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?"
     "No, Sire."
     "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.

* * *

     Lora felt sick. Fortunately, everyone was fussing over the queen and her new baby, so the elf was able to slip out of the birthing room and into the outer chamber without anyone noticing her drawn features. Unable to make it as far as the entrance to the royal suite, she collapsed into a chair in the sitting room, buried her head in her hands, and wept, heedless of the guards who watched with stony indifference.
     Her mind was rebelling against what she had seen. More than a decade of suppressed grief had been brought into vivid focus and she was having difficulty coping, especially with so many people around. None of them could understand; none of them had noticed. They had all been busy watching the emergence of the baby. Only Lora had seen Joi's face.
     For a moment - only the briefest of instances - she had changed. As if a mask had been lifted, the features of the queen had melted away, leaving behind an image that was frighteningly familiar. A face that might have been the mirror-image of Lora stared back, complete with an elf's ears and upswept eyebrows. The complexion, however, was fairer and the eyes were distinctly human.
     Joi had been in too much agony to recognize what had happened, and the slip had not lasted, but for Lora, it gave an answer to a number of questions, the least of which was why the labor had been so painful. Elves always had exceptional difficulty giving birth. Apparently, the same was true of their half-human offspring.
     Lora could not be certain that the creature in the other room was her lost daughter, but she could conceive of no other explanation for what she had seen. It was not the first time she had observed Mora's form shifting. As an infant, she had changed from human to elf. When the dwarves had taken her, she had become like them. As she aged, perhaps she had become able to control that ability and now could mimic the appearance of anyone. Joi, the long-dead and beloved queen of Vorti, was an inspired choice. No wonder she was a perfect copy of the statue in the palace courtyard.
     "Be you all right?" asked a reedy voice.
     Lora looked up to see the midwife watching her curiously. For the first time, she realized she was trembling. "I feel unwell," she said. The midwife nodded once, then turned back to the bedchamber.
     There was proof that what she had seen was not the product of an overactive imagination. The child of Sor and Joi was partially elf. Mora might be able to disguise her heritage in her own body, but not in that of her daughter. The baby had pointed ears and upswept eyebrows. No one in the birthing room had commented on it, but they had noticed. One or two of them had glanced at Lora, as if expecting an explanation, but she had been too shocked to say anything.
     So the queen was not Joi after all. As far as Lora was concerned, this was a mystery she would have preferred to allow remain unsolved. The burden that now fell to her was terrible to bear. To tell Sor would be agonizing, but to permit him to continue in ignorance might be worse. Mora had to have a reason for her masquerade. Perhaps, if Lora could learn her daughter's motives, her course of action might become clear.
     At that moment, the king arrived. Flanked by Jav and a pair of guards, he spared Lora the briefest of glances before heading into the room where his wife and baby lay. The chancellor's gaze, however, lingered on her for a protracted period.
     Lora realized she was weeping. The tears surprised her, and indicated how out-of-control her emotions were. No wonder Jav had looked at her so strangely. Wiping her eyes with the backs of her hands, she tried to compose herself, but was given only a moment in which to do it.
     "Lora," called a voice from the other room. It was the king. "Could you join us, please?"
     She knew before she went in why he wanted her. Sor was hoping she might be able to explain the reason for his daughter's unusual features. He thought that because her ears were pointed, she would have some insight as to why the same was true of the baby. If she told him, he would curse her to his dying day for revealing the truth.
     Mother and baby were well. Joi, although drained, lay in bed with the child at her breast. An expression of contentment masked her features as she lifted the child to her husband. Lora paused on the threshold, a heavy feeling in the pit of her stomach.
     "Lora," said Sor, acknowledging her. He approached her so she could get a clear look his daughter. Eyes closed, the infant was moving feebly, her little fists opening and closing. She looked so much like Mora had shortly after her birth.
     "I know you probably noticed her appearance," said the king. "Do you have any idea what could have caused this?"
     Look to her mother's true identity for the reason. "There must be a dormant elf strain in either of your families. That is the best explanation I can offer."
     Sor nodded. "That must be it." He appeared troubled. "But the traits are so strong, and neither Joi nor I has an indication of cross-breeding. As far as I know, there isn't any in my family, and her parents were both human."
     "You do not know who her parents were," said Lora softly.
     "True," acknowledged Sor. "I was speaking of perhaps another Joi."
     "An elf," whispered Joi in wonder. "My baby is an elf."
     "Part elf, certainly," agreed Lora, her tone neutral. She would not - could not - look the queen in the eyes. "She bears the traits of one who is quarter elf. The blood of my kind runs thick, but in her it has been diluted. Perhaps one of the parents you cannot remember was a full elf, or maybe both were partially of the blood."
     "Perhaps," said Joi, regarding her friend uncertainly. Lora's aloofness had not escaped her notice. "Lora, are you all right?"
     "Watching you give birth reminded me of how painful it was for me. Your delivery was as difficult as that of any elf."
     "How long until I can get up?" asked Joi.
     "The healers are undecided, as usual," said Sor, handing the baby back to his wife. "But the midwife says a week and I trust her."
     "A week? I can't stay in bed for a week! There are things I have to do!"
     Everyone in the room was startled by the urgency in Joi's voice. Sor placed a hand on her shoulder. "There's no hurry," he said. "Restoring you to health is our first priority. Anything else can wait."
     "You don't understand," pleaded Joi.
     "Rest," encouraged Sor. "And regain your strength. I love you."
     Joi appeared ready to argue, but the words died on her lips as Sor bent to kiss her.
* * *

     Reg and Bre were alone again, this time in the palace infirmary. Eya, perceptive as always, had noticed the unresolved tension in the air and excused herself on the pretext of performing some inane duty. Neither of the patients protested her departure.
     "I owe you my life," admitted Reg, sitting up in his bed so he could face Bre, who was lying on a similar bunk across the room.
     "Yes, you do."
     "I suppose I should thank you."
     Bre nodded.
     "Thank you," said Reg without much enthusiasm.
     "Now, do you want to pick up the conversation where we left off before you went to get the wine?"
     "I don't remember exactly what we were talking about," said Reg, his discomfort obvious.
     "Let me remind you, then. We were discussing what might happen if you asked me to marry you."
     "And I told you to stop playing games."
     "So you do remember. Good."
     "Bre, I don't know what to say. Before today, I thought I hated you. You always looked down your nose at me and I found that infuriating. But now... "
     "Reg, everything I did was to get your attention. Making you mad was the easiest way to accomplish that. You said you're not good at games, but you've been playing this one with me since I first arrived in Falnora. Why do you think I came to Vorti? It wasn't because I wanted to return to a city. If you'd stayed behind, I wouldn't have come either."
     "Eya knew this," said Reg. It was an accusation.
     "Of course she did. She's a woman. She saw through the posturing."
     "I wasn't posturing."
     "Yes you were. You just didn't know it. I attacked and you parried. If the attraction hadn't been there, you would have turned your back and walked away."
     Reg considered. He supposed she was right. There were any number of times he could have ignored her, but instead, he had continued to court her barbs and taunts.
     "Are you going to ask me?"
     Reg said nothing.
     "Reg, please."
     "Don't you think this is all moving a little too fast? People don't spontaneously decide to get married. They work to get to know one another. They spend time together. Then, when they're sure of themselves and their relationship, they make the final decision."
     "Reg, this isn't Falnora anymore. We don't have to endure a three-year courtship for the benefit of the populace. Vorti is a city. There are married couples who haven't known each other for more than a few days."
     "I may be living in a city, but I was bred to the ways of a small village."
     "It's not as if we're strangers. We've known each other for nearly two years and in that time, there have been few days when we haven't spent time together."
     "But our relationship - such as it's been - was on another level. Don't try to tell me that all of that nastiness was 'posturing'. There were times when I hated you, Bre, and I'm sure the same was true of you. You can't build a marriage on feelings as uncertain as those."
     "So that's it, then," said Bre, lying back in bed and closing her eyes. She sounded deflated. "You won't answer the question."
     "No. I won't ask it."
* * *

     Even without normal sight, Meg knew that the sun had set, but the onset of night was the least of her troubles. All around her, she could sense the primitive aggressiveness of the dwarves as they prepared to strike. It was hard to accept that there were so many of them out on the plains, carefully hidden from the probing eyes of Sor's patrols. Soon, they would emerge, but the attack they planned was not straightforward. The cunning mind behind them did not belong to a dwarf.
     Fate left the seeress with few options. A tide of blood and suffering was approaching. She could feel its advance, tugging at her soul. It was her duty to do what she could to weaken its crest, but her visions had been unhelpful in revealing the path to take, except perhaps in one instance.
     What she attempted was a risk, but even if it failed, it was ultimately no more futile than remaining in her safe little haven in the city. These were circumstances that required effort from everyone, and, while Meg realized that her actions alone could not save Vorti, she hoped that, in combination with the contributions of everyone else, there might still be cause for optimism.
     The darkness closing about her, Meg shivered as she raced through it. Dwarves did not need light to see, and they would not respect the person of a seeress. Her ability to gaze past the barriers of time was meaningless to a race driven by primal cravings. To them, she was meat - flesh to be devoured and bones to be discarded. They were everywhere in this stygian blackness, creeping and crawling like insects under a rock, and Meg wondered if she would survive long enough to be given a chance to make a difference.

© 2005 James Berardinelli

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