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.
     "Your Majesty?"
     "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.
     "Now, Jav!"
     "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."

* * *

     Early the next morning, Sor held a council of war. Present were his chief advisors, numerous high-ranking members of the militia, Chancellor Jav, ex-Chancellor Rim, a number of scholars who claimed knowledge about the behavior of dwarves, a spy who had been recalled from King Hwo's court, the seeress Meg, and the four from Falnora.
     The meeting lasted most of the day. While there was much information exchanged, and numerous proposals for action made, little of substance was decided upon. Throughout the day, captains from the perimeter patrols reported in, none of them noticing anything out-of-the-ordinary. If there were dwarves in the immediate vicinity of Vorti, they were well hidden.
     With a lack of tangible evidence of the enemy beyond a dozen charred bodies near Meg's house, Sor had to disband the meeting without commiting to a plan of action. He impressed upon the commanders the necessity of having the militia ready to mobilize immediately, but there was little more he could do without creating widespread panic. Sor hated having to wait for another incident to act, because of the additional cost in lives, but it appeared he had little choice.
     The scholars who professed to be experts on dwarves were of no help. They stated there was no set of circumstances short of a global catastrophe that would displace the creatures from their mountain lairs. Other than bringing a live dwarf into their midst, there appeared to be no way to convince them otherwise. Had all the corpses on Meg's property not been reduced to ash, the king would have commanded that one be brought to the little throne room, although even that might not have been enough to shake the scholars' beliefs in their own infalliability.
     Reg, Eya, Bre, and Lora gave physical descriptions of dwarves and talked about their methods of fighting. Bre and Reg detailed how a group had attacked and brought down Tad while Lora related as much as she could recall about the night Heltala had been overrrun. Reg and Eya attempted to help, but their memories were unclear about the incident.
     Sor mentioned nothing about his suspicion that Tsab could be behind a dwarf migration, but he asked the spy if he had noticed any unusual activity in the western city. The man said there had been an abnormally high number of military exercises held outside of the boundaries of Tsab. Over the past year, there had been weeks at a time when more than half of the army had been absent. At this point, Reg and Eya interjected their tale of the incident outside of Falnora with the Tsabian troops.
     Rim, an advocate of caution, gave his usual warning - that precipitous action could lead to unfortunate consequences. Jav, who sometimes opposed this view, agreed with his predecessor in this instance, partially because he, like many of the others in the room, found it difficult to accept that a large force of dwarves would march so far from home to attack a city.
     Meg's contribution, in addition to being the most cryptic speech of the day, was the most ominous. She foretold great bloodshed and deep sorrow. Many of those in the room this day, she claimed, would "soon be confronted by the head of death incarnate". When Sor asked her if that meant they would die in battle, she replied that there were uglier ways to perish. Although questioned about the meaning of those words, she would say no more.
     The meeting ajourned an hour after dusk. As everyone started for their homes and the meal that would be waiting, the king approached the four from Falnora and asked if they would like to join him and his wife for dinner.
     "My wife is interested to meet you. She has expressed wonder that there is a woman Apath and is full of curiosity about elves. We would both be honored if you would dine with us this evening, then spend the night in comfort under our roof. I can promise you a better night's sleep than you can get in the inn where you're staying."
     Bre and Eya were enthusiastic, but Reg, noticing Lora's uncertainty, balked. The elf had been uneasy all day. "Perhaps another night. It's getting late..."
     "All the more reason to stay," said Sor. Turning to Lora as if he recognized her discomfort, he added, "As an elf and a stranger among people not your own, this must be a strange experience for you. I don't know how you are treated in the streets - although I hope it is well - but I can assure you that within the palace, everyone will give you the respect and dignity you deserve. I do not tolerate bigotry within my house."
     "Thank you, Your Majesty," said Lora. "I would be delighted to stay for dinner, if my friends will agree."
     Following her words, Reg acceded, and the five of them departed for the eating area adjacent to the kitchen where the king often hosted informal dinner groups.
* * *

     Rim was weary when he reached the Healer's Guild. Spending so much time hunched over a table had caused his back muscles to cramp up. All he wanted now was a warm bath, something quick to eat, and a long night in bed. Perhaps tonight, for the first time in longer than he cared to recall, he would be able to get a good sleep.
     While the results of the meeting had been inconclusive, Rim did not regret attending. The king who had presided over the session had been the Sor of old - decisive, thoughtful, and creative. It was as if he had shaken off the mantle of apathy that had dogged his reign for the last thirty-five years. Any doubts Rim harbored about Joi were gone. If she could do this much good for Sor, he welcomed her as his queen, no matter what her real identity might be.
     The healer wondered if he would ever be retired from his position as an advisor to the king, or if he truly wanted to be. Irrational as it was, a part of him realized that had he not been invited to the meeting today, he would have felt slighted.
     Rim's secretaries, who knew their master's proclivities well, had a steaming bath ready for him. After disrobing and soaking in the tub for nearly a half-hour, he emerged, slipped into a heavy woolen robe - with the advent of autumn, the nights were becoming chilly - and went to his private dining room for a small meal of bread, cheese, and wine.
     It was three hours before midnight when Rim retired to his bedchamber, his muscles relaxed and his stomach full. Stoking up the fire across from his bed, he doused the lanterns then crawled under the covers. It didn't take him long to drift into a slumber, but he had not been asleep for many minutes when a noise awakened him.
     His first measure of time was to notice that the fire was blazing healthily across the hearth, sending sparks flying up the chimney and shadows capering about the room. He didn't realize what had awakened him until he heard it a second time - a scraping sound coming from just outside his window.
     It was probably a loose shutter, and Rim was reluctant to get out of his warm bed to see to it, but if the wind picked up during the night, he wouldn't get any sleep with the banging it would make. The last thing he wanted was for his best chance of a good night's sleep to be ruined because of a loose shutter, especially since it wouldn't take too much effort to fix.
     Reluctantly emerging from beneath his layer of three blankets, Rim pulled on a nightrobe and padded on bare feet across the wooden floor. Fortunately, the fire took the edge off the night's chill.
     He had to work a little at the window to get it open. It had been a long time since anyone had used it and the lock stuck. After a great deal of pushing and banging, Rim worked it free. Sticking his head outside, he glanced to the left. The shutter was firmly fastened. The same was true to the right. So, if not the shutters, what had caused the noise that had dragged him from his bed?
     A split second later, he discovered the answer, and it was the last thing he was to learn in this lifetime.
* * *

     "You must tell me about this place you originally came from. Haven, is it called?" asked Joi.
     Dinner, which had been a sumptuous feast of roast pheasant, a half-dozen different vegetables, smoked salmon, and a choice of several fine wines, was over, and the royal couple, along with their four guests, had retired to a sitting chamber where they lounged on divans, sipped after-dinner brandies, and nibbled on dried fruits and nuts.
     During the meal, Joi had said little, restraining her inquisitivenss. However, once they had reached this room, she had been all questions. She had asked them about their home in Falnora, the people of the Halcyon Meadows, what it was like to live "away from civilization," and what happened if the harvests didn't yield enough crops for the winter. Lora she asked about the customs of the elves, Bre about how she liked living in a small settlement after coming from a city, Reg what it was like being the twin of an Apath, and Eya how it felt to control such power.
     None of the guests took offense at Joi's questions, since each of them had come to like the bubbly queen. Her enthusiasm and manner had put them at ease within moments of being seated, and even the reticent Lora had relaxed her guard. Sor had been silent throughout dinner and the conversation in the sitting room, but his guests noticed the occasional tender glances he gave his queen.
     Eya answered the latest question addressed to her, about their childhood home. "The human name for it was Haven. That's a rough translation of the elf word, which is Heltala. Actually, I don't remember much, and many of the memories aren't pleasant. Reg and I only lived there for two years. It was a secretive community. All the buildings were at least two stories tall and none had windows. Because of the danger of a dwarf attack at night, guards were always posted and no lights were allowed after dark. In the end, it didn't matter, though. The dwarves came anyway, as my father said they would."
     "But why would elves and humans set up a community like that, so close to the dwarves?"
     Lora answered this. "Because it was the only place in that part of Devforth where the people who lived there could find sanctuary. They were hunted and ridiculed everywhere else they went. In Heltala, they found a place where no one would follow them. They believed that, with proper precautions, a dwarf attack could be prevented. Obviously, they were wrong."
     "Persecuted? Why?"
     "Have you ever heard of the Garvadists?" asked Lora.
     Joi shook her head. Sor said, "Some kind of cult, aren't they?"
     "Yes. They believe that there is a great spritual being who creates life. Each of us, according to them, are a manifestation of this creature's will. We survive because it wishes us to, and when we no longer serve a purpose, it causes us to cease to exist."
     "A ludicrous concept," noted Joi.
     "I was cast out of Heltala because I rejected this belief," said Lora. "But there is more. The Garvadists believe that this all-powerful entity came to Devforth in the form of an elf by the name of Garv who lived four centuries ago. He promised his followers that if they obeyed his commandments and lived the lifestyle that he advocated, one day he would return to give to them the secret of immortality. Enough people believed and the cult of Garv was born.
     "Most elves rejected these teachings and the Garvadists were persecuted. They went from place-to-place, seeking sanctuary, but found none. In time, they initiated humans into their group, but the rate of growth was small. Eventually, driven away from the civilized lands, the Garvadists came upon the ruins of the old Heltala, which had been destroyed by dwarves, and on that site they built their future."
     "A religious community," remarked Sor. "I had heard that several existed across Devforth, but this is the first confirmation I've gotten of one."
     "The Garvadists are not the only religious group," said Lora. "There are others. What is common to all of them is a belief in a creative entity. It is a concept I rejected and because of it, I was cast out."
     "A harsh edict," said Joi. "To cast one out - and a child at that - because she doesn't accept the beliefs of her people."
     "The Creed was the way of life in Heltala. To reject it was to reject the community. I was given many opportunities to repent. When they exiled me, they built a nearby house for me to live in, and allowed me to occasionally come into the village when I was short of supplies. I probably should have left the area entirely, but at the time, I was frightened to travel far from the only home that I knew."
     "And now you are travelling again," remarked Sor. "This time to a city, so one of you can learn what she must. Have you found a teacher yet?" he asked Eya.
     "I haven't had time to look, Your Majesty. Reg said you mentioned someone to him..."
     Sor nodded. "Mat. Like many Apaths, he's reclusive, but I think the opportunity to teach a girl - and a pretty one at that - will bring him out of his shell. He has a keen intellect but his social skills are not well-honed. You may find his manner abrasive at first."
     "I'm used to those kinds of people. Falnora is...was populated with them."
     "Good. If you like, I'll speak to Mat on your behalf."
     "I would appreciate that, Your Majesty."
     "Now, there's something else I want to ask you. Reg, on your last visit here, you told me that one of the proofs you had of your sister's abilities was that the elder of your village, a wizard himself, had affirmed that her powers were real."
     Reg nodded. He remembered the exchange.
     "This elder - is his name Wil?"
     Reg did not respond immediately. On that first trip, Rim had warned him not to mention Wil's name in the king's presence. But in this case, Sor had been the one to broach the matter. "It is," Reg replied. "How did you know? Did Rim tell you?"
     "Rim? No. But there cannot be many Apaths on the Halcyon Meadows and I know that's where Wil went after quitting Vorti. It seemed logical to me, with his natural proclivity for leadership, that he would end up in a position of responsibility. After all, at one point, he wanted to be Vorti's king."
     "Rim said you wouldn't want to speak about Wil," said Bre, her first words since the group had retired to the sitting room. She had been quiet throughout dinner as well, awed at being in the presence of a king.
     Sor allowed himself a slight smile. "Rim understands me better than most, but he doesn't know everything. Any ill will I bore for Wil is long gone. I feel nothing about him now, except perhaps curiosity."
     "He's nothing like he once was, if the stories are anything to go by," said Reg.
     Sor appeared amused by the response. "And how do I fit the images those same stories give of me."
     "You seem more...human," said Eya.
     "Human. It's a long time since anyone has used that word to describe me. And a long time since I've deserved it, but perhaps I'm changing."
     "Changing?" asked Eya.
     "In my youth, I spent a lot of emotion using magic. But there was one core of feelings, close to my heart, that I never touched, and never would have, no matter how desperately I needed the energy. For many years, those emotions lay hidden away. I was an uncaring ruler who dispensed justice and injustice equally. I'm not proud of that long era of my reign, and unless I can change things in the upcoming years, that's how I'll be remembered."
     Sor glanced fondly at Joi. "Then she entered my life and awoke that part of me which had been buried. I found that while those emotions I had lost to magic could not be regenerated, they could, in some measure, be replaced. Suddenly, I had hope again. I'll never be the same man I was when I first took the throne, but I believe I can become something more than what I've been to this city for the past thirty-five years. Vorti deserves better than that. They have been more patient with me than I deserve."
     "Pardon me, Your Majesty," said Lora. "I do not wish to offend, but is there any relationship between your current wife and your first queen? There are...stories in the streets, and both women bear the same name."
     "We don't know," confessed Sor. "But it no longer matters. Whoever Joi may have been, she is now my queen." Again the king gazed at his wife. This time she returned his look with one of equal tenderness. It was an expression that not even the most accomplished actor could have feigned.
     "How close to Burgeoning Apathy did you come?" asked Eya.
     "Take a lesson from me - do not approach as near to the brink as I did. It's a terrible thing to look out on the world and not care what you see. Power has its attractions, but unless you hold something back, it's an empty thing. You're an Apath and, as such, you can't deny your powers. Use them, but do not overuse them. I was literally saved by love. My case is the exception for those who go as far as I did."
     "Because of what happened to you, Wil almost never uses his powers. He said he had seen what they could do to a man," said Reg.
     "Wil is wise. Wiser than I ever was. And happier, I imagine."
     "You don't sound like you're talking about the man who is said to have been your greatest enemy."
     "Wil was never my greatest enemy. That was Baron Cen. Wil had principles; Cen did not. And, as I said, after all these years, my feelings for Wil have been spent with nearly every other emotion. How does he fare?"
     "As well as can be expected," said Eya. "He lost his wife recently, but he has moved on."
     "If ever a couple was meant for each other, it was Wil and Lis. I should never have married her, but at the time, I wasn't thinking straight. How is their child?"
     "Gav is a fine man," said Reg, keeping his voice neutral. He had no wish to reveal to Sor that he knew the truth.
     Sor was about to say something when the door to the sitting room burst open to reveal a wild-eyed guard. Flanked on either side by men wearing the king's colors, he looked as if he had seen a ghost.
     "I'm sorry, Your Majesty," said one of Sor's personal guards. "He insisted on seeing you."
     "Your Majesty, you must come quickly!" wailed the first man, his voice on the verge of hysteria. "You must come!"
     "Come where?"
     "To the Healer's Guild! It's horrible...horrible!"
     Sor got to his feet and approached the man. "What has happened?"
     "Guildmaster Rim! He's been butchered, Your Majesty. Head cut off. Limbs torn off. And his body...eaten!!"
     Reg's gasp cut through the sudden silence. "Dwarves!"

© 2005 James Berardinelli

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