As summer drew to a close and the ruins of Falnora were again beginning to resemble a community, Eya made her decision to leave. Because the autumn's harvest would be small, the winter would be hard on the settlement, and the fewer mouths to feed, the better. Yet Eya couldn't shake the feeling that she was running away when she was needed the most.
     Of all the forces pressing her to go, none was more insistent than Reg. He recognized how frightened his sister was of such a major lifestyle change and that nothing short of bullying would cause her to face the necessity of the departure. He had to admit to trepidation himself. Spending one night in a city was nothing compared to going there to live. And the journey would not be easy - not with the threat of dwarves roaming the plains.
     Their party would be a small one, comprising four people: Eya, Reg, Lora, and Bre. While the first three members of the company were going because of the ties of friendship that bound them, Bre had leapt at the opportunity because it was her best chance to get away from the "backwater mudpatch" of Falnora. Surprisingly, with the two people he cared most for making the journey, Ebb decided to remain behind. He claimed he was too old to set up another new life. He felt a part of Falnora, and he intended to remain there until his dying day. No amount of persuasion by either his daughter or the elf he loved could change his mind.
     Lora appeared less concerned about traveling to Vorti than the twins had anticipated. When asked if she would go with them, she had been uncertain, but, after a lengthy discussion with Wil about the city's attitudes of racial tolerance, her outlook on the journey improved. Apparently, the low population of elves in Vorti was due more to that race's natural inclination to keep to themselves than to any distrust on the part of the human populace. "Curiosity" was the word Wil used to describe the position of humanity toward elves in Vorti.
     The morning of the group's departure dawned clear and crisp, with a twinge of autumn in the air. Reg had decided that the earlier they left, the better. He didn't want there to be a chance they would get caught on the plains at night. As far as he was concerned, one encounter with the nightbeasts had been more than enough for a lifetime.
     Shortly after sunup, Wil was in the fields, trying to coax as much growth from the crops as he could before the advent of the first frost. Reg joined the older man and together they strolled past rows of corn, wheat, and barley. Reg felt a twinge of nostalgia as he realized this might be the last time he would wander through these fields, at least for a long time.
     There was something he had to ask Wil, however. It was a question he had been putting off all summer, but now that he was finally leaving, his time for stalling had run out. He was reasonably certain what the answer would be, but he needed to know for sure to avoid a blunder if the matter arose at some point during his stay in the city.
     "You have something to ask me," said Wil, breaking the morning's stillness.
     "You know me too well. Sometimes I think you can read my mind."
     "For fifteen years, you and Eya have been like a son and daughter to me. It's only natural that I'd know when something was bothering you."
     "When I was in Vorti, I learned something from Rim, the ex-chancellor, that got me thinking. Gav isn't your natural son, is he?"
     Although Wil had to be surprised by the question, his expression didn't betray his reaction. "No, he isn't. And if you know enough to ask that question, you know who his father is."
     "King Sor."
     Wil nodded. "He was conceived a few days before Lis and I left Vorti. Sor knew about Gav and wanted him away from the city and the burden of ruling. From that moment on, he was as my son."
     "He doesn't know?"
     "No. And he must never find out. That is perhaps one of the few things - maybe the only thing - Sor and I agreed upon."
     "You never had any children of your own with Lis?"
     "I'm sterile. All Apaths are - or are supposed to be. Sor has always been an enigma. The first Apath king. The first fertile Apath."
     "Apparently, the ability to control magic doesn't pass from parent to child."
     "At least in Gav's case it didn't," agreed Wil.
     "You aren't pleased with our decision to go to Vorti, are you?"
     "Of all the cities of Devforth, I have less regard only for Tsab. But it isn't my decision. You have to remember that I have a lot of unpleasant memories of that city. It's a different place there now, with the nobility gone and Sor ensconced on the throne. The Vorti I grew up in is no more, so perhaps my feelings are antiquated."
     "But the king you opposed is still on the throne."
     "Indeed. Through the years I've often wondered if my opposition to him was the right way to go about pursuing my agenda. Lis didn't think so, and in the end it failed. What if I had given him my support? With two Apaths, how much of a difference might there have been?"
     "You once told me that recriminations are pointless."
     "They are. What's past is past and nothing any of us can do will change it. But I'm concerned about the future, that Eya doesn't make the same mistakes I did. Take care of her, Reg. You have a keen intellect and good common sense. Use those qualities to help her. It isn't easy for an Apath in a city. A third of the people will be in awe of her, a third of the them will want something from her, and the other third will be jealous of her power and influence. She'll have suitors and few of them will be sincere. She'll be accepted not for who she is, but for what she can do."
     "I'll be there for her," said Reg.
     "I'm counting on it."

* * *

     Shortly after Reg returned to Wil's rebuilt house, Eya joined the elder Apath in the fields.
     "You've said your goodbyes to Reg?" she asked as they walked together.
     "Something like that. I had some advice for him about life in Vorti."
     "I suppose you told him to take care of me, as if I couldn't look after myself." It was kindly said, and kindly meant.
     Wil chuckled. "You know, Reg said something about my reading his mind. Now I think you're reading mine."
     "Women's intuition. There was something I wanted to talk with you about before I left. Because of the rebuilding, we haven't had time to discuss it before now."
     "About Dek?"
     "Not so much about what happened to him. I understand that well enough. But how was he able to tap into other people's emotions? And how come in that environment I could recognize them when I used magic?"
     "I've given a lot of thought to that, and I don't have a good answer. Something powerful snapped within Dek, presumably because of the sudden attack of the Gaja worm, and, in his delirium, he must have found some way to transcend the barriers of individuality which have always existed for Apaths. As important as the human capacity for reasoning is, it sets limits to our basic nature. For a man in Dek's state, those constraints were lifted. The environment created by his magical instability was wild and uncontrolled. As Apaths, we were treated to a different view of things; the view of a madman, and we learned things that we, in a reasoning and sane state of mind, could never dream possible."
     "So you're saying that by being caught up in Dek's delirium, we were able to touch the emotions of others?"
     "I can't think of another explanation. Let me ask you a question: have you used your powers since then?"
     Eya was ashamed to admit that she had not. Once, using magic had been a satisfying, almost addictive, experience. But her innocence had been shattered. She had used it to kill. Not unintentionally, as in the case of the Tsabian soldiers, but deliberately, when she had burned out Dek's brain. She felt unworthy of her powers. Unworthy and unclean.
     "Apparently, once learned, certain things cannot be unlearned, Eya," said Wil. "I have used my powers since that day, and, on each occasion, I perceived the emotions of those who were physically close to me. I suspect the same will be true when you next make the attempt. Subconsciously, something in the way we see emotions has changed. Unwittingly, we have discovered a new dimension of magic. Speaking frankly, it may be one that would have been better left hidden."
     Eya didn't need Wil to detail the potential for abuse. Previously, every Apath had been limited by his or her own emotional strength. Now, at least in their case, that might no longer be true. If they were willing to use it, they could tap into virtually limitless reserves without endangering their own emotional security.
     "I would encourage you to keep this to yourself in Vorti. If the opportunity arises, you may wish to study it, but be careful. If it is possible to teach this ability, there are Apaths who would stop at nothing to learn its secret. Wizards are like any other human beings. There are as many motivated by base impulses as by enlightened ones."
     "Do you think anyone could figure out how to do this on their own?" asked Eya.
     "It's unlikely for ordinary Apaths like you and me, since we rarely seek to explore beyond the boundaries of our powers. But for the most inquisitive and intelligent of our kind... It's my opinion that anything that can be done, someone will figure out how to do. Just because in the past there are no records of Apaths learning to tap into the reserves of others doesn't mean it hasn't happened. They may have had the same misgivings about it that we have and consequently kept it to themselves. Or they may have been too selfish to reveal it."
     "I'll miss you, Wil," said Eya, suddenly and impulsively throwing her arms around him. "I think you're the wisest man I'll ever meet."
     Returning the hug, Wil said, "I wouldn't be too quick to make that statement. When it comes to matters like these, I'm an amateur. I had little formal training in magic and you'll probably come to learn that many of the methods I use have holes in them. Believe me, Eya, there's nothing I'd like more than for you to stay in Falnora. But to make the most of your abilities, you have to go to someone with more knowledge and experience than me."
     "I know, but I'm not going away forever. Some day, I'll be back."
     "On that day, Falnora will have a celebration that will make Midsummer's Day look glum. But for now, you'd best get ready to go. Reg won't like being kept waiting for too long."
* * *

     Lora's farewell to Ebb was as affectionate as Eya's leave-taking of Wil.
     "You could always change your mind and stay. There's a place for you under this roof," said Ebb. They were at his house, which no longer served as a hospital or a refuge. Although Bre hadn't left yet, she was discreetly remaining in one of the other rooms to give the two an opportunity to bid each other goodbye.
     "And you could always change your mind and accompany us," replied Lora. "I think it is better this way. Our love was doomed from the start. Any love I have will be doomed."
     "Sex isn't everything," said Ebb. "I've accepted that. It doesn't mean that I want you to go."
     "What we have between us is not good."
     "I don't accept that. You..." Ebb protested.
     Lora interrupted him. "It is not good. You will suffer frustration because I can not meet the needs of your body and when you search elsewhere for satisfaction, I will endure jealousy. By leaving, I free us both from each other."
     "I think you underestimate me, Lora. It's been years since I've made love to a woman. I can go on indefinitely. Like I said, love isn't just sex. It's enjoying the sunrises and sunsets together. It's tilling the fields and harvesting the crops. It's sitting by a winter day's fire and holding each other."
     "Nevertheless, it is better that I go. And Reg and Eya are like a brother and sister to me. I can not abandon them."
     "I didn't expect to be able to change your mind," said Ebb. "But it was worth a try."
     Lora smiled. "And I am glad you thought me worth the effort to try."
     "I guess I'm doomed to lose both women I care about in one day."
     Lora frowned. "It will be difficult traveling with Bre. She does not like me."
     "Bre led a sheltered childhood. She hasn't been exposed to different races. It's not that she doesn't like you; she doesn't understand you. I think if you get to know one another, you'll become friends."
     "After the journey to Vorti, we may never see each other again."
     "Do you think you'll ever come back to Falnora?"
     "That depends on the winds of fate."
     "If you do, I'll be waiting. And don't forget me, no matter what."
     "An elf never forgets the ones she hates and the ones she loves."
     Lora stood on her tip-toes and, craning her neck, gave him a kiss on the cheek, a gentle brush of her lips against the stubble of his beard. It was a mark of warmth and friendship, but not of passion. Then she was gone. Ebb stood staring at the door as it swung closed behind her.
     Moments later, Bre emerged from the back room. "Did she leave?"
     "Yes. You should be going, too. You don't want them to leave without you."
     "Reg will wait."
     "That's not what he said yesterday."
     "What Reg says and what he means are two different things. Besides, even if he wanted to leave, Eya wouldn't let him go."
     Ebb sighed. "I'd appreciate it if you'd make an attempt to get along with Lora. You two are going to be companions, after all."
     "For a few hours only. I'm not going to spend the rest of my life with her. As soon as we get to Vorti, we'll split up. They can go their way and I'll go mine. I have no desire to see any of them again."
     "Not even Reg?"
     Bre's skin reddened. "Perhaps just once or twice."
     "Why do you dislike Lora so? She's never done anything to harm you."
     "If she stayed among her own kind, I wouldn't dislike her, but she lives among humans when she isn't a human. It's not natural."
     That was one of the most irrational explanations Ebb had ever heard. He wondered if his daughter recognized how foolish she sounded. Usually people who practiced racial hatred fabricated arguments that sounded more reasonable. "Some time, that attitude is going to cause you pain."
     "I doubt it, Father. You just don't understand. But you're right about one thing."
     "What's that?"
     "It's time for me to go."
* * *

     The group of four rode out of Falnora without anyone to see them off. It was a custom of the settlement to avoid ceremony or the appearance of ceremony whenever anyone departed. So, once the farewells had been said in private, Reg and his companions gathered by the stables, mounted their horses, and headed northward. Of them all, only Lora looked back, although each of the others wanted to do so at least once.
     The traveled in silence for the first part of the journey, Reg slightly out in front, with Eya behind him between Lora and Bre. The tension between those two made Eya uncomfortable. She would have preferred a little more companionableness between the members of the group. For his part, either Reg didn't notice it or didn't care.
     About an hour northeast of the village, Eya's attention was arrested by something large and white sticking out of the grass to the west of their course. At first she thought it might be a rock, but as they drew abreast of it, she realized that the shape was too irregular. "What's that?" she asked, pointing.
     "I don't know," admitted Reg, steering his horse in the direction of the object, which was a few hundred feet away. The others followed.
     As he got closer, Reg realized that the thing protruding above the high grass was a bone - the shoulder bone of a large animal, to be precise. The rest of the skeleton - skull, spine, ribs, torso, and legs - was there as well. In fact, side-by-side, there were two identical skeletons of horse-sized beasts and a third that at first glance looked like it belonged to a human child.
     Reg, joined by Eya, dismounted to get a better look. The other two remained on their horses.
     It didn't take much effort to guess the nature of the two animals. Their size, coupled with the three-clawed feet and razor-sharp teeth, made identification relatively simple. Although Reg had never seen a living nightbeast, he was certain that these were members of the species. The third skeleton presented something of a mystery.
     Although the bones looked similar to those of a human child, they were not human bones. The skull was strangely shaped, with a small nose, small eye sockets, and a chin that jutted forward. The backbone was twisted in a manner that would force the creature to move hunched over. The leg bones, while short, were thick, indicating powerful lower limbs.
     "It is a dwarf," said Lora, noticing Reg and Eya's puzzled expressions.
     "A dwarf? So that attack on the return from Vorti wasn't an isolated incident," said Reg.
     "We don't know how long these have been dead," said Eya. "The bones have been stripped clean."
     "That doesn't mean anything. Dwarves and nightbeasts will eat anything, including their own kind. The survivors probably stripped the skeletons," said Reg.
     "It has been at least several weeks," noted Lora. "The bones are sun-bleached, so they have been exposed for some time."
     "I wonder what happened?" mused Eya.
     Reg shrugged. "We can make a guess. For there to be only one dead dwarf and two dead nightbeasts, there must have been a sizeable force of dwarves against these two. Dwarves may be fierce, but it would take a small army of them to bring down a pair of nightbeasts while suffering a single casualty."
     Bre, who had been gazing at the two giant skeletons, shivered as she quietly said, "I never want to be out on these plains again after dark."
     Reg glanced in her direction. "The nightbeasts may wait until the sun sets, but the same isn't true of dwarves. If you remember, last time it was afternoon when we had problems with them. I suggest we keep a careful lookout. They're short enough that they can move through this grass invisibly. We can outrun them on horses, but only if we know they're coming after us."
     The party moved north-northeastward at a canter, following the path Bre and Reg had used on their previous trip. There was little opportunity for conversation, with the attention of all four concentrated on the surrounding terrain as they sought out potential dangers.
     Two hours before noon, they forded the Vordi and turned in a more easterly direction. By mid-day, as they approached the coast, the narrow footpath they were following changed course again, heading due north.      When they stopped for a brief meal, they remained seated on their mounts, munching on dried rabbit and bars made from corn meal, flour, and sugar. The flasks of water they had brought with them were tepid, but the liquid at least helped to wet their tongues and throats, and wash the dirt and dust of the trail from their mouths.
     Although they had gone the entire trip thus far without encountering anyone, as they resumed their northward trek, a sizeable caravan appeared ahead, approaching along the path, with seven covered wagons and ten guards in escort. Two armed and mounted men spurred their horses ahead of the main group, intent upon intercepting Reg's party.
     "Ho!" called one of the guards as Reg led his companions away from the trail and an encounter he feared might be unpleasant. "A word if we may!"
     Reg brought his horse to a halt and turned toward the guards. They were approaching at a trot, weapons sheathed, making an attempt to look unthreatening. Dressed in full chain-linked vests, they were only partially successful.
     "Where do you hail from?" asked the guard who had initially called out. He was tall and lean, with fair hair and fair skin that was beginning to redden under the sun's assault. The open plainness of his face was offset by beady eyes that never fixed on a single target for more than a few seconds.
     His companion looked like a shaggy beast in armor, with an immense girth and huge limbs. Every inch of bared flesh seemed covered with coarse black hair - his hands, forearms, face, head, and even neck. His size was such that he made his horse - a beast of no small stature - seem like a donkey.
     "The community of Falnora," replied Reg, his tone carefully neutral. He had no reason to trust - or distrust - these men.
     "Never heard of it. Is it near a city?"
     "It's between Fels and Llam."
     "We're bound for Llam. How's the road ahead of us?"
     "We've been traveling since shortly after dawn and haven't met anyone - or anything. But this route may not be without danger."
     "Don't we know that! According to the man who hired us as an escort, he used to make this trip with only a pair of guards. Now he needs a dozen. Strange times we're living in, but it's all the same to me. More gold in my purse."
     "Do you make this trip often?" asked Eya.
     The guard blinked in surprise, as if startled that a woman would ask him a question. "No. This is my first time. I usually travel the route from Vorti to Tsab, but with the recent hostilities, trade along that route has dried up, so I've moved to southern passages. After Llam, we're supposed to go on to Merk and Xert."
     "You'd do well to stay clear of the Forest of Llam at night," said Reg. "There are dangers on the plains as well, but the forest is worse."
     "Thanks for the tip, but we don't intend to go into the forest at all. These merchants have had a couple of bad experiences in there. Instead, we're going to follow the Llam River south then go along the coast until we reach the city."
     "Watch out for nightbeasts on the plains."
     "Had an encounter with a pack about three years ago north of Fels, so those I know about. It's the unknowns that concern me - unknowns like her. Is she an elf?" The guard cocked a gloved finger at Lora, but the question was addressed to Reg.
     "I am," said Lora.
     "Are there lots of her kind down south?"
     "She's from the Forest," lied Bre quickly, noticing the darkening of Reg's expression and hoping to diffuse the situation. "Elves are plentiful there."
     "No wonder Master Hil wants to stay away from that place! Imagine dozens of things like her running around!"
     "Shut yer mouth!" rumbled the second guard, speaking for the first time. "You don't know nothin' about nothin'. Let's get going. We've harassed these people enough."
     With a gesture that might have been a salute to Reg's party, the larger man spun his horse and galloped off to rejoin the caravan. After a moment's delay, his companion followed.
     "The big one surprised me," noted Reg, watching the dwindling backs of the two guards.
     "Why?" asked Lora. "He is not entirely human himself. It is difficult for me to tell since I am not familiar with all of the races of Devforth, but I believe he is part troll."
     "No human would mate with a troll! It's disgusting!" Bre seemed sickened by the concept.
     "Rape is a universal form of violence," said Lora. There was a quality in her voice that did not encourage a response.
     Two hours later, with the sun high over head, Reg was the first to notice the distant column of smoke. He slowed his horse and pointed it out to his companions. While the significance was lost on Lora and Eya, Bre's face broke into a grin.
     "Vorti" was all she said. They had arrived.

© 2005 James Berardinelli

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