PART FIVE: QUESTIONS OF LIFE
It was several hours past sundown, and, instead of pacing the floor of his chambers, Sor was sitting on the throne in the main audience hall, listening to the reports of functionaries, military advisors, and patrol leaders. As much as he wanted to be by Joi's side, his presence was needed here as Vorti prepared for war. Although, at this time, it was unclear who the war was going to be against.
Initially, Sor had assumed that a force from Tsab was responsible for the disappearance of the two patrols. Now, with several new dwarf sightings near the city's northern perimeter, he was no longer certain. As yet, the force of seventy he had commanded to execute a westward sweep had not checked in, so the king was left with uninformed speculation.
Most disturbing to Sor were reports of disarrayed basements that had been tunneled into. Although no claims had yet been made of anyone finding a dwarf in their cellar, the evidence indicated that several small groups of the creatures were within the city limits. As yet, there was no sign of Tsabian activity.
Vorti's military advisors were full of good ideas about how to wage a war against men, but they were justifiably stumped when it came to dwarves. Sor had summoned Reg and Eya to an audience, hoping their familiarity with the creatures might give them insight. Lora, their companion, was already in the palace, but Sor was unwilling to take her from the queen's bedside until the child was safely delivered.
The revelry outside had stopped. Less than an hour ago, Sor had issued an order that the streets be cleared and the citizenry confined inside until further notice. To be able to function effectively in a crisis such as this, the militia needed open streets. It had been difficult to impose the curfew without causing a panic, but Sor's commanders had done their job efficiently.
Focusing his attention on the audience chamber, Sor turned to his chancellor, who was approaching the throne for the twentieth time this evening. A hush fell over the forty or fifty people in attendance.
"The courier from the western patrols has arrived, Your Majesty. He'll make his report as soon as he's cleaned up."
"Show him in now."
"Your Majesty, with the rain and the mud...he's filthy. I've asked..."
"Now, Jav. I can stand the sight of a dirty man."
Not forgetting to bow, the chancellor hurried away. Moments later, he returned with the courier, the same man Sor had met earlier in the day. His uniform was soaked and spattered with mud. Walking up the aisle toward the throne, he left footprints and his boots squelched with every step.
As he had done in the little throne room, he saluted instead of bowing. "I bear a message from the western division, Your Majesty."
"Commander Yin sends his compliments. As ordered by Your Majesty, a sweep was conducted of the terrain west of Vorti by a force of seventy armed men. Three miles beyond the city limits, the bodies of the relief patrol were found, their skeletons stripped of flesh but most of their gear intact. A mile further on, the other twelve men were found, their bodies in the same condition. There were no signs of hostile activity, and no indication of a Tsabian presence. There were no hoofprints or footprints near the bodies."
Dwarves. There was no question of it now. Only they could attack without leaving a trace, and the stripped skeletons was evidence of their involvement. Tsabian soldiers did not eat the flesh of the men they killed.
"Has there been any sign of the seeress Meg?" asked Sor.
"No, Your Majesty. Searches have been conducted in and around the city in an attempt to locate her, but we have found nothing to indicate where she might be or whether she is still alive."
"Return to your post and inform your commander that he is to pull his men back to the perimeter of Vorti. New orders will arrive as soon as a comprehensive battle plan is decided upon. You are to inform him that he should not concentrate upon the forces of Tsab as the sole potential aggressor, and he would do well to patrol inside the city as well as outside."
As soon as the courier had departed, Sor called Jav to his side.
"Summon the commanders for a midnight meeting. I want all internal security within Vorti reinforced. Any unauthorized people on the streets are to be summarily arrested and jailed. I don't want the specific nature of the danger to be known, but make it apparent that Tsab is no longer my primary concern."
"I'll see to it immediately, Sire."
For the next hour, Sor heard reports about the situation from various parts of the city. It seemed that many of the citizens were not taking the curfew seriously and there had been numerous arrests. Additionally, there were several more accounts of unusual underground activities in some basements.
Two hours before midnight, an out-of-breath messenger rushed into the throne room, bowed in the direction of the throne, then hurried over to confer with Jav. Sor watched the pair before continuing his audience with a drunken farmer who claimed to have found six-toed footprints in his barn.
After Sor dismissed the man, the chancellor approached the throne.
"Your Majesty, the Apath Eya has requested an audience. She claims that her brother and the woman Bre were brought to the palace after sustaining wounds in some sort of attack."
The king looked sharply at Jav. "Why haven't I been informed about this?"
"I know nothing about it myself, but I've sent messengers out in an attempt to discern..."
"All right, all right. Let Mistress Eya approach the throne."
Less than a minute later, the fair-haired woman from Falnora strode up the aisle toward the throne, eliciting startled gasps from the onlookers. Most in Vorti were aware of the existence of the female Apath, but few had seen her because of her seclusion in the house of the wizard Mat.
At first, judging by her gait, Sor expected Eya to be angry, but, as she drew near to the throne, he saw the worry etched on her features and realized that she was anxious, not mad.
She gave Sor a perfunctory curtsy. "Your Majesty, do you know where my brother is?"
"No. I know only what my chancellor has told me, and that's information he got from you. If your brother is in the palace, I have not been made aware of it. Rest assured, however, that the matter is being investigated. In the meanwhile, perhaps you could tell me what happened?"
The words came out in a rush. "I was out at a tavern drinking when the guards came and ordered everyone home. When I got to Mat's, there was a patrol there, guarding the house. They said I couldn't go inside, that the 'premises' were 'ordered closed by command of the Crown.' When I inquired about Mat and Reg, I was informed that the wizard had not been seen, but my brother and a female companion were victims of an attack and had been brought to the palace for observation and questioning."
"Commander Hag!" barked Sor, calling the head of the palace's security.
The limping, silver-haired man approached resolutely, moving to stand by Eya's side after giving his liege a bow and salute.
"Have an injured man and woman been brought onto the premises tonight?"
"I believe it was late this afternoon, Your Majesty."
"Can you explain why I was not informed?"
"Perhaps you should make an attempt to find out. You're supposed to be head of security here, Hag. You're not doing a good job."
"No, Your Majesty. I'll check on it right away."
It took another half-hour before the situation was cleared up to Sor's satisfaction. Bre and Reg had been brought in shortly before sundown in the company of the squadron of guards who had rescued them from Mat's house. Although scheduled to be questioned by one of Sor's commanders, they were first taken to the infirmary to have their wounds seen after. However, since those injuries were not deemed serious and the palace's three resident healers were with the queen, Reg and Bre had been left unattended, essentially forgotten.
Flanked by Eya and Jav, Sor left the throne room and headed for the infirmary. By the time he reached there, the two patients were being attended to by one of the healers. Reg had a bandage across his forehead, and Bre was allowing her left leg to be gently wrapped in white cloth.
Both victims sought to make some form of obeisance when the king entered, but Sor waved it off. Eya and Reg wordlessly embraced, and the healer, upon finishing with Bre, attempted to depart unnoticed.
A word from Sor froze him near the entrance to the room. "How is my wife?"
"Her time draws near, Your Majesty. Your child should be born before midnight."
"Good. While I'm thankful for the amount of attention being paid to the queen, I don't wish for there to be another incident when patients brought into this infirmary are left without treatment for as long as these two were. There are numerous healers in this city known for their promptness. Do I make myself clear?"
"Yes, Your Majesty," whispered the healer before scuttling back to the royal apartment.
Turning to Reg and Bre, Sor said, "I apologize for what has happened here tonight. The only excuse I can make is that circumstances around the palace have been chaotic over the past few hours."
"Reg, what happened?" asked Eya, sitting next to her brother.
"Your Majesty, we requested an audience when we were brought in," Reg began. "The cause of these injuries is an encounter that Bre and I had with a small group of dwarves in Mat's wine cellars."
Briefly, Reg related the little that he could remember about his ordeal. When he was done, Bre continued the story, filling in details.
After they were finished, Sor said, "This is the first onfirmation we have of dwarves within the city. There have been reports of strange events, and a lot of speculation, but you two are the only ones to encounter the creatures - or at least to survive long enough to tell about it."
"We almost didn't," said Reg. "Or at least I almost didn't. If Bre hadn't risked her life going into the cellar..."
"What did you expect me to do, let them eat you alive?"
"There are a lot of people who wouldn't have done what you did," said Reg.
"I hate to interrupt this argument," broke in Sor, "But all of you have more experience with dwarves than I do. Can you think why groups of dwarves would be tunneling into cellars all over the city."
"An invasion," said Eya.
"Could you explain that?" asked Jav.
"A frontal assault is not the way dwarves attack. Even in Heltala, when they outnumbered the population, the waited until after dark, then swarmed into town when no one was expecting them. Vorti is a city. They need stealth and surprise. Since they're natural burrowers, living underground most of the time, how better to start an invasion than through infiltration? There could already be hundreds of them within the city limits. When a push comes from the outside, they'll be free to wreak havoc from behind our defenses."
"You have a remarkable grasp of tactics," said Sor. "That scenario has a chillingly genuine ring to it."
"I'm not sure," said Reg. "I agree with what Eya said about dwarves not being bold, but a plan to infiltrate a city, then wage a two-front war sounds too complex for them. Dwarves are stupid, with little or no grasp of strategy."
"You're right," agreed Eya. "But we know these are no ordinary dwarves. Someone - or something - is leading them, or they never would have left the mountains. That intelligence is plotting this scenario."
"Could Tsab be behind this?" asked Sor.
"It's doubtful," said Reg. "Dwarves hate humans. I can't think of anything that would persuade them to consort with King Hwo. There's nothing he could offer that they would find attractive. Any involvement by Tsab in this situation has to be peripheral or coincidental."
"Do you agree?" Sor asked Eya.
"Yes. Humans are food to dwarves. Nothing more."
"I'd like to request that the three of you stay in the palace for the duration of this incident. You're the closest thing that we have to experts and your experience may be invaluable during the next few days. With the aid of my commanders, none of whom know what its like to fight a foe of this nature, I have to formulate a battle plan that will preserve this city and the lives the people within it."
Before there was opportunity for further discussion, a page entered the room to inform King Sor that his wife had given birth to a daughter.
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