If Reg had not supported Eya, she would have fallen. In her state, with the world spinning in accelerating circles and black spots forming a chaotic picture, the young Apath was unaware that her legs had buckled and that her brother's arm around her waist was holding her upright. In fact, she was oblivious to all physical sensation.
     "Are you all right?" repeated Reg. It was the fifth time he had asked.
     Eya, hearing a sound, turned toward her brother. She tried unsuccessfully to focus her vision. "Wha?" she managed to murmur.
     Gently laying his sister on the ground, Reg bent over her and, cupping his mouth to her ear, enunciated the question.
     This time, Eya heard it. Her response was to turn onto her side and vomit all over Reg's boots.
     Ten minutes later, her dizzy spell dissipating, coherence returned. The first thing Eya did upon noticing her brother scrubbing the floor was to apologize.
     "Don't worry about it," said Reg. "At least you're all right. For a moment, I thought I was going to lose you."
     "I was never in any danger," said Eya. As she started to rise, another wave of vertigo assaulted her and she collapsed back into a sitting position.
     "Don't get up yet," said Reg. "I'll take care of this."
     "My body's not used to what I tried, that's all. I didn't think I'd get that dizzy. There was nothing dangerous."
     "That's not the way it looked. You started gasping for air, then nearly fell."
     "The reaction was violent, but I can learn to control it." A hint of excitement entered her voice. "I did it, Reg! Do you realize what this means?"
     "You've proven your theory. Now you can stop."
     "Stop? This is just the beginning. Think of the applications."
     "Think of the risks," he said. "Is it worth dying for something like this?"
     "I told you, it's not that..."
     "Eya, if I hadn't been here, you would have split your skull open on the stone floor. Dead is dead, no matter how it happens. Just because the magic doesn't kill you doesn't mean that you can't die trying these things."
     "Then you'll have to stay by my side in the future."
     "I want you to tell Mat," said Reg.
     Eya shook her head vehemently. "Not yet."
     "He might be able to help you with this."
     "Or hurt. Look, Reg, this is my discovery. Mine. No one else's. I'm grateful for your help, but if you're going to work with me, it's got to be done my way. If you can't handle that, you'd better stop now."
     Reg had a momentary desire to turn his back on his sister and walk out of the room. He didn't, of course. It would take more than an outburst like that to cause him to lose his temper. Whether she was willing to admit it or not, he knew Eya needed him. He would not abandon her.
     "Whatever you want," he forced himself to say.
     Reg offered Eya a hand. Steadying herself against him, she got to her feet. "I think that's it for today, though. I've got a terrible headache and the room is still spinning."
     "Maybe you should lie down a little before joining the festivities."
     "That sounds like a good idea. You know, I have no idea what it's like outside on a day like this."
     "Much the same as on any other day, I should think," said Reg. "Except that everyone's a little more drunk than usual. Today's when the tavern owners get rich."
     "Reg...what happens if something goes wrong? If the baby is stillborn or the queen doesn't survive the birth?"
     "Don't even think about it."
     "We have to. You're the one who's always saying how we should plan for the alternatives."
     "This isn't something you can plan for. If something bad happens to the queen or the baby, Vorti will become the worst place in Devforth to be."
     Moments later, after helping his sister to bed, Reg was strolling through the halls of Mat's mansion on the way to his quarters when he nearly bumped into Bre as she emerged from the dormitory she shared with the other household maids.
     "Sorry," muttered Reg. "I didn't see you."
     "That's become a habit for you, hasn't it?" Bre repliedy. The gaze she leveled at him was a mixture of anger and...something else - something less easily defined.
     "What's that supposed to mean?"
     "You've gone out of your way to ignore me for the past few months. Have I done something in particular to offend you or have you decided to no longer associate with the maids?"
     "Look, I said I was sorry."
     "It couldn't be all the maids, though, could it? After all, you don't have any trouble talking to Ola. In fact, it doesn't stop with talking, does it? There are times when you can't keep your hands off her."
     The conversation was moving a little too rapidly for Reg. "What does Ola have to do with my saying I'm sorry?" he asked.
     Bre gave him a withering look. "'Sorry.' It's just a word to you, isn't it?"
     "It's not as if I knocked you down. No harm done."
     "So where's Ola? I thought you two would be together today."
     Reg shrugged, determined to act as nonchalant as he could. He was not going to permit Bre to ruin what was left of this day. Eya had already dimmed too much of it. "I don't know. Probably out in the city enjoying herself."
     "Out whoring, I suspect." There was venom in Bre's voice.
     Reg hesitated, previously unaware of Bre's dislike of the other maid. "It's possible."
     "You would know."
     "That's unfair. I hardly know Ola. Certainly not enough to sleep with her."
     "Since when has that ever stopped anyone?"
     "When you come from a small community like Falnora, you don't sleep with someone unless you're prepared to marry them. I may live in Vorti now, but there are certain values you'll never be able to take out of me. That's one of them, and Ola isn't my idea of a wife."
     "Who is?" challenged Bre.
     "Who is what?"
     "Your idea of a wife?"
     Reg was not stupid, and his earlier conversation with his sister was fresh in his mind. He answered cautiously, wary of a verbal trap. "Someone who will stand by my side. Someone I can talk to. Someone who has her own opinions and isn't afraid to voice them. Someone I can feel comfortable with. A friend."
     "A lover?"
     "Of course. Just because I'm celibate doesn't mean I'm not interested in sex."
     "Have you found any candidates in Vorti?"
     "I'm not here to look for a wife. I'm here to support my sister. My personal desires are subordinate to her needs. Marriage isn't a concern."
     "So what is important to you?"
     "Right now, joining in the revelry," said Reg, seizing an opportunity to steer the conversation away from an unpleasant subject. "I'm surprised you're still in here."
     "You think I'd fit in better with a bunch of drunkards?"
     "That's not what I meant. I thought you'd want to be part of the celebration."
     "Until the baby is born, there's no reason to celebrate."
     "Eya said much the same thing."
     "She's a woman," said Bre. "She understands that giving birth isn't something taken for granted. If you took time to notice, you'd realize that almost all of the people celebrating are men. For the most part, the women are staying inside, holding their breaths, and hoping."
     "So you're going to wait until word comes that the baby has been born and both mother and child are well?"
     "I'm not going out at all. I have things to do."
     "On a day off?"
     "Weren't you outside this morning tilling the fields?"
     Reg couldn't deny that, but he was surprised she had been watching him carefully enough to notice.      
     "If I get a few of my duties for the week completed today, I won't have to work as hard tomorrow."
     "You can't be hard-pressed. Mat doesn't expect that much from us."
     "Go out and enjoy yourself," said Bre.
     Perhaps now was a good time for Reg to consider his feelings for Bre. Eya's words this morning had made him uncertain. How much of the antipathy between them was real, and how much was a game?
     "Why don't you come with me," he suggested. His words surprised him, but not nearly as much as they did her.
     He wasn't about to retreat now. He repeated the offer, then added, "We don't have to go out drinking. I'm sure there are plenty of other things to do. And you're wrong about there not being women. They're there, from housewives to harlots."
     "You want me to come with you?"
     "This isn't a jest, is it?"
     "Why ask me? You hate me."
     "Do I?" challenged Reg.
     "Do you?"
     "I don't know the answer. But my sister offered an interesting alternative."
     "I can't say - at least not right now."
     Bre eyed Reg speculatively for a moment. He found himself awaiting her answer, although deep down he was certain she was going to refuse. This had been folly on his part. Before now, their relationship had been nicely defined. Now, he had clouded it.
     "Give me a half-hour. I have to change into something more suitable for outdoor wear," said Bre.
     "That's a yes?"
     "Of course it is, you clod."

* * *

     Sor had chosen to hide in what he believed to be an unobtrusive place. Many years ago, when he had been a boy and several steps from the throne, this was the first place anyone would have looked for him, but it had been a long time since he had moved out of the scholar's wing of the palace and into the royal apartments.
     In some ways, the king was more comfortable in this plain room than he had ever been in the spacious suite he had inherited upon his older brother's death. Some of the happiest days of his life had been spent here. This was the room in which he had studied to become a wizard, and learned what power meant. It was also here that Joi had first come to him as his personal maid. That had been before their romantic trysts began, but even then there had been a spark between them.
     After Sor had moved out of this room, it had remained unoccupied. In fact, over the past three decades, the number of people living in the scholar's wing had diminished. Once, nearly every room in this hall had been inhabited. Now, most were like this one: silent and dusty, dwelt in by only spiders, mice, and rats.
     Of course, as a king, Sor could go nowhere in the palace unnoticed, so it was only a matter of time before someone discovered his whereabouts. That someone, predictably, was Chancellor Jav.
     "Your Majesty?" inquired Jav, standing half-in and half-out of the open doorway.
     "Come in, Jav. I presume this is a matter of some importance. As I told you earlier, I'd prefer to be alone today."
     "I understand, Sire. But I bear a message that I thought you would want to hear immediately."
     "The queen??"
     "No, Your Majesty. Perhaps you could come to the little throne room. There is a courier waiting for you there."
     Making no attempt to conceal his displeasure, Sor followed Jav from the solace of his old room. He reminded himself that the chancellor was merely doing his duty. Jav was the messenger, not the originator of whatever crisis was brewing.
     Ever mindful of the need to present a regal appearance, Sor took the crown that was offered to him by one of the servants outside of the little throne room. Awaiting him on the other side of the door was one of the innumerable, faceless men that represented what Jav called Sor's "intelligence network". Dressed in a mud-spattered gray cloak and matching breeches, the man sank to one knee as his liege assumed the throne.
     "My chancellor informs me that you have a message for me. You have my leave to deliver it."
     "Your Majesty," began the courier, keeping his eyes averted. "I have been assigned to the northern border patrol since the declaration of war by Tsab. Until this morning, nothing abnormal has happened, but the western scouting party that was sent out at sundown last evening has vanished. They were due to return at midnight, and, when they were several hours past due, a relief party was sent out. They have not returned either, even though some sort of contact should have been initiated before dawn. Pending direct orders, no further men have been put at risk, but my commander ordered the northern and western watches to complete readiness."
     "How many men have disappeared?" asked Sor, realizing why Jav had sought him out. War, when it came, would wait for no man.
     "Two-dozen, Your Majesty. Twelve in each party."
     "Have there been any other indications of trouble, either along the perimeter, or within it?"
     "Just one, Sire, although we aren't sure what to make of it. The commander thought you should be informed, however."
     Sor waited patiently.
     "The seeress has vanished."
     The king shot his chief advisor a look, but Jav was as unprepared for the news as Sor. "I knew nothing of this, Your Majesty," he said.
     "Has a search been conducted?" asked the king.
     "Yes, Your Majesty. There is no sign of her."
     "What about the men who were assigned to protect her?"
     "She went for a walk early yesterday, before we had reason to believe there might be unusual danger. The guards followed at a discreet distance. At some point, she simply vanished. When the men couldn't find her, others were called in, but it was as if she vanished into the air."
     "Convene the war council, Jav. Immediately." Turning to the courier, Sor continued, "Have your commander assemble seventy-five of his best men and send them sweeping north and west. A line of constant communication is to be kept open. I want to be informed as soon as you learn why those men disappeared. In the meantime, the army is to be mobilized with all active units placed on maximum alert."
     With a salute rather than a bow, the courier departed to carry out Sor's orders.
* * *

     It was mid afternoon when Eya emerged from Mat's house to sample the revelry in the streets. Although she had a faint headache and the aftereffects of her morning ordeal had not disappeared, she had grown envious lying in bed listening to so many people having such a good time.
     Had Reg not left her a note saying where he intended to be, it would have been impossible to find him. Even knowing his location, Eya didn't expect it to be easy. The streets were packed with people jostling and pushing against each other. Many were singing, stumbling, and holding aloft flagons of their favorite brew. Rumors abounded about whether the baby had been born, but they were of secondary importance to the news of which tavern was currently serving a free round.
     Patiently, Eya wended her way through the crowds, concerned more about staying on her feet than moving quickly. The closeness of the people became unbearable whenever a coach or carriage passed by, since everyone had to move out of the center of the street. On one occasion, Eya felt an unwelcome hand stray under her frock. When she looked around to find the culprit, however, there was no way to be certain who it had been.
     It took Eya the better part of an hour to reach the Resting Gardens, a small park in the northeastern quarter of the city, near the docks. Although she had visited this place only twice before, it had been deserted on both occasions. Today, it was swarming with activity.
     Reg, as it turned out, was not difficult to locate, and it didn't surprise Eya that he was with Bre. Her brother had doubted the veracity of her earlier words, but she felt secure about her intuition.
     When Eya joined the pair, they were seated on a bench, sharing a fibrous, sugary confection. Reg glanced between her and Bre, then gave his sister a guilty look before moving aside to make room for her to sit down.
     "Feeling better?" he asked.
     "I'm all right. I couldn't miss this party, could I?"
     Reg shrugged. "It's not all that interesting. I don't know what I was expecting, but it was something more spectacular. At least when we had carnivals in Falnora, there was a lot to do. Here, all anyone does is get drunk and roam the streets singing off-key."
     "The more people there are, the less organized the activities become," said Bre. To Eya, she added, "I've been trying to explain that to him all afternoon."
     "You two seem to be enjoying yourselves," noted Eya.
     Reg's guilty look returned. "It's better than working in the fields."
     "It must be the company," said Eya. When neither of them responded to that, she asked, "Any word about the baby?"
     "Last we heard, it hadn't been born yet. Everyone's expecting an announcement."
     Eya glanced skyward. Clouds were beginning to build. "If it doesn't come soon, there are going to be a lot of wet people on the streets. Looks like rain."
     "Do you want to go back to the house?" asked Reg.
     Bre nodded. "I think I've had enough 'fun'. I definitely don't want to get rained on."
     When the two of them got to their feet, Eya remained seated. "Why don't you come with us?" Reg asked her.
     "I just came from the house. With my studies, I don't get much chance to get out, so I think I'll enjoy it for a while. A little water won't bother me. Maybe I'll even visit a tavern and get drunk."
     "You can do that back at the house, and on better quality spirits."
     "But without the ambiance. Although, admittedly Reg, you don't have the best singing voice. If you get drunk, don't subject Bre to it."
     "I don't sing when I'm drunk."
     "No. You don't remember singing when you're drunk. Anyway, if I did come, I'd be in the way."
     "Nonsense," said Bre. "We won't be the only ones there."
     "Yes you will, until well after midnight. Even Mat won't be home until late." With a smile, she added, "Have fun."
* * *

     "Eya was right," said Reg, returning to the couch by the fire that he was sharing with Bre. "We're the only ones here."
     "So, do you like me or not?" asked Bre, twining a lock of hair around a finger. With the ruddy glow of the fire behind her, her head appeared to be wreathed in spun gold.
     "I guess I do."
     "What was the 'alternative' that your sister suggested?"
     "The what?"
     "When I asked you before if you liked me, you said you didn't know, but Eya had mentioned an alternative."
     "Oh, that. She thought I should ask you to marry me. I figure you'd throw something at me if I did."
     If Reg had expected Bre to be taken aback by his response, he was surprised. The mention of marriage did nothing to disconcert her. "Throw what?"
     "I don't know. The nearest breakable object, I suspect."
     "I might," conceded Bre thoughtfully. "Then again, I might not. There's only one way to find out for sure." She leaned closer to him. With her face in shadow, Reg couldn't read her expression.
     "You're not serious!"
     "That's for you to decide."
     Was she teasing or in earnest? Having lived most of his life in a small community, Reg didn't know what to make of Bre's sudden change in behavior. The bitch of earlier had become a seductress, and without even a sip of wine. As she moved toward him, he was aware of his body's reaction to her scent.
     "Stop it," said Reg, getting to his feet.
     "Because I don't like playing these games. I don't have your experience."
     "How much experience do you think I have?"
     "Enough to tie me in knots," said Reg.
     She was silent for a moment. Reg began to pace.
     "It's not a game," said Bre at last. "I'm lonely. I've been lonely for a long time, and I sense the same in you."
     "I think I'll get us some wine," said Reg, needing an excuse to get out of the room for a moment. He knew that if he stayed, he wouldn't be able to resist her.
     Taking a lantern, Reg ventured down flight of narrow stairs that led to the underground cellars where Mat kept his wines and ales. The air was cool and dry, and helped to clear Reg's thoughts. Not that a clarity of mind made the situation easier to understand. It was his heart, not his head, that was in turmoil. By asking Bre to come with him today, he had been aware that he was destabilizing their relationship, but never had he envisioned that it could change so quickly.
     Had Reg been less preoccupied with the woman upstairs, he would have noticed that all was not right in the cellar. He would have heard the scrabbling noises in the darkness that were too loud for the footsteps of a rat, and would have smelt the odor of newly disturbed earth. But he recognized neither of those things, and the realization that he was not alone came too late.
* * *

     Still sitting in Mat's parlor, Bre heard the crash of breaking glass. Padding down the hall in bare feet, she went to the top of the stairs to the cellar, opened the door, and peered down. Blackness - and silence - greeted her.
     "Reg?" she called out. There was no answer.
     It did not occur to Bre that Reg might be playing a trick on her, hiding in the darkness to steal a kiss or more. He was not that kind of person. He had to be in trouble.
     She raced back to the parlor, took a lantern in one hand and a stout cudgel in the other, then ran back to the cellar stairs. Abandoning caution for swiftness, she moved quickly down, holding the lantern high above her to better illuminate the gloomy underground vaults.
     The smooth stone was cold under her feet, and the place seemed like a tomb. More quietly than before, Bre called out Reg's name. The response was no different.
     She moved ahead, gripping the club. Thirty feet away, near the arch leading to the second of three chambers, a large, dark form lay on the ground. The light from Bre's lantern reflected off broken glass.
     Even when she was certain the form was Reg, she did not hurry to his side. There was only one exit from the cellars - the stairway - so whatever had laid Reg low was still down here. Bre did not intend to become its second victim.
     Her wariness saved her life. When she was less than ten feet from the body, a creature detached itself from where it had been hiding in Reg's shadow and launched itself at her. She had a brief impression of wild eyes, alabaster skin, and the stench of mildew before she slammed the cudgel into her assailant with all of her strength.
     Bre was not a weak woman, and the blow, even delivered one-handed, felled the creature. It dropped to the ground and lay motionless, a puddle of blood forming under the skull she had split open. She bent to examine her victim to confirm it was a dwarf, but maintained a watchful eye on her surroundings, aware that the creatures rarely traveled alone. Placing the lantern on the ground, she turned her attention to Reg.
     A noise from behind alerted Bre to the second attack. Weapon held ready, she whirled as two dwarves charged. Wielding the club two-handed this time, she struck down one of the attackers as it got within range of her swing, but the other one eluded her. With full fury, it crashed into her, claws flailing and teeth chomping. Bre was knocked to the ground, the dwarf atop her, its attacks drawing blood.
     The creature's teeth tore through her clothing and into her left thigh while its claws raked her stomach. Tears stung her eyes as she groped for the cudgel, which she had lost when she fell. Pummeling the creature with her fists, she managed to twist away from it, losing a sizable chunk of flesh. Blood staining its mouth, it came at her again, but by that time, she had regained her weapon.
     With a primal shout of fury, Bre lashed out, catching the dwarf in the side of the head. The creature died instantly, its neck snapped and the side of its skull crushed.
     Gulping in air and bleeding from several sizable gouges, Bre dragged herself across the floor to where Reg was. He was breathing steadily and, despite a large gash across his forehead, he seemed to be in fair condition, not having lost much blood. Her own situation might be more serious, as testified to by the slick crimson trail she was leaving behind her.
     Bre couldn't walk, but she had to get help before she lost consciousness. Although there probably weren't more dwarves in the cellars, it was likely that others were nearby. The survival of two people depended on her ability to act.
     After bending to kiss Reg gently on the lips, she crawled toward the stairs, the cudgel in her right hand. She would give up nothing, especially her life, without a fight.

© 2005 James Berardinelli

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