PART FOUR: QUESTIONS OF DEATH
It was four hours past noon when Sor left his bed, his wife, and his quarters. Escorted by a modest contingent of guards, he made his way to the little throne room, where Jav was awaiting his appearance. There was no doubt that Sor was late, and the chancellor was subject to anxiety attacks whenever his carefully prepared schedule was upset.
Aside from several guards, Jav, and the usual servants, there were five people waiting for Sor. With some surprise, the king noted Rim's presence. It had been weeks since the healer had made an appearance in the palace. Sor had begun to wonder if his old friend and advisor had decided to abandon him once and for all.
The king recognized two of the others, but where or when he had seen them, he couldn't say. Even more suprising than Rim's appearance was that of an elf female. It had been a decade since any non-human had appeared at court. Generally, unsual events such as this presaged bad news and, if he remembered correctly from his childhood lessons, elves were the mortal enemies of dwarves. Perhaps another piece of the puzzle was about to fall into place.
Everyone rose at Sor's entrance, but the king waved for them to be seated as he took the throne. Having eschewed the official robes of state, he was dressed in his customary blue doublet, hose, and tunic. His crown was absent and his silver-streaked wheaten hair was drawn back from his face and tied behind his head.
"Jav, come here," said Sor.
The chancellor stepped forward, several scrolls in his grasp. Sor suspected that the one he kept casting surreptitious glances at was the day's schedule. They were already at least an hour behind.
"I want you to commission a squadron of a dozen guards to protect the lands and dwelling of the seeress Meg. The men are to be on three shifts of eight hours each until further notice. There are a number of corpses in the vicinity of her house. I want them cleared away and burned. Perimeter protection of Vorti shall be increased immediately, with at least ten squadrons on patrol at all times, and I want the militia mobilized and put on full alert."
Jav looked thunderstruck.
"Your Majesty, I wanted to introduce..."
"I'm sure Rim can handle that. See to these orders! I want those men at Meg's in place by dusk and the army ready by dawn."
"But, Your Majesty..."
A glare silenced the chancellor.
"Aye, Your Majesty," said Jav. Hurriedly, he left the room, motioning for two guards to follow him.
"What is it, Rim?" asked Sor, turning to the healer as soon as the three had departed.
"I might ask you the same thing, Your Majesty."
Sor considered before answering. He didn't want information about the dwarves to become public, at least not until the situation was under better control; it could cause a panic. He could trust Rim, but the former chancellor was not the only one in the room. "There has been a raid at Meg's house. If I hadn't personally been there to stop it, the seeress would be dead."
"Personally, Your Majesty?"
"I went there for reasons which should be apparent to you, Rim."
"Indeed, Sire. If I might inquire, what was the result?"
"Suffice it to say that nothing Meg said gave me reason to assume my decision is in error."
Rim appeared surprised by this pronouncement, but he said nothing more, recognizing the need for discretion. Much rumor and innuendo got started by palace servants who overheard something they were not meant to repeat.
"At any rate," continued Sor. "I have reason to believe there may be a danger to Meg's farm. Furthermore, Vorti itself may be at some risk."
"What is the nature of this risk, Your Majesty?"
"I can't say at the moment."
"Excuse me," said the lone male among Sor's visitors, approaching the throne. "But does it have anything to do with dwarves?"
Sor lifted a hand for silence, then motioned the servants out of the room. Being present when that single word had been spoken, they had already heard too much. The king did not intend to let them be privy to further discussions on the matter. Especially not when any of them could be a spy for King Hwo of Tsab.
When six people remained in the hall, Sor turned a probing gaze on the young man. "Who are you? What do you know of the dwarves?"
"If I may, Your Majesty," interrupted Rim. "This is Reg of Falnora. You may recall that he was here several months ago along with Bre, the young lady over there." Rim pointed first at one of the human females, then at the other. "With her is Eya, Reg's sister. She's an Apath."
Now the king remembered Reg. He had come asking about magic lessons for his sister. Though only months ago, it seemed like another lifetime. That had been before his illness. Before Joi.
"The elf is Lora, once of Heltala in the Green Mountains. She grew up in a settlement that was in constant danger from the dwarves," continued Rim.
"That's all very interesting, but it doesn't explain how you know the nature of the threat to Vorti."
"For some time now, Your Majesty," began Reg, "We've been aware of the presence of small groups of dwarves on the plains between Vorti and Falnora. Although they've never been seen in great numbers, dwarves are not known to venture far from their mountains except in force."
"They are not known to venture from their mountains at all," noted Sor. "Yet in this case, they have."
"We felt it was possible that their presence could represent a danger to Vorti, so we decided to bring the matter to Guildmaster Rim's attention."
"Obviously you are not as unaware of the threat as we surmised," noted Rim.
"Had I not been present for the attack on Meg, I would still be ignorant, and she would be dead," admitted Sor. "We're ill prepared for this kind of attack."
"You can hardly blame yourself, Your Majesty. No one could have anticipated a movement of dwarves this far north and east. It's unprecedented."
"The duty of a king is to be prepared for the unexpected, the inexplicable, and the impossible. Any fool on this throne could make ready for war if the lookouts spot a mass of Tsabian soldiers marching this way. My responsibility is to get Vorti ready for those things that other men wouldn't expect."
Rim was startled by the short speech. It had been decades since he'd heard that much fire in his liege's voice, more than thirty-five years since Sor had spoken of duty and responsibility as anything but a chore that had been thrust upon him as his birthright. In a reversal of opinion, Rim was forced to acknowledge that perhaps the king's marriage had been a good thing.
"Do you believe an attack to be imminent, Your Majesty?" asked Rim.
"I don't know. What happened at Meg's could have been a random raid, but it seemed purposeful. The seeress' house, while on the outskirts of the city, is neither the most isolated nor the most obvious choice for an attack. I wonder if this might be the first phase of an invasion."
"Dwarves don't have the intelligence or the discipline to engineer such a plan," protested Reg. "They are driven by primitive urges. Their main concern is where their next meal will come from. Which makes their presence this far from home inexplicable."
"Perhaps dwarves are not capable of plotting a war, but what about dwarves led by more intelligent creatures?"
"Outside of their own race, dwarves have no allies," said Reg. "What you suggest isn't likely."
"But is it possible?"
Reluctantly, Reg nodded. He wasn't an expert on dwarves and his limited experience wouldn't permit him to disallow the possibility. But who would want to lead an army of dwarves?
"Perhaps the first thing to determine is where these dwarves hail from," said Sor.
"The Green Mountains, Your Majesty," suggested Rim.
"That's what we've been assuming. But aren't there tribes of dwarves in both the Scarred Peaks and the Whitetop Mountains?"
Rim shrugged. "I suppose so."
Sor interrupted him. "Both ranges are closer than the Green Mountains. The Scarred Peaks are directly on the path that an attacking force from Tsab would take, and the Whitetops are to the north of such a route."
"You think Tsab is behind the dwarf movement?"
"It must be considered as a possibility. After all, look at the scenarios. In a war with a large force of dwarves, both sides will suffer major casualties. If Vorti emerged victorious, our army would be decimated and our defenses weak. We would be unable to resist an invasion from Tsab, even if they sent only a token force. On the other hand, if Vorti lost, it would be equally easy for the Tsabians to mop up what remained of the dwarvish force. Either way, this city would fall to King Hwo."
"It makes sense, if Hwo found some way to motivate the dwarves," conceded Rim.
Sor nodded his agreement. "Maybe now we should hear what these outlanders have to say." The king turned his attention to his visitors. One in particular had piqued his curiosity. "So you are Eya," he said, rising from the throne and bowing to her. "A female Apath."
Eya's cheeks colored. Getting to her feet, she attempted to execute a curtsey, but stopped mid-way, fearing that efforts would appear gauche to a man who had spent his life watching the most graceful ladies salute him. "I am, Your Majesty," she replied softly.
"A rare find," said the king. "If a male Apath is like a gem among pebbles, then a female Apath is like a diamond among gems. You are most welcome in Vorti."
"Thank you, Your Majesty."
"Now, perhaps you, your brother, and your friends can tell me something of what you know about this situation and dwarves in general."
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