rebuke.
     "If you'll wait here, I'll talk to my colleagues and find which one is most interested in making the trip south with you. It's nearly mid-day, so you two should be on your way soon."
     As soon as Rim was gone, Bre turned to Reg and said, "You could have been more polite to him. He's gone out of his way to help us and all you've done this morning is grumble and complain. You couldn't really expect that King Sor would consent to teach your sister."
     "Why not?"
     "Because he's a king and she's a farmer. That much should have been obvious to even a woolhead like you."
     "I thought there were no class barriers in Vorti."
     "That might be true in theory, but you'd have to be naive to believe that everyone is the same. Rim was the chancellor here for decades, at the forefront of Sor's policy of equality, yet you saw how he treated the bearers of that chair he was in. He acted as if they were servants or slaves. Lip-service to a philosophy does not make it a way of life."
     "I think what Sor did to the nobles was more than an act of lip-service."
     "Sor may believe in classlessness, but he's probably the only one."
     "Don't you think that's a little unfair?"
     "No. Ten years after he's dead, Vorti will have a new nobility. A hundred years after that, the era of equality won't be remembered. Sor is, and always will be, the Apath King, not the King of the Single Class."
     "On the trip north, didn't you say you envied the lives of the people in Vorti?"
     "Yes, because there are certain benefits that come from even lip-service to classlessness. Farmers owning their own land, for example. But it won't last forever."
     "What if Sor's successor believes the same as he does?"
     "Unless he's an Apath like Sor, he won't have the power to enforce his will. He'll have to compromise, or be overthrown."
     Before Reg could respond, the door opened to admit Rim and another, younger man. While the newcomer was perhaps a decade older than Bre and Reg, he was the perfect picture of youth and zest next to his decrepit guildmaster: tall and lean, with a shining blue eyes, a ready, unfeigned smile, and a head of tightly-curled black hair. He was wearing a plain brown robe with a tasseled rope tied around the midsection. Rim introduced him as Tad.
     "He's one of our most promising young healers. Don't let his age deceive you, though. There are few healers his equal at any stage of life."
     Tad proved to be an engaging companion, as well as a knowledgeable healer. On the way back to the stables of the Shining Goblet, he regaled them with stories of his life in the ascetic community of healers in Vorti. He did humorous impressions of various of his peers, including one fellow who was drunk most of the time. After fifteen minutes in Tad's company, Reg was smiling and Bre had tears streaming down her face from laughter.
     An hour after noon, they rode south out of Vorti, using the same roads they had used to enter the city. Tad waved enthusiastically at the dour-looking farmers as they passed, although he knew none of them. Occasionally he would get a greeting in return, but most looked away from him, fixing their attention on the task at hand.
     Tad loved to talk, and never seemed to run out of things to say. Since leaving the Healers' Guild, neither Reg nor Bre had been given an opportunity to speak more than a few words at any one time. As they were crossing the North Vordi, Reg managed to slip in a rare question.
     "What did Rim tell you about why we were in Vorti?"
     "Not very much, actually, but I figured I'd learn the details when I got to where we're going. Not too many of us in the guild like leaving Vorti, but the idea of travelling has always appealed to me. There's so much to see in the world that's different from the city. As a student, I had a special passion for geography. I've always wanted to see the Forest of Llam, the Green Mountains, Flaz' Quag, and, of course, the Halcyon Meadows, where we're going now.
     "And the chance to meet an Apath! King Sor may be a wizard, but who in Vorti really knows him? Rim might, since he was chancellor for so long, but I've only ever seen the king at a distance. It's a real opportunity of a lifetime to meet an Apath, to shake his hand, and Rim said that there are two actives in this settlement of yours, in addition to the sick man. Even if he turns out to have a common ailment, at least I'll have a chance to meet them."
     "How long have you been a healer, Tad?" asked Bre.
     "I realized I had some aptitude when I was ten years old and my father fell and broke his leg. He was a cart-puller and his livelihood depended on being able to run. I set the bone and he was on his feet again in less than a half-season. After that, whenever any of my neighbors had an injury, they would come to me. When I was sixteen, I went to one of the local healers and became his apprentice. The guild was formed around the time I was ready to start working on my own, so, like many others, I became a member."
     "How many healers are there in Vorti?"
     "It's difficult to say for sure, when you consider all the wise women who like to dispense potions and poultices. But thirty-one of us are members of the guild. Most of us are old men, though. There aren't many healers my age, and only a couple of women, one who must be older than Vorti. Her name is Yrr, and she has moved around a lot. It would be nice to have an occasional pretty face to look at in the guild house, but those women with an aptitude for healing don't like to join. I think they're afraid we'll stifle their talent.
     "The Healers' Guild works differently than the other guilds. While the Masons' Guild, for example, tries to spread out the jobs equally among its members, the function of our guildmaster is not to give all the healers equal work, but to match the right person with the right illness or injury. Rim knows there are some of us better suited to diseases than wounds. There are those who don't like traveling far from their homes, and others, like me, who long to get away from Vorti, if only for a little while."
     So it continued for most of the afternoon - Tad bombarding them with anecdotes about his life as a healer and trivia about Vorti while his companions listened in polite silence. After a time, Reg tuned out the droning voice and focused his attention on the path ahead. He was becoming concerned that it would be dark before they reached Falnora, and even the hospitable Halcyon Meadows could turn deadly after twilight, when the night creatures came out to prowl. While they would never challenge a large group, three humans on horses might make a rich meal for them.
     "Don't you think that's barbaric?" asked Bre. Reg started when he realized the question had been addressed to him.
     "You haven't been paying attention to anything Tad's been saying, have you?"
     "It's all right, Bre," said the healer with a good-natured chuckle. "I have a reputation for talking too much and too long. Reg's not the first one to have turned his attention elsewhere."
     "What did you want to know?" asked Reg.
     Bre gave him a sour look, but didn't say anything.
     "I was just telling Bre that every few years, King Sor has a purge in Vorti in which he executes any of the guildmasters who are accumulating too much power. He's concerned about a new breed of nobility arising. With each purge there have been fewer deaths than previously. It's Sor's hope that eventually the purges won't be necessary. Bre thinks it's a pointless measure."
     "It may be extreme, but if it's working, I don't see how she can call it pointless," said Reg.
     Tad nodded in agreement, but Bre bristled at his statement. "That's the kind of thing I'd expect you to say."
     "If you knew my answer, why bother asking my opinion?"
     "What's that?" asked Tad suddenly. He was pointing off to the west.
     Reg followed the direction of his outstretched arm, but noticed nothing except grasslands. "I don't see anything."
     "It's not there now," said Tad. "But there was something, only for a moment."
     "What sort of something?" Reg let his right hand slip to the knife sheathed alongside his saddle. He and Bre hadn't expected any trouble on the journey to Vorti, but he was armed. At the moment, he wished he was a better shot with a bow. A knife wasn't effective at distances.
     "Just a flash of movement. Maybe nine hundred paces off."
     It was still too light for the nighttime predators, but there were dangers during the day on the plains, as well, such as roving bands of bandits. The waist-high grass could conceal anyone crouched low.
     "Let's pick up the pace," said Reg. He didn't want to have to push the horses into a gallop. Neither he nor his companions were experienced riders and a run might cause them to become unseated, and falls like that could be crippling or fatal.
     They pushed forward at a canter, eyes roving the western horizon. As a result, when the attack came from the northeast, they were caught unprepared.
     The creatures that sprang from their grassy concealment were about three feet tall. They had alabaster skin covered with matted fur. Their bodies were stooped and their limbs twisted. Their faces were bestial, with snouts, bulging green eyes, and slavering mouths with black lips. Each of the nine attackers wielded a sawtooth-bladed axe.
     Bre screamed when she saw them, having never before witnessed something so horrible except in nightmares. But Reg knew them immeditely. These creatures were dwarves, the same monsters that had murdered his father, kidnapped his half-sister, and driven him from his home in Heltala.
     Tad's horse reared as the dwarves swarmed around it, unseating him. He landed with a loud cry. Four of the attackers advanced on him while the other five charged Reg and Eya's mounts.
     "Ride for Falnora!" shouted Reg, forcing his own mount between the dwarves and Bre.
     "I won't abandon you!"
     It was a nice sentiment, Reg supposed, but misplaced in this situation. Bre's best weapons were words, and they were useless here. The only thing she could gain by refusing to leave was death, dismemberment, or some other injury. So Reg circled his mount around hers, slapped it soundly on the rump with the flat of his blade, then charged at the dwarves while Bre's horse first reared, then bolted to the south, with her clinging to the reins.
     Tad was on his feet, blood smearing his face, while his four assailants circled him, looking for an easy opening. Since the healer was armed only with a dirk, it didn't look to Reg like one was going to be difficult to find. He tried to maneuver to his companion's side, but the other dwarves intercepted him.
     Had Reg been a master horseman, he felt sure he could have won the battle, but he didn't know how to convince his horse to use its hooves as weapons, nor could he control the skittish animal with the screaming creatures on every side. He finally had to wrap the reigns around his left hand while flailing at the dwarves with the blade in his right.
     When one of his blows finally made contact with the face of an attacker, he was rewarded by a shriek as the creature crumpled to the ground in a shower of blood. The other dwarves redoubled their efforts once their number had been diminished by one, and Reg found the battle becoming hopeless.
     Tad didn't last long. Out of the corner of his eye, Reg saw him go down, a dwarf's axe biting into his neck. Within seconds, his attackers were upon him, tearing him limb-from-limb and feasting on his flesh.
     Sickened, Reg turned his horse and fled. The dwarves attempted to follow, but he was too fast for them. The reigns biting into his palm and drawing blood, he let horse run as fast as it could, heedless of the damage that would occur if he fell from the saddle.
     He caught up with Bre less than a mile south. Her mount's eyes were bulging with terror and its sides were heaving. She looked no less frightened.
     "He's dead, isn't he?" she demanded as soon as Reg was within hearing distance.
     Reg nodded, unwinding the reigns from his hand as he slowed his horse's pace. He wondered how many of his fingers were broken. He could hardly wiggle them without pain.
     "What happened to you?"
     For the first time, Reg noticed that his right arm was bloody. A ragged cut marked his flesh from elbow to wrist, warm blood oozing through the gash. He couldn't understand how he hadn't felt the wound when it had been dealt, or since then.
     "I guess one of the runts hit me."
     Without giving it a thought, Bre ripped one of her sleeves, rode up beside him, and began bandaging the injury. When he attempted to take over the job himself, she slapped away his hand and continued the procedure in a cooly professional manner.
     "A few days with my sister, and look what you've become."
     "Are you sure he's dead?"
     Shuddering at his last memory of Tad, Reg said, "I'm sure."
     "I liked him. He didn't deserve to die like that!"
     "No one deserves to die like that."
     "What do we do about a healer now?" asked Bre.
     "We go back to Falnora without one. We've got more important things to worry about, anyway."
     "More important than saving Dek's life, or telling Tad's family what happened to him?"
     "This wasn't some random plains attack, Bre. Those were dwarves. Creatures that are supposed to be confined to the mountains. No one can remember the last time a group went for more than a few miles from their tribal caves. Yet here are nine of them, more than a day's travel away from the nearest range. Something is wrong. And if they're attacking here, just an hour's ride from Falnora, there's no telling how much danger the settlement is in. I'm not going to have a second home destroyed by those bastards. We've got to ride and tell Wil. Now."
     As soon as Bre had finished binding the wound, Reg snatched his arm away, jerked his horse around, and started south at a gallop. The animal resented the rough treatment, because it reared up on its hind legs, throwing Reg from the saddle. He landed hard on his back, the air knocked out of him. Black spots scurried across his vision and for a moment he thought his spine was snapped.
     "Are you all right?" demanded Bre. She was crouched next to him, putting something moist against his lips. He started to push it away until he recognized the opening of a water skin, then he drank deeply. When had she gotten off her horse? Had he passed out?
     When Bre was certain no serious damage had been done, she said, "Next time you decide to take off like that, you'd better let the horse know what you're planning first. I don't think he appreciated it."
     "The feeling's mutual." He felt like using the knife on the animal, except that would leave him with a long, painful walk.
     With Bre's help, Reg got to his feet and, with a great many grunts and groans, climbed into the saddle. Then, at a substantially slower pace, they continued toward Falnora. By nightfall, the village had still not come into sight. Although Reg claimed to know where he was, he confidence failed with the light. For the first time, he had the sick realization that all of the Halcyon Meadows looked alike. If they had veered off course just a little during their panicked flight, it could take a long time to locate their destination.
     The Halcyon Meadows were no place for two lost travelers at night, especially when they were weary and smelling of fear. Already Reg could hear the prowlers beginning to cry out, their howls like those of wolves, yet deeper and more threatening.

© 2005 James Berardinelli

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